4,444 miles.

4,444 miles is how far Google Maps says I drove between June 28th and July 13th. But secretly, it was more than that. Those 4,444 miles don’t count driving up the Taos Ski Valley and back, twice. Or lots of other little detours and mysteries. I moved from Eugene back to New Hampshire, but I didn’t take a direct route.

How on earth do you write about a road trip that is four and a half thousand miles long? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try. Before I begin: internet is slow here at 92 Highbridge Road, so don’t expect many pictures. And unrelatedly, I’ve started a tumblr called Cooking For My Parents about the food I’ll make them for the month that I’m at home. I don’t have time to write up every culinary adventure on this blog, but on tumblr I don’t feel bad just posting a photo and a caption with a short story and a link to the recipe. Already up there is some chicken, an improvisational salad, and some fantastic ice cream.

Back to my road trip. I had an inauspicious start: for some reason I thought it would be a fine idea to work through Tuesday and leave early Wednesday morning. I think at the time, I figured I would pack the weekend before I left. The problem was that the weekend before I left was U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, right there in Eugene, and I ended up working. No time to pack. Plus I wanted to see my friends. So all of my packing happened Tuesday morning, before work, and then after work that night, with an extended break to get dinner with some friends at the Friendly Street Party Cart (highly recommended! local and cheap!) and then beer with some other friends at Eugene’s best new brewpub, Falling Sky (amazing, ever-changing selection and happy hour prices when it’s raining, a questionable business move in the Northwest). Oh, and Laura and I also had to clean the house! Long story short, I was finally packed up just after 1 a.m. and sacked out in my sleeping bag on the floor.

The next morning, the two of us woke up at 4:30 and drove our separate cars – with a lounge chair somehow stuffed into Laura’s Prius with her other stuff – to our friend Mike’s. Mike wanted the chair and kindly offered to make us breakfast at 5 a.m. before we left. So we ate waffles and hit the road, in our two cars, connected by walkie talkies! Laura is the best. It was Salt Lake City or bust.

And it was almost bust. After just about four hours of sleep, I wasn’t ready for a 14-hour drive. Somewhere in Nevada I got drowsy… and drowsier… and drowsiest until I was nodding along and driving was completely terrifying. I sent Laura an SOS on the walkie talkie. We were in that stretch of I-70 where there are no services for a long time, and I was at a loss. But Laura saved the day by revealing that she had a french press and a thermos full of hot water. We went for a walk in the sagebrush and she made me coffee, and when we hit the road again I was good as new.

After a brief stop in the Bonneville Salt Flats, we made it to Salt Lake, where I handed over the walkie talkie and we parted ways. I drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon to my aunt and uncle’s cabin. Uncle Ross and my cousin Mary were rafting the Grand Canyon, but my aunt Kathy was there to meet me and offer my an amazing dinner of cauliflower fritters, baked eggplant (better than it sounds), fruit salad, homemade pizza, and several other things that I can’t remember but were extremely delicious. After dinner I immediately fell asleep in the big bed upstairs and slept until 11 a.m. the next day. Whew, I needed that!

I can’t remember when the last time I slept that late was, and Kathy gets a big thank-you for being patient! It certainly limits what you can do with your day. But we went for a lovely hike that afternoon to a lake on the other side of the Brighton ski area and watched the dog launch himself off a rock over and over chasing a stick into the water. Then we ate at an Ethiopian restaurant – yum! And had a glass of wine in the hot tub.

By Friday it was time for another long drive, this time down to Taos, New Mexico. I really thought my old car – it’s a 1998 4Runner – was going to croak going through Moab, where it was about 100 degrees. The air conditioner spit out room-temperature air, which was better than hot air but nowhere near what a fully functional car would produce. Luckily we made it to cooler temperatures and I arrived in Taos around 9 p.m. to meet my friend Andrew. We – shamefully, considering all the great food Kathy had just plied me with – ate a fast food dinner and found a camping spot up towards the mountains.

In the morning we began our ascent of Wheeler Peak, which at 13,161 feet is the tallest mountain in New Mexico. Our hike began with a mile or more of steep trail through the woods. Eventually, we came above treeline and things opened up – beautifully. But it was several more miles; when we initially popped out of the woods, we couldn’t even see the peak we were aiming for. It was beautiful hiking, though, with views of the many tall mountains in the “enchanted circle,” as the area is known.

We snacked on top and appreciated the views, but soon heard thunder and saw rain so decided to skedaddle. Andrew revealed he had a headache. I wasn’t feeling so hot either – coming from sea level, 13,000 feet is fairly tough. We ran briefly to make sure we wouldn’t be on the ridge in a thunderstorm, but we needn’t have worried; more hikers were streaming up. In a nice meadow we stopped for lunch. As we ate, we heard what sounded like a very loud cow and wondered aloud whether it was a chainsaw. Minutes later a herd of cows burst out of the woods, pushed along by two cowboys and a dog.

“Are you going to Wheeler Peak?” one of the cowboys asked.

“We’ve already been!” we said.

“You’ve been up and down already?”

We nodded.

“You must be in hell of a good shape,” he said before riding off.

The whole thing – the cows above treeline, the cowboys – made my day.

By the time we got back to our cars Andrew had a migraine. We drove down to the lowest elevation we could, found a campsite, and I set up a tent; he crawled inside and slept. There was still a bit of the day left so I got out my road bike and went for a ride. Hey, when life hands you lemons – it was a nice ride, from Questa to Red River and back. The next day, Andrew feeling better but cautious, we hiked up to Williams Lake, which was nice but relatively unimpressive considering the scenery from the day before. After a Tex-Mex lunch, we parted ways and Andrew drove back to Midland, Texas, where he’s doing an internship.

Next I drove East from Taos to see my friends Maggie and Brad, who live just outside of Ledoux, New Mexico, which isn’t even really a town. Basically, into the mountains from Taos. Maggie sold me my horse Jenny when I was in middle school; she breeds Morgan horses and Australian Shepherd dogs. Back then, I’d go over to her house for a couple of days at a time in the summer, help out around the barn, and ride the horses. For my 14th birthday, she gave me Bravo, my dog. Then she moved to New Mexico.

I hadn’t seen Maggie in ten years and it was a joyous occasion. I stayed for three glorious days, helping with barn chores and riding the horses just like in the old days. Only this time we had Western saddles and real trails to check out. At the end of the day, we’d feed the horses, ride a few bareback down to the pasture for the night, and then sit back and drink beer before dinner. In the hottest part of the day, we’d hole up inside with her granddaughter and play rummy. In three days we ate two watermelons. I didn’t want to leave.

But I did, driving north on the fourth of July to see my college teammate Courtney in Vail. She graciously allowed me to bust in on her family get-together, which was great. Courtney had just gotten back from leading a group of high school students on a trip to Bolivia to install clean water pumps. We looked at her pictures and oohed and ahed. We both wore red, white, and blue outfits. For the first time in my life I felt like Courtney – with her job at the dental office and her boyfriend who owns the house they live in – was way more of an adult than I was. Not that that made things any less fun.

The next morning, Courtney had to leave for work around 6 so I drove over the pass and made quick stops in Morrison for breakfast with my great uncle Donald and then in Boulder for coffee with my co-worker Audrey. Then it was down to Pitkin, another not-really-town, this time outside of Gunnison. My friend Sean had built a cabin and the last time I’d been there, in 2009, it had been, shall we say, unfinished.

This time, the cabin was beautiful and impeccably organized and a place you’d really want to live, despite its ten by twelve foot footprint – and that’s exactly what Sean and his girlfriend Sarah were doing for the summer. They cooked me a birthday dinner of fish tacos (unbelievably delicious) and even made a cake in the tiny gas-powered oven on the porch. We drank the last of the glogg I had made in Eugene this winter. I can’t think of a better place to have a birthday.

Our plans for the following day included hiking Fairview Peak, which looms in Sean’s backyard and is casually taller than Wheeler was. Gotta love Colorado. But the weather came in early and bizarrely, from all directions at once, and we decided to abort. Instead we hiked up to an amazing abandoned mine which featured a huge, still-standing log building for some sort of ore processing. We marveled at how it had been built by hand with such giant logs, and wondered how large of a hammer was needed to pound in the massive nails at the top of the roofline. We were easily at 11,000 feet, but people had lived and worked here back when everything was done by human and animal power – it boggled the mind.

That night, steak, corn, asparagus, lots of booze, and evening walks in the woods. I woke up with a hangover and drove to Granby to see my aunt, the very last stop in the West. It was not a pleasant drive.

But a pleasant visit: I never want to leave Lizzie’s. My friend Ed had come down from Cheyenne, which made the visit even sweeter. Lizzie and her partner Paula are some of my very favorite people in the world and they always take such good care of me. We lounged around, took the dog for walks (that’s another story though), and did a couple great bike rides, one up Willow Creek Pass and the other into Rocky Mountain National Park. We cooked and ate good food. We sat on the porch in the sun and drank beer. They’re lucky they could get me to leave at all.

Finally: Eastward at breakneck speed. Spent the night in Princeton, Illinois because that’s as far as I could get. Then I stopped in Syracuse to see an old friend, Thomas, and his girlfriend Becca. We ate at a Mexican restaurant, Alto Cinqo, which I swear would have beat anything in Taos – the jerk chicken tacos were to. die. for. Then beers with their friends, a late-night run to Insomnia Cookies, and bedtime.

Thomas and I had more of a chance to catch up when I gave him a ride back to the Upper Valley the next day. For the first time all trip, I had a buddy in the car! And it was great. Despite steady e-mail communication, I barely ever see my friends from middle school – we are scattered all over the place. I was just glad that I had been able to carve out enough space for Thomas to sit in, because my car was absolutely jam-packed full!

When I drove up the driveway of 92 Highbridge Road, Bravo barked; he seemed to have forgotten all about the 4Runner in its extended absence. When he saw it was me, he bashfully wagged his tail. I was home.

Cinco de Gimpo.

It has been ages since I’ve posted about cooking on here. Like, I am pretty sure I have aged since then. But! It doesn’t mean that I haven’t been cooking. I have been cooking, and baking, and eating. I’m still really into soup. I’ve also been on an asparagus bender, because, well, it’s spring!

This here, though, this is a recipe that I made up myself, and I’m so excited that I had to share. As I contemplate moving away from Eugene, I’m looking at all my belongings: costume items that I’ll send back to the thrift store, books sitting on the shelf that I’d like to read before transporting them back to New Hampshire, this giant desk that I will have to somehow sell… and random food in the cupboards. I’m looking at you, five-pound bag of masa flour. Conveniently, about the time I remembered that I should probably use it up, it was Cinco de Mayo.

I’m not sure I’ve ever celebrated Cinco de Mayo in any serious way, but I was determined to start. Well, sort of determined. I wanted to use up that masa flour, and to drink margaritas. So I talked to my friends Brian and Andrea. Andrea, you see, had just broken her ankle. She was on some pretty powerful painkillers, so she wouldn’t be able to have any tequila, but I tried to think of a way we could celebrate the holiday in a sedentary fashion. So I thought and thought and thought, and wished I had a tortilla press, and thought some more, and thought: stuff them!

I cooked up some onions, green chiles, carrots, cheese, and tomatos, and then we sat around the table on the porch making masa cakes. Brian drank beer and Andrea propped her leg up on a chair, and was disappointingly non-loopy. It was a beautiful, beautiful afternoon – it’s finally spring in the most glorious of senses – and we grabbed blobs of the masa/flour paste and kneaded them with our hands. Then we shaped them into a ball, flattened the ball, dumped some filling on top, and folded the masa over and sealed the edged. Like a hand-pie. Made of masa.

This makes it sound easy. It wasn’t hard, exactly, but it was messy. And at first, we stuffed too much filling inside the cakes. Then we tried to make them into balls instead of turnovers. By the time we settled on a form that didn’t fall apart or leak, there was masa everywhere. We headed inside, where Brian fried up the cakes in some oil while Andrea read out loud from an Amy Sedaris book. My favorite was the part about the mouse ghetto.

Anyway, we sat out on the porch, eating beans and rice, avocado and lime, and masa cakes. It was perfect. The cakes were delicious. Then we joined a few more friends for margaritas and Trivial Pursuit, girls vs. boys. Girls rule boys drool.

It wasn’t a crazy Cinco de Mayo, but it was a happy one, spent with good friends. And we didn’t make authentic Mexican food, but we made food with Mexican ingredients – isn’t that what America does?

Masa Cakes Stuffed With Green Chiles and Cheese

This makes about 12 to 15 cakes, depending on how big you make them. You have to sort of wing it on the ratio of filling to masa dough. It’s very easy to make more dough if you have leftover filling, or you can put the filling in an omelette, where it is also quite tasty.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 yellow onion

4 cloves garlic

3 Anaheim peppers

2 carrots (I used purple ones)

1 Roma tomato

salt and pepper

coriander

oregano, Mexican if possible

chile powder

a ball of Mozzarella cheese

4 cups (roughly) Masa Harina

water

a neutral, high-temperature vegetable oil for frying

lime slices; salsa and guacamole to dip in, if desired

Start by roasting the peppers. Set your oven to broil and place the peppers on a lightly oiled baking sheet, rolling them around to coat with a thin layer of oil. Place the pan in the oven and cook until the skin on the peppers begins to blister. Roll the peppers so a new side is facing the broiler element, and repeat. Most peppers have three flattish sides, and make sure that each begins to blister. Then pull the pan out of the oven. The skin should peel off of the peppers easily; make sure that you have it all off. Chop of the tops of the peppers, slice in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Chop into small pieces and place in a bowl.

In a frying pan, heat the oil. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook for a minute; add the carrots, salt and pepper, and spices. You can make the filling quite flavorful as only a small amount will be in each masa cake. Cook until the carrots are soft, then add to the bowl with the chiles. Chop the tomato and add it to the bowl, then shred the cheese over everything and stir to combine.

In a larger bowl, place the masa and add water, stirring, until a dry dough forms. Take a ball of dough the size of a lemon and knead it in your hands for a few minutes. When it is more cohesive and pliable and seems strong, shape it into a ball, then flatten that ball on the countertop. Pick it up and use your palms and fingers to make it as thin as possible without ripping. Place back on the countertop, and spoon some filling into the middle, just to one side of an imaginary center dividing line on the disk of dough. Fold the edge of the disk together, crimp them, and place on a plate or baking sheet. Repeat until there is no more dough.

In a frying pan, heat 1/4 inch of oil until it shimmers. If there is not enough oil, the cakes will stick to the bottom of the pan and fall apart. Fry the cakes, flipping from side to side carefully, until golden all over and dark brown at the roundest parts. Dry on a stack of paper towels to remove some oil.

Serve with slivers of lime to squeeze over the masa cakes, condiments, and, if you’re like me, back beans and rice.

Table Rocking.

On Thursday I drove down to southern Oregon for work.

Spring is coming in leaps and bounds to the northwest. Last week when we were working in our plots Laurel shouted in surprise, pointing to almost-mature seeds on one of our focal species, Thysanocarpus radians. I looked in shock at the perfect, round disks hanging from the stalks. They were fading from green to beige in the sun, and still ringed in a dark purple. As soon as the purple was gone, the seeds would be ready to collect. This is one of our few plants which is maybe more beautiful in seed than in flower. I loved to look at it, but I had to sigh – if things were already ripening, then fieldwork was going to pick up in the next few weeks, and soon I’d be busier than I could imagine.

As I run through town these days I’m following the smells of spring, because unlike the scrappy wildflowers I study, the bursting blooms of Eugene gardens give off heady scents. My favorites are the flowering trees, drooping their branches into the street as if to snag me. Yes, it is spring. Some days, it’s even sunny.

And so I drove down almost to Medford to check on a population of Thysanocarpus, lovingly dubbed “Thyrad” in our abbreviated naming system, to see if the seeds were ready to collect. After we dried them and sorted them, they would be planted in the plots next fall – assuming we find more grant money to extend the project.

The collection site, Whetstone Prairie, is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is quite beautiful in and of itself. Vernal pools are edged by grasses and, where I was lucky, healthy populations of Thyrad, weighed down by seeds still ringed in purple (phew). Dense thickets of shrubs fill the spaces in between and make navigation from one miniature meadow to the next tricky. I kicked myself for not wearing my rubber boots, because it would have been easier to simply march through the channels between the pools.

In the distance, the Table Rocks loomed. I drove closer to check on a population of another plant, Ranunculus austrooreganus.

And then, I thought, what the heck? I’m here. I’m going up.


Soon I was walking up a path in the bright sun, seemingly leaving behind the moody clouds of Whetstone for the moment. I hiked through different stages of spring. After just over a mile, I suddenly popped over the top and onto the table proper.

It was somehow larger than I had expected. And windy. And bright. Although the Table Rocks aren’t really that tall – I could see much higher features, actual mountains, off in the distance in almost every direction – I felt like I was on top of something magical. It was remarkably flat, and I felt like you could do whatever you wanted up here and nobody would know. It was entirely separated from the rest of the world. I pictured bonfires, dancing around them. Festivals. Maybe a medieval knights’ tournament, complete with tents and banners and jousting. I’ve been reading Trina Schart Hyman books, yes I have. Go buy some. A few of my favorites seem to be out of print and it made me sad.

I hiked across the great flat table towards the other side, and the other Table Rock loomed in the distance.

I stood there, on the edge, looking down the rough and disorganized dropoff. Rather than one clean cliff it was many jumbled into each other, with scraggly trees growing out of the rocks and further down a green forest canopy. A hawk played in the air, swooping back and forth looking for a snack.

I turned around to head back. After all, I was technically playing hooky from work.

My next destination, the field site where we have our plots in Selma, an hour away, would be rainy and cold. I knew it. As I walked down to the parking lot I tried to soak up every last bit of springtime sun. Just because the flowers are growing doesn’t mean that the weather gods are smiling. It takes rain to grow, too.

How to Use Klister at a Citizens’ Race, Expanded

I mid-January, I decided for some reason to do a 25 kilometer skate race in Bend, Oregon. I was helping with a high school race nearby on Saturday, so it seemed so logical: I’d just skip over to Bend for the night, get up in the morning, do the race – 25k isn’t that long, right? – and then hang out in town with some friends.

This post isn’t really about the 25k, which was really hard. I’m not in shape anymore, and I don’t get on snow very often, and those things combine to make a half marathon seem pretty darn tough. But the weekend was the origin of another adventure. While I was in Bend I stayed with my college friend Katie Bono, who was in town visiting her boyfriend Cody’s family. They weren’t interested in the 25k, but seemed excited about a 15k classic race to be held the next weekend up at Mount Hood. After my race, I was not at all sure that I was interested in doing any more long ski competitions, but it was so fun to see Katie and Cody that I got myself psyched up.

In the days before the race, we exchanged e-mails, asking things like, “do you have a bench?” “nah, don’t need one.” “what about a heatgun?”

We were super prepared.

Since the temperature was supposed to be in the 30’s or higher, I actually went to the local ski shop, Berg’s, to try to boost my klister collection, but found that they didn’t sell klister. What kind of a ski shop is that!? Seriously. So I just kind of hoped that between Katie and I, we’d have the right wax.

Once we made it to Teacup, a snow-park on Mount Hood where the local ski club has built a small lodge, the games began. Here is a little description of how, as a pair of former full-time racers, you approach a race for which you are completely unprepared.

1. Look confused.

If you look confused, then you have a decent chance that nobody will come up and ask you what the wax is. Unfortunately, because I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and Katie was in her Rossignol gear, there was nothing we could do. Another Dartmouth alum (from before our time) arrived and told us that she had forgotten her wax box at home, could she borrow some klister? This was nothing compared to all the old guys, though, who would ask what we were testing. We would tell them Rode rossa (Katie had the plain stuff, I had a tube of fluorinated stuff) and they would ask, “what is that in Swix?”

2. Pick up your skis and dab some klister on.

As mentioned above, don’t bring a wax bench. Why would you need one? As one of you starts to stick globs of cold klister onto your skis, make sure that the other one goes through at least half a box of matches attempting to light the torch which has been purchased for this specific occasion and doesn’t really work.

3. Snow is a great wax bench, so use it.

Put your ski back in the snow, and try to use the faltering torch to heat your klister in. It won’t really work, so you can always go ask the Toko rep to borrow his torch. Use your thumb or the palm of your hand to rub the wax in. Since you have minimal heat, the ski won’t be pretty and you will be very, very sticky. That’s what gloves are for.

4. Is this going to work for anyone else?

On the start line, look around and check.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Keep those skis moving.

You don’t want them to ice up, because then you’d fall down in the start, and that would be super embarrassing. Plus, you’re like the only one wearing an actual full race suit, so you gotta look good. Man, this is getting stressful. Note to self, next time leave the race top at home.

 

6. Congrats, it works! Kind of.

For the first few kilometers your very pro wax job works great. You are striding up hills like a champ! It does, however, pick up approximately 3.8 pinecones worth of crud, which means that your skis get really slow and grabby. Probably nothing you could have done about that. In the meantime, try not to fall down.

7. Stay on your feet, will you? Jeeze.

It could be kind of hard.

Hello old friends.

Hi there. Are you still there? Anyone? Have you missed me? Probably not. I’m afraid you’ve all given up permanently on reading anything here.

But, as my good friend Tim pointed out when I was home for Christmas and mentioned that I was giving up on the blog and even considering deleting it, “But Chelsea. Then the least thing people would ever see would be you coming out of a portapotty. Is that how you want to be remembered?”

Well, now that you mention it, not particularly. So now, only one cover letter away from the grad school application finish line, I’m coming back and offering you a picture of me skiing, inside a giant inflatable snowman lawn ornament with armholes and eyeholes cut out of it.

This didn’t happen recently. I flew home for Christmas and was so happy to be back in New England, seeing my family and my dog (who was recovering from surgery like a champ) and many old friends. And then all too soon I had to come back to Oregon to do some fieldwork – we have weekly tasks, and while I could skip out on one week, I couldn’t miss two in a row. So I arrived on a Monday night, worked three days, and then took advantage of our New Year’s vacation and headed over to Bend with the South Eugene High School nordic ski team.

The team is surprisingly large considering that there isn’t actually any nordic skiing to be had in Eugene. It’s a really fun group of kids, parents, and coaches, and so when they said they were doing an on-snow camp over in Bend over the New Year, I signed up to help out. The first surprise was when I woke up in the morning, saw that a blizzard was forecasted for the Cascades, and promptly received a phone call telling me that Janice, the head coach’s wife, had broken a crown and needed to get emergency dental work, so she couldn’t drive the van. I was the only other coach with experience driving in snow, so all of a sudden, I was going to be captaining an unfamiliar minivan full of giggling teenagers through a huge storm. Awesome.

The drive was actually fine – we slid around quite a bit, but never going too fast, and I was somehow able to stay calm and hide my occasional freakouts from the kids. As we went over Santiam Pass, it was clear that there was going to be tons of snow at Mount Bachelor. We were scheduled to skate this afternoon and I began mentioning that this probably wasn’t going to be very much fun, in six inches to a foot of new snow. Maybe we should classic ski, I suggested. This idea was met with opposition as “waxing is hard and takes a really long time.”

So, we slowly inched our way up to Mount Bachelor to find that they were not grooming due to the blizzard. It was windy and there was a lot – a LOT – of new snow. Wonderland, sort of. I was assigned to go on a jaunt with our star skier, Trevor, and impress some of my technique knowledge on him. We set out and it immediately became clear that technique work was NOT going to happen. Since nothing we could do would have been “good training” anyway, we went on an adventure, slogging around a six or seven kilometer loop down through the middle trails. We were essentially trying to stride, step, herringbone, or do anything to move forward on our skate skis through what was now almost a foot of new powder. It took us about an hour.

It was fun, but I really wish we’d been on classic skis. I was silently cursing the other coaches and thinking, oh, right, waxing would have been hard but this isn’t!?

The worst part of the afternoon was when we finished skiing and tried to pack the skis back into the roof boxes of the vans. It was blowing really hard – the temperature was about 25, but with the wind and snow and ice, it felt like it was 20 degrees colder. The boxes had iced up and were impossible to open, then impossible to close. Kids were shivering, yelling, in some cases almost crying in their wet workout clothes. I was almost crying. I was frozen.

Luckily day two was sunny and the fresh snow had been packed down into perfect corduroy. We had a great day of training. That night was New Year’s Eve and I went into town to meet up with some college friends, Matt and Anna, who I hadn’t seen since graduation. The three of us had run together at Dartmouth before one by one quitting the team. Matt and Anna are married now, and were visiting Matt’s family in Bend for the holidays. It was great to hang out.

The next morning I woke up not exactly hung over, but thinking that I probably should have skipped that last beer because wow, I didn’t feel awesome. The team was supposed to head up to the mountain for MBSEF’s annual New Year’s Relay, a fun event where costumes are encouraged. We figured all the kids would make teams and it would be great. The problem was, on Sunday morning none of them seemed very enthusiastic. We went from having every kid on a team – many had even brought costumes – to all of a sudden not having a single three-person team.

Another coach and I charged in, saying we wanted to do the relay, would just one person do it with us? And got three responses. That gave us five people. We recruited vigorously and managed to get a sixth so we could field two teams.

My team consisted of me, Natalie, and Langdon. Natalie had skied the year before and was pretty athletic. Langdon was tall and athletic, too, but had never skied before this weekend. He also had a costume, an inflatable snowman of the sort that people put on their front lawns, which he had cut armholes and eyeholes out of and dismantled the bottom so you could move your legs a little. There were also a series of small holes around the mouth so you could breathe a little bit. He was too embarrassed to wear it, though.

So guess who did. That’s right. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never met a costume I didn’t like, and this was no exception. In a matter of minutes I was no longer Coach Chelsea, but…. Snowwoman!

The course was just three kilometers, but it was deceptively hard – three one-kilometer loops going up and down and twisting around. I was the leadoff skier and given that I had no peripheral vision inside the snowman suit, at first I just tried not to get tangled up with anyone. Then I realized that I had extremely limited mobility – I couldn’t open up my stride and was stuck taking very short steps. When I double-poled, my arms bashed against the bulky middle of the snowman so I had to have a very wide stance.

I also realized, pretty quickly, that the mouth holes did not line up with my mouth and that I was essentially trying to race with my head inside a plastic bag.

It was hard, and I felt a little lightheaded, but it was fun. A lot of people cheered for me – “Go Snowman!” and “Wow, here comes the snowman already!” Apparently they don’t expect snowmen to be quick on their skis. And I wasn’t, particularly – I think I tagged off somewhere in the middle of the field, maybe the front of the middle. I quickly took the costume off and enjoyed sucking all the oxygen I could out of the thin 6000-foot-high air.

My teammates did the best they could. Langdon really struggled, which was understandable given that he had basically never skied before. We dropped to last, but we didn’t care. Natalie and Langdon both said they’d had fun, and they had a sense of accomplishment that their other teammates, who hadn’t raced, couldn’t have understood.

And me? I had a slobbery snowman suit. What a prize.

silver falls half marathon.

So I promised a full writeup on my half-marathon, and then I kind of forgot about it because I’m so busy frantically writing and nursing my sore leg and registering for the GRE. WHAT!? Yes, registering for a stupid standardized test. I thought I would never have to take one of them again. Also, I made some amazing fish cakes and dilly potatoes from The Scandinavian Cookbook. No photos, sorry, but the recipe is here and you should make them. So. Good.

But back to the half marathon. I registered for this thing way back in August; I saw an e-mail from a friend mentioning that it was a great race and sold out very quickly, so the day that registration opened I went on line and bought myself a spot. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and at that point the race was months away. It just seemed like a good thing to do.

All through this month I felt the half marathon looming. I should do some threshold intervals, I thought. Or maybe I should do some more long runs. Either way, I should probably do something. I hadn’t been training – just doing easy runs and the occasional rollerski. Two weeks before the race, I actually had a good week of training. I did 3 x 15 minutes at threshold, and a rollerski, and some 60-second uphill intervals, and a 10-mile trail run. I knew that it wouldn’t do me any good physiologically, really, but I wanted to be mentally prepared to suffer.

Then the week before the race I woke up one morning hurt. It was my ankle at first – it felt weak and kind of crumbly – but it caused a shooting pain up the outside of my calf when I moved. I had no idea where this was coming from or what I had done to cause it. At first I thought maybe it would go away as quickly as it appeared, so I did an easy run. It didn’t get better. So then I took the two days before the race off. I was nervous, really nervous, that I was going to be limping around for 13 miles.

Luckily, that’s not how it happened. We arrived at the rainy, cold start in Silver Falls State Park about 40 minutes before the race, picked up our bibs, and tried to stay warm. I had an idea that I wasn’t going to go out too fast, that I was going to ease into the first mile to gradually get my heart rate up. The gun went off and I jogged about a quarter mile, and then my competitive juices got going and I thought, what am I doing!? This is a race! I started passing people and went through the first mile in just over seven minutes. My plan had failed, but the andrenaline kept me from noticing my ankle and calf. They didn’t complain one bit.

At first I thought the fast pace was a huge mistake, but then I figured I would just go with it. In every long ski race I’ve ever done, I’ve been afraid to push from the start. I’ve thought about the distance and rationalized my way out of going hard. This time around, I ignored that. I watched my heart rate climb into the high 170s and low and then mid 180s and I embraced it. I just kept running. The first few miles were flat or rolling and it wasn’t until mile four that we had a big climb and I noticed that my legs were heavy and not really working the way they usually do. But oh well: I pushed anyway, and I passed some very athletic-looking guy who was walking. Walking! Four miles into a half marathon! Come on! At that point we were running 7:20, 7:30 miles, too. Walking. Sheesh.

It took a few miles to get to the real waterfalls. I was beginning to think that this race was some sort of hoax and the waterfalls were totally lame. But then: bam! There they were! And they were spectacular. Big cascades coming down from rock ledges. Huge drops. In a few places, the trail cut behind the falls and into the cavernous overhangs they came off of, which is an unusual experience to say the least. I have to give it to these guys for finding a unique and beautiful venue for the race.

Let’s see, blah blah blah. Eventually we started going downhill. When I thought about this race, I thought my strength would be the uphills. But instead, it turned out to be the downhills. All of that skier training – running on the Appalachian Trail, darting down singletrack – has made me relatively fearless. I would pass men and women who were daintily picking their way through the mud and wet leaves, afraid of slipping and falling. Me? I know that running downhill is simply a matter of channeling your momentum, so I just rolled along. It was fun! A friend later told me she thought it was my giant quads that made me good at the technical downhills, and I guess she probably isn’t wrong.

Even early in the race, I began rationalizing the distances. When I had run three miles, I thought to myself, hey, you only have ten miles left! That’s not so bad! Then when I thought about it, I realized that I’d only run ten miles a few times in the last six months, and that was actually still quite a task. Five miles in, I thought, hey, you only have eight miles left! That’s only, like, another hour.

And that’s where things started getting good. My least favorite training as a skier was the long run at a fast pace, or at a pace that’s just below threshold. Pepa would have us do these workouts to prepare for marathons where the entire point was to deplete your energy stores and force your body to metabolize differently. They would be two, two and a half hours of this pretty fast pace, but not fast enough to actually be fun. Just fast enough that two hours later you were amazed that you could keep it up for two hours.

Anyway, that was the best mental toughness training I could ask for. If you tell most people, oh, just run for another hour with your heart rate averaging, say, in the low 180s, they would say, holy shit, that sounds impossible. I thought that too, in half my brain, but in the other half my brain, I was thinking, I’ve got this.

And I did. I may not have maintained an even pace, but I maintained a hard effort. I pushed myself for another hour. Then after another couple miles I could change my mantra to, all you have to do is keep running for another forty five minutes. Why, that was even easier than before! Until I got to the climbs, that is.

From looking at the course profile, I knew that at about eight miles I would start climbing again and the fun would be over. I had it a bit off – the eighth mile was actually pretty easy. It was the ninth one that killed me. And the tenth. And the eleventh. As I said, I wasn’t expecting to feel so sluggish on the uphills, but it was really tough. The clincher was that after mile nine, the really big climb came as a series of stone steps. I was not expecting this. Running up steps is different than running up a hill because you can’t set your own rhythm or cadence – you are bound to take steps exactly as big as the stairs. It was the only time in the whole race where I walked, because after a while I just couldn’t find the right rhythm for those darn steps. And there were a lot of them.

From then on, it was ugly. With two miles to go I tried to pick it up, telling myself that I only had to run for another fifteen minutes, so how bad could it be? The worst of the climbing was over, but there was still plenty of gradual, rolling terrain, and I was beat. My strides had shortened and I felt awkward, like I was hobbling along as fast as I could. Still, I pushed it and I saw my mile splits come back down towards 7 after being up over 9 for the last really steep sections. With one mile to go I thought I could make it. I was so close. Just seven more minutes, I told myself. You can push really hard for seven minutes. Think of all the things you’ve done that are harder than that.

Then I came around a corner and saw a mountain.

No, it wasn’t a mountain. It reminded me a little bit of a hill at the Thetford High School course back in Vermont, actually. It was just that it was quite steep, and not short, and 3/4 of a mile from the finish of a half marathon. That’s a lot different than being two miles into a 5k. When I finally got to the top of that hill – and several people had passed me during the process – I was faced with an equally steep downhill. Maybe even more steep. I’ve already told you I’m good at running downhill, but this was too much. My legs were jelly and I was afraid that they were just going to give out. It was muddy. I was sure I was going to fall, but the finish was so close that I tried to roll along anyway.

When I finally made it across the line, I just wanted to lie down. It feels so good to feel so tired, but it feels bad too. Honestly, I was proud of myself not so much for my time or place but because I had really pushed hard the whole time, harder than in most ski races. I didn’t have any mental issues to deal with, and I didn’t have any pressure: those were the two things that wrecked my ski career. At the half marathon, I didn’t have anything else to think about except working hard, and boy did I work hard.

There wasn’t time to lounge, though. I needed dry clothes, and more of them. I needed something hot to drink. Something hot to eat. I found some of my friends who finished before and after me and we ate chili provided by the race staff. It was great. We drank beer. After the awards we had a party and drank more beer.

And that’s the story of the half marathon. My leg is back to being all messed up, and it’s November, so I don’t think I’ll be doing any more running races in the near future – when I get back in action, I’ll be focusing on skiing – but it was an amazing way to cap off an awesome fall. I beat my half marathon demons and some of my more general racing demons, too. I’m ready to ski!

a crazy family.

On Sunday night my housemate Heather and the women who lives in our backyard, Elizabeth, wanted to carve pumkins.

So we did.

First, a little bit about our housing arrangement, which is unusual. Our house is on the edge of the city, definitely still in the neighborhoods but not downtown; as a result our lot has more of a yard than I’d expect. It’s full of berries and fruit trees, and also a pair of yurts where Erik and Elizabeth live. Erik is our landlord’s son and Elizabeth is his girlfriend. They are younger than me but older in a lot of ways too; they work in gardens and on wood and with their hands, don’t have many amenities, and survive almost entirely on cash. This summer they got a truck and were so excited. They don’t pay rent.

The situation is mostly wonderful because Erik and Elizabeth are really nice. Sometimes, it’s strange to have people living in your backyard regardless of how nice they are, though. This weekend Elizabeth was talking about how she wants to get ducks because duck eggs are so good, and I just thought of how I didn’t really want ducks wandering around our yard. I didn’t want to be stepping in duck poo all the time, and I just didn’t want to deal with them. Then I felt bad. That’s the thing about Erik and Elizabeth: whenever they ask you about something, you feel like you have to say yes even if you don’t want to because the idea is so charming and sustainable. You feel like a grouch saying no.

That didn’t come up in our pumpkin-carving evening, though. Because who doesn’t want to carve pumpkins? Elizabeth had dragged Erik to the pumpkin patch and they had each picked out a nice carving pumpkin. Heather, on the other hand, grabbed two smallish pie pumpkins from the supermarket.We figured we could use the pumpkins for pie after we looked at them for a few days. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but we’re going to try.

My other housemate, Laura, wanted to cook up the pumpkin seeds, so Heather and I each took a pumpkin and a few of Erik’s carving tools and the four of us set to work on the floor. It was immediately clear that everyone else was way, way more artistic for me. I briefly thought about doing a jack-o-lantern that wasn’t a face – maybe a tree, or a cat, or a snowflake – but then I thought, who am I kidding? I can’t draw that stuff. Much less carve it. So that was that, I was making a face.

Considering the amount of time I spent on my pumpkin, which was roughly the same amount of time everyone else took, the result was kind of lame. I mean, look at Elizabeth’s pumpkin:

Elizabeth thought that her pumpkin ended up looking like a monkey wearing a fez. And Erik’s pumpkin – the one on the right in the top photo – was absolutely incredible. He didn’t carve through at any point, but literally whittled a face out of the pumpkin flesh. Entertainingly, it ended up looking like a monkey too, and we wondered why they liked monkeys so much.

Despite being completely outclasses in the artsy-fartsy department, it was a lot of fun to sit around the floor joking and eating Laura’s delicious pumpkin seeds. We may have been more focused on our designs than we were when we were kids, but we had no less fun. I hadn’t carved a pumpkin in years, but I think I am going to have to make a habit of it again. Especially with friends, it’s a nice way to do something fall-like!

Although hopefully my jack-o-lanterns will get more ornate if I keep practicing…. although this fellow does have a bit of his own charm.

big country.

I’ve been working a lot of overtime lately, and after a certain point I decided that enough was enough and I was taking a vacation. So after two long field days last week I took off for southeastern Oregon to meet up with my buddy Andrew, companion of many hiking trips including this one and this one. We had both been busy and didn’t have a concrete plan, but we knew we were going up on Steens Mountain. So he drove from Salt Lake City, where he is grad school, and I drove from Eugene, and we met up in the tiny town of Frenchglen (population estimates run from a dozen to a couple hundred) on Thursday night. Due to the town’s size, it wasn’t hard to find each other.

It was 4 p.m. when we started driving up the long gravel road into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The road ran twenty or so miles to the top of Steens – a 9700 foot peak – and we planned to park near the top, hike a mile or so, and find an easy camping place for the first night since it gets dark early these days. We rattled along the road until…. whoops. It was gated and locked. Even though we had checked to see if the road was open, it wasn’t. Luckily there was a BLM campground near the gate so we sacked up and paid to pitch our tents and park our cars. In a way, we were relieved that we’d be able to postpone our final packing until the next morning. We ate some pasta for dinner and went to bed.

The next morning, we woke to find frost on our cars. Brrr! After a quick breakfast we shouldered our packs and began hiking up the road. It was a little discouraging to walk on the road, so as soon as we thought we could see one of the mountain’s signature canyons, we cut across the gently sloping plain to peer over the edge.

Even this first canyon took our breath away and we thought, now this is what we came for. Up until our first look over the edge, the trip had been off to an inauspicious start. As you can see in the picture, the desert just gradually climbs up to the top of the mountain over miles and miles, so as we drove up and later walked up the road, the terrain seemed pretty unimpressive. We began to wonder why we had each driven so far. Also, the road had been closed. And also, I hadn’t anticipated snow on the ground so was wearing trail running shoes, which quickly became cold and wet after traversing the periodic snowfields we encountered. Just a few hours into the hike, I was already looking forward to dry wool socks and a warm sleeping bag, and hadn’t even seen any great views.

But when we saw the first canyon, we realized that this mountain might be pretty awe-inspiring after all.

One interesting thing about the trip was that I had been pretty much unable to find a map of the area. As far as I could tell, nowhere in Oregon sold paper copies of the USGS quad; I could download it online, but didn’t have a way to print it at any useful scale. So we relied on a few computer printouts and generally didn’t really know where we were going. Our goal for day one was to make it to Wildhorse Lake, which lay at one end of the north-south ridge, and our strategy was to more or less wander along canyon rims wherever we wanted to.

It was a nice strategy.

While the slope was incredibly gradual from the west side, the east side of the mountain dropped off thousands of feet down to the desert below, and the rim was stunning.

Eventually we made it to the trailhead for Wildhorse Lake (incidentally, the only real trail I saw the whole time), and dropped our packs while we climbed to the mountain’s actual summit. It was covered in radio towers, unfortunately, but I managed to get some pictures from an angle that hides them. It was a beautiful day to be on top of one of Oregon’s tallest peaks.

From the summit we scrambled out the rocky ridge to another prominence which I think might be called Steenshead, but given the lack of maps, I’m not actually sure. In any case, it allowed us to feel even more like we were perched above the desert below. In some ways, it was nicer than the actual summit.

From Steenshead (I’m just going to keep calling it that) we also had a nice view of Wildhorse Lake, where we would be camping that night.

So we headed back across the summit to our packs and started down the trail. For a bit, it crossed the grass, but then dropped over the edge into a huge bowl. There was a problem: where the trail dropped down, there was a huge snowfield. I guess I don’t mean huge, but I mean big enough, steep enough, and cornice-y enough that we didn’t want to cross it. So we skirted the top edge of the bowl and ended up scrambling down a scree field to rejoin the trail far below as it switched back and forth across the steep slope. Even there, almost every other corner was under snow, so we found ourselves frequently hopping off of it and making our own routes. Bad etiquette on fragile alpine trails, I know, but it was necessary.

We found ourselves descending farther and farther – the lake had looked far below us, but for some reason we hadn’t realized exactly how much elevation we were going to lose in search of the perfect camping spot. Luckily, when we arrived at the lake, it was everything we could have hoped for: gorgeous in the late afternoon sun, which was just beginning to fall behind the ridgeline.

It was too early to consider dinner and bedtime, so we took a little walk across the basin to another, smaller lake – really a pond – perched even more precariously against the mountainside. The colors of everything honestly took my breath away, and I hoped that my camera would be able to capture their beauty.

Thanks Andrew for taking my picture.

The afternoon faded but we lingered at the tiny lake. It was too perfect.

We wandered over to the cliff overlooking a meandering stream far below, and Andrew trundled a couple of rocks to see how far they’d fall and how big they’d crash. There was an amazing pyramid-shaped rock formation across the valley. We oohed and ahed and then headed back to the big lake, which was looking more and more spectacular all the time.

We set up our tent on the edge of the lake – or tried to. The ground was hard and ledgey and we could barely pound the tent stakes into the ground. We ended up tying the rain fly to a couple of bushes and hoped that with us inside, it wouldn’t budge. After a quick dinner – nothing spectacular – we crawled into our sleeping bags. It was already dark and cold at 7:30 p.m., and while we weren’t ready for sleep, we were ready for warmth! We stayed up talking for a few hours and then tried to shut our eyes.

I wasn’t entirely successful, in no small part because our camping spot, perched in the basin as it was, turned out to be incredibly windy. I worried all night that the fly would blow off the tent because we simply hadn’t been able to stake it down. At a few points, the wind was blowing so hard that the side of the tent was literally blowing into me – I felt like I was the only thing stopping it from rolling into the lake. In the early morning, though, the wind quieted down and I finally fell asleep. I woke up at 8:30 the next morning to find Andrew staring at me… whoops, I never sleep that late!

We had our work cut out for us that morning. We had to get out of the basin and the only way to go was up – the canyon wound down down down, but not in any direction that would lead us back to our cars. We decided not to take the trail we had come in on; it was snowy and kind of useless, and if we were going to spend time off-trail, we thought that we might as well actually choose a new route. After discussing a few options we set off up the steep walls of the basin following a natural ramp through the cliffs. We climbed up boulderfields and with every step got a better view of the lakes below us.

We had assumed that this steep, off-trail ascent would take us a long time and a lot of sweat, and were surprised when only an hour or so later we were walking along the top of the basin again, looking down towards the lake on one side and off into another canyon on the other. We didn’t have much of a plan for this day, other than to make it over to the Kiger Gorge on the north end of the ridge to camp. So we once again wandered across the snowfields and along canyon rims, meandering our way northward. We stopped for a very cold lunch and took a nap in the sun. Honestly, we had lost a lot of our motivation. When we finally reached Kiger Gorge, we were a little overwhelmed. It was BIG.

Not only was it big, but the head of the canyon was impossible to descend. I had initially had the idea of camping down in the gorge itself, but we knew we wanted to be back at the cars by mid-morning and climbing out of the gorge the next morning and then hiking the few miles back to the gate seemed like too much work for our lazy selves. We took a long time trying to decide what to do and eventually just put off the decision. We dropped our packs and scrambled down some ledges to begin walking along the canyon’s east rim.

It was beautiful, but neither of us were very motivated for an out-and-back hike along the ridge. We ended up sitting on some rocks complaining about how far away the next high point appeared. But it was only 2:30…. what were we going to do?

Although we had initially ruled out the possibility of going down into the gorge with our packs, from our current spot the descent didn’t look so bad. And the ascent on the other side looked doable too. So…. impulsively, without any water or food, we decided to cross the canyon and come out on the other side. How long could it possibly take?

The descent, which hadn’t looked so bad, was actually quite long and very steep. Luckily I earned my stripes as a hiker in Colorado, so I was used to sliding down piles of scree. There were a few close calls and more than one moment where I stopped to survey the next section of the hill and wondered whether I was going to make it on my feet or not, but after a half hour or so and some burning quads, we made it to the more gently sloping canyon floor. We were surrounded by sagebrush and boulders; it smelled divine. We strolled along game paths through the shrubs straight across the canyon, through the willows and aspens surrounding the steam at its bottom, and began up the other side.

Just like earlier that morning, I felt like a wuss. A party-pooper. A lame-o. Eugene sits at 426 feet above sea level; Salt Lake City is ten times as high. Andrew was much better equipped to handle the elevation here and as I tried to climb up hill I huffed and puffed. I was short of breath, I was struggling to keep my balance and my composure. But somehow, the walls of the canyon weren’t as high as they seemed. Soon we were halfway to the top. Then we were closer. Near the rim of the gorge, we encountered some cliff bands. We weren’t sure if they would “go”, but it seemed like a better shot than climbing up the nearby snowfield, so we picked our way through the rocks, Andrew ahead and me lagging behind.

Finally, he stood above me and looked off into the distance.

“There’s another cliff,” he shouted down. “It’s really steep. I think we’re stuck.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” I shouted up. When I made it to where he was standing, sure enough we were back on the rim, surrounded by tall grasses and far-reaching views. No more cliffs. We sat down on a rock, exhausted. I wanted water and Andrew wanted dinner.

The walk back to our packs was easy – just padding through the high desert, up gradual hills and skirting the rim’s contours – but it was also much longer than we expected. By the time we got to our packs it was definitely an hour you could call dinner. We strapped our bags on and carefully downclimbed towards the ridge we had started off on a few hours earlier. After a few minutes we reached a flat area perched between a cliff and a more gentle, although still-imposing, dropoff and set up camp.

It was once again tough to pound in our tent stakes, but we used rocks to weigh things down and tied the fly to boulders. Then we cooked up what we had christened “pesto tuna surprise”, a dinner of angel hair pasta, dried pesto powder, and tuna. After a few days of hiking, it was actually amazing, even though pesto powder is pretty gross compared to real pesto. I think PTS is going to be a new sensation in the backpacking world.

Then it was off to our sleeping bags, a few swigs of whiskey from Andrew’s flask, and another night of worrying that the strong winds might blow us away – this time not into a lake but over a cliff. I also thought I heard it raining and began worrying about climbing up the ledges back to the canyon rim the next morning. What can I say, I’m a worrier. I finally got to sleep but it wasn’t particularly restful.

The next morning was even colder and windier, so we skipped breakfast and climbed back up to the plateau. To get back to our cars, we had to rejoin the road and follow it for a few miles. We made a few guesses about where it would bend and luckily turned out to be right. Cutting across the high desert was much nicer than following the gravel, and we had our last wonderful views of the canyons.

And, about a mile from the cars, we finally saw some of the wildlife we’d been hoping for – a herd of antelope!

I wish I had a bigger zoom lens, but c’est la vie. I swear there are antelope in that picture.

After finally eating breakfast, putting on dry clothes, and saying some sad goodbyes – it’s always great to rediscover a good friend and always difficult to when you part ways again – we rattled off back down the gravel road, and then in Frenchglen turned our separate ways and headed back to our homes. As I drove towards Burns, the nearest city, it began raining angrily. I was glad we were off the mountain, and wondered why the weather had to punish me even more; I was already feeling that post-trip deflation that comes when something wonderful is receding in your rearview mirror.

It was a great four days and I made it back to Eugene refreshed mentally, if perhaps not physically. Work seemed new again and not so monotonous; I was reinvigorated rather than dreading my job.

Despite a lack of maps, Steens is an amazing place to check out. It’s not on anyone’s way to anywhere, but it’s worth the detour if you ever find yourself within a few hundred miles. Discovering remote, undiscovered places is an incredible joy and I think it was good for my soul. What a relief.

Thielsen rocks.

It took me quite a while to dig out after last weekend, as you can tell by the fact that I didn’t write about Hood to Coast for days after the race. With all the running and so little sleep, I needed that time to recover. Plus, I was gone for two and a half days and missed my weekend around the house; I was running behind on all sorts of chores, e-mails, etc. On Thursday, I finally managed to clean out my room and wash all the laundry from the weekend. Yeah, that’s kind of gross.

I knew I had a three day weekend coming up and that I should do something awesome with it, but I just wasn’t in any sort of shape to make plans. As the weekend drew closer and closer I figured that I would improvise and figure something out.

Luckily, my housemate Laura came to my rescue! She and her friends wanted to go climb Mount Thielsen, down in the southern part of the state, and asked me to come along. Hooray!

We left town around 6 on Friday and drove down to the Umpqua Hot Springs, which were some of the best I’ve ever visited. By the time we got to the parking lot it was dark and we were starving, so we sat on the bumpers of our cars and ate leftovers and drank beer. Two of our friends had brought their dogs along, who were happy to finally be out of the cars. It didn’t last long though; we put the dogs back in the cars and hiked the steep quarter-mile up to the hot springs.

When we got there, the main pool, which has a roof over it, was full, and there were a few people in one of the side pools as well. But with quite a few pools to choose from, there was plenty of space for us. We immediately jumped into the hottest one, which was quite a shock, and lay back gazing at the stars. We eventually had to move down the hill to a cooler pool because we were cooking ourselves. The whole spot was lovely – and I can only imagine how pretty it would have been in the daytime!

After we finished soaking, we hopped back in the car and drove a few miles until we found a nice camping spot under some big trees. I slept like a log – still exhausted, a week later, from Hood to Coast!

The next morning we got up early and headed south towards Mount Thielsen. We only got one glance at the mountain on the drive, but it looked just as it had been advertised: really, really pointy. But after that one quick view it disappeared into the trees and we didn’t see it again until we had hiked a few miles.

From four miles out, it looked incredibly steep and also very far away. By the time we reached the intersection with the Pacific Crest Trail, the mountain looked closer and also not quite as steep. We paused for a snack – the apple tree in my front yard has been producing the most amazing sweet, crisp, white apples – and other hikers admired the dogs as they went by.

When we started climbing again, we realized that even though it hadn’t looked quite as steep as before, it was actually even steeper. We had all known this in the back of our minds, but things got serious pretty fast after that initial four-mile hike in. For a while, we were still in the trees, which was nice: it was shady and the trail was solid.

Then we were above treeline and heading ever-upward through loose dirt, scree, and boulders. Cyrus eventually had to stop with his dog, Zula, because the eight-year-old lab was having trouble scrambling up the loose slope. Cyrus eventually rejoined us after tying Zula to a tree, but she didn’t like the whole situation and even after we reached the top of the mountain we could hear her barking occasionally.

Autumn, unlike Cyrus, decided to take her dog Marley all the way to the top. Marley is a young Australian shepherd, and had no trouble finding his footing; he had more energy than the four people and Zula combined! Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have our understanding of hiking safety, and a few times set relatively big rocks rolling down the screefield towards us. While it was great to have him along, it probably wasn’t the best place to bring a dog.

As the climbing got more and more difficult – I am ashamed to say that I started to feel the altitude, too, and to get a little shaky – I sometimes tried climbing up the actual bedrock outcroppings, since they were more solid than the scree. In some places, the trail was great; in others, it was barely a trail (or maybe we had lost it!). But eventually we got close enough that we could see people sitting up on a ledge eating lunch.

We had known that the last 100 feet or so of Mount Thielsen is especially tricky; it calls for actual rock climbing. We had heard conflicting reports about whether it was simply class four hiking/climbing/scrambling, or something you actually needed ropes for. I guess it’s all a matter of perception. When we reached the “chicken ledge” below that last pitch, we saw a large group of people setting up ropes on the rock. It looked totally climbable without ropes, but they had taken over and were throwing ropes back and forth, sometimes knocking off rocks in the process, so we didn’t want to try to climb up in their midst. It was a little disappointing, but not too much, because even from the ledge below the view was spectacular!

In one direction, we saw Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey, which despite having almost the opposite shape as Thielsen is actually roughly the same height. To the south, we could see Crater Lake, somewhere I haven’t been yet but is definitely on my list. There were wildfires burning in several places so the sky was a bit hazy; the pictures don’t do justice to the amazing views.

We spent a long time sitting on the ledge enjoying our lunch at 9,182 feet. Occasionally we would see another hiker coming up and get a sense of what we had just accomplished. Looking down and watching their slow progress really brought it home exactly how steep the climb had been.

And if you looked off the other side, you would see why the group was using ropes: even though the rock was craggy and there were plenty of handholds and places to stick your feet, the consequences of any errors would have been pretty horrendous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t just steep from the top of the last pitch to its bottom (left). There was also a thousand-foot sheer drop-off  below (right). Would I still have climbed it? Yes, absolutely. But as it was, we ate our lunches and chatted with the other hikers who were stymied by the group with the ropes. Meanwhile, I thought about how nice it would be to have a mountain dog, even if he did kick rocks down on my sometimes.

Finally, it was time to leave, and to go rescue the increasingly distraught Zula. Another hiker suggested that instead of taking the trail down, we hike down a steep ridge until we got to a screefield made up of small pieces of pumice. While it wouldn’t be solid, the pieces of rock were so small and light that you could run or “ski” down them, sliding along with them, and it was much easier and faster than tediously stepping down the rock piles on the trail. We took her up on her suggestion and headed off.

I didn’t think it was so bad, but I have a bit of experience both in scree and glissading on snow. Autumn did not enjoy our route. Luckily, we all ended up back with Zula without any accidents, so it all turned out fine in the end! I got to check out some more cool geology along the way – look at these awesome striations in the rock.

When we finally made it back to the parking lot, sore in a million different places, the temperature had soared to the high 80s. We took a five minute drive to the picnic area on Diamond Lake and jumped in! It was really shallow for a very long way, so it was a little anti-climactic to have to wade and wade and wade until the water was finally waist-deep, but it was really nice to cool off and the dogs loved it. On the way home, we stopped at the Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, where I got a pint of Black Wooly Jumper straight from the cask and some fish and chips – well, fish and sweet potato fries, even better!

So: it was Saturday night, and I had already packed more into the weekend than I possibly could have hoped. What a great Labor Day!

The most grueling all-night party.

This past weekend I had the chance to do something totally amazing: the Hood to Coast relay. I literally cannot believe, still, that after only two months in Oregon I managed to get on a team – there is a lottery system for teams to get entered, and it’s a huge deal. I didn’t know everyone on my team, far from it, but a few of my good friends were there, and I drove up to Portland with one of them to meet up with our van. Neither of us had ever done a big relay before, and we didn’t know what to expect. The trunk of Heather’s car was stuffed with sleeping bags and pads and more food than we could possibly consume (so we thought).

Hood to Coast is a 200-mile race, where teams of twelve people run three legs each. The event starts at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. As we drove up the road we were quiet with anticipation, and occasionally gasped as the mountains revealed themselves. We weren’t in 24-hour race mode yet, and we hadn’t opened up; it was still hitting us that we would be spending more than a day in this very van, pretty much nonstop except for running.

The scenery was beautiful but on the other side of the road, we could see runners already streaming down the road. With 1200 teams participating, waves of runners start their downward journey in waves throughout the day on Friday. And most of them didn’t look comfortable. Leg one descends two thousand feet in five miles.

Up on the mountain, we scurried around grabbing Clif bars from the promo tent and lacing up our running shoes as confused (and stoned) snowboarders wandered through the parking lot. We decorated our van with paint, put our costumes on, and snapped a team picture:

So I guess I should tell you a little bit about our team. We were the Red Dress Express Too, the rejects from an older team which has been doing Hood to Coast since about 2001. It’s made up of people from Eugene, and everyone wears red dresses and accessories, even the guys. This year, Red Dress Express was trying for a top-six finish in the sub-masters category, which would guarantee them an entry into next year’s race, bypassing the lottery. I’m a newcomer and well below the sub-masters age limit, so I was stuck on the second team… which turned out to be the best thing anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Because, can I say that we had a good time? We had a good time, a better time than any other team, I’m sure of that. Each of us was only serious when we were actually running, which meant that the other five members of our van were goofing off the whole time. We had a photo contest with the other Red Dress vans which ensured a lot of shenanigans. For instance, we had an actual horn which one of my teammates occasionally blew through, and with which we repeatedly chased some members of the Run Oregon team:

This was the fourth runner we terrorized, and she was psyched. She had watched us take pictures of our other team members running after her other team members, and as soon as she saw me in my red dress on the side of the road she started smiling. She really hammed it up for the camera.

Anyway, back to the running. Once we got down off the mountain, it got hot. Our second leg runner finished as a shell of his former self. Even though he had two water bottles during his race, he was speaking unintelligibly and had trouble walking in a straight line. We ran ahead to get him more water and gave him an ice pack to hunker down with in a van. I began to get a little bit nervous for my own leg.

I had told the team organizer that I would take any leg, no matter how hard, as long as it wasn’t that first steeply downhill one. I’m good at running up hills, I said. I do it a lot. And so they stuck me with leg 5, the hardest in the entire race. It’s a third of a mile shorter than leg 9, which my friend Mike was running, but there’s much more terrain. That’s why I was nervous. I had basically acted very cocky, and if I didn’t deliver on my bragging, I was going to be ashamed. More than that, I was afraid that if I went too hard in my first leg, the rest of the race would be really, really unpleasant.

So off I went on leg 5, four miles along the highway in the sun and then a turn into the shade and up a big hill. Almost as soon as I started, my competitive juices got flowing and I took off. At first, I felt great. Then, I felt hot. Next, I felt a little shaky. I had stopped sweating and was almost cold. I knew I was in trouble as I ran along the highway in the full sun, but I also knew that sometime, I’d be turning into the shade. I didn’t know when that sometime would arrive, and wavered back and forth about whether I should slow down, or just try to get to the shade as quickly as possible. Luckily, I had my drinkbelt with some gatorade, and tried to take in as many electrolytes as possible without making myself sick in a different way.

When I finally made it to the turn it was a huge relief. Almost immediately, I felt better. My teammates had stopped the van to cheer for me, and as I went by they dumped water over my head. Whew! I began passing people again instead of lagging. A volunteer promised me that there was a sprinkler coming up, but it turned out that she was kind of lying. I commiserated with another runner as we ran up the hill – which wasn’t that big, just 400 feet or so, but after a long hot run on the highway, it seemed to go on forever. At one point I knew I had only a mile to go, and I started looking for the finish line around every corner.

I also started looking at my watch. I had submitted 45 minutes for my 10k time, and a teammate had estimated how long it would take everyone to run their legs. I was nervous about this. I haven’t done any workouts, really, since March: just perhaps three sets of intervals and one 5k race. I haven’t even been running that much. I didn’t think that I’d have any speed left, just slow-twitch fitness. So I glanced at my watch, subtracting the time from 45 minutes to see how long I thought I had to keep running. Which was discouraging.

But when I finally saw the finish, it was not discouraging. I was ahead of my seed time, and more importantly, I was done running. For now. I snapped our bracelet onto my teammate Brian’s wrist and sat down on the pavement. My teammates ran up to me and gave me hugs. Then we piled into the van and drove toward the middle of Brian’s leg so we could cheer him on and give him water.

Because this is the thing about Hood to Coast: there’s no warming up. There’s no cooling down. Maybe if you’re serious and you manage everything perfectly, you might be able to do it on some of the legs. But there’s bigger issues. You have to get to the next exchange, and there’s six of you to keep track of. After two years of micromanaged warmup routines and making sure I ate exactly the right thing at the right time, the concept of just jumping in a race cold terrified me.

After Brian finished, we handed our clipboard off to the other van of six runners and headed into Portland, where we crashed at my teammate Nice’s house. We changed into new, dry red dresses and walked to a nearby (excellent) Mexican restaurant, where we got a LOT of strange looks as we ate our tacos. Heather and I split a margarita. It was delicious. We tried to nap on Nice’s floors and sofas, but it was only 7 p.m., and we couldn’t sleep; soon enough it was time to head to the next exchange to switch off with the other van.

By the time we got there – a big concrete road exchange under a bridge in Portland – it was dark, and everyone was wearing headlamps, reflective vests, and blinking red lights. There were runners everywhere and we had to push our way through the crowd to the actual exchange zone. It was great to be reunited with the other van, and we had a good time hanging out. I felt lucky not to have been stuck with the first leg – not only would I have had to run down Mount Hood, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the van exchanges as much.

Leg two for our van turned out to be one of the more grim sections of the race. Heather got to run through downtown, along the river, but after that it was out through the industrial edges of the city. Especially in the dark, it wasn’t fun. Just gray, lonely, and a little bit dirty. We would still stop along the side of the road to cheer for each other, but it became impossible to tell which blinking red light was our actual runner. Many of the legs were on the long side, too, so it felt like the night was going on forever.

It was finally my turn to run, and I embarked on a seven-mile journey along pancake-flat Highway 30. I have never run in the middle of the night before, really; it was disorienting. Even with my headlamp to guide me, I only roughly knew where the edge of the road was. I followed the river of blinking lights in front of me, but unlike on my first leg, there weren’t many people to pass; everyone was my speed or faster. But I could see them, so I was tempted into running harder and harder to try to catch up.

“I feel like I’m being chased by an army of fireflies,” one runner said as four of us ran past in a pack.

When my teammates greeted me at the halfway point with a waterbottle holding a mix of coca cola and coffee, I said to myself, shit. I glanced at my watch and knew that I had been running much too fast. I shouldn’t have covered three and a half miles so quickly, especially in the (non)-shape that I was.

How long could three more miles be? I told myself that everything would be fine, that the caffeine would do its job and wake me up, that I should just keep going. But after another mile, I began to drag. I’d pick a runner and match their pace, and then I’d slow down, unable to keep at it. I actually caught a guy in an orange shirt who I had also passed on my first leg, but after running with him for about 30 seconds, he pulled away and over the last mile but 20 or so seconds on me.

By the time I was turning onto the road towards the high school for our exchange, I was suffering bigtime. Not only had I started out too fast, but I was wearing racing flats, a questionable move after 13 miles. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but my calves were seizing up in a serious way. As soon as I handed off to Brian, I lay down and didn’t get up for a few minutes.

But soon, I was standing up and joking with the orange shirt guy’s team. They were from Seattle and in one of the masters’ divisions. Honestly, I was a little pissed that orange shirt guy had run away from me; he was just a guy, how was he so fast? But they were great and we had seen them so many times at the exchanges already that we fell into a long conversation.

Heather broke some bad news to me. “Everyone else is kind of falling apart,” she said.

What? Falling apart more than me? With my cement-like calves, I hobbled back to the van and surveyed the damage. Nice was passed out across the driver and passenger seats, face down. Leah and Kathryn were semi-comatose in the back. Uh oh. Brian’s leg was only five miles, and we had wasted time talking to the other team; we needed to get to the next exchange.

Then Heather confessed that she had a terrible sense of direction.

“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.

“No, no, I feel terrible doing that,” she replied. “You just finished racing. I’m sure I can find my way.”

But I thought about it and decided that me driving would be better. We moved Nice into the back and took over the front. After taking a long time to figure out how to move the seat forward, we were off. Heather fed me Clif ShotBloks one at a time as I drove.

And…… we immediately missed our first turn. The sign for the road was after the actual intersection, and it was dark, and there were runners on the road! What do you expect? So we had to keep driving and circle back. We eventually made it to the van exchange at a county fairgrounds. It was a designated sleeping area, so between the rows of vans there were runners sacked out in sleeping bags and tents. I gave Heather the clipboard to take to the exchange and tried to do a really easy run around the grounds to loosen up my calves, which were cramping worse than ever.

Two things happened on my little jaunt through the parking lot. First of all, I heard some team refer to us as transvestites (don’t buy a Balance Bar; they also opened the door of their van and shouted “fa**ot” at Brian as he raced along). Secondly, I just happened to come across our other van as they packed up from their brief night’s sleep.

“Mike!” I said.

“What are you doing?” He asked.

“I need a hug,” I said, and stopped running.

“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”

Oops, yeah, that’s right. My red dress had gotten very hot and sweaty on my run – which had turned out to be a personal best for 10k, the first few miles at sub-seven minute pace making up for the later ones at over-eight – and I had wanted it off. Luckily I had managed to put shorts on, but I was jogging around in the night cold in my sports bra and heart rate monitor (coincidentally, the first time I’d worn it since leaving Craftsbury in March).

Ever the gentleman, Mike walked me back to my van where I found some more clothes, and then we went over to watch the exchange. After saying goodbye to our groggy other van, I got back in the driver’s seat and headed towards the next van exchange, where we would sleep until it was our turn to run.

Things went well for a while. I had a sip of coffee and Heather chatted away to keep me awake. It was only supposed to be an hour or so drive. But as we got close to the exchange, traffic got really bad, and we were at a standstill. I can do this, I thought to myself, inching along at a snail’s pace. Then an hour and a half had passed. I was tired. I was sleepy. Was I going to make it?

I finally decided that it was Brian’s van, and so he should drive, because if any of us fell asleep at the wheel, at least he’d be wrecking his own car. Luckily he was pretty awake. As soon as I switched places with him I fell asleep, and woke up an hour later in a very uncomfortable position. It was a good call to give up driving. I was not fit to drive, not even close.

We parked and unfurled our sleeping pads and bags. It was about four thirty in the morning, and I didn’t even have the energy to take my contacts out. If you looked at us, curled up on a tarp, you would have thought we were having some sort of snuggle-fest, but I don’t think a single person moved an inch or even rolled over between the time we fell asleep and when our alarm woke us up the next morning. We were too exhausted.

Van number two found us again, and it was off to the races. By this time, racing didn’t seem so intimidating. I didn’t even worry about how I couldn’t warm up. It seemed like it would never be my turn to run. Nothing seemed important except enjoying the morning sunshine.

But when Kathryn started running, I knew I had less than an hour before I was faced with my hardest task yet: leg 29. It was six miles, just like my first leg, but gained and then lost 600 feet of elevation. Thinking about the numbers, that didn’t seem like so much, but then again, I was pretty tired and my calves were still wrecked. So I tried to stop thinking about it entirely.

When the handoff came, Kathryn slapped my butt and sent me off. The beginning was actually quite flat and in the shade, and after a quite painful first two minutes, I started feeling good. I fell in with a guy from Portland and we ran together, striding easily along a creek. We’d trade off leading and were even chatting away. That’s how easy it was. I felt like everything was going to be fine, just fine.

That’s me, with Portland dude:

Then I got to the hill.

It was not fine.

“Go on,” I told the Portland guy. “I can’t keep up with you.”

“No, I need to slow down too,” he said. “We’ll help each other out.”

That lasted about 20 seconds.

“No, really,” I insisted. “You should just go.”

In the first leg, I had run up the hill like it ain’t no thang. I’m not actually sure I was going much slower than I had been on the flat. But this time around, my calved complained loudly and I was just plain tired. My form disintegrated and I felt like I was shuffling. People kept cheering for me, but I am pretty sure it was just because I was a girl and usually teams don’t have women run leg 5 because it’s so hard. I got a few cheers for my red dress, too, which kept me going, and the Nike France team cheered for me in French as they drove by because I had told them to “Allez, allez!”

On top of it all, we had run out of the shade and into the sun, and it was getting hot again. The hill became a real slog.

I couldn’t have been happier when I reached the top of the “pass”. My teammates were there and held up a roll of toilet paper for me to run through like a finish banner.

In my mind, I was thinking, woohoo, I’m done! But I still had a long way to go… what I thought was two miles of downhill was really two and a half, and after taking off and working it for the first mile I began to question how long I could keep it up. My calves hurt! I was tired! This was stupid! There was nobody around me for the first time in the entire race, so I didn’t even have a chase to keep me motivated. Still, I pushed on to where I knew Brian was waiting for me.

And there he was. I was done! I was free! It was a strange feeling, after 19 miles of running, not to have to run any farther. I climbed into the van and we encountered more terrible traffic. With two and half miles to go before the exchange, we were at a dead stop. Heather and Leah got out of the van and began running down the road; even walking, they could have gotten there faster than we did. In the end, we arrived just about the time that Brian finished. So we handed off the clipboard to the second van and headed for Seaside and finish line.

We met up with the original Red Dress team, who had finished eighth, just missing a guaranteed entry for next year, which was pretty disappointing for them. Their time was fast enough to make the cut most years, but this year was a fast year, and also Coco had left his shoes in Eugene and racked up some huge blisters running in a teammate’s sneakers. Not to blame it all on Coco or anything. Brian, Leah and I ran into the ocean, cooled our legs very briefly, and then got out of there because it was cold. There was beer, and the beach, and much rejoicing as we waited for van number two to make it to the finish.

Unfortunately the second van encountered more terrible traffic coming into Seaside, so their runner actually beat them there. We hung out with her and drank more beer as we waited quite a bit longer for the last of our teammates to arrive. Then, finally, it was back to the finish for our official team picture. I got to hold our race number!

Later that night, we had a bonfire on the beach, and then passed out four or five to a hotel room. It was lovely. Amazing. So much fun. Sunday morning, we got breakfast at a diner. Biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon hoo yeah. For once I didn’t feel guilty eating a ridiculous amount of calories. I had earned them, bigtime.

Hood to Coast was even more fun than I thought it could be. Part of it was rediscovering a way to race that didn’t stress me out, and realizing that it could be fun. And perhaps it’s better to be fun than to be serious: both my second and third legs were faster than any 10k I had ever run before, something which still puzzles me. Does that mean that I just wasted the last two years of my life? What the hell? But that doesn’t matter now, it’s water under the bridge. What matters is that I had a great time and look at how cool my friends are. I have the best friends. The best teammates. These are good people and we are going to have more fun together. If I don’t get back on this team next year, I’m going to be devastated.

Thanks to Brian and Christina for the photos.

Over and out.