Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.Doris Lessing
Everyone’s had a trip like this. If you haven’t been hiking for long and still believe that everyday on the trail is just another day in the sunshine, let me assure you they won’t all be like that. And I’m not just talking about rain and snow, though that’s a good enough reason to use the phrase “impossible conditions.”
The trails that call to us are wild places, and wild places have their own agenda with no need whatsoever to conform to ours. And it’s not just the weather that can turn a good trip into a bad one. Try bee stings, falls, blisters, injuries, illness, bears.
My “trip from hell” began with the fall in the river I wrote about in last week’s post. (See “Taking the Plunge.”) I not only extricated myself from the river unharmed, but was able to rescue my pack and dry out completely. I was grateful for that meadow full of sunshine where I completely dried out my gear, but the next day the weather changed, and when I arrived at Cirque of the Towers, there was a light rain falling and a cold wind.
The Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming are well named. Even on a nice day, the wind never ceases. Ordinary activities like eating lunch can be challenging. When I took my lunch out of my pack, I would first of all weight it down with a rock. Every small package that was removed also had to be anchored so that beef jerky and candy bars didn’t blow down the hillside. The higher the elevation, the worse the wind became. Campsites had to be carefully chosen for protection from this blasting force of nature.
My spirits were still a little soggy from the previous day’s plunge in the river, and the change in the weather did not help. Though I had originally planned to spend an extra day exploring the Cirque of the Towers, my heart wasn’t in it, so I packed up the next day and hiked a short distance east before beginning the challenging ascent towards. . .what else? Windy Mountain.
Challenging is a kind word to describe this climb. The ascent is unrelenting, and with each step I was fighting wind as well as gravity, the wind blowing south and downhill as I hiked north. It didn’t help that my top heavy pack was acting as a sail, making the climb especially treacherous. I feared literally being blown off my feet backwards and plummeting down the steep mountain side.
The ascent gradually levels out on an expanse of barren tundra below the mountain’s summit at an elevation of about eleven thousand feet. Here I met a young man hiking south, the only person I met on the trail that day. He was good looking, rugged, well built, his face tanned. . .just the kind of guy you would expect to meet on a trail like this. We paused and tried to talk, but the roar of the wind made it impossible to carry on a conversation.
Suddenly I felt the weight of his body toppling down on mine. No, in the interest of full disclosure this was not about to become even more sinister. This was not a sexual assault but a blast of wind that had sent him tumbling on top of this old woman. We were both on the ground in missionary position. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I didn’t even know his name. When we both were able to stand up again, he looked even more mortified than I felt. He offered a quick and muffled, “Have a good hike,” and went off on his way, keeping his eyes averted.
It had stopped raining for awhile, but now, at the summit of my climb and nearing twelve thousand feet in elevation, the rain started up again, driving like a sheet of icy nails into my face before it turned to hail, small stones at first, and then pelting me with stones the size of gum balls. I was getting hungry and needed to drink some water. I had put off eating and drinking because of the cold wind. When I saw two jagged rocks pointing like fangs towards the sky, I wedged myself between them, like a particle of food left behind after a meal. The taller one was on my north and sheltered me from the wind and hail, which was blowing sideways by then. I set my pack between the two rocks in front of me, where it was easy to pull out my lunch. I’d already put on my rain gear but now needed warm clothes.
My lunch of beef jerky and a candy bar felt like a gourmet feast. I was safe and comfortable, which felt like no small miracle, especially so since I had no shelter overhead. The hail continued to fall, and the wind did not let up. The thought of leaving this cozy but unlikely haven and resuming my journey in the wind and hail seemed unthinkable. I pulled my sleeping bag out of my pack and sunk into the down, wedged as I was between the two rocks. There was nothing left to do but pull out my stove and fix a pot of tea. It’s what I always do when I need comforting, and holding that precious green cup in my cold hands was indeed comforting. I picked up the paperback novel and did what I have done on a hundred hikes in a hundred different places, I sipped a pot of tea and read a book.
The hail stopped, and the wind died down a little by early afternoon, but I decided to remain wedged between the rocks. I had enough water for my dinner, which I devoured enthusiastically. I left my rocky shelter only to empty my bladder, the down side to being a tea drinker. It would not have seemed the most comfortable position in which to sleep, wedged upright as I was, and yet I did, and soundly, worn out by the climb and the elements.
The wind came up quickly in the morning, but the sky was clear, no rain nor hail, just the roar of the Wind River Mountains. It didn’t take long to pack up my gear. I had no tent to take down. I had used the last of my water for breakfast but found another source near the junction with the Bears’ Ears Trail, a trickle from a melting snowbank.
I made my way west to Valentine Lake, where I pitched my tent next to a rocky outcropping high above the lake. It was the perfect place to reflect on the events of the last few days. I removed from my pack the second paperback I had brought along to read, having finished the novel the previous afternoon while wedged between the two rocks. The pages were wrinkled from being dried in the sunlight a few days earlier. It was a book I reread every few years, and on trips like this I often brought such books along, thinking I might figure out the meaning of life while on a mountain trail with a good book for guidance. It was as good a place as any to figure out such things.
The book was The Immense Journey by Loren Eisley, a collection of essays by the noted anthropologist and poet. My own journey had begun a few days earlier when I parked my truck at the trailhead at Dickinson Creek Campground, and then leapt out with the keys in the ignition, locking the door behind me as I raced towards the outhouse.
Oh, I guess I hadn’t told you that part. The trouble with crises is that the next one can be worse. Locking my keys in the truck was certainly not as bad as tumbling underwater during a river crossing, nor as serious as being caught in a mountain storm, but it presented its own challenges. My pack, my boots, all of my gear were securely locked in my truck, and there was nothing to be done but to heave a large rock through the side window vent. And by the way, if you ever have to toss a rock onto the front seat of your car through the window, consider the windshield instead. It is a lot cheaper to replace, I found out later.
And here’s the thing about a journey, immense or otherwise; they have a beginning and an end. Mine began when I locked my keys in the truck at the trailhead, but it didn’t exactly end when I returned there a week later.
Fifteen years later I am a much older woman, examining the map and studying the trail guide so that I can get the names and elevations correct in this post. Both are wrinkled from their dip in the river. I spread them out in front of me, a satisfying ripple of sound as I run my hands along the map. This immense journey has not yet ended. I have many more of them ahead of me. Come back and let me tell you about them.