Left in the dust of snow

I hoped I wasn’t being rude by using my iPod to drown out the silence of strangers. We were all thrown in a van together by virtue of signing up for a snowshoeing trip, and I knew I wasn’t alone in my wishes. The woman in front of me opened up a magazine a few minutes into the drive, although she obviously knew some of the other passengers. I overheard a few of them talking about previous excursions they’d taken with the city Parks and Rec Department. As the least experienced and (almost) youngest person there, I was most comfortable sitting toward the back and listening to a “This American Life” podcast.

Actually, nobody seemed very interested in talking at that early hour on a Saturday. The only muffled conversation I heard during the ride from Portland to Mt. Hood came from the front seats, where the tour guide—also our driver—chatted with the woman who’d landed in the passenger seat as the first person picked up that morning. Better her than me. I dislike small talk anyway, and I was more concerned with having an adventure than with making new friends. Before this I had never engaged in wintry recreation, aside from trudging through my snow-covered neighborhood streets to get to Fred Meyer during the 2008 “blizzard.” This year, for a change, I’d decided not to hibernate through the coldest season.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from snowshoeing, though. By the time we reached the equipment rental shop at Mt. Hood, our guide hadn’t quizzed any of us about our prior experience or told us much about the upcoming journey. He did tell us that we were going to Trillium Lake, and he mentioned to another passenger that the hike would be more rigorous than others had been. After hearing that, I cornered him at the rental shop and explained that I’d never done this before. (Subtext: If I’m in over my head, and this is not really a beginner’s trip as advertised, please tell me and I’ll adapt.) He convinced me that snowshoeing is merely an awkward form of walking. I nodded with relief and went up to the equipment counter, where I received a pair of trekking poles and strange-looking foot apparatus.

Honestly, I had pictured snowshoes as illustrated in cartoons and in Julie of the Wolves (a book I loved as a kid): either tennis rackets strapped to one’s feet, or a pair of bent branches covered in stretched caribou skin. In reality they were made of plastic and aluminum, with metal claws on the bottom and cloth straps to be secured around the shoes. At the trailhead, it took me several minutes and some help to get them secured. They had a flexible, pendulous quality that required my feet to rise high enough with each step that the platforms wouldn’t kick up snow. Our guide was right in that they were easy to get accustomed to. I adapted by pretending I was on an elliptical machine, striding forward and plunking my feet down rhythmically. Surprisingly, I found myself at the front of the pack during the first half of the hike.

We had all gotten bundled up at the trailhead, but started to regret it as the morning expired. I started with three layers of clothing both above and below the waist, two pairs of socks beneath my boots, and two pairs of gloves.  Not more than 30 minutes later, the whole group stopped to de-layer and compliment the warm weather. We were all feeling light, strong, and sunny as we marched onward. The group stretched out and quieted as each person found his own pace. Our setting was classic, snowy evergreen forest. White dust fell from the trees, dripping into the silences between us, as the day got warmer.

The gang reconvened for lunch after a few miles. Most people took off their outermost jackets and spread them out for seating. Naively, I sat directly in the snow. I was still wearing three sets of pants, one of which was waterproof, and that seemed to be sufficient. My fellow travelers looked incredulous, but I brushed them off and announced that my butt was cooling off nicely. (They quickly looked away after that.) It was true—my butt continued to cool off … and off … until it was numb. With a bit less pride than before, I asked our guide if I could sit on his foam pad for the rest of our break. Lesson: No matter how warm you get while engaged in winter sport, snow is still cold.

Later that afternoon I got another lesson: Bring more water.  The trail had a gentle gradation, but snowshoeing it felt as physically taxing as an uphill hike. I looked at the snow around me and, deciding it was fairly clean, scooped some into my thirsty water bottle (after checking to see that nobody was looking). I could have made a nice slushie if I’d had syrup.

Third lesson: Buy new hiking boots. I was wearing the sturdy, waterproof, ankle-high boots that I bought when I was nineteen. They had scarcely been used for more than light hiking, so—in keeping with my frugal ways—I assumed they had plenty of life remaining. However, the blistering spots on my feet told me otherwise. I realized that the lining had worn away at the back, where my heels were. After a while I began to pay the price: not a mere discomfort, but a broiling pain whose temperature increased with each passing minute. A whimpering voice in my head told me to stop, while the Rational Me rebutted that I had no choice. My feet had gotten me into this forest, and they were going to carry me out even if they started bleeding.

The nominal destination of our trip, Trillium Lake, was located about four miles along the five-mile loop we completed. We’d been hiking for at least three hours when we reached the turnoff. Because the lake required a short jaunt in the opposite direction of the parking lot, a few people opted to skip it and head back to the van. My feet hurt quite a bit by that point, but not unbearably, and I didn’t want to miss the attraction; so I trudged in that direction. There wasn’t much to see but a big, flat clearing in the snow. Above it was an expanse of gray sky where Mt. Hood’s peak should have been visible. Underwhelming, maybe, but a good spot to rest my burning feet and pick out the chocolate chunks and almonds (the best parts) from a bag of trail mix.

During most of the hike I had kept my iPod stashed away, not wanting to use it to obscure the sounds of nature. Approaching the last segment of the trip, however, obscuring my exhaustion and pain became much more important. I didn’t know how long it would take to cover the last mile to the parking lot, and I was worried about how my feet would hold up. So I bade my fellow hikers goodbye, with a warning that I’d be mentally unavailable with the iPod turned on. They soon left me behind. I was the second-to-last person to arrive back at the van, feeling utterly ragged and sour. I grunted when people asked how I was feeling. This was not a happy time.

I recalled a comment made earlier in the day, when some of the faster people in the group (including me) stopped to wait for the others to catch up. I felt a little haggard at that point, and made a remark to that effect. One of the guys replied, “Well, at least you’re smiling! You don’t look defeated.” Then, I grinned and nodded. Now, back at home base, I was defeated. I wanted only for a chance to rest, dry out, immobilize my feet, and drink from my bottle of snow-water.

We started driving back home. Slowly, and with the help of some hot chocolate down the road, I was revived. But I still needed a heckuva nap.

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1 Comment

  1. carapattison

     /  April 14, 2011

    I love your post. It’s so descriptive I feel like I was right there with you. Bleeding feet and all.

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