Friday, November 30, 2012

Memorial Run Report

I awoke to the drumbeat of rain and the sound of wind skulking around the house. The entire week I had been assaulted by a vicious cold, my first illness in three years. I wasn't at all sure I could run, but today was the memorial run I had organized in B's memory. I knew I would soldier through no matter what.

A strange and miraculous thing happened as the time grew closer. Totally unforecasted, a bright sun broke out and the clouds parted. The temperature rose. It was, briefly, summer.

A small group gathered and started out swiftly. It immediately became apparent that I am not in fast running shape. When the long hill came up, pretty soon everyone was ahead except for the woman pushing an 80 pound stroller. Not far ahead, but ahead enough to let me know that I definitely have become a slow runner. I felt bad about this until I reminded myself that this wasn't about competition. It definitely wasn't about me. Instead it was a run to remember someone who left us too soon.

After a fast 1.3 miles we all gathered at the lake parking lot to wait for the walkers so we could all be together. Then we ran back through the park. I don't know our distance. I don't know our time. It really didn't matter. It was a short and simple run, the perfect thing to be doing.
I might be last, but the form isn't bad.

The memorial service afterward was heartbreaking. The hardest thing was hearing the final call-out. When a firefighter passes on, at their memorial the Dispatch office will call them on the radio one last time. Of course they don't get an answer, and Dispatch concludes by saying, "this is the final call for (B)." After hearing Dispatch call B countless times on fires and hearing his response, it sunk in that he really, truly was gone forever.

Or maybe not. Right after our run, the clouds gathered again. For that thirty minutes as we ran in a band of togetherness, it was the only time the sun shone all day. B had a quirky sense of humor. Often he would glide up to one of us and say something completely off the wall. Then he would rush off to mess with someone else, leaving us open-mouthed, trying to process what had just occurred. It's hard not to believe that he was doing that today. Maybe it isn't the final call-out. Maybe it never really is.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Twilight at the Post Apocalypse Motel

We drive through the high desert, a sagebrush sea. We slip below the Abert Rim, the state's only saline lake a broad brush of blue paint in a brown landscape. Little communities pass by our mirrors, forsaken trailers hunched in a treeless void. We are driving through the Great Basin, a land of both monotony and surprise.

This drive to Carson City will take us through the only town I truly hated living in, a place where I learned that being alone and loneliness were not the same thing. The loneliness I felt there was a pure form of suffering that only the hidden aspen canyons could alleviate. The pain of living in a place where nobody is like you can drive you to all sorts of things, but where it drove me to was Alaska, and the importance of Alaska in my life cannot be discounted. Like other runaways, I went to Alaska without a plan except to escape.

There is a tendency to discount both the highs and lows in your life: it wasn't really that bad, you think, safely removed by ten years. But there is a fist in my stomach as we pass through this town, not an iota changed. Yes, it was that bad.

But we have wheels and are just passing through and so we head south into a harsh land. Winter scour, sun bake. It's easy to imagine the pioneers just giving up as they traversed this endless basalt rim-sagebrush steppe, but it is also a strangely fascinating place if you take the time to look. Wanting to break up the drive we stop in another little town, the kind where you wonder what people can possibly do here, both for money and for fun.

The horizon stretches. We arrive at what we term the post apocalypse motel, a Mad Max setting if I have ever seen one. The owners have big plans, but for now doors bang open and shut in the cooling breeze of the high desert. Tarps flap. Random scaffolding sits abandoned. It is spooky and highly entertaining.

That's what I like about random road trips on two lane highways. Something odd catches your eye: a green sign reading "airport" and pointing out into the sage. A shoe tree miles from anywhere. You wouldn't see this stuff on the interstate.

The post apocalypse motel has one thing going for it, a hot springs pool we share with some teenage girls who talk about who has been grounded lately. The owner tells us the water has lithium in it, something we can't dispute. Maybe I could live here. Maybe.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Sometimes I think that the bears have it right. As we slogged in six inches of boot-grabbing snow towards Aneroid Lake, not a sign of them was to be seen. Not a sign of any kind of life, all the animals tucked up in their winter beds, resting after a manic summer, waiting it out.

Time for Puff Daddy! I heart this puffy.
It's hard to live here in November. A desperate month, November. If there are demons moving deep in your soul, as B. discovered, there is not much to stand between you and the gun. Not enough snow to ski without hitting rocks or venturing into extreme territory, primal winds that rake across the mountain crest and whine through the night as if they will never stop. Too much snow to make it to the lake without snowshoes and you didn't bring them today. You stop, defeated, two miles short. You hate this. You are, unfortunately, destination oriented.

Of course, I don't have demons and I wouldn't resort to the gun. Life is too beautiful to leave without a fight. This is a transition time, my own sort of restless hibernation, and while I don't like it as much as the sugar rush of summer, it's all part of living here.

Unlike my seasonal tribe mates, back in the day I never took unemployment, kicking back to ski all winter or travel to balmy climates (though now I wonder why I didn't). Instead I scoured the country for jobs, fighting fires, replanting savaged campsites, leading naturalist tours. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to work. To wake up every day with hours and hours to fill with whatever adventure you wanted.

November is the month for trying things. Sometimes they work. Running on the moraine can be tricky; sometimes ice fills the two-track. Sometimes wind ruffles the surface of the lake like a hand through hair, making kayaking an extreme proposition. You can haul your skis up the mountain road to Salt Creek and discover an unfortunate crust. It can go your way in November, or it can't.

These dogs are totally snow-coated but they know how to wait things out.

You have to roll with it. Today the wind howls at a speed faster than we are allowed to drive on the North Highway. It is a day for being inside, the gym or the hotel pool, back and forth in an endless circle, going nowhere. However, I rolled up to the pool with a sense of resignation, only to learn that the entire hotel is closed for the winter. I stood in front of the door in disbelief. The closest pool from here is now 50 miles, not a journey to be taken lightly.

So here we go. November. It gets gritty this time of year. You go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. You carve out little episodes of time to run, or to write, or do whatever sustains you. You know deep inside that better times are coming and that you have to find things that make life good in November. You write like a fiend on your memoir and your novel. You run more than you have all summer, because there isn't good backpacking to be had, and winter camping is still an iffy proposition. You contemplate running a 10K in the summer, or not. You make yummy crockpot meals. You split wood, with the satisfying chunk of rounds falling into pieces. You plan your next long hike and coax people into trail angeling for you.  It's your own kind of hibernation.  It works. Like the bears, you will emerge from this stronger and better.

White dogs at the backcountry ski hut.
Ps. Big news! I have settled on sections K and L for next summer's hike. It's 187 miles from Stevens Pass (Washington) to Manning Park (BC). I hope to do it in 13 days or less. If anyone has hiked this, please respond with resupply or other details.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Running in Memory

See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

I've often wondered what happens to someone's energy when they pass on. For years after Roger died in the South Canyon fire, he came strolling through my dreams. He hasn't shown up in a long time, though. It's been almost twenty years, and whatever stardust he is now must revolve out there somewhere on a cold winter night. The other evening at seven thousand feet the stars hung just right, burning holes in the sky. Do pieces of our souls turn into the eyes of stars?
B. has been gone now for a month, and it is hard to shake. I think it's that I still feel like we could have reached him. Others say no, but if I give up on thinking that one person can make a difference, a little spark goes out, a little fire slowly dies.
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arms
Didn't you think you were worth anything
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
I'm doing the only thing I know how to do. I'm organizing a run in B's memory on the 30th of November. He loved to run, and this is the best way I know how to honor him. Probably nobody reading this knew him-I'm not sure any of us really did-but if you run on that day, please take a moment to think of others out there whose pain is so intense that they can't see the beauty of the world anymore. We can't help B. anymore, but maybe we can help someone else stick around. We may all become the breath of stars someday, but it does not have to be on this day.

Didn't you think anyone loved you
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Mountain Walk

Dave from Indiana taught me the mountain walk a couple of decades ago. It was my third fire assignment ever, and I was part of a Midwest call when needed twenty person crew. As such we were mostly all strangers, thrown into a world of smoke and flame for the next three weeks.

In an unusual move, our crew was told to get to the top of the mountain as quickly as possible, no marching in line, just go, to pick up some supplies a helicopter had dropped off. Free from a constrained pace, Dave and Perry took off and I stayed with them, determined to show that a girl belonged on the fireline (don't laugh, back then there were often questions about this). The three of us left the others in the dust and were given the assignment of carrying a bunch of heavy stuff farther (obviously, we didn't think this through carefully before bolting up the slope). As we hiked, Dave showed me the mountain walk. "You can walk all day in the hills and not get tired," he said. "Steady going, all day long."

Many things have left me since those days, but I never forgot the mountain walk. Last week, on one of the last fall days, I trudged up the climber's trail toward the base of Mount Joseph. Climbers don't bother with sissy switchbacks; this trail does not wrap like a snake around the mountain. Instead, it charges straight up, saving at least half an hour over the regular trail.

Mount Joseph lurks over our valley as a guardian and a sentinel. The first snows wreathe its top; the spring avalanches roar down its face. You can tell a lot from a mountain, and this is one to study. Imposing, rough and craggy, it is one I have never yet climbed, and today with the waning light would not be that day either. Instead I climbed high in the meadows below, using my mountain walk.

I'm not the fastest hiker around, so I'm always surprised when others don't match my pace. It's not speed that I have going for me. It's a somehow boundless spring of endurance. I feel like I can hike all day long, not fast, not slow, just medium. If my knees would let me, I bet I'd be a good endurance racer, but in truth I really just enjoy the contemplative mountain walk.

I saw a lone hiker ahead of me, resting on a rock. Eagerly I approached. It's not often I see other people up here, especially solo ones. But upon spying me he leapt up and bullied his way  up the slope, obviously not wanting an encounter. It made me laugh to see how fast he was walking. It wasn't a race to me. I've never been a summit kind of person. The ridges below were fine.

I don't know what has happened to my fireline buddy. We hardly ever knew each other's last names back then. No doubt he has long forgotten the Cottonwood Creek fire in an obscure corner of Wyoming. It's been a long time.

The sun would be setting soon and the knee-jarring descent lay ahead. I headed back down the climber's trail, using a downhill trick that another long-ago fireline buddy taught me. A way to move in the mountains: nothing fancy, nothing all that original. It's the little things people teach you along the way that matter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dear Congress, Please Go Backpacking

Of course, I don't think the wilderness can solve all problems. But a week outside can change you in many ways: ways that can make you a better person. I have to believe it would help you guys learn to get along. There's been way too much finger pointing and blame going on. You guys need wilderness! Why?

It slows you down.

It makes you realize what is really important.

It humbles you.

You learn things about yourself.

It's hard and scary and there are bears. Instead of fiscal cliffs, there are real cliffs.

There's also more beauty than you ever imagined. It sinks into your soul.

You cross rivers and learn to read maps.

You get dirty and hungry and cold and there isn't someone to fix those things.

Instead, you have to rely on yourself.

If you're with others, you have to get along, because someone is carrying the stove. You talk out your differences and compromise. Because really, you are all here for the same reasons.

So how about it, Congress? Come on over. I'll loan you guys a thermarest or two. Point you in the right direction. In a week, report back on what you've learned.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Walking the Precious Lands

It's impossible not to feel the weight of history as you descend into Joseph Canyon. The tall grass was white with the changing season, the river a darkness far below. Once I got ahead of my companions and the only sound was the breath of the wind, gathering strength as it combed through the ponderosas, climbed the finger ridges and swept down the canyon.

The Precious Lands are the result of a cooperative effort that has the Nez Perce tribe managing this wildlife area in the heart of where their vast lands used to be. The story of their removal and flight and eventual dispersion to places like Oklahoma is a tragic one. Nothing can make up for it, but the land remembers and heals, always.

It is two thousand feet to the river, a steep tumble that has us dreading the ascent, but we are drawn to it, hoping to discover some of the mysteries of this unknown place. Most access to this canyon is closely guarded; it is either private land or too rugged to navigate. In a gracious gesture, the tribe allows limited recreation use; I descend with respect.

At the river I am delighted to find a secret hot springs.

We sit in the grass in our T-shirts; it is back to summer at this elevation. Nobody else is around; this place isn't advertised. I will never know the deep tie to a landscape that the Nez Perce know. A gypsy, I never have lived anywhere long and the idea of a country handed down by your grandparents and those before them is foreign to me. Because of gold and an idea of supremacy, harsh battles were waged over this place. It is precious indeed and back where it should be.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I've got nothing

I thought I would have an inspiring, funny and interesting post this week. Unfortunately life was pretty ordinary.

I went for a run and took pictures.

To counteract the run, I ate about 3,000 calories of chips.

To counteract the chips, I went to the gym.

To recover from the gym, I sat and worked feverishly on a couple of writing projects.

To get away from the computer, I went to the pool.

The pool was closed.

To recover from the disappointment, I went for a nice walk in the woods.

This is why my pace is so slow on the trails. This rock section is where I fell in May and hurt my back. I don't run this part anymore.

I also split some wood, made minestrone soup, and finished two big work projects. And got another one, in Alaska.  And one in Taos. Unfortunately, I don't get to go there. I get to participate in meetings via videoconference, truly a horrifying experience.

I set out Halloween candy, but no kids came.

So I wouldn't eat all the candy, I went on a bike ride.

I realized bike riding is hard if you haven't done it in a few weeks.

So, in fact, is lifting weights.

Everything pretty much hurts.

I sent my novel to a soon to be famous writer friend of mine for critique. I am finally taking the plunge and paying for professional help. I need to determine if I am delusional or if it really is a good novel. If she says it isn't, I will hunt her down and steal her manuscript and pass it off as mine. Just kidding, K!

It's going to be seventy degrees on the Snake River, but it's also the first day of second elk season. It's going to be 43 degrees at Aneroid Lake. Guess where I'll probably go?

Life is good.