This is the last in a series of posts I wrote from a recent backpacking trip on the PCT in Washington. Thanks for all my friends and readers for following along, go back to the beginning if you’d like to read all six.
When I got back to my bivy sack the moon was in my face and I lay there wondering if I’d be able to fall back to sleep. I started thinking about the rock near my camp I was peeing on, if the salt or scent would attract bear, and if that was a bad idea. And then I thought I heard a rhythmic grunting sound right near me in the brush, and started imagining bear footsteps lumbering over, the sound of it sniffing me through the fabric.
It was hard to get the zipper open but once I did I shone a light in the direction of the sound and heard it react, judged its size by the sound it made, but it only moved a little and then settled back into the dark.
I lay back to collect myself and turned on my phone (1:52 AM), deflated my air mattress and started breaking down camp. I beat my pack up and down on the ground (it had a bear bell and cooking pot inside) to make noise and try to scare it, knowing I’d wake the other two parties near me — and then I duct taped my heels and stuffed my compression sack with all my clothes, disassembled my stove, the gravity water filter, emptied the last of it on the coals — and marched out of camp across a foot log back to the main trail, zig-zagging four miles down the valley to the bottom before stopping for an energy gel.
And it was another five miles to go still but mostly flat, just some gain at the end, and I hoped it would be nice with the sunrise — I wouldn’t need sunscreen or bug repellant, there was that at least.
I stumbled many times coming down but wore my headlamp even though I didn’t need it with the light from the moon, I really just wanted to be seen, didn’t want to startle anyone or anything.
I’d come upon these mountain drainages and meadows that opened to vistas, and the moon made the mountains majestic and shadowy against the sky but I couldn’t linger over it, the forest had a malice now with what I imagined, a menace in the dark.
I tried to make noise as I reentered the forest and sensed the presence of creatures sleeping or hunting, but when I did it only frightened me at how far my voice carried and echoed, the vastness of the wild and how small I seemed in comparison.
I got to a trail marker with the sun now up and knew there was just a mile or so left, had some food and rallied for the last of it, thought about boiling water once I got back to the car for a coffee and the drive home.
When I got to the end, the same place Brad and I started four days ago, there was the highway we crossed where Brad told me about the naked bikers he’d seen driving by — and though the sun was up and the mountains pink-yellow, it was too early for traffic on a Saturday, everything was quiet and still, and crossing the road I had to laugh when I saw the sign for the trail: I’d mixed up our meeting point because it only said trailhead on the east side of the sign, and I’d come from the west.
When I started my car it was 7:30 and I’d come 10 miles but still had a four hour drive ahead of me, though I’d cheated Death another day.
I sat on the tractor in my garage Sunday morning drumming the wheel, my family at church, looking down at my gear and everything I had to put away. I opened the bay doors to let in some fresh air, put on a CD, thought of a friend who was gone now I used to listen to it with, who died too young but probably wanted it that way, and outside some fallen leaves from the cherry tree stumbled up the driveway looking for a home.
The moon’s now the shape of a hook, that pink zinfandel color it was breaking down camp the morning I said goodbye to Brad. Our cat turned up at the backdoor with a bloody mouth and a swollen lip, hunkered down in the attic all night, and the vet said she probably faceplanted from a tree: fractured a canine tooth they had to remove, it went right through the lower lip, but no problems with the jaw. Dawn and I joked at how many lives she’s lost by now, all the ones we’ll never know about, there’s no way to measure it.
And I thought about the tree stump above me at the lake my last night, that looked just like the silhouette of a bear but maybe stood for something else, maybe Death itself looking down, ticking like a clock, macabre. And still it makes me feel more alive to look at life and death that way, to throw off whatever veils we use to cover our fears about dying — if we’ve got the time and strength, to get out while we can, to see what we can see.