Wednesday, July 20, 2016

To Be Human In The Wild

It is at this time of year that I truly remember that we live in what is known locally as "The Desert".
It is not desert as most people think of the desert.
We don't live in the Sahara. 
There is not simply an endless sea of yellow sand.
But at some point in the summer the rain stops, and when it stops our world turns very hot and very dry and very beige very quickly.
This is (by far) my least favorite time of year.
For about 9 months of each year I feel as though we simply live in a very small town, isolated from the rest of the world.
Winter is cold and snowy.  Spring is green and rainy.  Fall is sunny and cool, and is marked in this small town not by the extraordinary color of changing leaves as it was in Tennessee, but instead by the pulling together of random groups of deer into one larger herd.
By the yellow and falling leaves of the trees in town.
 By the changing color of desert grasses and desert bushes.
But summer is  Dry.  And the time of year when I most miss being close to water................

About a week ago (before this latest blast furnace hot period of seemingly unending dry heat, we had two days of temperatures in the low 70s.
 I had toyed with the idea of hiking Big Butte but in the end decided against it.
It was still too warm.
Still too warm for so much climbing and my dog does not like the heat any more than I do.
In the end I decided to hike a power line trail on the back side of Cedar Butte.
We had only driven it once before but I thought I remembered a combination of both flat trail and short, steep climbs.
Only about five miles in total.
As ambitious as I was prepared to get in mid-summer, even if the temperature WAS cooler than normal.............

Parking the Suburban off the gravel road, I opened the back door of the vehicle so that Kory could wander while I squared away my gun and pack.
I was carrying a pack filled with first aid supples and five bottles of water.
I left one bottle in the Suburban on the floorboard and in what little shade I could find in the vehicle.
Adjusting holster and pack, I looked around me, automatically in search of my dog, caught sight of her, called to her and headed up the trail......................
Within 10 minutes I was looking out over the desert floor....................
As I continued to climb the power line trail I watched over my dog.
Whatever distance I would travel on this day, I already knew that puppy would cover at least twice that.
She wandered off trail, she wandered back on trail.
She wandered off trail, she wandered back on trail.
She was happy and excited and deep in adventure-mode, and as I continued to climb up the trail I watched over her and out for her, and was pleased that my dog was happy..................
We haven't camped and we haven't fished, and I am not sure why.
We'll go, I was told.
Only we did not go.  And now it is too hot to go.
Too hot to camp.  Too hot to fish.  
And on an unexpectedly cooler day I walked with my pup in a desert that was dry and barren and empty and we were the only two living creatures left in the entire world.
At least it felt that way....................
With few focal points to look at, I found myself mentally zoning out while I continued to climb.
Mind quickly wandering from one subject to another - the past, the present, things I had not thought of for decades, wondering why those things had suddenly come to mind.
As I looked back the way we had come I was again momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the emptiness in front of me.
I ventured out into the Snake River Plain so frequently that I don't think about it very often, but when I finally do I realize that I am (at that moment) standing alone in the vast emptiness of a desert.
Land filled with endless sage and buttes and desert grasses and lava rock and caves and coyotes and elk and deer and antelope and snakes.
It is a huge, barren space.  Empty.  And (when my head is quiet enough) I could hear the complete silence.
There was not much to see.
But I was enjoying the hike, enjoying being with my dog, and enjoying the effort of a moderate level hike................
An hour or so after I began my climb I reached a trail intersection.
As I stood for a moment considering my options I peered down the side trail.
The trail was grassy.
There were trees on both sides of the trail.
I had never been on the trail before so had no idea where it led, or what I would find if I took it.
I had promised LC that I would not veer off the power line trail (all the better to find me should I run into problems)
For a few more moments I considered my options while at the same time scanning the bushes on either side of the trail in search of my dog.
Reaching into the side pocket of my shorts I pulled out my phone intending to call LC and let him know that I was veering off the power line trail.
It went straight to voice mail.
Of course it did.
That was par for the course of living in the middle of nowhere.
Missed calls, calls that went straight to voice mail, and dropped calls were all a part of our way of life.
No I can't hear you now.................
Undeterred I looked around me, trying to find.........something.............that I could set up as a sign for LC should he need to come search for me.
There is not a whole lot to choose from in a desert, but I ended up quickly scavenging sage bush branches and manufacturing a make-shift arrow.
Satisfied with my arrow I turned, called to my pup, and headed off to my left, curious to see where this new trail went, and whether or not it hooked back in to other trails that I was more familiar with on the opposite side of the butte.....................
Disappointingly it did not.
Half a mile after Kory and I had veered off the power line trail I looked up and was surprised to see fencing and a gate up ahead of me.
There were no Private Property signs.  No No Trespassing Signs.  No signs of any kind that would tell me exactly what this place was.
As I wandered closer to the gate I saw something unexpected on the side of the trail.
As I got closer I realized that it was a pile of bones, scattered over a small area and the remnants of what used to be a deer.
Kory reached the bones before I did and walked curiously around them, mouthing some of them, sniffing others, trying to register in her puppy mind exactly what it is that she had found................
A minute after passing through the open gate I came to this.
What the heck WAS this?
Whatever it was, I was taken aback by the sight of green water.
OK.  So now I was very curious and continued further...............
With fence row to my left, I continued wandering, aware that Kory was on the opposite side of the fence.
Every 50 feet there were signs that humans had been this way.
That thought reminded me of a story LC had told me about when he was a small boy.
He and a friend (living in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee) had been wandering through the woods, and eventually came to an orchard of apple trees.
They (of course) helped themselves to an apple from one of the trees, and congratulated themselves on finding this wonderful, isolated place.
They were so far into the woods that they decided that they had found a place where no white man had ever been before (and very few Indians).
That is, until a lady came barging out the back door of the home adjacent to the orchard, and yelled for the two boys to get out of her orchard.
That story is a running joke with both of us now, and has been for years.
And whenever we find ourselves in some isolated place we decide that we have found a place where no white man has ever been before (and very few Indians)....................
So this was it.
Kory and I had wandered more than half a mile from the power line trail to reach a dead end on the side trail that contained fences, gates, bones and signs of old irrigation equipment.
Slightly disappointed that I would have to turn back - and that this trail did not hook into many other trails that would take me up and around to the front of Cedar Butte - I again scanned for my puppy.
As soon as I found her I could tell that she was getting overheated.
For the second time on this trip I unhooked my packed, shrugged it off, dropped it to the ground, and then knelt beside it to dig out a bottle of water.
Kory eagerly came to me.  
And (as before) I drank a quick drink from the bottle before slowly pouring water into my hand so my thirsty dog could drink.
As with the first bottle, she eagerly drank the rest.
Heading back the way we had come......................
After picking up the power line trail again we continued on for only another half mile before hitting a sharp curve in the trail.
This site did not compute.
It was not how I remembered the trail, but it had been well over a year since the last time LC and I had driven this way and for a few moments I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
I THOUGHT I remembered the trail continuing to climb, until eventually we found ourselves at the very top of the butte.
Instead, the power lines continued straight through the desert, while the trail took a sharp left turn and dropped.
Does not compute.
Where the hell was the trail I was thinking of then, if it wasn't this one??
I could have sworn it was this trail.
Digging another bottle of water from my pack I turned the cap and drank half a bottle in one long drink.
Digging my phone from the side pocket of my shorts again, I saw that we had been hiking for about two hours.
It would probably take us 90 minutes to get back because a lot of the return trip would be down hill.
Yes..........this would be our turning around point......................
From L to R:
First line of defense against both four legged and two legged critters
The last line of defense against the same critters
And the pepper spray that I consider pretty useless, and which usually lays somewhere down in the bottom of my pack.
The Ka-Bar has been taped to the shoulder strap of my pack ever since I was hiking alone up in Alaska............
By the time Kory found her way back to me she was tired and overheated, and collapsed in a heap on the ground in the shade of a cedar tree.
Immediately I knelt down beside her and she gulped down water in between breathes.
We would stop here for a few minutes before heading back.
I wanted my dog to rest for a few minutes, and as I watched her I felt good that I had decided to do this shorter and more moderate hike, rather than try to tackle Big Butte.
We needed very cool to do that.
Both of us.
As Kory stayed under the tree, I walked back across the trail and looked beyond the power lines in the distance, curious to see what was out there.
More of the same.
More trees, sage brush, lava rock, all extending into the distance forever................
10 minutes later we were headed back the way we had come.
Heading back down flat trail and down hill trail, headed back towards the Suburban that I had parked at the bottom of the hill a couple of miles away.
Worried about Kory I watched her closely for a while, concerned that she was overheated.
She had drank most of the water (as she always does on these trips) but she was also covering twice the distance that I was.
She was fine.
Just over an hour later we were loaded back into the vehicle and heading for the house.
Stupidly I had brought no food with me and I was starving.................... 

 It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way...........Cheryl Strayed

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