My dreams of serious adventures were first kindled one winter's night when a coworker said "here -- catch!" and tossed a book into my hands. It was left behind by someone we had recently worked with, but who had resigned to go hike the nearby Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.That book was the now classic "The PCT Hiker's Handbook: Innovative Techniques and Trail Tested Instruction for the Long Distance Hiker."
The photo on the cover showed a tiny figure frozen somewhere in time, (Jenny Jardine) on a ridge top. The first few paragraphs had me hooked. A decade and a half has passed, and this book is now in a more recent edition titled "Trail Life". My interest in its contents has never waned, and my feet ever itch for an extended walkabout.
Years later I came to know Ray and Jenny while attending a few of their outdoor skills classes in northern Arizona. Then, early last spring, I was invited to stay at their home for a couple of days. They were offering to let me copy some of their sewing patterns that I had inquired about. They also invited me to share their well tuned and oiled collection of sewing machines in preparation for a month-long backpacking trip I was planning with my girlfriend Emily. They invited Emily too, although they'd never met her. Ray informed me that this would be a working visit; meaning he wanted us to learn some new skills, making the most of our time together. We immediately accepted the invitation.
As we jogged along, Ray and I shared some conversation that ranged from depth of character, to philosophy, and writing. To illustrate a point about the importance of depth in the subjects we discussed, Ray smiled and said "Powder River - a mile wide and an inch deep." I understood.
So, before long I was shifting the gears and we were heading south through the familiar wide open vistas of the creosote bush and mesquite bordering the Rio Grande Valley. To our east the Rio Grande River slipped along on its way down through the heart of New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. I noticed a faint green hue hinting at the new year's growth, telling me the sap was up in the riverside Bosque of cottonwood trees, but the surrounding rows of chili pepper fields still lay dormant. A few flocks of overwintering Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese drifted silently with the updrafts, while below, the frost glittered faintly in the dawn's light. A few hours later we were greeted by desert's ambassadors, the tell-tale Palo Verde trees and those fabled cacti with swollen trunks and limbs known as the Saguaro. These verdant giants announced our arrival into the Chihuahuan Desert's better known neighbor, the Sonoran, which stretched on Westward.
We drove up to Ray's just as he was out checking the mailbox. Ray and Jenny live in a modest suburban home that is typical of the area. From what I know, it was a serious interest in skydiving that originally brought them to Arizona from their former home in eastern Oregon. We parked and I got out to say hello, introducing Emily. While unloading our things Ray grabbed my pack and remarked how it was nice to see a pack of his design no worse for considerable wear. He slung it over his shoulder, grabbed some more of our stuff, and led us down the sidewalk to his home. As I approached, a few stones of beautifully marbled obsidian caught my eye; volcanic remnants from their days in Oregon, I guessed.
Emily and Will in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, 2007
Some time had passed since I'd last seen Ray and Jenny, (The Journey's Flow class in 2005). My impression was the same; they were looking superbly fit for their years. Their home-based business and website, hand coded by Ray, is intriguing. Every time I order a Ray-Way kit I remember that these contributions are fundamental to maintaining their life of adventure.
We removed our shoes at the tiled entrance and placed them among the dozen or so pair already there. It was clear that Ray and Jenny rotate their shoes a lot, and we made note. Ray and Jenny's winged friend "Melly," a feisty turquoise and gold macaw, was squawking up a storm and appeared eager to introduce herself. Ray said there was some risk associated with handling the bird; chiefly her powerful beak. Remembering reading somewhere that macaws can easily crack Brazil nuts, I decided to enjoy Melly the Macaw from a certain distance.
Ray was getting ready to go for a run. "Nothing rigorous," he assured me, "Just a quick warm up around the neighborhood I do to get the blood flowing." Of course we were eager to join him after a long drive. Those who know Ray understand that when he's ready to go, you had better be ready too. We changed clothes and the four of us stepped out into the Arizona sunshine.
As we jogged along, Ray and I shared some conversation that ranged from depth of character, to philosophy, and writing. To illustrate a point about the importance of depth in the subjects we discussed, Ray smiled and said "Powder River - a mile wide and an inch deep." I understood. The usual off-the-cuff insights and small talk are not Ray's style. Nevertheless, he teaches and shares his knowledge without hesitation.
I was surprised when Ray mentioned that he had not developed certain skills until later in life because no one had really encouraged him. As a result, I suppose, he readily offers guidance when asked. When relating philosophical concepts, or teaching particular skills, Ray often adds words of caution: "No guarantees." He's wary of suggesting any one path to success. I did feel encouraged on that run, as it turns out, and was glad I had gone.
Ray is like a progressive musician who steers away from dying genres, always seeking fresh styles, rhythms and sounds. At the same time, his and Jenny's vast outdoor experience make them fascinating to be around. Ray's skepticism about new gear is to be expected, because he doesn't recommend anything he hasn't thoroughly tested in real world conditions. His adventures have often been right on the margins, and I trust his advice. For example, I asked him about water filters, and he went on to break down the technology for me. After some explanation and a number of comparisons, he suggested what he thought was the best current solution. That's how he operates. Ray designs the kits he sells with love of the outdoors foremost and his business plan second. That's also how he operates.
Most of our visit was spent cutting out patterns and sewing. Jenny was our patient instructor in this fine art. We asked her how long she had been sewing, and she explained that she had been at it since she was a young girl. She taught us a unique way to install our first zippers. Then one evening she brought out a box brimming with carefully labeled envelopes. Each envelope contained neatly folded, measured, and marked patterns for outdoor gear that she and Ray had made over the decades. They explained to us that although they didn't have time to show us how to make our own patterns, we were welcome to trace and cut out duplicates to modify on our own.
In between these projects, we shared dinners, and did some chemistry experiments in saponificaton, better known as soap making.
Ray and Jenny have a binder filled with recipes for soap making, and I was excited when they broke it out. I find the process interesting, and as long as you're careful weighing and mixing the lye crystals, it's pretty simple. They demonstrated this to me at one of their classes. It's also easy to miscalculate ingredients or mix improperly during the "tracing" phase, and although our batch didn't trace quite right and took longer to cure, we didn't throw it out. The next day Emily and I became curious when Ray used the tip of his tongue to test a sliver of the quickly solidifying soap. It reminded me of the way a kid tests a nine volt battery, and the sensation is similar. Ray said, "If if stings, it's not ready."
We wrote down some of their recipes to try on our own. The nearly cured soap and a note arrived in the mail a short time later. They mentioned that we knew how to test it, and how even so-called experts make mistakes. However, it was more likely my error because this was my first time making soap (and using a stick blender) and Ray pretty much let me do everything. We were pleased by the hieroglyphic style and dragon shaped bars of soap, and we cut up a few bars into small chunks and used it during our summer trip. Our Ray-Way trail soap cut the trail grime cleanly and in a way gently reminded us of Ray's and Jenny's refreshingly bold and simple approach to life.
While Emily and I sewed late into the night, Ray and Jenny worked on their own. Occasionally the drone of the sewing was interrupted by Ray's laughing with Jenny. If you've never heard Ray laugh, you've missed one of Mother Nature's unique sounds. So much of a person's character is revealed in their laugh, it seems, and all good hearted laughs are delightful. Ray's laugh, however, is a little more so.
In the evenings Jenny prepared simple, tasty meals and then we gathered on the patio to share baked potato wedges, homemade vegetable soup, fresh salads and sides of crispy Parmesan cheese toast. One night after dinner, Jenny asked Ray if he wanted for her to go and grab his bow drill kit. I realized I hadn't made a bow drill fire since I had seen the two of them last. I recalled one of his early "Connection" classes when he had half-jokingly told the students, "No coal, no dinner." For the next few hours, we classmates drilled and we bowed. As the shadows lengthened, our hands were raw and blistered, sweat dripped from our noses, and soot permeated our pores. None of us wanted to be the last one to get a cook fire going, but Ray and Jenny would always come around to make sure everyone was on the right track.
This particular evening, Jenny tried first and easily made a coal on her first go. She came close to igniting it in the tinder bundle, but the coal burned out of the bottom before it caught fire. It wasn't the best tinder bundle, so we added more fiber and shaped it into a little nest. Now it was my turn. Being so out of practice I wasn't confident, but I remembered the critical alignment of forces necessary to tease two sticks into spark and hopefully flame. I don't think it's a skill you forget. Besides, I had learned how to bow drill from Ray and Jenny themselves.
For the uninitiated, the components needed are deceptively simple and all can be found in the "woods," your own backyard, or at the hardware store.
The deed can be accomplished with a number of different techniques and styles. The best way to learn is to find a patient teacher, and then all that's required is some elbow grease. Don't be afraid of getting a little dirty.
So, I drilled away. My heart raced and I could feel sweat percolating through every pore. Jenny noticed I was holding my breath and remarked upon it, "...inhale, exhale, more pressure, faster, repeat, stop, check carefully." Her coaching worked.
Underneath the small pie shaped notch cut out of the fire board, a wisp of smoke and then a tiny speck of orange glowed in the small pile of black char and dust. Carefully, I set aside my kit, slowly lifted my foot off, and tilted the hearth away from the smoldering char in the notch. I placed the coal in our tinder bundle, carefully enveloping it. Slowly, I breathed life into it. Thick smoke began to bellow and flow into my nostrils. My eyes burned, and falling sparks stung and singed my forearms. Then -- flash! A small fireball ignited in my hands.
It's magic every time. No one moved, for we didn't want to stomp or smother it out. Instead, we let it fade, slowly extinguishing itself there on the patio. Now it was Ray's turn. By this time the increased humidity was probably hindering our efforts, but he was still able to make a coal. Ray and Jenny really enjoy this kind of stuff, and it truly does give one an indescribable sense of satisfaction.
Emily on the PCT in 2009, hiking on the spine of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Later on in the evenings Ray and Jenny took some time to do some stretching. We joined them in their living room and recited from a yoga book they've referred to for decades. Jenny led us through the exercises with finesse, and I could see they were both really limber.
I noticed a few remnants from adventures past here and there around their home. A carbon fiber oar was mounted on the wall; it was the one that had snapped during their rowing across the Atlantic Ocean, but Ray repaired it. In their garage was one of their homemade kayaks (which he informed me he was selling soon) and a tandem bicycle that they'd peddled across the U.S., twice in one trip. We also recognized the walrus skull of "Hermie" from their book, "SIKU Kayak: Paddling the Coast of Arctic Alaska."
The only photo I recall was one of Ray hand feeding a bird that might have been a pelican. Once again, I was reminded of their modest style. In their guest quarters we slept on thin foam pads. It was cozy and no problem for us. In the guest room was also a large wooden rack of colorful rolled fabrics. A few of their prototype quilts not given to their bird for bedding were nearby and offered for use if needed. Ray said he designed his house to accommodate unrolling and cutting rolls of fabric and quilt insulation for their kits. The pleasing aesthetic of fruit bowls brimming with oranges and avocados and bananas completed the house's interior.
There were four sewing machines set up on a couple of long tables; three of Ray's and one of mine in need of adjustment. Ray had offered to take a look at it and see if we could get it running smoothly again. I'd never attempted anything other than the basics such as changing the bobbin, needle, and spooling thread. He was amused at how bone dry it was inside and said he'd never seen a machine take in so much oil. He pointed where to apply the oil and then chuckled, there - there - there, and more here, and there, and so on." He then led me over to Jenny's industrial type sewing machine. He lifted the machines heavy metal body away from its base and said, "Take a look in here." Underneath was a pan holding a reservoir with clear oil at least a couple of inches deep.
While I was removing some screws from my machine, Ray pointed out some marring on the top of the screw heads and said "See that? Those are from someone who was heavy handed." This kind of attention to detail hints at Ray's broad skill set. You never know what you might learn next. We couldn't get my machine to stitch evenly, and Ray said it wasn't worth the cost of getting it fixed. They lent us one of their more venerable machines and gave us a cheaper back up to keep. This turned out to be instrumental in getting us to the trail head.
On the last day of our visit we were to accompany Ray and Jenny on one of their normal training hikes up to the top of Pic'cho Peak. It was well before sunrise when we left, and I thought about the hundreds of times they'd risen to climb this small mountain. We parked our vehicles in the empty lot, and Ray handed out some gloves for when we got to the cabled sections. We slowly ambled up to trail head, and Jenny pointed out the familiar song of a Canyon Wren echoing off the rock walls before us.
Ray said that there was a good junction to turn around if either of us wanted to bail out. He was going to keep his usual pace and would meet us after he completed his loop. We were feeling good, though. My pulse quickened as the incline steepened. After a series of twists, turns, cable pulls, and ups and downs, we arrived at the top of this small yet distinct Sky Island. Ray didn't pause to admire the sunrise or catch his breath. He simply said "There it is" - the top, and then headed back down the mountain with us trailing behind.
My focus was on my footing, and I was going as fast as I could to keep up with Ray. He was almost at a full run down mountain, and seemed to barely touch the cables in the steep sections. We continued on around clockwise to complete the circle, and Ray quizzed me on a few of the various cacti that we passed by. This was Ray and Jenny in their element; what they do for fun. Rigorous exercise is their forte, and it's their way of keeping those proverbial cobwebs at bay, as they say. I share a similar passion. It seems most people their age are easing off the throttle, but they appear to be thriving, and they've never let up.
Road crossing along the PCT, 2009
We located a shaded picnic table further away from the drone of Interstate 10, and Jenny whipped up a stack of pancakes and syrup for everyone. I licked my lips as I began to chill in my damp t-shirt. The warm gusts of mid morning had arrived, and I listened to the delicate whisper they made encountering a nearby Saguaro's spines radiating from its matte green skin. For a moment, I imagined we were all together trail side on some adventure enjoying a rest break.
The last thing I recall before we parted ways is sitting there at the picnic table, sharing breakfast with Ray and Jenny and talking quietly about the process of self publishing their latest book, "Trail Life". My copy sits nearby as I write this.
Naturally, we didn't expect our sewing skills to match Jenny's after one weekend, but we are satisfied with our slowly budding collection of homemade gear, patterns, and evolving sewing ability. Ray and Jenny have passed along a set of unique and useful skills to us, and we're proud to have made their acquaintance along the way.
- Will Lady