Sunday, December 10, 2017

To the summit of Mount Howard

I was feeling a little discouraged. What was up with this patella, it didn't seem to be tracking. And after acupuncture, the IT band issue seemed to go away, but now I had a weird tendinitis thing near the ankle. Was my body just wanting to stop? I couldn't accept that.

To top things off, a dense fog had moved into the valley, keeping a lid on us and dropping temperatures to single digits. This was hard to take. However, the rumor was that if you drove above it, a springlike 50 degrees could be found, along with sun. It was time for a test--both of my fitness and of the rumored warmth.

I settled on one of the hardest winter slogs around here that still would allow me to get home at a reasonable hour. The hike up the backside of Mount Howard is no easy undertaking. While you do follow a closed road, the grades are terrifyingly steep, depositing you finally at 8,000 feet. As sprightly as your hiking pace may be, I guarantee it will be reduced to a slog before long.

Can you tell the typical wind direction?
A strange lack of snow allowed me to drive to the summer trailhead, reducing the trek by a couple of miles. I would take whatever advantage I could get. I was also delighted to find that the tram company had driven up the road recently in a snow cat, so the overall slogginess was reduced significantly. Was this cheating? No, I thought, as I sunk deep in interesting surface crystals (this is formed when water vapor from the snowpack moves to the surface. Very dangerous on slopes when it gets buried as far as avalanches are concerned). 
My attempt to capture surface hoar--not very successful, but trust me, it's like jagged pieces of glass.
Despite the snow cat advantage, my pace was reduced to a slow shuffle. I was down to one layer as I crept skyward. Animals had been having a big party; tracks crisscrossed the snow. I was, in fact, following very recent tracks of a large feline. I had yet to take my snowshoes off my pack, and so I comforted myself with the thought that the spikes could serve as a weapon, should I need one.

I could feel a bonk coming on as I approached the sunny switchbacks. The snow was soft here and difficult to navigate. I leaned desperately on my poles. Seriously, I thought. Why do I do these things?

It's always worth it on Mount Howard, though. At last I climbed to the tram building, closed for the season. In a few short months, thirty thousand people will arrive here via the gondola. But not today. Far below, the fog still choked the valley. Up here, it was a pleasant, warm day, though the lack of snow is a bit troubling. I should have brought a tent, I thought. It was that nice.

Fog in the valley below.

Good thing I carried these snowshoes for hours. Not sure what is going on with the braids.
I sat on a rock and munched a snack before reluctantly heading back. The trek downhill was much faster, and nothing hurt. Even the treacherous patella decided to behave. Gaining the parking lot, I surprised a cigarette smoking man, who wanted to know where I had been. "How far is it?" he wanted to know. When I told him, he abandoned the idea. I get it, buddy, I really do. But the slog? Worth it, every time.

Not much snow in those hills.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The blue light of winter

A former boyfriend, a poet, the one who got away (but it was for the best, though I did not know it for several years), once read a poem he wrote by candlelight in a tipi (I am not making this up). In it, he referenced that blue light that is endemic to winter. Once he said it, I realized this was true. Although winter is not my favorite season, it does come with some incredible light.

We skied in the growing dusk, our second of the season. The snow was a soft powder under my skis. It was perfect. I felt like I could go forever. Far out to the Zumwalt, I could see sun on the bleached hills, while we were encased in a world of thick, cold snow. Though summer is my first love, I can still fall for the spell that is winter in a northern town.
I went for a hike up the West Fork Wallowa River. The snow was deep, the river shrouded in ice.

I pushed past the only set of footprints on the trail to reach a popular summer junction. It will be a long six months before backpackers venture up here. Now we need a snowshoe brigade to pack it down for running. Or not. It's still good to slog, even though it takes twice as long.

The wolves are out and about. We spotted their tracks on a road that is the main artery between the south and north in summer. Now, snow drifts it shut.

Though Ruby was born in the desert, something in her ancestry tells her to love winter. She sleeps outside most nights. She is ecstatic over snow. 

Our backcountry skating rink

That night, a supermoon rose over the snow-covered mountains, so large that it seemed you could touch it. We made the right decision, coming back, I thought. Even though the job situation is precarious, even though we are working ourselves into debt to build our house.

There's something special about living in a mountain town, something that can't be replicated.  My favorite band wrote a song about it:

Hello, blue light of winter.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


It had to happen someday.

I am feeling the results of pushing my body to its limits for decades.

There has been running. Lots of it. So, so much running. So much pavement running. A few face and back plants in there that didn't help matters.

Then there were the trail crew/wilderness ranger years, where often it made more sense to bend over with a huge backpack (70 lbs plus) to shovel out waterbars, because the darn things were one every few feet and taking off the pack each time was just dumb. Also, firefighting, chasing a bunch of long-legged guys up and down hills, wearing those non-ergonomic logger boots with a heel.

And possessing hips that are pretty tight, no matter how much stretching I do. All of these things combined have caused some issues, including twinges in the IT band, strange knee pains, and clunkiness in one of my knees. On really high steps, it's hard to step down sometimes. Running has become fraught with fear--what will hurt this time? Yet, I don't want to give up running. Nothing else feels the way it does.

Because surgery shouldn't be the first answer, I am trying some new things. Hip strengthening, where I lurch around the house attached to bands. Hip stretches. Hemp oil. And, today, acupuncture!

First of all, the needles are super tiny! I could barely feel them. My acupuncturist (is that a word?) explained that you place them according to where the problem is, but it might not actually be in that problem area. That you are looking at energy paths through the body. Therefore, even though the knee I am having the most problem with is the right one, most of my needles were in my left leg, the one I try to protect.

She then left and I was forced to lie and "relax". I am not very good at this. I thought, I should be doing something. But the point is to let the needles work.

There's a school of thought that people, especially women, carry past trauma in their pelvic/hip region. Makes sense, right? I am here to tell you: the thoughts and images that came up during my enforced relaxation seemed to bear that out. I could feel a lot of past pain floating away.

I know, this sounds kind of uncomfortably weird. I don't usually talk about things like this. But along with physical pain, I've also pushed myself to the limits emotionally, as most of us have. Most of us would rather shelve this stuff and forget about it, because you have to. Nobody enjoys being around a hot mess, much less being one. The trouble is, this has to go somewhere.

As for if it will help my structural issues, I have hope. I refuse to give up; my outdoor years are not over! I have had to reduce my running mileage quite a bit, but what matters most to me is not how many miles I run, but that I can continue to do it. Bring on the needles.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Somewhere in the Owyhee

I'm not a very traditional person. Sometimes it seems like people blindly follow a tradition (turkey and a big meal at 2 in the afternoon; chocolate for Valentines, I could go on) because they feel like they are supposed to. People! You don't have to prepare a big meal because hundreds of years ago some Pilgrims did! After checking the price of flights back to the parents' ($1500, who can even do that?) and considering some Friendsgiving offers, it sounded better to do what I like to do best: disappear into somewhere remote.

The Owhyee canyonlands are as close to the outback as Oregon and Idaho get. You have to drive on some bad roads to get there, roads where you can become trapped after rain. There's definitely no cell service and little water. In other words, sort of paradise.

Armed with maps and a sense of adventure, we headed for the Owyhee, leaving the pavement near the Idaho-Oregon border. Its unusual name comes from an exploratory party in the winter of 1819. Three Hawaiian members of the group were sent to scout the area. They never returned.

It is easy to see why.

We drove through thick fog to Succor Creek Natural Area and climbed to a high point. Thick mud clung to our boots, courtesy of previous rain, and we had to admit defeat and move on to a dispersed camping area by the river. Tamed by the dam above us, the river moved sluggishly past. It smelled like fish. This was interesting, but it was time to get to more remote sections of this place. That is, after we walked up the road for a couple miles with jumper cables, finally finding some people to charge up our battery.

Backcountry lunch. 
The road to Leslie Gulch is better traveled, through some remote ranchland. We wound through stunning formations to the Slocum Creek campground, near the Owyhee Reservoir. Strangely enough, it was free, and while it would bake in the summertime, it was perfect right now, in late November. Shorts in November! I couldn't believe my luck.

There were rumors of a hot springs you could hike to from here, but we hiked above the campground instead. A well-defined path petered out, as people evidently gave up on the cross country trek.
Campground in the distance

Fog in Succor Creek
Juniper Gulch is probably the most popular hike in the Leslie Gulch area. You can follow a sort-of trail for about two and a half miles before you have to start scrambling. We didn't see anyone on the trail, and it was a wild and scenic place. The afternoon light on the formations was unbelievable.
Ruby is mesmerized

That night the sky unleashed a torrent of rain. Fortunately we had put the rain fly on the tent so were spared the midnight shuffle. The rain meant plans had to change. In this country, roads become completely impassible and you have to wait the conditions out in order to leave.

Reluctantly leaving Leslie Gulch, we had to decide which way to drive home. There were two possibilities: the Owyhee Scenic Byway, one hundred miles of dubious road through the true wilderness of the Owyhee, or a rough 4WD through the ghost towns of a former mining era. We stopped by a gas station in Jordan Valley to ask about road conditions after the downpour.

"Got chains?" the attendant asked.
"Got a winch?"
"Got a high lift?"
"Well," he said, "You'd better go through Silver City. There might be some people there to help you out."
With that ringing endorsement, we headed out on a slick, muddy road (driving from highway 78 near Murphy is much better, for future reference). Four wheel drive was mandatory. For a moment it seemed like we would have to turn around, but then conditions and road surface improved. Quickly we ascended, bringing us through ghost towns and forgotten homesteads.

Near the ghost town of Ruby City, we found an old cemetery. I love walking through old cemeteries. I wonder about those people, if anyone remembered them, what they were like. There were also a fair number of Unknown gravesites. Were these people miners who had left home decades before, never to be heard from again?

After three hours and twenty miles, we rolled into Silver City. It is officially listed as a ghost town, but a few people still live there. The Watchman, who keeps an eye over the place, said he lived there year round. He owns a snowmobile to get in and out. It would be a long, cold ride down to the interstate most winters. In the summer, a ramshackle hotel and bar are open. In winter, nothing is.

I was captivated by Silver City. It is my kind of place. Remote, hard to get to, high elevation. I could get a lot of writing done here. I was ready to pull up stakes and move here.

Silver City!
Of course, reason prevailed, and I had to let go of that dream. At least, for now. We left feeling like we'd barely scratched the surface of this incredible place. It's good to know that places like this still exist, though less than one percent of the Owyhee is currently protected from development.

If you go there, you need to go with few expectations. The place dictates where you will go. And that's a good thing.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Grateful on Kendrick Mountain

This summer, a fire swept across the Kendrick Mountain Wilderness, but in true fire fashion, it had flirted with the landscape, leaving some aspen and pine stands untouched while torching others. Then the Arizona monsoon hit, triggering warnings of landslides. The wilderness had been closed since then, and had only recently reopened.

I was hiking the Kendrick Mountain trail for a work project. I spend plenty of time at my computer, and moments like these, ones that used to be every day, are now rare. As I hiked up the rocky trail, taking long, epic switchbacks to the ultimate height of ten thousand feet, I thought about the people, one most recently, who judgmentally told me that they "could never work a desk job." This always seems a bit snarky and aimed at showing that the person is somehow superior and never fails to irritate me. We all weigh our trade-offs and for me, it was not having to hustle at age 70.

Plus there's this. Desk job though it may be, I am writing a wilderness plan for this place, something that will help protect it for decades. How can that not be rewarding, to leave something behind? I think it is. Something like the cabin I stumble upon on a flat plateau, built in the 1930s. The fire lookout lived here and hiked the rough trail to Kendrick Peak's summit every day to scan for smoke.

I scale the last height to a windswept fire tower. There's still a seasonal employee who lives up here in the summer, though the tower has long been closed down for the year. The lookout must hike to their worksite, a fate that sounds pretty good to me.

The outhouse is still wrapped in fire resistant material. Having dug privies in rocky soil, I can appreciate not wanting this to burn down.

As I descend, I run into the lone hiker I passed a while back. "I could live up here!" I tell him. He agrees. "I could live up here in winter," he ups the ante. "I'm that kind of guy!" "Me too!" I say. It's always nice to meet one of my tribe in a world that doesn't value solitude.

"Do you like the music of Jerry Garcia?" he asks. While I'm not a Deadhead, I do like some of the songs, so I nod. He fishes in his backpack and hands me a CD. It's a burn of a Grateful Dead concert in 1972. "I give these to hikers," the man says. I head down the mountain, smiling at the randomness of the encounter.

Though the wilderness has been burned, I can see signs already of rebirth. Grass pokes from black soil. A spared group of aspens rustle in the wind. This wilderness is tough; it will make it. I'm glad to be here, glad that my desk job affords me the opportunity to travel, to stay fit enough to climb 2,500 feet in four miles, to be able to give something back.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Cold feet on Cayuse Flats

I am having a hard time admitting it's winter. Which means winter running, which means the fearsome choice of a treadmill, some icy streets on soul crushing pavement, or foolhardy attempts at trails you really should be skiing instead of trying to run. Yesterday I chose the latter, only to flounder through six inches of snow. Yes, the trails are shut down for the season.

Today I set off in trail running shoes as T and I headed up the trail to Cayuse Flats. Spoiler alert, I regretted this decision as we walked through fresh snow. Soon my feet were freezing, aided by a stiff breeze that forced us to don all of our layers. Not yet used to winter, we were not carrying enough, and could not linger.

Luckily the trail climbed steeply uphill, which allowed us to warm up slightly. We passed through silent forest before the trail petered out and we made for the ridge.

We climbed this hill to get to the ridge
There's a road you can actually drive to get here, but who wants the easy way? Not us. We headed along the top of the world for awhile before heading over to investigate some abandoned looking buildings. Peering inside, we noticed a brand new box of Red Wings and fresh cut firewood. Was someone living in the shack? A stock truck cruised the road, bringing hay to the horses we had seen earlier,  but there were no footprints in the snow.

Buildings from a distance
This would be a great cabin to spend the winter in, I thought. But then again, maybe not. Winters are harsh up here. The road would drift in soon. It will be eight months before it opens up again. Or more.

Lately more of my friends are speaking wistfully of warmer climates. Some have even made the break, claiming not to miss skiing or winter at all. I have to admit, sometimes it sounds good--no running in microspikes, no driving in winter storms, no skirting the edge of frostbite on hikes like this (although I will wear boots next time). But then again, living in a constant climate might get kind of boring.

A moody sky, with the Wallowas in the distance
T and I headed down the ridge; the buildings would have to survive the winter without us as tenants. But survive they will, just like I will survive another winter. "I feel like last winter took it out of us," a friend said in the grocery store. He isn't ready for winter yet either. But here it is, ready or not. It's a time to adjust: running has to slow down. You can't break eight minute miles in winter, not on the ice. You have to switch from hiking to skiing. You have to bring boots, not shoes.

And maybe that's a good thing. Around here, you can't get set in your ways.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Walker Pass to Tehachapi: against the wind

A full moon disappeared in and out of ragged clouds as a fifty mile per hour wind threatened to toss my hiking partner, Triscuit, and me into the canyon below. It was impossible to stand, and I resorted to crawling down the rocky path. This wind was not something you could wait out. There was also nothing I could do to help Triscuit, somewhere behind me, her headlamp a small source of light on the dark trail. Well, Monkey Bars, I thought. You have to get yourself out of this. We were each on our own, battling the wind.

We were nearing the end of an 85 mile stretch of the PCT, billed as the driest section of the entire 2650 mile trail. In 42 miles of trail there are no water sources. We staggered under the weight of multiple liters, and sighed in relief when we found two key water caches were still being stocked this late in the year.

It felt late to be hiking here, the only people we encountered a couple of tardy southbounders (Hurl Goat and Mary Poppins) trying to outrun winter. For days we saw nobody else, our feet scuffing through miles of oak leaves. We hiked this section southbound for logistics purposes, dropped off by Dave, a talkative Uber driver who informed us all about his sobriety, panic attacks, and his desire to drop below 317 pounds, but also his desire for a candy bar. Starting from the desolate Walker Pass campground, we traveled uphill through Joshua trees and through the gorgeous Coulter pines of the remote Piute Mountains. We passed strange little cabins and campgrounds, deserted and silent in the bite of an autumn breeze. We also passed hundreds of wind turbines, lit up bright red at night like artificial sunsets.

Scenic Section F.

Old school toilets at Landers Camp. Do not camp here unless you enjoy hanging out in an icebox.

Casa De Oso, an abandoned looking sheet metal cabin. We saw no osos, but plenty of deer.
I didn't expect much from this section, but it quickly turned out to be one of my favorites. In spring, when most of the thru hikers come by, temperatures often top 100 degrees, and their impressions are not good. But in fall, we had cold nights and pleasant days, at least for the first two. As Triscuit and I hiked along a ridge, we spotted something strange--an ominous cloud in the distance.

Fog spills over the mountains.
"Is that a fire we are walking toward?" we asked each other, but as we approached, it became clear that a strange fog was taking over the sky. As we were enveloped, the wind began to blow. We marched past wind farms, swathed in all of our layers. Our camps were an exercise in finding sheltered places, but the wind still found us. It was ever present. Until you have hiked and camped for days in wind, you don't realize the level of anxiety it produces.

Wind farms at sunrise.
The last night, tucked in among some bushes, we thought we were safe from the wind. Our third hiking partner had inexplicably left us, hiking without a working phone and no headlamp down to the highway, where, we later learned, she hitched a ride to Bakersfield with a trucker. There's a lot more that could be said about this, but note to self: whenever people ask why I hike solo, there are stories I could tell.

Beautiful windswept plateau.
Shaking our heads, we retreated to our tents. After midnight, the wind increased to a howl, forcing me to take down my tent for fear of a broken pole. Still, if you run away at the first sign of adversity, how do you ever get stronger? It's just wind. Until you are crawling down a hillside, hanging on for dear life.

But nobody is going to come save you. In the wilderness, you learn to figure things out. Or you don't, and you don't go back out again. Eventually, as I knew we would, we reached more protected ground and were able to walk normally to the bus stop, where a Kern transit bus took us to civilization, the downtown transit center, where a bunch of homeless people sat wrapped in blankets. It was a jarring contrast, although we probably looked homeless ourselves with our backpacks and windblown looks.

The wind farm look.
Impressions of Section F? An entirely enjoyable fall hike, but you must be prepared. It feels more remote than most Southern California sections. In higher temperatures this would be pretty difficult. There are several places that are easements through private property, and so you walk on ATV roads that are steep and rocky. In other places, you follow winding trail through gorgeous forests. Like most of the PCT, it is varied and surprising. The water sources range from trickling seeps to piped springs, but you have to plan carefully or you may run out. And beware the wind; it blows all the time, unceasingly.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Five anchors

I have a lot of pets. Five, to be exact. Sometimes I think what life would be without them. I'd be able to skip away from the house on long adventures without feeling guilty. No more spending exorbitant fees for shots, mysterious ailments, and fancy food. No more having to readjust my schedule because someone needs a walk/needs shots/needs more food/can't be left alone/smells like a skunk even though you've bathed her four times. Being able to find a place to rent while we build our house, because every landlord recoils in horror at the word "pets".

I have friends who swear off pets for many of those reasons and it does make sense. I couldn't have a pet when I was a seasonal worker, and I was able to go to New Zealand for six weeks/move across the country every six months/backpack anywhere in a national park/own clean vehicles.

But my heart. With one exception our animals are all rescues. One cat would have died without us feeding him with a bottle. We rescued one cat from a house that, I kid you not, had air literally blue from smoke. One of the dogs was taken from a hoarding situation. Someone else would have taken them--maybe.

Ruby before the molt. She looks totally skinny now.
In these beautiful fall days, I hike with the dogs. The older one feels he has earned the right to ignore me and poke along; he's eleven. The puppy runs ahead, and then comes back to check on me. It's fifty degrees and feels so warm; even though I laugh to myself that just a month ago it was fifty degrees more than this. This is what I love about living in a four season place. You get to watch the miracle of your body adjusting to extremes.

I've also witnessed rescue animals adjusting to love for the first time. Our old dog is getting more and more cuddly with age, just like the last one did. It makes me think of people--once you have experienced a trauma, it takes forever to trust again. The animals give me hope.

Callie! Fifteen and going strong.
 And despite the challenges of these five anchors, having a trail buddy has been really great. Ruby has gone from a stubborn, independent puppy to one who will sit when other people come by (she used to try to run off with them, as if they would give her a better home), will "leave it" when told (she stopped running after a deer, a huge victory) and who will come sit by me as I sit by a lake, putting her head on my lap.

 I don't know if I will always have pets. Now, while I am chained to working at home, it makes sense-I am there a lot of the time. If I get to retire, I plan to chase all the trails I can. Maybe I will want to be more footloose then. For now the pets fill up some empty spaces and make me happy. Plus, who would I talk to all day? Myself? Far better to talk to the pets. "Okay, Ruby, now we need to make a conference call."

Then there's the hardest part--pets don't live very long. Not nearly long enough. It breaks your heart when they leave you, even though you know they will. Every day with them, you live knowing that someday they won't be around. I also have friends who won't get any more pets because that pain was too hard to bear.

Puffin as a kitten, rescued from certain death
Do you have pets or have you chosen not to have them to pursue a more free life?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Sorting through (a hiking story, sort of)

I've been slowly moving back into my cabin. As I haul rubbermaid containers inside and open them, I am amazed: all of this stuff. And I thought I got rid of a lot of stuff when I moved out! Living in a thousand square foot house with no real closets, I probably have a lot less than most people. Still, it's way too much.

Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? I had hardly anything most of my life: if it couldn't fit in a Chevette, it wasn't going. Then when I left Alaska I banished almost everything: all of my furniture, most of my possessions. I liked traveling light. But in the last eight years, things have slowly crept in. I am ruthless this time: out it goes!

I laugh when I see some of the items. The array of hair potions, trying to tame what hypothyroidism has done to a formerly glossy mane (it's not pretty). I have ziplock bags of unidentifiable pills (Tylenol PM? Aspirin?). I obviously store my fears, because my medicine cabinet is heavily weighted toward blister prevention. As far as clothes, I have hung on to "office wear", just in case I ever return to one (it's doubtful, but you never know where life will take you). I can't seem to part with my XtraTuf Alaska rubber boots or my storm kayaking jacket. Maybe doing so would admit that part of my life is really over. It is over, but maybe, I think, there's a piece of that woman who did those things that I don't want to let go.

I finally couldn't take it anymore. It was time to hike. I held no illusions that I would get to Ice Lake; tales of waist deep snow elsewhere abounded. If I could just go ten miles, I thought. Maybe that would smooth out some rough edges (life has been pretty complex lately).

I hurried through all the old landmarks: the wilderness boundary sign, the place where the trail rides turn around, the first campsite for those who overestimate their fitness. I crossed the bridge and headed up toward the basin. A storm was coming in, with lots of snow and 40 mile an hour winds. I knew I had to beat it.

Strangely enough, there was only a skiff of snow. I was going to make it all the way! Giggling with happiness (yes, I am a dork), I arrived at the lakeshore to find gale force winds and a lake churning with whitecaps.

Ok, YOU try to take a selfie in 40 mph winds.
It's interesting how the moods of a place can change so fast. In summer this lake feels almost tame and hospitable. You can go swimming. (of course, "summer" at almost 9,000 feet is really only two months max). Now, it felt like a place where humans should not stay. Looking over the peaks, I saw a ragged hem of clouds approaching--the storm. High on Sacajawea, mountain goats roamed, seemingly indifferent to the gale force winds.

Stuffing a bagel into my mouth, I raced down to safer ground. The entire 16 mile hike would be done without breaks. As a result I hobbled back into the house, flopping dramatically on the couch. Nobody was too impressed. The chores still awaited, an army of containers with too much stuff. Tomorrow, J informed me, we would have to go cut wood. In the snow. Because, we could buy wood, but that would make us soft, I decided.

I stared at the detritus of my life. There was my wedding ring from my former marriage. Though the marriage was awful, the ring was pretty. I started to toss it, then reconsidered. I can hang on to it a little longer. Maybe I'll have it made into a necklace. Not as a reminder of someone who treated me poorly, but because I survived it and came out stronger. Or really, does everything have to have meaning? Maybe it's just a nice ring.
Some things you just have to hang onto until you are ready to let them go.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

coming home

I drove home into an early winter. Usually the Wallowas get a fine dusting of snow, like giants spilling flour, by this time. I've even been chased out of the mountains on Labor Day by a half a foot dump. But this much snow, this early, is not typical, at least not in the recent decades. Two guys I passed on the trail today said they had run into a foot of snow before the old cabin on Falls Creek, and that is just deeply weird.

But today, at least, my first day back home, was one of those fall days that can break your heart. Heartbreaking because you know they can't last and they are just about perfect, a slight bite to the air, piles of bright leaves, warm sun on your shoulders and an open trail. I'm trying more and more often to live by the philosophy of "don't be sad that it's over, smile because it happened" and so I took on an easy trail, but one of the most beautiful.  I wanted to be grateful for the fall day, not gnash my teeth over the coming winter.

Only a few frosty cars at the trailhead, so some brave souls were camping in the twenty degree temperatures. Good for them. For me this is the time of year for day hikes. It only takes about an hour to reach Slick Rock Falls, the best I could do today when the chores had piled up in my absence (Note: if you rent a cabin to a bachelor, their idea of a good cleaning just might not be yours).

I hiked along at what my friend Gary calls a "friendly pace". It is always surprising to me to see day hikers with headphones, because my mind always is busily thinking about something. On my latest PCT hike it took me about five miles to add up all of the segments I have done and figure out what I have left (788 miles). I thought about each section and what it was like, and of the ones I have left to do. I think of plotlines for my novel. There is more to think about than there are miles.

The light wasn't great for pictures, but you get the idea.
 For example. Here in Deadman Meadow, I thought about climbing Sacajawea, the snowy peak pictured above. I thought about my friends who got married here. I remembered when I came and camped right here, on my 50 night backpacking quest. So much to think about.
All too soon I had reached my destination, Slick Rock Falls. This is where an avalanche often tumbles down from above. In the summer, you can climb up a ways and sit in some chilly, deep pools. This is also the route to the often dreamed about Deadman Lake. I could go further, I thought, keep going until the snow stopped me. But maybe this was good enough.

It's good to be home. Just like a person, this place has its challenges. I will deeply miss swimming, and the easy, flat trail system that actually made me want to go running. It was easy in Sisters, with convenient amenities, whatever you wanted close at hand. It would have been easy to stay and we almost did. But in the end, this feels more like home, so we came back. The future is still uncertain, but I'm ready to see what is next. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Know when to fold 'em*

All week long I dreamed of Camp Lake. In the guidebook pictures, it looked just like my kind of place--windswept, barren, stark and lovely. Access to it has been closed most of the ephemeral summer we managed to get, due to a fire that really wasn't all that close. Busting a fire closure isn't really my thing, so I waited, hoping for a break that finally came this weekend. The road to the trailhead was open!

The forecast wasn't all that great for backpacking. This time of year, you are flirting with disaster when staying out overnight at high elevations. I really wanted to camp because the hike was seven miles long plus there were other lakes up higher to explore. While a fourteen mile day hike was well within my range, having the chance to wander around the basin really could only happen with more time. In the end, the thirty mph wind gusts forced me to reconsider. (and that is a good thing).

Ruby and I left at dawn, which now means seven, armed with treats, warm clothes, a SPOT beacon, map, too much water, and an emergency blanket. There were only two cars at the trailhead, one belonging to a hunter whom I caught on as we trudged through the first dismal four miles of burnt trees. The other group would mysteriously never appear.

Ice on the creek crossings made for some ballet-like leaps as I attempted to keep my boots dry. I normally hike in trail running shoes, but some instinct had told me to wear boots. I was glad I had as I ascended the switchbacks after the turn-off to Demaris Lake (4.5 miles). The trail became completely snow-covered, with only a few footprints to point the way.

Lakes. But not Camp Lake.
My luck ran out at a cliff. Several sets of footprints had merrily begun traversing what I could tell from the map was the wrong way. I could see where the group had milled around and given up. Punching through a foot of snow, I decided to traverse the ridge and drop down into a valley. I could, I thought, follow my prints back.

I ascended a hill and found the wooden No Fires sign that seems to mark most lakes in these parts. Hallelujah for route-finding skills, I was on the right track. However, I was completely alone in what felt like winter. No trace of the trail remained. To the south, the Three Sisters loomed, implacable and indifferent.
So much snow.
I found what I thought could be the trail, winding mid-ridge, but a tentative step revealed solid ice with a thin snow crust. The snow bulged out over the cliff, making it impossible to kick in steps successfully. A fall wouldn't be automatic death, but it wouldn't be all that fun. I stopped and pondered my options.

I knew I was within a quarter mile of the lake. I could even see the basin where I was sure it lurked. Perhaps a less prudent person would have kept going. Years of being in the wilderness, and of carrying people out of the same wilderness, have taught me that it's important to follow your instinct. It was, I knew, time to turn around. Even though I was so close. Even though it would probably all work out. Even though I would never be back, and this was my only chance. Even though.

I looked at Ruby. Ecstatic, she was rolling around in the snow. She raced at full speed around and around in the snow. She didn't care that this trip was a bust. In fact, to her, it wasn't. So what if we didn't make our destination? I resolved to be more like Ruby.

Yes, that is a dog rolling in snow.
I left Camp Lake to winter. Sometimes, you just have to know when to quit.

Winter is here.
* If there's a Kenny Rogers song now in your head, I apologize.
Dog out of focus, but happy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

take my breath away

I'm the one around town wearing sandals because I sent most of my winter things home. In my defense, it was one hundred degrees at the time. A sudden winter has caught me off guard. All summer, I never even toted a jacket because honestly? It never cooled off.

A healthy snowfall in the high country has put out the fires but not the closures, so I skirt around them, seeing what I can. Golden Lake had been on my list for a long time. The guidebook ominously warned that it was difficult, citing the .7 miles of cross country travel that were involved. Not one to be intimidated, I gathered all the weird remnants of warm clothes I had left, grabbed the puppy and headed out (Cale is unhappily recovering, banned from hikes for now).

As per usual, the first five miles were through a burnt forest. If you didn't know what was ahead, you might give up, but suddenly you break out into a huge meadow with views of the mountains. Most people stop here, and on the way out, I saw three sets of puffy jacketed backpackers, bound for this location. I have to admit I was envious. This was their view for the evening.

The snow line began as I climbed up from the meadow, and I regarded my running shoes with dismay. I had sent my hiking boots home, and these shoes were reaching the end of their useful life. Dark clouds swirled over the peaks, a reminder of an uncertain weather forecast. A prudent hiker might consider ten miles enough and turn around, but I knew this was my last chance to see the lake before I left town for good. Soon the snow patches became solid snow. With this, I was sure that the user path to the lake would be covered and unrecognizable. This might, I told the puppy, be the end of the road.

Following the landmarks on the map, I came to a single set of tracks in the snow, heading east. Hmm, I thought. This looked like the place where you could leave the trail and reach the lake. Should we try it? Yes, we should. Keeping a close eye on the way back in case the tracks melted out, we advanced cautiously around a meadow and through trees until we reached the lake.

We were completely alone in a beautiful place. Sometimes, nature takes my breath away, and this was one of those times.

This was a place that was hard to leave, but as I watched, the clouds began to thicken. We retraced our steps to the relative safety of the trail.

But not before a swim...Ruby, not me. Brr!

My feet were wet and I was hungry, having only nibbled on a few pretzels. We had six and three quarter miles left to travel, mostly through uninspiring burnt forest. The cold was creeping in. It was time to move. We probably only spent five minutes at Golden Lake, not nearly enough. But in a world that seems too sad to live in sometimes, those breathless moments are what keep me going.