The door to the woods is the door to the temple.
The fourth of July weekend is here, and my usual quiet home is a little more lively than usual. I live on a hill above Curlew Lake, where Black Beach Resort welcomes guests at RV sites and cabins. It is not a large resort, nor is it ever particularly crowded around here. On a busy day a dozen vehicles may go past my house. And since I have always been fond of burgers and potato salad, I do not mind the party atmosphere so much, despite my fondness for solitude.
A resort on a lake seems like just the right place for such an event, but I am reminded of a party on the Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago. My daughter Leah and I were hiking north across the Washington section and had nearly reached the halfway point on our journey north of Chinook Pass. This part of the trail has been heavily clear cut, so the landscape bears the scars of past logging exploits. Elsewhere the forest has burned, so there were long treks without shade from the hot sun. In that year of drought water was becoming increasingly difficult to find. We became adept at filtering it from places I would never have considered safe, small stagnant pools with tadpoles swimming in them. We poured the water through a bandana to filter out as much of the slimy muck as possible before using our water filter. We rarely saw wildflowers, usually profuse in the meadows in early August. Huckleberries had ripened early and dried on the bushes.
At the end of one particularly long and hot day we arrived at Camp Urich, where a small cabin is located near a logging road. The cabin is used by snowmobilers in the winter time and hikers during the summer months. Our PCT app told us there was a toilet and garbage can at the camp. The outhouse was appallingly filthy, and the garbage can, if it existed, was buried under a mound of trash nearly as odorous as the outhouse. We set up our tent in the meadow as far away from the noxious cabin as we could get.
We had barely turned off our flashlights and settled into our sleeping bags for the night when the loud arrival of a four-wheeler interrupted our silence. One after another they came, their occupants leaving their noisy vehicles in the parking lot as they walked by our tent to the cabin. “Look, there’s a tent,” I heard someone say. “They must be PCT’ers.”
This PCT’er had just popped her head out of the tent to watch two young men carrying what appeared to be a keg of beer on a platform that looked like a stretcher. The keg and its bearers headed solemnly down the trail to the cabin. I tried to imagine what it would be like to drink beer amid that stench, and quickly banished the thought from my mind. I found it much more satisfying to focus on my outrage that I was being kept awake by a party on a mountain trail. To the din of the loud engines was added the boom of heavy bass.
Despite the ruckus I drifted off to sleep. It helps to be exhausted when you climb into your sleeping bag at the end of a long day of hiking. In the morning I awoke feeling somewhat abashed. Why had I gotten so upset about a party? Certainly I had enjoyed my share of them in my younger years. We may have been on a mountain trail but had made camp by a road and near a cabin. It was hardly pristine wilderness.
The question angered me as we began hiking that day. I struggled between a vague sense of guilt and outrage. The word fuddy-duddy came to mind, a word I had flung at my parents when they failed to honor my free-spirited nature as a teenager. I did not like that my anti-party stance made me feel old. I was old, of course, but I did not want to feel that way.
The answer came somewhere near Snoqualmie Pass, where we entered a nearly pure stand of western hemlock after a long hike through clear cuts. Such a scene was unusual, as these trees are typically found in a mixed stand of Douglas fir and western red cedar. At this point we had started to hear the roar of trucks on Interstate 90 not far north of us, but when we entered this grove of trees it was as if we had just entered a large cathedral and shut the door behind us, the trees muffling the noise. Overhead the lacy branches formed a filigree canopy that swept gracefully toward the ground, resembling Gothic arches. I looked down at the trail. I do not consider myself to be a religious person, but it occurred to me that this trail was quite literally my spiritual path, a space that had always seemed sacred to me. I had the same feelings about the party as I did when coming upon an unburied pile of poop or litter. These acts desecrate the wilderness. I shed my outrage and ambivalence and in their places I found only deep sadness. I carried it with me for the rest of the trip.
This was perhaps the first time I seriously began to consider whether or not I wanted to continue to hike. What I had sought on the Pacific Crest Trail that summer was a dream I had envisioned when I was in my early twenties. All these years I had nurtured it, only to find that this long and very popular trail had become just one more crowded place in a crowded world.
In the ensuing years I have sought out less crowded trails and found them. When I park my car at a trailhead near my home there are almost never any other vehicles parked there, and I rarely see other hikers on the trail. My husband and I moved to a part of Washington that has one of the lowest population densities in the nation.
Tonight my family and I will grill burgers and eat potato salad and celebrate the holiday weekend with a party. That is as it should be, here at home. In this quiet place there will the laughter of people I love. Happy Fourth of July.