Ten years ago I was a year out of college, working in the warehouse of the bike business my parents own, living in a drafty house in a bedroom with walls painted sloppily by the previous tenant in three amazing colors, paying impossibly low rent, enjoying my young relationship with the man who would eventually become my husband and then my ex-husband. Ten years ago today, I left work early and got on my bike to ride home. It was warm and sunny and bright, and I rode in a t-shirt, down Killingsworth and then south along whatever streets I rode on back then when my bike commute was relatively new and novel, until I reached NE 57th and Fremont.
I pedaled fast down the bike lane along 57th, and just as I reached the intersection, I saw that the black pick-up truck in the left turn lane facing me wasn’t stopping. I don’t remember what I did then. I don’t remember the impact, exactly. I remember sitting in the intersection with my world narrowed to a tiny circle. I remember the feet of bystanders around me. One of them helped me find my glasses, which were broken. I remember the driver of the pick-up truck getting out of her truck and asking, “oh my god, are you okay?” I remember telling her to call 911. I remember the EMTs trying to put a cervical collar on me, but I screamed at them when it touched my collarbone — the first pain I felt at all. They taped a rolled towel around my neck instead, and later the nurses at the ER yelled at them for it. I remember that, because I thought it was hilarious. The injected painkiller that one of the EMTs had given me in the ambulance made everything hilarious. I cracked jokes with the x-ray techs.
I didn’t start out writing this to reminisce, not really. I just think sometimes about how much has changed in me and my life in the ten years since I got hit by that truck, and I feel sort of overwhelmed and grateful.
The narrative fallacy is my favorite fallacy. I love to think about the things I’ve done since June 12th, 2008 — the things that maybe my accident somehow potentiated, allowed to happen — because if that day changed my life it means that there was meaning in the arbitrary intersection of my path and the driver’s path that day, meaning in the pain that followed. I got a bunch of money for my broken collarbone, my pain and suffering, and I used it to ride my bike across the country two years later and live for six months in a tent on a permaculture farm the summer after that. I’d be a different person without those experiences; they shaped all the stuff I’ve done since then. My relationship with my ex-husband would have followed a different trajectory without my accident, and every relationship after. I went to physical therapy for the first time to recover from my accident! Maybe that planted a seed, and now I’m starting PT school in August.
I still ride the bike I rode on June 12th, 2008. The collision that day snapped its fork but left the rest of the bike somehow mostly intact. Since then, though, pretty much every other part on it has been replaced. About the only thing that’s still the same is the stickered frame. That bike and me: still the same, but hugely different. Carrying our scars around. I guess I feel like humans are not a whole lot more or less than collections of accidents and collisions, walking around, affected by each other, broken and put back together again, weird vehicles moving through time and space, bumping into obstacles…
I could choose another day as the one that changed my life, probably. It makes sense that the past decade has been transformational: it was my first decade as an adult, really, after I graduated from college and the well-paved road I’d been traveling since birth petered out and I was forced to make my own grown-up decisions. But: this thing happened. A fulcrum, for better or worse.
Last fall I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Heavyweight, in which a young man who was hit by a car on his bike in 2013, when he was 21, sat down in a hotel room and talked to the young man who drove the car that hit and nearly killed him. I cried a lot when I listened to it. I cried a little more last night when I listened to it again. The two men in the episode are incredibly, impossibly gracious with one another. After I heard it the first time, I came home and thought about trying to find the woman who hit me. I filled out the form I found to order a copy of my police report, but I didn’t hit submit. Unlike the man in the Heavyweight episode, I remember everything from the day I was hit. I don’t need someone else’s version of the story. But like the man in the episode, I feel like that story is important. It’s the beginning point of what came after, or at least I find it useful to believe that. For a long time after it happened, I resisted that. I wrote long lists of things that had happened in my life, trying to convince myself that this awful thing was just one more item in the list. And, I mean, it is, but stories are powerful. I got hurt, and then I got better, and then I got better.
Things were pretty rough for a few months after I got hit, for both obvious and less-obvious reasons. But one of my friends recommended I read a book of short stories by Amy Hempel, and I stopped when I got to “The Man in Bogotá” and read it over and over and over:
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge–though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man in Bogotá. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then–that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
* * *
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogotá. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.
It took me a few months to ride my bike again. A year to ride through the intersection where I was hit. At least that long to stop feeling all-consuming irrational rage and despair at the least bit of misbehavior or inattention from drivers I encountered on the road. But just about two years to pack away all my stuff, load some panniers on my shiny new touring bike, and ride across the country to Virginia.
The narrative fallacy is my favorite fallacy. It allows me to be grateful to have suffered. I like my life. I make mistakes and I have regrets, but for the most part, I like who I am. I am the person who experienced the things I have experienced. The things that have happened to me and the things that I’ve done. I carry proof with me: the scar behind my hairline, from a pillow fight at age 6. The tattoo needled onto my wrist at age 18. My bumpy, healed collarbone, from the time I got hit by a pick-up truck at age 22.
I climbed Mount Rainier earlier this week. When I was putting together my new year’s goals for 2018, Rainier was on the list — but I knew it wasn’t a climb I could plan and execute on my own, and I had no idea what shape my year would have pending grad school applications, so I put “climb to 14,000 feet” on my list instead of “climb Rainier.” I figured I could maybe make Whitney or Shasta or a Colorado 14er happen if I couldn’t manage to get up on top of the big mountain I used to stare at out the car window as a kid in Washington. Never thought back then that I’d ever climb it! Never thought, when I moved down to Portland for college, that I’d climb Hood, either! I like surprising myself. I like the person I’ve turned out to be. Can’t wait to find out what I do next!
(This post includes photos by myself, Ben, Rico, Greg, and whoever took that photo of me at Smith Rock. Thanks guys!)
When the Mazama climb calendar came out this spring, there were just a few Rainier climbs. One of them was a climb Rico was leading of the Ingraham Direct route in mid-May. I applied, and Rico emailed me to check in: “Are you sure you’re fit enough?” I spent a day second-guessing myself, but emailed back: “Yeah.” He put me on the climb. The next day I went to Smith Rock with this year’s BCEP group, and I loaded up my pack with everything I could think of plus a whole bunch of water and a rope — and then I climbed an awful scree field (at the top of which I weighed my pack: 48.5 pounds) and hiked all the way around the park all day.
Later I ditched the rope and gave away a whole bunch of water and did a terrifying 90-meter overhanging rappel at dusk to cap off the day, but that’s another story. The next day I hiked another big loop around the park and over Misery Ridge with a slightly-lighter pack, and then we drove back to Portland. And the next day, I woke up with my upper back in horrible, terrible, no-good, very bad knots. Uh-oh.
I managed a long training hike with a reasonably heavy pack the next weekend, up Table Mountain, and I got in a few short runs, but every morning I’d wake up a solid hour or two before my alarm, stiff and sore. Walking helped, so I started most mornings with a slow walk around my neighborhood. A few days after Table Mountain, I begged my coworker Jen, a massage therapist, to fit me into her schedule. She gave my back and shoulders an excellent and painful working-over. The next few days sucked, but the knots in my back slowly started to unwind. I did another long hike with my mom in Forest Park. Then the Rainier climb was cancelled due to poor weather. I was secretly a tiny bit relieved. My boyfriend Ben and I started planning a trip next month to climb Mount Shasta. We also got last-minute permits to climb Mount Saint Helens on Mother’s Day, and I stood on the crater rim a few days after I was supposed to summit Rainier, thinking that the view I got of it from there was a pretty good consolation prize.
…and then there was a perfect weather window and Rico’s schedule opened up and we all said oh yes we can make ourselves available those days, let’s go. On Monday morning we drove up to Paradise.
We checked our packs, weighed ’em (mine was only 35 pounds!), and smeared sunscreen on our exposed skin (a lot of it — it was warm). Rico filled out whatever paperwork needed filling out, and then we stepped off the parking lot and up onto the snow, and up and up and up. Already this part is blurring in my memory. We followed wands up the snow slope and over a few sections of rocky ridge. The snow was soft and the sun so bright I touched my sunglasses several times to make sure I was wearing them and not my regular glasses. It seemed impossible that it could be so bright. I’d gotten a little snow blindness on Mount Saint Helens, so I’d made sure to wear the duct tape side shields I’d made for my sunglasses this time, but I was still a little worried about my eyes.
I had a headache. We stopped for lunch on a rocky section, and I rummaged around in my pack for my first aid kit, looking for some ibuprofen. I couldn’t find the little blue pouch that is my first aid kit, but Rico pulled out his and kindly shared it. (My first aid kit turned up later when I dumped out my entire pack at Camp Muir.)
We climbed some steep sections and some less steep sections. There didn’t seem to be any really good consistent boot tracks, just a mess of footprints at strange and unpredictable intervals. By the time we arrived at Camp Muir, a few buildings tucked up on a little saddle, I felt pretty toasted. I dropped my stuff in the public shelter building, unrolled and laboriously inflated my sleeping pad on the upper sleeping platform, tossed my sleeping bag on top of it, and then crawled back outside and laid myself down on the concrete roof of another small building nearby. I pulled my cap over my eyes and basked in the early afternoon sun.
We spent the next few hours melting snow, filling bottles, and hanging out on the roof of the little building. I made myself a big freeze-dried dinner and ate the whole thing. Around 5:30pm, we returned one by one to the shelter and crawled into our sleeping bags. I lay down for a moment, and then had to pee. I sighed, wiggled out of my bag, fumbled around for my glasses, pulled the earplugs out of my ears, pushed my feet into my heavy boots, tied the laces loosely, and scooted to the edge of the platform, trying to avoid waking my sleeping teammate, Jonathan, next to me. I climbed carefully down the ladder and hopped onto the wet floor of the shelter, climbed through the door, and clomped through the snow to one of the outhouses. Then I reversed all these steps, lay down again… and shortly thereafter had to pee. I stared at the ceiling in denial for a long while, and then got up again. I did all of this three times, and then decided the altitude was messing with me. After a couple hours, I managed to fall asleep.
Someone’s alarm went off at 11:30pm. I wondered why mine hadn’t, and pulled my phone out of the chest pocket in my puffy. Ah… I’d set it for 11:30am. Nope — it was only figuratively morning. I felt around for my glasses and headlamp, pulled myself out of my cozy sleeping bag, put on my boots, and scooted past my still-sleeping teammate towards the ladder. I braced my left arm on the top of it and lowered myself over the edge of the sleeping platform, aiming for the lower platform with my foot. And… ouch. Shit. What had I just done to my shoulder?
I ignored it and set about readying my pack. “How are you feeling?” Rico asked.
“Good,” I answered, mostly confident that it was true.
“Great,” he said. “We’re changing up the rope teams. It’ll be me, you, and Linda, and then Greg and Alden on the second rope. Jonathan’s not feeling well, so he’s not gonna go up.”
I nodded and pulled my stuff out of the small door to the flat and mostly-dry area just outside the shelter. My left shoulder twinged a couple more times, but I thought it’d be okay. I said as much to Rico, just in case. Then I pulled out a bar and ate it quickly, surprised by how close it already was to our midnight departure time. I visited the outhouse, strapped on my crampons, and took off my extra-puffy down puffy and shoved it into my pack. Start cold, right? With almost no wind (amazingly!), I wasn’t actually too chilly at all in my fleece and thin synthetic puffy.
We tied in and headed out, following the boot track from Camp Muir across the Cowlitz Glacier towards the ominously-named Cadaver Gap. My crampons crunched on the firm snow, and I concentrated on keeping just the right tension in the rope between me and Rico. When we hit the rocky section at Cadaver Gap, we coiled the rope between us and picked our way up and over, following wands placed by the guide services and more-or-less obvious trails. Past the Gap was Ingraham Flats and two groups of tents. To the right of the boot track, headlights bobbed as a guided group headed up and out just ahead of us. Rico greeted them as we pulled up behind them — an Alpine Ascents group.
We headed up onto Ingraham Glacier, following the boot track as it switchbacked up and up. I had hoped for nice kicked steps, but alas, the track was mostly just sort of unevenly bumpy, and I felt a little stretch in my calves with each step — I placed my whole foot on the snow, heel-to-toe, to make sure my crampons had good purchase. My boots scraped against the back of my heels every time I picked up my feet. Oof, that wasn’t gonna be good. I’d climbed Mount Saint Helens nine days prior with zero blisters, but I hadn’t been wearing crampons or climbing on firm snow. I’d let myself believe my imperfectly-fitted boots had at long last magically, I dunno, broken in or something, so I hadn’t bothered taping my heels or toes. Spoiler alert: I would live to regret that.
Up we marched. I grinned a little at the first maybe-crevasse I saw, a tiny crack in the snow that we stepped right over. Then, all of a sudden, my headlamp lit up the edge of a huge one coming up on my left, and another one on my right. “Holy shit,” I said aloud as I followed the boot track along the three-foot gap between them. We crossed another snowbridge a little later. I was sort of glad to be climbing in the dark — glad for the small world contained within my headlamp’s glow, which was easier to comprehend than the glacier around me and the huge task at which I was chipping away, step by step.
Up ahead at the end of the rope, I saw Rico pushing his ice axe into the snow of the slope above the track. “We’re gonna use protection here,” he yelled back, and I passed it along behind me. He clipped his rope into a picket already placed by the guide groups. Rico walked on, and when I reached the picket, I yelled “picket!”, feeling a little hiccup of excitement at doing a thing I’d practiced and taught in BCEP four years running but never actually done on an actual glacier. “Clipping!” I yelled, and then “through!” when I’d clipped through to move my knot to the other side of the carabiner attached to the picket.
And then, the reason for the protection: up ahead, a crevasse had opened up across the track; a new track dipped down below the end of the crevasse somewhat precariously on the steep slope. I stepped down and gingerly poked around with my ice axe, looking for firm ground, then carefully stepped around the hole in the snow. Rico had clipped another picket on the other side, and we clipped through several more on the switchbacks above.
Up and up. My water bottle was frozen. I had my big puffy on at this point, the hood pulled up over my helmet. The sky started to lighten the tiniest bit, and a thin red band appeared above the horizon. From whatever elevation we were at, the horizon appears completely flat in every direction that’s not up. The red band widened and bled yellow light further into the sky, and then the round red sun appeared and splashed pink light across the ice.
I was moving really slowly at this point. The Alpine Ascents group had pulled ahead of us. After we stopped for a break, Rico gestured up the mountain. “That’s the crater wall, right there,” he told me, but when we got up level with the spot he’d pointed at, the mountain continued to rise higher above it. A while later, he said it again — “That’s the top, right there.”
“That’s what you said last time,” I told him.
“Yeah, but this time I’m telling the truth.”
I was skeptical, but I continued plodding on, one impossible step at a time. I tried a little chant in my head: “Just keep moving. Don’t stop moving.” But it kept getting mixed up: “Just stop moving…” Why on earth had I signed up for this? Why on earth would anyone want to do this? What even is this sport? I never wanted to climb another mountain again. My feet were killing me. The backs of my heels, the balls of my feet, and my pinky toes all felt raw. My thighs burned with every step up. The last thousand or so vertical feet felt interminable.
And then, finally, I stepped over the crater rim, and Rico let the rope slacken so he could catch some photos of me, bedraggled, as I arrived. I mustered up a smile as I wobbled towards him.
Linda followed me up, and we dropped our backs and pulled out snacks and unfrozen water bottles. I wondered how on earth I was going to get back down, and entertained a little unserious fantasy of somehow falling and breaking a leg — they’d have to send a helicopter for me! I wouldn’t have to climb back down this whole goddamn mountain! I had pretty much zero appetite, but managed to eat some peanut butter pretzels and a couple ginger chews. We waited for Greg and Alden to arrive, and then we all set off across the crater to the true summit. It was mostly a flat walk, but with a cruel little hill to cap it off. We took our summit photos and then headed back to retrieve our packs, apply sunscreen, and head on down. I also took a moment to, um, use my blue bag. I mean, have you really been to a place if you haven’t pooped there? Well: I have pooped in the summit crater on Rainier.
On the way down, I moved slowly, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. Or next to the other, or just behind the other, or whatever the terrain required. My feet hurt a lot. My quads felt just done. But down we went.
It was admittedly pretty awesome (and/or terrifying) to see the crevasses we’d passed by in the dark and navigate the same obstacles with a better sense of the exposure and the hugeness of the mountain and the smallness of us. We used the guide groups’ pickets again on the way down, and I was glad to have them.
It warmed up as we continued down, and soon we’d stripped down to t-shirts. Ingraham Flats and the guided groups’ tiny, tiny tents were visible in the distance, but they never seemed to get any closer. With no wind to speak of, we quietly roasted. At least my water bottle, recently unfrozen, contained cold, crisp water.
After forever, we reached Ingraham Flats, and then crossed Cadaver Gap again. The wending path over the rocky section seemed much longer than it had in the dark of the very wee hours, but then there was the gently sloping path across the Cowlitz Glacier, and there was Camp Muir.
We rested briefly and gathered our things and repacked our packs for the final descent down to the parking lot. I gratefully took off my crampons, and per a suggestion from Rico, I stripped off my outer thick wool socks (it was too hot for them anyway) and left just my liner socks on. I pulled the trash compacter bag pack liner out of my pack and fashioned it into my signature glissade pants. I didn’t want to walk one more step if I didn’t have to; I figured I’d slide down as much as possible of the remaining descent. After 45 minutes or so, we were off. There weren’t glissade chutes to speak of, and the fall line veered right of where we wanted to go… but still I slid gleefully down bumpy boot tracks for a few hundred feet at a time, then picked myself up and traversed left to meet up with the team again.
Eventually, we spread out out a bit — Alden powered down the slope ahead of us, while Rico and Linda plunge stepped down behind us. Greg kept pace with me, sometimes following me down a glissade chute when I found or made a decent one. My boots and socks and gaiters soaked through in no time in the wet snow, but it was so hot out I didn’t care.
We followed wands down towards the parking lot. One spot I remembered as particularly awful and steep to come up had a beautiful deep glissade chute going down it that twisted from side to side — a little taste of what it’s like to be a bobsledder. We started to meet dayhikers, and as we got closer I got more and more cheerful. I’d joked to myself earlier in the day that, yeah, I never wanted to climb a mountain again, but, you know, ask me again in a week… Nearing Paradise, though, I knew it wouldn’t take nearly that long before I’d be wondering what’s next. What’s not to love about blisters and sunburns and sore thighs? I felt great.
Finally Greg and I clomped onto the pavement. I wandered around in a daze looking for a place to sit down while Greg, with more useful instincts, looked for Rico’s truck and Jonathan. Within minutes, there he was with the truck! And Alden with the car he and Greg had driven up. I pulled a change of clothes out of the back of Rico’s truck, pulled off my wet boots and socks, sat down on the warm pavement, and felt very cheerful indeed.
Rico and Linda got down a little while after us, and we celebrated with the obvious choice. Cheers.
A couple weeks ago I finished the last of my grad school pre-reqs (at least, the last for now) and the week after that I got to go to the Enchantments with Sara and Mark, two friends I met in 2015 when we were all Flaming Pikas learning to climb mountains. The Enchantments were stunningly beautiful and we had a great adventure and I hiked the hardest hiking I have ever hiked and loved every minute (photos soon). Two days after we got back, some kid shot off some fireworks on Eagle Creek Trail and the Gorge went up in flames. A week and a half later, the fire is still burning, the highway is still closed, towns are still evacuated. I wrote: “Everything beautiful is so fragile. I don’t understand how one small, stupid action can have such power. I am so angry and so sad.”
In early August, my mom and I did a long day hike near Mount Saint Helens with a group from the Mount Saint Helens Institute. Landscapes recover from destruction—at least, they always have before. People keep saying that to me, or posting it on Facebook. Fire is part of the natural cycle of the forest, etc. That is true, but fireworks are not. I signed up for email lists for all the trailwork groups I could find and I felt a little better. I want to be a part of what I love, not just a consumer of wild places. The Gorge, unlike St. Helens, has not been devastated entirely, it sounds like. I look forward to visiting it many times for the rest of my life—the trails I’ve hiked a half dozen times already and the ones I haven’t visited yet. I am devastated and I am horrified by the fires burning everywhere in the northwest, by climate change, by how powerless I feel. Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin…
Mount Saint Helens erupted five years before I was born. 37 years later, the landscape is varied and full of life. 37 years is not much for a mountain, but it’s a long time for me. “Devastation” is a human word with a human connotation, and humans fear loss much more strongly than we anticipate gain and beauty and transformation.
Photos from the hike last month:
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?