Sunday, July 31, 2011

Running down a dream

Everywhere I've lived there has been some nearly unattainable goal or destination, shrouded in mystery. In Nevada it was the fabled Moon Dome, a cave room with walking passage, decorated with delicate formations. In Idaho it was Swimm Lake, reachable by a death-defying scramble up Grape-Nut talus, a lake whispered about by wilderness rangers because it had no footprints, no messy fire rings, no signs that people had ever been there. In Florida it was Royal Palm Hammock, a grove of rare silver-barked trees rumored to grow deep in the swamp. In Alaska it was the sub-four marathon. Some of these I achieved, others I never found.

Here in the Wallowas, for me, the place is Deadman Lake. A small scrap of blue perched just below the Hurwal Divide, it remains elusive. A few people I know have glimpsed it from the ridge above. A couple of people have actually been there. I have my sights on this lake; for two years I  have stared at the map, the daunting contour lines, the fin of rock where it lurks, but have never made it there.

The first serious attempt occurred yesterday. In retrospect, we made all the classic mistakes. Leaving the trailhead at 8:30, way too late. Hiking on a 90 degree day. Not knowing the route beyond "you go up near Slickrock Creek." Still, we pressed gamely on, finding ourselves on a loose, shifting mountain. The phrase "I'm scared" was uttered more than once. Clearly this was not working.

This is Slickrock Creek. The brown looking stuff is left over snow from an avalanche.

We decided to angle over to an area of retreat, but then noticed that the climbing got easier. "Let's just go up a little ways," I said. We started up a much saner route, finding a line of footprints of some lone soul perhaps bent on the same destination. It was then that a small storm decided to blow through like a child's temper tantrum. We retreated to a small grove of trees to think things over.

Here's a couple of dorks waiting out the storm.

The sky was dark; rain lashed the trees. In this country it is impossible to tell what can happen. There are no clear patterns. Prudently, J decided we should go back. "We're only at 6100 feet," he said, studying his GPS. Deadman Lake is at 8674 feet. "We still have four hours of climbing," he said. "I don't like the look of the weather."

Childishly, I sulked, which led J to observe that I am goal fixated. "It's the journey, not the destination," he said cheerfully as we picked our way downslope. Sullenly I looked up at the sky, which taunted us by clearing to bright blue. Still, it was a sweet summer day. We paused by the river to eat our sandwiches. The journey, not the destination. I hope to get better at this. But goal fixated or not, I'm going to try again. I kind of like having a destination that isn't easy. I may get there, I may not. It gives me something to journey towards while I learn to stay in one place. Staying, I find I need those markers, those places still mysterious.
The lake is up there somewhere.

Here's a big show-off crossing the creek on the top log. (I walked on the bottom one).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

This isn't my first rodeo

Here I sit, fooling with my blog, eating way too many chocolate chip oatmeal cookies, deliberately skipping the rodeo.

Chief Joseph Days, an unfortunately named series of events that rarely seem to have much to do with Chief Joseph, is going on in my small town. Once again I failed to rent out my yard to tents, though many people in town have. People pack the streets. There are parades. There's music. There's rodeo ad nauseum.

I just can't get into it. Other people lather themselves up into a frenzied state of excitement, but I guess rodeo just isn't my thing. Cowboys aren't my weakness. (Smokejumpers, that is another story. Sorry, J!) This is a horsey place, and sometimes I want to be that girl, long hair flying, riding bareback across a field. But, so not going to happen. I'm a fan of my own feet. If I fall, it's because I took a wrong step. I'm in control of my destiny. Deep down, I don't trust horses.

To say this here is to be branded a hippie in sandals, so I mostly keep quiet. There's nothing wrong with horses. Or rodeo. They just aren't for me. I know this in the same way that I know I will never learn to surf. Or climb big mountains. Or run 100 miles at a time. In a life you have to distill down your passions, or at least I do. It's hard enough with a rare free afternoon. Do I kayakrunswimbikehike? If I'm not doing one I feel like maybe I should be. I'm probably not the easiest person to live with (sorry, J!).

At any rate, I don't wanna be a cowboy. Or a cowgirl. You won't find me riding the range. You might, however, find me running it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

alone in the mountains

I arrived at the trailhead to find about forty cars gleaming in the sun. I knew the Lakes Basin was a popular place, but forty cars? Inwardly I steeled myself to a hiker brigade, the clatter of cooking pots and the unavoidable (after you've been a wilderness ranger) noticing of glaring gaps in camper low-impact etiquette.

None of the usual suspects could go with me so I had decided to go anyway, fueled by curiosity over the reports of monstrous snowdrifts and impassible creek crossings. As I headed up the trail, a steady stream of backpackers were coming down. "You might be able to get to Moccasin Lake. But there's no way you can get to Mirror," they chorused. The water crossings? High and scary. Mosquitoes? Terrible! Everyone looked happy to be leaving. "Only a mile to go? Good!" one kid exclaimed, rushing towards the car.

Then a strange thing happened. The wilderness emptied of people like water rushing out of a drain. I climbed the nine miles to Horseshoe Lake to find complete solitude. A couple of day hikers headed back to the meadow three miles below and nobody else appeared. The logs across the creeks were friendly. The mosquitoes, bearable. The day spun out like a dream, quiet, peaceful, still.

The next morning I walked the loop to the high lakes, climbing up over snowdrifts. Surely I would run  into campers. This was the Lakes Basin after all, the most crowded destination in the Wallowas there is. But I passed by each lake, a glimmering link in a chain, completely alone. On the far side of Mirror, I followed a single hiker's footprints, he and I the only ones to make it up here this year.

Mirror Lake, still mostly frozen in late July.

Wintery Eagle Cap Peak. The sun made taking pictures difficult but I wasn't complaining.

I live in a postcard, don't you think?

It's always like this here, surprises, just when you think you have everything figured out. I don't know why I thought staying in one place would be boring. I'm finding every reason to stay right here.  I don't need to chase adventures around the globe anymore. All I need is an afternoon at a sun-warmed alpine lake, and then, later, hiking out to find people happy to see me. It's the balance I looked for, it seems, forever.

I know there will be days when this isn't enough. I haven't lived with myself for this long not to know. There will be days when I want to be anywhere but here. But today is not that day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

lake swimming (and pack giveaway results!)

Step 1. Struggle into wetsuit.

Step 2. Drive to lake in wetsuit, because nobody needs to see Step 1.

Step 3. Find a place free of boats, novice stand up paddleboarders, and kids on floatee toys.

Step 4. Gather up courage.

Step 5. Swim!

This is a deep glacial lake, fed by snowmelt. As I swim I imagine that I absorb small pieces of mountains through my skin. I glide over rocks that the glacier left behind thousands of years ago. The lake is shot through with golden sun as sweet as brown sugar, but a primordial cold lingers beneath the surface, enough to let me know that it is not as tame as it appears. Wildness is trapped beneath.

I learned a trick from another solo swimmer: take off your wetsuit in the water. It is much easier. All that is left is a quick two step to shore. The coolness in my body lasts for hours; inside I am a column of ice, slowly melting.

Now for the pack giveaway! There were 8 entries. I used a random number generator ( and the number that came up was #4, Ingunn! Ingunn, please send me an email to maryellenemerick AT with your address! If the pack doesn't work for you, you have plenty of other people here who want it!

Everyone else, don't despair, there may be cool giveaways coming soon. I have way too much outdoor gear, some barely used. Thanks for playing!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

if only

I was that girl in the car stuffed with belongings that you saw at the rest stop off of Highway 2, 395, 50, more. Where was she going? I was the girl with the seventy pound backpack and Forest Service uniform, packing a shovel and a pulaski in the White Cloud Mountains of Idaho. I was the girl leading cave tours at the park, planting trees, the one the news cameras scanned past at a fire camp. For years I was that girl. I walked the independence road because I didn't want anyone to tell me I couldn't go into the mountains when I wanted to. I didn't want someone's jealousy if I was on a fire crew with a bunch of guys, or anyone's smothering neediness when I wanted to go off to the coast to write. I know too many women who live those lives.

I thought I would be alone forever and that was okay, because I was fed up with wishy-washy men who didn't know what they wanted and men whose only outdoor experience was sitting in bleachers being participants. If I were ever to be with someone it had to be with a man who plunged in over his head just like I did, who wandered off the map, who didn't follow team sports (no offense to anyone reading this who does), who got it.

This week after my wedding has been the best week of my life. Sometimes it's easy to let the if-onlys creep in: If only this town had a pool. If only I could sell my memoir. If only I didn't have wrinkles. If only my knees were perfect and I could run a trail ultra..

The if-onlys have dogged me plenty in my life, but I can choose to beat them back. I can swim in Wallowa Lake with a wetsuit. If I don't sell my memoir, I had a lot of fun writing it. Not much I can do about the wrinkles. I can't run an ultra but I can run five miles and that's a lot more than some people can.

The other night I was at an outdoors restaurant listening to my friends Chase, Charlie, Brian and Spence play music. The whole town seemed to be there, a swirling kalidescope of color. The moon was full. This is a town where if they know you, they hug you. The band played on in defiance of the noise ordinance. Everyone danced.  I held my new husband's hand. This is as good as it gets. It is worth the time it took to get here.

PS! If you wrote something for the backpack giveaway, it will happen next week, mid-week! My back is healing and I feel much more kindly towards Osprey. I did, however, order a Deuter. I have a Go-Lite that is on thin ice too, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Free Backpack! Or, how I hiked 31 miles by accident

Ultra runners do it all the time. Thru-hikers do too. But let's face it, 22 miles up and down, holding a GPS and a map to find the actual trail, sliding on eroded, ball-bearing rocks, climbing across washouts, and crossing the same darn creek seven times with an uncomfortable backpack, is a long way.

Can you see the trail here?
Just to clarify things, I didn't intend to cover 22 miles in one day and nine the next. I hiked out the ridge with good intentions of doing a shorter out and back. But two things intervened. Lack of water and plenty of bear sign. A dry camp, I'm okay with. Bears in camp, not so much.

So I looked at the map and thought, Hey! I can make this a big loop if I drop down Saddle Gulch (losing 3000 feet in elevation), hike along Horse Creek until I find a good campsite, and then climb back up Monument Ridge!

What I didn't know was that campsites along Horse Creek are a scarce commodity. The river canyon narrows to a steep gorge; elsewhere the creek has changed course, chewing away at the banks until the trail is in fact the river. On I plodded. I had two mini tantrums, but without anyone to witness them, tantrums just seem silly. I stumbled into an okay but dark camp at 8 pm.

My oh-so expensive Osprey pack was on thin ice, having rubbed my back raw in three previous outings. I discovered that it had done it again, to the point where it was painful to even lie on my back. This pack has to go. More on this later.

What else? I sat in sap. I got my feet wet because I gave up on taking on and off the sandals. I got a blister. No bears showed up. The moon was bright. The next day I climbed painfully out of the canyon and back on the ridge.

Luckily there were big cairns on top of the ridge, because the trail disappeared.

I thought I was home free up there as I headed to a road labeled 4WD. Mistake! It was completely logged in. I crashed around in the woods for awhile before admitting defeat and heading back down the ridge to a connector trail. This added four miles to my “easy” second day.
Okay. About the pack. It’s an Osprey Aura 65 women’s. Read about it at Unfortunately it does not work for me. In making the pack light, the manufacturers have taken away the cushy hip and shoulder padding. I am giving this pack away to someone who can use it, not hang it on a wall. It’s been used four times. There’s a mysterious stain (coleman fuel?) on one pocket. The pack retails for $239. If you want it, post a comment. In the comment say how you found this blog and what you like reading about. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner. If you win it and it doesn’t work for you, all I ask is that you give it away to someone who will use it, not sell it. Pass on the trail gear! If nobody wants it, I will donate it to a kids’ backpacking program here.

Hike on, friends.

Look at Osprey, sitting there all pretty and innocent.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Outdoors and marriage

There are definitely things I would not want to do with a partner:
  • Move heavy furniture.
  • Back up the truck to the boat trailer.
  • Paddle a double kayak.
  • Run a marathon (unless you both totally run the same pace)
Things that always go better with a partner:
  • Figuring out where you are on a map.
  • Scaring off a bear
  • Planning an epic adventure
  • Navigating across rivers
I'm always amazed at the men who marry women who don't like the outdoors, and then they sit around and complain that their wives don't like the outdoors. Hello? For me, I like a balance. I like that my husband (as of Friday! Yay!) will sometimes backpack with me, but not always. It forces me to go with other people, which turns out to be really great. I like that I run and he doesn't, because I can run at my own pace and not get into my competitive my-partner-is-better-than-me-at-this-grrr mode. (I'm not competitive at all. Really).
I like that watching him has made me get better at mountain biking, and I like that he has his own thing, tele skiing, which I don't want to do but makes him happy and jump around when it starts to snow. I think it would be super boring if we did the same things together all the time.

And no couch potatoes. I love my couch but I don't want to live there.

Our party was yesterday at the volunteer ski hill. I can't believe how many people showed up, a testament to this town and the many interwoven strands of outdoor people (The award for most outstanding entrance went to Peter, who flew in on his parasail). There's the backcountry ski crowd, the hike to tops of peaks crowd, the hang out on the brewery porch crowd, the artists, the musicians who could be famous if they really tried, and the horse crowd, some belonging to more than one group. I am still a newcomer here, but the great thing about these people is that their circle can expand to hold more.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

the same thing I always write on July 6th

It's been seventeen years since the South Canyon fire.

I haven't forgotten.

I will never forget.

Miss you, buddy.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Used to be

Of all the things I used to do, giving up fighting fire has been one of the hardest. This might seem strange, because wildfire fighting is scary, painful and often boring. You can have hours and hours and days and days of swinging a Pulaski through stubborn, root-bound soil to create a skinny fireline. You can spend hours and hours poking bare-handed through gently smoking soil to find hot spots. You can be gone from home for weeks. You can cough, afterward, for weeks. You can die.

But there were days, months, years, when I loved it, just me and a band of strangers turned friends, off somewhere on a mountain, spiked out with our Meals, Ready to Eat and our bladder bags that we filled up at far-away lakes for squirting water on the fire. We huddled around the ashes, our bond after twenty-one days as thick and tightly-woven as braided rope. We ran into each other again and again in pockets of the country: Yellowstone in 1988, Wyoming in 1989, Idaho and Florida in the nineties, Montana in 2000, Alaska in 2004.

When I was on a fire, I felt as though I knew something. I could put it all together: the wind, the terrain, and make a map of what would happen. I knew when we should dig a cup trench to prevent rolling material from igniting outside the line, and I knew when we should cash it in and call for water drops. I spoke the language of relative humidity, helicopter payloads and hose lays.

That was before everything changed, in myself and in the world of firefighting. It has mushroomed into an even bigger juggernaut, more and more professional crews so that us Call-When-Needed (or, more patronizingly, "The Militia") are not summoned or wanted, and are looked down upon as second-class, ill-trained, last resort. Gone are the days when a burly crew of rangers and trail crew dug hot line. With shrinking budgets, our bosses won't let us go anyway; they have targets to meet and their backgrounds aren't in firefighting anyway. A gap has widened between the ones who are paid to do it all summer and those who come when called.

I've changed too. I don't really want to spend my summers digging fireline. I want to hike and swim and be with people I love. With each summer drawing down I know time is limited and short, and I want to drink it all down before I get old. There is so much country and so little time. So much love and so little time.

So while everyone else is in Arizona, I am here. And though I have mostly made my peace with ending twenty-five years of some sort of firefighting, full time or part, I can't say there isn't some little twinge, some half-remembered spark. Remember when? And I do.