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)_/¯
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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)_/¯

Desolation Wilderness, 7/15-7/17

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You guys, look at this rock!

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

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

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“We just have a few small bags …”

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

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Slap it like it owes you money.

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

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

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

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

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

August, etc.

The compulsive weekend recapping has suffered badly in the past few months from my Monday-Friday. Some remedial study:

Desolation Wilderness, 8/1–8/2

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This is where I go for perspective.

We encounter three stoked bros hiking with what appears to be a baby Bisson Friche. It’s puttering gamely along with its paws encased in duct tape. “She’s great!” the first guy tells us, beaming. “She’s totally doing it!”

We set up camp on the slabs and make tiramisu from instant custard and a packet of biscuits. We’re licking the chocolate from the pie tins as the sky bleeds sunset onto the surface of the lake. All this for barely five miles’ walk! My guilt is overridden by joy for being back in the mountains, possible on my busted foot only because the rest of the group carried all that food. I could kiss them, I think, I’m so grateful; I could kiss the ground. When no one’s watching I put my lips to the granite.

Taller types at sunset.

Tahoe, 8/228/23

Technically I met Matt and Cora on Craigslist, when they bought my first motorcycle—completely inoperable at the time. We’ve never mountain biked together before, so I have to appreciate that they’re willing to gamble on my word again in revising the trip itinerary from lakeside beers to several hours of climbing, no engine.

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An older friend.

“I promise it ran fine before it was broken,” I said then, of the crippled Ninja. Of the trail now I’m making similarly dubious assertions. “It’s pretty terrible, to be honest. But trust me, it’s going to be great!”

Tuolumne, 8/298/30

This trip is an experiment to see if my foot works well enough to climb outside. It doesn’t, and so instead I walk a long way in order to recall, with the proper respect, that not so long ago I couldn’t manage even that.

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Giddy Muir quote here.

When I see Ragged Peak I have to have it, yield to a covetous impulse I might direct to shoes or handbags if I had the budget. The ridgeline is striking but low and I can approach on scree, roll rather than snap if I fall. I’ve also got a clear line of sight and a GPS signal, but feel unreasonably anxious off-trail alone and can’t stop looking over my shoulder. At the top I’m dizzy at the long drop down to the glittering lakes and unnerved by the keen and moan of the wind. I consider and think better of the summit blocks, am dismayed to realize, then, that in fact the when and why and worth of risk is my sole preoccupation—that this calculus is constant whether I climb or not.

Trinity Alps, 9/59/6

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Another trick of perspective and the dregs of Trinity “Lake.”

Related: in Weaverville I reject a campground as too meth-y. It’s hit or miss this far north, all Jefferson Free State stickers and 14-day stay limits. I try not to be fussy about it, but the gaunt couple whose black and bottomless eyes catch mine as we circle the dim woods are too much. They’re leaning motionless on the crooked grille or hungry maw of a terrifying old Dodge Charger with its windows blown out. “I can’t,” I announce. I have betrayed an uncool suburban weakness, but we move on.

In a friendlier location later that night, I watch the stars and then the fire. There’s a glass bottle resting on the side of the pit, reflecting two crisp miniatures of the wavering flame. They are mirror images of each other, and as the real light flares and fades they seem like a pair of dancers to back and advance on each other across a darkened stage. I attempt to explain this and am met with a long silence. One of the boys is asleep. “I think I get you now,” says the other, eventually. “You never do drugs because you’re always stoned.”