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Backpacking into a Lost Wilderness

August 11, 2020

Backpacking into a Lost Wilderness

By Josh Stevenson

I’d marked the date two months before, gathered and packed all my gear, trained my body as if I were going to war, and now I stood on the cusp of an adventure—shaking in my boots.

Not literally shaking, you understand. No. I was far too “brave” for that. You see, I thought I couldn’t show that very real fear of going solo on a 5-day, 35-mile loop backpack trip into the Lost Creek Wilderness in early May—right as the world was embroiled in the middle of a global pandemic. No, I reasoned, to admit that fear, even to myself, would mean I might turn back, chicken out, and that was something I most certainly could not and would not do.

I find sometimes, as I found that day, that the call of the “rural,” the “adventurous,” and the “wild” is too strong to ignore. This is especially true when life becomes, as it can tend to do, a monotonous drudgery of work, sleep, refueling, and doing it all over once again. This is my last year of college, I’d told myself. And before I set out for real into the world, I have to prove to myself that I have what it takes. I have to get away from the world for a time. I have to defeat the fear and experience the “wild” up close.

So there I was—about to take that first step—standing at the end of my mental reasonings and at the beginning of something concrete, something brand new, something actually… well, dangerous.

I set out, not thinking of the possibilities—only focusing on the ground in front of me. The road to the trailhead was closed because it was still so early in the season, so I had a roughly 8-mile hike ahead of me before I even hit the “real” wilderness.

The ground seemed to pound me from below. You wouldn’t think it, but it’s actually way harder on your body to hike on a compacted surface (like a dirt or asphalt road) than on the comparatively soft soil of a backcountry hiking trail. I felt the blisters forming almost immediately, and by the time I reached Lost Creek trailhead, I had two smaller blisters on my right foot and one huge one on the ball of my left foot.

They ached and stung with every step, and that fear started to boil in the back of my mind once more. Your feet are the most important thing to take care of in the wilderness, and now I have blisters. Not just any blister—a huge one. Yes, I had moleskin (a type of adhesive bandage for blisters), but I was only 8 miles in. There were 27 left and only 5 days to complete them.

But I couldn’t go back. Even if I have to crawl out, I knew I had to push on. I could not be beaten by this. Besides, what else would I do that week?

So I trekked on, past the trailhead and into the wild. Not that wild, though, because as soon as I entered the forest, I ran into human after human. People camped at every campsite I came across, all of them evidently thinking thoughts similar to my own. Without a spot to set up camp for the night, I had to keep going. Finally, after nearly 12 miles, I stopped, pitched my tent, and cozied up for the night. A very cold, eerily quiet night alone in a tent in the woods. I’m pretty sure I dreamed of mountain lions.

***

When I set out the next morning, there were no more fellow humans—only the open air of the wilderness with its chilling breezes, glittering light, and resounding sounds of distant robins and finches. At first, my feet protested sharply inside my boots, but soon the pain became nothing but a dull reminder of the previous day.

Like I said, hiking on the soft soil of a backcountry trail is much easier than plodding down a compacted roadway, and soon my optimism was reignited to a warm blaze. Everything is fine—great actually. Here I am, in the wilderness, chasing adventure, with nothing to hold me back!

And so I continued on down the trail. And down it did go. Way down. In fact, the route I’d planned to follow dropped some 800 feet from an elevation of 9705 feet to 8908, all in less than 2.5 miles.

This route was a minefield of boulders the size of office buildings, the trail crisscrossing through them and losing itself in black crannies and human-body-sized holes through which I could hear the sound of rushing water—50 or maybe even 100 feet below.

The Lost Creek Wilderness gets its name from this phenomenon. At various points along the trail, the river becomes “lost” under massive, oblong granite boulders that have broken from the mountainsides in centuries past and tumbled down into the creek bed, burying Lost Creek in a sometimes 100-foot layer of tractor-trailer-sized rocks.

Like I mentioned, these rock beds are perforated with holes, some easy to see, others concealed by brush or other boulders that make a misstep that much easier. So here I discovered another real and ever-present danger—falling through one of those holes into a watery death.

“You’d never get out of there in a million years,” I said out loud.

Only the surrounding rocks heard me, and, quite rudely, none of them replied. As if in response to their haughtiness, I huffed quickly—and carefully—away.

When I finally reached my second camping spot after a 4-mile hike that felt like 25, I bedded down for another night, exhausted, and probably dreamed of a hot shower and a home-cooked meal.

***

The next morning, my blisters were worse. Somehow, during the night, they’d festered enough to make walking let alone hiking with a 50-pound pack nearly unbearable. About 15 miles in, I reasoned. About 20 more to go. I could push on, but I don’t have to. Besides, it’s supposed to rain tomorrow. I can take a day.

So I did. I spent one full day basking in the glory of the wilderness, nursing my little, insignificant wounds. I saw no one, and that day was one of my favorite times I’ve ever spent in the wild. Very few people would come that far or through the terrain I’d come through, so I knew I was alone.

But the actual impact of the level of “aloneness” I was experiencing only really hit me after the day was over and darkness was falling around me once again. No connection at all. No phone service. No people. No way out. No one to help. And night was falling.

And yes, I was terrified by that in some ways, but then again, there was now an unmistakable, deep-seated exhilaration to it as well. Alone, but surrounded with life. It surged in the river beside my camp, hung in the air that seemed to exhale in and out with the cries of animals and chirping of crickets. There I was: right in the middle of real potential danger but loving every minute of it.

To be continued...





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