The moon was waxing gibbous over the ridge line coming into the North Cascades. I drove past the sad town of Oso where they had the mudslide, past the town of Darrington where I lived one summer. Past a mountain called Whitehorse I’d tried climbing but had no business doing. And there I stopped to eat dinner at a park where I sat on a bench in the shade texting and chewing.
If you paid enough attention to the details in life there was always something that would fuck you in the end. Like the blueberry-scented lip balm I’d used to lubricate the zipper on my pack. That could be what attracted the bear later that night. The worst part about being awakened by a bear outside my tent was the fact that I couldn’t see it. And without sight, the imagination fills in the dimensions with sound. How the bear lumbers along and breaks branches and twigs, how the ground seems to bend beneath its weight.
I shot upright and merely sat there listening, behind the thin fabric of my lightweight tent, as thick as a piece of lingerie. The bear moved in a zigzag ellipse around me, sniffing. That was the worst, the sound and idea of the bear sniffing. I became aware of how dry my throat was and how much noise it would make when I swallowed. I tried to craft a response in my head if the bear came right up to my tent but I was frozen solid. The light on my phone was no use, it just lit the inside of the tent and killed my night vision. No depth to the lamp.
Try as I might, there was no getting back to sleep after that. I counted backwards from 100 twice, and recalled the times I had to do that when I had insomnia for work. I prayed that was all in the past. I savored the fact the bear was gone now too, and considered how different one moment can feel from the next. True, the bear could kill you—but the bear’s not interested in killing you. And therein lies the difference.
That was how the outing began and I wondered if I should just pack it in but of course I did not. I’d hired a service to meet me at the Rainy Pass trailhead and transport me two hours up the valley to another pass, where I could then walk 30 miles south on the PCT and return to my car a few days later.
I had read the trail descriptions carefully and studied the map though the route was obvious. I’d finally bought a satellite phone so I could get emergency help if needed. I had also packed a hardcover of a 500-page book that weighed two or three pounds, so I felt obliged to read as much of it as I could. And sat in my camp doing that, inside my tent away from the bugs.
Being alone on the trail that long scoops you out, in a good way. I go through a lot of mental and emotional excavating. That first night there was a dirty sock left behind in the camp, hanging in a bush. A perfect pot holder! But I still burned myself holding the pot, pouring boiling water. And the fabric from the sock adhered to the welt on my finger and made a garish pattern. I held my hand in the cold mountain streams whenever I stopped to gather water and rubbed it as I walked, a Freddy Krueger style look. I made good time and hiked before it got too hot in the late afternoons. I thought a lot about my family and friends and where I’d been, where I might be going still.
Though it was a 30-mile stretch it ended faster than I expected, and that reminded me of what the guy said at Lily’s graduation ceremony last month. They stressed the importance of sharing what we’re grateful for every night over dinner and to give thanks, because life goes by fast. As the miles ticked down and I sensed the summer doing the same, I felt the same twinge coming to the end of something great.
I pocketed four small rocks for my family and placed them outside our house, a little family of rocks. I felt strong and good. The calendar said the moon would be full tonight and in a week’s time I’d be gone again, to see my mom. I had a cat on my lap and a half pot of coffee still. The bites on my legs were fading but my skin was still brown.