Sunday, January 13, 2013

In The Canyon

A friend emailed last week to ask if I wanted to join her on a lengthy hike in Topanga State Park, and it was a no brainer—I hadn’t seen her in eons, I hadn’t been to Topanga SP in eons, and I still hadn’t visited her new home in the canyon. 

The house was beautiful, a woodsy retreat tucked into a hillside, with heaps of charm to spare. I detoured into daydreams about writing in their small guesthouse, sipping coffee on the porch, listening to birdcall and rustling leaves. The writer’s life, a rustic wistfulness.

But I’ll get there, I will.

I was in a great mood as we started on the trail. My lungs and legs immediately ached, a sign that I’m still on my path to recovery from a year of relative sloth when it comes to hiking. It was a bluebird day; the skies wiped clean from rain and high winds, sunshine flooding the horizon—Catalina, the San Gabriels, and even a snow-capped Mt. San Jacinto in the distance. As much as I enjoy hiking on any day, I especially enjoy those days when the views lodge your breath in your throat and remind you of how infinitesimal you are in the grand scheme.

Conversation flowed as easily as it can in between huffs and puffs. Work, mutual friends, recreational pastimes, fitness, beauty, and then—depth. We acknowledged it when our conversation rounded that corner—and it always does on hikes like this, where the miles take you hours into the wilderness, and the conversation shifts from water cooler to something more meaningful. There’s something about the air, the vistas, the sunshine—the act of hiking as a journey, rather than a means to an end—that encourages this kind of talking on these kinds of days.

We talked about dreams and hopes. My friend talked about her immediate work goals, but also divulged her long-term plan: work hard, sock away a bunch of dough, invest in canyon property, and create a true Topanga rental retreat—something that speaks to the (yes, sort of hippie) magic of this ethereal slice of the Santa Monicas that is more about nature and harmony than about luxury and romance.

I daydreamed again about living in the canyon, about writing more, about loving life even more. I told her that I, too, had a long-range plan (that’s actually shorter-range than I let on sometimes): I want to write again—for more than myself—and find a new rhythm in life. Maybe move to the canyon, or somewhere similar. I want a backyard, a garden, trees, greenery, sun, and fresh air. I want the smell of a wood fire to no longer be relegated to camping trips. I want to change my perspective.

Sometimes hiking is about perspiration, and sometimes it’s about inspiration.

On this particular sunny, cool January morning, it was both.

Monday, January 7, 2013

I'm A Tree People

After a late night of delicious wine, tasty Thai, and scrumptious list-making, my friend Brooke and I made a groggy drive up the coast for a morning mission: join TreePeople at the mouth of Topanga Canyon to do some restoration work. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when we pulled up there were shovels, buckets, work gloves, and seedlings – all doled out by a man I was all but certain was Kolby Kirk, circa 2033.

Future Kolby gave us a rundown on what we were doing – this part of Topanga Canyon was actually part of the State Park, but had long been neglected, allowing an encampment of squatters to build a veritable homestead in the area. They dammed up the creek, effectively stranding the steelhead trout who used to do this whole salmon-spawning shebang up from the ocean every year. They also tracked in invasive species, killing off the native shrubs and trees, leaving a whole lot of adorable forest creatures homeless.

It was interesting being the volunteer and not the supervisor, as I have been with past TreePeople endeavors (San Gabriel & San Bernadino Mountains, post-Station Fire). It was hard work – sweaty and dirty – but it felt good to strike the seemingly hundred-pound dig bar into the ground, push the shovel down into the rocky soil, and excavate any number of man-made junks from the dirt, making way for a tiny little leafy life to take root. Each planting felt like a little miracle; I’ve spent hours (well, days...weeks...when you add up all the hours) tromping these canyons and hillsides. I try to be a conscientious hiker, but to do something so pointedly give-backy felt really, really good.

At the end of the session, I felt tired, sweaty, warm, dirty, and achy. But I also felt a lot like the adorable kiddo next to us who commented: "We're doing a favor for the Earth!” (Cue the “awwwwws!”).  

We drove up the canyon a bit and had lunch at Abuelita’s, both of us exhausted but quietly proud of the work we’d done that morning. “I want to do that again,” Brooke said, after we’d spent a length of time staring out the window into the leafy beyond.

“Me, too.”

And I will.
And she will.
And so will many, many other people.

For all of the graffiti that bums me out on the way to work, the marked-up concrete gray expanse of our metropolitan bowl: because I know that people are willing to do this kind of work, to get their hands and knees and elbows and ears dirty, I know that all is not lost.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Cadman Spur

Today I took the path less traveled…which also happened to be the path of more resistance (but the good kind).

Since I was working from home this morning, I made plans (with myself) to sneak in a good Griffith Park hike this morning. My alarm sounded at 6:15am, and after a cursory (read: psychologically dependent) check of my various internet presences, I snuck in a quick ab workout, then left for one of my favorite morning jaunts via the unnamed trail that starts at Cadman Drive in Los Feliz.

Flush with that new year’s feeling of adventure and discovery, I hitched a left at a fork in the path – a fork I ignore every single time I hike this trail, despite its grassy green insistence that I give it a go. I wandered this chlorophyllic path until my stroll became a forty-five-degree angle of squelchy mud and sweat. I pressed on, happy for the workout and curious about what lay ahead. During one of my frequent wheezy rest stops I turned around and took in a view I’ve never quite seen before – not from this angle, at least.  The trail sloped down through the greenery out of sight, and the San Gabriels rose on the horizon, silhouetted in the morning haze. I could see my originally intended path weave along the hillside below, now looking pretty boring next to my spectacular muddy green perch.

Not too shabby, Griffith Park. Not too shabby.

I kept going, figuring this trail (which I have now dubbed “The Cadman Spur”) rejoined that original path (Coolidge Trail), but instead it continued to climb past fancy houses and up a grassy plain, eventually depositing me in a thicket of conifers.

Yes, there are pine trees in Los Angeles, if you just look hard enough.

I smiled a big, sweaty smile, and found myself on a familiar fire road, Vista Del Valle Drive (though not the one I thought I’d land on), and wound around some water tanks to a hairpin curve in the road. To avoid heading back down the slippery hillside, I was hoping I could link back up with the Coolidge Trail and glide down the dusty fire road back to my car.

And I did.

Adventure and intuition paid off, and I emerged back on Cadman Drive a happier, sweatier person than I was an hour prior. I took the path less traveled and discovered an even better way to start the morning, with misty vistas and surprise pine trees, not five minutes from home.

Sometimes it pays to go left instead of straight ahead.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Ode To The Morning Hike

Griffith sunrise

This is an ode to the humble morning hike.

To one of the only reasons I'll wake up at 6am. To seeing the sun before most of you. To brisk air slapping my face. To flexing my toes and stretching my legs. To feeling the heat flush my cheeks. To rabbits and birds. To mist and fog. To the middle-aged Asian couples in their matching respiratory masks. To the elderly dudes in their short-shorts. To the people walking dogs...lots and lots of dogs. To the solitude of the less-beaten path. To the rising hum of the city. To the rustling leaves and crackling twigs. To the dirt tan swirling up my legs. To the ocean views on a clear day. To the haunting haze on others. To the pain of hustling it up a steep incline. To the freedom of running full-tilt on the way back down. To the feeling of being on top of it all.

To owning the day before it has a chance to own me.


Re-reading this, I think I just wrote the copy for a new Nike ad.


What Would Ed Do?
It. But on, like, Aconcagua or something.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sequoia National Park aka "BEAR!!!!!!!!"

Hidden Bears
(I can assure you that the bears in Sequoia National Park are NOT hidden)

The plan was to stuff the car with tents and marshmallows and head up to Sequoia National Park for my birthday weekend, but talk of LA's infamous (*cough*...lame) "Carmaggedon" weekend instilled the fear of gridlock into my would-be companions, so we pushed it a week and finally arrived at the Dorst Campground just as the sun set.

In doing research for our trip, I read over and over again that Sequoia has a much more active bear population than Yosemite, and that we should be extra vigilant in our campground and on our hikes. We dutifully shoved all potential bear attractants (read: everything we brought with us, magazines and all) into our bear box, scarfed down some dinner, and called it a night. I popped my earplugs in (standard "I don't want to hear what's coming for me in the dead of night" procedure), and slept with visions of ursine visitations dancing around my head all night.

I was relieved, then, to wake up unscathed in the morning. Our campsite was pretty spectacular, the morning sun filtering down in a hazy curtain from the tippy tops of the massive trees encircling our site. I puttered around, swayed in the hammock, and forgot all about the bears - there were giant trees to see, and I was going to see them all.

In the interest of saving the environment (and because I hate to drive when I'm on vacation), we hopped the free shuttle bus and jumped off here and there to take in the sights - The Giant Forest Museum, Tharp's Log, Crescent Meadow, Big Trees Trail. When my thoughts wandered toward bears, they were happily distracted by a handful of Swedish Fish and further exploration of one of the most gorgeous places I'd ever been.

But then IT happened. I pushed for us to lay off the tourist wagon for a bit and instead take a rarely-traveled side trail from the Crescent Meadow area to the General Sherman Tree. Rebecca sort of agreed, and just a few minutes up the trail, we passed a large boulder on the right side...and directly on the other side of the boulder, just a few feet to my right, stood a bear. A black bear. A large black bear. And not just any large black bear, but a blonde black bear, which kind of looked like a grizzly bear to me.

If it's possible to emotionally pee one's pants, I emotionally peed my pants.

The bear was pretty big. Definitely big-sized. Large. Sequoia-sized bear. Giant. Did I mention it looked kind of like I imagined Sasquatch to look? Feral. Hungry. Clearly ready to tear into my flesh, which at the moment was only protected by a thin layer of SmartWool and a backpack I shrunk in the wash while trying to blast out the funk accumulated on the Mt. Whitney trip.

I froze and Rebecca nearly bumped into me from behind. Then she saw it, too, and uttered two words in the most hushed of hushed voices:

"Oh, shit."

My mind was racing. In preparing for this trip, I brushed up extensively on my "bear encounter" etiquette, probably to the point of obsession, but at this moment, I realized that much like most of my testing experiences in college, everything flew right out of my head the minute I needed it.

"Ohmygod. Ok, just walk away slowly. Ohmygod, Rebecca. Walk backwards. Slowly. Ohmygod."

We hyperventilated ourselves back a safe distance, and once we realized that the bear wasn't following us, started sprinting through the woods, spraying adrenaline-laced sweat on everything we passed. I laughed nervously. Rebecca laughed nervously. We swore a bit. Then we laughed even more nervously, and swore a bit more.

Our heart rates eventually returned to normalish, and we made it through another near-encounter the next day. Upon reflection a month later, I have to say that it was pretty awesome to stumble upon a bear in the wild, doin' its thang.

But seriously, though - my mom would be SO PISSED if I got eaten by a bear. I'm just saying.

What Would Ed Do?
Ed speaks the language of the bears. He would have high-fived the large gigantic huge blonde black bear, then hopped on its back, side-saddle-style, casually galloping up to the top of Moro Rock together to watch the sunset.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dairy Queen Wall aka "Um, so the approach is the crux, right?"

Topping out in cloudfire

I do not know this guy, but he did a lovely job.

Before this weekend, I theoretically understood that there existed such things as "approach shoes." I theoretically understood that one wears such footwear in order to approach a place where one might want to apply actual climbing shoes to their feet, so as not to ruin said climbing shoes on the, uh, approach. I theoretically understood that in order for "approach shoes" to be a necessary item, there must exist the sort of terrain that cannot be crossed in flip-flops.

Just because I theoretically understood all of that does not mean that I was somewhat shocked by the serious amount of steep scrambling it took to approach the Dairy Queen Wall, one of Joshua Tree's classic climbing destinations. Good Ranger Laura was leading Rebecca and I up towards a series of routes - my first time climbing in Joshua Tree (if you don't count the Conan's Corridor scramble), and only my second time climbing outdoors in my entire life (the first time happened, I don't know, thirteen or five billion years ago). About half a minute into the scramble, I stopped and said to Laura, "Um, is THIS the climbing?" knowing full well that this was exactly why the "approach shoe" was created.

After skinning approximately 15% of my exposed skin on the scramble up to the base of the routes, we reached our destination - some purported 5.6 climb whose frozen-dessert-related moniker I can't remember. I belayed as Laura led the route, and watched as she reached a sort of open, featureless area in the middle of the route. Hm. Hmm. For a brief moment, Laura considered where she'd place her next protection, then with the wingspan of a freakin' pteradactyl, lunged gracefully across the open space and proceeded with the climb. I studied her moves, and calculated that my own wingspan was about that of a blue jay, so we might have some problems here.

Nevertheless, I volunteered to go first, and then realized that to start the climb, I'd have to stem up using the boulder behind me - a skill I was pretty sure I didn't possess, especially since when I initially launched off the wall, I ping-pongged between the two rocks, skinning off an additional 5% of my exposed flesh. However, flush with the feeling that I couldn't let myself get soft-served by this frozen delight, I found myself aloft, pinching the grippy holds, and practicing all of the super-useful stuff related to weight and tension and movement that I'm really glad I learned at the rock gym.

I didn't make it all the way up (turns out that blank spot in the wall was too much for my old granny hip), but no matter - it felt good to shimmy up the rock. We then moved over to Frosty Cone, rated a 5.7, but it played out a lot better than this jerky 5.6 did. After a few minutes, I forgot about Laura and Rebecca below (for a bit, at least), and focused on what felt right on the rock, shifting my weight and working up the face. Once again, I got stuck the crux, but looking back over my shoulder at the desert below, I was proud of what my normally acrophobic self had accomplished.

A few climbs later, we began to downclimb the approach route, and almost immediately, I started to whimper. I felt secure up on the rock, but here, facing the slabs and boulders, and air beneath them, I lost all confidence. With some patient guidance from Really Really Good Ranger Laura, the shaking subsided and although I skinned off another 25% of my exposed skin, I made it to the bottom, my pride from my first Joshua Tree climbs (mostly) intact.

The rock tore up my skin, the approach tore up my confidence, but it felt good to be out there, realizing new limits for my body and mind. I'll definitely be back, and this time I'll still bring my "approach shoes," but hopefully also my "approach attitude," acrophobia be damned!

Thar she climbs!

What Would Ed Do?
Ed guided something like 20 million ascents of Mt. Rainier as a young buck, so I have a feeling he could probably coax me up and over some unclimbed summit in the Himalayas if he had to. That said, Ed would probably high-five Laura for her supreme patience and general awesomeness, and hopefully high-five me right afterwards for being up there in the first place.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Annapurna aka "Every Chick's Got One"

This beauty came in the mail the other day:


In internet parlance: ZOMG!!!

This isn't just any old badass T-shirt - this is a replica of the badass T-shirts sold to raise funds for the first successful American expedition to the summit of Annapurna (Annapurna I, if you're being technical), the 10th highest mountain in the world, back in 1978.

The woman behind the expedition - and the badass T-shirt - is famous mountaineer/scientist/environmentalist Arlene Blum, and the reason I'm mentioning any of this and the reason why I'm so excited to sport my very own replica T-shirt is because she wrote a book called Annapurna: A Woman's Place that I just finished reading. You see, not only was her expedition the first American team - and only the third team in history - to reach the Annapurna summit, but they were also the first women to do so, during a time that was less than hospitable towards female climbers or adventurers of any sort.

I saw the T-shirt in a photo towards the front of the book, and for all of the obvious reasons (mountains! double entendres!), I had to have it. But since finishing Annapurna, that tee seems a bit more symbolic. There's a reason Maurice Herzog famously (well...famously to mountaineering nerds) said: "There are many Annapurnas in the hearts of men" - this mountain has the highest percentage of fatalities (the ratio of fatalities to summits) of any of the big dogs - yep, even more than Everest and K2 - and if you want to translate his sentiment into non-mountain dork parlance, it basically means we all have our own crap to conquer.

In her book, Arlene recounts the struggles of being a female mountaineer in the 70s - that's to say, the struggles of dealing with all of the sexist bull that came both from outside and within the patriarchal mountaineering community at the time. To add to that the daunting task of organizing an expedition up the most dangerous, and at the time, only barely explored, of the 8000ers is a helluva challenge. I ended the book gutted by the fatalities that occurred during the expedition, but in awe of the strength of this team of women.

So hell yeah, Arlene - a woman's place is definitely on top.