Friday, November 25, 2016

Arizona Trail- Passage 20- Four Peaks Wilderness

Shake Spring to Cottonwood Creek
21.6 miles

Hiking in the dark of early morning. Not even a speck of glow on the horizon. My weak headlamp is worthless so I turn it off. Moonlight is more than enough to show the trail ahead.

It’s pure joy to be walking in the predawn. In Montana, I always waited until daylight because of the grizzlies. I’ve missed this— the sounds and scents intensified, the feel of trail underfoot, seeing the first signs of pink on the horizon. Watching the light slowly changing into morning.
Crossing scree fields by first morning light
I’m glad I had the experience of hiking in grizzly country though, don’t get me wrong. But I’m glad I can hike here now in the dark.  Appreciating this hour all the more. Maybe that is how it will be with the tent. Maybe?
Contouring along the hillside
Watching shadows
The Four Peaks Wilderness is everything I love about a remote place. Being a tiny speck clinging to steep slopes. No sounds of cars. No people.
Four Peaks Wilderness
By mid-day, it heats up like summer. The sun umbrella comes out. Still hot. Careful attention is placed on water— consumption rates, how much is left. Small sips of water, swirled around before swallowing. No gulping. Gotta last.
Saguaro
A sliver of shade from a spiny desert bush. I plop down. My back is drenched in sweat. I can’t remember being this hot for a long time. Maybe there was one hot day in Montana this year but I was working and missed it. Funny to finally find summer this late in November. Guess that’s Arizona for you.

The break doesn’t last long. Must get to the water cache by evening. There is no water at Granite Spring. There is no water at Buckhorn Creek. Walking amidst the towering saguaro cactus and gazing down at Roosevelt Lake, imagining how it would feel to gulp water, to swim in a lake. My gallon of water is wedged under a rock up ahead. Cool water waiting.
Lots of water down there.
The trail is narrow and the loose rocks make footing difficult. My feet slip and slide like I’m walking over marbles. I look at my watch and frown, disappointed I’m not making better time. Must beat the sunset. But also— must not slip and fall.

Humans! The first (and only) humans encountered this trip are an AmeriCorps/ American Conservation Experience (ACE) crew doing trail maintenance. ACE is the AmeriCorps program here in Arizona that provides opportunities for young people to do environmental stewardship projects. It’s the local equivalent of Montana Conservation Corps, which is a group I worked with at my park in Montana.
ACE crew and the beautiful new tread
I’m the first hiker the crew has seen up here and I have the privilege of being the first to hike down the improved trail. They’ve smoothed it out, created waterbars, and widened it considerably. Amazing work! Thank you for making the Arizona Trail a better trail and for your service!

In no time I’m down at the road, retrieving my water cache, trucks whizzing by as I cling to the side of the road crossing the bridge.

There is water in the cattle tank too, so my water cache was unnecessary. But it meant I got water 2 miles sooner. Two miles of blissful hydration.
Water
Checking the weather forecast brings bad news. Now it says heavy rains and possible thunderstorms. Maybe a little water would be good to fill up the springs. But maybe there would be too much water in the form of flash flooding.
Tent
The trees along Sycamore Creek have sprawling branches and most of the ground is slanted. More hammock sites than tent sites here. I find a spot but can’t get comfortable.

 My body aches and I just want to sleep but instead I just toss and turn and think about flash floods and lightening on exposed ridges and slippery trails and being alone. Nights are long this time of year. Too much time to think.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Arizona Trail- Passage 21

Sunflower (hwy 87) to near Shake Spring
21.8 miles

Headlights shine through the dark parking lot. My ride! Last minute gear decisions are hastily made and the trunk of my car slams closed with an echo of finality. Ready or not this is happening: a solo section hike of the Arizona Trail. With tent.

K. is a hiker from Phoenix who kindly offered to give me a shuttle to Sunflower. Her cheerful hiking stories brighten the morning as she navigates the highways around Phoenix. It’s great talking to someone who knows this area. She points out the Four Peaks- a well-known mountain range (featured on the Arizona license plate!) that the Arizona Trail crosses. Before I know it, we are at the Bushwell Tanks Trailhead near Sunflower and I am waving goodbye and then she is gone and its just me and the trail.
Ready.
I wind down to Sycamore Creek. Sunlight blazes through the yellow leaves and the creek merrily babbles along. Breathing in the sweet scent of fall, my shoulders relax and my pack settles down comfortably against my back, part of me again.
Yellow.
My plan is to make it to my water cache before dark, and with the short winter days, there is a time crunch. I keep checking my watch and readjusting my speed- faster, faster. Squeezing energy from my legs. I forget to look around, focusing instead on foot placement on the rocky trail. When I do look up, the sycamores are already a ribbon of yellow snaking through the valley.
Ribbon of yellow
Dark shapes scurry up the far slope. My heart rate skyrockets, adrenaline rushes over me.  Then I remember I’m not in Montana anymore. No moose, no grizzlies here.
Cows.
After more climbing, the roadwalking begins and I stop focusing on foot placement and look around.
Roadwalkin'
Expansive views, delightful rock formations, and rising peaks ahead all make for an entertaining hike. Higher still, a grove of ponderosa pines provides a sweet rest break spot.
Trees.
Soft pine-needle ground, birds fly back and forth above. Everything here is so alive.
Trail friend.
By late afternoon, I arrive at my water cache. Two miles later, Pigeon Springs does have a few inches of soupy stagnant water but I was glad to have taken the time to leave my own water just in case. None of the other water sources had water, so if Pigeon Springs had been dry, I’d have been in trouble.

Crossing into the Four Peaks Wilderness, the forest changes rapidly. Scat, so much scat on the trail. Two deer. A bird’s nest, birds everywhere. Trees, so many trees. I try not to look at the trees, but I can’t help seeing all the well-spaced trees that would accommodate a hammock. It’s what the mind does at the hour before sunset. But I have a tent, not a hammock. What was I thinking?!?!
Plenty of trees. Trees glowing in the sun. Oh Trees.
Flat ground. Look for flat ground. But I don’t see any, just sloped spots and trees that would be perfect.

I walk into the sunset. The distant peaks are hot pink. There must be a flat spot soon.
Roosevelt Lake glistens.
Finally, a small cleared spot past dry Shake Spring. I set up the tent in the dark, serenaded by a chorus of crickets. My body is used to sinking into quick sleep in my hammock after a day on the trail- I typically sleep like a rock without even waking up at all. While I’ve spent a handful of nights in my tent after short dayhikes, this is the first night after backpacking serious miles.

On the ground, I toss and turn, unable to settle. My muscles yell angrily. My arms flop around, my legs feel too low and strait, my spine is all misaligned. I try to imagine being one with the ground. How do other people do this? What am I doing wrong? I flip and flop and rearrange everything, and flip flop.

Eventually a restless sleep comes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Bonus Miles on the Arizona Trail

4 AM. The sound of screaming. Or is it barking? Is it coming closer? Frozen, I strain to hear. Nothing. Maybe it went away. I poke my head outside the tent, but the weak headlamp does nothing to penetrate the darkness. The milky way stretches across the sky.
Wait, what was that?!? This is not a hammock! Can that be right? Have you lost your mind?
If I were in my hammock, I know I would immediately fall back asleep. If I were in my hammock, I probably wouldn’t have even woken up.

Instead I lie awake. Turning from side to side. Waiting. Flipping over. Waiting some more. Maybe my other side will be better. Nope.

Whose bright idea was it to try a tent?! Oh, yes, me. It seemed like a good idea. Stretching myself, learning new skills, breaking out of my rut. Attempting to be a more versatile backpacker.

Maybe I should stick to my old ways. Old ways are there for a reason.

Plenty of people sleep on the ground. How hard can it be?

I have plenty of time to contemplate all this in the hours that I don't sleep.

***
At first light I walk along the Arizona Trail, back towards the trailhead. The sky is pink, the maples are pink. Just a mile back and then I am to my car.

I think of these as bonus miles because I know I will have to retrace these steps when I backpack through this section. For now, this is a good spot to spend the night on my drive south to hike a little section hike of the Arizona Trail.

***
My mission for the day is setting up water caches. The trail steward told me water is scarce this time of year.

The dirt road climbs steeply and my little hybrid car strains in first gear. Will I make it up the hill, I wonder. A friend has this same car, and I remember one time we had to all get out and push her car up a dirt road to get up a mountain to our trailhead. Only I have no one to push. I lean forward and try to use my momentum. Mostly, I dislike driving. Mostly, I am worried the road will get worse.  Every tenth of a mile seems like an eternity.  I make it 3.8 miles up the road.
This is the non-steep part. But I was too scared to stop for a photo on the steep part.
Finally, I have had enough. I abandon my car at a wide pullover. The gallon jug of water goes into my pack. I start hiking up the road. Much better. The climb feels good after the long drive. The dust and the sun and the wind. A couple hours later I’ve climbed 1800 feet and a van comes up from behind me. The driver is instantly recognizable as a hiker. I hop in without hesitating.  He will take me the rest of the way up.

Turns out he is a triple crowner (and perhaps somewhat of a hiking legend) and just hiked one of the sections I’m planning on doing! How cool!

He drops me off at a good stop for my water cache and I tuck the gallon jug under a bush. Thanks so much for the ride and more importantly for the good conversation, Seiko!

***

In the afternoon, there is enough time to check out Tonto National Monument. The Arizona Trail passes just a few miles from here, but there’d be no way to get here easily. When I walk up to the cliff dwelling, I’m the only visitor and the awesome VIP volunteer ranger tells me all about the Salado people who lived here 850 years ago.
Cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument

***
The sun is setting as I set up my tent near the Picketpost Trailhead.  I lie in the tent and listen to the traffic sounds. It’s a struggle to fall asleep again. I try to imagine what it would have been like to live in a cliff dwelling. I try to imagine all the countless backpackers on all the long trails sleeping on the ground. Maybe it will be easier after a long hard day of hiking. Maybe I’ll just need to keep practicing until I get used to sleeping on the ground.

(Or maybe this is stupid and I should give up and stick with what I know works for me.)

But I left my hammock back home. Like it or not, I'm committed to this experiment.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Day 35- When the snow flies

Day 35- When the snow flies

Oregon PCT Section F
At 2040 (Upper Lake)

Snow swirls in the wind. It's pretty against the reds of the berry bushes. Snow starts accumulating in patches along the trail, tucked in crevices around tree stumps.
White and fluffy.
I hike. Climbing higher. Watching. Thinking. Weighing options.

Maybe the snow will stop. Maybe the sun will come out. Maybe I will keep hiking all the way to Santiam Pass. I want to keep hiking. Please.

But the snow doesn't stop. The flakes get bigger. They swirl everywhere. 

I camped at 5300 feet but there are passes ahead that go up over 6800 feet. The next night will be high and possibly exposed. The forecast is for more precipitation in next few days. How much will fall as snow and how much as rain?

Its all the what if's- what if I can't find the trail because it is obscured by snow? What if I get too cold in my 3-season gear? It's also possible that there will just be a light dusting and it will be beautiful beyond imagine and I will have challenged myself and made it through successfully. 

But how much of a chance is there that I will get myself into a situation where I am in way over my head? If I turn around, am I being overly cautious or making a smart decision that will allow me to live to hike another day? 

Then there is the fact that Pathfinder is back in town, hopefully at the doctors by now getting her bee sting checked out. If I leave the trail at least I know that we will have fun together for the next few days before she flies out. We always have fun. And Slowbro is nearby and we will get to hang out too. And really, having fun and sharing time with friends-- isn't that more important than "completing" this section of trail right now? What would I be proving to myself if I risked it by continuing? What do I need to prove?

When it comes down to it, what to do is clear.

I use my InReach to message Pathfinder.

As I wait for a reply, I sit on the ground eating peanut butter watching the snow. Higher up I can see the trees are covered in white.When I get lower will I forget what it is like to be up here in the quiet? Will I regret this decision? Will it matter that at least I gave it a try and went beyond my comfort zone in being out here by myself? 

I think about what is has been like to leave my comfortable life to find out what the trail had to teach me.

***

The InReach sounds that I got a new message- yes Renee made it to the doctor. Yes she will get a rental car and pick me up.

I hike out slowly, trying to soak in everything. As I descend the snow turns to sleet and then to rain.
Passing this lake for the fourth time...
 At the road near Ollalie Lake Resort, I start walking down the road. Within a few minutes a couple in a big truck stops and takes pity on me. They give me a ride out the long dirt road to the main paved road where they turn are headed the other way so I get out and wait.  I stand in rain under my umbrella until Pathfinder picks me up. When she opens the door, I know I've made the right decision.

***

I set out on the PCT with the intention of hiking "until the snow flies" and it sure flew. Earlier than I'd hoped. But I think I learned the lessons the trail needed to teach me for now. I will return.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Day 34- Ollalie Lake

Day 34- Ollalie Lake

Oregon PCT Section F

2052 (Trooper Spring) to 2040 (Upper Lake) and back and forth to 2043 (Ollalie Lake)

Pathfinder's bee sting from yesterday swells up to size of a salad plate. No, it's more like a Frisbee, all red and raised, the swelling creating pressure against her knee. Making it hard to hike. So we hike slow. 
Showing off the huge red welt above her knee, Pathfinder is still upbeat no matter what.
 "How's your breathing?" I ask.

"OK." replies Pathfinder.

"Did your other bee sting swell this much?"

"Umm, no."

We ponder what this might mean, as the day wears on.

There is time to look around as I stroll down the trail behind Pathfinder. Changing colors are bright. The reds of the maples stand out against the contrasting grey rocks of the large boulder fields. 
Boulder fields.
 We take long rest breaks when Pathfinder says her knee starts bothering her more.
Powerline cuts become destinations. They have sun. And sun means warmth.

"Is your breathing still OK, Pathfinder?"

I hope I'm not being overly annoying. But Pathfinder is not strolling but struggling. Trying not to limp. Why is the allergic reaction so bad? She says she's never had a sting get this swollen before. Will this allergic reaction progress in more unexpected ways? 

It is obvious we need to get her out of the backcountry and checked out by doctor. Luckily, we are nearing a road crossing.

***
Ollalie Lake Resort has no phone or internet. But they do have a number for a shuttle service. Pathfinder and I stand by the road for an hour seeing if we can hitch out. Its a dirt road very very far out. Finally Pathfinder uses her Inreach to call her mom who contacts the shuttle service who can come in 2-3 hours to pick her up and take her to a town with an urgent care center. Phew!

I don't know what I should do. I've always gone off the trail with my hiking buddies who got injured or sick. It's what I do-- stay with them all the way back. But after hiking so slow and feeling like this entire trip hasn't gotten me far, I really want to keep hiking on. 

Pathfinder assures me she's fine going to town without me. The shuttle driver will get her there. So I set out on the PCT towards Santiam Pass- the plan is that Slowbro, who I met back in 2014 at Kennedy Meadows, will meet me there and I'm sure he will help me reconnect with Pathfinder.

Immediately I have that dreadful feeling I'm making a mistake.That I should have waited with Pathfinder until the shuttle arrived. I keep hiking hoping the feeling will go away. She said she was fine, I remind myself. I get a few miles out. What if the shuttle doesn't come? What if Pathfinder gets worse...? So I turn around and hike back, practically running down the trail. Of course she is fine. The shuttle arrives but again I hesitate. Should I go or hike on? I don't know. She assures me she'll be OK. 

I hike out again. Past the lakes again past the same views again. The light is fading. I set up my hammock in the dark in a site I'd scoped out earlier.

I wake up to strange sound on the tarp, softer than rain. It is snow. lightly falling snow. I shine my headlamp out and it sparkles. 

How much will fall? What will it look like in the morning? What will happen?

There is nothing I can think to do, at 2 AM. So I tuck myself back into my quilts.  At least I am warm. I listen to the soft patter of the snow until I finally fall back asleep.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Day 33- Birthday on the PCT

Day 33- Birthday on the PCT

Oregon PCT Section F
2070 (Miller Trail Junction) to 2052 (Trooper Spring)
17 miles

More soft gradual trail. How can the PCT be so kind and gentle and flat? It finally makes sense how thru-hikers can do 30 mile days here. I think about my hiking group back in Georgia- the Trail Dames- and how this would make an ideal trip for beginning backpackers. I can almost hear their laughter echoing through these hills.

For me though, I miss the climbs, the challenge. Is it really backpacking if I don't break a sweat or get my heart rate up? Am I having a worthwhile experience if I'm just floating along? What is the trail teaching me today?

Yellow and red maples glow in the sun. The sky continues to be blue but now there are a few white puffy things up there floating around. Weather looks like it will be changing soon.
Pathfinder walking through the maples.
 Better savor the warmth while it lasts. We stop for a break in a powerline cut. Normally stumps make me sad but I sit on one and think about "The Giving Tree" - a favorite book- and think about life and death and perspectives.
Soaking in the sun at a powerline cut
 At the Warm Springs River getting water, we meet Monarch, who is finishing her thru hike southbound since she flipped up to Washington. I hike with her a few hours (after agreeing to meet Pathfinder at the next junction) and we cruise up the hill and share life stories the way that we do out here- with intensity and honesty, getting quickly to the heart of the matter because we don't have long. In a matter of minutes, we establish our commonalities, share life stories, and say that which is most pressing. And then we part ways just as quickly.

Today is my birthday so I think birthday thoughts about where I am in my life and what it means to be approaching 40. Thank goodness I still have another year in my 30's because what does 40 mean? Will I have to start acting my age? Does that mean quitting hanging upside-down from random ladder things or swimming across nearly-freezing lakes? Will I have to go back to having responsibilities and quit living a free life? What if I like being free of debt, free of a mortgage or lease, free of pets or even a garden? Or is my time getting shorter, the eventuality of death more real, so I should pack in even more backpacking, more adventure, while I still can?

More importantly, I wonder about what I have to show for myself for my life's accomplishments? Have I made any sort of difference in the world? I told Monarch I used to do scientific research and she asked me what my research showed. When I told her, the answer seemed so pitifully small and unimportant so I told her about teaching and mentoring students and joining AmeriCorps to do conservation education at a state park. Then again, sometimes it feels like the biggest impacts we can have are the small ways we bring brightness to our coworkers and friends and the chance people we meet along the way. 

I try not to get nervous about what will happen when I get off the trail. Will I find a job that is challenging and rewarding? Please let it not be a flat easy cruiser miles job. 

At least I haven't left the world a worse place. Like it is enough to follow Leave No Trace and not do anything really harmful to anything or anyone? No real or metaphorical toilet paper left lying around in the woods- nope I pack it out and bury my poop. 

Trooper Springs has a sweet campsite nearby and I bushwhack around to find a sheltered spot in dense trees out of the wind. We are at camp early so there is plenty of time to repair some holes with the additional thread I picked up courtesy of Timberline Lodge. This is another result of my No New Gear experiment- most everything is threadbare and falling apart, and sewing it back together is a regular camp chore.
Mending a hole in my shirt. Photo by Pathfinder.
 Pathfinder gets a bee sting and we joke about how much benedryl and anti-itch cream we are going through. She got a whole squeeze tube full early in the trip thinking she couldn't possibly use all of it. But I've been borrowing it too for a bee sting I got a few days ago and now we pass it back and forth. Remembering days past of repackaging everything into small dropper bottles, and drying dots of toothpaste, and now I am hauling 3 oz bottles of sunscreen and aquafor (vasaline/ antichafing/ foot cream) and we have this huge tube of anti-itch stuff and we are going through all of it and glad for it. Except maybe the sunscreen- that is only getting a little use. But I keep carrying it, putting a little on each day. It feels like carrying a little tube of hope.

Pathfinder gives me her chocolate pudding as a special birthday treat and I savor the chocolaty-goodness in a plastic bag of wonderfulness. We wander into the meadow to watch the sunset glow pink and purple and life stands still in a moment of pure joy and appreciation for everything-- this day, this hike, all the opportunities I have had my entire life, all the people I have loved and all the friends I have had. It all seems too wonderful to comprehend. 
Watching the sunset at Trooper Springs.
 It rains only briefly during night. My tarp is dry before I pack it up in the morning.

Day 32- Little Crater Lake

Day 32- Little Crater Lake

Oregon PCT Section F
2089 (Barlow Pass) to 2070 (Miller Trail Junction)
19 miles

You may think all that swimming in lakes that I've been doing this past month has been just for fun. That I've been out here wandering around lollygaging and swimming around lazily.  But really the swimming has been very serious training in preparation for today's major swimming event. Because today was the big day- the Little Crater Lake Challenge.
Little Crater Lake is surprisingly deep (45 feet down)
Little Crater Lake is a striking blue and 34 degrees.  It was formed by the force of an artesian spring eroding away the soft rock. When I was 8 or 10 my parents took us here several times.

Family legend was that Dad once (he says twice) swam all the way across the near-freezing waters. 

My sister and I would take a brief dip along the shallow shore before quickly getting out. I remember thinking how amazing my Dad was for going all the way across, hoping to one day I'd grow up to be as daring as he.

So when I realized that the PCT would take me to Little Crater Lake, I knew what I had to do. I've been in "training" now for nearly a month. Getting my nutrition dialed in (peanut butter!), practicing getting in and out of lakes in record time, making sure I can withstand cold waters without cramping up or worse, swimming in the rain just in case that's what I have to do. All those swims have prepared me for this big day.
Go, go, go!
 The sun was warm and no rain- perfect conditions. No dawdling at the shore, no hesitation. Swim, swim, swim! And hope that the heart stays strong so Renee doesn't have to rescue me. I had practiced swimming over fallen log obstacles, so I sailed over smoothly. But oh this water is cold and stinging and bank is so far away... just keep going. Then.. oh yes get out into the sun! I made it! Yes I'm daring (or foolish) just like my dad. All that preparation paid off.

***

The PCT is walk in the park grade easy today. Flat and wide. We stroll along under a blue sky enjoying red and yellows leaves of fall and all the giant trees.
Massive giants
Lollygaging continues as we take a long break along Timothy Lake. Or maybe its not lollygaging but preparation for something very important that requires observation and patience?!
Listening to the lapping of waves on the shore of Timothy Lake.
Camp is made above Clackamas  Lake near the Miller Trail junction, where we watch the light change and get clear water from the spring that feeds the lake. Ah what a good life this is!
Renee gets water