I had an uneasiness about Sunrise Peak in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, that the last review on the Washington Trails Association website was two years ago (virtually to the day). Gone are the days of choosing a hike from the description in a 10-year-old book (or 60 years, if you live in your parents’ home). I’ve grown accustomed to up-to-the-day information about trail conditions, snow and wildflower status. It sounded like a great hike, though, and it was to be a beautiful day. And it was the first day of my 67th year; an adventurous spirit was called for on this of all days.
Isn’t not knowing where the road will take you the very definition of adventure? What twists, turns, redirection, and road blocks might reach out to meet and challenge you? This day, as it turned out, would meet the criteria.
The day before the day, a friend dropped off a birthday gift that included a gift card for my favorite adventure latte coffee kiosk! Sweet!
On the way down the hill at 6am (30 minutes behind my hoped for start time), a dear friend from Raleigh calls. I pull into the drive of Avenue Espresso, but not up to the window, to finish chatting with her. When I get to the window, the barista has my 16-oz-extra-hot latte, ready to hand me. I feel known and special. The day is off to a great start!
The forecast is for a hot day, and I’m eager to get to the trail ahead of the heat, so I take I-5 south to Hwy 12 rather than the more scenic route. I must say, I love the interstate’s 20 miles either side of Centralia where the sun rises with Mt. Rainier driving north and St. Helen’s driving south.
US Hwy 12 is a deadly stretch of two-lane, for no real reason other than cocky drivers on the long straightaways through the verdant valleys of Lewis County. But it’s one of my favorites. The long bridge across Mayfield Lake—a major water source for the area—the strawberry and blueberry fields, the now fallow fields of the DeGoede Bulb Farm, taciturn cows munching breakfast, the misty foothills in the distance and peek-a-boo Rainier.
Addicted to my camera, I take a play from a friend’s book and see what I see through the lens without the lens, forming word pictures in my head. It’s harder not to write down the words than it is to let go of the desire to take a picture while I’m driving (see previous paragraph about cocky drivers).
The clouds look like the uneven patches of lettuce in my garden, then morph into more neat even rows like my overachieving friend’s garden. (Next year I’m going to have neat even rows.) There are three bent pickers with wide-brimmed hats in the vast strawberry field. I feel their pain. Commercial strawberry picking is hard work. I did it for three days in junior high, then quit getting up to catch the bus to the field. It’s a lesson in concentrating on what is right in front of you and not looking too far into the overwhelming future. We live this life one day—or one strawberry—at a time.
This is the first year ever my mother, who was there to hear my borning cry, hasn’t told me happy birthday I realize with a stomach-clenching, eye-watering jolt. I play it in my head: “Happy birthday, my smiling daughter!” I hope she has forgiven me for asking her to stop calling me that. I haven’t forgiven myself.
I turn off the highway at Randle and a mile down the road take the left fork into the Gifford Pinchot. The right fork goes to the east side of Mt. St. Helens and is still closed by snow on the road. I’m immediately plunged into the forest with bouncing brooks, roadside waterfalls, primitive road surfaces. Where the road narrows, the vegetation leans into the single (but paved!) wavy lane. It could use a good buzz cut.
I chose the Gifford Pinchot for the day because I want to check out the sight-unseen campground at which I have a site reserved for next month. I decide to save it for after the hike. I miss the cut off to the road to the trail and turn around in the middle of the road.
Five miles on this? My initial skepticism about this choice of hike returns.
Barely a 10 of a mile in though, my plans for the day change. No wonder there were no trip reports. Why the WTA had no alerts is more puzzling. I was not prepared to add ten RT miles to the hike, especially with no trip reports. I’m adventurous, but I’ve never been foolhardy.
There’s not really a place to turn around, and I am not a good backer. I move a large rock out of the way, then maneuver Flutterby up the berm on one side and jockey her around and head back out to the paved road. I don’t want to go back to the campground yet, so I decide to go to Trout Lake, thirty some miles on down the road; reigning monarch: Mt. Adams. I’ve been on the road it’s on before, when I camped at Takhlakh Lake in 2013, but I hadn’t been to the lake.
Flutterby is turning out to be a good adventure partner, and we soldier on as the odometer hits a milestone.
I continue on Forest Road 23 through where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road, and see two women in the shade next to a bridge, their large packs beside them. I vaguely wonder if they want a ride somewhere, but they don’t move so I drive on.
Ahead of me I see two more people who had been sitting near the road with their packs, scramble to their feet. Briefly the man sticks out his thumb. I drive by then see his hand drop in my rear view mirror, not sure it was really up. I put on my brakes and back up, knowing that even as I do so without really making a conscience decision to pick them up, I am committing myself. A man and a woman, they don’t look like ax murderers.
They hustle up to the car. I power down my window, not really believing I am doing this. But it’s an adventure, right?
“Is this the right direction to Trout Lake?” he asks.
“I think so,” I hesitate. Is it? Yes, of course it is, but maybe I don’t want to fully commit.
“Great. Thanks,” he says, they look both relieved and crestfallen as they back away.
“Do you want…” I say.
“Can we get…” he says turning with resolve back toward the car.
“A ride?” we say in unison.
Oh my god. I’m picking up hitchhikers.
“I’ve never in my life picked up a hitchhiker,” I say through the window. “But you don’t look like ax murders.”
“I’ve never in my life hitchhiked,” he says.”
“We’re definitely not ax murderers,” she says. “I was hoping you weren’t.”
“I’m definitely not,” I say. “It’s my birthday, and it seems made for adventure.”
They are effusively grateful as they put their packs in Flutterby’s roomy rear and climb into the seat. They were hiking the PCT from Walput Lake to Mt. Hood while their boys toured Europe. (They don’t look old enough to have boys touring Europe. A fourth grade field trip maybe?) They kept getting thwarted by snow, and like Cheryl Strayed were a bit unprepared with no snow cleats and not enough food for as long as it was taking. Two days (three?) to go 18 miles, during which they saw three people. Crossing snow-covered rivers, not knowing the first was a river until they saw the “DANGER” sign on the other side, hearing water rushing under their feet as the crossed the other.
They finally gave it up and were going to the Trout Lake café where his parents would drive them to another part of the trail. Their feet were burning and they had just taken off their shoes when they heard Flutterby coming on the not-well-traveled road and slammed their shoes back on jumped up, grabbing their packs.
“He told me to stick my thumb out,” she said. “I told him I’m not sticking my thumb out! And no one is going to pick us up!”
I save them ten boot miles to Trout Lake. I am really loving how this day is turning out. I didn’t get my hike, but I rescued desperate hikers. Best. Birthday. Ever.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Chehalis,” they say. Five miles from where I’m from.
I go into the cafe for directions to the lake. When I come out Trisha hands me $20.
“Happy birthday!” she says. “Get some lunch on us.”
“Thank you so, so much,” Shawn says.
I go to Trout Lake. It barely qualifies as a lake, more of a wetland. I don’t stay.
I ask about hikes in the ranger station then decide not to go on a hike. I return to the café and sit outside with lunch. I had been wishing I had packed more than granola bars—and I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t. And then lunch came to me.
I visit my favorite place in all the land—Takhlakh Lake—dreaming of my stay there in September. I haven’t been back because of a road washout they didn’t fix for two years (and a forest fire in the area the year before that). Not only have they repaired the breach, but the road has been improved from the bone jarring washboard and axle clunking potholes.
I stop at the July campground before turning toward home; it’s the worst I’ve ever seen. When I get home, I cancel the reservation, losing $20—$20 in, $20 out. I’m looking for a new destination, and I had done so well getting an early reservation.
All in all, not a misadventure at all. It was just what it was meant to be.
Happy Solstice! Here’s to another trip around the sun. My mother has been gone for two months today, it seems longer; my father for 23 years, also today. My sister says I’m a story gatherer. Christina Baldwin uses the term Storycatcher in her book of the same name. I am gathering my family’s stories and catching my own. I love sharing them with you; mostly I love writing them.
Cheers, Mama. Thanks for borning me.