Ah, hiking. Let me count the bug bites. It’s July, the season when Washington State’s high country begins to melt away uncovering meadows of wildflowers, clear vistas of higher snow-topped mountains, and swarms of mosquitoes that get busy perpetuating the species. The mosquitoes and the wildflowers have something in common: a few short months between losing the snow and its return. I felt a similar urgency. A gap in my work schedule opened wide enough to easily fit in a two night hike, a long-delayed return to Merritt Lake, a lake on the high, dry side of the Cascades, and on the edge of wilderness. I needed some time to return to reality.
I go to wilderness to find peacefulness. There’s a statement, the wild world is more peaceful than our tamed world. I’ve been celebrating being able to take a day off every week (My Rule Of 7 – One Day Off). That may only be half the length of a typical weekend, but it is much more precious because it’s been absent for a few years. As relaxing as it is to put work aside for a day, chores have a way to soak up the available time. One way to get me to relax is to get me into the mountains, the higher the better. (I’m talking about altitude here.) Spend hours deciding what to pack, drive a couple of hours, sweat for a few more, and temporarily recreate the basics of living in a wild setting.
Hiking, especially backpacking, is reminder of the basics. Everything has to fit in a pack that can be carried on a back. The necessities of housing are reduced to thin nylon, a few aluminum poles, and at least one zippered door. Pay a bit extra and carry a bit extra weight for a second door. Breezes and an alternate exist are valuable. Heating and cooling become sleeping bag and clothing choices. Campfires may be quaint, but they usually aren’t allowed and are inefficient and dangerous. The days of living off the land are largely behind us, which means packing food for every meal, every snack, plus a little extra just in case. Water, the necessity that’s delivered in luxurious and overlooked fashion at home, becomes something simultaneously in inexhaustible supply at a mountain lake while also being something that has to be decontaminated before use. To keep that contamination to a minimum for all, pack everything needed for a latrine, and be glad if there’s a house-less outhouse at the destination. (Imagine a box over a hole.) Add in a first aid kit, something to read, maybe a camera, maybe a pad for a sleeping bag, fill out the Ten Essentials (check with your local hiking club or The Mountaineers) and see if it all fits in one pack. See if your boots fit. Now, try walking with all of that. Sounds silly, and yet being voluntarily reminded of the basics and being paid by enjoying a place where nature is wild is priceless – if you enjoy that sort of thing.
Imagine how much better it feels to come home to a house, a wardrobe, a refrigerator, a full pantry, running water, flush toilets, garbage disposal, and a full collection of books, movies, and music.
I go to the mountains because they are real. Much of our modern life is layers of abstractions, duties and rituals driving expectations of socially-acceptable norms. Those duties and rituals can be tracked back to basic necessities, but does it really matter is someone wears white after some holiday, or whether a car is washed, or whether the lawn is mowed to a specified height? Time in the mountains is layered in cycles: insects live in days, some plants live for weeks, other for decades or centuries, rocks move slowly for millennia and then abruptly fall under the acceleration of gravity when one last pebble breaks free from its tenuous situation. Nature is always there and is simultaneously constant and constantly changing.
I started developing my perspective on Nature as I accidentally fell into writing a series of Twelve Month studies: Twelve Months at Barclay Lake, Twelve Months at Lake Valhalla, and Twelve Months at Merritt Lake. One place can feel like twelve places when it is met throughout the year. In the last few years, I’ve managed return hikes to Barclay Lake and Lake Valhalla, but sheepishly I’ll admit that I was avoiding Merritt Lake. Merritt Lake is the steepest and longest climb, the longest drive, and sometimes the toughest road. It is also a good base camp for views into the mountains, walks through those wildflower meadows, and less likely to draw a crowd. I finally returned.
My legs, knees, and hips were reminding me that the last time I was hiked to the lake was several years ago, back before I overdosed on work. Switchbacks rule for the first half of the hike. Climbing back and forth across the hillside, gradually reaching a ridge and boulder field that lead to the forest surrounding the lake. At the outlet of the lake is a broad and relatively flat open area of Day Use, and a cleared area under the forest canopy for tents and such. There’s even a toilet, though last I saw it was about to fall into the hole it sat over. The opposite side of the lake is the hard rock ridge that touches sub-alpine territory where the trees struggle for height, the snows linger longer, and those vistas open up. I knew I’d moved to the right place in 1980 when I went to a party in Seattle that happened to include a lot of serious climbers (before I was even hiking), and saw that rather than being macho about their ascents, they were more likely to describe the wildflowers and beauty they encountered on the way up and down. I’m glad the lake wasn’t any higher, and was also glad I knew how much farther I had to go.
I wrote the Twelve Month series particularly because most people won’t or can’t go on such hikes. I call myself a chicken adventurer. To my adventurous friends, I’m a big of a chicken. I steer away from avalanche slopes and stay back from the edges of cliffs. They, however, seek those places to climb up, ski down, or jump from (with a parachute.) To others, I’m an adventurer because I still go out there, whether that’s bicycling across America, walking across Scotland, or following trails to places where we aren’t the top of the food chain. Simple acts create uncommon opportunities. I waited in the dark through a rock fall that went on long enough to reach a lake (Barclay Lake), and maybe me. I woke up to a meteor exploding, and later that trip found myself hanging upside down from my snowshoes. (Lake Valhalla). I woke a cougar, not that I saw it, but its roar and its pawprint in the trail dust made me glad it wasn’t hungry when it met me. (Merritt Lake) Nature is a topic in so many debates, yet too few get the chance to visit it. I hope my books help fill that gap.
I’m back again. While I’ve been typing, the gear is drying out, the laundry is done, uneaten food has been put away (to be eaten soon because it was just stored in my pack for two days.) I felt more normal up there, confined to my tent by so many bugs that opening and closing the flap would let in a couple dozen. There were fewer expectations. Pent up remnants of previous conversations and concerns had a chance to drift through unencumbered and be released. My thoughts are clearer. My head is more relaxed. The trip cost more than simply staying at home, but I gained a familiar benefit. Escaping to Nature is a return to reality, a reality that our abstraction of a civilization sits within, whether it remembers that or not.
Now, where to go next? Maybe some place with fewer bugs.