Friday, May 31, 2013

The gearhead chronicles

J: Hey, what's that package?

Me (mumble): ....sleeping bag...

J: Didn't you just get a sleeping bag?

Me: (mumble): ...Yes....

J: Well, are you going to send the other one back?

Me:  Um...

Yes, I have a gear problem. As I prepare for my 282 mile section hike of the PCT, I am becoming overly fixated on gear. Before you hate, know that I am chained to a desk for ten hour days during the week, and that is how I can afford said gear. There are days when I'd rather be free and still carry the sleeping bag I had at seven (which I still have).

When I first started backpacking sans parents, there weren't a lot of choices. I remember backpacking in cotton sweatshirts and jeans. My boots were big wafflestompers crowned by Ragg wool socks, the grey itchy ones. When it was warm we all wore super short running shorts and cotton T-shirts. My backpacking stove was a ginormous Coleman that sloshed with fuel as I walked. A pack weight of forty pounds was considered outrageously light. Packs themselves were seven pounds empty, festooned with endless straps and pockets. As a wilderness ranger in the early nineties, I regularly encountered Boy Scout troops grimly hiking with flannel bedrolls bigger than their heads, strapped to their packs. Their eyes met mine, a study in misery. Those kids weren't ever going backpacking again.

Now the market is flooded. You can find one pound shelters. Packs that are seventeen ounces, less. It's easy to get caught up in all of it--I want it, I need it all!

I'm calling a moratorium on new gear. What I have is what I'm using. I'm resisting the siren call of new stuff. I have a backpack to test and my new sleeping quilt, and that is it. Nothing new comes into this cabin!

I mean it.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

solo in the honeymoon suite: thoughts on taking the independence road

 When I was still holding out in the seasonal worker trenches, we all knew there were two kinds of people: those who went and those who stayed. The ones who wintered over after their seasons were done, falling in love with a place or a person, and the ones like me, who moved on, every six months. It wasn't that I didn't love each place I lived, or the people I met there. There were times I almost stayed. But in the end, there were so many places to go. I didn't want to miss out. After all, the old place would always be there when I chose to return. What I didn't realize was how big of a gap there would be between those who went and those who stayed.

The ones who stayed sent roots down deep. They were part of the place in a way I could never be. At the same time, I never believed in permanence. After all, I saw how things changed by being in the mountains every day. There were avalanches and microbursts. Tides. The Ring of Fire. Wildfires like the Yellowstone fires of 1988. People vanished too, into the ocean and off the mountains. Always I learned to distrust permanence.

That's not to say that I didn't throw myself wholeheartedly into each new endeavor or relationship, but always I kept a piece of my wandering soul tucked away. I thought: if the worst happens, I won't crumble like a late-fall leaf. I'll always have somewhere to go.

I thought about all this a lot this week when I went to a tiny island where my life took a U turn. Here was where I decided to step off a straight path and veer into the unknown, taking jobs like fighting fires and trail work. This is one of those places, of many, where I could have stayed, but I chose to go.

Obligatory tourist photo

 Many of the people I knew then are gone, moved away or taken from the world too early. I had come by myself and the questions, questions I don't hear out west, were surprising.

"Who are you here with?" asks a man I have just met at a party. "So, you just travel around the country alone?" the woman at the place where I am staying (in the Honeymoon Suite, no less) asks. I forget that things are not the same back east as they are in the restless west, where I see strong, capable women out climbing, hiking, traveling alone all the time.

 It is a bittersweet walk down memory lane, because I know that I don't belong here. There was a time when I wanted to, more than anything, but my itchy feet took me away. Now I can't imagine living here, bounded by water, where I couldn't walk twenty miles in a straight line, where there are no mountains.

I head for the trails, and here is one thing that was absolutely the same. Back in my twenties, these trails seemed to go on forever, and now they seem strangely short. But they are deserted and beautiful and I love them. I run and run and my back doesn't hurt, not one bit.

For years I thought about what would have happened if I had crossed the gap to be one of the people who stayed, not only here but at a dozen other places fringing the national parks where I worked. But this weekend I realized it's time to let go of those balloons and let them fly away.

At the same party, I was feeling a little out of place in  a sea of couples. Then I asked one of the women where she lived. She named the town and thought for a minute. Then she said, "But there are so many other places to live."

Yes, I thought. Yes, there are.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The edge of the world

Michigan. I couldn't wait to get out of the state at twenty-one.  I knew even then that the mountains were where I belonged. Give me canyons and passes and high, lonesome alpine country. The midwest didn't seem big enough for my dreams.

Yesterday I stood on a sand dune as the fog moved in and out, obscuring the Manitou islands. Far below Lake Michigan swept like a broom over the sliver of beach. This is an inland sea, as wild and mysterious as any  mountain range.

In summer, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is crowded with people, but on a rainy Tuesday in May it belongs to us and a few seasonal rangers in Smokey Bear hats, learning the ropes. I feel a brief pang of longing--I really miss working for the Park Service.

I've flown across the country to be here at a conference, shuffling sleep-deprived through three time zones and getting stranded for twenty-four hours in Chicago. (Note to self: there's a great Urban Garden spot in the O'Hare airport. Terminal 3). Wondering why it is that in an empty gate, someone plops right next to you with their smelly McDonald's food. Why people still don't know that they can't travel with hidden containers of liquids in their bags. I have to confess: I really hate the airline part of travel.

But there's something about going back to a place where you haven't been in years and years that stirs up all the silt in the bottom. You can look back at your younger self and think things like, you have no idea, honey, what you have yet to face.

Or maybe not. Maybe you can just stare mesmerized at the place where the land ends and the water begins. The edge of the world, it looks like.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Boomerang Love

Why this place is called Cemetery Ridge is a mystery.  Are there graves up there? I pore over the map with its historic post offices and mines. There were post offices all over Hells Canyon country, in the middle of what seems like nowhere now. Many of the old stories are gone now.

Opportunistically, I had to drop off some bike riders here. This is the old Buckhorn Lookout, so high above the canyon that the cabin sat on the ground. Now it is home only to wind and packrats.

These guys were planning an epic one way run to Cow Creek far below. Since my mountain bike skills are not that advanced, I seized the opportunity to walk out a high ridge where I had never been.

It was a cold and blustery day, far removed from the 80 degrees we enjoyed last week. But in many ways it was the perfect weather to walk back into time.

A fire last summer has changed this trail and it is hard to find in places. Easy to charge up the old dozer line instead of finding the faint track with burnt trees draped across. Which is what I did, only to see the real trail far below. I descended through brush and fallen trees to reach it.

The trail was only a suggestion once I left the old roadbed, which was a mystery in itself. Who would build a road sketching along the side of a ridge, and why did it just stop? The roadbed itself is fading into history. Very few people walk this ridge. Soon it will be gone. These lonely cairns mark a survey point, someone long ago putting a lot of effort into it.

The clouds were a ragged curtain, teasing me with glimpses of the Snake River far below. The farther I walked the more I felt like I would turn a corner and walk into a hundred years ago. I bet it felt just this high and lonesome back then.

Of course there was nobody around. That just added to the feeling of being caught in between present and past.

Eventually the trail faded out to nothing. I could see where it probably used to go, dropping off a spur ridge and heading towards the saddle. If a person had all the time in the world, she could keep going, fall off the end of the world on another forgotten trail to Salmon Bar.

It's always like that in the canyon breaks. It hurts to turn around. It feels as though you slide into another world where time and space don't matter. Where you could just keep walking as long as you felt like it. Keep walking until you turned into the canyon itself.

I try every time to describe what this canyon means to me and I never quite get it right. For a time it reminded me of a boomerang relationship I had with a smokejumper who could never make up his mind. Used to falling from the sky, he did not know why he could not have everything he wanted, including a girlfriend in McCall and one in Florida. "Why are you even with him?" Kathie used to ask as we breathlessly lifted weights, trying to make ourselves bigger in a firefighting world that mostly belonged to men. I never had an answer. For a time I thought the canyon and I were like that. I come back beat up, exhausted, out of water, but I always go back.

But it's so much more than that.

I'm sure all of us have places like this. Places that make our hearts hurt and soar at the same time. Places that aren't easy or comfortable, where you are on an invisible edge. Places you keep coming back to, a boomerang that won't stop.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

87 days until the PCT!

It's happening, peeps! Here is a little update.


First, I am trying out some Brooks Cascadias. I have to laugh because in every endeavor, the cool kids wear the same stuff and long hikes are no different. Most thru-hikers wear these shoes. I was all set with my Merrells, but on my last backpack they sort of tore up my feet, so this is an option. I will decide after a few backpack trips this summer. These are my target socks also, unless I go with the Ininji option.

I'm still fiddling with backpack and sleeping quilt options but the rest of my gear is pretty much set. Maybe I should have started up a Kickstarter campaign? I've spent more money on gear lately than groceries. Speaking of which...


My friend surprised me with a gift for the trail. Check it out! It's powdered chocolate and peanut butter!!! I haven't tried it yet, but with my two favorite things in it, how could it be bad?

What I won't be carrying? Protein bars, the sight of which still make me want to vomit. No Goldfish. No cereal. What I will be carrying: Yogurt-covered pretzels, which taste horrible in real life but great on the trail. Snickers, same thing. Tortillas, tuna, peanut butter. And peanut butter/chocolate powder!

I have seen people crash and burn on long hikes and it's because they haven't done the work, boots (shoes) on the ground.  I've been doing some long day hikes and backpacking trips so I don't collapse in a heap on Day 1.
My neighbor said I "looked really young" like this. Does she mean I look old in real life?! Ugh!


The group keeps shifting in size. Right now we may have four people for the first 74 miles, maybe 3 after that to Stehekin, and the two amigos for the last. As I've mentioned, the right people can make or break a hike like this. Nobody wants to slog along miserably for three hundred miles with incompatible people. I don't think that will be the case with this group. I just need to keep my crazy under control (No, my trail name will not be Races Out of Camp or Crankypants. At least, I hope not!) because I am so used to solo travel and doing what I feel like doing at all times. Compromise. I do plan on a few early morning solo hikes, though, and meeting up with the group later. Solo hiking = Novels written, life decisions made.


When we know when people will leave and get on the trail, we can nail down our resupply. So far it looks like two: Stehekin (a 100 mile food carry) and Stevens Pass (a 74 mile food carry). Brutal! Hopefully we can yogi* some food from day hikers if we need it. 

Ever planned an adventure this far ahead? What would you carry for food if you were me? Anyone ever hiked in Cascadias?

*Yogi: lingering shamelessly and looking hungry while others are eating. I honed this to perfection as a wilderness ranger when I was always on the edge of starvation. Hope I can remember how to do it.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A visit to girly girl country

The woman doing my pedicure looks puzzled, then concerned.

"You want me to leave your callouses. Really?"

"Yes. I need them."

"You're sure? You don't want me to do anything with them?"

"Yes. Does that bug you?"


If you've been following this blog for the last four years you may recall a post where I proclaimed my disdain for all things girly. I didn't see the need for pedicures or manicures, I pronounced. What was the point? Well, as often happens when pronouncements are made, I found myself darkening the door of a spa and eating my words.

All of my life I have seen a great divide. There's the women who jump in lakes and the ones who won't because their hair would "smell like lake water." There's the ones who don't mind getting dirty and don't scream at bugs, and the ones who always look perfect, their hair a shiny arc down their backs. There's some crossover, but not a lot. If you want to reach the top of a mountain or get down a river, that doesn't leave a lot of time to spend in front of a mirror. The wilderness beats you up, gives you scars from when you slid down a slope, lines your face, tangles your hair.

We're all in this together and I don't judge women who are different from me (but please stop the screaming at bugs. Please). I know I will never be someone who goes to a spa on a regular basis. I won't have great hair (right now, it's hippie long). I still don't quite get eyeliner.

But even still. Even though I've never aspired to being someone who cares a whole lot about makeup and fashion, even though I will probably get a pedicure once or twice a decade,  I have decided it's okay to visit that world now and then, passport in hand. I'll go back to where I came from the next day, but I'm a tourist in this spa, gazing at all the polish colors.

I apologize for my feet. The toenail I lost after the John Muir Trail has vanished, never to return. My feet are unlovely, hiker feet. Runner feet. Not the kind she usually sees, I'm sure.

"They aren't any worse than I saw in school," she says.

I walk out with my second pedicure ever. My toes are temporarily tamed. They almost look like other people's. Well, until you see the callouses.
Blurry so as not to show the true beauty of these feet.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Sometimes I really miss working with my hands. I miss the kind of job that had meaning: I clear trails. I fight fires. I'm a wilderness ranger, a tree planter. No matter that those jobs were sometimes pursued blindly for the wrong reasons; for example sweating to save a patch of ground that would  have been better off had it burned, or the endless Groundhog Day of picking up the same trash left by different backpackers season after season. I liked it when two week vacationers approached me and said: I want your job. Thank you for what you do. I wish I would have. I wish I could.

I can't deny that now I am an office worker. Granted, my office is a log cabin I own, and sometimes my deck outdoors. I travel, sometimes, for work. I get to plan recreation projects. My hours are flexible. It's not terrible, as jobs go. But it lacks that direct connection to the land. That is what I miss, the look of a working waterbar, a tree sawed and chopped and pushed off the trail, a lake restored, a tree planted.

I think that's why I become so obsessive about my weekends. I want to combat that feeling of it's not enough. The older I get, the less time I know I have on this earth, the more I want to spend outdoors in it. Maybe not at the whim of the Man, beating up my knees and my back and my hands for a government project, but for myself. To feel that great invisible heartbeat of the land beneath my toes.

I hike up Rowley Gulch solo, because it is hard to find outdoors companions the older you get, too. I am lucky to have a handful of friends who will go, sometimes, but they have other things going on and to be honest, I sometimes feel I drag them up hills they would rather not climb. That maybe a shorter hike is enough. Sometimes I wish it were enough for me too, that what drives me would slow down.

But when I top out on the summit ridge, I am glad that what drives me kept a steady pace up the punishing switchbacks of the unmaintained route, barely a trail these days now that budgets have been slashed. It has been years since a crew labored in this place. The view is worth it, canyons dropping away in great immense folds.  It is a place to catch your breath, from the climb and the surprise of it all.

Used to silence and the empty trail curving for miles, I am surprised to  meet a packer headed for Dug Bar. I ask him if anyone is camped up ahead. "Dropped a camp at the Palace," he says, obviously believing I know this ground. "But the upper camp is open."

The only water is at Deep Creek and so I continue on. The upper camp is a mess. Horses have been tied to trees too long, and the trees will soon die. Toilet paper dots the bushes. Camping near others is enticing since I so often don't, but as I listen the whine of a chainsaw, illegal in wilderness, wafts from below. That settles it--I need to move on.

Water is the defining factor in the canyon and it is dry from here for miles. I will have to drop down from Fingerboard Saddle, an uncontrolled slide of rocks and eroded dirt. I will hike on to an abandoned ranch, now owned by the Forest Service. It will be a tough fifteen mile day, because as I have noted before, fifteen miles in the canyon is like thirty anywhere else.

I will sit on the rough boards of the cabin porch, wondering who once lived here, so far from a paved road. My feet will throb from hot spots. I will hobble to the spigot, still working, and pour water over my head in an improvised shower. I will think: this is enough.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

going to heal

There's a little park near my house. Its dirt trails are short and steep. Sometimes you have to hurdle fallen trees and sidestep outsloped tread. You have to do several circles to make three miles. You can't run fast. Over the last year it is where I have gone to test recovery. Recovery from a cold, recovery from my trail running fall, recovery from over-doing it from my trail running fall, recovery from unexplained recurring pain from my trail running fall. What I like about the park is that it is simple. It is quiet. It absorbs everything--stress, pain, fear.

I headed out for my first tentative run since the PT visit. It was the kind of run where you hold on to hope that you might be back to the way you were, when you ran without fear or pain. There is so much we take for granted,  and it only takes one misplaced step to take it all away.

So I ran, not breaking any land speed records. A little pain came to visit. People wonder why I still run, when the only time it hurts is this. I can't explain it, because often running isn't very much fun. I don't work at it the way I used to, with a single-minded focus: Track workouts. Long runs. Running logs. New shoes every  X miles. Obsessiveness. Compulsion. Medals. Judgment at a minute off the pace. But also this: Floating. The zone we all try to reach. Realizing the body is capable of so much more than we ask of it. That moment when everything aligns, feet and road, earth and sky.

I watched the clouds move across the mountains:

The whole face of Mount Joseph fascinates me. A local pilot claims that there is a two story mining cabin nestled on its flanks, but nobody I know has ever found it on foot.

The trails were empty and sweet.

This park is called Iwetemlaykin, which means "at the edge of the  lake." It is a sacred place for the Nez Perce people, as is this whole area on which I hike, run and live. Though it is a place that was stolen from them and does not belong to me, it is sacred to me, too.