NW New Mexico, 10/18–10/22—part 1

Through some glitch in the matrix it’s cheapest to fly in to Albuquerque one day and rent a car the next, even with the addition of a motel stay in between. I check in with a Dolly Parton look-alike, but the proprietor named on the wall plaque behind her is a Patel. In the nightstand drawer there’s the Holy Bible but also the Bhagavad Gita. Neither converts me but I’m pleased to have a choice.

At the buffet breakfast the next morning a tiny woman cooks eggs on a hotplate concealed behind a speaker’s lectern. People line up as if to receive communion; when she’s served them all and stands alone surveying the card tables she looks to be presiding over a summit. The eggs are pretty good, too.

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I rent a bike and ride three trail Santa Fe trail systems over the course of the trip. At La Tierra the locals have packed a lot of trail into small acreage, complex spiderwebs threading through the arroyos and dozens of numbered intersections. Dale Ball meanwhile has the advantage of some rock and terrain, which in combination with the altitude means I am repeatedly passed by shirtless, geriatric trail runners. Retirement looks nice.

The Santa Fe showpiece is the Winsor trail, which a friend has told me is possible to self-shuttle with $5 public transit. I’m so astounded to find this is actually a thing that the bus has pulled away before I fully register where it’s left me: at 10,000 feet, with a bite in the air and granite under my tires. This trail is significantly more technical and more remote than I would generally choose to ride for the first time alone. I pick my way down very slowly, forcing myself to come to a complete stop before ogling aspens.

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That night I find myself back on the mountain for my absolute least favorite solo-road-trip activity: hunting for a campsite after dark. There are no open spots until a cluster of walk-ins just below the pass, where after a restless night of gasping flatlander nightmares I wake to the sound of an older woman lecturing a dog.

Max is a muddy-pawed Norwich terrier who for some reason, when I unzip the door, is permitted to run directly into my tent. “Oh, sorry,” says the woman. I can see only her legs but these are making no move at all to retrieve her charge. “Did you stay here by yourself? How marvelous! Weren’t you cold? I’ve always wondered about camping.”

“It’s not so bad,” I say, extracting Max from my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I’m awake. I’ve been in Santa Fe less than 24 hours and this is the third slightly strange interaction I’ve had with an older woman walking a dog. The first stopped me on the sidewalk for help restarting her iPhone. The second asked me where I was from and when I told her exclaimed, “Oh goodness! It’s terrible there!” At the time I thought she might be referring to the Sonoma fires, but in retrospect that’s probably not what she meant.

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Santa Fe is zealously committed to its adobe architecture. San Miguel Chapel, the oldest in the country, does not look all that different from the five-star hotel across the street.

I don’t vacation internationally mostly because I don’t have time. But also because, when I think of the places I can afford to go, I’m put off by the reasons I can afford to go there. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to rent a Thai beach hut—in fact at this point it may be the most useful thing anyone can do—but it’s uncomfortable if you think about it too hard, which of course being me I can’t help doing. It may be cowardice to turn away from that discomfort, but it’s a choice I have and so I fly domestic.

But as I sit on the steps of the old chapel, watching a high-heeled tourist remove the price tag from a dream-catcher, I am reminded there in fact is no avoiding it. There are academic terms to try on when we discuss the endless echoes of our violence to each other—racism or capitalism or colonialism or, or—but in truth none is adequate for the enormity of it, inherent and inescapable and inexpressible, every one of us subject and object, forever and ever, Amen. There is no idea like that but sin. I don’t believe in God but I believe in language, and I suspect that word may be as close to the truth as anyone will ever write.

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Summer/fall 2017, reader’s digest

or: Can’t take me anywhere; I go anyway

Oakridge, 7/1–7/4

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Here my sins against stoke included napping in the shuttle van instead of riding Hardesty and getting so pissed off at Middle Fork—the most miserable, deadfall-strewn, mosquito-ridden bushwack I have ever (barely) pedaled: 57 bites accumulated while sweating it out in a jacket—that I opted for a fire-road climb over a second singletrack descent. This did at least get me to the treeline, where Oregon finally starts to look good. Also on the bright side: Alpine, as always; a fun new stopover loop in Klamath; and great company.

Emigrant Wilderness, 8/12–8/13

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Quick trip, the granite bright and the wildflowers extravagant. I would consider this my masterclass in third-wheeling but for the presence of Pickles the very helpful blue heeler, who made us four. At night we all watched the perseids smudge war-paint on the sky.

Tahoe, 8/19–8/20

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On the Tahoe Rim Trail we found a dog, a beautiful blonde husky with fur like latte art and eyes like the center of a nebula—not sorry, both are true. It was hot and collarless and wandering in the woods. I was leaving my second voicemail at an animal shelter when its owners (we assume) pulled up in an F150 and snatched the animal back without a word. “You should fucking say thank you, assholes, go to hell!” I yelled after their rising dust as the boys cringed. On reflection, this outburst stemmed from an upbringing on both sides of the pond: I take manners seriously, like a Brit, but escalate like a red-blooded American.

At camp we found … a hailstorm. We fled to dinner in town and watched rainbows over the railroad tracks.

And on Donner Summit we found a giant bonsai garden and a geocache. In it, among other things, were letters to a couple—both dead, the wife just recently—whose friends had hiked to the peak to scatter their ashes. “Thank you for being part of my memory. Seven of us have made the trek this morning to pay our respects. … We uncorked a bottle of $5 wine that tasted like $50. We love you, my friend.” Point in my favor, I managed not cry about that one until I got home.

Ventana Wilderness, 9/2–9/4

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From a dirt road pullout high on the ridge, I watched the setting sun drop shafts of light onto the crinkled Pacific through holes in a lid of wildfire smoke.  I saw my first tarantula, held my palm to peeling manzanita, and hid in the tent from black flies worse—honest—than anything I can remember from Africa. I revisited Cone Peak, under very different circumstances, and on the coast side of the mountains drove Highway 1 between the mudslides for a preview of the end of the world.

It will be alright, I decided, when it’s all over. This road, these cypress, California, will fall slowly into the sea. The whales will breach with no one watching  out where the sky and the water meet, in the same blue haze. A warmer wind will stir the palms. They’ll get too tall to be true.

In the interim, driving home through Fort Hunter Liggett, every massive, moss-draped oak was the most beautiful one I’d ever seen.

Downieville, 9/8–9/10

Concisely: I live for elevation, die at altitude; cursed Mills Peak on the way up, sang its name all the way down; didn’t want to get in Packer Lake and then didn’t want to get out. The usual.

I mostly want to note this insane candy-corn fungus. How does this happen?

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Tahoe, 9/16–9/17

Aside from the fact that its main event was mountain biking, the best part of this particular bachelorette party was that these girls were content to Let Me Do Me, no pressure. They toasted with wine and I with tea; they painted their nails while I fastidiously arranged all the polish in a spectrum. ROYGBIV.

Mendocino, 10/7–10/8

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At first the trees were radiant, benevolent. I knelt in the needles at their feet and considered praying, probably did. But later on the wind picked up—so gradually I didn’t notice my own rising unease until I lost my GPS track, stopped to pull out a map and registered the muffled howl through the canopy and crack and groan of trunks disappearing into the dark. Small branches rained down around my head as I bolted out of the woods, and though I’d planned on staying for the night I was so relieved to find the car I fled home instead.

As I drove south watching the gale flatten the parched grass along the highway, there was a distinct moment I thought to myself, this would burn like a motherfucker. When the next morning I discovered that it in fact had, there was an infinitesimal and awful moment in which I imagined I had ignited Sonoma County with my mind.

Bend, 10/27–10/30

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I don’t know why I can’t accept that it is winter here, or that I’m too slow to ride with these guys any more, but on the strength of my denial I pushed my bike through snow and hauled it over and under an endless obstacle course of downed trees. I rode literally half of what everybody else did and still was so tired by the end of the weekend that I hyperventilated at Ten Barrel when the waitress informed me they’d run out of giant cast-iron cookies. They hadn’t, either; this was  just the boys’ idea of a joke.

I shared anyway*.

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* Possibly the motto for this blog.

Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, 7/22–7/26

Planes, trains, and automobiles; cowboys and Indians; fire and rain

Planes

 

Outside the Ogden Air Force Base museum the planes stand serene against the hazy backdrop of the Wasatch, casting their own shade. Inside there are more—old bombers painted with pin-up girls and little Hitlers in crosshairs—and also a replica of a North Korean POW cell, complete with mad-eyed mannequins in bunks behind bars.

The placard includes a photo of three graduating seniors from the University of San Francisco. They’re sitting around a radio, listening for their draft numbers. One vaguely resembles an old classmate of mine. It’s not that I’ve never thought about this—that there was a time when men in my life would have been called away to die—it’s just that I’ve never thought about it while standing completely alone in a 28,000-square-foot aircraft hangar, citizen and subject of a commander-in-chief who Tweets in all-caps.

We could have fighter jets without the fighting, you know. There is no rule against this; we only have to decide that’s what we want.

Trains

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The railroad museum is closed but there are a few big steam engines under a pavilion outside. I’m inhaling creosote and running my hands over rivets in a pleasant state of foamer reverence when two large families enter from the other end of the walkway.

The kids scatter and the parents lean on the railing in the shade. “There used to be a train like this at the park,” remarks one woman, “but they got rid of it after a little girl fell off the top and died.” Jesus, I think.

“It was so sad,” she continues, wistfully. “I loved that train.”

Automobiles 

The little Chevy I rented is black. It’s so hot out that I burn my hand opening the trunk.

I return the car when I get to Salt Lake City—to save some cash, I mean, not because of my hand—and use Lyft. My first driver is from Ethiopia and works with refugees. I tell him about my job and he replies that in his past life he did something similar, as a reporter for Boeing’s corporate magazine. It was the ’80s; he wore a cologne called Editor. “You know,” he says, “to cover up the stink.” We have a good laugh about this.

My last driver is saving up to skip town. She tells me her family disowned her for leaving the Mormon Church. “You can’t escape LDS in this city,” she says. “I just want to go somewhere I can be me.”

The only thing I don’t love about where I live is sharing it, the attendant inconveniences of crowding in with millions of others who wouldn’t belong anywhere else. “Come to California,” I say anyway, and mean it. “California would love to have you.”

Cowboys

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At the rodeo:

  • Paragliders descend into the arena bearing the Utah and U.S. flags.
  • Breast cancer survivors release pink-dyed doves from a dozen plastic pet carriers.
  • A woman in a fuschia jumpsuit enters the ring on a pair of white horses, one foot on the back of each. She’s holding another American flag, this one on a pole with fireworks shooting out the top. After a few laps at a casual gallop they start jumping barrels that the rodeo clown has doused in lighter fluid and set on fire.
  • There are several rounds of mutton-busting, an event in which one deposits a small child on the back of a sheep, sets the sheep loose in an arena, and incites a thousand people to scream at it until the child falls off. On the Jumbotron the six-year-old winner is asked if he’d like to go again and replies flatly, “No.”
  • Horseback musical chairs is won by a six-foot-something man strategically mounted on a Shetland pony.
  • A woman is pulled “randomly” from the crowd to remove the rodeo clown’s pants with a bullwhip.

Everything about this is gaudy and absurd; it seems to lack any sense of irony. It’s awesome; it’s pure; I love it. It’s the most American thing I’ve ever seen.

Indians

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It’s Pioneer Day. I’m in Salt Lake City for Outdoor Retailer, which could be characterized as a convening of businesses that profit from public land. Either because of or despite this, depending on how you look at it, the trade show is leaving Utah in protest over the administration’s threats to the state’s newest national monuments, which contain indigenous religious sites, rock climbing, and uranium.

Not so far away is another convention, a pow-wow in a screened-off section of Liberty Park. Before this was public land it belonged to Brigham Young, who presumably took it from the Shoshone or the Ute. Now legally it’s mine as much as either his or theirs. There’s an argument to be made that this is more democratic. There’s an argument to be made it is unjust.

Those are the facts at hand but from all of them, and the flash and whirl of the fancy dancers, and the rise and fall of the elders’ chant, I’m unable to make any sense. There’s only a fog in my head and stomach, abstractions and static—ownership and inheritance and freedom and loss. It’s all significance and no relevance. It’s pulsing with the drums.

Laugh all you like, but until this moment it’s possible I didn’t fully grasp what other people mean when they refer to feeling. I’m not saying, exactly, that I understand an emotion only as the the animal chaos that precedes a thought. But when you live in language you have to wonder what it is, this antecedent. More honest? Less true?

Fire

I’ve only just reached the ridgeline when the storm breaks, in long, steady rolls of thunder I can feel in my ribs. A group of guys who passed me on the climb reappears going the opposite direction. “Time to go!” one shouts.

In all my outdoor pursuits I am accompanied by a continuous film reel of unwelcome scenarios. I’m going to get injured or lost; I’m going to run out of food, water, fuel, or daylight; I will encounter a mountain lion or a swarm of bees or a serial killer; I’ll break a shoelace, trespass on a pot farm, die slowly of appendicitis. There is literally one hazard I worry about less that other people, for some reason, and it’s lightning. This has always been the case, and sure enough as the steel-cast sky flares bright again I feel nothing but a mild interest in seeing more.

“Are you coming down?” The last rider has stopped and is looking over his shoulder at me.

“I’m going to wait for it to—”

BOOM

“No way. Listen, I’m a professional guide and I’m telling you to —”

B-BOOM

“Get off the mountain!”

” I think I’ll just—”

“Let’s go! You’re coming with us!”

I’m impressed by his intensity so I follow him. The fine dust of ten minutes ago has liquified to treacherous grease in the downpour. I’m going to eat shit on those tree roots, I think, and I do.

Rain

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I’m lost and pushing my bike up what the rest of the year is probably a double-black ski run. The first people I see to ask directions are a pair of retirees hiking hand in hand. In addition to their respective favorite routes back to town (he likes wildflowers, she goes for views) they have a variety of other advice for me, some items less actionable than others. Buy property, they tell me, retire early. Hike with trekking poles. Marry your best friend. Dance in the rain.

Minneapolis, 6/4–4/2

In Minneapolis the bus shelters face away from the street. This seems strange but presumably has something to do with snow, which I know nothing about. A few stops after I board the doors open to admit a half-dozen people with white canes, some of whom are having a truly inane conversation about what, hypothetically, they would like for breakfast.

“Well I don’t have any sausage today, so how about bacon?” “Bacon is fine. “I like it a little bit crunchy.” “How about grits?” This goes on for the next eight stops. I cannot determine if they’re trolling, cognitively impaired, or engaged in an entirely normal Midwestern conversation, and as I’m straining to work it out I realize I’ve been in almost this exact situation before. Perhaps I’m impaired. I don’t know.

Related: one of the blind women is very beautiful but conceivably not aware of this, an idea I find no less romantic for being unoriginal.


Wandering around by myself, per usual, I’m also having a hard time discerning bad neighborhoods from good ones, because they all have green trees and large yards. The freeways and river –rivers?— seem to be everywhere at once; there is nothing on the horizon; the U of M campus, where I’m staying for a conference, is on both sides of the water and all its buildings look the same. It’s disorienting.

In the bike shop, by contrast, I have the very familiar experience of standing in silence for five minutes before any of the four men at the counter acknowledge my existence—a rental rite long since passed from a source of irritation into a sort of anthropological study. When I am eventually allowed to leave with a bicycle I ride it to Theodore Wirth, which is what Golden Gate Park could be if San Francisco wasn’t. The trails are a little contrived and the locals are taking it too seriously, but nonetheless it’s a hell of thing to have in a city park. I ride the best trail last and then I do it again.

I’m across the street from the lightrail platform later that week when a girl gets mugged. I hear her scream and have an impression of her lying fetal on the ground with her eyes shut, a detail surely fabricated as I was too far away to see. The trio of young men who attacked her disappear up a steep lawn into the night. “We see you!” shouts a bystander, as if that matters. Back in our Cold War-era dorms the violence of the scene causes me to interpret the stains on the curtains as blood.

This is discouraging but I wander anyway, hit the parks, library, a museum, a climbing gym, my new-city stations of the cross. In the end the most dangerous thing I encounter is a grilled cheese sandwich with walnuts in it. Fuck.

On the way to the airport at the end of the week I ask the driver about his worst passengers—I always do this—and he unhesitatingly cites, “the low-income people, the diversity people.” I am literally in the middle of reading an article on “racial imposter syndrome” and make neutral noises from the backseat, trying to remember how brown I look or don’t look in my Lyft profile photo. It transpires that his actual objection is to mothers with very young children and no car seats, who scream at him when he declines, as his legal obligation, to drive without them. I wonder—but not really—why he couldn’t have just said that.

Compared to home the city seems less diverse but also less segregated. Somalis are everywhere, mothers and daughters gliding along the ground in jilbaab. I won’t pretend I don’t think of Dune and I won’t pretend not to find it unsettling; in truth to me there is something alien about any child who looks identical to its parent. But what does it matter, in the scheme of things? What is the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become Somali in comparison to the rum luck of watching your neighborhood become a war zone?

On the bus two laughing teenage girls had boarded from the back, shoving and yelling at each other in Somali. They sat behind an old man in a gold kameez and gleaming crocodile wingtips, his leathery forehead wrinkled beneath an embroidered skullcap. He grimaced for a few stops, then turned and shushed them gently. After that they quieted down. They might have listened or they might just have been done shouting, who can say.

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, sweartagawd.

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.

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.

October 2016
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.

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.

Whitefish to Missoula, 6/16–6/21—part 1

Or, altars, altars everywhere
(Part 1)

1. Glacier Country Rodeo

It’s a little awkward to come to one of these alone—especially a small-town rodeo, all families and high school couples, an announcer with an anecdote about everyone and everyone’s horse. In addition, I’ve arrived straight from the airport and bought myself three hot dogs, which I now consume in the far corner of the bleachers, dribbling relish on a pair of jeans I’m supposed to wear for the whole trip. The sky gets steely and the wind picks up. I watch glassy-eyed bulls spin furious circles in the dirt.

2. Whitefish Mountain Resort

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The best time for me to ride a resort is the day before it opens: the trails are clear but the lifts are closed, so I can venture down blacks a few hundred yards at a time without worrying about getting run over or passed in the air. Of course, this means I earn my turns: after an hour of pedaling I arrive at a mid-sized Jesus that I unthinkingly assume marks the end of the climb. I’m feeling good—that wasn’t hard at all!—so I descend and do it again. This time I notice that the trail continues on, higher. Much higher. I’m tired now; I fume. “Who puts Jesus at a false summit?” I demand of the statue, out loud. Oh, I think, then. Oh.

3. Whitefish Bike Retreat

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This is a hostel so pleasant it hurts my heart. Inside is airy and spotless and everything that can be made from old bike parts is. Outside the trails leave ten yards from the door—perfect, buffed-out, roller-coaster singletrack through wildflowers and quiet woods. I stop halfway through my ride to swim in a lake. A small brown fish leaps up in front of me; my mad giggling echoes on the water, frightens the ducks.

Everyone else staying here is semi-local, or following the Tour Divide route at their leisure. I’m doing the math on what it would cost to extend my reservation for another week, or month, or year; I need a reality check, stat. “How’s winter?” I ask the girl running the desk. She has the strong shoulders and sensible bearing standard here, it seems. “Alright if you ski,” she says, judiciously, but goes on to describe months of darkness, tells a story of driving for hours in pursuit of a freak break in the clouds just to weep at the feel of the sun on her face.

I consider everything I do to avoid extremes—of weather, of politics, of feeling—my instinct for the split difference, the even keel. I don’t know how to proceed. What’s the more realistic aspiration? A new personality or a timeshare?

4. God’s Ten Commandments Park

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It’s about a half hour from latte art and bikepacking bag rentals to this. The center itself is closed but I stand for a few minutes before the crosses, listening to the wind buffet the billboards. I turn a slow circle to read them one at a time, each reminder of where I am, each warning of where I’m headed.

5. Glacier National Park

The Going-to-the-Sun road opened to cars just yesterday. It’s a must-see, but in truth I’m not enjoying it: I inch past the balaclava’d cyclists braving the traffic and the cold and feel dirty for driving—and I’m too worried about hitting someone to look around. When I do, I find the black and ragged crags somehow unfriendly, at least compared (as I inevitably compare them) to Yosemite. The places I really want to go are under snow.

On the east side, though, the rock is of another palette and the sky has burst into light above whitecapped lakes.

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The first mile of my hike out of Many Glacier is a slog along a pack-train route, a mess of ankle-deep mud and manure and mosquitoes and my own mortal terror of bears. But the payoff, when it comes abruptly into view, is colors like I’ve never seen in my life.

By chance I arrive between two big groups and have a full hour here alone. I use it to watch the lake change with the light—turquoise, cerulean, teal, azure—and the clouds spill over the rim of the cirque. I pick up smooth pebbles from the shallows and put them back, listen to a waterfall spattering snowmelt onto moss. High on the red shale, I see a mountain goat (my first!), scramble after it until the point that caution overtakes me. That’s not far, to be honest. However, there are tiny star-shaped plants between the rocks.

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(The tail end of this trip was to Missoula and surrounds—part 2, here.)