Travel Story Tuesday: Light and All Her Friends

Have you ever read something so well written that it just immediately sucks you in? Yes? Well, that's basically what all of today's Travel Story Tuesday's writing is like. Mary is one of my best friends, and was one of my roommates in Egypt! She is absolutely brilliant, and has a degree in creative writing (if you couldn't tell). Her prose is the most delightful, and I'm so happy she's written this little story for us. 


Backpacking in the mountains is one of my hands-down favorite things to do. I’ve only had the opportunity to do this a handful of times but at the end of each trip I find myself on the verge of abandoning civilization for the pristine wilderness of the mountains.

My first backpacking trip was to Sheep Lake near Mount Rainier. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place on earth. It can be an easy day hike or an overnight stay if you are interested in relaxing on the edges of the lake and/or exploring further down the Pacific Crest Trail.

The entire trek up to Sheep Lake found me clumsily trying to keep up with the group. In awe of my surroundings, I gawked up and around instead of watching the rocky, rooted trail. I’d never seen greens so lush and vibrant. The rays of sun piercing through the canopy glinted and danced at the edges of my vision and, being learned in the fantastical side of literature, I turned at every flash hoping to see a sprite or, even better, some long lost civilization that only I was equipped to discover. But, alas, I only saw bugs and specks of dust swirling around in the light-- don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, nonetheless.

Now that I look back on that trip into Sheep Lake, I feel bad for my companions. My mom is a biology teacher and has gotten me hooked on botany ever since I was a kid. When I wasn’t the open-mouthed klutz at the back of the group, I was the botanical know-it-all who shoved samples at anyone who would give me half an ear of attention. See that fern? That’s a sword fern. If you spit on the spores on the back of the leaf and make it into a paste, you can use it on swollen bee stings. Oh, and this is maiden’s hair! That over there is old man’s beard. It’s really good for kindling. Oh! And that sticky stuff on that cedar can be made into gum or glue and.... Yeah, I was one of those. Thankfully, for the rest of my companions, I quieted down after a mile or two of hiking with a 50-pound bag.

The trail consists of switchbacks, each bend revealing a landscape more beautiful than the next. Hidden waterfalls gurgled into view. Sun drenched nursery logs teemed with plants, bugs, and the occasional animal that poked a curious nose in our direction and promptly disappeared. When we finally came up and around into the Sheep Lake basin, I had to stop and soak it all in. The air smelled of pines and earth. Grassy plains, crystal water, and weathered mountain blended into each other seamlessly. A gentle wind brushed through the trees and stirred the lake into a sparkling prism. Gorgeous.

Our group of five set up camp a little ways from the lake, nestling our tents between sturdy pines that would ward off, if only a little, the wind, rain, and sun. I’d gone camping loads of times with my parents, but we camped in sites so populated, your neighbors were only a stones-throw away, literally--my brother and I tested that--but here, we were completely alone. Maybe hikers were sparse because the fall chill and bear season was setting in, but we didn’t care. It was just nature and us. After the tents were set up, Mr. and Mrs. G, our backpacking experts, started on a fire for our dinner: dehydrated mash potatoes and vegetables. As a treat, they even threw in some mesquite fake jerky. I can’t say it was my favorite meal ever, but at the time, I was ravenous and would have eaten anything that was put in front of me.

The sun disappeared quickly, as did its heat, leaving me shivering in my thermal long sleeve and old cargoes. I grabbed my favorite hoodie, made myself a cup of hot chocolate, and scooted closer to the fire. A howl spilled into the basin and bounced across the lake to our campsite. First, Professor Lupin popped into my head, then the werewolf from Buffy. I must have looked terrified because Mr. G laughed and assured me that whatever was out there would be wary of humans and, most likely, not come near us. Still, I mentally went over my survival list and made a note to find a good stick to keep on hand. Lying in bed was the worst. Every little sound scared away sleep. Once or twice, I could have sworn I heard something sniffing around my tent. It was quite sometime until I found something to take my mind off my paranoia. It started with a distance rumble, then, it crescendoed into a mighty roar accompanied by low whistlings of trees. At the pinnacle of sound, it passed over me like a huge force, shaking the flimsy frame that sheltered me and filled my head with gentle warmth. I’d never heard the wind approach. It was either there, or it wasn’t. Here, the wind transformed into a being, something concrete and tangible. In my head, the sound created an image, something likened to a gently magnificent dragon or Totoro on his spinning top, both there to guide and protect. The sound oscillated over me, calmed me, and lulled me to sleep.

At four in the morning, Mrs. G woke me up. It was so early, I couldn’t register anything she was saying, but I had no energy to protest, so I groggily got dressed and followed. It was light outside, but it was a sleepy light, not fully night or morning. I drank some water to clear my head, but didn’t eat anything. Mr. and Mrs. G were already walking away from the campsite, so I hurried after. The trail was steep and the cold air made it hard to breathe. I kept tripping over rocks and bumping into protruding branches because my limbs were still waking. After about 20 minutes, my head started to clear up and color seeped into my surroundings. Now I was able to keep up with the other two who seemed to have turned into Energizer bunnies and, once they noticed I was awake, they picked up the pace. Ten minutes later, we reached Sourdough Gap. I was a sweaty mess compared to Mr. and Mrs. G. They looked to have taken a leisurely stroll instead of clambering over rocks, creeks, and roots. They leaned against the rock wall of the gap and grinned as they watched me drag myself over to a low boulder that looked like the best chair I’d ever seen.

While I gathered myself into one piece again, I realized how high up we were. On one side of the gap, Sheep Lake seemed a puddle at the bottom of the droke. I could barely see our campsite nestled at the edge of the water. On the other, the trail plummeted down into another basin that held a larger puddle that looked from this height like an actual lake. Mr. G called it Crystal Lake. I was still taking in that new blue body of water when Mrs. G tapped my shoulder. She was pointing at the craggily peaks of mountain surrounding both basins. Blazing gold like I’ve never seen dripped down the tallest of the apices. We all watched, silent. After a minute or two, the gilt rays dulled into a gentler brilliance but still, the sun rose and the world awoke as the light passed. The birds began to sing. The trees rustled and waved on the light, silvery leaves tossing shafts onto the mirroring waters. I don’t know how, but experiencing that light energized me in a way that would put caffeine to shame. Now, the way back down to our campsite felt like a breeze. Instead struggling to keep up, I bounded down the mountainside. Jumping from rock to rock, I anticipated roots and branches, and just felt the earth and wind around and through me. Halfway down, we came upon another hiker. I skidded to a stop before I knocked into the man, but instead Mrs. G practically bowled into me from behind and Mr. G into her-- I didn’t realize we were running so fast-- and scared the wits out of the hiker. We exchanged shaky greetings and the man hurried past us with a concerned look on his face. Should we run or walk back now? I tossed the question at them; we were all slightly out of breath but grinning madly. Your choice, one of them said. I grinned wider, Okay... and took off running.

By the time we got back to camp, it was full day and I was ready for breakfast. The other back packers poked their heads out of their tents still shaking off sleep. Strong work, said Mr. G. The three of us grinned at each other. I settled onto a log with a steaming bowl of oatmeal. When can we do it again?

Have a funny, adventurous, beautiful, or otherwise entertaining travel story you would like to share? Email me at taylorpierce@comcast.net, and you could be featured on the next Travel Story Tuesday! 
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