DAY 3 – OUT OF THE WOODS
I slept like the dead and woke up refreshed, excited and desperate to pee. Stumbling into my boots, my legs screamed their displeasure. Today would be the day I would set my new personal record for most miles covered in a single trip AND the most miles covered in a single day. But that meant I had a long, full day ahead of me. But for now, all I could think about was emptying my bladder.
J started the day as my favorite. He might have sensed I was a touch antsy about the epic day ahead of me, because he had a glorious surprise – COFFEE! We enjoyed the magical brew straight from the cooking pot before bidding our delightful campsite a final farewell. Clint did us a solid by building his cabin there, and I waved sadly, knowing I’ll never be back.
Unlike Day 2, today’s trail began gently, continuing down the valley bottom with a very gradual climb. Gradual as in unnoticeable - my favorite! And unlike almost every other hike ever, the thoughtful, tranquil, Strong and Silent Justin of the Trail was….replaced. In his place was Over-Caffeinated Chatty Cathy, revved to the max and bursting to share every thought that meandered through his brain. I can’t remember saying more than three words the first hour and half, not counting my affirmative grunts just to let him know I was still behind him. I had to giggle a bit at the role reversal – so this is what it’s like to hike with me! Then I tuned him out and let my mind step aside so my imagination could take over, and soon I was busy crafting characters and stories to go along with the beautiful forest around me.
Finally, the trail took a noticeable turn up. If legs could talk, mine would have sounded like whiny toddlers needing a nap. We had already encountered quite a few downed trees we had to climb over, and the increased amount of effort was already being felt. The day was also quickly warming up…I had to slap myself around a bit to get it together! Today was the day to show this Mother Nature lady what I was made of, and this was no way to start! So in full determination mode, up and up we went, and over log after log after log. The ones that lay about thigh-high were the worst. We trudged on and on. Finally, just when I thought I would have to throw my pride over the mountainside and beg for a break, J stopped and dropped his pack. Knowing better than to assume he was tired, I awaited instructions.
“Grab the filter and bottles and leave your pack here. We’ll take a quick detour over to the lake to fill up on water.” Ah, yes, the lake! I dropped my pack like a sack of potatoes (almost going with it) and turned off the trail after my fearless leader. We threaded our way through the open trees, still going up of course, and finally the lake appeared – quite suddenly, out of nowhere, in an unusual place for a lake on the side of the mountain. But there it was. J gave me his bottles and headed off to do his work stuff while I kicked off my boots and plunged my filthy feet into the shallow water. Finally settled, I filled all four water bottles and drank as much as I could. This would be the last water we would have for the next 10 miles or so. Time to activate Camel Mode.
J returned just as I was getting my boots back on and we left this quiet little oasis (adequately named Lake of the Woods) to go back to our packs. Despite feeling rejuvenated from the rest and the water, it didn’t take long for me to be once again pretending like I was NOT sweating like a whore in church. The trail was getting steeper and the trees thinner as we gained major altitude towards Pistol Pass. Pistol Peaks could now be seen laughing down at us, daring us to come join their party. J had transitioned once more, this time from a chattering chimp to cheerleading coach, prepping me for our Nationals competition, also know as our descending traverse across the slope under Pistol Peaks.
His rah-rah-you’re-a-rockstar pep talk was understandable after yesterday’s freak-out…and much appreciated. We spent that last mile or so to the pass mentally pumping me up for the challenge ahead. I quickly caught J’s enthusiasm and confidence and convinced myself that I am a total bad-ass and that no silly little slope is going to get me down. Bring it, Mother Nature! You just TRY to throw a mean mountain slope in my way! I set my mind against the task before me, even though I wasn’t face-to-face with it just yet. I knew there was no other option – I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t go around, I couldn’t call Daddy to come get me – this was all me. We were days into the wilderness with no other choice…and didn’t really even know what lay ahead, just that it would be bad. This unforgiving beast of a mountain was NOT GOING TO BEAT ME.
And this was my chance to show J that I could hang, that I could go out and hold my own in his turf. So there.
I happily collapsed on top of Pistol Pass and forgot this mountain would buck me off its slopes without thinking twice – I could see forEVER. Way off in the distance, we could see the valley where Mazama lived. A couple peaks on the horizon where ones I recognized from previous adventures last summer. Tons more stood proudly before me, vying for attention in the crowd. Way off that way? That’s Canada.
I basked in the glorious setting while devouring my lunch. Now that we were sitting, my legs started complaining again, but I could pacify them with promises of no more climbing. This was the high point of the day – everything else would be downhill! Had I known just what kind of downhill we would soon face, I would have gladly climbed up every mountain in the Pasayten if it meant I could avoid today’s descent.
But I didn’t know what was to come. I just knew there was challenging trail to get from the pass to the ridge line, and I was mentally revved to fight back. I buckled my straps, pulled ‘em tight, and set my game face. Here we go!
We were still high (I’m talking altitude, people) which meant about half of the Pasayten stood witness to my struggles. I did well, I’m proud to announce, and there were no more freak-outs. I headed down the trail, traversing right under Pistol Peaks, watching my steps but doing fine. The drop-off to my right was not entirely exposed, since trees dotted the slope.
Then J stopped. He turned around, looked at me a moment, “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” Confused, pride wounded, I waited impatiently as he continued down the trail. Why the hell did he leave me behind?! I saw him kick at the trail here and there, move a few rocks, and cross the vertical gorge the trail went through. Then I saw him stop where the trail widened a bit and take off his pack. I thought he might motion me to take my turn, or maybe just sit and take a little break, but no. No, this confusing man set his pack against a rock and started back across towards me.
Upon reaching me, J helped hold me steady and took my pack from my back and transferred it to his. He gave me a reassuring smile and an enthusiastic “You got this!” and returned once more to cover the section of trail he had just covered. Twice. I followed, and didn’t have long before my brain realized what he was doing. He had cleared the trail, kicked in foot-holes at the really bad spots, and then took my pack so I would have as much of my normal balance and center of gravity as possible. And I made it across that sketch-ball, super scary, ridiculous piece of trail with my body and mind both intact. What a gem.
After that, I was superwoman – nothing could get in my way! Granted, we didn’t encounter any more trail that bad, but there were a few more iffy spots. We made it to the ridge and stopped under a tree for a snack break. Not too much further – just across this ridge and down the menacing slope to Eureka Creek. Once we made it there, all we had left was three flat miles to the awaiting truck. Piece of cake.
Fat chance. At the end of the ridge, we began losing the trail. The forest here had burned something like 25 years ago…meaning the trees that once stood here, tall and proud, now lay scattered around the ground, some tumbled on top of others, many charred and black, and plenty across the trail. We tried to follow the trail where we could, climbing over downed logs, sometimes hopping from tree to tree, but other times it was easier to go around. The terrain here threw in the extra element of danger, as this was cliff country, and walking too far from where the trail had been constructed could result in impromptu cliff diving…with no water at the bottom. Not cool.
Very quickly, I became irately pissed off. Pissed off at the stupid trees in my way. Pissed off at the insanely steep grade of the slope. Pissed off at my knees for aching with every step. And super pissed off at the tweaked muscle in my butt-cheek from the motion of lifting my leg like a peeing dog forty-gazillion times to step up and over yet another damn log. Oh, boy was I pissed. Unfortunately, this did not end any time soon. We made it to the top of one knob, only to realize there was another beneath us. As we descended farther below the tree line, there were just more trees. I was hot, sweaty, grimy and PISSED.
Believe it or not, the terrain worsened. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had been on legit trail and I was doing more downhill dirt-surfing than I was one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walking. This caused more dirt, which then proceeded to coat my sweaty body and stick to every inch of me. Pretty sure I could have blown black boogers, had I chose to do so. At long last, we reached the top of the second knoll.
The end was (sort of) in sight. At the bottom of this last nasty beast of a hill, I could finally relax. I was SO CLOSE! We picked our way slowly down and found more and more trail. Not that it was much better – I was basically stumbling through awful, loose rock and STILL had logs to crawl over. My attitude had also changed. No longer was I steaming mad (well, ok, yes I was) – now I was venting. First, I unleashed a tirade of smack-talk. I called that mountain every terrible name I could think of. I railed against stupid Mother Nature and her stupid fire and her stupid wear and tear of the trail. Then I turned on the “trail” and tore it a new one, using words my momma would slap me for, words that would make a sailor blush.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re my momma), this wore me out pretty fast. Time to switch tactics again. I started dangling the proverbial carrot in front of my own face. “If we just get to the bottom of this hellish mountain built by Satan himself, I get to walk on flat ground. If I just make it those last 3 miles, I get to take these awful boots off and put on my sparkly flip-flops. Once in the truck, we’re driving straight to Jack’s and getting the biggest cheeseburger they have and as much Dr Pepper as I can drink!!” Justin thought this was funny, until I became so focused on the cheeseburger part that I asked if he could produce a cheeseburger costume out of thin air to put on. If I had a real cheeseburger to follow instead of just the visualization in my head (amazing as that one was), I might be able to pick up the pace.
It was getting hard to put one foot in front of the other, and this caused me to stumble more often. My legs were in agony, my feet were obliterated, my mind was shutting down. I slowly slipped into a blank silence as I solely concentrated on keeping my legs moving. I was sure we didn’t have far to go, but my battered brain finally registered a new fact: the sun was sitting on the ridge next to us. It would dip below at any minute, then it would disappear completely. There was no way to avoid hiking in the dark at this point. Oh boy.
J kept asking if I wanted to stop for a quick break. I refused every time. I really just wanted to get to that creek, to cross to the flat ground, to get to the truck and my sparkly flip-flops and a juicy cheeseburger. My legs had reached a state of numbness and were lifting for each step as if they were programmed machines, not attached to my body at all. My feet were a different matter. We were still hiking through the nasty rock slides, and the first round of blisters had popped long ago. New blisters had formed under and around the old ones, and every single rock I stepped on jabbed at one sore spot or another.
The sun went down and I thought I might have to just lay down on the trail and die when I heard the most blessed sound to ever reach my ears – gurgling water! The creek! I wanted to weep with joy. I hobbled a little faster and came around the last curve where I could see the trail disappear at the creek crossing. I made it! I was there! I had almost made it to the end! We took our boots and socks off and rolled up our pants to wade the creek, since the bridge had been washed out many moons before. J made it first and helped me up the bank. I would have laughed out loud, if I had possessed the energy – there was a finish line waiting for me! Ok, so it was actually just tape to indicate that the trail ended here (when coming from the other direction) but I still felt like it was there for me, and that I should celebrate. A primeval yell tore from by parched throat as I attempted to charge up the hill.
My quasi-celebration was short lived, partly because I collapsed and partly because this was not the end. Yay! I did it! I survived! Oh, wait, nope – 3 more miles to go, in the pitch dark, with a body that can barely hold itself upright. With a heavy sigh, I turned around and let J dig in my pack for my headlamp. Lights on, break over, we began the very last bit of our epic 3-day journey.
After the numbingly cold water of the creek crossing, my feet now had more feeling than before – and it was not good feeling. Needles stabbing into me would be a better description of the pain. And due to the state my body was in, every movement took effort, every step was a full-body event. I knew I was going too slow, but I had already hit the wall, I had already surpassed my breaking point. Our bodies have limits – we all have physical limits – but I wasn’t finished yet. I couldn’t quit yet. I had come so far, accomplished so much, but I was not done!
I finally broke. The trail seems flat on a normal day, but this was not a normal day, and every slight slope was excrutiating. Every rock threatened to be the last I could handle. And finally, it was more than my body could handle. Tears started to fall, mostly out of exhaustion and frustration, a little from pain. Thankfully, I possess a stubborn streak a mile wide, and I discovered that night in the woods that my mind is much stronger than my pathetic body. My mind lifted my leg and placed my foot. Then it did it again. Over and over, my mind forced my body to continue, despite the protests from my whine-bag physical self. I know J was worried, and he asked over and over if we should stop, if we should just take a quick break. And my mind shouted over the roar of my distressed body to tell J “no” every single time. It knew that if I were to stop, even for a minute, I wouldn’t be able to start again. And I was so. damn. close.
Those were the longest 3 miles of my life as I literally limped out of the forest. But I made it. I made it all the way to the truck. I didn’t even give up my pack, but carried it all the way to the end. I probably would have wept like an infant at the sight of that beautiful, majestic vehicle, but I was already crying and couldn’t tell. Leaning against the tail gate, finally relinquishing my pack, I realized that I had run out of tears, run out of thoughts, and run out of strength. Once my mind realized that it had got me here and could finally let my body rest, I went limp like a wet noodle. J helped me into the truck and out of my boots, but the excitement of my sparkly flip-flops was gone. Saddest of all was the time – it was now 10pm, those last 3 miles taking me somewhere near 2.5 hours. All the burger joints were now closed and the prize that had kept me going for so long was now unattainable…
I sat in a daze all the way to the ranger station. I somehow limped to the car and stared into nothing all the way home. J was lecturing me on how I shouldn’t have pushed myself that hard, I should have stopped, we could have set up camp if it was that bad. Then he brought up something I was oblivious to at the time – my whimpering. The last mile and half or so, I had started a soft whimpering that escalated when I went up or down hill. I had sounded like the injured animal I was….which could have drawn predators. It’s very possible we could have had company out there – a cat, maybe more than one. We could have been in more danger than we knew.
I couldn’t process anything he was saying that night. I managed to get into the house and even stood just long enough to shower off the trail grime. I slept fitfully and had crazy dreams all night…
And there you have it. Despite the best efforts of both Justin and that whore Mother Nature, I survived. And you know what? I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I can’t wait to get back out there. Ok, no, I don’t want to do that exact route again, but it was amazing to spend that kind of time out in the wilderness like that. To know that your day is about hiking, covering ground from here until you get as far as you can. I loved that.
I taught myself a lot on this trip, too. I proved to myself that I can do anything I put my mind to, even if that means pushing myself to extremes I never dreamed of. And I can push my body beyond anything I thought myself capable of. What a wonderful feeling that is! Day 3 was 16 total miles, 8 of those being from Pistol Pass down to Eureka Creek. I hiked 16 miles in one day! Over terrible, awful, hellish terrain! I was so proud of myself. So proud! My mom can’t believe I thought that was fun, that I did that on purpose – and want to do more long trips like that. But it’s something I can’t explain, that feeling, the endorphines, that high I get from the physical accomplishment – everyone has their thing that gives them that rush, that giddiness, and this did that for me.
And! on a side note, my first ever 3-part post! That counts for something, right? Or just means I’m way too long-winded. The latter? Well, that’s alright. It took me forever to be able to process all this and get it down in words, but we have it – my tale of the weekend J tried to kill me, and how he DIDN’T succeed!
Day 3 stats:
16 miles total (5 from Clint’s Cabin to Pistol Pass, 8 from Pistol Pass to Eureka creek, 3 from Eureka Creek to the trailhead)
Elevation gained: 3000 ft;
Elevation lost: 5000 ft;
Body parts left on the trail: none that I know of!