Never has my relief been so great as when we stumbled on to the lake shore, fifteen or twenty minutes before dark. Glassy dark green water welcomed us in, a clearing of dirt and rocks perched on the edge of a cliff our new home for the night, a river tumbling down from the lake to our left and trees, towering pines all around us. Beyond our ledge, the heaving sides of mountains disappear into a deep mist, shrouding their still snowy peaks from view. Holy shit I tell Darren as we throw off our packs in an exhausted heap—my body suddenly so light I have the strange sensation that I’m floating—that was some business. Some business, indeed. You may remember that this day has already been full—went to Beckey’s Route, decided to skip it, found our fortune in Mazama, almost lost a fortune in rope, climbed, drove back to camp—and then did a flash round of packing for the last leg of this trip, our backpack into Thornton Lake. Why not? remember, our prevailing mentality that’s stuck with us? It’s late, it’s a five mile hike with three thousand feet of elevation game and we don’t have any of our light backpacking gear—but we do have the permit, so why not? There it is again. I keep waiting for the universe to teach us a lesson, shoot us down, say HERE’S WHY NOT! But so far so good (am I jinxing my luck? Probably).
Anyway we drive up the trailhead—the hike starts at 7,000 feet and we’ve got to get to 10,000 in 2 and half short hours, with full packs. And when I say full packs, I mean kind of embarrassingly full packs—like I have my Queen of Sheba sleeping pad and a cast iron pot for dinner tonight in mine, and Darren has a full size towel. Do the math on this one with me, we’re probably 40 lbs heavier than any sane backpacker would be, but oh well! This catches us up to me at about mile 3—actually, let’s not kid ourselves here, it was heavy from the minute I almost couldn’t get it on in the parking lot.
The trail starts out long and unchanging, a narrow path through dense vegetation on either side of us, branchy shrubs and something that’s changing already for fall, an oaky red color breaking up the green. On one side the mountain rises up, rocky, dark and steep, on the other, it falls away—tumbling somewhere into water, a river singing far below us. After awhile we start seeing signs of the water, water everywhere, crossing a few smaller trickling streams, one that requires a single log bridge that makes us gape—it’s hand-hewn half log anchored on rocks on either side of the water. Here we stop our pretty relentless pace, and get a little giddy, because it’s so beautiful, Hobbit beautiful. This park is proof of a good name choice—the Cascades were named for the waterfalls and the rivers cascading down mountain sides, and this little discovery of ours is a testament to that truth.
Neither of us have been on this hike before but I read a trail description, which is basically the kiss of death for me mentally, because around each turn I think—is the trail heading up? Must be mile two, it said we’d be going straight up at mile two. And then this guessing game goes on the whole five miles, this endless looking for the next landmark. We stop, probably after our first hour of hiking, for a refuel break and as we stand there, pouring sweat (so much, actually, that I briefly consider what kind of disorder I might have that would make me sweat this much, but then I remember—physical exertion is the disorder), a couple comes down the trail—the guy has his camera out because he thinks the noise we’re making is a bear. He tells us he’s really bummed we’re not. I have some questions for this guy, like, for example, why are you sad you didn’t run into the hind end of a bear today, and did you know that people who survive bear attacks say the worst thing is hearing the sound of claws raking across their own skulls? My mouth is full of Clif bar though so I don’t get to hear the answer to these pressing questions, and instead I hear that we’re maybe only a third of the way there and that we’ll know we’re getting close when we see the sign for the boundary line of the National Park and National Forest, which is what we’re in now. The girl says, as she looks at us and our packs, and my sweaty face—good luck.
This doesn’t bother me until much later, when I feel like we’ve been hiking for hours and we’re never going to make it to the sign, or the lake, and probably we will be eaten by a bear. For the moment I’m downright jovial, climbing further and further into what seems like an enchanted forest—towering cedar and pine trees, curving trunks of aspen trees and dinner plate mushrooms that I point out to Darren with a finger and a grunt. TThe hike is hard, and it is long, but luckily we are both bullheaded non-complainers, so we both just keep putting one foot in front of another. After mile three we stop talking and the only sound is us, pursued by the dark and spurred on by spirit, or self-loathing, or stupidity—maybe a mix, whatever it is that makes people go out into the woods and turn themselves inside out to sleep by a lake with no other people around.
The sign finally comes into view, and then so does the valley—and I think, you know what I think, don’t you? I think, this, all this. This is why we climb, and hike, and let ourselves be filled with something that is not human—this is the reason why, the answer to those questions we are often too afraid to ask, and the quiet to all the turmoil. Here we are, you and I, and we got here ourselves, and we will leave here ourselves, but for a moment we’ll be a part of something much greater.
Existentialism is fleeting, however, and the climb continues, further—still further—until we can’t climb anymore, we’ve gone past the trees and the rock and suddenly, far below us, is the dark green glass of Thornton Lake. Hello, home, I think, but we’re not quite there yet, because now we have to descend into that bowl. So down we go, somehow cruel after so much up, I shudder at all this lost ground as we drop closer and closer to the water, but I also revel in it because at last, we’re going to make it, the march is done, and we can take off our packs.
But first we have to scramble over an enormous talus pile and a log jam, which the ranger when we got the permit told me to be careful of, because a lot of people end up mistaking the algae that builds up between the logs as solid ground and they jump in to a glacial lake instead of sand. I don’t let this happen to me, thankfully, and after we’ve made our way over this obstacle—this is when my relief has never been so great. Holy shit indeed, we made it before dark, we made it without getting skull clawed by a bear, we made it without a single question in either of our minds as to whether or not we would turn around and go back. We tear off packs and rest, one second, two seconds, three seconds, and then it’s put up the tent, unroll the mat, spread out the sleeping bags, get dinner, where’s the bear container, let’s do this. I stop and take one picture of Darren, leaning over the tent, a tiny sliver moon outlined between two trees. A second frozen in time, a feeling lingering in a single shot of me, and him, the moon and the trees and the lake, a precious memory I now get to immortalize in words.
And also, coincidentally, the ranger who got us our permit—he stumbles into our camp right as dark comes down, and once he recognizes us, crouched on a log, says—I swear I’m not stalking you. Which is good information to know but not actually something I was that worried about. Darren lifts up one of the beers we brought up. Care to join us? So we make dinner and chat with our new friend, who goes to school in California and studies butterflies, and who had never been to the Pacific Northwest before this summer when he lived and breathed North Cascades National Park like a religion. He says it a couple of times, the full name, like a prayer. So do you like it here, I say, and he nods fervently. I can’t wait to come back.
I think about this as we’re falling asleep to the sound of the river in our little circle of dirt home on a ledge, the moon high and the lake still. I can’t wait to come back, either, because there are a thousand more pockets of reason like this spread everywhere here, and really, everywhere on earth. I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait.