By Nelson Alexander
6 and a half days, 93 miles, 22,000 feet of elevation gain: let’s just say the numbers were against us. We were 3 siblings and 1 Beyoncé (Lindsey’s word for Kyle, because she can’t say fiancée), attempting to circumambulate the tallest mountain in Washington state. Actually, I was mostly worried for myself. Lindsey and Kyle were fine; they’d hiked the AT and climbed Rainier for god sakes. And Cameron, well, if you know Cameron you know he can do anything he sets his mind to. Plus, his legs are longer than mine. My month of training, including 5 mile runs, jogging up and down stairs with a full pack, and long hikes with my mom’s ladyfriends had quickly devolved into long afternoons at the climbing gym, punctuated by strolls on the beach with a naturalist program. But I worked harder mentally than physically. I told myself that, no matter how hard I trained, I wasn’t going to be prepared, so what was the point in wasting my afternoons running? Other than slightly better lung capacity and defined calves, running would only make me resent the trip before I even got on the trail. So I cut it out. I barely even planned my food, scavenging trail mix and jerky from my mom, while Cameron had an entire Excel spreadsheet of meals. And my gear, most of it borrowed from Lindsey and Kyle, were the second-hand, bare necessities needed to get by. I wasn’t ready. Preparation isn’t my M-O. In retrospect, I even knew I wasn’t ready, and so I decided that since I would never be (and could never be prepared) I just wasn’t going to think about it. Usually, this would get you into big doo-doo on a long trip, but thankfully I had siblings to help pick up the slack.
My family has taken a lot of trips together: ODIE, the RV, to Yellowstone; Shadowfax, the station wagon, to Glacier and the Tetons; the truck to Southern California; the sailboat to the San Juans; airplanes to Mexico and Hawaii. Each trip had its own flavor (often bestowed by the vehicle) and each trip was the whole family. Mom and Dad were always along, doing the navigation, cooking the meals, delineating the boundaries of arguments—you know—parenting. Never before had the three of us kids taken a multi-day trip on our own. I mean there was that one music festival…but everyone was so stoned and drunk it didn’t really count. The Wonderland Trail was unexplored territory in more ways than one. And what a trip it was.
A lot happened: marmots, goats, poop emergencies, attacks by wasps, bear-prevention sing-alongs, hypothermic scares, stunning sunsets, refreshing alpine lake dips, angelic park rangers, tent condensation, sketchy bridge crossings, quotations from Monty Python, a distinct lack of bears, 16 mile days, pee breaks, switchbacks, comparisons to LotR, farts, fart jokes, fake farts, tent farts, sub-alpine joints, beers at elevation, delicate bear hangs. All this and more, as we kept one big ol’ mountain always off to our left. But really, bigger and better than all the sights—even better than cresting Panhandle Gap and seeing Summerland stretched out before us—was how we related to one another.
Every day on the Wonderland we hiked between 10 and 16 miles, through valleys, over moraines, and along ridges. The days were hard on our bodies and our spirits. Bees, rain, heavy packs; all these could have added up to slow us down, made us bitch and moan, or had us hitchhiking out of Longmire after day 3. But specifically because of who we are as siblings, it didn’t.
There are no two people I respect more than my siblings. I admire my parents, of course, but I really respect my siblings. Of course, as a sibling you rarely say this—there’s always a kind of tug-o-war of feelings between you that makes it hard to express. You want to show them how much you care, but you also don’t want to appear needy, or weak. Because along with respect, there’s a healthy dose of pride mixed into the relationship. You badly want them to respect you back. Of course, a sibling relationship governed only by respect and pride would quickly shift into a sort of mafia. Actually, now that I think about it, I guess that does happen: mafias are family-based…but anyway, humor is key, too. Combine this with a shared history and you find the complex roots of sibling love.
So what does that mean when you’re on the trail, climbing 1800 feet of stairs, a 40 pound pack on your back, and your toes numb with frostnip? It means no complaints. You clamp your mouth shut, breathe through your nose, and crack some joke about how fat Shelob’s been getting lately. Cameron will inevitably spout off a string of lines, including a quip about “stuck pig.” Lindsey might start an argument about how Frodo should’ve just been eaten, right then and there. And Kyle will good- heartedly moan about the reference to a gigantic spider. For a moment everyone’s minds are transported from their feet, and the bonds tying us together get a little tighter. We pull each other along.
I read an article recently on NPR (yes, it’s my internet homepage and, yes, I realize how pathetically white/liberal that is) about the long-term health benefits of having close siblings. The exact figures escape me, but suffice it to say that having siblings as friends is one of the best things you can do for your health and wellness. One line from the article struck me hard enough to lodge in my gray matter: our sibling relationships are the longest-lasting family relationships in our lives. Because you spend childhood with these humans—who share half of your genetics—they have insight into your person that no one else will understand. Siblings are, more than any romantic partner, your better half; depending on how the genes shake out that might literally be the case.
Following Thanksgiving dinner, my Tequila-drunk sister pulled me and my brother into a corner of the garage and we had a brother-sister huddle. Through tears, occasional slurs, and regular group hugs she told us we were the most important thing in her life. Arms slung around our shoulders she poured out her feelings. “You guys…you’re just the greatest, you know? Like actually the best. I mean, mom and dad are awesome too, but it’s different, right? And Kyle, I mean, I love love love Kyle, but that’s different too. You guys are so important to me and my life. So important. I love you guys so SO much, you know? And I guess I just really want you guys to hike the PCT with us. Do you remember the Wonderland? How perfect that was? Well I just think you guys should come and hike with us. Just like a month or something, okay? Or longer, I mean, I just love you guys…” At this point the tears came a little stronger and we brought it in for a group hug.
While Cameron wiped his eyes dry and I tried to hold them both upright, we told her that we would hike with her again. Of course we would. Then we hugged some more. We agreed and hugged because we were all drunk and she was crying. We agreed because we couldn’t imagine a better way to spend time with our sister. And we agreed because hiking the Wonderland Trail was, very truly (and with pun intended), paradise.