Lightweight reading: part 3

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Betsy writing on a beach along the Selway River (from an earlier trip).

Betsy writing on a beach along the Selway River (from an earlier trip).

Admiral Richard Byrd writes about solitude in his 1938 memoir ALONE. I read a battered copy of ALONE a few summers ago when I was hauling around a heavy pack and tools, doing wilderness trail work.

Reading that book made my hardships seem trivial. My soaked clothes, wet boots, blisters, and short rations paled in comparison to the conditions Byrd lived in.

He spent an entire Antarctic winter, with no sunlight at all, by himself in a little hut on the interior of the continent.


Byrd admits in the book that he wanted to taste the experience of alone-ness. He writes:

We are caught up in the winds that blow us every which way. And in the hullabaloo the thinking man is driven to ponder where he is being blown and to long desperately for some quiet place where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory.

Though I wasn’t alone on the scale of Admiral Byrd, I’d been hiking by myself on an empty trail for three days. By the afternoon of the third day, the sight of another human startled me.

Mule packer on the Selway River trail. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

Mule packer on the Selway River trail. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

I’d just taken my pack off at Pettibone Creek beach when I heard a thrashing sound above the trail and a man appeared, leading a horse and two mules around a big tree across the trail.

“Hello!” I yelled up to him and he flinched, surprised to hear a human voice. We exchanged a few words and he was off, the mules trotting along behind him, their backs loaded with big square boxes wrapped in white canvas covers.

“…where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory.” Solo hiking obviously leaves plenty of time for musing.

I had two recent deaths to contemplate—my father’s and the daughter of a good friend, a woman who died in a car crash at age 42. The very act of breathing and walking through the wild landscape seemed an amazing gift.

After a swim and a reading break at the little beach I hiked through a blackened forest, burned last year by a fire. Spots of new green vegetation brightened the ashy ground, visible symbols of hope.

Salmon in Bear Creek, near the end of a miraculous journey. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

Salmon in Bear Creek, near the end of an awe-inspiring journey. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

Once again it was almost dark when I found a campsite, a lovely sand bar above the deep pool on Bear Creek called the Salmon Hole. In the morning I put on my boots and scrambled over the rocks to stand at the edge of the pool. I watched a few small fish nose around in the sand but minutes passed and no larger fish swam into view.

Disappointed, I began to turn away but then caught a motion at the other side of the creek. Something that looked like a shark’s fin cruised above the water. The surface rippled and a wide tail flicked out and disappeared.

I raced up to the lookout point above the pool and saw a group of about a dozen reddish-brown salmon, each one at least three feet long, their heads pointed upstream, their fins moving slowly in the current.

I almost couldn’t breathe.

These fish had come from the Pacific Ocean, swimming for hundreds of miles up the Columbia River, around dam after dam, to the Snake River, then the Clearwater and the Selway and finally, Bear Creek. They rested now before moving upstream to lay eggs and spawn. It was almost miraculous.

Is it possible to express the wonder of the natural world in words? Of the “nature writers” I’ve read, I think for me Henry David Thoreau comes closest to expressing that joy. His prose for me is still fresh and exuberant, whether he is sucking the juice out of a frozen wild apple or admiring the plants around Walden Pond. I’ll never be able to properly describe the jolt of pure wonder I felt when I saw those salmon but perhaps my words will more securely cement that memory into my brain.

Along the Selway River trail. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

Along the Selway River trail. (Photo: Betsy Kepes)

That fourth day of solo hiking sent my emotions soaring and plummeting.

I sang with happiness as I hiked through the wide-open valley of lower Bear Creek, looking out at rolling hills, the sparkling creek and admiring the six-foot high mullein stalk “forests” I walked through.

Later I pulled myself over tree after fallen tree, cursing the wind that had made walking the trail so difficult. Once I turned a corner to see a fire—a big cedar had been struck by lightning and as it burned it fell across the trail, smoke and flames blocking my way. I pushed through the brush above it to get around and stepped on a hornet’s nest. As the insects buzzed up my pant legs and all over my arms I screamed and ran.

It would have been a good scene for a horror movie—a flaming tree, a cloud of hornets, a panicked hiker.

In the late afternoon I allowed myself the luxury of stopping to set up camp an hour or two before darkness. I washed in the creek and took the time to light my little gas stove to make a bowl of instant lentil soup.

After four days of steady hiking my body was tired and I curled up in my sleeping bag with the Orson Scott Card novel, PASTWATCH. I hadn’t read many pages before my eyelids grew heavy. The best cure for reading excessively would seem to be physical exhaustion. Or maybe it was Card’s writing style. His prose is functional but rarely soars. Perhaps I should have carried Thoreau.

Photo: Alex, from Ithaca, via Creative Commons, some restrictions

Photo: Alex, from Ithaca, via Creative Commons, some restrictions

Words will fail me again as I try to describe the last morning of my hike, when I walked through an ancient cedar forest. The wrinkled gray bark on the huge trees reminded me of elephant skin, and of the animals themselves—enormous calm creatures. I felt small, but in an awestruck way. I walked slower and slower, not wanting to leave the enchanted forest, with its dim green light and trees so wide it would take three or four people with their arms wide-stretched to circle around them.

By that last morning I hadn’t seen another human, except for the brief hello with the man and his mules, for three days. I’d barely read a book either, the comfort of the written word not something I seemed to need. I had my “quiet place” and I’d had time to ponder but mostly I’d tried to still my busy thoughts, to take a vacation from them. Admiral Byrd might have been disappointed that I didn’t “take inventory” during my alone time, but I had sought to become a part of the wilderness, to strip away some of my distance from nature.

byrdbookAs I left the woods to climb the last miles up to Lost Horse Pass I picked up a cedar branch to use as a walking stick. I liked its smooth surface and fragrant wood and the way it would connect me to the deep woods even as I hiked up into a land of rocks and cliffs. When I reached the trailhead I knew my son would be there to greet me and give me a ride to Missoula. I knew my thoughts would crowd together again as the human world surrounded me. I’d see friends, eat fresh food, go to a bookstore. But for those last couple of hours in the wilderness I needed only to breathe deeply and walk.

  1. Lucy Martin says:

    Shoot. Sounds like your trip and these travel essays are done for now.

    Thanks again, Betsy, for the vicarious enjoyment they provided. I look forward to more, when that may come.