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Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I am with you, kid. Let’s go.”
~ Maya Angelou
Chapter 2: Before and After
Raised in the fast-paced paved world of the Chicago metropolitan area, trails, quiet, solitude, bright blue skies, and even watching sunrises was not the obvious choice for a well-planned weekend or summer vacation. It just wasn’t one of my options. Nice size yards, setback sidewalks, and large trees lined our cul-de-sac and convinced the locals to stay put for their entire lives. Neighbors are to the Midwesterner what adventure is to the Westerner. Weekends are full of barbecues and pig roasts.
Don’t get me wrong. These are great things, too. The stuff that community is made of. But a wilderness adventure is the furthest thing from one’s mind. Why leave the city? All the stores, clinics, people, and entertainment are right where you need them. Big city dwellers often build adventures out of hunting for a purse to match the outfit that was bagged the weekend before.
I remember a conversation I had with my Spanish grandma on the way to the mall one Saturday afternoon that typified a common perspective of city lovers. As we drove on a curvy road through a small grove of trees that somehow had not succumbed to industrialization, she exclaimed,“Ay mia! No me puedo creerlo! I can’t believe it!” With a tone rising in frustration, she went on in Spanish how horrific it was to have all these trees present. What a waste of valuable space and how dangerous it was to not have civilized this piece of land. Where I saw a nice break in the endless Chicago sprawl, she saw a missed opportunity that created a danger for the citizens.
I never really fit in with this city mindset. I used to pretend the dark clouds laying low in the horizon were actually mountain tops in the distance. I climbed trees and built forts. I cherished the times we went for hikes in the tiny forests near our home. My Oregon-native dad had exposed me to the grandeur of the mountainous landscape on our frequent visits, which seeded in me a dream to someday live where we vacationed. Oregon was, to me, the land of the free-spirited adventurer who roamed the mountains, valleys, and ocean shores powered by mineral water and sprouted greens. I had all Oregonians elevated on pedestals in my childlike, mind’s eye. These mountain dwellers were impressive and mysterious.
I realized that I wanted to enjoy some day hiking and low-level adventuring, seeing the mountains in the distance. Backpacking was not even on my radar. Walking on the beach? No problem. Fishing? Check. Canoeing? Sounded perfect. These were the outings I had pictured when I envisioned the Oregonian-in-action I was sure to become.
That was before I met Cory. The new love in my life had a different vision, which included me pushing way beyond a sunny walk on the beach.
Cory often talked about taking me backpacking, defining it not as a hobby but as a lifestyle. He had already exposed me to the formidable sport of mountain biking on trails; now it was time to hike them. So a little more than a year after being together, I was challenged to a bona fide Oregon activity—hit the trail and spend the night. This was Cory’s sacred activity and an invitation to join his inner circle. Introducing me to the world of backpacking was on the same level, in Cory’s mind, as introducing me to his family.
Saying yes to this invitation was saying yes to letting our relationship go to the next level. We planned the trip for late August, which has the best chance of rain-free weather. I was thoroughly excited with no hint of nervousness. I pictured the days, full of beautiful scenery and easy walking, and thought the trip would be a piece of cake. I had seen plenty of pictures of happy hikers and quickly deduced that I would join the ranks of all the glossy magazine characters who graced the pages of the Eddie Bauer catalog.
My first surprise came when I attempted to lift my borrowed heavy exterior-frame backpack. There was no way I could muscle this behemoth to its resting spot on my body. Thankfully, I would have either Cory or his brother, Tim, to heave this monstrosity onto my weak frame. The next surprise came when I took my first steps. I wobbled precariously with my top-heavy load, trying to keep myself upright, so that I wouldn’t completely embarrass myself in front of these two mountain men. It occurred to me at that point that I might be in over my head.
Knowing nothing about life on the trail, I didn’t even know what questions were appropriate to ask. But being a long-distance runner and a top Illinois athlete gave me a hyper-inflated confidence in my body’s ability to handle anything. Besides, one of these brothers was the new love in my life and what can’t you do when you are love sick?
So I mustered a smile and set off with Cory and Tim to discover every inch of the 40.7 mile Timberline trail that circumvents Mt. Hood, just outside of Portland, Oregon. I did not know, however, an important fact when I innocently agreed to this adventure… that the trail has several significant vertical ascents and descents totaling 9,000 feet, mostly at canyon crossings.
We hit the trail in perfect timing with a massive explosion of wildflowers that graced the slopes under the majestic peak. Gorgeous rivers raced down the sides of the mountains, cascading into waterfalls. During the day, I was in love. I loved the motion and the challenge. I loved the sights, smells, and simplicity. My mind attempted to comprehend the immense beauty of the landscape of Mt. Hood while my body battled saddle sore hips and tired muscles.
I also loved the relaxed, confident, and carefree side of Cory that came out on the trail. Up until this point, I had only seen him in our college setting where he was inundated with homework and tests, standard for a civil engineering student. I fell in love with him even more as I discovered this new rugged, yet tender and sensitive side of him, the liberated guy who lived under the surface of a vigorous course load. I found a guy who came alive setting up camp, and a guy who took the time to notice and stand in awe at a field of flowers or the rising sun.
Despite the fatigued muscles, bruised hips, and elevation changes that were unlike any terrain I had experienced in my flat land running days of Chicago, thankfully, I stayed cheerful and positive. I say thankfully because unbeknownst to me, what seemed like a friendly four-day backpacking trip was actually a “can I really date this girl” test!
Avid backpacker Cory, who often clocked 500-plus trail miles in a summer of hiking, had determined that he could not marry a girl who couldn’t athletically and mentally handle the back country. He knew himself well enough to know that his marriage would be less fulfilling if he didn’t share these special times together. To Cory, the idea of family meant time together, not leaving a wife home for weeks at a time to pursue his own passion. He wanted his wife to feel cherished, not abandoned, so he needed a life-friend who’d hike with him. He didn’t care if she cooked well, cleaned the house well, earned a lot of money, or any number of other wifely requirements. He just hoped that the lady he fell in love with also loved to get down and dirty on the trail.
During that first trip there were times of self-doubt as on the most difficult climbs or intimidating evenings I asked myself, what am I doing out here? As I experienced the unbelievable darkness of the night and the howl of coyotes, thoughts of bear attacks, cougars, and dangerous people hiding behind bushes swirled through my mind.
I was used to being surrounded by the city, the first ventures into the woods to spend the night unnerved me to the core. My grandma’s fears had filtered down to me. I dreaded the nights. Were perpetrators lurking? Were wild animals prowling? After learning that the Northwest was home to the actual mountain lion, my attempts to sleep were fitful as I imagined wild cougars or bears charging into my tent. During the day, I feared grave injuries– all outside of any cell phone range.
Stepping out from under the blanket of protection that I thought the city provided into the woods was no small feat. Maybe I was a better candidate for California beaches, populated resorts, and quaint cafes for my getaways. I should have just pulled out a map and picked my vacation options within the circled areas that included AT&T’s coverage range. No wilderness areas need apply.
Luckily, being so enamored with Cory blinded me to these potential fears when asked if I wanted to go, and they didn’t surface until I was en route, when turning back was no longer an option. And Cory encouraged me along with a wink and a smile or a kiss at a trail junction.
When we passed other hikers, I often felt like an actress, posing as a backpacker, but really just a city girl in disguise. I felt like a fraud, as if the others were actual hikers and I was just faking my way through. I wondered if they knew that when they passed me. Was I missing some kind of secret gleam that communicated to passers by that I was the real deal? I thought for sure that if stood in a line-up with all these fellow hikers, I could easily be picked out of the crowd as the imposter.
But on the final stretch as the trail ended and gave way to the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, I walked a little taller and realized one thing: pseudo-hiker or not, I had fun. Nothing attacked us. Nothing endangered us. We had just spent four days hiking through fields of flowers, crossing rushing rivers, traversing through pine tree forests, and doing so under the massive peak of Mt. Hood. For three days, I breathed the cleanest air and drank the sweetest water I had ever experienced, under the most vivid blue sky I had ever seen.
Despite the fears that crept in during my first trip, I passed Cory’s test with flying colors and a smile on my face. While he sensed my misgivings, he saw that I fought through them, kept it positive, and was physically capable of enjoying the wilderness. With each step forward, uncertainty was replaced with confidence. I could do this! All it took was that one trip to convince me that I, too, loved to backpack. And that was the final sign to Cory that this girl named “Chicago” was outdoorsy enough to be his wife. My love for Cory was the gateway to my love for Creation itself.
Before Mt. Hood, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely backpacker candidate than me. I had grown up far removed from the Wild West and had no experience in the complicated world of outdoor gear, trip planning, and survival in a wilderness. But soon I was officially hooked on wilderness exploration, and was well on my way to becoming a genuine Northwest backpacking diva, despite my midwest roots.
During those first three years in Oregon I went on two- to three-night backpacking trips whenever possible. I turned into the genuine article I had wondered if I could become. I let go of my fears of the dark woods and a self-confidence emerged, built on the belief that I knew how to do this.
Looking back, I am fascinated at the timing of this new conviction—that I had hit my Oregon-wilderness-girl groove—because this awareness came on the heels of a catastrophe that had the capacity to shatter my dreams of ever going into the wilderness again.
Some moments divide time. They have the power to split our existence into the before and the after. As the world went dark, and my body careened fast and furiously down that snow field, I was unaware that I had crossed over to the ‘after’ part of my hiking life.
It seemed quite unlikely that I would ever hike again. From then on with every trail step I lugged, not just a backpack full of gear, but also a mountain of fear that was crippling at times. I felt like an unpredictable time bomb that could detonate at any moment. Obviously, hanging out in isolated, pristine wilderness locations was ludicrous. It was time to hang up the hiking boots and stay closer to home.