There are few places in my life that I’ve found more ruggedly beautiful than the Highlands of Scotland. The place is magical – it’s so far north, so remote, that sometimes it feels like you’ve left this world and gone to another.
A reader sent this word-of-the-day to me:
emprise (noun) em-prīz : an adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise
I don’t know about the chivalric part, but there is something daring about my next walk. As if taking a sharp turn away from fire, smoke, drought and heat, I’m headed to Scotland to walk a long-distance and wild trail through the West Highlands on one of the toughest trails in the UK to the northwesternmost point of mainland Britain.
The rugged trail is utterly unmarked are pathless and required a high degree of navigational skill as well as self-sufficiency, with unbridged river crossings that offer challenge when in spate (flood).
That being said, I’ll carry a tent only for emergencies as all along the way are a series of bothies or basic stone shelters, much like New Zealand, that provide refuge and a fireplace. Aside from constantly wet feet, this should be luxurious!
The idea to walk in Scotalnd started with my English friend named Ted, an ultramarathoner I met on the John Muir Trail and with whom I’ve walked the Drakensberg Traverse in Africa, the Colorado Trail, a whole slew of Fourteeners, the Western hemisphere’s highest peak Aconcagua and a couple hundred miles on the Pacific Crest Trail – as well as my one and only ultramarathon, the Fellsman, a 62-mile, 11,000 foot gain-and-loss, trail-less challenge in the North Yorkshire Moors.
In fact, it was that race where I met Ted’s friend and arch-rival, Terry, a tall, slender mountain man with a shock of unruly hair. He gave Ted a run for his money, but somehow got lost in the mist that day, ended up behind us and then dropped out because of the awful weather of spitting rain and ice pellets. Somewhere along the way, Ted convinced Terry to keep running the annual race into his seventies even when his family wanted him to quit and he ended up capturing the Fellsman over-70 record of 17 hours, which no one – including Ted – has beat.
Heartbreakingly, this past year while walking a tricky ridge in the Scottish Highlands, this seemingly invincible man – a legend and role model for many – managed to trip and fall down just right, hitting his head and never recovering. At the time, he was working on climbing all 282 of Scotland’s Munro mountains when he died, with perhaps the thought in the back of his mind of walking to Cape Wrath with Ted, a feat he actually wasn’t sure he could pull off.
And that’s how I’ve come to be Ted’s second, both of us hoping to walk this desolate but wildly beautiful landscape as not just a challenge to our hardiness, but in memory of a tough fell runner who left the world doing the thing he loved the most.
Late September and early October can be exquisite they say, full of fall color, drier, and empty of crowds. Then again, it can be dour (relentlessly severe), with stops in villages for a warm bed and a wee dram of single malt a necessity. I will pack a tent for the freedom it provides, my thermals, serious rain gear, and plenty changes of socks – and likely a larger pack to accommodate. By next week, I will have a complete gear list.
For now, I’m biking and hiking to get fit, marking up a route on CalTopo with alternates, bothies, possible peak bagging and escape routes marked, and scheduling all the Covid tests I’ll need before I leave, when I land and before I return.
But you know, this sharp turn towards a completely unexpected part of the world, and a trail I hadn’t given much thought to, is so like how things turn out. We make plans and hope for the best, and then our heart gives us trouble and we have to improvise. We think somehow nothing is working out, and then a call comes out of the blue and we move in a totally different direction. To be honest, I feel lucky. I feel like the trail provided. And I feel like surprises await those with an open mind, ready to receive.
Though it should be pointed out the last time I hiked in these parts, I was labeled “The Bog Finder…!”
I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.
Isabella L. Bird
It’s dark in no time once I cuddle into Big Greenie. I look out occasionally, but I can’t see too many stars through the pines. It’s damp and is feeling a bit colder. And then, it begins to thunder.
From about 2:00 am to 3, the lightning is on full blast, a kind of strobe light with long, rolling thunder following. It never seems to hit the ground and once my nerves calm, I just lie there enjoying the sound. Surprisingly, this last night is the best sleep of the trip. Deep and long. Someone walking past early waking me. A person? An animal? They don’t stop or answer when I call.
I guess it’s best I didn’t sleep up high last night.
The tent is soaking wet and cold as I take it down. No one touched my bear bag and I pack it up, planning to take the lot up to Ski Lake. It might have made a good camp spot, but I’m thrilled I set the alicoop2 just in time to jump in before the rain came last night.
After my one flat bit, the trail heads steeply down again, eventually reaching a dry stream and a meadow where another tent is set. The path to Ski Lake heads steeply up just for a mile, but I’m out of breath and wondering if I need more than a week to get used to the altitude.
The view opens up as I ascend of rounded mountains and a fuzzy sunrise in smoke. There are also many camp spots – with views! – but I would have been walking up here in rain and put out of my mind any idea of having camped here.
The lake itself is perfectly round under a huge eroding cliff. I’m surprised to see piles of driftwood leading away from the lake, and these are not tiny pieces but entire trees. It leaves an air of violence in this absolutely silent place. I walk around the lake, carefully stepping over fallen rock, then depart looking for a place to have breakfast.
There’s a rock looking out to the mountains and above the trail that fits my bottom just so. I take out the last of the food and begin devouring it, most of the crumbs and powders and grease ending up on my $3.99 trousers. In between bites, I take out my tent to dry in the sun. A couple arrives, led by a guide. They laugh when I warn them how messy I am not expecting guests.
More people arrive, and I become the de facto greeter, some passing quickly and out of breath, others joining me to talk hiking and favorite spots in the Tetons. Most are surprised this middle aged gal is out here alone and finishing her hike today.
It’s not far to the road, just two miles of descent, the sound of cars and trucks managing a 10% grade over Teton Pass into Idaho reaching me way up the mountain. More and more hikers come up with dogs, running and carrying babies on board. I’m so delighted I had the place all to myself most of the morning.
At the road, I get a hitch within minutes, riding in an overloaded truck with vacationers from the midwest. They take me to Wilson, where I phone Bear and make plans for the evening.
And just like that, the hike is over.
Let’s face it, it was not all that hard, especially since I cut my daily mileage by about 2/3rds. I had very few obstacles, except for a few moments of worrying thunder. I stayed pretty healthy, even with one episode of tachycardia which I was able to get under control. All in all, it was a hike I savored, spending more time just looking and studying my surroundings, simply being in them, rather than passing through them.
Does it make me braver for the next hikes, and perhaps ready to take on one of more magnitude? I don’t know. But one thing is absolutely certain, it’s reminded me why I love backpacking so much – spending day after day outside, carrying all I need on my back, and becoming, at least for a short time, a resident in the wilderness.
So it’s exactly what was needed to overcome any lingering doubt that this activity is one I love, one that expresses the truest part of me and one that I can handle doing all the way into my old age. The Teton Crest Trail was absolute bliss and I am sated, yet also cleansed, like the intervening bit of ginger between bites of sushi. I’m ready for the next course.
Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.
A creature rustled in the bushes just outside my tent. I heard him twice, yelled twice and shined my light twice, but never found the rascal. I pulled everything into the tent just in case he’s a thief.
The stars were dulled by the smoke even if to wake up looking right into a canyon. I crawl out eventually and wander towards the lake for breakfast. The water is perfectly still, the reflection exact lit up in orange. The imposing walls are crumbling into triangles dumping into the lake. There’s bright green grass working its way into the most crumbled shelves and pines at the top like lookouts.
A loon paddles across slowly, then dives under. He’s got a fish and eats it, then spreads his wings, flapping them and showing off his white belly. It’s so quiet but for a few chatty squirrels, a squeeze-toy pica, and crows echoing on the cliffs.
I eventually return and eat a second course on our veranda again, right at the edge where I don’t want to drop my spoon. The sun peaks in and out of clouds. A dead tree still stands on a private peninsula, with branches reaching to the sky.
Eventually I pack up and head on saying goodbye to the three older people with everything spread out like a garage sale. They wonder if I do this often. Ranger George mentioned some good scrambling to the west, so I take the trail, then veer off to climb loose stone up above the lake. I crack straight up, then meet boulders, so need to sidle closer to the edge before getting to grass and a bit more loose rock.
It’s cool up here looking down on the sweet lake, but to the south, clouds are building in an aggressive dark gray, so I quickly pick my way down to avoid being at least part of the tallest object.
The trail heads steeply down to the junction for Granite Canyon. I meet another solo female hiker who points out an all black marmot. I see him sunning on a boulder unafraid of me, and then another run/waddles over. They can really move fast!
From here, it is straight up, no switchbacks to soften the climb. I feel good though and stay ‘under my breath’ and in rhythm. It’s forest here, so I call for bears, but still views back to the gorgeous canyon and rock mesas.
As I reach the top, the sky completely clears to a robin egg blue. I get views back to the Tetons, but can only just make them out now. Below is a massive meadow with a river running through it and white bark pines standing straight and tall.
I begin descending and see about a dozen backpackers milling at a rock outcropping. It turns out they are all family – three adults with kids, the youngest only 11 (and carrying 19 pounds!) We chat for a while and snap each other’s pictures, and one takes pictures of my shoes for study purposes.
It’s a delight to meet a family arranging this. It takes a lot of planning, but they’re all out carrying their packs and walking each step. I didn’t begin hiking until I was 13 – unless you count long, solo rambles of my neighborhood – and I began backpacking in earnest when I was an adult. I hope these kids like it.
As I say goodbye, I notice the clouds moved in while we were talking and thunder rumbles in the distance. I get a move on, knowing the turn off for where I plan to camp is not far. I’m out in the open in a large meadow between mountains. It rolls and is not completely flat, and was carved this way by ice.
I come upon a tiny pond, then turn towards another canyon, zigzagging steeply down. I’d read that Moose Lake was a cool place to camp, but it does make my day short. As my trail begins to level off, I come to the cut off and try to decide what to do.
I see the trail heading up again to the left, at the top of the canyon. Is it a good idea to go up while it’s thundering? I take a seat for a moment and consider my options. Continuing means climbing over 1,000 feet to a pass, while heading up to the lake is also a stiff climb, but more like 800 feet.
Below me is Moose Creek and worse case, I can set up my tent and wait out a storm somewhere down there. So I head down to meet the trail that goes up, and of course, the sky clears out completely. So up I go, heading through low willow where I call out for bears, and dried plants rattling in the wind.
I see a moraine above me and assume it’s holding back my lake. But as I come closer, I see it’s only a marshy field and the trail veers to the left, heading up. I see tall trees on a moraine which conjure up memories of my rock veranda in the Alaska Basin. But again, there’s only a puddle of water amidst aquatic plants as the trail turns sharply right and goes steeply up on a narrow esker.
Now I see rock holding back a hanging canyon, yellow flowers in huge bunches growing from cracks where water spilling out has widened the space. This has to be it as I breath heavy, but move steadily up towards the wall. The path jogs to the left up a steep ramp and deposits me on a moonscape.
A helpful sign says camp only 1/2 mile from the lake. What? That seems a bit drastic and furthermore, what lake? It’s less of an incline now, past beautiful rock and towards one last wall. The lake is tucked deep in and surrounded by thick plants.
This would not be an easy place to get water, and I can’t see anywhere people camp. It’s very windy, and while wildly beautiful, it feels weird to set up. Suddenly I feel a kind of pain in my chest, kind of like a gas bubble.
Oh for heaven’s sake, tachycardia again. I sit down and have a snack and try to relax, but my heart is racing. Well, I don’t think I really want to stay here anyway, and going down should help.
I forget how steep it is until I rewind and head down. I’m breathing hard, but I think the best thing would be to stop at the creek where it’s easy to get water and I can set up in trees without having to contend with the wind.
I laugh as I pass the ‘false lakes’ and yell for bears in the willows, and it’s not long before I’m back and can filter water and rest. It’s a pain because my body feels heavy and everything is a chore, but my doctor gave me beta blockers, so I take one, then proceed to eat all of the beef jerky.
I’m in a totally safe place where I can set my tent, fetch water and I still have a decent amount of food. I’m just a bit leaden. So I wait and see. More storm clouds move it, then move out again. I have a good seat in shade, but shift to the sun to get warm when the sky clears. Then I do my deep breathing exercises. Six seconds in through the nose, six out through the nose – 25 times, about five minutes.
The breathing, the beta blocker and meat did the trick and my heart is back to resting rate. I’ll go slow and keep moving. It just feels so good to move and no rain’s come yet.
I head up through crunchy bushes, the Prairie Smoke completely blown out in a wild swirl of cotton. I meet the trail and it moves up so gradually, I barely feel it.
This whole set of trails could be walked as a loop, and I actually might have chosen the Moose Creek instead of the pass since it eventually meets a road. But I’m stubborn and want to walk the Teton Crest end-to-end, which includes this long climb.
But right now, it feels as if the canyon is pulling away from me, every so often I see it further away through V-shaped toboggan runs through tall pines. It’s not the spectacular features of the Grand Tetons here, more walls eroding into deep canyons and being taken over by meadows and pine. But I love it, especially when I catch a glimpse back to where I climbed to all my false lakes.
It’s silent in here, and I’m completely alone, except for a hawk who flies straight towards me on majestic wings before lifting up and out over the canyon.
I enter deeper forest and cross a few blowdowns, only having to step high to get over. And then, the trail goes up. And up and up. On the map there’s no indication of switchbacks which often means there’s no room. So the only path forward is the shortest distance between two points.
I go into low gear and inch up. At first on a fairly wide bit of land which then gets thinner. I’m headed to a kind of dead end of rock wall and pines. Now how are they getting me out of here?
A tiny ramp right on the edge of the rock. Small stones cause me to slide a bit, but I keep moving like the Little Engine that Could and soon reach the top. It’s a startling view looking back, seeing today and yesterday’s walk.
Continuing is along a catwalk. The trail is wide enough, but one step to the right and you’re over the edge 1,000 feet. I press on gingerly, not looking down (much) and finally come to a saddle far below that either finishes this loop or takes me off trail.
The ground is a soft green-brown. It’s sage and the first I’ve seen it on the trail. Dark green pines huddle in groups and I wonder if now I’ll find water and can set camp. It’s still a good ways down and I see no sign of it. Checking my map, I’m fairly certain I’ll cross a stream just below.
As I begin to descend into Phillips Pass Canyon, I notice the hills are a dark pink. It’s millions of Fireweed, the leaves turning as well as the flowers exploding in cotton and corkscrew curls. The leaves have a kind of sap that sparkles in the light. It’s absolute magic.
I reach the water right away and have learned to get it when you can because you never know if a stream will go underground or be inaccessible to the trail. I delight in the pink hills while the water filters then set off to find a place to camp along the trail.
Surely there are a few sites people gave created over the years. No, not a one. And those flowers I love so much make for lumpy ground, completely unsuitable for a tent.
Making matters worse, the trail does not just head down to the road. Rather it goes up, and steeply, rising far above the creek.
It’s not just the plants that make it hard to set, but all the pica burrows in long dirt piles, crisscrossing like an outdoor version of Habitrail. Even under the pines, which is usually a good bet for a flat, pine needle bed are invaded by plants.
As I come up a particularly steep rise, I meet another backpacker. He’s desperate for water, me for a camp site. I tell him water is running, but might be hard to get to from the trail. He tells me meadows are ahead, then proceeds to discuss his plans wanting recommendations.
I apologize profusely, but it’s going to be dark soon and I really need to find a site. I head on to those ‘meadows’ which ate really just more of the same. Argh, he uses a hammock! What does he know of tent camping?!
I begin to wonder if I should just walk out and set in the parking lot, when it begins to thunder again. OK, that does it. By these trees will work. And it does, except my tent covers the trail.
I set fast as the thunder rumbles, getting everything inside just as it begins to rain. What timing! It’s not a long shower, and I exit in rain gear to a monstrous thunderhead now turning pink and seemingly out of juice. I sit on a damp but well placed log to make dinner and just as I clean up, a woman arrives with her dog!
Bridget is amused by my set up, but gets around just fine as she’s headed up to meet a friend at the pass. She assures me this is not a popular trail and besides it’s night, I should be fine in this awkward spot.
I hang the bear bag and make a wish no creatures show up tonight. It’s already pitch black and I’m cuddled in smack dab in the middle of the trail for my last night in the Tetons!
I life, three ingredients are necessary: sunshine, a commanding view, and legs aching with remembered effort.
The sunrise is delicious – as good as my sunset, just from the other side. I may have missed it taking care of business and having to pull down my perfect bear hang first to get my garbage. As I return to my tent, a young woman has her camera out. I go to talk to her in whispers and we agree, this place feels holy.
She’s impressed I’m alone. But not so much; this trail is busy with hikers. Only at Kit Lake was I completely alone. Is the smoke clearing, I wonder? Suddenly, blood drips from my nose. No more headaches, but now the altitude has me bleeding. Both nostrils spurt and I’m glad I thought to bring a bandana.
I eat kashi, bananas and pecans on my beloved granite slab, then pack up and head on for more adventures. I meet two Mexican Americans near the stream who tell me they barely made it here before dark. Nearly everyone I’ve met is happy to be here.
It’s up steeply, winding through fissures in the seemingly impenetrable wall of ancient sea floor. I breathe heavily and wonder if I’m out of shape. Then I just pull off the gas a little.
I end up on a massive plateau. All three Tetons peak out behind me and I’m surrounded by mesas, walls and a few jagged peaks. It’s phenomenal up here – flat, sparse, open, yet somehow deeply calming. Picas squeak from rocks and one fat marmot poses. Wildflowers still in bloom eek out an existence in this arid, high altitude environment. The wind blows hard and I put my scarf over my cap.
Two backpackers come my way and stop to chat, again happy to be here. I notice the gal has a Kula Cloth pee rag and her beau takes our picture. Streams still run up here fed through limestone cliffs. Above me, a Red Tailed Hawk soars on the thermals. A naturalist told me birds enjoy that because it’s like sitting on the couch, relaxing and keeping them cool.
I meet a father and daughter, she with bright blue hair and he in tight lycra shorts. They camped in this wild openness, telling me the wind flapped their tent all night. Soon, I head down towards a canyon and the trail hugs its edge.
This is the Death Canyon Shelf, a fantastic place to camp, but it’s far too early. A stream crosses the trail and I find a place for second breakfast looking straight into the abyss. Behind me is a huge wall with two-story house sized boulders ejected below. Geologic time is slow, but some things happen in a hurry and best not to be in their way.
The view is glorious, but filled with smoke so in soft filter. I feel sad we’ve brought this on ourselves and I hope we come to our senses and stop burning fossil fuels. If anyone has any doubt what our future will be should we not act now, just look at my pictures.
As I continue, the wind picks rattling the dry plants. I still see the Tetons receding behind me. I’ve come a long way. I meet more hikers, warning me there’s only one more stream until Marion Lake, so I fill up and filter water in the shade with a view into the canyon, though much higher now where I can make out the trail below.
More backpackers come up, and I talk to everyone. It’s so nice to be this relaxed. I remember hiking the John Muir Trail portion of the PCT and also meeting happy hikers taking their time and taking it all in.
I’m glad I got more water because George the Ranger suggested I scramble up Spearhead Peak. It looks like Devils Tower in miniature. George said there are climbing moves, but I see a lovely scramble to a rounded bit next to it which would suit me just fine.
The trail goes under it and up and it appears the approach is somewhere at that saddle. Indeed, there’s a faint trail headed straight up through bushes and trees. This is my most favorite thing to do, to clamor straight up and look for the best route.
The path, of course, disappears entirely, but it’s obvious I simply need to get to the base of the monolith. The rocks are loose and large. I don’t want to disengage one on my foot or while standing on it, so I go slow and look for the most solid.
This rock is dark brown and broken, for the most part, into rectangular slabs. When the going get steep, I zig zag, using my sticks, then my hands. Soon, I’m below the block. I find a reasonable place to sit where I can remove my pack and leave my sticks. There are holes between the rocks, so I’m careful not to drop anything or I might not get it back.
On this side, the monolith is less a wall and more a series of steps. I carefully move to the beginning, but now I’m on slick stones. Getting up, I realize, is one thing. Down on these, quite another.
I see the moves for the ‘stairs’ but look down to where I’d fall. OK, this is just stupid. Maybe if someone else was here. I look down to my backpack below and then out to the more rounded summit. That I can do.
It’s not in my nature to give up – or maybe it is like in Montana. But falling would be awful here and even now carefully picking my way down, I know it was right to bag it.
I grab my bag and carefully step from rock to rock, all of it changing to a mottled and sharp limestone full of holes. My feet cling tightly to it and I easily reach the top of my lump. The views are fantastic looking down three canyons – Death, Granite and Fox Creek. I look for a place to sit out of the wind, and someone has helpfully laid down a flat stone.
I make lunch and hang out in my cool spot for hours, maybe this is the best part of this thru-hike is all the time I have to just be in the environment, studying the rock around me and below my feet. I also love that I made time to take side trips and push myself ever so much out of my comfort zone.
Eventually, I head down, picking my way slowly on the clingy, white rock, careful not to pick loose ones. I’m deposited on open mesa, picking up burrs as I march towards the trail I see in the distance. I cross dry stream beds, large crickets hopping out of my way.
The trail leaves this table top and shoots straight down to Marion Lake. I meet a man carrying a gun and another who tells me a bear followed me along the ridge. That’s when I was singing. I wonder if he liked my voice?
Pretty Marion sits in a bowl of massive, crumbling walls, one separated from the others in a thinner layer, perhaps ready to peel off. This is a popular camp spot and has been seriously overused, so no lake side camping is allowed. Only three permits are given out per night and we camp away from the lake.
Two Mexican American men are here and I tell them I’ll be their neighbor.
“But how do you know I won’t be awful?”
“One can hope!”
I set the alicoop2 right on the edge (ok, near the edge) with a spectacular view into Granite Canyon, then head back to the lake to rinse my body and get water. Again, I sit on a rock for hours just enjoying the scenery, birds catching gnats in the willows and picas warning everyone of my presence.
I come back to the tent and join my neighbors on the cliff edge to talk hiking, renewable energy, the fact that Santa Fe is the number one city for film (one os a makeup artist) and listen to a howling wolf. It gets chilly and we all turn in as the sky turns pink, then deep blue, even with smoke, the stars are bright.
Some animal crashes around outside, so I bring everything in the tent just in case he’s a thief – and also keep my bear spray handy.
If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive.
The wind was wild last night. You could hear it flying off the wall like a train barreling towards me at high speed. The alicoop2 flapped and shook, but held strong. I found it an accomplishment to ignore it mostly, and just go to sleep.
It was surprisingly warm and at one point, I stuck my head out of the tent and just rested in the springy grass and looked at the stars, the two strands of the Milky Way so clear as if I could focus on individual stars.
I had no visitors, even if the wind sometimes sounded like scratching and grunting. I stored my bear bag under my head. There was nowhere to hang it and I didn’t want to leave it on the ground as it’s designed for. I’m really high and no big creatures come here – at least not last night.
I did dream I used the bear spray and it failed. Then I sprayed it on myself, and that too failed. At first I interpret that to mean I’ve lost my power, but as I sit on my favorite rock eating breakfast and watching the birds swoop above the water, I decide it’s more a metaphor for any poison in me losing its grip. I like that better.
It’s chilly this morning and smoky. Looking down into the canyon is an abyss of white. I’ve always wanted to hike to a remote alpine lake and camp all alone and I did. Now to rewind and work my way up and out of here.
It’s really pretty easy, walking next to the stunted trees and colorful leafy plants above the lake, then along a humpy moraine and up near bright pink flowers and finally straight up to the top. It takes all of 20 minutes, even taking pictures.
The Tetons are still on display, sharp, pointy and high and I practically skip down the well-worn path. I’m feeling good, even if I had a bloody nose this morning, so decide to take another side-trip to Icefloe Lake.
Alexis pointed out the cut off yesterday when I met the trail runner, but I never saw a sign. I look for a trail, but never see that either. When I come to a turn in the trail in the obviously wrong direction, I check the GPS. 300 feet back up the trail.
At first I figure I’ll skip it, but something pulls me up there. A sense of adventure, enjoying all this to myself and a bit of curiosity why I have a trail but see none.
Well that’s because there is none. I walk across a rocky area, interspersed with grasses towards a wall of rocks. Looking in vain, I decide maybe I can carefully work my way up. It’s not a steep slope, but neither is it solid like walking down to Kit Lake.
I step carefully, looking for solid rocks and humpy grass that’s less likely to move. Using my sticks, I gradually push up, certain this is the moraine holding the lake in place.
No such luck. At the top, it’s more rock. The map shows the lake further to the north, tucked under the middle Teton. It’s flat up here, so I pick my way over until I’m stopped by massive boulders.
First of all, how did they get here? I look at the jagged peaks rising thousands of feet above, not entirely solid, rather with eroded sections fanning out all the way to my feet.
No way am I climbing that! I snap a picture of the obstacle in my path, then notice just to the left there’s a grassy area with smaller rocks. A way through!
I pick past the boulders, careful of the edge to my left which is straight down and reach a more rolling bit of moraine – and the lake! It’s all rock and ice here, except for tough plants clinging tight and low, now turning colors in early Autumn. To my right is a thick glacier seeping towards it and draining into a waterfall that works its way all the way down the canyon.
I pick my way close, grateful for this lake, its water nourishing my walk yesterday, then turn to go back, unsure how I’ll make it back down. Smoke makes for pink light on the granite slabs below, tiny lakes reflecting cliffs above. Birds dive and soar, eating insects attracted to the flowers. I’m startled to see flowers still in bloom. The air smells like smoke.
I take a few unsteady steps, then decide skidding down on my butt is the safest bet. Besides, my hiking pants only cost $3.99 at the thrift store. I laugh the whole way, curious if anyone else is headed my way and witnessing this indignity. Only a fat marmot with a black tail runs by, shockingly fast with all that blubber.
My walk out is easy and so lovely in this canyon of glacially shaped granite, scree piled and solid walls of ancient fossilized seabeds. I stop at the same stream where I met Alexis and camel up for the climb over Hurricane Pass. I was slightly higher at the lake, but have lost all my altitude and now have to rewind.
The trail works its way up next to a waterfall. The engineering of this path is remarkable. It always cracks me up how self-satisfied we hikers feel hauling our bodies up a trail when all we’re doing is walking. The real skill is the superb building. And don’t I know after two big scrambles today.
About halfway up I meet two hikers who tell me they work remotely, so travel a whole lot. When we discuss where we’ll camp tonight, they tell me Kit Lake! I’m surprised they chose it too, and I’m glad we’ll have it on different nights.
I give them beta on the approach and then head up, first through a flat section of granite, trees and water. There’s a side trail to Schoolroom Glacier, a massive sheet of ice cracking into myriad crevasses and sagging towards a lake in a color I like to call ‘chaqua.’ As I return to the trail and approach the final switchbacks taking me up the wall, a weasel, black and sleek, scurries past.
From a distance, this trail is obvious – a long ramp finding one chink in the armor of this seemingly impenetrable wall. Yet again, there’s a side trail. This time right at the glacier. i of course, have to go closer.
I know I’m on solid rock, flat and compressed. Yet it’s unnerving looking straight down to the lake, the moraine so neatly piled, it appears made by machine. I look into long cracks, then one huge, evil tunnel, exposing and opening that could swallow you up deep inside the ice.
I don’t linger long.
It’s not far to the top, where two men sit and look at the three Tetons right directly in front of us. Hurricane Pass is aptly named, the wind whipping strong causing me to put a hood on over my hat.
The guys tell me about their cool site by a waterfall and that they built a fire. I remind them fire’s are prohibited, mainly by suggesting it would really be awful if you were the one that started a forest fire. They appear oblivious to the fact that wildfires are causing this haze.
They’re nice enough and I try not to be a jerk, but I struggle with ignorance on this subject. We wish each other well, then I head down seeing three of their friends coming up the steep pass. “Your friends told me to tell you they ate all the chocolate and drank the booze.” The guys laugh and ask how much farther.
More backpackers come up the pass. I’m really happy I took my side adventure all alone. On this side, it’s more flat topped walls, but mostly in haze. I reach a steep drop off with tight switchbacks. Sunset Lake shimmers in the distance through bright red foliage.
I find shade at the beautiful lake for a snack, but it’s crowded and I really want to see this site with the waterfall. I head steeply up, then down straight into a Sierra-like rock garden of granite, lakes and pine trees.
High above are barren walks and pointy peaks, but here is a lush garden. The guys said to follow the trail to Mirror Lake and right away I find the falls. I head up next to them and see a large, open space with a fire ring right in the center. It’s filled with half burnt logs and garbage – big cans I really can’t carry out.
It’s really not my kind of place, so I continue on, breaking off trail to look for the little lakes. Two days ago, four guys told me about a lake with islands in it and how they had an entire veranda of rock. I stumble around looking, finding a few ponds, Mirror Lake itself with a ‘no camping’ sign, a few passable spots, and finally the lovely lake itself.
Even here, it takes wandering around to find the spot they were talking about – on grass with a huge slab of rock down to water. I set up, do chores, then simply hang out on my massive front porch, white rock with an orange patina chipping away.
It reminds me of a trip years ago on Lake Kabatogama in Voyageurs National Park when our camp sites spread out to a veranda, where my box wine was shared by the whole group. No wine this time, but good food and nice neighbors, four guys from LA who camp quietly on the other side.
Behind me faces west and the land drops down, so I finally have a long, drawn out sunset. It’s bright magenta, glistening on the granite slabs. My lake is a jewel surrounded by high peaks. One island has a large gray trunk skeleton, birds picking a branch, then fluttering away.
The wind has completely died, only a stream rustles in the distance. I think taking shorter days is breaking the spell and I’m feeling less anxious about hiking. Long distance trails demand long days, but shorter ones allow for time to take side trips, search for the perfect site, and thoroughly soak it all in. This trail feels just right. And who knows, maybe a little shake up was what I needed to not take the whole thru-hiking business so seriously. I’m strong and feel good, but I have no need to prove anything, just to enjoy each surprise.
If you are never scared, embarrassed or hurt, it means you never take chances.
No one visited last night after the moose sneeze. My food bag is still hanging in the tree, but my view seems a bit obscured. Is that smoke settling in?
I take my time getting out of the warmth. There’s only a bit of frost, but mostly it’s warm still in shadow as I make breakfast. It’s fun to think back to when I made all this food, planning to eat it on the CDT. I have enough for weeks of trips and I can taste all the love and hope that went into these individual meals.
I pack up and start heading down, saying goodbye to this spectacular site on soft grass looking right at the Grand with water burbling around me all night. Before the moon came up, I looked out on both strands of the Milky Way clear as can be, millions of stars making me feel tiny.
It’s all downhill to the cut off up the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. Trail builders created beautiful rock stairs most of the way following rushing water the entire way down. Yesterday, a man asked me close to Lake Solitude how much further. I said not far, and he hazarded a guess of four miles.
“Well, four miles and you’re halfway there.”
He loved my answer and shared it with his slower partners. It’s really only a few miles through stands of white bark pine and willow, loads of campsites tucked in near water. I cross a massive boulder field, part of an avalanche. Picas peep loudly at me, then scurry into their burrows, fat but fast.
As the forest thickens, I call out for bears. On day one, I passes a couple wearing bells and a solo hiker carrying a large cow bell. It’s only picas this morning plus squirrels and chipmunks.
Down and down I go towards tall trees. This entire system was carved out by glaciers miles thick. I yell out a particularly long bear call and it summons a backpacker. We both laugh as his three friends show up. They give me good beta on the Alaska Basin and we wish each other well as I begin to ascend again.
It will be up the rest of the day, with a few flat patches set aside for campsites. It’s shaded with water crashing next to me in cascades over granite boulders. I yell for bears as I round blind corners and yet again, I summon a trio of hikers. They’re friendly and cute and agree to some silly pictures before we share beta and move on.
It seems everyone is starting their day from the South Fork campsites and I meet more backpackers – some happy and friendly and others more sullen. Tired? Cranky? In a hurry? Two women are curious about my tent and just as I begin to share my opinion, they move down to make way for two more. These guys are not with them, though tell me they’ve met at nearly every break spot, which may explain why they kept moving.
We are on a steep slope, but stop to talk about how steep it is, getting altitude sickness and that they saw a massive moose. I try to convince them not to leave today via Cascade Canyon but to continue over Paintbrush Divide, but they are exhausted.
One asks me if I’m from around here since I’m so comfortable in the woods. I say no, but accept his lovely compliment. Up and up I go, switchbacking around a massive boulder and up and over falls. The smoke is making a haze in the peaks which now tower right over my head. I don’t smell it though, and am only breathing heavy because I’m at 9,000 feet.
It’s beautiful in spite of the haze, the bushes turning bright red and yellow, the water crashing nearby. I meet two more backpackers who stop to talk and give me beta on Death Canyon Shelf.
They remind me it’s all up today and I tell them that I am emotionally prepared. One tells me she only prepared for Hurricane Pass and was surprised by the second bit, “And I’m pregnant, too!” I congratulate her on the effort and they head on down.
Just ahead is good access to the river and I fill up and get a snack. The water is clear and cold and I’m so happy I set up a gravitational feed, so I can snack as it fills. I follow the river on flatter ground for a while, the pass – at least the first one – peaking out through the trees.
It’s more up on easy trail through forest where I yell out for bear, assuming I’ll see people, which I do. I have a good rhythm, but it’s long and I’m a bit tired. Heck, I did not come out here to hurry. I find a nice rock and take a break, drinking an entire liter of water. Does it still count as carrying weight if it’s in my body?
I check the map and see that I’m just below the switchbacks and near the cutoff for where I plan to explore. It’s up, but switchbacks make it easy and I float up, looking out to massive spires above the deep canyon I just climbed out of.
I begin to see signs for campsites, plus one huge tent like a house, likely a horse camp. The sign here points to Hurricane Pass on the Teton Crest and Avalanche Divide which is a dead end, but has an interesting set of lakes under a massive wall which I’ve been told is amazing camping.
But I’m a bit uncertain about heading two miles off trail into the unknown. It’s most definitely an Alpine Lake above treeline and could be cold, and certainly remote.
I cross a stream and head for some shade on a beautiful slab of granite to study the map. Just then, as if the trail decided to step up and do some providing, a man appears at the junction seemingly from nowhere. He too studies his map and I call out to him.
“Hey, are you headed up the divide?”
I ask again and he says yes, then I suggest he come in the shade to look at maps. He obliges and tells me he plans to camp here, but wanted to explore. I tell him I’m headed to Kit Lake and he wonders if we’re even allowed to camp there.
“Ranger George said I could!”
So without much discussion, we head up the divide together. I wasn’t entirely clear on the fact that it was more ascent, but it’s astoundingly beautiful in here – a giant bowl of crushed rock and moraine, snow fields and the towering Tetons above.
He tells me his name is Alexis, from Phoenix and half Austrian, half Mexican. He keeps a steady pace, but it’s mellow like mine and we can talk, stopping every now and then for pictures of this wild moonscape.
Still, there are flowers and the first deep purple gentian of the trip. The rock is mottled, showing its fossilized beginnings. We cut high up and turn west, seeing the switchbacks to Hurricane Pass before we turn east, straight at the Grand.
Water is everywhere including two pools where we take snapshots of each other. Just as we come to a cut off for Icefloe Lake, Alexis’ original destination, we meet a trail runner! He’s come all the way up from Taggart Creek. “But I thought this trail was a dead end?” He tells me there’s a faint track, but I neglect to ask him where.
We contour the mountain nearly straight out to the end and come to a cliff looking down on Kit Lake, my camping destination. There’s a gusty breeze and a nice, flat sitting rock we share for lunch. I am not sure about going down there, a place looking very remote indeed.
Alexis has brought a monocular and I study the terrain. I can see a flat spot below near a boulder with shade. The ranger didn’t seem to concerned about my camping there, but how exactly do I get down?
We talk about other things, life, our careers just as dozens of butterflies float past, seemingly allowing the breeze to pull them up here. Alexis points below at a chunky marmot running by and I realize if I can see him that well, the scale is much smaller than I thought.
There’s always an out to turn around and camp below, or keep heading up on the TCT, but I decide to give it a shot, finding the most gradual slope. It turns out to be on dried mud from recent snow melt and grips quite well.
Alexis waves from above and wishes me luck, telling me he’ll talk next by email. I zig zag down on an angle towards a shoot of grass and flowers between two cliffs. From above I saw that it was best to stay high here and contour above the lake where I hit stunted pines in a row, humpy grass and beautiful leafy plants in a variety of colors.
It’s only a matter of minutes that I reach the boulder and find an flat grass patch close to a tiny inlet. I’m exposed to the wind, but it’s soft and has me looking right at the wall, the caves I’ve left unexplored.
I set up (placing rocks on all my stake out points) get water and wash up, then hang out on a flat rock with a giant red stripe through it, reading and contemplating this mysterious high altitude rock garden. The wind is gusty, pushing big puffy clouds across the sun and keeping me cool. They make waves on my aqua lake which burp against the rocks. Birds visit but I never see a marmot or hear picas. I hope I’m not being foolish to sleep with my food tonight.
Swallows are the last to pass by before I tuck in, the wind shuddering and shaking but so far holding up. I’m all alone tonight and loving this silence, a chance to contemplate a glorious day of exertion and views, laughs, connections and a new friend.
Also, that I feel mighty bad ass in this high lake all alone.
I wake with the tiniest bit of frost on the alicoop2, but I was cozy warm all night, the sky crystal clear and filled with stars, a half moon winking in before dawn.
A loud crow wakes me, his wings flap-flapping as he makes a fly over. I’m warm and lazy with no reason to get up, so watch the sun creep up the canyon and light up the Grand.
I’m reading Pema Chödrön Comfortable with Uncertainty trying to learn how to let go more, live more in the present with curiosity and have more humor about myself and all the ways I try to make things go my way. She writes that it’s better for us when we accept that nothing is guaranteed, though I’m fairly certain to be guaranteed I have to do my morning business!
So it’s out of the tent in this glorious place to find a loo with a view and dig my first cat hole of the trip. I next find a comfy spot on a rock outcropping and have a breakfast of raisin bran and pecans. A gal peaks in to say “hi” and I ask if she was warm enough last night. “Oh yes!” she tells me and admires my spot.
I take my time packing, letting the bottom of the alicoop2 dry out first. There’s no rush as it isn’t far over the divide and I want to ensure I don’t get another altitude headache. But eventually I say goodbye to this superb place that held me safe in a night of wonder and I’m off.
It’s steep up past more thickets of white bark pine, but nothing as magical as my site. I see the pass high above, “Oh boy…” and go into low gear passing lakes below in aqua and deep blue.
Thirty years ago, I hiked this on a day with a violinist named Margaret. It was one of the first big passes I’d ever done and I remember it being gorgeous and me being exhausted. We came the other way, a more gradual ascent. This one makes long zig zags with views deep into the canyon before sidling a scree slope. Some glaciers still cling to the slope, but I never cross any. I would definitely need spikes and an ice ax with this 60-70 degree slope straight down for hundreds of feet.
Ahead I see three backpackers working their way up slowly. We’re moving at about the same pace, slow with lots of stops for views. It’s not really hard walking, but I’m careful not to fall and put the trekking pole straps around my wrists. Below me is Grizzly Lake where I might have camped, but glad I decided not to hike down 1,000 feet. All around me are boulders and scree though oddly a few stunted pines at the top.
I see the three reach a very steep bit close to a wall and just as I reach it, a man passes me. He and his partner both are out just for the day and both have stuffed animal ‘mascots’ on their packs. They pop right up these rocks, where I need to set my poles and carefully lift myself up. My pack isn’t too heavy, but it’s unwieldy and I don’t want to fall.
A small group gathers at the top including the five now I’m following and I meet them soon. It’s a wide plateau surrounded by pointy peaks, a few massive glaciers fanning out. We chat and I learn the three climbed the Grand only a few days ago, the young woman in pink-tinted braids getting awfully close to the edge to snap my picture. She mentions she saw a bear heading to my campsite last night, a black bear which I never saw.
Three men are coming the other way and tell me to grab the first site after the waterfall. I tell them that same summer, thirty years ago, I led a nervous group of hikers up to Lake Solitude in snow with yellow crocuses pushing up to the hot sun. The lake was iced over, but the day was brilliant and I wore cut offs and a crop top.
So long ago and I can’t see the lake yet from here. I can see pink quartz in the rock and black glass glinting in the So long ago and I can’t see the lake yet from here. But I do see pink quartz in the rock and black glass glinting in the brilliant sunlight. The wind is up and it’s warm, the sky is a deep blue up here above 10,000 feet. Soon, each group heads down and I hear voices chattering in stereo on both sides. I put on a sweater and drink some water, before deciding I might as well see about that amazing campsite, and head down myself.
The Grand Tetons are made of some of the oldest rock in the world, yet are relatively young mountains, split apart and pushed up while the valley was pushed down. Glaciers carved their jagged shape and remnants of glaciers are visible along with deep canyons and cold, deep lakes. The trail down is carved through massive boulders, and is strewn with sizable rocks demanding attention be paid.
It’s a more gradual descent heading far south, Lake Solitude finally in view but a long way in the opposite direction. But this way brings the massive and slightly askew Grand Teton into view plus the verdant North Fork of Cascade Creek, winding through willows and grasses down to the main canyon.
The trail eventually turns back north under a cliff and works its way like a ramp through small stands of pine and down to the lake, sparkling like diamonds in a bowl of jagged peaks.
I decide to find that amazing site first and return later to the lake. It’s steep down, with trail crews even building rock stairs. I pass the horse hitching post then cross the bridge over crashing falls and look for the spot as three backpackers tell me it’s still a bit further.
A helpful sign indicates the camping zone and a sign points to a campsite. I’m here! In fact, it’s the same one George the Ranger recommended, next to a massive boulder. No one is here so I walk down, over a pile of debris likely pushed here in the spring melt.
It’s positively ideal, my tent site in a grassy meadow between two streams looking right at all three Tetons. I set up in the hot sun, then filter water for lunch – Buffalo Pasta Salad and a handful of gummy bears, plus a peanut butter/chocolate shake –choosing a flat rock next to the boulder in shade. A whole row of backpackers stop on the trail and look in as I putter around organizing my gear and changing into camp clothes. Do they want my spot?
They move on and I put my sleeping bag on top of my tent for shade and try to take a nap. It’s really too hot in the direct sun and the wind keeps blowing it off. So I move to a shady spot under a pine tree with a curvy trunk that appears to be dancing. My view is incredible and I lay down to read. This is truly one of the most magnificent places I have ever camped.
As the afternoon wanes, I decide to head up and explore Lake Solitude before dinner. I take my pack, water and the bear bag in case I want to eat above. It’s not too far up and so worth coming back to a huge rock outcropping with shade under pines.
I talk to twin sisters for a while, then follow the shore. Had I walked the CDT and come here, I would have had to scramble down off-trail. I can see the route along a grassy area, but it’s far and I’ll bet tricky. I walk a path that takes me through fields of dried flowers scraping at my ankles. The lake is turquoise and fed by waterfalls.
I have a few bars and drink water with electrolytes. Altitude makes me thirsty, but my headache is gone. I hear a splash and see someone swimming. I can only brave soaking my feet for a few moments before they go numb.
I meet a young woman named Grace who tells me it’s fairly flat after Hurricane Pass and she didn’t see much water. We talk about how beautiful everything is and she comments my name, “Blissful” suits me.
As I leave I meet the man who swam. He apparently is used to cold water. They’re camping below and when I tell them I’m in the gray tent they ask, “Did you see the moose?!” First a bear, and now a moose. What else did I miss?
They follow me down and point to him laying in the stream below my camp spot. I really can’t see him, but after dinner – triskets and cheese dip – I spy him grazing in the wetlands. He has an enormous rack and suddenly seems to see me. I don’t blend in wearing bright orange. I move out of site so as not to cause him stress. I doubt he’ll come up to my tent, loving his territory of grasses and aquatics.
I make a poor attempt to hang the bear bag. It’s designed to simply tie tightly to a tree because bears cannot chew through the fabric, but I don’t trust critters who can chew through. The sun is golden on the Tetons and I’m already cuddled into Big Greenie.
But I might just check it out.
Holy smokes, a big sneeze. The bull moose is up above the stream. He’s about 100 feet away, just grazing and there is really nothing to eat in my section of the meadow but wow, he’s big!
OK, one quick check of my bear hang before it gets dark, then off to bed and trusting the creatures have no interest in a bunch of dehydrated pasta, cereal and chocolate.
Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.
The morning comes early, still dark when my alarm goes off. There’s nothing special to be done, just roll out of bed, put on my hiking outfit and go.
The weather forecasts a splendid week of upper 60’s and low 70’s under bright sunny days with all the smoke blown out. Nights will be right at freezing so I pack big greenie, my zero degree bag, plus layers and six days of meals. Yesterday, I biked to Chipotle for two giant burritos wrapped in tin foil to eat along my journey. They get extra screening at the airport.
It’s been a long week with voice over work plus interviews for a job I would really like to be hired for in a place I want to live. Everything went well, but it absolutely wiped me out and stirred the pot of insecurity and uncertainty. Part of the reason I left for this open-ended backpacking trip now was the coming of fall, but also to get away from overthinking. (spoiler alert: I didn’t get that job)
The flight is delayed due to mechanical trouble, but the women who shares my row switches with me for a window seat. Sadly, it’s the wrong side to see the Teton Range as we fly towards Jackson Hole. That’s where one of my climbing buddies, Cheyenne happens to be sitting on her way home, now that she lives out here. Small world and hoping for a drink together when I finish.
We cross other ranges in a bit of haze, but it’s Chamber of Commerce blue skies, just a wisp of cloud at the tip of the Grand. It’s a short runway and we plop down and brake fast. You can’t fly with bear spray, so I rent a can near baggage claim. It’s a good deal at $30 for five days or more – I opt for two weeks just in case.
‘Bear’ picks me up to drive me over to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, my fingers and toes crossed I can nab a permit. He’s ex-military and British, swiped by us to train soldiers for high altitude missions. I like him right away especially when he promises to wait to ensure I can hike.
I wander past the store and visitor center, the place crowded but not nearly as bad as mid-July. Ranger George helps me, an avuncular older man who apologizes when he needs to pick up the phone to organize a search and rescue.
I joke with him that I’m going for my ‘SKT,’ Slowest Known Time over the crest, carrying six days of food with no intention to hurry. He suggests a few side scrambles and to bring warm gear since it might snow in three days. He also gives me tips on the best sites and wishes me luck, before I race back to Bear who assumed I’d nabbed a permit.
“Of course you would,” he tells me. “It’s getting cold and the animals are already moving south down the Gros Ventre,” as we spy a small herd of pronghorn antelope doing just that. He drives me a few minutes more north to the Leigh Lake trailhead where I eat one of my sandwiches looking straight at the Grand with two SUP paddlers in line for scale and interest.
I pack up, put on sunscreen and take off on a wide and flat track. Everyone is happy, commenting on the clear skies (finally) The air is pungent with pine and balsam, it’s fresh and cool as I circle the lake, cross a channel and meet the trail up Paintbrush Canyon.
It’s a bit late for flowers. I see exactly one on my ascent. Mostly the bushes are turning yellow and red, even as the day heats up.
I spent two summers playing flute at the Grand Teton Music Festival, so walked this canyon many times. It’s five miles of steep and rocky ascent climbing between magnificent walls towards lakes and finally a divide taking the hiker behind the major peaks. Mount Moran is visible much of the day with its long, dark stripe of rock embedded in a mostly gray mountain.
I climb slow and steady in absolutely no rush. A few hikers pass wearing headphones and barely acknowledge I’m there. But then I meet a trio in their seventies curious about what I’m doing. They’re from Alabama and one has a strong accent.
“We’re old, but we’re doing the best thing for your health!”
Ain’t that the truth. As we part they wonder if a backpack trip with mules might be in the cards for them. I push upward, my pack heavy on day one. I’m in the trees and the shade feels good, though views pop out as the trail begins a long series of switchbacks.
I meet a large group of men filtering water at a small stream. I hear the bigger stream and want to find a spot to sit while I filter, so move on, massive rock slabs appearing which the trail scurries around.
I also have a spectacular view down the canyon to the lakes I passed as well as massive Jackson Lake, the land surrounding the dusty light green sagebrush. The trail is nearly always up but good tread. Nonetheless, my heart pumps hard and I’m out of breath, not tachycardia, just hard work.
I find my good filter spot by a bridge in sunshine, with a fallen log to sit and hang up my gravity fed filter with ‘dirty’ water bags emptying into Smart Water bottles. The water may contain protozoa or bacteria, but is crystal clear.
An older man and woman come down, she telling me, “Prepare to be amazed!” I think she means the views, but it’s a group of six young children happily marching down the trail. It seems to Tetons attracts all ages.
I press up and up, waterfalls shooting down the rocks and the trail continuing to zigzag up to an obvious plateau where the lakes must be. I walk slower and slower, still moving though a bit woozy through a massive boulder field, the views wide of peaks and glaciers.
The trail splits here and George suggested I take the right fork to see these pretty lakes, though I have to stop at the first one. I sit on a rock in the middle of a field of grass that’s turned gold.
I hear two women closer to the water by the rocks laughing. Perhaps they went swimming. They come towards me and I say hi, sharing some of the same pleasantries I’ve shared all day with the dozens coming down from their day hike. When I mention how the grass here just glows, I must have said something magical because the girls really take a liking to me.
One named Allison has just completed her PhD in the protection of endangered animals. She spent time in Russia thwarting poachers of big game. Victoria is a Coast Guard nurse and the two have been traveling all summer with a stash of champagne in their trunk.
We take pictures and selfies and promise to keep in touch. Such lovely young women heading down as I have a little over a mile – a steep mile – yet to walk. Holly Lake is lovely tucked in a bowl surrounded by white pine. All the campsites are taken and I suddenly feel nervous that I won’t find a spot to set the alicoop2 before dark.
A sign for the lake grabs my attention: 9,410 feet. It’s the altitude! I knew the Grand Teton was high, but I somehow neglected to check the height of the trail. No wonder I’m moving like a snail.
I skip stopping at the lake and head up now towards the Upper Paintbrush camp area. The trail is truly steeper, and I need to walk twenty steps or so, then catch my breath. The views open right up into this staggering canyon, now more a bowl leading to a pass.
A stream comes all the way down near the trail and George said sites are in small groves of pine. I see one, but it’s a bit too deep in trees, so I very slowly move on.
Just as I reach a flattening out of the stream, I come upon three hikers stripped to their skivvies with music cranked. Oh no! A few backpackers pass me coming down and I let a few f-bombs drop which they commiserate with.
But I am wrecked now so can only climb. So when an ideal spot appears near the babbling stream and looking towards the Grand, I take it and get right to setting up the tent. I also get out of my sweaty bra and into warm clothes as the sun makes its long ramp towards setting.
Pica squeak as if squeezed and loads of birds fly to closer branches to see if handouts are in order. Not on your life! Once my home is set, I head to the water to filter and make dinner. At this point, my head is starting to pound. I always suffer from altitude sickness and it usually takes a few days to acclimate. It’s not pleasant, and one time it turned nasty and potentially fatal, but mostly I just feel bad.
The loud music below me is not helping. I yell down to ask if they’re staying and they say yes, but will keep it down. I would prefer off and decide I better just move. But my head really hurts.
I ask if one might come up to help, and he does, still shirtless and in flip flops. He tells me they were just celebrating one of their birthdays, drinking far too much tequila and about to stop, then wants to know why I’m letting the air out of my mattress. I tell him I need to move and give him a lecture on Leave No Trace and being considerate.
He says, “You had me walk up here for that?”
And I realize I’m also being kind of a jerk, too. Josh is his name, and he honestly had no idea I was up here. I apologize and we laugh when I realize it’s only 6:00!
True to his word, it goes absolutely quiet as the sun sets. I sit in the last of the sun as a few birds flap around and one grouse-like creature visits. The Grand and south-facing canyons walls turn pinky-orange, and the glaciers seemingly pasted to eroding scree shimmer. I hang the Ursack in a high branch mostly to discourage ‘mini-bears’ – the pica, chipmunks and marmots – from chewing through.
I stay out as long as I can stand then bundle up inside Big Greenie as it goes dark and the first stars appear. What a day of luck, especially with the permit and weather, and one that pushed me hard, so hopefully I’ll sleep deeply and dream of more adventures to come.
A strong woman looks a challenge in the eye and gives it a wink.
This Saturday, I’ll fly out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to walk the Teton Crest Trail. My cardiologist has given me the green light and we have a plan to try and head off any other weird racing heart beats that come to call.
This time around, I’m setting my self up for success by going slower, taking more days to explore, using beta blockers and avoiding unpleasant and unhelpful people. I also have some nifty vagal nerve maneuvers that could help reset the beat if it decides to go haywire again and an Apple watch which can record an ECG for Dr. Z should I have another episode.
Late August is a fabulous time to hike with sunny days and cool nights and this is one of the premiere hikes in the world – and really, quite short.
I will be fine.
That being said, there are so many unknowns, like – can I get a permit at all, will the weather hold (it snowed last week) when and how will I come home? I’ve built in some guardrails to keep myself safe, but I’ll be living a bit on the edge. One friend tells me that’s essentially who I am (can you say, “bad ass?”) Though I don’t really do it alone. The trail has always provides, even in the case of bringing me home to some interesting surprises that I’ll need to share with you in a later post.
For now, off I go, one step at a time to see what I’m made of as well as to discover how walking inside this spectacularly beautiful place effects me.
Til later, my friends, *kia kaha and happy trails!
I never kill insects. If I see ants or spiders in the room, I pick them up and take them outside. Karma is everything.
I am covered head to toe in deet, but that doesn’t dissuade gnats and even one mosquito from dive bombing my eye balls, drowning in the moist corners.
And I’ve only been out an hour.
Richard and I drove up to Northern Wisconsin on country roads a few days ago to visit friends from Houston who summer at a cabin on Lake Namekagon. These are friends we sang with at Christ Church Cathedral, went on tour with, and were part of the early days of us coming together to tie the knot. Our fondest shared memory is escaping Hurricane Rita barreling towards the Gulf Coast by hunkering down with lots of singing, card games and booze until the wee hours.
Not much has changed.
And yet, my goals on this visit include testing my mettle on trail. So we get ourselves up and out earlier than the rest to give the North Country Trail a try, the trailhead just a few miles away on windy gravel roads so deep in forest, it’s easy to lose all sense of direction.
Like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, the North Country is a federally recognized long distance trail. At 4,700 miles, it is the longest running, from North Dakota to New York. I don’t know anyone ‘thru-hiking’ it, probably because it lies so far north, it’s not possible to walk in one season.
None-the-less, I meet an ‘end-to-ender’ catching as much as possible in 2021. Joe sprawls out on a narrow bridge to pump water. He talks non-stop in the way those who have hiked alone too long do, spending equal time talking to me as if I know the trail and educating me like I’ve never walked it.
Which I have, all the juiciest parts in Minnesota anyway – the Superior Hiking Trail, the Border Route and the Kekekabic. But here I’m burdened with only a day pack and, with Richard picking me up wherever I end up, the freedom to walk as much or little as I like.
It’s been an unseasonably hot summer, humid and buggy deep into August. I love the first few miles in the fresh cool, the sunlight dappled through the thick forest of maple, oak, birch and white pine. Richard drops me near Drummond, and I disappear into the Chequamegon National Forest (pronounced shuh-MAH-go-in) 1.5 million acres set aside by the federal government to harvest trees but also simply to enjoy.
The trail through the Porcupine Wilderness is easy walking on soft ground, the moss thick as the trail moves up on an esker along the eponymous Lake. I’m amazed how quickly the outside world vanishes – no cars, no noise whatsoever, only wind high above in the trees.
The trail is not blazed, but signs point me in the right direction when I hit exits towards parking ‘lots,’ more wide spaces along empty dirt roads. I spy lakes tucked in behind trees, then a pristine babbling brook begging me to take a bit of respite by its banks.
My attitude is not entirely centered in on the loveliness of this place. Trees just seem to go on and on, and I get impatient. The bugs are no help and even in here, I’m hot and sweaty.
But I move fast, vacillating between wanting to grab as many miles as I can and enjoying the surprises along the way, mushrooms in fanciful colors and frogs in my path.
And this is precisely how I get into trouble, pushing too hard in the heat, putting off my break for a suitable ‘view,’ and losing sight of what surrounds me.
I meet a couple at a lake just as I find myself turned around by herd trails to various campsites. When I ask them if I’m headed the right way, they tell me they’ve never been here before, though they helpfully suggest I walk an entirely different trail.
Fortunately, it’s not entirely different and where I’m headed later in the day, a part of this same trail ‘system.’ They promise good views before I snap their picture and head on, deep into forest and still more.
Robert Louis Stevenson said when you hike, “you sink into yourself, and the birds come round and look at you.” True enough. I am a visitor just passing by, and birds flit from tree to tree, checking me out and no doubt commenting on my furious pace.
I head straight up from the lake on a well worn path, digging in my poles. It takes me to a super site with a well constructed fire ring that must have a splendid view in fall. So I head right back down again, fairly certain whatever this path is must be the right one.
And as if the universe heard my call, I come upon a woman who assures me it is. I warn her of the maze of side trails and she shares her own warning of a beaver dam to negotiate with bog on each side ready to suck in the careless walker. “But you’ve got sticks and should be fine.”
I notice her hiking pants are free of dirt and tears while my bare legs are spotted with mud (from where in this drought?) scratched and bleeding with one red, itchy and swollen bite the size of a half dollar.
Nothing in here is hard, only the monotony of forest and the heat sucking at my will. The dam is just as she warned, a narrow path of pressed down bushes, Joe Pye and thorns grabbing as if refusing my passage without a price. My reward is a small handful of plump blackberries.
I reach a road to cross that sends me out of wilderness and into the Hardwood Scientific Area. I’m later told each section is managed by different agencies, some federal, some state.
I decide here to keep moving and take my break at the upcoming overlook at Long Mile Lookout. This requires a lot of up and down, just when I get to the breaking point of thirst, but there’s nowhere in the leaf litter to stop.
Still, this is one of my worst habits. I push myself not wanting to lose momentum and I like to chill at a view. But it’s been about ten miles already so I make a mental note to affix a bottle holder to the front of my pack for sips during my more manic phases of walking.
The woods have an odd darkness, as if they’re their own society separate from the world. It’s as if I’m not outdoors at all. The only other time I’ve felt this way was in Utah in Buckskin Gulch, a long slot canyon that embraced me tightly like a high, narrow cathedral.
I contemplate this feeling of being inside as opposed to out when a long line of backpackers catch me. They’re young with big packs, laughing as I take a film of them marching past.
Their presence reminds me to chill out and stop taking myself so seriously – and for the goddess’s sake, stop rushing. Though I protest to the ether that my view is just beyond, up one more hill.
Which of course, it is not.
Up I go, then down, up and down and up again, one more to a sign pointing to the overlook. Finally! The wind is up and I hear a mournful whine in the enormous tower above. Am I meant to climb that?!
But, how? There appear to be no stairs. No, there are not stairs. Only a ladder. And the first twenty feet have gone missing.
I am definitely not meant to climb it, or even able to. This is a tower all right, and my view from below it is non-existent. There’s a nice spot to sit anyway on the concrete blocks holding the tower in place looking deep into trees. At least the wind is up.
After I down all my water in two shakes – chocolate peanut butter and mango chia seed – the forest continues, but mostly down until I shoot back up over a lump of moraine to head quickly back down again. It’s another four miles of this in dappled light before I reach another overlook. This is the one the couple from the start assured me actually affords a view.
I cut off for ‘Juniper Rock’ feeling a bit cynical though this time around, I’m rewarded with quite the view into a deep valley of oak, aspen and maple, the distant high points sharp and steep.
I sit down on the pinkish rock to savor it as long as I can, even as the sun burns down on my shadeless patch before diving back into the forest towards ruins of a Swedish settlement from the late 1800’s.
Immigrants found their way to Wisconsin during a time of famine, taking advantage of the Homestead Act. It granted them land as long as they lived on it for five years and ‘attempted’ to farm. One couple – Gust and Ida – did their best, the gal garnering the nickname ‘goat’ for her ability to run up and down these steep and lush hills above the Marengo River.
I come upon remains of a spring house made of concrete and try to imagine life in those times – hard, for sure, but tight knit, neighbors needing to rely on one another for everything from help harvesting to company when lonely. It didn’t help that these hardy souls attempted to farm on glacial til. Pictures of the time reveal cleared woods, but now it’s all grown back, and I’m swarmed by bugs.
So off I go, taking only a precursory look at the other remains before pressing on into a planted forest of red pine, tall and straight, the light streaming in long rays. It almost feels primeval with huge ferns, like New Zealand.
Two more view points open up, but nothing offers as much as the first so I barely sit down before marching on. I’m hot and tired, feeling like I’ve seen all I want to see when I really haven’t done that much hiking. Ole Ida the ‘goat’ would take her churned butter ten miles to market in Grand View and must be snickering at me from the beyond wilting carrying only a day pack.
The trail begins to descend and I’m fairly certain I’m heading out now, though the path plays tricks on me turning sharply left and going deeper into the gloom. I laugh and wonder if choosing this trail was a good idea in the dog day’s of summer.
To paraphrase Paul Theroux, “Hiking suggests hope. Despair is the armchair; it is indifference and glazed, incurious eyes. Hikers are optimists.”
My outlook is certainly more optimistic these days learning my heart has no blockage, no weakness or structural damage and is not verging on any life threatening arrhythmias. Whatever weird heart beat I have occasionally has proven elusive and we can’t seem to catch it in the act, so my cardiologist has suggested for now medication, vagal nerve maneuvers and an Apple watch – plus more hiking.
I’m finally spit out onto a road, not a soul around just me and the bugs. I send Richard a message that I’m stopping here and squat down on a rock to gobble up a leftover thru-hike lunch.
My wait is long since his drive from a disc golf course he played and mapped is winding and complicated. I flick away a black and white spider from my leg, and he simply crawls right back up. Such persistence; such hopefulness and optimism that spider maybe looking for salty sweat and warmth on my beaten up shin.
The trails will see me once again as soon as I can organize my schedule to get back. This short ‘trial trail’ just to whet the appetite, and likely more interesting on paper and as a ‘hoped for’ experience than what it turned out to be.
But I didn’t stay at home or complain about the woods of Northern Wisconsin not living up to the standards of the Rocky Mountains. I went and walked and took it as it comes. I moved forward, each step taking me towards a possible overlook, a tiny surprise, a joy in moving.
I’ll take that – bugs, heat and all – over standing still any day.