Friday, August 30, 2013

To the Edge of the Sown

On the side of a mountain road, heavy rain pounds at my window to wake me from a dream of gears and belts from my old job. The belts snap and fall off and the gears jam and slip but I look up at the roiling chaos of the clouds and realize it doesn’t matter. I climb the mountain to the old haunted hotel and there are skiers coming down the dry dirt slopes. The Hood peak has punctured the clouds and let the water out. The pines sift the sky and hold it up so I can get under to the flat green discs of the farmland where the sun shines on fields while the irrigation chain whirls. I pass little towns with big signs where little babies talk. The diners are empty and the gas stations are full and it seems like the whole population is just passing through. The horses and cows eat the land that’s not flat enough for the green discs and the last big trees are allowed to grow. The road climbs again and I can see everything behind but only a cliff in front on a mountain called Steen that I call The Edge of the Sown. I climb the mountain and the sun sets on the discs and squares of the sown and over the cliff the blue desert goes on until it looks like glass and then it fades in the smoke of the fires. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013


I’ve got a bed waiting for me at Bryce Canyon starting on the 3rd of September. I’ll be volunteering there helping with their nighttime astronomy program and answering questions in the visitor center during the day. This means that I need to start curving my route in the general direction of Southwest Utah and make the long trek across the Nevada desert. One other thing I need to do is clean up a little bit to look presentable when I arrive; meaning a haircut and a beard trim (just a trim). On the way to Portland I stop by Amy’s Barber shop in Vancouver, WA.  Ever since I went to the barber shop in Michigan that my friend J suggested I’ve decided to only patronize barber shops; the haircut I got there stayed neat for weeks and the barber really took her time on it. I find that Amy’s is no exception. Amy is the only one there and she’s finishing up by trimming the eyebrows of this 92 year old guy that races (present tense) corvettes. As she cuts my hair she tells me all about her store (been there for 8 years, in business for 15) and I tell her about my trip and get some recommendations for hikes. She trims the hair on the back of my neck with a straight razor and I feel much better though I miss having the thick beard to tug at while I’m writing this.

I get to Portland and just don’t feel like lugging around my camera bag or worrying about pictures for the day so I just head out on my own to Powell’s books downtown. In the area I find a tiny, well known sandwich place called Bunk Sandwiches and get their pork belly cubano and it is amazing. I ask the guy making the sandwich where would be a good place to go outside of downtown that had cheap beer and a patio. The girl beside him calls out “Bye the Bye”. It’s a bar on Alberta with a vegan menu. I wander through a park where an accordion, ukulele and violin trio are playing a song that I’m guessing is called “Whiskey Nazi” because those are the only words; it’s still stuck in my head a day later. I head over to Bye the Bye and order an IPA and sit outside and look around the neighborhood. There’s a large four square house behind a fence with the garden overgrown; lettuce has gone to seed and is pushing out from under the fence onto the sidewalk. The door is open and I can see garbage piled up against the walls inside. There’s a grilled cheese restaurant next to the bar with banquettes inside a schoolbus and the kitchen inside an aluminum airstream camper. It seems that food trucks really took off in Portland; to the extent that all of the trailers I see are semi-permanently parked in lots beside brick and mortar businesses, so I guess they’re not so mobile anymore.

As I’m making my way back to my car I see a guy walking down the sidewalk with a coat hanger and a slim jim (not the eating kind) a few feet from my car and decide to go ahead and explore another neighborhood. I head over to Hawthorne to a coffee shop called the Albina Press. I spend a while at a window seat reading the book that I bought from Powell’s earlier in the day and drinking a huge cup of coffee. On the way back there are a few specific sights that stick with me. The first is all the signs outside of cafes that state “Paleo-friendly”. There’s a sign next to a boarded up building that says “Portland IMPACT”, but the letters in “impact” have been stripped from the sign leaving only a slightly cleaner area under each letter that makes it readable. There is a marquee beneath the title where someone has drawn a rudimentary, headless, footless naked woman in black marker. She’s been transected three times by the letter rails on the marquee making this tetraptych of chest, belly button, hips and legs where the lines in the individual sections are almost unrecognizable as part of a person. Down the road I see a tree by the sidewalk in front of a nice house with a little hollow at the base. A sign has been hung calling it “The Fairy’s House” and little garlands and figurines fill it up.

I head out of the city after sunset to head over through Mount Hood National Forest. On the way out of town I see all the bridges that I’ve been cris-crossing over all day long. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Rut

After I emerge from the woods I go to my car and sleep for a few hours but wake up early just before sunrise and feel too restless to go back to sleep. The dim light in the forest last night revealed only enough to intrigue me and I want to go back to see it in the daylight. The clouds are gone now and as soon as the sun comes over the horizon the woods are filled with warm green and yellow light and I head in. 
I find slugs crawling across the trail; yellow and black, as big around as a thumb and 5 inches long. I also find a red, scaly snail climbing over fallen leaves and rocks. I sit and watch the snail near the grove of moss draped maples while he inches his way towards his quarry for the day. As I’m sitting on the trail I hear a twig snap in a tangle of saplings under a cedar in the distance. I wonder if it could be another hiker but I thought I was the first one on the trail. I stand on the edge of the trail and wait for another sound. When it comes it is a much louder snap like a thick branch of a tree being broken. I see the leaves of a little maple whip back and forth a bit and something protruding above the leaves about the height of my head. I didn’t read the sign on the way onto the trail so I’m not sure what animals are common to this forest but it seems too tall to be a black bear.
I change the lens on my camera to a long telephoto and stand completely still waiting, hoping that whatever is behind those trees will reveal itself. I wait for 20 minutes as leaves shake and twigs break and finally I see the brown back of a bull elk pass by a hole in the trees. I just get a fleeting glance of his light toned antlers and an eye as he peeks through at me. As he moves on he’s followed by three smaller cow elk and finally an extremely large matriarch. He waits for them to pass and herds them together as they move slowly through, eating leaves off the low saplings.
The bull kneels down and rests in some ferns and I circle around on the trail to try to get another view. As I’m coming around I hear more noise in the trees to my right. Above the leaves I see tall dark antlers and another massive bull steps through the woods towards the grazing group.
I spot the new bull before the smaller bull does and I walk silently back around and wait anxiously for him to come through the branches into their group. The light antlered bull suddenly stands up as the large bull calmly presses through the leaves into the clearing. The smaller bull stays still, close to the cows as the challenger steps up to him.
They seem to bow to one another before locking their antlers to spar. They maneuver to get the upper hand but they seem to be very casual about the confrontation and both stop to stare at me at one point. Then the larger bull hooks the end of his antler around the base of the smaller bull’s one last time and just pushes him out of the clearing back into the trees and it is over; the small bull slowly retreats back into the forest abandoning his mates.

The cows stop grazing and stand seeming to not know what to do. The large bull tries to approach the matriarch and she takes off running. He pursues her and their thunderous footfalls shake my chest as they leap over a fallen log and run across the trail 30 feet from me and into the thick growth on the other side, crashing through the branches.

I think that I’ve seen the last of them and I go back to where my snail was toiling but he’s no longer there. I start to walk up to a cathedral of mossy hemlock when I hear that high pitched sound again and then that low guttural call the seems to shake the trees it is so close. I run back to where I found the elk just in time to see the matriarch charge through the trees with the smaller does crowded around her and the large bull right behind. They cross the trail again and the bull brings down a sapling that gets caught in his antlers as he gives chase. The smaller bull still lingers in the distance managing to retain one small cow as the larger bull corrals the rest of the herd for himself.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hollow Cedar

To avoid paying to take the ferry, I cut through the rural area of the Olympic peninsula on back roads and come up to the park from the bottom. It’s been raining since I left the gardens in Seattle and as I come around a corner and the road cuts through a stand of 200 ft Spruce, the treetops are in the clouds. A little further and I get my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean through the trees. It’s amazing to me that these giant spruce and cedar trees grow right up to the edge of the beach.
The road turns back away from the ocean and towards the rainforest at the center of the peninsula. As I get higher the fog thickens on the road and the trees block out the grey light from the sky almost as dark as night. Part of the road has been washed out and large construction equipment sits waiting to resume rebuilding the road when the workers return tomorrow. They’ve dug into the hill and laid down wooden planks to drive around the hole in the meantime.
By the time I reach the end of the road the sun has almost set somewhere above the clouds that cover me, but I just see the grey fading to a dark blue-grey. Forests of tall spruce, cedar, fir and hemlock are much more hollow than the forests that I’m used to and the evening light fills the foggy space between the massive trunks and I can hike by this glow without a flashlight. The forest is still wet from the rain earlier in the day and water is falling from the higher branches and drumming loudly on rotted logs and saplings; I put on my hat because the large drops keep hitting my face.
There are clearings in the cover where large trees have fallen and crushed everything in their shadow. The ground is so rich with water that the roots don’t grow deep, they just fan out along the ground. This means that they can’t resist the wind and when they’re old and the wind topples them they take with them all the trees that were growing on top of that train of roots. This leaves a wall of root tangled dirt 12 feet tall rising out of the forest floor at the base of the felled tree. Ferns and flowers grow into these berms and so you find yourself walking under these beautiful garden walls in the forest.
The biggest Cedars have bark that spirals up the trunk and gaps between the roots so large that you can crawl under some of the trees. One massive Cedar has bifurcated and grown two jagged trees out of a trunk 25 feet around with roots that start 10 feet off the ground. Another has a hollow in the trunk big enough to fit two people.
The Hemlock are shorter but have drooping branches that dip much lower than those of any of the other trees. They seem to have abandoned the use of their lower branches and green moss has taken over making them look like coils of rope hanging from the upper branches. The Douglas Fir have deep furrowed bark that to me makes them look more ancient than any of the other trees. You could imagine climbing the tree using the chunky bark as handholds. The Spruce are the tallest; perfectly round with neat bark and branching only high off the ground. They grow straight with none of the tortuous sprouting seen in the Cedar.
The light is almost gone and I still have a long way to go to be out of the woods so I pick up my pace a bit. The moss hanging from a grove of maple now just looks like ragged black cloth drying on the branches and water logged fallen trunks look like giant shiny black snakes. I find the beginning of the loop and make my way out of the woods. As I leave I hear a high pitched sound followed by a low guttural grunt echo through the trees.

Jingle Jangle Morning

I wake up to foghorns and seagulls flying by my window. I head out and walk to the market at Pike Place to get breakfast. There are too many great looking choices for breakfast so I buy a zucchini muffin from a little shop to eat while I walk around and decide. The women at the flower stands are whipping together their beautiful colorful arrangements and an old guy with a guitar has set up on the corner and is singing Mr. Tambourine Man so I smile give him his first tip of the day. I want to take a picture of the people making dumplings in the Chinese bakery so I buy and almond cookie and snap a picture but it doesn’t turn out. The guys at the place where they throw the fish are already getting a crowd and they have some of the biggest salmon I’ve ever seen waiting beside the store to be put out. I make one last pass through and buy a croissant from a bakery in a wall and some raspberry juice from a stand next to the Chinese bakery and my breakfast is complete.
I then walk down the road to the Olympic sculpture park. It’s home to the sculpture of the giant typewriter eraser, which I thought was on loan to the Nasher in Durham; perhaps there’s more than one? I’m once again struck by a minimalist piece of five wavy rusting pockets embedded in fine gravel. They feel to me like a ship breaking yard and a bamboo thicket, the texture and color of the rust complemented by the gravel.
Before I leave town I stop by my favorite spot in the whole city; the Japanese Garden in the Arboretum. The garden is full of plants that grow naturally in the area set into a flat area around the lake and climbing onto a hillside. 
Koi swim in the pond at the center that is fed by a number of artificial streams so that everywhere you go in the garden you can hear the trickling of water over rocks. They sell the proper food for the koi at the entrance so that people who want to feed the fish can do so while keeping them healthy. There are workers all around pruning the trees and taking care of the grounds. 
What I like so much about this garden compared to others like it is that it seems to be a true western version of a Japanese tea garden, which I think is the best that you can strive for outside of Japan. There are the little stone lanterns and the koi and the style of the landscaping but no massive pagodas or sushi bars like they have at the one in San Francisco that give it a cheesy feel. This is simply a garden inspired by Japanese gardens, designed to let you appreciate the local plant life in a different way. After walking through a few more times I feel content with my time in Seattle and I start the long drive towards the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Art Surgeon

Today I look forward to a real treat. I’m headed into Seattle, one of my favorite cities, and my dad reserved a nice hotel room for me as a way of making sure I get a shower and a good night’s sleep at some point. I remember this as I wake up at a Walmart just over the border with foggy windows and the imprint of a pillowcase on my face. 
On my way out of town I stop at a Laundromat to wash, among other things, a collared shirt that I can wear when I check in to the hotel to keep them from kicking me out before I get to the front desk. The Laundromat is empty, even the attendant has wandered off and the door is propped open letting in a breeze. The machines are new and they hum quietly doing other people’s wash while I sit and wait for mine. The walls are painted a cool blue and the detergent is dispensed through one of those old pull handle vendors. I find the whole experience and space so relaxing that I put extra quarters in the dryer so I can sit a while longer.
A friend that I met working at the planetarium in Chapel Hill, E, used to live in Seattle and has given me a bunch of suggestions for things to do across Lake Union. So I go to Gasworks Park and climb the hill to people watch. There’s a couple doing some kind of acrobatic joint yoga by the trees with him balancing her on his feet while she contorts herself in the air. A man with balloons tied to his ears rides screaming into the park, wobbly on his bicycle as he tries to ride through a row of concrete tank supports set up like Christo’s “TheGates”. He drunkenly bobs and narrowly misses the corner of one of the gates but charges on, yelling “Where’s the party?!”. I watch people fly kites and sea-planes lift off from the lake.
Then I get some fish and chips from the Ivar’s under I-5 and eat down by the lake shore. Across from the boat storage racks there is a burnt out car with a brand new car of the same make and model parked behind it on the grass. I walk past the troll under the bridge and into Fremont to get some chocolate from Theo’s. On the way out I find an art market on the street a block over and wander through before heading back to my car to check in to the hotel.
The room is outstanding and has a view of the Puget Sound so I sit by the window and listen to ships come in and ferries pass while I try to write some to catch up on my last few days. A container ship docks and the cranes shimmer with hundreds of red lights as they wait to unload.

I can see a ferris wheel from my window and decide to walk down Alaskan Way after dinner to have a look. Alaskan way is the waterfront street where all the ports for the cruise ships are and is always full of people visiting from out of town. As such, there loads of street performers and knick-knack sellers along the sidewalks.

I run into a guy calling himself “The Art Surgeon”. He’s working in a wet-on-wet spray-paint on glossy paper style that has become ubiquitous lately. This style lends itself to things with gradient colors like sunset skies and effects that can be pulled off with limited tools; splatter white paint for stars, use the spray-paint lid to trace out the moon, etc. You’ll usually see these guys paint a bunch of outer space scenes. These have the benefit of consisting of shapes quickly achievable through their typical techniques and not being based on an existing scene with which they can be compared.
I make it sound like I don’t appreciate this style but I actually enjoy seeing someone create a detailed scene with something as inaccurate as a spray-can and this guy is really good at it! He doesn’t do just the typical space scenes, I see he has city scapes and mountain scenes with clouds and paintings of oceans. He’s working on a picture of the Seattle skyline at sunset, the very scene that is behind him but he’s doing it all from memory facing the crowd. He lays down the colors for the sky while dancing to the dubstep music from his radio. He smears the yellow into the red into the purple and black to make the glow and then lights the paper on fire and quickly blows it out to dry the paint. He then works in the skyline with his fingers and black paint. He pulls out a palette knife and cuts through the paint to the white paper to give the look of lights in the buildings.

He’s painted the full moon in the sky and reflected in the water; the moon in the water is smeared back and forth to look like it’s broken on the waves. Then he makes a few unforgivable astronomical mistakes. First, he paints the disc of the setting sun on the horizon. Now, he already has the full moon high in the sky and when the moon is full it means that the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth. If the full moon is high in the sky then the sun should be well below the horizon, but it’s a cool effect so I try to let it slide. But as the crowd keeps growing he feels the need to keep the show going and add more details and he makes his second mistake…He paints a comet in the sky with an accurate reflection in the water…but the tail is pointing roughly towards that sun he just painted on the horizon. Comet tails appear because of the sun's radiation and the solar wind and always point away from the sun! Oh well, as he finishes I walk up and give him the last dollar I have in my wallet for putting on such a good show. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Today I drove the rest of the way across Canada to the coast at Vancouver. There was some kind of Ferrari group therapy session going on in Vancouver so along BC5 from Riverton I got to watch Ferraris blow past me all day.

I didn’t take any pictures of anything because I knew everything I saw would never look as good in a picture as it did when I saw it and it wouldn’t even be close so I didn’t bother, I just looked. This is a frustrating fact about photography; photographs usually look worse than what you saw, occasionally they capture the gist if you’re lucky and rarely they’re better. Why is this? I think our eyes trick us into photographing the wrong things. The way that we perceive a scene and the way that a camera sees a scene (and later a viewer of the photograph taken through the camera) are different. This isn’t a complicated technical difference, it’s very simple; we have two eyes and a camera has one. I think that the majority of our difficulty in taking interesting pictures can be attributed to this morphological difference.

Having two eyes, we perceive the world through binocular vision; focusing both eyes on a single point and using the difference in perspective between the two eyes to get an approximate feel for the distance of the objects in our field of view. This gives depth to everything we look at, and is responsible for the sensation of being “drawn in” to a scene such as a sunlit patch of grass viewed through a tangle of mossy vines in a forest.
A camera’s monocular vision has none of this ability. You’ll see something interesting, you’ll close one eye and put the other to the camera’s eyepiece and view the scene in the frame of the focusing screen and suddenly you don’t get that same “drawing in” feeling from the scene. You take the picture anyway but when you get home and look at the photo, removed from the environment in which you took it with the memory of the scene fading, you can’t remember what was so interesting about it. Then you show it to someone else who has never even been to the place it was taken and the photo is utterly boring to them. This all occurred because once you lost the binocular vision of the scene the depth was gone and the depth was what drew you to the scene in the first place.

People have been trying to overcome this limitation of photography since the camera was invented. Stereoscopic photography has the photographer image the same scene twice, moving the camera to the side by roughly the distance between human eyes after the first shot. The prints are made side by side and a special viewer is used so that the left eye only sees the left image and the right eye sees the right image; pretty much the same principle that modern 3D cinema uses. The problem with this is that it shouldn’t require equipment to view a photo! Not to mention that a stereo photo can only be viewed by one person at a time; you can’t stand in front of a stereo photo with your friend and point out its merits.

So without these types of tricks, what can a photographer do to record the depth of a scene. First consider more thoroughly what contributes to the sense of depth we have with our binocular vision. If you stare at the question mark at the end of this sentence, how many other words around it can you read without moving your eyes? You can see the borders of the screen and the color of the page but the details in all but the closest words are lost. In this way your eyes give you the context of the scene without allowing too many distracting details surrounding the subject of your gaze. This is what makes spotting a familiar face in the crowd so exciting or why you can stare for an hour at a city skyline. Your focal point is isolated from the surroundings, you don’t experience the whole scene at once.

Now imagine the sun soaked patch of grass through the yellowed mossy vines in the forest again. The vines are right in front of the patch of grass but you barely notice them; you know that they’re there but you can still see the entire patch of grass through them. The reason for this is depth of field; what’s in focus and what is out of focus and the distance of these limits from your eye. So while the vines are along your line of sight, you’re focused on the grass in the distance; the vines close to your face are out of focus. They don’t even block your view because between your two eyes, your brain has the visual information to construct an unobstructed view.

These sensations are still very much dependent on the way our brain processes binocular vision but a camera can mimic some of these effects. The lens on the camera has an adjustable aperture that is used to control the amount of light reaching the film in the same way that your pupil adjusts based on how bright it is where you are. The choice of aperture also controls the depth of field for the photograph. With a small aperture opening, objects both near and far from the camera will all be in sharp focus. With a large aperture only a small range of distance from the camera will be in sharp focus while nearer or farther from that range the image will gradually blur. While at first it would seem advantageous to keep as much of the image in focus as possible, keeping a thin slice in focus allows you to isolate a subject and provide context to your scene while eliminating distracting details.

I personally like to use old, large aperture lenses on my camera. The fact that they’re old and of questionable quality gives them another attribute that many people try to avoid but I actually like; they leave a darkened vignette around the corners of photos taken through them. The image can still be seen at the corners but it is much darker than at the center of the frame. To me this mimics the first component of our experience of a scene; the obfuscation of details surrounding the subject.

In this way you transmit information to the viewer of the photo about what you found important in the scene. You can draw their eye to an object in sharp focus in front of a blurred wash of color and you can give them the context through details in shadow around the edges. These are some of the things I try to think about when choosing what to take a picture of. That’s not to say that I’m always successful, but I try to help people feel what I was feeling when I saw what I took a picture of. On other days that I spend mostly driving I’ll try to think of some more.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Under the Chateau

Today I try to get in the hike to the glacier that was preempted by car repairs yesterday. I wake up, get dressed and do a 15 point turn in my campsite so that I can drive out frontwards and manage to do so without destroying any more pieces of my house. The hike that I’m starting leaves from the Chateau on Lake Louise and goes up to some small peaks called the beehives because of their round shape and ribbed rock faces. It then joins the trail to Lake Agnes 1000 feet above Lake Louise before climbing over a ridge and down into the path of the massive glacier that carved these mountains. The glacier has receded significantly in just the last 100 years and the trail goes deep into the valley over the ice to a hanging glacier.
I first go into the hotel to see if I can find a snack to bring along because I’ve run out of food to bring on hikes. There is a little mall under the hotel with a candy shop. I stop in to get some granola bars but have to spend five dollars to meet the minimum for credit card purchases so I get a couple of candy bars as well. I can tell that the shop owner is Japanese because of the way he hands my credit card back to me; held with two hands, gripped between the thumb and index finger at the corners, the plane of the card parallel to the counter. I used to see this a lot at work and always appreciated the respectful way with which an action as small as passing a card was handled.

As I exit the store I hear the faintest sound of a harp playing an undulating, thalassic melody emanating from the stairwell. I follow the sound up to the lobby where the harpist is playing the last notes of Clair de Lune. The lobby can’t live up to the vision that I formed of it as I followed the music up the stairs; it’s a typical lodge design with antlers and earthy colors with some clean looking modern landscape paintings hanging behind the reception desk; nothing too risky. Though I get the same feeling inside that I do outside that the hotel is trying to look much more expensive than it is. This is no Frontenac and the treatment on the outside is the same as a Holiday Inn just on a more massive and spacious scale. Still, you’re paying for the view of the lake, the hikers are the ones looking at the hotel.
As I climb the trail the big hotel is never out of view for long, reminding me that if I were rich I’d be heading back there for dinner and a drink after climbing this mountain on horseback while taking pictures with my Leica rangefinder. It also never seems to get any smaller no matter how far away I get which is a bit discouraging when I try to gauge my progress. A sheet of cloud coasts along the valley floor and before long it’s blanketed the mountains across from the lake which makes the views from the beehives a bit less dramatic but really deepens the color of the lake.
The lake is given its color by the rock flour ground up by the passage of the glacier over the bedrock, brought down by the melt water along milky streams. Lake Agnes has none of this suspension and is a clear dark blue. A tea-house has been built on the shores of the lake and I find this strange at first and counter to the concept of preservation that the park system promotes. I think that landscapes that were popular for recreation at the turn of the century were all developed before the park system was in place to protect them and will all have these types of amenities. That said, it seems like it would be a great place to stop for lunch on a hike if I was willing to spend $10 for a bowl of soup.
Along the way I’ve been watching Gray Jays forage for berries from the trees. They move from branch to branch with such efficiency of energy; a jump and a spreading of the wings, the landing impact absorbed by flexing their legs requiring no fluttering of wings to arrest the fall. If they need to turn a corner they’ll dive straight down off their perch flip their wings once to change direction and sail to their next perch. Because of this they move through the air like they are on rails, never wasting a movement, and they’re fascinating to watch. They scavenge on the ground as well, hopping around and digging through the grass.
After about 8 miles I set foot on the glacier. I don’t realize it at first because it’s covered in gravel from the mountains but looking down from the ridge of the terminus that I’m walking along I see splits in the gravel revealing blue ice where the glacier is moving around corner. Another couple of miles and I’m at the terminus of the hanging glacier. The ridge gets so steep that the gravel under my feet just rolls me down the hill as I try to climb so I sit down and watch the ice up on the cliff hoping to see a piece calve off. I had heard the thunderous sound of ice falling from the cliff when I was in the woods earlier but as I wait it seems that all has stabilized for the moment.

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Cabin 2

In an effort to save money I have devised a method for discovering the cheapest campgrounds in parks; look at the map and locate the campground near slow moving water. This campground will undoubtedly be filled with mosquitos that drive off all but the most thrifty campers. At Banff they’ve saved me the trouble of looking at water sources and have gone ahead and named a campground “Mosquito Creek”. After hiking up to the top of Tunnel Mountain to get a view of the village of Banff I head over to the campground and discover that it is a full $5 cheaper than the ones where the bugs let you keep your blood.
I’m not too picky about sites because I don’t have to worry about setting up a tent, so I pick just about the worst site on the grounds next to the entrance. To access the site you make a sharp turn into a ditch and then up a short hill between two trees that allow about a foot on either side of my car. There’s no way that a full sized camper would be able to fit in this site. I manage the hill with no small effort from my little four cylinder engine and park next to the picnic table. I’m planning to go on a hike up to a glacier after I pay for the site but decide to make some lunch first and relax under the shade of the many trees that are growing in the middle of my campsite. I eat, I procrastinate and finally I put on my shoes and get ready to go. As I back out I’m careful to avoid any trees and as I look through the right side view mirror I see that I’ve got a good three feet between me and the tree on my right as I back down the hill. Then I hear a crunch; but not just a crunch; one of those over the top crashing sounds that are used in movies, like a crane dropping a load of I-beams down a well or a burning fireworks factory being dropped on a warehouse full of bubble wrap. My car jolts to a stop and I hop out to find pieces of my tail light on a tree and pieces of tree in my tail light. 
I just sit and think for a little bit, trying to guess the cost of a replacement through ebay or a junkyard, thinking of how I would receive the part and what to do in the meantime. I really don’t like the look of that red tape that people put over their tail-lights when they get smashed. I’ve got a lot of tools with me so I start pulling things out to see what I can do to fix this. Some pliers, a file, some glue, a roll of postal tape and a few clamps seem like the right tools and I get to work. As shown in the picture from left to right, top to bottom. Me; the other guy; clamping while rejoining the cracked pieces that didn’t break off; popped the light back into place and put the cover for the turn signal back on; holding a bunch of little pieces together while the glue dries; all the pieces back in place; clear tape to seal the cracks from water; the few missing pieces must have turned to a fine red powder that was carried away by a cloud of mosquitos; tape trimmed around the light and all bulbs still working! If I learned one thing from my job over and over, it’s that nothing is ever broken badly enough to be irreparable by a few hours of maddeningly tedious work.

Relieved that I was able to fix the light but still a little irritated that I dented the car I head out to try to enjoy what’s left of the day at Moraine Lake. I’m down at the shore taking a few pictures when a Japanese couple comes up and asks me to take their picture in front of the lake; I then ask them to take my picture and they then ask to have their picture taken with me to commemorate this exchanging of cameras and taking of pictures and this whole ritual cheers me up immensely and I decide to hop across a raft of floating logs and climb up a pile of rock to watch the sun set behind the mountains over the lake.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Inverted City

I make one last stop in the park to take a picture of Wild Goose Island. I’ve had a strange interest in this island ever since I realized where I recognized it from. The movie The Shining opens with a helicopter shot across a lake and over this island as Jack Nicholson drives up into the mountains to the overlook hotel with the Going-to-the-Sun road standing in for a road in the Colorado Rockies. So as you look at the photo: cue moog-synth score, roll up “A Stanley Kubrick Film”. 
After this last stop I head into Canada towards Calgary. This time I’m not as lucky getting across the border. I’m pulled over into the dock and taken inside to be interrogated in a back room by a 7 foot tall Canadian border officer. I’ve gotten used to explaining my travel arrangements and employment situation casually so I suppose this seemed a bit odd to the border patrol. Everything checked out and whatever they did to my car while they had me inside didn’t raise any red flags so I was allowed to proceed to Calgary.

Calgary approached from the south seems to be an inverted city. At first everything appears normal; the wheat fields start to be plowed for expanding suburban sprawl, the giant box houses with no yards peek over sound barriers onto the highway, the shopping centers supply the neighborhoods and a sign announces “Calgary, heart of the new west” with a stylized cowboy hat logo. You know you saw skyscrapers over the fields from the country highway and they must be over the next hill. You drive under a pedestrian bridge and the suggestion that walking is preferable to driving assures you that you are a block away from Memorial Street but the next block is a square of chain restaurants with large parking lots and you wonder why people bother with the bridges. The traffic builds and you think that you’re hitting downtown rush hour but just as quickly as you find yourself in traffic it dissipates to highway exits taking it back to the suburbs. In fact the only way to know that you are closer to the city is the gradual increase in the gas prices.

You finally see cranes on the horizon pulling up high-rise apartments; so many cranes and new looking buildings as if the city realized too late that it had started to sag around the edges and tried to pull itself back into shape all at once. It seems that this has only created a vacuum at the center as the storefronts at the bottoms of the high-rises are vacant and the only people you see walking on the sidewalks are carrying briefcases.

The road ends unceremoniously at the river and traffic splits. It isn’t immediately obvious how to cross the river but you eventually find your way and cross over onto Memorial Street where the city finally comes to life. Cyclists zip by coffee shops, bars and eclectic clothing stores that are a block away from small old houses with little yards and little gardens.  Public sculpture appears in the green spaces at corners and the crosswalks are given priority to encourage pedestrian traffic over cars. You look back at the skyscrapers and high-rise apartments over the river and you no longer see tall buildings but instead a pit surrounded by the tall city of the two story coffee shops and bookstores and bars.

Leaving the city on Memorial it doesn’t sprawl; the storefronts end and rolling green hills appear holding the Olympic ski-jump and bobsled tracks set against the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies. Then it’s all green towards Banff.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Trail of Cedars

A couple that I met on my hike yesterday B and turned out to be camping a few spots down from me; so this morning I go over to talk with them while they’re having their morning coffee. B is a retired school-teacher from Oregon. I get some advice on hikes to do in Oregon and my hike for the day in Glacier. They recommend the Avalanche Lake trail that starts just a few steps from my campsite.
The trail follows the Avalanche creek up to a clear blue lake. I start in the afternoon after going into town for some errands so the sun is shining low through breaks in the hill of cedars to my right as I climb past waterfalls on the creek to my left. The trail meanders away from the creek so that all you can hear is the low sounds of the roar of the water moving over the rocks. The forest has seen some damage and there are split trees and jagged trunks on all sides but none of the disease that killed the other forest. Eventually the undergrowth takes over and pushes in on the trail and the trees spread out and I can sense that I’m near the lake. 
The lake is elongated and tapered towards me as I emerge from the woods with logs piled up against the start of the creek. I walk out onto the gravel shore and feel like I’m walking out onto a stage in front of an amphitheater of mountains surrounding the lake with the roar of the three tall waterfalls that feed the lake cheering my arrival. In the distance the lake appears to get deeper as it takes on a deep blue color but as you walk towards the other end of the lake, the deep blue recedes and you see that it is the same pale blue clear water throughout. At the center of the lake you can see that the bleached white trees that have fallen down from the mountains push up above the water without floating so it must be shallow all the way across.
I take off my shoes and roll up my pant-legs and walk out into the lake while I let my canteen chill in the cold water. The cold makes my legs numb and when I start to hike back the soreness from yesterday is gone.  
I return to my campsite and sit down at the table to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dinner since I’ve used the last of my bacon and am not about to pay park prices for groceries. As I’m eating I see a familiar car drive by with B in the driver’s seat and R running behind checking the makers on the campsites. They’re late to camp again and I’m guessing they’re going to be out of luck finding a site so I call out to them as they pass that they’ve always got a spot at my site if they can’t find anything. 10 minutes later the car pulls around again and stops at my site. I go to wash my dishes from dinner while they set up their tent and when I return they offer to pay me the full fee for both nights at my site. Being extremely strapped for cash I can only muster one polite refusal of the money before stuffing it into my pocket dreaming of all the peanut butter, jelly and bread that I’ll be able to buy with it. I do, however, run down to the camp store to pick up some beverages for our camp and we sit up at the picnic table and they tell me about their experience in the Peace Corps.
It’s a full moon tonight and I want to revisit the trail of the cedars that I’d walked through earlier behind my campground. It’s a short trail that loops around a cedar forest on a carefully constructed board walk, Japanese style. The trail is intersected twice by the creek and while crossing the bridges I can see the forest and the water almost as good a day in the moonlight. Under the tall branches of the cedars and the hemlock the light only reaches a few pieces of the path but the glow from the open area of the creek between the straight tall trunks is enough to see by. With no people and no wind I just listen to the boards squeak under my steps as I walk through the trees. I hear water trickling and know that I’m near a weeping wall of rock with moss growing on it. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Screaming Trees

 When I arrived back at my campsite after hiking last night I discovered that I had squatters. The property rights type not the highway off-ramp type. They’d set up a tent on my site and were finishing dinner and their beers. I got out and started to explain; terribly sorry but there had been a misunderstanding, my name still hung from the site marker. As I said this I realized that they’d really have nowhere to go as all the campgrounds were full by now and I didn’t need space to set up a tent anyway. So I offered that we share the site with me just needing a place to park and a spot on the table to cook. B and R agreed and when I got back from setting up my bug net on my car I found a beer waiting for me on my half of the table. It turned out that B and R had met while working with the Peace Corps and were here to do some backcountry hiking and camping. We talked for a while and I cooked some bacon and then we went to bed and I wished them luck on their hike.

Today I’ll get in my long hike where my feet actually get to touch ground. It’s a roughly 12 mile hike from Logan Pass, along the ridge under Mount Gould to a chalet that was built up near Swiftcurrent Pass and then descending 2000 feet through some woods. As I start out on the trail the wind is rushing between the mountains at Logan Pass making a roaring sound and almost blowing my hat down the mountain. I almost lost it once already when it blew off near a hot spring in Yellowstone so I take it off and clip it to my canteen.  
There’s a group on a ranger led hike in front of me and the trail is really only wide enough for one so I hang around the back of the group and talk to some of the other hikers until they stop for a break and I shuffle past the line. This ridge is called the Garden Wall because the trail is at the top of a field of brush and wildflowers that grows up the side of the mountain before it becomes too steep to hold soil. Little trickling waterfalls come down the side of the wall and flood the trail and the flower beds below.
The trail switchbacks up an incline and through a pass between two peaks after which it becomes much more rocky. Wide clouds are passing overhead giving me a break from the sun and the chalet comes into view when the sunlight illuminates it after a cloud passes in the distance. I reach it after a few more miles and stop in for a snack before heading back down the mountain.
The forest is below the chalet is a dead forest, the spruce and fir trees have all been killed by beetles. The white stalks of the dead trees provide no cover from the wind and it blows dust up the side of the mountain covering the rock. The wind passing around the curled dead branches and through the hollowed trunks creates an eerily human screaming sound. The trees that are still standing are buttressed by the wrack of fallen trees that are clogging the forest floor. Despite this, water still flows through the forest and the undergrowth is returning as the forest starts over again.
The evening is warm so I set up my car to be open while I look over photos and try to write for the blog. As I’m working I hear a voice in the dark outside my car. It’s my campsite neighbor A who is here with her sister and her dad. I had run into them on the trail today when they were hiking up the hill that I was hiking down. I recognized them from camp and gave them the reassuring news that they were almost at the chalet. A had come to repay me with an almond s’more. With this brain food in hand I hunkered down and caught up with my posts for the last three days.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Phosphorous Mountain

I wake up in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Butte, Montana. I fell asleep listening to the teenagers driving through talking about what to buy for the Saturday night parties that they were headed to. I’m grateful for being undisturbed by the staff all night and don’t wish to wear out my welcome by marching into the store, toothbrush in hand. So I decide to drive until I find an empty country road to park on and brush my teeth and rinse out my hair.

I see an exit for a town called Phosphate which by name and appearance seems like it should be abandoned and I take the exit. At the bottom of the ramp I see a few vans parks along the side of the road, doors open, boxes full of food and clothes stacked beside them. Further down there is a boy on the side of the road. He’s squatting, completely naked, next to the stop sign at the end of the ramp. As I pull up to the stop sign he glares at me with a look that’s an equal mixture of intense rage and intense concentration and I stare back trying to decide if I should just drive straight through and get back on the highway before this gets worse. I don’t get to make that decision as I see his mother walking over with a plastic bag over her hand; it’s worse.

I turn right and drive up the Phosphate Mountain road figuring if anyone is going to get shot by the farmer it’s these guys and not some poor guy brushing his teeth up on the mountain. It actually ends up being a pleasant drive on the gravel road up the mountain and I park next to a grassy field and do some work on my travel journal. 
The rest of the drive to Glacier National Park is pleasantly uneventful. North of Missoula I drive along Flathead Lake. The road is so close to the lake that the lakefront houses are dug into the bank below the road to get some bit of a feeling of solitude and quiet with the traffic rushing by. Marinas are built in side lakes connected by streams under the highway. The main lake is long and straight with few little fingers branching off; it would be a good place for sailing.
Glacier National Park is a range of mountains honed to knife edged peaks by the grinding of glaciers. The mountains are limestone, meaning that the stone was formed by deposition at the bottom of an ocean. This makes the stratification in the rocks very apparent and gives a feeling of movement as you see the peaks jutting up from different angles.
The main road in the park is the famous Going-to-the-Sun road and at sunset driving west you really are driving directly into the sun leaving you to hope you don’t go careening off a cliff after misreading a curve on the winding road. I stop up at Logan Pass at the highest point on the road to hike out to Hidden Lake as the sun sets. It’s an extremely popular trail and it has been built up with boardwalks and stairs up the incline and over the little streams that drain Clements Mountain. What I’ve found on this trip though is that as cheesy as the boardwalks are, popular trails have been built this way to make them more accessible because they lead to something extraordinary. So rather than avoiding the crowded trails I’ll hike them and enjoy the scenery along with everyone else; there’s plenty of time for a long quiet hike later.
As I get over the ridge to come into view of the lake I realize that people aren’t the only creatures that find it easier to travel on the boardwalk as I see a family of goats climbing the stairs up from the viewpoint. They seem to have become habituated to the presence of humans as they graze close to the trail as hikers walk by and photograph them. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Cave and the Quarry

I enter Montana and the mountains are hidden and the big sky has been drawn up into a small circle of blue directly overhead. I’m trying to steer out of the rut that I’ve fallen into but the smoke from fires in Missoula is still shrouding the landscape around me.

Along the way I see a sign for Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Now, as I’ve revealed I’m unable to resist a cave, so I pull off and head towards the park abandoning my plans to make it to Missoula before dark. The road leads through the valley of the Jefferson River, between limestone peaks with their stratifications revealed in angled cross section at the water’s edge. 
On the side of the road I see a big hole in the rock that looks like it digs deep into the hill. Thinking this must be part of the system of caves I pull over to explore. There are worn trails in every direction and I choose the one heading straight for the hole. It leads to a tricky climb 20 feet up the wall and then a scramble over loose stone to the ledge. When I get over the ledge I see that there are three holes in the hill. I climb up to the largest one and find small pieces of shattered stone surrounding large boulders, almost too large to have broken loose from this high archway and remained intact. The tunnel turns out to just be an alcove with no passages further into the hill so I turn back to explore the other holes. As I climb down to one of the smaller holes I notice bore marks on the wall of the entrance. I pick up a large stone and throw it into the hole and a dead thud returns, no echo. It’s a failed limestone quarry. I climb back down to my car disappointed but encouraged by the exertion of the climb; more than I’ve had in a couple of days.
Lewis and Clark Cavern is beautiful. Like most caves it was wired and lit up and filled with stairs and manmade tunnels by the original landowners to create a tourist attraction. The state park service has done a good job of modernizing the lighting and accessibility features to be less disruptive. The discovered entrance to the cave was a hole on top of the hill that opened up to a series of large chambers and a 90 foot drop to the floor. Tourists would later descend a 90 foot spiral staircase through this same passage. By the time the staircase was removed it had apparently begun to sway violently as it was descended by tour groups.
Little bits of eccentricity remain such as a slide chiseled into the stone that is used to slip from one of the chambers to the next. The exit is a 100 foot tunnel that was blasted out between the hillside and the lowest chamber of the cave and sealed with dramatic 200lb oak and iron dungeon doors. Once I exit I find that my eyes don’t have too much trouble adjusting to the sunset sky as it isn’t that much brighter than the interior of the cave. As I leave the sun is setting, red behind the smoke so thick that I can stare at the disc. The hills on either side of the Jefferson block the light while the water shatters and reflects it.