Hiking, Travels

Soloing the Sawtooths

After my friends had departed back to Portland, I set out back into the Wilderness alone. Hiking alone sounds antisocial, but for me it’s an opportunity for introspection and examination of my connections with others at a distance. As they say, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, but it’s certainly possible to realise or remember how much people mean to me when I’m alone. Alone in the mountains, anyway. It’s also about being present. I don’t have much choice at times, the body has an excellent system for prioritising needs, sending messages of aches, pains and hunger one at a time to the brain. But at others it’s a choice. Sometimes I choose to think about the people I miss, but sometimes I choose to simply feel the wind against my back. Sometimes it’s the pine needles under my feet. The chilly softness of shoes soaked from a creek crossing. The tingling of skin that has been exposed to the sun.

Today I hiked for a few miles through forests which was ideally suited to this. Patches of sunshine and shade make for an interesting and wholly absorbing experience. At the Flatrock trail junction I decided to head for Cramer lake. The trail was dusty and rocky underfoot with manzanitas and tall skinny pines reminiscent of the elevation gains out of high desert into low alpine landscapes. I’d made faster progress than I’d expected, and reassessed my plans for the evening. At Cramer lake I turned around and headed back down the hill. It was early and I felt strong. I backtracked three or four miles to the trail junction and took the tougher option, 1,500ft up and over Baron divide down to Baron lakes. This is exactly the sort of trail that I love. Steep, not too dusty, with views across the valley to an unbroken line of imposing peaks.

I like these trails because they suit me. They feel right. Assuming I have eaten, I can scamper up a steep trail faster than I think, and surprise myself with feelings of strength. It’s the kind of trail that grounds me, putting me into my body, revelling in its capabilities. Away from the expectations of other people, I find my own standards, and I know that I’m enough. My legs are strong, I’m good at this. It also connects me to the earth, a labour up a mountain that has been here for thousands of years, in the way of thousands of travellers.

Reaching the crest, I could see down to Baron lakes, utterly beautiful in the afternoon sunshine. Emotions run high in the mountains, and the beauty and isolation was too much for my heart to take at that moment.

The spell was broken by the arrival of a family, panting after their exertions. I packed up and headed down the rocky hillside to find my camp spot in the strip of land between Upper Baron lake and Baron lake. The vista reminded me a little of Rae lakes in the Sierra Nevada, but for the many wildflowers that flourish here in the summer.

After searching for days, I saw my first marmot. Too high and too far away to marvel at its cuteness, but it made me happy to remember the marmots I’ve seen in the past and smile at their behaviour. I slowed down as I made my way down to the lakeside, relaxing as I neared the end of my day’s hike. Once at the water’s edge, I took off my clothes and took a hiker bath in the lake. I love swimming in lakes, but at this elevation the temperatures drop sharply at night and the water never gets very warm. Ten minutes was about my limit, and I emerged shivering and searching for a sunny rock out of the breeze, scooping some water into a ziploc to wash my dusty socks away from the lake.

My camp spot is lovely. I have lakes to both sides of me, and trees around my tent. I also have a handy tree with a branch overhanging a ledge that should have made hanging my food really easy. Unfortunately errors in the ordering of bag and carabiner, as well as the organisation of the working end of the rope meant the task lasted a good half hour. It was a nice excuse to meet some fellow hikers though, a couple of guys from Dublin and Belgium who came over to observe the incompetence. As it turned out, they actually needed help hanging their own food, and though I didn’t feel particularly qualified to help after my distractions tonight, I was able to teach them the PCT method reasonably well. They recounted tales from hiking in the Wind River range in Wyoming, and I in turn shared stories from the High Sierra. There are so many things to bring people together here that anything outside of the present ceases to exist. It’s wonderful to connect with new people in this way, oblivious to the superficial details and immediately looking deeper.

It’s finally dark, and I can see the stars again. I’m lying in the dust, chilly and alert, but relaxed. It sounds like a contradiction, and I can’t help but think that in the city it probably is. But here, where all there is to think about is now, it’s possible to feel mental focus that embodies both strength and softness at once.

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