As the start of our Appalachian Trail hike nears, I’ve been thinking more about prior trips. In 2007, I hiked from the Mexican border to Yellowstone National Park on the Continental Divide Trail. A couple days later, sitting in a coffee shop in Bozeman, Montana and processing my prior three months, I sat down and these words poured out. They were a mass email then (ah, the quaint old-fashioned mass email) but mostly hold up at capturing the long hike experience for me.
no job. no schedule. all i need is all is i have. in my pack, on my back. a route to follow, a narrow swath of this country to see. the continental divide – the place where waters part, pacific and atlantic.
trail. a gentle path, just wide enough for one foot traveler? or maybe a jeep road, forest road, gravel road, highway, stock driveway, cow path, no path… pile of rocks, sea of sagebrush, beaver swamp, creek bed, canyon, ridgeline, line of cairns, nothing…
where’d it go? i don’t know… find your way. topo maps, backwards guidebook, compass, gps. follow your trail instincts, game trail, path of least resistance, probably uphill… if all else fails, go norther.
walk. desert heat, open range, barbed wire, “keep out”, cows… grassland, mesas, mountains. snow-capped, snow-covered… post-holing, going nowhere, everyone going their own way… mountain forests, mountain meadows, mountain ridges, mountain-sized pile of rocks. walk. up. way up. down. straight down. rain, wind, hail, thunder and lightning… glorious sunshine. sunrise, sunset. just walk.
95 days following the divide… never a dull one. i know fatigue and frustration. i know strength and satisfaction. the futility of self-pity and the immense comfort of shared misery.
thanks for making my summer immeasurably more joyful, for reminding me all along the way that i am never alone.
Another backpacking trip in the books. It feels too ordinary to write about – a few days of cruising on fine trail into the high Olympics, a day spent doing nothing more than watching marmots and clouds and exploring a creek, and then back out. Sunny summer days, shady old forest, huckleberries that Dean declared the best he had ever tasted, and the simple joys of having an alpine meadow all to yourself for a day. Well, except for the marmots.
There’s nothing ordinary about it at all, I suppose, but it speaks to the richness of this life that I can find it so. It’s a mark of a good trip when we spend the drive home daydreaming all the possible itineraries for our return. It was a short hour-long drive, but long enough to know that we found another backyard gem.
Dean and I backpacked around Mount Hood last weekend. We planned the trip as another in the series of the “loop trails around a Cascade volcano” we seem drawn to, but it ended up being a surprisingly nostalgic trip for me. Which really shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was.
Mount Hood is Portland’s backyard mountain, and Portland was the first place I lived out west. Mount Hood is where I learned to ski and snowshoe. It’s where I took my first real backpacking overnight. I volunteered for the Forest Service there, and came to appreciate what capital-W Wilderness means in modern public land management. We also walked about 15 miles of PCT tread, which is pretty much memory lane.
In the end, it wasn’t our favorite trail. It was dusty and busy. But we saw all the faces of Wy’East (the traditional name for the mountain), under cloudless blue skies, and he was looking good in his summer finery.
It is a special gift to take a hike with a friend who walks the same pace and loves the mountains like you and is comfortable sharing a 24 square foot tent. Even if you only get to hike together once a decade. Maybe especially if that trip only comes around once a decade.
My friend Aaren flew across the country to venture up into the Olympics with me, our first joint trip since we met on the Continental Divide Trail in 2007. We were a bit early for the high country, but it felt less like we were forcing an itinerary and more like we were just stepping over the edge and watching summer emerge.
Within a few weeks of both our fortieth birthdays, it felt fabulous to mark a new decade by walking 40-odd miles and fording a creek raging with the spring melt that challenged us to be both strong and smart. To spend a day and a half without seeing another soul. And to take a whole day to just soak in the mountain air, swimming, knitting, exploring, napping.
It was powerful to take a little time to reflect on growing older in the midst of an activity that makes me feel so alive and so capable. I hope that I mark several more decades by carrying a backpack into the mountains and staying a spell.
It is February, which means lots of gray and wet and mud and cold in these parts. My instinct is to avoid it all, which means that I need some good excuses to pull me out. Yesterday, an exploratory walk out to glass beach was a good excuse.
As you can see, it was overwhelmingly gray, but the rain mostly held off and the wind was calm so it was actually a good day for a beach walk. It was our first visit to “glass beach”, despite having heard about it since we moved here nearly a decade ago. I’m fuzzy on the details of the history, but at some point there was trash dump that involved the townspeople tipping their refuse over a large cliff onto the ocean beach below. As a result, today there is a remarkable concentration of glass and such in the beach gravel.
It was both underwhelming and fascinating. On the surface, it looks like any other beach. As you can see from our spoils, we mostly found small bits of clear or brown glass. But they aren’t hard to find – sweeping through the gravel with a hand or stick, more swipes than not uncovered something inorganic. And there was just enough variety to keep me curious about what the next sweep might uncover. My favorite finds were the bits of porcelain with some mark of colorful glaze remaining, the opaque glass, the unusual pink and yellow bits. We spent about 45 minutes treasure hunting and I think I could have continued happily for hours, just to see what else I might uncover.
A bit of beauty, and a few hours of walking next to the ocean. That’s enough to call it a good day.
I spent a week walking around Mount Adams (or Klickitat) with a Zen Buddhist group earlier this month, soaking in the last perfect days of summer, breathing the rhythms of the mountain, and honoring the wild with a bit of ritual.
I was mostly too busy taking in the beauty around me to be bothered with a camera, but I managed a few. I loaded these couple a week and a half ago, but the trip felt too fresh to find words to tell you about it. Then I got on a plane and was hurled across the continent and back and now it all feels like a pleasant but distant memory.
So the words will be sparse, just a little haiku from our second day out:
On Klickitat’s flank
summer skin meets autumn air
to hike September
Hello again. I’ve been off to the mountains. We took a full eight days to walk for miles and sleep on the ground and swim in mountain lakes and have long rambling conversations about what we love most about backpacking trips and how someday we’d like to do another very long hike and the perfect backpacking meal plan, of course.
All week the word “waning” vibrated in my mind. The full moon was so bright it woke me at 2a our first night out but then gently waned all week. And despite a couple days of sweltering heat, it was apparent that summer is most certainly waning in the high country – the flowers in the many meadows were hanging on and the sweet berries could still be found but the nights were just holding off autumn and it was clear the momentum was shifting. Especially on the mornings when we awoke to frosty lace on the leaves in the open places.
Even as our days in the mountains waned, I felt so grateful that my self from last summer wrote the note reading “two weeks off in August!” and that my self from early spring committed to an 8-day hike and followed through even when it felt like we were woefully unprepared and that my self from the first day of our trip created a beautiful itinerary when our plans were completely thwarted by overbooked permits and rangers offering only defeat. It wasn’t the trip those former selves imagined but in the end, it didn’t matter a bit. It was glorious and I have eight more days of sunny mountain goodness stored up in my bones. And I feel richer for that.
Four days in the high Olympics. One last hurrah before summer slips away. Of course, autumn comes a little earlier in the mountains, and we felt it in the cold rain that turned to sleet on the hike in, then waking up to a heavy frost (and ice on any standing water smaller than the lake) the next morning. But we had plenty of blue skies as well, the sun strong enough to compel us to strip any extra layers if not to tempt us into the bottomless blue waters.
Back home today, I did my last long run before the half-marathon (less than two weeks away!) and spent a day at all the chores to get ready for the week ahead. September is a busy month for us, and October is shaping up about the same. But yesterday, we were still suspended in mountain time, and we spent a good share of the hike out planning our ideal itinerary for a return trip next summer, and alternate approaches, and daydreaming about bigger hiking trips. Which I take as a sign of a very good trip. And indeed, it was.
This long weekend at Upper Lena Lake in the Olympic Mountains was just what I needed. A rough hike in with heavy packs to earn three nights of backcountry base-camping with the extras like a full-size tent. Huckleberries and wild blueberries so abundant that I had to restrain myself from chastising the other visitors we saw who clearly were not eating the berries. A fabulous book started and finished. Cribbage in the tent while another shower passed. A side trip exploring a ridge top above tree line. Watching the mist rise up the valley, push through the gap, settle on the lake and then disappear in the sunshine. Yes.
I am nothing if not predictable. Fall is the time when I resolve to do more day hikes, to get out regardless of the weather, to fight back against whole weeks where every daylight hour is spent indoors with a good spell of walking and breathing mountain air.
So it was that by midweek last week I was suggesting a Saturday outing. The Dosewallips River Road was once a popular access point to Olympic National Park, but a storm in January 2002 washed out a stretch of the road about five miles shy of it’s end. So now instead of being able to drive to the campground and trailhead, you drive to the washout and then walk. It’s not far from home, but we had never ventured up because the prospect of a long road walk was awfully unappealing. We were so wrong.
After a little more than a decade, the forest has reclaimed most of the road although the trail retains the gentle grade. We started out in the fog and mist that feels mandatory for a forest so heavy with mosses and such, but the sun broke out higher up showing off the first snows about the tops. The river is it’s own enchanting shade of green, and the ghost campground was fascinating and an excellent spot for a picnic.
And the picnic! Mostly it was the sort of lunch that you cobble together from what’s in the fridge. But on a whim, I decided to pack our big thermos full of hot ginger tea heavy with lemon and honey. Honestly, I thought it might be a soggy day but that didn’t come to be. But mid-hike tea! A hot beverage in the wilds, with no effort! I don’t know how the wonder of this escaped me for so long… so simple, and so indulgent. I know exactly what I’ll be carrying on any future cool weather day trips.
I have this stubbornly strong belief that it’s important to occasionally put yourself at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. It’s the basis of my whole “why everyone should hitchhike” theory, but I’ll save that one for another day.
Unlike plenty of other trips, I didn’t intend to rely on the kindness of strangers in my recent vacation plans. But the universe had other ideas…
My initial plans to spend my second week off backpacking solo got scrambled by a wildfire in the area. I changed my route to avoid the affected area but by day three I was discouraged by the persistent smoke, foot issues, and some general malaise. I studied my map and discovered an alternate route that could get me out to my car in one long but possible 27-mile day. When I woke up at 430a after a fitful night, my plans were cemented.
After backtracking a few miles, I set off on the route I had identified on the map – a mix of a primitive road and some trail that it was obvious wouldn’t be heavily traveled. Things were going well until about nine miles in, when I came to the end of the road and was expecting a trail head, but instead found a fork in the road and a pair of gates. Despite the “no public access” sign on the gate, the right fork of the road appeared to match the route of the trail on my map. So I proceeded, but my confidence was replaced by the kind of anxiety that comes from knowing that 1. there’s no discernible reason for anyone to be on this road; 2. you are in the thick of gold mining claims; and 3. it’s 4 miles to the next trail junction at which point you’ll find out whether the map was just inaccurate about the road versus trail detail or whether you will have to backtrack, meaning at least 40 miles of walking to get out.
So you can imagine how I felt when, about three and a half miles later, I heard tools and saw life. I approached the old log cabin and began shouting “hello!” in my friendliest tone. And it was then that my luck turned.
I was greeted with a polite, “are you lost?” but very soon it was “I’m Eric.”, “take your pack off” and “would you like a cup of coffee?” I got confirmation that I was indeed just where I hoped I was on the map, great information about the trail ahead, and then, very unexpectedly, an offer of a ride out. Because it seems that Eric’s dad had his lunch packed and was heading out in about ten minutes – the only trip out from this cabin, the only users of the road, in a couple weeks. I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes before settling on, “Hello universe, thank you for the sign.”
As we pulled out of the driveway, Jim told me that he wasn’t much of a talker. He then spent the next few hours telling me about the family that built the cabin in the late 1920s, how his parents had come to own it in the late 1940s, and all the change he had seen visiting each summer for the last 65 years. Dams and highways built, mining fortunes, forest fires and so much more… When we finally reached the trailhead I hugged the man goodbye as he took out his peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-cold-pancakes lunch and loaded my pack in the Geo for the drive home, smiling at my good fortune.
I made it about a quarter mile down the road before I noticed that my gas gauge was below “E”, a full half-tank lower than when I had parked the car there four days earlier. I thanked the universe that I wasn’t going to run out of gas in the dark after hiking 27 miles, and started coasting every possible chance. My luck held, and the Geo made it all 30-some miles to the nearest gas station on fumes.
As soon as I started filling the tank, though, gas started spilling out and forming a pool on ground. Not home free yet. Closer inspection revealed that the rubber hose that leads from the gas cap to the gas tank had been neatly slashed. Someone was so desperate that they siphoned the tank of a Geo Metro. (Side note: a Metro tank holds less than 8 gallons. Absolute best case scenario they were going after $25 worth of gas.)
This story is dragging on far longer than it really deserves, so I’m going to speed ahead. I chatted up the gas station attendant to confirm that I was a further 40 miles from the nearest auto repair or tow services. A few minutes later, he was crawling around under my car in the lot confirming the situation and offering to lend me tools. A few minutes after that, I took his advice on effective application of duct tape and executed a (very) temporary repair. Good enough to get a few gallons of gas in the tank, enough to carry me the 100-odd miles home.
I pulled into the driveway about 7p that night, less than 14 hours after I had set out homeward. It was certainly not the journey I imagined when I set out, and it certainly looked to be going off the rails more than once. But I was home, safe and sound and hours earlier than I could have hoped at the start of the day. All because a couple of strangers went out of their way to help me out, and because I was trusting enough to take them up on their offers.
Thank you, universe, for the most appropriate ending to a trip I set out thinking was all about self-sufficiency and independence.