My first taste of the backcountry involved a lot of sweat, a lot of apprehension, and a pack that weighed over a quarter of my body weight. I had done a bit of hiking, but nothing involving a backpack or more than a few miles, and certainly nothing that involved sleeping out in the middle of nowhere. My husband and I had researched a wilderness area called Horseshoe Basin. 12 miles round trip and promising excellent scenery, we figured this would be a great way to initiate me into the world of backpacking. We packed up only the necessities, working hard to eliminate excess weight. We analyzed maps and read up on forums and decided that limiting the amount of water we carried was the best way to cut weight. The area we were going to be hiking in had plenty of streams, and water sources would be abundant. After all was said and done, my pack weighed 30 lbs, and on my barely 100 lb, inexperienced frame, it felt at least five times heavier than it actually was.
My husband and I headed East of the Cascades to Okanogan County. The trail head was at the end of a very long, very windy, very unmaintained “road” near the top of a small mountain. We set out as the sun was just making it’s first appearance over the mountain tops. The air was still chilly and with our packs strapped on tight, we plunged into a thick forested area through which the path wound for what seemed like hours. It was about a mile in that the heat started to scorch us. The sun inched higher and higher into the clear blue sky above the tree tops. The trail broke out of the trees and opened up onto alpine meadows, blooming with colorful wild flowers and tall grasses. It was breathtaking. It was hot.
The straps of my pack began to feel like they were cutting into my shoulders and my hips. My husband plowed on ahead, his stride sure and strong. He didn’t seem to be suffering like I was, although this wasn’t his first rodeo. He was an avid outdoors-man and he was no stranger to the backcountry, or to hauling a heavy load on his back. I felt myself growing weaker by the moment. The alpine meadows gave way to a burned down forest. A wild fire had torn through the mountains not many months before and dead, blackened trees lay scattered for miles in every direction. At least in the alpine meadows I had had the beauty of the flowers and the sweeping view to motivate me. Now, in this barren graveyard of skeleton trees I felt defeated.
I threw down my pack and booked it to a large boulder just off the trail – the only thing remotely close to a shady place to rest. I crouched beside the boulder, rubbing my shoulders, panting, and on the verge of tears. I realized with sinking certainty, that I had been defeated. I did not have what it took to be an adventurer. I had daydreamed that I would embark on my first backcountry quest with undiscovered, unharnessed, unshakeable strength. Now, as I huddled pathetically by a large rock in the middle of an unbelievably hot, desolate wasteland, the acknowledgment of my inexperience and weakness was nausea inducing.
My husband, upon realizing that I was no longer behind him, circled back and found me in my sorry state. With a gentle smile, he asked what was wrong. I told him that I was not cut out for the wild. My pack was too heavy, it was too hot, and my legs felt like jello. I told him that I could not go on and that we should turn back. My husband would have none of it. He gave me the bottle of water that we brought with us, and I drank deeply, sucking down the warm liquid that offered little to no relief from my suffering. I handed the bottle back to him, wiping my mouth with the back of my sweaty hand. My husband stowed the bottle and held out his hand to me. “Let’s go,” he said, confidently. He hauled me to my feet and helped me ease back into the straps of my pack.
And we carried on. With every step, my body ached more, and the sun beat down harder. But then, gradually, something amazing happened. I realized that despite my discomfort, I was pushing on, keeping up with my husband, and feeling more and more capable by the minute. The landscape changed again and we began winding in between tall cliffs and more alpine meadows. Patches of snow appeared sporadically in the shadowy places. The heat became more bearable and I didn’t mind the burning in my shoulders and hips so much. I realized that my body was very capable of doing this. I had only to push through my mental barriers to release the adventurer strength within me. I was backpacking! I breathed in the fresh, mountain air and looked around me as I walked, drinking in the beauty of the backcountry – so remote and so unlike any place I had ever been.
Finally, we wound down the side of a cliff, came around a corner, and there it was: our destination. A beautiful valley lay before us, and on the opposite side, a grassy mountainside rose up into a bright blue sky. My husband and I smiled at each other. We trekked across the valley and up the other mountainside, where we found a relatively flat bank with a killer view. We set up camp, built our own water filtration system out of t-shirts, gravel, grass, and some charcoal that my husband had grabbed from the burned out forest we passed through earlier. The water that we filtered was the cleanest tasting water I had ever had the pleasure of guzzling.
That night we sat on the mountainside and watched the sunset together. The last blazing light of the day lit the wildflowers around us on fire so that they glowed in a supernatural way. It was so quiet. So still. The air was so crisp. The sun finally slipped behind a distant peak. It was a brand new world that I was in. In that moment, the backcountry welcomed me with open arms as one of it’s own. I fell in love on that mountainside, both with my husband all over again for believing in the strength that I had inside of me, even when I didn’t, and with the backcountry and all it stood for and all it had to offer. The wild places wove their way into my soul and I’ve never looked back.
First sunset in the backcountry.