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my favorite mountain (birthday backpacking)

A few weeks ago, on July 9th, I turned 32. The day before my birthday, I drove up to Mount Hood. I got to McGee Creek Trailhead—a tiny little one I’d never been to before—at around 1:30. There was only other car parked there on a beautiful sunny summer Saturday. There was some kind of bike event going on nearby and cars everywhere around Top Spur Trailhead, so I counted myself lucky and headed up McGee Creek Trail. The trail was nothing to write home about, really, but neither is Top Spur—and both spit you out on Timberline Trail after a bit of elevation gain. There were a few fallen trees to climb over or around on the way, including one that I had to sort of bellyflop across, and lots of rhododendrons and whatever those big thorny plants with the huge leaves are—to myself I call them “dinosaur plants.”

I didn’t see a soul until I reached a junction with a few sticks on the ground making arrows pointing left. The trail seemed to continue straight ahead. I asked the guy standing there (after the requisite greetings), “what’s that way?” and he told me it was the way to McNeil Point. “Oh, like a shortcut?” I asked. It didn’t occur to me for a minute or two that this might be Timberline, I guess because I was expecting a clearer junction. The guy I was talking to couldn’t confirm that it was the Timberline, so I pulled out my map to look for a potential shortcut trail. He turned out to be part of a small trail crew that was out for the day with a ranger, though, and when the rest of them showed up, the ranger set me straight—I was at the junction—and we chatted for a few minutes.

“You headed to McNeil Point? There’s a whole lot of people up there,” he warned me. I told him I was hoping to go a bit further than that, actually, and he wished me well, told me that there were some snow patches but I should be in good shape. “Looks like you’re well-outfitted,” he told me, and commented on my Dirty Girl gaiters. (Want some instant hiker cred? For realz, a pair of Dirty Girls will provide it so fast. It makes me laugh every time.) I headed up the trail feeling so cheerful and energetic that one of the next hikers I encountered commented, “Well you’ve got some pep in your step!” I laughed and waved and kept moving, though I surely slowed down a bit as the ascent continued.

Soon Mount Hood started to peak through the trees here and there, and then came the beautiful broad expansive views I remembered from this part of the trail from when I hiked it a couple times last fall. I stopped for some food on a big rock underneath a tree, and insects snacked on me while I snacked. Not long after that, I passed the first water source and stopped to filter water… and then passed five more great sources in the next ten minutes. So it goes.

I passed the ponds and the sign for the McNeil Point. I was starting to get a bit tired, but I figured I’d keep going, maybe find a nice spot at Cairn Basin or a bit further to set myself up to explore Barrett Spur in the morning—my hopeful objective of the trip. I’d crossed a few patches of snow already, most of it quite soft in the afternoon heat, all of it with clear boot tracks from other hikers. Soon after the McNeil Point junction, I came across another snowfield, which sloped down to my left above a stream, and started across. I stepped across a tree branch that was partly buried, and as I put my right foot down on the other side, I must have dislodged some snow, because the branch abruptly sprang up out of the snow, taking my left foot up into the air with it. Thankfully, it stopped moving before the limits of my hip flexibility were reached, and my trekking poles and right foot were well-planted. I squeaked like a pika and took a moment, balanced there, to catch my breath, before carefully disentangling my left foot from the branch and continuing across the snowfield. Phew! If I had fallen, I would have tumbled down the slope and been stopped by either a tree or the rocky stream below—neither possibility was much fun to contemplate.

Shortly after that patch of snow ended and I regained the trail proper, it came to a creek crossing. The water was still mostly covered in snow, and I couldn’t tell exactly where the banks were, but there were large holes where the snow had broken or melted through and water was visible. I didn’t see any footprints in the snow across the water, and though I spent some time picking my way along the bank in both directions, I couldn’t find a spot where I was willing to risk a crossing as a solo hiker. I was still a little bit adrenaline-y from the snow patch, and this amazing story (of a PCT thru-hiker who lost his gear and nearly his life crossing a river in the Sierra 15 miles from the nearest trailhead) was fairly fresh in my mind… so this was my turnaround point. I decided to head up to McNeil Point, crowds of hikers be damned. On my way back across the snowfield, I went under the tree branch I’d stepped over before.

I was a little worried about finding a campsite, so I told myself I’d take the first one I found, and then broke that promise to myself when the first one I found was tiny and right by the trail with no view to speak of. I investigated side trails on my way up the ridge towards McNeil Point, and found a well-trod snow bridge across the creek (the same creek I’d chosen not to attempt crossing—just much higher up!) that I could see led to an idyllic-looking camping spot on the other side—already occupied, of course. A spot further up the ridge was taken, too, but I knew there were a bunch of spots up at the point itself, near the shelter. When I started across the little boulder field, I heard a pika squeak nearby, but it was gone when I turned to look for it. The view to the north was incredible, with St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams all lined up on the horizon. And then—”oh!” I said when I saw it, and then “oh.” The fire burning at Eagle Creek… I could see the plume of smoke rising up from the Gorge.

When the trail broke into the web of trails that laces all over the McNeil Point area, I followed the lowest one to the shelter and headed upward from there to look for a campsite. Three women had taken the lowest one, on the edge of the ridge, and there was an empty one available nearby, but I wanted to give them (and myself) a bit more space, ideally. Further up, a couple was doing their camp chores and waved as I walked past. “Are you looking for a campsite?” they asked. I told them yep and that there was an empty one back behind me, and they said, “Oh, no, we found this other great one.” One of them led me up the trail and pointed down a side trail to a campsite a little lower down, with a small rock wall to protect it from the wind. I thanked him and trotted down, smiling. The spot was out of sight and sound of any of the other campsites, and though my view of Hood was slightly compromised by the hump of land above me, I could still see the summit—and that incredible view north of St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams.

I started to pull my things out of my pack, thinking about how I’d get my tent stakes into the hard ground—and then I realized there was no reason at all to set up my tent. I grinned to myself and laid out my tyvek groundsheet, weighing it down with the rocks I’d thought I’d be tying my guylines to or nailing my stakes in with. I blew up my pad, fluffed my sleeping bag, and wrapped a rock with my fleece and put it on top of everything in case the wind picked up. It was actually remarkably quiet and calm, and I felt great. I left my campsite and climbed up the hump of land above it, towards the mountain, to see what I could see.

What I saw was a beautiful mountain, an occupied campsite or two, and one on the edge of the ridge that was unoccupied. I considered, for a minute, running down for my gear, dragging it up there, and sleeping on the edge of the mountain. But ultimately I opted for the more protected, quieter spot, out of the wind.

I made dinner and ate it on a little rock that someone had clearly set up as a chair, facing northwest and waiting for the sunset. I wrote in my journal and listened to a podcast as the sky slowly darkened.

Just before I went to sleep, I got up to pee and startled a buck, who stood fifty feet away staring at me with his retroreflective eyes before turning away from me and walking away. Finally I curled up in my sleeping bag and waited for the last of the light to fade.

I woke up on the morning of my birthday at first light, rolled over and stared at the mountains. I could get into this cowboy camping thing.

My sleeping bag was a little moist from condensation, so I was very, very lazy about getting up, waiting for the sun to come up and my bag to dry before I packed up. I made myself oatmeal and chai tea in “bed” and grinned a lot about how nice it had been to sleep out. A few very up-and-at-’em trail runners carrying only tiny running vests ran through, chasing each other over the patches of snow.

Eventually I headed out, not long after the three woman who’d been camping down by the shelter also headed out. I hiked very leisurely, stopping to take photos of flowers in the morning light. I tracked the buck I’d seen the night before across the snowfields, spotting his tracks among and between the human boot tracks. And then I saw another track — mammalian, and bigger than my palm. I’m not much of a tracker, but I couldn’t find any claw marks in it, just sayin’. Cougar? I mean, I’d be surprised, but I was surprised to see the buck up there where there was so much human traffic, too.

I passed the women at the top of the ridge walk back down to the Timberline, and didn’t see anyone else for several miles. I asked the first hiker I saw to take this photo of me in front of the mountain:

…and then continued on out to my car.

I wish I didn’t feel the getting-older angst, but I kinda do. Sometimes the fact that my life is so different from what I thought it would be when I was younger — and the markers of adulthood that I imagined I would have by now feel so out of reach — feels like a gaping wound. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it. I feel ridiculous even saying that, of course. I have a lot of good things in my life, and a lot of awesome memories and experiences from my wandering twenties, and, I mean, I made a lot of the decisions that led me here, but now I’m 32, all of a sudden, and living the life of a much younger person — going to college, living above my parents’ garage, working part-time for pennies and (admittedly valuable) experience.

Back in June I went to the info session for the Mazamas’ Intermediate Climbing School, which I’d figured for probably the past couple years I’d try to take this coming year. It’s a nine-month program, fall through spring, most weekends and most Tuesday evenings. I was surprised to find I just wasn’t excited about applying. Like, all I want in life right now is some free time. Summer term at school means I leave the house at 7am and don’t get home until 8 or 9 in the evening (and then I have homework!). I feel a fair bit of anxiety about my neglected friendships, and I guess I’m also feeling a little bit antsy. I keep hoping to just, like, feel comfortable, but maybe that’s like hoping to never be hungry or thirsty again. Would there be joy in life, without hunger or thirst?

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