Just Our Luck

Heading north to Canada always brings a smile to my summer’s heat chapped lips. Cool climes and cool people – if more laid back than Portland is even possible. This trip to Vancouver, BC was to be an urban pleasure cruise compared with our last few rugged wilderness adventures, a final summer hurrah for both Chris and I before he started back at his new nine to fiver on Monday. Yet again, life would unfold its colorful petals to further nurture our wandering spirits.

We rode in relative luxury on the Bolt Bus. Searching online for places to stay the night before, eyebrows jumped when we learned that Vancouver’s Gay Pride was this very weekend. Just our luck! When we arrived at 6am to cue up, the crowd was peppered with gay boys! “Here we go on the big gay bus to the big gay party!” Indeed this ride was plush – wi-fied, iPad plugged in, tinted window views of the sweltering Cascades and A/C. With short stops in Seattle and the border crossing, where we proudly triggered the officer’s grin with our Yukon Marriage License, the Bolt Bus zipped along.

Yet getting comfortable was another matter. Sitting for seven hours is just not what a recovering back injury needs. Wrapped like a corseted victorian as I had been for the last week in a velcroed support girdle, I attempted a creative array of positions, rivaled only by the antsy five year old a few rows in front of us. Stand up in the aisle and lean on the seat. Sit back down and adjust the inflated lumbar pillow behind my back. Stiffly get up, turn around and kneel on the seat facing backwards, resting my head on the seat while I read my book. Stand up again and use the armrest as a meditation bench. Repeat.

I was so looking forward to walking around one of my favorite North American cities. Wandering along the world class seaside waterfront, through the canyons of modern sea green glass towers, and around the many beautiful civic improvements des Olympiques would be just the right amount and intensity of exercise to speed my recovery. All the while we’d be soaking up the always pleasing culture and hospitality of our adopted country. With great anticipation, the Bolt Bus pulled into the hottest weekend of BC’s summer thus far.

After sunny slow paced jaunts to the Northern Lights Seed Bank, the Cambie Hostel and Pub and to a great Japanese noodle house, my back slowly began to unkink. An improving trend continued the next day as we walked across the Burrard Bridge to our favorite Indian lunch buffet and stuffed, rode city transit out to Wreck Beach – Vancouver’s spectacular oceanside nude beach. Things were looking pretty damn good from where we sat.

That night we hit the big gay party on Davie St. Beautiful throngs packed the bars and street of Van’s gay ghetto. We marveled at the seemingly inexhaustible streams of “Gaysians” and “Bears” pulsing up and down the fenced off avenue. Yet, with no live performances and the DJ’s spinning little other than typical Gay-pop, we readied to wander on: we have been so spoiled by Portland’s vibrant street parties. Besides my back had begun to tire from the day’s activity. I just needed to sit down somewhere.

From my perch on a bus stop bench set back between a pharmacy parking lot and the blue fenced thumping party zone, Chris hobbled over grasping his foot. Wincing through pain, he showed me his bloody instep and where the nail punctured his shoe. Just our luck – a vacation changer. Stuff like this usually happens to me, not him! Limping amid the pharmacy’s bright white florescence, gathering the needed gauze and ointment, we joked that his foot now trumped my back. In our antiquated hotel room above the raucous street scene, the two walking wounded needed to elevate our feet with extra pillows. Boy, do we know how to party!

Next morning we walked, chris with a limp, me with a slight tilt to the right, to ironically find the urgent care clinic sharing the same parking lot as the rusty nail. Chris received his Tetanus shot lickety-split for less than what it cost for a night in our grungy hotel. That’s why even our low budget US insurance company loves Canada’s national health system: quality care for less!

Despite doctor’s orders to keep his foot dry, we couldn’t resist and gathered picnic supplies for another hot day at Wreck Beach. We prepared for the upper 80’s, grabbing a rainbow colored umbrella, woven grass mat, fresh fruit and savory treats from the Maple Leaf Bakery on Davie Street. Add equal amounts of water and whiskey and stir!

Many Vancouverites had the same idea. Despite our neophyte understanding of the transit system, we found many friendly sun-hatted and betoweled locals also riding the bus to the beach, who whisked us between transfers. At the University of BC transit center, busses disgorged the sun starved like lemmings trained on the sea. First we paraded through the shady glens of the sleepy green campus. Onward we marched down the 450 steps of Pacific Spirit Park’s Trail #6, through old growth cedars, douglas fir and hemlocks until we broke free of the breezy shadows.

Vast stretches of sand, sun bleached drift logs, and naked people packed the view beneath Georgia Strait and the mountains of Vancouver Island. Smiling at the exquisite beauty and the unlikely Burning Man like scene, we found a spot to plop and quickly stripped to join a group photo – a world record attempt for the largest number of skinny dippers! We had arrived at our lazy decadent afternoon. Deeply tanned naked vendors roamed between the blankets and umbrellas with their small coolers and their quietly catchy come-ons. “Boozey Freezies!” “Strawwwberry Daquiries!” “Ice cold cider and pre-rolled joints!” For some reason, spoken with a canadian accent, these were as funny as they were effective. Between the many dips in the wonderfully cold ocean, we indulged in more cocktails and beer than water.

When we left before sunset to climb back to the clothed world, we were pleasantly sun drunk and ready for our last evening in the city. There was to be a BC Day holiday display of fireworks and another trip to our favorite pub, the Cambie. Our recovering bodies had fared well today and as we sat down with our micros on tall stools in the turn of the century Gastown pub, our trip seemed to be coming to a sweet end. I just needed to stretch my lower back a bit. Yet I felt a sudden twinge and stood, suddenly extremely fuzzyheaded. I knew this feeling. “I am going to pass out,” I calmly whispered across the table.

Next thing I remember, some guy is asking if I know what my name is, where I am, what day it is. I struggled through a dense fog to reply. I could barely hold my sweaty head up! This guy with a ball cap kept talking to me, saying he was a medical student who was here visiting but could help me, if I didn’t mind. Mind?! Yes, please! He took my pulse, gave me water and juice and kept asking questions. “Did you do any meth or coke?” I remember a somewhat disdainful look. I shook my head and tried to explain, though I was feeling like I was going to pass out again and began to sweat and shiver more intensely. I had passed out for about one minute on the stool where I had been sitting moments before. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. This scared me.

I was struggling with fear and began to hyperventilate. “Slow, deep breathes,” instructed the med student, also named Chris. I laid back on a bench with my knees up trying to focus on my breathing, yet worried that I had somehow aggravated my back. The bartender passed by with a steely look to reprimand us: no one can lie down in the bar. Upright again, “keep talking to me,” was all I could muster, still trying to finagle a firmer grip on consciousness.

“Do you want me to call the ambulance?”

The fear of passing out again beat back fears of looking like a dope (which I was) in front of all the cool kids at the Cambie. “Yeah, do it.”

No stranger to my luck, Chris leaned in to support my head with his own, squeezed my hand and began a conversation with our new friend to keep me focused on the positive. I slowly calmed and redness crept back into my face. I learned from our new friend Chris that I was probably dehydrated and needed fluids. I learned that Chris was from Oklahoma, here in Canada to spread his father’s ashes in Watson Lake, way up north near Whitehorse, where they had fished together many years before. This fact somehow gave me needed perspective. In a moment of clarity, I was able to look over at my sweet Chris and joke that now I had trumped his foot. The laughter felt reassuring. I glimpsed a change in expression on the face of med student Chris – he no longer saw me as some drunk or druggie.

When the paramedics arrived, I struggled to convince them that I wasn’t their typical saturday night wastoid. Equally doubtful, I surprised myself by being able to walk – albeit like an old man – past the disapproving bouncer to the waiting ambulance. As we rode, a bit more clear headed after receiving some sugars, I again attempted to explain that maybe my back was to blame. When the dark blue uniformed blonde, realized Chris and I were here for Pride, she brightened, shaking her head with a smile at our luck.

“You don’t know the half of it!” I too brightened and became unexpectedly chatty, explaining the origin of my back issues – being trampled by a momma moose back in 2002. Gaining more energy from her amazement, I showed her my Brown Recluse spider bite on my leg. I heard Chris in the front seat telling the driver my struck by lightening story. Again, it felt better knowing that my caregivers understood that I was a different kind of patient. By the time they rolled me to the doors of St Luke’s Hospital, the fireworks boomed a triumphant entrance.

“They don’t do that for you in the States, do they?” quipped another paramedic.

From my bed in the middle of the ER’s receiving lobby, I was witness to the hospital’s busiest night of the year thus far. Patient after patient was rolled in. Diving accident, ODs, pregnancies, and more than one completely entertaining drunkard. One such young party girl, hooked up to an IV drip of fluids like me, kept making sloppy passes at the male nurses but, then loudly cursed men for being assholes, saying that her (non-existant) boyfriend was a gangsta and “shut the f#%! up – don’t laugh at me!” The paramedics and nurses, always professional, still couldn’t help but tease her a bit. This of course egged her on more. I couldn’t help but cackle at the TV sitcom insanity of it all. One busy paramedic leaned over my bed to confide, “some days, I really love this job!”

Through my wait for an available doc, I continued to battle with some anxiety. Would I need to cancel our return trip? Would I need back surgery for a slipped disk? Chris continued to help me breath through it. Just as I started to hyperventilate again, a pregnant woman was wheeled in trailing a posse of men. The men, presumably the husband and grandfather-to-be, were all super tense and began to shout for a doctor. The woman smirked, “why am I the only calm one here?”

“Yes.” I nodded along with her, trying to absorb some of her strength through osmosis.

When I was eventually seen, the doc was very apologetic for the wait – but got me started on a battery of quick tests. All pointed to simple dehydration – not my back. Once I had enough fluids, laughter, perspective and answers to all my questions, I was released into the warm Vancouver night, to find a late night snack among the still hopping urban fauna.

Wow, what a night. What a trip. Just our luck!

Mountains in the Middle

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The dusty pines and rocky spines poke the blue sky above another prominent and ancient range of mountains in the mid east of our state. Called back to the high desert, it’s Grant County this time that provides the nexus for remote wilderness, spectacular western scenery and a handful of hardworking and friendly rockhounds, ranchers, and farmers. With names like “Spray,” “Fossil,” “Prairie City” and “Canyon City” each town along our route seems a surviving remnant of a bygone age of homesteaders and treasure seekers. All beckon us to laze in their river side oasis shade, have a cup of coffee, a milkshake maybe – something to leave some needed green in their coffers. Yet we push onwards and upwards towards the mountains in the middle.

We leave one car at a sweltering and lonely trailhead beneath Rattle Snake Ridge at the west end of the range. Heading further east, past meandering creeks and bright green meadows, past gobbling wild turkeys and stoic mule deer, we climb through grassy ponderosa stands to the parched end of Forest Service road 1640. At 7500 feet the air is gratefully cooler and breezy. Four friends and “Seeka” the dog hit the trail to begin a grand traverse of 35 miles.

We trace the high ridges bursting with wildflower color, descend through lake basins populated with a few sun-drenched bathers and climb betwixt gnarled charred snags and miraculous green mountainside springs to the commanding view atop the 9000 foot Strawberry Mountain. The still warm air that greets us here belies the wicked weather that prevents the growth of anything except the yellow lichens which cling to the shattered rocks of the summit.

Amazingly, we can see nearly all the major mountain ranges of Oregon. To the north and west stand the Cascades from Mt. Adams all the way to Mt Bachelor. To the east we can see across the Sumpter Valley to the jagged Elkhorn Crest of the Blue Mountains and beyond to the Wallowas. To the south, the forested Ochocos play the understudy to the still fire hazed Steens Mountain in the distance. We rest yet revel in this, the middle of Oregon’s mountain grandeur.

Our last day began with a disconcerting omen. Painful twinges jabbed my lower back as I packed up camp. At this point, we still had 10 rugged miles of trail to navigate before reaching the car. Always the good boy scout, I had brought along a stout walking stick, a back brace and plenty of vitamin “I” (Ibruprofen) just in case. Even with these critical supports, each step still was an exercise in breathing through the discomfort. Luckily, my friends redistributed my gear to their packs to reduce the weight I needed to carry. They even took my smelly pack from me! (The running joke of the hike thus far: my crazy cat had peed on my pack a day prior to the trip and with the pungent aroma I carried around with me, I was “Chief Cat Pee.”) Despite the slow going, the trail continued to provide massive vistas to the north and south.

With the help of my gracious friends, we all made it back to the car and John Day for beers and crazy big burgers at the Outpost. A leisurely drive through the Fossil Beds National Monument the next day on our return to Portland recharged our batteries and rekindled a childhood fascination that leaves no doubt: a speedy return to these mountains in the middle.

High Desert Discoveries

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Eight hours away from Portland exists a desert mountain landscape that might as well be Mars. Leaving the spongey green Cascade forests behind, the vista to the southeast suddenly gapes wide open – endless sagebrush buttes and lonely dusty dirt jeep tracks beckon.

For three days we ditched the car and set off on foot into the sweltering canyons, heading for the cooler high alpine ridges of the tallest desert mountain in the state. Joyous birdsong and the sweet smell of sage and juniper accompanied us through the 90 plus degree heat. Frequent stops to dip in the icy creeks and laze beneath the towering cottonwood shade rejuvenated us.

Climbing out of the shade into the giant ancient cirque we found an abundance of wildflowers and lost all trace of human traffic and trails. Passing 7700 feet, breathing deeply, we slowly trudged up the glacial canyon’s 2000 foot headwall into the windswept alpine blue. Atop, the desert spread out below, I am amazed that this mountain swells with such lush life.

Days later, we puncture the dusty mouth of another even more massive canyon. We exit the intimate, relatively lush and diverse oasis for the endless empty basins and buttes dotted with a scant few trees. We catch the road’s siren song drifting through the hot breeze: the prospect of numerous strange and wonderful geologic and geothermal offerings await!

Further south and east we find owl-guarded desert hot springs under a brilliant spangle of stars and some of the most remote “roads” in the state. Though I have traveled pretty widely in the North and Northwest, the signless BLM roads in Harney County were by far the most rugged this little Subaru has driven. These are the kind where sharp volcanic cobbles and sagebrush ARE the pathway; where travel proceeds at 5 bumpy, dusty, scratchy miles per hour and is incessantly interrupted by stops to dig up, toss away, and navigate rocks too large for our low clearance AWD sedan.

Woo-hoo! What a great way to kick off the travel season!

Revving Up


Closing down my classroom at Trillium this week, turned the key to engage a new motor.  Now free to take full advantage of summer in Portland – Pedalpalooza, Gay Pride, tending the garden, hiking the Gorge – this weekend rocked!  Yet between the sunny fun and packing the house, I am also resolved to take this time to heal my back.  Since I have no definite end date in PDX, by the time Chris and I leave for parts unknown the motor will certainly be tuned, revved and ready to cruise!

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