Updated: Jul 26
Just because it's not what you were expecting, doesn't mean it's not everything you need right now. - Paulo Coelho
Monday, 10 July 2023, Mt Rainier NP
5:00 p.m. I've flirted with wilderness several times in the challenge, dipping into it in several parks, or even staying wild for days. But never before have I felt so removed... The Eagle's Roost campsite has seven tent pads - and it looks like I'll be the only guest tonight, unless a late arrival shows up.
The daylight slowly begins to fade, and wisps of clouds thread through the trees. I can barely hear the creek cascading down the hillside a few hundred yards distant, my source of water for the camp. Otherwise, a stillness prevails, a world preparing to shut down. A good time to reflect on the day...
Earlier. Toothless the Cat shared my room last night, sleeping on the windowsill, keeping the neighborhood under surveillance when she wasn't demanding my attention to petting her. I kept rolling over, searching for more shuteye, nervous about starting my day.
I went over the equipment checklist again and again, deciding what to bring and what to leave. My mitten/gloves - better have that in case it gets cool. A book to read - pass due to its weight, catch up writing in the journal instead.
By the time I got on the road, 10:00 had passed. It took 45 minutes to reach the Wilderness Info Center for this part of the park,, to pick up my wilderness permit and a map. As I waited for the ranger to finish his phone call, I looked around the station, reading the wilderness rules, checking the trail status board. Uh, oh - for Spray Park it said, "Spots of snow up to 5800' elevation, solid snow cover higher."
Great. My route would take me through Spray Park up to 6200'. When I asked the ranger about it, though, he said, "That probably hasn't been updated. You should be fine."
My confidence level dropped a notch.
I backtracked from the ranger station to catch the road that dead ends at Mowich Lake. The sign said 16 miles to the lake, but when the road turned to gravel in two miles, my speed dropped to accommodate the washboards. Five miles from the lake, I crossed into National Park land, and the road surface improved enough that my speed to crept up to 30 mph.
Noon. Forty cars in the parking lot attested to Lake Mowich's popularity. Colorful tents dotted the grounds of the walk-in campground. Through the trees, I could glimpse the lake.
With sandwich in hand, I wandered over to check it out.
The waters of the tarn glistened as the first sunlight of the day broke through the
overcast. A spot of blue appeared, and a low cloud slithered past a peak overlooking the lake. Beautiful white flowers on long stems graced the woods.
By the time I returned to the car, the blue sky had gone for the day. leaving temps in the upper 50s. One more chance for last-minute organizing! With no other reason to delay, I put the pack on my shoulders, buckled the belt and chest strap, tightened the straps to position it, then found someone to snap my photo.
Time to test myself!
The first quarter-mile of the trail - the Wonderland Trail! - dropped into the trees. Despite my weeks of conscientious training, my left leg began howling in anger almost immediately. Well, that certainly didn't take long! Another blow to my confidence.
After that short stretch, the trail to Spray Park branched left. It continued trending downhill, but intermittent uphills regained most of the elevation.
The clouds permeating the forest weren't as thick as the ones at Cascade Pass two days ago, no delicate tendrils of white decorating the trees. Clouds or no clouds, few opportunities for scenery presented themselves. I settled for snapping shots of several small cascades running down the hillside.
The larger ones had unadorned bridges crossing them, though half came with no railing to balance with.
I mostly had the trail to myself, leaving me alone with my thoughts. With discomfort dogging almost every step, I wondered what I'd dealt myself into. Was the pack unbalanced? Or had I simply asked too much of myself?
My legs had a mind of their own, with no qualms against expressing it. If the going's this tough on a mostly level path, how do you expect us to climb and drop 1300-1500' each of the next two days! Let's just make it to camp, I countered, maybe the muscles will loosen up in the next hour. We vote to cut our losses, pack out tomorrow and spend Wednesday in a movie theatre watching Mission: Impossible. I've hardly gotten started, I pleaded. Let's give it an honest chance.
Was I simply stuck on proving a point? And what point would that be?
Over an hour into the hike, I reached the Eagle's Cliff overlook. Despite my doubts, I walked down the 100' spur and saw - white. A blank slate of featureless clouds, nothing else.
Ten minutes later - after passing all of seven people on my walk - I reached my campground turnoff. A hundred yards down the spur brought me to the camp. I dropped my pack on the first tent pad and heaved a sigh of relief. Made it. But what will I do about tomorrow?
After catching my breath - and stretching my now unencumbered legs - I decided to explore the campground, see if another tent pad might have more to offer. With my mind still mulling over possibilities, I wandered from pad to pad, seeing all seven established sites. Looks like the campground is empty. Oh, wait, there's a person by the open-air restroom. It's a ranger!
She checked my permit, then we chatted. She mentioned that the clouds have been irregular the last couple of days. Today, for instance, it was sunny at Spray Park a mile away. She also reminded me to store my food on the bear pole. "People have spotted a juvenile bear in this vicinity."
Making a snap decision, I had her call the ranger station to change my reservation for tomorrow night from Cataract Valley to Eagle's Roost. Why bother killing myself for another two days, instead of acknowledging that I'd tested my limits? Thank heavens the bridge had washed out, or I'd have been stuck with my original plan and no reasonable alternatives.
My mood buoyed immediately. Now I could fill tomorrow with a hike to Spray Park and Spray Falls with no backpack hindering me, then have an 'easy', two-mile pack out on Wednesday. I can do that! My legs quickly endorsed the new plan.
The ranger went on her way, and I set up the new-fangled tent.
(Considering that my last tent came from the Litterwalk 30 years ago, any other tent would be new-fangled.) While assembling it, another hiker wandered into camp, but she wasn't staying, just scouting it for a future trip.
The nice REI rental clerk had thrown in, free of charge, a combination stuff sack/handpump. It had a one-way valve on the end that screwed into the intake of the sleeping pad. He'd showed me how to pull out the liner, let it fill naturally with air, then fold over the end and roll it up to force the air into the sleeping pad. Engineers are amazing!
Next up: a 400-yard stroll up and down to the nearest stream for fresh water.
Boil that (to kill giardia, etc.) and pour the hot water into the freeze-dried packet. On tonight's menu, Spicy African Peanut Stew with Sweet Potatoes.
Now the evening is settling in, and I still have no neighbors. For a while it looked like the sky was getting lighter, but now mists settle into the trees.
I've put my food (and anything with an aroma) in the stuff sack and hung it from the bear pole. Life reduced to basics. I have my glove/mittens on, but I can feel the cooling temps on my ears. A makeshift solution: wear my spare t-shirt over my head as a faux hat.
Irony rules, I mused. Based on 2022 statistics, for every visitor to North Cascades NP, Mt Rainier NP gets 96. But I constantly saw other people on the Cascades Pass hike, while here no other human soul was within two miles of me.
Dusk. But now comes the Dark Side of Solitude, being alone in a true wilderness. You can't turn on a TV to chase the shadows away. You can't check Facebook to see how your friends are doing. You can't text a sibling to say "Hi." No one to talk to. Unless you can set out a task - I could assemble my list of Top Ten National Park hikes! - it's just you going mano-a-mano with your thoughts or your inner demons.
This 'solitary confinement' rarely if ever occurs in today's world. Most people would do anything to avoid it. Maybe tomorrow I'll drop by the car to get that book I left behind...