The alarm went off at 6:30am and immediately my heart was racing.
Today we would do our first hike at high elevation, our first hike in bear country, and the first physical activity I had done in like two weeks.
If you are an experienced high altitude hiker of the mountains and bear country, please spare me the embarrassment of reading any more of this post. Ya girl is used to 1,000ft elevation & some deer. The rest of my sea level/low elevation friends, please continue so you can laugh empathetically (and in solidarity).
After packing up the car and securing an incredible haul from the local market, we pulled out our Idaho Road & Recreation Atlas from Benchmark Maps and made our way to the trail.
We drove along a winding road that divided the mountains from the reservoir, and every turn was a new and more beautiful view. Finally, our dirt road came up, and we took it for what seemed like an eternity. At the time, we didn’t know what the squeaking in our back wheel was, so we had to nurse it over the potholes and bumps. It took so long, we weren’t sure if we had misread a dirt road for a trail. But after about 1.5 miles, we found the trailhead and some free camping sites that we regretted not staying at.
At this point, my heart was pounding in my ears. I got out of the car into the hot morning sun and immediately hooked the bear spray onto my backpack with shaking hands.
“How do I even use this thing?” I tried so hard to ask this calmly that I asked it harshly and gave myself away.
Jake patiently explained how to take the safety out and how the trigger worked. A picture flashed in my mind of a bear running at Miska, and me having to fumble to use the spray.
“I have to pee.”
I walked away quickly, found a nice shaded tree, and tried to get my mind calm while I peed.
(I’m giggling because I know some of you are shocked at this. Yes, I found a tree to pee under. When you’re out in the woods without a bathroom, this is what ya gotta do. But I have yet to be able to poop in the woods… My body just refuses hahaha).
Anyway, I was able to pee but I was not able to calm down. I walked back to the car with my heart still racing, and we made our way onto the trail.
So we start on the trail, right? And I don’t know exactly what I expected a mountain hike to be like, but this was not it.
Jake picked a hike that started in a valley and ended on a peak. Well, you know what’s in valleys? A LOT of plants. Tons of them. Thick undergrowth.
You know what you can’t do in thick undergrowth?
The only thing worse than being afraid of seeing a bear is being afraid of NOT seeing the bear.
And then, we came up on this sign:
So here we are, alone on a trail in bear country in a mountain in the northwest of the US, hiking away. Except I felt like I was in a jungle, forging my own path through thick brush and checking over my shoulder for predators. Unfortunately, I had a GoPro, not a machete.
I think the worst part was my inability to shut up. When I get scared, the part of my brain that monitors social awareness just totally shuts off and a steady stream of talking comes out of my mouth.
“Man, I’m scared. Are you scared? Wow this is crazy. Just look at all this. So many trees. Damn, I’m really scared. This is freaky. Wish we could see further. HI BEARS WE’RE HERE. WE’RE COMING. DON’T FREAK OUT.”
I was talking to Jake and then yelling at the bears in rotation. I know that seems counterintuitive but apparently if you make noise, they have time to avoid you.
I wonder what the bears think about hikers who yell as they’re coming through. I can just imagine the conversation.
Bear 1: “Oh Jesus Christ - hikers, Frank. Let’s move.”
Bear 2: “What the hell kind of noise is that one making?”
Bear 1: “I don’t know, must be one of those new guys.”
Bear 2: “They wonder why we attack them..”
So, I’m imagining this bear conversation when we finally cross the creek again and break out of the overgrowth. I am STOKED. Finally. I can see.
And then - since I can see - I look at the next part of the hike.
I am no longer stoked.
It’s uphill. Steep uphill.
Listen, I know. Obviously, when you hike a mountain, you have to go up. I get it. But I was so preoccupied with the bears that I forgot about this part.
I was already sucking wind because we started around 6000ft elevation, and my heart was already racing out of fear.
This was gonna hurt.
Now that we are out of the trees and it’s a little later in the morning, the sun is beating down full force. My back is soaked in sweat, I’m heaving for air, and my legs feel like they have forgotten how to work.
We’ve gone 1.5 miles.
I am literally stopping every 30 steps to catch my breath. Now, I’m not in great shape, but I am in good enough shape to walk up a hill. The altitude and bear stress was killing me.
During one of these breaks, I turn around to talk to Jake and I see something brown through the trees on the trail.
I hold my breath.
Then I see… something else.
Coming up fast behind us is a woman and her dog. Let me tell you about this woman. She was the mountain town equivalent of a suburban tennis mom. Her tan skin covered a lean but strong frame, and she showed it off in a matching purple sports bra/skort ensemble.
Even her water bottle belt and trail shoes coordinated. We moved to the side to let her through, but she paused once she was beside us, and leaned casually on her trekking poles to chat and let the dogs meet.
I put a hand on my hip and shift my weight, trying as hard as possible to act like this mountain that she’s basically running up isn’t totally destroying me. The backpack and bear spray I’m wearing suddenly seem unreasonably large and unnecessary, as she has neither of these things.
Finally, the dogs stop sniffing and she waves goodbye and continues quickly up the trail.
Jake and I look at each other and smile and shake our heads.
“She must be a local.”
Seeing someone else on the trail (with a lot less gear) gave me a huge wage of relief.
Unfortunately, it turns out that while the adrenaline was taking my breath, it was also powering me up the mountain.
So. Subtract adrenaline, add altitude. You get me, baby stepping up this steep ass hill. For the next 2 miles.
Usually doing a physical activity with Jacob means I’m going to suffer. I’m not ashamed of it. He played soccer his whole life, including at the collegiate level. While he was doing two-a-days, I was in a practice room playing piano. So when we go biking, hiking, running, etc… I’m usually struggling to keep up. And I’m sure that if I made him play a gig with me, then the roles would be reversed.
This was a whole other level of suffer, though, and I felt pretty bad that we were crawling up this mountain so slow that we might as well have been going backwards.
Thankfully, Jake can be extremely calm and patient. He stayed behind me the whole time, didn’t complain once (even as he listened to me complain), reminded me to drink water, and pointed out all the views as I was gasping for air. He checked on me constantly to make sure I didn’t get altitude sickness, but didn’t let me just quit.
My pride didn’t let me quit either.
Near the top, the trees thinned out to a wide meadow with streams running through it. We could see the top just ahead, and what was on it.
We stopped to filter water from the stream (that honestly probably didn’t need filtered, it was so crystal clear), and Jake asked me what I wanted to do. He said he would happily turn around. That it would be okay. That I should be proud I made it this far. Whatever I wanted.
Well thanks to my pride (and his reverse psychology) we kept going.
Switchback after switchback.
Hike, pause for air, hike, pause for air.
Carefully stepping around the loose rocks.
Slipping and sliding in the mud. Then there it was. After the final mile.
We were walking through snow on July 1!
I felt exhilarated. I had no idea we would climb high enough to be in the snow that day. Halfway up I thought I would have to stop. But we made it.
We found a fallen tree to sit on and stuffed our faces with the granola bars I had found at the market that morning, staring at the other peaks off in the distance and admiring where we had come from below. He pulled out his phone. “Damn! 8500 feet! We just climbed over 2000 feet in 3 and a half miles!”
You’re probably expecting me to end the post here, and talk about perserverance and believing in yourself to get to the top.
Nope. That’s not how it works on a mountain.
Going up is just the first half.
We still had to go back down.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Down?! But that’s the easy part!”
Yes, okay, down is a little easier. But just a little. After you climb up, your legs are a lot weaker than they were before. And now, on a steep descend, your weak, tired-ass legs are now responsible for catching your weight and the momentum of you going downhill.
Did I mention all the mud and loose rock? Plus, we all know that the end of any trip feels the longest.
Despite the challenges (including sliding down some sections and two bad falls that I still have bruises and scars from), we made it down in record time (this is just a phrase, it still took me forever). There were gorgeous wildflowers everywhere, beautiful views, and, the best part:
Sweaty, sunburnt, and achey, we stumbled to the car, stripped off our outer layers, changed into dry clothes, cleaned out our wounds, and, more or less, fell into our seats.
We did it. We climbed our first mountain in the northwest. We celebrated by sinking into our seats and sitting in complete silence and sweat for a solid minute.
Then, without a word, Jake started the grizzly (our Nissan Xtera), turned down the dirt road, and we headed off to our next stop on the road trip.