The first light comes at 4:30 AM when I’m still snuggled in my sleeping bag, swaying in my hammock. It’s early and I don’t want to listen to my bladder call, so I practice containment. The slight tension in my body doesn’t let me sleep. I want to be a child again and stay in my drowsy dream state, read my book (kindle on I-phone, the greatest invention for ultra-light backpackers) before doing the backpackers morning routine. I watch the sky do what it does best: reflect the light as the earth turns. There is a red coloring on the horizon. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning”? No, not at this time of the year, in this place. The red glow is minor and soon the gray-blue dome takes over, the spruce and fir show off their shapely form for another day of standing pretty against the granite boulders and peaks all around.
The last few miles yesterday were rocky and I hope for an easier stretch this morning. Maps show trails, elevations and tree lines, but not what the trail's surface is. As routine as backpacking for the distance is - wake up, break camp, have a bite to eat, check water supplies, hoist the pack, and walk all day until evening calls for a new camp and rest - the what of the trail is a surprise every day. It is an adventure even in the familiar surroundings of the Northern California Cascades. The Cascade range runs from Lassen Park in Northern California to the Canadian border. Over the last six years I have walked the 1350 miles in July and August, and this is the last 75 miles of this range for me. These mountains have shown me their trees, rock formations, lakes, rivers, and alpine meadows full of wild flowers in summer. The gray, green and brown coloring of the landscape with a splash of red rock now and then, the contours of the undulating blue ridges in the distance, and the snow-capped, volcanic peaks lined up along the way, have been my vision for inspiration, my path to health and vitality. Unlike the young thru-hikers on the PCT, who walk from one border to the next to prove that they can walk 2650 miles, I don't feel the need to prove that I can do it, that I can live simple, avoid society’s grab for money, status and addictive behaviors. I walk because I want to know the place. I keep walking, year after year. Will I finish the whole trail? I don’t know, nobody knows. Is it my intent? Some days I want to make it so, but then I realize that it’s easy to get caught in the stressful mind-set of “more” and “accomplishing a goal”. I walk and learn about myself. What will this day teach me?
After breaking camp, and loading the pack, primed by a small breakfast, I walk in the now sunny morning, bright light shining through the trees, reflecting on the white and gray east slopes of the Marble mountains. This is my holy hour, the hour for reflection, since my body is fresh and walking is effortless. Each step loosens up my knees, ankles and muscles tight from a night of inactivity. I am in my seventies and tissues tighten. My feet wrap themselves around small rocks, maneuver up steps, over downed trees, making my body sway and balance with the help of my hiking poles. My hands plant the poles behind me, in Nordic skiing style, and I pull myself forward as the path climbs. The rhythm of step-swing-breathe is as ingrained for me as the in- and out-breath is for most people. My whole body engaged, I can let my mind roam as my senses register the environment.
The green of the grass along the path is solid with pigment and sap. In the thick blanket of grass the flowers erupt. Orange Tiger Lilies, purple Penstemon, red Indian Paintbrush, Yellow Sunshine, purple Aster with yellow hearts, light-blue Polonium, red Columbine, white Yarrow, but most of all Valerian. 3 feet tall, the Valerian raises its pretty multi-flowered head, soft pink in its younger stage, like a rosy cheeked youth, with the tall white stamen sticking up like pins in a pincushion. Valerian sways, as if shaking its little head in delight, as if moving with the music of the wind. I walk and Valerian is my companion. I walk on the path and as if on a people-lined route. Valerian applauds my effort, cheers me on when the effect of the altitude slows my pace; when my breathing and not my muscles dictate my pace. Altitude seems to effect me more now than it did six years ago. I am aging, but I’m aging with vigor. The freshness of the pinkish white heads let me remember my youth when I didn’t appreciate what my body could do.
A wave of gratefulness for being here washes over me. I am alive and hiking in a place few people will see! The mountains, the trees and the flowers are my witness. While nodding its pretty head in the wind the Valerian plant is producing healing properties in the summer sun: a sleep-aid and relaxant. I don’t need her herbal tincture, I will sleep fine tonight after a day of walking in this meadow symphony.