Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 outdoor goals

Let me emerge from remodeling to write a post about 2012 outdoor goals. (Actually, if I am honest, my husband has done most all of the remodeling. I just make decisions and write checks to pay for it. I did sand some tile, though.) We are fixing up my little cabin because the former owners did not like lighting or kitchens. (If you are reading this, former owners, I appreciate your small footprint, but my husband does not like cooking with a headlamp and I would like some counter space. Love the cabin though.)

But I digress. It's that time of year, right? I have already seen the Resolution People march resolutely into the gym. Unfortunately, they won't last, because it's better to exercise because you want to. That's why I like to say I am training for life, not for an event. It is great to know that you can kick it on a 16 mile hike without having to specifically train for it. So here goes, some outdoor (and one indoor) goal for 2012:

1. Hike the JMT. This is assuming that a) I get a permit; b) that everyone does not bail; c) I can figure out the complicated transportation logistics; and d) I can bear to drag myself away from my mountains during our short summer. But no worries! I have another plan in place. Plan B includes tracing out and doing some similar (but perhaps harder) long hike here, of at least 100 miles.

2. Finally make it to Deadman Lake, one of the few on the north side of the mountains that I haven't figured out how to get to. I won't be denied in 2012.

3. Run. I don't set goals for this because for so many years I defined my life by how fast and how far I ran. No more. But if all the stars align, do more long backcountry runs with my wonderful Nathan hydration pack.

4. Winter camp. I was all set to do this over the holidays but it...rained. I have spent many, many nights camping in that kind of weather. I want fluffy snow and a beautiful frozen lake, not slush and ice. Ugh!

5. DO MORE YOGA. Yoga on a sunny rock by a lake is the best.

6.  Speaking of lakes, jump into ten wilderness lakes. THAT is the best.

7. On a full moon, do one or all of the following: paddle Wallowa Lake. Sleep on top of Eagle Cap Peak. Ski. (obviously these are not on the same day)

8. Bike singletrack. Even if I have to walk down some of all of the hills. (The trails here are not for beginners)

9. Swim in tropical water. I know, I'm dreaming, but I can still include it.

10. And my indoor goal: Get the darn novel published. And, finish the firefighting memoir.

That's it! No marathons, no ultras, no freezing/scary/challenging races. I admire those who do those things and I love reading about them, but I have no trace of envy. For me, being outside is different. It's not that it doesn't include moments of exertion, fear, and the occasional desperate slog, because it does. But what I like is the spectrum, the long haul of it, each day its own mini-adventure, strung together without the worries of tapers and having to do a certain mileage. I like choosing to go hard or easy and making up my own challenges and doing them, all in obscurity and often alone.

The goals I list above are really attainable, even easy. It's kind of silly to even list them as goals, because anybody could do them. They're not hard. But the older I get, the more I see that life is made up of these small things, not the big ones. Sure, the big ones are great and all. I remember being close to tears as I finished my first marathon. But what I remember more clearly are the long, slow runs through the gloomy Alaska darkness that I took with Julie, Brian and Ken, all of us chatting away about something or another. I remember crossing a snowfield with other friends, bound for a wild and lonely campsite. I remember when, as an adult, I was finally able to swim across a pool. Those were all parts of a whole that add up to a life that isn't remarkable or special, but it is one that is mine and I love it.

Happy new year everyone.

Monday, December 26, 2011

a wilderness year

First, the stats:

Number of backpack trips: 16
Goal fulfilled: Backpacking from Moss Springs to Two Pan,  40 miles, 2 days
Longest backpacking day: 25 miles
Number of bears seen: 3
Number of day hikes: too many to count
Times hiked into Hells Canyon and back in a single day (+ - 5,000 feet or more each way): Afraid to count because it's just crazy
Longest run: 11 miles, on 9/11 (don't run long anymore due to past injuries, so pretty proud of this one)
Favorite trail run: Hurricane Creek trail to Slickrock and back
Lakes jumped into: ten at least
Goal not met: Didn't get to Deadman Lake, darn it.
Best day in the woods: all of them

I didn't run any 100ks, race a planet or finish the JMT like some of my bloggy friends. In fact I spent most of my year right here, in one single place. Somewhere the twenty-year-old me is horrified, but I found I kind of liked it. I also found that there are many more places to discover, even if you think you've been on that trail many times and have seen it all.

Here are some of my favorite places in 2011.
I did a lot of hiking on what I call the "hot ridges"..mostly waterless expanses of sweeping grassy outcrops that go on forever. This one is Cougar Ridge, where we hustled due to a threatening sky.
This was nearing the end of a 19 mile day as I hiked back over Hawkins Pass, surely one of the most magnificent passes in the Wallowas.

In spring Sweyn, John and I hiked from Cherry Creek down to Salmon Bar and back, following a disappearing trail by dead reckoning. Dropping through the elevation zones, we arrived at summer on the Snake River, and climbed back to late winter on top.

Kent, Jon, Rick and I spent two magical evenings over the pass from Copper Creek in an uncrowded lake basin catching fish for a mercury study.

The end of the earth. Love this place.

Ken and Clare showed me a new lake. It was just over the hill from a lake I had visited several times. Just goes to show, you never know.
My favorite new discovery. Frazier Meadows, where I'd love to build a cabin and live forever.

This was late fall and bittersweet, because it was one of my last backpack trips. The lovely middle fork of the Imnaha.

Too busy in August, Mirror Lake was all mine in July.

I can't wait for 2012!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

solstice skiing

When I lived in Alaska, the local radio station (love you, Raven Radio) would announce the minutes of daylight we were losing each day. After December 21, we would be gaining minutes, and all of us looked forward to that. Light is not as scarce or precious here in Oregon, but I still breathe a sigh of relief on the solstice, because someday summer will be back.

But not yet, so the best thing to do is go skiing. Classic, old-school Nordic skiing. Can there be any better exercise than that? Many times I attempt the white knuckle drive to Salt Creek Summit to find hard ice or deep, deep snow. Each of those has its challenges. Often I have to walk down the Hill of Death instead of incurring yard-sale face-planting in the trees. Sometimes breaking trail is so arduous that it takes hours to go a few miles. But today is perfect: a skim of fresh over packed, my skis gliding as if I am skating instead of on two (free from my former boss) skinny boards. The woods are blue-shadowed and quiet. The only sound is my breath and the slide of skis on snow.

An icy wind burns the tips of my ears where they poke out from my wool hat. It is probably about fifteen degrees, with the wind making it colder. The breeze tosses handfuls of snow across my tracks, burying them. I am the only one out here, the rest of the unlucky souls at work.

As I ski I think of all the Decembers and solstices before this one. A few stand out. There was the party at a friend's yurt where we all scribbled on pieces of paper the things we wanted to let go (I can't even remember what I wrote). There was the time a group of us skied into a backcountry cabin, pulling sleds. It was well below zero and later, in the hot springs, steam obscured our faces and our skin glowed with residual heat. All those friends have scattered now. Then there were many years where I was on a fireline, the Florida years when snow was just a memory. There was the New Zealand December of only a backpack and no plan, and many Decembers on a little island. There were the two Decembers of relentless marathon training, and the one where I had to learn to walk again after knee surgery. There was the December that my marriage fell apart, and the one when I knew I would be all right, that winters come and go and things always get better.

I lose the blue diamonds and ski blind for awhile, not really worried, but with that undercurrent that can run through your head in the wilderness: Hmm, not really sure where I am. Didn't bring a pack. Warm clothes on? check. Somebody knows where I am? check. Plenty of daylight? check. Eventually I stumble upon my tracks, a lot farther downslope than I have expected. It's time to develop the winter eyes again, the ones that can pick out subtle changes in a white landscape. Time to fine tune the sense of direction, not really needed in summer.

I've come into this winter a reluctant participant. Our summer was so short, with snow in June and the backcountry melting out only late in August. It couldn't be winter already. I had to swim all summer in a wetsuit! We were owed some more summer! But surely as the minutes were lost to darkness, here it came, ready or not. And I wasn't. I grumbled, I complained, I tried to run the icy trails in my IceJoggers. I rode my bike, freezing my feet. Maybe if I ignored winter, it would go away. Denial could only work for so long.

I arrive back at the parking lot in a clatter of skis on ice. My fresh tracks stretch behind me. The sun slants at an ominous angle, soon to dip below Redmont Peak. Snow flurries dance from passing clouds. It's undeniably winter. Though summer is always my first love, I can work with this. Winter and I can become buddies, mend our fences, and get along. It's solstice. Summer is on its way. Happy solstice, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


As a twenty-seven year old wilderness ranger, I was amazed when Valerie joined our seasonal crew. Admittedly she was in incredible shape: she surpassed us all on the firefighter "step test", as inaccurate and male-biased as it was. Her legs in Forest Service shorts were muscled and strong. But she was....forty-one.

I couldn't imagine being that old. How could she even strap on a seventy pound pack and hike the huge miles that we were doing? Now I know better, because I know I could still do it. But back then, getting old seemed like a death sentence. Sometimes I thought that I could beat it by running farther, hiking faster, moving across the country and back again. And it seemed like there was just so much time. Years and years, during which I would gain wisdom but not wrinkles, my life falling into place like a freshly opened map.

As I stare another birthday in the face, I am both grateful and sad. Of course I'm glad I'm still around when some of my friends aren't. But sometimes I really miss being young. There was so much room to make mistakes and rebound from them. The stakes weren't as high, because there was so much time left. No money? I can always fight fire for a season and earn some. No men? One would always come along. Nobody wants to publish my book? Plenty of time for that! No job? I'll clean toilets at a campground, no problem!  Marathons? Sure, I've got great knees!

So far there hasn't been any wilderness adventure that I have had to give up because of age, except for pavement marathons, which are no good for anyone's knees. I hope there never is, but I have noticed that the ranks are getting thinner around me. It's sad that people my age, which really isn't that old, have decided to give in to the couch. Luckily I live in a mountain town where seventy-year-olds still backcountry ski. Many of my friends are older than I am, and they take on amazing feats of wilderness endurance. It gives me hope. Many of them have their own challenges, but they still get out there.

Maybe it's not the body that changes but the desire. Unlike when I was younger, I have no desire to pay to run a race. I will, though, go out and cover that distance on my own. I've turned more inward: it's more about the solo experience or the one with a shortlist of friends, not the spectacle that I like now. I used to love the crowds, the aid stations, the cameraderie. Now I like it when I pass nobody on the trails or on the road. I don't even keep a training log anymore, but I remember everything.

Valerie only lasted one season, and we hardly ever saw her. Most likely she was over our immaturity, our bunkhouse parties, our firmly held belief that we would never grow old. You just wait, she probably thought. If I had to bet, though, I'd say she's still out on the trails somewhere. A little slower, perhaps. Older, definitely. But still out there.
Patterson Peak, 1995.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

a letter to sixteen year old me

Dear me,

I know you think your life is over because M. dumped you for G. and he dedicated your song to her at the roller rink. But trust me on this: he is not the last boy you will love. In fact, you won't find the one you are meant to be with when you are 20. Or even 30. It will take years and years, and finally when you have nearly given up, there he will be. It will be so worth it, because you will appreciate love more than if you had it for the taking early on in your life. And even though you will be alone so many years and spend so many breakups sobbing on a series of kitchen floors, you also will met a series of fascinating, odd, unsuitable men who weren't quite right, but who will take you all sorts of places and teach you all sorts of things: how to fly fish, how to walk in the steep mountains, how to fix your own brakes. You don't want to miss out on that. And BTW, Air Supply? Luckily, your musical tastes will change. P.S. You dodged a bullet. M. gets fat.

Cherish your independence. I don't know where you found it, but keep it. In the years to come you will fight fires, drive across the country alone numerous times, hike off-trail, rappel into caves, skydive, and backpack solo. There are few women who will do some of these things. Don't wait around for a man to come along. That's not your style.

Lose the self-criticism. Your New Years resolution is to "Walk Better." I know it's hard to be sixteen, but rest assured: soon, very soon, you will find a place where you feel beautiful. In the wilderness, you can forget your hairbrush (and use a fork instead) and it will be the one place where you feel completely comfortable. It's coming, just wait for it. High school does not last forever. And it's true, you will never need to know chemistry.

But speaking of that, do you have to think you are going to major in English with an emphasis in creative writing? I realize you love writing. But think about it. You love being outside. Take a biology class, would you?

Don't run so much. You will be obsessed with it for years, and your knees will take a beating. You will run marathons and half marathons and countless 5 and 10Ks.  On second thought, keep running. There's no other feeling like it. You will run in the coastal rainforest, in the baked-hard desert, in the swamp, you will run everywhere. Enjoy it while you are young and fast and can run a sub-21 5K. Your times will slow as you get older, believe me. You won't like it, but you will learn to love running for its own sake, not for a PR or a medal. But stay off the pavement!

Honestly, you don't have to work every month of your life. You will never take unemployment, even when you are stuck washing dishes. You will pass up some interesting turns in the road because of this. A man with ice blue eyes will offer you your own cabin, accessed across the Salmon River by a cable bridge. You will hesitate, not because of the man, but because of the chance to live winter-deep, writing by a wood stove, skiing out your back door. I know what you will do, but you don't, not yet.

Yes, you will get out of this town. In fact, you will travel for years and years, trying to find a place you can call home. Even when you think you have found it, there will still be times when you think: New Zealand. Bali? Costa Rica. Stanley, Idaho. You're just one of those restless people. Live with it.

That perm? Lose it.

Sunscreen. Stop that "lying out" with Tanning Oil. Sun-In will not turn your hair blonde either. Wrinkles are not pretty.

Take care, sixteen year old me. Your life ahead is full of excitement, tragedy, rivers, mountains. Go out and live it.

Love, Me

Please share! What would you say to your sixteen year old self?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

facing the gear shed

I'm willing to bet most of you have one too...a closet, a garage, or a shed stuffed with outdoor gear, one third of which you used to use, one third of which you never use and one third that you actually do use. Because I live in the House of No Closets, my outdoor gear lives in a small shed along with the lawnmower and paint. I admit it: over time and due to last minute trips (the contractor calls and needs help finding a trail, like tomorrow) the shed has become a black hole from which you may never emerge.

It was fairly warm yesterday and I finally felt ready to tackle the Shed of Despair. Let me say this: I did a huge purge before I moved here so I really don't have that much stuff. But it had become a miasma of seething gear that needed to be dealt with.

I approached with trepidation. There were numerous milk crates that I had (ahem) liberated years and decades ago from XXX business on Mackinac Island, full of mysterious rope, parts of first aid kits, sporks and the like. There were Rubbermaid containers of the same. It was a big, huge mess.

Once I started sorting, though, it became enjoyable. Here was a linear history of gear development! Here were the older thermarests, first generation, fluffy and heavy, and in another historical layer, the incredibly lightweight NeoAir. Tents in various mutations from an early North Face lightweight prototype to a two pound Big Agnes. Running fanny packs from the bulky back sloshers to the Nathan one I love without reservation. It was a gear archeological dig!

I found incredible gems. My silk sleeping bag liner, long since thought lost. A pair of sweet pink flip flops. A UDig it and a candle lantern that I had resentfully thought that the ex harbored. A collapsible bucket. It was like shopping without spending money.

Now my shed is a thing of beauty. All the backpacking items, in one Rubbermaid. Minus the thermarests, in their own box, and the tents, in theirs. Stuff tossed that I no longer use or cannot identify. The one item I wavered over was my first adult tent. A North Face tadpole, all mesh. I bought this tent about 1990 and it accompanied me on many Sierra trips. I hauled it out three years ago without setting it up, only to arrive at the lake to find it was missing (broken?) its front pole. Disaster. My boyfriend at the time sighed. This was only another omission in a long line of camping disasters, including forgetting a camping stove. We broke up soon after. Coincedence?

I threw the tent in the garbage but later fished it out. It's still a good tent. I can maybe get a pole from North Face. I couldn't bear the thought of it going into the landfill.

I'm ready for another season. We'll see how long this organization lasts. For now I love creeping up to the shed and flinging open the door to gaze fondly on the clear floor and the stacked Rubbermaids. Order is a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

I heart sleeping bags

Errata: My husband would like everyone to know that on the hikes he picks, we are *NOT* lost. (The one hike where we were unsure of our location was "my hike," he tells me.) He also thinks it sounded like he takes me into dangerous situations. So here is a clarification. He feels much more comfortable than I do in many places, but he is also quick to beat a retreat if I want to. (Is that better, sweetie? Love you.)

But now the real reason for the post: I am in love! It loves to cuddle, and it's soft and fluffy and warm, also a pleasing shade of orange. It has a water resistant shell. It's my new -20 sleeping bag! It's a Mountain Hardwear Wraith SL. It is usually very, very expensive but I found a screaming deal at Oregon Mountain Community. Yeah! Now I have no excuses. Winter camping I will go! I am really looking forward to being toasty since I sleep so cold. I have a minor case of Reynauds, and if my feet and hands get cold enough they turn white and take forever to warm up.

The only problem is the lack of snow. The trails are a sheet of ice; even with grippers on you fall in an angry heap. This in-between time makes us all miserable. Too icy to bike ride, too icy to run, too icy to hike. The awfulness of the gym it is, and many of us are in the same boat. I went there today at 3, a time when I am typically the only one there, and can tune the TV to HGTV with impunity. Today the gym was packed with treadmill walkers and puffing weight-lifters. Ugh! I can think of few things worse athletically than running on a treadmill.

But back to sleeping bags. I think you can tell a lot about the type of person you are dealing with by the amount and types of bags they have. I have these:

1. Ancient REI bag I remember from my childhood, that rides in my truck as an emergency bag;
2. Go-Lite +20 that I use for summer camping, very light;
3. Marmot +20 that I use for work and is in fact a"work bag". Synthetic cause I used it in the rainforest.
4  LL Bean 0 bag that is plenty warm but does not stuff. Used for car camping.
5. Marmot +15 (I think) that I bought with husband #1 because it zipped together with his bag. Nice synthetic bag but I always feel kind of sad when I look at it. I know, get over it.
6. North Face Blue Kazoo, once the wilderness ranger standard, but in its old age has lost some insulating properties. Had since the nineties.

Holy carp, I have seven sleeping bags. I am the Imelda Marcos of sleeping bags. I belong in a support group!

Now it's your turn. How many bags do you have and what type? Don't make me the only sleeping bag hoarder out there.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

JMT dreams

Ever plan anything so big and complicated that you could not get your arms around it? It looks like my John Muir Trail hike might be coming together. This is both exciting and scary. The logistics of backpacking a 221 mile trail--the time off from work, the food, pick-up and drop-off, coordinating of differing paces and desires--it is all overwhelming and I can only imagine what someone hiking the whole PCT must feel like. Then there is the lottery: would it be better to hike in from Toulumne Meadows and have a better shot at getting a permit? Bear cannisters, resupply, gear, oh my!

I had at first envisioned hiking it solo, but you know what? I've spent miles and miles solo, starting as a wilderness ranger. I get enough solo time. As a writer, and now working at home, I always tread water just above the hermit level. I want company, someone to point out sights to, people to talk with at night at camp. Just like an old shampoo commercial, my friend told a friend who told a friend...and now there are potentially four of us women interested. I only know one of them but the trail bond is strong and I love how it weaves strangers together.

The two best things about planning this is a return to a place I once called home and...gear shopping! I spent two glorious seasons in the backcountry of Sequoia-Kings Canyon, roving for miles in alpine country and tablelands wild and remote. I fell in love with a firefighter, marked hazard trees with a lanky chain-smoker, and planted native seeds in places trampled by many feet. None of those things lasted--the romance burnt itself out in a firestorm, Jack died of lung cancer, and the trees did not survive the human onslaught--but I long to return as a much older woman to find remnants of my twenty-year-old self.

And gear: so much to think about! Megamid or bivy? What clothes will I despise least after wearing them for three weeks straight? Maps, I need maps! How can I overcome my notorious dislike for oatmeal? Jetboil or alcohol stove? A gearhead at heart, I love pondering these issues.

Outside, the snow flies. I pack up my spikes for a struggle up an icy trail at 24 degrees. I huddle by the wood stove, dreaming.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Days Without Wilderness

Ever since I've been back, it's been conference calls, the Can't-Help Desk, meetings meetings meetings. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful to have a job. But to live in a mountain town yet not be able to get to them is a special kind of torture. I need a date with a lake, a rendezvous with a river.

I don't know about you, but I am a caged animal without the wilderness. It starts with a new-wool itchiness under my skin. In the worst of times, I become a snarly creature. It is like going cold-turkey, this change from my summer fieldwork to the winter office routine. The 20 mile backpacking days are only a faint memory, almost as if I were someone else back then.

A trail run really isn't enough, or a ski, though they serve as band-aids. What I want is total immersion, days and nights on the trail. At the same time, I know winter is for writing (just nominated for a Pushcart Prize! Yay!), a return to yoga, dinners with the friends I have neglected. It is for breathing deep of cold, clear air, watching stars prick the sky, remodeling the cabin. It is all those things, and still..

Maybe I'll try winter camping.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

the cold desert

The high desert, in November, is mercurial. For about five hours the canyons are bathed in a warm red light. By four thirty, though, the cold sets in like a vise. We gathered our winter camping attire and our juniper wood and steeled ourselves for a long night. It went on like this for two weeks: camping somewhere on a lonesome mesa, blue sky days, bitterly cold nights. We saw nobody. Sometimes it seemed like we could do this forever.
A double arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Looking into Capitol Reef National Park

On the mesa above Fence Canyon, Glen Canyon NRA

We backpacked to this wonderful campsite.

Some of the narrows of Little Death Hollow

We chased the sun for two weeks. It was a brief escape from the winter that is beginning to grip our mountains, camping in a lonely and wild section of the country. We'll be back for sure.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Goin' Where the Climate Suits My Clothes

For years, I went down the road feeling bad. Every six months I drove solo across the country, down the blue highways that connected to the soulless interstates, the truck stops, the rest stops, one hundred more miles, more. Cheap motels with flashing signs, the enormity of Texas, small towns with lights like jewels glowing far away on a distant horizon. I don't remember how many times I drove across the country in a small Chevette, only that I did it, the rubber hum of the road, a heartbeat, a song.

Always there was a knot inside my heart because always I was leaving someone behind. It  could have been a friend who would sit with me on  a porch beside an inland sea, watching a luna moth, it could have been a faithless smokejumper who loved fire more than he loved me. It didn't matter: it all felt the same, the leaving.

I always left, though. There was something comforting about those road trips, that transition time between the person I was and the person I would be. A clock ticked in my head: Must see it all. Must see it all.

That clock is mostly silent now. I don't want to leave people behind anymore. I have no desire to pour myself into a car anymore and drive alone across the country. I know I can't see it all. Instead, I want to see a lot of  a few places, to really know them down to the core.

I often wonder about the ones I left behind. They seemed so secure in their lives, rooted trees, tied to a piece of land in the way I never thought I could be. Now I am one of them. I heard about two people I know last night who are pulling up stakes and moving to Portland. How can they leave? I wondered. Then I had to laugh. I have come a long way down that road.

I'm heading to the southwest for two weeks. This time I'll have someone with me. This time we can stop, dawdle, soak in the hot springs. This time I'm coming back.

 There was a lot I loved about the road: the delicious uncertainty of a bend, the unknown possibility. Sometimes I can admit that being anchored feels like it: a boat swinging on a chain.  I want it both ways. That's why I keep traveling, in short bursts now, returning to a known shore.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

running in a new place

Why is running somewhere new always easier? I feel faster, thinner, stronger. I race up the street towards the trail system, headlamp in place. It's 6 am and still dark here near the Oregon/California border. Cars stream towards Medford from the Applegate, but I leave them behind as I climb to the leaf-covered trails that wind up the hills above Jacksonville. I don't have time to go far, but everything is easy. Before I know it, it's time to turn around. Behind me, I see the headlamps of other runners.

It's still fall here, the leaves drifting lazily down, the oaks and maples unfamiliar and interesting after a diet of conifer, conifer, conifer. And there's no snow.

Doesn't this look like the perfect running trail?
 When I arrive at a motel, the first question I always ask is: where are the running trails? I lucked out in Jacksonville, because they were a mere .8 mile from my door. Score!

The street that leads to the trail system. Cute!
When I used to move every six months, running was how I learned a new place. I would head out optimistically, figuring out the easy and the hard trails, the side streets, the places other runners went. I still remember some of my favorites: the Tranquil Bluff trail on Mackinac Island, a rainforest trail in the Elwha, and the bear-haunted Cross Trail. Sometimes I picked up running companions: Peter, the firefighter who always ran inexplicably in jeans; Ken who liked to belt out sixties tunes to keep bears at bay. But most often I ran solo, letting my mind spool out dreams. I still do.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

wing ridge

For whatever reason, the outings my husband picks end up with one of the following:

1. Terror (me)
2. Whining (me)
3. Out of water (both of us)
4. Heinous uphill climbs
5. Brief periods of being unsure of where we are.

But I go with him anyway for the following reasons:

1. He always picks something adventurous, a place I wouldn't go on my own
2. Since I married a village, I don't get to see him all that much with all his community obligations
3. He knows all the names of the plants
4. He puts up with my whining
5. I kind of like him.

Today was not really an exception. We would start out on the old stock driveway and head up towards Wing Ridge and come down somewhere (this said with a vagueness that should have alerted me to trouble).

It's the transition time that neither of us has a sport for. Too snowy to bike, a little too much snow for hiking, not enough snow for skiing. We headed uphill with a slippery mix of powder snow, rocks and grass under our feet. The old trail wound to a saddle with a breathtaking view of the wilderness.

I hiked here all summer but it looks completely different. September seems like a long time ago.

"Well, we could backtrack," J suggested, knowing that I hate to backtrack. "Or we could go up there and come down that ridge."

With a minor feeling of foreboding, I agreed. After all, I usually am a summit chaser, and from the distance, it didn't look too bad. We climbed and climbed through scattered trees and drifted snow. Evil-looking clouds poured up the valley below us, but the sun stayed firmly on the ridge.

The summit was wind-swept and remote. I could have stayed up there a long time, drinking it all in, but it was late afternoon and we were sandwiched in between two snow storms.

It was two thousand feet down, the terrain a dangerous mix of rolling rock and snow. I was the only one having a problem, but it was a big one.  My Sorels, chosen to keep my feet dry, slipped and slid. "I can't go down this way," I wailed.

"Okay, we can go back," J said. He never tries to make me do anything that I think is scary.

But then I heard myself. Ugh! A whiny princess. Hate her. "I think I can make it through these rocks," I said, tiptoeing over to a better line. It was marginally better. J went and found me a stick for balance and we sidestepped down the mountain. "You didn't whine THAT much," he said as we gained better ground.

The thing about me is this: I'm generally not all that fearful. But my husband is not afraid of gravity. I never used to be until a fall on green slime in Alaska stretched out my PCL and forever ended marathon dreams. I can still run less than double digits without it bothering me, and I can hike as much as I want. But I know: one fall can change your life.

So I kept going, one slow step at a time, envying my husband and the dogs their sure-footed grace. I got down the mountain, though, and that is all that counts. And to tell the truth, I like our crazy, let's-just-try-it adventures. I like that I finally found a man who will take me places that make me a little afraid. I like that he will go with me when I pick the outings. I like looking up at the mountain from the road and thinking: You know what? I was just up there.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

the last nice day

"This is the last nice day," Michelle and I agree, playing hooky from work to walk in the park. It is true that snow is in the forecast, two inches by tomorrow, just the start of our seven or eight month winter. But it is also true that our definition of a nice day imperceptibly changes with the seasons. In August, it was a sun-washed 80 degrees when a swim in a glacial lake was not out of the question. In September we accepted days ten degrees cooler with a spunky bite to the evenings. Now in November, sunny and brisk 45 degree days are cause for celebration. A few months from now, shiny diamond snow and a windless 20 degree day will be our new nice.

Abandoning my plan for a power hike, I was lured up to Falls Creek to stare at this icy sight:

Ice already, the waterfall slowly freezing. Time to get back to yoga, edit the novel, bake rustic bread, split endless piles of kindling, find the snowshoes and the skis. Time to shift to a new kind of nice day even as I dream of summer campfires.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

tramps like us

My husband drives up beside me as I pedal up the dirt road. "I thought I saw a cute girl biking, then I realized it was my wife!" he says. Ha. Ha. I shift to my lowest gear to pedal up the Hill of Many Stones. The road has recently been graded and the shifty rocks under my tires are only marginally better than what he calls "chatter bumps" but I think of as washboards. I hang on to my $150, shockless rental fleet bike with white knuckles on the long descent.

I'm not a mountain biker, only a person who rides a mountain bike. There is a huge difference, and I am closing the gap very slowly, in inches. I visit a mountain bike shop and slink away, intimidated. Groupo? Five inches of travel? It is a new language, though I see a mountain bike of my dreams and plan to return one day. I read my husband's Mountain Bike Action magazine, kind of a goofy title with everyone in the pictures standing up aggressively on their pedals.

When you try to learn something new as an adult, you bring all your years with you. All the times you tried something and it didn't work out. All the times people told you that things were impossible, too hard, why the hell do you want to do that because normal women don't? You may have figured out here that I am talking about more than mountain biking.

But let's stick to that for now. I turn around and head for home, past the Grange, the ancient truck dreaming in the weeds, down the long sweet hill where I practice standing up, even though my post-knee surgery leg still believes it does not have the strength to turn the pedals while doing so. I cruise to the place where I have to shift down, make the turn into the town that has turned, in some strange and amazing way, from the town that I am living in now to the town where I live and will probably always live.

It's like that sometimes. You change, imperceptibly, by inches. You get better at things. You learn to stand up on your pedals. You may have figured out that I am talking about more than mountain biking.

Now if someone can explain why four inches of travel is soooo much better than five, I'm all ears.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Too cold for shorts

A long time ago, in a universe far away, I worked for a man who hated wearing long pants. Especially our fashion forward green Forest Service pants, which rise to a high waist and do not look good on anyone. This man would grimly hang in there in shorts while the rest of us gave in, shivering in the frosty mornings. Once he put on his pants, you knew that summer was indeed over.

Today this man is fighting for his life and would probably give anything to even have the chance to walk in the woods in pants or shorts. I thought of him as I hurried towards McCully Basin, the victim of a bad clothing choice. It's here, that downturn, the end of shorts.

Just last week I was able to stay warm in shorts, but there has been a subtle shift that should warn the unprepared and the foolish. The larches are in full, glorious color now. The sky spits snow on the passes. No longer can I get by on a 12 mile hike with just water and a long underwear top.

Still, I kept going, wanting to get as high as I could before the weather turned me around. From the yurt location I could hear chopping, the outfitter getting ready for the ski season, laying in wood. The campsites were bleak and lonely, the pass I sat on just a month ago layered in snow.

Pants don't let you move the same way shorts do. Even running tights feel faintly and constrictive. And long underwear under shorts, while it gets the job done, feels faintly ridiculous. After a season of bare legs, it's hard to make the transition.

The wind picks up at the top of the basin and it is time to go. I race down the steep hill, running to stay warm. I think of my former boss, a man so fast in the woods that we had to run to keep up with his walking pace. I hope when spring comes around he can put his shorts back on and keep them on, for as long as he wants.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

changes are scary good.

The aspens up Hurricane Creek are slowly turning. They look as if someone has dipped them in a pot of molten gold. I love this time of year on this trail, with an icing of snow across the peaks and a brisk sunny breeze.

I strapped on my Nathan hydration vest (LOVE) for a short power hike to Slickrock and back. My legs felt springy after a day of rest and a leisurely bike ride. I thought about running but I wanted more time to think than running this trail allows, where I have to watch my footing at all times or faceplant.

A big change is coming in my life. I've taken a new job which will take me out of these mountains and into the world, although I get to work from home (yay, yoga pants at work!). This new job will be national in scope, and I hope I can make a difference to a lot of places, not just one. I won't miss the screamers, the supervision, or the gatekeepers who blindly follow a rule book, placing obstacles in the path of getting things done.

But still. I think that in order to really be part of your backyard you have to put in the time to work there, and I don't mean backpacking or running. In this job as in all my previous ones, I swung a pulaski and pulled a misery whip, clearing trails. I cleaned toilets. I met with outfitters to look at campsites. I hauled trash out of the wilderness left by the clueless and the uncaring. Until you put in a few hours of work, you are just passing through. You have no idea what the place is about. I don't like losing that connection, or working with a small group of dedicated people on the ground, doing actual physical labor.

So when the time is right I want to start a "Friends" group that will adopt this wilderness and give it a voice. This place has given me so much. I want to give back.

In the end, though, change keeps you young. I don't want to be 62 and shoehorned into the same cubicle. I don't want to grow old at work, and the surest way to do that is to take chances. So I throw my eggs in one basket. I take the leap. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

end of the season

We hike towards Maxwell Lake under cloudy skies. The sun has been evasive these days and six inches of snow blanket the ground. This piece of country is under snow eight months of the year. It barely wakes in a profusion of flowers before it is smothered again. The lake itself is not frozen. Not yet. But soon.

Ken and Claire show me a secret lake I never knew existed, only minutes away. A mean wind bites through our clothes. The mountains are changing.

There is nobody else in the canyon, the tourists having fled back to the city and our trail crew long gone to scratch out an existence until summer comes around again. We retreat a thousand feet and watch the fog sidle up the canyon below us.

Backpacking season is well and truly over. I had hoped to sneak in a quick overnight, but at this time of year, in this weather, you have two options: stay on the move or sit in the tent. For hours.

Trail running won't last too much longer either, snow drifting high enough that any run turns into a survival shuffle.  The skiers are starting to reappear from their summer hibernation, peering into the distance at snow-iced bowls and speculating on the charms of another La Nina winter. "Winters are so short here," J says, meaning it despite the evidence to the contrary. This is a country of winter, summer just a pause.

We wind back down the switchbacks to the trailhead, still the only car in the lot. That night it rains hard, and I know that more snow has fallen in the high country. I feel like we've gotten away with something, sneaked in a trip to the lake in the last few moments. Nobody will be back up there until July.

The next day I run up the trail to the Bear Creek cabin in search of items that went missing from my pack this summer. The larches fool me into thinking they are the sun. It rains and I splash through puddles. I catch up with some wolverine researchers, setting out cameras. They are the only people I see. The mountains are changing. It's a long time until summer.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Losing It

Yesterday a shoe appeared on my desk. It wasn't just any shoe. It was my Merrell Pace Glove, lost months ago in the wilderness, mysteriously reappearing at the trailhead. I had hung on to its mate, hoping beyond all reason that somehow the wandering shoe would come back to me. Where it has been, I can only imagine.

This started me thinking of things I have lost in the wilderness. Two Leathermen (in the same wilderness. Hmm). A pair of sunglasses, left hanging on a tree on a tiny island in Klag Bay, Alaska. A first aid kit. Mittens. Pepper spray.

And things I've found: Barbie doll heads (very disturbing). A rubber chicken. Sunglasses (not mine). Headlamps. Knives (not Leathermen). Old crosscut saws. Lipstick. Shoes. Hammocks. A sleeping bag. A fire shelter. Tarps ad nauseum. Underwear. Books.

And things I've forgotten while packing and realized with a sinking feeling as I approached the campsite or trail: Tent poles. Sleeping bag. Stove fuel. The food that was in the fridge to bring. Hiking boots. Hiking boots that match.

Any other stories out there of things forgotten, lost or found?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

oceans edge

I lived by the ocean for seven years. When I drove off the Alaska ferry in Bellingham and turned my back on the sea, it was like leaving someone I loved. In this landlocked country I see mirages everywhere: the long expanses of field, rippling like an inland sea. Snow on lakes like frozen waves. Sometimes, briefly, a small surf on the pebbly beach of Wallowa Lake.

But it isn't the same. For seven years I heard the ocean's heartbeat, the breakers pounding on the reef, the insistent chime of the buoy out in the Eastern Channel. It was like living with a moody stranger--you never knew what you would get. Sometimes, a placid calm, the fog kissing the water so that we had to navigate with compasses mounted on our kayaks. Sometimes an unexpected swell, rolling in from Japan, tossing our boats like driftwood. Sometimes the bright diamond sparkle of sun. Rain, pockmarking the grey surface. The extreme low tides of late winter, and the sneaky high tides of summer. The ocean was a presence I could not discount or turn away from. Its moods shaped my days. Would I be stuck on the beach under a tarp, unable to paddle? Would our skiff's anchor hold, or would one of us have to swim for it? Would the tide drain out, a plug from a bathtub, leaving us high and dry until it flooded back in? These were all things to know.

Mountain life can be compared to this. It has started snowing already, the line of white marching down the golden tamarack slopes like an incoming tide. If I go out, I need extra of everything, hats, gloves, socks, is it safe to stay overnight or will snow fall, muffling footprints and closing the trails? It is in one way the same and in others, not the same.  Finally this weekend we pried ourselves like clams out of the county and drove west.

There it was, the ocean. I felt like I could breathe, great wet breaths of soft, rainy air. My hair curled. A soft rain fell without a sound. I remembered this.

The dogs weren't quite sure about the ocean. Aluco (l) was scared; Sierra ignored the water, and Cale wanted to run and run. A dog after my own heart!

An admission: when we pulled into the campsite, I sat there in the truck watching the rain bead up on the windshield. A thought crept into my head: A motel. I remembered all the days of rain in Alaska: hiking in the rain. Running in the rain. Camping in the rain. After awhile, I forgot that there was anything other than rain. It was the constant heartbeat I lived with, like the ocean. So we threw up the tent and slogged around in our little-used rain gear. The next day, we were rewarded with this:
The rain came back in, like it always does, and we had to leave for home too soon. I don't want to live in a rainforest again; my knees ache and it feels too isolated in a curtain of fog. We used to say that when the sun came out, it was the most beautiful place on earth, and it was, but that does you no good when the sun rarely comes out.

I'll miss the ocean, but I'll take the landlocked mountains. I'll take the certain stars at night and the sun-drenched afternoons by an alpine lake. But I'll be back to the coast again for a tryst or two with the waves, because I can't stay away forever.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

mountain snow

The clouds floated in the valley like remnants of someone's dream. They didn't look real, but something made up, wisps of thoughts or wishes. Above them, a light skiff of snow on the highest peaks.

First snow. Bittersweet. The lakes will freeze, the passes drift over, no more sitting on sun-drenched rocks, no more swimming. The trails will be closed to us for many, many months unless we attempt them on skis. Sweet, though, because of the gliding over snow, the only sound that of our skis, a blue tinge to the air and the trees shrouded in white.

It's hard to give up summer because we fought so hard for it, a rainy and cold spring stretching into June. But I made the most of it, fifteen backpack trips, many, many miles, new and old country in a delicious mix. Not nearly enough but it will have to be, the gear put away until another season.

This is my husband's magic time approaching, just like summer is mine. We are seasonal opposites but I love that. He teaches me to appreciate winter and I love to watch him ski, effortless turns down an untracked mountain. He points at slopes too steep for me, ever, and talks about how he has skinned up them and skied down, no big deal. I like his enthusiasm for winter.

Winter/Summer. The time of change is here, with not much inbetween, not here in this corner of Oregon where it is one or the other. I look at my growing stack of firewood. I hunt down mittens, Kahtoolas, running tights, hats. As much as I want summer to hang around for another month or two, I know it's over. I get ready.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Coming home

I rarely go back to the places I've left behind. Like the men I left behind, it seems better to let each landscape fade into amber memory, fuzzy around the edges and somehow perfect in the recalling. The mountains I used to love belong to other seasonal workers now, not me. Going back as a tourist wouldn't be enough; I would want to slip back into the skin of the twenty year old I was. I would start questioning: maybe I should have stayed in that cabin for the winter instead of moving on. Written a novel. Instead of what did happen. And that kind of thinking gets me nowhere.

What is now is not what was.

But one place always calls me back, tugs on my heartstrings. It's a little mountain town with a river at its heart. I lived there for five seasons and almost stayed. It was the only place I ever truly loved without reservations.

As I hike the familiar trails, I remember it all. There's the rock I sat on for a break one summer, my pack too heavily laden.  The slippery decomposed granite sketchy spot on the way to Goat Lake. There's where I pitched my tent that one moonlit night. There's the overhanging rock that Firefighter Todd took a nap under while I checked a smoldering wildfire. The dirt road I used to run. I remember everything.

For years this place has been the reason I never stayed put. It was the standard against which I judged every other place. It was the place that I secretly always believed I would return to live.

I don't believe that anymore. The winters are too long, the jobs too few. The place stays with me though, as a time in my life that was as close to perfect as it can ever be. I was a wilderness ranger, the best job on the planet. I was in my twenties, no need to think about commitment or tragedy, neither of which would touch me for years. A group of like-minded adventurers shared the bunkhouse, always ready to throw sleeping bags out under the stars or head to the hot springs next to the river.

Sometimes it's hard to admit that those days are over.

But they are, and as I drove away from the mountains, my mind a stew of emotions, I realized that a tie to the wandering life has unravelled. That to look back at anything with longing is to not allow room in my heart for what is, not what was. As I dipped over the Snake River and back up the other side, it finally felt like I was coming home. Coming home to a place beautifully flawed, not perfect. A place where I might be able to stay.