Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hike to Mysterious

I found this piece while cleaning out my nightstand. I wrote it in November 2002 for a class on nature writing. Hope you enjoy it.

I have often told my family not to bury me when I die, but instead to sprinkle my ashes in the place which calls to me in the stillness and quietness of my spirit. Instead of a manicured lawn covered in precisely placed headstones, I want to be remembered in the place which in its serene wildness speaks of who I am and who I want to be. It is the place I think of when I remember my dad before age and illness stole his strength and vitality. It is, of all places I love, the place I consider my true home, my church, my cathedral, where choirs of trees sing to the music of the water and the birds harmonize an anthem of praise to their creator. The memory of it calms me when I need it most.

Our first attempt to get to Mysterious Lake had us gasping for air above timberline, with no lake in sight—Mysterious in name, mysterious in location. Following that attempt, my Dad made other trips and, with my older brother, had found his way in over a punishing seven-and-a-half mile trail. Too long and strenuous for the entire family, Dad sought an alternate route.

As I sit here in the city, I think back…and in the blink of an eye I am back. Back in 1972, eight years old, ready to embark on a trip that could bring success or failure. I can still be eight years old and back on the trail, any time I close my eyes—drying my boots by the fire, looking out over Mysterious Lake, just the way it was the first time we hiked in. Back, before others discovered our trail, before dirt bikes and ATV tires tore up the trails and churned up the creek beds—when it was as innocent and untamed as I was.

That first successful trip begins after a journey over the Continental Divide, past the large expanse of Taylor Reservoir, past the beaver dams where we’ve camped and fished for years, and up rough logging roads, where our small Toyota stations wagon scrapes and groans over rocks and downed trees. At the end of the logging road, we leave the car behind, tugging on our outerwear and check for the last time to see if we have the essentials for a trip in the backcountry.

After an uphill hike of nearly an hour, we reach an unmarked road. (On our return trip we will trace this road back down and find that we could have entirely eliminated the first hour of the hike.) We follow the road up to the end and stand in our heavy clunky boots, overweight packs on our backs, staring up an impossibly steep hillside. We are following Dad with his axe, ready to blaze the trail, topographical map in hand.

Moments later, I am scrambling up the hill, tiny rocks skittering down, kicked loose by my boots, still damp from crossing the creek. I can smell the pines and hear the heavy breathing of my family, the path too steep and too hard for talking. I can’t quit, I tell myself, though with each step I want to stop and wait for their eventual return.

At the top I half sit, half lean against a boulder, not taking my pack off for fear I won’t be able to lift it back onto my screaming shoulders. There are faint sounds of camp robbers (gray jays) and robins calling each other and rustling sounds of chipmunks in the underbrush.
The sun is warm through the pines as a cool breeze dries the sweat on my face and neck. The rest is all too brief. “Let’s go.” Dad is ready, so we rise to follow him.

There are six of us on the trail, but up here, with the sound of my heart pounding in my ears and the sound of my own labored breathing, I feel alone, but not lonely. My boots are heavy, and their sure footing gives me a feeling of confidence and strength as I follow Dad down the hill.
Thwack. The echo of metal striking wood is followed by the sound of flesh being torn from a tree ahead. As I pass, I admire the fresh blazes, the sap beading and glistening in the fresh wooden wound.

At the bottom of this hill we must cross another stream and then across the mire of the marsh, the muck clinging to my boots when I step off the high ground. I slap at the multitudes of mosquitoes rising from the vegetation to feast on my blood, drawn by my exhaled breath. The grasses are lush, the leaves wide and green, making a lovely swishing sound as I pass.
At the far end we stop before taking on the second steep hill, and I try to knock the mud off my boots, drinking water from my canteen (We didn’t worry about giardia in those days.) It tastes so good, so refreshing when I’m in the high country. No chlorine. No impurities. Liquid silver poured by heaven’s hand.

At the end of the short but rough trail, we come out of the pines into a wide meadow, at the top end of a small lake. We have arrived.

I am as yet unaware of spectacular places like Niagara Falls or the Mediterranean, so the dark waters reflecting the pale blue sky and wispy clouds overhead strike me as the beauty of a daisy—hardy, cheerful and pure. The waters are as clean as the first snow, as cool as the first winter chill, as refreshing as the first drought-ending rain. The lake seems to hide great mysteries in the depths. To the south, above a broadening meadow, treeless peaks fill the vista, snow clinging to the ramparts. We won this view by virtue of our sweat and blisters, by the climb that leaves us sitting, thighs trembling from the unaccustomed exertion, shoulders aching from carrying all our gear over one and a half of the most grueling miles I will ever encounter. I feel triumphant, healthy, alive—and tired. My older brother takes his pack off, lays back, closes his eyes and goes to sleep.

I made that same trip many times as I was growing up. I hope to hike that trail ‘til the hair on my head is a white as my father’s and the skin on my face as lined as the map that showed him the way in. I long to follow the still visible blazes into my favorite spot on earth.
No matter how many times I’ve been there, the first time, the effort the newness, and the wonder remain etched in my mind. Each swing of my father’s ax is a tick in the clock marking the days of my childhood, so quickly gone. Each step is imprinted in my muscles and memory by the sheer will to dominate that trail and soaked into my skin by the rewarding delight of swimming in the shivery shallows of Mysterious Lake.

Today, despite the damage left by others, and the occasional discordant roar of a motorbike engine destroying the peace, what’s left is the soaring hawk above, the trout below the dark water, the quick sighting of an elk across the lake. There is a vista without power lines, without roads and without the trappings of a modern civilized life. It is a place where you must be alert to the ever-present danger of nature in all its wildness, and the inattention that can cause catastrophic injuries so far from assistance.

I close my eyes and hear my boots crunching on the trail, smell the sweet pines and decaying undergrowth, feel the sun filtering through the trees, the gentle breeze and the strain on muscle and will. That first trip is the pinnacle, and when I am too old or too feeble to climb that trail again, I will still remember cold water, warm sun, hard boots, and the sweet scent of pines. Life never gets better.

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