Monday, February 17, 2014

The Importance of a Second Try

It took us two tries to hike the Cat Rock - Bob's Hill trail in winter, but that didn't make it any less worth doing. The hike is located in Cunningham Falls State Park. Along with the National Park Service's Catoctin Mountain Park (home to Camp David, and some otherwise-incongruous security infrastructure), Cunningham Falls comprises a large and well-preserved section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in north-central Maryland. At a length of 8 miles round trip and featuring moderate elevation gain, the hike would certainly not require two tries in a season other than winter. With snow on the ground and cold temperatures, however, the hike became a reminder of the importance of being prepared.

Winter hiking

Monday, April 8, 2013

Trip Report: Assateague Island National Seashore

I've been to Assateague before, my parents insist, but given that I was two years old at the time this past weekend felt like the first time. Emily and I made a semi-spontaneous decision that we needed to get the heck out of D.C. Three hours later, we were erecting a tent on sand, oceanside.

Winter in Moscow

Russia. Where to begin.

When I told a good friend and three-time American expat in Russia that the country "is crazy and makes no sense," she replied, "EXACTLY. It makes absolutely no sense and is wonderful for it." Based on my eight-day trip to Moscow and its surroundings, Russia is a place where:
  • A band in tee shirts plays a Russian-language version of Johnny B. Goode on top of a hill in ten degree weather
  • Glavpivtorg, an elegant bar that recreates the experience of a Stalinist-era apparatchik, features a live band playing a loud cover of Sex Bomb in a thick Russian accent.
  • "Face control," wherein scary looking bouncers turn you away from clubs if you aren't rich, beautiful, or interesting enough. Or, like us, you speak English and visibly have a good time while waiting in line and get in nearly everywhere.
  • As an American we met up with noted, "Americans are fickle." Russians, on the other hand, stick with things once they decide they like them. Like mullets, or the Macarena.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Describing the Indescribable

I went on a two and a half hour hike today in northwest DC’s Rock Creek Park, the sort of outing I used to snobbishly turn my nose up at, back before I was a car-less grad student. If I was unable to drive to the Appalachians, I preferred not to go hiking at all – this despite living a few minutes’ walk from a tract of undeveloped woodlands twice the size of Central Park. Over the years, and with the prodding of being a poor car-less grad student (and the prodding of my girlfriend), I have stopped letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rock Creek lets me get some nature time in every weekend, and it’s a damn fine park.

As it turns out, being in nature is empirically good for you. Outside magazine recently had a great piece on the growing body of scientific research on the health benefits of spending time in the woods. In a nutshell, being in nature seems to improve nearly every health indicator, from blood pressure to cancer to mental health. Even sitting in front of a window looking out at plants measurably lowers stress. The Japanese even have a term for hanging out in the woods that captures the experience perfectly – “forest bathing.”

Forest bathing is pretty much exactly what a two-hour hike in Rock Creek accomplishes. You simply feel better, and even a short hike provides you with the pleasures of walking a trail – rounding a bend, hearing wind in the trees, and cresting a ridge, for example. The entrance to Rock Creek Park gives one the sense of endless possibilities. As my buddy Jeff said, the Glover Road entrance “feels like you’re walking into Oz.” I know what he means, but at the same time I’m not really sure what Oz is like. This is an unending difficulty of hiking: how do you convey an experience that cannot be put into words?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Trip Report: Dolly Sods

I’ve visited the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia twice, in the summer and fall of last year. If you live in the D.C. area, and like to go backpacking, I can’t recommend this place enough. Start with its location, three hours’ drive from D.C. This is just close enough to be doable on a Friday night or Saturday morning drive, while being just far enough to escape the hordes of day hikers that overwhelm Shenandoah, Prince William, and other closer-in parks. For whatever reason, that third hour in the car reduces weekend crowds to a trickle – this despite Dolly Sods’ sterling reputation among hikers, and its status as one of the most popular wilderness areas in West Virginia. Relative solitude is great – but Dolly Sods is much more than Shenandoah with fewer crowds.

Through a combination of altitude and human interference, Dolly Sods is unlike any other landscape in the area. If you were dropped by helicopter onto the plateau blindfolded, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in New England, somewhere out West, or possibly the Shire. The area consists of high, windswept plains (around 4,000 feet above sea level) and dense small valleys cut by streams. The plateau and higher elevations are a mix of red spruce groves, bogs, and heath barrens, while the lower elevations transition from dense spruce to hardwood. In fall, the Sods put on the best autumn colors I’ve ever seen:

Like autumn in a postcard

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The West of My Imagination

Throughout my life, the West has become more and more familiar to me and yet permanently foreign. I don’t mean foreign in a negative sense, as something scary or forever incomprehensible. I’ve never lived there for more than a significant period of time, but I can never stay away for long. It doesn’t feel quite like home, exactly. More like… well, I’m not quite sure.

The West has become my annual pilgrimage. I’ve gone West five of the last six years, and six of the last eight. When I say “gone West,” what I really mean is “gone hiking or backpacking.” It all began in 2005, with a ten-day trek through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, my final act as a Boy Scout. The Boy Scouts of America run the largest youth camp in the world in the Sangre de Cristos. Philmont Scout Ranch was incredible, and totally captured by lowland-bred imagination. A part of our trek took us above treeline – so high up that trees could not grow! As we ascended Comanche Peak I got more and more excited, and by the time we summited Mount Phillips, I was giddy.

Mount Phillips

This obsession with altitude – fuck yea, bro! – has never gone away, but my pilgrimages soon began to include other joys. My girlfriend, then skittish about getting into a relationship, sealed the deal by inviting me on a spring break backpacking trip to the Canyonlands area of Utah, immediately after we started seeing each other in 2007. Instead of up, up, up, the destination was down – a descent into a canyon and back out again. Philmont had been a last hurrah of youth, spent with guys I’ve known almost my entire life, and their Scoutmaster father (I can never thank him enough for being such a wonderful influence in my life, and opening new worlds through Scouting). Utah was about making new friends and getting to know Emily. Two scenes really sum up Utah. Scene 1: from down below, look up at a canyon rim, as a cloud passes over the sun. Suddenly, straight out of an old Western, a group of braves on horseback rides up to the edge of the canyon rim. The chief’s headdress is silhouetted dark against the sky. Part of Scene 1 is fiction, but the memory is vivid. I still feel like it happened.

Keep an eye out

Scene 2 requires less description: stars, stars, stars. We made the Utah trip in mid-March, and it was cold. It was also in the desert, and far from any artificial light. The night we spent on the flat plain after hiking out of the canyon had the best stars I’ve ever seen. Because it was flat, we had the full-on dome-of-stars-reaching-the-horizon view. Philmont was the green West of the Rockies; Utah was the red West of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Summer 2007 ensured I would be coming West for the rest of my life. I returned to Philmont to work as a Ranger, leading Boy Scout troops for the beginning of their treks. Rangers worked with troops during their first four days at the Ranch: preparing them for the trek in base camp, then for three days on the trail. It was essentially entrepreneurial. Our job was to prepare the crews to lead themselves through the wilderness. We taught navigation, first aid, cooking, safety, and soft skills such as conflict management and leadership. After we sent the troops off into the wilderness on their own, we simply had to find our way back to base camp, no matter the distance and often solo. We Rangers considered our job to be the most interesting and glamorous on the Ranch – and we were right. In three months, I spent a total of two nights with a solid roof over my head. More than that, working as a ranger combined being in the mountains with the opportunity to contribute to what for many scouts is a formative experience of their youth.

I want to go back to Philmont

The vibe among the Rangers at Philmont was laid back, thrill seeking, and completely centered on backpacking. Demographically, we were 75% liberal arts kids and 25% conservative Christians, 100% living in harmony with each other and with our shared passion. You swap stories about your troops and plot ridiculous expeditions that involve 15 mile days (you’re in amazing shape after carrying 35-pound packs up and down mountains nonstop for several months) and sleeping under the stars in innovative locations (“Anybody want to crash the Tooth?”). After Philmont, I developed a facility for backpacking similar to riding a bike or driving stick. I might get out of shape, but I’m never going to forget how to do it. I also got to feed my craving for altitude, climbing my first 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. After that, everything else seemed like small ball.

Descending Mount Bross
Since 2008, I’ve made a trip to Colorado every year except 2009. Every trip begins with Pizza Rolls and Seinfeld at a good friend’s house, and continues with a mini epic in the Colorado wilderness somewhere west of Denver. Every trip has included a Fourteener climb (or at least an attempt). So the altitude cravings still get sated. But it satisfies something more, something deeper. Something that draws me back again and again, despite the pricey airline ticket and the cost in scarce time off. I can’t stay away for more than 12 months or so.

As the West becomes more familiar by the year, it remains larger-than-life and magical in my head. I return yearly, but I can never stay as long as I’d like. I never quite get enough, no it never becomes mundane and normal. Indeed, because it is an escape from daily life, I appreciate every hike, short breath, and moose encounter more than I would otherwise. My relationship with the West is a paradox: I return again and again, but it never gets old. The price I pay is longing. As much as I love it, I can never stay as long as I’d like. By late winter 2013, I’m already itching to get back out again.

Colorado 2012: Keeping in touch with good friends