Friday, July 12, 2013

Legs Takes A Hike

On the trail with FlatHatJack.

Yeah, right. Close but not that close.

After spending the winter a bit over two and a half degrees south of the equator, at over 8000 feet (2440 m) and doing not much other than making a fool of myself while trying to learn Spanish and find a permanent residence, and eating lunch a lot, I'm suddenly not there any more.

I miss the sun. It's bright here, but there is no heat. I miss the heat. When the temperature ranges from mildly on the cool side of imperceptible to mildly the other way, and you can choose how hot or cool you wish to be by which side of the street you walk on, and where the shade is, you can regard the sun as a friend. A tool. A thermostat.

When you are a rich person in a poor country, life becomes both perilous and brainless. I never thought much about dropping $20 on fancy cheese and high-octane chocolate because I didn't have to, though I reveled in spending my $2.25 lunch money for the best food I've ever eaten. And aside from that I had nothing else to do. Other than to learn Spanish, find a permanent place to live, and then do something else, whatever that was, but when I thought about it I couldn't quite remember why I was there.

Oh, right. I walked a lot too. To lunch. Back from lunch. Up the six floors to my room at the "hostal". To kill time.

Now, back in the U.S., I'm in a different place. It's a little here like it was there, but cooler, and there's a breeze every day. I'm right on the ocean, where the mountains meet the sea, and by mid-morning when the slopes warm, ocean air gets sucked off the strait and up toward the sky. That gives us a stiff breeze most days.

But I don't have a car here either, and things are much more expensive. I'm no longer spending $28 on a week's food, if I splurge. It's a lot more. A couple who came through here in May said they'd spent $29 on breakfast. Two omelets. Out of my price range now.

But still lacking a car I still have to walk, and I do.

It's interesting to adapt to high-altitude life. I didn't have any specific problems, other than having to take it easy the first few weeks. By the time I left Ecuador I was able to take six flights two at a time and not sweat. By the time I hit Port Angeles I could walk up and down all the hills in town and never feel it.

The next step is putting my life back together. Between November of last year and June of this year, I could carry everything I owned in one trip. Now I have more. I'm headed back to backpacking.

In fact, that's the reason I'm here and not there. Being deaf in one ear helps. That happened May 15 of last year, during a four-hour period that morning. I've adapted, but I couldn't ever understand anything anyone ever said to me in Spanish, if I even heard it. Once in-country, and with a good teacher, I began to pick up the language quickly, after two years of studying it on my own, but I still could never hear any words when real people spoke to me. And that's a pisser.

And then I saw a blog post about a couple who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and were publishing a photo book about it. That was the beginning of the end of my life down south.

It took around two more months for me to unwrap my head and decide to quit. It's hard, after you've spent four years or so planning to do something, and then you've got most of it done, and you find that it isn't quite right. At the moment, and for the next couple of weeks, I'm still a legal resident of Ecuador, but during your first two years, you can't be out of the country for over ninety days in a twelve-month period without relinquishing residency. And I'm up against the limit. Too bad.

It'll have to be. I just got tired of fighting everything. I don't like fuss. Keeping it simple is better. It's better here.

I can go anywhere, at any time, and be completely safe, even at night. I can carry my wallet. The air is clean, and so is the water. And I have hot water in my apartment. My apartment – it's clean and quiet, everything works, and it's roughly as affordable. I can converse with people, and the system works. Canada is a half-hour ferry ride north. The open ocean is an hour west. The Olympic Mountains, well, I'm living right here on their toes.

I'm still putting things back together, but I have a minimum of equipment re-assembled. I kept my sleeping bag and hammock, though everything else went. I bought a North Face Verto 32-liter pack, last year's model, marked down from $100 to $72, but somehow they only charged me $53. It'll do to start with. Bought some hiking shoes – New Balance Minimus MT20 trail running shoes – crazy light, excellent. Got some other stuff scraped together. Time for a hike.

I live a mile and a half (2.4 km) from the headquarters of Olympic National Park. Last Saturday I hoofed it past there on my way home and got a trip permit. Had to tap dance a little about food storage, which they're touchy about but managed to slither through the process. We'll leave the exact details a secret for now.

My plan was to start hiking early, first from my apartment back to the visitor center and then onto the duffer's trail behind it. This heads straight south for three miles (4.8 km) before it dumps itself out onto Hurricane Ridge Road, after which it's another three miles of road walking to the trailhead.

But since it was Sunday, and I was on the pavement only between seven and eight a.m., things were not all that bad. Not great by any means, but not everything is sweet. Soon enough I was in the forest. Home again.

Forests here are thick. Dense. The ground in many places is covered with moss, or with a thick mat of low-growing plants. And beneath that may be many feet of accumulated duff. Some areas have not burned in over a thousand years. Much of Olympic National Park has not been logged either, so it isn't unusual to find trees that three our four people, together, could not encircle with their arms.

Some areas are strangely devoid of undergrowth. Whole swathes of mountainside are covered with more slender trees standing on ground that is paved with dry bark, if that. When lucky, I find a place or two like this near the end of the day, and they make great places to string up a hammock. But more usually the forest is thick and the brush is thicker.

I started hiking to Lake Angeles. I intended to camp there, and once there I realized why Park staff are so insistent on using bear canisters for food storage. It's like a playground. Too close to the road, too easy to get to, too flat, too lovely in a watery blue way. Everyone was there. And while some were leaving at the end of the weekend, others were coming in. Children shrieked. Adults jabbered. Food, no doubt, was scattered wildly here and there, on the ground.

All good reasons not to stay. But I did. For a while. Long enough to have lunch.

Two runners came up from below, then stripped off everything but shorts and swam to an island inside the lake's embrace. At least one of them should have drowned. Maybe both. The water was recently ice, and should have locked their limbs with cold, and sucked them down, but they reached the island and traipsed into the trees.

It was only eleven in the morning by then, and too tempting to keep hiking. So I kept hiking.

Altitude is addictive. The higher I went, the more I wanted to keep going. Eventually there was snow. A week earlier it would have been pointless to be so high, but with snow came more open terrain, and better views, and more melting, and things were not bad. Stopped at a small snowmelt stream for water, I heard a voice, then another. With only one (bad) ear working, I couldn't locate it. Or them. After some time I looked up to see a single hiker above me. Poor fellow.

He wanted to know if there were better views of the lake down lower, but I couldn't understand anything he said, so he came closer. Then closer again, and yet closer. No good.

Finally he descended enough to be at my level and I still couldn't catch on. Then I realized that he had a strong accent. Don't know what. Eastern European, maybe Russian. With only one ear I can make only a half guess. I walked over and apologized, but it seems that he'd already found the best vantage point farther up, which is where I stopped too, a few minutes later, and got my own shots of the lake. After having some water.

From there on up things were steep, and increasingly barren. A few goats searched the ground for human urine and poked the air with their horns. The trail rode off into the distance – over ridgetops, across valleys, around the sides of the mountain. This is Klahhane Ridge, a knife's edge. The air was cool but mostly calm, and the sun did its part to keep things reasonable.

But while enjoying a re-acquaintance with the goats, I remembered that only a couple years back a man was punctured by one hungry for salt, and without fear of humans, and he died, so I stayed to myself. The goats, these goats, returned the favor.

At the intersection of Klahhane Ridge and Hurricane Ridge, one finds cars, and tourists, and pavement. It's a shock. I always hustle through and no one there looks at a backpacker. They seem to deliberately not notice. Backpackers don't belong with day-tourists in parking lots, so they are ignored. It still makes me uneasy but to get from one side to the other requires a long trudge through the parking lot and down the west side of the hill until there is a small gap along the road where Wolf Creek Trail hides. I went there and hid.

For many people, hiking two miles (3.2 km) downhill to find water and a camp site would not be reasonable. Maybe it isn't. I did it anyway. I had been there before, several times, and it was a good place. It still is. Water sluices down the mountain and disappears into a culvert, and then continues in private, but before it vanishes there is a small flat, large enough for one to sit and eat. I sat and ate. Then I washed, and went back uphill a bit to an open stretch of forest with good hanging trees – both for a hammock and for food. The night was quiet. I slept well after 13 hours of hiking.

The next day I began the trip back, first going back up to Hurricane Ridge, but not all the way, and then west, toward Hurricane Hill, but not all the way there either. Just before, there is a trail to the right, the Little River Trail, and gravity owns it. It plunges strictly and far, down the mountainside, into tangles of growth. It has seen no trail crews or their shovels for years, and the upper half is badly overgrown, nearly reabsorbed into the landscape again. There are no views, other than of leaves.

Finally, far down the valley, there is a sudden bridge, a new bridge, and then a companion to it. Over the top of a finger of land there is a feeder stream and privacy. I camped there the second night, my hammock hanging over rocks and moss between the two streams, their cold breezes and their damp. It was quiet. It was good. It was home.

On the final day there was too much road walking, but it was unavoidable. A woman who lived by the exit trailhead, heading out for a walk, had two dogs along. Neither was pleased with me. I had to become a city person again and yell disagreeably. Later, the driver of a pickup truck slowed long enough to lean out the window and say that I had the nicest legs he'd ever seen, though his two companions kept their opinions to themselves.

Once again, after too many road miles, I was back on the tame nature trail behind the Park's visitor center, after lunch. Coming up out of a small dip in the trail, I saw brush moving as if in its own strange wind. I stopped. Then suddenly the brush began thrashing itself. It seemed prudent to wait. It was, because a mountain beaver came hustling from the midst of the action with a mouth full of stalks, dragging its leafy lunch past me to disappear under a bank. A treat. Genuinely.

More:

Mountain Beaver

The Pacific Northwest's elusive mountain beaver

Wandering The Wild

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