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.