Great things happen when women and mountains meet.William Blake
In 2012 when I retired, my husband and I moved to Marrowstone Island, which is located just off the mainland of the Olympic Peninsula, connected by a bridge. Our home provided a view of Admiralty Inlet, Whidbey Island across the sound, and the Cascade Mountains, where Mt. Baker loomed large on the horizon.
I cannot say that this was an easy time in my life. For forty years I had built a successful career, raised two children, and placed other pursuits on hold for lack of time. Now I had that thing I had always longed for. . . time. . . and I was not quite sure what to do with it.
This came as a surprise to me. Over the years I had entertained dreams of long distance thru hikes and other pursuits which would only be possible when I had more of that precious resource. What I lacked and longed for was a sense of purpose, some reason to get out of that chair where I sat every morning, gazing at the view of mountains and water.
The mountains eventually created that sense of purpose I had been longing for and drew me out of my funk. One morning as I sat there I thought about the thru hike of the PCT I had attempted many years earlier before I had a career and family, and the entire summer was free to spend on a mountain trail. The hike was abandoned on the south slope of Mt. Adams when we ran into four feet of snow in mid-July. That year, 1971, received record high snowfall, a record that has yet to be surpassed. I would be graduating from college the following spring and getting married, which somehow seemed incompatible with long distance hiking, though I do not know why. It seemed like it was my last chance to hike the PCT across Washington. I was certain it would never come again.
It did though, forty-two years later. As I sat in my chair that morning I lamented that I was now too old for such a journey. I got up and went to a large mirror on the wall, as if in gazing at my reflection I would get an accurate assessment of what it meant to be old. I smiled at the image, and there it was, all of those teeth right there in my mouth where they belonged, and they were smiling back at me. Yes, there were wrinkles and gray hair and age spots on my arms and hands but nothing at all to suggest that I could not carry a pack for five hundred miles across my home state of Washington. And for a change time was on my side. I had a year to train and prepare for the hike. My sense of purpose was back, and I felt alive again.
When I shared the idea with my daughter Leah, I was delighted when she said she wanted to join me. As a teacher, she had summers free. The trip was delayed by another year because she had a conflict, and I began working with a trainer, buying new equipment, and preparing for my new purpose in life.
Here I would like to say that all went well, that after forty-four years I achieved my dream and lived happily ever after, old and sassy, but from the first day I felt overwhelmed by the crowds. I should not have been surprised. This was the summer of 2015, after the movie Wild had come out about Cheryl Strayed’s life changing journey. I was hiking with crowds of thru hikers, all of them seeking that same experience on the PCT, caught up in the thru hiking culture, chatting happily about FKT’s, base weight, and the next trail town where they would share a pitcher of beer.
I like drinking beer with friends as much as anyone does, but it somehow seemed incompatible with that sense of purpose I was seeking. I go into the mountains to be fully present in a beautiful place, to savor the quiet time in camp with a cup of tea, to escape the crowded life that surrounds me at home. The PCT seemed like just one more crowded place in a crowded world.
Leah and I often talk about that trip and share memories of our favorite days. For her it was an afternoon in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, where we stopped early for the day because we had come to one of those beautiful lakes and wanted to spend the night there. We were early enough that the crowds of hikers had not yet arrived, and we made camp near the lake shore. For a couple of hours we savored the quiet and sat by the lake, grateful for the rest.
My favorite day was quite different. That day we had also made camp early.
This time we were on the slopes of Mt. Adams and had set the tent up for shelter just as the rain started. We spent an extra day there, waiting out the rain, and most of that time was spent in the tent, talking, reading aloud to one another. Leah was in her early forties by then. She was a mother of two adolescent boys, a teacher, a coach. As anyone who has waited out a rainstorm knows, there is little to do inside the small space of a tent, but I had my daughter with me, and we had stories to tell that filled that space.
As an old woman I feel that I am entitled to reminisce about the way things used to be when the trails were less crowded. It is a self-indulgent pastime however and always leaves me feeling a little sad. There are simply more people in the world, and more of them want to be out there on the mountain trails. I know that feeling, the way a long trail calls to me, and this spunky old lady still wants to go there. At this stage in my life the call is a little different. It says to me, “Come to the trail. Bring your daughters.”