Seeing the Trees: Part One

by Elizabeth on January 4, 2012

The PCT is a trail that spans the whole of the west coast, from Mexico up to Canada.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to hike the whole thing.  Largely because the trail would kill me omg.  It’s more than 1500 miles of every kind of terrain imaginable, from deserts to mountains to frozen tundras.  And it’s awesome.

(One day, I will hike the whole thing.  Yes, it will kill me.  Yes, it will take six months.  Yes, I will learn a new definition for the word “blisters” and mosquitos may actually suck all the blood from my entire body at some point. But I’m a willing participant in my own demise.)

I’ve done short day-hikes along the PCT before.  Tiny slivers of trails in Washington state, where the forests are generally thick and the trails are marked sparsely until you get to the Cascade passes.  (At which point, there are nicely-carved signs telling you that look! here’s the Pacific Crest Trail! Come! Kill yourself slowly by walking across the entire width of the country!)  It takes a special kind of person a whole lot of training to take on that special level of hell — because getting lost out there in the backcountry?  Terrifying.  With bears.  The kind that can eat you.

I got lost once, on one sliver of that trail.

Let me tell you right now:  it was wholly terrifying.  While I’d done some hiking here and there, I’d kept it largely to areas where there was a fair bit of human traffic in comparison, and a decided lack of bears.  Places where entire groups got together to groom the trails, and you didn’t have to look at a topographical map and a compass unless it was out of your own stupid curiosity.

Emboldened by my successes on these dumbed-down trails through nicely-groomed forests, I had the brilliant idea one Tuesday to go out and hike this teensy-weensy little PCT section and see if it was something I might like to do in total someday.  (I was much more fit then, by the way.  Not much smarter, mind you.  But more fit, to be sure.)

About an hour in, I started to notice that the trails weren’t looking like the ones I’d been on.  There were no more signs.  Not even the little teeny ones that you had to peer around for that told you your elevation so you could pat yourself on your back.  (A lot of climbing hikes have those in Washington.  ”Mt. Si Trail: 4.0 mi” and the like.  Things that make you feel like you’re a freakin’ machine of a human, climbing four miles straight up the side of the mountain from Twin Peaks.  This, my friends, engenders hubris.  Trust me.)

Light started to filter strangely through the trees, which told me that it was probably getting to be around four o’clock or so.  I had maybe five hours of daylight, less in the forest, and I had no idea which way was Alpental, much less the entire city of Seattle.  I was, to put it lightly, screwed.  And I probably smelled like a tasty peanut butter sandwich of human goodness to passing bears, to boot.

As you can tell, I didn’t die, since I’m writing this now.

As it happens, I ran into a grizzled, smelly man who was actually a through-hiker on the PCT.  (And trust me, through-hikers are almost always grizzled and smelly.  It’s a badge of honor, and rightfully so.)  While there was no way I could keep up with him, and he was racing the summer to get through the last bit of the trail before the snows started falling up north, he showed me how this particular section of the trail was actually marked:  Every so often, in the line of sight, there’d be a fluorescent X on one of the trees, up high so that anyone crazy enough to be out there in the winter could still see them, even if the snows got ten or more feet deep (as they do, sometimes out there).

No matter where you went, you should just lose sight of one by the time the next one comes into view.  (Or within a minute or two, for us slow folks.)  All you had to do was watch the trees, and have faith that the next X would be just ahead.

I didn’t become a bear snack that day, no.  But I can tell you that I’ve never been so happy to see my car as I was that day.  Best. Sight. Ever.  And if I ever run into the grizzly smelly guy again, I will full-on kiss him on the mouth.  With tongue.  He literally saved my life that day.

(And reminded me that, perhaps, a bit more backcountry training might be advisable before traversing so much as a city park without a map and a GPS.)

 Yeah, Yeah, I can hear you thinking, But what does your brush with doom have to do with a positive attitude?

Glad you asked.

Here’s the deal:

Most of our lives, we wander around aimlessly.  Maybe we’re one of the few who have actual written-down goals and ambitions and we know where we want to go, but really?  We’re still bumbling around on a trail we’ve never really been on before, trying to figure out if we’ve got enough sunlight to get there before the creepy bears start eating our bones.  We take decisive actions, we pretend we’re not just lost on the trail, and we really, really hope we don’t smell like peanut butter.

A positive attitude gets us to the fluorescent X’s on the trees, though.  Even in those few minutes when we can’t see where we’re going, the knowledge that that next marker is going to be on a tree just ahead, and we’ll find our way back to civilization.  If every semi-lost (or, in my case, totally lost and vaguely hysterical) day hiker thought they were doomed every time they lost sight of an X, there’d be a whole lot more of a need for Alpine rescue teams.  That positive attitude of yours helps you rescue yourself.

Having one means that you can look ahead to the next X, the next goal, the next step, and still take time to look around at the stunning beauty of a near-pristine wilderness.  That you can focus on your walking, your breathing, and the smell of the earthy greenery, instead of constantly panicking that you’ll end up a pile of unmarked bones.

People who know without a shadow of a doubt that the next thing is coming and that it’s going to be awesome are more likely to take risks that lead them to the next thing.  It’s SAFE.  You’re safe.  And the trees will lead you home.

 Tomorrow, we’ll look at a few practical things I’m doing to help myself achieve and maintain a positive mental attitude.

None of them, by the way, require a GPS, a can of fluorescent pink spray paint, or a grizzled, smelly hiker.

Bears, however, are fair game.




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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Miss Charlotte January 4, 2012 at 11:45 am

just brought memories FLOODING back of my wedding day…yes, the bulls eye was a happy sight, and no, I obviously didn’t die that day. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring! Cheers! :)


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