World-class mountains, fourth-rate hiker.
I started early. Four thirty a.m. to be exact. Dark. It was dark all over. Darkens so thick and heavy you could feel it, like a gravity overcoat handed down to you from your grandfather, who died of it.
I had been up since 2:30, also a.m., eating, showering, dressing, finishing the pack stuffing, which was necessary because I had a long way to go, a hefty pack to grunt around under, and ten days of food to carry. And I was on foot. Totally.
In fact, it was an eight mile hike from my apartment to the trailhead. Eight miles or close enough that it didn't matter to anyone, even me, and I was the only one who cared, even a little.
First, a quick hop through a ravine between my place and the local community college. This is a nice ravine. Everyone should have one like it, but it is tricky even in daylight, and unloaded. First you descend, and then you ascend, after crossing a little stream at the bottom.
Unless you fall, which I do too much of, even in daylight. Because it is steep in the ravine, and the footing is poor. And this day, at this time, the whole world was dark and unknown. But there was just enough starlight and stray city streetlamp light filtering through the leaves that I could guess where the trail tread ought to be, and I didn't fall.
Then, after the ravine, there is a mile or a mile and a half to the Olympic National Park visitor center, which is meaningless in itself except that behind it, also in the dark, is a short "nature trail", for those who are familiar only with pavement and need a gentle introduction to this "nature" thing.
But the little trail behind the visitor center has a secret – it gets a little wild. It doesn't just loop. One branch of it breaks loose and worms its way south for three miles along Peabody Creek, toward the mountains. So I set my internal compass to "west" and followed the street, and aimed myself to crash into the nature trail. But something happened before I got there.
Things happen from time to time. You know what it's like don't you? Well, if you don't I'm sorry and I hope that your luck improves because it is the strange little things that make life special. The strange little things that happen every now and then that no one believes, because they are things that can't happen. But they do.
The thing that happened was that, while walking down Park Avenue (True!) and a block from its intersection with Race Street (Also true!), I saw, in silhouette, a dog trotting south across Park Avenue.
If you have experience with dogs as a bicyclist, as a runner, or even as a walker, this sort of thing makes your blood run cold, especially when you are out and all alone, and the whole world is dark. Because loose dogs are dangerous, and many times more so during the night when no one is around. Dogs know humans and do not fear them. A dog on its own, in the dark of night, is a completely free agent and can do anything it wants with you, and none will be the wiser.
And then it was gone. Out of sight on its long, lanky, loose legs.
By the time I reached the intersection there was no sight of the dog. There were no humans there either. I'd expected or at least had hoped to see someone packing the trunk of a car while letting the family dog roam a bit, but I was alone there and the whole world remained quiet and blind in the night. Except for me, with the black shape of the dog sharp in my mind, backlit against the street's asphalt pavement.
Long legs. Short snout. Erect ears. Bobbed tail. Relaxed, confident trot. Boxer, maybe. Something like that.
By the time I hit the nature trail, the earliest dim feelers of morning were probing into the world of night, lifting its dark blanket by infinitesimal degrees here and there. At least I didn't have to guess where to put my feet, and by the time I had exhausted this trails three meager miles, the day was nearly bright, though the clock was still yawning and grumpy. I didn't have time for that, wanting to finish this pre-hike hike before the day's traffic got serious, so I kept up a quick pace and didn't think about anything, other than the dog.
Which, when I thought it through, could not have been a dog, because I had seen this kind of dog before, in full daylight, a few years earlier, and had realized then that my first impression had been wrong then too. It was not a dog. First the long legs and relaxed, nonchalant trot, both undeniably doglike, but don't belong to any dog. The pug nose and peculiarly alert ears, also giveaways, even if you don't see the ear tufts.
You have to look back at the legs again, more carefully. The ankles are thick, giving the legs an almost post-like look. And the feet – huge. Dogs do not have huge, thick feet, or thick ankles, but lynx do, and if you still have any doubt about what you may have seen, recall your glance at the tail. The tail is like a furry beer can stuck on the beast's behind. An unreasonably wide furry beer can. Lynx, definitely. I had seen my second lynx.
This was the point of the trip, I think. I think it was. Mission accomplished. The following eight days were follow-through, wrapping up, letdown. This this trip's purpose had been accomplished within the first hour, when I saw a large and wild cat on its way home from work. A large and wild cat that is not found here, but there you are. Magic is life and life is magic, plus timing, and I feel blessed.
It's a long grunt up Heather Park Trail, especially after stomping those eight miles simply to reach the trailhead, but living this close to a national park is its own blessing too. I reached the trail by seven forty-five, hid my walking shoes under a log, and put on my hiking shoes. Then the day began in earnest – and it was an exercise in desperate living.
The trail to Heather Park is unrelenting, but then many trails are, so there is no point in complaining. Complainers don't backpack. Backpackers shut up and hike. I hiked.
The lower trail is all forested and in shade. Not so the upper trail, so it was pleasant to stay in the cool, turn off the brain, and just breathe heavily. Forever.
A bit over half the way to Heather Park there is a small stream, a life-saver for anyone starting out too dry, or hoping to stop for a quick meal on the way up. Every fifteen minutes or so another group would pass me, tearing up the trail as though on wings while I sweated and panted under too many pounds of food.
And then the last calorie was used and there was no more energy left and I sat on a rock and watched stars before my eyes and trembled.
But you can do only so much of that, at least if you want to make progress, so when I could, I levered myself back to my feet and staggered upward again, and in time some strength returned.
Because this is, after all, a climb as much as anything. Starting at sea level, the route first reaches out for the trailhead over a handful of miles, and then, when the mountain takes it up, the trail climbs, and climbs, and claws its way up to more than a mile of altitude in approximately seven lateral miles.
With that gain in altitude come views, because the forest thins, which is either another curse or blessing, because the views are an excuse to stop and rest but the heat of the sun pulls at one's strength and sucks it out of the body.
Nevertheless, hiking this trail demands upward motion, even for one planning a halt at Heather Park, but my trip called for another day's hiking added to that yet, so there was no point in prolonging the pain. It was move ahead or go home.
Heather Park was a pleasant spot for lunch, and its water welcome, and its shade, but that was less than half of the day's hiking.
After leaving Heather Park you climb a bit more, and then you drop like a rock, and roller-coaster over three more passes before hitting Klahhane Ridge.
From there, well, it's more desperate hiking down steep switchbacks and then up again, and then down and up, and then you lose track and begin running into tourists and day hikers.
Which means you've nearly reached the Hurricane Ridge parking lot, at 5250 feet, and the visitor center, and water piped into the restroom, but you're glad for it all the same.
And after tanking up you hit the trail again for the final four or five miles down Obstruction Point Road toward a small lake deep off the road's north side in the shade and chill of evening, but it takes hours more to get there and you're very likely to hallucinate about food long before making a steep, steep descent just to find water and a place to rest.
Once there though you forget about the day, eat, hang your food, and fall down sleeping.