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.

Bishop, 5/27–5/30

I went all the way to the Eastside, didn’t climb, and didn’t especially regret it.

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Between Mammoth and Bishop and heaven and Earth.

I think you can categorize people as motivated either by accomplishment or exploration, mastery or novelty. I’m the latter type, I know. I attribute this either to some higher wisdom—for what are our accomplishments, ultimately, in the grand scheme of the cosmos?—or to a colossal character flaw: that I simply lack the work ethic required to get good at anything. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But also, I once read an article about how new experiences counter the effects of aging. I read it well past its logical conclusion and into a belief that if I can just keep doing and seeing new things I will live forever.

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This is stolen from pro photog Andrew Burton‘s Instagram.”Reverse camel toe,” commented someone, immediately. Well, yes, but who’s the asshole?

In any case: climbing held my attention the first time I was learning. But just like my lost love for cyclocross, it seems something happened to my stoke while I was out gimping. And the prospect of repeating kindergarten—weekend after weekend of waiting in line to tremble and sweat up baby trad routes everyone else wants to solo, all the stress of my first campaign for competence with none of the mystery—I can’t get excited about it. 

What can I get excited about? Well …

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That’s the Bishop Mule Days parade. Specifically, it’s the National Park Service mule train packing park equity propaganda, a sight that—and granted, I was tired and it was very bright—literally brought tears to my eyes.

After recovering from this apparently poignant display of Americana (…) I followed a boulderer to the Happies, where instead of bouldering I crawled around looking at petroglyphs (see ass-shot, above) and caterpillars (see draft of my new children’s book). In retrospect a good steward would not have touched either one of these things, but there was thunder in the distance and the remnants of a river running below and I got carried away, had to get close.

thehappies

I camped one night with two friends headed into the Inyo to summit Mt. Sill. While rehearsing my pitch to be included on their next expedition, I discovered I couldn’t even lift their packs to move them out of the rain—never mind carry one to 14,000 feet. Hiking solo the next day, I got so nervous about the occasional snowfields that I took to walking with a rock in one hand to use as an ice axe if I slipped.

So for all I might want my next bit of exploration to be actual mountaineering, I must concede I am a long way from that Freedom of Hills™.

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Like cake through the store window.

I ended the trip with quick run down Rock Creek, which is fast and fun but needs an uphill trail to feel like a ride (mountain bike) rather than a ride (Disneyland). Looking for more, I asked an armored-up girl in the parking area about another trail that disappeared behind the cars.

“Oh,” she said, “that doesn’t go anywhere.”

She must have been a mastery person, though, because while it wasn’t much of a ride it was something to see.

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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.”

Downieville, 6/13-6/14

I spent my first weekend out of The Boot in Downieville, sans vélo, but still rapid-cycling—between Muir-grade rapture at being back in the mountains and frustration at being hobbled. Per usual, I’ll choose to blame the attitude on altitude: eight months at sea level has erased either my tolerance for the thin air or my memory of the fact that I never had any to start with. Woe!

Lucky for me, I had two very patient hiking buddies …

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Marisa probably a bit more so than Beau.

There’s also plenty to see in Downieville outside the usual program of shuttle-ride-river-repeat. Saturday I limped up to the excellent Sierra Buttes fire lookout, and it felt like the top of the world. Sunday Marisa drove some silly sort of mileage on Forest Service roads in search of the “other” Devil’s Postpile, which bore an interesting resemblance to the iron throne. Altogether, it was a good reminder that what I miss isn’t mountain biking, or climbing, or backpacking, or any of the other big-ticket items still several months out: it’s exploring—and if I were to quit whining for five minutes, I could probably come up with some other ways to do that.

The bedframe at the edge of the world.
Into this caption I will sneak the information that the Sierra Buttes are a Trust for Public Land Project. HOLLER.

I would also like to state for the record that on this trip a fish fell from the sky and exploded on Jack’s car. At least, that was theory we’d settled on by Sunday afternoon; on the freeway Saturday morning speculation as to the source of the impressive thud ranged from “BIKES!!” to “bird?”—with a brief, optimistic interlude of “somebody’s smoothie” before the scientist on staff confirmed the presence of, uh, tissue matter in the slime spattered across the roof. Unsurprisingly, my contribution to the cleanup effort was to take pictures and put them on the Internet to gross you out. You’re welcome!

This actually happened.
Clockwise from left—Jack: “NOOOOOOO”; fish guts; third car wash is the charm/only one with a pressure washer.

Yosemite, 4/12-4/13

Recently I decided I would learn to love solo hikes.  For a social creature, I’ve found the project surprisingly easy:  certainly I appreciate the ability to set my own pace and take pretentious flower photos without worrying about whether anybody else is bored.

So I was content this weekend to head up Yosemite’s five-mile-long Four Mile Trail (yeah, rounding error) on my own.  The climb was a grind but the view from Glacier Point was perfect and deserted;  I half-ran down the other side of the ridge in something approaching straight-up glee.

 

Illilouette Fall. Dying day?
Illilouette Fall and the dying day.

At the top of Illilouette Fall, I dawdled on the rocks admiring the mad rush of green water into the setting sun, then started back down the trail to the bridge crossing, where I then saw—to use the description that came involuntarily out of my mouth at the time—A Huge Fucking Bear.

And this is when I discovered that there is actually no such thing as a solo hike. You never truly walk alone: lizard brain goes with you.

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While they may get big—up to 600 pounds—there are only black bears in Yosemite. “Black bear” is a misnomer; most are brown. The last California grizzly was shot and killed in 1873. HOLY SHIT A GRIZZLY HOLY SHIT A GRIZZLY IT IS THE SAME EXACT GRIZZLY FROM THAT ONE MOVIE WHERE EVERYONE DIES IN ALASKA
If you encounter a bear, make as much noise as you can. I can’t. I can’t. It’ll hear me and eat me. If I open my mouth to scream, I will instead just vomit. Of course bears love vomit; they’re omnivores.
Keep the bear in sight. Under no circumstances should you run. Turn your back and book it for somewhere comforting and wide open. You know, like the African plains of early human evolution? How about that riverbank? Yes, that one, right above the 370-foot waterfall.
Literally no one has ever been killed by a bear in Yosemite. I am going to be killed by a bear in Yosemite.
By contrast, dozens have died being swept over the waterfalls. Also, bears are excellent swimmers. I’ll be safe if I can just cross the river. The bear would never cross the river.
The narrower the stream, the faster the flow. I just have to find a good spot to jump to the other side.
Whatever you do, don’t panic. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The best I can say is that I was reasonably prepared for just about anything other than an apex predator: for weather, for poor trail conditions, for minor injuries, to bivvy overnight if necessary. And it wasn’t a matter of temporarily forgetting what I was supposed to do. The entire time I spent frantically casing the slabs I was completely aware of how stupid it was to be doing so. But as in other, less pressing situations—more toprope freakouts that morning, for example—the lizard had seized the machine.

So, what to do? Then: wrest control from the lizard, scan and proceed cautiously across the bridge, and hammer out the last five miles to camp with fresh batteries in my headlamp for reassurance, forcing myself past the site of our New Year’s encounter with a mountain lion by alternating between loudly reciting poetry and singing camp songs (…).  Now: buy an air horn, some bells, and some bear spray. And never make the same mistake twice.