Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dayhike on the Colorado Trail

I never forget the feeling I have the first time I set foot on a new trail.  Anticipation mixed with enthusiasm, plus a dash of apprehension for the new challenges it may present. 

The Colorado Trail (CT) extends 485 miles from Denver to Durango through spectacular scenery.  It shares part of it’s length with the Continental Divide Trail.  I’d heard a lot about it, but had never hiked on it before.  I was really excited when Still Waters suggested we go up for a dayhike to check it out.
Fancy trailhead sign.
Still Waters drove us up a bumpy 4-wheel drive road to the CT trailhead at Kennebec Pass.  I was a terrible passenger and kept exclaiming, “It is so WRONG that a road goes up here so high.”  When we got to the trailhead at 11,600 feet, I could see why she’d been so insistent to take me here before the snows fly.  We were in the heart of the stunning La Plata Mountains.  Snow-covered mountain peaks were all around us. 

I headed north past Taylor Lake, up to the Indian Ridge Trail.  Heart thumping in my chest with the altitude.  Unforgettable beauty.
Crossing over a little snow.
After less than a mile of climbing, I gained a 12,000 foot ridge with incredible views to both sides.  These mountains were unfamiliar with their jagged shapes and the geology was different than anything I”d seen on the PCT.  And yet, being up high, I felt like I was in my element. 
I took out my compass and shinny, crisp new map to get oriented.  I could identify the peaks and valleys, and could make out the trails switchbacking up distant passes. 
Map and compass.
I probably won’t have a chance to explore the CT more this season.  Other hikers I met up there said it’s unusual to be able to up there this late in the fall because early snows usually dump snow up there.  But I know I’ll be back someday.  I felt the pull of these Colorado mountains.  The dreaming has begun again.
Gazing in wonder at the Colorado Trail.
For more information:
Colorado Trail Foundation
PMag's Colorado Trail End to End Guide

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

After the PCT: Road trip through Utah

After picking me up from the PCT and driving through Nevada, my parents and I continued our road trip eastward through Utah and into western Colorado.
Me and my dad at Bryce Canyon National Park.
The scenery we traveled through was unbelievable.  We visited Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Grand Staircase/ Escalante National Monument, and Hovenweep National Monument.  We didn't spend more than a few hours at each park, but we stopped at the viewpoints and did short walks.  At first I found it difficult to see things this way, but I adapted to the pace.  This trip was about sharing places with my parents, and getting a taste for what's out there.
Stopping to check out the cliffrose.
Adjusting to off-trail life has been slow going.  My body still aches from lack of activity.  Car travel is still too fast for my brain to take in the scenery.  I find indoor air too stuffy and hot.  Showering everyday seems excessive.  I continue to wear the same things everyday, even though I have more than one outfit now.  We stopped by a thrift store to get a suitcase because everything doesn’t fit into my backpack anymore, but now I can’t find anything.  I miss the simplicity of the trail.
But I do like traveling with my parents.  Our camaraderie makes up for how much I miss hiking for 12-14 hours a day.  I love how we oh and ah at the scenery together.  I love seeing our similarities.  Like how my mom and I laugh at all the same things.  Like how my dad and I both wake up insanely early, all bright-eyed.
Dad nimbly climbs up the slope at Capitol Reef National Park.
As we drive, we generate lists of historical and natural history questions to research.  Such as: who was Mather, and why are so many places in parks named after him?  Is the cottonwood tree native here?  What is the difference between a butte, mesa, and a plateau?  So many questions, everything out here is so new and exciting.
Stopping to ask questions at the visitor's center at Capitol Reef National Park.
Remember the last week on the trail, how I was struggling trying to come up with things to look forward to after the PCT?  Well, I'm definitely adding "Utah Parks" to that list, as well as, "unlimited access to google" "informative interpretive signs on nature trails" and "having time to browse through the plant reference books at visitor centers."  Yes, these are a few of my favorite things (that I didn't have on the PCT).  After being so intensely focused on the PCT for the past year, it's helpful to see that there are more wonderful places to explore besides the PCT and so many ways to enjoy the outdoors besides being on a long hike. 
Mom, me and Still Waters reading an interpretive sign at Hovenweep National Monument.
Next we traveled to Cortez, Colorado to see Still Waters, who just moved here from Georgia and has invited me to stay with her in Colorado for a while.  My parents spent several days sightseeing around the area with us before they continued back to their house in Wisconsin.  I'll definitely miss them.
Anasazi ruins at Hovenweep National Monument.
One thing that was really wonderful was that my parents seemed to really support me and understand my experiences on the PCT.  They got how having the stress fracture and returning to the trail in the off-season allowed me to have a different type of hike.  They really respected how I changed my attitude towards my hike and learned the lesson that "the journey is the reward" and we had some really good conversations around that.  I haven't spent so much time with my parents for many years, and I feel very fortunate to have made this time to spend with them. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

After the PCT: Great Basin National Park in Nevada

After picking me up from the PCT at Castle Craigs in Northern California, my parents and I headed east and crossed the great expanse of Nevada.  Flat sagebrush alternating with narrow mountain ranges that extend north to south.  The land has been stretched here creating this basin and range topography.  By car, we traversed the expansive sagebrush plains and climbed mountains before descending again, then repeated the pattern.  Our journey has a rhythm that is soothing and makes traveling at these (high) speeds much more soothing.  We reached our first stop on this road trip, a national park none of us had even heard about until we started driving.  It turned out to be quite a jewel.

Great Basin National Park in Nevada rises thousands of feet above the flat sagebrush plains.  My parents and I drove to the Wheeler Peak trailhead at 9800 feet.  Wheeler Peak Scenic Driver twists and turns with switchback that reminded me of being back on the PCT.  My parents opted for the 2.7 mile Alpine Lakes Loop Trail.  I set out for the Bristlecone and Glacier Trails (4.6 miles), and did the Lake Loop on my way back.
Up to the Bristlecone Pines.
The scenery is breathtaking.  I hiked out to the end of the trail and spread out my sit pad and took off my shoes and wiggled my toes in the crisp air just like I was out on the PCT. 
Rock glacier.
The rock glacier at Great Basin occurs below the ice glacier.  Water freezes between rocks, and the mass of ice and rocks forms a rock glacier that flows downward.  I could see the ice and I marveled at the rocks and imagined the huge glaciers that must have carved out this cirque.
View down the cirque.
The Bristlecone Pines are incredible!  Bristlecone Pines are the oldest living individual organisms on earth.  The ones at Great Basin are 2-5,000 years old.  Can you imagine!  Extremely slow growing, they survive in harsh environments like high elevation mountains, exposed to snow and wind.  Being in their presence, you feel small and insignificant.  What a great feeling!
Bristlecone Pines.
Massive peaks rise above the lakes on the Alpine Lakes trail.  I started feeling the pull of the mountains.  I passed the turnoff to the climb up Wheeler Peak, the second highest peak in Nevada at 13,063 feet.  I was overcome with this desperate need to climb this mountain, to stay here and see the stars and the sunrise.  I’m not ready to leave these mountains yet.
Along the Alpine Lakes Trail.
Back at the trailhead, I met up with my parents again.  I begged them, “Can I stay here tonight and climb Wheeler Peak tomorrow morning, while you go into town?”  I was overjoyed that they agree to come pick me up the following day. 

I grabed some trail food and my hammock, and my parents left me at the trailhead while they went in search of a burger and hotel room.  I added cold water to some couscous, and hung my hammock in a grove of aspen.  It got below freezing during the night, but the stars were bright and I could see the milky way. 

I am hiking as the sun rises, back to my old, PCT rhythm.  It is jaw-droppingly spectacular when the first rays of sunlight meet the yellow leaves of the aspens. 
Starting up the Wheeler Peak Trail.
Switchbacks and 3,100 feet of elevation gain ahead.  My legs remember this routine.  The climbing makes them feel alive and full of energy. My lungs suck all the oxygen they can from the thin air.  I feel marvelous.   I love being this high up.  I get above treeline and the views radiate out all around.  Different than anything I’d seen on the PCT, though the rocks and lichen and switchbacks all make me feel at home.  I love it! 
Heading towards that highest peak.
The wind picks up, fierce and strong.  Gusts like you couldn’t imagine.  I put on more clothes.  The fleece mittens I wore through the snow in the Sierra.  I keep climbing but the wind gets stronger and stronger.  I though I was used to the wind- certainly I had enough wind on the PCT.  But this is like nothing I’ve ever felt.  I have trouble staying upright.  I am literally getting knocked off my feet.  The icy gusts penetrate right through my clothes, driving away all warmth.  Still I climb, but I can’t keep warm, and I kept getting knocked around. 
Climbing above treeline.
The trail starts getting even steeper.  I am well past the saddle.  All the way to the last, stairmaster-like push to the top.  Steep rocky steps.  I figure I am somewhere above 12,000 feet.  The wind is getting worse and I still have trouble keeping upright in the gale force winds.  My fingers and toes are going numb in the cold.  I finally get to the point where I can't feel all ten fingers and all ten toes.  That’s when I know I’m too cold and have to do something different.  That’s my limit.  It would be possible for me to reach the summit, but being alone and with the wind, I know it's not a good idea to keep going.  Especially with the numb toes which make it ever harder for me to keep my balance.  So I turn around and head back down the mountain.
Windswept and cold, but still smiling.
Back on the saddle, I ran into two other hikers, the first I'd seen.  One guy was on his way up still, but the other guy had turned around even before I had.  The wind was too much for him too.

I thought I might feel disappointed in myself for not reaching the summit.  But I wasn’t.  The summit didn’t mean anything to me.  I got to climb, to breathe mountain air.  I got to watch the sunrise and to see the incredible views.  I felt the cold of the wind whipping around me, the rocks beneath my feet.  Those are the things that are important to me.  I attempted to make it to the top, but I made a good decision to turn around.

Other people might have kept going under these circumstances, or maybe they might have not gotten as cold or been as unstable in the wind.  But I can’t compare myself to others, like I always used to do.  In the past, not summiting would have prompted me to start feeling like I am weaker or not as brave other hikers.   But I am beyond that now.  I realize this is one of the important lessons of the PCT- now I am more comfortable in the decisions I make on the trail.  I know what is important to me, and I understand that the things that I value may be different from what others are out there for and that our goals and how we derive meaning are different.  And I understand that’s OK.  I do what I think is right for me at the time.  No regrets.  It is a good lesson for life.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Day 184- Last day on the PCT

Day 184, 10/9/14
1499 to 1506 (I-5/ Castle Craigs)
7 miles

Last day on the PCT for this year.  I can't believe this is ending!

Just like a normal morning, I was up at 5 AM, eating granola and jerky in my hammock, and hiking by 5:20.   I savored the night hiking, trying to tuck the experience into my heart.  The sparkle of headlamp reflected in spiders' eyes.  Sounds of crickets.  Moon shadows.  The rhythm of footsteps, crunch of leaves and pine needles underfoot.  All of this so familiar because it's been part of my mornings for so long. 

After a long while, the glow on the horizon appears.  Slowly, it brightens enough to turn off my headlamp.  Finally, morning light shines through the canopy and warms up the yellowish bark of the ponderosa.   Before the PCT, I used to rely on caffeine to wake me up in the mornings.  But now I just start walking and my senses come awake and my mind gets sharp as I watch the sunrise.  No need for anything else, I've got it all here.  But that's ending now and I wonder what I will do.
Ponderosa pine bark.
I passed through a burn area and it looks like I am back in Southern California, back on my first week on the PCT with a full moon casting shadows on the skeleton trees.  But then I see the peak of Shasta, unlike anything I've ever seen- so huge and shadowed.  I long to climb it.  
The light.
At the spring, I fill up my bottles.   OMG this is my last water source on the PCT!   I keep hiking but spend more time looking at the changing leaves, taking a few extra photos of plants I don't know so I can look them up when I get internet or to a guidebook.

Before I know it, I am down to a road, crossing the train tracks that I've heard in the far off distance but which, all if the sudden, are right here.  Then I am over the Sacramento River and to the I5 overpass.  This is where I stop hiking.  For now.  Dang how did I get to the end so fast? 
It's not Canada, but I'm proud of my 1500 miles.
I have cell reception and call my parents.  They are only a few minutes away.  I stand by the road and as I am waiting for them, and a truck drives up and asks me if I need a ride into town. I say no I already have a ride, but thank him for stopping.  Gotta love it.  And soon enough, my parents pull up and I hop in.

I am torn about getting off the trail here.  When I planned this weeks ago with my parents, it seemed like a good stopping point.   I know I can't finish the trail this year, that the snows will come, or have already come at the higher elevations.  So I-5 seemed like a good place to stop hiking because it is easy to access and it is right before a series of fire closures and some active fires.  And 1500 is a nice round number and today is exactly six months since I set out from the Mexico border.  But I don't feel like stopping.  The trail is still captivating and endlessly interesting, still challenging.  I've adapted to the solitude, love being out in the fall.   I feel strong and happy.  I want to keep going, keep hiking on and on.  But I need to stop somewhere, and hope I am leaving myself with a good PCT trip for later.
I made it!
I still don't know what I will do next, besides the first week- a few days with my parents in Sierra City, then saying goodby to Steph and thanking her for helping me get back in trail. Then driving east, stopping in Colorado on the way to visit Still Waters.

I thought I'd know more of what's next.  More hiking somewhere?   Get a job?  Thought I'd have it figured out once I finished but I don't.  What I do know is that I can't go back to how things were before I started.  My priorities have shifted.   I know I want to do something meaningful, something different.

It hasn't sunk in yet that I won't be getting back on the PCT tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day 183- Squaw Valley Creek

Day 183, 10/8/14
1476 (McCloud River) to 1499 (switchbacks down to I-5)
23 miles

Second to last day on the PCT (this year).   Woke at 4 AM and I could see the lunar eclipse despite being down in the river valley.  Stunning!  Seeing it brought back memories of watching the lunar eclipse during my first week on the PCT.  Back in the desert, my only night on the PCT where I've sleep on the ground and not in my hammock.  I was surrounded by my friends Pathfinder, Rewind, and Farwalker.  Looking back I see just how much my experience of the trail has been shaped and made so meaningful by my friendships with these gals and with so many others.

An hour after sunrise, I saw two bear cubs scamper down the hillside after their mama, who bolted when she heard me walking down the trail.  Fourth time I've seen bears on the PCT- one outside Big Bear City, twice in Yosemite.  All bears that were fearful of humans, or at least left us alone.  Glad the bears are getting more wild with changes in human practices.  (See this article for more on how bears in Yosemite are eating less human food and causing fewer problems.)

Squaw Valley Creek was flowing clear and cold.  I was delightfully surprised to find it deep enough, even this late in the season, for a chilly and brief swim.
Squaw Valley Creek.
I filled up enough water for a dry camp and started to climb up from Squaw Valley Creek.  My feet were like lead weights.  Each step required effort.  Why wasn't I my normal, strong hill-climbing self?  How frustrating to feel so weak and sluggish!  I started to get bummed out about myself- wasn't I stronger than this?!?
Nice soft trail.  This should not be difficult.
And then I realized that I was also dizzy and chilled- all signs of low blood sugar, of my hypoglycemia.  I had previously managed pretty well on the PCT with my diet, but the last few days, I'd experienced major hiker hunger (and longer miles) and I hadn't brought enough food to keep up.   With with rationing my food, I was concerned about not having enough food to get me into town.  Gotta love it how just when I think I've figured things out, they continue to change.  On the PCT, the need to adapt has never ceased, and as frustrating as that can feel in the moment, it also something I have really enjoyed- the constant challenge.

I adjusted my attitude, and decided I was going to enjoy the climb no matter what.  I continued on, step by step.  Because that's that's all you can do out here.  Finally, I made it to a campsite with a nice, if partially obscured view of Castle Craigs, and set up my hammock and watched the sun set.  My last sunset on the PCT for this year.  Ahhh!
Last night on the PCT.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Day 182- To the McCloud River

Day 182, 10/7/14
1452 to 1476 (McCloud River)
24 miles

Crisp and cold in the early morning hours.  I hiked bundled up in my fleece hoodie and down coat.   But the PCT provides constantly changing conditions.  The only thing you can rely on is change.  That you are going to have to learn to adapt.

By afternoon, I was baking in the heat and drenched in sweat.  The ridgewalking along Grizzly Peak was gorgeous, but I knew I was not able to appreciate it.  All I could do was trudge along head down under the shade of my umbrella, sweltering as the heat hung heavy in the air, fantasizing about ice cold drinks and swimming in mountain waters.
Hiding from the heat under my umbrella.
My feel swelled as they do when it's hot.  I cursed my shoes- those darn "sturdy" hiking shoes, the ones the doctors urged me to wear after the stress fracture.  They were so much hotter than my old trail runners and they were far too narrow for my bunions.  My feet ached, the blisters I'd gotten a few days ago hurt despite my wrapping them.  What a struggle to keep positive.  I'd sit down for a break to air out my feet, and what convincing it took to get myself to get moving again.  But I'd been hiking long enough to know that being happy out on the PCT is a choice.  Being uncomfortable isn't an excuse to be unhappy.  So I choose to keep walking and not let the pain get to me.   I concentrated on the beauty around me- that always gets me through. The huge Douglas fir trees. The soft thimbleberry leaves and delicate ferns.  I was hiking the PCT and gosh darn it I was gonna enjoy it!
Fern clinging to a rockface.
I remembered another thing I could look forward to about being off the trail- friends!  I really miss my friends from back home.  While I've been on the trail, I have been so immersed in the experience, I haven't kept up with them.  I miss being part of my friends' lives- so I could look forward to reconnecting.  I did have something that I really could look forward to.

By late afternoon, I was descending to the McCloud River.   Long before I could see it, I could hear the roar of the water.   I imagined soaking my feet in the cool waters and falling asleep in my hammock to the music of the cascading water.  But when I finally got to the river, I found that the PCT had taken me to a car-accessible campground by the water.
The magnificent McCloud River with whitish-tinted waters.
I wanted to camp by the water and to watch the sunset from its banks.  Even though there was no one at the campground, I was extremely wary of camping anywhere near a road.  I've always been told that, as a woman, I should camp far from roads especially when solo.  Too dangerous.  Normally I follow this advice and I've just come to accept it.  But after such a long tiring day, I was pissed.  It made me angry that I couldn't camp anywhere I wanted.  That once again I'd go hide in the woods out of sight, not in the pretty spot by the gorgeous river.    If I were a guy, would I camp here?  Would I be so cautious?

I kept hiking across the bridge.  The banks were steep on this side of the river so I just kept hiking and I ended up camping away from the river, though at least I could still hear the water.  Guess it didn't matter anyway that I couldn't see the sunset, because I was too tired to keep my eyes open.  I just crawled into my hammock, felt my feet throbbing and aching, the poor things.  Then I fell asleep.

Yet another day I hadn't seen anyone at all.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Day 181- Fall Colors

Day 181, 10/6/14
1433 to 1452 (Moosehead Creek)
19 miles

Section O of the PCT has a bad reputation- I'd heard it was overgrown and boring.   Unlike most of the PCT which follows along the crest, section O must go through some lower-elevation areas that have been heavily logged in order to connect Burney Falls to the next gorgeous mountain area north of here (Castle Craigs and the Trinity Alps).

I say to anyone who complains- try hiking this section in the fall.   The understory plants and regrowth in the logged areas were ablaze in fall color.  Stunning yellows of the willows, occasional aspen and bracken ferns, oranges and reds of the maples and dogwoods.  With the light streaming through the leaves, the air has a warm glow.  If you adjust your focus and look at the smaller-scale beauty, you can find much to enjoy here.
It is still true that this section has stretches where the thickets of higher-elevation manzanita and huckleberry oak are overgrown across the trail.  Sometimes at lower elevations, the understory nearly obliterates the path.  Sure using poles is futile in these spots and legs get scratched up.  But this doesn't last long.  Soon the path opens up, and the soft easy tread, gradual slopes and long switchbacks, the expansive ridgewalking, and periodic views of Lassen and Shasta more than make up for it.
 The other thing this section has to offer this time of year is solitude.  I haven't seen anyone else, and doubt I will.  Having the experience of being alone in the woods for days on end is such a wonderful thing.  It changes your thought patterns.  It gives you freedom.  You gain perspective, and see yourself clearly, see who you really are.  You might get wrapped up in your head for a while, but soon you break out of the ego-centric, self-absorbed thoughts, and become cued in to the forest.  Senses of smell and hearing become enhanced.  You notice everything.  You feel like part of nature, like you belong out here.  Like you know what is really important in life.

It makes me grateful to be out here in fall.  If I hadn't have gotten the stress fracture, I would likely have gone through this section in the middle of summer with all the other thru hikers.  But my injury allowed me to break out of that timeframe (and that mindset), and for that opportunity, I am glad.
Fall color.
I still can't wrap my head around stopping my PCT hike for the year in a few days.  I thought I'd feel ready to get off the PCT for the year after being out here this long.  But I don't want to stop hiking at all.  I tried to think of things to look forward to in off-trail life. The only thing I could think of was fresh vegetables.  But that was it.  Couldn't come up with anything else.  Wasn't even looking forward to a shower, clean clothes, or hot food.  All that stuff seemed overrated and unnecessary.  I've gotten way too comfortable out here.  I feel like I have everything that is important and of value in life.  I hope I can think of some other things to look forward to.