Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's spri--Wait. Nope.

Spring here at the end of the road is a tease. Out of nowhere an impossibly perfect day will appear, raising hopes. Just as quickly, rain and snow will move back in. Even more difficult, days and days of gale-force winds rake across the mountain crest and pounce upon our town. The next morning, I awake and see what has blown into my yard and hunt down what has blown out.

It is a trying time for those of us who live to be out in the wilderness. Yesterday I struggled against a powerful wind, carving out my first run since the knee incident. (I'm glad to report that all seemed fine, although my knee is turning an intriguing shade of yellow.) At one point I was basically running in place, the wind was that strong. However, some people who were sitting at the trailhead in their car gathering up their courage saw me and were shamed into getting out. I'm always glad to do my part.

Today I arrived at the lake trailhead only to find an ominous sheet of ice covering the tread. Normally I would have donned my spikes and forged upward, but memories of my fall lingered and my new mantra thundered through my head: Must not get injured before JMT. Crankily I drove to the gym.

Right now we are under a flood watch, the rivers rising rapidly and turning chocolate. Snow is coming to the mountains and rain to the lower elevations. What that means for us is mud and more mud. My driveway has turned into a sloppy, bottomed-out mess that defeats the Fed Ex guy and scares the neighbors. I lurch along it in 4WD. The dogs merrily track mud everywhere and they are turning brown instead of their normal white.

Perhaps because of this, we sit and detail all the hikes we plan to do when we can get into the wilderness. We know it is months away. Even the canyon is lost to us right now, the lone access road a snarl of slippery mud that I am not willing to take on.

What do you do to keep your spirit alive when you can't do what sustains you? I look over JMT guidebooks and bully my hiking partners into making decisions. I make backpacking plans for the rest of the summer. I make gear lists. I keep writing my Alaska memoir, kind of, and my seasonal park service memoir, mostly in my head. I run on the moraine and in endless loops around the tiny state park. I work on cabin remodeling. Although these are all worthy pursuits, I feel like I am in a holding pattern. I wait for ice to melt. I wait for snow to recede. I wait for the rivers to calm, the country to soak in all the rain and the hillsides to turn green. The years go so fast now but the seasons so slowly. Winter was good but it's time for it to move on. Time to put on a backpack and head out.

The lake with whitecaps today.
What's it like where you live? Are you able to get  out? Cheer me up with some adventurous tales!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dear Knees. I'm sorry.

Dear Knees,

What can I say? I'm sorry. Again.

I've put you through a lot over the years. Fanatical running because you can't argue with crazy. Running in ice storms, tornado warnings, pavement, pavement, pavement.

Hiking with monster packs. Refusing to take said packs off when leaning over, way over, to clean out waterbars on the trail. (Psst! Hikers! Notice waterbars on your trails. Enjoy them. Think about the poor souls who dig them out.)  Tree branches whacking you. Falling down that talus slope that I just had to climb. Falling on that slab of rock in Ford's Terror.  Lunges. Squats with heavy weights, before I knew how much strain it was. Hiking mega miles in one day. Worn out running shoes. I know. I know.

I've tried not to be abusive since the surgery. All it took was the PT saying, "I'd love to tell you that you will be climbing Bear Mountain this spring, but I just don't know." Turns out I wasn't, not for a year. It isn't until something goes wrong that you realize how much your identity is caught up in what you like to do.  I was the girl who runs, for years and years, until I wasn't.

Haven't I changed? I laid off the marathons. I'm backpacking light. I do yoga! This latest incident was just a fluke, a hidden rock in the trail. I was fed up, that's all, with all the Midwest 80 degrees lawnmowing nonsense while we got snow, snow, snow. So I drove downcanyon to spring.

And it was all going so well. It wasn't spring yet, not exactly, but this is a good time to be on this trail, before the rattlesnakes and the ticks, even though the river crossings required me to dunk my shoes over and over. But it was warm. Shorts at last, shorts at last!

Here I was at the old line shack, in a tank top!

There's a dark side to trail running, though, and I found it, tripping over a hidden rock. There was that horrible feeling as I flew suspended in mid-air. And you won't be surprised to know that after my initial thought: what's broken? I next thought: Darn it, I won't be able to finish my run!

But I'm proud of you, knees. Even though Left immediately swelled up to four times its normal size, we were still able to jog slowly out (because what was the alternative?). You seem to be coming around now too, the swelling diminishing more every day. The Fingers are crossed that there isn't any permanent damage, and the Brain doesn't think there is.

Knees, I know you've had a tough life with me. We haven't spent a lot of time knitting. All I can say is, hang in there. I'd rather use you and have great memories than stay indoors. Wouldn't you? I know, I know, more ice. I'm on it.

Your friend,

The Klutz

The "trail."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

with a little help from our....

I should have known. Cross country skiing with a Freak of Nature always ends up with you stranded on the side of a mountain. Real skiers with AT gear whizzed down the slope enroute to the lodge. There I was, on skinny skis, unable to effectively snowplow. I had to get down somehow, and the Walk of Shame just seemed too humiliating.

Bless those friends who help you push your limits. Where would I be if one rainy Sunday Brian hadn't said, "Let's just run twelve miles and see where we're at?" That twelve miler blossomed into two marathons. I remember all those times Robin wanted to "get to the alpine", our short hikes turning into all-day jaunts of incredible beauty. Then there was Laura at the old mill site, watching me painfully try to balance on a bike as an adult, and Rob at the pool, putting up a workout that I felt compelled to attempt. Even my more recent virtual friends who have done things like hike the John Muir trail and run incredible distances through the Alaskan wilderness. (well, I probably won't be doing that.)

I'm not saying I wouldn't have done any of those things on my own, but sometimes it takes someone who believes in you when you might not. Someone who knows you can get back in your kayak or face up to a bear stalking along the shore. That spark of recognition lighting somewhere deep inside.

The Freak could easily have skied down the slope hours before, but she coached me along. "Here's a good runout!"she pointed out. "You can do it." She is fearless and I am way too full of fear. Like drunks our tracks staggered through the trees, zigzagging their way to safety and flatter ground. If I had been on my own, I probably would have walked it. The snow was slippery and laid flat to the ground like a pancake. It was easily the steepest thing I've ever skied. I am not sure I could have been as patient as she was, but with a flourish of triumph we gained the parking lot. I had turned a corner. A small corner, but still.

Like I said, greatness lies within us. It is an ember just waiting for a wind.

Thanks, friends.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finding Sherry

Yesterday I read that authorities have found what they suspect is the body of Sherry Arnold. She is the Montana runner who was grabbed off the street for no other reason except that she was a woman and that the men were creeps who thought somehow that it was okay to kill her, throw her clothes in a Dumpster, and bury her in a shelter belt of trees far from her home.

When I am in the wilderness, it is hard to believe that evil exists. All I have to do is lean against the comforting granite shoulder of a mountain, listen to the low chuckle of a river, and it is easy to think that life is essentially good and unspoiled and pure. That to me is the real world, not the one where illiterate bad guys can buy crack and go looking for a woman to kill.

It's not that bad things stay outside of the wilderness boundary, but I have always felt that the benefits outweigh the risks there. I have been scared, mostly of bears cruising the salmon streams, avalanches and a sudden fall to a great emptiness, but it is a different kind of fear, the kind that almost seems acceptable. After all, I am choosing to walk along the ledge. I am pitching my tent where animals live. Everything out there is often predictable. Bears, for example, are more predictable than you may think. Out of the hundreds of coastal grizzly encounters I had living in Alaska, only one bear chose to charge, and it was out of surprise, not maliciousness. Here at the end of the road, some people choose to assign animal behavior, particularly wolf behavior, to human qualities. They are painted as uncaring, insensitive predators, killing livestock for sport. But they are getting it all wrong. Wolves don't care. They are not driven by human emotion but by genetic instinct. People have the capacity to choose.

I don't criticize the women I know who won't run on trails because they are afraid of wolves or mountain lions. They run on the roads instead, thinking themselves safe. But I think they are getting it all wrong.

People are the ones to fear.

Rest in peace, Sherry.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the zen of moraine running

After two and a half years of this stay-in-one-place experiment thing, I still don't entirely feel like I belong yet. I have yet to learn the rhythm of life here, to enter the circles that other people have created who have lived here for ten, twenty, years and beyond. I still sometimes feel like the girl who loves mountains more than people, who will pick up and leave soon so there is no use in getting entwined in the fabric of a small town.

But something is different here. I am starting to care about the people here in a way I never let myself before. After all, when you know you are moving on soon, it is too hard to drop down the walls. Missing those you have left behind makes such a deep groove in your heart that I learned over time to avoid it as much as I could.

That is not to say that in the other places I lived that there weren't people I loved. My marathon training friends, a merry trio who suffered through horizontal rain on our twenty-milers. C, my confidante of the trails, who listened to heartbreak and secrets and never told. The Swamp Babes, sassy women who could drive swamp buggies and dig fireline better than any guy ever could. R, my buddy who pushed me to the fastest mile and a half ever. The Boys of Mackinac. Just to name a few. But while I kept those people close to my heart, the towns themselves were a mystery, the interlaced lives. They were just brief stopping places along the way, places to resupply. I wasn't part of those towns and they weren't part of me.

The other day I looked glumly out of the window at the mud season, a seesaw of a time when it can be sixty degrees one day and dumping snow the next. I thought of all the places I could be instead. Hawaii. Mexico. Then I did what I always do when I want to fall in love with this place all over again: I headed for the moraine.

You can't run fast on the moraine, at least not in the beginning. Rocks litter the small path, slowing progress to an eleven minute mile, probably slower. Much slower. The zen of moraine running is that you don't take a Garmin and you don't take music. You don't worry about pace. You are forced to slow down, in some places even (gasp) walk. The moraine teaches you patience. It shows you that you can't force things. At first this frustrated me. I worried that this run wouldn't count somehow, that it was too slow. But eventually the moraine worked its magic. It really didn't matter that I was slow. It didn't matter if I had to walk. All that counted on the moraine was its essence, running on top of the world, in a place whose history stretched back generations. Always, I slow down to moraine time.

I don't know if I will ever become part of this place's history, a fraction as much as one of the icons who passed away yesterday, leaving people in tears as they heard the news. I don't think so--I've come here so late, too late to make an imprint on the seasons and the hearts of those who call this place home. At the same time I wouldn't take back my fifteen years of traveling. I lived more in those years than anybody has a right to. But as great as traveling was, it was ultimately solitary, a girl in a car heading somewhere. Now I want to be more like the moraine. Part of something bigger.

I'm staying. Maybe I will end up being part of the stories that define and mark our boundaries to this place. Maybe not. In the end, it doesn't much matter. It's time and patience and learning to slow to the pace of something else that matters to me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The bearable lightness of backpacking

I believe that I have said before that back in the day, the wilderness rangers would wander down to the barn, where we would oh-so-casually hang our loaded pre-hitch packs on the scale to see what kind of weight we would be carrying. Typically mine would top out between seventy and eighty. We didn't complain about this because, well, that would be wimpy. Instead, each of us threw out little remarks like, "Oh, it's light this time. Only sixty-eight pounds!" Unlike regular hikers, we collected the stuff that people left in the backcountry, so by the time we returned our packs were even heavier. Secretly, I kind of liked having a heavy pack. Secretly, each of us thought we were badass.

Which makes me laugh as I prepare a gear list for the JMT. Now people are in pursuit of the lightest gear possible, and "base weight" is the new catchphrase. As in, "my base weight before food and water is eleven pounds!" That is now considered badass.

I don't know what my base weight will be, but I am aiming for a total weight of less than thirty pounds. I know I could go super lightweight and only take a tarp and a pack with no stays, but the whole point is the balance between comfort and lightness. Time will tell if I can get there. So far the main items I will be carrying are:

Pack: Deuter women's ACT Lite 60 (something like that anyway). Gone are the days of the seven pound Gregory packs! This one is about two pounds.

A Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 1 tent. Yes, I could share a tent with one of my companions, but I don't sleep that well anyway, and this tent is featherweight. No tarping it because, well, mosquitoes.

A Go-Lite sleeping bag of +20. My go-to summer bag.

My Thermarest NeoAir. Love, love, love.

Aqua Mira water purification tablets. I like filters, but they are heavy and can clog. I can deal with plop and fizz for three weeks. Also, I got something similar to giardia when I worked in the Sierras, so I'm not willing to take the chance of untreated water.

Clothes: Mostly lightweight smartwool and icebreaker to keep the stink down. A skort, for fashion. My lightweight down puffy. Rain gear. Pretty much I will wear the same clothes for three weeks.

Merrell pace glove shoes for river crossings and camp, and to hike in if I need to. I will mostly hike in my Ahnu boots.

Miscelleaneous first aid stuff, toiletries, and my luxury item, a Kindle and solar charger, so I can read at night.

For a stove, my friend may bring her whisperlite, we have not decided yet.

And this: 

Because (gasp) there are bears! It is one pound something ounces which kind of bugs me, but when I worked in the Sierras the bears were a menace. You regularly piled up rocks beside your tent as weapons for the inevitable midnight visit. The bears were so smart that they figured out how to climb a tree and jump down on your food bag, bringing it to the ground. Since these canisters have been required, the problems have reportedly abated significantly.

My friend Ken used to say I had "packing anxiety" because I would pack for a trip way in advance, then unpack and throw things out, repack, and so on.  I wouldn't say I am anxious, not yet. After all, the trip is five months away. Plenty of time to weigh, and throw out, and repack. Right?

If you do a lot of backpacking, what is your weight goal?

Monday, March 12, 2012

a weekend in a mountain town

I always remember very well why I left Idaho. I could have hung on, living a hardscrabble life in between the four months of (sometimes) guaranteed employment as a wilderness ranger. It was the best job I ever had, and this mountain town the best place I ever lived. Each fall I would wrestle with the stay-or-go dilemma, always returning until one year I just left and never came back.

But this place, year round population less than 100, still holds my heart. It is the place I would live if I had money and time, but I just gulp it in small doses every year or so, enough to hold me until the next visit. Because it is beautiful:

and there were sled dog races:

This bridge was challenging!

There were 32 teams and many women mushers. Love it.

And a skijoring race, which Jerry won. To our amazement, our lazy dogs actually ran fast, 2 miles in 11:38 (up a big hill, at nearly 7000 feet). Wish I could run that fast!

Sometimes the dogs are a challenge, but once they got started they actually pulled.
We soaked in hot springs every night, watching the cold stars above the colder river, the world blanketed in feet and feet of snow.

Our own private (hot springs) Idaho.

Sled dog people, and sled dog groupies, are a friendly bunch. Spectators and competitors mingled, looking at dogs and gear. My favorite quote of the weekend came when a man wandered over to inspect my skis. "Oh, metal edges," he said. "I started skiing at 80, so I made sure I got metal edges."

You've got to love that.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bicycle. Bicycle.

I know where I stand with my old Trek. We are way past the honeymoon phase, and have settled into a comfortable routine. I know what gear I need to be in to successfully crest the Hill of Death and how fast I can take the Potholes of Panic. A ride to the library? Could do it in my sleep. Chug up Hurricane Creek? No problem. Weve got it all figured out.

My new bike, though, is still a mystery. Like some men I have known, it keeps me on my toes. Sometimes I wonder if I am out of my league. I approach it with both excitement and apprehension, trying to figure out what makes it tick. The gears are still an unknown. "Look at your chain ring!" Jerry says when I whine about not knowing where I am in the gears. Look at my chain ring? I'm just trying to stay upright! "I've ridden behind you for two miles and you haven't changed gears once!" he observes, riding annoyingly just at my shoulder. "Try standing up and pedaling!" he yells before sweeping away ahead of me, also annoyingly. (Note to Jerry: Love you.) Unlike my dear familiar Trek, this bike is still a nut I can't crack. It is also fascinating.

I like it though, once I get past the wobbly start, love the big tires that flow smoothly over the dirt and pavement and gravel. It seems improbable that I am in charge of this powerful creature. Instead, I am just along for the ride. I cling to its back like it is a horse, my hair flying out behind. There are moments where it feels like flying.

I still ride my Trek, though. It's the bike I learned to ride on, and I remember after days of frustration that magical moment when I began to pedal. We've got a history together that the new bike and I won't ever have. There's room in my life for both of them.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

water reflections

For a long time I loved mountains more than water.  That changed when I bought my first kayak, a complicated jumble of canvas, rubber and poles. Assembly could bring me to tears as I crouched on a slippery river bank, mosquitoes nipping my ankles and south Florida humidity plastering my clothes to my back. But the kayak brought me freedom, brought me into the watery heart of the swamp. Juls and I dragged our boats through inches of water and floated them down jungle rivers, jumping out to swim and scoop up handfuls of prehistoric shark teeth.

In Alaska my kayak became part of me, a sleek yellow fiberglass seventeen footer that I loved more than anything else I had ever owned. My new friend Laura and I wandered in lazy circles around Sitka Sound, bypassing the cruise ships and the fishing fleet on our way to hidden bays. I took lessons here, learning how to self-rescue by using a paddle float as an outrigger. The deep clear soul of water pulsed under the boat, a shiny stew of kelp, salt and moon jellyfish, as white and translucent as bridal veils.

Here in this community at the end of the road, there is only one place to paddle and I took my kayak out for the first time this year. It was full of leaves and spiders and winter neglect but in spite of my fickleness it floated just fine. Here you can't get very far. At the end of the lake you have to turn around and go back. There's no secret waterways, no open water that ends in another continent. It can feel a little bit confined after living on both oceans. But as I paddle I remember what someone recently told me; "Most people live in the past or the future. Very few live in the present." It's something to think about, and holding on to the past is like trying to hold the lake in my hands. What I have is here, on this lake, right now.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

setting fire to the rain

I still remember the first time I saw fire make rain. We were living out the winter dry season in Florida, a long unhurried series of sharp blue sky days, burning the swamp in order to re-introduce fire to the land. On this particular day, the rest of the fire crew scurried along the trails in swamp buggies and on foot, nursing a black line along the unit boundaries. By then, all of us had flown in the helicopter so much that most were heartily sick of the endless circling and heavy, humid air pressing in on our temples, so I easily won the chance to sit in the back seat.

Back in the day, fire in the swamp.

Straddling the aerial ignition machine, held in by straps and webbing, I leaned out the doorless side, watching the progress of the fire show. Periodically I fed small white balls into the hopper of the machine where they were injected with antifreeze and sent tumbling out the chute to the ground far below. Seconds later they would ignite in the tall prairie grass.

On this day the smoke column gathered so much steam that it rose thousands of feet into the sky. As we buzzed around the fire unit, a distinctive anvil shape appeared and thunder rumbled out of the cloud. Rain dotted the helicopter's windshield. Our fire had created its own weather.

Now, decades later, I live on one of the most dangerous roads in the county. Where our house is, the slopes are moderate and safe, but only a mile up, the canyon narrows. Snow loads the mountains above. Ice lies in thick sheets, spinning the unlucky into the ditches and off the road. Unpredictable weather sends a river of snow and ice tumbling for hundreds of feet. It doesn't happen every year, but when it does happen, it closes the road until summer. To get to my favorite running trail, I will have to climb over a huge mountain of snow and debris. I love that.

Those are my skis. That WAS a road.

When you see an avalanche up close, it takes your breath away. The ones I have seen here are not smooth expanses of featureless snow like I imagined. Instead they are a jumble of ice chunks, set hard like concrete. This one came down so powerfully that it crossed the river before it stopped for good. Trying to climb it, I slid down the face, unable to gain purchase in the ice.

Here's where it crossed the river.

Snow and fire, two incompatible, beautiful, mysterious things. Where once I followed fire across the country, now I follow snow through a smaller slice of time and space. Where I used to burn prairies, I now touch the face of avalanches. The power and beauty of nature is something that will never burn out for me.