Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Selfish Christmas

Dear Husband, Family, and Friends,

I am writing to apologize, because once again I am disappearing into the wilderness for the holidays. I know, I know: this is supposed to be a time for being together, eggnog, baking, etc. (What is eggnog?) Instead, I am going backpacking in Big Bend National Park. And trust me, I have been the recipient of some strange looks, and an unspoken sentence: What is wrong with you?

The truth is, I wish I knew why the mountains call to me more than most people. Why I work grueling ten hour days in the summer, starting at six in the morning, just so I can sneak away on a Friday. Why a day off feels wasted unless I am out there. Why I feel like a clock is ticking down the years, hours, minutes, telling me, someday you might not be able to do this. Now is the time. Why sleeping fifty nights in one year in the backcountry is so important.

And here's something else: As much as I love this little mountain town, there have been times when it has been lonely. I haven't met a tribe, like I have in other places. There are some great friends, who I can count on for a day hike, sometimes an overnight, if other responsibilities don't claim them. But the kind of people I used to sleep outdoors with under a blanket of stars, hike wildly through the woods with map and compass, seeking a hidden lake, the ones like those...No. And again I wonder, what is different about me, why can't I be more like my wonderful friends, who can balance their chores, their obligations, with wilderness?

I know that my people are out there, because I've "met" them on blogs and long distance hiking trail forums. When I read that one bloggy friend was headed out for a long hike over Christmas, I thought..Yes! It's not just me!

But anyway. I know you know all this. You know that I'd rather visit you when the tundra isn't quite so frozen instead of a forced holiday. You know that getting out into the wilderness is what fills me up. You have seen the evidence of otherwise: Crankypants rides again. You all know that in spite of what I do, you are just as important as wilderness. Thanks for understanding.


Monkey Bars

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Rural Life, Running Edition

Last week I started running up the Hill of Death and screeched to a halt. Oh no! Were those...Yes, yes, they were. About fifteen range bulls sauntered through the pasture and across the road, because there was no fence.

I paused to assess the situation. Could I sprint up the hill before they charged? As I watched a red and white bull glared balefully in my direction. Um, no. I ran somewhere else.

When I happen into the Big City, people are running along the concrete waterfront, swathed in earphones. It's pretty, but feels competitive and routine. Compare that to some of the obstacles I face in my running life:

1. A bear at mile 1 of my 20 mile run (This run quickly became 19 miles).

2. A wolf in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road. I ran past, hoping for the best.

3. A mountain lion, concealed in the brush as we ran by (telemetry doesn't lie).

4. A near collision with a horse and buggy, driven by an inexpert driver.

5. Barbed wire fences to crawl under, avalanche chutes to tiptoe across, downed trees to hurdle. Guys on huge tractors. Huge tumbleweeds. River crossings. Hunters with guns.

6. Alligators (in my Florida days).

So it's no surprise that when I find a real trail I am overcome with joy. On the way back from the Big City yesterday we stopped in a tiny town that for some reason has an amazing network of mountain bike trails. On private land, but open to the public! Nobody was out there, so I felt free to run the trails without fear of being crushed under a wheel.

I had forgotten how great it was to run without looking at your feet for rocks, or nervously into the bushes for wildlife, or dodging pack trains. Lately I've been a little disenchanted with running because it's just sort of...hard where I live. Which is fine for character building but sometimes you just want the easy. I ran along happily. This is why I run, I thought.

CURSES. Whatever I do this picture won't flip. Oh well. Tilt your head sideways. These are the trails I ran on.

These trails are too far away for a casual outing, so I probably won't be back. Running where I live means I'll never pay for a "Tough Mudder" type race, since I can do that stuff for free. Barbed wire crawl? Check. Mud pit? Check. Uncontrolled fire? Check. It also means that I rarely see any other runners, so I can run at my own pace without the awkward passing thing, and there's always a small element of adventure in each run. I guess I'll take it. Though I will dream as I run of the perfect redwood-tree-shaded, pine-needle-carpeted trail.

Do you have obstacles where you run? Have you ever had to turn around because of one?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I like big packs, and I cannot lie

As much as I have lightened up my backpacking gear, there are times when I miss the 1990s. Specifically, the backpacks. I recall the joy of entering the wilderness ranger cache to pull out a brand new pack, mine for the season. Gregory, Dana Design, Mountainsmith. I happily surveyed each pack. Look at all the pockets! The loops, the straps! What was this strap even for? There were sleeping bag compartments, top lids you could unbuckle and use as a day pack, and side pockets galore. You could even buy cool little pockets to buckle onto the pack and put stuff in! The more stuff that hung off the pack, the better. I hiked on, a plethora of straps fluttering in my wake.

Sure, those packs were seven pound behemoths, and my pack weight often soared to seventy pounds when I counted the Forest Service radio, search and rescue gear, a pulaski wedged in the ice axe loop, and all the trash I could possibly find and carry (hammocks, old shoes. Tents. Cans, bottles,  cast iron frying pans, grills, tin foil to the max). But those packs were built so well that the load carried like a dream. Today's packs are feather light but they will never carry like that. I was young and fast and the weight didn't bother me then.

I wouldn't carry a seven-pound-empty pack today, because I need to be kind to my knees, just like I wouldn't carry the high tech gear we had available then: Whisper-Lite stove, first generation. Ceramic water filter. Cotton sweatshirts. Four pound one person tents. I have to laugh when people earnestly ask about saving four ounces, one puffy over another. Just cowboy up and hike, I want to say. We did it in the old days! And look, we are still alive!

This is a newer version of the pack I carried for years as a wilderness ranger. I think we had more straps!
I know weight matters. You can definitely hike farther and faster when not dragging a seventy pound load. Most of the time my full pack with water and food, for about 100 miles, weighs in the mid-twenties. I'm okay with that. I have seen too many near disasters to go lighter. Helicopters and I only work well when fighting fire, not for being plucked off a ridge.

I won't really change my mind on packs though. I tried one that was less than a pound, and it was amazing. But then I had to do a 24 hour water carry to a dry camp, and I didn't pick that pack. I knew it would drag on my shoulders and wouldn't stand up to 6 liters of water. What's the point of being superlight if you are miserable? Now I am in between. My pack is a well constructed one that tops the scale at (GASP) three pounds. It definitely would not hold up to the kind of wilderness rangering I used to do, but it works for what I do now.

Still, I'll always miss my behemoth packs. I carried them with pride through the mountains, off trail and across snowfields and clinging to the side of cliffs. I never once thought about cutting off straps to make them lighter. Instead of your base weight being "cool" now if it is below ten pounds, it was cool then to be able to carry a heavy load. We would have scoffed at people with UL gear. What was wrong with them, why couldn't they carry a load and still hike 4 mph? We could.

We hung our packs on the scale and groaned at their weight, but secretly we wanted them to be heavy, because it meant we were tough. Misguided? Probably. But we were twenty-five and thought we could do anything. Thought our seasonal jobs would be enough to sustain us, thought that people who could love us and put up with our wandering would always come along, thought we would never get old. So we hiked with what we had. And it was fine. We survived, and we always made it over the next summit, and we walked on to the rest of our lives, which did not include big, heavy packs and all the other things we left behind in that decade.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I'll be honest here, because if you lie in a blog, what's the point? I really didn't feel like backpacking. More to the point, I was tired of overnights. Overnights are just a tease. It's a big gear-up for only a brief time outside. It's not long enough to forget about what you have left behind. I could hike out right now, you think, and be at home with everyone I care about. It takes longer than that to become feral.
Night #47. 3 to go to reach the goal. 

But I went, because the pull of inertia has taken too many of my friends. They no longer climb mountains or ride their bikes or do any of the things they used to do. I am starting to see what age can do to people and I don't want to give in. 

It's not easy to get to Eureka Bar. The drive is not for the faint-hearted, a slippery, rock-studded one-laner poised over the canyon. Meet a horse trailer and you have to back up for a long way. You'd better hope you're good at it. People have died on this road. It can take an hour to go 18 miles.

The trail itself is simple, winding from one river to another, but it is fringed with poison ivy and blackberry. You push your way through, hoping for the best. And then you make it to the bar, the hills colored blond, the sound of the river filling up the night, the moon glowing over everything. And it was worth it. It always is.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Winter is for running

I know, I'm a freak, many of my running friends pretty much quit for the winter or retreat to the gym. But winter is when I run.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of wearing spikes, discovering that the park is full of ankle-deep snow, battling howling winds, and bundling up in a million layers. I do like running in the summer, but I just don't do it more than a couple of times a week. Sometimes only once! Why? Because there's so much else to do! Hike, bike, kayak, swim!

So winter it is, though it seems crazy. The trails are mostly too snowy, though you can sometimes hit the sweet spot when enough people have packed them down with snowshoes.  Most trails you can't get to at all anymore, since the roads aren't plowed.You can't run fast. Throw those PRs out the window! The trails are too steep in the best of times. Add in a lot of ice, a few avalanche chutes, and some streams to cross, and you are lucky to do a ten minute mile. But who cares?  I just like to run.

Most of the time. I've been running for decades, and sometimes it is a chore to haul myself out there again. Every direction is uphill (really, it is) and there aren't a ton of choices. The Hill of Death route, with the Icy Road of Fear, the Lake Road of Desperate Wind, the Zen of the Rocky Moraine, the Route by Brian's House that Involves a Highway And Possibly Cows Being Moved, the Haunted Ex Roller Skating Mansion Run, and the Park of Many of the Same Short Loops While Trying to Avoid Dogwalkers for the Tenth Time.

Sound appealing? Actually, it can be. There's times when it's about ten degrees and the snow sparkles like little diamonds, catching the low-angled sun. I can check on the lake ice status, to see if skating is a possibility. The other night a fox ran across my path, barking. I check in with the horses by the park. I look for avalanches on Mount Joseph.

The Route Where You Can See A Single Farmhouse for Miles

I used to run with people. Julie, Brian and Ken were my marathon training partners, and we battled it out in the horizontal rain and wind for our long runs, stashing Gatorade and snacks along the road prior to our departure (this was before the days of comfy running vests). Ken and I ran dangerously along the fish hatchery road, avoiding fresh bear scat and singing loudly. On the fire crew I ran with other people all the time. I still recall torturing Jim when he asked how much farther we had to go. "Oh, a half mile," I lied, when it was a lot closer. Sorry, Jim!

 I kind of miss the social aspect, but I like running by myself now. Especially in winter, when it's a challenge to find somewhere not too icy and not too snowy. I have to be opportunistic about when I run, scheduling it around conference calls and meetings, so I tend to dart out the door when I see a window. I'm sure that people wonder if I work at all, because I am out there at all different times.

Occasionally I have to give up and run on the mill, but this is a last resort. There are only two at my small gym, and they are often occupied by the walker crowd. I feel guilty hogging one, and you can't watch TV (it's mounted above your head and you might crash). I don't listen to music when I run because I didn't start out that way and I don't want to be dependent on it. Besides, the cords. The disappointment of getting a Nora Jones song when you need a good rendition of "Swamp Buggy Bad Ass" (look it up if you want. But I warn you, look up "clean version"). So, no music. You can watch people going in and out of the bank across the street but that is about it.  I just am riveted by the display....56 mi. .57 mi. .58...No. No. No. (I recently saw a blog post by a woman who wears red lipstick when she runs at the gym. Um...)

Running isn't my first love anymore, but I still have a friendly relationship with it, so I'll keep putting on winter tights from 1990, wool zip T, jacket, mittens, hat, shoes that have holes in them (must replace), spikes and an optimistic attitude. If I start feeling surly about the whole winter running scene, I'll remember the Winter of Knee Surgery, where I was forbidden to run for three months, and then I started back running for two minutes, walking for five. I'm just glad I can run. Bring it, winter!

Do you run more in the winter? What are your challenges? Give me a lead on good warm running tights!