The surest way to make God laugh is to tell her your plans.Anne Lamott
The summer before I graduated from college my friend Patty and I decided to hike the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail was fairly new then, having been authorized by Congress just three years earlier. I had two small books that were little more than pamphlets, published by Signpost magazine of Seattle and written by Louise Marshall, who was one of the trail’s early advocates. They would serve as our trail guides, the orange one for the south section and blue for the north. The trail through Washington at that time was called the Cascade Crest Trail.
Patty and I poured through those books, marking points that sounded like suitable campsites, carefully calculating our mileage for each day, and scheduling resupply points where our family and friends would meet us and bring supplies, primarily food and clean clothes. We allotted six seeks for the the five hundred mile journey, allowing time for me to complete the trek before the first of September so that I could return to college for my senior year.
There were of course no trail angels in those days, no trail towns, certainly no ultra-lite gear. We didn’t even have a tent with us but carried rain ponchos that doubled as ground covers beneath our sleeping bags at night. We would be carrying our REI Cruiser packs, loaded with about forty pounds of food and supplies.
I had a big year ahead of me, and the timing of this trip was important. In the following year I would marry my boyfriend in December and graduate from college in May. My husband and I would buy our first home that same month, taking on a mortgage and all those trappings that seemed like adult responsibilities. Finally in July, I would start my first job as a Registered Nurse at a hospital near Seattle.
I had thought it would be my last chance to take sufficient time off from work and life to go on a long hike like this one. Though I envisioned myself continuing to hike, I felt reasonably certain that those adventures would be limited to weekends and two weeks of vacation every year from my job. Retirement of course was the last thing on my mind at twenty-one years of age. It was something that old people did.
That year the Washington Cascades produced a record setting snowfall. That record remains to this day. I followed the reports of snow levels and knew it could create problems for us, but like any exuberant twenty-one-year-old, I ignored that possibility and made plans to leave in mid-July. There was nothing to do about it anyway except to cancel the trip, and since I thought this would be my last chance, I was not about to do that.
Patty and I and my college roommate, Alice, appeared at the Columbia River Gorge in mid-July. Alice was going to accompany us until our first resupply near Mt. Adams. We set out from a trailhead that is about a mile west of the current PCT starting point on the Gorge where it begins its northbound route across the state of Washington. That first section of the trail was not too different than it is today, bounded by poison oak, views south of the Columbia River and Mt. Hood in Oregon. A king snake made its way across the trail after the first half mile. I was pleased that I had studied the local snakes and knew that it was not poisonous.
This was the last stretch of trail we would hike on for several miles. Not long after beginning our hike, the trail intersected with logging roads, and continued to follow them in a kind a zig-zag series of connections between brief sections of trail. We met a couple day hiking in the first mile but would not see any other people for another four days.
There’s not much more to be said about that trip. It ended after four days when we saw four young men descending on horseback near the big lava field. “Go back,” they said. “You can’t go any further. There’s four feet of snow up there.” We just took that as encouragement and continued on our way, stepping at first through light patches of snow, and then post holing up to our hips in deep snow in the July sun. There was four feet of snow up there.
Turning back and giving up on a goal has never been something I do easily. It was hard to find our route under the deep snow. I knew the snow would get worse as we continued north. I finally listened to Alice, who proved to be the voice of reason in our small group, and we turned around and headed back to the last dirt road, where we were able to hitch a ride to Vancouver in the back of a pick up truck loaded with lava rock for landscaping. By the time we arrived in Vancouver, we had red dust embedded in every pore and coating our hair, which felt like steel wool. I called my boyfriend to come pick us up, and in a couple of hours we were home again, and I was sleeping in my comfortable bed with sheets and a pillow.
The four day hike felt strangely vacant, like it had not happened at all. I felt disappointed, defeated, but more than anything I felt confused, lacking direction. For months I had prepared for this one thing, and now I did not know what to do for the rest of the summer.
Patty and I figured that out. We had six weeks worth of hiking food, so when the snow in the high country had melted sufficiently to allow passage we went off on a Plan B kind of trip in the Olympic Mountains, simply wandering between river valleys and mountain passes, staying an extra day when we found a place we particularly liked, an island in the Dosewallips River, for instance, where we had to walk on a log to cross the river and where we were able to skinny dip in the river on the far side of the island where no one could see us.
I’ve often thought about how that month long trip changed me as a hiker. We had no destination, nothing to achieve, only to hike everyday. We stopped and camped when we felt like it, took long lunch breaks when we felt like it, went off on a side trail when we felt like it.
In the evenings we built a campfire, heated our water, and prepared our dinner over the fire. There were no fire restrictions on the trails in 1971. We did not carry a stove but relied on that fire every night. It is hard to believe that I did not drink tea in those days, but instead Patty and I sipped hot chocolate from a Sierra cup. There were no handy packets of hot chocolate available in the super market. I prepared the mixture at home, combining cocoa powder, powdered milk, and sugar, portioning it into a baggie. The mixture would then be stirred with hot water and savored, rich and sweet, as we sat around the fire, warming our hearts and souls.
We made our way across the mountain passes that rose above Hood Canal, then into the high country of the eastern Olympics near the Needles. Eventually we crossed into the broad, heavily forested valley of the Elwha River. The trip was exactly the opposite of what we had planned for our Crest Trail adventure. And it was wonderful.
On the Crest Trail in 1971 Patty and I had an agenda, hike from the Columbia River to Canada. Many hikers in 2021 hike with the same kind of agenda, to get from point A to point B, often in as little time as possible with a pack that is light and lean. I do that sometimes too, but mostly I wander. I sip tea now instead of hot chocolate, and I mostly hike alone. My time on the trail is time to be savored.
As for the rest of my life, that life that was so carefully planned in 1971: marriage, career, family; well, I wandered from that too. And just like on the trail, it took me to new vistas, challenging peaks, a few tumbles. It also left me more time for hiking, for wandering.
I write this today from a cabin in the Painted Desert, a place I wandered to well over ten years ago. I have been wandering here ever since. That new canyon still calls to me, up the wash, that panel of petroglyphs, the pottery shards where an ancient house once stood, the vista of a stormy sky above the cliffs, a wooden ladder.
Go on that long through hike if you must, the one with scheduled campsites and a grueling schedule, a planned destination at the end. But wander a bit while you’re on the trail. Climb the ladder. See where it takes you.