Learn the alchemy that human beings know
the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given
Welcome the difficulty as a familiar comrade.Rumi
Many years ago, back when I was a working woman, I had a three day weekend ahead of me. You know what a precious thing that is. . . an extra day off, not to be squandered. Since I would be starting a new job soon, I knew that future time off would be limited, and so I planned a three day loop east of Mt. Rainier in an area now called the William O. Douglas Wilderness Area. In the seventies, long before wilderness designation awarded that area greater protection, we just called it Cougar Lakes, after one of the lakes along the trail. My loop included a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, north from the Bumping River to Dewey Lakes, now a popular and crowded destination for PCT hikers.
The forecast was not promising. It had been a rainy summer, not an uncommon occurrence in western Washington. Having grown up there, I knew not to cancel plans just because there was rain in the forecast. Were I to do so, I would never go anywhere. I was used to hiking in rain gear, finding sheltered campsites, wearing wet socks.
This trip, however, took rain and wet socks to a new level. Let me tell you about it.
I left the trailhead at Bumping Lake under gray skies, but the rain did not begin until I had set up my campsite that afternoon in a meadow near the river. I had watched the clouds carefully and wanted to get my tent set up before the rain fell, so I made camp early.
When the rain began, it started with a fury, not just the usual western Washington drizzle. I had a good, sturdy tent, heavy by today’s standards, weighing eight pounds, with at least sixteen lines to keep the rain fly taut and a large vestibule for wet boots and gear. It took me a long time to set it up each night, but a dependable tent was not a luxury in western Washington. Many years later, as I think about carrying eight pounds worth of shelter, it seems burdensome, but this trip took place long before the term ultra-lite existed.
I sat in my tent and read a book, grateful to be dry and warm. The downpour continued with a fury. I broke the rules that afternoon. I heated the water for dinner on my stove underneath the vestibule. I drained the water from the noodles in front of my tent. Then I ate my dinner of macaroni and cheese sitting under the warm enclosure. I kept my food bag in my tent with me that night instead of hanging it from a tree. It was as if I had put a sign out in front of my tent for the bears that read, “Come and get it!”
Despite my carelessness I awoke the next morning with all my limbs intact and my food bag undisturbed. The rain had stopped some time during the night, though the sky remained menacing. My gear had soaked up the rainfall. That heavy tent must have taken on a few extra pounds of rain water, and when I put my pack on my back the water dripped down the backs of my legs. I continued my journey west, joining the Crest Trail, and then north to Dewey Lakes. Sometime around mid-morning it started raining again. It was one of those trips when I had to ask myself, “Why do I do this?”
I made camp in the rain on a rise above the north shore of the lake. I was out of the mud but without much shelter other than my tent which, despite being rain soaked, still kept the rain out. I had given up on dry. Soggy was an acceptable alternative.
The rain continued through the night and steadily into the next morning. I was headed back to my waiting car that day and was glad to be going home. I began to dream about warm and dry, about a hamburger, about a life under a roof, and the question, “Why do I do this?” kept reoccurring with greater urgency.
The trail descended from the lakes through open meadow land, a terrain that I would usually savor, but on this day of rain the trail disappeared in the mud in many places, and route finding became increasingly challenging. This was not a well travelled trail, most hikers preferring the high country of the PCT with its views of Mt Rainier. Most of the time I was able to spot a cairn marking the route on the other side of the meadow but getting there through the deep mud was difficult.
The rain continued to fall. My rain gear had soaked through. My pack was heavy with the weight of it, and the mud became deeper with each crossing of meadowland. I was now sinking up to my hips with each step, then slowly pulling my feet out of the dark ooze.
I heard a sucking sound as I pulled one foot out of the mud. It was the sound of my boot and sock being sucked off my foot. When I pulled it up my foot was bare. I was standing in deep muck up to my hips, and one foot was bootless. I sat down and cried. It seemed the only sensible thing to do at such a time. I knew that I would never go hiking again ever, but at least for that moment I had to find a way to retrieve my boot from the deep mud and continue on my way. I dove into the muck with both hands, pulling up a leather boot filled with mud. Somewhere in the mud was buried my wool sock. I stumbled slowly, one foot bare, and made my way to the edge of the meadow, where I sat down and extricated the mud by the handful from my boot. I had stopped crying by then. It didn’t seem to do much good.
I was not far from the trailhead at that point, and when I arrived I had a short walk down the road to complete the loop and arrive at the parking lot where my husband’s antique Morris Minor awaited me, the car that had been relegated to my use when it proved to be too unreliable for his. There was always a feeling of trepidation as I approached that car. I had to park on a hill, so that I could start it by putting it in gear and popping the clutch. It always seemed to work, which surprised me. I felt the car coast, let out the clutch, and heard a satisfying pop while the car lurched forward. I turned left on Highway 410, headed west towards Chinook Pass and the little town of Buckley, where a hamburger awaited me, all I really wanted in life at that point. I had survived the rain and the mud and the car. Now I only wanted this one thing.
I waited in line at the Dairy Queen, and as I picked up my burger and a hot fudge milkshake for good measure, I turned around to see a little boy holding the hand of his father and looking at me wide eyed. As I walked by I heard him ask softly, “Daddy, is that a girl?” I was caked in mud. It was small wonder that my gender was in question. In the early seventies it was unusual to see a “girl” who had been on a mountain trail in the rain for three days by herself.
I smiled and felt happily reassured. I could not know it at the time, but in the years to follow my twin daughters would be born, my marriage would end, and there were countless times when I needed to be reminded of my own strength. I could pull myself out of the mud and the tears. I could get back on the trail. I could even start a car by popping the clutch. And yes, I went hiking the following weekend.