Drunken Cowgirls

When I checked in at the Ranger Station for my backcountry permit, the Ranger was unusually nice and conversational. I’m always preoccupied checking in, thinking about the next step and in a hurry to be on the trail, so I wasn’t really listening when he said what sounded like “make sure you secure all your food at Marcus; we’re having problems with drunken cowgirls there.”

I know my way around GMNP pretty well now, and if you’re going to find cowgirls anywhere in the park it would be there. Still, this gave me pause. “I’m sorry, did you say there’s drunken cowgirls at Marcus?” He just looked at me, made a little noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan, and said “Well, no. Javelinas–there have been problems with packs of javelinas overrunning the Marcus campsite. Make sure you secure all your food and gear.” And just like that, before I had even begun, my three-night backcountry trip suddenly seemed slightly less interesting than it could have been.

I wanted to test out some new tactics this trip–a lighter, smaller tent, less food and clothing, less water–in preparation for this season’s later big hikes. I had this weird idea that I could be stronger and faster this year than last. I call it “checking out the machine.”

The machine let me know right away that I’d forgotten how hard the hiking is in GMNP. The trails are mostly rocky rubble, and going downhill in particular is a misery on the feet and knees. You work hard to get to the top of some pass or mountain, but once there you are instantly robbed of any sense of accomplishment because now the trail is going down before it clearly goes right back up the next peak.

Normally I go through an initial phase of wondering why I was out there doing something so uncomfortable when I could be drinking a coffee and reading in my back yard, but not this time. The views are always stunning, no matter how many times you see them. But it is the absolute silence you sometimes find way outdoors that is life changing. First, you’re aware of the silence, and then you think about how constant noise has somehow become an integral part of your life, and then you take a breath and feel the silence change something inside you. It is a wonderful feeling.

I made it to Marcus my second night: neither cowgirls nor javelinas appeared, but it’s pretty easy to imagine either at that spot. That western side of the park was once ranchland, and there’s even a corral down in Dog Canyon. As usual, I had the park to myself, which I always find amazing. It affords the rare opportunity to take yourself and other humans out of the center of your thinking, to recall that life does not revolve around us alone.

You generally don’t see a lot of wildlife in Guadalupe Mountains, although I have seen clear evidence of deer, elk, and mountain lions. Knowing they’re there, as you walk along you wonder where they’re hiding. But if you’ve ever stumbled into the ass of a bull moose you had not noticed prior, then you know how hard to see even the largest animals are when they don’t want to be seen.

What you do see are a lot of strong and beautiful plants. You find an agave (they were popping up everywhere), and your brain just can’t imagine “why?” What’s the point of this perfect mandala on top of some desert mountain in the middle of nowhere? Why make it beautiful when there’s no one there to see it? It just needs to work, not please me. It’s a bit like finding a gift with no card on your front porch when it’s not even your birthday.


I came across this plant up on top of Bush Mountain. You have to understand, Bush Mountain is up around 8,000 feet–literally straight up from the desert below and one of the tallest points in Texas. It was cold, and the wind was gusting up to 50 mph, and here was this plant, flowering. I looked at this thing, so alive in such a hard place to live. I thought “what would make a life in a place like this? On a rock? It is so very much alive.” But of course I was just imagining myself in the plant’s place, as though what I wanted out of my life mattered at all to this plant. I mean, I like visiting places like this, but I wouldn’t want to live there and raise a family. But it might as easily have asked me “and what is this man doing here, where there are no drunken cowgirls, or even bands of rampaging javelinas?”

The Golden Throne Of The Skagit Queen

The Throne of The Skagit Queen

I found the toilet when the light was perfect. This is an unusual statement to make, I think. The early morning sun had just risen above the surrounding mountains, and its rays of light unfiltered in the pure mountain air had pierced the one opening in the forest canopy and illuminated the Skagit Queen toilet precisely. Stonehenge and the solstices were not more perfectly aligned. (For more on the non-plumbing aspects of the trip and the Skagit Queen mine, visit https://georgeschools.wordpress.com/2022/08/12/north-cascades-2022/).

I have a small collection of wilderness toilet photos. Backpacking alone in the mountains frees your mind up to think about a lot of things you are normally too preoccupied to consider. Sometimes, because I encounter extraordinary ones, I think about toilets.

When I’m not needing to actually use a toilet, I tend to just walk. “Get in the zone,” as the through-hikers say, so that you can cover some distance. It takes a couple of days to get used to walking that much, to carrying that backpack up and down and back up mountainsides, so for a while what you think about is how much work it all is. I like exercise, and this trip was pretty much like Groundhog Day for workouts, except in this version you woke up every morning and said “Leg Day!” I pictured my quadriceps doing the work, getting stronger, and then I was ok.

I found another nice toilet in North Cascades. The toilet itself was nothing special:

Nothing to visit twice, right? It’s like sitting inside a forgotten flowerpot overgrown with weeds. But look at the view:

Facing the other way

How many times in life do you get out your camera while sitting on the toilet? Ok, well, don’t answer that. I probably don’t want to know. But you get the point.

Best In Show I’ve shown you before, but it is worth seeing again. I do not know what the toilets are like inside the Sistine Chapel, but this one in Glacier National Park’s Boulder Pass is one to see before you die.

Get outside and see some extraordinary stuff.

North Cascades 2022

Near Thunder Creek

It’s been eight hours of uphill hiking carrying a week’s worth of food and supplies, and I should have made Buckner–my third day’s campsite, on the far side of my second mountain pass–by now.

Getting to Buckner was a slog. I’d left home at 2 a.m. with an Uber to the airport, then the four-hour flight to Seattle, and finally another six hours in my rental to the Easy Pass trailhead. Five and a half hours hike over Easy Pass that first day, passed out too tired to eat at my first campsite, and then another ten hours of hiking west on Day 2.

View from inside my tent Day 2

Day 3 I’d added up the miniscule mileage numbers on my map and calculated that at my pace I should hit Buckner at about 5 PM, but 5 PM had come and gone and I was still walking up until I finally saw a campsite cairn that did not say “Buckner” on it. It said “Thunder Creek,” which was not on my map, and I said “fuck.”

The trail

I’d happened to hit the North Cascades trails at exactly the moment when the snow had melted down low and the plant life had exploded with nothing to restrain it, so the trail was basically invisible, hidden beneath a thick knee- to waist-high cover of vegetal exuberance, and exuberance is a lot of work to get through. By the time I hit Thunder Creek, all I wanted to do was find a flat spot in the shade and rest, but there was no flat shady spot to be had. I finally just laid down in the brush to collect my thoughts and was immediately swarmed by hundreds of flies. The little buggers didn’t bite, they just wanted to touch me. I tried putting my mosquito net on over my hat, and although it kept them off of my face, it was too disconcerting to have easily 50 flies covering the net, inches from my face. And so lying there, with hundreds of flies covering my face and body, I said “fuck it; I can’t stay here.” I decided I’d keep going up toward the pass for one more hour, and if I wasn’t sure to get over before dusk I’d turn around and camp lower down. You don’t want to go over a mountain pass in the dark.

Flies covering my tent the instant I put it up

Lord of the Flies

I should digress here and talk about the bugs. I’ve hiked enough now to understand that one week earlier or later on a hike can change everything bugwise. In North Cascades, I hit the apex of the black fly life cycle. There were mosquitos, but they were slow and incredibly lazy: they’d dawdle around, slowly finding an opening to land on my fly-covered hand, and then just sort of look at it before deciding to suck my blood. I’d smash them for going a step too far; the flies went about their business, unperturbed.

For six days, the flies inexplicably did not bite me. As long as you kept moving they’d leave you alone, but the instant you stopped they would swarm you. And that is all they did; I guess they didn’t like my taste. On my fifth day I ran into a trail crew clearing the winter’s fallen trees from the trail south of Buckner (which is about as isolated from any access to the outside as you can get there) and stopped to talk to one of the lumberjacks. We talked for about 10 minutes, both of us completely covered in black flies. I was used to them by that point and wore long sleeves and pants and a hat anyway, although he was standing there in a sweat soaked t-shirt. I finally said “well, I’ll let you get moving. They really swarm all over you when you stand still like this, but at least they don’t bite.” There was a pause as he just stared at me and then said “you say they’re not biting you? That’s interesting. They’ve sort of become my nemesis lately” and I realized his exposed skin–where you could see it beneath all the flies–was covered in little welts. So I moved on, thinking how cool it was to run into a lumberjack in the middle of the wilderness who used the word “nemesis.”

Trees on the trail

On the seventh day something changed. I don’t know what, but I was forewarned. I was sitting there, eating a dinner of re-hydrated Chili Mac with Beef. The flies were as usual crawling all over me, but otherwise left me alone. And then suddenly, as I’m raising some Chili Mac to my mouth, a fly dove hard straight into my spoonful of food. His impact literally buried him in the food, so I dug him out with a fingertip, flipped him on the ground, and accepted that backpacking lowers one’s dietary standards and swallowed my food. And then as I went in for the next spoonful, another fly dove into the bag of food, again hitting so hard that it disappeared beneath the surface. Again I dug him out, flicked his shattered body on the ground, and thought “this is getting weird.” I also thought that flicking little gobs of Chili Mac with Beef on the ground all around your campsite is a great way to wake up in the middle of the night with a bear outside your tent looking for the rest of the Chili Mac, but it was getting late and decided to try and clean myself up a bit in nearby freezing Fisher Creek. “Do not stink above ground” John Wesley preached.

Fisher Creek bathing facilities. You can see the snow upstream.

At the creek I refilled my water supply for the next day, and during the time it took to filter four liters of water I’d attracted a particularly large and diverse maelstrom of flying insects: mosquitos, a few different types of bees, of course hundreds of black flies, one or two really big and evil horseflies, and then a lot of something else that seemed to be hatching out of the creek. I was used to them by this point, but the instant I’d stripped off my filthy, sweat-stained clothes and turned to lay down in the creek, every single one of these hundreds of flying bloodsuckers landed on every available centimeter of skin and sunk whatever passes for teeth in an insect into me.

I was shocked, and suddenly a little scared. Being totally naked and alone in the middle of the woods when something out of control happens will do that to you. “What the . . .? Now you want to bite me?” Literally covered with flies, so many I could barely open my eyes enough to see where I was going, I hopelessly swatted them away and stumbled barefoot into the freezing water.

“Freezing” is not hyperbole: the snowpack feeding Fisher Creek was not more than 1/4 mile upstream from where I was, and the water I was frantically trying to submerse myself in had been snow only a few minutes earlier. The water was at the most 10 inches deep, and all I wanted to do was lay my entire body in the rushing water long enough to scour the filth off. I’d taken my mind off of the task when the flies hit, and so was mentally unprepared for the shock of laying down in that ice bath. I sort of stumbled around over the rocky bottom before I was more-or-less safely immobile in the rapids, and as I sunk as much of my skin area under the surface as possible, I saw off to the side two little rafts of dozens of flies holding together as they were carried off of my skin and down the creek, too shocked by the cold to fly off.

Park Creek Pass, looking north. Row upon row of mountains, as far as you can see.
Park Creek Pass, looking south. Still a fair amount of snow, melting underneath and deep enough to fall through if you weren’t careful.

Over The Pass and Back

Fleeing the flies toward Buckner, when I hit my one hour reckoning point I was within sight of the top–too high now for the flies–and found a wonderful little flat spot with water where I could stop and put some calories down and collect my thoughts. I raced sunset over the top and down the other side, and as I pitched my tent alone at Buckner realized that I had rushed through the entire reason for my coming to North Cascades.

On the way back two days later, I was in the pass just after dawn. I spent a lot of time up there, just me, with all those mountains as far as I could see in every direction. When you get into backpacking at the beginning of your mid-life crisis, it’s because you’ve suddenly realized that you still have a lot of things you want to do and see, and your time is not without limits. And so those first ten years or so, it is all new and breathtaking and exhausting, but worth every step. And then in your 60’s, you start thinking about how hard you’ve worked and about being comfortable, and you realize that liking being comfortable is sneaking up on you. There is a period of introspection, of asking yourself “do I keep doing this because I said I would and now I’m just being stubborn?” You ask yourself if these periodic checks that you are still alive are necessary, and you wonder if you can still feel the magic that makes it all worth it.

The remains of the Skagit Queen mine

There was a moment near the end of my trip, at a spot called Skagit Queen. The Skagit Queen was a silver mine, worked around 1900. There’s not much there now but some rusting heavy equipment that looks like it was used to pump water up from Thunder Creek to process the ore. The Skagit is way up there, and you look at that stuff and think about the work it took to get it there, how inconceivably hard the miners’ lives must have been, and you wonder what alternatives these people had in their lives that made this seem like a good option.

Camping alone near Skagit Queen, you’d think you were in Rivendell. There is a shallow and wide glen, filled with immense trees hundreds of years old. Through their branches, the obscured sun never directly reaches the ground, which is cool and covered with moss and ferns and decaying trunks of other centenarians which themselves fell generations before you were born. I was going through my usual morning routine of making coffee, packing the tent, loading my gear for the hike out. There was this noise–a bird I thought–quite loud although I never saw it. Somewhere in the shadowy green of this impenetrable forest, the bird would make this extremely loud trilling whistle. It sounded like the noise a hummingbird makes when it flies near you, but much, much louder.

I sat down for a moment with my coffee, letting the work to be done wait, and I realized that this hummingbird, or whatever it was, was gradually making its way around the perimeter of the glen. Every couple of minutes, I’d hear its trill a few degrees further around the circle, marking its territory I suppose. I just sat there holding my coffee, taking in this mine and the people who had been there a hundred years ago, these enormous and ancient trees, all of this overwhelming green life, and this unseen creature slowly working its way clockwise around me, the center of its circle. At that moment I could understand how once people believed in forest fairies and changelings and magic.

Of course, I was only assuming that it was a bird.

Glacial Erratics

Gottrfied Lake

My fourth night up I was furtively camping in a place I really shouldn’t have been, very near a trail juncture next to Gottfried Lake, which is really just melted snow trapped in a pocket between a bunch of mountains. The Forest Service asks that you not camp within 200 feet of a trail or water source, but this was the only flat spot I could find as night fell, and in the Winds there is water literally everywhere. Anyway, I hadn’t seen anyone for four days, and didn’t think my campsite was going to bother anyone.

But sure enough, the next morning just before sunrise I heard a noise coming down the trail, and judging by the racket it had to be somebody with a pack horse; there is not a creature in Nature that makes that much noise. I just laid there in my sleeping bag, listening to these rocks getting kicked and things banging around, and I thought “geez, it’s not even light yet; this guy would have had to have gotten on the trail hours ago.” So I popped out of my tent in the faint light, and met the world’s clumsiest mule deer. If there was a rock in his path he stumbled over it, and I swear he actually tripped a bit at one point. But then he looked up and realized he was not alone, and instantly assumed a more deerlike demeanor and bounded off.

Ice coating the INSIDE of my tent

I think this is the latest in the year that I’ve ever taken an extended hike, and I was worried about the cold. After “do not break a leg,” “do not die of hypothermia” is next on my list of solo hiking rules. The forecast just before I left was for lows in the mid-20’s in Jackson, and I’d be higher up so I was a little intimidated. But it wasn’t that bad, and I was beginning to doubt that it was even freezing most mornings until I noticed the inside of my tent was covered in thick frozen frost.

It is just cool to walk in these places. I simply like to walk. There is no logic to it. I carry just what I need to live for however long I plan on being out, and then I walk in these amazing places we are blessed with in this country. You see wondrous things, and if you are fortunate meet wonderful people. The picture above is near Elbow Lake, and those are called “glacial erratics.” The big one in the foreground, the one that looks like the chair in George Jetson’s living room, is taller than me–you have to re-set your references for everything in the mountains. A glacial erratic is a big rock that a glacier just left in some preposterous spot many thousands of years ago, and this part of the Winds is littered with them. You look at these giant rocks that couldn’t have fallen from any nearby peak or been pushed there by a river, and you just shake your head and say “how did this get here?,” and you feel so fortunate to be there.

I was disappointed with myself this trip. I am constantly so grateful for my body; it does amazing things for me, carries my brain where it desires to go. But I found I was moving at a glacial pace the first few days; I kept saying “any slower, and physics won’t be able to explain your forward motion, George.” I resent growing old, although I accept it. But then near the end, somewhere above Palmer Lake near Doubletop Mountain, I looked back and saw where I’d been two days before (the little arrow above the peak in the middle), and thought only “How did I get here?”

Bear Poop

So, about those bears: I could be wrong. I came across this pile of black bear poop (the bear is black, not the poop) somewhere along the trail between Summit Lake and Dean Lake, which is a new part of the Wind River Range for me. That scat looks like it’s at least 5-6 days old–I’m not showing off my mountainman skills by saying that, it’s just that I’ve seen still steaming-fresh black bear poop before and I’m extrapolating from that. Still, you don’t see the fauna here you see almost constantly in more protected national park backcountry such as Glacier. In a single day there I have seen close-up mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose, deer, bear, eagles, and elk. Here, I am fortunate to see poop.

I deeply enjoy being in a place where I am not the apex predator. And I don’t need to actually see them, I just like knowing that they are there, and that they are so much better at being there than I am. It keeps you humble, and helps you find your place in the world you are passing through. They are to me a natural resource, like timber or oil, but worth so much more than their meat or mounted head. When they are gone, they are truly gone. And with them, a part of who we are as a species.

In the Winds you can get up high and be alone fairly quickly, but it’s a lot of work first to get there. I’ve always said things don’t turn cool until you’re at least one day out from a trailhead, but even before that long first day’s lightening-filled night I knew I was pretty alone. That’s the attraction of hiking solo in wild places, the knowledge that a certain amount of risk is present, and no one to help you if things go wrong. But then once you’re actually out there, all you can think is “don’t mess up.” I don’t know how many times I repeated to myself this trip “Solo Hiker’s Rule Number 1: do not break a leg.”

You can see the fresh snow on the peaks in the background, my destination for the following day.

I sort of mis-calculated the effort involved in “getting up high” this year; I made only eight miles horizontally my second day, but 2,000 ft. vertically following Clark Creek. Once you leave the valley of the New Fork River, the entire rest of your day is spent walking uphill until you get to the ridge above Clark Lake. I had expected colder weather, and so my pack was a little fuller than usual with extra calories and foul weather gear, and believe me when I say that the longer you walk uphill, the heavier each extra ounce becomes. But as relieved as I was at that point to finally stop walking uphill, when I got to the top and saw the mountains before me that I was headed for dusted in fresh snow, I reflexively said “oh shit.”

Entering Bear Country

Well, no, you’re not. This was my third trip to the Wind River Range, and I promise you there are probably no resident Grizzly Bears. There are Black Bears in there somewhere, but you’re probably also not going to see one. This is the difference between a National Park and a National Forest. More on this later. I’ve flown in to Jackson Hole each trip and rented a car for the hour and a half drive south following the Hoback River down to Pinedale. It is a strange drive, because the Hoback is right next to the highway and in places you will appear to be driving uphill yet the river is clearly flowing the same way. I’ve yet to figure out the physics on this. But it’s a beautiful drive, an overwhelming place. It is all mountains and surprising prairies between them and austerity. Wyoming is not yet conquered.

That night there was a lightening storm, and it was so cool to be right up there in it. From inside my little tent, it’d flash and it was like it was right there, like right there outside. You got to hear Nature come at you.

The next morning I lay there in my sleeping bag, waiting for the sun to rise above the surrounding mountains and warm things up. I’m sort of a pussy about getting up cold and wet if I don’t have to, so I just lay there, waiting for something so much bigger than me to get things going. But I finally crawled out into the wet morning, knowing I’d get soaked just walking a few feet to pee. And then that sun came up in that clear, clear sky above the mountains all around me. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening: I could see steam or smoke or mist rising on the other side of the stream, but I didn’t understand what it was. But I watched it coming my way, like a wave, like a wall–a wall of fog rising with the advancing morning sun. It was an amazing way to wake up.

I got to see Nature come right at me.

To Tincup Pass and the Ultrahumans

We’ve made it over Cottonwood Pass, and it will be dark soon so we really need to find a place to camp. We find a less-than-ideal spot up here at 12,000 feet, and Rob and Ed have their tents up in a jiffy and are starting dinner. They have an obscene amount of energy.

Me, I am standing in some scrub, looking at the ground. I can’t decide whether it is flatter and more rock-free here, or in an identical spot ten feet away. I shuffle over to the other spot, and spend five minutes staring at it. Then I shuffle back to the first spot and stare some more. I am too tired to decide.

After a while of standing there, I see Rob silently considering me. Rob and Ed are eating dinner now. Rob is fairly inscrutable, but I believe I can hear him thinking “is this fucker getting ready to die on me? That’s going to complicate the rest of the hike.” Imagining what Rob is thinking is one of my favorite pastimes when I hike with him.

I finally decide that one spot is as good as another, silently pitch my tent and crawl inside. I stare at the ceiling, hear Ed say “hey George, you have to see this sunset!,” and Rob asks “are you going to eat?” I say “yeah, in a minute.” I know they are looking out for me. I am unconscious in two minutes.

I was fine the next morning–well, fine enough. The stretch from Cottonwood Pass south to Tincup Pass, about 16 miles in all, is the best of Collegiates West. It is all above tree line–12 to 13,000 feet–and the views are stunning.

There are still a few snow fields to traverse; the one below is at Sanford Saddle. Early in the morning, the surface is frozen solid, so you want to hit it once it has warmed a bit so your boots get a grip, but not warmed so much that you sink through. I bought micro-spikes for an ice crossing years ago, and have so far carried them across many miles of beautiful mountain scenery without ever using them. I intend to continue avoiding the need to use them; who wants to cross an ice field where a slip will send you sliding . . . downhill? Like, way downhill.

That snow is deceptive, all nice and smooth like that. But most of it is covering scree and boulders, and occasionally you’d step in the footprint in front of you and sink up to your crotch. Sinking up to your crotch is exhausting, and so you soon find yourself pretending that you are crossing eggshells: plant your foot gently, shift your weight onto it gradually, wait to fall through, and then when you don’t you take your next step.

In five days, we met no one travelling south like us on the Colorado Trail (CT), but we met wave after wave of amazing people hiking the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT) northbound. We had been unable to start our southbound trip sooner because of snow in Lake Ann Pass, and they had been halted by snow in the passes south of us in the San Juan Mountains. They’d each walked perhaps 1,000 miles so far, alone or with varying temporary partners, but had bunched up waiting. When the high passes opened, it was like opening the corral. We’d cross perhaps 20 a day, energetic, enthusiastic, and very happy to be doing what they were doing. Rob, who has thru-hiked both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (his wife won’t let him thru-hike the CDT. “Enough’s enough!” I also enjoy imagining what Sue says to Rob), remarked that thru-hikers were a different breed now from when he had hiked his thousands of miles: highly trained, incredibly fit, true “world-class athletes.” Three thousand miles is a long way to walk, and we knew that only a small percentage (about 150 complete the thru-hike each year) would actually make it all the way to Chief Mountain Canadian Customs Post, but these amazing people had already hiked a third of the way and were to a person enthusiastic to keep walking. Well, except that one guy–he was cooked. We talked to this tired, down guy a bit, and after we’d parted I said “I don’t think that one is going to make it” to general agreement.

Sun Lizard, Dying Turtle

My hiking buddy Rob Graham thought it would be motivational to remind me of a 2017 trip up Humboldt Peak, one of Colorado’s easier 14ers in the Crestones of the Sangre de Cristo Range. You could quite reasonably refer to it as a “walk up”–absolutely no technical skill is required, just keep walking up until you’re out of “up.”

That position is known as the “Sun Lizard,” or sometimes the “Dead Lizard” if you’re just walking by and see someone like this. “Looks like a dead lizard” they say as they check to see if your chest is rising and falling. Then they just leave you there. It’s not even embarrassing, because you truly don’t care about anything but not moving at this point.

This is a less refined version of the Sun Lizard, known as the “Dying Turtle.” You’ll note the jeans and cotton hoodie, things I’d never wear hiking now, but you can also see my headlamp attached to my chest strap, which means we’d started this Death March pre-dawn somewhere near Grey’s and Torrey’s Peaks in 2015, two other walk-up 14ers. You perform the Turtle rather than the Lizard when you are unwilling to remove your pack prior to collapsing. The thinking is that it is so much work to put it all back on, and if you can just lay down for a moment, just get some oxygen back into your lungs, you’ll be fine.

But you’re never fine. You lay there a few moments, and your heart stops pounding so you stand dramatically back up. But three or four steps later your heart is pounding itself out of your chest again, and now even the “Dying Turtle” seems like too much work. The shadow is of Ed Mahoney, another Colorado resident who–like Rob–never once made fun of me for assuming the position.

A lot of backpacking is about seeing how much the machine can bear. I don’t know, it might be different for younger people still feeling things out; that’s just me. Most of my solo trips are more-or-less a series of days walking as far as I can, and despite the extraordinary places my legs will take me I always eventually run out of gas. The feeling of accomplishment is in going just a smooch farther–sometimes a big smooch–on that empty tank. It is a nice feeling, and totally self-directed, so even if you don’t get as far as you’d hoped, you end each day knowing who you are just a little bit better.

Not so, Sun Lizard and Dying Turtle! These acts are entirely the result of external forces, and it is that helplessness when faced with oxygen levels I am unaccustomed to that I find highly irritating. I want to keep walking up the mountain, my legs are strong enough to keep walking up the mountain, but my heart is trying to explode out of my chest and so I think I’ll just lie down for a second. I really have no choice.


Each season it takes me a few days to get acclimated, and generally by the third day I feel much better. This kind of thing only happens in Colorado, by the way, where the mountains start high and go higher. Wyoming and Montana mountains are big and humbling, but they start lower and so even at their peaks you don’t notice that you’re being cheated out of some oxygen. Stopping is a choice you make.

The choice is not always based on being tired or finding a good place to camp. Sometimes, you just make a decision about gravity. Gravity is a physical property that is external to your will, very much like the amount of oxygen in the air you are breathing. But with gravity your body doesn’t let you know that the amount is not optimal until it is way too late. Choices like “if I fall here, I will die” or “if an avalanche starts here, I will die” leave it entirely up to you. You haven’t fallen yet, and so far there has been no avalanche. When you choose to stop you’ll never know if either of those things would have happened. Again, irritating, but not like that boom, boom, boom in your chest that you can’t do anything about.

I of course have plans for this coming season, none of which include images of me sprawled helplessly on a mountain peak. Funny how the mind works: I can imagine myself dealing with choices like turning around when the pass looks too dangerous, or deciding to carry bear spray even when I think the chances of me running into a 1,000 pound enraged carnivore do not outweigh the $40 expense. But I just can’t see having to stop because of something I can’t do anything about.

Rob & Mahoney

Oh, Stay! You Are So Beautiful!

“If ever I should tell the moment:  Oh, stay! You are so beautiful!  Then you may cast me into chains, then I shall smile upon perdition!”  Faust’s deal with the Devil, from Faust, Goethe.

“Don’t come back early.”  I had just told my wife I was going to miss her as she dropped me off at the airport at 5 a.m. for my trip back to Wyoming’s Wind River Range, so her farewell had the taste of  “come home carrying your shield, or on it.”  We’ve been married a long time and I knew what she really meant, so I silently translated that to “enjoy your trip, don’t worry about me.”  She’s funny that way.

My starting point was the Green River Lakes trailhead, about 80 miles south of Jackson, Wyoming.  On Wyoming trail maps they call flat areas by rivers “parks” and claim they are great places to camp, and so I’d planned my first night’s stop at a place called Beaver Park.  The trail is unremarkable, with the exception of Squaretop Mountain off to the west, which caused me to hear an endless mental loop of the five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind during the entire hike.

Squaretop Mountain

After about five hours of walking, a sharp pain had mysteriously begun in my right knee–it’s the only part of my body that has never hurt at one time or another up until now–and when I arrived at Beaver Park it was occupied by a large pack train run by rough women. No beavers were sighted.  Feeling out of place and crowded, I continued on.  By the time I got to Three Forks Park two miles further on, my knee wouldn’t take any more and I decided to camp.  Amazingly, the one flat, dry area I could find in what turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp had someone’s bag of food suspended directly over it in a tree, where bears couldn’t get to it.  There was no one around to claim it, but I wasn’t going to camp directly underneath bear-bait, and so finally found a tiny spot of grass right next to the river and passed out without eating.  I’d covered 13 miles of trail my first day, and the only thing I had eaten was a bag of pretzels on the airplane.

First night’s campsite, basically a swamp with a moose and a suspended bag of bear bait.

When I awoke the next morning for my first full day of hiking, the knee felt fine.  I ate last night’s bag of dinner for breakfast–I recommend that everyone eat lasagna for breakfast at least once in their life–and took off for Vista and Cube Rock Passes.  The Vista Pass Trail isn’t used very often because it takes you to only one place, and then once you get there it is even more difficult to get out of.  The pass is a 2000-foot altitude gain in perhaps a mile and a half of walking, but as I said it is not much of a trail and the higher you go the less trail you’ll find.  But I worked my way up the boulders, and could see above me where the pass topped-out. 

Vista Pass Trail, lower and upper

Suddenly, sitting there in the shade of some very big boulders, were three fit older hikers, just sort of relaxing while one of them stared at their map. “Excuse me, but do you think we may have missed the trail to Vista Pass?”  I promise you, when you think you’re lost, your brain dispenses with pleasantries until it gets the only important question out of the way.  I told them they were in the right place although it might not have looked like it at the moment, and that I could actually see a bit of trail and the top of the pass, although they sounded doubtful when I tried to get them to see what I saw in the boulders above.

Top of the”trail”

I’m always amazed at the wonderful people I meet once I’m at least one night out from the trailhead.  “This is a lovely place, isn’t it?” said one without the map, even though he thought he was lost.  He told me that as a teenager he’d hiked into the Winds from the WR Indian Reservation on the east side, all the way up Glacier Trail to the Divide and all its glaciers, and that now he was finally back. “I’m 68 now, so this is sort of a last hurrah” he laughed. “Speak for yourself, old man!” yelled across the rocks the third, a woman.  “No last hurrahs for me yet.”  He explained that she was from South Africa, as though that explained her.

Anyway, I told them I was heading that way, so if they saw me make it over the top they’d know it was the right trail; otherwise, I’d come back because I’d be lost, myself.  Halfway up, in sight of the pass over the top, I realized we couldn’t see the trail because it was covered with a recent avalanche, and that the boulders I was scrambling over were moving and unstable.  I’d reach and jump from one rock to another–not a childlike maneuver with a 35-pound pack on your back–and occasionally one would move slightly, and I’d be aware that the whole mountainside could just continue it’s way on down any moment it chose.  I did finally make it over the top, but never saw them again.

Cube Rock Pass, between Vista Pass and Peak Lake

The place Vista Pass takes you is Peak Lake and the source of the Green River, which eventually becomes the Colorado River.  But people aren’t going to Peak Lake, they’re going to try and go over Knapsack Col above Peak Lake.  I tried last year, but the snow turned me back.

What you get a lot of going to Knapsack Col is liars.  On the 18 miles or so of trail up the Green River to Vista, I passed three other small groups.  You run into backpackers in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly it is some kind of competition.  “Where are you headed?,” they ask fake-innocently, “Knapsack?  Us too!”  I’m not the strongest hiker on the trail, but I looked at them and instantly thought “oh, heck no you’re not.”  I never saw any of them again, either.

Amazingly, after I’d made it over Vista and Cube Rock Passes and was on my way down to Peak Lake, I met a woman at precisely the point where the only other trail coming into Peak Lake met my trail.  After who knows how many dozens of miles in the backcountry, we each arrived at the precise point where we could neither avoid nor ignore each other, and I immediately saw that same look of fear I see every trip when a young woman alone encounters an old scruffy guy alone.  “Did you just come over Shannon Pass?” I asked just to be polite; it was the only way she could have possibly come.  “No, I’m doing Shannon tomorrow.  I think I came over Vista, and then Knapsack.”  I tried to get it straight in my mind, explained that the trail she was coming down came over Shannon (I came that way last year), and that Knapsack was across the ford below us and then up the Ice Age-looking valley after.  “The rest of my party will be here any minute” she lied, really uncomfortable there in the middle of the mountains and glaciers and no one else except a strange man.

That is the source of the Green River, which becomes the Colorado River, behind my tent.

I made my camp that evening just beneath Stroud Glacier and the enormous waterfall pouring out of it as it melts.  I had seen it last year, and thought “who’d want to camp with that constant roar?”  But it was exactly where I needed to camp this year to be ready to try Knapsack early the next morning, and so when I stopped there this year the only negative I could find was a very bold marmot that was obviously going to try and steal my food the instant I turned my back if I camped there.  This turned out to be that central moment I experience on each of my trips:  when you start walking, everything is a jumble.  You are still thinking about your life and the world and all the transient problems, and you just have this persistent feeling of being off center.  And then you have this instant of perception, a moment where suddenly everything becomes clear, and the scene composes itself around you, as though that precise moment has suddenly become a snapshot, and you are so extraordinarily content.  The trail, the glacier, Knapsack, myself–everything was so clear to me, both in its relation to me and taken alone.  Except that marmot.  He was a problem.  And my knee had suddenly locked up again.

Knapsack Col is sort of famous, mostly because it is the only way out of or into the back end of Titcomb Basin–one of the most incredible places you will ever see on this continent.  You can hike into Titcomb’s front end, but unless you’re willing to risk going over Knapsack, you just have to turn around and walk out the way you came in.  Going up Knapsack from the west was not easy, but I didn’t really give myself a choice this time.  I thought “other people have done it; there is no reason I cannot do it.”  Last year I turned back because of the weather, but this was an extraordinarily beautiful day.  So I made it over and down, and am proud of that and will never have to do that again.  At the bottom, I met the only CDT through-hiker I’d cross this entire trip.  He asked some questions about Knapsack, and I said I was glad I’d done it west-to-east because I didn’t envy anyone going over the other way–his direction.  “It is straight up a scree slope, about 70 degrees, with that big snow cornice on the other side.  Just big boulders down the back, also steep” which is what he said he had heard.  When I told him that I hadn’t met any other through-hikers, he said forlornly “I’m all alone,” and I realized how late it was in the season to still be so far south.  I met some hikers three days later who had seen him, and he was bloodied and torn from that scree ascent, but on he walked toward Canada.

Knapsack Col

There isn’t a trail at all between Knapsack Col and the end of Titcomb Basin; you cross a big snow field, and then snow turns to water flowing over rocks the lower down you go, and then you are basically walking down a waterfall.  My knee had felt amazing once I understood I had made it over the pass, and I made very good time–ahead of schedule, even–as I met the trail and headed out of the Basin.  But the knee suddenly hurt again, right around my tenth hour of walking, and so I found a wonderful campsite in a spot that had seemed totally inhospitable to me when I passed the year before.  Outside my tent, just before retiring, I sensed again that feeling of sufficiency, of each thing clearly in relation to each other.  And then a bald eagle, which I had not even seen until then–which is not easy to miss because it’s a really big bird and the sky was mountain clear–dropped straight down out of the sky like the finger of God and killed something for dinner, reminding me that even when you feel a scene composing itself around you, to never let down your guard.

Titcomb Basin
Fremont Crossing

I shot out of the front end of Titcomb the next morning and turned back north, up the Fremont Trail and over Fremont Crossing, and before I realized it was already on the section that cuts west across the Elbow Lake plateau to Summit Lake.  The knee felt fine, fantastic even . . . until, again, it suddenly stiffened and stopped in the middle of perhaps the least welcoming landscape I have ever seen.

Elbow Lake

When you stop and look and listen hard at Elbow Lake, you understand what it feels like to be truly alone.  It is as if the Ice Age has just ended, the glaciers receded, and you are all that is left.  I have rarely heard such silence, and I realized that despite the great amount of water up there, there was no sound of running water.  No wind.  Only rock.  And mosquitoes.  I finally found a small patch of flat, rocky soil to pitch my tent on, prepared dinner, and took a moment to be grateful for the experience.  And then I took another moment to laugh at the mosquitoes.  They had been of Biblical proportions last year, but this year I was ready for them.  It took considerable mental re-training to allow dozens of mosquitoes to gather on the netting inches in front of my face, and understand that I did not need to swat them away.

Elbow Lake campsite

When I awoke the next morning, the knee felt fine.   Reasoning that if I had injured it, it would hurt worse as time went by rather than feel better each morning, I decided to continue on.  “The worst that can happen is that you will die” I said, and that is not much of a threat when the issue is that you are too old.

Several hours of trail later, I did not realize that I had reached Summit Lake.  I knew only that I had suddenly come upon a scene from a more beautiful world, something before us.  After the severity of the Elbow Lake landscape, it was like walking into a Luminist painting.  Faust would have spent eternity in Hell had he even murmured “make this moment last forever,” and although I was way ahead of schedule and had plenty of daylight left to cover more miles and build up a cushion if the knee gave out, I stopped long enough to allow life to stand still a brief moment.

Summit Lake, where I stopped and allowed my breath to be taken away

I met three very friendly hikers, based lower down and out for a long day-trip with lighter packs.  When they asked where I was headed, and I answered “I’d like to get as far as Summit Lake,” there was an awkward pause as they stared at me blankly, and then informed me that I had arrived.  I could not believe I had come that far that fast, but they were correct.  I should have taken note, because this was going to be a problem later.

From Summit I passed quickly “No Name Lake,” which is the actual name of the lake on the map, leaving me to wonder what they call lakes that have no name (there are plenty up high).  I was so unbelievably ahead of schedule that I stopped for a real lunch at Cutthroat Lake–boots off, food you need to eat with a spoon, fill up the water bladder, maybe take the shirt off and get a little tan.

Cutthroat Lake on the left

No sooner had I found a comfortable spot to relax by the lake than an angry front of black clouds roared over the tops of the surrounding mountains, pelting me with enormous rain drops.  During the frenzy to don my rain gear, a barrage of marble-size hail began to fall, and it seemed strange to get hit with balls of ice when it was only in the 60’s.  The storm of course ended as soon as I had all my rain gear on, but somehow its passage made the lunch seem more delicious.

At Palmer Lake the trail turned north again, and I planned to camp that evening just after my trail’s wishbone juncture with parallel trail coming in from the other side of the mountains to my left at a place on the map called “New Fork Park.”  I felt great; the knee felt great.  At 5 pm I came upon another one of those Luminist scenes, a site so beautiful, so still yet full of potential, so pre-mankind, that I considered stopping early and camping there.  But I knew I had at least another hour of walking before I reached New Fork Park, and there was still plenty of light, and so I walked on.

New Fork Park; except I did not know it at the time

And on.  And on.  At 6 pm I thought “I should be there by now.”  I knew there was a ford just before the park, and finally by 6:20 I crossed it.  But then it was 6:45 with nothing but steep slopes, and then another ford where there shouldn’t have been one, and I understood that somehow I had missed my turn.   Miraculously, I stumbled upon a lovely woman camped in a niche off the trail, and she confirmed my mistake.  She was older, perhaps my age, with a beautiful ponytail that ran down her back past her waist.  She asked where I’d come from, and when I said I’d slept the night before at Elbow Lake she said “you poor thing, you’ve gone a long way today (a little over 13 miles),” and invited me to share her campsite in the fading light.  Despite this being a variation of every guy’s backcountry fantasy come true, I had distance to make up: I’d passed my turn by three and a half miles, and New Fork Park was the inviting spot I had wished I had time to camp at.  I made it three miles back before nightfall, camping just the other side of the ford I had made, sharing my spot in the woods with a young moose and a really big deer, each of which walked through my campsite with a total lack of concern.

I had been worried about Porcupine Pass the next day:  I knew that Knapsack looked easy on the map but wasn’t, but it turned out that Porcupine looked difficult but was relatively easy.  Coming into Porcupine Pass from the south, there is a fairly steep and wooded trail to what looks deceptively like the top of the pass.  But arriving at the top, you realize that you have reached simply the first step, a beautiful alpine meadow where grazing herds of elk are quite easy to imagine.

Looking back down the easy side to Porcupine Pass

Across the meadow and up the last level to the top of the pass, where the wind suddenly roared above the shelter of my leeward side of the mountains.  I had to lean into it to look down the steep other side, and the way down.

Standing at the top of Porcupine Pass and looking down, I thought “this is my last ‘down.’  I’ll not be going up again, at least not on this trip,” and so I took an extra moment or two in that blasting wind to take it all in one last time, and then started the trail down and home.

The trail down Porcupine Pass

It took about an hour and a half to get to the bottom and the Porcupine Creek drainage.  My knee felt fine.  I stopped for lunch at a stream crossing in the shade, and the deer that wandered literally right in front of me as I leaned against a rock was more surprised than I was, although it seemed  entirely proper that we were each there.

I flew down the trail after lunch; I felt free.  My knee felt great, and I knew I was moving fast, very fast.  Until suddenly, still inexplicably, the knee simply stopped.  By good fortune I was in a beautiful place to stop; it would have been a beautiful place to stay forever, but I decided to take a nap.  I have never taken a nap on the trail.  But I took my last two ibuprofens, put on my raingear and mosquito netting so that I could sleep insect-free, pulled my pack under my head as a pillow so that nothing would be tempted to steal my food, and curled up on my side on the cushioned forest floor, surrounded by pine trees, and beyond them the river, and beyond that those mountains.

Porcupine Creek drainage, where I took my trail nap

When I awoke, I felt good enough.  I was now more than a full day ahead of schedule, despite the knee.  Between the layers of DEET and sunscreen and a week of sweat and grime and inadvertently peeing in my right boot and face due to poor decision making in a strong wind up in Titcomb, I really needed a shower.  Even my left index finger smelled like bad cheese, something I noticed my next-to-last day while sucking water out of my hydration tube, and I began anticipating that extra day in a hotel, with a bed and a bath.  But it would have been useless to make it to the trailhead this late in the day:  it would take a couple of hours to drive out and find a hotel, too late to get clean and then find some meat and beer, and so I camped at the foot of Green River Lake.

That last morning as I broke camp, I went through my usual routine.  Everything one step at a time, everything in its place so that nothing is misplaced.  I irritate even myself, because I’m so slow getting out of camp every morning.  I boiled water for my coffee, and as I broke down the stove and put away the gas canister I thought again “this is the last time I’ll do this on this trip. This is perhaps the last time I’ll do this, ever.”

And then suddenly, as if by magic, I realized that unseen spiders had in an instant spun single-strand gossamer webs horizontally from pine tree to pine tree–hundreds of them between the trees, all seemingly perpendicular to the sun’s rays, all spun only between my spot on the spinning Earth and the lake and rising sun–as though created simply to catch the morning light streaming over the mountains and glisten to my eye alone.

Somewhere there was a waterfall that had roared all night, but I hadn’t really heard it until then because I couldn’t see it, and I suppose by then I was used to the sound of constant waterfalls.  Standing there, I thought “please God, I know I haven’t seen a soul in two days, but don’t let anyone come down the trail just now and see me like this.”  There’s a line in “A River Runs Through It,” my favorite book:  “What a beautiful world it was once,” a wistful reminder of the transience of things.  I would not hold a moment forever, not ask Life to stand still.  But suddenly that is all I could think about, this beautiful world, and the line repeated itself, over and over, as I walked out and home

Part III: Do Not Persist In Bad Decisions

Swiftcurrent Pass. You can see the trail zigzagging up the right side. That is the dwindling Swiftcurrent Glacier up top, and the incredible waterfall it spawns.

I am just over the crest of Swiftcurrent Pass, and it is very windy. In fact, it is clearly windy enough to blow a 150 pound man carrying a 35 pound backpack off of the trail and down the 1,000 foot cliff he is on. I decide it is a perfect place to stop for lunch.

I promised my wife that I would eat more on this trip, so I pick a little promontory off the trail and sit down beneath a ledge and slightly out of the wind. I lay rocks on top of my gear so it won’t blow away, and the re-hydrated granola with milk and blueberries is so good. I’m sitting there, eating this wonderful stuff that the wind is blowing out of my spoon before it reaches my mouth, literally on the edge of a most beautiful cliff, feeling this force that could care less whether it blows me over the side. A wonderful place and time.

That is Mount Grinnell to the left of Swiftcurrent Glacier

You see a lot of mountain goats in Glacier, but they are almost always up in some incredibly inaccessible spot, so as I eat I am scanning the mountain across from me, looking for those improbably perched white spots. I finished my lunch without seeing anything on the other side, and as I stood up to get back on the trail I turned to face a goat sitting barely fifty feet away from me the whole time. I had not considered that I was myself in one of those incredibly inaccessible spots.

I love this about being outside, the unexpected miracle. Looking back now, on this trip and all the others, I think “that was not so hard.” You do these things, see and feel these things, and at that instant and forever after you know it is worth it. But there are moments of doubt, of weakened resolve. At the very start, I always feel deeply guilty for doing something so selfish. And the first day or two, surrounded by mountains and sky and wind, I sometimes wish I were home in a comfortable bed. But then I tell myself “this is where you are, now. You have to be somewhere, and you are here, so be here, now.” Then I am where I need to be.

I have always been very fortunate outdoors. I make good decisions. I prepare, I adapt. I allow myself briefly to credit marvels, and to be astonished at the simplest transactions of the physical world. I let go of the complacent conviction that the world has been made for humans by humans.

And then the trail is covered in bear shit. Sections of the trail above Cosley Lake, and later near Granite Park, had piles of bear shit every fifty feet. Those bears were eating a lot of berries, and if I was their medical professional I would recommend that they cut back after seeing this. At one point, I would say there was either a pack of 20 bears regularly shitting on this one trail, or one bear that really had an issue. I was so proud to come upon a pile of bear scat that looked totally different, fewer berries, intimations of hair and bone. Proud because I was able to see the difference, to see grizzly. Looking at shit.

Bald eagle, just sitting there waiting on an osprey to do the work.

You tell yourself “it is what it is” often, and realize that is perhaps both the most inane and the most profound statement, underlying all of life. The trail is steep, or it rains, or you cannot eat because you are too cold, but it is what it is, and you have to be somewhere, so this is it. And then you are standing at the top of Triple Divide Pass, feeling so tiny; or you are watching a bald eagle steal a trout from an osprey that has just swooped down to grab it from the mirror surface of a silent mountain lake; or you come upon a tiny glacial runoff, draped in perfect tiny moss, just beneath these enormous mountains, and you are so deeply, deeply content.

A Japanese garden could not have made a more perfect moss-covered waterfall.

I was briefly worried that I would die, which does not happen to me often. Everyone has do die sometime, and I am 60 years old and ready, but please not just yet. You think “that was close; I have had enough.” You ask yourself if a view is worth risking your life. The Zen master intones “do not persist in bad decisions,” and I think perhaps to throw in my cards before I have lost everything. And then 24 hours later, after a hot shower and clean bed and two meals of meat and fat and beer, I begin to think “that was not so bad. If I just fix one or two little details, next time I will not have these problems.”

Old School motel, just outside West Glacier, where I got warm and clean and ate.

My last day inside Glacier was not easy, and then it was. After I met my bear, after I knew I would not lose fingers and would make it out, I had only a few miles to my last campsite, at Granite Park, a half-mile beneath Granite Park Chalet, the precise site of two of the three 1967 grizzly attacks in the same night that revolutionized the way the Park Service manages the bear/human interface. I had avoided the Chalet and its day-hikers on my way in over a week ago; now on my way out I considered stopping there for water, perhaps a dry bunk. But the Chalet was already closed unexpectedly for the season when I arrived, and the crew there heli-lifting out supplies informed me that my campsite farther down was closed due to bear activity. They said they would escort me to a safe spot to camp near the Chalet once the helicopter had finished the last lift, but I decided to hike on out the last four miles to my car at the trailhead, down an easy trail I already knew, past the closed campsite.

Campsite closed due to bears. That is so cool.

You have to be somewhere. It is what it is. And some views are worth it.