I have nothing more to prove, to myself or anyone else.
Side story: I am in better shape than I have ever been after going on nine summers of hiking almost every week. When I arrived in Washington at age 60, I had no stamina (muscles, lungs, heart). There is no place to hike in the North Carolina Piedmont, after all, other than an annual camping trip to the Smokies. I’m strong now, but I am 69 and I accept my body’s progression toward aging. Trekking poles, quickly followed by a camel pack for more water, then knee straps thanks to the meniscus tear surgery, then real hiking boots when I started rolling my ankle. I’m proud of what I can do and accepting of what I cannot. That said. . .
Two summers ago I hiked up Mt. Townsend after failing to check the elevation change, looking only at the amazing destination. It had it all: forest walk, see-forever vistas, wildflowers, ridge. (You can revisit that post here.) But it’s 3010 feet of gain, my limit is 2200, and that’s pushing it; I’m more comfortable around 1800. But it was beautiful, and you can see forever—at least if there aren’t clouds, and there were that year.
And so, I decided to do it again this year. And what better time than when I was camping “nearby”? In reality, it’s only about half an hour closer, that long drive back to the highway from the campground I guess.
It was hot as hades all over the NW last week, including at the campground, but Wednesday looked like a good day. When I left home Sunday, the forecast was for cooler and maybe a few clouds. But I’ve had no access to a forecast since then. I get up at daybreak, make coffee and eat a quick breakfast. I stop in Hoodsport to see the sunrise over Hood Canal and to check my email and respond to a couple.
I’m in deep clouds after driving over Mt. Walker, and there is even misty rain. Damn. When I get to the Quilcene ranger station (having missed the turnoff, but in my defense the road cuts back at a 45 degree angle from the highway and the WTA directions are from the north, not the south), I check the forecast. It’s due to start clearing mid-morning and be completely clear mid-afternoon. But I’ll be back down by then. It’s too tough a hike to be socked in when I get to the top. What to do? I decide to drive on up. If it’s cloudy at the trailhead, I’ll go back to the campground. After I get ice cream in Hoodsport.
It’s 8:15 before I get to the trailhead, getting above the clouds about halfway up. (BTW, I make no wrong turns on the seventeen miles of mostly paved (!) forest service road.) There are already eleven cars in the lot, I get the last real spot. I won’t be lonely on this hike.
The trail starts up immediately, like from the car. In the first mile and a half there might be five steps on the level. This, my friends, is not an exaggeration. It is in the shade, so there’s that. I soak my bandana in the first wet creek I cross and wrap it around my neck.
Finally, the last bit of trail before the exposed switchbacks begin (following the forested switchbacks—many, many switchbacks) is level. Even the tiniest bit of down, which I will be grateful for on the relentless downhill return. It’s hot when I break out of the trees. I’ve stripped off a layer and applied sunscreen. I stop to rest in every single bit of shade created by tiny alpine firs and large enough for just one person. Five elders (at least four of them older than I) truck past me. Whatever—nothing to prove—they are probably training for Mt. Rainier.
Since the one flat stretch, there are only the occasional few level steps—and no more wet creeks either. You think I am exaggerating. I am not. It is beautiful though. When I stop in the shade, I remind myself to breathe through my nose and smell the alpine. When I step out again, I dream of lavender ice cream in Hoodsport.
Finally, I reach the final stretch, the Sound of Music moment. But it’s also the hardest bit, if that’s even possible.
I count my steps: five, ten, fifteen, twenty, stop. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Julie looked so fresh—after stepping out of a helicopter.
This is national forest land, not national park, and there are no signs to stay on the trail, meadow repair, plants grow by the inch and die by the foot. Still, I feel bad picking my way across the meadow, trying to step on rocks or at least not on vegetation. But I have to get to that one bit of shade and that patch of snow— which I rub on every exposed area of my body—or I am going to die.
My friend Bonnie was up here a few days ago and wrote in her blog post that, also butt-kicked from the climb, she didn’t hike out to the end of the ridge this time. “What up with that?” I thought, “It’s the best part!”
I won’t be hiking the ridge. I don’t think I’ll even get up to the ridge. The ascent looks enormous.
By the time I sit in the shade for a good while though, I feel better. I can get to the top. Clouds below, like from an airplane, cover Hood Canal, Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They hide the San Juan islands, the Cascade Queens, Bellingham, Discovery Bay. They hide everything except the nearby range, which is mighty spectacular. I can see less than I could two years ago, but it feels like the top of the world.
I reach the top, sort of. Well, not really; there’s one more big ascent and I see the Five Elders up there. But the ice cream dreams have morphed to screams in my head, and I am done. I watch a woman trying to squeeze her body into the tiniest patch of shade between a scrubby fir and a boulder, drawing her knees up to her chest to fit. Desperate times. I know just how she feels.
I snap a self portrait to go with one from two years ago—one of my favorites—and head back down, after picking my way across the meadow again to the snowfield to ice my brow and wet my bandana. The ice cream is a roar now.
Do two years make me look older?
Downhill is almost as bad as up, of course. I’ve learned two rules: stay as loose as possible to prevent thigh burn and screaming hips, and try to avoid skidding in loose gravel on the switchback turns. It’s hard to do both.
Coming up, I mostly met quietly returning backpackers. There are a lot of people on the trail now at noon, coming up and passing me going down. They are a chatty collection of folks. The Five Elders pass me, one is boasting an umbrella now.
I meet a woman carrying a not-small dog in her turned around backpack, her water bottle and a bag of whatever else had been in her pack now in one hand and holding the dog with the other. She has to be miserable. When she reaches the switchback above me, she turns around. I commiserate when she passes me; she says it was too hot for him. Later I catch up to her and the dog is now on her back and she is reaching one hand back over her shoulder to hold him there.
I am so glad when I get back to the trees and the woodland flowers.
I reach my car with only two minor skids and one major slide caught by my treking poles. I avoid screaming hips, but somewhere along the way the back of my left knee got tweaky. That’s a new one.
Acceptance. If I’m going to do this thing as long as I can, I will watch for new limitations and adjust as necessary. If my children tell their grandchildren about me after I am gone, I hope two things stand out: She was a writer and a badass adventurer.
I wrote this in my post two years ago: “There are very many switchbacks on this trail, but they are relatively gentle, my heart is not pounding. I’m not breathing hard. The trail is still mostly in the trees with breaks to the southeast and, though I’ve warmed up from the trailhead chill, I’m not overheated. And, if I need distraction, the alpine scent fills my nose. The heavenly fragrance makes me swoon. This is my hike.”
No wonder I did it again. This year’s note to self: Don’t talk yourself into doing this hike again. No judgement.
I get my ice cream: lavender chip and huckleberry swirl, and it is delicious.
You can read my post on camping on the Skokomish in a heat wave here.