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Somewhere Between Obscurity and Oblivion
  May 20

This spring has been ridiculous. I figured that after the season ended, I would have a month or two to get settled and organized, while I gradually picked the training. Well, the training has gradually picked up, but it seems like the rest of my life just blew up all at once. For starters, I still have no place to live and have been living on spare beds and couches for two months now. I also started a new internet-based job in Salt Lake which is taking a lot of time. It is actually a very good job for training because my schedule is flexible (usually 11-6 M-F) and I am sitting at a computer (i.e. resting) all day. But right now it feels like a bit much due to all the other stuff going on. This past week I had to take all four of my most prized possessions into repair shops to be fixed. My truck, my computer, my mountain bike and my stereo all had various problems that needed to be dealt with (I bet you could learn a lot about someone by having them list their most valued possessions. Mine seem a little basic, but then again, I only own the basic necessities to be an outdoorsy computer geek.) Anyway, most came back with only minor repairs, except the big one: my truck. As I had suspected all winter, my poor truck was dying. It either needed a new engine or to be retired. So I have been debating my next course of transportationary action.

With my truck, I was unable to go to Moab this spring because I knew it wouldn't make it. But while my truck is in the shop, I have had to rent a car to get around. So the upside to all this is that I now have the wheels to go south. So today I ignored my ever-growing "To Do" list and loaded up my newly tuned-up mountain bike, my tent and my sleeping bag and headed for the desert of southern Utah.

I arrived in Moab in early afternoon and went straight out for a ride on a huge slickrock formation called Bartlett Wash. The road into Bartlett Wash was rocky and rutted and every time I bottomed out, I glanced at the "Do Not Take This Vehicle Off-Road." sticker, became even happier that I paid for the damage insurance on the car, and made a mental note to wash it before returning it. From where you park, you just pick a route up the slickrock to the plateau above and then play around on the smooth, grippy rock. This ride can be done as a loop, but the other side is very sandy and uninviting, so after an hour or so of testing my slickrock skills, I headed back down the way I went up.

Since it is peak season in Moab, I knew that finding a spot to camp would be like finding a 2 Live Crew album at Wal-Mart. But fortunately my favorite spot to camp is just south of town, out of the way and not very well known, and I was able to snag the last available spot. I set up camp and went to bed, happy to have a temporary reprieve from all the obligations hanging over my head.

May 21

The next morning, as I ate my breakfast I studied the map, looking for a good ride. Usually this time of year there is still snow in the La Sal mountains, just east of town. But because it was a very poor snow year, it looked like some of the trails in higher elevations would be open. Having never ridden up there, I was anxious to try it out. I chose a trail called Moonlight Meadows, which was supposed to be pretty easy technically and fairly strenuous aerobically. Soon after starting out, I passed a group of about 6 people who were doing the same ride. I talked with them for a few minutes, hoping maybe they had done the ride before (they hadn't) and then decided that their pace was a bit slow and left them behind. For the next few miles, I was accompanied by a couple of men on four-wheeelers who would paused every few hundred meters to search for a trail or something, but without luck. After about an hour of climbing on a dirt road, I started to encounter small patches of snow. Here, the four-wheelers turned around. At first, the snow wasn't a big deal, except that I was still climbing and soon there was more snow, enough to cover the whole road in spots. The two miles of uphill were very frustrating. I spent as much time walking my bike over snow as I did riding it. I thought about turning around, but I could see the single track that I was to descend on in the middle of a snow-less meadow, so I remained hopeful that once I reached the top, the snow would all be behind me.

I was right about the snow, it wasn't a problem after the top of the pass, but the trail was not nearly as pristine as it looked from the other side of the valley. It was essentially a very rough cattle trail, which was muddy and rutted with hoofprints. It looked like it didn't get much tire traffic and certainly not much this time of year. I had been hoping that by searching out singletrack instead of the usually rocky jeep trails, I would get a smoother ride, but I think the single track was even worse that the rocky trails in the valley. In addition, the trail was not very well marked and I kept losing it. By now I was 3.5 hours into a ride that was supposed to take three and I was still miles from home. I was beginning to get frustrated and angry. As I sensed that I might be getting close to the dirt road that would take me back to my car, I also sensed that the trail was becoming thinner and harder to follow, just when I was starting to think I had lost my way again, I saw my buddies on the four-wheelers about half a mile away through a field of sagebrush. I had stopped to look at a map, but they noticed and recognized me and motioned for me to follow them with a hand wave. So I jumped back on my bike and after 10 minutes of chasing, I caught up to them. As I did so, one of them pulled back along side me and asked, "Hey have you seen the trail around here?" I was dumbfounded and livid at the same time. "I thought YOU knew where it was," I replied sternly. "Nope, we've been looking for it for an hour," he said. Quickly realizing that I was now in middle of nowhere, following a tiny game trail, I took off in the general direction of where I thought I wanted to be, which was southeast. The four wheelers, thinking I was way off-base, went their own way. I soon came to a ridge line, from which I could see the road I wanted, about a mile away. Only problem is that there was a ravine between here and there, and no trail. There was now too much sagebrush and stinging nettles to ride my bike, so I picked it up and bushwhacked for a good hour and a half before finally getting to the road. By this point I was extremely irritated by the whole ride. I was cursing the trail, the map, the terrain, the guy who decided that chainring cogs had to be sharp enough to pierce skin when hit just right, and, of course, myself. I just wanted to get back to my tent and take a nap. I flew down the road, packed up the car and zipped down to my campsite for lunch and rest.

After lunch, I tried to nap, but it was just too hot. I did some reading and began debating whether I should do the hike I had planned for the afternoon. I had wanted to do a short hike just west of Moab, but since my 3 hour bike ride had turned into a 5 hour bike ride/hike/deathmarch, I figured I had done enough for the day. Then I decided that since I had done all the workouts I had planned to do, I still had 5 hours of daylight, and it would feel really good to soak my bruised and battered body in a shower and then climb into a real bed, I would drive home rather than spent one more night.

Not the usual outstanding trip to Moab, but I'm still glad I finally made it down there this spring.

May 25

Memorial Day Weekend. Up until recently, weekends had no meaning for me. I usually worked Saturday and had two, nonconsecutive days off during the week. While this schedule was very good for training, it also meant that weekend getaways with friends who had "Real Jobs" or at the very least, Monday -Friday jobs, were next to impossible. But now that I work M-F, I look forward to weekends just like 90% of the rest of the world. I had planned to take advantage of this long holiday weekend by going on backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park with a friend of mine from San Francisco. I flew into San Francisco on Thursday evening and my friend, Linda, picked me up at the airport and we headed east towards the park. We had hoped to make it all the way to the park that evening, but since my flight was late arriving, we were behind schedule and decided to stop for the night at a campground about half an hour outside the park. Not this would be a nonevent not even worth mentioning, except for one incident. By the time we got the tent pitched and were ready for bed it was at least 2:30 am. Just before crawling into my sleeping bag, I had to make one last trip to the car, so Linda handed me the keys to her brand new Subaru Forester. What she didn't tell me was that you need to disarm the alarm with the remote keyless entry thing before you can insert a key. So I just went ahead and inserted the key. This immediately set off the alarm, which was very loud and a bit out of place at 2:30 am in a secluded campground. I fumbled with the keys for a few seconds before finally getting the thing to turn off. By this time, everyone in the campground was awake and not very happy with me. I did my best to hide in the shadows as I returned to the tent. Lesson #1: Always use the nifty little Unlock button on the keypad.

May 26

The next morning I awoke to the people in the campsite next to us talking about "that damn alarm." When I finally felt brave enough to get out of the tent and apologize, they were in much better spirits. They explained that, yes, at first they were pretty upset, but this morning, when they realized it was a new Subaru, they understood. Turns out they also had a new Subaru and had done the same thing. Twice. Feeling much better about myself, we packed up and headed on our way.

Because we got here Friday morning, we were able to beat the rush of holiday tourists. We spent the morning planning our route, buying last minute supplies, and packing our packs. Wanting to get the maximum training benefit out of the hike, I was very greedy in packing, by stuffing as much as I could possibly fit into, on, and around my pack. By the time I was done, I had a 50 lb behemoth on my back and was very happy about it. Linda's pack, though lighter, was still relatively heavy and we wondered exactly how we could have possibly packed lighter (without leaving behind the M&M's of course).

Our goal for today was to hike up the Yosemite Falls trail to the rim of the canyon and camp just beyond the Wilderness boundary, about 0.5 miles beyond the rim. This trail rose about 4000 ft in three and a half miles. It was a strenuous climb with very rewarding views of Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls and the valley below. We made good time, reaching our destination in about three hours. We set up camp on a beautiful overlook of the Yosemite River and began to organize dinner. Neither Linda or I owned some of the camping essentials, so Linda borrowed some equipment from friends. One of the borrowed items was a camp stove for cooking our meals. Lesson #2: Always test borrowed equipment before you get miles from civilization. We tried to get the stove to light for half an hour, using a whole box of matches, before we finally gave up and built a fire. A campfire is not the easiest way to cook pasta when you don't have a rack or anything, but with the exception of a few close calls of almost spilling the pot and a few small burns on my hand, it worked. I knew that being a Boy Scout would help me someday (well actually I had my doubts, but what do you know, it did!). After eating and cleaning and storing all our food in a bear-proof container away from our campsite, we collapsed into the tent for the night.

May 27

Our plan for today was to do a day hike over to North Dome, which strangely enough, is a full dome just north of the famous Half Dome. Since there was real hurry today and we were still feeling the effects of our late night on Thursday, this morning we slept in, had a relaxing morning by the river, and finally headed out for our hike by early afternoon. Since this hike was fairly flat and we didn't have huge packs on, we figured it to be an easy, laid-back hike. On the way there it was, the only problem is that it took over four hours, when I had expected more like two and half. Sure we had stopped for views at the Yosemite Lookout and stopped for snacks as well, but I was still embarrassed to admit to myself that 5 miles had taken four hours. We were now in danger of not being back in time to cook dinner in the daylight. On the other hand there were people we saw at the top of North Dome who had done a day hike from the valley who left the top to head down at the same time we did. Maybe I have too little faith in the human race, but these people did not look like the type to fly down 10 miles and 4000 feet in three hours. It made me feel a little better about our situation. As we headed back, I mentioned to Linda that we would have to hurry to make it back for dinner and she responded by putting the hammer down. We flew back, doing the return trip in two hours. We had just enough time to cook and eat dinner (Cheesecake and all!) before the sun set. Just another day in paradise.

May 28

Today we had to motivate a little earlier because we had a full day ahead of us. First we were going to hike over to the top of El Capitan, about 9 miles round trip, then we had to break camp and hike back down 4000 feet to the valley. Then we had to drive 5 hours back to San Francisco. So after a breakfast of pancakes over a campfire (which actually turned out pretty well once I let Linda take charge of the operation - my first attempt was pretty ugly), we set off for El Cap. With yesterday's rushed return hike still in our minds, we hiked at a faster clip today. The hike over took just under two hours, and was highlighted by seeing my first rattlesnake ever. You would think that living in Utah and traveling south as often as I do, I would have seen one, but not until today. And there is nothing that I hate more (or am more afraid of) than snakes. As we were walking up a hill, we heard a rattling sound off to the side of the trail. I froze immediately and glanced over to where the sound was coming from. Sure enough, there was a rattler about five feet off the trail, coiled, rattling away, and waiting for our next move. I took a couple slow steps until I was, what I thought, safely out of range and looked back. We couldn't really tell why he was so upset, he seemed to be safely out of range from us, but something had definitely ticked him off. Maybe he/she had eggs but whatever it was, we had no intentions of sticking around to find out. We set out again, watching the ground a little bit closer and relieved that my first rattlesnake sighting was without incident.

At first we were disappointed with the top of El Cap. We had been expecting a ledge that we could look over and see straight down for three thousand feet or so. But the top fell off gradually, with no cliff in sight. Just as we were getting ready to leave, another hiker affirmed to us that there was indeed a cliff and showed us how to get down to it. It was amazing. You lay down on your stomach and slowly ease your way out until your head and neck are over the edge and you can see nothing but the valley floor way, way below. It makes your head spin a bit, but even worse is watching someone else do it. When it is under your own control, you feel relatively secure, but when you watch someone else, that's when your stomach gets queasy. After a few looks for each of us, we made our way back to camp.

As we packed up camp, I once again took everything I could find and stuffed it into my pack. I figured it was a pretty safe plan, because even though I wanted a good workout, we had eaten so much food that there was now way my pack could be heavier than it was on the way up. I was wrong. By the time I closed up my pack, I'm sure it weighed about 60 lb. With a little help, I got it on my back and we headed down, with a short stop at the top of Yosemite Falls. As we surveyed the scene at the top of the falls, I realized that this was the perfect place to see Darwin's Natural Selection in action. Despite warning signs and guardrails, some people still had to get as close as they could to the falls. Some climbed outside the guardrails for pictures on the edge of 1000 foot cliffs, some dangled their feet in the water near signs that read "Stay away from the water. The current could sweep you away at any time. There is no second chance." There are deaths here every year, but some people still try to push the limits. I guess that's one way to clean the gene pool.

On the way down, something had gotten into Linda and I think she was trying to set a new world record descent pace while carrying a full pack. In many places she was actually running, and I tried to keep up as best I could (In case you were wondering, I do not recommend running with a 60 lb pack on your back. Your knees will not like you later). We made it down in less than two hours and after a stop at the village store for ice cream, Pringles and a Coke, we hit the road back to San Fran. It was a really cool trip. Having never been to Yosemite, I was amazed by the huge rock formations, the numerous waterfalls, and the vast expanses of wilderness. It is so big that on Memorial Day Weekend in one of the most popular parks in the world, we only saw one other occupied campsite. I have to admit that I did not expect three days of hiking to tire me out, but I am sore and exhausted and happily so.

© 2003 Cory Smith. All Rights Reserved.