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)_/¯
Advertisements

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. 

Sierra summer

Bear Valley, 6/16–6/17

I do a lot of walking here, to be honest, in deep duff and up silly-steep Jeep roads, sliding out of my shoes, down stair-step boulders too technical for me even on my new bike. But it doesn’t matter; Bear Valley is dreamland—Tahoe without the crowds. We find a walk-in campsite on a Saturday afternoon (?!) and encounter two other riders all weekend. That’s heavenly.

Emigrant Wilderness, 7/6–7/7

Three things I watch through binoculars, my new toy:

  1. I’m looking down onto Relief Reservoir, puzzled. As well as the rippling scales of wind-driven water, the cobalt canvas breathes with strange plumes of swirling white. Shoal of fish? I spin the wheel into focus. No: pollen from the pines on the slopes above, invisible where it falls in their shade and sparkling where it finds the sun. The effect is that the lake reflects a phantom forest, moonlit clouds drifting behind shadowy trees. “What do you see?” asks a man on the trail behind me. “Pollen,” I announce, as this seems the more sensible answer. He’s still looking at me like I’m nuts.  
  2. The galaxy.
  3. Something slinking and bounding across a ledge on the other side of the river. It’s long and nearly red, not a bear, not a fox, not a mountain lion or a bobcat. I’m resigning myself to a Loch Ness mystery when I remember the binoculars, fumble them frantically to my face (which way?) catch the creature just before it vanishes into a crevasse. Pine marten: rare treasure.

I’m reminded of the inscription over the door of Bass Pro Shops in Manteca, where I’d stopped for paracord and cultural tourism. “Welcome fishermen, hunters, and other liars,” it says. 

But it was a marten, I swear! I saw his face!

Pinecrest, 7/7–7/8

This is the old-school cross-country we were promised, cliffside catwalks and boulder-strewn switchbacks, barely-there trail petering out into meadows and bogs. It’s a playground for my riding partner and a minefield for me: I crash all of 45 seconds into the descent on Sunday after catching a pedal on a log cut. (“I thought that might happen,” he says as he lifts my bike off me.) My knee balloons as the rest of me deflates proportionally; again I walk most things and again I don’t mind because this place is insane for flowers. There’s Washington and Mariposa lilies, blazing Indian paintbrush, drooping irises, neon fireweed … sunflowers as far as the eye can see. 

Downieville, 7/13–7/15

Halfway down the Downieville Downhill, where the river runs turquoise beneath the oaks, I find a half-rotten box “RIGGED WITH EXPLOSIVES.” It contains leaves and a small pile of mismatched cycling shoes. I would very much like an explanation.

On the deck of the Mills Peak lookout the next day, one of us makes an innocuous comment about the view. “I’m made of views,” replies the ranger from behind the door, “and I’ll show you what I mean.” He returns with a notebook and recites a poem that starts somewhere in the Grand Canyon and ends on “the snowmelt of their birth.” I don’t know what you’re supposed to say to a man in a tower who reads you his poetry, I realize, especially when he retreats to his cot and starts playing harmonica. 

Tahoe, 8/17–8/18

I stop in Sacramento on the way up to visit a friend with a yard and power tools and instruction for #vanlife-ing my RAV4. She’s eating keto and therefore so do I; by the time I arrive at Donner Lake the next evening I’m so ravenous for carbs I inhale an entire Mountain House meal for two and a bag of chips. Conceivably this is why riding the next day feels so hard. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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.

IMG_2288

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.

IMG_2305
… 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.)

elko
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.

lamoillecanyon

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:

IMG_2365
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?”

Nevada1

Desolation Wilderness, 7/15-7/17

img_1708
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?

img_1684
“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.

desolation1
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.

desolation
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 …

img_1805
And I would like you to know that I’m a renter and didn’t choose this rug.

Lassen, 10/4-10/5

The quietest place I’ve been this year was the inside of a volcano. A dead one, fine—but still!

Journey to the center of the Earth?

With the others out of sight behind me, I couldn’t ask if there was any point to the long slog up the steep and sliding scree slope, the sweat in my eyes and rocks in my shoes. As a graduate of, you know, sixth-grade science, possibly I should have been anticipating a crater at the top of something named “Cinder Cone”—but I wasn’t, and so when I reached the rim I felt the flare and joy of a true surprise.

It had been a long time, I realized afterward. The thing about diligence, doggedness, damn-well-will, is that it leaves little room for the unexpected. Planning precludes it. Had I even looked up “Lassen hikes,” someone on the Internet would  have spoiled mine with an expectation (as perhaps I’m spoiling yours for you now). It’s an argument for pursuit of not a bucket list but balance: between Getting AfterTM the skills and the time and the money, and yielding—for lack for a better word—to grace.

But revision to the weekend-warrior’s code came later. Then, I ran to the bottom of the pit grinning like a mad dog, knelt at the cairns as before a shrine. And when I looked up and around the crater walls I found them strung, for some reason, with thousands of single-strand spiderwebs, blazing blinding white in the low bright sun.

Past and present.
Ashes to ashes at the edge of—[dramatic chord]—the Fantastic Lava Beds.
P.S. I realize it sounds as if I’ve fled to a mountain hermitage to commune with rocks and wait for the rapture—but I was on a totally normal camping trip for my friend Xiu’s birthday, I swear. Look, photo evidence:

Ta da!
Ta da!

Buck Lakes, 7/18-7/20

If it’s possible to suck at backpacking, I suck at backpacking. I’m not fit enough for the burden of my own paranoia: without fail, I grossly overestimate what I need to bring with me and then grossly underestimate how difficult it will be to carry it. Misery ensues.

But in the Sierras, at least, there is a reliable correlation between misery and scenery. This weekend the way out was a procession of progressively more fantastic alpine lakes, such that every attempt I made to cut the route short was thwarted by the insidious idea that the next one might be even better. I got about 15 miles in this fashion, I got lie-down-and-cry tired, and I got this:

YES PLEASE.
YES PLEASE.

I think the thing about the mountains—I don’t have the balls for the word “beauty” or “magic,” sorry—is that they stand up to scrutiny as well as distance. It’s something as captivating viewed on the horizon at 10,000 feet as it is held up to your face and shivering in your breath, as present in the hulk and form of a rising thunderhead or granite wall as surely as it’s in the veins on the underside of a lily-pad or the diamond eyes of a spider. It is infinitely scalable. I’ll walk a long way for that.

ealiasalim_timber
No-name gully route to the sculpture gallery.

ealiasalim_lake
I know it’s damning that my literary references start and end in Narnia, but I’m pretty sure this is where Aslan sent Jill off the cliff.

“Desolation”, 2/15-2/16

Not especially desolate—never made it more than a few miles from the sled-strewn trailhead. For someone with more experience this would probably qualify as a bust, but as a novice I was still happy to be outside and learning. I now know the definition of postholing, for example, and what snow-pack at 32 percent of normal actually looks like: endless creek crossings, lots of bushwhacking, and ungainly tumbles into just-hidden pits of manzanita. Possibly this information could have been more efficiently gathered from the appropriate chapter of Freedom of the Hills (or, frankly, an additional five minutes’ consideration of the topo), but, uh … whatever. There are advantages to learning from experience.

Pleasant interlude of actual snowshoeing.
Pleasant interlude of actual snowshoeing.

And anyway—the slow going always makes the best parts better.

Emigrant Wilderness

My first trip to Emigrant was about a year ago. It was a good time (and a great timelapse, thanks to our certified National Geographic photographer), but as a large group heavy on amorous nascent couples we … did not exactly cover much ground.

This time we got about 12 miles before stopping at a farcically idyllic camp spot on the slabs above Upper Relief Valley. There was daylight enough to continue, but with the alternative being to, you know, frolic about in crystalline mountain springs cascading down sun-warmed rock—seriously, Babylon-on-Sierra— the climb seemed better left until morning. I went to sleep with the beginnings of a cold but still full of the usual goat-like glee at prospect of a high place, specifically:

Want!

I woke up groggy and thinking I was somehow back in Africa. Unfortunately this was because the morning smelled of woodsmoke and looked like this:

Smoke, not sunrise. Even when camping I do not care to bestir myself that early.

In all likelihood (and of course this turned out to be true) the fire was a hundred miles away. But with a long drive home, work on Monday, and no information on conditions beyond “it wasn’t like this yesterday”—plus my delicate-snowflake asthma on top of, by this point, some serious snot—to proceed seemed unwise. So back we went. Now I’m in bed, nursing yet another sinus infection along with my low-grade (really, Class 3) summit fever. Harrumph. 

So that this post isn’t exclusively weekend-warrior whine, here’s a picture of a fire engine getting towed from the ranger station:

Rescuing rescuers?

This was fascinating, first for the pneumatics and second for novelty of observing wildland firefighters (and I do love observing wildland firefighters) forced to stand around watching someone else operate machinery. And the tow drivers were, I swear, one man with the most robust, cotton-white walrus mustache the world has ever seen, and another in a t-shirt declaring, “When Nature Calls, Shoot It.” Amazing.

Bozeman

It’s dark and late and we’re somewhere over Idaho. I’m guzzling tepid coffee and taking notes from Esquire, the “How to Be a Man” issue. I mean, that’s literally what I’m doing; don’t read into it—I just want to keep trivia and the sentences I like. The last few pages are short fiction. Watch how you make a girl love you, writes Marlon James. Call her ugly but say it sweet like brandy coat you tongue.

My seatmate is a bare-faced, softball-build blonde in plaid and pigtails. The steward asks her what she’d like to drink; she jams her thumb into a battered copy of Lonesome Dove and looks up. “Beer,” she says flatly. She could huck a hay bale, for sure. The little plane is shuddering in its descent, yes, but the sensation in my bones is one of trespass.

These are Ted Turner’s bison.

Having said that, downtown Bozeman has its own co-op grocery, two bookstores, and a Tibetan gift shop. While browsing a sale rack at Cactus Records I’m offered cocaine—I think—and later, on the sidewalk, a bumper sticker that reads “Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.” A perhaps overly Critical Mass of six young gutter rats on fixies hoists a cardboard sign urging me to “reclaim the streets,” though it’s really not clear, from the sedate procession of pickups down Main Street, from whom or what.

Indian paintbrush and lupine. Right?

So in the end what’s most foreign is also familiar: water. Lush landscapes are always a marvel to me, but I’d never realized how thoroughly the Golden State has sucked the moisture from my understanding of the backcountry. Even in earshot of streams chattering over rock, I fret and whine over the topo map. “There’ll be water there, right? We can get water there, right? That creek’s still running, right?” As I begin to accept this new world—that summer here is snowmelt, not scorched earth—its possibilities expand far beyond the trailhead. We could go anywhere.

But I’ve got work on Monday, of course, plus the mountains giveth and taketh away. Giveth water, in this case, taketh, I swear, pints on pints of blood via the most tenacious, ubiquitous, malicious mosquitoes I’ve ever fled.

The most reliable metric for happiness may be the shadows of clouds.

In the last mile, we yield the trail to an older man who surveys us from atop a glassy-eyed sorrel.

“See anybody?” he asks.

“Nope.”

“Good for you!”