Spring in My Step

Calistoga St. Helena Fawn Lily April 2016I’d rather hike than blog, so I’ve been MIA from Shrinkrapped for a bit. But it’s been a fantastic diversion, as decent rainfall in Northern California after four years of drought has left our hills emerald and strewn with wildflowers such that we haven’t seen for awhile. Still, my keyboard fingers are a bit itchy and I’ve been feeling a bit guilty, so here’s a sample of where I’ve been lately to make up for blogging negligence.

While we were in Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and The Pinnacles,

it was cool and rainy back home. So when we returned, we feasted on the intense green hills in our own backyard during a great hike with friends on the Big Rock Trail in Lucas Valley:

Lucas Valley 3.19.16

 

The day before Easter, we hiked at Point Reyes National Seashore and saw Harlequin flowers and lilies on the Muddy Hollow and Estero trails:

Then on Easter Sunday, we hiked up the Morning Sun Trail into the Marin Headlands above Gerbode Valley, where developers were stopped from putting in housing for 30,000 in the late 1960s. At the same time, our daughter was riding her bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge–it’s so nice to have her nearby instead of in Barcelona!

Just this past weekend, we drove north to hike above Calistoga–the morning fogOat Hill Mine Road, Calistoga morning fog April 2, 2016 was still in the valley as we started up the trail. The old Oat Hill Mine Road connects Calistoga with Aetna Springs Road in Pope Valley, and was used by mercury miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You can still see ruts carved into the rock by heavy wagons in place along the trail. It was hard enough walking on the rocky trail–I would never survive the jostling of those who came west in wagons (not to mention the jostling the mountain bikers who whizzed past us survive in their modern-day spandex–some people are just gluttons for punishment!).

There are wonderful volcanic Calistoga Palisades April 2016rock formations known as the Palisades along the way, and the minerals in the soil, helped by the rain, put on a wonderful display of lupine,  poppies, mimulus, and other wildflowers. (A man we met on the trail directed us to a cache of rare St. Helena Fawn Lilies, pictured at the top of this post.)

Then it was home again. Not too shabby walking around town each morning either!

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What are your favorite springtime outings?

 

St. Patrick’s Day at the Pinnacles

Pinnacles 6We finished up a week in the desert (Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park) with a bit of green for St. Patrick’s Day: a hike at the Pinnacles before returning home. Gorgeous rolling hills, dramatic rocks, splendid wildflowers: It’s a place we discovered 28 years ago, and have gone back to many times. Here, once again, is an essay about one of my favorite places, with a few new pictures.

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It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park.

Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.

Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.

Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.Pinnacles, Monkeyflower

Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.

When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.Pinnacles, Lupine

The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.Pinnacles, Clematis

Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.

We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.

Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad’s Mexican grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.Jonathan in Soledad eating torta, March 2016

Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-eight years ago, it consisted of the grocery, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.”  Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery.

Fueled by succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.

Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.Pinnacles 3

 

 

 

Question #4

Jonathan and Lorrie, Tour du Mont Blanc 2015Fans of Shrinkrapped may recall that I was planning to pop the question–make that 36 questions–to Jonathan during our vacation. These are the questions, devised by a psychologist and popularized by Modern Love, that supposedly foster intimacy and love. In our case, they fostered a certain amount of resistance and eye-rolling, but Jonathan was game enough to humor me through the first 11 questions during a long drive to the Pyrenees.

Question #4 stood out: “What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

Our answers were the same–a great hike, topped off with a great meal.

We had five hiking days in the Pyrenees, then six in the Alps on the Tour du Mont Blanc. All were great, and all were followed by great meals (OK, panna cotta instead of chocolate mousse lowered the score on a few occasions.)

But all in all, so many perfect days made a perfect trip!

Pizza Anniversary

pepperoni feast

“You seem to believe that a man will drop out of the sky right in front of you,” my then-therapist said to me when I was 29.

As usual, I had been lamenting my lack of a relationship while listing all the reasons I could never actually try to meet someone. A personal ad (the Dark Ages equivalent of Match.com) was out of the question: I might as well put out a sign soliciting ax murderers. Going on a Sierra Singles hike would probably sidestep that problem by providing safety in numbers. But that, too, I argued, was only for desperate and pathetic people. I was feeling desperate and pathetic enough without advertising it. Besides, why spend the day with a bunch of other losers?

Still, my therapist had a point. My friend Mary conspired with her by buying me a Sierra Singles membership. So I was stuck.

“At least I’ll have a nice hike,” I rationalized as I reluctantly laced up my boots.

I did have a nice hike. So I went back, making sure to choose long, arduous hikes instead of champagne sunset strolls. I figured that’s where the men would be.

My third Sierra Singles hike was a 15-miler in Marin County, up Pine Mountain and down to Kent Lake and back. As we all milled around the carpool point in Oakland engaging in the usual getting-to-know-you exchanges, where we’d gone to school came up.

“Oh,” some cute-enough guy asked. “Do you know so-and-so?”

As it happened, I knew so-and-so extremely well; I’d had a crush on him for years, but my college roommate landed him instead. The carpool guy had grown up with so-and-so.

Small-world chit-chat developed into 15 miles of walking and talking about everything—Prairie Home Companion; how the subject matter didn’t matter when the writing was great (c.f. Roger Angell and baseball in The New Yorker); his sister, who homeschooled her kids and was, like me, a Virginia Woolf devotee.

After the hike, everyone crammed into Red Boy Pizza in Fairfax for beer and pizza. Before we parted, Jonathan asked for my phone number (he’d had few opportunities to collect any woman’s number on previous hikes, as he was not clever enough to improve his odds by going on the champagne strolls).

“I think I’ve met the man I’m going to marry!” I crowed to my mother when we spoke the next day by telephone.

“You say that about everyone you meet,” my mother replied.

Fair enough. But like a stopped clock that’s accurate twice a day, this prophecy proved true.

Today is our 31st anniversary of meeting. That auspicious day led to 29 years (and counting!) of marriage, two daughters, and an abiding appreciation for therapy’s art of gentle challenge. At the rehearsal dinner before our wedding, Jonathan’s father urged everyone to donate to the Sierra Club. This weekend we recreated our Pine Mountain hike (we’re still 15-milers at age 60, though we’ve let our Sierra Club membership lapse).

It’s a lot to celebrate, but today’s ritual is my favorite: As we do every June 2, tonight we’ll devour pepperoni and green pepper pizza from Red Boy in Fairfax, clinking our beers together in honor of all the years gone by, and all those still to come.

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Have you ever had to overcome your resistance to working at finding love? How did you meet your sweetie?

 

Y is for You Look Fine

You Look Fine (El Toro County Park, April 2015)

Recently my husband and I came across this signpost after hauling ourselves up a steep hill in Toro County Park, a vast region of rolling hills, trails, and recreational facilities on the outskirts of Salinas.

Was it social commentary on our fat-shaming and appearance-obsessed culture? Or just the frustrated lament of someone waiting for hiking companions to tidy up their wind-blown and hat-crushed hair for a quick smartphone photo? (More important, would there be another signpost at the end of our long, hot, trek pronouncing, “You Look Like Hell?”)

The message was welcome, if oddly placed, and one that got me thinking (which helped propel me up the many arduous and dusty miles to come, not to mention providing me with a “Y” post that is not a bunch of Yosemite photos or a “Y Am I Doing this Challenge?” lament).

Mostly I think of “You Look Fine” as the bare-minimum response that gets a man out of trouble when asked the world’s most dangerous question: “Does this make me look fat?”

(In case that unforgivably gender-stereotyped sentence makes your blood boil, rest assured that just this morning, my husband, who is red-green color-blind, asked as he was rushing out the door if his jacket looked okay with his pants. “No, it doesn’t,” I said. “You should wear something else.” He looked upset and hurried off as I unconvincingly called after him, “It’s fine. Really.” Later I emailed him the “You Look Fine” photo, amending my early morning candor.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if “You Look Fine” signposts proliferated? Imagine them replacing mirrors, or showing up in mirrors, alongside your reflection! What if they were on street corners, subways, doctors’ offices? Even better, what if we could get away from feeling influenced by any assessment of our appearance, whether positive or negative?

What we really need are signposts that say “You Are Fine.”

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What’s your theory about how the mysterious YLF signpost got there? What signposts would you like to see proliferating in unexpected places?

T is for Training Hikes

Mont-Blanc_001My husband and I met on a 15-mile hike almost 31 years ago; as such, we have our reputation to uphold. That’s why you’ll usually find us hiking. The French Alps have long been on Jonathan’s Bucket List (my BL is rather more modest, but still, I’m game), so that’s where we’re headed in June.

We would have headed there last year, except that Jonathan was laid low for five months by bum knees—not just the little twinges of middle age, but excruciating pain for no apparent reason. Instead of walking five minutes down our hill every morning to catch his bus, Jonathan relied on me to drive him to the bus stop at 6:30 a.m. Which meant I was up and out early enough to hike up Baldy most mornings before I had to go to work. Jonathan had never been lamer, and I had never been more fit.

Slowly but surely, Jonathan regained the full use of his knees (he’s the one person I know who religiously follows his physical therapy regimen). We went from hobbling a few yards for a picnic to our usual and far-afield hikes.

So we booked a six-day trek through the French and Swiss Alps on Mont Blanc. Why not celebrate rejuvenated knees while we still can? Plus, we both turn 60 this year, and Jonathan is retiring! Might as well make it an occasion, even though our knees had not been out for a good test run on the kind of terrain our Tour de Mont Blanc threatened promised.

Raw Travel, the company we booked with, offered training tips:

 “You should prepare for walking several hours a day (5 – 7 hours per day) with steep ascents and descents. We will average almost 800-1000m a day in ascents so your training should reflect this in the lead-up to the event. Choose hills with steep ascents to train on and push yourself to do long days to prepare yourself adequately.”

Piece of cake! Plum cake, to be precise, since that’s what we encountered at every last Alpine hut on our previous sojourns in Switzerland and Austria. We could easily manage 800-1000’ climbs!

Oops! Wait a minute—did they say meters? A unit of measurement that equals three feet and change? Sure, those little Baldy strolls I do most days would be great conditioning—if I repeated the circuit twice.

“Probably most of the people booking with them are from Kansas,” I said to Jonathan hopefully.

No such luck—Raw Travel is based in Australia, land of the Walkabout and an entire populace living out of tiny backpacks for their 18 months of foreign travel. Was the company name some kind of warning or cruel joke?

So Jonathan and I started trying harder—13 miles on rolling green hills, all day long on my birthday, for example. A similar killer trek up Mt. Diablo recently.

“Great,” I’d remark to Jonathan each time. “We’ve just achieved the bare minimum of altitude gain.”

So during the past few days, we redoubled our efforts, even though we need to triple our efforts to simulate a typical Mt. Blanc day. We hiked on the Big Sur coast, famous for the coastal range plummeting into the Pacific. For three days in a row, we went pretty much straight up. And straight down.

This would be all well and good, except that perhaps those knees aren’t as rejuvenated as they might be. Jonathan’s still protest from time to time, and mine joined the chorus right on schedule the week I turned 60. And why not? After all, my birthday brought notice from my disability insurance company that my premiums would go up, and my doctor’s office informed me that I was now eligible for the shingles vaccine. Why shouldn’t my body issue its own birthday communique?

Still, what are ice and ibuprofen for–not to mention trekking poles (a sure sign of middle age)? So up we went and down we came—with ticks and poison oak serving as the welcome committee for the glorious, wildflower-bedecked vertical cliffs disguised as “trails.”

We have now returned home from our training session, our supply of ibuprofen depleted, our knees more or less intact. Here are some pictures so you can save yourself the trouble:

Now we have only to wait to see if we start to itch where poison oak has left its mark, or if bull’s-eye-shaped bites emerge. Or if we can walk at all tomorrow.

But Alps, here we come! At least there won’t be any ticks or poison oak.

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Where is your favorite place to hike? Have you been to Mt. Blanc? Should we buy the kind of travel insurance that includes Medi-Vac?

E is for Easter

I thought I would take another day off and recycle an old post today, but I am refreshed from Sundays off on the A to Z Blogging Challenge. How appropriate that this first Sunday happened to be Easter. I guess you could say I’m experiencing a resurrection of the writing spirit!

I was raised as a Unitarian, where Easter meant church and a new spring outfit, complete with hat, coat, and shiny shoes. There were also, of course, drugstore chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and dyed Easter eggs. We hid the jelly beans as well as the eggs around the house, and 15 years later when my parents  emptied the bookcases for a move, dessicated sugar orbs fell out from between the pages.

Now I’m a lapsed Unitarian, which means my Sunday mornings are my own and I don’t get fancy new duds for spring. The family I helped create is more apt to celebrate Easter with a hike, preceded, of course, by eggs and baskets with better chocolate and strict rules about jelly beans.

Now I have even given up the baskets–our daughters are 26 and 24, with one in Barcelona, where it costs a small fortune to mail anything. The other one, who has recently moved home, was horrified on Easter Eve to hear that there would be no chocolate rabbits in store for her this year!

But we still hike. We got out before the rain came–just a sprinkle on Easter itself, with more forecast for later this week. Here in California, where we are suffering through the worst drought in history, the weather itself feels like a miracle of resurrection.

I’ve included some pictures from the altar at which we celebrate. The ones at the top are my iPhone-gathered bouquet from my Easter morning walk around our neighborhood. And these are from my favorite place in the world, Point Reyes National Seashore (our Easter weekend hike happened to be Muddy Hollow to Estero/White’s Gate to Glenwood trails and back):

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How did you spend your day off? What rejunevates your spirit?

Risk Management

LupineThe bodies of two women hikers were found on Mt. Tam recently. Although officials say there is no sign of foul play, my Facebook feed crackles with alarm. “Creepy!” the posts warn. “Women: Please don’t hike alone!!!”

I hike alone almost every day in our local watershed. It’s miles from Mt. Tam, but the forested flanks of that rugged peak dominate my view. How far away does danger lurk? It‘s hard not to succumb to fear’s contagion.

My hike starts downtown, at the cafe where I get my daily dose of caffeine and news from the local paper. There’s more coverage of the unfortunate hikers; a story about a stowaway who survived a flight to Hawaii in the jet’s wheel well; a report that 75 percent of homes in the area are vulnerable to land slides. Two women dead, one boy improbably alive, our house at the base of a steep hill. What are the chances?

I begin the long slog through residential streets as I always do, listening to podcasts of Fresh Air or This American Life. This American’s life is lucky indeed, with enough time and stamina to hike each day, drinking in lattes, the spring gardens of well-tended homes, the natural beauty of the landscape. The uphill seems less steep with Terry Gross and Ira Glass to keep me company. My public radio hosts also keep me safe, in the same illusory way our daughters felt safe, attached through the umbilical cords of their cellphones as they called us on their way across campus at night.

Where the pavement turns into fire road is a sign noting the presence of mountain lions in the watershed. I think of the episode of Six Feet Under that begins with an overweight man jogging in the hills above LA. He stops to catch his breath, panting and sweating. You think he’s going to drop dead of a heart attack. Instead, a mountain lion drops out of the trees above. I glance up at the treetops, quicken my pace.

Today I have extra time, so I decide to vary my route. If I continue straight ahead deeper into the wilderness instead of turning left, I’ll avoid the grizzled mountain bikers who whiz by me every day as I scramble to safety on the edge of the fire road. Besides, I want to defy Facebook’s panic.

The smooth foot-wide path beckons. I pause a moment, thinking of mountain lions and trailside killers. The likelier dangers are ticks and poison oak. I can handle those, so I stride on through the dense stands of oak and laurel.

Just as Fresh Air ends, the path opens out to a meadow purple with lupine, framed by the rugged ridge across the valley. Clumps of white and amethyst iris dot the nearby banks; monkey flower and Scotch Broom run riot down the slopes. The air is clear. So is my head.

Some may seek peace of mind by staying off the trails. But I’ll continue to find mine on my daily treks.

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How do you find prudence and pleasure on the spectrum from denial to paranoia?