Yet to learn to see, to learn to hear, you must do this–go into the wilderness alone.Don Jose
I first started hiking alone in my early twenties and had started my first job as a Registered Nurse after graduating from college. I was newly married and had begun the life I thought I wanted: a husband, 2.3 children, and a house in the suburbs. The 2.3 children had not arrived yet, and it would be several years before they did, but I was on the right course, or so it seemed. My husband had a job as a corporate pilot, which required him to be gone much of the time, and my job as a nurse allowed me to have days off during the work week when the trails were less crowded. I began going on day hikes in the Alpine Lakes area east of Seattle, where the trailheads were only about an hour’s drive from my home.
My friends all seemed to have normal jobs, Monday through Friday, so were not able to hike with me, nor was I usually free on weekends, either working or spending that rare time with my husband. It was an easy decision to begin hiking alone. I could go by myself or not at all. It did not seem particularly formidable at the time, for I had plenty of backcountry experience, though my trips had always included friends.
On the trail in those days I would occasionally see men hiking alone but never once saw a woman alone until many years later. I remember that I met her on the steep climb over LaCrosse Pass in the Olympic Mountains Her blonde hair was worn in a ponytail on one side of her head. We sat down and talked away the afternoon, comparing and sharing the stories of two women alone on the trail. We reminisced about having to do modified push-ups in P.E. class, the theory being that girls were incapable of doing regular ones and that well defined muscles were unsightly on a girl. Large breasts and well formed butts were acceptable. Biceps were not.
There we sat on our generous butts, sweat trickling between our not so generous breasts, smelling of insect repellant and the previous night’s campfire, two women who had never met before yet shared the same memories of school years in the fifties and sixties, when the most important message we should have learned was how to attract a husband. She told me how her mother had scolded her repeatedly for beating her boyfriend at tennis. How do you ever expect to get a marriage proposal, she would ask. I told her I had received one and was already wondering if saying yes had been such a good idea.
Her name was Lisa. Had we been traveling in the same direction we might have become fast friends, but we were not and did not and went off to climb our own mountains.
In the many years that have passed since I met Lisa on the trail, more and more women have ventured into the wilderness alone and continue to do so, especially as the popularity of our nation’s National Scenic Trails has surged. The “trail community” has become as important to many hikers as the clean mountain air and the appearance of wildflowers at the edge of a snow field. Solo hiking is relative. It is possible to hike alone without being alone at all. Sadly the opposite is also true. It is not possible to hike alone while maintaining solitude.
On that hike so many years ago I said good-bye to Lisa with her lopsided ponytail and then made my way over LaCrosse Pass, descending to the Dosewallips River and then climbing again to Anderson Pass, where I followed the trail to a place that is worthy of its name, Enchanted Valley.
Sometimes called the Yosemite of the northwest, the valley opens up as one ascends along the banks of the Quinault River. An old hunting chalet is located near where the valley opens up in the southwest, reportedly a place where Teddy Roosevelt once stayed while hunting Roosevelt elk well before the National Park was created. Snowfields linger above the valley floor, giving birth to dozens of small waterfalls that tumble down the steep slopes to the river below. A heavy mist lingers most days in the valley, until the afternoon sun warms the air sufficiently for it to lift, revealing Mt. Anderson and other jagged peaks that surround the valley like sentries. The meadow is dotted with ancient big leaf maple trees, festooned with heavy mosses that hang like drapes from the thick branches.
On that day in 1975 I found two small parties camped near the chalet. I chose a location up the valley near the river bar, concealed in a copse of alder trees. Even forty-five years ago I did not expect to be alone in that enchanting place, but it was not difficult to disappear among the trees, the sound of the river covering up the voices of other campers.
I have returned to Enchanted Valley many times over the years. It is the kind of place that beckons the visitor to return. The chalet was relocated a few years ago when a spring flood threatened to destroy the historic structure. A couple of outhouses rise in the middle of the meadow, which is trampled from the foot traffic. On my last visit there I went in early spring, thinking I might escape the crowds. The waterfalls were lush, tumbling with early snowmelt but were not loud enough to drown out the noise of the crowd. I sat by the river and drank my tea while I wrote in my journal: “They have as much right to be here as I do.” It was meager comfort.
It was also true. I was there in that beautiful place, and it was crowded precisely for the reason that I wanted to be there. It is a beautiful place. I wondered if the people left there feeling enchanted, as I have many times, if they would be forever changed by the place, advocating for wilderness protection and the preservation of our few remaining wild places. It is an argument frequently used to encourage people to come into the wilderness, to become its champions. I have often wondered if it is true.
I have responded to the crowds as many hikers do, seeking out less popular trails and have even moved to a remote corner of the state where I rarely see other hikers on the trails near my home. The scenery perhaps is less spectacular, but solitude has its own kind of beauty.
But I will go back there, filled with all the same ambivalence that is with me whenever I go to a place that once was quiet and now is not. I will go there for the same reasons that people line up to enter Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite, seeking something we cannot find in our homes, our places of work, something it seems we desperately need.
So go there if you must. Let the enchantment of a sacred place find you. Walk softly please. There is an old woman sitting by the river amid the alder trees having a cup of tea.