Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

We said it, we did it!  Yup, that’s right – the Rideouts have retired.  After a meager and miserly half-decade, we have attained financial freedom.  Abby and I had a plan when we got married: we wanted to have the financial resources to pursue our dreams within 6 years.  We set an aggressive goal and were relentless in our financial decisions. No frills, no vacations, no fancy groceries, no new gear. Our rule was no extras, ever.  We sewed our own clothes from native Alaskan plants.  We carved our own skis from the birch trees in our front yard.  We grew and trapped our own food, subsisting mostly on boiled cabbage and arctic ground squirrel.  And Alaskan chickens (*wink*).  We insisted on absolute adherence to our own rules, and now, at the ripe old ages of 32 and 35, we can do whatever we want for the rest of our lives!  It’s very exciting.

While the plan as laid out seems very simple and straightforward, I’ve left out the most important element.  What’s that, you ask?  Simple: delusion.  In reality, we managed to save some money over the course of the past few years, and are taking a year off at the expense of any type of responsible long term financial planning.  Screw it – let’s go travel!  Oh man, it’s been a long while coming, and not a moment too soon.  It’s been more than 4 years without anything longer than a 3-week vacation.  4 long years sitting behind a desk, watching the clock tick-tick-ticking away the hours.  4 long years spent skiing, and climbing mountains, and running through the woods, and…wait, I’m not really painting a very sympathetic picture, am I?  Woe is us?  No?  Well, you get the idea.  Life in Anchorage is great and fantastic and wonderful and…[superlative ad infinity]…, but we had been growing more and more antsy as the seasons continued to turn and we became entrenched in our lives. Life was great, but we were restless.  In particular, we fiercely missed the simplicity and freedom of living out of our backpacks, so we quit our jobs, rented out our house, bought a piece-of-shit (POS) VW van, and up and left.

In reality, our year off started before the fact last November, when we took a month off to raft the Grand Canyon. 16 people for 28 days over 270 miles.  5 rafts, packed full of top-notch food, plush camping gear, and beer.  Lots of beer.  6 shopping carts full of beer, plus 2 chest high stacks of cases for good measure.  Ah, it was a beautiful thing, watching those wobbly carts wheel awkwardly through the checkout aisle.  Case after case of Coors, Coors Light, High Life, PBR, Tecate, and then the microbrews.  Actually, we drank lots of beer, but the visual impact of buying that much beer at once was the best part.  I have never seen such a collection!

Beer run for the Grand Canyon.  This is 80%.
The trip itself was magical, and will stay with us for a long, long time.  The group got along incredibly well, and the trip was a powerfully immersive experience.  Once you push off from Lees Ferry and engage the current, your existence becomes defined by the canyon walls on either side.  The outside world drops away as the walls rise, and you surrender your life to the river for the next month. Ours was a winter trip (although we all agreed it was the same as an Alaska summer), so we mostly had the place to ourselves.  In 28 days on the river, we saw but 5 other groups, all of who passed us by since we were the slow boat(s). We climbed side canyons and explored their surreal sandstone sculpture parks.  We hiked up to the rim just to be able to look back down into the depths of our home.  We had nightly campfires, where we watched the stars work their way across the narrow strip of sky visible from the river bottom, and laughed with new friends.  We drank lots of beer. 

Rafting in the heart of the canyon.
Dawn at the Nankoweap Granaries.
Approaching Vegas towards the end of the canyon, we were reminded that the trip couldn’t last forever.  Helicopters started invading our silence as they took groups of tourists on flightseeing tours.  It was an abrupt break from the world we’d been travelling through and we showed our discontent with a full moon as the full moon rose behind us.  The symmetry was impossible to pass up.  We ended our trip in Lake Mead, and spent a final night camped in the desert, trying to finish the last of the beer.   We were unsuccessful – barely – and our shuttle arrived early the next morning to return us to the real world and the madness of Christmas. 

Dawn at our takeout on the Colorado River.  It was a sad occasion.
We flew back home, back to winter, back to the most epic ski season on record.  Cold snow, impossible stability, and sunny days made for incredible skiing.  We skied lines we’ve been eyeing for years, and crossed more and more off our list as the days rolled by.  The west face of Pyramid, a 3200-foot run we’ve drooled over for 5 years got skied in knee deep powder, from summit to the sea.  We explored some new areas, and in April flew out of Haines for another weeklong ski trip in Glacier Bay National Park.  When the snow finally started melting and the ridges were clear enough to run, it was with mixed emotions that we traded in our skis for trail runners.

Dennis skiing a new line in Peterson Creek.
Andy and Abby eyeing 3200 ft. of perfect snow off the summit of Pyramid.
Getting ready to head down to camp near Haines.
Mary reaching the top of a run near Haines.
We both finished our jobs by the end of May, and planned on spending June and July in Alaska.  With two commitment-free months we figured we could check off a lot of the trips on our list that were too long for a weekend, or needed more planning, or whatever.  There was no shortage of ideas.  The plan was a sound one, but the weather refused to cooperate.  April turned to May, and it started raining.  And it never stopped.  In the month of May, it rained 15 days.  In June, it rained 17 days, and in July, it rained 20 days.  Of the 41 rain free days during those three months, 13 were foggy, and a measly 6 were classified as “fair” (source: National Weather Service Anchorage office monthly climate summary).  The weather combined with the record snowpack leftover from the heavy snow year turned the entire state into a bog.  It was miserable. 

Packrafting the upper Susitna River.
We hid under a rock ledge in the middle of the glacier when it started raining sideways.  
Abby wearing all her layers and some of mine in a futile attempt to stay warm.
Yay!  Off the wet snow, into 6 inches of standing water!
Into the midst of this soggy mess entered the Rideout parents and 4 of their friends.  They drove up from Ontario in a pair of RV trailers and we spent three weeks touring around with them, getting a sneak preview of what retired life in an RV park can be.  We always thought it could be good, but we had no idea it could be this good.  Dinners at 5, cable TV, yappy dogs galore – what more could a person want out of life? We dubbed them the Geriatric 6, or G6 for short.  It was a bit of a change from our standard approach to travel, but it was great to have some company in the rain.  

The G6 in action.  Only 2 of the 6 got lost, and then only for 3 hours, so really a pretty successful outing!
They left in late July and finally our time had come.  We packed the house, loaded up our POS VW van and headed south. 

The open road!
Dinner at our campsite for the night.  Walmart parking lot!
Our plan for the fall was to spend time in the mountains and deserts of the West – mainly the Canadian Rockies, southern Utah, and the High Sierra of California.  Our van betrayed us almost immediately, and the Saga of Skookum began (see attached). From the Yukon we headed south to Alberta, and were blown away by the mountains and access there.  And the weather, oh my, the weather!  After three straight months of rain, the sunshine was intoxicating. We spent the better part of three weeks peakbagging throughout the area, exploring Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Waterton Lakes.  We got our hands on a guidebook, Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, and set to work.  We dug into the mountains with a summer’s worth of pent up energy and climbed everything in sight. We tried to take days off, but every morning would dawn sunny and clear, and our hard-wired Alaskan brains were incapable of sitting around on a sunny day.  Weather windows are more valuable than gold, and we felt like we’d won the lottery.  It got to the point where we started hoping for rain so we could rest our legs.  It never happened. 

Uh-oh.  Monday looks terrible.
Abby nearing the summit of Mt. Wilcox on the Icefields Parkway.
Steve on the summit of Mt. Yukness, Yoho National Park.
Abby trying not to die in Little Yoho.
A comprehensive hygiene routine was part of our daily ritual.  Scrub harder!
Before we knew it, September was looming and we had to push on.  Next on the list?  The Sierra High Route, a 200-mile off-trail route that roughly parallels the John Muir Trail through California’s Sierra Nevada.  Photographer friends of ours invited us along as a photoshoot for Black Diamond, and we gladly accepted.  We got outfitted with a bunch of BD gear and modeled our way through the mountains.  We looked good.  It was a return to an area we hadn’t visited since our through-hike of the PCT in 2005, so we were excited to spend more time in such a beautiful place. The sunny weather continued, and we made sure to stop twice a day to cool off in some of the innumerable pristine alpine lakes along the way.  Cliff jumping, skinny-dipping, star-gazing – three weeks without roads through the high mountains left us all with shit-eating grins from ear to ear.  

Diving board near the Evolution Basin.
Tricky footing coming down from a pass.
We ended in Yosemite and hitched rides to Reno, where we spent a few days easing ourselves back into the civilized world.  For anyone tempted to visit Reno as a cheap alternative to Vegas – don’t.  It is a cheap alternative to Vegas, but in this case that’s not a good thing.  The facades are crumbling, the people seem desperate, and the whole place has a dirty, used feeling that leaves you sad. But the food was great and it served out needs perfectly.

The hiking extravaganza continued with an attempt at the Hayduke Trail, something we’ve wanted to do since we first came across it in a dusty magazine years ago.  It links the highlights of Southern Utah from Arches National Park to Zion National Park with lots of canyon country in between.  We’d heard it was tough and at times tedious, but full of spectacular scenery.  We gave ourselves 6 weeks to cover the 700+ miles, and mailed food to the more remote resupply points along the way.  Buying 4 days worth of food at a gas station is possible, and has been done before, but is far from desirable.  We took a bus down to Moab, and after running out of reasons to stay in town, we started putting one foot in front of the other and we were off! 

The Joint Trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
Sunrise at our favourite camp on the Hayduke Trail.
Descending into Youngs Canyon on the Hayduke Trail.
Trail magic from Owen the Ranger at Hite Marina.  They were even cold!
Exploring a slot canyon.
Despite the breathtaking scenery, the “wow” moments were separated by long sections of road walking and thicket-bashing in the bottom of canyons.  We were constantly surprised by the route selection, and spent half our time scratching our heads in confusion. As the frustration grew we started questioning why we were pushing ourselves so hard, hiking 20 miles a day through the desert for views of mostly tamarisk.  We like bushwhacking – it’s a requirement of living in Alaska – but the math wasn’t adding up.  Oftentimes the hardships in a long trip are what really make it worthwhile and allow the great moments to stand out in contrast.  This time, it wasn’t working out that way.  We wanted a tough challenge, but our hearts simply weren’t into it.  Halfway through we pulled the plug and converted our M.O. to strictly hiking the highlights.  Life became much easier.  We cherry picked the appealing sections from the second half and had a great time exploring the surreal landscapes in the area.

Abby keeping her feet dry in Buckskin Gulch.
Sunset in the heart of canyon land in southern Utah.
Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park.
Our road trip drew to a close with a final swing through the Pacific Northwest, back in to the land of rain.  We’d forgotten about the mysterious precipitation that fell from the sky, and had grown soft in our prolonged period of sun worshipping.  We stopped in at numerous friends along our way north and eventually made it Vancouver by the end of November.  We temporarily adopted our niece and nephew and took the ferry over to Vancouver Island, where we enjoyed the excellent hospitality of friends and more rain.  Ella and Kole loved sleeping in the pop-top, and were sorely disappointed when we arrived back home.   Being parents was a breeze, and there were only three things that happened which we swore to never tell their mom and dad about. 

It’s now December 20, 2012, and we’ve been in Hawai’i for 3 weeks.  We’re living in Captain Cook, on the Big Island at Abby’s parent’s place.  We just finished a dinner of seared ahi caught fresh this morning accompanied by a mango and papaya salad made with fruit picked from trees in the yard.  Earlier this afternoon, we went into town and swam part of the Kona Ironman course.  Yesterday, we hiked down to the Pacific Ocean from the property and snorkeled with dolphins at the spot where Captain Cook was killed in 1779.  When we were done, we made a fire on the beach and roasted (tofu) hot dogs as we watched the winter surf pound the jagged volcanic coast. 

Sunset from Phil and Trudy's in Captain Cook, Hawaii.

Beautiful scenery in the Pololu Valley.
Since our arrival, we’ve adapted to the tropical lifestyle nicely. Life in Hawai’i is easy, and good.  Abby’s parent’s retired here last year, and their house was completed in August so much still remains to be done.  We’ve gotten into a nice routine where we spend most of our time working on the property: building rock walls, picking avocados, planting an herb garden.  Up at dawn, work hard all morning and into the afternoon, then we down to the beach for a swim before sunset.  Back in time for a sundowner, and then dinner and hang out before early to bed.  It’s been very satisfying to make tangible progress on the property, and as Phil (Abby’s dad) says, “The best part of building a rock wall is standing back once it’s finished and admiring it”.   We celebrated Christmas early with a pig roast on 12/12/12.  Family from both sides came over to the island and we did it in traditional Hawaiian style.  We caught a pig across the street, and roasted her in an imu, where the pig is filled with hot rocks and then smoked in an earthen pit.  It was delicious!  

Bert placing the food in the imu - he's the resident expert.
Now we only have 2 more weeks of the easy life and then we’re off to the grand finale of our gap year – the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal.  We’re returning to the land of giant mountains and dhal bhat (rice with lentil stew) where we plan to hike across the entire country over the course of 3 months.  Planning is difficult since there is a pronounced dearth of reliable information on the more remote sections, but we have our tickets booked and are confident that the remaining pieces will fall into place once we arrive.  We land in Kathmandu in late January and plan on beginning our trek the first or second week of February.  Our good friends Mary and Andy will be joining us, co-conspirators on most of our longer adventures over the past few years.

As for the future, nursing school is officially a go for Steve.  Sort of.  He bit the bullet and took a full slate of classes this past winter, getting all of his prerequisites out of the way in order to start applying to different schools.  He has currently narrowed the choices down to the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Montana State University in Bozeman. Now he just needs to figure out where and when he’ll start.  He has absolutely no idea how to choose between those four schools, but has plenty of time to figure it out, and Abby is supportive of all four locations.  There will be hours and hours to think about it during the long walk through the Himalaya, and perhaps the thin air will provide some clarity and enlightenment.  School will start sometime between next fall and the following May depending on where enrollment is granted, so our plans upon our return from Asia are also completely up in the air.  Abby can get a nursing job pretty much anywhere, and is looking forward to exploring the diversity that nursing has to offer.  We are tentatively thinking about spending the summer in Juneau, Alaska, but have some other possibilities rattling around as well.  How’s this - we’ll let you know where we end up once we get there!

And before we sign off, we have one unresolved item left on the agenda.  How could we write another lengthy missive and fail to mention our beloved chickens?  The best is saved for last.  Where are the chickens now, you ask?  They’re living in the van with the Vancouver Rideouts.  We built a nice coop in the far back of the van that has a feeding station and a roosting box, and we’ve trained them to potty in a litter box.  It was a bit awkward smuggling them across the border so many times, but they’ve become adept at staying quiet when the pressure’s on.  Actually, none of that is true.  In reality, they’re at summer camp.  Except it’s now winter and they’re still at camp.  So maybe it’s a bit more than just summer camp.  Don’t tell them, okay?  Our friends across the neighborhood adopted them and they’re doing well!  It’s been below zero (F) for about a month straight now, but luckily they moulted earlier than last year, so had a fresh coat of feathers before the cold really hit. They frostbit their combs last winter and developed a more streamlined look from the amputations that followed, so they’re more prepared than ever for the long Alaskan winter.  We look forward to seeing them upon our return.

Chicka, Nascar, and Apocalypse.
Merry Aloha Christmas and Happy Mahalo New Year!  With luck, we’ll talk to you soon. 

Steve and Abby. 


Kristen said...

f you do decide to spend the summer down here in Juneau, let me know! Joe and me and the kids are here and would be happy to show you around a little! :) Enjoy your amazing travels!

-Kristen Grieser

Big City Lawrence said...

Glad to hear you're still alive and well. I think I'll stop calling your last known Alaskan phone number now.

Happy Birthday Eve Eve Eve Steve!

Laura Young said...

So happy to read about about your adventure and glad you dumped the evil vw!. Be safe and have fun. Laura