August 28, 2012

Mt. Washington Wilderness hike: A dose of reality on the trail

Mt. Washington through the trees

At the time, Paranoia was teaching, or I should say troubleshooting, at Parrot Creek Boy's Ranch. Conservative both in nature and politically, Paranoia was always adamant about how bleeding heart liberals were pampering the Ranch's delinquents. His job was dragging him behind a manure truck, and the line needed severed. 

Shifty was a produce manager for a grocery store. He was good at what he did, but felt vastly underappreciated. His bottom line was always exemplary, but his employer's gratitude was nil.

I had just started two jobs, one in lumber sales and the other as a husband. The combination of my bride's cooking and sitting on my butt behind a desk 10 hours a day led to a weight gain of 20 pounds in 60 days. Like a balloon stuck on a spouting helium tank, I felt like I was ready to burst.

Needless to say, each of us needed to get away from it all, and what better way was there to accomplish this than to hike into a wilderness and slam the door behind us? Some folks might call it "withdrawing from reality." I call it "finding reality."

We pulled our rig off the Santiam Pass highway and into a parking lot near Big Lake, shouldered our packs and spun the cap on a pint of whiskey. Toasting a trail with a quick pull had become customary, but Paranoia, along on his first overnight backpack and a novice at trailhead veneration, obliged himself to a few extra swigs. These were no little pulls either, but the kind where bubbles rapidly rise in succession toward the bottom of the upside down bottle. Glug, glug, glug.

During this time, liquor was never taken lightly on backpack trips, in fact, I usually carried more hooch than what I drank and made sure everyone one else along on a trip did the same. A few extra pounds of libation carried over hill and dale was considered well worth the extra effort - just in case we had to amputate an arm or a leg along the way. Uhh huh.
Three Finger Jack, Mt. Jefferson from Mt. Washington
We hiked south along the dusty PCT through lodge pole pines and soon entered the 52,516 acre Mt. Washington Wilderness from its northern boundary. Within the first quarter mile, I noticed something intriguing beginning to happen. A metamorphosis was taking place among us. Along that stretch of trail we all became different men. Shifty's smile hinted of that well deserved pat on the back he'd been longing for. Paranoia's swagger, although partly due to the excessive libations, was body English speaking freely. And despite the backpack's weight on my shoulders, I felt 20 pounds lighter. The wild's powers were at work. Reality felt good.

After a few more steps down the trail, a strange noise, foreign to my wilderness travels, emanated from behind me. I turned around to see what and where the ominous sound came from and saw Paranoia's stomach contents, namely the whisky he'd belted, eject from his mouth in spasmodic, gut wrenching bursts. It was no secret when Paranoia chunked. He roared from his belly's deepest recesses, something like a male lion on the savanna.
Black Butte from Mt. Washington
Shifty and I stopped and watched, remaining surprisingly composed until a brief chuckle among the two of us quickly became an avalanche of uncontrolled laughter. Paranoia looked up from the ground toward us with disdain painted across his pained and sweat-beaded face, then looked back down, gave one last hurrah and again commenced walking up the trail.

We set up camp around 2:00 pm near the confluence of the PCT and Mt. Washington's northern ridge trail. A tent was erected on flat, barren ground where snow accumulates deep in the winter and drains quickly during springtime melt. We ate an early dinner and transitioned into cocktail hour without a hitch. Within an hour we were sitting on the ground, positioned in a triangle, discussing whatever our minds might deliver to the tips of our tongues.

The outdoors, coupled with a mixture of whisky, brandy, and vodka is a recipe for spontaneous and unabashed conversation. Somewhere in the evening, however, we let the door, slammed shut earlier, open just enough to allow shoptalk trickle into our conversation.

Beneath a magnificent, star-filled sky, we unanimously decided to make a few major life changes. We all decided to quit our full time jobs and move into Shifty's house. We would then find part-time work and pool together enough money to wander the far ends of the earth in search of mankind's most elusive adventures. We promised to ascend the highest mountains and sail the oceans' far reaches, raft the most furious rivers and hike the world's most notable trails.
Lava plug summit of Mt. Washington
Then suddenly, amid the mind bending straight shots spawning these utopian dreams, sobering reality reared its ugly head and my unbridled delusions gave way to thoughts of my bride. I suddenly realized this sacred triangle's alcohol induced aspirations were no more than a fantasy. I was certain that one man's clothes, dishes, shoes, and newspapers strewn throughout the house were enough shock to my bride's idea of wedded bliss. She certainly didn't need all three of us leaving the toilet seat up.

Finally, I mumbled something about not fitting into our abruptly fashioned scheme and was, surprisingly, met with no astonishment from Paranoia or Shifty. They knew deep down our chimera would not fit into their lives, either. All we had to do was abandon the responsibilities accumulated over our young lives. Even in our twenties, it was already too late to get our arms around such an idea.

The next morning, with grit in our teeth, pine needles in our hair, and a shot of Kahluha in our coffee, we packed up camp and started up Mt. Washington's northern ridge. Approaching the mountain's vertical face and the point where we were to turn back, we stopped to take a break along a rock strewn slope. The previous night's hoopla had caught up with us. Mild head-throbbing, coupled with the combination of dehydration and empty water containers, propelled Shifty and Paranoia up onto two flat boulders, where they stretched out. I decided to continue up the trail.

After spending some time exploring the mountain's massive lava plug, I turned around and headed back down the trail to once again join my lounging comrades. From here I could look across the Santiam Pass to Three Finger Jack, where one month earlier, Paranoia and I had stood near its craggy summit.

Continuing back down the mountain ridge, two figures that I assumed were Paranoia and Shifty appeared at the other end of a long stretch of trail. But as the two moved closer and into focus, it became obvious the two men were not Paranoia and Shifty. Drawing closer, I saw a pair of elderly gentlemen with walking sticks in hand, making their way up the ridge, both looking like Moses climbing Mt. Sinai. If there were a Red Sea nearby I swear it would have parted. I greeted them without breaking stride after noticing neither was carrying any stone tablets. I guessed their ages to be around 75 years old - at the least. Both were rather impressive, having made their way that far.
Rugged slopes of Mt. Washington
When I returned to the rock slope where my comrades and I had parted ways, Shifty and Paranoia were sitting up atop their prospective boulders, appearing a bit more spry, but obviously still suffering from the previous nights merriment.

"Did you see those two old men," I asked Paranoia and Shifty, knowing full well they had.

"Yea," they both said sheepishly in unison.

I just smiled.

And they knew why.

We were at an age where machismo was firmly entrenched in our characters. Any of us exhibiting thoughts or actions not considered manly were harassed with the sole intent to humiliate. Blatant harassment had become passé. Subtlety and refinement had now raised taunting to an art form. In this case, I was Picasso and they were my canvas.

We continued down the trail, stopping at regular intervals to turn back and view Mt. Washington's rugged profile. We didn't want to leave. Few words were exchanged as we left the wilderness area. We all knew the next day we would wake up to the sounds of our alarms, crawl out of bed, get ready for work and return to our jobs.