Tuesday, April 25, 2017

On the trail again (PCT)

Last April, Triscuit and I sat in the dubious shade of a dumpster and pondered our life choices. We had just staggered through three miles of deep sand, accompanied by a forty-five mile headwind. It was hot, topping ninety degrees. At a blessed trail angel house, we drank Gatorade and fended off stoned waifs who inexplicably tried to hug us. Never again, I thought. I work so hard for my vacation time, why was I in this mindless desert?

But still. There's something to having a goal, even if it is just completing the entire Pacific Crest Trail in sections. I've done 1500 miles; the trail is 2,650 miles give or take. Even as we sat there, true "hiker trash", I knew I would be back.

And so it came to be. On Tuesday we embark on another section, from I-10 near Cabazon to I-15 at Cajon Pass. It promises to be much elevation change, and some weirdness (Deep Creek hot springs, where locals like to ingest substances and soak naked. We may not be clear of the stoned waifs yet). Wind farms are a distinct possibility. Why do we do this, when there are possibly more close to home, scenic places to hike? For me, it's all about the trail community; while the stoners do exist, there are still some real, genuine people (take Shortcut, the Frenchman I camped with last summer. We still email each other) and true soulmates can exist (solemates? Ha). Then again, it's about the dream: Footprints from Mexico to Canada. How amazing is that?

I have: nine pounds of food for seven days. The usual camping gear. Something new, a "rain skirt" instead of pants (the forecast shows no rain); and a new drinking system where I have a tube connected right to a Smartwater bottle instead of a bladder (I love bladders, but on a long trail, it's a PITA to keep unpacking to take it out and fill it and know how much water you have. For shorter hikes, it's still my preference). I am contemplating going the no camp shoes route--there aren't really stream crossings, and for a week, I can go without sandals.

So here we go. 127 miles give or take! I'll report back soon.
This pavement is actually a short walk on the previous section. Not sure why it was chosen to represent Section C.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dragging Friends on Adventures:the scary road edition

I try to include disclaimers, I really do. I told my friends: This is a narrow, steep, road, with exposure. As we inched along toward the trailhead on the dirt one-lane road, shrieks filling the cab and threats to walk, I felt worried. These same friends were exposed to a freezing, steep hike they weren't expecting a few months back even though I clearly said, it's only two miles, but pretty much uphill the whole way. When we had arrived at our destination, the looks on their faces showed that it had not been described as promised. Foolishly, they had agreed to come with me again. I was sure they were regretting it. This is why I like to go alone sometimes, but I like these friends and it was going to be spring in the canyon. We've been shut out of spring this year (as I write this, it is snowing) so this was a window I couldn't ignore.

One of my friends declared that landing a military plane on an aircraft carrier was easier than the drive. That was hard to believe, but since I've never landed on an aircraft carrier, I had to take his word for it. Backing up for two oncoming trucks in the most narrow place around was probably the last straw. I sighed. Once again, an adventure miscalculation.

not my picture. You think I was taking pictures? Source
I have a very shallow adventure buddy pool, and in a way it's like speed dating (though thankfully I never had to do this in real life). Someone wants to go with you and it's mostly cross your fingers and hope for the best. Along the way, I learn their issues through trial and error (lightning phobia, horse phobia, dislike of bugs, dislike of dogs) and they learn mine (sunrise chatterbox, exercise obsession). We work it out.

After a harrowing two hours we finally arrived at the trailhead. Fortunately, the hike was worth it, because it always is. My friends agreed with this assessment: 4.5 miles one way,  mostly flat! There's something about a confluence that calms everyone, though one friend was heard to say this was a once in a lifetime trip.

The Snake River at last!
I don't know if these friends will accompany me again, but I'll keep trying. I'll just cross them off the list of narrow, exposed roads, like I've crossed others off long slogs (and they have undoubtedly crossed me off steep skiing excursions). Different friends for different adventures!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Alaska is a tug to the heart

The sound of the ocean. Eagles with their crescendo calls. Friends, who never age because of the absence of sun. The familiar edge as I hiked along the trails, wondering if a bear lurked in the forest. And a siege of memories that I thought I had forgotten, opened like a wound.

 Many of us have places like these, places we fled when times got tough, or when we wanted to restart our lives. Southeast Alaska will always be that place for me. It was the scene of great joy and great heartbreak. I've managed to put all that away into a box but, going back to work on a project there, it all came springing out.

It's not bad to have these places in our lives. It's better, I think, than a flatline through life, a contentment that never gets shaken. Though my life is good now, I always think, what if I had stayed?

Because the light lingers from five in the morning to past eight at night, I was able to hike far past where I could down south, and I visited some of the old trails. Familiar, yet not, it was strange and yet wonderful to revisit the paths I used to run or hike daily. My former kayaking partner, Helga, and I crunched along the Cross Trail, walking through the place where a landslide took three peoples' lives, a half-finished house sitting mutely among the devastation. A reminder that things don't stay the same. In the time I have been gone, people have left, people have split up, people have had babies. Life doesn't stay in pause just because you are gone.

Fishing boat and Mount Edgecumbe
 As I flew away, back to the life I've chosen, I looked down on Baranof Island and could name all the bays. There was where we pushed the boat through a sheet of ice in April. There was where Kitty and I spent one glorious patrol, nobody else in sight. I was surprised how much I remembered.
Nearing the edge of Baranof Island, Cape Ommaney in the distance
My friend said, "I bet this feels small to you now," and in a way she was right. I like the idea of living unfettered in a big landscape, able to drive to the next town, the next river, the next mountain, instead of hemmed in by sea and tough mountains. I have choices now that I didn't then. It is always a tradeoff.

Still, I will never be quite able to forget this place. I don't think I could live here again. Even though I was here during a few days of unusual sunshine, I know there are times when it rains thirty days in a row. I am a sunshine person now. Backpacking here was hard, a combination of desire and fortitude, armed with pepper spray and aerial photos. In many ways I have it much easier. I have probably  lost that Alaska toughness.

And there's this: I've lived there and in the Florida swamp, in the Great Basin and in the southwest. All of those places have left their mark. I'm glad I did it all. Even when it hurts a little to leave.

I recognized Lake Diana immediately as the plane flew toward the lower 48. I camped here for several days, looking for rare plants.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Talking with strangers on trails

I climbed out of the Grand Canyon, super annoyed. I don't know why, but sometimes people unaware of trail etiquette really bug me. Obviously if someone is puffing their way upward, you don't barge toward them when you are going downhill in a game of chicken. (There are exceptions. Hiking in Sedona last week there were some people who were obviously having a hard time picking their way downhill. We stopped to let them by.) I also don't like people right on my heels, or when you pass someone and they slow down, necessitating a game of leapfrog.

There was also Daypack Dude, whom I encountered at the Tip-off on the South Kaibab. He spotted me approaching from the East Tonto and made it his mission to keep ahead of me at all costs. Seriously, it's not a race. So, I wasn't overly thrilled about running into a big crowd as I topped the rim.

But then I saw a family emerging from a shuttle bus. They were your typical rim tourists, clad in fleece and improper shoes, without water. But the man, who had sprinted ahead, was returning to his family with a look of complete joy on his face. "IT'S THE CANYON!" he screamed. "WE CAN WALK IN THE CANYON!!!" (I guess he had thought you could only look at it.) How could you not love that enthusiasm?

There's something about being on trails  that makes me want to talk to other travelers. I don't normally do small talk in other circumstances. I spend nearly ten hours a day glued to a phone with strangers in my real job, so I don't feel like it on planes or buses or trains. (Though a guy did invite me to go to Mexico with him on my last plane trip. Hmm.)

Trails though. There's where I meet my tribe. I have met some true characters and had great conversations in passing on trails. I've met many a lifelong trail friends this way--Skeeter, Cherry Pie,  Buff, Camel and Short Cut. Where else would I have met a Frenchman in his 60s except on a trail?  There are others I will never see again but will never quite forget. There's something about backpacking that seems to revert people to their true selves. I've never found it anywhere else. It's not like I'm a different person, maybe just a better one, the one I was meant to be.

Do you talk to people on trails? Ever met a lifelong friend that way?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Along the East Tonto: Grandview to South Kaibab in the Grand Canyon

Every trip deserves a caption. This one, a 27 mile hike across a rough and remote section of the Tonto trail, (plus a side trip to Phantom Ranch) can be summed up as It's beautiful when you aren't terrified.

There was plenty of terror. Much of the descent, specifically the first couple of miles from the Grandview trailhead, and most definitely the 1.5 mile drop into Cottonwood Canyon (which took me an hour) plus a couple of the Cremation descents, contained the trifecta of exposure, little rolling rocks, and steepness. In retrospect, the first two days (10 and 12 miles) were a lot to tackle. GC miles are like no other. All of you RTRTR runners who scoff at this, know that the East Tonto is nothing like the superhighway of the corridor trails. It even bears little resemblance to the West Tonto.

Distant storm on the north rim, from the descent.
In addition, reports of water availability were scarce, so I often carried six liters of water on those descents. In truth, recent rains had brought water to many drainages that are often dry. I could have gotten by with less, but you never want to end up with less than you need.

Water in the desert! Lonetree Canyon
There's also the delightful aspect of losing the trail, which can happen frequently, especially as you climb out of the east arm of Cremation. And there's the outsloped trail right on the edge of Grapevine Canyon, where a strong wind threatens to blow you into the depths as you think, this can't possibly be the way.

But. There is something to the stark beauty of the Tonto. I was alone most of the time, only intersecting with people on a few occasions. There was only the desert wind, the sound of canyon wrens, and my own thoughts. The few people I met were hardy desert adventurers, my tribe that I miss so much.

Not a soul but me and my thoughts.
Muddy Colorado

Heading toward Grapevine
I camped the last night in Cremation Canyon, the place where a marathon runner died in 2004, running the same route it took me three and a half days to hike. Cremation is also the place where Native Americans scattered the ashes of their dead. It is a solemn and spooky place. Unlike in July, when Margaret searched desperately for a way to the river, there were small potholes of water below the campsites. Enough to save your life.

I've been below the rim eight times if I am counting right. This trip was very different than the others. Though it's fairly easy if you take your time and prepare, it showed me the vast indifference the canyon has for all of us. In the other areas I've been, you are never too far from safety. On the East Tonto, you have to rely on yourself. It's a situation we all need to find ourselves in once in a while.
Cremation canyon

Where I camped: Grapevine (10 mi); Cremation (12 mi); last arm of Cremation (1 mile? then day hike to river and back). If I were to do it again I'd camp at Cottonwood (5.5 slow miles); Lonetree (about 11 miles) and Cremation, to break it up a little. Horseshoe Mesa is an interesting destination also, but I didn't have time to explore much on the dry mesa.