In a photograph I took last summer, Peter and I flex our feet. We’d been hiking for six days without a shower. Dirt frames our toenails and sunburn borders our sock-lines. Our veins protrude, beating with the blood that laced our toes whenever we freed our feet from the trail running shoes and damp socks we spent ten hours walking in each day.
I’m twenty-eight years old and the 170 mile Pacific Crest Trail backpacking trip I took with Peter might be the most intimate things I’ve done. It wasn't a date or a vacation or a road-trip. I marooned myself in a hundred mile stretch of wilderness with a person I trusted enough to stake my safety in.
Peter and I started from Stehekin, the North Cascades National Park hub at the Northern edge of Lake Chelan. For nine days, I pitched the tent and Peter cooked meals. For nine days, I hung bear bags and Peter helped me hoist my backpack onto my shoulders. Our arches pulsed, our hips stiffened, our backs crumpled under the weight of our packs. We woke early and budgeted time the best we could. We needed to average nineteen miles a day to make it to the border and back to Stehekin before we depleted our food supply. If we hiked half our miles by noon, we took off our shoes and rinsed our feet in a river at lunch. If we arrived at camp before dusk, we made chai tea to go with our dinners of curry or pasta or soup we’d spent the summer cooking, dehydrating, and bagging.
I started dating Peter seven months before we backpacked to Canada and back. We met at Holden Village--the wilderness retreat center where I work as the assistant teacher in a two-room public school. Peter took me by surprise: a slim biologist from Iowa with curly hair and freckled lips who loved porch-sitting, picnicking, cross-country running, and waking before dawn to hike as much as I did. We kissed for the first time in an avalanche chute on a yellow picnic blanket. I associate that kiss with snow-powdered ankles, the sound of a river running, and the taste of chili chocolate. I also associate it with a sweetness that allowed me to be vulnerable when I thought I couldn’t.
We’d been going for walks for weeks before Peter kissed me. We’d eaten lunch together every day. We’d even gone winter camping, spending the night in an orange tent set up the snow beside Railroad Creek. But we’d done these things as friends. I felt hesitant to couple in our remote community--far easier to stay single, to keep drifting, untethered, in such a wild place. I’d had two break-ups the year before I moved to the mountains, one involving a bearded grad student who spent his most of his time researching a nineteenth century agronomist, one involving a YMCA science camp co-worker who cheated on me. The co-worker was fierce in a way that excited me at first and revolted me later. Part of what appealed to me about living somewhere so remote was the distance from him and the drifty confusion I’d felt while we dated.
The summer between leaving my job as a naturalist and beginning my new position at Holden Village, I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. Her account of hiking the Pacific Crest trail left me puffy-eyed. I knew how it feels to want to shed the past and start clean. My first full-day living in Holden Village I walked twenty-miles. When the trees started to thin into subalpine meadows I fell to my knees in gratitude, drawing deep breaths of cool Cascade air.
My backpacking trip started as a whim, on a walk with my friend Scott.
Darkness cloaked mountains, stars smattered sky, moon beamed off snow. Scott and I shivered. You could walk to Canada from here. He told me, it’s less than 100 miles away. I studied Green Trail Maps Holden keeps posted in the dining hall and realized he was right. I asked a friend who’d hiked the entire distance from Mexico to Canada. She told me she preferred the last ninety miles to any other section of trail. Other people like the High Sierras best she said, but I love the North Cascades.
Holden Village swims in a sea of mountains too sheer to summit without crampons and ice axes. I’d spent my first autumn in Holden walking as far as I could every weekend--twenty-five miles day hikes across alpine ridges and solo climbs up glacial fields. I’d picnicked in subalpine meadows and napped among the pasque flowers. I’d whistled at marmots, slept under the stars, and been sniffed by a bear. But I still felt like a newcomer, a Midwestern transplant living in an extended state of vacation. Immersing myself in the Pasayten Wilderness, walking days with my belongings on my back felt like the next step in getting to know the North Cascades.
I don’t remember when I invited Peter to join me on the PCT, only that he agreed without hesitation and it became our hike. Together, we researched distances and backpacking gear. Together, we planned meals. I brought a tent, Peter brought a stove. We both packed water filters, headlamps, and first aid gear. Late in the trip when Peter’s spoon got lost in his pack, we shared mine, passing it back and forth between bites, hunching over our pot of noodles.
It rained our first night. We huddled in the tent, soaked and shivering, eating avocados and rain-drenched cinnamon rolls from the bakery in Stehekin. We didn’t cook and when we woke up the next day, we didn’t boil water for oatmeal or coffee. We rolled-up the wet tent, ate another avocado, and started walking. The wet grass licked our legs. I had to stop every twenty to thirty minutes to adjust my pack. When we reached Rainy Pass, we crossed the first and only major road of our hike. I dawdled, hesitant to keep walking, fighting stop hiking and hitchhike to Mozama. My legs felt like a boneless bundle of flesh, ready to collapse under weight and stress.
Later, I wondered what shape the trip would have taken without Peter, who prodded me along with promises of hot meals and mountain views. Alone I may have submitted to exhaustion. I may not have made it to Cutthroat Pass that night. I may not have seen the sun stretch red across the rocky peaks or found a spot to sleep where streams rushed through patches of tiny subalpine flowers. I may not have had the energy to make pesto with walnuts for dinner or to boil water for chai tea for dessert.
It’s normally solitude that invigorates me but walking with Peter gave me energy I didn’t know I had. With my back sore and my socks wet, I only knew how to be strong for someone else. My own desire to reach the Canadian border wasn’t enough to propel me forward. I didn’t want to be a burden. I walked, faster and further each day, gaining strength on the switchbacks and steadiness on river crossings. I couldn’t call my mom. I couldn’t get off the trail. In the middle of the wilderness, Peter and I only had each other and the companionship that comes with miles and miles of walking drifting in and out of conversations, telling stories, taking water breaks, picking berries, sharing chocolate and nuts, and sitting side-by-side barefoot on a log, soaking in the warmth of mid-day sun in the mountains.
My friend Melissa once said that she knew she was ready to be married when she met someone who was moving in the same direction. I like that. It makes a relationship feel like a hike that you’re choosing to take with someone who wants to go the same place. Sometimes I imagine a life with Peter: moving to a farm like the one he grew up on, growing vegetables, raising animals, and writing stories, but my ideas about the future change daily--and in all honesty, right now, I don’t know my destination.
Peter and I wanted to walk to the Canadian border because it felt like a milestone: the northern boundary of the United States, the southern edge of Canada. It took us five days to get there, and four to get back. The trail descends from the crest of the mountains into woods and brush several miles from the terminus. It’s just a line shaved into the woods: cut grass and no trees, with a medal monument that reads “78” and a wooden steak that says “Pacific Crest Trail Northern Terminus.” I took pictures of Peter and me posing beside it. Then I sat in the damp grass and ate my lunch of almonds and fruit. Peter and I didn’t know what to feel, resting on the imaginary line that we’d walked for almost a week to reach. We stayed for less than an hour, than started back toward Stehekin.
During our nine days on the trail I lost twelve pounds. I learned to set up my tent in just a couple minutes and developed a rhythm for filtering water. My legs got taut from the uphill and my back became used to the weight of my bag. My body changed. So did my relationship with Peter. I’ve never used the word “partner” to refer to a boyfriend until Peter, and it wasn’t until after backpacking that I could get the word to feel smooth on my tongue. Peter: my partner--my companion and love, the one who I hike beside.
There are 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the foot--we need each one to function, each one to move forward. Our feet link us to the ground beneath us while they carry us on our journey. Last summer, I took the photo of my feet beside Peter’s: sunburnt, and dirt-smeared. It wasn’t the scenery I wanted to capture but my relationship --the person I’ve decided to link fates with, to share a tent with, the person I’ve decided to reveal myself to, un-showered and exhausted--the person I’ve chosen to walk with. I can think of nothing more beautiful than our bare-feet in the grass.