As soon as I got out of the car, I knew the day would go differently than I'd planned. I'd driven up to Blue Lake, a favorite hike of mine 4 miles west of Chambers Lake. Solo hiking is as close as I get to therapy - nothing so far in my life has led me to believe the presence of an expensive judgmental stranger will be useful in unwinding the week, but the sound of a river rushing down the canyon is a pretty reliable path to "calm." I'd spent an excellent morning up here on Labor Day, and was interested to experience the other end of the season. There's plenty of tree cover throughout, and most of the route is marked by blue arrows, pointlessly pointing out that the well trodden bit between the trees is the trail.
Alas, "seasons" are differently defined at 9500 feet, compared to my idyllic foothills city - up there, the snow hasn't cleared by May 13th. Determined to make something of the day, I stumbled ahead, only occasionally ending up groin-deep in slush. For about a quarter mile, I was hopeful that it would get better as I got farther along - that the part under heavier shade from trees would have experienced more snow melt. I went to school in Ault. As with so many areas of life, my optimism remained undimmed until I'd gone far enough that turning around would have constituted significant effort - with the journey back to the car looking equally unpleasant, I conceded it would be a slow, soggy day.
The snow was deceptively firm at first. Like the crispy mashed potato on top of a shepherds pie, it sounds hard when tapped with a fork, but under no circumstances should someone stand on it. Moving tentatively but quickly seemed to be the best strategy. The descriptions of the ground in Lewis' "Great Divorce" came to mind, designed to keep you moving toward the goal by being uncomfortable to stand on for any sustained period. Having no certainty about what precisely was beneath my feet, I rapidly reevaluated the utility of the blue arrows.
And then they ran out. I hadn't noticed last time, not really needing them. Suddenly, I had no more ideas about whether to head north, south, east, or west than I had ideas about which direction actually was north, south, east, or west. Fortunately, snowpack is relatively good at preserving footprints, so I headed off in the direction most feet had printed. This is a conflicting situation to be in, though - how do I know this person went the right way? Will the footprints lead to a summit, or a corpse? To avoid dwelling on that unpleasant thought, I noticed a dry patch under a tree, and hopped down the bank to rest.
Unable to escape the feeling I was trapped in an overworked metaphor, any energy gained was used in the climb back onto the path. I resumed tracing a stranger's footprints, and felt glad it wasn't possible to confuse a person's shoes with any other animal's paws. One in the eye for all the "dogs are better than humans" people I know. Although a dog (and a sled) could have pulled me more effectively. Thinking about it, however, so could a car. Which would have had made a far more dependable track.
A discarded Nalgene poked through the snow. This didn't seem like a good sign - no one looking to lighten their load discards their water. On closer inspection, it was full of urine. Why had someone urinated in a container, when the woods are entirely capable of withstanding the deluge? This strikes me as the same sort of person who leaves the plastic film on the screens of their electronic devices. As I pressed forward, I caught an encouraging sight - enough snow had melted to form a viable path. It had been there for a considerable distance, I realized - why hadn't I moved over sooner? Mr. Footsteps hadn't either. Perhaps he, like me, had considered forward progress challenge enough without also looking for better alternatives. Walking on mostly-dry earth was a welcome relief, but the nagging sense it would end soon stopped me from truly relaxing (see "work, why vacations don't" in index).
I've no idea why I assumed summit-or-corpse were the only potential outcomes. Abruptly, halfway from the summit, footprints stopped entirely. It seemed wrong to turn around, at first - I'd been following someone so long, I'd adopted the general direction as my own. One nagging thought crept in as I continued forward, though - If I keep going and this isn't the right direction, what if someone later follows my steps?
Out in the woods by myself, thoughts of any impact on my fellow man were far from my mind. Additionally, anyone who has met me would know I come after "spitting into the wind" on the list of reliable navigators. On the other hand, I don't know anything about the footprinter I've been following, either. Any myths we believe about our lives being independent as long as we're "not harming others" vanish when we realize we're imprinting the earth with each forward motion.
I didn't turn around immediately. On some level, the danger of being an unusually convenient food truck for a bear or mountain lion would at least have spared me the walk back to the car. But it would also have permanently denied me the summit. Retreating back to the blue arrows until the path is more clear felt like defeat, but a summit next month is not a defeat. It's a summit.
The end of the line (today).