FIELD NOTES

Summer reruns, 2019

Pinecrest

Between the first time out and familiarity a lot of Forest Service fire roads look the same. In this case, I’ve confused the ascent of Pinecrest Peak with the long slog up Mt. Hough, which is at least five highways north and much, much harder. When I realize this—after dragging my feet and dreading the climb all morning— I’m so pleased I don’t mind when the trail peters out, that I can’t remember how to mountain bike, or even when the boys lose me in the woods.

… around here somewhere …

There’s still snow up high and it’s too early for the flowers . But from where I sit in the hammock in the campground—inhaling queso fresco, talking shit, breathing woodsmoke—summer is on.

Oakridge

My still-new job and the misguided decision to take allergy drugs mean I arrive in Oakridge—one of my all-time favorite places to ride—in a state of irritable lethargy bordering a medical concern. At the fish hatchery I’ve been hyping for weeks I make it through just three holes of salmon-lifecycle-themed mini-golf (you see why I was excited) before staggering off to sleep on a bench. Later I watch Fourth of July fireworks reflected in the inky river, in part because it’s beautiful and in part because it takes less energy than lifting my head.

oakridge_golf
“You have been illegally snagged”

Apart from some outstanding trails, Oakridge has a few through-streets, four or five trailer parks, and an often-shuttered Chinese restaurant we’ve always regarded as a kind of joke. This time around, we stop in. Sean has heard the proprietor is in fact the onetime personal chef of Jackie Chan, and that he can be plied with tequila into provisioning off-script dishes and entertainment.

As the DD (for all of four blocks between dinner and motel) I suspect that Mr. Lee is not even remotely as drunk as he’s pretending to be—or serious when he insists we come to stay with him on a dumpling tour of Taiwan. But the food is excellent and his advice is worth considering. The secret to matrimonial bliss, he says, is to transfer your assets to your spouse outright and then encourage her to spend however she likes. “I tell my wife: You like it? Buy it! Just buy it! But if the money’s gone, it’s gone. That’s all you.”

He has arrived at this understanding over the course of several marriages, each of which cleaned him out. He met his current wife when she cut his hair at a salon. He came back daily, nothing left on his head to cut, asking her out until she capitulated. Wrong word?

His father-in-law tells him he’s an idiot. “Maybe I am,” he tell us, “but I’m happy.”

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We’ve been here four or five times now, sniffed all the plants—and still can’t figure out what makes this forest smell so good.

Even if if you don’t count the long stop at the logging museum—where I buy a bird-shaped water whistle and a train t-shirt declaring me “ALL STEAMED UP”—it takes us 12 hours to get home. The combination of holiday and construction traffic has turned the highway rest stops into stations of the apocalypse: idling trucks and fractious dogs and children, bickering in a dozen languages, overflowing toilets and trash. I spend the week that follows wistfully browsing real estate.

Emigrant Wilderness

The season’s nearly over and we haven’t been backpacking once. We get it together just enough for 18 or so hours in Emigrant, a tease. I’m dizzy and wheezing from the altitude, but the light in the morning‘s a balm and the water, once I inch my way in, a cool caress.

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Bad cell-phone pic, con: Not as cool as drone footage. Bad cell-phone pic, pro: Doesn’t intrude on every living thing for miles in any direction.

This trip has two offenders. One is Maddie the dog, who limps and lags and pants until she cons me into lobbying for the removal of her backpack—and then bolts off into the woods like a track sprinter. The second is the garbage human flying a drone over the lake.

“NO DRONES IN THE WILDERNESS,” Ryan yells down to their Instagram-able hammocks on the shore. This of course is all anyone can do. But vivid fantasies of a sharp shot from a BB gun—also, obviously, not allowed in the wilderness—down to the bite of granite on my elbows, the pop and the whine and clatter of the wounded machine—carry me all the way down to the car.

Hayduke lives.

Downieville

I’m sick and sitting out the first day’s ride as a sort of sacrificial offering, as if a cold can be negotiated with. Walking alone in the woods instead I encounter a snake, an encampment, a creepy pile of rotting clothing, and a stretch of trail that smells suddenly and powerfully like a railroad track. There’s no reason for this that I can see. Just Gold Country shadows and ghosts.

Wouldn’t dare.

Back in town I watch two kids—maybe nine or ten—as they record a third cannonballing off the bridge into the river. They take turns working the cell phone and shuttling the performer’s Crocs back and forth. They debrief. (“So-o sketch, bro. That one was so sketch.”)

It’s a nontrivial jump with signage strenuously forbidding it. I wouldn’t have tried it at their age, and though I think I’m braver now I know I’m not brave enough. Over the course of what I’ll call my career as an editor I have by coincidence worked on three separate pieces featuring an interviewee who paralyzed themselves jumping into rivers or lakes, and the act of dissecting each scene down to the comma has given cliff-diving and the like a special place in my anti-repertoire, the things I will not do. I’m glad when the kid quits for pizza.

Related: Above the Dock, T.E. Hulme

When I ride, even somewhere familiar, I take very few bridge-grade risks. The consequences are too high, and the payoff—given that my bravest moments on a bike are routine for everyone else—almost nonexistent. So when I crash these days it’s usually somewhere unexpected: in this case, on a flat, fast corner 30 seconds from the car. I’ve been trying to hold Ryan’s wheel. I insist it had been going, up until that point, pretty well.

“Bigger tires,” he shrugs.

The real reward.

I’ve been up to the Sierra Buttes lookout tower before, in my first week out of the boot after breaking my foot. I wasn’t taking any risks when I did that, either. I was walking down the stairs in my own damn house.

Now, dragging my bike up boulders everyone else seems able to ride, I can’t understand how I ever managed the hike.

Slowly, doggedly, eventually, I suppose, if not bravely or well. Then as now; now, I hope, as ever.

Escalante, May 18–26

I’m skeptical that I have any business being on the water for a week, having only and rarely ever served as ballast. Sean, however, has more than a decade of experience both in guiding trips and in baiting me out of safe harbors. I’m not really listening to his detailed explanation of dam releases and flow rates because I get the gist: this is a rare opportunity, a river you can’t usually run. My catnip, my kryptonite, my achilles: the Chance That Will Not Come Again™.

Taking the bait, 2019 (above) and 2010 (below). “The Frog” is our (French-Canadian) former housemate. More on that later.

When I commit to going I envision that I’ll be unemployed, or at least seriously underemployed—not two weeks into/already underwater at my first new-new job-job in a decade. I haven’t had time to think about it, and the sight of all three of my travel companions in our Google Sheets packing list at 12:45 a.m. the morning of our flight suggests that none of them have, either.

The immediacy of the need to get ourselves and our gear to the airport overshadows the larger issue of the rapidly deteriorating forecast, which we dismiss as an incidental detail we can do nothing about. This age-old illogic may one day end the world in fire. (“But sir, are you sure you want to—” / “DO IT. I ALREADY BOUGHT THE TICKET.”)

1 a.m. and really starting to make progress.

Once confined to suitcases, this Gear Explosion is less enormous than you’d think—considering that it includes a literal boat—but still too enormous for the Lyft driver, who takes one look at me standing on the curb with my duffles and speeds away shaking his head. Plan B involves three bodies and six body-bags in a Gig car and looks like this:

There’s an app for that. Photo by Sean, driving this thing.

We make it to Salt Lake City, play another round of rental-car Tetris, and beeline south. Anticipating lean times ahead, we eat an extravagant last supper in an inexplicable, Alice Waters-esque outpost of “fanciful cuisine” called Hell’s Backbone Grill. It’s an ashram or art collective or organic goat farm or something and all the staff are beautiful in exactly the same way, as if generated by artificial intelligence trained on a dataset of Madewell catalogs. Our doll-waisted waitress coos and floats about like an exotic bird reciting unnecessary but mellifluous information about herbs. A few outstanding margaritas later I am calling her Jessica and cannot recall if this is actually her name.

You’re beautiful, it’s true.

The next morning there is a long and fractious procedure of packing, re-packing, and shuttling vehicles before we finally get our feet wet, at a nondescript put-in under a low bridge in a thicket of mesquite trees. Neither Ryan or I have seen our packraft outside of a living room before, but as it belongs to a bona fide National Geographic Explorer one hopes it’s imbued with some sort of residual competence. I am swimming (soon literally) in said Explorer’s trousers and splash jacket, while Ryan has borrowed his wetsuit from an ex-girlfriend, a stick-thin triathlete. We look insane.

It’s immediately apparent that the Forager is not for amateurs. Ten feet long and fully loaded with food and gear, it spins and ping-pongs off the banks on a capricious course of its own. This becomes less and less amusing as the weather deteriorates, from cheery spring sunshine when we set out to a steel-gray sky and spitting rain.

The temperature drops and the wind rises. The rain becomes a deluge, then hail, pellets of ice ricocheting off the nose of the boat like buckshot. Behind us there’s a deafening crash, something like a building collapse or a car wreck. When I turn to look, there’s a jet of water exploding over the cliff edge, a roaring cascade where seconds ago the red rock face was bare. It’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Nothing happens until it happens, I think, inanely, then, everything happens out of sight.

In the morning the river is running very high and very fast. It looks like a latte and sounds like an animal. Sean surveys the situation from the banks in silence. “Seems … different,” I offer. “Yeeeeeah,” he says. “We’ll talk about that.”

The crux isn’t rocks or rapids but Russian Olive. Yesterday it formed a graceful and pleasant canopy overhead, but on the swollen river today the dense, woody branches are now at eye level and very difficult to avoid. Behind me, Ryan can usually flatten himself into the boat deck, but as the hapless hood ornament in the bow I’m getting clotheslined over and over into the water. There’s very little I can do about this other than cover my face and pray I keep both arms in their sockets.

It sounds funny and certainly must look it, but after a few solid blows to the head I am not laughing. Apart from the fact of repeated bludgeoning by (very) invasive trees, I’m also now wet to the skin in a knife-edge wind: having packed for “just stand up”-deep water I’m not wearing a wetsuit, never mind a drysuit. I’m dealing with this the way I typically react to the cold, which is to make myself as small as possible and pretend I don’t exist. Thus semi-catatonic, I almost miss Sean on the riverbank ahead, shouting at us to eddy out.

Poached from the man with the plan and the camera. I took very few pictures, hence the several thousand words.

I haven’t noticed him in time to stop the Forager from careening past the beach. “Not going to make that,” I announce. “I’ll catch the next one.”

“NO. DO. IT. NOW.”

In many years of following him around the backcountry I have rarely heard Sean take this tone. Startled out of my stupor, I lunge at some branches and stab a paddle into the sand. I am half in and half out of the boat when I notice there are other people on the bank—the first we’ve seen in days. They look very concerned, which, given that they are being invaded by shivering lunatics, is probably justified.

I, however, am delighted to discover the reason for the urgent stop. These fine folks have a campsite in the shelter of a glorious overhang; they have hot water and a fire. (Note for due diligence that the latter is not allowed, endorsed, or undertaken on this river without a good reason, which I feel we had.) The angels of mercy are generously sharing all of these things and are also cool as hell. I am once again glad to exist.

Thawing ham. (I told you we looked insane.) Photo from Marisa, who was smart enough to bring a coat and kind enough to let me wear it.

River conditions improve somewhat over the days following. Sean makes a gracious sacrifice of his own, much more entertaining single-person boat in order to take over as pilot of the Forager, which significantly reduces the amount of time I spend in the water and fretting over trees.

That said, it’s still very cold, and I’m reminded of how a thing can be physically challenging without being physically difficult. Whenever the sun appears and disappears behind a cloud again I could weep. I used to resent the lack of secular language for awe. These days I borrow freely. The juxtaposition, sometimes—of our silly little boats in the water and the colossal arches overhead; of my hopelessly awkward, daunted body and every perfect bright flower blooming in the sand—all that is inarticulable otherwise. In every direction the landscape is indifferent, immeasurably variable, infinitely perfect. What is that but sublime?

I watch my footprints fill as we walk silent washes. I think of flash-floods sculpting the alcoves, picture hidden currents freezing and thawing in a million tiny fissures, the moment their exhalations over eons at last cleave the rock apart. I imagine the sound this would make, stone the size of a high-rise hitting the canyon floor. What runs through my head over and over again all week is,

on your knees before your God.

There is also a duck—logically several different ducks, but for all I can tell, one single, very blasé duck—who seems to bob in front of us most of the way down the river. Even when you’re ad-libbing rosaries and spinning in the infinite, you have to admit there’s something intrinsically casual about a mallard.

The sublime and the sublimely ridiculous

We have one day of blazing sunshine, which coincides with our re-entry into land-access territory on a holiday weekend. After miles of perfect solitude the canyons are suddenly overrun. The banks are denuded and tragic, every alcove strewn with camp chairs and sticky, staring children. It’s time to go.

The way out is up a a low-angle slab that morphs from negligible to oddly fraught as soon as I put my pack on. Same goes for the interminable sand dune that follows. As soon as we’ve hauled our gear and ourselves over the canyon rim it seems impossible that the thing exists.

From Sean—up the creek without a creek. If you’re wondering why I didn’t bring a wetsuit “just in case,” the answer is: I suck at backpacking and was desperately trying to save weight for this hike out.

For several hours the entertainment consists of Sean and Ryan yelling back at me that every oncoming hiker is our onetime housemate Philippe, who we’ve vaguely suggested meet us at the trailhead so we can swap shuttles. They’ve told a dozen versions of this joke already by the time it’s actually true—but when it is, our old friend’s buoyant, ambling stride is unmistakable even in distant silhouette, even after many years. It is the perfect thing to take the sting off the end of the journey, The Chance That Will Not Come Again.

Also infinite: my gratitude for these three.

New ground, winter-spring 2019

Boonville

Compared to my friends I am much less fit and much more concerned about trespassing—which is easy enough to do here, whether you mean to or not. I don’t know which side of the Jefferson state line we’re on, but I do know none of us is quite white enough to make assumptions in the woods.

I win some route-finding squabbles; I lose some. On Fish Rock (legal, but too long for me) I cut out early and wait at the car in the gathering darkness for the boys. When they find me I am muddy from looking at sticks and mushrooms.

Geyserville

I love the ruins, the steam, the bend in the river, love the deflating Mad-Max pavement and the unconcerned cows chewing cud on the centerline. I can have a shining-white view of the Russian River Valley or a screaming, serpentine descent into it; I cannot, alas, have both.

Sean’s uncanny instinct for the most and best food leads us to a Mexican grocery stocked with things I’ve never seen before, less because I am not Mexican than because I am not a cook. There is interesting cheese and Twinkie variants; there are strange cones of brown sugar. I learn these are called piloncillo: literally—too good to be true—”little pylons.”

La Grange

Exchequer is a small park and I want it to myself. To arrive in time for a chance at this—that is, to ride new dirt without weekending GoPro-bros from the valley on my ass—means provisioning at a tiny shop in La Grange. The door breathes a plume of gold-lit dust at my heels as it shuts behind me; I have Pringles and expired chocolate milk for dinner.

But on the trail I get what I came for. I can laugh like a mad thing at the view—land before time—and there’s no one to hear me.

Arroyo Seco

A new bike materializes at the same time as a new job that will prevent me from riding it. I flee south in a sort of desperation, so keen to try this ride while I still can that I don’t ever check to see where it actually goes.

I’m in the honeymoon period of a bike upgrade where you’d swear the thing has an engine. Hours of climbing feel effortless and the sun is warm on my skin for the first time in months. The wet winter has brought forth a parade of wildflowers that smile and nod from the road-cuts, from beds of chaparral and yucca and agave. On my knees in a saddle meadow carpeted with lupine, I heave with what I suppose the kids these days or a doctor might call a panic attack and I’d call a perfectly reasonable response—to anything so beautiful it hurts, to anything you might never have again.

We talk about “FOMO,” of course, and trivialize it as millennial conceit. But the frivolous little twigs—the aftertaste of the acai bowl when (!) you might have ordered avocado toast—grow on the same family tree as the most fundamental fear we know. I’m on a middling branch as I consider that I have bills to pay, that I can’t stay in this field forever. But at the base—I’m sorry; this is how I’ll excuse my behavior—is nothing less than the specter of death.

Mt. Uhumuhum

Look on my works, ye mighty

I grew up down here on box lore: haunted (false), haunting (true), guarded by armed survivalists (true again). To see the site open now impresses me: I can guess at the work it took to reconcile the EPA with multiple jurisdictions and the smarting Amah Mutsun. I watch the latter shuffle and hum in the ceremonial circle, their piece of the park pie. The tower behind me of course gives an impression of watching, too.

The other ridgeline scar and urban legend in the South Bay is the quarry—rumored of aliens, corpses, etc. Strangely enough I’ve been there, too: in junior year a friend and I finagled a tour by claiming we wanted to write an article for the school paper. We wore polo shirts, trying to look serious, and ogled trucks with tires the size of a house. We had a hell of a time and never actually wrote a word about it.

I am too often in my head, keep too many notes, to be truly confused by my own past logic very often. So while it seems a small thing, I can say without exaggeration that not writing that quarry story is among the most mystifying decisions of my life.

Portola

Theoretically I no longer ride bikes competitively. I will occasionally pay for a destination event if it’s got something I need: a water stop or good camping or permissions for private land (see: Boonville). “I’m not racing,” I will announce, piously, as if anyone gave a shit. “I’m just riding with a number on.”

In reality? Though I’m not willing or able to ride fast, once I put said number on I’m just as dogged as ever by the idea that I can’t stop: not for photos, not for the water I paid for, and not to drop my tire pressure from the cement-like PSI I left it trying to seat my new tires the night before. Nor do I feel I can stop to pick up the driver’s license that falls out of my pocket, where I’d stuck it after eking through registration three minutes before the start. “You dropped something!” yell a half-dozen riders behind me. “Okay!” I yell back.

Sixty-three painful miles at altitude plus a night’s rest and a journey home later I realize it is in fact a huge pain in the ass to replace a driver’s license. I’m still despairing over appointment windows and my new work schedule a week later when this letter turns up it the mail—miraculous. I send a thank-you card, a prayer, and the postage back. The address is a P.O. Box.

The event, if you’ll allow it: Lost and Found.

Fire season 2018

On the way to Quincy we lunch roadside at the Rock House on Yankee Hill. A wooden cutout of Bigfoot ambles across the gravel lot; there is one valiant, buoyant woman behind the counter.

These are my favorite places. I like some kitsch on the walls, some saran-wrapped muffins in a basket, a menu in Comic Sans—italic. “It’s perfect,” I announce, before the food has even arrived. “We’ll have to come here again.”

Back home two days later I’ll watch the incident map as the Camp Fire crawls inexorably toward this spot, hitting the refresh button every hour until there’s no denying the line has jumped the highway. A year later we’ll drive past the little restaurant’s namesake stone walls, all that’s left.

But today we sit on the back patio, hands and sandwiches striped in the shade of a new trellis roof.

Highway 70 after Yankee Hill has been plucked from a model railroad layout. Pylons perch above the road as it winds through rough-blasted tunnels, past power stations trimmed in fall color. Alongside us, the Feather River is by turns glassy bottle green and churning white, strewn with house-sized boulders as if by petulant gods.

When we arrive in Quincy there’s a small crowd of people standing in the median holding up signs and American flags. In the gathering dusk I can see only white skin and hair under red baseball caps and “TRUMP” scrawled on poster-board. My stomach lurches. They are hit and miss, these old mountain towns, after all. You can only guess how each will manifest its particular nostalgia for timber or mining or dinner on the table at six.

But as we get closer I can make out the small print. The sign says “TRUMP LIES MATTER.” The red caps are embroidered with the seal of the U.S. Marine Corps. The midterms are next week.

The house flips, but Paradise burns. I’m aware my N95 is too big and not sealing properly; I wear it anyway, imprinting it with lip gloss. The tightness in my chest might be from smoke or from first-world guilt—from knowing perfectly well that the apocalyptic yellow curtain hanging over my street would constitute a great day in Delhi.

Nevertheless I flee because I can, to midweek-rate motel rooms in South Lake. While waiting for the days to warm and my friends to arrive I watch, for some reason, the BBC rendition of Daniel Deronda—a sort of Victorian drawing room drama with a surprise dose of Jewish mysticism. One thing leads to another and there I am, not so much working on job applications as Wikipedia-ing Purim and shaking my fist in the name of Vashti, who also did not care to dance for the king.

Hiking alone above Fallen Leaf Lake I step aside for a couple going the other way. The woman has dropped a bandana from her pack, which I retrieve from the trail and offer back to her. “Hey, is this yours?”

“Oh,” she says. “Yeah.” She snatches it back without meeting my eyes or saying thank you, then turns on her heel and jogs back up the trail to where her partner is sniggering into his elbow. I’m puzzled and offended by the entire interaction until, months later, I read a Backpacker Magazine blurb espousing pee rags.

The best ride of the season begins with several hours of pushing my bike up Van Sickle, proceeds to a miserable interlude of backache and altitude-induced puking, and finishes, inexplicably, with my hands in the fur of three golden retrievers unattended at the end of the trail. The first two acts are as likely as the fires to be repeated; the last will presumably never happen again.

A close reader will notice I’m writing, in this case, more than a year after the fact—beginning on a backlog that forces awkward, ungrammatical contortions of temporality because I don’t like to write (read: live) in anything but the present tense. My clairvoyance is only hindsight, and even from one future, what do I know about the next? What does anyone know, of what will befall us, what wind may change?

So dum spiro, spero, I say, for more surprise dogs—through that red-kissed respirator mask or not.

Assorted eastern Oregon, 10/15–10/21

Bend

In Bend I resolve to do the things no one else ever wants to do, specifically, people-watch from armchairs in the library, gain five pounds in cardamom Ocean Rolls, and attend a presentation on ravens. Did you know they mate for life and live to 20? In the High Desert Museum I also learn the word “buckaroo” might be a corruption of vaquero, or perhaps from the Gullah buckra—white man—itself from mbakara in the language of Nigeria’s Efik.

I was going to say that the raven meanwhile quethe today the same as ever. But we don’t know that, either, do we?

It’s not warm enough (for me) to get on a bike until one or two in the afternoon, but the northern days are short and I keep finishing rides in the dark. It’s sure some kind of trail-building, that even I can just about clean this stuff with my eyes shut, and I relish this even as I telegraph thanks to home turf for keeping me honest. What would I be it weren’t for a blown-out, off-camber, fall-line ego-check every weekend?

For an answer, a herd of girls in unicorn onesies appears at the top of the flow trail. A few have gotten too hot on the climb and unzipped themselves into sweat-glossed, lace-bra’d centaurs, unwanted horns and heads dangling lifelessly behind their saddles. They stop and preen and smother the last rider up in hugs and coos of “yaaaaaas” and “crrrrr-ush-errrrrrr,” a dialect of affirmation I’ve grown to understand but can’t speak. I feel like I’ve ridden into an Instagram ad.

Mitchell

The Painted Hills are that, and scattered slabs of layer cake. In the dusky palette I recognize a few shades, if not all: terra cotta tiles, sun on a rose, palomino horse. No lipstick, charcoal-smudged palm. Old bruise, fresh-scraped knee.

I stay at Spoke’n, a white clapboard church with a reading nook in the alcove—place of honor, where books belong. They are catering to bike campers and meticulous about it: kneeling pads for wrenching, conversation prompts on the kitchen table, pre-filled coffee filters, lemon-scented garbage cans. I arrive to my name in calligraphy on the bedroom door, despite having impulse-booked only a half-hour earlier.

I know the right-sized reaction to careful hospitality begins and ends with “Nice touch,” but I feel I know the rare mind it takes to do this sort of thing well, and that it’s often found in a woman not getting nearly enough cash or credit for it. Admiring the aesthetic choices in the old nave I’m consumed with unholy, acquisitive fantasies of a call with the head of recruitment for Hilton or Four Seasons. “You’ll never guess where I found her,” I’ll tell them from a crackling payphone that doesn’t exist. I might also be chewing tobacco, spit a stained arc into the dust and smudge it with my boot. “Trust me, you’re going to want her on those tower walk-throughs A-S-A-P.”

God forgive me; I live in capitalism and my imagination, if not in sin.

Broken Top

To say I make a series of stupid navigational errors would I imply I’m navigating, at all, rather than cruising along on the assumption that a trail named “Broken Top” will eventually just arrive there.

It’s midday before I realize that it won’t, late afternoon by the time I backtrack and screw up again, picking my way up the wrong couloir on the thin evidence of a few other footprints. Just short of a view over the edge, at least, my courage dies with the light. I fret, sally, waffle, retreat, and reach the dark and empty parking lot convinced I could have made the last few moves after all. Oh well, oh well.

Oakridge

I want to go east and wallow in obsidian on Glass Butte, but it’s hours of off-road driving and at this point I have to admit my car is unwell. I turn for Oakridge, instead, a known quantity, drive through either the night or outer space blinded by moonbeams flashing wildly through the pines.

The next day I buddy up with the next-least braap-y people on the shuttle: I ride better this way than without anyone around to call an ambulance. I’m a bit fitter but they’re a lot better, so our pace is about the same—and in any case they seem pleased to have a new audience for old jokes.

It’s difficult to leave. The forest is a kaleidoscope of low-angle light and fall color, the trails a glorious, torturous high-wire between wanting to look and wanting to fly. But the season’s nearly over. The mornings are getting very, very cold.

Castle Crags, 10/13–10/14

You can see Castle Crags from I5: they’re the fairy-tale spires that sprout from the forest just south of Dunsmuir, the detour there’s never time to make. Here at last, I listen to the semis rattle the state park campground all night and set out for the capital-W Wilderness in the morning. The fog of my breath goes gold in the sun.

The difficulty is, there’s a man stopped in the middle of the trail in front of me. Tall and broad-shouldered, he wears combat boots and fatigues with a white tank top, though it’s cold enough that I’m still in gloves. He’s standing and watching something on his phone with the volume all the way up, laughing loudly at it every so often.

The laugh is not right, nor are the angles of his body, the shape he makes between where I am and where I want to go. I wait downslope hoping he’ll move on—like a bear—and when he doesn’t I approach as loudly as I can, dragging my feet in the dry needles and rustling my jacket. It’s no good: when he finally registers my third “good morning” his head snaps up and he spins around in surprise. This movement is not right, either, ends in a half-crouch on his back foot with his arms spread wide. Even having anticipated this, I flinch.

Once I’ve smiled politely past this man—who says nothing, who stares— I want distance. This isn’t rational or compassionate and because I’m alone I don’t care. I book it for the tree line, where I know the look of blue day against granite will feel safe.

An hour later, though, the same impulse that drove me out of the woods has drawn me up the slabs much farther and more steeply than I can easily reverse. That wasn’t intuition back there, I realize now. I’m half-sliding and half-falling to the bottom of a rock chimney that I knew going up would be trouble going down. I have nothing so useful as good sense. What I have is just misplaced affection, a homing instinct for the sky.

I’ve left blood on the granite and sit for a while with my grated palm in my mouth, peering down the long drop to the highway where toy trucks are crawling up the pass. To the south I have a clear view of the trail switchbacking through manzanita. I can pick out two ascending parties, the man in fatigues returning down—

—and the Earth’s face upward for my inspection.

Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting

Not even fear is ours alone. I imagine an ancestor standing watch, over an empty moor, maybe, over a desert tribe. It came from somewhere, sometime, the conflation of vantage and safety. At some point it might even have made sense.

Flaming gorges, 9/14–9/17

Everywhere and beautiful and makes me sick

At its north end the highway above the gorge runs a straight shot through a level plain. From here there’s nothing to indicate you’re on an escarpment: away from the edge you can’t perceive your own elevation, how you would tower dizzy heights above the river were it in sight. True of life, I think, as the sagebrush blurs, or money, or luck, or something.

But it is (and I was) there

On the Utah side the Flaming Gorge Dam has a visitor center with views of stately pylons and almost Caribbean water. The desk is staffed by gum-chewing kids in cavernous polo shirts; a security guard with a well-worn set of jokes collects watches and lighters in a dish and waves us through a metal detector. I follow the guide and a big, bored family, taking notes surreptitiously in the back. The dam was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson and the reservoir took 12 years to fill. Imagine!

Follow you down but not that far

Now 191 crests waves of breathing, turning aspens. The trees yield to rock and dust, then an emerald quilt of irrigated alfalfa with the pale spine of Dinosaur National Monument hunched incongruously beyond. I go there and touch what bones you can, shuffling through an over-air-conditioned hall with a queue of retirees, then find I can’t decide what to do next. I drive in and out of the campground three times before I concede, signing in after a white-haired lady in a beat-up Ford. Her entry in the logbook reads, “Vehicle: truck. Number in party: 1.”

She would have made the perfect neighbor but I end up next to two twenty-somethings, a new couple. I know this because every item extracted from the trunk of the Prius as they set up camp must be asked about or remarked upon, complimented and giggled over conspiratorially. The man in the site on my other side is alone when I arrive but soon joined by a toddler, mother, and grandparent. The adults coo over a portable pink toilet they’ve brought along for the child. The sun’s down by now but I start walking.

In the moonlight the dry river washes look like spilled milk, the ridge of uplifted, sedimentary rock like a row of hooded monks. They seem to watch me wind my way up the ridge—them and the spiders, green eyes glittering in the sand.

Even in daylight the interpretive signage here is … more interpretative than usual.

The next day I turn at last for home. I stop in Roosevelt City, of course, where alas the only sign of Him is on the wall of the aquatic center where I go to to find a shower. The facility is shiny and new, but Main Street is a march of shuttered storefronts. I pull over to ask the Internet for food, opening my door against the heat. The woman parked next to me has done the same while she applies mascara.

Across the road, a man obscured by the open hood of his car hurls something heavy and metal onto the sidewalk, screaming. “Fucking BITCH! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!” The other driver and I close and lock our doors in perfect unison. I suppose these are steps in a dance we all know.

“There is no surer sign of advancing civilization than the advanced respect paid to a woman, who is neither a doll nor a drudge.”

The diner is stacked floor to ceiling with a merry jumble of candles and chapstick and snarky signage, figurines and pocketknives and Pendleton blankets. It’s a place of refuge, I suspect—there is a pierced and pink-haired waitress and a silent cashier with a lazy eye—and I’m a stranger, served briskly and left alone to make time for the regulars. “How’s your brother?” the waitress asks. “He’s a junkie,” the man next to me says flatly, steadying the base of a milkshake as his little boy swipes at the straw. “It’d be pretty alright if he died.”

“He can ruin his own damn life if he wants,” the man continues, eventually. “But you bring those kids into it and now you’ve got a problem with me.”

Always

I head out of town, past ranch houses and boats at rest behind chain-link, through farmland, and up again into the Ashley National Forest. There is an obvious and ominous plume of smoke on the horizon, but as the road twists through the wooded canyons it’s impossible to tell if I’m headed toward it, if this is a problem, until I too clearly am and it too clearly is.

California of course burns everywhere and all the time, but this is the closest I’ve been to a fire this size. As I unfold a map on the hood of the car to reroute—no signal—a hot wind snatches angrily at the corners and my hair. I look up in time to see the roiling, steely cloud seem to fold in on itself, flaring orange in tears and creases. I have never seen anything so animal.

Highway Patrol comes screaming up the road in the opposite direction. The cop slams to a stop and rolls down a window. “Road’s closed,” he says. “Wind’s changing. It’s jumped the canyon. Time to go.”

“Yes, sir,” I say. The words are strange in my mouth, but for once I have no impulse to argue.

FYI: Wildland Firefighter Foundation

Wyoming elsewhere, 9/11–9/13

Everybody warned me about Jackson Hole, resort town of resort towns. Even so I’m not prepared for the amusement-park foot traffic, or the fraught campsite hunt. I spend an anxious hour coaxing my 2WD (ok, myself) up rutted-out Shadow Mountain—only to find all the ridge spots occupied by cool kids staging photos of their Sprinters against the sky. I retreat, watch the Tetons grow gauzy behind a curtain of wildfire smoke.

The next morning I pull into a valley visitor center for reception. A few hundred people with their phones out are massed across the road, trying to catch a glimpse of a black bear on the sidewalk. A pair of besieged rangers stand between the animal and the advancing horde; tourists with SLRs are standing on car roofs and climbing up signage. One ranger speaks urgently into the radio on his shirt pocket. It’s clear violence is more likely from the photographers than the bear. I put the car in reverse.

So, yeah—still never been to Yellowstone.

The shop guys tell me to ride Phillips Ridge via hitchhike shuttle. “I guarantee you will not wait more than ten minutes,” insists the mechanic. “You can just leave your bike at the bottom, outside the bar.” If you’ve lived in the Bay Area you understand that everything about this suggestion beggars belief—but my thumb’s out four minutes, if that, and the hulking man in the F150 who takes me up the hill is a kindergarten teacher who “prefers the challenge” of teaching special ed. “You’re doing the Lord’s work,” I say, since I know no secular expression for this. He drops me by my car and I drive back down to retrieve my bike, which is—would you believe— just where I left it.

In the rearview leaving the Hoback Valley I can see the leaves have turned in just the few days I’ve been here, blazing orange swells rising to meet the bare peaks as they shrink behind me. From the Pinedale library—boom-funded, beams, beautiful as a church—I plot a reluctant course south. This is always how it goes, I realize: tortured oscillations between deciding to get warm and deciding to get high. It’s unclear to me how much of this dilemma is, you know, the fundamental human condition, and how much might be solved with of those damn Sprinters.

On the Green River it’s another season altogether. A long descent from the canyon rim ends in a near-deserted campground dotted with dusty acacias. The sky is sickly yellow, the air heavy with smoke, and the cicadas are screaming in the heat: deja-vu, Zimbabwe, 2004. Disoriented, I sit at the water’s edge and watch through unsteady binoculars the birds winging low down the gorge. The million little stones making up the sliver of shore below the stair-step shale—bits and pieces in brown, red, yellow, white, green-flecked black—feel like running my hands through time.

There are two retired couples in small RVs on opposite ends of the campground, one pair listening to the radio from folding chairs and the other walking slow laps with a wire-haired terrier. In the evening a man arrives alone on a loaded KTM, ATGATT. There are so few of us, the surrounding silence so thick and the sunset so blood-red apocalyptic, his moon-booted arrival feels like a dispatch from another world.

I ogle the bike; we get to talking. He lives in Jackson, solves the problem of winter by spending it Palm Springs. Farm boy, hucked bales; worked, bought, and sold a welding company. Made bank, retired early, does whatever he likes: motorcycles and mountains, mostly. “Could have gone anywhere,” he says, “thought about the Dolomites,” tried it all and decided there’s no place like the American West. I’m trying and failing to place his accent, realize eventually that it isn’t one: just a perfect frankness—no humility, no apology, no attachment, not the merest suggestion his own success is replicable or that it makes him any better or worse than anyone else. He answers all my questions and gives no advice.

The Winds, 9/5–9/9

I first saw the Cirque of the Towers as a flash in a photo carousel on an ex-something’s screensaver. It’s been eight years since then—I couldn’t weekend-warrior Wyoming—but the image stayed frozen in my mind. How could I forget, when the place has a name like a paperback fantasy? The spires pose like gods. I like to think it was never a question of if, but when.

This way, that-a-way.

Having said that: I’m not much of a backpacker. It’s awfully literal, this staggering under the weight of my own fear, every anxiety made manifest in actual baggage. Carnivores? Bear spray, one pound. Cold? Fifteen-degree sleeping bag, two pounds. Getting hurt? Getting lost? Garmin, four ounces, plus the first aid kit and a backup map and compass. Add it up, cram it in, pile it on, and feel the pack settle on my crooked hip and metal shoulder like a reprimand for having forgotten how to live off berries and starlight.

I struggle to distinguish preparedness from paranoia, precaution from placebo or superstitious gesture to the mountain gods. In the process of trying I inevitably grow bored, then annoyed, throw up my hands in a final flurry of illogical tradeoffs: the bear spray for binoculars; salami for chocolate. When I was climbing the risks had immediacy enough to check this caprice. Backpacking, once I get impatient, is easily dismissed as just walking around.

My solution is to stick to short trips. I plan two nights and three days from the Big Sandy trailhead, set off—after rattling down 30 miles of dirt and gravel road to get there—under a pack small enough that I still feel light on my feet.

The ripples (look close!) are from jumping fish. I have never seen so many; it sounded like rain.

But as I head toward the cirque on the morning of the second day I begin to encounter friendly ghosts. First there is pair of fishing buddies (dad bods, camo, belly-laughs), then a stunner-shades trail runner—and what trail runner from this world stops to talk? Last and least likely, another solo, brown woman. She’s got longer hair and a decade on me, but we’re the same height, have the same pack, and are near identically sloppily dressed. Our eyes meet and go wide together.

In all three vaguely uncanny encounters I have the same conversation. It begins as trailside SOP—how’s it going, lovely weather, where you coming from, where you headed—and then, when I tell them, swerves off script in the exact same way. The next line in this exchange is supposed to be, nice, have fun, bye now, occasionally adorned with fish tales or tent spot recommendations. But today I get disbelief and protest. That’s all? Just the cirque? When you came all the way from California? You have to see more than that! Who knows when you’ll ever be back? 

This last question is the most insidious, Kryptonite. I point out I’m only carrying food for one more day. “What would you rather do,” asks one of the anglers, jabbing at my map. “Go a little hungry, or regret missing out on this forever?”

To be clear: cairns acceptable only when environmentally beneficial and architecturally interesting.

I’m told in gaming there is the term “non-player character,” for the wizards and soldiers and three-headed beasts whose function is to step across your path, split the screen and deliver information you’ll need to make a choice. You can believe we’re here playing together, or you can believe, as I’m afraid I do, that we’re all just NPCs in each others’ games.

Either way—message received.

Scrambling in four mountain states and still not a single goat.

I blow past what was supposed to be my turnoff without bothering to work through a new plan: past this point, I figure, details are a waste of a time and calories. A long slog up Hailey Pass in driving wind ends at the exact moment the clouds part, spilling light onto little glacial lakes in what I choose to interpret as a blessing on the whole endeavor. It takes me as long to descend as it did to climb, mostly because every other rock is the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. You want to take a spin through the infinite? Honestly? Geology.

I see no one else for days, marvel at the compulsions of the social, animal brain that so quickly begins to convert downed trees and dappled shadows into human silhouettes and faces that aren’t there. I spend some time crouched between stunted trees in torrential rain, thunder ringing in my ears; I cry at sunrises; I wrestle my bear canister bare-assed in the dirt. By the fourth night some combination of rationing and altitude produce a headache I half believe will kill me. The rain turns to hail, then snow, and there is nothing to do but make camp and hope I can sleep it off.

Here, lest I start thinking I was tough, the Winds sent another ghost: hiker of indeterminate gender, barefoot, in a skirt.

The force of my relief when this actually works carries me merrily through snow flurries across the Lizard’s Head traverse and down, at last, to the cirque. My original destination feels crowded by contrast, but the rock gods themselves don’t disappoint. I can lie on a boulder in the middle of the babbling Popo Agie and watch the shadows of clouds crawl up and down the side of Mitchell Peak. This is the best part: the map rising before your eyes; the act of putting a stone face to a strange name. Watchtower, Shark’s Nose, Overhanging Tower. I announce them to the trees. Wolf’s Head, Bollinger, Pingora.

It’s a blessing, really, that I’m out of food: if I wasn’t it might be impossible to leave. But there will be another time, I hope, and higher. I like to think it’s not if but when.

True at first light.

* * * * *

POSTSCRIPT:

Back in town I’m inhaling a brewery burger when the man next to me at the bar taps my shoulder. “Aren’t you the gal we saw at Valentine Lake? Did you make it?” I am, I did. They say they were surprised to see a woman in the Winds alone, but I am jaw-drop shocked when they tell me how old they are. (I won’t out them or say which of us is more guilty of patronizing the other.) Karl didn’t start backpacking until he retired but has thru-hiked the map since then; Paul is an ultralight evangelist (“To Have Fun! To re-enjoy backpacking which I thought was part of my youth; To embark on small or grand adventures.”) They’re great. If they’re NPCs, I think they’re here to give me hope there will be time to play again.

This is where you make a joke about picking up dudes in bars. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Water Canyon to Park City, 8/29–9/4

Water Canyon

Enormous black crickets burst out of the grass.

Winnemucca

The singletrack called “Bloody Shins” rides slow waves of sagebrush, to which I’ve only recently realized I am wildly allergic. (Because the plant’s range corresponds almost perfectly with places I’m interested in going, I had previously assumed that vacation itself was making me sick. This was perhaps a capitalist plot.)

Through a stream of snot and tears, I puzzle over the name: out here, no rocks, no exposure, no bad sight lines, nothing technical at all … what gives? It’s the sagebrush, I discover, with my shins, as I gather speed—or rather, that it doesn’t.

The Rubies

I first came to Liberty Lake in the snow and the evening and it felt like a faraway secret. This time I share the hike up with screaming kids and pairs of women in yoga pants, men with speakers in one hand and coffee in the other. I’ll have to work a little harder for some space.

I find it the next day in the talus fields below Snow Lake Peak, pushing past slabs and scree and the usual crescendo chorus—turn back, turn back, turn back, you’ll fall, you’ll fall, you’ll fall—until I can at least and at last peer over the spine into Thomas Canyon on the other side. This moment of unveiling is 90 percent of what I wanted. I will be back one day for the rest.

The only people I encounter up here are a pair of grouse hunters in their 70s. One is in vintage teal Polartec and a deerstalker, the other head-to-toe camo and a Wyatt Earp mustache. His eyes are lost in the somber folds of his face. “See any big birds?” he asks me. I shake my head. “No birds and no friggin’ goats, either.”

He raises one furry eyebrow and I’m immediately ashamed for swearing. I want to move on from this and so I ask the best way down off the ridge. I could retrace my steps but it’s going to scare me. He swaps his rifle to his other shoulder. “Well, it’s hard country,” he says.

Bonneville Flats

I arrive close to midnight, following GPS to a pin dropped in BLM blankness. I pass turnouts occupied by what appear to be semi-permanent family compounds, pavilion tents and rifle stands, big men watching the road from camp chairs. Peering through the dust and dark for another option I nearly dump my little 2WD RAV4 in a three foot-deep pothole the size of a bus. Enough, I think, and pull off into the darkness. Play it where it lies.

When I open the door in the morning it’s into a sandy wash at the base of a mountain I didn’t know was there. I wander the lower slopes and tell myself the summit is choss so that I’ll continue on to Salt Lake City. How is it even now there’s not enough time?

Park City

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate a Henry Coe bushwhack, our EBRPD fire-break hike-a-bikes, the Sierra suffer-fests and ego-checks, and every minute spent lost in the woods in Santa Cruz. But I’ll admit, every now and then I just want to follow signs to the summit. I want to cruise perfectly buffed and graded traverses, make every effortless switchback like I know what I’m doing, take a roller coaster down, nice surprises only. Eat pizza, take a hot shower, sleep in a bed. For that, Park City and a big bike. Let ‘er rip.