by Elle Berry | 19 May 2020 |
I had not seen another person in over two hours. In fact, the last person I had encountered was only in passing, when I pulled over to use the facilities off Hwy 12. But now having made my way through White Pass, en route to Mount Rainier National Park, I was fully alone. When I say alone I do not mean the kind of alone that happens when you’re in a coffee shop, or walking in a city park, or driving in your car. No, when I say alone I mean I was alone in the woods—which is a different type of alone altogether.
Making my way up a relentlessly zigzagging trail, through a fog-bound, Pacific Northwest sea of conifers, my mood was becoming as fatigued as my body, and my thoughts as dense as the encroaching fog. If you have not had the experience of wandering through a dark, foggy, old-growth forest, by yourself, you may not be familiar with the kind of silence that can encapsulate your every breath. However, if you have had the privilege you understand perfectly that it invites an expectancy of the imagination. It feels as though you might walk off the map entirely, landing in a mythical reality such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’ Narnia. It is an almost deafening solitude that can be both mysteriously wonderful and intimidatingly frightful in the same moment.
I have long been drawn to such landscapes, so I tend to err on the side of thinking them mysteriously wonderful. Moreover, on this particular day I had every reason to be excited. I was spending a summer afternoon adjacent to one of my favorite national parks. Additionally, I was doing a hike I had been eying with anticipatory delight for months, and my destination was a fire lookout. It was a slightly ambitious day-hike, but there were promises of stunning views, along with the rustically romantic allure of the fire lookout.
But perhaps my biggest reason for looking forward to this hike was that this was the culmination of my 52-hike challenge. While listening to a podcast the previous spring, I was introduced to the idea of the 52-Hike Challenge. The premise is simple: you have one calendar year (or fifty-two weeks) to hike 52 hikes. You can only hike one hike per day, so in theory you could finish the challenge in fifty-two days. However, lots of people opt for the method I choose, which is to hike one hike a week for a year. As I was nearing my graduation from graduate school in June of 2018, it became increasingly clear that I wanted to begin my post-graduate life with this challenge.
There is a long literary tradition of weaving personal investigation into wilderness exploration. In America one might think of authors such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, or even modern writers such as Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, or Cheryl Strayed. In the Bible, spiritual navigation is often marked as individuals traverse geographical unknowns. Jacob, Hagar, Elijah, and Moses (just to name a few) all encounter God in the wild. Wilderness has often become the canvas on which we paint our spiritual portraits. And so it seemed fitting as I launched myself into this new chapter of post-graduate life that I mark this transition with an adventure.
Yet, here I was one year later nearing the end of this journey and feeling none of the joy I had anticipated. In fact, to be clear, I was edging dangerously close to a bad mood. First of all, it was July…which is not the Pacific Northwest rainy season. But the “slight chance” of early morning showers had lingered all the way till noon, and was now producing a deep (and humid) fog that blanketed the forest and hindered visibility. Though I was nearing the point in the trail where views were promised, the persistence of the fog meant I would have been more likely to see stunning vistas of Mount Rainier if I’d just stayed home.
Additionally, while this trail was high on my dream list, for some reason in the week leading up to my hike I had experienced more than my usual bouts of hiking anxiety. I had read trail reports of occasional car break-ins at the trailhead, as well as several reports of recent bear sightings. Logically I know both events are generally unlikely experiences, but they are also both experiences I have previously had. I often hike solo, so minor bouts of trail anxiety are not new. Generally as I hit the trail, my anxiety dissipates into the scenery. But today they only seemed to thicken like the fog. I was tired, wet, and somehow both cold and hot at the same time; and even as a strongly introverted person, I was about to exceed my own quota for solitude.
Typically, I’m pretty stubborn about finishing a trail, so I pushed myself forward despite my mood. However, as I gained elevation, and the trees became sparse, the fog only increased. By the time I was entering the third hour of the hike it felt as though I might as well have signed up for the cloud-hopper challenge. Visibility had dwindled to a mere ten foot circumference, and even though the trail report claimed it was only four miles to the lookout, the trail was so relentlessly uphill that I could have sworn I’d already hiked twice that distance. Trees and boulders lumped together as mystery-shadows in the distance, prodding my already overactive imagination. And just when I felt I was finally calming myself, it was at that point when I looked down to realize that humans were definitely not the only ones using this trail, as multiple piles of bear scat were littering the path ahead.
So with enticing vistas fading, and shadows looming large, that’s where I started to complain.
“God, could you not clear the clouds? Like it’s my LAST hike of this challenge! I was looking forward to this hike. There were supposed to be vistas! Not a white void!”
I trudged several more weary, fuming, steps—even knowing my mood was somewhat ridiculous, there were still frustrated tears beginning to mix with my already sweaty face. By this point I was simply talking aloud to myself, reasoning that if the bears were near they might as well be graced with my complaints.
“And could I not see like a single other person? Why am I so alone? I don’t ask for much, but this is too alone. I wasn’t supposed to be this alone.”
Trail complaints were now conflating with life complaints. I’d been hiking all year looking forward to this last hike and expecting some beautiful meaningful culmination. Instead I was here in my 52nd hike on this stupid fog-locked trail, with bear scat—completely alone. The trail was swiftly becoming a metaphor for my life—sweaty, muddy, and foggy, with lurking bears, and vapid vistas (not as advertised.)
Pushing forward, I noticed how the trail was narrowing, growing steeper, and making increasingly tighter and shorter switchbacks. At present it appeared to simply lead upward into an empty, white, void. My thoughts boomeranged back and forth between “I’m literally climbing to nothing!” to “I must be close…?” But with every switchback the white void simply expanded like a magically refilling cup. I was surrounded by a white void. My life was dissolving into a white void.
A Great Cloud
But it was in that moment between the silence of the clouds, and the anxieties of my heart, that a verse bobbed to the surface of my memory.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders … and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
And the absurdity of how accurately that verse spoke to my situation made me laugh aloud. Here I was walking through a literal cloud, feeling alone, and all I could think was since you are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Maybe I wasn’t so alone after all? Maybe there is always a cloud of witnesses? And strangely this thought gave me just enough hope to keep pressing forward, repeating the verse to myself with every step. One step, two; another switch back, and another. And when for the hundredth time I was about to consider quitting—a shadow started to appear in the white void above. Could it be? It had to be. Yes! There perched on the rock above was Shriner Peak Lookout.
I tiredly laugh-cried my way to the summit, ready to kiss the steps, and intent to enjoy every bit of her fog-wrapped glory. As it turned out, the lookout was as rustically romantic as advertised—perhaps made even cozier by the blanket of Pacific Northwest fog draped around her. As I stood perched on the lookout deck, I began to recognize the glory of the scene before me. It was majestically beautiful. And as I recognized that truth, suddenly the white void appeared to be parting. I had been staring into the fog for so long that for a moment, I thought I was actually hallucinating. But I wasn’t. The afternoon wind was pushing the clouds forward, and suddenly a window opened showing the lush, green valley I had just hiked from. I stood there transfixed and marveling at the mystery of this moment, my mood shifting as quickly as the wind. What I saw stretched before me was different from what I’d hoped for—but etched with an intimate beauty more exquisite than what I’d imagined.
My marveling was soon interrupted as I noticed a shape lumbering in my direction. My bear paranoia resurfaced on a moment’s notice, only to realize this wasn’t a bear, but a man. He wasn’t coming from the trail side, but instead the campsite over the hill. Apparently I wasn’t alone at all. He’d been up here all along. As he drew near, we exchanged hiking pleasantries. He was a photographer who’d hiked up here to take pictures.
“Oh, too bad about all the fog.” I said, “I hope it will clear off for you.”
“Actually, you know? All these clouds make for more interesting pictures.” He shrugged, as he turned back to set up his tripod and camera on an adjacent rock.
Reflecting on the day I thought, how right he was. Clouds made for more interesting hikes too.
Shadows in the Fog
As we’ve been living through this unknown season of global pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about this hike. The lessons of the trail are often the lessons of life. Going forward, I see the shadows looming in the foggy unknown—separate, I know so many of us feel alone. It’s easy to think we’re the only ones walking, and that the void ahead will never end. And so I keep on whispering again, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders … and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. We are after all never truly alone, and if we keep pressing forward there is a shelter for us all on the rock above.
Elle Berry is a writer and nutritionist. She is passionate about creating wellness, maintaining a bottomless cup of tea, and exploring every beautiful vista in the Pacific Northwest. She blogs at ChasingWhippoorwills.com.