"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Mothers, daughters, mountains and dirt

By on September 28, 2020 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
This area of the Pasayten Wilderness was only moderately visited. A fellow backpacker took this group shot at Silver Pass.

by Marlene Farrell

We stepped onto a trail, one after the other, until all seven of us stood on that flat dusty ribbon.

And we danced!

Each with our signature moves, made sillier under the hulking weight of our packs. The dance was short-lived; we knew to conserve energy. This was day three with more elevation and mileage than our map (and map reader — me) led us to believe. 

Despite the brevity of our shimmies, it was a joyful moment. A small triumph. 

We — three moms and four daughters — had just negotiated our way through four-plus hours of bushwhacking. And yes, we did it on purpose. 

We knew where we wanted to go, a trail hidden in deep woods, sometimes hugging the Middle Fork of the Pasayten River, and 1,400 feet lower than our starting point on a ridgeline trail.

After the first off-trail steps, there was no looking back.

I had done my share of cross-country travel, developing a modicum of comfort with terrain features and map, using them to guide my directional instincts. 

But the rest of the group had less experience. I wanted to shower confidence on moms Allison Gunter and Teara Dillon, teens Teyva, Taye and my daughter Alice, and Taye’s younger sister Eve about our chosen course. 

However, three and a half hours in, as the number of downed logs multiplied and Taye received three swift wasp stings, the unspoken doubts had grown.

The whole trip, four days, ebbed and flowed in this way. 

We began as a giddy carload driving past Mazama on a long dirt road to the Slate Peak trailhead. 

The car ride passed quickly with catch up; although we live within three miles of one another, we hadn’t done a trip together for seven years, as our lives and those of our children diverged, though only a stone’s throw apart.

We survived driving the Deadhorse Point road section, which is slowly crumbling into a gaping chasm, and parked at 6,900 feet. 

We took in the first of many mountains-beyond-mountains views and began descending the trail.

We zoomed downward, even with packs loaded with food and a tent and stove per family unit (three tents were our best effort toward health safety given the close sleeping quarters). Only when the trail ascended did our breath become labored and our pace slowed.

We arrived at the lake hungry for dinner and coated in sweat and dust, only to find that other hikers had staked their claims. 

Contentment buoyed us when we discovered a better campsite farther along the shore. It matched the feeling of lightness as we busied ourselves, now packless, at making a temporary home.

Peals of laughter rang out when the girls dipped into shallow water that bloomed with mud particles. Campfires aren’t allowed, so we gathered near our little stoves, lounging on log furniture.

The next morning in camp spooled out languorously, with books propped next to bowls of oatmeal and everyone following Teara’s and Teyva’s instructions for headstands. Thick grass cushioned our heads, and the upside-down stacking of bones felt so good. 

I thought, only these enthusiastically flexible teenagers could be so encouraging to a stiff 45-year-old like me.

Alice demonstrates good downclimbing technique on a steep stretch.

The restful morning yielded to a day on the trail with little relief. The map fooled us (me) into thinking we’d be at the next lake by two. Our group moved in an accordion style, and we’d regroup after spreading out… until anticipation got the better of us.

When the lake was not “just around the bend,” Allison, Taye and Eve, at the rear, worried about a wrong turn, hunkered down and cooked a meal.

Meanwhile, two miles away, at the lake, the rest of us swam, played hearts, waited and then started to worry. 

We split up — the others setting and sprucing up camp while I sprinted down the trail, hoping I would find the Gunter gals.

At 6 p.m., we had a happy reunion, and the Gunters let me — and then, joining us, Alice and Teyva — shoulder their packs the last half mile.

We made camp on a hilltop over the deep still waters of a slender lake. After dinner we played a mash-up of a word game, charades and memory. Moms dominated, though Eve was the most theatrical with a spot-on British accent and musical flourishes.

The third morning we had the choice — return the way we came, or bushwhack into the unknown toward a trail that guaranteed to be a gentle climb back to the car. We chose the latter.

If I can speak for all of us, trailblazing filled us with a sense of power and wonder. Picking the best path meant deciphering brambles and boulders, thickets and decaying logs, to go around or through, under or over, all while checking the internal compass of our desired direction. 

We passed a lake and dubbed it Dragonfly Lake and wandered through a boulder field before we had to down climb through steep scree and scraggly plants. Alice and Teyva served as calm guides for those who were a bit nervous.

When we finally reached the river bottom trail, we savored the success and were rewarded with easy walking under stately firs and hemlocks.

The last morning, we woke early, packed and flew up the trail, with the wind at our backs, to the trailhead. While we were happy in our grime, bakery treats, showers and beds beckoned.

On the drive home, we watched the world transform into a jaundiced sky, inky river, touched by a smoky stench. Luck was truly on our side to avoid the smoke by a matter of hours.

Looking back, I feel like fortune followed our every step. Easily, this trip could have remained a mere possibility. Easily, we could have been so worn down by COVID-19 to not muster the energy to prepare. 

We had blue sky days, temperate nights without dew, a paucity of mosquitoes, and no twisted ankles on the rocky stretches. 

Most importantly, we had connections reaffirmed, among friends who have been isolated from many meaningful encounters, and, for me and the other moms, time with our beautiful girls who are nearing the threshold of independence. 

It was priceless to fully participate in their lives, to witness their strength and see their uniqueness shine, while we hiked along, sharing comfortable silence and spontaneous laughter, and laying our heads down together at the end of each well-spent day.

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