Bare Mountain from the Cement Plant

November 6, 2023.

9.1 mi. | 3220′ ele. gain | 6:30 hr.

bare mountain
Barrel cactus in front of Bare Mountain

Photo album

From our dispersed camp at an old cement plant, I looked outside the van window. A jagged ridge of rugged, colorful mountains lurched up to meet the sky. I looked to the internet to find some kind of information about hiking routes in these impressive looking mountains, but I didn’t come up with very much. But Bare Mountain, the tallest of the highpoints on my app, didn’t inspire many trip reports. So, I was left to my own devices to concoct a route and pick my way up towards the summit.

One thing I’ve learned on this trip is to go into any adventure with no commitment to an outcome. While I would have loved to plan to summit this peak, I knew that a number of factors would have to line up in order to make that happen. With limited time and information, I couldn’t guarantee achieving that goal. So, my goal today was to take a nice walk, see some cactus, enjoy the sunshine and burn some energy. I’d be able to achieve these things whether I made it to the summit or not.

The approach

Under the warm morning sun, I stepped out onto the gravel road leading up to the mines at the base of the mountain. I had a long, straight road walk to get to the start of the mountainy part of the route. A few minutes into the walk, I saw a few varieties of cactus and a tarantula! I was so excited to be in this novel environment.


As I walked up the long, boring road, I looked at the nooks and ridges and peaks ahead of me. The complex terrain was going to give me a run for my money. And I knew there was some old and/or current mining activity to avoid. Other than that, it was a mystery. I enjoyed watching the shadows pull back to reveal more and more of the mountain faces as the sun rose in the sky. Near the top of the road, I walked past a truck that must have been parked last night or this morning. The truck was empty, so I thought someone else must be out exploring, too.

The previous evening, I put some pins on my mapping app numbered “1,” “2”… all the way up to 5. Each point brought me closer and closer to the summit. I based the position of each pin on the topography on my map, since that was the only information I had to go on. Upon reaching the end of my access road at point #1, I took out my app to compare what was in front of me to what I’d planned on my phone. Since chains across the road indicated that was off-limits, I headed cross-country towards my #2 waypoint high on a saddle to my left.

Carefully, I picked my way between cactus thorns, broken glass, metal scraps, holes and other natural and man-made obstacles. I was glad to be wearing approach shoes and long pants! However, the mine openings and slumps in the ground really stressed me out so I was focused on getting up to that saddle as quickly as possible.

Up we go

It was time for some food, water and reconnaissance. I looked up at the mountain ridge ahead of me. Cactus dotted the steep, rocky ridge. “One step at a time, as far as I can go” was my mantra. The relentless wind kept me on my toes, making each move with deliberate intent. I switchbacked up the steepest bits, crafting a route that never felt too scary or difficult. The intimidating cliffs softened as I approached them, always offering up a suitable passageway. I followed the path of least resistance, sometimes traversing on the shaded north side, sometimes on the sunny south side and sometimes right on the spine of the ridge. There goes #3…

The steep cliffs and profusion of cactus made for a slow ascent. I mean, I had to stop and look at EVERY single one of the spiny succulents, especially the teeny tiny ones. And the big ones. And the hairy looking ones. Well, you get my drift.

Baby barrel.

The crows and I had passed glances with each other all morning. No other evidence of sentient beings had surfaced, until I perked up at the sound of voices coming down the peak. Sure enough, two humans were headed down a scree slope as I huffed and puffed uphill.

Halfway along the slope, we crossed paths and I stopped to talk to them. The couple was quite friendly and we chatted about the mountain, the weather and other scrambling adventures in the area. They were avid desert peakbaggers and it was a delight to swap stories with kindred spirits. We wished each other a good day and continued on our paths.

bare mountain scrambling
Fun and varied scrambling near the top

The closer I got, the slower I moved. Not because I was getting tired but because the routefinding and footing was trickier. I bounced back and forth between spires and gullies and edges until I finally caught sight of the summit block. #4, #5 and there I was! Nestled between some rocks, I found the summit register, ready for its second entry in the same day. I hung out to celebrate a job well done and also to chow down some food in anticipation of the long walk back.

Summit register

The descent

With the intention of backtracking my exact route, I started re-tracing my footsteps down the ridge. After the first few obvious features, I got a little disoriented and veered slightly too far right, too far left, then back again. I struggled to find an easy path on the way down. It had been so intuitive on the way up and I couldn’t quite find my way coming down. Maybe it was the rock, maybe it was my tired legs, I am not quite sure what it was. But the descent felt exceptionally tedious and slow. Once I returned close to point 2, I decided to make a loop of it. The terrain was pushing me down into a gully on the north side of the ridge anyway, so I just followed it down.


From there, I took a long, sweeping arc around the east arm of the mountain. The wash led to a road and easy walking all the way back out. I gained some new perspective from this variation, plus it let me avoid all the dangerous mine holes and debris.

I made it back to the van just as Aaron wrapped up his work day. Another full and fulfilling day in the mountains.

Lava Beds National Monument

October 29- November 1, 2023.

lava beds national monument
The lava landscape

Photo album

Lava Beds is a low-key National Parks Service site in Northern California. I’d been there twice before and knew that it would be an interesting place to hole up for a few days no matter what the weather did. There are many things to do, from learning about the Modoc war to exploring caves to hiking across the lava landscape. Since I’ve written in detail about the caves before, I’ll highlight some of the other things we did on this trip.

Unmarked caves

Our friend LeeAnn drove down to spend a few days with us before we left the Pacific Northwest for good, so I had a hiking buddy while Aaron was working. One day, we decided to take a hike and poke our heads into a few caves we noticed on our maps that were not labeled on the official park map. When we inquired about them at the visitor center, they wouldn’t even give us any information. So we packed up our helmets, headlamps and gloves and followed our curiosity.

I’m not going to be the one to blow up information on caves that aren’t on the beaten path, so you’ll have to follow your curiosity as well. We ended up walking by a few caves we weren’t expecting. Some of these caves were open to explore, while others had posted signs saying “Cave closed.” Whether it was to protect hibernating bats or to protect us from unsafe conditions, they didn’t need to tell us twice! If there was a “do not enter sign” in front of a tantalizing hole in the ground, we did not go inside.

Would you wander in there?

No worries though, because there were several openings that were free to explore. It was a little scarier for me to walk into a cave that I had no map or information for. We stayed close together, moved slowly and marveled at being in a place that most visitors don’t get to enjoy. One cave started inside a massive entrance and ended at a small passageway at the other end! But most were out-and-back excursions.

If you’re really into caving, I’m sure you know where to find more details on the 700+ unmarked caves scattered throughout the park. I was content with poking my head into a handful of caves off the main cave loop. If you do venture off the beaten path, be sure to do it with a friend or two, carry three sources of light and let someone else know where you’re headed.

Hiking trails

I spent one full day exploring the trails on the surface of the park, including some trails on my map but not theirs (are you sensing a theme?). Before LeeAnn left for Oregon, we hiked up the trail to Schonchin Butte. This steep, 0.7 mile trail spirals right up to the summit just like my favorite Pilot Butte trail back in Bend. The difference today was the overwhelming smell of smoke in the air from prescribed burns nearby. Lucky for us, the hike began on the shady side of the butte so we were walking up the hillside in cool, morning air.

Fire lookout

A beautiful fire lookout marks the summit. It is a working lookout during the summer, but it was locked up for the season when we visited. We took the little loop trail around the summit crater and enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding lava beds.

Our next stop: Captain Jack’s Stronghold. LeeAnn took off for home and left me behind to start walking back toward the van. But first, I wanted to spend some time among the lava caves and fortresses in which the Modoc Indians took their last stand against the U.S. government troops. I read about how the remaining native families tried to defend their homeland against the invading colonizing forces and how this narrative continues to play out across the world today. Then, I slowly walked the half-mile short loop, stopping at each numbered post and tried to imagine what the interpretive brochure might say (since none were available). I wondered how the NPS currently framed the settler vs. native interactions here. I thought about how I was raised to believe the myths of the “land of the free” and how I’ve had to re-learn American history and un-learn the propaganda that was taught in schools. It was a heavy morning. The smoke only made it more heavy.

lava beds national monument
Medicine pole at Captain Jack’s Stronghold

From there, I walked along the road for a couple miles to a trailhead that didn’t exist on the park map but that I saw on the Google satellite images. As I approached the alleged trailhead, I slowly looked for signs of the trail. Aha! Found it. The “Sheepherder trail” was clearly an old road that was filling in with grass and tumbleweed. I saw a few somewhat recent boot tracks on it and started walking. My planned route would take me on a north-south line between the road and the campground. While I would have very much enjoyed a 15 mile walk back to the van on most days, I knew the smoke would make my walk really challenging and I plotted a few different ways to get to the road where Aaron could pick me up sooner.

I used my trail spidey-senses to follow the old two track as it wound its way between gentle hills and piles of lava rock. The tumbleweed really liked to collect in the low places between hills, which aligned almost exactly with the road. I was glad that I chose to wear long pants and actual shoes and that tumbleweed isn’t covered in thorns. I pushed through the dry vegetation for miles before finding a place to stop and eat my lunch.

A cairn miles from any marked trail

Along the way, I stumbled across a few seemingly arbitrary posts indicating a wilderness boundary. I also found one section of trail that was marked with obvious cairns, but they often were not in view of each other. They stopped and started arbitrarily and not near any trail junction. It was the wild west out there. I continued on, following the “Powerline Trail” around Hardin Butte and onto the “Hardin Butte trail.” All of the trail names in quotes do not officially exist.

I noticed that an actual trail to marked points of interest were just north of my location. I struck off between outcrops of lava to find this trail. It was surprisingly not as hard as I thought and soon I found myself looking at a sign entitled “Last Victory for the Modoc.” The last part reads: “Many Modoc were not interested in indiscriminate killing, but were determined to defend their land and culture. After this battle, they were never again successful in doing so.” This read to me as very cold and dehumanizing, as if people who had inhabited land for many thousands of years had no right to continue living there because a bunch of white guys with guns said “mine now.” I sat on that wall, awash in those heavy feelings again.

One mile of trail led to the parking lot. Just before arriving there, I veered off on a short spur to Black Crater. This area had several interpretive signs describing the lava features visible from the trail. I walked among the familiar terrain, very ready to get out of the smoke.


The campground at Lava Beds National Monument has 43 sites, which are all first-come first-serve. At only $10 a night it’s the best deal around (besides dispersed camping). We found one of the few sites that we could squeeze in the van and a little car in the same parking area. Our site overlooked a large grassland with just a few trees. It had a picnic table, fire ring and a grill. A heated, lighted bathroom with a flush toilet was a quick walk away. And there was a water spigot just across the road.

We managed to scavenge enough firewood from nearby campsites to have a nice fire each night. Most of the sites were empty; only 2 or 3 sites were occupied each night. I remember having a similar experience the last time we camped there. But even better than the campfire were the epic sunsets and moonrises each evening. Even with the light of the moon, thousands of stars spread like glitter across the sky. What a beautiful and quiet place to be outside.

Moonrise over camp

2023 Annular eclipse in Nevada

October 14, 2023.

Photo album

One of the natural events we hoped to experience on our long roadtrip was the annular eclipse. This type of eclipse climaxes when the moon obscures the sun in such a way that it forms a ring of light. The eclipse path encompassed large parts of Oregon and Nevada before continuing further south and east. Since we’d be in Bend just before the eclipse, I focused on getting us down to Northern Nevada to catch the event. Most Oregonians planted themselves at the Coast, Crater Lake or other notable parks and public lands. But I wasn’t too excited about betting on clear skies in October on the west side.

That took us on a long drive across Oregon’s dry side, past Crane Hot Springs and the Alvord desert, down into Northern Nevada. I’ve spent a good amount of time in the area and had some ideas for places to go. But anything even remotely close to amenities (and I use this word loosely) was overflowing with visitors a couple days ahead of the eclipse.

I pulled up the maps on my phone and went through all my backup plan ideas, then drafted a new plan. We drove an hour east from our intended stop to a random pullout on a side road I noticed on Google satellite. Someone was even parked there! We committed to driving down that road, wherever it took us. A few miles down, we found a good enough place to pull off that was flat and open. Good enough, and good grief!

Good place to park

After being van-bound for the whole day, I quickly stuffed a pack with the basics and charged up the hill behind the van. Sunset was coming fast. I scrambled up to the top of an unnamed ridge, then over to another little lump on the horizon. That lump seemed to be a great place to see the eclipse the next day.

Viewing the eclipse

In the morning, I boiled some water and made breakfast burritos, then packed it all up to go. We hiked 15 minutes or so to the top of the lump. Aaron laid out our picnic blanket and I made instant coffee with our hot water. We put on our eclipse glasses and looked up; it had just started!

For about an hour, the moon gradually took larger and larger bites out of the sun. Aaron busied himself setting up a shadow-viewing setup and I took out my painting kit. We watched as large swaths of clouds threatened to cancel the whole event. But instead, they added a curious mystique and changed the mood of the sky. We laughed as several cars blasted down the gravel road below us, as if they were trying to get a better view at the last minute. Our perch was perfect.

At 9:15 am, we watched the sun turn into a ring of fire. It was just as cool as it sounds! The entire thing lasted about 4 minutes, then the sun began to retain its circular shape. Soon after totality, the clouds rolled in and the weather cooled down. We packed up our things and went back to the van. We relaxed in our rolling home for the rest of the day.

Inspired by our time on the hill, I completed a painting to commemorate the eclipse based on the sketches and notes I had from the morning. It’s so nice to sit at a table to create art in a controlled environment. The feeling is completely different than sitting outdoors on an uneven surface, wind blowing, shadows changing and bugs landing in your paint! It almost feels like cheating. In short time, I put together something I really liked that captured our experience.

Eclipse in watercolor

Satisfied, I cleaned out my Art Toolkit Palette and refilled my most-used colors with fresh paint. That evening, we made burgers for dinner and played an Unlock! escape room game. These games are fun to have in the van because we can play them anywhere and it’s good entertainment for an hour or two.

Oregon Coast road trip, part 3

September 30- October 4, 2023.

Another sunrise

Photo album

Central coast sights

If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s to not over-plan. As an obsessive planner, this lesson did not come naturally. With so many sights to see on the coast, we put this strategy to use as we drove south from South Beach State Park towards the Carter Lake Campground.

Aaron picked Ona Beach as our first stop. Along our short walk to the beach, we picked enough evergreen huckleberries to fill our berries. Bushes loaded with ripe berries lined the trail. Apparently, we were the only ones to notice. They were delicious.

Perfect blue skies on the Central Oregon coast

Next, we stopped at the Waldport Heritage Museum, where we learned so much about the bridges connecting sites at the coast. Without these bridges, we couldn’t do this road trip. We also learned about Lewis Southworth, a Black settler who purchased his way out of slavery and came to become a prominent community member in Waldport and then Corvallis.

We kept driving, pulling off at the brown signs that caught our attention: Devil’s Churn, Spouting Horn, Neptune Beach. Then, on a recommendation from an Instagram friend, we stopped at Fred Meyer to scramble up the impressive sand dunes behind it. The coast is full of curiosities, history, nature and more!

Carter Dunes

We camped at Carter Dunes so we could get a nice hike in early the next morning. After filling up on huckleberry pancakes, we hiked about a mile through coastal forest to the beach. There, we took our shoes off and wandered along the beach. The bright sun reflected off the ocean surface, filling the sky with light. Not one other person was on the beach, a classic sign of having hiked to the Oregon coast.

Hiking to the dunes

Shore Acres and Sunset Bay

Next we drove to Shore Acres State Park and made lunch in the parking lot. It’s tempting to want to stop at every little cafe or fish and chips shop to eat, but those receipts add up really fast.

We packed up our picnic blanket and reading materials, then looked for a scenic place to sit and read by the ocean. Along the way we made several stops to ooh and aah at the scenery; Shore Acres is an exceptionally beautiful place. Here, the crashing ocean waves carve unique sculptures in the soft rock and tenacious, old pine trees cling to eroding stone edges like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger.

I did some reading, then meandered among the cartoon-like rock formations. I sat quietly on a sandy patch, simply watching the waves crash for what felt like hours. The sea is enchanting.

Shore Acres State Park

We continued on to Sunset Bay for an evening of camping. We arrived at high tide, so the water in the bay nearly reached the edge of the parking lot. The next morning, however, much of the beach revealed itself. Rocks jutted up from the sand, with tidepools between. We poked around looking for critters, then I returned to the van to finish up some paintings for the art show.

Floras Lake

On our way to Boice-Cope Park/Floras Lake, we stopped in Bandon so I could pick up a couple of bottles of Bandon Rain. I tried several flavors before settling on cranberry and blueberry. It’s not easy to find these ciders out in the wild, so I was glad to make the stop.

That evening, rain poured down and wind shook the van. I scoured the van kitchen for comfort food and discovered I had all the ingredients to make a queso sauce. It was so easy and really delicious over tortilla chips with all the taco toppings. When you’re living on the road full time and you love to eat a variety of meals, it’s important to learn how to cook creatively in a small space with limited cookware and ingredients. Queso is now on my menu of food options!

Gulls on the beach

In the morning, I needed to stretch my legs, so I took a quick walk to the ocean. The tide was high and furious. I didn’t make it too far before I felt like I could get crushed between the incoming swells and the sandstone headland. I walked back in the aggressively blowing wind and watched the birds; this is becoming one of my favorite things to do at the coast (bird-watching, not walking head first into wind).

Harris Beach State Park

It was packed; I was glad to get my reservation in that morning. The following day, I arose before the sun so I could catch the entire sunrise. It was research for the otter artwork I planned on painting for this year’s holiday card. It was a little eerie hiking down to the beach through a tree tunnel in the pitch dark, but once I reached the beach and saw the pastels begin painting the sky I realized it was worth it.

Harris Beach sunrise

I walked barefoot along the edge of the water, pausing to peer into the small tidepools that were beginning to form. The tide was still pretty high, so my route dead-ended at a tall cliff with no way around. I stopped there and called my dad. We talked for so long that by the time I headed back, an entire beach formed in front of the previously impassable cliff.

Crissey Field

We had one more stop to complete the Oregon coast drive: Crissey Field. Although it sounds like a place to catch a ball game, it’s actually a nice beach with a visitor center, picnic tables and plenty of parking.

Since I had a nice place to sit and spread out my art supplies, I chose this location to work on the 2023 seasonal card painting. I’d already sketched out a sea otter design and I thought, what better place to paint otters than at the edge of the ocean?

Sea otter!

When Aaron had a break from work, we chatted with the ladies at the visitor center for a while. They hooked us up with postcards, eclipse glasses and other “Welcome to Oregon” paraphernalia. I asked if we could walk the beach into California and they said yes, so that we had to do.

I slipped off my shoes once again and we set off on the sand. As we strolled along the crashing waves, we watched the pelicans play. They seemed to “surf” the waves by flying down low, a couple inches from the top of the water, then gliding over the top of the rolling wave as it raced for shore. It was beautiful.

There was no sign indicating that we’d crossed state lines, but I kept looking at Google Maps until it said we’d made it. In ten days, we made it from the Northern end at the Columbia River to the southern end at this random point in Brookings. Another adventure crossed off the list.

Oregon coast roadtrip, part 2

September 28-29, 2023.

Sunset in Newport

Photo album

Nehalem Bay State Park

The last time I visited Nehalem Bay was on Christmas Eve, 2009. I had recently gotten out of a long-term relationship and my mom flew across the country to keep me company. The weather was so good on the coast that we took the drive out there and walked the beach together. It’s one of my favorite memories of being with my mom.

Needless to say, the bar was high for this visit!

From the boat launch/day use area, I followed the short trail to the beach. There, I took off my sandals and started walking south along the coastline. For miles, it was just me and the sea birds. The ocean waves crashing on shore put me in a meditative state. Hiking into the wind, gray skies enveloping me, I put one foot in front of the other until I reached the giant log pile on the end of the spit.

Dead stuff on the beach

I peeked over the logs to get a view of the sea pouring into the bay. The waves were violent and crushing; there’s a reason they say never turn your back on the Oregon coast.

After a brief backtrack along the dunes, I found a trail that crossed over to the bay side. I walked through the forested center spit, heavily vegetated with grasses and stunted trees. I’d learned my lesson more than once about trying to bushwhack on the Oregon coast. It’s futile. And it’s the one place I’d much rather be on a trail than off trail. The high tide allowed me to walk on the sand for just a short while before forcing me back onto a forest trail. I skipped around the flooded beach sections and returned to the water’s edge where it became safe again.

After about five miles of walking, I made it back to the van. Just in time for lunch, too. On Aaron’s next break, we hit the road and pulled into a public lot at Rockaway Beach. I took another barefoot sand walk, then we popped into the farmer’s market. There weren’t many vegetables that we wanted to buy, but there were plenty of baked goods that looked appetizing.

Tourist stops on the Northern Oregon coast

As we continued driving, we made a couple more necessary stops. First we hit up Pronto Pup, one of the businesses that claims to have invented the corn dog (apparently this is up for debate). We ordered a couple of originals as an afternoon treat. Admittedly, I’ve only ever had one corn dog in my life and I thought it was way better than the one we had here. But, you’ll have to go to the little food truck in Sumpter, Oregon to find it!

Next, we stopped at the Tillamook Creamery, probably the most visited attraction on the Northern Oregon coast. Aaron had never been there, so we both took a deep breath and stepped into the tourist hell inside.

Tillamook Creamery

First, we headed upstairs to the viewing area to see how the cheese is made, but nothing was running and mobs of people were everywhere. So we quickly bailed back down to the first floor and got in the absurdly long line for ice cream. They didn’t have many unique flavors that you couldn’t buy at the store, which was a little disappointing. But they did offer a “flight” option, which had 3 different scoops of ice cream in a tray. I was tempted to order a flight containing a scoop of each of the different vanillas (how different could they possibly be?!). However, I decided to choose more interesting flavors, like the limited edition s’mores something-or-other.

Cape Lookout

I’d booked a campsite at Cape Lookout so we had a convenient place to crash for the night as well as hiking trails in the morning.

We both began the next day with bellies full of delicious cinnamon rolls. I walked down the beach towards the Cape Lookout trail system, enjoying the morning solitude. I didn’t expect much of that on the hike, since this was a reasonably popular place to visit. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter only a handful of hikers on my way to the end of the trail. The first couple miles traversed upward from the campground to the actual trailhead, and I loved walking through the densely green coastal forest. Ferns cascaded down onto the trail as twisted, robust conifers seemed to anchor the sky above. Once I reached the parking lot, the steepness mellowed out and I breezed along the well-worn Cape Lookout Trail.

Fern wall

Halfway down, I encountered a sign warning me that it would be slippery and muddy ahead. I was ready, wearing my Bedrock sandals and mentally in need of some interesting walking. Sure enough, the route became a muddy, rooty obstacle course, which I found quite enjoyable. As the trail neared the end, I got peek-a-boo views of the ocean far below. I even enjoyed some lovely quiet at the trail’s terminus, just me and the pelicans.

On my walk back, I encountered many more hikers, including two who stood in the middle of the trail, looking down at something. As I approached the couple, they gleefully pointed to a banana slug. “We saw one with a shell on it yesterday!” the man exclaimed in some sort of European accent. I did not correct him. It made me happy that they were happy to see this exotic slug right before them. Aaron picked me up at a pullout where the return trail met the road, and we were off to the next destination.

Not “the” banana slug, but one I’d seen earlier.

Depoe Bay

We couldn’t drive through the cute little town of Depoe Bay without making a stop. They’ve got ample parking on the main road, so we grabbed a spot and walked to the whale watching center adjacent to the tiny bay. Inside volunteers offered up information and binoculars to those who were interested. I’m terrible at using binoculars so Aaron grabbed a pair for himself and we wandered to the viewing window. Turns out, the key to finding whales is to train your eyes on the whale watching boats on the horizon. They’re tracking the whales, of course. So, we saw some spouts, whale backs and whale tails from the Gray Whales passing through.

After we’d seen enough whales, we wandered through all the little trinket and candy shops on the way back to the van. Then it was off to our next home for the night.

South Beach, Newport

Tree tunnel on the way to the beach

After a yummy dinner at the Crab Shack, we pulled in to our campsite at South Beach. It was nearly sunset, so we quickly hopped out of the van to walk to the beach. We found a little trail out of our campground loop leading west. We caught sunset just in time. As we crested over the final grassy hill adjacent to the sand expanse, our eyes fixated on a ship…on the beach. There she was, the fishing vessel “Judy,” sadly washed up on shore. It was an odd and unexpected sight. We walked towards the water, wind blasting our face with sand, just to see another unusual happening: someone was kiteboarding just off shore.

We watched them go one way, turn 180 degrees, go back, and repeat, endlessly as the pinks and purples lit up the sky. How exhausting, I thought, that person must be ridiculously strong to hold tension in their body for that long.

As the last rays of light filtered up through the clouds, we hurried back to get on the trail. Once we reached the van, we collapsed into a heap on the bed. It was a full day of activities!

Oregon coast roadtrip, part 1

September 25- 27, 2023.

Columbia River

Photo album

One thing I really wanted to do in this summer of Oregon travel is to drive the entire coast from one end to the other. We decided to travel north to south from Astoria to Brookings, in one go. Since we had to make a stop in Portland for some van stuff, we scheduled our coast tour to begin as soon as the van was out of the shop.


On the drive to Astoria, rain and wind pummeled the van. The sky grew dark, and we rolled into town late in the evening. I had booked a hotel for two nights so we’d be able to explore the town, so we parked the van and crashed in our room. Despite the forecast for the week looking pretty bleak, this was our one shot at the coast. So we went.

I woke up to partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. After picking up coffee for a local shop, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather and go for a walk. Astoria is a quaint and beautiful town, with a trolley trail that turns into a paved bike trail along the riverfront. Not technically on the coast, Astoria borders the yawning Columbia River just as it enters the ocean. From the trail, I could see the Astoria-Megler Bridge. This impressive structure, completed in 1966, spans 4.1 miles across the Columbia River. Prior to the bridge, a ferry system carried goods and people across the water. As we’d learn on this trip, the ability to easily travel down the Oregon coast is a fairly recent phenomenon. I felt grateful to have the opportunity.

Astoria-Megler Bridge

The weather held, so I kept walking. The gulls, late summer wildflowers and sea lions kept me company. I breathed in the sea air, something that brought me right back to childhood. Growing up in Rhode Island, we were on the water all the time. But having lived in the desert for the last seven years, I felt a real longing for the sea. There’s something healing about the salty breezes, crashing waves and moody clouds.

I walked further, pressing my luck during this unexpected weather window. I decided to run some errands while I was out and about, which took me miles from the hotel.

As I hurried back, the first drops of rain began to fall. Then, they called all their friends. Eventually, my shoes, socks and pants were thoroughly soaked through (notice how rain jackets just funnel water onto your pants?) so I accepted my fate and walked straight through all the puddles. I arrived at the hotel, sopping wet, with a backpack full of supplies for the week.

History time

After eating lunch and changing into dry clothes, Aaron and I headed to the Heritage Museum to learn about Astoria’s history. The exhibits were interactive and fun; we enjoyed participating in all the little activities and flipping up the question doors. There was even a place to guess the animal track by stamping the shape of the track near the name of the animal. The museum covered information on native tribes, European settlers, the evolution of modern cookery, prostitution and gambling. At the time, a temporary exhibit titled “Blocked Out: Race and Place in the Making of Modern Astoria: told the history of redlining and the homogenization of Astoria’s population by pushing people of color out. The historical photos throughout the museum showed a wide diversity of people who used to live and work here, but most were forced to leave through violence, social marginalization and legal statute.

Historical food, meticulously re-created

I left feeling better about gaining a better understanding of the history and worse at having to reckon with our horrific and unjust past. I grieved not being able to know the people who once lived here. I wrestled with what to do with that knowledge. Step one: learn the things, step three: justice. What is step two?


Our hotel experience in Astoria was so heinous, we decided to leave very early on our last morning. (If you’re headed to Astoria and want to know what to avoid, message me.) We drove through relentless wind and parked at a public lot overlooking the beach. Aaron got hooked up to Starlink and I bundled up for a boardwalk stroll to Controversial Coffee. With Queen blaring from the speakers and a queer hall of fame on the back wall, I thought, ahh this is a great space to drink coffee and paint.

I’d read about this coffee shop ahead of time, learning that they provide free food and beverages to anyone who is unable to pay. While I was in there, I overheard a couple interactions between the barista and unhoused people who came in for a bit of sustenance and positive human connection. I loved how compassionate and humanizing these conversations were; in stark opposition to how unhoused people are treated and framed in most media. I happily contributed to the donation fund collected to help support this mission. It felt like one of those “step two” actions that would immediately have an impact on a marginalized community. As one of their Facebook posts says, “When did caring about others become so controversial?” I then understood the meaning of the coffee shop’s name.

As I completed the last of three paintings for the $20 Art Show, I headed back towards the van. The weather took a turn for the better, so I took off my jacket and shoes and walked down the sandy beach instead of the boardwalk. Watching the pelicans fly overhead and feeling the warm sun on my face, I felt at peace.

Watercolor coffee date

Going south

After work, we drove to a fish market Cannon Beach to pick up crab cakes to make for dinner. Then, continuing south on highway 101, Aaron said “we’ve got to stop here!” I looked up to see a sign for Hug Point. We veered into the parking lot for an apropos hug break and then walked down the short path to the beach. There are few things more special than a good weather day on the Oregon coast. We took a short beach walk, did a few handstands and scouted the bases of rocks to look for critters. It’s important to take these leg stretchers for your body and soul when you’re road-tripping!

Hug Point beach

Our day ended at Nehalem Bay State Park. A couple of friends invited us to join them on their camping trip. I reserved the campsite just across from theirs and we rolled up in the evening to say hello. They had a nice propane fire pit going under their RV awning, which was a nice place to huddle up and chat. Aaron gave a van tour and I got to see the inside of their rig. It was so fun to catch up, swap travel stories and share the joys of being on the road.

For dinner, we feasted on crab cakes and settled in for a rainy night.

The joys of trail work

Aaron works to clip back encroaching brush on the Jefferson Lake trail

It’s been a long time coming

Since 2005, I’ve hiked nearly 10,000 miles. This year alone, I’ve racked up 700 miles in about 440 hours, and the year isn’t over yet. When I get back from my hikes, I happily scroll through photos, do some journaling, talk up my experience with others and bask in the reset I received from nature. Despite doing this on repeat for years and years, I haven’t spent too much thought into what I have to offer back to nature. The transaction is almost entirely one-sided.

That is, until recently. I’ve always been trail-work curious. But I have also been quick to come up with dozens of reasons not to participate. Mostly, by the time I was able to get out on a hike, I felt like I needed it for myself as a break from being around people, to do what I wanted to do and not to do more work while also conjuring up more social energy. I was making all these judgments, of course, without any first-hand experience.

Besides, in an average year I was spending several hundreds of hours on trails. If I dedicated just five percent of that time to trail work, that would cover a work party or two each year.

Doing the thing

With this in mind, I finally began looking for ways to give back. I started by doing trailhead ambassador work, which I absolutely loved. Then, I picked up an independent monitoring project for ONDA, where I got to visit one area twice a year on my own timeline, gathering data and reporting back. Then, I dipped my toes into trail maintenance and building. And that’s the real heart of this story.

When I’m out on a hike, I spend almost zero time thinking about what it took to build and maintain the trail I’m walking on. It’s easy to get annoyed if there’s a tree down, brush overhangs the trail or a section is clogged with water and debris. But trails aren’t gifts of nature; they’re built by humans and managed over time. It requires regular work from staff and volunteers to keep a trail passable. I don’t mind if a trail isn’t perfectly free of obstacles, but many people do. And some people require trails to be meticulously maintained for access. All of this requires lots of time and labor.

At this point, I’ve spent less than 100 hours working specifically on trail projects, so I still feel very new. However in this short time, I’ve learned a lot. I found out that trail volunteers are really special people. They’re hard workers, fun to hang out with, happy to chat (or not) and share a passion for being outside. I’ve met so many amazing people since I’ve started volunteering on trail crews that I can’t believe I didn’t start doing this sooner. In addition, trail work demands a wide array of skills, so I’ve been learning how to use certain tools and gain a greater understanding about why trails are built the way they are.

In sum, as a trail volunteer, you get a solid workout, spend time outside, develop a deep sense of connection with place, learn new skills and meet great people. How cool is that?

Putting up fence to keep cattle out of sensitive habitat

Cultivating a practice of service

Someone I met recently taught me a new acronym: STP, or “same ten people.” As in, it’s the same ten people in any community who are the only ones who get stuff done. Everyone else is content complaining, wondering why an ambiguous “they” aren’t doing anything about <insert issue here>. That really struck me. I’ve been one of the complainers for a very long time. So how does one get involved? How does one change the culture in a community to get more than the usual folks to show up and get work done?

For me, thinking about my relationship with the outdoors as being more reciprocal instead of one-sided has helped. Looking at my end of year stats showed me that I actually do have the time. And then feeling the benefits of participating has made a big impact, too. But I’ve been thinking about how much more impactful it would be if a much larger percent of hikers played a role in the building, maintenance and advocacy for trails. It would benefit not only the individual participating, but also the greater hiking community.

I’ve developed a decision-making tool to see where and how you might want to get involved with trails in your community. It’s based on your current access to the following resources: time, money and physical ability. It assumes that you are a person who uses trails in some capacity and that you have some interest in getting involved.

If you have:

Time but no money or physical ability: Time is a valuable resource. You can offer up your time to be an advocate for trails. Find a local trail organization and volunteer to write letters, make phone calls, post to social media, attend events and rally others to support! You could volunteer for a position on a committee that makes decisions related to trails and the outdoors.

Physical ability but no time and no money: Just keep hiking. Don’t feel obligated to offer up what you don’t have. Enjoy the trails, go outside to reap the mental and physical health benefits. Know that if/when you have greater access to resources, you’ll be able to contribute some funds or labor to the places you love. If you really want something to do, consider adding a trash bag and/or gloves to your daypack so you can pick up trash on your next hike.

Money but no time or physical ability : You’ve got just enough time to drop a check in the mail or make a recurring donation to your favorite local trail group!

Time and physical ability but no money : Sign up for some trail work! Choose a project on a favorite trail or find a new place to explore. You might start easy with a light brushing project or trash cleanup. Over time you might develop enough interest to get trained in using saws and other equipment to do the heavy-duty work. Most organizations offer projects that appeal to a range of physical abilities and interests. If you’re not sure, reach out to the coordinator and they’ll help you find a good match.

Money and physical ability but no time: It only takes a minute to send off a donation. If time is an unchangeable barrier, you can leave it at that. If you can find some time, you might be able to volunteer an hour or two at a local park or creatively integrate trail work with something else you already want to do, like spend time with your kids or organize a team-building event with your staff.

Time and money but no physical ability: If trail work is not for you, there are plenty of ways to get involved! You can volunteer in advocacy, donate to trail organizations, recruit friends to the cause and share trail work info on social media. Or hey, you can provide food, water or other support to active trail volunteers.

Time, money and physical ability: You’ve got loads of options. You can volunteer on singular trail projects, commit to an adopt-a-trail program, donate on a one-time or recurring basis and/or rally people in your community to join you.

Picking up trash is a gateway activity to harder trail work ?

I’d love your feedback on this decision matrix, especially if there’s something important I overlooked.

Since I’m taking a hiatus from work and we’re spending so much time on public lands right now, I’m making a concerted effort to volunteer, donate and connect with trail advocacy organizations wherever we travel. So far I’ve had incredible experiences with ONDA (Oregon Natural Desert Association) and SECT (Save Our East Cascades Trails). I currently follow several southwest trail organizations on social media. When we make it to Arizona and New Mexico this fall, I’ll know where to go to find opportunities.

Learn more or get involved

If you don’t see any links relevant to your area, do a search for “trail volunteer <place>”

American Hiking Society: helps protect access to trails and the outdoors and organizes volunteer vacations

Discover Your Forest: is the non-profit partner of the Deschutes National Forest, offering many ways to give back

National Park Service: provides opportunities to volunteer in education, maintenance, wildlife monitoring and more

Trailkeepers of Oregon: coordinates trail work and advocacy opportunities across Oregon

Washington Trails Association: has so many ways to get involved, plus tons of resources for recreation across the state of Washington

Disguising a confusing user trail in the Badlands

Monkeyflowers at Diamond Craters

September 17-18, 2023.

Look, a crater!

Photo album

On our way to Steens Mountain, we made a last minute decision to pull off for the night at Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area. Most folks will never make it here once in their lifetime; this would be my third visit. It is remote, there are no services and it gets no press. But it truly is outstanding, and this visit it was unusually so.

Nesom’s monkeyflower

As we drove past one of the first volcanic features, I had an “Aaron, stop the van!” moment. What at first looked like autumn red leaves on the ground turned out to be a superbloom of Nesom’s monkeyflowers: showy, bright, fuchsia blooms peppered throughout the cinder. It was a magnificent sight. I jumped out of the vehicle to get a closer look. While I was out there, I also noticed some delicate buckwheat flowers and the characteristic late summer bloomers: smoothstem blazing star.

Yes, we’d stay here.

Another surprise on our evening walk

Further up the road, we found a nice pullout with a hilltop view of the surrounding hills and craters. According to the BLM website, this designated area has the entire suite of basalt volcano features, such as spatter cones, lava tubes and maars. If you are curious enough to Google those things, you might want to schedule a trip to Diamond Craters to see them in person!

That evening, Aaron and I took a short stroll along a the road. We found thousands more flowers in bloom, and then…a flurry of activity. Hummingbird moths were busily zipping from flower to flower, feeding on the sugary nectar inside. I’d never seen so many of them at once! The pastel colors spreading across the dusky sky provided a beautiful backdrop for the scene unfolding in front of us. Sometimes the most memorable moments are unplanned.

Can you see the hummingbird moth?

Take a hike

The following morning, Aaron got to work and I took off on a hike. We were within a few miles of Malheur maar, a volcanic crater with a spring-fed pond inside. I made that my destination.

It would be another oppressively hot day, so I started walking right after breakfast. Along the road I saw some interesting flowers in bloom, which I later learned are introduced weeds. Nonetheless, I enjoyed looking at the delicate, translucent petals tucked between sharp points projecting from the stems. Apparently, some local butterflies appreciated the plants too.

So pokey.

I veered off the road at Twin Craters, following a use path along the east side of one of the twins, then bushwhacking around the northern perimeter to the other one. The whole time, I was very cognizant of the possibility of running into a rattlesnake like I’d done just a few days before. No snakes today.

On the other side of the craters, I stumbled across many other cool lava features, including deep cracks in the ground and what I like to call sourdough loaves. I think these are more properly called “tumuli,” but they look so much like the cracked tops of freshly baked loaves of bread that I can’t resist renaming them.

I wandered through the features, poking around anywhere that looked interesting, until I eventually made it to a lava balcony above Malheur maar. This location was incredible because here, out in this hot and dry expanse, I heard a cacophony of water-loving birds. I saw a ring of luscious green grass. I felt like I was transported into a new and unexpected landscape. The maar is quite small, but it creates its own riparian ecosystem surrounded by sagebrush and craggy volcanic rock.

Malheur maar

It was a scene that asked to be painted. So, I sat there to paint. As I did so, the morning clouds began to part and make way for the blazing sun. The hike back was much hotter and sunnier than before. The bright light now glinted off of the many bottles and cans carelessly thrown from vehicles years, even decades, before. I collected them as I walked.

Another feature distracted me from my beeline to the van: an old wooden structure. I veered off the road to investigate, and even as I walked all around it, I couldn’t figure out what it was. It couldn’t be an entrance to a mine, out here? It was just lava for miles. And it couldn’t have been a bridge, because why? Perhaps a little encampment? Again, why here? The mysterious wood remnants brought me, however, to another magnificent patch of monkeyflower. I lingered for a few more moments to bask in their beauty before the sweaty hike back.

This brief stop reminded me of several things about travel. One: just because you’ve been somewhere once doesn’t mean you’ve checked that place off your list for good. You can have many different experiences in the same place, especially if you visit during a different season, with a different person, in different weather or with a different attitude. Two: it’s important to leave flexibility in your travel agenda. I had no plans to stop here. About twenty minutes from the road intersection, I just happened to notice it while scrolling around on my map and said “hey let’s stop at Diamond Craters tonight.” Three: the unexpected little things often bring more delight than the big, much anticipated ones. Seeing the purple wildflowers carpeting the desert in September shocked and amazed me. Then, when we saw all the moths flying around, I felt like I’d found myself in paradise.

I love the childlike sense of wonder that I often feel when we’re on the road. That’s one reason I think we’ll keep doing it beyond our initial timeline. We’re already about five months in, but it seems like we’re just getting started…

Wallowa traverse, south-north, day 2

September 6, 2023.

Colors and textures.

Photo album

I made muesli with warm water and huckleberries to kick off day 2. Since I’d been enthralled by the stark contrast of the red and white rock on the mountain outside my camp, I decided to sit and paint there before moving on. The geology of the Wallowas is so insane and pretty that the idea of hiking quickly through the landscape felt terrible. Instead, I really wanted to savor my time.

The breezy, mostly downhill walk from camp to the South Fork Imnaha five miles away was a little harder than expected due to downed trees. On a dayhike, the challenge of getting around obstacles can be fun and interesting. But a massive backpack sucks all the fun out of it. Several times, I had to take off my backpack and wrestle it over, under or around a pile of debris before scrambling around myself. Then, I’d load it back up again and start walking, just to repeat the process soon after. It got tiring. On the flip side, it made me spend a bunch of time crouching in the dirt, which meant I saw plenty of cool mushrooms.


After a particularly annoying stretch of blowdown, I heard an unexpected sound: a chainsaw. First, I thought chainsaws were explicitly not allowed in wilderness and second, I didn’t care one bit about the rules in that moment. I grinned widely as a small team on horseback rode up behind the man wielding the chainsaw. I stepped to the downhill side of the trail in order to let them through without spooking the horses. “Thank you so much!” I exclaimed. They asked how many trees were down ahead and I said enough to keep them busy.

I frolicked ahead at a canter after the horse team passed through. Life was good. At the river crossing, I changed into Crocs and waded to the other side, losing one of my pole baskets in the process. On the opposite bank, I had a nice lunch with some bacon, cheese and the rest of my baguette.

Shortly after hitting the trail again, I encountered my first hikers of the trip, a young couple from Spokane. They were very chatty, so we had a good talk for 20 minutes or so before parting ways. On to Crater Lake for them, which is where I camped the night before.

I wasn’t sure how much further I wanted to hike, and my frequent stops to gawk at the stunning Cusick Mountain wasn’t helping me make miles. I found a decent enough place to camp in some trees by a stream. Then, I set my hammock up and wandered around to find a painting spot. Along the way I poked around at all the little flowers still blooming, including dwarf fireweed. This was a new one for me!

Dwarf fireweed

In the evening, I spent 20 minutes desperately trying to hang my food. I was just about to give up when my last throw made it. I lay in my hammock, listening to podcasts, doing crossword puzzles and dreaming of my ridge ramble attempt on Cusick Mountain in the morning.

Wallowa Traverse south-north, day 1

September 5, 2023.

Ready to go.

Photo album (all 5 days)

On the Tuesday morning after Labor Day, I hoisted up a backpack with five days worth of supplies and waved goodbye to Aaron. “See you on the other side!” I said, as I walked towards the wilderness permit box at the Summit Point Trailhead. I planned a traverse from the southern end of the range to the northern end, passing over several mountain peaks, climbing a few mountains and making a few side quests along the way. The forecast looked as good as it gets, so I set off.

Along Cliff Creek Trail.

I began hiking on the familiar Cliff Creek trail, which I used to access Cornucopia Peak three weeks ago. Although not much time had passed since my last visit, I noticed several changes. Most of the wildflowers had gone to seed. Some of the vegetation already showed off their bright fall foliage. So many mushrooms appeared. As I traversed under Nip Peak Pass I entered brand new terrain. The soft gray clouds and gusty winds gave the air a sense of mystery. I ate some snacks and followed the trail down to Crater Lake, where I set up my first camp of the trip. Miraculously, no one was there.

Above the lake, a little hillside offered up some nice camp spots with adequate hammock trees. I picked my favorite and took a rest. There was one more thing on my agenda: Krag Peak.

I built quite a bit of flexibility into my plan, since there were SO many options along this pathway and endless mountains to climb. But I wanted to kick it off with a scramble, so I outfitted a small daypack and began the charge up Krag Peak. I had a few route descriptions from my favorite websites as well as from my friend Rick, who had just climbed it.

From the lake, I walked to the right of the imposing white cliffs and up through the trees. The ground tilted sharply upward, so I shortened my poles and slowly plodded in the direction of the summit. Avoiding the big rocks and talus piles, I made my way to a large basin with some pools of meltwater left behind in a small meadow. I gained the ridge to the left of the basin and followed it until it looked annoying. Then, I dropped below the ridge crest and boulder-hopped below it (also annoying, but differently annoying).

The upper portion of Krag Peak.

The last stretch up to the peak was the worst. Since it was labeled Class 2, I wasn’t really expecting anything difficult. But the mountain top was crumbly and very steep. I carefully picked my way up the loose rock, testing everything and grabbing onto anything solid. Near the summit, I looked up and found myself right on the edge of a huge cliff face. Once I realized how the backside of the mountain dropped away, I found a better line and angled towards the small, but beautiful summit. There was no marker, cairn or register, but it would do.

Looking at the high peaks spread out in every direction from me, I was really glad to be there. I’d hoped a big traverse would come together and here I was doing the thing. Snapping out of my joy, I had to remind myself that I still had to get off of this choss pile. I took a different route down, skipping the ridge altogether and finding the least sketchy way straight down to that wet meadow. I don’t know if it saved me any time but it saved me a lot of stress. As I entered the forest, the lay of the land pulled me slightly away from my destination, so I used my GPS app to course correct. Once at the shores of Crater Lake, I took the long way around to my camp.

There were still no other campers at the lake. When I got to my hammock, changed into Crocs, pulled down my food bag and laid out a spread of charcuterie with all my heavy foods for the first night! I may be slow, my pack may be enormous, but I eat damn well on the trail.

Trail charcuterie.