Someone, somewhere will say, “Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive in the wilderness.” This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, “I am the wilderness.”Brene Brown
The summer after I graduated from high school I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier with my friend, Kathy, and her mother Bobby. I had to earn my place on the trail. The idea began one day over lunch in the school cafeteria, where I had joined Kathy and her friends, Peggy and Nancy. They were discussing a hiking celebration for our upcoming graduation, which was happening in about a month, and loomed as a momentous event in our adolescent lives. The hundred mile hike seemed a fitting celebration, and I immediately barged in, inviting myself to join them.
My offer was not met with wild enthusiasm. That I had hiked and camped with my family for many years seemed not to matter. I was deemed “too little” to set forth on such a demanding adventure, and I lacked the Girl Scout experience all three of my friends had enjoyed together. I set about to make a case for myself, to prove my worth on the trail. I proposed an overnight trip that would test our camping skills. It was not really a competition, but I quickly took on this new challenge, as if I were making a case for all the short women of the world.
We set out from the Dosewallips River Trailhead on a Saturday morning in May. There was still plenty of snow in the high country, but the low elevation river valleys of the Olympic Mountains provided plenty of snow free hiking early in the spring and even sometimes through the winter. I carried my brother’s old Boy Scout pack, the same one he had carried on our family backpacking trips when we were much younger. In it I carried all of the food for the four of us except for our lunches. Kathy, Peggy, and Nancy were on their own for lunch on the trail, but I vowed to plan for and carry all the rest of the food, as well as fire making supplies and a cook set. No one carried stoves in those days. There were no restrictions on fires, even at high elevations where wood was less plentiful. Our only other supplies were sleeping bags and extra warm clothes, along with the Ten Essentials.
That night in camp I coaxed the flames out of wet firewood using fire starter I had made from sawdust, egg cartons, and candle wax. I boiled water and then added the spaghetti, broken into small pieces for faster cooking. When the pasta was el dente (a term I had not yet heard of), I added a can of Vienna sausage, some onion flakes, a package of mushroom soup, and some butter squeezed from a plastic tube.
Anyone who has ever tried to spread cold butter on a slice of toast will know why the tube did not help much, but it at least kept the butter confined within the tube rather than spread out and greasy in the bottom of a pack. The final addition was a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. It was a feast for happy hungry hikers, long before there were freeze dried dinners, and it was wonderful.
The fire the next morning was easier to start, some of the kindling and tender having been dried by the fire the night before. I mixed biscuit batter and dropped it onto a sheet of foil, surrounding the biscuits above and below with the foil, coaxing the heat and light from the fire and turning batter into beautifully browned biscuits. We added butter from the tube to them. Along with this feast we had bacon from a can.
Yes, it used to be possible to buy bacon in a can. It was opened with a key that wound its way around the can, popping off the top and revealing a greasy collection of bacon in paper, rolled out, flattened, and dropped into the frying pan. Bacon and fresh biscuits with butter. Life on a mountain trail was turning out to be quite wonderful. All four of us were headed to college in the fall, but on that weekend in May this life seemed much more appealing.
On our hike back to the trailhead that day I thought I might have failed the test. The trail had not yet been cleared of downed logs, and a large Douglas fir had fallen across a steep stretch. My friends proceeded me and had no trouble scrambling over the obstacle. I swung one leg over in an attempt to straddle the log and leap to the other side but was unable to reach the ground and began to slide. As I did, my T-shirt slid up over my belly so that as I descended I scraped the bare flesh. When I finally found a way to complete the scramble, my abdomen was raw and marked with slivers. As we continued to hike, blood seeped from the wounds and saturated my T-shirt. I feared that my wounds presented visible proof that I was not tall enough to hike the Wondland Trail with my friends, but the next day at school Kathy informed me that I was in.
Two months later the four of us set out from Longmire on the slopes of Mt. Rainier, along with Kathy’s mom Bobby, who brought with her a flask of apricot brandy, ceremoniously removed from her pack each night as we sat around the campfire. Nancy and Peggy left the trail at the first resupply point three days later. They were tired of the mosquitoes and the rain, the low clouds that obscured the vistas of Mt. Rainier, which we had expected to see from all angles. On the last day, when Kathy and Bobby’s family met us at Ohanepecosh to pick us up, I insisted on completing the circuit, and hiked the remaining miles on my own, my friends picking me up at Longmire, where they had enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the dining room.
I had started out with a desire for inclusion and ended the trip instead with a quest for completion. In another couple of months I would leave home and begin a new life as a college co-ed. Other roles would come and go. I would become a Registered Nurse, a wife, eventually a mother. But more than fifty years after taking that first solitary hike my daughters are grown, and I have retired from nursing. But I am still writing about solitude on the trail. I have become wilderness.