Walking

I walk. There is no distinction in this. 

Many people with normal physiology and autonomic function do.  I began walking at the requisite age, I suppose, although that memory is unavailable to me.  I walked until I encountered wheels, which I do recall; my first red wagon, a tricycle, a succession of bicycles and a homemade push car, with a red sheet metal hood, black wheels with rubber tires, and a steering wheel from a real automobile.  It was the best push car on the block.  It was swell. 

I walked the two blocks to elementary school for six years.  I walked a mile or so each way to junior high school and then high school, with the exception of those occasions when some parcel or cargo also made the trip to school with me.  I suppose on those few occasions I was driven, the cargo was the musical instrument I played as a boy, a musical instrument which shall remain unidentified, for it was most certainly not cool, and was also not of the sort that an adolescent might reasonably be expected to lug the distance between home and school.  I walked until age 16 when cars and driving came into my life.  Even as I transitioned to a life on wheels, I continued to walk, at times and in places where walking was not only indicated as the most practical mode of travel, but in circumstances when it was not merely the means to an end but the end itself.  Trail hiking, for instance.  The mountains that surround our city by the vast inland sea are heavily forested and many volumes have been published about the trails leading beyond roads into the lowland forest and further, some to alpine meadows, and others which lead eventually to where trails run out and walkers cease walking, don crampons and become climbers of mountain peaks.

I am not that sort of walker.

As a child, I would walk with my family during our camping trips.  Whether for a weekend or a summer vacation to my beloved National Parks, almost all travel, once camp was made, was on foot.  We walked to the lake or we walked to the river.  We walked to get water for cooking and washing up.  We walked to the fire circles in the evening for the talks and slide shows given by ranger naturalists.  We walked nature trails with rangers who explained the biology, geology and history of the places we visited.  We walked to camp stores for the knives, napkins or mustard that, when the food box was unpacked, seemed to be missing, having been mistakenly left behind in the kitchen at home.  We walked to adjoining campsites to visit family friends.  On occasion, we would walk to the tops of ridges to experience the expansiveness of the mountains, a river valley, a glacier, an ocean view.

In Death Valley, I left my VW camper at the pull-out by the side of the road and walked out into the white, rippled saltpan that is the Amargosa River, flowing subterraneously under the lowest elevation in North America, 282 feet below sea level.  The place is named Badwater but it is unimaginably beautiful.  It was March but the day was already warming into the 80’s.  As I watched my Italian mountaineering boots sink into the salty slush and slurry, I looked up, to the crest of the Panamint Range, to Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet above sea level.  Nowhere else in my life had I ever stood with a line-of-sight view of over 11,300 feet between where I stood and the highest point I could see.  This distance between high and low elevations is the greatest in the continental Unites States.  I stood with water at my feet, in an otherwise arid desert, where less than 2 inches of rain fall over the course of a year, while Telescope Peak gleamed in the sun, still covered with the snows of winter.  From the valley floor, I had an unobstructed view of much of the one-hundred mile length of the Panamint Range, the western wall of Death Valley, with its multiple alluvial fans stretching from the peaks to the base of the range.  It is a singular experience.  And I lingered, alone, to capture the uniqueness of that moment.  It has lasted more than thirty years.

Another walk provided me with two once-in-life experiences.  In the South Pacific, I circled the teak deck of a 440 foot ship, several times.  It was the only time in my life I was ever completely out of sight of land.  And it was the only time that I could, with no landform or structure of man, clearly perceive the curvature of the earth.  And again I lingered.

In the first paragraph of his iconic volume “The Complete Walker”, Colin Fletcher described walking as “…a quite delectable madness, very good for sanity”.  I am in complete agreement.  Also in this first chapter I was introduced to the “long grassy ridge”, ten minutes drive from where Fletcher then lived, which shows up in various of Fletchers writings, unidentified by him, but which I have always liked to believe to have been Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, north of San Francisco.  Or Muir Woods.  Or maybe it was Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Or maybe not.

It very well could have been one of the many state or regional parks of the East Bay.  I suppose I will never know.

I never met Fletcher, although we lived on the same coast, if not within exactly the same generation, and so came to know him through his books.  Having read most of them, I always wished I might have known him, if only a brief introduction at a signing.  Fletcher was, nonetheless, the companion who came along on my limited and usually solitary offroad adventures along forest trails and ocean beaches.  His words, his philosophy, his admiration of the earth he traversed came with me.  From his writings, I knew him to be spare, rugged, entrepreneurial and adventurous, but at the same time possessing a dry Britannic wit and gentle soul.  His dedication in “The Complete Walker” is to his mother, “…who understood that walking for fun is no crazier than most things in life, and who passed the information along.”

Fletcher nominally wrote of backpacking, seldom using the verb form but instead referring to the more generic “walking”, undertaken in an extended form, distances long enough to take one far enough to require equipment for shelter, sleeping and cooking.  As a young man, newly graduated from high school in the late 60’s, I was captivated with the concept of going beyond the designated campsite by the road where I camped with my family, to wilder places, carrying everything I would need for the kind of long walks Fletcher described and wrote about.  Simply walking, but with a “house on your back”, as Fletcher call it.

People had been camping out of range of road, power and site-built shelter in these parts for years.  They formed The Mountaineers, a club of like-minded outdoors people.  As a way to make equipment more affordable to their members, several of The Mountaineers formed Recreational Equipment Inc.  REI was then, and is now, a cooperative, then local, now worldwide, a purveyor of all manner of outdoor (and some not so outdoor) gear and apparel.  Coop members have always been issued membership cards, sequentially numbered.  Over time, low coop numbers became points of pride, even status symbols in the eyes of some.  REI was founded here.  It should have been where I went first.

But I wanted the same gear Colin Fletcher used and described with unapologetic subjectivity in his book.  So I got in the car and drove to where he shopped, the Ski Hut in Berkeley California, two days away by Interstate 5.  There, with book in hand, I selected a pair of size 9 black leather Pivetta “Eiger” mountaineering boots, the very boots Fletcher described on page 28.  Moving to the backpacks, I asked to see, and purchased, the model 502 aluminum frame and 72L weatherproof nylon packbag described on page 62.  And the brass Svea 123 white gas stove, as well as the aluminum bottle for the white gas (page 106).  And so on.  My Fletcher-approved gear loaded in the trunk of my English Ford Cortina sedan, I stopped for a visit to Telegraph Avenue (Mecca in the 60’s), where posters honoring the memory of Janis were reverently posted in every shop window, then headed back up I-5 for home, dreaming of backpacking adventures to come.

I carefully spread out all the gear and clothing I had acquired on the bed and looked at it, followed by several days trying to get it all in the backpack.  Fletcher walked with his pack filled with gear and supplies for days at a time; my pile of stuff represented what I thought I needed for one night.  I kept trying different ways of packing the bag, reluctantly tossing stuff out of the packbag and off the bed, until at last the top flap would just cover what was still sticking out above the top aluminum frame rails.  And then I lifted it.  Sort of.  Fletcher described thirty pounds as a “light load”.  I’ve never been an athlete and to my 5’9” 140 pound frame, the thing was oppressively heavy.  The wide, padded waistband was said to be the latest evolution in backpack design, shifting the weight from the shoulder pads to the hips and keeping the center of gravity close to the spine.  It seemed like it might work.

Next: where to go for my first backpacking experience?  The bible of backpacking in those days was the “101 Hikes” series by Harvey Manning and Ira Spring.  I had thoroughly thumbed my first edition copy, having hiked all 101 several times in my imagination.  Storied names like Staircase in the Olympic National Park; Enchantment; Alpine Lakes; Pacific Crest Trail.  I reviewed them all again, editing my list as I went.  Too steep.  Too far.  Too early in the season.  For reasons I no longer remember, I chose Lena Lake Trail for my shakedown cruise.  Distance to camp, 3.2 miles.  Elevation Gain, 1,150 feet.  Upper Lena Lake lay another 4 miles along the trail and another 2,750 feet up.  I drove to the trailhead on the Olympic Peninsula, in the foothills of the Olympic Mountain Range between the Pacific Ocean and the vast inland sea.  It was still early spring but the parking lot and trailhead was snow-free.  I laced up my new boots, zipped my mountain parka and struggled to get the pack up on my back.  And took my first steps as a backpacker.

It is probably worth noting that all this happened some forty years ago.  The details blur; certain impressions remain.

When I reached the camp at Lena Lake, where snow covered the trail leading to Upper Lena Lake, I stopped.  I was relieved; I was not particularly keen on carrying that heavy pack up the steeper trail to the Upper Lake anyway.   It was relatively early, even for the still short spring days.  The sky was grey, but only if one could see it.   For a partial view, the only vantage point was near the lake where the opening between the branches of the conifers allowed upward vision.  The lake was steel grey.  The Douglas fir, Hemlock and Cedars varied from the deepest green, to near black.  It had been drizzling.  The branches of the trees were heavy with rainwater.  The trail had been wet, even muddy in a few places.  There was one shelter at the camp, a lean-to of small diameter logs with a cedar shake roof.  Inside, the dirt floor was tinder dry.  With no others in the camp, I claimed it.  To entertain myself, I left the pack and scrambled around the shoreline with my Yashica 35mm camera.  The slides, when I got them back from processing, were unremarkable.  Low contrast.  Flat.  Featureless.

Fletcher was outspoken on the virtues of walking alone.  “You never quite learn for instance that one of the riches a wilderness has to offer is prolonged and absolute silence.”  Silent it was.  Absolute.  Prolonged.  Nothing to do.  I think I had a book and I probably tried to read for a while.  At length, I took out the new stove, cooking pot and freeze-dried food pouch.  Soup, I think it was.  When the gas was lit, the stove roared, just as Fletcher said it would.  When the food was ready and the stove shut off, the silence returned.  Deafening silence.  Still later, the grey began changing shades, becoming dark.  The firs and cedars all finally melded together in one black curtain.  The edge of the lake became undifferentiated with the shore.  It was not possible to tell where the forest floor ended and the water began.  As darkness erased details, it got cold.

I may have tried to read by flashlight but at some point gave up, slid into my down mummy bag fully clothed and turned off the light.  Sleep did not come.  What came was the rattle of my aluminum cooking pot that I had left out on the other side of the shelter.  The beam of the flashlight revealed nothing that would explain the noise.  Flashlight off, darkness again consumed the shelter.  The rattling returned.  Admitting defeat against an unseen adversary of the night, I extricated myself from the mummy bag, picked up everything I’d left out, jammed it all into the pack, wriggled back into the bag and doused the light.  The rest of the night was defined by some combination of my sense of the borders of the shelter that surrounded me, the sense of the dark, wild world beyond the shelter and the haze of half-sleep cycles that lasted all that night.  After a small eternity, the faintest glow began to take form over the lake.  It seemed to take hours for the glow to become anything one might be willing to call morning, let alone day.  I pulled myself out of the mummy bag and rolled it up, only to find that the strings attached at the foot of the bag, to secure it when rolled, had been chewed off in the night.  There they lay in the dirt, strands of light blue spaghetti.  I’ve long suspected that whoever rattled the cooking pot chewed off the strings, retribution for my having removed the pot and its promise of some easy nocturnal meal.

When there was enough light to pick out the trail that lead back down to my car, I laced up boots and hiked out.

I’d like to say I eventually had those backcountry experiences I’d read about and imagined.  Truth is, they never happened.  After Lena Lake, it was plainly obvious that while I enjoyed walking, I also enjoyed returning to my car and a campfire, or to home and hearth at the end of my walk.

As time has gone on, my relationship to walking has waxed and waned.  I still love to real Fletcher and still love to join him vicariously through the pages of his books.  But what I found I wanted has become simpler than all that.  I can go out the back door and aim myself in any direction and have a perfectly good time.  Walking from my house to Golden Gardens Beach is always a favorite, it never gets stale.  Whether it’s the weather, or the day-part, or the quality of the light, sun or cloudy sky, or the season, it always shows its changing mood.  It’s always engaging.  I’m always glad to see it again.  I don’t need to drive half a day or more to find someplace interesting to walk.  Occasionally I will seek out a trail I’ve never walked and will invest a trip to a special destination for my walk, as I did one recent summer to Bowman Bay.  I sat on the enormous rocks through which the waters of the vast inland sea flow into Skagit Bay, during the tidal change, with the current running at seven knots, looking more like a river than a salt water passage.  The memory of that trail and that walk and that brilliant summer day is as clear now and the moment it occurred.

But there is also the simple pleasure of walking through the neighborhood where I live, up Phinney Ridge, or over to the Bluff overlooking the vast inland sea.

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