Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Driving to Idaho

In the back of a car on a road in the dark
In the stillicide, silently falling snow
I've packed everything that I own in a bag
And I'm driving, I'm driving to Idaho 
(Driving to Idaho, Nerina Pallot)

There were a lot of reasons not to go. Eighteen hours behind the wheel. A forecast that looked grim, including the promise of snow. Fighting the RV current of desperate vacationers on twisting, two lane roads. It was a long way for a weekend and some of us had decided to bail on this reunion for various reasons.

But of course I went. I drove down to the sagebrush flats and back up the other side, because there is no easy way around Hells Canyon. I drove up into the lodgepole forests and into the falling snow on Banner Summit. I drove through a small mountain town that is my favorite place on earth. Then I turned onto a road that climbs along the east fork of a river, turning from pavement to greasy gumbo under my tires.

I spent a lot of time here, a long time ago. We fixed fence and patrolled hunter camps and hauled trash out of the mountains. We sometimes slept on the porch, watching the stars. Wrapped in towels, we wandered to the hot springs. In my memory it is always fall, the aspens burning golden, the frost lying silver on the meadow.

 I was young when I worked with these people in the wilderness, still young enough to think that life could be a series of trails filled with possibility. You could take one path for awhile and if it didn't work out, there were plenty more. After several seasons in the wilderness I sold my soul for health insurance and a permanent job in the steamy southeast and never came back to work, although I always thought I would someday. Sometimes I still do.

I don't want to fall asleep and watch my life from fifty feet
My hands are on the wheel so I'm driving to Idaho

 These are the kind of friends that you sit around with saying remember. Remember the time it dumped a foot of snow when we were blasting the trail in Chamberlain Basin. Remember when we heard a wolf howl somewhere in Little Boulder before wolves were "officially" back in the state? Remember? Yes, yes I do. How could I ever forget?

There's something about doing hard, sweaty work with someone that forges a bond that can't be broken.  It's different than just going on an epic backcountry adventure. Even when I worked alone, which I did most of the time, I knew that the other rangers and the trail crew were out there over a few passes. I could raise them on the radio or I could hike all night long to get to their camps if I had to. These people got it. They knew me, the me that I was just growing into and would become.

Everyone needs friends like these. If you have moved around as much as I have, you know that friends--the ones who have your back--don't come easy. It takes years of walking single file on a trail, years of looking at them across a campfire, years of pushing the crosscut saw back and forth, one of the trail crew Dans on the other end, years of driving back to Idaho.

This time I slept in the bunkhouse as snow fell, dreaming about my alternate life. If there ever was one I could have chosen, this would have been it. I would have found some way to stay even though winters were long and there was no guarantee of summer employment each year. All it would have taken was to turn the car around instead of heading south nearly twenty years ago. I don't think it takes away anything from my present life to want to somehow dip into this other one to see what it would have been like.

But life doesn't work that way except in science fiction, and all too soon it was time to get back on the road, driving away from Idaho.

 I drove downriver, my heart too full. Going home is nice, but it always takes longer on the way back.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

kicking JMT planning into high gear

Now that it looks like I will be able to go after all, some of us are taking it up a notch. The Freak of Nature has announced a training plan of climbing high a couple of days a week and is obsessively weighing stuff on a small scale. The other night we pored over maps and guidebook and determined where we aim to camp for the first 117 miles. Of course, this plan will probably change, but it was good to know something of what lies ahead of us. 

Which is a lot more than I thought. Somehow I had convinced myself that this was going to be a walk in the park. Maybe because I used to hike portions of the JMT when I worked in Sequoia National Park, maybe because a lot of people undertake it without much backpacking experience. But there will be days completely over 9,000 feet and days when we lose and gain enough elevation to have climbed Mt. Everest.

(Not really. But there will be some hard days).

How do you plan for spending nineteen days in the wilderness? I've prepared a list. The Freak and I have set up our tents on the lawn and compared them (hers is a little heavier, but she can sit up without her head brushing the ceiling, a fact for which I know I will be supremely jealous later on). We've debated about the merits of rain jackets and whether it really does rain in (northern) California (I don't remember it raining much, but then again, I didn't remember the trails being hard either). Once the sun comes out again here I am going to post pictures of all my gear and weigh it all, which will trigger another round of cuts. In the meantime, we are now turning our thoughts to food.

I don't eat much on backpack trips; my appetite goes south, but I suspect on one like this I will change my ways. We will be hiking an average of 13 miles a day, up and down, up and down. I have this breakfast problem where nothing ever sounds good. As a wilderness ranger I seesawed between granola and powdered milk, power bars, and pop tarts. In the past few years every breakfast I've packed in with has been packed right back out. 

We've decided not to dehydrate our dinners; we're just too lazy. So we will buy them through a pro deal that the Freak is able to obtain. Time will tell if we make the right choices. 

For now we are a blur of activity, screaming stuff like "I need TITANIUM tent stakes!" It's not like the whole world rests upon our decisions. We aren't going to Mongolia. But I can't help but feel a tiny bit of what people must have experienced as they passed from known country into the wild. For nineteen days, will see other people. We will even pass a couple of small resorts. But for the most part we will be on our own. What we choose to bring now will be what we will have to live with. I love that about the wilderness. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

hanging out with boys at 9,000 feet

There are few things I like better than being above treeline. Because hiking up from 4,000 feet would be difficult right now, we cheated and took the gondola up. Basically this tram is sort of a tourist trap and overpriced, but it does get you quickly to 8,000 feet and some incredible terrain. It was me and five guys with skis. "What are those things?" Scott yelled, making fun of my snowshoes.

What do you say about a perfect day? We slowly ascended the shoulder of Easy Peak (not all that easy) and sidehilled along the ridge leading to East Peak. My back was strangely void of any pain. I stopped to watch the guys carve turns down the steep face.

The guys stopped at the bottom of the run and skinned up the side of Easy Peak, leaving me to my own devices, but I didn't mind. I knew they wouldn't worry about me. I looked off into the sea of mountains, a set of ridges and valleys that I am coming to know. I could see some of the lakes I have hiked to in summer, still dreaming under a veil of ice.

See the turns? This is the face of East Peak, 9400 feet.

For most of my life I have spent much of my outdoors adventures with men, both working and off duty. This was mostly because that was the pool to draw from, working for the national parks. They were like a band of big brothers, most of the time. They played hard and worked hard, with no in between. I loved their enthusiasm and fire. It was easy with them: no hurt feelings, no quarter given either.

When I fought fire in the early days, there was an added, never mentioned policy for women: Be able to hang with the guys or go home. This pushed me to places I never thought I would reach, mentally and physically. I don't remember the names of all the guys I stepped onto a fireline with, or even hiked with, but each one helped me become better athletically.

I've fallen in with more women lately, and I like that too. I don't know where they all were back in those days, but they are here in this little town: skiing the steeps, rafting the rivers and scaling the mountains. My outdoors adventures with them are different though. We talk more, about our lives and our dreams. We slow down for each other, sometimes, without thinking the other is weak. I've let go of the competitive streak that used to make me want to be in front, all the time.

I climbed slowly down Easy Peak. The guys were somewhere below me, making their way up to another run. We wouldn't meet up again today. I knew they were there, though. If I needed them, all I would have to do was call.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Test run

It's been two weeks since my trail running accident and I am beginning to believe that this will all be a bad dream someday. What lingers is an ache in my hip that I only feel when I am walking fast. I think that this will be gone soon. On my walk yesterday I harbored a small idea: I would try to run and see how it felt. Now, I want all the "don't overdo it" people to know I have been really, really good this time. It's very unlike me, but I have limited my activity to a point that I feel like I used to during a marathon taper. My body is energized and rested in a way it has not felt in years. So when I crested the hill I gingerly jogged along the flats.

The pain was only a minor ache so I slowly ran along the river for a total of 20 minutes and forced myself to stop. When I started walking again the initial pain was completely gone. So from this I conclude that movement is good, although I'm not about to go out and run five miles. I've been through this before. One mile, two, build up by adding a half mile each time. I know how to do this.

Lightning doesn't strike the same person twice unless they haven't learned anything. Although I don't think there is much I could have done to prevent the accident, I'm going to run smarter. On steep, rocky trails I'm going to power hike until I reach flatter, smoother portions. I'm going to do more hiking overall than running. If I don't feel like running, I'm not going to make myself. I'll do something else. I'm not training for anything but life, so I don't need to stick to any kind of a plan.

What this accident has done for me is give me a gift of time. Of course I would take it all back to be healthy and not have two weeks of pain, but you take what you are given. I have had time to write, cannibalizing old manuscripts and adding new sections to reach nearly 40,000 words into a new memoir. I have had time to read, lying in the grass of my lawn. I have had time to dream up a new Big Idea (more on that in another post). I have had time to just lean on my husband's shoulder.

What the body can heal from is amazing. I have gone from someone with almost no mobility without searing pain to be able to jog along a river in two weeks. It's hard not to believe that anything is possible.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Walking the recovery trail

As my body heals, I've been walking. Not the kind of walking I used to do, twelve miles at a time before lunch, as fast as I could, but a new kind of walking. As I walk I feel my muscles knitting together again, the overwhelming pain of the injury fading slowly.

I walk in a historic park, a place sacred to the Nez Perce. It is sacred to me too, a half mile from my cabin, and almost always empty of people. The trails are short; you have to double back to get any mileage out of it. But it's enough.

In the past this park was a place to run through in my quest to cover miles. Now I am forced to slow down and I can't say it is all bad. There are sweet nuances I never took the time to notice before. I never thought three miles could feel like such a victory.

The shade of the ponderosas.

This little pond freezes in winter. I wonder what it would be like for swimming?

Hello, deer friends.
I can't believe I live here sometimes. I stopped and stared just like a tourist.
I'm going to be all right.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In the Pain Cave

There is a time between sleep and waking, when the early morning sun streams in the skylights, when I don't remember. This would be a good day for a run, I think. Or I could backpack in the canyon this weekend. Then I move and I know: things are different now.

Today though I got the first glimmer of hope. It reminded me of when I used to explore caves, back in the Nevada days. John-Be-Free (used to be Woodyard, but he changed his name when he moved to the commune down the road) and I would rappel into the caves in the Grey Cliffs, our destination the fabled Moon Dome, a room of exquisite beauty. We never found the Moon Dome, but that wasn't really the point. We spent hours in the place past the twilight zone, a place where your eyes will never adjust because there is no light. We chimneyed above deep pits, one false step away from a certain death below. We crawled on our bellies, hoping for walking passage. Finally we would spot a distant glimmer, the sign that there was another opening we could walk out of and back into the world.

I feel that way today. The doctor called and said my Xray was normal. That means no compression fracture, no torn muscle. Most likely it is a severely bruised muscle, she thinks, although nobody could ever be sure. There could still be something serious lurking in my bones, but I choose to believe otherwise. The world is a little brighter today.

Pain has been my constant companion for a week now. I've had plantar fasciitis, knee issues, and other bruises and scrapes, but this level of pain is consuming. It is always there, a constant hum in the background, occasionally erupting into a breathtaking explosion. I can't pick up things from the floor. I can't lie down because getting up is the worst. Because of the drugs my appetite is completely gone--I haven't felt hungry for a week. But also because of the drugs, my body is fiercely holding on to water, and I wince as I step on the scale. I can only wear dresses because putting on pants is unthinkable. It involves too many actions that cause pain.

I never understood chronic pain until now. I never realized how crazy it can make a person. I feel irrational hatred of people I see running by. I sob. I know deep inside that others are facing much worse things than this. Some of my friends are battling cancer. Others have lost the battle. They would love to have this minor inconvenience. However, it is my own pain and my own battle and it's hard to see beyond that sometimes.

I know I am lucky. I could have broken my back that day. This is a big wakeup call for me. I need to exercise smarter. Two falls while trail running in the last two months shows that. I need to stay on the easier trails, the smoother ones, the ones that don't go straight up. Because I believe I will run again.

I don't believe that everything happens for a reason. I think that is what people want to believe because it takes randomness out of the equation. It gives them an out--if something bad happens, they had no control over it and there is some big cosmic lesson to be learned. But the truth is, life is random and unfair and terrible sometimes. It's amazing and fabulous too.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Just a little heartache

I approached the exercise bike warily. A lot was riding on this. If I could pedal pain free, that meant hope. It meant an end to feeling stuck. An end to just watching my weight balloon upward, aided by lack of exercise and heavy duty medication.

How did this happen? How did I go from being a person who could run five miles or more without really thinking about it, to someone who screamed in pain just getting out of bed? It's simple, really. One slip on a wet rock and there you are. Your life, changed in an instant.

Since my trail running accident last week I have been attending a pity party, guest of one. I'm scared of a lot of things.

I'm scared it won't get better. That I'll be one of those people with back problems.
I'm scared that I won't be able to run or backpack again.
I'm scared that I'll get fat.
I'm scared that I'll lose fitness.

The pain medications barely take the edge off. This is pain like I have never experienced: electric shock pain. This means a nerve, but whether it is a muscle spasm or a bulging disk, I don't know. Either way the treatment is the same. One thing that is encouraging is that with back pain, you are meant to move. Sitting around only makes it worse. Yesterday I managed to walk about four miles. The pain lurked and occasionally flared up as if to say, Hello! I'm still here! but at the blistering speed of 2 mph, I kept on going.

Luckily nobody was in the gym to witness my uneasy climb onto the bike. I began to pedal slowly. The pain lingered and then retreated. I almost wept with relief. If I can ride the bike, as boring as it may be, that means that there is something aerobic I can do. That makes all the difference.

I know one thing. I will never take being healthy for granted again. I think back to all the times I moaned and groaned that I just didn't feel like it and I wish I could be back there, facing a gale force wind or rain.

It doesn't help to second guess, whine, or rage at the universe. This is what I've been handed. How I deal with it, whether it is by making everyone around me miserable, or with grace, is up to me.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A cabin in the mountains

Let me speak briefly (well, maybe not) of the dark side of working for the national park service, forest service, and other agencies. Let me speak of the hovels known as bunkhouses.

For years and years and years, because of my seasonal wilderness lifestyle, I occupied a series of bunkhouses in various states of disrepair. They sheltered mice and cockroaches and hippies who played drums far into the night. Known as "government housing," they were merely places to dump a backpack and sort gear for the next five day hitch or 21 day fire assignment. At one, the sole phones were located in the shell of an ancient outhouse and on the barn wall outside, and woe to those who exceeded the unwritten time limit. At another, in a historic fort, a recording of Taps would come on at ten pm, winding with a ghostly sound through the bare, moonlit parade ground. Another, known as "Fred's Beds" for the Park Superintendent, was really an old motel cobbled into rooms. In another the employees had to wash their dishes in the bathtub since there was no kitchen sink. Many were trailers, most famously a left-over FEMA monstrosity with only one small swamp cooler as we cooked in the Florida sun.

We didn't care though; we spent most of our time outdoors, even dragging our sleeping bags (we never slept in sheets) to the lawn to slumber in a messy pile. Some people even eschewed the bunkhouses altogether and put tents up all summer long. In some parks, people actually did live in tents, officially called "Tent Cabins" to make them sound better.

Back in the bunkhouse days, sharing a room, I used to dream of the log cabin I would someday own. It wouldn't have yellow water straight from the swamp. It wouldn't be opened up on weekends by the refuge manager so the public could use our bathroom (yes, that really happened). Making five dollars an hour, it hardly seemed possible.

When I knew I was going to stay in this town for a good long while, I rented a forgettable house for a year while I looked for a house that spoke to me.  I looked and looked, at beautiful spacious log houses with acreage way beyond my budget, at riverside hovels with fabulous settings, and unfinished cabins. I looked and looked. When I bought this cabin, even the real estate lady looked askance. After all the previous inhabitants lived in a world of perpetual twilight, unmarred by overhead lights or many windows. They did not believe in counter space, closets or kitchen cabinets. Next door was a (nice) lawn Nazi who crept onto the property to spray dandelions. The driveway turns to a muddy mess in spring, but since the owners didn't have a car, they didn't know or care.

Definitely it was a project, but I could look at the bones and see what this house could be. Midway into the renovations, I've fallen completely in love with the place. While being outdoors is important, the place you come back to is equally so. In previous incarnations, I hated where I lived so much that it was a chore to even be there. I had no attachment; any chance I got I was gone. Not so with this place. This is home.

It will never be this clean again.
What it looks like today.

My cute table!

"Kitchen" before

A real kitchen! We can cook without headlamps!