Shaking Down the Trail

Granite Gully campsite rests 9800 feet above—and theoretically two hours away from—the beaches of Southern California. While this space has been labeled by modern humans as part of the Little Round Valley Campground – existing in the larger Mount San Jacinto State Park – it is a realm that has seen little change, even as it has towered before the birth of Los Angeles and the millions of people who have settled there. No doubt it will placidly exist in the face of the millions yet to come. Snow falls and melts. The cones of hefty lodgepole pines blanket the ground in places. Granite slabs and boulders abound.

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There is no road for motoring to the campground, though you can take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to a station at 8516 feet and then hike 6.5 miles from there. Little Round Valley has been set up for backpackers. My friend, Jodi Reed, and I thought it would be a great place to head during our shakedown backpack trip in preparation for a longer one on the John Muir Trail. Jodi has assembled some ten or so people for this JMT trek. At least six plan to attempt the entire trail, while others expect to hike shorter legs.

I’m in the less ambitious group. The length of the John Muir Trail actually went on my bucket list after I backpacked a stretch of it at the age of 11. Yet I have – most sadly – been forced to face my personal elevation limitations. On more than one occasion, I’ve experienced scary and debilitating attitude sickness above 10,000 feet—I’ve chosen to live life below that line. So I’ve selected a route I can do with the group, before doubling back to Tuolumne Meadows. With that decision in place, I embarked on this two-night trip to discover any other limitations I might encounter—and to test my gear.

My second fear – setting altitude sickness aside – centered on how I would do in a newer pair of boots. They had served me pretty well on a few long day hikes; yet I had not tested them on trails with significant elevation gain, nor had I hiked in them wearing a backpack. I was less worried about my pack weight, as I’d recently purchased lighter gear. That said, pack weight can certainly “go up” with the level of rigor. I was also somewhat worried about using my new gear successfully, particularly the SteriPEN. I’d never attempted to purify water before. One last point: Jodi and I were both concerned about the weather forecast. While it looked like we’d avoid precipitation, the nighttime lows were expected to hover around 32 degrees.

We got a late start on our first day, not reaching the Deer Springs trailhead – near Idyllwild – until 4:30 pm. Our first night was slated for Strawberry Junction Campground, some 4.3 miles away (elevation 8040). I’d hiked this stretch of the trail before (sans backpack), so I didn’t bother to ponder the 2420 elevation gain ahead of time. That knowledge might have knocked me off my block before I assembled my gear.

The hike proved to be eerie, as the mountain was enshrouded in low clouds. We passed blooming Manzanita, Indian paintbrush, and lupine. I’d packed wanting to simulate the heaviest weight I might carry on the John Muir Trail, so I threw in my bear canister (bears are not a threat in this park) and started with a full gallon of water. The backpack was manageable, though it became tougher to deal with as we closed in on Strawberry Junction, which did not have an easily accessible water source. I was happy to have the gallon. We even ended up sharing water with two nearby campers.

As we scurried to set up camp, the sunlight was diminishing fast. Jodi and I headed to our tents as soon as we finished eating our respective freeze-dried meals, which we were testing for the JMT trip (I’ll keep Mountain House lasagna on my packing list). I lay in my sleeping bag (rated 30 degrees and up) dressed in fleece leggings, a wool long underwear top, and socks. It wasn’t long before I knew I would not sleep unless I added more layers. I ended up donning three pairs of socks, my hiking pants over my leggings, two long underwear tops, a hoodie, and a down jacket (with a hood). This finally did the trick. I slept well enough to face day two.

Over breakfast, we talked each other out of bailing. Then we broke camp, and began the 3.8 mile hike to Little Round Valley. The weather was ideal for our pursuit. I felt cheerful—we had a lot more time to reach the next destination, though the trek was only slightly less challenging than day one. During the last hour, we stopped at a rushing stream, and I finally got to try out my SteriPEN, which uses UV light to purify water. I’m glad Jodi was there. I couldn’t completely remember how to use it, and I was in no mood to rifle through my pack for the instructions. Needless to say, this handy tool has become my preferred water purification method for the JMT trip.

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The rest of the day was relaxing, once we organized everything. For the record, neither of us felt inspired to climb another thousand feet to reach the summit. We rested and then tested out more backpacking grub. Jodi contributed a delicious cheesecake sold by Packit Gourmet. High marks, there. We retired to our tents before the sun went down. We knew how to bundle up this time.

I’d like to say, “All’s well that ends well.” I’d like to report on how the hike out was a breeze. Yet my biggest problem surfaced on the way down. It wasn’t the double distance that bothered me—8 miles. I felt relatively hardy as we began our descent (and very glad the altitude had not done me in). It wasn’t the pack weight, either. It was the boots. They’d felt good on day one, pretty good on day two, and excruciating on day three. The downhill slope and my pack contributed to unwanted friction on the tops of my toes. I was forced to remove my boots, tape five toes individually, and put on my camp shoes, which are a bit like slippers (though the soles aren’t bad). I’d actually bought them with the idea I could hike in them in a pinch.

My taping job and the new shoes did ease the pain, but not completely. I began steeling myself for the remaining 4+ miles. I was pretty sure I could make it, but I figured we were facing a long afternoon.

Then Jodi – who was supposed to be waiting at the next water source – returned to inform me we had taken a wrong turn. I was about to ask how many more miles when she went on to say we could continue down this trail – the Marion Mountain Trail – for another 30 or 40 minutes and we would reach a parking lot where a lovely young couple was waiting to drive us to our car. For me, this was a moment of pure delight.

To make a long story short, Jodi and I and the lovely young couple shoved our four backpacks, along with our bodies, into a ride only Batman could love. It was a squeeze, but we made it back to the car in time for a nice lunch in Idyllwild.

Final analysis: I figure if I can work out my footwear in time for the JMT trip, I’m good to go.

Bringing Down the Weight

I’m not much of a shopper. I don’t bother to buy any new clothes until I look in the closet and find myself hating everything hanging there. At this point, I generally go out and pick up a bundle in one fell swoop. I don’t buy any more until that same feeling rises up again.

Camping gear is different matter. I first fell in love with it when I was a child. In those days, my brother and I used to eye each other’s things, and if one of us became jealous of something the other one owned, swiping it wasn’t out of the question. Cherished items regularly moved back and forth between our respective bedrooms. I guess you could call this a de facto form of “sharing.”

One year, my brother received a children’s book about camping. Each compelling piece of equipment was cheerfully illustrated and identified. I would read through this book feeling upset that it had been given to him. I felt the same way about his Big Jim Camper, complete with accessories: a sleeping bag, pots and pans, camp chairs, a camp table, fire pit and grill, a lantern (check it out on eBay).

I present this backstory, because this year I have joined the ultralight cult. At the age of 53, I have decided to become serious about backpacking—something I planned to do in my twenties, but never quite managed to pull off. I am hoping I will remain strong enough to enjoy regular outings on some of the remarkable trails around here, not to mention places yonder. After surveying the equipment I already had—the backpack I was given at the age of eleven and a sleeping bag that is much too heavy—I started reading up on the ultralight phenomenon in order to figure out just what to collect for this pursuit.

Ultralight has become the buzzword for the lightest backpacking gear on earth. Manufacturers continue to work out ways to make sleeping bags, backpacks, cookware, clothing, sleeping pads, and more as light as possible. Thus the lightest gear is the newest gear. It is also the most expensive gear. It is easy to get sucked into this idea that “I could just buy a particular item, my full backpack would end up being even lighter.”

If I do manage to take some significant pounds off my pack, perhaps I’ll be able to trek into my eighties. Indeed, I’m now aspiring to locate a set of equipment that will outlast these AARP years. Yet I’m not reaching for the lightest option in every case. Sometimes it becomes a choice between weight and design.

For example, I now own a zipper-less sleeping bag, complete with a comforter feature that allows the sleeper to feel like she is resting in a genuine bed instead a mummy bag. This Backcountry Bed, sold by Sierra Designs, weighs in at 3 pounds, 1 ounce. If I’d gone with a ZPack quilt, I could have gotten my bag down to 14 ounces. You see how one could become obsessive about this stuff.

Then there’s the SteriPEN—for purifying water. While it’s not the lightest system, it might be the most convenient. Dip the lighted pen into a liter of contaminated water for less than a minute, and voila… Your water is ready to drink. The outdoor enthusiast choosing this option then faces a choice between the model on its way out (the one requiring 4 double A batteries) and the SteriPEN Ultra, which is better on the environment as it is rechargeable. A note of caution: those going with the Ultra would be wise to also purchase the lightest solar recharger on the market.

In any event, every time I order an item, such as an ultralight tent or a light sleeping bag or a Jetboil cooking system, I feel the pleasure response cranking up to high. There’s at least one term for this psychological state. The Urban Dictionary defines it as purchase pleasure – “the unexplained feeling of bliss, joy and satisfaction one gets following a purchase.” They go on to note: “It can last anything from a few hours to a few weeks depending on the size, worth or usefulness of the item acquired.”

I do wonder if, ten years from now, the latest gear will be so much lighter, so much more ingeniously designed, I will want to start this process all over again. For now, I am looking forward to trying this stuff out on my next trip.

Update: I somehow missed the SteriPEN Mini Water Purifier that weighs in at 2.3 ounces and takes 2 CR 123 disposable lithium batteries.

Truckee or bust!

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My sonnet, “Old Photos,” was recently published in the Wisconsin Review. It focuses in part on family archives and the pressure one feels to put them in order for future generations. The 1931 photo of my grandparents—featured above—is one of these documents.

Irving Wergeland and Merle Waite were avid skiers, who often entered skiing competitions held around Tahoe and Donner Lake. It is said my grandmother even qualified for the Olympics one season, but could not afford to go. My grandparents were skiing buddies before they were man and wife. They left behind a pile of ski jumpers, skiing goofiness, and winter scenery. The snow in the Sierras was clearly deeper back then. One family photo displays my grandmother standing next to a snow bank thicker than she was tall. Californians would be pretty happy with a similar snowpack round about now.

My grandfather was a full Norwegian, though he grew up in California and eventually attended U. C. Berkeley. I’ve begun speculating that perhaps my great grandparents—Ole and Anna—ended up raising their children in Truckee, so they could be near good skiing. I find their choice of town especially intriguing, because we recently learned that after they left Norway around the turn of the twentieth century, they eventually docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. I don’t know if they sailed on to San Francisco from there—or if they traveled overland. Perhaps they took the train.

I do like to imagine the family heading south on various wagon trails, as they would have made their way through Washington and Oregon in order to reach Truckee. I’ve wondered if they stopped in the city of Ballard—now a Seattle neighborhood—once teeming with people from Scandinavia. I’ve wondered this, because I used to live and work in Ballard, though by that time, it had become a much different place, one beckoning hip young families. The 1920’s era cottage I once owned would not have been in existence. No doubt the burgeoning logging and fishing industries were more than evident.

No matter what their mode of transportation was, it must have been some trip. The Wergelands were from a region with no lack of mountainous scenery—they enjoyed ocean views. So what did they think of the Puget Sound, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier? Did they spot the intact Mount St. Helens? Did it rain for days? How did they cross the Columbia River Gorge? Did they make their way over to the Oregon Coast? Or did they head down an earlier incarnation of I-5? Did they have to pass over the Siskiyou Summit as they entered California? Did they think to check out the giant redwoods before they settled?

As a girl growing up in the Sacramento Valley, I found their Sierra Nevada world truly exotic. I never got to live there, but we did visit relatives on occasion, and to me it was a fairy-tale realm. I experienced snow for the first time near my father’s childhood home. This was a rare treat, because I could play softball in hundred degree heat without batting an eye. To me, any sort of sledding was on par with Marriott’s Great America, home of the Tidal Wave and The Turn of the Century roller coasters. If my father had announced he was moving back to Grass Valley, I would have dropped my Davis life in a second and started packing.

I never had the pleasure of meeting my Norwegian grandfather. He died of a heart attack before I was born, in 1945. Yet, he’s left behind documents suggesting he had a poetic bent and would have been simpatico with John Muir. I recently stumbled upon one piece he wrote, probably in the thirties, about the pitfalls of the movies. He was quick to lament how people were wasting their time watching the silver screen when they could be out hiking—or skiing—in the Sierras. Though my father was only eight when my grandfather died, he grew up with a similar sensibility, one he eventually passed on to me.

Posole in Seattle, Posole in San Diego

Invariably, whenever I stand in the checkout line with my three cans of hominy, among other things, the person next to me starts chatting. This never happens with any other item – just hominy. Are you making posole? You’re making posole, right? Let me guess, you’re making menudo. I guess gringos in Southern California generally don’t eat hominy—so my three requisite 25-ounce cans tend to stand out.

I used to try to track down dried hominy – widely sold in New Mexico – in San Diego. People around here must not have a use for it—I can’t locate it anywhere. I’ve been forced to switch to the canned variety, and this has made me lazy.

If you are whipping up a batch of posole with dried hominy, you need to let it soak overnight before you boil it for three hours before you add the final seasonings for the final 30 minutes of boiling. With canned hominy, you just dump the contents into the pot along with some pork, juice of lime, and red chile powder, My recipe actually calls for dried red chiles, preferably grown in New Mexico, but I’ve begun using New Mexican chile powder instead. In any event, one hour of simmering usually does the trick (that is, before the final 30 minutes of boiling with the final seasonings—garlic, oregano, and salt).

I actually fell in love with posole when I lived in Seattle. The city once took pride in a restaurant that cooked up some genuine New Mexican cooking. This dimly lit place, known as The Santa Fe Café, brought a little bit of New Mexico into the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, the restaurant recently closed after 30 years of fine meals.

For those not in the know, New Mexican cuisine differs from Tex-Mex cooking, not to mention American varieties of Mexican food. It is indigenous to the longstanding tri-cultural region of New Mexico (Native American, Spanish, and Anglo) and has been around for roughly 500 years. What sets it apart is their creative use of red and green chiles.

For example, my favorite dish at the Sante Fe Cafe was the Christmas enchilada plate (stacked Santa Fe style, not rolled), served with posole and pinto beans. It also came with these ultra thick flour tortillas that helped to mitigate the heat. By the way, Christmas in this context means half the stack is slathered in green chile sauce—the other half in red chile sauce.

Years ago, I came to understand the Santa Fe Café did a pretty good job of delivering the sort of meal that is mainly available in New Mexico. This was during the early 90s, when I toured New Mexico and sampled fare in a number of restaurants there. During that trip, I purchased Santa Fe Recipe: A Cookbook of Recipes from Favorite Local Restaurants by Joan and Carl Stromquist. I have been making posole at home ever since (I could actually buy dried hominy in Seattle—I believe at Fred Meyer).

It sure is sad to watch my some of my favorite places leave the planet. The city of Seattle I once knew so well has been slowly morphing into a new realm. Favorite haunts, like Elliott Bay Books, have moved. Others, like the Harvard Exit Theatre, have closed. The movie industry has been changing, so more Seattle moviegoers now watch streaming flicks at home. Strange to remember how Seattleites once loudly boasted their surprising range of independent, if not downright cool, cinemas.

No doubt new haunts are currently capturing the hearts and minds of the generations that have followed mine. No doubt new favorites in Seattle have emerged, places that will be missed ten or twenty years from now when some sentimental aging writer sits down to think about life as a new adult in the Emerald City.

Fortunately, a few of my favorite restaurants in the Santa Fe area are still open, including The Shed, Café Pasqual’s, the Santacafe, not to mention Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, which is situated along the high road to Taos. I’ll have to get back there if I get a hankering to order something Christmas style.

Winter up North

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It is still dark at 6:50 am,
darker than San Diego right now,
where nature is muted
but still colorful—especially the Bougainvillea.
Flip flop: I’ve traveled north for an inside out getaway,
where elements challenge my suitcase,
the clothes I’ve packed—the shoes and boots.
And where getting out there
requires gumption, preparation,
because waves have set down logs
too heavy for any man.
They weren’t there last summer.
Cold air slices the blackness
that pressed the sun down last night—
blackness darker than black can be,
because the wind chill factor is high
and the waves are freezing,
more powerful than summer swells
breaking in places that swallow things.
Danger could open up anywhere.
Just this thought wrings a drop of awe from the morning—
knowing how the deep folds in.