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Excerpts
From the Print Edition, August 2002
 
Wild Rides
Four Classic Summer Road Trips

By David Noland

Take off this summer on four great road trips that not only steer you through spectacular landscapes but also guide you to a wealth of outdoor fun along the way—hiking and biking trails, backcountry campgrounds, secret swimming holes, lost canyons, and unspoiled islands.

For all his diatribes about the evils of development in general and highway building in particular, Edward Abbey—a famously complex soul—loved nothing more than to hit the road. "Whenever there was enough money for gas," he wrote, "we took off."

In an old dented pickup truck (and, later in life, a cherry-red Cadillac), he'd drive into the desert on washboard tracks and jeep trails until he got stuck, then start hiking. "The only right way to get to know this country (any country)," he wrote, "is with your body."

With the Abbey spirit in mind, we mapped out four routes with enough hiking, biking, paddling, camping, and other outdoor activities to get you acquainted intimately with this country. Where? For starters, in Abbey's much loved canyonlands of southern Utah, where the itinerary takes in the Burr Trail, the red-rock ramparts of Capitol Reef, and other highlights along the old Abbey road.

An Idaho-Montana excursion leads to fishing holes and ghost towns in the northern Rockies. The Maine road weaves past kayaking coves, while the North Carolina-Tennessee tour energizes ancient Appalachia with rail trails and white water. So head out this summer for wild rides on adventure roads—and be sure to budget plenty of time for unforgettable out-of-vehicle experiences.

* * * *

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome," Ed Abbey wrote, "and leading to the most amazing view." [Our] road trip through the wilderness of southern Utah is Abbey's blessing writ large: nearly 200 miles [322 kilometers] of crooked, winding, and lonesome roads and trails with views that will have you reaching for your camera.

The route, which I road tested recently, cruises up water-sculpted canyons, over sun-burnished slickrock, and under enormous skies. It starts and finishes in the remote desert outpost of Boulder, Utah, which is halfway between the last mountain range (the Henrys) and the last major river (the Escalante) to be discovered in the contiguous United States.

From Boulder, you'll navigate legendary stretches of road like the Hells Backbone, the Hogback, and the Burr Trail. Some miles are paved; many others are not. Outside the car, camping, canyoneering, hiking, biking, and other adventures await in the starkly beautiful landscape that Abbey found "strange, marvelous, full of wonders."

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Fast and Wild Summer Escapes
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An Outlaw's Guide to Iceland
By Tom Clynes

It's Europe's last great wilderness—a land of geysers and lava flows, of giants, elves, and trolls. It's a place where hiking, kayaking, biking, and caving abound—and where your best escort is a thieving, murdering national hero who's been dead for a thousand years.

"This boy Grettir—well, he was trouble from the very beginning." High atop Drangey Island, Jón Eiríksson stood at the nub of a jagged rectangle of stones, looking out at the fjord and the mainland beyond. Above him, seabirds wheeled in the salt wind over Drangey, a green-capped spike of rock thrust down like an ax head into the Greenland Sea. Jón took off his hat and ran his fingers through a tuft of white hair, then sat down on a half-buried stone.

"Grettir is our neighbor," Jón said. "He was born on a farm near Midfjörd, a place called Bjarg. That means ‘rock' in Icelandic. When he was young, he was handsome but rough and mischievous. His father and nearly everyone believed that he would amount to nothing."

Jón talked as though he were describing a ne'er-do-well kid who squeals his tires as he careers through the subdivision. But at 73, Jón isn't quite old enough to have known his juvenile-delinquent neighbor. Grettir was born a thousand years ago.

I had arrived in Iceland with photographer Michael Moore determined to follow the path of Grettir Ásmundarson, a medieval Jesse James who outwitted his pursuers for nearly 20 years, wreaking havoc across the remotest corners of 11th-century Iceland.

As Jón told us, and as any Icelander will attest, "Grettir was not only the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland but also the greatest outlaw."

Iceland, the last great wilderness in Europe, has few old buildings and no castles or palaces. But to Icelanders, history and myth are woven into the landscape itself. Every hill, every river and rock, seems to have a story behind it. Collectively, these stories are known as the Icelandic Sagas.

Written mostly by anonymous authors between 1200 and 1400, the sagas are still part of the country's daily consciousness, the Icelanders' key to comprehending their extraordinary environment, their countrymen, and themselves.

For me, the sagas were a means of getting to the root of a place that had already attained mythic status in my imagination.

I dreamed of Iceland, perched precariously on the mid-Atlantic volcanic ridge, as an adventurer's paradise of glaciers and salmon-filled rivers, high green cliffs and spectacular fjords. Travelers raved about a dramatically lit, ghost-blown place, peppered with lava flows and geysers, populated by farmer-poets and fair beauties.

The sagas read like American Westerns, with narratives propelled by brutal feuds and punctuated by bursts of sarcastic wit—indeed, several of John Huston's and John Ford's film plots were clearly inspired by them. Grettir's Saga—also known as The Saga of Grettir the Strong—features well-rendered battles, daring deeds, and a charismatic leading man who still reigns as Icelanders' favorite saga character.

"Icelanders see Grettir as an underdog who refused to back down to the rich and powerful," says Örnólfur Thorsson, a Reykjavík-based scholar who edited a series of English translations of the sagas. "He's a complex hero—he's a Superman and a villain, he's a Robin Hood and a hotheaded goon, he's a womanizer and a family man. He has tremendous advantages of strength and intellect, but he's hobbled by hubris and bad luck."

Like most of the sagas, Grettir's is part fact and part tall tale. Grettir Ásmundarson was a real person whose outlawry and death (in the year 1031) can be cross-referenced in a variety of records. But in the 300 years before his story was written down, it was exaggerated to include a fantastic array of deeds (a boulder that Grettir supposedly lifted at Bjarg must weigh more than ten tons) and supernatural beings.

As a young man, Grettir was more interested in picking fights and wowing neighbors with tests of strength than in working on the family farm. His father was not amused, but his mother, Ásdís, detected greatness in her son and encouraged him with heroic tales of his ancestors' triumphant battles.

On Grettir's first journey outside his home district, he killed a man in a brawl, setting into motion a series of events that ultimately resulted in his being declared a "full outlaw," condemned to wander the wilderness with a price on his head.

While on the lam, Grettir tried to channel his strength into positive endeavors, but his every good deed was destined to go awry. Abandoned by his countrymen, he made his solitary way across the land, battling enemies and Iceland's bizarre environment (often manifested in evil spirits and fearsome trolls).

Brandishing a sword and spouting memorable lines of poetry, the outlaw circled Iceland, pausing to horse-jack travelers, assist a widow with a poltergeist problem, or tryst with a saucy farm maiden. When he finally ran out of places to hide, he made his way to the top of Drangey and pulled up the ladders behind him, expecting to live out the rest of his life in safety.

Grettir, I thought, would make a hell of a guide to Iceland.

Mike and I decided to create our own ultimate adventure tour by following the outlaw's odyssey by foot, bicycle, kayak, and four-wheel-drive truck. We would ply the icy waters where Grettir swam, soak in the hot springs where he soothed his bones, and dine on meals of puffin, fish, and lamb. We would climb into the caves where he slept, and backpack into the lost valleys where he rustled sheep and romanced a giant's daughters.

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Lost Souls of the Peyote Trail
By Kira Salak

Anthropologists come here looking for an intact culture. City kids come looking for a high. New Age seekers come looking for themselves. But the peyote-fired spiritual world of Mexico's Huichol Indians remains as fiercely guarded as their forbidding mountain homeland.

I am camping alone in the Huichol Indians' sacred peyote desert of Wirikúta, and I hear a sound I can't account for. A strange rumbling that starts whenever I move, like the sound of a great wind, though there is no breeze, only the kind of silence you find in deserts—a silence so complete that speaking feels like blasphemy.

The Huichol believe that the souls of their dead come here. They think that the gods are everywhere, watching. Huichol primeros—first-timers to Wirikúta—who come on one of the annual peyote pilgrimages don't see the desert I see but an indescribably brilliant paradise where only the most powerful gods live.

They must cover their eyes from the brilliance, and so the shamans lead them blindfolded and conduct a special ceremony so that the primeros can witness it safely. The magic, I have been told, is otherwise too much for them.

I see no magic. Only the mesquite, the creosote bushes looking half dead, the prickly pear, agave, and yuccas of this part of Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. There is no sign of any kind of paradise. Just desert scrub. But then again, I have been taught my whole life that magic does not exist. It has been relegated to the imaginings of childhood, to the Tolkien novels and the tales of Narnia.

But I look hard now at the mesquite, the prickly pear. I try to imagine a paradise full of gods. The dusk settles upon the desert, sealing me in beneath a wrap of fog. It becomes cold, and I retreat to my sleeping bag and pull it around me.

I hear the rumbling again, and terror holds me. I turn on my side and hear it again. And again as I turn my head… I laugh. I've been frightened by the sound of my own inner ears.

It is not an easy thing to find peyote—anyone will tell you that. A scientist would say that this is because it lies close to the ground, usually camouflaged by a creosote or mesquite bush. The cactus itself is about the size of a silver dollar and the green-gray color of desert brush.

It has no spines to protect it from predators, and so it produces a powerful chemical, mescaline, that when ingested will cause an animal to be forever repulsed by it. A scientist would emphasize that the cactus is otherwise a helpless plant, and only its small, elusive nature saves it from extinction.

But the Huichol Indian would give an entirely different story. He will say that the peyote's spirit—for every peyote plant has a spirit—knows the heart of anyone who goes in search of it, and that if one's intention is bad, the plant will turn invisible, will hide. Only a knowledgeable Huichol shaman will be able to perform the proper ceremonies in order to coax the peyote to reappear.

I don't know what to think. My brother, a scientist, is credited in Guinness World Records with discovering the world's tallest cactus, yet it took him three days to find a single peyote button in Wirikúta. I have nearly convinced myself that I will find none at all.

Still, I drive into the heart of peyote country, determined to find some. The Huichol, of course, would see this as a test to determine where I stand in the spirit realm. If my heart is pure and the gods like me, the plant will allow me to find it.

I probably have a number of strikes against me, coming as I do from a family of hard-core atheists who have always viewed belief in such matters as an egregious character flaw. Yet, somehow, I became spiritual. It happened slowly, over my college years.

The so-called coincidences that felt too much like serendipity. The uncanny power of intention. I found that I could no longer dismiss what I was discovering, so that the dogma of my parents became inadequate to explain the world and my place in it. I sensed there was more.

And then I started reading about the isolated Huichol of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, with their complex relationship to peyote, and I found a people who claim access to higher forms of knowledge that Euro-centric societies can hardly fathom. Just imagine: a people as committed to understanding the realm of gods and spirits, the time-bending channels of past and future, as my American culture has been to its chemistry and calculus.

I park my car and head off into the desert. I start looking under mesquite and creosote bushes, the air thick with the spicy-sweet scent of the desert. I'm amused by this impromptu search, by my lack of qualifications.

"Look very carefully," I've written on a notepad. I look. Carefully. Under each bush that crosses my path. Already it seems hopeless. I reach a small rise and see the desert trailing off to the west, agave and yuccas piercing the spread of horizon.

"This is impossible," I say out loud.

I feel a strange compulsion all of a sudden. That is exactly how it feels—a compulsion—and my gaze is being tugged to a spot behind me. There in the dirt beneath a mesquite bush I have already closely checked and dismissed sit six little peyote buttons.

I am amazed to see them; I can hardly believe they're real. I kneel down to touch one. Its green-gray skin feels tough yet yielding, like the skin of a person's heel.

I look at my watch and discover that I have found peyote in less than 15 minutes.

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Disaster on Mount Hood
By James Vlahos

Special Report: How did a sunny day on Mount Hood turn into the worst U.S. climbing disaster in years? Experts analyze what went wrong—and what we can learn from it.

Just before 9 a.m. on May 30, someone slipped on the way down from the summit of Mount Hood. It may have been Richard Read or William Ward, the Oregon locals, or Christopher Kern or Harry Slutter, from New York—but it doesn't really matter who slipped, because the four men were roped together.

Two of them began to shoot down the icy, 35-degree slope of the 11,239-foot [3,426-meter] volcano, and the other two had three seconds—at most—to drop down, dig in their ice axes, and pray.

By the time the rope snapped taut, no one had managed to set the brakes, and all four men plunged down the slope. They swept up two more people—Californians John Biggs and Thomas Hillman—and gained speed.

One hundred yards [91 meters] downhill, seven climbers, most of them members of a Portland-area fire department, were cautiously picking their way around the bergschrund, a 25-foot-deep [8-meter-deep] crevasse. Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue fitness specialist Chad Hashbarger, who was in the lower of two rope teams, heard a yell and looked up.

"I saw a mass of ropes, packs, and people sliding a hundred miles [161 kilometers] an hour down the mountain," Hashbarger says. The climbers snagged the upper Tualatin team, and a total of nine people shot into the crevasse and disappeared. "There was a thump-thump-thumping, and then it was deathly quiet on the mountain," Hashbarger says.

Four of the mountaineers were injured, and Read, Ward, and Biggs were killed, making the disaster the second deadliest in Mount Hood's history. (In 1986, seven high school students and two teachers froze to death on the mountain.)

Only a day before, three experienced climbers had perished in a ferocious storm on Washington's 14,410-foot [4,392-meter] Mount Rainier; a week earlier, on Hood, a snowboarder had slipped off an icy ridge and plunged 2,500 feet [762 meters] to his death.

In the aftermath of these accidents, safety experts are questioning the dangers posed by crowding on the two popular peaks—annually, more than 10,000 people try to summit each mountain—and the preparedness of some of the climbers tackling them.

Hood is particularly worrisome because it has a reputation as an easy climb. The South Side Route, where the climbers fell into the crevasse, is nicknamed the Dog Route—in the right conditions, the average mutt can trot up to the top and back, with energy left over to chase a few stray tennis balls. But the mountain is unpredictable. What happened next on May 30 would certainly prove that.

By early afternoon, satellite trucks—CNN, MSNBC, local channels 2, 6, 8, and 12—had ringed the mountain's Timberline Lodge. Around the bergschrund, a small army had assembled: members of Portland Mountain Rescue, American Medical Response, and the Timberline Professional Ski Patrol.

At 1:50 p.m., an Air Force Reserve Pave Hawk helicopter dipped down to hoist up injured Tualatin firefighter Jeremiah Moffitt.

Ski patroller Jeff Livick, crouched over the litter, looked up and was surprised to see the helicopter backing away and the hoist cable falling out of it.

To his horror, the craft drooped, listed left, and nosed into the slope. Instantly, the rotor blades shattered. Then the Pave Hawk—a $16 million, 50-foot [15-meter], ten-ton craft—was tumbling down the hill. "I watched the first person hang on the outside of the helicopter for two full rolls until his gunner's belt finally broke, leaving him on the slope," Livick says. The helicopter rolled nearly a thousand feet [305 meters] before stopping.

Amazingly, only one of the Pave Hawk's crew members was seriously injured. At press time, the cause of the accident was still under investigation, though one of the pilots reportedly told his parents that "a tremendous gust" of wind had blasted the chopper just before it crashed.

An alert crew member sheared the hoist cable, saving the vulnerable Moffitt from being dragged down the mountain. "I'm just glad I'm alive," Moffitt told the Associated Press. "I don't think many people do two near-death experiences in an hour."

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August 2002:
In the Magazine | Excerpts | Peyote Photos | Wildland Firefighting | Iceman Runneth | Forums | Gear Guide: GPS | Gear Guide: Ultralight Tents | Adventurer's Handbook | Travel Calendar




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