Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Traditions: Hiking Adventures

Taken back in college, when the clouds weren't quite as thick...

I found myself clawing at a muddy surface as I slid backward down a wet slope this evening. My shoes had failed me, and the late onset of rain had left the lower half of the mountain quite slick and me wondering if the hike I had voluntarily signed up for still qualified as fun.

Yesterday I went running on some local trails with a friend I used to train with in high school. It was good to catch up, and when she mentioned she’d be hiking one of the local peaks today I jumped on the opportunity. After all, I have a flexible schedule and if there’s anything better than hiking in the wilderness, it’s having good company for the journey.

It didn’t occur to me until I was parked at the trailhead that this old high school friend of mine—who is currently a competitive mountain racer—was going to end up dragging me up and then back down the mountain. Hiking is one of my favorite summer activities, but I haven’t been out much this year with all the busyness of the past month. Sure, this was a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up—but it was going to come at a cost.

The hike started at a reasonable pace, running up and down grassy hills, weaving through devil’s club, and balancing on logs over muddy bogs. The sun was pushing through heavy clouds and it looked like it was going to turn into a gorgeous evening. As we made it further up the base, the grade grew steeper and we transitioned from running to a swift hike.

After almost an hour we made the turn to hike toward the peak, and at that point the promise of sunshine had long since disappeared. We were up in the midst of the clouds, droplets collecting on my forearms and eyelashes, keeping me cool while I struggled to keep up the pace. My legs were burning, my breathing was labored, and while it was clear that we were making progress, the peak seemed to grow nearer in a painfully slow manner—literally.

One hour and thirty minutes after we started, we reached the peak. The cloud that hovered around us seemed complete with the silence. We were wrapped in a tight canopy, far from the city, far from civilization, far from any other people or anything made by man. The only reminder of anyone else treading among the clouds was the peel from an orange resting on a rock nearby, crawling with ants eager for fresh produce so far from its normal habitat. And even as my muscles quivered and ached, there was no doubt that this was a sacred place, even as I was far from my own.

If not for the increasing wind and the growing size of the droplets, we might have stayed at the top of the mountain a bit longer, but it was growing cold. While my mountain running friend had set an ambitious pace up the mountain, at least I could keep up. On the way down? That was another story.

I’ve never been one to prance down mountains with fearless abandon, which is something that has often separated me from my Alaskan grown friends. I’m cautious, perhaps to a fault, and hate the moment I realize I have so much momentum I cannot stop if I want to. The building rain seemed to cloud my vision, and my muscles seemed to be teetering far too close to exhaustion. One misstep and my ankle might roll, my knee might buckle, my toe might catch—and whenever I envision a fall it always involves breaking off my two front teeth. This is what I pictured as I tried to concentrate on my footing, one eye ahead on the distance that was growing between us on our descent, the other on the switchbacks that wove back and forth up the slope.

Relief washed over me when we reached ground flat enough to run on without fearing a potentially tragic fall. And that’s when I noticed that the rain had done much more than cloud my vision on the steep decent; it had completely stripped all traction from the trail. Thus I found myself sliding down muddy hills, laughing inwardly at claw marks down the trail, reminiscent of a desperate cartoon character—hanging on against all odds.

The muddy slopes led back to the original undulating grassy hills, where we stumbled on several fresh bear and moose tracks pressed into the soft mud and hardly bothered to avoid sloshing through it over the top of them. There was no point by this time—we were already covered.

I tried to brush off residual dirt and mud when we returned to the trailhead, not wanting to carry the mountain away with me in my vehicle, and drove the mere five miles that exist between mountain and my front door. I stripped off my shoes and socks, grimacing at the chunks of mud accumulating in my entryway, while secretly loving the state of my filth. Less than thirty minutes after leaving the mountain I was scrubbed clean, in freshly laundered clothes, waddling around my house with my exhausted legs, examining the small cuts in the creases of my palm, the only visible evidence of my evening adventure.

By the time I climbed into bed, my legs ached a satisfying exhaustion that I feared would keep me awake all night even as my body craved rest. Yet I woke this morning to find my mud-caked shoes still resting outside my front door, my gait still awkward and disjointed as I descended the stairs, and I found myself wondering when I will make my way up a mountain again.

A large dose of exhaustion, dirt ground into my palms and under my fingernails, a few moments away from everything enjoying the simplicity of nature at its finest—these are things I love about summer.

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