Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I never told about what happened between Portland and my gut issues. Here I will. 

Portland is a fine city, a good place to be young and progressive and without a car. I remember being struck the first time I was there that not only were thete bicycle lanes available, but people used them. When I borrowed a bicycle myself, I would often be stopped at a traffic light with five other cyclists. I rolled for a few days, instead of walking, going to Powell's, Washington Park - the rose garden, the Shakespeare garden - farmer's market, Pioneer Square, and the Willamette, where I swam daily, though not across this time. Nice as it was, however, I wanted to be drinking water that had come running off a glacier and picking wild plants to make my tea.

A week was just enough city time to stock up for the three weeks it would take me to get to Olympia. On the way I would climb Mt St Helens and gaze into the crater, counting still smoking  fumaroles. I would spend five days in the park, much of which would be spent on the Lewin trail around the mountain and the Mt Margaret backcountry. Views of Mt Hood which had loured over my path since Silverton gave over to Adams and then Rainier as St Helens came between. It was all alpine passes over boulders burnt black, deep ravines of glacial rivers, and raked gorges where the bear grass was only starting to grow back three decades after the eruption. The fantastic country felt strange and great, open and obvious in a land otherwise soaked in timber. The pummice desert of the plains of Abraham was more Nevada than Washington, only some scarce lupines among the bleached trunks of blasted spruce.

I took the trail to Spirit Lake. The slide down is choked in thimbleberry and salmonberry and alder, but the shores are mostly open, save for the logs that still float on it after an 800 foot high wave came off the lake as a result of the blast and washed the hills bare. From there, I went up and around to the Mt Margaret backcountry. The ledges are narrow and the paths long, but the scenery makes one question the aesthetics of modern choices, from architecture to recreation. That is to say, when there exists something so beautiful so abundant and so free - a backcountry pass costs exactly nothing - you would think people would be scrambling all over it. Yet in 23 miles of trail I saw 18 people. 2 of those were further than a mile from the road. I saw more elk than that.  

In a way this pleased me. I had the mountains and lakes mostly to myself. I'm sure it made the elk happy too. However, it just got me thinking on how nature is experienced here - via postcards and documentaries and scenic highways. This isn't news to anyone. 93% of the 3.7 million people who visit Yosemite National Park never leave the valley floor, an area of 18 square kilometers in a park 3,080 km square. And even then, they're mainly on the thin ribband of road and the giftshop at Curry Village. So much less is the traffic at St Helens, and so much less the people who leave the roads. Those who do are ones like myself, determined to get some wilderness experience - spiritual food, if you will - or like the two mountain biking women in their 60s, who had abs you could bust walnuts on. That is to say it seems the trend of folks in the woods are of two groups, those who read Whitman and Carson and those who have subscriptions to Outside magazine and have the Patagonia outlet on speed dial.   

I don't mean to offend the adrenaline community. I am glad for them. We have good times, albeit frustrating when I ask them about the flora growing from the cracks of a rockface they're climbing and they try talking to me about v5.7 climbs, whatever those are. But what I want to point out is that there used to be a lot more folks in the woods. There used to be families going on camping trips, and birdwatchers, and berry pickers, and kids smoking dope and building fires and doing stuff in the bushes. I don't see most of those anymore, and from what I understand, even when I started getting more and more into the outdoors, the trend was already on the decline. Nature is often seen as too hostile to family friendly activities, or too far away, though kids love the wonder of crawling thru leaves, gazing at stars, setting marshmallows afire, the possibility of getting eaten by bears miles away from home. The distance, both physically and mentally, becomes the treasure. Most birdwatchers I understand watch their backyard feeders and keep their fingers crossed for the life bird they've been waiting for. The berry pickers go to safeway. My one hope is the dope smoking, fornicating, pyromaniac teenagers have gotten far more clever than I ever was and they're still out there, having visions and being shameless as is their right. "Nature is so amazing," one such youth once confided to me, "when you're stoned."

For someone who enjoys solitude, this may seem a paradox, but I am for more people in the woods. Or the desert. Or the ocean. Or volcano. Or whatever wild space is available to them. Nature is completely democratic, ever present, open every day, one of the best ideas the US never came up with. It is meant to be shared. Let there be land where one can walk as the ancestors did, and may you go there. 

Notice I wrote walk. Edward Abbey came up with many fine suggestions to the national park service, which you are welcome to find for yourself in his book Desert Solitaire, not least among them was his suggestion to make all parks roadless. I would agree that folks should be outside of a vehicle more. Driving thru a park does not count as a nature experience despite the scenery come thru the windows any more than going thru a drive thru take-out counts as dining. This is part of a disturbing trend I have heard called encapsulation. The idea is that modern humans live essentially on lock down - inside one box, then rolling on a wheeled box to enter another box to look at a box for most of the day and order boxes. We live and transport ourselves as though we were hazardous waste, sensitive to daylight, fearful of the destruction we could wreak upon the countryside if we leaked out.

To be fair, our track record is not great on this count. Recent events in the gulf of Mexico are sober reminder indeed. But unlike the national park service reminds - leave no trace, stay on trail, camp only in designated sites - for most of human history we've had good interaction with nature. Like any relationship, one based upon respect and reverence lasts longer than one of lazy reliance, or worse, indifference. I have seen many people treat their cars as space stations and they astronauts reluctant to leave the assured safety of it's fragrant interior. When they go on their hikes they leave as outfitted for a space walk, all water, food, clothing, entertainment brought along. The sole demands on the world to provide pleasant backdrop and oxygen. 

The national park service definitely encourages this so as to present what a world might be like without human intervention. If such was the stated goal, I might be all in favor for the gradual phasing out of humans in all ecosystems. However, seeing as that is likely to be unpopular with the less radical, I think such an approach treats nature as a fragile butterfly in a bell jar that we must protect lest it shatter. That's a load oh hokum, but some - frightfully, I fear, most - consider it so. The truth is that nature is never so precious. Despite the number of trees that have been cut since I wrote this, the number of beaches polluted, and the number of endangered species eaten, nature is in crouch, bemusedly waiting for the moment to beat us senseless, or more likely let us do it ourselves. The approach of being completely handsoff I find just as ludicrous as complete conquest. Should I not gather twigs for cook wood but use a liquid fuel that came from a process that fouls the air and incites wars and if it leaks can poison groundwater for decades? Should I not pick a plant and eat it as the deer do but pack in a salad that came from labor exploitation and had to be trucked a thousand miles?

I am for more interaction with nature not just as background or gymnasium or trophy but as pharmacy and market and church. There are of course limitations. I do not wish to be a hunter gatherer. Or rather, not solely a hunter gatherer. I like pie. And pineapples too, come to that. And asking everyone to go out and gather significant portions of their groceries from the woods and the ocean would place far too great a strain. But having portions from time to time - eating locally, no? - destroys the fallacy that food comes from the grocers, medecine from the doctor as well as giving the small dose of machismo that it is possible to live off the land that so many Americans crave. But namely, it let's one participate in the ecosystem and not just pass thru it, or regard it as pretty, or untouchable. 

There are some easy ways of doing this. Get a guide book, get lost, drink the water, get dyssentery, feed mosquitoes, eat some berries, catch a salmon, chew on a twig, brew wild tea, lap up dew, lick tree sap. Get eaten by a bear, if need be. It will prove you are not immune to the rhythms of this world but get you again in fliw with them. Otherwise, handsoff, you might as well be an observant scientist of an alien civilization. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The ecosystem within

After Mt St Helens and Rainier, I'm dry docked in Olympia with what is likely the result of drinking untreated water. I think it was Euell Gibbons who had written that he never bothered to treat backcountry water since it was man and not nature that made things impure. I figured to follow the same advice - the Indians didn't get giardia, afterall - and drank deeply and fully from glacial melt streams, springs, and rain fed rills. Always treat backcountry sources I had been told, but why if, as Euell said, there was no industry or settlement to fear? I wasn't going to get cholera, unless some particularly bad-off climber had expired on the snowpack and rotted down. I was more worried about stubbing toes or getting bitten by a mouse. 

Now three days into stomach pains and nausea I'm thinking over which source, if any, was the culprit. Of them all - and there have been many since I started walking in May - the most likely are the most recent. Single-celled intestinal parasites typically have an incubation period of a week. Though in some cases cysts have lain dormant for months or even years in their hosts.

For those most celebrated single cell invaders - amoebic dyssentery, giardia - the commonly prescribed treatment in the US is several weeks of a powerful antibiotic typically given to patients in the advanced stages of syphilis. That is to say that it cleans out anything nonhuman in you, such as all those helpful bacteria in your small intestine that enable you to properly digest your food, have regular bowel movements, and fart. Patients during treatment typically get diarhea, in addition to intense stomach cramps, and loss of appetite, though no longer from the microorganism but the medications. Though presently I do have  what some would call a crook stomach and I'm not very hungry and have had to use a bathroom with rather greater frequency and rather less enthusiasm than I should like, the symptoms I have at present aren't nearly as bad as the cure. And in retrospect, not very different from other post-backcountry excursion states of being. I had plenty of pains when I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club and hiking in California and in Europe. And a fair number of people recover from such infections without medical intervention, typically in a week to two weeks. 

But what's really fascinating is that when the little guys now colonizing a fresh digestive system feel like they're ready for a break, they just burrow into the intestinal lining and encyst themselves into dormancy. Which means that during their hibernation, you can feel perfectly healthy, indeed, BE healthy, while they sleep. Then, when they feel it is right, months or even years later, they reactivate. So if I've had waterborne sickness in the past and gotten over it, it either means I've got a good enough gut to kill those suckers after a few days, or, the buggers never left and like unwelcome relations like to drop in every now and again, typically after vacations. 

I salute that kind of tenacity. But whatever is in me I still want gone. Turns out garlic is a fairly potent medecine against intestinal infection. And as my gut has encountered it before, there shouldn't be any hellish cramps or rectal fauceting brought on my this treatment. I have so far eaten four cloves today, and won't sleep till I've had four more. I'm going to be eating garlic like popcorn for the next week. 

And tomorrow, I'm going to a doctor. 

And then I'm going to climb Mt Olympus.