If you drive three hours northeast of Seattle, you will find yourself in the grand Northern Cascade region. Mountains have always fascinated me. Something about being so small and insignificant is strangely comforting. LIke the details of life are so irrelevant – who you are, or who you were before you succumbed to the will of the mountain. Because in those moments (and hopefully hours & days) that you are in the wilderness, you are at the grace of the snow-covered beasts. They will decide your short-term future. And you simply just have to be there and adapt to whatever they decide to throw at you.
Goals are simpler when you set out to climb a mountain. Take in air. Stay hydrated. Keep your limbs dry. Have KIND bars on hand. Get to the top. In fact – I’m not even sure getting to the top is always the goal. Just get somewhere. And get back in one piece.
Now – I know it sounds like I’m talking about some Everest excursion – but Maple Pass was my own kind of Everest. At least in October of last year. And it did not involve nearly the amount of prep work that Everest requires.The only prep work was an e-mail to my friend Andy. “Take me to this picture.”
I had been in Seattle for work, and the pictures of Andy’s Cascade excursions had teased me long enough. We set out from Seattle with two Whole Foods breakfast burritos & some beef jerky. My hiking gear consisted of lululemon crops, a rain jacket, and some old Nike tennis shoes. There was only so much I could fit in a carry-on for business and leisure…
Before we hit the trails, we stopped at Mazama General Store – which was basically Little House on the Prairie meets Ina Garten. I picture my mother running a store like this. Pristine, organic, locally grown vegetables. Hand made gourmet cheese and gruyere baguettes. Apples the size of my knee. Specialty coffees with choice of soy or almond milk. And alpaca placemats available as souvenirs for a whopping $30. I guess when you are the only inhabitants for a 9 mile radius, you can charge whatever you want for alpaca placemats.
It was at Mazama General Store that we ran into Doctor Capp. Capp turned out to play a pivotal role in my Washington adventure. Capp is Andy’s local physician in Seattle – and it really threw them both for a loop to see each other in such alternative contexts. Capp and his wife are 5 foot 9 packages of solid muscle and steel. They just reek of physical fitness and mountaineering skills. They advised us to take on a smaller pass that day – seeing as Maple was reported with snow, sleet, and dismal views. Having no intention of hiking multiple days – Andy and I decided we’d already come that far. It would be worth it to wait an extra day. We’d do the smaller trail Capp suggested, and tackle the famous Maple Pass loop tomorrow.
Two hours later, utterly soaked, and cursing Capp for showing us a road to a piddly little lake (oh, and possibly getting us murdered by a solo hiker from VT in short jorts…), we made plans to refuge in Winthrop, Washington.
If you drive just one hour past the Cascades, you will find yourself in a western lookalike town.
Winthrop, Washington looks like it belongs in southern New Mexico – or more so, in Disney Land. The place seems totally unnatural. Like a Hollywood movie set, meant to depict the Wild West. As if a fake rattlesnakes should adorn the wooden plank sidewalks.
But there was an extra room available above the Mexican cantina/motel. It had hot, running water. And there was a beer nearby. We were sold.
I’ve never been much for clubs and seizure-inducing light shows. But put me on a barstool at the local dive bar, and I come alive. The people watching. The decor. Their stories. How did they get here. Why haven’t they left? What makes them tick? Could there be some secret essence here that I am meant to experience?
The reason they all came? Opening day of hunting season. How naive of me to think hunting was confined to to the Midwest… It seems I cannot escape the hunting life wherever I go (see previous post: 7 Misconceptions I Had About Hunting). Two older men gave us sound warning: “Ohh yahhh. Hunters be all over dees days. You bettah wear blaze orange tomorrooh if ya know what’s good for ya.”
I’m sorry….what? Are you serious right now?
Did these old men have a Sconnie accents, like they vividly do in my memory? Likely not. But my mind still plays tricks on me when I think back to the Twilight Zone that is Winthrop, Washington.
There would be no risking it – serious or not. Andy and I purchased two blaze orange skull caps from the Winthrop General Store. And I picked up a cotton sweatshirt that looked like something from a Billabong catalog.
“We love your hats!” can probably still be heard echoing through the mountain ridges of Maple Pass – as Andy and I traversed the narrow trails like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in matching blaze orange beanies.
But. We did not get shot. Or mistaken for deer.
And who did we find also traversing the narrow trails? Doctor Capp and his wife. And dog. All three of them sprinting. Yes – you read that right. Apparently mountain running is a thing. You run up a mountain, and you run down it. Capp was headed the opposite direction as us – meaning he had already gained 2,000 feet in elevation, reached the 6650 foot peak, and was 3 miles away from finishing the 7.6 mile loop. In under 3 hours.
Some people AND their dogs…
It took Andy and I a bit longer… and there was no sprinting involved.
We went from desert sand in Winthrop, to wet, cool forest at the base of the pass, to snowy tundra at the peak. And back again. In 7 hours. Between the sweat and lack of proper attire, I was once again soaked from head to toe.
Ya know that feeling after a day of skiing? It’s maybe 2 in the afternoon, and you know you need to get some fuel in you if you expect to do any more runs. And that bite of rubber, tire-like burger and non-melted Kraft Single from the rest lodge is the best damn food you have ever eaten in your whole life? Like the Food Gods themselves had blessed that burger with only heaven-sent ketchup and holy mayonnaise?
That is how I felt about the pasta carbonara we devoured back in Seattle that night. There is no sweeter ecstasy than the first meal after a return from the wilderness. After the mountains have allowed you to leave unscathed, looming in the rear view, reminding you that your small, simple existence is nothing compared to the grandeur they see and the roots they hold.
I might have left unscathed, but I left the Cascades a little taller. With a little more appreciation for being small in scale, but powerful in nature. Powerful by human nature, and powerful as a piece of the nature that surrounded me for those two days in Winthrop, Washington.
*all photo credit given to Andy Brawner: http://andybrawner.com/Photography