Saturday, July 31, 2010

two worlds

I stand with a foot in both worlds. There is the regular world, where I go to work,to the grocery store, to the post office, to the pub to listen to music. In this world I stay between the lines.

Then there is the other world, the wilderness. This is my escape. I hike for as long as I feel like. I jump into lakes. I set up my tent where I want to. I eat trail mix for dinner, if I feel like it. I don't brush my hair. I sit on white rock slabs and howl at the moon.

It sometimes gets difficult to transition between the two. For a day or two there is a limbo, a feeling of weightlessness as I fall back into each one. The first day back in the regular world, I pace, staring out at the mountains. I dream of the clear green water of the Lostine river. I count the days until I can go back out again.

It is the same when I go out to the wilderness. The first day, it is hard to let go. It is hard to give in to the rythym of the woods, to just sit and let the mountains soak into me. I fret about my unkempt appearance. I choose a campsite, and then think maybe I should have hiked farther. I lie sleepless, kept awake by running water.

After a while I give in to the tug of the current. At home, I stack firewood. I clean the house. I listen to people complain about their lot in life and why the Forest Service is responsible. In the mountains, I go feral, my clothes covered in sweat and dirt, happily trudging down a trail with no concept of time.

I can't live in either world full time. Although I marvel at the ornate apartments on Portland's waterfront and wonder about a life lived downtown, I would be suffocated by the reality. And I am not a hermit either, living back in the bush with only a dog for company. Even four months on the Appalachian Trail would probably be too much for me; it would turn something I enjoy into a mindless march towards a goal.

I wonder how many people juggle these two worlds. Is a backpacking trip just an extension of their lives, or is it, like it is for me, a slipping behind a curtain into another place entirely?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I live in a postcard

I spent this week in the Lakes Basin. A series of shimmering lakes, aurrounded by mountains, it is almost too pretty to be real. I set my tent up on a long rock slab next to a tiny pothole lake with no name. In the evenings I walked out to the cliff edge and looked down on Moccasin Lake far below. A three quarter moon peeked over the shoulder of Eagle Cap mountain. Snow still lingered on the passes. The hordes of visitors inexplicably were absent.

We were doing some trail work (catch dams, rock waterbars) and restoration of braided trails. It was bittersweet to see the young wilderness ranger women, because it reminded me of a simpler time when that was my seasonal job, when all I owned fit in a pickup and possibilities were endless.

For a brief moment, I envied them. Twenty-five, paid to hike all day, no worries about bad knees, wrinkles, the fear of taking leaps. The envy didn't last long, though(except for the wrinkles part). I couldn't stop smiling, even through a cloud of mosquitoes. I live in a postcard!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Just breathe

In the midst of chaos, people show their true colors. The people who were mean before our building burnt down are meaner. The ones who were demanding are even more so. The ones who can be counted upon had set up shop already, the first day, without waiting to be told what to do.

It's been a challenging week. People yapping about how they need air conditioning and want you to drop everything to get it. People moaning about their lot in life. Others totally flustered, wanting their hands held.

So I've been hiking. A lot. Because that is what works. I used to be a runner. I still run sometimes, but cranky knees from too many miles have reduced me to a handful of trail runs. I used to be a sea kayaker, but there is no sea for miles. Thankfully, there are miles and miles of trails. It is a smorgasboard of snow, alpine lakes and churning rivers. Here are a few pictures.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Well, I haven't posted here in awhile because on Sunday our forest service building burned down. It is a sick feeling watching flames in the broken-out windows, knowing that all your professional life is burning up. College transcripts, firefighting certificates and taskbooks starting back in the eighties, my favorite national award, books, files, and much more.

I think back to the many times I fumed against being in the office. I probably would still feel that way, but I actually miss the building now. There is talk about bringing in modulars for at least a year. We'll be highly paid trailer trash.

There's all sorts of official ATF and FBI guys running around. It's hard for me to believe that someone would hate the agency enough to burn down the building. But just reading the rants about wolves in the paper shows me how irrational some people can be.

The silver lining is that I have been able to ignore the email and phone, because we don't have any, and go to the field. The high country is opening up, and it is fabulous.

Friday, July 9, 2010

these sunny days

The trick to being happy, I think, is not taking things for granted. After that, it is a slippery slide toward boredom and dissatisfaction. The truth is, after you have been without something for a long time, possessing it is simply delicious. The trick then is to recall that feeling, even as the newness wears off.

For example, take the sun. It was rare and mystical in Southeast Alaska. When it appeared, often without warning, we were seized with a type of mania. It became a fever of activity. Desks were abandoned, plans thrown aside. Kayak! Hike! Camp! Swim! It was a free-for-all because we knew that at any moment we might be plunged into weeks of rainy gloom. Shorts? Occasional. Sunscreen? I kept the same bottle for seven years. Sunglasses? Never knew where they were.

Here I wake to a brilliant sun, peeking in through the windows and painting the logs of my cabin a honey brown. The sun just won't go away: it is persistent, lazily rolling across the sky. Come out, it whispers.

I float in Wallowa Lake, breathless cold below, warm heat above. Is there anything more wonderful than a mountain lake in the summer sun? For years I dreamed of finally being warm, of shedding the smartwool layer that was omnipresent. Of walking out the door in short sleeves and sandals, the rain jacket left behind.

It's like anything you have wished for and finally get. Love. Freedom. Even sun. You get a little crazy. I am drunk with sun.

I float in an abundance of sun. My starved Alaska skin browns. Below me the water is deep and cold, this lake scooped out by a passing glacier. The mountains shimmer.

I don't need anything else. This is what I want to remember.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Beautiful Ruby

It's important to be flexible. I was dying for a backpack trip after a week ensconced in a stuffy conference room, learning about bilateral modifications and fixed price contracts. But Rex called and he had a plan. Climb Ruby Peak with him, his wife, two other friends, their dog Pete, and of course Jerry.

How could I resist? Ruby Peak is the mountain that looms above town. It is how we judge the passing of the seasons, by squinting up at the snow draped over its shoulders. It is where we see the moon appear and the rosy blush of alpenglow.

We set out from Lime Quarry road, straight up a trail that switchbacked and wound around to Murray Gap, a wide saddle that overlooks Silver Creek Basin and beyond. From there the scrambling began, sidehilling through Grape-Nut consistency talus, up and over craggy outcrops, over snowfields, until we reached the summit, three hours and change later. It is a small spot, rocky and unprepossessing, but the view was breathtaking: snowy peaks marching away to the horizon, the meadows far below, a lonely frozen lake with no name. At nearly nine thousand feet, it felt like I could touch the sky.

It's a big downside of day hikes that sooner or later you have to turn around, and we did, taking an alternate route back to the Gap that involved sliding down snowfields and walking along the old ditch bank (built in 1907, it still supplies water for irrigation far below). We passed a campsite so beautiful that it would have almost been worth running down to get sleeping bags--nearby a crystal clear swimming hole beckoned. But march on we did, arriving at the truck after six hours of hiking.

We stood and looked back at the peak. It seemed impossible that we had been so high, just a few hours earlier.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

excuse me, but I think I know you

We stood in the hallway, making small talk. It was the last day of a mind-numbing class, the kind where you exit with a five-pound binder and a spinning brain. We talked a little bit about my move from Alaska. Then I asked him, "How long have you lived here?"

"Nine years," he said.

"That's a long time."

We looked at each other. There was that spark of recognition, when you meet a kindred soul.

"You have it too," he said. "The wanderlust."

I barely exchanged a dozen words with this man, but he could see it in me, and I could see it in him. There are still some of us out there, floating like planets.

For me it happened after college, when I was searching for meaning and a place to belong. I took seasonal jobs with the Park Service, loading up my Chevette with the few belongings I needed. Every six months I hit the highway, the interstates flowing through the country like rivers, delivering me to a new place. I loved almost everything about it, and still do: the first moment when your new home appears, the unknown range of mountains, the uncharted valleys. It's a little bit like falling in love: it all seems so perfect, so new, so unblemished.

But then something happens. You get old. Thirty, forty, beyond. It gets harder to pull up stakes, to leave people behind, to seek out new friends. Sometimes you want to be comfortable. To know what is beyond that ridge. To belong.

It's a dilemma I cannot resolve, a balance beam that I dance along by moving now every five to seven years. But sometimes that is not enough time for either thing. Not enough time to see everything in one place. Not enough time left to see everything else. And let's be honest here. To really be a wanderer means typically traveling alone. Inconveniently, you usually fall in love with someone who likes to stay put.

I've almost been here a year, nearly four seasons. My rambling days, I suspect, are far from over. But there is still plenty to discover. I haven't climbed Ruby Peak yet. The Minam River country is still a mystery. I can put it off for awhile longer.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

lost in the city

The older I get, the less able I am to tolerate certain things. Boring meetings. People who don't know what they want. And cities.

A lot of my friends LOVE cities. So much good food! Diversity of people! Music! Trader Joes! I agree it is good to blast out of your bubble once in a while. It's easy to float around in a self-absorbed haze, thinking superiorly that your place is the best in the world and the rest of the people are pitiful saps because they don't live there. Guilty of this? Yes! (raises hand)

I've lived in morose ranching towns, on islands, in deserts and in rainforests. I like to think I've sampled a good cross section of the country. Each place had its own merits. Even the sad town in Eastern Oregon where I lived for a forgettable five years was nearby a huge basalt mountain that rose to nearly ten thousand feet, delicate flowers on its spine found only on that mountain, nowhere else. Carlsbad Caverns had its bat flight, a spiral of mexican freetails like smoke, curling out of the yawning cave mouth. The silent little corner of Nevada where I spent part of a year had great wrinkled canyons and wild horse herds, seen from five thousand feet in Bill's Super Cub. I left each place with a little piece of myself gone, left forever on the trails, in the caves and on the shores.

Six nights in Seattle, though, and I am ready to flee. Too many people, not enough trees. I don't have stillettos in my wardrobe, unlike most of the women clomping down the halls of this hotel. I'm not knocking it, really. I'm sure to the people who live here, it is a wonderful place. They probably would drive through my town and shudder in horror.

And that's a good thing. We'll just make a pact, the city and me. I'll come visit once in a blue moon. I'll seek out the friends I have here. I'll venture in a Mountain Hardwear store, and watch TV for the first time in forever. Then I'll go home, before we both wear out our welcomes.