Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Urban Running

Where I run, the trails are high, wild and lonesome. In three years of trail running here, I have only seen a handful of other runners. The reasons vary: the trails are rocky and steep, a plunge meaning certain injury. Others have told me they are afraid of wolves and mountain lions. I am used to being the only runner around.

I've only run in a few cities, usually because I was there for work. Portland, on the waterfront and in Forest Park. London, decades ago as a student. Boise, on the greenbelt. DC, on the Mall. I always feel somewhat out of place with all the speedy, flashily dressed runners. There I am in my years' old tank top and shorts, my hair in a ponytail that has not been trimmed in almost a year. An imposter from Podunk.

There are good things about urban running, though. Some of these cities have done it right. The greenbelts and parks are outstanding ribbons of smooth running heaven. No watching your feet here, or looking over your shoulder for bears. I can run at a speed I have not seen in years. And there is something about seeing other runners that is both a kinship and validation. They get it, why we are all out here. I used to speak their language, and it all comes back to me in a flash.

I ran in Denver a couple of weeks ago, on the Bear Creek greenbelt. If you are like me, you approach the front desk as soon as you check in to ask where the good running is. The front desk people rarely know, but if you are lucky they will produce a map that shows a river trail system. They will say things like, "It's a looong way to the trail." A long way turns out to be half a mile.

There's another thing though. I have never been lost in the mountains, but a city completely puzzles me. Without reference to mountains, I get confused. If I can't see the sunrise, how do I know what direction to go? The first few days I ran without incident, but on the last morning I decided to range further afield. Happily I found a horse trail, a delicious slice of singletrack off the pavement. I ran obliviously along until I decided it was time to turn around. I ran and ran.

Hmm, what a nice woodchip trail. I don't really remember this. Oh well. Keep going. Look, I'm going under a tunnel. Did I come under a tunnel? Oh well. Keep going. What? A pond? Now I know I didn't come by a pond. Uh-oh.

A small sliver of worry cut through my running daze. I was lost in Denver! Visions of running for hours and missing my conference went through my head. How could a former wilderness ranger get lost in the middle of a city?

Obviously I had to turn around to my last known point, even though I was 100% sure that I was going the right way. Back under the tunnel. Back on the woodchip trail. I accosted a walker. "You have to go back that way," she said, pointing to a direction that I was sure was wrong. But what choice did I have? I ran faster now, the benefit of being lost. Eventually I came back to the sign I remembered and the completely obvious way I should have gone.

What I learned from this was that zoning out on mountain trails is my typical MO. It helps me overcome the difficulty of the steep climbs and the lack of oxygen. I daydream about all sorts of things out there. I rarely worry about pace or distance; I just turn around when I feel like it. In cities, I have to be more vigilant. What seems straightforward seldom is.

Given the choice I will stick to my mountain trails. They don't make me a faster runner. Sometimes my pace is just a bit faster than a power hike. I sometimes wish more of us were out there too, people to share information with about what the snow is doing and how many trees we have to scramble over. I don't really feel like a runner here the way I do on urban trails. It's easy to forget there is a world out there where people do interval training and tempo runs and actually pay to run races. This is worlds removed from my reality.

It's all right, though. Somehow my running has come full circle. I started out without a watch, stopping to run in sprinklers at fourteen years old. I progressed to an obsessive, time-keeping schedule with races and running logs. From there I went long distance, even at one time dreaming about Boston. That all changed with knee surgery.

I am back to the beginning, a teenager just running the trails. It suits me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

something to hold on to

I didn't ask anyone else to go backpacking this weekend. Well, I did ask my husband, but he got a terrified look on his face and muttered something about chores. I don't know why he thinks all my hikes are epic. But I kind of wanted to go by myself as I scouted the snow. I knew there was a good possibility that I would run out of trail a few miles in, since snow lingers on for a long time here. A retreat wasn't out of the question.

It's taken me a long time to learn that retreats are okay, and it's still sometimes hard to turn around. I've gotten myself in some sketchy situations by not turning around, but I've also had everything turn out all right. It's a balance that is hard to get right.

precursor to a thunderstorm

I stood at the base of a huge snowfield, 2000 feet in elevation and 2.75 miles from the trailhead. I had toiled up here bent on getting to the basin at least. But the trail was obscured. I chipped steps in the snow and talked myself through it. Possibly the snow would be gone once the trail took a turn to the south. Then again, maybe it wouldn't be. Looking the way I had come, the trail was difficult to find. I could flounder in this steep forest for hours before I located it again.

With a sigh, I headed back down the trail. It was a full-on retreat. There would be no camping in the basin today. There is almost nothing worse in hiking than losing elevation, unless it is second-guessing your decision. A single pair of ambitious tracks had headed upward, but it was likely I was the second person of the season to make it this far. It would have to be far enough.

I wasn't ready to give up, though. I drove to the end of the road, hoping for the best. The trailhead there was completely deserted. In a few weeks it will be hard to find any place to park. Today the trail was all mine. I slogged upward, regaining elevation, on the verge of a bonk due to my continuing aversion to eating while exercising. The handfuls of trail mix weren't cutting it. My pace was pitifully slow as I dragged myself under and over all the trees that fell this winter. Mud sucked at my boots. Beside me the river raged, pure white with chaotic fury. In summer, this river is a slow green sidle, so beautiful it hurts the eyes.

Snow began at two miles, but it was patchy enough to seduce me into going farther. An avalanche slide blocked the trail and I picked my way gingerly over the rotten snow. And there it was, the end of the line, continuous snow again. Luckily, there was also a soggy green meadow to camp in.

A thunderstorm flirted with the edge of the sky and snowbanks covered the usual camping spots. An avalanche had toppled more trees and I knew there was nobody within several miles. It was both starkly lonely and beautiful at the same time, a place to take a long, deep breath and let the week fall away.

The older I get, the more I know that as great as my job can be, it's not what fills me up. I resent the time I have to spend inside, all those sunny hours passing by. I don't know what the answer is. I don't think it's a return to manual labor. I don't want to wreck my body anymore working for someone else. I certainly can't afford not to work. I am seized with the notion that life is ephemeral as the snow; recent events have proven that true. As cliche as it sounds, you never know if this day will be your last, no matter how healthy you try to be.

The best I can do right now until I figure this out is to keep pushing the snow until the country opens up; to take advantage of those brief two days at the end of the week that are all mine. Retreat, go forward, it doesn't really matter in the end. A meadow strewn with tiny gold flowers, a fierce brief storm, knowing I am the only person for miles; all those things add up. I bank them against the coming week.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

swimming the rapids

In all my years of kayaking, I've never flipped a kayak over. Except on purpose, when we flipped in pools and in bays wearing dry suits, all part of practice to see if we could get back in. You cling to the side of your boat blowing up your paddle float, positioning the paddle just right so you can stabilize yourself and climb in. We also practiced helping other people get in their overturned boats, pulling their kayak over ours to empty out the water and holding on. Eric the kayak instructor would come by to offer advice as we bailed out the boats and tried again.

a calm day on the Gulf of Alaska.

In all the days to come, the big southern swell tossing my boat like driftwood, the twelve foot seas, the gale winds, the horizontal rain, the breakers behind the boat, the combination of wind and tide and shallow points turning the ocean into a washing machine, I never, ever flipped. I knew, despite our practicing, that it would be flirting with death to do so, even though we carried matches and clif bars and Epirbs in our life vests. The chances of executing a perfect save would be difficult at best in real, desperate conditions. People who lost their boats died, simple as that. Rolling a fully loaded sea kayak is a skill few people possess.

Of course a river is a whole different thing than an ocean. You have more chances to save yourself in an ocean, to see and avoid rocks and standing waves and eddies. With a river you have a split second to decide: this way or that?

Immediately prior to the big flip.

A standing wave determined my fate on the Grande Ronde river. A brisk wind, a light boat, and before I knew it I was swimming a rapid. You may dismiss a rapid as "only a Class II", but I am here to tell you, when you are swept into the current, your boat long gone, it feels like much more. Everything I had ever learned or read passed through my mind: Feet downstream. Try to eddy out. The current was too strong right away to make it to the bank, so I tumbled with the current, hoping to avoid rocks. Earlier in the day I had contemplated ditching the wetsuit because it was so hot. I had instead rolled it to my waist and now I was glad for it.

Finally I was able to scull to shore, stumbling to my feet in the willows. Far downstream, my boat and camera bag hurtled towards the confluence of the Snake. A man in an RV stopped and waved his hands ineffectually. I looked down: I was still holding  my paddle.

Sometimes things become so ingrained that you do them without thinking. When a coastal grizzly charged us a few years ago, years of training kicked in. The rest of the group screamed, "What do we do?" as I stood there and waved my arms to appear taller. It had happened this time too. Eric the kayak instructor, long dead by his own hand, had drilled it in all his students: Never, ever let go of the paddle.

I could only take pictures in the calm water.

Flipping on an eighty degree day is much less serious than in the rain-swept Alaskan ocean, although people in other boats weren't wearing helmets for no reason. With some teamwork we were able to scoop up the river yard sale and continue on, my only gift to the river a pair of sunglasses.

You can be doing something you have done for years and be blind-sided. I continue to learn this lesson.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Looking for Stephanie

I haven't thought about Stephanie in years, but lately she has been on my mind. I don't know why; maybe it is because I was recently near the place where she disappeared.

In 1993 I was a wilderness ranger, and because we were a source of cheap labor, we not only ranged in the wilderness but fought fires, patrolled hunter camps and carried injured people out of the woods. On this day I was sent with one of the law enforcement seasonals to look for a missing girl.

Stephanie vanished from Challis, Idaho, into thin air. She was nine years old. If anyone has seen her since, they are not talking. In 2002, a man who had kidnapped a fourteen year old girl who escaped from his apartment died by his own hand while being chased by police. He was known to have been hunting near Challis when Stephanie disappeared. A truck matching his was seen in the area. If this man took Stephanie, what he did with her died with him.

We drove the back roads, all the places that we knew about, stopping and looking in culverts and down steep slopes. We didn't talk much. We were still young enough to be amazed by the world's brutality.

With each dark, scary place I looked, I was both afraid and hopeful. If we didn't find her, that meant that there was a chance she was still alive. But as the days went on and turned into weeks, months, years, Stephanie never came home.

That is the dark side of living in places where I have spent my life. People sometimes wonder how it is possible for a person to simply disappear. But I know differently. It is easy. There are so many places to be hidden. Old hunter trails, desolate high country, rivers, the places nobody goes. There are so many lost girls whose bones lie in some beautiful, lonely wilderness.

It's been almost twenty years since Stephanie walked away to some unknown fate. As I drove the back roads near Challis a month ago, I wondered what secrets the mountains still hold, and how such beauty can also be so terrible. For some reason, I can't stop thinking about Stephanie.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In which I eat my words.

I wrote self-righteously on this very blog about how I had never had a pedicure and never would. I didn't get why people spent money on them.

Hmm. But look how pretty. In thinking about it, I submerged a girly side to me for a long time. On fire crews and later trails and wilderness, it was more about being able to keep up and not be judged for being good "for a girl." Nope. I wanted to be the lead pulaski person, the person people wanted on the other end of a crosscut, the ranger who could hike miles and miles with a seventy pound pack. In fact, being a girl was a liability, because you had to do better than the guys sometimes,or face hearing something like, "I knew this would happen if we let girls on the crew." Over the years we had criers, whiners, and the good ones. I always wanted to be one of the good ones.

I still would rather spend $25 on gear, but it's kind of fun to have pretty nails. My feet reach tremendous heights of ugliness during the summer season. I've had toenails fall off, calluses, blisters, you name it. That can extend to most of my appearance; though I wouldn't say I'm ugly like my feet, I do shove my hair under a cap and go. On one occasion, years ago, a scruffy character came up to me and Deb in the Rod and Gun Club. "When's the last time you wore makeup?" he demanded. "You girls must work for the Forest Service!"

Now that I don't have to wear T-shirts soaked with transmission fluid, camo pants from the army surplus store, and a hard hat, it's kind of nice to wear a skirt now and then. And have a pedicure. It's not betraying my non-girly girl status, I don't think.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tourist Season

Because of the nature of my work, I've always lived in places that people want to visit. I've lived in sequoia groves, on the restless Gulf of Alaska, and next to a river of grass. Now I live a stone's throw from the mountains and tourist season is upon us.

There was one brief interlude where I lived in a town that bitterly hated tourists. Every business, even the gas stations, closed up shop tight by 4 pm on Sunday. Tourists sped through the decaying downtown as fast as was legally allowed, no doubt thanking their lucky stars that they didn't live there. Even though an outrageously beautiful mountain, with rivers winding through aspen-filled canyons, was only an hour's drive away, the town refused to capitalize on it. When the gas station was open, it was filled with out of work, bitter loggers, whose main conversation was how the Forest Service, the ESA and every other government agency had let them down. They said this in the same breath that they also said that the government ought to bail them out when it flooded or when fires swept across the sagebrush.

I found this on However, it is appropriate for some places I have lived.

Having experienced both, I'll take the tourists. Yes, they back out without looking and amble across the road as if they have all the time in the world. We need reservations at the restaurants in summer. They say things like, "what a cute little town" as if the place exists in some kind of bubble, a zoo perhaps. They don't use turn signals. But I know they are what keeps this town from sinking.

This weekend town was clogged with a slow tide of tourists. They ebbed and flowed, in and out of shops, in the crosswalks, up and down the street. You can't ride your bike on the shoulder-less scenic road around the lake anymore, an RV would take you out. You take the back roads instead.

With all these people in town, probably twice again the size of our winter population, you would think some of them would be on the trails. You would be wrong. The trails were misty and lonesome.

I did a slow trail run here:

And a long hike here, until the snow stopped me.

I didn't see a soul either place. There's something very strange and sort of sad about that. While I have lost faith in people because of my years as a wilderness ranger, picking up various disgusting and unsanitary objects that they decided to leave behind, I still think we would all be better, nicer, kinder for an afternoon stroll in the woods.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Trail fashion and trail names

You may have heard of a guy hiking the PCT in a series of wedding gowns.
 Unfortunately, I won't be nearly as fashionable on the JMT. But I will be colorful. After some trial and error I have settled on the following outfit:

Outfits are important. When you'll be wearing the same thing for three weeks, you have to keep it from being boring. Even wedding dress guy is changing it up, choosing from 26 different gowns.

Most thru-hikers of long trails get bestowed with trail names. You don't really have that on the JMT; you aren't spending months of your life on this trail. But it did start me thinking about some of my former outdoors nicknames.

Panther Babe: Named by the guys who drove dozers into the flaming swamp. I worked at a wildlife refuge set up to provide habitat for endangered Florida panthers. If the guys thought I looked cute in fire clothes and a hard hat, who was I to argue?

Darted Monkey: One day Mike and I were running down the highway on our PT time. My knee hurt but I stubbornly continued, refusing to let Mike get ahead. Mike looked at me and laughed. "You're running like a darted monkey!" he said. This nickname stuck for a long time.

Queen Mama Dork: I don't know, I guess the other wilderness rangers thought I was a dork. I think they were the dorks.

Target: Pronounced the french way, because a tree almost fell on me as I was mopping up a wildfire. The crew peered over the hill, eyes wide. Luckily I had survived, but we all got hazard pay, unheard of in mop-up for us.

Wilderness Witch: I'm pretty sure that this was said in affection but could refer to my adherence to Leave No Trace, including packing out orange peels.

I don't have an outdoors nickname anymore. You get those from working with a crew, the same crew that will do things like put mousetraps in camp slippers, vaseline on locker handles, and even smuggle a small alligator into the passenger seat of a Ford pick-up. We called our crewmates names  like Bungalow Bill, Weebles, PuffyPoo and Trail Beast. Behind the teasing was a real affection that we couldn't quite show.

That's why trail names appeal to me. Hiking a long trail is like being on a crew of sorts, a loose-knit family of hikers all bound for the same destination. I don't know that I will ever hike a long trail for five months: days and weeks of hiking 20 miles a day doesn't really appeal to me. But in my colorful clothes, I can taste a small part of a big thing.

Have you ever had an outdoors nickname? What was it?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

if dreams were thunder

Lightning flashed across the meadow. A few hours earlier I had been lying in my sleeping bag, watching a herd of elk and an almost full moon. As I dozed clouds had piled up and a storm was raising the river. Everything had changed, the way it does, with no warning.

Almost always the wilderness has been a place I have gone to in search of something. Answers, solitude, fitness, healing. This time it wasn't working.

But it was a beautiful day to be there. I dropped my pack at the meadow and continued on another two miles to where the valley opens up. Snow dotted the talus slopes leading to Polaris Pass. Ahead, Frazier Lake nestled somewhere in the bowl, still winter. One set of footprints marked the trail, only one other adventurer come and gone. Nobody else had gone as far up as I had. I stared into the wild country ahead of me, trying to understand.

Sometimes you just have to pack a backpack and go, even if you only have twenty-four hours. The next day I would stand on the gentle curve of a hill with fifty other people as we said goodbye to a friend who left us without any warning, a lightning flash in the night. Life can be beautiful but it can also cut you deep inside, the two halves that make a whole, and I always want one without the other: love without heartbreak, travel without goodbye. I know it doesn't work that way. Lightning can come fast, a bolt of surprise and terror. Sometimes it starts a fire that can work its way across a whole mountain range. Sometimes it fizzles with the steady drumbeat of rain. Sometimes it comes out of a deep blue cloudless sky.

There was a time last fall when I was hot on a contractor's trail, checking on his waterbar clearing and tree removal from the Minam River. It would be forty miles total and as I dropped into the backcountry station I thought about just passing it by, putting some miles under me so that the next day would not be so long. Cindy and Michael were caretaking that week. Caught up with their chores,  they lounged by the river, books in hand, beer chilling in the cold water. I knew stopping so early in the day would mean a twenty miler at least tomorrow. I knew there was a chance I would miss the contractor altogether. I knew I would end up hiking until nearly dark, GPS in hand as I tried to find the trail through an avalanche that the contractor hadn't gotten to yet. But still, I stopped early to spend the night. Now I'm glad I did. 

Nobody can stop the lightning. You can't ever be ready for it to tear through your life, changing everything. You think you are; you set up your tent in the most protected spot, away from snags and tallest trees. You try to protect your heart so that when people are taken from you it doesn't hurt so much. None of this really works. In the end, the sky clears and life goes on, as beautiful and terrible as before.

See you, Michael.

C. Sloan photography