Sunday, June 24, 2012

Colorado Rockies

To train for my upcoming hike, I hiked for two days in the Ptarmigan Peaks, outside of Dillon, Colorado, between elevations of 9,000 and 13,000 feet. It was the first time I've ever hiked at that sort of altitude, and by the end of Day-1, after about 15 miles, I had a raging headache, which forced me to end my day early and set up camp.

I was surprised with how round and bulbous the mountains were. I was expecting razor-sharp ridge lines and towering spires, but I was happy to have nice, hard, flat ground to walk on for the most part. Pictures below...

There were no water sources along the trail, so I had to rely on snow, which I packed into my water bottle and drank after it melted. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Notes from a road trip to the Rockies

Yesterday, after eight lovely days on the road, I arrived in Denver, Colorado. I'm staying with a friend in Denver because, later this month, I have a magazine assignment for which I will go on a three-day hike with the greatest hiker in the world.

To get in shape for the hike, I decided to begin my road trip with a 71-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains, which runs along the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Later, I drove along Highway 70 in Tennessee, Highway 64 through Arkansas, and Highway 400 through Kansas.

Some notes from the trip:

-There are a lot of dead trees in the Smokies. In the picture below, you can see a typical vista: Rolling forest country out of which sprouts the bare skeletons of hemlocks or Fraser firs, coloring the landscape with unwanted streaks of white and gray in an otherwise healthy head of green hair. Such trees were the victim of the rapacious Woolly Adelgid, which is an exotic pest that kills the trees.

On the trail, I came across two rangers wearing blue latex gloves applying something to the roots of several surviving hemlocks. They told me that they were applying an insecticide to the remaining hemlocks every five years. I thought there was something desperate and futile about having to go to each hemlock to apply this treatment every five years, and I wondered if it might be best to let nature take its course, as ruthless as that may seem. Yet I also thought there was something incredibly noble for the Park Service to commit to such a grand, implausible vision. It's like the Great Wall of China or the Pyramidsa feat that shall require the concerted effort of thousands of people over hundreds of years, except better because they're saving a species.

Dead Fraser firs

Trail shelter--there were about a dozen of these on the AT in the Smokies

I saw a decent amount of hikers on the trail. Each night I slept alongside 8-12 hikers.

Apocalyptic views from Clingman's Dome. 

-Despite the pretty pictures, the Smokiesonce known for their misty, cloudy, foggy vistas (good smoky)are now known for all the pollutants from southern and midwestern cities that journey into the mountains and sully such views (bad smoky). It's estimated that visibility is reduced by 80 percent because of these pollutants. When I stood on the top of Clingman's Domethe highest point of the AT at 6,643 feetI was dishearteneddisheartened because even there, on one of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi, on a trail created to give people a place to get away from the city, in one our nation's few protected stretches of wilderness, I knew, looking into the haze, that I'd never be able to fully escape the plumes of industry and chemical clouds of civilization.

Part of me wished I could see all the way to the horizon. Perhaps I'd view an undulating sea of blue-green mountain humps leveling out into a valley dotted with farms and country hamlets. I wished I was somehow an exception to the rule; that I was somehow exempt from the haze. But like everyone else, I couldn't see more than a couple of miles. Now matter how much organic food I eat, no matter how much of my time I spend in natural places, I realized that I was just as susceptible to pollution and just as affected by industry as everyone else. Just as there are pollutants in the Smokies, there were pollutants pocketed in my lungs. Mercury was swimming in my blood. Cell phone waves were sending tidal waves rippling through my testicular seas. There is no escape.

To be there, in a national park, and to NOT BE ABLE TO SEE MORE THAN A FEW MILES seems to me like a dead canary in a coal mine. It should give us cause to think, "Hmmm... Maybe we took things a little too far..." Instead, we're going to build another pipeline.

-After my hike, I hitchhiked back to the van with three very friendly and generous drivers, then took off west in my van down the I-40. I was starving from my hike, so I was on the lookout for a mom and pop dinersome place that might offer some authentic American cuisine that I'd normally abstain from for health and ethical reasons, but because of my grueling hike and the sense of freedom I felt heading west in my own van, I was prepared to throw all caution to the wind, shoe-shoe my inhibitions, and indulge in all the sinful fantasies I'd been dreaming about: hillocks of sodium-rich golden french fries smothered in ketchup, an obscenely large cheeseburger layered with slabs of bacon, ice cold chocolate milkshakes as thick and heavy as a jar of honey. I thought this fantasy wasn't too far-fetched and that I'd have no trouble realizing it, but it soon became clear to me that I'd find no such diner on the interstate. All I saw were giant pillared signs for Ruby Tuesdays and McDonalds and Shoneys.

As my stomach grumbled, my misanthropy was raised to a fever pitch. The traffic was awful. The air smelled of rotisseried skunk slathered in rotten eggs. It was getting late, so I took an exit to a Love's rest stop to buy a sandwich at a Subway. Four giant appallingly obese peopletogether forming a set of monster truck tireswere standing in front of the food line. One of them was talking to the cashier about "baby daddies."

"You better watch out. Your baby daddy's gonna leave you."

"Nuh-uh. Not my baby daddy. He ain't never gonna leave me."

In the corner of the restaurant was a TV playing Fox News. Geraldo Rivera was talking to some "expert" on some Miss America fiasco, in which a contestant refused to compete with a transgender person.

It seems as if I'd wandered onto the hairy hemorrhoid of America. I got my sub, bought a map, and scurried out of the restaurant, promising myself that I wouldn't go anywhere near the interstate or places like this for the rest of my trip.

And that's just what I did. I listened to pop country the whole way through Tennessee and Arkansas and Kansas, drinking three chocolate milkshakes, going for morning jogs at campgrounds and finding myself becoming so prideful and impressed with this country and all the beautiful places left in it.

Hitchhiking along the I-40. Hitchhiking on the interstate is a very difficult way to get rides. 

Tennessee Route 70.

Camping next to Lake Wedington in NW Arkansas

Scrap art on roadside in Kansas

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Headed West

After five months at Acorn Abbey, I'm once again headed west, this time to Denver, Colorado. I have a magazine assignment later this month in the Rockies, and my good friend Josh and his fiancee have welcomed me into their home, where I'll stay through June and parts of July.

It's unusual how unusual a place like Acorn Abbey is. It's so quiet and peaceful and secluded that--after a while--it just begins to feel normal. It's normal how you never see other people or cars. It's normal how you eat food you've planted. It's normal how you live without high blood pressure, sickness, smelly traffic, and the horrid cacophony of civilization. It's normal that you're happy. It becomes so normal that you feel that you'll always have these things and feel these things wherever you go. But that, of course, is not always the case. The truth is, a place like this is truly abnormal. And it should be daily revered as such lest you'll forget and leave it and do something stupid.

I've spent the last five months finishing up my book. (It's in my editor's hands right now. We're expecting a May 2013 release date--I know, that sounds like a really long time.) And I've been gardening and developing the place, namely with an ambitious irrigation project that has been operational for the last month or so.

Here is the finished product:

To the left, under the kitty litter box, is an electrical pump. An extension cord connects it to the house. Water is pumped from this creek several hundred feet up into a water canister. To the right is the concrete dam, supported by boulders. 

This holds 275 gallons of creek water. When we want to irrigate the garden, all we have to do is pull that purple lever. The water shoots down into the blue hose, which runs underground, and then into drip irrigation line in the garden.

This is just 1/3 of the garden. We've had lettuce almost every day for the past month. (The lettuce is bright green leafs in the middle. Off to the right are two varieties of beets, of which we harvested a good 20 lbs.)

View of the garden from the top of the chicken coop.

Here are some onions and broccoli ready to be eaten.

Adolescent peaches in the orchard. 

Adolescent apples. 

The climbing roses are beginning to really climb the fence.
I've trained the chickens to climb atop of me. 

Now I do work with them on top of me. I treat them as half-girlfriend, half-daughter, so my relationship with them is complicated, needless to say. 

Sister Helen, with Sister Evangeline in the background. 

Sister Josephine to the left, scratching an itch. Sister Fanny to the right. Both of them are having a shade break in the coop.

Day lilies blooming.
My new stone walkway with rose trellis.
Acorn Abbey

The van is cleaned out and ready for its first big-time road trip. It'll be a 1,000 mile drive, starting with a stop at the Great Smoky Mountains, where I'll hike the 71 mile section of the Appalachian Trail.