The Weeks in Pictures

Spence here:  “I was looking for a job and then I found a job…and heaven knows I’m miserable now.”

…The immortal words of our generation from The Smiths–I may have been known to repeat them a time or two. After landing in Ashland for a little over a week, I acquired a job at the Ashland Food Coop. At first, as per usual, I was excited to find something so soon and considered myself lucky. Although, Billy and I were still in Ashland seemingly on a trial basis, what better way to sink in one’s teeth than to try and connect with the community and make a little cash while I’m at it. The first few days were hectic at the job–people were nice but it is a very large grocery store–a size of coop I’m not used to. It was extremely busy and crowded–good for an economic standpoint, but usually not very good for workers. Long story short, I hurt my wrist trying to keep up and by the end of the fourth day I was toast. That night, I joined Billy for some libations at our friend’s place and I had a meltdown. My health was not worth this job.

Fast forward a couple weeks and my wrist has still been giving me trouble, although its definitely on the mend. We spent a glorious week up at Wildcat Campground, on Hyatt Lake, located in the newly created Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, east of Ashland. Summer temperatures have reached over the 100s in the valley, and Billy and I were happy to stay in one place in the cool of the mountain forest, to discuss our options–while swimming, hiking and reading. What a nice life! (I realized I had missed the smells and sounds and warm water temperatures of a nice inland lake–similar to the lakes in my youth.) We talked about still driving to New Mexico, but ultimately I felt like it was a big risk to take with an old jeep on our hands. So Billy took the opportunity for a time-out to go to Texas on the train instead to visit family, while I took a time-out and stayed on, exploring more of the monument. I continued wandering back roads, day-hiking many miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through the area, and tried to regroup. While the dry mountain air and breath-taking mixed forests, diversity of wildlife and trail access have certainly drawn me into the area, the human community aspect of this place is just not there for us. Not that people aren’t nice and all–for they most certainly are welcoming–Ashland just seems to have a gap in the kind of art, music, weirdo and queerdo contingent we’re looking for. It seems as if there was more of an anchor here–a fun job, or school classes Billy was more interested in and/or cultural art/queer community–or if it was at least cheaper to live here–which it definitely isn’t–we would be more likely to stick around. Ashland is great, but maybe it is not great for us. Time to break up… it’s not Ashland, its us.

After the magnanimousness of the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse has surpassed, it is onto a new horizon. Many of the classes at the University of Oregon in Eugene, still stir Billy to giddy moments of spontaneous dance, so perhaps we’ll seek our treasures there. More interesting jobs, a more livable wage and price of rent, more opportunity and still wonderful waterways and mountains to explore. I am excited this weekend, however, to shift my attention to witness this solar eclipse and just enjoy the love and company of Billy and some friends. Our time apart while Billy was in Texas, although brief, deepened and reaffirmed so many more of my feelings for him and the strength of our relationship. I struggled with the decision to not go with, and it was the first time I have felt lonely in almost a decade. But it is good sometimes, to have such feelings and know my heart is in the right place, at the right time, with the right person–and everything else is sure to follow that lead. Billy’s post coming soon…



Spence here: Over the Labor Day weekend, I managed to wrangle (seriously, I had to wrangle it) an extra day off.  I have always wanted to check out Mt. Jefferson and the whole Jefferson Park area, outside of Detroit, Oregon and the South Fork of the Breitenbush River. With an extra day for driving and seeing the sights, we were off.

I knew the trail to the area was steep (trail 3375)  and we hadn’t been backpacking in awhile. I was still a bit disappointed in my fitness level, however, and it still came as a surprise as to how long it took us to get up the 6 miles (and 2000 feet) to the park area. I felt happy though, just to get out there, feel the late afternoon autumnal sun rays and smell the breeze. I bought a new backpack several weeks ago and really got a chance to over-load the thing with heavy food, extra clothes, books, journals and water, to test it all out. My review of the pack is simple–awesome! Mountain Hardware’s South Col 75 is a good friend to have along in the back-country. Comfortable, big, nice hip belt, great outside pockets and mostly waterproof.

The first night we stayed in a site among the boulders, hiking up about 3 miles. We had left late from Portland and meandered our way to the trail head from Genie’s restaurant, the library and a stop at the North Santiam River State Park–finally driving through Detroit and down a long gravel way. The first morning was chilly. We made coffee early and then got back in our sleeping bags with the thermos full, reading books until the sun came up over the ridge. Warming up came quickly though, as we hiked the rest of the miles up to the lake. We took our time feeding and watering the horses (I like to think of myself as a horse sometimes when I hike uphill, as it makes me feel stronger), eating fig newtons all the way up.

Our reserved back country site was on Park Lake. There are numerous lakes in the area: Bays, Russel, Scout, Park, and Rock Lake. The Pacific Crest Trail runs through the area and on our next full day we hiked along the rocks and on this famous trail.Views of the mountain were in my mouth it was so close and the shadows long with a strong warm sun. The next day however, the mountain changed moods. We woke to dark, chilly sky and a misty ridge line. By the time we thought about packing up, the rain was actualizing and the temperature had dropped. We said goodbye to the brook and the trees, glanced up and said farewell to Seekseekqua, aka Mt Jefferson, the lakes and Park Butte, (and our abandoned oatmeal breakfast) and headed down at a good trot. I finally found a good pack weight equilibrium for my knees and felt like they were healthy for the first time in years. I actually had a great time going down over loose gravel, mud, rolly rocks, wet plants and low hanging brush. We stopped a few times to pick and eat wild blueberries and Oregon Grape. At one point I was running down the trail, using my trekking poles like a slalom skier… thankful to be feeling better in my mind and body. 6 miles in 3 hours and were getting back in shape. I love the woods!

Billy here. What a much-needed foray into the wilderness! We were so happy to be on our first real backpacking trip of the year that we didn’t mind the ridiculous traffic on the highway (that seemed to mysteriously end after passing the suburban outlet malls with their Labor Day sales).

On the way, we stopped for lunch at North Santiam State Park and sat at the river bank for a bit, enjoying the sun. It was late afternoon by the time we took our final turnoff on the forest road for our trail head: late enough that we knew we may not make it very far in before setting up camp for the night. On the road, far from any other campground, a lone man was walking with a dog. Spence waved, but the man only peered in to the jeep at us intensely. We thought it seemed odd, but soon forgot all about it when we reached the trail head and tried on our fully loaded packs. It had been entirely too long, but it felt good. My pack was actually too heavy, despite my assertion that it felt light. I had journals and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit packed, along with fresh fruit, vegetables, and more food than we could possibly eat in three days. However, it was sunny and the smell of the woods was invigorating.

Posted on the trail head was a flyer for a missing young hiker by the name of Riley Zickel, who had been missing since July 27th. His car still remained at the Breitenbush Lake trail head, according to the flyer. Spence said maybe he just decided to keep walking the PCT. This put me in a reflective mood as we ventured into the woods. The lady fern, vine maple, and big leaf maple began to envelop us. Some creature left several half devoured grand fir cones in the trail. As the trail climbed, the ferns changed to bear grass and huckleberry, and the maples gave way to mountain hemlock and Douglas fir. We struck off the path as the sun turned red to find a flat spot to camp, but the going was rocky and steep. I kept imagining how the missing hiker may have slipped off and into a ravine to perish. By the time I was really thinking of how tired and out of shape I was (and how we probably should’ve settled for the last flattish spot), we found a beautiful little camper nest off the trail with just enough space for our tent and a kitchen area. It was cold that first night, maybe because it was wet near the creek and the sky was clear.

The next day was gloriously sunny and warm. We hadn’t made it quite as far as we’d imagined, but it was only a few miles to the wilderness area up near Park Lake where our reservation was for the next night. Hikers leaving for the weekend, it being Labor Day Monday, reported being rained out the entire weekend, only to have the weather break today when they were leaving. We knew we had a little window though, because the forecast called for rain tomorrow. The hike over the ridge into the Jefferson Park was really beautiful and, after feasting on wild blueberries, the rest of the walk was more or less downhill.

We crossed stunning meadows and creeks as the mountain suddenly came into view, large and sheer. Park Lake was nestled at what seemed like the foot of the mountain, where our campsite sat at the top of a hill overlooking both the lake and the mountain. We sat at the water’s reflection. We ate chocolate and drank wine. We wandered the lakes and walked a short jaunt of the PCT around the park. The sunset was golden and the stars that night were powdered sugar and crystals.

The next morning we moved slow. It was misty and wet and we didn’t finish breakfast before it started to rain. We packed up everything wet and began our descent down Breitenbush Trail. I forgot my gloves and Spence graciously lent me his socks and carried my cold trekking poles. Raynaud’s syndrome causes the blood vessels in my fingers to constrict, so my hands overreact to cold and wet climates. I should start packing my neoprene surfing gloves everywhere! Despite being soaked and a little cold, the hike down was lovely. We ate more blueberries on the way down. I think they are the most delicious blueberries I have ever tasted in my life.

Driving back out down the forest road, I mentioned to Spence that the man we saw walking with the dog a few days ago may have been the missing hiker’s father. We stopped in Detroit for coffee and snacks and the hiker was the talk of the town. The family was indeed searching for him and they said that his father, Robin, did indeed go walking for him every day. Sadly, as of this post they still have not found him yet, despite weeks of rescue efforts, but the search continues.  I found myself deeply moved by the courage family and friends showed when faced with this uncertainty and loss.

A friend of the family, Cheryl Alterman, described the young man: “Riley was a special kid. He’s an old soul. He’s 21, but you would never know it, and his smile entered the room before he did. He is the guy that every mother hopes their daughter can marry. I know his heart is brightening up the forest.” Lt. Chris Baldridge said: “I think it’s the hardest thing for us to have to look the family in their face after getting to know them for eight-plus days, and letting them know we can’t find their child.” The father posted this moving message online from the family:

I will be leaving Detroit today with great gratitude for the love and support  we have received from the people of Detroit and from the people who have tried so hard to rescue him.

What we have learned from this very hard lesson is that Riley has shown us that the most important thing is to show love and compassion to one another. This is what we have received from you and this is what we would like to give back to you so that we all can continue on to give to each other.

Our lives have changed forever and it is our hope that due to our beautiful son Riley so has yours so that we can all share with each other and the world the beauty of the lessons he has shown us.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Erin, Robin, and Noah

Cheryl observed, “The forest was (Riley’s) favorite place, and if that was his way to go, then he’s probably in the happiest place that he can be.”

The Hike Out

Bear Creek to Mammoth Lakes: 56 miles in five days

August 20th: 7 miles along Bear Creek

August 21st: 11 miles Bear Creek to Vermilion Valley via Mono Hot Springs Detour

August 22nd: 6 miles from Vermilion Valley to Cold Creek

August 23rd: 15 miles over Goodale Pass down into Cascade Valley to Fish Creek

August 24th:18 miles from Fish Creek through Iva Bell Hot Springs to Mammoth Lakes

Billy here. After getting soaked in relentless rain for days, we woke up along Bear Creek after a long, restless night. Spence had a fever and was sweating and chilled all night long. He even got up in the middle of the night to make hot chocolate, he was so cold and sleepless. It was clear that we would not make it over the next mountain pass this way, so we began a slow trek out, with the idea that perhaps we would get a ride back to Mammoth Lakes some way or another.

We hiked out Bear Creek and thought we’d try Mono Hot Springs south of Vermilion, since it was closer to the road out, thinking maybe we could find a ride or get a bus or shuttle. It was a beautiful but hot hike out, some of it down a rocky and steep OHV road. At the end of the OHV road was a little trailer where someone lived rather rustically. Here we continued down a steep, winding main road with no shoulder for a couple of miles. Mono Hot Springs was a cute little operation, dotted with cabins and a quaint little general store. We were running low on energy and water, so we bought some juice and maps and sat out front in some rocking chairs to discuss our plan. A couple of local grizzled cowboys were sitting net to us smoking cigarettes, one with a gentle demeanor, and struck up a conversation on the area and where to catch a bus. From the gist of it we would have to try and find a ride to Fresno and then take a bus all the way around. This prospect would cost us some money. Even though Mammoth was about thirty miles on foot (as we erroneously thought) across the mountains, by car you had to go all the way around, south and north again through Yosemite, a trip that would take us all day with good luck. We didn’t really like the prospect of having to negotiate a ride into a city then sitting on the bus with Spence feeling so sick. We decided to rest and walk back. This was a feat of courage and endurance on Spence’s part that still impresses me to this day. He was feverish and woozy with no appetite and the trek we had in front of us was more like fifty more miles, not thirty. Our first step was to hike back up the steep road to Vermilion Valley Resort to get back on the trail. One of the grizzled yokels was talking about the numerous hot springs in the woods, some public, some secret, but it was hot out and we wanted to get on our way. The other cowboy with the soft voice said he saw us walking down the main road as he was driving in from his trailer where he lived at the end of the OHV road, which we passed earlier, and offered to give us a ride in his van, at least as far as his trailer. As long as we didn’t mind a little mud and animal hair. Not in the least! On the ride up he talked about how he used to ride the horse train for the camp up near Vermilion and how he loved the Southwest. There was something so gentle and kind about him, like a cowboy Buddha. Sam Elliot would be cast for his character in the Hollywood movie of our summer. When we said goodbye I realized we didn’t get his name, only the name of his dog, which seemed appropriate somehow. We were so scattered and out of sorts that we had forgotten to get water in Mono Hot Springs and I had even left my half finished juice at the general store. The climb up the road to Vermilion was hot and ruthlessly sunny and we soon ran out of water. It was at least five more miles to the resort and I felt ridiculously irresponsible for letting us run out of water when Spence was so sick and on the road of all places. As if being answered swiftly by a miracle, I heard the sound of running water off the side of the road just up ahead. There was a small spring! We rested in the shade, filled up on water and trekked back up to Vermilion for the night.

That night it stormed through the entire night, soaking our tent further and effectively draining us of more sleep. So we had a slow, wet start to the day and Spence was still feeling very sick, but we didn’t want to spend another day at the resort so we might have a better chance of getting some good rest, so we decided to hike a little into the trail and take a rest day. Looking at the map and remembering the torturous climb down the granite staircase and Tully Hole, we agreed that we didn’t want to climb back up that way. Also, we wanted to stay at a lowest possible altitude, in case Spence’s flu was an altitude sickness combination, so we set out to take a different route back: down into Cascade Valley along Fish Creek instead of up over it on the PCT. We knew we didn’t technically have a permit to go this way, but figured through the extenuating circumstance, we had to take the chance. So we set out up Cold Creek past Graveyard Meadow, where we rested and dried out for the rest of the day. I was beginning to feel under the weather too, but I drank Emergen-C and powered through it with sheer will. I had to be motivated and strong to get us safely out.

The next day we slowly hauled over Goodale Pass, which was relatively not as difficult as Silver Pass. We rose slowly into the dusty, moonscape of the mountain pass and saw Squaw Lake again from a different side. My thoughts were filled with old grievances as we clamored slowly down switchbacks on the other side of the divide past alpine lakes, until we reached the very bottom of the valley and forded Fish Creek with our shoes in our hands at dusk. We continued down the creek for a ways trying to find a flat spot to camp for the night and, even though we didn’t intend to hike for so long, by the time we finally found a spot right next to the creek, it was dark and we had gone almost 15 miles.

The next morning we hiked over the ridge to Iva Bell Hot Springs, where we rested our weary legs in a warm, healing pool and determined that we might as well hike all the way out today since we were quickly running out of food options. We forded the creek again and hiked up a dry, hot switchback out of Cascade Valley, affording wondrous views of the valley floor, and continued north to Devil’s Postpile where we would take a shuttle back to the car. This little back trail from Fish Creek to Reds Meadow was quite beautiful and I am glad we got to see the sheer granite cliffs and waterfalls tumbling straight down them. Much of the trail was flat solid rock, part of a vast cliff dropping off to the west of us. By the time we hiked up out of our last switchback bowl, I was finally getting the hang of understanding altitude change on the topographic map. “Oh, the rest of this trail is no problem!…Gentle slopes all ahead!…No more uphill after this!” I would say before ascending yet another gravelly switchback over a rocky ridge.

We were so thankful to finally see the Rainbow burn stumps of our home stretch: only a couple miles to the shuttle pick up. Just before leaving the meadow, I saw the flapping of what I thought was a hummingbird, but it turned out to be a sphinx moth, a creature I had been wanting to see since I was a kid! Our very last uphill to the shuttle stop from the trail was so ridiculously steep that I joked we would soon start walking up backwards, trying to humor Spence, who was not in a mood for any more hills. I was so tired, hungry and grumpy that I stopped in my tracks and laughed with my hands on my knees. We finally made it to the bus stop after nearly 18 miles up from the Valley floor. We sat on the shuttle in a daze as the sun set. We were dreaming of hot fresh food and a bed and a shower. I could only imagine how tired Spence must feel battling sickness and going 50 more miles over another mountain pass and into and back out of an enormous valley.

In the dark, we anxiously walked away from the shuttle through the parking lot back to where our van was last parked. We were delirious and could hardly walk even on the pavement. We were exuberant to find our van intact once again!

We went to a local bar with a Texas theme called Z Ranch and joyously drank Shiner. I ate a mouthwatering double jalapeno cheeseburger with zeal. We checked into the Motel 6, took heavenly hot showers and crawled into soft, flat, clean and dry beds. We were going to sleep in and have some real coffee. At a coffee shop.

Because we had backtracked and done parts twice, like the River Trail, we had just walked over 192 miles through the Sierras, which is nearly the length of the entire John Muir Trail. I knew in my heart I would go and do this trail again to the finish. Ultimately, it isn’t about the miles or even completion, for there is nothing to complete except the continual shattering of limitations in the mind, forms, symbols and ideas – learning to see and hear the world as it is without the stained glass vision of the story through which we see the world. As Arthur Koestler says:

Every creative act involves…a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted belief.

spence here:  waking up to another very cold and wet morning, we decided to go about a mile to a drier camp to rest up and dry out. my head was spinning and breakfast did not appeal to me–not even coffee. we landed not too far from upper bear creek meadows and sadly never went any further south. even after laying in the sun to dry out for several hours i had severe chills, accompanied by sweating since i had put on every layer of clothing i could fit. that night’s sleep was possibly my worst ever, as i struggled in average temperatures to stay warm and stop shivering.  in the middle of the night i finally got up and made hot chocolate,  thinking dramatically, that if i had hypothermia, the beverage would save me. in the morning, we had nice sunny skies and warmer temperatures, however, i was in no shape to hike. i turned to billy and i saw that he knew what i was about to say. in a disappointed and sick-induced haze i buried my head in my sleeping bag. when i woke again, i weepily drank half a mug of tea and dragged myself out of the tent to pack up.  i’ve never been so dizzy, fatigued and/or nauseous in any time i can recall. it took me an hour to sort and fill my pack–a chore that normally took 5 minutes.

what i remember from that day of hiking, as we turned around to go back, was not the fact that we barely made any miles, or the fact that i had napped more than hiked, but that of billy’s courage, patience and resolve to take care of me and get us out safely.  we had both been reading our guide book and re-reading the book to try to figure a short way out and the answer was simple–there was no way out that didn’t include at least one mountain pass and elevations of 11,000 feet. i focused that day on staying upright, with the hope that going down in elevation to vermilion valley resort would help me feel a little better.

we sacked out for the night at a lovely spot near bear creek, with a shadowy butte overlooking our camp. it was warm and dry and i slept a little better at 8500 feet, but still had the chills.  it took me 3 days to get rid of them, but by that time, i had a new problem–chafing.  i had never had this problem before while hiking, although i had heard numerous horror stories of people unable to continue hiking for the chafing on their butt cheeks and thighs was so bad.  many companies make anti-chafe cream and lube for this purpose, as well as special spandex, chamois shorts and a whole host of other preventive measures. fortunately and/or unfortunately, i had read of a quick and painful remedy that proved to work well the whole trip–alcohol.  i always traveled with alcohol pads because they are good for everything–from first aid to getting sap off your hands to cleansing before cooking.  curiously, another use for them was drying up chafing.  yes, it is as awfully painful as it sounds, but its a 5 second way to stay chafe-free and get a little cleaner at the end of a long hiking day.  in my sickness stupor, i had neglected to notice and take care of this increasingly aggravating problem, so by the time we arrived back at vermilion, my chafing was so bad, it was uncomfortable to sit down.  i did what i could by showering at the ranch, using alcohol and eventually using talc powder, but since we had to hike further, nothing really helped. at least it took my mind of my continuing nausea and fever!

with all said, i really did appreciate seeing mono hot springs and i felt sad to miss out on soaking.  i was glad for more kindness from strangers, in the form of buddha cowboy camper-dweller and for the continual hospitality from the folks at vermilion valley ranch in the face of our predicament. i was dead-tired and worried about hiking out, but going down in elevation to 7500 feet helped to clear my head and see that our path was clear over goodale pass. it was a brilliant trail and seeing the pass (basically west of silver pass in the same set of teeth) in the sunlight, really highlighted the silvery rocks and cliff faces, gleaming.

billy must have been on edge and disappointed about our turn of events to hike out, but he never showed it. on our way down we stopped for lunch at another secret waterfall spot which had a shimmering sandy beach of crushed granite. we talked about coming back and finishing the trail another time and i know in my heart we will.  i wish i could have enjoyed the last day of hiking more, as our 18-mile epic walk was so picture perfect in many ways.  the trail weaved through massive granite walls, soft pumice paths, across clear fast streams where i dunked my weary head and captured the pictures of twisted old junipers in my mind.  billy would hike ahead and then wait for me to catch up, a slow, shuffling bundle. i felt all sorts of emotions, from disappointment in myself, to relief, to sadness and then back to disappointment.

our shuttle back to the van was uneventful.  i was grateful for the ride, resting my bones, but somehow i thought there should be some sort of monumental ending. not exactly ticker-tape or a medal, but something. i felt proud of what we had accomplished, however, it felt hard to praise it in my mind in light of our hike being over. it felt difficult to swallow–it being “over.” but besides the chafing and exhaustion, at the lower altitude i started feeling better. i knew we had made the right decision in turning around, as hard as it was. i had heard the stories of hikers trying several times to finish the jmt and being sent back to civilization stronger and wiser–successfully finishing in subsequent years. this was my resolve.

i thoroughly enjoyed my garden burger and beer at the z ranch bar, as well as my epic hot shower at the motel.  we had a lot to look forward to with an upcoming new adventure in the desert. i looked towards those future paths and the wisdom and courage that flows to us with time.