We’re having lunch at the Co-op. A smile spreads across my face. “You know, I knew at the time everything that was going wrong was just going to make it that much better of a trip in retrospect.”
We both laugh. And remember.
It starts with a ride in the back of a pickup truck up the mountain on a bumpy winding road with a sheer drop off to one side that will turn your stomach. There is only one woman on the reservation who can drive you in. You have to make arrangements with her to get picked up when you’re ready to come out.
Somehow my sister and I are riding in the back of the pick-up, while the city-soft brothers and their dad with all the expensive gear are up in the cab.
They have shiny new Eddie Bauer camping equipment, and they’re just hiking in a little way to fish at one of the lakes.
In contrast, our threesome is scruffy and carrying the bare minimum. We’re going to see the glacier and Horseshoe Ridge. We think we’re tough. I don’t even have toilet paper. I’m so hard core, I’m going to use rocks, like people who don’t have new Eddie Bauer gear do.
After the driver drops us off and confirms the pick-up date and time, we hike in. We get over the first ridge and down into the valley for a rest. We laugh as we share the first of many Mountain House freeze dried meals.
That night, we bivy at Denwoody Creak. There are other campers nearby, and it all feels very homey and cheerful.
After breakfast of another Mountain House freeze dried meal and coffee, the day warms up and we hike along the creek, crossing the first of numerous streams, and heading up toward the glacier.
We sleep at the base of the glacier. I imagine mountain lions hidden in the cave just above our site.
I think about that case regularly to this day. It is where I will go if the apocalypse ever comes…
The next day, after Dad takes pictures on the glacier, we head up to Horseshoe Ridge to spend a night.
Desolately beautiful, Dad describes it.
We make it up in record time. There’s a trail you can use, but we decide just to climb the side of the ridge. It’s easy going and I’m feeling tough as I get to the ridge ahead of the other two and watch them both ascend.
A lightning storm starts up shortly after we’re all on top. We hunker down under some rocks and have some hot chocolate while we wait it out. We laughingly stick our poles the ground a little above our rock shelter, on the theory that it might attract the lightning away from us.
Finally, it stops and we’re ready to go again.
When suddenly I feel nauseous.
I throw myself down on the ground and ask someone to fix me oatmeal, thinking maybe I just need to eat. But afterwards, I’m not feeling any better.
Dad gets a serious look on his face, and says “I want you to walk up that hill a little way.”
I’m kinda out of it, so I still don’t know what’s going on, but I start up the hill, and then I stop. “Uh…I don’t want to.”
Dead serious, Dad says, “You’ve got altitude sickness. We’ve got to get down.”
The problem, which I could only vaguely comprehend at the time, was this: if we went back down the way we came up, then we’re in a valley that we have to eventually hike back up to get out of. And I’m not going to want to do that.
But, if we take the way down that doesn’t have us back in the valley, we’re not going to get low enough fast enough.
My dad is trying to figure out what to do. He’s reading the map and trying to think it through.
Meanwhile I’m having completely irrational thoughts. The urge to head downhill is almost uncontrollable. I’m thinking that I can probably live for awhile in that valley, even all by myself, and that I’m about to go back down the side of the ridge with or without the other two, because I physically cannot stop myself from getting lower at any cost.
Finally, my dad decides that if we hike along the ridge, just a little ways, we can scale down the other side of Horse Ridge, and be at the level of the meeting place with the driver. The only problem is the part of the map that we’re going to be descending into isn’t well marked, there are no trails to follow, so we will probably have to bushwhack back to the meeting place.
I don’t care. We just have to get going. I’m dying up here, is what I’m thinking.
The hike along the ridge is in a general downward direction, but it’s not nearly enough to cure me.
We finally reach the place where we’re going to try to descend the side of the ridge, and once we start down, I feel better with every step.
But there’s no trail and it’s not easy going. It’s a steep trek down scree slopes and boulder fields. My sister isn’t keeping up and finally reveals what she’d been keeping to herself. Her feet are covered in blisters. My dad keeps yelling at her to hurry. She’s starting to get a little teary, but the sun is going down and he’s seen what I have. There’s some kind of drop off below after which we cannot see the rest of the way down. It’s possible there won’t be a way down and we’ll have to climb back up. I don’t care. I’m feeling so much better, I’m prepared to live forever on a scree slope if necessary.
We finally get to the drop off and see that it’s actually a relatively easy drop the rest of the way down. Just some boulders to climb across and we’re there.
But off to the side is a grassy slope that doesn’t make it all the way to the bottom, and as we’re descending alongside, it’s impossible not to notice it’s strewn with bones. Lots and lots of bones. Some of them are still juicy.
I start thinking about the movie The Descent and my sister admits to me later that she’s thinking the same thing. At the time, none of us mentions the bones out loud.
Finally, we’re down, but there are more bones scattered everywhere around the unnamed lakes at the base. There are no trails and no signs of recent human activity.
I find an ancient rusted fishing lure. Somehow that being the only sign of humanity ever having visited the area just made the whole thing that much more disconcerting.
We sleep in what feels like the game trail of whatever supernatural monster has been chewing on all the bones. Fires are illegal. I want one anyway. I’d give anything for a park ranger to come give us a ticket.
I put my bivy as close to my sister’s as I can get and slide in.
“Do you realize that you are actually laying on top of me?” she says.
I pause. “Is that a problem?” I finally ask.
She sighs. “I guess not.”
OUR VERY OWN RABBIT PROOF FENCE
The next day, we’ve got to bushwhack out. My dad’s doing some kind of navigation using the sun and the map and a compass, trying to get us back to the meeting place. If we can find our way, we’ll be there one night early, but we don’t care.
If we can’t find our way, we could miss the meeting altogether.
When we start heading into late afternoon, my dad starts losing his cool a little. It’s hard to find high points to get our bearings. We still haven’t seen any sign of a trail or other hikers. We should have been back in familiar territory by now, but we’re not.
“Help me calm down,” he says. “What if we miss the meeting with the driver?”
I take a breath. At this point, I’ve stopped eating from the altitude sickness. I’m going on coffee and nerves. The result is… Let’s just say I’m wishing I had brought some toilet paper. At least once an hour, I’m having to dash off for some privacy, and the rocks are starting to hurt.
“If we miss the meeting, she’s going to call the authorities to come start looking for us. And we are eventually going to find it. We’re all healthy and safe. We have plenty of food and the right gear. The weather is nice. There’s water and we have lots of iodine tabs. We could stay in here for days and be fine.”
We finally find a field with a rock that’s high enough to look around and figure out where we are. My dad thinks he recognizes some land marks, and readjusts our direction a little. In a couple more hours, we come upon a fence that my dad and sister think is the same fence that runs across the entrance to the range, the meeting place with the driver. Signs of humanity.
Apparently, it’s official name is Cold Springs Corral or some such. It’s clearly our very own Rabbit Proof Fence!!!
We all breath a sigh of relief. But daylight is fading quickly and we still have to figure out which direction to follow the fence.
We’re all in agreement about which direction feels right, and we start on our way. But after a bit, my dad feels wrong, and starts to get upset again. My sister walks over, looks at the map carefully and launches into an explanation of why we need to go the other direction.
I’m in awe. Later she admits she made the whole thing up. “You weren’t doing anything helpful, so I figured I just needed to sound authoritative.”
But she turned out to be right. There were actual tears of joy when we finally get back onto the marked trails.
We spend the night at the meeting place, which is also against the law. At that point, I’d give anything to be arrested.
There are wildfires going in the mountains and an eery orange glow fills the evening sky. We watch unidentifiable animals move across the hillside nearby.
We decide the unnamed lakes need to be called Boneyard Lakes, and our route of descent needs to be called The Cure. We’re going to write to the park service and suggest it.
We debate if we had to choose between one or the other forever, which would we choose: food other than freeze dried camping food or actual buildings to live in? They choose the food. I choose the buildings. I like roofs and beds. And cable tv. I could live on Mountain House freeze dried meals forever if I had to.
“I loved it!” I rave.
She doesn’t believe me. “I won’t tell your dad, I just want to know. Is it really something you would do again?”
“In a heartbeat.”