I just spent 2 1/2 weeks in a sort of heaven, and I don’t know where to start to write about it. There is just too much to say.
This post will probably be all over the place—but that’s okay. One of the things I learned during my trip is how obsessed I can get with order in my process of things. So, I guess this will be a good exercise in trying not to give too big of a shit about it.
But really, where do I start?!
My adventure of sorts began on July 25th. I hit the road to Montana early Tuesday morning, about to embark on a solo trip to Glacier NP for one week. The drive was long—but like most road trips, it felt like I had just shed anything of weight and opened myself up to enchantment. There was a silent ripple of content mixed with excitement inside. I had no idea what was ahead, but damn, was I giddy.
About 10 hours and 600 miles later, I arrived. Going-to-the-sun-road. Have you driven it? If not, please…GO.
I had to pick my jaw up off the floor of my car, and there were tears coming out of my eyes. I have goosebumps as I’m remembering what it felt like to see this place for the first time. The words “holy shit, how is is this real?” kept coming out of my mouth, even though no one was there in my car to answer my question. As I turned a corner driving through the national park, east Glacier had revealed itself. It was like God himself had orchestrated this experience for me, the sun was setting and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I pulled the car over to compose myself several times. I was fumbling around with my phone and my camera to try and capture it, because I was desperate to find a way to share this extraordinary beauty. But there just wasn’t a way to capture it accurately. Eventually, I gave up trying to possess the moment by storing it in some sort of digital data, and relaxed into knowing that it was there for me to experience for myself. It finally grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, like, “Look, just look at this, you’re missing it.”
The colors were something out of this world. I couldn’t touch them, it was like they were there to show me the certainty and grandeur of nature, and it is so much bigger than anything else imaginable. The colors, shadows and peaks worked together in such a melodic way. It was grace and mass percolating into one. I guess it isn’t called the Crown of the Continent for nothing. I have never understood who or what God is, but this was the simplest form of it/him/her that I had ever witnessed.
The awe came to a brief halt, when I couldn’t find a place to sleep. All the campgrounds in and outside of the park were full. I knew they filled up fast, but I assumed I’d be able to find SOMETHING, even if I had to drive a ways outside of Glacier.
Nope. Nothing. Nada. Not even a hotel room anywhere.
The woman at the front desk of the lodge could tell that I was high off of exhaustion, and she was very kind to call some other motels in neighboring towns for me. There was one room vacant in Browning, about 30 miles outside of Glacier. It was $250 for a bed to sleep in. My shoulders dropped as I exhaled in response to what she said, but I needed a place to sleep, and my brain was too tired to think or to come up with other ideas. So I drove to Browning.
The sunset’s color show continued to amaze me, but the overall drive to Browning was less than fun. It was almost dark, and there weren’t any other cars on the fast, twisty road. An old, green suburban pulled up behind me. Like, RIGHT behind me. As this person tailgated me, I noticed all of his windows were blown out. Front windshield included. He eventually swerved around me and sped away. I couldn’t help but notice the license plate was black, no digits or anything to identify the car. I shrugged it off, he was gone.
Buuuuttttt….he came back. He was behind me again. He must’ve pulled over someplace, and gotten back on the road behind me. He did the same thing. Like clockwork, he must’ve been a foot or two behind my bumper. He rode it for a couple of minutes before passing me and disappearing down the road again. I felt my muscles tense up and suddenly felt more awake. He fucking came back. Again. A third time. There he was, right behind me. By now, I was sufficiently terrified. I was exhausted, but so wide-eyed, and suddenly wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. Coming out here by myself, naively excited about adventure. I reached for my phone to have it in my lap, in case I needed to call for help. Only thing was, I had no reception. Was this a horror movie? My heart raced, and my breath quickened to keep up with my pulse. He disappeared a third time, and finally…FINALLY…he was gone. I had another 15 minutes or so before I got to Browning, and my eyes were constantly jerking around, making sure there was no one, as I maintained my death grip on 10 and 2.
The little town of Browning welcomed me with many stray dogs viciously barking and attempting to attack my car. I found my motel, parked, grabbed a bag and ran inside. I got to my room around 11pm and crawled under the covers, still in my clothes. My body was buzzing. I hoped that the last hour wasn’t a precursor to the rest of my trip. I tried to sleep, but the man on the other side of the wall kept me awake. I could hear him arguing with his girlfriend, and her voice yelling back at him over the phone. I’d hear sirens outside every 10 minutes.
I managed to get some z’s, and awoke at about 5:30 the next morning. I needed to be at St. Mary campground before 7:00am to snag a camp spot for that night. It gave me enough time to shower and drive back to Glacier. I had only gotten about 4 hours of sleep, but I really wanted to see my first sunrise there. It was overwhelmingly beautiful, as I imagined it would be. I read someplace that St. Mary lake was one of the best places to watch the sunrise in the United States. It was true. I made sure to wake up early every day to witness the sun bring earth to life, and watch it put us all to rest again each night. I’m not sure what it was that made the sun’s entrance and exit so startling and emotional in Glacier, I have never seen anything quite like it. Not even in the wee hours of my Rainier climb, not in the Tetons, or the Cascades. Nowhere else had I seen it so striking before.
I spent the following 5 days hiking almost 50 miles through Glacier National Park. It all seemed too good to be true, I felt incredibly lucky to be able to experience it all. With only minor hiccups, really. Like having to sleep in my car on the side of a highway one night, when I didn’t have a backcountry permit and all campgrounds were full again due to my poor planning. I slept with one ear plug in (enough to keep the road noise to a minimum, but still be able to hear anything shady outside my car). Or just barely missing a run-in with a grizzly bear on one of the trails I hiked (I carried my bear spray under my arm, while clapping my hands and making up bear songs for many miles in an effort to avoid surprising one). I got dirty, sore and tired every day, bathed in turquoise lakes, and slept soundly outside. I was invited and embraced by nature’s intrinsic rhythm, and it felt better than anything. It was so good to feel fully alive.
Even though I was solo adventuring in Glacier, I NEVER felt lonely. I could disappear deeper into the mountains if I wanted to be alone, and I could equally find people when I wanted their company. The folks I ran into there were so friendly and eager to know about me and what I was doing there. They came from all over the world to have experiences similar to mine. I must have seen a license plate from every state at the trailheads, and I can’t think of a language that I didn’t hear spoken. One of my favorite things was soaking up the sun on any of Glacier’s lake shores, talking to people, listening to them and watching them. I loved seeing families bring their children there, because…how wonderful and special is it for kids to see this stuff and for people to experience it as a family? I relished at being able to bathe in St. Mary lake. I always felt so clean afterwards, and I loved the way it made my hair feel. How funny it was for me to think of being in a shower at home, pouring soap and shampoo on myself. I didn’t need it. The water was absolutely frigid. Seeing people work up the nerve to dunk themselves in was so entertaining. Very few dared to immerse themselves all at once. Whatever their method was, it took everyone’s breath away to get in. Giggling, screaming or loudly gasping for air.
That week was incredible, and I had a very hard time pulling away. I promised myself that I would come back to this place, I have to. But it was time to get back on the road and meet Cassandra in Yellowstone. The Tetons were waiting to scoop us away for a week and a half.
We spent an afternoon/evening in Yellowstone. It was a gorgeous place, but it felt like a joke to have such a limited amount of time there. I was able to get some cool photos and video, but I wanted more! We saw geology at its finest. Did our time and waited for Old Faithful, then hit the road again as the sun went down. We drove another 2-3 hours and arrived in Wyoming at midnight, where we split a hotel room in Jackson. I hadn’t had a “proper” shower in a week, and at that point, I needed the soap. I had to SCRUB the dirt off of me, it was fascinating watching the dirty water race away into the drain. It made me proud of myself, and it was kind of cool to see the natural color of my skin emerge again, and the sun that it had collected over the past week (regardless of how much sunscreen it had consumed).
Our first full day in Jackson began with a trip to a coffee shop. Drinking a latte was…ecstatic. I hadn’t been properly caffeinated in a while, and it tasted really, REALLY good. We wandered around town for a bit, and eventually drove into Grand Teton National Park. The mountains we were so curious to see but were blind to in the darkness the night before finally emerged. We both gasped at the moment we saw them at once. Again, with the pictures. I couldn’t capture these peaks, no matter how many times I tried. The amount of profanities that came out of our mouths as we stared at these massive things was comical. There would be silence, and then at any moment, either one of us would be like, “SHIT!”
We reserved a spot at a campground in the park for a couple of nights. It gave us a place to land while we explored Jackson Hole. We spoiled ourselves rotten with good food, delicious beer, listened to bluegrass, danced and met a lot of lively people who were equally curious about us. Up again at 5:30 the following morning, we raced to the ranger station to try and secure backcountry permits for the Teton Crest Trail. We were both tired, grumpy, and sans coffee. I ran up to the doors impatiently, where there were already several people in line. I sat and joined their wait, as Cassandra prepared caffeine for us in the parking lot. (She made us lots of good coffee to save us in those mountains!) She joined me with hot coffee in hand, and we waited until finally one of the rangers opened the doors.
We walked up to the counter and spoke to the woman about where we wanted to go. She pulled out a map, and somehow (wow, with the luck, again), we were able to get each night reserved at the spots we wanted. 6 days, 5 nights, as we wished, were granted to us. We probably had a mixture of crazy and happy in our eyes. The woman studied our faces and said, “You guys are really excited, I can tell.” We were the only women in line waiting to get permits. All others were men, with the exception of one couple: a man and who I assumed was his wife. The ranger kind of seemed like she was proud of us. I was proud of us!
Scurrying away with our permits in had, we were in shock at our luck. SO HAPPY.
After spending another day in Jackson, we headed back to our camp. Procrastinated for hours, and finally began packing. We both tried real hard to leave behind as much as we could, but in the end, our packs were stupid heavy. Neither one of us had ever gone into the backcountry for this long before. We couldn’t weigh our packs, but I’m willing to bet that they weighed at least 45 pounds a piece. This was the heaviest my pack had ever been.
As we were getting on the Teton tram the following day, set out for adventure, we couldn’t stop laughing at how awkward it was to put those giant things on our backs. We tried several different methods. People were staring at us, asking us what we were doing. Over the next 6 days, we got to know our packs well. They carried our houses, our beds, our meals, tools and clothes. My pack hurt and pissed me off. I swore at it and constantly wanted to take it off. But, after a few days, I learned how to adjust it in a way that made my hips and shoulders hurt less.
Let me tell you this: the pain that I felt in my body from using it and making it work, was nothing compared to the pain I have felt in my body from inactivity or forcing it to stay in the same position for too long. And, after only a couple days of hauling ass up these mountains at high altitude, we could both feel our bodies become stronger. It was such a cool experience. Each day, that trail gave way to more and more astonishing beauty, and equally more challenge. Of course!
I had never seen mountains like this before. I don’t know how to explain them. They were massive, partly terrifying and at the same time, so alluring. They looked almost fake, they were so beautiful. The more difficult things got, the more we got to see. I felt so happy to be there. To experience it all. Even the shitty parts. They all felt so different up there.
On our third night along the trail, we camped in the South Fork Cascade Canyon. We had the most amazing view of Grand Teton herself. We were drinking the whiskey that we so lavishly hauled up with us in a water bottle, talking about just how far away that mountain seemed yesterday, and how close we were to her now. As we looked up in the dark, we noticed a headlamp. We started laughing in excitement and shined our headlamps back. We watched two twinkly little lamps over the next several of hours before crawling into our tent, of what we assumed were two climbers descending off the Grand. We talked about what’s more difficult at that hour up there, going up or going down? We agreed: going down.
Cassandra asked me, “Why do you think we do this?” I had to think about it for a minute before I responded. Why do we kill ourselves, do scary shit for hours at a time and risk our safety, make our bodies hurt, get insanely grumpy or scared or emotional, push ourselves to the point of complete exhaustion? Get up high, get that feeling of “FINALLY, WE DID IT!” Come back down. And then do it all over again? Do we do it for the thrill? Maybe we all have different reasons. But the reason that I do it is to feel human. Only sitting in a cubicle all the time that is coordinated for my dependence on comfort and safety doesn’t make me feel human all the time. Nor does going on a leisurely vacation to see pretty cities. Sure, parts of those things are nice and good to do/have, but I think we need more. These other kinds of adventures that cost time and vulnerability that test us, where we face the unknown and come up against extremely hard work…these are the things that connect me to the feeling of being alive, to feel my pulse. What a complete waste it would be to not live and experience these things that we are all capable of. To see the things that are extraordinarily simple yet spiritually relevant. These are the most precious gifts in life. The lessons that I gain from the mountains are irreplaceable, so very priceless. I’ve only been back down here for 3 days, and I’m still trying to gather all of the post-adventure (torture?) thoughts and realizations that are coming out of me on the other side of this.
The peak of our challenge and joy came on our 4th day. We had hiked 10 miles the day prior to that (remember, the big-ass packs), pissed off every time we had to descend, because we knew we would have to climb back up again, making up all that lost elevation, and then some. This 4th day was about 12 miles long. Our bodies hurt. We went down, then back up. Then down, and then way the hell back up again. We passed the couple that we saw at the ranger station just days before, getting the same permits as us. They looked disappointed, coming from the opposite direction. We said hi, and they said hi back, looking down. Cassandra said, “They must have turned around, they didn’t make it.” The question of why was looming over our heads.
We must have been going for 10 hours, until we finally reached Paintbrush divide at just under 11,000 feet. We were both pep-talking each other that day, telling each other that, once we got up to the divide, the hardest part of the entire trip would be over. We would then descend a little, setup our tent in Upper Paintbrush Canyon, eat some hot food out of a bag and pass out.
NOPE! We were incorrect.
We followed the trail along the divide, thinking we’d see it veer off to camp spots not far below. What we saw on the other side was frightening. Any bit of giddy behavior left in us quickly dissipated, and relief wasn’t as soon to be found as we had hoped. We both looked at each other, with wide eyes and open mouths. “Uhhh…fuck.” To which Cassandra replied “…Yeah, I can’t.”
The east side of the divide was much less welcoming than the west, where we had just traversed. No sun, no people. It looked cold and frightening. Snowfields. Really vertical ones, with a thin trail that resembled a long hairline, that followed way the hell down into the canyon. And scree. Lots and lots of scree. Again, the vertical kind. It was not the kind of fear that made me excited. It was the kind I felt in the pit of my stomach that made me want to back-pedal. I wasn’t comfortable going in there without ropes, and with someone who was equally terrified. We looked at the map to see if there was another way, and of course, there wasn’t. We talked about going back down to a lake we had rested at hours before. But the sun was about to go down, and we weren’t keen on going back down, many miles, on a sketchy trail in the dark. We remembered that we ran into a group of two men and women about a half an hour ago, who mentioned they were camping in Paintbrush as well. We decided to wait for them and share the fear with someone else. Really, what were we going to do, turn around?
Once we met up with them, we all walked back over to the end of the divide and pointed at the scary stuff. After talking about it and agreeing that it looked sketchy, the 6 of us were a little less afraid. There was a way to approach the descent that involved a little bit less snow, but a little bit more scree. The first bit of snow was what scared us the most. It was a bit of a ledge…not very long. But if we slipped and fell, we knew we wouldn’t be able to self arrest on the little amount of snow below it. We would fall straight down the rocks below. The two men assisted their wives across this thing, came back and walked their packs over as well. Cassandra and I watched them, and looked at each other. I asked one of the men if they could help us cross, and they were generous in doing so and offered to walk our packs over the other side. Falling would be one thing, but falling with a 40-some-lb pack would be another. We put spikes on our shoes and took out our ice axes, and took turns crossing the snow one by one. Ice axe in one hand to help keep us anchored, and a pole in the other to help keep us balanced. Slow and steady, the snow was sticky and supportive. It wasn’t as scary as we had made it out to be. When I got to the other side, I did a happy, giddy little dance. I was elated.
It wasn’t over yet, though. There wasn’t exactly a trail to follow on the talus field. Over the next half hour or so, I was probably more scared than I have ever been in the mountains. I had an extremely hard time crossing all that scree on such a vertical slope. I couldn’t find a stable place for my feet to support me (with the pack on, again). I would shift a toe inside my shoe, and it would cause one rock to move, then hundreds of rocks followed. I started to panic, and wondered if I would fall to my death on this stupid thing. The guy that walked my pack across the snow earlier watched me freak out, and told me to stay where I was and not to move. He was able to make his way over and somehow created a foothold for me. I placed my foot on top of his and was able to pull myself up and more securely walk over the scree and back to somewhat of a trail again. I must have thanked him a million times afterwards, I was so grateful for his help.
NOW, now the worst part was over. We had to cross more snowfield, but these parts were more doable.
We finally made it to the camp in the canyon, just as it got dark. After setting up our tent, we sat outside watching the full moon rise over the peaks in front of us. Again…how lucky are we?! It was so beautiful. We couldn’t understand how it was that we were able to be there. And we realized that we had just created a bond with a group of complete strangers because of what we had to go through with them. We don’t really connect as easily over surface talk with other people, do we? Going through something like that makes you instantly closer to someone. We hadn’t eaten in hours, and our adrenaline made us forget how hungry we were and we couldn’t eat.
The next couple of days were mostly cake. Except for the grumpy factor. The last miles on days 5 and 6, there were no rocks, there was no snow. There was a bit of down, but it was easier and then it was flat. There were just those last couple of miles through the forest that seemed to last FOR-E-VER. I was grumpy and whiney, and Cassandra was hungry and pissed off, walking fast ahead of me. I just wanted to stop. My feet felt like they were being stabbed over and over again.
We finished our adventure and got a ride back to my car at 8:00am on day 6, where I pulled a lukewarm cider out of the back that we drank in celebration. We shoved some Cheez-Its in our mouths as we laughed deliriously over what we had just accomplished. Everything after this made us feel so spoiled. If you partake in any similar adventures yourself, then you know what I’m talking about. It’s like you finally return to your taste buds after having them taken away from you for any period of time. You’re reunited with all of life’s conveniences that you normally take for granted. A hot shower, comfortable shoes, clean clothes, beer, fresh food, other people, music, cell phones, cars, FRESH COFFEE! A bed. Those comforts that we live in on a daily basis and become numb to, it’s good to have them taken away from us from time to time.
We were back in Jackson that night, showered and smelling good again. Listening to music and dancing, meeting more new people, drinking more beer. (Oh, word of advice: if you just dragged your poor body through hell for a week, go easy on the alcohol. You’ve just been reborn, and if you water yourself with booze, you’ll have the worst hangover of your life the next day). The amount of work we had just put into those mountains had nothing on my energy levels. I felt like a new person, experiencing everything with heightened senses.
I was talking to someone we met at the bar, explaining to him how overstimulated I felt all of the sudden, being in town after what we did in the mountains for 6 days.
He responded to me, “I know. It’s like sugar, isn’t it?”