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Archive for the ‘The Wild’ Category

This post brought to you by clean water. From the mountains.

As a more practical addendum to my most recent post, I feel like I should send a shout-out to a pretty much revolutionary device which I used for the first time on this summer’s backpacking trip. Consider this a ScholarAdventurer first: we’re doing product reviews.

Grandpa has recently gone on an exciting quest to eliminate all excess weight from his backpack. On this recent week-long trip, he carried food, tent, stove, fuel, and all necessaries on his back, and yet the pack weighed just over twenty pounds. For comparison, I consider myself fortunate if I can get below thirty.

In the process of cutting weight, he’s acquired the latest in ultralight hiking technology. We slept in a tent that was made of some Rivendell-style gossamer mesh. We ate food that had been dehydrated and then double-dehydrated, for maximum dehydration. However, maybe the most exciting thing Grandpa has discovered is the SteriPen.

See, the thing is that water in the mountains isn’t really drinkable. Sure, you might be able to safely drink the water in certain very remote brooks in like Alaska or the Himalayas, but for the most part water in the Sierra Nevada is contaminated by malevolent parasites, and has been ever since woolly mammoths sought refreshment from crystalline alpine springs.

Or, probably, since the 1970s. Grandpa has fond memories of a time when he would go to the mountains without even a water bottle, and would just dip a tin cup in any passing stream. He blames the change on the hippies, and pack mules, both of which are known for their poor hygiene. For as long as I have been alive, in any case, it has been a really really bad idea to drink from even the highest and most secluded water source without taking protective measures. To do otherwise risks having to deal with this gentleman:


Sorry. I probably should have warned you that some really horrifying imagery was coming there, so the sensitive-of-stomach could avert their eyes. The microscopic world is both wondrous and terrible. This is giardia, which wikipedia informs me is an anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite. I don’t think I’ve ever met a backpacker who didn’t a least know somebody who had contracted it.

What happens is some infected person or animal (in the mountains, I’m told, it’s often pack mules*) voids its bowels in the water of some high place, or near the water so that the rain will wash it down, and the parasite then lurks there until it gets the opportunity to infest an unsuspecting human. Then, once it’s in your intestines, it waits a few days or even a few weeks, multiplying, biding its time… until it strikes! Deadly diarrhea, pain and suffering, blood and (occasionally, I think) spontaneous combustion. These symptoms can last for weeks and, get this, sometimes they never entirely go away. You get this bug, you could spend the rest of your life in its company.

Anyway, the point is that ever since I started hiking there have been only three really viable ways to make sure your drinking water is as pure and clear as it looks and tastes. You can boil it–which is time consuming, and requires heavy fuel**, you can kill the bugs with iodine (which tastes vile), or you can pump your water through a charcoal filter, which is also time consuming, and labor intensive, but was always my preferred method. There was even something satisfyingly rustic in using the labor of my arms to obtain my water, like some primitive mountain man (with an eighty dollar filtration system) drawing his drink from a well he bored into the hillside.

That is all changed now, though, because modern technology has learned that, actually, weirdly, giardia can also be killed by ultraviolet light.

This is very strange to me. Ultraviolet light, I’m pretty sure, is generated by normal sunlight, which hits lakes in the mountains all the time without killing their bacteria. I suspect that lots of the things that grow in lakes actually probably like sunlight. Nonetheless, we live in interesting times. I spent a full week doing nothing to treat my water except swizzling a little blue light in it before I drank, and I felt a constant nagging fear that I was signing my own death sentence.

Now that over a month has passed, however, and I can say with reasonable confidence that I am not suffering explosive pooping, I can confirm that mountain water can actually be made potable by exposure to ultraviolet light. And if you thought it was satisfying to work your ass off for a bottle of water, wait until you turn on this thing that looks like a miniature lightsaber–this thing which requires no expensive replacement filters, doesn’t change the water’s taste, and weighs practically nothing–and zap the parasites to hell like a goddamn space man.

*About which I could rant a great deal. Sure, they make the mountains accessible for the infirm, the elderly, and the obese, but at what cost?! Their hooves pound the hell out of the trails, leading to erosion and dust. Their feces infect the streams. Now, if you want a good mountain animal–one that actually evolved to climb around in the heights, you need to look somewhere else.

**Because we DO NOT light campfires in the high sierra.

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On the flight to Hawaii, and in Hawaii, I read Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and I loved it and so now I’m reading Blood Meridian, and it makes me want to write a blog post about my trip to the mountains, made more visceral with straightforward, masculine descriptions of the smell of  the sun setting over the knife-sharp peaks and high blue alpine lakes rimmed with steep granite walls polished to glassy smoothness by a hundred thousand pounds of glacial ice over the course of a hundred thousand silent cold years. Something about the fresh glitter of sap on young sugar-pines and the drone of mosquitoes in the still air of old ponderosas, and the twisted fluid patterns in the wood of the occasional ancient bristlecone pine and, at the lake where my grandfather and I made our camp on this particular hiking trip, the smell of fresh rot in dozens of trees uprooted or cracked apart in some tremendous recent winter avalanche, each treetop horizontal pointing northward and no trace of the heavy winter snows that felled them.

The scenery of the Sierra Nevada as you drive up into the shadow of the mountains from the bright sun of the Owens Valley is terrifying like the ocean or like God; it is beautiful in the way that only enormous things with no regard for human life can be beautiful. It overwhelms you And after a few days of fair weather, of shaded hikes and calm warm nights,  you can just start to forget the scale of it all, temporarily, until you come around the bend to some new babbling cascade, or the sun hits the gray rock just so, and the whole thing crashes back upon you all at once like a wave.

On certain hikes, the mountain itself can be an adversary, pummeling you with rockslides, or strong wind and hail, or the risk of lightning, or temperatures better suited to the arctic. If this were a McCarthy novel, I’d probably have something to report of that nature — painful encounters with weather, or with bears, or with the drug cartels which are said to grow assorted plantations of marijuana in the less traveled corners of even some national parks: small but well-irrigated fields patrolled by casual-appearing hikers with discreetly concealed firearms.  As it turns out, however, the danger and wildness are all at home. While I was away hiking in the woods, some bold criminal propped a ladder to the back of my Boston apartment, climbed fifteen feet to a half-open bathroom window, and sauntered out the front door a few moments later with a television and a few other valuable trinkets. For the hike, I was blessed with temperate weather, with only the lightest of afternoon thunderstorms, and a surprising dearth of mosquitoes.

Every summer, for the past fourteen years, I’ve spent a week or two walking the high sierra with my grandfather. At this point, he’s been returning to the mountains for more than twice as long as I’ve been alive, and I suspect he knows his way around the hills as well as John Muir himself did. On this particular trip, we returned to a little travelled lake below Lamarck Col*, making our camp at the second (and later, the third) in a chain aptly named the Wonder Lakes (you’ll find them on the top right of the linked map).

These lakes, like the nearby Lamarck Lakes, are deep and cold, fed by a shocking series of waterfalls that appear suddenly and with little warning as you walk around the hills. They are ill suited for long-trips and ambitious hikers — once you get up into the Wonder Lakes, there is no pass to climb over, unless you want to climb two thousand feet of crumbling granite, and descend through the same to wind up in Bishop Creek (which is far more easily accessible by other means). The valley is better suited for those like us, going hiking for four or five days, with no goal other than to enjoy the scenery, and relax a bit, and read some Auden in a place that rewards slow meditation. My one regret is that we did not bring fishing poles; the golden trout were leaping out of the water at dawn and dusk, in great numbers, and a line and lure would have helped the time pass more pleasantly (and, with some cornmeal, would have furnished us a fine meal).

On my first trip to the Wonder Lakes, maybe five years ago, an old man (though not so old as my old man — you see very few men of over seventy years making the effort to carry twenty five pounds of weight in that thin air) pulled me aside on the trail, and when I told him where I was going he said, with proprietary vehemence, you take care of those lakes. He was probably concerned that a young buck like me would be careless, and would befoul the streams and leave the remnants of my campfire and toilet strewn about as the young and careless too-often do in the mountains. I was raised better than that, and now I think I can also empathize with that old man. I keep coming back to these high lakes, and it is more and more apparent how very fragile they actually are, and how much their pristine condition owes to the fact that there is no trail leading to them, and no trail leading away, so that even though they are within seven miles of the trailhead, only a few travelers at a time are ever there to visit.

When you are there, it is possible to forget how close you are to civilization (and when you hike in California, to be fair, you’re never that far from the civilized world). The silence alone is incredible. The high stone walls close you in, and sun sets early over the near western peaks, leaving you with the surprisingly cold bite of the wind blowing off the higher ridges, and the surprisingly deep blue of the sky sinking to deeper purple and then black, and all the thousands of stars that don’t exist when you’re in the city, reminding you that there actually is a whole universe out there (which is surprisingly easy to forget, when you’re at home in your apartment).

These secluded lakes and valleys are something special. May they remain, as they are, untouched.

The Old Man, in the mountains

*Owing to my partner’s advanced age, and our own time constraints, we did not attempt to pass the Col into Darwin Canyon and Evolution Valley — an area of the mountains in which, if rumor is correct, the vistas are as gorgeous as the Yosemite, but without the crowd, and cheerful silver trout leap nibble readily at every wanderer’s baited line and, for all I know, dinosaurs still walk the earth in all their prehistoric splendor. We’ll save that lost world for a different hike.

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This post brought to you by several glasses of an unremembered pinot noir* (it had a horse on the label) and champagne (or rather, some less illustrious bubbly) served at dinner, with toasts, by the much-beloved K____, and also a few beers, bought me by my brother at some overloud bar in Pacific Beach. My ears are still ringing.

Just another few quick notes about the desert, and about desert people.

When I arrived in Ridgecrest, I had a few hours of time to kill before my dad got off work. I spent the first hour taking a nap in my car, and the second exploring the neighborhood. Ridgecrest, I noticed, is something a little outside of my usual experience. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s the exact opposite of Boston. For one thing, instead of being filled with college students (my people!) Ridgecrest’s character is defined primarily by the China Lake military base. They are a different kind of folk (at one point, I met a guy who flies F-16 fighters for a living. I’m pretty sure that’s right below Astronaut and Pirate Captain in the ranking of awesome jobs).

They have more gun shops, more churches (well, fewer Catholic churches than Boston, but more churches overall), and more fast food restaurants. In the center of town, the local country music radio station has a set of speakers on a high pole, and they broadcast slow twangy songs over the mostly empty streets, so that as you walk around you feel like you’re participating in a nostalgic western movie.

Ridgecrest is a sprawling town in the high desert, which boasts such amenities as a Wal Mart, a K-Mart, and (soon) a Big!Lots. The cost of property is such that new businesses often prefer to erect their own structure on a new location rather than acquiring a previously-occupied building, so the neighborhoods are dotted with vacant buildings and vacant parking lots, sun-bleached but weirdly preserved (mummified) by the desert’s still dryness. I tried to persuade dad to go ignite illegal fireworks with me in one of these vacant lots, but was not successful.

Everything is extremely clean, which was surprising to me, since the sage that edges the 395 highway is generally coated in a thick enough layer of discarded plastic and aluminum to kill any weaker plant. I am not sure if the neighborhood is clean because the people care for it, or because the winds that blow through the valley simply sweep away all detritus.

While exploring downtown, I stopped in at the Red Rock bookstore, which was apparently the only secular bookstore in the city. It is a belief of mine that you can learn a lot about the character of an area by taking a look at its bookstores. Red Rock was surprisingly extensive, with both used and new books and a large collection of classical and contemporary literature. It also, however, had its fun idiosyncrasies. For instance, there was a hefty “survival” section, which featured books on what plants are edible and how to find water in the desert and also a large book titled something like “The Complete Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse,” which had detailed and practical advice, coupled with black-and-white illustrations, on how to shore up your food supply, how to create effective camouflage, and how to set up lines of sight (ie. where to put the guns) when defending your home against the roving hordes of the hungry/desperate/undead. All of this written with just enough seriousness to make it more than a little bit creepy.

I should note that the survival section was not the largest in the bookstore. The largest section was the “Star Trek” section, which featured at least four Very Long shelves full of Star Trek novelizations and spin-offs. I had no idea that so many Star Trek books even existed.

The desert can, of course, be a refuge for people who just don’t fit in with regular society–too liberal, too conservative, or very often just too nuts. I think the big skies and weird loneliness of the desert would make it a good place to write a novel, or to escape into some other big daunting project. Now, Ridgecrest’s military presence and relatively large population might be sufficient to prevent the kind of monomania that inspires triumphs like the Desert View Tower, but then, there were so many star trek books.

When I lived in Spain, one professor referenced a folk-belief that windy locations make not-entirely-salubrious places of residence, as they lead to frequent instances of madness. When you’re alone out in the middle of the desert, I guess the idea is, with nothing but the silence and the sound of the wind, your grasp on reality can sometimes get blown right out of your head. We’ll be watching dad for the signs.

*While I have no intention of making this blog a chronicle of functional (or, as my unreviewed grammar and frequent neologisms may prove, unfunctional) alcoholism, I do think the drinks are useful for setting a kind of context here. Where is the blogger at the time of his blog, and what is his mental state? Also, I feel like the intro establishes a sort of after-party tone, so that you know I’m ready to let my guard down and talk frankly with you about personal matters and not hold back because of any inhibitions which might sometimes trouble my soberer self. Plus, the booze, she can be fun, and this is a funblog.

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Death Valley

Tonight’s post is brought to you by Mirassou Pinot Noir (2009), which an unknown guest left at my mother’s housewarming party earlier this week. Tasting notes: tart (bordering on sour), über-sweet, fruity, with hints of–nope, no hints of anything. This is not a subtle vintage. I’ll bet it would make a nice punch.

Last weekend I completed yet another rite of manhood and rented a car, which I drove up the 395 highway to visit my dad. There is much to be said about that visit, and about the town of Ridgecrest, which sprawls from street to empty street but is still dwarfed by the surrounding scenery (the majority of which is part of the China Lake military base, site of many implied explosions), but for the moment I’ll suffice it to mention that we put an extra 300 miles and more onto the rental car’s odometer and violated certain terms of the rental agreement pertaining to the use of the vehicle for off-road driving and for transporting contraband materials* while passing over several mountain ranges and across several desolate valleys to visit Death Valley National Park.

The valley of the shadow. Taken at Dante’s Point.

This trip was a reminder of the extremes that make the desert appealing: the vastness of the sky, the painted colors of the hills, and the sheer presence of the bare land which is so easy to forget on the forested east coast. The silence of the place is incredible and lonely, and the size of it all has a way of making you aware of your own insignificance. I, at least, always find myself spending an inordinate amount of time imagining how easy it would be to get lost (in this valley, with its crisscross of highways and steady stream of tourists, it might be slightly less easy), and how long I might survive unaided and what unpleasant but impressive eat-grasshoppers-and-drink-your-own-piss-ish feats I might be driven to perform before I emerged from the wilderness weeks later, lean and wild-eyed like an old testament prophet.

Which, now that I think of it, is pretty much the plot of 127 Hours. It’s no wonder I liked that movie so much.

While there, we stood on the salt deposits of Badwater, the lowest spot in the nation. The ground was blindingly white, and the dry lakebed (which you can see in the above picture), spans about five miles. Although I knew Death Valley to be the lowest spot in the nation, I was not formerly aware of the fact that it is ringed by snow-capped 5000-11000 ft. peaks (in contrast, San Jacinto rises about 10400 ft from Palm Springs–although it looms much closer to the viewer than Death Valley’s Panamint Range). I guess I’d never thought that the “valley” aspect would be so at all times apparent.

Additionally, the trip was an opportunity to do some hiking, which I have sorely missed this year. The trails we walked** were stenciled onto dry washes, and barren hillsides, and skirted past the ominous black holes of long-abandoned borax mines (come in under the shadow of this red rock), made more ominous by the steel bars that crossed them and the warning signs*** interspersed along the trail. There was no sign of plant life on the trails, which struck me as strange.  Even in a place where the summer rises to over 130 degrees, the complete lack of vegetation was weird (some of the surrounding hills, at least, were studded with the type of thorny shrubs that are able to claw out a living in such conditions). Apparently, the valley is aptly named. Nothing lives there except Japanese tourists and roving packs of motorcyclists.

The one-day expedition was a great way to finish 2011, and a more than pleasant vacation from my winter vacation. Now I have one more week to enjoy the still-75 degree temperatures of southern California before I fly back to Boston. Winter over there will be an adventure of an entirely different sort.

*Dad’s Christmas present from my brother was an impressive and diverse collection of highly illegal fireworks, which he was far too nervous to ignite within the possible range of human habitation. As such, we waited until late at night on our drive home, and then pulled over alongside the highway in the middle of the Panamint valley. There, far far away from any town, we launched a brief but very exciting show that would have been visible to anyone within a thirty mile radius. Judging by the lack of headlights in the hills, though, I suspect it had an audience of exactly two.

**The largest fraction of our time was spent on the Golden Canyon trail, which circles the area near Zabriskie point, for those of you acquainted with the valley. Our appreciation of the area was somewhat heightened by knowledge of the eponymous film, which neither of us has ever seen in full, but it is apparently a cult-classic filled with hallucinations, rock n roll, and teen angst. Make of that what you will.

***The perils of abandoned mines, according to the signs, include (but are not limited to) unmarked pits, abandoned explosives, collapsing floors and roofs, accumulations of poisonous gas, and wild animals (mostly rattlesnakes). Doesn’t sound so bad.

****These days, I’m big on the annotations. What other symbols can I use aside from asterisks? Is there a way to make numbered footnotes in wordpress? Or better yet, like pop-up boxes that appear when you hover your mouse over a word? I’ll look into it, and report back.

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