Hiking First Day – Dwarfed Among the Cedars

Today we were going to be starting a 4-day backpacking trip into the area near Sandpoint. Backpacking is in some ways a step backwards to reconnect with our caveman past. We don’t quite live off the land, but we do live on it, and we go to sleep listening to the sounds of nature and not the sounds of cars. Being completely away from any kind of schedules, telephones, email, etc. has its relaxing effect, and we forget about our cares and responsibilities surprisingly quickly. Paradoxically, although we are returning in some sense to past ways, the freedom also lends us perspective and leads us to think about the future.

For example consider the human race itself. Some people think our future is going to be all about rockets, maybe conquering the speed of light, and spreading out into the wild black yonder. While that’s romantic in a seafaring sort of way and makes for fun science fiction (and I’m certainly all in favor of it), I don’t think that’s it. First of all, it’s not even a future really, it’s just more of the same – making man out to be little more than a colony of bacteria spreading beyond its Petri dish. Second of all we’re not really going in that direction right now anyway. Since Apollo, the U.S. has spent a pittance on space, and other nations have followed suit. Our resources are going into other areas. And third and most important, the conventional spacefarer conception completely ignores rather significant trends in the history of life. So today we’ll consider that for a bit.



Take a look at the picture above (from here), or better yet, spend some time playing on this site: Chronozoom.

Let’s go through a brief summary. 4.6 billion years ago, Earth formed. Just 700 million years later, life started. It took until 3 BILLION years after that for multicellular life to get its start. That was 800 million years ago. It took another 400 million, give or take, for vertebrates to emerge. Dinosaurs and mammals came on the scene within another 200 million. The pace is starting to quicken after a slow start. But now things really start to happen. Chronozoom doesn’t show it, but apes originated somewhere around 30 million years ago. That’s around 170 million from the dinosaurs. From there to primitive humans (small brains, but upright walking) takes only around another 26 million, roughly one-sixth as long. From primitive to modern humans (homo sapiens) again takes one-sixth as long – just 3.8 million years. From there to the earliest dawnings of civilization we can detect – evidence of cities – about 190 thousand years – now only one-twentieth.

Now we are just 10,000 years ago, around 8,000 BC. Writing and the Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations emerge within around five thousand years of that (one fortieth!), and the Mohenjo-Daro civilization in India – the first meditators and yoga practitioners. Another 5,000 years brings us to 0 A.D., and cultural flowerings have occurred in the Mediterranean, the Subcontinent, and the Far East. Modern religion, literature, mathematics, and science are all here. Specialization is the norm rather than the exception. 1,500 years more bring us the printing press and wide use of maps, and 300 years after that, the mechanical age with factories and industry, and chemical energy sources are beginning to supplant the harnessing of animals. Another 100 years and engines are commonplace, electrical power is generated and delivered, and we begin to transform the face of the planet. This is 1900.

Just 50 more years, and we are in the “tele” age: telegraph, telephone, and television are new, electronic means of transmitting information rapidly over a distance. And finally, 50 more years, the merest fraction of a fraction of the length of the whole story, and microprocessors are invented, computing machines process information. Physical distance begins to dissolve, as humans interact on a daily basis with others thousands of miles away, practically any place on the planet. Mobile computers called “smart phones” become the rule, and more and more of our lives are either mediated by electronic representations, or outright lived virtually.

So what is happening here? In the moves from single-cellular to multicellular life, from life to intelligence, from intelligence to writing and recorded culture, from recorded culture to electronic representation and transmission, from representation and transmission to processing, a new pattern of organization is emerging each time. Consider multicellular life for example. Single cells that used to all do the same thing begin doing different things from one another, working together – and in fact unable to survive on their own. But now a larger-scale organism exists and interacts at a new level. Ultimately such organisms can perceive patterns of light and sound and act in complex ways in response, whereas individual cells could at most detect the brightness of light falling on them, and perhaps move towards or away from it. But notice that the timescale of interaction for whole organisms is not necesssarily any faster than for cells, but in fact a good deal slower. Action-reaction, development, reproduction – it’s all slowed down relative to the underlying level.

The origin of life, and the origin of human culture (in the sense of patterns of behavior transmitted over space and time), are both similar, in that something begins to happen at the higher level that is of a completely different order than the lower level. Underlying life there are molecules engaging in chemical reactions according to fixed laws, but the delicate systems of hundreds of types of molecules, dividing membranes, codes, and transcribing machinery that interact with each the environment and each other, and reproduce, are another thing entirely. Similarly, a style of building houses, a way of communicating with sounds, a method of preparing food are all things of a different nature than the humans who give rise to them. Just as all the molecules in a cell may be changed out for new ones and still it is the same cell, individual humans are irrelevant to cultural patterns. And again in both cases, the timescales expand at the emergent level.

In the grand scheme of things, life originated quite a while ago, while culture is relatively recent. What is interesting is that these emergences seem to be occurring more frequently as time goes on. And of course the unavoidable question is, “What comes next?” There’s no reason to believe that human intelligence or even human culture is the end state of this whole evolutionary process. Can we infer anything about what is to come by looking at the preceding series?

This entry has already grown too long, however, so we’ll have to come back to this later.

Anyway, the hike. On the first day, we all met up in the town of Sandpoint, Idaho and then headed off in two vehicles to the trailhead. There were nine of us, knowing each other mostly from graduate school, and some having seen each other more recently than others. Most of us had been down to Baja Mexico together on some occasions, and some had gone on hikes or canoeing trips as well. It was a good group – conversations were usually stimulating, spirits were invariably positive, and trip planning was suitably inspired on the overall scale and suitably vague in the particulars.

In this case we were visiting a little-known part of the Rockies on the northern Idaho – Montana border, and the rough plan was to leave a car at each of two trailheads, and hike from one to the other partially along trail and partially bushwhacking. We got a bit of a late start in the morning and then had some trouble with finding the other trailhead and getting the cars situated, with the result that we ended up actually starting out around 3 in the afternoon. This was still OK though, it just meant we’d have more of our work cut out for us on the second day.

The trail started out through an unlogged forest made up of giant cedars along with some pine and spruce not much smaller. We associate big trees in the U.S. primarily with out west, especially California, but, although some of the species out here did grow bigger, this is primarily because exploitation was slower to arrive here, and conservationism had time to catch up. The east had its great trees as well, from the pines and hemlock of Pennsylvania to the stately elms and towering oaks of other states. If any of us today were able to walk around the forests that once stood here we would spend until our last breath exhorting the men of that time to leave at least some of these woodlands untouched.

We made our way through this forest, feeling very small, until we rejoined the stream we’d last seen at the trailhead. We pitched camp beside its rocky bed and cooked and ate in falling light. There were grizzlies here, and those of us without bear canisters hastened to hang our food while we could still see it.

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3 miles.

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Arrival in Sandpoint

This morning we had a leisurely time of it, saying goodbye to our hosts, having breakfast and then lunch before finally setting off for Sandpoint. Road construction and closures meant it took us more than a half hour to get out of the small sister city to Spokane that we were in, but the rest of the journey went smoothly and quickly. The roads were marked as scenic on the map, but somehow we found them disappointing compared with things we’d already seen.

Perhaps some of it had to do with our direction: East. We’d officially hit our furthest point and turned around. Somehow there’s always a sense of letdown at such times, even though fully half of the journey still remains. It’s as if the furthest point is the climax, and everything else is all downhill after that. Ridiculous, of course. We’re not even following the same path back, but completing a loop. But there’s no messing with human psychology. The Journey is an archetype, and going Back Home is as fundamentally different from going Out There as you can get. We’ll just have to fool ourselves as best we can (playing at temporary amnesia) to get the most pleasure out of the trip back.

In Sandpoint we checked into our motel and set about making preparations for our backpacking trip. We bought food and juggled our case and pack contents. We’ve been travelling admirably light on our motorcycles so far, but it’ll be nice to be one step lighter still on the trail, carrying everything we need on our backs. And leaving the road and all mechanical contrivance behind. It takes the separation of a day’s walk into the woods for me to truly feel connected with nature and disconnected from civilization. Not that I am anti-civilization or am not happy to come back out afterwards. But on a backpacking trip (in the right places) there is absolutely no dispute that the here and now is pristine nature and not human meddling or intercourse.

One of our friends on this trip likes to take this even further and leave the trail behind as well. I don’t have this need myself, and prefer not to have the extra hassles of navigation and uncertainty, but I guess to him the trail represents something similar to what the road does for me: connection back to civilization.

83 miles.

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Still in Spokane

Another day of rest and miscellaneous relaxation in Spokane. Mostly doing random stuff – we went to a bicycle shop and an REI, checking out downtown Spokane in the process. The whole town has a laid-back, open feel to it, though some of this is probably due to our being on vacation. There are a lot of one-way streets, even some that have 5 lanes going one direction. You’d think it would be more efficient to split those up into 2 going each direction plus a turn lane, but that’s evidently not how Spokaners feel about it.

Tomorrow we’re off again for a short ride to Sandpoint, Idaho, where we’ll rendezvous with some friends for a 4-day Labor Day weekend hike.

0 miles.

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In Spokane

I haven’t had as much time for philosophical musings as I’d like in this blog; most of the time I have to write is used up just trying to get a barebones account down. But now that we’re resting in Spokane I’ve had a chance to go back and add in a couple of bits about free will and karma. (Go to the end of the days in question.)

Not much happened today aside from that; it was mostly slowing down and resting from life on the road. A bit of coffee shop, a lot of lounging, and a run up into the Dishman hills above Spokane Valley.

0 miles.

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Missoula to Spokane – Arrival in a West Coast State

In the morning we continued our interstate theme, particularly since I’d messed up with the maps and thought we’d had only 100 miles when in fact it was 200. (For some reason I’d been thinking that Montana connected directly with Washington up here, but in fact there’re neaarly a hundred miles of Idaho in between. Chalk it up to geographical ignorance, and using state-by-state maps torn from an atlas that don’t clearly show the neighboring states). We were looking forward to arriving in Spokane and seeing A., so we mostly put our heads down and motorcycled, covering most of the distance before noon. We had a quick lunch at a gas station and rolled in to Spokane around 2. Pacific timezone!

We met A. and her husband M., who welcomed us warmly and grilled up some steaks to celebrate our arrival. For the next three days we’ll be here, off the bikes, and then we’ll ride just an hour and a half in to Sandpoint, Idaho, where we’ll meet some friends for a few days of backpacking. After that, it’ll be the start of our journey back East.

Here in Spokane we’re about 250 miles from the Pacific Ocean – not much problem to ride in a day if we so desired. A lot of people ask us why we don’t go out there, since we’re so close. They find it really puzzling that we’re not. Neither of us knows quite what to say to them. I guess it might be nice to end the outward journey with a Pacific sunset, to see that beautiful coast, to breathe the salt air and hear the sound of the waves. But the ocean is not our destination. The trip was not simply a lap out and back to the end of the road, to say we did that. Not that destinations aren’t needed. We had one in Colorado, we had one here in Spokane, and another in Idaho; we even had ones in Buffalo and Milwaukee, close though they were to our starting point.

In fact, there are many times in life one can see an obvious endpoint – the top of a mountain, the end of a trail, the length of a certain distance. And it’s one of the unique and most power-granting attributes of the cave man that he will strive to attain such goals. It happens that, regardless of whether the goal itself has any value, the seeking, the single-mindedness of focus, brings its own rewards. Because it is through seeking goals beyond the here and now, beyond the obvious, man accomplishes great things.

But the point of a motorcycle trip is not that of running a marathon, or climbing a peak, or finishing a novel. We are here to free ourselves from some of our habitual behaviors, from our most commonly expressed instincts. We must elevate ourselves above them – not in the sense of being any better off, but in the sense of seeing them with some perspective, and so of coming to better know ourselves. We aren’t very good at it of course – habits of a lifetime are hard to break; but we try.

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195 miles.

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Big Sky to Missoula

Indeed any bears that were in the area left us unmolested, and our tent kept us dry this time, although I had to get up in the middle of the night and reset a peg that had pulled out of the rocky ground. Everything was still wet though, and we decided to pack up and go treat ourselves to a restaurant breakfast rather than doing our usual boiling oatmeal thing on a sodden picnic table. We were quite successful at this, finding a simple place called the “Restaurant at the Inn” along the side of highway 191 that made things fresh, with good ingredients and skill in the cooking. Our food was a long time coming, but worth every minute of the wait.

We continued on up to I-90, which we actually decided voluntarily to take. We’d had quite a generous share of winding narrow roads the past few days, and now we wanted to try something different and actually get somewhere with little hassle. This worked reasonably well, and I do have to say, if one has to ride interstate on a motorcycle, there are certainly worse places one could pick than the I-90 in central / western Montana.

Eventually we made it in to Missoula, an excellent college and outdoor town, home to the University of Montana. We moteled it there, so we could get ourselves cleaned up before meeting our friend A. in Spokane the next day.

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230 miles.

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Exit Yellowstone, Enter Montana

Today was going to be a short day, less than a hundred miles, and so we made a lazy time of it in the morning at the campground. Unfortunately this meant that by the time we made our way out to see some more of the geyers and such, everything was packed. The fact that it was Friday only seemed to make matters worse. We nonetheless managed to see a few things, then headed out of the park for lunch and groceries in West Yellowstone. (I wonder what that town was named before the park was there.)

Then we rode up towards Big Sky, Montana, in the vicinity of which there were a number of campgrounds in the Gallatin National Forest. These were about 50 miles away. A couple of road construction areas later we found a nice one named for a creek where we rode up more than half a mile to the sites, and so for once we couldn’t hear the highway at all. Unfortunately what we did hear was the rain, which started a short while after we arrived. Päivi got the tent up in time while I registered, but then what looked like a short passing thunderstorm turned into a rising and falling rain that lasted most of the night.

So it was probably our nicest nature campsite yet, but we weren’t able to enjoy it in the evening. We didn’t even eat our dinner, and hoped the bears wouldn’t be around for theirs either.

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95 miles.

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Along the Grand Teton Highway to Yellowstone

It was pretty cool in the morning, and even yesterday afternoon had been only warm, not hot, so it seemed at least for now that our difficulties with the heat were over. In fact we even put in our jacket linings before heading off.

Soon after leaving Pinedale and the Wind Rivers behind us, we saw another part of the Rockies chain looming in the distance: the Tetons. And after a surprisingly short time, we were in and amongst the foothills. The character of this area was different from either the Wind Rivers or the Uintas, though it’s difficult to describe exactly how. Maybe there was a bit more green, perhaps it was the blue / dark clarity of the stream we ascended along, but suffice it to say we were able to see what makes the Jackson Hole / Grand Teton area so attractive to America’s well-off with outdoors interests.

Eventually we came into Jackson, the major town in the area, and it was interesting comparing things with Steamboat Springs. Steamboat is much smaller for one – whereas it has one main street, Jackson was a rat’s nest of business district, most of it snarled with traffic. The character of the streets was similar though – outfitters, coffee shops, restaurants, brewpubs, much like Pinedale. We also happened to check a few real estate prices, and here the difference really revealed itself. The Jackson area was basically only millionaires need apply, making Steamboat almost seem everyman’s in comparison. Where did the difference come from? There were skiiers in both places, but where Steamboat also excels in mountain biking, Jackson’s strong suits are hunting and rafting. I guess for whatever reason afficionados of the latter disciplines have the larger bank accounts. Fortunately, although the climate is a little more moderate in Jackson, we both could see that our own interests were in parallel with our financial abilities.

After working hard and finally extricating ourselves from the lunchtime traffic jams of Jackson, we carried on past the high skyline of the Tetons. Although the Wind Rivers have a number of glaciers, we weren’t able to see them from our western approach. Here, however, we found ourselves on the east side of the Tetons, and we could see the glacier on Grand Teton coming straight down towards us. A sign told of a couple of others visible, but we couldn’t see them, and indeed, perhaps they have now disappeared completely.

We continued on through Grand Teton park itself, and then into Yellowstone. There we had lunch, made a campsite reservation (thankfully, we were there on a weekday, but this was still warranted), and then tackled the geysers. Geyser, or “geysir” (pronounced gay-sear), is actually an Icelandic word, and they had been found there long before any of our civilization made it to Yellowstone, but I remembered from my previous trip that the geysers here are more plentiful and generally more impressive than any we saw in Iceland. And so we wandered around the Upper Geyser Basin (Old Faithful area) getting splashed here, steam-bathed there, and generally enjoying ourselves. The weather also was not bad.

Eventually we finished up and headed to our campground, no full, seeing a couple of buffalo on the way (one of which caused a long traffic jam), and then some elk in the meadow near our site. It was, I suppose, a typical Yellowstone experience. Unfortunately we did not have the time to get off the beaten path and have an atypical experience. Like my brother and I had years before when we backpacked two days in to a remote geyser, got snowed on, caught some trout, and battled mosquitos. Thankfully the mosquitos were completely absent this time, and I didn’t miss the snow, but we could have done with the trout.

198 miles.

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Up to the Wind Rivers

After the heat of yesterday we were determined to get an early start, and we managed to get on the road by 7. We had over a hundred miles by the time we’d started the day before, but we perhaps didn’t need it. We climbed up to well above 8,000 feet through the Uintas in northeastern Utah, and barely descended going into Wyoming. This is some of the most spectacular riding or driving to be found in the lower 48. Signs along the road tell you the geological layers you are at now, and the sorts of fossilized creatures have been found here. Things like “Oldrivian Layer, Small Squidlike Creatures”, or “Cambrian Layer, Bizarre Sharks and Flowering Sea Plants”. Obviously all kinds of things can be and probably were found in each layer in question, but picking one somehow brings a dramatic aspect home as you pass through.

After descending a bit from the Uintas, we headed straight into Flaming Gorge, a great Lake Powell-like reservoir created by a dam which we ended up riding over. Then it was on into a sweeping land of broad hills covered with scrub. The road wound through it in long arcs, and there was virtually no traffic. It was now starting to warm up just a little – the ride so far had been rather refreshingly in the 60′s – and we stopped to pull off a layer of clothing.

For the next couple of hours we rode through this land, gradually descending into a flatter area, until we began to see the dark, hazy shapes of mountains on the eastern horizon: the Wind Rivers. These mountains are the highest section of the U.S. Rockies outside of Colorado, with several peaks just under 14,000 feet. Furthermore they are fashioned of white granite, like the Sierras of California. But they’re out in the western part of Wyoming, hundreds of miles from anywhere. On the east side is the Wind River Indian reservation, a place with very few roads. On the west side U.S. highway 191 heads up from northern Utah, eventually hitting Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. I’m not sure how people really get here. The rich fly in to Jackson Hole, but everytime I’ve checked out flights there I’ve ended up looking for other options.

At any rate, we got a little closer to the mountains, then arrived in the town of Pinedale. This was a reasonably nice town, in terms of having traded some of its rough rancher / miner town character for a more outdoor recreationally oriented one. There were outfitter stores, a couple of coffee shops, and even a brewpub. I suppose many purists would complain this is mere tourism spoilage, and yearn for the good ol’ days when the only businesses in town were a general store and a farm supply, and the local watering hole was a broken-down shack with Miller Lite neon signs in its window. I happen to know a few places those folks could head, while we were happy to take Pinedale as it is now.

We made it in a little after 1, had lunch at the brewpub, took a short walk around, then headed up the road east out of town towards Fremont Lake. And here was the end of smooth sailing for the day. There was a big road construction operation going on within a short distance of the main road. It was hard to find out how long it continued, and since Päivi’s bike was not the best outfitted for gravel road riding, we ended up bailing on our planned campsite up by the lake, and taking one down in town. Then in the late afternoon we rode together on the Versys up to see what we’d missed. It turned out our planned campground was closed (also for construction), and it took us nearly an hour to make the 16 miles up a narrow, winding – but paved – road up to trail’s end at 9400 feet. By the time we got there clouds were threatening from all directions – afternoon in the mountains in certain seasons is always a chancy affair – and it was getting late, so we snapped a few pictures and headed back down. Another round at the brewpub finished off the evening.

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244 miles.

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A Hellish Ride

Today we unfortunately had to leave Steamboat Springs. We would have liked to stay longer, but we have other places and people to see before heading home. The route we had planned was a spectacular one – west to Dinosaur National Monument for the first night, then up into Wyoming along the west side of the Wind River range, stopping in Pinedale and camping up above at the foot of the mountains, just to have a taste of the area. I’ve been wanting to hike the Wind Rivers many years, ever since I drove by the sheer granite of their eastern escarpment on the way up to Montana for a conference, but they are so remote that I’ve never been able to put it together. And this time we won’t manage it either, because it’ll be too cold at the 10K-ish altitudes that much of the camping is done at for our compact summer sleeping bags.

After the Wind Rivers we’ll head up into Yellowstone and see some geyers, then continue north into part of the the Absaroka range. Finally we’ll hang a left at this point and head northeast-ish through the very north tip of Idaho (avoiding the fires hopefully) to Spokane, where a mutual friend of P and I’s from our Saudi time lives.

All of this sounds great on paper, but this morning we had an appointment to get our bikes’ oil changed, which was a good thing but led to us starting out close to 11. The heat had already had some chance to build, and it built even further as we crossed dry rolling plains west of Steamboat. Clouds kept looming in the west, but the sun was more in the east and overhead, so it kept beating down unobstructed and seemed like it would continue to do so until drops of rain literally started falling on our heads. By the time we got to the Utah entrance to Dinosaur we were both in stupors from the heat, and things were getting oppressive. Even the roads were starting to melt in places.

We went in to the visitors center and took the shuttle up to see the (thankfully indoor) wall of bones, but even after this was over near 4 the sun was still high in the sky and promised to beat down for more hours still. The campground we had been planning to stay at in Dinosaur reportedly had very little shade, and we decided to abandon the camping idea altogether. (If there were any restaurants, bars, or coffee shops around we could have chilled in onne of those for a few hours, but there weren’t.) So we motored a bit further into Vernal, Utah, which was a positively depressing place but was able to offer a decent selection of air-conditioned motels. This was sad, because one thing we’ve learned is that motels are just about the same everywhere, whereas every halfway-decent campground is positively steeped in the natural character of its area. But I don’t think we were physically up for being in that sun for much longer.

Tomorrow, however, we’ll be back at altitude as well as a couple of hundred miles further north. Things should be looking up.

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170 miles.

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