Thursday, October 26, 2017

Five anchors

I have a lot of pets. Five, to be exact. Sometimes I think what life would be without them. I'd be able to skip away from the house on long adventures without feeling guilty. No more spending exorbitant fees for shots, mysterious ailments, and fancy food. No more having to readjust my schedule because someone needs a walk/needs shots/needs more food/can't be left alone/smells like a skunk even though you've bathed her four times. Being able to find a place to rent while we build our house, because every landlord recoils in horror at the word "pets".

I have friends who swear off pets for many of those reasons and it does make sense. I couldn't have a pet when I was a seasonal worker, and I was able to go to New Zealand for six weeks/move across the country every six months/backpack anywhere in a national park/own clean vehicles.

But my heart. With one exception our animals are all rescues. One cat would have died without us feeding him with a bottle. We rescued one cat from a house that, I kid you not, had air literally blue from smoke. One of the dogs was taken from a hoarding situation. Someone else would have taken them--maybe.

Ruby before the molt. She looks totally skinny now.
In these beautiful fall days, I hike with the dogs. The older one feels he has earned the right to ignore me and poke along; he's eleven. The puppy runs ahead, and then comes back to check on me. It's fifty degrees and feels so warm; even though I laugh to myself that just a month ago it was fifty degrees more than this. This is what I love about living in a four season place. You get to watch the miracle of your body adjusting to extremes.

I've also witnessed rescue animals adjusting to love for the first time. Our old dog is getting more and more cuddly with age, just like the last one did. It makes me think of people--once you have experienced a trauma, it takes forever to trust again. The animals give me hope.

Callie! Fifteen and going strong.
 And despite the challenges of these five anchors, having a trail buddy has been really great. Ruby has gone from a stubborn, independent puppy to one who will sit when other people come by (she used to try to run off with them, as if they would give her a better home), will "leave it" when told (she stopped running after a deer, a huge victory) and who will come sit by me as I sit by a lake, putting her head on my lap.

 I don't know if I will always have pets. Now, while I am chained to working at home, it makes sense-I am there a lot of the time. If I get to retire, I plan to chase all the trails I can. Maybe I will want to be more footloose then. For now the pets fill up some empty spaces and make me happy. Plus, who would I talk to all day? Myself? Far better to talk to the pets. "Okay, Ruby, now we need to make a conference call."

Then there's the hardest part--pets don't live very long. Not nearly long enough. It breaks your heart when they leave you, even though you know they will. Every day with them, you live knowing that someday they won't be around. I also have friends who won't get any more pets because that pain was too hard to bear.

Puffin as a kitten, rescued from certain death
Do you have pets or have you chosen not to have them to pursue a more free life?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Sorting through (a hiking story, sort of)

I've been slowly moving back into my cabin. As I haul rubbermaid containers inside and open them, I am amazed: all of this stuff. And I thought I got rid of a lot of stuff when I moved out! Living in a thousand square foot house with no real closets, I probably have a lot less than most people. Still, it's way too much.

Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff? I had hardly anything most of my life: if it couldn't fit in a Chevette, it wasn't going. Then when I left Alaska I banished almost everything: all of my furniture, most of my possessions. I liked traveling light. But in the last eight years, things have slowly crept in. I am ruthless this time: out it goes!

I laugh when I see some of the items. The array of hair potions, trying to tame what hypothyroidism has done to a formerly glossy mane (it's not pretty). I have ziplock bags of unidentifiable pills (Tylenol PM? Aspirin?). I obviously store my fears, because my medicine cabinet is heavily weighted toward blister prevention. As far as clothes, I have hung on to "office wear", just in case I ever return to one (it's doubtful, but you never know where life will take you). I can't seem to part with my XtraTuf Alaska rubber boots or my storm kayaking jacket. Maybe doing so would admit that part of my life is really over. It is over, but maybe, I think, there's a piece of that woman who did those things that I don't want to let go.

I finally couldn't take it anymore. It was time to hike. I held no illusions that I would get to Ice Lake; tales of waist deep snow elsewhere abounded. If I could just go ten miles, I thought. Maybe that would smooth out some rough edges (life has been pretty complex lately).

I hurried through all the old landmarks: the wilderness boundary sign, the place where the trail rides turn around, the first campsite for those who overestimate their fitness. I crossed the bridge and headed up toward the basin. A storm was coming in, with lots of snow and 40 mile an hour winds. I knew I had to beat it.

Strangely enough, there was only a skiff of snow. I was going to make it all the way! Giggling with happiness (yes, I am a dork), I arrived at the lakeshore to find gale force winds and a lake churning with whitecaps.

Ok, YOU try to take a selfie in 40 mph winds.
It's interesting how the moods of a place can change so fast. In summer this lake feels almost tame and hospitable. You can go swimming. (of course, "summer" at almost 9,000 feet is really only two months max). Now, it felt like a place where humans should not stay. Looking over the peaks, I saw a ragged hem of clouds approaching--the storm. High on Sacajawea, mountain goats roamed, seemingly indifferent to the gale force winds.

Stuffing a bagel into my mouth, I raced down to safer ground. The entire 16 mile hike would be done without breaks. As a result I hobbled back into the house, flopping dramatically on the couch. Nobody was too impressed. The chores still awaited, an army of containers with too much stuff. Tomorrow, J informed me, we would have to go cut wood. In the snow. Because, we could buy wood, but that would make us soft, I decided.

I stared at the detritus of my life. There was my wedding ring from my former marriage. Though the marriage was awful, the ring was pretty. I started to toss it, then reconsidered. I can hang on to it a little longer. Maybe I'll have it made into a necklace. Not as a reminder of someone who treated me poorly, but because I survived it and came out stronger. Or really, does everything have to have meaning? Maybe it's just a nice ring.
Some things you just have to hang onto until you are ready to let them go.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

coming home

I drove home into an early winter. Usually the Wallowas get a fine dusting of snow, like giants spilling flour, by this time. I've even been chased out of the mountains on Labor Day by a half a foot dump. But this much snow, this early, is not typical, at least not in the recent decades. Two guys I passed on the trail today said they had run into a foot of snow before the old cabin on Falls Creek, and that is just deeply weird.

But today, at least, my first day back home, was one of those fall days that can break your heart. Heartbreaking because you know they can't last and they are just about perfect, a slight bite to the air, piles of bright leaves, warm sun on your shoulders and an open trail. I'm trying more and more often to live by the philosophy of "don't be sad that it's over, smile because it happened" and so I took on an easy trail, but one of the most beautiful.  I wanted to be grateful for the fall day, not gnash my teeth over the coming winter.

Only a few frosty cars at the trailhead, so some brave souls were camping in the twenty degree temperatures. Good for them. For me this is the time of year for day hikes. It only takes about an hour to reach Slick Rock Falls, the best I could do today when the chores had piled up in my absence (Note: if you rent a cabin to a bachelor, their idea of a good cleaning just might not be yours).

I hiked along at what my friend Gary calls a "friendly pace". It is always surprising to me to see day hikers with headphones, because my mind always is busily thinking about something. On my latest PCT hike it took me about five miles to add up all of the segments I have done and figure out what I have left (788 miles). I thought about each section and what it was like, and of the ones I have left to do. I think of plotlines for my novel. There is more to think about than there are miles.

The light wasn't great for pictures, but you get the idea.
 For example. Here in Deadman Meadow, I thought about climbing Sacajawea, the snowy peak pictured above. I thought about my friends who got married here. I remembered when I came and camped right here, on my 50 night backpacking quest. So much to think about.
All too soon I had reached my destination, Slick Rock Falls. This is where an avalanche often tumbles down from above. In the summer, you can climb up a ways and sit in some chilly, deep pools. This is also the route to the often dreamed about Deadman Lake. I could go further, I thought, keep going until the snow stopped me. But maybe this was good enough.

It's good to be home. Just like a person, this place has its challenges. I will deeply miss swimming, and the easy, flat trail system that actually made me want to go running. It was easy in Sisters, with convenient amenities, whatever you wanted close at hand. It would have been easy to stay and we almost did. But in the end, this feels more like home, so we came back. The future is still uncertain, but I'm ready to see what is next. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Know when to fold 'em*

All week long I dreamed of Camp Lake. In the guidebook pictures, it looked just like my kind of place--windswept, barren, stark and lovely. Access to it has been closed most of the ephemeral summer we managed to get, due to a fire that really wasn't all that close. Busting a fire closure isn't really my thing, so I waited, hoping for a break that finally came this weekend. The road to the trailhead was open!

The forecast wasn't all that great for backpacking. This time of year, you are flirting with disaster when staying out overnight at high elevations. I really wanted to camp because the hike was seven miles long plus there were other lakes up higher to explore. While a fourteen mile day hike was well within my range, having the chance to wander around the basin really could only happen with more time. In the end, the thirty mph wind gusts forced me to reconsider. (and that is a good thing).

Ruby and I left at dawn, which now means seven, armed with treats, warm clothes, a SPOT beacon, map, too much water, and an emergency blanket. There were only two cars at the trailhead, one belonging to a hunter whom I caught on as we trudged through the first dismal four miles of burnt trees. The other group would mysteriously never appear.

Ice on the creek crossings made for some ballet-like leaps as I attempted to keep my boots dry. I normally hike in trail running shoes, but some instinct had told me to wear boots. I was glad I had as I ascended the switchbacks after the turn-off to Demaris Lake (4.5 miles). The trail became completely snow-covered, with only a few footprints to point the way.

Lakes. But not Camp Lake.
My luck ran out at a cliff. Several sets of footprints had merrily begun traversing what I could tell from the map was the wrong way. I could see where the group had milled around and given up. Punching through a foot of snow, I decided to traverse the ridge and drop down into a valley. I could, I thought, follow my prints back.

I ascended a hill and found the wooden No Fires sign that seems to mark most lakes in these parts. Hallelujah for route-finding skills, I was on the right track. However, I was completely alone in what felt like winter. No trace of the trail remained. To the south, the Three Sisters loomed, implacable and indifferent.
So much snow.
I found what I thought could be the trail, winding mid-ridge, but a tentative step revealed solid ice with a thin snow crust. The snow bulged out over the cliff, making it impossible to kick in steps successfully. A fall wouldn't be automatic death, but it wouldn't be all that fun. I stopped and pondered my options.

I knew I was within a quarter mile of the lake. I could even see the basin where I was sure it lurked. Perhaps a less prudent person would have kept going. Years of being in the wilderness, and of carrying people out of the same wilderness, have taught me that it's important to follow your instinct. It was, I knew, time to turn around. Even though I was so close. Even though it would probably all work out. Even though I would never be back, and this was my only chance. Even though.

I looked at Ruby. Ecstatic, she was rolling around in the snow. She raced at full speed around and around in the snow. She didn't care that this trip was a bust. In fact, to her, it wasn't. So what if we didn't make our destination? I resolved to be more like Ruby.

Yes, that is a dog rolling in snow.
I left Camp Lake to winter. Sometimes, you just have to know when to quit.

Winter is here.
* If there's a Kenny Rogers song now in your head, I apologize.
Dog out of focus, but happy.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

take my breath away

I'm the one around town wearing sandals because I sent most of my winter things home. In my defense, it was one hundred degrees at the time. A sudden winter has caught me off guard. All summer, I never even toted a jacket because honestly? It never cooled off.

A healthy snowfall in the high country has put out the fires but not the closures, so I skirt around them, seeing what I can. Golden Lake had been on my list for a long time. The guidebook ominously warned that it was difficult, citing the .7 miles of cross country travel that were involved. Not one to be intimidated, I gathered all the weird remnants of warm clothes I had left, grabbed the puppy and headed out (Cale is unhappily recovering, banned from hikes for now).

As per usual, the first five miles were through a burnt forest. If you didn't know what was ahead, you might give up, but suddenly you break out into a huge meadow with views of the mountains. Most people stop here, and on the way out, I saw three sets of puffy jacketed backpackers, bound for this location. I have to admit I was envious. This was their view for the evening.

The snow line began as I climbed up from the meadow, and I regarded my running shoes with dismay. I had sent my hiking boots home, and these shoes were reaching the end of their useful life. Dark clouds swirled over the peaks, a reminder of an uncertain weather forecast. A prudent hiker might consider ten miles enough and turn around, but I knew this was my last chance to see the lake before I left town for good. Soon the snow patches became solid snow. With this, I was sure that the user path to the lake would be covered and unrecognizable. This might, I told the puppy, be the end of the road.

Following the landmarks on the map, I came to a single set of tracks in the snow, heading east. Hmm, I thought. This looked like the place where you could leave the trail and reach the lake. Should we try it? Yes, we should. Keeping a close eye on the way back in case the tracks melted out, we advanced cautiously around a meadow and through trees until we reached the lake.

We were completely alone in a beautiful place. Sometimes, nature takes my breath away, and this was one of those times.

This was a place that was hard to leave, but as I watched, the clouds began to thicken. We retraced our steps to the relative safety of the trail.

But not before a swim...Ruby, not me. Brr!

My feet were wet and I was hungry, having only nibbled on a few pretzels. We had six and three quarter miles left to travel, mostly through uninspiring burnt forest. The cold was creeping in. It was time to move. We probably only spent five minutes at Golden Lake, not nearly enough. But in a world that seems too sad to live in sometimes, those breathless moments are what keep me going.