Backcountry Thoughts: The Company We Are Gifted

The universe didn’t want me to be a part of society on Tuesday. That much was perfectly clear to me. A screeching crow, blasting car horns and what sounded like an impassioned lovers’ quarrel all set off at 7:30 A.M in perfect unison with my alarm clock, like a symphony orchestra from the fiery depths of hell.

Everyone has those Tuesdays; the Tuesdays that feel like a painful extension of the Mondays that precede them. I hadn’t gotten outside all weekend, save for a raucous Friday night which turned into a painful Saturday and a sunset Sunday trail run that was somehow still commandeered by my hangover.

My first conscious thought was that I needed to be on a mountain somewhere – preferably sweaty, dirty and completely alone. It was time to exit stage 93 South.

I hit the interstate by 9:30, made it to a forest service road in the Bitterroot Mountains by 10:30, discovered I had taken the wrong forest service road by 11:15, pulled a 10-point K turn on the side of a mountain and made it to the right trailhead by 11:45. Only one other car was parked there, and as soon as I stepped out of my truck, I was instantly aware that my starting elevation was around 7,000 feet.

Good. In addition to being sweaty, dirty and alone, I needed to be winded too. I needed Glen Lake to kick my butt, even though the past few weeks had done a good job of that all on their own.

I had been pulling those painfully long days glued to my computer screen, the kind that magically turn your eyes red and your hair greasy, the kind that keep you busy until you look around and realize the whole day is gone and you had barely eaten lunch. I had been pitching freelance work, responding cheerfully to subsequent rejection emails from editors, scanning writing job boards, applying for grant funding for this month-long reporting trip I’m about to embark on…but there was no stability, no resounding success, no sign that I wasn’t wasting my time, frying my brain and zapping my laptop storage with cover letters and pitch drafts.

I wanted the certainty of a narrow trail with a specific faraway destination, which contrasted so nicely against the uncertainty of the surrounding wilderness that matched my own circumstances. I needed to do something that would result in success as long as I followed directions (and thanks to my accidental detour on my commute, even that was proving difficult).

But over a mile into my very remote and secluded forest tramp, my phone buzzed with another pitch rejection. How I still had cell phone service deeply befuddled me – and angered me, too. This time, it was from the National Geographic Animal Desk, my Holy Grail outlet for my whooping crane project. My hopes weren’t very high to begin with…I mean, it’s National Geographic, and I’m 23. For a split second, I rejoiced in the novelty of receiving a personalized rejection statement at all.

But then, right there in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, I felt a distinct and daunting loneliness cast a shadow over the freedom and peace I had been trying to enjoy moments prior. I arrived to the trailhead as Katie the Escape Artist, and I transformed into Katie the Ambling Loner right then and there. Another sign of career instability, another long shuffle back to the drawing board to plan another free-fall sans parachute. That’s what pitching freelance writing feels like: tossing your carefully planned ideas into a dark canyon without any guarantee that a single editor will put out a safety net and snag them. Ideas can only jump so many times before they stop crawling back up from the depths.

My feet marched onward, hell bent on carrying my addled brain to Glen Lake. You need the distraction of glassy perfection set under jagged mountaintops, they said, sounding like a kind Uber driver ushering a drunk girl home from a sports bar breakup. We’re going to take you there. Don’t you worry.

Sure, Glen Lake was great. Pristine, tranquil, crystal clear…it was all the adjectives used in marketing schemes for bottled water. But a narrow path snaked up beyond it, over the other side of the rim of the small canyon. It was hardly a trail…barely more than a coincidental clearing in the rocks and brush. But I had been dealing with uncertainty for weeks. What was a little bit more?

I gave Glen Lake that apologetic glance we all reluctantly give adult dogs when they are accompanied by puppies…sorry, I’ll get to you in a second. I promise. I’m just going to be right on the other side of this little ridge, enjoying your counterpart.

I clamored up the ridge and looked down on what laid below. Any uneasiness tore itself from me and jumped right into the more pristine, more tranquil, crystal clear-er water of the “Lake Behind Glen Lake,” as I dubbed it. Stumbling down the hill, gently swatting through brush and leaping over downed trees, this was the most certain I had been in weeks…I was certain this was meant to be my destination.

I realize how stereotypical this all sounds. Girl is losing way in life, girl goes to the wilderness to find herself, girl purposely disregards original destination in pursuit of something better and finds it, girl rejoices. But we’re allowed to live in cliches. That’s why they’re considered cliche…because everyone finds themselves in these headspaces at one point or another. And while I was still dealing with that sudden attack of loneliness, I was perfectly happy to keep emotional society with the other Ambling Loners who had bushwhacked and rejoiced upon the discovery of “Lake Behind Glen Lake.”

And there had been other Ambling Loners…or maybe just other Amblers with the good sense to not amble solo. I had passed a campfire ring just beyond where the path dissipated. An overstretched bobby pin sat on the small rocky peninsula I claimed as my temporary perch. Far away, an airplane tore a thready snag in the light stonewash blue of the sky, likely carrying at least two or three other Ambling Loners to or from their own certain destinations. I felt this strange comfort knowing that I was slightly connected to humanity, even if there was no one else here with me. I took a 360-degree turn and fell into a deep reflection on my surroundings.

I see rocky outcroppings that rise from mountain lake surfaces the same way one might see a vacant corner table in their favorite cafe on their favorite street in their favorite town or city. The whole universe was available for exploring that day, but this small patch of flat matter was exactly where I was meant to end up. This throne, situated just inches above the mirrored surface reflecting the toasted marshmallow gold of the alpine larches, this is a throne for sitting and indulging. Not my throne…I could never lay claim to a throne as ceremonious as this one. But maybe this is one of Mother Nature’s many thrones, and maybe she’s just in a sharing mood today.

Or maybe Mother Nature actually just owns the largest corner cafe in the world. Maybe every glacial lake, rocky outcropping, peak and waterfall are just corner tables for two or booths where six could squeeze if they like each other. She greets us as we park our cars and walk inside. “Dining alone today? I have the perfect spot for you. It’s a bit tucked away, near that back window, but the view over the water is good and the flowers in the vase are fresh.” You can hear animals chatter like waitstaff out of the critical sight of customers, and you can peek into the kitchen where the heavenly chefs are melting down winter snowpack to fill your soul and your water glass. You snuggle into your corner a little more, feeling the peace associated with being alone in your home space.

Large branches suddenly cracked with the repetitive pace of footsteps, echoing loudly throughout the canyon. Birds lifted out of nearby trees with extreme urgency. My eye caught distant movement lumbering through the brush across the lake. I was ripped out of my meditative state, instantly aware that I was very much not alone.

I started re-stuffing my backpack with complete disregard for spacial relations. My socks refused to pull up over my feet, still wet from a dip in the water. I shoved them into my boots anyway, and started lacing like a maniac. But silence ensued, and I stopped to reassess the scene. There was a whole body of water between myself and what was undoubtedly some gruesome grizzly-Sasquatch hybrid. And while that body of water wasn’t much larger than a football field missing its end zones, I could relax a little bit knowing that I had time. And bear spray.

I started packing again, this time with a more even-tempered pace. I kept my eyes plastered across the lake, trying to pick up even the tiniest of movements with my peripheral vision, like my dad taught me long ago when we’d go “deer hunting” in our backyard.

But it didn’t take the elite prowess of the periphery to see who emerged from the trees. My pulse stabilized and I stopped shoving gear in my bag. A wiry, Cabela’s khaki-clad man with a distinctively large camera approached another rocky throne, set his stuff down, and waved enthusiastically, inquiring at the top of his lungs if I was fishing.

I shouted back that I wasn’t, and that I had thought he was a bear. I could make out the shaking shoulders and toothy expression of genuine laughter. I chuckled too, but kept packing. While I was relieved the source of noise wasn’t a famed grizsquatch, I figured that being slightly wary of strange men in the backcountry was important, too. He slowly started walking towards my side of the lake, stopping along the way to aim his sawed-off 10 gauge of a camera at the beautiful vista with precision and professionalism.

Eventually, I found my way back to a path that led out of the canyon and in the general direction of the trailhead, just in time to walk up on him setting up a shot that Bill Gates himself would have paid top dollar to use as a desktop background. I commented on the beauty of the larches set against the water, as I aimed and shot the last of my color film. We made small talk about the scenery while I reloaded my camera, and I asked him if this lake had a name. He seemed like someone who would know the answer to that question. He informed me that it didn’t, but that Glen Lake was actually just up over the other side of the ridge. I laughed and explained that I had come from there originally, but that I liked the unnamed one much better. He agreed.

Jim turned out to be a retired professor of plant and landscape ecology, with stints at the Universities of Montana and Saskatchewan. He lived in Missoula with his wife, and recommended I join the Facebook group of western Montana adventurers that he was a member of. I explained my graduate program, my upcoming road trip, and his face brightened at the mention of whooping cranes. Saskatchewan is a prime staging location for the fall crane migration, and he had bore witness to multiple crane species roosting by the dozen while teaching there. We reached a break in conversation, and I peeked at my watch, conscious of the time I needed to hike back out and drive home before evening plans. We said our goodbyes, and I went on my way, an Ambling Loner once again.

It took less than ten minutes of hiking for me to figure out that Jim was behind me. He maintained a safe and respectful 20-yard distance behind me, but we kept playing a silent game of tag as we both stopped to shoot at various points along the way. We exchanged those slightly awkward but generally friendly pleasantries that happen when you’ve already said goodbye to someone but keep interacting with them again. He asked if I was planning on showcasing my work with the whooping cranes anywhere, and mentioned that he’d really love to read it…that he missed bearing witness to the successes of his students. I suddenly remembered the rejection email from National Geographic sitting in my pocket, darkened a little bit, and started explaining my present circumstances.

About halfway through my gushing rant about the uncertainties of being a young freelancer, I stopped myself and realized I was absolutely pouring my problems on this poor guy in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness at 3:30 in the afternoon on a weekday. The truth smacked me square in the sunburnt face: I didn’t want to be alone at all. In fact, I had been lonely since I discovered I was on the wrong forest service road earlier in the day. But I was so thankful to have the company of this stranger, someone with the warmth of a retired environmental science professor out exploring his favorite classroom.

I tried to sum up my woeful story quickly. I asked if he was hiking back out to the trailhead too, and if he’d like to hike with me. He shooed the offer like a horsefly, scoffing that he didn’t want to hold me back. But I wanted company, preferably that of an amiable photographer with ample knowledge of the plants and landscapes we were surrounded by. Besides, two had a better chance against the grizsquatch than one, and I still wasn’t convinced that one wasn’t lurking up ahead. So I insisted.

As we traversed the miles back to the car, our conversations spanned space and time. We compared and contrasted the land ethics of ranchers and environmentalists. We traded facts about migratory cranes, and we discussed the origins of our nation’s extreme political polarization. We exchanged book recommendations. He told me stories of his family dispersed around Montana, I told stories of mine back in Connecticut. We stopped to shoot. We looked out over the sprawling Bitterroot Valley and he pointed out the variances in geologic formation, gesticulating like a painter explaining the nuances of his most recent work during a gallery exhibit. By the time we were back to our cars, I felt like I had snuck into a class of his without paying any tuition.

I had been gifted the company I didn’t know I needed when I set out that morning. And as I sat in my car, I realized that the gift of company is actually best received when the recipient doesn’t know she needs it. The potential of loneliness is not something that should scare us away from solo pursuits, especially not in the wild spaces where we are so prepared for every other source of conflict. I was prepared for hunger, thirst, grizsquatches, basic injury and unstructured time, thanks to the food, water, bear spray, first aid kit, notebook and pen that came with me.

But I was not prepared for how lonely I was going to feel. I could have prepared if I had really tried. I could have pestered every friend I had in Missoula to come with me, and I could have decided to stay home if none of them were available. But instead, I went out and flirted with the potential disaster of backcountry loneliness, like all solo hikers do when they set out by themselves. It only surfaced when another reminder of uncertainty buzzed in my pocket, but even though I tried to suppress it back down again, it’s ugly head stayed reared as I sat at Lake Behind Glen Lake. I kept telling myself that being solo was great, that it was exactly what I wanted and needed at that time. But Jim and the universe knew the truth.

I sat in my car, a little concerned that I was losing my edge as a devout believer in occasional solitude. Was this whole experience a sign of my confidence in my solo pursuits weakening? But then I reminded myself of my weekend activity. I had taken myself out to brunch on Saturday to ease the transition back to sobriety. I was seated at a cozy corner table in the loft of a Missoula cafe, a famed hangover hotspot for the shameless over-imbibers. I was the only solo diner in the whole place. I had a book, enough coffee to scare away my headache, and a big greasy meal. I would argue I was the most content patron in the establishment, not lonely for one second – even with an empty chair sitting across the table from me, reminding me of my status as a party of one.

If I had wanted company, I might have been gifted some. There would have been room for a friend or a stranger to join me. But I liked it empty. I wasn’t interested in sharing a meal with anybody. But in the Bitterroot, as much as I tried to lie to myself, I didn’t want to be a party of one. Luckily, Mother Nature ushered Jim to the same table in the corner, the one with the view of the heavenly chefs melting snowpack and the chattering animals eyeing their patrons. She gifted me the company I didn’t know I needed, a gift I’m glad I decided to keep.

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