It was a midsummer morning in Bellingham, a weekday at home. I was sitting at my desk, writing on deadline—two articles for a newspaper in Ferndale, due within the hour. I was stressing out a little bit, but the deadline was not my primary concern. I was having girl problems, and on that morning those problems seemed pretty intractable to me. To me, they were the cause of much discomfiture and distress, and I had been brooding over them for weeks. The bright sunshine was very distracting. Also, I was going backpacking for the first time later that day, once I emailed the articles, and this added more urgency to the situation.
Outside my door I heard Kevin and Logan discussing the grocery list. They knocked and I opened the door. Logan said, “We’re going to the Co-op for groceries, since you’re still writing. Does this list look good to you?”
On it was apples, peanut butter, pasta, soup mix, sausage, and various dried fruits and nuts. I said yes.
“Sweet. We’ll be back soon. You’re gonna be packed and stuff, right?” I said yes. They drove off in Kevin’s SUV. I tried to concentrate on my writing, making sure there were no egregious errors or gaping holes in the stories. By eleven a.m. I had turned in the stories and was just finishing up arranging my pack when they returned from the Co-op. We loaded the gear into the trunk, supplies enough for a two-night outing. “Alright, let’s go!”
We drove northeast, past Deming and Glacier and into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Playing on Kevin’s stereo was a burned CD, a mix of hip-hop and reggae songs. The further we got from town, the less I found myself thinking of her. I began focusing on the trees and the birds. We started gaining elevation in the North Cascades, and it was midafternoon when we reached the Hannegan Pass trailhead. We got out of the car and shouldered our gear. I had packed a rod and reel, thinking it would be nice to catch some fresh trout for dinner.
The trail to the pass was around four miles. With our gear on our backs, we plodded along the rocky trail, making steady progress. It was around four p.m. when we reached the pass and set up camp. We decided to do a short—five or six-mile—loop hike with the remains of the day. The sky was scoured of clouds; the sun was hot and the blackflies not too bad. I kept my eyes open for mountain goats. The girl was vaguely on my mind, but I was happily distracted taking in our surroundings. Pines, blueberry bushes crowded with unripe fruit. We were sweating in the heat and I pulled my shirt up onto my head and tied it like a turban.
We hiked down a ridge into a talus-filled valley, and Logan gave voice to the issue of eating. “So for dinner tonight: Curry lentils or sausage and tortellini?” These were the dinner options available to us, by way of the Co-op.
I was hiking ahead of Logan, and I gave no immediate response. I was impartial—both sounded good to me. Kevin, who was lagging a little further back, apparently heard the question just fine. “SAUSAGE!” he practically screamed, and so it was decided.
We returned to camp in the early evening and immediately started supper. Famished, we took turns pumping water from the stream while the pasta boiled. I sliced the sausage with a pocketknife and tossed it in with the pasta. We put the rest of the food in a stuffsack and suspended it from a nearby tree, to foil bears. In the gloaming we ate three-cheese tortellini with summer sausage—each of us scarfed about a pound of the stuff—and we hit the sack tired, sunburnt, and full to bursting. In my dreams was nothing but mute darkness, the first restful slumber in weeks.
The dawn brought chilling dew and a swarm of early-rising midges. We ate oats and peanut butter and discussed the day’s itinerary. We would start along Copper Ridge, venture over to Egg Lake to swim and perhaps fish, and scramble up the Copper Lookout to see the ranger outpost at the summit. The day proved to be as sunny and balmy as the last.
We wended our way along the ridge, pausing often to admire the vistas that popped out left and right along the trail. Baker and Shasta loomed large, and lesser mountains stretched out across the horizon. Near Egg Lake there was still snowpack on the ground, and the lake itself was indeed egg-shaped and small, and likely fishless. The water was several shades of blue, starting cyan at the shore and deepening to cobalt toward the center. No one dared jump in. We continued on.
At the Copper Lookout we started in for our first real climb. The trail was exposed for much of the way, and the sunblock we applied left white rivulets on our skin where the sweat poured down in torrents. As we approached the ranger outpost I saw some birds that I thought were gray jays, and I pointed them out. “Gray jays, I think!” Overhead I spotted a falcon, though I was unsure of its species. “Look, a falcon!” The others looked. We were close to the top then.
Standing at the summit, we took off our sweaty socks and shoes and laid them on the rock. The panoramic view of the snowcapped Cascades was perhaps the most breathtaking sight I had ever beheld. We cursed ourselves for not having remembered to bring the camera. There was a large marmot up there, apparently tame because he whistled at us and begged for food. The ranger outpost was a tiny one-room affair, and it was locked. For more than an hour we lounged there in the sun, under a smattering of clouds, and I was content as could be.
The hike back was long and arduous. We were tired and sun-crazed. At camp that night we ate the lentil curry but it seemed meager fare compared to what our muscles were craving. It was our last night. My rod and reel sat unused in my pack. I went to bed hungry still, tossing and turning in the cold, and I began thinking of the girl for the first time all day.
We woke up and broke camp. Because of a campstove malfunction—one in which a puddle of white gas was accidently ignited, singeing off our leg hair—we were forced to breakfast on dry oats and peanut butter. While we hiked back to the car I started stressing about the girl problem again. This caused me to quicken my pace and I soon distanced myself from the others. I waited at the parking lot for half an hour for them to arrive. It felt wrong, what I was doing, how I was reacting, and I suppose I was thinking irrationally, on account of my girl problems and all.
The mood during the ride back was subdued, all of us too tired to talk. We listened to Desmond Dekker on the stereo. Again I was ruminating over you-know-who. When we got back into Bellingham we went to Little Cheerful for a proper meal. The others ate hearty brunches while I poked at my salmon chowder. My mind and my appetite were elsewhere. I decided then that I would take the bus to Seattle later that day, to see her.
I bid the others adieu and they solemnly saw me off. It felt as if I were cutting the trip short—even though we were already back home. I was leaving them for her, and it seemed patently ill-advised.
On the bus I called her and she invited me to her house. For a while we talked and things were okay. Then we had sex and that was okay, too—okay, it was better than okay. But afterward I sensed some lingering doubt, a nagging sense of wrongdoing. It was futile, of course, what I was trying to accomplish. There would be no reconciliation for us. I thought back to the phone conversation with her on the bus, when she asked me how the backpacking trip was. “It was really amazing,” I said. “It was so nice to just get away for a little while.”