Friday, July 19, 2019

Hiking without a plan

After what seemed like hours bumping along a terrible road, we arrived at its end. There it was, an unknown trail heading up into the high country. It wasn't on any maps, except perhaps ancient ones. We didn't know where it went, or if we could even navigate it. It was time for the kind of hiking I mentioned a couple posts back. No known destination, uncertain outcome, no clue.

I have to admit I am not really on board with this. I've never really been just a wanderer. I like to have a destination. Also, I have learned over the years that while I can hike pretty fast on a trail, cross country is harder for me. I feel ungraceful, clumsy and slow. But what is life if you stick to your comfort zone? I headed upward, hoping for the best.

We lost the trail immediately in some open meadows, and poked around until we saw remnants. It was obvious that someone--probably hunters--were keeping it minimally open, though we did have to climb over dead trees. The trail curved steeply to a ridge, and then there was a final push. Though it took us almost an hour, we had only covered 1.7 miles. And we were at the site of the Mount Nebo Lookout.

It was a magical place, a long, sweeping ridge with views of the Seven Devils and Mount Nebo, still wreathed in snow. Elk scattered in the tall grass. The lookout had been demolished, but the supports were still there and the date written in the concrete--it had been built in the 1930s.

I stood in a chilly breeze and imagined the lives of the fire lookouts--back then, the roads would not have been here. They would have hiked up from far below, from the Lick Creek Guard Station. There was no water up here, so they would have had to haul it for miles, probably brought in by pack string. It would have been gloriously lonely up here. I felt a pang of envy, torn as always between wanting to live really remotely but also wanting companionship.

My companion decided we should make a large loop, going off trail completely by dropping off the ridge to the north and finding our way to another trail, then roadwalking back to the car. This loop ended up being four miles, but took us hours. As I inched down the steep ridge, I thought about how enjoyable this was, not clicking off the miles on an established trail. It was the Fourth of July and we wouldn't see a soul for twenty-four hours. This was exactly what I needed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

I could live here, edition one

I never, ever expected to live in one place for TEN YEARS. My younger self would have been horrified to even contemplate it. Life is so short, and there is so much to see. But it looks as though I am in one place to stay.

When I start to get mildly panicked by this notion, I remind myself that the bargain I've made in return for staying put is that I get to travel. My personal travel has involved putting one foot in front of another on a trail, but the work travel has been a little more wide-ranging. Through it, I have gotten to go to some pretty nice spots, which I evaluate in terms of, could I live here?

Okay, I can hear you now saying, of course you can physically live anywhere! And I know that's true. I mean, I lived in South Florida. IN THE SUMMER. But what I hope you realize I mean is, live happily.  I haven't found too many places that measure up to where I live now. There are places I'd love to live happily for a month (I'm looking at you, Puerto Rico) or even longer (Central Oregon) but in the end I've always thought I live in the best place possible.

But I still evaluate. Because I will always be a wanderer at heart. This week, I found a place where I think I could happily live! I traveled to Northern Idaho to work on a forest project. Most of the time was spent bumping along on incredibly rough roads, but I managed to spend some time swimming and running along a short but sweet trail by the bay. There's so much I didn't get to see, but I saw enough to know that it is a special place.

We got to go out on the boat to take in the Green Monarchs...Just the name sounded cool. There's a trail along top of the ridge.

And high up in the deserted forest to look at tree stands...
And walk along a motorized trail that needs some restoration. My feet wouldn't fit in the ruts!

And I saw some nice sunsets.

And sailboats.

The mountains aren't as dramatic as where I live but the water! There's so much water! I miss big water. I miss my fiberglass kayak. The lake is twenty miles in length! Twenty miles!

Of course, I just scratched the surface and it's presumptive to think that all would be perfect there. The poor little town is getting overrun by people who think it would be a pretty great place to live. I'm sure if I talked to the locals they would have plenty to say about this. So I'm not going to move there. I'll just dream about all of the water and realize I have it pretty good, regardless.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I need Long Hike Rehab

It is probably a good thing I am almost done with the PCT. Lately while hiking, I've felt sort of...burnt out. Instead of sauntering along enjoying the views, I have thought things like: Okay, it should take me two hours from here to get to the lake. Or: I've hiked ten miles, six to go. I think this is only natural when you've spent the past ten years in a quest to finish a long trail, each time bound to a plane ride or a work schedule which dictates you go fast and far. Yes, I could have hiked less miles, but then it would take me twenty years! And sometimes it isn't possible on the PCT to stop after only a few miles--you would drink up all of your water in some of the dry sections.

I headed up to one of my Wallowa Mountains faves, Ice Lake, the other day. I should back up and say that I have a love/hate relationship with this trail. A omnipresent pack station takes tourists partway several times a day, and the hooves (and hiker feet) have worn the trail down to the bedrock, forcing hikers to carefully negotiate jagged rocks. It gets dusty and annoying at times. But it isn't really the trail. This lake has grown in popularity so that it gets swarmed with backpackers. Most of them are fairly new at backpacking, or so I imagine by the enormous packs they carry.

Of course, swarmed is a relative term. On this Sunday I saw twenty people, which to me is a crowd. I passed most of them until I came up behind a woman who was clearly trying to stay ahead of me. Which is fine, whatever, but she was cutting switchbacks to do it. Also, she seemed to have forgotten her pants. She was wearing only thong underwear. Is this a thing?

The lake was still mostly frozen and beautiful as always. I'm always glad I come here even if a guy with a drone plopped beside me and proceeded to fly it over the lake. Not only is this illegal, but you'd think you might ask if it was OK to disturb someone else right next to you. (Yes, I am in fact a Judgy McJudgerson).

I didn't stay long. I was still in long hike mode, clipping away at the miles. On the scale of people who hike to camp or camp to hike, I typically fall in between the two. I like to hike all day, but I also like finding a nice campsite by a lake and swimming, reading, or exploring around there. I want to get back to that for a while. I know just the way to rehab. Go out for a hike of an unknown distance with only a map. Travel cross country so that it takes longer. Climb over trees, scramble up slopes.

So I did. But that's a story for another day.

Are you a hike so you can camp person or a camp so I can hike person?

Monday, July 1, 2019

Tourist hiking in Mammoth Lakes

When I got done with my PCT section hikes in June, I was more tired than I had ever been. I rented an exorbitant room at a hotel that sounded luxurious (but turned out not to be) and collapsed. Maybe I have Valley Fever, I thought with panic. Hiking should not make me so tired. (I don't think I have Valley Fever. I think I caught a death cold and pushed myself to the limit.)

Anyway, I had two days and I couldn't spend them just lying around. But this was a big snow year and the road to the lakes basin was not yet open, meaning that many hikes were not available, or were buried under snow. There were few options. On the first day, I hiked up to Sherwin Lakes. Sorry to say, this short hike was somewhat of a disappointment. A fire had gone through not too long ago, limiting access to the lake, and in the places where you could get to it, campers had plopped their tents. So many campers, for a hike of only three miles. I decided to aim for Valentine Lake, which was a few miles further, but ran into snow. Using discretion instead of valor, I beat a retreat with only about six miles hiked. A steady stream of LA women came up the trail, all looking very similar--thin, blonde, leggings. (I felt very out of place.)
I tromped over a bunch of fallen logs and a couple of campsites to get this photo. Sorry, campers.
That didn't seem like enough, so I drove to Convict Lake, a place of many tourists but stunning scenery. There's a pretty flat three mile hike around the lake, so I embarked on that. You can also climb high into the John Muir Wilderness, which seemed like too much effort for how I felt. This would be a good run, also.
Convict Lake. So busy, except on the trail. People stay close to the pavement.
The next day I decided to drive up to the gate and hike on the road to Lake Mary. Because, Lake Mary. Roadwalking is never really a good time, but the views were spectacular. I packed my Kindle and hung out at the lake for a few hours. A few exhausted-looking thru hikers limped by, looking as though they had been through a war. I was glad I had bailed out of the Sierra.

I also attempted a run, probably the worst run I have ever experienced. Wheezing along, I found a network of paved paths that wind around the town. They would be better for a city cruiser bike, because, pavement. But I was still glad to find a place to run, such as it was. Three miles felt like 30, and I gave up.

The most annoying thing about flying in and out of Mammoth are the flight times. Flights don't leave until after 4 pm, guaranteeing a gap between hotel checkout and flight, and if you want to do anything, you would need to hunt down a shower.  But on the way to the airport I found the Inyo Craters, a fascinating spot.
Too hot to soak in
In summary, Mammoth Lakes seems like a place that is more fun to visit than it would be to live in. The tourists would drive you crazy, it seems. The scenery, though.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the rest of Section F, CA, Tehachapi to Hiker Town. Third time is the charm

It was a long time since I had felt this miserable. I had climbed uphill for 17 miles and down for three, most of those miles in an old burn zone with zero shade. A heat rash bloomed on my legs, making it look as though I had some fatal disease. I was also blessed with an uncontrollable cough. I sat forlornly in Gamble Canyon, wondering why this section always seemed so determined to break me.

When you find a random bench, you sit on it.
Of course, I was lucky. In this wet year, streams were running both through Tylerhorse and Gamble Canyons. I didn't have to carry water all that far. Some wonderful souls had put up a cache with umbrellas. I had collapsed there, planning to camp, but two millenials came by and lit up cigarettes, telling me a big group planned to night hike and would hang out there for hours. No thanks. I was soon on my way.

Cache 549. Thanks, angels!
A lot of people night hike this section, but I can't really get into night hiking. The whole point of being out here on the PCT is to see it. And I find it hard to sleep during the day, so I would become a stumbling zombie. It's easier for me to slog on through the heat than try to sleep under a sparse patch of shade. So on I walked.

The flowers were amazing!
Two hikers came to join me in Gamble Canyon, but I left before both of them, seeking the relative coolness of dawn. It was fourteen miles to the fabled bridge and water faucet that marked the beginning of what was said to be one of the most trying sections of the PCT, the 17 mile long LA aqueduct. Flat, hot, and devoid of shade, it was a stretch I had dreaded for years.

Under the bridge, a bunch of trolls, or hikers, were shaded up. They immediately began snoring, planning to hike out at six. I had good intentions of waiting until late in the afternoon to hike out too, but boredom got to me. I might as well walk, I thought, how bad can it be?

Pretty bad, it turned out. The first part southbound was a dirt road, lined by low shrubs. Nobody was around. The sun beat down mercilessly. I made my way from Joshua tree to Joshua tree, seeking out slim shade for half an hour, walk for half an hour. I was aware that this was slightly ridiculous, but I was committed. As I walked, the aqueduct became more apparent, a swath of cement under which I knew a tunnel of water ran, water running to feed LA. It all seemed sort of extravagant and sad, to be taking water from this place and sending it west.

There's water under there.
After 20 miles I was done, unable to hobble the last nine to Hiker Town. I found a patch of Joshua trees and set up my tent. Immediately a rat leapt on it. Oh for Pete's sake, I thought. I packed back up and went out to the aqueduct. I'd sleep on one of the raised concrete squares. I had no idea what they were for, but I could hear water gurgling through them. It was a full moon night next to the creepy abandoned trailers (I found out later they belonged to a hunt club). Hunting what exactly, I had no idea. Rats?

In the night I heard the crunch of hikers night walking, and even though it must have been outstanding by the light of the moon, I didn't envy them. I had my cozy concrete, which had to be the strangest place I had ever camped.

My campsite!
The morning came quickly and I shuffled my way into Hiker Town past the open aqueduct. Unlike last time I was there, Hiker Town baked in the heat. I threw myself into a chair and chatted with Silver, who was doing his third PCT thru hike. At that point, I had to ask myself why. I also had to admit that while I love the trail, and especially the people I meet on it, I am ready to go back to regular backpacking. No more dry camps, no more long water carries, no more twenty mile days.

The lovely sight of an aqueduct in the morning.
I took an outdoor shower and prepared to go back to Mammoth for a couple of days of R&R, which in my case meant day hikes. I have 22 miles left. Twenty-two! It's hard to believe.
The weirdness of Hiker Town, again.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section G, Walker Pass to Crabtree Meadow

"Why don't we just get out here?" Big Jim, who was sharing my PCT shuttle, asked. It was a fair question. We were right at Walker Pass, where the trail crossed the highway. There was a monster climb waiting, and the temperature was well on its way to the predicted high of 90 degrees.

"No!" I screamed. "I have to start where I left off!" Bemused, Jim just shook his head. But I knew: if I skipped it, that .7 miles would haunt me forever.

I headed slowly into the climb, which I knew was at least three thousand feet, maybe more; I had been too scared to look. The weight of gear I wouldn't need for miles hung heavy on my shoulders: microspikes, waterproof socks. This was, undeniably, the desert, scorching hot, only meager shade from low bushes. The next three days were punctuated only by the few water sources, small trickles of lifegiving water, most that would have been dry except in this wet year. Flowers still lined the trail, and the sunsets were spectacular, as they usually are in the desert.
Sunset at camp, day one. I came 15 miles from the pass to this really nice spot.

Sunset at camp, day 2. I shared this site on a plateau with about five other hikers, all of whom were equally mesmerized.
I quickly fell back into trail life. I saw the same hikers as we navigated the steep climbs. "Hey, Monkey Bars," they chorused as we met again at a water source. I belonged out there, I thought.
Shading up wherever possible. 

A bridge over the Kern, where swallows fly under and around. This was a place that was hard to leave. Cactus Cooler and Tye-Bye, on the bridge, seemed to agree.

At PCT mile 702 is the unofficial end of the desert and the beginning of the Sierra. Every hiker limps, crawls or bounds into the Kennedy Meadows store, and everyone on the porch claps, recognition of the difficult desert miles behind. Most everyone stays there for a day or two, resting and planning their strategy for the snowy Sierra. This year there was a particular panic around the area. The highest snow year in decades, the high Sierra loomed menacingly in some hikers' minds. The fear mongering was strong, aided by reports of frostbite, helicopter rescues, and avalanches. Reportedly, the Sierra was 99% snow-covered after Trail Pass.

I didn't want to stay at KM, so I ran through the store doing a quick resupply and headed back out, into the Sierra. The store had been slammed, so the pickings were slim. Hauling a block of cheese and a package of Oreos, I headed for the Kern River. Over the next two days, I wandered in a beautiful world of granite, water, and snow.

The end of this PCT section is at Crabtree Meadow, which meant I would have to do an out and back of 44 miles. Reports of the trail ahead were mixed, but the snow I encountered was enough to convince me to save these last 22 miles for another time. If the snow was passable, that was one thing. But I would have to cross two rivers, and with the melt in full swing, these could potentially be life-threatening. It wasn't worth it.

Gomez Meadow. Even enroute to a 24 mile day, I stopped to appreciate it.
At Trail Pass, I turned my back on the Sierra and bailed down to Horseshoe Meadow with two other hikers, floundering in sloppy snow.  All wasn't lost. I had a car and I had time. I could drive down to Hiker Town and fill in the fifty miles I had left there. Quickly reconfiguring from alpine to desert travel, I headed down to the place Flash and I had left a few weeks before. When we had last been at Hiker Town, we had been shivering in rain and wind. Now the heat baked the sparse grass. I would have to hike through a waterless landscape, one with little mercy. I had traded snow for relentless sun.
I didn't know how it would go, but I knew one thing: if I had to crawl, I was going to finish that section.
I came off the snowy pass with two other hikers, who waited for me and watched for me to cross a waist-deep river successfully on a sketchy log. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

I'm not your sage granny

"So what's the secret?" Gables asked as we hiked together toward Trail Pass. "Is it just to keep doing it?"

I could have said a lot of things, most of them being that I wasn't THAT much older than her. In fact, I wasn't even old enough to be her mom, unless I was a very young teen mom.

But it wasn't worth getting offended. I'm sure I looked old on trail. For the past one hundred miles I had slept perhaps 2 to 3 hours a night. I had been afflicted by one of the worst colds in memory (I used to never get sick before this year. When I get home, I need to overhaul my diet) And on this hike,  I left it all out there every day.

So even though I resented being placed in the sage granny role, all I could say was, "just keep doing it. Even if it's hard." Soon she stopped to filter water, I got ahead, and will probably never hear from her again. That's what happens on the trail.

I'm in Mammoth and a few thru hikers are coming into town. They are bringing tales of swimming across swollen creeks and of avalanches. The women look tired but radiant. It does make me miss being young. I was too focused on working, even though I had fun and unusual jobs. I never would have taken five months off to hike. Maybe I should have.