When the Smoke Clears

Unable to take another day at the desk, I say to hell with it, throw my pack in the car, and hit the road.

I have a trail in mind, and I don’t care that online reviews say the road is a bitch, or that the smoke is still hanging thick in the valleys, or that it’s supposed to be close to 90, or that some reviewers said “bugs,” or that I’m out of shape, or this or that or anything else. I’m going hiking.

The road starts out nice, gets a little rough, and then brings my Kia Soul to a complete stop. Not where I was hoping to start, and the hike just got a little longer, a little tougher, but it’s not like I’m going back. And it’s too late to go somewhere else. Besides, this was the plan. I didn’t sign up for a perfect day in the mountains, even if that’s what I was hoping for. I signed up for a day in the mountains. Because I couldn’t take another day out of them.

I start walking.

Smoke obscures the far-off views. I worry about bears. I feel more tired than I think I should. I wish I had started earlier. I hope I chose a good trail. I’m sure other people are hiking better ones. Unsure about some of it, powerless over the rest of it, and committed to the whole thing, I just keep walking.

Flowers in a meadow with a hiking trail leading through it.

Up close, I notice flowers along the trail, in the little meadows. Then the meadows get bigger, and one has a creek in it that I skip over. I spook a deer and hear a bird song I don’t know. It’s starting to feel like a hike.

I pass a lake, and I see the end of the road, a parking area that people with four-wheel-drive and more clearance than I have managed to drive to. I think that next year I’ll have a better vehicle, like theirs. I think about friends who are roaming the west in their vans, not working because they have investments and rentals and severance packages, and not tied to a location. They also have each other. They fled from the smoke I’m in now, alone. These folks at the lake drove farther than I did. They also started earlier, and they’re ahead of me.

What the hell, I think, they’re probably younger and better-looking, too. Who cares? Let’s go up to the pass and see what that’s like. Less (self) talking, more walking.

At some point on every hike, I start thinking I don’t like to hike. This usually occurs on an uphill, in a viewless forest, on a hot and/or muggy day. Bugs don’t help. Neither does being alone. But I learned a long time ago that you don’t quit before the miracle. You keep trudging, if that’s all you can do.

Also, being tired means I’m climbing, and climbing means I’m getting somewhere — in this case, that pass above the lake. And every single bit of it is (A) what I chose and (B) a hell of a lot better than the desk.

I trudge. I ponder. I rest. I slowly settle into a groove. Then I pop out of the forest and look back towards the lake, as always a little surprised by how far I’ve come. There’s also a breeze, and … is there a little less smoke? That would be sweet.

More switchbacks, more climbing, I’m staring at the trail most of the time, but then I glance up and see … no more trail? Is that the pass? Did I actually make it?

A view of a mountain valley with trees, meadows and cliffs.
What I came to see.

And then the magic moment. You ease over the pass, and before you is laid out a whole new valley, with more meadows and forest and lakes, and a big mountain beyond that, and another lush, green valley over there, and mountains stretching off to the horizon, and a trail — the trail you’re on, the one you’ve been walking — leading right into the middle of it all. And there’s nobody else around.

And by gosh, there is less smoke. In fact, that may be considered blue sky. Thank you, breeze! This morning my eyes stared at a screen and a wall, and now they behold miles and miles of wildness and mystery, emerging from the smoke and inviting me to go, go, go. I’m a very lucky dude.

I spot a grassy hill a little ways ahead, just above the trail, and I aim for it. Lunch spot of the gods. I lay out in the grass, with the breeze and the flowers and the valleys and the trees and the lakes and the solitude. And it’s the best view and the best damn peanut butter and jelly I’ve had in quite some time. I remember that walking through the shit helps with these things.

It also occurs to me that I probably have cell service up here, and then the thought-train revs its engines: work – email – social media – text my friends – check the weather – on and on. I decline to board and decide instead to just be on this hillside, eating this sandwich, and let all of that wait. It’s not going anywhere.

A hiking trail leads through a pass in the mountains, with more mountains visible in the distance.
A trail, an invitation, another world calling.

I could hike farther — the trail goes for days — but I started when I started, and the day is winding along. Besides, the mountains aren’t going anywhere. And I do have things to do back at that desk. I’ll come back here next year. Or I’ll go somewhere else. Don’t need to decide now, so I won’t. I sit and breathe.

Then I start back. And just below the pass, I come across a couple of folks who look tired and out of sorts. They ask if it’s worth going to the pass, and I say absolutely. And then I tell them about the grassy hill just beyond, and the views. And I tell them the smoke is clearing, and they’ll get a good view of what they came up here for. You just have to walk a little farther. All the fatigue will be worth it. Might even make it sweeter.

Anyway, people ask how my summer’s been going. There’s your answer.