Sunday, March 27, 2016

Not a Loner

Often people get the wrong idea about me. I've had people I don't know well call me a "loner". That really isn't true. I am the kind of person who would rather have a handful of kindred spirits than a bunch of superficial acquaintances.
I do a lot of my hiking solo because it is pretty hard to find people who want to do what I do in a town of less than 1500.  A good friend has moved, and one has a strange illness that I am hoping goes away soon. There are people who will take walks and a few pretty hardcore runners but the hikers are few and far between. The backpackers are almost non-existent. It's the one thing I would change about living here if I could.

Fortunately I don't mind my own company and I am comfortable in the woods. I set off on Saturday without a set plan and willing to push it a little. That's another quality that is hard to find. Not saying I am better than anyone, I just seem to want to endure obstacles (perhaps foolishly) more than some people. Of course I have my boundaries, for example I wouldn't hole up on Mount Everest for days in a tent just to get to the summit.

I decided to take the climber's trail to intersect the Chief Joseph trail, which turned out to be a good choice. There's a steep waterfall on the main trail that you can't navigate easily most of the time.

 I plodded up the steep climber's trail to find  untracked snow on the main trail. This always makes me both nervous and excited. Nobody's been up here? Why?
 All too soon it became clear that the postholing would begin. I had no idea that the north-facing slopes were going to hold that much snow. It took nerves of steel and stubbornness to keep plowing onward.
 Finally, without snowshoes and teetering on steep snowfields, I had to call it. I turned around to see if I could take the main trail all the way down, but encountered a show-stopper, a huge log that looked impossible to get over. Down the slippery climber's trail it was!
Cool icicles!
I probably hike 75% of my time solo. I don't feel bad about this: hiking alone lets me think of the plot line in my next novel. It lets me relax after a 50 hour work week. To me, it's better than staying home. I once had a friend who wanted to go on a cruise, but refused to go until he had a woman to go with. Two decades later, he still hasn't gone.

So no, internet friends, I am not a "loner". In fact, I never really feel lonely in the woods. If the stars align and someone is able to go, that is a bonus. Either way, I'll be out there.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The weight of others

I'd been waiting for this day. A break in the snow and the rain, a day without work or obligations. Even though nobody I knew had been there, even though I wasn't even sure I could make it to the trailhead, I decided to go. First I had to complete a fat bike shuttle for J, and I scurried off before he could return if the conditions were too difficult on his chosen route (he ended up having quite a slog. Sorry! That's what happens when you are a scout, and don't wait for others to tell you every little part of a route.).  So it was noon before I got to the Saddle Creek trail. Looking up, I made an executive decision to abandon the snowshoes. It just looked like maybe I could make it. The road had surprisingly been clear of snow, and though I could see white-dusted peaks ahead, I had hope I could at least make it a mile.
This trail climbs 2,000 feet in three miles, but most of it wraps around a grassy ridge like a rattlesnake. There's a trick to walking switchbacks, and it isn't to be impatient and cut them. Instead, the way to do it is to absorb the zen of the switchback. Think: I have all the time in the world. Notice the tread under your feet, the slow and steady ascent toward the sky. Think about things you never have time to think about. Switchbacks are for dreaming.

Soon, too soon, I was at the saddle. Only a small snowfield crowned the top. I could look way, way down and across to Idaho, and the usual thought: why didn't I bring a tent? I climbed farther, along the rim trail, thinking about hiking all the way to Hat Point. But of course I had no time for that, not today.

When I camp, I head way down to the flat valley you see far below. Actually it's not all that flat and not really a valley...
Descending switchbacks is harder than going up, because you see below you all the places you have to go. Instead I thought about all the people I associate with this trail. There was the time I hiked with The Freak of Nature, and we had to climb high into the rocks to avoid a range bull. She has been stricken with a mysterious illness, and I hope someday she can hike again. I've hiked here with T, and A, and solo, many times. I've never hiked here with Janie, but for some reason I feel her in this place. More than anywhere else I've lived, I feel history on my shoulders here. I carry the weight of others, the ones who aren't here, the ones who can't be here.

I've lived so many different places, but this August I will have lived here for seven years. I've only lived one place as long as that as an adult. I used to think that it was boring to stay in one place, and I couldn't imagine why people would want to. I am starting to get it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Whoa there, partner! This post is about cheating the season. 

We got an impressive snow dump the last few days. It's easily a foot in the mountains and half that in town. Those of us who had our snow tires taken off early stared in disbelief, forgetting that really, this is normal. It's just the last couple of years that we've actually had a spring in March. It is, truly, still winter.

I've had a good couple of skiing and snowshoeing days, but sometimes a person craves dry ground. The trouble with being a scout in this county--someone who is on the move to check snow and trail conditions before anyone else--is that you can happily drive someplace only to be denied. But what can you do? Stay home, convinced that the 70% chance of precipitation forecast dooms you to the gym? No, of course not. I optimistically put on waterproof socks and headed out.

Nobody else was at the Devils Gulch trailhead when I arrived. A sullen and unrelenting wind pounded the trees. This didn't look promising, but I was here, so I marched on. Once this used to be one of my favorite running trails. With only a gentle uphill grade, unheard of around here, and a few water crossings, it was the perfect mix of solitude and challenge. (You might have to jump over a few rattlesnakes, but where's the adventure in not? Also, Tough Mudder races make me snicker. Just come to Eastern Oregon. You don't need to pay for a race with obstacles.) 

However, over the years brush and downed trees have reclaimed some of the trail, particularly past the old cabin (probably two miles up) and even before that, pants are a necessity, unless you like looking like you've been in a fight with a couple of cats.

Even so, it's still a nice trail to cheat the season. Here I could see that spring was actually on its way. The sky remained harmlessly blue even as rain and snow circled. I was in a strange little pocket of sun. I even found the remnants of a fire. I poked around but could not see the cause. (It's kind of ominous that this fire spread as far as it did this early, in this high snow year.)
I hiked a little ways past the cabin before calling it quits. Not a strenuous hike by any means, but enough to remember what sun felt like.

Selfie fail! But it makes me laugh. And look, bare ground!
I was now ready to go back to this.

What's it like where you live? Are you one of those people happily posting that it is seventy degrees? Honestly I would be scared if it was 70 here. It'll be snowy for another month.

Friday, March 11, 2016

What the mountain takes

I walked along the moraine, feeling fortunate. It was a rare sunny day sandwiched in between snow and rain. The voice in my head that said I should be lifting weights or running was mercifully quiet. It was all right, I thought, just to walk. For once.

Even though I look at this mountain every day, Chief Joseph Mountain still takes my breath away. This peak dominates the skyline. It is our weather forecaster: if there's a plume of snow pulled off the peak like a scarf, if clouds shroud its summit, we know we are in for it. A couple of years ago a fire rolled up its back. In fall, the larches turn golden on its flanks. And we measure the snowline by how far it advances down the slope.

I didn't know as I walked in the peaceful sunshine, what was unfolding on the mountain. You can read about it here. I didn't know until the next day, when it was too late.

The town is reeling, even those people, like myself, who had only met him a couple of times. This mountain is like the ocean was in the last place I lived. It was our touchstone, our constant. And still, every year, people were lost to the ocean. It's easy to think of it as a betrayal.
 It will be a long time, perhaps forever, for people not to look at Chief Joseph Peak and see it a little differently. The history is forever changed. For all the words of peace and love and letting go, people will see sorrow in the cornices that form on its summit. It's been twenty-two years since Roger Roth, my friend, died on a Colorado mountain and some of us feel sharp stabs of pain, not every day, not even every week. But it never really fades. In time the mountain will just be a mountain again, our icon, the one we look to every morning, just to make sure it's still there. But not for a long time. Perhaps forever.

Keep skiing the peaks, friends. Keep climbing the mountains and running the rivers. If some of us are fortunate and we survive all that, we can look back and think of all the times we shouldn't have, the times when we were safe because the stars aligned, some freak combination of mountain and snow holding true for us, even when it didn't for others. Our tears are the rain, our memories the rainbow after.

See you out there.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Liquid Sunshine

When I lived in Sitka, in an attempt to convince tourists that omnipresent rain was okay, various marketing strategies called the downpours "Sitka sunshine" or "liquid sunshine." Clad in free ponchos given out by the cruise lines, the tourists huddled under umbrellas and didn't seem to agree.

I got to a point, living there, where I sort of liked the rain. Our island was a complete, closed off planet, foggy and mysterious. I graduated from running in full-on rain gear to just shorts and a T-shirt. We camped, hiked, and kayaked in the rain. It was just our backdrop.

Apparently in other parts of the country it is now "spring." Friends are giddily recounting warm temperatures, flowers, and clear trails. Where I live now, there is no such creature. What we get instead is a sullen mix of snow and rain, in tandem with high winds. It's a daily chore to trudge outside and see what has blown into your yard from the neighbors' and what you have lost forever. A couple of years ago the spring winds reached one hundred miles an hour.

This is the hardest season for an outdoors gal, because the rain is still falling as snow in the mountains, but the skiing has gone downhill. The nearby trails have turned to ice. I hear rumors of spring in Hells Canyon, but the access roads have turned greasy from rain. Last week I woke up to three inches of new snow. It'll be like this through April, probably, and snow in May is not unheard of.

But this is the tradeoff for a brief and perfect alpine summer, so I guess I will take it. I ventured out yesterday in hopes of a trail run, but the ice drove me to the campground. Surprisingly, there were people camped gamely in the rain, albeit with RVs to shelter in.

The only picture I took while running yesterday (I usually don't take pictures). Blurry, but shows the whole rain/fog thing.

I attempted to set up my new tent in the living room, but the cat loves to attack tents, so it didn't happen.

Set up this tent at your own risk.

In the end, I care too much about being outside to let rain stop me. I'm that crazy lady on the moraine with a smile on her face. I think. Probably. Maybe?