Sunday, October 20, 2019

The importance of doing (almost) nothing

If you were to believe some people's social media feeds and blogs, they never sit still. They're certainly never home.  They're out having big adventures all the time, traveling the world, running ultramarathons, hiking up mountains.  The phrase "home on the couch" is disparaging, meant for the weak and lazy.

This weekend I was felled by an awful cold.  Blaming one of my minions, I shuffled home on Friday and collapsed into some blankets.  In the past, I've tried to ignore these symptoms.  Sometimes it has worked out okay; most times it has prolonged the illness or led to bronchitis.  This weekend I gave myself permission to not do much at all.

The truth is, I like my house.  It's cozy.  When I look out I see my garden and larch trees that are now turning yellow.  There's a hot tub.  There are even trails down the street, if I want to go for a walk.

I might feel differently if I worked from home, or if I were retired.  Then I might want to get away more, even when sick.  But with the job I have, I'm gone for a minimum of nine hours at a time, and sometimes sixteen days if I'm on a fire assignment.

On Sunday I was ready to venture into the world, and back to the gym.  I didn't feel bad about staying home though and having no spectacular mountain pictures to show.  I needed the downtime.

It's okay to be "home on the couch" sometimes.  There might be nice dogs and cats there who miss you.  Maybe you're sick, or just tired, or have a good book to read or a friend to catch up with.  Everyone needs some balance.  Now I'm ready to get back out there and hit the trail.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Transition Season

It's allegedly fall, but it feels more like pre-winter here.  Recently the east side of the park received about three feet of snow in a winter storm! The tops of the mountains here on the west side are white; some trails are snow free and others are covered by about a foot at the higher elevations.  Here, fire season is over, not that it really began.

This time of year can be hard.  There are a lot of endings.  The helicopter flies away, and most of the employees leave.  This isn't a bad thing, just a change.  Meetings and conference calls replace smoke patrol and lookout projects.  There's more time available for hiking and to see friends, but the weather has taken a hard turn: no more shorts and tank tops, more rain and snow showers.  Some people I know even hauled snowshoes on a 12 mile trail just in case; they didn't end up needing them, but it's always possible.

I'm always cold during this time, my body not adjusted yet to the chillier temperatures.  It was 13 degrees at 8 am.  That's not terribly cold in January, but it is in early October.  "It's so cold," is often heard at work as we rush through our uninsulated building toward a room with a space heater.  N., a seasonal employee from California, bundles up like Nanook of the North his last week of work.  Not having brought a parka, he buys one from the thrift store before he flees for warmer climates.

It's time to take a step back, to move from being constantly alert to a slower pace, from being outside to being at a desk doing administrative work.  It's always an adjustment, but a necessary one.   Now it's also time to think about travel.  Arizona? Hawaii? I dream about warmer days, as summer turns into winter in the mountains.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The people you meet at meetings

By remaining in a field-going position, I manage to avoid most meetings, but there are times when they are unavoidable.  When this happens, I sometimes amuse myself by observing how the cast of characters never really changes, even if the actual people are different.  Here are a few of the regular players:

The pot stirrer:  This person is mostly silent, and rarely engages.  However, out of the blue he will suddenly speak up, usually on an issue that everyone has mostly agreed how to resolve.  He will put his two cents in and then sit back and watch the resulting drama unfold.  Does he really care about the problem or does he just enjoy watching the show? Nobody really knows, because he rarely speaks again.

The big cheese:  She is way too busy and important for your little meeting, but she shows up, at least for awhile.  The whole time she is looking at her phone, stepping out to talk to someone, or flipping through paperwork.  Finally at a crucial moment she flees, saying she has to get on a conference call.  Yet if decisions are made without her, she gets annoyed.

The space case:  This person just can't seem to get it together.  He shows up late, or has to be rounded up from somewhere he has wandered off to.  He's the one who forgets to mute his line, hasn't brought critical documents, or isn't really listening.  He's sort of lovable though so nobody really gets mad.

The backstabber: She has all the critical information on an important issue before the meeting, and could easily head your proposal off at the pass, but chooses not to.  She has lulled you into complacency by being your buddy, but as the meeting continues, it's clear that a buddy she is not.  She crushes your hopes and dreams and makes you look like a buffoon, just because she can.

The folder:  This person always has your back, until the chips are down.  Then when you look over at him in the meeting, he studiously avoids your eye and says nothing, or sides with the majority.  Suddenly you are out on a limb with no backup, and the limb is cracking beneath you.

The subject matter expert:  You think you know your stuff going in, but then you get a sinking feeling.  There sits the SME with her elephant like memory.  "Well, actually..." she corrects you on your faulty facts. You just can't win with the SME, so don't even try.

The overachiever:  This person lives and breathes the job.  She schedules meetings for Fridays at 4 pm, the week before Christmas.  She can't understand why people want to break for lunch, because she's fine with eating a granola bar and continuing.  Worse, she likes "working lunches." You can hide out in the bathroom, but she will find you, and volunteer you for a committee.

The reluctant warrior:  He would rather be anywhere else.  He stares out the window when it's snowing and says, "Powder day!" In fact, his skis are in the car for a quick getaway.  If he can get away with it, he will sneak out at lunch, never to return.  Reluctant warriors are great to have in your meetings, because they will agree to writing papers and "looking into it" just to be able to leave.

Do these characters seem familiar? Did I miss anyone?

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Where's the beach?

Florida! I think, scheduling my trip for work.  I have visions of the beach as I pack my swimsuit.  Not during work hours, of course, but surely there would be some time to run in the sand, or watch a sunset, maybe.

My hopes and dreams were quickly dashed.  The beach was too far away to legitimately go on a work trip.  What's more, we arrived to a freezing conference room in which we sat for eight hours a day.  Wearing a sweater, I looked at the palm trees waving in the 90 degree breeze outside.  I guess the beach was nice, but I never made it there.

There are probably many occupations where employees could cheerfully tool around the state in the rental car and see the sights while on a work trip.  Mine isn't one of them.  As  government employees, people look at us mistrustfully all the time.  We have even had people yell, "My tax dollars at work," when they see us waiting in a field for the helicopter to return from dropping water on a fire that otherwise might threaten their homes.  

So there are many places I have been on work trips yet not really seen.  Several national parks.  Cities like LA and charming small towns.  When people ask, "did you go to..." I have to sadly say no.  Even parking an agency vehicle at a trailhead for a run or hike is not always considered okay.

Still, I at least get to go to some of these places.  So I make the best of it.  I nag whoever is driving to pull over briefly so I can take a picture.  In Florida, I made a beeline for the pool when the meeting was done.  It was supposed to snow when I arrived home, so I joined a snorkeling child in the water.  The water was warm and there were no sharks.  It was almost as good as the beach!

I'm told there's a beach.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A good trade

"I wanted to offer you a stay in one of the rental lookouts in exchange for cleaning it," the recreation manager said.

"Yes!" I yelled, not even bothering to ask when.  Fires could wait.  A night in a lookout was available!

There are only two rental lookouts close by, and they are always booked solid for the entire summer, usually months in advance.  I can't plan like that, with the fire season being so uncertain.  I will haunt the website at times, hoping for a cancellation, but it rarely happens.  Cleaning? I could do that!

I hiked warily up the trail, looking for bears, but it was open, due to a fire having swept the area about 15 years earlier, and any foraging animals would be easy to spot.  The trail was only a mile long, but gained 800 feet.  The lookout came into view in about 20 minutes.

Darkness fell fast and I built a fire in the woodstove and listened to the quiet.  I could see into Canada, and there were no other lights.  I imagined what it would have been like to work up here, and to see the lantern from other lookouts on the mountaintops.

In the morning the lookout was wrapped in clouds.  I attacked the windows, floors and shelves, discovering evidence of a resident mouse.  I climbed up into the cupola, where the firefinder still stood, and looked around.

The lookout was sparkly clean as I closed it up and hiked down.  I looked back and wondered how many fire watchers had turned to watch the building disappear as they left for the season.  It has stood on the peak since 1922; surely it has seen its share of drama.  Later I learned that some believed it's haunted: I don't blame the ghosts; I'd hang out here too.

So, deep cleaning an almost hundred year old building in exchange for spending a night in the sky? I don't think that's an even trade.  I think I got the best deal possible.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The sunset of blogging

When I started this blog, there were so many interesting blogs to read that I didn't have time for them all.  There were so many people blogging, and commenting on each other's blogs, that it felt like a connected community.

Over the years, most of the blogs I used to read have disappeared.  Some of the authors declared their intent to stop.  Others just fizzled out, spacing posts far apart and then just disappearing.  Still others became mostly sponsored posts, losing their previous character.

Has blogging, particularly the kind I enjoy, about people's lives and adventures, without a lot of filters or ads, had its heyday? I notice, when I care about these kind of things, which is rarely, that I have less and less comments and page views.  Maybe I've come to the end of interesting things to say, or maybe people are more interested in social media pictures and not in reading anymore.  I know I always mean to comment on the blogs I enjoy; I often just forget to, putting it off until later.

I've had this blog for eight years; it may soon be time to let it go.  Until then, I've enjoyed being a part of this somewhat odd, but always interesting community.  Write on, friends.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Around the next corner friends

We stood at a trail junction, pondering our next move.  We could bail out here and take a side trail back to the car, making it a respectable 10 mile loop.  Or we could keep going and come out on another trail, for a total of 16 miles for the day.

I knew which way this would go.

While there are times I'm perfectly happy to hike four miles and call it good, especially if it's a beautiful four miles, I often suffer from a trail disease.  It's kind of like FOMO (fear of missing out), but I like to think of it as "around the corner-itis."  It's where you keep going because you really want to see what's on top of the peak, down at the lake, or around the next bend.  You know this will make your trip longer and you might suffer later, or get rained on, but you just have to see.

I followed my friends along the trail.  I knew I would be hiking many miles the next day too, some of it off trail, but I had to go along.  And it was worth it.  The trail hugged a contour line high above a valley and below some cliffs.  In the distance were mountain peaks everywhere.
 We eventually descended to a lake and back to the car, wet feet from falling in a stream resulting in squishy socks in the first mile mostly forgotten.  And I was grateful for friends who would always go the extra mile, just to see what was out there.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Secret places

The lake isn't truly unknown.  There's no trail to it, but it is on the map, without a name.  There is a fire ring there, and locals undoubtedly visit more than I know.  It's not in any guidebooks, and it shouldn't be.  The delicate alpine vegetation around it could be so easily trampled, and the slow growing trees cut for firewood.

I went there with someone who had wanted to visit it for years.  Some of us tagged along, drawn by his description of the sparking lake he had seen while high above it.  The trail was steep, and some of the hikers were fast.  It started raining before we even got to the trailhead.  Still, the huckleberries were plenty, and the miles went by fast, until we saw the lake below us.

We carefully made our way down a boulder field into a magical land.  A second unnamed lake gleamed around the corner and a hundred feet below the first one.  It rained, the sun came out, and it rained again.  We lingered, reluctant to go.

One of the hikers related her friend's recent experience on a popular trail in the national park close by.  "She said they saw 500 people on the trail," she said.  FIVE HUNDRED.  It seems exaggerated, but possible, and even if they actually saw half that number, it is staggering.

Our little group was alone.  I was grateful.  Some places should remain relatively unknown, just discussed among friends. not broadcast on social media or written about in guidebooks.  Sleep in peace, little lake.  I'm so glad I saw you, and I'll keep your secret.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The (not) lonely fire lookout

I knew when I agreed to staff the lookout for a couple of days that it wouldn't be a true wilderness experience.  It was reached by a short 2.5 mile hike, and wasn't too far from a popular mercantile that draws crowds in the summer.  It was a lookout, though, so I couldn't turn it down.

Some people work at fire lookouts that are very busy.  They are more like rangers than the stereotypical, solitary fire watcher deep in the forest.  They are better people than I am.  To me, the whole point of living in a small glass house to look for fires is to be alone.

I peered out of the tower.  Hopefully it was too early for the first people to arrive, but I saw something moving down below.  A deer, I thought, but then looked closer.  A cinnamon colored black bear was wandering around in the meadow.  I watched it for awhile, until it turned and waddled down the trail.

Soon, hikers arrived, accompanied by dogs.  There really weren't that many, maybe 10 in all, but their visits were spread out throughout the day.  A sign at the base of the tower invited them up, so I showed them around, and had the kids look through the firefinder.  They were all interesting, and I wasn't annoyed to see them arrive, but I looked forward to sunset.

At night the tower was mine.  I watched the sun go below the horizon and the other lookouts I could see on the other mountaintops vanish into the dark.  I sat on the catwalk and looked at the lights far below.  I didn't have to talk or answer questions.  This was why I had come here.

I'm not against people climbing lookouts to talk to the person there; I've done it many times myself.  It just wouldn't be the job for me.  I need the remote towers, the ones that see maybe five people a summer.  I wouldn't be as crazy as Jack Kerouac on Desolation Peak, but I might end up a little bit feral.

On my last day a herd of visitors and dogs arrived, along with the regular lookout.  I packed up and headed down the trail.  Even though it hadn't been the solitary experience I was used to at other towers, it was still worth every minute, and I would miss my house in the sky.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Going back

I've worked and lived in some incredible places, but once I leave, I rarely return.  Usually this is simply because there are so many wonderful places yet to see.  But sometimes I'm afraid to go back: afraid to see crowds where there was once solitude,  hotels where we used to camp, places now ruined by discovery.  Hordes of people now trek to the solitary table set in the rocks that once was the haunt of locals only; vandals scratch their names in the walls of fire lookouts; would-be "influencers" stomp on fields of poppies to take the perfect photo.

On my one day off, I ventured hesitantly to a trail I used to love.  It was only two hours away, near a town where I used to live, yet I hadn't hiked it in eight years.  I didn't know what I would find.  Would there be room to park at the end of the dirt road? Would there be a steady stream of hikers where I used to see nobody? I anxiously approached the trailhead.

Only two cars were parked there.  One had a strand of spiderweb on it, indicating that its owner was probably out on an overnight backpack trip.  I felt better as I headed through the forest.  It was a hot day, yet I saw nobody at the two sparkly lakes I passed.

I climbed to a high pass and around a corner to view another lake in the distance.  There was nobody in sight.  There were parts of the trail I didn't remember, but others came back to me like I had just hiked it the day before.  So much in my life had changed, and yet this place was still the same.

 I hiked back down.  The trail was quiet; one of the cars was gone.  I took a last look in the rear view mirror as I drove away.  This magical place hadn't changed.  I was grateful.