Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Desert Trail: Butte Country and the Blues


Back in the day, the Desert Trail Association had scouted, section hiked, mapped and printed guidebook editions and some fold-out maps for roughly 1500m of the Desert Trail. In nature, the trail is an actual route, and to me, the route resembles a combination of the Hayduke and Grand Enchantment Trails. Holding a theme and route-challenging hold other similarities to these routes. Additionally, never quite hiked or scouted, an extra 60 or so miles laid north of Highway 78 in southeastern Oregon that stretched to Drinkwater Pass at Highway 20. Buck came along in 2012 to hike this section, then made a pioneering attempt at extending the Desert Trail even further north towards Canada, which he succeeded in. These next 700m ahead remained unfamiliar  to me in totality and a full understanding of terrain, except for the most northern section which I knew would be very different from the desert biozone. Albeit despite my extensive research, the rest of the route I entrusted a belief that a desert scene would be present in character in some for or another in the steppes of eastern Washington and the Blue Mountains. I couldn't quite fully believe the Blues would have the true desert character, but I still had hope that this bridge would be sufficient enough to maintain a valid route towards Canada. From Highway 20 north, I would be verifying the extended Desert Trail as part of the Desert Trail. At least, that's how I am undertaking this adventure for future thru-hikers, as well as providing the most current up-to-date resources.

Break back:

As I crossed the highway forging ahead into a new realm, I felt the same feeling, the same nature of the first 1500m. The slivers were there to complete and fulfill an ongoing length. The lonely buttes and expansive mesas made for a geometric space lost in sagebrush. The old jeep track I walked faded in to hard-caked cow hoof cups lining the short rims of dried puddles that mostly led to old earthern dams. I reckoned once newer roads were surveyed and constructed these old ones were left to fade. This stretch was as lonesome as any stretch I had seen so far. The silvery-blue of green sage blanketed the volcanic cubic rock underneath the brush, as I spied on so many coyotes traipsing through. All of them solitary, I shook my head of the Lone Wolf, as I understood the fission-fusion of the coyote, an animal I feel kindred to, always on the fringe, always free to do what they want, always misunderstood, always surviving. But these coyotes weren't the only canines. Foxes leaped through the thick brush startled by my human existence. Owls joined the party. And it seemed the animals I had been seeing in this section all were the reclusive types, mostly away from humans, and verified the isolation. I laid down under a large juniper that night. A large owl in the branches woke me up around 4 in the morning. I could hear its wings flap and I could tell they were very big. The owl hooted spookily in a distinct vocal pattern, as another owl hooted sporadically. The owl above me had hoots a bit more dynamic and enthusiastic than the other one, more intimidating. For some reason, I felt like the talons would reach down and pick me up. I felt small, vulnerable, laying under the bright-starred sky.

The owl eventually flew off, leaving me to gather more sleep. I woke up in dewy grass, the morning air chilly. Across the next half day or so I walked through a huge burn area. Scarcely any more juniper poked up, as only thick clumps of grass and reddish cheat grass sprang back, making the land look more barren than the native sage-filled high desert. In my panorama, buttes lined the horizons. The landscape looked even in elevation and distances remained deceptive. However, I did not partake in these mental traps and simply walked empty-headed. I listened to the plethora of songbirds darting through the brush, their tweets blending melodically with the wind. Atop Squaw Peak all I could see were buttes, black buttes all over. I rambled on until I found camp in a pasture near the Malhuer River. Some horses came trotting over as dusk changed the hillsides in splendid myriad of evening color. The horses spotted me and kept creeping near me. Curious as they were, they finally left me alone as night encompassed the surroundings.

At Drinkwater Pass, I felt like something had been completed in its totality. The feeling was there. I could see the Blues in the distance from the last high mesa, an outline signifying much higher mountains. I hitched into Burns to resupply and prep for the next stretch. During the hitch, from a wildland firefighter and farm owner from Idaho, I felt so enthusiastic about the next stretch. Sitting in a brew pub in Burns I conversed with the barkeep. He also worked for the BLM. The Malhuer Refuge Takeover was a big topic, politics between the uber-left and the super-right, big government, and how it all related to public land management. Southeastern Oregon has some of the most fascinating and opinionated feelings of these topics. Most of which I have not seen elsewhere, this unique juxtaposition of both sides so passionate about their beliefs, all felt so fascinating in hearing people being defiant on one hand or people trying to relate or work together on the other. During the conversation a couple of gals asked me if I was riding a bike. I told them I was hiking the route-obscure Desert Trail. One of the gals gave me a sly smile and said she knew Russ Pengally some years ago. My jaw dropped, although admittedly I was a bit buzzed. Pengally, if you remember, first conceived of the Desert Trail right here in southeastern Oregon in the 1960s. Paths seem to cross out here in this rural area, very meaningful paths.

Back out on the route I encountered a cross country section of trail that continued from the previous section. Soon, though, I walked through ponderosa pine forests on forest roads. I consider the ponderosa, in some respects, a link, a bridging of the gap between deserts and wet forests. Ponderosa forests are semi-arid and have that upper high desert feel. Smooth walking ensued as I could hear the mighty wind blowing through the mighty stout ponderosas. Small seasonal creeks still had pools where the water reached the surface, a maze of logging roads weaved through the forests, and I felt the cool air chill my face as I hiked briskly. During the night a cat screeched. I startled awake as the screeching neared my tarp. As the screeching got real close a couple of large owls began hooting. The screeching stopped but my heart still raced. The owls continued to hoot throughout the night and I would wake up occasionally from the hoots and feel secure, like the owls had been watching over me. 

The miles flew on by in the early chilly morning. My senses heightened while being in the forest. There was quite a bit more I needed to sense, to listen to, to watch out for, to observe, to feel, just by being in the forest, especially as it grew thicker. Gone was the incessant howling of the wind that ran wildly through the open desert air. The trees caught the wind and stifled the lightness of the air. The air became heavy, moist, even aromatic with such a fecundity of greenery. Various pines, larch, and doug fir potently made the forest air sweet. Creeks swelled up and the rivers roared. Rain fell through the canopy and puddled in the broad leaves of plants, ferns drenched my legs as I brushed against them, bulbous mushrooms poked through the soil, and little rivulets of water channeled pine needles in the low parts of the trail. Life was in full, vibrant swing. The rain continued throughout the morning as the creeks became even more swollen. Then, on the forested crest, the pelting pitter-patter of ice on my rain jacket droned me to coma-walk. I could feel the clouds whipping through the tops of the trees on the crest with the icy air squeezing out the opposite side of the trees like water through a cheese grater, the sound less ominous once through, filtered to a wheeze, almost a tingle. I hurriedly hiked on as the ice became snowflakes. Temperatures dropped quickly as I scanned the forest for a flat and covered surface to camp. At a saddle I pitched my tarp and bundled up for the very cold night. In the morning, I woke up to 6 inches of snow, but not a desert dry snow, rather a wet, rain forest snow. Mist and fog sunk and floated in the drainages and the air smelled so thick of the Pacific Northwest. As much as I enjoyed walking in the very cold air, my spirits sunk a bit, a reality sinking in of what I had left and had now entered. Suddenly, I didn't feel like I was on the Desert Trail.

To journey is to travel inward. But to harp inward is to overbear oneself selfishly and obstruct the journey. There has been many motivations to for me to hike this route, aspirations and killed thoughts from times past where I wanted to do this route but backed off because of the northern section. Somehow I couldn't see the northern part fitting. The Blues, the wheat lands, the cedar forests and snow-clad ridges of the north--- how did this tie into the Desert Trail? As much as those zones may have dissuaded me prior to this season I couldn't shake the allure of the deserts of the southern portions and the impact of a couple previous hikes, my Great Basin Traverse and the Oregon Desert Trail. The original Desert Trail had the makings of what had defined my life up until that point: growing up in those southern desert areas, wilderness travel and the further challenges of delving further into those wild and remote desert places, and my lonesomeness. All these characteristics drove me to want to share this route, to honor what others had worked towards before, to celebrate the barren yet beautiful landscape, even promote and verify what had been done after things had been forgotten. So, that meant the whole thing, from Mexico to Canada. And, when I found out that the DTA adopted Buck's route that really instilled some hope that that route would fit. I mean, why would you call something the Desert Trail if the trail doesn't go through desert? The other undying question to me: Why did the DTA stop trying to get the Desert Trail to Canada? Was it physical and geographic barriers? Or was it a man-made barrier, like personal ego and unrealistic goals? I knew of other reasons, like public and private land issues, and a fizzling organization. As I walked into through the Blues, I wondered why the route couldn't have ended at Drinkwater Pass where everything made sense? I had a certain responsibility that weighed heavily on my heart. I wanted, even needed, the rest of the route to vouch for what I had experienced on the original portion of the DT, to clear it up, to ground-truth 2 connected routes to interweave trail-integrity, to erase all doubt to a clean slate.

Nevertheless, I remained hopeful as I walked along more forest roads. Over the Greenhorn Ridge I scanned the surrounding ranges and river basins. A cold wind blew through my beard as I contemplated the whole thing. I strove to be patient in the upcoming miles. Mounds of snow lingered under the canopy of firs, springs gushed with fresh water, and wildflowers bloomed in an explosion of color on sun-laden slopes. In the expansive green distance, mountains rolled over mountains, endless. My fist clinched my heart as my soles hardened down the trail towards the John Day River basin; this route won't be defeated until the act is done.

Along the John Day River I spent most of the day picking off the 30-40 ticks that had sporadically clung and crawled onto my legs. I moved brush from the narrow corridor of trail with my poles and forearms. The river ran wildly and the roar soothed an interior boil festering. The route has changed, and not in a way that resembles anything that I am seeking or had expected, or what the previous 1550m desert portion provided or exhibited. The narrative seems to have ended, which has me breaking character. The trail has broken character too, and misrepresents the nature of the desert. I continue forging ahead through a burned drainage, the 20 foot pines throttling the hillsides holding a velvety quality cushioned the abruptness of land, of what water coursed through. I navigate on overgrown and indiscernible paths that keep my mind busy. But it's the slog of the dirt road walking that test my patience, my opinions on this bridge of the DT.  The burden I hold, or the responsibility I feel, is heavy. So, I feel it necessary to give my opinions and criticisms honestly. Although I wouldn't make a judgment then, I couldn't disregard what I was feeling at that moment. I got miles to go in what I hope can scrounge up the desert character, the integrity, and grittiness once again. For now, I am entrenched in thick forests a bit let down.

But I'm not bummed about walking through trees and lush forests, even overgrown trails through pretty wilderness. I truly enjoy this type of hiking in the forests. I even somewhat thoroughly enjoy the slog-fest of walking forest roads because I absolutely love the act of walking. Nevertheless, I feel like I am walking a completely separate route from the DT. The extension of the route north from Drinkwater Pass seems unnecessary, at this point, as what my experience is dictating thus far. In my intentions, from the beginning, was to reestablish and reinvigorate an old and genuine route seemingly long forgotten by the thru-hiking community. I wanted to represent the true nature and integrity of the deserts while not-misrepresenting those notions.

I'm bogged in a philosophical dilemma of route ethics and morals, of how we establish them, verify them, hike them, how we represent them, communicate and share them, and classify them, even forcing a route versus inventing a route while holding up thematic integrity. I am not caught up in semantics here, or words or the naming of something. Nor am I trying to undo the effort of what Buck did. I'm bogged in trying to not ill-represent what I'm doing by not presenting a false environment by naming it by another environment. It seems to me to be the foundation of what something truly represents is what is at stake, of what the DTA should have as a representation of the Desert Trail. In this case, so far, less is more, and more is unnecessary.

I left La Grande feeling a bit more at ease with what was ahead of me, more accepting and even more readily adaptable than the mindset I had when I walked into there. The people in La Grande and my time there had been pretty incredible. I felt refreshed and I really couldn't wait to get to the Columbia River Plateau to see how the desert made a transition back. All that stood in front of me between La Grande and the wheat lands was 150m of more mountains and rivers. No less than 5-7 miles in, up on another forest road, 4 semis towing empty cattle trailers zoomed past me blowing dust all around me. What had been a feeling of being let down now turned to frustration and anger. I did not like feeling like I didn't like being in the mountains and forests. I felt frustrated. I felt like I was on another hike without finishing the one I was on. I got what I needed to off my chest and felt better. Sort of. I walked away mad. More cars and trucks passed me throughout the day. Nothing seemed to make sense in terms of what the DT had represented.

Further on down the trail, I went down and up ridges and into and out of rivers, from the Umatilla, the Walla Walla, and the Wenaha Rivers. A lynx darted across the trail and up a forested hillside blending in with the brush and grass and instantly became invisible. Hordes of elk, both isolated individuals and herds, roamed the exposed patches on long ridges. At one point, in a thickly brushy corridor, I almost walked on top of 2 moose calves. The cow, incredibly big and heavy looking, rounded the bend in the trail right at the same moment. A close encounter, the cow somehow moved nimbly between the cliffed-out upslope, the narrow trail, and the drop off. My heart raced and instantly a dreaded memory of me getting chased and treed by a moose some years ago flooded my head. The moose all turned and sprinted away. I briskly walked away feeling a bit afraid, wondering if I shouldn't turn tail and get the heck out of there and find another way up as such a close encounter it was. 'No desert. No moose in the desert,' I thought to myself, overthinking and frightened. I needed to wrangle in these displaced emotions and find a way to muster through, to strive on. I slowly hiked on making noises and creeping around the bends in the trail. Soon enough I was high up on a ridge and headed to a cafĂ© at a highway crossing for a burger, safe. Two days later, along another road, eyeing the wheat lands down below, I thought of a previous conversation from a route inventor. Two things he said, 2 qualities in a route that shouldn't be compromised: create a route worth hiking twice. And, don't create a slog. You don't want that.

At this point, typing away in Dayton, even if I put my foot in my mouth in the near future with 300m left, I question if the extension of the DT is necessary, especially if there isn't a reasonable and realistic way of achieving that, and even more especially if the route already in place, the initial 1550m worth, is solidly there ready to be hiked and nurtured. I cannot answer that completely yet, and I won't until the end, but I won't try and fool you in thinking I am inclined to lean one way. I am pondering deeply this: Does the Desert Trail need to go to Canada?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Desert Trail: High Desert

The High Rock Canyon corridor I followed the Lassen-Applegate Historic Trail. Following in the wagon ruts and footprints of pioneers is pretty damn cool. This form of migration, the movement I love to do, to me, all ties is together, even a vagabond 150 years later with a family trying to find a new life, a new hope. The walls abruptly rose and looked graffitied with green lichen. I passed ancient caves etched with settler carvings or passers-by petroglyphs. Old homesteads, rather remnants of homesteads, spread out through the canyon evenly. Settlers laid crop, grazed cattle, and tried to earn sustenance out here in this harsh high desert environment. Even older relics and signs of even older people remained. Obsidian flakes and glassy volcanic shavings littered High Rock Canyon and atop the sagebrush high plateaus. 

How have we let it go? Why have we forgotten it? This Desert Trail, I have a hard time gathering an understanding as to why the route has slipped through public knowledge. Almost like the occasional memory lapse of what the pioneers did. We get wrapped up in the easy stuff, the popular stuff. Some history needs care. I think the Desert Trail needs walking. But with old pioneer routes only the ruts remain as the resources are filed away. I aim to bring those back, the historical information for this route to honor a legacy as a long distance hiker, to pay it forward, to honor those that walked before me.

After a last town stop in Nevada at the small town of Denio I hiked into Oregon with a new shelter. Immediately I felt more secure. Once in Oregon, the DT then coincides with the Oregon Desert Trail. In fact, the Pueblo Mountains, well, just read this snippet from a 1980 folded map from the Desert Trail Association: 

‘The Pueblo Mountains section of the Desert Trail is the first officially recognized and authorized portion of a proposed Canada to Mexico National Desert Scenic Trail.’

The Corridor Concept: ‘The Desert Trail, by its very nature, is not a clearly defined path or constructed trail such as the PCT or the AT. Instead, it is perceived as a corridor without specific borders, through which the hiker may pass choosing his own route. The purpose is to avoid a beaten path...The hiker is not expected to walk directly from cairn to cairn, but to wander and investigate things of interest as his or her fancy and time dictate.’

The Pueblos are marked with tall stacked cairns strategically placed at visible points and spurs. I marveled at some of these because they were just as old as me. Totems that provided heritage, communicated the past with the present and the future. But can a totem communicate if nobody walks from one to another, it the totem doesn’t signal any route direction? That’s what gets me: this route is as old as other trails, even began with just as much exuberance as others. Maybe is the dominant trait of the desert itself. The desert forgets things, forgets as in a verb sense, as in evaporating things, decaying things into remnants. But as I hiked through the dramatic beauty of the Pueblos I put these sentiments out of my head. I was right here and right now, right where it mattered. Besides the smell of mahogany in the spring, how potently sweet the air is, alluringly better than a donut shop, or granny’s pie...that’s what matters. Simple shit.

I was reminded of a big bear of a man, retired from the forest service, I met last Fall in the Pueblos while on the ODT. He hunts in the Fall and whittles little thing-a-majigs out of mahogany. He showed me a beautiful, smoothed fish hook out of mahogany around his neck. I admired that bloke. When will I ever do something creative, or take the time to create, or find a small and focused passion that I can whistle to? Something small, yet creative, something with a scented wood, a small carving knife, something that passes the time with glorious insouciance; what ever I create I create.

After a windy night, the morning had a calming about it, still. The air felt empty yet up high in the Steens low hanging clouds plummeted off the craggy eastern rim. Pockets of freshly dropped snow speckled shaded seams and ledges. I started the climb. I admit I had been ultra-cognizant of Wildhorse Canyon, of how overgrown and brushy the way was that made for difficult travel. I had a plan, to learn from the landscape when I was here last Fall. A faint jeep track climbed steeply up towards Hat Pass and the craggy and ominous ridgecrest. Suddenly, on a small and steep descent, like a rattlesnake bite, my ankle went out on me again. It happened so fast and I could hardly catch myself as I was moving too swiftly down hill. I braved myself with my poles and leaned to my falling side, my go-to left side. Usually I can roll out of it but with the rocky terrain my knee and elbow took the brunt of the fall. I sat in the tall and green grass, leaning on my backpack, my back angled down the leaning of the jeep track. I cursed at the air, yelling at my ankle. My first thought was that I dislocated it because it seemingly just collapsed under itself along with a very loud pop. That, and with the previous two injuries on this trip, something just didn’t feel right. I became lightheaded, my blood rushing to the ankle, the knee and elbow. Before I had the gall to reach for my ankle, the tingly and dizziness of the head proceeded to flood my vision. While I was definitely conscious of fighting the pain, of trying to curse the pain away, eventually I succumbed to it. My vision, with each blink, slowly turned to pixelated cubes. Purple and blues, to a dark pink and a gloomy violet, I heard a ringing in my ears until I was sitting at a bar, slunk down in the corner, dark red and dank, I was flung back to LA when I drank a lot and wallowed in a coupled madness and sadness. I finished a pint and said, ‘Another.’ The scene woozily changed, morphed to a time in a Coloradan Winter when I was severely depressed. I felt the agonizing pain of waiting for something to be over, abhorrently defiant to what was infecting me. The welling up of a fighting spirit took hold. I clawed my way back out, scratching my way to consciousness. And everything went dark. Space and blackness consumed me and I wasn’t there. Time erased. The pixelating of cubes creeped back into my brain room. Purples and blues and dark pink cubes melting together in a stacked screen slowly like I had started to blink. I felt almost nauseous but I remember wanting to fight, to keep at it. Then, I kept blinking and trying to piece what was in front of me as the thought 'why am I here?' kept going over and over in my head, and I felt like I was a giant in the grass, I didn't know where I was at and I would shake my head to gain some clarity and vision back. ‘Why here?’ I felt like I was on a psychedelic trip with the colors and the consciousness thoughts. I saw my knees, my left cinched upright and leaning left, my right buckled and splayed out behind me. The grass was really tall, like tiny yet tall trees. I shook the fuzziness loose. ‘Why am I going through this,’ I spoke out loud in my head. A refusal of acknowledgement, the fight for life, like those visions of the past knowing I would get out of there someday, that black out space...yea, I’ll get out of it. 

My other senses kicked in besides the nausea. My hearing sprang back as a loud, tapering whir developed in until everything came together, a synergy of senses. Everything became clear, like that, just as quick as the snap that had happened. I looked at my legs and the tall grass and then remembered my ankle and felt for it. I looked at it glaringly and felt no deformity and yelled ‘C’mon!’ as if I had been cut off in mid sentence and had abruptly rejoined my cursing. I felt mad at myself and whatever it is out there to let that happen again. And, I wanted to fight, to regain focus and stare it in the eye and say ‘C’mon! Is that all you got?’ 

It's been the whole trail though: the need to adapt and grow into a new phase, to abolish what has been fighting me, to let go. The ankle is just the catalyst, a long lived weakness I cannot shake. Funnily enough, that ankle, over all these years, through 2 breaks and countless severe sprains, is on my strong leg, the one that supports my weak left foot and leg. Without the right ankle, I wouldn't be able to do all this shit that I live to do. My right ankle is my totem, my connection to the past that imparts and guides my present. Each step a new present, a new moment, no matter how painful.  I could just as easily let whatever it is swallow me up, but I need to fight. To suffer, to endure, then fight.

I pulled up, checked my self and my immediate surroundings, then tipped my cap to the area in thanks. I turned and walked away with a focus, a grit to get through the nasty bushwhack, the next moment. Only this time, I would do it better.

Up at Wildhorse Lake I soaked my ankle in the clear waters. Snow filled the basins and slopes above while cornices hung off the rim and crags high above. Funny, in the blazing desert of the Mojave I thought about this lake, fantasizing about diving into the cold waters. But like everything, everything is fleeting. I would forget about the lake and the waters the second the wind stopped or after every warm water swill and the oppressive heat would bring me back to the moment. With my ankle soaking I chuckled as my toes got so cold they began to sting. Such a temporary and simple sensation that makes you feel so alive.

In Frenchglen, at the historic hotel, I sat at a family style dinner with friendly strangers. They were so much more friendlier than me, as I sat with a butt cheek hanging off the edge of the bench. Why do I struggle with these things at times, the strength I need to muster just to say hello? Luckily, they had more guts than me. Once opened up, I marveled at the story of the older gentleman who was an ex-police chief telling the scene of a murder, the stoicism and emotional charge, at the same time both crippling, the whites of the victim’s eyes as she was covered in blood, still alive, gasping for air, because the killer put the victim in the trunk of a car that had the monthly purchase of frozen foods the victim had just bought. 

‘You just had to. It was my job,’ the fire in his eyes, the grit in his fingertips as he clenched his fists, as he was asked from the inquisitive gal, ‘How can you deal with it?’

From Frenchglen to the end of the original finished, scouted and conceptually mapped Desert Trail route at Highway 78 back in the 70’s and 80’s, roughly 60m is what remained before I would embark on what Buck Nelson pioneered in ‘12 on his way to Canada to make the Desert Trail ‘complete.’ High sagebrush mesas peppered with juniper and pockmarked with the occasional volcanic crater, I strode over indiscernible jeep tracks. The high desert steppes were green with Spring, a blue tint blending in with the fecundity of an arid realm. The cows ranged and grazed over the sprouted grasses, most waving in unison in the bullying wind. Most cows would scatter as I cruised on through. But I found a calf laid down sunkenly in the grass. I whistled as I neared, hoping the calf was asleep, as goofy as they can be. Within 10 feet, he jumped up and looked at me unalarmingly. I knew instantly something was wrong. His right front ankle, mid foreleg, was swollen like a softball. Snakebite or gopher hole, either way, his moment would last too long, cemented in certain death in a vast emptiness. He hobbled away and stopped within 20 feet of me, the pain obviously preventing him from going any further. 

Because I have to. Except mine seem to be moments of self-centeredness. Could I care enough to have a will of duty, of compassion, whether hero or calf? Or am I always on the brink of moments thinking everything will end and I will forget immediately and sense an illusory and sensate instinct each step at a time? 

I think I’m better than that, but I don’t believe that. Because I always sense the brink of things.

And I wonder: if a trail isn’t walked does it exist? Is this route real as I walk it? I perceive that it is real. No path, no footprints, except for the ancient past frozen in clay and mud. Will this always be here or is it a fleeting footpath? To me, when I look down at the brink I see an endless abyss, a wisp of wind meandering down a ghostly path, an elongated totem pole filled with pain, with struggle, with endurance, and most importantly with love.