Sunday, March 18, 2018

Using my degree

Someone recently made a comment about “not using your degree.” As if getting a PhD was just about jumping through some hoops to get a piece of paper to get a certain job. Rather than a process that changes you and how you see the world.
Up close. Tiny yet exquisite, Draba cuneifolia.
The only part of my degree I don’t use anymore is the title.

But the problem-solving skills, the grit, the ability to learn— those I use everyday. Even out here, while hiking on my days off.
Trying to figure out how to get way over there from way up here.
I understand that what they are saying is that I’m not in a job that requires my degree. It’s true I’m not a research scientist. I'm a Park Ranger and I teach elementary school kids.

I suppose people don’t understand what it’s about. Or they assume getting a PhD is just like going to college for a few more years.

Instead, a PhD is about doing something entirely new. You problem-solve like your life depends on it and tackle projects that take years to complete. Because it’s never been done before. You learn to teach yourself all the skills and any topic you need to know (often from many disciplines). It takes perseverance and resourcefulness. You learn to keep going despite failure after failure. Step by step, you become the world expert on something incredibly small and minuscule, but still you know more about it than anyone else.

Then you assemble the five smartest people you know to ask you any question about ANYTHING. They can literally ask you what a black hole is or who invented the microscope. Even if your topic is ecology. Which I guess is sort of like being a Park Ranger giving an interpretive talk. Except that your thesis committee can fail you.
Not a black hole. Though it looks dark inside.
 I feel like I use my degree when I problem solve and whenever I tackle big problems and when I teach.

And even when I hike. I think the reason I keep coming back to this place is because I want to know it inside out. As if I'm working towards becomming the world-expert. At least trying to get to the bottom of things.
Can't get to the bottom of it here. Must backtrack.
After having walked each drainage, section by section, now I’m following along the rim, bit by bit. Attacking hurdles from all different angles. Stewing over points in my mind for days, checking geologic maps, then leaping up well before my alarm and going out to try the new idea. Keeping notes, methodical, persistent. “Ah ha” moments are few and far between, but when they come there isn’t time to celebrate, just moving on to the next thing.
97% of good hikes involve crossing over barbed wire fences.
Ah ha! I think I've found the swimming pool sized waterhole.
Maybe you are bored with of all these photos that look the same month after month. But I don't tire of them because I can tell that they are slightly different.
Something new here.
This is called "West Boundary Arch." I decided to try to find this arch because I thought the name had a nice ring to it.
Yesterday I was teaching my first and second graders about dodo birds. (They’d been requesting this topic for literally months but it took me this long to think up a suitable lesson). We talked about why they went extinct, how they were well-adapted to their island habitat, why “dodo” is a misnomer and what “misnomer” means, and how they weren’t really stupid. It was just the island they lived on had no predators and they were curious creatures.

I asked them about what “stupid” means and if there are different types of intelligence for different situiations. And they got really into it so I also snuck in some ecological concepts that normally you don’t learn until college but I figured out ways to explain then without technical language. And I could tell from their questions that they were putting really complex ideas together.

Then my students made dodo masks out of cardboard and stapled feathers to them. One kid's mask had blood-red marks on it that he said were scars from the bird getting attacked but then escaping. And then they all ran outside with their masks on and waddled around in a little flock, wildly, joyfully.

 “Not using my degree- ha!,” I think, “What nonsense!”

Leaping along the rim.

Monday, March 12, 2018

That spot on the map

Have you ever found a spot on the topo map that captured your imagination? Where lines do unusual things so you can’t even dream what it’d look like to be there?

The sensible thing to do when this happens is to pull up google earth and have a look. Takes just a few minutes to fly over to the spot, view it in 3D from all directions. You can see all the rocks and cliffs and trees. Really all you need to know. Then you can stay in your comfortable home and watch netflix and eat ice cream.

Instead, I went out and saw it for myself. I’m glad I didn’t peek beforehand at google earth. I like surprises. I like the challenge of having to figure out how to get there on my own.

More food would have been nice though. For this overnight trip, I knew there would be rock scrambling, that it'd be mostly off-trail, and I had no hope of finding water. Even with skimping on food, my pack was still heavy to begin (26 lbs total) given that I’m still only 2 months out from surgery. No getting around 6 L of water.

After I left the main 4WD road, there were two sets of footprints. Not recent. Maybe it was a sign that there would be something to see.
Then the footprints went off somewhere else.
A skull possibly from a rabbit glistens in the sun. One of my students is really into fossils and bones. We did owl pellet dissections and I’ve never seen anyone work so carefully or be so totally fascinated. Now, whenever I see him (which is practically every day), he asks me if I have any bones. I consider picking it up and bringing it back for him. I want to support his curiosity. We need more of that in the world.

What are the rules about taking bones from BLM land? I have no idea so I leave it.
Climbing up.
Around this way.
I scramble up and follow slickrock and find a pile of stones, not much of a wall.
Not much but perhaps something.
Then I notice a chip of chert. It catches my eye because I’ve seen no other chert in this area. Could it be a lithic fragment left behind from making stone tools?
I wonder if someone has held this before. Then I put it back exactly where I found it.
Then, I keep going and soon enough, I am at the top. I peer over the edge and there it is. The view. It makes me giddy because I can see places I've been and I'm roughly 1700 feet above the river and I forget to be scared of heights.
The view.
I want to follow this rim forever. Or at least until I run out of food. So I spend the rest of the day doing so and stopping every few hours to have a snack.
Slickrock superhighway
Down below, the scars on the land stand out. It makes me laugh at myself for how carefully I leap from rock to rock and tiptoe through the crypto. Does what I do even matter?
More signs of civilization. I wonder what it is and who left it.
More views
I spread out my sleeping bag down below the rim, hopefully out of the wind. Sunset is dull and cloudy. I shiver all night under a starless sky and curse at myself for bringing a lightweight bag and not my winter bag to save weight.
Bed of slickrock
I wake up every few hours shivering, try eating peanut butter, bust out my chemical handwarmers. But still, better than being at home, right?
Finally, sunrise.
Similar but a bit more of the landmarks are visible here.
My body finally warms up from the morning's hike. Finally I get to the spot that inspired this whole trip. It’s even more colorful than I’d imagined.
This is the spot.
Then I compare it to my geological map app. Which maybe is cheating just like google earth. Who can say. It helps me make sense of it all. To be able to name the layers and see the fault lines.
Then, I follow the rim to a high point and find a jar at the top with a slip of paper inside. Apparently this is the summit register. Two other names before me, the first from March of 2016 and the other from Feb of this year. More answers to the "who has been here before" question.

The fun ends at that point. I made a loop so needed to go down a different way than I came up. It's hard to tell from this perspective which way to go and where I might get cliffed out. It doesn't help that I'm low on food and water. But at least my pack is lighter, right?
Choose your own adventure down.
Turns out I make good choices and the topo map doesn't hide any surprises. I polish off the last of my food and water with about 4 miles to go. Licking the last of the pudding from the baggy with a level of attention that is usually reserved only for ice cream.

The day heats up and the off-trail travel saps my energy. With two miles left, I take a break in a pathetically small pool of shade. One mourning cloak and five whites flutter by. I don't even twitch. That's a bad sign that I don't even chase the butterflies!

The truth is that backpacking is not always spectacular views and fun. Often, it far from comfortable.

But it is always worthwhile. Especially when you go not to where the trails are, but instead, go to exactly whereever you most want to be.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Arches not on the license plate

“Whoa!” the fourth graders exclaim when they first see Delicate Arch during our field trip. Less than half of them have been here before though most have grown up in Moab. This is also the longest many of them have ever hiked. As they have their snack, I ask them why they think Delicate Arch is on the Utah license plate and why they think other major arches like Double Arch or Landscape Arch weren’t chosen.
Not on the license plate either. Instead, this is an arch I saw this weekend.
As they consider Delicate Arch, some students point out how one side is thinner than the other. Others say that it seems to rise up from the surrounding rock and that's what makes it special.

I agree that those are unique features of Delicate Arch. But I wonder why this arch is the most famous and iconic arch. Sometimes I want it to be because the hike up here is pretty neat, how it goes up slickrock and around the narrow ledge, and they you can say “whoa” when you turn the corner. Of course this isn't the reason but I can pretend. Anyway, I like hiking with the fourth graders to Delicate Arch because it reminds me, when I see it through their eyes, how difficult the journey is and the dramatic aspect of the approach.

But, honestly, I haven’t hiked to Delicate Arch on my own in the year since I came for this field trip last year. Instead, the place I go to the most is one that few visit. Every time I go here, I see something new and get that fresh “whoa” feeling (without needing fourth graders' eyes).
On the way there.
This weekend I found four arches I’d never seen before. It’s the kind of place that isn’t license-plate spectacular. But that’s not the kind of beauty I’m into.
What I do like is being able to turn the corner, or peer over the top of the canyon, and see something new that I didn’t expect. That sense of wonder is what I love.
Slickrock like waves. The La Sals mostly hiding in snow-clouds.
The beauty of this canyon isn’t something I can show you in a picture. Instead, it’s what it feels like to ramble through a trail-less areas.

It’s exploring each side-canyon to discover cracks to climb up and passages that lead to hidden treasures.
More of a hidden treasure than the rusty tin cans (not pictured).
Beetles definitely count as hidden treasures, right?
It’s finding the hidden arch where you least expect it.
There is an arch. Can you see it? Also, a balanced rock but not The Balanced Rock.
After climbing higher. See it now?
During the field trip, we'd take the students to a "secret" place nestled under a rock ledge for one of the learning stations. "Walk exactly in my footprints," I'd say, "to keep our tracks hidden so no one else comes over here." This is one of my favorite things to teach the kids-- how they can explore off-trail as long as they do so responsibly by "tiptoeing through the crypto" and not leaving footprints behind.
Just off the main trail.
Before I get back on the designated trail on the way to my car, I wait behind a rock for a while to see if anyone is coming. Then carefully pick my way back by leaping from rock to rock so as not to leave any footprints. Not that I don't want others to find solitude and share my "whoa" feelings of discovery. Just that they need to do so responsibly.
Not so stealthily dressed
On the drive back, I stopped at the iconic pullouts to watch the sunset. Because even though I have seen these views dozens of time, when the light plays with the rocks, it still makes me say "whoa".
Fiery Furnace
THE Balanced Rock

Monday, February 26, 2018

Not so solo

Bubbling voices and laughter echo down the canyon. I’ve stashed my tent and gear at my designated campsite, and have repacked for an afternoon of dayhiking. Just as I’m about to rejoin the main trail, I hesitate and consider staying out of sight so I don’t have to interact with the two hikers. Then I hear “JOAN!” and I look up and realize they are my friends/ coworkers!  I hadn’t heard where they’d decided to hike when I’d left work the previous day, but turned out we’d all decided on the same area. Perfect timing!
And we even find someone to take our picture all together.
Of course I wanted to tag along with them. Where were they going? Oh the Joint Trail/ Chesler Park loop, that’d be great.
Still laughing.
All that laughter I’d heard when I first encountered them wasn’t just a one time occurrence. Soon I am laughing too. Oh how I love hiking with people who “oh and ah” at everything and stop at every view and say that it’s like we are in a painting!
Painting-like landscapes.
It’s A.’s first time to the Needles and when we reach the 8-mile mark, we celebrate and congratulate her because this is also the longest hike she’s ever done. Way to go!
A. and E. start laughing again and they tell me they’d been listening to a podcast on the drive down (This American Life’s RomCom episode) and they can’t stop giggling about it. I check to see if it's one I've downloaded and sure enough it is. So I tuck it away for later. 
Haha snow.
Late in the afternoon, I listen to their laughter fading up the canyon as I head back to my campsite, alone. A. and E. are heading back home to warm beds and hot food. I’ve got my usual peanut butter and tortilla (no stove). Forecast said 18 degrees. The sky gets dark with clouds and the clouds fill my brain with dark thoughts.

I climb above camp. Scrambling up the rocks to watch the sunset normally makes me feel more relaxed. But the higher I climb the colder and more biting the wind is.
Up above camp.
Then higher still.
I get up high enough that I have signal so I check the weather and it says the low tonight will be 9 degrees and 30% chance of snow, which is even worse than I’d thought. My hands go numb from the icy wind that cuts right through me. As I scramble down, I get lightheaded and realize I need to eat more but I don’t have any extra food since I cut it to save weight.
Nothing about this is fun and sheesh how did I get up here?
There is nothing to do but get back to camp and get into the sleeping bag and not get more chilled than I already am. 

I totally miss sunset.

As I wait to see if I will freeze to death or not, I remember the podcast and put in my earbuds and press “play”.

Soon, I am shaking with laughter. Full on belly laughs. Then silent bouncing laughter. And rolling on my side laughter. Maybe it's not all that funny, but I am laughing too at the joy that comes from sharing a day with friends, and for the absurdity of being alone on a cold night and having it be the best and worst experience at the same time. Before I know it, my sleeping bag is toasty warm and the wind dies down and I fall fast asleep. 

When I wake to the sound of graupel hitting the tent, I’m so warm I don’t care and I just roll over and go back to sleep.
Not much graupel. Just loud.
Sunrise the next morning makes up for my lack of a sunset. The canyon wrens sing their song as if it’s spring.

Instead of heading back, I decide to check out a few trails I’ve never seen. My legs are more tired than they ought to be, but I’m still only 6 and a half weeks out from the surgery. 

I check out the Devil's Pocket Loop, which is awesome because you walk through a grabens (which is fun to say, and cool geologically too). Also there is a privy at Devil's Pocket campground, so if you time it right, you won't have to use your wagbag. Win!

Then I decide I might as well take the long way back since that’s all I need to complete all the marked trails in the Needles and ISKY. A little goal I’d been working towards. I am also thrilled when I realize I hiked 10 miles the first day and 12 miles the second day. Goals are arbitrary, but still satisfying nonetheless.

Laughter on this trip gave the extra boost that was needed. Life is so much better with chance meetings and silliness.

More information
Backcountry permits are required for camping in Canyonlands National Park. My route the first day in blue and the second day is shown in pink. I camped in EC1, which was not my favorite since it was so exposed but it had a good scramble spot and it was also nice to stroll down Elephant Canyon (north) from camp for a bit.