Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring plowing

Every year I wait for the pictures from spring plowing on the Going-to-the-Sun road. It's early this year. Now I get them on facebook.

It's worth taking a look at this one to see how dramatically light can affect a photograph. This is the same view as this:

Sunday, April 25, 2010


We have mice. This is hardly surprising, given that every house in Indiana I've ever lived in has hosted a few of the little boogers.

Now, add the following things together: 1) a few brazen mice; 2) a doofy dog; 3) a man determined to catch them, and 4) an animal-loving teenage girl horrified by the idea of killing them.

And you get a comedy of errors.

T and I were sitting at the kitchen table Thursday night when we heard a rustling near the dog food bag. Our eyes met instantly. "I hear it," he said. He crept over to the bag and lifted the nearby curtain, revealing an open bag of treats that had fallen out of the dog food container. Aha.

By this time, Thomas was quite worked up, having smelled and heard the creature lurking near his food bowl. T picked up the treat bag and peered inside. Nothing. Hmmm. He began to carry the treat bag over to the sink light to see better, when the tiny thing leaped out of the bag. T jumped, the treat bag flew out of his hands, and a chase ensued that, from my vantage point at the table, seemed to unfold over minutes instead of seconds. The mouse lit out for the space between the stove and floor, T dived after it trying to grab its tail, and my leggy, clumsy dog pursued it in the most inefficient way imaginable. In the middle of all this, T's left hand had the misfortune to come between Thomas's paw and the floor he was trying to gain traction on, and so it now sports two long, deep, but neatly aligned scratches from Thomas's claws.

And the mouse, of course, made it under the stove. And Thomas spent the remainder of the evening in a sort of yoga position with his paw stuck under the stove and his head on the floor, attempting to see the escaped mouse underneath.

We had the last laugh, though, when we caught the little jerk in a live trap the next morning, and released him in the back of the yard. He stared up at us malevolently from the grass, tiny ears twitching. (Yes, a live trap -- we wanted to give that a try first out of respect for The Girl, who isn't fond of killing anything.)

Yesterday, we had an even closer encounter with the rodentine crime family that inhabits my house. T was assembling shelves in the finished basement and walked into the laundry room. "Come here!" he hissed. I entered the laundry room to find him grinning and pointing under the dryer. He found a pair of gloves, pulled them on and proceeded to catch a mouse with his hands. Taking care not to crush it, he carried it out back and released it in the same spot. And I just saw another one right before beginning this post.

I'm seriously thinking about borrowing my sister's cat. Because as much as I love him, this guy isn't getting the job done:

Thomas reinspects the scene of Thursday's crime on Sunday morning.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hey, Kristy!

Was it really three years ago this month that we met for lunch and you taught me how to pronounce Skagit??

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Red River Gorge or, thoughts on becoming a backpacker

I'd rather live on the side of a mountain
Than wander through canyons of concrete and steel.

--John Denver, Lady's Chains

We found it difficult to put together a backcountry route with significant mileage that led us to the things we wanted to see -- namely, the arches that make this place so special. Instead, we followed a short but lively six-mile trail and camped near the end on Saturday night. The lower-mileage trail was perfect for a first-time backpacking trip with the kids.

First days on backpacking trips are always, always the hardest. The pack is settling onto your frame, and your feet are appalled at the assault and wondering what your intentions are -- will you do this to them for another day, two or twelve? On first days, my knees go crunchety-crunch as I haul myself uphill, and some random toe -- usually my right pinkie -- becomes and remains stubbornly numb.

So it's tempting to think that first days can kill it for newbies. But I have a different theory. I think if you're going to love it, it's written in your DNA somewhere and it won't matter what that first time is like. My first trip twelve years ago was a disaster. A trail that was supposed to take me from Vermont to the Canadian border was completely blocked by blowdown from a hurricane the previous fall. It took us four hours to make it a single mile. My dog lay down on top of a hill and refused to move until fed two Power Bars. After we got off the trail, I had a harrowing ride with a lunatic cab driver that bore the strong possibility of ending with me dead in a ditch somewhere.

And yet, all I could do when I got home was stare at my boots in the corner and think I wanna do that some more. And so I did.

When I introduced my nephews to backpacking on a trip in the Adirondacks in upstate New York nine years ago, we had all manner of dire events -- I nearly fell off a cliff into a lake (but for the steadying hand of my 13-year old nephew). A bear made an elaborate display of looting another backpacker's food bag within thirty yards of our first campsite. A persnickety park ranger dogged our every step for three days, variously booting us out of certain camp sites protected by imperceptible "No Camping" signs and leaving us written messages about the inadequacy of our bear wires. I fell on a rock on the last day and relieved myself of several layers of skin on my leg and knee. I limped along anyway, lavishly dripping blood along the trail. Even my dog suffered, busting open his paw pad on the way up Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York.

And yet, one of my nephews went home from that trip and inducted his father into the club immediately. For several years thereafter, they took an annual spring backpacking trip. At 26, he still stares out the window of his office and thinks about putting a pack on his back. My other nephew, however (the one who kept me from pitching pack-first over the cliff), still views backpacking from a distinctly I-don't-fucking-think-so lens.

Things broke down along the same lines on this trip. We awoke Sunday morning to a thunderstorm battering the tents that we'd pitched high on a ridge the evening before. The dog, huddled in the larger tent with the kids, was freaking out. The temperature had dropped. In a unusual lapse of good sense, we'd left a number of items outside the night before which were now completely soaked. We broke camp while being pelted with a chilly, driving rain.

"So, what did you think?" I asked The Boy on our way back to the car. He grinned. "I loved it! I want to do it again!" he exclaimed as he bounced down the trail as if powered by an invisible pogo stick. This was an improvement from the day before, when he'd sat down on a rock, looked up painfully, and blurted "I'm tired as shit!" But he'd recovered well. He clearly has the gene.

I'm still not sure what makes someone want to put their home on their back and meander about for days at a time. It's not merely a love of being outside -- The Girl is as much a hiker and climber as anyone, and yet she concluded, at the end, that she was just fine with keeping her camping and hiking separate in the future. Nor is it just a love of nature. I have many friends who are deeply in touch with the natural world, but feel no desire to sleep in it.

On my first night in the backcountry, I slept in a three-sided shelter. As I relaxed into the sleeping bag, I was almost humming with the awareness that I was abandoning myself to the noises that began just beyond the fire ring. I remember this as a source of both unease and delight. If pressed for an answer to these questions, I would have to resort to the one commonality I see in every avid backpacker -- we all feel at least a little bit constrained by the world of humans. Things like air conditioning and the sterility of concrete and steel produce not so much comfort as a low-level sense of discontent. The things that come along with the luxuries of civilization feel much more like limitations than amenities.

Most of the people I know are fine for awhile outside, until they are finished and want, quite reasonably, to get back indoors.

I think wanderers like me have the opposite problem -- we're fine inside for awhile, until we need to return to the comfort of our natural habitat. Tack onto that other fixations -- a constant need to see what's just around the next bend, perhaps, and a love of natural beauty, and you have a person who is willing -- even eager -- to strap the basics of existence to her back and sleep out in the rain.

Call it primitive, call it unevolved -- but call it me.