Cow dung in foreground


Lily and I drive up the Teanaway to get away, bond. We pull the Pilot over at mile marker 11, where the trail report says you should start: pass the gate that says No Motorized Vehicles, head up the private logging road, turn left up the road before you get to the modern bridge over Indian Creek.

We leave the Pilot, which feels like pushing off from shore, to open sea: a dirt road disappearing into a valley, the promise of higher meadows, good views, drinking water, spring flowers.

Two hunters emerge in full camouflage with rifles and masks, from Tacoma. Out all morning, nothing. Looking for turkeys.

Lily has been drinking caffeine now, in the Starbucks Refresher drink, and also through packets of Gu we suck down. She starts talking and doesn’t stop. The sky is blue and the air crisp, it’s Saturday: me and my daughter, dreaming about doing this more in the future, when we’re both older.

We stop in the forest; many of the trees are wrapped in ribbons denoting something. These trees are fated to get cut down, keep, or possibly diseased, it’s unclear. One of them is swaying and making a creaking sound like it could fall on the trail and hit one of us, so we carry on.

Ginger dances on the snow, nips it, bucks in the air like she’s been jolted by the cold or an electric shock, disappears after squirrels.

Lily relays the history of the Oregon Trail, the gold rush in California, the characters and timeframes. I’m carrying about 60 pounds on my back and hoping we’ll find a good spot to camp. The trail drops down to the valley floor, great stretches of green spring grasses, dark streams.

We come to the left I think we’re supposed to take, and take it, and that’s when Ginger discovers the cow dung, and wears it now on her collar, just the same as back home when there’s something in the yard she needs to roll in.

I grab her by the back of the head and take a handful of snow to wipe it off but it doesn’t really work, and two minutes later she’s twisting in ecstasy in a newfound patch, and there’s no point worrying about it.

We carry on higher and the road narrows: there’s no one out here, not even the cows that left their remains, and we’re running low on water. The road disappears into open meadow with a bundle of brush that looks man-made, put there for a reason like a massive pyre, maybe an avalanche run-out. We proceed above the pyre to a higher ridge and if we don’t see anything promising, we’ll have to come back down and head out, down to the modern bridge where we can trust the water.

We’ve been hiking a few hours and haven’t drunk enough. It’s hard-going up to the ridge, and Lily needs help balancing herself with the weight of her pack setting her off-kilter. It’s macabre, but I give her the passcode to my phone in case she needs to use it for some reason, which opens the discussion, Why would I need to use your phone, What could happen, and Who would I call?

At the top of the ridge we find a road leading higher, above all this cow shit and confusion, and decide we’ll drop our packs and climb higher, then retrieve our packs if we find a place to camp, or just hike down altogether, where we can get good water.

And we do find a good spot, and views. The afternoon is getting late and the wind kicks up above the tree line, no water on the ridge, and a storm forecast to come in later, maybe drop a few inches of snow by morning.

I want to set camp and drop down for water and climb back up, but Lily thinks we should go down and I disagree. I think better of it though, and we hike out, reminding myself she’s nine, and there’s no point taking risks like this.

We get to the modern bridge over Indian Creek, still no camp spots, too tired and dizzy to bother filtering water. It takes an hour or more to scour the creekside, looking for an established campground, nothing. I decide on a spot in the meadow where a few logs look like they’ve been set there deliberately; we can at least sit on the logs while we’re eating dinner.

It’s the four-season tent, the one I only use about once a year, that’s heavy but has a long vestibule area for cooking and setting gear, when you’re in snow. I’m having a really hard time setting up the tent, stressed out, put my cans of beer in the snow back by the creek and started on my first, in hopes it shakes the stress and rights me.

We make our camp and settle into it, and what seemed to be occasional cow shit becomes a more widespread event, and I realize as I’m cooking there’s cow shit everywhere, it’s part of the patches of mud, all of it co-mingled. It’s hard to prevent the lids of our cups from falling into it, and to keep our hands sanitized, and to keep the dog from tracking it into the tent.

The cow dung has a timeless, stalwart quality to it like markings on the moon, or an even more alien landscape, the sense now we’re being watched or surveyed, on camera, unwelcome.

Ginger is sacked out in the mud and shit and lifts her head, eyes half-mast. And as she gets up she starts to limp and hobble, and Lily says we should get the first aid kit out and the Q-tips and clean her paws, administer care, suggests we may need to hike out, drive back to Seattle, take her to a 24 hour clinic, carry her in the dark.

David Teniers – Io, transformed into a cow, is handed to Juno by Jupiter

We tell stories in the tent: Lily, the story of Argos and the trouble Zeus got into with Io (Zeus was always getting into trouble), how Zeus conspired with Hermes to lull the guard Argos to sleep by telling him a story with no beginning or end; me, the first time I climbed Mount Rainier, how we got into a fight with our guide, how he yelled at my Navy Seal friend Peter, a man who had done several tours through Haiti, Afghanistan, seen friends die, now to endure this, some cocky mountain guide from Ohio.

There’s no sense of time until it gets lighter, and there’s rain, ice or snow falling on the tent, then a turkey gobbling, dawn.

We break it down and fill our water bottles and check Ginger’s foot, head out. Lily can’t get her hands to warm up and I stand with her on the trail holding hers in mine, blowing them, telling her how much I love her, how well she’s done, what we should do next time.

Categories: travel

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10 replies

  1. Lovely writing, and a great memory to have. But cow shit is the pits.


  2. what a wonderful trip, cow dung and all, bonded through adversity and experience, nothing like it )


  3. Lily’s a champ. Between experiences like this and Greek myth, she’ll be fearless.


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