Now that it's officially summer, I've got the urge to walk. Not just for a couple of miles or even ten or twenty, but to take off for days on end and hike to a place so remote that I won't see another human being the entire time I'm out. I never tell anyone where I'm going. I'm always afraid that someone might try to find me and then the whole experience would be ruined.
They're beautiful, these places where I go to escape -- or perhaps embrace -- my humanity. They're the domain of Douglas fir and columbines and alpinglow on mountainsides. They have names like "Bloody Dick Pass" and "Froze to Death Lake." They are made of rocks and earth and snow and have rivers that can sweep you off your feet if you don't take them seriously and steep scree slopes that rob your breath until your heart feels like it's going to explode. They are home to little animals called pikas that sing during thunderstorms, and springs so cold that their water hurts your teeth when you drink it, and biting flies like hailstones, and hailstones like biting flies. They supply hours of sky and mountains for my blissfully vacant mind to comtemplate.
But a funny thing happens when I live alone for a week or so: I lose my identity. Without other people to reinforce who I am, I become anonymous. My history, my physical appearance, my name -- all of these lose their meanings. My self-image is stripped down to its most basic form. I am what others perceive me to be, and in the wilderness the sensate others in my company are birds, small mammals such as shrews and voles, a few foxes or coyotes, and maybe a handful of deer, elk, moose, or even a bear. All of these creatures see me as one thing: a human female who passes through their territory and then is gone. I am The Walking Woman.
Anonimity is a very freeing condition. When you realize that everything that you have been lugging around for years -- all of those psychological artifacts from the world of man -- is now unimportant, you begin to act not the way that people expect you to but in such a way as to maximize both your survival and your comfort. Solo backpackers develop extremely strange (one might even say bizarre) habits from their time alone in the wilderness. And in spite of these weird traits -- or maybe because of them -- it is only when I am alone that I can follow the trails that lead me into my own soul.
I'd been out six or maybe seven days, hiking hard the first few to escape from the cluster of short-haul hikers around the trailhead. From there, I'd lost my way. Not physically lost, although I was a distance from any trail. I'll often go cross country to explore an inviting tributary or an intriguing ridgeline. But this side trip had landed me in a doghair of lodgepole pines in a high-walled, V-shaped valley that was clogged with deadfall and mosquitoes. The lake that I'd been aiming for turned out to be a piddle-sized pothole surrounded by charred timber. I even had trouble finding a clear, level spot for my sleeping bag. On top of all that the weather turned sour: persistent low clouds, mist, and drizzle had followed a late-afternoon thundershower.
So I crawled into my sleeping bag early to listen to the whisper of rain on my tarp and the high-pitched whine of mosquitoes. But as I lay there -- sleepless since, despite the clouds, daylight was still strong -- I heard another sound: music. Faint but unmistakable. It seemed like a radio playing, much too loud for this backcountry. Here my legs were criss-crossed with bloody scratches from the low branches that had grabbed me as I'd fought my way to this lake, my hundred or so mosquito bites itched, the soles of my feet ached from every mile I'd walked to get to this secluded hell-hole -- and now I had to share it with another person. Another person with a radio, no less!
In spite of my bilous indignation, eventually that night I did fall asleep. But every time I approached consciousness, the still-sensate part of my brain registered the music, distant but distinct. The jerk kept his radio on all night. My solitude -- and peace -- had disintegrated.
The following morning, I took extra care washing my face. I cleaned all of the blood off of my legs. I even hid my newly-washed underwear inside my pack instead of hanging it from the top to dry. I hiked out through heavy timber in the direction that promised -- according to the USGS -- an open ridge. It was also the direction where I'd heard the music. I could still hear it: louder now. I wasn't looking forward to this encounter. I smelled the ripe ammonia scent of urine from a large animal -- horses, I figured. Only horse packers would lug a radio to a backcountry camp. But what kind of jerk would be so rude as to leave that radio playing all night?
I arrived in the meadowed ridge at the same moment that the sun did, peeking over the higher mountains to the east. The instant I broke out from the cover of trees I saw them: twenty or so cow elk, each with a spindly, new-born calf.
In the young, golden sunlight, the herd was just waking up. A few still lay with their legs folded under their dun-colored bodies. One cow squatted to urinate, her stub tail flicking from side to side against the cream fur of her rump. Some of the calves suckled, others explored or sparred or nibbled at the grass with the crystalline enthusiasm of creatures too young to recognize the mundane. And as their babies played, the cow elk hummed the ethereal notes of the music that had haunted my dreams for one night, and will continue to haunt them now for the rest of my life.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources