Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Going Cross Country

I used to hike off-trail a lot. As a wilderness ranger in Idaho, I learned how to follow creeks to the hidden lakes above and how to navigate talus slopes to drop into the next basin. Back in the Dark Ages, we didn't carry GPS units--they were still woefully inadequate--so all of us carried maps and knew how to use them. In the high country of the Oregon desert, I rarely needed a trail, because I could see my route for miles. And in Alaska, where a mile of trail construction could cost a million dollars, we bashed through head-high devils club and deep into ravines, carrying aerial photos.

When I moved to the Wallowas, I started hiking on trails most of the time. There were so many trails, and it was a luxury to let down my guard a little and look around instead of wonder where I was. Truth be told, I can speed along on a trail but when it comes to cross-country travel, clumsiness reigns. My skin bears scars from skidding down mountains and battering into tree limbs. Once I slid head-first down a chute, luckily landing on a snowbank. If there's a protruding stick or spiky bush, I am sure to find it. It was nice to have a reprieve from all of this.

On Saturday when J proposed a cross-country traverse, I looked at him askance. "You want to..hike?" I asked. "All day?" While J has many great qualities and interests, he just isn't as obsessive interested in it as an activity as I am. And there is this: every hike we have been on has involved some element of slogging, because he is interested not in the easy strolls but in places where few people go. This time, he wanted to trek from Murray Gap to Hurricane Creek, a daunting prospect involving many, many elevation changes and ascents up untracked slopes.

I figured I should seize the day, though, and really, is there anything better than alpine hiking? An hour later found us past two miles of bad road and heading up the first ascent, a crumbly side slope leading into the Silver Creek basin, a place that fascinates me no matter how many times I go there. It's not the ancient hand-routed signs that say "Trail" when there is none, the secret lake nestled below Ruby Peak, or even the mystery of the old mining adits. It's the whole big country, laid out like a blanket. It makes you feel like you could walk forever and not see it all.

Under billowing clouds nearly at nose level we climbed over Traverse Ridge, accompanied by mountain goats. Frances Lake glimmered in the distance. Ridge-walking on a broad plateau, I had never felt so fine and good with the world.

Even when I saw there was another ridge to climb, one that struck fear in my heart. Looking up I saw what I thought was my worst fear: ball-bearing rocks a sheen on solid granite. J said, "You shouldn't imagine the worst possibility. Just imagine it working out." Just another reason I love him, and so I picked my way up, talking myself through it. It wasn't that bad after all. We had our Safety Dog with us, so we figured that we were okay.*

Then we were poised at nine thousand feet, right next to Sawtooth peak and the highest lake in Oregon. A tricky climb later, we were headed back to a real trail, although this trail, which steadily descends into the Hurricane Creek drainage, is about as bad as it gets. Worn to a patina of slippery rock, it can't take the increased use it has been getting, and it is like wearing roller skates. We slogged along grimly, each declaring that we never needed to hike this particular trail ever again. Much better to stick to cross-country travel.

In the end it took us eight hours to travel ten miles. Because I don't really care about such things, I have no idea how many feet of climbing it was, but it was a lot. And it was a perfect day with alpine magic, the best kind that there is.

 *Safety Dog=if it is too dangerous for the dog, it is too dangerous for us.


  1. Another time when you put us "right there." Going to use J's "imagine" philosophy. I also heart the safety dog....and the photo of J. on the ridge.

  2. 5 ntfansa
    So beautiful!!! Great warm up for the weeks ahead. Enjoy every moment of them and remember J's philosophy in those awkward moments.


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