Near the Knife’s Edge: A Wild Washington Welcome

It’s like this – we wake up one morning and there it is, the Washington gray sky, fog over the pond, dew on my sleeping bag. I had kinda figured since there were still fire closures, it couldn’t possibly be cold and rainy already. And yet…

“You up?” Snail’s voice drifts out of his tent. “Freezing out here.”

And it’s not really – it’s probably only 50 degrees or so but my body’s adjusted to walking in 80, 90+ degree weather for weeks. I pull my damp sleeping bag closer around me, burrow in, shiver.

But this is our state, the one we grew up in and we figure we know its patterns. The fog will lift around 11, the clouds burn off, the sun will shine again. But sure would be nice for the next five hours to have those gloves I shipped home in Crater Lake to cut weight. Or a rain jacket. Or, in Snail’s case, any jacket at all.

The forest around us is dense, close thickets of pines and just enough space for a little light to filter through.

The ponds around here are brown and murky and it’s the kind of place where monsters and fairy tales and Bigfoot make sense.

All mushrooms and trees with eyes and branches breaking behind my back.

So we get out of our tents and tear them down with numb fingers and do jumping jacks for warmth. Pack up and get outta here. These thick forests with no undergrowth spook me out; something about the darkness and all that they hide. The mist swirls through them and through my head and I spend some self-pity time remembering all the hot days and warm lakes of Oregon. Oh, sweet, comfortable Oregon.

But all we can do is just keep walking up, ridgeline into ridgeline into cloud cover. I imagine us walking out of it, suddenly into sunlight, looking down over the socked-in valley. I imagine being at home, warm couch, hot tea. I imagine putting on a warm, soft cotton sweatshirt. I’ve been dreaming of cotton a lot lately. It’s the littlest things.

But the morning drags on and a frightened fast-talking day hiker tells us about a bear sighting up ahead. All we see is more gray sky and chipmunks but eventually, miles later, it happens: we crest a ridge and turn to the right (uh, north maybe?) and it’s out of the clouds and into blue sky sunshine. And the most incredible mountains I’ve ever seen.

Have you ever read a fantasy novel? These are the mountains from that book.

Massive, orange, mystical. Goat Rocks Wilderness. And we walk up and down passes with mountain goats and waterfalls and wildflower meadows and this was the most beautiful part of the trip so far, absolutely.

But the problem was, we kept climbing up. Up above the mountains into higher ones, the sun fading back into fog and cloud, the path turning to just a rocky gravel line in front of us, a ridgeline surrounded by nothing but white sky and drop-offs. Then we were walking on snow, yes, snow! I guess for everyone who did the Sierra this is pretty normal, but for us, snow? It was 80 degrees two days ago. But up we go, higher and higher, and the whiteout winds were hitting us with sideways, bone-chilling gusts and we don’t have the gear for this, no.

And I kept checking my phone to see how much farther before a descent but it kept saying up, higher, keep going into this a while more.

And every once in a while, the wind would gust hard enough that we could see a glimpse of the valley below and here’s the craziest thing: you could see the forest fire still burning down there, the smoke rising out of the trees, the sound of the firefighter helicopters chopping through the air. An image of the apocalypse: snow, ice, fire, smoke. And then us, two siblings out here on this journey for some reason again. For fun, maybe?

It felt like one misstep right or left would send us down the mountain, that the wind would blow us right off. Just us against a thin ridge in the sky. And then when we finally started coming back down off the precipice, the sliding down the cliff walk was a different kind of terrifying but finally, finally we made it to steady ground. Legs shaking, we still booked it out of there, laughing and sighing and eventually sitting down to cook some warm noodles on a much more solid, sheltered mountainside. And then still 11 more miles down finally to our destination, a lake filled with families and nothing scary. Our longest day, literally and metaphorically and I don’t mean to be dramatic, but damn, that was the first time this trip felt scary. Truly dangerous.

And then the next day, sitting in a trail angel’s hotel room eating doughnuts and pasta, these two through-hiker women are talking about it.

“Oh, that was fun. Like being in a cloud.”

“Yeah, we camped up there to see the sunrise the next morning.”

Perspective, I guess. And bad-ass mountain women tougher than us.

Anyway, only 200-ish miles left! What a wild ride.


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