Tag Archives: mountain roads

Managing in the Mountains

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I love these mountains in Taos County, NM.

Most fulltime rubber tramps know that going up in elevation is the key to cool comfort in the heat of the summer. For every rise of 1,000 feet in altitude, the temperature falls about 3.6 degrees.  If, like me, you grew up a flatlander, you may not know the tricks to staying happy above sea level. You want to go up the mountain, but you may be a bit cautious about doing so. After spending the better part of the last five summers above 6,000 feet, I know a thing or two about mountain living, at least during the spring and summer months. Today I’ll share my tips for managing in the mountains.

#1 Know that altitude sickness is a real possibility. I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve never suffered one bit of altitude sickness, but some people get it bad.

According to a comprehensive Health Communities article about altitude sickness remedies,

acute mountain sickness (AMS), is the most common type of altitude sickness. It can occur at elevations as low as 5,000 feet, where it is likely to last only a day or so, but is more common above 8,000 feet. At elevations over 10,000 feet, three out of four people will have symptoms.

The article lists these symptoms of altitude sickness:

  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat accompanying physical exertion
  • Impaired thinking.

The article also lists some precautions to you can take to acclimate to higher elevations.

  • Acclimatize and take it easy. Spend your first day at high altitudes relaxing…
  • Do not smoke and avoid drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption increase the risk of dehydration and decrease respiration rate during sleep…
  • Drink extra water. Drink as much as you can to remain properly hydrated, at least three to four quarts. Your urine should be clear and copious…
  • Eat foods that are high in carbohydrates.
  • Get headache relief. Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) can be taken for headache.
  • Don’t go up until symptoms go down. If you start showing symptoms of moderate altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until they decrease—or descend a few hundred feet to a lower altitude.

I suggest you read this entire article and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of and remedies for altitude sickness before you start your ascent.

#2 In the mountains, it stays colder later in the year and gets colder sooner. Early May in Flagstaff brought a storm with a predicted high of 43 degrees and a chance for two inches of snow. The Man and I headed out before the storm to avoid the inclement weather, but we experienced chilly nights and mornings in the California Sierras until well into June. Memorial Day weekend gave us a foggy Saturday where temperatures in the Mercantile never climbed above 42 degrees. If you’re too hot in the flatlands in spring and decide to move on up, either find a camp in the middle elevations or be prepared for chilly morning and nights

Fall may come to the mountains before you expect it. It was never long after Labor Day on the mountain where I worked that I found myself sleeping under my down comforter and wearing a jacket the first few hours of every morning. You may want a decrease in elevation before the official beginning of autumn.

#3 The weather can change quickly in the mountains, so be prepared with appropriate gear. If you store your winter gear away from your rig, but sure to pack a warm hat, warm socks, and decent jacket before you go up the mountain, even in the heart of summer. Take sturdy shoes to protect your feet if the weather turns cold and/or wet. If you have room, it’s not a bad idea to pack your Mr. Buddy heater too.

At the Rio Grande Gorge outside of Taos, NM (elevation 6, 969 feet) I’ve literally seen the weather change from sunny and hot to cloudy with lightning and thunder to rain and hail to rainbows and sunshine, all accompanied by a temperature drop of 20 degrees in less than an hour. Of course, these are not usual weather conditions, but proof that such changes can happen fast.

I seldom got my speedometer above 25 mph on this curvy California mountain road.

#4 Get yourself a good paper map. Don’t depend on GPS or your vehicle’s navigation system which can be entirely useless in remote, high elevation locations. If you get your directions online, be sure you can access then if you lose phone service. Your best bet is mapping out your route on your paper map before heading up.

#5 You might not have cell phone service either. Be prepared to live without cell phone service. Make all your calls and send texts before you start heading up the mountain. Warn anyone who might worry about you that you might not have cell phone service for a while.

#6 If you’re not accustomed to driving on winding, curving, twisting, mountain roads, plan to drive slowly. It takes a lot longer to drive a mountain mile than it takes to drive a mile on a flat stretch of road. The first summer I worked as a camp host, I picked up my mail 25 miles from the campground where I lived. Google Maps said it would take me 45 minutes to drive there, but it took me at least an hour.

This road outside Santa Fe, NM takes folks up up up the mountain.

#7 If you look in your review mirror and see a line of cars and trucks behind you, pull off in the next turn out and let the other vehicles pass. Folks accustomed to driving in the mountains may be able to drive on those roads faster than you can. That’s ok, but save the people behind you lots of frustration by letting them leave you in the dust.

#8 Be aware of bears. While you don’t want to succumb to bearanoia, if you’re boondocking in areas bears are known to frequent, you should take precautions so you don’t attract them to your camp.

In the book Bear Aware, author Bill Schneider offers an entire chapter detailing camping in bear country. The most important tip is to check potential campsites for signs of bears before you set up camp.

If you can see fresh sign [of bears] move on to another site with no signs of bear activity.

The second most important tip is to separate your sleeping and cooking areas.

The sleeping area and the cooking area must be separated by at least 100 yards.

Also, be prepared to “hang everything that has any food smell” or store those items in bear canisters.

If you’re unsure if the area where you want to boondock has issues with bears, visit the local ranger station to find out about bear activity before you choose your camping spot.

#9 Watch out for other mountain critters too.  You probably won’t see a mountain lion, but be prepared to react appropriately if you do. The Mountain Lion Foundation says to do the following if you meet a mountain lion:

  • Seem as large as possible.
  • Make noise.
  • Act defiant, not afraid.
  • Slowly create distance.
  • Protect yourself.

Again, I recommend you read the entire article before you need the information.

Where I worked in the mountains, we were more likely to see a timber rattler than a bear. To prevent a nasty bite (and a trip to an emergency room that may be more than an hour away), watch where you put your hands and feet. Don’t put any body part in a crack or crevice or under anything without first visually inspecting the area. If you see any snake, give it a wide berth so it can escape without feeling like it has to go on the defensive. For more information on how to avoid a snakebite or what to do if a rattlesnake does strike you, see this article from Denver Health.

The Man and I saw these wild horses just off the highway in Colorado at about 8,000 feet.

The part of the National Forest where I worked is open range, so people driving there have to watch for half wild mountain cows. I don’t know how common open range is in other mountain locations, but city folks are often quite surprised when they see cows on the road on their way up the mountain. If you see cows on a mountain road you’re driving on, slow down and give them plenty of room; sometimes cows bolt when they get nervous. The same holds true for wild horses, deer, elk, and moose, so be alert for large animals hanging out along mountain roads.

#10 Stock up on food, supplies, and fuel for your rig before you head up the mountain. Many mountain towns are secluded, and may not have the supplies you need. On the mountain where I worked, there was no diesel, none of the special fuel tiny backpacking stoves require, and no fresh vegetables for nearly 40 miles. If you are able to find what you’re looking for, you are going to pay a premium for items that had to be trucked up thousands of feet. In mountain towns, I’ve paid too much for ice ($4 for a seven pound bag), one-pound propane canisters ($6.95 for what costs under $4 bucks at most any Wal-Mart), and water ($3-$4 a gallon). You’re better off getting everything you need while you’re still in civilization.

There’s no way to imagine or prepare for every situation one might find oneself in while at a high altitude. In life we run into situations that could lead to harm, whether we’re in the city or the wilderness. I hope these tips help you plan for your health and safety when you leave the flatlands and venture up to higher elevations.

Remember, Blaize Sun can’t prepare you for or protect you from every danger you might encounter in the mountains. You are responsible for our own self. Research the problems you might encounter in the area you plan to camp in before you get there. If applicable, call the Forest Service ranger station responsible for the place you want to camp and ask about hazards in the area. Think before you act. If something you’re about to do seems potentially dangerous, don’t do it!

I took the photos in this post.

Mountain Roads

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IMG_3449I’ve driven on mountain roads in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and New Mexico, but I’d never before seen roads like the ones I’m encountering in the Sierra Nevada mountains. These roads have so many twists, turns, curves, and switchbacks. For the first few weeks, driving these roads made me carsick. I’d never gotten carsick while driving before.

My body must have adjusted because I’m not getting carsick while driving these roads anymore. However, I know the curves are on my mind because I dreamed of one on a recent night.

In the dream, I was driving my van. In the dream, I was driving my van too fast. I was also fiddling with something (my MP3 player, I suspect), not paying proper attention to the road. I was on a curve sooner than I expected, and I took it too fast. Next thing I knew, I was off the road, barreling through the grass. I don’t remember trying to stop the van. I do remember crashing through the wall of a barn. I felt the forward motion clearly. I felt the resistance of the wall clearly too.

At that point, in that weird way of dreams, I was in the back of my van, lying in the bed. The van was still moving fast, and I knew the outcome was not going to be good.

Then I woke up, relieved to realize I had not actually crashed my van through the wall of a barn. I was lying in my bed in the first feeble light of dawn, waiting for my heart rate to slow so I could try to get back to sleep. That’s when I heard the hooting of an owl.

Owls, in Western tradition, are harbingers of doom and death. According to http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Mythology&title=Myth+and+Culture, “in early Rome…to hear the hoot of an Owl [sic] presaged imminent death…In English literature the Barn Owl [sic] had a sinister reputation probably because it was a bird of darkness, and darkness was always associated with death. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth used the Barn Owl [sic] as their favourite [sic] “bird of doom.”

I hadn’t heard an owl hoot since I arrived in the Sierras in May. But here was one hooting long and loud moments after I’d dreamed of taking a curve too fast and wrecking my van.

You can bet the next time I drove those twisty mountain roads, I took the curves nice and slow.

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I took these photos of curvy mountain roads.

Update on the California Adventure

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On Sunday, April 26, I arrived at the campground where I’d been told to report. Within a couple of hours, I met the boss and was told there was no training the next day. She seemed unsure as to why I’d been told to arrive a week before my training, although she said she could put me to work. (On the voicemail I have saved, the woman who works in the office said she’d just talked to the boss who said I should be at a specific campground for training on the 27th.) No one has explained why I was told to arrive a week early. The boss was certainly not expecting me.

On Monday, April 27, my van wouldn’t start. I flagged down an elderly man who was hard of hearing, and he used my cables to jump start the van. I drove into town (where I was headed anyway) and proceeded directly to the Car Quest auto parts store. Thankfully, I had a small monetary cushion, because I used that money to pay for a new battery.

The battery in the van when I bought it had been doing weird shit for months. I’ve had to have it jumped six times since I bought the van last July—six times the battery was dead for no obvious reason. When I started the van, it kind of stuttered before starting, and it often died when I tried to back up immediately after starting it. I had it checked out at a Car Quest in Southern New Mexico—they charged it for eight hours, then checked it and said it was fine. But I decided I can’t be having a dead battery out in the woods, so I bit the bullet and bought a new battery. Now the van starts right up, no stuttering, and no dying when backing up. Am I glad I had to spend my money cushion on a new battery? No. Am I glad to have a new battery? Yes.

I spent small parts of Tuesday and Thursday filling out paperwork and getting some training for the job (from the women who gave me the message to show up early). I also spent a couple afternoons that week at the Burger King in town (WiFi, an electrical outlet, and free refills on sodas) writing and mostly catching up on email. I explored a pioneer cemetery and the local history museum.

On Friday I was finally taken out to the campground to work temporarily. The camp hosts of my temporary campground had not arrived yet. I don’t know why. However, the company was having yurts built in the campground, to they wanted a staff person around to keep an eye on materials and supplies after the builders go home. They decided I would be the staff person on duty. Since I’d be at the campground anyway, they decided to open it to campers two weeks early.

The campground is much bigger than the one I’ll be working at for the rest of the summer. This first one has 32 sites, plus five or six large group camping spots, compared to just ten sites at my campground. I’ll be parking on one of those sites, so I’ll actually only be responsible for nine camping spots once I’m out there. Although I’m only expected/allowed to work five hours a day here, the first couple of days kicked my ass. Just the walking was wearing me out. At night, all I could do was eat dinner and read a bit before falling asleep early. On the first two nights, I was in bed before it was dark out. When I woke up in the morning, I did not feel recovered. It was very depressing, and I wanted to give up.

On Sunday, I was given a golf cart, and that helped a lot. At first I was scared of the golf cart, but when I told the guy who delivered it that I’d never driven one before, he told me it was just like driving a car. And then I realized, yes, I drive a giant van, I should be able to drive a golf cart. And you know what? I can drive it! (And it’s fun!)

In van driving news, I am able to back into my campground host site. Granted, it’s a pretty big area, and I don’t have to be in one strict spot (like between lines or on an asphalt slab), but backing in is a HUGE step for me. I’m learning!

I did see my campground on the way to the temporary spot, and I love it! It’s so cute! It’s ½ mile off the main road down a dirt road, and there are lots of trees and a meadow. I can’t wait to be there.

I’ve had mixed feelings about being out here.

On the one hand, the landscape is absolutely stunning, and the wildlife is incredible. There are mountains, a river, and tall trees. There are many ponderosa pines where I am stay and they are soooo tall. I saw four deer (two mammas and two youngsters, I think) in the campground the other morning around 6:30 when I was making my rounds. That afternoon, I saw the biggest chipmunk I’ve ever laid eyes on—it was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of chipmunks. One day I saw a blue jay so blue I gasped. One night as it was getting dark, I heard a sound I thought was the panting of a dog or maybe a bear about to attack, but it turned out to be the sound of the flapping wings of two low-flying birds.

On the other hand, I’ve had moments of intense loneliness. I feel very far away from the people I love. When I see co-workers, it’s not for very long, and I haven’t found any common ground with any of them yet. Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised to hear that my favorite prat of the job is welcoming campers and talking to them while I’m filling out their paperwork. I hope I’m not coming across as desperate for human companionship, although I do feel a bit that way.

It’s been cold hour here at night; the temperature starts dropping around 4:30 in the afternoon (or 16:30, for those of us currently using military time). Once I’m snuggled in bed, I’m warm, but 12+ hours in bed gets uncomfortable, and it’s difficult for me to get out of bed in the morning when it’s cold. Fortunately, I don’t have to be out and about at any particular time, although they do want us to a “sweep and hang” (sweep restroom floors and make sure there’s enough toilet paper) early in the morning. I do have my propane heater, but it’s still packed away. I think I’ll get it out so it’s easier to get a blast of hot air to get me going in the mornings.

I’m also bummed out because every time I drive on the tightly curving mountain roads #1 all my neatly stacked plastic crates tumble all over the back of the van (but it’s easy enough to put everything away again) and #2 I get car sick. I suffered a lot from motion sickness as a kid, but as an adult in a moving vehicle, as long as I don’t look at the floor (like to tie my shoe) or turn around to talk to someone in the backseat, I’m fine. And I’ve never before gotten even a twinge of motion sickness while driving. But these roads are something else. I’ve driven on curvy, twisty mountain roads in Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and New Mexico, but none of those places compare to the sheer number of miles made up of tight curves I’ve been experiencing.

In the last week, I’ve thought many times about quitting and going back to New Mexico, but I realized that while New Mexico would familiar, it wouldn’t necessarily be better. I’d still be dog dead tired at the end of the day. I’d be hot instead of cold, and also windblown and dusty. I’d still be lonely a lot, because when I’m working I don’t do much socializing because I’m tired and concentrating on making money. So running away to New Mexico doesn’t actually seem to be an answer.

I just finished reading a book of first-person accounts of single women homesteaders in Montana in the early days of the 20th century called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own, edited by Sarah Carter. I am finding inspiration in those tough, determined foremothers. Many of them lived alone in tiny shacks, with no electricity, often with no water on their property, sometimes with no neighbors for miles and no transportation. They depended on their neighbors, but they depended primarily on themselves. The loneliness was intense, the labor backbreaking, the weather destructive. Often the crops didn’t grow, the garden didn’t grow, and they had to work additional jobs for survival. One woman mentioned hurried to do her own chores on her claim each morning so she could walk six miles (and later six mile home!) in order to earn cash doing laundry for other people.

I’ve got so much more than those women did. Surely I can be as strong.