Hiking postsTuesday September 29, 2009
The World's Worst Hiker: Rachel Lake
Within five minutes of hiking to Rachel Lake in the Snoqualmie Pass, I lost the trail. Wait, it was worse. Saturday morning, Patricia and I drove east on I-90, then for five miles next to Kachless Lake, then four miles over an uneven dirt road to the half-full parking lot, where a few campers and their dogs milled about. Geared up, we saw a sign, "Welcome to Rachel Lake Trail," and headed down that road. "Down" should've given us a clue: It led to another parking lot. P: "I don't think this is the trail." Backtracking, P shouted to two campers: "You guys know where you're going?" and laughed. Generally I'm not shy about asking directions, but at that moment I felt about a gonad short of a pack. I'd lost the trail before I'd found it.
Eventually, after signing in at the trailhead, we passed those dudes and their dog, and five minutes later I stepped over a group of branches in the middle of the trail. Some part of me was thinking, "It's as if someone put them there on purpose," but the more insistent part of me kept going. About 150 feet later the trail diminished to nothing. More backtracking. Were we backpacking or backtracking? Oh right, the branches. As a warning. Now I get it.
Twice on one hike. Could I go for the hat trick?
Much of hiking, though, is pacing, and P and I are unfortunately ill-matched here. If I go at my pace, she gets left behind; if we go at hers, I get resentful, and even when I don't, even if I'm feeling magnanimous that day, she assumes I'm resentful and resents back. Or maybe she resents the magnanimity more. Who wouldn't? The loftiness of spirit to bear me calmly? Who the fuck do you think you are? We had that friction early in the Rachel Lake hike. Plus her threshhold of beauty is lower than mine. She's often stopping, arms akimbo, going, "My god, this is beautiful," while, slightly ahead, I stop, look around, shrug. "Isn't this beautiful?" she insists. "Yeah, it's beautiful," I say. I'm assuming she's stopping just to rest. She's pissed at me for going so fast as to miss all this beauty. Not to mention the trail. And that's how we hike.
But at some point, generally during steep ascents, she lets me off-leash and I go bounding up. Rachel Lake is four miles one way: a mile of gradual ascent, a mile a half of relative flat next to a creek, and a final mile and a half that takes you up 1600 feet over big rocks and huge, twisting roots like out of Tolkien. P let me loose early in the ascent and I quickly passed a couple that had passed us on the flat. "We downshifted to granny gear," the husband joked. I smiled and made a magnanimous remark about being less burdened with my half-full daypack, as opposed to their full backpacks, but it sounded overlong and hollow even as it left my mouth. (Lesson for the day: Magnanimity sucks.) A minute later, I was still ruminating on the idiocy of the line when I wondered: Is this the trail? I convinced myself, Yeah, it's the trail, but it kept narrowing and narrowing. I didn't want to backtrack because a) it still might be the trail, and b) if it wasn't, I'd be behind that couple again and I'd have to repass them, and I hated repassing people. Although in retrospect it might've been fun—like those old Tex Avery cartoons where Droopy Dog keeps turning up, impossibly, again and again and again, and, with a lugubrious "Hello," makes his antagonist's eyes bulge out and his mouth drop to the floor.
Then I heard the couple ahead of me. Which meant I wasn't on the trail. Which meant I'd lost it again.
But I kept going forward. I'm hard-wired for forward. Maybe, I thought, this trail hooks back up with the main trail. It was worth a shot. Until the trail disappeared completely.
At that point, 20 yards downhill, I saw Patricia's white shirt gleaming through the pine trees and yelled down to her. She looked up—but not at me. Ahead on the trail. Which is where she assumed I was. "Yeah?"
Even though it was a gross violation of hiking etiquette, I went off-trail—purposefully, this time—in order to get back on trail.
"Why am I waiting?" she yelled uptrail. A second later I came crashing through the trees to her right. "Oh," she said.
After that, we stuck together.
As tired as she was, Patricia kept complimenting the hike and its views, but overall I wasn't enamored. I don't need to do this one again, I kept thinking. Until we got to Rachel Lake.
I mean, c'mon.
The World's Worst Hiker: Granite Mountain
That would be me, by the way.
I live in Seattle, which is nestled between the Cascade mountains (to the east) the Olympic mountains (to the west). You can't not hike here.
I usually do day hikes, usually on Saturdays, usually with my friend Jim, who's been hiking these parts since he moved here from New Jersey in 1981. Jim's got a new girlfriend, though, who lives about an hour outside of Seattle, and they tend to spend weekends together. My girl, meanwhile, Patricia, was sore from volunteer work she did Friday. So Saturday morning I headed up the I-90 corridor by myself toward Granite Mountain.
Since Jim got me into hiking I've tended to follow his lead, and Jim's into the following: a 6-mile round-trip hike, with a 2,000-foot elevation gain, that begins in the forest, breaks through to meadows, and winds up on a mountaintop with great views. You eat lunch, you head back. Jim doesn't approve of hikes that end in lakes. Jim doesn't approve of hikes too close to Seattle, or to I-90, or to other people. He likes to get away.
This means that, though I've been hiking for 10 years, I haven't done some of the most accessible hikes in the area: Snoqualmie Pass hikes less than an hour from Seattle. That's Granite Mountain. Take exit 47, turn north for .2 miles, turn west for .4 miles, and, boom, you're at the trailhead. Beats 16 miles over a bumpy dirt road. Other cars can do that but we've got a '95 Honda Civic, low to the ground, and those dirt roads take their toll even if the U.S. Forest Service doesn't.
Saturday morning was beautiful—blue skies, warming Pacific Northwest air. I left before 8:00 and was on the trail before 9:00. To be honest, there are certain things I don't mind doing alone and hiking's one of them.
But here's why I'm the world's worst hiker. I learned about the Granite Mountain trail from 100 Classic Hikes in Washington by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning. It's a glossy Mountaineers guide, and Granite Mountain is hike no. 57, and it's called "Granite Mountain." For people like me it should be called "Pratt Lake/Granite Mountain." Or they should indicate, for people like me, in capital letters: "This BEGINS on the Pratt Lake trail; then you TURN OFF to get onto the Granite Mountain trail." They say as much, but without the caps, and so some part of me, knowing this is hike no. 57, called "Granite Mountain," assumes I'm already on the trail. I'm not. That's the first reason why I'm the world's worst hiker.
Here's the second reason, and it relates to the first: I'm a daydreamer. "You live the life of the mind," a friend recently said. Which means I'm hiking along, thinking about this profile I have to write on a lawyer, and that piece I have to do for MSNBC-Movies, and what would be the next best step in that profile, and should I include this scene or that scene in the MSNBC piece, and, wait, what's that on my face? A cobweb? Puh! And another one? Damn, there's a lot of cobwebs on this trail. Or are they silkworm threads? Because I don't see any... Oh, there they are. Shit, that's a big spider. Yuck. Remember Tarantula? Remember The Fly? "Help me! Help me!" I joked about it last weekend so of course now would be the time... The ironic school of storytelling. The O Henry ending. Of course there are no giant spiders, Erik. Ah, but there are cougars. There've been a lot of sightings lately—even in Seattle. Who's to say? What are you supposed to do if you cross paths with a cougar again? Run? Pray? Punch it in the nose? Jesus, I should've been in Boy Scouts. I should've learned something. Does Patricia even know what trail I'm on? Well, the car's at the trailhead. At least they'll know where to look. Puh! More spiderwebs. Man, where is everybody? And what time is it? 9:35? Wait... wasn't the turnoff supposed to be after like a mile? Did I miss it? Am I even on the right trail? Did those people at the trailhead distract me from seeing the real trail, and now I'm on this wrong trail that everyone else knows you don't hike at this time of year because of all the damn spiders? Because of the giant spider? Puh!
Fifteen minutes later I finally saw someone: a thirtyish dude who must've camped overnight because his sleeping bag was still on the trail. I stepped over it...and at the last instant realized that someone was actually in the sleeping bag. Boy or girl? Not sure. Just hair sticking out the top of the bag.
"Forgive me for asking a really stupid question," I began. "But what trail is this?"
He did a mild double-take. "The Pratt Lake Trail."
"Damn. Missed the turnoff for Granite Mountain."
"Yeah, that's like...about a mile back. It's right near this stream, you know? You were probably distracted by the stream."
"Thanks!" I'd crossed a few mountain streams on the way there, so on the way back I look at each one carefully, searching for the trail up. Didn't see it. Until the fourth mountain stream. Then on the far side (the near side during my first pass) I saw a narrow trail. I remembered seeing it, too, and thinking it was just another scabby trail that would dissipate after 20 feet. That it was a dead end. I thought: "You know, that Mountaineers book should really emphasize that the turnoff isn't that prominent. That it's easy to mistake for a dead-end trail." I was thinking this as the trail dead-ended after 20 feet at the mountain stream. It wasn't the Granite Mountain turnoff, after all.
I found the Granite Mountain turnoff five minutes later—or about 20 minutes from the trailhead. It's big and open, with a wood sign reading "Granite Mt.," and an arrow pointing up. All that's missing are the flashing lights and the carnival barker directing you.
I sighed, paused, calculated. I'd already hiked three miles and still had three to go just to reach the summit. The original hike was arduous enough—8 miles roundtrip, 3800 feet elevation gain—and I was turning it into a 10-mile hike with a, what, 4300 feet elevation gain? 4500 feet? Plus the brunt of the hike has a southern exposure and they recommended making it there early on hot sunny days. My daydreaming had cost me a crucial hour. But I figured I didn't have to summit. I could just hike until I got tired, grab a spot with a view, eat lunch, come down. Easy.
I hiked with a sense of urgency—as if I were trying to catch up with someone—and passed all the hikers that should've been behind me in the first place. When I hit the sun I stopped to put on sunscreen and a Mariners cap. When I hit shade I stopped to drink water. Soon I began to run into descending hikers. One woman, after she passed me, said to her friends: "God, can you imagine trying to go up at this time of..." Thanks, lady. On and on. Up and up. The fall colors of the blueberry bushes were beautiful, and the trail began to diverge on rocky slopes until it was hard to tell where the trail exactly was. But I kept choosing the most obvious path up. As it neared noon, I kept thinking, "This looks like a good spot for lunch," but kept going. At one point the rocks got huge and the trail leveled off and it finally felt like I was summiting. But I remembered from the book that there was something extra to do. What was it again? Then I turned a corner and saw the extra: an old fire lookout atop Granite Mt.: 400 feet almost straight above me. I stared at it, found shade, plopped down. I thought about lunch again. Then I thought the thought that always keeps you going: I've come this far...
In the end that extra 400 feet went quickly and I stumbled rubber-legged over the giant rocks in the shadow of the lookout and chose a spot facing south: a large flat rock worn smooth by the number of hikers who had chosen it before me. After the long hot summer the Cascades to the left and right looked strangely brown and denuded, but Mt. Rainier, straight ahead, was still gloriously capped with ice and snow. Then I looked below. Way way down, cutting through the woods, lay the thin ribbon of I-90, with cars moving east and west. Could I even hear them? After all this work? How annoying. Jim was right.
Then I laid back against the warm rock and closed my eyes. Even so.
The author, unable to find the turnoff. Unable to take an iPhoto.
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