Happy Trails To Me

First let me say… Hula Betty’s idea of roughing it is a room at the Four Seasons. Her idea of a hike to the top, is riding the escalator at Nordstrom and a cook out involves a waiter and sommelier. But sometimes it’s good to be treated like a king.

Evidently, I recently hit a birthday milestone. For this momentous event Hula Betty pulled out all the stops. No she didn’t have a dirt road named after me… better. No she didn’t have congress declare it a national holiday… better. It didn’t involve a tattoo shop or the words “long travel suspension”. Hula Betty took me on a road trip down memory lane and beyond.

Growing up in Portland, I would grab my tent, sleeping bag, fly rod, a sack of beef jerky and point my Baja Bug toward central Oregon. You can see I have a long history of packing up and taking off for parts unknown in search of adventure. Hula Betty took this theme and spiced it up a bit with her own style…

The sun was shining in a bright blue sky when we left Portland. Instead of the rugged Blue Bunny we’re cruising down I5 in Hula Betty’s rig, Toyota’s much more luxurious big brother. It’s the middle of the week and rush hour traffic is now pulling into their parking spots leaving four lanes of I5 commuter free. Music up load and the sunroof open we’re sailing (we’ll leave it at sailing so as not to incriminate ourselves here) down through Salem before turning east toward the Cascades of central Oregon.

Cruising alongside the Santiam river, Hula Betty endures my recital of each memory that is triggered by a bend in the river, a tree filled with fishing hooks or my favorite rest stop… Ok she liked the rest stop story since we were a couple of Starbucks into the morning by now. Passing Gates, Detroit, and Lost Lake we climb toward the mountain pass. Cresting the pass, dense Cedar and Douglas Firs give way to Ponderosa Pine forests that provide peekaboo views of jagged peaks and blue sky. The charred remains from the B&B forest fire a decade earlier still litter the mountain sides. The burn scars remind me how fragile the area is. But Mother Nature is resilient and beneath charred matchsticks is a new carpet of green with young saplings reaching up to the sun that now reaches down to them through the once dense canopy.

Just past the burn, after pulling off highway 20, we slow down to a crawl as we wind our way down to Suttle Lake. I’d seen the lake from the highway and driven by hundreds of times but never before stopped. As a youth, my budget could squeeze out enough for gas, camp site fees and a few flies with nothing left for luxuries like a cabin or even a hot meal. Back then Suttle Lake and its resort were beyond my reach.

Hula Betty had made all the arrangements and she spared no expense for me (or at least she said it was for me). A deluxe suite at the with it’s own fireplace, big feather bed requiring a step stool to climb up into, plush terrycloth robes hanging in the closet, complementary happy hour on the deck overlooking the lake and a sunset painted orange and pink with wide brush strokes… this is luxury I can get behind. The lodge will be base camp for the next few days while we relax and explore the area.

Sisters, OR. is a small artist community nestled between Suttle Lake and Bend, OR. When I say small community… traffic that was zooming down the highway is forced through this speed bump of a town creating a parade of campers, trailers and car-top-carries down main street that grinds to a halt every time some old cowboy decides to cross the street. I’m pretty sure kids cross back and forth just to see how far they can back up traffic… anything to keep the kids off drugs. As you would expert from an artsy commune, Sisters is filled with shops, peddling everything from artisan quilts to country antiques and of course the obligatory, newly expanded two location (across the street so they can watch traffic stop) log furniture store.

We wander the streets, explore the shops, stop traffic a time or two and pass the day chatting with shop owners and other visitors who apparently don’t have real jobs either or they are not willing to let their jobs get in the way of exploring the road less traveled. And in this little alpine ashram is Jen’s Garden. Jen’s Garden is a five course, culinary adventure that takes us from appraisers, fish and meat course to salad followed by a decadent dessert choice. The meal is designed so that you can eat through it and still come out the other side without loosing conscious. To help take the sting out of selecting the right bottle of wine to match this culinary diversity Jen’s Garden offers a five glass pairing of different wines selected to complement each of their courses.

I love dinners that last for hours… you get to focus on the person across the table and have a conversation that is more than a couple of grunts in between mouthfuls. We eat our way through the courses laughing and talking about the past, present and future before finally making the 20 minute drive back to the lodge, counting a dozen or so deer we catch staring into our headlights.

Fly fishing is a passion I’ve flamed since before I could drive. On our Arctic adventure I managed to cast a line to chrome bright salmon as well as arctic char. Look in the back of my rig and you will usually find a small duffle bag of fishing gear and a fly rod. The Metolius River with it’s skittish Rainbows, Dolly Vardens and crystal water has long been my spring creek of choice and remains a favorite destination.

Only 15 minutes past Suttle Lake, Camp Sherman, which sits at the head waters of the Metolius remains frozen in time with few exceptions. The only store here sits just past a few vacation cabins and marks the start of several state run camp grounds that dot the next several miles of river front. The antique gas pumps outside no longer deliver fuel but this little general store is still part grocery market, part post office and message board and part fly shop. Although these days the store’s wine selection is starting to bleed into the back where they keep the hand tied green drakes and #2 grizzly hackles, stepping inside, always transports me to the fabled shores of Lake Woebegone.

The upper Metolius is barbless hook only fly fishing with a well managed, healthy population of wild fish including a run of Kokanee that make their way up from Lake Billy Chinook. The head waters of the Metolius gush out from a crack in the mountain with amazing consistency, creating one of Oregon’s premiere spring fed fisheries. Ten miles or so below the head waters, as the river picks up volume and speed is the Wizard Falls hatchery.

Like pickers to a yard sale, I am drawn to fish hatcheries. It dates back to the first one my dad took us to on some long forgotten road trip to the Sierras or was it upstate New York. I still grin when I see a nickle gumball machine filled with Purina fish pellets and watch the water erupt as you toss a handful to the frantic schools of fingerlings. Even Hula Betty is cracking a smile at my boyish enthusiasm, watching the brood stock sip at the surface as I drop one pellet at a time from the observation deck to the giants circling below. And while not as enthusiastic as me, Hula Betty is clearly struck by the beauty of Wizard Falls… even if the falls are more swirling shades of blue and white foam than actual falls.

Allingham bridge on the upper Metolius has always been one of my favorite fishing holes. Quiet during the week, on weekends this little bit of water is fished hard and the native rainbows that live here are well schooled in the ways of detecting the differences between artificial art and real life. The run below the bridge is cold (40.7 degrees to be exact), clear, calm and about four feet at its deepest. The surface of the run, while glass like, is covered with transitioning currents that go in several directions at once making a drag free drift all but impossible. A smarter man would surely pass this run by for easier pickings, except that with the rhythmic consistency of a waltz, fish are quietly sipping the surface exposing their nose and flashing white as their mouth opens to draw in a caddis fly riding on the surface tension.

Walking into the water with only a pair of hiking shorts, I am stopped dead in my tracks as every blood vessel below my knees constricts at once in a painful reaction to the icy water. Slapping my thigh a couple of times to encourage the blood to flow and mask the agony I am experiencing at the thought of going in further, I muster the courage to inch my way into the current until the water is lapping at my belt. The clear water gives me a magnified view of the blue color my toes are taking on as I stand there tying a number 18, deer hair caddis to the end of a 7x tippet. Scanning the current, I begin to zero in on the steady rise of a fish focused on the surface. Cast after cast I lay the artificial a foot or so ahead of the feeding query, only to have the current drag it away.

This game of cat and mouse (not sure if I’m the cat or the mouse) goes on for several hours. I move up stream a foot or two and then back down in an effort to find an angle at which I can float my line without causing the fly to wake across the surface like a jet ski. Inevitably I scare down the trout, only to see another take its place a yard or two away.

The fly landed softly and floated six inches before disappearing into the dimple left behind in the surface as a trout mistakes my presentation for the real thing. Lifting the rod high, I set the hook and realize I’ve lost all feeling below the waist as I try to maintain a vertical stance, while working the slack in order to get the fish on the reel. Every fly fisherman will tell you the sweetest sound in the world is the click of the drag as a fish pulls out line in an attempt to put distance between the two of you. Even a small fish on a light line can make a reel sing a cappella more sweetly than any church choir.

A chorus or two of the reel later I am gently removing the barbless hook from the corner jaw of a bright 12 inch native. Releasing him back into the water I watch him dart quickly to freedom in the current below. Two more times I play out this epic battle before heading back to the resort to put on dry cloths and meet up with my dinner date who by now is relaxing with a glass of wine on the lodge’s deck.

While Camp Sherman remains mostly unchanged from my youth, the rustic little Kokanee Cafe and its renowned chef are newish, the cafe has only been there 20 years and change comes slowly to my memory. Inspired by their selections and our culinary adventure the night before, we decide to chart our own course through their menu. Chatting with our server Bell, we explain that we will be ordering several different selections over the next few hours, sharing some and individually indulging in others. Bell seemed to light up at the idea, making it a point to compliment us on our “European style” of dining and then shares stories of her and her husband’s local dining adventures with us. Throughout our evening the tables around us fill, empty and fill again. One group of 70 something women, provide entertainment as we eavesdrop on their shouting (note to self, when I get old carry spare hearing aid batteries). They discuss their adventures in town, grandkids and the men in their lives.

Hula Betty and I continue to work our way across the pages of the menu as the candles burn down. We argue the merits of a mountain cabin verses a beach cottage trying to settle the age old debate between lake, river and beach front property. Our conversations continue and the wine flows until close to closing when we finally thank Bell for helping make this night special and come to grips with the cost of ordering this way. Half a bottle of wine in hand (and a couple of empties left behind) we return to base camp and a waiting fire.

After three nights of rustic luxury, the next morning we leave central Oregon behind with its lodge, plush bath robes, artist community, fine dinning, fly fishing and spectacular sunsets. Hula Betty has taken me on adventure that started down memory lane and then explored a whole new set of roads in central Oregon. If it is true that girlfriends try harder… Hula Betty definitely attained girlfriend status with this birthday surprise.

Baby Lion’s Back the Video

Moab is an amazing area for off-road adventures filled with giant fins of earth rising to the sky.  Originally called slick rock by the pioneers, who’s horses found the rocks very slippery in wet conditions as they made their way west in covered wagons.  But when dry, slick rock has a sand paper texture that allows tires to grip and allows rigs to take on a spider like attitude and crawl up nearly vertical fins.

While in Moab we camped under the shadow of Baby Lion’s Back, a lazy little earthen fin that everyone seems to use for their 4×4 photo opt. Not to pass up a good video opportunity, we decided to take advantage of the early morning sun and run our rig up and over one of Moab’s iconic land marks.

Growing Older, Not Up – UTBDR Day 9

Like you, I’m often asked my age: at the doctors office, on-line forms, at boarder crossing, at the arraignment… um we’ll just skip that one.  The fact is I don’t know.  Yes I know my birthday and yes I can do math but it never works out to a number that feels right.

I firmly believe it is important to nurture the child inside. Each time we lay on the ground, stare at the stars, catch fireflies in a jar, act a little silly, or unleash a heart felt laugh at our self, we let our little kid run free and turn back the clock a notch.

Many of my friends and family will tell you the Last Great Road Trip is my mid-life crisis. Others will tell you I have PPDS (Peter Pan disorder syndrome). All I know is I no longer dream about what I will do… someday.  Someday is now. Even though most of my hair has gone south, my metabolism has all but abandoned me and my knee aches when it is cold out, I’m a kid at heart… How old am I…  I am young enough to get out and explore… experienced enough to avoid most trouble… and have obtained a credit rating to cover the rest.

Remember back on day one of this off-road adventure when we accomplished the other big thing? Do you really or are just pretending so you can get through the intro? Well back then I told you there was one big thing I was planning to do… Well we finally did it!

Everyone is feeling good this morning, well rested, re-hydrated and despite another free hotel breakfast buffet, eager to get on the road. Leaving Twin Falls we are all back in our own rigs making good time. The sky is blue, the sun is warm and the breeze is at our back. The day can’t get much better…

Billingsly Creek is a fly fisherman’s wet dream. Cool, crystal clear water with predictable hatches and lots of wary trout. And just off the creek is a hatchery. And on that hatchery is a quiet little settling pond.

We took the exit that put us on an old, worn out, blacktop, farm road meandering past cattle and corn fields, leading to the hatchery turnout. To look at it you would think the old hatchery was abandoned. Muskrats, moss and frogs now occupy several of the large cement ponds that once held brood stock. An old railroad-tie bridge leads down to a few active concrete runs, full of eight inch rainbows that send the water into a boil each time the pellets fall from the automatic feeders to the jostling hordes of trout below.

Beyond the concrete runs and office trailers, a quarter of mile down a dirt path is a swimming hole (aka settling pond). The pond that Boy and I had swum in, on a hot summer day, four years earlier on day 10 of FJ Summit adventure.

As Brad, Other Paul and I walk toward the swimming hole I could tell they clearly were looking at me like I’d lost my mind for dragging them down here. It was exactly as I remembered. Deep, cool, glass like water with a babbling creek entering at the far side. I kicked off my Keens, tossed my towel aside, stepped back and made a running leap that broke the water’s still surface with a belly flop that clearly deserved 10s from the judges.

Water still raining down gin clear droplets from my entrance, I swam to the bottom then shot to the surface for a gulp of air, like a baby expanding its lungs for the first time. As if swimming in a giant martini, I drank in the feeling of weightlessness, felt the burdens of life dissolve and watched the clock turn back several decades in the baptismal waters of this magical swimming hole. Feeling reborn, I quickly climbed out, toweled off and grinning ear to ear, announced it was time to get back to the rigs and head home.  The one big thing…  jumping into the fountain of youth… DONE.

We put several hundred more miles between us and Billingsly Creek before approaching the junction that Other Paul would turn north while we continued west. It is funny how everyone has rituals and before we parted ways, Other Paul asked that we join him for his road trip ritual. “We’ll have two cheese burgers, fires and a soda.”  Yeah a McDonalds cheeseburger at the end of an epic trip…  Why Not. We sat under the Hamburglar’s sinister grin, chatting about places we’d seen, the dirt roads we’d driven, stories we’d tell others and the ones we wouldn’t mention. Each of us, in our own way, thanked the others for making this off-road adventure another memorable experience to tuck into the mental rolodex.

After saying good bye and wishing Other Paul safe travels, Brad and I chased the setting sun back to Portland. Nine days earlier we’d set out for an off-road adventure. Now we part ways with new memories that will last a lifetime and a few more experiences that will keep the door of our youth wide open. Young is… as young does.

Next: Utah Backcountry Discovery Route Photo Essay

Petey, The Other “Man” In My Life.

A car is more than just a mode of transportation. It is your sanctuary, your vehicle to escape the outside world. I have a greater relationship with my car than I might like to admit.

I came to this conclusion recently while running errands. Before I had a car, who I call Petey, I felt trapped. I hated not having the freedom to just get up and go somewhere, whenever I wanted. I didn’t like relying on other people to take me places.

Besides the rewarding independence owning a car gives us, I think it’s the things we do inside our automobiles that really says something about our connection to them. For example, I love singing when I’m alone. But this is difficult to do when you’re living in a dorm or a sorority house. Now that I have Petey at college, I make sure to listen to my “Sing Along” playlist every single time I’m in my car because I know it might be a week until I have that alone time again. A fifteen minute drive to the grocery store where I have my own little private concert is a simple pleasure that often gets taken for granted, but when gone without, leaves a huge hole in my life.

Cars are our little safety blankets where we can truly be ourselves without the outside world seeing. We can pretend to be Adele, explore our deepest thoughts, practice what we’re going to say to the person we’re driving to meet.

Once we get to our destination, it’s back to the real world. So never take for granted the time you spend in your car.

No Man Left Behind – Day 8 UTBDR

After yesterday’s off-road adventure excitement, today’s leg was going to be an easy stretch that ends in Ouray, CO., where hot showers, cold beer and good friends were waiting. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from all this crazy mid-life crisis, it’s that change is constant… flow with it… or die.

While Brad and I woke relatively rested, despite the winds endlessly howling through the night, Other Paul’s body was still coming to grips with too little sleep, never ending need for water and a lot more heat. Too hot to cook, the morning team meeting was held once again at the Wake and Bake Cafe. This time, the discussion over breakfast tacos and espresso was not about wheeling. When you take guys on an adventure, their spouses expects you to return them in the same condition as you borrowed them and no amount of security deposit will cover giving back a broken guy. Other Paul had put his life in danger to help me out of a jam and he paid a price. Now it was our turn to step up and get him home.

We decided the best approach was to change up drivers and rigs as we turned the team toward home. Brad would drive the Blue Bunny with Other Paul keeping him company. Together they would ride in cool air conditioned luxury. The Defender was mine to captain.

First let me describe the heat that engulfs you in a D90. Your ass is cooking… I’m not being figurative here. I think my ass is still scorched from the experience. There is only a thin sheet of aluminum, wisp of horse hair stuffing and a bit of leather separating you from the 182 horsepower inferno. Driving through Salt Lake, six lanes of asphalt reflecting the noon day sun, chewing on diesel fumes from our 18 wheeler escort and the Defender’s internal combustion furnish blasting at my feet, gave me a new level of respect for the 1,500 some miles Other Paul had endured on this adventure. But I must tell, you despite the heat, driving a D90 is an amazing experience that is worth any minor inconveniences. I’m driving a legend.

Circa 1980 something. Last Great Road Trip broken down on a god forsaken backcountry road in Yellow Stone National Park with no hope of redemption. Only bear and moose for miles.

Back in the 80’s, on one of the first, last great road trips, Brad and I drove across the West (yeah we’ve been at this a while). On that trip we came across an exit sign announcing two little towns: Burly and Paul. On that trip, giddy as a school boy on the last day of class, I made him stop along the highway in the really late (or really early) darkness.  On that long forgotten night I pulled out a little Kodak Instamatic and Brad snapped my picture, along side the highway, in the dark, in front of the sign. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We pulled our little convoy off to the side of the highway as I ran up to stand in front of the Burley Paul exit sign for my photo opp. Like so many years back, I gave it my best victory dance and thought to myself, this is what separates us from the lower primates; the ability to make friendships that last, friends who stick with you, who don’t mind your flaws, who stand beside you no matter what and who after more miles and years than I can remember still don’t mind a little foolishness in front of a road sign… Oh and that opposable thumb thing too.

We began the day in Moab and pulled off for the night in Twin Falls, no where near where we thought we would be 24 hours earlier. We’re just flowing with the change, letting it wash over us and having the adventure of our lives.

Next: Utah Backcountry Discovery Route Day 9