Hiking, Travels

The Mountains of Idaho, a Solar Eclipse, and Intense Emotions

I find it incredible how much the mountains can amplify emotions. Everything is intense, the highs are higher and the lows much lower. The first three days in Idaho ran the gamut.

I had set out with two friends, primarily to see the solar eclipse from a beautiful location. It turned out that was the easy part. There’s a lot on my mind at the moment, partly the company, partly my pre-existing “meta thoughts”. I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. A new trail is a nice place to let those things simmer in the subconscious for a while, being banished temporarily from active engagement. Putting one foot in front of the other is quite challenging enough, and that’s without the marmot hunting, and gazing in awe at the majesty of the Sawtooths.

The first section of flat forested trail with skinny trees reminded me of the Oregon Skyline Trail, with its squeaks from high in the branches where the elements have brought two trees together. It was hot and soft and dusty, and I was glad to meet a creek crossing that I could wade through and rejuvenate the feet. Thereafter the trail climbed steadily alongside creeks and through forests with some beautiful pause points – rock piles, waterfalls, wild flowers and lakes.

We made camp set back between the trail and Bowknot lake, in a clearing perfect for stargazing. The stars in the mountains take my breath away. The skies are so dark that the sheer number of stars visible is far more than my mind can comprehend.

Waking early I contemplated the route for the day. As the one who suggested this part of the world, I felt responsible for the group and our collective happiness. I also felt responsible for picking a good site for eclipse viewing, and as the most proficient with a map, trail distances and elevations, I thought it might be best if I put forward a few ideas before asking for input. Based on the previous afternoon’s hike, I reduced the mileage expectations and focussed on getting high up so the mountains wouldn’t be blocking the sun. That meant most of the morning was spent on the same side of one hill above Toxaway lake, aiming for a saddle that would give us some options. The trail was rocky and could have grown tedious were it not for the spectacular views. It would be easy to think that looking at the same lake for several hours would also get old, but it really doesn’t.

A small peak right above the saddle provided a winning contender for the night’s camp spot, and I left the boys making camp whilst I took an empty backpack and a single hiking pole for a run and went in search of water. I love running in the mountains! After a day of hiking it feels so light and free and fast. It was around a mile to the water, and I was glad of the time alone. It’s lovely to hike with friends, but it’s also peculiar. Being with people in the mountains can accentuate a feeling of loneliness. I’m alone a lot of the time, and I hardly ever feel lonely. But there are times when I feel like I might be better off sharing, that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m alone because people can’t connect to me rather than any choice of my own. Fairly standard neuroses, I suppose. Connecting to people is so very valuable to me, but only certain kinds of connection are lasting. That doesn’t make them more valuable than the transient kind, but it is the kind of connection that I crave at those moments of loneliness. And it’s the kind that is hardest to find, and the kind that’s hardest to lose when that inevitably happens.

A curious bear woke me at 3am with his snuffles and coughs, and refused to leave until dawn. I brewed a large pot of coffee, and hydrated some breakfast whilst watching the sun rise through the haze. There are so many wildfires this summer that the sky across the whole of the Pacific Northwest is hazy more often than not, with smoke blowing in from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

We all set up our preferred spots for the eclipse, and awaited the moment. I used the time for some handstand alignment practice.

As the partial phase began, I was struck by the reality of the eclipse. A giant lump of rock blocking the light from a burning gas ball so far from here that it takes light more than eight minutes to arrive. Space! My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the enormity, so I concentrated on watching and photographing. I had been lent a long lens for the trip, and though it had taken some practice, I was getting the hang of it. At totality I couldn’t detach the filter without nudging the focus ring so instead of spending the two and a bit minutes readjusting, I sat back and watched the sky. It was an intense experience not so much because of its relative rarity in my life but because of the scale involved. I thought of the light, and the stars, and my astrophysics-trained friend who had lent me the lens. I missed him right then, knowing he cares about this kind of thing as much (probably more) than I do. It’s hard to explain the light either side of totality, probably my favourite part of the whole affair. It’s not like sunrise or sunset when the sun is low on the horizon with the light passing through layers of atmospheric pollutants. It’s brighter in a way. Harsher. More ethereal. It’s cold in the middle of the day, and the chill associates itself with a sense of apprehension. I kept my thoughts to myself. I didn’t want to intrude on anyone’s sense of awe or wonder with my half-formed experiences. I’d sat there in the moment and just watched and felt. I wasn’t sure if anyone else had.

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