Orcas Island in November

November 24, 2011

Life is quiet on a San Juan island in the fall. I know this because my sister Laura and I just spent two days on Orcas, the largest island in the archipelago off the coast of Washington State. In the waterfront community of Eastsound where we stayed, “shut” signs excuse many shops from business, the streets were empty of people, the wind blew fiercely across the water, and the sun set by 4:45 p.m., driving us to our pajamas soon after. After months of running at full-steam, we welcomed the slowdown.

The ferry ride over

Here are some highlights of our trip:

  • After a cold and rainy ferry ride to the island on Tuesday, we turned up the heat so high in our room at the Outlook Inn that we passed out from heat exhaustion. Laura did not wake up for 12 hours.
  • After serving us coffee and pastries, the flannel-clad woman at the Wildflour Bakery burst out that we were “so tall” and then apologized, saying the 12-year-old in her could not resist commenting. We wanted her to be our friend.
  • We ate burgers at the Lower Tavern, a dark, cinder-block building that seems the center of the town’s nightlife and offers microbrews, “the best burgers in town,” a pool table and a juke box that lights up in time to its own tunes (which seemed to be vintage video game soundtracks when left unattended).
  • The Island Market, where we picked up crackers, cheese and double-chocolate Milanos to fill up after our overpriced salads at the Madrones Grill.
  • We hiked up Mount Constitution (2,409 feet) in the 5,000-acre Moran State Park, skirting the edges of small mountain lakes, crossing fields strewn with dead ferns and moss-covered logs and passing through foreboding forests where fog surrounded the dark trunks of the trees. From the stone tower on top, we could see miles out across the water, to other finger-like San Juans, even over the border into Canada.

My sister-friend, and moss.

  • We watched the sun set over the water from the end of a pier in Olga, on the eastern side of the horseshoe-shaped island.

  • The wind was so fierce on Thursday that, during our morning run along the back roads, we had to lean forward 45 degrees to keep moving forward. Later in the day, I began to question my choice of dangly earrings.
  • One last thing: let me recommend traveling with a Bota Box, a box o’ wine (Malbec, in our case) that’s actually pretty good. You save the glass it would take to produce four wine bottles and always have inexpensive but good wine on tap. Plus, it’s classy!

On a separate but semi-related note, I have decided to start memorizing poetry, a practice my grandfather felt important in life. My first project is Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, which I feel is appropriate theme- and image-wise for our stay on the wild isle. Here it is, from memory:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

[That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Here’s the rest:]

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Finding clarity on Pescadero Beach

July 15, 2011

The paper fortune teller I found beside a sandcastle on Pescadero Beach along the coast of California is a quick way to find out whether “you will make a thing cool!!!” “you will catch a fish” or “you will have a bad drim.”

Though whether you’ll be “rich” or “helthe” or “not have solnting you licke” is up to chance, as you stroll along the mile-long stretch of sand and sea along Highway One 15 miles south of Half Moon Bay, a few things are sure: you’ll see rocky outcroppings, vibrant tide pools, skittering sandpipers and rolling fog, you’ll appreciate that relatively undeveloped places like this still exist, and you’ll want to build an elaborate driftwood fort — or move into one already made that suits your style, like this one:

After your stroll, become master of your own destiny. “Travel to a place that you [will] like” and “have nice things”: head four miles down the road to Duarte’s Tavern (pronounced Doo-arts), a family-run resaurant that’s been around since 1894 in the seaside town of Pescadero. I recommend the thick, creamy artichoke soup and the sweet, flaky olallieberry pie (pronounced oh-lah-leh-berry). Their fresh seafood is tasty too.

Meri Chritmas! I hope you mak a new frend.

Yurt life

December 4, 2010

Living in a yurt is much different from not living in a yurt. It’s colder, for one. Only a thin layer of canvas separates you from the 20 below outside, and you consistently find yourself wearing multiple pairs of pants. Secondly, it’s a lot more work. You begin tossing around pioneer words like “fetch,” “haul,” and “stoke” without a second thought.

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday yurt-sitting with my sister and two friends near Kelly, Wyoming, about 20 miles down a straight, flat road from Jackson. Though we were technically care-taking three structures — a living room yurt, a bedroom yurt and a school bus converted into a guest room, all located a few feet from each other in a log-fenced yard — we confined ourselves mostly to the living room area, near the only source of heat, a wood-burning stove.

Kitchen area

The skylight

During the day, moose wandered through the yurt park (drawing the ire of Stacy, a dog who apparently didn’t realize that she would not be the victor in a moose-dog battle). At night, standing in the bitter cold under the wide-open sky, we could hear coyotes howling in the distance.

Despite our middle-of-nowhereness, we prepared a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a turkey breast, sage-sausage stuffing, cranberry relish, green bean casserole, pecan-crusted sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pie topped with hand-whipped cream (took two hours and multiple shifts on each of our parts, but was so worth it).

The grains

Cranberry relish prepared by the lovely Anna Brones (Anna reflects on Thanksgiving food preparation here)

Before digging in

The Jackson area has received a ton of snow so far this year, and when we weren’t cozied up in the yurt, we took advantage. We hiked toward Bradley and Taggart lakes one morning, post-holing frequently, but managing to avoid the bull moose spotted by other hikers and take in an incredibly crisp view of the Tetons. On another day, we shredded the pow (I have no idea what this means) on the slopes of Grand Targhee.

And now, one last shot, the yurt at dusk:

A man and his seagull

November 1, 2010

Siletz Bay, Sunset, October 2010

Off and Pedaling: Ten Lessons from a Cyclocross Newbie

October 6, 2010


Photo: Christina Cooke

This post originally appeared on the Willamette Week website on October 5, 2010. You can find it there here.

At 8:50 on Sunday morning, I stood with my bike at the starting line of the two-mile cyclocross course at Alpenrose Dairy with no idea what I was getting myself into. Curious about the sport’s appeal among local cycling enthusiasts, I’d borrowed a friend’s thick-tired single-speed and registered for a race, the first in the eight-week Cross Crusade series. (Check out WW’s 2005 cover story on the muddy bike sport when you get a sec.)

Drawing more than 1,500 participants per race, the Cross Crusade is the largest series in the Portland area—and, in fact, the world, says Race Director Brad Ross. Ross says his main goal with the series is to get people having fun. “It’s about riding a bicycle and going as fast as you can and drinking beer when you’re done,” he says. Still, as I waited in the drizzle for the race to start, I nervously wondered what, exactly, the off-road, obstacle-ridden course would require of me.

Turns out, cyclocross really is a ton of fun. But there are some things you should know. These are the lessons I came away with:

  1. Don’t let pre-race screw-ups psyche you out. If, the night before the race you attempt one of those smooth, swing-your-leg-over-while-still-moving dismounts from the bike and WHAM, fall over in the street, don’t let it mess with your head. Just decide, for the sake of everyone’s safety, not to try anything tricky during a real event until you’ve had more time to practice.
  2. Crinkle up your race number before you pin it on your jersey. Apparently, its what the cool kids and pros do. The crinkled paper hugs your body more, trapping less wind as you accelerate—and gives you less of a brand-new-white-tennis-shoes look.
  3. Turn on your powers of observation. If you find yourself in a sea of men at the starting line, it’s possible that you’re about to race the men’s category, not in the mixed heat you intended. If this slips by your keen powers of observation, know you’ll be fine; men make fine racing companions.
  4. Don’t overthink the course. If you pause to analyze each dip and blip, hairpin turn, slippery corner, and steep descent, you’ll freeze up and won’t get anywhere. It’s better to turn your brain off, put yourself on autopilot and just go.
  5. Pick an ass and gun for it. Choose a nice one ahead of you, get close and try to pass it (accidentally racing in the men’s heat wasn’t so bad, actually).
  6. There’s no shame dismounting your bike and pushing it. If an incline is too steep (which, with a single speed, it often is), clip out, dismount and run. You might even be faster that way than struggling halfway up the hill, losing momentum, falling over, untangling yourself from your spokes, etc.
  7. As you’re descending a steep, muddy hill with your body hanging off the back of your bike, try not get the front pad of your spandex shorts stuck under the back lower lip of your bike seat. If you do find yourself helplessly hooked to the back of your seat with a tire spinning under your ass, stay calm and do your best to keep pedaling. With effort, you’ll eventually manage to straighten your legs and pop yourself up and over your seat, back into a normal riding position. While your pride might hurt a bit, especially since this is likely to happen at a highly-spectated point on the course, the rest of you will be fine.
  8. Once the race is over, you can stop racing. If everyone else has stopped sprinting and is walking their bikes off the course, it likely means the race is over and you can stop running over the barriers. If you fail to notice, a race official will probably cue you in, gently.
  9. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously or you’re missing the point.
  10. Find the free coffee tent and rehydrate with a cup of joe. Or tea or cider. Throw a tip in the jar if you’re in the mood. Then find a strategic spot on the sidelines and watch others pedal hard.

Photo: Laura Cooke

Cross Crusade race series schedule:

  • Race 2: October 10Rainier High School, Rainier, OR
  • Race 3: October 17Sherwood Forest Equestrian Center, Sherwood, OR
  • Race 4: October 24Portland International Raceway, Portland, OR
  • Race 5: October 30Clatsop County Fairgrounds, Astoria, OR
  • Race 6: October 31Clatsop County Fairgrounds, Astoria, OR
  • Race 7: November 7Washington County Fair Complex, Hillsboro, OR
  • Race 8: November 14Barton Park, Barton, OR

Smack-pop-stick: Seattle’s giant wall o’ gum

September 9, 2010

The exterior wall of the Market Theater on Seattle’s waterfront is like the underside of a middle school cafeteria table, times 100. Since the early 1990s, people have affixed wads of chewed gum to the brick wall, located in  the downward-sloping Post Alley right beside the Pike Place Market. The result? A giant saliva-infused, molar-molded collage.

There’s no denying it’s disgusting. At the same time, though, it’s a cool example of an ongoing community art project. And, if you look closely, you can find some interesting arrangements of colors, shapes and textures.

I did my part.

In Washington’s Goat Rocks Wilderness: the cutest warriors ever!

August 23, 2010

In the Goat Rocks Wilderness of southern Washington, the marmot population is acting particularly feisty these days. During the subalpine area’s brief summer season, the groundhog-like creatures emerge from their rock piles to engage in epic pushing battles atop large boulders. On a recent backpacking trip, I witnessed multiple skirmishes between the pear-shaped creatures, who would stand nose to nose on their hind legs, shoving each other like 8-year-old boys on the playground.

A hoary marmot between fights

The 105,600-acre wilderness between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in the Cascade Mountain Range is absolutely beautiful during the summer. Glaciers melt into creeks and cascade downhill, catching sunlight as they ribbon through the grass. Red columbine, pink mountain heather, long-leaved phlox, lupine, shooting stars and red paintbrushes bloom in the meadows. And packs of musky-smelling mountain goats roam the high hillsides, dipping their large rectangular heads to munch the grass.

We saw around 10 mountain goats grazing on the hillsides above the trail. Here is one, for example.

My friend Tim and I started hiking at the Berry Patch trail head mid-afternoon on a Sunday and spent the following two days exploring. We passed through the flowered Jordan Creek Basin — a.k.a. Paradise! — and climbed up Goat Ridge to Goat Lake, which was still frozen except for a few crescents of melted turquoise water around the edges. We set up a base camp less than a mile down the trail in a hemlock grove overlooking Goat Creek Valley, executing, in the process, a picture-perfect bear-bag hang — high off the ground and far from the tree trunk. We proceeded to take numerous pictures of our work, and we’re pretty sure other hikers did too, when we weren’t in camp. The following day, we hiked across meadows, rock fields and snow pack to the top of Old Snowy, a 7,930-foot peak above our camp that afforded incredible views of Mount Adams to the south and Mount Rainier to the north.

The seed pods of the Pasque flower, also known, appropriately, as mop heads

The mop heads kind of resemble furry sea anemones.

Here, the mature Pasque Flower, which likely wants nothing to do with its crazy-headed younger siblings.

The avalanche lily blooms one to two weeks after snow melt.

Red columbine and raindrops

Tim climbing toward Old Snowy

Mount Adams from the top of Old Snowy. As we stood among the rocks on top of Old Snowy, misty clouds swirled into the valleys below us, where they hung for the remainder of the trip.

Sunset light from our campsite

Mount Adams

Look at that beautiful bear-bag hang! Let me know if you want a copy of this pic.

Bikepacking along the Potomac: Four days on the C & O Canal Towpath

July 29, 2010

Abby and me, taking a break in the shade outside Hancock, Maryland

A wave of nearly 100-degree heat hit me as soon as I opened the door of my car in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to assemble my bike for a four-day bike-packing trip along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath with my friend Abby. Pedaling my bike along the bank of the Potomac River in the days following, sweat covered my skin; strips of dirt stuck to the sunscreen on my shins; I craved water, Gatorade, ice cubes — anything to cool me down; and I had to constantly fight the urge to steer my bike off the trail and plunge headfirst into the river.

But putting up with the swelter was well worth the discomfort. The trail, which runs 184.5 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland (map here), where it hooks up with the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage Trail to Pittsburgh, parallels the river under a canopy of trees for most of its length. Along the way, it passes a number of Civil War battle sites, stone aqueducts and locks and historic wooden structures with brittle, peeling paint. It’s a beautiful trip — and, if you read any of the signs along the way (we did, sometimes), an educational one.

President John Quincy Adams ordered the canal built on July 4, 1828 to move goods from the Ohio River to Georgetown. But by the time it was completed in 1850, it was already obsolete; railroads had taken over. More than a century later, in 1971, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas convinced the government to establish the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

We set off from Harpers Ferry, site of numerous Civil War battles and abolitionist John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the armory, late one afternoon and rode about 25 miles before setting up camp in a small clearing, the Big Woods site, with three 50-something men who used to work together for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Over the next three days days, we rode to the tiny town of Little Orleans, MD (pop: less than 100) and back to our starting point, along the way, learning a number of very important lessons. Here they are, in no particular order:

– Test your bike setup in advance. Abby returned from a three-week trip to Peru two days before we left on our journey and didn’t get a chance to check her bike until the day we were set to leave. She discovered, at this last minute, that her panniers wouldn’t attach to her carbon-framed bike and that carrying a 50-pound load on her back was not a realistic way to tackle the trail. We considered various options, then elected to ditch the stove and all foods that required cooking (adios, rice and pasta; hello Cliff bars and sauces a la carte!), pack the big stuff in my panniers and cram the remainder in Abby’s backpack. It worked out just fine (right, Abby?!).

My bike, with lots of junk in its trunk

– Stay hydrated. Over the years, I have learned that dehydration is the devil — quite literally, the root of all evil. It can make perfectly well-adjusted people turn downright mean and cause unpleasant physical side-effects, like uncontrollable shaking. We refilled our water bladders and bottles at the creaky metal water pumps we passed every 10-15 miles. The water, which sometimes took a minute of pumping to draw up from underground, tasted slightly metallic, but was still refreshing (note: Gatorade powder was a great way to disguise the taste). We discovered that soaking  a rag under the pump and wringing it over our heads, sending streams of cool water down our scalps and over our shoulders, was a refreshing use of water as well.

I should be helping.

– Secure your foodstuffs. We left our food lying on the ground in a sealed blue stuff-sack our first night on the trail and in the morning, found it off in the trees 50 feet away from camp, covered in dirt and roughed up a bit. Something (I’m calling it: a ‘coon) had chewed a hole in the side, pulled the plastic bag of high-fiber bagels out the small opening and devoured — or at least gnawed — the majority of the contents. Opening the stuff sack from the top, we discovered untouched Cliff bars and packets of spinach dal sauce amidst pieces of chewed bagel and plastic bag.

The casualties of our lax food storage system

– Don’t over-plan. We found campsites every 10 or so miles along the trail (many of which don’t take reservations) and were happy to discover that our lack of route planning was actually an asset. We liked the flexibility of being able to decide on a day-to-day basis how far to ride, based on the condition of our legs and what we could eat in various locations.

– Don’t run over the wildlife. I came within centimeters of beheading a black snake draped halfway on the trail and almost ran over two turtles, a frog and a dead but still three-dimensional songbird. I also hit a butterfly, but it didn’t seem phased. Fortunately, I was able to swerve at the last of many minutes to avoid the trauma of exploding animals.

Turtles taking a break from the green stew

A survivor

– Take in the history. The trail is packed with remnants of the past. Pausing to poke around the old buildings and canal structures gives you a sense of what the area was like more than a century ago, when the Civil War was but a twinkle in our nation’s eye.

Somehow, I dwarf everything in this picture

A concrete factory destroyed thrice by fire

– Visit Bill. Bill has owned Bill’s Place, a general store, pub and local hangout, in Little Orleans for the last 42 years — “more than half my life,” he says. Hooked to a respirator, the old man works the dark wooden bar every day, unwinding the incredibly long plastic tube of his breathing machine to deliver food and drink to patrons across the room. When we stopped in for a pizza, beer and ice cream dinner on Friday evening, we found Bill eating a buttered piece of corn on the cob inside the bar, alternately chatting with regulars and watching Fox News on the television perched high in the corner. He took our orders, gave us extra “shots” of ice water (the cups were small) and charged a man “eh… $5” for two beers, a cooler and a bag of ice.

– Swim! I gave into the temptation to submerse myself into the Potomac. This spot, right below Dam #5, was a particularly good one: a shore-side beach, moving water (not stagnant is key!) and a brilliant view.

– Be flexible. I’ll admit it; after spending a particularly oppressive night sprawled and sweating on top of the sleeping bags in our tent, we opted to splurge on an air-conditioned stay in the yellow-bricked Candlelight Inn on a main street in Williamsport, MD. We didn’t go ALL out, though, dining on a Malaysian Tasty Bites packet and that good ol’ spinach dal, both dipped in Pringles, on the floor of our third-story room.

Williamsport from the trail

Yummmm, nothing like uncooked sauces! Not to worry; we followed up with heaping ice cream cones from the corner shop across the street.

A road and its opposite

October 1, 2009


Saw this caterpillar in the middle of a closed road up near the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina

Aaaand, a couple more photos from a hike my mother and I took through some bearinfested territory near Craggy Gardens:


Chimney swift slumber party

September 22, 2009

It’s a chimney swift slumber party every night in September at Chapman Elementary School in Portland. Since the late 1980s, Vaux’s Swifts have used the school’s smokestack as a roosting spot during their fall migration to southern Central America. As many as 35,000 of the small black birds circle the chimney each evening around sunset and then pack in to spend the night.


Chapman Elementary, at the intersection of NE Pettygrove Street and NE 26th Avenue in Portland

Some friends and I wanted to see it all go down. We arrived by bike around 6:45 p.m. and positioned ourselves among many others on the grassy hillside overlooking the school. Members of the Audubon Society of Portland stood by to loan out binoculars and answer all swift-related questions, and a neighborhood boy sold his mom’s chocolate chip cookies at a stand across the street.

Munching, we waited for the spectacle to start.

The birds arrived one or two at a time at first, but after a while, they came in droves and filled the sky. They swooped and rose, dipped and dove and eventually took up a counterclockwise direction, circling again and again above the smokestack. Then, as if on command, a segment of the flock began spiraling into the chimney like coffee grounds in a draining sink.


The birds continued funneling into the chimney on and off for about half an hour, majorly interrupted only once when a hawk swept in and picked one off. (Is fishing in a barrel really fair?)

Eventually, only a few dozen birds remained outside. The group tried diving into the chimney once, twice, three times, but without success. It was full. After a few more attempts, the birds gave up and flew west toward Forest Park to fend for themselves.

The audience applauded, and the show was over. Until the next day.