Saturday, December 3, 2016


Living near a national park and surrounded by national forest, my hiking companions and I see a lot of people doing things that are, well, questionable.  Things like starting off on a 12 mile trail at 4 pm with one plastic water bottle, hiking in camouflage in hunting season, and trail running solo in known grizzly habitat in the early morning.  Many times, people stop us to ask what trail they are on and where it goes, as if they don't even see the trailhead signs.

I thought of those people the other day as we drove towards a trailhead.  I thought we probably resembled them, with our optimistic thinking that didn't include snow blocking the road. Snowmobilers undoubtedly thought so, looking curiously at us as they unloaded their machines.  As we retreated to an unknown trail we had seen on the way up the road, late season hunters drove past, probably noting our lack of guns.
Hmm...time to turn around.  Only snowmobile tracks from here.
As we hiked up the hill in the snow, I thought about the difference between being adventurous and being reckless.  It's a fine line, and many times I've crossed it: going out unprepared for conditions, stubbornly pressing on when the weather deteriorated, becoming temporarily lost while not paying attention to landmarks.

The trail we ended up on
 But while we may have seemed clueless, that actually wasn't the case.  We all carried extra warm clothes.  J. had firestarters and a headlamp in his pack.  We had snowshoes, although we never used them.  Like Everest climbers, we set a turn around time so we wouldn't be coming down near dusk when hunters might be around, desperate to get a deer on the last day of the season.  We had topo maps.  So maybe the difference between the two is having a backup plan.
Snowy trail
We didn't get to the fire lookout we were hoping to hike to.  We didn't even get out of the deep woods.  But a day outside with friends is always worth it, even if it didn't quite go as planned.

Friday, November 25, 2016

minus one

I mentioned Sherri Papini in this post about the women missing and murdered while out running.

Sherri has been found alive, and while details are few and speculation is rampant (why would kidnappers release her?  Was she really captured? Why hasn't more information been released about the alleged captors?), at least she is home with her family.  Her name won't join the sad long list.

Meanwhile the people who loved the other women are still missing them.  I think of Karina Vetrano every time I run, and I look at other people in the woods just a little more suspiciously.  I hate that.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Until I bought this house, I thought I didn't like to be home.

I've owned two other houses, but this is the first one that has only my name on the mortgage.  The other two houses were twice as large as the one I have now.  They both had two stories and neighbors close by.  They had green lawns and city water. 

Now I live in a 1000 square foot house.  I have a well that is shared with the next house over, which is the second home of some seldom seen Canadians.  My utilities run on propane.  I live on a gravel road.  My yard is a forest. 

There wasn't anything wrong with my other houses.  In fact, when I left one of them, it had several offers and sold in three days for $100,000 more than I paid for it two years earlier.  But they didn't feel like home.  My furniture looked temporary in the elegant rooms.  There were boxes that never got unpacked. Although I kept one house after my marriage ended, I never wanted to be there.

I constantly planned trips.  I went on every fire assignment I could.  I escaped on the weekends, putting off lawn mowing and repairs.

The moment I walked into my current house, I knew it was different.  It was just a small ranch house on a half acre.  But I loved it immediately.  It seemed like it was made for me.

Pieces of my life hang on the walls: a painting of a female snowboarder, a wall hanging from Nepal, a photo of a fire lookout.  A hot tub that I helped install is outside the back door.  There is usually a black cat on the couch.  Deer and turkeys wander through the yard.

Last week I went to a gated community to assess helicopter landing areas.  Million dollar houses sat on large lots.  They were beautiful, but I wasn't envious.  I already have my place of refuge.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Stop it.

Karina Vetrano. Vanessa Marcotte.  Ally Brueger.  Do you know these names?

They were all young women who were killed between July 30 and August 7 of this year while out running in broad daylight near theirs or relative's homes. They were murdered in different states. None of their killers have been found.
Ally Brueger.  She ran 10 miles a day.  She was shot in the back. Police say she may have known her killer.
This, sadly, is not really noteworthy.  If you start researching, you will find many more of these stories.  Sherry Arnold. Sarah Hart (she was pregnant). Melissa Millan. Lauren Bump. Judith Milan. If you keep looking, more and more names surface. Melissa Millan's case is still unsolved.  And Sherri Papini vanished on November 2 while running in California and has yet to be found.
Vanessa Marcotte.  She was a Google employee who was killed a half mile from her mother's house.  Her killer tried to burn the body. All photos in this post were obtained from news sites.
You would think people would be united in outrage and sadness at the deaths of these women.  Probably most are, and yet, when you visit news sites with their stories, the victim blaming begins immediately.

"Women shouldn't run alone," commenters, mostly men, proclaim.  Others declare that we should carry unwieldy knives or guns. We shouldn't wear ponytails either, they say, because an attacker could grab our hair.  Several indicate that Karina Vetrano brought it on herself because she wrote blog entries with selfies, so was obviously an "attention seeker." One man types that she shouldn't have worn "tight clothes" while running.  These people seem to be saying that this woman, who fought her attacker so ferociously that her teeth were knocked out and her neck nearly broken, caused her horrible death by wearing shorts and by posting pictures of herself.
This is a still from a surveillance camera video that captured Karina Vetrano in the last moments of her life.

Are we, as women, supposed to be relegated to running in packs, sticking to the treadmill, wearing baggy sweats (as if this matters to a predator) or not venturing outside alone? Isn't saying this implying that, well, men will always prey on women, we can't change that, in fact we accept it, so women just need to change their behavior?

To begin with, we need to stop blaming the victim. It feels like they are being blamed, in part, for being female. When Joe Keller, a good looking teenager, vanished during a solo run in Colorado, abduction became a theory. I read many accounts of his story, wanting him to be found. Despite Joe being a young, attractive male running in only a pair of shorts, I couldn't find a single commenter who stated that he shouldn't have run alone, or should have had more clothes on (Joe was eventually found, a victim of an accidental fall from a cliff).

I've been a runner for years.  Being on my university cross country team, and then having to run in lockstep with other people on fire crews for "group PT," I appreciate running alone.  You can run the pace you want. There's no need for small talk. You can think your own thoughts.

Of course, everyone needs to be sensible, women and men. We have a term in firefighting, Situational Awareness. It means to always consider your surroundings, not only what is happening now but what might happen in the future. Don't zone out. I don't wear ear buds, because I want to hear what's going on around me. If I see sketchy people or cars, I turn around. I've been known to sprint to get away from something or someone that looked odd.

I don't know how to fix what's happening. I don't know how to stop men from preying on women. But to blame Karina and the others for their deaths is terribly wrong. It needs to stop.
Karina Vetrano. She was a world traveler and had a masters degree in speech pathology.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

here comes the sun

The temperature was in the 30s at the trailhead.  And because we were going to be gaining elevation, the warmest it would probably be was somewhere around 50 in the afternoon.  In the height of summer, I might have hesitated if I saw that forecast. I might consider a gym day. 

But this was November, and we just had the wettest October on record.  Rainfall totals were anywhere from 6 to 12 inches around the valley.  The October average for the last 30 years is around 0.7!  There were only 3 days without measurable precipitation.  There were a lot of gym days.  When I ran outside, I knew my shoes would soon be perched on a boot dryer.

So yesterday was a hiking day, even though we knew there would be snow at the higher elevations and probably a cold wind at the top of the mountain.  Soon passing a large church group, we charged up the trail, which is sometimes known as one of America's most dangerous hiking trails, due to bears having a preference for the area.  However, since the church group was slower and probably sweeter than us, we figured we would be fine (Grizzly country humor).
 The trail turned snowy after a saddle, but we had a glimpse of our fire lookout destination, and pressed on.
The lookout is staffed in the summer.  A Park Service tower, it has sweeping views of the west side of Glacier Park and into the North Fork of the Flathead River.  Now boarded up for winter, it waits patiently for July, when the shutters will be opened and it will be back in business.
 You never really know what you'll get in the mountains.  There could be an early winter, or warm days late into the fall.  After a month of rain, this day was a gift, and a reminder not to take anything for granted, even sunshine and trails that lead to the sky. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016


I float in ten inches of warm water.  It is completely dark and soundless.  Five minutes could have passed, or forty-five.  It's impossible to tell.  This could be a really crazy idea, or the best one ever.

Earlier, I walked warily into the float center.  Some places in the town where I live have an air of what I'll call "entitled hippie with a trust fund."  Luckily, the emo factor was low.

This is the pod you get into.  It is filled with hundreds of pounds of Epsom salt (the kind they use is pharmaceutical grade magnesium sulfate).  This allows you to float on the surface.

First, you have to take a shower.  I'd like to have this shower in my house!

When you close the door of the pod, you're left alone with your thoughts.  Trying to relax was harder than I thought.  Instead of thinking about zen things, my mind wandered.  I wonder what time it is.  It's really dark in here.  What should I have for dinner?  Ow, I got salt water in my eye.  Stop moving around!

But eventually, you have to relax, sort of.  There's nothing else to do.  You effortlessly float, weightless.  Some people fall asleep.  When the lights come on in the pod, you know you're done.

Supposedly, flotation therapy has a lot of benefits, from pain relief to lessening anxiety and helping with a number of health ailments.  As a person who loves hot springs, has a hot tub, and has trouble truly relaxing, I figured it couldn't be a bad thing.

I didn't come up with any major revelations from an hour in the pod.  But I did feel calm.  I drove by the gym without feeling like I should be exercising.  After the darkness, colors looked brighter.

If you have a flotation center near you, try it! It's really kind of strange, but sort of magic too.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Fall in a tourist town

I charge up the trail, feeling optimistic.  It is a cloudy, cool Monday, and there aren't a lot of vehicles at the trailhead.  During the summer I avoid this trail.  It's short and starts at a campground; on a weekend day there are hundreds of people here.

Those of us who live here often recreationally complain about tourists: the traffic! clogged trails! the "resort tax"!  It seems ridiculous that you usually can't find a parking spot at Logan Pass in the park after 10 am in the summer, despite acres of asphalt.  At the same time, we know there are perks we enjoy because of them, like an airport with lots of flights, good restaurants, and a great ski area.  Still, the time in between the summer and winter tourist crowds is a welcome break.

I only encounter a few people on the trail, and can move fast.  I arrive at the lake, amazed as always by how different it looks in different seasons.

On the way down, that's when I start seeing them: the tourists! At least thirty of them tromp up the trail.  One guy wears a Russian style fur hat; one girl has elected to hike in Uggs.  Some anxiously inquire how much farther it is to the lake.  I wonder why they are here, in the gloomy, rainy autumn we are having.  I'd like to think they are the adventurous ones, traveling in the off-season, not following the herd.

The winter skiers will be here soon, and the hikers will leave.  Those of us who live in the valley appreciate the lull, but we know why they come here.  All we need to do is look around us.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Thirteen years is a long time.  In the last 13 years, I moved four times and had four different jobs.  Thirteen years ago I was married and now I'm not.  In the last 13 years I've been to Ecuador, Belize, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Nepal, Patagonia, Antarctica, and Iceland.

Today is the 13th anniversary of a helicopter crash.  Not a fatal one, at least not then, although I think that one of the passengers might still be alive today if he hadn't been there, sitting in the front seat.  I don't talk about it a lot, partly because I've known so many people who didn't make it through their own crashes, or who were forever physically and mentally changed afterwards.  "What's the big deal, nobody died," somebody once said to me.  It's hard to explain.  How do you explain the impact of this, when you and the others are up walking around, looking just fine?
But sometimes I do talk about it, because my crews want to know, and there are lessons they can learn from it: the importance of training for disaster, so your actions are second nature when it does happen, and why every person on every flight needs to have a purpose, no joyrides allowed.  When I talk about it, I usually don't know what people are thinking.  Maybe they are thinking what's the big deal, or maybe I'm not sure I want this job now. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

This summer there was a fire close to the crash site; so close that fire camp was only a quarter mile away.  The hotshot crew from my forest was there.  They had heard my story but that wasn't the end of it.

The 20 men and women drove to the crash site.  They lined out in a row as if they were looking for smokes on the fire, and gridded through the meadow.  But instead of embers, they looked for pieces of wreckage.  They found over a hundred, tiny particles of paint and metal and honeycomb, after 13 years still lying in the grass where they had come to rest.

The crew took them home.  From the wreckage they created a piece of art for me.

This is the tail number of the aircraft, made of small pieces of wreckage.
This is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.  I hung it on my wall, where I see it every day.  The past thirteen years haven't all been good, but not everyone gets a second chance. Or has friends like these.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Last, Best Day

The pilot and I looked at each other, unable to believe our luck.  "This is the best work day of the summer!" we decided.

On the surface, it didn't sound too great. I almost skipped it, because I have plenty of employees who could do this mission.  And our cargo was definitely not glamorous...flying a deconstructed outhouse and years of human poop out of a backcountry campsite.

But.  Anytime you get to land a helicopter in Glacier National Park is worth doing.  And when it's in a spectacular cirque called Hole in the Wall Basin,'d be a fool not to go, regardless of cargo.
I backpacked to this campsite years ago.  It is surrounded by waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.  We cooked a gourmet dinner on a camp stove and climbed up to viewpoint to see the sunset.  Peering down, I spied a mountain goat strolling into our campsite.  It grabbed my sweaty shorts off a branch where they were drying and ran off, wanting to chomp on the salt.  Luckily, some other campers headed it off and it dropped the shorts.

Now, we set up the helicopter landing site at the foot of a lake.  Kayakers looked bemused as the helicopter went back and forth over the mountains carrying building pieces and barrels.
 I jumped in the front seat, displacing one of my minions on the mission.  He got to see the basin the day before, and being the boss does have some perks.  We were headed to the campsite to pick up the crew that had to pack up the outhouse and its cargo.  As we settled into the basin, I expected to see a group of 20-somethings who had been pressed into the stinky project.  But instead, the average age of the workers was around 50.  I got the impression that they volunteered for the duty.
And really, why wouldn't you?
The crew happily bounced around the meadow, taking pictures of the helicopter.  The pilot and I took our own, looking around in disbelief.  This was it, the almost-last mission of the summer, to a place that made it all worth it. Soon the helicopter would leave for the winter, and snow would cover this valley, leaving it to the goats and bears.  We were lucky to have been there, if only for a brief moment.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wandering in the kingdom of the larch

The temperature was 41 degrees as J's truck maneuvered along the bumpy road to the trailhead.  The mountain we were headed for was several thousand feet higher, so it was bound to be in the 30s up there.  But it was a dry fall day, and our days of hiking were numbered.  It could snow tomorrow.  We were committed.

My guidebook recommended this trail as a fall hike, and it soon became clear why.  After stepping over a large pile of bear scat, we ascended into an enchanted forest.

It's easy to overlook larch trees on a hillside until autumn.  Their needles are green like all the other conifers.  But in the fall they turn a glorious shade of yellow before their needles drop for the winter.  This makes the hillsides around here golden.

We passed above a chain of sparkling lakes.  Someday I want to camp here.

The wind bit through our layers.  We only spent a few moments at the high point above 8000 feet.  A lookout once stood here; now only metal bedframes remain.  It must have been an amazing place to work, watching gold spread across the hills.

It was cold, and we left the golden forest to its march towards winter.  I couldn't help looking back though, imagining life in a little cabin among the blazing trees.  I'll be back.