Category Archives: General

Random musings that do not belong anywhere else find a home here.

Johnston Canyon

June 3, 2024.

7.9 mi. |1625′ ele. gain | 5:30 hr.

One of many waterfalls on the trail

Photo album

Still feeling crummy, but needing to get out of the van, I decided to take a stroll up the Johnston Canyon Trail in Banff National Park. After surviving the absolute mob scene that the town of Banff was the day prior, I really needed some time in nature. I packed my art supplies and planned on hiking up a short ways to find a nice waterfall to paint.

But once I got outside and my body was in motion, I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t moving at breakneck speeds due to being sick, but I was moving. And it felt SO good. The trail begins along a deep canyon carved by the churning water. A raised boardwalk bolted into the rock wall carries hikers above the foamy river. Along the way, you can look down at endless cascades and pools of turquoise water. It reminded me vaguely of the canyon hike we’d done in Germany years earlier.

Boardwalk

There were people on the trail, but it wasn’t crazy. I passed the lower falls, then the upper falls, then kept hiking. At that point, I lost about 90% of the people on the trail. The refreshing solitude was all the motivation I needed to continue. Climbing away from the river and through the dark woods, I suddenly felt alone. “Hey birds!” I’d say somewhat to myself and somewhat to the imaginary bears in the trees. I remembered that I was in bear country and I put my hand on my can of bear spray to remind me it was there. But it wouldn’t be too long before I heard voices behind me and I relaxed.

The woods were serene, peaceful and beautiful. Everything was lush and green. Just as I was getting really wiped out from all the uphill climbing (with no poles, this would be a casual hike, I thought!), I checked the map. Downhill to the geologic feature ahead called the “Inkpots.” At that point, I decided I’d go the whole way.

Peek-a-boo

Just before emerging from the thick trees, I got a peek-a-boo preview of the mountains to come. Then, out of nowhere, I arrived. The Inkpots are spring-fed pools with wildly different colors, an illusion created by the type and amount of suspended sediments in the water. Green and rusty yellow meadows filled the spaces between the brilliantly colored pools. The whole scene was surrounded by a ring of craggy mountains. Idyllic, to say the least.

I chose a bench overlooking the pools and started painting. In my bleary state this morning, I’d forgotten to throw my snacks in my backpack so I had nothing to eat but a hard candy that’s lived in my bag for over a year. I focused on trying to capture the landscape in front of me. I got the perspective and scale all wrong, but I did my best to get some of the colors right. Just as I started to paint, I felt sprinkles coming down from the thick layer of clouds. Not again! I pushed through and the sky relented, even offering up a few sunt breaks between gray masses of moisture.

Inkpot

With my painting complete and my nature time achieved for the day, I hurried out of there. All I could think about was making myself a nice lunch when I got back to the van. The crowds swelled as I got closer and closer to the trailhead. I held on really tightly to the memories of quiet woods just a couple hours before. As I pushed myself through the last throng of people, I burst out into the parking lot and collapsed into the van. I don’t remember what I had for lunch, but it was probably the best lunch I’d ever had.

I’ve either deliberately or accidentally not packed snacks for what I thought would be a “quick” hike a few times now on this trip. Never again. I’ve learned about how strongly I’m pulled into longer adventures than planned, and that I should always have something to eat to quell the hanger that grows so quickly. At least I brought plenty of water!

One year in a camper van: a review

April 30, 2024.

On April 28, Aaron and I celebrated our one year vanniversary! We left our home in Bend, Oregon on that day in 2023 to set off on a two-plus year road trip. In the past year, we’ve seen and done so many things that are impossible to summarize in a short blog post, but I’ve chosen to reflect on a few elements of our travel that I find interesting to talk about. And so, our year in review…

Camping | Travel planning | Community | Education | Surprises |Top ten list

road trip
Van in the wild.

Camping

We’ve been tent campers our whole lives. Being thrust into the world of van camping took us a bit by surprise. We camp in almost a completely different way due to the convenience of our rig. No more campfires, no more set up and break down time, no more long winter nights with nothing to do.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss campfires more than I do. Now, I find them more of a nuisance than anything. When we are forced to camp in an actual campground where people are having fires, it’s hard to breathe and everything gets saturated in smelly camp smoke. Since we have a comfortable place to hang out in the van, complete with plenty of things to do, we almost never feel the need to make a fire. Besides, with all the restrictions and high fire danger in most of the places we travel, it’s relatively unethical to even consider having a campfire.

Since we have good lighting and (when we need it) ample ways to stay warm in the van, we can spend time reading, writing, playing games, making art, watching movies, etc. And since every day is a camp day, it feels less alluring and special to do things we only do at camp, like build a fire. Plus, we filled our van storage area with everything we own, so there’s no room to throw firewood in the back. On rare occasions, when the conditions are right and firewood is scattered near our camp, we’ll bust out a campfire.

Travel planning

Some of the apps and websites I use for trip planning. Some.

As much as I love planning camping adventures, it has become a bit of a beast to have to be in constant planning road. I feel like it’s a part-time job to calculate drive times, find legal places to park overnight, scout open skies for Starlink on Aaron’s work days, as well as locate public facilities like bathrooms, trash dumps and water fills. Some counties and states have been much easier to plan than others. Cities can be an absolute nightmare with overnight parking bans, especially for tall vehicles like ours. I’ve learned to use a variety of apps and services to locate places we can legally park overnight (I’m not interested in stretching the rules and ruining the ability for others to park in the future).

I was reluctant to sign up for any paid services, but I decided to try the combo of Harvest Hosts and Boondocker’s Welcome for a year to see how I liked them. After barely 6 months of our annual membership, we’ve stayed at 14 different locations on the apps, some for multiple nights. We’ve met some great people, visited local farms, breweries and restaurants we otherwise wouldn’t have known about and enjoyed beautiful, convenient places to stay.

It sounds like an ad, but for the way we travel, these apps have been essential. As we moved away from the vast public lands in the west, we’ve needed to be more creative in finding places to stay and the folks who offer up parking on both sites have really helped! I especially enjoy the boondocking sites in cities, so we have a place to park where Aaron can work all day and I’m walking distance from shops, museums, trailheads and other services. I expect we’ll rely heavily on these services on the East Coast.

The other app that I use on a daily basis is iOverlander. This provides an interactive map overlaid with crowdsourced data about places to camp. Options include private and public paid campgrounds, dispersed campsites and safe, legal places to park in cities. Since the data is crowdsourced, it’s not always accurate and I cross-reference anything I find with Google maps satellite data, public lands data and internet searches. I find it just as useful to confirm places I want to stay and places I do NOT want to stay, based on the type and volume of public comments left for given locations. So far, I have found a ton of great camp spots by using this app!

Community

We both feared that full-time travel would isolate us. But we’ve both noticed that since leaving home, we’ve felt more connected to community than ever. As with anything in life, you get back what you put in. And since we worried about losing connections as we wandered off into the unknown, we made a good effort in making sure we not only kept the friendships and loose connections we had, but actively created new ones on the go.

As much as people complain about social media, I’ve learned that you can make it your friend or foe. I aggressively unfollow any account that offers me no benefit or is a constant stream of hate, judgement or just shows the worst of people. Instead, I actively look for people who share things that I’m interested in: hiking, art, wildflowers, travel, nature. I also have no problem reaching out to strangers on the internet when we share things in common, or if I’ll be traveling to their neck of the woods soon. Most decent human beings are happy to share advice or knowledge if you show them some interest and respect. I’ve even made some real life friends from first meeting people online.

Our Capoeira community has also been a bottomless well of joy, support, strength, personal growth and culture. We’ve made stops to train in Eugene, Oakland, Berkeley, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Denver, St. Louis, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, Juarez (Mexico), the list goes on and on. In each new place, we forge connections with fellow Capoeiristas, both people we’ve met before and people we haven’t. Sometimes we just go to class and nothing more. Other times we share meals or other social activities. And sometimes they offer up a driveway or recommendation for a place to stay. Although I feel the effects of not being able to train in a group on a regular basis, they always welcome us with no judgement and are happy to meet us wherever we are (physically, mentally, musically!) I appreciate having this art as a foundational part of our trip.

Sweaty post-Capoeira photo from Albuquerque

In addition, we’ve still regularly attended our book club (now over Zoom!). We sign up for service projects every few months. I send a monthly newsletter as well as personal cards, postcards, letters and art. I’ve joined an online art class/community where I can geek out about painting with other watercolor artists of every skill level and background. And we occasionally get to meet up with our friends who come to us! We’ve been so grateful to share our travel with our friends. Also, the breadth of our journey has led us to visit friends and family who we haven’t seen in 5, 10, even 20 years. It’s been so fun to reconnect with folks all over the country. Maybe, you’re next?

Education

I have always had a love of learning and a vast curiosity about the world. This trip has blown the doors wide open, providing countless opportunities to learn and be challenged about what I think I know. We’ve made many stops at historic and cultural sites. Botanical gardens and zoos. Workshops and lectures. Guided tours and hikes. We’ve learned from ordinary people just going about their normal business in places we’ve only read about and developed deep unconscious biases about.

Every act of service is an educational opportunity. By joining volunteer projects, we’ve met great people, learned new skills and developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for an area. We’ve done some trail work and joined trash clean-up parties. We’ve also done many trash pick ups on our own.

I think travel can be a great teacher, but only if your mind is open to learning. I’ve met plenty of travelers who seem to have missed the memo and are outright rude or woefully uninformed about the places they’ve been. I try very hard to see the good in all people, but I’m often surprised at the massive gaps in knowledge among people who should know better. For me, travel has taught me to be more humble and to question what I know with honest curiosity. The people who speak confidently about how they’ve got the world all figured out—those are the ones you need to watch out for.

LGBTQIA+ history in San Francisco

Surprises

Speaking of bias, let’s talk about the Midwest. This was the most recent time I felt like I spoke too confidently about something I didn’t know much about. I knew all the stereotypes, which I’ll spare you here. But when we actually visited the Midwest (my first time, even), I found that I really enjoyed myself. We found gorgeous outdoor landscapes, delicious food, incredible art, engaging museums and lovely people. I don’t know why I had such an innate revulsion about the idea about visiting this large, diverse swath of land in the middle of the country. That was extremely short-sighted. Now, I don’t know if I could *live* anywhere with no mountains, but I’d go back and visit in a heartbeat.

Now let’s talk sunsets. Since we’re basically outdoors every day, we’ve seen hundreds of epic sunset. There’s no way you can watch a sunset and not have faith in the world. Each one so different, so perfect, so awe-inspiring. I’ve seen plenty of sunsets before, but something hits different when you see one almost every day. I just appreciate them so much more now than I ever have.

You have no idea how long it took me to choose just one sunset pic to share.

And finally, it’s become easier for me to experience awe on a daily basis. Literally everything is exciting because it’s brand new. I was getting pretty good at this even back in Bend, but I am certain that I find multiple things that break my mind open every single day. Whether it’s a flower or bird I’ve never seen before, a new sound, a curious natural phenomenon, a unique piece of architecture or a novel way to present a familiar food. I am constantly gob smacked by everyday things. I remind myself that every place I visit is someone’s home. Someone knows every nook and cranny, has identified every flower, tree and fungus, has seen that bird a million times. But not me. And as I face new experiences on a daily basis, it is very easy for me to find joy in ordinary things.

Surprised that I haven’t talked about our van build? You can find van stuff ad nauseum online if that’s what you’re into. I have no interest in monetizing our lifestyle or promoting brands. I would just love to break even on paying for web hosting (#goals). So if you want to talk van details, you can find that elsewhere. We spent a lot of time and money investing in something that would make this trip easy, and it’s basically all panned out. I’m sure we’ll have breakdowns and other issues down the road, but things have mostly gone to plan so far. People travel in vans for dirt cheap and in luxurious style. People have been traveling nomadically for as long as there have been people, and this is just one of the latest iterations. We’re grateful to have this opportunity and see no end in sight yet!

Top ten list

  1. There
  2. Is
  3. No
  4. Way
  5. To
  6. Compile
  7. A
  8. Top
  9. Ten
  10. List

By this time, you should have expected this. I can’t stand a top ten list. I can’t tell you my favorite place, favorite hike, favorite flower, favorite restaurant. And even if I could, they wouldn’t necessarily be *your* favorite. Each day I have new favorite experiences, and they’re not necessarily repeatable. The weather, my mindset, interactions with other people, how my body feels, what I’m thinking about, all of these variables impact my experience at any given time and place. So, I encourage you to quickly scroll past any website that offers a top ten list. Instead, go make memories wherever and whenever you can. Every place is special, if you arrive with an open mind.

There are no best places, best products, best people, best anything. But there is so much to learn and a vast amount of space to explore in this short lifetime. However you are able, I hope you can get out and enjoy what this state, country and world has to offer.

Got questions? Please ask away in the comments or send me a message! I’m always happy to talk hiking, van travel and anything remotely related to this post.

Waking up with 30,000 sandhill cranes in Southern Arizona

Van Patten Butte

August 28, 2023.

10.7 mi | 3320′ ele. gain | 8 hrs.

Van Patten Butte from the saddle

Photo album

If you are looking for a route description for the Van Patten Butte scramble, this isn’t it. Check out these resources from Oregon Hikers, Summitpost and Peakbagger. This is a story about how to take a straightforward, half-day route into an all day, nail-biting adventure. I would not recommend, however I feel that if you are a person who likes testing creative routes in the mountains at all, some of your days will inevitably turn out like this. I’d say about 85% of my exploratory adventures are neutral to good, 10% are excellent and 5% are gnarly. This was one of the gnarly ones.

We were back at the Anthony Lake Ski Area for a few days so Aaron could get some work done. Since Van Patten was such a short route, I decided to hike to the trailhead from the parking area 3 miles away to begin the day’s adventure. It was all downhill, meaning an easy approach but nothing to look forward to at the end of the day.

The night before, I’d read through all the resources listed above. I eyeballed the topo map and Google satellite images. It was my usual prep routine. I thought I’d take the suggested route up the mountain and circle back down a different ridge, then either rejoining the route in or bushwhacking to the road to cut off some extra walking. On the hike down to the trailhead, I studied the landscape, trying to visualize what would make a good route back. I felt ready for a fun day in the mountains.

Once I reached the trailhead, I had a short, steep climb to Van Patten Lake. The lake was pretty, but the water level looked pretty low. While having a snack, I pictured how gorgeous it would be when it was full. I found a pair of sunglasses sitting on a rock near the lake; lately I’ve been finding these on nearly every hike.

Forget something?

From there, I walked around to the north side of the lake, where I followed an inlet stream up the vegetated slopes. As I climbed, I was presented with more and more options. I chose to follow a line where giant boulders occasionally punctuated the forested canyon walls. The route required a little bit of poking around, but it was generally straightforward and safe. Along the way, I found another pair of sunglasses that were hung up in a tree; they must have fallen off of someone’s head as they were scrambling the route. Once I gained the ridge, I had to navigate around a few obstacles to get to a wide, flat saddle. From that point, the summit of Van Buren was just a quick and easy walk away.

When things were going well

The highpoint, a pile of sloped boulders surrounded by thick and twisted trees, was not a great place to hang out. So I tagged the top and wandered around the high ridgeline, looking for a nice place to sit and paint. There, I also scoped out my options down. None of them looked good. My original plan, which looked okay on paper, most definitely did not look possible in real life. This sometimes happened, and I knew this was a possibility. The NW ridges looked mostly do-able, but there were enough narrow, loose and cliffy sections separating the good stuff that made it unsafe. That was out. The NE ridge was very knife-edgy, atop sheer cliffs. That was out. Even the gullies looked too loose and steep to want to attempt solo with no gear. My last option was to retreat the way I came.

I started along this path, the best and most intelligent choice. But then I got the idea to follow the ridgeline adjacent to my ascent route, the one that would take me right back to the lake! That seemed like a good idea. I veered off the beaten path and on to the ridge.

Just like the NW ridge, this one consisted of a jumble of tall, impossible boulders choked with vegetation, making it difficult to see far ahead. I poked along very slowly on and near the ridge, mostly on the west side to avoid the intimidating cliffs. The terrain was mostly loose and steep, with a mixture of rocks, dirt and trees. Occasional cliffs became frequent cliffs and my options were very limited. I was really struggling to find a line that would go.

After much frustrating zig-zagging around, I found an escape gully leading to a giant talus field. It was steep and loose, but with enough firm footing and trees to hang on to in order to be safe enough to descend. Without knowing what happened in the trees below the talus, I decided to just go for it. I needed to get off that damned ridge.

Down the gully I go

Once safely on the pile of rocks below, I sat down for a while to let my nervous system calm down. I ate some food, drank some water and thought about options from here. I was so annoyed with myself for making the stupid decision to try a different ridge despite having a perfectly good way to go down and also knowing that all the other ridges were too rugged for me. (So why would this one be any different?)

But, being annoyed with oneself doesn’t lead to better decision making. I had to snap back into rational problem-solving mode and I could berate myself later.

Below that talus, I could hear running water. No problem, a little stream. Unless that stream turns into a waterfall. Can you guess? Of course it did. I was having flashbacks to last year’s debacle getting off Chief Joseph Mountain, where it took hours to go less than a mile through similar terrain. I cut right away from the creek, where I began traversing a steep, forested hillside. But I kept getting cliffed out. Each time I reached another cliff, I could feel my heart race and my breathing get shallow. This was clearly type 3 fun.

As a strategy to move safely and efficiently, I settled into a way of movement that felt a lot like bouldering. I tested each hand and foothold before committing weight to it, I only moved when I felt in balance and I hyper focused on the task at hand. I was not (literally and figuratively) out of the woods yet.

Despite the shitstorm, I still stopped to enjoy the flowers.

Even though I had made it below the ridge and “just had to get through the woods,” the landscape was relentless. I desperately sought paths of least resistance through rocks, creeks and soggy hillsides. Once I finally reached the road, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and chugged some water. Then, I had nearly 3 miles of walking uphill on the road in the hot afternoon sun to wrap up this debacle.

On the return hike, I passed by what looked to be a promising huckleberry patch. I dropped a pin on my GPS app so I could come back another day. A silver lining, perhaps.

Lessons learned? I fell victim to the sunk cost fallacy. The further I traveled down the terrible ridge, the more committed I felt to that route. At any point (especially early on), I could have backtracked up to the saddle and taken my original route back down the mountain. Even though it would require going back uphill, it would have been faster, safer, easier and way more fun. A reminder that nature is indifferent to our hopes and dreams. And that respect and humility in the mountains is paramount to help ensure you can go back and explore another day.

Dixie Butte

July 19, 2023

12 mi. | 2690′ ele. gain | 6 hr.

Dixie Butte lookout tower

Photo album

Dixie Butte is home to one of the few remaining active fire lookouts in the state of Oregon. It’s also known for its summer wildflower displays. Despite there being a road to the top, I decided to walk up the road and make it a day hike.

I left early in the morning, knowing it was going to be another hot day. I appreciated all the shade that the trees alongside the road provided. It didn’t take long to get most of the way up the road. There weren’t many wildflower distractions until I was about a mile and a half from the summit. Once I reached the blooming meadows, I could barely take a step without stopping to squat and take another photo. The flowers were gorgeous. Some of my old favorites colored the hillside along with new friends.

One particular flower caught my eye: the beautiful pink, trumpet-shaped blooms of slendertube skyrocket. I’d first spotted this wildflower last year in the Wallowas, at the end of a long day. I was delirious with dehydration and fatigue. Yet, it stopped me in my tracks. It was one of the prettiest, most delicate plant I’d seen in the alpine. I was delighted to see it again.

Slendertube skyrocket

As I got closer to the lookout tower, I heard a dog barking. Lovely, I thought. Being allergic to dogs, I’m used to people yelling “(s)he’s friendly!” My two least favorite words. Friendly dogs get all up in your business, licking you, rubbing their noses in inappropriate places and generally being a nuisance. So I dreaded the all-too-familiar conversation where I’d have to explain that I’m allergic and to get your damn dog away from me.

But before that, I had to walk a loop around the lookout. I wanted to spend more time with my flowers before getting into it with the dog owner.

As the road crested up to a high shoulder and then curved back towards the lookout, I passed through a blanket of subtly colored flowers. Alpine knotweed, green-flowering paintbrush, coiled lousewort. Most of what I could see was a field bursting with greenery.

Green flowers

I paused at a rock outcrop to enjoy the view and to look for wildflowers that preferred that exposed, rocky habitat. Here were lanceleaf stonecrop, bush penstemon and wild buckwheat. Plus long, blue ridges as far as the eye could see.

Eventually I had to approach the lookout. As I did, the dog charged towards me as predicted and I stopped short, pretending to look around and catch my breath. The person working as the lookout stepped outside and asked if I had enough water, to which I responded yes. She invited me closer and that’s when I told her about the dog. She immediately called her dog in, which I appreciated, and we had a nice long chat.

On the way down, I made a lollipop loop by walking along the adjacent ridge top. I wanted to do some painting while also giving the lookout some privacy. So, I found an equally awesome rock outcrop bursting with wildflowers and sat there for an hour.

The ridge naturally drew me back downhill to the road, but not before leading me through gorgeous meadows dotted with white mariposa lily, sage and abundant colorful wildflowers. The sun had really kicked in by this point and I was grateful that it was all downhill from there.

White mariposa lily

Although the return hike took me back the exact same road I hiked up, I saw so many flowers that I didn’t notice in the morning. My eyes had been primed for the native wildflowers of this area, and now they were seemingly everywhere. Their accompanying pollinators, notably butterflies, also dominated the previously hum-drum landscape. It was a joyous romp downhill.

Since the sun was basically overhead, I lost my long stretches of shade and took any opportunity to stop and rest in a shade patch I could. By the time I got back to the van, I was nearly out of water. I spent a good chunk of the afternoon resting in my hammock in a cluster of trees.

Mt. Ashland to Wagner Butte

July 5, 2023.

15.2 mi | 4012′ ele. gain | 8 hr.

Pointing to Mt. Ashland

Photo album

I wanted to do a big hike along the Siskiyou Crest while we were in the area. It appeared that I could hike from the Mt. Ashland parking lot up the east side of Mt. Ashland, down the west side, follow NF-20 to the Split Rock trail all the way to Wagner Butte and back. I didn’t calculate the miles because I knew it would be longer than I wanted it to be, but that I’d go anyway. So, on this warm July morning I gave it a go.

Mt. Ashland

The trail up Mt. Ashland gets right to the point. It is short and steep and breathtaking (in the literal and figurative sense). I took many breaks to look for wildflowers and observe the absurdity of being on a ski hill off season. All the lifts and machinery and such. At the top, I found a building in the shape of a giant soccer ball and a bunch of other structures. I found the summit marker, took a short break and then began down the road on the other side.

While I saw a ton of wildflowers on the hike up, I didn’t find much that was new or unusual. After reading so much online on the special flora that exists on Mt. Ashland, I was a little disappointed. But I would make a complete change of attitude on my road walk off the mountain. Almost immediately, I noticed something only familiar from the images I studied online the night before: Henderson’s horkelia! I audibly squealed, then dropped into my wildflower squat and took a bunch of photos. I touched its fuzzy leaves and searched for a “good” looking flower. They all seemed a little roughed up or withered. I wasn’t sure if that was just their look or if they were going out of season.

The rest of the road down was a cornucopia of flowers, shrubs, rocks and birds. Something to look at around every corner. While I generally try and avoid road walks, this one was rather pleasant.

Split Rock Trail

From the base of the Mt. Ashland service road, I needed to make my way to the Split Rock Trail. This required a bit more road walking, although I short-cutted one big switchback by tromping straight up a hill in the forest. Near the trailhead, I encountered my first snow patch of the day and made a mental note for later. It wasn’t hot yet, but I knew it was coming.

I loved hiking the Split Rock Trail. It traversed on or adjacent to a beautiful ridgeline, with the occasional steep up or down segment. I walked through meadows, rocky outcrops, shady forests and sagebrush desert. As the environment changed, so did the flora. Wildflowers were profuse and diverse along the trail. And the butterflies! So many butterflies flitted and swirled around me, hardly stopping for a second before heading to their next destination.

View from Split Rock trail

Along the way, I took short detours to the summits of McDonald Peak and Split Rock. The last item on my agenda was Wagner Butte. On my map, a trail went to “Wagner Butte Lookout” but not the butte itself. I decided I’d hit both of those. At the time I had no idea that the lookout was anything more than a nice viewpoint. But I figured if a trail went there, then it must be worth checking out.

Wagner Butte and Lookout

Weighing my options, I decided to cruise the trail to the lookout first, then walk the ridge back to the true summit and then return to the trail. By this point, it had gotten very hot and I appreciated every moment I got to spend in the shade.

Near the end of the trail, I found myself scrambling up huge granite boulders towards what appeared to be a handrail. At the top, it all made sense. It’s an old lookout site! A very faded sign shared the site’s history, and what a fabulous viewpoint it was. An old ammo canister contained a sign-in book, and it was filled with names from people visiting just this year. I’m glad I didn’t go on a weekend! I was the only one on top at that moment. With not a shade tree in sight, the direct sun completely zapped my energy. I sat down for a few minutes, but quickly got back up. I still had to bushwhack to the summit and hike many miles back to the van. At this point, I was 10 miles into my dayhike.

Lots of stonecrop. Stonecrop loves sunny outcrops.

On the map, it looked straightforward. How many times have I made that mistake…

I walked back down the trail to a point where I could easily gain a saddle on the north ridge of Wagner Butte. Then, I pushed through forest debris. First it was chinkapin, then snowbrush, then manzanita. The trifecta. Plus, there were tons of downed trees, piles of huge boulders and tangles of thick vegetation. When I finally made it to the summit area, there were three major pinnacles, of which any one could be the true summit. In order to make sure I got the right one, I made my way to the top of each one, then retreated to the pile that offered the best lunch rest stop. I was really hungry and very hot by this time.

I sat down and ate my lunch in a state of delirium. Out of nowhere, a bright green caterpillar appeared on my leg. Or was it a delusion? Nope, I’ve got video to prove it.

The return

Re-fueled and ready to get out of the sun, I began thrashing through shrubs again to get back to the trail. At least it’s easier to push through manzanita on the way down than it is on the way up.

Back on trail, I moved at a comfortable pace and made sure to pause at every shade stop after a sunny stretch. My body felt so hot. I sipped on my water regularly and calculated how long it would take me to get back to the snow patch. Back on Wagner Lookout, I’d messaged Aaron a pickup location that would save me a few miles of hot, exposed road walk to get back to the van. So, I also had that to look forward to.

All my shade stops turned into flower and bug-watching stops, too. I sat in one meadow, mesmerized by the bees buzzing around a particularly stunning monument plant. It was better than any Netflix documentary I’d ever seen. A good reminder that stopping can be good for a number of reasons, but one is certainly that I see so much more cool stuff when I sit in place for a while.

Monument plant and bee

The highlight of the hike back was reaching the snow patch. I threw off my pack, turned around and laid down flat on the snow. How refreshing! I stuffed my pants pockets full of snow, put a snowball under my hat and filled my water bladder with snow: I had plans for that later. With fresh energy, I finished my hike back to the van.

Cool down

Aaron had the AC running in the van, which felt so luxurious. I stripped off my sweaty clothes, filled a mug with snow and poured cold tea over the top. Iced tea in the AC! It was a fabulous way to finish off a hot summer hike.

Compared to the dozens of people I’d seen on the PCT section we hiked the day before, this place was completely deserted. I saw one person near the Wagner Butte Lookout and one person near the Split Rock trailhead as I was finishing up. For the rest of the day I got to hike in quiet solitude. Those big-name trails attract people like bugs to a nightlight, but the less well-known trails are no less worthy of a visit. If you like to hike alone, skip the things you’ve heard of and venture onto a neighboring trail. You’ll get all the wildflowers and views and natural beauty without the crowds and noise.

Life on the road: update 1

July 19, 2023.

Soon after we hit the road, people asked, “How does it feel?” And my reply was, “ask me in 3 weeks.” At that point, I thought, we would have been gone for longer than our longest vacation, so it would feel like a real shift had happened. Well today, it’s day 83, and I still feel like we’re on an extended vacation.

It’s past time that I sit down and record some thoughts about how things are going. What’s on our minds, what’s working, what’s not working, etc. I know that folks living in homes that stay in one place are very curious about how mobile living works. While I have no intention of starting a YouTube channel to capture every moment of our travels, I do think it’s fun to occasionally check in with a snapshot of road life. This will likely be the first in a (very irregular) series.

New routines

The ebb and flow of life is much different than it was just a few short months ago. On weekdays, we ideally need to wake up in a place from which Aaron can work. Then, he goes through his morning ritual while I hang out and catch up on email and reading. Once he’s settled into his office, I can make breakfast, clean up and then either head out on an adventure or work on a project in camp.

If I’m back in time for lunch, we’ll eat together but if not, we take care of meals on our own. I’m in charge of dinner, which I can cook either on the induction stove inside the van or on the propane camp stove outside. Depending on our battery power, the weather, what I’m making and a few other factors, I’ll choose an option and get to cooking. We eat pretty well out here. There’s always a protein and veggies, usually accompanied by a prepared side like mac and cheese or ramen, plus various accompaniments like sauces, crunchy things, etc. I make creative use of leftovers so that no scrap of food gets wasted. And when we’re feeling really fancy, Aaron will whip up some cream with our immersion blender to have with fruit.

In order to make all this work, I spend many hours each week meticulously scouring maps and Google satellite images to find places to land each night. We often move every day or every other day, and since we need very specific requirements to be met for Aaron to have internet, this takes a lot of planning. On the flip side, we get to see a lot of cool places and we haven’t even left Oregon yet!

At the end of the day, we wrap up by reading a single page in The Vagabond’s Way: 366 Meditations on Wanderlust, Discovery and the Art of Travel by Rolf Potts. Well, most days we remember to. Each page-long chapter offers a quote and some commentary that gets us thinking about some aspect of travel. It normalizes the adventure that we’ve chosen to embark on and lets us feel like we’re surrounded by kindred spirits. I think a lot about “normal,” what is normal and who gets to define normal. Living in a van and moving home each night has quickly become normal.

Things we love

Before driving away from our home in Bend, we had to make a lot of decisions about the few precious items to put in our van. We had to make a lot of guesses based on what we anticipated our lives would become. These are a few of our favorite things.

  • Collapsible silicone tea kettle: I use this thing every damn day. We were sitting at the kitchen table one night with a friend, brainstorming a solution to find an easy way to boil water for coffee every morning. I don’t remember how this idea came up. None of us knew this product existed. But now I can’t live without it. It’s the perfect size for 2 cups of coffee/tea and the water boils in under 2 minutes. It uses hardly any energy and doesn’t take up much space.
  • BluTech “No Dirty Water” pump, filter and hose system: This slick setup allows us to toss a hose into any water source, pump it into the van through a filter and fill up our water tank with potable water. That could be from a lake, stream or campground/gas station spigot. We haven’t had to buy water once on this trip.
  • Hammocks: Having a place to relax outside the van is key. Now that the summer is really heating up, it can feel stuffy in the van. Slinging up a hammock takes just a few minutes and it provides a nice place to read, take a nap, do research, chill out or drink coffee.
  • Built in fridge: The bane of my camping existence was digging through wet packaging in a cooler filled with melted ice to find what I need to make dinner. The solution is having a fridge. I’ll admit, I thought the fridge was poorly designed when we first got the van. But now that I’ve actually used it, I absolutely LOVE the design. It can fit so many things in an efficient manner. I only wish it was a tad larger, since fresh vegetables are so bulky. As a result, I’ve learned to embrace canned, frozen and dried vegetables, frequent grocery runs and dense produce. I’m loving the combination of Grocery Outlet and local farmer’s markets for the best prices and variety of foods.
  • Bug nets: The bug nets roll down quickly and easily so we can keep the slider door open for fresh air. They also pack up easily when we’re ready to move on. These will prove to be invaluable when we go to Alaska.
  • Bikes: Y’all, this is the most I’ve ridden a bike since my bike commute days in Portland. And sometimes I’m actually riding it for fun. Having a bike that’s capable on pavement, gravel roads and beginner/intermediate mountain bike trails has opened up so many possibilities for getting around.

I could go on and on, but these are the highlights.

Things we don’t love

Lest you think each day is filled with rainbows and ice cream, let’s talk about the not so great parts.

  • Endless planning: If you know anything about me, you know I love planning. But this is really stretching my skills and abilities. The number of things I need to balance in order to find a sufficient spot, and to connect a string of spots with reasonable drive times between them is pretty intense. Not to mention, I’ve been doing it for 83 days straight and we’ve just barely gotten started. I have 4 mapping apps on my phone, each with various bits of information. Pair that with internet searches and phone calls to rangers and that adds up to a lot of labor. I understand why people end up making campground reservations at the same places every year, 6 months in advance: it takes no mental effort.
  • Gas bills: We knew this was coming, but it’s still a bit of sticker shock at the pump. Not to mention we have a 47 gallon tanks, so some of those fill ups are pricey. But we consider this expense to be our “mortgage,” since we’re rolling around in our house.
  • Constantly being connected: It’s a blessing and a curse. Aaron needs to be connected for work, so the internet is always available. On our previous camping trips, we were happy to spend time in areas of the backcountry where cellular data doesn’t reach. Now, we have to make a conscious effort to balance our offline and online time.
  • Mice: We were not ready for this. Within 2 weeks of traveling, a mouse took up residence in the van. We’ve battled mice on and off for most of the trip. Aaron has taken on this battle with research, equipment and strategy. Mice are formidable enemies. They’ve eaten our food, nibbled on non-food items just to piss us off (I presume) and once we eliminated them from the cabin, they made nests in the engine with our insulation material. Aaron now has a mouse prevention protocol that he engages with on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time before the rodents outsmart us again, so it’s just one more thing we have to remain vigilant about.

I had to think harder about this list, and this is all I could come up with. Call me when I’m having a bad day and maybe I’ll have something else to gripe about.

Oh one more thing: what we miss the most is…

ice.

Unexpected shifts

I had grand ideas about our travel route and destinations before we hit the road. With my precious wildflower project in mind, I saw us spending most of our time in southwest Oregon poking around the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Siskiyou Mountains and Southern Coast Range. While we have spent some time there, the bulk of our journey has led us into northeastern Oregon, clear across the state! We’ve also had to make multiple trips back to Bend for various reasons. Because of all these changes in itinerary, I’ve learned to do detailed planning for only one week at a time. If I try to do any more than that, things are likely to change and all that planning time is wasted.

I also saw myself doing a lot of art in the van. However, on days that I spend most of my time out in the sun, I’m usually too wiped to pull out all my art supplies when I get back. Another barrier is not having space to spread out and work for a while. Besides, I’m prioritizing summer for wildflower research in the field. I’m collecting a ton of photos that I can convert into art this fall. I recently discovered that when I do have access to a picnic table where I can sit down and hammer out some work, that I can complete several paintings in a day. Thus, I’ve begun work on my $20 Art Show entries. Get the date on your calendar.

We haven’t missed one book club meeting since we left! Our group has graciously allowed us to Zoom in from wherever we are, and we have read all the books too. This has served as an essential community connection for us. I hope that we can keep this streak going, and if our in-town dates ever coincide with book club meetings, it would be really fun to drop in.

Looking forward

We have both adjusted really well to our new flow of life. Right from the start, we had to solve problems, negotiate unexpected obstacles and learn to live with each other in a very small space. Our experience camping, camping with each other, spending lots of time outdoors in every type of weather has all come in handy. The stuff I think most other people find to be the most difficult adjustments have come easily for us. We’ve basically been training for this our entire lives.

Next up: more time in northeast Oregon, more time painting, more farmer’s markets. I need to work on getting a few more people to take a trip out to visit us (we have our next visitors coming in under two weeks!). I’d also like to plan a backpacking trip or two, leaving Aaron at one trailhead and having him pick me up at another one. I need to continue searching for volunteer trail projects and local events that we can take part in to support groups we care about. The next volunteer gig I have is in September, so it would be nice to find something before that.

Imogene Peak

August 26, 2020.

10.5 mi. | 3200′ ele. gain | 7:30 hr.

Imogene Peak

Photo album

I’d been stalking the Sawtooth hiking group on Facebook for the week before my trip to learn all that I could from people hiking there this year. Visitation was sharply on the rise, tourists from all over the country packing the trails and doing the dumb stuff tourists are wont to do. Undeterred, I continued planning my trip, hoping to find some hidden gems that would be beyond the reach of the average “let’s backpack around some lakes” visitor. Note: there’s nothing wrong if that’s your style, it’s just not my style.

After consulting my usual references online I came up with Imogene Peak, one of a zillion highpoints in the Sawtooths. We could reach this one in a day without taking the boat shuttle, which I wanted to avoid because of COVID. It looked like a hard slog, but that’s what we were looking for.

Thunderstorms and wind raced over our dispersed campsites the previous two evenings and more were predicted for this day. At least we didn’t have any driving to do; we scouted a campsite sandwiched between the horrible 4×4 road to the proper trailhead and a footpath leading from the weenie trailhead. Onward!

A remarkably quiet lake

After a mile or so of walking, we encountered Yellow Belly Lake. It was perfectly quiet and still, much unlike the heavily developed lakes we passed on the previous day. It would make the perfect spot for an afternoon swim, I thought. But we had some ground to cover.

Not too far beyond the lake, we left the trail and headed straight into a marshy flat. Narrow rivulets cut across the earth in seemingly every direction; we had to watch every step. The tall grasses and thick shrubs were soaking wet from the evening rains. Before long, my shoes and clothes were saturated with water. I counted on the sun to dry me off later.

Water, water everywhere

Once we navigated out of the flats, the climbing began. The terrain moved upward in a hurry. We scrambled up and over rocks, downed trees, shrubs and scree, trying to avoid the thickest vegetation. I was astonished to find a shiny blue object stuck in the rocks partway up the inhospitable slopes: a party balloon. Of course, this balloon must have blown in there from somewhere far away, but I was still disgusted to have to pick this trash up from the wilderness. Balloons blow.

At last, I began to see fewer trees and more blue skies. We’d reached the boulder field! From there, according to my notes, we’d just pick our way along the open ridge to the summit.

Not so fast, said the formidable Sawtooths, with a devious grin.

We reached the highpoint of the boulders within our view, which allowed us to scout out the next part of the route. The ridge was completely impassable. Our path lay straight ahead: a couple thousand vertical feet of boulder-hopping, all the way to the top.

Undeterred, we sat and dried out our feet while eating snacks. So far, the weather was holding. It was breezy but sunny and clear.

For the next two hours, we picked our way up the extensive boulder field. Some of the rocks were enormous, and their size gave no indication of their stability. Often, the largest boulders were the ones that tipped under bodyweight, while the smaller rocks stayed put. It took all of our mental focus to stay upright as we clambered toward the summit.

You want boulders? I got boulders!

I kept looking back and overhead at the gray clouds that swirled around us. Would we get caught in a storm? How long would it last? Were we in any danger? The two of us discussed our options and decided to choose a route close to the trees so that we could seek refuge quickly if needed. I felt like I’d be ready to retreat at the sound of thunder or a flash of lightning. But, if the previous two storms taught us anything, I expected this one would come down around 6 pm. We had hours to spare.

With slowness and care, we proceeded up the east face of the mountain, joining the ridge just below the summit. A faint user path spiraled up to the top.

Almost there

Ah, nothing beats the joy of reaching a mountain top! The wind blew, the clouds threatened, so we didn’t spend much time there. I opened the summit canister and read the three entries in the log from this year. With so many other peaks to choose from, it’s no wonder this one doesn’t make most people’s short list. There was hardly any room to write in the log so I tore a piece of my printed beta and shoved it into the canister before we left.

The hike down seemed to take just as long as the hike up. Every boulder, it seemed, wanted to kill us. I made it almost all the way down before I slammed my knee and lower leg into a sharp rock. Bleeding but not seriously hurt, I tried to remain focus and move slowly enough to not make any stupid mistakes. I felt like I was stepping from one balance board to another in an endless obstacle course. I do enjoy a bit of boulder-hopping but this was really over the top.

Pretty rocks

As I nursed my wounds, I noticed the incredibly beautiful crystals and patterns and colors in the rocks that I hadn’t paid attention to on the way up. Even when you retrace your route, there’s something new to discover.

The return hike was unremarkable, except for the last couple of miles. The wind picked up and faint rumbles of thunder began to spread through the air. LeeAnn was stressing that the rain fly was hanging on a clothesline to dry and she wanted to hustle back to camp to get it on the tent. I wanted to jump in the lake. So, I handed her the car keys and she bombed down the trail. I spied an opening to the lake and changed into my swimsuit. I didn’t stay long, but just taking that moment to wash off the sweat and dust of the day made me feel renewed. I decided to shove my clothes in my bag and meander back to camp barefoot.

It had been quite some time since I’d done any barefoot hiking, so my feet were pretty tender. I let myself slow down and take all the time in the world to saunter the last mile to camp. While I dearly love having LeeAnn as a hiking buddy, I was starting to yearn for some alone time. Finding the balance between solitude and companionship has always been a challenge for me.

When I reached camp, the tent fly was secure and LeeAnn was rinsing off in the creek. The rain hadn’t come yet, but it was only a matter of time…

We finished off the night with dinner and camp margaritas: tequila + lemon lime drink mix + water, salt on the rim!

Crater Lake Ski Circumnavigation

March 20-22, 2020.

32 miles | 4300′ ele. gain | 3 days

Photo album

Two years ago, my friend Dave messaged me to ask if I’d be interested in skiing the loop around Crater Lake that winter.

“I’m not a skier,” I bluntly replied.

But the idea weighed heavily on my brain and before long, I had convinced myself to get back on skis for the first time in a decade and learn how to cross country ski. I knew this much about the route: it was about 33 miles around the lake following the rim road. Talking to people who have biked the rim, I knew it felt like it was all uphill. There were a few avalanche detours that we might have to take due to snow conditions at the time. While it can be skied in a day, most people take 3. That’s basically all there was to it.

I did some research prior to embarking on this trip. I read a handful of trip reports that basically had the same message: everything will hurt, lots of things will go wrong, this is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, it will destroy you. One after another, seemingly confirming how much of a grueling assault skiing around Crater Lake could be. I just knew it didn’t have to be a sufferfest. I didn’t want it to be. So I thought about what physical skills and conditioning I’d need, what gear I’d have to bring and what knowledge would be essential. I made a plan not only to complete this circumnavigation but to do it well.

After a couple months of training… going for longer distances, covering varied terrain, learning how to ski on different types of snow, managing up and downhills…I fell and badly injured my hip. My trip was set back an entire year.

Then, on our planned weekend adventure in 2020, a storm blew in. We stayed home. The following week, the Coronavirus slowly started shutting things down. But the weather forecast was phenomenal. If the park would stay open for just a few more days, we would go.

And we did.

Day 1

Our team of 4 arrived at the South Entrance of Crater Lake around 8:30 am, where we acquired a backcountry camping permit and readied ourselves for the 3 day trip. We drove up to the rim, where Beverly and I dropped LeeAnn and Dave off with all the gear before driving back down to leave our cars in the overnight lot. We then ate some doughnuts to fuel up for the trek up the Raven trail to get to the “start” of the route.

We strapped on our skis and started making our way up the trail. It was very packed down and icy from the hundreds of skiers, walkers and snowshoers who had used the trail before us. Soon it became obvious that it would be faster and easier to take our skis off and walk. A mile and a half later, we met our two friends at the rim and prepared to take off into the backcountry. It was 11:30 am.

crater lake ski

It was later than we anticipated, but with cloudless blue skies overhead and the warmth radiating down from the sun, we were amped up for this adventure. Within the first 5 minutes, we all had to take our skis off once and the team had at least 2 crashes, but then we began to settle into a groove and make progress along the West Rim Road.

Our only goal for the day was to travel at least 10 miles before setting up camp. We skied around the Watchman, cautiously negotiating the avalanche-prone slopes along its northern aspect, and enjoyed the immense relief and quiet the snowy road brought to our lives. For days, it had been a 24-hour onslaught of media about how the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and it felt good to shift focus to the ground beneath my feet. There was no internet access here.

The road traveled north and then east, rolling up and down a vast, snow-covered landscape with views for miles. To our right was, of course, the lake. To the left was a meadow-studded forest blanketed in shimmering white.

Photo by LeeAnn O’Neill

I loved noticing the changes as we skied clockwise around the lake. How the snow texture changed by the minute. How the reflections in the lake changed. How the surrounding landscape changed. Every stretch of road had a new story to tell.

Each of us skied at our own pace and we stopped to re-group occasionally along the way. In the afternoon, Dave decided that his pace was not going to allow him to complete the circuit in time and he preferred to turn back. The three remaining team members would go on together. We made sure he had all of his own gear to camp solo and made a plan to meet Sunday after noon. Knowing Dave’s excellent winter camping skills, I felt comfortable leaving him on his own. LeeAnn, Beverly and I continued skiing and soon began scouting possible camp locations.

And then, we found it. This was the spot.

Backcountry camping rules are specific in Crater Lake National Park: camp no closer than 100 feet from the edge of the rim and out of sight of the road. We located a flat spot in a grove of trees for our tents, but a quick walk out of the trees led to a stunning, panoramic view of the lake. The rock wall on the road’s edge was melted out enough to provide us with a seating area and kitchen. It was one of the most incredible camp spots I’ve ever had the privilege to enjoy.

That evening, we made dinner, ate pie, told stories and watched the sunset over the lake. The air was cool but not cold. There was not a hint of wind. It was pure bliss. As it grew dark, we retreated to our tents for journaling, crossword puzzles and podcasts before falling asleep in paradise.

Day 2

We woke up with the sun and lazily rolled out of our tents to make breakfast and melt snow. I enjoyed some pre-cooked bacon, hot coffee and oatmeal. We were in no rush to get started, since we wanted the snow to soften a bit before we hit the road again.

By the time we packed up tents and geared up to ski, it was 9:30, sunny and gorgeous. Snow conditions were perfect. We skied off into the unknown.

In some areas, the snow had completely drifted/melted off the road so that there was no choice but to extract ourselves from our skis and trudge across the pavement on foot. These sections almost always coincided with delicious views of the lake, so it really wasn’t that bad.

All year long I had worked on developing a suite of skills that I hoped would help me feel competent on this trip. I knew my biggest challenge would be gaining confidence in the downhills, so I worked on this a bunch. Now, it was coming in really handy. I negotiated all the lumps and bumps on the road with grace, even carrying a heavy, winter, overnight backpack! My friends used a bit more caution and chose to walk across several of the steeper, bumpier segments, but I pushed myself to tackle them on my skis. And it was fun.

Soon, the downhill play came to an abrupt end as we began a long, slow ascent up to the pass between Cloudcap and Mt. Scott. Along the way we encountered a couple heading the other direction, two of just a handful of people we’d see on the entire trip. Social distancing for the win.

The climb was endless, or so it seemed. As the views of Mt. Scott got better and better, the terrain flattened out and became nearly barren of trees. We plopped our packs down for a well-deserved lunch break, our second one of the day.

Our uphill slog rewarded us with a few long downhill sections and shortly we found ourselves at the junction with Dutton Cliffs avalanche bypass. The ranger specifically mentioned taking this bypass at this time, so we turned off the main route and did a mile-long downhill run on a shady, icy forest road to a sign for the off-road component of the bypass.

What followed was the absolute lowest point of the trip.

There was one skier in front of us with an alpine touring set-up: downhill skis with skins for the uphill. All of us had backcountry skis with metal edges and scales, but no skins. We attempted to follow his tracks up the steep, slushy snow but did not have much success. We then did a combination of side-stepping and making large switchbacks to ascend the ridiculously steep slope (it was listed as black diamond/difficult on the map). My friends passed me by, as their skis stuck to the skin tracks while mine slid quickly behind me every time I tried to take a step. It was infuriating. Halfway up the trail, I completely broke down. I was having some flashbacks from the time I tore my ACL; I was first learning how to ski ten years ago, lost my balance in wet, heavy snow while standing almost perfectly still, and snap! These conditions were eerily similar. Plus, I had a ton of weight on my back, was fatigued from a day of skiing and was getting very frustrated with myself. I burst into tears.

After a few minutes I picked myself back up and continued up the hill. This pattern repeated a few more times, including one time I took my skis off and tried to bootpack up the hill; the snow was too deep and too soft to get anywhere. I was completely drained.

Somehow I managed to find a way back to the road, where LeeAnn and Beverly were cheerily munching on some snacks while sitting on their packs.

I believe my exact words were, “I’m not taking off my fucking pack until we get to camp,” and I rage-skied up the road away from them.

We had a rough plan for where to camp that night, based on the limited information we could gather from the topo map. As I climbed up the road I dreaded how much further I would have to go to reach that spot, so I began looking around for alternatives. Soon enough, the forest gave way to open meadows studded with patches of trees. I looked over at one particular tree clump, turned my head to face LeeAnn, and we both agreed: that was the one.

We skied back past that first cluster of trees to the next, and we found our spot. It was flat, shielded from view and overlooking a rolling snowfield that cascaded far off in the distance. I dropped my pack and stood in silence for a while, changed into dry clothes and helped set up camp. Once my temper simmered down I took a big breath of relief and felt a wave of gratitude overcome me. Yes, I will have that sip of brandy now.

We laid out our foam pads on the snow as we ate dinner and watched the only cloud in the sky settle right in front of the sun. It was colder, with an ever-so-slight breeze, so we hit the tents a little earlier. I crashed headlong into sleep.

Day 3

Arising a little earlier, I sat with LeeAnn to watch the sun rise over the flatlands far below us. The air warmed from 15 degrees to 55 degrees in what felt like a half hour’s time. Layers kept coming off during breakfast. I checked our mileage: we had about 7 miles to go, by my estimate. And after a short climb, most of it should be downhill. Easy peasy! I couldn’t wait.

We began our ski at the same time as the day before, but the snow surface was much icier today. My skies edged nicely on the crust; my friends opted instead to carry their skis back up to the road. Once on the road, I began my morning meditation. Only the sounds of snow sliding beneath me and rhythmic exhales filled my ears. As I reached the top of the hill I paused to let the group come back together. Then, it was (mostly) all downhill.

Much of the terrain was steeper, narrower, bumpier and icier than the road we’d skied so far. Again, I was glad I’d practiced so much downhill and brought my heavy-ass tele skis for this trip. They were slow-going on the uphills but they sang on the downhills. I went ahead and scouted all the bumps and turns, giving the others feedback on whether they should ski or walk. There were a few short, steep bumps that nearly knocked me over but I stayed on my feet, grinning and whooping the whole way.

The sketchiest descent on day three took us through a road cut that was littered with recent rock-fall. I looked ahead and yelled “ROCKS!” “BIG ROCKS” to my pals, who wisely decided to walk that section. I took it as a challenge to do some slow motion slalom skiing. I didn’t stop until I reached the other end. What made it more butt-clenching was the fact that the road dropped off into nothingness on the other side. There was no room for error.

All the downhills after that point were just pure enjoyment. I cruised one looooooong section after another, my thighs quivering for holding the longest chair poses I’d ever done. Any flat spot or brief uphill segment offered an opportunity for my other muscles to pitch in and do some work.

After the longest downhill I stopped for one last pie break. I had carried the damn thing all weekend, so I might as well enjoy it, I thought. It gave me one final burst of energy to get back to the parking lot.

And just like that, it was all over. The trip of a lifetime was complete. I’d achieved what felt like a real stretch goal, something I hadn’t thought I’d be able to do. As we skied along the entrance road to find a place to drop down and return to the car, we waved to Dave, who was happily driving back into the park to meet us. The timing was impeccable.

Photo by Dave Fritz

We arrived back in Bend Sunday afternoon. Just two days later, Crater Lake National Park reported that they were going to shut down access completely. We’d slipped in and out just in time. I’m so glad we were able to put this trip together and now I’ll be content finding ways to have mini-adventures in my neighborhood streets, parks and trails while the country figures out how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This gives me lots of time to dream up another grand adventure…

Basecamp adventures: Truth or Consequences

November 26, 2019

Photo album

I had plotted an escape to civilization about halfway through our road trip so we could shower, relax and sleep in a real bed. Upon seeing the unusual town name on the New Mexico map, I became curious and began researching the meaning behind it.

The town had previously been named Hot Springs, due to its wealth of bubbly hot pools in the area. But in 1950, a popular radio show called Truth or Consequences reached out to its audience, pledging to broadcast its 10th anniversary show in whatever town re-named itself after the program. And so, this sleepy little town came alive with a huge Fiesta and parade with a simple name change. Only in America.

To be honest, the place felt pretty run down and desolate. We had a lovely AirBnB rental with a hot tub in the backyard, and that’s all that really mattered to us. A couple nights here would recharge us for the remainder of the trip.

Caballo Cone

Also known as Turtleback Mountain, Caballo Cone was the local hiking destination. Its long, rolling ridgeline stretched for miles along the edge of town. Although there was no official trailhead or trail, there was a pretty legit user path and specific parking directions were easy to find online. No one was there when we arrived, and it appeared to be on public land, so we gave it a go.

As we’d come to expect from our previous adventures, it was cold and windy right from the get go. We bundled up and started hiking quickly, if only to stay warm in the shadow of the mountain. I could see a pointy bit off in the distance, but I knew it was just one of many false summits before we’d reach the top.

The wind was blowing so hard that the ocotillo on the sides of the trail were making me feel nervous. If the wind pushed me off balance, I’d plow right into one of those things, only to be impaled by hundreds of thorns. I worked hard to stay in control of my gait and leaned heavily on my poles.

The trail wove between sun and shade as it made its way up to the ridge. When the wind blew and it was shaded, I felt the cold go right through my body. When I caught a break in the wind and stood in the sunshine, I felt like I could melt. Temperature regulation was impossible; I was a little grumpy.

On the ridge we were faced with seemingly endless rolling terrain until we reached the top. There were some narrow, rocky spines that would have been fun to walk on in calmer weather. We dipped from one side of the ridge to the other, following the path of least resistance.

Once we reached the summit, I signed us in at the register box and we ducked out of the wind to eat some food. It was only 2.3 miles to get there, but we’d done a fair amount of climbing. I couldn’t wait to get back down, get in the car and strip some layers off. New Mexico was pushing my wind tolerance.

Chloride

With that hike done, we still had most of the day to get out and explore. I was hopeful for some kind of indoor activity and remembered a recommendation that one of the shopkeepers in Truth or Consequences had suggested: the ghost town of Chloride.

We drove for about an hour and pulled into a small parking lot across the street from the Pioneer Store Museum. There was a little park next door with picnic tables and a restroom, so we set up at a table to have lunch. It was still cold and windy; I waited impatiently for water to boil for my lunch.

After getting some calories down, we walked over to the museum, where a sign directed us to the adjacent store. Apparently we’d need a guide to lead us through the museum. We waited, wandering around the store looking at all the trinkets, while the old man made his way to the store. As it turned out, he was the guy who purchased the old store and several other buildings in the dying town. He made it his mission to preserve the history that was hidden inside the old and decrepit structures. This man was full of knowledge of and, obviously, passion for sharing the stories of the people who used to live there. Once he started talking, he hardly stopped to take a breath,

As we stepped inside, the man’s words faded into the background as I was awestruck at what was in front of me. It was a cute little shop, with every horizontal surface covered with relics from the past. On one side, shelves full of groceries and glassware. On the other, tools, books and clothing. The walls were also covered with paraphernalia for a time long gone. In addition, there were displays of old newspapers, advertisements and letters. I almost wasn’t sure where to look!

Our tour guide told story after story with delight. I’m sure he reveled in having a captive audience. This was easily the highlight of my day.

We departed Chloride and headed back towards our rental, making one more stop at the Geronimo Springs Museum. There, we learned much more about the history of the area. Exhibits spanned from dinosaur bones to Native American history to cowboy culture to mohair goat ranching and, of course, the story of how Truth or Consquences came to be.

Back at the rental, I lamented over the weather forecast. It was only going to get worse. Inches of rain were projected to fall in the next couple days, accompanied by more chilly temperatures and treacherous conditions in the backcountry. I searched fruitlessly for hours in every direction to find a place of respite. The whole American west was being slammed by this storm system.

I booked an AirBnB for the next three nights in Silver City, a place I’d never heard of before. What’s a roadtrip without a big change of plans, anyways?

White Sands short trails

November 22, 2019.

Photo album

We arrived at White Sands National Monument in the late afternoon, without much time to spend on the trails. We wandered around the Visitor’s Center to learn a bit about the park and then planned on hiking all four short nature trails, a total of just under 2 miles, before sunset.

One of the first things I noticed about White Sands was that the dunes…just weren’t that white. It was pretty, to be sure, but the gleaming white expanses that I’d seen in pictures on the Internet felt like false advertising. Ah, the wonders of marketing and Photoshop. I guess “Small Sand Dunes National Monument” just didn’t have the same ring to it.

The dunes were small, compared to other places we’d seen. Nonetheless, we were intent on exploring and finding what made this place special.

Following colored posts in the dunes, we walked each of the trails in relative quiet. We tried to block out the people ignoring the posted signs and the one idiot who was flying a drone. This kind of behavior is par for the course at National Park sites.

Instead I looked up at the dreamy clouds. At the solitary cottonwood trees somehow growing tall among the endless dunes. At the animal tracks weaving across the sand. And I fought the cold beneath my feet. I mean, I couldn’t hike on sand dunes in my SHOES. That’s blasphemy. But the air and the ground were pretty cold; I suffered in silence.

Sunset was beautiful. We stood on the boardwalk overlooking the sand-colored sand dunes, watching the sky turn purple, pink, orange.

Our visit to White Sands was brief, but we had plans for the next two days. I had tickets to a ranger-led tour of Lake Lucero, the source of the dunes, on November 23. Then, we’d camp on the dunes that night and do a longer hike the following day. While I was underwhelmed on this first excursion, I hoped that a more immersive experience would help me appreciate this site more.

Since the campgrounds I had hoped to camp in were just recently covered in snow (!) we made a last-minute decision to splurge on a hotel room with a jacuzzi to clean up before our stay in White Sands. I stuck to my meal plan, however, and whipped up a stir-fry in the bathroom (can’t set the tiles on fire) and we had a wonderfully relaxing evening.