The last ice episode

DSC_0118This 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.



Categories: Course Navigation, death, hiking, inspiration, musings, travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

28 replies

  1. Never believe the things you think in the middle of the night. But then it gave you the opportunity for what sounds like an incredible midnight hike!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe the imagination is at its purest then, and hence all that mad thinking at night that leads to insomnia and the sense your ideas are better than they are. Have you ever been moved to get up and write in the middle of the night? I have a handful of times, but it’s kind of magical. Not as magical (the wriiting) as it seems at the time though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sleep is too dear to me to get up in the middle of the night and write. Maybe when I’m retired and don’t have the work gig that I have to deal with.

        My wife has a shoe rack on the back of our bedroom door. It’s been there for more than a dozen years. The way the shoes are laid out on the rack, in the dark of the night, they appear to form the shape of a human being. At least they do to me when I wake up in those wee hours and I’m convinced there is somebody in our house. There. Right there. Oh, yeah, shoe rack. It doesn’t matter how many years, or how many times, it’s what my mind tells me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I feel that way about sleep myself but love writing so much, it’s nice when I can subvert the sleep, sort of symbolic. If I did more of that (writing than sleep) I’d be a happier man. I like how writers think, your note about the show rack. Ah, for the imaginations. I need to catch up reading other posts but for now I’m enjoying the last of summer with my kids an this beautiful, old lodge at Mt Hood. The views south to the mountains go forever and they play soft, swing-era music in the lobby. Life is good, enjoy the start to your week Mark.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like you’re right in tune with the Stoics, who think about death every day and go, “Whew, I got lucky again today!”

    What an experience, though, to be tramping through the forest by the light of the silvery moon. That’ll stick with you for a long time …

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes and here’s to them Stoic cats alright! I saw a couple deer come through camp too and thought how crazy, to have to forage like that every day, every day a close call. I’m not cut out for that. It was a good experience in a way though. Glad I got to share it with you too, thanks .amigo!


  3. When I think about spending a few days by myself, I think that could go either way. Could be easy to slip to a dark place or two. In the woods, at night? Well, I don’t know but I can imagine. I can see getting up at 2:30 and just wanting to get home. I liked what you said about facing death, not denying or ignoring it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nice, thanks Kristen. Appreciate the comments this week and you reading, looking forward to your Indian summer piece too. In Powells bookstore now in Portland where there is no death or dying; it’s an amusement park for readers and writers, a lithosphere as they call it. Cocoon-like, totally Portland. Enjoy your afternoon and remains of the summer. Thanks again for following along this week and sharing your insights it’s been fun! Bill

      Liked by 1 person

    • Litmosphere I meant, god…..!


  4. For me, the most resonant line of this series of posts is this: “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.”

    The last paragraph does a lot of heavy lifting, and I like it, I like the way it closes the series. But the line where you, the hiker, kind of solo at the beginning, definitely solo at the end, that line where you are very much solo, drumming your fingers on the wheel but not making progress and alone, having just returned, while the fam is off together at church, that packs a punch.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so happy you dig that man because that image inspired me too; I needed some cinematic shift (you know the phrasing or what I mean better than I do with your eye for scene-writing). Thanks Mike, I’m glad you could follow along; it was kind of a big thing for me to push myself on this week. The input from smart readers carries me along, makes it worth it.
      We are at the timberline lodge now on Mt Hood where they they shot the opening exterior scene from The shining. Lifting the last of my pint SE in your direction and headed for the pool. Cheers, mate. Bill

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Nothing like being alone under the moon and stars. I always feel so small at times like that. The mystery noises would have sent me into a panic. Grouse scare me when they are doing that grunting thing.
    Loved this trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed it Jon, thank you for following along. Have you been to the Timberline Lodge at Mt Hood? I’m admiring the PCT through hikers here, their kind of crustiness hanging around the lobby slapping down coffees. Good luck on the new school year to you. Bill


  6. That’s the thing about noises in the night – some people just can’t bear it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “It was hard to get the zipper…” Seriously? That’s high and fast over home plate. You want someone to crush it over the fence, right?

    I don’t know, man, this stuff is confirming my prejudice and preconceived notions about camping and the great outdoors in general. My poor daughter. She’s dying to try roughing it but this isn’t helping. Will you take her?

    Liked by 1 person

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