Sunday, March 18, 2018

escaping the fergi vortex

After several hours, I thought that we were about to make a break for it. The T had shut down, and nobody had been caught sledding by the rope tow. Nobody had gotten stuck in the parking lot.  All dogs were accounted for. We had done a successful retrieval of our shuttle vehicle, left several miles away at the start of our long ski that had ended here, at Fergi, the local ski area.

But escaping Fergi is never as easy as it may seem. Who needs Sedona? We have our own vortex. Completely volunteer-run, the place is the center of the universe for all the skiers. There's a comfortable lodge with food, a ski shop to hang out in, and a deck to sit on. There's always something going on here and tearing yourself away is not easy. You see all your friends here. You get talked into staying.

We had finally started driving out when we saw one of the regulars hiking back up the road. Stuck, he was walking back for his snow cat. There ensued a comical shuffling of vehicles. One more hour spent at Fergi.

There are some good ski loops that leave from Fergi, which allows you to start and end there. I chose one today, a route that requires sufficient snow or else you scream down the hills in abject terror. Since our March Miracle continues, with so much snow that we have completely gotten back to normal snowpack, I can ski on advanced terrain without fear.

It had been days since anyone had been back there, and I saw nobody.

A lot of skiers like tracked trails. It's true you can go fast, but I prefer the deep snow, even if you end up shuffling for several miles. This town is changing fast--houses have gone up in price $200,000 over the last nine years, and there are many new people here--but I hope this always stays the same.

After a couple of hours of peaceful quiet, I descended into Fergi, immediately seeing several friends. A couple of them unsuccessfully hunted for a hidden keg of green beer. The vortex seized hold and I found myself hanging around the deck, where the sun made it feel about sixty degrees. Snow and sun is a great combination. Only a scheduled book reading tore me away. We all need our little vortexes, places we feel most ourselves.

The results of the poison ivy experiment are in--and no rash! Treatment in the Golden Hour is key.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A shot of spring

I'm conducting an experiment. If you are crossing a stream and trying to keep your balance on the rocks, and you reach out and grab a branch to steady yourself, but you break the branch and fall in anyway, and then you look and see that the branch you grabbed with your bare hands is poison ivy, that is dormant, will you then get a poison ivy rash?

Check back in next time and I will let you know.

Sadly, there is no such thing as paradise. Three spring-seeking friends and I sat on a new beach near the Snake River (new because the high water flows have created new beaches and cleared out prickly vegetation on others) and basked in the sixty degree sun. The only lingering threat was the possible PI that was awaiting in a few days. I had rinsed my hand in the ice-cold Snake and used an antiseptic wipe from my first aid kit, but still. Unless you are susceptible to PI, you are immune also to the deep-seated fear that arises when you realize you may be contaminated.
 As we sat there, marveling in the magic of spring, while "up top" in the mountains where we lived, it was still full-on winter, I felt a creepy crawly feeling. "A tick!" I exclaimed. Everyone leapt to their feet. Time to go!

There's no such thing as Paradise, but this place comes pretty close. I've hiked this trail (and written about it) many times before, but it's one of those that never gets old. It's where you go when the flat white of the landscape fails to inspire. It's where you go when you need a shot of spring.
Someone wrote their initials on the sand, but now I wonder if the T stands for "tick". We only found two though. Not terrible.
Two thousand feet below our houses, the flowers are beginning to come out. Once again I felt grateful to live in a place with such diversity. Canyon, mountains, rivers, all within a small radius. You could ski and hike in the same day, if you had enough energy.

Can you see the bighorn sheep? Not a great picture, but exciting to see the herd.
I'm not much of a drinker, but the shot analogy seems appropriate. I drank in the sun, the dirt under my feet, walking without a coat.

A ton of people were camped near the trailhead, but most were sitting around in lawn chairs, not even attempting to walk very far. You can tell spring fever has hit. Sadly for them, we have one more month of snow and sometimes two. Or three! Even if you love winter, sometimes you just want to see green. Back when I used to work at the forest, we used to fight over who got to drive an hour of bad road to clean the stinky outhouse down here. The call for spring is powerful around these parts.

One of my friends has lived here for forty years. On the narrow, exposed road driving out, she knew everyone driving in. She knew where the "hippie camp" had been in the 1970s. She knew where all the old trails went. This is a kind of history of place I won't ever have, and while I don't regret my rootless years, I admire the dedication to sticking it out somewhere.

We arrive back in the snow at the end of the day. The skiing will be good, and there's no need to hurry the seasons. The canyon waits; it's always there when we need it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Recalculating a goal

Since I came home, I've had a lot of time to reflect on the failed PCT hike. It's easy to armchair it and think, why didn't I just get a motel room and regroup? I could have at least day hiked some of it if the weather wasn't too terrible. I could have made it through the snow. I even started to think about if I even wanted to hike the PCT anymore. I'm of the philosophy that if an optional activity isn't fun, why do it?

Except not really. I mean, the gym isn't super fun, but I know I need to weight train or be a weenie, so I go there. So there are exceptions. But why throw a lot of money and time at a goal if it isn't worth the adventure anymore?

I spent a lot of time skiing this week. We had a March Miracle, and got about three feet of snow. This will save us. I thought about the PCT and long distance hiking in general as I traversed the quiet forest.

I gave up running marathons when it seemed pointless to pound my body on the pavement just to reach an arbitrary goal. Running every day wasn't doing me any favors, and I didn't want to just focus on one thing. I wanted to do all the things. When I started doing a long run in the morning and then rushing, exhausted, to meet a friend to kayak in the afternoon, I started to question my priorities.

After much skiing and contemplation, I decided it was time to go back to basics. The way we had approached this last PCT section was just to get it done. It wasn't going to be all that scenic, it wasn't going to be warm, and my hiking partner had sped up considerably, leaving me at almost a sprint to keep up. The need to do twenty mile days hung over us like impending doom. Whenever we would sit to eat lunch or contemplate going off trail to see something else, the clock continued to tick. Would we get our miles in? We couldn't miss our plane! So not fun.

So I've decided to recalculate. My next section, from I-80 near Donner Pass to Chester, will be much more relaxed. I'm going to drive a car to one end, which will alleviate the airplane woes. Flash has decided to come with me, which will be a joyous reunion--we've always been really good hiking partners. We plan for a leisurely 17 miles a day, leaving the options open to hike more if we want to.

I have about 650 or so miles to hike of the trail. I've been hurrying to finish, mostly because in life you are not guaranteed immunity from tragedy. Just because someone you know can still run marathons at 80 doesn't mean you will be granted that same gift. But I am done with hurrying. Yes, I could finish that 650 miles in a month. But I don't want to. I'm going to enjoy every step.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

escape from the Sierra Pelona

The snow started at nine in the evening. It was a quiet whisper against the tent walls, as if they were being brushed with a broom. It was difficult to tell from where we huddled, our tents pitched right in the trail at the least windy spot we could find, how much was falling and how much would fall. Sometime in the night, though, I woke and pushed big drifts off the sides.

My mind went back to all the missing, people who had been caught by unexpected storms like this one. Some have never been seen again. Even though I knew we were close to a road, a road we could tell would eventually lead us to a place with some houses and cars, it was hard not to imagine how a set of small decisions could lead to disaster.

All winter the southern California mountains have been bone dry. The week before we set out on our section hike, Acton to Tehachapi, the temperatures had soared into the nineties. The forecast for our week had shown a cooling trend, low 60s during the day, 30s at night, which seemed like a good thing. There was only a hint of rain later in the week.

A rare warm campsite on the trail. Yes, our tents are on the trail.
This section, California PCT section E, is not for the weak. It is what separates the cherry pickers from the obsessed, the fair weather hikers from the more determined. Arguably the least scenic of all the trail, it climbs like a rollercoaster into the dry Sierra Pelona, down to the California aqueduct (20 miles of concrete river) and climbs again to the wind-torn Tehachapis. That's not to say that there aren't small things of beauty. In fact, that is what the PCT has taught me: to appreciate small vistas.

Night one camp, on a ridge without wind. Win!

The first two days were benign, save for a biting wind in the mornings. There were no other hikers. We had the trail to ourselves, and even though the trail needs a little love--a lot of washed out and brushy sections--there was a sense of peace on being back on it. The nights were cold and clear.

Vasquez Rocks County Park. Some Westerns were filmed here.

On the third day we got water from a wildlife guzzler and continued higher. The wind was intense and a high film of clouds began to form. I wanted to go higher, to get the climbing done and be closer to the next road, but I could tell my hiking partner didn't, and we set up our tents in bitter cold. That night, it snowed. My chosen camp would have been 1500 feet higher. It had been good to stay lower.

My hiking partner had made up her mind that she was hiking out. While it's good to be decisive--I am sure she thinks I am a big waffler--it was clear that if I disagreed, I would be on my own. Without knowing how much more it would snow, I reluctantly decided that going on solo wouldn't be a great idea. I'm much more of a wing-it person, convinced that something great is around the next corner. I know this drives a decisive person nuts. I think difference in hiking styles is why so many people do long hikes solo. It can be much easier. Though as we geared up for a self rescue in drifting snow, it was good to know that someone else knew where I was.

We retreated. I can't even tell you how hard it was for me to turn my back on the trail and hike down the Forest Service road to safety. It is going to be really hard to connect my steps back to where we stopped and if I don't, I will feel like it's skipping (I told you: obsessed). A little chunk of 60 miles remains, but logistics makes getting back hard.

At the road, a woman and her kids were playing in the snow. She offered to take us to town in her old beater car, wiping off her windshield as she drove due to a faulty head gasket. I gave her $20 and felt good about that. She obviously needed it.

As I shelled out big bucks to change two plane tickets, I wondered why I am so obsessed with finishing the entire PCT.  I've hiked almost two thousand miles of it, shouldn't that be enough? Maybe. But I'm already thinking about where to go next. In the summer.
sunset over the Sierra Pelona

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Freezing at an RV park

And I'm pretty sure the guy on the street outside the Seattle airport thought I was homeless, as I walked by with my backpack and he tried to give me a muffin.

PCT section hiking. Not always glamorous.
More later friends.

Monday, February 19, 2018

I can ski anything

To everyone's surprise, a huge storm blew in this weekend. One day I was running in my spikes to the trailhead, something completely unprecedented (usually it snows itself shut), and the next, I was breaking trail in skis at one mile an hour. This is sort of ridiculous, I thought as I plowed along uphill, why am I putting myself through this exactly? 

But. Nobody was in sight. The trees were completely shrouded in snow, the forest a delightful snow globe. I could have called it and gone to the gym, which I have been shamefully neglecting in favor of outside activities. What was slogging uphill in cross country skis with nary a glide to be seen proving?

"We went up to the top of the ski hill and somebody had broken trail up there," J said later. "We couldn't believe it!" He wasn't overly surprised that it was me. I seem to have that reputation around here.

I nervously turned my skis downward on the Fergi trail. This is a place of steep drops, where I have had to shamefully walk my skis on occasion. But today, skis could go anywhere. I skied down hills I have rarely skied, thanks to the lovely powder snow. I emerged victorious at the ski area, where all the skiers were ecstatic over the new snow. "This is as good as it ever gets here," they enthused. After the lifts were shut down, a few of the guys were sitting around and decided to open back up to ski some more.

The next day, L and I skied the same route in my old tracks. It was a lot easier (first tracks on cross country skis aren't as desirable as in downhill skiing).  Our dogs, the Gems (named Topaz and Ruby) bounded around, high-centering in the snow. This wasn't the red-lining slog of the day before, but it was a day to marvel at the fresh blue sky and the foot of new snow that will save us from the fires of summer (or so we hope). Just in time, the snows of February have come through.

We emerged onto the canal road to discover a pleasant surprise. The snowmobile club had groomed the road! A mystical corduroy, it is a draw to skate skiers, fat bikers, and skiers like us. Usually the downhill section of this route is one I approach with fear. You can get to whizzing along on icy terrain way faster than you want to and have to steer for the snowbanks to stop. But today was different, again.

Once when I lived in a small town of fifty souls, a man in the bar unkindly expounded on a woman he had known there. "She might think she's beautiful here, but once she gets back to Seattle, she won't be anymore." (Supply and demand, he meant. I later wrote an essay about this called "Beautiful in Nevada.") As mean as this was, and untrue, fresh snow is like this for me. I am a good skier in fresh snow. Fresh snow makes me feel like I can ski anything, anywhere, all of my fears forgotten. Inevitably, it will warm up. Crust will form. I will cautiously side step the hills. But not yet. For now, I can continue to believe.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Revenge of the Slow Shoes

"oh no, slowshoes," Scott groaned when he spied Jean and I carrying our snowshoes. "I need to be back by three," he went on, clearly doubting this would happen if the ski party contained us. We were headed for a day trip to the ski shelter, a steep climb that required skins to navigate, and one that caused a major meltdown on my part, years ago, trying to ski down. Snowshoes are my weapon of choice for this climb.

Curses! A low snow winter.
Snowshoes don't get a lot of love around here. Skiers will slog up mountains for hours with their skins, refusing to touch the things. Granted, slow, I mean snow, shoes aren't fast, but on the two mile climb in, Jean and I easily kept pace with the skiers. They slipped and slid on the Hill of Death while we marched casually up, and they cursed the sidehills while we strode along.

Of course this wasn't matched by the descent. Jean and I had to leave early in order to beat them to the car. While I am not a Strava fan for many reasons, I was intrigued by the stats that she had on her phone. Our top speed was four miles per hour! In snowshoes. (Scott's was 31 mph. But we did all leave before three pm.)

It's hard to find kindred snowshoeing spirits. One of my local buddies escapes to Hawaii for almost two months. The conditions aren't always right. But sometimes I do see the tracks of my people. The other day I was snowshoeing along and saw an unfamiliar track. "What's that?" I mused to the dog. Bigfoot? Then I realized: Snowshoes! The hiker was long gone, but I turned into the woods to follow the track, feeling a warm fuzzy at the fact that others appreciate the meditative, slow progress through quiet woods.  Basically: snowshoeing extends the hiking season. Who could be mad about that?

The tracks of my people!
Scott appeared at the trucks, eyeing our snowshoes. "This was probably great conditions for that, wasn't it?" he asked. We agreed. "You'll come to the dark side someday," I said.


Oh well. Some people aren't going to be snowshoe converts. They'll keep dissing our slow shoes and be convinced they have chosen the best method of transport. I know differently.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Great Supermarket Slink, or, Buying Trail Food

Ahh, the time is here again. The time when I slink into Safeway, praying nobody I know will see me and the cashiers won't judge. It is even worse than usual, because I used to be able to divide my trail food buying between two stores. Alas, we no longer have a grocery store in my little town so I have to drive to the Safeway the next town over.

The struggle is real: it is hard to have healthy food on trail. Especially if you aren't bringing a stove, or any dehydrated food at all, because California is in a massive drought and you are pretty sure you will be doing 40 mile water carries. That leaves no room for extraneous water. I see newbies all the time stating they will eat healthy on a long hike, only to devolve into the tortilla-peanut butter-salami--Oreo wrap. At the same time. Turns out, hiking twenty plus miles a day carrying six liters of water means that a steady supply of calories is necessary, and high calorie at that.

So I load up my cart with stuff I never buy in real life: Bars. Peanut butter pretzels. M&Ms. And also, a stab at being sort of healthy: Tuna. Almond butter packets. Shelf stable hummus. Nuts, even though I don't really like nuts all that much. Cheese. You also have to consider the relative weight versus benefit. Hiking a long trail is pretty much the only time you will see a woman, any woman, look at calories of an item and discard it because it is too little calories.

I used to bring turkey pepperoni (I'm not really a beef fan either) but it was always so salty and seemed too processed. Salami and jerky are faves of other hikers, but, not a big meat eater in real life, I couldn't stomach these after a few days. Also, I never eat jelly beans anywhere else but on the trail: but when you need a quick boost to go the last four miles, jelly beans do the trick. Dried fruit, if you can find it without added sugar (really hard to find at Safeway) can also help.

You can ask Good Stuff about the time I ambitiously decided I was going to bring kale for dinner. Kale in a wrap! After day three, it didn't seem like such a good idea.

Inevitably, someone I know will appear in an aisle, their cart full of organic produce. I sprint on by, hoping they don't judge my snack-full cart. It looks like I'm settling in for a month of Super Bowls.

I'm sort of kidding. I don't worry that much about what people think about the food I'm getting. Sort of. Wish me luck, I'm going in.

Trail food! What's a favorite of yours?

Friday, February 2, 2018

Monkey on my back

"So, you're almost done with the PCT," friends say. "What are you going to do next? The Continental Divide trail?"

Only on a long distance trail can having about 650 miles left to hike be "almost done". But I digress. When I am asked this question, I'm really torn.

I never expected to complete the entire Pacific Crest Trail. When I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2011, I didn't realize how much I would come to love long distance hiking. There is something about the simplicity of being in the woods for multiple days, of being truly disconnected from anything but the ribbon of trail under my feet, the only questions being where the next water source is, where to find a campsite, what to eat. At the risk of sounding old, it reminds me of when the world was a more innocent place, before school shootings, before people were fastened to their phones, when kids could be free range in the neighborhood. On the trail, it doesn't matter what you do for work, how old you are, what you regret.
Yikes! I bring a lot less stuff now.

I was hooked. Over the last six years, I've tramped through much of California, all of Washington, and most of the Oregon section of the PCT. Most days, I don't want it to end. Others, I do: I am ready to get this monkey off my back and do something else. Another long trail? Probably not until I retire. This section hiking is challenging. You have to be able to jump from your hourly workout (all I really have time for right now) into 20 mile days, sometimes more. Logistics are a killer. You can spend hours combing the internet for shuttles, for road locations, reading the water report. I am almost at the end of sections that can be hiked in summer heat. Soon all that will remain are the ones that require cooler temperatures. Fires can close your route, and unlike thru-hikers, who can skip ahead, you may have plane tickets for that section only. Once you're there, you can't just hunker down and wait out that rainstorm.

Not that I'm complaining. My PCT hike so far has given me a reason to dream. In the middle of a terrible winter (not enough snow and widespread ice) it gives me hope. While I sit at my computer for work, I can think about the section that is coming up. And when I am done, I can say I walked from Mexico to Canada in entirety.

So what's coming up? In three weeks, Triscuit and I are going to take on one of the more hated sections--Section E, the dreaded LA aqueduct section. In this section, there's a long stretch of flat, enclosed pipe, the channel that sends water to Los Angeles. It is reportedly monotonous and sometimes blazing hot. But I'm not a skipper--I am all in with this PCT thing.

Love. Washington in August 2012.
My summer hike depends on snow. Frighteningly, the section I am thinking about, from Truckee to Chester, is seized by a drought. While that might bode well for a hike in June, I am not so selfish to think that this is a good thing. Without snowpack and spring rain, this area could be ripe for a catastrophic fire season.

The fall signals the possible return of Flash, my erstwhile PCT companion. I think Triscuit and I have her talked into California Section D, home to some intense elevation change and Mount Baden Powell. If all of these hikes go as I hope, I will have only about 250 miles left. We could be looking at a 2019 finish.

As with all monkeys, I am sure I will feel a sense of relief and regret. The PCT has consumed my life for so long that I will feel off balance without it to plan around. I'm not sure that weekend backpacking trips can fill the canyon I am sure I will feel. Luckily, I have 650 miles before I need to find out.

Plenty of people have monkeys on their backs--goals they both crave yet sometimes seem like too much work. Whether it's a sub 3 marathon or 50 hikes in a year, they have some similarities. If you have a monkey on your back, what is it? What do you plan to do when you finally lose that monkey?
the path feels endless, until you come close to the end

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Taking friends to see the country

Finding adventure pals is not always easy, at least not in a town of less than two thousand people. Consider that out of a given population, maybe 50% day hike, but of those, even fewer day hike more than a couple of miles. Then carve that up some more to determine the backpackers. And snowshoers. And cross country skiers. In a bigger mountain town, this might not be a problem. But just like the men who come here optimistically single, then either import or leave, there is a very small pool for finding soulmates.

Every adventure I've taken my friend R on has nearly resulted in disaster. There was the blizzard we faced as we marched to the ski hut, and to top it off, our work up there included tarping an outhouse. Few would maintain cheerful spirits in the face of those obstacles. Another trip nearly resulted in horror when one of her dogs decided to slide down a waterfall. And let's not forget the drive along an exposed single lane dirt 4WD track, with expansive views of the canyon we would catapult into if one wheel left the road. Add in some cowboys with a horse trailer coming in the other way, and I can see why she would never want to go with me again.

Luckily she is resilient and agreed to come snowshoeing with me. Instead of being daunted by the conditions, she enthused about what a great workout it was as we slogged uphill from the ski area. This is extreme snowshoeing at its finest, at least for this area. No easy flat trails here! In fact, we were  making our own trail, ending up at a tiny frozen lake.

Not all adventure pals have been so happy. On occasion I have looked back to see an expression of suffering cross the faces of my companions. This has made me wary of inviting people along. While I like a casual stroll as much as the next person, I tend to want to get to my destination, even if we have to inch along icy logs across a stream or plow through deep snow. I find that women aren't very good at saying when they want to turn around, or if they want the pace to be slower, or even if they want the pace to be faster. I also can feel responsible for conditions--if I drag someone into a mosquito-infested hell and I didn't know about it in advance, I feel bad. Ridiculous, I know. We are all responsible for adjusting our own attitudes.

I try a mixture of both, friends and solo, because sometimes it is easier to only worry about yourself. I can stop when I want, or I can keep going without stopping. I can turn around if I don't like the situation ahead. If mosquitoes make me run screaming, there's nobody to see the tantrum. But at the same time, it's nice to have friends to laugh through some situations. My friend and I still laugh at the muddy conditions we slogged through in 1991 on the Florida Trail. Our friend Chris is long gone, the victim of an aggressive brain tumor, but he had coined the phrase, "Mud sux!" and we still say it to each other. It's also nice to bounce things off of other people: is this really the trail? Where do you think it goes?

This picture of Ruby digging a huge hole has nothing to do with this post. But she's adorable, so there you go.
Even though each outing isn't always perfect, resulting in views and bug-free environs, I'll keep taking friends to see the country. It's almost always worth it. So far, they keep coming back, so I must be doing something right.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Hiking the Florida Trail: the Quest for Hidden Pond

I crashed through the crunchy Florida woods, looking for Hidden Pond. A freaked-out backpacker, fleeing the Florida Trail after a night encounter with two growling bears near his tent, had told me that it was a clear pool of fresh water. I had passed something that looked like that, but it was called "Hidden" Pond, so maybe it was back here, by a cluster of campsites. There was, indeed, a pond, and a man who had been hidden by the palmetto. "The pond's right there," he said, waving a hand. Feeling foolish, I retreated to the original pond. This had to be it.

This is Hidden Pond. But it's not hidden. I don't get it.
It was a great spot for a lunch break after a morning of hiking the Florida Trail. This little known National Scenic Trail (it has this designation only on the federal segments) stretches 1000 miles south to north through the state. Almost anyone who tries to thru hike it gives up because while there are miles of tread, there are also supremely long road walks (think hundreds of miles). In the past, I hiked a small section in the southern end, which was a slog through mud and water. Not all that fun.

But here, in the Ocala National Forest, 66 gorgeous miles are available. You have to adjust your thinking here. There are no majestic views. The scenery is subtle, and only inches of elevation dramatically change the vegetation. There's desert scrub, with a sandy trail; hardwood trees; prairies, and palmetto forests. It would be easy to be bored with the flat terrain, but in the eighteen miles I hiked, I was only fascinated.

Some delicious trail.
The "chilly" winter temperatures---dipping to 20 at night, 60s during the day--meant that few people were around. I saw a handful of backpackers making their way to Hidden Pond, and none at all the next day when I hiked from Farles Prairie. All the same, this trail has a different feel. Perhaps it is the proximity to Orlando (about 50 miles) or the easy access to the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, but it's a place I felt that I had to look over my shoulder a little. I wasn't convinced I would do a long solo backpack trip here. In fact, I was glad I didn't know about this story as I munched a delicious hummus sandwich at Hidden Pond.

Farles Prairie (and you guessed it, another pond)
I had come here early on a work trip, and had found a remote cabin on a sand road to stay in. Sand roads are interesting phenomenons, not to be trifled with, presenting a clear and present danger of being stuck for days on. The cabin bordered a lake, and was an inholding in the forest. It was quiet and peaceful, and I slept better than I have in years (11 hours one night). 

My time in Florida seems like a dream. I was only there for three days, hustled back across the country unceremoniously due to being furloughed in the government shutdown (I was supposed to stay for another week). Did I dream being on the trail? In the end, aren't all good trips like this, almost too good to be true?

Grasshopper Lake, in front of the cabin I stayed in.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Chasing a Fat Bike

January 2018, from the head of the lake
Last year at this time, we were skiing across this lake.
January 2017, from the foot of the lake
Sadly, we are in a somewhat different situation this year. I count on winter as a time to do less running and hiking and, instead, more skiing and snowshoeing. They are different activities that work different muscles, something you have to think about as you pile on decades of athletic endeavors. 

Unfortunately, there's no such break this year. The trails aren't snowy, but they are rivers of ice. Not just "I can wear microspikes and be OK" ice, but thick, slippery, "I might fall and break something" ice. Desperate to avoid the treadmill, I have been trying to run creatively. Endless loops around the campground, with the state park workers looking on in bemusement, crunching through snow on the moraine....none of it is fast. I'm glad I don't care about my time anymore. I'm just glad I can still run.

Another day I decided to "chase the fat bike." It's a good incentive to keep going up the hills, because sometimes I can keep up and even pass the bike. Sometimes I can't.  The bike can smoke me on the downhills, but sometimes on the flats I stand a chance. It all comes down to footing. On this occasion, the snowmobile club had groomed the canal road, and the conditions were outstanding.

There was just the crunch of my shoes on the corduroy as I climbed the hills. There were also occasional stops as I ran into a friend skate skiing and several friends snowshoeing. Those caused delays in my quest, but I usually managed to catch up. It was one of those times when I remembered why I like to run--the stars aligned for a pain free, lighter than air run.

Eventually I turned around and went down to the ski area to do a shuttle for the fat bike. With the sun beating on the deck, it felt like summer. Which is both scary and wrong, but in the moment, I appreciated it greatly.

I believe this one of the first descents of the ski area on fat bike.

People keep saying the snow will come, but they also say that there is greenup in the canyon. It is way too warm for January. This could mean a smoky summer for us. In seasons past, February and March have been the snowiest months of all. We will wait for snow. In the meantime, I'll incorporate chasing a fat bike as part of my training regimen.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Whatever melts your butter

I read the email from the Park Service with interest. What?! Since we had less hikers than I had paid for, I now have a Grand Canyon hiker credit, that must be used by December 26, 2018. Yippee!

Immediately I started thinking. For GC backcountry permits, you can start applying four months in advance of your hike. Woe be to the fool who waits a longer time than that. The permits go fast. They are now working on May. Since nobody with an ounce of sanity really should be hiking in the inner canyon, especially the Tonto, in the summer months, that leaves October, November and December.

Hmm, I thought. Clear Creek? The Gems? Then: whoa there, partner! You just got back from a trip! What's the matter with you? Then I's Adventure Mania. This happens when I get back from one trip and am not quite ready to give in to the inevitable of real life. I want to always be on vacation!

The only way to prevent adventure mania when you really can't give in to it is to do smaller, local trips. They aren't as fulfilling, because at the end of the day you come home to chores and work. But it's better than nothing. I have never been one to not go on a trip, even if it's expensive, even if it means time off work, even if. Who knows how much longer we all have on this revolving sphere? You need to do what "melts your butter," as my former fire management officer would say (another saying is "whatever blows up your skirt"). For me, there are many reasons to stay home, but I know that won't make me a very happy person.

With that in mind, we ventured down to the Imnaha for a day hike. The hike is one I have done many times but it never fails to impress. The two rivers--the Snake and the Imnaha--flow together as they have done for centuries. It is a magical place.

The sweet 12 year old. He has recovered from his cancer surgery well!
Even the drive down to the trailhead, as slow and awful as it is (it takes an hour to drive 11 miles) was worth it.

Passing over a new landslide in this dynamic environment, we easily trekked the four mostly level miles to the confluence. We should have brought a tent, we agreed, since the temperature was in the forties--sort of unheard of this time of year.

Reluctantly we had to head back immediately, since the forecast called for rain. On these clay roads, if it rains, you can be stuck for days until it dries out. Since we didn't have any snacks, that didn't seem like a good idea.

The next day we geared up for the unknown. Up at Salt Creek, the snow might be OK or it might not (spoiler alert: it wasn't). "Why can't we be people who like to sit on the couch, watch TV, and eat chips?" I groused as I packed in snowshoe, ski, and hiking paraphrenalia. "Well, we like eating chips," J said. (Truth be told: some of these winter nights I have thought a TV might be nice. But I always talk myself out of it)

The snow was a miserable crust. Skiing was out of the question. I struggled with snowshoes, sinking in with each step; not sinking in to powder, but through a crunchy crust that required a slow motion pace. After an hour and a half, I gave up. Adventure isn't always fun. I'm never sorry I went outside though. It "melts my butter".

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

once again below the rim: Backpacking the Grand Canyon, Hermit Rapids to Bright Angel

I followed three men into the Grand Canyon. "When did I get to be old?" Camel asked, echoing my thoughts. "I bet you ran down this years ago," he added. He would have been right. Now I pick my way through the rolling pebbles and lean on my trekking poles as I descend the drops between the rocks. Still, I am doing this. I am back in the Canyon for the tenth time, and, unlike me, the experience never gets old.

Our itinerary isn't too ambitious: 42 miles in four nights, but as always, the canyon miles come harder than others. The trek from the Tonto trail junction down to Hermit Rapids is far rougher than I remember, and the beach itself has been invaded by willow, a far different story than when I was here last. We stumble into camp in time to see some Canadians take on the rapids. They have 18 days on the river, and as we settle into our camps, falling asleep to the roar of the water, it's hard not to wish we had longer, too.

Granite Rapids camp
We have hit a mysterious warm spell in the canyon, with no ice or snow to navigate at the trailhead, and although the evenings drop into the thirties, the daytime temperatures soar enough to allow for a hiking December. We hike back up the Hermit canyon to the Tonto trail, taking it across and back down to our next camp at Granite Rapids. There are few people on this section of trail, and we have the river mostly to ourselves. A shooting star blazes across a full-moon sky. How lucky we are, I think. 

My happy place: The Tonto trail
My trail companions are as mesmerized as I am. Blue Dot speaks of growing up in India, where people walk for a purpose. Just going for a hike like this is mostly unheard of. Even Camel and Good Stuff, who have been here before, recline in their folding chairs ("only a pound," they defend their choice of burden) and take in the interplay of water, rock and sand. 

On the third day, we slog back up the gravelly wash to the Tonto and ten miles east to Horn Creek. Only one party per night is allowed to camp there, and the silence is absolute. A small creek, said to be radioactive from a long-abandoned mine near the rim, trickles below our tents. Tempting fate, we drink from it anyway. This is not what we will die from, we tell ourselves.

As we reach Indian Garden campground on Day 4, the solitude and peacefulness is broken. Ninety people share the Bright Angel campground with us. Disregarding the warnings not to hike to the river and back in one day, hordes of day hikers, some in designer jeans, take it on. At first, I am tempted to veer off onto the East Tonto instead, but then I decide to embrace the experience. This is "glamping" at its finest: flush toilets and wine at the Phantom Ranch cantina. I lie on Boat Beach until the sun fades; it is nearly seventy degrees.

On the last day of the year we pack up and head out. Good Stuff has claimed that I will bolt for the rim, because I always do; I have said I won't, but in the end I can't resist. I come upon a man in jeans, who starts running when he sees me, reluctant to let me pass. Game on, buddy! I think, and he is forced to concede (sorry, you can hike faster than me and I will let you go, but running so a woman doesn't pass you isn't cool). I climb nine miles and five thousand feet in four hours; I want to know if I still can. Like all good trail companions, we have allowed each other the freedom on this hike to go solo for a few hours if we choose. I savor this. People who get it are hard to find.

I have thought that this, my tenth time in the canyon, might be enough. I am tired of the Corridor crowds, and I have beaten a path between Hermit and Indian Garden several times. What remains are the harder, more remote trails: Tanner, New Hance, South Bass. I am not great on the slippery downhill, and am not sure if I want to attempt these. But as I arrive on the rim, I know that I am probably not done with the canyon. Not yet.