Our first date was a hike. He proposed after we set up camp on a backpacking trip. My engagement picture shows us in fleece and headlamps. So for our tenth anniversary, a backpacking trip just made sense.
It’s been eight or nine years since I’ve carried my pack, a fact made clear by the layer of dust on it when we took it down from its hook on the wall. In those years, I’ve carried three babies. We’ve both carried the weight of grief. We’ve walked together and alone. But we hadn’t hefted these packs together, purple next to black, in a long time.
We bought packets of dehydrated food, granola bars, jerky, and cocoa. We pulled out sleeping bags and stuff sacks and the backpacking stove. We jumbled it all with Tevas and hiking boots and warm layers and somehow fit it all into packs.
Tuesday morning, after getting the kids off to school, we set out on an adventure. We left behind bills and homework and trying to figuring out what people would eat for dinner. We left behind a comfy bed and warm house. We headed out, just the two of us for three days.
When Brian said 6.4 miles for the first day, it didn’t sound so bad. I’ve run 6.1 in under an hour, with a “nobody runs the hill” hill in it. But that run wasn’t this steep the whole way. I wasn’t wearing a heavy pack, and the ground wasn’t broken rock. 6.4 miles in the mountains is different.
Still we set out hopeful that we’d make it to Mizpah hut where we could get water and set up in a nearby tent site. Briefly, the trail was easy. Then we went up and up and up. Brian listened to music. I got lost in my thoughts. We continued upward. We talked about music and books and the value of trekking poles. We climbed some more.
We stopped for a snack and checked our watches. As dusk settled into darkness, with no real idea how far we’d come, we realized we weren’t going to get to the hut. We started looking for water. Then a flat spot. Too wet, too wet, too wet.
Darker and colder. Brian was stumbling with his pack top-heavy with water. We were both stumbling tired.
Finally, we found an opening with a bed of moss, not too wet, just barely big enough for the tent. We got water boiling while we got the tent set up. Then quiet. Too quiet. The ever-reliable, but loud, backpacking stove had gone out. There was cursing and repeated attempts to restart it, and finally the consistent loud roar that meant that we’d get a hot meal that night.
While we waited for dinner to rehydrate, Brian poured hot water into our mugs, and I stirred up the cocoa, a cup of comfort, hot and sweet.
Wednesday morning, we fueled up on our backpacking staples of oatmeal and cocoa, and also hard-boiled eggs, homemade granola, coffee. Little luxuries.
About an hour later, the trail opened out to the hut we had been aiming for. We filled water bottles, used the bathroom, spread maps out on the broad tables. I noted that the weather, that as of the day before had looked glorious for this longest day of your trip, was now:
Mixed precip. High in the 40s. You will be walking through clouds.
Mixed precip (possibly some snow). Lows 20s
As we stepped out, we felt raindrops and put pack covers and rain gear on. It didn’t last long, and we were working hard enough that our rain coats came off soon. Still, wisps of hair slapped across my face, wet from the moisture in the air. We were walking through clouds, but even in that gray, we were surrounded by emerald, moss green, maroon, and scarlet—moss, lichen, alpine blueberries at our feet.
Above treeline, in that low visibility, I appreciated the cairns that kept us on track. Brian would periodically glance over his shoulder, make sure I wasn’t falling too far behind.
Above treeline, the wind whipped loose straps from my pack into my face. My pack cover rattled and ballooned in the gusts. I appreciated too, the scrubby stunted evergreens that blocked the wind a few steps down. We hunkered on a rock in one such windbreak and ate Granny Smith apples, crisp and tart with slices of creamy sharp cheddar. More luxuries shared.
We carried all we needed on our backs—food, water, shelter, more layers. We chose which non-essentials made the cut—weight vs. worth. Coffee, eggs, apples, cheese . . .
We went up and over Mount Monroe, where the wind tried to take us off course with each step. As we started down, the clouds suddenly opened. We saw blue sky for the first time that day, sunshine, and Lake of the Clouds.
The hut was closed for the year, but we entered The Dungeon, the always open emergency shelter, to eat lunch and check our maps out of the wind. As we ate, the sky grew darker. Clouds loomed closer, sprinting across the sky in a solid stream. We wouldn’t do any extra exploring above treeline. We’d just head down (6 more miles) and try to find a place for the night.
Descents are obstensibly easier, but my knees have never liked them. The trail was wet or mucky, and I found myself picking my steps carefully, deliberately. It was faster going than the day before, but still slow.
All around us, downed trees showed the damage of a storm a few years back. We climbed over and under some that still crossed the trail. Sometimes, I’d find myself straddling a log, willing my other leg to swing its way over so I could continue. M&Ms + salted peanuts + almonds + craisins kept me going. I wasn’t so sure about the M&Ms at home (I added chocolate chips to my own bag of trail mix instead), but out there I scarfed them. No luxury, quick energy.
With all the downed trees, there were no spots for tents, and this night was supposed to be colder than the last. Dusk was just starting to inch in around us. I didn’t want to be picking my way down this slippery, wet, rocky trail in a headlamp.
“How’re you doing?” Brian asked as I caught up to him resting on a rock. I slumped against my pack on one nearby, and he handed me the water bottle.
He nodded. “We’ve got to be close to the shelter.”
I hoped he was right though I had no sense of distance traveled. We didn’t sit long.
“Ready?” We lurched to our feet.
As dusk gathered more closely, I remembered the cocoa from the night before, and started this mantra: cocoa, lasagna, dry socks. This was my promise to myself once we found our home for the night. It had to be close. Maybe. The only thing to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Brian smelled it first. Wood smoke. Camp fire. The shelter.
He was stumbling into view of it when I made the last water crossing. Looking up, I saw trail leading either way. I barely saw it in the dark. So close and I felt lost. I called out. He answered, and I saw his headlamp.
And then I was stumbling in too, seeing the cheery fire, the three folks already there. We dropped our packs. Pulled out sleeping pads, sleeping bags, dinner.
While Brian boiled water, I put on those dry socks and fleece leggings and another layer. Brian poured the water and we had cocoa by the fire, while we waited for the lasagna to be ready. I ate out of the bag. So good.
“You make better lasagna,” he told me, but right then I wasn’t so sure. That lasagna tasted pretty damn good after our long day. Half-way down, I handed him the bag. Our romantic shared dinner.
Then we pulled on layers, zipped sleeping bags up tight and settled in for a cold night, grateful to have made it to this place where we could rest.
Thursday was our anniversary. We’d made it about 15 miles on that trip so far. We’d made it 10 years since we said “I do.”
We continued down together, talking about ways to start the girls out in these mountains with us and about dogs that would be good for hiking and barn restoration. The trail continued to challenge us with slippery mud pits and downed trees. At spots it seemed to peter out and disappear. We crossed a river once only to cross back when we realized we’d been mislead. We both cursed at separate times. And we navigated it together. We checked in on each other. We shared snacks and water.
We got back to the car in the warmth of a blue-sky October day. We donned new socks, dry underwear, cotton t-shirts. Ah.
Two hours later, we both hobbled out of the car for dinner, tired muscles stiff from sitting still. We devoured bacon burgers and fries at the Happy Hour Family Restaurant. It wasn’t a fancy dinner or a particularly romantic one, but we were there together 10 years later and in that moment it all felt easy.
I think about the slogging part of our trip, the tight lines on the map showing the hard work of the up-up-up, the mucky ground, the stumbling in the dark, the hard ground beneath us and the cold. And I think about the brilliant green and the exhilaration in the wind. I think about feeling small but part of something bigger. I am exhausted and sore, but I’m also refilled. We’re also reconnected to some part of who we were but also to some part of who we are, a part that might have gotten a little dusty like my pack.
There are moments when your pack is dialed in right and everything feels balanced, when the trail is almost flat and well marked. Enjoy those moments. Soak them in. Because even in the midst of an adventure, there’s a lot of slogging. You’ll feel your pack dig into your shoulders or your boot rubbing the wrong way. You’ll stumble in the dark and slip in the muck. You’ll wonder if you’re going the right way.
Turn around, make sure you’re still together.
Ask, “How are you doing?”
Offer each other trail mix, water, a spot next to you on the rock to rest.
Point out the fairy colors of the landscape, the sun brightening the sky, the leaves—you’re back to lower ground—crunching underfoot.
Keep each other going.
Keep going together.