Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I've been everywhere, man

The number of places visited doesn't give one self-worth.                                                              What is done at those places, however, could.

I have traveled a large bit of the country in the past week and a half. I put one thousand miles on the first rental car. I slept in all of the continental United States time zones in five nights. I hiked in soft falling snow, looked out across the remnants of an in-land sea, felt the dry breath of a red desert, looked down upon a city of lights hopes and sorrows, and stayed in the same city in two states. It’s been an eventful couple weeks, to be sure, but not at home and not with my love. The good and the bad of traveling for work – I’m getting to see the country and do things far from home, but I’m doing it for a company first and foremost and fitting in bits and pieces of things I enjoy around that.

Act One
SLC (punk)

A coworker and I arrived in Utah separately. I had a few hours to while away after his flight was delayed due to a cardiac arrest of a passenger on the flight (ekk!). I got the rental car and drove down to the Great Salt Lake. I took a walk across the lake-bed to reach the water’s edge. The wind swept cold across the landscape, reminding me that spring hadn't taken hold yet. I watched the sun sink over the horizon, illuminating the far mountains. Finally, silhouetted by the suns corona, the mountain peaks gave way to darkness. I drove back, feeling hope and contentment.

We worked efficiently over the next few days, when we got the chance we enjoyed the area. We drove around Pineview Reservoir on a long lunch, up through a canyon, the mountains above us still wearing white. The high valley wreathed in white capped mountains was a world apart from the city just below. After work one day we went out to Antelope Island State Park, which not many Utah natives have visited when we conducted an informal poll. The park was gorgeous, denuded of trees, and where bison roam. I traversed 1000 feet up a knob to get a wonderful panoramic view of much of the island. The island is large, large enough to contain on its ridged back a spiny line of mountains with snow at their tops. Far in the distance of my knob-top view I could see herds of bison, a squall of rain way out over the lake, and clumps of trees huddling around a spring like winter hikers around a campfire.

A herd of Bison in the distance
My cameras zoom isn't that good

Mike and I climbed a trail to Waterfall Canyon, where in the deep winter ice-climbers climb. We got views down into Ogden and got close to the feet of the looming hulks of rock that make the so impenetrable wall and backdrop of the city.

After we had wrapped up work we stayed with Mike’s brother that happens to live in the area. One night we stayed in Sandy, the next in St George. On our way to Sandy we took the western route and stopped in Park City. The town that is a ski resort. Very posh, as one would expect from a ski resort. Later in Sandy we took a drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird and Alta. The change that comes with elevation has never been more dramatic. Spring owned the valley and deep deep snow as we got close to 10,000 feet. The mountains crowded over us and transported us to a much more northern clime.

Mike went with his brother the next morning to drop his niece off at the airport. Given a couple hours I went for a hike! I arrived at a trail head as the flurries flew. As I quickly ascended up the foothills the snow fell and the noises of the city faded to a memory. Less than a mile from the trailhead and I could no longer hear the hum and hiss of traffic. A small lake lay nestled in the snow caked hills, a few itinerant ducks my only company. I did a loop of the lake and headed back down, my tracks already gone as I descended.
We jumped in the car and headed south.

Act Two
Desert or Dessert?

As we drove south the snow fell heavily, not wanting us to make our escape. But the south won out, and the line of dark clouds stewed in the rear view. The sun and a chill breeze broke out over the line of mountains we followed on either side. This is BIG country in southern Utah. Big, lonesome forgotten mountains. I stared out the window at the miles of hills, fronted by the miles of pasture land backed up to them, I pondered when the last person traveled up those valleys, when someone had last strode over those peaks.
After some hours of driving we stopped at the western part of Zion National Park and visited Kolob Canyon and the little used lookout there. There wasn't much here, but a good start to a long hike – unfortunately not a long hike I would be taking. I was here for the topical views, as time was of the essence. We took our pictures and inhaled the dazzling views, but too quickly headed back to the car. We headed around to Zion “proper”, through Springdale, and familiar memories (and my first blog entry). Mike and I stopped at Weeping Rock and stood beneath the dropping drips, seeing what water and time can do. I stared up at Angels Landing, remembering what it was like to look down from Angels Landing. But not this time, sunlight grew short and people had to be met.

From St George we drove very briefly through Colorado and into Nevada. From there we headed east to the Valley of Fire. We didn't have cash and only did the short hike to Elephant Rock on the edge of the fantastical red rocks sprouting through the desolate desert. We headed into Lake Mead NRA and went to the lake shore. The amount of parking this place has and the size of the boat ramp it must be a different scene when the weather is warm! We had the place almost to ourselves, excepting some brave fisher-people that didn't mind the 50 degree temps.

The land got almost monotonous as we continued towards Hoover Dam. Mile after mile of desolate land, surrounded by turtle fences, and large barren mountains. I wondered how anything could survive this harshness. At the southern end the road came close to the edge of the National Recreation Area and like a blight or an oasis (depending on your point of view) condos and green grass sprouted from the desolate land. The water that must be sprinkled to support the lush grasses surrounding the expanse of wealth must be disturbing. We neared Hoover Dam, and soon found our way past a casino and to the Dam area. The tourist flocked , in their Uggs and heels. Up stairs and ramps, cutting the other off for a good parking spot and acting generally impatient with others. Back into civilization. Back into the trap for tourists. I dutifully snapped my tourists lens and marveled at the greatness of man, better than a beaver (again depending on your point of view). We went to the gift shop and saw the stuff that people love to be owned by. The history intrigued me, but the destruction and rampant change to the environment to enable this "magnificent" testament to humanity made me wonder. This country is large enough to support it's current population without having to live in these desolate places, without having to bend the earth to our wishes while disrupting these fragile far away places.

On to Sin City. A city I've visited multiple times, and will again visit. It's mostly a hate relationship. It's a convenient place to land to go exploring the area. The city itself is depressing and at times desperate feeling. It is also a big city. From the top of the Stratosphere the views after dark were horizon to horizon human habitation. The entire town was booked, I had looked and called around to many places and everything was full. This town with 62,000 hotel rooms just on the Strip was fully booked. I was beginning to worry we would need to sleep in the airport. I went on and found a room at the Stratosphere for more than I would have liked, but Mike and I split the room the make the price as reasonable as possible.
It wasn't a late night or a Vegas night. It was a stay in a city to catch a flight the next morning. We went to the top of the tower and watched the sun go down, watched the lights come up, and drank a few over-priced brews. We walked around the casino a couple time until the beers were empty and the bed called my name. With a 6am wake-up call I wasn't interested in partying. No gambling, no debauchery, no hangover either!

Act Three
We're not in Kansas anymore! Oh, actually, yes, yes we are.

Our flight landed in Kansas City at 4pm and the cold wind cut like a knife outside the terminal. The news was saying, "Kansas City Slammed!". Not really. The roads were clear and the snow was no longer falling. After being in the west at 29 degrees and feeling not bad outside, the 34 degrees with the moist air wormed into the bones, and we hurried from car to hotel. Kansas City, KS rolls up it's sidewalks at night but we found a local Mexican joint that was out of this world!
At work the next day people from the Missouri side stated they hadn't been to KS in a long time. A mile and a half away and they had the attitude that there were flesh-eaters there, "We don't go there no more!" It was an evidently depressed economy on the KS side but I never felt threatened. Of course on the MO side we found a outside stage (were it summer it would've been rocking) and a Gordon Biersch.
After work was done I had a few hours to evaporate before the jet ride home (yay!!!!). I found a park north of Kansas City, Weston Bend State Park. The overlook viewed the Missouri River and some cornfields, the comforting sounds of an active rail system churning up from below. When in a flat state, any elevation warrants an overlook, I guess! I did a nice little 3 mile hike in the melty snow, only falling in a mud puddle a couple times (slick as goose poo that mud). Apparently birding is very prevalent here, signs littered the parks' trails explaining the tweeters that flit through the area from time to time. 
And then right before I got in the car to head towards the airport an owl hooted loudly a couple times. The throaty "who" reverberating through the forest and through me. Such strong memories of being out in the woods, sleeping under tarp or tent hearing the call of the Wise Old Fellow. 

The Mormon Bonus
No story about Utah is complete without a mention of the Mormons. There is a fort, somewhere in Utah, signs for the fort are displayed along the highway, along with signs for a respite area. So lured, we parked and were open to some local history. Half way through the introductory film the nature of the place became apparent. Church of Latter Day Saints. A required tour guide, and a free gift at the end! What could it be!? A book of Mormon. As to not waste paper or plastic I declined the book and the DVD as well. So as not to offend I wore a smile and nodded in all the right places. I did not drink the Koolaid however. The sneakiness of this tactic bothered me a bit, as there was no warning until you were already firmly committed. The 'Sister' was not pushy but made you feel a bit guilty for not accepting Joe as a prophet (or is that profit?)

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Introduction to Backpacking

I have this friend, we'll cal him Tortuga, that doesn't have any experience backpacking but he wants to.

A couple Novembers ago (time flies) Flip and I took Tortuga along with another friend on his first backpacking adventure. We had him hike over Old Rag in full pack. Granted his pack was less than 20 lbs, but ascending and descending several thousand feet with rock scrambles and some non-technical climbing along with necessary collaborative effort stuff, really was a good test for him. He did good. We camped on the far side of Old Rag by one of the cut-off trails off the fire road.

He's hiked some more in the interim, but has not backpacked. After asking and really showing he has an interest in this sport we've finally got together and set aside time to go back out in the woods. Flip and I have not invited him on a couple trips that he and I have gone on since Tortuga doesn't have the gear or the experience to do some of the hikes Flip and I enjoy. Flip and I are also sometimes masochistic and didn't really want to have to worry about someone else's happiness when we are out hiking to punish ourselves with glee!
Flip came up with a plan while he and I were backpacking in Massanutten a few weeks ago, we would test T's resolve and get him to a level that he will enjoy trips (or not), plan them himself with or without us. He is interested in buying a new backpack, as well as some other gear, he is interested in sleeping in his own pitched tent, and cooking his own food. We want him also to be able to read a map, make a fire, and be self-reliant. Flip and I both have a high regard for the others skills and experience and know each is capable alone, but stronger together in a survival situation. We want T to not be a liability, to not need us.
I will be there at REI to kind of coach him through the process, not to tell him what to buy but to tell him what a waste of money many of the items are. I'll be the Jimmine Cricket hopefully, and from all the money I've wasted on useless gear guide him to some smart choices. His desires will differ from mine, and I will try to keep that in mind. His mindset is the weekend hike. My mindset is the Long Distance Hike - and while a light pack can be appreciated by anyone, there is definitely a balance to be struck. Hiking the Appalachian Trail is prevalent in all my thoughts about gear, I ponder the ounces that I'd like NOT to be carrying!

We are probably going back to Massanutten, and I am really looking forward to seeing some first signs of spring, hopefully they will be stirring there, at least in the valleys. Spring is here in SoMd, the first Peeppers (frogs) began singing on March 10th (in my mind that is the first day of spring), the birds are going crazy, the daffodils have sprung up through the soil, and the buds on the trees are giving the trees a reddish hue. To feel this connection to the natural world has always been so magical to me. I can feel the life-force growing and feel it's anticipation and joy that's about to burst forth across the world.

Ok, I'm definitely swerving off into the weeds that will soon be growing. Stay on topic, Johnny Walker.

Massanutten! Flip, Tortuga, and I will meet and park our cars in two different locations so we can do a straight through hike. We've not decided the route yet, but ideally something with views, good water sources, and possibly some different route options. Prior to going Flip and I want to provide T with a room of gear (besides what he buys) and let him decide what he should or shouldn't carry, this way he'll go over the lists in his mind and either carry too much and regret it on that first ascent or get into camp and realize he forgot an important item. Flip and I will be on the hike with him so he'll not be in any danger, but still will suffer the realization that not having X item is a bad thing - OR it's not actually a bad thing and is something that you just improvise to get around.
Once there I want to go over the route with him on the map, hand off the map to him and let him be our guide. He will have to be aware of his surroundings, and keep distance, side trails, time, and daylight in mind. Once in camp he can start a fire and cook his own food as well. Cooking can be collaborative, as in each of us make one item for a potluck, but the actual cooking will be left to each of us.
I think he'll be better for it. He didn't have the advantage of growing up doing this. Or being in Boy Scouts. Or having parents willing to go on wilderness canoe trips for 2 weeks at a time. To feel comfortable in the woods, you've got to go through the steps. You've got to be able to take care of yourself.

This should be a fun trip to report on!
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Monday, March 11, 2013

A bit of hiking

A couple weeks ago I had to work in West Virginia all week. Over the weekend Cara, Kaya, and I went hiking in the area.

Saturday morning we put on a few layers and went to the base of Weaverton Cliffs, the first climb in Maryland on the Appalachian Trail. Rain had been falling as we had driven to the Park'n'Ride at the base, but the rain had stopped but the day was still gray and misty. I'd been hoping for some nice views up the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry, but were not going to see any!

How different a few months can change the perspective of an area. Last time I was in Harpers Ferry, thru-hiking the AT, was last June. The temperature was over 90 before noon, now I had layers on and was glad I did while standing still. We made the short, steep, ascent up Weaverton Cliffs to the 'Blue Blaze' to the overlook, though there were no grand views, the fog ff in the valley was still pretty and made for a good back-drop for pictures.

On our way up we passed a few guys that were staying at the Ed Garvey shelter and had left their stuff there to hike a friend out before returning for the rest of the weekend. I would've liked to have been camping too, enjoying some backpacking and campfire chilling! Soon I'll get back out to make some miles.

After we stomped off the mud from our caked boots, and put the filthy beast back in the car we headed over to Harpers Ferry. We stopped at the ATC HQ to shoot the breeze with other hikers - always a treat to go in there. I found my polaroid in the album from last year, and wistfully paged through remembering faces and names of other hikers. I re-newed my membership (I had let it lapse last year on the grounds that hiking the Trail was more relevant than paying to be a member). I bought a AT hiking medallion for my walking stick, and a Christmas ornament backpack... I remember the days, not so long ago, that I would buy nothing that I couldn't eat because I would have to carry it! How the times have changed.

The following day the skies were blue and the sun was shining! We rode up towards Thurmont and went to the always popular Wolf Rock/Chimney Rock combination hike. We parked at the Catoctin ParkVisitor Center and ascended the hill. The weather was cool enough that I didn't over-heat but warm enough I could still feel my ears and fingers! Spring is in the air, nearly! I, again, looked down the 30 foot deep crevice my brother had crawled into and my Dad pulled him out with rope when we were kids - these are my roots, these are the places that have a lot of meaning to me. It was also here that I spoke to a guy that had said he had taken off of work to hike the AT, consequences be-damned. It was him saying that that lit the fire under me. It was here that the desire of a whim became concrete. I don't know who that guy was but now I can say nearly the same thing to others. I made my dream a reality.
From Wolf Rock we walked over to Chimney and actually got a nice view this day! After enjoying the sun and the view our stomachs told us it was time to go! I hadn't ever done this trail as a loop and so we went down to the HQ and followed the trail next to the road. For those interested in this hike, I would say go back the way you came. The trail from the HQ to the visitor center parallels the road so it's noisy, there aren't any nice views, and it's rather rocky.
Small world moment: Flip and his S.O. were on the same trail on the same day unbeknownst to the either of us! Had we turned and gone back the same way we had come in we would've run into them. I would've loved that, but alas, mere minutes separated us and it did not happen.
After this Cara had to go home and I still had some daylight. What to do? More hiking, of course!

I had done some research for hikes that I hadn't done in the area and on I found the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship (or BRCES) - I saw that Microsoft had provided grant money to start the place up. I hiked around the trails on the property and would like to go back and see some more. The place seems oriented on field trips for schools, which is great. There were also some equestrian trails and a couple big fields for camping, and a lean-to type shelter as well. The property backs-up to the forest land that the AT passes through on the top of the ridge, but as far as I could determine there were no connector trails.

From here I headed back towards Martinsburg, but decided to take the Rt 9 approach  so I could pass the AT one more time. And being that it was only 4 o'clock and all I had to look forward to was a hotel room, I hiked some more - yup 3 hikes in one day, it's a sickness. And at the end of this one the Trail called my name forward to re-see what was around the next bend, come see the David Lesser Shelter, sit in the swinging bench, look at the spot where your hammock hung, remember the spider web that was strung across the path and how you nearly walked into it, remember the conversations you had had with people at the shelter, and remember the cold clear water source down over the hill. I get on the Trail and these memories flood my conciseness, I remember all these details that I can barely recall normally, my mind goes back to the backpacking mentality, where my thoughts turn inward and I "expand" inside.

Time grew short, as it does so quickly when Saturday and Sunday are bookends to working, and I had to beat the darkness and get back in to the work frame of mind before I was completely overtaken and kept walking...
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