Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Selfish Christmas

Dear Husband, Family, and Friends,

I am writing to apologize, because once again I am disappearing into the wilderness for the holidays. I know, I know: this is supposed to be a time for being together, eggnog, baking, etc. (What is eggnog?) Instead, I am going backpacking in Big Bend National Park. And trust me, I have been the recipient of some strange looks, and an unspoken sentence: What is wrong with you?

The truth is, I wish I knew why the mountains call to me more than most people. Why I work grueling ten hour days in the summer, starting at six in the morning, just so I can sneak away on a Friday. Why a day off feels wasted unless I am out there. Why I feel like a clock is ticking down the years, hours, minutes, telling me, someday you might not be able to do this. Now is the time. Why sleeping fifty nights in one year in the backcountry is so important.

And here's something else: As much as I love this little mountain town, there have been times when it has been lonely. I haven't met a tribe, like I have in other places. There are some great friends, who I can count on for a day hike, sometimes an overnight, if other responsibilities don't claim them. But the kind of people I used to sleep outdoors with under a blanket of stars, hike wildly through the woods with map and compass, seeking a hidden lake, the ones like those...No. And again I wonder, what is different about me, why can't I be more like my wonderful friends, who can balance their chores, their obligations, with wilderness?

I know that my people are out there, because I've "met" them on blogs and long distance hiking trail forums. When I read that one bloggy friend was headed out for a long hike over Christmas, I thought..Yes! It's not just me!

But anyway. I know you know all this. You know that I'd rather visit you when the tundra isn't quite so frozen instead of a forced holiday. You know that getting out into the wilderness is what fills me up. You have seen the evidence of otherwise: Crankypants rides again. You all know that in spite of what I do, you are just as important as wilderness. Thanks for understanding.

Love,

Monkey Bars


Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Rural Life, Running Edition

Last week I started running up the Hill of Death and screeched to a halt. Oh no! Were those...Yes, yes, they were. About fifteen range bulls sauntered through the pasture and across the road, because there was no fence.

I paused to assess the situation. Could I sprint up the hill before they charged? As I watched a red and white bull glared balefully in my direction. Um, no. I ran somewhere else.

When I happen into the Big City, people are running along the concrete waterfront, swathed in earphones. It's pretty, but feels competitive and routine. Compare that to some of the obstacles I face in my running life:

1. A bear at mile 1 of my 20 mile run (This run quickly became 19 miles).

2. A wolf in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road. I ran past, hoping for the best.

3. A mountain lion, concealed in the brush as we ran by (telemetry doesn't lie).

4. A near collision with a horse and buggy, driven by an inexpert driver.

5. Barbed wire fences to crawl under, avalanche chutes to tiptoe across, downed trees to hurdle. Guys on huge tractors. Huge tumbleweeds. River crossings. Hunters with guns.

6. Alligators (in my Florida days).

So it's no surprise that when I find a real trail I am overcome with joy. On the way back from the Big City yesterday we stopped in a tiny town that for some reason has an amazing network of mountain bike trails. On private land, but open to the public! Nobody was out there, so I felt free to run the trails without fear of being crushed under a wheel.

I had forgotten how great it was to run without looking at your feet for rocks, or nervously into the bushes for wildlife, or dodging pack trains. Lately I've been a little disenchanted with running because it's just sort of...hard where I live. Which is fine for character building but sometimes you just want the easy. I ran along happily. This is why I run, I thought.


CURSES. Whatever I do this picture won't flip. Oh well. Tilt your head sideways. These are the trails I ran on.

These trails are too far away for a casual outing, so I probably won't be back. Running where I live means I'll never pay for a "Tough Mudder" type race, since I can do that stuff for free. Barbed wire crawl? Check. Mud pit? Check. Uncontrolled fire? Check. It also means that I rarely see any other runners, so I can run at my own pace without the awkward passing thing, and there's always a small element of adventure in each run. I guess I'll take it. Though I will dream as I run of the perfect redwood-tree-shaded, pine-needle-carpeted trail.

Do you have obstacles where you run? Have you ever had to turn around because of one?




Sunday, December 14, 2014

I like big packs, and I cannot lie

As much as I have lightened up my backpacking gear, there are times when I miss the 1990s. Specifically, the backpacks. I recall the joy of entering the wilderness ranger cache to pull out a brand new pack, mine for the season. Gregory, Dana Design, Mountainsmith. I happily surveyed each pack. Look at all the pockets! The loops, the straps! What was this strap even for? There were sleeping bag compartments, top lids you could unbuckle and use as a day pack, and side pockets galore. You could even buy cool little pockets to buckle onto the pack and put stuff in! The more stuff that hung off the pack, the better. I hiked on, a plethora of straps fluttering in my wake.

Sure, those packs were seven pound behemoths, and my pack weight often soared to seventy pounds when I counted the Forest Service radio, search and rescue gear, a pulaski wedged in the ice axe loop, and all the trash I could possibly find and carry (hammocks, old shoes. Tents. Cans, bottles,  cast iron frying pans, grills, tin foil to the max). But those packs were built so well that the load carried like a dream. Today's packs are feather light but they will never carry like that. I was young and fast and the weight didn't bother me then.

I wouldn't carry a seven-pound-empty pack today, because I need to be kind to my knees, just like I wouldn't carry the high tech gear we had available then: Whisper-Lite stove, first generation. Ceramic water filter. Cotton sweatshirts. Four pound one person tents. I have to laugh when people earnestly ask about saving four ounces, one puffy over another. Just cowboy up and hike, I want to say. We did it in the old days! And look, we are still alive!

This is a newer version of the pack I carried for years as a wilderness ranger. I think we had more straps!
I know weight matters. You can definitely hike farther and faster when not dragging a seventy pound load. Most of the time my full pack with water and food, for about 100 miles, weighs in the mid-twenties. I'm okay with that. I have seen too many near disasters to go lighter. Helicopters and I only work well when fighting fire, not for being plucked off a ridge.

I won't really change my mind on packs though. I tried one that was less than a pound, and it was amazing. But then I had to do a 24 hour water carry to a dry camp, and I didn't pick that pack. I knew it would drag on my shoulders and wouldn't stand up to 6 liters of water. What's the point of being superlight if you are miserable? Now I am in between. My pack is a well constructed one that tops the scale at (GASP) three pounds. It definitely would not hold up to the kind of wilderness rangering I used to do, but it works for what I do now.

Still, I'll always miss my behemoth packs. I carried them with pride through the mountains, off trail and across snowfields and clinging to the side of cliffs. I never once thought about cutting off straps to make them lighter. Instead of your base weight being "cool" now if it is below ten pounds, it was cool then to be able to carry a heavy load. We would have scoffed at people with UL gear. What was wrong with them, why couldn't they carry a load and still hike 4 mph? We could.

We hung our packs on the scale and groaned at their weight, but secretly we wanted them to be heavy, because it meant we were tough. Misguided? Probably. But we were twenty-five and thought we could do anything. Thought our seasonal jobs would be enough to sustain us, thought that people who could love us and put up with our wandering would always come along, thought we would never get old. So we hiked with what we had. And it was fine. We survived, and we always made it over the next summit, and we walked on to the rest of our lives, which did not include big, heavy packs and all the other things we left behind in that decade.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Feral

I'll be honest here, because if you lie in a blog, what's the point? I really didn't feel like backpacking. More to the point, I was tired of overnights. Overnights are just a tease. It's a big gear-up for only a brief time outside. It's not long enough to forget about what you have left behind. I could hike out right now, you think, and be at home with everyone I care about. It takes longer than that to become feral.
Night #47. 3 to go to reach the goal. 

But I went, because the pull of inertia has taken too many of my friends. They no longer climb mountains or ride their bikes or do any of the things they used to do. I am starting to see what age can do to people and I don't want to give in. 

It's not easy to get to Eureka Bar. The drive is not for the faint-hearted, a slippery, rock-studded one-laner poised over the canyon. Meet a horse trailer and you have to back up for a long way. You'd better hope you're good at it. People have died on this road. It can take an hour to go 18 miles.

The trail itself is simple, winding from one river to another, but it is fringed with poison ivy and blackberry. You push your way through, hoping for the best. And then you make it to the bar, the hills colored blond, the sound of the river filling up the night, the moon glowing over everything. And it was worth it. It always is.




Thursday, December 4, 2014

Winter is for running

I know, I'm a freak, many of my running friends pretty much quit for the winter or retreat to the gym. But winter is when I run.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of wearing spikes, discovering that the park is full of ankle-deep snow, battling howling winds, and bundling up in a million layers. I do like running in the summer, but I just don't do it more than a couple of times a week. Sometimes only once! Why? Because there's so much else to do! Hike, bike, kayak, swim!

So winter it is, though it seems crazy. The trails are mostly too snowy, though you can sometimes hit the sweet spot when enough people have packed them down with snowshoes.  Most trails you can't get to at all anymore, since the roads aren't plowed.You can't run fast. Throw those PRs out the window! The trails are too steep in the best of times. Add in a lot of ice, a few avalanche chutes, and some streams to cross, and you are lucky to do a ten minute mile. But who cares?  I just like to run.

Most of the time. I've been running for decades, and sometimes it is a chore to haul myself out there again. Every direction is uphill (really, it is) and there aren't a ton of choices. The Hill of Death route, with the Icy Road of Fear, the Lake Road of Desperate Wind, the Zen of the Rocky Moraine, the Route by Brian's House that Involves a Highway And Possibly Cows Being Moved, the Haunted Ex Roller Skating Mansion Run, and the Park of Many of the Same Short Loops While Trying to Avoid Dogwalkers for the Tenth Time.

Sound appealing? Actually, it can be. There's times when it's about ten degrees and the snow sparkles like little diamonds, catching the low-angled sun. I can check on the lake ice status, to see if skating is a possibility. The other night a fox ran across my path, barking. I check in with the horses by the park. I look for avalanches on Mount Joseph.

The Route Where You Can See A Single Farmhouse for Miles

I used to run with people. Julie, Brian and Ken were my marathon training partners, and we battled it out in the horizontal rain and wind for our long runs, stashing Gatorade and snacks along the road prior to our departure (this was before the days of comfy running vests). Ken and I ran dangerously along the fish hatchery road, avoiding fresh bear scat and singing loudly. On the fire crew I ran with other people all the time. I still recall torturing Jim when he asked how much farther we had to go. "Oh, a half mile," I lied, when it was a lot closer. Sorry, Jim!

 I kind of miss the social aspect, but I like running by myself now. Especially in winter, when it's a challenge to find somewhere not too icy and not too snowy. I have to be opportunistic about when I run, scheduling it around conference calls and meetings, so I tend to dart out the door when I see a window. I'm sure that people wonder if I work at all, because I am out there at all different times.

Occasionally I have to give up and run on the mill, but this is a last resort. There are only two at my small gym, and they are often occupied by the walker crowd. I feel guilty hogging one, and you can't watch TV (it's mounted above your head and you might crash). I don't listen to music when I run because I didn't start out that way and I don't want to be dependent on it. Besides, the cords. The disappointment of getting a Nora Jones song when you need a good rendition of "Swamp Buggy Bad Ass" (look it up if you want. But I warn you, look up "clean version"). So, no music. You can watch people going in and out of the bank across the street but that is about it.  I just am riveted by the display....56 mi. .57 mi. .58...No. No. No. (I recently saw a blog post by a woman who wears red lipstick when she runs at the gym. Um...)

Running isn't my first love anymore, but I still have a friendly relationship with it, so I'll keep putting on winter tights from 1990, wool zip T, jacket, mittens, hat, shoes that have holes in them (must replace), spikes and an optimistic attitude. If I start feeling surly about the whole winter running scene, I'll remember the Winter of Knee Surgery, where I was forbidden to run for three months, and then I started back running for two minutes, walking for five. I'm just glad I can run. Bring it, winter!

Do you run more in the winter? What are your challenges? Give me a lead on good warm running tights!





Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Boy and His Snow Bike

It was the weekend, finally, but I was mired in the start of winter blues. Not enough snow to ski, but too deep to reach the lakes, bitter cold, ice, horrific wind. "Let's go up the backside of Mount Howard," J said. "I'll ride my fat bike and you can hike."

Captain Crankypants made an appearance. "I don't know if that will be enough exercise," I whined. I know, I can be really annoying. Pity the fool who married me.

But in the end I went, having no better ideas and wanting to spend time with J (see, I do have redeeming qualities). The road up Mount Howard winds steeply into the sky, eventually culminating at about 7,000 feet. You can get there by gondola in the summer. In winter, the road is unplowed and generally deserted, as it is a major slog.

 This is J's first winter with his hand-built snow bike. It's the first one in the county and a lot of people have never heard of this kind of bike. He hopes to start a trend. Even though the snow was deep and I could almost keep up on the hills while he rode, he was smiling the whole time and refused to turn around, even when he had to hike a bike.

Spoiler alert: we didn't make it to the top of the mountain. Not so much of a spoiler: I really, really wanted to. But we would have needed snowshoes, camping gear, and all sorts of stuff we didn't have. It's always a little hard for me to transition to day adventures instead of overnight. They seem so...short. And hurried.

But...because I only do day trips, I have time to write, and time to catch up with friends, and time to make bread. Those things might not be as exciting as backpacking in the alpine, but they provide a balance. If I could backpack all year round, would I get sick of it? I guess I will never know.

J had a great day on his bike. He is in love with it, so much so that it lives in the main room of the cabin. The fat tires do add interest to the room, so I haven't complained...much. As we drove down from the trailhead, I noticed an uncontrollable fit of giggling.

"What?"

"IT'S SNOWING!"

I've married someone the opposite season as me. But seeing how much he loves winter makes me like it too, most of the time.

Who is the elf?
A couple things:  People! Those in the know: Hiking in the northern Sierra, when can I avoid massive clouds of mosquitoes? Do I have to wait until August?

Also, if you want to know more about what I am writing, the book coming out and the next one, I keep most of that stuff on here: Check it out!


Monday, November 24, 2014

We like the desolation

Going to Maui reaffirmed things I already knew. Given a choice, I like the wild, the windswept, the remote. J and I cavalierly drove the "back road", one that many forums warned against, that the rental car agreement would not cover. And the wild landscape was my favorite part. The good, along with the hours of snorkeling among multi-colored fish and green turtles. "But we like the desolation," J said, and it's true, we both do.

Great beach to walk to, not so great for snorkeling!

The not so good? People, so many people. So many resorts, so much development. Maui has a completely different vibe to me than the Big Island, which I prefer. And there were so many people desperately in need of a jog. Perhaps it's because I come from a fit community (a third of the people because they exercise, another third are fit because of their job and the last third are ranchers) but it was shocking to see what the average American now looks like. Don't get me wrong, I empathize greatly with people who struggle with their weight. I'm really only the weight I like to be when coming off a long distance hike, but that's not sustainable, because in real life, only the unemployed and retired could exercise 10-12 hours a day. But honestly, I did 
not see a lot of struggling. I saw a lot of sitting and a lot of eating. And I know that sounds really judgmental. I'm sorry. I just wish people knew how good it feels to be in shape.

Also? I'm not a beach sitter. The best beaches were the ones we stumbled to over lava rocks and slippery cinders.

Red Sand Beach. Not easy to get to, but not that hard either. A little hippie encampment was set up here.

Another thing I learned? I'm a vacation snob. My time off is so precious and hard earned. For each hour spent in an airport there's an equal hour of work time. Honestly? I can't keep at this pace much longer. The mountains--and sometimes the ocean--are calling. I don't know how much longer I can resist. But relying on my husband's income? Never been an option for me. Besides, how could I go play while  he was working? Unemployment? No. So here I sit, trying to figure it all out. Again.

Maui turned out to be mixed for me. I could get used to swimming in tropical water. And I'd save a fortune on clothes. No puffys, no boots, no gloves, no hats. Also, no pants. My hair looked great on Maui (darn you, hard water of Eastern Oregon!). In the end, though, it wouldn't be enough for me. Not enough hiking, not enough solitude. You don't really go to Hawaii for that. But where? Time to move on!

Except here. Hiking the Kings Highway. Not a tourist to be seen.





Wednesday, November 12, 2014

How to Look....Really?

First of all, you must read this:

http://nornsmercy.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Look-Feminine-While-Camping-or-Hiking-Outdoors
Seriously?!

It seems to me that camping and hiking are activities where you can forget about the pressure to look good. FALSE EYELASHES?

Half the time, I roll out of the sleeping bag, shove a hat on my head, wearing the same non-cute clothes as yesterday I might add, and head on down the trail. I feel the same way about running in winter-who is going to look cute if they are trying to stay upright in the ice and make it up a big hill? Is it really all about looking feminine in the outdoors? Please tell me it isn't so.

To me looking feminine is looking strong. I admire the women who blaze by, like one whose trail name is Notachance. We saw her on the PCT on a long waterless stretch, her hair loose and tangled, her clothes obviously trail-worn. She was in her element. It was her fourth time thru-hiking. I also remember a female firefighter I saw on one of my first fires. She had her pack on, carried a tool, and also had two bladder bags (40 lbs each) hanging off her shoulders. This was on some mountain in Wyoming, and she smiled when she saw me, because women were rare then. To me, she was beautiful. False eyelashes? Mascara? I don't think so.

Then there's Anish:
Fastest known unsupported hike on the PCT! And she looks amazing!

This is a picture where I had on no makeup. It was day fifteen and I had just crested Forrester Pass, at 13,000 feet, in the Sierras. I had been wearing the same clothes for two weeks. It is my favorite picture of me, ever.
I think I look pretty darn cute.

So, I am not going to post for a week or so because I am heading to Hawaii, or as I like to think of it, "Two Hippies Visit Maui." I haven't had a real haircut in two years, and I doubt I will be wearing mascara (much less false eyelashes and a headband). But I think I'll manage to look feminine in the outdoors anyway. Aloha!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The last one to Sky Lake

"I should go to Hells Canyon this weekend," I declared. Pretty soon the road to the lookout would be snowed in, and I had never hiked down into the canyon from there. Also? The temperatures would be about 60 degrees or more lower in the canyon. The poison ivy has died back. Then J had to bring something up:

"It's opening day of elk season." Also? "There won't be much snow in the mountains. The snow we were in last weekend, it's all melted. There might be 3 inches, but that will be it."

I listen to him exactly why?

However, this is my favorite place in the Eagle Cap Wilderness. It's a remote, wilder place than a lot of the heavily traveled trails, and you have to work for it. You climb steeply to these small basins and eventually over the pass you can see in the background. From there you can drop to some lakes that are rarely visited.

Nobody had been here in a long time. The snow got deeper as I reached 8,000 feet, about a foot, and I knew I wouldn't camp here. It was just too cold, the snow too deep, the forecast too uncertain. I had to descend. There's nothing like a basin completely covered in snow, with nobody else around for at least twenty miles, to make you feel small.

I had asked over six people to go hiking with me, and nobody wanted to go. Nobody is thinking about hiking anymore. After all, the lakes are frozen. You have to haul winter gear. It's hard work, and people don't want to do it.

I don't know if that makes me brave or crazy. Maybe a little bit of both.


Sky Lake is frozen!

I found a place far below that was free of snow and dove into the tent. It was five, and completely dark. Fourteen hours in the tent? I would read, I thought, and then eat dinner. I ended up falling asleep at five-thirty and never waking up until five in the morning, except to briefly turn over. I guess I needed to sleep! All in all I hiked 12 miles just to camp three miles from the trailhead! It was worth it, though, to see this magical winter world, all to myself.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Swamping

If you know what swamping is, you have probably done it. And you know that it is not an easy task, none of the glory of the sawyer, though part of your job besides throwing limbs and bucked up trees off the trail in the sawyer's wake is to look out for him (I've never seen a female sawyer on a fire or trail crew) and make sure that tree he is cutting doesn't fall the wrong way. For the record, of all the jobs I've done, trail crew with "traditional" (non-motorized) tools is the hardest job on the planet, but swamping ranks right up there. You wade through a mess of cut stuff, trying to punch it off the trail into places where there isn't room for it. You have to keep up with the sawyer and gauge just how close you can get to the saw to be helpful and remove cut stuff that he can trip on, but far enough away that you aren't endangering yourself or the whole operation. You have to tote the extra saw gas, oil, saw fixing stuff, and the sawyer's puffy jacket (or whatever else he wants you to carry). See? Not easy.

We backpacked to the nordic ski hut this weekend, dragging our stuff up the Hill of Death. I had imagined a lazy afternoon of reading by the wood stove, but J had other ideas. He was going to cut out a path to where the skiers started skinning up the mountain, and I was going to swamp!

melting snow for water
Yippee, I thought. It was snowing. But then I thought of all the people who use trails and never once pick up a tool to help maintain them. I don't know who they think does the work, the Trail Fairy? Yes, you pay taxes, but Congress decides where the money goes and it's not to the forest service. The least I could do was give a Saturday to the cause, even though I've spent most of my life swinging a tool. Isn't it time to let someone else do this, I wondered, as snow drifted down my fleece jacket. The problem is, nobody else is interested, not younger people anyway. All of the volunteer work parties I've led, and the ones I've seen, are people my age and older.

Swamping in the snow adds a new level of delight to the activity. You forgot about winter, so your socks are thin, and your feet are cold. Everything is covered in white. In no time everything is drenched. In two hours we might have gone a mile.

We trooped back to the cabin to warm up. During the night, snow fell unforecasted, so that when we stepped out to re-tarp the outhouse (yet another thankless task, but necessary), our feet sank in about a foot of new snow. There's no denying it: this snow will stay until June, maybe July.



There's a ton more swamping to do, but it will be on snowshoes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

In search of six

When I turned an age that I had before believed was impossible, I decided that in order to endure it, I would start the 5-0 rule. That is, on the years where I turned an age with a five or a zero on the end, I would do something big. It didn't have to be on the day, just that year. I've only had the opportunity to do this a few times, with the following big things:

1. On one zero year, I got married. (That didn't work out so well. For marriage #2, I didn't pick a big year, and it seems to be turning out just fine)

2. On a 5, I backpacked the Overland Trail in Tasmania. I cashed in all my airline miles and it was really great. Looking for a good trip? Tasmania is pretty great.

3. And this year, with a zero, I decided to spend fifty nights out in the wilderness, for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, or backcountry if that wasn't possible, reached only by human power (so car camping did not count, but backpacking to a hut did).

It's surprisingly hard to get fifty nights in if you have a job, two houses, six pets ("It's midnight and I'm a dog! I want to go outsideIwanttogooutsideIwantogo..oh lots of things are out here to bark at! BarkyBarkBark Barkity Bark!" "Hey, I'm a kitten and I see you are composing an important document. Let me help you by running across your screen. There! I just deleted a bunch of text! Now I'm going to jump on your head!") and other obligations. I've made it to #44 though, with only six to go. When I am done I will post about what I have learned. In the meantime...

It is snowing. Which can be the death knell for backpacking. I know there are those who salivate at winter camping, and I plan to do it a little more, but honestly? You slog through the snow, carrying half your body weight, you hastily put up your tent before you freeze to death, and you dive in for a total of over fourteen hours. I just....don't get it. I want to, though. It would open up a lot more possibilities.

I'm pretty sure I'll get to fifty nights before my birthday in January. Though the high country is getting snow, we still have Hells Canyon for awhile longer. The poison ivy has died back, reports C, and the temperatures are still in the sixties. One night will go there, and three nights are spoken for at Big Bend National Park at New Years. Two more are unknowns, but I still hope to get to a lake or two before they are buried in deep snow. I'm running out of time, but the mountains are still calling. I'm not done with them yet.

Maybe that's all right. I don't like doing the same thing over and over, and it might be time to put the tent away and do something else. In winter, I run more, I ski, and reacquaint myself with the gym. I write more, and make bread. All good things that I don't have time for in the summer. There will be many more nights in tents in other years.

Do you do anything on the 5 and 0? Anything you want to share? Looking for ideas. And no, I am not going to run in one day my miles in years. That's just too far.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I feel it in the air, summer's out of reach

I couldn't explain why I felt compelled to hike to Mirror Lake. The forecast was horrible--forty mile an hour winds--and there was an unknown amount of snow up there. The road is typically a washboarded mess. There were so many things I should do instead--chop wood, order a propane heater, clean the house, write, grocery shop--all of the things that add up when you work ten hour days. Sometimes I think how great it would be if I didn't work: all of that time! Run whenever you want! Go to the post office when it's actually open! Get a haircut! But then I have to stop because I am seized with a deep jealousy.

Mirror Lake is typically tourist ground zero in the summer. Good luck trying to find a place to camp where you aren't observed, or even worse, a place to pee undetected. I've seen people carrying duffel bags here instead of backpacks, and all sorts of rule flouters. Its saving grace is that it is truly a beautiful lake, surrounded by peaks and other lakes, a sort of highly inhabited heaven. In summer, we stay away.

But not now. As I slogged up the switchbacks, thinking that the trail had become more difficult in my absence, not a soul appeared. Fresh bear tracks were pressed into the snow. I started wishing I had brought my tent, but as I crested the final hill, 7.3 miles later, the full brunt of the wind hit me. Unlike in summer, today Mirror Lake was an inhospitable place. Six inches of snow covered the ground and the lake boiled with waves. If you could even put up a tent, you would be hunkered in it for many hours, hoping it would hold.



Day hiking is okay, but I've gotten my backpack weight down enough that I can almost move at the same speed with or without it. I don't like tagging a lake and leaving, and going back the same way isn't as interesting as waking up the next day in a sweet place and hiking out. Today was a day hiking kind of day, though, and I knew that I couldn't linger long, even though I had enough gear to survive if I needed to. There's not a lot of daylight, and you have to stay on the move.

The snow has come fast and sudden this year, and this will be the last trip to Mirror until next year. Probably I'll do what I usually do, slog as far as I can get in July before snow turns me around. It's a short season up this high. We're lucky to get what we do get.

As I trotted along the lyrics of a song we used to hear all the time when I was younger ran through my head:
Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach, I can feel it in the air, summer's out of reach. Empty lake, empty streets, the sun goes down alone..

The sun will go down alone at Mirror Lake for months to come. Don't look back, you can never look back...

I did look back, though. I looked back at snowy Eagle Cap peak and thought that we can't disregard all of the things we have right now, empty trail, empty lake, the fitness to hike fifteen miles, the love I never thought I would ever find. There's always something to complain about, like a job that keeps me sequestered from the mountains I love. The trick is to capture what is good and know that it will pass, like summer, because all things end, even if it breaks our hearts. But we have it right now.

The trailhead was empty. I went back home. I looked at all the things I should have done that day. And I didn't do them. I sat on the couch with my kitten happily sleeping on my lap.




Monday, October 20, 2014

I think I was in Albuquerque

At least, that's what my travel documents say. I mostly saw the inside of conference rooms. Work travel, when you don't have a car with you, can be challenging. I feel uneasy without a stockpile of food nearby, and I always make sure there's a hotel gym, if I can't run outside. You don't really want to run outside in downtown ABQ, by the way, unless you enjoy panhandlers and overall sketchiness.

So these things happened:

1. A lady in the gift store told me her life story as I tried to edge away with my chocolate, ranging from weight problems to a career change. She was nice but she was standing between me and my chocolate!

2. I discovered the interesting machine that is a Spin bike. Three of us spun along to nowhere, accompanied by Ebola TV. (Spin bikes are kind of fun actually. I like standing up).

3. I saw a man in a kilt, another one whose fashion accessory was a bandanna tied around his head, and various very, very short skirts on millennials. Not entirely conference attire, but to each his own.

4.  A LAP POOL. OUTSIDE. IN THE SUN. ON THE ROOF. LOVE.

5.  Two different people said I looked like someone they knew, and two others thought I was my sister. (I get people saying I look like someone they know a lot. Do you? It's weird. It has happened all my life).

6. I SIGNED MY BOOK CONTRACT!!!!!!!!! Yes, I am getting a novel published by a REAL PUBLISHER. (more on this later). Psst:  published writers! I need to put your names down for copies to be sent to you! If you don't like it, you don't have to review it or blurb it, I just need names now, before November 1! Message me and I will....will...send you cookies!

7. I found out that my ex's long term girlfriend has MY SAME LAST NAME. Which is not common. And kind of creepy.

8. I got lost in the hotel twice and had to follow a creepy labyrinth out to the lobby. Seriously. Who locks all the stair doors so you can't climb the stairs?

9. As I was giving my presentation, a marathon was being held on the street below. I snuck some glances at the people running. I don't pay to run, but it was inspiring to see the different shapes and sizes struggling along out there. Also, lots of cheering which I pretended was for my presentation.

10. I won a Deuter day pack at the silent auction for $70! Score!

What are some things that happened in your world this week? Please comment! I love comments!


Monday, October 13, 2014

Just me (and a few gutpiles)

It's fall now, no denying it, and the backpackers have disappeared. Where are they? Probably at home, doing other stuff. After all, it gets dark way early now. It snows, sometimes. You have to totally abandon the ultra light idea and go heavyweight, with down booties, a real tent, snow stakes.

Which reminds me! Guess what, guys! If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am a habitual gear forgetter. But I haven't forgotten anything in a long time. Until my Elkhorn Crest trip, where I forgot my spork. "Darn," I groaned, looking around for a stick to carve. But then my eyes lit upon...my REI snow stake! Guess what, it's perfect! Kind of like a big chopstick! So the uses I have identified for this item now are: emergency eating utensil, cat hole digging implement, vampire killer, and, I guess, staking your tent.

Digression alert! But back to the empty woods. They're not quite empty. This week I hiked to Ice Lake, a place that gets hammered in summer. Sitting by the lake, I mused: I'm all alone here. Then two shots rang out from the basin below. All alone except for a gutpile, actually.

Ice Lake
 The hunters here don't camp much. They silently appear from the bushes in camo when I least expect them. They regard me curiously. "Going for a day hike?" one asked as I hiked uphill with a pack of hugeness, full of four liters of water for a dry camp. If that's my day pack, I thought to myself, I'd hate to see my overnight one. But they're all very nice, and don't seem to shoot wildly, unlike other states I've hiked in (I'm looking at you, Idaho). You know, if people make the effort to hike, I have to appreciate that, even if they are out there for other reasons than I am.

The animals have vanished too. It's like they know. And there's just a different feeling out there now. You can't swim in the lakes anymore unless you like hypothermia. You have to hike in pants. And  you know, you just know, that snow is around the corner.


The skiers are running around all wild-eyed, even though they know that a full snow cover won't be possible for months. Us backpackers don't get a lot of sympathy, because the skiers have suffered through an impossibly warm and dry summer that came pretty early.

I'm still hoping to get a couple more nights out before winter sets in (I'm up to #44). I'll snuggle in my zero bag, with snow stake in hand, a good book to read, and hours to go before daylight. It's hibernation camping, and it's all right.
This thing is awesome. Really.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Men in the woods

The pudgy hunters trudged up the slope, looking winded. "Looking for deer?" my hiking partner called. "The four-legged kind," the leader of the pack responded with a wink.

Har, Har, Har.

Standing a little too close to her to "point out our route", he said, "You two are the best looking things we've seen out here!"

Thanks?

As soon as it would not be considered rude, we hiked on. I thought: a lonely hunter, thinking he is funnier and more handsome than he really is. Harmless. Happens every day.

Hours later I sat with my hiking partner at camp. We were the only ones at this "seldom visited" (according to our slightly inaccurate guidebook) lake. The hunters were far from my mind when she expressed a concern that they might show up. We had told them where we were going, after all. "They could never make it here, and they would have to use headlamps," I said, but I wondered. This isn't the first time I've noticed a fear of people in the woods from other companions that I don't share.

Two years ago a friendly man gave my friends and me directions to a "hidden cabin". I was ahead of my hiking buddies and they saw him walking out of the trail but no sign of me (he was already on his way out when I hiked in, but they didn't know that). "We thought you were murdered!" they joked (I think), but I was left with the impression that they thought hiking in alone was a bad choice. In other conversations I've had with friends, they seem way more worried about men in the woods than I do.

In the real world, I'm not always a trusting person. I've been burned often enough to know that many people operate in their own self-interest. The world is all about them, and you are only a moon circling their planet. I do not linger in places where wilderness and civilization meet. But in wilderness? I have the perhaps bad habit of thinking that all people are good. As if being outside in the trees somehow paints everyone with a magic brush, covering up all of their flaws and potential deviousness.

I would hate to start thinking otherwise. The wilderness is one place where I can let my guard down, at least with people. We stand on the trails, sharing maps and information about the route to come. Sometimes we meet as kindred souls and camp together for many nights. People have given me camp fuel, a stove, and cookies. They've shown me really, really cool lakes and routes I never would have tried otherwise. Other times we become friendly for life, such as a chance encounter on Mount Thielsen with another climber. I don't want to scurry through the woods the way I think I sometimes scurry through life, looking out for intruders.

I've been through enough that I won't ever adopt the Pollyanna, Facebook poster mentality of "everyone's so wonderful". I know differently. I still hide my camp when I'm alone, and I don't usually tell other people where I plan to go. I don't pack a gun on a hike with four other friends like some women do, but I do carry bear spray (much more effective and less life-changing). But I will always be more afraid of bears than of people in the wilderness. Do murderers backpack? Probably. But the chances are slim. I want to believe otherwise, and so I do.

I think I sometimes have this at night instead:



Thoughts?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Thru-hiking the Elkhorn Crest National Recreation Trail

There are more mountain goats than people on the Elkhorn Crest Trail. We hiked in glorious solitude at 8,000 feet, only encountering a few lonely deer hunters and a phone from which you could apparently call God (no answer, alas).



For some reason summer returned this weekend, and we caged a shuttle from only a slightly put out friend to Marble Pass (near Baker City, Oregon). From here the trail rollercoasters along for 23 miles and ends at the Anthony Lakes ski area. We started late on day one, so only hiked four miles to the junction with Twin Lakes, which we reached by a steep mile long trail. There's only one water source along the entire Crest Trail, so most hikers drop off the top to camp at the lakes along the way.



The next day we hiked about 13 miles, taking a side trip to camp at Summit Lake, once again the only people in the entire place. Along the way we passed more goats, more lonely hunters, and big views from saddles and passes.

Summit Lake, surrounded by new trees as well as silver snags from a 1990s fire.
I finally have met my match with early rising, when before six the next day I peeked out from my tent to see my companion's headlamp in motion. We quickly hiked the last twelve miles, passing above beautiful Lost Lake and through a gap in the rocks called Nip and Tuck Pass. In total we hiked 28 miles, most of it completely alone. 

Cracker Creek, the only water source on the crest.

Lost Lake
Above Lost Lake we fantasized about calling in sick and staying out one more day. But as all thru hikers know, the trail ends one day and you go back to "real" life. Our trail was 23 miles, not 2,660, but we still felt like we had accomplished something as we stuffed our faces with pepperoni and crackers on the drive home.

The Elkhorn Crest trail can be reached by many side trails. The drive up to Marble Pass is, in one word, awful. The better approach would be to drive up another route (from Phillips Reservoir). There's not a lot of info on this trail, but if you google it you will find some older trip reports. It's definitely worth the effort. Bring enough water capacity for three liters, maybe more in summer, although snow lingers for a long time up here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fire and Snow on Sacajawea Peak

I paused, three quarters of the way up Sacajawea Peak, at nearly 10,000 feet the highest point in the Wallowa Mountains. The mountain's shoulder was exposed to the darkening sky. A skinny trail snaked upwards, talus-covered and slippery. As I watched, fog rolled in like cotton, and snow began to spit from the clouds. I thought of the hour and a half descent waiting.


Going up is easy for me. Going down is not. Scree is  my nemesis. I could climb uphill all day. But descending wrapped in fog on a faint trail? Ball-bearing rocks under my feet? It was time to call it.

I don't really care about ascending to high points. I've never aspired to mountain climb. I'd rather hike to a lake, or along a river. I had wanted to climb Sac mainly to scout out the best way to a hidden lake called Hawk, and to see if there was a better way to another one called Deadman. Sometimes you have to get high to see the pieces of the puzzle.



As I descended, smoke rose through the trees below me. I'm camping in a basin that's still on fire, I thought, and laughed, because that isn't dangerous to me, not the way it was burning, not dangerous in the way the peak was. Most people would choose the talus over the fire.

Loose stones rolled under my shoes, causing me to slip and fall. This is not fun, I thought. Just get down.

I came to Thorp Creek Basin to see what had happened after the wildfire. Turns out it is still burning, flames moving through green pockets. It'll burn until the big snow. There are places that have been totally nuked, dead trees burned black, a carpet of golden needles, and other places where the fire skipped and hopped around without much reason. In the end, it'll be good for the basin. It was crowded like pre-brac54es teeth. This fire cleared things out. There will be more open spaces, more room for little trees to grow.

Climbing the peak was just an afterthought, because it was cold and I had time on my hands before it got dark. It's fall now, and the lazy days of reading and lake swimming are gone. Instead, in fall, I explore.

The basin was deserted. Light snow covered the peak the next morning as I packed up and hurried through the dead trees, trusting they would remain standing. Two people were camped at the river, and they looked upward at the sky. They were going to try to attempt the summit, they said, but if it was too slippery with new snow, or too cloudy, they would turn back.

"There's flames just ahead of you," I said. "Don't freak out." And I headed down the trail. Maybe most people would care that they didn't make the summit, would be planning a return. If I go back, I might try it again. Or I might climb it the easier way, from Ice Lake. Either way, I'm not holding on to the idea.

It rained for the next two days. Fresh snow showed up. The summit days might be over, but I bet the fire is still burning.
Looking into the basin. You can see the burned areas and maybe some smoke.







Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to Stay Dry While Backpacking in the Rain

1. Stay home.

Heh, heh.

Just kidding! So this weekend looks shifty, with a 40% chance of showers. In Alaska, a 40% chance meant a nice day. Here--not so much. It could go either way. I refresh weather.gov, click on the little patch of land where I want to go, and debate. Stay or go? In the end I will probably go, because SNOW is forecast by Monday. Snow! The horror!

Over the years I've tried, discarded, and tried again various ways of dealing with rain on backpacking trips. For day hikes, or long runs, or even kayak trips, this isn't an issue. But backpacking? It can ruin an entire trip if you get your essential stuff wet. Here are some tips I picked up along the way.

1. Trash compactor bag to line your backpack. The best thing ever. Yes, it means you can't pack as efficiently in all the corners, but it keeps everything amazingly dry.

2. Dry bag for your sleeping bag. Okay this might be overkill, but if you get your bag wet, you will at the least have a miserable night. I've had it happen, so I use either a compression sack lined with a regular trash bag or one of those super light dry sacks you can buy now--not the rubber ones you use for rafting. If you use a trash compactor bag you probably don't need this, but you pack your fears, and that's mine.

3. Pack rain covers--a mixed bag. I used to swear by these. Until I was in a big rainstorm on Muir Pass. The way most pack covers are constructed, they wrap around the bottom of your pack. And what happens? Water collects in the bottom and seeps into your bag! Some of them have drain holes, but..eh. Not always reliable. I'm not a fan anymore, but sometimes you don't want the outside of your pack drenched. I use mine, but with #1 and #2, it helps. However, this summer I did find that water seeped through and wet the outside of my trash compactor bag. So beware with pack covers. Some people wear the poncho/pack cover contraption; I choose not to, because I don't always want to wear a poncho. Plus, wind gusts.

4. Set up your tent under a tree and move it to the spot you want. I know, basic, right? But I struggled for years frantically setting up the tent with rain pouring in. If you carry a free-standing tent, you can pitch it under cover and then happily carry it to where the campsite is. If you feel like carrying the weight, pitching a tarp over your tent rules! You can get out, stretch luxuriously, and smugly change into your hiking clothes with a dry tent next to you. Be sure you know how to set up a tarp--it is a lost art.
collegetimes.com. One tip: be the happy guy! Nobody likes a whiner!

5. Sleep with wet clothes under your sleeping pad. Strangely enough, this actually works. They might not dry all the way, but they do dry some, better than if you try to hang them in your tent (hello, smelly, drippy socks) or put them in your bag (dampness seeps into your bag).

6. Tents don't always have to be in their stuff sacks. When I pack up a wet tent, I stuff it in the mesh pocket outside of the backpack. If I didn't have a mesh pocket, I would strap it on the outside, to avoid getting everything else wet because...

7. I feel a yard sale coming on! The first chance you get, when the sun comes out, throw everything onto the (hopefully dry) bushes. I don't tend to hang around camp waiting for things to dry. I hike on and wait for that opportune moment. Getting stuff dry the next day before it rains again is essential. Try the trekking pole method of drying socks--stick the pole  in the ground and stick the socks on the poles. You can drape underwear over branches--just don't hike on and forget it!

8. Sleep socks/long underwear I keep in with my sleeping bag. That way I know I always have a dry set of clothes to change into.

9. Don't go too crazy on the dry stuff sacks--it makes your pack too hard to pack efficiently. But you do want your electronics (camera, phone if you carry one, GPS etc) to stay dry. You really don't need to invest in fancy pants bags. Ziplocks work fine. For your bear bag--you can line it with a garbage bag or use a dry sack like I do. Don't sleep with your food. Don't. Sleep. With. Your. Food. I know, I know, some of you ALWAYS sleep with it and no bear has gotten it. I worked in the Sierras prior to the bear canister rule. I remember the rocks stacked outside our tents as bears prowled outside. I remember the charges! Don't sleep with your food!

10. If all else fails, embrace the brutality. Your shoes are going to be wet. Your socks are going to be soaked. Keep your sleeping bag and your sleep clothes dry and you will be fine. There's a whole array of rain gear out there--don't be cheap. Someone may chime in and talk about umbrellas. People love their umbrellas. Hey--maybe I will take one this weekend.

Any other tips out there?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

paddler's box

Years ago, when I was a different person: We paddled through air thick enough to taste, the combined smell of kelp and salt mixing with low-lying fog until it was a musky soup. There were five of us in long fiberglass kayaks, following Eric the instructor on a compass bearing. Town had been swallowed by fog and we drifted in the wide sea.

a rare sunny day in Alaska
As we moved like ghosts, the only sound the dip of our paddles and the distant clang of the Eastern Channel buoy, Eric showed us the paddler's box. The box isn't a real one; it's an imaginary set of lines where you keep your body as you paddle. You can always tell who has learned this and who has not. In the paddler's box, you flow in an unceasing rhythm; no flailing arms. You are part of your boat.

There are some things you can't forget, and I have never forgotten the paddler's box. I miss the sea and the little islands, the otters and the whales, the limitless possibilities of escape from a rain-soaked island and all of my bad choices. Paddling in Alaska kept me sane. I don't need to escape now, but I still kayak, though it is limited now to the lake. It's better than nothing, I tell myself, as I launch on a pane of glass, unspoiled by later motorboats.

People don't stir that early here, except for the ranchers, who are off doing important rancher things, no time for self-indulgent exercise in a pink boat. It's nearly as good as the Gulf, not quite, but I will take it. I circumnavigate the whole lake, past the summer homes, past the invisible line where I swim when it is warmer. It takes about two hours, and I don't wear a dry suit, don't carry a beacon.

Eric shot himself on one of those fall days when the rain seems interminable and the waves kept us on the beach. Like all tragedies, it lacks definition, cannot be placed in a neat box. The rest of us kept kayaking, wondering, remembering his lessons.

It is a day far from the rainy isolation of Alaska as I round the shore for home. It's familiar, and I still struggle with the familiar=boring. I suspect I always will, though I've learned to appreciate learned surroundings more, the longer I stay here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

1700 miles of sagebrush

Truths of a road trip:

1. You probably shouldn't stop to pick up the dude who runs out of gas outside of Lovelock, Nevada after tailgating and zooming around you at 90 mph earlier (I didn't stop)

2. Gum and grapes are essential to keep you awake.

3. When you are in the most desolate part of Nevada, the only radio station you will get plays Christian rock or Rush Limbaugh.

4. At some point you will think, I really should have stopped for gas back in Lovelock.

5. When you really have to pee, there will only be this sign: Prison area. No Stopping.

I recently went on a work road trip to Reno and Winnemucca. In fact, I drove the lovely stretch of road between Reno and Winnemucca four times. Good times! Though a work road trip is not the same as a recreational one, there are some similarities. For example, the idea of a road trip is fun until about 100 miles down the road when the reality of it hits. Also, despite your best efforts, you will end up eating food that isn't great for you.

I should know; for a decade I drove between Idaho, California and Florida every six months as a traveling seasonal worker. It was enough to make me swear off road trips forever. Give  me an airplane anytime. But for this trip, I decided to drive, thinking I would a) have time to hike; and b) could stop into a hot springs place on the way back. Neither happened--work got in the way, like I should have known it would.

There's a curious state that occurs a few hundred miles into a solo road trip, at least for me. It's almost like a dream state, where you are awake but not, on autopilot, kind of like mile 20 of a marathon. It's the road trip zone. You pass by all the exits, wondering; what really is at Nightingale hot springs, no services? and, oh, Jordan Valley, I had a boyfriend from here, I wonder what happened to him?  And, shudder, McDermitt, how do people survive? For me the years blur and I'm back to being twenty, enroute to another national park.

I look at the other people driving and wonder about their lives. So many little satellites circling the nation's arteries. There's somebody with a sign saying, Going to Stanford. So glad I'm not just going to college! There's somebody with skis and a bunch of bikes. Where are they going with both snow and trails? Oh look, firefighters. I used to do that.

Road trips aren't my favorite thing. I tend to avoid them--it's too much sitting and not very interesting. But it's also another way to get down to the essential thoughts, spend some time alone with yourself, wrestle with old love stories, sing loudly and badly, and eat Oreos.  Everyone should take a solo road trip once in their life. Just make sure you stop at the hot springs. Don't let work get in the way.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

feeding the dragon

The man lifting weights in street clothes peered at me as I grimly worked through another set (in case I haven't mentioned enough times, I really hate lifting weights. But upper body strength is important! Go do a pushup! Back? Okay. I'll go on...)

"Are you training for an event?" he asked. "Because I saw you running at the lake, and then once when I was in here you were on the elliptical for a LONG TIME."

In a small town, people know what you do with your time. I notice too, and what I've found to be true is that the happiest people are those who have a "Thing." This is something they love to do, but doesn't cross the line into obsession (see: Ex- Husband, also Guns). It's the thing that makes them jump up and down (powder snow, skiing) and brings them a level of contentment that I haven't found in people without Things. It doesn't have to be athletic, although I think it helps to move. Your Thing could be knitting. It doesn't matter. People are just more interesting when they have a sparkle.

"You look really good, you can tell when a person spends time in the outdoors," someone else said to me this week. I've found that to be true too. I envy the wrinkle-free faces of my more sedentary counterparts, but I wouldn't trade my days under a big sky for theirs.

That being said, it's fall here, and Type II fun is more frequent. * Soon my main Thing, long distance hiking, will go away for the season, and nothing really replaces it in my heart. So I've pushed the season a little, trudging through torrential rain, and, this week, ignoring an instinct. Let me explain.

I have to work, as I've bemoaned here in the past, so I feverishly worked as many hours as I could possibly arrange so that I could leave at one pm on Thursday and race back in time to check work email on Friday morning. My destination, Chimney Lake, a much-loved piece of water only five miles up the trail. There can't be that many people staying overnight on a Thursday, I reasoned, and was bolstered by the report some Crocs-wearing backpackers ("we're trendsetters! In ten years everyone is going to be backpacking in Crocs!") gave out: "Oh, there's one group at the lake."

One group, no problem! SIX groups, big problem!  I grumpily checked all the hidey-holes I knew of, only to find tents occupying all the good real estate. I don't know what's up with the Wallowas, but all of us locals have noticed way, way more people here this year. I gloomily contemplated squatting in one of the beat-out horse sites far below the lake, but that didn't sound appealing. Over the pass two miles away lay a sweet lake named Hobo, in the alpine, with very few trees to block the wind (foreshadowing here). I would go on, I thought, but felt uneasy. Something just didn't seem right about this decision.

However, Hobo was just as sweet and sparkly as ever, with nobody around. I even got in a (chilly) swim. I set up my wind-phobic (more foreshadowing) tent and prepared for a nice starry night.



Until the wind came. It howled down from the saddle at about forty miles an hour. My tent flapped in a way that was about to drive me insane, so I collapsed it and cowboy camped, but even then, the wind was unrelenting. I looked at my watch. I could lie here sleepless, or just hike. It was four in the morning. I would hike. In the dark. With a headlamp.

There's something about hiking by headlamp and slice of moon that is both disturbing and wonderful. You can imagine creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce as you follow a circle of light. Once you do it, you realize how little there is to fear.

I arrived at the trailhead at just after seven. There was plenty of time to get back to work, to slog through another day of bureaucracy. These tiny adventures feed the dragon, for now. Pretty soon it won't be enough and changes will come. Until then, Gym Guy will see me training for the event called life.

What is your Thing? Do you have more than one? 

*Type II fun: An adventure that contains  elements of misery that might not seem as fun at the time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The young girls

Two young women drifted over like butterflies to sit with us at the pub. Their skin glowed and their arms chimed with the music of many bracelets. Their hair flowed long down their backs. One was headed for six weeks to work for a packer in the Wind Rivers. The other, to a heliski company. They had no real plans beyond that. They were gloriously adrift, like I used to be.

"Well, they probably look up to you," J said later. But I don't know. I probably look like an older lady who has never, could never, have experienced drives across country, road atlas on the passenger seat, chasing fire or wilderness, a new job every season. It's not so much that I miss that old life, the taking off and leaving, constant, constant, but the possibility, the endless years ahead of me, that I miss. It's strange to form the fabric of a new life, a settled life, while still trying to be wild.

Do other people feel this way? I don't know. This is why I left at three in the afternoon on a Thursday and hiked up to Maxwell Lake for the night, waking up with ice on my sleeping bag. This is why I hiked in torrential rain because it was the weekend and the other choice was to stay home. This is why I run, bike, take trips. I'm trying to hold on.

This weekend, four of us hiked towards Echo Lake, a three thousand foot climb over three miles, and we met up with other women doing a day hike. Why is it only the women out here, we wondered? But it is, all women of a certain age, the men at home puttering. Echo was beautiful and remote, nobody else venturing up the eroded "trail." We scrambled up the goat trail and down to Billy Jones lake, a place where perhaps two hundred people a year venture. Maybe not even that.



When is it enough? I don't know the answer. My friend and I sat drinking a glass of wine and we agreed: if something happened to us tomorrow, we've had rich lives and we would be okay to go. I don't know if you can get any better than that. I watch the young women leave the county and hope the same for them, when they get to be my age, countless, impossible decades from now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Running down a dream

I've never been the  kind of person who needs motivation, like a race to train for. Most days I want to run, or hike, or kayak, or ride my bike.(the exception being the gym. I drag myself there.) In the beginning of 2014, though, I decided I needed a Big Thing to do, and that was spend fifty nights in the backcountry, preferably in wilderness, arriving there by human power. 

Fifty nights doesn't sound like a lot until you start to do the math. Or when you have a full-time job. Or when you live in a place with abundant snow. Despite being "gone all the time", as a friend said recently, I'm only at #36. Still, I have until the end of January 2015. Totally doable, right?

Well. Not much keeps me out of the woods. Not music festivals, rodeos, parties, even (sorry) my husband (though I do rush back home to see him). Until now. THIS:

Puffin!


 I have a four week old kitten, abandoned by its mom. I've been bottle-feeding him and he is pretty cute. How can I leave him?

Luckily, everyone loves Puffin and I've been able to sneak away, to places like this:
Jewett Lake!


Still, the fifty nights is in danger of not happening. I'm okay with that. Along the way it became less about the adventure than about the number. Sort of like my marathon training days, when I faced a 22 mile run in horizontal rain. You have to really want it, and I'm more the type of person who likes to wake up and decide what sounds good that day. Warm and sunny? Let's swim in the lake! No tourists? Let's trail run! Awful wind and snow? Okay, the gym it is. I think this approach has helped me stay interested in exercise.

I may still get to fifty. I have a trip planned to Big Bend National Park with friends I met at the Grand Canyon last December. There will be overnights here and there until the snow shuts us down. I'm okay with forty, though, or forty-five. Big Things are good, but it's okay to make them Smaller Things.

The other day I was sleepily heading out of Six Mile Meadow at six am, bound and determined to get to the trailhead in two hours despite the rocky tread. A trail runner I often see hove into view, enroute to an 18 miler. "Where have you been?" she asked. I thought for a minute. Then it came to me. "Everywhere."

And that's how I feel about this summer, guys! I may not get to fifty, but I've been everywhere that matters.

Friday, August 29, 2014

If I had a dollar for every time...musings on women solo in wilderness

The women, I kind of get. As I hoisted my pack for a hike to Frances Lake, I thought about it. As women we are inadvertently taught that danger stalks us. Never mind that weirdos very rarely have the inclination to backpack, the images of missing girls haunt us. When a woman tells me, like she did a couple of weekends ago at the trailhead, that she could never backpack alone, it makes me feel sad. I feel like she is missing out. It's challenging, rewarding and empowering, and even if you try it once and just don't like being alone with your thoughts--which I actually think all people need to do instead of surrounding yourself with chatter all the time--at least you have tried it. In all of my decades of outdoor adventures, things have not come a very long way. I got these same comments in the late 1980s, descending into New Mexican canyons, climbing alpine ridges in the Olympics.

Sometimes I want to live without compromise. Hiking alone, running alone, kayaking alone, I can ease into the flow of my own pace. I don't have to wait for people or run to catch up or debate the merits of stopping early or turning around due to weather. "I can't believe you went out last week," a friend says, referring to the torrential rain that dumped a fire-season-ending event on the mountains, and I was out, hiking in it. If someone had been with me, there would have been either grim determination on the part of the one who wanted to go home, or reluctance to leave on someone else's. Let's stick it out! versus hell with this! and the constant tiptoe dance of are you okay with this? that women just aren't that great at, but guys have no problem with. Look, this pace isn't working for me, I'm going to go ahead. This isn't fun, I'm bailing. Not my style, buddy, see you next time. Women have a hard time with this. The feelings thing. Not wanting to offend, while guys just say it. I wish I had more guy companions, but once I got married they vanished. I don't want to think too much about this.

On my way back down from Frances Lake, after a beautiful solitary trip, I came upon four men gamely hiking upward. About fifteen years older than me, they said they couldn't carry the weight anymore (cringe. Another thing I kind of hate) and so were being packed in by mules. (Four of them. One mule load per guy. Really? "We can eat really good out here now." Can't you eat freeze dried for a couple of days? But I digress). One of them said, "You are by YOURSELF? I could NEVER DO THAT."

I always feel compelled to say something in this situation. Apologize? Say, "I really DO have friends"? "I'm packing pepper spray"? Does this sentiment really come from a place of caring, as one woman said on my private outdoors Facebook group, or is it, like another one posted, a belief that women are fragile creatures that need protecting? Instead I resorted to the old, "Well, I used to be a wilderness ranger, so I'm really comfortable in the woods."

You could see the change in expression. Relief and understanding. "Oh, okay," the man said before rushing to catch up with his friends. I continued on to the "safety" of the real world. I still don't understand it.

Looking down into Frances Lake, GASP! ALONE!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What I Learned From Hiking 720 Miles of the PCT

Some questions are just unanswerable. On a long 23 mile day, we played Would You Rather...

Change gender every time you sneeze or be unable to tell the difference between a baby and a muffin?

Hike the PCT with George W. or Mitt Romney?

Have as your daughter, Lindsay Lohan or Miley Cyrus?

Other things are easier to answer. You don't hike this far on a long trail without learning some things about yourself. In a 12 hour day there is plenty of time to think and only so many Would You Rathers or Two Truths and a Lies that you can dream up. There's time to listen to the crunch of your feet, the wind in the trees, water off a cliff. Your mind kind of goes into a free flow. If you're lucky, you can pick out some polished stones.

  1. In the Sierras, I learned to choose companions wisely. With other people that have decades of friendship behind them, it can be lonelier than being alone. On long trails, it helps to know someone well, because sooner or later a decision will have to be made when all of you are hungry or tired or under the gun from a thunderstorm.
  2. In the Sierras, I also learned that I love hiking alone, but that I love having company at camp. It's tough to find companions who want to put up with this behavior. But it's also nice to find people who can hike your pace--harder than it sounds--to pause with on top of a pass, to  point out a lake far below.
  3. In the North Cascades, I learned that it's all about the people. I go to the mountains to get away from people, to be honest. My work days are swimming with them. I am constantly on the phone, on email, and in video conferences. But on long trails, things are different than they are on short ones. We leapfrogged with the same people over 200 miles, and we would look out for each other. We sat together on breaks and camped in some of the same places. The last week of our hike, we met an unforgettable hiker named Cherry Pie, whose aptitude for twenty mile days upped our game. 
  4. In the North Cascades, I learned how tough I could be. Torrential rain, hail, 60,000 feet of elevation gain and loss--I thrived on it. Hiking, I learned, was my thing, my reason to get up in the morning, my reason for putting in ten hour days at work so I could do it all over again.
  5. In the South Cascades, I learned that there is no way I can make it to a thirty year retirement. I'm not going to quit my job and become a professional wanderer, but I need to figure out a way to drink life in now, not just in chunks on the weekends.
  6. In the South Cascades, I learned that I can thrive on big miles, water carries, dry camps, and no showers. I really didn't want to go into town. I didn't want town food or showers or laundry. It just didn't seem necessary. (It might have after a month). For better or worse, being in the mountains just feels real. It's where all the insecurities, stress, and problems just melt away. I belong there. I really do.
A few other things I learned:

Toe tubes rock for blisters! Best invention ever.  
People think I'm a little kid with braids. Especially when I wear a hat too.
DEET really is the only thing that works.
Sierra Designs hiking skirts are awesome. Better than skorts, or god forbid, pants.
Skyscape tents stand up to 40 mph winds.
I might not be allergic to poison oak?

SO WHAT'S NEXT? I'm sure you're all waiting to hear! My plan A is to hike the PCT from Tolumne (maybe from the Valley, since I think I've done some of that section when I did the JMT) to Sierra City. I want to do a lot of it solo to see what I am capable of, but I also want to invite a few people along to meet me and do a few miles, especially if they can hike in my resupply, heh heh heh. It's 11 months away, so things can change, but I am excited about this idea. If I do it, that means I will have done almost 1000 miles on the PCT, and maybe will pick another trail (Colorado?) to play with.

That's it from the PCT, folks! I've done a couple of backpacking trips since then that I will write about soon! 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hiking the PCT, Oregon Border to Snoqualmie, Days 10-15: Never Trust A Lake Named Sheep

I rose blearily from the couch in our tiny condo at White Pass, feeling bummed out. The traffic on the road and the extreme heat had kept me awake all night. I could easily have done without the shower and convenience store food. However, I knew salvation awaited just down the trail. Two cute boy thru-hikers named Stumbles and Hobbit had told us that they had heard that the mosquitoes were gone after sixteen miles. However, they glumly brandished industrial size containers of Repel, just in case, the only size the store had.

As we ascended the well-worn path by a creepy lake named Leech, a lithe man with a small daypack and trekking poles galloped past. "Is this still the PCT?" he asked, and we said we thought so. (Days later we realized we had seen the mythical String Bean, enroute to a new supported record of the entire trail--53 days. Amazing.) At first the mosquito horde attacked with a vengeance, but then...like magic...it thinned. The rumor had been right! Elated, I hiked on through a slight drizzle and some thunder to a lakeside campsite at exactly 16 miles.



We were set to cross many heavenly lakes the next day, and across Chinook Pass, teeming with clean dayhikers. It's true that when you have been in the backcountry your sense of smell changes, becomes sharper. Clouds of shampoo and soap wafted from the people who passed us. We didn't want to think about what they were smelling in return.

Nice tarn before Chinook Pass
Our idyllic night at Sheep Lake, though, turned into a nightmare, with howling winds that kept us up all night. I was gratified to know that my tent could stand up to 40 mph, but as we blearily packed up, we listed all the questionable mosquito-laden ponds named "Sheep Lake" that we had passed on this hike and decided: No more Sheeps for us.

Sheep Lake, looking all sweet and innocent.
My able companions, much more the planner types than I, had done the math and determined that the next day had to be long--about 23 miles-in order to set us up to camp near water on successive nights. Once again water was scarce, trickling out from piped springs and small ravines. Secretly I was excited about the 23 mile day, the longest I had ever backpacked (we did a couple of 22.5s last year). On this hike I had felt like I never came close to my capacity. Bring it, I thought, as we walked through some deep primeval forest, some clearcuts, and across some roads, culminating in a steep climb and a downward descent, during which MG and Flash saw something in the trees, but were unsure if it was a bear or a mountain lion. Oh well, it didn't attack us, so all was fine. Twenty-three miles felt great. I knew I could do more.

We woke at our unlovely spot along a road at Tacoma Pass, knowing that this was our last night on the trail. It had gone so fast! I had braced myself for an ugly day of massive clear-cuts, but it turned out to be a pleasant walk through blueberry laden bushes, past some old roads, and a few powerlines for good measure. We paused when we saw a sign for Stirrup Lake, only a half  mile away. Maybe we could camp there! How hard could it be? After pushing through dense vegetation for at least a mile, we indeed came out on the shores of a heavenly lake. Contemplating a night's stay here, we shivered as the cold wind blew. Thoughts of Sheep Lake went through our heads and we retreated, climbing to an anticlimatic "throw-down" site that once was an old road. So much for a last scenic campsite on the PCT! But that's the trail for you. It's never quite what you expect.



It was an easy 11  miles out, and we wandered through more blueberries, encountering another trail legend, Scott Williamson, who has yo-yoed* the trail and once held the unsupported fastest known time. He was going for it again, yet he took a few minutes to tell us that we were on the oldest part of the PCT, which in this state was known as the Cascade Crest Trail.

All too soon we saw the ski lifts of Snoqualmie Pass. Thirteen nights, fourteen days, and we were done. Flash and I had hiked all 507 miles of the Washington PCT. I would be home tonight instead of on the PCT. As much as I wanted to be there, I wanted to keep going, up through the North Cascades to Canada. Or go south, back through the mysterious poison oak, down through Oregon and the Sierras. Just never stop.

*yo-yo: Hike the entire trail and then turn around and hike back, all in one season.





What's next, you ask? I have a plan I am super excited about for next summer! I'll write about it in my gear fails and successes post, coming soon!