Saturday, November 28, 2015

#OptOutside: Needle Rock Beach

Needle Rock Beach
 I had four helpings of Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey was so moist and golden brown that I couldn't help myself. The sweet potato casserole was delicious. Friday I felt flat. I was ready to spend the day on the couch, watching old Christmas movies, and eating leftover pumpkin pie. Sarah got the family motivated, despite my reluctance to move, and soon we were packed in the car headed for the Verde River.

Hiking along the river
 I couldn't figure out why it was called Needle Rock beach. There were no big rocks shaped like needles, though I could see Weaver's Needle from the road, stabbing upward from the rugged Superstitions. It reminded me of my backpacking trip there last December, and suddenly I wished I was back, camping in the shadow of the needle under a billion stars. The kids don't know it, but I am buying both of them backpacks for Christmas. It's all part of my plan to spark in them a love for backpacking and the outdoors. My hope is that nature is creating impressions on their brains that will forever connect being outside to fun and happiness. 

Fishing at the beach didn't go well, so we followed a faint trail on the river's edge. Riparian areas like this are so unique because the ecology on the river is so different than the surrounding desert. One minute you're walking under the shade of cottonwoods, and the next your surrounded by cacti on a sunswept hillside. 

My family.
 We found a secluded little spot about a half mile from the beach that looked suitable for camping. There was already a firepit and an area for a tent. The best part was that it was located at a spot on the river that was really deep and heavily wooded. I think I'll take the kids there on their first backpacking trip.

Although I've never shopped on Black Friday before, I think I'll make #optoutside an annual family tradition. It's important to teach our kids what is really important in life. Nature has real value. Family has lasting meaning.

Until next time....

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park: 49 Palms Oasis

Stairs to 49 Palms
 After a night of beer swilling and cigar smoking around the campfire at Jumbo Rocks, Saturday dawned too soon for me. But I knew from past experience that nothing cures a hangover faster than a hard day's hiking. When we pulled the van into the 49 Palms Oasis trailhead, I knew this trip wouldn't be like the Maze. For starters there was a trailhead and a sign. There were also probably 20 vehicles parked there too. Today we would have company... Damn.

Descent into the Oasis
 This area of the park is quite different than where we camped at Jumbo Rocks. There are no Joshua Trees here. In fact, it reminded me of Squaw Peak in Phoenix. A lot of of rocks and creosote, and not much else. The lack of shade would have been a problem if we weren't already intimately familiar with desert hiking. I imagine it could be a problem for park visitors from parts further north. After a 300 foot climb we were rewarded with views of the city of Twentynine Palms, and a teaser of the fan palm oasis that was our goal. The lush green palm grove in the middle of brown barren desert looked so out of place. In Arizona, where I live, palms aren't native to the desert, so outside of the city you just don't see them.

Checking out the palms with my binos.
Approaching the oasis.
 When we reached the oasis we unintentionally crashed a midday Boy Scout party. There were 15 to 20 preteen boys and 5 adults. The boys were sprawled out on a huge boulder jabberjawing, while most of the adults were lazing about in the shade. Two of the adults were exploring the oasis past the signs that implored hikers not to travel any further because of the "sensitive ecological area." Apparently disregarding signage is a favorite pastime of some 49 Palms Oasis hikers as at least a half-dozen of the palms (that I saw) were covered with graffiti in the form of really bad carvings. Greg, Chad, Victor and I found a spot in the shade and talked about how cool the oasis was while snacking on beef jerky and gorp. For all of us, it was the first time seeing such an oasis, and I remarked to the guys how much fun it would be to overnight there. It was the only spot in three days at Joshua Tree that we saw water.

Hanging out at 49 Palms Oasis
Despite the traffic, 49 Palms Oasis was a cool little hike. I just wish it was about 5 miles longer to discourage the riffraff, and I don't mean the Boy Scouts. The  park rates this hike as "moderately strenuous", but for us it felt like a literal walk in the park. By the time we returned to the van at the trailhead the day was half over, and we were thinking of a place we passed on the road through the park called Hall of Horrors. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a name like that? Stay tuned.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park: The Maze

Searching for the trail in The Maze
 Joshua Tree National Park is known as a climber's park. The rocks are big, easily accessible and there are plenty to choose from. Our visit to Joshua Tree was a mission of discovery, and that meant throwing on our packs, topping off water bottles, and hitting the trails. Our first stop was a trail called "The Maze". Peculiarly, it wasn't listed on our map. We stopped at the Cottonwood Visitor Center beforehand where a Park Ranger drew an "X" on our map. "We don't advertise the Maze," said the ranger. Apparently too many people get lost there.

Still looking for The Maze trail.
 We reached what we thought was the parking area the ranger directed us to, and set out toward rock formations in the distance. We weren't sure if we were in the right place, because although The Maze is an official park trail, there is no official trailhead or signage of any kind. When we reached the rock formation I turned around and took a bearing with my compass to the van to be safe. The Maze, like the rest of Joshua Tree, is a desert. And like the Sonoran Desert that I'm used to, trails can be hard to find because the ground is covered in sand everywhere. We picked a direction we thought looked good, and ventured on.

Looking for a trail
I was a little hesitant charging off trail in a place called the Maze. Route finding was challenging because the entire area is covered in huge boulders and rock formations that looked like literal mounds of piled rock. Between these rock piles were dozens of dried washes that could easily be confused for trails. The landscape was otherworldly. In fact, it reminded me of Mars (minus the plant life of course). Coming from Phoenix, much of the plant life was familiar. There were plenty of cacti and agave. But it's the bizarre Joshua Tree that really made it feel strange. The animal life was plentiful as well. We saw a coyote, a jackrabbit, a tarantula, and sheep tracks in a wash. Eventually we reached a high point with great views of the area where we finally spotted a trail. 

The Maze
Joshua Tree
 The trail we found led us to a sign that told us we were on the Maze Loop trail. It began by following a dry creekbed through lush desert vegetation. We wound around boulders and over saddles on rocky hills. The trail eventually took us high enough to give us some picturesque views of the park. The rocky landscape stretched to the horizon, and stirred my imagination and desire for exploration.

Finally on the trail.
 As the sun sunk low on the horizon we began to wonder if we had lost the trail. We hadn't seen any other hikers since we started, and the footprints in the sand that we had been using as directional ques were gone. In the distance we spotted a truck and realized that we had unwittingly looped back to the road. My compass told me that we were way south of where we parked the van, so we left the trail (which we weren't sure was a trail anyway) and parallelled the road back to where we started.

Back to the van off trail.
I'm not sure how long this hike is supposed to be, but we guessed that we had done 6 or 7 miles. Probably half of that distance was off trail. The landscape was beautiful and the hike was moderate as far as the difficulty is concerned. The toughest part was just figuring out which way to go. During the hike we only saw 4 people, which turned out to be the least amount of people (by far) we saw in the park during our whole trip. For me it was an amazing introduction to Joshua Tree National Park, and I couldn't wait for more.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sugarloaf Mountain Scout

No water in Cave Creek
 With archery deer season a month away I've been itching to get outside for some scouting. I returned to the spot in Tonto where I put a stalk on a large mule deer buck last season. There's so many places here that I want to explore, and Sugarloaf Mountain has been on the top of the list. This time of year the desert is so nice. The heat is a shadow of its summer self. This area is a favorite of mine, partly because of its location to my house, but also because Cave Creek provides a reliable source of water in the desert, which is a rarity. So, I was shocked when I reached the creek and found it bone dry. The usual clear flowing water replaced with a bed of sand and dry cracked mud. I've been here over 20 times in the last 3 years, and I've never seen it dry. 

Coyote or lion?
 The dry creek bed offered me a rare chance to experience the area's wildlife in a whole new way. I saw dozens of tracks dried in the mud as I abandoned the trail and walked north in the creek as it wound further into the mountains. I spotted plenty of bird and rodent tracks, but no deer. I also saw what I originally took to be lion tracks, I was sure they were lion as I followed them along the bed, but after I got home and studied the photos I now believe they belong to a large coyote.

Garter Snake
I slowed down as I reached the approach to Sugarloaf where I saw the buck last season. It's hard to be quiet in the desert, and my footfalls were crunchy on the loose rocks. I almost stepped on a snake that was crossing the ground in front of me. I love seeing any kind of wildlife in the desert, so even a common garter snake will cause me to pause and just watch for awhile. Climbing up a nearby mountain was slow going, The country here is rough and rocky, and full of all manner of cacti. My pace was slow as I navigated the terrain, while trying to stay quiet and watch for rattlesnakes. Finally I reached a good spot with views of the valleys and hillsides surrounding Sugarloaf. I sat on my pack and glassed the day away with my new binoculars. I picked up a set of 10x42 Alpen Wings to replace my old Bushnells. They looked great in the store, but out in the field they just don't seem to be as good as I hoped. 

It was a fun and productive day. I didn't spot any deer or see any sign other than a few old tracks. Certainly, I didn't see anything to make me believe that deer of any number are in the area. I didn't even find any scat. Before I cross the area off my list as a potential hunting location I think I need to spend the night out there so I can glass at dusk and dawn. Such a trip is at least a week away however, as I am heading to Joshua Tree for three days on Friday. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gear Review: Yeti Rambler Colster

Fishing, and a cold beer.

 The Dirt:

What is it? Drink insulator (beer koozie).

Comes with: Koozie, sealing gasket, storage can.

Size: .35 liters. 4.8 X 3.1 inches.

Weight: 8.3 ounces

Price: $30.00 at REI

Let's face it. We all love the crisp refreshing taste of an ice cold beer cascading down our dry throats, especially around the campfire or on the lake. But don't you hate it when you set your beer down to do something, only to come back to find it warm and flat, and only a shadow of its former self? We've all been there. Choking down a warm beer isn't fun.

 Enter the Yeti Rambler Colster.

At first glance, paying $30.00 for a beer koozie seems like madness, but there is a perfectly good reason Yeti charges so much for their products. They are the best. In the outdoor community, Yeti coolers are overwhelmingly considered to be the best in the world. Their Rambler line of drink insulators are quickly gaining the same reputation.

Thanks to 18/8 inch stainless steel and double-walled vacuum insulation, the Colster keeps your beer ice cold for hours, even in the hottest conditions. For me, the Colster really shines when I'm on the lake fishing. In the Arizona desert, the lakes are overwhelmingly shadeless. Set your beer down for a few minutes and it's stew. With the Colster I can set down my beer and fish for an hour, and come back to a cold beer. There have been times where I've come back to my beer to find the stainless steel outer-wall of the Colster so hot I can barely touch it, but the beer inside still ice cold. Simply put, the Colster is an outdoor beer drinker's dream.

The Colster will fit both cans and bottles, but tall-boys and some long-necks wont fit. That isn't a big deal to me because I rarely bring glass into the outdoors, and most good beers don't come in tall-boys. The Colster also comes with a dummy can that looks just like a beer can, but can be opened for storage. I like to call it "the beer can stash". The problem is that I still haven't thought of anything to stash in there, so for me the beer can stash usually stays home.

Overall the Yeti Rambler Colster is a sweet little product if you like to enjoy the finer things in life. I would highly recommend it to any outdoor lover who drinks from cans (be it beer or soda), especially campers and fisherman.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Saguaro Lake Fishing

Jimbo on the hunt for a fishing hole.
 Shore-fishing. It's what I do. To find the good spots, you need to put in the miles. That's why I like it so much. It's a good mix between hiking and fishing. Yesterday at Saguaro Lake was a first for both Jim and I. A changeup from the usual location at Bartlett. Saguaro Lake is nestled in the foothills of the Superstitions, and is an absolutely beautiful location (as far as desert reservoirs go). There are plenty of fish there too, including the three main varieties of bass, which is what we were after.

I was feeling optimistic as we reached our first location. The bass were active. We could see them jumping from the water all around us. Since they were surfacing so much, we started off with topwater lures. We would cast to the same spot we saw them jump. Another angler passed by on the trail. He had caught an 8 pound bass with a popper. Our optimism increased.... But nothing took our baits. We decided to keep hiking. 

Jimbo in the water
 We reached a marshy cove where the water was so still, clear and shallow we could see the bass just sitting at the bottom. Our luck was about to change, or so we thought. We tried crankbaits, spinners, worms and frogs, but we couldn't even manage a bite. We watched our lures drift by big bass untouched. For 6 hours we fished. Determined not to leave empty handed. If it weren't for the small bluegill Jim caught as we were wrapping the day up, we would have been skunked. But I wonder, when your target are big bass, does catching a bluegill even count? Until next time.

Catch of the day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Destination: Superstition Mountains

Weavers Needle
Superstition Wilderness. Weavers Needle in the distance.
Arizona’s aptly named Superstition Mountains conjures up more tales of woe and images of yesteryear than any locale west of the Mississippi. It is a place mired in myth and legend… and history. In ancient times, the Hohokam and Salado peoples eked out a living in this desolate landscape, leaving behind haunting ruins carved from cliff walls, and impressive petroglyphs depicting the many desert animals that roam these mountains. During the “old west”, the few who settled here lived a harsh existence. Homesteaders like Elisha “Old Hermit” Reavis farmed and hunted in the eastern Superstitions until his body was found “half eaten by coyotes” in 1896. The Superstation’s real claim to fame however is the tale of the Lost Dutchman’s gold mine. Every year fortune seekers venture into the Superstitions hunting for the lost gold mine, and many have died in the desert sun, thirsty and hot… and broke.

The Superstitions (or “The Supes” as the locals say) isn’t just a great place to explore the past, it’s a great place to explore. From jagged volcanic peaks to haunted canyons, to the myriad of flora and fauna, the Supes have something for everyone, and at less than an hour drive from Phoenix, is easily accessible.

Lost Dutchman State Park
Superstition Mountain in Lost Dutchman State Park
Check out Lost Dutchman State Park for easy car camping in classic Sonoran Desert terrain. Lots of big Saguaros at lower elevations. Trails from the campground provide easy access to the tallest peak in the range, Superstition Mountain (5059’). Feeling ambitious? Take the Siphon Draw Trail all the way to the Flatiron on top of Superstition Mountain. This ball-buster goes straight up the mountain, gaining nearly 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles, so you better be in shape. Much of the route is a scramble so expect to use your hands. The payoff? A jaw dropping 360 degree view of the Sonoran Desert. Feeling adventurous? Bring a tent and camp at the top.

The Superstition Wilderness boasts over 170 miles of trail within its 160,200 acres. With all that space, the Supes cater to a variety of experience levels. Want to explore the past? Overnight in a canyon near ancient cliff dwellings in Angel Basin, or sleep in the shade of apple trees after you explore the ruins of Reavis Ranch. Feeling ambitious? See them both on a 3-day 24-mile loop starting at Rogers Canyon Trail. Be sure to have a high clearance vehicle as the 17 mile boulder-strewn forest road to the trailhead is not maintained, and can be impassable after rain. Be sure not to disturb any historical sites and leave any artifacts you find alone.

Rock Climbing
With so many cliff-faces and rock-walls, the Supes is a playground for climbers. Try the iconic Weaver’s Needle. This famous peak plays a key role in the Lost Dutchman legend, as the shadow it casts at a certain time of the day is said to reveal the location of the lost goldmine. The 1,000 foot high rock column is a class 5.6, and will reward you with amazing views of the Superstition wilderness. If you’re looking for more variety, try the 300 foot Bark Canyon Wall. says it offers “some of the best multi-pitch climbing in the Phoenix area.” Just remember, bolting is strictly forbidden within the wilderness.

Backpacking in the Superstitions
Flora and Fauna
Expect to encounter a variety of cacti from the vicious jumping cholla to the iconic giant saguaro. These and other desert plants can make foot travel a challenge, but are beautiful when admired from a distance. Because of the variety of prickly plant life, hike in pants, even when it’s hot. You won’t see many trees except in the eastern Superstitions where cactus meets juniper and ponderosa pine. The area hosts a surprising variety of animal life as well. Expect to encounter several lizard species on the trail. If you’re lucky you might see a desert tarantula, which look scary but are very slow moving and therefore easy to admire. Watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, especially under rocks or in woodpiles. If you are really lucky you may see a Gila monster. These large lizards are extremely venomous but very slow, so don’t panic. Just take a photo and move on. Javelina are also common. These pig-like peccaries travel in herds but are usually bedded down during the day.

A Word of Caution
Water is extremely scarce in the Superstitions. Be sure to contact the ranger station for the latest water report before any hike. Shade is often hard to come by, so protect yourself from the sun and stay hydrated. Finally, DO NOT attempt to hike and/or backpack in the Superstitions during the summer months. YOU WILL DIE.

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