Archive for July, 2012
By the numbers:
What a difference a couple weeks make.
I am in Cascade Locks, at the foot of the ‘Bridge of the Gods’. Washington beckons. Oregon is done. Given the extraordinary snow fall of last winter here in the Pacific Northwest and the relative lack of a summer they have had thus far (even while the rest of the country has apparently been baking) I have had to cross snow fields on every major volcanic mountain all the way up Oregon. My 9 zero days at Mt Thielsen, waiting for snow to melt out helped some, but there was still plenty left by the time I arrived at Thielsen, Diamond Peak, The Three Sisters, Three fingered Jack, Jefferson, and finally Mt Hood. Despite all that the weather has held perfect and I have been able to make many miles the past twelve days. Given the elevation changes through these mountains I have also been able to experience the botany in ‘winter’, spring and summer.
Apart from the few fast packers passing me by at speeds of 35-40 miles/day, I remain well ahead of the main pack of thru hikers and therefore my journey remains very much a solo one. Since I started on June 14th I think I can count on one hand the number of nights I camped with others. During the day the cadence of my foot falls and my the click of my trekking poles add the beat to the visual cacophony of plant diversity around me. I have had three resupply points since I headed back out at Mt Thielsen; Shelter Cove, Big Lake, and Timberline Lodge. At each of these points I ran into warm interesting people who color the journey and provide mental waypoints to what can otherwise become a blurred temporal landscape. Was I on Jefferson three days ago or four? Where was it I camped last night? How many times have I seen that species of Penstemon now? When was the last time I saw water? It all starts to blend together into one whole lived landscape.
Given the snow, the periodically wet feet, wet shoes, and resultant stiff-as-cardboard socks my feet have taken a beating. Today they get to rest, but not for long. There are over 500 miles yet to go, many a pass, many a mountain, and surely more snow ahead.
My trail angel Grace back in Berkeley has been commandeering my gear resupply box, as well as been on the receiving end of my shipments of fresh plant specimens. I am indebted to her and I was happy to wake up this morning and discover that the new shoes she sent had arrived. New shoes and new socks should make a world of difference. For the rest, I apply duct tape and seam grip liberally to heels, soles, tent, pack, and pretty much anywhere else I can think to stick it. I arrived here in Cascade Locks more dusty and sweaty than I can ever remember being. It is a particular quality of insanity this long distance hiking, and it doesn’t readily translate into words. I met a hiker yesterday who was laughing about the idea of being done soon, going back to whatever other life he lived before this and then what? Inevitably whatever you do will feel lazy in comparison to daily 14 hour hikes.
I have been thinking a lot about pain lately. My feet have been giving me some insight. It seems that we fear pain and try to avoid it at all cost, but there is a quality of beauty to pain that we often overlook. Pain is a presence that does two things, it provides in stark tangible bodily reality two facts to the receiver.
1) I am alive
2) I have certain responsibilities towards myself to insure that I take care of myself.
If I disregard the second fact, the first too may well become false
I think a lot of endurance athletes reach a pain threshold and transcend it. The typical path along pain is something like this: You initially ignore it as a nuisance. In the case of your feet that is when the ‘hot spots’ start. Then you start to treat it. Perhaps you use second skin or moleskin, duct tape, maybe some vitamin I (Ibuprofen). This is pretty much as far as a weekend trip will take you. But if you are in for the long haul, eventually you actually do have to confront it in a real way. You have to accept it as an inherent part of the journey. Given time you learn to love it. This is when the mind gets real weird. Mine does anyway. However, I think this is where the real learning lay. At this point you begin to transform, to learn from your deeper self, and here is where you grow. Long distance hikers become more than the person they started as precisely because they bring themselves to the edge…and then embrace it all.
In dealing with emotional pain I believe much of this holds true as well. It is a long road, many take detours and short cuts, but those that stay with the pain can find breakthrough
In the case of neither my feet nor my heart am I there, but well…the journey continues.
Northward movement has been sparse this past week.
Arriving at the Rim village of Crater Lake and allowing myself a few precious moments to chuckle at the scene in the parking lot; children, backs turned and oblivious to what is unquestionably one of the greatest geological formations on the planet, hurling snowballs at each others faces and sliding down a dirty remnant pile of plowed parking lot snow. Kids are like that though. It has to be tangible, felt experience. Give a kid a cardboard box and he’s happy as long as he can smack himself in the head with it. Put a work of art at a distance and there is no connection….bored to tears. I chugged down a quart of water and moved on.
I made it through Crater Lake, nay, I reveled precipitously in her presence, slept on the knife edge that is her defining perimeter, and awoke for sunrise in stillness apart from the Clarks Nutcrackers singing up the sun. And yes at times it also kind of felt like just ‘making it’ while glisading through snow fields. The going was slow and water (ironically all around me in both liquid and solid form) was not at hand. This is a 27 mile section without water (the photo above betrays the fact that to get down to the actual lake would mean pretty much throwing yourself off a cliff).
Unsurprisingly, the botany was not exactly steller with all this snow. By the time I got through the hot lodgepole pine low land, skirting the Pumice Desert and onward to Mt Thielsen, the remnant snow (10 feet thick in places) had made the going sufficiently slow that I bushwacked my way down to Diamond Lake Resort. I was planning on taking this weekend to go to the Oregon Country Fair and meet up with my brother anyway, and therefore decided to take the better part of the entire week off too, allowing time for these hot dry July days to melt off the snow. It is going, and fast, but it never seems fast enough.
Rewind two weeks back to Ashland:
I was blessed to have met Sunshine, friend of Bri whom picked me up hitchhiking in the Klamath last year. Sunshine provided me with a place in Ashland to really recharge, re-gear (thanks to my superb new Mariposa pack courtesy of Gossamer Gear), and replenish. She is a whirlwind of talent and well…sunshine. I am so thankful for her help in preparing me for starting north into Oregon even if it was temporarily stymied by a late spring and lingering snow.
The location for getting bogged down was not too bad though. I was only 20 miles from the Umpqua hot springs and therefore made my way there (with a little help from Sunshine again) for a couple of zero days. My feet were grateful, but I kept itching to get back on the trail. I finally caved in and hitched back up to Mt Thielsen, only to bail on it again a few soggy, exhausting miles (and hours) later. I made my way back down to Diamond Lake, and as luck would have it, I ran into some of the early bird thru hikers, there also bailing on that area, but with some Bay area friends up for a couple days…and with a car. They ended up getting me all the way to Eugene where I caught a bus up to Portland.
Seeing long time friends and trail angels (of sorts) Bob and Kate…and the wee one Cassidy in Portland is a treat I hope to never be foolish enough to pass up when given the opportunity. Solid gold these friends are.
Well…there’s more…there’s always more, but the Fair calls…time to reconnect with my brother…it’s been too long
I am in love.
I walked into the Klamath with a lot of high expectations. All were met and exceeded. This part of California is truly a mysterious place. The botanical diversity is remarkable in just how many species have found a home in these mountains. The Klamath somehow brings together the best of the Sierra, the Cascades, and even species found in the Rocky Mountains such as Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa).
Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana), found only in the very southern Sierra also live in small isolated stands in the Klamath. Coming across a stand of these trees, after not having seen hide nor hair (so to speak) of the Foxtail for about 800 miles was truly mind blowing. What explains their growing in two geographically separate locations and nowhere in between?
The topography is varied for sure, so too is the geology. As many have pointed out the Klamath, Trinity, and Marble mountains present a pretty interesting patchwork of rock including Serpentine, a metamorphic rock formed of ancient sea floor which can contain toxic (to many plants) amounts of nickel, chromium, and cobalt as well as low levels of phosphorous, potassium and low calcium/magnesium ratios. There are plants however that have adapted to live on Serpentine formations and these add to the botanical diversity of the Klamath region.
Coming across some seeps full of the carnivorous California Pitcher Plant (Darlingtonia californica), and seeing it in flower one late evening was another cheap botanists thrill. These tube forming herbaceous plants apparently don’t actually do the digestion of the bugs that get trapped and drowned in their hollow pitchers, but rather like us, the bacteria that live in those photosynthetic cauldrons do the work for them.
The hiking was solid, the views were outstanding, and I am finally getting my trail legs back. I am finding 25 miles/day fairly easy, and even starting to do some 30’s while still finding time to posey pick, press samples, ID plants, and take it all in as best I can. My mind keeps whirring with thoughts about the other mysteries of my life over the past few months. Things incomprehensible to me, questions unanswered, life lessons yet unlearned. I would prefer if I could stay more attuned to my immediate environment more of the time, and stay attentive to the mystery right around me rather than the blurry confusion surrounding the decisions of other people, decisions that inevitably affect and detract from my life as well, but as a good friend of mine told me…let the mouse wheel spin.
Bears are good at bringing one back to their sensual experience.
Over the past week I have met 6. The first two were just before arriving to the Etna Summit. There was a pair of them hanging out, one being by far the largest black bear I have ever seen in the wild. And jet black she/he was. The other with her was a cinnamon brown colored black bear probably about two years old. The larger wasted no time in crashing headlong and at top speed down through thick Greenleaf Manzanita and Huckleberry Oak shrub. The younger and more foolish hung around looking at me for a while.
Shortly after that I hitched down into Etna, planning to stay just long enough to pick up some food, hit the brewpub for a pint and meal, and hitch back up to the summit. As often happens, the town drew me in. More specifically a very generous family of trail angels invited me into their home, plied me with home brew raspberry and blackberry hooch, and filled me up with a home cooked meal of venison burritos.
This venison was the first I have ever had from a bell jar. I have always wondered how canned meat would taste. Now I know. It is a lot like pot roast, very tender, and very edible. Most of the way through the meal, and well into my fourth or fifth burrito I asked Gary for the story of this deer. I asked him if he had gotten it last year. He said, ‘Nope…2004’ matter of factly. I had to laugh. Well, I thought, if eight year old canned and cellared venison doesn’t kill me, I am sold on canning meat. So far so good.
Chris got me back up to the trail early the next morning with only a faint hang over, a pack full of hooch, and about a half -gallon of fresh picked cherries from their tree (ultralighters eat your heart out!) I thank the Flecks for their warm hospitality, interesting military stories, and incredibly well stocked pantry to which they swung the doors wide open for me.
…back to the bear tales…
Two days later, just past the Marble Mountains (so named for the fact that they are gigantic hunks of marble) I saw four more bears in the span of about two minutes. The first was a large solo bear who had smelled or heard me coming and by the time I spotted him, was making his way lazily up the slope out of Big Rock Creek Valley. I watched him until he got into a few trees and out of sight. He kept looking back, not wanting to put much effort in the hide out. Shortly I entered into a bitter cherry thicket. Having just crossed out of it I heard a crashing sound above me. I looked up just in time to see a bear running full speed at me. I hollered out “hey bear!” at which point she looked up at what she was charging, realized it was a human and did an on-the-dime turn of about 140 degrees bolting straight down the mountain through thick forest, up and over logs and branches. Out of the thicket came two tiny cubs hot on her heels, but so small they could barely scramble over all the downed wood. It all happened so quickly it wasn’t until after they were gone that I realized I had just been charged. That was a nice little shot of adrenaline to get my through what became a second rainy 25 miles out to Grider Creek.
Despite the rain, rather, thanks to the rain, the descent from 7000’ into Seiad Valley (infamously known as the ‘hottest town on the trail’ being at only 1500 feet above sea level) was a comfortable and cool one. The ‘jungle’ became more and more lush and overgrown as Grider Creek canyon got deeper and deeper. The Douglas Firs seemed to extend forever skyward in search of light while the undergrowth filled in with Big Leaf Maple, Madrone, Canyon Live Oak, Deer Brush, and endless waist high Thimble Berry. I rolled into the campground just after dark, pitched my soggy sack of tent, heated up some deer, beans, and rice, and crawled in. I still had a bag of plants to get into the press so I sat up by headlamp plunking them in between sheets of newspaper and finally, finally, cranked the straps down. Day done, sweet sleep imminent… dreaming of buying land in the Klamath…
Amongst all the things I have to do when I get into a town (clean up, laundry, food and fuel resupply, pack plant samples with dry paper to ship back to Berkeley, recharge devices, backwash water filter, gear repair, emails, download photos and waypoints, upload new waypoints, change out maps…) this blog post didn’t quite happen when I got to Mt Shasta a week ago. The trail from Sierra City to Belden was largely clear of snow this year and the weather was ideal, although hot at lower elevations. The highlight of that week surely was the steep drop into the Feather River drainage (and subsequent long climb back out). After having to wait until about 11:30 on Monday morning for my food drop to finally arrive in Sierra City, I got onto the trail pretty late, but made good time in walking. Everything this year is easier, faster, and smoother traveling solo. I ended up catching up with the Hawaiian brothers and camped two nights with them, first at the Feather River and again the next night up on a windswept ridge. They were pushing pretty hard to get to Belden before 12:30 on Friday (when the post office there closes) so that was the last I saw of them, save when I caught a ride of town and saw them walking back up the road. I suppose they caught the post office in time. Having already done section N and O from Belden to Mt Shasta last year my plan was to skip ahead to Mt Shasta and enter into the Klamath (sections P, Q. I caught two very quick rides to Chico, but bogged down there trying to hitch up to Mt Shasta. 6 hours standing at a traffic light at an on ramp for route 99 yielded my little more than some smiles, a guy offering me a couple dollars, and a girl who literally threw crumpled up dollar bills out the window to me as she drove by… It was an interesting perspective on what it must be like to be homeless.
I ended up going into a gas station convenience store and talking with the manager, Greg, about where I was and why it was nobody seemed to be headed north. He thought it likely a difficult spot to hitch from, but very kindly offered up the futon on his back porch for the night, and a ride to the bus station in the morning. I gladly took him up on the offer, had a good night sleep and caught a bus to Mt Shasta the following day. I zeroed there at Kristin and Julian’s place where I had mailed ahead my bounce box and food drop. I am so grateful to them for the (now many) times they have helped me out this year and last year in dealing with the various logistical details that northern CA has required. They are good friends and are truly trail angels.