Wednesday, April 27, 2016

About that dream you have...

That thing that you always wanted to do… do it!
Yes, that’s really me in my NPS park ranger uniform.  Because, I DID IT!
We are not taught to live this way.  It’s easy to get caught in the trap of living for tomorrow.  Putting off our dreams until we retire.  Staying in jobs that make us feel stuck.  Instead of taking a leap and making our dreams happen right now. 

We make excuses. We think we have to do the job we went to school for, and then got a PhD for.  The ego gets involved and it's easy to start believing the size of our paychecks matters. Until we think that we didn’t have a choice anymore. 

But you do have a choice.  You can do that thing you always wanted to do.  You can ignore the “what ifs” and stop making excuses.  You can carefully plan your escape, step by step.  Then you can work to make it a reality, even if it takes a while.
My first step was serving as an AmeriCorps member in Montana State Parks.  Next, I volunteered (nearly) full-time as a VIP at a national monument.
 It won’t be what you expect. It will be frustrating, terrifying, and stretch your limits.
Sometimes I thought, “Did I spend all those years getting a PhD just so I could take out the trash and clean bathrooms?”
Sometimes I thought, “What am I doing shoveling snow and not even getting paid?
But I was genuinely happy working outside in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been.  I got to help other people enjoy the trail.  Which is, basically, the one thing that I believe in the most— helping get people outside and enjoy nature.  When you are doing the thing you feel is your mission in life, you find that deep satisfaction within.  The little stuff, like the size of your paycheck and your status, don't really matter as much as you thought.
Plus, I got paid in sunsets.
When you finally get to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do, it will feel like you have a smile warming your heart all the time.  It will be so much more than anything you imagine.
The smile sort of says it all.
It may turn out to be only sort of what you expected.  You may think, "What have I done!?”  But then it’s also the coolest thing.  It feels so incredibly right that you can’t imagine why you waited so long.  You wake up every morning and think, WOW, I’m living the dream.

If you are out there, wondering if you should take the leap and make a change in your life.... DO IT!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Three Months of Two Miles

There is just this one two-mile long trail at the park where I lived this winter.  So I’d walk, run, or rove it at least once, usually twice, and sometimes three times a day during the week.

Did it ever get boring?
Was there ever a day when the sunset was just the same as it always was, pretty-boring-dull-colors-anyway, should-have-just-stayed-in-bed?
Did I ever regret putting on my trail runners and heading out into the cold/ wind/ snow/ stillness after a tiring day?
Do you really need to bother seeing the elk when you can see their scat?
Could I have just waited until the next day to see the newest blossoms opening up?
Did it matter that I finally got to glimpse the gray fox up top, silhouetted against the sunset? (Sorry you can't see him over there-- you just had to be there, I guess.)
Hopefully, you get my point.  Which is: the trail outside your backdoor is equally important as the exotic, once-in-a-lifetime trails farther afield, if not more so.  There is something life-affirming about getting to know the place where you live, wherever it is.  A daily walk brings you in tune with your neighborhood wonders, with the changing seasons, with the changing hours.
The tinajas filled up with water.  And eventually it all evaporated away and nothing was left but cracked dust.
Full moon evening.
That one day they did a controlled burn, and the smokey sunset was all yellow.
During the 15-minutes of the March snowstorm.
Now, granted this is one phenomenal, two mile trail.  No doubt about it.  But still, this was the first time I’ve had such limited options in terms of where I could exercise in the evenings.  No other routes (except the flat road) and no off-trailing allowed.  Yet, the experience of the same trail, day after day, was extremely rewarding.

Don’t put off walking everyday just because you think that next month, or next year, or *someday* you will be somewhere prettier or more worthwhile.  Maybe the backyard ramble will teach you lessons that you thought were only possible on a long-trail.

Here are tips to help you make it a regular practice to explore your close-to-home routes:

   - Make it less “tedious” by changing up your routine- vary your pace, route, and time of day. 

This moment happens so fleetingly.  Can you experience this moment from a different spot on the trail everyday?
   - Bring friends and family. 
Going with Mom made me see how big these dropoffs and steps can seem.
   - Carry a pack, or not.  Load up your pack with 5 lbs, or 40 lbs. 
   - Race to do it in 30 minutes.  See if you can draw it out to 2 hours— no really, try harder to slow the heck down.
  - Change your perspective, change your focus.  Try looking at everything close up, or only in the distance.

Don't forget to look down.
And up.
Don't forget to look back over there too.
   - Pretend you are a geologist, a birder, a botanist, or someone who knows about lichen or grasses.  Notice everything you can about that one aspect of nature.  Make up silly fake-scientific names for all the plants/ geological formations/ birds you don’t know.
Neapolitan ice cream unconformity.
   - Try not bringing your camera on the day of the brightest, electric red sunset.  Force yourself to memorize the colors rather than focus on taking photos.  (Yes, this will make you cry since you won’t be able to post it on instagram— get over it.)
It was sort of like this, only imagine more glitter.
Whatever you do, GET OUT THERE. 

How do you keep your backyard, after-work trails interesting?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Last night (for a while) in New Mexico

All my stuff is packed into my small car back at the trailhead.  I moved out of housing this morning.  I hope my stuff stays safe while I’m out here.  Just one more night to watch the pink colors dance across Mt. Taylor from my perch above the lava.
Whenever I travel between new places, I carry my spare car key around my neck, until I get to my new place and can leave it with a neighbor.
My coworkers all say, “Aren’t you excited to be moving on?”  But I feel like I’ve only just found some secret trails that I want to explore, only just gotten a feel for the area, only just began to meet kindred spirits.
Climbing out to the tip of the rock formation they call Encerrito, for a view across the remarkably tree-covered lava towards Sandstone Bluffs and La Ventura Arch.
When I stopped at McDonalds to upload another blog post, a lady started talking to me.  “You’re not from around here are you?”  I get this all the time, no matter where I go.  Nope, I’m not really from anywhere.  As much as I come to love the places I get to stay at for a short while, I can’t call this place mine.  Will there ever be a time when I can feel like I’m from somewhere?
A minuscule legume I'd not seen before.
Textured resident lichen.
 I used to long for a home, for somewhere I will belong and be part of a community.  Like it felt like on the Trail.  Now, I think I’ve given up on the concept of home.
Except for maybe my hammock, which feels like the closest thing I have to a home anymore.
Watching the glowing sunset reflecting off Mt. Taylor from my hammock.
Lately, I have come to think of my relationship with place not as that of a resident, but rather as that of a guest.  If I work to adapt myself to a place, and dedicate myself to learning all I can from being there, I can stay for a while.  Maybe I will see something of its special nature.  But nothing belongs to me.  My presence is transitory.  Does anyone else feel this way?
A shadow passing through.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Zuni-Acoma Trail

The Zuni-Acoma Trail follows an ancient route build by the Ancestral Puebloans between Zuni and Acoma Pueblos.  Today, this 8 mile cairn-marked route is part of the CDT.
Following this ancient path, wondering how old the rock cairns are and how long it took the original people to cross the lava in their yucca sandals.
Lave bridges were built by piling up lava rocks into cracks to allow passage across the lava.  Some are hundreds (maybe a thousand) years old.
The lava flows this trail traverses are amazingly distinct— by hiking from east to west, you can travel back in time from the youngest to oldest flows.  The McCarty flow (3-4000 years), Bandera Flow (11,200 years), to the Twin Craters flow (18,000 years), and finally the El Calderon flow (<60,000 years)— what a difference a few thousand years makes to the amount of soil buildup and thus to vegetation types.
This shrub (what is is?) seemed to be found only in older flows.
It is one thing to read about geology.  But hiking this trail, you get to feeling geology with your toes— stepping through it, living it.  Scrambling across lava makes you want to go back to school and become a geologist, or at least take a few more classes to understand its fascinating formations.
What makes the lava do this?
It is a rare thing to find a compatible hiking buddy, especially so soon after moving to a new place. We stopped to look at *everything* which is pretty much the best way to experience this unique and beautiful place.  I felt so fortunate to hike this trail with someone who loves to explore, has a deep curiosity about nature, and even pulled out her hand-lens so I could look at the trichome structure on a small plant in the mustard family.  YES!
The lizards here have evolved darker coloration on the lava flows.
Reaching up out of the lava.
Mt. Taylor in the distance.
Overall, this was a rugged trail, but it didn't seem as difficult as I'd heard.  Maybe it was just cause we took our time and stopped to smell ALL the flowers.

Cactus about to bloom.
More Information

Zuni-Acoma Trail Brochure- available from the El Malpais Visitor Center or downloadable here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What!? No Internet!?

“Housing is basic, cell phone reception is limited, and it does not have internet.”

What!?  No internet!

For three months, I’ve lived with no wifi at home and limited phone service.  There is slow McDonald’s wifi 45 minutes away.  And… Life has been amazing without regular, constant acess to the internet.
One of the few times I went into town for internet, it took two hours to upload two blog posts.  Not a good use of time.
Without internet, there is so much time.  Time for the world outside my door.  Time for the people I interact with face to face.

There were initial frustrations, of course.  I ran out of podcast episodes.   I failed to download my library book on tape in time—after I finally got it after three months of waiting on hold, so now I’ll have to wait another round.  I miss being able to keep up with photos from my friend’s hiking adventures. 

But I’ve found huge benefits of the no internet life.  Amazing things happen to your brain.  The clarity of mind and peacefulness remind me of the mental state that happens when going backpacking.  I notice more around me.  I can dive into reading book after book, and that can open up whole new ways of thinking.  Every sunrise and sunset is a whole new event to be enjoyed. It feels like I get to live more.  That moments are overflowing with intentionality and appreciation. 

I realize how I used to reach for my phone as a way to distract myself from momentary discomfort.  Maybe I’d be trying to write an article, and I’d get stuck.  Instead of just sitting with it, I impulsively open up instagram to escape.

I’ve enjoyed slow ways to get information.  When I have questions that I would normally google answers for, instead I ask the people around me, or search for answers in books.  Slower, but when I actually have to work for the answers, I end up learning more.
Not as fast as google.  But you'll find a fascinating world here.
News comes, but not via the usual channels.  It’s direct observations and word of mouth here.  We take out the ruler and measure how much snow fell in the last 24 hours.  The peregrine falcons are nesting, and we know because a visitor brought in a photo. Instead of traffic reports on the radio, we find out how the roads are by asking our coworkers or the visitors.
"It snowed last night."
It’s not entirely true that I’m completely cut off.  Via my smartphone, I can do email if I wave my phone around and wait… and wait…  If I try pressing upload for a few hours, sometimes I can get a post through to instagram, if the weather is right.  Because the internet is not instantaneous, I have to consider WHY time should be invested in whatever I’m doing.  Is it just wanting to be “liked”? Most of the time I can’t download comments and once I can actually read them, comments have lost their immediacy.  Posting becomes less about wanting responses, and more about the desire to share something with the universe that has nothing to do with any sort of return.  It makes you think about sharing in this whole other time scale.  That is the opposite of clicking and clicking and the super fast way that the wifi can make your brain not able to focus at all. 
What!? No facebook!?  Yes, I gave up it was just too slow.
Reading blog posts takes a while.  In the time they take to load, I ask, “Does reading this article help me learn something new, does it inspire me, or provoke creativity?” I have discovered that there are maybe five blogs that are worth the time to download.  It makes me wonder why I used to waste so much time reading things that didn’t make a positive impact on my life.

In reading less online, I value personal interactions more.  My mind doesn’t wander to some fb post I’ve been meaning to write.  The people in front of me are the ones that matter.  Their stories are my reality. 

As I prepare to head back to the land of internet and 4G, I wonder if I will just instantly revert back to my old ways.  I hope I can take some of what I learned back with me, and be more present and less distracted.  I want to remember to use the internet as a tool, and with thought, not as a means of distraction.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Climbing Mt. Taylor

My plan is to take a little stroll on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) north from Grants towards Mt. Taylor.  Even since arriving to New Mexico three months ago, I’ve been drawn to Mt. Taylor, a large composite volcano (similar geologically to Mt. St. Helens).  It’s a massive presence in this region, dominating the skyline. 

For three months I’ve watched sunsets glowing off Mt. Taylor’s snowy peak.  I’ve used it as a directional reference point on hikes in the El Malpais.  I keep the Forest Service map/ brochure on my bedside table along with the phone number of the ranger station that I call periodically to check on road conditions to the trailhead.  I keep waiting, but time is running out and I’m leaving soon.

The road up to the higher trailhead is still too muddy and snowy for my little car, so I must use the lower trailhead. I’ve just got this one day devoted to Mt Taylor, so backpacking is out. Even though I know the summit is too far away for a dayhike, at least I will see the lower stretches. I’m looking forward to watching the plant communities change as I climb.
Starting out amidst cactus during the shadows-creeping hour of morning.

I begin from what the Guthook’s Guide app calls the Mt. Taylor trailhead (the signs say Continental Divide Trailhead), just a couple miles north of Grants (elevation 6874’).  After climbing over loose rocks for two miles, the trail flattens, spanning open grasslands.  It’s real trail too, with actual tread.  Only two sets of footprints have passed this way before me (besides coyote and mountain lion tracks).  Otherwise this trail is soft and un-compacted.  Can the CDT really be so flat and gentle on the feet? Or am I in some dream world?
Mt. Taylor looks impossibly small.
Look a gate!  The gates here are real opening and closing portals to the other side of the barbed wire fence.  What wonders of modern technology!
I relax into my 12-hour pace, that comfortable walk all day stride.  Stopping for snack breaks every two hours, or whenever a beautiful ponderosa calls out for me come rest against it.  After all this is just a stroll— no destination, just the journey, etc.
Ponderosa reaching up into blue puffy cloud skies.
Getting higher and higher.
After 4 hours, FS #193 appears marking the start of the Mt. Taylor Summit Alternate.  Guthook says I’ve come 10.5 miles but that can’t be right.  I’m not at all halfway tired.  So I decide to follow the road towards the higher trailhead.  
Definitely my little car is not making it up this road.  Hiking was much easier.
I waiver at the turn off for Gooseberry Springs Trail #77.  Light flurries are falling.  Weather forecast shows a wind advisory with gusts of 45 mph.  I haven’t seen anyone all day (and I won’t for the rest of the day either). Should I keep climbing?  The best way to make a decision is sit and take stock.  I try to figure out how many miles I’ve gone, but I get confused with the alternate on my Guthooks app and give up. My paper FS map says three miles to the summit.  Do I have enough time?  What if I end up hiking after dark?  An inventory of my pack confirms I have my headlamp, SPOT, and enough food and warm gear to even spend the night if it comes to that.  Ever cautious, I decide to keep going only if: (1) the trail isn’t sketchy, (2) my legs don’t complain, and (3) the altitude doesn’t bother me.
Aspen are gorgeous, so I keep climbing.
The snow is slightly soft and covers the trail. Somehow I can tell where to go anyway by playing the “If I Were The Trail Where Would I Go” game.  Not sketchy!
Up above the aspen, the grass waves in the fierce wind, so I keep climbing
I keep expecting to turn around at any moment.  I am a turn-around kind of person.  What would it feel like to not turn around for once? 

I am very aware of the feeling of being up here by myself at this high elevation, with the strong wind gusts nearly knocking me off my feet.  I keep waiting for my legs to get tired, or to get dizzy from the altitude.  But as the climbing gets steeper, my legs fly with increasing determination.  Arms pumping my poles into jet propulsion mode.  Oh the climbing, how I love it— the way the thin air feels as it fills my lungs and I relax into the rhythm of high elevation climbing mode.
Through a lovely spruce/ pine forest glen, then around the shoulder and oh the views of a winter's worth of hikes.
I'll just make it to that switchback and turn around.  But then... the rocks were so colorful with lichen, and I think oh just one more switchback.
The wind burns my skin and threatens to knock me down.  Snot drips down my face and seems to freeze on my face- is that even possible?  I brace myself against the wind with my poles and adopt a wider stable crouching stance.  Half my fingers go numb from cold despite three layers of gloves, but I clutch my poles tight with the remaining fingers, and it is enough.
At the highest point on the CDT in New Mexico.
I can’t believe I’m up here.  Why did I not turn around?  Maybe I’m a keep going kind of person, after all.

I love this mountain.  So this is what it looks like, after months of gazing from afar and dreaming of what it’s like up here, this vastness, the grass, the wind, the rocks.  This is the terrain that I live for. 

Coming up this mountain seems like saying goodbye to my winter in New Mexico.  It is my way of saying thank you to these lava flows and volcanos and sandstone and all the amazing things that I’ve seen while I’ve been here.  How I will miss it here!  Everything is so fleeting.

I don’t last long in the bitter winds of the summit.  Down down down, flying down switchbacks, glissading over the snow.  Down past the gate, past the mountain lion scratches, past the flowers, past the views.  Finally, to the trailhead.
Back to my lonely car at trailhead before dark.
Why does the climbing sometimes seem so easy?  How can it be so easy to come to love a place in just a few months?  Why does the saying goodbye part have to come so soon?

I finally calculate the mileage.  15.2 miles each way = 30.4 miles total.  That can’t be right.  I’m not that tired.  I’ve never hiked more than 28 miles in a day, and that was when I was in thru hiker shape.  Guthook’s app must be wrong. 

In the morning I wake up and still don’t feel that sore.  It must not have been 30 miles.  I call the ranger station and ask how long it is.  The ranger confirms ~30 miles.  It’s the most I’ve ever hiked in one day.  And I didn’t even realize it.  Or maybe I finally hiked 30 miles precisely because I never would have hiked that far if I’d known.  Maybe it’s the power of this mountain.  Maybe I’m stronger than I think.
Getting ready to open.  It's nearly spring.
More information

Date hiked:  March  26

Contact: The Mt. Taylor Ranger District on Lobo Canyon Road north of Grants, NM.  They are only open during weekdays, but are located just a few miles south of the trailhead.

Trailhead: I parked at the Continental Divide Trailhead, just a couple miles north of Grants on paved Lobo Canyon Road (elevation 6874’). Guthook’s Guide app calls it the Mt. Taylor trailhead (mile 541.4)

Take the CDT north for 10.5 miles to Forest Road #193.  Follow the sign to the right and roadwalk on 193 to the Gooseberry Springs Trail #77.  There is an excellent trifold for the Gooseberry Spring Trail put out by the Mt. Taylor Ranger District with geological and botanical information, and a nice little topo map.

There is a 4431 foot elevation difference between the trailhead and the summit, but with all the ups and downs, no idea really how much climbing this involves.  Does it really matter?