Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Surprising Effectiveness of Bottle Cap Crampons

I was south of American Falls, ID about a week ago when travel conditions on the water gave me two choices: camp or portage. A 2PM finish didn't appeal to me, so I took to the road and set up Taj to haul the 240 pound trailered boat and gear. The bike is a helpful friend on long portages, provided there is no uphill. Even a 2-3% grade is impossible for more than a few hundred yards. Anything steeper requires that I walk the bike, and with steeper inclines I usually find myself horizontal to the ground with elbows locked and heels pointed skyward as I picture myself front pointing imaginary crampons into an ice wall.

The problem in this case was that a band of basalt cliffs pushed a highway so close to the river that it striped the lowlands of any non-highway road or trail- not even a frontage road on which to portage. So I hauled up on a road that ascended the cliffs looking for a detour around the highway. What I found was a seven mile dirt road with an 850 foot elevation gain in the second mile. The hard packed clay was coated in patches with sand and gravel such that every other step had me sliding out and driving a knee to the earth. No amount of effort could prevent it- my horizontal hauling technique was the only thing that could get the rig up a steep hill- with the suddenness of a bad fall on blue ice, my boot would kick out and the grinding pain of flesh being hammered into mineral shot up my thigh.

Knees being as important as they are, I stopped. After calming down and letting the sweat dry, I dug around in my glucose-starved brain for a solution to the day's Seventy-Third Significant Problem. I'll spare you the dramatic details of my eventual engineering, but an awl, some wire, a bit of Gorilla tape, one very large needle, dental floss, and a handful of bottle caps held the answer. I fastened two bottle caps, crimped face down, to the front pad of each sneaker as temporarily as I could. Just the afternoon before I had decided to start picking up trash on late afternoon road portages to pass the time and clean up the hilariously filthy rural Idahoan roadsides. So serendipitously I had a handful of old Budweiser caps in my boat- another stroke of luck.

I was shocked at how well it worked- rarely do ideas like this turn out so well. The bottle cap crampons bypassed the gravel and bit into the clay with each step, and I strained upwards like a Polar sledger on the Beardsmore. Soon I was looking out eastwards to the mountains from the top of a desert bluff. The dirt road fired arrow straight across the valley before me; I laughed at myself in the slanting sunshine of early evening and I reached down to cut the caps and floss out with a pen knife. Onwards, westwards.


The long push across western Idaho is now, finally, over. I arrived in Jackson, WY on Sunday afternoon and was quickly taken in by my friend Elyse. Soon after I was clean, fed, and drinking good beer on a couch. Heaven is made of such scenes. The next day she made me breakfast; I easily finished four bagels, seven eggs and a half pound of bacon without really pausing. So began my first day of rest since leaving Portland, Oregon fifty days and 1130 miles before.

And none too soon. The week preceding my arrival in Jackson was one of the hardest of the expedition thus far. It did not matter whether I was paddling, biking, or walking, in any method of locomotion my body cried out for rest ceaselessly. The part of the body in agony might change as the day went on, but the struggle was continuous. No amount of food satisfied- I would stop eating only when my stomach stopped stretching. With the first entry into the ramparts of the mountains, the fight was on in earnest. With the heat of the previous week, the snow had come off the hills and mountains in sheets and the river was over at 150% of its mean, charging downhill at 17,000 cubic feet per second. Outside of the reservoirs and meanders, I was forced to portage more often that I would have liked.

As in all things, the great effort & pain brought great reward. I left the procumbent geology and sapping heat of the river plain and was wrapped round in the glorious embrace of the Rockies. Pines ran up each successive ridge in increasing density, and soon the snow patches merged into unbroken bowls and fields at high elevation. The air seemed cleaner, more cool and of that singular scent most northerners relate to home. So it is with me. The water too I finally deemed clean enough to swim in, the farms, nuclear reactors, feedlots, and cities were all behind me. Arriving at Palisades Reservoir, I limped down to the cold water and plunged in, ecstatic with progress and the feeling of finally being in the mountains once again.


Now, I rest. The Continental Divide is only two days travel to the north, and here in downtown Jackson, Wyoming I have reached the end of Leg One of my journey across the North American continent. For the summer I will return to my job for a time, working 30-day backpacking and canoeing courses in the Yukon Territory until August. I will start the 4,000 mile drive North in a few days.

It dawned on as I was coming into Jackson that life is good when in your dreams, your work, and your vacations you are always doing the same thing.

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