September 21st, Sunday
2523.3 to 2541.2
Today was a day to rejoice about in my journal: “First day of autumn & sesquicentennial trail day!” (Okay, it wasn't actually the first day of autumn. But usually the 21st is.) We packed up quickly, then set out, crossing a bridge and heading up a steep climb.
As before, tackling the 2,000-foot climb first thing in the morning was a good idea for us: we bladed through it, hurtling up the slope with early-morning momentum. We soon cleared the timberline and hiked through a rocky alpine region with huge glaciers up the jagged mountain ridge to our right. To our left, we saw a plunging rift covered in streams, fields of red huckleberries, and thickets of trees, dotted here and there with little groves of golden-needled larches.
Zach and I chatted the whole way, talking animately about something or another. The sky was blue, the scenery was gorgeous, and we were both feeling great. As we turned a corner over the ridge of the mountains, we saw a little alpine lake, called Mica Lake, down away in front of us. It was no more blue than any other lake we’d seen before, but something about its dazzling purity, its turquoise edges and royal blue interior, and the tiny translucent ripples of sky-blue and pine-green and sun-gold, struck my eyes in a way they never had before. “It’s gorgeous!” I breathed, and declared it to be my favorite tarn we’d seen on trail.
Of course, my camera was still broken. Zach tried to take a picture on his phone, but the lens of his phone camera was scratched so it came out fuzzy. So we just sat by this body of water and stared at it, rapt. Some other hikers came by and declared that they were going to swim in it, but that always seemed like too much trouble to us. Besides, although the sun was warm today, the air was cool, and jumping into a frigid alpine lake didn’t sound like fun. Zach and I took one last look at the tarn and hiked on.
From that point we began a huge descent, plunging back below the timberline. The day began heating up, and we were glad for the shade to avoid the brutal sun.
Down, down we plunged into a valley, on endless switchbacks, heading for a rift cut by Milk Creek. The air grew warm, and then hot, around us, and soon we were hiking with the sun on our backs and baking a little. There was a bridge over this river, too, and when we arrived, we saw that there was no easy way to collect the grayish water. Happy Feet, sitting cross-legged on the bridge, said hi.
There was water in another five miles, and neither of us was particularly thirsty, so we didn’t think much of it as we crossed the bridge and hiked up to the set of switchbacks that would lead us out of this oven-like valley. We had been in the shade of the mountain on the other side, but here we had little to give us shelter from the sun we panted as we hiked up the tight switchbacks, blinking in the hot sun, sweating profusely.
We had gotten up several switchbacks when Zach chugged on the Camelbak… and it came up dry. We both paused in disbelief, and realized that we had no other water. Granted, it was only four and a half miles to the next water, but with the sun and the heat it just wasn’t worth it. We hemmed and hawed before Zach volunteered to retrace our steps, 1.4 miles round trip, to gather water. With a groan, I handled the bottles over and sat down in the shade to wait. Oops.
I was feeling hot and a bit sick, so I wrote in my journal to keep my mind off it. I doodled and made a list of “THINGS TO DO WHEN I GET HOME,” with items such as “Make pickles,” “Read more literature,” “Stop wasting so much time on Facebook,” and “Have people over for dinner.” I found myself lost in a happy futuristic world of creature comforts, surrounded by friends.
At last, puffing and sweating, Zach returned with water, and I chugged some right away. Sheepishly, we continued our hot climb, chugging water as the sun leached away our hydration. We emerged into a fascinating landscape, covered in a plant that resembled heather and sprinkled with lone boulders, all bathed with the late-day sun.
We decided to make for a trail camp, called Dolly Vista, hoping not too many other people were there.
We hiked over an open mountain meadow as the sky began to fade to pale blue. As we hiked, I looked around, and it all began sinking into me.
In all directions, a 360 view, we were ringed by mountains: snowy, jagged, sunset-flushed mountains, wreathed in glowing sunset clouds, with a backdrop of pale pink and lavender fading to blue above. The air was alive with a cool breeze and the smell of huckleberries; in the valleys below us we saw thin silver ribbons of rivers, groves of larch and pine, mountain meadows and little shining tarns. The sun cast its last golden rays into the sky, and I actually stopped and stared, transfixed by the beauty all around.
“Zachary,” I whispered, and he stopped too. “Look at this,” I said. “This is incredible.”
We stood in silence, listening to the wind in the low bushes. We had no camera to capture the moment. I knew a camera could never do this justice, anyway.
We hiked on, and soon came to Dolly Vista Trail Camp, which was a flat spot in the middle of a semicircle of pines, with a view out toward the valley and distant mountains. We quickly set up camp and ate dinner, and by the time we crawled into our tent the stars were out. We were reluctant to cover them up with our rainfly, but a freezing chill was already settling in, so we needed all the insulation we could get. As we were drifting off to sleep, another hiker came up and set up her tent next to us, but we were all too cold by that point to do anything but say hello. Determining to talk to her further in the morning, we snuggled into our sleeping bag as a cold, cloudy night blew in.