Day 8: Strength = Beauty (7-29-12)


Rousting myself from bed is never pretty; since I prefer to wake slowly, then cradle a few cups of coffee before I finally ease into the day. In the grey of this morning, though, I knew life might be slightly easier if I put my legs to work early. By 0700, the buck cocking his head at the load on my back, I was waving my goodbyes to him and stumbling down the trail away from Tamarack Lake. For the next two miles, I started a conversation with myself about the climb ahead, trying to convince my brain and body of how amazing it would be, the views it would provide, the long stroll down into Roaring River between the walls of Deadman Canyon. In an hour, I had reached the trail junction, and I stared up at the wall of manzanita for only a moment before I leaned into the steep path up.

“I am strong. I am powerful,” I whispered softly to myself. Poles and feet swinging in unison, I aimed for each turn at the switcher, promising myself a chance to rest once I reached it. My breathing was even, but I could still feel my brow furrow a bit, channeling sweat under my sunglasses and down my nose. The manzanita seemed to absorb every shred of heat from the sun and throw it directly at me, and as I stared up the trail, it stared right back at me at eye level.

Somehow, somewhere amongst the sharp, red branches reaching across the trail and snagging my legs; between the slender yellow-green stalks of old flowers withering in the heat of summer; in the momentary shade of a single juniper growing gnarled and hairy in the rocky soil, I lost my focus for a moment. My words slipped, and I found myself uttering, “I am strong. I am beautiful.” I wasn’t sure when the change came. I reached a switcher with a large stone, on which I would normally sit, but I simply shook my head. Gotta get up this hill, Molnar, I thought. Gotta finish in this heat and dust and light and rock. The load pulled evenly on my back and shoulders. I scuffled the pack up to adjust the waist strap. OK, let’s try this again…

“I am strong. I am beautiful.”

What? No. Beauty will not get this load up and over this pass. Power will get this load up and over this pass. Look: there! The top of the bench is just up there. Now, put your head down…

“I am strong. I am beautiful.”

I might say that the trail evened out, the grade lessened. The pack was just the right weight. I had been out for a week and my body had finally adjusted and strengthened to carry this load.

Or I could just admit that I gave into the strength that is beauty.

It was a physical feeling to me, something visceral. I just felt, well, lighter. My stride lengthened, my breathing evened out and slowed. I dabbed at my forehead with the sleeve of my shirt, but when I reached the next turn, I kept going, feeling little need for rest. The junipers were offering more frequent shade as I finally crested the face, and the trail gently undulated to the creek from Lonely Lake. When I plopped the pack down near the water to rest, it was because I wanted to give myself a gift for working hard on the first part of the climb, not because I was desperate to take a break.

1100 vertical feet in an hour from the junction, with more than 50 pounds still on my back. Yeah, I could live with this. I could handle this idea of beauty.

The doe made right for me as I lounged on a boulder over the stream, then right past me towards the spot where I had made my own water. She looked up as I laughed at her and I guzzled another bottle full of Gatorade. I could see her friends lingering in the green drainage further up the col. Cairns across the slab on the other side of the creek pointed me in the right direction to Elizabeth Pass. A grouse perched downstream and kept a watchful eye. A few flowers danced in the breeze along the banks.

Less than 2000 feet to go, and I was walking on air.

The trail is somewhat faded through the shifting colors of granite, but well-placed rocks mark the approximate route through the easy terrain. The trail is funneled between two sharp ridges, sprouting spires both broken and smooth. Foxtail pines carpeted the northern face towards the Tablelands, the view unobstructed to the west. I spotted a huge crowd at the pass, and stopped for a moment to watch the group slowly caterpillar its way down the scree and small boulders, two lagging behind. I smiled at the thought of the two being dear friends of mine to whom I had offered my itinerary before I left.

I stopped to chat briefly with the Outward Bound group, their two leaders – in back – relayed their route for the past two weeks. The 10 or so 17-year olds were from all over the United States, and were polite, inquisitive, and seemed to be happy for a little rest. “What is it like to be out here, alone?” asked one young lady. “Five years ago, it was a huge challenge, strictly to get the logistics right,” my reply. “This time, though, I just really miss my friends.” The kids had one more week of exploring across the Tablelands and the Westside, after resupplying at Bearpaw tomorrow. The same girl looked up at me with eyes wide with wonder at this magnificent place, and I shook her hand to say goodbye.

I pushed on to Elizabeth Pass, driving hard for the last few hundred feet in excitement to see the other side. Moose Lake shimmered behind me on the far side of the plateau, and the trail wound through the orange-gold granite, across the moraine at the head of the bowl. In the breeze, I leaned up against the sign marking the Pass, and remembered back to how miserable I had been when I last stood on this spot. My camera had disappeared at Hamilton Lake back then, and I was so devastated that I had considered cancelling the rest of my trip, walking out to the west side and trying to figure out a way home. But now, with two cameras on my belt, and what was supposed to be a drudge of a climb behind me, I skipped down the trail, almost running under the load out of the thrill of seeing Deadman Canyon once again.

Stretching for nearly 10 miles from its headwall to Roaring River, Deadman Canyon is perhaps one of the most scenic and grand spots in the Sierra. Standing on the moraine and gazing north, I could envision the mighty ice floes carving away at the granite, compressing and smoothing the rock into a perfect “U” shape. “God’s Vert Ramp” I called it then. A thin strip of green hugged the riverbanks far below as I stumbled and bumbled down the broken-rock trail, my ankles screaming as they rolled and fought for purchase. I couldn’t help but laugh at myself, as I looked across to the slabs and wondered why I was tolerating such a crappy section. At the first big water, I threw my pack down again and tanked up.

“Wearing mostly orange. Probably from Bishop. Trail name of Moose,” said a voice, and I turned to see a man I didn’t know, followed by another man and woman. “Your friends told us to watch out for you, and let you know that they stayed at Ranger Meadow last night.” Friends? What friends? I asked. Did you get a name?

“Don’t remember his name, but he had one hell of a mustache,” he said.

Trail telegrams. It’s not a perfect system, but word can, and does, get around back here. Maybe its because our signals aren’t as crossed as in the front-country, where we are overstimulated and constantly in a state of catch-up with the latest and greatest information. But, I do admit, it does help to have a color scheme and a small moose hanging from the axe-loop on my pack. So, the Dittli’s were indeed out here!

With a quick wave, I set out once again, my feet flying down the canyon, my smile growing wider in the early afternoon breeze. The canyon is a series of benches that keep dropping, and dropping, and dropping; crossing meadows and dashing in and out of thick pine forest. The wind whispered through trees, branches creaking and groaning. The heat was oppressive: when I stopped to munch I pulled my gummi candy from my bag, only to find they had all melted into one giant piece of sugary awesomeness. Jiminy, where the hell was the bottom of this canyon?

At long last, the ranger cabin at Roaring River appeared, and I wearily dropped The Beast near the bear lockers. The flag was up, but no one was home, so I left a long note for Ranger Cindy, thanking her for her help and support (and the beer!) five years ago; how that trip had changed my life. The usually busy station was deserted that evening, a welcome quiet after a tiring day. I soaked in the river under the bridge, finding a hole just big enough to lean back and hook my arms on the rocks, my feet and legs floating, my hair tickling my shoulders in the current.

After dinner, I strolled around the main area, looking for signs of my friends, and found their entry in the register outside of the ranger station. John and Leslie were the last to sign in that day, their “route” described only as, “Searching for an elusive Moose.” The thought brought tears to my eyes, and I signed in below them. “I’m right here! Where are you guys??”

The hunt was on.

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2 Responses to “Day 8: Strength = Beauty (7-29-12)”

  1. summitscott Says:

    Yes..You are Strong. You are beautiful. Your story continues to inspire me!

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