May 28, 2014

Another lunch with Duane

There's a freakish rain this morning. It never rains this late in the Spring. Maybe it'll put a dent in the drought, but I doubt it.

Duane is standing under the shelter when I roll up to the visitor center at Space System Labs. He's looks to be in hiking shape: tan, tall and thin. He is beard is trimmed. His hair is still long and pulled back. Except for the nerdy, rimless glasses, he'd look more like a biker than someone who's responsible for the well-being of a spacecraft headed for Jupiter.

He climbs in the car and grabs my hand. "How's the life of the retiree?"

"Aside from all the late night partying, things are good."

"I can see that," he says. "You're looking worn out. How's the leg?"

"Good," I say. "Not as good as it once was, but it gets me where I want to go."

"And where's that exactly," he demands ironically.

"Lunch of course."

We drive over to the Hawaiian burger joint in Montrose. We're both hungry. I order the Kilauea: half-pound burger, barbecue sauce, bacon, onion rings and jalapenos. He gets the Mauna Loa: half-pound burger, swiss cheese, avocado, bacon, onions and jalapenos. We split a side order of nachos; one half with no cheese.

While we wait for the food he talks about the latest dreary events at the Lab. Business as usual there. Bright prospects are still thwarted by the familiar foils: managerial mendacity, sacred turf and studied ignorance. I feel a perverse pleasure in knowing that millions are still being wasted.

I used to think someone would find out. Now I know what I could have never known when I worked there. Our old boss, like his peers and their bosses and all their peers and their bosses right up the food chain, is merely a creature of a social order that rewards a focus on number one, cynical reckoning and a preacher's gift for painting a grand vision while cementing a dreary status quo. Progress is what slips between the cracks. In the good-old spacebiz, creativity and innovation are merely mouthed offerings at the Church of Ersatz Hope and Progress provided for the sunday-morning comfort of the space-besotted minions who might otherwise wake-up and revolt. I keep these misanthropic thoughts to myself because Duane is a good man who subscribes to the NASA promise and there's no virtue disabusing someone of a sustaining optimism.

The nachos arrive. We dig in.

"Looks like you've been hiking," I say.

"Yea. I did 60 miles on the Santa Monica Mountains Crest Trail. I've got to get in shape. I'm taking some Scouts over Agnew pass to Garnet Lake. "

I am filled with a deep and abiding respect. I could no more lead a dozen thirteen-year-olds into the Sierras than step up to the keys and bang out a version of the Pathetique. For Duane this is merely second nature. Life is rich in reasons for modesty.

"Got any hikes planned for this summer?" he asks.

"I got my JMT reservation."

"No shit sherlock!" he says with a whack of the table. "Good for you! Happy Isles?"

"Mono Meadows."

"When?" he asks pensively.

"September. September 2nd."

"Got a partner?"

"Nah. I'm going solo."

"Son of a bitch. I'm gonna do that someday."

Our food comes. We eat quickly.

I point with a french fry for emphasis. "I now have a schedule with shakeout trips. I'm calling them ORTs."

"Cute," says Duane who runs operation readiness tests for a living.

"First hike is in just a few weeks.  The passes should be clear by then."

"Where you going," he mumbles with a mouth full of burger.

"I was thinking about Cottonwood Pass or maybe Rae Lakes or Piute Pass."

He chews for a bit then swallows the last of the Mauna Loa. "I've wanted to hike Piute Pass. That sounds very cool."

"Want to go?" I ask.

"When exactly?"

"I'm retired. Exact is no longer in my vocabulary."

He checks his phone. "How about leaving Wednesday the 18th. Get back Sunday. I could take a couple of vacation days."


"Yea. We gotta do this."

The last vestige of any rain has evaporated hours ago. I'm in the back. I've got my legs up and my eyes closed. I hear Lilalee come in the front door. I watch her shrug off her purse with a weary look and come around back. "Bitch of commute. Well don't you look like the happy slug that ate the tomato."

"Duane and I are gonna hike Piute Pass on the 18th."

"That's great! I hope you'll be happy knowing that I'll be back here slaving away trying to save humanity. Besides, I don't like you're hiking alone."

I tell her she worries too much.

"For a guy that's supposed to be so smart, sometimes I wonder."

So do I.

May 24, 2014

The Routine

The dream goes like this. I am riding in a car with a blinker that tells the driver where to go. If the blinker flashes left, we're supposed to turn left. If the blinker flashes right, we're supposed to go right. But the driver doesn't hear the blinker and we're getting farther and farther away from where we're supposed to be. I tell the driver that the blinker is blinking. He doesn't hear me. I tap him on the shoulder. He ignores me. I become afraid and try open the door. It is locked. He speeds up. Suddenly we're headed for a brick wall and I wake up. Just as well, gets me out of bed for my training hikes.

I'm in a full bore, heads-down training routine. Up at five. I gulp a quick coffee and power bar. Then twenty minutes for Angel's stretches; ten minutes to tape my feet and dress. Next, there's a trip to the can to empty one bladder and a trip to the kitchen to put a liter-and-a-half in the other—a zero-sum game of sorts. Then the Platypus gets slid behind the cannister into the old Mariposa. Along with the with cat liter and bathmats that comes to 30 pounds. (see The Equipment List). Once I lace up, sling on the pack and stick a Post-IT for Lilalee on the window over the phone, I'm headed out the back door to the Crest Trail. Hopefully by six.

It's the same old 7-mile, Crest Trail route. 700-feet up from the house under the palm trees and street lights to the Tanoble trail head. Then past the crosses where the firemen fell in '93, to the high-spot on the south shoulder of Muir peak with its view of the backyards and the neighbors leaving for work. Then 700-feet down the twisted, eroded slopes, past the fire-proof house, across the Eaton Creek bridge and up 500 feet up the Toll Road to the picnic area. After a ten minute break on an 'L-shaped' tree near the pee zone, it's 600, steep feet down Rattlesnake Trail to the park road and around to the bridge. From there, doubleback up the Crest Trial to the Tanoble trailhead. I can get home around 9, about an hour after Lilalee leaves for work.

I'm now up to three-days on, one-day off. Darn near kills me. My clothes get drenched, my legs rubbery. In the beginning, I struggled to the point that all pride was stripped away. I now make the last up hill with only a pause or two. Progress, but not yet in Sierra shape. The test is will be taking thirty-three pounds up to Mount Wilson and back. That's an eighteen miler with 4,000 foot of elevation gain.

My first ORT is just 3 weeks away. I'm ready for that. I've been looking at the map. With the drought, the passes should be clear early. I could do the loop around Cottonwood Pass to Rock Creek and back over New Army Pass. Or head over Piute Pass around to the Evolution Valley and back. Or maybe even the Rae Lake Loop out of King's Canyon. Or maybe head north to Yosemite. I can't decide.

Duane would be a good guy to talk to. I drop him an email. He's home for the holiday weeked and responds right away. He'll meet me for lunch next Wednesday.

While I'm at it, I order up the freeze-dried Sampler from Harmony Foods and a few bags for dried chicken, beef and sausage from Pack-it Gourmet. Time to nail down the recipes. One thing's for sure, I better get my food figured out or I'm not going anywhere.

May 18, 2014

The passing herd

Circumpolar stars 15min exp.jpgMy mind is a buzz. The clock says it's too early. I pull on a coat and step out back. It's cold; my feet go numb. It's quiet; it's as if the planet was abandoned and no one told me. No dogs barking. No birds stirring. Only a single car rumbling in the distance; probably the Sunday paper.

I look around. There's a waning gibbous moon in the west. I can just make out gray ridge lines on Mount Wilson. I blow a few steamy breaths. It will be frosty up there. A pint bottle would freeze, but the stars would be close, the sky bright, the sway of dark branches calming.

A shiver shoots up in my shoulders. Then down. It's the thin blood. I tuck in my coat. I should get dressed, put on some shoes. I tell myself, "Don't shake." I need to acclimate.

Acclimate. What a nefariously bland word. Do you acclimate to a glorious weather? The serving of your favorite dish? The company of someone you love? Hardly. There's a "like-it-or-not" hidden inside acclimate. Cold is nothing. How about the inexorable dripping of hope and promise from the reservoir of life? Acclimatize to that! Or try to acclimate to the reality that the old one in those photos is you. Or acclimate to the fact that most of the people in your parade of memories will never been seen again no matter how many times you google them. I'd rather acclimate to the cold.

My teeth start to chatter. I pound my arms and shift my feet. The navigation lights atop Mount Wilson pulse in turn as if aware. I need to get up there. Clear my mind. Why not. Aren't I retired? And it's the Lady's needlepoint day. Lilalee sewing some inspirational adage -- no doubt something for my edification.

The back door creaks. Lilalee sticks her head out. "Are you nuts? It's freezing cold."

"I couldn't sleep. It'll be light soon."

"Come to bed. I'll warm you up."

"OK. I'll be there in a minute."

But she can tell I won't. "I'll be glad when you get out of this mood," she says. "And you should at least put on some pants. You look ridiculous."

I watch her tread down the hall in her night shirt and socks. How did I get so lucky? I could just follow and warm in her embrace. It's where I belong, but it's not in me. I am on some road to elsewhere. I go to the kitchen, slather up some "P"-"B"-and-"J" and think about what to put in my day pack.

The sun pokes up right at the horizon. I pull in a turn out and watch the miniaturized city crawling to life. The light is strong and warming. The mountain air relieves the clamour in my head. I decide to hike Mt Hilyer. I've got the day. There's no hurry. For no reason at all, I stop off at the Gabrielino and Silver Moccasin trailheads. I walk a few switchbacks down each. I want to do it all.

It's already nine when I park at the Chilao Flats Visitor Center at the base of Mount Hilyer. I find a sunny spot by the nature trail and snarf up a Picky bar and some Trader Joe's trail mix. I'm still hungry. I need something substantial. I get back in the car and drive over to Newcomb's for bacon and eggs.

There's a crowd. Three-dozen bikes are parked in front. Mostly big Harleys with wide seats parked as , neat as forks in a drawer. I decide to go in anyway and take a corner spot at a sideboard by the pool table. It's a freshly showered crowd about my age in black leathers with good haircuts drinking mimosas. I catch snippets of trips to Europe and kids in ivy league schools. I don't see any other hikers. I gobble down my eggs, sausage, potatoes and mop the plate with jelly-slathered toast. I leave a good tip, swallow the last of the coffee and get back on the road. I impulsively turn east for Islip Saddle. I decide I'll hike Mount Williamson. Why not?

The Islip lot is empty. A couple of hikers in puffy down coats are sprawled on the picnic table by the pit toilettes. I pull my gear together and walk over to check the trailhead and take a pee. There's a sign at the trailhead. It's posted.

"Closed man," says the hiker in the blue coat. "It's a Yellow-legged Frog thing."

Sure enough. The posting says the trail is closed through Rock Creek. But, the Mount Williamson cutoff comes before that. I could still do the hike.

"A ranger was here earlier," says his buddy with distinct Philly accent. "It's 500 bucks if you get caught. We're thinking about it."

"No we're not," corrects Blue.

"Pussy," says Philly.

These guys are twenty-somethings. They carry ULA packs. Their clothes are dirty; their faces deeply burned from exposure.


"Yup." they say in unison.

"We're stars now." says Philly. "Our public should be here soon."

"Forget him," says Blue. "He's didn't sleep last night."

"No shit." Philly says with a wide yawn. "Like a bunch of idiots, we slept at Baden-Powell. Froze our asses off. Who's idea was that?"

"Ghost Buster."

"Still, it was stupid."

I interject. "Doesn't every respectable thru hiker have a trail name."

"'Respectable thru hiker' is an oxymoron," quips Philly.

Blue ignores him. "I'm Cornflake; he's Standup."

"Bull shi-it," says Standup. "His real name is Streaker. Some girls stole his clothes at Deep Creek and he chased after them for 10 minutes. It was hysterical."

"It wasn't funny," Streaker mutters.

"Trust me. I didn't get the name Standup for nothing. I know what's funny. Get used to it."

Standup hops off the table and stretches with a big sigh. "I tell you something that ain't funny, that fucking closure means a fuckin' 3 mile road walk which is gonna fuckin' kill my blisters."

"Every try Luekotape?" I ask. "I got a roll in the car."

"Shit yea," says Streaker.

I always carry Leukotape. I worship at the altar of Luekotape. I cover my feet in it. I prosthelytize Leuktotpe. I think I could save the world with Luekotape. So quite accidentally, I have a purpose. I am galvanized into action. It doesn't matter that these two are callow and prankish—that's a problem for their girl friends. I'm useful. I know something. Is there another benefit to getting old?

I watch these guys tape up. Their shoes are tattered and their feet are filthy. "Where you guys from?"

Streaker is from a Battle Creek Michigan. Standup from Roselle Park, New Jersey.

"We weren't poor, if that's what you were thinking," rebuts Standup.

"I wasn't thinking anything." I answer and change the subject. "Did you guys start together?"

"We met in Idylwild," says Streaker. "My resupply wasn't there. Standup loaned me some money."

"Usual rate of interest sucker," says Standup.

"You're not fooling me with that New Jersey bullshit," replies Streaker.

Suddenly, inexplicably, from nowhere I get this magnanimous feeling for these guys. At that moment I understand why otherwise sane and sensible people become become trail angels. Afterall, who in their right mind would chauffer, feed and house hundreds of smelly strangers who have dedicated themselves, for a while at least, to nothing more than useful than hiking all day every day? Apparently I would.

"I have an proposal," I say."If you want, I could give you guys a ride past the closure." And inexplicably think, 'And we could hike a ways.'

Streaker looks at Standup. Standup looks at Streaker.

"That sounds great sir," says Streaker, "except we're part of group."

"We're gonna meet them here," says Standup.

"Of course," I say. But, being called 'sir' is demoralizing. I should know better. We each have our place. I have mine. They have theirs.

"But thanks anyway. That's really generous and the trail magic was amazing," adds Streaker.

Something about the way he says it. I can't quite tell if he means appreciation or apology.

They wave up as I climb the switchbacks above the parking lot. I'm in motion. There's a sweeping view of the Mojave off to the North. I may not know much, but I know this is right.

I'm not a half-mile along when the first of their friends pass. In the lead is a twenty-something steely-eyed brunette with a her hair poking out of her baseball cap. She moves effortlessly at a ferocious clip. I step aside. She passes without a nod. Behind her are two men. One wears a cap; the other lets his shaggy red hair run free. They are working their sticks, pressing hard to keep up. Five minutes later, I pass a slightly older curly blond woman. She shoots me a sidelong glance as she passes. She looks familiar. Maybe a face from the blogs.

For the next mile, I have the trail to myself as it winds through the spruce and fir forest along the steep slope of Mount Islip. Just before I pass the road junction near Jimmy Camp, I pass a slower group of men who move silently with heads down like Monks. Just behind them is an Asian man with a Japanese flag strapped to his pack frame. A few hundred yards behind him, a guy my age who is lurching along in pain.

"How's it going?" I ask with concern.

"Fine. Thanks," he says hardly looking up from what appeared to be the next painful stride. My heart goes out to him. I can only imagine what's going on in his mind as he must surely thinking of giving up.

I cross Windy Gap. It's gusty and cold. I cinch my hat and pull on an extra layer. There is no one on the switchbacks that ascend to the saddle below Mount Hawkins. I feel stronger as I get higher. The trail traverses the ridge and Mt Baldy appears, dominating the view. There's a still a snow cap.

The trail then levels out. I decide to circumvent Throop Peak over to Dawson's saddle for lunch. I find a sheltered spot off the trail. I eat one sandwich facing the Mojave; the other facing Mount Baldy. No one to bother. I stare at the expanse of mountain and sky and think nothing. It is peaceful.

There's a sudden chill in the air. I stretch out and start down the way I came. I pass nary a soul. It's a shame. It's something they should see.

Mine is the sole car in the lot. The PCTers have all gone. I'm in no hurry. The sun has slipped to a low angle that gives shape to every view. I wonder if Lilalee will be home. She would like this. We'll probably watch some costume drama on PBS.

Then, there they are, eight miles down the road, stretched out for a mile. The old guy lurching along; the Japanese man upright; the clump of millennials racing along with Streaker is in the lead. Standup is chatting with the steely-eyed brunette. I drive past slowly and watch them disappear in the rear view. The sight leaves me with pang. I can't tell if it's because I am foolish or apart.

May 11, 2014

Making lists

I am distracted by a gnawing hunger. Addie and Lilalee are in a spirited frame of mind. They love this place with its white tablecloths and shiny glasses. I polish off my medicine cup-sized orange juice in a swallow and try to stay focused on the conversation.

"Have you been hiking much?" asks Addie with a raised brow and earnest inflection.

Addie has always been earnest—unmistakably so. Interested in that odd, caring way that gathers but doesn't connect. We met long ago. She dated a dimly-remembered roommate. We even went out once; then lost touch. She married Allen. He was OK, but all film biz. When they moved to LA, she looked me up. They rented close by. After I met Lilalee, we all did things together. At least until Allen climbed the food chain and hobnobbed with people whose names appeared in the Hollywood Reporter. It was only after Alan shot himself, leaving her in hideous debt, that Lila and Addie got to be close friends.

"He's been getting up early every morning and hiking," replies Lilalee covering my absence. "He's getting ready to hike the John Muir Trail."

I shrug in agreement.

Time has not be generous with Addie. After Allen, she didn't tap into life much. Her youth wore away quickly. She never aspired to be more a school librarian, never again had a committed relationship. Yet there is not a gram of self-pity in her. She is blessed with a monotonous contentment sustained by a dulled state of awareness that won't meddle in things that lurk below the surface.

When I gaze into her eyes I can still see the girl who got stoned with the stereo blasting Beggars Banquet. It's what surrounds them that marks her losses. Our losses. I see it in the mirror. She must also see it; every day. We're slipping away and not just in the sophomoric, existential way. Surely she knows, it's now or never for us.

"How interesting!" Addie exclaims. "What's the John Muir Trail?"

"A path to redemption."

Lilalee admonishes me with a teasing scowl. "Now be serious."

Our server arrives with the steaming plates. Unfortunately mine is more decorative than substantial: a two-tablespoon dome of egg, two shoelaces of bacon, a crescent of hashbrowns and a puddle of jelly under a lean-to of bite-sized pieces of dry wheat toast. I could easily eat every morsel on the table.

We say our goodbyes and drive north towards the mountains. The windows are down. Clouds from the latest rainless storm race east sending a dance of shadows across sunlight slopes.

"She was doing good, don't you think?" says Lilalee.

"I thought so. I think it's her nature."

"Maybe," she replies. "I can't even imagine what she's been through."

I nod, but not so much to agree as to turn my thoughts to something else.

Lilalee turns with a merry pose. "I don't want to go home. Let's see a movie."

"I need to work on the plan."

She purses a look of disappointment. "Ok. I just hope this thing isn't going to take over our life."

There's always been this countdown clock in my head. When I was young it was morbid. Now it's practical to be morbid. I cope with the clock by making lists. A list puts my mind's at peace. I can just concentrate with confidence; oblivious to the next thing.

Once home Lilalee leaves me to my devices. I grab a yellow pad, and I begin to gather the loose ends. They come quickly.

Permit. I need the permit. To walk the John Muir Trail, you must have a permit. I must apply soon. The slots go quickly.

I need a date for the application. I fumble around for the freebie calendar from Amalgamated Insurance. (No reason to tempt fate by throwing away the year before it happens.) I rip the pages and set them side by side. August is too early; I won't be ready. Come mid-September the passes could get snowed in. No guarantees either way. I zero in on the day after Labor Day, September 2nd. That's it. I'll apply tomorrow. Two scratches on the pad. Progress.

Next things are more work. A hike plan: campsites, miles per day, resupply points. Resupply stops are pretty obvious: Tuolumne Meadows, Red Meadows, John Muir Trail Ranch and a pricey, packer delivery over Kearsarge Pass near Duck Lake. The resupply dates are another thing. They will take some head scratching. I need those dates to know how much food to stuff in the cannister on each leg of the hike. Wenk's spreadsheet1 will be a big help. She's mapped out campsites and landmarks along the route. I signal the on-high a note of thanks for Ms. Wenk and scribble some more.

And then there's the food plan. Each meal, each day must be plotted. They better be dense with calories: about 1,200 calories per pound. 1,500 per pound is better. At a pound-and-a-half per day, that could be 12 hefty pounds of food for the longest stretch. Those will be non-dairy calories, or I'll pass my days digging cat holes. No good store-bought choices on that score. I jot: "Freezer-bag meals. Non-dairy recipes. Freeze-dried stuff (buy/make?). Test at home."

I lean back. That's the thing. I need to test out everything. I'll need shakeout trips for the new gear. That's what we did back at Space System Labs to get ready for a launch: shake-out tests. They were called "Operational Ready Tests" or ORTs. I'll need ORTs. The more the better: A three-dayer? A four-dayer? Maybe two? I study the calendar pages and mark off ORTs for June, July and August. More time in the Sierras. This is starting to feel real.

Another thing. Resupply buckets must be provisioned and positioned. Some mailed. Some delivered. I can do that while I acclimatize for the hike. Three days should be plenty of acclimatization. Where? I draw some more x's and arrows on the calendar.

The days are filling up: only 114 days by my reckoning. That's enough time to get strong, but I still need to include those natty travel details like reservations for zero days and acclimatizing days. Not to mention just getting there and getting back.

There's a knock. Lilalee sticks her head in. "How's it going?"

"Good. I was just thinking about how I'm going to get to there and get home."

"I can drive. Let's make it a mini-vacation. How's that?"

I love her smile. Things are coming together. Tick-tick-tick.

1. See John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America's Most Famous Trail by Elizabeth Wenk. The spreadsheet is available for download.