Monday, September 21, 2015

Back in the Woods

Enroute to a geocache.

Its been a long and brutal 6 months. If you follow my blog, you know that I have been dealing with a debilitating back injury since early this year. I couldn't hike or backpack. I could barely walk. Eventually I had to apply for short term disability at work. The ordeal was slow and painful. Most of all it was frustrating. I was sick of it. I AM sick of it. When all treatment methods failed, I finally opted for surgery. I am happy to report that I made the right decision. It has been nearly a month since my spinal discectomy and I feel better than ever. It still blows me away how great I feel. Now I just need to recover what I lost during my injury.

Raccoon tracks in the mud
 In the past few weeks I have been hiking a ton. I'm getting stronger everyday. I'm enjoying my time in nature more than I ever have. It can be depressing when you live for the woods, but are stuck in the house hurt... for weeks on end. Time slips away. I have been soaking up nature. Noticing everything. Appreciating all of it. In the desert I've seen lots of coyote tracks in my usual haunt. More than normal. I wonder why? After a rain last week I saw small birds snatching dragonflies out of mid-air. I've never seen that before. I saw two roadrunners in the Phoenix Mountains last week where I've never seen any before. In Oregon I saw a firenewt for the first time on a hike to Mirror Lake. In northern Arizona I saw raccoon tracks in the mud, and found fossils in some rocks. 

Halfdome 2
Not only do I feel great physically, I am also coming round mentally. It takes a toll on the mind being laid-up for so long. Luckily I have the most amazing woman on the planet by my side. I know that I could not have survived this summer without my Sarah. I appreciate her and everything she has done for me. I appreciate everyone who helped me: My brother-in-law Jim Ciomber for being the best friend a guy could ask for. My coworkers and managers at REI for their understanding and support.

 This winter in the desert I predict will be a great one. I can't wait to throw on my Crown VC and spend some nights in the backcountry. Physically, I'm not there yet... but I will be.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Attack of the Back

Late last January something happened. I was playing catch with a football in front of the house during halftime of a playoff game. James threw a deep one, and when I stretched out to make the catch on the run, I was stabbed in the hip with a bolt of pain. Since then the pain has gotten progressively worse, despite weeks of physical therapy.

My days have been beyond miserable. I wake up in pain. Everything I do hurts. My back has grown severely crooked. Standing is hard. Walking is agonizing. 

Thankfully, my bosses and coworkers at work have been very understanding. I was allowed to work in a light duty capacity. This was enough at first. Despite the terrible amount of pain I was experiencing by the end of the day, at least I could work. That isn't the case anymore. As my back continues to spiral downwards, I can no longer work. I don't expect this to last much longer.

Why am I telling you this dear reader? Because my 2015 thus far has been wholly uneventful as I battle this injury, and I want to apologize for the lack of new content on my website. I wanted to explain to you where I am in life, so that you could better understand my position.

The MRI I took last week said that I have a blown out disk, which is crushing the nerve endings that run from the spine into my left leg. Based on my doctors recommendation, and the fact that physical therapy alone wasn't working, I am starting a pain management program with steroid injections directly into my spine. The idea is that if I can relieve the pain and become mobile again, I can start taking the necessary steps to permanently fix my back. If it fails, my doctor said the last option in surgery. I hope I don't get that far.

Despite this, I remain ever optimistic. As bummed as I am about a summer ruined, I don't dwell on it. I dwell on the now. I dwell on the future. My back will be fixed eventually, and I will be back to work, and more importantly, back to adventuring. In the meantime I will be working on my novel, which is nearing completion. If this pain management program works, I'll start getting outside again, but I'll keep it small. 

Anyway, thanks for reading and stay tuned.

Staying positive at the doctors office. Crooked back and all.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Gear Review: Nemo Astro Air Lite 20R

Nemo Astro Air Lite in The Grand Canyon
The Dirt:

What is it? Ultralight sleeping pad.

Comes with: Pad, stuff sack, compression strap, repair kit.

Size: 20 x 72 inches. 3 inches thick. 3 x 8 inch pack size.

Weight: 14 ounces.

Insulation: Air (R-Value near zero).

Price: $109.95 at REI

The Nemo Astro Air Lite is one of the lightest options on the market for an inflatable sleeping pad. The 14 ounce weight puts it at just 2 ounces heavier than the current ultralight favorite, the Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xlite. What separates the Nemo Astro Air Lite from the competition however, is the shape. The Astro Air Lite is a true rectangle, unlike the NeoAir or Exped Synmat Hyperlight, which are both mummy shaped. The rectangular shape gives the backpacker ample room to roll over in the middle of the night without sliding off, and provides near unrivaled comfort for the weight. This could really come in handy if you don't use a mummy bag.

Indeed, it is this combination of weight and comfort that impresses me most about this pad. Most ultralight pads sacrifice comfort in order to achieve that absurd light weight. Not the case with the Astro Air Lite. Not only is there ample space, but the pad itself is 3 inches thick. Simply put, it's comfortable, and the horizontal baffles prevent that feeling of sleeping on a swimming pool floaty. The top baffle at the head is also larger than the rest, making for a decent pillow when combined with a balled up down jacket or fleece.

Horizontal baffles
Another impressive aspect of the Astro Air Lite is how small it stuffs into the sack. The 3 x 8 inch pack size is smaller than any comparable pad on the market that I know of. It's ultralight, but packs so small it will easily fit into my pack.

By far my favorite thing about this pad is that in over a year of owning it, I've never woke up to lost air. After suffering through two previous pads that developed micro leaks, that is a big deal to me. I love going to sleep with the confidence of knowing I wont wake up to a giant rock digging into my ribs in the middle of the night. It's one reason why I find myself going with this pad over foam more and more.

Nemo Astro Air Lite in stuff sack
Now, this pad might not be for everyone for the simple reason that the Astro Air Lite is non-insulated. I find it works for me year-round in Arizona in 90% of the conditions I use it in. I've never woken up cold on this pad, even cowboy camping in October, or tarp camping in December. But if you live up north and routinely backpack in freezing temps, this pad probably isn't for you.

Finally, I have but one complaint; the valve. Obviously, this pad inflates by lung power. Although it only takes a minute or two to completely inflate, the valve can be stiff and difficult to manipulate. On several occasions I've lost air after inflation due to complications with the valve. Sometimes, it just won't close properly.

The Nemo Astro Air Lite is a sweet pad with a reasonable price. If you're looking to shave some weight but not comfort, I would definitely give it a look. If you are a cold sleeper, or camp in colder conditions, then you may want to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Return to the Honey Hole

The Honey Hole

What amazes me about the Honey Hole is that I never see anyone else there. It's as if the place is some great secret. Maybe that's why I was sworn to secrecy about its location in the first place. Jim and I fished many holes in the low lying area between Bartlett and Horseshoe that day, but only the Honey Hole produced. That entire area down there is teeming with wildlife, and feels like one of the wildest places in Arizona that I've been too. The Honey Hole is not easy to get too either. A 4X4 will get you close, but eventually you'll have to do some bushwacking.  

The water in the Honey Hole is only a couple feet deep max, but the size of the bass we pull out of there is pretty amazing. In that shallow water, bouncing plastic worms off the bottom seems to do the trick. Sometimes you can see the fish hit your lure it's so shallow.

Delicious Bass
What really made this trip special was a new piece of kit that I brought with me. A new beer koozie by YETI that kept my beers ice cold despite the sweltering heat. Check back later for my review. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mogollon Rim Family Camp

Subaru Outback

A weekend getaway on the Mogollon Rim. A little family, a little fishing, a little beer. What can go wrong?

Our spot was a few miles from Potato Lake, west on the rim near Strawberry. It was surrounded by pinetrees and devoid of any camp hosts or nosey neighbors. Chirping birds and laughing kids were the only sounds that afternoon as I set up camp. I spent the evening grilling burgers over the fire, watching the kids cook s'mores, and drinking Rolling Rock from a can... Good times.

REI Kingdom 6
Saturday. The plan was to find a fishing hole. The Blue Ridge Reservoir had potential. Sarah and the kids and I piled into the Subaru. Jim's clan piled into his truck. We drove on rock strewn dirt roads for the next hour. The view on the rim was spectacular. The kids screamed every time we drove too close to the edge. After nearly two hours of driving we hit a snag. A tire on Jim's Ram blew. I mean, it was shredded. We changed it and motored on. Not five minutes later the tire pressure light in the Subaru flashed. Now we had a flat too. I honked the horn and flashed my lights to get Jim's attention. We were very remote with no phone service, on a labyrinth of crappy forest roads. We stopped to change the flat in a cloud of dust left by Jim's Ram as he disappeared around a bend. 

We rode that skimpy doughnut to the freeway, and stopped at the first highway gas station. I wandered into a garage next door and met an old man in overalls napping in the shade. He swapped our doughnut for a $45 used tire, and we were mobile again.

We made it back to our camp around 3:30 that afternoon. Jim was packing up his stuff, but there was a problem. He had another flat tire, and was out of spares. "Will you drive me to Cottonwood so I can get a new tire?" he asked me. "I have to be there before five."

Two hours later I was back at camp. The hole day spent driving and changing tires. All was not lost however, as I finally had the chance to propose to Sarah. We went on a little walk through the woods together. I got down on one knee in the dirt, She said yes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Walking Off the Dead

Robert Hammond in the Sierra - photo courtesy of Robert Hammond.

At 58 years old, Robert Hammond did something entirely unexpected. He sold his business, his car, all his possessions, and wandered off alone, on foot, into the Sonoran Desert. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn't trying to live out any romanticized mountain-man fantasy. Robert Hammond was trying to change his life.

From a dusty roadside in Ojai, California, Hammond reflected on the year that nearly killed him. In 2014, the anxiety and depression he had battled since childhood had finally won.

“I have covered up my mental duress with wit, humor, alcohol and drugs to mask the living hell that makes its residence in my brain,” Hammond said.

In 2014, he couldn’t contain that hell any longer. After he lost his temper with his teenage son Dillon, Hammond set out on a 15,000-mile road trip around the Southwest. Long a nature lover, Hammond thought the natural beauty of the vast western landscape would heal him. He thought it would change him. But the road trip soon morphed into a “death drive.”

Behind the wheel he dwelt on the incident with Dillon. His own words knives in his heart. Guilt and regret often obscured the desert vistas and mountain views outside his Jeep windows. In 10 minutes of screaming at his son he had “ruined” a tightknit relationship that had taken him 17 years to build. He could never forgive himself. He reasoned that he was better off dead.

Hammond yearned to “check out,” but the pain he knew it would cause those he loved always stayed his hand. Then one night in a “sleazy” Roswell motel room, he saw a report of Robin Williams’ suicide on T.V., and it saved his life.

“I realized that depression is non-judgmental and does not discriminate,” Hammond said.

Above all, he considered how devastated Williams’ kids must be, and resolved not to afflict his own kids with the same pain.

He resolved to be a better father. He needed to see his son graduate high school. He had to be with his daughter on her wedding day. He wanted to be there for the birth of his grandkids. He wanted to live. But how?

“I knew big changes had to take place as I was among the walking dead,” Hammond said.

He decided to walk off the dead by trekking 2,500 miles to Seattle via the Pacific Crest Trail. There he’ll see his oldest daughter Lauren’s wedding and meet his new grandchild. Maybe do some motivational speaking if anyone cares to listen. After a brief stay, he wants to catch the Continental Divide Trail in Montana, and trek another 3,000 miles back to Arizona.

Dillon believed his dad’s plan was “a little crazy.” He supported him anyway, hoping that this trail to self-discovery would bring the change he knew his father desperately needed. Hopes aside, Dillon can’t help but feel a little skeptical. This isn’t the first time his father has tried to remake himself. Through the years Dillon has seen the back-and-forth. The up-and-down. He knows the mammoth challenge his dad is facing in becoming the man he wants to be. Despite this, Dillon remains ever optimistic.

This time his dad, “seems to have a different attitude,” he said.

After a January 15 start from New River, Arizona, Hammond is poised to enter the famed Sierra Nevada range in California, but high winds and a frigid forecast find him waiting restlessly in the low-country. He’s battled injury, illness, hunger, thirst and cold. He quit his antidepressants cold turkey three weeks ago. But well over 1,000 miles in, his spirits are high.

The desert took its toll. Water was scarce. Some days he carried 2 gallons to be safe. Other days he drank from puddles. His 16-mile-a-day pace brutalized his feet (he’s currently on his fourth pair of boots). A chest infection laid him up for four days; shin splints for another two. But he kept going.

In southern California, he veered off the PCT. His savings dried up and hotels were no longer an option in towns. He slept in a train car, under bridges, on beaches and next to highways. In San Bernardino, he stealth camped behind Sears.

Despite some detours, Hammond always returns to the PCT. Like so many other hikers, drawn to the solitude and peace of mind that only wilderness provides. For Hammond, the trail is therapy. The lonely miles provide endless hours of reflection and retrospection. The snowcapped mountains a reminder of that which truly matters; family, friends and human decency.

It is this decency that has made the largest impact on Hammond. His elderly mother faithfully sending care packages. The companionship of Chris (aka Knuckles) from his early days on the PCT. Priscilla Kelly, a Facebook friend he’d never met who provided him food and shelter. “Anonymous Dave” in Mammoth Lakes, who gave him gloves and sunglasses. The friends and strangers who have donated to his GoFundMe page. Longtime friend Lynda Lukan offering support and encouragement over the phone whenever he has a signal.

Hammond’s journey was somewhat of a shock for Lukan. Although they shared a home for five years, she never suspected the severity of Hammond’s emotional problems. For her, Hammond was a good man and a good father, who had regular problems like everyone else. It wasn't until after his fight with Dillon that she realized just how much he was suffering.

“I hope he gets clarity and renewness (sic). I hope he can forgive himself,” Lukan said.

As Hammond fights snow and cold in the Sierras, his quest continues. He feels like a changed man, and physically he is. Hammond has lost 30 pounds as hard-earned miles have slowly replaced fat with lean muscle mass. Emotionally, the depression and anxiety have mostly disappeared, but so far there’s no end in sight on the path to self-forgiveness.

“Failure has not been an option at all, ever,” he said.

Only time will tell.

*Hammond is currently back in Phoenix waiting to see Dillon graduate, and working odd jobs to raise money for the completion of his journey. You can help him get back on the trail by donating to his GoFundMe page, here.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Gear Review: Sea to Summit Escapist Tarp

Escapist in a windshield pitch.
The Dirt:

What is it? Ultralight backpacking tarp.

Comes with: Tarp, stuff sack, guylines, line locks

Materials: 15-denier silicone/polyurethane-coated Ultra-Sil® Nano 

Size: Medium - 6 ft. 6 in. x 8 ft. 6 in. Large - 10 x 10 ft.

Weight: Medium - 9.5 ounces. Large - 12.3 ounces

Price: Medium - $169.00. Large - $199.00.

The Sea to Summit Escapist is my first true tarp. I've owned a couple tarp tents before: The Golite Shangri La and the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, and I like the Escapist better than both of them. 

The medium Escapist is the perfect shelter for the solo backpacker who likes to go extremely light. I love it for the desert because in the desert you typically don't need shelter, and there aren't many mosquitoes. In that case I carry the Escapist more as a backup, or more commonly, a windbreak. In fact, every time I've ever pitched the Escapist, I've done so primarily as a windbreak. That's why this thing is so cool. It is very versatile. There are probably dozens of ways to pitch a rectangular tarp, and the Escapists packaging comes with a few ideas.
Pitch ideas.
The Escapist has eight reinforced tie-out points that can all take a trekking pole.  Each of these points come with cord adjusters and reflective guyline, so it's ready to go brand new. All these tie-out points really give the Escapist its versatility. 

Since I primarily backpack in the desert, I've never had the chance to pitch this tarp using trees. I've always had to use my trekking poles. However, with practice, a proper trekking pole pitch is very sturdy. The Escapist has withstood 30 mph winds on multiple occasions. The drawback in pitching with trekking poles is that you'll need to carry some extra cordage. I've found that an extra 10 feet of spectra cord is the perfect length, and doesn't weigh anything,

What's impressed me the most about the Escapist is its durability. On a few separate occasion camped in the desert I've experienced extremely high winds. Winds that were blowing so hard I had to stack boulders over my stakes to keep them in the ground. This tarp is strong and well made and despite its lightweight, has stood up great over the last 6 months. It's got no holes, tares or any other problems. 
Favorite windshield pitch.

One of the big drawbacks of pitching with trekking poles is the loss of head room due to the fact that your tied off into the ground. I found this a problem with the classic windshield pitch and the A-frame pitch. On those occasions high winds forced me to tighten the guylines, which resulted in a lowering of one section of the tarp. Usually the section in between the trekking poles. One way to offset this is by placing your poles in adjoining points. No matter how much you tighten the pitch, you'll never lose headroom. Bottom: In the classic windshield pitch you can see that I lost headroom after tightening the center guyline. If the center guyline were anchored to a tree it wouldn't have been a problem.
Classic windshield pitch.
There is a learning curve with the Escapist. Don't expect to purchase this shelter and set it up perfectly the first time (unless you are experienced with this shelter type). It's nothing like a freestanding tent. It takes practice. To me, the versatility and absurd weight savings are well worth spending a little extra time in camp with set-up. Using the Escapist I found that I was more particular than ever about set-up location and site preparation. 

Bottom Line 

The Sea to Summit Escapist is great for anyone stepping into the world of ultralight backpacking. Its versatile, strong, light and packs extremely small. Set-up takes practice, but learning the different pitches is half the fun. 

Note: It rarely rains in the desert, and I never got a chance to use this tarp in rain. 

Modified A-frame