Take me to the Wilderness
Many years ago not long after jen and i first met, she told me "Take me to the wilderness. If I'm ever stuck inside my head, or so low that i cant find a way out of it. Simply take me away and into nature. That'll make it better." Sadly, this week was one of those times. And for good reason. It was filled with news of family worries and of fears and heaviness. It was one of those weeks that shakes you to the core. It was a week where it was all too easy to get lost in the bad news and stress about what could be or will be when next the phone rings again. It's amazing how the failing health of others can absolutely paralyze us with fear. With compassion and sadness. You can get lost in questions of why, or how. Reasoning against fairness or how the world could be so cruel. It's far too easy to wonder what else you can do or how you should help. Whether you should be somewhere else or doing something else. It's a losing game and yet even knowing we cannot win it, the heart and brain always find a way back in times of trouble.
She simply couldn't stop thinking about it every second of every day. The questions, the worries, the fears. She couldn't get out of her own head. This time we were lucky. We already had the trip planned, the bags packed and the maps printed. We were already out of our house and guests had already arrived in our place. But still, it's almost too easy to fall into the trap of letting fear immobilize you. To let it tell you that you should be sitting by the phone. That something horrible could happen if you go away. That it's wrong to think of anything else or to allow yourself to have fun or be lighthearted.
We chose the other path this week. The path that they instruct you to choose in the safety briefing before your flight departs. Before helping others with their oxygen mask... you have to help yourself. If you allow yourself to break, there's nothing left to give to anyone else. For jen, this week she needed nature to help her heal and to reflect. And it seems upon our return- that it did exactly that.
We stole away this week to the place of our first backpacking adventure together. In central Washington, sitting directly between Mount Ranier, Adams and St Helens lies the Goat Rocks Wilderness. A magical area built of ancient volcanoes and forests, and it still remains among the most beautiful places we've ever been. We've done this loop up to Goat Lake twice before and honestly cant imagine how it could ever get old. As we prepared to make our return to the world of backpacking, we couldn't think of a better trail for our first next outing.
We headed out of town sunday and made the almost four hour drive to packwood, washington. We lost cell coverage along the way, so as we stopped for our forest pass jen borrowed a phone to call her mom one last time and tell her we'd be thinking of her as we hiked. Then we were off. Drove 21 miles up the washboard dirt forest road and into the middle of nowhere. We pulled into the walupt lake campground and drove through looking for a site. The campground had more people than we expected for a sunday evening, but it isn't exactly our normal day to arrive. We drove around and looked at sites and got out to stare at a vacant lot next to the river- but between the horseflies, the barking dogs and the screaming children we decided to pass on the $17 pad and picnic table and find a more remote (and free) spot along the road.
We backtracked a few miles and found a glorious spot lying between the road and the river. Lucky for us, not too much off-roading required. We really missed the bus as the mini simply isn't meant for breaking trails to the best wilderness camps (not that the bus should be either). We used our afternoon at camp to go through all our gear, load up the packs and make sure we were ready for three days off-grid. And then we got lost in the campfire, in each other and in the sound of the river roaring beside us. It was just what the doctor ordered, and the perfect segway to the days ahead.
In the morning we made the quick drive to the trailhead, heaved our all-too-heavy packs onto our backs and (after coaxing karma to walk with her backpack) got underway. A few miles in and we remembered why we used to do this every weekend i wasn't traveling for work. So very few things in life can make us feel more alive, more removed and give us more time to be alone with ourselves, to think and to figure out what we're all about. We love it.
A few miles through thick doug fir forest finally takes us to a bridge over cascading Goat Creek and then we begin a stark uphill climb. The packs suddenly felt like we were carrying the mini on our backs. Jen and i aren't your average backpackers. We don't believe in re-hydrated packaged meals and we don't believe in going without. A habit which is awesome once you're at camp... but not so much fun on the way up the mountain to it.
We trudged on and eventually made our way to snowgrass flats, an amazing wildflower meadow and our destination for the night. We saw only one other group all day- and with the handful of sites here we felt completely alone as we setup camp, made our fire by the creek and cooked dinner. Funny thing about food and drink after a day of hard hiking; it tastes better than ever! Our indian rice dish and red wine seemed like something we would have happily paid $50 for back home. We took a quick walk back to get a glimpse of the alpenglow as it bounced off Mt Adams (which seemed like we could touch it if we walked past just one more row of trees) and stared into the fire for just a bit before crashing from a hard days work.
The second day hike in goat rocks is among the most perfect we've ever found. We leave the meadow and flowers behind and ascend above the treeline into an alpine traverse. We scramble over several boulder fields, cross over the last remains of snow-covered slopes and pass by alpine lakes and waterfalls, all as towering peaks seem to envelop us from all sides. I finally stopped myself from taking yet another panoramic photo every 20 steps.
It's so large and vast that a single shot captures almost nothing of what your eyes take in along the way. As we climb further and further the valley exposes more and more of itself and we finally see Goat Lake sitting at the peak of the valley we've been tracing for the last two days. It's indescribable to watch the valley unfold before you and stare intently at the lake and waterfall getting larger and larger as you draw slowly closer to them.
Even after a warm and dry winter, the lake (at 6400') was still frozen almost solid and the entire area around it still covered in deep snow. We found a campsite atop a huge boulder and nestled our tent in between rocks windbreaks built by those before us.
This space is what i picture when i talk myself into backpacking. It's as though we're alone on the planet and we just happen to be living in a photo. We feel so tiny here on this hillside. It's as though we're the only people who know it's here, even though a few groups just passed by looking for camp. We watch as the sun sets behind us and a perfectly framed Mt Adams glows brilliantly in the distance. To our left and right dozens of mountain goats come out of hiding to graze along the hillside and we remember to hang our food in case they make a midnight visit to our camp.
No fires are allowed in the area around the lake, so we opted for an early bedtime and slept without the rainfly so we could fall asleep staring at the epic starshow above us. I have one of the best nights of sleep i can remember despite having been struggling with sniffling and a sore throat all day on the trail. I'm wide awake by 4am and climbing up the glacier beside the lake in the dark trying to catch a perfect photo before the sun rises. I curse myself for not yet finding a way to buy a better camera, but it doesn't stop me from snapping shots until the battery dies and i go back to cuddle jen for another half an hour before we get an early start downhill.
We were packed and on the trail by 7am. Not our normal leisurely style, but we've got a long 6+ miles and at least 2000' drop ahead of us; and we have to be back at the car by 11 to get home in time for our sand volleyball championship (which we somehow won with wobbly legs). Just a normal wednesday for sure...
We made our way up and out of the valley, over the traverse, down the other side and out to the car in record time. On the way home we upheld our tradition of stopping at the nearest spot for a burger and beer; then headed back to portland.
Reality came crashing back all too quickly, but there's no question we were better equipped to deal with it than when we left. The trail left its mark on us, and our passion for backpacking is back in full swing. We just need to pick the next trail...and if you're interested in taking a few days off to come with us, we'd love to have you along!
Jen dealt with the news of her mother's stroke better than i could have given her credit for. Shes always stronger than i realize. But she's such an emotional creature by nature and so empathetic for everything and everyone around her that its amazing when she takes moments like this without absolutely crumbling. It hit her profoundly deeply and spent her spinning, but at her core she held it together. She remained positive and she believed. She believed that things would get better, that maybe this happened for a reason, and that above all her mom would fight back and regain her former strength.
As we got back into cell coverage and jen called her mom and sister, the news was all terrific. Her mom is doing better than anticipated and she fighting for more. Her stubbornness finally has a mission and she's impressing everyone with her progress. Shes constantly in our thoughts, but we know she'll be better than ever soon enough. Than maybe, once we get her back to portland we'll break the news to her that we forgot to take any bear spray with us on the trail...