Sunday, April 29, 2018

Broken toe

 Well, I've acquired another spring injury. This mishap was even more "Jill" than my trail-running crash in April 2017, when I face-planted near the top of Mount Sanitas and ripped a deep wound into my left knee. Or April 2016, when I slid several yards on greasy mud in Walker Ranch and ended up with a painful shin hematoma that persisted for more than a month.

No, this one happened on a bright and beautiful Wednesday morning, when temperatures rose into the 60s while I excitedly prepared for a five-hour ride into town. Before heading out, I moved an overflowing basket of clean laundry from the basement to the closet. While carrying it across the bedroom, I somehow cut a wide-open route too short, and slammed the edge of my left foot against the wooden base of our bed. I'm proprioception-challenged, so I tend to collide with stationary and easily avoidable objects on a semi-regular basis. As such, I stub my toes with some regularity. This one didn't initially hurt too much, so I wasn't worried. But as I packed up, the pain of walking increased substantially.

"It'll go away," I thought as I stuffed my now reasonably swollen foot into a shoe.

If you're going to ride a bike through a bunch of foot pain, it's nice to have pretty animals to watch
The pain did not go away. I grimaced through 20 miles of strained climbing until I reached the highest and furthest point on my route, where I stepped off my bike and involuntarily yelped. Ouch! I set the bike down, hobbled forward, and confirmed that I could barely walk. At that point, my quickest route into town required pedaling 15 miles of the rolling Peak to Peak Highway through Nederland before climbing and descending the length of Sugarloaf Road (because I will not ride a bike in Boulder Canyon if I can help it in any way.) Two and a half more hours of pedaling through pain. Not ideal. But, I did choose this.

By the time I met Beat at work, I was close to tears. "I think my toe is broken," I told him. It was just my pinkie toe, a small and useless thing, but capable of so much pain! Sure enough, at home I removed the shoe to find a swollen and purple toe surrounded by bruising that spread across the top of my foot. A visit to a doctor the following morning confirmed this toe was most likely broken — I opted out of the X-ray, because the doctor expressed his confidence after the examination, and said his recommended treatment would not change. Treatment: Buddy tape around two toes, and an orthopedic sandal to keep the foot immobile while I hobble around. Likely no normal walking for at least two weeks. No running for at least four.

 Well, shoot. I was just getting back into running! It snowed for most of the day on Tuesday, and I was able to escape for an hour-long romp through the heavy spring powder. I had so much fun with this run ... since returning from Alaska a month ago, this was the first time the motion felt natural. I bounded along blissfully, and managed to keep a reasonable pace despite ankle-deep, slippery snow. I excitedly planned training strategies for the Dirty 30, which is a 30-mile trail race that I signed up to run on June 2. Dirty 30 is the closest thing we have to a local 50K here in Boulder, taking place on the steep and technical trails in Golden Gate State Park. I signed up in 2016, and had to DNS when my carpal tunnel release surgery was scheduled the day before the race. I didn't sign up in 2017 because the race fell too close to the Bryce 100. Surely I'd have a chance in 2018?

The broken toe is a non-starter. If I can't run for four weeks, my best-case scenario is starting the Dirty 30 on no specific training. Four years ago I would have happily run a 50K off the couch, but I have more respect for my limits now. My endurance will be fine, but my technical trail-running skills — iffy on my best days — will be unworkably rusty. At best, I'll be slow — likely too slow to stay ahead of the cut-off. At worst — and also likely — I'll injure myself. I was already thinking I'd have to DNS the Dirty 30, again, when Beat realized he also signed up for the Bryce 100, which is the same weekend. After some deliberation, we've made arrangements to travel to Utah that weekend, which will prevent me from racing the Dirty 30. Decision made! I'd be lying if I pretended I was more disappointed than relieved (although I am disappointed.)

 This photo is what we woke up to Wednesday morning — a few hours before I broke my toe. It was 23 degrees, frosty, gorgeous. I stood on the balcony in my bare feet, breathing in the crisp air, giddy about this April snowfall even though I knew it wouldn't last. Five hours later it was 60 degrees, all of the dirt roads were bogged down in wheel-sucking peanut-butter mud, the air was thick and muggy, and I was grinding out slow miles through increasing foot pain.

Life comes at you fast. 
Monday, April 23, 2018

There's beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere

“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who's always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” 
 ― Edward Abbey, "The Journey Home"

For most of the past twenty-something Aprils, my father has made an annual pilgrimage to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. He finds a cozy patch of sand nestled in the shade of sandstone outcroppings and juniper trees, sets up his canvas springbar tent, organizes a kitchen with a card table and water thermos that he received as a wedding gift more than 40 years ago, heats up a can of Dinty Moore beef stew on his single-burner propane stove, and settles into a camp chair as harsh desert breezes fill the air with sand. He's a low-maintenance retiree with little interest in sprawling RVs, full hookups and camper vans. A man after my own heart. Well, before my own heart. My Dad.

I've had the privilege to join him on two of these Needles trips. The first I believe was in 2002. Then I didn't make it back until 2010. In that unsettling way that eight years can just slip away, I found myself thinking about Canyonlands frequently as I made my way down the Iditarod Trail last month. There's an undeniable juxtaposition between these lands of ice and rock. I look at wind-sculpted snowdrifts and see slickrock. Soft snow under my feet becomes sand. A confounding landscape stretches toward a horizon unbroken by civilization. I breathe in subzero air and imagine the searing intensity of triple-digit heat. The redrock wasteland got into my blood before I knew any better. The frozen one was a choice heavily influenced by my first love.

"I wonder if Dad is going back this year?"

An opportunity arose to make the trip to Canyonlands after tax season ended — Dad volunteers for an organization that helps low-income people file their taxes, so he was busy through April 17. I spent tax day in Salt Lake City — where a spring storm brought four inches of snow, smothering my mother's tulips. On Wednesday, Dad packed up his 40-pound tent, wicker picnic basket, foam mattresses, and other nostalgic pieces of my childhood. We hit the road south.

Even with the five-hour drive and camp set-up, we still had enough daylight for the 11-mile hike out to an overlook above the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. My reaction to this view was unsettling in a way I hadn't expected. The last time I visited this spot was on a 14-foot raft, floating down the Colorado River with a group of friends in April 2001. We'd been lounging in the sun for days, occasionally rolling off the rubber bow to float in the languid, muddy water. I remember the stark delineation of color where these two rivers met, and what that meant — the rapids of Cataract Canyon were close.

"That was the end of my innocence," I thought as I viewed the color line from a thousand feet above the rivers.

I've told this story many times, but that day in 2001 was the day Geoff's raft flipped in Rapid Number Five. For an unknowable but seemingly eternal period of time, I was trapped under the boat by an errant loop of webbing caught around my neck. I recall vividly the darkness, the silence, the struggle against crushing force as though I was trapped beneath a rock. Eventually, somehow, I rolled away from the abyss and popped out to the deafening sound of whitewater, plunging through waves in front of the raft, gasping for breath with a bleeding gash across my neck. The experience cemented a deep-set phobia of moving water that troubles me to this day. But before this lifelong fear could set in, I felt something like betrayal — Utah's Canyonlands, the place of so many happy moments, the place that I loved and shared with the people I loved — did not love any of us. Our existence meant nothing to the land. We were as fleeting and inconsequential as droplets of water rushing through the dark abyss beneath Cataract Canyon.

“The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.” 
― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

For Thursday, Dad had a 17-mile jaunt planned, looping around a large section of Needles. The terrain was highly variable — everything from sandy plateaus to slickrock benches to slot canyons. Hiking in Canyonlands is hard — and often less like hiking and more like hands-and-toes friction scrambling, or crab-walking over the confounding topography. Really, it's the perfect way to engage with this land — literally crawling, with fingers splayed over the rough texture of rock and sand.

My already tenuous sense of direction was skewered. We squeezed into slot canyons and climbed through notches until I wasn't certain which way was up. At high points I'd look for the La Sal Mountains and realize they were in the opposite direction that I'd expected. Despite having a guide who has traveled these trails dozens of times, frequent signage from the national park, and a GPS making a bread-crumb track, I still felt a gnawing nervousness about becoming hopelessly lost.

The day was overcast and very windy — not great for photographs or wearing hats, but cool enough to be deemed "great hiking weather." I carried four liters of water and only drank one — clearly I need to improve my hydration game before summer ramps up. My ongoing leg muscle soreness complained about the sand, my feet complained about the impact of hard slickrock, and we were rarely moving faster than 2.5 miles per hour. Still, the distance passed rather effortlessly — either engaged in the puzzle of motion, or gazing up in awe at a bewildering labyrinth.

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally...”
 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

The high winds brought a Friday morning storm, with fast-moving squalls that carried drastic drops in temperature and cold precipitation. I was beginning to feel weary — after the weekend in Grand Junction, wandering in the San Rafael Swell, and now Canyonlands, my muscles were battered. My skin was almost painfully tight from the dry air, bruised from falls, sand-blasted to the point of chafing in spots. The soles of my feet, which never fully healed after the Iditarod, felt paper-thin and itchy. There was a moment of weakness when I quietly hoped Dad might suggest we head home early, but thankfully it soon passed. Before driving back to Salt Lake, we'd trace 11 more miles of slickrock benches and sandy culverts to Peekaboo Springs and back.

Rain turned to snow. The temperature felt icy, adding tenuousness to some of the steeper and more narrow slickrock sections. None of this fazed Dad in the least. I'm supposed to be the enthusiast about cold and snow, so I cinched up my puffy jacket and closely followed his footing.

For a time, in the rain and snow, we had the whole place to ourselves. Dad seemed serenely content — happy to be home.

“The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in it's way, when true to it's own character, is equally beautiful. If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful-that which is full of wonder.” 

 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

As we descended toward Peekaboo Springs, Dad pointed out a spot where he'd like to have his ashes spread when the time comes. There are three such spots, all in the Needles district. Dad promised the specifics would be outlined in his will. Funerals are a morbid subject, but in this beautiful setting, the discussion felt as natural as talking about the weather.

"It would be an honor," I said when he asked if I would carry out the task. "If I'm able." Quietly, I thought, "At this rate I'm likely to become decrepit before you do."

This is one of the spots — a gorgeous final resting place. A breeze blows incessantly here, so ashes would scatter like so much dust in the wind. I'm a bit envious of Dad's desire to leave all of himself in Canyonlands. I'm not sure I have such a spot in this world. I used to tell friends I'd like to have my ashes spread on top of Lone Peak, the mountain in the Wasatch that looms over my childhood home. But surely I'd like to at least partly reside somewhere on the Iditarod Trail, maybe Rainy Pass — as well as the shoreline of Douglas Island in Juneau, the White Mountains outside Fairbanks, and of course the Utah desert — possibly Hop Valley in Zion. I thought of spots in California and Colorado to include. How much will these places still matter to me, at the end of it all? I suppose I still want to be everywhere, even when I am nowhere. I thought of Ed Abbey's sentiment that to end up as food for a scavenging coyote or fertilizer for a bristlecone pine is the highest honor to which a human being can aspire.

“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see.” 
 ― Edward Abbey, "Desert Solitaire"

Canyonlands was a too-short three days of redrock beauty, no cell phone reception, engaging conversations with Dad, canned soup for dinner (delicious, really) and snacking on Twizzlers while watching mountaineering documentaries on a portable DVD player in camp after dark. We were back in Salt Lake on Saturday with time enough to hike up to Red Pine lakes in the Wasatch with his friend Tom. I needed to borrow his snowshoes, so Dad used an older pair that I gave him for Christmas in the early-2000s.

We clomped up 3,000 feet of slush and ate our lunch in a brisk breeze at Upper Red Pine Lake, entertained by skiers and the beautiful artwork they carved down these steep and scarily crusted slopes. The sports I'm too clumsy to engage in are also those I find to be the most beautiful: Downhill skiing, downhill mountain biking, and mountain running. Gravity-fueled dances across merciless landscapes are always stunning, with an aesthetic directly correlated to their inaccessibility.

"From the mountains, to the desert, to the tundra, white with snow ..."

Oh wait, those aren't the lyrics to "God Bless America." But I suppose any of us are lucky when we can find a place in this world, and uniquely fortunate when we can share that place with those we love most. Thanks for sharing your paradise with me, Dad.

“No end of blessings from heaven and earth. As we climb up out of the Moab valley and reach the high tableland stretching northward, traces of snow flying across the road, the sun emerges clear of the overcast, burning free on the very edge of the horizon. For a few minutes the whole region from the canyon of the Colorado to the Book Cliffs—crag, mesa, turret, dome, canyon wall, plain, swale and dune—glows with a vivid amber light against the darkness on the east. At the same time I see a mountain peak rising clear of the clouds, old Tukuhnikivats fierce as the Matterhorn, snowy as Everest, invincible. “Ferris, stop this car. Let’s go back.” But he only steps harder on the gas. “No,” he says, “you’ve got a train to catch.” He sees me craning my neck to stare backward. “Don’t worry,” he adds, “it’ll all still be here next spring.”
 ― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Small dose of desert

Every since I re-read "Desert Solitaire" during a sleepless night between wearying days of that ill-fated trip to Eleazar's cabin in the White Mountains last month, I have been hungry for some time in the desert. For me, Alaska's frozen tundra and Utah's red desert have always been two sides of the same coin — desolate extremes that enrich my soul. Growing up in Utah, I cut my adventure teeth on viscous rivers and sandstone, and assume I'll eventually return to Alaska to die (hopefully the dying part happens well into my senescence, and the return much sooner.) I crave the frozen north because it's there that I feel most alive. I crave the desert because it's there that I still feel young. 

View from the backyard, looking toward the Colorado River and rain clouds over Grand Junction
 An opportunity arose when friends from Boulder rented a house in Grand Junction for the weekend. It will probably annoy locals when I say this, but every time I visit the far Western Slope of Colorado, all I see is Utah — from fluted mesa backdrops to manicured lawns in the desert to tidy street grids (but really, Fruita, what is up with the fractions? J 6/10 Road? What even is that?)

Wendy at an overlook — not really an overlook, more like a regular switchback on a ledgy trail
 I knew this trip was coming and had been saving up my legs for it, as I was pretty sure these folks were going to make me run. It was my fault for talking them out of bringing bikes at the last minute, because the logistics of toting the bikes became too daunting. I know, sacrilege. To prepare for the trip, two days prior I embarked on a five-mile run that was the most running (not hiking) that I'd done since February. I felt good. I was ready!

 Temperatures were mercifully mild for the 15-miler Steve had planned, traveling out to Rattlesnake Arches and back. The trail was just rugged enough that my body balked at running within the first few miles — every step felt jarring and awkward, and without my trekking poles I felt like a black bear trying to lumber forward on two legs. Running on rocks ... so strange! I was certain a face-plant was coming, and tentatively lurched into every step. I actually I did have a pretty good splat around mile 10, but I caught it well enough that I only ripped up my already deeply scarred right elbow. No one was around to see it, so all was well.

Arches — two for the price of one!
Mile four involved a mild class-three scramble in and out of a canyon that sparked navigation confusion and backtracking, then Marianne had a scary-looking ten-foot tumble that she managed to walk away from uninjured, then Jorge started experiencing vertigo and turned around. Given my own perceived balance issues, I was feeling pretty spooked about moving through this hard and often vertical place. Still, the arches were well worth the effort.

The iconic Rattlesnake Arch
Clustered within less than a mile of each other are six or more arches, looming over a narrow bench that spans incredible vistas.  Just a spectacular place, close to town and yet reasonably uncrowded on a Saturday in spring.

 The arch promenade can be looped by climbing through Cedar Arch and descending back to a junction. Spoiler alert: I chickened out without even considering this sandstone scramble, and instead backtracked the two miles. Sometimes I am more open to scrambling challenges, but on this day I was too much of a spooked and awkward bear stumbling along on my two legs, and knew I'd likely panic and freeze up. All of my friends did it, and said another party let them use a rope, and it was perfectly mellow and lots of fun. I did two 12-minute-miles and went splat.

Sheep blocking the trail
 On Sunday morning everyone had to rush back to Boulder for travel, work, and other obligations. I was planning to head to Salt Lake City to visit my family, but wanted to spend one more night in the desert. Before leaving town, I headed to a popular trailhead to hike Monument and Wedding Canyons. For this outing, there was no pretense of running. My quads were again sore, and my weird sense of balance had not recovered. But the walk was quite enjoyable.

One of the monuments in Monument Canyon
Although I intended to just hike the five-mile loop, I felt inspired at the junction and continued deeper into Monument Canyon, eventually climbing out Rim Road some six miles from the trailhead. Well, 12 miles is good, too.

View from my lunch spot. If you squint you can see the trail wending down the slope in the center. 
I did indulge in an extended lunch break with my sweaty shoes and socks flung aside, and the still-papery soles of my feet drying in the cool sand. My body is strongly not cut out for desert living. I was slathered head-to-heel in SPF 50, with dark red burns on my skin where I had previously missed spots. Hat and sunglasses couldn't quite temper the glare of the sun. Long sleeves protected arms that are more or less permanently sun-damaged. My throat felt parched even though I was gulping down two to three liters of water on these five- and four-hour outings. I was sneezing and wheezing from spring allergies despite Claritin and Singular. Still, I was happy, nonetheless.

I headed back as the heat of the afternoon really started to bear down. Sweat was poring down my legs and aggravating an old but not-yet-healed rash around my ankles. I was quite disappointed to check the temperature gauge in my car and see that it was just 72 degrees, not the 114 that I was expecting.
 For the night, I drove west on I-70 for a hundred miles or so and set up my little tent on a sandy patch of BLM land in the San Rafael Swell, close to a wrinkle I hoped to explore the following morning — Devil's Canyon. It was a gorgeous and warm night of scratching my irritated and sunburned skin, blowing my nose, wondering if my sore throat was the result of a virus or just parched desert dryness, and getting up five times to pee because I over-drank water in large amounts. "No, you are not built for the desert," I thought as I listened to a hard wind drive sand against my tent. "But you love it all the same."
By morning, the wind had a sharp chill to it. I started down the rugged mine road in my puffy jacket, but thought better of that and stashed it in the car, opting to just shiver until I dropped far enough into the canyon to partially block the gale. For a time the walking was easy enough, and I drifted through happy memories of desert camping trips in the Swell, and of being 20 years old. Then I hit the wash and ankle-deep sand. Suddenly my quads were burning with angry muscle memory from hundreds of miles of soft snow in Alaska.

 My research of this route amounted to a Google Map search to locate the trailhead. Drainages veered off in at least four directions, and I had no idea which one was Devil's Canyon, or which way I was supposed to go. I was searching for a narrow slot that was supposed to cut into one of these canyons, but I realized at this point that my chances of finding it were low. I chose to head straight, along a sandy wash where I could occasionally see faint footprints. I hit a dead-end after an arduous mile and a half.

 Desert hopscotch — not the clumsy person's favorite game. Incredibly, I did not go splat. But I did start to run low on drinking water, having greedily slurped up too much again, and having promised myself that this "recovery" hike would be two hours tops. I'd already run up that amount of time, but chose to try one more drainage heading east.

 I did find a tiny slot — not the correct one — and water, although I had nothing to filter it and was not nearly thirsty enough to drink from a stagnant pothole. Despite being low on water, curiosity got the better of me, and I continued hopscotching, sand-wading, and sandstone-ledge-scrambing up a side canyon, hoping I might intersect with the road I walked in on. Again, I knew chances of finding an exit were low, but there's something so compelling about exploring a tiny wrinkle in the Earth. People on I-70 would look across this expanse and see only the flat juniper desert stretching all the way to San Rafael Knob. But the entire plateau rippled with these hidden canyons, a veritable maze that I could crawl through for hours, days, weeks even, and never find the place I'm looking for.

My explorations led to the sharp end of the drainage, where I crawled out onto a rim and followed a cattle trail back toward the main canyon. I assumed cattle like to access water, and that the trail would lead back to my starting point. Instead, it dropped into another small wash, which ended in a cliff that plummeted 200 feet into the narrow crevice I'd been at the bottom of, an hour earlier. No option but to backtrack. I was effectively out of water, and quite grumpy. But I'd made my choices. I wasn't going to die from 90 minutes of thirst. The wind still roared and the sun was hot now, drying my skin and throat to an even greater degree. My quads joined the chorus of complaints as I hopped rocks and waded through sand. To soothe a growing urge to panic, I sang to myself the Tom Rosenthal song that I mumbled many times during the Iditarod, where it always made me feel better.

"I took a road that wasn't a road, but it was something I chose, and that's fine."

The desert, like frozen tundra, never yields. The desert makes you earn it, whatever it is. The desert punishes mistakes severely, but it also rewards in kind. By the time I made it back to my campsite, my skin was pockmarked from the sand blast, and my throat was searingly dry. But I had a gallon of water stored under a blanket, where it remained blissfully cool. The taste of that water was pure ecstasy.