Excerpt from “Alone in Wonderland”: a Wonderland Trail Thru-Hike Memoir
I’m so excited to announce that Alone in Wonderland, a thruhiking memoir focused on the Wonderland Trail in Mt Rainier National Park is available for pre-order now. It releases and ships in January. And I would absolutely love to share it with you.
In the book, you get a glimpse into the majestic scenery and challenging hiking of the Wonderland Trail. You also get to go along the emotional journey of what brings us to long trail hiking and what it means to call yourself a backpacker.
Enjoy the excerpt from the book below:
Just up the hill beyond, I explore the individual campsites and hang my food bag on the bear pole. After setting up my tent and changing into camp shoes, I head back down to the shelter. The day hikers have moved on and a young woman is setting up a tent on the wooden platform.
“Hi, I’m Christine, do you mind if I hang around with you for a while tonight?” I ask. “I’ve been alone all day.”
“Oh yeah, totally, I’m Annie, my partner Odessa went down to jump in the river.” Her smile is broad, her face open.
She tells me that they‘re both doctors in a small community on the Olympic Peninsula. She talks about being almost thirty and married and thinking about having children. I try to relate to anything she says but find it challenging at best. I was a busy business lady once, or twice. It always left me itching to run away, though she seems quite happy.
In the past week, I’ve been repeatedly asked about my aloneness—if I’m alone and why am I alone. Annie hasn’t asked, but I feel compelled to explain myself anyway. I can’t help but feel defensive when a bright, capable young woman has chosen the script and forgone the opportunity to live defiantly against expectation. My mind is clouded with judgement, even as I am beginning to realize that independence is about making choices for your own life. Those choices don’t have to be in direct opposition to societal expectation to be independent. I ramble on about my nomadic life and the choices that led me here, hoping that perhaps by the end of my diatribe one of us will have a better understanding.
She is both kind and receptive, and the conversation remains friendly. Even so, I leave feeling bitter and filled with self-doubt. I excuse myself and head back to my tent, insides roiling. The sun is still shining, but I have a lot to think on and suddenly want to be alone in my aloneness again.
I settle onto my sleeping bag, using my pack as a back rest, and pull out my Wilderness Trip planner Map to study the remainder of my trip. Tomorrow is ten or so miles to Sunrise Camp, with a stop at the White River Campground to pick up my second food cache. Then almost eleven miles to Mystic Camp the following day, around five miles to Carbon River the next day and eight miles back to Mowich Lake on my final day. It’s hard to believe my trip is already two thirds done—I think back to the first and second day when I questioned my decision to be out here at all, when I considered getting off at Longmire and forgetting about backpacking forever.
A scrambling noise and flash of dark fur grabs my attention. I look up in time to see a marmot hurtling through my campsite. Whoa! I have never seen a marmot move like that. Unzipping the sheer mesh side of my tent, I poke my head out to get a better look, but it’s long gone. Shrugging, I zip my tent back up and continue looking at my map. Soon, I hear rustling and a series of loud thumps. Suddenly, two black bears barrel out of the trees from whence the marmot has come. My stomach leaps into my throat as they round on me.
Holy shit. Ohmygod. Stay calm, they are only black bears. The ranger said they have never attacked anyone before. Don’t freak out. Freaking out will not help.
They’ve obviously been following the marmot, but undoubtedly my presence is more interesting. Within seconds they’re flanking me, one on each side of my tiny backpacking tent. If I had the audacity to do so, I could reach out and pet them each on the head.
What do I do? They’re not supposed to get this close. Should I yell at them? That doesn’t seem safe, what if I scare them? What if they attack me? What do I do?
I make eye contact first with the bear on the right—his nostrils flare as he consumes my scent. I then look to the one on the left. Seconds stretch on like hours, the bears peering curiously into my face as I try to keep my breathing steady. Certainly, they can hear the deafening pounding of my heart.
What do I smell like to a bear? Can they smell the lake I jumped in, the ramen I ate for breakfast, the almond butter oil I tried to scrub from the front of my hiking pants?
These are not full-grown bears—yearlings maybe. There must be a mother around here somewhere. My vulnerability in this position is undeniable; I can’t stand up to make myself appear larger. Even if I could, I’m too afraid to move.
As suddenly as they came, the bears turn and scamper off, to pursue the marmot. Every muscle in my body is locked tight but my mind is frantic. I can’t decide if it’s safe to get out of my tent. Surely the bears will realize the marmot has taken advantage of their delay to make a thorough escape and return to investigate me further. A mother bear must be nearby, supervising their hunt and perhaps following along behind. Several ragged breaths rattle my body before I’m able to call out to my fellow campers.
“Hello?” My voice is hollow. I doubt it’s loud enough for anyone to hear. No response. Nobody comes rushing into my campsite to see if I’m alive. So, these are the bears everyone’s been talking about. The ones I should be afraid of. The reason women should be afraid to hike alone. That was by far the scariest thing that has ever happened to me in the great outdoors.
With trembling hands, I unzip the door of my tent and lurch to my feet. My knees quake as I stagger down to the stone shelter, deliberately avoiding breaking into a run, though the instinct is strong. As I approach, I call out to Annie and Odessa.
“Hey, if either of you are interested in seeing a bear, a couple of them went that way.” The quiver is my voice is difficult to suppress as I point behind me.
“What?! You saw a bear?” Annie says. The envy on her face is satisfying, but she doesn’t realize how closely I saw not one bear, but two.
“Two! They came right up to me.” I nod. My heart is still racing, and my head swims as I recount the experience. Annie’s eyes go all buggy and she offers space for me to camp in the shelter with them.
“I think I’ll be okay up there, they’ve seen me now, so they know I’m there, so I should be fine tonight, I think.” I heap on the false confidence.
A group of hikers runs up to the shelter, the leader grasping a fancy digital camera.
“Did you girls see the bears?” they ask excitedly.
“Yeah, I saw two cubs, over there.” I point back.
“We saw a mom and a cub, down there.” They indicate the opposite direction.
Oh no, we’re surrounded.
“There must be four of them then,” I say.
We all exchange excited looks—seeing a bear is a rite of passage in backpacking culture, and the others have had the safer and considerably less terrifying experience of snapping a photo of one from a distance. They show us a few pictures of the mom and third cub before skipping off to their campsites.
“I’m going to go ahead and stay up there for the night. I’m not far from that other group—I think I’ll be okay. Black bears are more afraid of us than we are of them,” I say, remembering the ranger’s assurance that there had never been a bear incident in Mount Rainier.
Back at my tent, I stretch the rain fly over the mesh walls before entering. At least I won’t be able to look them in the eyes while they decide whether to eat me next time. I crawl into my sleeping bag and close my eyes. A tree branch rustles.
Oh my god, a bear! No. It wasn’t a bear. It’s just a tree. It’s fine.
My heart beats erratically. Nature is making nature sounds, and every single one could be a bear. How can anyone sleep like this?
Minutes pass before I admit defeat and head back down to the shelter where Annie and Odessa are getting settled in for the night. They welcome me into their space, and Annie even offers to help me carry my tent and gear down the hill.
I lay down in bed for the third time within the hour. Odessa is cowboy-camping with her bedroll laid out directly on the ground less than ten feet from my tent. She’s obviously way more hardcore than me. Or maybe that kind of confidence comes with knowing you’re not alone out here.
photography by Jason Dallas
graphic design by Christopher Greco
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