Archive for the ‘Outdoors’ Category

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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

 

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Mt San Antonio

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.

After promising myself to go hiking in the Blue Mountains again for weeks, and every weekend punking out and staying home, I finally made it up again, thanks in part to some sparklingly-clear weather. The idea of exploring as many hiking trails as possible has embedded itself in my head, and with the help of what turned out to be a very incomplete trail map of the Blue Mountains National Park, I ticked off the summit of Mt Banks and a hike beyond to Banks Wall looming over Grose Valley.

Every hike I take in the Blue Mountains amazes me at how accessible so much of the area can be, but at the same time looks so foreboding and inaccessible. As an example, according to a plaque at the summit of what is now an easy family hike, Mt Banks was the site of one of the first parties attempting to cross the Blue Mountains giving up and going home. Given that all you see in almost every direction from that summit is sheer cliffs, I can’t say I blame them.

A further bonus of this trip was giving me a pretty firm grasp of the layout of the valleys nearest to the city, and I’ve started formulating a plan for a 1-2 night backpacking trip. However given how fried my legs were after only 3 hours of hiking, I need to do some more conditioning first.

On a side note, my camera obviously once again has something on the inside of the lens. Goddamn it.