I really admire brave people. People who live on the edge of life, and dangle their feet over the Grand Canyon. People who take off, with $100 and a backpack, to travel the world for a year. People who drive down any back road because they know they can handle whatever comes their way.
But, in this life, as it turns out, I am not a particularly brave person. I mean, if you think it’s brave to order the spiciest, weirdest thing on the menu, then I guess I’m a little brave. Or if you think it’s brave to delve into self-awareness and self-improvement, well, then, I guess I do have my moments. Risk-taking with jobs, making new recipes for a crowd, living in foreign countries? Yes. But physical bravery? Nope.
I just don’t go chasing after these kinds of situations; I know my limits. So, when I find myself in one of them, I never know how I’ll react or what the outcome will be.
Last summer’s backpack trip is a classic example of forced bravery under pressure. It all started out innocently enough. Word to the wise:
You should always vet your partner’s bucket list.
Gary lived in Seattle years ago and had always wanted to do a particular 23-mile beach walk on the Olympic Peninsula. Doesn’t that sound nice? I mean, “a beach walk.” What’s not to love? Warm, soft sand. Sunshine and ocean breezes. Shell-collecting and photo ops, right?
Wrong. We were going to walk from Rialto Beach to Ozette Lake along the wild, northwestern coast of the Olympic Peninsula. No trail. Only an occasional tiny sign nailed into the top of a tree near a beach would provide the faintest clue as to where we were. Inaccurate topo maps. We had it all.
But as usual, we did our homework. For example, we ignored the many trip reviews that said things like this:
“Most of the trails over the headlands can seem pretty treacherous. Everyone in my party was an early 20s male, but I can see how other demographics might have the sense to feel endangered.”
We checked the tide charts and got a permit for the trip months ahead of time. I hadn’t been backpacking in at least fifteen years, so I knew I was . But Gary had done some pretty tough backpacking in the previous few summers, so I knew he had it dialed in.
Here we are at the trailhead, indicating the start and end points of our journey:
We are happy, clean, reasonably rested, and ready. The trip is only about 23 miles long. Jeez, that’s not even a marathon. We’ve got four days to do it. That’s a no-brainer. And, look at the lovely beach that started our journey:
Yeah, I can do this.
Once we get past the day-hiking point for most people and see this famous scene, however, the terrain changes quite quickly.
The beach ran out, replaced by wicked, snot-slippery, seaweed-covered rocks and boulders. Steps got shorter. Eyes were glued to the ground as we picked our way around the coastline. We only had about 3½ miles to walk the first day. It took damn near forever.
We couldn’t have imagined that it would take this long to get to this point, so now the sea was coming in fast. We had to hurry like hell to get to the first beach, where our first night’s campsite was. We clambered higher and higher, over bigger boulders and deadfall, to beat out the surf. It got louder and louder, almost drowning out the pounding of my nervous, cowardly heart.
If we lost the race against the tide, we’d be in real trouble, as we’d long ago passed the headland route for just these types of situations. We both knew that we might not make it, but eventually we did, with probably ten minutes to spare. Too close for comfort.
We collapsed at our first campsite, exhausted. My adrenaline finally dropped off, just in time to fall asleep before dark.
The weather was grey and misty for much of the trip, but we weren’t complaining. It kept the temperature down, which was fine by me. Campsites were few and far between on this route, so we were just happy to have a place to camp, safely above the tide for the night.
The next bit of terror for me was on the second day. It all had started out innocently enough, but we realized that there was NO WAY we could navigate the coastline coming up. We ran into a girl who does this trip for fun, often, and she verified that unless we had very different footwear with us, we had to take the headland route instead. This meant that, in order to get to the next walkable area, we’d have to clamber up a steep hillside about 150 feet, cross over the top, and clamber down the other side.
Here I am, clambering up the steep hillside:
I don’t do ropes. Especially with a backpack on, slippery footing, and first thing in the morning. Thank heavens Gary made me bring leather gloves to hike with, otherwise, I would have been burned and cut to bits by the ropes and rocks on this trip.
I also don’t do heights well. I’m the person who stands back from the railings, looking nervous. I am not the person who climbs the rock wall at REI. I am not the person who pulls herself up steep hillsides with ropes. I am the person who likes level ground, solid footing, hot showers, and a glass of wine at the end of the day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
But we didn’t have any alcohol with us, which was probably a blessing. Our packs were heavy enough already, around 50 or so pounds apiece. And I know me; I would have drunk it all the first night; I’ve seen me do it. But it would have made our first headland experience even worse. I needed all the clarity and strength I could muster.
I had a long and impassioned negotiation with all the gods I could think of, put one foot in front of the other, and eventually got to the other side. Thankfully, Gary is a very brave person and bravery is contagious.
Our reward for surviving the headland route was this amazing scene. Why deer were heading for the salt water is a mystery to me, but it was such a beautiful site to see:
We motored on. By now, we were getting pretty good at the tough rock walking, which went on for miles and miles, punctuated by the occasional ¼-mile-long beach. True excitement was being able to walk on dry rocks instead of wet ones.
On the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula, you never know what might wash up on shore. Someone put this ensemble together from a long-ago-abandoned dry suit and gear.
The hike wasn’t all miserable, exhausting, and terrifying. The scenery was spectacular, even without the sun. But the sun finally broke through at the end of Day 2, at our campsite:
There was a large group of teenagers and guides marching near us, most days. As Day 2 came to a close, we watched them continue past us and navigate our next mandatory headland crossing, like a bunch of mountain sheep. Lots of energy, no fear, no problemo. That gave me something fun to think about, as I fell asleep that night…how I would have to start Day 3.
Here’s a view from the top of the next day’s headland route, where we stopped before scaling the other side. Same level of fun and terror as the previous day. Rope ladder this time, instead of a rope; the first several rungs were missing.
And here’s a shot of the crossing at the top before heading down to the beach on the other side:
I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t getting any better at this rope business. Swearing had turned into power swearing by now. Gary was patient beyond belief, but it wasn’t a picnic for him either. I made a deal with the devil just in case it might help. It didn’t.
Later in the day, the sun broke through and we staggered on to a meager beach to find our campsite for the night. There were damn few possible sites available. The one that we wanted was probably very, very close to high tide. So we postponed setting up camp to watch the tide come in to see if we’d be safe or not:
With camp finally set up and bellies full of another good Pro Pack Mountain House meal, Gary shot this spectacular photo:
It’s hard to not feel peaceful when you see a sight like this, but I managed to. We had one more day to go and, surely, something life-threatening lay ahead of us.
And I was right. We didn’t have to navigate a headland route this time, but there was a narrow, long, steep, slippery, muddy, rock tunnel to climb through.
That was super-fun. And then there was the nasty, skimpy, scary crossing around deep tidal pools, over the slipperiest rocks yet. This photo doesn’t begin to convey the treachery of the situation but, believe me, it was real.
By now I had fallen at least 15 times (it could easily have been hundreds), my nerves were permanently rattled, and I just wanted to get out of there. Gary knew my adrenaline had been too high for too long. I was having a hard time calming myself down enough to carefully and safely pick my way through this last really tough area. But he got me through it, somehow, as the incoming sea threatened to ruin our day, yet again.
By now, frankly, I was very, very tired of the sea, in particular, the noise. It just wouldn’t stop crashing around. I wanted, needed, some peace and quiet. But with the tides the way they were, it just wasn’t going to happen. But there was hope in sight.
Here we are on our last day, at the beginning of (finally!) the very long beach that would end our coastal walk, before turning inland to walk on a boardwalk (!) to Ozette Lake:
From here-on out, there were no more headland crossings, tides to beat out, or slippery boulders to navigate. It was a goddamned beach walk, finally. About 3-1/2 miles to go and we were done:
Once back in civilization, we found a great pizza place in Port Angeles and ate an entire large pizza between us as we drove to a lovely hotel with a last-minute vacancy, just outside of Mount Ranier National Park.
Here is a photo of a very happy woman, who knows that a hot shower and cheap wine are in her future:
So, why am I bringing up this piece of ancient backpacking history from last year?
Because a week from now, we’re going backpacking into the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness Area for a week with some friends who know the area well. This is spectacular country, north of Yellowstone National Park, starting just outside of Cooke City. Thirteen uphill miles in, some day hikes and fishing, and then two days back out. No ocean, no seaweed-covered rocks, no headland crossings, and no ropes.
But, still, I am a little nervous. Any wilderness area with “Bear” in the name carries certain risks. But I don’t eat bear meat, so I think I’ll be OK. I don’t eat shark meat so that when I go snorkeling, there is no karmic debt to be paid. I admit it’s warped logic, but it gives me more comfort than the new bear spray we have.
But imagine this: One glorious week, unplugged from the world. No work. No email. No FaceBook. No blog. No phones. And hopefully no bears.
What I need to always remember is that Gary has more guardian angels than any 20 people have. He has close calls on a regular basis, and always manages to emerge unscathed. For example, he took his kids on a backpacking trip years ago, to bear country in Montana. While the rangers warned him that a grizzly had been sighted in the area, Gary forged on, with the confidence of a man with guardian angels, irrational exuberance, and a genetic fearlessness that I admire but do not share.
He awoke in the middle of the night to hear something sniffing his oldest son’s head through the tent. He found huge bear prints by the tent the next morning. OK, so he lost a night’s sleep and cursed himself for not owning a very large handgun. But in truth, it was the guardian angels.
So, I think I’ll be OK.
I think that we stand in line to get the physical characteristics and abilities in our next life. For example, in this lifetime, I was near the head of the line for height. In my next life, however, I will work much harder to be at the head of the line for bravery, strong legs, and good hair. In the meantime, it’s probably good for someone like me to push my limits once in a while.
Oh, and this year, we’re taking single-malt scotch with us. That should help.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.