Saturday, July 28, 2012

Into the (sort of) wild

The last two days I've tried to exhaust myself so that sitting in a car for fourteen hours won't be so impossible. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to sit around for long periods of time unless I have had some exercise.

Yesterday I blazed it up to Maxwell Lake. It's not that far of a hike, so I'm always surprised that hardly anyone is up there. On the way down I passed a couple going up, and the woman said, "All by yourself?" in tones of surprise. I really hope for a day when a woman hiking alone is not something unusual.

Also my first jump into an alpine lake for the year.

Today I went for a double digit bike ride, since I won't be able to ride for awhile. I discovered all sorts of nice quiet roads I hadn't been on before. This would be a great place to train for a marathon. Since I can't, I'll just ride. I also discovered that I need more padded bike shorts. Ouch.

And this is why I love living here. A (cute) farmer on an ATV passed by. "Good morning!" he yelled. Here's the thing: I always feel a little weird about working out when there are people who get in shape from, well, work. These are people whose lives have no leeway; weather can dictate whether they survive. But here in this valley all types get along, even if we disagree on some things. Thanks for the greeting, cute farmer.

Tomorrow we head out for parts known, stopping in Reno for the night and to collect a member of our tribe. Then it is on to Mammoth where we will camp and await the Yarts bus to take us to Yosemite Valley. Logistics have been the hardest thing about this trip and it will be nice to just start walking.

Luckily my old Park Service friends have come to the rescue and are shuttling our car to the ending trailhead. We didn't even have to ask them. Let's hear it for true friends!

This blog will go dark for about three weeks. I thought about writing and scheduling posts while I was gone, but well, I ran out of time. There is still so much to do.

Take care, my bloggy friends. You may not know it, but I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read and especially those who comment. I'll be back!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One week to go...

It all comes down to this. My pack sits ominously on the couch, weighing in at a hefty thirty pounds. Not even close to ultralight. For better or worse, our buckets have been mailed, regardless of whether tortillas and peanut butter will taste good on Day 10. There are rumors that the temperatures in Yosemite Valley will hover close to 100, on a 6000 foot climbing day. I've been training, but also eating the M&Ms that wouldn't fit in the buckets. The car leaves Sunday. We begin a week from today, our first mile that will eventually add up to 220.

On the scale of epic-ness, this doesn't rate very high. Tons of people trod this beaten path. There are guidebooks. Our only schedule is self-imposed, and with hiker barrels, it is unlikely we will starve. It's out there, but it's not out there.

But that is fine with me. I've been out there, toting a shotgun, bashing through brush, walking on logs high over the forest floor. I have dreamed of this trodden path for a long time, an arrow from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. I don't do trips for bragging rights. I do them for how they will make me feel.

What I want from this trip are many things. I want to write again, because lately the well has run dry. It's not for lack of ideas; it's because I sit at a computer for ten hours a day and when that is done, I am done too. I want to learn patience that comes from being with a group, because honestly, groups annoy me sometimes, but patience is a skill I continue to try to learn. I want also to get back inside the mountain's skin, to adjust to a rhythm of the outdoors, the beat of a granite heart.

There are a host of last minute things. Clean the house. Pick some radishes. Obsess over what clothes to leave in the car, and which to send back from Yosemite once we embark. Be sad over leaving the husband, but feel good that there is someone around that I will miss, for a change, a reason to come back.

For now I say to everyone here, to the mountains and the rivers and the people I've grown to really care about: I'll be back. Don't forget me while I'm gone.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

twenty-eight miles of wilderness

When I used to run marathons, when I could still run marathons, there was a time right before the race when everything just came together. I could feel my body hum. The weeks of tempo runs, track runs, long runs--they all added up to perfect alignment. I was ready.

Now that I mostly do long distance hiking instead, I wasn't sure I would ever have that feeling again, but I did this weekend when I paired two long day hikes, gaining thousands of feet in elevation. I bounded up the trail to Ice Lake, feeling incredible. Sixteen miles and it felt like nothing.

Some large, threatening clouds came over and it began to hail so I retreated. That didn't stop 20 backpackers headed to the lake. Usually I feel regretful that I didn't bring overnight gear. Not this time! Twenty people is too much togetherness.

Sunday we headed to Dollar Lake, a small tarn  on top of a pass.

We passed by Bonny Lake on the way. Those are two dogs by the lake.

Beautiful Dollar, you are sometimes my favorite lake. There's a dog swimming in the lake, in case you were wondering.

This was a twelve mile day and I now feel like I am ready for the JMT. I'm not the weight I want to be, and my pack isn't either (32 lbs with water and food). But my body feels ready. 

I am the luckiest person in the world. Sometimes I really believe that.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Resupply Madness

I slunk through the grocery store, hoping to see nobody I knew. Of course, this never works. It's always when I've just come from the gym, or a long hike, or in this case, when I am loading up my cart with JMT goodies that I would never purchase in such bulk ordinarily, that a whole cast of characters appears.

There I was, with a cart full of Goldfish crackers, M&Ms, yogurt pretzels and the like. Naturally there's an attempt at healthy stuff too: almond butter packets, cheese, salmon, tuna, jerky. But 1) I live in a small town with no other options but Safeway; and 2) what is important when hiking 220 miles is calories. You don't want to bonk on Muir Pass. Likewise it is not feasible to cart along a lot of heavy fruit and veggies when you are already carrying everything else you need to survive for three weeks.

Each pink sticky note is for one resupply.

We have a lot of resupply points on this trip. One of my hiking companions has parents in the area who will be at a place to resupply us three days in. We are hitting the other two main spots and also arranging for a packer to meet us on Day 16. Most people suck it up and carry ten days of food from Muir Trail Ranch, but      we are not. Necessary? Probably not. It is more a function of fitting everything in our bear cans and that we are mostly carrying all of our own food, no sharing due to some differences in appetites.

I flounder through my choices. One granola bar a day? How many Wheat Thins and cheese will I eat at one given lunch? Will I want more for breakfast than the tortilla/peanut butter/raisin combo? Wait a minute, is peanut butter too heavy? How much Emergen-C will I really drink? My typical MO is to get up, throw stuff in my pack and start to hike. Will it be different after a few days of stringing 14 mile, high pass days together? Will I be ravenously hungry? Will I steal food from my companions and pretend it was a marmot?

Just kidding. But all this prep reminded me of a long-ago hike in New Zealand, three of us on the Routeburn Track, a high elevation, windswept dream of a place that in November was still emerging from winter. Hailed and snowed on, we descended to the communal huts where Germans were preparing elaborate meals. Victims of poor planning, we devoured most of our food the first three days and were facing some foodless hikes to civilization. We were very young then and it was possible to hike starving, but our stomachs growled as we noted the pasta and chocolate bar dinners of our hut-mates. We resigned ourselves to the last day of no food.

Then at bedtime Laura rustled our empty food bag. We stared at each other. Half a loaf of bread lay inside. It was a miracle!
Routeburn Track, New Zealand, 1988. I'm on the right. Note the unfortunate perm. Ha. Ha.

To this day I don't know if someone mistook our bag for theirs or in an act of kindness, placed their extra food there. In a fit of independence, we hadn't told anyone of our plight, although the strangers around us probably overheard our earnest discussions about how we knew we could make it out several kilometers without food. I guess I don't want to know what happened--it is one of those lovely mysteries.

So now I obsessively plan, because you never know when a random loaf of bread can save you. I sort things into ziplock bags. I make lists. Only a week and a half to go.

Monday, July 16, 2012

riding the storm out

We huddled in a small stand of sub-alpine fir. Hail pummeled the meadow and filtered in through the canopy, turning the ground a grainy white. The ragged skirts of clouds swirled around the hanging valley. Lightning, both terrible and beautiful, ripped the sky.

Moments before we had been setting up our tents in the meadow, keeping a wary eye on the darkening sky. The color of a new bruise, it deepened over the peak that dominated the view. It seemed impossible that we would escape the storm, but wind and rain are tricky here, pounding one drainage while another remains serenely sunny.

As I frantically rummaged through my backpack, a thought struck terror into my heart. I recalled pulling my loose tent out of the storage container and thinking, that's strange, where's the tent bag? In a hurry, I shrugged and shoved the tent into my pack without the bag. Now I knew: the bag was somewhere else, with the rain fly.

Because this is the anonymous virtual world, I could pretend to be someone I am not, someone who always keeps going, no matter what, someone strong and tough and brave. But I think if you are going to put yourself out there you need to show your true self and the truth is, I'm not always any of those things. Longtime readers of this blog know that in other backpacking trips, I have forgotten tent poles, the stove attachment, a sleeping bag, and on one memorable occasion, my hiking boots. I like to think that because I backpack more than most people, it really isn't that I forget things that often, it's just that the law of averages catches up.

It didn't really matter at this point, though. The Freak of Nature and I started brainstorming ways to stay dry. Her tent was a one person. Maybe, I thought, I could use the floor of the tent as the top. We rigged up a dicey looking parachute cord scheme. Then I thought, I could drape my raincoat, her emergency poncho and my pack cover over my sleeping bag. Typically I can count on finding a hunter tarp in the woods but this time there was none. It was typical of us that we only considered hiking out briefly. We are no strangers to adversity. Slinking home because of an equipment malfunction was not an option.

After an hour-long pounding, the rain stopped and the sun came out. We regrouped in the meadow, a place so ridiculously beautiful that a horde of mosquitoes, close to being the worst I have encountered since digging fireline and wearing a headnet near Fairbanks, could not disturb the scene. It seemed possible it might not rain anymore, so I dragged my wet mesh tent from the trees.

That night I lay in the tent watching clouds obscure the stars. Lightning flashed in distant canyons, a light show more spectacular than any fireworks. Occasionally rain pattered down from the sky and the Freak made me get in her tent. Turns out that if you are small, two people can fit. A good adventure companion is hard to find, and one that won't call you a dumb ass for forgetting the tent fly is even harder to discover.

The next morning dark clouds trailed over Eagle Cap Peak. We gazed nervously at each other. The prudent thing to do would be to bolt for lower ground, but the lake was only two miles away, an irresistible lure. In the end we went for it, picking our way over the snow. The lake was still partially frozen and completely silent. Although we still had miles to go and dozens of snow slides to cross, it was worth the effort. It always is.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

lights in the night

I thought that someone died at my neighbors' house last night. It was near dawn, that no-mans-land between first light and the dregs of the night, the worst time whether you are awakened by a pattern of swirling red and blue lights or if you are in a tent and something big and unseen passes by. I sat up under the sheet, only the sheet because heat has shoved its big shoulders into our valley for days now and it is hard to sleep and breathe unless you are lucky enough to get to higher elevations.

My neighbors and I intersect in the realm of porches, community dinners and sometimes at the lake. We don't meet in the wilderness; it is not a place they go. Sometimes I wonder what they think when they see me heading out early in the mornings, the thump of a backpack or skis in the back, and then, hours later, me hobbling back in, tired from the day's travel. I'm not really around much and I know I miss out on that entwined fabric of lives lived close. It is a line I try to walk: cultivation of friends who may not want to do what I like to do and vice versa but important all the same.

The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. The lights were turned off. It moved away. Later I would learn that it was only a serious fall, not a death. Just a catch in the throat, not the real thing.

At times like this, writing about my little adventures to the canyon and the mountains seem almost meaningless. Worrying about what to carry on the trail, if we have enough food in our resupplies, seems trivial. We all live in our little self-absorbed bubbles, our own canyons.

At the same time going to the wilderness seems more important than ever. Reaching that true connection between a piece of land and a person, to me, is the best I can hope to achieve. Being in the woods makes me a better person, as cliche as it may sound. It quiets the restless footsteps of my soul. It allows me to care about something that will last a long time: rivers, mountains, trees. Things that will last long after my own ambulance moves away.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


Here is the thing about going to a place on the map where you have never been, and nobody you know has either: it can go a number of ways. You don't know until you try it and its uncertainty is what makes it adventurous.

Nothing really goes wrong in Hells Canyon until you drop off the rim. In July, on a "trail" that begins as a steep slide down loose scree and eventually disappears in the brushy aftermath of the Battle Creek fire of 2007. We kept telling ourselves that it was only going to be a thousand foot drop, and only three miles one way. But as I have learned before, and obviously forgotten, "only" means nothing in Hells Canyon.

We had left the springs on top hours before. The heat settled around us with a vice grip, only alleviated somewhat by a down canyon breeze. We were headed for a mysterious high point on the bench, a  place we were sure would be well worth the suffering.

Up and down we trudged over rocky outcrops, broiling in the sun, the high point never getting closer. "This is endless," I screamed at one point, the Princess coming out briefly. "I hate Hells Canyon," my  husband snarled. But we didn't mean it, not really. Even though we should have turned around when we realized we only had a liter of water left between us, even when we knew it had taken us over an hour to go a mile and a half. We were deep in the throes of a canyon seduction.

We ducked into a patch of forest, any semblance of a path completely gone, pushing through knee-high fireweed and over immense fallen logs. In here a hint of coolness tempered the near ninety degree temperatures. It was obvious nobody had been here in years.

On the high point I stood on some rocks and looked at the Snake River far below. The view wasn't any more spectacular than any other place I have been. We could have, probably should have, stayed on the rim and hiked the spectacular, wildflower-strewn path to an old lookout. But I knew that I would have looked at the blank space on the map and always wondered. Now I knew what was there.

"And we don't ever have to go again," my husband said, back at camp. We sat staring at the Seven Devils, a rugged outline over on the Idaho side. There is so much country out here, roadless and wild and crazy. You are only limited by what you can carry. We both knew better, we agreed. Years of scrambling around the canyon had taught us better than this. There are no onlys in the canyon. We vowed to remember next time.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

freedom hike

As I charged up the trail, a refrain repeated in my head: "I could really use a rest day." At the same time, another mantra asserted itself: "There will be no rest days on the JMT!" 

Unlike last year, when I was paid to go backpacking, my hikes have been shorter this season. I've gone on four backpacking trips and many day hikes, but nothing that pushed the boundaries. I knew in order to feel confident I needed boots on the ground for an extended period of time.

As I hiked upward from 4500 feet elevation I remembered why this trail isn't my favorite. The first four miles are an uphill grind, mostly in dense forest without any rewarding views. The trail is studded with rocks, all kinds of rocks, from the small ones that you stumble on to the tall, sharp ones you slide on. Because of the dangers of face planting, my pace rarely gets above two miles an hour and change.

Not that I knew, really. I had declared freedom from all things timepiece on this hike. I didn't want to stare at a piece of electronic equipment and gauge how far I had come or how far I had to go. I wanted instead to just get into that zone. You know the one. Half-dreaming, half-awake, your mind wanders all over the place. I need this time. I used to get it during marathon training. Now that marathons are lost to me, I can reach this zone on long hikes.

Since it was Independence Day, I thought a little bit about freedom. Here I was in a running skirt and tank top, not a burka. I could stop and talk to a male hiker without being accompanied by a male relative. I could hike alone without suspicion. Even the fact that I had the leisure to just go for a hike is something women around the world could not imagine. As messed up as our country seems to me sometimes, it's still pretty darn good.

Nobody was at Aneroid Lake and I could have sat here for awhile and called it good. It was tempting.

Instead I decided to push on into unknown territory and an off trail lake I had seen on the map. The trail wound up the hillside, opening up into a wide snowy valley. I knew from my map I was above 8,000 feet.

I sprang across the creek soaking my boots and pushed upward through the snow.  A meandering line of footprints showed that only one person before me had been here this summer.

After a big switchback, the terrain and my map lined up. I took a chance and left the trail, slogging upwards through snowfields.


and up..
and up some more..

 I came over the rise and there was a tiny lake, just waking up, a skim of ice across its surface.

Every new lake I go to becomes my favorite one.

There was still the toil downward, my pace checked by the rocks. I would see three groups of backpackers, one set carrying a pontoon boat. There would be one point where I would say something about "stupid rocks." I might have a mini bonk. I would practically run the last mile to get done. At home I would fall out of the car moaning, "ice cream." I would find that I had suffered a sunburn.

But that would all come later. I had no idea what time it was. I had no idea how long it would take to get back. But it didn't matter if I had hiked up here in three hours or four. I was here. That was enough.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

loving an unknown country

What is it about some of us that the most difficult, crazy places are the ones we love?

I love the uncomplicated mosaic of the Wallowa Mountains. There it is straightforward and simple. Pines, water, lakes. But it is the moody Hells Canyon that fascinates me. As I stand on the rim I feel the weight of history on my shoulders. The doomed Nez Perce, their pit houses still visible in the dreaming sunshine. The sweet curve of the benches where desperate settlers in Depression era times tried to make a go of it. Each layer of the canyon is seductive. When I am on the rim, I want to be on the bench. When I am on the bench, I want to be on the river. When I am on the river, I look above me. I want to do it all, take a backpack and months and months and disappear into the canyon.

evening from our campsite
It's not an easy place to love. We climbed to Somers Point, a finger of tawny land looking out over the whole expanse of canyon and sky. You have to trust your map and hunt for the springs or die of thirst. The trails are disappearing from lack of use and you need a good eye and a GPS to find them. Just getting to the canyon is a challenge in itself, in this case miles of teeth-jarring road that you drive at three miles and hour, then you have to get out and walk. But in other ways it is easy to love. The last light falling onto the folds of the canyon. A sweeping view. My heart is full when I am in the canyon. It scares me but it pulls me in.

on the trail
This is a herd of hundreds of elk we surprised hanging out by the spring.

a few of the herd
I love you, Hells Canyon, even if you don't love me back.

J and Sierra take it in.
This would be a good picture if I had remembered that J put his baseball cap on my head so I could "hold it" while he did something. Dork!