The beauty of the snail | Field notes from the Pacific coast

North Cascades solo trek, 2009 (Bear canister/stool)

This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5. It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.

Hiking solo resembled the alone nature of writing, forcing myself upon the world in a singular sense, this intensely private experience that felt necessary to get at something deeper. But it cut out time, it compromised it, with loved ones and friends. It felt lonely as a result, to require that condition. I’d be on this hillside or in some romantic cove and start missing Dawn, our kids, my friends. Coming home was always strange: I’d race up the driveway, announce I’m home!, but somehow that same excitement wasn’t returned. This is the thing about living in your own world, you think the experience must be the same for others.

The worst was the time I hurried back after a four-day outing alone in the North Cascades. I got in, and Dawn hardly looked up from her computer. She was knee-deep in a work conference that was about to hit, and the kids were only 4 and 1. The fact I could leave that long was remarkable, arguably selfish, but we were also living with her mom then, and I’d just started my first sabbatical, getting ready for a few months in Germany, 2009.

I’d broken camp at 3:30 in the morning, just “done,” ready to get back to civilization…and calculated I could get back by noon (earlier than expected!). I’d gone about 40 miles with good elevation gain, probably over my head with the whole difficulty level, the risk of bear, fording a river where I really had to use my core strength to stay upright. But there was something symbolic for me in doing that, when I got to the other side.

The ranger warned me outright not to do it, said it was impassable. But that was the only way to get south, to the whole expanse of everything I wanted to do and see. The way it works is you have to plot out your route in advance so they can reserve your spot at the established sites; there’s only a few at most backcountry camps.

I resigned to follow the ranger’s advice the next morning and just hike out. I’d come a good eight miles but had my first case of really bad inner-thigh chafing. I didn’t know it then, but there’s a shelf-life to how long wicking underwear lasts and my pair was from that trip up Rainier in ’99, 10 years ago. It was all wicked out. The pain was very, very bad. You felt it every step, had to tell yourself to ignore it, but that’s impossible.

I came to the turnoff for the trail down to the river ford where I had to decide if I’d head out or carry on—and it was only a half-mile to get there—so I thought I’d go down and have a look to see how bad it really was. And of course as soon as I got there and looked at it, I knew I had to try. It was white in spots and high, running fast, but I had a pair of approach shoes in addition to my bomber boots. I could carry the boots, lace them to my pack, let the shoes get wet and then dry them out by tying them to my pack that afternoon. It was early July with decent sun though it got cool at night, borderline cold, some snow around still.

And I had poles to help with my balance. The water was just up to my groin, though hard to tell, was it deeper in places?—easy to slip and tumble, get carried downstream…smack my head on a rock. I wasn’t worried about that as much as I was getting all my things wet, including the iPod shuffle.

I angled my body against the river force and made sure each time I stepped to tighten my core, to move quickly. Once, I felt it about to push me over but muscled my way through, and on the other side stripped down, and sat on a boulder with my junk hanging out so the inner-thigh wound could heal some there in the afternoon sun, with no risk of anyone anywhere seeing me. The chaffing wound had the look of one of those hand puppets you make by balling your fist up on the side, putting lipstick on the thumb and a couple eyes, then pivoting the thumb to make it look like a lip. That was the angry, pink mouth on the inside of my thigh. You could see all these mini-blood blisters where the hair follicles had gone disturbed and like most things, hurt more to look at than ignore.

I let it dry and slathered up some Vaseline lip therapy, hiked on. I went for hours, climbing higher, until the weather turned and I got to a mountain pass where it was socked in and spooky, colder, and I lost the trail. It was just a bunch of rock and avalanche run-out, the beginnings of that splotchy algae that grows on snow they call watermelon snow, or blood snow. Things always feel stark to me when I see that, I imagine it could be me.

And I had to get my map out, had to really use what skills I had to figure out how to get where I needed to be, there were no signs, cairns, anything. I found the alpine lake though, down-climbed to it, got a spot on the shore, laid out my bivy sack. And then I sat there wondering why I was doing all this with no one around, anywhere. It was gorgeous, but I had nobody to share it with. Pictures were bad renderings.

It ran along the lines of writing, of having to go somewhere physical or psychological to some exotic, imagined world. I was in it and not, at times. I could see myself there, though from the outside, the ‘me’ I regarded. I sometimes sensed when I looked out from it I was a shell, empty, and I felt that way as a husband and father, as a son: so often the choices I made mapped back to me and what I wanted, my precious, imagined artist’s life—and it was hard to make room for others in that. You have to make these choices with your time about who you’re going to be by what you spend your time doing. I admired Ray Bradbury, for saying he waited until his kids grew up and moved out before he set to the real writing. But I had a feeling I’d never be Ray Bradbury. I felt at risk for being no one, had arrived at strange terms and conditions. Rationalized it by telling myself that my kids, my wife, should see and know me as happy, so I have to do this. That it was the most important thing, in a sense. Or it had to be for a time, if it was going to survive.

And then that writer’s world, of putting yourself there, was deeply odd. I’d walk back and forth to the lake every day by our house, working these ideas in my head. I tried to keep attune to the little details on my walk, but I flickered in and out. I spotted a snail on the curbside with its crazy eyeballs on those nerve stalks groping the air, tiny fists. I thought to myself, the beauty of the snail is in its shell. 

Categories: hiking, Memoir, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. “This is the thing about living in your own world, you think the experience must be the same for others.” – a great line and so true –


  2. I wish you hadn’t described that thigh chafing like Señor Wences’s hand puppet. Can’t get it out of my head now …

    By the way, those boots are as awesome as you said.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Behold! The underwear scene!

    Liked by 1 person

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