Hiking Solo

I’ve hiked for years, but always it has been with at least one other person. A couple of years ago, I found myself between hiking buddies, yet still with the urge to get into the mountains. So, why not just go alone?

(The worrier-me has reasons:  What if I fall and hurt myself? What if I startle a bear and the probability of his horribly maiming me is 100% instead of the 50% or less I’d have if I was hiking with someone else? What if Mount Baker chooses that moment to erupt and I’m buried under hundreds of feet of ash?)

One thing helped sway me in favor of going in spite of all of these dangers — my new(ish) Nikon D50 digital SLR.

One of the first solo hikes I went on was to Lake Ann. The trail is one of my favorites, passing through meadows and finally switchbacking up a rocky slope before coming up to Lake Ann and, more importantly, a stunning view of the backside of Mount Shuksan.

View of Mount Shuksan

Mount Shuksan, and my boots

The day was one of those perfect Northwest days of sun and cloudless blue skies. Being alone on the hike made it feel like an adventure.

Later that same year, I took the Heliotrope Ridge trail, another popular trail in the North Cascades. However, this was in September and the clouds meant I was almost completely alone on the trail — especially when I veered off the main trail to follow a climber’s route.

This branch was not as well-traveled for two reasons. One, it diverted from the most common destination for hikers on the trail — Coleman Glacier. Two, it was very steep. When I left the main trail, it was raining lightly, but it didn’t take long to gain enough elevation that the rain turned to wet snow.

Heliotrope Ridge trail

Light snowfall on Heliotrope Ridge

Climbing up a trail through falling snow surrounded by misty fog hiding the spectacular view of Mount Baker that would normally be there, I was completely alone. The only sounds were the flakes (well, drops really) of snow hitting the ground and my Gore-tex coat, my boots hitting the ground as I walked, and my breath when I stopped — often — to rest and wonder what the hell I was doing out there alone.

The truth is, though, that I kind of liked being in a place where, at least at that moment, no one else had chosen to be. If only I had a hiking buddy to share the experience of being there alone. Oh, wait…

My butterfly friend

I often feel absurdly pleased when an animal “likes” me — especially if it’s an animal that doesn’t typically like people. You know, like the dog that comes over with her tail wagging and the owner says, “Oh, Abby doesn’t usually *like* men.”

But how many people have had a butterfly befriend them? (Okay, so maybe it’s more common that I’d like to believe, but I don’t want to know if that’s true.)

We were having lunch at Hannegan Pass in the beautiful Cascade Mountains, and I saw this cool little blue butterfly. It did that random fluttery thing butterflies do and fluttered its way to where I stood admiring the view. As it flew close to me, I held out my left hand. I guess I just did it out of a futile hope that the butterfly would land there, but I was still surprised when it ended up settling on my index finger.

Blue butterfly

My butterfly friend, Oscar

He (Hey, how the heck am I supposed to know if it was male or female? [flips coin] Male.) just stayed there and did whatever it is that butterflies do when they’re not fluttering or eating sugar. At first I tried to be so careful not to move too much because I *wanted* him to hang out on my finger. But, after minutes passed and he just stayed there, I began to move around, walking in the little meadow in which we found ourselves.

The whole time he stayed, clinging with his six little white legs, enjoying (I hope) the ride, and I took pictures, showed him to my hiking buddy, and was amazed at how long this tiny little creature seemed content to hang with me.

So, why was I so tickled by this? I mean, is it really such a significant thing to have a bug land on me? But, it was a butterfly, a beautiful thing. It was also more rare than, say, the flies that had no problem paying us all too much attention at times during our hike. And, its attentions were more gentle, more sublime (at least, so I felt in my fuzzy little brain).

It’s as if I was being honored by the little fella. Here was a living being, much smaller than me, who trusted me enough to rest on my finger. And, maybe there was some weird background idea that animals (even butterflies!) are somehow able to sense the innate goodness (or badness) in a person, so this funny blue critter hanging out on my finger was almost a sort of stamp of approval, like, “Hey, this guy’s alright.”

And maybe with our pets, or with the animals we encounter in nature, we can imagine some spark of consciousness that is not bogged down with all the crazy human crap that fills our minds. “I like you.” “You scare me.” Simple, straightforward.

Or, maybe I just want to be one of the few, the proud, the liked-by-butterflies…

Drunken trail man

The other day I was biking on one of the dirt trails near town, minding my own business, when I saw a man walking down the middle of the trail coming toward me. It was a beautiful afternoon — a great day to wander down the middle of a trail — and I thought nothing of him until he started waving me down. That’s when my mind did its little dance. Do I wave in return and keep going? Does he need help? Is he dangerous? What’s in the brown paper bag in his hand? I should stop, in case he needs help.

During the roughly 40 milliseconds it took for these thoughts to race through my head, my hands were already on the brakes, and thanks to those traitorous appendages, I found myself stopping alongside a stranger who I realized about 39 milliseconds later was a drunken monkey.

As soon as I pulled my headphones off my ears (silently saying good bye to Lacuna Coil), the guy said, “Hey man, can you stop a sec and help, or just talk?”

As I started formulating a response, he continued, “I’m just out here, doing my thing, man. I mean, is there anything FUCKIN’ wrong with that?”

I shifted gears and let go of his first question and began formulating a response to his second question, but then he said, “I’m just out here, wandering through life, and these people,” waving around at the trees and the trail, which was devoid of people at that point, “they FUCKIN’ don’t get it. Where do they get off, man?”

Shit, another question. As I considered a response to that one, I looked my inquisitor over. The man was dressed a little grubbily, but not obviously homeless-grubby. Partly covered by a paper bag was a huge can of what I figured to be a Mickey’s. He gestured a lot in the large and unsteady way of someone who’s very buzzed. His voice alternated between being confidential and boisterous. He made me a little nervous, but I just kept one eye on his hands and figured I’d be able to deflect him if he tried to vent some of his anger at me.

“I stopped and tried to talk to this old woman,” he continued on, apparently untroubled by the fact that I had not said one word to him, “and, hey, I’m just out here, trying to do my thing, you know? And, who the FUCK is she to judge me?”

Meanwhile, a few other bikers rode by and I could practically see them holding their hands up to shield their faces from the spectacle of the drunk guy and the poor fool who stopped to listen to him. I watched, a little envious, as they passed on their way.

My new drunken friend waved after them, “See what I mean? FUCK them! Man, I don’t know how they think they can judge me. I mean, I’m just being myself, wandering through life. Is there anything FUCKIN’ wrong with that?”

Finally I spoke, bypassing the formulation process, and said, “No, I don’t see anything wrong with that. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.”

And this guy looks at me, smiles and holds up his hand for a high five. “Right on, man,” he said as we clasped hands briefly, and he began walking down the trail.

“Have a good day,” I said after him and watched for a second as he wandered his way down the middle of the trail, apparently happy to have had someone just listen to him. Such a little thing. Huh.

Bike trail

Bike trail, sans drunken people