I first became interested in backpacking a couple of years ago. At that time I’d never been backpacking before, except for one overnight trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in college. My parents love the outdoors and we went car camping all the time when I was a kid in our pop-up tent trailer. But backpacking? I didn’t even know where to begin.
I’d also never been hiking by myself before. In my younger years, I’d been on lots of hikes that other people had organized and always enjoyed them. I wanted to go on more hikes and vaguely wished that I knew more people that would invite me to go hiking with them.
And then one day it finally occurred to me that if I wanted to go on a hike, I should just take the initiative and figure it out on my own. I do have a library science degree after all. I can learn about hiking and backpacking and the best local trails by doing some research. Duh. And that’s exactly what I did.
I had been doing a lot of walking around the Seattle area to satisfy my FitBit addiction, but my first solo hike outside of the city was on the West Tiger #3 trail on Tiger Mountain in May 2015. All the hiking books said to bring “The 10 Essentials” and so I packed a day bag with waterproof matches and an emergency blanket and a bunch of other supplies. I remember how intimidating it was watching the other hikers blow past me on the trail as I painstakingly made my way up and down the mountain. I was out of shape. And my shoes were way too tight and rubbed painfully against my toes on the descent. After that trip, I bought a pair of light hiking boots and hiking poles and kept hiking.
I also began accumulating backpacking gear and went on my first solo backpacking overnighter in August 2015 to Pratt Lake. It was scary to go backpacking by myself but also extremely empowering. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. Also I was vaguely embarrassed by my slow hiking pace and the fact that I had no idea what I was doing. That first overnight trip, I got a late start as I spent the afternoon packing and re-packing my bag and running to REI to get last-minute gear. I didn’t even hit the trail until 4:45 pm and ended up pitching my tent in the dark. But I still had an amazing time, and went on another solo overnighter a few weeks later.
A colleague told me about the Wonderland Trail – a 95-mile hiking path that circles around the base of Mt. Rainier in Mt. Rainier National Park. I bought the book Hiking the Wonderland Trail by Tami Asars and read the entire thing several times. I was entranced. I can see Mt. Rainier on my commute to work everyday and would think about hiking around it every time the mountain peeked behind the clouds.
And that’s when realized that if I was really going to pursue this hiking thing, that I’d need to finally do something about my old lady hip. I sustained an injury five years ago on my right hip while playing rollerderby that never fully healed, despite years of physical therapy. I saw an orthopedic surgeon who ordered an MRI and confirmed that I had a labral tear in my right hip, so I underwent arthroscopic surgery in October 2015 to correct the issue.
Recovery from hip surgery is an agonizingly slow process. I was housebound for a month, wearing an uncomfortable hip brace and hobbling around on crutches. I went to physical therapy twice a week in the beginning, learning how to walk again. I remember the first day that I crutched down the block, and then when I went two blocks, and when I finally got rid of the crutches altogether. By the spring I was walking longer distances. I tried to start jogging and re-injured myself, and had to start the recovery process over again more slowly.
Then my right foot started hurting. It was bizarre. I saw a podiatrist who had me wear a custom orthopedic insert in my shoe. My physical therapist was convinced that my foot problems were related to my hip injury and started me on a whole new regimen of physical therapy exercises to address my foot pain issues.
At the same time I was battling a string of respiratory infections and couldn’t manage to stay healthy. I had bronchitis in December, got sick with a fever in February and again in April, and then developed pneumonia in June. It was incredibly discouraging some days. All I wanted to do was to go backpacking! But I couldn’t even manage a walk with mild elevation gain by early summer. I was determined to go a backpacking trip this year, though, so I started planning a hike along the Iron Horse State Park trail. The trail is an old railroad line which has been converted to a hiking and biking path, and is essentially flat.
And then, in early August, I finally turned a corner. I went on a car camping trip with my mom and we hiked the Scott Paul trail on Mt. Baker – and I did fine. So I started doing more hikes, adding miles and elevation and weight in my backpack. I was sore most days, but I was learning the difference between good sore and bad sore.
One day as I was driving to work, I could see Mt. Rainier as I drove over the 520 Bridge. Fuck it, I thought. I don’t really want to do the Iron Horse State Park trail. Mt. Rainier is calling to me. I felt the pull of the mountain every time I could see it on the horizon. So I decided to go for it.
The Wonderland Trail is not an easy hike. The trail has a total elevation gain and loss of over 22,000 feet. Most people hike the Wonderland Trail in 9-10 days. I decided to take 14 days, which is the maximum number of days allowed by the National Park Service to hike the trail. I planned the trip for September to give myself more time to prepare and to increase my chances of getting a permit.
Preparing for this trip was hard work. I did a lot of gear research, taking my cues from the through-hiking community and focusing on going as ultra-light as I was comfortable with. I took the “Through-hiking 101 Class” offered online through Backpacker Magazine by Liz “Snorkel” Thomas and a compass navigation class through REI. I attended the PCT Days festival in Cascade Locks and joined hiking groups on Facebook. I bought books on backpacking food and began dehydrating apples, blueberries, bananas, and even my own coleslaw. I started wearing my backpack everywhere, adding weights to the pack and walking up and down Interlaken Park when I didn’t have time to drive to the mountains.
I was a woman obsessed. My poor partner had to endure hours of hiking-related conversations and an anniversary weekend in Leavenworth during which I spent the majority of my time hiking near the Enchantments without him. He was incredibly supportive, however, and encouraged my hiking passion even though he couldn’t join me on the trail. I bought a DeLorme two-way satellite texting device so I could always stay in touch with him as I hiked.
But it was all worth it. Hiking the Wonderland Trail is one of the most amazing adventures that I have ever been on. I’ve developed a deep affection for Mt. Rainier, now that I’ve spent two weeks gazing upon the mountain from every possible angle. Mt. Rainier seems like an old friend to me now.
I can’t wait to go back.