Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Summer Less Ordinary, Part II: The Way It Ought to Be

This was the summer I did right.

Up until this year, I have never finished a summer regret-free. There's always been something to mourn as the days begin to shorten, the leaves change, and the heat dissipates: opportunities missed, chances not taken, seasonal fruit not consumed in adequate quantities to trigger satisfaction. And to be honest, there were a few moments, particularly in the fruit category, that I did not fully exploit this summer; but only a few.

Fruit, for instance: I could've done with one more flat of Hood strawberries. And I only went out once to pick blackberries, though I still might hit the vines one more time before the berries start to shrivel. But I've had raspberries, peaches, Hermiston watermelons, corn on the cob, and blueberries by the pound. I've also been to both major Portland beer festivals, early enough that I was able to taste every beer I was interested in--and I had the privilege of introducing my now-21-year-old son to these events (though it turns out he just doesn't like beer):
Then there was outdoor recreation. I will admit here to not doing as much intense endurance work as I would've liked--I had thought I might work up to a century on my bicycle, but maxed out at about 40 miles; meanwhile the tricky tendon in my left foot is still keeping me from running more than twice a week, so no half-marathons appear to be in my future--but I did get to go on not one, not two, but three backpacking trips with Amy. We didn't do nearly as much day-hiking as we usually have, but I think the backpacking more than makes up for it, especially our final trip, to the Tetons.

What else makes summer special for me? How about full employment? The last time I was able to ply my trade as an elementary music teacher was June, 2009, and while I've now had two years teaching high school music in Banks, it's only been half-time, with no prospects of expanding in the foreseeable future. In today's cash-starved educational climate, full-time work is every music teacher's holy grail. To be full-time in an elementary setting is even more extraordinary. The transition is proving quite messy, as I will detail in my next blog post, but to end the summer in better professional shape than I started it is simply remarkable, something that hasn't happened for me since 2007.
Scott entrance photo
There were other seized opportunities, wonderful experiences had thanks to intentionally setting dates, making reservations, and just doing it: driving out to Idaho to see my kids; seeing my first Oregon Shakespeare Festival play; reading novels; seeing almost every summer movie I wanted to; finally having the house-warming party we didn't get around to last August. I expect there are more that I just can't put my finger on at the moment. And that's all right, because now it's time to roll out the one experience that has, on its own, rendered this summer the most satisfying I can remember:

This blog.

Look at my index page, and you'll see that there are now over a hundred entries to Midlife Meditations. That's considerably more than a hundred hours spent at this computer, rattling off thoughts as fast as my fingers can fly (and if you've ever heard me type, you know that's pretty doggone fast). Those thoughts have run the gamut from political observations to reflections on aging to aesthetics to...hey, just take a moment to scan the index, already! This might seem a tedious activity, certainly an odd one to credit with turning my usual summer blahs around: I rarely do it outside, the laptop can get downright hot on my bare legs, it's not unusual for me to doze off while typing (I just did), and it's actually a major reason that I've not engaged in more long-distance bicycling. I may have plenty of free time in the summer compared to most employed people, but spend an hour or two on a blog post, and the allotted time for a long ride dwindles fast. It also makes me less pleasant to be around: when I'm writing, I have no room in my perceptions for the people around me, and I'm afraid I sometimes come across as rude when all I really mean to say is "Could you please let me finish this sentence?"

I wrote a blog once before, a diary of my 2006 trip through the desert southwest with Sean. That was a good, if challenging, experience--Wi-Fi was hard to come by in those desert locales--but it did not whet my appetite for long-form writing sufficiently to continue once I got home. In the years since, I've done very little of this sort of writing. I did a revision of my novel in 2010, but once I was finished--and painfully aware of how flawed the now 500-page manuscript was--I set it aside, plunging my attention into more rewarding pursuits like improv, exercise, and video games. (Yes, I played more video games than I am comfortable admitting, but hey, I was unemployed.)

I occasionally checked into other blogs. My brother Ocean wrote extensively about his bike trip down the Pacific Coast, sharing deep insights about his own journey to half-centurydom. Slate magazine, the online news outlet that has become my primary source for news and opinion, is mostly blogs. So I do read them. I just didn't consider writing one.

And then, sometime in May, I did it. I don't remember what finally tipped me over into blogdom, but one day I sat down on the couch, started writing and didn't stop. Sometimes I turned out three or four long essays in a day. I had so much to say, so many opinions, so much history. I wasn't particular about who read it, though I did have to be firm in the beginning about people who wanted to engage me in debating my opinions: I write this for myself, to express myself, and I have no interest in arguing, especially not with people who can't rest until my mind is changed. So I shut down some conversations. That was hard: there have, in fact, been times in my life when there was nothing I loved better than a rip-roaring issue-oriented debate, whether it was online or face to face. But I was younger then, and with the cooling of my angry young masculinity came a preference for more reasoned discussion, for letting different opinions exist without having to counter them, and for listening attentively.

My writings have ranged across a vast spectrum of ideas, and I expect they will continue to do so. That's the nature of the form. Blogging has put me in touch with a part of myself that has long been neglected, with a passion that dates back to my earliest efforts at putting pen to paper: I am a writer.

And that explains why blogging, more than anything else, has made this a summer I do not regret. This was the summer I rooted around in the closet of my personality and found an aspect of my identity that I had allowed to atrophy, hauled it out into the open, let it breathe and find full expression without regard for the size of my audience or the lack of remuneration. I am a writer.

I've written many things in my life: short stories, novels, poetry, sermons, articles, editorials, research papers--and now, through this venue, essays. Of all the writing hats I've worn, essayists fits the best. It's simultaneously discursive and persuasive, and it's uniquely my own. I can be as opinionated as I like, can choose any topic that holds my interest long enough for me to write it out, can go on for as long as I need to say what I have to say, illustrate it as much as I like, and when I'm done, click the "publish" button and send it off into the blogosphere. After all these years, I am a writer.

I will admit that it is satisfying to check the index page and see how many people have viewed each of my entries, to wonder at what makes some of them so much more interesting than others. I am especially delighted when someone shares what I've written; and especially disappointed when a piece I'm especially proud of garners only a handful of views. But the main thing, the only thing really, is that I am channeling my thoughts, my hopes, my dreams, my passion through my fingers and into these letters and words and paragraphs and sending them all to the same place, that again, after too long a break, I am a writer.

In the last week, there have been necessary breaks in my blogging, which are easily attributable to the difficulties of changing jobs at the beginning of the school year. I expect my frequency in the coming months will be considerably less than what it has been over the summer: working full-time, with a long commute, and finding time to work out, while holding onto my supplementary jobs, is going to take a toll on how much time and energy I can devote to this blog. If you find I've not posted in more than a week, please feel free to poke me; I don't want to let go of this. I am a writer.

Hanging in there, and continuing to make the time to do this, will take this summer less ordinary and spin it on into an autumn, a winter, a school year less ordinary, and on into a rest-of-my-life less ordinary. Because, then, now, and until I'm done with this life, I am a writer.

A Summer Less Ordinary, Part I: Road Trips

For most of my life, summer has been a season without accomplishment.

I have to qualify that statement with this observation: my childhood summers were fun, productive times when I engaged in all the usual outdoor activities, riding my bicycle, playing little league, splashing around in our wading pool and, when I got older, walking to the municipal pool to beat the heat in a chlorine-rich environment. As I moved into adolescence, though, my interests shifted more to inactivity: television, books, and writing.

Yes, I was writing, plowing through reams of notebook paper creating several different science fiction worlds; and when I wasn’t writing science fiction, I was reading it. Movies were rare treats, television offered little to amuse me, so I stuck to my books and my pen.

This included family vacations. I missed a lot of scenery keeping my nose buried in a novel or a notebook. I also managed to get myself carsick in the process, particularly when we’d be traveling up the Alsea Highway to Waldport. Once we reached our vacation destination, I’d keep myself glued to that book, often shutting myself in the parked car to get out of the chill of our coastal campsite and away from the distractions of my younger brothers. This didn’t happen as much when I was at camp, and had social stimuli to keep me from boredom; but camp was rare, two weeks a summer at most.

There was also the piano: I spent many an hour at the church, finding a Sunday school room with a piano and playing until my fingers were sore.

One thing I didn’t do much was work. I did have an office job at my dad’s church, but that didn’t take much time. I remember a fellow Scout coming to me once and trying to get me interested in a job at the lumber mill where he worked during the summer, and telling him I had too much to do at home—“too much” meaning too many books to read, too many stories to write.

This practice continued through college and graduate school. I had occasional temp jobs, but for the most part, summer was a time for me to relax and read. Becoming an educator, I naturally assumed I’d continue having that kind of summer. To put it in the form of a joke popular among my fellow education majors, “The three best things about teaching are June, July, and August.”

Unless, of course, you haven’t got a job waiting for you in September.

My first summer of limbo was in 1984. In those pre-internet days, teachers found work through college placement services. Regularly I would receive fat packets from Willamette University stuffed with job leads that met my search criteria. I’d either send back a card or make a phone call—I can’t remember which, though since it was long distance (remember when that was a factor?), I assume it was the former—telling them who to send my placement file to. And then I’d wait for the phone to ring. When it rang, there’d be an administrator on the other end setting up an appointment for an interview. This happened eight times that summer.

I got to know the remote corners of the Pacific Northwest very well that summer. Except for one interview in Kent, Washington, all my interviews were in rural, even isolated districts. I traveled to most of them on my own in the 1973 Toyota Celica that was my family’s second car. It tended to overheat, so I was frequently stuck on the side of the road, waiting for the engine to cool. I stayed in $10/night motels, camped in my pup tent, was hosted once by a Methodist minister (thanks to my father’s contacts), and slept on a cold hard church floor (also thanks to Dad). Now having experienced the interview odyssey multiple times, I better understand why I had to travel to Joseph, Enterprise, Forks, North Powder, Wapato, Port Orford, and one other location I can’t remember: urban schools get far more applicants than rural schools, and those applicants have far better resumes and references than does a first-year teacher. Rural districts, by contrast, have to draw from a far less experienced pool of applicants and, pressed for cash, are less likely to hire one who’s already two steps up the scale (thanks to that Master’s degree) than one with just a BA.

I also didn’t interview well. I was uncomfortable, lacked confidence, couldn’t project the enthusiasm I felt for teaching—though to be honest, I mostly was terrified of getting the high school job I wanted and having to teach students just a few years younger than I.

So after eight interviews, I was still jobless. And then North Powder called me back for a second interview. It seems their first choice had turned them down. That should’ve been my first warning. But that’s another story.

That summer was an important watershed for me. I worked hard for those interviews, drove insane distances in a car that could have stranded me on a remote highway, slept in dicey motels, lived on granola bars, saw beautiful remote places and tried to imagine living in them. I also began my first true exercise program, walking for hours at a time. And, at the end of the summer with that job offer finally in place, I bought my first car, then moved into my first apartment.

Other summers have been similarly remarkable. The following summer culminated with a drive to Dallas, Texas, where I started seminary at a place I’d never seen. The summer after that I drove straight through from Dallas to northern New York state to meet my future in-laws, then across Canada to my parents’ home, then, a month later, after introducing my fiancĂ©e to them, back to Dallas with her. In fact, driving has figured prominently in every memorable summer I’ve had.

Things changed once there were children and regular church employment in my life. Church jobs, unlike teaching jobs, are year-round, and while Methodism had a relatively generous vacation policy (four weeks a year), I was in a marriage that did not favor travel for the sake of travel. Once that marriage ended, I discovered that taking road trips with small children could be quite complicated if one did not have a fellow parent along to share the duties with, especially at bedtime. My second marriage briefly alleviated this, but then it ended, along with my career, and now I had to add lack of income to the list of factors precluding extended vacations. So the pattern was in place, and remained so until recently: I might take a week or two to travel, but for the most part, summer was a time to stay at home, squandering opportunities.
That brings me to the summer that is now ending, one of the richest in terms of accomplishments and experiences that I can remember. And that will be Part II.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Then Again, Maybe You CAN Leave!

This is my last reference to the Hotel California. Really.

Amy and I did not arrive in the Rogue Valley together. She drove down with Alex and Sarah, who were concerned that I was not in the car, and were fearfully wondering that something had happened to our relationship. She straightened them out, and now I shall do the same for you.

The phone call came Saturday. We'd been driving all day, had stopped at the QFC for some groceries, and were about to drive the final mile back to the house, when I realized I had missed a call while we were shopping. I didn't recognize the number, but a voice mail had been left, so I pulled into a parking space and listened as a principal asked if I was still interested in a full-time elementary music position in the Reynolds School District. Needless to say, I called her right back and set up an interview for the earliest time she had available: 4:15 on Monday, well past the time we had hoped to be on our way down to Southern Oregon for our final summer vacation.

Now for some background: I've been half-time for two years in Banks. For the year before that, I was 0.10-time in Portland. The year before that, I was on unemployment. Banks is a hard-hit school district: since laying me off in 2009, they've seen elementary class sizes of 40, all the way down to the second grade. Our superintendent likes to say, with pride, that in Banks we "do more with less" than any other district in the state. He's probably right, and the pride is justified. But it sucks.

When I was full-time in Banks, I purchased $10,000 of Orff instruments that have now been stored for four years, and will stay stored for at least one more, probably two or three. There just isn't any money for elementary music. What money there is has to be prioritized to reducing class sizes by hiring more classroom teachers.

Now back to me: I'm 52. It's been four years since I made any full-time contributions to my pension. That's the financial side of it. Professionally, I've continued with my training, picking up full Orff-certification, but with no classroom to practice it in, I worry that those skills are slipping away. And I miss working with young children.

Before you consider me miserable in Banks, please understand I love my students. They're great kids, hard workers, and almost every day in the band room I came away feeling tired by refreshed, knowing they'd made some good music with me, that they loved what they were doing, and fulfilling my youthful conducting fantasies.

As much as I love rehearsing and conducting an ensemble, I love teaching more, and ever since my first exposure to an elementary classroom, during student teaching, I've known that's where I belong. I was fortunate in 2003 to be hired to a temporary job at an elementary school, and I happily built a career on that for six years before the layoff hit.

Now back to this summer: knowing it was unlikely Banks would expand my current job in the near future, let alone restore the elementary position, and encouraged by the superintendent to look for a full-time gig, I got busy. I daily searched every teacher recruitment site serving districts within fifty miles of Bethany, which has to remain my home base as long as Sarah is in school. I applied for anything that was greater than half-time and elementary. And I got interviews: Hillsboro, a different position in Reynolds. We took a detour on our way to Idaho so I could interview in Oregon City. On our way up to the Tetons, we parked for an hour so I could do a phone interview with Camas. Again and again, though, I didn't quite make the cut, even though every one of those interviews went well. It was beginning to seem that Banks was where I was going to finish my career, limping along at half-time for as long as it took for music to finally get to the top of the out basket.

Here was one last chance, uncomfortably late in the summer, but the principal sounded like she really wanted to talk to me, that she'd actually been turned down by some candidates who didn't like the thought of working in a gymnasium. So I took that 4:15 interview, and bought a Greyhound ticket, then went to work figuring out where I could leave my car. (I parked it at the ComedySportz arena, and got a ride to the bus station from Herb Spice.) Monday arrived, Amy headed off to pick up the kids and continue on to southern Oregon, and chaos descended.

It was as if the cosmos was out to get me. I had a lesson to teach before I headed into town, and arrived at it twenty minutes late--and without my bus ticket. I rescheduled the lesson, drove back to the house, retrieved the ticket, and headed into Portland--and gridlock on I-84 from a Government Island wildfire and a stalled vehicle. It took me well over an hour to get to Margaret Scott Elementary School. There I found Mychael Irwin, the principal, herself feeling thoroughly frazzled as she tried to get her house in order for a new position, with hirings coming far too late for comfort.

And from that moment, everything was great. The interview was wonderful, one of the best I've had. The drive to the arena was clear sailing. Herb hustled me into the van as soon as I'd pulled into the alley, and I was at the bus station with time for supper. I came back from the burrito place where I ate to find a long line waiting to get on the southbound bus--and then was escorted to an express line, a bus that made only three stops, dropping me off a half-hour early.

Now came the waiting game: when would I hear back? Mychael had promised me "Wednesday at the latest." Our cabin was well out of cell-tower range, so I was always eager to come down out of the hills and see if I had any voice mail. Watching Taming of the Shrew, my enjoyment was partially tempered by that part of my brain that kept hoping the phone would vibrate. Driving up to Crater Lake on Wednesday, I again found myself losing coverage, and there was none for the entire time we were up there. All the way back down, I kept checking for coverage, and once we had it, wondered if there'd been a glitch with the voice mail. We again left cell coverage sometime after 7 p.m. Thursday morning, we drove down to Jacksonville--still no voice mail--for breakfast. All the disappointments of every other job I'd applied for, interviewed for, been turned down for, was coming to a head, and I was doubting whether I would ever find work in the Portland area.

That's when I turned to Amy and said, "Maybe I need to look elsewhere."

"What?" she said, shock on her face.

"Not now; but maybe, when Sarah graduates, we should be open to living outside Portland. Someplace like this." (And that is how you know the Rogue Valley had been redeemed for me.)

Amy deflected my defeatist thoughts of abandoning our Portland dream: "Why don't you call them and find out?"

So I did. And learned that they were still very interested in me, but that the other principal--there are two schools in this assignment--wanted to meet me in person, perhaps on Monday. My heart sank at this thought: I was supposed to report to Banks on Monday. But at least it wasn't closed. Buoyed by this knowledge, I felt a burden left from my chest.

Friday I talked Mychael into a Sunday interview--which wound up being at 4:15, meaning there was no way I would be able to make it to the final performance of Trek in the Park's "The Trouble with Tribbles." Sunday afternoon I was a hot mess. I held it together for the two piano lessons I taught, then arrived at the school a half hour early, parking next to a car which, I discovered when I got out of my own, belonged to (gulp) another music teacher: the back seat was loaded with music teaching supplies. So I didn't have it sewn up, despite all the ways Mychael had hinted at this job being mine for the asking. I waited outside the school until 4:35, finally being brought in to learn that the other principal had called in sick, so maybe I didn't need this interview after all--except that I'd prepared a lesson to demonstrate to both of them, even purchased a small djembe drum to use during it. I talked with Mychael for awhile, walked her through the lesson, then got a tour of the facility, and all the while the language was leading me down that path toward the job being mine, and all this being a formality. But she wouldn't know until she checked one more reference: my current junior high principal, who she hadn't been able to reach.

So I did report to Banks this morning. And the first thing I did was to approach Shelley, the BJH principal, and ask her to make the call, which she did. Then I waited all morning for my phone to ring, through hours of talks about benefit packages. Then came a high school staff meeting. Then it was back to the elementary cafeteria for lunch and another training. I'd been on tenterhooks all morning, had no appetite for the pastries that are always served on the first day of inservice. And finally it came. I grabbed the phone, hurried across the gym, answered it.

And got the job.

It's been a long time coming, and I'm deliriously happy. There's a mess that needs cleaning up: coming this late puts Banks at a horrible disadvantage, as well as creating a legal hassle. Teachers are supposed to give 60 days notice to ensure continuity for students; I was giving 9. I might have to start the year in the Banks band room. I will very likely have to lead a pep band at this Friday's pre-season football game. But everyone knows about this, and everyone is working to resolve it as quickly as possible, and I must admit I am relieved to have a chance to say goodbye to these students, most of whom I have known since 2007.

I can be defeatist about things that never seem to go my way: elections, interviews, contests. Winning something, succeeding at something, even though it does happen more often than I admit to myself, is like a wave of grace crashing over my head, telling me once again that I am valued and desired, that my talents and skills are recognized. It is so wonderful to be wanted. And in this way, I finally leave the valleys of my defeats: Emmett, Medford. And yes, they're both in valleys, the Gem and the Rogue, respectively. Despite the hard experiences I had in them, neither was really that bad a place to live.

But the view from up here is glorious.

But You Can Never Leave

 Welcome to the Hotel Medford.

Actually, it was a rental cabin located in the hills above Jacksonville, and we only just grazed Medford a couple of times for a Harry & David run and a burger at Jasper's. But all the time we were in the Rogue Valley, I was keenly aware that, once again, I was in a place that had been both traumatic and formative, and that I was there voluntarily.

Medford was where I learned I could not truly come home to Methodism in Oregon. It was where the family demon of authority issues dragged me into a depression so deep that I finally acknowledged it was a problem for me; where injuries sidelined me from running for the first time since I took up the sport; where my first marriage headed up the ramp toward divorce; and where my son Sean was born, and nearly died. All this happened over the course of less than a year.

It was also, and remains, an incredibly beautiful place, a part of Oregon that has a character and culture all its own, that fosters the arts as nowhere else in the state does, a place where I should have been happy to settle, if only I hadn't been in the wrong career and marriage. My chief memories of that time--July 1991-June 1992--are of anxiety, fear, and sadness. As with Emmett, Idaho, I couldn't wait to get out of there.

What a difference 21 years can make. That number amazes me every time I look at it: that's 21 years that have turned the baby who wasn't supposed to survive the night into a strong, healthy, sweet young man who has at least three inches of height on me. Those 21 years include the end of my marriage, my second marriage in its entirety, the end of my ministry career, floating for two years, finally settling into teaching and becoming--and this really amazes me--established and even sought-after, despite a two-year recessional layoff. 21 years that encompass the entirety of every adult relationship I've had save the first, and even that one is still part of this period. 21 years that include five marathons and my introduction to skiing, backpacking, comedy, and these three people.

Medford was a refiner's fire. It seared me, broke me, injured me so deeply that the healing would take...21 years. Places like this one, experiences like those I had there, shape us in ways we cannot know for years to come. I have often wished these things had not happened to me, that I had waited longer to propose marriage, had seriously considered staying in England, had questioned the decision to put both my wife and me on the same church staff, had waited a few months longer to agree to having another baby. But there is not point in grieving over these things. The choices were made, the consequences experienced, and I am who I am because of them.

I have understood all this conceptually, have known deep within myself that I can no more give up my formative experiences than I can my DNA, that if anything I owe a debt of gratitude to all these places, however dark they may have seemed to me while I was there. As much as I may have an intellectual appreciation of the importance of such places, redeeming them with new memories has come hard for me.

Until Amy said, "I've never been to Ashland." And just like that, we had a final vacation for the summer.

Our cabin was lovely, in a spectacular mountain setting, isolated from the road, surrounded by fruit trees that drew both deer and jack rabbits, frequented by a persistent tabby. There were also friendly dogs, but we saw very little of them. On our first day we drove into Ashland and saw The Taming of the Shrew, my first experience of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 38 years of calling myself an Oregonian. We were all delighted by it, amused by the contemporary staging, astonished by how fresh the 400-year-old dialogue felt, delighted by the performances, amazed at how good our seats were. It left us wanting more, exactly as a good play should. By the time we finished our ice cream and got on the road, the Rogue Valley was well on its way to redemption.

The following morning, I woke Alex up for a run. Medford was a place where I had to patiently wait through a long spell of plantar fasciitis, taking several months off; but by mid-winter, 1992, I was finally managing to run again without pain, especially on soft surfaces. One of those surfaces was the road up Roxy Anne Butte, a small volcano that overlooks the city. When I arrived at our cabin in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, I was coming off a two-week break from running due to tendonitis, but I was eager to give it a try here. Roxy Anne was too far away, but there was a small mountain behind the cabin that had seized my interest, and I wondered if there was a way up to the top. I led Alex up the driveway, out onto the asphalt, through some rolling hills, and then found what I was looking for: a sign marking the dirt road up the mountain I was now going to climb. I tackled it. Alex chose to walk after awhile, but I pushed up, higher and higher, until, glancing at my watch, I realized I'd been out longer than I should, and reluctantly turned back. I did pause to take pictures, discovering as I did that here, as in the Tetons, the morning sun was being tinted orange by wildfires. My legs worked just as they had two decades earlier on Roxy Anne, powering up the hill, my stride-length shrinking as I kicked into my climbing gear. For much of my adult life, running has been my drug of choice, my preferred way of purging darkness from my soul, energizing my spirit, empowering me for the day ahead.

With the morning run complete, we climbed in the car and made for Crater Lake, a place I had been to many times, but which neither Amy, nor Alex, nor Sarah had ever been to. The lake was as lovely as I've ever seen it, the water still, perfectly reflective, the sky--well, the sky was not as blue as we wanted it to be. The smoke from the wildfires had settled over the lake, casting a grey pall over its lovely visage, so this is what we saw:

It was a long drive around the rim, a longer drive back down to Medford, and we were all cranky by the time we got there--a mood greatly relieved by the meal we shared at Jasper's, a hole-in-the-wall gourmet hamburger restaurant that is justifiably popular.

We pulled back into our cabin, played cards, bedded down, and the next morning, headed north.

Was Southern Oregon redeemed for me? You will have to read my next post for the answer.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Two Miles High, Part VII: You can check out any time you like...

The worst years of my childhood were spent in Emmett, Idaho. They were my middle school years, difficult for any young person: hormones, uneven growth spurts, voice changes, mood swings, and acne work together to make this the most awkward and least attractive phase in human development. I had all those problems, and more: I was the Methodist preacher’s kid in a Mormon town; I was an utterly un-athletic nerd; I wore thick glasses; I was overweight; and I was an introvert. It was as if my genes had conspired with my circumstances to paint a bright red target on my forehead, and filled my glands with a pheromone uniquely appealing—and enraging—to bullies. I was tormented mercilessly. And I hated it. Moving to Oregon and beginning high school anywhere that wasn’t Emmett was a gift from God.

And yet, for all that misery, Emmett was a watershed. I experienced my first adolescent crush in Emmett, to a girl who led me on then cruelly dashed my hopes, laughing at my misery. I discovered science fiction in Emmett, both as literary escape and as subject matter for my first attempts at writing stories. I began playing the trumpet in Emmett, setting me up for my future career in music education. I grew into Scouting in Emmett, becoming a leader in one of the best-run troops I ever encountered either as a Scout or as an adult leader. I set aside toys in Emmett, using the $5 my grandfather sent me for Christmas when I was 12 to buy a GI Joe, then realizing when I got home that I had simply lost interest in playing with action figures.
Altogether, Emmett was the place that most shaped who I was to become. The Scouting hikes and camping trips in the high desert put the smells of juniper and sage in my nose so that, twenty years later when I traveled to Kah-Nee-Tah for a pastor’s school retreat, it felt like I was coming home; and the desert of Central Oregon, Idaho, and Utah has continued to be a place of pilgrimage and renewal for me. If it were not for Emmett, I would not be the man I am today. 

This is, I am sure, why I booked us into the Frozen Dog Digs for our post-hike recovery night. Originally, we were supposed to be coming from Pettit Lake, about a three-hour drive from Emmett. We would’ve had so much time to spare that we planned to stop in Sweet, a village with a church that had been yoked to Emmett during my father’s ministry there, and have dinner at a Basque restaurant. Driggs to Emmett was a much longer haul, however, especially with lunch and dinner stops, and it was dark and late when we finally arrived.
frozen dog digs
Our host at the Frozen Dog Digs was Jon, a man in his 60s who’d led an adventurous life, living and working around the world, but had never married, and, in 1979, has returned to Emmett to build this house with his father. His father, now 91, still lives on the property. Originally, the plan had been to build a house for some hypothetical wife who never materialized; when it became clear she never would, Jon started making bold decorating decisions, creating a sports room, a rock memorabilia room, spiral staircases, a racquetball court, a wet bar with beer taps. At some point, he and his father realized they were building a huge house for just the two of them—one, really, for his father was living in a separate building. Then came the decision to turn it into a bed and breakfast.

The house is a wayside attraction, an eccentric museum of kitsch with large empty bedrooms and not enough bathrooms to really make it as a B&B—and, of course, there is the location. There simply is no reason for people to visit Emmett on vacation. Boise is 45 minutes away, and has plenty of inns and hotels for the discerning traveler. The house itself has to be the destination, and it is a work in progress.

I was charmed by the place. Amy was spooked by it. The whimsy appealed to me. Our host was, perhaps, a bit too attentive. Neither of us slept well, with the loud room air conditioner and the long trek down the spiral stairs to the bathroom being the primary culprits. I certainly did not enjoy having “Fox and Friends” on the TV while we ate breakfast, confirming every suspicion I’ve ever had about Fox News. And the way he rushed out to the car as we were pulling away to share one last DVD title with us that we simply must watch was spooky. But mostly, I empathized with Jon, thinking that, but for my good fortune in meeting Amy, I might well have turned out like him, looking back on a full but solitary life, turning my home (possibly my grandmother's/now my parents' house in McMinnville) into a museum and inn, a shrine celebrating my many passions, that far too few would visit and appreciate.

We left the inn and quickly tooled through town, visiting the places that had meant the most to me during my three years in Emmett. The small house with the big yard:

The building that had housed Parkview Middle School, now repurposed as the county courthouse and (very appropriately, in my mind) jail:
And the library where I had spent my happiest hours in Emmett, immersed in books, friends who would never torment me, never tease me, never follow me home spitting on me, never steal my glasses, never brand me with epithets it would take me years to erase from my identity:
 And then we were fully on our way, across the Snake and into Oregon, speeding along I-84 through mountains, forests, and fields, down into the Gorge, across Portland, and finally to Bethany, where we unloaded, packed away, laundered, and crashed, home for less than 48 hours before we launched our next adventure: Southern Oregon.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Two Miles High, Part VI: The Long Way Out

Friday morning, 6:30 a.m., we were both awake, and I set our goal: to be fed, packed, and on the trail by 8:00. We almost made it.

I knew we had many miles to go before we slept. I figured that it would take us about four hours to cover the 7.7 miles to the trailhead, then another hour to drive to Driggs and have a quick lunch. It would then take us, according to Google maps, seven and a half hours to drive through the Sawtooth Mountains to Emmett, Idaho, where I had booked us a room in a bed and breakfast called the Frozen Dog Digs.

This was the fourth time we had broken camp as backpackers, and we worked efficiently, filtering water, deflating air mattresses, compressing sleeping bags, retrieving bear bags, eating a quick breakfast, and finally loading the packs, which were inexplicably bulkier than they had been two days before. By the time we hoisted them onto our backs and set off, with one final glance at Buck Mountain’s reflection in the lake, it was 8:30.

The Teton Canyon Trail had a steeper descending grade than I had expected. The Alaska Basin is, after all, lower than the mesa upon which we had camped on our first night, and we would have five miles to descend to the point at which the Devil’s Stair branched away from the Canyon Trail. The trail was steeper than I had expected, and there was a lot of descending. We’d get to the level of the creek, and I’d think we were set, that it would be gentle from here to the end, but then the trail would separate from the creek, the sound of water would recede, and before we knew it we’d be on another set of switchbacks. I came to resent every twist of the trail back toward Buck Mountain: it felt like backtracking, losing some of the horizontal distance we’d made up.
We stopped for a Clif bar, dropping the packs for a few minutes. We paused at a huge pile of manure, which some boys headed up the trail told us was moose scat, though it looked like horse to me. We stopped again, for a longer break, at a lovely waterfall, having another snack, enjoying the amber water pouring over the rocks and into a pool I would gladly have soaked me sore feet in had I not been so eager to finish this hike.

On and on we hiked, vigilantly watching for the one milepost that would tell us we were really making progress: the Devil’s Stairs. We stepped off the trail to let a horse party pass, and asked them how far it would be to the junction. “About a mile,” said one of the riders. It seemed a very long mile. We came across another horse party, this one made entirely of women, surprising one in the act of relieving herself. I quickly turned my back to give her privacy as she hiked her jeans back up. “How far is it to the junction?” asked Amy. “Just a few more switchbacks, and you’re there.” It took us longer than we expected to get to those switchbacks, but finally we came to it, dropped our packs for one last time, and snacked on trail mix.

A youth camp leader we had passed several times—he was always either waiting for one of his charges to take a potty break, or hiking past us, said charge in tow—walked past us once more, telling his young party that it was just two more miles to the trailhead. I had seen the sign—it said 2.7—and assumed Amy had, as well. In fact, she had latched onto the number two, and having it in her mind made the remaining distance seem far longer than it actually was.

I began counting my paces now, a practice I employed in my early years as a runner. I was counting on about 1000 paces per mile, but as it turned out, that was far too optimistic. When I told Amy what I was doing, she began asking me regularly for an update. “800.” “1200.” “We just broke 2000.” Amy was having a great deal of pain in one foot, and was pausing frequently to rest that foot. But she was too driven to take another real break. Had she known about the extra 0.7 mile, she might have considered it, but she was stubbornly, fiercely dedicated to finishing.

The views continued to delight me, both fore and aft, and my camera was frequently out. Whenever I paused to frame a picture, Amy would get ahead of me, and I’d have to walk briskly to catch up with her. The last few miles, my photography fell off, until it was debatable whether I should just stuff the camera in my pack rather than keep it swinging from my neck, the buckle on its strap scraping every step against the buckle on the chest strap of my pack.

We heard voices approaching, and had a flash of hope that it might be the parking lot. No such luck: it was day hikers relaxing in the shade of an enormous boulder I remembered passing on the way in. We crossed a wide bridge, and I checked my memory as to how close to the trailhead it was. My memory was wrong. Every twist in the trail we hoped to see the end in sight, only to have more trail lying before us. The trail had become a merciless flirt, always hinting at conclusion, but never delivering. We passed some day hikers who assured us it was not far. We passed more of them. Still no end.

I saw the toilet first. A minute later, we were there. Heaving the packs into the car, swapping boots for sandals, filling a water bottle, immersing my head in cold tap water, all took longer than I expected. My final pace count was 3300—1222/mile—and it had taken us five, rather than four, hours to cover the 7.7 miles, almost all of it downhill.

We drove down to Driggs, and had a pizza at 2:30. In the restaurant, I saw local news of the fire in the Sawtooths, which had grown in the two days we had been away from the internet. We drove through the construction that had slowed us on the way in. I mentally ditched half of the Sawtooth drive, thinking we could still go up through Ketchum and Stanley, coming down from there into Emmett. As we drove the lonely highway, I began to see the mushroom cloud of the fires, and by the time we reached the junction to Sun Valley, I had dispensed with all plans of seeing the mountains: it would just be too smoky, and besides, it was so late that we wouldn’t see much, anyway. We stopped in Boise for dinner, then drove on into Emmett, arriving at the B&B sometime around 10:30.

As fatigued as we were, we slept poorly at the Frozen Dog Digs, for reasons I will explore in the final chapter of this series.

Two Miles High, Part V: Mega-Midi-Mini-Micro Charisma

We expected charismatic megafauna. That’s why we took bear spray, attached bear bells to our packs, put our food in a bear can, put anything else that might have any attractive odor to it at all in a bear bag and hung the lot from  a tree. It’s also why, even with the bear spray, Amy insisted on sleeping with one of her trekking poles, as well, which she dubbed “Pokey.”

 As much as we didn’t want to see a bear, Amy wanted badly to see a moose. Three years ago, when I first took her to Idaho and we made an abortive trip to Yellowstone (the roads in May were just to icy for comfort), she left disappointed. Coming up the canyon trail, we’d met many other hikers on their way out who’d talked about how many bears and moose they had seen.

 We saw neither. A young hiker we met on the way out pointed to a pile of manure on the trail and announced it was moose scat, but given the number of horses we encountered, I rather doubt there were any antlers involved in the production of that fecal matter.

 Even without the megafauna, we were not alone on the trail. There were the marmots, which I dubbed “midifauna” as they dashed away from us, their tails spinning comically. There were squirrels and songbirds—“minifauna.” And there were butterflies, “microfauna,” more varieties than we’d seen in one place outside of the Oregon Zoo exhibit, fluttering from flower to flower, pollinating with wild insect abandon; not to mention honeybees and bumblebees.

 All these critters—birds, rodents, butterflies, bees—had animal charisma, evoking wonder and delight. The closest encounter I had with a creature, however, was with a decidedly non-charismatic yellowjacket, which stung me on the ankle as we were hiking on the plateau near The Wedge. Biting flies plagued us on our hike up the canyon to the point that we applied some potent insect repellant. At the lake where we made our second camp, mosquitoes led us to again apply the bug spray. The Wyoming wilderness is a wondrous place, but it does have its fair share of pests.

Making up for the lack of iconic megafauna were charismatic flora: wildflowers of every color imaginable, whole fields of yellow, purple, blue, red, and white. The larger flora did not impress nearly as much, but then, having so much experience of the rainforests of Oregon and Washington, we’ve become used to true megaflora, magnificent trees that shoot hundreds of feet into the air. In the Rockies, by contrast, trees are skinnier, shorter, even stunted. That doesn’t mean they’re lacking in strength: as in Utah, some of these slim trunks are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years old. On the canyon trail I saw an aspen that had fallen across the trail and had been cut away by a ranger, and was stunned by how many rings I could see in a trunk I could encircle with the fingers of one hand. At our campsite we slept under a juniper that may have predated the presence of humans on this continent. And on our hike around the basin, the higher we climbed, the smaller the firs became, until they looked almost like bonsai trees: tiny yet mature, Christmas-sized pines that are probably older than I am.

 It’s the lesson of life, a lesson I first internalized in Death Valley, where I saw marsh grasses growing out of Badwater, a brackish pond located at the lowest, hottest point in the United States. Life is a powerful force, a presence that inserts itself into the most hostile places imaginable. Life adapts, transforms, evolves, always seeking a way to triumph over adversity, to be fruitful, multiply, create a new generation to replace the old.

We were in this wilderness at a peak moment in its annual life cycle. Spring in the Tetons comes in August, and it comes profligately, in brilliant colors, giddying aromas, every living thing competing with every other living thing for the opportunity to create a new iteration of itself. The flowers, the insects, the birds, the squirrels, the marmots, all are exulting in the warmth, drinking deeply of the runoff until the streams run dry, pollinating, propagating, ejecting seed pods, laying eggs, gestating and birthing and nurturing while they can, before the early winter snows hit and it all grinds to a halt. 

And in that winter dormancy, the trees carry on, laying a new ring so thin as to be nearly microscopic, some of them resembling driftwood more than living things.

 Someday these trees will die, but it will not be soon. Unlike the redwoods and sequoias, the towering first of the coast, they have remained small, compact, braced against winds that would topple a Californian giant. Conserving resources, they live on, season upon season, year after year, surviving even wildfires.

There are many lessons to be learned from these trees, lessons I’d be happy to share; but not here. I am happy, instead, simply to marvel at the beauty I beheld in even the smallest things in the wilderness, and to hope that my life may be just a little as durable and colorful as theirs.


Two Miles High, Part IV: The Mountain Is Our Father

Lakes, creeks, rocks, wildflowers, butterflies, marmots—and, of course, mountains. The Alaska Basin Loop trail was, I announced, “a smorgasbord of Tetonic delights.” It was also longer, and harder, than I had expected. 

The trail was deceptive, climbing steadily, but never steeply, for the first two miles. The haze had finally cleared, so the views were astonishing. In fact, I took more than a hundred pictures over the course of this four hour hike. We crossed shallow streams, rested on enormous boulders, and climbed ever upward. Always before us was the craggy splendor of Buck Mountain. “Wouldn’t it be cool to walk along the bottom of that mountain?” asked Amy. I still wasn’t sure how close we’d get, but I agreed. And then, after more than an hour of constant climbing, I caught a glimpse of where the trail was taking us: to the very place where the basin ended and the mountain began. We were going to find out just how cool it would be. 

We stopped to rest and snack on trail max, and I took out the map, looking more closely at the topographical markings. “Oh,” I said.

“What?” asked Amy.

“We’re going to be climbing up to—um—about 10,400 feet.”

“Oh,” she said.

We would be almost two miles above sea level, slightly higher than if we’d climbed to Hurricane Pass. And I had sold this hike to her as an easier one.

Altitude or not, it felt easier than a one-way slog up a steep trail. We were carrying our backpacks, but had emptied them of all but the ten essentials, so we were barely aware of them. And the grade was so polite, so gentle, so unassuming that the thousand feet of elevation game was almost a picnic. Note that I said “almost”; we were, after all, at the highest altitude we would experience on this trip, a thousand feet higher than the ridge we would’ve crossed to get to Alice Lake, and we were beginning to feel it, mostly as a dull threat of a headache, a slight difficulty breathing. We reached the apex of the hike, marveled at how close we were to this biggest of rocks we would behold, and started down.

The grade was, again, gentle, but now we were beginning to feel the miles, our feet aching, the headache becoming better defined. A family of marmots distracted us, as did field upon field of brilliant wildflowers. Every twist in the trail revealed another view, a fresh angle of the plateau where we had slept the night before, the lakes of the basin, more fields of flowers, and the ever-changing faces of first Buck Mountain, then Veiled Peak, then another mountain whose name I could not find on the map. But there was a problem: we were descending too slowly. The basin was much too far below us.

Why is this a problem, you may be wondering? The answer is simple: grade. A steep grade means more effort going up, but I much prefer that to the toll it takes coming down. Descending a steep grade is hard on the knees, the back, the feet. Muscles rendered sore by the effort of climbing scream become agonizing with the hyperextension of climbing down steep steps. As we came to the edge of the plateau we had been walking on for over a mile, we knew we were in for it.

Our descent was every bit as painful as I had expected. In fact, by the time we finally reached the bottom, we were both ready for the hike to be over.

It wasn’t, of course. We still had a fair distance to walk on the valley floor. We passed other hikers, climbing up to Sunset Lake, and looking back, realized just how wise we had been not to choose that as our destination: it would have taken us up the same stairs we had just descended, at a time when we were very much in need of rest. No, we had made the right choice, making camp at the lake. Climbing to Sunset Lake would have left us both exhausted, cranky, and far less willing to press on to an even higher goal. In its place, we had just taken a hike that exposed us to more beauty in four hours than we would have seen in three days of the Toxaway Loop.

And, of course, there was the mountain.

“The river is your mother,” Joe told us as we shared with him our plan of hiking the Dosiewallips in July. Now, in August, we were in a different wilderness, a place where creeks, rather than rivers, cut canyons, and there is far less water. These creeks don’t roar, they murmur. They’re subtle, scenic, easily fordable, the smooth stones in their beds lending an amber tint to the transparent water. In contrast, the mountains stand out, distinctive, rough-hewn, assertive, catching and holding the eye, showing different faces from every angle.

Tomorrow we would hike out, and I would find my theme for this adventure: the mountain is our father. More specifically, Buck Mountain was our father, always visible, always calling us, a rocky compass guiding us every closer, looming above us, and even as we headed away from it, holding our attention. This was the mountain reflected in our lake, the mountain in dozens of the pictures I took, the mountain I made my Facebook cover photo, the mountain that was Our Teton.

Back at the campsite, I found a more natural orange glow coloring Buck Mountain and its reflection in the glassy lake, and that is what you will see in this final photograph of our father:

Two Miles High, Part III: Orange Sky at Dawn

The day dawned orange.

That may not seem extraordinary to you. Around the world, sunrises and sunsets are often tinged with red and orange. The difference here, almost 10,000 feet above sea level, is that the orange lingered.

We were up by 6:30, having discovered that our brilliant plan of saving space and weight by forgoing pillows in favor of rolled-up rain coats had left much to be desired. The following night, we would find that our brilliant substitute plan, using Ziploc bags filled with underwear and wrapped in our down vests, would yield similar results: anything not actually a pillow will eventually feel more like a rock. Retrieving the bear can, having breakfast, breaking camp, and repacking bumped our departure time from this location to 8:30. The sun was well up in the sky by now, and everything was still orange.

We knew what was causing this: the huge fire in the Sawtooths that had led us to change our hiking destination. What we hadn’t bargained for is that the smoke would travel this far, hundreds of miles to the east, casting a sickly haze over the sky that had been such a brilliant blue the day before, turning everything orange. I remembered this effect from the years I spent in the Willamette Valley back in the days when the practice of field burning—grass seed farmers’ preferred method of removing stubble and sterilizing their post-harvest soil—cast a smoky pall over the too hazy, lazy days of summer’s end. It also gave me bronchitis.

Haze or not, we had miles to cover, so we hoisted up our packs and set out. Our first destination was Meek Pass. I had fostered hopes of hiking the Death Canyon Loop, but consulting the map over breakfast I had determined it was far too many miles for us to cover in our remaining time. We climbed up to the pass, took a quick selfie, and turned back toward the Alaska Basin.
The view from the pass was nothing special, a characteristic I have found in many mountain passes over the years; even so, I had hoped for at least a glimpse of Death Canyon, one of the great backpacking routes. Meek Pass also marks the border between the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and the Grand Teton National Park, so we could at least say we dipped our toes into it.

The trail now took us down the Sheep Steps. On the way we glimpsed our first marmot, a sort of cross between an otter and a seal that, despite its resemblance to aquatic mammals, lives in the arid Rocky Mountains (we had previously seen one at the Cedar Breaks, in Utah). The Sheep Steps were no problem. We came to the junction of the Teton Canyon Trail, the Teton Ridge Trail, and the Alaska Basin Trail, and another point of decision: 1.8 miles further on the ridge trail would take us to Hurrican Pass, a place that, unlike Meek and so many other passes, promised views of actual mountains: the eponymous Grand Tetons. On the way , we could make a campsite at Sunset Lake. But now we came up against a complication: the poor night’s sleep, the altitude, and the backpacking had taken a toll on Amy, and she badly needed to rest. I wrestled with my desire to press on, to reach a high altitude goal and a viewpoint, and fought it down. “All right,” I said, “Let’s make camp here.”

We climbed a small hill, and found ourselves on the shore of the first small lake in the basin, with ample campsites and a grove of trees crying out to host a bear can: in fact, I could already see two hanging from them. We pitched the tent, inflated the mattresses, rolled out the sleeping bags, and Amy lay down for a nap.

As she slept, I continued wrestling with my completist impulses. I busied myself with scouting the bear can area, then walked to the lake’s edge, and gasped at what I was seeing: a perfectly reflecting mirror lake, with Buck Mountain looming over it. Buck Mountain is everything a Rocky Mountain should be: a pinnacle of stone thrusting out of the earth, independent enough of its neighbors to have its own distinct identity. In short, it was a Teton. We didn’t have to climb to the pass to see this one. In fact, I discovered as I consulted the map, the Alaska Basin Loop would take us right to the foot of Buck Mountain, as well as its immediate neighbor, Veiled Peak.

Amy woke from her nap now, greatly refreshed, and after helping me hoist the bear can, agreed that the basin loop would give us all we both wanted in an afternoon day hike: scenery, sweat, satisfaction. We set off, unaware that we would, in fact, be climbing for the first half of the hike, actually reaching a point higher than Hurricane Pass—but that is another story. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Two Miles High, Part II: Up the Devil's Stairs

Despite being unacclimated to the altitude, not yet broken in with our packs, and including the steepest climb, the first day was the easiest.

We crossed over into Wyoming and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness as soon as we left the trailhead parking area. The first 2.7 miles of the hike, through woods and meadow, were delightful. Every twist in the trail revealed new treats for the eyes. I discovered fat huckleberries, a trail snack I always cherish, as well as translucent red berries I thought might be a different variety of huckleberry, but which had a slight off taste that kept me from trying anymore. And yes, my mother did teach me never to eat something I found in the woods unless I knew what it was, but I'm still alive and well, so there.

As we hiked up Teton Creek, we had this view behind us:
It's a view many a landscape painter would be proud to portray, but it was nothing next to what lay before us:
I had no idea at this time that I would be making intimate acquaintance with these distant peaks, but I already knew they would not disappoint.

The Devil's Stairs is a trail up from the valley to Mt. Meek Shelf, a total elevation gain of more than 1500 feet. The trail had plenty of switchbacks, just a few places where it actually felt like we were climbing stairs, and was not nearly as difficult as trails we've used to summit Elk Mountain, Dog Mountain, and Mount Defiance in Oregon. What made this trail was challenging was altitude: by the time we made camp, we were at 9500 feet. This made for slow going: climbing at nearly two miles of elevation with a 40-pound pack is very different from day-hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. It was hard work, we were both breathless, but at no point did we feel like this was undoable.

And sure enough, after about an hour of climbing, we were on top. The view was breathtaking; in fact, I had a "double rainbow" moment. Overwhelmed by the splendor all around me, deeply thankful for a willing, adventurous partner to share it with, I found myself misting up. I didn't realize until last night, as I was writing the first entry in this log of our trip, that there was a special symmetry to these almost-tears, that the pathos of Alice Lake was now being canceled out by the joy of the Tetons. There I was absolutely alone, attaining a geographical goal through individual grit and stubbornness. Here I was sharing the trial of climbing these diabolically named stairs, mutually supporting and being supported by my partner all the way up, and now had the privilege of telling her how much it meant to me that we could both be here, gazing across the Teton Canyon toward tomorrow's destination:
In 1989, I took my parents to St. Paul's Cathedral in London to attend vespers. The service was sung by a cantor and a boys' choir. At one point, I glanced over at my mother, and saw a tear on her cheek: the beauty of the setting, the liturgy, and most of all the music had moved her deeply. Like my mother, I have found myself moved to the point of tears by music, and I still find myself stirred deeply by some pieces, particularly when it is a children's choir performing them. Since 1995, though, landscapes have displaced music as the stimuli most likely to stir my emotions to a place of awe, of being in the presence of a beauty so overwhelming I cannot help but weep, of being profoundly grateful to whatever force in the cosmos has granted me the privilege of being alive in this moment, this place, to smell and hear and above all see such magnificence with my own senses. Sharing such a moment with someone I love makes it all the more special.

I wish I could say I stayed in that place for the remainder of the day, but that would not be true. Once atop the shelf, we took a wrong turn, and had to double back. We passed a beautiful alpine lake that was not on the map, and saw several young men who, having made camp, were now relaxing atop a huge glacial erratic rock in the middle of the water. We pushed through meadow growth gone wild, exulting in the brief high altitude summer by putting out brilliant red, yellow, purple flowers. At one point, I cried out angrily as a yellowjacket stung me on the ankle; fortunately I'm blessed with an immune system that does not overreact to insect venom, and the swelling was almost gone by the time we stopped. But now it was getting later, the shadows were lengthening, and we discovered that one of the streams we'd planned on camping beside had run dry. Finally we heard water again, and as we continued to climb up the gentle slope of the shelf, found another brook; but this was not enough: we also needed a stand of trees to hang our bear can.

Yes, bear can. All our food, most of our toiletries, and any clothing that had had contact with anything fragrant had to be suspended at least ten feet in the air, four feet out from whatever tree we were using. This proved problematic, as most of the trees at this level were far too skinny to provide the necessary branches. We finally found a spot, though--or, rather, three spots close enough to each other, one for the tent, another (a large rock) for our cooking and eating area, and a grove of trees for the bear can. There was much climbing up and down from the stream where we were camping to the rock, then across to the tree, much sorting of items, a freeze-dried meal, a chocolate bar, and finally, in the dark, a rope thrown across a branch, then two stuff sacks hauled up into the air. By now we were tired, cranky, and very ready for bed; which is precisely where we went.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Two Miles High, Part I: Smoke Gets in Our Plans

It was August, 2007, and I was grieving.
I'd been engaged for almost a year, but it was becoming clear to me that relationship was coming to an end. Marriage plans had been indefinitely postponed, and finally the decision had been made to put the engagement on hold. There was a final vacation together, at Lake of the Woods, and then I drove my children back to Idaho Falls. Dropping them off with their mother, I pointed my car back west, with an eye to doing some solo camping at Pettit Lake, a beautiful alpine spot in the Sawtooth National Forest my family had visited many times in my childhood. There were some hitches in that plan: for the second time that summer, I'd gone camping without my tent; the road to the Sawtooths was blocked for several hours by a traffic accident; and once I finally made it to Pettit Lake, with the sun already setting, I found the campground both far more developed than it had been in my childhood, and all booked up. Undaunted, I drove into the night, searching for a campsite at an alternate location, finally found one, slept mostly in my car (it rained during the night), and the next morning, drove back to Pettit Lake to take a hike.
Pettit Lake is a lovely spot in and of itself, but I had a higher goal in mind: hiking up another 1600 feet, and five and a half miles into the wilderness, to Alice Lake. It was a beautiful hike, and I was rewarded with views much like this one: (I've been unable to find the photos I took that day, so you'll have to settle for something I found on the internet.)
Deeply moved by the beauty and serenity of the place, proud of my accomplishment at climbing that high, and suddenly intensely alone, I shed some tears, then decided to do something foolish: instead of going back the way I came, I would climb another thousand feet over the ridge and down to Toxaway Lake, continuing on through the rest of the loop for a total of eighteen miles. I had started fairly late in the morning, and I had only a day pack, a few energy bars, a water bottle, a wind-up flashlight, and an iPod, but I had something to prove to myself. The climb over the ridge was far more difficult than I had imagined. It wasn't the grade so much as the altitude: I just wasn't acclimated, and it had been years since I'd been in marathon condition. The Toxaway portion of the hike went on far longer than I had expected--I was, after all, less than a third of the way through the loop at Alice Lake--and I refilled my water bottle from streams, risking giardia with every gulp. It was also far less scenic than the climb up had been. My feet began to hurt. With two miles to go, I encountered the final insult: I had to climb up again, and make my way across a forested hill as the sun set and was replaced with a moonless night sky. I had to wind the flashlight almost constantly. Finally emerging from the woods, I stumbled down the final stretch of trail to the parking lot, waded into the icy lake to rinse the sweat off, and drove away to find another campsite and a bitterly cold night on the ground.
All of this is prelude is about how my lonely solitary re-singled self did something foolish, and crammed three days' worth of hiking into a single long afternoon with inadequate supplies. I'm lucky I didn't die of exposure. In the center of it was Alice Lake, an incredibly beautiful place that, once I'd seen it, made me want desperately to do it right: with a backpack, taking my time, and most definitely not alone.
Six years later, happily "mountain married" to Amy, with two backpacking expeditions under our collective belt, and wanting very much to see my kids before the summer was over, I concocted a plan: drive to Idaho Falls, a little earlier in August than I did in 2007, spend two days there visiting, then come back, as before, through the Sawtooths, stopping to spend  three days backpacking the Toxaway Loop, this time starting on the less interesting side, climaxing the second night by camping at Alice Lake, where we could happily watch the sun set, perhaps have a campfire, and awake the next morning still at this incredible place. Amy was amenable, so off we went.
Passing through southern Idaho on I-84, I noticed an ominous cloud over the mountains. Here's a picture I took of it on our way back, at the end of our trip:
I spent six years of my childhood in Idaho, and most of my adolescence in the Willamette Valley. I'd seen clouds like this before. This was no thunderhead. Somewhere in the mountains there was a huge fire burning, and I knew it wasn't a field burn. The location, the size, the color, all told me it was a wildfire, and it was right where we wanted to be in two days' time.
We were late getting into Idaho Falls, but we were still able to spend plenty of quality time with my kids the next day. When we weren't visiting with them, I was on my phone, scanning through reports of the situation in the Sawtooths: two wildfires were burning almost unchecked. I called up the Sawtooth ranger station in Stanley, the closest community to Pettit Lake, and learned that while the Pettit/Toxaway area was not at risk of catching fire, it was extremely smoky in Stanley. The ranger told me it could very well be better at a higher elevation, but she couldn't guarantee anything.
I didn't like the sound of this. Moving through smoke is no picnic at sea level; nearly two miles up, it could be a nightmare. We found an outdoor outfitter in Idaho Falls, and asked for suggestions of alternate routes in the Sawtooths. The storeowner showed us some possibilities on a map, but told us there was no way of knowing whether we'd have clean air on any of those hikes. He thought for a moment, then said, "Have you ever thought about the Tetons?" I told him I've admired them for most of my life, but we had a lot of driving ahead of us at the end of our hike, and I wasn't looking forward to adding a couple more hours to it by driving into Wyoming. He laughed. "Most people don't realize the Tetons can be accessed from the Idaho side," he told us, and produced a map. Sure enough, there was a trailhead north of us in Driggs, Idaho. "Two and a half million people visit the Tetons every year starting in Jackson Hole. Thousands do it from Driggs, and for my money, it's a better hike on this side, anyway."
We conferred quickly, bought the map, and suddenly we had a very different adventure ahead of us, one I'd wanted to take since 1979, but hadn't even considered a possibility until now.
I probably saw the Tetons as a child, but it wasn't until I was 18 that I got a really good look at them. That summer my family drove to Idaho for a wedding, at the cost of me missing my final chance to attend an arts camp that had been my touchstone the previous two summers. I was in a sour mood over that, nervous about our upcoming move from Philomath to Harrisburg, and far more nervous about starting college in the fall. Seeing the Tetons changed all that: here was mountain grandeur as I'd never experienced it before. I wanted to see more. We camped in the National Park, but that did little to improve the view: campgrounds rarely afford the views that make iconic landscape photographs. We went on from there to Yellowstone, each experience underlining how much I was being held back by my family--something I'd somehow managed not to notice, despite being at the perfect age to resent their presence in my life. Taking a nature walk at a hot spring, I made myself a promise: I would come back to these places when I was older and better equipped, and really see them.
Over the years, I did make it back, but until this year, I was never equipped with all the right gear or, far more importantly, the right partner. But now I have her, and the longer we are together, the more intensely we want to experience the outdoor wonders we were denied in our younger adulthood by the realities of childrearing or of marriage to a recalcitrant spouse. Conditions are right now--we were, after all, planning to backpack in the Sawtooths--and so we adjusted our plans, shifting from splendor to spectacle. And so begins my telling of this, our latest adventure. I took more than 200 pictures, and will share the best of them along with the story of our hiking, climbing, and camping in a place so wondrous it had me weeping before ever we reached a destination. Stay tuned.