Sunday, October 31, 2010

The writing retreat chronicles, part 2

Whenever you get a group of women in a house together, there will be a few givens.

Someone won't eat wheat.
Someone won't eat carbs.
Someone won't eat after a certain time of day.
And nobody will admit to eating sugar.

Fall on the Imnaha is a sweet time, when the apples fall slowly from the trees, the leaves fall  in a golden halo and the days blend into each other in a timeless flow. Every day I walked or ran up the Freezeout road, past the empty houses of the part-timers, past the pelton wheel that no longer runs, beyond the place where the road washed out in the spring snows. The house dreams by the river, across a wild swinging bridge and nestled below the canyon walls. On the first day it rained and snow frosted the canyon rims far above.

Every day each of us padded into the kitchen to make our tea, or our cereal, or our steel cut oats, and padded back to our chosen places to write. I wrote in my room at a tray table, looking out over the river. In the evenings we all stirred, stoked the fire, and read what we had written that day. At first it was difficult to let go of the tug of home, hard to plunge into pages we had not seen in months. But after a day or two the dams burst and we wrote.

A week of no internet, no cell phones. Anything could have happened in the real world. We were in a cocoon, a lazily spun web where time stretched and expanded. Driving back "up top" I was propelled back into the world of work, terrorists in Yemen and chores. My heart stayed on the Imnaha.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

the writing retreat chronicles

My friend Ken likes to tease me about my packing anxiety. What I do is, I throw a bunch of stuff into a suitcase. Then I paw through the suitcase removing items and replacing them with others. Sometimes I even replace suitcases. I fret over what I have and don't have. Should I bring warmer clothes? Rain gear? For the love of god, which shoes???

I am currently packing for a writer retreat on the Imnaha. I've never been to one before. I've rented cabins by myself, but never shared a house with other writers. I'm used to my own lackadasical writing schedule: Get up. Run. Shower. Eat cereal. Talk to self while typing maniaically. Go for a walk. Write write write. Eat. In many disturbing ways I am finding myself to be a creature of habit. How will five women share one bathroom? Where will we all write? And the most fear-inducing of all, what if nothing I write will be any good?

I confess: I really do not plan to work at a desk for 15 more years. Not that I harbor any grandiose dreams of being able to write full time. I've heard the depressing statistics: something like 5% of authors can. (Darn it, why didn't I come up with the Twighlight series?) But to be able to write half-time, with a job on the side-now that is attainable. Maybe. If I have the nerve.

With every leap of faith--marriage, a steep hike, quitting your job--is the very real possibility of failure. Your marriage can crash and burn. Your knees can go out. You can realize that you aren't a very good writer after all.

I haven't regretted any of the wilderness trips I've taken, even with the charging bear, the mountain lion in my camp, the long slogs with seventy pounds. The marriage--well, let's call that a draw. I want to summon up that courage with writing too.

Just as soon as I repack.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Until we run out of road

 I loved the seasonal life. Until I didn't.

As a seasonal, I had ready-made friends. Because we all worked at the national park and lived there too, there was none of that uneasy, awkward getting to know you stage. We all liked to hike. We loved hot springs. We were up for anything that involved being outside: canoeing down the Shark River, laying our sleeping bags out to watch meteor showers, going for long trail runs. We talked about what kayaks to buy, where to spend our winters, and things we had seen on our last hitch. We all agreed fervently on one thing: we would never, ever work in an office.

Because we all saw them when we trooped in, sweaty and covered in dirt to fill out our timesheets. There they were, the office people, tapping away at computers. We felt sorry for them, these ancient drones who sat pasty-faced under the florescents, surrounded by stacks of papers. We didn't know what they actually did all day, but we were pretty sure we wouldn't like it.

The seasonal life was a good one. It taught me how to say goodbye. It taught me how to hang on to the gossamer thread of friendships separated by mountain ranges. It taught me what kind of love was worth returning for and which wasn't. It taught me how to drive cross country solo in an iffy car in snowstorms. It taught me that I could learn to do something new: run a swamp buggy, crawl into a cave, fight fire.

There comes a time when the seasonal life loses its luster, when you start worrying about the lack of health insurance and retirement benefits, when you get tired of saying goodbye, when you want to have a bed and a room of your own. That is when you start making bargains, when the desk looms.

I have a co-worker who is getting ready to pull the plug. Thirty-three years with the outfit, and she is done. I sit at my desk and wonder. Due to the arbitrary rules of the government, I am unable to buy back any of the seven years I worked as a seasonal after 1989. In order to receive my full, not-so-hefty retirement, I would have to work another fifteen years or so. If I had stayed in full-time firefighting, I would have only four. But I didn't, choosing instead to work in the wilderness.

Fifteen more years. As much as some parts of my job are wonderful (paid backpacking!) any job that requires you to give up forty hours of your life a week seems like too much. This probably seems like self-indulgent whining to the generation before me, which grimly put in its time because that is what you did. You didn't sit all self-absorbed at a computer, wondering what you wanted to be when you grew up.

Fifteen more years. There has to be something else out there, some way to live in a place you love, and really experience that place instead of trying to carve out time between meetings and conference calls. To live like a seasonal again but without worrying about your dental bill. I hope I find it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Socks and the City

I've just returned from a sprint visit to Washington DC for the National Wilderness Awards. I try to like DC, I do, because I hate to think that I am settling into a superior narrow-mindedness, one of those people who proclaim incessantly about how great their chosen town is and how they could never, ever live anywhere else. So there's this: I had some outstanding meals. The Mall is pretty cool. And I like the energy. There are lots of runners. And bikers. And walkers. I also learned a few things from my trip, so read on.

1. It is entirely possible to get lost in a building. In my case, the Agriculture behemoth, which has wings up the wazoo, a basement,a secret tunnel to the Whitten Building, a post office a supply store, cafeterias, lots of mysterious "Door Blocked From This Side" rooms, and no exits. I clomped along in my business attire feeling panicked and ridiculous, before I finally saw freedom.

2. Apparently, pants tucked into jeans are popular. I remember this trend when it came around the first time. I'm not sure it looks that great this time either.

3. DC women must have a high pain tolerance. There they were in spike heels, tip-tapping down the pavement. After a day of blisters I committed the ultimate faux pas: socks and tennis shoes with a skirt.

4. If you go in a federal building, you must show your ID a billion times, and the security guards aren't kidding around. Some spectators came for the ceremony who were not on the guest list, and the guards summoned me to vouch for them. I appeared ID-less, since I was ALREADY in the building and had passed through a dozen times pushing carts and carrying stuff. Nope. I couldn't vouch for them without an ID. Also, in the Ag building, you must show an ID just to get OUT of the cafeteria.

5. I must look like I have explosive residue on my hands, because at the airport the TSA guy made a beeline for me with his wand. However I wasn't selected to go into the xray undressing chamber, although they made a pilot do it.

6. A $221/night hotel room in DC looks pretty much like an $80/night one in Idaho. But, the robe was a nice touch.

7. Wow, all men don't wear Carharts!

8. I don't care how great a health club is, $15 for a day pass is so much that you feel obligated to stay in there a long time.

9. The sunset from the restaurant on the top floor of the Hotel Washington is pretty spectacular.

10. Whenever I walk by the White House, I feel sorry for the Obama kids. Such a great lawn and they can't even play on it. I also am seized with the desire to do something inappropriate when I walk by there, so have to hurry past just in case.

I am posting a picture of me with the Deputy Chief, the Chief and the Wilderness Director, mostly for the entertainment value. Not sure how this happened but we all look like escapees from a mental institution. This picture makes me giggle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nail my shoes to the kitchen floor

There's a song I've heard Nancy Griffith sing called "Can't help but wonder where I'm bound." Ive always thought this song is about me. I've been a wanderer all my life, always looking for the next mountain, past the bend in the trail, something bright and shiny and new to fill me up.

As I stuffed my belongings into a pickup outside of another bunkhouse, I used to wonder how people could stay in the same town all their lives. Didn't they get bored? Weren't they slowly suffocating under the oppressive weight of the smallness of their lives? As I pulled away from each place I lived, studiously ignoring the prickly feeling behind my eyes and trying not to look back at the stayers-on waving wildly, I convinced myself that this was good. Moving kept me young! There were so many places to see, why stay in one? I'd find new friends, new mountains, new love that was just as good.

The hazard of being a rambler is that you pull an invisible veneer over yourself. You don't belong here, you aren't planning to stay. You don't want to fall in love with the place or the people. You are just there to suck up all the sweetness, to climb the peaks and swim in the lakes. You breeze through the lives of the locals, sometimes causing heartbreak. After, you blow up photographs and put them on your wall. "Yeah, I lived in Alaska," you say. "It was beautiful but." Depending on the audience, it could be the rainy climate, the sheer dreariness of all the dripping spruce and overcast sky. It could be the omnipresent bears, lurking in the shadows. The isolation. It could be anything.

Now that I've decided to stay put, I am finding my life weaving into this place, stubborn threads that won't be so easy to unravel. It isn't always easy, letting go of the rambler. I think about it sometimes, find myself searching the job announcements with the old heart-pounding feeling I used to have.

This weekend Jerry and I hiked up to Thorpe Creek Basin, a wild and mountain-ringed cirque at the base of Sacajawea. Larches blazed like fire on the canyon walls. Mountain goats ghosted along the sheer cinder walls of Chief Joseph peak. I had never been there before and had pushed for this hike, even though it was a tough eleven miles, the trail snaking uphill with a relentless bite.

To get to where we crossed Hurricane Creek, we had to hike two miles of the main trail, a familiar path I run and walk often. I sighed from boredom as the miles ticked off, itching to see new country. There was the wilderness sign. Deadman Meadow. I had seen it all before.

Jerry walked along peacefully. "I never get tired of hiking the same trail," he said. "There's always something new to see."

I knew he was right. I knew I had a lot to learn about staying in one place. I don't want to discard lives anymore, flinging one aside when it gets difficult. I don't want to be a chameleon--a camo wearing, rifle-shooting, boat-driving woman for a few years in one place, a pensive, long distance runner in another. I want to gather up all the parts of me into one whole person.

I walked through Thorpe Creek wide-eyed, snapping pictures in the questionable light. I looked up at Sac's face and thought about climbing it. I searched the canyon walls for tiny Deadman Lake, rumored to be a hidden jewel. I peered up at Chief Joseph and schemed on attaining the ridge.

Then we dropped with aching knees down to Hurricane Creek, to the known and familiar. I braced myself for a dull walk out. But maybe I am learning something. Unlike before, I felt like the trail was wrapping its arms around me, welcoming me home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

the memory road

This past week, I drove the winding road that hugs the curves of the Lochsa River, nearly to the Montana border. It's been a long time since I spent so much time in a car. Years, really. Living on an island with fourteen miles of road does that to you. I have much more kayak hours logged in than road miles. Since I've been back in "America", I have nestled down into my mountain valley, barely leaving the county in twelve months. I'm a far cry from the girl who drove barefoot across the country every six months, chasing summer from California to the Everglades, unable to commit to a person or a place.

On a long road trip, with nothing to do but search through fuzzy radio stations and keep the wheels on a narrow strip of pavement, my thoughts turn to what was, and what is now. It was, unbelievably, twenty years ago that I first came west to live, my belongings stuffed in a yellow Chevette with an iffy timing belt and a Smokey Bear sticker on the back. Back then each new national park or forest job was a chance to reinvent myself. I became a firefighter when I worked in Olympic National Park. A cave guide in Great Basin. A wilderness ranger in Idaho. As the snow dusted the peaks and I was "terminated" for the season, I drove east reluctantly, watching the country turn tame.

Last week on Highway 12, I pulled over at a campground where my life changed last year. The man who had come from Alaska to be with me had decided to go back. The pull of Baranof Island was too much for him; I could not compete. The campground was empty then and my heart was too. A lot of water had passed down the Lochsa since then.

Everything changes; the mountains I see now have been shaped by fire and flood, by loggers and time. In Alaska wild windstorms toppled the Sitka spruce and avalanches scoured Mount Bassie. Often Carolyn and I would kayak to a beach only to find it changed, no longer a good camping option. In the rearview mirror, I can tell I have changed too.

You think about things like this on road trips. Memories burn their way into your consciousness, things long forgotten. The time Jack and I huddled in a shared space blanket while lightning bracketed us just shy of Red Ridge. Chimneying above a deep pit in a cave in the Grey Cliffs. Watching smokejumpers fly through a smoky sky. All of these things make up the woman I am now, a dizzying patchwork of mountains, rivers, stars.

After a few minutes I pulled away from the campground on Highway 12. There was no oracle in the river, no voice in the mountains. Nothing to tell me that the path I was on was the right one. Each leap I have made has been without a net. Each time I could easily have taken a different road--stayed in Stanley to caretake a cabin and eke out a writing existence; married a blue-eyed man; fought one more fire instead of mostly giving it up. I had no way of knowing what could have happened.

As I drove, water and trees blurred to one thing, merged together. I headed on down the memory road.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

when it bites back

As I write this, a man has been missing in Hells Canyon for six days. He failed to make a rendezvous with his friends and apparently has just vanished.

Hells Canyon is a good place to disappear. It's remote, wild, lonely. The trails can be snarled with blackberry and poison ivy; they hug the cliffs that drop straight to a river you can't swim. It is a thirsty country, baked brown. This is a place where rattlesnakes curl up in writhing balls in hidden dens. Mountain lions and bears prowl the draws. It's one of those places that you respect. It can kill you in a second.

Helicopters have been flying infrared. Search dogs and horseback riders have been combing the canyons. Nothing has been found.

We are drawn to these places that can kill us for their beauty and their indifference. I listened to two backcountry skiers, friends of another who died in an avalanche a year ago. "That's big country," one said, speaking of the place where their friend died. "It can kill you and thrill you." The other one nodded. "That's its allure," he said.

We go to the snowy mountains. We go to the dry canyons. We go, despite the ones who have not come back. Despite the stories. Despite the searches that turn up nothing.

Tonight I hope for a lost hiker, that he has water and food and shelter, that he will be found, although as time goes by, it seems less likely. Hours earlier I looked over the rim, far down to the Snake. I heard a helicopter working the benches.

It was a hot day, and still. Nothing moved. If the canyon knows where Todd is, it revealed nothing.