ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

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Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

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Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

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It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

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desert :: fear

I am of the mindset that TV is a mind-sucking, time-sink. I frequently get off my high horse to give my brain a rest and check out from reality. Tonight I swore I wasn’t going to do it. But then I rationalized that reading my completed book draft (my very LAST read before I actually and really send it out) required 100% of my attention, and not a split focus over dinner. So I gave in to temptation, and was rewarded with this bit of dialogue: If you feel fear start to rise, change it. Turn it into inspiration instead.

Okay. So that wasn’t the exact line, however it is the spirit of the line. I sat there, staring at the screen with a mouth full of food that I wasn’t chewing thinking, hell yes!

Since September 13th (for my entire life if I’m being honest), but particularly since then I have activated a process of intentional change. The lynchpin of this, aside from intense reflection, is to do one scary thing each week. It’s been as basic as walking up to a stranger and asking a question (a terrifying prospect for me). It’s been as ultimately satisfying as dance lessons.

What ever “it” is, each week I purposefully engage in a fear-inducing situation. My thought is that eventually, my relationship with those things that make me fearful will change. That eventually I’ll have a greater tolerance, and therefore be better able to handle challenges and embark on the adventures that make me sing.

The most recent “fear” installment was my afore mentioned trip to the desert. Originally I was going to be super badass and go by camping myself (thank you Heather and Rach for talking me OUT of this). Then I thought being the mastermind of the excursion was the fear-inducing bit. An hour and a half into my solo 4+ hour, ~9.5 mile hike (into the desert near dusk, mind you), I realized that was not it. WTF was I thinking?

A couple of disclaimers: most of this “hiking” was in the valley on jeep trails. I had a topo map and compass, and didn’t have to use them (so it wasn’t real hiking). I had food, and first aid, emergency shelter, and someone at base camp who was aware of where I was going and when I should be back.

The fear-inducing part? Being alone in the freaking desert.

At first, the landscape and the camera in my hands distracted me from everything. I love lighting and texture. I love seeing, aligning, and framing. I can lose myself in a viewfinder or darkroom. After a while, I noticed no one had passed me (the compact car full of people my Mom’s age (no offense, Mom) didn’t count). There were no sounds. Texture was all around me. The rocks. The cacti and shrubs. The tracks, and scat at my feet.

[Note: I’m a writer. My imagination is POWERFUL and has a will of its own.]

This was the playground of big horn sheep, ground rodents, and snakes. Coyotes, and mountain lions. Those last two? They’re predators. Not to mention crazy people who hole up in the desert. [Imagination. What can I say? I’m a little ashamed of it.] All around my feet were tracks I couldn’t identify. Some of them looked huge, like they belonged to a bear. Or anything weighing more than 300 pounds. My heart wasn’t exactly pounding, but I wasn’t at ease either. I believe the word was unsettled (around mile 4).

The most intense thing was being out there alone. The bee hive and the bird that surprised me induced little shrieks; however the absolute quiet and relative lack of another human was chilling. It’s the kind of quiet where you either find yourself, or lose yourself.

At a couple of points along the way, I thought about turning back without achieving my goal: seeing the pictographs. Instead, I stayed with the fear. I stayed with the solitude. I remained steadfast to the path. When I finally reached the trailhead, a thrill rushed through me. After another mile of more dubious, yet somehow more comforting trekking, I finally reached my goal. Red and yellow remnants of someone’s song, from somewhere in the past. Peace settled over me in that moment. Utter calm.

desert :: life

 

The desert is an inhospitable place.  Driving out of the mountains, into the valley, the landscape transforms.  The tall pines thin out, shrivel, and disappear.  They yield to the oaks, and those fade too as the desert gets closer.

It sucks the moisture out of my body.  My lips grow canyons and scales, and there isn’t enough lip balm to repair the damage, let alone keep it at bay.  Even though it’s October, the sun is bright and hot in the sky.  The act of scoping out a site, and setting up a tent is enough to make me sway with dizziness.  Inhaling some food, and drinking massive amounts of water restore me a little.  It’s time to go for a walk.  I should have just enough time to get to where I want to go and return to camp by sunset.

Because my 4-cylinder Honda, with me driving it, couldn’t make it very far down the sandy roads, I have to hike 4 miles to the trailhead.  Desolation surrounds me.  A few scrubby and barren bushes pop up out of the dry lake bed.  My eyes and my camera are ready.

I’ve found ancient fossilized shells before.  I’ve found bone fragments and a skeleton torn into pieces.  Little treasures.  Sand and dirt and boulders make up the majority of the landscape.  Ancient dry lake beds, oyster beds, sea floors.  The macabre part of my personality gravitates toward things like skulls.  The lifelessness of the desert.  But is it really that bleak?  A mile up the road, the landscape morphs.  Cholla chokes the flat parts, and crawls up the hillside.  Fields of agave erupt, and paint light green into the scene.

And then there’s the evidence of all the animals.  Holes in the ground.  Tracks littering the sand.  Bits of scat everywhere.  Desert lavender, cat’s claw, and a host of other desert shrubs and grasses spring up in the places that get more shade and water.  It’s easy to see the lifelessness of the place.  However,it’s anything but that.

There’s an immense amount of diversity here.  Animals, birds, plants and insects specialize to the environment. Periods of famine exist, to be sure, but there are also times of abundance.  And even in famine, the scrappiest little bush has the—I guess I’ll call them skills or programming—to survive, wait out the scarce times and come back stronger.

It strikes me this is also a metaphor for the human experience.  My human experience.  And a reminder.  I could perceive certain times of my life (example, the present) as proverbial deserts.  Such times are not wastelands.  They are closer to the desert I experienced this past weekend.  Even though some things are lacking in my life, there is a flood of wonderful things.  Friends, adventures, creativity.  And a huge amount of personal growth.

So, these lessons from the desert: We can encounter times of stress, and be motived by them; grow in ways we couldn’t have imagine.  We have the capacity to adapt, and answer challenges creatively.  And we are stronger than we know.

 

Photo Friday – Black Mountain

San Diego boosts dedicated space for many outdoor activities, which is awesome. The holidays were sinfully summer-like. You can go outside without draping yourself in an armament of wool and Gortex.

About a week after the 1st, I finally got in my New Year’s hike at this place. Black Mountain. The summit is a whooping 1554 feet (yes, I’m being facetious). San Diego isn’t exactly known for towering summits. Regardless, we did gain about 700 feet on the NightHawk Trail. Radio and cell towers, and other transmitters crown the summit, and from the top you can see in all directions unobstructed (with the exception of the towers).

The Open Space is a regional park, managed by the City of San Diego. I’m not really sure why it’s called Black Mountain. Maybe tied to a mining past. Whatever its history, chaparral covers its slopes. Sage, scrub brush. I like the twisting undulation of this one. Stark, it looks like bone picked clean of green. Still reaching.

Photo not-so-Friday, Bristlecone Pine Forest

Nature. Outdoors. Hiking and camping. That stuff always fascinated me. Hiking was (and still is) my refuge. Spending time in nature redraws problems. Draws back the veil or lights them differently. They don’t magically go away, but a little bit of perspective doesn’t hurt.

Camping has not been quite as accessible for me as hiking. Being a chick, going alone doesn’t seem like an intelligent option. My current cadre of friends, in general, aren’t really into that, especially the kind of trips that capture my attention the most. Primitive camping and backpacking. In July 2010, I did find a group of random strangers to camp with, which is the origin of this photo. [A special thanks to Tom, Suzy, Jesse, and Tracy.]

This is a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains in California. Aside from haphazardly exploring some mine shafts and conquering the biggest elevation gain of my fumbling hiking career, we spent half a day in this ancient forest. The landscape is austere, to say the least. The mountains, as you might guess from their name, are comprised of white and grey stone. Some of it is so broken up, it looks like the product of glaciation.

I might be mistaken, but if I remember right, these trees constitute the oldest living things on the planet. Methuselah is the most anciet tree, not only in the grove, but in the world. 4750 years of rooting into the ground, feeling the wind tumble over it, thirsting sometimes more and sometimes less.

The trees here are a strange mix of underwhelming and supernatural. They don’t just grow. They twist and curl and spire. Some trees look dead, with only a few sprigs of green, but really this is just an example of their amazing adaptability. Bristlecones are judicious and miserly with their resources. The hue of their skin hovers between a grey pallor, like their surroundings, and a delicious warm glow.

The underwhelming feelings fades the further along the trail you go. The groves are quiet, except for the birds calling. The trees thrive on rock. Coming to understand their environment imbues a respect for these beings. They are survivors. And beyond that, they are history’s sentinels. Think of the last 4000 years. This of ALL that has happened in that 4000 years. The trees that surround you have stood through it, breathed it and drank it. That is magic.

why it matters

Yesterday we went hiking at the Batiquitos Lagoon near Carlsbad. It wasn’t the most difficult hike I’ve ever been on, nor was it the most resplendent. Yet it satisfied. The lagoon is officially designated as an ecological preserve, and is known as a good area for birding.

The trail is a mostly flat affair that winds around the northern banks of the lagoon. You can hear the freeway noise, especially at the trailhead. There are housing developments and a golf course to the north. Even with civilization encroaching, there is a sort of peaceful magic to the area. As you move to the east, the landscape emerges, pushes its way into the consciousness. Coastal Goldenbrush, Cattails, Prickly Pear Cacti, Sweet Fennel, and Coyote Brush shape the space with texture. Soft unfurling, sharp spears, chaotic crackling, Fibonacci-esque twirls, and exploding puffs.

All around us, the trees and brush rustled. The lizards we saw were not so standard. Spikes broke through the scales on their backs and legs. A scaly plate swept from their noses to their foreheads. One had bright blue markings. An assortments of birds lingered, darted and hopped. Above us circled large birds of prey. Looking out into the lagoon, we were intrigued by sudden frothy disruptions on the surface of the water. Mystified, we stopped to watch it. Soon we realized it was fish, leaping straight up from the water. Apparently, we’d witnessed jumping Mulletts cleaning out their gills.

But why does it matter?

So much of my day is surrounded by contrived environments. Concrete, pavement, glass and metal. In addition to the materials is the pace. The rush from here to there, with my mind always on the next destination. I forget. I forget that there is both more and less then us. Being out in nature, listening to it, feeling it, touching smelling seeing–it lures me away from the standard hectic propulsion of life. It reminds me of the baser elements of being, but also the more pure. It’s the clean air, the slow process of regaining mindfulness, becoming fully aware and present in the moment. It tells a story of balance and what happens when things are out of balance, both on a global scale (ecosystems) and at the level of something far more personal.

daley ranch hike

I tagged a couple of places in the book last night, but went to bed not sure which one I wanted to try.  From the recent rains, it followed that many creeks and rivers that were normally dismally dry would be pregnant, swollen with water and overflowing with it.  Daley seemed like a nice mix of things, lots of trails, ponds, creeks, open meadows, oaks. I wouldn’t need a GPS gizmo to find my way out.

It started out mundane.  A crowded parking lot.  People strolling.  After the ranch, though, it thinned out.  Mostly I passed mountain bikers and horseback riders (with their horses, of course).  And then I started finding treasures.  The trickster coyote who crossed my path.  The birds.  The frogs.

I nearly squealed when I saw the shot up car through the chain link fence, which conveniently changed to a dilapidated barbed wire affair soon after.

The solitude.  Being out in nature (mostly).  Seeing.  Listening.  It was a great way to begin.

More images here