Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mistaken for Coyotes

C and I hiked up the Devils Gulch trail, deep in conversation. We'd hiked with others before, but never just us. I've been trying to find new trail friends, and we were having a good day (it was about 60 degrees. In January!).

As we came upon two slower hikers, they looked relieved. "We heard you back there and thought you were coyotes!"

Well, that's a new one.

Let me tell you this: when you are a nomad, sort of, and move all the time (my record for staying put is seven years), it can be really hard to make new friends. You come into a town and people already have their friends. They're not on the hunt for new ones. In a town of about one thousand people, it's like a diamond hunt.

Because you can always find friends to hang out at the pub, or maybe casually stroll the moraine. Trail friends are what I'm talking about.

If you've ever hiked a long trail, you know what I mean. There's something about the trail that lends itself to sudden bonds and a quick-setting friendship. In the North Cascades we met and camped for several nights with a man we knew only as Cherry Pie. Though we did not hike with him, we compared notes on possible campsites, left trailside notes, and looked forward to seeing him every night.

Trail friends in the canyons

Other trail friends are more fleeting-short conversations at breaks, passing by at water stops. There was Diesel, who paused at the top of the milk creek switchbacks to talk about his thirty mile day and how he was on track for Canada. "See you in Stehekin," he said, although Flash and I knew we were too slow; he would be long gone. We ran into Rags several times last summer before he vanished with a bout of giardia.  In the Sierras, the Archers disappeared into a thunderstorm after days of congenial lunch breaks and leapfrogging.

Sometimes those geographically challenged friends stick with you. Though it has been over a decade, J and I still mention our chance encounter on the summit of Mount Thielsen. I've never seen D, a friend of a friend, again since our hike on the Florida Trail, but the memory of her husband falling accidentally in an alligator hole still makes me laugh, and we occasionally meet up on Facebook to remember him and feel sad that he is gone too soon from a terrible cancer. So far, Camel, Buff and TC and I have managed to meet up each Christmas, and I tempt them with other possibilities ("you can get a red eye, fly all night, drive all morning and still meet me to hike!").

But what you really need is trail friends close by (and this applies to whatever you are into, climbing, running, whatever). Take it from a gypsy: It's not easy. You cultivate people like gardens. Some won't be compatible (like weeds? Ha) but some will. It's almost like asking someone on a date when you approach a potential trail friend. What if they say no? What if they have other, better options and dump me for, say, a day with their husbands (This has happened!)

But it's worth it. I've found trail friends to be the best friends I have. Honestly, do you remember the times you spent sitting in a restaurant with people? Probably not. It's the bushwhacking when you've lost the trail in the willows. It's the dodging of salmon guts and singing loudly to avoid bear encounters on a 16 mile run with Ken that I still remember. Lying in a row looking at stars in the Texas desert. And, now, being mistaken for coyotes.

No coyotes here (and no snow either)

Tell me about your trail friends! Was it hard to find them? Do you have same time, next year trail friends like I do?

Friday, January 23, 2015

It's All About Me: Fitting Adventure into Work Travel


Work travel. It happens. For me it often involves high level, strategic meetings in windowless rooms, from which I bolt at the end of the day to find a hotel gym. I want to break this cycle. Why white-knuckle it over the Rattlesnake in winter two hours to an airport, spend all day in flight, and sit in conferences for.. well..just work? I've determined to find some adventure in work travel this spring.

For example: I have to go to Portland in early March. Portland? Blah. But then I think, if we stay downtown, I can run on the waterfront! I love the waterfront! It's flat! There are other runners! No ice! No rocks! I can be swift! I can look at dragon boats!  Yay Portland!

From Portland, I am going to Cedar City, Utah. Cedar City in late March?! Have I died and gone to heaven? I can surely find a daylight hour or two between meetings and go hiking in Zion National Park, can't I? After that, I have a work trip to Flagstaff in late April. Hmm....could I possibly stay the weekend? A Grand Canyon Hermit to Boucher solo backpacking loop sounds perfect! And I'm not even mentioning my February trip to Flagstaff and the GC permit I've snagged then- Bright Angel to Horn Creek to Granite Rapids, two of the best campsites in the whole place.

Of course, none of this is as easy as I make it sound. After all, these trips are for work. That's the main objective, and I can't let my adventures infringe upon that. There is paperwork to do to ensure that staying over a weekend doesn't cost any more than flying back on a Friday. There's making sure that all the bases are covered at home. There's checking with the boss. Still..if  you can make it happen, it is well worth overcoming the inertia. Below some tips that work for me.

1. Strategic packing. I wear my trail runners both for hiking and for my workday exercise. I usually run in a pair of dedicated shoes, but I figure that a week of using my Cascadias for running won't hurt me. That way I don't need to bring backpacking shoes and exercise shoes. Similarly, for my workday outfits I bring the same color scheme so I only need one pair of dress type shoes or boots. I don't take extras on these trips. Yes, a running outfit for every day is nice...but not necessary.

2. Be okay with solo. I've tried to incorporate friends into these trips, but it doesn't really work that well unless they live in the same town I am going to. Often the work travel isn't scheduled until a few weeks prior, and days of meetings can change abruptly. We aren't allowed to even buy plane tickets until three weeks before we go. Most people can't drop everything on a moment's notice. I've stopped trying, and am fine with exploring on my own. 

3. Trip reports are your friends. Before I go to a place, I scour the internet to see what other people have written about the area. As lovely as the federal agency websites may be, they are definitely lacking in real life experiences. If I hadn't found the Big Bend chat forum, for example, I wouldn't know about the water sources and if they are typically reliable in winter. If I hadn't talked to my friend L about the Grand Canyon Tuweep hike, I wouldn't know that the "dangers" are vastly inflated on the park website. Some cities also  have running routes mapped out if you google "running in Portland" or something similar. Shuttles are also your friend! Often you can find shuttles to many trails or locations. That way you aren't stuck renting a car and having it sit for days. If other types of adventures are your thing, there might be groups in that town that do them. One woman I worked with was into roller derby, and she brought her stuff with her, finding other teams to skate with.(Digression: I have spent many an hour on the trail trying to think up a roller derby name. I still haven't come up with one! It should be a play on your name, profession, etc, but sound fearsome.)

4. Go stoveless.  Thinking about backpacking? A backpacking stove and flying just don't work that well. You have to find a canister somewhere, or fuel, and can't bring it back with you even if you have fuel left. I don't bring a stove unless it is going to be really cold. And speaking of food, I typically fly with most of my backpacking food already in my bag. It's just too time consuming and difficult to try to find that stuff at your destination. That way you are ready to go and don't waste time (I also fly with some of the lunch and breakfast items I plan to eat during the work day. I don't do well with huge restaurant meals and grocery stores aren't often located near hotels).

5. Be realistic. I would love to turn a work trip into a multi-day, multi sport adventure. But I often don't have more than a couple of days to spare, and the gear required is too immense. Less can be more. A day hike is fine! A run is fine! What matters is the experience. You aren't in your hotel watching a Say Yes to the Dress Marathon (don't judge. I don't have a TV, I have done this. I kind of love wedding dresses. I know, I am an enigma).

I can't typically take off and go visit these places on my own. It costs too much and takes a lot of time. But with work travel, I can have the best of both worlds. Go work travel! (Alaska? Need any work done? Call me!)

Do you travel for work? What adventures do you find? And what would your roller derby name be?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why I Spent Fifty Nights Camping Last Year

Guys, I did it!
Skyscape X at Dollar Lake

I'm not a big goal setting or record keeping person. The thought of counting up miles or entering stuff into an electronic database makes me want to vomit. I am so scheduled in my every day life that I need some freedom when I go outdoors. For work, we have to record our hours in two databases and we are kept to a "billable hour" percentage.

Skyscape at Eureka Bar

I don't know how many miles I cover in a year and I could care less. But in January 2014 I decided I wanted to spend fifty nights out, in places reached by foot. It was the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act after all, although I expanded this to include non-wilderness. So backcountry huts counted, and so did  hiking into a campground or place that could be reached by road, as long as I walked or kayaked there. I ended up with 50 nights on 12/30, and 4 car camping nights, for 54 nights out total, almost two months of camping!

Skyscape at the rattlesnake heaven, AKA Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness

You might not think this is hard, but if you are thinking this you either a) don't work full time, b) get paid to camp, or c) live in a place that is not snow-covered six months of the year. It took some serious planning, missing out on social engagements, and some charming to get this to happen.

Of course, it wasn't just 50 nights in a tent. It was fifty nights without the internet. Fifty nights without electricity. Fifty nights with silence. It's how I'd like to live my life someday, closer to the earth. I feel like we've all gotten so far away from the stars at night, the sound of the rivers, the alpine glow of a mountain. I'm a better person out there. And that's why I do it.

Skyscape at Ice Lake

The statistics:

Best campsite: Goat Rocks Wilderness, WA

Worst campsite: In the poison oak (we thought) off a dirt road in Washington, a dry camp, Day 1, and we were already thinking this was a day of our lives we could not get back.

Strangest moment: A local approaching our tents and yelling, "Anyone want some weed?" (Washington)

Scariest moment: Stalked (sort of) by a bear near the Blue Hole

Best moment: Finishing the Washington portion of the PCT with hiking buddy Flash. 507 miles!

Trail magic: A PBR and ice left on my car at the trailhead at Indian Crossing (I don't even drink PBR, but the thought counted). A hershey bar in a cache in the Southern Cascades. 

Quotes: "Are you a thru  hiker? Do you want candy?"
"You girls are the best looking thing I've seen all day!"
"Never trust a lake named Sheep!"
"There's just a little up and over."
"How many liters are you going to carry?"

Items found on trail: Several hats, underwear, a tent, toothpaste, sunglasses, socks

Hardest mentally: Mosquitoes near White Pass

Hardest physically: Climbing out of Hells Canyon after being ambushed by a poison ivy forest

Farthest hike: 23 miles

Shortest hike: 4.5 miles

Solo vs. Companions: About 50/50

Skyscape on the Idaho side of the Snake River
Will I do it again? No, unless it happens without trying. There were several mornings of hiking with a headlamp at four am, trying to make it to work in time. There were rainy days where I really wanted to turn around but I pressed grimly on. I could feel obsession creeping in. Let's face it, nobody wants to be around someone whose main focus is one thing (BTDT. Divorced it). So I'll keep hiking and camping, but I also will say yes to all the possibilities. If they involve a tent, or not.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop, Part III: the canyon

Headlamps sliced the quiet desert night. "I only see one," a male voice said. I sat upright in my sleeping bag. Border Patrol? My hiking companions, chasing off mountain lions?  Illegal immigrants? Who else could be in this lonely desert?

Backpackers. "We're just getting an early start," chirped a guy in shorts as he hiked by with three others. I looked at my watch. Four am. It wouldn't be light for another three hours. Early start? I guess so.

The last full day of the Outer Mountain loop took us through a vast, panoramic desert. We trudged through sandy washes and climbed to the top of buttes, dropping down to our cache at the Homer Wilson Ranch. You can drive close to the trail and drop off water, and we hiked up to retrieve our stash in the bear box. All of us had a gallon of water except for Camel, who had packed in two gallons. As it turned out, we carry our fears: none of us needed that much water. Instead, we guzzled as much as we could and re-filled our various water containers; we would be dry camping again.

As we did so, the volunteer ranger we had seen before arrived at the old ranch building with unsettling news. Freezing rain was in the forecast! We looked up at the serene blue sky. Seriously? For the first time on this hike, I was wearing shorts (This didn't last long. While it was warm enough for sure, there are way too many prickly bushes that want to attack you. Pants are a must).

The rest of the hikers around the ranch were abuzz. Freezing rain! The horror! I just shrugged. We had all the gear we needed. We would deal with freezing rain if it arrived. Packing up, we headed for our last night's camp, suggested by the ranger: a flat spot in some oak trees, next to a trough.

Passing under huge, orange and red spires of the Blue Creek Canyon, we encountered two women hiking downhill. They seemed overly interested in where we were going to camp, and when we volunteered this information, one of them pressed her lips in a tight line. "That's a historic site," she said disapprovingly. "The ranger shouldn't be..." Reconsidering bad-mouthing a fellow employee, she told us she was a volunteer archaeologist for the park. While Buffalo talked to her I rolled my eyes behind his back. While I respect history, the destructive ranching practices in the last century irrevocably changed water patterns in this park. Many more springs and streams used to exist before the cattle ruined them forever. Though the desert may seem tough and invincible, it is a fragile place. Warning us not to camp by an old trough seemed a bit of overkill.

As it turned out, the "historic site" was a crumbling concrete trough and some pipeline. Convinced we would not hurt the site by camping there, we set up our tents. This was my 50th night in the backcountry for the year, a goal I had set in January and was not sure I would reach. It was a celebratory moment. (Post on this to follow...)

The next morning I attacked the 2,500 foot climb with happiness. I love an early morning ascent. A naturally uncaffeinated morning person, I can't think of anything better than climbing a mountain first thing. Though a chilly wind raked over us, no freezing rain was in sight, although a thick fog layer blanketed the basin below.

We circled around Emory Peak and began the descent to the busy parking lot. Fresh backpackers were heading out, one carrying a fully-loaded Dromedary water bag (six liters) in one hand. Our hike was over, but theirs had just begun.

I felt the same emotions I always get at the end of a trail. For whatever reason, I am my truest self in the wilderness. I won't list all the ways I feel this to be the case, but if you are like me, you know.

Taking our finish photo, we didn't know it then but the hardest part was yet to come. An ice storm descended upon South Texas, and it would take us two days just to get back to Dallas. For hours, we crawled the interstate, sometimes at a complete halt. Cars and trucks were overturned and jackknifed everywhere. Sometimes hiking is the easiest part.

What I learned from this hike:

We carry our fears. I didn't need nearly as much water as I thought I did in the desert. None of us did. Well, maybe Camel.

Wear lighter socks in the desert or risk hot spots.

No decisions are the wrong ones. (Camel, a wise man who knows not to revisit the past)

If you have to drive through a scary ice storm among people who have no idea how to drive in it, do this with Buffalo. Thanks, Buff, for getting us through.

I hope to someday have half of TC's confidence. Honestly, you could plop her down in any wilderness and she would thrive. Believing in yourself is half the battle.

My hiking companions scattered to other sides of the country. I don't know when I will see them again. I miss them.

If you go: There's tons more hiking than just the Loop, though the loop is pretty outstanding. The other trails are rougher and less well marked, and there is definitely no water. You need to be self sufficient in all ways. If you only go to day hike, that's great too! There's a mini loop that is 13 miles, which gives you some of the highlights of the OML (except the desert portion). I didn't see any concerns with wildlife although when I was here years ago, it was with a fire crew, burning out brush near the visitor center where mountain lions lurked. The park is going to make backpackers carry bear canisters soon, though. As far as weather goes, you don't really want to be out there in late spring or summer. There definitely won't be water, and the temperatures are brutal. It's a great choice when everything else is under snow! Bring capacity for 5-6 L minimum, or have Camels with you.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop Part II: The desert

There comes a time in every hike lasting more than twenty-four hours where, for me, my other life ceases to exist. This is what my life is now, and it seems like it will always be this. I want to just keep hiking forever. I don't know if others feel this way or not. Mostly I am afraid to ask, in case it is just me.

December in the Chisos. I crawled out of my tent wearing the following: long underwear. Fleece pants. Wool long sleeve shirt. Wool long underwear top. Fleece pullover. Down jacket. Fleece jacket. Mittens. Hat. Down booties. It was cold, well below freezing. TC fired up her Jet Boil and passed me a lifesaving mug of hot water. We huddled around the bear boxes (no campfires allowed), discussing today's water carry strategy.

"How many liters are you going to carry?"

"Um...three and a half? How many are you going to carry?"

We had an eleven mile hike today before we reached water, or at least the rumor of water, and we were dropping 2,500 feet, then climbing in and out of steep washes. It would be warmer, we guessed. And what if there was no water in Fresno Creek after all? In the end we all had about three liters, except for Camel, who of course carried at least five, living up to his trail name.

We stopped at Boot Spring before we left the mountain for the desert, next to some buildings that had once housed crew for trail rides, now defunct. A couple were stealth camping by the spring, carrying the most old school gear imaginable, including huge bedrolls and jeans. They weren't the only people we would see with this type of gear, and not the only ones without the right permits. This was easily a country in which to disappear, to stealth camp, to reinvent yourself.

The trail climbed steadily to the rim and then shot downwards, passing through the pinyon-juniper forest and into the crumbly rock face. It was entirely possible to fall into a cactus, which one of our group did (who shall remain nameless), and we later learned that someone in another group had broken an ankle somewhere in the vicinity.  Every step had to be placed with care on the rocky trail. Finally we gained the desert floor, in another world entirely.

Here was the place the rain forgot. The sun blazed, the temperature soaring to eighty degrees. The landscape was wrinkled folds of tawny skin, as we dropped down into dry washes and back out again.  Spiny cactus dotted the path. It was as far from flat as it could be. We were circling the mountain, its steep face towering over us. It was impossible not to feel small. There was no bailing out, not now, unless we took the path of the desperate. One hiker we saw was doing that, the desert more than he had expected. He was hiking to the Juniper Canyon road, a four wheel drive access point traveled by few vehicles, hoping for rescue. He could wait, we knew, for days.

"How far do you think we are from the river?" I asked. The Rio Grande, I meant, the only river that really matters.

"Maybe seven miles?" TC said. I thought of other desperate people walking through this starkly beautiful landscape, not for the luxury of recreation like we were but for survival. It would be hard to survive out here without the things we carried.

Deep in the afternoon we ascended a ridge to see Fresno Creek glimmering below. Water--and plenty of it! We scrambled down to filter, once again having the conversation about water carries. We would not have more water until we reached our cache at the Homer Wilson Ranch, at least four miles away on Day 3. Four miles doesn't sound like a lot, but in this country, it really is. Though I have to keep learning this lesson, desert travel takes half again as long as any other kind. This water would have to get us through a dry camp and half a day's travel.

"Five liters?" I said, trying to do the math. "I drank two today for eleven miles, and then we need dinner, and breakfast..."

"I'm taking four and a half," TC said. She looked convinced. TC is a person who is instantly comfortable anywhere, it seems.

"Five," said Buffalo. He looked sort of convinced.

"I'm taking seven," Camel said. I laughed. Of course he was.

Due to a miscalculation, I ended up with about six liters, and crawled my way to the top of the next ridge out of the Fresno Creek drainage (A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. Add that to our winter gear and it was a substantial load). This was a backcountry zone, where camping was allowed anywhere, but we had no idea where we would camp, and the desert fell away in long folds to the horizon. It looked hostile and unforgiving. What were we even doing here, I thought. What was this hike even about? But at the top, there it was, the perfect campsite.

There have been a few perfect campsites in my life: overlooking a wild Alaskan lake before the bear charged our camp; the campsite in the Goat Rocks after Flash, MG and I traversed the scary Knife Edge of the Washington PCT. This site ranked right up there, five small clearings in the cactus, the Mexican mountains in the distance, the South Rim towering overhead. As darkness fell we lay in a row marveling at the stars.

The desert is a very quiet place at night. It was beautiful. It was perfect. It was one of those nights you wish would never end.

to be continued...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Big Bend Outer Mountain Loop Part I: the mountains

The ranger folded her arms and stared us down. "You should consider changing your plans."

TC, Buffalo, Camel and I exchanged glances. We had planned this backpack trip for months now. We knew that the ranger knew if our two important creeks were flowing, but she refused to say. Instead she fixed us with a steely glare.

"People bail out on this trip because they think the desert part is boring," she said. "And it's going to get cold."

Here is the dark side of the Park Service. I worked for them for years, and I saw it then too: people who want to protect the park  from visitors. Granted there is plenty of bad behavior out there, but the possessiveness of the wilderness is sometimes taken too far.

Assuring her that we were experienced hikers didn't work either. "It's different here," she said firmly. Finally, after TC said we were prepared to carry 9 liters of water, the ranger reluctantly gave us our permit. We scampered out before she could come up with any more obstacles. Later a park volunteer told us that Boot and Fresno creeks were both running. Thank goodness for volunteers. They always tell the truth.

I had met these three hikers (TC, Camel, Buffalo) in the Grand Canyon last winter on a Rim to Rim to Rim backpack trip, and I recognized kindred spirits. We are all from the same tribe: independent, happy to walk solo or together, from a patchwork of interesting adventurous backgrounds. As we hiked, someone would casually mention living in New Guinea or Israel, or climbing Mount Rainier. We could ask the question: "What's the next trip you have planned?" and hear answers like, "Mount Everest Base Camp" or, "I'm thinking about hiking the Colorado part of the CDT solo." I can't tell you how much I love finding people like this. It makes me feel like less of a freak.

We had all had decided to meet up in this remote corner of South Texas to hike into the new year and we met in Dallas for the eight hour drive south. After two nights in the cold and windy campground, we were finally ready to go. This hike climbs into the mountains and drops to the desert, finally climbing again through a canyon, for a distance of a little over thirty miles. With a lot of elevation change and short days, we decided on three nights for the hike, though some people do it in two.

Last summer's South Cascades hike taught me not to fear water carries, so I loaded up with six and a half liters for the uphill hike into the Chisos Mountains. True to his name, Camel  had much more water than that, but the others had about the same as I did. The combination of lots of water and warm weather gear--temperatures would range from the eighties to below 20-meant that this would not be an ultralight hike. Luckily I had no scale but guessed my pack weighed upwards of 40 pounds. Fortunately our first day was short, only five miles, climbing a few thousand feet to a campsite near Boot Canyon. The trail wound upwards through rock faces and jagged cliffs and is not really wild, since a few composting toilets can be found and campsites are marked and have bear boxes in them. However, the sites are far enough apart that you can feel like the only one on the mountain.


Buffalo and TC split off to climb Emory Peak, the second highest mountain in Texas, while Camel and I continued on to our campsite. We set up our tents and took a day hike over to the South Rim. The temperature hovered comfortably in the forties, though we were aware it would dip down to about twenty that evening. Along the way we passed the flowing Boot Creek, along with deep, deep pools of water--plenty of water, water that would last a long time.

Standing on the rim, we could see all the way to Mexico. The Rio Grande was a ribbon far in the distance. Between us and the river, a wild desert stretched before us, 2500 feet below. Tomorrow we would be there.

Those far mountains? Mexico.

Though I had hiked in the desert before, it still has the power to intimidate me. Would there really be water in Fresno Springs? How easy would  it be to cross to our cache site, several miles distant? Predictably, the evening wind began to blow and I shivered a little, wondering about all there was to know and all there was to find out.

to be continued....