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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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Between Trips

I spent five hours on a plane yesterday, and there will be six in a car tomorrow. At the moment, I’m in the middle of a sort of whirlwind of west coast excursions. I just yesterday returned by red eye flight to San Diego (which is both home and home base) from a family vacation to Maui (where I was pleased to find that I still know how to swim, even though I hadn’t done so in the two years since moving to Boston). In an hour or so, I’ll be leaving for the John Muir wilderness in the Sierra Nevada, one of my favorite places anywhere. There, in the company of my still-spry grandpa, I’ll be spending four days hiking and rediscovering the ways of the wild and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

These hiking trips have been a yearly tradition for me since I was very young, although I missed last year (I was too poor, and too far from California). They’re typically a good opportunity to do some writing (though, since internet is sparse in the high sierra, there won’t be any blogging) and some reflecting. I used to bring novels, but I found I would finish them on my first day in the mountains and be left with nothing to do but take pictures (like the one that heads this page) and imagine the delicious breakfasts that I would eat upon my return to civilization. Now, I bring poetry books with me instead of novels, and I find they offer a lot more value upon re-reading. If you picture me reading Auden under pine trees, surrounded by rocks and views and like marmots for the next few days, you probably won’t be far from the mark.

In past years, of course, these trips were considerably longer. You can’t really start to feel at home in the mountains–to even partially forget that you’re a city dweller accustomed to soft beds and a ready supply of breakfast cereal–in fewer than five days, and we’d often go for eight or nine. This hike will be rushed, because some friends C___ and R___ have scheduled their wedding for next week. That happy occasion is my excuse for a trip to Portland, and another adventure.

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Patriotic Road Trip

There may be a statute of limitations on bloggable events, and if so I mean to defy it. Sometimes I get busy/distracted/drunk and don’t bother to write about things. Then I come back, and I want to pick up where I left off. Current readers may find this entry outdated by a few weeks, but to posterity (hi posterity!) it will all be the same.

In honor of Patriots Day (which, for those of you who do not live in Boston, yes it is a holiday), and in an effort to avoid the crowds and commotion of the Boston Marathon, I recently joined several friends in celebrating our nation’s origins on a three-day long Patriotic Road Trip to Monticello in Virginia, by way of Washington D.C. This was a whirlwind tour of the East Coast, of which  full 24 hours were spent in an automobile. Kudos to the stubborn D_____, who did not relinquish the steering wheel even once while the rest of us napped and sang along with the radio and massaged cramped legs in the back seat of his two-door Honda Civic.

The trip had several highlights, and I’ll highlight them for you in brief (every time I try to write about real life events,  I am a little surprised by how much must of necessity be left out. But then, a six page account of time spent staring dispassionately out the window at increasingly lovely scenery–a paragraph or two about the the hour spent in New Jersey, which was still barren and wintery in the north but grew increasingly green as we passed south, a page for the lakes and streams and occasional water fowl of New York, a few paragraphs for the small towns of Maryland (and the distant view of Baltimore), and then  few more pages for the deep wooded hills and grassed-over civil war battlefields of northern Virginia–would likely grow as monotonous as the experience. Narrative, like memory, must be selective).

The last time I visited D.C, I was something like twelve years old (until I moved to Boston for grad school, this was the only time I had visited the eastern half of the United States). That expedition was maybe my first time spent walking the streets of a real city–my first experience with noise, and crowds, and street performers. I remember the heat and the oppressive humidity, and the size of the place, and the fireflies at the Jefferson Monument. My favorite attraction was Mt. Vernon, where the workers wore period garb and there were goats and (I think) chickens and enormous Canadian Geese by the river (the geese of the west coast are much smaller, and more civil, and these honking monstrosities were far more interesting to me than the assorted relics of the Smithsonian*).

What I did not remember was how beautiful D.C. is, with white pedestrian-friendly streets that reminded me of Barcelona, and none of the crowds and noise and rot of New York city. It was consistently striking to me how strange a city it is–created in one fell-swoop, planned from inception as a showcase of culture and a seat of power. A city that didn’t grow from trade or from convenience, but was constructed, like Disneyland. And, like Disneyland, it is strewn with recognizable monuments and famous faces and happy families. There is a feel of wholesomeness sustained by serious effort, and also (I thought) everything seems a little bit larger-than-life. I liked it a great deal. One H____, of our company, showed us to preferred locations for Italian food and frozen yogurt, and this may have biased my opinions in the Capitol’s favor.

I was similarly impressed by Monticello, which has clearly put to good use the funds raised by the $25 cost of admission. The hilltop manse is gorgeous and well-groomed, and is thoroughly outfitted with Jefferson’s assorted weird inventions (automatically-closing doors, portable bookcases, a penmanship-copying-machine) and toothy fossils. The gardens are still used to grow crops, and are also the home of large southern bugs that attack you, kamikaze-style, with impressive accuracy (how do they know to aim for the eyes?!). The views are spectacular. All in all, it was more than enough to inspire any would-be yeoman landholder. Henceforth, I will hold my life incomplete until my parlor has a fireplace equipped with two hidden dumbwaiters dedicated exclusively to wine (a single concealed wine dumbwaiter is so bourgeois).

I should note that Monticello has the additional benefit of being located in the midst of Virginia’s wine country, where the vintners, I learned, specialize in making rich, spicy, Cabernet Francs. We finished our patriotic pilgrimage by early afternoon, and spent the rest of the day imbibing and listening to the birds chirp from shaded patios**.

*Except the dinosaurs. Obviously.

**Special note should be taken of Jefferson Vinyards, which is about two minutes from Monticello and grows wines of unusual deliciousness. Their steel-aged chardonnay, especially, is worth seeking out.

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