I am most myself

Or Adventures in Hiking, Part II

Adam at Mowich River
Adam at Mowich River

I think I come closest to being who I really am when I am on the trail. I have a deep, abiding, passionate, and slightly hard to describe love for those Northwest mountains. I take what they are (some of the most spectacular scenery in the world) and layer on top it uncontaminated imaginings from my youth about the mystery, majesty and non-factual histories overlaying the rugged rocks and ancient trees. To tell you how I feel about the Northwest mountains – my mountains – would probably require reams of digital screen, not quite convey what I wanted to feel, and sound like a 13 year old’s Tolkein-inspired fantasy coming from a nostalgic 30 year old. So let me just sum up: they are an ideal of my youth that has not been found wanting with my adult eyes. I love them. And I feel very much as though I belong in those mountains.

The first mile or so is always prosaic, though. My husband and I are no longer 20. We were carrying 40 pound packs down a very steep decline towards the Mowich River under a deep canopy of trees. We were racing daylight, having started at noon with 9.8 miles to go with a major downhill, a major uphill and a more-major-than-I-realized kind of flat to go before we could take our rest.

The downhill was lovely, but unremarkable. The uphill from Mowich River is one of the most consistent and long elevation changes of my memory. We counted. There were 33 switchbacks, many of them quite long. You hear the roar of the river below grow increasingly distant, but there are a good three miles of turning your face to the mountain, walking, and then turning your back on it again.

At last, we broke out of the soft fir-needled path and into daylight. “See! We’re almost there!” I gaily called as we walked between blueberries, bear grass, columbine, lupine and all the familiar flowers of the alpine slope. (The flowers for the entire trip were fantastic and at their prime.)

I thought we were almost there. I was very, very wrong.
I thought we were almost there. I was very, very wrong.

That sound you hear is my husband cursing the memory. Erm. It’s possible it was more like 3 miles than one. Oops! Trust me. Two miles, carrying 40 pound packs, at high speed, without enough food (bad planning on that one) and at high elevation? Two miles is a lot. Golden light was streaming into an avalanche-lily strewn meadow as our tired feed pulled us into camp.

A shooting star at Golden Lakes
A shooting star at Golden Lakes

Lessons learned:

  • We had brought electrolyte solutions that we poured into a small water bottle. This was fantastic for perking us up after expending lots of energy.
  • Watch the map for water. We were fine because I planned ahead, but there wasn’t a drop to be had for about 6 miles.
  • The “Santa Fe Chicken” by Backpacker’s Pantry was extremely tasty and welcomed at the end of the day.

    We left the rain flap off our tent. I kept my contacts in until the last moment so I could watch the stars as I slept on the bones of my beloved mountain. We slept well.

    In our next installment: Good planning comes to naught, mountains majesty, why I’m glad I got the mosquito netting and the rationing of DEET

    Golden Lakes (not pictured: swarms of mosquitos)
    Golden Lakes (not pictured: swarms of mosquitos)

  • The West Side of Mt. Rainier

    See that mountain, son? That's where your parents are headed.
    See that mountain, son? That's where your parents are headed.

    The highlight of my vacation was backpacking the West Side of the Wonderland Trail in Mt. Rainier.

    I knew I wanted to go backpacking during our vacation. I planned out my daydream trip: four days, three nights, all the best campgrounds on the hardest side of the Mountain. I went to the website to watch the melt rates (it can easily still be iced in the first week in August, scuttling a trip for those of us not up-to-date with our ice axes). I checked the reservations log, which showed that pretty much every campground on the Wonderland Trail was booked solid for our entire vacation. I still dared to hope.

    You see (and I almost hesitate to admit this on the internet lest it spur more competition for me), the powers that be reserve 1 camp site per campground a night for last minute, walk up reservations. Longmire, the place to make these reservations, is over 2 hours from Seattle, but less than half an hour from my folk’s house. This is what’s called an unfair advantage.

    The day after we landed, after a nice lie-in (well, for us. My poor parents were up all night because SOMEONE WOKE UP for the day after we arrived at home, at about 1:30 am Pacific.) we trekked up to Longmire with an unscheduled week, and a top priority to get some time on Mt. Rainier. I knew what I wanted, but I also knew it was HIGHLY unlikely I’d get my first choice.

    I filled out the starting negotiation paperwork:

    Day 1 – in at Mowich Lake, camping at Golden Lakes. 9.8 miles
    Day 2 – Golden Lakes to Klapatchee Park. 7.8 miles
    Day 3 – Klapatchee Park to South Puyallup. 3.8 miles
    Day 4 – South Puyallup to Longmire. 11.5 miles

    The Ranger took my paperwork and I settled in for the long negotiation.

    “Golden Lakes … ok, Klapatchee Park … ok, South Puyallup … ok. Yup. It looks like that will work!”

    You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I felt like I’d won the lottery. I *HAD* won the lottery. Three nights at the best campsites on the West Side — barring Summerland the best in the park?!? On my first try?! I was giddy and fairly floated over the trail to find my parents and tell them the fantastic news.

    It was 3 pm. By the next morning, we had to have bought everything we needed (note: all the stores are over an hour away), packed it in our backpacks, driven to Mowich Lake and gotten ourselves on the trail.

    Thus began … the epic buying spree of no self-control.

    We went to REI, Target, Walgreens and Fred Meyer.

    We bought freeze-dried dinners, sock liners, a water filter insert, iodine pills, mosquito head nets, a new backpacking tent, knee braces (3), sunscreen, candy bars, waterproof matches, caffeine pills and squirty cheese. Among other things. It was 11:30 pm before we got home, our bags lying flaccid and empty on the living room floor.

    The next morning we rose really, really early and started stripping out packaging, stuffing food and gear into our packs. After the most hurried packing ever for a backpacking trip (and in retrospect, a few key omissions and unnecessary items), we piled ourselves and our boys into the car for the long trip to Mowich. I savored my Maple Bar as we drove through scenic Ohop Valley, the mountain peeking periodically around corners. It was a gorgeous hot, clear day.

    We hit the trail head. It took us a while — lots of adjusting of shoes and packs. We poured an exhausted Thane into a baby-backpack on my mom’s back and took a patient but also tired Grey with us a bit down the trail. We swatted flies, not knowing just how much of a prelude to our vacation this would be. We arranged our platypi and tightened our knee-braces.

    We were on the trail.

    To be continued….

    Grey and Thane among the hiking gear
    Grey and Thane among the hiking gear