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.
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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.”

Return of the gimp

By now, I’ve spent enough time disabling and rehabbing limbs that I have a good grasp on the injury gods’ peculiar humor—a potent and sophisticated blend of irony, caprice, and comic timing. So as the date of my return to weekend-warrior-ing approached, I grew wary. A long and challenging work project finished, a semi-frantic house-hunt happily resolved, all my bikes and knees working, and my very own trad rack: that only sounds like a setup for an excellent summer. In reality, it’s just asking for it.

Therefore on Thursday, as I test-rode my new motorcycle, I honored the speed limit and scanned the road for errant deer. I came home, did my PT exercises with the fervor of a rosary, and ate token salad. I packed my bags for Tahoe with every piece of mountain biking armor I own, making a solemn pledge to check my ego and walk any obstacle anywhere near the limit of my abilities. I brushed my teeth, popped some echinacea, slipped on the stairs like a goddamn grandma and broke my foot.

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Ah, Alta Bates. It had clearly been too long!

The emergency room never fails to entertain. The surgeon on duty, bald and mad-eyed, cruised the hallways in scrubs whistling “Ode to Joy” while a collection of strapped-down drunks raved at him from various parked stretchers. I chatted with a girl whose muggers had punched her—quite unnecessarily, I thought—in the nose. Around 4 a.m., the PA brought me some graham crackers and prepared a splint. “Is it possible to tape it at, like … maybe an angle that doesn’t hurt as much?” I inquired. “Sure,” she smiled, serene, “if you’d like for the doctor to have to re-break it later.”

“Never mind,” I said. The mugged girl made a sympathetic face.

Well, I did trie.
I even tried to Strava this little adventure, but I was moving so slowly it wouldn’t get off auto-pause. -_-

Since I can’t get a surgery verdict until later this week—and since Jack promised me cookies—I went to Tahoe anyway. One short-lived attempt at “hiking” on crutches was enough to put the fear of fractured wrists in me, so now I’m in the market for some other way to get out on trails, short of crawling. (Current front-runner: pony). Let me know if you’ve got ideas.

In the interim, I’m dusting off what I learned (or hope I learned) the last time around: perspective and patience, grace and gratitude and grit. And I ordered myself five pounds of pancake mix on Amazon Prime, just in case I get too tired to hop down the hill for food. So, you know. Pretty much invincible.

South Lake, 8/23-8/24

Ooooooh, altitude.

Freel Pass, alas, about 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.
Hurting at Freel Pass, alas, 9,000 feet above my lowly lowland home.

Deliberately made this ride shorter and e-e-ven slower than the first time I tried it and still barfed halfway up Star Lake Connector. Pretty charming, I know.

Sunday marked a minor milestone in my quest for multisport mediocrity because it was the first time I’ve ever mountain biked and climbed in the same day. Climbed, that is, a total of one 50-foot sport route, basically roadside … but I’ll take it on a technicality.

Also pretty sweet: Corral Trail’s new table-tops (that I almost got brave enough to try for real); miraculous last-minute reservations at Fallen Leaf so we didn’t have to sleep in a ditch; my trip buddy forgetting to bring a book and consequently getting bored enough in camp to swap my tires for me. Bwaha!

“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.

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I am celebrating (read: icing) the most Type II fun I’ve had in a long time. Or as Matt puts it:

Somebody activate my Obamacare
< bro > Because that trip was si-i-ick < /bro >
On my tiptoes. The whole weekend was a reach.

These guys were saintly, per usual, providing shop-work and snacks and sweet little lies about the amount of time they spent waiting in the wind—a knife’s-edge promise of the next day’s snow—while I dragged myself up climbs hours longer than anything I’ve attempted in years. The altitude upped the ante from “this is tough” to “I tried to ride over a tree root and I yakked up breakfast.” Pffffttttt. I love the mountains, madly, honest, but it seem that love alone won’t turn the pedals: I did a lot of walking my bike and a lot of “deciding” to sell the damn thing at the first available opportunity.

Fortunately, Jacob and I have a long friendship based largely on dismissing each other’s dramatics. “Oh, please,” he said, around the seventh or eighth time I announced I couldn’t continue. “You know you’re going to do the whole ride.” Yeah, well … OK.

Star Lake. Exhaustion to wonderment ratio approaching parity.

Anyway. There was this—the end of the season, shining on the water—and Tahoe blazing blue on the horizon, the snow packed into my pedals on the thin traverses and the glowing aspen leaves’ addled spin to the tumbledown granite of the creekbed. Maybe it was only my eyes gone bleary with the effort, but I swear every last little thing looked lit and living from the inside out. Typical: I can’t breathe here but can only breathe here. And what can I ever do about that?

Big Chief + Grouse Slabs

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Lazy Sunday.  Photo poached from Nathaniel.

I am frequently advised to focus less on my lack of natural talent for all these reindeer games and more on minor accomplishments. So, here I go! Last weekend, I:

  • Weaseled my way onto a climbing trip with a bunch of (awesome and accommodating) people I’d never really met. Given that I can contribute neither skills, nor gear, nor a car, this is, like … a 5.11c social maneuver.
  • (Related) Simultaneously packed my bag and baked bribery cookies without setting my house on fire.
  • Took three whole steps on a slackline. Eventually.

Also I have a new word, “cragro,” inspired by an observed dispute with another party’s snarling rope-gun over whether it’s acceptable to clip the first bolt of a route using a ladder (left in the bushes, one would assume, for that purpose). Climbing is full of such philosophical conflicts, and also, I’m beginning to notice, personalities inclined to hash them out with anyone in reprimanding distance. I’m not sure if it’s a mountain-biker’s habit of live-and-let-live or just British reticence on my part, but I find it very strange.

Anyway, fortunately our representative in this discussion had a sense of humor about it. When asked, “Well, why don’t you just do the whole climb carrying a ladder?”, he just clipped it to his haul loop and, um … did.