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Ilanaro and Branntur

Ilanaro and Branntur

The draugr hits Ilanaro like an avalanche and he has time to think quite calmly well, that’s it for me, but he still struggles because the riganh of all the People, ruler of the West, must go out fighting. The tip of a talon pierces the armor at his shoulder, rips back, tears the bright Kingschain from his neck. The sunrise-colored jewels drop to the dust. He has time to shout, “Take it!” at his son, Varyo. And then the talons grip him, stabbing through his ringmail, the draugr’s leathery wings beat down once hard, and it lifts off, bearing him. He refuses to scream, as the battlefield recedes and his mesnie shouts, and now he hangs limp, thinking if he writhes the thing will drop him, choking on its hot reptilian stench and the smell of his own blood as it flies with him over the iron walls of Landscathe and down into the Pit.

It folds its wings and drops. Down, down, onto a metal platform, and there it shakes him free from its claws, and flies away.

Ri-Ilanaro wavers to his feet. The blood oozing through his ringmail slows and clots; he is not badly hurt. But he dropped his sword when the draugr struck him. He pulls a long dagger from his boot. Now that he can breathe again he thinks, plans. Varyo can take the riganhei. He is ready. But I never had a chance to tell Tiano there is no chance I’ll allow him and Kovannin to wed. Foster-brothers, and Kovannin married already. And I should have spent more time with Ringuil. And Branntur . . .

It hurts to think of his best friend and staunchest supporter learning of his death.
But he is not dead yet. And he is still riganh from a long line of riganhur. He makes himself stand straight. He is near the bottom of a huge pit; several Western ringforts would fit inside. Above him, walls of stone and metal rise high. Things move there. They seem made of both flesh and metal, bleeding and steaming. They are not the pale little mindless killers called blankfaces. Instead they have the eyes of people, set in stretched bellows where the jaws should be. They flail pincers of steel on the end of muscular arms. They are constantly at work, and steam and the stench of hot metal thicken the air, and the noise of hammering and squealing metal are deafening, but he cannot tell what the illspawn are doing. High above, a small brownish circle of sky beckons. Can he climb out?

Or maybe the Invader has brought him here to parley. Maybe She means to surrender. Not very likely, he has to admit, after nearly a thousand years of warfare. But after all, he is Ilanaro.

Then the sky vanishes and She is there. She is beyond what his mind can grasp: dark brightness, world-filling enormity that yet crouches spiderlike on the wall of the Pit, sweet-acid reek, a voice that speaks in his mind and blots out everything else.
He is shaking. The dagger falls from his hand. He can hardly speak for awe and terror. But he stays on his feet, and chokes out, “I am Ilanaro, riganh of all the People . . .”

She takes his mind. He sees:

The flaming fortress – ship – plummeting through poisoned air, knifing deep underground, burning and melting. Exile. A place of wrongness. He sees the world through Her eyes. Ugly and wrong. But it has creatures, and he feels Her laughter at discovering them.

He tries to resist Her. He fights with all his pride, built during two hundred years of rulership and countless winning fights; but what he learns destroys his pride. He struggles, still, with all the defiant will he has left. She breaks his will as easily as he would snap a twig, and makes him see:

It is all great sport. Uplift them, remake them. She makes the People for toys and slaves. She shapes them into draugar, into the suffering mechanisms of the Pit. She meddles with their history for amusement’s sake, teaching shapestrength to the Old Rulers, destroying here, torturing there, sparing elsewhere on a whim. Some escape Her immediate grasp and believe that they are free. What of it? They can be destroyed quickly or slowly, at convenience, or for fun.

All the battles of almost a thousand years mean nothing. The victories are hollow. The Invader could have destroyed the last of the People at any time, with but little effort and nothing that She valued lost. They exist only to work and to offer a diversion from dull exile.

He sees, while outside the Pit, a night passes and a day. Then She releases him. He falls to his knees.

We are all Hers.

His mind cracks under the weight of knowledge.

Riganh of all the People. What is that? A slave, a toy.

He lacks the will to fight as madness takes him.

Later, deep in the iron-stinking night of the Pit, Her mind returns to his, and offered him a world of light. That was Her home. Soon, her exile will end, and She will take him with Her, into light, if he obeys. And broken, he agrees; knowing it is probably a lie. But he is a slave, and nothing matters any more.

She teaches him shapestrength in one agonizing moment. He lies on cold stone in the sound of clanging hammers, and struggles to control a body that suddenly melts and seeps away, whose tall, lean swordsman’s form suddenly changes to rack and wither, that sprouts oozing tumors and new limbs that twitch and flail.

Somehow, when the smoky light of the second day filters into the depths, he is still alive. He forces his twisted body with pain into its own form. He would look like himself, if any of his own could see him now. As long as they did not look into his eyes.


When blankfaces drag his eldest son, Varyo, into the room where he is kept, he does not know what he is doing. He knows only the commands that rule him. He hears Varyo’s vain attempt to talk his father out of madness. He hears the pleas and then the agonizing screams as he works Her will on Varyo’s face, mutilating him, stabbing hot metal into his eye, replacing it with a hideous Change. He smells the scorch and the blood. He sees the taint of madness come into Varyo’s remaining one grey eye. But only in a far corner of his mind does he understand.

Later, as some shadow of sanity seeps back, he will realize what he did. He will scream, and rage, and try to slay himself; but She will not allow it. He will know what he did to Varyo, and that it was done for Her pleasure, and so that the Ilanarai heir might go back into the world unfit to be riganh, and bearing the seeds of madness. In time those seeds will ripen.

Ilanaro dreams of the Bright World. It is all he has left.

Branntur paces the camp, blinded by grief, unable to rest. He has not washed the battlefield filth from his armor and when he tries to wipe tears and snot away his gauntlet leaves a streak of blood and dust across his face. It does not matter.

Ilanaro taken. And Varyo. The camp is silent, shocked. Branntur and the other nobles called the retreat. The Western army was away in reasonable order and the Liar’s forces have not followed them. He thinks bitterly, Why should they? The heart has been ripped out of us. And now what?

Tiano, Ilanaro’s second son, would be riganh if his father and brother were dead. And Ilanaro must be dead. Branntur had not seen it, but weeping witnesses had told him of their ruler hanging limp in the draugr’s claws. He sobs, and stifles it before anyone can hear. Now, of all times, the People’s leaders must act properly. They must set an example. Or what will happen but panic and rout and soulsickness?

Tiano. He must speak with the boy. That is why he has come to the Ilanarai sector of the camp, to this pavilion, marked with the bellflower sigil of the second son.

Tiano: recklessly brave, foul-mouthed, outspoken, promising to be a great swordsman one day. But where is he now? Karra of Pelambar, Willow-Wand of Haven, and all the other tiarnur, the lords and ladies of lands owing fealty to Ilanaro, patrol the camp, keeping their mesnies alert: wakeful, watchful, doing their duties, even with their ruler . . . gone. Someone must advise Tiano to do the same. He is the heir and he must take up the reins.

But as Branntur approaches, the guards at the pavilion entrance step forward. “I am sorry, tiarn Branntur,” one says, “but we . . . The young heir is . . .”

They know Branntur, as everyone does. The riganh’s shield-hand; the rock foundation of the realm. Ilanaro’s closest friend and strongest supporter. They do not know what else lies between him and the riganh. He hopes that no-one knows.

“I understand he grieves,” Branntur says. As if we are not all grieving! “It is important that I speak with him.”

She looks utterly uncomfortable. “He is . . . not alone.”

Well, that is not so bad. Though improper, with the boy not yet wed. But who am I to dare speak of propriety? When only last night . . . He pushes the memory of Ilanaro’s touch away. If he thinks of that now he will weep before them all. Nor does he want to think of Maeren, his consort, even now guarding Oak Citadel, and hating him.

“I understand,” he tells the hapless guard. “Tell him when you can that I must speak with him as soon as may be.”

Leaving, he finds curiosity tugs at him. He slips silently around the back of the pavilion to learn what ears and nose can tell him.

And stops in shock. He knows that soft voice, even intertwined with Tiano’s in cries of answered desire. He knows the scent, even when it is hot with musk.

He walks some distance away quickly and then he, who never curses, bursts out with “Oh stinking dung of ten thousand vargs!”

Tiano’s lover is Kovannin. Branntur’s son. Unacknowledged, born to a mother of the woodfolk savages. Ilanaro and Branntur agreed the boy would do best fostered in Ilanaro’s mesnie, apprenticed to the great armorer Vainarien. That has worked well; Branntur has seen some of what Kovannin has fashioned, and it is enough to make him proud.

They decided never to tell Kovannin who his father was. He has been brought up as a fosterling with Ilanaro’s own sons. And Ilanaro has given Kovannin to a noble-born cousin of his House as consort.

So many honors, and now the boy risks everything for an adulterous liaison with his own foster-brother.

Well, not a boy anymore. Branntur supposes he will have to acknowledge that.

And if Tiano does inherit? What then? He will have to choose a female consort, for the days of the Old Rulers, when shapestrength meant either male or female could bear an heir, are long gone. Maybe a three-marriage . . . but they will look, people like Karra of Pelambar and Roanmare of High Plains, they will question, they will not like a fosterling of no bloodline to be a royal consort. They will hound Kovannin. They may find out his parentage. Branntur thinks that he would weather the scandal: he is lord of Oak Citadel and Gwarohon and a famous warrior. But Kovannin, young and slight and not much of a fighter – how can Branntur protect him?

Distracted by these poisonous thoughts, he rounds a corner and finds himself facing Karra, and several of her mesnie, including her line-commander, Aileniko. Only a little older than Ilanaro’s sons as the People count years, but that one lets himself be called Champion of Pelambar. Branntur finds that boastful. And he does not like the way Aileniko flicks his long pewter-colored braid back over his shoulder and stares as if to say I could take you.

You may try it. Arrogant whelp. Branntur says, “Tiarn Karra, is all quiet?”

“For now.” She is resplendent in the finest ringmail he has ever seen, supple as silk. That is Pelambar: wealth and power. “But we must retreat, Branntur. We have stopped too close to the Pit, and soon they will be upon us again. Once the mesnies have rested, we must withdraw to a safer distance. Then we can swear to the new riganh.”

“We will not withdraw yet,” Branntur says. “We have not taken great loss in numbers. And Ilanaro is riganh.”

She stares. “Ilanaro is dead.”

“We do not yet know that.”

“If he is not,” Karra says, “and he returns, he will come back to us tainted. You know this. Will you have the strength to kill him yourself?”

“He is not dead,” Branntur shouts, hearing his voice crack, “and he will come back, untainted! You will not speak of such things!”

Their eyes widen, and he thinks, well, now they must suspect I was – no, I am – more than merely Ilanaro’s most trusted vassal.

Karra says, “We shall see. But as for Pelambar, we will not stay here past noon tomorrow. And you may be the riganh’s favorite, but you do not speak with his voice. You cannot command me otherwise.”

“My mesnie will stay,” Branntur says. “If we must stand alone here at Landscathe’s gate, we will, until we know whether our riganh be dead or no.”

“Your choice,” Karra says, and she and her people walk on.

And now I have done ill to let her see my heart.

He continues to walk. His own words come back to him. Ilanaro does not feel dead. Surely Branntur would know. But how should he know; that is foolishness, superstition, believing in awen and signs and portents; but it does not seem to him that his riganh is dead.

But if not dead . . .

Those who escape the Pit are killed or driven into exile. They are not accepted back. The People have learned by hard experience that the Liar’s power lingers.

But surely Ilanaro would prove exception. He is riganh. He is strong, he is warm-hearted, he will laugh in the enemy’s face. . .

Branntur walks on, circling the mesnies, hearing the screams of the wounded, until he sees dawn coming up bleak and smoky through a haze of tears.

Just after sunrise, he is back with his own mesnie. Taren, his line-commander, hands him a cup of blood-broth, and he drinks it without tasting. He has still not washed or rested. He stares out toward the Pit, its metal walls, the plumes of smoke rising.

Smoke, and dust. A little dust. Someone is creeping over the battlefield, slowly, painfully. “Stay here,” he orders Taren, “bid everyone stay here,” and he is on the nearest horse and galloping to the movement that he sees.

When he sees that it is Varyo, he thinks his heart will shatter in his chest. But it would be unfair to show it. He dismounts, bends over Ilanaro’s eldest son, smelling blood and worse things, calling his name.

When the dark-red hair falls back from Varyo’s face, what Branntur sees makes him turn aside and retch. At first he does not understand what Varyo is saying, and then he realizes the choking words are, “Hide it … hide it.”

He tears the silk of his tabard and carefully ties it over the ruined side of Varyo’s face, the red raw marks of torture and the terrible thing where Varyo’s eye used to be. He will see that in nightmares for the rest of his life. He does not want to touch it. But he is gentle. “Come now,” he says, “let me help you up, we must get you to the healers . . .”

Varyo grips his wrist, bruising. “No healers.”

“As you wish, but let us be away before the illspawn are upon us.”

“They will not.” Varyo laughs, and blood bubbles over his lips. “They have what they want.”

Branntur waits, dreading.

“He is dead,” Varyo says. “He is dead, and I am worse than dead.”

Branntur cannot stop himself asking, “You are sure . . .”

“I saw. I know.”

Then despair stops his blood and takes the marrow out of his bones, but he lifts Varyo onto the horse and takes him back to the camp, because what else is there to do?

He goes back to his own pavilion, sends all his mesnie out, and lets the sorrow take him.


Later, Varyo’s herald summons the tiarnur to his pavilion. All assemble; Branntur covertly watches Kovannin, thin and dark, tearstained, but all too obviously close by Tiano’s side. He waits to see if anyone will speak of taint or exile. If they do, he will shout them down. The law says that the riganh may not bear unhealing wounds, but Varyo’s wounds may heal; and even if they will not, Tiano should not rule, because he is young and reckless, and because . . . Then there is Ilanaro’s youngest son, Ringuil. Branntur does not know him well. But the youngest cannot inherit.

Varyo walks out among them all, leaning on a curve-bladed spear. The shreds of silk have been replaced by a leather mask. No wounds are visible, except in the expression in his one remaining eye.

“My father is dead,” he says.

No sound but Ringuil sobbing.

“I cannot rule. These wounds will not heal. I will remain as head of the House of Ilanaro. But . . .”

Branntur is watching Tiano’s face when Varyo speaks his next words, and sees the hurt and shock there.

“But it was Ilanaro’s last wish that neither Tiano nor Ringuil should inherit, but rather Tiarn Branntur, Lord of Oak Citadel and Gwarohon, should be riganh.”

There are cries of astonishment, and Branntur’s is among them. There are no riganhur in his line. Nor did Ilanaro ever say such a mad thing to him.

Tiano, to his credit, does not embarrass himself with protests, but stands straight and still, his jaw set and his blue eyes blazing.

Everyone is now, of course, staring at Branntur, and he must think fast. Tiano the reckless, the immature. Kovannin, whose ancestry must never be found out. And he can do it; he can reign. Not with Ilanaro’s brilliance. But he can take the burden; he can do this duty, in his beloved’s memory. “It is an unlooked-for honor,” he says. “I will accept.”
And then he waits for the challenges to come, but there is silence, until first one, and then they all, kneel to swear their fealty.

Afterwards, sometimes in the quiet of a hot noon, or the icy silence of a winter night-watch, the feeling comes to him again that Ilanaro is not dead. But then the brutal memory of Varyo’s words returns, and the feeling is only foolish vain desire, and Branntur shuts it away.


Two Sierras hikes

I visited Mono Lake during a stormy, windy few days that limited my hiking, but I did get out twice, one kind of meh, one awesome:

Oneida/Crystal Lakes. It's a pretty hike up the side of Lundy Canyon, but despite being short, is fairly strenuous, uphill all the way on a rocky old mining road. When you get to Crystal Lake you're greeted by all kinds of signs saying not to linger on the poisonous mine tailings or eat fish from the lake or even go into one particular area! Who knew this existed in the Sierras! The route continues to presumably less contaminated Oneida Lake, which is upstream, but it's a bit of a bushwhack at that point and the wind was annoying, so I didn't do it. I wouldn't particularly recommend this walk. There's another trailhead farther up the canyon where you can see the gorgeous surroundings without risking arsenic and lead (I hope).

There are Sierra bighorns in this area and I wonder if the pollution presents a threat to them? There were definitely plenty of typical mountain birds in the area and they seemed normal.

Also, the water goes into Lundy Creek, which eventually goes into Mono Lake ... I think this is the one creek NOT diverted by LA DWP? Is that why? Hmmm.

Anyway, I also hiked in the Mono Craters, otherwise known as coulees. These are the giant rhyolite/obsidian flows just to the south of the lake. There are old roads which have turned into trails. It's best to park along 120 east in any of a large number of pullouts and then walk the 4WD roads up into the craters. Very pretty and different with great views! Not for hot days (and not really ideal for 70 MPH winds either; it's gritty), and watch out for rockfall. If you get up high enough there is gorgeous, perfect black obsidian glittering in the sand. There was also a singing Loggerhead Shrike and a Mountain Bluebird desperately holding onto a sagebrush until it lost its grip and flew away on the howling wind with a despairing 'peep'. There are several different road/trails and I didn't finish exploring the whole area. I want to go back on a cold day with no wind...



I've been rewriting the Sun Saga and Stealing the Sun in particular. As I do so, some questions come up, leading to mini-stories, which I'll post here for anyone who is interested. The question that inspired this one was basically, "Why the heck is Ringuil so crazy, and so hard on Altir? And why doesn't he freak out when Altir appears to be shapestrong?"


On the fifth day a battlefield bird flew in on its broad black-and-white wings and roosted on the ring-fort’s wall, eagerly blinking its little eyes in its bald pinkish-orange head.

Ringuil would have ordered it shot. But he could not leave her.

The arrow-slit windows could not be shut. Only heavy oiled vellum could be fastened over them on the inside to keep the weather out, and he had done that; now they kept out flies, but did not keep in the smell.

Eight days ago she had smelled of young ferns and clean weather.

When he knelt on the floor by the resting-cushions to try again, her skin was cold, cold, greenish-pale where it had been tan, and it sank under his hands, and the smell rose up.

Ringuil was the third son. Never to inherit as leader of the House of Ilanaro. But he was the only one to have a child of his own; a boy who would barely remember his mother. Unless.

Arethl had been laughing and fierce. She had cared nothing for Ringuil’s poor patrimony, for the scanty forest pasture that could support only a few horses, or the home-brewed honeymead in place of Haven wine. She did not care that the Ilanarai were no longer riganhur, that the monarchy had been lost to usurpers. Ringuil could not go a day without raging at the usurpation. But Arethl would laugh, and challenge him to shoot at a mark or walk a narrow branch, and the rage would drain away like poison from an abscess, and later they would love.

The people who had been with her said the draugr had driven a bony spine through her body. Not her head, with its short-cropped white-blonde hair and delicate pointed ears clinking with bronze rings, her storm-grey eyes now closed; not her heart. She could not be dead. Nobody died from such a small wound. The healer said it was woundshock, it was sudden massive bloodloss; the healer was a varg-beshitted fool.

She could not die from such a little wound. But she had not moved nor spoken, and her heart did not beat. First her limbs had gone stiff as wood, and now . . .

But Ringuil would save her.

Once the People had been shapestrong, and that could heal her, surely. But they – Ringuil’s eldest brother, Varyo, head of his House, and his second eldest brother Tiano – feared shapestrength. All the People did. But that was stupid. Varyo, yes, had been tortured, blinded in one eye and scarred with unhealing wounds by the Invader’s creatures. Who used shapestrength. Yes. The power to shapechange – to harm, to torment, to deceive – was one of the enemy’s most powerful weapons. Ringuil thought that it had broken Varyo’s courage as well as his face, though he had never dared to tell his brother so aloud. He had dared to argue, once, that the People should use shapestrength, not fear it. Hundreds of years ago, the Old Rulers had used shapestrength, had Changed themselves and others, and in those days the Invader and Her hordes had been confined to their pit at Landscathe. But Varyo had silenced him.

Her skin gelid under his hands, he reached into himself, clenching his teeth, struggling to find the skill. He did not know what it would feel like. He could only focus all his will. Projecting desperation into Arethl. Forcing her body to heal.

Two more days went by. He had not eaten nor drunk for a week, since the day Arethl was brought home tied over her horse’s back. Vultures joined the battlefield bird. They squabbled on the wall.

Ringuil struggled on. His bones cracked with his effort; his throat bled. Despair crept into him. The smell was choking, a hot red thing that got into his lungs and sickened him. But he could not give up. He racked himself for shapestrength until he cried out with the pain and shadows beat at the edges of his vision.

Mid-morning on the seventh day, he put his hands on Arethl and she burst. Stinking black-red liquid and soft things poured from her swollen body over the resting-cushions and his boots. His hands sank in it. In her.

Enough. It was the first clear thought he had had in days. He reached for his dagger. It seemed, after all, that a little wound would be enough.

The locked door was flung open. Someone seized him, ripped the blade away. Tiano. Cries of horror. His brothers dragging him away. “Burn that,” somebody said. “Burn . . . gods, the cushions, the wall-hangings, everything in this room goes to the pyre.”

He screamed, struggled, bit Tiano’s wrist to the bone. It was no use. His brothers tied his hands behind him and pinioned him to a heavy armor-chest in a locked room. Varyo cut off his foul clothing, washed him. Ringuil snarled curses; Varyo did not answer. The healer came with a tisane, and flinched from what Ringuil said to her then; Tiano took the goblet, forced Ringuil’s mouth open, and made him choke down the bitter calming brew.

At last they left him alone. He pulled at his bonds, but there was no escaping. The herbs in the tisane began to blur the world. He stared at the stone ceiling. Alone.

After an unknown time, Varyo came back. “You are my brother. I know you grieve, but you must not give way so to madness. I would not lose you to soulsickness.” Always a little formal, a little stilted, Varyo, with the mask covering the ruined half of his face and his silk coat bearing the scarlet flame of their House.

“Fuck you and fuck soulsickness,” Ringuil snarled. But when Varyo left he thought of it: the plague of despair, the black rot that could not be cured. They had all seen it: a small lordship, no word heard all winter, riding to give aid if possible, finding nothing but tree-platforms weighed down with dripping corpses. It was not a contagion; the People did not suffer from such. The healers said it was despair made manifest.

So he tried to make himself soulsick, hour upon hour, as desperately as he had tried to make himself shapestrong. His brothers returned, forced him to drink blood-broth and tisane.

Soulsickness would not come. Day and night Varyo sat by him and spoke of sorrows he himself had known and supposedly overcome. Ringuil gave up cursing him, and sat silent, trying to die. Tiano did not bother with gentle words; it was he who strong-armed potions down Ringuil’s throat.

For many days and nights they kept him chained. The smell of funeral smoke faded. The black birds flew away.

One night, the door opened, and Ringuil braced himself. But it was Strongbow, his line-commander. She said, “You have a four-year-old son, who is crying for his mother, and I cannot comfort him. Shall I tell him that his father is dead too?”

Ringuil thought for a while. Death had rejected him. What was there now in life?

“Call my brothers,” he said eventually. When they came in, he said, “Let me out of these bonds. My madness has passed.”

They looked at him narrowly. Varyo said, “You will not try to harm yourself again?”

“I have a son. It is time I began to care for him.”

They set him free. He sat up, rubbing his wrists. Rot and stench and loss slunk to the back of his mind. He had a son. As mutilated Varyo would never have. As Tiano, married to a male consort whom Ringuil despised, likely would not. A son who would someday be head of the House of Ilanaro. Who inherited the regal line of hundreds of years of riganhur; who might yet take back the throne.

He limped to the door. “Altir,” he called.


Sierras trip, 2016

This trip was kind of a monument to bad planning, although we ended up having a good time.

We wanted to spend some time in the Tyndall Creek area, so we were originally going to go up Shepherd Pass, but we realized that it was going to be extremely hot in July. The way to do it would be to stay somewhere nearby (there's nothing but more heat at the trailhead) and get up really early, but we hadn't prepared by getting a motel room. So we decided to go in over Kearsarge Pass instead.

One thing I did not know, that is not on the National Forest website, is that if you want a walk-in permit for the NEXT day, they will not give that out until 11 AM. Same-day permits are given out right when the visitor centers open. I got us a fraudulent same-day permit and made up an itinerary based on the mileage we were able to do 8 years ago when we were near the end of our JMT trip.

So... we got a campsite in Onion Valley (not that easy to do at the season, but it was early in the day. Another note: the walk-in sites confuse people and are more likely to be open, although we got a drive-in). And the next day we headed up Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass, the basis for Pelambar Pass in my books, is pretty easy, but not totally trivial on the first day with a very heavy, ill-fitting, borrowed pack (Solstice peed in my regular pack), and we went all the way to Bubbs Creek, which is about 12 miles. It was hot. I was definitely ready to be done.

I've become fonder of lower elevation areas as I've become a birder, and there were lots of birds down there (my year Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches were up on the pass, though, right by the trail), and also deer, both moms with fawns and bachelor herds. There were also lots of wildflowers throughout the trip. Less pleasant, there were lots of people. And really gross, there was lots of poo and toilet paper right up the hill from the creek, and even right by the creek, and even in a campsite we were in later south of Forester Pass. What the hell is wrong with people? Go farther away! Bury it! Pack it out! I packed out not only 99% of my TP but all my sanitary products (third year in a row this has been necessary. YAY... not), and everybody else can grow up and do that too. I wonder if they should put bins with bags, like the bins in busy dog-walking areas. Not really compatible with wilderness, but neither is the open-air latrine thing.

OK, so enough of that. We then hiked up to Center Basin, an area I had seen on the map and thought "hmm, what's up there?" If you look at the map and the trail you will find the way to this beautiful, mostly empty, high set of lakes under Center Peak and Mount Bradley. There was such amazing glacial polish here that I had to touch one rock just to make sure it wasn't actually wet. We camped by Golden Bear Lake and day hiked up a series of moraines to look at high tarns and the cross-country route to Junction Pass. The hot weather was giving way to threatening storm. In the night we heard an odd yipping, squealing yodel -- I tried to figure out what it had been, but really wasn't sure until the morning brought a whole chorus of coyotes. Someone had been singing the soprano part unaccompanied.

We continued over Forester Pass. This is a beautiful hike but not easy. I do OK with elevation, but at around 13200, it's fairly high, and it climbs a lot. At one point I sat down and declared that we had to fix my pack, which was crushing my shoulders like a medieval torture device. We re-rigged it, which made it bearable, and went on. On top the one sky pilot plant I remember had multiplied into a whole field of beautiful blue flowers. And down we went, into the increasingly ominous weather.

At this point, I had planned for us to go to the Tyndall Frog Ponds, and maybe I should have insisted, but it just seemed too far, and so we camped in a pretty campsite near the bridge between the two lakes visible to the left of the trail immediately below the pass. It was a beautiful spot. (There was poo, but anyway.) And the skies opened.

Post-skies opening, my SteriPen quit working. We had been planning on spending the next day day-hiking to Lake South America. But with the weather, and worrying that boiling all our water would use up all our fuel, we decided to head out.

Over Forester Pass two times in two days. I'm not sure how many times that has actually been done. It's easier from the south side, and we made it ahead of the dark clouds. The high country was full of marmots and adorable, confiding pikas.

My toe, which had an ingrown toenail and ended up needing surgery, oral antibiotics and a tetanus shot, was not particularly happy with this schedule.

On the way back down to Bubbs Creek, we were struck by a very cold storm that began with hail. There had been SO many people heading up the pass, including a train of three elegant llamas, but they have wool. The many young women in running shorts (seems like the new trail fashion) hopefully had something they could quickly change into. It's great to see people out hiking, a more diverse population than in the past with lots of younger people and lots of women hiking alone, but you need to be aware of the weather, and many people we met on that day seemed not to be. I got very cold very quickly from that storm and I wasn't wearing shorts nor high on the pass when it hit. We set up the tent and hunkered down, but soon the rain stopped, and we headed for a really nice campsite I had seen on the way up.

At first I couldn't find the site and was frustrated, but then we found it, a gorgeous site next to waterfalls. (There was poo. ARGH) We got to watch a pair of bucks grazing, which was interesting to see, because one alerted, put his head up and started staring at something. The other clearly had no idea what his friend was looking at, and instead of watching the same spot, he watched his friend! When the first buck relaxed and put his head down, so did the second one.

The next day we returned to Kearsage Lakes. The connector trail up from Bubbs Creek is in fairly bad shape and a definite slog. The trails within the Kearsage basin are also in an awful state. But the weather had cleared to classic, sparkling Sierras sunlight, and to our surprise, we were alone at the lakes! I spent most of the day sitting on a rock watching a doe graze with her fawn, who would periodically get the puppy crazies, pretend something scared him, and dash around in wild circles around his mom.

The next day we descended past a horde of incoming hikers (it was Saturday) and, after handling a dead battery, spent the night in Bishop.

It was a great trip. I'm especially glad to have checked out Center Basin. But I need to have a more realistic idea of what mileage we (by which I mean me and my dad) can do, I need to just bring extra SteriPen batteries despite the weight or else switch to a rechargeable one (but then you have to also carry a recharger and you have to trust that it will work since it seems not to also be able to use AAs), and I definitely need to buy a couple of LifeStraws for backup (my dad thinks that boiling water for 30 seconds! kills Giardia etc., of which I'm not at all convinced). And I need a new pack. Even the one Solstice peed in is painful on my shoulders, to say nothing of The Crusher, which I since found out was my sister's pack when she was a ranger in Denali in 1994. At one point we met a 20-something guy who praised it as "old-school". Yeah, old-school like the Iron Maiden was old-school.

And both hikers and wilderness managers need to do something about the poo. Not to harp on it, but I've been backpacking in the Sierras since I was 13 and I've never seen it like this. Put up bins in the heavily impacted areas, is my vote.




Green and mist, the mythic North of bagpipes and tartan, of runestones and sagas, for that matter of wildlings and walls of ice, only not. But it is, only a hemisphere away: the north of my ancestors, the icy peaks, the green, the fog. Sleepy wet bear, wet heather. Bright-eyed baby moose. Blackpoll song.


A cold shore, a disarray of buildings and debris. Weather unkind, until it clears and midnight is bathed in gold. More mountains, more wilderness that I want to be immersed in. Long-tailed Jaegers, musk oxen, gyrfalcons, Spectacled Eider, Harlequin Ducks.


Another place I need to come back to. Sparkling seas and hidden mountains. The wind off glaciers. Sky and water full of birds. Puffins (much more competent, less bath-toy than I expected), auklets, murrelets, humpbacks. Sea stacks. There is so much more of this to see. St. Elias is waiting.


Ultima Thule, ice land, fog land. Is this the anthropologists' fabled point of Dorset darkness? (Still waiting to reread Arctic Dreams from the county library). I can see plenty of darkness in the impoverished town, but when the sun shines all night the pools are indigo, the tundra gold, the black gravel beaches are made of onyx, garnet and citrine. Neither Red Phalaropes, nor Snowy Owls, nor in particular Steller's Eiders with the sun on their breasts, would live in any evil place. But what is it in winter?


I expected to be the remedial student on a Wings trip, with everyone else more advanced than me, a bunch of fanatical listers who might not be very nice. Not the case. I have my birding mentors to thank that although I wouldn't say I was at the top of the class, I mostly didn't make a complete fool of myself. I was surprised at the lack of broadmindedness shown by people who are quite a bit older than I am and presumably have a lot of money. Really, not realizing there were going to be vans to climb in and out of? And double really, complaining that the tomato sauce came from a jar in Nome? (Nearest tomato plant: Somewhere on the other side of Canada?) Odd. There's also a sort of client mentality, kind of we'll ride along and you produce the birds for us, and that's not a role I'm really accustomed to or interested in for one reason and another, so hopefully I wasn't obnoxiously ... I think the word I want is prepotente, which no one will know what that means. Uppity? Non-clientish. I did find friends.


Luckily, I pee freely in all ecosystems, so I was fine with the tundra. Heard odd "peent" calls. Could not see a bird, decided it must be ventriloquizing ground squirrels. Later, someone (I suspect it of having been Evan but don't remember for sure), said to me, "Oh, Eastern Yellow Wagtails. Those were circling over your head yesterday when you were peeing."

The second time round, and also at a different pee stop on totally the other side of Nome, saw the yellow wagtails.

Had no trouble seeing the two floatplanes that buzzed me during a 'rest' stop on the shores of the Bering Sea...


Two days after coming home, I signed up to go back north next year, to Gambel and the Pribilofs.


I really need not to read Internet comments. Much less respond to them

I KNOW this but sometimes it's hard not to feed the trolls.

So Nyquist, after going extremely fast early in the Preakness and tiring to third (a pretty damn good third, considering the 22 and change first quarter), popped a fever. No way of knowing if he was already getting sick before the race, although it could help explain why he was so reluctant to relax.

The trolls apparently think he didn't really get a fever but was scratched because his trainer/owner (which I'm not huge fans of either of them but I don't think it's reasonable to believe that every word that comes out of their mouth is just automatically a lie, either) ... something. Knew he couldn't get the 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont? Um, who cares? If they had said Nyquist was tired after the Preakness and the Belmont was too soon/too far, the effect on the colt's value would have been: Nil. I'd love to say that staying 1 1/2 miles was a huge selling point for a stud, but really, it's not.

So there was no motivation, as far as I can see, for them to lie, so per Occam's Razor, they're probably not lying. The horse came down with something. He's a nice horse and hopefully he'll be back.

I recommend to everyone Steve Haskin's great column on Exaggerator on bloodhorse.com.

What frustrates me about this is it reminds me of politics. It doesn't matter what, let's just say Hillary Clinton, says, because the trolls are convinced that it's automatically a lie. Fact checking is not necessary (I recommend politifact.com, by the way). Actually knowing fuck-all about anything, having any authority or expertise, has become beside the point. To me this is one of the very real and very damaging downsides of the Internet, which otherwise exists to make it easier for me to buy obscure bagpipe music CDs. So much crap, nonsense, trolling, and pseudo-streetwise cynicism gets out there. Comments on environmental sites are another example of dangerous stupidity getting out there in the world. And it's not just a case of idiots getting on my nerves; it could be a case of us really, really screwing ourselves in this upcoming election.

It's that time

This year I have no clue. I never really have a clue. I'm just going to use my same old usual handicapping methods and hope.

I'm going to bet the Oaks/Derby double, some trifectas and superfectas in the Derby, and some cheap Pick 3's involving the Derby.

In the Oaks, my top picks are Rachel's Valentina (duh: Rachel Alexandra's daughter), Lewis Bay, and Royal Obsession. Alternates are Weep No More (best name ever for a Thoroughbred filly, but she just gets herself so far back in the field), Cathryn Sophia and Land Over Sea.

In the Derby, it looks like this:
Creator (Doesn't actually score that high on my handicapping system, but I loved, loved his Arkansas Derby. He lagged back and made a huge move. Wove through horses just like they do in... the Derby. Bred to route. Don't love the 3 hole, but he is athletic and may work out a trip)
Exaggerator (Maybe benefited by a wet track and fast pace last time, but looked like a happy horse and has plenty of back form. I think the pace should hopefully be honest enough)
Nyquist (Duh. I didn't think this horse was bred for a route, and, well, he's not, but sometimes that doesn't matter. He has tactical speed and is undefeated. He doesn't like to let other horses pass him but he is also OK with stalking.)
Mor Spirit (Surprised me that he scored so high, but I do have a futures bet on him anyway. It's partly the connections, but I also think he may prefer the fast track he's supposed to get on Derby day. This is a colt I've seen in person and he is gorgeous.)
Brody's Cause (Think he can improve in his third start off a layoff, or second if you take the view that he didn't run at all in Tampa. Good back form from last year. Route should be OK.)

Alternates: Gun Runner, Destin, Mohaymen, Outwork

Wacky longshots to use underneath -- these are pretty much horses bred to go long that have run second in prep races: Trojan Nation, Suddenbreakingnews, My Man Sam

The good thing about all these favorites is that with the large fields and big pools the odds should still hopefully be OK.

Before the Derby, I probably won't bet the Distaff Turf Mile but obviously Tepin is arguably the second-best horse in training in the U.S. right now after California Chrome. Breaking from the rail she could possibly be upset by Isabella Sings or Rainha da Bateria, but she's the best horse running on Saturday's card.

In terms of races I probably will bet:
GII American Turf: Converge, Shakhimat, Azar. I like some longshots in here, Beach Patrol and American Patriot, but probably won't have the money to bet them.

GIII Pat Day Mile: Forevamo, Cocked and Loaded, American Freedom. Fellowship as an alternate.

GI Woodford: Bolo, World Approval (Really like this 1 1/8th specialist in a race where many want to go longer), Big Blue Kitten

After the Derby, there's an NIX in which I like Fish Trappe Road, Uncle Walter, and Smart Moon, and a maiden race in which I like Forever d'Oro, Virtual Machine, and Goats Town. I've never bet after the Derby so making an effort at that P-3 should be an interesting experience.

Spring Break: Zion National Park

There's been a lot out there recently about the crowds at Zion so let me say first:

Yes, it's extremely crowded. For Californians, Zion is pretty much the same as Yosemite. It's very busy for much of the year, many of the trails in the Valley/Canyon are easy and accessible, and you have to work around the crowds. Going on the Mist Trail/Emerald Pools Trail in the middle of the day will get you in a traffic jam.

But just as in Yosemite it is possible to work around this. Early starts, taking a break in the middle of the day, then a late stroll will help. So will coming in the off season, to whatever extent possible. So will getting farther out on the trails -- Kolob Canyons (the analogue to Tuolumne) is much less crowded.

The shuttle system is very efficient, and not having visitors driving their own cars in the canyon is a big help. And it's absolutely, divinely gorgeous. Not very birdy this time of year, but we did see two American Dippers along the Riverwalk trail and a California Condor perched on a power pole outside the park's east entrance.

The cabins are very nice and well insulated for noise. The food at the lodge is edible but kind of meh -- we had a great dinner at the Spotted Dog and good breakfasts at MeMe's Café, and there's a good coffee shop, which I forget what it's called but it is in Springdale like the other two places and is painted blue.

So the trails. Emerald Pools is a madhouse. The paved Riverwalk and Pa'rus trails are nice, actually, with lots to see, and the latter actually wasn't particularly crowded. The Watchman Trail is worth doing. At the Weeping Rock trailhead, we only just went up to the seep (which is cool) but there are longer trails waiting for the future. I'd also recommend not exploring the park when you have a kidney infection -- my backcountry exploration will largely have to wait for next time.

But the hike up Taylor Creek, in Kolob Canyons, is world-class, astonishing, A+++, one of the best hikes I've ever taken, a mystical experience. I'm not going to tell why. Go do it -- early in the morning, since it does get popular, and at a season when the creek is not running high.

I ended Spring Break with a beautiful life Common Black Hawk perched just over the entrance road in Red Rock State Park in Sedona, sitting calmly for a long time while we inched the car closer and admired.


The southern sky glows with winter sunset.

On the shallow lakes that stretch out around the wooden viewing platform, shorebirds, ducks, and ibis gather. As the sun sets they stream across the shining sky in thousands: black ibis in skeins, ducks in calling hordes. Wings rush.

The cranes come in, honking in their medieval voices, gliding wide-winged down to rest.

The thousands of birds settle, and slowly begin to quiet down. The moon tries to rise through cloud. Rails squabble in the reeds. Starting to get cold and tired, we wonder how much longer we should wait. The celebration, the evening show, has been spectacular, but maybe it's over now. A goose or two flies in, calling, to land on the water.

A star comes out. Maybe it's not going to happen tonight.

A cloud forms in the sky to the north. A vague sound, like surf, begins to rise. Through binoculars the cloud reveals itself: snow geese, thousands of geese, darkening the sky. They stream across the moon. Their calls rise to a paean. The sound of their wings is like the sound of the waves on the shores of Elvenhome. Four thousand white and blue and silvery snow geese arrive through the dusk and land with nightfall on the lakes.

This is why.

The Breeders' Cup

Somehow I never posted picks for the Breeders' Cup. Won some, lost some.

Hey, there's a coyote sauntering through the vacant lot outside my office window right now.

Anyway, my fantasy stable horse Liam's Map, a beautiful, powerfully built, dapple gray, ran in the Dirt Mile. He was the huge favorite. But things didn't go quite as expected.

Bright sunny day at Keeneland. Liam's Map, the dapple gray favorite, turns his head in the starting gate to look at Mr. Z, the longshot next to him. Maybe Mr. Z is telling a story about how he bit off American Pharoah's tail a couple of years ago.

It's dark evening at Churchill. The lights have come on. The big black-bay mare prances, sidles, then consents to go into the gate.

Liam, a speed horse who has never failed to make the early lead in any race, breaks flat-footed and is immediately trapped along the rail.

The dark mare breaks slowly, the way she always does. She settles. This is no big deal for her.

The gray stallion is angry. His rider won't let him shoulder the leaders, Bradester and that distracting Mr. Z, aside. He tosses his head, fighting the bit, down the backstretch.

Time to move up, to start circling the field, but as the mare catches up with her rivals, one of them swings out in front of her and she steadies, losing her momentum.

Liam's rider tries to move up between horses. The hole closes. The gray steadies, trapped again.

Into the stretch in the floodlit dusk. The mare swings out to make her final move: the blazing move, the perfectly timed last run that has never failed her once. Another horse, ahead of her, is also coming out to make a run. She steadies again and swerves around him.

In mid-stretch the leaders tire and Liam gets clear, but Lea, a horse who has never lost at a mile on dirt, has gotten an unimpeded outside trip and spurted clear by four lengths. The rest of the closers are coming. The big gray looks done.

The dark mare storms down the stretch. It's not enough. She crosses the wire half a head too late.

Liam flattens his ears and surges forward with powerful strides. Lea isn't slowing down. The wire gets closer. In deep stretch, Liam's Map flies past Lea, and the sun glitters on his silver coat as he crosses the wire two lengths in front.

I don't know why Liam's Map's win in the Dirt Mile made me think of, and seemed like personal redemption for, Zenyatta's second in the Classic. It wasn't the only great performance of the event -- Tepin's Filly and Mare Turf, Songbird's Juvenile Fillies and Runhappy's Sprint stood out, as of course did American Pharoah's contemptuous dismissal of the Classic field. Victor Espinoza finally let him run. He ran the fastest mile and a quarter ever run on any surface at Keeneland, a track that has been in operation since the 1930's, without being touched by the whip. But Liam was the one I picked for my fantasy stable when he was a pretty yearling selling for 800K, and Liam's victory was the one that felt like mine.