Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Definitions: Cant

Cant is an LSD-like substance that affects rabbits.

The really interesting thing about it though is that it does not cause hallucinations but actually turns the whole animal itself into an hallucination.

Though bunnies are not meat eaters, in certain areas of the American west they do inadvertently consume a few cantankerous beetles in season.

The larva of this insect (known as the cantankerous worm) resides deep underground where it feeds exclusively on secretive fungi in protected burrows, and acquires what should be a lethal dose of toxins.

It carries these into adulthood, when the cantankerous beetle emerges to mate.

At these times, and at these times only, a few beetles may be munched by clueless bunnies.

Of course most of these bunnies expire immediately.

Some make it as far as a nearby highway where they simply liquefy and collapse into flat, rubbery, furry pads, dying and drying on the asphalt.

You may have seen a few of these on your travels.

However the rare rabbit is only tainted by the toxin, not killed, and instead of dying becomes a hopping hallucination bearing large antelope-like horns.

This is known locally as the jackalope and is thought to be a hoax.

So very not true, my friend.

Jackalopes (antelabbits, aunt bennies, Wyoming thistled hares, stagbunnies) are as real as that evil morning that follows New Year's Eve.

However this isn't the ultimate.

Seldom, but every now and then, and even then still seldom, a bush bunny is almost totally immune to the poisons carried by cantankerous beetles, and even develops a taste for them.

These sturdy critters, after only a few extra meals, lose their horns and become slothful and overweight, eventually losing all their animal characteristics and entering a rotund sugary-sweet and aromatic vegetative state.

These are wild cantalopes. (Or cantaloupes, if you prefer a more traditional spelling. Anyhow, no matter how you slice them, they can't actually lope no more.)

Luckily for us the wild cantaloupe is both unspeakably toothsome and completely harmless, aside from a slight bitter aftertaste and possibly an occasional strand of residual fuzz.

And if that isn't the right definition for you, don't get huffy. Just say that as far as you're concerned, cant is the slope of a road or trail, or the sort of half-hearted rise toward its edge, sometimes known as camber or cross slope.

Road cants are usually higher on the outside of a turn so cars don't go flying off into random wheat fields, but trails don't have so many rules and take life easier and can lean any which way at all.

Happy now?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hoppy Happydays

Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep!

— We interrupt this blog with an important bulletin. —

It's that time of year again.

Now what?

Maybe I'll scratch for a while, and then go out to lunch.

But that would mean I'd have to get dressed.

This might require some thought.

Meanwhile, there's nothing better than spending some quiet time with a few close friends.

Here's a shot of my nearest and dearest buddies that expresses the old-time spirit of whatever day this is...

OK, right — feeding time, isn't it? I'll catch on one of these days.

Bye for now.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Taking Steps

What's a prisoner to do?


Luckily, my cell is large. I can take big steps.

I have room to rattle around aimlessly between the walls. I can go out the door, hit the street, and as long as I don't get lost, I'm OK. But this isn't really hiking, let alone backpacking, which I miss.

I spent most of the summer back in the U.S., sort of randomly backpacking around Washington State, living in a car I bought in July and sold in September, parked in nooks I found in the woods or in state parks when not on the trail. It was good enough. My time was limited and I didn't have any real plans other than to be there and enjoy summer.

My time was limited because I'm in the middle of a sort of probationary period defined by the Ecuadorian government. I'm kind of a refugee, a refugee from winter, so I'm now an Ecuadorian resident. An official, legal, recognized Ecuadorian resident. For the third time. Yeah, right — did this before. Blew it up twice. On my third round now. They let you do that.

The deal is, if you meet the requirements, which in my case is being able to prove that I have a permanent lifetime income of at least $800 a month, and no criminal history and so on, then it's basically a matter of filling out the paperwork and waiting a couple of months, and then you're in. You can stay. Forever. You can even vote. Such a deal.

And the climate here is crazy good.

Typical temperatures:

  • Overnight low: 50° F (10° C)
  • Daytime high: 68° F (20° C)

Wind: not bad, usually light. Sunshine: YES! Rain: Now and then, around 35 inches per year, or 889 mm, but things usually dry up shortly after a brief shower.

I'm also a former burrowing mammal from North Dakota (Land of the Frozen Dead), who moved to western Washington in 1979 and was amazed that winter never came that year. Things got darker and cooler and wetter and then started getting brighter and warmer and dryer. Summer turned to fall, which turned to spring, and then summer again. Wow. No winter, even though I grew my usual fur in anticipation, out of lifelong habit.

It was like that for a long time. A real treat for someone who grew up where the weather could kill you dead any time of the year, but especially in winter. Winter is an OK season too, but not eight months of it. That's nuts.

Well, eight months of cold or at least cool weather. In North Dakota my favorite month was October, when everything got dry and crispy and clean — no bugs, no snakes, no poison ivy, no humidity, no heat, no storms. Just progressively colder, and mostly calm-ish. Cool trending toward frosty trending toward frozen.

After that was November, which was more of the same, but a little closer to the killing edge, and then December and the holiday stuff, and after that January. I'm not sure what January is good for, but it was right in there like clockwork.

And then after January things got cold. Seriously, truly, uncompromisingly.

February was usually the coldest month in North Dakota. Brighter but colder. It's a characteristic of continental climates. There's a lag. It's like the earth way out there doesn't quite know what's going on, a communications lag or something, so the earth is always a couple of months behind, and keeps getting colder even after the sun begins getting hotter again. It's a thing. You have to deal with it. Or you die.

The last winter I lived in North Dakota, I worked outside. Delivering lumber and other building supplies by truck, around town. Just local driving. I walked to work. The coldest day was in February. Minus 35° F in the morning, minus 7 for the day's high (-37° and -22° C, respectively). Chilly. Not windy though. When it's that cold, at least the wind gives up and stays home in bed, so overall, not so bad. But North Dakota winters go on for friggin ever. That's the deal. You get tired of it.

And then you get older and it's not fun any more. So I left.

And after a few decades in western Washington I got tired of the gray winter skies. True, you can get by wearing only a windbreaker for most of most every winter (and by carrying an umbrella), but you start to go crazy too. In western Washington, it's the same kind of deal as in North Dakota, but with gray skies and drizzle instead of world-killing cold, world-killing cold and wind.

In western Washington, endless humidity and drippy skies drive you nuts by around January 4th, but things don't clear up until mid-July. Yeah, right. July 12th or 13th. I forget which. One day or the other. Like someone flips a switch. After that it's summer. Summer, and it all seems worth it once again. Summer's a killer in western Washington. In a good way. Best summers ever, anywhere. Usually lasting until the third week of October. After that, you start to see some rain again. Then more rain. Then November. November is the stormiest month, especially around Thanksgiving, but it sort of feels cozy. You get to stay indoors and eat stuff and watch the world blow around outside and the ground is suddenly covered in colorful leaves.

Which begin rotting pretty quickly. So they liquefy and then there is more rain and every day is a gray day, and later on sometime there will be a nice sunny day and you feel good again and then it rains for another two weeks after that, and so on. Yeah, right.

I spent several years living in Bellingham. Since I was busy starting over, learning math and physics and such I didn't pay much attention to the weather until I read the newspaper headline one day: Sun Visible for First Time in 60 Days (paraphrasing here, but a true story — from about 1982). It was actually front-page news.

It does make you crazy after a while, so when I got old enough I figured Hey, enough already, and moved to Ecuador.

And then got bored, and moved back, and then got bored with that and moved back to Ecuador and got residency a second time. And then got bored, and moved back to the U.S. and got bored with sitting around all winter (but summer was nice), and got a severe case of the galloping dreads looking at my second winter back there, and moved back to Ecuador and got residency an effing third time, and now here I am again. (Slow learner, wot? Cost me a bunch too, but money's free these days — it just rolls into my bank account toward the end of every month, so it's only numbers. I don't really have enough to live in the U.S. any more, but here I'm actually rich-ish. Can't complain. I'm free to do stupid things now and don't have to get up and go to work and be around morons any more.)

Oh hang on — I can complain.

First, I'm a dick. But then, someone has to be, so deal with it. I don't care. (Yes I do, but I'm trying not to whine.)

Second, there's this problem with Ecuadorian law. See, if you get residency, you have this probationary sort of period that goes on for two years. For those first two years you can't be out of the country for more than 90 days each year, or you lose your residency, and I've done that already, so this time I'm biting the bullet and living with it.

I was gone what was it, around 82 days in 2016. My anniversary date was December 7, so I have another 251 days to go until I'm totally permanent. After that I can be out of the country for 18 months at a time. That would work. Meanwhile, I can be gone up to 90 days again between now and next December 7. Happy Pearl Harbor Day, me.

After I see another year go by I can spend eight or nine months backpacking while maybe living in a van, and three or four months here, enjoying not-winter. (By the way, the UV index for today is 10. That means if you spend more than 12 seconds out in the sun your skin starts smoking and bubbling. After a minute or so your skin is fully cooked and starts to slide off. Been there, done that too. A week or two back the UV index hit 13, which will take paint off a cattle truck. But them's the benefits of living at 8000 feet or 2438400 mm. And no bugs neither.) For the rest of this week, the UV index will be just extreme. I'll write you when it's over.

But hey I'm bored again, even with all this bubbling, smoking skin going on.

The big humpy part of my day, the pinnacle, the acme, peak, summit, crest, crown, tiptop, the height, the supreme pointy part, is lunch. I do lunch now. That's my day, most of it.

After lunch, it's downhill. Not a whole lot going on, unless I go for a walk. So I walk too.

But I'm in a city. This isn't like hiking, let alone backpacking.

There are places I don't want to go, and places I can't go, and other places I shouldn't go, and then there's night. Days are relatively short here, year-round, since we're 2.54 degrees south of the equator. Sunrise at 6 a.m., sunset at 6 p.m., and then it's dark, and anyone with any sense doesn't go walking around after dark, and if you do, you quickly find out why not, so it's lunch and daytime tramping for me. For now. Though I'm still bored. And haven't figured out where or when I'll spend my 90 days of freedom during the next 12 months.

So I'm back where I started: What's a prisoner to do? Pace. Luckily, my cell is big.

And it has high walls. Maybe I can't quite escape, but I can climb up the walls. That's what I do sometimes.

"Cuenca" means "basin". The city is in a football-shaped valley. Officially, it's "Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca", Saint Ann of the four rivers of the basin, whatever that's about. Basin, watershed, catchment area, socket, bowl, hollow — take your pick. Valley. The city is in the bottom of a bowl-shaped valley.

To the north, the nearer valley wall. It's a short steep walk up to an overlook. Then it's a short steep walk back down. A decent workout that takes around 45 minutes if a person meanders around somewhat. Not too bad, but not a hike. But there are stairs. I like the stairs.

You can walk along streets and sort of make it an up-the-ramp walk or go the other way and end the ascent with about a hundred feet of stone steps (30m). Well, maybe 70 feet, but it looks intimidating from the bottom. Maybe only 50 vertical feet. Who am I, some kind of damn expert or something? It's a workout. Which is what I need. I go up and then come back down, huffing and puffing and snorting and farting with the effort.

But that's the toy workout. Nearby, accessible, quick, easy. Something I do when it's late and I have to do something but can't do the real thing.

The other one is the real thing: The Turi Trudge. This one can kill you. I love it.

Instead of going north, go south. See, the deal is, there is another valley wall over there. Conveniently, valleys have two walls. This second one is farther off and it's higher, and has extra special benefits.

Benefit Number One is, you get to tromp across the full width of the city. (Well, I live kinda to the north a bit, on the edge of what they call the "Historic Center", or el centro, so my walk covers most of the city's width.)

Benefit Number Two is, you get to work on your traffic-dodging skills. Which you have to do any time you step out of your door, anyhow, but let's gloss over that, 'K? And pretend that this here mess-a-words is, like, you know, imposing and important stuff. And that this is extra-special traffic-dodging.

So it's about a two-mile walk to Turi from where I live, starting with the across-town part and vehicle-avoidance, which includes running for your life and swearing, and all kinds of other fun things. But then you get there, to the south side of the city. And then the fun starts, because things suddenly get vertical.

Benefit Number Three is, stairs. Lotsa stairs. Stairs going up. To Turi. Turi is a sort of little town on the edge of town, and there's a church up there. (There's a church everywhere here — can't swing a dead cat without hitting several of them, even with your eyes closed on a cloudy day.)

Turi must be 500 feet up from the last road crossing, let alone the main part of Cuenca. Even in metric that begins to sound a bit imposing: 150 meters or thereabouts (152, eh? In case you're literal).

Cuenca from Turi.

OK, so first you walk the full length of Avenida Solana across town, and if you've managed to dodge all the deathtrap intersections, you get past the last traffic circle and there you are at Bocatti Tres Puentes. ("Hacemos lo que mas te gusta". OK, whatever.) In case you're in a deli mood and want to stop there and buy raw meat and just go home again. Again, whatever, all right? Get over it.

Which you do (get over it) by veering left and crossing the street. If possible. Because traffic, etc.

And then you take a right down the next street, and you begin ascending just about there. No fooling. By now the time for fooling is over. It's about to get serious.

And if you didn't think I meant it about traffic, well a year ago a bus ran into my hotel. Crash. Just like that. Slammed right into the corner of the building, maybe because it thought the hotel was issuing a challenge by not running for its life, or simply out of cussedness. You never know around here. Bang. Lucky for me I'm in an apartment in a separate building out back, so the first I new about all this was when I went out to to go lunch. (See the importance of lunch now? It teaches you things, like WTF is going on out here? I head out for lunch on a normal, quiet Sunday and here's this damn bus crossways in the intersection with its teeth sunk into the hotel and police all over, and about a million people all standing around waiting to see what will happen next, and all kinds of whatnot and you never know.)

So if you live long enough to make it that far, you go about a block more and there's a street going off to the right but you make a tiny jog left and enter what looks like a private driveway but isn't, and after another block the street ends and the stairs begin, but these are just the pretend stairs. They're there to fool you. To bluff you into going the other way, which will take you to a dirt road leading around the shoulder of the mountain and into some sketchy semi-farmland territory where it would be all too likely to find yourself facing a pack of angry dogs who need some tooth exercise. So guess who went that way once and lived to tell about it? Luckily the dogs were on vacation or something that time, but I'm not pushing my luck by going that way again.

Anyhow, the stairs.

Much nicer.

Houses on either side, with their gates and walls topped by barbed wire, but you mind your own business and stick to the stairs and that's work enough. Don't mess with them people and their barb wire, prolly they won't mess with you.

Just start climbing. Stop to catch your breath, turn around, and there's the city behind you, getting lower as you get higher, but that's not why you're here, so you get back to the stairs and climb some more, and after you're about ready to die you keep climbing and then you're over the hump and descend to the autopisto.

And it is a pisser. Four lanes, divided, death trap. But that's part of the fun, innit? Vehicles coming at you faster than light, with evil glints in their bumpers. You cross if you can.

After that, it's another block or so, and then another, smaller road to cross. Also a death trap, but what isn't around here?

And then...

A crude view of the Turi climb. (Can't find nothin better.) About a million times tougher than it looks.

The Stairs. The Real Climb. Death On A Stick. Pant-O-Rama. The Ascent Of Endless Pain. Around 500 feet up and no one to get 'er did but you and you feets. You there, with the legs and the attitude: Take this, Smartass. Just try.

So you do.

And after you've been there a few times (up once, down once), you think about doing two laps. Up once, down once, up again, down again or die puking. And then, later, you wonder about doing three laps. Hey, since you're already there...

You know. Life — something you do to kill time while waiting to die. Relieves parts of the boredom and whatnot and it's exercise.

So if I can't get out and do real hikes, or go backpacking right now, at least I've got this.

OK, sure, I should have friends and do stuff but I'm a dick, remember? So I don't get out much. I'm awkward, like a turd at a pizza party. No good at hanging out with other people and enjoying life. Haven't found them other people that gotta be here somewheres that I can do stuff with. I do know a couple of cats around here, and they're nice, but they've been avoiding me lately too, and one bites, but without them I'd have no friends at all, so I just suck it up and carry bandages when I go a-visiting.

I'm mostly deaf too. Did I mention that? On top of the rest I'm mostly deaf now too.

Yeah, right. More fun stuff. Mister Dick-O-Rama.

Woke up May 15, 2012 and my left ear no longer worked. I happens. Leaving me with my right ear, which is only slightly more useful for hearing with than a rusty shoehorn. So I'll never be any good at Spanish, or even at learning Spanish, which makes me even more of a dick whenever anyone on the street stops me and asks for directions, or just the checker at Coral or SuperMaxi trying to be helpful, and saying something, or asking me something, and I'm standing there like an ugly (though tiny) moose, with my tongue hanging out, all puzzled-looking and dopey. (Tiny — at least I'm not ugly and huge. Then again, neither is a tapeworm and you know how much fun they are.) And with moose, you know, you never know, even with the small ones, so I scare people once they catch on that I'm not actually a reasonably predictable human thing. So life in paradise. Ain't all you'd expect sometimes. For me nor them.

Somebody's working on setting up a Hash House Harriers chapter here, and that might help. "Drinkers with a running problem," they call themselves. Active people. I can't run (back problems) but I can walk like crazy, so maybe I could fake it. We'll see. No matter how fast they try to run away, there I'll be, coming up the backstretch. There's always hope, even for me. Woot!

Does anybody say Woot! any more?

Maybe just me.

Later then, if you haven't had enough yet. Maybe see you on the steps.

(Anything here you don't understand besides me, it's on Wikipedia.)

P.S.: Hey! Wanna go hiking sometime? Just kidding. Ha! Bite me.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Definitions: Blood

Blood is the substance that carries nutrients to hair cells.

It is also useful for feeding mosquitoes, which make great pets.

Mosquitoes are easy to care for and require no training. They are barkless, faithful, and able to keep up with you on the trail.

And they self-replicate in the millions.

You could even go into business selling them online.

There's your idea.

Now run with it.

(Other critters available by special request.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Definitions: Aspect

(1) One of those little things. You can find them on your glasses or crawling up your nose.

Quite a few of these have teeny-tiny legs, and sometimes they wave at you from your food.

This can relieve the boredom of a long backpacking trip — one of those thousand-mile or two-thousand-mile jobs where you get out there and walk, and then do it again the next day and so on until you pick up a few rocks and carry them along so you have someone to talk to. Or so you can pound yourself in the head for a while to perk yourself up.

And then one day you're sitting down to have lunch, you're ready to eat it down in just about one gulp, and you notice that it's specky and the specky things are moving and you still have to eat it because if you don't you will die. Not just aspect — lots of spects. Lots.

(2) Trail designers and builders have a whole bunch of terms to distinguish themselves from random homeless people digging holes and messing around in the dirt. This is one.

Aspect (get a load of this one) is just the direction that a trail faces. That's it.

So stand on a trail and face the downhill side, and that direction is the aspect. Really.

The main effect this has on hiking is that trails on north-facing slopes are cooler than those facing south, so they stay snowed in longer, but can be more pleasant to hike on a hot summer day.

And the effect extends to trails with a westward aspect too because they catch more sun in the afternoon, getting warmer when things are already warm.

Trails with westward and eastward aspects are in between those with poleward (north) and equatorward (south) aspects. (In the northern hemisphere anyhow, on earth. Who knows what happens in those other places?)

Aspects and warmth, from coldest to hottest are: north, east, west, and south.

But for maximum warmth and comfort, nothing beats snuggling under a cozy quilt in front of a blazing fire with a generous dollop of rum in a fat glass.


Where it is clean and there are no bugs.

Or gearheads, come to think of it.

Source: How to talk in the woods.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Definitions: Convection

(1) Being carried away.

May be confused with the word "conviction", which means about the same thing, but in a less peace, love, and free will sort of way. One which often entails the deliberate and forceful application of handcuffs.

So, different, 'K?

(2) Being carried away in the other sense.

To be wafted along, gently, perhaps almost imperceptibly, lovingly, to a pleasant conclusion, as might be experienced by a sip of wine as it is taken up between the lips, slides over the tongue and down the throat, to find a warm welcome in the stomach, where it can reside in peace and comfort.

But only for a while.

Everything is only for a while.

Eventually even the finest wine is converted to a sort of irritable sleepy grumpiness and is squirted back out as urine and then forgotten. This happens with so many things.

Like rain. Or hail, which is the end product of rain with an anger management problem.

But before rain is ejected from the clouds and falls onto your head, possibly accompanied by high winds and lightning strikes, some of which may kill or stun your companions, is convection, which tenderly raises dewy filaments of moisture heavenward on wisps of warmness. And not just one or two filaments.




And more.

So many that they cannot even be comprehended, let alone counted, tallied, or given cute pet names.

And once in the sky these wisps swirl and twirl and spin and tumble and coalesce and combine into clouds that sail the skies without any cares at all until they meet more and stronger currents of convection, warm shafts of air soaring into the highest reaches of the sky where those uncountable myriads of moist hazy aerosols meet and conjoin to form mists and whorls of nearly weightless droplets, and then drops, and, flung even higher into the heavens they freeze into tiny ice crystals which rise and fall upon the currents, and thaw and freeze again, gaining layer upon layer of fresh, hard, crisp ice until the air no longer has the strength to support them and they begin to fall, and then are caught by fearsome downdrafts and are hurled toward the ground with supreme force, and this is what bonks you on the head and makes you swear like a sumbitch.

(3) The thing that happens in your cooking pot when the water gets hot.

After a while, after it gets just so hot, water can't stand it any more and begins jumping for the top of the pot, hoping to escape.

This is called boiling, and means that the water is hot enough to do some serious cooking, and it is powered by convection wherein the heat at the bottom of the pot makes the water excitable, peevish, pettish, petulant, testy, and generally disagreeable to the extent that the two of them just can't get along anymore and begin trying anything they can think of to put some distance between themselves.

Instant rice, couscous, bulghur wheat, and many other common hiker foodstuffs are extremely effective at smoothing things out, like a good arbitrator (meanwhile becoming cooked), and so now, during the boiling situation, is the right time to dump that food in there and get on with dinner.

And turn the heat down too.

Don't be a dumbass and burn supper, hear?

(4) There are other, more boring definitions of convection that center on meteorology, which sounds like it's this cool class you can take to find out about meteors and stuff, and maybe flying saucers and the real truth that is out there somewhere, and maybe ray guns and aliens are involved somehow, but then you have to sit in an old stinky chair that was made in some factory back when there were, like serfs and all they had was candles for light and rocks for tools and try to stay awake while some professor dude talks about vertical transport of heat and moisture and updrafts and downdrafts and atmospheric instabilities and weird boring kinds of clouds you have to memorize and identify by their shapes, but dry convection sounds like a little bit of fun since it happens without any clouds but then you realize you can't even see anything while at least with visible convection or moist convection as the professor dude calls it you get clouds, even if they are weird and have strange names and are tedious and basically annoying anyway.


As always, Effort or Eff it. No sniveling.

Source: How to talk in the woods.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Definitions: Brush Fire

(1) A fire found in lightweight perennial vegetation such as bushes, shrubs, and scrub growth. A brush fire may not be as large or intense as a forest fire, but you can't really bet your life on that.

(2) Also, fire in a brush recently used by a backpacker fresh off the trail.

This brush may have been used on the head, but more frequently on another part of the pelt (backpackers are known for growing excessive amounts of unduly long body hair).

Ignition is often spontaneous, triggered by oxidation of natural body oils which can't be properly removed by simple bathing, or by bathing and diligent scrubbing. Or even by a trip through an industrial clothes washer, though some try this, and it can be a source of temporary amusement during a long, dull, rainy weekend in some random town.

Rooms in lodgings along thru-hiking routes normally come supplied with sturdy airtight metal cans for disposal of body hair and used brushes, but carelessness often results in tragedy when a hair-clogged brush bursts into flames deep in the night (anytime after 8 p.m.).

Remain alert!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Kindly Walking In Cuenca

One of the things I vividly remember after spending my first six months in Ecuador and returning to the United States was a brief episode in a Safeway parking lot.

I was coming out of the store and heard angry male voices. I turned my head. I looked. To my left were two men, deadlocked.

One was in a monster truck, one of those jacked-up pickups with the huge tires, so high off the ground that you need a stepladder to get into it.

The other was in a wheelchair. He was trying to cross what they call the "fire lane" from the parking lot proper to the store. Apparently, this disabled guy in his tiny, hand-powered sit-up bed was an offensive inconvenience to the other guy in his thousand-horsepower muscle truck, and they were having it out.

I felt threatened. I cringed. My soul hurt. I left.

A few days before, a man angry about the placement of a fence fired up a bulldozer and began ramming into things. Depending on which account you read, he destroyed two, three, or four houses plus a truck and a boat. He did "knock down a utility pole, cutting power to thousands". I know this last part to be true. I experienced it.

The cause? "A long-standing property line dispute between two neighbors." Resulting in violence.

Life as we know it. Life as I used to know it.

Things seem to be different in Ecuador.

Last week, for example, I was waiting to cross a busy street. On the other side were two men. One was on foot, the other on a bicycle. They were both going the same direction and came to their own private, two-person bottleneck. One had to yield.

They stopped. The man on the bicycle stretched out his arm, holding his hand palm-up, signaling that the other man should go ahead. He did, and the bicyclist followed. Problem solved.

No fights broke out. There were no threats. End of story.

Last year I came out of Good Affinity, a Taiwanese/Ecuadorian restaurant where I frequently have lunch. There was construction in the area. The city is building a light-rail system and many streets have been torn up for over a year. Wires were hanging loose from the surrounding utility poles. That happens here. Things are different. You have to deal with it.

Back to the story.

I saw several people in a car. They were trying to get past the hanging wires. A man was in the street. He held some of the wires, lifting them up high enough so that car could inch forward and get past them. Done. Problem solved. But.

Now the man who held up the wires had to get his own car past the wires. He got into his car and began to inch it along. Hmmm.

I'm not quick on my feet as they say. I'm better at analyzing things after they happen than while they're happening, but I got it right this time. I walked over to the car, bent down, and picked up the wires. I raised them above the roof of the car so the driver could get past them without getting any part of his car tangled in the wires. He crept forward until he was clear, and then I dropped the wires and went on my way. Done. The end.

Things are like that here. No one stood in the street swearing or throwing things or making threats to the sky. We just got past it.

Another story from this week and then I'll get to the point.

I was taking a late-afternoon walk. If I don't schedule some exercise, it's easy not to get much. I walk to lunch, and, well, I walk everywhere, but I usually don't get out before noon, and I don't go out after dark, ever, so late afternoon is my last chance to do some moving around.

Anyway, I was walking near the Tomebamba River, a small stream flowing through town, and came to a place where some construction work was going on. The construction was separated from the sidewalk by corrugated metal. There was a gate, a doorway, of painted plywood. The gate was open. A man was backing his pickup truck out, across the sidewalk, and into the street. I stopped, waited.

Then I noticed that the right side of the truck was barely clearing the door on my side. Then I realized that the truck's right-side mirror might be close to hanging up on the plywood door. Yep. I reached out and pulled the door toward me — away from the truck — as far as I could. This helped.

The truck cleared the door and then the sidewalk and I was able to resume my walk. Another problem solved through cooperation.

The man had to get his truck into the street, and I had to get the truck out of my way. We worked together. Then it was all over. I don't know who he was and never will. Ditto for him. We just worked together to get past it. That's how it is here.

Now, last summer I saw something else.

Again, this was related to the endless light-rail construction, which should have finished last June, but shows no signs yet of coming to a conclusion. So anyway.

The street was torn up. You could walk on the right side or the left side, but down the middle was a muddy trench. This was fenced off to keep people out of it. At one or two spots down each block there was an opening in the two fences, and a plank-and-plywood "bridge" spanning the trench. That's how you got across the street.

These cobbled-up "bridges" were points of pedestrian congestion. You can imagine.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, it was busy. I held back a bit, unlike everyone else. People here don't stop and wait. They push ahead, rub elbows, bump into one another, jostle, work their way through somehow. I'll do some of that if I have to, but mostly I stop and wait. That works too, and I'm not so good at politely shoving others aside. I have yet to learn that art.

Right then, when I wanted to cross, things were busy. Especially so since an elderly woman was working her way up to the "bridge", supported by a walker. You've seen them. She and her walker took up two-thirds of the bridge's width. It was slow going too. One slight mis-step and she'd have been down, walker or no walker. But she had help.

Behind her and a bit to her left was a woman, guiding her along, steadying her, holding one hand against the small of the old woman's back. In front was a man, also guiding her and lifting the front of her walker over rough spots in the jury-rigged bridgeway. Eventually the woman was across. "Nice," I thought. "It's nice to see how people here care for their elderly relatives." You see a lot of that here. And a lot of extremely small children out walking with their parents too, all holding hands as they walk the streets.

So the way was clear and I began crossing the street too. And then I nearly lost it.

Once the old woman was safely across the street the man turned and walked away. So did the younger woman, in the opposite direction. They were not a family. They did not even know each other. They were three strangers. Two who were young and healthy, and one who was not, but who needed just a touch of help. So they helped, and that was it.

I had trouble crossing the street. You have to watch where your feet go but I couldn't. Because my eyes were full of tears. Just as they are now, yet again, remembering.

Things are like that here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Definitions: Air Pecking

(1) Pecking movements made by poultry or hikers at no obvious target.

It consists of repeated quick forward and backward head movements sometimes with nibbling. It seems not to be directed at anything but tends to have a specific direction.

This behavior often includes a rapid opening and closing of the beak, sometimes followed by talk of what's for supper.

(2) Urinating off a cliff. Catching air with your private waterfall while setting it free from a great height.

It's yet one more guy thing.

If done often enough, it will result in a pecking tan, which is usually only a byproduct. Deliberately trying to get a tan where none should appear is not approved behavior. Keep that in mind.

But if done at all, this procedure is most wisely practiced in isolated spots (preferably sunny of course if it's a tan you're after) where no roaming posse of Sunday school teachers is likely to tread.

Probably a hobby best pursued alone. And check for who might be walking by, down there, while you do it. Or you could get pounded.

This is never, ever, ever done with other guys unless you really, really, really mean it, and are under 10 years old, and immature for your age.

Sort of stupid though because you'll probably get your feet wet in the process or end up with a weird tan line along the zipper. If it's a tan you want why not go to a nude beach and get an all-over? Eh? Or buy a sun lamp.

Or something. Geez. What does this have to do with hiking?

Warning notice: Too much sun exposure may cause distinctive permanent skin spots known as "peckles". And how do you explain them?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Eats And Me

I'm not a fussy eater as long as the food is right. I guess that makes me a fussy eater. But maybe not.

If my food stays within broad guidelines, I can eat it, and I will. I don't get tired of food. If it was good enough to eat yesterday, then it's a good enough sort of meal to have again today. So I go for months eating almost the same thing every day. Even more so while backpacking.

Backpacking food can't be too fancy or too perishable or too expensive or too heavy. Because, you know — backpacking.

But between those bright lines, I still have a few slightly more restrictive and more general criteria, but not too restrictive. Here they are.

My backpacking meals have to...

  • Contain enough energy to keep me going.
  • Have adequate nutrients.
  • Taste good enough to eat.
  • Stay down once eaten.

That's about it.

I say energy instead of calories because calories are bogus. Calorie counts form an extremely rough guide, but they don't represent the energy that food provides. Calorie counts are generated by burning a bit of food inside a sealed container and measuring the heat output. This has nothing to do with what happens to food inside the human body.

Food is not burned, and heat is only a peripheral waste product of metabolism. The body digests food, circulates it, stores, it, retrieves it, and transforms it into a useful form of energy via complex chemical interactions. None of this involves burning raw food in an oxygen environment. Period.

The only way a person can tell if their food provides enough energy is to see how they feel. It's a vague sort of process, and can't be quantified. Either you are doing OK or you aren't. Count enough calories and eventually you'll learn what works and what doesn't, and by how much, the same as if you don't count calories. So I just dump stuff together, based on experience, and that's pretty close.

Nutrients are carbohydrates, sugars, protein, fats, and minerals. Fat is a great way to ensure getting enough energy. Sugar makes things taste better. Carbohydrates hold the other foods together. Proteins are chewy.

It's hard not to get enough protein — if you eat enough to keep going, then you're probably getting more than enough protein. Adding powdered milk or cheese guarantees it. Powdered milk and cheese also supply essential minerals. Going heavy on fat and lighter on carbohydrates means that your food load will be lighter for a given amount of energy, and that after eating it you'll likely not get hungry again so fast, because fats are slow to digest. Sugar gives a quick energy boost and works great as some kind of dessert or after-supper treat. Toss in a multivitamin every day or two and you're covered.

If I can eat my food and feel better after, then it's good enough. That's about it.

And if the food is OK, then it stays down, which is what I shoot for. So far I've never had a problem with this, but it's important to keep in mind, 'cuz if supper comes back up for a visit, and tries to get out and go running around, then the trip is over. Proper food sticks to one-way trips.

Here's something I like.


  • ½ cup quick-cooking (1 minute) oats
  • ½ cup "grape nuts" cereal (or the Walmart equivalent)
  • ¼ cup raisins
  • ⅔ cup powdered milk
  • ½ cup powdered butter *
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

Dump all ingredients into a quart-sized, freezer-weight ziplock bag.

To prepare, add 1½ to 2 cups boiling water to the bag, depending on what works for you.

Gently and carefully squeeze the air out of the bag and then re-seal it.

Hold the bag in one gloved hand while massaging it with your other gloved hand to mix and evenly wet all the ingredients.

Set the bag aside to finish "cooking" and to cool enough so you can eat it. If it's a cold day, put the ziplock bag inside your main food bag, inside a wool hat, or stuff it into a spare shirt or a cozy you've made up specifically for preparing food.

When the food is cool enough to eat, and if you like using a spoon, then open the bag and eat it from the top with your spoon. If you want to keep it simple, make sure you've got as much air squeezed out of the bag as possible, the re-seal the bag and check to make sure that the bag is sealed. Then check again, and again, and again.

Roll the top of the bag over so you're holding the top tightly closed (just to be super sure). Turn the bag 90° so one bottom corner is pointing up. Squeeze the food away from that corner. Carefully use your teeth to rip open that corner. Hold the bag in both hands while squeezing the contents into your mouth. When done, roll up the ziplock bag and drop it into your garbage bag. No cleanup needed, not even of your spoon.

Next time you're hungry, repeat.

* Minimum. Powdered butter is available in roughly gallon-sized (36 oz.) cans at Walmart under the "Augason Farms" brand. It's much easier to deal with than "real" butter, or any other fat or oil, and can be easily pre-mixed at home. (Ever open your pack to find that your pint of olive oil has leaked all over everything?)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Life In Three Acts

Three experiences live on, as defining mileposts in my life. All happened at Mount St Helens. Here are their stories.

One November Day On The Plains Of Abraham.

In November of 1997, I hiked up the Ape Canyon Trail to the Plains of Abraham, a broad, spacious, open flat under the mountain's bare top, on its northeast side. Roughly half the way up I passed two elk hunters searching for prey, loaded down with binoculars, rifles, expectations. My goal was still higher, farther. Up, up there, way up there. I moved on, without expectations.

Once at the Plains, I was alone. No one else made it that far that day, or cared to, seemingly. That year's fall was unusually dry. The wet hadn't arrived yet, or the real cold. Those conditions made the hike both possible and enjoyable.

I began hiking at St Helens in 1995, long after its famous 1980 eruption, though in 1980 and 1981, my first two years of backpacking, I did encounter a lot of ash farther north in the Cascades, and out east, along the highways. But in 1997 I still didn't know the mountain well, and this trip was exploratory. I wanted to see what sort of place this oddly-named Plains of Abraham was. I wanted to see whatever I could.

I did that. I got there, and no matter how far I walked that day, I wanted to keep going, to see more, to get to the end, though there was none, of course. The views pulled me on, step after step, ridge after ridge. Great. It was great. There is no finer feeling than being out in the open, totally alone, completely free. I was awestruck.

The Ape Canyon Trail is an easy 4.5 miles (7.25 km), winding its whole length upward through forest except for a couple of short breaks. Somehow, unbelievably, the small area around the trail and the north-facing slopes beside it it were not stripped clear of trees in 1980. It's a delight to pass from barren desert to deep soft forest and back again, all in the space of a few feet. But even now, in 2016, the Plains themselves are still nearly completely barren.

They are wide, and flat, full of relaxed space, between the upper reaches of the mountain to the south and a long high ridge to the north. The sky is a huge blue dome above, and the walking is crunchy with sand and pumice, scattered with basalt. Otherwise, on that day, at that time, the Plains were bare and seemingly lifeless except for a few sparse whiskers of the hardiest green stalks waving in the breeze.

Though that day was completely dry, when the rain does come every speck of basalt turns from dark gray to inky featureless black. Each piece then, large or small, when that happens, lies quietly on its ivory carpet of pumice like shards of the night sky that have unexpectedly fallen to earth.

But then: Stillness. Peace. Space, and the wind. That was the whole world that day. Nothing more.

After hours of tramping here and there, looking at this and that, I finally turned back shortly before sunset, encouraged by both the coming darkness and an insistent cold wind that shuffled and scuffed along the ground through this natural wind tunnel, enclosed to the north and south but open at its east and west ends.

The last few rays of sun revealed what the higher light of midday hid, a coruscating landscape billowing with untold thousands of spider webs. They glinted, gleamed, sparkled, flashed, and waved in the low orange light of evening. Unexpected signs of life. Hello, life.

And when I did turn toward home there was Mount Adams again. To the east, it stood sentinel in the distance, a reliably constant presence. But something was wrong that evening. Adams was undergoing change. This was not the usual Mount Adams at all.

An odd light shone behind the mountain. A light that hid on the mountain's far side, yet by its presence, even if hidden, still gave itself away. A light that grew steadily. A light wasn't it? I thought so. Yes, no. Wait, yes. A light.

I watched. Yes. Light. Light that grew steadily but slowly, seeming to be climbing the far side of Adams, the eastern side, the way a spider climbs a leaf, keeping that leaf between itself and you. Something was. Something was there, crawling up the back of the mountain. Something bright was ascending, and right then, right there, I was not sure exactly what it could be.

But then, slowly, after long minutes, many long minutes, a burning bright edge cut through the mountain's crest, a bright curving scimitar of light. It cut its way right through the mountain and into the sky. I still, still wasn't sure. More light, a thicker edge, a brighter one, continuing to rise, and then, finally as I waited, patiently, that light became the moon, a full moon, a full moon which continued to push silently upward, until it succeeded in leaving the mountain behind, below itself.

Standing there I dithered, wondering. The camera? Take it out? Take the time? Fumble the tripod? Miss the show in order to capture it badly, on film? But I waited too long. It was too fascinating to keep watching, so I simply stood there and watched, and let the camera be. Finally it was too late — pointless anyway. Film was pointless in the face of this miracle. I only waited and watched, as the moon birthed itself, separated itself from the mountain, from the mountain's embrace, its grip, and flew completely into the sky, becoming free and fully itself, alone in command of the sky that night.

Then, mere moments later a raven, filled with joy at that sight, that singular event, filled with the same joy as I, I think, leapt from its perch into its own perimeter of sky. It croaked once, and then rode its silent wings far down the side of the mountain and into the forest below, where it vanished into the dimming gloom and the silence of dusk and the darkness of infinity.

Now was the time to go, I thought. I went. No turning back now.

Well after the black hand of night had closed around St Helens, and around me, and around all the world, I, having hiked far down the mountain, rounded a turn and walked from the forest into an emptiness bare of trees. Before finishing the last few minutes of hiking I stopped, and sat, under the stars. On the right the bulk of the mountain loomed silently in dark moonlight, massive, stony, silent, forever.

Beneath me, to the south and east, to my right and left, around me, lay a dim silvery landscape, miles of bare earth channeled and scoured by the rains and floods of long years. that morning's hunters were long gone, back to their camp somewhere out there, far off in the trees, distant, beyond seeing, and I was alone, the only breathing person, the only warm body in the chill air of that one lonely evening. Had I had a tent I would have camped too, exactly there.

But no. No way to do that. So instead I sat. I could sit and wait, for a while, so I sat and waited for a while, hoping to learn another lesson from the enveloping infinite silence. And if I did, if I did, I don't know how to tell you, but I will when I can, if I can. I will tell you about it then.

So later, when I had withdrawn from the mountain and returned to my car, I found that though the night was still young the car was tightly furred in a clench of frost. I sat on the still-bare asphalt beside it and pulled off my boots, slipped into fresh shoes, ate a snack by starlight, by moonlight, by dark, surrounded by trees and stillness.

"This is unbelievable," I kept thinking, over and over. "This is unbelievable," which was exactly right. I was entirely alone, in an entirely silent world, completely as free as the moon that night.

And you? Where were you then? I know you should have been there, because you would have been welcome to be there, to share that experience. You would have. It was fine. It was fine. Exactly entirely completely perfect. Maybe next time then, OK? I will give you a call.

WASHIOD 1: Soaked and Sleepless on St Helens.

Adventure Boy experiencing fog at the Loowit Trail/Truman Trail junction.

Lapping the mountain in one day — now that was an idea.

The Loowit Trail rests on the shoulders of Mount St Helens in 33 miles like a long, dusty necklace. The trail is mostly level, and open, hanging for the most part above what forest there is, linking together expansive views, and making a fine slow three- or four-day backpacking trip. There are two great, well-watered camping spots on the trail, one at the south fork of the Toutle River on the northwest side, and the other, approximately opposite to it, at Swift Creek on the southeast side.

Finishing a loop around the mountain hardly qualifies as a long trip, and except for a handful of mildly rough spots, it is as easy as hiking around any active volcano can be. But then again, as a day hike the trail does become a challenge.

While backpacking around the mountain in 2001, on our third morning, my group met two skinny men wearing blue shorts, sunglasses, and white tank tops. They were running the Loowit Trail that day, all of it, and eight hours later we met them coming at us again. They had lapped both us and the mountain in that time.

That made me think.

A year later I decided that my time had come. I was ready to hike the trail in one day. I called my private event WASHIOD — the Walk Around St Helens In One Day. Then I went there and did it.

The sky is always a presence on St Helens, even on overcast days. But many days are clear and vistas range off into infinity from every point. So much of the mountain naturally stands above treeline or had its trees simply blown off that the sky is as much a participant as the insistent dust and loose stones underfoot. There is no shade. There is no cover, no shelter from sun or from wind. Wind is air, and air, the most impetuous element, is everywhere. It brushes against your face and tousles your hair and pats your shoulders like a rough and interfering yet loving mother who constantly dogs you, follows your every step. And there is dust. The entire mountain is a mountain of dust, and dust is seldom a friend.

So then, there was that, all of the above, but I needed a day for my event, and decided on Friday, July 19, one otherwise average day in the summer of 2002.

At 1:00 a.m. that day, my alarm clock buzzed crazily in the darkness. I grabbed it. I squeezed it, made it quit. I rolled out of bed.

So far I was on schedule.

Already packed, with nothing to slow me down, I moved quickly. By 1:30 I was washed, dressed, and on the road. The road was clear. I made good time. Almost no one else out there. Almost no one else thought it important to be on the road then, at that time of day, on that day. One point for me then. I headed south.

Within two hours I was ascending the road on the north side of St Helens. All OK: check. On time: check. Then the road grew damp: fog.

Fog, it was fog. Deeper, thicker as I ascended, driving ever more slowly.

Driving became a dark game of chance on the wet and nearly invisible winding road. The white line on the right edge became my only guide.

Knowing what lay beyond that line, on its far side, I hugged the road's middle. Twisting, turning, climbing, navigating almost only by hope I continued driving. Until suddenly everything vanished. There was no line, no yellow dashes, no sign of the road, only barely reassuring feel of anonymous pavement under my wheels. Confused, I slowed a bit, but not enough.

Suddenly something came at me — the far side of the Windy Ridge parking lot. It leapt straight for me from the dim glow of my headlights. I stomped the brakes hard, just quickly enough to avoid banging over the curb and ramming the mountain. Done, anyway. I was there. I was stopped. Now for the hike.

I swung myself out of the car and stood on the mountain. Tufts of heavy wet fog played tag between my legs as I tried to tell what was what, and where. I already knew why. Now for what.

Fifty degrees, blowing, damp, dark: that was what. OK, time to get organized.

By 4:45 I was moving, wearing only shorts and a knit shirt under a light wind shell, walking south, hat flapping crazily in the wind. Down the spur trail toward the mountain, toward the Loowit Trail.

Morning was reluctant to open its eyes that day. It did a bit by then, but darkly. The sloppy-wet fog secretly crept into everything I wore, carried, or thought. Soon I was soaked. I dripped. I squished. I continued my descent.

Before long I connected with the Loowit Trail, and not long after that, not too long considering the darkness and the fog and the uncertainty of hiking in near-blindness, arrived at the Loowit Falls viewpoint, directly north of the crater. Then I lost the trail. The fog was still too dense. The day was still too dark.

Where was the trail? I hunted here, I hunted there. No trail. I came to a cliff and looked down. Not there. Not my trail. No.

I hunted more. The trail reappeared, somehow, let itself be seen in the fully gray half light, and then, reassuringly, correctly, it descended to the north and then turned and went west, into the Pumice Plain, that faceless sea of sand and gravel in the heart of the St Helens blast zone.

A few slovenly early-season cairns slumped here and there, scattered randomly. The faint traces of a previous hiker's boots added enough extra clues to lead me west across the sand. Then, as the day finally, slowly creaked open and brightened a bit, I climbed the ramping hills on the far side of the Pumice Plain and headed south on an up-and-down trudge to Toutle River on the mountain's northwest side.

The fog continued to weaken, but reluctantly, not completely dying out until I made it to the forest that still stands watch high above Toutle River. By 10:30 I was on the southwest side of the mountain, seeing the first patches of clear blue sky that day. I welcomed the growing warmth. I hoped for a fine summer day. I wanted a fine summer day. I needed one. It arrived.

From there the trip became uneventful. Pleasant experiences always are uneventful. The hike became pleasant, after one last trial.

The bottom of one key ravine had been scoured months before by early winter floods, and in its lowest depth the trail vanished. The last few vertical feet of descent were stripped, scraped, bare and nearly vertical dirt. I slid, down, thumping onto old snow at the ravine's bottom. Down. Done.

Only then did I wonder how to get out. Stupid. The soil on the opposite side, the north-facing side was still damp. A bit. Damp enough to hold together, a bit. Damp enough to let me carefully edge my shoes into it and carefully, slowly, cautiously, dangerously ascend to regain the trail again many feet above.

Well, I made it, luckier than I had a right to be. No time or reason to celebrate. I only made it out. That was enough. The point was to continue. I had time to make up, half a mountain to go. More than that.

But then, finally, the trip became uneventful. The day did become thoroughly a summer day. I cruised.

Next: the mountain's south.

The south is covered in thin forest. It is the warm side. You might expect that. The walking is easy there, overall. That easy walking is briefly interrupted by three expansive fields of basaltic boulders. People call them "lava fields", but they are rivers of boulders. They are rough but not a major challenge for anyone carrying a light fanny pack and skipping along in running shoes. I did have to pay attention, but still felt refreshed and encouraged by the sunshine and clear skies. It was a good day after all.

Checkpoint: Swift Creek, to the southeast, full of clean water. I freshened up, washed my face, ate a second lunch, rested, and changed socks. Very nice. Very, very nice. This was turning out well. The weather was gracious. I felt giddy.

Later afternoon brought Mount Hood into view, then Mount Adams, and finally Mount Rainier as I steadily rounded the mountain from south to north.

Approaching the north side for my second time that day, I came to the intersection of the Loowit and Ape Canyon Trails. Taking a short detour, I visited the head of Ape Canyon, a gunsight slit cut vertically through solid rock with only empty space beyond it, and a long helpless fall for anyone who might explore it too closely. Not me, not then, not ever, but I always get a tingle thinking about going over for a peek.

Back to work. Time to turn west.

Time for a last dash across the empty open Plains of Abraham. The wind pounded, pummeled. Punched at my face. Ripped at my hat. It's like that. Not to worry — put your head down and trudge into it. It's only wind, I thought.

I went on.

And then, after taking my last few steps of the day I was back at the Windy Ridge parking lot and my car. Done, done. Done. Finally.

Elapsed time: 15 hours and 15 minutes. Clock time: 8:00 p.m. I felt good, and tired, but the fog had wasted huge amounts of time early on. It had been a very long day, and it was not quite over yet.

I was home around midnight, and in bed by 2:00 a.m. A 25-hour day completed. Total distance hiked: 38 to 40 miles, including not only the Loowit Trail but also the connecting trails to and from it. Average speed: about 1.5 miles an hour. Not too bad. Fine, as far as it went, but so slow.

I thought about it. Maybe I could do better if I tried again later.

South fork Toutle River, downstream.

South fork Toutle River, upstream.

Adventure Boy at Toutle River.

Crossing Toutle River.

Adventure Boy experiencing fun.

Erased trail.

South side.

South side, trending east.

Adventure Boy experiencing fun among rocks.

Falls at Swift Creek.

Adams to the east.

Adventure Boy going incognito.


Plains of Abraham looking west.

Plains of Abraham looking east.

The home stretch — Plains of Abraham, western edge. Windy Ridge at far right.

Back into the blast zone.

Goodbye, Adams. Goodbye, hike.

WASHIOD 2: Death Takes a Hike.

The mountain in early light.

October 13, 2002 arrived. It was time to try again.

I thought I could do better. That without the distraction of fog I could do a fast and clean daytime loop of Mount St Helens in something like 12 hours, maybe 11 ½ hours, or even 11. Maybe, possibly. I was up for it anyway. I wanted to try. The weather looked good. I was fit from a summer of hiking.

So at 7:30 that morning while the autumn sun was awake but still groggily groping at the horizon, I headed east across the Plains of Abraham, going clockwise this time. I had a quart of water in my pack and the capacity to carry two more. I had lunch. I had everything I would need, and didn't see much need for most of it.

No need to carry a heavy load of water, for instance. I knew the mountain's two permanent, trailside, unfailing sources, could tank up at them quickly and keep walking with only minimal delays. The day was cool, clear and calm — perfect for hiking.

The east side of the mountain was a relatively easy march, as it usually is. Relatively easy. There are ravines, and the ravines must be crossed. There is loose, sliding soil peppered with loose rocks, and there are the usual steep sides, but that is the game. There are up and down stretches outside the ravines, but nothing serious. I made good time, glugging whatever water I needed. Piece of cake.

When I arrived at Swift Creek, my first water stop, my one quart of water was long gone, and I had a healthy thirst. I was ready for a deep drink, ready to fill up my spare bottles ahead of the long dry trudge around the south side of the mountain on the way to Toutle River. But there was a problem.

Swift Creek was dust. Only dust. Dry dust. Powdered dry dust. No water. Hopeless. The falls, the stream bed — everything: dust. Only dust and scattered, irrelevant stones. Not good.

Not good at all. Not.

But I had to keep going. Because. Because it was a long way back, and it was too soon to quit. Because things would work out, I thought, because they do. They did of course, but not well. Thirst has effects.

Thirst cannot be taken out, turned over, inspected, and dropped back into one of the mind's rear drawers until later. No. Thirst is impulsive, alive, uncontrollable, follows its own instincts. Demon instincts. Thirst constantly claws at consciousness, ripping at the throats of all other thoughts, murdering them, and demanding full attention for itself alone. That demon came to me then, and rode me like a beast.

Uphills became torture. If I pushed hard to go fast I slammed into a wall of nausea. If I stopped to catch my breath I dizzied and my vision began turning black. Rest became impossible. So I stumbled along, weakly, not fast, not too slow, looking for water, any chance of water.

There was not a trickle, a taste, a drip, a drop. Not a trace of water anywhere. Not a damp spot or the scent of one. Nothing.

I passed the bouldered lava fields. I made it past them at least, without falling and breaking. One stray day hiker appeared, the only other soul I saw on the mountain that day — appeared and asked for directions to June Lake but I could only croak. No voice left. Too dry. Just a croak or two. I pointed a finger. Why didn't I go there? I should have. Probably too crazed with thirst by then. Probably. I don't know. Another mistake. Bad mistake. Very bad.

An hour later there was easier going as I headed west along the mountain's south side. I stepped up my pace as much as I could until I tripped and fell. The ground and my body met in a horizontal, intimate, unexpected, painful embrace, beginning with my face. Once I was down, one leg bent and went uncontrollably rigid with a screaming wicked cramp. Blind with pain, gasping, moaning, helpless. Howling pain. After a long, raging, ragged struggle against my own body I forced myself upright somehow, got the leg under me at last, did it despite the wild pull of disobedient muscles, and limped west. Began limping slowly as the cramp raced around the leg, front to back to front to back, pulling its own way, resisting each step.

Finally, exhausted, unable to hurt me any more, the pain let go and slunk off into the forest and hid, stalking, waiting for another chance if I should drop my guard.

I was dry. Did I say that? Dry. Too dry. Dry tongue, dry mouth, dry lips, cracked lips. And there was this endless, endless trail going on forever. Only a trail of pain. I went six hours without urinating, because I had nothing to give up.

I wondered how this would end, if it did. Since there was no hope, stubbornness had to push me along, on principle. Propelled by stubbornness alone, I kept moving. Far too far to go back, too far to go on, but what? Things were critical, critical, critical. I needed water, should have brought more, but didn't, and so this. Self-inflicted. My fault. Too bad. Now what?

Weakening more on the west side of the mountain I went up, then down. Up, down, slowly. Saw forest. Entered forest. Down some. Down more. Found myself descending steadily. Good sign. I might make it. Down, the long blessed winding forested drop to Toutle River. OK, right. Down. And the river was still there, at the bottom, fat with water. Fat with it. Rich, running clear live water.

I drank two quarts.

Then sat and ate. I had food, plenty of food, but without water food is useless. But I had water now, so I ate. Then drank another quart. Having planned to be halfway around the mountain by noon, and done with it all, back at my car by 7:00 p.m., I was now more than two hours late. But alive, at least, for a while. A while longer. That was encouraging. Night was coming, the darkness and the dark and the cold were coming. I was running too late. That was not encouraging.

Up above, out of the river valley, having climbed the long, long, near-endless climb out of the river valley I immediately made the wrong turn, went left, west, wasted time heading toward Castle Lake, a pointless, useless destination. More time lost. Back on the trail a little while later, I fell again, hard, onto stony ground still frozen from the night before.

Pain runs on its own schedule. It cannot be reasoned with or expedited. I had to lie there and wait, letting the pain run its full course before regaining my feet. Allowing pain to have its victory lap before moving again. So I waited, and then stood slowly, and began walking again across the bitter earth.

Finally, finally, some long time later I entered the Pumice Plain to the north. Feeble yellow evening sunlight stretched shadows thinly across the stony earth. It was open there, and easy going. Relatively easy going. At least. For a while. Until I lost the trail. Too dark. The land all shadows and ghosts. Everything, all of it. Only vague hints. Daylight seeped away, sank into the soil, hid from the growing dark. I hunted, and hunted, but found no trail, no trail anywhere. Gone, it was gone. And there I was, alone, with no trail to follow.

Night came.

I stumbled across the landscape, across rocks, over rocks, between rocks, into rocks. Through gullies. Through ravines. Into bushes, into holes, groping slowly. Then I remembered. I had a light.

Time to pull out my light. I had one. I had a light! How stupid to have forgotten. I reached into my pack. No light.

No light in the pack.

I emptied the pack three times, searched for the light. No light, no light, and no light. Where did it go? So far to walk yet, in the dark. So far. And no light. Only dark. Where was my light?

Night devoured the mountain in its leisurely way, freezing the mountain's thin airy cap into a brittle shroud of death that slumped, slipped, broke free, and slid down the barren slopes. Toward me. I became the hunted then, my warmth the prize. The frigid sheath of night air sought my body heat, what little body heat I had, and I had none to share, not to share with that biting iciness.

What next then? What to do? Where to go? Try walking in circles all night, to stay alive, then hike out in the morning? No. Not enough clothes for that. Too few clothes.

Quit here? Give up? Stop? Give in? Admit it was over? Was it hopeless? Was this the end of it? I wasn't sure of anything any more.

A half moon shone weakly, low in the east. Wait!

The moon. A half moon only, but a moon, bringing light.


Light enough to see by? A thin hope, but hope. I could see again, a little. Windy Ridge, there, the landmark of my hope, lay ahead, far dark against the stars, miles and miles of broken hopeless freezing agonized landscape between us. Between life and me, but I could see it.

I walked.

I walked then because I could. I walked because I could, and to see what would happen next. To walk and to do or die in the beautiful empty dark, but not to sit and huddle and wait to freeze. A choice. My choice. One final choice. I walked.

My responsibility. My decision. Fair. Clean. Simple. Do or die, but no quitting, just yet. I was free to meet my fate freely.

"Let's see where this leads," I thought. "Let's see how it happens, whatever it is." Overhead, the moon quietly kept its own counsel. This was not its game, and it did not care. The outcome was mine alone.

After a great long endless while there came a deep impassable ravine. I looked left, downslope. The ravine grew ever wilder that way. What you would expect. So, no choice but to go up then, where the thing would be shallower. Obvious, if that was true.

It was, still true, but there was no way across.

Then, higher up, after struggling over unforgiving rugged ground, up against the mountain's hip, I came to a stop, a blockage, a dead end. Stalemate, and a sound.

To my left, a comforting sound. The sound of a small stream. There was a small stream there hidden in willows, too dark to see, singing quietly to itself in the night.

Guessing at its width I stepped, across it and into an embrace of willows, and then through them. Onto a trail, The Trail, now shining comfortably in the moonlight. Level, smooth, flowing gently, leading east, showing the way out. An easy cruise now. I could see where I was, knew my location. I'd made it, almost. Had almost made it. Only more walking, simple walking, and then I would be done, it would be over.

Thank you, Moon.

I could see. I was rich with water. I was fed, and not hurt. Bruised a bit but not hurt, and this was nearly over. All of it.

The broad openness of the mountain's north side lay before me, and in that expanse before me a small light wavered. A small distant light. A small light which swung rhythmically up, then swung down, then up again, in the distance, and swung down again. Odd. Another bafflement.

As I walked the light became brighter and its movements more pronounced, as though I was growing nearer.

Someone was here, I thought, doing some thing, in the dark, on the side of the mountain, in the freezing air.

I walked more slowly, more quietly as I neared the light. Then I was heard, the sound of my running shoes on the gravel trail. The light went dark. Switched off. Vanished. I walked. Past. The light did not return. The trail curved gently left, and I went gently left too, and left whatever and whomever behind.

There was no sound other than my feet scuffing the earth, crunching the sand, stirring the gravel, one after the other.

No more lights, aside from the moon. I kept walking. Just the moon and me again, all alone together, keeping our thoughts to ourselves.

Windy Ridge, still the landmark of my hope, lay ahead, closer now. I was almost there. I left the Loowit Trail and ascended the spur trail, climbing toward the parking lot, where this hike would end. During that last mile then, another thing happened.

An unspeakably huge dark something suddenly sprang at me from behind, from over my right shoulder.

Terrified witless, I gasped, stopped, spun around helpless, stood there in the open, defenseless, staring. Trying to recognize what terror this was behind, leaping at me.

The shadow of a slope, a minor outcrop. Not moving, not leaping, not alive, not a beast, not a demon, not death, not yet. Only a broad quiet benign moon-shadow. I hurt. Was tired. Was hallucinating.

Keep walking, I thought.

I kept walking.

Just walk some more, I thought. I just walked some more. Walk until it's over and then let's go home.

I looked far back, saw off away far west that tiny light again, swinging up and down and up and down. Someone was out there, still out there, far behind me now, miles away, at it again, doing something inexplicable alone in the dark, as I was, I guess.

Ten p.m. Parking lot. Back at the car. No other cars there. Just mine. If someone had come here to stand on the side of the mountain and swing a light in the dark, they had not come this way. I still don't know. But I did find Mr. Flashlight. Safe and cozy inside my car, happy to see me. My little friend who missed the fun. Food too, and my spare water. Too late to be of use, any of it, but I was comforted to be back with my things. Happy too, in a bruised way, because I was done. It was over at last.

Then I was on the road a few minutes later, driving down the mountain toward home, and passed an ordinary road sign. But not quite exactly ordinary.

Because sitting on top of it was a gargoyle. Not a stone sculpture, but a real live hunched breathing leering gargoyle whose huge bright white round moist glistening eyes stared precisely through the car window and directly into my own eyes as though it knew me and everything about me. Yet another reality that came and went that night. Who was I to judge reality? I passed it and did not stop, did not take a second look, did not expect an explanation, did not look back. Not everything can be explained, or needs to be. I had had enough.

Nodding off again and again while driving, at last I gave in and pulled off the road, had a short nap, and finished the drive home. The next morning I dutifully got up early called in sick, but I wasn't really sick.

You know how it is sometimes.

Clean and simple — just turn left and walk.

The approach — moving forward.

The approach — looking back.

And again. Looking back. In a little deeper.

West end, Plains of Abraham, looking southeast.

A peek at Mt Rainier in the morning sun. Elk tracks, foreground.

Plains of Abraham. Windy Pass, right background.

In the Plains of Abraham, looking back to the northwest.

East edge, Plains of Abraham, looking southeast.


Mt Rainier from the far side of a ravine.

Lahar area, east side. Forest surrounding Ape Canyon Trail in background. Mt Adams.

Mt Hood.



Tree with sky and earth.

Canyon, south fork Toutle River.

Headwaters, south fork Toutle River.

Headwaters, south fork Toutle River.

Late afternoon, south fork Toutle River.

Blast zone, looking north toward the Mt Margaret backcountry, evening.

Losing the light.

Blast zone. Spirit Lake, right center at top. Windy Ridge far right. Creeping darkness, foreground.

Moon at sunset.