Archive for the ‘MY WRITING’ Category

TURNING AROUND IS UNDERRATED

May 30, 2021

I realized at 1:30 pm that we were over 3 miles from the trailhead with all our work gear and still going further away. We had to hike out at some point and drive home, making for a long day, and I was beginning to think I needed to say something to the crew leader.  Some leaders have a good sense of time on trail; others seem to be able to work non-stop all day. I ran into both kinds in medicine, too, and the group with whom I practiced was full of the latter, which is one reason why I ultimately left. I’ll admit it; I get tired, I get hungry, and I can’t go-go-go for 12 hours.

The four of us had done good work, cutting out two dozen blowdowns on the trail to the west side of the Erma Bell Lakes, a trio of lakes in a beautiful forest due north of Waldo Lake. But it had been rainy, temperature in the upper 40s, and at lunch I had cooled down. My wet gloves did not help.  I was saving the dry ones for later.  I at least brought a wool hat to use during lunch, but I had the hard hat back on, and cutting out two small logs had only slightly warmed me up.

We ascended another 100 vertical feet into snow patches and at a trail junction held a powwow. It was obvious the loop the leader wanted to do was out of the question, but he wanted to go on to a second junction with the trail up the east side of the Erma Bells.  I committed to the 0.8 miles to the junction and hoped to arrive no later than 2.  

Logs like this that fall along the trail often require multiple cuts. Between Middle and Lower Erma Bell Lakes, Three Sisters Wilderness,
May 2021. Once the second cut was made, the four of us pushed the log (600-800 pounds) to one side of the trail using our legs.

Within 200 yards, we had encountered more snow and another blowdown. This section was going to take longer than 30 minutes.  One of the others, Sig, and I cut out the obstruction and pushed it with our legs off the trail into the snow. He commented to me that walking in snow was going to slow us down.  I thought that it would also cool our feet, which isn’t what I wanted, especially since they were finally warm.

About an eighth of a mile from the junction, I started walking on snow the whole time. The other two members of the crew stopped and said they wanted to go on to the junction and up the east side back to the vehicles.  I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t know the trail, there would be snow for at least the next half mile or even more (I would later learn the trail would remain at the snow level for about a mile and a half), and unknown numbers of blowdowns would be an issue.  They would scout the trail, but that would slow them down even more. This was a long day, I was tired, and warmth required me to keep moving–preferably towards the trailhead.

I was concerned when the leader said his GPS had us at 6 miles in. Mine said 3.8, and a sign I had read at the beginning said our hoped destination was 4.5 miles. My GPS, map, and sense all confirmed each other. He was operating with a faulty GPS.  Since we wouldn’t finish the trail, I suggested we come back another day and log out the eastern side of the trail and the far southern end of the loop.  That was thought to be reasonable, but we ended up going our separate ways, Sig and I back the way we came; the other two’s continuing on around.

They were experienced and good hikers, but it was late in the day and they were tired, too, whether or not they appreciated it.  I was back at the car in an hour and a half, Sig a few minutes later. We knew the trail, we knew it was clear.  He was going to wait for them; as assistant crew leader, he let me leave.  By then, I was warm, mostly dry, and just tired, but not unduly so.

My decision was right and smart.  The other two, who knew the trail, were in good shape and did not have any problems. We each made our choices.  They did encounter deep snow and at least 40 various sized blowdowns. I would not have enjoyed dealing with that.

I’m not afraid of turning around. I did it on the hike to Young’s Rock a few years ago when I encountered a huge blowdown with drop-offs on one side and a cliff on the other, all snow-covered. I looked at all options to go over it and finally decided to turn around and head back.  It was a good decision. One day this past winter on snowshoes, I turned around and retraced my steps, not finishing a loop. That was the right decision, too. Only twice can I remember stopping and checking the situation before deciding to continue. Once was my first hike on Obsidian Loop, when I was in a snow field and actually took a few steps back before turning around and going on. I had a GPS for the first time and realized I could have my track traced rather than turn on the instrument and see where I was. I had a tough hike, six consecutive miles off (but near) the trail, but I completed the loop—without snowshoes. It was a great hike but not the smartest thing I have done.

Blowdowns blocking the route, Young’s Rock Willamette NF, April 2016. My walking stick is about 1.3 m in length. The log was cut out about a month later.
Small Lake on Obsidian Loop (7000′ or 2100 m.), where I was probably the first to see it that season. Getting away with something doesn’t mean it was safe. Obsidian Loop, July 3, 2014.

The second was doing Duffy Loop, which the map said was 19 miles but was actually 23.1.  At 8 miles, I realized the GPS was either over-reading the mileage or the map was wrong. I sat and decided what to do and decided to continue. It was a long day. I had lunch at the 13 mile mark in a nice woods and watched my water carefully.  The problem with that approach is that water needs to be drunk, not conserved, on a hot day.  The west side of the loop back to the main trail was in an old burn and had blowdowns and no shade. I got back to the car where fortunately I had water and drank heavily.

I should have turned around.  The other mistake I made was not to stop and drink out of a stream. I risked giardia, but it would not have been dumb.  Now I add a water purifier to my pack along with chlorine tablets.  

I don’t regret the times I turned around. Either I didn’t have the legs that day, I had a bad map, or trail conditions were worse than expected.  Trail not yet walked is seldom flat with no obstructions. There are instances where feeling like one has to do the distance is akin to summit fever of mountaineers. I have endurance, but I am old and have nothing to prove and a lot to hurt.

I’ve been accused of being too analytical and neither enjoying the hike nor the view.  When I am in the woods, I do monitor myself, the GPS, the map, the sky, and the conditions. I can’t exclude the possibility of an unexpected medical problem, but that’s what InReach is for.  I can exclude as much as possible getting lost or in over my head.  I know many in Search and Rescue. I don’t want to have them go out there to rescue me from my own sins.

For the record, I identify wildflowers, birds, and can describe the trail a year later. I also know whether I want to do the hike again. Obsidian Loop I’ve hiked 11 times; Duffy Loop I will never hike again.

THE ROCK AND THE FLOWERS

May 22, 2021

So THAT was the rock Jim was talking about, around which he wanted me to dig out, because the trail would be safer behind the rock than the foot wide passage on the creek side, where a misstep would lead to a nasty fall.  There was a 10 foot formerly burned log on the adjacent hill that dived into the soil by the rock. What was I going to dig out?  The log was in the way, and nobody could go under it. 

The Rock

I had a Rogue hoe with me, not quite as good as a Pulaski for serious digging, but good enough in the soft soil of Fall Creek. I easily dug out what I could then stopped to think about the whole matter.

The Crew was restoring Fall Creek Trail, a national historic trail supported financially by some retired Forest Service employees and volunteers like us, who drove there on our own dime, with our own tools, and worked on our own time. On a somewhat drizzly morning, six of us crossed Fall Creek on a wet log well above the water.  I had been over this log a week before under dry conditions; this time I crossed crawling.  It didn’t help the previous night I awoke with a premonition I was going to fall off the log. I didn’t feel safe standing, and besides, I had knee pads. I crossed without incident.

Crossing the creek.

We hiked uphill a quarter mile, where we had logged out the week before, repaired several hundred feet of tread and began work from where we had left off.  I was sent to “swamp” (help) a crew member with a chain saw, so he could log out everything beyond to where the trail reached its highest point.  Once we did that, my job was then to descend to the creek and take care of rerouting around the rock and to repair a small piece of the trail that I had left several weeks earlier. I had been upset with myself about not having done more than place a small log with some rocks at the edge. The trail was not quite a foot wide, twice that or a bit more would be much more safe.   

The sawyer trimming before cutting the log. This would take three cuts plus a lot of smaller brush removal.

It was an easy hike down, I found the spot that needed widening, and a few yards later saw the rock and the log.  If I could deal with the rock, I could have lunch and then deal with the easier matter of widening the trail. But how?  I pushed on the log, and it at least gave a slight bit of motion.  I climbed up the steep, soft slope, grabbed some grass and put my legs into the log.  Not much happened, but I felt a little give.  

I returned to my pack and took all three saws I had, a small hand saw, a 14” hand saw, and my Katana Boy 500 mm saw.  I also took the thick cloth tape I had out of my pack, a wedge, and took another look at the bottom of the log.  I couldn’t cut out too far above it, because the whole log would come down on me.  But I could cut near the rock, so I began with the Katana Boy, finding it good for a while before it bound up.  I then switched to the 14” saw, finding some of the log rotten and easily flaked off. I stuck the wedge in and pried, removing more material.  I finally cut through, and the log shifted downward a couple of inches. 

That was encouraging, and I went up the bank and pushed some more.  The log moved a little, but not much.  I cut more off the bottom, tried pushing, and did it again.  Each time, the log shifted a little. I finally went up the bank and pushed, this time actually moving the log out of the depression it had formed. There was another burned out branch from a log that was holding up progress, so I removed that, too.  I pushed some more, and the log shifted about ten degrees. Now it had to be removed or marked as a hazard with colored tape, announcing to the world the person who had caused this was a rookie.  Couldn’t have that happen.

So, I pushed hard, and the log finally paid the gravity bill, slowly rolling off the hill to the trail, then bouncing off the trail, rolling down almost 100 feet to the creek.  All that remained was to clean up the soil that came down.  The bypass would be fine, and I was pleased with my result.  

Rock without the log with a bit more cleanup to do.

I ate lunch, listening occasionally to the chain sawyer working on logs back up the hill.  I don’t set out to eat lunch alone on trail crews, but frequently I end up in places where I do.  The creek was beautiful, the light rain more than welcome, and I had a big part of my job finished.

I then started widening the trail, working below the edge of the trail standing on loose soil, my knees anchored at the edge. With the hoe, I pulled plant material off the inner or “strong” side of the trail, easily getting into subsoil or mineral soil, which we wanted to have on the trail. The width was just over a foot, with places where erosion could easily destroy the whole trail.  I dug up small and large rocks, placing some at the “weak” or outer edge, piling the dirt at the edge and some of the grassy clumps as well, which retained their soil and I hoped would transplant. 

I was limited by large rocks on the inner aspect of the trail, which I couldn’t remove.  I also noted two lovely False Solomon’s seal plants in full bloom, right above the narrowest part of the trail.  Normally, we cut out plants; the ubiquitous Sword ferns were cut off along with Maiden Hair ferns with their black stems. They grow back quickly enough. There was a carpet of moss, too, which I hated to pull up, but I did and tried to place it on wet soil.

But I wouldn’t cut out the False Solomon’s seals.  They were the nicest I have ever seen.  So I let them hang over the trail, after photographing them and smelling the gentle, sweet smell they have. In a few weeks, they will have gone to seed and hopefully have spread their genes elsewhere.  Some time next year, we can come by with a power brusher and remove the dead stems and maybe see several big new plants.

I was finished here. The trail was wider, the bypass around the rock more than adequate, and the False Solomon’s seals saved.  When I told Jim that I had moved the log out of the way, neither embellishing my actions nor discussing the flowers, he just looked at me, nodded, and said, “Good.”

PEOPLE ARE INTERESTING

April 28, 2021

As I finished checking the registration forms from the three people in the vehicle at the vaccination clinic at Autzen Stadium and took two vaccination records, an elderly woman in the back seat showed me a scrap of paper that had once been her vaccination record.  I told her I would make a new one.

“My dog ate it!” She said, obviously embarrassed. 

I couldn’t resist. “Sort of like your homework?”  The two in front broke out laughing, and so did the woman. Yes, people are interesting. 

I learned that simple fact from my mother, a sociologist, who earned her Master’s degree in 1955, when I was 7 and women were supposed to be at home, not getting degrees or even teaching college level classes, which she would do.

They were supposed to be taking care of their children, disciplining them if necessary (which it often was in my home), shopping, taking them to doctor’s appointments, cleaning the house, and making the meals, although in my case, as the youngest, I learned early to make my own lunch, and I have done so for nearly 7 decades.

My mother would often point out interesting-looking or interesting-acting people when I was out with her, clothes, relationships, commenting, “People are interesting.”  If a couple were a tall man and a short woman, she was interested. They weren’t of different colors back then, which today she would find fascinating; same gender couples were not on our radar then, and I’m not sure what she would think of the biological fact that gender is not a simple dichotomy. 

When an airline ticket agent told my mother he had a lot of problems to deal with and couldn’t help her, my mother asked him to tell her his problems. He did.  Then she said she had listened to him, and now it was his turn to listen to her. She was interesting. And got her problem fixed.

I never forgot that.  When I practiced neurology, I observed people for a living, but I was less concerned with the unusual aspects my mother pointed out in favor of the specific physical attributes I needed to know.  A good neurologist doesn’t have patients put into the examination room but prefers to call them personally from the waiting room, where he or she notices their ability to hear, watches them get up, walk, and talk—all complex neurological functions—without their realizing they are being observed. I had many a patient diagnosed before I shook their hand, which was another part of the exam. I learned that three times as many women accompanying their patient-husband came into the exam room without asking as did men accompanying their patient-wives.  I knew that because I counted them. That’s real sociology.  When I still had time to go to the Tucson Symphony, I would watch people walk, diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease, steppage gaits of a foot drop, hemiparesis, and cerebellar disorders; I would listen to speech of one with a tremor, all sorts of neuropathology to notice. People are interesting.   

When my wife and I started volunteering full weekends at Autzen, we checked paperwork for legibility and completion, filled out vaccination cards or made new ones (if the dog ate it), and explained the remaining process of getting a vaccine and waiting around afterwards. We had more human contact the first day we were out there than we had had in the prior year, and that is no exaggeration.  

We saw the whole gamut of people who lived in western Oregon—mostly white, but Black, Hispanic, men, women, and non-binary, because I could read the checked box or see under medical conditions “transitioning.” There were all sorts of accents. I guessed right that two women were Iranian from their names, and I surprised a woman who was Turkish by telling her I thought she was by her name. Fathers brought daughters, mothers brought sons.  Three generations of people were occasionally in the vehicle, a teenager in the front, the middle-aged driver, and the grandparent in the back, with a date of birth that was close to mine.

Five men were crowded into a Prius wagon, the only “fiver” I have had to date. They alone moved the needle that was Oregon’s vaccination percentage.

I also noted handwriting consistent with familial tremor and the micrographic writing of Parkinson’s Disease.

I like numbers, so I was interested in birthdays, how quickly I saw a second person with the same birthday I had already encountered. By the 23rd person, the probability is more than half that one birthday will repeat.  I saw people born on 9/3/93, 9/9/99, 6/6/66, the last the week before I graduated from high school.  There was an 6/8/68 woman whose daughter just missed being a 9/4/94. I’ve seen five with my birthday and scores of people born in December, where I say, “good month to have been born in,” just like 1948 was “a good year to have been born.” My wife counted lefties. It’s more difficult writing in the driver’s seat if one is left-handed.  Ever think of that?  

I saw a couple drive up in a contractor truck, man white, woman Asian, partners in the company as well as life. I saw one pair pulling their trailer, planning probably to be on the coast or up in the mountains that night, my wondering which it would be.  Some vehicles were barely running and had a a lot of miles on them, as did the driver.  One car overheated and had to be pushed out of line.  Others were late model Lexuses or Mercedes’ driven by teenagers or young adults.  I wore knee pads, because I often filled out the vaccine card on my leg, and I knelt on the rocky surface of the parking lot, where I often made eye contact with drivers of vehicles close to the ground.  Or, I had to reach way up to the driver to give him back his vaccination card, chugging sound of the diesel in my ear.

How people age was always interesting. I saw an Asian woman 4 days older than I who looked much younger. I have seen people ten years younger than I who look much older.  One Black man told me, “I don’t like these numbers,” pointing to his date of birth. I told him I had a good six years on him, but he looked good. 

Many were in a celebratory mood, a few grumpy.  That’s fair. It’s been a long 14 months, people are tired of the pandemic, the wait for vaccines has been long, and the wait in line that day no fun.  One lady shooed me away from her vehicle for being too close, despite my being double masked and outdoors, and when she would soon have a vaccinator touch her.  

Some drove down the wrong lane, for Lane 1 had two parts, the edge being for walkers and cyclists but just wide enough for an ATV service vehicle to pass.  I’ve had to have the drivers back up, and one lady was superb, backing up faster without a camera than I can with one.  She was embarrassed; I told her that she wasn’t the first, and her back up skills were great. The prior day, an 81 year-old missed the directions I had given her when I worked the initial check in and drove off down the same wrong lane with several of us chasing after her van.  I had a sense she didn’t understand my directions and should have repeated them.

One group of young people streamed music to get vaccinated by.  We have had Teslas and a truck that was vibrating so badly I couldn’t write on the driver’s side.  Another truck drove through with a loud screech every time the driver braked. I had a brief conversation with one man who saw my “Gates of the Arctic” hat and wanted to go there. He had “The Look”*: someone who wanted to see the open spaces, free flowing rivers, caribou, bears, the circular path of the summer sun, and the tundra’s coming alive. I told him it was worth doing and hoped he would.  

We tell people to take a picture of their vaccination card. My wife adds “put it in a safe place, and then take a picture of the safe place so you can find it when you want it.” There is a pause, and then the people in the car just laugh. People are interesting, but in that way, of putting things away and not remembering where they are, we are much the same. 

Fourteen lanes getting ready for the onslaught.

*They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.” Everybody up here who has worn The Scent understands that.

THIRD BRIDGE

March 31, 2021

We had a short hike to the third failed bridge on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, a Wild and Scenic River that runs from Waldo Lake to Westfir, Oregon, where it empties into the Middle Fork of the Willamette. It had rained on the way to the trailhead, but the rain had stopped, and the five of us were ready to deal with what we thought would be the easiest of the three failed bridges we were tasked to totally decommission.  I had looked forward to the day, remembering a short hike, a smaller bridge, spending a short time there, and then we would have removed all the failed bridges.

The hike was not as easy or as short as I remembered, uphill from the start, trail muddy and slick, my pack, including an electric reciprocating DeWalt saw and a battery, a Pulaski in my right hand, meant I was carrying 30-40 pounds going uphill.  I had hiked to the top of Spencer Butte in Eugene the day before, and my legs reminded me that every step.

We arrived at the bridge, which looked the way I had remembered it two months earlier. It was angled down to the stream in a V, a good 20 degree angle going down and 30 degrees going up the other side. A big log lay on the far side. 

The bridge. Notice what happens to the green on the right side, across the stream.

Having decided to work on the far side, I crossed the bridge, holding the wooden rail that we would soon cut off, being careful not to slip. The rails were then removed with a chain saw, falling into the creek. The log on the far side was removed and slid into the creek. There were about 70 planks remaining that needed to be removed.  These were chemically treated and we wanted to keep them out of the river. Each was nailed into large 24-30 inch diameter stringer logs below using 8 inch helical nails, meant for staying.  That meant also that they would resist being removed. 

By us.  Five to six nails per plank.  Do the math.

The crew leader told us to pace ourselves, and I took that to heart.  The rain had started again, although I only noticed it by seeing drops splashing into puddles. Wearing a hard hat has advantages.  The planks were attacked by the other four with pry bars and crow bars to try to loosen the nails.  The first few planks were removed easily with the nails in them. My job was to cut the nails out with a grinder, rather than trying to knock them out with a small sledge hammer.  The grinder worked well, the nails smoked, then bent, so I could then remove the molten end and stack it on a nearby log, where we would later collect and remove them.

Crew member grinding off the visible nail on a stringer, stream below.

For the first few planks, I just had to move them a few yards on level ground to where I was stacking them, using the long nails as handles.  When I had the plank in the stack, I cut off the nails, then went to the next plank, which began to become further downhill from me, as the crew continued working.  The ground was getting progressively muddier.

About forty planks remaining.

While some of the guys could pick up a plank and actually throw it, it was all I could do to pick one up; throwing was impossible.  I would raise the end, try to pull it a couple of steps uphill, rest it on the muddy ground, then rinse and repeat.  There was a lot of rinsing from above.  

It was also a bad day for tools.  he grinder suddenly stopped grinding a nail, and after hearing noise but not seeing any motion, I discovered that the disk had had a catastrophic failure, disappearing into the woods somewhere at 120,000 rpm, leaving behind a small arc of a piece near the center.  There was no telling where it went. I was glad to have a plastic shield on my hardhat, and not just for Covid protection.

We had about half the bridge apart by noon, at which time it had been raining significantly for 2 hours, so we ate standing, after we had crawled up the bridge with now every other plank removed. 

In the afternoon, we worked up from the bottom of the V, where the planks were harder to remove. We started using the grinder on those nails that the disk could reach, the reciprocating saw on the other nails. We left behind nails in the log stringers, which needed to be removed with the grinder.  The thin cawsall blades lost their bright yellow paint within seconds of being used. After about the fourth or fifth nail, they broke.  Two other disks broke on the grinder, too, although that was not with my use.

I was now taking each plank, sliding it to the bottom of the V, then lifting and tipping it towards the far end. I slid it up a wet, slippery stringer, keeping myself between the plank and the creek, until I could push it off on to semi-solid swampy ground.  I then crawled over the stringer, pulled the plank up to the pile, put it in place, catching my breath, and then going down to help on the next one.

We are all volunteers.

At one point, where I had a decent look at the bottom of a plank, so I could use a crow bar on a nail, my foot slipped off a small log, and I fell into the stream.  I moved back, realizing that (1) my gaiters were doing a good job keeping water out, and (2) they could only do that for a few seconds, before I got my feet wet.  I flopped a bit, like a blue fish out of water, as I tried to get out myself, and finally recovered my footing.  We cut the nail out with our remaining saw blade before it broke.  That was the end of that remaining blade, and even if it hadn’t broken, the batteries were all dead.

I was beat. I wasn’t doing the work the others were, but the lifting of each of the thirty-five planks under my jurisdiction was plenty.  I counted the number of planks left—15, then eventually 14, and finally down to 3.  At this point, we were all told to come across the stringers, since they were going to be the next thing cut, and crossing the stream at stream level appeared dicey, not something any of us wanted to do. 

I crossed to the north side of the stream where we had arrived. The crew leader used the chain saw to cut out the last two planks that we were unable to salvage.  He then cut the large stringers, which dropped into the stream.  We were done. The sun came out, and we dragged our weary selves and tools back to the vehicles.  This was by far the toughest bridge. We were all experienced with the work, but everything about this bridge was more difficult.  

Next year, the hope is that three replacement bridges will be built there.  I’m still trying to decide whether I want to be in on that job. 

Maybe in low water.

The bridge has been decommissioned and the stringers will eventually be carried away. My stack was on the far side, right of center, and the green patch is just a memory.

Notice the nails that need to be trimmed. All the tools are carried in and out. The North Fork is about 200 yards downstream

ROCK WORK

March 15, 2021

I wished I hadn’t hiked Spencer Butte the day before, I said to myself arriving at a nasty climb on the North Fork trail, 2 miles into our work day, where we had already done along the way considerable sawing and moving mud to clean up a trail damaged by numerous uprooted trees with associated root balls, AKA “rootwads.” I was I crew leader to boot, mostly because I was willing to organize the group when the usual leader was taking a well-deserved week off.  Three others signed up to go out with me, each of whom had decades of experience more than I dealing with trails. 

I trudged up the climb I had done a couple of months before, one that seemed to go on and on, when I saw an orange hardhat ahead, where Chris was trying to dig out a rock. Half the trail tread was gone, sloughed into a pile of rocks and mud below.  Tom joined me, and we started filling the hole with rocks.  The good news was that there were a lot of them available. The bad news was…well, it was Rock Work, and if I start handling rocks, my arms are going to be toast before long.  

Tom and Chris working. I’m resting, taking pictures. Somebody needs to document the work.
The completed job…at least until the next season maybe.

Tom was stronger. He went and got rocks, putting them in. I sat among the rocks, picking them up and shot putting them into the hole. Chris gave up on the trail rock, as it was a lot bigger than thought and deep into the ground.  After we had enough rocks, we made the pile even with the usable tread, then covered it with dirt, tamping it down, making it look like undisturbed trail.  Then we continued uphill further, until we reached a ridge about 300 feet above the river.  It was another half mile to the next rootwad, and Chris and Tom would keep on going.  I stayed to fix it, which I did with Steve, doing additional trail repair nearby where the trail was starting to erode.  At least there was no rock work with this one.  I went yet another half mile to a bridge across Leapfrog Creek, a normal intact bridge, where I had lunch and checked on the radio with Tom, who was waiting for Chris, who as usual had gone even further ahead.  

When it became time to hike out, I was beat with 3 miles to the cars.  The hill we climbed, we could descend but all I seemed to notice were the uphill sections on the way back. After a mile, I was able to leave my tools under a log that we would work on the following week. That at least freed my arms to complain only about gravity, rather than holding something against gravity. Climbing the nasty hill at the end, muddy steps, branches and logs to negotiate, required two rest breaks for all of 75 yards gain.  

Pass the jelly. My arms were toast that night.  Rock work.

I know a couple of guys whose first day with the Crew was carrying rocks. They never returned.  I was luckier.  I had my first experience my twelfth time out,  I looked it up in my trip diary. I remember having to fill buckets with small ones and carry them to where rocks were being placed in the middle of a muddy trail at Terwilliger Hot Springs.  The further afield I had to go, the more difficult the carrying became.  It was work to dig the rocks out, put them in the bucket, then carry the bucket, eventually 100 yards, then empty it one rock at at time. That was one trip. Eventually, I decreased the load in the bucket, preferring to walk more than to carry more.

That winter, I did more rock work at Fall Creek, building a rock wall along a trail. I again had a bucket and had to find rocks. When one does trail work, there is a quick appreciation for places where there are a lot of convenient rocks or a lot of good soil. The finished rock wall looked nice, but within a year, a storm destroyed most of the trail, including the part we worked on, and a Sisyphus crew is now working on it. No good deed goes unpunished.

Rock work in the pouring rain, Fall Creek, February 2019

Two years ago, we did rock work on Brice Creek in the Umpqua National Forest, a popular ten mile trail along the Creek of the same name, where the crew leader one day asked us to dig rocks out of the trail and out of walls along the trail. I was more experienced by then and didn’t say anything, but I had noticed walking to the start of the job that there were many soft holes in the trail where rocks had been removed. I think the idea was to have the trail wheelchair accessible, but the holes just made it more difficult to walk on, let alone push a wheelchair.  I don’t mind rocks on a trail. I use them to push off when hiking. If wet, I am careful walking on them.  That day, we used pry bars and a 9 pound hammer that we swung at a rocks sticking out of a wall as well as out of the ground. At that point, Lacy J. Dalton’s song “The Boys of 16th Avenue” came to mind, and I did wonder why we were doing this. I wasn’t alone, either. That was about as tired as I’ve ever been after a day.

Areas needing work on Brice Creek Trail. The clear spots had already been done.

We use rocks for stabilization, we use them for steps,  and we pull some out so we can get at decent soil underneath to help rebuild a trail. More than once, after carrying a large one, I’ve dropped it on the trail, only to have it land wrong and roll off, crashing down below. That’s a bummer.  Other times, like yesterday I was carrying one, dropped it by mistake, and it ended up being a perfect step where it landed.  Rock karma.

Fall Creek Trail, November 2019

Occasionally, I see a few on the dirt road coming or going. Then I have to decide first whether I can get the car over it without hearing a horrid “Clang,” or whether I should get out of the car and move it, so that I and nobody else has to think about it.  That’s where I try to use my feet.

Because I think if I so much as touch a rock, I am going to be really tired at the end of the day.

Last day working before the lockdown, Fall Creek, 12 March 2020

IN THE WOODS, IN THE ELEMENTS

March 5, 2021

Last time out with the Crew, we met as usual at the Middle Fork Ranger Station near Oakridge.  On the drive out there, it rained hard, a cold rain, clouds backed up along the Cascades, meaning heavy snow up there, and when I reached the meeting point, light snow was falling.  

We caravanned 7 miles up to the trailhead, off Route 1919, where it was both snowing and raining harder.  We were right at water’s melting point as was the case the prior weekend, when I hiked the Middle Fork Trail. It’s interesting at the junction—the snow is prettier, and most of us in the woods would rather have it continue to snow than rain, for it takes more of it to make us wet.

Snowy morning at the trailhead; February 2021.

The Crew goes out rain or shine. We had a run of favorable weather until this past week, until  our job was to take apart another failed bridge.  I picked up a Pulaski and started down the steep muddy user trail we had made, knowing that precipitation would soon change to rain as I descended. It did, and the faint trail changed to mud as I discovered when I slid down the last 10 feet to the main trail below. We immediately crossed one passable but damaged bridge, hiked past a creek where we had removed the first failed bridge and continued a half-mile to the next bridge.

I guess it was raining while we worked. It was hard to notice, with the chain saw working, my pulling 100 pound planks up the hill and stacking them, grinding off the spikes with a grinder, sparks flying a foot or two in front of me.  But when I looked, my rain jacket and pants were soaked. Sometimes out there, I look down, and water pours off the hardhat, my first realization it is raining.  We stayed warm while we worked, took the bridge down by noon and in the rain hiked back out to the vehicles, up the tough, muddy, steep hill.  We packed out all the tools, and after everybody left, I had lunch up there, rain pouring on the car roof. No more snow.  I ate quickly, because I was rapidly cooling off, which on cold days is actually the most difficult part, because one is cooling off rapidly and becoming uncomfortable, even while one is resting. I then started the car, set the heat on high, and when I reached the main road, the Crew Leader was waiting for me, making sure I was OK. I apologized for not telling him I was eating.  Nice to know someone would look for me if anything happened. By that time, the heater was going full blast. I may not have noted the wetness while working, but I sure did notice it then.

I thought of some of the many times I have dealt with rain in the woods. When I was young at the Camp, I dreaded it, but in summer I never remember being too cold from rain, just wet, and I dried soon enough. The joys of youth.  Or the poor memory of old age.

It wasn’t until I spent 6 months in the Boundary Waters that I learned to deal with rain in the woods, the single best lesson I learned up there. I watched what others wore and did, and I copied them. I had good rain gear. No, it didn’t color match (nobody’s did), but it kept me dry.  I went out in early July to west Basswood, where we patrolled in the motorized zone with a small boat powered by an 8 hp Yamaha. Heading east on Fall Lake in 50 degree temperatures, pouring rain, sitting in the bow, my outer layers were soaked but I was fine. That whole 4-day trip was with on and off showers, and it was an effort to keep a pair of dry socks, but it worked. Dry socks for night are a must. Eventually I had to put on wet, cold socks in the morning. At least they were wool—it only felt awful for a few minutes– until they warmed up. 

I had about 40 days of rainy travel that summer, and I never remembered being miserable in rain as I had once been. I realized I could travel no matter what was falling, the only exceptions being wind, which made it impossible, and thunderstorms, outright dangerous.  There was favorable and unfavorable weather for doing things, not good and bad days. From then on, I was in good shape, with many memorable days of travel where I stayed warm, if not completely dry. I would never look at rainy weather the same way again. 

A few years later, my wife and I headed out on Lake One, knowing a big line of storms was heading our way, but our permit was for entering that day, and we needed to go.  We got a few miles in when it started to rain, and when I looked at the situation, I decided it was easier to set up camp early and wait out the rain while we still had dry gear.  The campsite wasn’t the most scenic, but I have fond memories of being dry in the tent while it rained hard outside. 

Tent bound with my journal, Lake Insula, 2007.

Just because one can travel in rain doesn’t mean one has to seek it out, either. 

The next year, same area, when we were reviewing campsites for an article in the Boundary Waters Journal, we had unfavorable weather on Lake Insula. We got hailed and sleeted on, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to review all 47 campsites on the lake. The last full day was mostly sunny, however, so we paddled a slug of miles, checked out twenty different sites, discovering some shortcuts on the lake across peninsulas.  We got the information we needed.  The south end of Insula burned in 2011 due to the Pagami Creek Fire, so much of the information is now longer relevant.  Still, we have fond memories of the campsite trip and later stayed on a super 5-star site on the lake, hidden in a lovely bay.  Saw a moose there one night.

Lake Insula, September 2007.
Optimal late season gear. Looks like it even matched,
but that would be coincidental.

I’ve done plenty of memorable rainy hikes here in Oregon.  I led one up Heckletooth Mountain near Oakridge October 2017 the day an atmospheric river gave us a significant dumping.  It was wet, but we were going uphill and stayed warm, and the yellow leaves of the big leaf maples were so bright they appeared like sunshine.  None of us on the hike had any idea of what the colors up there would be like. I’ve been up Spencer Butte in snow and in freezing rain.  It got a bit dicey on top, but my wetness was more from sweating than rain. The snow on top was beautiful, even nicer when few were crazy enough to go up there.

Spencer Butte, 2019.

One of the ways I fall asleep at night is thinking of paddling out or back from Basswood Lake, just beating a storm to the campsite, where in the rain, or snow, or just before it rained, I pitch the tent, get everything under cover, put up the cook tent, where I have dinner with the weather roaring above me.  Then I wait for a lull and wash everything.  I may or may not fall asleep quickly thinking about it or out there, but in either case, I am in a good place. 

Mountain Kittentails, February 2021

IT DOESN’T HAVE TEETH; IT’S A GRINDER

February 22, 2021

The North Fork Trail parallels the river of the same name (well, the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River), an Oregon Wild and Scenic River, for about 11 miles upstream from Westfir/Oakridge and Highway 58. The river itself flows from Waldo Lake to the Middle Fork of the Willamette near Oakridge. The Aufderheide, Highway 19, one of the original 50 of national scenic byways, is across the river on the east side and connects in 60 miles to Highway 126 heading to Santiam and McKenzie Pass. The trail is for hiking and mountain biking at low elevation but hadn’t been fully assessed or addressed after the Snowmageddon event three years ago, and it looked it.  The Crew had hiked in the first time from FS Road 1919 at the north end with power brushers to clear encroaching plants and Pulaskis for the root wads—made by falling trees whose roots pulled out of the trail, but soon realized what we needed to do was log the whole thing out–over 400 trees in 5 miles needed removal– in addition to taking apart three failed bridges, or maybe four, I can’t remember. There were other bridges considered passable, but many might not choose to cross them.  I can understand their concerns. 

Map of upper Willamette River. Lookout Point, Fall Creek and Hills Creek are actually reservoirs.
Four wheel drive doesn’t do well here without some help.

Anyway, after the logging was completed, a brief phrase describing 175 man hours, long days driving in on roads that we sometimes had to log out to drive on, hiking to the trail, then cutting out and moving the rounds (cut logs), we tackled the spectacularly failed bridge north of FS 1912. 

Not usable.

Getting there was interesting.  We could hike in a mile from lower elevation, climbing a little then descending to a creek where the bridge was.  But since 1912 paralleled the trail, above it, we drove in about 3/4 of a mile, parked, where it was about 200 yards to the trail, 60 of those yards vertically down, on somewhat muddy ground, over a few logs, to reach the trail.  Once there, we crossed a serviceable bridge— “passable” although I wouldn’t lead a hike with the Club over—that canted about 5 degrees to the downstream side and was slick on even a dry day.  Then it was a quarter mile downhill to the worksite. Downhill sounds nice, but downhill on mud is dicey.

We first had to cut down bridge parts that were hanging in the breeze, then pry up the thick planks that were once tread from the large logs in which they were all pounded into with long spikes. I’m sure there is better terminology, but one gets the gist.  We wanted to save the planks for reuse, piling them nearby, but we first needed to get the spikes out.  They were about 8-10 inches long, and pounding them out, using the claws on the hammer or chisels was a difficult undertaking, because the claws weren’t deep enough to grab the spikes.  It would take us 10-15 minutes to remove a plank and then someone would spend 30 minutes or more on some of the spikes. We then used cawsalls, battery powered metal cutting saws. They would cut, and I learned once the nail started to smoke, and then smelled like boiled metal, although boiled metal isn’t in our smell repertoire, one could then stop and break the nail off. The cawsalls chewed up batteries like a dog a toy.

The stream was pretty, about 50-100 feet vertical above the river, but of course the nearby rocks were mossy and slippery, the far side muddy and steep, making any river crossing an undertaking in itself. The first day, we managed to cut out about two-thirds of the planks and stack them, each of the thirty to forty weighing well over 100 pounds, requiring two or more people to move on terrain that was, shall we say, friction impaired. We finally quit, stashing the pry rod, hammers, spikes removed, and a few other tools in a bucket on the other side of the creek.  We hiked out, across the 5 degree canted bridge, back up the awful hill to the cars, each puff of breath telling ourselves it was better than hiking a mile back to the bottom of the 1912 road.  

We planned one more day on the bridge the following week, this time bringing in more Lithium 18V batteries and a grinder, which I had never seen before. Most of the Crew have their own Home Office for hardware at home.  I have a hammer and at least now a voltmeter to check the car battery, not much else.  We split up in two groups, one on each side of the creek to remove the remaining planks, cut out some of the logs underneath, continuing to stack everything salvageable on the near side, and leave the cut big stuff by the creek. I watched one of the guys use the grinder to cut a spike out, and then he handed me the grinder. It seemed easy to use, the disk whirred around fast, and I cut the next spike with the usual smoke-stink-bend and break, before the battery died.  OK.  I picked up another battery, sure didn’t want to have to ask how to put it in, but fortunately figured out how.  I pushed the start button, things started to rotate, and went through the smoke-stink-break off spike process again.  With the machine stopped, I looked at the disk, which resembles a CD, and while cutting through metal, plays 100+ db screechy music that isn’t much different from some of the stuff my OK Boomer ears listen to today.  Heavy metal, indeed.

No teeth.  Uh oh, I thought, I ground those things right off.  Damn.

“Hey,” I called. “The teeth are gone.”  

The crew leader came over. “It doesn’t have teeth.  It’s a grinder.”

Oh. I could have sworn I saw teeth when I started.  Nope. I guess I have OK Boomer eyes, too.

We got the fifty odd heavy planks out and stacked, spikes removed or pounded into the center of the plank, finished cleaning up what we could and the leader called the job complete.  Wow, lot of big logs on both sides, many cut ones down in between, and this is done. Well, I don’t want to move those.  Better to walk out of there, back uphill where each week the steps were becoming progressively more muddy.

This week, it’s another mile to the next bridge. The planks hang down vertically and it is even more slippery.  If it is too wet, we will deal with root wads.  That’s safer, but one spends the day walking on boots that have 3 inches of mud caked on them.

The North Fork below.

Next up.

BROTHER, DOCTOR, COUNSELOR, SLEUTH

February 15, 2021

Recently, my brother died in the Philippines after suffering a large stroke with complications.

I received the information on Messenger by luck, because normally I look at it perhaps weekly.  The message was concise:  “Please answer. Your brother is in the hospital.”  To underscore the urgency, two videos showed indeed my brother, using a rebreather mask, lying on a gurney, two in PPE attending him. I hadn’t seen him since an afternoon in Oakridge, Oregon, nearly 5 years ago.

For decades, he had gone to the Philippines for half the year, spending the other half in Oakland. He remained there during the pandemic and had been there 15 months. He was found on the floor in his apartment when his girl friend, Lisa, went to see him. She noted the fruit she had hung on his door 3 days earlier was still there, worried, and got a key.  As I later put things together, my brother had a stroke, ending up supine on the floor long enough to get a decubitus ulcer, a bed sore, on his buttocks, and to aspirate, causing pneumonia.  Covid testing was negative. 

He obviously needed to be admitted. The EKG and Chest X-Ray were sent to me using Viber and Telegram. In addition to pneumonia, he had atrial fibrillation with a heart rate of 190 and a left hemiplegia. Such didn’t surprise me given he had a small stroke a few years earlier, a long history of intermittent—and now apparently chronic—atrial fibrillation, heart failure, and taking anticoagulants sporadically, all of which were significant risk factors. He didn’t take his brother’s—my— advice when he was conscious; now he didn’t have a choice, but it was too late.

I learned I needed a 50,000 peso deposit, about $1100, for his hospitalization. Lisa found his wallet and a credit card, so I told her to use it. I knew nothing about his assets, US address, social security number, telephone or passport number, immigration status, end of life wishes, a trust, will, nothing. That was the way my brother liked it. I knew that I couldn’t change his mind: I never had. My father came closest, but he never fully succeeded, either. 

If you don’t have a will or advance directives, read on and note the consequences to those left behind without one to guide decisions.

After admission, Lisa periodically left to buy medications for his treatment at local pharmacies. That was how it is done there.  The CT scan showed a large right hemispheric infarct with swelling, a bad sign.  The next day, I spoke to the neurologist doctor to doctor, impressed by the detail and clarity with which the he presented information.  He wanted my brother to be put on a ventilator to support his lungs, suggesting a 3-day trial, which I thought reasonable.  At that point, we were both concerned of my brother’s ending up in a vegetative state: no comprehension, but appearing awake.

Meanwhile, I tried to sort out costs, deal with the 16 hour time difference, and help Lisa understand the seriousness of my brother’s condition.  Concurrently, I realized I would neither see nor talk to him ever again. Lisa got his computer and her daughter opened it, so we were able to find a few contacts, a bank, an investment account, a retirement account, and a smattering of passwords. I called his investment broker, and when I heard myself say, “My brother is seriously ill in the Philippines, and we need his money for the hospitalization,” I felt like a scammer. I knew nobody could do anything; I just didn’t need their saying “Wait until he wakes up,”when I already had told them he wouldn’t.

That weekend, I used his passwords to log in to a pension fund and his bank account, not that I could do anything with either.  He had 3 phone numbers to try, one with a 63 number that he used in the Philippines. I found his address in Oakland and learned from the pension fund he had no will.  I discovered his credit card was good for $2000, which was useful but already almost maxed out; his savings account had $200. 

I called my lawyer, who told me she found one name on a Listserv in the Bay Area, so I called and left both a voice mail and a summary on the Web site.  That night, I heard from the neurologist, who said the scan looked like more brain emboli had occurred along with incipient gangrene of the left leg. He was dying, so we made him DNR-do not resuscitate—although Lisa wasn’t quite ready to sign it. I had no problems with that.

That Tuesday, my brother rapidly deteriorated and died mid-morning there, early evening Monday here.  While Lisa was grieving and blaming herself, I told her my brother had been more ill than she knew, and she had done everything possible. I was all too familiar with my brother’s approach to life, but she wasn’t,  Still, she obtained his death certificate, somewhat surprising, because I thought the hospital would hold the body until they got paid.  She then sent me a video of the truck’s carrying my brother’s body to the crematorium.  I then called the US Embassy in Manila to see what they would need after he died. It was a strange call, for when they offered condolences, I was now more doctor-sleuth-executor, counseling Lisa at times, and compartmentalizing my brother into the “past” box.  I would be and am now the last surviving member of my birth family.

Once I had the death certificate, his passport copy, my passport copy, his immigration papers, Form 2060, and a copy of his Medicare card for good measure, I sent them to the Embassy, not knowing if it would be sufficient, but if it were, the 4-6 week waiting period for a Consular Report of Death, which I could use to access my brother’s accounts, would start. I would have to notify those contacts I knew, from Facebook and his phone (both very limited), a cousin, and my sister-in-law.

I was fortunate, when I dragged myself away from the ugly reality, that I didn’t have to repatriate his body and decide where to bury it; I didn’t have to deal with his personal effects, either, other than keys and ID.  In the Philippines, he had been loved. He had credit cards with enough money available that Lisa could buy his medicines and have his body cremated. She took enough grief from past girl friends he had and others who thought she had hurt him that I finally had to break social media silence when she asked me to reply to a Facebook post saying, “God only knows what happened.” I wrote, “I don’t claim to speak for God, but I can speak to what happened to him,” writing a concise hard hitting paragraph. The embassy had told me I needed to send a notarized permission letter for Lisa to use.  She operated fine with an un-notarized one.

As sole survivor, I felt strangely unmoored.  For the first time in years, I wanted to talk to my parents, for they would have understood my difficulties with my brother-their son-better than anybody else. I voiced those conversations aloud when I walked.

I asked my bank to help me with the wire transfer to pay the hospital, because it would involve nearly $12,000.  Even as next-of-kin, I had no legal obligation to act.  I was not executor, and I didn’t yet have a lawyer.  But my brother had received good care, was treated well, and I had a moral obligation to pay for it.

That was the first out of pocket money I had spent.  It was fair and just, if expensive. After wiring it, I felt an immense relief that a chapter was closed. My brother would ride off on his bicycle into the great beyond, again leaving behind unfinished business.  Lisa and her daughter would hold constant vigil over his ashes in a small shrine with two candles, a picture of him, for nine days, praying for his soul, a Filipino custom. When I heard that, I chuckled to myself, “Is 9 days long enough?” My parents would have laughed. 

Peace, bro. You were loved but man, you made things more difficult at the end than they had to be, and you still ended up with a shrine.  What a world. Don’t worry about your stuff; little brother can deal with it. 

Author, left, with brother, Oakridge, Oregon, June 2015.

IN THE ZONE

January 31, 2021

We waited 35 minutes at the 12 mile mark for the rest of the group to catch up. By then, the two of us had had lunch, stiffened up, I had hiked back a quarter mile looking for the others, and we still had to finish the last 14 miles of the McKenzie River National Scenic Trail.  We waited earlier 15 minutes at the 3 mile mark. Unless we got permission from the hike leader, it was going to be a long day with more waiting to hike the 26+ mile trail. I had been told we would be hiking at 3 mph, but the leader invited a friend who was still recovering from a leg injury, and there were others that were not hiking anywhere near that speed.

I convinced my partner to ask if we could go on ahead, and we got permission.  There was a climb out from where we ate lunch, and at first, I was slow, but then I got warmed up, and before long, I was in cruise mode.  I’m not a sprinter. I like endurance activities, and once I find my zone, I can hold my speed for a long time.  We started cranking out a mile every 17 minutes, and at the 18 mile mark, took a break for 5 minutes by the clock. I emptied my boots of some dirt, drank some water, had something to eat, and put my boots back on. Off we went, along the beautiful free running McKenzie River to our left.  

McKenzie River
Blue Pool. The water goes underground and comes out here, but in heavy snow years, the water floods the woods about a mile away and comes over the part at 11 o’clock like a waterfall. This is a third of the way.

I wasn’t stiff, and we continued making good time.  We hit that special moment when the odometer reads “20.00,” and took another break at 22 miles, doing the same routine we did earlier. Seventeen minutes later, I knew the end was coming, an hour more, maybe, then a half hour, a quarter hour. There was the highway nearby, the trail left the river and paralleled the highway at the end. I was there, along the road, and I was done. I felt fine. I could have done 30 miles that day. Five minutes later, my partner finished.

Lighter than a GPS, and every gram carried matters.
End of the trail.

That’s being in the zone.  I would do the hike a year later with a faster group, but one person took videos to post on his Facebook page, costing us 20 minutes of prime hiking time when it was still cool, on a day which we knew would be much hotter.  One woman had diarrhea, another developed a blister, and I hiked four miles in atrial fibrillation, which was an interesting experience.  I converted to normal rhythm at lunch. It took us almost nine hours.

                        * * *

I was at an elementary school in Oro Valley, Arizona, 30 years ago, shooting free throws. I was by myself and had to fetch the ball, so I reset each time I shot. I hit two in a row, then 5.  OK, not bad.  I dribbled once, held the ball, flexed my legs, then shot. Six.  A short while later, 10.  Hmmm.  Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish, and I was at 15, finally ending my streak at 20 in a row.  It was amazing. I felt like I couldn’t miss, and I wasn’t getting any gifts, like bouncing off the back iron 5 feet in the air and dropping straight through.  Normally, I was a 65% free throw shooter. Assuming that, a streak of 20 in a row had an expected value of 1 in 5000 tries. If I shot 20 five times every day, which I didn’t, maybe once in 3 years I could do this.

Mind you, I know there is a considerable body of evidence to say the hot hand really doesn’t exist, but the evidence isn’t conclusive. There are days where difficult tasks don’t seem difficult, where everything comes easy. That day, I was beyond any performance limits I knew of. I was in the zone. Everything clicked, and I shot like I never had before…or ever would do again. 

* * *

Nearly 30 years before that, I swam the 400 free in a high school meet—that would be 400 yards—and I was ahead. Way ahead. I felt like I could swim forever.  I won the race by 35 yards with the best time I ever had—5:19.3. The fact that I remember that race, never forgot my time, slow as it is today, among all the races I did, and even the ones I won, is testimony to the power of the feeling. I was in the zone. A team member told me it looked like I wasn’t even working.  But let’s be real: the national record for 500 yds, 25 yd length pool, is 1 minute 12 seconds faster than I swam 400 yds. 

* * *

I ran only one marathon, with three goals—to finish, to finish without stopping, and to finish without stopping or walking.  I did all three. My time was not particularly stellar—3:25.48—but again, I remember it exactly.  What else I remembered about the race was that 5 miles into it, I actually felt I was sitting in a car watching the scenery go by.  I was detached from all the effort my body was going through.  At 5 miles, I was just getting started, for whatever my athletic skills are, and they don’t amount to a lot, I do well at distance.  Indeed, my time for the second 10 miles—77 minutes—was exactly the same as it was for the first 10.

* * *

In 2002, I rode the 160 mile Tour of Cochise County, the second longest of the four rides the Perimeter Bicycle Association of America sponsors (the longest was 252 miles) that day. I was with a group of five, and we had to have our own Sag support. For the first 70-80 miles, much was flat with some downhill, and I stayed in the back drafting off the sprinters.  I remember going through Tombstone upwards of 25 mph, drafting, and I was barely turning the pedals. 

After lunch, at about 100 miles, I was doing fine, “just warmed up,” I told others. There was almost no wind, a gift in Cochise County. One of the sprinters went to the front, seemed to be tired, so I said, “pull over if you wish.”  He immediately pulled over.  Two of us took over at the front, the sprinters drafted, and I did two-thirds of the pulling. I stomped out the cadence, over and over again, two miles at a crack, 540 strokes, then sat in the pack for a mile, before going back out to pull.  I was in the zone, and it took us 8 hours to do the ride, the best single ride I ever did or will do.

* * *

On skis, some days I could hit a mogul field and pound myself down one after another—air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly, air, turn, hit, compress; stand suddenly,…down the bumps, until I finished or stopped because of exhaustion, and shook my fist in the air.  That’s being in the zone. It’s a dopamine high, receptors reacting, a sense of everything working.

I was in the zone once on a portage, when I was 100 yards on the trail and didn’t remember putting the canoe on my head.  I knew it the other day, when I took over the power brusher duties, wanting to finish the trail, and didn’t stop until I did. I know it on hikes, when I say to myself, “this is a special day out here,” when I am covering ground and thoroughly enjoying myself. 

I can’t predict when I will be in the zone:  the day before and the day after, nothing is special. But for a short time or a day, a glorious day, everything is in sync, in tune, and alive.

These guys are for real. They have the right genes, eat right, train right, but only two of them will go to the Olympics, Men’s 3000 m steeplechase, US Olympic Trials, Eugene, Oregon, June 2012. I’ve seen performances here that for one day a specific individual was in the zone, smashing his personal best, and sometimes going to the Olympics. It’s exciting.

STARTER CORD

January 24, 2021

I ran a Stihl hedge trimmer the other day, but rather than trim hedges in neighborhoods, we had about 5.2 miles of the South Willamette Trail in the Willamette National Forest to brush out.  The trail connects the Hardesty Mountain trail with Eula Ridge Trail, and it is possible to make a full 14 mile loop. I’ve hiked that loop several times by myself, led a hike called “Hardesty XX Black Diamond,” and tried to run it once, to see if I could make the Hardesty Hard Core race cut off time in 4 hours.  I hiked it in 4 1/2 with a pack and felt I could probably break 4 hours, but was so wasted I asked myself why would I want to?  Age is such a nice thing sometimes.  Hardesty climbs 1000+ meters or 3500 feet in a few miles; Eula Ridge is one of the steepest climbs or descents I’ve seen in Oregon.  South Willamette is easy by comparison, with gentle ups and downs in a lovely forest. 

It is muddy out in the woods during the wet season, and streams are on the trail where in summer one would think water had never been. The first day we were out there, assignments were divvied up, and I took the rake and stayed in the back, clearing the trail, well behind the others who were doing the actual trimming with the 7 foot long Stihl whackers. I removed cut sword fern, Salal, and Oregon grape, along with a few small but difficult to remove vine maples that were encroaching on the trail.  Vine maples are nature’s way of getting back at trail clearers.

Small stream flooding South Willamette Trail. We turned it into a crossing.

I thought back 65 years to Crow Lake, Ontario, and later the Finger Lakes of New York, and the 5 hp green outboard (the 5 was in red) with “Johnson” blazed on it, the first power machine I learned to use. I have to laugh when country music singers talk about their “old days” first motor as a 40 horse or Alan Jackson’s ’75 Johnson with an electric choke. They are soooo young. Forty horse? Electric what? This Johnson had a cylindrical shaped “primer” that we pushed down a few times and could turn, although I never knew what the numbers meant and never did turn it. My father didn’t, so I didn’t. The gas tank was in the back on top. You didn’t have an external one. Those came later.  It was a 2 cycle engine, and for years I thought we had to add oil to gasoline to run a motor, one quart of oil per gallon of gas.  I still remember using a can opener on the oil can.  Oil first, not last. Fortunately, I never did that to a car.  I cringe today when I think of the pollution.

Blindfold me, put me in the stern with that motor hanging off the transom, and I could start it right now. Drop the 2-bladed green prop into the water.  Turn the brass four cross knob on the left bottom counterclockwise to start the fuel flow.  I can hear it running.  Then open the top on the fuel line on the back top of the motor, hearing the sound of escaping vapor for a couple of seconds. Then push the silver clutch on the right side out like an ear, which it looked like, move the throttle from off to start, which had an automatic stop. I always moved the throttle up to the automatic stop. I never once started it without the clutch in place.  I can still hear every sound as I describe it, the trickle, the psssst, the clunk of the clutch, the throttle banging against the stop, the sound of the primer as I pushed it down a few times—clunk, clunk… clunk, clunk…clank.  Then grab the handle on the right front side of the motor, holding the steering handle with the other hand, and pull.  Usually on the second or third pull, if that, it would start, with a cloud of smoke. Move the throttle to the left a couple of inches to slow, then slowly push the clutch back flush with the motor. Reverse gear was turning the motor in a circle, before letting in the clutch.  When I was ready to go, I gradually advanced the throttle. I knew every sound of that Johnson.  When I was 12, I used the boat, a 14 foot plywood cruiser called “Osprey,” to deliver the Rochester Sunday paper along 3 miles of the west shore of Honeoye Lake, so I didn’t have to stash papers along the road.  Newspaper delivery by boat—what a ball, and I made good money, too. Hard to believe it was sixty years ago this summer.

I hauled the 7 foot long orange Stihl brusher about a mile west on the trail that we had worked the previous week, trying to avoid trees, ground, rocks, and not fall.  When I got to where we needed to work, I put in my ear plugs, checked the vest on that would connect me to it, and got down next to the motor.  What was fascinating, now that I think about it, was that nobody told me what to do. They either thought I had done this or my confidence at running a motor again was infectious. It had only been 20 years since I last used a lawnmower.  Same approach.  Put on the choke, hit the plastic primer a few times with the fuel visible underneath, then pull the cord.  It pulled really nicely. After 4 or 5 pulls, it started right up. I moved the choke to off and was ready to go.  I lifted the machine up, attached my harness to it, so the engine was to my right and the 7 foot connector to the blade was to my left. Then I hit the throttle a couple of times, mostly because I liked doing that, and started cutting. The ferns were the most common, and the plethora of them along the trail meant that we made slow progress. The first time I used the brusher, we had two guys out with them; each did one side of the trail. That ends up quickly making one side of the body sore from always leaning a certain way.  I liked trimming both sides of the trail with a swinging motion, where I cut the throttle going across, and quickly gave it gas as I leaned into another fern clump, then letting go as I was almost finished.  This reduced the noise and I think saved fuel.  I saw a lot of guys who went full out until it ran out of gas.  Of course, the sooner it ran out, the sooner one could take a break or maybe persuade someone else to run it.

The next time out, someone actually asked me how to start it and how to adjust the blade. Wow. I felt like I should be wearing Stihl orange with the appropriate ball cap. There is a trick to setting the blade, which I figured out when I was off by myself with the beast and my macho self—such as it is at 72—didn’t want anybody to know I didn’t know how to do it.  There was a little cylinder which I tried to turn and push, with no results, so I then pulled, which was the last possible thing physics would allow.  That was the trick. The cylinder opened up, I could reset the blade at another angle, and then reset the cylinder.  Nice.

I tried to start the Stihl while I was strapped to it, but I couldn’t get enough purchase to do it.  I also checked the fuel after about 45 minutes.  It gave me a chance to take a break, and as I had long ago learned with the Johnson, if one doesn’t run the motor until the fuel tank is completely empty, it is a lot easier to start it up afterwards.  The last day out there, I ran it about three hours with one refill. The crew leader finally stopped me. He said he kept waiting until it ran out of fuel and then got impatient.  I laughed.

More fun than raking.  I’ll get the quiet when I hike the trail.

Stihl trimmer with guard over the cutting blade, which is folded over. The hand throttle is easily seen on the handle.
Author running the beast, a bit close to his pack.

Within six months, this growth will be back. If trails are allowed to go three years without being maintained, the blowdowns will make them impassable, and they will rapidly disappear. It’s a fine line as to what should be maintained and what is better off reverting to what it was. But then nobody would know how special it is. That’s another fine line.