Tags: Centennial, conservation, findyourpark, National Parks, NPS, nps100, Outdoors, united states, USA, wilderness
Today marks 100 years since the inception of the US National Parks Service. Normally I’m not much more than a passing history buff, certainly not when it comes to government programs, but this one in particular not only represents some truly great moments in my life, but is tasked with preserving and representing what are to me some of the greatest and most important parts of the country. In a time of burgeoning industrialization and expansion we had the foresight to not only set aside these places against our own talent for destruction, but to recognize that they needed an agency to continue their defense and to educate new generations about what makes them truly remarkable.
My introduction to the wilderness of the US actually started in a state with very little federal parks presence, but with an extremely visible delineation between protected and unprotected land. As I was growing up whenever we would travel from the valley into the hills and mountains we would pass vast areas of barren hillsides, denuded by logging. The contrast to the rich, lush green of the still untouched forests of protected wilderness areas was as stark a lesson as any children’s book, more lasting even than the pastel pages of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. This was very real loss happening before my own eyes. Growing up around logging and mills and with my dad working for a stint as a reforestation tree planter I knew that this destruction was not undertaken frivolously, but it was nonetheless a visible scar, the hills a Frankenstein patchwork of tree growth and the obvious sweeping hand of industry.
Ironically my first real exposure to the national parks was Volcano National Park, a place notable for a significant lack of trees. But the most important aspect of this park wasn’t necessarily preservation, but education. This was one of the best places in the country to see the earth itself function as a living, changing thing and see how we came to understand it. This park was also a prime example of protecting us from ourselves, as without guidance a shocking number of people would try to wander into a live volcano.
In 2005 I set out on my first ever multi-state road trip that spanned a significant section of the northwestern US in just under 2 weeks. Initially I had intended to hit a few highlights on my way from Oregon to Colorado and back, but the further I went the more I realized just how many parks I passed, some I had never even heard of. When I saw a park or monument on the map near my designated route, I had to detour to it. Some were iconic, like Devil’s Tower or Little Bighorn, others were simply grand and could only be sampled in relatively small portions like Rocky Mountain National Park. Each place was a unique and humbling experience.
On this trip I began my habit of keeping every National Park Service map as a souvenir, marking off the seemingly endless number of parks. While not representative of all the places I’ve been, for instance just last month my dad and I visited Crater Lake National Park however I neglected to get a map as we walked in off the Pacific Crest Trail, it reminds me of all the fantastic places in the US I’ve been and have yet to see, and for most cases would love to go back to. Before I even moved back to the US from my time in Australia I began compiling road trips to nearby parks, eager to see more of these amazing places I’d only experienced secondhand through glowing and breathless accounts and ethereal footage.
These parks to me represent not just the icons of America, but a gateway to appreciating the greater whole. They are a guiding hand into enjoying and understanding the larger world around us, its past and its future, and by proxy our own. And for those of us with the curiosity and enthusiasm, they represent the opportunity to rejoice in the best of what the natural world has to offer.
“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
Tags: california, hiking, mountains
Of the things most people associate with Los Angeles, tall mountains are not among them. This is I’m sure in no small part due to the fact that it takes so long to get free of the city to get to them, they might as well be in another state. Not to mention that for a significant portion of the city’s history, the air was so bad you couldn’t see them if you were standing on them.
Among the tallest peaks is San Antonio, locally known as Mount Baldy, one of the few peaks tall enough to reach above the treeline. Baldy is something of a local test piece, the third highest peak in Southern California, and closest of the three to Los Angeles. From the trailhead, the direct route via the ski hut and Baldy Bowl climbs just around 4000′ in about 4.5 miles. While this makes it a serious lung burner starting the day at sea level, it makes the entire hike one long scenic viewpoint. Most people opt for a round trip via the Devil’s Backbone trail, but having done the loop last year I found I really didn’t care for the tedious hike along ski slopes and access roads, so I decided this time to take the ski hut trail both directions.
The day got off to a slow start, and I didn’t even get up to the trailhead until just after 11am. With clouds hanging low over the entire LA basin and backed up against the mountains, I’d actually somewhat hoped the mountain would be socked in by clouds and would thin the weekend crowds on the trail. That hope dried up with the clouds as I started to wind my way up into the mountains, and by the time I was parked the sky above was brilliantly blue, and the road lined with cars for a good quarter mile. I wouldn’t get a lot of alone time on this hike.
Having only just gotten off the couch a week or so ago following my wreck, I figured I might be a bit slower than the last time I did this hike, but I optimistically set out at my usual brisk pace. Unfortunately my body was not as optimistic and within the first mile I found myself sucking wind, hard. Thankfully for this trip I had brought along two new pieces of gear that I wanted to try putting fully to use: my trekking poles, and a new 3 liter water bladder in place of my usual Nalgene. I’ve always dismissed trekking poles as at best an old man’s accessory and at worse a hindrance equivalent to trying to hike while assembling your tent poles, but now as I wheezed my way up I was happy to have something to give my legs a little backup and to simply lean on whenever I had to stop long enough to put out the fire in my lungs. The water bladder I found to be a mixed blessing, as I’m notoriously bad at drinking enough water, however given it was buried in my backpack I had no concept of just how much water I had left and wound up drinking a fraction of it. Still, by the end of the day, I would be one of the only people who still had water.
Burning legs and lungs notwithstanding, I still made good time up the final ridge above the treeline where last year I had bonked hard. Swallowing my pride and not taking long, rangy strides in favor of short, rhythmic steps let me fight my body’s objection to oxygen deprivation up the last 1000′, and I finally crested the summit along with the steady stream of other groups. I immediately propped myself up against a rock, pulled out my meager dry lunch, and sat back to the sounds of the rush of the wind, the distand call of birds, and the endless chatter of people comparing selfies.
After an hour of resting up I decided to forego the longer Devil’s Backbone trail back, which eventually devolves into trudging along dirt access roads, and headed back via the ski hut. Only a dozen feet or so from leaving the summit I found myself followed by a trio of hikers who had no idea where they were going, and suddenly became an impromptu guide. The descent was fast and increasingly quiet as everyone’s energy and enthusiasm waned, and eventually the silence was only occasionally punctuated by grunts and groans of discomfort, including my own. The dirt road I had turned my nose up at from the summit was a welcome sight as we hit the home stretch, and we reached the parking lot tired but all in good spirits. Since my trail groupies had landed a little ways down the mountain from where they started I gave them a quick lift back in my car then headed home, stopping briefly for gas and grabbing coconut water and a protein shake in a desperate but futile attempt to placate my very, very upset leg muscles.
My dad had been talking about doing the Oregon leg of the PCT for some time, and initially I had brushed it off as something we’d talk about but ultimately settle for a week somewhere along it. But over time, he talked more and more about it. Then he started buying gear. Talking about daily miles and food. Last month he came up with a daily mileage plan from Fish Lake to Cascade Locks, including resupply locations. And finally, two weeks ago we set dates and we talked about when to buy one-way tickets to Medford, OR. It was at this point I suspected we were actually going to do this.
The PCT as a whole seems not just daunting but wearyingly long. And I mean that literally; roughly measured at 2650 miles long from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, it’s actually 400 miles longer than driving. The average daily hiking distance is around 20 miles if you want to do it in under 5 months. It is one of only 3 trails in the US that let you walk anywhere near as far uninterrupted.
The Oregon portion is of course much more approachable, and has the bonus of being “home” territory for us. In his youth, both as a Boy Scout and with his family, my dad spent plenty of time up in the Oregon Cascades. I did my share as a kid growing up in Oregon, and again when I moved back as an adult. It is still a good 4 weeks of walking though. No amount of lightweight, modern gear will eliminate the daily need to cart around your food, water, and shelter for a month.
I’m already in decent shape, and have been trying to up my workouts in anticipation of this, but the need is very real now to literally get my ass in gear and start getting my body used to this kind of daily work. Working a cushy desk job, I’ve been spending the vast majority of the past 20 years sitting. I’m sure I can do this, but I know it’s going to hurt when I start, a lot. And there are plenty of question marks about the trip that are going to gnaw at me with doubt and concern until we’re walking.
I’m back to being largely functional, but my arm is still damaged enough that more than a few minutes of activity starts to make it really throb. I’ve spent the week exhausting my joy at discovering the vast catalog of early 2000s Adult Swim cartoons on Hulu, read everything I care to on the internet, posted excessively to Facebook about my crash, and modded every Bethesda game I have. My passiveness reached its zenith sometime on Friday and has begun to seriously wane.
So, until I become more mobile, looks like writing more is going to keep me busy. Luckily I have 3 different blogs to update.
Something about being on a motorcycle late at night makes you want to open the throttle. The cooler air wakes you up, makes you more alert, while the warmth of the bike draws you in closer, bonds you to it. What cars are on the road announce themselves before you can even see them with splashes of light on the asphalt and concrete, and you feel almost prescient as you anticipate them. When the traffic disappears the road is laid out to you alone as an invitation, designed for the sole purpose of providing passage of smooth, effortless speed, and to ignore that purpose seems wasteful.
Saturday night was one of these nights. Leaving an industrial warehouse bar in the borderlands of the arts district as Irish music still reeled feverishly from the stage inside, I cranked over my bike in heightened anticipation of the ride home. The seemingly infinite freeways of Los Angeles go from miserable immobile gauntlets of the masses by day to what is considered manageable traffic anywhere else in the world by night, and freedom of movement is an even higher pleasure than usual. I rumbled through the canyon of darkened warehouses, peeled off onto the freeway on ramp, dumped a gear and hit freeway speed with a roar and a jolt.
Twenty minutes of 5th-gear exhilaration later I’m hitting the home stretch, pulling free of the infamous 405 freeway, a length of road seemingly purpose built for the suffering of both motorists and their vehicles, and headed into the curve onto the 90, the last blast of high-speed freedom before returning to the mercy of traffic lights and hard corners. As I lean into the long curve, I keep the throttle open, flush with the feeling of hugging the bike into the turn, the road rushing past my shoulder as the rubber frictions hard against the will of physics. And then, so fast I can barely register it, my back end flies free as my tire loses hold, and there’s nothing left to keep me from the pavement.
A lot happens in a matter of seconds when things go wrong at high speed, and my brain can only capture moments at a time, like the shutter of a camera. The hard impact as the back of my shoulder meets concrete; sliding; my bike outpacing me and disappearing into a cloud of dust or smoke, likely both; a shower of sparks piercing the cloud; the acrid taste and smell of dirt and hot metal; the final slow to a stop on the shoulder, and my first thought: “Move slow, it’s not going to hurt like it should yet.”
I start with a quick basic inventory: first my head and neck, then moving my limbs. Improbably, everything looks and moves like it’s supposed to. Some 15 feet away my motorcycle lies on its side screaming, the throttle likely pinned wide open in the crash. We’ve both landed perfectly on the shoulder out of the way of traffic, so there’s no rush. I stand up slowly and shuffle over to my bike, the scream silenced on its own just before I hit the kill switch, something finally giving way under the strain. Then all I can do is stand for a moment, dazed and starting to properly hurt. My body is beginning to clench instinctively, making moving difficult. I look down at the bike to try and assess the damage, and notice big drops of blood starting to fall on it and the pavement around it, but I can’t tell from where. I’m functional, but I’m definitely hurt.
A young Asian girl stops her car and reverses across from me, wide-eyed, asking me questions. Most of them are about me not imminently dying. She offers to either call 911 or take me to the nearest hospital; I choose the latter since my bike isn’t in anyone’s way, the nearest ER is 2 minutes straight ahead, and I don’t want to wait an indeterminate amount of time for police and an ambulance. I manage to pull the bent key from the ignition and return her courtesy by keeping my blood to myself for the ride.
The ER is shockingly quiet for 1am on a Saturday night in LA. Luckily this means I get a bed almost immediately and strip down, lying back gratefully. Doctors and nurses tut at my wounds and bicker with each other, poke me with an IV and apologize for everything they do, but I’m just happy to get cleaned and patched up. They do not however offer me any pain medication, which I was rather looking forward to. Meantime the weekend crowd picks up as patients wander in from their nights of excess, bleeding profusely and in various states of incoherence.
Three hours and a brief visit from the police later, I’m released. Someone had called in a scene with a broken motorcycle splattered with blood but no body, a concern I did not anticipate. Luckily I had made all appropriate calls to loved ones ahead of time, so Liesel was not woken at 2am by the prospect that I was dead and missing, and could point the police my way. They made sure nothing nefarious had occurred, and left satisfied to sort out the wreckage.
I was beaten, but not mangled. My motorcycle did not escape so easily. But I would sort that out tomorrow. Now I just wanted to sleep, in my optimism disappointed that I had destroyed plans and property alike, but no less appreciative of the fact that I was walking to bed and would wake up to ride again.
In the wake of the massive proliferation of social media, I find an interesting thing has happened: the more these things became a persistent presence in our lives with every single exchange ringing our phone in our hip pocket, the less I actually connected with people and instead everyone just ticked a box to acknowledge they saw it. Where I once had enjoyable and meaningful social communities that I interacted with, the communities became heavily distilled; numbers of “likes” and comments and punchline pictures replaced any real dialog and interactions became more of a monologue.
The internet is no longer a community unto itself, it’s just a platform, an operating environment extending our lives, and we’ve grown just as disinterested in our neighbors. Seems I need to find a new community.