Monday, February 29, 2016

No New Gear

Want more time for backpacking? 

Try not buying new gear for a while.

This may sound counterintuitive.  After all, we are told that new gear will help us backpack more, and make our experience more comfortable, better, new and improved.

But researching new gear, shopping for deals, and testing out new gear— all of that takes time and energy.  What if instead all that time was spent on more important things like actually going hiking or backpacking?
Same outfit for the last 2000 miles.
This year, I embarked on an experiment to buy No New Stuff.  The impetus was that I took a massive salary cut to join AmeriCorps, and needed  to curtail my spending to fit the less than minimum wage “living stipend” (which had to cover essentials like health insurance, car repairs and insurance, and gas money). The experiment had unintended consequences— it freed up my time and also changed how I think about gear.

There is a myth that you need new stuff to improve your backpacking experience.  But things aren’t, in themselves, a source of joy.  Sure some basics are required and granted I already have quality gear that I bought back when I made more money.  But I used to waste time thinking up material solutions to my backpacking discomforts.  I wasted even more time getting sucked into the vortex of gear reviews and online forums, and even more time shopping online, trying out new gear, and returning gear.  The whole consumerist cycle added up to a huge time and energy sink that wasn’t necessary.
Cold feet get frustrating when you don't automatically go buy winter boots and instead try to make do.
My experiment taught me to instead concentrate on skills, adjust my expectations, and borrowed or improvised gear.  All of these not only save money, but I find them more intrinsically worthwhile activities.

For example, there is always going to be some lighter gear replacement.  I’ve spent hundreds of dollars lightening my pack, which improved my backpacking to a point.  But now, I just try to find out what I can go without, rather than replace the items I already have. 

Another case— over the years, I’ve spent countless hours on the quest for trail shoes.  And at the end of the day, I’ve got a closet full of shoes none of which keep my feet consistently happy.  Is there some miracle shoe out there that if I just kept looking would bring me ultimate comfort?  I’ve ceased believing in that.  Instead, I make do with what I have, and use techniques to keep myself safe and healthy. 
Taping my feet makes slightly poor fitting shoes acceptable.
Sometimes, the No New Gear rule got frustrating. I broke down after a few months and bought trail maps for the new area I moved to.  The experiment was about providing an opportunity to discover new ways of being, it wasn’t about being stupid enough to hike without something essential like paper maps.
Don't skimp on the important things like maps.
Don’t want to go so extreme as my No New Gear experiment?  Here are the lessons and practices that are the most valuable.  Give them a try and see if they help you to reduce your gear spending:

    -Make a list of your desired purchases, and give yourself 1-3 months waiting time before pulling the trigger. 

    -Do an experiment to see if you can go without the item you want.  Maybe you’ll find you don’t need it after all. 

    -Stop reading articles or blogs about gear for a while. See if you are happier with what you already have if you aren’t comparing your gear to other people’s.

    -Repair or patch your gear to get more use out of it. 

Just need more glue.
Holes are just a feature to promote air flow.

    -Replace broken items with things you already have. While I loved my platypus, when the hose went bad, I started using gatorade bottles instead. 

    -Borrow, freecycle, and ask around for a gear loan.  Get books at your library.

    -Skip the trip to REI and instead go take a hike.

    - Take a step back to examine what you really value in life. The biggest costs are in a life not fully lived, in days spent at home rather than on the trail.

The payoff for the No New Gear experiment went beyond just saving time and money.  Ultimately, I was able to afford taking the pay cut to do something of value: serving in AmeriCorps last summer and fall, and then being a Volunteer In Park at a National Monument this winter.  Both richly rewarding experiences that brought me joy and fulfillment.  Not having new gear was a small price for being able to realize my dreams.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Overnight in the Petrified Forest

Full moon solo backpacking trip to the Painted Desert Wilderness of Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. 
The map says there is a “Black Forest” down there, but from the trailhead, no trees are visable.

After several hours of romping among the petrified logs, following washes, and climbing up ridges to gain some perspective, the lengthening of the shadows can’t be ignored.  Time to start looking for well-spaced trees…er… flat ground. 
Moonrise and setting sun.
Moon is getting higher, sun getting lower.  Better find a spot soon.
Cold wind convinces me to pass up ridges and seek a site on the lee side of a hill. 
This elevated spot where I finally drop my pack for the night still has a view.
Winter means long hours of darkness.  My plan had been to do some cloud watching.  But the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Shadows are watched instead. The good thing is you usually can have one or the other, and sometimes both. 

And more to watch: Orion and Pleidies, followed by the full moon.  Much more interesting than watching a screen.  
Moon shadows proved equally riveting as their daytime counterparts.
A friend used to say that when you look at the moon, to remember how change is inevitable.  How sometimes it feels like you are in darkness and you don’t know what will happen, but other times you are full of knowing and brightness.  This has always been a good reminder, since not knowing can be scary for us planner-types.
Differential erosion gradually carved this landscape.  Changing rock made of sand and mud turn back to sand and mud again.
My mind drifts to cowboy camping under another full moonrise back in 2014 when I was on the PCT.  It was my first time going to ground after being a die-hard hammock hanger, but I was surrounded by three wonderful trail friends.  Back then, I had no inkling I’d get stress fracture 800 miles later.  I wouldn’t have imagined I’d join AmeriCorps the following year, and then end up in New Mexico wearing an NPS park ranger uniform and feeling like I am “living the dream” just as much as when I was on the PCT.  Why do we waste so much time worrying about the future when it’s so clear that there is just no way to know?
In a tropical swamp during the Late Triassic, this tree turned slowly from wood to rainbow-colored stone.
Now, what I do know is that I’ve intentionally come out here to the painted desert to cowboy camp alone.  My complaining hips say, “Why aren’t we in the comfort of a hammock? You will regret this in the morning when we ache all day.”  What am I doing out here on the ground?  It goes beyond just trying to be a more versatile backpacker.  There is something about this experience of being open to the expansiveness of the sky, to the stillness of the crisp desert air, that makes this worthwhile.
When you lie on the ground, surrounded by quiet and rock, there is a feeling of connection. 
You shape your body to the ground.  The sky opens up above you, and there is nothing between you and the vastness.  You feel part of the vastness and completely insignificant at the same time.  It is easy to be grateful for everything, especially the difficult times you’ve gone through, that have shaped you and made you who you are.

I am glad for places like this— the quiet, the being able to see forever—that allow for solitude and reflection.
Clay swells as it absorbs moisture, then shrinks and cracks as it dries, creating an intricate texture.
In the long darkness eventually all thoughts get thunk out.  Then it’s back to watching the moon shadows do their creeping. 
Arriving back at the trailhead, and looking back on where I’d been.
More information

Backcountry permits are free, and available in the visitor centers at Petrified Forest National Park.  More info on backcountry camping here.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bisti Wilderness

Bisti/ De-Na-Zin Wilderness in northwestern New Mexico is an unusual landscape of hoodoos, spires, balanced rocks, and petrified logs.  What is unique about this place is there are no designated trails in through the maze-like terrain.
Rocks exposed here were deposited around the time of the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary.  This was when the dinosaurs went extinct and the age of mammals began.  Imagine this tree growing when duck-billed dinosaurs roamed around.
Naturally occurring coal beds caught fire due to lightning.  Bright red “clinker” is formed when nearby shale is baked in these fires.
These wild formations happen because sandstone “caps” are more resistant to erosion than the soft shales underneath.
What happens when you have to find your own way through such unfamiliar terrain? 
What is this?
At first it’s a bit scary not following a path.  How will you know where to go?  How will you be sure that you’re seeing the right stuff?  What if you’re missing out on what everyone else sees?

Eventually, because there is nothing else you can do, you figure out what suits you.  Only then can you experience the sense of freedom that comes from following your intuition and your instincts. 

Not to get too philosophical, but sometimes I think that this is sort of the point.  To feel free to make your own way.  To stop feeling uneasy when all the other tracks are going the other way, and then when the other tracks disappear altogether.
Which way to go?
When you stop to look around there is no sign of life anywhere nearby, but it seems like you are in a pretty cool place, except for maybe the ground is kinda squishy and it looks like it's going to be steep any way you go.  Maybe it doesn’t work out and you end up on a cliff and have to do some backtracking or butt scooting to get down.  But that’s OK.
How'd I get up here?
A stillness compliments the starkness. No chirping birds, no growing green photosythesizers.  Not even wind.  A flying insect buzzes by and it’s so freaking exciting— LIFE!— but then it’s gone and the quiet is even louder. 
In the last half mile, being on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence provides another exciting wildlife encounter.
I’m glad there are still wilderness places like this that are just so… wild feeling.  Does anyone else know of places like this that make you feel so free?

More Information:

Call the BLM Farmington Field Office to check about road conditions before you go.  The Bisti parking area is three miles down gravel roads from the highway.  The road was rough but doable in a small car, but I’d imagine it gets impassible after snow.

The information board at the trailhead offers a few suggestions to get you started.  A map shows locations of geological features like an arch and some of the large petrified logs. 

Pay attention and use your route-finding skills. Start by following the wash eastward.  It gives a sense of security to know you can always find your way back by following the water/mud/place where water had been back down to the parking area.
Follow the wash.
The harsh sunlight reflects off the rocks and there is no shade.  This is a great place to use a sun umbrella, and to apply copious layers of sunscreen.  It can also be extremely cold, even on the same day when you were baking in the midday sun.  Be ready for anything.

The most important thing to remember when you visit is that it’s our responsibility to preserve this unique place for the future.  Leave all fossils and petrified wood where you find them so they can be enjoyed by other visitors and by future generations.
Lichen on petrified wood.
Read more:

Hunt, A. P. “Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness.” In: The Geology of Northern New Mexico’s Parks, Monuments, and Public Lands, ed. L. Greer Price, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, 2010.

Also this week I read Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water, which seemed particularly relevant in this landscape, and may be of interest.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Two days at Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in central New Mexico spent exploring three Ancestral Puebloan sites and the Spanish Franciscan mission churches of the 1600s build on top of them.
Setting sun shining through a window at Abo.
Understanding the location is key here.  The Estancia Basin was once a huge lake during the Ice Age, but it dried up leaving behind salt flats— this is important because salt was valuable for use (especially nutrition and preserving meats and curing animal hides) and trade.  When the Spanish came, they shipped the salt south for use in extracting silver from ore.

This was a great place to visit with my parents.  The trails at each site were short, and there was much history to learn and discuss.
Me and Mom.

Gran Quivira was the largest and most extensive site even before the Spanish arrived.  Being the southernmost pueblo, it was a center for economic and cultural exchange.
Situated on top of a hilltop, you can see distant mountains all around from the courtyard beyond the kiva.
Abo was built of bright red sandstone
The spring at Abo provided year-round water.

The views at Quarai were dominated by the Manzanos Mountains.  Here, they spoke a language distinct from nearby Abo. Spanish priests used Quarai as the seat for the New Mexico Inquisition during the 1600s.
The Spanish missions lasted less than a century, and were abandoned prior to the Pueblo Revolt.  People left to join other pueblos due to many causes including drought, a smallpox outbreak, and famine.

I wasn’t sure if it would be worth the long drive to visit Salinas, but my family and I were really impressed by all three sites and with each of the museums associated with each site.  We had an especially knowledgable and interesting ranger at Abo, and talking to her was a highlight of the visit.  But also we were surprised by the variety of environments that made each individual place special—the cottonwoods at Quarai, the view at Gran Quivira, the birds splashing in the water at Abo.  All made for an interesting and enjoyable visit.

More Information

The monument headquarters, with the largest museum and the video, are centrally located in the town of Mountainair.  Each site also has it’s own unique museum, bookstore, and bathrooms too.
Informative interpretive displays at the museum.
Be sure to stop by Alpine Alley for breakfast or lunch in Mountainair.

If you have extra time, the Manzano Mountains State Park is at the foothills of the towering 10K mountains and in comparison to the  trailheads in the national forest, it had a 2 mile family friendly (i.e. broad flat loop in a rich forest setting, with ponderosa, pinyon pine, juniper, and also oaks, views through the trees of the snow-covered peaks.  The ranger said he’d only just recently been able to open the road after all the snows. No footprints except wild turkey, fox/ coyote, deer, rabbits.
Hiking at Manzano Mountains State Park.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Narrows at El Malpais

The Narrows at El Malpais National Conservation Area.  The lava flow here comes right up to the sandstone cliffs, making a narrow corridor for travel.  A good place to go on a sunny cold winter day.
View of La Ventana Arch.
The air has been so cold this week it feels sharp.  It got down to -14 one night this week. Today seems a bit warmer, relatively speaking.
Reading elk tracks.
My toes go numb from cold as they are prone to do, walking through the snow in my trail runners.  My lack of winter boots is due to my “AmeriCorps” budget (i.e. no purchasing new things), which even though I’m between AmeriCorps terms, I still strictly adhere to.  Instead of being frustrated by worn out and inadequate gear, try to remind myself that it’s only a bit of discomfort, and that’s just part of hiking, and thinking that you can buy stuff to bring you comfort is just a conspiracy to sell gear, etc. etc.  At least out here it’s easy to get distracted by the scenery.
A dusting of snow makes the cracks and fissues of the lava pop out like a 3D picture.
The birds are flitting around, singing their songs.  K. stops to raise her binoculars.  A pygmy nuthatch.  Later, a downy woodpecker.

How can their be enough soil for trees to find enough space to root down to hold themselves against the winds up here?
Wonder at the trees growing on top of this rock. 
Why are the lichen so many colors?
Can you find it?
By midday, standing in the sun, you can actually feel the rays working their way into you.  Though I doubt its anywhere near approaching freezing.  Finally, my toes thaw out a little. How wonderful it is to feel all ten of them. I wriggle them around in my shoes, absorbed by the happy feeling of finally thawing out.  See how being uncomfortable allows you to really appreciate the simple things?  See how I justify my crazy experiment in being frugal?

Finally reaching the view of La Ventana Arch, second largest natural arch in New Mexico.  CDT hikers climb down here, but I am very glad we don’t have to since it looks so steep.  Instead, we turn around and retrace our steps back the way we’ve come.

Overall, this is a wonderful winter hike!

More Information

Stop by the El Malpais Visitors Center (off I-40) or El Malpais Ranger Station (on 117) to pick up information about this hike.

The trailhead is at the entrance of the South Narrows picnic area, about 21 miles south of I-40 on NM 117.  This is very accessible even in winter.  117 is paved, and though the parking area is gravel and can be muddy, you don’t have to travel far to park.

From the South Narrows parking area, a trail gradually climbs the 500 feet up to the rim of the sandstone, following the rim for 4 miles (8 miles roundtrip). 

Note that La Ventana arch is shaded in the morning.  The sun finally lights it up late in the day.

CDT hikers take this as an unofficial scenic alternate off the Cebolla Alternate roadwalk along 117.