Showing posts with label walkingHiking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label walkingHiking. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Making Hiking Sexier than Oatmeal

If done thoughtlessly or imitatively, the sport of hiking is about as exciting as a breakfast of store-brand instant oatmeal that is prepared with luke-warm, soft water. Of course oatmeal can be sexed-up with more texture, fruit, nuts, and yogurt. Learning how to do the same to hiking has been a long-term project for me.

One of the tricks of the trade is to take a more "naturalistic" approach. Recently I had an opportunity to do an unusually fine job of that with two boondocking friends, of bus crash fame. We walked toward some jagged Yuma mountains, right from the front door, at sunrise, with tribal "associate members," aka dogs. 

But we weren't on our way to a stereotypical peak-bagging hike on an official list of Top Ten hikes in the area. Rather, we were headed up a large arroyo, delineated by harsh brown mountains. When you look at the area on Google maps, you can't tell ridgelines from declivities. It's as if the land was a piece of crumpled aluminum foil that was illuminated with a flashlight in a dark room. You must move Google's hand icon to the spot and read the altitude.

Let's hope they weren't just doing this hike to humor me.  The scenery turned out surprisingly good. We were also relieved to find/lose/re-find a faint trail (made by whom?) along the arroyo. (There were no signs of course.) This made walking easy, both directions. The mountain walls on both sides were almost canyon-like. The rocks were so sharp to touch that you would have needed gloves. But the rocks in the arroyo were half-rounded and easy on the dogs' paws. 

There was precious little vegetation except along the arroyo, where the trees were surprisingly large. Even though the weather on this winter hike was perfect, the morning sun eventually climbed over the ghastly walls to heat up the trail, enough to imagine the horror of Yuma's summer heat. 

We had already been surprised a couple times, would we be lucky enough to stumble onto a spring or even the tiniest trickle of that magical liquid dribbling out of an untouchably sharp rock? 

Alas, that didn't happen. Nor did we find the fabled Southeast Passage through the mountains, despite some false hope along the way. It didn't really matter. When we had had enough, we sat down and enjoyed a snack in the shade. The descent was pleasant as it always is, in an arroyo.

I am not anti-camera, and in fact, even brought mine along. There would have been a couple opportunities to use it, too. But I didn't. Visual entertainment is not rubbish, but it is irrelevant. The satisfaction to be gotten along the arroyo is an autochthonous one: a Dread of sun and heat and the Ecstasy of water.  


I had promised my friends that rains were soft at this time of year, the secondary rainy season in the Southwest, and that they should camp right down in the arroyo, on the nice rounded cobble. A couple nights later they claimed to hear a foot of water flowing over the nice rounded cobble. (It was the middle of the night, and I suspect they were dreaming.) What could be more wonderful than to wake up to water flowing over your campsite? Shame on them for not appreciating that. Still they won quite a few brownie points for their camping and hiking skills over their two week stint. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Make Room for Mistakes and Surprises in Your Sport

It was surprisingly chilly this morning so I switched from a mountain bike ride to a hike down some canyons, right outside my trailer door, on some BLM land near Torrey, UT. But what if they turned out to be nothing more than uninteresting gullies? 

Some rather ordinary Utah/Martian scenery outside my rig, and just outside a national park. Would this hike turn out to be fun?

This must be a surprise to the other hikers in our camping group, since I squirm out of just about every hike that they propose. But this is the right kind of hike. And once again it worked beautifully, but with a gratifying twist at the end. 

At the risk of sounding like the Judi Dench character in "Room with a View", here is the exact science of an interesting hike:

1. Start from the the trailer, early enough for chilly weather. Don't drive an hour to some trailhead; by the time you would get there, you are already lost "spiritually."

2. Choose ordinary scenery, not some tourist attraction that is written up and photographed to death in a guide book, probably entitled "Top Ten Hikes in Capital Reef National Park."

2b. As an aid to #2, consider taking said book, National Geographic-branded maps, and your GPS device; and then pour gasoline over them, and light a match.

Starting any project right is half the key to success. For a hike this means renouncing your expectations. Recall the famous line from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield:

'My other piece of advice, Copperfield,' said Mr. Micawber, 'you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the god of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and--and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!'

By performing #1 and #2 you have corralled your visual greed and lust; you have abandoned seeing nature as a type of upscale shopping experience: your hike is more like shopping at a thrift store or a garage sale, at least at the beginning. Of course it might surprise you, and the surprises will all be on the upside.

3. Walk off trail; that means walking down arroyos in desert country. If you see a brown stake bearing the imprimatur of some land-use bureaucracy, turn around and try something else.

4. Bring your dog of course. Even better, let the dog's wild joy infect you. Aspire to doghood, as the ancient Cynic philosophers did in Athens. 'Cynic' means 'doglike' in Greek, rather than what the word means today.

5. Don't surrender to the craven safety-worship of the modern Nanny State.  Take prudent risks, i.e., ones in which higher benefits accompany higher risks. Spice things up a bit.

6. Don't hike like a puritanical donkey, plodding away for long distances through the heat. Change course as your mood changes. Investigate. Let yourself be distracted from your goal.

If the first half of the hike is descending arroyos, and the second half is ascending back to the starting point, you are more likely to get lost than when ascending first and then descending. Put it like this:

Descend first/Ascend second = hard.
Ascend first/Descend second = easy.

That is because one route becomes two at each confluence when you are ascending back home, and you will forget the correct one. Oh sure, you could mark the route in various ways, but why not develop a sharp eye for your own hoof prints? From time to time I turned around in order to remember some navigational key.

I was sure that I would pop out of the final branch right at the front door of my trailer. But by the time I hit the road, I was off by about one mile. Magnificent!

This is one of the tricks-of-the-trade. It seems discouraging and unnatural to descend a canyon system during the first half of the hike, but it actually can be turned to your advantage.

Nearby national park scenery. (Yawn.) My Nikon camera has been repaired since it was less than one year old. They outsource this to a firm called Luxtech. The entire process was pleasant and confidence-building. I never would have believed it if I didn't experience it first-hand.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Walking off Trail

I love the geology and topography of this spot, on the eastern edge of the San Juan's, near Little Mexico, CO. It's a land of decomposed laccoliths, with just the perfect balance of the Horizontal and the Vertical; of partly cloudy September skies; and of cliffs and ridgelines in the foreground, and big mountains in the distance. Even the vegetation is balanced between grass, small cactus, and junipers. 

My dog was picking up stickers the first day or two, but then she learned how to avoid them. How is that even possible? Dogs are gifted animals when it comes to any kind of motion.

As is often the case, I imitated my dog. There are no hiking trails as such around here, and the mountain bike was in the shop getting new brakes, so I decided to go bushwhacking across the grass/cactus fields. It was cool enough on these September mornings that I wasn't too worried about rattlesnakes. Over 80 F they are a consideration around here.

Dogs know they don't need no stinkin' trails, so why should their humans?

There is something liberating about walking off trail, walking free over the landscape. Walking a trail seems so arbitrary, unnatural, and confining. Of course, to bushwhack like this you need to be on a grassland or desert, rather than in one of the National Thickets, managed by the US Forest Disservice. (But sometimes you can bushwhack in ponderosa forests.)

Let's see now, you step out the door of your little house on this prickly prairie and wonder where to go. Well, that's easy enough. If this were the lower desert you would choose a walkable arroyo, but it is too high altitude for that, so something else is needed.

The exposed volcanic layer is in the upper right of the photo.

Here the best choice was to see if it is possible to climb over the exposed volcanic cliff edge that was visible for miles. It was horizontally grand, but vertically humble. It only took a couple minutes to be at the exposed cliff face. It was only 20-30 feet tall, but too vertical to climb. So I walked along it, probing for weak spots in its defenses. 

Notice how I was not walking along, mushing and gushing about how pretty something was. The whole thing was more of a problem to be solved. Military metaphors popped up. I had turned into a type of predator.

I finally found a spot for the final assault. My dog had to be lifted over a couple spots. She hates that. Geezer though I be, I was feeling like a boy playing "king of the mountain", or fantasizing about some medieval romance where the knight takes the castle. At the top of the cliff it seemed wise to build a rock cairn so that I could retreat gracefully, if that were needed. 

I walked along the top of the laccolith. It was glorious. There is always a breeze near a cliff-line, always birds playing with ridge-lift. But how was I going to get off this thing? I finally found a spot. 

Halfway through the descent I noticed that my dog was missing. I called to her and blew my whistle. And there she was, at the top of the volcanic cliff, backlit by the morning sun, looking down at her Pops. Dogs seem to dislike excessive verticality. I had to climb back to the top to coax her down. On the descent I offered to lift her down at places, but dogs prefer to jump free, even if that means risking a sprain.

Off the top of my head I don't remember if the poet Wordsworth or the Yankee blockhead, Thoreau, went on their daily walks on trails or "overland," or even if they made the distinction. Maybe one of the readers knows.

At any rate I am almost glad that I have partially overlooked the pleasure and importance of bushwhacking because it gives me a "new" sport to play with in my senescence. Recently I wrote about different techniques for making hiking more interesting. It's embarrassing to have neglected bushwhacking.

Hiking off trail is to hiking trails what dispersed camping is to campgrounds. It is real life: an intelligent and competent predator, exercising all of its senses and shrewdness to solve problems, spot opportunities, and avoid risks. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hiking Should Be More Interesting and Less Donkey-like

Clearly it has benefited me to do a fair bit of hiking during my years as a full-time RVer. It would have been easy to underestimate the pleasure of hiking and to get discouraged. I'm glad I didn't let that happen. Still, it would be nice if people who enjoy the sport even more than I do would divulge a few of their secrets and principles.

This would be far more helpful than the typical hiking blog post. Why even read the post if you already know what it is going to say: that they walked X miles and climbed Y feet along the Pioneer Trek trail; and that it took Z number of hours; and they walked to Emerald Lake, by way of Bridal Veil Falls; along the way there were some breathtakingly-beautiful wildflowers, sunsets, bunnies and Bambis, etc. Yawn.

Too harsh? Because 'the medium is the message,' the internet favors chirpy posts, globbed over with Photoshopped digital postcards. Must I throw in the sugar pill that 'there is nothing wrong with any of this?' But it is an opportunity missed. Trumpeting that opportunity is the theme of this post.

Walking for a practical purpose seems more natural and interesting to me than "normal" hiking, aimed at scenery and exercise.  But that is another topic. Today let's restrict the topic to "what can make normal hiking more interesting?"

Why do some people enjoy hiking so much more than other people do? To many people, outdoor exercise is a dreary or uncomfortable thing that they probably 'should' do because it would be 'good for them.' I think that this is the first syndrome to avoid. We should learn to want to hike.

1. Start early in the day. When you are chilly, you do want to walk. You don't have to nag yourself into it. Hiking tends to be a hot sport. It is slow-moving, and the air feels dead.

2. Don't aim at long boring hikes. Steer towards short, intense ones. Duration is inherently boring and donkey-like. Intensity is stimulating.

The best way of avoiding getting sucked into long boring hikes is to avoid car-pooling. Go somewhere close, and drive yourself. When you are bored, turn around and go home.

3. Other people can be a source of fun on a hike, but a dog will be fun  -- almost automatically. Obviously she must be off-leash to count as a wild and joyful canine. Study the dog. Let her infect you. Be more like her and less like a Camelbak-humped, bipedal beast-of-burden. A dog's enthusiasm is centered on being a predator. They are not interested in punishing themselves for being a few pounds overweight by hiking a certain number of dreary donkey-like miles.

See if you can adopt a predatory attitude towards what is out there. Hunting and fishing are more natural than typical, city-slickerish, Honda-CRV-driving hiking. But that would take us off onto another topic. Let's just say we need to find the 'moral equivalent' of hunting and fishing. Go off the trail. Get lost, get scared. Take a chance with the weather. Come back with manful boasts about what you did.

Finding a rare flower or rock, or sneaking up on wildlife -- and outsmarting them -- are other examples of thinking in a predatory way. So is nailing the perfect postcard. But wouldn't this contradict my usual disdain for postcards? Actually my objection is to mooning and swooning over beauty. It is too nambie-pambie. And beauty by itself doesn't make outings interesting.

4. Aim at trails that have a lot of contrast. Nothing could be more boring than claustrophobic hikes through an over-grown forest. Similarly I find a hike completely above treeline to be lunar and sterile.

The other day I was hiking along a ridge near Little Texas, CO. The forest would get thick and miserable for 15 minutes, and then I would pop out of it, off to distant views, and a cool breeze. This cycle of Agony and Ecstasy happened several times. It was glorious. You can find hikes like this at the lower treeline as well as the upper. This is frequently overlooked.

Imagine a hiking trail laid out along this serried ridgeline. In and out of the forest gloom, in and out of the view and breeze. The hiker would be like the sun popping in and out of the puffy cumulus clouds.

It is difficult but important to learn how to appreciate the positive side of Suffering.

5. Are you new to an area and having a hard time making a choice? Perhaps there are so many possibilities that you find yourself procrastinating and doing nothing. Then park at the bottom of a cell tower, and hike up its road. Many hikers think they need to be on an 18 inch wide, official, hiking trail. Not so. Roads sometimes provide more open views and faster walking.

There are many more techniques, and I truly wish that people who do more hiking than I do would explain what works better for them, and why! Don't just tell us What and Where -- we could get routine information of that type from the visitor's center.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Brilliantly Successful Group Hike

Rumors are floating around that several RV bloggers were recently involved in an outdoorsy comedy-of-errors: a hike full of mistakes and misadventures. Oh sure it seemed like that at the time. But without any undue contrarianism or facetiousness, I'm here to tell you that it was a great success, and is worthy of emulation.

There is one bit of facetiousness that I would like to play with: instead of ridiculing the "Naturalistic Fallacy", I would like to pretend that I agree with it, that is, that everything "natural" is "good", and unnatural is bad.  I am going to argue that misadventure during an outing, whatever be the cause, brings on a more natural -- and better -- experience. 

Consider first how unnatural hiking is. What natural purpose does it serve? None that I can see.  Is this not ironic, considering the demographic and self-image of hikers? They see themselves as environmentally-correct nature lovers. They think that their sport is the "greenest" of all outdoors sports, despite the fact that half the sport is driving a motor vehicle to the trailhead. (Some outdoorsmen, like runners, walkers, and bicyclists are not guilty of that syndrome.)

Hikers are for the most part college-educated office workers from large metropolitan areas. It is beyond their imagination to see Nature as providing the sustenance for the animal species known as homo sapiens. It's OK if any other animal species makes an honest living off of Nature -- but not homo sapiens.

If, instead of purposeless and useless hiking, we were walking along with a bow and arrow or a spear, and killing something, that would be the perfect natural outdoors activity. Similarly if we were being chased by large predators. But ironically the stereotypical hiker is anti-gun and anti-hunting, and probably vegetarian to boot. If the homo sapiens hunter was being helped by a horse or a dog, they would see that as "ickie" because those animal species might leave poopies on the hiking trail. Apparently they believe that other animal species don't defecate.

The natural experience of a stereotypical hiker is actually quite sterile and phony. It consists of nothing but consuming visual entertainment. Ogling postcard scenery.

Now then, let's see how this supposedly goofed-up hike was actually a success. "Mistakes" such as forgetting cellphones, not bringing GPS, forgetting to bring enough water, and splitting-up had a real benefit: they reminded us of how precious water is in the Southwest, and how everything revolves around this issue. 

Splitting up? That "mistake" reminded us how weak an individual specimen of homo sapiens is. The species has survived because of its sociability, communication skills, and adaptability. These were exactly the qualities that we were forced to practice when things went wrong. For pity sakes, Nature is about surviving hardship, rather than gamboling through the magic gumdrop mountains and rhapsodizing about pretty butterflies or silly wildflowers.

Consider how this comedy of errors forced us to confront the fundamental non-truths that have overtaken society the last 200 years. Consider that humorless, virginal, domestic-terrorist-praising, Yankee blockhead, Henry David Thoreau. His essay on "Walking" starts off thusly:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil -- to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.
Nice try, Hank, but you blew it. He is imagining homo sapiens as living in a state of complete solitude when he is in "harmony with nature." Clearly he was reading the same junk-anthropology books as that frog-eating blockhead, Jean Jacques Rousseau, who starts off his famous "Social Contract" with:
THE most ancient of all societies, and the only one that is natural, is the family.
Oh really? I guess tribal villages and hunting partners are unnatural? Did Rousseau not see that it was perfectly natural for one hunter to borrow a tool from another tribal member, and to submit to certain expectations because of this transaction.

Seriously folks, it is thought-provoking and profoundly satisfying to see walking outdoors as a real thing, a serious thing, rather than mere entertainment for a scenery tourist. It makes the natural experience more authentic.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Lessons From Today's Outdoors Success Story

The other day I was asking for reader's examples of exercise success stories. Today provided one for me to describe. It is especially worth writing about because it was a hike, and it takes some effort and finesse to make hiking fun. 

1) Homo Sapiens is a tribal animal. Hike with others. Solitude and nature sometimes get connected in preachy sentimentalisms, but this just isn't accurate. In fact, solitude sucks for us, as it does for a dog -- and for the same reason. Don't detract from the social interaction by focusing on only one person, or by going exactly at the perfect pace for you, as if other people don't matter.

2) Emphasize intensity, not duration. Intensity stimulates you to do your best; it is inherently interesting and dramatic. (And, brother, hiking could use a little drama.) Lotsa miles and hours are merely things to be endured.

3) Lean against the big disadvantages of hiking: heat and still air. Look for coolish conditions. Don't start too late in the day. Look to enjoy fresh breezes; your skin is an under-rated sensory organ. 

4) Scenery does help, but don't make a fetish out of it. It is easy for a blogger to imply that they had a good time primarily because of the scenery. You should demand your money back from that blogger.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can You Pass-on Your Exercise Success Story?

I don't mind admitting that other people have helped to give me good ideas, where exercise is concerned. Over the course of a lifetime, it has happened four-to-six times, and it would help me out if it happened again. Specifically, I need some help with hiking. There are people who blog about hiking, and they do a good job of it; but it doesn't seem to help me visualize the sport as interesting.

Isn't it odd how people never get around to discussing the philosophy of exercise? By 'philosophy' I mean the basic questions. What are you trying to accomplish? Why does one sport work better than another, and why does this vary with the person? What is the biggest drawback to the sport, and how do you overcome it? 

And most of all: How do you turn this kind of exercise into something that you actually want to do, instead of something that you are forcing yourself to do? This has been the secret to most of my success with exercise. I've emphasized hedonism, rather than disciplinarianism. It's not that determination and self-discipline have no role to play, but it is prudent not to ask too much from them. They are necessary, but not sufficient, for success.

The trick then, after adopting a realistic and humble attitude toward the self-discipline you are likely to hold to, is to look for other tools. It is these "other tools" that should be consciously dwelled on, while self-discipline stays in the background, lest you provoke yourself into rebelling against it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

How Can a Traveler Best "Lie Fallow" in Winter?

You've heard me advertise that a traveler should take a couple months off in the winter, and live differently that the rest of the year. Even if you don't agree, I ask you to pretend that you do, so that we can play ball and see where it goes.

We need a metaphor, lest we drown in petty details and verbosity. Consider the remarkable statement that the Wikipedia article on "Crop Rotation" starts off with:
Middle Eastern farmers practiced crop rotation in 6000 BC without understanding the chemistry, alternately planting legumes and cereals.
Then the three crop rotation became the tradition, by adding a fallow field as one of the three "crops." Wikipedia was vague on how a fallow field was actually helpful.  Did it just sit there, doing nothing?

Fallow fields were replaced later by growing turnips and clover (a legume) in a four crop rotation. Thus the amount of food increased. (See the Wikipedia article on the "British Agricultural Revolution.") Today alfalfa is a popular legume for that part of the rotation.

A traveler in winter doesn't just want to lie fallow. He wants to do something active and positive: a new toy he can pound the crap out of! He can't just multiply his normal activities of spring/summer/autumn by negative one, in winter. For instance, if you hike in the mountains for 9-10 months of the year, must you give it up in the winter? (There are a few high mountains in the Southwest, but who wants cold and snow in the winter? Isn't that what you came here to get away from?)

Rather than use direct negation, let's look for a third choice. It's easy to underestimate how different walking is from hiking, and how satisfying it is to walk with a purpose, such as buying groceries or hitting up a coffee shop or library. Why, you might get so fond of purposeful walking that your normal hiking in the mountains seems comparatively sterile and pointless. 

You will have to be pro-active and seek out such a place. Don't expect to just find it. Consider the efforts that a friend of mine goes to: he rents in RV parks by the month. He doesn't drag a "towed" along behind his motorhome, therefore he must put quite a bit of work into finding interesting walks that can be done right from his RV park. More times than not, he succeeds. It would work out better for the walker if he were downtown; but most RV parks are out on the edge of town, so you aren't likely to harvest six interesting places on your daily routine. (But I'm resisting putting in my standard advertisement for bicycling at this point.)

You could also walk (or "hike", if you insist) up arroyos in the Southwest. I've hardly ever been disappointed with a no-name arroyo. Exploring them involves a mindset completely different than your 9-10 month job of doing brand-name trails, bagging peaks and postcards. The arroyos will always take you back to where you started, so you can relax, and walk them without a destination. You never know what you are going to see around the next bend: a spring, a microclimate with plants that seem out of place, freakishly vertical walls, or interesting rocks. Sometimes you go around the bend and your friendly little arroyo becomes a scary slot canyon. And say, wouldn't the bank of the arroyo be a great place for a cougar to lie in wait for food that delivers itself!

It hardly needs mentioning that bringing a dog along on that arroyo walk is the ultimate in satisfaction -- for both of you.

Rupert, canine action hero, from Life's Little Adventures.

I've purposely avoided another advertisement for switching from solitary mountain biking to club road cycling.  Instead, we need to consider other types of "crop rotation": our habits with music, books, movies, food, and sleeping.  Later.

Monday, November 18, 2013

'Best in Show:' Wild Canids in the Canyon

The reader might be familiar with the semi-recent movie, "Best in Show." The spine of the plot is a dog show, but it is not really a 'dog movie.' Rather, it's a comedic mockumentary about their neurotic human owners.

Today's hike in Zion country (southwestern Utah) turned out the opposite: it was the humans who were acting sensibly, and the dogs who were nuts. We had five dogs in our party, eight humanoid-companion-units, and a neighborhood dawg, Blue, who tends to join any frolic taking place on her BLM land.

As we drove up, I thought my kelpie, Coffee Girl, was going to crash through the windshield with excitement when she saw all these playmates. All of the dogs, no two alike and weighing from 10 to 80 pounds, got along beautifully. I get really charged up by the frantic synergy of dogs. You could think of this walk as a linear-BLM-version of a dog park.

Vertical wall of a red sandstone arroyo. What could cause such a weird bend in the whitish layer?

Up we all went, up the arroyo towards one of the famous mesas of the area. I was surprised to see puddles and mud on the arroyo floor. After about a half mile, we saw a tiny spring fast-dripping water down into the arroyo. Upstream, the floor was completely dry. I've never actually caught a desert spring "in the act" before!

Ahh dear, if only we had had a geologist along. (And you know who you are.) We saw the remains of interesting and scary collapses of sedimentary rocks into the arroyo. How can you know how close you were to being a victim of one of these events?

Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup and fibrosis) on the walls of the red sandstone canyon?

Our little tribe of RV-outdoorsmen put a couple more clicks on the ratchet wrench today, as John and Susan (and Carli and Jake, their canine companions) joined in their first outdoor frolic with the rest of the tribe. I thought of Star Trek: the Next Generation. Remember the "Borgs", who were always trying to swallow up (assimilate) human populations? "Resistance is FYOO-tile."

Looking from the inside of a void (in a red sandstone canyon wall) to the outside.

Then the dogs started acting like aliens from outer space. Debbie's dog, Rupert (half miniature poodle/half wire-haired Jack Russell Terrier), tried serial suicide attempts. His best one was getting on top of a 20 foot high embankment that was too steep to come down, especially the last 6 feet of vertical drop. He slid down to John or my outstretched arms several times, but he just wouldn't trust us and come into our hands.

Just then, Blue, the neighborhood loaner dog, climbed up to Rupert from an easier direction. She went right to him, turned around, and made an easy descent back down to the floor, as Rupert followed her. Say what you want about goofy dog-people anthropomorphizing their dogs, Blue deliberately rescued Rupert.

I braced myself as we approached what looked like a raven resting on a wooden post, and studying all of us. We were no doubt putting on quite a show. We decided that it was a mostly black red-tailed hawk. Most unusual. My dog, Coffee Girl goes nuts over ravens and sometimes, hawks. The next time we looked in that direction, she was on top of a 15 foot high vertical bank. She leaped off, onto a steep lower bank. She made quite a kerplunk when she landed but she was not injured, probably for the same reason a ski jumper survives as he lands onto a steep slope. But my goodness, how does a dog practice a stunt like that? What gave her the idea to be so reckless. (Rupert, probably.)

Break in the morning clouds just catches the topographic curvature.

On the way out we found a weird slot canyon through some grey sedimentary layer. Mark is threatening to go back there and ride down the dry waterfall and then down the slot canyon. Once again, the Rupert-effect is twisting one of the tribal members.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Climb Mountains? (II)

Long before Jon Krakauer was around to write about climbing mountains, others did, although not necessarily as well. It wasn't so long ago that mountaineering was an adventure for gentlemen. Before that era, little was written about climbing mountains.

What's the oldest? Oldness is not good in itself, but something could be gained by reading something written when the idea was fresh to Civilization. 

And we're lucky, too. Apparently the first written record of a mountain climbing expedition was left by the "father of the Renaissance," Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch. In the 1330's, just a few years before the Black Death hit Europe, he got it into his head to climb Mt. Ventoux, aka Windy Peak. (You might recognize the mountain as a famous stage in the annual Tour de France.) Even odder, he then blogged about it.

When I came to look about for a companion I found, strangely enough, that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable, so rarely do we meet with just the right combination of personal tastes and characteristics, even among those who are dearest to us...
...such defects, however grave, could be borne with at home, for charity suffereth all things, and friendship accepts any burden; but it is quite otherwise on a journey, where every weakness becomes much more serious.
I had to smile about his difficulty of finding a compatible travel partner. That was a problem almost 700 years ago, and it still is! So remember that, the next time you suffer some frustration on this account.
We found an old shepherd in one of the mountain dales, who tried, at great length, to dissuade us from the ascent, saying that some fifty years before he had, in the same ardour of youth, reached the summit, but had gotten for his pains nothing except fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and briars. No one, so far as he or his companions knew, had ever tried the ascent before or after him.
Perhaps the old shepherd was right, if you see climbing a mountain in purely physical and athletic terms; and we could still make that mistake today. But Petrarch was a thinker, so he started thinking of climbing Mt. Ventoux in metaphorical terms.
I finally sat down in a valley and transferred my winged thoughts from things corporeal to the immaterial...
His metaphor was Christian of course: climbing a mountain was analogous to the climb toward Bliss. This was the Middle Ages after all. Many modern people have become so priggishly atheistic that they can't appreciate anything from another era. Why, I've even known a European who wouldn't even blurt out a reasonable expletive if she hit her thumb with a hammer! But we need not take religious doctrine literally when reading something from a religious era. Their metaphors could be generalized to something poetic or philosophical that we can still relate to.

Perhaps Petrarch's short essay doesn't do you as much good as William Blake's, "Great things happen when men and mountains meet, that doesn't happen jostling in the street."

The Little Valiant One triumphs at the summit cairn over another mighty peak.

But what are Blake's "great things?"

This essay probably seems like it is meandering and not really going anywhere. I can only beg patience from the reader. Think about the multi-colored dots on the computer screen when you first turn on Windows 7. They spin around for a couple seconds before you realize that they are centripetal rather than centrifugal. At first, they appear too random to really lead to anything. Finally they coalesce in the center as a Windows symbol and a musical jingle. Maybe all essays should work like that.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Climb Mountains?

" is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."  [Samuel Johnson, Rambler #2, available at]
Few better examples of that aphorism could be found than that of a traveler, moving up into Colorado for the summer, who rereads Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air."  And so I did, just before climbing Mt. Taylor near Grants, NM.

It might seem silly to read about somebody's hard-core adventure before heading off to our own soft-core adventure. But is it silly for somebody walking along an ocean beach to wade out, ankle-deep, into the incoming foam? It helps them connect mentally and philosophically with the ocean. 

I haven't enjoyed a hike this much, in years. Although Mt. Taylor is only 11,300 feet high, it completely lords over a large section of New Mexico. It was oddly calm on top. The lack of wind made for visibility of 70 miles in all directions.

There are certain conditions that almost guarantee a fine hike. First, start below tree-line, in a dismal, mismanaged, over-grown forest. (The US Forest Service makes success easy, in this regard.) You want to experience the full intensity and liberation of walking out into the openness.

A serried tree-line is best for visual contrast; otherwise you would walk out onto a monotonous lunar landscape of scree (or rubble). The most interesting tree-line is similar to the most interesting shoreline: one of coves, bays, and islands. 

A forest ranger explained the pleasantness of Mt. Taylor to me: fires used to burn the afternoon-facing slopes right up to snow banks along the top. Today the hiker can enjoy this partly open characteristic throughout the last hour of the hike.

Something about his explanation evoked the word, bergschrund, used by Krakauer. Fire instead of ice; fire climbing up the mountain instead of down it, like a glacier. Upward swiftly and capriciously, rather than downward and inexorably. Fire as an anti-glacier. 

And yet another pleasantness: the mountain isn't too steep. Remember that a helicopter isn't waiting at the top to spirit you off the mountain. Who wants to walk back down a steep trail where you are always worried about slipping and sliding? The constant fatigue of walking down a steep slope turns into sheer trudgery and drudgery.

  The gullies had an interesting look.

The photograph -- a mere two-dimensional medium, after all -- doesn't do justice to the sculpted, three-dimensional shapeliness of those gullies. I had to grin (and sigh) about them.  How susceptible a young man's brain is to curves of a different kind!, and how silly it all seems to me now, as an old man. But think of the consequences -- most of them dire -- to an unfortunate, naive, young man. And yet it's the youthful madness and delusion that we owe our existence to.

I haven't written too much about the 'why' of climbing mountains. But in writing an essay I prefer to start with the Concrete, and then step-by-step, put it into a Bigger Picture. Indeed, isn't that what we naturally do as we climb a mountain? More next time on this theme.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Avoiding 'the Medium is the Message' Outdoors

What's this? So early in September and only at 10,000 feet?

Oh dear. Soon the travel blogs will be falling all over themselves trying to bury the readers/viewers with fall colors. Their Photoshop software will be burning holes in the computer's LED screen. Consider getting a pair of safety goggles.

But that's not really a complaint. I was delighted to run into these aspens so early. Of course most of the fun wasn't coming from the 'blazing golds', but from the under-rated sport of mountain-bike-based saddlebagging -- that is, bagging saddles, mountain passes. It takes a close look to spot daylight through the trees on the road ahead, and sense that you're nearing the top. That happened when the yellow aspens surprised me. What a treat!

The world suddenly doubles at a saddle. There you get the Big Picture, as you stare Janus-faced at the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds of North America.

This summer I had two opportunities to camp and hike with fellow RVers at excellent locations. It was encouraging to see RVers team up. Even more, it was nice to see that less-than-perfect matchups can still be fun. (They were all hikers. I was the only mountain biker.)

When I got back into solo mode I felt a certain relief, but not for the sake of camping alone. All that hiking with the groups reminded me of how advantageous mountain biking is: up you go!, right from your dispersed campsite. You "compress" gravity like it was some giant spring. Go ahead and give it everything ya got, because at the top you can release the energy stored up in that spring. You have been looking forward to it all the way up; now you get to coast back down to camp. I can't imagine a rhythm that could be more satisfying than that. (In contrast hikers seldom look forward to the descents.)

This post isn't trying to belittle hiking or the stunning still-photography that it lends itself to. I love them both. But it's good to guard against the 'medium is the message' syndrome. Combine these things with a two-dimensional computer screen (on the blogosphere) and you have a powerful and seductive combination. Almost too seductive. It can distract the reader from the important fact that most of the beauty and pleasure of outdoor experience is kinetic rather than static.

Therefore I'd like to convince hiking RVers to give mountain biking a second look. Imagine yourself at a mountain pass, a saddle. In one direction you see a burro, slowly clippity-clopping down a hot and stony trail, its back bent under a heavily-loaded basket. In the other direction you see something from the beginning of the movie, SeaBiscuit: a herd of horses galloping gloriously through Western ranch country, with the mountains as the visual backdrop.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Where is the Outdoorsy Athletic Middle Class?

These days there is quite a bit of discussion on business and investing blogs about the slow decline of the once-mighty American middle class; we are splitting into losers -- 99% of us -- and a 1% who are benefiting from bankster and Washington DC corruption. That is, we are becoming a kleptocracy of the kind that is common in Latin American or third world countries. Indeed, it is in such countries that an American traveler might first notice that "most in the middle" is not the global norm, and that he has been taking it for granted all his life.

How long has this phenomenon have been noticeable? Boswell reported an outline made by Samuel Johnson after his one and only trip to France, near the end of his life. Johnson remarked that everybody in France appeared desperately poor except for the few who were unbelievably rich, and how different that was from England. A historian would probably explain this in the context of the rising bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages in Europe, as well as Protestant culture in northern Europe...

Thus ran my thoughts as I watched a pro bicycle race in Gunnison CO. Gunnison has really developed a strong bicycle culture in town; the town's smallness and flatness lends itself to cruiser bikes. Also, the town is surrounded by sagebrush-covered mesas and hills, most of which is BLM land. The number of multi-use trails has expanded noticeably since the last time I was here. Even better, you can access those trails right from your front door in town!

I wanted to join the rest of the crowd in enjoying the start of the race, but I held back for some reason. Should endurance sport racing really be celebrated? Is it all that constructive or healthy? It's what gets the publicity and the glamour, of course.

A couple days later the news broke about Lance Armstrong being stripped of his Tour de France titles. Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked: I was friends with a retired professional bicycle racer once. He told me that ALL top cyclists dope. After all, the human body is a biochemical machine, so biochemical tools are needed to get the last 0.1% of physiological performance out of an endurance athlete.

It has been a source of much frustration for me to live in a culture built around automobiles and fast food and obesity. Then, once in a great while, you meet one of that small elite group of Americans who isn't a standard couch potato, only to find out that his Ego is entirely concentrated on How-Far and How-Fast he can go. Most likely he will someday undergo knee surgery, thanks to the relentless abuse of running; or perhaps he will have many months of expensive and painful physical therapy to endure, as he recovers from a bicycle crash.

Do we need racing to whip up interest in walking, cross-country skiing, running, or bicycling? Why can't we just see human-powered transportation on safe and pleasant trails as an integral part of the Good Life? Whether they be dopers or not, maybe it's time that less glory and money went to a handful of physiological freaks like Lance Armstrong, and more attention went to building a more energetic physical culture out of millions of average bodies.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Arguing My Case on Courthouse Mountain

I hate to admit it but it would be nice to carry a smartphone with a flower, tree, or bird "app" when hiking in the mountains. As an alternative, hike with Bobbie. (Besides, she doesn't require batteries. She is a battery on the trail.) Seriously I'd rather just ask somebody a question than play with some distracting gadget. For instance, the shape of this flower was reminiscent of Indian paintbrush, but the color was wrong. She explained that Indian paintbrush does come in more than one color.

Mark and Bobbie complained about my wisecracks (on my blog) against eye candy, postcards, pretty-poo scenery worship, etc. It surprised me that I'd given offense. Perhaps they underestimate the difference between a part-time RVer (in vacation/tourist mode) and a full-time RVer who must expand his interests in other directions.

At any rate I was making a certain amount of progress mending my fences on the way up Courthouse Mountain, just past Chimney Rock where they shot the climactic scene in John Wayne's "True Grit", when there was a surprise and a setback:

Gus, a friendly Australian shepherd, was resting at the top with his owners. Immediately I felt huge pangs of guilt that I hadn't brought my kelpie, Coffee Girl. While I circled around Gus and his doting owner and photographed them from every possible angle, while ignoring the world class scenery around us 360 degrees, Mark, Bobbie, and John Q could only roll their eyes at my foolishness.
But Gus wasn't the only animal star on top of Courthouse Mountain. There was an enterprising chipmunk, obviously an experienced shakedown artist. How he could make a living off of a couple hikers per day is beyond me:

When I spot something that inspires me with its beauty, Mark and Bobbie seldom give me credit (sniffle). They would have you believe that the ultimate Ouray experience comes from driving far enough and hiking long enough to some special place whose beauty measures 8.1 on some sort of postcard-Richter scale. If you end up with a mere 7.9, you have missed your chance.

Folks, I'm here to tell ya it ain't so. For an RVer the ultimate aesthetic experience comes from going to the one and only laundromat in town; it's a real dive, despite Ouray being a rather upscale place. As an aesthetic exercise, give in to the scumminess of the place: dilapidated machines that rip you off, no phone number for a refund, dirty floors, and touristy-ripoff prices. And it's hot in there too! Outside, my dogs were possibly getting hot in the van -- Ouray can get a little toasty in early afternoon.

When you step out of that filthy laundromat you see monsoonal clouds pinching off the canyon. The clouds are scrubbing the canyon walls. Ahhh, the first cool afternoon shade hits Ouray. It's my favorite time of year and my favorite moment in Ouray. I suppose contrast is what we need to look for.

It doesn't cost a dime to contrast a beautiful thing -- not necessarily visual -- with a mood based on some prior experience of ugliness. And it can be done anywhere.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Quartzsite Refuse-nik

Near Quartzsite AZ a couple winters ago. A cynic might say that the big RV gathering in Quartzsite every January is a testament to herd-like behavior in human beings more than anything else. Still, it probably makes sense for any RVer to go there once, at least for a reason that might sound snide or facetious at first: the experience of Quartzsite will enhance your appreciation of camping somewhere -- anywhere -- else, in January.

After all aren't you always making a comparison of some kind when you appreciate the goodness or badness of any place? The comparison might be silent or implicit, but it's still there and it colors the whole situation. Your appreciation of anywhere-but-Quartzsite can be quite intense after experiencing that dreadful mess once.

The dogs and I had an especially good example of that a couple years ago. We boondocked a few dozen miles east of Quartzsite, with world-class hiking and scenery, a good wireless internet signal, and complete privacy. We were tucked in pretty close to a small "sky island", one of those small mountain ranges that rises abruptly from the flat desert plain. There is something personal and intimate about having your own little mountain range. It was small enough to mountain bike around in one day. 

Compared to the noise and congestion over at Quartzsite a few miles to the west, this place makes you feel like a don of the Spanish West or a gringo cattle baron of the late 1800s.

A large, stand-alone Rock, about 500 feet tall, stands in our front yard. It had a noble look.

Naturally our first long hike was clockwise 'round the rock. Every few minutes the rock's shape morphed into something unrecognizable. You begin to doubt if you will ever be able to get completely around some "thing" if the thing keeps changing. 

Coming around the back I kept choosing the main dry wash as we climbed to a saddle. Then we could drop into the watershed of yesterday's hike and walk a dry wash right back to the trailer. Although the watershed of each dry wash was only a few acres, they were deep, with dry waterfalls and eroded banks. The dry waterfalls were worn as smooth as children's playground equipment.

Saddles are great fun to reach. In just a few steps you realize you've come to a new watershed, a new viewscape, and in a humble way a new chapter in your life. But that didn't happen here. The dry washes of the two, oppositely-draining watersheds mingled in an interdigitated fashion. At times it all seemed topologically impossible. I probably walked for a minute on the far side of the saddle before realizing it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mystery Truck

Life has become a social whirl for the dogs and me here in Ajo, AZ. We had a reunion with Ed Frey and the new gal in his life, Patches. I was a bit nervous about my Coffee Girl (kelpie) meeting a muscular American Staffordshire bull terrier, but it went OK after the first couple minutes. Soon we were walking off leash on a small patch of BLM land near town. It is a rare treat for me to become acquainted with an RVer who likes long walks, especially with a dog. I predict great success between Ed and Patches.

Ed has an interesting and practical RV lifestyle. He travels full-time in a moderate-sized Class C motorhome, with no small-towed-car behind it. He'll live in an RV park for one month, pay a reasonable monthly rate, and then move on. For entertainment and exercise, he is a walker, not a hiker; he simply begins walking from his own front door. A dog along will make his walks much more fun.

Then I went on a couple hikes with an old RV friend who dropped out to become a townie in Tucson. He met a gal (the two-legged kind) in the huge hiking club there. In the summer they like to volunteer at national parks or monuments, but it was always hard to find housing since the park service has such an easy time getting volunteers who have their own RVs. After fighting the system for a couple years, they are considering getting a Class C motorhome, so they were renting one for this weekend to get a feel for it.

It might amuse the reader to imagine ol' Boonie hosting a couple RV newbies, and answering all their questions. I tried to be helpful rather than impatient, but I'm sure they heard a lot of "No, that's not the way to think about it" from my mouth.

On our hike around Ajo Peak we encountered this weird old truck.

It was on a private patch of land. The oddest thing was that the tires were pumped up. Surely this ol' thing couldn't still be used?

One thing for sure is that the warm sunny weather wore Coffee Girl out. But she was happy about it:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Camping with Somebody Else?

The other day a retired man approached me in a big box parking lot. Initially I tensed up. That's the instinctive response these days, since you expect to be panhandled. But he said that he had noticed bicycling on my tee-shirt. As it turned out, he was a newbie van camper who went on bicycle tours all over the world in previous years. I listened to his stories for an hour or two, as we stood in the lee of my trailer in the cold New Mexican wind. He cycled through third world countries. When he approached a village he was received like an alien from a UFO that had just landed. He never camped in normal campgrounds. (Sigh, I just don't like tent camping or cycling highways enough to do cycle touring like him.)

How strange. No encounter has ever happened like this to me before, as an RV traveler. Of course I gave up trying to socialize with RVers years ago, so it's my own fault in a way. RVers are nice middle-class folks who have worked hard all their lives. They are responsible, law-abiding, and sane about unimportant things. But if you don't overlap with the stereotype, there just isn't much that can be done about it.

I was sad to see that fellow leave the next day. Wouldn't it be nice to travel with somebody like him for awhile? How long has it been since I've done anything like that? But what were the chances that I could travel with a newbie, considering their 300-miles-per-day habits:"whoopie I'm on vacation".

Actually I've had better luck crossing paths with fellow bloggers than anything. This happened again recently, this time with Kurumi Ted. How nice it was to go on daily walks and talks in the desert with another RVer.