Three trips to Oregon with snow

Ashland, 11/18–11/20

I think the chamber of commerce here could use an angle other than Shakespeare. I want to sell them on selling themselves as the halfway point between San Francisco and Portland, a distinction I assume to be relevant to more abandoned Bay Area holdouts than just me.

I’m waiting for the Portland end of the bargain inside a nominally Bard-themed motel room, eating pizza and watching George Clooney rock a mockneck in The Perfect Storm. Past a certain hour I can’t separate the sound of the weather on TNT and outside the window, can’t be entirely sure the bed’s not listing to starboard. I turn on all the lights.

On the trails over the weekend the rain is snow that balls up in my not-so-fat bike’s rear triangle every hundred yards. I do a lot of walking and pushing, stamping my feet and biting my tongue. The Person Whose Idea It Was to go this way very wisely drives down from mid-mountain alone so I can ride one more descent, snow-free. Whether this is intended as a magnanimous gesture or just to avoid having me drive his truck, I’m not sure—but I’ll take it.

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A detour to “see” Crater Lake. “Good thing you have four-wheel drive,” he says as we pass a Prius in a ditch. “Wait, I do?” “Wait, you don’t?”

Portland, 12/15–12/18

As with anywhere else I ever visit I’m in Portland in part to determine if it’s somewhere I could move. But in its long northern twilight and coat of dirty ice the city is not putting its best face forward. It’s not so cold, but it’s cold enough it hurts.

I did not grow up with any real winter; my earliest reference points lay through the wardrobe to Narnia and so even now I associate snow with a sort of sorcery or bewitchment. At the waterfalls in the gorge the spell is cast and spattered in white on bridges, branches, cave mouths, columns of basalt.

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White Witch was here

For indoor amusements we visit the railroad museum: he discusses torque with retirees while I watch safety videos from the ’80s, rapt and mouthing cautionary mnemonics. At an indoor bike park called the Lumberyard I prove myself uncoachable and discover, by taking the bus, where the city has hidden its minorities. (Out by the airport, if you were wondering.)

A Portland phenomenon slightly easier to get behind is combination bike/coffee shops. On the way to one we pass a golden retriever in a Christmas scarf, which I smile at—do dogs know when you smile at them?—and then forget. But when I open the door to the café a few blocks later it is onto a room full of dogs; they are everywhere, among vintage bikes and in baubled sweaters, tussling on the floor in felt antlers, tongues lolling over jingle-belled collars and leashes wound with tinsel. I’m tired and surprised and so all I can do is start crying. “Jesus Christ,” mutters my tour guide. “Santa!” I sob. Owners and dogs are lining up to get their picture taken with him. (Not Him.) There’s a pug on his lap.

Corvallis-ish, 12/15–12/18

What I’d generally say about a lot of Oregon at this point is, it’s alright but the trees get in the way of things. I prefer a forest from some distance above it: I like the plumes of mist that snake out of the canopy, the reassurance that the planet’s still alive. But when actually in the woods I tend to want to get out of them. To hike for an hour without a sightline makes me itchy and eventually anxious for the sky.

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Lumberjack gym

Fortunately there’s also an air and space museum. It has an IMAX theater, for fighter-jet movies, and a goddamn water park—which you can enter via twisty slide inside the 747 that’s parked on the roof. The adjacent hanger contains, among other things, the actual Spruce Goose. One wing is cross-sectioned so you can see that it’s full of beach balls.

This plane is so large it defies pano mode, cannot be taken in in its entirety from any single point in the building. I’m interested in this but not, unfortunately, in my friend’s explanation of how the engines work. There is a flight simulator which he can operate instantly and intuitively. I demand a turn and crash over and over into the virtual runway—sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.

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Boise to Bend, 10/13-10/16

Heading west into the glare of the setting sun, the lunar hills on Highway 20 roll by gold against a feathered evening sky. Overnight, though, the weather moves in. From a campground in Juntura—”No Shooting” signs everywhere, presumably because they’re necessary—I head to the hot springs in the morning anyway. I have the idea that it might be relaxing, but my gumption runs solar and so under the grim sky I have imagined 28 ways I might die by the time I get there. (Amoebas, dude, look it up.) I soak just long enough to really listen to the rain.

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Between Juntura and Bend the only thing on the map is a BLM corral facility. My nine-year-old self was a diligent study of wild horses and roundups and adoption proceedings and so this is a real draw for me—and other lunatic women, clearly, because there’s a driving tour loop for road-trippers to gawk without bothering the staff (who in any case are nowhere to be seen). I’m quickly out of the car with my head through the pipe corral, watching rangy blue roans and piebalds squabble over piles of oat hay. I know they’re not wild-wild, but their manes and eyes are and I still want one, 20 years later.

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These are just the staff vehicles; the freeborn fellows won’t come so close.

When I arrive in Bend it’s after several hours of hairy, stormy highway and a week of not talking to anyone. My joy at reuniting with people I can babble to fades quickly to guilt as it becomes apparent I’ve convinced them to travel a full day from the Bay Area only to arrive in the freak path of an “atmospheric river.” I had talked up safe-assumption late-season riding. Why am I so frequently wrong about this?

We go anyway. The physics of it is, we are soaked through at precisely the elevation it’s cold enough for the rain to turn to sleet and snow. We form a wretched procession down “Storm King” (of course) during which Jack turns observably blue and I take to braking with my fists because my fingers won’t move.

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Featuring trash-bag booties and the neighborhood watch.

In the desert the next day the weather is better but my attitude worse. I keep trying to cut my ride short and getting talked out of it, so by the time I realize I’m on a 30-mile loop we’re exactly halfway and there’s nothing I can do about it. I admit to tears and stomping. It remains unclear why any of these rippers put up with this, but they do, and I’m so glad.

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Bless your hearts, you boys; you’re the light in the clouds.

 

Ketchum to Boise, 10/13-10/16

On the way out of the Sawtooths I stop to pay my respects to Ernest Hemingway, whose toxic masculinity does not appear to have had stunted the cypress consuming his corpse any more that it ever bothered  me. I continue south through Ketchum and Hailey and a valley of log-cabin McMansions with mowed lawns and a strange speed limit of 34 miles per hour. I wonder how rich people here made their money.

The Forest Service trailhead at the other end of the subdivision leads to Greenhorn Gulch, a creekside climb recently burned and more work than I was expecting. At the top it opens up into bare brown hills that could be home. In combination with the view of the Pioneer range, the roller-coaster descent is legitimately dangerous: I’m alternately gawking at the horizon, yelling “Wow!” to myself, and skittering haphazardly over babyheads, blinded by the wind. Like Galena Summit, the trails here are in perfect condition and don’t have another soul on them. It might look here and there like California, but it is today—sorry, Ernie— my private Idaho.

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Greenhorn, gulch.

At Craters of the Moon several hours later I terrify myself in a series of volcanic caves. My demographic tends to give the National Parks a lot of crap for sanitizing attractions: the railings at Yosemite Falls, the warning signs at Old Faithful. Here, on the other hand, I am shocked to encounter no deterrents at all: in fact, there’s a paved path and cheerful signage encouraging you into the Bowels of the Earth, and when I get there—by slithering on my stomach through a gap in the jumbled boulders—I quickly discover that 1) my headlamp is not very good and 2) I do not AT ALL like being underground. I force myself to walk into the far chamber, clammy-palmed and convinced of some imminent geologic event that will seal the entrance behind me. Then I haul ass out of there. Even the caves open to the sky are stalked by creepy pigeons.

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Top left in hopes a selfie trail from the cloud might help someone recover my body. o_O

The park has dark and low but also bright and high. At the top of the cinder cones I can see for miles, and I prefer this.

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Not pictured: awesome, glorious, 30 mph wind. Never been so sure I could fly.

Between Craters of the Moon and Boise is Trump Country. I stop for gas between a pickup with three “Lock her up!” stickers and a purple PT Cruiser whose giant window decals declare “NO OBAMA NATION” in Scooby-Doo bubble-writing. Inside, on camo t-shirts, the suggestions continue: “Ban idiots, not guns”; “America, stand your ground.” I buy coffee and a spongy breakfast sandwich, catch myself paying with cash to avoid an unnecessary reveal of my last name.

It’s October. There are three weeks until the election, and I know how it’s going to go.

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Left: Interpreted. Right: In the flesh.

Consequently I’m a little on edge by the time I get to my last stop, the World Center for Birds of Prey. As I step out into the parking lot there’s a loud rushing noise overhead that sends me ducking back into the car. Squinting into the sun I find the sound is the flapping wings of a condor. Ten feet across, easy.

Typically my great enthusiasm for killer birds has manifested itself in meeting doodles and memorizing relevant poems rather than any useful ability to identify or understand them. Nonetheless I take notes on the handlers’ presentations, sitting on the ground while school-age children stare at me. Whatever. Did you know a turkey vulture’s stomach has a pH of 0? It can eat anthrax. You’re welcome.

The vulture is called Lucy and she really does seem to like the attention. She struts back and forth across the audience and spreads her wings whenever she hears her name.

Twin Falls to Ketchum, 10/9-10/10

Lest I imply it’s all sunsets and rapture out here, let me begin by saying Twin Falls sucks. The outskirts are parking lots and pawnshops, beady-eyed men with neck tattoos and listless women in the passenger seat. If possible, the city center is even worse for being its own idea of “nicer”—in (my) reality, a hellscape of poor zoning in which the otherwise stunning Snake River Gorge has a golf course in the middle and a Bed Bath and Beyond 20 meters from the edge.

I attribute the sense that I’ve arrived in an urban-planning nightmare to a mix of coastal elitism and an altitude hangover: having accidentally spent the night at 10,000 feet I feel bad enough to cut the drive short at a KOA. In the “family room,” fluorescents buzz over copies of LIFE from 1966 and couch cushions dusted with dead insects. But the showers are clean and that goes a long way.

 

I’m in Idaho to spectate—not base jumpers, but sheepdogs.

The trials are being held in a huge razed wheat field ringed with moonscape hills. I am extremely pleased with myself for having brought binoculars but don’t know what I’m looking at, only that it feels like a cross between a horse show and a golf tournament (and not especially like Babe). The shepherds—or shepherdesses, mostly—have actual crooks; the dogs slink low to the ground or bolt across the flocks in apparent response to whistles and cries of “AWAY! AWAY!” that I can’t decode. People clap and make knowing remarks about the  particular obstinance of “fresh range ewes.” A silent judge in a cowboy hat writes on a clipboard alongside a white Ford F150, which seems with animal intention to itself survey the scene. I could watch all this for a long time, and I do.

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The actual Trailing of the Sheep is a bit of a Sun Valley scene, lots of botox and bronzer and polo shirts and wine. The parade performers represent various sheepherding cultures, from the Scots, who have of course brought bagpipes, to the Basque, whose enclaves across the mountain west I have never before heard mentioned. I am contrasting the dance steps of straight-backed Poles—exchanging partners as if handing off a military secret—with the slow, sleepy shimmy of the Peruvians, who lead with their hips. One thing leads to another and soon enough, here I am, just a girl at a sheep parade deconstructing colonialism and capitalism and Catholic guilt.

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I ride bikes, too, though, I swear. I came for Osberg Ridge, the Ketchum showpiece, but there are no weekday shuttles and the shop staff tell me flatly I’d be stupid to ride it alone even if there were. No matter, there’s more trail here than anyone knows what do with: I cruise berms at Galena Summit for hours without seeing a soul (dead pioneers notwithstanding), and even the “busy” stuff in the center of town has only a handful of polite hikers near the start. I have a bell on less for them than to keep myself from floating away.

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Driving out of the mountains in the evening, I see and do not hit a pronghorn antelope, my first. It bounds out of the grass and across the road in an instant—the flash of its heavy white flanks a fleeting impression of athleticism and, frankly, meat— and I can see both why you would and why you wouldn’t want to shoot one.

Reno to Elko, 10/7-10/8

It’s a 12-hour drive from Berkeley to Ketchum, and I’m dreading it. I fantasize about relocating Nevada to the other side of Colorado. I complain the whole state is “in the way of the good stuff.” I say this to people, out loud!

I’ve rarely been so wrong about a place or so glad about it.

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The pleasant surprises start the moment I kick open the car door and stumble into the light of Water Canyon. I rolled in late, frazzled by gas-station coffee and hours winnowing through semis on dark desert highway. I didn’t know where I’d landed, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this: a crystalline morning, creekbed aspens rattling and fluttering in a fresh breeze as if animated by spirits à la “Colors of the Wind.” There’s nobody else here and the sky’s enormous. I feel drunk but need to keep driving.

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… things you never knew you never knew.

In Elko some hours later, I found the Folklife Museum—contrary to its name—rather too slick for my taste. But across the street at J.M. Capriola Co. (“Rancher and Cowboy Headquarters Since 1929”) the same glass cases of bits and spurs are for sale and therefore, in America, real. I have lunch next door, in a dim diner with a low ceiling, between a construction foreman and an old man in baggy fatigues. There is a sweating gray slab of meatloaf behind the counter and this is exactly what I wanted. (For atmosphere, I mean, not to eat.)

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Left: Look, don’t touch. Right: Buy, don’t look.

I drive to Lamoille Canyon on the recommendation of a photographer who shot it for the cover of Via (of all things): to be clear, I’m saying I literally found this place on Instagram. Despite this, it is so outstanding and so empty that I confess my first impulse—raw hypocrisy—is to keep it a secret. It takes me nearly two hours to cover the 12 miles to the trailhead because I can’t pass a single turnout without stopping to gawk at new iterations of snow and sagebrush and granite and sky.

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Consequently it’s late afternoon before I actually start hiking, and I quickly lose the trail in snow. Per usual, I’m solo, map-less, and paranoid; I’ve just given up—in fact, am scouting out a tent spot—when I spot mule tracks switchbacking up the slope. The sun drops below the cirque at the exact moment I glance down at my watch; the chill is immediate. I dither.

But in the end I make a run for it. I crest the pass snotty and wheezing, but the roar in my ears is angels singing, surely, because I am just in time for this:

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To pay it forward I will in fact disclose that this is Liberty Lake. However, know that if you go there on my beta and leave trash (I found lots) I will see you in hell.

When I get back to the parking lot the next morning, an older couple is packing up their rental car. They are the first people I’ve seen anywhere in the canyon not wearing head-to-toe camo and they approach me smiling instead of staring. “We saw your California plates,” they say, by way of introduction.”Would you like some pizza?”

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Desolation Wilderness, 7/15-7/17

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You guys, look at this rock!

I’d like to be caught up with my obsessive trip recaps by the end of the year as a matter of mental hygiene. But even given that I did nearly nothing in August or September—having decommissioned another shoulder by crashing, inexplicably, on butter-smooth singletrack two minutes into a ride at Wilder (tame!)—even given that, it’s a daunting backlog. So I will cheat with photos.

We begin with a Bay Area question: is it either Desolation or wilderness if you take Uber to the trailhead?

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“We just have a few small bags …”

Below we have Xiu and Marc preparing the best stir-fry beef I’ve ever eaten … and Scott, sitting in a lake with a bag of wine. I love hiking with these guys because they’re strong enough to schlep in the good stuff, whereas all my trips are weight-weenie freeze-dried lentils and tuna.

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Slap it like it owes you money.

From the top of Mt. Tallac the next day we could see the shape of the lakes, coves that are only water up close but Caribbean blue from 9,000 feet up. Probably the only one who did not appreciate the view was Beau, on a short leash and tormented cruelly by emboldened summit chipmunks.

Both Beau and I began the trip plowing ahead and chasing birds and finished it limping and whining. Unlike me, Beau is cute and little enough to get a ride out and then sleep under the table at dinner.

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Beau would like you to know that he was in front the who-ole time and this was just the last quarter mile and he could have walked if he really felt like it, OK?

Related: “How could I forget my poles?” I asked myself as I lagged farther and farther behind on the descent.“I had everything all laid out on the floor and ready to go!” Yeah, well …

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And I would like you to know that I’m a renter and didn’t choose this rug.

Oakridge, 6/30–7/4

In Dunsmuir we walk along the tracks, testing dance-step combinations between ties laid just the wrong distance apart. It’s hot and bright and smells of creosote; when a train comes by I jump down the steep embankment, alarmed, land in a heap in the deep crushed rock. The cars chug by above our heads. Woo-wooooo!

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If you are a railway official or the police, the paragraph above is fiction.

The falls spill out of the ferns without any explanation. The water’s so clear that the striders in the shallows cast shadows in the bright afternoon sun, each a cluster of perfect discs that jolts and folds over the submerged rocks. I watch them for a while and then we go back.

At the foot of a lookout tower off Highway 58, I call out into the wind and the watchman resignedly invites us up. He’s had his eyes on the forest here every summer for more than 40 years, the resume of a man who presumably prefers to be alone. I’m in awe of him and of the thousands and thousands of trees.

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Thank you, Forest Service; thank you, firefighters.

In Oakridge, finally—we have tried and failed many times to come here, most recently because it was burning down—the guy in the bike shop takes one look at Jacob and begins addressing him as “Social Justice Warrior.” When asked how he arrived at this (accurate) conclusion—without even a World Bicycle Relief t-shirt to tip him off!—he suggests this was the only reasonable explanation for riding with so many brown people. Well played.

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That’s not even all of us.

You can read about Oakridge trails wherever, so suffice to say here that to my taste they live up to the hype: fast and flowy without looking like a bike park, an honest day’s work even with long shuttles. There are big trees and long horizons, catwalk ridgelines and and glowing green carpets of clover. The only bar in town is full of books. I will go back with you any time you want.

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We come home on the Fourth of July, drive the last hour south with fireworks going off on either side of the freeway. The explosions light up the strip malls and refineries in flashes of white and red, then the rows and rows of houses and apartments, the marina, and the bay.

Foresthill, 6/25–6/26

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Is it hot out here, or does manzanita look like fire?

My friends are here to ride dirt bikes, the route I’ve picked is for a cyclocross bike, but what I’ve got with me is a road bike and so I use that and beat the crap out of it and feel pretty guilty. Perhaps because I’m already anthropomorphizing the Cannondale, the heat in the strangely silent Gold Country canyons seems somehow sentient as well—at the least, the furnace breath of a sleeping dragon under the dusty oaks.

It’s a long climb out of the ravine, shotgun shells and shrill private-property signs in typeface from the 50s or spray paint on plywood. I’m sure the route is trendy as a group ride but it’s creepy alone, plus I’m short a few gears and not fit enough to drop the mosquitoes. Back at camp a few too many hours later I’m acting like I’m excited for burgers … but really I’m just glad to see people who haven’t expressed a willingness to shoot me in writing.

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This thing turns 10 next year, at which point I can start saying I ride a vintage Cannondale.

After dinner we’re looking out over the lake in the dark. Someone points to the mirrored image of the pine trees on the opposite shore; someone else notes the surface of the water is so still it’s also and even reflecting the stars. I’ve been staring up at them—there are lots, compared to home—but now I drop my head and step to the edge of the shore. When I look into the lake I find to my amazement that there isn’t one, that instead I’m peering down at the lights of a distant city a thousand feet below.

It’s the effect of standing on a cliff edge; it’s uncanny, vertiginous. My stomach floats and my hands tingle. I back away and the lights disappear; I return again and they twinkle up at me as before. I do this over and over again for a good half-hour and every time am afraid the hidden city will have disappeared. It’s very hard to walk away and go to sleep.

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Morning after.

I don’t know many nights I’ve looked into a lake before, what collision of conditions flips empty air into them or whether it’s rare. But I think what I saw at the bottom is the light of what I want to believe most—that there is more to find, and further, that those things might be anywhere.

Surprise me!

Yosemite, 6/3–6/5

The valley in summer is as hot and buggy and crowded as I would have thought, but I’m here for a trails workshop and spending much of the day indoors anyway. The point was to learn to use tools, become handy … but I can’t help but maneuver into my comfort zone—i.e., bullshit—and instead wind up debating fundraising language with a rep from another nonprofit. His expression suggests he may fake a seizure in order to end the conversation. Whatever.

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Not pictured: hang gliders landing the meadow, a serious blow to what remained of my interest in rock climbing.

The workshop also includes a bit by the park geologist, whose job it is to investigate rockfall in the middle of the night and shoot LiDAR at El Cap. He’s pretty cute and also talking casually past my farthest points of reference in space and time: of bedrock 2,000 feet below the valley floor, of using cosmic rays from another solar system (????) to measure isotopes in flecks of quartz. In combination with the heat this is dreamlike and soothing. “The granite you see is the guts,” he says, “of hundred-million-year-old volcanoes.”

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Less problematic than the last time I went this way.

At 10 p.m. that night I’m hiking back down from Glacier Point when I encounter a mule deer glowing electric white, like it’s Harry’s patronus* or being abducted by aliens. In reality it’s backlit by the headlamp of an off-duty ranger, who mitigates my initial disappointment by walking the rest of the way with me and reciting draft tour scripts that didn’t pass muster with his supervisor. These include a talk on the cultural role of selfie sticks and another I would have titled, “Did you guys have any idea how badly this park fucked over the Miwok?”

The following evening finds me at the base of Yosemite Falls. I’ve never been before, and in the fast-failing twilight the hurtling plumes appear as a massive, warlike spectre, emitting a howl from another world. I have water on my face, my heart in my mouth.

* J.K. Rowling’s marketing team says mine is a falcon, so.

Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 2

Or, altars, altars, everywhere
(Part 2)

(This list starts in Whitefish—part 1, here.)

6. The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas

On the one hand there is the sound of chimes, now and then against the drone of a tractor in the adjacent hayfield. There is the symmetry and the neat white gravel, the prayer flags snapping in the wind on the hill, the reflexive reverence I feel at the foot of Prajnaparamita—that I feel, lest anyone think I’ve got religion, in the presence of anything beautiful and large. On the other hand, the plaques on each of the thousand Buddhas are inscribed in Comic Sans (“May all beings benefit”), and on the bench behind me a Botoxed blonde is pitching an elderly couple her e-book.

“I’m so glad that we met you,” the wife is saying. “We’ve heard about mindfulness and don’t know the first thing about where to start,” She is earnest and round—like Comic Sans, now that I think about it. Her husband is silent and grasping a cane. “You know, it’s funny,” answers Botox, “I could just tell you were Seeking™. It’s like, when you become receptive to the universe? These things begin to reveal themselves? You’re going to find the right people appear at the right time. And I am so excited to help you on your journey.”

“Here’s my card,” she concludes, a few minutes later. “I am so blessed to know you.”

7. Missoula

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I’m here for maybe 8 waking hours, and in cramming them full—I rent a bike, ride at Rattlesnake, survey campus, eat pastries at the hipster bakery, nurse my envy at Adventure Cycling HQ—I find I speak to almost no one.

But I watch them arrive at the “M” in the morning, a parade of sweaty early risers ascending the switchbacks. There are women in pairs, in yoga pants, intent. A family with two young children laughing and walking backwards. A girl jogging, barely, in front of her coach, who has a constant stream of advice on where and how to place her feet. A young man with a camera around his neck. An old man with dog that runs ahead.

The bulletin board at the trailhead has maps and phone numbers and a bit of Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I shall be the gladdest thing under the sun / I shall touch a hundred flowers and not pick one.” I know it’s posted as an admonition, but since I know the whole poem I can’t take it that way and don’t.

8. Garnet Ghost Town

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Garnet was protected in part by my employer, reason enough, apparently, to drive 12 miles up a fire road to see it. The town has been preserved exactly the right amount, at a clever midpoint between unrecognizable ruins and stage-set contrivance. Inside the scattered buildings various artifacts are laid out like offerings to the future: single shoes, kitchen apparatus, tins of snuff. The old hotel rooms retain rusty iron bedsprings and peeling wallpaper, chipped sink-stands, and sure, perhaps the ghosts. The creak of the floorboards goes well with imagined piano.

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It’s easy to imagine this place getting grim in winter, but today the valley is bright and green, invites a picnic. The BLM will let you stay here for free if you’d like to volunteer: there are some refurbished cabins or a trailer, screened off by a fence against the anachronism. Or, if you like, you could stay in the town itself. “Girl tried that last year,” says the bearded man in the gift shop. “She didn’t reckon on the rats.”