Birds, A Cold Rain, and a Phantom, Cascades
Backpackiong with a good friend in the Cascade Mountains
Igor’s friend said he could drop us off by the side of the Interstate where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses, and then pick us up at Mount Rainier a few days later. Perfect! I flew to Seattle to meet up with Igor and have dinner at the Space Needle, and then we were driven into the Cascades and left by the side of the road.
There was nothing to mark the place where the trail came down from Canada and crossed the road in Snoqualmie Pass. There was just a non-descript worn dirt path that climbed up and to the south on its way to Campo in Southern California, over 2000 miles away.
We walked for a couple of days through the remnants of a forest that had been clear cut, the logging practice that removes every tree regardless of size. The mountains were instead covered by flowers that had taken the place of the trees. Mostly, fire weeds, a plant that grows after a fire has burned through a forest, grew everywhere. It was blisteringly hot without any shade.
One foot forward and then the other. The trail followed the crest of the Cascades, wide, round mountains from which we could see across the valleys both to the east and west. The clouds were sometimes below us, sometimes above, and sometimes we walked through them. The trail was always going up a mountain or down one. It soon became apparent to us that one of us was going up faster than the other and the other was going down much more quickly. As a result, we were seldom hiking together. Made cranky by the stifling heat, this began to annoy us until we realized that it all evened out. We got to the end, wherever that was, at the same time.
Then, the temperature dropped, and it began to rain, and rain. It rained day and night, drenching and chilling us. Hypothermia, a potentially fatal drop in body temperature, set in late one afternoon, and we made hot tea before crawling into our, warm, dry sleeping bags.
It’s one of the things that backpacking does to you, it slows you down and makes you focus on the day-to-day things in life. You notice the rocks under your feet that might twist your ankle or otherwise cause pain. Fire weed is both beautiful and a sign that the forest has been stressed. You can see long distances and notice when the weather is about to change. You pay attention to which pocket of your pack has the matches and which has the bug repellant so that you don’t have to go through every pocket to find them.
Backpacking also makes you pay attention to the needs of the people you are hiking with. You have to rely on each other to carry the things that will keep you alive, your food, clothes, and water among others. You pay attention to your companions’ needs and condition mostly, though, because they may need your help too.
On another trip in the Sierras, Sue and I hiked with friends, and several of us developed altitude sickness, a condition that can be debilitating and even deadly. We had to help each other through it, since there was no one else and no one was going to come for us.
Igor and I had an interesting late afternoon with the bugs of the Cascades. There were no flat places to pitch a tent for several miles, so we picked the most level spot we could find, a rounded rock outcropping overlooking a valley below. Water seeped from fissures just above us and washed over the bare granite creating the perfect habitat for the mountains’ insects, millions of them. We huddled in our tent as they furiously bounced off its sides trying to get in. The attack lasted until dark, and I’m happy the nylon of the sides of the tent repelled it.
Another day we stopped for lunch at a sunny spot with a great view. We noticed what could graciously be called a flock (more like an army) of birds on the side of the mountain below us. They likewise noticed us and began moving up the slope in unison toward us, a few hundred feet at a time. They badly wanted our lunch of nuts and dried fruit. When they got to some trees just below us, we packed and made a hasty retreat before we became the subjects of a sequel to an Alfred Hitchcock film.
While we were not in a Hollywood sequel, I believe I did meet the phantom, the Sierra Phantom. It was at a very small spring on the side of a mountain where I was filling our water bottles when he just materialized next to me. The Phantom and I talked about the weather and the mountains while we both filled our water bottles from the slow trickle of water, and then he disappeared into the forest below.
We arrived at Mount Rainier on schedule and our ride was waiting. Back in civilization, we went in search of what every backpacker fantasizes about, a dinner of burgers and fries.