It was an odd year.
I went places I'd been before, often many times, but many of them were barely recognizable.
Maybe it's my memory. Maybe it's time and weather. Or a combination.
Maybe I'm an impostor.
It could be that this is what it's like to infect a human and take over its body. I could be a body snatcher, and not good at it. If this is the reason, my inexperience shows.
I have control of the body. It goes where and when I want. And the mind is mine, with its memories, with its knowledge, and its understanding, but the match is not quite right. I can drive the mind around but the memories are off. Skewed. Warped. Inexact. Clumsy. Sloppily glued together.
I go places that this body has been, and there I am, but where is that? The edges don't match. Things are not right. Not quite. It seems that they should be but they are not. Not right.
The map says I'm there. My memories say I'm there, and I'm not there. The land is not right. Things go missing. Lakes. Mountains. Trails. Whole forests. Everything is off.
So it was with the Skyline Ridge Trail in Olympic National Park, and its connection with the trail along the North Fork of the Quinault River. Off.
It was off.
Good weather, clear trail. The aftermath of a low-snow year. I had decent hiking, wasn't in a hurry. Everything was fine at first.
I left my car at the North Fork Trailhead a little north and east of Lake Quinault, a nice place. I'd spent the night off the road near Bogachiel State Park up north. It has a great shower, at least on the men's side. Can't speak to the other half. With the state parks it's a real crap shoot. And it was not only a working and good shower, but I got a deal.
I bought tokens at Millersylvania State Park near Olympia at four-for-a-dollar, and used them at Bogachiel at the rate of two-for-a-dollar. And had a great shower too. Almost a good enough deal to make me settle there permanently. Few state park showers are any good. Some are deceitful. They take your money and don't give water. One with reliable hot water is worth marking on the map and returning to.
But that was yesterday. This was today. I was there to hike. So I hiked. Things were fine.
Up north, by the time I got to Three Prune or thereabouts, I camped. Difficult. Few trees good enough for a hammock, but I found a spot. Not great but it served. Spent a quiet night not far from a little stream. Left my food in an Ursack and hoped it would work. Was alone. Fine.
It worked. OK so far.
But I didn't recognize a lot of the trail. The broad outlines, sure, but not the details. I was looking to revisit them and they'd gone off somewhere.
Like the spot I'd stopped about a decade ago, speculating on lunch. It was a nice spot. A small circular meadow surrounded by willows, near a stream. Here? Over there? Closer to the stream? I stood, thinking it over.
I was wondering if maybe I should go past the stream and sit in the sun a hundred yards or so farther on, or not, when I saw a bear looking back at me. From beyond the line of willows, over by the stream. A quiet bear. Brown. Large and brown. Sitting, looking at me through a small gap in the willows like the resident of a small old village eyeing the tourist from a window. Casually.
I stood. Right where I was.
Before long the bear decided to be elsewhere. Me, I wasn't sure. Couldn't go on, not with the bear parked on my route, couldn't go back, because. Because I'd just been there. I wasn't going that way. So I waited.
The bear pulled its head down. Vanished. Only willows again. I waited. I saw bear again, circling around me, moving away from its spot on the stream to my right, crossing the trail, heading off left. Up ahead now, peeking through another window to check. To see if I was behaving.
Yes. I was.
I waited, an uninvited visitor in the bear's living room. Trying to be polite. Unsure of exactly what to do. So I waited. To see what the bear thought. It pulled its head down again, still going left.
Several minutes later I slowly moved toward the stream, going opposite to the bear. All quiet. I tanked up on water, looking around, staying quiet. All quiet all around. I moved on, had lunch farther down the trail.
I wanted to see that same place, see what it was like now, and walked over the same ground but did not recognize the place. Not even once. Odd. Things didn't seem to have changed, but they had, enough so I couldn't recognize landmarks, couldn't orient.
Anyway. I was headed to Lake Beauty. I'd been there the previous year during a long-smoldering fire season in the Queets Valley, which is over the ridge to the northwest. A hot year then. Smoke blew over the lake all night. No one else was there. Just me. Decent place to camp. Fresh clean water flowed out of the lake through a ridge on its northwest side, filtered by tons of earth. No need to drink green swarming lake water.
Anyway, I was headed there but didn't make it. Got lost.
Not lost. The trail went away. Up in the area shortly after Kimta Peak and long before Lake Beauty. The land gets rocky. You follow cairns. No problem. I'd been through there before, at least four times, in both directions, as recently as last year. I had a picture of the route in my head, the head I'm occupying. The memory is there for me to use, whether it's my actual memory or the memory of the body I'm temporarily making use of. Regardless.
And I had a map.
Going west to east: Start high and angle down toward the southeast. Going east to west: Emerge from the woods and angle northwest while climbing over moderately rocky ground. Simple. Do it once, or twice at most, and you can close your eyes and sail along.
Didn't work this time. Somehow. Didn't work.
The cairns were sketchy. Shouldn't have been, not after a mild winter, not with so many people out on the trails. Cairns should have been robust, sharp, frequent, and clean, built up afresh by many helpful hands.
No. Nope. Not.
The farther east, the farther across this rocky reach, the flatter and more disorganized the cairns. Scattered. Spread. Splayed. Random. Tricky going. Time was getting on. Voices.
I heard voices shortly after the last cairn gave way to random pebble collections. Voices. Someone knew where they were going. No problem now. I met them. Three guys from Boston out for a big adventure. They were ahead of me, had found the trail that I needed.
It didn't go where I expected. Didn't match the memories I had with me. Dead end, the guys said. Led down to a camp spot on the top of a cliff. That didn't sound right. The trail definitely didn't skirt the cliffs hanging over that little hidden whatever stream way down below somewhere. Stumped.
I backtracked. They backtracked. We looked. Everywhere.
Then I found a different cairn trail that went up instead of down, northeast instead of southeast. I followed it. Nope. Dead end. Just higher than the other dead end, but still dead, and an end.
Getting late. All hands frustrated. Stymied. Four of us. Three guys who'd never been here before and I, who had, and should have known how to walk through it, humming happily no probs just follow me.
I checked every whichway and could not remember where the hell to go and could not find the trail.
We camped by a meltwater pond surrounded by old snow. I put up my hammock fly and stretched out on the ground. The night was calm. A little breezy, a little damp, but calm. Quiet again.
The next morning the three of them went back to looking where they'd left off. I headed west, planning to find the trail again and to try following it a second time. I did. After a huge detour way up high. Have to get back there. Never knew what fun landscape there is way up high there far off the trail.
They were right. The mess of cairns, followed a second time, pointed me to a camp spot on the cliff, the one they had found. And then there was a vague trace of trail, and then a little more, and some more again, and I was past it all, back on the trail again, definitely.
Eventually it became familiar. But I didn't see the other guys. Kept expecting to bump into them from behind. Did see a different hiker coming the other way. He hadn't seen anyone. No guys from Boston ahead. Only a bear.
Scuffling along the gravelly trail in a shrubbery tunnel I walked into that bear's personal space. It was around a shallow bend, standing on the trail's up-side, looking downslope across the trail, and exploded when I broke its reverie. Boom. Gone. Racing down the mountain before I knew what from where or why.
Ok, that wasn't good either, was it?
But it was over. I kept going.
Eventually, the next day, the Low Divide came along and then the North Fork of the Quinault River, and way down south, the Wolf Bar area, but other hikers were there already, so I couldn't stay. Way off the trail downstream I found a quiet empty spot, decided to stay, and committed a crime.
I found a decent camping spot near the river, but there was really only that one spot, and the space between the two trees I needed for my hammock was occupied by a third tree, a young conifer, right where my hammock would hang. I used a length of spare line and a toy carabiner that had come with a bottle of sunscreen. Tied back the young tree, severely. Hung the hammock. Ate. Bathed. Went to bed.
Left the next morning. But only after a rough walk back through brush to the trail did I remember that I'd left the little tree tied up, bent way over. Go back? Well...
No. Naw. Not worth it. So far back. Crap.
Stopped a few minutes later. Thought it over. Same decision. Kept going.
All the way back to the car. Stop. Think. Shrug. Continue.
By the time I reached the car it was way too far to go back. Easier to live with the guilt, I thought.
Another guy drove in and parked. Had a jeep. I didn't tell him about the tree. After a few minutes he headed out for a hike. Left his vehicle's windows full open. Before he vanished completely I hooted and asked if he wanted to do that, leave the windows open. Jeep full of stuff, bicycle on the back, all there for the taking.
Yep. No choice. No glass in those windows, he said. No way to roll them up or lock it. Always open.
I tried anyway. I told him. I'm not all bad, I thought.
Yes, I am.
I need to get back to that tree and untie it. Undo my crime. Some day. I will. No way out of this one. I will remember that, at least, clearly. That memory won't be false. I know exactly where it happened and what I did and how I did it. The little tree will wait there, tied, until I go back and let it go and say I'm sorry.
Even a body snatcher has a conscience about some things.