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.