After about a week in the wilderness, I forget that there is a world other than this. There is only what happens out here every day: the 5:25am sweep of Cherry Pie’s headlamp under his tarp, the shoving of everything we carry into our backpacks, the first step onto the trail. This is my life now.
Mostly, we walk. We walk for all the hours that add up to a 21-mile day, up the passes and back down again, along the traverses and past the alpine lakes, each mile stretching into another. And because it is the North Cascades in late August, it sometimes rains, and we bundle up in soggy jackets and endure, until it stops. Then we spread out all of our gear to dry over talus boulders, a hiker yard sale, we call it.
For two years in a row I have hiked nearly 300 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, last year through the Sierras, this year from Snoqualmie Pass to Canada. After a few days, nothing matters but the miles we have to go to reliable water, whether we packed enough food in our resupply boxes, and if we can find a flat spot to pitch our tents. We are living on wilderness time, perhaps the only way that I have found to be completely and utterly present.
While we may speculate about the miles ahead, the more pressing concerns are right now, in the moment. This is the greatest gift of wilderness, allowing me to abandon future worrying and past regrets, and live in the immediate.
Though my hiking partner, Scout, and I camp with him for days, we never know Cherry Pie’s real-world name until our last day, and he doesn’t know ours. We exchange only our trail names, monikers bestowed on us by circumstance and behavioral quirks. Other hikers we meet identify themselves as Diesel, Bambi and Lorax.
We are a traveling tribe, bound together only by this slender ribbon of trail. None of us would meet in real life, but here we are kin. What we have accomplished at work, in our other lives — none of this counts. We size each other up instead by our daily mileage and the weight of our packs.
Anything could be happening outside our mountain range, the nation gearing up for another war, floods, fire, tragedies many times removed from us. Wilderness allows me to slip into another kind of place, ageless and timeless. We walk like others have before us, set up our tents, filter water from unnamed creeks.
We move through the deep rain forest vegetation like a river, and watching other hikers makes me fiercely hopeful. In my real life as a wilderness planner, I have become discouraged by the plunge in funding for recreation and the apathy I see around me. Here I take a deep breath and feel less alone. These are my people. This is my tribe.
Ragged clouds tease the mountain peaks, the sign of another storm. We cross over Fire Creek Pass at 6,000 feet and begin our slow descent to Milk Creek. Where will we sleep tonight? We have no idea.
The maps tell us only part of the story. They don’t tell us that we will encounter 10 Sierra Club tents set up in the only flat spot for miles, forcing us to sleep on a trail bridge for the night. They don’t point out that we will find our best camp spot ever by climbing an unprepossessing hill and coming face to face with massive Glacier Peak in the distance. These are things that we find out.
This discovering, possible in wilderness, is something we have learned to forget in the real world, where information is only a Google away.
Despite the rain, the lingering soreness in my feet, the weeks without a shower, I am not quite ready to be done. There is no buffer between our time on the trail and the next day’s Greyhound to Vancouver. We linger for a time in the last clump of trees, but eventually we just have to do it, take our last steps out to the road.
I both want this and I don’t. I love the wilderness time as much as I want to see my husband and our dogs and our cabin in the woods. I want to blend the two worlds I inhabit even though I know they will forever remain separate.
The best I can do, I realize, is to take a kernel of wilderness time with me: the patience, the awareness, and the acceptance that wilderness gives me. On a day awash in meetings, deadlines and screaming headlines, I vow to remember what wilderness has taught me.
At the bus station, Cherry Pie bounds out after a quick hug. Scout drives off into the Idaho canyons. I shoulder my backpack for the last time and walk into the place I sometimes call home.
This essay was first published in High Country News.