I will walk by myself
and cure myself
in the sunshine and the wind.Charles Reznikoff
Last summer the Forest Service announced that it would close a dirt road that provides access to a popular lake in the Olympics, as well as to the trails that lead hikers along the Skokomish River to the beautiful backcountry of the National Park. Narrow dirt roads are not usually associated with traffic congestion, but the decision was announced after an emergency vehicle was unable to make its way through the hordes of parked and stalled vehicles blocking the road. Lake Cushman has long been a popular destination for swimming, boating, fishing, and just hanging out on the rocks that line the shore. The lake, which is located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is only about a two hour drive from Seattle and closer for recreationists from Tacoma and Olympia.
The crowds were blamed on “cabin fever,” a response to the long shut down necessitated by the pandemic. Outdoor recreation is supposed to be safe as long as the six foot distancing is maintained. Along with traffic jams, an abundance of trash and human waste have been scattered along the lake shore, not exactly the pristine mountain lake outdoor enthusiasts were likely seeking.
The article in the Seattle Times drew my attention because my family often vacationed there when I was very young. We would pull our boat with its outboard motor behind our big Chrysler, launch it near the dam, and then troll along the southwestern shore of the lake while my father fished for cutthroat trout. By late afternoon we would be at the end of the lake where the river flowed into the reservoir, and there we would pull the boat to shore where a single picnic table and level ground created a perfect campsite with no other campers in sight. Dinner of course would be fried trout along with potatoes, some fresh tomatoes from our garden, and sometimes even a lemon meringue pie that was browned in a reflector oven in front of the fire. We rarely stayed longer than a few days, sometimes just for a weekend, but however long we remained at that isolated campsite, we never saw another person.
Sometime in the sixties a real estate office appeared on the highway leading to the lake not far from Hoodsport. In another year or two the lots had all been surveyed, and houses began to go up along the shore, eventually extending into the surrounding forest, with new roads built to reach them. A state park was created near the dam, then a resort. My family did what we always did when development occurred. We never went back. There were other lakes that retained the quality of isolation we sought.
Not far from the lake the road crosses into Olympic National Park and then goes on for another mile to a popular campground called Staircase Rapids and the trailhead that leads hikers up to the Low Divide and beyond. It was there that I first started hiking with my family while still a preschooler and went on my first backpacking trip when I was eight years old. That trail connects to a fine network where the hiker can explore the entire park, leading to jagged peaks, river valleys, rain forest. Even after the lake had been developed, that trail system retained its wilderness quality.
I began hiking and backpacking alone in my early twenties. I was working as a nurse with days off during the week when there were few people on the trails. My husband was a corporate pilot who was typically gone from Monday through Friday. I could go alone or not at all. It was an easy decision for me.
Initially I felt a little lonely and sometimes even frightened, especially as darkness settled and I would hear animals in the tall brush near my tent. But those feelings quickly passed, and before long I was going for longer trips and remaining in the wilderness alone for as long as my food would last.
I found I could be more fully present when I was alone on a mountain trail, that the filters I kept in place at home, at work, and in the city would drop away and I could breathe more deeply, see more layers of the forest and meadow, hear the subtle sounds I so often missed when trying to drown out a noisy world, even feel more fully. One early morning alone in a meadow I remember waking up and becoming aware that there were deer nearby, not because I could hear or see them but because I felt their footsteps on the ground, the subtle vibration of wild creatures stepping lightly upon the earth.
Though hiking and backpacking were growing increasingly popular in the early seventies as rip-stop nylon, lightweight aluminum pack frames, and freeze dried food came into being, it was still possible to find solitude in the wilderness. I would typically leave the trail and pitch my tent near the river where I could hear the “river voices” at night.
Over the years as more people left their city lives behind to seek the very same things I was seeking, finding solitude became more difficult, so I began to explore areas of Washington state that were as yet undiscovered by the crowds. When my daughters left home I moved to Wyoming, where I hiked in the Bighorns and the Wind Rover Mountains. It was easy to leave the trail behind in those mountains and follow the bare ridge tops, where I could pitch my tent on some high point that seemed like the pinnacle of the planet, and for a few days I was the only person who lived on it.
In 2014, after I had retired and moved back to Washington and was finally free to take longer trips, I decided to pursue a dream that had been calling to me since the trail was first created in 1968, to section hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I was delighted when my daughter Leah wanted to join me, and together we made plans to compete the Washington section in 2015, the year that the movie Wild was released, the courageous story of a young woman who found healing on that trail.
It was a really bad idea. I had expected the trail to be crowded, but I was not prepared for the hordes of hikers making their way north in a steady progression. Campsites looked like crowded shopping malls with tents covering every level patch of ground, some not so level at all, and hammocks suspended from trees. It was just the third night of our trip when I awoke and realized that I was hearing the snoring of a total stranger sleeping just a few feet away.
While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the Pacific Crest Trail looked like the shores of Lake Cushman, sadly there were other similarities. There was substantially more litter than I was used to seeing in the backcountry. Near places where hikers commonly stop to rest there would often be a “bloom” of toilet paper “flowers,” human feces and toilet paper that have been improperly buried, or not buried at all, that is then unearthed by animals who feast on the undigested food particles that remain.
But wait a minute. You thought this was a blog about hiking. Doesn’t that mean trail magic and community and magnificent vistas? You probably don’t like reading about poop any more than I like writing about it. And Lake Cushman is accessed by a dirt road near a housing development and a resort. Of course that brings more people to the lakeshore with their trash and toilet paper.
But a television news station in Asheville, North Carolina recently featured a report about a popular spot on the Appalachian Trail called Max Patch. Hiker Benny Brader described an area that was totally trashed. “Before it was said and done,” he said, “we picked up five bags of garbage, along with four pillows, three blankets, and one red wagon.” Another trash collection day was scheduled for later in the month Volunteers were being sought to help clean up the mess.
Hats off to the volunteers who are willing to give up a day to pick up other hikers’ trash on the trail. It’s called “giving back” to the trail that give us so much. A trash bag is now considered the eleventh essential in the backpack.
But aren’t we missing something here? If volunteers are going to pick up your trash next weekend, does it matter if you leave it behind today? Does the word pristine apply to the wilderness anymore? And how about solitude? Is that a wilderness value that’s no longer in style, along with canvas knapsacks and wooden frames?
It used to enrage me when my parents would reminisce about the way things used to be, which always seemed to mean better than they are now. But then, there was a picnic table by Lake Cushman a long time ago, on the other side of the lake from where the road is now closed. There we ate fresh trout, fried in a cast iron skillet over a fire. A coyote circled our camp one night, lusting after the smell of fish and bacon grease and making an occasional yip, as if to summon it. We listened to the soft lapping of the waves against the boat. Our sleeping bags were spread out on a canvas ground cover. We were a young family on a camping trip. And there was nobody else around.