Thursday, March 27, 2014

Post-Trip Blues

Six am on Monday and my work phone is already ringing. I work with people who live in different time zones, and it's not their fault that I have established myself as an early bird. I curb my snarl and force myself to care about formatting a table.

Later I call Dan on work-related business. I have told one of his employees that years ago Dan and I were seasonal trail crew/wilderness rangers together, and that we suspected Dan of being inhuman because of how fast he hiked, showing no sign of weariness. The employee hesitates, disbelief in his voice. "Yeah, he sits behind a desk all day now," he says. When I talk with Dan I say, "Remember? We would have died if we thought we were going to sit at a computer back then."  I don't know about him, but I feel a pang for the girl I was.

Yep, folks, it's the post trip blues. I've had two great adventures, in two deep canyons, and while I know this is a first world problem, it is always hard to wrench myself from that to my working day. I try, though. I make a list in my head of all the fun things I've managed to fit in this week, or little gems that have shone out from the rainy dark. For example:

1. At the gym, a man watched me closely, while I tried to ignore him. Finally he said, "You're lifting those weights as if they were nothing!" And I felt a touch of pride. Then he said, "That weight's pretty good for..." and his voice trailed off. What had he meant to say? A girl? An old lady? Whatever. I chose to take it as a compliment.

2. I went on a great run in the park. In shorts. And a T-shirt. Without ice grippers. I can't stress enough the wonderfulness of these things. Don't you always feel faster when you run in shorts, without all the winter layers? Of course it is snowing again now, but you take what you can get.

3. I finished a chapter of my Alaska memoir and sent it to my writer's group. I have no idea where this memoir came from; it's just spilling out, not something I planned on writing at all. But there you go. It's nice to be freely writing again. I realize as I write it just how extraordinary my life has been, and that maybe it can be that way again.

4.  It's supposed to rain this weekend! Which on one hand, boo. On the other, yay, I can set up my new tent and see how it works out. I love, love sleeping in the rain in tents, especially when I know I don't have to get up and hike twenty miles the next day with everything wet. It's the big test before the Washington Cascades, so I am excited to see how it goes.

5. I opened the door this morning to let the cat in, and let not only the cat in but a mouse it was chasing. For some reason this makes me giggle, even though the mouse ran and hid and is in the house somewhere. What are the odds of this happening? I think of all the people who would freak out about this and am glad I'm not one of them.

Navigating the post trip blues can be difficult. More and more I know I am meant to be out in the woods, not at  a desk. Someday I will figure out how to make my life one long adventure again. Until then, I'll try to mine the work week for little things that shine.

Do you get post-trip blues or is it just me? How do you deal?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Backpacking Hells Canyon: Tragedy and Beauty

How can I describe the perfection that is the Snake River Trail on the Idaho side? It winds like an unfurling ribbon along the cliffs and sandy bars lining the river, framed by long grass and mountain mahogany and (just a tiny bit of) poison ivy. It trundles through the permanent creeks and passes by sweet little rock cabins and old plowing implements and pictographs. Love.

Hiker left, Idaho. Hiker right, Oregon.
We hiked in on a Friday afternoon, covering only six easy miles to the campsite at Kirkwood Ranch. There are picnic tables and flush toilets (!) and a lovely old historic ranch house where caretakers live for a month at a time (when I retire, I am totally doing this). There's another mysterious old house about a mile up the gulch which we wandered around looking at, and a museum full of the bits and pieces of people's lives. Starting with the Nez Perce, people have lived in this canyon for hundreds of years. 

The "Carter Mansion"--so named by other canyon dwellers because of its cement foundation and fancy windows and woodwork. Once home to a moonshiner.

Love this little rock cabin! I want to move in.

I  loved that one of the adventure racers turned and came back to show another runner one of the pictographs we had showed her. That's my kind of adventure racer!

The next day we arose without a plan, which turned out to be a good thing. Our vaguely stated goal was to hike upriver as far as we could before turning around. What we didn't know is that an unsanctioned "adventure run" was taking place as well, so we had to annoyingly step aside multiple times for runners. In defense of them, they were all very nice, but if the event folks had followed the proper channels and advertised the run, we could have avoided being on the same very narrow trail with big drop-offs at the same time. That being said, this would be an incredible trail to run. You could get dropped off via jet boat 27 miles up at the trail's end and run back. If I liked to run long distances as much as I liked to hike, I would totally do it. (I'd do a shorter run though. Maybe. But it's hard not to stop with a tent and stay awhile).

My Skyscape X held up great in the wind! There's rain in the forecast and I can't wait to set it up in the yard and test it out. This is Kirkwood. Note the picnic table. Yet you can only reach this spot with a boat or on foot.

On our hike we learned that a tragedy had occurred the night before. A jet boat had sunk in a rapids upriver and one person was unaccounted for. We helped with the search, scanning the shore and hoping to see someone waving us down. Unfortunately that didn't happen. The river will give him up when it wants to.

The Chinook looking for survivors.

Boats were up and down the river. The rapids aren't something to mess with.
We went as far as Pine Bar, a magical place seven miles from Kirkwood, and reluctantly turned back for another night next to the riverbank. It's always good to leave wanting more, and we hiked out Sunday already plotting our next adventure. 

View from Suicide Point. We felt pretty happy, so didn't jump.

Risk and reward, so closely entwined.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Spring, Part II: Reasons to Believe

When you leave Monument Creek, if you can bear to leave, you climb high up what is called the Cathedral Stairs, up and over a small sway-backed saddle, until you look down, down into Hermit Creek. You can look back and see Granite Rapids, chocolate brown and far below, and Hermit Rapids just as far away. You can feel suspended in this place, the enormity of it, the whole canyon and the big sky. Being in the canyon gives you reasons to believe.
on the trail from Monument to Hermit

between Hermit and Boucher

To believe that life smooths out like the Colorado does after the rapids, to a placid brown ribbon flowing through the dark cliffs. To believe that you will figure it out, how to have the life you want, to make it through the long dark days of winter and the computer screen and wondering if you've really done enough with your life. Like I said, reasons to believe.

You don't see the campsite at Hermit Creek until you're almost upon it. You've walked across a broad bench and around the circular cut of the cliff and finally, there you are. The best thing about Hermit could easily be this pool, deep and cold and big enough to swim in. Or it could be a short walk upriver with a series of cascading waterfalls, where nobody seems to go. From here you can take an impulsive fourteen mile dayhike to the remote Boucher River, another deep chasm where you won't see anyone for hours. Or you can walk down to the rapids and hang out in sand as soft as pillows. It is, pretty much, paradise.

Gasp. A Selfie. At hermit rapids. One of my favorite places ever.

plunge pool at Hermit Creek
Boucher River drainage

But everything ends, right? So when you hear the crunch of feet heading to the composing toilet on your last morning, you sigh and get up, packing by headlamp, for the nine mile climb out. And it isn't too bad, steeper than you remember, with rockfall you have to climb over. There's a ranger at the two mile rest house, and day hikers near the top, and the next night's campers tap-tapping their way down, kind of late in the day in your opinion, and you get to the top and catch the free shuttle bus back to the village and the people around the rim are spending their eleven minutes allotted looking in and you know something they don't. And you also know this: you really just want to hang on to the feeling you had in the canyon when all you had to do was believe.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Grand Canyon in Spring, Part One: I could walk forever

As soon as I dipped below the South Rim, all of the knots in my life seemed to unravel. Even though I was carrying five days worth of food and plenty of water, I felt as though I could float like a dandelion seed through space and time into the inner canyon. There's something about hiking all day that seems more real to me than anything else. As soon as I put on the pack, I'm not an "older lady" to the twenty-something dude on the trail. I'm not someone who increasingly feels trapped in what is admittedly a secure job and financial situation, but one that is harder and harder to go to each morning. I'm monkey bars,  my trail alter-ego, a sprite in a hiking skirt, and honestly? I could hike forever.

Day one, looking okay. Thinking about keeping this side braid thing. It doesn't get caught in my pack like two braids. 

The air sizzles on the Tonto Plateau. This is the place I will spend five days, many, many hours alone in the remote and waterless escarpment above the Colorado River. I both love and fear it; when I deposit my tent and belongings at Indian Garden and day hike along the eastern section, I find a secret plunge pool off the trail and some light reading. Staying alive here is so tied to water.

A secret plunge pool in Pipe Creek.

Probably shouldn't have borrowed this book from the IG "library". I kept thinking, "The last people to see her said she was headed west on the Tonto Trail. She never showed up at the campsite."

The next morning, some campers next to me decide that getting up at three am is the way to go. They pack loudly, encompassing the next two hours to talk and slam things around. I am reminded of what I hate about the Grand Canyon: you are required to camp in designated sites, and most people congregate around water. If you want to be truly alone at night you must choose a dry camp or scramble down faint routes. So it's an early morning, and I hike through the dawn on Tonto West, towards Monument Creek.

The Tonto Plateau is not flat. It curves and bends and inches around deep chasms: Horn Creek, Salt Creek, Cedar Spring. It can take two hours to reach a point you can see just around the bend. You can't count on a fast pace here. But I have all the time in the world to reach the slow ribbon of water that snakes down to Granite Rapids, and hours to sit with feet in sand, watching rafters plunge through the silty, cold water of the Colorado. There are only two other groups camped at Monument, and as darkness falls at seven, everyone retreats to their tents.

Monument Creek is pretty awesome.

Stars burn holes in the sky. Two nights and I am already changing. I think about this: staying in the canyon for days and days, well past my exit date, following the Tonto west until I run out of trail.

Granite Rapids

To Be Continued...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Running in a Skirt in Winter and Other Life Mysteries

Every so often you find yourself pondering. Things like, what is this sheet of nylon in my shed that has a sign saying "This Side Up?" Where did it come from? What is its meaning? How did I end up with so many Clif Bars? How come all of my water bladders have some kind of issue? How come I left that great rolling duffel with an ex who never travels?  And how does a person lose an entire tent?

And also: How come I am running in a skirt when it is 37 degrees?

In my defense, something unusual happened.

The sun came out.

Normally we are drenched in sun, even in winter. This winter, though, has had its harsh moments. Snow, rain, and just to make things more fun, ice. It's not been the best of times. The clouds have cloaked us in mist and fog and the mountains have shut out whatever it is they don't want us to know. Rumors of a huge avalanche, taking out an entire mountainside, far back along the Hurwal divide, are left to the clouds. We will find answers in the spring, perhaps.

I decided to drive to the lonely ranch roads to run. This is a frivolous thing to do, given that I can run from the house, but sometimes a runner just wants flat. She doesn't want to start off first thing on a Hill of Death. The ranch roads are serene and wind-swept and you never know how far you are going or how fast (unless you take a Garmin, but that seems out of place and wrong). Instead the ranch roads are for contemplation, for silence. You run past cows and abandoned buildings and working ranches and tractors and you feel the history of this place. It's a good place to go, sometimes.

In the end, running in a skirt was wildly optimistic. In the end the clouds came back in and shrouded the mountains again. Any secret avalanche is hidden away. We may never have the answers to all of our mysteries. There's always more to discover.
This wasn't my running view--but it would have been if it were sunny!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hiker Wash, Winter Version

 Every morning on the Washington PCT, Scout and I stared glumly at the beautiful lush meadows, the captivating thin ribbon of trail flanked by thick vegetation. Lovely, yes, but we also knew what awaited us...the dreaded Hiker Wash.

In case you aren't familiar, Hiker Wash (which can also be Runner Wash or Mountain Biker Wash) occurs when saturated vegetation comes in contact repeatedly with carefully dried shoes, socks, and, if the brush is tall enough, the rest of your outfit. Your only outfit. For days. You might think that this is a nice thing, and it could be, were the temperature warm, but if it's warm....the brush is dry. No, Hiker Wash is a chilly morning phenomenon, and who could blame us if we rejoiced to see other hikers traipsing in front of us, taking Hiker Wash for the team.

I can't fully convey the horror of frozen toes in dripping socks, so I will leave it at that. Until today, when I unexpectedly found myself with no trail companions, and decided to undertake the Slog of Brutality, otherwise known as the hike to Aneroid Lake. It's hard to get people to go with me on this hike in summer, let alone winter, when postholing along at a blazing pace of one mile per hour is common. So I seized the day. I was only going to hike to the bridge...but something happened..and I ended up at the lake.

And discovered...winter Hiker Wash! The trees were laden with snow, and as I passed, each one released a fluffy cold shower. Soon I was covered with snow. I didn't mind though--it was entertaining.
Hiker Wash waiting to happen.

Pete's Point. My husband once skied down from the notch on the right side.

The lake was frozen and I sank into two feet of snow.