Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ohlone Trail, Pt 2

When I was planning and packing for the Ohlone Trail backpacking trip, I had to consider two major factors: comfort and weight. Unfortunately, these two can work at cross-purposes. I hold up for your attention the Thermarest Luxury Camp Sleeping Pad. I was delighted to discover Thermarest several years ago, to the point of tossing aside all my other ineffectual air mattresses and roll-up pads for camping. When you take this thing out of its little sack, release the valve and shake it out, it plumps up into the nicest, cushiest mattress. But it also weighs about 3 ½ pounds. That was why I was agonizing over my pile of stuff. My tent weighed about 3 ½ pounds. My sleeping bag weighed about 3 pounds. My pack weighed about 3 ½ pounds (empty). I imagined myself crapping out on the trail, all for the extra weight of my Thermarest. There was nothing else I could sacrifice, so I stuck it in the closet and took my cheap, LIGHT, blue backpacking pad.

So that was why I was a wee bit chilly my first night at Stewart’s Camp. I could feel the cold seeping up from below. I had Little Hotties Hand Warmers stuck next to my cheeks between my silk long johns and my Polartec pants. I had a couple shoved in my waistband and some in my pockets. I never got cold enough for despair, though. And the trail must have been sufficiently traumatic because I never regretted not bringing my luxury mattress. And the trouble with going to bed early is that the night then becomes very very long.

We were up at first light. Breakfast was oats with trail mix stirred in and coffee. And then came the first chore, purifying water for my Camelbak.

My pump is a Katadyn Pro Hiker. I’d practiced with it before I left, and pumped some on our first day, but I was still getting used to managing all those hoses and stuff. And all the while, desperately trying to keep the “clean” hose ends from getting anywhere near the “dirty” hose ends. I could imagine the little giardias crawling around like ticks on the dirty hose-end just waiting to infect my clean hose, and then me.

You may wonder, what is she thinking here? She is thinking, “Why the blankety-blank didn’t I bring that extra Nalgene bottle to pump dirty water out of?

I made some changes to my packout, namely, I rolled my tent up inside my sleeping pad. That gave me one less thing to lash on to the outside of my pack. But it was frustrating enough that I admitted to Melinda, “I have decided to consider, just consider! maybe having a look at internal frame packs.” She smiled at me smugly as she preened, all ready to go. “Did you happen to notice that I’m all packed up to go, and you’re still all spread out lashing things to your … uh, “pack?” Grrr! Suddenly I felt loyal to old Greenie, but that didn’t stop the fantasy of imagining new packs to shop for when I got back.

Gotta admit, it looks better than yesterday!

As we climbed the switchbacks, getting out of the shadow of the mountain, the footing was quite icy. Puddles in the wide trail had frozen solid. I knew the tread on my shoes was marginal, so I carefully walked at the edges of the trail where there were frozen clods and weed stubble. Melinda was more bold. With good tread and a stick in one hand, she boldly went forth, skittering a few times, but recovering. Until she didn’t. I knew I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just watched it unfold. First a little backwards sliding, some arm maneuvers, and then I knew she was going to go down. It was inevitable. For a brief moment she looked like a slow-motion figure skater and then did a careful “emergency dismount.” I allowed myself the briefest chuckle, since it was likely the only one I might get on the trip. But I think we both spent the next quarter mile imagining the trauma of slithering right off the side of the trail. It also made me think about my sleeping bag squirting out of its lashings again and falling off the side of the trail. Shudder!

We experienced something new this day, going downhill. At first it was fun. It was novel. But then two things happened. Melinda had the topo map and realized that for all the downhill we did, we would have to make it up with an equal uphill. Yikes! And I also realized how uncomfortable going downhill can be.

Not long after we had started the hike, and were already on our second rest break, with the start of the trail still in view, Melinda shared a tip she had read about, called “resting while you climb.” The way it goes is, instead of putting out steady effort and then stopping to rest and stiffening up, you take advantage of the moment of maximum rest –when both feet are on the ground and hesitate just a bit before pushing off again. It looks pretty weird, but it worked miracles! We could actually carry on conversation while we hiked up and although it was slow, I think we made as good time as the regular style walking.

But it was hard to find a comfortable way to go downhill. Strange muscles began to hurt, and I wished I had thicker socks so my feet wouldn’t jam into the ends of my shoes and rub my toes.

The land around us was starting to change. We had hiked through mixed oak and conifers, with mossy streams and lots of undergrowth, and now we were moving into grassy, oak-studded rolling hills. A slight misty air softened the far-off contours of the landscape, and the low winter sun lent a mystical sensation to the view. Not for the first time, I felt like we were hobbits, traipsing through the wilderness. I felt a kinship with Sam, all his pots and pans and crap tied to the outside of his pack, clanking and swaying.

At the last minute, we agreed that we had a perfectly good view to the west right there on the trail, that we didn’t need to climb that extra loop to get to the top of Rose Peak.

This was where we met the first person we had seen on the entire trail, a day hiker.

Though it was still the middle of the day, we were becoming anxious about reaching our campsite before dark. Melinda was keeping track of the mileage we still needed, compulsively pulling the map out every 15 minutes to read it, which allowed me to carry on blissfully. She was worrying enough for both of us.

It was a funny thing about our lunch stop. We had agreed to walk another 20 minutes, but coming around a corner, the trail looked like it went straight up after a short level space. We gasped and then agreed, “It’s lunch time!” I went through the whole thing with my pack again. Just pulling it off and dropping it made things start coming apart. I dug out my food sack and sat amidst the chaos while Melinda neatly removed what she needed from her upright stationary pack. The day before, we had summer sausage, cheese, and trail mix for lunch. Today we heated up tuna, cheese and boil-in-a-bag rice. Of course that took longer and made for more clean-up, so we were really anxious to get on the road.

Now it was time to put on my pack. I couldn’t believe how heavy it still was! There wasn’t a good place to get a grip on it. There was no handy log to rest it on while I slithered in to the straps. I finally got one side lifted to one shoulder and was stuck. Melinda just stood there, obeying our mostly unspoken rule that we had to pretend “What if I’m here all by myself?” I’m sure I was jerking and waving my arm around when, Horrors! The day-hiker appeared on the trail.

“Can I help?”

“No thanks! I’m self-sufficient!” I think I said. I put forth a massive effort and shifted it onto my back. He had an amused look on his face as he went on by.

Now here’s the strange thing about our lunch stop. We were already near the top of the slope of the trail before we realized it was the same slope that had demoralized us before lunch. Just goes to show how being tired can mess with your state of mind!

The terrain continued to change as we lowered in elevation. We passed through cow pastures on cow trails. We went up, then down, up, down, repeat. It got later and the sun got lower. Would be arrive at the camp before dark?

And then, there it was. There were 5 little camping spots, just out of view from each other. They had cute names, like Eagle’s Aerie, and Hawk’s Nest. We could see a male bonding group up at Eagle’s Aerie, throwing wood on a forbidden bonfire. We chose Hawk’s nest, which seemed most convenient to the water supply and, in the other direction, the outhouse.

We gratefully started piling our stuff on the picnic table, an unexpected bonus. Melinda felt the need to excuse herself from enforcing the “picnic table rule,” which means ignoring picnic tables because you shouldn’t expect them to be there at a backpacking camp.

I think she mumbled something about us being tired and that it was sort of like putting the stuff on the ground.

Tonight was a little warmer than the previous night, but a fog was falling. I wore my raincoat for a little extra dry warmth. We prepared a most delicious dinner, chicken tortilla soup and instant potatoes, made some hot tea, took some ibuprofen, and played a hand of Siberian Rummy.
It was still early, about 7:30 or 8, but it was cold, we were tired, and our sleeping bags were inviting us in.

As before, it was a quiet night. Thank goodness! I don’t know how I could have stood it to hear animal noises and rustlings and odd howlings. The only noises were from the jets overhead, as we seemed to be in a flyover zone. But that faded away as the night wore on. Melinda tells me that I was talking in my sleep, but since I didn’t hear it, I’m skeptical.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ohlone Trail, pt 1

January 7, 2011, about 8 p.m. I’m lying on a thin, cheap backpacking pad inside a small green tent sloped a few degrees (feet down-head up). It’s got to be below freezing out there, and I’m wondering, “What the heck am I doing here IN THE WINTER!” The answer is simple, Melinda. And the way she can make anything sound reasonable and fun. The thing is, it is fun. Maybe not entirely reasonable, but definitely fun!

Melinda had hiked part of the Ohlone Trail (near Livermore) before and wanted to do a longer version for her birthday treat, which explains why we were there in January.

This is what I’ve been training for! I thought. Hey, I climbed halfway to Pike’s Peak, for goodness sake! She warned me it was rated the highest points for difficulty, and Bethany raised her eyebrows at me and asked, “Do you have any idea how steep the trails are?” But in my eternal and inherent optimism, I knew I could do it.

Actually, I did have some doubts a couple days before I drove over there. I had an unusual feeling and finally identified it –fear. I dissected the fear and found that I was afraid of a) being too cold to happily live, and b) that I would crap out and be unable to handle it. The first thing I thought of as a solution was, Can I throw money at this problem and help it? So the next morning I drove up to R.E.I.

I bought the most extravagant pair of cozy sleeping pants. They are light as a tissue, fuzzy on the inside and smooth on the outside. Nice flat seams looked very comfortable. And expensive. But I figured if I were lying there freezing I’d be willing to do ANYTHING to be warm.

On Thursday, we met up at Bass Pro Shop in Manteca, and then drove over to Sunol. We had to get to the Sunol Headquarters and drop off Melinda’s truck before they closed up at 5pm. This was where we planned on ending hike; someday we’ll carry on and do the last leg through the Mission Peak area. A portent of things to come: the place was very deserted. We paid the parking fee, and left for Del Valle in Livermore in my truck.

The plan was to camp overnight at the campground near the trailhead and be ready to start bright and early the next morning. But unexpected things kept happening, like the kiosk not being manned. This place is not one to accept squatters, so we HAD to find a way to be legitimate. We drove down to the campground and beheld the second portent: a gate across the entrance. I parked and we walked down to the camp host to bother them and see what was up. Melinda had checked, and half the campground was SUPPOSED to be open. But what the host told us, while still chewing her dinner and probably wanting to get back to her TV show we could hear in the background, was that the part that should have been open wasn’t because the creek was too high.

As we drove back out of the park toward Livermore, I was already reviewing options. Hotel room? No. Too expensive for just a place to crash. (If you haven’t already, you should read my blog on cheap wine to understand my thrifty nature.) Option 2: America’s Campground. Every city has one. Smooth, level parking, free, easy to find, and a camp store to die for. You guessed it, Walmart! We would sleep in the back of my camper shell. We told Alec, the gps to find us the closest WalCampMart. Twenty minutes later, while Melinda was falling to upon a Subway Philly Steak handily located in the big blue store, we discussed our remaining options. This Walmart closed at 11pm, and there were more strange (creepy) people hanging about than I prefer, so it did not seem prudent to go boondocking here.

As we cruised down the boulevard, pondering option 3, it appeared before our eyes. A huge Lucky Supermarket in a large well-stocked (translate: Starbucks) well-lit lot with a Park and Ride section. And a motor home already in residence to sidle up to. After parking and trying several spots, we found one that suited and began to make our nest. Cozy comforter, pillow, bottle of wine… I slept like a baby.

Although our plans from the night before had valiantly included driving to the trail head early and cooking omelets over the camp stove, we relented and went into Starbucks for coffees and breakfast sandwiches.

In a great mood, we drove yet again to the Del Valle trailhead. This time there was an attendant at the kiosk to take our money and give us the map. We had the huge parking lot all to ourselves and a stellars jay. Our packs were sort of “ready to go.” I had left to attaching of the sleeping pad, sleeping bag and tent till Melinda, the expert, could tell me how to do it. Unfortunately, my trust was misplaced and I just lashed them all on the best I could, figuring I’d learn as I went.
I was more fortunate than Melinda, easily finishing my preparations, while she spent most of the time doubled over in laughter since she could see what I could not –the back of me.

(Yes, I know it looks like a hammerhead shark, darn you!)

I’d been warned the trail was steep, and my oh my! It started out right away, up up up. I got into a routine. Climb for a half hour, reward myself with a chunk of See’s peanut brittle, rinse and repeat. The trail was ruggedly beautiful. The views were pretty and of that foothill terrain that I love so much.

At lunchtime, I had to practically disassemble my packout to get what I wanted. But I had the chance to improve the assemblage, so not all bad. At least I thought. But that was until Schlepers Rock.

Up a long stretch; behind me was a straight steep trail. We took some pictures of each other, sort of bumping packs. Apparently my sleeping bag took one too many bumps and popped out of its lashing! (cheap Walmart lashing!) Like a happy log it began to tumble down the trail. I wailed, “Noooo! Come baaaaack!” as I ran down after it. I stabbed my walking stick at it, running past it before I could come to a stop. Again, I was the fortunate one who still had some strength, unlike Melinda who was again doubled over with laughter.

We had been confident that we would arrive at the camping area, Stewarts Camp, before dark, but the sun was low in the sky, and we still marched on. Now we were in the shadow of the mountain and leftover ice appeared in patches beside and on the trail. So many times, I thought we were “almost there!” that when we really were almost there, I couldn’t get excited at first. It was 4:30pm, almost dark, and we rehearsed our plan as we walked in. First get the tents up (really unpleasant to do in the dark!), then get our camp shoes and warm pants on, then make up some dinner.

We were so alone. It was so dark. I would have kicked back with a hot drink and meditated awhile, but it was also so cold, that we went to bed way early. We managed to wait until about 8pm before we gave in and hit the hay. I have to admit, I was jealous of Melinda’s tent. It was so cute, and all the poles, strings and loops were color coordinated and reflective. But mine was fine, and I stayed warm enough. Especially with my REI cozy pants and the red watch cap I had knitted.
I was happy with our day. I felt strong and capable. I was looking forward to a good night and a bright morning.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Not your childhood oatmeal

Melinda here from “Boots and Saddles” for a decidedly “non-horsey” topic.


Specifically, the best bowl of oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life.

Which is sayin’ something – I’ve eaten a LOT of oatmeal.

It started with a birthday present from my mom – a cookbook that looked a bit “new-agey” to me (my standard cook book is the plaid Better Homes & Gardens…..) but approached the idea of putting together meals in a way that was downright inspiring.

I was intrigued by the banana and peanut butter oatmeal. Mmmm…..Dried fruits yes, and even fresh of the “right variety”, but as much as I loved peanut butter and bananas together, I had never imagined actually putting the two in my beloved hot cereal dish.

Of course the authors of the cook book had saved the most startling variations for the side bar. Like, let’s say – oatmeal with scallions, soysauce, and a fried egg.

Really????? You have to be kidding me!

But nope – the authors even say “trust us on this one”.

So I cooked up a big bowl of Scottish style oats, and then with some trepidation, added some chopped green onion.

As I licked my fingers (you can do that when you are single and cooking for yourself you know!) I got the taste of the green onions and oats together and it was surprisingly addicting.

In fact, it was good enough that I DID begin to trust the authors, and when it came time for the soy sauce, I didn’t skimp. The soysauce went on top of the oat and onion mixture, after it was in the bowl.

Finally I plopped the egg that had been frying on an adjacent burner on top of the concoction.

Finally *I* plopped down in a chair and dug a spoon in.

What can I say? Except absolutely incredible! And far more so for being unexpected. I’m not sure I’ll ever eat oatmeal with fruit again! I feel like the person who had pumpkin as a squash for dinner everynight, and then discovered there was pumpkin pie – a totally radical shift in thinking.

Have you tried savory oatmeal? I hear it’s all the rage….but being a nonconformist (or so I’ve been told) I’m not exactly “hip” on the trends. Anyone have some favorite combinations?