A Starry Night In The House Of The Sun

Halwakala Cabin

As a seasonal Maui resident, I’m at home with the massive, dormant volcano that dominates my kitchen’s view.  I time my beach hikes to start before our tropical sun rises above its 10,024 ft., shield-like, summit.  From dawn to sunset, Haleakala (“the house of the sun”) presents an ever-changing spectacle of clouds, squalls, and plumes of drifting Big Island fog.  Haleakala National Park’s three wilderness cabins are ideal for viewing Hawaii’s heavens. 

Recently my friend Rich Brunner and I hiked down into the crater.  We hadn’t gone far from the 7990 ft. Halemau’u Trailhead before we met a mule-mounted wrangler.  On that narrow ridge, he and his pack string were outlined against a vibrant rainbow.

Our trail was a characteristically well-designed Civilian Conservation Corps marvel.  Many times elsewhere I’d admired the work of the young men whose labor benefitted our country during the Great Depression.  Here their rock retaining walls and switchbacks have endured for eight decades.

Rain surged up from Ko’olau Gap.  Visibility constricted to peekaboo views of basalt crags and scattered cinder cones.

Haleakala boasts more endangered species than any other American national Park.  Otherworldly scenery abounds in the 7-mile wide, 2,600 ft. deep crater.  Luckily we reached the dun-colored, desert floor in time to see a pair of graceful birds swoop toward a black, barely-visible moraine.  Maui’s famous nene geese had become extinct here, but the species was reintroduced to Haleakala by Boy Scouts who’d carried in goslings.

Our route climbed the moraine past lava tubes and native shrubland to 6940 ft. Hōlua Cabin.  We lighted a compressed log fire in the old wood stove and changed into warm, dry clothes.  My simple, candlelight dinner pleased me more than any meal I’d ever eaten in the nearby, coastal resorts.

At 10 PM, the clouds lifted from Haleakala’s great amphitheater.  When we stepped out into the cold, night air, the Milky Way’s disk arched from rim to rim.  We gaped at the overhead spectacle.  Each time I raised my 10 power binoculars, I discovered that every smidgin of sky glowed with stars and galaxies.

Earth’s sublimely beautiful night sky is a complex dance of matter, gravity, and deep time.  It holds answers to profound questions about where we’ve come from and where we’re going.  That’s why I strongly support the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii’s nearby Big Island.  

That night, I, a comically puny hiker, stood on Haleakala’s stage and shouted a question to the unhearing stars.  “Which celestial object,” I said, “will be the next to receive humanity’s boot tracks?” At the Hōlua Cabin, it was easy to imagine that our greatest period of exploration is still ahead of us …

Note: all this can be yours for $75/night if you plan well in advance to reserve a cabin.  (If you wish to sleep in your tent, you may do so at Hōlua Cabin’s and Palikū Cabin’s nearby campgrounds).

America’s greatest new/old trail

advisory committee

Friday, May 20, 2016

As the founder of the Pacific Northwest Trail, I recently spoke before the committee that is advising the Forest Service on the trail’s future direction.  To have a little fun with the committee’s 27 members, I began with a pop quiz.  I asked them to stand up and keep standing if they had read one or more of a dozen PNT classics.  I knew, of course, in advance that few would have even heard of, let alone read, our 1979 one page, single-spaced, double-sided guide.  Or even our 400-page, 2001 guidebook.  But that wasn’t the point.  What I really wanted to do was drive home the point that the PNT was already very old before Congress added it to the National Trails System in 2009.  I hoped to help members realize that significant changes would be a mistake.

    Half or fewer of the Advisory Committee’s members stood up.  Could you do better?  Do you have advice for the committee about how to preserve and improve the PNT for its next fifty years?  Do you agree with our traditional “high for the views” focus that dates back to 1974?

    The best place to start your PNT reading is with The Pacific Northwest Trail Guide.   It’s out of print.  But I’ll soon offer it as a free download on this website.

    If you’re at all interested in America’s “newest” national scenic trail, please check out this YouTube video of my talk.

Hikers: $50,000 Job Available

ron at PNT rock

Thursday, May 12, 2016

    I founded the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) in 1976.  During the next forty years our 1200-mile trail progressed from a pie-in-the-sky vision to a Congressionally-mandated national scenic trail.  Even today only eleven such official, long distance routes exist.  We’ve racked up a remarkable record.  But this year we need to focus on the governance of our non-profit group.

     I am writing to ask you to spread the word about ourSEARCH for someone to become our next executive director.  The job pays $50,000 per year.  The deadline for applications is May 15.

    If you know a youngish person with the requisite skills and experience, please encourage her or him to apply ASAP.  I say a “youngish person” not because of age bias (after all I am 73 myself) but because I want the successful candidate to remain on the job for many years to develop a wealth of contacts.  A national scenic trail is by definition a very long term project and needs a steady hand for the duration of the journey.

     Please help to make the PNT’s next fifty years even more memorable than the first.

The Pacific Northwest Trail’s second fifty years

pnt historical

Saturday, April 16, 2016

In 1970, I first began to envision and explore the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT).  Thirty-nine years later Congress added it to the National Trails System as a “national scenic trail.”  That meant three things.  First, the congressional route is described in the Pacific Northwest Trail Association’s 400-page, 2001 guidebook (including a blueprint for nearby improvements).  Second, the PNT was designed, as much as possible, for wilderness adventure.  And, third, the trail today is a product of its almost fifty years of vibrant history.

    In 1974, I described the essence of the PNT in Backpacker Magazine.  I wrote, “Imagine taking a hike from the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park across the Northwest’s mountains, deserts, and river valleys to Olympic National Park’s Pacific beach.  From well above treeline to the luxuriant forests, from one inland wilderness area to another, to the most mysterious of all wildernesses – the sea – will someday stretch a dream trail a passionate walker’s trail.”

    Forty-two years ago I didn’t stop there.  I doubled down on the PNT’s high-for-the-views character.  “It will be as much as possible a wilderness trail with relatively difficult access, relatively few signs and shelters, and relatively great attention to given in planning to its walkers’ potential wilderness experience.  It will be a trail of superb … adventurous, frontier walking.”

    My 1974 PNT Manifesto is more relevant than ever now because the trail’s agency partner, the US Forest Service, has convened an Advisory Committee to create a management plan, choose priorities, and select a route.  They will meet next in Port Townsend, WA from May 4 to May 5.  Few people know of the committee’s existence.  The twenty-seven members include very few hikers.  If you care about the future of the PNT, please snail mail Matt McGrath, Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Program Manager, 2930 Wetmore Avenue, Suite 3A, Everett, Washington  98201, or email mtmcgrath@fs.fed.us .

    What can you do to affect the PNT’s next fifty years?  Please ask the Forest Service to manage our trail in keeping with our backcountry identity.  Hike as much of the PNT as you can.  Tell your friends.  Support the Pacific Northwest Trail Association.  Read my memoir, Pathfinder: Blazing A New Wilderness Trail In The Pacific Northwest.  The PNT began in 1970 as my vision.  Now is the time to make it your own dream.

My one and only New Year’s resolution for 2016

ron and christine

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

     New Years resolutions arrive like snow flurries in late December.  Lots of people wax poetic about losing weight, drinking less, and memorizing vocabulary words.  By Groundhog Day those snowflakes have usually melted.

    At the end December 2014, I, too, listed a year’s worth of goals.  So how did that pan out by December 31, 2015?

    First, my highest priority was to cherish and help my wife,Tine.  I had plenty of opportunities, too, because she developed two life threatening illnesses.  Last summer she suddenly came down with ventricular tachycardia.  By the time physicians resolved that scare we were well into autumn.  Then on our way to Hawaii this winter, a tiny bean sprout caused a dangerous throat infection, forcing us to find an ENT specialist in paradise.  After 2015’s state of continuing crisis, I feel lucky to have had so many opportunities to put my resolution vis a vis Tine into action.  So resolution Number 1 SUCCEEDED.

    Second highest priority was to make significant strides toward publishing.  I FAILED, however, to speed up the molasses-like progress on my novel, The Big One.  Friends are kidding me that I am the world’s oldest, wannabe debut novelist.  The only thing I can say in my defense is that the plot needed a lot of tightening last year.

    Third highest priority was posting monthly on my blog.  Have you looked in the archives?  Seven out of twelve months languished in a parched blog post Sahara.  That does not bode well for my using such timber to construct a future sequel to my memoir Pathfinder.

    Fourth highest priority was to exercise more.  Yes, I’m a hiker.  But this means I only like exercising out of doors, not the “fake” exercise Tine will do on the elliptical or stationary bike in our basement.  So in 2015 I made opportunities for “real” exercise.  I bicycled several times a week in Massachusetts and I walked briskly all winter on Maui’s beaches.  Thanks to Tine’s influence, I ate more nutritiously that anyone might expect who knew me in my former lives.  Hooray, a SUCCESS!

    Fifth highest priority was to maintain old friendships.  This SUCCEEDED better than expected.  I’m a reluctant Facebook person, but I admit that social media did help me to stay in touch.

    Because last year’s record was so mixed, I’m reducing the number of my 2016  resolutions.  I remember that during the 1970’s I had only three goals.  I put everything else aside to achieve them.  As a result I did earn my doctorate, publish my first book, and invent a new national scenic trail.  Without those clear priorities I doubt that I could have achieved much at all.  So, with that example in mind,  2016’s sole goal is to make tangible steps toward completion of The Big One.

    I do not want to have to report next December 31 that I’ve failed.  This is a high wire act.  All my chips are on red.

    Time to get started …

    Teaser: The Big One is Pride And Prejudice meets Gone Girl in the Pacific Northwest.

Simple Pleasures

backpacker cover

Monday, October 12, 2015

My wife, Christine Hartmann, often says that I am “easily pleased.”  She knows my delight in comfort foods such as PB&Js, clam cakes, and scallion-radish-lettuce sandwiches.  She also knows that I’m so accustomed to sleeping on the ground that I don’t need fancy accommodations.

     I believe backpackers generally share my enthusiasm for the simple pleasures.  Here is a recent Facebook post from Felicia Dora Moran.  She writes, “70 days ago I left the East Coast in search of an adventure….This morning at 10:20 AM I arrived at the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail with 900 miles at my back. Feelings from the past two months poured over me as I joyously cried at the sign labeled `Durango.’  My heart is full! I have been humbled, blinded by beauty, and feel like the luckiest girl alive.”

    In my experience, non-hikers can’t really appreciate what she meant.  The joys of the carefree life out under the open sky seep into one’s being.  My long-time hiking buddy Ted Hitzroth agrees.  He called me a few days ago from 10,015 ft. Cumbres Pass in southwest Colorado.  He was southbound on the Continental Divide Trail and about to board the steam-era Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad to visit his next resupply town.  His voice, as always, conveyed infectious eagerness to see what was over the next pass or ridge.

    That kind of joy is as common on trails as beauty-filled days and raging appetites.  Here’s another example.  On June 20, 1977, two recent Portland State graduates, Janet Garner and Rex Bakel, mailed a trip report from Polebridge, their first Montana food drop on the then-sketchy Pacific Northwest Trail.  “So far everything is going smoothly,” they wrote.  “Our food got here OK. Sorry about the condition of the map. It’s been through a lot in five days.  In Glacier National Park, we saw unbelievable wildlife: bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, marmots, and all sorts of birds.  We shot lots of pictures and are hoping they turn out.  The weather changes fast here in the Rockies with plenty of thunderstorms.  Polebridge is quite a place.  Just a few people live here.  We’ve been offered a place to stay for the night.  We are in good spirits and having a great time, but our feet are sore!  Janet.”  [That winter they promoted the trail as PNT ambassadors on the cover of the 34th issue of Backpacker Magazine.]

    This October I feel sad about the fiery destruction of 150 miles of the PNT’s total 1200-mile distance.  But the wildfires make me all the happier to have heard from one of this year’s 45 PNT thrus.  Ray Clark wrote: “Hey Ron! The trail was great! Thanks for pioneering it! As a two time PCTer and now a PNT thru-hiker, I can say that the people we met on the trail and the town people were extraordinary fantastic. Even in some of the larger towns. We loved the remoteness of the trail, the amazing scenery, and knowing that we were hiking a young, still developing National Scenic Trail. We can’t wait to hike it when it becomes mostly trail.”

    I am thankful that I found backpacking early in life and that I still find joy in its simple pleasures.