Photo credit: Greg Orlov
I don’t consider myself an avid hiker, but as I started writing this I realized- I’ve been on some pretty grand hikes. I’ve done the through hike of the Enchantments and I’ve hiked out to Robin Lake, so apparently I’m not really daunted by an 18 mile day with some stout elevation. I’ve done smaller hikes too, out to Rachel Lake (dismissively called Girlfriend Hike by some of my friends for the amount of couples you’ll see slogging out), Garibaldi Lake in BC and Sunfish Pond back along the Appalachian Trail. I’m not sure what would qualify as a difficult hike—Dirty Harry’s Peak was a haul up a logging trail that had turned mostly to stream bed, but it wasn’t really that long of a hike.
When a friend asked if I wanted to do a winter hike, I paused only to say I didn’t have the right gear. You can borrow my microspikes. Ok. I’m in. And, what are microspikes? (Have I always said yes so readily to things?)
The hike was absolutely beautiful. There were 10 of us (12 if you count the other friends that arrived at the trail head right as we were heading out, but we didn’t see them all day, so I’m not sure if they count as part of our group). We all knew a few folks but I don’t think anyone besides S. knew everyone. The first part of the trail is full of switchbacks and very large, straight trees. Sunlight filtered through in golden beams like a movie set and morning fog tangled in the branches as our bodies warmed up and layers started to peel off. I ended up with almost everything in my pack—my body steaming into the cool air and my sunglasses completely fogged over.
We hit the snowline slightly after the first mile. It was as if a switch was hit and suddenly—snow. The wind knocked loose crystals off of tree branches and despite the bluebird skies a gentle dusting fell around us. As the sun warmed everything up that gentle dusting turned to thick clumps thudding on our faces and packs, but at first it was just kind of magical.
We ended up taking most of the summer route instead of the winter one—the snow wasn’t very deep and it seemed like the safest option. Out of the tree line it got a little colder, but there was barely any wind. Our group had spread out a bunch by this point and I could look up and see dots that were our bodies, moving towards the ridge line. To my side my shadow was a deep dark slate and the foot prints in front of me had a clear pale blue glow to them.
Photo credit: Sarah Ward
I’m starting to understand why my best friend will cancel plans in town to be out in the mountains if it’s at all possible. This was a simple hike compared to his backcountry trips. A little over 8 miles, 3,800 feet in elevation, full of people and well groomed trails. Even so, as I caught the image of my shadow against the snow, something inside me cracked open. I was suddenly inside a poem I haven’t written yet and it felt as if everything were suddenly both weightier and more full of joy than I’d ever realized. I keep finding these moments. A shadow against snow. A particular sequence of moves on rock. Sitting with a summit log in my hands and the ground hundreds of feet below.
Of course it hurts, I’m not saying it doesn’t. I came home and directly soaked in the tub. I woke up this morning to aching muscles (though that was probably also from dancing for a few hours with R and H on his last night in the States before he’s off to Thailand). As I took H to the airport this morning he got a bit lost in his head, and said I was thinking about how amazing it is that our bodies will adjust to what we need. Oh you’re going to do brutal hikes? Let’s break down and make muscle. Paraphrased, of course, but that’s the general gist of it. He told me about a mountaineering course he’s going to try to take, and I’m going to look into it. I have to climb Rainier. It isn’t a have-to as in a bucket list—I’ve never wanted to do it. But my father wants his ashes scattered off of the top, and so that is what I will do. I wish he could see what I’m doing now, I wish I could tell him about it, but I also think that throwing myself into the mountains is partly a way of having all the conversations we never had and never will have. I climbed before he died, but I became a climber after, with his carabineers attached to my chalk bag, his guidebooks on my shelf.
I feel my body changing, breaking down and rebuilding itself for what I need it to do. I hope through this that I will find more spaces that feel like poems, and that I’ll be able to translate them onto the page at some point, but I’m not worried about it. No one is sitting, waiting breathless for my next collection of work to come out. I have so much more to learn.
Photo credit: Greg Orlov