It was 11am and the punishing August heat was already beating down on me. My mouth was parched and even though I was carrying a little over a liter of water, I was rationing it. I hadn’t come across anything but two shallow ponds for a while and didn’t want to run out before my next good water source. It was shadeless, bone dry, and hot, even up there, at over 5,000 ft. I was alone, high up on a rocky ridge (quite literally high and dry) with views to the north of a sea of Cascade mountains and to the south, glorious Mt. Rainier, the pride of my home state.
Up ahead I heard the clattering of loose rock and then a mountain goat appeared out of nowhere just 30 feet down the trail. He gave me a long, hard look, sizing me up. I watched him, snapped a picture, and kept my distance. This narrow trail ledge was no place to spook a goat. I picked up a rock from the ground just in case he got too close. It was maybe not the right thing to do, but it’s a habit I picked up in South America to keep the stray dogs at bay. It was unnecessary, though. He was just a young, lone male out on his own and after a few moments, he scampered off the trail and up the hillside meadow above me. Like him, I was a young, lone thing out on my own, minding my own business. He was the only company I’d had for a while. I hadn’t seen another human for nearly 24 hours.
This is the shit I live for.
And yet this was the first time I’d been out, just me, my old red backpack, and the wilderness, since I got home from Colombia two months ago. And even though I wish I’d gone out sooner, gone farther, gone longer, I’m glad that it’s the thing that finally inspired me to blog again. It’s not that I haven’t been up to anything since I got back. Seattle has been having an amazing summer and I’ve been focusing on readjusting and just letting the time unfold and see where it takes me — barbeques, boating, biking, camping, swimming, and heaps of outside time.
That and I’d kind of forgotten how everyone’s entire calendar of summer weekends seems to get booked up months in advance with weddings, birthdays, baby showers, climbs, and family camping trips. Getting out on the weekdays isn’t often an option either since I guess some of us have to work (suckers!). However, when I found out that I was going to be back at work within a week, (that I was going to be one of those suckers,) I knew I had to squeeze as much fun out of my final days of freedom as possible. I was also feeling some serious city drain and craving some alone time.
The Sunday before my meeting with the goat, something in me snapped and I found my spontaneous South American self again. Instead of just going on the day hike I had planned, I packed up my backpack, threw in some extra food, and took off for a 3 day trip. When you don’t have a car in the US, this kind of spontaneity can be tricky since bus service is limited to non-existent outside of the city. Despite a few seriously scary roads, I knew how much I would miss the mobility of South American travel — where you can get just about anywhere with some thrown together combination of bus, micro, moto taxi, camion, or milk truck.
For this thrown together thru hike, I was fortunate to already be heading out for the day with Jen, my Patagonian partner in crime. My dad, who I called last minute Sunday morning, said he was free on Tuesday and happy to come out to Roslyn to pick me up since I told him there was a nice day hike at the place I was exiting and promised him a free dinner on the way home.
When Jen knocked at the door, I was in the middle of giving my dad directions to my exit point and I knew she was going to think I was crazy. She’s familiar, though, with my style of embracing the moment, especially when good weather is on my side. She is the one, after all, who watched me months before as I headed off alone for a 3 day trip along the Southern Patagonian Ice Field only hours after we’d finished a 5 day backpack together, seizing the final days before the weather was forecasted to head in an ugly direction.
So off we went, up the Pacific Crest Trail from Snoqualmie Pass to Kendall Katwalk. This legendary trail from Mexico to Canada has been calling my name for years, and though I hope to walk the whole thing one day, at this moment I was positively giddy just to be on it with the prospect of having a few days on my own in the woods. My fresh legs moved quickly up the trail as we climbed gradually through the trees and emerged in an open scree field, both of us grateful for the somewhat cool and partially cloudy weather. The nearly 360 degree views at the top were awesome, even though it was a bit busy with other picnickers. After lunch on the ridge, we walked a bit further together to Ridge and Gravel Lakes where a few people were camping and several more were just taking a break before turning back. This is where Jen hugged me goodbye and I refilled my water before pressing on in search of more solitude.
Within minutes of departing, I saw no one but the pikas and heard no one but the birds. It was exhilarating to be out again, especially with such open sky all around me. Within an hour or two I had wound my way down to Odds and Joe Lakes and found one small camp just off the trail. There was only one problem. No water. This wasn’t completely unexpected, but with the trail crossing a small ridge just between the lakes and Joe Lake not too far below, I had expected some sort of rough side trail down to it, but there was nothing. No moisture near the trail at all save a brackish puddle that would soon disappear in the heat. I continued up the path a stretch only to find a dried up seasonal streambed and then scanned the snowless ridge that stretched for miles ahead and knew there wouldn’t be water or another place to camp for quite a while.
So I scouted out a route down to Joe and couldn’t decide if it was wise or not, but eventually wound my way down about 600 ft from the trail, bushwhacking through the woods and then moving cautiously over a steep scree field. It was this or having to walk back to Gravel Lake or possibly hike in the dark to get to the next water source. Backpacking is a lot of things to me — scenery, quiet meditation, exercise — but often it breaks down to the series of decisions you must make to meet your basic needs while staying as safe as possible.
“Careful now, girl” became my mantra like all times when I am alone and going to be shit out of luck if I hurt myself. After 30 minutes of creeping slowly along and some slippery maneuvers over wet foliage and logs, I got down to the edge of the lake. I drank as much water as I could, then filled up all my storage bags. Having not thought to empty my pack and take it with me, I had to arrange the bags awkwardly inside my sports bra and other clothing so I could make the steep climb up. It took me less time to get up then down and I emerged with a few scraps and bits of forest in my hair, but unscathed. I was happy no one saw me there, picking out ferns and pine needles with water bags bulging out from my shirt and shorts.
I made dinner, put on my warm clothes, and enjoyed the fading golden light that gave the hills an alpenglow and created a spectacular reflection on Joe Lake down below me. The quiet was electrifying. I hadn’t been this alone in months. Tired from the day, I had a nice long sleep and awoke the next morning to a sky that was a solid sheet of blue. I took it slow and got hot as I stirred my oatmeal in the long layers I was wearing to protect myself from the frenzied mosquitos.
While hanging my rainfly to dry on a sunbathed bush, I stepped up and with the fly blocking my view didn’t see the slope below me. I then slipped and heard a loud snap in my ankle as I fell. In a sudden rage of pain I swore to no one in particular and walked it off to assess the damage. It didn’t feel great, but I could walk. It was another decision moment: walk back, find a phone, worry my dad, and maybe be stuck at the pass hitchhiking or walk forward and continue on. I preferred the later. I had two full days to walk a little over 20 miles and with so much daylight I could take my time. Still it was maybe the most vulnerable I’d felt while alone in the woods. “Careful now, girl,” I thought to myself.
I got going around 9:30 and was quickly out of the trees and out on an exposed ridge, walking through all manner of wildflowers: columbine, tiger lily, lupine, and paint brush. Mt. Rainer came into view along with Keechalus Lake. In familiar territory, I knew that I-90 curled around its shore, but the busy freeway traffic felt a world away. Within 45 minutes I arrived at another camp, which would have been a better bet the previous night. It had two stagnant ponds that were probably okay to filter from and wouldn’t dry up for a few more weeks. It was also a completely open vantage point, letting in views of the surrounding mountains (as well as wind, rain, and everything else should the weather not be the picture perfect day it was).
I walked on both reveling in the sunlight and being aware of its ravaging rays. This summer has been perhaps the first where I have been so conscious of how vulnerable my skin is. I’ve been outside a lot and become a person who sits in the shade and religiously applies sunscreen, yet I still have people telling me how red or tan I am depending on the level of abuse my skin has undergone.
In spite of the cancer likely forming on my skin, I was grateful the trail was in such perfect shape. Two years ago I had planned to hike this section as part of a thru hike of the PCT Washington. The snow was at record levels that year and seeing now what I would have been up against with complete snow cover, I was so glad I’d ditched out my plan. With a handful of places literally blasted out of the ridge’s rock walls to create a narrow ledge for walking, it wouldn’t just have been tough, it would have been fucking scary and dangerous.
This was the open ridge where I met up with my boy goat, maybe an hour before seeing my first hiker. He was an old, geeky guy nearing the finish line in his thru hike of the PCT from the Mexican border.
“I’m Meander,” he said in a friendly, but dreamy voice. “That’s my trail name.”
“I’m Francesca,” I said and then hesitated. “Um, that’s my real name.”
I took his photo and he took mine. We’d just come to a saddle overlooking Park Lakes and more mountain views. Within minutes I’d outpaced him and despite his loopiness, I had to admire him. At his pace he’d been at this trail longer than most and didn’t have the delusion of invincibility or physical resiliency that youth brings with it. That takes drive.
Finally, I got to my first on-trail water source since the first two lakes the day before. It was a cool, fast flowing spring. I sat and drank and filled up before finding a perfect lunch spot just off trail after entering the lake basin. Some times I can’t believe the beauty that my humble home offers up. I sat eating hummus, avocado, and pita bread, while reclining on a rocked shaped perfectly for that purpose. It overlooked a huge basin dotted with waterfalls and lakes and rimmed by glacier carved mountains. Snowless Mount Stuart was visible to the east and way below, seeming so close I could touch it, was my camp for the night, Spectacle Lake, an oddly shaped body of water with a large peninsula jutting out into it.
After resting in the sun and partaking in some of the contemplation I’d come on this trip to find, I torn myself away to walk the final 4.5 miles to the lake. Along the way I passed several small lakes and several other hikers. It’s always funny running into other people. Some times it startles you, sometimes it disrupts your flow, and sometimes it brings you comfort, knowing that at least one other person is out there. I made it to the turn off for Spectacle and took about 30 minutes to scramble down the side trail, stepping gingerly down boulders and over the rutted path on my sore, swollen ankle. I took advantage of my tiny tent and set it up in a small gathering of trees at the end of the lake’s peninsula. From here I could hear the flowing of water through the small channel and walk out to a flat boulder with an uninterrupted view of the sky and lake basin.
There were other tents here and I’d seen a few people quietly pondering the water from their semi-hidden perches. This time of year Spectacle Lake is not a lonely place, but on a Monday night it wasn’t too bad. I had a swimming area to myself, though “swimming” isn’t exactly what I’d call what you do here. More like stripping down, getting in the water as quickly as possible, paddling around a few times, then exiting as quickly as you can without scraping yourself on a rock or slipping. After the “swimming,” I sat for a long time on a log stretching out into the lake soaking my ankle. I was so grateful to feel so at peace alone, so grateful for my strong legs, so grateful for the strong wind coming off the lake, which was keeping the buzzing mosquitos away.
I made dinner then hiked to the pit toilet. In the fading light, I took the most circuitous route possible over the maze of small trails and with my tired, throbbing ankle was completely exasperated when I saw how steep the trail up to it was. I realize it’s got to be far away from the lake, but in my state of mind said aloud to no one, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Back at camp with the sun down and the wind gone, the bugs were ravenous. It’s as if they know intuitively that if they don’t eat right now they’re going to die. The panic is palpable. I retreated to my tent and watched the stars come out above the mountains through the screen door of my tent and before I knew it, I was asleep.
At 3am I was awoken by movement in the bushes near my tent. I froze and listened, then assumed it was a fellow camper too tired to bother with the pit toilet in the dark as I heard a scrapping noise like a trowel. It went on for a long time, though, and was only a few feet from my tent.
“Why would someone come over here to take a duke?” I asked myself.
I immediately thought of the food bag I’d neglected to hang in my tiredness, figuring it would be fine since everything remaining was so sealed up. I rolled over on my sleeping pad and the rustle of plastic made whatever it was launch itself into the brush. It was too quick and nimble sounding to be a bear, I told myself. It had to be a goat or a deer. Nevertheless, I turned on my headlamp, clapped my hands, called out “Hello?!” and blew the little whistle on my backpack. I lay, frozen, curled up next to my backpack with the little whistle in my hand for 20 minutes. It didn’t seem too bothered about me and I listened as it continued its foraging around my campsite before I finally fell asleep again.
The next morning I awoke late and took my time. It was my last day on the trail and, though, I didn’t want my dad waiting, I didn’t want to rush and be waiting for hours myself. I stretched my sore muscles with some hiker yoga near the lake’s emerald waters before hitting the trail just before 11am. It was late I knew, but I had only 11 miles left and over 5 hours to cover them. As I descended through the gradual switchbacks below the lake to a sturdy bridge over its outlet waterfall, I entered a charred burn area. Despite the blackened trees and heat, there is still so much beauty — even here. Flaming pink fireweed coated the ground and suddenly I heard the buzzing of a hummingbird as it hovered above a flower, drinking in the nectar. I had seen a few at the lake, but this one was only 6 feet away and somehow I was able to capture it with my camera before it moved. I had a solid minute with this amazing little creature. There is just something magic about the moment when you see a hummingbird. They are just so fast and the moment is so brief, you feel you have to be still, barely breath, and focus only on the few precious seconds you have.
When I rounded the next switchback, I ran into two women working for the forest service headed up to do trail maintenance. I had been so quiet after my hummingbird revery that I spooked them. After a quick greeting, one said to me, “I think I heard about you. Are you that girl?”
“What?” I said.
“Do you know a Dutch guide? I think he told me about you. The solo girl who is trying to break the thru hiking record.”
“Oh, I wish,” I said. “I just have a few days out here.”
“Well, you’re right in the thick of it,” she said before walking on.
At first I took it as a compliment. I must look strong, tan, and streamlined, I thought. Then I wondered if it meant instead that I looked pretty ragged and rough around the edges, like someone who’d been out on the trail for months and not seen a bath for a while.
Before I knew it I was back in the trees, happy to have some relief from the sun. A cold, but fairly easy river ford cooled me down further and then I found a hidden camp along the stream where I could soak my feet and eat lunch. I was on familiar trail now, having been up here earlier in the summer. Soon stunning Pete Lake was peaking out through the trees, shimmering in the sunlight. I took my time, lingering in a few cool, quiet places for my final miles. I wanted more time. I almost always do. I felt like getting back to the “real” world again would be as jarring as it had been months before when I got off the plane from Cartagena.
I waited an hour in the parking area, watching the few day hikers as they returned to their cars and drove away. They would have been my few hitchhiking prospects, at least to get back to Roslyn and then maybe having to look for someone in town or near the highway. I knew my dad would be there, though. And then he was, looking just as relieved as he had months before when he saw me waving to him at baggage claim. He was finally seeing me after so many months, finally sure that this time I really meant it when I said that I was coming back. He finally knew that I was safe, that I was home.