trustworthy?

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Another weekend is upon us, but I haven’t told you about the last one. My friend Timothée came to visit from Zurich and I planned a trip for us. Well, planned would be too strong a word. He arrived on the train on Saturday morning and I had breakfast waiting (from a nice bakery) and a bus for us to catch. Once we got to the top of Flüelapass we broke out the maps, which I had managed to borrow from another masters student, and went over our options. We knew we wanted to get into the mountains and stay there for the night. I had a few ideas of nice places to go, but what did I know? I had only lived in Davos for a week.

So we set off towards Joriseen, a collection of lakes on the other side of a big mountain. When we got to the top of the pass and looked down, they were beautiful, strung out like frozen jewels in the basin below. But in between us and them was a lot of snow. We watched as an elderly Swiss woman tried to navigate her way across a small patch of snow towards the top where we were standing; she was unstable and nervous, slipping with every step. I was certain we were going to see her fall and tumble down the mountain. Eventually she made it, much to our relief. I wasn’t really sure what Timothée had in mind or whether he was secretly thinking “oh my God, this girl has led me on a death march.” But he was game so we bounded and slid down the slopes to the lakes. It was pretty fun.

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And every time we came to a patch of scree where we could stop for a few moments on solid ground, we looked up to see a vista even more perfect than the last.

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Finally, it was lunchtime. We had reached the farthest of the lakes and plopped down to eat some strange-looking mini quiches I had made. I didn’t want to eat boring hiking food and had thought about hand pies. I was very tired and irrationally decided to fill them with some sort of egg mixture. Then I realized that you can’t fill a freeform turnover with egg, because it will all run out! Duh. So I made them in a muffin tin. They were tall and funny-looking, but tasted good and Timothée didn’t seem to judge me for feeding a French guy completely inauthentic quiche.

Here’s the thing about the trip: Timothée and I don’t know each other that well. We met at the workshop in Guarda and went on this amazing hike with some other friends. I mentioned that I was moving to Davos, and we decided we should do more adventures together. But as we ate lunch, it was a chance to get to know each other better. I was nervous: here we were on a two-day trip. What if we didn’t actually get along? But of course, it turned out that we did. I was happy and relieved to find another mountain buddy after a year in which outdoorsy friends have been distinctly lacking.

Plus, Timothée is an amazing naturalist who knows basically all the birds, a lot of plants, and many other animals. I did impress him when I identified some Didymosphenia algae on the rocks of the outlet of one of the lakes.

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So, onward after lunch. We wanted make a loop and it turned out that the other pass was completely snow-covered. We had a few hundred meters of elevation to climb, just chipping our shoes into the snow to make steps and trying not to slide down in the slush. It was a little tiring, but once again a very pretty hike. I seemed to have not messed up our itinerary despite having no clue about where we were going or how much snow we were going to encounter. Timothée said he thought he could trust me, based on results so far. That made me nervous.

Once we got back down, the next hour indeed made me wonder if I had made a mistake. We walked on the path along the road, first up to the top of the pass, then far down the other side. I was looking for a trail that led into a big, flat valley, but it wasn’t appearing. And hiking along the road was so much less fun and picturesque than where we had been before. We had the noise of cars; we were no longer quite so joyful. We were also a little tired.

Finally, I saw the valley, although not the trail. So we headed off towards it, eventually coming across a much less well-defined path than the previous ones. At first I was dismayed, like, I’ve picked out this next part and it’s not even a real trail. But of course, it turned out to be nice. There were no tourists with their day-packs, and we didn’t see a single other person. The valley was huge and the road was soon out of sight. Mountains rose up on either side, marmots played and alarm-called in the fields, the river gurgled and gushed below us. We saw an amazing snowbridge covering the river at one narrow point in the valley. When we reached a spot across from a beautiful waterfall, we decided that we’d had enough hiking for the night and set down our packs.

You aren’t really supposed to camp here. In fact, it’s forbidden. But oh well! We slept out anyway. No tent needed, and since we hadn’t seen a single person in the valley I wasn’t worried. We cooked up some dinner, ate some good Swiss chocolate, and spotted some ibex on the ridge. I fell asleep to the stars above me (all right, I couldn’t see them very well because I took my contacts out…) and the sound of the waterfall across the valley. It only got cold when the dew fell on the outside of my sleeping bag early the next morning.

After tea and biscuits for breakfast, we set out to go the rest of the way up the valley to the Grialetsch hut. From there, we took a spur trail up towards “Vadret de Grialetsch”, the real-deal, giant, year-round glacier that sits on the flanks of Piz Vadret and Piz Grialetsch. We dropped our packs behind a boulder and climbed up through the snow again to an even more magical sunny winter wonderland.

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Besides the snow, the rocky scree ridges were also amazing for their diversity of alpine plants. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, spotting one then another, another, another.

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We sort of wanted to stay up there forever. So we sat for a while and ate more chocolate and snacks, and gazed at the glacier, and decided it was indeed a bad idea to try to hike over the ridge between the two mountains. Instead, finally, we had to descend back to the hut (which was fun, more sliding down snowfields) and eventually to the Dischma valley, where we caught a bus back into town.

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My friend headed back to Zurich after a late lunch, and I headed back to Julia’s house to clean up and recover. In many ways it was a strange weekend, but mostly it was glorious. I hiked and laughed and explored with a new friend, in a beautiful new place that I’m so happy to call home for the next few months. I had randomly picked some places on a map to go check out – and they had been perfect. It gave me a taste of what will be possible every single weekend I’m here, since this was just a sampling of the vast Alpine terrain that surrounds Davos on all sides. I have my bearings a little more now, and can’t wait to go on more adventures.

And finally, Timothée said that I proved myself to be trustworthy. In an unfamiliar place, that means a lot. I have the confidence to keep exploring, to make it up as I go along, and to believe that it will be amazing.

Washington sunsets.

I woke up early on Wednesday morning, cooked up some oatmeal, and threw it in a tupperware container before climbing in the car at 5:30 with my coworkers to drive up to Washington.

One of our three field sites is between Tenino and Rainier, and we go up there once every week or two. Sometimes, we bring as many people as we can find and try to get all of our fieldwork done in one day. It’s a long day, but when we get back at 8 or 9 p.m. we can crawl into our own beds and recuperate.

Other times, though, people or busy or there is simply too much work. And so Tim, Sean and I brought our camping gear and prepared ourselves for a night in the field.

Wednesday was hot and as we worked we became quieter and quieter, trying to minimize our energy and to not take our discomfort out on each other. We clipped biomass and measured plant after plant. At about four in the afternoon – after we’d been on the clock for almost eleven hours – Sean and I discovered that we had made a big mistake and had to try to fix it as we measured our next cohort of plants. It took some intense focus and reorganizing our brains. Then we discovered that the correction we had made was the opposite of the one we should have made. Start over again. We knew we each had only a few plants left to measure but my brainpower and patience was seriously fading. When we finished that cohort, we were done for the day, unable to imagine checking the basal area of even one more Microseris laciniata.

Luckily, by then it was cooling down. We headed into town and Sean bought some bread and peanut butter at the grocery store while Tim picked up takeout Chinese. We drove to a state park and ate our dinners at a mossy picnic table amidst the tall, quiet trees overlooking a deep lake. Ah. Peace and quiet. And shade.

When we got back to the site and each cracked open a beer, the temperature was quite manageable. I even put on a sweater when I headed out into the prairie of the Nature Conservancy preserve. It was a beautiful evening and I was in a beautiful place, and most excitingly, my 12-hour workday was over.

When I got back to the site, Sean asked whether I had seen Mount Rainier.

“No,” I replied. “The trees were in the way.”

He implied that I simply hadn’t walked far enough “around the corner” and so we headed off together, me insisting that the corner did not exist and we couldn’t see the giant mountain, and Sean protesting that I was wrong.

We never did find the mountain, which we only saw on the road driving to the site. But we did get to revel in dusky savannah, which was enough. The moon rose and the cows stopped lowing. We headed back to the sites, where we still had work to do that night, under the cover of darkness and in the absence of the daytime wind.

Thursday dawned foggy and cold. The sun came out at about 2:30. We were tired from working the night before and knew there was no way we were going to make it through all of the plants we were supposed to measure. Even a trip to the Giddyup Coffee Corral in Tenino, where I very uncharacteristically bought an espresso drink called a “nutty pony” (it was delicious) couldn’t change the fact that we were going to leave five cohorts of unmeasured plants for the next trip. While Tim mowed around the site with the push mower, Sean and I dictated measurements to each other. Plot 38. Nail B7. Pink Pin. Two leaves. Basal area 27 x 14 mm. Unassisted height 54 mm. Longest leaf 87 x 2 mm. No flowers. 30 mm SW of the nail. Repeat.

By the time we were driving home we were cranky and sick of each other. To make matters worse, we got stuck in Portland traffic. When I arrived back on Grant Street at 7:30 that night, I couldn’t be more relieved to have the house to myself and to take a shower. But even though work had been hard and it was unsatisfying not to check more tasks off of our list, I still had the memories – and pictures – of a beautiful night on the prairie, so the trip was worthwhile anyway.

 

Cape San Blas.

I just got back from a camping trip. It was such a good trip that I surprised even myself, and I have to think hard to understand how to describe what made it great.

I am finishing up a week of time off from my job. For the first few days of the week, I stuck around the trailer. My allowances to myself were going running in the mornings and spending time working on my bike so I could ride it for the first time this year. Other than that, I kept myself working: writing for FasterSkier and studying up on my botany vocab so I’ll be ready for my new job.

My reward for working during my time “off” was going to be a three-day camping trip at the end of the week. I browsed the Florida State Parks website looking for places to camp. I picked out the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It was a long drive – three hours from my home in Navarre – but it was one of the few parks in northwest Florida which offered primitive camping.

I also picked it out because the setting seemed fascinating. The park was on an improbably long and skinny peninsula, Cape San Blas. The first several of the fifteen miles of coastline were home to beach houses. The last were home to the park and over 240 species of wildlife.

The website warned that the primitive sites had no shade and no fresh water. I was excited but nervous, and considering how far I had to travel to get there, I really didn’t want the experience to be less than great. I packed my small backpack as full as I could and set off.

First of all, regardless of whether it’s an ideal camping spot or not, where else can you (legally) stay on the beach for two nights and only spend $11.10? State parks one, rest of the U.S. zero.

I parked in my allotted spot and started off down the Wilderness Trail. The last seven miles of the cape are a wilderness preserve, and it was into this area that I set out. The trail was made of deep sand and the walking was slow. There were scrubby trees on either side of the trail, but it was wide enough that they generally couldn’t provide much shade. The sun beat down on me as I made my slow way along the trail.

After about an hour and a quarter, I reached the second of three trails crossing over from the bay side of the island to the gulf side. I had decided to camp here as I could only set up a tent close to the gulf beach along one of the crossovers – you can’t camp just anywhere in a wilderness preserve. I walked towards the beach and soon left the trees for secondary dunes. I looked down from the trail and saw a perfect flat spot in the last group of trees, so I stopped and dropped my pack in the shade and then continued on towards the beach.

As I crested the last of the frontal dunes and the beach spread out before me, I couldn’t suppress a smile. I couldn’t not laugh. I felt totally free. I ran the rest of the way down to the beach, pulling off my Chacos and my shirt. I walked along the edge of the perfectly clear, shallow water, which rested on top of patterned white sand. There wasn’t a soul in sight, only beach stretching as far as I could see in either direction. It was exhilarating. I had this world all to myself.

That evening I found a sand dollar, pitched my tent, and fell asleep at sunset to the sound of the waves. I was surprised at how exhausted I was now that I could sleep when I was tired rather than when I finished the tasks I had set out for myself.

The next morning I woke up to the sounds of birds chattering back and forth. I took my breakfast – an apple – over to the top of one of the frontal dunes and ate it overlooking the beach. Then I walked along the shore again and saw a school of large silver fish jumping out of the water just fifty feet offshore.

I had absolutely nothing I had to do that day, so I spent it exploring.

First I walked barefoot the four miles down the beach to the end of the island. As I strolled around the water’s edge, sand bars came and went, shorebirds ran in front of me, and the frontal dunes changed from gentle hills to eroding cliffs and back again.

Driftwood and shells had washed up on the beach and, sometimes, coarser sand.

In a few places, channels of water had formed, washing in one side with the waves and then running back into the ocean on the other side of an expanse of sand. In others, there were small pools left behind by the retreating tide. Sometimes there were schools of tiny fish swimming in them, which raced and scattered when my shadow passed over the water. In one of the little streams, barnacles opened and closed as the seawater periodically moved through.

I saw a dead ray on the beach, but only three other people in the four miles.

When I reached the tip of the cape, the shorebirds seemed to multiply. They came in all shapes and sizes. Terns screeched at me. The water cut in towards the interior of the island, providing even more habitat for the many different species. They shared the beach with crabs, but not other people. It was a bird sanctuary sticking out into the gulf. After looking around a bit, I started the walk back to my campsite.

By the time I got back I was hot and sweaty. The shade of the trees was a relief and I rested up during the hottest part of the day, sitting on a dead trunk and reading John Steinbeck’s tales of King Arthur, which seemed out of place but lovely (and infused with a sense of humor – way to go John).

In the afternoon I wandered in the dunes, following the tracks of coyotes and beach mice. I saw small white flowers on spiked leaves and an endless array of dune architecture.

I ate my dinner atop one of the dunes and then went for a swim. The water was perfect and comfortable, the waves were gentle, but I was still nervous for some reason. With no people for miles, what if, I don’t know, a shark came and gobbled me up? This wasn’t likely, but it was the only time the whole weekend that being alone made me wary. Still, I sank into the pleasant water and relaxed.

Finally, I watched the spectacular sunset over the water. The last minutes as the sun sank into the ocean went so fast.

It stayed light even without the sun – the reason we are not working this week is that the moon is quite full. I had no reason to hurry back to my tent, but when I reached it, it was with the weariness of someone whose energy has been sapped by the sun. Once again I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.

The next morning, I had my last breakfast on the beach, waded in for the last time, and set off down the Wilderness Trail back towards the car.

A couple of miles later I reached it, hot, sweaty, very smelly, and coated in a disgusting layer of sunscreen. And completely happy.

I had never been lonely, the whole three days. I had never been bored. I love camping, but this had surprised even me. I don’t know if it was something about the landscape or something about my particular frame of mind, but I had been perfectly content just by myself for three days. The freedom was exactly what I had needed, and I came out of the trip feeling infinitely more at ease with myself and the world than I went in.

Which is the point, isn’t it? I hope that many of my future adventures can be this good.