When I was a teenager and introduced to the mountains, my elders often said, “The mountains don’t care.”
What they meant to impart was a warning that, ultimately, whether I survive our upcoming trip or not, whether I enjoy it or suffer through it or whatever, the mountains don’t care. I’ll need to take care of myself. And it was good advice.
I’ve been going back to the mountains ever since, and I think I convinced myself that maybe they do care. Maybe they actually welcome me back. Maybe we are in sync with one another. Maybe there are actually spiritual beings who reside in those hills, who have lessons and messages for me that they wish to impart. Maybe they wish me well.
And then last week I was reminded that, whether the mountains “care” or not, whether they have messages or welcoming spirits or whatever, they certainly are large, hard as a rock and potentially dangerous. And they do contain lessons.
I’ve been backpacking more or less since I was 12 years old: never full-time, never hard-core, never for the whole Appalachian Trail or anything like that. But it’s been a part of my life. I never had all the latest gear, I’ve rarely felt like I was really “good” at it, and I’ve never been a particularly strong or fast hiker; my trail name when I hiked some of the PCT was OneSpeed, because somebody said I hiked like a guy on a one-speed bike.
But I always got through it, and I enjoyed it, other than crapping in a hole in the ground, which I don’t suppose I’ll ever adjust to. And then I went to the Wind Rivers.
The Wind River Mountains in Wyoming are a backpacker’s paradise: a nearly 100-mile stretch of granite, never crossed by a road, filled with peaks and lakes valleys and meadows and high country. I had dabbled there once before, and for last week I picked a 40-mile loop that looked amazing on the map. I just forgot that I’m 53 now, that margins are slim in the mountains, and that it could be the mountains are getting pissed off at us.
I drove a shitty road to a parking lot that reminded me of a rock concert. Turns out I had stumbled into one of the most popular areas of the entire range, which happens if you don’t really do your homework. The first day wasn’t bad until I got to the lake and had this funny idea that maybe I would camp. That’s what I like to do: camp by lakes. But this lake, though six miles up and more than 9,000 feet above sea level, was ringed with tents and fishermen and swimmers and dogs. I could actually hear music playing through speakers when I arrived. The only available site I could find was sufficiently close to another couple’s site that it felt rather awkward, and when I gave a polite wave their way, they didn’t respond at all. Lovely.
The next day, there was a pass at 10,800 feet, some 1,200 feet above my camp. I do elevation gains like that in the Cascades all the time, but starting at 4,000 feet and going to 5,200 is, I would soon be reminded, a very different thing from starting at 9,600 feet. I also missed my nice, soft, evergreen-needle-covered trails of home on this, well, Rocky Mountain bullshit. Before long a foot and a knee were sending messages to the brain along the lines of, “What the fuck is this?”
Whether the mountains cared or not, as I struggled up that hill I detected a message: your Cascades fitness is nothing to us. Also, let’s throw in a false summit so you’ll think you’re done, then go back down, then up again!
And then there were the Colorado kids. As I struggled up through the rocks, breathing every other step and trying not to look for the top, I was passed, again and again, by wave after wave of thin, tan, smiling, chatty 20-somethings in short shorts, small backpacks and what appeared to be a dress-code-required old-school baseball cap with mesh in the back and a message on the front with either a brewery, the Colorado flag, or “Moab Utah.” Their smiles seemed friendly enough, but I could tell they were thinking the same as the mountains: look at the old fart trying to backpack!
Just for kicks, the mountains even threw in some hikers older than ol’ OneSpeed, so he could watch them go hiking and smiling past, as well.
My second camp was well away from the crowds, but it did offer a chatty neighbor who showed me all his latest gear, told me about all the miles he was doing, and also informed me that the pass I had just done was “the easiest one in the Winds.” I told him where I was headed the next day, and he said, “Whew, that’s a tough one there: almost 12,000 feet and no shade or water for miles.” My sore knee and foot sent more messages to the brain.
I vowed for an early start and did it, by my standards anyway. Of course, as I sipped my coffee and contemplated maybe taking down my tent, Mr. Latest Gear Big Miles strode out of the lake basin with a smile and a wave. I packed up, acted like I had confidence, filled my water bottles, and then my water treatment system didn’t work.
You ever have this experience where you make a decision that makes sense, more or less, then you make another one that also kind of makes sense, and then you string together a few more, and it all seems fine, basically, and then something happens that turns on all the lights and you say to yourself, “What the hell am I doing?”
When you’re 12 miles and one difficult, rocky, (your) ass-kicking pass from your car, about to climb even higher and farther, and you’re alone, and your foot hurts, and your knee hurts, and then you suddenly realize you never did find that backup battery for your water treatment system, and that means you can’t treat any of this water, which means you’re about to get sick as hell and be 20 miles and two passes from your car, and … what the hell am I doing?
That’s when I heard the mountains chuckling.
I will spare you, at least for now, the wave of fear and self-loathing that swept over me in that moment. Briefly, imagine a man standing in the psychological ruins of his life dreams, yelling “What a fucking idiot!” My rational self instantly understood the trip had to be over, but my emotional side needed to wallow a good bit more. It wasn’t the happiest 15 minutes of my life, and I’m glad no one else had to endure it.
And then you know what I did? I stood up, shrugged all that off, and walked the hell out of there. Because maybe the mountains don’t care, but that’s where I learned how to do that. It hurt, and it was a struggle, and I am certain that all the Colorado kids were laughing at me, and several days later I am still waiting for what I am told is some really unpleasant diarrhea from drinking about five liters of untreated water from three different lakes on the way out. And it may have occurred to me during that walk that maybe it’s time for canoe or horse trips instead of backpacks. And and and and and.
But the mountains? Don’t give a damn about any of it.
Or maybe they do.
I have always felt a special connection with foxes. I guess they are my spirit animal. But I’ve only seen one in the wild twice — before that day. I was driving back down that shitty road, away from the rock-festival parking lot, with all my soreness and cluttered brain intact, when over in the sage I saw a flash of red. I slowed down, and out onto the road walked a scrawny little red fox with something big and furry in its mouth.
The fox looked at me, stopped, slunk a little lower, and then after I assured it we’re cool, started trotting down the road. I drove on slowly, and it kept trotting along next to me, and I was really struck by how skinny it was, how young looking, and how big that furry find in its mouth was. I thought to myself, and tried to impart to the fox, “Well done, little hunter!” It would occasionally look at me with some concern, like “You’re not gonna shoot me or take my prize, are you?” And each time I would say no, we’re cool. Just getting through this thing however we can, little friend.
I don’t know, maybe I’m still romantic in addition to being in non-Rockies shape with some work to do on trip planning and gear buying. But I’d like to think that me and that fox are still getting it done, one way or another. The fox isn’t big and strong, but it got a meal. I’m not young or tough, or maybe even bright, but I did go backpacking in the Wind Rivers.
And whether the mountains care or not, whether the fox was my spirit animal saying hello and “Hang in there” or not, they will both still be there when I’m ready to come back and try again. Live, learn, heal the hurts, live some more. And keep going back to the mountains.