Friday, September 12, 2014

Morning Brew

Coffee: love it. Every day, I brew a really strong cup of joe to savor with my breakfast (for the flavor, seriously). My appreciation of the stuff is close to snob territory. However, if there is no good stuff available, I am not above drinking whatever is around. Instead of drinking the free stuff at the ranch, I buy my own and brew it every morning, double strength. When working the breakfast shift, that means getting up half an hour earlier to make my customary stick-to-your-ribs oatmeal and crude oil coffee before work. Yes, coffee wins over sleep.

So what could be better than the view from the Ranch while sipping a nice, bold brew?

Woke up to snow September 11th, making the hot coffee taste even better.
Doing it in a cabin perched at over 8,000 feet with a view of all of the surrounding mountains.

This past week, a crew of us from the Ranch drove over to Big Sky, and then hiked up to Windy Pass Cabin (2.5 miles) Sunday evening to catch the full moon and then hike back to Mountain Sky the next day (11 miles). One guy hiked from the ranch to the cabin, and then down to Big Sky the next day to drive my car back. The Forest Service has cabins that formerly housed game wardens, trail clearing crews, and fire lookouts but now can be rented on a nightly basis. Awesome.

Monday morning was glorious, as was the Dunkin' Donuts coffee.

We took our time and savored the brilliant sunshine of the morning before packing up our stuff and heading out.

I did this hike a couple of years ago, and the second time was even better. It also helped me realize how I have changed since then: instead of just appreciating the beauty of nature, I now see both the forest and the trees. On the pass, subalpine fir and white pine were the only tree residents. As we dropped down off the ridge into the shelter of the Big Creek drainage, towering Engelmann spruce appeared, followed closely by lodgepole pine. Next, Douglas fir came along, followed by aspen trees, and finally gray alder and cottonwoods hugging the stream a couple miles down the trail. Huckleberries dotted the understory at the beginning, but then slowly faded out, replaced by chokecherries, oregon grapes, and kinnickinnick.

How fascinating.

Monday was just what I needed-a long hike with good company. The conversation ebbed and flowed, and it was a great day to let the legs walk and the mind run. Walking releases stress and clears a cluttered mind. It also leads to a desire to walk more. Rumor is that some people who complete the Appalachian Trail realize at the end that all they want to do is keep walking, so they turn around and head back. An addiction of the good kind. Does rehab for that entail working a cubicle McJob in an area of urban sprawl where everything is just far enough apart that you have to drive and sidewalks are nonexistent? I do not want to know. Gross.

I cannot say the Appalachian Trail is officially a dream of mine seeing as I am only a weekend warrior, but walking in the woods with a pack on your back is not the worst way to spend your time. I am hungry for more.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mother Nature Rules

Think about this: humans have created an entirely separate world outside of the natural one we actually live in.

I debated which term was more accurate, outside or inside, but decided that the former is more appropriate. The goal of some of our activities is to live outside of the natural world. The internet-the means through which you are reading this-being a prime example. Virtual worlds and 'reality' have penetrated almost all aspects of our lives and have no connection to anything natural. Humans build cities in the desert and stock grocery store shelves with the same produce all year long, ignoring the cycle of the seasons. City slickers live in a concrete jungle with air conditioning and their closest connection to nature being the tropical background on their computer and a trip to the produce isle of the grocery store. You get it.

Oh, and does anyone else find it ironic that as video games improve they get closer and closer to...reality? Almost as good as the real thing. Almost. So why bother? I mean, you cannot go fly a fighter jet or conquer Asia, but you could certainly go and toss the 'ol pigskin around and take in the wonderful aroma of freshly cut grass.

I would much rather live in this reality, taking in the scent of freshly hayed field on the breeze
We live in-as Edward Abbey would say-'syphilization'.

Wouldn't you be surprised and maybe slightly annoyed if the grocery store was out of January? Ridiculous.

Living in Montana and doing what I do, Mother Nature many times limits my weekend activity options, something that would not happen in the controlled 'virtual reality' of video games.  But you take a powder day when it comes, as well as the warm slushy thaws and the biting cold of twenty below. Those same heavy snows of powder days mean the back country is still snowed right now, and the Yellowstone river is just now becoming fishable. And that is part of the beauty of living in the natural world.

Pine Creek Lake, still partially iced over on June 26
Thunderstorms and rain on your one full day off this week? Tough. It is easy to mope around, or you can enjoy the drama of the building thunderheads. Paradise Valley is gorgeous any time Mother Nature decides to mix it up. Just do not get caught out in the open. During the tumultuous transition from winter to spring is when I have seen the most incredible combinations of clouds, mountains, snow and rain, and sunlight. You might not be able to ski, hike, or fish, but you would not trade that split second view for anything as the clouds come tumbling over the mountains and down into the valley.

As long as you stop to appreciate it.

Because that is all you can do.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Green Gentian Virtues

Instant gratification is the trademark of the 21st century. 

All too often, I am reminded of that by my life in Montana. Out here things move a little slower, both in nature and syphilization (civilization). Trees grow slower because of the limited rainfall and a trip to the nearest gas station for beer will take you 50 minutes roundtrip. Hiking a peak such as Emigrant is a three hour endeavor to the summit.

Waiting for a full moon combined with a gorgeous sunrise is well worth it
Real life takes time. 

Patience has always been a virtue, but that is increasingly true in this day and age. The internet has created an entire generation that only knows instant gratification, and it has conditioned the rest of us to expect it. We have to unlearn.

If you would like to take a class in this, my advice is to get outside, or take up hobbies that require it. I brew beer, which takes about a month from grain to glass, and tend a garden as well, where some plants might not even flower or produce anything the first year.

Sunflowers take all summer from seed to bloom
Hiking is a great reminder of this, as you often have hours on the trail to gaze at the scenery on the way to your destination. I would take this a step further though. Developing patience for the journey to the top is not enough.

"To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, and the true success is to labor." -Robert Louis Stevenson

The journey itself is the important part. Enjoying every minute, whether it is work or play is crucial to leading a fulfilling life. What about your job, is it fun-filled? Some people accept it as fact: work cannot be fun and you must pay your dues. I pity the fool.

Hiking in Yellowstone this year, I have seen two prime examples of the value of time. The first was in the Black Canyon of Yellowstone.

Years ago, someone stuck this elk antler in the crotch of a tree. The douglas fir proceeded to envelope it as the trunk expanded, and now it is part of the tree. Let me remind you that trees grow quite slowly out here due to the lack of rain. Perhaps it has been there for ten years, maybe twenty.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spot a few green gentians blooming along Blacktail Creek. While most flowers bloom every year whether they are long lived or just annuals, this patient plant is in no rush. For 20-60 years it grows in open meadows at high elevations. Then, when it deems the time is right, it throws up a flower-filled stalk toward the heavens and then dies. Since every plant is on a different cycle, they can be found every summer, but it is always a treat I appreciate.

Can you get more cliché than saying that it is worthwhile to stop and smell the flowers? Perhaps not, but I encourage you to look for the green gentians in your life, or act like one yourself. Take your time. I am looking for that right lady, and so far patience has been the virtue most needed. That green gentian will bloom at some point though, of that I am certain.

Monday, May 26, 2014


I climb peaks, not corporate ladders. They can be physically and mentally challenging, and the reward, while intangible, is better than any monetary compensation. Call me young and headstrong, but money is not a driver for me. Sorry Benny Franklin, but take the backseat. John Muir, you are my man. Thoreau, you can take shotgun.

Saturday was a half day for me, with beautiful weather and tons of tourons (read: tourist morons) out on the roads. What is a guy to do who just wants a little peace and quiet on the trail? The answer was staring me in the face-Emigrant, the peak that sits across from the ranch. Snow covered and all, it was the clear choice, all 10,915 majestic feet of it.

View of Emigrant from Mountain Sky
Nobody would be attempting it at this time of year, seeing as the snow is too light for backcountry skiing on it, and any normal person would wait until the snow melts to hike it. Boo-yah.

Emigrant again, but from near the base
Speaking of it, snow was definitely the word of the day. Sure, I have climbed Emigrant a couple times, but never with snow, or any peak with a decent amount of snow on it for that matter. Solid footing, avalanches (very low probability), and sliding on ice could all be problems. Or, let us call them challenges, it has a more positive ring to it.

A little morning mountain glow greeted me as I arrived at the trailhead at sunrise
My strategy for combating the snow was to hit it early. In the morning, I figured it would still be crusty, so it would be possible to walk on top of it and avoid post-holing. As well, it would be frozen together and less likely to let go and send me on an unwanted sledding trip down the mountain. Ice would be dealt with on a case by case basis.

The first half of the climb was easy, with the first wildflowers coming into bloom. Sagebrush buttercups, Wyoming kittentails, and shooting stars led me ever up the mountain. At the tree line I encountered the first patches of snow but was able to skirt around them. Farther up was a different story-there was no getting around that stuff. As well, at a certain point there is really only one path up Emigrant, so there is no choice to make-follow the ridge! As a famous fish in a movie once said, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming..."

Following in the footsteps of mountain goats
My morning-crust theory worked quite well: I avoided post-holing, but it had enough give for solid footing. It was also clear that the snow was not going anywhere. In fact, walking on top of the snow was preferable to bare ground and climbing on scree, the loose rock that sends you back half a step for every one that you take forward.

After three hours and ten minutes I was surrounded by nothing but blue sky and scattered clouds. Of course, the hairiest part was the last 20 yards, walking across a snow ridge all of two and a half feet wide with steep drop offs on either side. Picturing it in my mind still gets my adrenaline pumping.

How do you value the reward for climbing this? I do not have an answer for you except that there was no place in the world at 9:35am, on Saturday, May 24th , that I would have rather been.

Looking East

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Full Circle

Light frost on the roofs and receding snow. That first hint of green in the landscape. Hunting for the first wildflowers. Putting away the snowshoes and skis and dusting off the hiking boots and bear spray. Life and hope spring anew this time of year. There is a a palpable energy in the air. A buzz. I can practically taste it. For me, this is the new year.

And who knows what it will bring? Now that is exciting.

This past weekend, that meant the first backpacking trip: destination Yellowstone. Sometimes you just have to get out, and that is what my buddy and I were determined to do. Saturday afternoon it was pouring as we left the ranch. In the Park, it turned to snow. Soldier on.

We parked at the trailhead with just enough daylight to hike the six miles to our campsite. We shouldered our packs and with a thunderclap the snow abruptly stopped. After a quick dinner and setting up camp, in the receding light we saw the snow creeping down the hills toward us as we climbed into the tent. Perfect timing.

The next morning we awoke to sunshine and a brilliant blue sky. Instead of the snow, wind, and rain we had mentally and physically prepared ourselves for, we worried about getting sunburned. I would like to think the optimism of spring somehow factored into the equation.

We ate breakfast with the bison. They agreed that our campsite was par excellence.

In search of adventure, we set off for a day hike from our camp, ambling through meadows and over rolling hills. Along the way, we passed herds of bison, elk, and pronghorn. Swallows darted through the air catching insects above the water. Tenacious sagebrush buttercups, shooting stars, and pasque flowers dotted the just-thawed ground. Fresh snowmelt thundered down the river.

Eight miles into the hike we came to a junction:

Blacktail Creek Trailhead 4 miles
Knowles Falls 1.9 miles
Gardiner 8.6 miles
Hellroaring 8 miles

Well of course we decided to go for it-let's head to Gardiner! We formulated a plan to hike in, grab some lunch, and then hitch hike back to Hellroaring where we would hike the 6 miles to our campsite. The one problem was our lack of money-we had left our wallets in the car since the old greenback does not do you any good in the backcountry. You buy your safety by carrying bear spray, and the sights are free.

Hmmm. We decided to try and buy pizza on a promise, and if we had to we could leave collateral in the form of a camera or other gear.

In the end, we got our pizza and managed to get back to our campsite with an hour of daylight to spare after hitching three rides. The optimism of spring again? There is no guarantee for two guys with beards  and muddy hiking clothes to hitch a ride in the scant spring tourist season. Even potential rides were not plentiful coming out of Mammoth Hot Springs at 4pm on a Sunday.

Just like the seasons, we came full circle, and had a great time doing it. A solid 20 mile day of hiking put us right to sleep, with bison, elk, and all of the other majestic creatures of the Park roaming our dreams, the taste of adventure lingering on our lips and our spirits renewed by Mother Nature. Today, we felt alive.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Skiing as Meditation

What have I been up to this winter? Skate skiing-as a form of exercise, the perfect way to get outside and enjoy nature, and at times a bit of an active meditation. The repetition and rhythm clear my mind while the endorphins make me happy, really happy.

Pole-ski-ski, pole-ski-ski, pole-ski-ski. So begins the song. However, the only sounds are the shhh, shhh of each ski gliding. Indeed, when I stop it is as if nature has listened-the woods are perfectly silent, and all of the thoughts in my head are quieting down as well.

My skis glide over the 'corduroy' of the freshly groomed trail, creating the 'v' track that shows I have been here to those who follow. First tracks.

Snow-lade pines glide by and the sun beats down through the snowy boughs and reflects off the snow crystals, a million shining diamonds. Just for a day I am rich.

I climb, and climb, and climb. Kilometer after kilometer. 7,000...7,500...8,000 feet altitude. The rhythm of my skis keeps time to the beating of my heart. Then at 8,200 the trees recede, leaving me with my first view of everything. Lone Peak dominates the horizon, proclaiming all of its 11,166 feet. Other mountains dot the horizon, while the valley below is so far below. After climbing over 1,600 feet, with the blood pulsing in my head, my lungs working overtime, and my legs crying out from the unending flood of lactic acid, this is my reward.

Then the trail turns the opposite direction and slides back into the trees, taking a slight downward pitch. Now for the fun part. Gravity has turned from enemy into accomplice. The crime: having to much fun, and perhaps breaking the speed limit for cross country skis. The pines begin to rush by as gravity gives me a boost. I lengthen my glide until each ski track is twelve feet or longer, my focus split between balancing on each ski for as long as possible and catching glimpses of the mountains through the trees. Whoosh. Then suddenly the pines open up and reveal the Gallatin Mountain Range and canyon. This is the moment I live for: effortlessly flying down the trail at top speed while marveling at the awesomeness of 'God's Country', as they call Montana. Indeed!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hibernation/Hiatus (laziness?)

Alright, I have neglected to write for more than two months.  And have no excuses.  Work is consistently under forty hours, and the rest of my time is consumed by reading and skiing.  As you can tell, my life is rough.  Especially when I get to wake up to views like the one below.

And finish my days with sunsets like this.

Anyway, here are some more photos to make up for my hiatus.  The Big Sky State lends itself to photography, all you have to do is get outside and the moments will present themselves.

The funny looking vertical rainbow in the picture below is called a sundog.  Similar to its vapory cousin, the rainbow, a sundog is formed by light reflecting off ice crystals floating around in the air.

It truly is a winter wonderland out here, although we have already started the tumultuous transition to spring, with flooding at lower elevations.  Personally though, I would not mind if winter stuck around for another couple of weeks.  Definitely in the minority on that one.  In the meantime, I will try and write some more.