Wonder Land

A version of this can be seen in issue  #41 of SUGAR MULE LITERARY MAGAZINE: WOMEN WRITING NATURE

I am most at peace away from buildings and street noise, surrounded by lush evergreens. Only in the wilderness do I feel truly steady, my feet rooted in the ground. The trails and dirt roads of the Cascade Mountains have witnessed events large and small in my life, and over the years, the wilderness has been a steady companion and inspiring teacher.

I was two years old when Dad strapped me into a blue canvas backpack and carried me to the top of Mount Pilchuck. It set in motion a love for the outdoors that I never grew out of. Later, as a moody adolescent, I carried my own Jansport rucksack loaded with books up the same trail, just to sit on a rock and read, ignoring everything else. When I wasn’t hiking, I often perched on the dropped tailgate of a station wagon at the end of a dirt logging road. Despite the evils of clear cut logging, the lack of foliage exposed the texture and pitch of terrain normally concealed, and the view was beautiful in its own stark way.

Day hiking when the car is a mere ten miles or so away was simple. I didn’t have to prepare for much, my pack was light, there were people on the trail and help was relatively close. But backpacking was taking it up several notches. It never occurred to me to worry—I understood the important stuff: how to read a map, what gear to bring, how to dig a hole for a toilet and squat without sitting in nettles. I had no idea that what you learn on the trail is not something you can prepare for.

The night of my first backpacking trip I woke to heavy silence; the tent glowing ethereally in the moonlight. I had never heard silence so loud. Could silence wake you up, or was something there? My hiking partner snored softly next to me, and I didn’t want to wake him like a scared city kid. But I had to pee. Ridiculously bad. But I couldn’t go out there— not alone. What was waiting for me in the dark? My heartbeat sounded like a drum in the quiet tent, alerting all within hearing to my fear. Didn’t animals attack people when they sensed fear?

I frantically searched for my headlamp so that I could see something besides shadows. Where was the damn headlamp? Why didn’t we have a can or something to pee in? Finding the headlamp underneath me, I slid it on unicorn horn style. With the switch flicked to its brightest setting its reassuring beam was directed at whatever I looked at. I scrunched deeper into my bag, hoping the urge to pee would just go away and closed my eyes.

With my eyes squeezed shut, my ears reached outward with supernatural ability. Trees creaked eerily as they rubbed against each other in the slight wind. I had to remind myself that the faint sound of laughter and voices in the distance was really the nearby stream.

Or was someone there?

I held my breath. A twig fell softly onto the nylon rain-fly, sounding as if a giant night creature just perched above my head. I bolted upright, eyes wide open, headlight beam careening off ceiling and walls as I whipped my head around. The fright quite literarily nearly scared the pee out of me and I couldn’t ignore the urge any longer. I fumbled for my glasses and unzipped my cocoon of warmth and safety, bracing myself for a quick trip into the bushes. I was birthed into starlight.

Still on my knees on the packed earth, everything else was forgotten as I gazed upwards. Clusters of stars were so dense that their outlines merged with one another made entire clouds that lit the sky with brightness. The empty night had become full while I was sleeping. Darkness was an illusion—something that lived in the imagination of someone who lived in the city.

I switched off the unnecessary headlamp, marveling at how much I could see. Of course I knew the infinite universe lay out there—just beyond the invisibility cloak of daylight, but to see it revealed against this blue-velvet backdrop was astounding. There was nothing limited here, except my own ability to perceive. I felt so small as I looked up into the endless space, but there was a strange comfort in that. Nothing in that vastness knew I was there; I was a piece of a larger puzzle—not the whole puzzle as I so often believed in my busy life. My problems were relatively unimportant in the larger world, and maybe they should be in mine. There was nothing to fear in the unknown, except how I let that fear cause me discomfort. My heart stilled. I stood up stiffly to complete the task that sent me into the ignited night and was no longer afraid.

The next day I arrived at Mystic Lake, a pristine alpine lake 12 miles or so from the nearest flip-flop wearing tourist in Mount Rainier National Park. Spectacularly nestled in a bowl with a peak-a-boo view of Rainier, it was surrounded by a fairyland of alpine meadows dotted with indigo Bog Gentian and scarlet Indian Paintbrush. The trail was broken by trickling snow-melt streams crossed by small log bridges. The shallow lake itself was sun-warmed and giant sized tadpoles collected like tidal foam along its sandy edges. Each evening found a hiker with a fly rod casting perfect arcs across its smooth surface, the meditation in the movement the intention as much as catching the trout below.

Instead of paying attention to the breathtaking beauty on this warm afternoon, I was engrossed in an ant colony on the move. Countless tiny ants moved across this section of the Wonderland Trail and back into the scrub again. Laying on the trail, nose inches from the packed dirt, I watched them go about their busy ant lives. Food, eggs and injured or dead comrades were carried, pushed or pulled away from something and towards something else. In their zig-zaggy confusion, I wondered if they even knew where they were going. Gently, I moved twigs and rocks out of their way, clearing the area in case their path should cross these difficulties. I encouraged them softly, “No, no, no!! Go this way little ant!”, but too often they chose another route than easy one I cleared. I watched, helpless, as they swung in circles, confused and exhausted.

My assistance seemed to only confuse their purpose, unaware as they were that that I was helping. I suddenly knew how God must feel, watching over us, doing what she can to move pebbles, and shaking her head at the difficult path we too often choose. It is a lesson I took with me as I returned to the city.

The 100 mile long Wonderland Trail captured me, and over the next months on pavement, I hungered for it with the lonely ache reserved for a lover. It was another year before I returned.

As I hiked through Summerland and the Panhandle Gap to a camp on a knoll above a picturesque glacial river valley, Mount Rainier was a surreal background..It was still warm as night fell, and instead of tucking into the tent to sleep, I climb into my sleeping bag propped against a log to watch the stars. Meteors shot across the sky with impossible speed and brilliance. They seemed like a mirage—a figment of my wishes to see them come to life.

When I woke, it was misty-dark, sight and sound muffled and soft around the edges. Something was out there—a real something this time, not my imagination. I couldn’t identify the soft calling, but could feel the thrumming of large feet on the ground under me. Should I try to make it back into the tent, or be still in the fog? Curled against the log, I wouldn’t be stepped on accidentally, but the last thing I wanted was to startle whoever it was. Suppressing nervous giggles, I sat listening, blood pounding in my ears in symphony with the rustling noises in the fog. They soon quieted, and I fell asleep with the wondrous knowledge that I was sharing space under this vast ceiling with something unknown.

As the sun broke over the peaks, shooting the sky with pink, I woke to a large herd of elk sharing my scenic camping spot. They must have known I was there when they arrived in the night, but decided I wasn’t a threat and nestled down to share my blanket of stars. Sleeping more soundly in my tent, I might have missed their arrival. I dozed to the sounds of their grunting and pawing as they moved about, preparing for their day. I felt safe in their acceptance of my place in their world.

When I opened my eyes again, they were gone, having disappeared quietly with the fog. Fifty yards from where I slept, the grass was still warm and imprinted with the shape of their bodies. I lay down in their nests, curling into the shape of the sleeping elk. Inhaling the clean smell of dewy grass and warm musk deeply, I thought about how fear limits us and our experiences, causing us to be blind to so much magic.

Rejoining the trail for another day of beauty, I stepped over a line of ants and smiled.

 

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