Last weekend my wife, the dogs, and I got out and overnighted for the first time this season. That first one can be a bit of a doozey, and this one had its challenges. For starters, it took us four hours to pack between scrounging up gear that was definitely in one of four places and setting our urban homestead in order.
Of course, neither of us really slept; and that was on our obscenely thick home mattress. What would happen when that thickness shrank down to two inches? Would we have to shovel out a flat spot for the tent in the consolidated snow? Would the bugs eat us alive? Bears? Bleary-eyed and woozey, we made it to the trailhead by noon. Not too bad considering the long drive.
Many forest roads which used to carry huge timber, now allow vehicle access to mountain wilderness. Most trailheads here in Washington State lie between two and three thousand feet. Some start you at four and the occasional “cheater” above that. At the 47th, 48th, and 49th parallel, the tree-line (or, elevation where the trees thin out) is about 6,000 feet (or, 2 point something thousand meters). It is less in higher latitudes and more in lower. For example, my wife and I hiked to 10,000 feet in Oaxaca State, Mexico and never truly escaped the wooded confines.
So, here in Washington State, in order to enjoy the utter perfection of the alpine, one has to travel by foot, horse, or motor bike (in designated areas) through miles of forest and climb 3-4 thousand feet. Add to that the shouldering of a heavy pack for the first time in a season and it can be a bit of a slog.
Now, I’m a plant guy and can keep myself pretty well occupied identifying species and the variations within. I spend time cataloging and comparing in my mind noting what elevation, aspect, and area they grow best. There’s usually an ooh or aah involved and a requisite stopping to snap a photo or taste a wild edible.
Several times during the hike, Gwen, an efficiently speedy hiker, swooped up the camera after a break. This, I suspect, had more to do with my intermittent naturalist tendencies than her desire to create compositions. She makes great photos by the way. Her motivation just lay in escaping the deep forest which can get oppressive and fast. Especially when there are a swarm of bugs after you and downed trees to scramble while wearing 35 extra pounds. It can go on and on and on…and be pretty demoralizing. Unless, of course, you know what lies ahead.
I like to think of this part of a hike as a mild “dark night of the soul,” where, in my understanding, one struggles through existential questions and frequently encounters fear, doubt, and despair. Then, through introspection, helpful companionship, and/or grace one finds the dawn bringing clarity and understanding.
Stay tuned for a glorious new dawn…