Of course we were just far enough away from camp that turning around wasn’t an option when I remembered that I was planning on putting new batteries in my headlamp. The pool of light it was casting was quite dim but luckily I walk in front so I was getting the benefit of Kyle’s headlamp as well. As long as he wasn’t swinging it off into the woods looking for who knows what. All this night hiking has taught me that I spend a lot of time looking at the trail and Kyle spends a lot of time looking everywhere else. And I am still the one who trips more.
Regardless of my dim headlamp I was super grateful for the trail that morning. After crossing the White River the trail is pleasantly mellow and ever so slightly downhill for a couple of miles before starting a gradual (for the Wonderland Trail) climb up to Summerland. I was sore and tired from my shennanigans with the sleeping pad the night before but as we struck out on the pine needle duff I set an intention for the day: to not care how fast we were moving. We would get there when we got there.
We loped along the Wonderland, quiet again because, you guessed it, Kyle was nauseous. Although, less nauseous than previous days – he refused to eat breakfast that morning and not having to start out with an immediate climb seemed to help. Too quickly we were passing a couple of signs that signaled the start of the climb up to Summerland. The trail rose in long, wide, gradual check steps and we were able to walk side by side for much of the climb. Eventually the trees started to shrink and we saw the top of the mountain, bright white under an almost full moon. Then we crossed a creek and started up some switchbacks as the sun rose above us. By the time we made it to Summerland-proper the mountain was bathed in a golden, orange light.
We stopped briefly at Summerland so Kyle could take his requisite early morning poo and then we continued up towards Panhandle Gap, Kyle describing in detail to me how the new privy worked to separate your poop and your pee. Thanks Kyle. We made it up to the glacial lakes right below Panhandle Gap around our three hour mark and decided to stop there for a break. It is one of the most stunning spots on trail and we had it all to ourselves. The lake we were sitting next to was still in the shade and it was so clear it was almost invisible. A gentle breeze reminded us of the sweaty spots on our bodies as we snacked and treated our water. Neither of us wanted to leave.
Next up, Panhandle Gap – the highest point on the trail. Kyle was a little ahead of me on the trail as he traversed out into the openness of the gap and I saw his jaw drop as he stared at the views on the other side. I sped up next to him and let the vastness wash over me. To the south Pahto and Wy’east rose out of a thick immersion of clouds. Loowit was hiding off to the west but when you made a full turn your found Takhoma, radiant in the morning light. We stood there spinning in circles taking in all the incredible mountains all around us.
When we were finally able to push on from that moment we entered Ohanapecosh, a high alpine meadow that the trail meanders through before dropping down to Indian Bar. The wildflowers were out in full force, particularly thick around trickles of water. Ohanapecosh feels like a moonscape in many way but parts of it felt like a wild botanical garden, butterflies swooping over the path and marmots dashing down their holes as you approached. Kyle and I discussed plans to come back up here on an overnight and camp cross country in this beautiful place. It’s hard to avoid planning the next adventure before the current one is over.
The descent down to Indian Bar was miserable. It is almost all steep check steps and our knees were killing us. I had a new pain in my left knee and not one that felt sore or muscular – it felt like it was stabbing me, sharp and pointed. It felt like my knee needed to pop. We grunted our way to the bottom and I felt kind of thankful for the climb right after Indian Bar, even if it is steep. We stopped part way up so I could gobble down a snickers bar – it is hard to eat when you are panting uncontrollably but at this point I knew the feeling of loosing steam.
The hike along the Cowlitz divide is gorgeous, even if it does tend to climb steeply only to descend steeply on the other side. There was so much lupine in the drainages that it almost looked like rivers of purple, replacing the water that would have been flowing there earlier in the year. It was also early enough that we were still feeling thankful for the sunshine being out. Until we discovered that we weren’t going to be able to get water at our next break… or for the next four miles. We were kicking ourselves. Why hadn’t we checked when the next water source would be at our last water source? Today was not the day to get dehydrated! Kyle ran out of water shortly after our next break but luckily I had been drinking conservatively enough that I was able to tide us over until the next water source.
At our next water source we loaded up on water and Vitamin I. We had already started the uphill that we would be walking for the next six miles. We were not stoked about it. True – uphill hurt our legs, feet and knees a lot less but it was hot out (suddenly we were thankful for the cloud cover of the last two days) and we were tired. After our water was treated we continued uphill for what felt like an eternity.
Maybe it was the heat or all the up but constant calorie loading was hard this day. I felt nauseous the whole climb. As you climb up one side of Stevens Canyon the road parallels you on the other side and cars wiz along – putting your two mile-an-hour pace to shame. I wanted to cry. We crossed the road near the top and I thought we were going to be done soon but the climb just went on and on. The last time we did this climb Molly and I had been retelling The Pirates of the Caribbean in vivid detail. All I remember was being shocked when we were suddenly at the top. Some part of me had kind of thought that the climb was just like that now – it went by fast. But I was wrong, it did not go by fast.
After what felt like an eternity of turning corners to see more steps ahead of us we finally found ourselves walking on the pavement around Reflection Lake. Us and five million other people who had come out that Sunday. But considering how few people we had seen on the Wonderland thus far I have no room to gripe. We settled down by the trail for a break and watched a woman flatted wildflowers by laying down on them to get a photo of other wildflowers. Without my shoes on I was too weak to get up and redirect her, plus I didn’t have the emotional or mental strength to deal with her if she argued. So we just sighed and ate our sad, dejected snacks and thought about how much our feet were going to hurt when we stood up.
And then we went down. The final descent. For what felt like as long as we had gone up. It never ended. It was steeper than it needed to be but also longer than it needed to be. We thought we were within a mile so we checked our app but we still had 2.3 miles left to go. It was so painful. The last mile and a half to Longmire is dotted with signs telling you you’ve gone .1 miles since the last sign. It’s torture so I didn’t look at them, focusing straight ahead and groaning with every step. Incredible the way just moving can make you body hurt that bad. Moving by choice. Somehow both Kyle and I managed to maintain neutral moods (I can’t say we were positive but we didn’t go to a dark place either) and when we finally drug ourselves into the Longmire parking lot it was limping and elated. I was more happy to be done walking than anything else but I was also proud of us.
And just like that this hike was over. It is wild how the start and the end happen in a flash. It really is all about the journey. Since we have been back a lot of people have asked us if we had fun. And honestly I’m not sure if we had fun. Sure, there were some funny moments. But overall the experience couldn’t have been called fun. For me this is a stark example of how we don’t often choose to do things because they will be fun. We choose to do them because they will be brutal and beautiful. And maybe fun isn’t everything it is cracked up to be. Maybe it is easy and comfortable and nice but does it really bring us the joy that can grow out of hard things? I think not.