Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Magic lands

This is my dad's favorite place. He revisits it every spring to soak some sunshine into his winter-weary legs. I've joined him three or four times over the past two decades, and it's started to seem almost eerie, the way nothing changes: the convoluted maze of spires and crevices carved into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The aroma of sage so strong I can almost taste its bittersweet leaves in the air. The spring-bar canvas tent, strong and stoic against blasts of red sand. And my dad, scrambling over rock shelves and jumping across chasms as though he'll never grow old. I think about how he was just a little bit older than I am now when I first followed him on these trails, twenty-something years ago. 

Canyonlands National Park, like most public lands, was closed in spring 2020, so Dad hasn't been back for two years. In my mind, his decades-long tradition hasn't been broken. I don't know about you, but I find myself already writing off 2020 as a year that didn't happen. I talk about things that happened in 2019 and refer to them as "last year." A friend asked me when I last hiked in the desert with my dad, and I said, "two years ago." It was April 2018. Indeed, since we canceled Grand Canyon and didn't go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's been almost 18 months since Dad and I embarked on a long hike together. It feels like a blink in time. It's almost as though I wished for unbroken normalcy, and my brain responded by sweeping the problematic threads from memory. Perhaps I'm not the only one casting dark curtains over a difficult year ... even though, in truth, "2020" is far from over. 

Indeed, things aren't like they used to be, are they? Beat and I were just two days removed from Pfizer number two when we set out for a five-day trip to Utah. Knowing we weren't quite "fully" vaccinated, and that caution will be necessary for a while, we planned to remain socially distanced during the camping trip. The one exception was meeting Dad in Moab, where we planned to grab a sandwich at the local Subway. I've walked into plenty of grocery stores and gas stations during the pandemic, but I drew an admittedly arbitrary line at restaurants — even fast food. We walked inside and my anxiety immediately spiked at the visual of people crowded in line and eating at tables without masks. My brain was signaling loudly to get out of here, but just then Dad walked in and gave us a hug. Eeep! I'll admit that I hugged everyone in my family when they came out for our wedding in September, so this wasn't an entirely new post-pandemic experience, nor unexpected. My current aversions to hugs and strangers aren't based on rational risk assessment. But I'm beginning to understand the amount of social anxiety I've acquired in the past 14 months, and it isn't good. Beat has started planning for a trip to Europe in late summer if the vaccination passport thing goes through, and my airport nightmares have already returned. I will need to continue pushing against these reactions lest I travel down the path of full agoraphobia. 

I was grateful to escape Moab for the comforting realm of the high desert. We found a secluded yet convenient campsite at the edge of Lockhart Basin, then determined we still had enough time left in the day for a hike. 

Dad planned to visit all of his favorites, which is effectively the entire front country of the Needles District of Canyonlands. In this map, I superimposed my Strava tracks over a trail map from the park. We basically only missed a few connector trails. In three days, the three of us clambered over rocks and trudged through sand for 45 miles. Dad headed home and Beat and I did a 20-miler on Saturday for 65 miles. Every mile was pure gold. 

For our Wednesday afternoon hike, we headed out the high mesa toward a rim overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. This was Beat's first-ever visit to Canyonlands. In 2011 he ran the Slickrock 100, which followed a course along the mesa surrounding Island in the Sky. But the race route never ventured into the park, and as far as I know, that has been his only visit to the region. 

It was fun to watch his reaction to the views as we made our way over and down the serpentine ripples of rock encompassing Needles. This place is effectively an enormous jungle gym playground surrounded by stunning views. 

Looking toward the snow-capped La Sals. 

And back toward the sandstone spires that earned Needles its name.

Dad at the confluence overlook. There's a stark delineation where the silty Green merges with the copper-toned Colorado. 

Pfizer number two wasn't treating me well on this day. After sweating out my fever on Monday night, I thought I was mostly over it by mid-day Tuesday. A few muscle aches remained, but surely I'd be back to normal by Wednesday. Still, this 10-mile hike was much harder than it should have been. I felt achy, fatigued, and overheated. At times I became especially woozy and took extra care to not lose my balance. When I tried to drink water I felt a bit nauseated. Jerky and a salt tab helped. 

For the Thursday trek, Dad had a little of everything planned. Here we are starting toward Big Spring Canyon.

More wide-eyed wonder from Beat as we approached the heart of the Needles. 

Skirting through a wind-blasted notch above Elephant Canyon. 

The crowd-pleasing joint trail. (Of course, there were no crowds. There were sprinklings of hikers here and there, probably many times more people than what Dad saw in the late-90s. But this is still a quiet corner of the world, many miles away from the conveniences of towns and restaurants and even hotels, open to all but only visited by those who desire it the most.) 

Chesler Park, a truly spectacular spot. Photos don't depict the otherworldly expansiveness of the place. It carries the ambiance of a sci-fi film about an ancient city petrified in stone. 

Climbing Elephant Canyon, with fun technical features that Beat loved. 

Druid Arch. The arch stands perpendicular to the canyon, so you don't see that it's an arch until you climb around an adjacent fin. Dad played his favorite "first-timer" game with Beat, challenging him to guess where the arch was before we got there. I haven't been back to this arch since one of my earliest visits, and I couldn't remember which sandstone tower hid the window. Beat, with an eye sharpened by route-finding in the Alps, picked it out relatively early. 

I'm grateful for the national park and its established routes. This Byzantine ripple of sandstone and valleys would not be navigable without them. At least, not without extensive planning, a map and compass, focused route-finding, and not a small number of technical climbing maneuvers.

I did a Google search for "the convoluted surface of the Earth" to remind me where I'd heard this phrase before, and came up with results for the convoluted surface of the brain. Come to think of it, Canyonlands does remind me of the cerebral cortex. 

We spent four nights in the same campsite, with Dad in his spring-bar and Beat and I sharing a smaller three-person tent from REI. This being spring in the desert, most days and evenings were filled with gusty winds: Nice when hiking under the harsh sun, but less nice when cooking or sitting outdoors. By the final night, a large windstorm coated everything inside the tent in several inches of fine sand. We took 20 minutes to shake out sleeping bags, pillows, and mats, but the film of grit remained. Sand found its way everywhere: In my ears, in my nostrils, in my eyes. Sometimes I dream about road-tripping across the continent and think I'd rather stick to the simplicity of my Subaru and a tent rather than deal with the logistics and expense of a trailer or camper van. But after four days of wind and sand, I can understand the appeal of hard-sided shelters. 

On Friday, we headed out Peekaboo Canyon, a 14-mile jaunt along the ledgy sandstone. 

Dad has all of these bright hiking shirts. I like to think he wears them to make his photographer daughter happy. 

Dad looks toward "The Sentinel," a precarious rock outcropping that presides over Horse Canyon. Each time I visit, it seems as though it's about to topple. And each time, it's still here. 

Beat descends the ladder through a notch. The final few steps are doozies. 

Crossing the cactus beds toward Salt Creek. There were new blooms but surprisingly little water for the height of spring. 

Claret cup cactus. 

This is a spot where Dad wants his ashes spread someday. He's recruited me and Beat, but we joked that he may need to start training his grandkids. His fitness may outlast ours. Hell, he might just outlast The Sentinel. 

Making our way back through Lost Canyon. My vaccine fatigue was mostly gone, but my feet were becoming a mess. After a winter of less running than usual, the softened skin was especially vulnerable to heat and sand. The skin on my heels, ankles, and a few toes was rubbed almost raw. Beat taped my feet. This helped, but ugh ... I haven't experienced foot pain like this since I was a relatively new runner dabbling in 100-milers that I couldn't finish because my feet hurt too much. I have so much work to do to get ready for the summer hiking season: Heel lifts for my Achilles, one-legged squats, hamstring curls, and apparently scuffing my feet with sandpaper every night to toughen them up again. 

Dad needed to head home on Friday, but Beat and I decided to stay through Sunday and squeeze in one more long hike. I mapped out the route through Red Lake Canyon because I thought it would be new to both of us, but Dad reminded me that I hiked to the river with him in 2010. This prompted Beat to ask questions about the route, but I remembered so little. "The climb out of the canyon was long and hot," I offered. "And the river triggered bad memories from Cataract Canyon."

We headed out the Elephant Hill jeep road in the morning, each packing five liters of water.

Fun road. It's better to be on foot than anything else, I think. Even hurty feet. 

Crossing Devil's Lane. From the distance, this looked like a vertical cliff, but there was a relatively benign path snaking up the side. 

Another perpendicular valley at Cyclone Canyon. On the return trip, we would be blasted by hard wind and rolling tumbleweeds through this sand trap. The canyon was aptly named. 

Past Butler Wash, we climbed up and up, which I found perplexing. Where exactly are we going to drop into this canyon?

High above Red Lake Canyon, with the Dollhouse — part of the Maze District, across the Colorado River — on the horizon. 

As we wend our way around sheer dropoffs into the wash below, I fretted about where this trail might lead. We had close to a thousand feet of elevation to lose and less than a mile (as the raven flies) to the river, and I knew it wouldn't be a steady drop. If this was a trail in the Italian Alps, it would just dump us straight down the steepest, chossiest gully imaginable. I was not looking forward to the bruised shins and bloody knees that were sure to follow. But I needn't have worried. Even though we hadn't seen a single hiker since we left the trailhead in the morning, and this place was beginning to feel unnervingly remote, the trail still made friendly (if steep) switchbacks all the way to the valley floor. 

Beat at the Colorado River, just upstream from Brown Betty Rapid, which marks the start of the famous wild ride that is Cataract Canyon. We sat down for a breezy sandwich break. As much as I was dying to, Beat warned me not to put my shredded feet in the river. ("It feels good now, but it just adds to the problems later.") We assessed the current and talked about swimming over to the Dollhouse, not that I could ever coax myself to do such a thing. I'd probably struggle to cross the river in a boat, although I like to believe I could sit in a packraft and do a small amount of paddling without unraveling into a panic attack. When I look at the Colorado River in Canyonlands, all I can see is the darkness encompassing me as I struggled against a strap that had tightened around my neck, pinned beneath a raft underwater after the boat flipped in rapid number five on April 14, 2001. Twenty years ago. I shook my head. I really should be over this my now, but when I think of rafting, all I still see is the wave that was about to engulf us, and Bryan ducking into the bow as he said "This one's gonna get us wet," the roiling whitewater, the roar that was so loud, and then suddenly ... silence. And darkness.

Now I'm terrified of boating, apparently for as long as I live. Curse my stupid brain and its phobias. 

Hiking, even up steep and rocky terrain, is comparatively comfortable and relaxing. The climb back out of the canyon was as long as arduous as I barely remembered, and this was our warmest day of the week with temperatures spiking to 80 degrees. But that blustery spring wind provided enough cooling to keep it tolerable. I was in bliss — a hard grind uphill, surrounded by a stunning and seemingly deserted expanse of space, letting the fatigue of four strenuous days calm my thoughts, moving farther away from the scary river. 

On our way out, we looped around Devil's Kitchen, with many stops to gape at rock formations. Even Beat was stopping, and he never stops. 

I know this is one of my more rambling trip reports. I didn't know what to write about this place. It's pure magic, everywhere you look, around all of the many twisting turns. There's not much more I can say about it. It was wonderful to see it through Beat's first-time eyes, and also share the experience with my father who knows every patch of cryptobiotic soil by now, and who loves the land deeply, and who I've barely seen since the start of the pandemic. By definition, magic is something that can't be deconstructed, so I'll leave it at that. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

April snow

Beat and I recently returned from another fulfilling trip to the Utah desert, this time exploring the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park with my dad. Time away from home means catch-up work which means falling behind on my journaling. Between the two trips, Boulder was hit with storm after storm of beautiful April snow. Before I start on Needles, I realized I had all of these snowy photos I wanted to save. 

I returned from my Utah bike trip on April 12. That night, flurries from April's first storm began to waft through the air. After the scorching desert trip, this anti-fire-season weather was more than welcome. I'd ridden a heavily loaded mountain bike nearly 300 steep and sandy miles the week before. I had also crashed that bike and bruised a not-insignificant percentage of my lower body. My legs were as fried as my lips. Still, as I set out on a big errand day in town, I couldn't resist a jaunt to Green Mountain.  

According to BoulderCast, the Green Mountain area received about 2.5 inches of snow between April 12 and 14. It's a start!

The upper elevations of the Flatirons are always so lovely after a storm, with delicate frost lingering after the clouds lift. Snowstorms tend to ingite a zealous desire to climb a peak even though snowy trail conditions make for a mighty slog, and sometimes my legs are pre-cooked. 

A second April storm moved in overnight on April 15 to 16, dumping another 6.5 inches. Winter-weary locals will complain that it didn't stop snowing all week, but there was definitely some boring Colorado sunshine in there. My mountain zeal went into overdrive, and I talked Beat into a morning "wandel" to Bear Peak. (Wandeling is the Dutch word for "wandering on foot" that perfectly describes these laborious strolls through the snowy forest.) 

Bear Peak tends to collect the most interesting frost formations. 

This spring snow is lovely but heavy, more like wet cement or pancake batter than powder. My weary and bruised legs were at this point resigned, but my heart was happy. 

The morning of April 17 brought another light dusting. Beat spotted the local elk herd down in the lower field, so we set out for another wandel in our PJs. We tried to be stealth, but they spotted us and took off (elk don't seem care about people as long as we're in cars. But they don't like us around when we present as much smaller animals on two legs.) 

Beat ended up trekking home for his big camera and captured a few nice shots from a distance. 

April 18 brought the Ride to End ALZ, an Alzheimer's research benefit that I didn't really remember signing up for. A California friend recruited us to join his virtual ride team and Beat said yes. This exchange probably happened well before my Utah trip, but the desert apparently fried more than just my lips and legs. Shortly after we went for our elk-stalking hike, Beat reminded me to post something about the fundraiser on social media. At that point, I had raised $0 and the virtual group ride was less than 24 hours away. It seemed like I should offer some gesture of commitment on my part, so I pledged to ride 100 miles on my trainer if friends would help me raise $500. The response was amazing. Friends donated $1,470 to my ride, and our humble team of three raised $6,156 (John, our California friend who put a lot of time and heart into the effort, inspired the bulk of that.) Thank you to everyone who donated to this important research!

Beat and I had way too much fun with this ride. We set up two trainers together and started out bright and early with the 7:30 group ride on a rolling hill course in Zwift land. (Beat and I are not morning exercisers by any stretch, so yes, 7:30 is early.) We made an effort to keep our avatars together, although Beat was riding an old trainer that kept skewing his power meter, so he fell behind even as he rode harder. We finished the 90-minute group ride with 31 miles and continued riding. Beat stopped at 50 — the wonky trainer being the main reason, although 50 was more than he committed to in the first place. John rode a metric century, 62 miles. I kept spinning, listening to an audiobook — "Deep Survival" — and posting sweat-drenched selfies every 10 miles. I wrapped up the 100 miles in just over five hours. I rode hard to get there, spending much more time in zone 3 and zone 4 than I normally would on a five-hour ride. I like that about trainer riding — there are no real consequences to blowing up, so you never feel the need to save enough energy to get home. You just go for it. I was tired. 

I was grateful to raise nearly $1,500 for a good cause, but also a little regretful that I spent so much energy just one day before Beat and I went in for our second COVID vaccine. I had a somewhat harsh reaction to the first, with a day of headache and body aches, so I wanted to be better prepared for the second: Well-hydrated, well-nourished, and most importantly, well-rested. Oh well. At least it was easier to stay hydrated this time. Our first shot on March 29 found us sweating in our car as the temperature spiked to 80 degrees. Three weeks later, it was 39 degrees and snaining as we pulled up to stadium. I'm so grateful for these vaccination clinics, and the U.S. vaccination effort as a whole. The horrors currently gripping India show that this pandemic is still very much in charge. 

I was overjoyed to receive the vaccine. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, as often as it takes, to keep COVID at bay and away from Beat and from my community. I consider myself to be something of a long-hauler from a virus. In June 2015, while riding in the Tour Divide, I caught a simple cold that spiraled into bronchitis, pneumonia, and chronic issues that are likely linked: Asthma and autoimmune thyroid disease. Long-haul COVID seems to have markers of autoimmunity. Although I know much more research is needed, I can't fathom why anyone would take their chances with this virus if there were any other options. The vaccines show a lot of promise so far. But I had a rough night after Pfizer number two. My head was pounding. My leg muscles that I never really let recover hurt as much as they did after I crashed. I'm fairly certain I had a fever, because twice in the night I woke up drenched in sweat and had to change my clothes and pillow case. Fever dreams rattled through my brain, leaving me exhausted. I felt as though I'd run a marathon in my sleep.

The morning of April 20, we woke up to 10 inches of new snow and renewed optimism. It was only 9 degrees when I dragged my still-feverish self outside to stand on the balcony and watch morning light stretch across the hillsides. This is my favorite sort of morning: Crisp, cold, brilliant. Finally, the stifling fist of the pandemic was beginning to lose some of its grip. 

Tuesday's recovery went better than I'd expected. I'd endeavored to finish much of the week's work early, just in case I needed to sleep for 36 hours. But once my fever broke, I felt alert and confident enough to tell my dad that we would be joining him on his hiking trip in Canyonlands. Beat also got away with just a headache and fever, so we set out April 22 through another inch of new snow. This flock of turkeys aggressively blocked the road, with males puffing up and even charging the car as we inched forward. 

It was quite humorous. We joked about all of the obstacles we needed to overcome to make this trip — snow, vaccine recovery, Beat's long isolation that meant this was his first time leaving the state in more than a year. But we didn't anticipate the one thing we couldn't find a way around: turkeys. 

I'll skip ahead to the April 27-28 storm, which dumped a whole lot of rain on Boulder. Our home was just high enough for some of that rain to change over to three inches of snow. I read the communities along Peak to Peak Highway received more than a foot. I was finally going to the dentist for the first time in 18 months. (Ugh, I had one cavity.) But I also thought, "This could be my last chance to go for a real snowshoe in fresh powder. I need to get myself to the mountains."

The new snow dump meant avalanche danger spiked to orange (considerable.) So I headed for our go-to low-angle route were I was guaranteed to never be on or around any slope steeper than about 15 degrees — Niwot Ridge. The night before, rain unleased a large rockslide across Boulder Canyon. Luckily no one was hurt, but the canyon was blocked and would likely remain closed for days as crews worked to clear it. Since Boulder Canyon is the main route to these mountains, and this was an off-season weekday, there was absolutely no one around. Nederland was a weird ghost town — I have never seen those streets so empty, and I once rode through town in the middle of the night on the winter solstice (okay, the streets were empty then as well.) But I knew when I pulled into an empty and unplowed South Sourdough parking lot that I would be breaking my own trail. 

Snowshoeing through a foot of heavy spring powder is perhaps the most humbling activity I know. I mean, I enjoy slogging. I'm pretty good at it — turning my brain off and just marching for however long it takes. But this hike transported me right back to Iditarod 2020, when I was strained to my limit and felt like I was fighting gravity seven times greater than Earth's, like my feet were strapped to cinderblocks. I resolved to maintain a 30-minute-mile pace and it was hard. On top of that, clouds hovered low and snain pelted my face. The temperature was a clammy 33 degrees. Once I trudged above treeline, I could see absolutely nothing but an endless expanse of white. Polar explorers describe this as walking through the center of a ping-pong ball. The fog was so thick that it obscured my hand if I help it out in front of me. But at least it wasn't windy. 

I resolved to climb to a high point on the ridge, reasoning that I had worked hard so maybe the universe would reward me with views. I had no reason to believe the white nothingness would end, but magical thinking has propelled me through many a difficult moment. And sure enough, as I strained over the final mound of what would be my closest contact with the sky, the clouds began to break apart. 

The hike downhill wasn't that much easier, and by then I needed frequent rest breaks. Each time, I turned to look back at the swirling clouds, the deepening blue sky, and the curtains of mist dancing across the mountains. This mixture of fog and snow has such an etheral quality, difficult to describe but for one word: Magic. 

I can't get too excited about the April snow just yet. The winter of 2019-2020 was one of Boulder's snowiest on record, and we still had to contend with the Cal-Wood Fire amid a truly traumatic fire season for Colorado. Summer 2020 was so upsetting for me that I genunitely don't understand how anyone can be excited that it's about to be fire season again. Just the thought of summer brings back the anxiety, the fretting over smoke reports, the blackened skies, the feeling of choking on smoke-clogged air. But 2021 has given us reasons to hope. I know I need to keep hoping for better.