Sunday, September 25, 2011

Face Plant!

I felt tired and clumsy as I ran up the trail. Normally Hurricane Creek is my very favorite trail run. There are some steep pitches, but the scenery is inspiring (Obviously these were taken earlier in the year.)

You can run as far as you want on this trail but I almost always turn back at Slickrock, a cascading waterfall spilling over white rock into a gorge. I thought about going that far today but I knew it wasn't happening. My pace was sluggish and I kept tripping over rocks. Obviously I needed a rest day but at the same time, I hadn't run in a week. I had to run, I thought as I twisted my ankle, fortunately not severely.

Something just felt off, though I was quick to condemn it as laziness. My inner coach cracked the whip. So what if you backpacked 30 miles this week? That's not running! Pick up the pace!

Then as I was crossing Deadman Meadow, two miles from the trailhead, I caught my foot on a rock and did a full on face plant. It was the best place it could have happened, in the soft dirt instead of on a rocky section. I got up gingerly, uninjured, and slowly jogged to the trailhead.

What I had ignored was my body telling me that it was tired, a cumulative effect of the last four weeks of backpacking and interrupted sleep, both in the tent (Is that a bear?) at at home (The dog comes up the stairs. Pants. Runs back down the stairs. Runs back up the stairs. Pants. Runs...You get the picture). Tiredness/Overexercising=Face plants for me, because I am normally sure-footed.

It's a fine line and one I'm never sure about. Cut a run short because I'm wheezing up the Hill of Despair, or power through? Give up on a bike ride because my husband drives by (cringe. I did this) or stubbornly keep going? Take a nap in the hammock or go to the Gym of Awfulness? Oh and what about your vow to do yoga every day, Missy?

I envy people who have no such dilemmas. They seem to fall in two camps. The ones who pound it out, regardless. Oh, I ran fifty miles yesterday. Today, I'm going to ride my bike for 100 miles. Then, I might swim a few miles. I have typhoid fever, but that's no excuse! Or the others, the ones who say, I'm kind of tired today. I think I'll go for a walk.

There's no right or wrong here. To the freaks of nature, I say, run on! I'm trying to fit into the other camp.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

pushing the season

I hold my breath every day until I see the sun blaze over the canyon. I want to bottle up this cinnamon-sweet fall weather and save it against a November, an April. I know I am lucky with every golden day that passes. It could be so different. In my two previous fall seasons here snow has come early, breezing in with the confidence of the self-absorbed.

Not so this year, and I cross my fingers as I head out on my fifteenth backpack trip since May. J pokes fun at my habit of hiking from dawn to dusk, racing the sun, but I feel compelled to drink in as much country as possible. After two years in this mountain range, there is still so much to see. I should draw it out, make it last decades, but I can't seem to do it.

Dark falls early, leaving me hurrying for a campsite. I bargain with the trail: Fifteen more minutes, and then I'll stop. The pass, I'll camp there and listen to the elk bugle (or perhaps the hunters attempts to bugle). Okay if not there, then Bonny Lakes. I'll stop there for sure. But it's still daylight, so maybe...just a bit farther. I end up setting up camp by headlamp, once again.

Pushing the season and I know it: Though the days are still a serene yellow and blue, shirt-and-shorts weather, there was frost in the high meadows of Big Sheep Basin. The nights turn cold like the flip of a switch. Everywhere, signs that the short, glorious summer is nearly over.

This has been a long, spectacular run courtesy of the trail contracts, many miles (hundreds?) starting in the poison ivy and heat of Hells Canyon, climbing down from 5800 feet to 1600 and back up again in one day. Now I am on the tail end, the contractors just about finished. This is what I dreamed of when joining the Firm..paid backpacking, the rarest jewel there is.

I think I have wrung out every golden drop of summer but I am greedy, wanting more. Wanting things to stay the same forever. Never to change, although I know the inevitability.

The nights in the tent are long though, too long, staring at the nylon walls, too tired to read but too awake to sleep. Each morning could be the one the snow falls, irreversible and final. Each morning, so far, it isn't.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

walking the line

What is the line between obsession and desire? Would you know it if you crossed it? How would you find your way back? Would you even want to?

"You seem kind of...obsessed." The words hit me like a wet washcloth. I've been thinking about it for a few days now. Lately my outdoor adventures have hit a fever pitch. I keep trying to go farther on the bike and on foot. When I only go a few miles, or an hour, I agonize. Maybe I should go out and run three miles. Four. Because I didn't get enough out of that hike. You know, just because. I ate brownies today. I don't want to get out of shape. Winter is coming.

I have met obsession before and I know its bittersweet taste. In my early twenties I ran and ran. Everything I did revolved around my next run. I wouldn't go away for a weekend because I might miss a run. I ran inconveniently, in storms and ice. I stared at my running log, looking for that perfect number--40 miles a week, at less than 8:00 pace.

That was obsession, but the flip side of obsession is passion. People without it bore me. Even if it is something I would never do in a million years--tele skiing, snowboarding, the Western States 100--I like to see fire in their eyes. It is fascinating, primal, seductive. I get those people.

If this post sparks something in you, riddle me this: What's the line you walk? How do you keep from falling in?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Forty Miles of the Minam

I lay in my tent hearing an unfamiliar sound, the light finger-tap of rain on the fly. I have grown accustomed to sunshine and packing up a wet tent and the on and off dance of rain gear is not as smooth as it was in the rainforest. (Crap! It's raining harder! Put on rain jacket! Rain pants! Pack cover! Five minutes later: Crap! It's not raining and I'm hot! Take off everything! Repeat.)

Over across Frazier Meadows, a light glowed in the elk hunters' wall tent. They had come in late the night before and I had not seen them. In thirty-two miles of walking I had in only seen three people, my friends who were caretaking Red's Horse Ranch and a woman riding a horse up from a private inholding. It was fall on the Minam.

Beautiful river valley.
Near Frazier Meadows, in light rain.

Fall on the Minam and the landscape reflected the season in subtle ways. The grouseberry was turning yellow, the grasses amber. The light slanted in a different way, softer. The river was low and harmless. The whole place looked as if it had been painted with a smudged finger, more like a dream than real trees and water.

A wildfire burns in the mountains.
Fall on the Minam and I felt like the last person on the trail, completely alone but self-sufficient, carrying everything I needed.

Hovering all of it was winter, its presence an unseen thing, real only by feel and touch. Soon this rain will be snow. Soon this river will be ice. I feel an urgency to see it all, do it all, before winter comes, slamming the gate to the mountains shut. You can still go there, but it is different, tinged with the deep ache of cold and the fear of avalanche.

On the day before I had backpacked 25 miles, wanting to get out of the river corridor and up to some alpine views.  There were some perfectly acceptable river campsites, but something drove me on. I was reminded of my marathon running days. Before them, my long run was only six miles. It was amazing to see what the body can actually do when asked. Soon a sixteen mile run became short. I am the first to say that I am not an exceptional athlete. Plenty of people run and hike more than I do. But there are a lot of people who don't ask enough of their bodies. They might be surprised at what they can do.

This is the Lostine River after passing Minam Lake.

Two miles from the trailhead I encountered a white-haired man, probably in his late seventies, dressed in camo and toting a bow. When I told him I hadn't seen any elk, he grinned cheerfully.

"Oh well, I'm old and I'm just tottering up the trail," he said.

Later that day, after a shower and pasta, J shook his head when I told him I had backpacked 25 miles in one day.

"Normal people don't do that," he said.

Maybe. But who wants to be normal?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Eleven miles on 9/11!

It's time for a HAPPY POST!

I noticed that some of my bloggy friends were running 11 miles on 9/11 and I decided that this would be a worthy way to remember those who died on that day and those who have died in the ensuing occupations (ahem. Wars. Whatever. This is not a political blog).

To understand how much running eleven miles means to me, I take you back to the summer of 2007. I was on a fire outside of Missoula. There had been something creeping around in my knee for awhile but I was doing what I usually do, ignore and hope it went away. Then I stood up and my knee locked. I can't describe the intense pain. Not only did it lock, but it kept trying to unlock in spasms. I hopped over to the med tent in tears, but there wasn't much they could do. Over the next couple of days the knee unlocked slightly so I could limp around, but it was clear that life as I knew it--as a marathoner--was over.

There were months after the surgery when a one mile jog was a victory. Even two years later there were residual spasms. The farthest I dared to run was about an hour. I biked and hiked instead. Double digit runs, I thought, were a thing of the past.

Did I dare dip back into the way things used to be?  I decided to try. I could always walk.  I started in the predawn darkness. It was already seventy degrees as I shuffled slowly up the Hill of Death and its lesser cousin, the Mountain of Misery. Drift smoke swirled around my face. I had picked a rollercoaster run, but a beautiful one that winds by the lake on a dirt road.

I was completely alone. No lights came on, nothing stirred. I thought a lot about the firefighters who went into certain death, just because that is what they do. I thought about all the people at work, maybe surfing the internet, thinking about what they brought for lunch, or just working away. I thought about the people on the planes. I thought about how lucky I was to be running. I thought about the last ten years--from Oregon to Alaska and back. From bad times to good.

To my surprise the first half went smoothly. I felt great! For a few moments I was back in the zone, the marathon zone, the one that made all the pain worth it. You know what that's like. Reaching the marina trail, I turned around and headed back. I was moving slowly, slower than my marathon pace used to be, but I didn't really care. It wasn't about time.

I had a few bad moments between miles 8 and 9 when my body rebelled a little, wondering what I was doing. The knees and hips felt a little out of alignment. I slowed down. But everything smoothed out again and before I knew it, I was racing down the Hill of Death, with only one mile to go. I felt a smile fan out across my face. I'm baaaack, I thought.

But not really. I can't make runs like this a part of my repertoire very often. I need to protect my knees, which have been doing remarkably well lately. Still, I cruised up to my house, looking around for Cute Neighbor or Fun Athletic Girl to tell.

Nobody was around. I hugged my accomplishment like a sweater. Eleven miles is nothing to most of my runner friends-just a warm-up. But to me, it's everything.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

lunatic fringe

Deep breath. Just ignore it. That's right, don't breathe the smoke that tinges the air a cinnamon shade. Don't notice the sun, turned blood red. Those air tankers and helicopters that bumble through the sky? Don't listen. Drive fast so you won't see fire camp at the rodeo grounds.

This is the big one. The big test to see if you have overcome your addiction. The canyon burns and burns. It is hot. A project fire on your doorstep. People bustle around self-importantly. And you? On the sidelines. Not needed.

One of the casualties of moving to a new place is that you lose all your history. You are a blank slate for people to scribble on. Woman who wears dresses to work=could never have been a firefighter. You are not one to fill the air with decades old stories. "In Yellowstone, in the fires of '88.." "Back in two thousand, in Montana.." This behavior irritates you. You are not that person. You prefer to seep in slowly, a trickle instead of a flood. One day you look around and realize: Nobody here really knows me. They will, someday, at least in a way you can accept. But there are big gaps. They don't know the you that drove a swamp buggy through the Everglades. They don't know the you that rappelled into caves. There is so much they don't know. It will take years, and sometimes you wonder if you are, once again, up to the task.

Instead, think about why you wanted to kick it. Never being home. Nobody willing to wait around that long, to give you a chance at love. Instead, men who whined about your love for fire, thinking, correctly perhaps, that it trumped your love for them. The uneasy balance of keeping them happy but feeding your soul.

Other things too. The chance to have real summers, to hike, to run, to know people outside of that culture, to wear shorts instead of Nomex. Too, the effort of keeping up qualifications when your real job has deadlines to meet. Losing those qualifications, demoted to only a handful. The thing is, you can't really just dabble in firefighting. You are in or you are out, with these big fires anyway.

And still. Like any addiction, it lurks. It waits for you at odd moments. It is more than an addiction, you think. It is your old life. The purr of a helicopter coming to pick you up from a mountain. Your crew, a tight bond after only a day or two. You really don't want to go back to those days. Not really. It was hard, and it was lonely. It is not your dream anymore. But for a long time, it was.

You will get through this. Today you sat at the lake with friends. You swam to the buoy and back. You hugged your pets. You missed your husband, away on another fire, and you now know a little about how those men you left behind must have felt. Tomorrow you will try a big thing, for you anyway, running 11 miles on 9/11. You will think that your problems are very, very small.

The canyon burns without you. From now on, it will always burn without you. Most of the time you are okay with this. Just not today.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

when things go wrong

Years ago I worked for a very short time as crew on a rescue helicopter. This time was a braid of excitement and terror, so closely entertwined that I sometimes could not tell the difference. I would be sweeping the bays, pulling weeds, or some other menial task and the paramedics would swoop in.

"We need this, this and this," they would say and I would pull out backboards, oxygen, short haul supplies. Eddie would fire up the helicopter and I would take the front seat next to him, his eyes in the sky. We would lift off and dive deep below the rim of the Grand Canyon, all the layers of rock one dizzying progression. As we spun through time, tourists turned their faces upward like flowers.

The victim could be on a trail, on one of the sandy beaches along the Colorado River, or just out there--somewhere. Eddie would wait on me to open my door and check the position of the skids, to see if we were on solid ground or if rocks were in the way. Sometimes he would hop the helicopter to a better place.

When it was safe we would pile out, the paramedics doing their thing and me helping. The faces of the victims never really stayed with me. Instead it was the relatives--hanging around with a look of puzzlement. How could this happen, they wanted to know. One minute you are hiking on your vacation. The next, intubated and fighting for your life. The dots were too hard to connect.

I thought about all this yesterday as I helped talk someone down a trail. To protect his privacy I will only say that sometimes the wilderness turns on us, either physically or mentally. It is not always some happy go lucky adventure. Sometimes people don't make it out alive. Sometimes they do, but are changed forever.

Someone falls from a mountain. Ultrarunners are caught in a brush fire.  A plane falls into Deadman Reach---we think, because we find no trace. It is the risk we take, the dark side of the moon.

Be careful out there, friends.

Monday, September 5, 2011

cross country, or how we went on a deeply annoying, severely frustrating adventure and somehow stayed married

I have a love-hate relationship with off-trail travel. Sometimes it is seamless, an easy climb up granite to reach a hidden lake. Two off-trail hikes loom large in my memory as spectacular, one a talus scramble up a mountain unstable as Grape Nuts to peer breathlessly at a wilderness ranger grail: an enormous lake so remote that there were no fire rings to clean up, no trash to pack out. Another time, in Southeast Alaska, a girl named Amelia and I zigzagged through brushy cedar and treacherous rock outcrops to stand above a lake frozen in mid-July. So yes, I can say I love off trail travel.

Sometimes I hate it too. Case in point, Warm Lake. I have seen it on maps and daydreamed. Warm Lake. Warm Lake. Could it be? Could this lake possibly be..a hot springs lake? Nobody I questioned knew, which should have sent up some serious crimson flags, but didn't.  I was consumed with the vision of a rockrimmed hot springs pond. What if, I thought, What if?

J was game for the adventure but as we struck out into an old burn, flinging our bodies over deadfall and squelching through questionable boggy spots, he asked if I was sure about this. "I'm not ready to turn back yet!" I answered blithely. How bad could it be? The map showed the lake only a mile and a half from the road, for Pete's sake.

Two hours later we dragged ourselves to a vantage point. Unfortunately I had worn shorts, and also unfortunately I have the habit of banging into every stob and branch there is. Several scrape marks decorated my legs. Streaks of black from burned logs completed the look. But my breath caught. There it was--the lake! A few hundred feet below, it glimmered seductively.

"It doesn't look that bad," I said tentatively. J looked concerned, but he knows me by now and figured I wouldn't be satisfied until I swam in the hot springs lake. We picked our way through scratchy brush, more tedious deadfall, bees and tiny trees repopulating the burn to emerge on the (swampy, impassible) shores of Warm Lake. Our feet teetered on a floating mat of vegetation. We paused, uncertain.

"We should put on our sandals and head for those rocks," J suggested. Neither of us wanted to negotiate the deadfall again and besides, that side might be better for swimming. Slowly we slogged along until something went horribly wrong. I took a step and began to sink in bottomless mud.

"I'm in quicksand!" I screamed. I sank further.

To his credit, J came to the rescue, even when my sandal was sucked off my foot and I had to execute a tricky maneuver to save it from disappearing forever. He did feel compelled to say, however, "Well, it isn't really quicksand. It's mud without a bottom."

I could have done without this remark, but I was so grateful to be released that I only slogged along, now muddy and out of sorts. Gradually I became aware that the water under my feet was not only decidedly not warm, but was very cold. Warm Lake indeed!

After a brushy and curse-inducing detour through a brush patch, we stopped at the rocks and regrouped. Swimming was out. We had hoped to continue our cross country adventure with a trip to nearby Frances Lake. The map showed it only 200 feet higher and less than a quarter mile away. We looked up. Deadfall. We looked at each other. I looked at my watch. Three. Sadly we decided to retreat.

The hike back was, if possible, worse than the way in. In an effort to stay out of the deadfall we climbed the rocks, climbed down the rocks, and up again. But the deadfall and brush were pervasive, the result of a stand-replacing wildfire ten years earlier. It was unavoidable.

Whiny Girl made a brief but show-stopping appearance. I hadn't seen her in several months, but there she was, her pace slow, stopping to sit on logs and complain. In the last half mile, hunters watched us curiously from the campground, only their stares preventing a full scale tantrum.

The lake of my despair.
I can't say that anything about this hike was fun. I have new gashes on my legs, got caught in mud with no bottom, discovered stinging nettles, did not get to swim in a hot springs, or any springs, didn't have enough food, and let myself down by whining. On the bright side though, we didn't scream at each other like the couple I saw on the trail a few months ago ("Take it easy, I'm carrying a LOT OF WEIGHT!") and we made it back to the car without throwing each other over a cliff.  That's what it's all about!