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. 

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