Thursday, December 31, 2020

Return of the Lone Ranger

 One of my friends invited me to a New Year's Day hike. "I know you don't like large groups, but it'll be fun," she said.

She was referring to the fact that I really don't like to hike with lots of people (more than, say, five). I've done it, but I don't find it that enjoyable. Paces are different, people need or want to stop at different times, causing lots of stops and starts, and I miss the quiet trail experience. Some people love the camaraderie of that many hikers. I really don't.

And now there's covid. I feel like the covid police turning down these invitations. People probably think this is dumb. After all, we are outside! We can social distance! However, when I see their photos, they are driving together, hugging each other, and standing close for photos, no masks in sight. Some of these people are new to the group. Others are going to restaurants and bars regularly. 

I'm probably missing out on a lot of fun. I'm certainly missing out on time with people I like. But I've known people who had covid, and I don't want it. For now, the Lone Ranger will ride, I mean hike, alone or with one or two careful people. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Something Right

As of today, I have 4 days left to work until I take early retirement from my job as a wildland firefighter. I was pretty adamant that nobody needed to do anything for me. The only thing worse than a retirement party, in my opinion, is a Zoom retirement party. Awkward!

I was surprised to find an envelope in the mail from my past and former employees and my supervisor. Opening it, I found they had treated me to a hot air balloon ride! Not only is this not cheap, but they knew I would love it. 

I don't know any supervisor who feels 100% confident all the time that they are doing the right thing. I've been kept awake at night many times worrying about my employees and decisions I made. Sometimes I felt like I was just muddling through, faking it until the day was over.

But if you have a group of employees who get together to give you a gift like mine did, it erases that uncertainty. I must have done something right along the way.

Picture from, the company I'm going with


Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Long Run: The Racing Years

 After I started running at 14, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually start competing in races.  Most of the people in the small running community in my town did. Some were very competitive, but most of them did it for the social aspect. Running was a pretty solitary pursuit back then, and it was a chance to see (and measure yourself against) others.

We would gather at a usually chilly spot, often by the lakeshore, because so many of us ran there that we knew the course. We were cold because running tights and leggings had not yet been invented, so most of us wore shorts and waited to warm up. There were no chip timers, so we stood poised with our fingers on our Timex Marathon watches. Then we were off.

A few volunteers usually staffed the course, calling out mile times. If race organizers were feeling fancy, there might be a table halfway with cups of water, but usually not.  At the finish, we milled around waiting for the medals, which you got if you placed in your age group. There was usually a cotton t-shirt too, with a design created by a local artist. 

The usual cast of characters showed up at most of the races, with the occasional ringer from somewhere else; someone visiting family or in town to check out the college. At a glance I could usually tell if I would place in my age group or even win. At one race I was recruited by the university cross country coach to join the team. The competition that day wasn't too stiff, but I had ended up winning.

Because we basically knew everyone, some shenanigans occasionally resulted. The same cross country coach and his girlfriend, both runners, had a bad breakup. "I never want to see your face again," she reportedly told him. Taking her statement literally, and knowing she would be at the next race, he showed up at the starting line with a ski mask obscuring his features. My dad, running by someone he didn't recognize, would inquire, "are you over 40?" in order to size up his age group.

When I moved away, I ran a few races but it wasn't the same. My dad, who was faster and always finished ahead of me, wasn't there. I felt pressure to do well that I hadn't had in my happy running community. Races were more organized and had better medals and shirts, but somehow it wasn't as fun.

I'm glad I had my racing days. I met a lively group of runners in my hometown, and shared races with my family. I joined a university cross country team. I learned how to do speed work. I realized that at times, I was actually a fast runner.  Sometimes I reminisce about my fastest race ever, an 8K in which I almost, but not quite, finished ahead of my dad. Although I haven't raced in decades, and prefer a trail in the woods to a starting line, I'm happy for the memories.

Getty Images/iStock photo

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Winter hikers are nicer. Change my mind.

 R and I powered up the switchbacks of a popular park trail. It's been a dry fall, and normally we wouldn't be able to drive to the trailhead this time of year, which would have made this hike four miles longer. We also would have been wearing snowshoes. Because of the unseasonable weather, and because the possibility of sunshine existed above the thick inversion, there were a few cars in the parking lot.

We reeled a few people in as we climbed, as well as encountering several on their way down. Everyone seemed upbeat and friendly. They pulled off the trail to let us by and didn't seem disgruntled to be passed. In the summer, this isn't always the case. Then, on these more well-known trails, slower hikers sometimes look back to see me approaching, but keep going, forcing me to say "excuse me," while attempting to pass. Some appear annoyed. Others walk two or three abreast, not moving aside at all. This seems to be mostly a summer phenomenon. But why?

As with most things (I should have been a detective), I have some theories. In summer, people are focused on pulling off their vacations. They might have planned this trip for months, and might be under some stress caused by weather, large crowds of other tourists, and family dynamics. Often they are herding along kids and other relatives who might not want to be hiking. Also, since this is known as a "hiker's park," there isn't a whole lot of other things to do here, so many of them may be novices, not knowing trail etiquette or particularly caring. The hike might be something to check off the list before rushing back to the lodge to eat.

In winter, though, it's different here. The locals return to the park from the national forest where they have been hiding out until the tourists leave. There are fewer roads and trails open, and pretty much no amenities in the park: the people who come here really want to be here. You need warmer clothes, waterproof boots, and microspikes, so those who throw on their Ugg boots to hike won't be found here. You have to deal with short days, snowy trails, and cold temperatures. 

I think for the most part, winter hikers recognize each other as outdoor kindred spirits. We are the ones who keep going all winter, even when we have to switch to snowshoes, and when the road to the trailhead is two icy ruts. In the summer, when there's daylight till eleven, it's easy to throw on some shorts and race up a trail. In the winter, it takes more effort, more deliberation. You have to want it more.

Whether I'm right or not, it was a pleasant day. We sat on the catwalk of the abandoned fire lookout as hikers came and went. There were no illegal dogs or drones, and nobody was playing music. People chatted, but respected those who wanted to be alone. And when we headed down, everyone on their way up was smiling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Sacrificial Lake

I headed up to the park with trepidation. Although tourist season was allegedly over, there were still plenty of out-of-state license plates around the valley. It was also a weekend. However, the park road was closed about 15 miles up, which might temper some people's enthusiasm, at least the lazy ones who didn't want to hike.

I really like the lake I was headed for. For only a small effort (5 miles round trip), it provides a huge payoff.  The water is clear. Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, where occasionally mountain goats can be seen climbing around. In the spring, avalanches sweep the mountainsides while you safely watch from a small beach. In the summer you can swim in the cold water; if conditions are right people bring ice skates here when the lake is frozen.

And yet. This hike is also frustrating, because it is overrun by people. All kinds of people, not just the hiker types. People in flip flops, Uggs, jeans, and high heeled boots. Some take dogs and drones (both not allowed) and music (annoying). Many hike very slowly, and in groups, making it hard to pass. "Influencers" and travel bloggers pose here, cropping other people out of their pictures, and write posts on "how to get here" (if you can't get here, your navigation and google skills are seriously lacking).  If this park were the setting of the Hunger Games, this lake would be tribute, sacrificing itself to keep other areas more pristine.

I guess, although it makes me sad, that is necessary. As I circled the parking lot looking for a space, I realized these types of places need to exist. They will satisfy 95% of visitors' desires for a hike, while keeping the true wilderness for those who really value it and want to work harder for it. Maybe a small percentage of the city dwellers who visit this lake will be inspired to hike more and to protect these areas. I started up the trail feeling encouraged.

This trail and I have a long history. Years ago, as a college intern, I used to lead nature walks here. We were only allowed to hike one mile an hour, to accommodate most abilities. Along the way, I would stop and identify plants and animal sign. Once at the lake, the group was on its own, and the children on the hike and I would often run back down, happy to be freed from the slow pace.

I passed a few groups on the trail. Some were struggling on the ice, not equipped with cleats. They seemed nicer than the summer hikers, though, immediately pulling over to let me pass. At the lake, some people huddled against the wind, but it was easy to find a more secluded spot. 

As I left the lake, two people I had passed on the trail finally arrived. The woman had seemed to be having a hard time on one of the hills, but she had made it. As she emerged from the woods to see the lake, she looked amazed. "Oh wow," she said. "Oh wow!"

Moments like that make the idea of a sacrificial place worth it. I'm so used to beautiful places that it's easy to forget what it was like when I first came to the mountains. I'm glad this lake was accessible to that woman and others like her.

Besides, winter is here. Soon the road will be closed even farther away, requiring a ski or snowshoe of about 16 miles round trip to get to the lake. Snow will blanket its surface until late spring. This area can rest until about June, when the hordes will again start to arrive. The lake has earned its sleep.