Fire and ICE

Searching for a Darwin Award on the Pacific Crest Trail

don't die today

We’ve all seen the movie.  There’s a guy lost in the desert.  His horse just ran away or got shot, maybe both.  He has no idea where he is going so he just stumbles around.  Meanwhile the sun is directly overhead, and it is blazing hot.  He is sweating like a pig.  Oh, and he is out of drinking water.  Meanwhile, vultures are circling high above, waiting …

That’s kind of how I was feeling recently on my first day of hiking in the southern California desert.  I wanted to see what the Pacific Crest Trail was like.  But, because I am either stubborn or stupid, (more likely, both), I ignored all advice and proceeded as I would normally in Wisconsin.  Which is to say that I started walking around 7 AM and planned to finish around 3:30 PM each day.

Here is the problem with desert hiking:  it gets hot, especially in the afternoon.  Shocking discovery, isn’t it?  This might seem obvious to you but learning from reading something versus actually experiencing it are, for me, two very different things.  What I discovered is that right around 12 or 12:30 PM, the desert begins to feel like an oven.  Now, some of you out there are going to say, “well, but it’s dry heat so that’s okay, right?”  My response to you is that, yes, the humidity in the desert is low but it is also low in the dehydrator that I use to make backpacking meals.  So, think of the desert as kind of a giant food dehydrator where you are the food product getting dried out.  Not fun.

I had, of course, read extensively about desert hiking.  “Start in the early morning, take a siesta in the middle of the day, then hike into the evening”.  “Use a backpack umbrella, it will lower the apparent temperature 10° – 15° ”.  I did none of this.  Instead I found myself around 2 PM beginning to shiver, just a little.  This, I realized, was probably the early stages of heat exhaustion.  The good news is that I survived and the even better news is that I now realize that I’d rather look like a dork by carrying a hiking umbrella than like a movie extra passed out in the middle of the desert in an old spaghetti western.

My time on the PCT wasn’t all bad news though.  I actually found out some useful information.  For example, I apparently don’t fit the profile of an illegal immigrant or drug smuggler.  While on the PCT from the border thru Campo, I was passed by any number of friendly Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) patrols, running around in their SUVs on the dirt roads next to the border wall.  Nearby, an ICE helicopter was hovering about 50 ft off the ground.  But, they didn’t pay any attention to me.  I didn’t see anyone on the trail that entire day except for one somewhat sketchy guy camped a mile from “the wall” in a thicket.  Was the border patrol looking for this guy?  I didn’t pause to figure out why he would choose such an odd place to camp.  The advice from the PCTA is to not stop between Campo and Lake Morena lest you run into ICE patrols looking for drug smugglers or the drug smugglers themselves.  That advice I actually took.

Granted I only have a miniscule sample of trail conditions on which to judge the PCT but what I found reaffirmed what I had read.  The trail, at least where I was, is in much better condition than most of the AT and the grade of the path is much more gentle.  I’d see peaks some ways off and was convinced that we were going to top out on everything in sight.  This was what my thru hike of the AT had taught me.  But, shockingly, here the path somehow found a gap in the mountains, and headed that way, rather than randomly climbing to the top.  After doing the AT, this idea of taking the path of least resistance was a novelty.

This was brought home to me in a rather startling way on Day 3 of my reconnaissance when I was taking the Deer Spring Trail to the summit of Mt. San Jacinto.  In my defense, I wasn’t just peak bagging.  It turns out that about 2.8 miles of the PCT is part of the trail to the summit.  While on that section, I came across about 2 dozen folks doing trail work.  They were employed by the California  Conservation Corp.  They were literally breaking rocks with sledge hammers while cutting a new section of trail through the woods.  This fits my definition of back breaking work.  Since they weren’t wearing orange jumpsuits labelled “D.O.C.” I felt pretty secure about approaching them.  So, I started chatting them up, trying to bond with them by mentioning that I did occasional trail work for Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail.  My bragging got me a blank look so I quickly moved on to another topic of conversation – what it was they were actually trying to do out here in the woods.  One of the guys proudly told me that they were there to change the grade of the trail – as he put it “the current path has a grade of about 30°. That is way too steep.  We are making a new trail where the grade will be about 12.5°.  This should make for a much more pleasant hiking experience on the PCT.”

I was dumbstruck.  This was quickly followed by fear – might I actually still be in the desert having another hallucination?  But, I slowly came to the realization that I was fine and, more to the point, this person was, in all seriousness, completely earnest.  This was so completely different from what I found on the AT last year where most thru hikers end up cursing the trail designers for PUDs (pointless ups and downs) and/or MUDs (mindless ups and downs) or for crazy no-switchback launching ramps up the sides of mountains, thoughtfully equipped with rebar or aluminum ladders to assist your “walk in the woods”.  Instead, here were people who were designing the trail to enhance the pleasure of the hiking experience on the PCT.

Of course, with this kind of attitude, they’d best stay in California – this kinder/gentler approach to trail design would never score them a job on the AT.  I briefly wondered about the causal factors leading to this difference in approach (I am a retired scientist after all).  Does this represent a sinister “Left Coast” attempt to subvert the American spirit?  Perhaps it has something to do with the water, or maybe it is a risk factor associated with eating too much avocado toast?  Being a person who keeps my own council, I shared none of these hypotheses with the trail crew.  Instead, I thanked them for their work and moved on.

 

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Appalachian Revisited

rock maze

Gray Mountaineer directing traffic through Pennsylvania’s Rock Maze

To shamelessly plagiarize Thomas Wolfe, you can neither go home again nor revisit your own Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Things change.  Even something as simple as the length of the trail.  Last year I walked 2189 miles.  This year my daughter will need to walk 2191 miles to complete her AT thru hike.  Last year when my wife picked me up at Baxter State Park after coming down off Katahdin, she asked me when I planned to do the Pacific Crest Trail.  I put her off, mumbling something about needing to think about things before making any decisions.  The reality was that I was convinced that I never wanted to see the inside of a sleeping bag or a tent again.  Continue reading “Appalachian Revisited”

Travels with Fred – In Search of a Walk in the Woods

Fred

“Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21)

Recently, I was sitting outside our local convenience store with Fred, taking a brief break.  Another patron exited the store and, eyeing up Fred, pronounced, “it looks like you are on a journey!”  I paused for a moment to consider how to reply, then decided to just tell the truth.  “Well, not really – I’m just out for a walk.  My pack is stuffed with pillows and bags of play sand from Walmart”.  He smiled politely and then quickly moved on, happy to put some distance between himself and the very troubled person he had just encountered. Continue reading “Travels with Fred – In Search of a Walk in the Woods”

Muskrat Love

muskrat

Not good eatin’ (see below for details)

My father-in-law, Bob, recently passed away.  He was 92.  It has been a difficult time for our family and particularly my mother-in-law, as it always is when someone dearly loved is gone.  I’ve been lucky with my “selection” of in-laws.  Contrary to all the caricatures on film and in writing about such “relations”, mine have been/are pretty much fabulous.  It certainly sets a high standard if I ever find myself in that same position.  The problem of course is that you don’t get to choose in-laws.  If you’re on the ball (and only partly immersed in a hormone-lubricated state of “amore”) you do a decent job of picking out a mate.  The rest, as they say in southern Russia, is a crap shoot.

In a sense this has been a source of disappointment for me.  Sometimes I wish I had a set of in-law horror stories to reference for my meager literary aspirations but sadly there isn’t much there for me to mine.  And, I did present my future in-laws with the opportunity to look at me, at least initially, with wary eyes.  I mean, what parents might not look a bit suspiciously at a divorced, older guy sniffing around their young, only recently become adult, daughter?  Furthermore, here I was, an east coast, liberal leaning, Sierra Club member, and there he was, solid mid-Western, war vet, lifetime NRA member.  Sounds like a recipe for disaster, or at least a cheap sitcom ripoff, right?  But, I never got that sense.  Perhaps I can attribute this to my in-laws outstanding open-mindedness or perhaps it should be attributed, as my wife might suggest, to my own noteworthy (but still charming I hope) total and complete obliviousness.

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.  It is an expression that many people love to hate.  If I was Bob’s east coast liberal lemon then the lemonade he made was taking the liberal Sierra Club guy out to his hunting cabin in the woods and teaching him to shoot rifles and hand guns.  And, taking him to his gun club on Sunday mornings for open trap shooting and teaching him to shoot clay pigeons.  Or, taking him to his brother’s house at the end of deer hunting season while he and his buddies hung out drinking beer, watching the local butcher slicing up 3 deer that hung from the rafters of the garage.  This latter social occasion took place only a couple of months after I had been introduced to him as his daughter’s suitor.  In retrospect this had to have been some sort of test he administered to me.  With my aforementioned obliviousness, I never had a clue.  But, I must have passed the test.  And, I found that shooting guns at targets (at least those without a heartbeat) was really fun!  I only got really nervous on Sundays at the gun club when I worried that I’d embarrass Bob by accidentally shooting myself or one of his friends with a shot gun while I was trying to break clay pigeons.

Losing Bob was hard.  My own Dad died when I was a young man and I occasionally complained to friends that my biggest beef with that (beyond the obvious one) was that I never got to complete an important part of growing up – the transition from knowing and relating to your Dad solely as a child to getting to understand him as an adult.  I got to experience that, at least a bit, with Bob.  We’d go out for a drive in the country (without his wife or mine) and end up at some bar in the middle of nowhere where the beer was 75¢ and the burgers were almost that cheap.  We’d come back home and my wife would be put out.  “He’s never taken me there, why did YOU get to go?”  In the process, I got stories, e.g., from his childhood, where he and his brothers went out terrorizing the wild life, bringing home every imaginable creature for his Mom’s cook pot (it was the middle of the Great Depression and he was from a really big family).  Invariably, the story would end with “(squirrel, turtle, duck, pheasant, etc) – they’re good eatin’ ”.  The one exception I finally heard, which gave me considerable pause, was when Bob described catching muskrats but allowed that they weren’t so hot in the pot, so to speak.  On the spot I made a lifelong vow to never eat muskrat.  It’s a vow that I can’t imagine breaking, ever.

Bob was a WWII Navy vet, a member of “the greatest generation” (treasure these guys, not many are left) and while he didn’t tell stories about his time in the war, eventually, if you take enough drives in the country, spending time in obscure tiny bars drinking 75¢ beers, things do come out.  Like seeing the ship on which you are cruising the Caribbean take a hit from a U Boat torpedo but which turns out to be a dud.  He absolutely hated bananas, wouldn’t touch one (except maybe if the choice was between that and muskrat stew?).  It turns out that he OD’d on them while in the Philippines serving on a PT Boat tender.  He wouldn’t drink water – for years his only source of liquid was either coffee or “the nectar of the gods” (i.e., beer).  I’m sure this had something to do with his experience in the war but I never connected the dots on that one.  In his later years, he absolutely refused to leave town and the idea of getting on a cruise ship was anathema to him.  It turns out that he literally had seen the world during the war, so what was the point?  Atlantic, and Caribbean theaters?  Been there.  Indian Ocean theater?  Done that.  Pacific Theater? Ditto.

He was tough and really hated going to doctors.  Refused, to the point of our exasperation, to go see one even after “minor” incidents like falling off the roof of a house while helping to reshingle it.  Eventually though, Alzheimer’s got him.  What a crappy disease.  In some ways, the progression of the disease is like stripping paint off old furniture.  One by one, layers of who you are, are removed.  In the end only some core aspect remains.  Sometimes this means, a layer of anger, impatience and/or frustration.  Not so with Bob.  In the end, what remained was a kind and generous individual.  If you offered him a cookie he wanted you to have half of it regardless of whether he knew who you were.  When I’d show up with my wife to visit him in the Memory Ward, I’d look him in the eye and he’d smile.  However diminished by the disease, he was still in there.

In the end, when we’re gone, the best we can do is leave behind a few people who can tell a story or two about us that ends with a smile.  With Bob, that will be no problem.  Hey, have I ever told you about the Raccoon, the Neighbor’s Cat and the Trap? Ah, but that is a story best left for another time …

Déjà Vu

AT terminus in Georgia - the top of Springer Mtn

Springer Mountain – Southern Terminus of the AT – Mile 0.0

We just dropped off my younger daughter at Springer Mountain, Georgia for her Appalachian Trail thru hike. Well, to be completely factual, it was my wife who drove her up the mountain to the parking lot on a sketchy forest road and hiked in the 1 mile to the start of the trail. Meanwhile, I laid in bed with some sort of illness, praying that I wouldn’t pass it on to my daughter.

Back to the main point: My wife and I are proud but, truth be told, significantly apprehensive as well. This apprehension has multiple sources including the fact that, I, as a 2017 thru hiker, know all too well what she will face in the coming months.

Well, at least I think I know. Frankly, I’m a little surprised at how this all turned out. As I was planning my own thru hike well over a year ago, I approached my daughter and suggested that she join me, saying something like: “Hey, why don’t you quit your job and come hike with me for the next 6 months? It will be fun spending every waking (and sleeping) hour with me (your Dad).” Shockingly, she turned me down. Then, shortly after I got back from Maine, she announced that she was planning her own hike of the AT (and could she borrow my gear?) Really?

I’ve told this story to a fair number of people, pandering for sympathy. Almost without exception, when I get to the end and raise my eyebrows as if to say “boy, can you believe she turned down this golden opportunity to come with me?”, I get a certain look. I was puzzled initially but now realize that “the look” translates to something like this: “Well duh! What don’t you get about a young adult woman not wanting to spend 5 months under the (very) close scrutiny of her father?”

Anyway, she did come to me for hiking advice, which stroked my ego. But, I had to walk a line, balancing my desire to spout a litany of parental admonitions (don’t hitch hike alone, stay in designated shelter/camp areas, don’t get lost, etc) with actual reasonable advice (try not to go longer than 5 days between resupply, carry decent rain gear, get (and then actually use) the Guthook guide for your phone, etc).

The final agreed upon plan was that my wife and I would bring her down to Georgia, drop her off at the southern terminus and then hang out for a couple of days while we: a) did some trail magic for this year’s thru hikers; but most importantly b) “casually” checked in on her during her first few days on the trail. She seems fine with this. It is important for you to understand that this wasn’t the original plan. When I first told my wife that our daughter was planning to thru hike the AT, her response was “would you please do the AT again, this time with her?” This sent a shudder up my spine. Understand, this request from my wife was made only a few days after I had finished my own thru hike and I was convinced that backpacking was something that I’d never do again voluntarily since it involved the risk of hiking and/or camping in the rain, which my time on the AT taught me to loathe.

But, I couldn’t admit this to my wife. So, as in all successful marriages, I ginned up an alternative proposal which would make me look good while also helping me avoid revisiting various thru hiking traumas. My proposal was for us to rent an RV and then drive the AT, stopping daily at strategic road crossings, providing trail magic and, of course, watching over the safety of our daughter. When I broached this plan to my daughter, she politely demurred: “Gee, Dad, that sounds a lot like stalking to me”.

So, we are going with what can charitably be considered “Plan C”. But, she has invited me to join her later on the trail for a few days. I figured I could handle walking and camping in the rain for a couple of days so quickly agreed and suggested that she pick out where she’d like me to meet up with her. As I said this, my mind was screaming “please, please, please don’t say that you want me to hike with you in northern Pennsylvania.”

You see, when I reached Delaware Water Gap, I got down on my knees and swore that I would never, ever, set foot on that section of the Appalachian Trail again. It turns out that every evil thing that I had ever read about the condition of the AT in northern Pennsylvania was true. Unfortunately, it also turned out that the condition of the AT in New Jersey and most of New York was essentially the same. For the reader who wants further entertainment on this topic feel free to see my blog entry “What in Blazes is Horizontal Rock Climbing”. But, I have digressed. Anyway, she hasn’t yet told me where I can join her. I might be in the clear.

Other issues conspire to keep me up at night – for example the issue of “blazing”. On my own thru hike I did not take detours or trail short cuts (blue blazing). I did not jump in a car to cut out dozens or hundreds of trail miles (yellow blazing). I walked every mile of the actual AT (white blazing). Being happily married I had absolutely no desire to pink blaze either – the quaint thru hiker term for pursuit of the opposite sex. But, throw together a bunch of healthy, athletic and unattached 20 somethings and nature can and often does, take its course. Normal folk (i.e., non-thru hikers) don’t understand how this is actually possible since it involves people potentially having “relations” who are going 5 or 6 or more days between showers (not counting walking in the rain of course). Personal hygiene takes a back seat on a thru hike (folks, we’re talking “back” as in back of the bus here). I assure you however, that pink blazing is a real, and rather common, thing.

All levity aside, my wife and I will be hanging on each daily check-in from our daughter’s SPOT Gen3, on each phone call or email when she takes a zero in a trail town, just to know that she is alright. It’s going to be a long summer. Letting go – it’s what parents are supposed to do, right? Naively, I thought that part ended when we let go when she went off to college for the first time. Unfortunately, I’m learning that letting go as a parent is an iterative process. As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra said, this summer it will be “déjà vu all over again” as we follow our daughter’s journey.

In the Hot Zone

Sympathize
quarantine sign

Before we dive into today’s important topic I wanted to let my loyal followers know that I have received a JD Powers and Associates Award.  Yes, it is true.  I recently was informed that I will be recognized as the best blogger in the category of “retired liberal leaning persons relocated to northeast Wisconsin from Maryland who have also recently completed a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2017 and at the same time have begun learning how to make pottery”.   Continue reading “In the Hot Zone”

Fun and Games on the Frozen Tundra

sumo plunge.png

Extreme sports, Wisconsin style

On my second attempt at climbing Aconcagua (the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere), I remember being awakened by our guides around 4 AM for our summit attempt.  We were at high camp, in an area called “White Rocks”.  It was very dark and very cold and the wind was blowing.  The temperature was around -15° Fahrenheit.  But, with the wind chill factored in, it was rather more objectionable.  Still, we had to get up anyway.  Actually, what bothered me most about the situation was that I had to get out of the tent, carefully stumble up a slope and then behind a few rocks, proceed to moon the Andes while heeding the call of nature at 19,500 ft altitude.  Continue reading “Fun and Games on the Frozen Tundra”