Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lightning flashes

Lightning flashed.
The tent's aluminum-pole
skeleton shimmered.
Knobby toes at the far end
of my legs that lay flat on the
sleeping bag stood starkly
outlined against the pale tent
wall. They twitched slightly.
So did the hands that
clutched Agatha Christie's
witch-inhabited mystery novel
``Pale Horse'' against my
A soft rumble rolled down
the granite ridge to the east. It
sounded faintly hollow, like
an oak chair tipping onto the
maple floor of a vast and
distant castle hall.
Within seconds the rumble
built to a crescendo, and
chair, castle and known world
crashed around my ears.
Lids squeezed over bulging
eyes. Hair stood on end. An
impulse to scream into the
night swept over me.
More lightning crackled.
More thunder hammered
across my head and
shoulders. Rain hammered
the tent, too, and marble-
sized drops skittered from the
fabric into the night.
But I lay still, except for
twitching some.
Why, the worst that could
happen would be^...
Stormy thoughts occurred
to me that night in the Eagle
Cap Wilderness Area, about
6.1 miles from Wallowa Lake,
at the edge of Six Mile
I'd been on the trail since
Sunday and walked about 64
miles already.
My ride, fondly named
Darlene's Shuttle Service, had
dropped me at the gate near
the top of Minam Hill, about
10 miles east of Elgin on Ore
gon Highway 82, at 10:30 a.m.
When I reached Wallowa
Lake, I'd call and she'd re
trieve me. So, with no vehicle
waiting for a week at a
trailhead, I started the hike
with an unfettered mind.
Well, not quite.
I expected to encounter
SOME natural adversity along
the way. And several normal
misgivings nagged at my
head, such as: Will the food
last? What if a bear takes it
away from me? Will the stove
work? What if a tent pole
breaks? Will the trail be open?
What if I get an infected blis
ter or twist an ankle and can't
walk? What if a tree falls on
Strolling down the first part
of the hike, I told myself to
RELAX and put silly fears
Besides, as Harry Roberts
said in his small book ``The
Basic Essentials of Backpack
ing,'' you don't have to be
smart to hike successfully.
He said ``attention to detail''
means much more than intel
ligence on the trail. Roberts
also said hikers should ``roll
with the punches'' and ``enjoy
the rain.''
Clearly, with some serious
concentration, I'd be all right.
My motto became: Relax
and pay attention to detail.
Later, beneath a 90-degree
sun, I pondered a less ideal
istic view of the great out
doors, however. In one of Sue
Grafton's mystery novels, de
tective Kinsey Millhone said
something like, ``Nature runs
uphill, dirty and sweaty and
By 3:30 p.m., sweat had
plowed furrows through the
dust on my face and neck. A
sweat-soaked shirt clung to
my back. Pants and socks
sagged. The pack's hip belt
had rubbed raw patches in my
flab. And, somehow defying
gravity, sodden shorts had
inched upward and
threatened to strangle me.
So, maybe 10 miles from
Minam Hill, I quit for the day.
Half an hour later, the
camp stood beside the river
and a small rainbow trout
danced on the end of the fly
line. Clearly, detective
Millhone's view of nature
missed an important clue.
After dinner, while sipping
tea, I discovered a blister on
each little toe. I'd started out
with Moleskin, a soft felt ma
terial with stickum on the
back, covering those very
blister-prone spots, too.
Would I be able to walk on
Monday? Many miles to go,
after all. A sign near the wil
derness boundary had said
``Reds Horse Ranch 17,'' and
``Minam Lake 43.'' And
Wallowa Lake would be 17 or
18 miles more.
Bravely I battled negative
thoughts. Then I snipped the
blisters with the Swiss Army
Knife's scissors and painted
them from the small bottle of
Second Skin. They stung like
the dickens.
The next morning I covered
the blisters with new Mole
skin and slipped on a pair of
thin double-layered nylon
socks, called blister-resisters,
beneath the light woollies.
Lo, the feet smiled when
they hit the trail at 7:15 a.m.
And, with frequent rest stops,
they smiled when they
stopped a mile short of Reds
at 3:46 that afternoon.
And I soon smiled, too.
After shucking the pack and
sweaty clothes beside the
green water, I carefully _
paying attention to detail _
took a running cannonball
leap from the bank.
Cold, clear water washed
over me. Nearly took my
breath away. Huff-puff. Spurt-
spew. Absolutely relaxed.
But, alas, on Tuesday that
laid-back attitude suffered a
setback. Between Reds and
the North Minam River, about
a zillion fallen trees blocked
the trail. I labored from 7:10
a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including a
half-hour for lunch and two
coffee breaks, to cover the
11.8 miles to Rock Creek.
After another river plunge
and more fishing near a green
buttercup-dotted meadow, I
wrestled with the prospect
battling deadfall all day
Then, while reading Chris
tie's novel with my headlamp,
I experienced a revelation.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Dane
Calthrop, told the hero of the
book, ``Always envisage the
worst. You've no idea how
that steadies the nerves. You
begin at once to be sure it
can't be as bad as you im
Wow. I immediately
blended the idea with my
``RELAX'' motto. Relax, pay
attention to detail and expect
the worst.
At the absolute worst, the
14.6 miles of trail upstream
from Rock Creek to Minam
Lake would have a deadfall
every five feet.
It worked. After clawing
and stumbling through the
first clump of fallen lodgepole
pine and spruce trees early
Wednesday morning, I
laughed out loud. The next
barrier lay at least 100 yards
away. My worst fears would
never come true. Then the
deadfall almost completely
ended after 81/2 miles, at
Trail Creek. ...
Thursday's storm sur
rounded me after I left Minam
Lake, crossed Lake Basin and
camped beside the West Fork
of the Wallowa River.
Lightning flashed and thun
der crashed. I lay in the
muggy tent on top of the
sleeping bag and watched
twitching toes outlined
against the taught pale nylon.
Then, again taking control,
I relaxed and envisaged the
worst: lightning could strike
the tent and leave one strip of
curled, burnt bacon-like
gristle smoking on the pine
Boy, I sure felt better and
immediately fell into a dream
less sleep.

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