Doing it all the hard way...

Friday, July 24, 2020

Call me Ishmael?


When I was younger I dreamed of one day hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.  As I have aged my appreciation for clean sheets and need for a good mattress have made me reconsider that dream.  I do still enjoy reading the blogs of PCT hikers.  I have done more hiking than in years past and plan to continue that going forward. I expect that my age will and the level physical impact from these adventures will ensure that my aspirations remain appropriately meager.


I always enjoyed the rhythm that one grew into after a few days on the trail.  The simplicity of the routine and the Zen-like peace that comes from becoming more and more efficient have always intrigued me.  This applies both to my personal routines and equipment as well as my interaction with my hiking companion(s).  The constant experiment and refinement results in a quiet satisfaction.


One of the many oddities of long distance hikers is they assume a trail name.  Trail names allow a certain anonymity as well as being more memorable than saying, “My name is Justin or Laurel.”  Who can forget names like Twinkletoes, Four Eyes, Pancake or Pied Piper?  


We aren’t going far enough to justify real trail names, but in the spirit of calling this my OBDT* for 2020 we’re going for it.  (*OBDT = One big dumb thing = A nickname for an event that middle aged men sign up for and then use fear and panic to motivate them to train for it.  No more than one per year, typically in the summer.)


My son has had the nickname Tarzan for a long time and that works for this application. For myself, I wanted to acknowledge not just my age but my experience, which hearkens back to a skills almost unknown in 2020. I learned with paper maps and compasses. They don’t require batteries. I’m not going so far back that we are talking sealskin and oiled canvas, but the skillset I have is rare among hikers today.  So after some consideration for calling myself O.G., I declare, “Call me Analog.”

Thursday, July 9, 2020

How backpacking caught me

Hiking with Hottie

Perhaps it started when I was five and my father took me camping in Sequoia.  It was a chance to feel like a man when I was a young a boy.  My dad and I slept in the tent like men do and we ate the same food and I rode in the front seat on the drive there and back.  As a teen my passion for the outdoors was further fueled when I started rock climbing and backpacking with my friends.  Again, it was a chance to be with my friends without parents yet we were doing adult things.


The satisfaction of learning and having the skills that enabled me to be independent in the wilderness and was empowering to me as a teenager and young adult.  Making decisions and exercising judgment was a lesson in being a grownup.  Being able to say, “It looks too sketchy right now. Let’s turn around,” while disappointing, was also rewarding because it allowed us to demonstrate, if only to ourselves, that we could make an adult decision.  


I gained skills using a map and compass. The stoves we had back there were a cross between a deep fat fryer and a bomb in terms of danger and flame size. Our packs were big, heavy and left us raw and bruised.  We wore boots that weighed so much that unless you had a pair of the behemoths you would not believe me.


I loved it. We all did.


The idea of being in a place that had not been overrun by man was awesome in the years after Robert Redford made Jeremiah Johnson as real as life itself. The high Sierra was federally protected long before the timber in the western foothills ran out.  With the trails in the Sierra having been built by the CCC during the depression, the joke was that they had used Egyptians for the design and construction of the trails. 


Our little group went hiking, climbing and backcountry skiing during the late seventies and well into the eighties. With no internet, we had to earn our knowledge via hard work, experience and mistakes.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Eighteen years on the John Muir Trail

Tim in 2017

In the seventies and eighties I hiked in the Sierra to experience wilderness, independence and freedom.  I returned in the nineties with my children so they could share some of the same experiences. 


In 2002, still reeling from an unexpected divorce, my son and I set out to cover the entire John Muir Trail.  We didn’t take it as seriously as we should have, and a simple blister on the bottom of his foot derailed our plan. Fifty miles in we had to pull out for a couple days while that healed.  Then we jumped back on the trail further south at Kearsarge Pass and finished our trip with a memorable night atop Mt. Whitney.  We ended up completing the first fifty and the last forty-five miles that year.  In 2017 we returned and went in where we had pulled out in 2002.  Another physical setback shortened our trip.  This time we are both determined to be prepared in every way to finish off the remaining eighty or so miles of the trail. We are not seeking to conquer it, we just want to enjoy it.


Any inner peace or enlightenment that I was seeking eighteen years ago has either come from elsewhere, or will never find me. I have completed all of the gauntlets chosen by fate or by my own designs and the lessons I have gleaned did not stray far from my previous beliefs.


When we started eighteen years ago my son was a teenager and I was a full-grown man.  Now he is the full-grown man and I am an old fart that won’t be doing much of anything eighteen years from now.  For me, time has transitioning from my “someday” to “before it is too late”.  All of the realities that go with the passage of nearly two decades of time apply to both of us.  We are different than we were all those years ago and frankly I am looking forward to expanding our experiences and viewing the trip from changed perspectives.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A bridge in time?

Watching my children grow up and witnessing my parents break down has forced me to consider the arc of my own life. I’ve connected with a couple old friends and felt regret over all that I missed. I’ve looked back at my choices and wondered if, in my rush to get ahead, I missed the opportunity to enjoy where I was.

I’ve had old songs sneak out from my digital library that I first heard when I was young and looking forward to life. Now I hear them from the other side of the hill. I feel like I raced through my twenties and thirties without coming up for air. My children have told me about memories of meaningful events we shared and sadly, some of them I either barely remember, or simply don’t recall. I feel like I was in a car going seventy miles an hour though a scene I could only have appreciated at twenty miles an hour. I was there, but so busy the memories didn’t sink in.

My understanding of physics and my optimism means that I am wise to focus on what is ahead and not dwell on the past. Yet, there are some things I just want to see again so my mind can separate reality from some blurry dream.

For many reasons, not all of which I understand, I want to return to the high Sierra and stand on a particular, non-descript footbridge on the John Muir Trail. While there are some impressive steel bridges, this one is just a wooden footbridge. Going up canyon the bridge is to the right of the stream. I think it is on the climb up to Palisade Lakes, but it might be somewhere in Evolution Basin. Yep, I’m not even sure where it is. Maybe it only exists in my dreams. My recollection of the bridge was that at a point in time, over thirty years ago, I saw it and thought, “That looks cool.” No epiphany, no superlatives, nothing noteworthy, it wasn’t much different than the footbridges ahead of it or behind it. It was just at a point where the switchbacks of the trail afforded me a unique view. It was just a pleasant memory. It is reasonable to assume that I could walk over it this summer and not recognize it.

Perhaps I want to find it to connect the past and present. Maybe I want to validate my memory. My life will go on if I find it or not. It has become my white whale of 2020. I am not sure what reaching it will do for me. I don’t have any ceremonies planned. I just would like to see it once again.

I am thrilled that my son is joining me on this pilgrimage. I will share more about that next time.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Welcome Back Brother

I'm riding!
As we began to emerge from COVID hibernation, I was delighted to find Feral Dave joining the Sunday ride. He was astride a new bike. Not the lightest, but he was able to keep up.  I could not be happier to see him riding again and to see our peloton welcoming him and his bike with open arms.  

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Testing: one, two, three

A room with a view....
I needed to do a shakedown overnight backpack and I was looking at an app called “Hiking Project” not long ago and I noticed there was a trailhead less than ten miles from our cabin.  The trail was a sustained yet rolling climb of eleven miles to an alpine meadow.  I wanted a something that would be enough of a test to prove out a few pieces of gear as well as testing my ever aging body. Both my son and I are trying not to be the weak link for our August hike and this was a chance to do some conditioning as well.

Timing is everything and a slot presented itself and it was a go!  Since this was kind of a last minute idea I didn’t have all of my usual stuff at hand which made it all the more interesting.  When it is time to go, you go with what you got. On a warm Wednesday afternoon I tossed my pack in the back of the war wagon and made the quick drive to the trailhead.

I’m a crack of early kind of guy, so leaving the trailhead at three in the afternoon was new to me.  I’ll spare you the boring parts of the trail description and jump to my perceptions and reactions to the hike.  I had to deal with fallen trees across the trail.  The first two were unique. I started counting them and I hit thirty before the day was done.  Some were easy, others required climbing or ducking and crawling.  My collection of leg scrapes was impressive.
As I neared my destination I was reminded how choosing a campsite when you are solo is always interesting.  With a companion or two you can spread out and find the best spot to spend the night.  Nearly always I am thankful for that because the spots I find are quickly discarded for better ones.  With nobody else to look, my tired legs and the fading sunlight made a flattish area look good enough.
Dropping my pack I pulled out my water bottles and water filter.  I put on a long sleeved shirt in case the bugs found me.  I guzzled what water I had left and went to the river to reload the bottles. 

One of the coolest things about multiday trips is getting your routines dialed in so you are more efficient in your many activities.  I was very pleased that right off the bat I didn’t seem to waste any time.  The stove was out and dinner was cooking while I set up my tent.  By the time camp was set, I had a couple of minutes to read before my tortellini was perfecto.  The air was cooling and I was in my jacket and long pants by now.
Dinner tasted unusually good in the fading light. After brushing my teeth, my sleeping bag called me and I promptly answered.

From inside my tent I could see the snow on the peaks playing with the vanishing light.  A waxing crescent moon was slowly arching toward those same peaks.  I could have watched that scene for hours except I was exhausted and I fell asleep in seconds, not minutes.

An hour later I was soon awakened by a roar that I could not place.  Coming from my deep sleep it took a while before I realized it was two fighter jets ripping over the canyon I was in.  Their tail lights rocked back and forth to the right of the crescent of the moon just above the snowy crags.  The view of the timeless night sky in this alpine setting being interrupted by modern jet planes was both cool and sacrilege.

Over the course of my hiking life the routine that has changed the most is the sequence from waking up to the first hour of hiking.  In the seventies I’d make (hot and typically messy) breakfast, eat it, clean it up, pack up my gear and get going.  The goal was an hour, the reality was often twice that. 

Now I put some water in a pot and go to the stream and fill my bottles with water.  Then I light my stove and pack my gear and tent trying to be done before the water boils.  When the water is ready I make my coffee and let it cool a bit while I pack the stove and pot.   Then I start hiking with hot coffee in hand (insulated mug) and this takes about thirty minutes from opening my eyes to walking away.  Thirty minutes to an hour down the trail the coffee is gone I put a mix of muesli and powdered milk into my mug and add some cold water. I’ve got my spoon in my fanny pack and I can eat as I hike.  Did I say fanny pack? Oh yeah, I F’ing ROCK the fanny pack when hiking.

I was wearing different clothing head to toe on the way out. You know the drill, compare and contrast.  I learned what I wanted to learn.  I liked some pieces of gear and wasn’t thrilled about others.  My body seemed okay on the hikes in and out.  The day after my muscles let me know that backpacking is not cycling.  That makes a good data point for future reference.
I was stunned that my hiking times were almost identical going in and coming out despite the fact that going in was a rolling three thousand foot climb and heading out was a rolling descent with only a few hundred feet of up.  I can only assume the rough trail and tree crossings dictated the pace more than the climbing.  We used to say the trails in the Sierra were built by displaced Egyptians.  The stonework and switchbacks are engineering marvels. An eleven mile rocky trail with a single switchback means you are either in Washington or Colorado.  I guess there were not Egyptians to go around. 

The hike was long enough to adequately test my gear under real loads and real distances.  I need to improve the venting of my hat and add a loop to keep the tongues of my shoes from wandering.  There were other winners and losers and a few lessons about gear and some planning changes on the horizon.

Mission accomplished.   

Saturday, May 16, 2020

A red sleeping bag, a blue jacket

An ill-fitting down jacket sparked it.  I had a blue down jacket and after denying it for a year or two I admitted the arms were too short.  In the 1970’s I had made a down jacket from a kit and knew it wouldn’t be hard to add a section and make the arms longer.  I am sure I had some ripstop in my inventory and I could get the down from a pair of down booties I had stuffed somewhere that I hadn’t touched in a decade.
As I extracted the booties from the boxes of stuff I hadn’t touched for years I pulled out my red sleeping bag and laid it on the carpet.  A flood of memories filled the room. Everything from camping with my dad in Sequoia to backpacking with my children in Washington and California to praying for warmth on Denali.  
Evo with Duncan at Charlotte Lake, 1979
I successfully modified the down jacket and put the sleeping bag back. The seed, however, was no longer dormant.
When my rhythm issue caused me to wonder if my cycling days might be over, my bigger fear was that I would not be able to backpack again. At this point it had been ten years since I had been on a backpacking trip. I took note and realized I needed to course correct.
Tim and Evo on Forester Pass 2002
That summer Tim and I returned to the John Muir Trail to finish what we started in 2002.  We did not complete the trail in 2017, but we did do another section and there is still a final chunk waiting for us.
Tim wading across the inlet to Lake Virginia, 2017
Our plan is to complete the trail this August. So much has changed from the seventies when I started backpacking in the Sierras.  The gear is much, much better and I am an old man that is, let’s be honest, much, much slower.
Note the required old man hat......