Saturday, January 29, 2011

a reason to come home

In the past, I was often seized with a manic need to travel. If I wasn't on a trip, I was planning one. After I came back, I tried to circumvent the inevitable letdown of a suitcase of dirty clothes by scheming another journey. I picked my jobs for what they could offer in terms of travel: paddling along the Alaskan coast, slogging up the mountains with a backpack and a shovel.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there was something missing about the place I lived in, and within me, that propelled this sense of urgency. A weekend puttering at home filled me with terror. What a waste. Pack up the car, get on the plane, do something!

However, since I've moved to the WC (that's Wallowa County, which I refer to as the WC because of how people in California refer to Orange County as "The OC", I think it's funny anyway) I have been seized with the opposite, a sometimes troubling case of inertia. All I want to do is stay home.

Belize? That would be cool. But so much work to plan. Hawaii? Eh. Hike the JMT? I want to, but really couldn't I just map out a two week hike here? Drive to the Steens? Seen it. Ski at Anthony? I can ski here.

I really can't quite figure it out. I could be suffering from a case of travel jet lag. So much traveling for so many years. It could be my adopted doggies. Hate leaving them. All I know is, I'm turning into someone I don't recognize. I need an intervention. Please show up with a suitcase and a plan!

In the meantime I am back from DC after 26 days. It's good to be home.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I've spent hundreds of nights in the woods, from the swamps of Florida to the alpine tundra of Alaska. Many of those nights were spent alone. I've also hiked cross country, on trails where I never saw a soul, and on others brimming with hundreds of people. I've never, ever been afraid of any of them.

Animals are another story. Bears haunt my dreams and my nights. I clutch a canister of pepper spray, jolted wide awake by some unseen presence. A mountain lion padded through my camp in Idaho, snarling over and over before it wandered away. A plaintive wolf howl before they were offiicially back in the state sent chills through me. Sometimes, not often, I have not hiked a trail because of those fears.

But never people, not ever. Until today.

In the National Park brochure for Rock Creek Park in DC, the text reads "the park is relatively safe." Relatively? It goes on to suggest strongly that you hike with a buddy. The website reviews of the park agree, especially for women. I don't know of many national parks that state this so calmly except when there is the risk of grizzly encounter.

Since my last venture into the park, I had been scheming ways to get up into the more remote, wilder places of it. After all, it is the largest urban park. Deer roam its heart. Many people visit it--and that is the problem. A woman was attacked running alone a year ago at 7 am, the time you expect most weirdos to be bedded down. And we all remember Chandra Levy. Her name will forever be linked with this park. She decided to go for a run in the middle of the day and never came home.

Today I decided not to go. Fear was only part of it. To get there by public transit is a major chore. But if I had wanted to enough, I would have braved the slow metro and the mile walk on paved sidewalks. I didn't want to enough.

I have mixed feelings about this. Most often if there isn't a buddy to go with me in the woods, I go anyway. I decide that the small risk of mountain lions or bears is a risk I am willing to take. I am not so sure about people. Unlike people, bears are predictable. Surprise them, and they will react. If they think you are threatening their cubs, they will react. People are a much stranger species. All sorts of chemicals swim through their brains. I am okay, mostly, with dodging animals. It is their neighborhood. They can't just pick up and move.

It's not bravery that allows me to hike alone. It's that I feel comfortable and safe in the woods. I can feel the wilderness wrap its arms around me, my breathing slow down, my whole body relax. In contrast, here in the city, I scurry along the streets looking for predators.

To some extent I know that predators of the human kind are not limited in geography. They could easily be lurking in the real wilderness just as easily as in urban Rock Creek Park. But generally killers don't go backpacking. They are opportunists on the outskirts.

So instead of the woods I went to the gym and rode a bike to nowhere. I will be back in the wilderness in a few days, so I settled for the safe anonymity of weight machines. I could not live this way forever. I hate that women know fear in a way men will never know. I hate that this fear holds me back.

I wonder, have you felt fear in the woods? Did it stop you from going?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

older hotties rule!

 A few years back, I sat in the Big House, one of the bunkhouses where the trail crew, wilderness rangers, and other flotsam lived during the short, beautiful summer seasons in Sawtooth Valley. Back from their hitches, the trail crew guys were going down their rating list of the women on the crew.

"She's a hottie," one remarked.

"She's a hottie too."

They came to the name of a woman who could outclimb and outhike them. She was thirty-nine, about twenty years older than they were. They paused.

"She's a hottie," was the final verdict. "An older hottie."

I laughed, overhearing. I was younger than the woman they were discussing. I wasn't that much younger, though, and had noticed that on every fire crew, every trail crew, people were getting younger and younger. It wasn't so much the getting older I feared, it was the slow slide toward the inability to do the things I wanted to do. Could I still do epic hikes? Trail runs? Worse, what if I decided I didn't want  to do those things? I couldn't imagine a life without running, hiking, skiing.

The older hottie thing, though, gave me hope. I started looking around. There were women older than me who were still out there. I ran next to an eighty year old at the Napa Marathon. She finished only a half hour after I did, and I wasn't moving that slowly. I kayaked on the outer coast with these women. I climbed to the alpine tundra and back with them and had to hustle to keep up. I met a woman who hiked fifteen mile days for 280 miles on the John Muir Trail and beyond. She's 60. They were beautiful, not in a fresh-faced, unformed way, but beautiful from all the years of figuring out the fall line of a mountain, the sweet spot of a river. I wanted to know what they knew.

In the spirit of the older hottie, I went for a run on my birthday today. It was just a jaunt around the monuments. Nothing epic. But I saw a woman in her twenties ahead and gunned it to pass her. Not in a mean spirit. But to show her: you can be older and still be out there.

I'm squinting into the sun. Those aren't all wrinkles.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Flirting with DC

When I got married, I had a picture in my head of who my husband was. I drew an outline and colored in between the lines. He was going to be my outdoor companion, the one who went along happily on the epic alpine hikes, struggling through devil's club and alder in the slimy undergrowth of Southeast Alaska. He was going to kayak the rugged outer coast with me, setting up our tent on small pebbly beaches worried by surf. We would hike the John Muir Trail. We would travel overseas. He would be the perfect blend of adventure and self-sufficiency with a sprinkle of protectiveness and a dash of practicality.

It soon dawned on me that I had made up an entire reality that did not exist. I had taken a few clues he had given me and drawn another person, the one I wanted him to be. Instead, his kayak hung on the back of our house, a thin skin of moss growing over its bright yellow surface. He watched football while I packed a backpack. If he traveled, he wanted indoor plumbing. Because I had wanted it so badly, I had forced my idea of him into a mold he did not fit, and had no interest in doing so. Possibly he had his own out of focus picture of me.

It was a painful lesson, once I realized the dream did not mesh with the reality. In some cases, you can take the new reality and try it on, and it fits. Maybe not as well as you would like, but it will work. Not in this case, not ever.

In the case of DC, I have realized that for the last two weeks I have been searching for the same type of experience I can get at home. I long for rivers, I pine for woods. But that is not what this city is about. So instead I have decided to embrace the difference. Eat naan. Go to museums.
 I did, however, find a few small slices of urban wilderness.
One is Rock Creek Park. I admit, I was a little frightened by this sign:

But I continued on to find an actual trail system. With hills and everything. I couldn't get to the best part of the park, because you need to have a car (something I am sadly discovering about DC is that to get to places like this, it is hard to be carless) but I did get to hike a short ways in an actual forest.

DC is not a place I want to linger long. But wilderness is not for everyone either and that is a good thing. If everyone I pass in their trendy boots here decided to go camping at Ice Lake, it wouldn't be wilderness anymore. In the case of my ex-husband, he is living happily in a major city, not having to kayak a day in his life ever again. As for me, I keep reminding myself not to color every person or place with my own expectations and desires.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Forest Service Layer Cake

Back in the day, all the forest needed was a ranger. He, it was always a he, rode manfully about on his horse, stopping to fix a fence, fight a fire, or count a cow or two.

We are far from those days. Now the agency is somewhat like a cake, with dense layers of bureaucracy that, unlike a real cake, get heavier and bigger the higher you go. And this is the biggest layer of them all, the Washington Office!

I am working in the charming Yates Building. It's actually kind of pretty:
 See that tower? One of the times I was here, I found out how to go up there. A woman sits near the stairs and lets you in. It's very winding and narrow. I wish my office were up there!

But no, I am on the fourth floor in a cubicle. See the windows? I'm not near one. But if I were, I couldn't see out, because there are Kevlar curtains on them. Why, you ask? In case of shooting! Remember the shooting at the Holocaust museum? People here were locked in and couldn't leave. The people that were out of the office doing whatever and didn't have their car keys were out of luck. Now when you leave, even if you're just running across the street to the cafeteria, you're supposed to take everything with you.

In the basement there's a shower and locker room. There's rumored to be a gym in the Ag building, but I can't find out because the people in the Wilderness department Work.All.The.Time. They didn't even know about the shower. They don't even take a lunch hour. (I do).

There are guards at the door. Once I surprised one who was asleep. It must be a boring, boring job. They can't even read a book. You just flash your card at them, which is weird because who knows what I am carrying in my backpack?

There are sirens pretty much all day. I sometimes go and look out, but nobody else does. They're used to it.

One weird thing is that people like to fill up their cars with other riders before they leave so they can take the carpool lanes. So you see random people standing outside the building. A car will pull up, someone will ask where they are going, and get in! With a stranger!

What am I working on, you ask? Well, here and in Congress is where the policy begins. So there are strategies and initiatives ad nauseum. Climate change scorecards. Wilderness 5 year strategies. Chainsaw and crosscut saw national policy changes. NEPA review assessment plans! All coming to a forest near you! Right now, I am part of the problem!

It's a lot different from my office, where people sneak in their dogs, wear Carharts and curse freely at their computers. For some people in the Forest Service, working  here is their holy grail. They want to be up at the top, making these kinds of decisions. I have to admit it is nice to be able to insert my opinion into something like, should we require taskbooks to be certified to run a crosscut saw (I shudder to even write that)? But Kevlar curtains are not for me! I'm heading back to the bottom layer of the cake.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Guns, Runners and Pavement

Well, folks, I have survived a week (almost) in DC. I've joined a gym (ugh!), worn some suits, and tramped around the urban jungle. There are some cool things about DC. You can sign out a bike and ride it, and drop it off someplace! (I'm not brave enough of a bike rider, but it's still a neat program). There's some farmer's markets. You can ride the metro just about anywhere. And a lot of the museums are free!

 A nice snowfall this morning made these row houses look even more quaint:

This is the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Lots of cute townhouses.
The mall is a favorite place for runners. I've kept my runs to about 30 minutes because the pavement just hurts. I have been running on trails for too long. How did I ever run 26.2 miles on pavement? Twice! Ouch.

Every day hundreds of runners are here. A lot of them in shorts, even though it's really cold.

I haven't seen this many guns since I left Alaska. I don't have any pictures of the capitol police because I wasn't sure if they would appreciate it. During the week, they are on every corner. With very large rifles.

Today I went to the botanical garden:

And the museum of the American Indian. I was fascinated by the boats.

This aleutian kayak is 19' long and 24' wide. Looks a little tippy to me.

An Ojibwa birch bark canoe
Other things I have learned:

Capitol Hill is really on a hill.
Plastic bags will cost you 5 cents in the store.
They're into "reflecting pools" here. (I don't quite get the concept of water you can't swim in).
"Sarah Palin's Alaska" reality TV show is really, really bad.

Stay tuned as the city adventures continue.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Opposite of Never

Today I was here:
Tomorrow I will be here:

 I am heading east for a month to work in the Forest Service's Washington Office. It's a big deal to leave here, so I took a hike up the West Fork Wallowa to think things over.

I was fascinated by the pattens the ice makes in the river.

Little ice flowers in a stream.

Stepping outside of the boundaries you have chosen for yourself can cause an uneasy feeling. Moving to this valley, I drew lines around myself, plunging willingly into setting down roots. I was thirsty for sameness, to drink the same water, climb the same mountains, love the same person. For someone who has moved aimlessly around all her life, this was more adventurous than anything I had ever done. Weaving myself into a fabric that has expanded to take me in feels like freedom more than all the packing I had ever done, every first hum of car wheels on unfamiliar pavement, the gap I left behind slowly filling the way my bootprints fill now as I walk across a half-frozen stream.

I crunched up the trail. The sun was washing down the peaks that surround Ice Lake and mini avalanches, spindrift really, floated down the exposed rock. Ice swirled in the river. The temperature hovered at five degrees.

As I walked I thought about our comfort zones and how they can stretch and contract. Sometimes other people show us how to cross those imaginary lines. Other times, propelled by longing and desire, we re-draw them ourselves, like when I taught myself to swim long after childhood, floundering down the pool, learning to breathe.

After a few miles I began to posthole and it was time to turn around. The sun had reached the trail, filtering down through the spruce trees in a muted whisper. The only conclusion I had reached is that if you pull the purse strings of your comfort zone too tight, you are missing the essential deliciousness of life.
So I will go out of the valley that holds me like an embrace, but I won’t be gone long, just long enough to prevent myself from hardening like ice. I won't be a person who says never.

At the same time I am who I am, so I will be looking for a little bit of wilderness, even in DC.