Making my own Aesop’s Fables: Hiking the Crown of the Continent

By: 
Jenny Gessaman
Reporter
A woman in a light blue dress, and hugging a black cat to her chest, happily smiles at the camera.

Jenny Gessaman, Lewistown News-Argus Reporter.

Photo by Charlie Denison

A little over two weeks ago, I tried backpacking. Some consider it the purest form of camping, others consider it the most extreme form. Backpacking puts every essential camping utensil in a really big, specially designed backpack, and then carts that pack miles into the wilderness. The end goal is to sleep under the stars in untamed nature.

Here’s the tale of my flight from civilization.

 

The facts

There are some key background tidbits you need. I am a skinny-fat girl in her twenties, meaning I look healthy but don’t exercise, so I have no muscles. The hike was in Glacier National Park, where I have (enjoyably) hiked for several summers. When I arrived, only first come, first serve permits were available for backcountry camping, so the trip was chosen and planned four hours before it began.

My story starts at the trailhead, the place that officially kicked off my sole summer vacation. My boyfriend Sean was working by the park during his summer break from teaching, and circumstances seemed set to give me my first backpacking experience.

Ole Lake Campground is 7.7 miles from the trailhead. The hike has a “modest” 2,000-foot elevation gain over its first 5 miles, heading over a mountain pass before descending to the lake’s cool waters.

We started out mid-morning, carrying everything we would need on our backs. To be clear, the backpacks we used are a little different from that old grade-school necessity: Metal frames hold up a bag several feet tall, often accented with waterproof zippers and padding. Mine was roughly 30-40 pounds. Vacation!

 

The trail

The trek began on a flat, woody landscape, the ease of the walk complimented with warm, clear weather. I was left with only one slightly nagging concern: My pack felt a little heavy.

Despite the padded straps, and the waist belt that distributes weight to your hips to help save your shoulders, I had the uncomfortable realization that excitement was not magically giving me muscles. Within the first mile, Sean and I were both breathing heavily. Our momentary breaks became unbearable as the woods turned into thick, humid forests, opening occasionally to meadows of bushes as tall as me.

Sean had traveled this trail before, and planned our route. He shot forward, pushing through sweat, flies and a lack of oxygen to reach the pass, the end of the hard work. I followed, turning to him for hope in the coming hours. My hips and shoulders grew sore, unused to the weight, and my cardiovascular system worked furiously as it remembered what it was like to do something besides sit in an office chair.

Twice I thought Sean was pointing out the pass. Twice I discovered it was another ridge to scale. In the bottom of a valley, he pointed to the real Firebrand Pass: Majestic, promising, and sitting at the top of a 45-degree-angle path across a shale field.

I broke.

 

The fables

When the sun set, we were not by Ole Lake or under the stars. We were back in Sean’s summer rental, over full and snuggled together reading. Why? Because I asked Sean to turn around, and my first backpacking trip became a 10-mile training run.

I don’t know why I had to travel all that way, on foot, with all that weight, to find the morals of my own story, and create my own Aesop’s Fables. But I did, and here are the things I learned.

Sean and I are different hikers. Actually I already knew this, and so did he: It has been something we have negotiated on previous trips. He loves expansive views and reaching the end point. Forests and anything between points A and B are unnecessary, to be traversed as fast as possible despite any physical cost.

I, on the other hand, am a permanent 6-year-old. I am amazed by everything, from the minute snowfields dotting the expansive views, to the tall, fluffy flower that looks like a green Cousin Itt from The Adams Family. I am also a slow-and-steady type. Our hikes usually have Sean stopping to realize I am far behind him, backtracking to discover I am watching an insect or poking a flower. Possibly frustrating, but a good match in the end.

No, I guess what I learned is I’m lucky to have my hiking partner. For all our opposites, we still compromise. I speed through the first couple miles with him, he will come back and marvel at the rare fungus-eating orchids with me, and we will both stop if the other needs it.

On this trip, it was more than compromise. Afraid I wouldn’t be able to move the next day after climbing another ascent, and past the point of having fun challenging myself physically, I asked Sean to turn around. And he did.

Because he was happy to just be spending time with me.

The other moral of my labor-intensive tale was how to handle shame. Glacier National Park and its trails attract a lot of hiking enthusiasts who, coincidentally, have single-digit body fat percentages. Hiking in to the park, every one of them commented on how rugged we were to be backpacking. Those same people were in the parking lot when we came out, and all of them were curious.

I felt shame at turning back, but that changed as we settled in to sleep that night. Why should I be humiliated that I knew my limits? More importantly, why should I be ashamed for making sure I didn’t need to be rescued from remote wilderness, miles from resources or first aid?

I found out I was out of shape. That is no reason to hang my head. I was responsible, and acknowledged that limit, like any good hiker should. And now I’ve given myself motivation, and a new goal: Take the same trip next year, and end up under the stars at Ole Lake. With my hiking partner snuggled beside me.

It was a good vacation.

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