Monday, October 28, 2019

Way out on the west Tonto, Grand Canyon National Park

I was the only one on the shuttle bus as it chugged toward Hermit's Rest. The only one on the steep, rocky trail for hours, until I met some rugged adventurers heading up. They didn't look like the typical Hermit Creek campers, the ones who put rain flies on their tents (a sacrilege when the nights are so brightly starred), so I asked, "Have you been west of Boucher?"

"We went to Slate Canyon," one of them said, the place I had been hoping to reach. They said what I had guessed: there was no water in Slate. It would be a big water carry. "You'll have it to yourself," they said as we parted.

Slate Canyon. I have heard you can climb down from one of the rims and hike to the river. I wasn't brave enough to try it.
It was true. After I left the civilized confines of Hermit Camp (it has a toilet), the next four days brought encounters with only three people, and these were in a group in the same place. The rest of the days passed in complete solitude as I marched westward, sometimes losing the trail momentarily as it grew fainter and fainter.

This is the best campsite at Hermit. It is under an overhang and away from everyone else. Get here early if you want to snag it.
Few people come this way because of the lack of water, the blazing sun and unforgiving terrain. The Corridor this is not. But as the Corridor becomes more and more crowded with the social media fueled Rim to River crowd, I find myself seeking out places like this more and more.

Campsite at Slate. Waterless, and solitude for miles.
The mileage I did every day was not far, hovering around ten to eleven miles. But this can be an eternity on the West Tonto, as you attempt to avoid the prickly pear spines, cross into and out of crumbling canyons, and inch along just above the Inner Gorge. I lugged six liters of water into Slate Canyon, then had time to lie under the scrawny shade of a juniper looking at the sky and the canyon walls. I wrote a novel in my head.
Smiling even with a cold and lack of sleep, because look where I am.
Saving two liters of water for the return, I hiked down a desert wash to Boucher Falls and perhaps the most enchanting campsite I have ever had.

Of course I had to stop and watch these brave souls go through Boucher Rapids.

People often seem puzzled by why I hike alone, and this trip was not supposed to be, but it is difficult to find others who want to do some of these more challenging hikes that aren't always immediate gratification. It can be lonely at times when you realize nobody is within many miles of you. But there's also something good about figuring it all out yourself, and knowing that you like your own company enough. What I liked about running long solo miles also holds true for hiking: with that much time to think, you don't end up with a lot of unresolved issues. You work them out, wear them down, mile by mile.

After five days, I arrived back at Hermit Camp to the usual curious combination of REI-outfitted people and the Walmart tent crowd. Everyone was carrying Nalgene bottles and sporting astonished grins, as well they should, since Hermit is not an easy trail to go down. While it's hard for me to understand why someone would lug a camp chair or sleep under a rain fly on a gorgeous night,  I have to admire the persistence. They're still experiencing the Canyon.

The mileage I can cover typically in six days was nothing near what I did here. I had time for lengthy siestas and swimming once I got near water. Yet as usual I felt somewhat beaten up by the Canyon. An intense cold I must have gotten on the plane made hiking difficult. Because I stubbornly refused to wear plants, my legs were attacked by catclaw, making it look as though a mountain lion had attacked. The last few miles out of Hermit, I slogged along at a snail's pace. But as I got to the top, I knew this wasn't the end. I'll be back.
Hermit Rapids from the West Tonto

Friday, October 18, 2019

The dartboard

I asked four different people.
"I have a painting class."
"I'm going to a bike race."
"I'm in Portland."
"I'm on the coast."

I have an adventurous set of friends. Not one of them were home sitting on the couch. I think of friendships as circles on a dart board: you have the close ones, the ones you can count on. Then on outer rings, you have the ones who occasionally show up due to other obligations, then the ones who show up when the adventure sounds good enough to justify it, and then finally the ones who vaguely say that they want to go, and to keep asking them, but never actually go. Then there's the ones who don't like dogs, or whose dogs don't get along with others, and the ones who won't drive because you are bringing your dog, and so on. You almost need a spreadsheet.

news flash--we are actually having a fall after all. This dog is 13 and can't go on long hikes anymore.
I wasn't going to sit around because nobody could join me on my 12 mile hike, so I packed up the dog and took off. The hike up to Aneroid Lake is never assured: I have had to turn back due to avalanche, deep snow, and once, lack of snacks. So I never count on actually getting there. Today, it was perfect; the fall I never thought we would get, and an empty trail. The slog, littered with boulders and ice, wasn't easy, but it never is. Just one foot in front of the other for six miles.

Almost empty trail. I encountered a backpacking couple coming down and asked them about the snow. Perhaps foolishly, I had worn trail runners. "I made it in Vans!" the man said. The other family coming down, swathed in puffy jackets, said there was a "fair bit of snow." You can't always take what other people say to be true. Some snow appeared, but nothing too deep. Before long I had arrived.

I keep trying to take a good selfie with the dog, but it never quite works.
I often avoid this lake because it's just not as great as some of the others. The water access is problematic, involving a scramble, and people often perch their tents in the few nice resting spots. It's hemmed in, without some of the grand views that you can get at other lakes. But today, it was a lake transformed, with a greenish tint to the water, nobody around, and just enough snow that you knew winter would soon close it off for good. It was perfect.

I have to admit I am sometimes on the other end of the invite. It's common for me to say things like, "I'm in Minnesota." Fortunately, my friends at the center of the dartboard keep asking--and I will too. Until then I will continue my solo adventures. I'm glad I'm not afraid to go it alone.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Seven Years Without Winter

In my twenties and thirties, I spent seven years in perpetual summer. On a Florida fire crew, we never saw snow unless we traveled to it. The closest thing was when the Gulf Stream dipped low enough to bring the temperatures down to a manageable level, but for the most part, shorts and T-shirts (outside of work) were a constant thing. 

At the time I mourned the loss of the seasons. Every day, the sky a bright hard blue, only interrupted by the summer thunderstorms, which brought momentary relief from the oppressive humidity. It was...kind of...boring.

We made fun of the snow birds who escaped their winters in New Jersey or Michigan or wherever they were from, thinking they couldn't hack the cold weather. We, of course, were just there for a job. Seasonal winter work was hard to find and we took it, even in a flat land in which we felt like strangers.

Now though, I wonder. Where I live, we had no real summer this year. I hauled out my summer clothes and wore them for maybe four weeks. The snow lingered into June, rainy and cool weather keeping the mountains from us. Winter has roared in early, depositing snow on the hiking and running trails. I knew I had to get out now, before it was on skis or snowshoes.

This is early October? Hmm..
Ruby and I slogged up Mount Howard, which is only four miles one way, but feels like more, because you gain about 4,000 feet in those miles. I could only reach the top without postholing because a snocat had been up there a few days ago. There was nobody for miles, a benefit of living in a town that has a long winter.

Ruby has decided she likes riding in the front seat. She is too cute to kick out.
Another day I decided to trail run on the West Fork of the Wallowa, a trail I avoid in summer due to all of the tourists. As I started out, I recalled another reason why I don't run there very often. So many annoying boulders.  I could walk as fast as this, I thought as I "ran". It took embarrassingly long to reach the turn-around, but who cares, nobody knew my time but me. The sun shone deceptively but I knew that if I stopped for too long I would be shivering.

It'll be full-on winter soon even though the larches haven't even changed color yet. Time to put the backpacking stuff away and find the ski wax. Backpacking season is over and swimming season never started. It's hard not to feel cheated, but the weather doesn't care.

How to deal with it? Embrace the brutality of a northern winter. I want to take more hut trips, ski more, maybe learn to skate ski. Write another novel. If all else fails, I'll sneak away to someplace where it is always summer. Call me a snowbird, I don't care.

I probably take too  many pictures of my dog. This is the last gasp of sort-of fall. Very cold at night, tolerable during the day.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

so many trails, so little time

I ran down toward the waterfront trail, the flashlight app on my phone lighting up the dark street. I would rather run in daylight, but I had to be at the office early, and I were going to work a thirteen hour day with no chance to get outside. So dark it was, although I saw hints of the future sunrise.

Because I was staying at a hotel without a gym, and because there was no time to go to a gym, I was going to have to run a lot while I was traveling. Which was fine because Duluth happens to have hundreds of miles of trails. You can take your pick, and I did; the waterfront, the flat gravel trail behind the zoo, the Superior hiking trail, a series of biking trails, and even a hawk reserve.

One of the many trails near the Hawk Reserve.
The sun began to rise as I ran back toward the hotel. Two older guys were parked in lawn chairs below the campground. "We're just watching traffic," they announced. "Am I winning?" I hollered back.

"Keep going, kiddo!" they yelled.

Back in the day, before knee surgery, before I fell on a trail run and things seemed to hurt more after, I used to run six days a week. I think it's healthier to cross train, but I miss the feeling that running gives me. There's nothing else that compares, except perhaps cross-country skiing. Still, I'm glad I CAN run, even if it's slow, even if stuff hurts, even if people pass me.

The time and pace I run now would have horrified me, but I don't care. There comes a time when you're just grateful you can still do it. That doesn't mean I don't push it sometimes, but I also try to take it all in while I'm out there.

There was also hiking to be done!
I drove over to Michigan where my parents live, and we hiked on the North Country Trail. Here is a cute shelter for hikers.

The locals call this Top of the World and it sure seems like it. That's Lake Superior in the distance.

While marathons and a 6 minute pace might be behind me, whether by age or desire or a combination of both (I mean, I don't really want to hit up the track anymore), I just keep on trucking. This past week was a good opportunity to revisit the every day running. I didn't experience any ill effects, but I think I'll continue to cross train, just because it makes me feel better to challenge myself in different ways. When I ran all the time, I was really, really good at one thing--running.

I'm home  now, where an early snow has basically closed off all the running trails. I'm sad about that, but it means one thing--skiing!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The downside of adventure travel

I have a friend I text whenever I travel, because lately every trip I have taken has included airport delays. Not just one but multiple delays, resulting in cancelled flights and nights spent randomly in strange cities. You're going to laugh, I texted her today. But, DELAY! And then, another delay! WHY, WHY WHY!

As I write this, I have been delayed in Duluth and now in Minneapolis. Getting out of Minneapolis seems like an impossible dream at this point. The ticket agent talked me out of an earlier flight that would have had another connection, instead of this direct flight, and so I am stuck with my decision.

In multiple hours in a freezing airport (air conditioning, MSP? really?) I have taken the tram randomly, done a ton of work, had a couple conference calls, eaten M&Ms (because at some point you just give up on a healthy diet), and felt like joining a little kid in a meltdown. Because really, traveling would be so much fun without...well, traveling.

I wish I had some cheerful tips on how to deal with this, but really, airplane travel is just something to endure. Like the time we sat on the runway jettisoning fuel because we were too heavy. Or we had to sit in a yurt miles from anywhere because "we need to find a captain." Whenever the captain comes on and says, "Well, folks..." then you know that nothing good is going to occur.

I had fun on my combined work and personal trip, which I will write about later, but now I need to find a puffy jacket, some more candy, and have a meltdown. Thirteen hours so far in airports almost makes me want to reconsider future trips. Almost...