I’m excited for my first backpacking trip. I don’t feel very nervous. I tell myself it’s just walking. I have a failed track record at running. My attempt at skiing was unsuccessful. But walking? That’s something I have proven I can do for 29 years now. I’m aware that there is a 30 pound pack that must be carried while doing the walking, but I have two 30 pound packs at home named Evan and Lulu that I hoist, carry, and sometimes drag when necessary, so I feel indifferent to the added weight. Plus, I’ve seen a review of the 39 mile loop we’re about to do and the author rated it a 3/10 for difficulty. Call me an optimist, but I feel pretty confident that I can walk at a difficulty of level three. I have given myself two rules for the trip that I must abide by no matter what happens. 1) I will carry my own pack and 2) I will not cry. These rules aren’t completely arbitrary. When I cross country skied into a yurt with Mike he ended up carrying my pack the entire way out so I could stay vertical for more than 20 seconds at a time. And when I followed Mike up a mountain for his attempt at designing his own half marathon course I cried tears faster than I ran the entire way down. I’ve learned a few things after hanging around this guy for a year and I know the importance of rules.
We reach the trail head a little later than expected due to some surprise road closures and don’t start our trek until 3:00 pm on Wednesday. We are spending four days, four nights in the Eagle Cap region of Oregon. When we reach the parking lot Mike hands me some trekking poles. Immediately they remind me of skiing and I’m instantly skeptical. They didn’t do me much good then and I’m not expecting much help from them now. I fling them around wildly as we set off. They feel like extra legs that I have never learned to control. I’m a baby giraffe. All long, dangled limbs with no coordination to maneuver them. I watch Mike with his poles and he looks like an antelope in comparison. He glides over rocks, up hills, as his poles work like extensions to his body. I try leading the way for a bit only to narrowly miss slashing Mike’s face with one of my unorthodox pole maneuvers. At least I know these poles can be useful for something. He retreats a few steps and gives me some space.
When we reach the wilderness area sign Mike tells me he feels so much less anxious after seeing these signs. His mood lightens as we leave civilization behind us. I can’t help but feel the exact opposite. My pulse races and I have to take gulping breaths to calm my anxious mind. I march on. Away from my children. Away from communication. Away from the familiar.
The just walking part turns out to be a bit more difficult than I first envisioned. It’s more like I’m climbing stairs than I’m actually taking a stroll through the market. And the pack isn’t like carrying a child at all. Unless the child is biting your shoulders and clawing your hips until they bleed. I start to panic and think I might not be as capable at walking as I’ve thought myself to be all these years. At least not walking like this. To distract myself I ask Mike lots of questions. It’s a luxury to have my own personal guide. This is what he does for a living and I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. I learn how crews he leads work on trails such as this one. I silently vow to buy every trail worker I meet a beer for the insanely hard work they do. Soon the words Mike says start to blend together and I can’t differentiate them anymore. Conservation. Preservation. Restoration. I match them with words of my own. Dehydration. Perspiration. Frustration. This is hard! All I think over and over in my head is three. This is only a three. I can’t even handle a three. I silently rejoice when we stop for the night after only six miles. I know that some days I will need to do double that, but those days are going to have to wait for these poles to grow jet packs. We pick a site nestled in between the slopes with cold water to soak my already blistering feet in. I sleep soundly for ten hours, mentally and physically exhausted from what will be the easiest day of the trip.
Today is the day we go up! I thought the first day was up, but I learn that was pretty level compared to what we’ll be doing on day two. We must summit the highest peak of our loop today. Luckily I’m feeling like a new person after some hot meals and catatonic sleep. My body is starting to adjust to the pack and even my poles are starting to feel more familiar. I use them to hoist myself up one switchback at a time. When my legs grow tired I dig them deeper into the dirt and use them as my second pair of legs. This giraffe is learning how to walk. Mike tells me I can have have the poles if I like them. He warns that they aren’t well equipped for snow. That’s when I know they must be mine. I too am not well equipped for snow.
Mike seems concerned. I want to run up and kiss them because this means I get to sit down and take a break. They glare at us and show no signs of any urgency to move. It’s OK. I can relate. I’m not feeling that ready to move myself. Eventually they do trod along and I continue dragging my feet to the top. When I get there and gather up my nerves to look down, I’m insanely proud of what I just did. I climbed a mountain! Like goats do! With giraffe legs!
We stop for lunch at the top and Mike tells me we have two options. We can stay on the trail that will loop us down around several lakes and end at Glacier Lake where we are camping for the night or we can go off the trail and cross country trek through some easy terrain that will save us a few miles and land us in the same spot. This feels like a trick question. I make the second stupidest decision of the trip, only lagging closely behind not bringing hiking boots, and I decide to go off trail.
It starts with large chunks of skree, a term I quickly commit to memory. There are immense areas filled with chunks of rock that we must work our way down and then across. I am shaky at going downward to start with due to a lack of ankle support (stupidest decision was no hiking boots), bad knees, blisters and a slight fear of heights, but the moving rocks only add to the disaster of an equation. It takes me a painful amount of time to carefully test each rock with my extra legs, then my real legs, then decide on a next step. Rock, after rock, after rock. Calculated step after calculated step after a really calculated step. I ask Mike how long ago he thinks someone else walked here. He said it could be 5 years or 50. Hard to tell. I was hoping for last week.
When we finally make our way across the rocks morph into bigger rocks. Huge rocks. Boulders. I figure that’s it. We can’t go the off path route. I should have listened to those signs that say to stay on the trail. Now we’re going to have to walk back over those rocks I just so carefully crossed. But Mike starts CLIMBING the boulders. He calls down to me that we only have to go up a bit and then we can cross. I’m terrified but I start climbing. My pack has never seemed heavier. I have to drop my extra limbs and use my god given arms to cling onto each rock. My pack shifts all of it’s weight onto my head when I lean forward and I’m certain it will send me spiraling off the cliff if I shift my weight backwards even a bit. I climb slowly. As steadily as possible. Never, ever looking down. Mike starts apologizing before I’m even half way up the boulders. This was not the experience he thought it would be. He continues on and I continue to follow. Using every bit of strength I can find to just hold on and move my body upward. Mike later tells me that his greatest concern was that I was going to get crushed by a moving boulder and I’d have to spend a minimum of two nights by myself stuck under a boulder while he went to get help. I make a mental note that before I EVER follow him anywhere again I will ask him first how many nights I would need to spend by myself before he could get me medical help, should I happen to get crushed by a boulder.
I’m so relieved when I’m done with the boulders that I barely even see the snow. It seems we climbed up to a spot that hadn’t taken the time to thaw this summer. I’m not a fan of snow even when it’s supposed to be on the ground, so this was especially unpleasant for me. Mike led the way and tried to make a track for me to walk through, but my karma for badmouthing snow was too much for even giraffe legs to be able to withstand. Half way across I slipped and slip down the entire patch of snow.
The slide means even more of a climb for me. When I reach what I think is the top and we’re ready to cross over to the other peak Mike tells me I’m really going to hate him now. We can’t cross here. My mind races. Is it snow? I’ll try snow again. Is it boulders? I could do a few more boulders. But no, it’s a cliff. There’s nothing to actually walk on. Not even my giraffe legs can help me here. It means we have to climb up and over. More climbing. More rocks. More painfully slow movements from me. I consider simultaneously breaking both rules I set for myself going into this.
Once up and over comes the worst part: we must go down. With no trail. And loose gravel. I’m certain each step I take will send me sliding down the hillside. There is more apologizing from Mike, more panicking from me, and then finally we’re on the trail. A trail that someone probably walked on that very day. Certainly not 50 years ago. The trail takes us directly down to Glacier Lake. Only after taking in the view, the water, and the incredible fortune we have of staying here for the night (plus Mike bringing me food, water, and apologizing a few times more) can I look at him and smile. I made it. Mike says I’m the turtle who wins in the end.
I discover that I like going up! In comparison to going down it’s not nearly as painful or terrifying. We stop for lunch at Little Frasier Lake and it’s hard to leave this place.
Mike cleans up after lunch and I get a head start up our next summit. I go so fast that he almost doesn’t catch up with me. I finally stop and wait for him when I see that the trail has us climbing straight up a cliff! I can’t do this! What will I do? He calmly points out the hidden switchback I’m not seeing that takes us up a sloping path to the top. We’ve climbed our second mountain!
The down is very painful again. I’m only designed to go up. To take my mind elsewhere I recite all the flowers that Mike has taught me on previous adventures or this one. I call them out to him. Yarrow. Pearly Everlasting. Lupin. Indian Paint Brushes. Violets. Some weird Aster. Mike tells me this is what his inner dialogue sounds like at all times when he’s outdoors. The only thing I have to compare it to is walking through a row of children’s books. I think of nothing other than soaking my joints and blisters in frozen mountain water. I get my chance when we stop after 10 miles at our home along the creek.
This night Mike shows me how to use a compass. I learn how to read the compass, how to orient a map, and even how to radio in my position. Most importantly, I learn I have had a MIRROR in my compass with me the entire time. It’s like a compact. While looking over the maps Mike notices the 3/10 ranking on the description of the hike. He seems puzzled by it. I practically tackle him asking if he agrees with it or not. He assures me we are at least at a 5. I sigh a huge wave of relief. I can rest assured tonight that I can at least walk at a level five.
Seven. Seven is the number in my head today. I only have to walk seven miles before ending at Crater Lake and most of it is uphill. Mike compliments me on my giraffe legs and how well I’m doing with them. He says maybe my trail name should be Giraffe. I frown and remind him about turtle. That’s it! I’m Girtle! I’m a hybrid animal. Half giraffe, half turtle. It sticks. We get a good laugh later when some gentlemen we keep passing on the trail tell me “I’m an animal” in regards to how fast we’re going. If only they knew which kind! I seem to fly since most of it is uphill. I walk determined. I don’t think about blisters, my sore ankle, or my knees. We do 7 miles by noon and we’re rewarded with this water to swim in.
Although the water is beautiful, the place isn’t entirely what we want it to be. We decide to hike the rest of the way out that afternoon and end a day early. We’re eager to eat real food, sleep in a bed, and reach cell phone service. And when I say we, I actually mean I was eager for those things.I’m pretty sure Mike could live in the mountains for months and be fine. We only have four miles to go, but it’s a very grueling downhill section. This time, I am equally responsible for the poor decision making. It takes us four hours to pound out the miles and it’s scorching hot to intensify things. It takes every ounce of restrain I have not to take my pack off, sit down, and cry. Every part of me hurts. Even my extension giraffe legs seem to ache. I write children’s books in my head about Girtle, the turtle who grew giraffe legs.
When we finally reach the bottom I see Mike waiting a few yards in front of me. He is looking at me strangely and before I can ask him a question a deer jumps right between us. I’m quickly brought back to the reality of how lucky I am to be here. How fortunate I am to have a body that works, even though it’s failing me in that moment. How hauntingly beautiful this place is and how I’ll ache for it long after my wounds heal. And also how unfair it is that the deer gets to skip those blasted switch backs and jump right down the hill!
I make it through the last few miles fueled only by compliments from Mike and when those fail to perk me up, a series of bad jokes. He must collect them just for this purpose. When someone is so delirious and exhausted that they think a tree stump in the woods is a bobcat (yes that really happened) then you should tell them bad pirate jokes. All I think about is not carrying my pack and crying. Two things I’ve forbidden myself from doing.
Finally we are done. My pack is off and I feel empty without it. I’ve forgotten how to walk without sticks. I want to take my trekking poles with me to the grocery store. I want to buy the girls a pair for walking around the school yard, but I know they will only turn into weapons. Mike acts as if I’ve just completed an ultra-marathon and both physically and emotionally I feel like I have. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but also one of the easiest. I got to see into Mike’s head and get a glimpse at not only what he does for a living, but also what he does for love. It’s his passion, his motivation, and something I’m so happy I got to share with him. I also am glad I did it for myself. Not only was it really difficult, but it also felt really necessary. In order to tell stories, to relate to people, and to challenge myself I needed this. It was the most difficult, intense, and rewarding vacation I’ve ever had. In the end, Girtle won.
Along the trail we tried to write hiking haikus. I couldn’t think of any until right when we were finished.
Thirty nine miles done!
We become one with nature.
Except we smell worse.