Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Writer's Perspective

A simple statement of the writer's craft:.
“I know that I put words in the mouths of people who did not speak them,” she wrote in her 1998 essay collection. “I imagine scenes at which I was not present. I know that this is my world and no one else’s — my stories, my history.”
From the obituary for Ellen Douglas who died November 7.  I am not familiar with her work but I recognize the truth in her words.  Although she was speaking about fiction, all writers, even nonfiction writers, tell a unique story, one that only they can tell.  Others may write about the same topic but each writes from a different perspective.  The stories are their own, informed by their own experience and research.

That explains why I write about hiking the Appalachian Trail when so many others have done so.  No one else can tell my story.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

MaAfee Knob

My workplace has a tradition of celebrating staff birthdays with an array of treats in the break room of our small office.  Some sort of poster with the celebrant's name typically announces the occasion.  Such posters in my office are well done--we have a talented graphics specialist and first rate equipment.  The poster that greeted my recent birthday was no exception.  It showed an me standing on  McAfee Knob, with Virginia mountains beyond the precipice behind me.  My image was slightly oversized and cropped from a group photo of the entire staff.  My stance and clothing are at odds with the setting.  Nonetheless, that image, combined with a smaller image of an Appalachian Trail sign post, evoked the romance of the trail.

Recalling the actual event doesn't do much for the romance, however.  I crossed McAfee Knob on a long, hot and humid early June day.  That morning I scrambled down the rocky descent from the Dragons Tooth with hiking partners, Red and Gary.  We bought supplies and some microwave food at a small store just off the trail and ate in the only shade available, hard by a kerosene storage tank.  The afternoon was long, across open fields  with no shade followed by a hike over a dry ridge.  I ran out of water.  A day hiker at a parking area gave me enough to make it to the next water source.

We made the climb to Johns Spring Shelter as quickly as we could with flagging energy, arriving around 4:00.  A thunderstorm was building to the west as we reached the shelter.  A large crowd of hikers, most known to us, was there ahead us us.  With the storm approaching I hustled to water up and cook dinner.  I made it into the shelter, gear and dinner in hand(s), as rain began to fall.  The rainfall was heavy with crashing thunder and lightning.  It went on for a while and even when the rain lessened, there was still sporadic thunder and lightning.  Those of us who were planning to continue over McAfee Knob that evening wanted to get moving but all hesitated.

Three hikers were the first to leave.  Rain was still falling but not hard so they took the chance.  It wasn't long before two returned, unwilling to hike under the high voltage transmission lines--all that metal!-- in a lightning storm.  By the time Red,Gary and I left the storm was well past.  We climbed the rest of the way up McAfee Knob, passing under those power lines.  The air was incredibly humid after the storm, more so than the morning which somehow didn't seem possible.  The climb was tedious.  I have little memory of the Knob itself.  By the time I topped out on the mountain, it was late and I was tired.  I probably walked out and looked but I didn't dawdle and I sure didn't handstand.  I pushed on to my night's destination, Pig Farm Campsite.  Since that site was also filled with hikers, we ended up camping in a nearby open area not far removed from the power line right-of-way (the same one, farther east).  A marginal end to a brutal day. 

Sounds brutal, doesn't it?  But early next morning I walked along Tinker Cliffs with a cool breeze blowing across my face.  Like McAfee Knob, the cliffs are a rocky ledge with a very long view.  Whatever I missed the evening before I found on this memorable morning.  Despite a restless night, I felt good as I made my way that morning.  Even the restless night had a redeeming moment when I saw fireflies for the first time in decades.  After Tinker Cliffs the day got long--15 miles--but we had plenty of water and ended up in a motel that night.

As I recall what was objectively a rough day, I conclude simply that somehow, it all worked, that I'm happy with how it turned out. That "somehow" is the romance of the trail, that finding of balance in the fabric of the many events that make up the day. It's a way of walking in beauty no matter what circumstances may be.  Although the image of McAfee Knob conjures up memories of a tough day on the trail, memories of the following day balanced it out in real time.  Looking back after ten years, It all seems fine.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Saturday Ride

Cycling in Olympia took another turn toward winter this weekend.  Nights have been clear and cold with lows in the mid-20s and frost.  Saturday was sunny and dry but never warmed up--high temp was 45 which made for a cold ride even well past mid-day at 1:15 pm.  Once I got moving, though, the cold was tolerable.

This being the first ride of the month, I pedal east, straight up the steep hill that leads to the Eastside water tower and Lions Park.  Past the tower and park, I work my way though the neighborhood to Boulevard where it crosses the freeway and turn east on to the bike path that links to the Olympia-Woodland Trail.  A large group of teens are planting trees alongside the trail.  I navigate my way slowly through the bodies that wander into trail. 

Safely through the congestion and across Fones Road, I turn south on the Chehalis Western Trail.  The sun is to the southwest, its light filtering through the trees and across the pavement, sometimes shining directly into my face as the trail twists and turns.  Frost is still evident in the shadows and I can feel the change in air temperature as I move from light to shadow.  On this day the shadows seem more noticeable to me; I can feel the Big Dark moving in even on this bright afternoon.  The change is especially abrupt immediately after returning to standard time.   Nonetheless, lots of other folks are on the trail--walkers, dogs, joggers, other cyclists.  Benches in the sunlight are occupied as locals enjoy the sunny afternoon. 

 Outbound on a Sunny Day

South of Yelm Highway I encounter fewer people.  What I do encounter are what I call the Deschutes Wetlands, the marshes and drainages that feed the Deschutes River which I am nearing.  Water is flowing copiously after the recent rains. Farther along the trail parallels the river, considerably higher than just a few weeks ago.  The trail and river diverge.  I follow the trail to Waldrick Road, turn right and follow Waldrick a quarter mile to where it crosses the Dechutes.  This is my turn around.

 Deschutes River at Turnaround

My return is the same route coming out.  I'd originally thought to follow an alternate route north of Yelm Highway but today I like traveling on my separate, dedicated right-of-way.  Now the sun is behind me and much lower in the sky.  Shadows are longer.  The day is cooling noticeably.  My feet are cold enough that I put on rain booties for some added warmth.  From the Yelm Highway overpass I can see Mount Rainier fully covered in snow, rising above low clouds obscuring its lower flanks.  It looks almost like the peak is floating in the sky.

Inbound Along Deschutes River

Back on the Olympia Woodland Trail heading west, I pass the results of the youth work party--50 or more saplings on either side of the trail, an impressive day's work that will screen the trail from the new fire training academy on the south and add more vegetation between the trail and I-5.  I stay on the trail past Boulevard and follow it to Eastside for my final approach to home.  Sun is very low in the west as.  I'm in at 4:10, about thirty minutes ahead of sunset.  Total miles today is 25.5.  For the year:  1109. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Duckabush River Dayhike

One of my earliest lessons about hiking in Washington State was:  get used to cloudy, wet weather.  Waiting for warm, sunny days means not getting out much.  That lesson was foremost in my mind on Saturday as a friend and I hiked the Duckabush River trail in the Olympic National Forest.  Morning weather in Olympia was foggy with a slight mist in the air and stayed the same with some heavier mist and drizzle in places was we headed north on Highway 101 along Hood Canal.  Turning off the highway at the river, we saw a mantle of low clouds hovering over the peaks and ridges.  Today would be a day to embrace the foggy, wet weather.

The trail starts at a parking area off Forest Road 2510.  We followed good trail up a slight incline and entered the Brothers Wilderness.  The trail climbs over Little Hump.  The climb is neither steep nor long but I quickly warmed up enough to dispense with my rain jacket.  There was a fine mist in the air but nothing that required the jacket.  After cresting Little Hump we could hear the Duckabush River, so far unseen on this route, crashing below.  A series of short switchbacks brought us to river, swollen with water, its roar filling the valley.  Water is everywhere--side streams flowing to the Duckabush, rivulets coursing down the trail to the nearest water bar, dripping from trees, droplets on leaves.  Today is very wet but it's not rain-wet, a distinction I've come to understand and appreciate in Washington.

Following the river for a short distance the trail is level, easy walking through a misty and moss covered forest.  We spotted a steel rail, a leftover from the logging railroad that once plied this area.  Then comes the climb up Big Hump, long series of switchbacks that lead to two open overlooks offering grand views of St. Peters Dome to the south and the Cascade Mountains to the east.  That's what the trail guide says.  We could see the Dome off and one in between the clouds.  I'm sure the Cascades were also in the east but we did not see them.  What we could see--the intimate embrace of earth and sky--was as much view as I needed. 

Much of this climb passes through the blackened remains left by a 2011 Ten Mile (I think) wildfire.  Lots of charred wood, some still standing, even more fallen and shattered.  In the mist, the burned forest seems ghostly and abandoned until I look beyond the destruction to see new growth.  Mother Earth  is regenerating herself, continuing the long cycle of renewal that stretches back to the dawn of time.  All of which feeds my  soul.  That's why I am here on this foggy, wet day.  I can think of no better place to be.

We climbed a bit farther until the trail crested Big Hump and began to descend.  We did not.  We turned around.  Our slow climb up the switchbacks was a much faster descent.  We made good time getting down and crossing the flat stretch along the river.  The short climb up Little Hump was tiring, a reminder of the cumulative effect of the day's effort.  But at this point I was on autopilot.  I wasn't going to reach the car unless I walked so I walked and reached the car at the trailhead. Within the hour we were at the Tides Inn restaurant in Hoodsport watching rain pour outside while we ate hot food inside.  Perfect timing.

The hike is another in my "let's see how well I can hike with arthritis" assessment.   Total distance was about eight miles with about 1700 feet of elevation gain.  I carried maybe 20 pounds of gear so I could gauge how it felt carrying a load.  I had no trouble walking or keeping a decent pace, although I was always conscious of my hip.  Scrambling around deadfalls was awkward in a few places and I had to choose my steps carefully on wet descents and crossing streams.  Eighteen hours later, I am stiff and both hips are a bit sore, the arthritic one a bit more so but not especially painful.

A wet, cloudy day.  The Olympic Mountains.  All that I could ask for.

I think I'm a Washingtonian now.

Here are a few glimpses.

A side stream

Duckabush River

St. Peters Dome

Earth meets sky