Friday, October 28, 2011

Mt. Tallac Trail, Desolation Wilderness

Trail: Technical Singletrack

Distance: 22 miles, 6500' elevation gain (trailhead to Lake Aloha and back)

Difficulty: Challenging

Trailhead: The Mt. Tallac trailhead is reached via Highway 89 near South Lake Tahoe. Traveling from the west shore, look fir the brown trailhead sign on the right, just past Camp Richardson. Follow the paved road to the parking area for Mt. Tallac.There are no bathrooms or water available at this trailhead.

Season: July to October

Water: The upper slopes of Mt. Tallac are dry, but otherwise, streams and lakes are abundant throughout the run.

Notes: Wilderness permits are required. There is no fee, and permits can be filled out at the trailhead.

Trail Description: The climbing on this trail doesn't mess around, and we began gaining altitude immediately. I set off on the forested trail with Betsy, Jamie, Caren, Jenelle and three dogs. We were layered up on this crisp fall morning, but soon stopped to shed jackets and sleeves as the exercise and sunshine brought color to our cheeks. 

We didn't get into Desolation Wilderness until early August this year because of all the snow, and I think somehow that's given me a greater appreciation for these incredible autumn days on the trail. Every mile before the snow flies feels like a gift. 

If you sniff deep into the cracks of the bark, it smells like sweet vanilla. Mmmmm!

As we climbed higher, we finally left treeline behind. Following the switchbacks up, we were treated with expanding views of the lake below.


 Upon reaching the shoulder of Mt. Tallac, you can look out to see the granite ridge that rises above Lake Aloha, our eventual destination.

 At the spur trail, we headed towards the summit for a quick trip to the top.

Cap is not afraid to stand near the edge.

At the top: Caren, Jamie, Jenelle, me, with Betsy behind the camera.

Tallac is one of the tallest peaks around, and we spent a few minutes enjoying the views and snapping photos. It was surprisingly warm for late October, and we all felt lucky to be out on such a beautiful day.

After returning along the spur trail, we rejoined the main trail and continued down the other side of the mountain toward Gilmore Lake.

Betsy and Caren head down towards Gilmore Lake.

At Gilmore, we joined the Pacific Crest Trail and headed south towards Aloha. Jamie and Caren were doing a one-way run to the Glen Alpine trail, so we soon bid them farewell.

We skirted Susie and Heather lakes, where I decided to skip the final mile to Aloha in lieu of a rest. I hadn't been feeling well all morning, and a mental break seemed like just the thing I needed. Cap and I stretched out in the sunshine by the lake while Betsy and Jenelle ran off to tag Aloha. It seemed I had the entire wilderness to myself, and the stillness in both my body and my environment did wonders to soothe my mind.

The return trip over the mountain was somehow even more glorious. I felt better, stronger. There were more hikers out now that we again neared the trailhead, and they all kindly yielded to us. The downhill felt easy, in spite of the long day, and the miles back to the car seemed to melt away.

We drove back to Truckee, three tired and happy runners.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tomorrow We Will Run Faster

"Tomorrow we will run faster -- stretch out our arms farther ..."  
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It was sometime last winter on a backcountry ski day with Andrew – one of those days with clear blue skies, chest-deep powder, and no one around but my favorite adventuring partner. In other words: perfect.

I recognized this perfection, this utter happiness, and breathed it in. Held on to its every passing moment. Not just because it was glorious, but because I knew it wouldn’t last.

“When do think was the best time in your life – when you were happiest for the longest amount of time?” I asked suddenly.

We’d just spent 30 minutes laboriously breaking a fresh skin track and now stood at the top of a ridge, looking out over a wide, white landscape of mountains, preparing for the reward of a beautiful float down through the powder.

“I mean,” I felt the need to explain, “it’s just so hard for me to feel content. Satisfied. It’s not that I’m unhappy a lot, it’s just that I always have this feeling of anxiety that there’s something more I need to do, to achieve.”

I find such beautiful locations, ones that require such effort to find, to be the perfect settings for these kinds of soul-digging conversations.

Not long after, I read this post by Nathan Bransford which struck such a chord with me that thoughts of it have been marinating in my brain since reading it seven months ago. Mr. Bransford proposes that writers, by their very nature, are strivers – those not content to simply live, but to always reach for something more. His writes what has become my favorite recent quote about writing:

“Writing is an act of getting down on your hands and knees and pushing on the ground and hoping the world spins on a slightly different axis. It’s the art of not taking life for granted and trying to make something, anything change.”

This feels so exactly, completely true.

I began to wonder about myself not just as a writer, but as a runner, too. Even after a nearly perfect race, (which is rare) the sense of satisfaction never lasts. Always, there is something new to accomplish, some new goal to occupy ones attention. And this is good because if there wasn’t, we would never get better. Never run faster, never go farther. This is what moves us forward as runners – this inner need for something more. It’s what makes us improve.

When the mind dwells on a certain topic, it finds that everything relates. So, it was not surprising that while reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl that same week, this quote jumped out at me:

“For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.”

And I began to wonder – is it not just writers, not just runners? Is it all of us?

I was especially intrigued by the assertion that our inability to be satisfied is a talent. Again, this is what moves us forward. Think about the great achievers of the world, whomever you see as having accomplished big things. They were people who were not content to rest on the glory of their early successes. They always strove for something more.

So perhaps dissatisfaction is a talent. Still, I have to think it’s one best tempered with an attempt at balance and an appreciation for one’s blessings.

Because Mr. Bransford’s post related the idea of striving to The Great Gatsby, and to F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, it came to mind while recently watching John Green’s video on Gatsby. If you’re familiar with the book, his is an excellent, and concise, interpretation that is fun to watch.

As I followed the links on the serpentine path of the internet chain, I eventually watched the American Masters episode on Fitzgerald, “Winter Dreams.” It was fascinating! I learned what Mr. Bransford had already asserted – that Fitzgerald himself was a striver, like the characters of his stories, someone always reaching for more. And in spite of all this striving, Fitzgerald felt that the golden moment – what we think we want – can never live up to our dreams. The important thing is the dreaming.

“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” –This Side of Paradise

To some extent I think the “becoming” holds more appeal than the “being” because real life is much more challenging than our dreams. It’s messier, sometimes uglier, and often more mundane.

In spite of all of this, I think it’s far too easy to glorify the tortured artist, and I don’t think a person has to be unhappy in order to feel driven. I hope not anyway. Jay Gatsby himself was described as having an “extraordinary gift for hope.” Maybe that’s the flipside of dissatisfaction, the positive spin. From our discontent, hope is born.

I know happiness comes from within. I know this. It comes from living deliberately, appreciating the small moments, doing meaningful work, and developing strong relationships with other people. This is why I could stand at the top of that mountain with Andrew and live that happiness so fully, even while accepting that it may be short-lived. 

I also know that this inner feeling of need, the desire for something more, to do something more, can drive a girl nuts if she lets it.

I have a recording of a live U2 concert. At one point in the show, in order to introduce the next song, Bono declares to the crowd, “I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty good about the fact that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

Honestly, I don’t know if I feel good about it. I do know that I have an extraordinary hope that I won’t leave this earth without having affected, just the tiniest bit, the tilt of its axis.


What do you think? Are humans by their very nature dissatisfied? Could this be a good thing?

Friday, October 07, 2011

I am Severus Snape

Is this not the best poster ever?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


I love surprises.

I mean the good ones, of course. Not the ones your dog leaves you when you were gone all day and he got into the garbage.

Surprises like coming home to a spotlessly clean house after a long day at work. Like a beautiful mirror purchased at the thrift store, repainted, and hung on the wall while the husband was out of town. Or what about going to drop off two friends in Yosemite for their 3-week John Muir Trail trek and deciding while there to join them for the entire journey? (For the record, that last one has never happened to me, but it did happen to someone I know well. Rumor has it that his wife was infinitely awesome when he called from Tuolumne to say he’d changed his plans and wouldn’t be home for a few more weeks. She told him to go for it and have fun. An unexpected response from a spouse can be another good surprise.)

Even a fairly benign surprise, like a notoriously unprepared student who turns in all his homework, can be wonderful. A change in the weather, a favorite movie on TV, a really good book – all little tidbits to be appreciated.

This past weekend I was the creator of a pretty darn good surprise (if I do say so myself) for my husband. We’ve been married 11 years this month, and I wanted to celebrate. We’d done absolutely nothing for our ten-year, which seemed kind of sad, but I’m not a fan of feeling overly obligated about these things. I confess, I’m usually terrible when it comes to presents. Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day – I suck at all of them, pretty much. Andrew is even worse than I, and at least we can agree that Valentine’s Day should require nothing more than just having dinner together, (usually at home). Birds of a feather, yes.

So this year, when inspiration struck, I didn’t hesitate. Surprises make the best gifts, even when there’s no occasion whatsoever. (In this case though, there was a pretty good one!)

San Gregorio State Beach - Site of an exceptional picnic.

I’ve also recently decided that when you live in a beautiful area, it’s important to get out there and enjoy it even if opportunity only allows short trips. And so it was that Andrew and I found our way to the coast for four days of California beauty and adventure.

Our weekend included a night in the village of Saratoga and entertainment by Emmy Lou Harris at the Mountain Winery. In past years, we’ve seen her on this same weekend at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, with many, many more people in attendance. I hate to think we’re getting too old for the mass crowds in Golden Gate Park for this festival, but if you tell me that we’re just wiser, I won't argue.

BAM! "Garlic Bomb" - best picnic food ever.

Beach art - turtle.

Rufus the Sea Lion, heading back out for some waves.

A couple days on the beach north of Santa Cruz. Surprisingly perfect weather – sunny and warm, no rain, no fog. Trails through Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Delicious picnics. Long walks on empty beaches. Surfing. Sunbathing, for goodness sake. In northern California!

Long walks, empty beaches.

Coastal Redwoods on the Skyline to Sea Trail.

Perfect ending to a hike.

Do you have any idea how many state parks there are on Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay? How many open space preserves along Skyline Drive?

I love California.

No surprise there. But, still.

This is what's called "luxury camping." Luxury? Yes. Camping? Um, not remotely.

Sunset from the "tent."

I also love surprise weekends that last four days. And I'll tell you a secret - they're best when you're the one planning the surprise.