Monday, July 15, 2019

Looking for Mark

Mark set off down the trail, just one person in the hundreds who hiked that day.  He got a late start, but it stays light until after nine, and there are plenty of places to call it a day and turn around.  He was alone, but hundreds of people hike there: on a July afternoon on this trail there is not a lot of solitude.

Witnesses place him along the trail at a couple of spots.  But Mark didn't come back to the trailhead.  He seemingly vanished somewhere among the flowers and sunshine.

So we look.  Because our helicopter is still in the southwest, a visiting crew is here.  This means I stay on the ground doing logistics and answering phone calls, as much as I would like to be up in the air or on the ground.  They fly for hours every day, inserting searchers and doing grid patterns.

As days creep by more questions arise.  Perhaps he didn't want to be found.  Maybe he is far outside of the search area.  Nobody knows, but we continue.

These searches take away a little of my heart when they end without resolution.  To disappear is the strangest, loneliest thing.  We don't want to stop looking, but we know at some point we will have to.  Meanwhile, other hikers step onto the trail, unknowing of the story that may have already played out here in the flower fields and mountain cliffs.  They walk on his footsteps and see what he saw.  Everything continues on, like it is supposed to. 

I never met Mark, but I hope somewhere he is hiking along a beautiful ridge, with only hope and happiness and blue skies ahead of him, walking into an unknown but infinite future.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Fire lookouts: An obsession

I perched uncomfortably in a glass-windowed fire lookout.  It was in  Mesa Verde, in the early 90s.  For some reason I've forgotten, there were two regular lookouts who weren't related, and they were fighting.  To give them a break from each other, the fire crew was taking turns filling in as lookouts.  

As great as this might sound (no pulling weeds or cleaning up the rifle range!) there were some serious drawbacks.  Instead of being isolated on a peak somewhere difficult to get to, this building was reached by a short, paved path (we are talking a few yards here).  A large sign helpfully directed the tourist hordes to the lookout, which was a cabin on the ground, not a tower where the besieged fire watcher could lock them out below the catwalk.  In fact, we weren't allowed to lock anyone out at all, except during our half hour lunch break.  This sounded okay in practice, until you sat there eating your tuna fish sandwich while visitors peered in at you through the windows.

I didn't love lookouts then, not like I do now anyway, especially when I spotted a fire and there were 50 visitors crowded inside the small building.  That came later, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, a treasure trove of fire lookouts.  There was Sourdough, once inhabited by the Beat poet Gary Snyder, Park Butte with its amazing view of Mt. Baker, and the best of all, Desolation, made immortal by Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.  I fell in love.

Now although I love lakes and mountain peaks, I would rather hike to a lookout than anywhere else.  I've been lucky (and perhaps annoyingly persistent) enough to fill in for the regular lookouts on the forest where I work.  The moment when the lookout trudges away toward civilization for days off and the silence settles around me is the best, although the sunsets and sunrises, and fires burning on distant ridges are close rivals.

There is a lookout rental program around here, but they are booked up months in advance (how do people know what they will be doing so far ahead of time?) so I have to mostly be content with hiking to these sacred spots, visiting for a time, and then reluctantly leaving.  I dream about summers spent in one of these places, until reality intrudes: what would I do with my cats? my house? who would pay me? 

It will probably remain a dream.  Still, as obsessions go, it's not a bad one.  And recently I was asked if I wanted to spend a couple of nights in one of the lookouts later this summer.  You know what my answer was.

Monday, July 1, 2019

ISO: Solitude

Living in a place that tourists flock to year round has some advantages.  We have an airport, for one.  We have lots of restaurants and services and bike paths.  There is a ski area and there are farmers markets.  Plus if people want to come here, you know you live in a pretty nice place.

There are plenty of downsides though. Traffic is increasing every year.  There are people everywhere downtown.  Probably the worst impact is how visitors are crowding the local national park. 

They arrive in hordes.  An enormous parking lot at an alpine pass is full by 9 am most days.  The popular trails are mobbed.  Cars are bumper to bumper on the park road.

While I appreciate that so many people are enjoying the natural beauty (maybe some will be moved to support efforts to save and protect public lands), it makes it difficult for the locals sometimes, especially those who remember more tranquil times.  

Seeking solitude, we flee to places outside the park that are less known.  Here we hike for miles, in scenery that rivals the spots the tourists flock to, seeing hardly anyone.  

Are they welcome here?  Sure, but do your research: don't post looking for advice on Facebook; that's lazy.  Don't geotag.  Leave these beautiful places as you found them.  


Friday, June 21, 2019

When (not) to call it

"Ugh," I whined while climbing through a pile of downed trees across the trail.  "It's ok with me if we go somewhere else."

The trail was seldom used.  Barred from accessing the flatter, maintained one because of a road closure, we had opted to hike this one.  It had not been cleared for a few years and was brushy and faint in places.  Our feet were soon soaked by the wet vegetation.  We scouted for the trail in spots, finding it by locating cut log ends.  We dragged ourselves over large fallen trees.

We kept going, buoyed by the hope that it would probably get better, and eventually it did.  The trail broke out onto open slopes full of flowers, at one point bisected by an active bear den (although the resident was gone for the summer, we hoped).  Eventually we arrived at our goal, a former lookout cabin high on a ridge.

None of us really wanted to turn around.  It's always hard to do, on a run, a hike, a career, a relationship.  You've already invested so much; it's bound to get better, isn't it?  Usually it does, and you find yourself in a beautiful place, the struggle to get there mostly forgotten.  Other times you've gone a little too far, and end up injured or near hypothermic or heartbroken.  When in doubt I've mostly rolled the dice and taken the chance.  A few times this has led to spectacular failure; most times it's been worth it.

We didn't turn around.  We knew we probably wouldn't, that the whole five miles couldn't be as bad as the first, that the trail climbed so steeply that it was bound to ascend above the big trees quickly.  We sat in the cabin, enjoying our good fortune.  And the way down wasn't so bad after all.

When do you call it? Is there a time when you should have but didn't, or when you did, but regretted it?  Tell me a story!

Friday, June 14, 2019


As I hiked up the switchback, I spied two hikers ahead of me.  Oh great, I thought.  I reeled someone in, now I have to either walk behind them or awkwardly pass and make sure to keep ahead (yes, I'm weird about this).  As I got closer, I peered at one of the women.  "Tracy?" I asked.

There are hundreds of trails around here.  While the cities in the valley aren't large, we get a lot of tourists.  But I had managed to randomly run into someone I knew.  As I joined them on the trail, I realized I've managed to finally plant myself someplace.

I used to move every six months or so.  For many years it was because I was a seasonal employee, chasing fire season across the West.  Then I was in a restless marriage, where one or the other of us thought things would magically become better if we took different jobs, went to a new town.  I told myself I was just a gypsy at heart, and I really believed it, even after I was no longer a seasonal or a wife.  I needed to be on the move, I thought.

I've lived in this valley for eight years.  I've managed to make a few good friends who forgive me for my firefighting absences in the summer.  I bought a house and planted trees and flowers, and have actually stayed long enough to see them grow.  I run into people I know on the ski hill and on trails.  I'm in a book club.  I actually get to the end of punch cards.  People think I know a lot about the hiking trails.

Of course, there's parts I don't like.  Tourists swarm the national park.  Traffic is increasing.  Winters are long and cold and summers are too short.  There's a resort tax.  And every so often, I get the urge to go, to see what it might be like to live somewhere else, somewhere without grizzly bears in the woods, maybe a smaller town, more remote.  

It might still happen.  But my gypsy days are behind me.  The thought of packing everything up and hitting the road every year isn't appealing.  Instead, I got to spend an unexpected afternoon with friends on a hiking trail.  So I guess I have some roots after all.  They might be shallow, but it's enough to bloom.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Rainy day, full hearts

We sat in the car at the trailhead, looking out the windows.  We said hopeful things like, "It looks like it might  be clearing up a little."  It rained, and rained some more, but we weren't the quitting kind, so eventually we got out, and started walking.

The trail was really a closed road.  We passed several piles of bear and wolf scat.  The clouds hung low over the mountains, only affording  glimpses of the normally expansive views.

Still, we were outside, not stuck in a gym or sitting on a couch.  We laughed and talked, and soon, past some snow patches, the fire lookout came into view.

On a normal rainy day, we would probably tag the lookout, take a few hasty photos, and head back down.  But today I had the key, being given permission to go inside and check the facility.  In the fall, some lowlifes had broken into the lookout and stolen some things.  In return for being able to go inside, I would return with a condition report.

One of my friends had never been inside a fire lookout, and the other had staffed a few, now vanished, lookouts in the past.  They happily climbed the stairs.  We removed some shutters so we could see outside, and built a small fire in the woodstove while we ate lunch.  Spying a large flag in the corner, D. decided to fly it, since the next day was Memorial Day.

The rain finally let out, and tall mountains peeked out through the fog.  I showed R. how to use the fire finder.  We took multiple pictures of the flag flying over the catwalk.  Finally it was time to go.  We put out the fire and replaced the shutters and made our way down.

The rain scared a lot of people off from hiking that day.  We could have changed our minds and stayed home.  But if we had, we would have missed out on the talk and the laughter, and the two hours inside a little sky house, with a warm fire burning, watching mountains come and go and the flag blowing in the wind.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Money and memories

As I ate dinner with B., I observed her furtively.  Only a year older than me and recently retired, she seemed really happy.  She even looked younger.   Was it possible I'd be able to manage an early retirement too? (That being said, I'm going to have to, at least from my current job: they kick you out at 57).

As we talked, though, I became uncomfortably aware that she had a lot more money than me in her retirement accounts.  Some of that could be explained by my having to give my ex-husband money when we parted ways; also she made $40,000 a year more than I do in base salary. 

She seemed puzzled and asked about my fire overtime.  Some years we make a lot; some we don't.  "Where did it go?" she asked.  I  had to think about it.

While I currently contribute a lot to retirement and have other savings, I felt like I should probably have more, given a few good overtime years.  I don't live an extravagant lifestyle.  But then something occurred to me. 

I know where some of it went.  It went to:

New Zealand
Costa Rica
And many destinations in the United States.

I can't be mad about that.  Maybe I'll have to forego some things in retirement.  But I would never give up those memories.  It was all worth it.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Where are you, Amanda?

***update: She has just been found alive, injured in the forest!!!***

On May 8, Amanda Eller woke up in the paradise of Maui.  She was meditating when her boyfriend left for work.  She drove to a small store and bought a few items for a Mother's Day package, then went to the post office to mail it.  Then she vanished.

Amanda's car was found at a popular forest reserve.  Her wallet, phone, and backpack were in her car, with her key hidden under a tire.  Her running shoes were missing.  It looked like she had gone for a trail run, like she had several times before.

Searchers have been scouring the forest.  They have used infrared from aircraft, drones, and tracking dogs.  Depending on which report you read, the dogs either lost her scent in the parking lot or a short distance into the woods.  There was no sign of a struggle anywhere.

I've run solo all over the world.  To me, always having to be in a group would take the joy out of it.  Bad things can happen in the forest, just like everywhere.  You can fall, get lost, meet an ill-intentioned stranger.  But we can't be afraid to live life.

It's been a long time, but I'm hoping she is out there somewhere, trying to get back home, and will be found soon.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

"You'll be safe with me"

For the first time since my helicopter accident in 2003, I was feeling nervous as I put my helmet on and got ready to get in.  Two recent fatal accidents doing the same mission we were about to do had me feeling a little rattled.  The flight profile was just above the treetops, without room to recover if something went wrong.  Still, feeling like this was unlike me, and I pondered it while the pilot approached.

I've known him since 2006, and he is one of the calmest, nicest, and competent people I know.  Everyone likes him.  Instead of staying quiet like I normally would, I admitted that I was feeling kind of nervous following the most recent accident.

The pilot looked at me.  "You'll be safe with me," he said matter-of-factly.

In the three days since that day, I've been thinking about the people who make me feel safe.  There's a couple of them I would follow blindly into any fire, knowing I would always come out unscathed, no matter what happened.  There's a few people who I would trust to drive me through a blizzard or tornado, and just one or two I whom I could tell anything without judgement.  People like these are like islands in an ocean of those who hurt us, leave us, or are just indifferent.  People like these are a blessing.  Are you one of them?

"You'll be safe with me," he said.

And I was.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Things that sound like compliments on the hiking trail but really aren't:

"I hope I can still hike like that when I'm your age."

"When I'm older I want to be like you."

"I hope I'm half as active as you when I'm your age."

"She looks great/is really fit for her age."

If you like to hike, run or really any kind of outdoor activity, if you haven't heard this yet, you're probably too young.  You will.

On the surface these sound like flattering statements, and in reality they are usually meant that way.  Maybe it's just me, but it comes across more like, "You're old, but you do okay for your age."

There are plenty of places I feel old.  In places where as a young woman I would be noticed, now I'm invisible.  When I'm around a bunch of millennials.  When I try a new sport and see little kids zipping around having no problems.  When I look at social media and see the wanderbabes and wanderbros,  standing at vistas, hair flowing and in perfect attire, declaring that they could never sit at a desk and that they quit their jobs to travel the world.  These moments are many.  But not on the trail.

I don't feel old on the trail.  Yes, sometimes I have aches and pains, but so do the younger people I hike with.  Being in the wilderness is one place I can escape the cult of youth, and society's stereotypes of how we should look and behave to continue to be valid.  If I didn't know, when I'm out there I wouldn't know how old I am.  I feel like the 21 year old me.

The next time you find yourself saying a statement like one above, try and switch it up.  Say, instead, "You're a fast hiker." "You guys seem really fit." "Let's hike together sometime."  Or don't say any of those things.  Talk about the lake we are looking at, or the clouds in the sky, or the flowers and the reasons you're out there.  Trust us, we know we are older than you, and we know we are good hikers: after all, we just reeled you in on the switchbacks.

Let's leave age behind.  It's everywhere else.  Let's all be the same on the trail.