On May 5th, 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee opened up some state public lands, as a means for helping residents to access the natural world as an antidote to the despair of being on lockdown for two months. This news offered a tiny ray of hope, something to look forward to in an otherwise bleak spring. Upon hearing it, I decided to take a much-needed mental health day and escape to the mountains.
Scanning the list of lands that would open, I decided on a loop around Change Peak and Mt. Washington, both of which are accessed through Olallie State Park. You may recall my earlier report on this loop, which was an early part of my 40 Peaks for 40 Years project last year. My wishful thinking presumed that most people would wait until the weekend to hit the parks, and that few would be making their way to the Mt. Washington trailhead early on a Tuesday morning. Ha.
I arrived at the Mt. Washington trailhead at 7:00 a.m. to find a dozen cars already parked in the lot. Wanting to avoid crowds, I moseyed down the road to the parking lot for the picnic area, where there was only one truck. Being a map geek, I knew there was a back door entrance to Change Peak, so I would take that route in hopes of some solitude.
The effect of lush green vegetation and the distant whoosh of cascading creeks on my spirit was almost immediate. Months of stress and anxiety took a back seat, and I felt the tension in my body begin to release.
After soaking in the joy of cascading water, I made my way up to the Palouse to Cascades trail, from which I would link up to the Change Creek Trail.
Soon after joining the Palouse to Cascades Trail, I encountered a man and a woman sitting on a bench. I pulled up my buff to cover my face and stepped to the far side of the trail as I passed. “Happy independence day!” the man said. I laughed and said, “Yes, enjoy it!” He then proceeded to launch into an absurd conspiracy theory, arguing that “99% of COVID deaths could have been prevented if we hadn’t gone on lockdown. The lockdown is the reason for so many deaths.” All I could manage to respond was a long, dissenting “ehhhhhhhhhh” as I continued on my way. There’s no use arguing with a lunatic. Fortunately, that would be my last human contact for a while.
The Change Creek Trail is a bit of a secret, and I walked right past it. Looking at my map and realizing I’d somehow overshot it, I retraced my steps and found the hidden entrance.
Once you’re on the trail, it’s well marked and maintained. I suspect that the Change Creek Trail has a custodian who has taken it upon themselves to maintain it and add nice little touches along the way. Once on trail, there are handmade signs, wooden benches, and other details that are clearly a labor of love for someone out there.
The trail gets right down to the business of climbing, winding its way through the forest. There are rocky outcrops with lovely little benches for breaks, scenic overlooks to stop for snacks, and the sound of whitewater works to drown out the hum of traffic on I-90. I was just so grateful to be there after being away from the woods for so long. To have the trail to myself made it all the more perfect.
Since I was on a hike, not a run, I took the opportunity to linger along the way, stopping at the “Change Creek Vista Point” and the “Change Creek Rest” (both spots labeled); going a little extra distance to check out Hall Point (which, despite traffic noise, would be a great little campsite); or veering off route to follow the MMM Ridge (I don’t know if the Ms are initials for something else, but you know I can’t walk away from any arrow pointing toward a ridge.) I kept reminding myself that it was ok to slow down, to check out where the trail leads, to detour, to stop and rest. All of this added up to make the entire excursion feel like a true adventure. There was much smiling.
Soon after my stop at the Change Creek Rest, I hit the snow line. There was one set of boot tracks, so I tried to walk in that hiker’s footsteps to make the going easier. Since it was pretty deep forest, and not much sunlight filtered through, the snow was often pretty well packed. In other places, it was starting to become rotten, and I postholed down to my waist in some places, despite my best efforts.
Not long after I hit the snow, some rather large tracks caught my attention. Reading tracks isn’t my strongest suit, but I’m always curious about them and hope to learn more. I paused to take in the details and knew that they belonged to a dog, a coyote, or a cougar, but I wasn’t sure how to determine which one for sure. I had seen some scat shortly before this that I thought belonged to a coyote, but now I started to second guess it. My gut was saying “cougar.”
As the tracks continued down the trail, a battle between reason and irrational fear took hold. In truth, the man’s boot prints were as unsettling as the animal tracks. I don’t like encountering men on remote trails when I’m alone. At the same time, the unidentified tracks also raised the hair on my neck a bit. While my rational brain knows that the chances of seeing a mountain lion, much less being attacked by one, are minuscule (cougars have killed only 2 humans in Washington State–ever), it’s one thing to know the odds, and another to be the only human within miles while walking alongside large predator tracks. The woods were dark, deep, and close, and even though the prints suggested that whatever this animal was, it was ahead of me, I nevertheless felt watched.
I forced my thoughts toward reason: “Cougars hunt at dawn and dusk, so it’s not hunting now. I’m too big for prey, and humans aren’t on cougars’ menu anyway. Only 2 humans have been killed by cougars in Washington. In the rare case cougars attack, humans typically fight them off. Whomever these tracks belong to has already gone ahead of me and are well on their way elsewhere. Just because my trail name is Cougar Snack doesn’t mean I’m actually going to live up to that moniker. Plus, this might be tracks from the hiker’s dog, anyway, because I don’t know how to tell the difference and might be making something out of nothing.” And so on.
Reason prevailed, but as much as I like to think of myself as a friend of the apex predators who get an undeserved bad rep and about whom hikers have very little to fear, I would be remiss if I didn’t own up to feeling a little creeped out. I don’t want to be afraid when alone out in the wild, and I thought in this moment about Cheryl Strayed choosing to tell herself a new narrative about fear, which she explains in her memoir, Wild: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.” For myself, while I remained aware of my surroundings, I resolved not to let fear of this environment or its inhabitants overpower my experience there. Like Strayed, for the most part it worked for me, too.
[As soon as I got home, I used this very thorough tutorial to learn how to distinguish between dog and mountain lion tracks. For the record, it was most definitely a mountain lion.]
Reaching a junction marked by a wooden sign, I opted to take the more direct route instead of circling around a small pond. It appeared that my booted predecessor went around the pond, and I soon lost his tracks. The cougar seems to have gone its own way here as well. What followed was some high adventure, as there was no sign of the trail, and I trashed through thickets and postholed like mad. Far above, I could see sunshine, which suggested that the trees broke. I knew there was an old logging road above me, so I decided to just make a line for the clear skies above and reassess once I was in a better location. Of course, this all added to the fun, as I bushwhacked up a steep slope, off trail but with a good sense of where to go. My hypothesis paid off, and before too long, I was above tree line on a wide logging road.
As I walked up the road, complete with logs carved into thrones for sitting down to survey your domain, the sun’s rays warmed me both physically and emotionally. My smile was at its toothiest, and the mountains lit me up on the inside. “I’m out in the mountains today! I’m out in the mountains!” More smiles; big damn smiles. After months of personal struggle and feeling mired in despair, this was a welcome respite from the new normal of my life.
After very carefully traversing a steep, sketchy snow slope (of the “I wouldn’t have died but could have gotten messed up if I slid” variety), I reached the junction with the trail that circles up to Change Peak, or down to the Mt. Washington trailhead. This would all be familiar ground now. This ground would also become irritatingly difficult to walk on, thanks to the condition of the snow. It felt akin to walking through quicksand, but I was just so damn happy to be exercising someplace other than the blocks around my house that it didn’t bother me at all.
Soon, I founds myself angling up the spine of a ridge that leads to Change Peak. I had the place to myself and yipped out loud with glee. I dropped down off the north side of the summit to take in the view and eat lunch in the sun. It was glorious. After months trapped in my house and neighborhood, it was just incredible to be eating a Twilight bar on a mountaintop kept all to myself.
While my brain told me it was probably a bad idea, I’m such a sucker for loops that I couldn’t resist heading over to tag Mt. Washington and then return to my car via that trailhead. I was clearly the only person who had done so for some time, as there were no tracks heading in that direction after I left Change Peak.
After quite a slog through the snow, I reached the ridge that leads up the back door entrance to Mt. Washington. As I crested the top, I saw groups of hikers sprawled across the grassy clearing below the summit. They were everywhere. They were not wearing masks. Realizing, too late, that I should have left well enough alone and not come here, I pulled my buff over my face and for some stupid reason still went up to tag the summit, where more unmasked and not-so-physically-distanced hikers hunkered down.
Feeling anxious about the summit crowds, and dreading the possibility of encountering droves of hikers on my descent, I made haste to get out of there. The descent was a mixed bag but erred on the side of stress-inducing unpleasantness. First, I should have taken a moment to put on my microspikes, but my desire to get away from these people overrode the inconvenience of falling on my ass in the icy snow every 50 yards.
Some hikers did make an effort to follow public health guidelines and statewide rules for recreating outside. As per state mandate, we were directed not to recreate with people outside of our households; to keep at least 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others; and to cover our faces, if possible. Some hikers really made an effort. They wore buffs or bandanas (I chose a buff instead of mask thinking it would be easier for hiking; next time, I will wear a mask instead because the buff doesn’t offer much protection and kept slipping down.) Only one woman wore a mask. Some hikers gave me a wide berth (although it was mostly me giving way and creating a lot of space.) My encounters with such hikers were relatively pleasant, and I said thanks and was friendly. Unfortunately, this does not represent the majority of hikers that day.
I was disappointed to see so many hikers not covering their faces; not creating physical distance with me; and clearly recreating with people they didn’t live with (while also not wearing face coverings or keeping 6 feet of distance.) My stress spiked exponentially with each encounter that tipped the scale toward encountering more of these types of hikers. This provoked my anxiety for several reasons. First, this was “opening day,” so to say, of some state lands. It was a test run to see if the state would open more, if people would behave. People were clearly not behaving, and I feared what it would mean for this “experiment” (as the governor called it) with allowing us to recreate on state lands. The rules were put in place for a reason; not to limit us, but to keep us all safe. To see people recklessly flouting that was quite upsetting, even if for personal reasons. For one, it could lead to a loss of our privilege of accessing public lands. Two, it could also lead to another spike in infections, possibly overwhelming our healthcare system. I didn’t even acknowledge hikers who took this tack, offering only a scowl in passing. Their decisions could end up affecting others, and, quite frankly, I was pissed. Yes, I was judging. This opening of state lands was being closely watched, and it was people like this who jeopardized it for the rest of us.
The entire trip down the mountain was one long coronavirus nightmare. Cars spilled out of the Mt. Washington trailhead and lined the road as far as you could see (the directive to move on to a new location if the parking lot was full clearly didn’t register with these folks.) Things didn’t get much better once I hit the Palouse to Cascades Trail, where gaggles of climbers clogged the trail, CDC guidelines be damned.
To distract myself, I tried to focus on the wide variety of spring flowers that bloomed along the trails. Ah, so pretty.
The skies opened up and showered as I reached my car. Reluctant to return home after this too-short respite from lockdown, I sat in my car, ate some snacks, and stared through the rain at the mountains that surrounded me. While the Mt. Washington portion of my day was not really enjoyable in any way, I decided to train my focus on the Change Peak portion, which was simply wonderful. There’s nothing like a global pandemic, and a shelter at home order, to make you realize how fortunate you are to have access to the natural world. I don’t think that I take my access for granted; in fact, I’m quite consciously grateful. What I came to recognize, though, was how essential it is for my personal well being. Cut off from the mountains and forest, my mental health has deteriorated. This brief excursion did much to make things right, if only for a little while.
Governor Inslee was right to prioritize getting Washingtonians back into the wild. As Thoreau noted, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Personally, I realize now how essential the wild is to my own well being, and I vow to spend as much of my life in wild places as is possible. There’s no telling where our world is headed and what the new normal will look like. That’s what is so troubling about this pandemic: so much is unknown. All I know now is that I need to find a way to connect with the wild as much as possible. I believe it is, quite frankly, my only means of self-preservation.