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.