Thursday, Mid September 2011, North Cascades
Gloomy on the way to the trailhead. Though it is mid morning the light is reminiscent of an ominous dusk. I stop at a pullout in the forest which is the only cell signal for miles and my last until next week. Remembering I left a couple of the summer’s luscious peak nectarines behind at the house, I use the opportunity to call A. back at the station and urge her to enjoy them for me. I’m in a bad mood and she can sense it. She cheers me up and I’m glad to talk to her. I promise to lay off the Joni Mitchell (yes, busted) and continue on my way. Nearing the trailhead I see something weird that looks like a large white dog, but as I draw closer I see it is a mountain goat galloping along the road, then disappearing into the woods. I’ve never seen a goat down on the road before. Very strange. A good omen, I decide, as the sighting has elevated my mood somewhat.
At the trailhead I hoist my pack onto my back and begin hiking, thankful for the cool weather, which means no harassment by bugs. Within ten minutes the precipitation starts: too light to warrant raising one’s hood but over time it builds up and runs down my neck. I alternate up and down. Usually I would wait until reaching the pass before eating lunch but hunger is gnawing at me much earlier. I stop at Monkeyflower Rest. This is the ninth time I’ve passed this spot this summer. Each time pass I resolve that my next visit will be the one when I’ll bring papa’s ashes to rest here, with the grand view, the flowers and the small cascades flowing over granite. Now it is time to bring Nana’s remains as well, to rest beside Papa here, where I am sure to visit often. Yes.
The precipitation can more accurately called rain at this point. I struggle to wrest my lunch sack from my pack, beneath its rain fly. I try to assemble a turkey and cheese sandwich without soaking everything. Okay. Remind me: why I did not do this at home earlier? However, I am successful at sating my appetite. Belly full, I continue upward.
A few groups of backpackers and climbers stop to chat with me. I recognize all of them as people I had met over the past week back at the office while they were planning their trips. Now they are hiking out transformed — beaming, glowing, filled with the mountain magic they have absorbed in the past several days of what sounds like remarkable weather. My spirits bouyed, I continue on.
Still, my legs feel like lead, even though I am in my best shape of the season, practically the fittest I’ve ever been. Certainly the fittest since my diagnosis. My pack is the heaviest I’ve carried in ages; what a difference that makes. I’m carrying about 10 extra pounds of food and gear bound for the lookout, including a 2 person tent which will be able to accomodate guests as well as serve as a ventilated, mosquito-free shelter for rangers to retreat to during those hot, buggy late summer patrols. I thought I would enjoy pushing myself a bit.
The danger of these solo patrols, as all rangers know, is the inevitability of being alone with your thoughts for days on end, with no one to pull you out should you go over to the dark side. Those of us who are women are also keenly aware of the difference it makes whether we are in the waxing or waning part of our cycles. Just two weeks ago I was practically floating up this same trail, waxing, ecstatic. Now I am waning, and feeling tired.
Switchback after switchback in the forest, I become annoyed by the cacophany produced by rain hitting my hood. I am warm and remove the hood and allow the rain to soak and cool my head as well as let the sounds of the wilderness reach my ears. Wind in the conifers, a woodpecker wrenching and flipping bark from a tree in order to get at the morsels inside. The sound of my clothes rubbing and my boots crunching still seem overly loud, so I keep stopping in order to silence myself and hear what is going on around me. It is not too long before I am nearing the mythical ridge.
It’s been a strange summer. Though it’s mid-September, my surroundings tell me it is late July. Normally I would by slowed down and constantly waylayed by the juicy blueberries growing all around me, the succulent fruits irresistible, both sweet and spicy. However, there are no berries to be seen today; some of the plants have not even set fruit yet. Instead it is my mood slowing me down, and the weight on my back.
Reaching the first snowfields, I remove my pack, take the opportunity to relieve myself, then get my poles out. I hear a hail, which startles me. It’s the first person I’ve seen since entering the park. Ha! Should have known that taking a pee is the best way to draw visitors. So far I’ve never been caught with my pants down, thank goodness. I am in full raingear, a bit damp and starting to chill from both my sweat and the water that has been dripping from my hood down the back of my neck onto my shirt collar. The man who approaches is in a Hawaiian shirt and running shorts with sneakers and an old glory bandana around his head. He’s new to NW Washington and eager to converse. We chat a while, but my toes are growing cold and I soon prepare to take my leave. He takes out his so-called “ski sticks” and jogs (or whatever a mtn goat does) up the snowfield and into the fog.
Once I’m on the ridge my pack feels lighter – is that possible? I’ve seen the grand vistas from this ridge enough times that I am not concerned that the sky is so closed in. In fact, I enjoy it. Familiar landscapes become alien, your mood deciding whether they are sinister or playful.
As the larger world is obscured, one’s attention is drawn downward, to the little details: mushrooms, lichen, animal fur on the trail, the way water drops turn a lupine into a glittering jewel that’s almost heartbreakingly beautiful.
The socked-in sky also turns one’s attention inward. Here’s a typical mental dialog:
“Feel how strong I am, my body is working hard and it feels amazing. It’s eight years now since my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and look at where I am now. I am proud of myself. The MS has changed my outlook so profoundly. Before, I was content to coast along and now I am striving for the things I want and working to get them. But look at the side effects of this attitude. I am more self indulgent than ever and want to enjoy everything life has to offer, knowing that it could all be taken away from me at any time. Reality check — How do my actions affect others? Am I working hard enough at my job? Am I a bad mother? Am I sabotaging my marriage? (ruminate, ruminate) Okay, enough now. Get back into the moment.”
I’m getting close to my goal. I realize the poles must be helping to distribute my pack weight. Interesting. I have not seen any bears all summer. Where are they? Last summer they were everywhere. I remember the sow I spied sprawled out on the snowfield nursing her two cubs — one black and one brown.
As soon as I reach the lookout I know I need to strip off my wet clothes and change into warm layers before I lose too much body heat, but first I am curious to weigh the pack. 32 pounds – gaah! I was not imagining things.
I wonder what the next 3 days will bring. I had put out a few invites to friends to come meet me up here but barely a nibble. Everyone has responsibilities, or they feel like hibernating down in town. Who can blame them with weather like this? It’s only a 10 mile hike with basically a daypack. But for what? The opportunity to shiver in an unheated cabin at 6300 feet?
Well, maybe someone will shock me with a surprise visit. Perhaps with an adult beverage or two? Then we can attack the four buckets of extra food and try putting together some crazy combos. Pesto couscous with tuna? Or how about quinoa and green chiles with a side of lentils? Or, digging deeper, TVP with green curry and refried beans. And then there are the unlabeled foil packets. Always fun!
This was the day I planned to explore the fabled granite basin above the northernmost lake. However, a special weather report comes over the radio warning of an extreme weather change bringing frigid temperatures and heavy rain and snow. Since it is due to arrive in the evening, I decide to delay the trip to the basin until next season. Today I will do a double dip north and south along the ridge and get as many chores done as I can while conditions are favorable. This means stirring all 5 composting toilets.
As I am eating breakfast, a suckerhole opens. My heart leaps and I run outside. The sight of a mountainside appearing is quite shocking after the sensory deprivation of being in the cloud since I arrived. I am blown away.
A little while later it’s clear this is more than a suckerhole. Gonna be a good day.
I finish my chores before dark. You know, those composters really work. Someone at the small lake used a fern to wipe with, which always warms my heart.
Saturday and Sunday
As often happens, the weather was not as dire as the forecast predicted, but it kept the crowds of hikers at home. I only see a few souls about on my patrol and my hike out.
My attention eventually reveals something very special.
My first and only vaccinium deliciosum of the year. I may have made noises that were NSFW as I tasted these.
The delights continued with every step.
For sure I was touched by the mountain magic by the time I emerged. It was good I was fortified by the wilderness because bad news was waiting for me on the outside. Turns out that while I was down and gloomy on Friday, my friend’s husband was fighting for his life and passed away that day. A few short weeks later another friend went to the other side. Someone who had loved this valley as I do.
Autumn and return to winter.