Thursday, July 30, 2009

Happy 49th anniversary!!

My parents, Bob and Inez, were married on July 30, 1960. They met in 1958 at a dance when my dad, who is from Vermont, was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. My mom grew up on a farm nearby. My dad asked my mom to marry him within a couple of weeks of meeting her. Problem was, he had orders to spend the next 13 months in Saudi Arabia. They maintained their relationship and planned the wedding long distance, corresponding via dozens and dozens of letters. (My mom still has a shoebox full of them.) No internet or even good phone service back then! A few days after he returned to the States, they were married!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Six Days in the Sierras

I've never much subscribed to the concept of a relaxing vacation (yawn...); my style is more toward seeing how much physical expenditure can be packed into each day -- to say, my Productive Vacation Day gauge is one that measures just how tired I feel at the end. Last week's Sierra sojourn was productive: I felt nice 'n wrung out by the end of the week. :)
The trip was conceived when my good friend Al decided he needed a respite from this year's soggy New England summer. We agreed: "Let's go to the Sierras!" We started off with Mt. Whitney, lucking out and procuring walk-up permits. With 6000 feet of vertical gain and 22 miles round trip, coupled with the fact that most people aren't acclimatized for the 14,494 foot summit, almost everyone starts at Whitney Portal well before dawn. Watching the train of bobbing lights snake its way up the mountain at 4 a.m. is kinda cool. Check out this geek!

We made it to the top under clear skies in about 5.5 hours--not blistering fast but respectable enough considering we came from sea level and Al underwent ACL reconstruction just four months ago! I decided to climb Keeler Needle and Mt. Muir on the way back to Trail Crest, the former because it looked really cool, the latter because it is a 14er. Scrambling up Muir's rocky pinnacle, I heard rumblings of thunder in the distance and knew it was time to descend. What was surprising was how many people continued to come up! (The attitude seemed to be "Dammit, we have our permits; we're climbing this sucker!" Yikes.) We were just below Trail Camp as the deluge of rain & hail, thunder & lightning hit, surely making the folks' day higher up very interesting.

Mt. Langley, another 14er, was on tap for Day #2. Also on the long side at ~22 miles round trip, Langley is one of the easiest California 14ers technically. I ran much of the lower miles, passing the beautiful Cottonwood Lakes en route to Old Army Pass. The trail up OAP was steep but enjoyable: I always like a trail that "gets to the point" quickly rather than slogging back and forth up dozens of switchbacks. Just below the Pass was a steeply sloped lingering snowfield that had to be crossed--a bit scary but totally do-able with careful foot placement. From there it was a long but easy schlep to the summit. About a half mile below the summit, I encountered three mules. They wore bridles but had no packs, no attaching ropes, and no human companions. What the...? They seemed content hanging out at 13,000+ feet, munching on the little bit of vegetation growing up there, but upon return to civilization I contacted the ranger station to report the rogue stock. Just to take a different route back, I descended New Army Pass which has a bunch of the aforementioned switchbacks but which are more conducive to running down. This day brought another, more intense thunder, lightning, and hailstorm. The hail was large pea sized and it HURT! Three rounds of it left the ground white and me huddling under protective tree branches laughing hysterically. I contemplated climbing one of the trees "a la John Muir," to experience the full effects of the storm. Not! (And FWIW, I just Googled it and found out that Muir most likely never did this... Yay. I always hate to discover that my heroes are whack jobs.)

Al agreed to join me on a fourth 14er on Day #3, White Mountain Peak, above. Yes, that is a road, and it is 7 miles up and 7 miles back, to say nothing of the 16 miles of rough dirt road to get to the trailhead. Yes, one could ride a mountain bike to the summit. Rumor has it that people have even unicycled up it. But don't believe those who call it "boring." It is the third highest peak in California and THE highest desert peak. (Except for Shasta which is in the Cascades and White Mtn. Peak, all the CA 14ers are in the Sierra Nevada Range). The White Mtn. Range is home to the oldest living things on the entire planet, the 4000+ Y/O bristlecone pines. How freakingly amazing is that?! There were also way more marmots than I've seen in the Sierras. I love marmots. Views of the Sierras across the Owens Valley can't be beat, and there is spectacular stargazing to be had on the ridge. Finally, there were many desert peaks passed en route, both in the car and on foot, and someday I hope to climb them all...
The morning of Day #4 was spent in one of my favorite towns ever, Bishop, enjoying exceptional coffee & cinnamon rolls at Great Basin Bakery, ogling the incredible photography at Galen & Barbara Rowell's Mountain Light Gallery, doing laundry, and stopping by Erick Schat's Bakkery (yeah, yeah, it's a tourist trap, but where else can one buy roasted turkey drumsticks? Yum-O!) on the way out of town before heading up to the Mosquito Flat trailhead to climb Mt. Starr via Mono Pass.
A segue about the Starrs: Walter Starr Sr. and a friend were the first documented persons to climb this peak. Walter Sr. was the father of Walter "Pete" Starr, author of the first guidebook to the John Muir Trail. In 1933 Pete went missing on a solo climb of the Minarets and was finally found a few weeks later by none other than Norman Clyde, who determined that Pete had fallen to his death. (If you don't know who the legendary Norman Clyde is, click on the link! And BTW, there is a wonderful Clyde exhibit at the Eastern California Museum in Independence right now.) Anyway, the Starr disappearance and search were the subject of the book Missing in the Minarets, by William Alsup, the first Sierra-related book I read upon moving to California. (An excerpt from the book.) The skies darkened and we once again got rained on a bit while hiking out. I blamed Al for bringing all the rain from New England. I like the colors in this photo:

Day #5 was a relatively quick & easy jaunt up Mammoth Mountain, a visit to the spectacular Mono Lake, fish tacos, beer, and live music at that famous Sierra gold mine at the foot of Tioga Pass Road, the Whoa Nellie Deli, before turning in early in anticipation of the final day.
My goal was to be good and wrung out for the last day, so decided on a 50-mile loop run connecting the five Yosemite High Sierra Camps: Vogelsang, Merced Lake, Sunrise, May Lake, and Glen Aulin (six in all if one includes Tuolumne Meadows Lodge), spaced about 7-10 miles apart. The most comparable "hut" system in the U.S. is probably the Appalachian Mountain Club's White Mountain Huts in New Hampshire. I'd completed four point-to-point hut traverses when I lived back in Vermont--it's quite a popular testpiece--but am not aware of the Yosemite version being very popular with runners doing the loop in a day. Ultrarunners surely do it, but I'd never heard of this loop before reading a description in a backpacking book. Except for water, I did not partake of any of the camps' offerings (i.e. food).
Beginning at first light, 5:30 a.m., I proceeded in the clockwise direction from Tuolumne, reaching Vogelsang in about two hours and Merced Lake in another two. Views were stunning all day, with Yosemite rock, waterfalls, and intense sun almost constantly. I had to focus on staying hydrated and electrolyte balanced on the ovenlike climb to Sunrise Camp, reapplying sunscreen as it sweated off, then had a bit of trouble finding the correct trail near Tenaya Lake (did an extra half mile or so on the road there!) having never done any of these trails before, save for the JMT. Upon reaching May Lake, I knew I had it in the bag. The mosquitoes at McGee Lake were ferocious but were soon forgotten at the sound & sight of the Glen Aulin waterfalls. WOW. Incredible. The last few miles to Tuolumne Meadows were pretty albeit mosquito infested, and on the open granite sections I was glad it was still daylight since it would've been easy to get off route. (Carried a headlamp but never had to use it.) I finished the loop at 8:30 p.m., happily spent.
About 125 miles for the week-- all in all a nice Sierra sojourn!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tuscarora Trail

Warning: Do not attempt to traverse this trail in summer months!

Preface: Ever since thru-hiking the granddaddy of long-distance hiking trails, the AT, 15 years ago, I've been intrigued by some of the shorter trails and have been knocking off one or two per year of late (see sidebar). The ability to cover many miles combined with, more importantly, Chris's willingness to crew have allowed me to complete some of these trails my preferred method--to say, much faster and lighter than the average backpacker. Except for the JMT in 2007, rather than attempting to break records, my goal has been one of seeing, enjoying, and experiencing the entire trail with none of it being done in the dark.
The WHAT Trail? The
Tuscarora Trail is a lightly used 250+ mile blue-blazed spur of the AT with both ends terminating at the AT--near Matthews Arm in Shenandoah National Park on the southern end, and at Darlington Shelter, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the north, making a nice arc through sections of West Virginia and Maryland along the way. The TT is probably best known for its rocks--rocks that make all other "rocky" trails I've traversed, including the PA section of AT and the Massanutten 100 course, look like child's play. In the 1980s the PA section especially suffered from a terrible gypsy moth infestation which killed much of the surrounding trees, making way for a summertime onslaught of briars, brambles, and poison ivy, nearly closing the trail for good. Thanks to countless hours of volunteer labor, the trail was reopened in the mid 1990s. At least that's what I read.
Thwarted once: In April 2008 I attempted to traverse the entire TT but due to sickness bailed early on Day 2, making it only 60'ish miles to Route 55. Fast forward 14 months to June 27. Chris and I are once again at the Rt. 55 TT crossing, well rested after spending the night at the charmingly funky See's Motel in Wardensville, WV ($45/night, cash only please!). I cross the road and proceed north, promptly losing the trail within the first mile. Shortly the correct route--my lifeline of blue blazes--is discovered and I continue onward. This losing-regaining the trail will become a frequent occurrence. Being low-tech, I do not use a GPS; rather the Ziplocked guidebook directions and map for each particular day never leave my hands. Fortunately, I seem to be able to sniff out the trail pretty well so never get very far off course. I have to admit, however, that the TT was a rather special challenge in spots!

Fueled by Sheetz! Each of the five days it took to complete the trail started at daybreak, usually after stopping at a local Sheetz for breakfast sandwiches (and "sheety" coffee), with Chris parking at most of the road crossings and backtracking to intercept me, thereby getting in a few miles himself. Frustratingly, we were never able to go as fast as we'd have liked, hardly making 3 mph most of the time. This trail is rugged! Much of the time there was no real treadway, just blue blazes through a forest littered with tree branches, blowdown, and rocks. Further north those impediments were hidden by the veritable jungle of weeds mentioned above. I began to really look forward to the road sections of which there were a few. Below is a very nice section of trail. If only I'd known what was ahead...

Where the wild things--but no humans--are: I saw lots of wildlife, probably due to the lack of both hikers and, for the most part, encroaching development. A couple of miles into the trek, I met a black bear who promptly skedaddled after I shouted "MOVE ALONG, BEAR!" :) I encountered dozens of deer, four porcupines, a few turkeys, and almost stepped on a big fat rattlesnake. The absence of other trail users was surprising: except for one man walking the eight-mile stretch of C&O Canal, I saw absolutely no one on the entire trail.
Brambles and briars and poison ivy, oh my! As I slowly picked my way across Pennsylvania's Tuscarora Mountain Ridge, the ubiquitous briars waged a full-on attack making my poor legs appear as though they'd been caught in the middle of a cat fight. Teasing respites here and there kept me optimistic: maybe the worst was behind me. But it never was. The f*cking briars continued all the way to the northern terminus. This optimism turned into a bordering-on-the-humorously-psychotic "IS THAT ALL YOU CAN THROW AT ME TUSCARORA TRAIL?! I *WILL* FINISH THIS TRAIL BECAUSE I AM ONE TOUGH MF'er!!" mentality. Here's what I'm talkin' about:

Trauma: Yes, that is the "trail." Yes, those are thorny green things. Yes, there is a blaze hidden in there somewhere. And it went on for miles and miles and miles. Oh yeah, and all that plant life covered all the rocks. There were a lot of rocks. I'm kinda proud of the fact that I fell just once (gotta take the small victories). There were also a lot of ticks. And spider webs, the ones that are all at face level. Since there was no one else on the trail, I got to break ALL of 'em. As of this writing a few days after finishing, the scratches are healing but the poison ivy is just now making its full wrath known.
A religious experience: On Day 4 I climbed Knob Mtn., another long, rocky, bramble-infested PA ridge culminating in a, well... rocky KNOB. As I topped out on the ridge, the skies darkened ominously and began rumbling. Round 1 began around noontime, complete with lightning and a torrential downpour. "Well that was fun" thought I; since it hardly ever rains in CA, experiencing it is kind of novel. Round 2 was a bit more intense, but I happened upon an overhanging slab of rock in the escarpment just in time to avoid a good pelting with marble-sized hail, laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation. Yes, I do know you're not supposed to hide under a rock during a lightning storm, but it made for a better religious experience.
Dark thoughts: My circa 1997 TT guidebooks (there are two) mention only one shelter on the entire trail; however, I saw six or seven of the beautiful structures, including two currently being built. As I fought the overgrowth and stumbled over the sharp rocks (both loose and stable), I wondered why so much time, effort, and money was going toward building shelters rather than maintaining the trail. Were they taking the "If we build it, they will come" approach? Why did the PATC/KTA not post the many trail relocations on their websites? Why didn't more people care about this route, one that has the potential to be a gem of a long-distance trail?
Happy thoughts: Encounters with the previously mentioned wildlife, beautiful songbirds, wildflowers, ferns, solitude (especially for an introvert who loves getting inside her head), pastoral farm scenes, wonderfully intense smells of a humid forest, and really nice local people produced happy thoughts. The nice people include the proprietors of See's, Pikeside, Jimmy's, and Kenmar motels, the 5 a.m. Sheetz employees, the WV dude in the beatup truck who advised Chris to "not let yer wife run alone in these parts," and State Forest worker "Ed" (below), with whom we spent 20 minutes chatting. (Note map & directions in hand.)

Final thoughts: The Tuscarora is one of the most difficult trails I've ever attempted, but most of the difficulty was due to the summertime overgrowth and apparent lack of maintenance on long stretches of trail. Perhaps because of a particularly wet spring the growth was excessive this year. If I knew then what I know now, I would attempt this trail only in the springtime, before the briars have taken over. Then it probably would be pretty nice. Am I glad I did it? Of course. Sections of the Tuscarora Trail were lovely, and with a s***load of TLC this trail could be a winner. The good outweighed the bad, and I never resorted to tears (did get close a couple of times!). Oh wait, Chris wants to say something...


Crew note: Sue is still delirious from her adventure. There IS no trail -- just a marginally progressive display of blue blazes strewn among trees requiring the hiker (not runner, as Sue's notes would allude to the absence of opportunity to do) to sustain constant mental acuity in order to get the sense of forward motion towards some long-distant end point. Still, the beasties were pretty cool...