November 23, 2017

Brotherhood 2.0

Though I don't have cable, my tv is still on for a number of hours in the evening. Through the magic (science) of apps and the little Roku box, I get to watch a lot of internet content on the big screen. There is of course Netflix and Hulu for movies and shows, but I now spend as much or more time watching YouTube videos. Some of the YouTube content is actually tv (nightly check-ins with Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers) so this is all starting to loop in on itself and the distinctions are sort of meaningless.

Much of the YouTube stuff is from individual creators though. Some people take me along while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (Homemade Wanderlust, Whimsical Woman), while others are random people who had an idea that found an audience for a goofy show (My Drunk Kitchen, for example). That is the brilliance of an open internet and net neutrality. People can get their quirky, funny, brilliant, creative ideas out there without going through network executives or slipping Comcast some money so that people are allowed to find you. Call your congressman/woman.

The one YouTube channel that I enjoy the most is The Vlogbrothers. The channel was originally inspired by two brothers (John and Hank) wanting to get to know each other better. Yes, they grew up in the same household, but there was enough of an age gap that they didn't really grow up "together". They also now lived in different parts of the country, so they didn't see each other all that much.

The channel was created with the challenge to send each other a short video on alternate days on whatever topic crossed their mind. Each video opened with "Good morning Hank/John" and ended with "I'll see you on Tuesday, etc." Through daily contact, they wanted to create a better relationship while stretching their creative legs. The channel was originally titled "Brotherhood 2.0".

The channel is now ten years old. They are down to two videos a week, but they have kept building on this relationship while entertaining us along the way. Their videos are at turns funny, educational, deeply personal and nearly always worth the entire time spent watching them. I have spent many an evening falling down the rabbit hole of the internet as one video led to another.

I have two brothers of my own, one just a year younger and the other nine years my senior. I obviously grew up side by side with my younger brother, but I think he would agree that we did not like each other that much, or probably more accurately, we did not at all understand each other. Once grown and out of the house, we discovered /created a new relationship as adults. We have at times actually chosen to live with each other, and we've found some common ground that escaped us as children.

My older brother and I grew up in different eras under the same roof. Nine years is a chasm at those early ages, and he was more an occasional reluctant baby-sitter than a compatriot. However, that age gap enabled an ability to teach and he definitely sparked an interest in working with my hands, particularly in fixing cars while flipping through a Chilton Auto Repair Manual with greasy thumbs.

Time passes and relationships change. My younger brother has lived at times on the other side of the country or on the other side of the world, and my older brother has been off in marriage and raising two daughters. I am blessed with a family that enjoys time together, but occasional holiday dinners are often not enough to sustain or build strong connections.

At fifty, I seem to be pre-senile so I don't recall whose idea it was, but someone started the habit of the brothers meeting for dinner and drinks every month or so. It has been going on for about a year now, and it has been a great thing. We discuss things great and small, but most importantly just spend time together. It has been wonderful getting to know each of them better, in particular my older brother. He is no longer married, and he is a much happier human being. and I feel like I am just getting to really know him. The nine year gap so massive in youth is barely noticeable now.

We are experiencing our own Brotherhood 2.0, and this is one of the things I am very thankful for this year.

Happy Thanksgiving.

November 7, 2017

Lessons from dog

After finding her online and in Texas, I first met Izzy in person on May 10th. Baggage claim is not the most warm and welcoming place to meet, but such are the things with internet relationships becoming real. As such, it was and understandably awkward first meeting. It had to be very confusing for her to be shipped to find her new home and person, locked up in a crate in the cargo hold. We wandered around the parking lot to stretch her legs and see if she needed to take care of any business. She was tentative and nervous.

She was much more relaxed in the car.

I took the next few days off to help her get settled in and us acquainted. She seemed to be a pretty happy pup, but we did not bond right away. The ladies at the rescue organization warned that she may be more hesitant with men in general. She had been around only women for the last few months, and of course they had no real idea of her history. She may have been abused in the past. I tried to just let her take her time and figure out that I was her person now.

There were adjustments and hiccups in the first few weeks. Wanting to go back inside as soon as we stepped out back. Howling and crying if I left for more than a minute or two. Accidents in the house and at the office, some not seeming so accidental. Over time she has settled in, but she still has separation anxiety. She seems just fine if I leave her in her crate, but if she is loose in the house, she freaks out as soon as I leave.

Fortunately, my office has been very welcoming of Izzy, so she goes to work with me most days. It is now to the point that if I show up without her, they are disappointed. We are both very lucky, and she is rather spoiled in this right. She gets lots of attention and plenty of outdoor time with walks throughout the day. I have tried to give her the best life I can, spending time, taking her places, introducing her to lots of people and dogs.

If I had written this a few months ago while we were still in the honeymoon period, it would have been a thousand cute pictures and stories about how happy I was to have a dog back in my life. Now reality has set in. At risk of tarnishing my reputation as a dog lover and a patient man, this dog drives me freaking crazy.

She is incredibly needy. She is much like a toddler with a short attention span, constantly poking me and demanding attention - but only on her terms. When I am working, she will put her chin on my lap or hop up to put her paws on my leg. When I pet her, she will look off into the distance, barely interested that I am there, but if I stop, she nudges me to continue. If however I offer her to hop up to get attention when I actually have a pause in work, she can't be bothered. Maybe she is actually a cat in dog's clothing.

For all the time we spend together and the worrying over when I am away, I still don't feel much like we have bonded. It feels more like I am the caretaker in a co-dependent relationship than anything else. The running not-so-joke is that someday I hope that someday Izzy loves me half as much as my friend's dog Macy does.

A book was recommended to me called "When Pigs Fly! Training Success With Impossible Dogs" and wouldn't you know that her main breed (Bull Terrier) is the dog on the cover. One of the things it talks about is that these breeds are less interested in checking in with their human for instruction, reassurance or connection. I suppose in my ignorance, I believed that dogs inherently want this connection.The fact that Izzy may never connect with me like other dogs have is one of many lessons I have resisted/started to accept over the past few months.

Others include:
  • I am not nearly as patient as I thought I was. I have always felt empathetic and able to put frustrations in perspective. Izzy gets to me like only a faulty machine could before, and I find myself snapping out of proportion.
  • Out on walks, I leave the headphones at home more often these days, and I feel more present.
  • We try and find new places for walks whenever possible, and it has led to discovering many new and forgotten parks. We live in a beautiful state, and I am so glad that we have set aside these bits of wilderness among the concrete.
  • Izzy is the ultimate ice breaker. People will let other people walk by with hardly a glance, but when I am out with Izzy, blinders come off and smiles come more easily.
  • Though I do not often make plans at the last minute, I have found that I really appreciate having this flexibility, and having a dog mostly takes this away.
  • I really value my alone time. I did not think that a dog would really encroach on that, but it turns out she does. Apparently I don't do well in clingy relationships. 
  • Izzy can go from pain in the ass to adorable in a blink of an eye. The reverse is also true.
  • Izzy may make it easier to meet someone new, at the same time making it more difficult to bring them into my life.
  • Sunrises are a nice reward for getting up early to walk the dog.
  • Overall, Izzy is a good dog. Daily frustrations can add up, but they do not equal the whole. There will always be good days and bad days. I am re-learning perspective.
As I fight against getting crusty and impatient, there a definitely places where I have softened. The couch rules were immediately relaxed with this new pup (but the bed remains a human(s)-only space).

October 27, 2017

Another heartbeat in the house

There is a dog in my life once again. She came with the name Isabella, but you can call her Izzy.

I have been without a dog of my own since Sierra passed away four years ago. I waited two years to try again, but the dog I found (Annie) was a definite mismatch and the adoption turned into a foster until we found a home where she could be happy. I waited another two years before trying again, mostly to figure out if there was anything I could do better. Sort of a pattern in my failed relationships.

I waited until after the April work/tax deadline before really looking, but wasn't officially considering it until I knew I wasn't getting a permit to hike the Wonderland Trail this year. Being gone for almost two weeks would not be good for the new pup. Izzy is also why I stopped considering a walk up permit to hike this year. Life isn't quite as flexible these days.

I started surfing regularly. This website lists available pets in local, and not so local shelters. I had found previously that when you search in the Seattle area, the website mixes in lots of pups from all over the country, and you don't see that they are in Massachusetts until you read the fine print. After some time, I found that on the website you could go to direct links to the local shelters to see which dogs were actually in the area.

I was a bit better at reading the descriptions this time around. With Annie, I found that "Needs to be the only dog in the house" really meant "I will lunge and try to attack any dog I see." I wanted my next dog to be able to not only go many places with me, but to also play well with the other dogs in my life (hi Macy!). I wanted a dog I could hike and camp with, hang out at dog-friendly breweries, take on road trips - basically share in as much of my life as possible.

So I surfed the local shelters and didn't find any dogs that seemed like a good match. After coming up empty for a couple of weeks, I went back to the general search and there were lots of dogs in Texas waiting to be adopted. I had a friend adopt a dog from Texas a year or so ago,and I swore I would never adopt a dog I didn't have a chance to meet and interact with.

I was wrong.

I found Izzy's profile and she sounded pretty great.

One of Izzy's profile pictures
Meet your new adventure buddy! Isabella is a super sweet 2 year old girl looking for a loving forever family! She is a gentle, loving spirit and absolutely loves people. She deserves an amazing home where she will be treated like a princess! She is very social and loves meeting new people and gets along great with other dogs. Her ideal playmate would be of a larger size dog. She lives in a foster home with a 10 year old child and she is gentle with him. She would be great to take to the dog park or to go on long walks, hikes, or jogs! She rides well in the car and enjoys puppuccinos at Starbucks as well as belly rubs!  (video too)
I contacted the rescue organization and they were very helpful and forthcoming. Izzy had been dropped off at a Houston area pound right after having a litter of puppies. The previous owners kept the puppies, dumped the mom. There is an over-population of dogs in Texas and it sounds like there are many irresponsible owners. As such, I was told Texas pounds only keep dogs for seven days before euthanizing them. The rescue organization (K9Kare) rescued Izzy on day seven and took her to their ranch. The spayed her and got her otherwise healthy before offering her for adoption.

Along with the emails and phone calls, they were nice enough to send some videos so I could see Izzy interacting with other dogs. This one seem to show that she "played well with others", and of course made her look pretty cute in the process.

They also sent me some references for other people in Washington who had adopted through this organization. Apparently K9Kare tries to get as many pups out of Texas as possible due to the over-population/owner problem down there. All the people I spoke to had only good things to say about their experience.

After a few more phone calls, emails and paperwork exchanges, we had a flight reservation to fly her up. I figured that they would send Izzy to a local shelter that they partnered with, but actually I would be meeting her for the first time in baggage claim.

How that meeting went and our first five months together in the next post.

October 7, 2017

Maybe someday, maybe not

My ex-wife is engaged to be married again.

She sent me a message a while back to let me know. She didn't want me to find out about it through a mutual friend or on Facebook. We have not had much contact in the past few years, but she continues to be kind and thoughtful whenever a life event from either of us prompts a message.

Even seven-ish years down the road, the message raised a swell of sadness that had been building. It wasn't from any hope of us ever getting back together. Other than knowing she remains a caring person, I do not know much about her these days. No, the sad feeling was more a reminder of what is missing in my life, what has been gone for some time now.

I have not been in a relationship for a couple of years now. Recently I had this thing going on with someone I knew. Our friendship veered into some new territory. She did not want a relationship, and truth be told, I don't know that we would have made a very good couple, but there was some sort of spark that pushed its way through. It was ill-defined - casual but not superficial. I have never seen anyone casually before, nor have I ever had a friends-with-benefits sort of arrangement, but it was new and exciting.

Two days before my ex sent me the note about her engagement, I found out that the friend I was spending time with was now in a relationship. It was sort of a one-two punch, rejection present and past reminding me of how alone I felt, and it made me think again how that may never change.

Before you raise any arguments - yes, I know I am not actually alone. I have a wonderful family and more dear friends than would be expected of this awkward introvert. And I am thankful.

But it is not the same.

I want the belonging in one on one. I want to have one person I am hoping for when a text comes through. Someone to share moments, exciting and seemingly dull. Someone who I will make mistakes with, but who believes that although my heart is often awkward, it is always in the right place. I want a deeper connection that physical and emotional intimacy brings. And yes I want love.

But I don't know that I will ever find it again. For several years now, I have begun to acknowledge (if not accept) that I will not find love again. There is no guarantee that I would - no man behind the curtain pulling the strings or some guiding hand of fate.

I was listening to a podcast recently with an interview with Aimée Lutkin about her article (links below) where she had told her friends as much. There were the immediate objections that "but you're so pretty/funny/smart." "You'll find love when you stop looking/least expect it." "You're not trying hard enough." Her responses:

  • Pretty/funny/smart guarantee nothing, if maybe expanding your pool of applicants.
  • I have stopped looking for years. how much more can I not look?
  • Let me show you all the apps and all the advice I have already tried.

Believing this casual thing might work was probably born out of all this. There were no relationships on the horizon, and I needed to embrace any connection that made me feel more human. The resulting feelings of loss prove to me that I really miss those connections, and that something casual is not enough, a stop gap at best.

The woman on the podcast still hopes that she finds love, but that she is done wishing and waiting. It is a conscious choice to stop the feeling that her life is in a temporary state (without a partner) and that things won't truly get moving forward until this period ends. And if there is some magic spell that can be cast to make someone come to you when you least expect it, well her article may be just that.

I am not so strong to say that my life would be complete even if I never found love again, but a growing part of me wants to live my life as if it would be. To focus on what is important to my happiness and enrich connections to the people who are in my life. To find passion outside of romance. But I have not yet given up hope. I still look, if clumsily.

There is something in my life that has been taking up much of my time the past few months, which may make it easier or harder to meet someone, or it may indicate I am not ready yet.

Podcast link: Why Oh Why episode 17: Alone Forever
Article by Aimée Lutkin: When Can I Say I'll Be Alone Forever?

September 24, 2017

Beat the Blerch Half Marathon

My return to running had started to have an effect on my mental state, but now the physical test was here, ready or not.

I arrived at the start early, as I always like to do. I hate being late in general, but especially on race day, I want a nice buffer of time. Time to take care of parking, pottying, etc. Time to stretch out, wander around, take in the energy of the crowd. Time to find a little clarity and determination of mind.

As mentioned in the previous post, the event would have couches, Nutella and cake at the water stations. If that wasn't enough, you could make yourself a burritoughnut before heading out. After grabbing a warmed doughnut, you can add more treats like bacon, potato chips and/or Gummi bears and then wrap it all up in a tortilla. It sounded like a recipe for hurling at the first mile marker, so I passed.

The event included a full marathon, half marathon and a 10k. The marathoners had already taken off by the time I arrived, and the 10k runners would start after we did. Everyone ran on the same trail, so they set us out in small groups to try and avoid congestion. I queued up in the first half marathon group and just in case anyone regretted not grabbing some sugar before starting, a guy dressed up as a Blerch was throwing marshmallows into the crowd. 

Though I was pretty unprepared, and the event was a little goofy, I was going to do my best with what I brought to the start line. I was hoping to get in under two hours and would have been pretty happy with something closer to 1:55. There is certainly a big mental factor to these longer events, and I felt like I had the right frame of mind going in. No pressure, just a day on the roads with strangers as friends.

The route is almost entirely along a wooded trail. The first mile or so included a gravel path along the river before joining up with what I assume is rails to trails conversion. After a few miles, the runners spread out into their own paces and I ended up running along with a handful of people. The morning was cool and calm, and running through the woods was peaceful.

At the first water station at mile three, there were the promised couches that the volunteers were encouraging us to take a break on. As this was an out-and-back course, I would pass by this station again at mile ten and told myself if the wheels had come off by then, I would indulge in the couch break. And maybe some Nutella.

As we moved further along the path, we caught a few of the marathoners. They had set out an hour or so earlier, and had run a side trail to add on some early miles. The marathon is certainly more than twice as challenging as the half, and I am sure it was a bit discouraging to have runners passing them by so early in their day. I was glad I was only half crazy this time.

We reached the halfway point and made our way back, but not before high-fiving the volunteer at the turnaround point. I had looked at the elevation profile of the race because I always like to know what is in store for the day. A late hill is always tough, but if at least you know it is coming, it is less discouraging. The elevation profile showed that we would be climbing in the first half and descending back down on the way home. The hill out seemed relatively gradual, but once I turned around it seemed more pronounced and that really picked up my spirits (and pace).

When I was nearing the ten mile mark, things were starting to tighten up, but I hadn't fallen apart yet. I decided I was going to resist the couch temptation and just grab some water and push on. When the stop came in view, there was a long line of 10k runners waiting to come through, and we were waved away. I couldn't have made it to the couch even if I wanted to, but they also were so busy with the 10k runners that we couldn't even get a cup of water. This was the only glitch in an otherwise nicely run event.

My calves, hamstrings and glutes continued to tighten. I had intentionally not looked at my watch all day, just wanting to run on feel and see what I could do. That said, it felt like I was doing relatively well, so I kept pressing on, riding the edge of discomfort. Each step and turn in the path brought me closer to the finish, but it also used up any dribbles of gas I had left in the tank.

Rounding the last corner I could see the finish line just that final tantalizing point-one mile away. I dug in to see if I had anything left to pick it up and finish strong. I don't know that I went any faster, but the finish line photos show that at least I looked like I was tapped out ugly. I will spare you that photo.

I walked through the finish area, medal in one hand and probably more importantly a cup of water in the other. I walked until my muscles calmed down enough that it no longer felt like I was going to pull something if I moved too suddenly. I had thought a doughnut at the finish (sans bacon or gummi bears) might be a nice treat, but I was nauseous enough that only potato chips sounded good. I also passed on the finish line cake.

When I finally looked at my watch, I was surprised and very pleased to see 1:51:33 as my finish time. I had no real business running a half marathon on that day. This almost forgotten about event finally forced me (procrastinatingly late) back out on the roads. I sort of expected to go down in flames, take my medicine, recover, and then start taking this (running and my health) seriously again. It is mostly all still true, but it is very satisfying to press on to a good result. To show up late for a test and somehow half-ass my way to pull it off. Probably a metaphor for my life in there somewhere, but we will just move on to some of the free photos provided by the race.

September 20, 2017

Running circles in my mind

Mental health equipment
Where can you run to escape from yourself? 
~ "Dare You to Move" by Switchfoot
I have been struggling a bit this year. It hasn't been to the depths of depression, but there has been a lingering feeling of lowness and sadness. A few things recently have ramped up this background feeling and brought it to the forefront, but that is a story for another post. For now, I want to talk about the small things I am trying to do to push back the branches that have been closing in.

I have been pretty inactive this year, at least in comparison to previous years. When I did not get a permit to hike The Wonderland Trail, I really lost steam. This was already going to be a step-back year for biking and running, and when the big hike fell off the calendar, I let myself wallow and stagnate. And my psyche suffered.

On May 29th, I put a September 16th half marathon on the calendar to have a finish/deadline to encourage me to get back out on the roads.

 It didn't work.

I ran a mile on May 31st, ran three times in June to "prepare" for a 5k, and then didn't run a step until the end of August. I had been doing some bike riding to prepare for the RSVP, but even that was a bit half-hearted.

I had basically forgotten about the half marathon, but I needed to get back out on the road for other reasons. I needed to stop running circles in my mind, torturing myself with ruminating and over-thinking, and leave some of that crap by the side of the road. August 24th I ran two miles at lunch, and then a 5k that Saturday (which I had also forgotten about). It was of course a bit painful, as first steps always are, but I was at least moving. And being among other runners at the 5k - well, that community always feels so inclusive. Shared challenges can pull you out of your own navel gazing and drain circling.

Forgotten or not, the half marathon was still out there. Training cycles are of course typically about 16 weeks, so with three weeks to go, this was going to be cramming for finals. Fortunately the half marathon I signed up for was sort of perfect. The Beat the Blerch run is sponsored by a local guy that creates the online comic, The Oatmeal. He talks a lot about how running has saved him from his darker/lazier side, penning the book The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances. He talks about how running lets him find the void, the silence of mind where you are not constantly bombarding yourself with current stress or past failings. Running has helped me find a similar peace in the past, and I hoped I would find it again in rhythmic footfalls.

"The Blerch" is a character that Mathew Inman created that "represents all forms of gluttony, apathy, and indifference that plague my life." Along with the nice metaphor of The Blerch to represent the crap I was trying to exercise from my mind (pun sort of intended), the half marathon was an event that didn't take itself too seriously. Keeping with the theme of temptations, there would be cake, Nutella and couches at the water stops. There would also be costumed Blerches to chase you down the trail.

And I obviously had not taken the training very seriously. From August 24th to race day, I ran a total of seven times - four weekday 2 milers, and weekend runs 3, 5 and 8 miles. I missed a couple of runs due to bad air quality from the fires, and one because of work. The half marathon was also the morning after one of our four major work deadlines, so that didn't make it any easier. I obviously went in with no expectations, figuring that if the wheels came completely off, there was always cake, couches and a good story.

How it all turned out up next.

May 29, 2017

Keep clicking refresh

Blown up map on my office wall

So we come to the final installment of this one, two, three, four part story of the Turning Fifty/Wonderland Trail/will the hike be as long as these posts journey.

As mentioned before, I was pretty jazzed about this trip. I read books, attended an REI presentation, researched gear, and blew up a map of the trail to hang on my office wall. Whenever I felt buried in taxes, I would look up at that map like it was a literal window to the outside. When April 1st rolled around, I would constantly check my email looking for the all critical message letting me know I would get in. The website mentioned that you had seven days to respond to the invitation, so after a couple of days I thought to check my junk folder as well. If Google had marked it as spam and I missed it, my head may have exploded.

After a week or so, I logged onto the permit website and found this update.

I had previously had good luck with lotteries. Well, not lotteries for money, just ones where you sign up for the opportunity to beat yourself up for pleasure. I lucked out on the first try to ride Ramrod in 2013, and "won" again for the chance to run the St. George Marathon in 2016. The above notice told me the odds weren't looking good for a third round of luck.

I kept refreshing my email inbox at unhealthy intervals, but consoled myself that if I had to, I would go the first-come, first-served permit route for the few reservations they set aside each year. Work is a bit more flexible in the summer, so I figured I would drive down to the park, see if I could get in, and if not, go back to work for a couple of days. Then I would drive down again, rinse and repeat until I could get my foot in the door/on the trail.

Then I got the email denying me a permit.

I was pretty disappointed. I had really built this trip up in my mind to the point to where I was almost depending on it. I sort of sulked for a few weeks, wondering how realistic the day-of approach to getting a permit would be. At some point, I logged back onto the permit website and found this new update.

Click to embiggen

I am not sure how "a large number of the camps are now full on the entire circuit through the end of September" happens when they say they hold back 30% of the reservations, but whatever. This note made it pretty clear that I would not be hiking the Wonderland Trail in 2017. Having now made that decision (or having it made for me) it allows me to take summer plans off hold and hopefully get out on some shorter adventures.

The ultimate goal was to get outside and disconnect - and I suppose reconnect with parts of myself set aside. Getting outside always refreshes my soul, and The Wonderland Trail would have brought this to another level. However, I need to learn to recharge my mental and physical batteries on a more daily basis. You can't depend on a two-week getaway to make up for an entire year.

There is now an additional (great) complication that made an epic trip less feasible this year.

Shifting gears, but to be continued again.

May 24, 2017

Trying to get the golden ticket

So, as I mentioned in the first post, I was looking for something a bit epic to mark my fiftieth year. In the second post, I found that epic thing in the The Wonderland Trail, and just needed to get in.

There is a lottery to get a permit to hike the trail. They take applications from March 1st to March 31st and then start drawing names at random in April. If any spots are available after they get through the first batch, they take the ones after April 1st in order they were submitted. The website says that they hold back 30% of the spots to walk-ups, so theoretically you could show up on a random Tuesday in August and try and get in. For a trip of this size and necessary planning though, this would make things much tougher.

The permit is really a permit to stay overnight on the trail, as anyone can day-hike sections. To that end, when you submit your permit application, you send in a planned itinerary of when you will start, how long it will take you, and most importantly, where you will be each night. There are four major trailheads and a few smaller ones where you can start, you can hike either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and the suggested duration is from nine to thirteen days.

With all of these variables, it is fortunate that the people who wrote this great book have created an online trip planner. You can play with all the variables to try and dial in a plan that has you stopping at your desired campsites and having (somewhat) manageable distances each day. After monkeying around with things for several nights after work, I landed on an eleven day trek going counter-clockwise, starting at either Sunrise or Mowich Lake. The eleven days had me averaging about nine miles a day, and it made it easier to hit the campsites I was looking for.

I chose counter-clockwise for a couple of reasons. First, they say that the uphills are a bit steeper going in this direction, and the downhills a bit less so. The downhills seem to put more strain on my back, so I chose the direction with more gradual downhills. The other is that most people choose to go clockwise, so by swimming upstream, I would see a larger number of new faces. So when March came around, I had four different hopeful itineraries, starting at different trailheads, including one going in the opposite direction.

When you fill out your application, you can also check boxes that you are willing to have different campsites, go a different direction, etc. I checked them all to be as flexible as possible, hoping to increase my chances. I also left open the start date to a two-week window. I would have liked to have been even more flexible, but there are a few things on the calendar that limited things. First, because of the huge snowfall this year, certain campsites would not be open until July 31st, and by late August, the second tax season is in full swing. I filled out my first choice itinerary and clicked the button to go to the next page to enter in my second and third choices.

Except there was no next page. Turns out it was a waste of time to have multiple plans, and you only get one chance to throw your name in the pot. The website warned that it could be until mid-May before you heard whether your ticket was golden.

Now, all I could do is wait.

May 21, 2017

The Wonderland Trail

I have been watching a lot of YouTube lately. Probably too much really. For the last few months it has pretty much replaced TV/Netflix/Hulu so there isn't really more screen time, but it is all couch time. One of my favorite channels is the Vlogbrothers. I will write about them later but on one of the videos where they take questions, one of the viewers asked, "What are you most excited about right now?" Before answering the question, he praised it and said this is something we should always be asking ourselves.

It is easy to have your days and years become dulled when you lack a place to focus your passion. Adding to this, without that focus, passion dissipates. I assume this is not rare, but there are long periods of my life where the days pass by with almost no notice. The common question on Monday is, "what did you do this weekend" and many times I have to stop and think. It is not that I don't have semi-regular adventures great and small, but again the memories seem dulled. Without a level of passion, it is like I am not fully there.

Anyway, for the past few months, I had an answer for "What are you most passionate about?" Through all the long days and short nights of tax season, I was thinking and planning for The Wonderland Trail. When I got home each night, I would be researching the trail, watching videos about backpacking advice and following people who were hiking the Appalachian Trail to try and get a sense of what it felt like. Over the past few years, I have slowly accumulated the necessary gear for a long backpacking trip, but now the focus would be on trimming back on the items to reduce weight and make the hike a bit easier. Every ounce saved would make the hills seem a bit less steep.

And there would be hills.

The Wonderland Trail circles Mount Rainier, covering some 93 miles. Though you don't climb anywhere near the peak, you still climb and descend 22,000 feet in the process. Looking at a profile of the hike, it seems like there are no flat spots, and you are always on one side of a climb.

There are several designated campsites along the way where you must camp, so no pulling over at some random spot in the woods. You not only need to get a permit to hike The Wonderland Trail, you must have a planned itinerary before heading out, reserving a spot in each campsite you plan to hit. In other words, you don't get to decide that you are feeling a bit sore and take an extra day in camp. You have a place to be each night, and miles to go before you sleep. Even getting away from it all has necessary structure.

The reason for the structure is that they allow only a certain number of people on the trail at one time, This is both due to the number of campsites and also to balance access with keeping the park in good/wild condition. Due to these limitations, each year there are more people that want to hike the trail than there are spots. Much like popular marathons and other events, there is a lottery to get in.

This year seemed perfect for The Wonderland Trail. This longer trip was sort of a progression from the backpacking I had done in the past few years. I had most of the gear, some of the know-how and enough experience to (think that I could) do it. In past years, I have had overlapping running and biking goals that interfered with each other. This year, there were no crazy runs or rides to train for so I could pretty much focus on backpacking. Plus there was that fiftieth birthday knocking on the door. This would be the year.

I found what I was most excited about. Now I just needed to get in.

To be continued (again)....

May 11, 2017

The mountains are calling...again

"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."

~ John Muir

One of the things that kept me (relatively) sane during the long hours of tax season was thinking about escaping to the woods.

I grew up in a family that camped and hiked, but for some reason the desire to be out in the woods only grabbed me again recently. Sure I have always thought outside > inside, and have enjoyed any excuse to get out on the road by foot or pedal, but being among the trees brings a different level of escape and renewal. There have actually been studies that show that being in the woods helps reset something inside of us

How Walking in Nature Changes the Brain

This is Your Brain on Nature

Or - is Nature right for you?

I have Cherie once again to thank. She is the one who got me into biking, running and now backpacking. Her father had always backpacked, and they had rediscovered it as a family more recently. They invited me along on their trip in 2013, and I was hooked from there on. We get away for a five day trip each summer, and I have been trying to sneak in more day hikes to be among the trees.

I turn fifty in June. 50! Seems like such a large number now that it is fast approaching. Age has never meant that much to me, and on most days I still feel 26 in my head. The body however... Sore muscles in the morning are not terribly new. They were usually a sign that I had done something active or ambitious the day before. Now I wake up with soreness unearned, and I cannot deny the passage of time.

Or can I?

I wanted to do something big, maybe a little epic to celebrate my fiftieth trip around the sun. The original plan was to run fifty miles on my fiftieth birthday. Though I have run a number of marathons, I have never ticked past that 26.2 mark. I could have friends run with me for parts of the fifty mile route, and the run could finish at a local watering hole where we could celebrate the long run I have had on the earth and road.

But it began to feel needlessly complicated. Who knows if I would be able to finish, and even if I did, were people supposed to be on call to show up whenever I managed to drag my butt across the finish line.

And the mountains were calling.

There are the truly epic hikes of the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail - hikes along the ridge lines from the southern to northern boarders of our country, covering some two thousand miles. These are trips that would require half a year's time to complete, and like the thought of biking across the country someday, they are left as dreams until life allows me to step away that long. But I found a trail in my own backyard that seems a perfect combination of epic and realistic. And it circles the peak that has called me before - Mount Rainier. It is called The Wonderland Trail.

To be continued...

March 5, 2017

Missed connections

My cousin Liz wrote a beautiful post the other day.  She and her husband Rick (OK, he is technically the cousin) are in Thailand for a couple of years, and Liz is a counselor at an international school there. Now that their own kids are grown, they sold their house and took this two-year left turn on their path because they could.

Rick is headed back stateside for a month to attend to some family matters and Liz wrote her post about the coming separation. It is longer than they have ever been apart, and the foreign residence must certainly add to the disconnected feeling she will experience. She wrote honestly about what she is feeling, and sharing these vulnerable moments is what brings people closer together.

I don't think I have ever felt this sort of separation, and that is my loss. I think I am a little too comfortable being alone. I also don't know that I have ever shared my whole being with someone, at least not at a time when it mattered. I am always sort of disconnected.

I am a pretty classic introvert. I am that nerd that flags passages in books with sticky note flags and carries a tiny notebook in my jacket pocket in case a good moment or phrase crosses my path. I am more comfortable in the company of a few than in a crowd. I have no problem spending the day doing things by myself. I go to restaurants, movies, hikes, etc. flying solo. I seem to run out of social energy if I hang out with others for too long. I can be awkward at times, saying the wrong thing or not saying enough. At parties, I will gravitate toward the dog.

I have been sick the past few days, holed up at home with Nyquil and a Neti Pot. I typically get sick very slowly, recover just as slowly, but the sick doesn't usually hit me all that hard. Basically it is a long shallow curve, but this one has taken me down for four days so far. Living alone of course has its advantages and disadvantages. I am not currently grossing anyone out with my pile of Kleenex or by washing out my sinuses over the kitchen sink. I have never really wanted anyone to "take care" of me when I am sick, but I do find the lack of human interaction creating some cabin fever. Even a brief conversation with a barista would give a boost of energy making the $2 cost of a cup of coffee more palatable.

I guess I am sort of a social introvert now. A man that at times keeps people at arm's length, yet somehow maintains close connections. I have been blessed with having a number of good friends in my life. Much of this can be traced/attributed to my time in restaurants. The work atmosphere not only brings lots of different people together, it seems to encourage closeness as you engage in the daily battle. And of course you are forced to speak to strangers on a regular basis. Through practice and exposure, you are brought out of your shell.

I was at a surprise birthday party a month or so ago for a longtime friend. We have worked together, lived together, been a part of each other's weddings, but more recently we see each other only once a year or so. Another great friend with the same longtime connection would be there along with his wife and son, and I couldn't recall the last time I had seen him. It had obviously been a while since his son was now about five and I recalled him as a toddler.

It was a great evening. All the years faded away as we fell into funny and meaningful conversation. I got to know one of the wives a bit better, and I enjoyed talking to the little boy. When it was time to go, my friend and I were exchanging a hug. I have a reputation for giving a good strong hug, but when I went to pull away, by friend held on and said, "I'm not done yet."In that simple phrase and moment I felt the beauty of deeper connections.  I still struggle with keeping people at arm's length, but I also know I am doing better, and light years from where I used to be.

Earlier, while the adults were chatting away, sharing stories under a tarp cozied up to heat lamps, the little boy came up and asked his mother if there was any paper he could draw on. We weren't at their house so she said she wasn't sure. I reached into my pocket and handed him my pen and little notebook, saying it was sort of small but he was welcome to it. When he returned the notebook later in the evening, it came with a gift.

Sometimes it pays to be a little nerdy.

February 10, 2017

Waiting for my real life

I remember the first time I heard him. I was sitting on a makeshift deck, temporarily stationed on a Huntington Beach sidewalk. My friend put in a CD and said, "guess who this is?" Even though the voice is so distinctive, it took me two lines into the second song to realize I was listening to Colin Hay, formerly of Men at Work fame.

Men at Work was of course this quintessential 80s band. They broke big around the world, but were late to get airplay in the U.S. However, they were just in time for the launch of Mtv (back when they played music videos). Video may have killed the radio star, but this band rode the next wave and were soon everywhere. They were huge for a couple of years, but then disappeared, self-destructing from within, an all too familiar story, doomed to have their story play out on "Where are They Now" on sister station VH-1.

I can also remember seeing my first ever music video, and coincidentally it was "Who Can it be Now?", Men at Work's colossal first hit. I didn't see it on Mtv, but rather as sort of a preview at the theater, before the movie Tron came on. And now I have managed to date myself about four times in three paragraphs. Getting old. Get off my lawn.

Anyway, I loved the Colin Hay CD Going Somewhere, particularly that opening song, "Beautiful World". It became sort of an anthem, my song. It was the first song I would listen to before heading out on a marathon, big bike ride or other epic adventure. I can remember singing it when I was "swimming past the white breakers, where a man can still be free (or a woman if you are one)" on one of those tropical vacations I have been blessed to experience. Whenever I hear the song, I can just feel my shoulders relax.

I saw Colin play many years ago, at some small venue in Seattle, possibly The Crocodile. His shows are intimate, and the stories in between are almost better than the songs themselves. His songs are very personal, and his show persona even more so. While Beautiful World still starts the day, I think Colin's "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You" with its raw, haunting beauty is a song that will stay with me forever.

There is a wonderful documentary on Amazon Video about Colin's life and career called "Waiting For My Real Life", the title taken from another great song of his. Definitely worth checking out (here). I have been waiting to see him come around this way again, but for now the songs and the movie will have to do.

January 14, 2017

Good morning

How to wake up early on the weekends and clear that morning brain fog quickly:
Step one: Have a painful calf cramp that has you pleading. "No, No No," as you frantically massage the knotted muscle.
Step two: After the cramping subsides, lie still, willing your muscles to relax. 
Step three: Let things great and small, important and trivial rush through your head, ensuring that even if your muscles relax, your brain won't. Look at the clock, sigh, 
Step four: Get up. Start the coffee. 
Step five: Optional, but recommended, drink your coffee while staring at the horizon, letting the trivial thoughts fade into the background.

January 1, 2017

Turn the page

A new year. A fresh calendar page. A clean slate.

So many of us wait for January 1st to resolve to follow new goals and leave certain habits behind. The date is rather arbitrary in the grand scheme of things, but it has a nice tidiness to it. The fact that it follows so closely after the Holiday/Christmas season, changing habits is especially welcome as we detox after too much food and libation. You are also inspired by the time spent with the people you love most. We commit to "start to do things differently," but are happy to postpone it a week for that nice annual starting point. I mean 1/1 is even numerically pleasing as a place to start. There was even a possibility of snow this morning, which would have reinforced the clean new world feeling, but alas my neighborhood received just a dusting.

So here I sit happily falling into this tradition or trap with a laundry list of things I would like to change. It is of course a poor strategy to try and make multiple changes at once, and New Year's resolutions already have a pretty poor reputation for longevity. Check into any gym and it will look very different at the end of February than it did at the New Year. In 2011 I did the monthly resolution experiment, and it was a nice exercise to focus on one thing each month. I was not so clever as to prepare another list for 2017, and quite frankly I haven't even begun by writing any down for 2017.

But there is definitely a loose list floating around in my head. Top of that list is to be more present, focused on what is in front of me rather than living with distraction. Step one would probably be to write these things out to get them out of my head and in front of my eyes, but I chose to start here first as this seems to be the worst casualty of inertia.

I was recently talking to a couple of our clients at work. They have been promising me some information for most of the year, and we were still talking about it on December 29th. One of them said, "I am really going to focus on getting this to you, but we have failed enough times that I won't bother lying to you about getting it to you tomorrow." Similarly, I won't bother here with lying to you that I will be writing on any regular schedule, but I will try my best to get back in the habit. It does my mind some good.

I recently finished reading a book called On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. It is about how trails develop, both through human and animal activity, and their impact on the world and ourselves. It was an interesting read. Sometimes when I am reading a book and want to remember a good passage or turn of phrase, I will flag it with a little sticky note. This many tags is generally a sign of a good book.

The opening quote on the preface page of the book is:
"The path is made in the walking of it" ~ Zhuangzi
I don't know what my path will be in 2017, but I have some ideas of where I would like it to lead. At this point, though, I won't bother mapping it out. I will make the path by walking it.