The Dark Path to the Sublime

“You look like you could use a campsite…”

I checked my watch. 6:50. The sky had broken. Pouring rain.

“…’Cause there’s a nice one on the other side of the creek if you want it.”

“Nah. I’m trying to see if this rain’ll let up. I want to camp on top of Little Green so I can see the meteor shower tonight. But I sure as hell don’t want to be on top of the mountain in the middle of a thunderstorm.”

“No, you don’t.”

Two idiots…talking in the rain.

“I’m going to give it ten more minutes, I think.” We chatted for a bit longer, and then he went back to his dry tent. I stayed in the open, waiting under a tree, hoping against hope that the rain would stop. I watched the drops pop the surface of the pool at the base of Schoolhouse Falls to gauge the storm’s intensity. And just as it looked as if it would break, and I could see glimmers of sunlight in the sky, it would return with greater force, turning the pool into a turbulent universe.

Schoolhouse Falls, just before the storm.

Schoolhouse Falls, just before the storm.

Schoolhouse Falls

Schoolhouse Falls

So, I gave it ten more minutes…again. I really wanted to camp at the top.

Some people don’t understand my yearning to hike miles into nowhere just to sleep and wake in the forest.  But even for those who get it, camping in the woods is often a balance between what you want to do and what is the sensible thing to do. Too many times, sticking to a pre-conceived itinerary can be dangerous when a stream on the map turns out to be a dry creek bed or weather conditions change instantly, like they had today. I really wanted to camp on the top, but by the third or fourth “ten minutes” I kept giving the rain without it stopping and the closer it got to night, the more sensible it seemed to check out this other campsite on the other side of the creek.

It wasn’t much to speak of. Literally, a fire ring in the middle of a side trail. And with this rain, I wouldn’t be burning any wood anyway. So, I went back out to the waterfall, and the rain continued. Nearing 8:00 and the possibility that the rain would stay into nightfall, I relented, grabbed my pack, whistled for the dogs to come, and decided to be sensible and safe–no need to set up camp in the dark AND raining.

Setting up camp in the rain is never without struggle, but this site was particularly unpleasant. I struggle to get the tarp just right as the stakes wouldn’t stick in the soft ground and I had to walk through dense vines to find the right angle. The knots kept slipping in my fingers, making the tarp sag. On top of all this, the dogs, my trusty companions, thought it good fun to wrestle underneath my feet so loudly and violently that the next day my companion in the woods asked me if a bear had come by that night. It was enough to make me grit my teeth just to fight the urge to say “the hell with this” and walk the two miles back to my car and drive home.

By 8:30, the rain had slowed. The tarp was finally up and golden light began to suffuse through the trees. I had about 20 minutes of good sunlight to finish setting up camp. With the glimmer of setting sun, I slowly got the urge to hike to the top, just to see where I could’ve camped. I had been up this trail before, but I honestly couldn’t remember how far a climb it was.  It couldn’t be that far. But, let’s be sensible, not rash. Even if I got to the top to see the sunset, I would be climbing back down a dark and wet trail. I dug out some water and snacks. I found my day pack and my head lamp.  Be prepared.

My sensible side played a devil’s advocate the whole way up: Are you sure you want to cross that creek again on slippery rocks, especially with all that rain? Are you sure you want to walk up and down a slippery trail in poor light? Are you sure you’re going to be able to see the trail? What if you get lost?

Nevertheless, I trudged on. After a half-mile straight uphill, I reached the top, and I began to remember why I had wanted to camp here. The trail went through a small glade of trees and onto a rock face overlooking the valley below. The near-full moon was coming over the southwest side of the mountain. The rainclouds that had left the mountain began to fill the valley below. Under the last whisper of a pink sunset, the moon began to illuminate the clouds a luminescent milky white glow.

Sensiblity be damned, I thought, but I bet I could go back down, pack my tarp back up, grab my pack and head back up here. I looked at my watch. It had only taken me 25 minutes. I bet I could be down and back up before 9:30. The night was setting, and I re-entered the glade of trees, now wrapped in an ethereal mist floating around the thick and hefty trees—any one of them perfect for a hammock and a tarp. But in this brief moment of joy, I couldn’t find the trail back down to the waterfall.  The trees blended in the night, obscuring the trail.   I must have taken a wrong turn, and now I couldn’t find my way back–a momentary tinge of panic.  I grabbed my headlamp and turned it on. “Hiking down an unmarked trail at night? What were you thinking? Better just play it safe and get back down to camp.” I found a trail to the left, but it didn’t feel right. Be cool. You just have to make it back down the mountain.  You can get to the bottom and still camp there.

But the mountain held the surprise. The spur trail opened to the lone tree of Tranquility Point at sunset, a vast and largely level rock face the size of a football field with an unobstructed view of all of Panthertown Valley. This is why I had driven three hours. This is where I wanted to sleep and wake, to do yoga after hiking tomorrow. This is where I wanted to lie on my back and look for meteors.

I steeled my reserve and headed back through the campsite, looking for the original trail. I would sleep here tonight, come hell or high water.  I eased my way down the mountain.  By the time I reached Schoolhouse Falls, night was set, and I could barely see that the hour of constant rain had flooded the area behind the pool, pushing back the boundary of the water, or how much the creek between me and my gear had broadened. I climbed back over rocks that were safe an hour ago, now almost completely submerged in water. As I began to de-camp, the dogs looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Get our food! Build a fire!” their eyes seemed to say. But I was methodical and single minded. Soon, we re-crossed the creek, now even higher water in the last ten minutes, me with full pack, the rocks even more deeply submerged, to make the climb up the mountain again–this time in full darkness.

Decisions like these are not to be taken lightly. Often, such choices in the woods can leave you teetering on a knife’s edge, and in my time I’ve found myself on the brink of being lost, dehydration, and illness because I wanted to push the envelope a bit too far. Often, it is my hubris that can be my downfall, like it was the time I thought I had conquered Dead Woman’s Pass, only to be altitude woozy and dehydrated all the way back down. Tonight if the choice went wrong, it could have me searching for a campsite lost on a mountain.

But tonight, the choice was on point. I was able to find the campsite with no problems, and all the issues I had with setting up below disappeared in the cool mountain top air. By 10:00, I had fully set up camp and fed the dogs, hung a bear bag, fixed my own dinner. Finished with all set up chores, I found dry clothes and walked through the dark down the spur trail.

IMG_1858

The valley below was filled with the milky soup, the sounds of night played their orchestra, and as I ate dinner all the anxiety of being caught in a rain storm, making the right choices, choosing the right paths, dissipated into the fog of night. Soon, I leaned back to watch the stars. I never saw a single meteor, but it was no matter.   I was emptied by the vast beauty of the infinite moment. I may have sat there for an hour or a thousand years that night. And when I rose to finally go to bed, I had no idea that I had been thinking about anything the whole time.

The view at breakfast.

The view at breakfast.

Juno enjoys the morning.

Juno enjoys the morning.

This is no tale to encourage the risky path. Going into the woods is always a precarious undertaking, and climbing up winding, wet paths in the dark only heightens the danger–perhaps even foolishly so.  But as I made my way back into my hammock, the glow of the light had touched a spirit of wonder in me, connecting me to the knowledge that I am on the right path when I am seeking this time, this connection, this unnamed quietude and sublime essence in the woods. So, I climbed into bed and settled into the most insensibly wonderful sleep I have known in quite some time.

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