Friday, June 22, 2007
Monday, June 18, 2007
(On a related note:
1. I've been riding a two-week-long food bender using the I-burned-6,000-calories-in-a-single-day-hiking-Half-Dome defense. I guess it's time to stop that. and
2. Post-hike toenail update: Just took off the red polish, and verified the right big toenail is indeed all black and blue underneath. Will I lose it, or will it hang on? Stay tuned!)
Six days after my nephew was born, I got on a plane at PHL and headed home to LAX. Since having said goodbye to my sister at her house the day before, I'd hardly stopped crying. Part of it was the obvious: Because I'd decided to fulfill my commitment to attend the wedding of a dear friend in L.A., I'd left Philadelphia before my nephew's bris. This had been a rending choice. Part of the reason I was sad was that I didn't know when I’d see my sister again, or the baby, and “time marches on,” as my dad is so fond of saying. And I hate that it does.
The other reasons for the tears were more abstract. Everything had been hyper-poignant in Philadelphia. Like when I ate with my folks at City Tavern and my dad’s salad came with a purple orchid on top, and my mom was so determined that she should take this little second-hand flower to my sister. She dusted off the blossom and asked the waitress for a Styrofoam cup to transport it in. My dad poured a half inch of water into the cup, and my mom placed the bud inside, and we kept it in the cup holder of the rental car until it could safely be delivered to my sister. The way my mom was so precious about how this flower must be taken to her daughter—this killed me. There are lots of other reasons too, but my Internet self is not nearly honest enough to dissect them here.
I hardly slept a wink before I got on the plane, and then got up at 6 AM to head to the airport, where the security line was a hundred miles long and I barely got in Southwest's nightmarish B line in time to get an aisle seat directly in front of a screaming baby, for whose parents I should have had sympathy, particularly under the circumstances of our own family’s developments, but didn't because I was so dang tired. Seeing the tears, the girl sitting in the window seat asked with genuine concern if I was OK, and I really believed she was interested in the answer—which I would have told her with details, because I am the type, but it’s so complicated and I’m not even sure what it is.
Something about my mom handling an orchid from my dad’s salad with extreme care because it was for her daughter who is recovering from surgery, and because my mom would have always done anything for her daughters? Something about how I have a tiny new nephew who weighs five pounds less than my cat, and who could be god-knows-how-old before I see him again because we live far apart and that sucks? Something about how I’m going to turn 30 in a month and people in Philadelphia seem to be doing different things at 30 than people in New York or L.A., and how that complicates the value system in my head?
Meanwhile, the guy in the middle seat, who was wearing a ball cap that was brown mesh in the back and fake woven wicker on the brim, was oblivious to my--er--lack of composure. And he had a lot to say to me about his cat Daisy and the dog who’s name I can’t remember, and the crawfish his wife found in a pond and put in their daughter’s aquarium. (The wife, who goes by “All-Biz Liz” because she makes the family's decisions, and has no faith in her husband's decision-making abilities, had trouble carrying, which is why they had their daughter so late in life. So I was told.) This man had no idea that I was not really in the right emotional space to be on board with his idea that the way to make a million quick is to be a child’s birthday party entertainer, like this Safari Lady who came to one of his daughter’s friends’ parties and got $200 for entertaining the kids with goats and snakes for an hour. Can you imagine? $200! Get a couple of those bookings in a day—maybe four in a weekend—and you’re so set! That's the way to do it, boy, I tell you.
I tried to cover my head with the blue Southwest “blanket,” so I could “sleep,” but its mystery fibers were asphyxiating me, so I moved it aside from my face just as a stewardess walked down the aisle. She asked me did I need a hug, and gave me one, and seemed to really, really mean it. She offered me a drink on the house (which I wouldn’t normally have declined, but I had to somehow get myself to the rehearsal dinner in Pasadena without falling asleep at the wheel) and came back instead with some water and a box of tissues. Women have this ability to give hugs and make people feel better. It’s amazing how many men don’t (all due respect to those who do).
And my inability to understand their reasons for that must come from the same Mars/Venus schism that ultimately results in the husband wearing a shirt that says, “I’d rather be fishing but my wife’s nagging would scare away the bass." Or what have you.
Anyway, I was all prepared to come home alone in a taxi (the blue-eyed guy was in Cleveland, and my parents were in Atlantic City on a day trip from Philadelphia, so who would come get me?), and was prepared to miss the noise terribly. But when the wheels touched down and I turned on the ol' Treo, there was a message from AE and oh my god she totally missed me and she's checked my flight status online and knows I'm early and is on her way to pick me up and we'll have lunch and discuss, it's all good, girl, for real.
Thank heaven for friends. For real, girl.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Some background for those readers who may have come upon this by Googling “hiking Half Dome” or the like: I am 29 and do four to five rigorous weight training and cardio workouts per week in the gym, but I’m not known for being outdoorsy or a hiker. I am fond of clean fingernails and so forth, but I was eager to take on this challenge because LP was such a dutiful and excited leader (this adventure having been on her to-do list forever) and I was grateful for the opportunity to try something I would not likely initiate myself. It goes without saying, but my experience was not identical to the other hikers in my group, and this is only my tale of the intense journey undertaken alongside them.
I’d read so many blogs about the hike before attempting it, and I found that nearly all of the writers focused on the physical experience, with little mention of the emotional one, so that’s much of what I’ll write here (which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me in real life). I also hope I’ll get the chronology of trail milestones right, because many of them have already merged together in my memory.
We awoke at 5 AM yesterday, and made it to the trail head at about 7:45 AM. (We’d already walked an easy mile from the car to that point.) We took the Mist Trail up the first couple miles, which takes you past Vernal Falls via an intense stretch of granite stairs. Per the trail’s name, it was wet and we were prepared with windbreakers (although it was the beginning of the end for my hair). I was wearing a heart rate monitor, and noticed I was really coming close to my maximum heart rate even in this first stretch (although I’m convinced my heart rate at rest has increased by 10+ BPM in the last few months due to work-related stress, so that was probably not an unrelated factor in the high reading). I’m sure we were all feeling exerted, but I really felt fine and recharged after a short Power Bar rest to enjoy the fantastic view. At this point, DL had a bit of a nose bleed, which may have already been an altitude issue, since we’d come from Los Angeles and the Yosemite Valley floor is at 4,000 feet—and I believe we’d already climbed about 2,000 feet from there. (The blue-eyed guy later told me that it was around here that he saw a woman vomiting from exertion off to the side. When her hat fell off her head, her boyfriend, who was cautiously standing paces away said, “Ah, your hat fell.” Nice guy.) A bit further up, an arcing rainbow spanned the notch view through the granite. Spectacular.
More granite steps upon more and more, and I was managing, but a few of us stopped to the side to wait for another to catch up. We ate some more trail mix and pressed on. Keep in mind that this hike is more than eight miles to the top, and nearly all of it is accomplished by going continually up, up, up.
But there is one sandy stretch of about a mile that is roughly flat, which we encountered next. This is such a nice relief. The Merced River runs next to it, the pine smell pervades, and some wildflowers grow. And it’s perhaps the first time I could really appreciate those things because I wasn’t just focusing on the work involved with ascent. There’s a bathroom here with a composting toilet (if I recall that’s the last stop before the squat-behind-a-tree method becomes the go-to relief). Also around here you get your first glimpse of the dome, but it’s sort of a meaningless gauge of distance because there are so many switchbacks over about five miles still between you and it. But with the extreme zoom on my camera I was able to catch my first sight of the folks climbing up the cables at the very top.
At this point, I’d already drank two liters of water from my Platypus (I’d found it hard to ration since you can’t see how much remains in your backpack), but our group had use of a filter and pumped water at the next stream we encountered, which, it turned out was the last filterable water I remember seeing. According to my Polar heart rate monitor (which I have tested and believe is fully reliable), I’d already burned close to 2,000 calories at this point. And we saw a very pretty little butterfly alight near the spring.
At some point we saw a sign that said 2.0 miles to Half Dome, and I mistakenly allowed myself to feel like we were almost there. (Ha.) (HA!) This was a particularly treacherous stretch, and my heart rate monitor was flashing at me (I never read the manual, of course, but I assume the flashing heart means cease and desist. SE suggested I apply more sunscreen because my chest was getting pink, but I’m like, “Girl, I think that’s just my heart trying to leap out of my chest…” I believe most of us girls, who had clustered together at this point, were in roughly the same condition.) Five of us gals sat down to rest on a fallen tree. Another girl, a stranger, passed us and said, “FYI, there are termites all over that log.” And we all just looked at her and managed a giggle when we realized that no mere termite swarm in the vicinity of our shorts-clad bums was going to deprive us of this little rest.
The blue-eyed guy, whom I hadn’t seen for miles—and ended up being somewhat of a dark horse master of this hike—came bounding down the hill to pick up my pack for me and carry it a few dozen paces, since he’d already been up further and mysteriously had energy to spare. Not too much further up and we came to a clearing where for the first time we could see—everything. Everything! The valley floor thousands of feet below, snow left on other peaks, waterfalls. And to the left and up, Half Dome. There we could clearly see the treacherous cables that guide hikers up the last 1,000 or so nearly vertical feet (I’ve read it’s a 45-degree grade, but it looks like, er, 9 million degrees) to the top—the cables about which I’d read so much and knew I was going to have to overcome tremendous fear to conquer. But what we also saw below the cables were a bunch of folks scurrying up a cable-less stretch of granite in a way that seemed, at least from where we were standing, to defy gravity. Looking at those hikers, I said to LP, “I don’t get it.” And she goes, “I absolutely don’t get it either. How…?”
Pressing on, we got to that stretch next. It’s a series of switchback steps cut into the granite, which I either had not read about, or had not understood the severity of. So up, up, up I’m heading, facing straight into the rock, until I heard the woman right in front of me say to her friend, “I need to go back down right now,” with an urgency that flipped a switch in me. I looked down. And then, in Hitchcockian fashion (perhaps not, but I like the film-school drama of saying so), my view got all distorted and foreshortened and vertiginous. And I started to panic. I wanted to train my brain to keep the fear at bay, but my physical body betrayed me and I began to hyperventilate. I moved off to the side of the path and clutched on to a bit of granite (natch—what else?), and three of the girls in my crew caught up with me and comforted me.
And then I heard a man’s voice from a few paces above say, “You need some of this?” And there was a guy clutching onto a small pine tree with his right arm and holding out a bottle of Jack with his left. Turned out he’d experienced a spell of the same vertigo and his girlfriend had gone ahead without him. He was essentially paralyzed with fear—clutching some flora and a bottle in desperation. (Which I admit is at least a little bit hilarious in retrospect. But I didn't agree that drinking on the side of a mountain could help one get either up or down safely.) Somehow, inspired by the girls’ pep talks, and my determination to press on in spite of the fear, (oh, and a small blue anti-anxiety pill from the bejeweled pill box in my backpack—what, like I was leaving camp without it?), we all headed up the switchbacks and our new friend put away the bottle and followed suit. I was holding onto the rocks instead of walking fully upright—leaning in gave me more confidence. Seeing my condition (and hearing my loud hyperventilation) I got a lot of encouragement from hikers passing us on the way down. “One hundred more yards—you’re there. Right where those two trees are—you’re so there…” someone said. I looked up and saw the blue-eyed guy standing by two trees and I mustered all my strength to hustle up toward him. In this stretch, though, there were no steps at all—just an impossibly steep slab of granite that is more than a little bit sandy.
I scrambled up quickly ahead of the others knowing I had to do it in one fell swoop—like ripping off a band-aid—if I was going to do it at all.
At the top, the girls sat down next to me, and I put my head in the blue-eyed guy’s lap and cried a little bit. I had read in several other blogs that this hike provoked tears in others for a number of reasons—exertion, elation, and convoluted feelings of triumph and insignificance in the face of, “this giant whirling rock [that is our earth] and how we're all going to die,” to quote a j-school buddy and commenter on this blog.
Tracing his fingers around the dirt and rocks, the blue-eyed guy discovered a left-behind ring and gave it to me. It has a silvery pearl in the center and some brown stones beside and, by the looks of it, it was probably owned by a hiker who uses rock crystal deodorant and wears Tevas, but it fits me just fine and I adore it.
We were at 8,000 feet now. Although the cables still remained, I felt I’d made it. I’d overcome the panic on the switchbacks and was content to wait with many other hikers (including our new pal with the Jack Daniels) who also waited for friends to make that last ascent. But the more I sat (along with another member of our own group), the more I battled the decision to go on. (Even trip organizer LP had looked at that daunting path of cables and said, "I'm not even sure that I want to..." but the hesitation passed and she boldly went on.) The line to get to the cables was actually nearly an hour long (Yosemite rush hour!) and I had a lot of time to contemplate whether I should join back up with my crew and head on up the cliff. I was looking for a sign. At some point, it was too late because those members of our group who were going had already headed up, and I was in absolutely no place to tackle that without support—given that I was not sure I was in any place to tackle it with support. Then some disappointment set in because I knew—I know for sure—I had the strength (mostly upper body is required) to make it, but the height held me back. And the times I saw an unsecured hat or water bottle skitter off the side of that cliff and clang down into oblivion—well, I was relieved with my choice.
MJ and I waited near the cables for a while, and then decided to make our way slowly down the switchbacks and meet our crew at the clearing below; that would give us time to tackle the challenge at our own pace. I found this actually far less disconcerting on the way down than on the way up—in fact, hardly disconcerting at all (small blue pill at work, perhaps? I wondered if I should have taken it a little sooner). We met up with the crew after they returned from the summit, and I continued to bite back some disappointment on the way down that I hadn’t attempted the cables. (Although—notwithstanding my confidence in my upper body strength from those “Armed and Dangerous” classes at the gym—I’m not sure how a Jewish girl with a Jewish mom and a piano-drop mindset* could really ever do that part, but I'm sure it happens. In fact, AE was a fine example yesterday! Although her outlook is generally more sunny-side than piano-drop, bless her heart for it.)
It was after 4 PM now and getting late to start down. All the blogs that I read that said going down was not easier on the body than going up, but that was far from true in our experience. We took the John Muir trail—longer in distance but with fewer granite steps—and made it all the way to the bottom in about three and a half hours and my heart rate never went above 134 in those 8.6 or so downhill miles. We were able to filter some more water from the river (I drank three liters on the way up and had been plum out for the way down) and I managed to get in some good heart-to-heart convos (or was it just altitude/exertion/spiritual experience-induced T.M.I.?) with each the blue-eyed guy and dear old friend LP on the way.
We did pass one other hiker who asked us how our day had been and of course we said it was amazing, even through our exhaustion—because indeed it had been so incredible—and she said, “I stopped having fun hours ago.” Hmm, I felt bad for the friend walking with her who must have had to listen to those complaints for about 15 miles. Later, we passed a charming group of deer, and a bit further down, I got a “Go Bears!” from a gal who saw the Cal logo on my visor, which tickled me to no end (natch). And somehow, even though I had visible dirt caked everywhere and a blond afro roughly the size of Manhattan island, some Stanford alum tried to pick me up on the way down the mountain. Of course, I have a boyfriend. And, importantly (with only one notable exception)—Cal girls worth their blue and gold don’t date Stanford boys anyway.
Then, just as dark was setting in around 8 PM, we made it to the bottom.
The blue-eyed boy was driving my car back to camp. I got in the passenger’s seat and, without warning, fell right to sleep mid-sentence. Back at Wawona, I was so exhausted that I flung myself about haphazardly like a pinball in the tent trying to change into my sweats and out of my hiking gear. By the light of the flashlight, I noticed blood caked in the inside of my white sock, but was in no state to investigate. I was like, “I’ll just file this under T for ‘deal with it tomorrow’…”
I dragged myself to the campfire, fairly catatonic from exhaustion—but strangely not at all hungry or thirsty. (I think the adrenaline had suppressed my hunger all day, since I never had felt like eating and had only forced myself. N.B.: According to my trusty heart rate monitor, I burned close to 6,000 calories all told, far more than the 2,500 or so some other bloggers have suggested.) It all gets very blurry here—I thought it was from fatigue, but it likely also had something to do with the high ratio of whiskey to hot chocolate in my mug—but we laughed and carried on and congratulated ourselves on doing this tremendous thing. I was seriously touched when KB produced a piece of my hair from who knows where and told me he’d brought it to the top so my DNA made it up the cables indeed even if I didn’t. That sounds like some kind of yarn, but if it’s really true, I think it’s adorable.
Yada, yada, veggie sausages, s’mores, popcorn, putting stuff on the fire to see if it would explode—details are sketchy. At some point we were back in the tent, but couldn’t sleep right away—and not just because of the ongoing revelry around the fire outside. The blue-eyed boy said to me, “All I see is granite when I close my eyes.” And it was just what I had been thinking too.
This morning I woke up with a headache (dehydration? whiskey hangover? combo?) and sore hip flexors and calves. A very, very cold river runs near the Wawona camp grounds, and after we all took an excruciating dip, I swear I came out feeling perfectly good as new. I said, “I feel just like I had a bit of a tough workout at the gym yesterday—nothing more than that!” [Spoiler alert: that was foreshadowing.]
We packed up camp, took a series of fabulously goofy group photos, said our goodbyes, and headed out. (Sniff…I hate when wonderful things have to end.)
Afterward, the blue-eyed guy and I had a 300-mile drive home, and we stopped periodically—once for gas, once to get lost in a very lousy part of Fresno, once for pea soup at a place shaped like a big windmill, and once for coffee and Half Dome postcards. And each time I got out of the car my legs betrayed me and threatned to collapse under me like foldable tent poles and it was like learning to walk from scratch. The blue-eyed guy said, “Aw. You’re just like a little fawn.” A totally fair comparison (but he was limping too).
And so, over the Grapevine and through the woods, I just hours ago made it back home to good ol’ Westwood and my clothes-eating cat. Scanning the weekend mail, I pulled out an envelope containing my renewed passport. How’s that for well-timed poetry? One massive hike tackled in an ineffably beautiful national park, zillions of new adventures to go.
*From Aimee Bender's essay "House of Love and Bragging" in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt:
"Here is the scene. Something good just happened. I am happy about it. Maybe it was a good writing day, or I am in a good relationship, or I have helped someone, or I feel a sense of self in a true, deep way. I am walking to the market, to buy myself a peach and fizzy water. It's a beautiful blue day. Or it's not, but my mood is so high that it doesn't matter. I myself am a beautful blue day.
Little do I know that the piano shipment in the freight airplane high above me has had a mishap. The baby grand piano, which was right at the bottom of the aircraft, has come loose. Someone didn't lock that airplane door. He was drunk. He was in a bad mood. The piano wasn't tied properly. It has been hanging there, by three legs—by two legs—by one leg and now it has tumbled out of the airplane. I am still walking to the store. Whistle, whistle. I do a little skip.
Miles above me, whirring through the air, is this giant black paino, gaining speed as it goes. Free-falling. I am thinking about the good thing that has happened today, thinking about it. How nice I feel. How glad I am today. You'd think I would look up at the whirring sound, and maybe cars honk at me to look up, but I am oblivious, content, and proud. I step right into the path, and the piano flattens me into a pancake.
Better keep my eyes up. Better be vigilant, particularly on those good days. Any good day not marked by worry and vigilance will be met with tragedy. It exhausts me even to write it.
Secular me? Ha."