“Is it ACRES?” I say aloud, breaking the low monotonous drone of the car. “Yeah, that fits!” responds a mumbled voice in my earbud. I’m helping out via phone on my team’s weekly Friday crossword puzzle. They’re all on a video confrence but since we’re passing through questionable service, I have to phone in instead. Sierra’s driving and only hears my side of the conversation; she must have no idea how this relates to my job. Knowing fun facts about the size of National Parks does come in handy, even as a software engineer.
I’m “working from car” today because we’re aiming to squeeze in one last backpacking trip before summer’s over. I figured it would be convienet to fit in a quick trip on our way up to Washington for my cousin’s wedding. Our aim is a 41 mile trek circumnavigating the base of Mt. Hood, the Timberline Trail. This route caught my eye the previous summer; it shares a portion with the Pacific Crest Trail, which I was completing as my first long distance thru-hike. One unfortunate aspect of hiking the entire west coast in a single season is that you don’t have much time for lollygagging. I distinctly remember being enamoured with the Mt. Hood wilderness and making a mental note to come back and experience it at a more leisurly pace. Now was my opportunity for just that.
We’re somewhere in southern Oregon heading up highway 97. Imperceptible changes to the landscape have taken their toll; it’s obvious we’re not in California anymore. The distinction however is mostly by map as the rolling green hills look no different than those we passed 30 minutes ago. A prominently displayed yellow flag adorned with offset black Xs reminds me we’re actually not in Oregon, not yet. In fact, we left California hundreds of miles ago when we crossed into Mendocino County, the start of the proposed State of Jefferson. It’s still just a concept but it’s very real to the people who reside here. I can’t help but feel like we don’t belong amid the big trucks belching black smoke out their stovepipe exhausts. This is what I like to call “Trump’s America” and feels like a foreign country compared to the progressive mindset of the Bay Area. Don’t mind us liberals though, we’re just passing through.
We pull into the Best Western parking lot in Government Camp after dark. It’s too late to start the trail and we both agree it’s best to get a good night’s sleep instead. By now the summer crowd has dwindled so the hotel is deserted. The front desk attendant is a middle aged woman who’s unexpectedly chipper for this hour. I admire the 3d printed pen holder on the counter, which she explains is her coworker’s who will be on shift tomorrow afternoon. I almost forget my credit card on the counter and crack a joke about how she could have used it to buy herself useless stuff on Amazon. She laughs and tells Sierra “You’re husband is funny, you’re lucky!”. We’re not married; in fact we’ve been together less than a year now but get that comment all the time. It’s a running joke amongst our friends that we eloped during one of our previous trips to Washington and are already secretly married.
The next morning is a slow start followed by nervous packing and repacking in the Timberline Lodge parking area. Best known for it’s role as the creepy Overlook Hotel from “The Shining”, today the lodge serves as our starting point. The autumnal air is crisp and clear with views of limitless green forest sweeping down from my vantage. The mountain peak is so close, it’s skewed aspect looks like a wall rising up behind the steepled roof. The ritzy lodge patrons out for a morning stroll can’t help but stare as I struggle into my hiking pants while avoiding the dirty pavement. Gravity eventually wins out and I’m forced to step off my shoe-top safeguard to prevent a faceplant. I don’t know what all this fuss is about anyway, it’s not like I’m getting dressed for a wedding. The dusty miles will soon have their way with my attire and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
The trail starts with a descent into a glacier carved ravine. Switchbacking down hundreds of feet along the steep canyon wall, the path immediately regains what was lost just on the other side of the river. A sign posted in the middle of the trail reads “TRAIL CREW AHEAD”; our first roadblock. There were rumours of a record breaking wind storm that had blown through the area just a week before, and this was surely related. The sign lifts my spirits however, maybe the forest service has been hard at work removing blowdowns and clearing debris. A dreadful recount of a recent trip on AllTrails had almost detered us from even starting but the sign restores my confidence in the decision to “see for overselves”.
The crew is lost amid the branches of a elephantine Douglas fir. I can’t see them, but hear human sized rustling in the overturned tree canopy. Sierra and I follow a rough goat path leading off the main trail and around the tree. The impromptu route meanders but is otherwise well traveled on account of all the day hikers since the storm. We rejoin the main trail and resume our easy cadence, glad to be back on firm ground. “How hard could it possible be to get around a fallen tree?” I ponder. A foreboding thought indeed.
The next day we quickly meet our fate; an entire hillside forest bulldozed by the storm. It’s not a matter of “walking around some fallen trees”, as I so naively thought it would be, becaues for miles there’s no visible ground upon which to walk. Tree upon tree has been uprooted and strewn aside in a doggypile, like the aftermath of a domino show. Those which were not directly toppled by the wind were taken down by their weaker neighbors. Nothing remains vertical. We stop and consider our options but there’s no debate, we must go forward. With dreams of finishing the trail and a tinge of stubbornness, we set off into the fray.
It’s disorienting in the thick of it as the limbs close in overhead and block out the horizon. What was once up is now flat and horizontal movement is a struggle. After some time traveling in the general direction of the trial, I realize Sierra is no longer with me. I blow a shrill whistle in order to echo locate her. No response. I whistle again, louder this time to overcome the deadening effect of the duff. Still nothing. Panic creeps in and I spring into action ready to begin the search party proceedings. Before I can take a backwards step though, I see her yellow cap bob above a branch in the distance. She meets my gaze and sticks her toungue out to make a farting noise in response to my becons. It’s her signal for “everything’s all right” although this bushwhacking is more than she signed on for.
We spend all day navigating the maze, emerging from the blowdown 6 hours later having only traveled 5 miles. Sierra looks as if she was locked in a room with angry cats; every exposed piece of skin is covered by long red scratches. Our hands and clothes are stained with dark sap blotches and we reek of pine. “You owe me a new pair of pants” she states plainly when we stop to rest. I don’t see how I’m at fault for tearing holes in her leggings but it’s best not to argue at times like this.
The sun starts to drop and we pick up the pace on account of the setback. It’s all worth it as we come around the ridge and see Mt. Hood, bathed in the waning pink light of dusk. If we’d been “on schedule”, we never would have seen the mountain here, now, in in all its glory. “I’m going to throw up it’s so pretty” says Sierra, as she sprints ahead, trying to capture a photo before losing the light. I couldn’t agree more.
The next day we’re ticking off miles to make up lost ground. The foot wide brown strip of land we travel smooths out into meadows splashed with fall colors. A howl pierces the rich stillness often found away from the crowds here in the backcountry. Sierra is leading and pauses our march to better identify the source of the noise. A coyote? A wolf? The yelp continues in the near distance but I’m unable to produce a mental image of what could be making that noise. It doesn’t take long to find out as we come into a clearing and are bowled over by a yipping ball of energy. A Golden Retriever puppy is elated to find other people and wants nothing more than to be our friend. His name, the owners tell us, is Bear and this is his first backpacking trip. Bear’s excitment about everything is uncontrollable and I’m filled with a renewed sense of passion for why I too love being outside.
Back on the trail, it’s uneventful but productive as we make big gains on our daily milage. We’re both tired and thirsty and stop for a water refill below a waterfall. I notice overhead shallow silky "U"s gleaming as they move in and out of lightbeams filtering through the canopy. Spiders have somehow managed to erect webs spanning the top of the waterfall. Wiggling softly in the afternoon breeze, the narrow strands look alive and unnatural hundreds of feet above. “How did they get those all the way up there?” asks Sierra when she notices my stare. “They’re smarter than we think” I reply, going over the estimation in my head for how much each of those strings must weight. The webs could have built in either two ways: Either by attaching one end of the line, crawling down the canyon wall, across the river, and up the other side to complete the bridge. Otherwise, the spider waited for a gust of wind, said it’s prayers, and jumped.
Something catches my eye standing out amid the typical browns of the forest floor. I bend over to investigate and come up with a small corner of a Clif bar wrapper. It’s not uncommon to find “micro trash” like this near water stops. I wonder how many other people have seen this garbage and just walked on by. Did the culprit knowingly toss this aside, or did they have the intention of proper disposal but an innocent slip out of a pocket? I picture a hiker so stricken with hunger they shred open the wrapper in an animalistic stupor to get at the caloric lump inside. Regardless, I’ll pack it out, because no one else has and no one else probably will. “Leave No Trace” means no trace and last time I checked, Clif bars don’t grow around here.
Regardless of the early morning start and relentless pace, by the end of the day we’re short on time and haven’t reached our goal milage. Sierra’s legs are in bad shape and she lumbers slow but continuously. Her issue is one of the cardinal sins of hiking: she didn’t properly break in new shoes and is now paying the price. We reach the top of a long climb and have the option to stop here for the night or continue upwards; the trail proceeding above the treeline into alpine terrain. Each mile we accomplish today makes it easier on us tomorrow and that much more likely we’ll finish. Sierra looks beat but to my surprise wants to press on a few more miles while we can. After 3 more near verticle miles over rocky terrain, we scrape out a flat in the Martian looking landscape and set up camp. We are asleep mid collapse onto our bags; 15 miles with weight, Sierra’s biggest day of hiking yet.
The trip ends a day before it’s actually done. You reach a tipping point on any long hike where you know you’re going to accomplish your goal and the worry melts away. From that point on, the rest of the trip is about going through the motions; mentally, you’re already back at the car. It’s bad in some regards, we should focus on enjoying our present situation instead of looking ahead for what’s next. I love being surrounded by the tranquil beauty of the wilderness and can’t wait to get out for my next adventure. On the other hand, there’s so much to look forward to about rediscovering the simple ammenites of modern society. Something taken for granted just a few days before nows becomes a source of renewed fascination. You don’t need hot food, cotton underwear, and running water to survive, but they sure are nice.