Sierra Summer

It was mid-August, 4:45am, and I was lost. Sort of.

Two miles from the trailhead on a path I’d tread more times than I could recollect, I was standing in the middle of a shrub, its brittle twigs snapping against my bare arms and legs as I fought to see beyond the illumination of my headlamp. I squinted in the darkness, as if that’d help. I sighed, let out a little chuckle at myself and pulled out my phone. GPS doesn’t work well in the Kings Canyon, but if I could figure out whether or not I was even facing east, I could maybe backtrack and figure out an easier path.

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Redwood Canyon

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Looking north toward the Monarch Divide from the Don Cecil in May

The crossing at Bubbs Creek boasts several footbridges, but the nearly 200% snowpack of last winter flooded creeks and rivers so that even small rock-hops were transformed into raging rivers, too deep and too swift to even consider. Earlier in the season seventeen backpackers got stranded on the other side for four days when a few hot afternoons rushed along snow melt in the high country. Overnight, Bubbs swelled nearly two feet higher, violently hurling logs into the Kings River downstream—the current so strong it even moved boulders.

It had retreated significantly over that month, but a safe crossing still involved a walk on a log, a bit of bushwacking through and over a lot of debris and a knee-deep ford through swift water. And while I’d crossed multiple times in these conditions, the darkness of pre-dawn removed all context from my trek and I couldn’t see more than 10’ ahead of me. A crossing that would’ve taken four minutes in daylight ate up 20 minutes of crashing through the underbrush before I finally caught a glimpse of the footbridge in the swinging light of my headlamp. I sighed, finally, and stepped into the creek, the cold water flooding my shoes as I sought purchase among the rocks I couldn’t see.

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Upper Paradise Valley

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Upper Mist Falls

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Remnants of the bridge across the South Fork of the Kings; Upper Paradise

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Mount Cedric Wright above Twin Lakes

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Pear Lake

Armed only with what I could fit in the 6-liter runner’s pack strapped snugly to my back, I was fast-packing the Rae Lakes Loop in a single day. One of the most popular hikes in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the 43-mile loop gains nearly 7,000′ of elevation over the first seventeen miles along Bubbs Creek and the John Muir Trail, topping out at Glen Pass (11,926′) before rolling along the pristine alpine Rae Lakes, Woods Creek, and descending to Paradise Valley and the Kings River.

Living in Kings Canyon National Park’s little village of Cedar Grove put me at the trailheads for some of the most spectacular hikes in the Sierra. Apart from my park ranger wilderness patrol duties, a personal goal of putting 1,000 hiking miles under my trail shoes during the season pushed me out the door even on the days that the thermostat inched above 90-degrees, or the mosquitos were so bad they looked like clouds against the clear blue skies, or the smoke rising from wildfires in the Central Valley or Yosemite caught in my throat and colored the air orange and brown.

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Middle Rae Lake looking towards the Painted Lady and Glen Pass

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Sixty Lake Basin

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Avalanche Pass Trail

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Glen Pass

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Kearsarge Lake Basin

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Junction Meadow

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Palmer Mountain and the Sphnix

Any seasonal worker will tell you that the lifestyle isn’t always easy. You give up a lot for what you gain. Park Rangers are paid in sunsets, as the saying goes. Crap pay, no job security, no benefits, often hazardous working conditions, and the job only lasts five months a year.

But those sunsets, turning the granite walls of the canyon yellow and orange. Those tiny pink wildflowers that blanket the hillsides under the Giant Sequoia. Those rugged granite peaks still covered in ice and snow. Those black bears and western tanagers and rainbow trout and angry stellar’s jays hopping after crickets in the cheatgrass. Those clear, perfect alpine lakes and wide open meadows. That silence. That wild space.

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Descending Hotel Creek Trail at dusk

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Monarch Divide

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Long days at Roads End

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My cubicle

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the porch.

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The last year has been one under construction for me. One of building my own peace, my own closures and beginnings; fostering my own community and creating spaces for myself and for others; one of assembling a person I want to be—often messing up a lot along the way, praying my better angels to shout down the demons in my mind.

And somehow, in some quiet way, I realized I was ok. The burden of old decisions and the way I grew up and floundered relationships gripped my mind with less force and some of the walls I’d built around myself crumbled.

Something about those still, parched afternoons, sun charring the brown grasses, their dry stalks tinkling lightly together like a wind chime at the slightest breeze; boxed wine and cheap beer on the communal porch, the arguments of bickering mules emerging from the darkness, mingling with our conversation about everything and nothing at all, chasing the dying days to the edges of the earth.

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Redwood Canyon

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I spy two rattlesnakes

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Yours truly taking a break near Charlotte Lake

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the Golden Staircase

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Crooked Trails

I picked my brother up from the airport in Las Vegas where we spent a weird night at a strange AirBnB in a creepy cookie-cutter neighborhood before hitting the road, due east.

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Snagged a couple elusive permits to Coyote Buttes

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Due to a mysterious swelling and pain in my right foot and ankle that I refused to acknowledge in any real way, Brett drove to us Springdale, Utah while I propped the offending limb on the dashboard. The drive was long and unbearably hot through the rocky emptiness of eastern Nevada, the wheezing air conditioner undecided about it’s working order.

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Getting a taste for the dirtbag life–camping on a BLM dirt road somewhere in Utah

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Went to sleep to this view.

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After squaring away our logistics for the following days on the trail, we wove back through the tourist-dense streets, back down the two lane highway winding parallel to the crumbling red cliffs, and pulled off onto a poorly marked BLM road, kicking up dirt and gravel and driving until we couldn’t drive anymore.

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Creepin’

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Descending into Zion Canyon

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Quick afternoon trip up to Bryce Canyon

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Morning break in Zion

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Though our primary hike for Brett’s trip out was pulling off the Zion Traverse in two days, we filled the unplanned days that followed on whim and wind—chance permit lotteries, recommendations from fellow travelers met on remote and unkempt dirt roads, following paths with no markings at all, following the land when the trails ran out—we nearly forgot we’d been to Zion at all. We forgot what time it was, what day it was, we teetered between Utah and Arizona so often that we forgot which state we were in.

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Trekking the Paria Canyon

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Watch out for the not-super-quick-more-like-moderately-paced sand!

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Sinewy boulders

After dropping Brett off so he could head back to the Midwest, I continued back south and west. Sunburnt and sticky with sweat, I was hot and irritated as I crossed back into California. On impulse, I headed back to a place I’d been before.

The last time I’d been on Mt. San Jacinto, I was thru-hiking the PCT. It was startling how well I remembered the switchbacks—how similar they looked as it snowed on that early May morning, how the familiar weight of my pack begged me back down the mountain, back to the coffee shop, on to another city. I hadn’t bagged the peak in 2015 (mostly due to the AZDPCTKO hangover with which I’d hitch-hiked back with Idyllwild), but I was there to reclaim a memory. To make a place mine that I’d inadvertently given to someone else a while back. It didn’t work, and mostly I was cold and sore and hungry.

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purple buff life

After meeting a friend in Culver City, I dropped in at the infamous Anderson’s Casa de Luna to volunteer for a couple days. Heating up taco salad mix and tossing pancakes and hearing the top line trail gossip from this year’s hikers had me missing the lifestyle and the people something fierce, and as I dropped off the last group at the trail head, a visceral desire to abandon my car and my newfound job and head off to trod that same path behind them was almost overwhelming.

Fiddling with the finicky A.C., I drove north to Three Rivers. There was a flat hat and a summer in the wilderness waiting for me just beyond the sign: Welcome to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks!

notes from the road

(Post from April 28, 2017)

I woke up to frost on my windshield. On the inside of my windshield, that is. Outside, a short cargo train scraped slowly along a set of tracks I failed to notice when I parked on an empty dirt road last night, the passing locomotive’s chattering wheels pulling me out of sleep every forty-five minutes.

I sat up, wrenched my arms quickly through the sleeves of my puffy coat and fished around my sleeping bag for the beanie I’d worn to bed. Though I’ve been living out of Luna for a while now, I still don’t quite have my system dialed in. I can never find my pocket knife, phone charger, or toothbrush, and I somehow lost the first aid kit I meticulously assembled after my WFR course in January.

It’s cold, but there’s coffee to be made and elk wandering the field across the road.

I didn’t intend to get as far south as Flagstaff, but after a few long days hiking at the Grand Canyon, I needed a shower and a meal with vegetables in it.

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The Colorado River–the great sculptor of this incredible canyon

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Descending 4000′ to the canyon floor

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I pulled up to the Backcountry Office at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon fifteen minutes before they closed, and despite the acute dissuasion from the ranger on duty, snagged an elusive overnight permit for the North Rim the next night. I planned to hike the Rim to Rim (to Rim) trail–24 miles and about 5,000′ of elevation change each way.

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AMS, dehydration, and hyponatremia warning signs all over the Grand Canyon

As one of the busier parks in the nation, I’m sure its well intended, but there’s a fair amount of fear-mongering perpetuated by the Park Service. I had to sign a waiver acknowledging that I was completing this hike against expert advice, and that I understood what I was getting into.

I knew it was gonna kick my ass, but I also knew that I could do it.

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Life on the road can be mercurial, and I often wonder what it is, exactly, that I’m doing. Sometimes I have to spell it out for myself: seeing friends, hiking new trails, skidding down rocky forest service roads, meeting new people, experiencing new things. That adventure lifestyle, or so it’s billed.

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Hiking near Lee’s Ferry

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Here there be dragons

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Bugs need homes, too. Red Rocks, NV

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I met a group of backcountry skiers outside of Independence, CA on an 8-day trek into the Sierra

Sometimes I pull off down an unkempt BLM roads and follow it, sometimes dozens of miles, till it stops. I pull out the broken lawn chair I found in Tahoe and set it in the dirt and open a novel or my sketchbook or just watch the breeze tickling the long dry grass.

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Putting the Sierra in my rearview… for a couple weeks

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A hike up the White Mountains offered this view of the Sierra across Owen’s Valley

I think about that grass in the breeze, or where all the bighorn sheep are and why I haven’t seen one yet, or whether I brought enough water, or where the hell I put my pocketknife this time, and I try to be present. I try, sometimes, not to think of other things. But they tug, as they always do, in my weakest moments, and I wonder why I’m really here. In this hundreds-of-thousands of acres of open land, sitting alone in a rusty broken lawn chair with a stuffy nose and sunburnt shoulders and a hiking shirt crinkly with salt.

And I’m not sure. The beauty of these spaces, the simplicity of this lifestyle, the intrigue of novelty, the people surrounding me–all these things, certainly.

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Morning coffee

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Bristlecone pines–here lie not only the oldest trees, but the oldest organisms on Earth. The old tree, the Mesthuselah, is nearly 5,000 years old.

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And I wonder how much is motivated by a desire for atonement. A way to make amends for decisions I’ve made and roads I’ve turned away from in the name of “doing my own thing”; a way to try to escape my own shame for the things I’ve said or done–or didn’t say, or didn’t do; to make peace with the things I’ve messed up out of naïveté or anger or selfishness.

As eminent travel scholar Kerouac writes, “I have nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion.”

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Ironic litter in Death Valley

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Sunrise in the Great Basin

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Life with Luna

I’m parked on a dirt road a few dozen miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the namesake peak barely visible in the night sky, wreathed in stars.

From the backseat of my car, a little string of LED lights hanging over my head, my fingers are cold as I scribble in my notebook. I suppose I should mention that when I say “backseat” what I really mean is “bed-length platform with a sleeping pad.” That’s right, y’all, I’ve joined the #VanLife movement. Well, sort of.

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Taking it easy with Luna the Highlander at the base of Steens Mountain

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This is Job. Named after the guy in the Bible who totally got screwed over, he’s a prayer plant who lives in the passenger seat/on the back table/upended at the back of my car. I’ve put him through a lot, and he’s never wavered.

I got sick of paying Seattle’s exorbitant and ever rising rent, bought a Toyota Highlander, decided to call her Luna, and putzed around my friend’s shop for a few days, drinking Rainiers and providing moral support while he tricked it out for me. It’s a little cramped, but its dry and cozy and it can manage most of those gnarly BLM and Forest Service two tracks I’ve found myself following more recently.

I took off from Seattle last Thursday, and I don’t know when (or if, really) I’ll be back. Through a stroke of luck, more than a little self-advocation, and leaving a lot of voicemails, I landed a seasonal job as a wilderness park ranger in California’s Sierra Nevada. It still feels pretty surreal; I keep waiting for something to go awry with my paperwork or the position with lose funding. I am beyond excited to live amongst those stocky granite peaks which both so fueled me and conquered me as I clambered up their desolate passes two years ago.

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Spent a day camped out on the playa of the Alvord Desert in southeast Oregon

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Looking south to the Pueblo Mountains and into Nevada. Here, there are no trails past the muddy, clay-filled two tracks that curl along the base of these hills. A remote land of old-school ranchers, it’s hard to believe this places hardly sees any dedicated recreation.

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Since leaving Washington’s dreary skies last week, I’ve swerved south, east, west, east again, and further south, chasing the sunshine that’s so elusive in the Pacific Northwest, visiting friends, ordering up blackberry milkshakes at general store counters in remote towns, pulling off onto unnamed dirt roads to snag a hike or a snowshoe or just set up shop for the rest of the day.

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Steens Mountain

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Tumalo Falls; Bend, OR

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Lots of post-holing on this hike up to catch a glimpse of Three Fingered Jack in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness

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Wiley the crag dog; climbing and hiking at Smith Rock

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An intimidating view of the Strawberry Mountains near John Day, OR

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Reconnected with a fellow classmate from the Wilderness First Responder course I took for a day of hiking and climbing at Smith Rock.

There’s a place on the PCT I haven’t stopped thinking about since my thru-hike in 2015. There are a lot of sections I’ve thought of often, but there was some quality to these memories–some intermittent but vivid snapshots of the day it took to traverse–that drew me back to the place. It’s not particularly beautiful; the trail here is inhospitable and exposed, a nearly 30 mile dry stretch comprised almost exclusively of gritty volcanic rock and cow pies, it wanders a geologic rim not far south of the town of Burney, CA.

So I went back. It wasn’t especially meaningful or fulfilling, nor was it any more pleasant than in my memory. The unforgiving sun curdled my pale skin and water evaporated off my lips, leaving them chapped and bleeding, and I was surprised how specifically I recalled even the small twists and turns of the trail.

Maybe there’s something to reliving one of my more miserable days on trail. Maybe there was something I felt like I needed to conquer, or needed to remind myself I could still persevere. Whatever the reason, it felt good to be home, there on that small boot path, back when I knew where I was going.

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Hiking the Hat Creek Rim

Though this lifestyle has its perks–freedom, openness, new opportunity for community and connection, and minimalism, I’ve found it exacerbates some of my more muted stresses. Having a place to be. An inherent loneliness. A seated feeling of rootlessness that is at once both exhilarating and isolating. I’m not sure how this life will pan out for me–the van life or life in general–but I’ve spent the last year figuring out how to be ok with that. I might not be ready to embrace the unknown, but she’s in the passenger seat, and for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Met up with a PCT friend for beers and foods and good views of Lake Tahoe