Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thank you notes

I headed out to Utah again, to visit my extended family for Thanksgiving. The whole Homer clan is still invited for the spread, even as the number of great-grandchildren increases on an exponential scale. I like to make the journey because Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday. Lower expectations, lower stress, and all the same cognitive dissonance when that cousin I still remember being 3 years old shows up fresh from her own journey across Alaska. Cousin Erick makes the famous potatoes, Uncle Steve makes the fresh cranberry sauce, and my mom bakes the pies. She always makes the pies, with their crisp, flaky crust and years of creme filling perfection, and no one seems to notice when she fusses over keeping the whipped cream chilled and cutting fresh banana slices. I love my mother's pies. They're a reason to go home for Thanksgiving, among many. Everything was delicious this year. Inexplicably, nothing contained Jell-O. 

 Friends and family already know by now that I love a good road trip. At least this is no longer my shameful secret. Road trips make me thankful for Pretzel M&Ms and artificially flavored hazelnut gas station coffee (another shameful no-longer-a-secret.) Twelve hours behind the wheel passes in a blink these days, but this time around I took a 2.5-hour break at Donner Pass to hike eight miles along the Pacific Crest Trail. I had my snowshoes and fleece jacket all ready to go, but then it was 62 degrees without even a wisp of snow at 8,000 feet. The trail was still coated in uneven ice and muddy slush, so it was a double disappointment of being too dicey to run, but hot and brown everywhere else. I am not thankful for California's drought or the Polar Vortex. Please, snow, come back to the West Coast.

At least I timed my summer hike well, arriving at the Salt Lake International Airport two minutes before Beat's plane touched down. He found a discount ticket and there was only one, so we worked out this odd travel arrangement so I could stay in Utah a few extra days. On the day after Thanksgiving, we set out with my dad and his friend Raj for a double-header in Big Cottonwood Canyon: a hike to Lake Blanche followed by a second hike to Desolation Lake, climbing two separate forks of the canyon.

 It was warm in Salt Lake City, too, with high temperatures shattering all-time records at nearly 60 degrees. At these upper elevations it was still in the 40s but felt fairly brisk in the gusting winds. I suppose I'm thankful for Black Friday, as the best explanation for why the trails were so empty on this beautiful day. I don't fault people for enjoying a shopping holiday, but I'll never understand. The indiscriminate consumerism, stress and crowds that characterize Black Friday would be my own private version of Hell. Some people's Hells would contain sideways blizzards and slogging through knee-deep snow at 40 below. Mine would be forever stuck in a shopping mall on Black Friday.

It was gorgeous on the empty trails. We left our snowshoes behind for Desolation Lake, and ended up having to break trail for half the distance. We gave up about 0.25 miles shy of the actual lake, because we'd already put in six hours of hard effort and decided the field we were standing in had a good view and looked a bit like a frozen lake, anyway.

 On Saturday, Beat and I dragged my dad out for another Big Cottonwood adventure. We put in fourteen miles and 5,000 feet of snow trekking on Friday, and opted for something shorter — Gobbler's Knob, a 10,250-foot peak that climbs 3,500 feet in four miles, one-way. Sounds not as difficult, right? Ha! We followed a trail mainly used by hunters this time of year, climbing a steep drainage to the Mill A Basin. Beyond a minor ridge, the trail rapidly deteriorated into a set of deep postholes that had been solidified to hard ice by the freeze-thaw cycle. Circling around the basin, there was only this narrow corridor to follow through the thick brush and aspens. This "trail" had been trampled to the ankle-twisting consistency of an Alpine boulder field.

 It was exhausting work, this flat traverse. The elevation left me feeling winded and dizzy. "I wondered whether five weeks of my new strength training routine was helping with my balance issues," I said to Beat as I teetered on frozen footprints and stumbled repeatedly into knee-deep crusted powder. "I guess the answer is, not yet."

It was a relief to reach the saddle and strap on snowshoes for a steep ascent up the ridge of Gobbler's Knob. The crust was wind-scoured to an icy sheen, and there were occasions of skittering sideways above a yawning abyss of steep exposure with only the dull teeth of snowshoe crampons digging a shallow anchor into the ice. All the while, 40-mph gusts of wind ripped along the ridge, carrying powder blasts up from the depths, and even though it was "warm," it was not really all that warm. By the time we reached the peak, Beat said, "Wow, that turned out to be pretty epic." As you can see, my dad is stoked that we finally made it.

Descending was as difficult as climbing had been. After five and a half hours, we wrapped up our eight-mile hike on the verge of exhaustion. My poor dad. He was in fine shape for the adventure, but I think he'd had enough of the slogtastic version of fun.

I'm thankful for the slogtastic version of fun. It's still one of my favorite types of fun, for what are probably deep-seated psychological reasons that are impossible to explain or justify. But I keep trying anyway, as my own way of reaching out to others who might be like me. "Doesn't everyone love life at 1.3 mph?" But there's something to be said about going outside in this weird November weather that doesn't really work for anyone, putting in a wearying effort for a relatively paltry distance, and drawing a thin line of footprints along the expansive canvas of the world. 

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