Monday, September 23, 2013

this place was home

It was a glorious Thursday, one of the last of it’s kind before fall would come to the mountains and stretch it’s long nimble fingers into summer’s candy dish.  I had come to Mount Rainier to enjoy some quiet reprieve from the busy summer schedule and to put in roughly 12 miles, a feat that seemed pretty easy considering what my feet had endured over the last month.

Another rainy day, near Kennedy Ridge
On August 23rd, my husband and had I set off on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from Snoqualmie Pass and hiked to Manning Park, B.C., a distance of roughly 285 miles in 13 days.  Due to 6 persistent days and 7 wet nights of rain, we’d pushed our feet, our minds and our bodies further than expected each day.  Our original goal was to cover at least 16 miles daily, but we soon found that we were more capable than we’d guessed and before long we were covering 24 miles, waking early and arriving to camp after sunset. One day in particular, we decided to push ourselves 32 miles, a feat that my feet were not quick to forgive. Regardless, we ended up arriving home the day before a giant storm, consisting of 6,000 lightening strikes and flooding that washed out roadways, would hit the Puget Sound.  Needless to say, our efforts were worth it. The journey gave my inner toughness a swift kick in the ribs.  Sitting under trees in driving, cold, sideways rain waiting for it to let up, caused me to dig deep into my spirit.  The miserable soaking we endured on one particularly wet, dreary Thursday made me realize how fragile humans are when put in the ring with Mother Nature.  No Gore-Tex in the world could withstand the copious amounts of endless deluge that saturated our fabrics and worked their way into our psyche.   The bridgeless, swollen river crossings tested our agility, or lack thereof, as one simple error could have led to an unimaginable fate. Then, the rain would stop, and the foggy, misty air would lift, revealing a spectacular green-so-much-it-hurt landscape wrought with small, wet creatures squeaking alarms as they sought food. One night we camped on a very high alpine peak and put the sun to bed with colors of red, orange, and yellow.  Crickets chirped and stars came out, shooting across the sky like rockets. We endured sunburn blisters, a grouchy Achilles tendon, wet feet, uneasy stomachs (too much backpacking food), and a frog that found his way into our tent. We gained trail friends, trail names, filty feet, physical and mental endurance and lifetime memories.

So, as I sat visiting with some folks who had come along the trail at Rainier just two weeks after my big trip, they were shocked. Was I really doing 12 miles today?  I explained to them that yes, I’d just come off the big trip and 12 miles felt pretty light. “So,” said one of the older gentlemen in the group. “Have you heard of the book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed?  There is was.

For people who hadn’t heard of the PCT or perhaps didn’t know much about it, Ms. Strayed’s book had become a mascot or symbol of the trail itself.  It seemed no conversation about the PCT could be had without someone discussing the book and Ms. Strayed adventure. Like it or not, those of us who have been PCT hikers long before the books publication have now been forcefully connected to a lost soul who suffers greatly before hiking a portion of the PCT with no experience and little guidance, under the umbrella of mind-altering drugs and promiscuity. The book, I felt, was about Ms. Strayed struggle to become whole again and too reconnect with her lost self-esteem using the trail as a vessel for her adventure.  It very well could have been a train through Europe or a bicycle trip on the coast. Whatever the case, Ms. Strayed wrote a very raw, poignant autobiography about finding herself on the PCT, and because of it, thousands of backpackers who hiked the PCT after it, must now muddle through the question “Have you read WILD?” followed by a lengthy, discussion of the book.  So frequent is this conversation, that a PCT backpacker could make money by laying bets on when the conversation will happen and who will kick it off when mingling at a backyard barbecue or a holiday party.
After nodding yes to the gentleman’s question, I bid them goodbye and put my on my backpack. My journey into the transition of fall was all over the ground in the form of a light skiff of snow, twinkling under the mares tail clouds masking the filtered sunlight.  I was on the trail again, and there was perhaps nowhere else in the world, I’d wanted to be.  This place was home.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

breath in, breath out, move on. happy 4th of july!

“How do you deal with criticism?”, I asked him.  He and his wife were sitting at my dining room table and we were enjoying a delicious meal of spiral ham.  He was a celebrity around the Seattle area who for years had a public voice, and a public face.  For almost 30 years he’d made a living discussing subjects, including controversial ones such as politics and had stuck his neck out there publicly, opening up topics for dialog.  Backlash had hit him many times, but yet, he was chipper and calm, and seemed to let nothing get under his skin.  He had a strong group of followers who enjoyed his style, his wise-cracks, his light-hearted nature, his character and his entertainment- it kept them coming back for more.

I was particularly interested in how he’d managed to not let the turkeys get him down.  There were plenty of turkeys around and the internet was a fantastic way for those turkeys to gobble. My first book was to be released soon, and I knew full well that I couldn’t please everyone.  I’d spent years researching and writing what I hoped would be the best possible book on the subject, but despite all of my efforts and doing my best, I knew that sooner or later, a turkey would rise to the top of the pile and I needed to be prepared with great self-talk.  Becoming a somewhat public figure meant sticking my neck out there for the world to see, love it or hate it. I had considered using a pen name, but in the end made a commitment to just be myself and let the chips, if they needed, fall where they may.  I had nothing to hide and was proud of my efforts; a pen name just wasn’t “me”. 

He continued taking small bites listening to my questions then answered them with very profound words.  “I don’t let it get to me and I let go,” he said. “Simple as that”.  What strength!  I think of those words often along with one of my favorite Jimmy Buffett songs which simply says “Breath in, Breath Out, Move On”.  Self-talk ammunition, for sure!

Since publication, I’ve received great comments, positive feedback and made new friends over our mutual love of the wild places. I’ve shared complete joy in hearing stories about those who have enjoyed the same passions, and been entertained by their adventures. Perhaps nothing gives me greater joy than offering suggestions, advice and trail descriptions to people who are eager to get out there and cleanse their souls with views and fresh air. Sure, there have been turkeys occasionally, but they cannot begin to overshadow the beauty there is in these moments of clarity, when folks tell me their stories or share that they’ve enjoy what I’ve penned.

On this beautiful Fourth of July, I hope you take in the mountain’s majesties, the tall pines and the local parks. Stop for a moment to breath in, breath out, and move on.  Be grateful for this holiday and enjoy every drop of sweetness that we’ve been grated.  Thanks for your continued support of my writing and for sharing your journeys.  I’m blessed to know some of the best folks in the world.  Happy 4th!

Friday, June 14, 2013


“Where have you been?” someone recently and innocently asked me as we stood around at a social event.  My brain didn’t communicate intelligently with my mouth and I simply said “busy”.  That part is true, in a round about sort of way, but there is so much more to where I’ve been than simply the easy-out word “busy”.

In late May, my friend Herb celebrated his 80th birthday.  I met Herb last summer when I spent some time in my Yakima base camp while researching my new book. Somehow a magnetic pull had yanked me into the vine and stone clad visitor’s center where I wandered the many periodicals, brochures and trinkets designed to entice those who come to wine country.  The gals in the center were able to give me tips on local landmarks, but when I explained I was writing a trail guide, they gave each other a knowing look then said, “YOU need to talk to Herb!”.  Before long, Herb was meeting me at the center and talking my ear off about secret hikes that are not on maps and backcountry travels he’d enjoyed. He was a faithful hiker and had been so his whole life in between his stint as a school principal and youth educator.  He loved it so much that he’d started a hiking group called the Kinnikinnicks (a word for a native spreading ground cover) and began rounding up everyone he knew to hike together.  The group is large now with about 45-50 hikers as members having weekly outings consisting of about 10-20 participants.  Many of the members, I might add, are over 70 years old and do circles around most folks half their age.  Herb had a distinctive trustworthy quality and spoke softly with a smile around his eyes even when he was serious, emanating a settled peace.  He was not 80 years old as I knew 80 to be!  He was tall, towering over 6 feet high and had the energy of a 16 year old.  He knew more about the landscape, plants and trail conditions than most forest rangers and pulled more harmless pranks for a laugh than most high school seniors.  I enjoyed his lighthearted charm and was grateful for the information he shared.
The Kinnickinnicks on Fife's Ridge
After chatting in the visitor’s center, I thanked him and went on my way.  I didn’t think fate would put us together again, until the local Ranger gave me some startling information about recent crime on a trail which was on my list. After hearing the warning, I felt I’d better not go solo, and as luck would have it, I still had Herb’s cell number which the visitor’s center had passed along.  I dialed it up and before long, we were bouncing down a forest road together, exploring the backcountry with reckless abandon.  He was grateful to have a friend who was as obsessive about trails as he, and I was grateful to have a companion to accompany me occasionally on my unusual “day at the office”!  After that, we hiked together several more times and shared many good laughs, some at my expense.  One time, after we’d hiked all the way back to the car, he’d looked at me with a mischievous grin and said  “ heavy is that pack?”.  “Why”, I asked.  Before I could finish my response he was in full smile and giggle.  “What did you do?” I cheerfully questioned. Come to think of it, I had noticed my pack DID seem a little heavier on the way back down.  There, in my pack’s lid he’d placed a large rock and was enjoying watching me make the discovery.  
Herb is 80!

When Herb celebrated his 80th birthday party, my husband and I quickly accepted the invite and couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon. Since the party wasn’t until 2pm, the morning was free and it worked out beautifully to go see the Bickleton Bluebirds!  

Bickleton is a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it, one-horse town located in the high desert country in the center of Washington State. It contains the State’s oldest operating tavern (now turned restaurant- Bluebird Inn) which was built in 1882 and still looks like Annie Oakley and Billy the Kid should come sauntering through the doors, guns drawn. The town is so small, that an unfamiliar car through town becomes conversation for a week. However, the folks of Bickleton recently have become accustomed to lots of unfamiliar cars heading down dirt side roads with unfamiliar faces hanging out of car windows, binoculars and cameras in hand, sharing in the excitement of some of Bickleton’s most colorful seasonal residents; mountain and western bluebirds.  Recent publicity of the place, especially during the springtime when the the birds are nesting, has brought folks in droves to see the them.  My obsessions started as a young child when a Disney song gave me great hope that I’d have a bluebird on my should as I skipped down the road whistling “zippity doo dah”. Well, that didn’t happen in Bickleton.  But we did see lots of bluebirds, nesting, flying and foraging for insects.  It was pure joy watching them bring worms to their young and learning more about their habitat.  Go if you get the chance.  Just be sure to bring your cowboy boots and some cash, should you stop to grab a burger at the Bluebird Inn.  A handshake, a kind word, a smile and some cash will buy your lunch.  A credit card will not.

My manuscript was submitted for my latest book in late May and the sigh of meeting that deadline might have been heard or felt around the world. What started over a year ago had finally come full circle and I was grateful for a few days of downtime after submission.  So, we went to Belize, threw on some scuba tanks and checked out the Blue Hole, met some howler monkeys, fed some saltwater crocodiles, caught and released bonefish on the fly, saw some ruins and swung quietly in hammocks under palms on a private 12 acre island. Sweet bliss.

Altun Ha Mayan Ruins

Spring and summer have officially sprung and now that I am back, I’m wasting no time getting back into the hiking season.  This summer, I’ll be spending a ton of time working on a couple of new books, yet to be announced.  Deadlines loom, so there is no rest for the weary, weird or wicked around these parts!  My gear awaits a full summer of abuse and the snow is quickly melting in the Cascades.  I say, bring on the warm days, the sticky bug spray, the glorious snowcapped mountains, the dewey morning lupine, the chilly alpine nights, the sky filled with stars sans city lights, the alpenglow on rugged peaks, the mountain goats grazing on subalpine hillsides and the wet, freezing feet from river fords. These are the thing I live for and the things I cannot do without.  

Yep, I’ve been busy.  But it’s a richness that keeps my heart beating in the most wonderful of ways.  Sure, there is stress and the picture isn’t always glamourous, but the one lap we get around this track is meant to be lived to the fullest and I’m working on making it so.  Have a fantastic spring into summer and I’ll see you out there on the trail!

Monday, March 4, 2013

the big old cat was covered in mud

There was nothing wrong with the cougar in the cage.  In fact, everything was right, very right.  He was a large mature tomcat and he was beyond angry.  But who wouldn’t be?  He thought he’d found a free dead deer for dinner, when “SLAM” the door had shut leaving him infuriated.  Thinking he could figure a way out, he’d spent some time fighting with the cage and getting more and more provoked as the minutes went by. Being in the woods for as long as he had, he was no stranger to hardships and the battle scars of missing fur showed near his nose and his mouth.  He was a beautiful creature, 162 pounds of fierce mountain lion, with paws the size of human hands and a long graceful tail for balance.  He was also an old boy giving away his age not only by the cataract on his left eye, but by the feral fire deep within drawn from years of adversity from turbulent conflicts of seasonal weather, battling for food and territorial disputes with other males.

I was lucky enough to have been invited to this event.  I’d met Dr. Brian Kertson when I was putting together public education programming while working for REI.  He came to speak on several occasions about cougars, their behavior and how it’s possible to live and play outdoors among these greats beasts. I admired his work in the field and longed to know more about his subjects of study, the most feared cats in the forest.  Dr. Kertson’s job was one of envy up with a twist of danger and passion.  As a wildlife biologist he was tasked by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to humanely trap cougars, take their measurements and record their health, provide them with a radio collar, then see to their release.  The purpose of this data was to help wildlife officials understand cougar populations for purposes of forestation permits, human encroachment and hunting regulation.  Why anyone would want to kill one of these majestic creatures was unimaginable, but I knew it happened and to all things, there was a balance.

The big, old cat was covered in mud.  The rain had caused a mud bog of epic proportions within the cage and everything, down to his rounded ears was a mess.  I stood and watched as Dr. Kertson quietly walked towards the cage, the cat growling, hissing and slamming the steel sides.  Before long, the tranquilizer had the situation quiet and calm.  Gently, Dr. Kertson removed the sleeping cat from the cage and brought it to a shady spot to get his data. Drops were put into the cat’s eyes to prevent them from getting too dry during the exam. A black hood was placed over the cat’s head to keep him calm, should he start to slowly rouse.  Kertson went about his work, admiring and measuring the carnivore while keeping a sharp eye out for respiratory health during the anesthesia period.  As soon as it had begun, it was over and a medication was given to help the cat recover. 

I stood back and watched the sleeping lion regain awareness. Despite being groggy and dizzy, he was full of punch, his good eye attempting to track the humans nearby keeping close visual contact while coming into consciousness. Knowing that the big cat wasn’t capable of full blows, was reassuring, but for safety, we stood back and observed.  Before long, the cat melded back into the forest and was gone. 

There is nothing wrong with the big mountain lion that walks in the forest today.  Sure, he’s elderly, scruffy and wears a tan collar, but he is magnificent, savage and wild.  For the next several years, Dr. Kertson will know the whereabouts of this lion and will be able to find out important data, which may, even help lengthen the lion’s life. To all wildlife officials, like Dr. Kertson out there, that do this very difficult dangerous job because they care, thank you.  You do your job with professionalism, passion and concern for the creatures that roam this great earth. 


Monday, January 7, 2013

grateful for the trail

Ekkkk, oh my goodness,” she shouted.  “It’s just so beautiful.”  From a few steps away I gave her an unexpected look to explore the sincerity of her comments. Sure, it was beautiful, but everyone and their Mother’s Brother’s Cousin had been up here before.  Right?  She ignored me and continued.  “Look at it over there!” she shrieked, pointing to the snow capped peaks along the highway.  “There’s a big lake back in there!”.  Her friend was much more quiet and subdued, but also had the wow-factor look in her eyes. “Will you take our picture?” She handed me her camera before I had the chance to answer, yes.  

They were young, likely 16 or 17.  They’d shown courtesy when I’d passed them on the trail earlier, grabbing each other’s arms, giggling and hopping off to the side.  “I love your shoes,” one had shouted as I puffed by. “Thank you” I hollered back, trying not to let my voice interfere with my rhythmic breathing.  This trail was my treadmill.  I hiked here at least 3 times or more a week.  It was close to home. It was my respite from my busy brain. I knew every tree, every turn, every tiny contour, even every small change in tree branches that high winds brought. I knew the old trails where fewer people went, but liked the newer ones better.  I watched the seasonal hikers cut switchbacks. Then, I watched them grow back over when the masses left.  I scowled over trash left by careless people and felt joy seeing toddlers hand in hand with their parents. I hiked in pouring rain, in ice storms, and in miserable drizzle. On this day, all I wanted was to feel the burn, surrounded by the bark, pebbles and leaves that had become some of my best friends. So, when the girls had the courtesy to move aside and grace me with a smile, I’d wanted to give them high fives.  Head down, I was on a fitness mission and there was no stopping this sweaty, trudging, power train.

I grabbed her camera and snapped a few photos of their smiling faces.  Usually my stops at the top were just enough to look around, take a deep breath, then begin my run down.  This day, they had indirectly asked me to join them in their moments of awe.  It was beautiful.  I had taken it for granted on so many of these very days. A rare winter day of ice and sunshine was upon us, freezing our faces and forcing us to step carefully.   “Wow, those photos are great!” said the taller of the two flipping through her digital camera.  She continued with energy that only a teen can muster, “Facebook will be happy.”  I smiled back and said “Good!  If I was Facebook friends with you, I’d like your photo.”  She paused and thought a moment before speaking.  “Well, we are friends now in the real world, instead.”  Good point, I thought.  “ I like that world better,” I said with a smile.  “Me too,” she said as she and her friend gingerly wandered across the frozen surface to take more photos.  I turned back the way I’d come, grateful fate had twisted me to take a few more moments than usual to enjoy nature’s gift.