Rain to Duluth

It rained a bit during the night, but the skies were dry in the morning when we woke up. We went ahead and had our breakfast, but when we started packing up the tent drops started coming down again. The whole sky was grey, and we had the sinking feeling this was rather a long-term rain then some short passing shower. But it was light enough not to deter us from riding, so we packed up the bikes, donned our raingear, and set off.

This gave the ride a muted character, and we rode smoothly across most of Minnesota to Duluth. Because we were going west to east, we probably paced the rain to some extent and so kept ourselves in wet, but light rain is not that bad on a motorcycle once one has gotten all suited up and taken off.

Once we got to Duluth, we decided to splash out a little bit and spring for more luxurious accomodations than normally. We didn’t go wild, just a “Comfort Inn”, but it did have a pool, hot tub, and a sauna, and it had those little amenities like afternooon cookies and free morning papers like the fancier places have. These, and being warm and dry were more than enough for us, so we were happy.

170 miles.

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The End of the Plains

Today it was finally supposed to cool down. And indeed, when we woke up it was grey and cloudy – which would help. We breakfasted and mounted our horses for another day’s riding east.

We stayed with Highway 200 and for a long while we just had more of the same North Dakota: flat-to-rolling grasslands and wheat fields (mostly now harvested) with basin ponds scattered throughout. There were so many of these that they didn’t even bother routing power lines around them. They just plopped the poles down into the water and kept on going. The ducks and other various inhabitants of the ponds didn’t seem to mind.

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November-33

On a completely different but geographically-related subject, after the U.S. shocked Japan into submission in 1945 with the two 20-kiloton nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the military world’s attention was focused on nuclear weapons. Research was done in many places, and scientific publication as well as espionage spread the knowledge further, of how to build reliable, effective mass destruction weapons and delivery systems. The U.S. and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s top military dogs, and, fearing each other, poured great efforts into developing nuclear arsenals. The amount of destructive power amassed by each side was ludicrous, estimated by many to be capable of wreaking sufficient havoc to snuff out the human race, if not immediately, then by side effects such as fallout and so-called “nuclear winter”.

Dangerous as this was, it at least captured the attention of the press and the common people so that there was painful awareness of the problem. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were said to be in a “cold war”, which is to say a protracted passive-aggressive build-up, as opposed to an actually fought “hot” war. It’s fairly safe to say that no one was really happy with the situation, aside from the military contractors getting rich off it. Books and films like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove graphically portrayed the ridiculously high risk to which humanity was subjecting itself.

Then came the “thaw” of the Cold War. Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the greatest leaders in recorded history, played the heroic and courageous role of making the first steps, and forging bonds with other world leaders and building their trust to reciprocate. The first agreements in the 1980′s were the start of a process that has continued in fits and starts in the years since then.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal consisted and consists partly of bombs and partly of warheads on long-range missiles. Approximately two thirds of these missiles are on nuclear submarines, which prowl the ocean continually, in limited, coded contact with higher military command, as the ultimate indefusible threat. The other third are housed in silos scattered throughout the Great Plains of the continental United States. November-33 was one of these, holding a nuclear armed Minuteman missile a few miles outside Cooperstown, North Dakota. It was ultimately decommissioned in the mid 1990′s as part of one of the START treaties. The Federal government was just going to destroy the site and remove all traces of its existence, but, so that we might remember our follies, the state of North Dakota acted to preserve this and several other sites.

November-33 was a missile launch site only. A silo buried in the ground, a protective cover, and automated machinery to allow the missile to be launched from a remote command center controlling several launch sites. The cover consists of around three feet of steel-reinforced concrete, and is built to withstand a nuclear blast. It has a track and a chain connected with a winch motor allowing it to be opened for servicing. The motor is powerful and the cover can be ratcheted open in a few tens of seconds. But for launching the missile, this was felt to be too slow, so a complex system of compressed gas and explosives was installed, doubtlesss at great cost, to allow near-instantaneous (but permanent) opening of the hatch. The government-produced sign at the site reports that 250 silos similar to this one have been destroyed to date under treaty. It also reports that 450 such silos still remain. The report here corroborates this information, and also states, as I mentioned, that this is just one third of the missile-deployed nuclear arsenal, and there are more than a thousand missiles on nuclear subs.

Let us continue to pray these weapons are never used. But regardless, we are paying for this insanity. Unimaginable billions of our tax dollars are building and maintaining submarines, buried launch facilities, missiles, and the nuclear explosives carried by them. And yet somehow, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the fear of nuclear war has gone. Terrorism, chemical weapons, and Islamic extremism capture most of our military-related attention, and Chinese posturing and rogue proto-nuclear states the rest. But the nuclear amassment remains even though the Cold War has supposedly gone. We the people are asleep at the wheel, and who knows how trustworthy the people and systems in charge are. Worrisome.

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At any rate, back to the trip at hand. Eventually as we started getting towards Minnesota we started seeing stands of trees here and there. Much of this was highly regulated due to this being completely reformed farmland, but I supposed this area must have been like the Aspen Parkland in Alberta, a kind of battleground area where grassland and trees are both partially favored by the conditions and compete for space. (In fact I later found that I was not far off.) The resulting mixture of grassy areas with groves of trees ends up feeling much like a park to such humans as may meander through it, hence the name.

Finally as afternoon as getting towards evening, the grassland gave up altogether and we were left riding through trees. As before with the transition from the mountains to the plains, we were simultaneously glad and regretful of the change; prairie is not the most common terrain in the western world, and we were not sure when we’d be coming across it again.

We rolled in to Itasca Lake State Park to spend the night. We’d just picked this place randomly as being at a convenient spot along our particular road of travel, but it ended up being pretty interesting. A few miles before the park we crossed over a bridge over a small creek, maybe 10 feet wide. The sign on the bridge said, “Mississippi River”. We both did double-takes, but later checking up verified the truth. Itasca Lake is the officially-accepted origin of the Mississippi River. (Although several tributary streams flow into the lake, there’s no way to adjudicate amongst them, so the lake itself takes the title.) Also interestingly, we were only at around 1400 feet here, but over 2500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. If that’s not an efficient use of gravity to move water, I don’t know what is.

276 miles.

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Heat Wave

This morning we awoke to the sight of the sun rising through pink clouds. Beautiful, but as they say, “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning,” and sure enough, the western sky was the gunmetal grey that portended thundershowers. We decided to have what breakfast we could before it reached us, then wait it out in the tent. As it happened, the brunt of it passed south of us, and we watched the other side of the river getting it as we ate our oatmeal. But we still caught enough to be glad of the tent a little bit later.

Then we got on the bikes and chased the storm for the first hour or two, riding on progressively drier streets until all trace of it was gone, and the heat was returning again. We got sent onto a 20-mile detour by a massive section of road construction, but this finally took us out of the oil country, and at last we rode in peace on state highway 200 towards the east.

After another couple of hours of full sun we were starting to get that dazed feeling and started looking for a place to have lunch. We eventually found one in the hamlet of McClusky, and after considering our prospects for actually making our originally-planned campground now that the detour had thrown us as far off as it had, we ended up deciding to stay at a motel behind the restaurant. There were precious few places to camp in this part of North Dakota (it was all farms, no spare land for recreation), and not even many places that had motels. The bird in hand…

I regretted sorely that we were not camping, for this might be our last chance to sleep a night on the prairie. But I couldn’t say we weren’t experiencing North Dakota. This town that we were just outside of had a population of a few hundred, and it was surrounded by wheat fields scattered with the pond-lakes common in this section of North Dakota. These pond-lakes were surrounded by green rushes waving in the wind, and harbored numerous ducks and other birds. The people we met were friendly and straightforward, with the exception of our innkeeper, who was impatient and didn’t seem to enjoy her role. She was also a staunch conservative, with a “Defeat Obama” bumper plastered prominently on the side of her cash register.

We took naps and waited until the heat abated, which wasn’t really until just before sunset. Then we went for a run touching on a couple of the pond-lakes, breathing in the heavy grass smells permeating the air. Aside from the main highway and the couple of gravel sideroads we ran on there was nothing. We were in a small oasis amidst grass- and farmlands stretching for as far as we could walk or even ride in a day in every direction. North Dakota.

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189 miles.

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Oil Boom

We pretty much picked the longest possible way to ride across the fourth largest state in the union, but today, our third day in it, we were planning to finally kill it off. We still had 150 miles or so, but as usual we were fairly determined in the morning and knocked most of that off. We hit the border in early afternoon, but then ran into heavy road construction. We learned the reason soon enough – oil. Western North Dakota around Williston sits atop an oil-containing geological structure known as the Bakken Formation. Either the discovery of oil here was late or the cost-benefit ratio delayed the decision to exploit it, but now the whole area was buzzing with extraction-related activity. Wells were being drilled, oil was being pumped, and, unfortunately, natural gas was being flared. All of this caused a lot of truck traffic, which took a greater toll on the roads then they were built to bear. Just about every major highway in the region was being resurfaced, widened, or both. The state apparently got a cut of the oil revenues though, so it could afford to pay for the roads.

The practical implication for us two humble motorcycle travelers coming in on US 2 was that we hit stop-start traffic and construction zones starting around the border and continuing 20 miles in to Williston. Williston itself was in full boom-town mode. The population is said to have doubled from 14,000 to 30,000 since 2010, but if there are fewer than 70 or 80,000 there I would not believe it. The built-up area was extensive and there were busy 4-lane streets going everywhere.

We navigated our way through these to lunch and a coffee shop. The heat was intense, and we decided to kill a couple of hours inside air-conditioned environments until the sun got lower in the sky. We saw mainly men and overheard lots of conversations about oil wells.

Finally around 5:30 we picked up some groceries and headed out of town to the east on state highway 1804 towards Lewis and Clark State Park along the Missouri. Although one might have expected a scenic byway like this to have little traffic, this was oil country, and trucks zoomed frequently in both directions despite the late hour. It appeared that things operated on a 24-hour schedule here.

Unfortunately this proved true of the road crews as well, and we sat for 30 minutes before a single-lane section, then crawled through it stopping every few hundred feet to let road construction vehicles go by. By the time we rolled in to Lewis and Clark, the sun had set, and we hustled around to find a site. It turned out that the best sites at this particular campground were reserved for tents, and so we were in luck to get one in a grassy area by the river.

I fell asleep wondering how the sound of the night insects could be so soothing when I’d probably be disgusted if I found one of the insects themselves crawling over me.

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235 miles.

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Oil Boom

We pretty much picked the longest possible way to ride across the fourth largest state in the union, but today, our third day in it, we were planning to finally kill it off. We still had 150 miles or so, but as usual we were fairly determined in the morning and knocked most of that off. We hit the border in early afternoon, but then ran into heavy road construction. We learned the reason soon enough – oil. Western North Dakota around Williston sits atop an oil-containing geological structure known as the Bakken Formation. Either the discovery of oil here was late or the cost-benefit ratio delayed the decision to exploit it, but now the whole area was buzzing with extraction-related activity. Wells were being drilled, oil was being pumped, and, unfortunately, natural gas was being flared. All of this caused a lot of truck traffic, which took a greater toll on the roads then they were built to bear. Just about every major highway in the region was being resurfaced, widened, or both. The state apparently got a cut of the oil revenues though, so it could afford to pay for the roads.

The practical implication for us two humble motorcycle travelers coming in on US 2 was that we hit stop-start traffic and construction zones starting around the border and continuing 20 miles in to Williston. Williston itself was in full boom-town mode. The population is said to have doubled from 14,000 to 30,000 since 2010, but if there are fewer than 70 or 80,000 there I would not believe it. The built-up area was extensive and there were busy 4-lane streets going everywhere.

We navigated our way through these to lunch and a coffee shop. The heat was intense, and we decided to kill a couple of hours inside air-conditioned environments until the sun got lower in the sky. We saw mainly men and overheard lots of conversations about oil wells.

Finally around 5:30 we picked up some groceries and headed out of town to the east on state highway 1804 towards Lewis and Clark State Park along the Missouri. Although one might have expected a scenic byway like this to have little traffic, this was oil country, and trucks zoomed frequently in both directions despite the late hour. It appeared that things operated on a 24-hour schedule here.

Unfortunately this proved true of the road crews as well, and we sat for 30 minutes before a single-lane section, then crawled through it stopping every few hundred feet to let road construction vehicles go by. By the time we rolled in to Lewis and Clark, the sun had set, and we hustled around to find a site. It turned out that the best sites at this particular campground were reserved for tents, and so we were in luck to get one in a grassy area by the river.

I fell asleep wondering how the sound of the night insects could be so soothing when I’d probably be disgusted if I found one of the insects themselves crawling over me.

235 miles.

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Back to the Plains

We’d seen all sorts of warnings on the news and in online weather reports about a big storm system coming up into our area, so we decided to get on the road early and scoot out of its path. We had a couple of coffees from the motel, wolfed down some bars, and were rolling by 8. The weather was cool but clear, but as soon as we went a few miles north and turned east along the bottom of Glacier National Park, we could see mist roiling out from around the peaks we were heading into.

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Soon it was grey/white and 55 degrees. We were a bit underclothed, but didn’t want to stop to beef up. We kept thinking the sun would burn through but it didn’t, until finally after about 40 minutes we broke down and changed – and 5 minutes later we burst out into sunshine.

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We had thought about stopping in Glacier for some canoeing, but the chill in our bones and the worry about the rain spurred us on. We rocketed down and across the plains, feeling glad for the warmth and the coming easy riding, but sad for the loss of the mountains, which we’d not be seeing again.

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Glacier had been slow going, but we still hit 140 miles by noon, riding along US 2, and were now making steady progress on straight roads. Around 4 we hit the camping area, near Nelson Reservoir outside Havre, but it was hot, dry, and shadeless, and as we had in Dinosaur when leaving Colorado, we couldn’t see any way of remaining there until it cooled down. So we hopped back on the bikes and rode 80 miles to the next place where there was anything, Malta. Here there were a couple of urban campgrounds and a cheap motel; being dead from the long, hot ride, we opted for the latter.

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I spent some time after we got the room going over the bikes. They were holding up surprisingly well despite over 4,000 miles under tough conditions. I had to adjust my clutch cable and that was it. I’d also been lubing the chains every other day or so, but aside from that there had been zero maintenance required. Wood knocked on, hopefully they’d make it the remaining 2,000 or so to home.

353 miles.

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Finally Heading East

I managed to get a good nights’ sleep, and though I still felt far from 100%, it seemed better to make some attempt to move on rather than remain rotting in our motel for the rest of our lives. So we gathered ourselves together, finally finished juggling our stuff back from backpacking to motorcycle configuration, and got underway around 11.

It was a cloudy day, which made the temperature pleasant, but the riding somehow gloomy. That the mountains were mostly thickly forested and came down close to the road didn’t help matters either. Everything felt closed-in and gray, kind of the opposite of how you’d expect to feel on a motorcycle trip out west, but it was so good to just be out on the road again we didn’t care.

And it didn’t even phaze us that much when we hit rain near Kalispell; we just switched our camping plan to a motel and rolled into town in our rain gear. Finally making progress east!

It was a little bit of a bummer to be in a city, which Kalispell basically was, after walking and riding through so much beautiful nature, but this would be basically the biggest one we’d hit until we’d gone basically another half-width across the continent. There really wasn’t a lot here at this latitude in the U.S. between Washington and New York.

But speaking of cities, this leads us back to the earlier discussion about evolution and the future of man. As I mentioned there, in the progression from chemistry to life, from single-cellular life to multicellular life, from there to intelligence and language, and from there to persistent culture, we’ve seen more and more complex interactive processes emerging at successively slower timescales. These emergences are happening more rapidly and based on the timing alone it seems we may be due for another. And in fact, one may have already happened.

Cities appear very much like multicellular organisms played out again at a higher level – great plants or immobile animals in which humans take the place of cells. We can see equivalents of nervous and circulatory systems in the telephone and internet networks, the roads, the water pipes, and so on. Some of these also extend out to other cities, serving as means of communication. Within the city we can observe all sorts of life-like processes. For example, if a large pothole develops on a street, or a power line is severed or water pipe broken, it will eventually be detected and a crew sent out to repair it, reminiscent of the mobilization of platelets and other specialized cell types in response to a wound. Zoning practices ensure that like functions remain nearby like, just as cells as organized into tissues in organisms. Immune-like functions exist to repel invaders (this has been weakening in recent centuries) and neutralize unruly elements (criminals, cf. cancer). Cities engage in cooperation and competition with one another for resources. And although cities incorporate many nonliving elements made of metal, concrete, etc., this does not differentiate them from multicellular organisms. The latter, too, incorporate nonliving components, such as hair, (part of) bone, xylem, shell, etc..

So are cities the next phase in the evolution of life? Or are they just something like beehives, ant colonies, or coral reefs, interesting aggregates of organisms and inorganic structures but not destined to play any grand role on life’s stage? To answer this we need to go beyond just pointing to emergence and look at the details of what has emerged.

In fact, if we look more closely at the past record, we see both emergence and refinement. Emergence: the origin of life; refinement: eukaryotic cells. Emergence: multicellular life, refinement: sexual reproduction. Emergence: intelligence; refinement: language. Emergence: culture; refinement: writing and diagrams. Emergence: electronic representation; refinement: ongoing. Very roughly, these refinements increase the integrity and robustness of the structures that emerge.

Eukaryotic cells have nuclei, separating the genetic and control structure making possible a greater variety of cellular functions. Sexual reproduction, by mixing genes each generation, allows longer-generationed multicellular organisms to keep up evolutionarily with their faster reproducing single-celled brethren. Language is a particularly interesting one which may serve similar functions in human minds to what RNA/DNA does in cells. Essentially, DNA provides a reliable, persistant, digital encoding of complex protein structures – a small change in the chemical environment will not corrupt the base pair sequence, so that the same proteins can be produced over and over. Without DNA, small changes in the cell’s chemical environment could easily accumulate over time and destroy the delicate balance of chemical reactions that makes it alive. It would also be difficult for cells to reproduce reliably, because again small differences in the two halves of dividing cells could accumulate. Analogously, language provides a means of encoding complex narratives and ideas, and communicating them to others. Language has allowed ideas to be clarified, built upon, and shared between people, enabling the tremendous development in human civilization and culture.

It’s clear that cities have undergone a number of refinements since the first ones. Water and waste systems have been considerably improved, the nervous system (electrical communications) and a kind of muscular system (electricity to begin with) have been added. There has also been a general increase in size. Do cities have anything like language or DNA though? They do make use of human language in libraries, construction records, engineering diagrams, and the like. It would even seem that a city could reproduce itself to an approximate extent based on this information. But it’s difficult to say whether these are as reliable a representation as DNA. It’s also clear that reproduction per se does not play as central a role in the evolution of cities as with multicellular organisms. Most change occurs through internal development as technologies improve, systems are upgraded, and styles evolve.

Without going into great length to cover the details, I would posit that cities fulfill just about every criterion for life and organism that come up with. That said, one could also look to nations or subcultures as larger or smaller alternative units of higher-order life, and perhaps be equally right. One is faced with the same boundary-drawing problem as when distinguishing between ecosystems, symbiotic pairs or groups, and organisms. While the lines are clearer in these biological cases, the principle of separating out independence from interdepence is the same.

And of course there are other places to look for the next step beyond humans in the story of life – for example artificial intelligence or bioengineered super-organisms. We will come to some of those topics later. But I wanted to point out that not all futures involve humans as conscious architects; we may equally well become (or be becoming!) unwitting participants in a higher order, no more aware of the fact than the cells in our bodies are that they are part of an organism, not just living in a local environment where a red-colored river fortunately carries nutrients by that they need.

One last point relating back to the talk of rockets and humans spreading into space. Supposing we don’t find a way around the speed of light, there are many who believe we might still colonize other worlds by sending very large space ships containing self-sustaining communities of individuals. The contents of the ship would be something very like a city. And while generations of humans would live and die on the journey before ultimate arrival at the target world, the city itself would make the journey whole and intact. We have seen that the timescales of each successive level of life organization are longer; it may be that the timecale and typical lifespans of the level above us will be better suited for going to the stars.

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170 miles.

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“Hiking” Fourth Day – Back to Sandpoint

In the morning we got up early and broke camp for the drive back to Sandpoint. We’d be dropped off there, while A. and S. would continue back to their flight in Seattle.

The first portion of the drive was made in fairly short order, and we found ourselves at our motel some hours before we could check in, and not desiring to go to the trouble of suiting up and riding our motorcycles anywhere. No problem we thought, it’s only a couple of miles in to downtown Sandpoint, and flat ones at that; we’ll just walk in there and have breakfast.

But one should never underestimate the trials and travails of suburban hiking: dusty roads with narrow shoulders, blasting traffic, and the general lack of any accomodation for pedestrians. Not to mention the classic “you can’t get there from here”. Unless you’re a car, but sometimes not even then, although in that case it usually only takes a minute or two to do the ridiculous drive around to avoid whatever obstacle it is to sane progress.

So it took us a while, but eventually we arrived in downtown Sandpoint, sweaty but in good spirits in anticipation of a hearty breakfast. This we indeed had, and then followed it up fairly shortly with a beer of all things, the time of the breakfast having not been that early. A little more walking around the downtown peeking into shops here and there, and then we walked back by a different and altogether more pleasant route, although the rise in temperature detracted somewhat from our pleasure at this.

We checked in to the motel, took showers, did laundry and all that sort of thing, ending with a buffet dinner that was probably larger than necessary, but indulged in as some sort of reward for having completed the hike successfully.

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4 miles.

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Hiking Third Day – At the Lake, Then Not

We awoke to a beautiful morning at a snow-fed gem of a lake with no bears. Once the sun was properly up and the breeze was wiping off the glass, turning mirror to aqua, we alternately swam and lounged around the shore. Despite original thoughts of day-hiking to bag a nearby peak, everyone proved content to rest after the preceding day’s exertions. Unfortunately not all of us could rest the whole day, however, as the length of the hike in meant some would need to hike back out today and camp near the cars in order to make their flights. Päivi and I were among this number, not because of flights but because of needing to get back a day early to begin our eastward journey.

And so we hiked out. There was actually a larger lake at the trailhead, but as often the case with mountain lakes, bigger is not always better. We had to camp out of sight of it anyway, and we found the convenience of a picnic table a poor substitute for the pleasures of the remote site and our companions of the night before.

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(Photo by Eric)

4 miles.

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Hiking Second Day – Bushwhacking Failures, but Trip Success

Hiking Second Day – Bushwhacking Failures, but Trip Success

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This morning we awoke by the river, fired up to commence the bushwhacking phase of the trip, eschewing the trail for a direct route up and over a ridge to a nearby lake. The interesting part about this is, we didn’t even have a decent topo map of the area we were in. We were relying on memory, dead reckoning, and a large-scale map of the surrounding wilderness area. We did also have a GPS with some limited-resolution topo map data, but using it showed us more about the limitations of a small screen for getting a clear picture of our situation than the situation itself.

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After some more or less extended discussion and kibbitzing, jazzed up a bit by the relative distaste of certain members of the party for certain aids to navigation, we came to our conclusions and headed off – straight up the ridge slope. Unfortunately, in addition to it being steep, it was evident that the forest here had been logged, meaning it was full of smaller trees closer together, and even occasional sections of underbrush. It was tough going simply traversing across the slope, let alone going up it. We made progress at a snail’s pace, but burned energy more like hares.

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Eventually, these conditions proved sufficiently adverse to bring us to abandon the effort, particularly as we knew the trip down the other side of the ridge would be at least as steep. And so we left the score at Terrain 1, Humans 0 and headed back down to the trail. We’d do an end run around the ridge by going back to the trailhead and hitching up to the other, then reversing our planned outward hike to the destination.

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This ended up working out OK, though it made for a long day (and longer for some of us than others), and we all celebrated our success together in the evening. We again hung our food, finding a slightly better situation to do this than the night before, had a fire, and went to bed to all sleep well. There was no wind and very little wildlife (and thankfully no bears), so that it was one of the quietest nights we’d spent in a long time.

8 miles.

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