Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Writing guidebooks is easy you say?

There I was, slogging up yet another steep hill. I'd just come back from spending five months backpacking from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), a trek which I'd deemed a fun, recreational trip instead of a work mission. After all, I did love to hike for the pure joy of seeing the wild, untamed backcountry without the limitations of visiting it with a purpose. My only time constraint for the CDT was finishing before the snow hit the high country. But, as each foot stepped closer to Canada, I knew that recovery and downtime after the big adventure would have to wait. A deadline beckoned. 

A book on Pacific Northwest fall hikes for color bellowed loudly and, my opportunity to get into the mountains to photograph the brilliance and gather data was fighting a fierce battle with the weather window to do so. I'd been teaching the fall hiking "where-to" class for over ten years at various locations across the Northwest, and each time, the faces in the audience beamed with excitement to learn where to get their high-stepping legs into chartreuse groves of subalpine larches or magenta huckleberry meadows. As a third-generation Washingtonian, I knew all the haunts to do just that, and autumn was one of my favorite times of year to hike these trails. However, I'd just walked over 20 miles a day for five months straight and, my feet seemed to scream, "Hey now, we had a deal. We were supposed to rest!" Yet, in the name of a deadline, I pushed on for another month and a half. It was gorgeous, and I was grateful for good health and good fortune, but I craved the quiet calm of relaxing by my fireplace with my laptop and catching up on the lives of friends through social media and correspondence. I'd been writing guidebooks for almost ten years, and being lazy had become a luxury.

Despite the ongoing activity, or perhaps because of it, the job was full of unexpected twists, turns, and surprises. While researching my Day Hiking Mount Adams and South Cascades book, I'd wandered into the Yakima Visitor's Center and introduced myself to an employee and longtime retired resident named Herb. Bubbly and conversational, Herb had the inside skinny to hikes in the area that few feet had traveled and cordially offered to show me around the hills. Over the next couple of months, Herb and I bounced down forest roads trying not to spill coffee while sharing backpacking stories and their ilk. On one remote hike, Herb was in the lead with me close behind when he stopped dead in his tracks and gestured for me to come closer. "Get your camera ready," Herb whispered. I tiptoed around him with my camera in hand, ready to capture whatever it was he'd seen. 

After a few good paces with nothing in view, I turned back to inquire about his observation. "Hmmm," he said, "I believe it was a doe. It was tan in color." I walked a few more steps until, directly in front of me were the unmistakable paw prints of a mountain lion in the dust, heading off into the brush near where we were standing. The landscape was eerily quiet until his deep, cavernous laugh broke the silence. "I didn't think it was a mountain lion, or I wouldn't have suggested you go first," he said, still smiling. "Sure," I said. "You just wanted me to protect you." For years after that, we joked about how he pushed me out in front of a mountain lion. Herb will be 88 this month and is still hiking 7-8 miles a day without missing a beat. The kind of friendships born from hiking, and in this case, guidebook research, were the kind that went the distance.

There were lots of serendipitous occasions, such as the time I ended up on a secluded summit, looking down onto a rainbow-colored meadow of wildflowers. As I ate my lunch on the cathedral peak, I looked down to see a black bear saunter into the field and carry on his daily cycle of finding nourishment. In magical moments like that, it was the best job in the world. 

But as wonderful as it was, to meet new, like-minded people and see gorgeous places complete with wildlife, at times, it was equally as challenging. Deadlines came up quickly, and I was often required to strap on waterproof gear and pound out miles on sloppy days when most folks were thinking of sleeping in, making a late breakfast, and watching Netflix. With soaking wet gear, freezing hands, and poor, foggy visibility, I'd schlep up hills that no one in their right mind would hike in such miserable weather. Often, in early summer, I found myself plodding my way through lingering snowfields, slipping and sliding and sometimes post- holing past my knees when the warmer weather started unpredictably melting the slush. Bug bites were my tattoos and preventing blisters, a way of life.

Unlike hiking for leisure, hiking for work used a  different reader-focused mindset. I paid much closer attention to details, such as stony or root-filled trail-tread, junctions, challenging obstacles, steep sections, grueling downhills, viewpoints, creek crossings, and other key features I'd need to describe the trail. I was also keeping close eyes on two different GPSs and later comparing them with paper maps to ensure accuracy. 

Before Halloween one year, I was tasked with interviewing a Bigfoot researcher on a piece I was writing for a magazine about spooky backcountry experiences. I was fascinated with his work and described the giant, man-like ape's behaviors, including the most tell-tale sign that they are angry. "They throw pine cones at people to encourage them to evacuate the area, and sometimes they have great aim," he explained. I feverishly took notes as I sat in my camp in the South Cascades, preparing my article that was due in a month. The following day I shifted gears since I was still working on research for my trail guidebook and set out to hike an outlying trail near Indian Heaven Wilderness. I was about twenty minutes into my hike when a pinecone hit me squarely on the head. I looked around for a few minutes, marveled at the irony, then kept walking. 

Folklore aside, as a solo female, my motto was always "never be paranoid, always be prepared," and I'd taken an unarmed self-defense course as a way to channel my inner ninja if necessary. Thankfully, I'd never needed to use my skills, but they were at the ready if anyone tested them. Because I'd be away camping for weeks at a time, and my cellular service was often non-existent, I'd email my husband my itinerary before I left for the trips. Then, in the field, I'd leave notes in my glove box as to my whereabouts and my expected time of return. I had a laminated sign in my truck, which I proudly displayed upon exiting that said, "No Valuables in Vehicle" and while I'd never had a chance to interview would-be vandals, it seemed to work. Before leaving my car on more popular trailheads, I'd pay close attention to the various cars, vans or trucks, and choose another trail if I sensed any red flags or observed dawdling occupants.  

One time, late in the day after hiking 14 miles, I arrived back at my truck eager to slip on the comfy flip-flops that I'd brought in expectation of sore feet. When I grabbed the flip-flops, in a flash of unexpected bad luck, my arm hit the door lock, and the truck door slammed closed, locking my keys inside. There I stood, 15 miles up a maze of rough-and-tumble forest roads, 4 hours from home, and alone as the sun dropped over the hill for the night. I had no cellular reception, and aside from breaking the window, my only recourse was to trigger my satellite beacon with a non-urgent, prewritten message to my husband, explaining I wasn't in danger but asking for help.   The device showed the message as sent, but I had no idea when and if he'd receive it since it was a Friday night and my husband had an arguably good habit of abandoning his phone after working hours. 

I had driven the truck over some large water berms and deep ruts to get to my destination, and I was concerned our other car's clearance would not be sufficient. If he did get my message, could he even reach me? Also, he wasn't familiar with the forest roads in that area, and they were confusing, even with a good map and written directions. The satellite device would have sent him only coordinates, but it was up to him to decipher the exact location of where I was stranded. If he didn't arrive by morning, I would walk the forest roads until I got to the main road, then hitchhike to a nearby town.

Thankfully, my backpack was still outside the vehicle and contained a few essential items as the darkness fell in a frosty hush. With my sweaty clothes still damp, I gathered downed timber to make a fire, then sat on the ground to warm up and ponder my plight. I tried to fall asleep, but the briskness woke me and caused my mind to do somersaults. At some point after midnight, I heard the rumble of an engine somewhere in the distance, and when I intently listened, it seemed to be getting closer. I was concerned that it might have been someone poaching or partying, and I considered hiding in the brush until I saw the outline of our car along with my dog, whose head was sticking out the back window. My husband pulled up with a sly smile and said, "You rang?" I'd never been so happy to see him. We still had to drive four hours home and then four hours back with a spare set of keys, but I was grateful for the satellite device and continued to carry it religiously. 

No matter how much my crazy profession had challenged me, I counted my blessing for being fortunate enough to have a passionate career that I loved. In the dark, rainy winter, when I'd be sitting at my desk writing my trail descriptions, my head was deep in wildflower-filled summer meadows and twinkling backcountry lakes. My mind wandered maps of ridgelines and recalled the smell of warm sunshine on fir boughs. Like threads on a blanket, my career was woven into my being, no matter what adventures, good or bad, it offered, and I was grateful for them all. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Reel Big Trout

I sat discouraged in a clump of tussock near the riverbank and watched the copious amounts of pollen float all around me like fairy dust.  The views were breathtaking, but I wasn’t here for the jagged skylines touting beech forests, the squawking, endangered kea parrots that were calling from distant trees, or the late blooming periwinkle lupine that gave the landscape a pop of color.   I’d flown nearly fifteen hours to realizing my dream of catching a big, brown trout in one of New Zealand’s halcyon rivers, and I wasn’t having any luck.

My guide, a gentleman roughly my age, seemed slightly frustrated with the learning curve that hampered my ability to place the fly on the exact upstream seam allowing it to land some distance above the fish’s head with skillful precision.  The long cast required the accuracy of an expert marksman and the patience of ancient Roman builders, qualities, my state of mind were hindering. “Fish,” he explained, “have an 180-degree field of vision, so staying stealthily behind them, then casting upstream, is the only way to get them to feed.”         
“Wait, I can’t see the fish,” I quietly whispered as he began to speak about where to place the fly.  New Zealand was known for sight fishing, a hybrid style of fly fishing which allowed fishing guides with expert, eagle eyes, to locate fish in water so gin-clear and shallow you could wade, knee-deep, from one side to the next with texture and color of each rock visible underfoot. Despite the clarity, the ripples caused a slight distortion, and I found my pride wadded up like a ball of yarn in my throat, as he pointed out each trout. Despite my best efforts, I was visually impared.
By day two, sitting in the tussock, noshing on a trail bar, I had a heart to heart talk with myself and decided that I must not be the only one who can’t see these fish.  One thing I knew for certain, it wasn’t my sunglasses!  Despite the glare and direct, radiant, summer sun overhead, I was wearing a fashionable pair of polarized, UV ray-blocking, technology-laden Costa Cook sunglasses which had more features and bells and whistles than most smartphones. The glasses were doing a beautiful job of blocking glare, staying put on my nose and gently hugging my temples. No other brand would be as well suited for this job! 

The skill I lacked was the ability to sit still, to watch the water patiently, to see the oblong, dark shapes moving subtly in a graceful dance of fluidity, and to clear my head of the mind-noise that was slowly seeping in. At one point, I found myself laughing in disbelief. “There are two of them here, but I think one is a rainbow,” proclaimed the fishing guide, pointing to a spot near an overhanging tree.  I squinted my eyes to look through the mosaic, straining, struggling, and silently screaming. “I’ll just trust you,” I finally said. “You don’t see that?” he said, as if I was somehow fibbing about my ineptness as part of a coy excuse should the fly not land in the spot he instructed. “I wish I did.”  Still, I listened to the instruction and did my best to place the artificial bug exactly where he’d asked. If I couldn’t catch one of these big fish, at least I’d scare one half to death.

 We walked the high grassy riverbanks, me following a length behind him until he stopped, keeping a fixed gaze on the water and slowly backed up. “We’ve got one,” he exclaimed. Once again, I focused on the clear ripples.  Looking through the current, I suddenly saw the dark brown, oblong shape.  “There it is!” I nearly jumped out of my waders with such joy. Slowly I crept into the water and placed the fly in front of the large fish’s nose.  On the first cast, with the elegance and meticulousness of a pro, I watched the fish grab the fly.

“Let him run…don't palm the reel…keep your tip up, point the rod to the right…don't let him go under that bank…keep his nose up…again…let him run…” The coaching was music to my ears as I stumbled like a drunk deer up and down the banks of the river, all the while hearing a voice in the back of my head repeating, “don’t lose this fish, don’t lose this fish.”

A short time later, I stood beaming in the river with the beautiful creature in my hands.  My hairline to hairline grin exuded exuberance, and I was overjoyed with gratitude that I’d managed to spot, catch, and land a New Zealand brown trout. It was only a tiny moment in time, but it was a giant blip on the radar screen of my dreams.

After that, my brain acquired the skills to see the fish and one after the next, I spotted them in shaded pools, shallow ripping currents, behind large rocks and under overhanging trees. Each cast led to a singing reel, and I had a renewed sense of gratitude and excitement.  

New Zealand had won me over and not just because of big fish. It had taught me a lesson of patience, of stillness, of mind quietness, and the belief that sometimes, you just have to trust in yourself and rise above your weakness. When you do, good things happen.  

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Ant Hill

Friday September 9th, 12:15 p.m:   I run out the door leaving my edamame spaghetti half eaten on the counter in an effort to hustle. Chewing on protein and veggies these days has welcomed healthy eating habits back into my diet after nearly 5 months of eating sugar, starch and carbs on the PCT. But today, I ignore my wasteful nibbling routine and all that comes with it and consciously decide to be a slob.  I'll clean up later. I grab my water bottles, pack, snacks, jacket, and keys, then hop in the car.  Before long, I’m at the crowded parking lot.

12:20 p.m: I drive in circles looking for a place to park amongst over 150 cars. I strap on my Altras in an effort to huff up the trail.  I’m here partially because I enjoy this lovely treadmill, and partially because I don’t want my trail-shape from the PCT to disappear.  Huff and puff with gusto, I must(o).

12:21 p.m: I pass the first of many groups of people. I usually enjoy seeing people getting outside and exercising their hearts, lungs and spirits, but this is a massive amount of hikers and part of me feels saddened by the quantity.  It’s no longer a trail, it’s more like an ant hill.  I’m here on a Friday afternoon, it’s one of the most popular hikes in the Seattle area and most of these folks are taking it easy and enjoying the day.  There is nothing wrong with going slowly, but today I’m trying to get my heart rate buzzing and push my athletic thresholds. I tuck a smile on my mouth and remember the words to a Zac Brown song that helps me put things in perspective. “Keep your heart above your head and your eyes wide open, so this world can’t find a way to leave you cold, and know you’re not the only ship out on the ocean, save your strength for things that you can change, forgive the ones you can’t, you gotta let ‘em go.” The lyrics and melody make me feel better and I feel my shoulders drop a little.

12:26 p.m: I get stink-eye from a group of older women who are somewhat disgruntled that I am passing, despite my attempts at kindness, smiles and comments on the beautiful day.  What is happening?

12:27 p.m: Blue dog poop bag, trailside left.  Gross.

12:35 p.m: 32 people passed and I’m only 1.1 miles in.  I’m not running, just going my PCT pace, which is about 3 miles per hour. Somehow I'm feeling guilty about going this pace.  Suddenly, an older man announces my arrival to his friends with “Speed-Demon, coming up on our heels!” I smile and thank him for offering me some space to pass.  As I walk away I hear him mumble to his friend.  He thinks I’m out of ear shot but unfortunately for me, I have the hearing of a owl, “Some people just don’t know how to enjoy these hikes slowly.” I didn’t have the energy or the sass to tell him that I’ve been on this trail many times and I AM enjoying it, just at a different speed. It feels hurtful.

12:42 p.m: Trail runner cruises by me!  YES!  Now he can be the bad guy. I feel my shoulders drop again.

12:45 p.m: Green dog poop bag, this one old and worn.  “Beautiful knot at the top, though,” I think.  Still, gross. Why aren’t people picking these things up? The trails are decorated with them every where I go these days.

1:15 p.m: Arrive at my destination feeling tired of feeling guilty. “I have a fast pace, let it go.”  Some self-talk helps me rationalize my mood and I settle in to a very secluded spot that I’ve worked hard to find.  It’s away from hikers who are talking loudly, away from the hoards of people, away from the commotion and common areas.  I just want it quiet.  I open up my lunch and start nibbling. 

1:16 p.m: Two girls arrive on my rock, trampling through the back way- a restoration area- to get there.  To be fair, they probably didn’t see the tiny sign.  Two happy, but loud young gals park themselves within a foot away from my picnic and start yapping about their problems at work. I learn all about their co-workers and their boss without ever saying a word. “I just need to go home,” I think loudly in my head.  Seriously?  I catch myself saying that in THIS place- this gorgeous, rugged, mountain-y, perch with a crystal blue lake in view. What is happening to the Northwest? What is happening to me?  I’ve heard it said that too many rats in small spaces will eat each other. Is that happening here?  Have we officially reached the rodent-eats-rodent phase of hiking in Washington? Sure, I could have hiked elsewhere, but this trail is close to my home.  This is my treadmill and the number of people at my outdoor "gym" seemed to have spiked recently bringing in what feels like busloads of people.

1:35 p.m:  I move to a different spot, get out my camera and start taking photos which makes me happy. I still feel guilty about my pace, my attitude, my solitude search, everything except taking pictures. Today is just that kind of day. But, I’m happy.  In this moment, I’m very happy and so glad to be here.  Sigh.  Finally.  My spirit is lifted, despite it all.

1:50 p.m: I traverse down a talus slope when I step aside to let a group of 8 teenagers, seemingly drafting off each other, pass by.  One decides to go straight up the talus field, abandoning the trail for his own route and sending boulders crashing onto the trail below him.  He’s cutting the switchback and showing off. Now he’s endangering everyone underneath these giant rocks. I shout up and politely ask him to stay on the trail.  It falls on deaf ears.  He has a Bluetooth speaker blasting out of his backpack.  He’s that kid. I feel disheartened, again.  Is having tunes cranking out of your backpack necessary for hiking these days?  I guess I didn't get that memo. Your beat are better with headphones and they don't disturb anyone else.  "Sheesh...I'm getting to be a cantankerous, ol'-duff," I think.

I’ve lost track of time…I’m deep in thought:

I walk back the way I arrived and smile at everyone I see in an effort to make myself feel better about the stampedes of people on the trail. They too are here seeking solitude and I too, am contributing to the ant hill. I pay special attention to give the uphill hikers the right-of-way, as it should be. Folks don’t know the rules, but why?  This weighs heavily on my mind and I wonder why we don’t have a local non-profit to help hikers understand some basics. The closest non-profit I can think of is the Leave No Trace Foundation.  But, they are national and spread out all over the country- we need them here and now. “I wonder what resources they have?” I almost say this out loud. A booth at a trailhead on a busy weekend would be awesome!  Oh how I wish they could do that on Seattle-area trails! Problem, solution, problem, solution, my mind is racing…I need to volunteer…what can I do to make this better…how can I help? There are so many new hikers, that don’t understand outdoor ethics and no one wants to be the wilderness police on their enjoyable romp.  But, a non-profit with a gentle voice might be the answer. Education is the solution. 

I find my way back to my car and think deeply all the way home. I won’t give up.  I won’t. I feel my shoulders drop to their normal location and embrace my endorphins.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Soon I will disappear into the desert

This morning, I prepared two postage boxes bound for my first couple of stops along the PCT.  As I threw in last minute goodies, I let my mind drift off to the ambiance of the towns, how I will feel when I arrive and what this whole adventure has in store for me. It’s one thing to say you are hiking the PCT, it’s another thing to do it.

            I’m no stranger to long distance hiking.  I know the weird aches and pains, like the one that plagued my foot’s arch near Twilight Lake two years ago as I made my way through Washington State on the PCT. I know the chafing, the rashes, the cravings for salad/bread/dairy, the loneliness that comes from missing friends and family and the mental challenges that, in general, come with this kind of odd, body-taxing endeavor.

            Yet, California is a different beast. I’ll be walking for roughly 3 months through a state home to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United State and Yosemite National Park, known for it’s massive granite walls and rich John Muir history. I’ll be passing through the home of active scorpions, ticks, pit vipers, tarantulas, tarantula hawks (wasps), mountain lions, and black bears.  I’ll be walking in downpours, in hot sunshine, in lightening storms, sideways sleet and slushy snow. I’ll be crossing creeks and rivers up to my thighs, and shivering as I lay in bed each night. I’ll be using a dirt hole for a toilet and a rather uncomfortable ultralight camp pad for my bed. I’ll be crossing brown desert hillsides, meadows filled with cow dung (and those who created it), pine tree-laden peaks and long stretches of boring forest service roads all in the name By now you might be shaking your head and wondering how someone could possibly conceive that as  pleasurable, or even slightly enjoyable. Enter hikers. To quote Jimmy Buffett, “we are the people our parent’s warned us about.” 

            It will take me under three hours to fly from Seattle to San Diego and nearly 4 months to walk back home. During this time, my busy brain will be buzzing and, as always on long hikes, I’ll solve the world’s problems, find a cure for world peace, and come home with a zillion new ideas to change, improve and re-create the “you-name-its”.  

I realize there is some chance things may go sideways.  Even the best laid plans  sometimes have a way of curling under their own weight. But I intend to put my best foot forward (literally and figuratively) and give it the ol' college try.
It’s nearly a week until I set sail. May the forest be with me.