Thursday, August 25, 2011

Water Too Hot Or Too Cold

We had a little bit of time off before summer classes ended and my “September Experience” began, so we loaded up Ulysses for a little California adventure—to the see the Redwoods, to visit some old friends and see some architecture in San Francisco, and to do some hiking and beauty-gazing in Yosemite.

Rebecca in the Redwoods
We drove five hours south from Eugene to Crescent City, CA.  Our google maps got us a little bit lost trying to find the Jedediah Smith Campground, but we asked for directions at a little convenience store.  It’s hard times in Crescent City; all but a few of the aisles were empty, and the teenagers in front of me in line were buying cigarettes and coca cola with their California food stamp cards (they work exactly like debit cards, I learned).  I got directions from the women behind the register (who was missing most of her front teeth).  We found the campground, set up camp and had dinner, whereupon Rebecca’s irrational fear of bears returned.  I had forgotten how enjoyable her bearanoia is.

Hidden waterfall
We woke up early, and headed into the Redwood forest, which is exactly like the forest moon of Endor for you Return of the Jedi buffs out there.  We hiked the Boy Scout Trail, a five-mile out-and-back, and then bushwacked up a little secret trail over a water fall.  There’s not too much to say about the trees except: they are gargantuan.  When we were driving in to the trailhead we kept getting stuck behind tourists stopped between trees, their drivers outside, photographing the minivans dwarfed by the old trees.  Looking up towards their tops is kind of dizzying.

Later we went to the gift shop and sketched and wrote poems about a stuffed skunk, and met a poet and novelist from Detroit who worked at the gift shop and offered to tell us the way to El Norte and the Grove of Titans, but since we were leaving early the next day we passed on this little bit of insider knowledge.

Darling Footbridge
We also went for a swim in the Smith River, which was wide and deep and clear and very cold.  But it wasn’t too cold for a refreshing swim.  The river was traversed by a darling little footbridge, which we visited just before sunset.

The next day we headed south—about nine hours south on CA-101, which cuts through…a great expanse of forest, trees as far as we could see.  We stopped for lunch in the town of Garberville, mostly because Rebecca was getting drowsy at the wheel.   It was possibly the worst little podunk town I have ever been in.  According to the wikipedia entry on Garberville, it has been called “the marijuana heartland of the US”.  The dilapidation and half-assedness of just about everything and everyone in the town was a testament to that.  If only I hadn't lost my firebombing privileges…

Golden Gate Bridge in Fog
Anyway….we made it to San Francisco in time for a quick dinner at a nice little restaurant in the Outer Sunset called Outerlands.  Then I joined my friend Cary Tennis for a little Tuesday night writing workshop.  It was foggy—for pretty much the duration of our stay.

The next day we explored the city a little bit (Rebecca met with some architects) and then had dinner with some family friends in St. Francis Woods, where we learned about independent schools in San Francisco—among other things.   We had a delicious home-cooked baked ziti and chatted late into the evening.

Living Roof at CAS
On Thursday we had a late lunch with our hosts and then went to the California Academy of Sciences.  The CAS was designed by pritzker prize winning architect Renzo Piano, and boasts a living roof, an indoor rainforest and an aquarium.  From the roof we had a stunning view of the De Young Museum, which we visited the next night.  The De Young museum was designed by Pritzker prize winning architects Jaques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.  We saw some Picassos while we were there.  Rebecca really liked his little pen drawings.  I was more drawn to his larger abstract pieces.

De Young Museum
Alligator Headboard
We treated ourselves to one night in downtown San Francisco, just off Union Square, at a little boutique hotel.  We had a superb meal at one of those stereotypically awesome San Francisco restaurants, Canteen, which was tiny (we sat at the bar and got to watch the chef and his sous battle it out), tasteful and impeccable.  The food was grown in the backyard of the restaurant, actually combatted global climate change and helped to teach Sudanese refugees how to read (well, not really, but SF has this crazed attitude about local, sustainable food).

We left behind the crowds of tourists and the traffic and the fog and headed for Yosemite, where we met up with Tony and Yvonne, two close friends from Eugene and Portland.

Tony, Yvonne, The Author, Rebecca
Yosemite Falls From The Never-ending Trail
I had a grand ambition: to take this motley crew up Half-Dome.  But as we read about the trail (it would be a long, 16-mile day, probably starting very early in the morning and ending very late at night) we decided it might be wise to cut our teeth on something a little less ambitious on the first day.  So we hiked the trail to the top of Yosemite Falls, a six and a half mile round trip.  The elevation at the top of the falls is 6,526 feet, a gain of 2,600 feet from the valley floor.  It was a grueling hike, causing several members of the party to comment that it was the most challenging single day-hike they had ever done.  So much for half-dome.

View Over The Falls
But it was worth, so worth it.  It does feel, standing at the top looking down into the valley, like you are standing on top of the world.  I can see why John Muir would have spent so much of his life trying to preserve and protect this place.  I suspect that he would be a little unnerved by the view from the top of the falls right now.  If you look straight out it’s granite slabs, Half-Domes bald pate, but if you look down the valley is littered with roads and parking lots and lodges.  But still, I was reminded of that awe-struck feeling I had looking down into Glacier National Park from the highline trail.

Looking Up A Granite Face
Having decided that half-dome was out of the question, we checked our little guidebook and found reference to a beautiful river with some hidden swimming hole near the Tuolemne meadow.  And so we set out on our second and last full day in Yosemite for a relaxing day along and in the water. 

We Got Sunburned on the Tuolomne River
It was one of the finest days of my life up there by and in that river.  The river basically ran over solid granite, which was more and less eroded in places, making the river in that place one long cascade of waterfalls, nothing as grand as Yosemite Falls, just little runs down the granite with pools below, one after another after another.  We hiked in, lounged on the rock by the pool, swam for a few minutes (the water was extremely cold, too cold, really, for any prolonged swimming, but it was so cool and clear we tried to stay in as long as we could, then warmed ourselves on the rocks as best we could).  Then we hiked down a little farther and found another swimming hole, and we tried to stay in as long as we could, but it was so cold and the sun was so warm.

Tuolomne Meadow
Tuolomne River
We didn’t want to leave.  We kept saying that we didn’t want to leave.  But we had to leave.  So we left.  But we didn’t want to leave.

Hot tub, Too Sun-burnt To Enjoy
We all got terribly sunburned.  I knew, intellectually, that the sun at 10,000 feet burns the human body much faster, but it was so cold in the water, and the sun felt so good at the time.  And now we’re holed up in a little Inn just outside of Ashland, OR, where I reserved us a room with a hot tub, which we cannot use because we are so badly sunburned, but which I know would feel very good on my stiff calves, my aching thighs.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

McKenzie River Trail

Well it's not like we haven't had any adventures in a while.  I just haven't been writing about them.  But yesterday I had an adventure worth writing about, and since it's a rainy Saturday in Eugene, and since I can barely walk, I figured I'd write about it.

Yesterday I rode the lower half of the McKenzie River Trail.  I got the brilliant idea to ride the trail because I was bored riding the Ridgeline trail in Eugene, which is a perfectly serviceable trail, accessible by bike from my house.  By east coast standards it's a damn fine trail.  But I have ridden it a few times and wanted something longer and harder, and since we've had a few days of beautiful weather I wanted to get out and about.  So I googled "Mountain Bike Trails near Eugene" and discovered, to my great excitement, that Bike Magazine's #1 Mountain Bike Trail was just fifty miles into the mountains from my front door.  Further research uncovered a shuttle service which would cart the paying rider up the mountain.  I called.  I booked a spot in the shuttle, did some work on the old Kona, and went to bed with visions of single-track bobbing like sugar plums in my head.

Yesterday morning I got up earlyish, ate a bunch of eggs and then drove through Springfield, out the McKenzie River Highway, passing towns like Waltersville, Leaburg, Vida, and Nimrod (my favorite).  I met up with two other riders and Rod, our shuttle driver, at a lodge in Blue River.  The two riders were quick to point out that they were training for races and that they had both done this trail many times.  Then they started asking questions about the age of my bicycle (1998) and seemed amused by my responses.  I chuckled inwardly when Rod lifted it up to put it in on the rack and said that it was lighter than both of their bikes.  My inner gear weeny was pleased.

We caravaned up to the trail head at McKenzie Bridge, and then we waited a few minutes for two Canadians to arrive.  We loaded into the van, and Rod drove us up the mountain.  Listening to their banter, to their shared Mountain Bike jargon, I realized that they all had considerably more recent mountain biking experience than I did.  I used to ride a lot, particularly in college, but that was over a decade ago.  Then Rod started talking about how the top section of the trail might still have snow on it and that two riders he carried up last week had taken eight hours to get down, which prompted mocking commentary from some of my fellow passengers, and that was the point at which I decided to get out half way up, right uphill two miles to the blue pools, and then ride down 15 miles or so to my car.  That seemed like enough for me.  I will go back when my back stops pounding and do the whole 26 mile run.  My shuttle mates expressed some half-hearted surprise that I wasn't going all the way up.  But I didn't really want to ride with them anyway.  I wanted some good old fashion natury solitude.

Rod dropped me off at the half way point and I rode uphill, gradually for a while, and then through a series of incredibly rocky, tight, narrow passages.  For much of this uphill jaunt I was basically hiking with a bike underneath me, though from time to time there were some beautiful stretches of easy-ish trail.

Nothing like this on the east coast.  So much of what I saw reminded me of the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi, which Rebecca and I recently watched.

There was a group of 3rd and 4th graders on the trail, probably 70 of them, with their teachers, hiking up to the blue pools.  I got ahead of them going up, but I knew I would have to go through them coming back down.

 This is the McKenzie River from just below the blue pools.

And this is the blue pools.  Pretty obviously named.  It took me forty five minutes to hike/walk/ride the two miles up from the trail head.  I ate a snickers bar, drank some water, and descended.  I was pretty amazed at how much easier it was to descend through the extremely technical, lava rack and root choked sections of the trail.  I actually rode down most of it without walking and without crashing.  And I was lucky enough to be able stop every few minutes to catch my breath and greet the swarms of children coming up the trail with their teachers.  A few of them were quite gregarious and stopped to ask me a whole bunch of questions about what I was doing and why my shin was bleeding and how hard it must be to ride a bike in the woods.  A couple of the teachers apologized for clogging the trail with their children, which just struck me as hilarious.  At one point I came around a bend and there was a small pigtailed child sitting on a stump with a little steno notebook drawing a picture of the trail.  We said nothing to each other.  I rode by and she kept on drawing.

Once I got past the kids I was basically alone on the trail for the next three hours.  And below the trailhead where Rod dropped me off the hairy, lava rock technical sections of the trail disappeared and I had endless meandering single track through the forest.  It was the finest mountain bike trail I'd ever been on.  There were quite a few creek crossings and more than a few steep climbs through the forest, and I kept expecting it to end, but it didn't.  It went on and on and on.  I stopped for lunch after another hour of riding.

 Trusty steed on the one-armed bridge.  There were many of these.
 View of the sky from the little clearing where I had lunch.
 View from the sky of me in the little clearing where I had lunch.

And then I rode on.  For another two hours.  Up and down and up and down.  And my ass started to hurt (I hadn't spent that much time in the saddle in a long time).  And my back started to hurt (I began to question my belief in hard-tail bicycles).  And my hands started to hurt.  And then my ass started to hurt more.  And my back started to throb and ache.  And my hands started to burn more.  And my focus began to drift from each of the various pain centers in my body to the extraodinary beauty around me.  And then I crashed.  And it wasn't a serious crash, because I had slowed down to go around a tree, and then there was a precipitous drop over a root into a muddy turn and I washed out and banged my elbow and cursed the gods and simultaneously thanked whatever higher power had told me to get off half way up the mountain, because I knew that if I had gone all the way up I would never have made it down.  I dusted myself off, got back on the bike and kept going.

At some point the two riders I had ridden in the shuttle with caught up with me.  And that bothered me.  I knew they were mountain bike racers.  And that they were in better shape than I was and knew the trail and etc., but I don't like to be passed.  So when they sat down to eat their lunch of PBJ I took off, telling them that they would probably see me down the trail when they caught up with me, and then I proceeded to hammer even harder for the last 90 minutes.

 I stopped to take this picture at the point where I almost gave up.  Kept going.  Got to the end.
 Muddy bike at the end of a long, long day.
The look on my face pretty much sums it up.  I made it down.  It was the most amazing mountain bike ride of my life.  I was in agony when I reached my car.  And just as soon as I got the bike up on the roof, the faster of the two riders pulled up.  He hadn't passed me.  A little part of my heart fluttered with joy.  And then he asked me: "Did you bail out and take the highway?"

"No, I said."

"You must have been hauling ass.  I sort of thought I'd catch up with you."

"That's why I was hauling ass.  I didn't want you to."

And he sort of smiled.  "See you out there," he said.

"Yeah.  See you out there."