National Trails Day in the Cascades

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Into the Cascades we drove, twisting and turning along a familiar path. It was odd being in a car – all four of us were sick at some point, ducking our heads between our knees to take deep breaths. Moving at 65 mph is a dizzying affair when your basehead is 12 mph. The lush green of the Pacific Northwest blurred and spun, spinning us deeper down the wormhole, towards a weekend that would again affirm Keys to Freeze. We camped by the visitors center of Cascades National Park. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) had reserved six campsites with the hope that there would be a dozen volunteers for National Trails Day. We scored the ride to the Cascades through the NPCA. Shannon, our contact with the organization, rented a van to move our tired bodies east for the weekend. We were teaming up with her family and the other volunteers for a killer weekend of turning a patchy, overgrown trail into a more accessible experience for the casual day hiker. Including the Keys to Freeze team and their #1 groupie Miss T there were eight volunteers taking up three campsites. Wendy, a sassy 70 year old bird from Birmingham, Britain was our campsite neighbor and fellow volunteer. Then there was Elaina – a single mother from Russia – and her son Leo, a twelve year old who loved Minecraft. We, a motley crew.

That first night we drove to Buffalo Run in the nearby town of Marblemount, home to a gas station and two restaurants. Buffalo Run was one of the two dining establishments and, as we found out, the worse of the two. I ordered buffalo testicles and shared a buffalo burger with Miss T. Later I would have an explosion in the bathroom, an eye-watering affair that secured my post-bill decision to never visit Buffalo Run again. I returned to the tent at dark and threw myself into a broken sleep.

Next morning was interesting – it was odd waking up and not seeing my bicycle, not having the equipment to make a comfortable breakfast. I felt unprepared for the first time in a while. Kind of naked in a way, exposed to the experience. The switch from bikepacking to car camping is a tough one to make from the road.

Shannon scooped us up and we met at Stetattle Creek Trail, which is two miles south of Diablo Lake, the milky blue gem of the Cascades. The trail was overgrown with salmon berries and ferns. Our day consisted of us moving rocks and killing a bunch of shrubs. It was interesting work – kill a plant, chop a fern, move a rock, and make the trail a better place to hike. I suppose the idea is as follows: Kill a few plants and let the people hike unencumbered, or let the people hike encumbered and risk decimation of small ecosystems when they go off-trail. Perhaps if there was more education going into intentional hiking … but shame, who has the time or money?

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The work was hard. I was quite lathered in sweat, a thick sheen showing unexpected levels of exertion. We ate lunch by the river and dipped our heads in the water. Burritos and apples. I talked with Shannon about her experience as a backcountry trail crew leader. Eight days in the backcountry, six days off. A week wet, a week dry and inside. Her stories reminded me of the wilderness therapy groups we’d met in Utah – totally exposed and in it, the great wild, bent against its will. A tough go, but rewarding enough. You should have seen Shannon move a rock. It was a beautiful thing.

Walking back down the trail at the day’s end was pleasant. We witnessed our work. It was like painting … each stroke, when viewed from an arm’s length, looks little more than a swath against wall. But when you step back and see what’s come of your work the picture is complete.

We celebrated with burgers and beer at a restaurant called Mondos and then passed out. When I woke up I felt as if I’d moved the world yesterday. My back was twisted and gnarled. I felt like a dried, puckered apricot. Dehydrated, sore. It was time to head back towards Seattle.

We hiked Sauk’s Mountain on our way west. From the top one could see Glacier Peak, Mount Baker, the Cascades, and Mount Rainier. It was dizzying. Where is this on the east coast? Two years to climb Rainier, that was what Brady and Tyler and I told ourselves. Some truth blown in with the smoke – looking on these mountains I was small and insignificant yet capable of climbing to their peaks and peeing off their sides. Humans are amazing animals, big walking sacks of meat and self-realization.

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So. A weekend in the Cascades. Our national trails day and a hike thrown in there. A powerful experience. We were proud to work with the NPCA, and grateful for their work in coordinating with us to make it happen. When we returned to the welcome arms of Auntie M and Peter we had five full more days off the bike. The fun continued in earnest.

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