After a luxurious night as a guest at the pricey North Cascades Lodge in Stehekin, we were exiled to the hiker section of the resort – picnic tables beneath the deck among the dust and gravel – for our bonus rest day. To be fair, the tables were cool and shady, critical with temperatures exceeding ninety degrees. The picnic tables also privileged us with front row seats to the pristine Lake Chelan and North Cascades that rise up steeply across the narrow, sparkling water. We took solace in the shade for hours, enjoying the free WiFi and catching up with folks back home.
During our time in town, clusters of other southbound hikers came and went. A motley crew of twenty-somethings (and a couple of hardy retirees) congregated on the deck between lunch and dinner service, sipping over-priced craft beers and minting each other with trail names – a nickname that serves as one’s primary identity among other hikers. Despite invitations to join the hiker fray, Jason and I remained on the periphery, observing the crew with amusement while preferring to remain at our separate, more sedate table. Holding court at the heart of this group was a paunchy French Canadian fellow. When he arrived in Stehekin, his trail name was Viking, presumably attributable to his prodigious red beard and intrepid disposition. After four days of occupying the same deck seat, however, imbibing beer after beer, the other hikers re-dubbed him Patio. With a clink of their bottles and a roar of laughter, everyone knew that Patio was a more fitting moniker.
At two o’clock on that second day, I looked up from blogging on my iPhone to see the shuttle to the trail head pulling away from the landing. Seemingly, all the remaining hikers were on board: Arrow, Nap Time, Achilles, Super Fly and, most surprisingly, Patio. I broke into a wide grin while gesturing to Jason that the consummate lounger had finally broken free from his familiar deck chair after five days. As I did so, Patio met my gaze through the tinted glass and he in turn began pointing to himself exuberantly with both arms, proudly sharing the acknowledgement that he was doing what all thought was impossible – he was returning to the trail. With that, the shuttle bus erupted in silent laughter. Way to go, Patio, you’re a man among men.
It now felt as if we were the only remaining hikers in town. The second day off trail felt right, but, having only been on the trail a week prior to arriving in Stehekin, the whole endeavor began to feel like a distant fiction. Rather, we were merely on an extended, comfortable vacation complete with refrigeration and kayak rentals. I was ambivalent, anxious to return to the trail while in no rush to lace up my Altra trail runners and confront the potentially treacherous snow conditions.
At 8:15 the next morning, we found ourselves aboard the shuttle and destined for the trail. I was confident in my decision to go forward, but nonetheless possessed by lingering anxieties about what was to come. When we resumed our hike, I nearly let down my guard as the first handful of miles meandered along Agnes Creek, no sweat or snow to speak of. That, however, quickly changed. In no time we exited the undulating Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and entered the notorious Glacier Peak Wilderness. We began climbing steeply over uneven terrain – no well-graded switchbacks here. Up and up we went, then down and down to a creek, through overgrown brush that obscured the trail and tangled with our trekking poles, wet feet all along. This gauntlet repeated itself for hours.
It should have been no surprise that my preexisting anxieties translated into a less than positive mental state, making for a very challenging day, both emotionally and physically. For the first time, I began to doubt my fitness – not because of what I thought someone else thought about my ability or how I look – but because of how I felt physically. Crawling up the climbs, breathing heavily, sweating profusely. Surely this was too much to ask of my outsized frame.
Time to pull out the big guns and get it together! Mantras, visualization, counting steps. Whatever it takes to keep putting one foot in front of the other and keep the internal naysaying at bay. I imagined one of my greatest supporters, Alicia, cheering me on. I recalled a running mantra from my friend, Cynthia, and clung to it for some semblance of hope, repeating silently to myself, “Strong, confident, and full of faith.” Like a perpetual tennis match, my attitude bounced back and forth, from dismal to hopeful, for hours on end. If I could’t find joy in the challenges of this single day back on the trail, who was I to expect some sort of epiphany, happiness or satisfaction from this foolhardy adventure? Back to the mantra. Toughen up, buttercup. Get it together.
At about seven o’clock, less than two miles from where we planned to camp for the night, we came to a broad slope of icy snow, perhaps a quarter of a mile across. Already exhausted, our pace slowed further as we traversed, carefully choosing our steps. Nearing the tree line at the end of the snow field, it was unclear where the trail continued, footsteps blended into the wavy frozen surface going everywhere and nowhere all at once.
I have been taught that being of service is an excellent tool to get you out of your preoccupied, self-obsessed head. In this instance, I had a service to provide and was instantly extricated from the self-pitying train of thought that had largely monopolized my day. Pulling up Halfmile, a GPS navigation app, on my phone, I attempted to navigate us back to the trail using the “where am I?” feature that should be idiot proof.
Problem is, technology is rarely idiot proof, especially when you’re tired, hungry and ready roll down the mountain in resignation, like a whinny toddler. When I followed the arrow icon uphill, the app changed, now directing me downhill. I go down, now it’s somewhere uphill, some hundreds of feet away at XYZ degrees. Fed up with the finicky directions, I scrapped Halfmile and opened the topographic map in another app, identifying our position relative to the trail. Employing actual skill, I used the contour lines on the map to navigate us down slope where the trail entered the forest. Rejoice! Despite a hellish day, turns out that I’m not a complete waste of space and do have useful wilderness skills!
With a renewed sense of competence, I trudged into camp as the light faded. We were nestled in the middle of a boulder strewn basin with high, snowy sides extending out on both sides into evergreen seas. It was stark and beautiful with the cascades of seasonal melt in surround sound. My emotions neared a crescendo and tears of relief seemed imminent. Between the snow field and camp, I had decided I needed a hug and Jason, the only biped around, would have to be the source of this primal, soothing gesture. Sensing my internal battle, he had been exceptionally supportive and positive throughout the day. Dropping our packs, I made my request and Jason kindly obliged. As he awkwardly gave me that “it’s fine” pat on my back, I felt slightly ridiculous for imposing my emotional needs upon him and like a grown ass woman once again. He was right, it was fine.