Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Friday, October 23, 2020

Solo in Moab

 I have been to Moab something like eight times now, but always with company -- geology classes, friends, significant others. Since I enjoy doing things by myself, a solo trip was nothing bad, but it was a long way for me to drive alone. It would also be my first time in a long time going out in the fall; usually when I had visited, it had been springtime. Now that I was quite familiar with the area I was curious to see if it would look very different and if the leaves would be changing.

I left Wednesday night after work. The setting sun eerily lit up the smoke from the forest fires.

I drove about four hours and stopped for the night at a free campground in the middle of nowhere. Most of the other sites were occupied and everyone was asleep. A beautiful full moon was overhead. It was light enough to read by, and it seemed warm enough to sleep under the stars. After I set up my pad and sleeping bag on top of the picnic table I went for a walk in the moonlight.

I walked carefully, trying not to trip on the uneven road. I took many pictures of the sky but there were hardly any stars, because the sky was smoky and the moon was so bright. Finally, around midnight, I got into my sleeping bag on top of the picnic table.

I couldn't sleep. It was too cold. I don't know why. When I gave up and got into my car 2 hours later, the outside temperature readout said it was 55. I have a 15 degree sleeping bag. This is a mystery of camping. There have been nights I've been toasty warm and woken up to see the thermometer at 20 degrees, and nights I've frozen even though it was purportedly 55. I think a lot about what causes this. Factors such as wind, air moisture, ground surface, what's above you, clothing, how much energy you expended that day, and how many calories you ate are all factors in how warm you will feel. But I just can't explain what happened that night.

Even shut in my car I was too cold to sleep. I only slept a few hours, and then I slept through my alarm, which I tend to do if I fall asleep shortly before it goes off. This was a problem because I wanted to get into Moab early so I could find a campsite, since they fill up quite early on weekends.

Before I left the highway I stopped at this place to get gas.

I did not get any exotic jerky. I almost didn't get any gas, because I couldn't get the pumps to work. There was no sign of life in the shop. This made me nervous because I had barely enough to get to Moab and there aren't very many gas stations in the Utah desert. But at last I found a pump that was working.

It was warm and summery out. I made my way to my favorite campground and settled on a site that had a nice place to put up a hammock between two juniper trees. I have recently started writing fiction again and am determined to write for two hours a day, every day, no excuses. The fact that I was vacationing would be an excuse, so I had to write. I discovered that if I hung my hammock high enough it made a fine standing desk and so I settled in to write under the juniper trees.

Two families with trucks and RVs arrived at the two sites next to me and began unloading thirteen dirt bikes. They proceeded to rev the dirt bikes, do loops in front of the sites, and ride around the campground loop all afternoon, while running the RV generators to boot. It was insanely loud.

I know we all have our own way of enjoying the outdoors. I happen to think RVing seems fun. I am not going to judge people for wanting a little comfort. But some people just do not seem to notice noise. It doesn't register, doesn't affect them, and it certainly doesn't seem to occur to them that it might be troubling someone else who went camping to get away from noise. They seemed like a nice family. They spoke nicely to each other -- or, rather, shouted over the motors -- unlike the father in another campsite one year who outright degraded and mocked his little daughter while we listened. These children (who had their own child-sized dirt bikes) got along with each other. They just loved their motors.

After a few hours I gave up and went for a hike. I've done the lovely Grandstaff Trail a few times, but never in the evening, so I gave it a go.

It was pretty nice, but also noisy, since several families with yelling and rock-throwing children were hiking at the same time. I mean, if your kids have to yell and throw rocks, I guess nature is probably the ideal place to do it.

It was dark when I got back and I felt like having something other than canned food, so I put in an order to a local Thai place for green curry. When I got there there were a bunch of people in line, and a 45-minute wait to eat, so I felt very smug waltzing in and picking up my food. I ate it at my picnic table in the dark, with a book, which is one of the best ways to eat green curry.

The moon rose and it was very bright again, so I climbed up on the sandstone behind my site and went walking in the moonlight. This campground is my favorite campground because of the beautiful yellow-pink sandstone "hills" and fins that are everywhere. Most of them are easy to climb up onto and you can get a great view -- of the city, the cliffs, the canyons, or the mountains, depending where you are.

This is just a view of my campground loop.

The La Sal mountains in the distance, hazy from smoke

When I went to bed the moon shone through the juniper branches and into my tent. After 10pm it was finally quiet (at least until some of my neighbors roared in on their dirtbikes at midnight), and I stayed up later and later just to enjoy it, because it was the first peace and quiet I'd had since getting settled and it was blissful.

The next morning, I drove somewhat randomly up the road of the rec area the campground is situated in. I've been camping here for years but never drove all that far because the road surface gets fairly uneven. But this time I kept going. The road went up and up. Eventually I found this.

I was on the Porcupine Rim. The view was better than stunning. It was vast and colorful and very deep; I got butterflies as I looked over the edge, all the way down to the valley floor. This is Castle Valley. Much of the Moab area is underlain by salt from old marine deposits, on top of which the sand that now forms that red sandstone was deposited. In this place, it seems, water got into the earth and washed away some of the underlying salt, causing the sandstone layers above it to collapse. The knob in the middle, however, is granite, from a body of magma that intruded into the rocks above it and then cooled.

I hiked down the rim until I found a nice place to set up my office.

The weather was very fine, a little hot at first but then cooler as the day got cloudier. I worked on my story. I didn't realize just how busy the trail I'd come out on would be -- every few minutes more mountain bikers came by, and about half of them made some comment about my setup. It was very positive.

"Nice office."

"That is the coolest thing I've ever seen."

"That is like the definition of working remotely."

That kept a smile on my face. I could tell they were all very envious. They really wanted to be slaving at a hammock computer, not doing a long downhill run next to gorgeous views. But the most amusing thing was their comments to their friends after they'd passed me. Here is a sample:

"Was that a hammock for her laptop?"
"Yeah! That laptop was so comfortable!"

"Nice, work from home!"
"That's not work from home."

"Is this the library section?"

After I finished my two hours I let the hammock down a bit and actually lay in it and read, then packed everything up and went for a hike down the trail. I didn't go too far because I didn't want to get back to camp too late. The sun, when it wasn't behind the clouds now, was already making longer shadows.

However, after I had turned around and followed the trail back to its intersection with the road, I began to wonder whether I might get a view of the La Sal mountains if I just kept following it east. So I did. And I did eventually get to a view of the mountains, after about an hour. I have a terrible disease that requires me to see what's around the next bend, no matter how many other bends I've already come around.

And here are the mountains. Much closer than they were in my moonlit picture from the night before!

It was a lovely, colorful view, all the little bushes in autumn colors and the red and pink of the rocks exposed in the anticline, and the green of the junipers and grasses. And then I turned around and went back, unhappy about how far I was from the car.

That night, once again, I stayed up too late. It was the same story: only after 10pm did it start to get quiet in the campground, and I cherished the quiet. I always like to talk a walk around the campground loop before I go to bed, and I did so, but I also wandered across the road to the parking lot for the bike trail. And then I wandered onto the bike trail. I had never been on this trail. It climbed up onto the slickrock, and to my delight I saw that it was marked with white dashes that showed clearly in the moonlight. So I kept walking. It was warm up on the rocks. The landscape was just beautiful under the moon, flowing rolls of smooth rock looking just like frozen ocean swells, everything in shades of silver and grey. I enjoyed being all alone and was only a little bit spooked at the idea that a mountain lion might jump out from behind some rocky eminence and grab me.

I hated to turn back, but I was very tired and should not be staying out this late if I wanted to go hiking in the morning. On my way back I heard voices. They were coming from somewhere out in the swells of rock, away from the road, away from the trail. There was no light. It sounded like two women and they were talking and laughing and laughing out there in the dark. I supposed they were drunk but they seemed to be having an even better time than I was.

The next day, I went to Canyonlands National Park. I stopped to use the vault toilets at the visitor's center.

This was new. The last time I'd been here, there'd been just the toilet, and a sign that looked like this:

Now, looking at the above sign, you might be thinking, what kind of a nutcase would stand on a toilet to go to the bathroom? But think about it. If you grew up in a culture where everybody just squatted over a hole to go, you'd probably be horrified at the idea of having to put your bare butt down on a seat that literally thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people's butts had already touched. (I'm not even going to get into the international traveler's horror that Americans use only paper to wipe themselves with, without any water at all.) So the existence of that part of sign was understandable. Still no real way to defend the "using the floor" part, but anyway, this place gets a lot of international visitors, so I was pleased to see they'd installed squat toilets. I did not use one.

Now, here is the Shafer Trail, which is actually a road that goes down into the canyon of the Colorado River. Would you like to drive on this road?

In fact it seemed to be quite a bit smoother than the road I had driven to the Porcupine Rim the day before and I think my Prius would have had a fine time. I was tempted to go down it but there was a big sign at the start and I'm guessing it said four-wheel-drive vehicles only.

By this time I have done all of the famous trails in Moab and most of the not-so-famous ones too. One that I hadn't done was the Neck Spring Trail. Mainly because it looked very boring on the map. Guess what?

Rabbit, beetle, and tarantula tracks?

It was very boring. A hot, dry slog under the desert sun. However, it had a rock feature that I took a deep interest in.

It was the highlight of the trail for me. I don't know why it's not advertised in the brochure.

View of the park road from the trail

That evening I went on another hike that was new to me, a little trail not far from the campsite. It was a lovely place from which to take in the sunset, though the sun sank into a haze of smoke and became very weak during the last half-hour.

The smoke made the sun a brilliant, unnatural magenta.

The next day, I went to Arches National Park to hike the Devil's Garden Primitive Loop. Arches has a couple of these primitive trails, in which the trail is not improved or clearly marked and requires some route-finding. I'm sometimes surprised that such trails still exist in national parks, considering our lawsuit-riddled times, but they do. And they're great fun.

On the drive to the trailhead

It was nice that there weren't that many people on the trail. I hiked for an hour then stopped to take a photo of a cairn.

I decided that where I was was actually a nice place to sit and do some brainstorming in my journal. I climbed partway up a rock fin to where there was a natural bench, and began to write. A group came by on the trail, and I took half-conscious note of the fact that a man was clearing some stones off the slickrock. Before he disappeared from sight, I heard a woman confronting him about destroying the cairns.

"They're graffiti. They're made by hikers," he said.
"No, the park service makes them so people know where to go. You're going to get people lost."
"I read that they're graffiti."

The truth is, I had read something to that effect as well. As pictures of aesthetically pleasing cairns invade Instagram, more and more people are noticing, and photographing, and then making these little piles of rocks, and other people are starting to have a problem with it. These people include conservationists, national park employees, and op-ed writers. I am a devout proponent of unspoiled wilderness, but I still think hiker-made cairns are cute. I don't think people make them in order to "leave their mark," but to feel a sense of participation and connection with others who have left cairns, and to make a kind of art that is exceedingly ephemeral. Most cairns composed on a whim during a hike don't last very long at all before they topple. Compare that to spray-painting a cliff or carving one's initials into an aspen, and the practice seems positively charming.

As for the idea that wilderness should lack all trace of man, well, we're going to need to take out the trails themselves if that's the case. I'm all right with a few rocks being shifted.

And as for the thought that random cairns will lead people off-course... I know that sometimes they will, at least for a little bit. But, as I was finding out, hikers don't need any help getting off-course.

My view, with people

I wrote. People came by. Largely, people came by and glanced around, perhaps tried to mount or slide down some rocks, then turned around and went back, or wandered off in a random direction. Nobody noticed me. I began to call out asking if people needed a hint, whenever they were clearly clueless. Many people took my hints. One man in a helmet with a GoPro on top said, "No, I'm good," and proceeded to climb most of the way up a giant pile of bouldery rubble and sheer cliffy faces before accepting he was going the wrong way. He eventually wandered back the way he came, right past the path.

Almost no one stayed on the path. People wandered off seemingly randomly, or kept going straight when the path turned, or saw some footprints in the distance and made for them despite that the place where they were standing had many times more footprints than where they were headed. I had never seen anything quite this bad before--but then, I had never sat down by a primitive trail and simply watched people come through. By this action my mind was opened to the disconcerting idea that hikers have no idea what they're doing.

You can see the trail in the picture above, or the one below. It's the lighter strip, a whitish trace worn into the red slickrock. It's fairly easy to see in person. Except not to them, somehow. For me, the witness, it was a bit like watching colorblind men trying to find the number 5 that stands out bright red in a field of green, which to them is invisible.

It's not that I never lose my way. But typically I only go a few steps before I realize the substrate beneath my feet has changed -- where before the sand was hardpacked, now it's soft; or now there's lichen, where before, the rock was scraped smooth. It seems now that such discernments involve some sense that 95% of hikers have yet to develop.

I began to help them more. Call out to people sooner. And then, when I had written my two hours' worth, I got down and rebuilt the cairns the other man had destroyed. Because they were clearly needed.

This was a story about a teachable moment, me being the learner. But I also want to say that it was some of the most fun I've ever had on a hike. The fun was in listening to people as they coached others in their group over obstacles, helped each other, talked themselves into things. I watched one woman give up and decide to turn around a couple of times before she finally made it up the steep part. And then, another older couple made it through, and I heard her say to her partner, "I'm proud of us." It was a blast. But after two hours of it I decided I should probably finish my hike.

Private Arch

Sandstone fins

Double O Arch

Hiker on a fin

Partition Arch

Hiking in the age of COVID

Pine Tree Arch

By this point in my trip I was really craving some fresh food--I hadn't brought a cooler, because bringing canned and dried foods is so much simpler--so I stopped at a market on the way back to the campsite. Unfortunately, though it said "Market" in the name, it was more of a convenience store. I wasn't seeing anything inside that looked appealing. Finally, at the checkout counter, where they sometimes have bananas and apples, I found something: local-grown tomatoes. I got a tomato.

I was quite tired by the time I got to camp, but I still struggled up onto the sandstone to watch the sun set. There were flowers. I was surprised at how much like summer, even like spring, it still was here -- grass still green, streams at full flow, plenty of flowers.

A new neighbor had arrived at the campsite next to mine and she approached as I was having my tomato for dinner. We ended up sitting and talking for quite a while. Her name was Jen and it turned out that she was also a geologist, out having a solo adventure, and she'd chosen this campground on a whim. We talked about places we'd been around the west and about backpacking. Later, we went out and walked the bike trail on the slickrock under nothing but stars. Even with the lack of moon and the dimming of the starlight due to all the smoke in the air, the trail could still be seen without a headlamp.

Iwent to sleep before the moon rose. On my last day, I hung about the campsite for hours, reading and writing. It was past checkout time but no one came to kick me out. It was Monday and the campground was finally quiet.

Finally in the late afternoon I went back to Arches and did some shorter trails.

Lizard tracks

The Windows Primitive Trail was just lovely and far too short. I stepped off the beaten path and followed the cairns around behind the arches, leaving the hordes of sunset-photo-seekers behind. At one point I stopped to take some photos myself and realized that it was almost perfectly silent. No voices, no insects, no cars, no planes, no wind even. It's too rarely I get to experience that, to the point that the sensation is almost otherwordly. Everything seems much more present.

I still hadn't had dinner, so I went to a picnic area a short drive off the main road and ate another tomato I'd picked up, plus some crackers and almonds. When I was done I packed up the food, put the back seats down and set up my bed. I didn't want to get in and drive the hour and half to where I'd be sleeping that night. For the first time on the trip, not only was the moon absent but the smoky haze had thinned enough that the stars were giving a real show.

For about half an hour I stood under the stars, looking and taking photos. It wasn't too chilly yet. It was a little spooky, though -- I was alone in a place I'd seen for the first time in the half-light just an hour before. There could be mountain lions sneaking up on me as I stood there. Though, to tell the truth, the thing I worried about most was that a ranger would come by and think I intended to spend the night there. Hard to argue when you have a bed set up in the back of your car.

It was too beautiful, and I didn't want to leave. But I did.

I drove through the dark for an hour and a half to the free campground. As when I'd come in five days before, it was filled with campers already asleep. Since the latrine had been quite smelly last time I was there, I chose a site far from it. Then I looked at the latrine, not wanting to walk the distance I'd just created in order to go to the bathroom. And it was dark, after all, so I just squatted next to my car and peed there.

And again, just as when I'd camped here five nights before, my alarm failed to wake me in the morning. I can't think of any reason why. As far as I know, there's no magical interference waves a car creates that jam the circuits of alarm clocks. I still had a four-hour drive back to Denver and I was going to be very late for work.

As I walked to the bathroom I realized that I was very close to another campsite. A campsite where about eight people were sleeping under the stars, no tent to shield them from the view of the sky during the night. Or from me peeing right next to my car seven hours before. I wondered if anyone had seen me. In the end, I was hard-pressed to care. I will probably never see any of those people again in my life.

It was a long, tired drive back home, and then I had a full day of work. But it had been worth it, to see that sky. I was already missing Moab by the time I got home. But it's only seven more months until the warm weather returns, and I can go back.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Lazy Labor Day Weekend

My lovely company announced they were giving us the Friday before Labor Day weekend off, so I decided I would take a four-day, end-of-summer backpacking trip. I chose a 28-mile loop in Maroon Bells - Snowmass Wilderness that seemed rugged but doable. Since I didn't have much time to plan, I just skimmed a few maps, calculated some mileages, and threw my stuff together. Although I did take a moment to do a very silly thing.

I bring travel-sized tubes of sunscreen backpacking, and the one I had was almost out. I hate having to buy new little tubes all the time, it seems wasteful. So I tried to tape a large tube to the smaller tube and squirt the former into the latter. It worked, barely. Not enough to make me want to try it again.

I had just moved into a new place, and had been occupied with packing and unpacking the last few days, so it wasn't until after ten at night that I could start getting ready for my trip. That means it was about midnight by the time I was done cleaning the sunscreen off my hands, the counter, and the floor. I needed to be up in four hours. Four hours of sleep doesn't sound like a lot, but it's way more than zero, which is what I actually ended up getting. I don't know why. I'm sometimes excited or nervous before a trip and don't sleep well, but zero is definitely a record.

Still, I rose in the 4 am dark and began to drive. Going through Glenwood Canyon, where the Grizzly Creek fire had been burning over the past month, the air coming through my car's vents was nasty. It smelled like burnt peanut butter. At least it wasn't so smoky that I couldn't see the horizon, as it had been for much of the last few weeks. I had spent most of those weeks indoors, and my throat would burn after even a 20-minute walk outside the apartment.

By 8 am I was starting to fall asleep, so it was good I was finally coming to the dirt road that led to the trailhead. This turned out to be quite a trip. The road was very narrow and winding, and the sun was directly in my eyes as I curved up into the mountains. Anytime there was a shadowy section, I could not in any way see what I was driving into. A pothole? A ditch? Another car? Then the road curved again and I came to this, which -- thanks to the south-facing angle -- I was actually able to see.

It was a river. The road crossed a river. My Prius definitely hadn't signed up for this, but I gunned it forward and splashed through the torrent, sending a spray of white water flying around me. All right, I'm lying. You don't gun a Prius. But I drove through it and everything was fine and very normal.

I parked and began hiking. I was on the Avalanche Creek trail, which was new to me. The trail was rugged and overgrown, and after two tiring miles I came to a tributary creek, where the trail ended in a washed-out bridge.

Red sandstone cliffs high above

The washed-out bridge

Thankfully I didn't have to drive over this one, and I was able to climb down into the gully and out the other side. The day was quickly growing hot. Steamy summer weekends seem like a great time to leave the city for the mountains, but climbing thousands of vertical feet with a giant backpack generates a lot of heat as it is. I would have been sweating doing this climb in 30-degree weather. It was inching toward 90. 

Makeshift cross and old avalanche chutes repopulated by aspen

I spotted a handmade cross stuck in a pile of river rocks and went down to take a photo. The stony "beach" of the river was littered with odd rocks of all shapes and colors, and I ended up spending about 45 minutes looking around for pretty ones. It's a weakness. There were many red sandstone rocks with white dots, indicative of the fact that some organic matter had been trapped in the original sediments, changing the chemistry of its surroundings. In this one, you can even see the organic matter at the center of the dot.

As I hiked onward I passed meadows and stands of aspen, then came to a distinctive burn area.

It was as if someone had inserted a piece of Mars into the Colorado forest. Bare, sterilized red soil stripped of nearly all life was interrupted here and there by trees or small stands that had somehow escaped the flames, and streams naked of vegetation wove through the area, carrying away the unsecured soil.

Few cairns had been erected and I had to search to find where the trail exited the area. (It's toward the southwest corner of the burn zone.) Eventually I passed into Duley Park, which was the only named meadow on my map. It was pretty enough.

Black bear claw marks on a tree -- either from climbing, or simply marking that he or she was there

By two o'clock I was beyond exhausted -- not just in the need for sleep, but in my muscles themselves. I felt in much worse shape than I expected to feel. And I was becoming very demoralized. I pulled out my map to see whether my current location would be a reasonable stretch of trail to camp on, given the number of miles I had to do the next day, and noticed something I hadn't noticed before.

I had thought the final day of my planned loop would be almost all downhill, half-bushwhacking on a very rough, steep trail. It wouldn't be that much fun, but I'd done such things before, and it would allow me to keep from having to double back. However, now that I was giving the map a better look than the rushed one I'd given it the night before, I noticed that there were actually about 2500 feet of elevation gain in that segment before I started going downhill. That last day was going to be hell.

I wasn't sure what to do. I didn't want to give up on my loop, but I already felt like crap and my muscles were only going to get more tired as the weekend went on. I took a mostly-overgrown side trail down to the creek and sat down on the stones to think. I was all alone; it looked like no hikers had used this trail in at least two decades. I tried to refill myself with calories and electrolytes and chocolate; I leaned back on a boulder and read my book for a while. I noticed there was a bank of pearly everlasting behind me, the first surviving patch of flowers I had seen so far, which at least gave me a little smile. After an hour and a half I felt only marginally better, and made the tough decision to just find a campsite for the night.

In my search for someplace nice I ended up wandering ten or fifteen minutes back down the trail toward the car. Eventually, I found it: a nice flattish spot under some trees, a good distance from the "bustle" of the trail, with a view of a meadow and distant peaks. Down the hill was a beach area right on the creek, with a nice log to sit on. In terms of backpacking campsites, it was heavenly. I set up my hammock immediately and climbed into it with my book, letting myself relax in the cool shade and warm breeze. I had been miserable half an hour ago, and now I was in bliss.

You never think that, when you're miserable -- that you're going to be ecstatic a half-hour later.

The sun set at 4 pm. At least, it sunk behind the ridge to the west of me. A bit disappointing, but I wandered down the trail to the next meadow, where I could watch the shadows creep up to the line of aspen. After that I had dinner, and then it wasn't so much longer until it was dark. I was about to get into my tent when I noticed a tree.

When people get concerned about me going into the woods alone, I expect they're usually worrying about other humans with ill intentions, or my getting lost or spraining an ankle, but these aren't the things I worry about. I worry about bears, mountain lions, and trees.

Falling trees are an increasing danger for hikers, especially in Colorado, where so many trees are effectively dead on their feet, killed by beetles or wildfire. I always check around where I camp to make sure there aren't any trees that look like they could fall on me. Except this time I apparently hadn't checked so thoroughly, because now I saw a dead one that was leaning vaguely in the direction of my tent.

It wasn't a large tree. It was perhaps four inches in diameter. But I didn't like the look of it. Now, I have a solution for campsites I would really like to use but which host dangerous looking trees, and that is to push the questionable trees over.

So I put my hands on this tree and gave it a shove. It rocked, just a tiny bit. Well, great. Now I definitely didn't want to just leave it and go to bed. The chances were small, but if something shifted, or a strong wind came up in the night, I could be a pancake by morning.

I pushed it again, and it moved just a little, no more. So I pulled back on it, and it came with me; I shoved again, and it shifted more than before. Something snapped down in the roots. This was the way. Over the next ten minutes I worked on rocking it back and forth, loosening it in the soil, snapping more roots. It wasn't easy work. I think I pulled a muscle in my back, a little. Trees are very heavy. The tree was always tilted away from me, so I wasn't concerned about it falling on me, but I was slightly concerned about ending up poke myself in the eye with a branch as I rocked it. Mostly I managed to make a lot of noise in the dark and get a lot of pine needles down my clothes.

It loosened and loosened, and then I shoved it over and it fell! The moment of triumph. It did not in fact fall very near the tent, so maybe it was silly that I had even tried to push it over. But it was done.

I went to bed very warm and flush with my success, and had the best night of sleep I have ever had on any backpacking trip. Not a single worry about bears or mountain lions. I attribute this entirely to my pushing over the tree. I felt STRONG that night. I had the strength of a bear that had the strength of two bears! And I slept for 11 hours, woke, decided I was still sleepy, and slept for another 3 hours. That's almost two night's worth of sleep.

This is obviously the solution to my sleep problems on trips. I need to push over a tree, every night before bed. Every single night.

Tent, with fallen tree behind. Not the big one, the little one.

The view from my hammock

I woke for the second and final time at 10 am. The sun was full on my tent and I was burning up, in all my clothing and my 15 degree sleeping bag. By sleeping in so much I'd made it even more challenging to complete my planned loop, and that was okay. It was a kind of decision. I could see that what my body really wanted after all the packing and moving and unpacking was just to be able to relax. So I spent the day reading and writing in the hammock, and eating. It was lovely. So, so peaceful, so quiet, not a worry in my head.

The next day I slept in again, and then I became bored. I decided to take a day hike up to Avalanche Lake.

Though the trees weren't changing yet, the ground cover was.

A surprising number of plants turned a beautiful purple.

There were some thimbleberries remaining to be picked, and a few raspberries and currants too. I've never had thimbleberries before and they were very good. I ate as many as I could.


Rattlesnake plantain orchid

In some places, the aspen looked sickly, with crispy dry yellow leaves.

Beautiful fireweed

It was very hot. I was sweating like a dog as I climbed the final stretch to the lake, and there was hardly a cloud in sight. Finally the land leveled out.

Avalanche lake is truly beautiful. What's more, there were a ton of campsites and only a few people camping there -- on a holiday weekend. I didn't hang out for long because I wanted to get back to my hammock and read, but I did go wading.

Then I hiked back to my site. It had been a nice eight-mile day hike. The sun had already "set" by the time I got back at 3:40.

I debated hiking out to the trailhead then, and sleeping in the car so I could get an early start on traffic the next day. In the end, I dismissed the idea; I'd been getting such good sleep in my tent, and I wanted it to continue. So I slept to my heart's delight, and woke to the apocalypse.

The smoke that had nicely kept away for most of the trip, making only a faint haze that lent a little fuzziness to my photos, had now found me. At 9 am the sun bled a deep orange sunset light onto the landscape, and thick smoke hung over the valley. It was eerie. I know that Oregon and California have been dealing with worse than this for a while now, but it was new to me.

Weak light illuminates my meal spot

I normally would never have chosen to hike in air like this, but now I had to. I packed up and took a last few minutes to read in my hammock, enjoying the very fact that I could, and then I began hiking out.

My throat began to burn before I'd gone very far. The smoke was like a heavy fog hanging over the mountains; it looked like it was about to rain any minute. But it was hot, very hot. It was a relief when I made it to the car three hours later.

Unfortunately, I still had to drive home. It was the last day of a holiday weekend, and I knew traffic would be heavy, and had accepted this as the price of sleeping in. However, I didn't quite realize how bad it would be. It took me six hours to get home; it had taken me only 3.5 hours to drive to the trailhead at the beginning of the trip. I actually got in an hour of reading during the journey, traffic was going so slow. It made me wish I had just hiked to the car the night before and then driven out at 4 am.

I was in for a surprise when I got back. Weather reports were forecasting snow that night, and the following day as well. And as hot as it had been where I'd been backpacking, it had been even hotter in Denver; it had gotten up to 101 over the weekend. The forecast seemed crazy. But they were right.

We got a few inches here; a foot or more was projected for some locations in the mountains. Originally, I'd toyed with the idea of taking Tuesday off in order to have a longer trip, and now I was glad I hadn't. I wouldn't have seen the weather forecast change, and I'd have been in for a hell of a surprise Monday night. My equipment will certainly keep me alive well below freezing, but at the least, the hike out would have been a cold, wet one for my feet.

My throat still hurt quite a bit after I got home; it took two days to stop burning. I hope the snow has made the wildfires easier to fight and we won't have a summer like this again anytime soon!