Sunday, April 29, 2018

My short-lived modeling career

 This will surprise exactly nobody, but I don't really shop. The clothes I buy are multi-taskers. The pants can be used for hiking but also in an office, should I need to travel to one. My dresses are all the "outdoors" type (even my wedding dress was a "beach dress"). So I don't really spend time perusing catalogs, but when I do, I notice that all the women in them seem to be about 20 years old and weigh about a hundred pounds.

I get that the companies have a product to sell. Maybe if you buy this, you will look like this! Does anyone really fall for this? I don't know. But when a clothing company came to town, wanting "models of all ages and sizes", I decided to test them out. Did they really mean it? I looked them up online, and they appeared to mostly have young women and kids, not a woman over forty to be seen. In an uncharacteristic move, I sent them my picture. To my surprise, they told me they wanted me to show up to their casting call.

Casting call? I cringed. Would I be lined up with flawless others, scrutinized to see if I passed? But in the end I couldn't resist. Represent for the older ladies! I showed up.

In the end there was only me...and a sea of moms with kids! Very, very dressed up kids. Their shot at fame, perhaps? The kids had to be measured, but thankfully I didn't. We all lined up with little flash cards with our names on them, so "they'd remember who we were". Then we were dismissed.

Feeling a bit foolish, I went about my normal life. Two days later, I was on a plane to Alaska when I got an email: "We'd like you to show up at 7:30 tomorrow for a photo shoot. And can you bring your dog?" Well, darn! The catalog people hadn't mentioned their timeline when I had showed up. I had assumed I hadn't been picked. Regardless, I would have to decline.

I'll never know if they just photographed everyone that showed up, and then weeded out the old or the unsuitable, or if I really would have been in the catalog. There went our chance, Ruby's and mine, I thought. I was disappointed, not because of being in a catalog, which seems like a silly goal to have, but because just maybe they would have featured someone beyond their norm. I have been called out, even on this blog, for calling myself old and for caring that people have a stereotype of older people. But how are we supposed to "age gracefully" when older people are pretty much invisible? I had been looking forward to see if this company would actually use pictures of someone who wasn't twenty years old. Now I'll never know.
Here's the real model in the family.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Type II fun on the Davis-Swamp Creek loop

You've probably heard about the three kinds of fun. If you haven't, this article explains it pretty well.

In retrospect, going backpacking when I hadn't been able to keep any food down for 24 hours probably wasn't the best idea. But I am always in firm denial over being sick, since it happens so rarely. Plus, several friends were going! And it was going to be sixty degrees! So I ate a banana and hoped for the best.

There's really few options for backpacking this time of year. The Wallowas are shrouded in snow. Hells Canyon has few options that don't involve poison ivy or a super long drive. We landed on the Davis-Swamp Creek loop, a route of either 14 or 16 miles depending on who you ask (or how long you get lost--foreshadowing). I had day hiked this loop once years ago, so I knew that there was a steep descent followed by a steep climb followed by a steep descent, then a fairly level path along a creek. It's not particularly scenic, being in the bottom of a canyon, but peaceful, with big trees and nice water.

Pic by T. I was too busy trying to survive feeling bonky.
Though I felt like I was operating at a lower level than usual, I managed to keep up as we descended into Davis Creek and climbed up Starvation Ridge. A few ticks tried to hitch a ride, though luckily those were the only ones we discovered on the hike. A chilly breeze made me regret the idea of wearing a skirt. It wasn't quite summer, not yet.



As we traversed Swamp Creek, we came upon several cattle fences. The person who built these had an obvious desire to keep other people out. Some of the gates were so tight that we were forced to crawl underneath them. At one such area, the trail disappeared, but it looked like we were supposed to cross the creek. I hesitated. I didn't remember this, but it had been several years since I had hiked the "trail", so maybe I was wrong. Disregarding the sense of unease that usually prompts me to speak up, I joined the group in crossing near-freezing water. 

On the other side, we floundered looking for trail signs until it became obvious there was no trail there. Back across the freezing creek and scouting the other side, until we finally picked up an extremely well-used trail. How had we missed it? We didn't know, but we had spent an hour wandering among prickly bushes, so we had to pick up the pace to reach camp.

Once we reached our intended destination, the confluence of the two creeks, our hearts sank. Cows! Why were they in here so early? Camping with cows is not fun. Retreat! We had to leave the nice meadow (actually, not so nice now that cows have been in there), crawl under another fence, and pick a flat spot nearby. Our evening was punctuated with bellows from bovines. Mine was also punctuated with anger at myself--I had brought the wrong tent poles for my tent, a rookie mistake! I was somewhat proud of my unstable result, though.

Poles for a one person tent used on a two person, plus some help with poles
I had cautiously eaten only a packet of tuna and a slice of homemade cold pizza all day, and that night my throat burned with indigestion. Obviously whatever plagued me wasn't over yet. Sleepless, I listened to the carefree snores of camp mates and contemplated the next day's cold start (the water in the dog's bowl froze solid).

And cold it was. The cows fled at our shrieks as we negotiated two icy river crossings.  "My feet, my feet," I moaned as I hobbled across a frosty meadow on blocks of ice. After some time, they warmed up, but the effects of not eating for a couple of days were beginning to take their toll. I concentrated on my chatty hiking partner's tales of adventure and made myself keep going. Just one more mile, albeit steep, before we got out.

I had somehow foolishly volunteered to drive, so after cramming a wet dog, four backpacks, and four people into a Nissan Xterra, we headed for town, while all I could think about was a nap. Even the thought of chocolate was revolting, so I knew I had been really sick. (Whatever it was mysteriously vanished a day later.)

Type II fun at its finest, but now that I look back....it really was kind of fun. Minus feeling sick, of course. That's Type III at least.


The dog only has one type of fun. It's all fun!




Thursday, April 19, 2018

The evolution of a runner

They say that you can improve for ten years once you start running. Does that mean that I peaked at 24?
I'm sure that's not true for everyone, but I did have semi-impressive times at that age. It would be easy to sit around and moan about how much slower I have become, but I'd rather look at it as an evolution.

The other day, with fear in my heart, I ventured down to Devil's Gulch. I say fear because the trail has grown exceedingly brushy, enough so that if you don't wear pants, you regret it mightily. You also have to search for the trail, ending up high and dry on a scree slope, bushwhacking down through willows, or else on a precarious ledge above the creek. Also, once a dog I was with got bitten by a rattlesnake. (It should be noted that dogs aren't allowed on this trail. We didn't see the sign saying so, so we became part of the problem. However, it is also a reason I don't run it much, because I want my running buddy with me.)

Views on a run
Trails that are relatively flat, and by this I mean those that don't shoot straight up to the sky, studded with trippy rocks and logs to hurl yourself over, are very rare in these parts. I think that's why I don't enjoy running like I used to. You can't ever just let go. You are always on the verge of a potentially painful face plant.

But I was pleased to discover that trail work has taken place in Devils Gulch (here is where I make the obligatory plug to join a trail work party if you use trails. Please. I've done my share, I feel, but I will also do more in the future). I was able to (sort of) speed along, and wear shorts! Winning!

Look! Almost flat trail! The holy grail.

As I ran at a pace that I would have been horrified to admit to in my 20s, I thought about how my relationship with running has changed. I used to train intensely, and unwisely, because there were few instructions out there. Run at two minutes slower than your marathon pace? Take rest days? Unheard of! I hurtled along at the fastest pace I could at all times. Races were always intense. Back then, most people were pretty fast. There was no real back of the pack, recreational runner. You went all out. A pace of seven, or even sometimes six, minute miles wasn't enough to garner an age group place, much less win.

As the decades piled on, I ran, but stopped racing, with the exception of a few select races. The Steens Rim Run, where you ran up to 10,000 feet. Avenue of the Giants. A marathon on Prince of Wales Island, where there were only 40 participants. It became about quality, not quantity.

After knee surgery, I stopped racing and quit pavement. I took to trails exclusively. Running became more about the experience than the time. It was freeing to just run without looking at a watch, without having to "train".

Then, two years ago, I got a puppy. The puppy needed exercise. My runs became more like training the puppy and less about me. I (GASP) stopped during runs to call her, or to have her sit when other people went by. I had to pick less popular places, becoming less choosy about where I was able to run. Up a really steep muddy road? Floundering in the snow? OK!

Now that Ruby has become a *pretty good girl* on the trails, I am back to mostly enjoying blissful, stress-free runs (except for that pesky face-plant thing).  Back in the day, I would never have walked during a run, even through treacherous sections. Now I do. I stop and take pictures, sometimes!

I think I look dorky, but I had to show how strong the wind was, blowing my hair out like a flag.
Even if it's not "real running", I am so much happier with it now than I was then. I feel like when your life is really structured, like 40-60 hours of my week is, it's nice to let go of pace and time. I like how my running has evolved.

I finished my non-brushy, non-getting-lost, non-snaky run feeling accomplished. Maybe not as accomplished as finishing a race and getting a trophy, but almost. Who needs more trophies anyway? I don't have the room for them. I'd rather just run. RYOR, run your own run.

Has anything you've done for a long time evolved?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

North to Alaska, again

I feel different in Alaska. It's hard to explain and makes no rational sense, but I do. Returning nine years after I left, the time in between vanishes. In the humid, rainy air, my hair curls up. My skin drinks in the rain. I love Southeast Alaska so much.

Volcano! 
But I don't think I could live here again. As I ran down the same trails I used to run back then, I thought about how life is somewhat compressed on an island, even one this large. We used to backpack, but backpacking meant treacherous off trail travel, hours to a mile, and the threat of large bears always present. You can't just stroll along obliviously plotting a novel. Even running on trails near town, I was deeply aware of the brown bears. As I walked solo among the alders on a familiar trail, I thought uneasily that one could pop out of the bushes at any time.

Very windy at Heart Lake
If I lived here again, I would have to take to the water. Kayak camping is where it's at, not foot travel. It's still sometimes hard for me to believe that for seven years, I was a wilderness kayak ranger, traveling through remote bays and through the Gulf of Alaska. As my friend Helga and I hiked along this week, we shrugged as we tried to catch up with each other in the year since we had last been together. Nothing really came to mind as being epic. 

I caught myself feeling a little sad, nostalgic for the times that I flew in floatplanes, traveled around the Interior fighting fire. Was my life now....boring? Possibly, compared to back then. But there are tradeoffs to everything. It had all seemed so..normal. But it really was extraordinary.

The wilderness kayak trips, the landing on remote lakes with floatplanes, the dip of a paddle: I got to have that, even though it's over.


I was there for work, so many trails remained unhiked, friends unseen. I ran some of our old trails, marveling at how easy it is to run at sea level. Nine years have gone by so quickly. Two friends are gone from cancer. Others have split up or left. But a surprising amount of people remain: lifers. I wasn't one of them-I fled for the sun, and it's been a good choice, even though perhaps less exciting. I watched my friends gather up their rifles for gun practice at the rifle range. The guns are required: every work party that goes out has to have a rifle bearer. I don't miss the bears walking by my tent. I don't really miss that thin line between life and death. But the ocean: I miss the ocean.

A really interesting conglomeration of a house steps from the ocean. Also, a boat. Everyone has a boat.

In the end, it was good to go back home, where I have so much country to move around in. It's also good to have extraordinary times to look back on.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

What's your life?

It's not the best thing to hear as you arrive late at Fergi Fest, the annual end of the year ski hill celebration:

"Your husband is lucky to be alive."

That darn lawn chair race.

I'm sure the slide under the vehicle looked worse than it was, and a bunch of doctors came running out to make sure J was all right (he was. And he won the lawn chair race).

As is usual at Fergi Fest, there are a lot of dogs running around, people skiing in costumes, and a band. Someone always gets their car stuck in the parking lot. A bunch of feral children run around all night.
A previous year's lawn chair race. The chair just has to be on skis.
The same group of people always dance. It's always the same, and it's nice that it is.

Later, a random drunk guy started following me around. I thought I had aged out of this situation, but apparently not. After learning my name, he slurred:

"Mary Ellen, what's your life?"

Without thinking, I said, "the outdoors."

Though I escaped the drunk guy, I thought about that for the rest of the night. What is your life?  We don't ask people that. We ask them what they do for work, or if they have kids. But what is the most important thing? What is your life about?  I liked that I didn't say, "Work." Or, even worse,  "Um..."

Without thinking, what is the first thing you would say?


Monday, April 2, 2018

the weekend I was brave*

*just kidding. It was a normal weekend for me.

I dream of the day that a man on the trail won't express surprise that I am hiking solo. I dream of the day that he won't then say, "Wow, that's brave."

Friday was not that day.

Five miles into the Wenaha River Trail, my luck ran out and I encountered one of Them. The ones who don't get it (he was nice, otherwise).

I've been hearing this from men, mostly middle-aged ones, since I started hiking solo at 18. That was a long, long time ago. Men: just don't.

Despite this, other things have changed in the Wenaha River canyon. The Grizzly fire of 2015 roared through here, and places that were safe to camp aren't anymore due to dead, burnt trees (but people are camping there obliviously anyway). The biggest change, though, was that the bridge over Crooked Creek, six miles in from the trailhead, was destroyed in the fire. It takes forever to build a new wilderness bridge. First, engineers need to schlep in and take measurements and make drawings. Then an environmental analysis has to be done (why, it is unclear, since the bridge has been there forever). Finally, money has to be found. It could be years before there's a bridge. This has changed use a lot in this canyon. People post up here, six miles in, and give up. Or they hike up what used to be a little-used trail that parallels the creek and camp up there.
Views are a lot more open now.
In wilderness, bridges are allowed if the river crossing is unsafe for the majority of the main use season or if people fording will cause resource damage. The main use season for the Wenaha-Tucannon is spring and fall. In summer, the place becomes a roasting snake pit (I have never seen more snakes than I have here).

I approached the river cautiously. A man on the trail (the same one who expressed shock and awe) said he tried to cross and lost his trekking poles. Other people were crossing, but a glance at the swift current was enough for me to decide that it wasn't worth a few more miles. I would camp right here.

A few early flowers.
Sometimes, a short overnight hike is all you need. My pack weighed 17 pounds, even with such luxuries as a camp stove, down pants, and a Kindle. I found a sunny bar (in case you didn't know, you don't dare call a river beach a "beach." It's a bar) and pitched my tent. There was time to wander up the Crooked Creek trail a mile or so, to read a book, and to second guess the decision to cross the creek (deciding again that it was a Nope).

Other people streamed by, off to parts unknown. Crossing the river? Maybe. A guy hiked out with huge elk horns strapped to his pack (horn hunting. It's a thing). The night was full of river sounds. I wasn't afraid, not one bit. This is normal to me. Not brave. Not unusual.

The next day more people were going in as I was headed out. Some runners thumped by, though the trail seems a bit rocky in places for safety. One of them said, "Heading out? You did it! High five!"

It's a six mile hike, not a trip to the moon.

Amazingly, I reached my car alive, the height of bravery.