Thursday, July 12, 2018

Big Pine Lakes Backpacking

Big Pine.  Lone Pine.  Bishop.  These were just the funny little names of the quirky towns that we could always count on for food and gas while driving up the Highway 395 to Mammoth during snowboarding season.  I never would have imagined that these seemingly random places would end up becoming actual destinations for us.  It's true that there isn't really anything much to see or do in the towns themselves, but these towns serve as the gateways into endless options for adventure in the Eastern Sierra that we were totally oblivious to until this year.  Our first trip to Big Pine itself was last September, and we day-hiked to Big Pine Lakes on a whim by driving to the trailhead and doing an out-and-back hike on the North Fork trail.  We saw backpackers setting up their tents on the rocks above the gorgeous lakes, and I remember that we both were thinking, that could be us.

Little did I know that it really would be us.  This place is really popular (for obvious reasons), so we made sure to jump on it as soon as the reservation window opened.  By January, we had already locked in a mid-June weekend and we had most things that we needed in order to spend the night already, thanks to Wes's diligent research.  It was a much-anticipated backpacking trip, and it was awesome.  Of course, parts of it were less awesome, like pooping into a hole in the ground and getting swarmed by HOARDS of these crazy mosquitoes...and the combination of the two...but we would do it all again.  I think that the only thing we'd change is to pre-treat all of our stuff with mosquito repellent and get some stronger stuff... or avoid the season in general.  Wes must have had a hundred bites (if not more) all over his body.  Those dreaded bugs were able to push their stingers through our socks and long-sleeved shirts and even underneath the brim of our hats.  They were not only "ferocious," as the park ranger had put it, but absolutely merciless.  And they were completely unavoidable, despite covering up and bug spraying any exposed skin.

We intended to do lots of side-hikes to see more of the area since we had a full day to spare, but we ended up just being really laidback and hanging out a lot at Lake #2, which is where we chose to set up our tent.  This is undeniably the most beautiful lake out of the seven.  With such a prime camp spot, it would have been silly to not have taken full advantage!  We brought two cameras, our Sony RX1 and also our new Go Pro 6 on this trip and totally went crazy with the photos... we had forgotten how fun it was to have a Go Pro.

Eating the lightweight mountain meals that we brought with us was also a fun and exciting experience.  I'm not sure if other backpackers get as much of a kick out of their food as we do, but discovering the intricacies of rehydrating Backpackers' Pantry pad thai and the oddly satisfying taste and texture of freeze-dried Mexican chocolate ice cream were two of our favorite moments from this trip overall.  We had a lot of fun picking out these packaged lightweight dried foods at REI when they were on sale a while ago, so now was our chance to break them out.

In general, just being far away from all of the conveniences of the modern world was a wonderful way to recharge and reset.  We both had a few weeks of unpredictable and jam-packed work schedules, with Wes traveling out of state for two weeks back-to-back and me starting at a new school with a completely new caseload and picking up extra assignments every day at my second job at the skilled nursing facility.  It was great to have no email or calendar notifications, no alarms to set, and no definitive plans whatsoever.  No decisions needed to be made over what to eat or what chores/errands we could squeeze in, and no communication with anybody who was not present could possibly be had, since there was no reception.  The only things we needed to focus on were our basic needs: obtaining water, cooking our food, tending to our bodily functions, and avoiding bears.  We went to sleep after watching the sun set (at 9 PM or something!) and watched the stars come out through the transparent material of our tent ceiling.  For two mornings in a row, we woke up to Temple Crag looming over us in all of its glory.  It was worth it, swollen mosquito bites, grimy fingernails, sweaty armpits, and all.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Backpacking at Cottonwood Lakes

We wondered if something was a little bit off when we were booking permits for Cottonwood Lakes online.  Why were there so many reservations available for a popular weekend like Memorial Day?  Was it not fully booked out because it isn't as scenic or spectacular as other parts of the Sierra?  Maybe it's still too cold this time of year to go backpacking?  It was sort of unsettling, but we wouldn't be alone... it appeared that eight other idiots booked on the same day for the same general area.  We'd been looking forward to going back up the 395 for months, after waiting out the awkward time in between when the snow is good for snowboarding and bad for backpacking.  This would be our first long-awaited backpacking trip into the Sierra of the season.

Well, the days were drawing nearer and I started doing some research about Cottonwood Lakes.  It seemed like not too hard of a hike to get to the first or second lake and there was a large campground at the trailhead that we could try to grab a spot at the night before.  So, we could set up camp at Lake #1 or Lake #2 and then keep exploring the rest of the five lakes from there.  Wes kept his eye on the weather (which we soon learned really doesn't matter because it fluctuates on an hourly basis in the mountains).  After work on Friday, we went to REI to buy some things that I never thought I'd ever want to have anything to do with: freeze-dried instant meals and bear spray.  Also, I considered a female urination tube in case the weather was bad enough that I'd have to pee inside of our tent, but decided that it would be unnecessary (and disgusting).  We packed our backpacks, but not before we procrastinated just a little bit and stuck our many random stickers on our ice chest.  By Saturday morning, we were sort of sleepy but ready to roll.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Calling the Angeles National Forest Home

We've been calling Pasadena home for just over five years now.  Even though neither of us had imagined ourselves tucked way up in northeast corner of LA, it's been a total blessing to be where we are and we've never run out of things to do.  There's always the tupperware aisle at TJ Maxx, and the clearance section at Crate & Barrel, you know what I mean?  I wish I were kidding... Anyway, aside from cooking an array of new things at home and trying all sorts of underrated restaurants north of the 210 freeway, we'd spend a few hours hiking in nearby places every so often.  We would occasionally do a small hike (and feel very good about ourselves) to Eaton Canyon, Echo Mountain, or Sturtevant Falls, bringing banh mi and summer rolls or bagel sandwiches with us.

Even though that technically counted as being in the Angeles National Forest, we realize now that those highly trafficked trails barely even scratch the surface of what our surrounding wilderness had to offer.  It happened really quickly, but we started going deeper and higher.  When Wes wanted to buy trekking poles and the Forest Adventure Annual Pass last June, I knew that the itch was getting real.  We started going farther, higher, and deeper into the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains than we ever imagined we would.

With so many underrated campgrounds directly in our immediate area, we could always entertain the possibility of camping over the weekend with very little planning involved.  We've also enjoyed some fun cooking adventures (and mishaps).  Most people probably don't mind eating cup noodles or freeze dried food packets while "roughing it," but we always plan to cook something hearty at camp, even if it means carrying a heavier load in (we have packed in and packed out many a pasta jar, can of beans, or whole onion).  There ain't no fancy sous vide machine or air fryer out there, but we've made delicious food with a campfire, a pocket rocket, or a little portable gas stove.  For us, food is always half the fun wherever we go.

Chili at Chilao Campground (drive-in)

Brussels sprouts over the campfire and pasta in the pot with the pocket rocket

Reheated Thanksgiving leftovers which we had vacuum sealed and frozen the night before

Hanging the bear bag - annoying for me but I think he finds it fun

Several pounds of edibles that we carried for 5 miles to Spruce Grove Campground

Canned sardines, our favorite source of backpacking protein!

According to the Internet:  the Angeles National Forest covers over 650,000 acres and is the backyard playground to the huge metropolitan area of Los Angeles. The land and terrain within the Forest are much more diverse than what is perceived from the street level.  Much of the Forest is covered with dense chaparral which changes to pine and fir-covered slopes as you reach the majestic peaks of the higher elevations.  Elevations range from 1,200 to 10,064 feet.

 Echo Mountain - 3,205 feet

Inspiration Point - 4,714 feet

Mt. Wilson - 5,710 feet

Mt. Waterman - 8,038 feet

We vividly remember getting up to Inspiration Point for the first time ever and it was hailing!  This did the opposite of deterring us - it was exhilarating!  We were so amazed that it could literally be hailing so close to home.  Going beyond the usual stopping points and staying out through the night has opened our eyes to awesome plants, waterfalls, creeks, historic places, and critters that we hadn't known about.  Also, it was insanely liberating to be two of the only bums around.  There have been many defining (a.k.a. character-building / bonding) moments on the high trails: unexpected weather, reaching a new height, seeing a wild animal, meeting inspiring people, making an actual fire, enclosed tent farts (with the rain fly zipped), etc.

So this long overdue blog post is an ode to the Angeles National Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains.  I've been bad about getting together all of our pictures and writing things down for the past year - ironically, it's really because we've been busy doing what's in the photos rather than sitting at the computer!  Finally, here is a somewhat massive collection of the past year's worth of photos from all four seasons in our beloved Angeles National Forest!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Urubamba, Peru

Not going to lie, I was very doubtful of the soundness of my decision to book a few nights in Urubamba earlier on.  As we rode away from the bright and cheery city of Cusco into the dust, my apprehensions were confirmed when our driver mysteriously got pulled over by two policemen.  It was entirely too easy to fall in love with cutesy Cusco, but Urubamba was a place that we had to figure out.  Maybe it wasn't quite as raw and rugged as the wilderness where we were trekking, but we had nobody to lean on this time around.  Soon, though, we realized that the rhythm of life here is just as real as it gets.  It's a small town.  There were no coffeeshops, English menus, or people dressed in traditional garb walking around the plaza with llamas like Disney characters asking you to pay to get your snapshots.  We drank chicha in somebody's house, not in a picanterĂ­a.  We stayed at a quinta with Peruvian families, not a hostel with young globetrotters.  We ate food that was cooked using methods passed down for centuries, flavors intact, untouched by Westernization or mass production.  We actually didn't meet any other tourists here - it is always fun to talk to other tourists about their travels or about their countries of origin, but for these few days in Urubamba, we were talking only to people who live here (thank goodness I speak some Spanish).  Some people came from different parts of the world and found their hearts at peace here, building a new life off the beaten track.  Others are native to this land and follow the same traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Everyone showed us through their beliefs and warmheartedness that they are extremely proud to call this place home.

Known as the "Sacred Valley," the Urubamba Valley was formed by the Vilcanota River, which was (and still is) worshipped as the wellspring of life by its inhabitants.  But we think that it's the inhabitants themselves who make this valley sacred and special.  We didn't know what to expect, coming way out here for a few nights, but we left feeling that we had been touched by the true spirit of Peru.  People were kind, and not just pleasant and polite, but so eager to share and wanting to include us.  There weren't a lot of foreigners around, so maybe people were excited to have us, even if we were just a pair of sorely clueless foreigners.  Here, we never got the sense that we were being looked down upon, or looked up to, or treated with any kind of bias or reservation.  It was amazingly easy to bond with people, even though my Spanish was not good.  It's no wonder that people from different parts of the world fall in love with Urubamba and settle down here.  I wonder if people all come back from the Sacred Valley in Peru still dreaming about it at night or secretly making plans to move out there to start life afresh.  We did, for a little bit.