I had not slept well. The first few nights of sleeping on the ground were great, straightening out my back in ways I didn’t know it was crooked, but the last night was painful. My side of the tent was on a gentle slope, so I tended to slide to the edge of the tent, waking every few hours, pressed against the canvas. My right shoulder hurt from my fall, so I couldn’t put my arm over my head if I laid on my stomach, and I certainly couldn’t lay on my right side.
Andy got out of his bag first that day. The next water wasn’t for another two and a half miles, and we had another pass to get through beforehand, so I forewent my morning tea. My feet still hurt from the day before, the toll of fifteen miles on tender soles. Had we more trail time, I would have been able to accustom myself to that much mileage and more, but at the time, my body faced the consequences. Given how swollen my feet were, I tied my boots looser than usual. We ate our granola and folded up camp.
I took a last look around, the tall pines waving in the breeze of the early morning. This was our last camp. We had nine more miles until the Lava Lake Trailhead, so barring any unforeseen issues, we would literally be out of the woods that day. The packs were again lighter as we suited up for our last big day.
But first, the pass: The Opie Dilldock Pass.
Yeah, you heard me.
As we had done on our third morning, the bulk of our elevation would happen first thing in the morning. We had camped less than a mile from where the topographical lines started to get close together on our map. And once again, we had patted ourselves on the back for our cleverness.
“At Mile 41.2 (6900′) is Opie Dilldock Pass. Very Alpine Area. Great Views.
This did not at all prepare us for what was in store. We kept our pace intentionally slow, winding our way through the trees and around the mountain, when we came out of the forest. Perhaps, indeed, the Alpine area the author of our guidepost had mentioned.
But the pass itself was far more like Mordor in Lord of the Rings than any alpine area I’ve ever been in. The ground was dry and barren, the volcanic rock gray now, crunching beneath our feet. We climbed up and up and up, me falling behind because I could not manage Andy’s pace. When we came around a corner, a fierce wind waited for us, blowing us both off-balance. My eyes teared up against the wind, my hat catching each gust, despite my ponytail threaded through the back. We had to lean forward into the wind to keep moving up the trail.
The ascent kept going and going…until it didn’t. Like any struggle, once we discovered the plateau, it didn’t seem so hard. The wind skirted past us, barely ruffling the rat’s nest in my ponytail.
Minnie Scott Spring
“At mile 41.7 (6700′) is Minnie Scott Spring. First drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It’s easy to miss the spring late in summer. It appears about 100′ East of the trail and forms a stream that may peter out before it even reaches the trail. You have to engineer a dam to form a pool, then let the mud settle before getting water. Seems to be reliable year round. Nice campsites down a trail to the West. Next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.”
This description was why I had no tea this morning, and the thought had occurred to me that Opie Dilldock Pass (really? really?!) had challenged me even more because of the lack of tea in my system.
But Minnie Scott Spring appeared like an oasis of “Alpine” in an otherwise Balrog-infested area. We filtered our water here, despite our belief that the spring didn’t require it. We were too close to a successful trip to be stricken mere miles from the car. I eased off my feet, reclining on a rock. They ached still. In fact, I also had patches of skin on each hip that were being rubbed raw by the pack’s belt. After five days, I had managed to figure out a specific way to set the pack on my hips that made carrying it possible in the long-term. The margins of success were very narrow. My right shoulder ached.
We did not have to engineer a dam to filter the water, thankfully. Now that we had plenty of drinking water on board, we both relaxed some. No matter what happened, we would be fine. Shouldering the packs again, we set off down the trail, now only seven miles from the car.
The volcanic landscape overtook again, now red basalt as far as we could see. The wind kicked up and threatened to take my hat–once ripping it right off and I had to chase it down, afraid my Big 5 Dive trucker hat was gone forever. We traversed through the Yapoah Crater, but it looked a lot like the rest of basalt formations.
There was more hills and valleys than we anticipated, the wind constant until we crossed into the trees. Eventually, we returned to the alpine areas again, where we rejoined the Scott Trail, and then the Mattieu Lake Trail.
I was slowing, getting quieter, focused now on the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We stopped to eat, despite my protestations, at South Mattieu Lake. I ate not only a Clif bar but also high-graded both the banana chips and cashews out of the gorp.
I did the math and realized I had eaten at maximum, 1500 calories the day before. Not enough for a fifteen mile day. My exhaustion made sense. I ate until I pictured my stomach overflowing with layers of banana chips, stacked unevenly, like a slate retaining wall.
Groups of retirees trickled down to the lake. The silver hair was the first giveaway. They had picnics in their daypacks. We were three miles from the trailhead.
It made me smile–they were clearly a very successful outdoor club for seniors. They wore technical hiking gear, many had trekking poles. But they were all enjoying themselves (well, except this one guy, but he looked like the type that had only recently quit his job, and only under protest. He was the kind that didn’t know how to not be in charge and was unhappy about the whole thing.).
Sitting had improved the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We had covered a fair amount of tough ground already, and we were close now. We hefted our packs and set out for our last leg. The trail was back to my favorite kind: soft, but well-packed, with good tree cover so as to provide ample shade. We wore sunscreen everyday. I wear sunscreen every day of my life, regardless, but reapplying can really be a hassle.
My feet had stopped aching, finally, and a snack always improved my mood. But then, just like after Opie Dilldock Pass: there we were. In front of us, a parking lot. Behind us, wilderness. It seemed so strange to stand on the cusp, covered in red dust.
I had been content in our world of two. We were well provisioned, mildly comfortable, and completely out of range of any electronic world. But taking steps forward brought the rest of the world crashing at our feet (or in my case, crashing at my blisters). I had never been in the woods that long before, had never gotten accustomed to that kind of walking. It would have been easy to step back in, melt into the trees, a way to say “forget it,” and cocoon away, just ourselves.
But I hadn’t brushed my hair in five days, nor showered. My hips were rubbed raw, my feet swollen and blistered, the ache in my shoulder was intensifying, even as light as my pack felt now compared to the beginning of the trip. The world beckoned, bright and candy-like. It had video games and restaurants. It had my family, my friends, more books, and hot tea. We stepped past the trailhead signpost. We were back.
There were two gentleman with their covered truckbeds open, clearly returned from their morning excursion. It was noon, and they were having post-trail beers. We asked them to take a picture of us. We were one week shy of our seventh wedding anniversary, and we had never felt closer.
Our photographer told us a funny story about a newly married couple going into the woods for a week-long honeymoon, only to come out a day later, with implications for the rest of their marriage.
We laughed, declined his offer of a beer, and picked around until we found our car in the dusty lot. Easing the packs off, Andy hunted for the car keys. He pushed the fob, and the truck popped open. We pulled out our waters and more gorp, as well as the charging equipment for our phones. The packs slid into the trunk. Andy flipped his pack the bird.
I sat down in the passenger seat and laughed. I hadn’t sat in a chair in almost a week. It was a Kia, and it was SO COMFORTABLE. The revelation came fast and harsh: how overly comfortable we are in so many respects. How easy our lives are, and how we wallow in it only to declare it unsatisfying.
We resolved to never complain again.
So we drove to Bend to eat. We took turns washing up in the bathroom, I washed up to my elbows three times before the water ran clear. There was a Buddha on the wall watching as I performed my ablutions. We were in a small fusion restaurant called Spork, which I cannot recommend enough. Dee-licious. Also: we had been in the woods for six days, so grain of salt.
We drove to Crater Lake, but by then I had taken my boots off. My loose-tying approach that morning had left me with a large blister on my toe. The bottoms of feet still tingled, and with the boots off, unweighted in the car, once again, my feet swelled to a shape nearly round. My right hip was near bleeding from the belt of my pack, but not quite. My left hip felt bruised, but it wasn’t discolored.
It was the National Parks’ 100th birthday weekend, so we cruised in for free. Due to my injured status, we did not do a hike, but drove half of the perimeter. We saw a deer, which felt like vindication for the fact we had not seen anything larger than a squirrel during our week in the woods.
We got a hotel that night. I hadn’t brushed my hair in a week. My calves were stills stained with ash from before The Burn. I knew I smelled, even if I was having a hard time recognizing it. When I took my shirt off, my right arm was decidedly swollen compared to the left. The bruising would be slow, and indeed, when it came, it covered an area from my bicep down past my elbow. I couldn’t sleep on my right side for two weeks after.
The waistband of my pants chafed the raw skin on my hips, but that went away after a few days. Andy was, of course, completely unscathed.
This was one of our best trips together. Maybe even better than when we spent three weeks in Honduras scuba diving. Definitely better than when we tried to motorcycle the Blue Ridge Parkway and got washed out by a Nor’easter.
The reason why it was so much better was because we walked out of the woods being a better team than when we entered it. It wasn’t a hardship, our hiking and camping adventure, but it was a shared experience where we both carried our weight (not just figuratively).We had set daily goals and frequently exceeded them; we communicated, taking the time to really look at each other. We had lain next to each other listening to elk calls at dawn.
There’s magic in the in between times, and we’d seen it together.
Day 6 Statistics:
On Trail: 7:15 am
Off Trail: 12:30 pm
Total Miles = 9 miles
2 rations of granola
2 cups gorp
1 clif bar (Sierra Trail)
Water: 3 liters