These posts are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are standalone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed, or starting at the beginning. The series ends tomorrow (Sunday).
The boulders had Roman noses and dark hollows for eyes, and the pine trees gaps in the bark where bats folded up and slept all day, and as I climbed out of the burn area by Stehekin I watched the line of the morning sun come down the hillsides as I rose up to meet it. But when I crossed a stream to the other side of the valley the angle of the sun flipped to the bottom, and I climbed the switch backs above, glad to stay in the cool of the forest.
With my hardest day ahead of me and now alone on the trail, I wanted to get to camp early enough the sun wouldn’t be so bad, knowing it would be deep in the 90s by afternoon. I found a patch of raspberries so ripe they slipped right off, they looked like red reindeer noses, and I was grazing on them when I heard a deep grunting sound, a sound I’ve heard deer make when you’re on their territory, rhythmic and nasal — but this was an adult bear up the trail from me looking down.
We admired each other for a beat and then I lifted my poles and clapped them and hollered, and it reacted, but didn’t exactly hop to, it just shuffled to the side and down into the brush, and I heard it stop but remain out of view there, and I waited for a little while and then high-tailed it out, and for a time kept looking over my shoulders thinking I’d heard it again.
You’re supposed to make noise on the trail so you don’t happen upon a bear and frighten it, that’s why people wear bear bells, but mine was muted by the permit on the outside of my pack and so instead I belched loudly or slapped my poles, and sometimes sang. But as I did, the sound of my voice was soon replaced by the silence of the forest, the backdrop of birdsong, and I was reminded how lonesome and strange it is to be so remote in the wilderness alone.
The camp at McAlester Lake was the same one where I stayed in 2009: no camping at the lakeshore, but a few established camps in the forest spread out from one another, a stock camp and braided trails leading down to the lake. There were two other parties there and I was grateful for the company, a loud, large guy from Brooklyn you could hear laughing for miles — a young couple from Alaska on their last weekend together before he moved to Montana.
Because we were by a lake the bugs were especially bad, but I put on my mosquito net hat and lay on the ground flat, convinced they couldn’t see me, listening to them circle above. By the fourth day I’d gotten like those cows or steer you see covered in flies that don’t seem fazed by them until they get three or four on their eyelashes and then shake them off.
I set out my things, my bivouac sack and bear canister (which doubles as a stool), gathered wood for a fire (no branches bigger than your wrist, the rule) and went down to the lake for a swim.
It was hard to get in and out of the lake for the fallen timber along the shallow shores that was muddy and covered in slime, but I did so on all fours, dove in, swam to the middle and floated on my back, admired the surrounding mountains, the mosquitoes dancing on the surface, the occasional plip-plop of small fish arcing out of the water to catch them.
There were boulders in the lake and it was shallow enough I was able to find one I could perch myself on and keep my head at the surface level to meditate, with the sometimes sound of the guy from Brooklyn in the distance snapping limbs or yucking it up with his friends — and I was glad for it. The ranger tried to sell me on the one spot at the High Camp she said I could have to myself, but I knew I’d be happy for company here instead.
I sprawled out on the lakeshore to dry off in the sun and on the timberline above, thought I saw a tree stump in the distance that looked just like the silhouette of a bear standing upright with pointy ears: and I had to keep looking back to see if it moved, it was so life-like. But after a while I was convinced the head was rotating like a clock, and thought I might be losing my mind, so I nodded goodbye and returned to camp.
I cooked my last meal, had a small fire and watched it burn down, aware of the young couple from Alaska nearby: the guy said I was welcome to come by their fire but I didn’t want to, and doubted they really wanted me there either, and fell into the same low-grade sorrow I experienced before, the irony of wanting to get away and then just feeling lonely or sorry for myself.
I forgot I had my mosquito net on as I went for a drink of tequila and had to laugh, and the gaps between the trees in the sky turned pink, and I got into my bivy sack and lay there feeling good, feeling strong.
As soon as it got dark though I heard the sound of feet running toward me and over my sleeping bag: it was only mice, but at ground level it sounded a lot louder and I didn’t like it at all. It was dark when I nodded off but when I woke in the middle of the night the moon was up, I’d had a bad dream, knew I needed to get out of my bivy sack to pee but it was cold, and that’s when things went sour.