winter backpacking

eastern sierras

snowy mountain

hiking

stone cabin

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hiking in the snow

snowy lake

heart

snowscapeIt would be easy to come here and tell you how our most recent adventure into the snowy mountains was beautiful and transcendent. It would be true of course but it would be missing part of the story.

To celebrate our recent wedding anniversary (4 years! huzzah!) we headed out for an overnight backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierras. With the drought here in California persisting, there was minimal snow even at higher elevations. We left early, only to be halted somewhere in the desert when my car started shuttering and belching smoke out of the exhaust. Halfway between home and our destination it seemed as though our trip might come to an end before it had even begun. Not ready to let the adventure we had planned go, we managed to rent a car and several hours later we were on our way again, now quite a bit behind schedule.

When we arrived at the trailhead it was already late afternoon. In preparation for the colder weather, I had brought a zero degree sleeping bag with me and its bulk was packed awkwardly in the side of my pack. At the last minute I shoved our bear canister in the top of my bag, just barely cinching the top closed. I was anxious to get hiking as the sun headed downward, so it was with this uneven backpack that I started up into the mountains.

As we set out, the climb was gentle and my pack was relatively light but for some reason it was particularly unpleasant. The sun was shining in my eyes, somehow managing to creep around my sunglasses entirely. All of my excitement for the trip seemed to drain with every step. I was no longer looking forward to trudging up into the snowy mountains and testing my limits. It could have been the stress of the day, dealing with my car and how to get where we were going, or the altitude having an effect on me (we were already at 8,000 feet) but something dark started to drape itself over me. But I trudged on, trailing a ways behind Shawn.

At some point the trail turned and we were brought into the shade of the mountains. I was relieved to be able to see again but the ominous sadness still lingered. I searched my mind for where this melancholy could be coming from and what might be the cure but I could find no answer. I was hiking in beautiful scenery, with someone I love. I was not hungry or weary and I did not long to be somewhere else. The more I thought about it, the more I longed to be exactly where I was at that moment. With this realization my thoughts floated into a vortex of existential dread.

What am I doing with my life? Why am I not doing the things that I love? Why am I constantly plagued by daily stress? How can I be the person I want to be?

A wave of emotion washed over me. Something caught in my throat. I gasped, holding back tears and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I stopped walking, pulled off my pack and struggled to catch my breath.

When I was in my early twenties I went backpacking in Europe. A different kind of backpacking clearly but still carrying all my possessions on my shoulders. I had graduated college earlier that year and had little idea of what direction I was headed in next. I had studied through the summers to graduate a year early and hadn’t stopped to figure out any sort of plan for my future. What does one do with a degree in fine art and student loans to pay? So I set off for Europe on what I hoped would be a grand adventure. Besides, planning the trip gave me focus, where I otherwise felt adrift. I don’t know that I was looking to “find myself” but I probably was in some sense, following the mythic ideal of self-discovery in far off places. I had made plans with friends to travel with me in different countries but at the last minute no one could actually go. So I went alone. Years later I remember one of my bosses saying how brave I was for going by myself, but more than anything I just felt lonely.

I arrived in Florence one morning after taking an overnight train and managed to get on a bus headed the wrong direction. I spoke no Italian at all and when I realized my mistake I panicked. I got off the bus with no idea where I was and started walking in what I hoped was the right direction back to the train station. The streets were empty and tears streamed down my face as I walked. I could not hold them back. I was just overwhelmed with this sense of being utterly alone and having no place. It wasn’t the only time I cried on that trip, feeling entirely lost even when I wasn’t lost at all. I kept questioning why I had traveled across the world to feel so intensely sad and lonely when I was perfectly capable of feeling sad and lonely at home.

The thing is though, looking back, much of the sadness I experienced on that trip is dampened by memory. At some point I figured out how to talk to people, to spend days with other travelers. I remember the highlights, the exciting moments, not the endless searching for where I should be and how I could fill my time. It took a while for me to shed the person I had been at home and get into a rhythm of transient life. I did not have any personal revelations but I found that I was capable where I initially I had thought I was not.

I think of this trip often when I am having a hard time on a vacation or adventure. That the bad times, though not entirely forgotten, recede into the background. Sometimes, even the most difficult of situations are still better than sitting around letting your life pass you by. At least there is some sort of experience there, not just a couch and a tv and the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes the hardest parts become a sort of talisman, a notch on your belt, to say you got through this even if it was just wading through the swamp of despair in your own mind.

When backpacking in nature these moments of struggle can be compounded. There is some level of real risk, even if it is usually low. It is hard for me a lot of the time. I don’t feel tough. I feel slow and easily affected by things like low blood sugar and elevation. My fears can get the best of me. I hate this but it also enhances things in a way. I get such a feeling of accomplishment when I face the parts that are hard for me and get through them. I love car camping but I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction as when we go backpacking, it’s just easy and fun and a welcome change from our everyday life. The key is finding a balance between the parts that are actually enjoyable and the parts that are challenging.

So there I am, sitting on the side of the trail, struggling to catch my breath. Shawn stops and I tell him I’m okay, but in telling the tears come. No way to hold them back now. Why am I even crying? It seems too big a question to answer. The answer doesn’t make sense. I want to be here, outside, having these experiences, even the hard ones. I want to have the freedom to be the creative person that seems to have been buried under the rest of me that gets through the day, that pays the bills and does the dishes. I don’t know how to solve these things. I just know that they are there and at this moment I cannot hide from them. So I just sit and cry in the mountains over nothing and everything while Shawn waits patiently for me. Soon crying does that magic thing it does where it makes you feel better and I put on my pack and continue on.

We hiked another few miles until it started to get dark and very cold and the elevation a little too much for me. We set up camp and I forced myself, somewhat unsuccessfully, to eat dinner. Why do things taste so intense at high elevations? Why does it feel so impossible to put food in your mouth and swallow even when you are hungry? Finally we huddled up in our tent and though I did not feel good, I felt safe. I was warm in the zero degree bag, even though it was probably 20°F. I still woke every few hours though with All of the Lights blaring in my head. It wasn’t just stuck on repeat, it had the distinct quality of being loud, despite being physically silent. Plus I was starving, having not eaten much dinner but unwilling to go out in cold to retrieve any food from our bear canister. Still, there was something pleasant about being in that tent and suffering (a little), not with the sort of anxiety and fear that makes the night unbearable.

The next morning I was feeling better. We ate breakfast (oatmeal is my savior), broke down our camp and hiked into the snow. We passed a few other campers on the way but had the trail mostly to ourselves for the morning. The snow was soft and packed down on the trail from previous hikers. With the sun high in the sky, it felt more like an early summer day than winter still. When we finally reached higher elevations still we were treated to views of snow covered lakes and rocky peaks. It was a strange mix of the snowy beauty of winter and the warm temperatures of later season hiking. We set up another camp in the snow and cooked lunch. From our perch we could see others walk out onto the frozen lakes. The views and solitude were the reward for the struggle that came before. We made it.

As we hiked down I asked Shawn, half joking, if he thought our trip had been romantic. I had a breakdown on the way up then spent most of the evening feeling nauseous. True romance! Still, it sort of was. Not traditional roses and chocolates romantic, but an experience together. We both felt so lucky to have someone who wanted to do these wild trips together and still understood that it is often hard and sometimes not fun. It still feels so worth it though and I feel so fortunate to get to do what we do. It’s like a clean slate every time we head into the wilderness, sometimes that wiping clear can be a bit more jarring that others.

Part of the reason I want to write about the adventures we go on is not to say “oh look how cool this thing we did was” but rather to hopefully inspire some people go outside, to get out there and see the beauty and magic that is out there. I am not religious or even spiritual but there is an undeniable energy in nature that can have a great effect on you. I want people to experience that. And I want to be honest that it is not easy, that I struggle and that is part of what makes it special. You don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to accomplish something meaningful.

TL;DR

We went backpacking in the snowy mountains, I cried, I wanted to throw up and still it was awesome. I recommend it.

mt. baldy ski hut

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mt baldy ski hut-7In keeping with our new tradition of going on adventures for any celebration we can, we recently went on an excursion to the Mt. Baldy Ski Hut for Shawn’s birthday. Though we had hiked to the summit of Mt. Baldy over the summer, we thought staying at the hut would be a perfect winter trip. Mt. Baldy is fairly close to Los Angeles and though the hike is steep, it is relatively short (about 3.5 miles) giving us a lot of time to hang out in the cabin.

We set out on an early January weekend in the rain. After so many dry months it still feels novel to have any sort of precipitation here in Southern California. The air was cool and damp and perfect for hiking. I imagine many people don’t like hiking in the rain and I can understand in certain circumstances it would be unpleasant or dangerous, but I personally found it particularly relaxing. It’s much nicer to have a soft chill in the air when you’re hiking up a mountain than the oppressive heat and sun that is the norm here. The clouds and mist moved up and around the mountain so we often found ourselves enveloped in fog while other times you could see far into the Inland Valley.

As we hiked up in the late afternoon, many of the other hikers were heading down and seemed excited that we were spending the night in the ski hut. The hut is run by the Sierra Club and is open most weekends for day visitors or overnight. You have to bring some regular backpacking supplies with you, such as a sleeping bag and food, but much less than you would need for a regular backpacking trip. When we arrived, we found several other hikers staying there along with the cabin hosts. It was a lively and festive crowd and though we kept mostly to ourselves, being the introvert crew that we are, it was was fun to be there with others.

I really fell in love with this little hut and the cabin lifestyle. There are two wood stoves, one in the living area and one in the kitchen, always burning, keeping the cabin toasty. Each had several kettles of water boiling and perfect for making tea or hot cocoa whenever you you might want. The water in the cabin is piped in from a spring and is continually flowing through the kitchen. While purifying water is easy, having a fresh flowing stream was a luxury. It took awhile to get used to the idea that the water was forever flowing through the sink as my instinct is to turn off any wasted water.

Now I have to say, I’m in the habit of going pretty simple with food when we go on adventures as to not have to carry additional weight or cook complicated meals. Some of the other guests really went the extra mile though, making chili with fresh cornbread and chocolate chip cookies. Knowing how easy it is to cook up there, coupled with a relatively short hike, I’d definitely bring more exciting fare next time. We did, on the other hand, bring a cookies and cream cake which we assembled on site. The whole cabin joined in singing happy birthday to Shawn. We passed the evening playing cards and games, while others played guitar or just chatted.

We slept in the bunk beds upstairs. Even with one of the windows open it got terribly warm until the early morning when the fires started to burn out. At 8,200 feet, I was a little worried about how the elevation would affect me as it can sometimes make me quite ill, but I didn’t seem to have too much of a problem, I think mostly due to drinking lots of water and perhaps a midnight snack. When I woke in the morning, I looked outside to see that it was snowing. I went downstairs to find that even in the faint morning light, there were already a few hikers that had made it to the hut on their way to the summit. The snow lasted only awhile before turning back to rain, then to snow again. It was still terribly exciting.

Shawn cooked up his signature breakfast of tofu scramble and vegan maple sausages and we were off down the mountain. It was raining quite a bit more than the prior day and we only encountered a handful of hikers going up, mostly folks hoping to do some mountaineering at the summit. The descent was fast and it wasn’t long before we were on our way home again. A perfect winter weekend adventure.

death valley

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death valley-10This post is a little overdue, as this trip happened back in November, but nonetheless here it is.

I had been wanting to go to Death Valley all year but as we missed the cooler months in the beginning of the year, we had to wait till fall rolled around to visit. I thought it was going to be my first time at the park but I realized once we were there that I had been to the racetrack when I was young. I’m glad to have been there as a child as it requires a 27 mile drive on a rough road that I don’t think I could do again. It is crazy to think that they’ve just finally figured out how the rocks move on this dry lakebed after decades of research. Though it was previously thought that the rocks were pushed by the wind on icy mud, they confirmed last winter that the rocks are actually stuck in ice sheets and as sections melt, the wind pushes the floating ice sheets, dragging the rocks with them. This is a very technical description as you can tell. You can see a video here.

Our first stop was at the Mesquite Flat Dunes. Several signs warn not to go out into the dunes in the afternoon and I could easily see why after trekking out into them. Walking up and down the sand is deceptively tiring and there is almost nowhere to hide from the sun. Even in the cooler months, out on the sand it suddenly felt like midsummer. I particularly liked seeing various tracks in the sand, like a record of all the things that had happened over the past few days. The dunes themselves and the views they provide are quite stunning.

After cooking up some vegan cheeseburgers at our camp we headed down to the Natural Bridge and then to Badwater Basin. The Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and has been filled with salt from runoff from the surrounding mountains. A cycle of rain dissolving the salt, freezing and crystallizing has left a patchwork of hexagonal ridges. The salt flats are a strange and beautiful place. Some parts looked much like a snow field but the hard salt cracks under your feet as you walk.

We camped at the furnace creek campground in part of the tent only section surrounded by mesquite trees. Up until this point we’d had a lot of luck finding really great campsites without making reservations but finding a private spot in places with lots of other visitors can sometimes be a stressful gamble. This trip I didn’t want to have to worry about it so I reserved a spot, site unseen and hoped for the best. I figured if it was truly terrible we’d hike into the desert and camp there as backcounty camping is allowed further than a mile from any road in the park. The site (no. 139) was fairly secluded though and there wasn’t anyone at the nearest sites to us. Further away, some bikers had set up a projector and were watching home movies and celebrating, but from where we slept we couldn’t heat them.

I think because some of my earliest camping experiences were in the desert, camping there feels very comfortable to me. Though there is obviously extreme weather to deal with, there aren’t bears to steal your food for instance. The desert at night feels wide open, looking up into the sky and seeing the expanse of the universe. As we climbed into our tents for the night a pack of coyotes began to howl, they’re calls echoing through the valley. Late in the night, the winds started to blow like crazy. We had left some camp chairs outside so as Shawn went to grab them, I headed towards the bathroom, where I saw several other campers frantically pulling down pop up tents and various items likely to blow away. In the morning I saw a few people sleeping in their cars.

We had a windy breakfast at camp, packed up our gear and went to Artist’s Drive. The hills in this area are an array of vibrant colors caused by the different metals left from volcanic eruptions. As we hiked through the Artist’s Palate we came across a small wedding (that happened to be the celebrating bikers from the campsite the night before). Though we were a ways off, I could still hear them cheer when the officiant announced that the couple was married and it felt magical to be witness to such an event in a beautiful place, even if they were strangers.

Finally, we visited Zabriskie Point. Besides the stellar views I was particularly excited because of the Antonioni film of the same name. Though I didn’t expect there to be some crazy orgy between the hills, it was still cool to see the iconic location in person. Mostly thought it was just beautiful in every direction.

The park is so huge, there was so much left still to explore so I look forward to going back and checking out other areas.

salton sea campground

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salton sea-8The Salton Sea is a mysterious place. I’ve been fascinated by it since I first visited ten years ago. The Sea is the largest lake in California and it was created by accident in 1905 when a canal on the Colorado River broke, sending water into the Imperial Valley for the next two years. In the 1950’s the area was developed as a resort town and homes and yacht clubs sprang up creating nearby communities. The idyllic retreat couldn’t last though, as the water in the lake was fed mostly by agricultural runoff, algae blooms from the high phosphate levels caused mass die offs of the lake’s most abundant fish, the tilapia. The beaches are now littered with fish bones and dried carcasses.

The place is eerie. The dead fish, coupled with derelict houses and the remnants of trailers flooded decades ago and left to decay, give the place an ominous atmosphere. It alludes to something under the surface that has gone terribly wrong. The truth is though, the sea is still truly exquisite. Hundreds of species of birds visit the lake, which despite it’s toxic reputation is still beautiful to behold.

When we’ve visited in the past we’ve camped in Slab City so when Jenn said she wanted to spend her birthday there and camp at the new campground I was thrilled. The new camp has a tent only section and is not far from the beach itself. Butterflies flitted around our site as we set up our tent. We walked down to the water to explore for awhile and watch the birds. I was particularly fond of the black crowned night herons, with their striking red eyes. The whole place was peaceful and calm with very few other campers.

Before it got dark we headed up Bombay Beach. We watched the light change from a soft pink to a burnt orange as the sunset over the water. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the view as a painter had set up his easel on the shore as well. I couldn’t help but think about how this beautiful place has gotten such a bad reputation for problems us humans have caused. We walked through some of the abandoned buildings before it got dark then headed back to camp for dinner. The moon was bright, and with nothing else to do, we went on a short hike, watching the birds, mostly white pelicans, float on the water in the dark.

The next day, we visited Salvation Mountain. Though I am entirely uninterested in the religious message of the place, I can appreciate the dedication needed to build such an outlandish monument. It seems like Slab City has grown significantly in the past few years as more people look for a free place to live their lives outside of society. I am curious to see how it changes as time goes on.

Then we headed up to the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge, a specifically designed part of land on the southeastern edge of the lake meant to provide habitat for birds (though oddly they allow hunting of some birds, so I don’t really understand entirely). We hiked up to Rock Hill, which offered views of both the refuge and the Salton Sea itself. The hill is part of a group of young volcanoes known as the Salton Buttes which are thought to have erupted as recently as the first century (so not recently at all). One of my favorite parts of the refuge is the abundance of quails. They may not be rare birds but they’re adorable and make such amusing little noises.

I hope to go back in the next few months, while it is still cool and the park offers kayaking around the lake. For you bird lovers out there, the weekend of January 23-25th is the Pelican Days Birding Festival.

point reyes – wildcat camp

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ruby crowned kingletA few months ago, while visiting Oakland, we made an impromptu trip to Point Reyes National Seashore. The Point Reyes Peninsula is a curious geological area in that the landmass has moved north along the San Andreas fault over 300 miles. The peninsula is made up of the same granite found in the Tehachapi Mountains, a southern section of the Sierra Nevadas. The rugged coast offers stunning views and the chance to see unique wildlife such as elephant seals and the rare Tule elk. When we discovered there were places to camp on the seashore, we knew we would be back.

Now, there are many places to go hiking and camping in California, it’s a huge state, with several national parks and large swaths of wilderness areas. Yet, there are a few spots that require reservations or permits that are nearly impossible to get. Usually these are sites with reasonable hikes at a particularly coveted location. One of those campsites is Wildcat camp in Point Reyes. There are several campsites in Point Reyes that all require hiking, biking, horseback riding or boating to the sites but for some reason this spot is booked every weekend for months in advance, especially if you’re looking to stay at sites 5, 6 or 7 which are closest to the beach. Luckily I have a very persistent husband who discovered the site was open on Christmas night so we reserved a space and headed out for the holiday.

We hiked in from the Bear Valley visitor center where we had to pick up our permit. The hike is almost a mile longer if you start here (6.3 miles), rather than at the Palomarin trailhead, but it seemed to make more sense to hike the extra distance rather than spend another 40 minutes in the car driving to the other trailhead. It’s a fairly easy hike, with the first half being wide and flat. Once you get off the bike trail, the hike gets a little harder and a little more interesting as you climb through wooded areas. There were tons of mushrooms everywhere.

We made it to camp just before sunset and as soon as we stopped hiking the cold really set in. We made our favorite backpacking dinner, vegan stroganoff, before snuggling up in the tent. The thing about winter camping, even in places where it doesn’t get deathly cold or snowy, is that the sun sets so early you spend a lot of time in the dark. Obviously you can hang out by the campfire in certain places, but in others the hours seem long and you may find yourself thinking it is very late at night when it is still only 9 pm. In any case, since it was just the two of us, we got in our sleeping bags, played cards and ate chocolates for awhile before going to sleep. It was a very cold night, with temperatures down in the low 30’s, but I cinched my sleeping bag up tight and was still cozy.

We woke up early and hiked down to Alamere Falls, a waterfall that flows directly onto the beach. There are several smaller streams emptying into the sea on the way and all the birds seemed to congregate at these areas. There were lots of raccoon tracks here as well. We saw quite a bit of wildlife on this early walk, several turkey vultures, some black tailed deer high on a cliff and even a seal bobbing along in the ocean alongside us.

After having a breakfast of oatmeal, tofu scramble and vegan maple sausages, we packed up and headed back. The hike out was a bit more strenuous, with a fair amount of climbing, but nothing terribly difficult. We ambled back and stopped for a long while to take photos of birds like the Townsend’s Warbler and the Ruby Crowned Kinglet you see above (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app for helping me with those or I’d really have no idea).

This trip in Point Reyes was actually the longest distance that I’ve gone backpacking, 14.6 miles including the hike to the waterfalls, but I felt much better afterwards than I have on previous trips. Partially this is because there wasn’t a ton of elevation but I think mostly because I’ve pared down my pack since I first started. At some point I’ll do a post on all my gear but I have to say that the thing that has made backpacking more enjoyable is having a lighter weight backpack. There will always be an element of pushing yourself through pain and fatigue but it is much easier to appreciate your surroundings when you’re not struggling with how much your joints hurt or how exhausted you are. Carrying less weight makes the biggest difference here. I read this hundreds of times before I started backpacking and it really didn’t sink in until I tried it.

Post hike we headed to Souley Vegan for lunch, then made a stop at Timeless Coffee Roasters for treats. I can’t deny that part of the fun of a backpacking trip, even a short one, is how much more I appreciate a good meal afterwards. I love the solitude of getting away and rush of exerting myself, but it also makes the simple pleasures of regular life shine a little brighter.