Since 2015, I've made it a goal to hike around Mount St. Helens each year as a bit of a tradition. I can't exactly tell you why I decided to do this, but for some reason that mountain has something about it that draws me in. Maybe I do it because it's pretty, but maybe I do it because it's a good challenge. This year, however, I did it for me and here's why.
If you follow my writings and videos, you'd know that I attempted to hike around the trail earlier this year, but had to bail out due to snow. Knowing that we have a baby coming in September and not knowing when I'd get up there, I decided to take a last minute trip up to the trail in mid July, but I'd do so alone...and in only two days.
I know, it doesn't sound that impressive, but there's a bit of a backstory to this that you need to know about. You see, this trail around the mountain kind of kicked my ass the first time I did it. And by "kind of" I really mean it beat the ever loving hell out of me to the point where I never wanted to touch another backpack ever again.
It was 2015 and I headed up with a coworker to do the trail in two days. I didn't take care of my body, pushed myself too hard, and felt horrible. My body hated me and by the end of the first day I could hardly eat dinner. I had no energy and had that feeling of self doubt that comes along with exhaustion. We had only covered something like 17 miles, but it might as well have been a thousand. The following day, my body was shutting down on me. Between cramps, knee pain, foot pain, and everything else, it was all I could to do keep moving down the trail. My partner was fine, but I was not. We arrived at the truck and for the next few days I felt like death.
The following year, I took a friend around the mountain, but added a day. I managed my body better and enjoyed myself much more, yet I still hurt a little coming into the trailhead. It was an improvement, but there was that haunting feeling from the previous year that continued to put doubts in my head.
In 2017 I didn't hike the Loowit Trail because I was on the Pacific Crest Trail getting my ass kicked in the desert of California. You'd think my mind would be far away from thinking about this little 30 or so mile trail up in Washington, but when Memorial Day weekend came around, my thoughts of that first experience in 2015 haunted me even though I was on the PCT. Weird right?
My trek up the PCT ended in September of 2017 and even though I knew I was capable of hiking for days, weeks, and months on end over some pretty incredible terrain and environments, when the Loowit Trail came up in 2018, I couldn't help but wonder if my body would fail me again. This trail had a hold on me that I couldn't get away from. It haunted me and tried to tell me I wasn't worthy of something. I know it sounds silly talking about this trail like it's a force, but I think it is to some extent.
Memorial Day weekend rolls around and we get snowed out on the trail, but part of me wouldn't let it go. I knew I had to hike it this year, but organizing everyone for a last minute three day trek seemed impossible and then it hit me. I felt like I was hiding from that experience in 2015 by inviting friends with me to go around the mountain in more days so I didn't ever have to face that feeling of despair ever again.
How in the world could this mountain cause me so much mental energy and self doubt. Then it hit me, I realized that even though I had hiked over two thousand miles on the PCT in 2017, I still had something to prove to myself on this mountain. It wasn't a pride thing, it was personal. In 2015 I was new to backpacking and didn't know how to manage my body on the trail. Since that time, I knew I had grown and learned the error of my ways, but how could I actually know if I had or not if I didn't attempt the same mileage, same route, and same trail?
I knew right then that I had to do this thing, and I had to do is solo, which again is yet another personal hurdle. I don't care who you are, being alone in the wilderness can be creepy and daunting and I recalled that going in the the PCT, one of my personal goals was to become more comfortable being alone in the mountains.
So there I was, sitting at home staring at the mountain from a distance. The same mountain whose image is hanging in a picture frame on my office wall and whose topographical lines are tattooed on the inside of my left arm. This pile of volcanic rock was calling my name and challenging me to some sort of mental and physical duel. If I went with a friend and it didn't go well, I'd possibly have an out and I wouldn't have to be alone up there. However, if I did go and retrace the two day route I took back in 2015 that kicked my ass, I'd have to face myself and find out if indeed I'd learned anything in all those miles of hiking over the past few years.
My wife encouraged me to go, so I did. I packed up my things and headed out on my day off for a one on one encounter with a silly trail up on Mount St. Helens; a trail that apparently had my mental number. I'd not only retrace my steps from 2015, but I'd do so solo to find out if my comfort level in the mountains was there to stay and not just a short term side effect of being on a long trail for 5 months the previous year.
As I drove up to the trail head, I had more than enough reasons not to go. A pregnant wife at home, dogs to care for, and it just so happened to be over 90 degrees for the next few days. I kept waiting for self doubt to creep in, but it didn't. It's like my body was back in hiker mode and it was just another trailhead on the PCT.
I arrived, tossed my pack on and was off. My intended camp site was the one we camped at in 2015 and to be honest, all I wanted for that day was to arrive near that camp site in somewhat good health. The day was long and hot, just as expected, and before I knew it, I was climbing out of the blast zone on the northern side of Helens mere miles from my destination.
When I arrived to my intended campsite, it was early. I filled up with water at a creek and wondered if I should push on further. My body felt fine so I did. I pushed on for another 6 or so miles.
The following morning, I was on the trail at 6 AM, at my truck at 11 AM, and home at 12:30 PM.
I had done it. Sure my body didn't feel like a million bucks after hiking in the heat over that kind of terrain, but I for sure didn't feel terrible. I felt good, like I had got a good workout in and when I arrived back at home, I had enough energy for the rest of the day.
That evening, I laid in bed thinking about what the last two days meant to me. I felt like I had indeed learned, grown, finally understood how to manage myself on a trail. I was proud of myself that night and not in a "look at me way," but rather in a "wow Emory, look at what you've been able to do!" Aside from me writing about this, it was an internal thought and I think that's what one of the great things about nature is. It can be whatever we need it to be. It can be relaxing or it can be challenging.
This isn't the worlds most epic story and I know that, but I wanted to share it with you for a reason. I considered my first trip around Helens to nearly be a failure both mentally and physically. I could have hung up backpacking forever, but I didn't. Instead, I put on my learning cap and did everything I could to educate myself on how to get better at backpacking.
We all have something out there that haunts us. Maybe it's a trail or maybe it's not. Whatever it is it's personal. Mine just happened to be this damn trail and I feel like my 2018 hike around that mountain was a turning point for me mentally. I had proven to myself that I had learned a thing or two and grown personally. My mind was at ease being alone in the wild and that's something that does not come easily.
If there's something you want to do that you physically or mentally don't think you can do or that once kicked your ass, don't run away. Run towards it and do everything you can to improve so you CAN do what you want to do. Whether that's climb a mountain, kayak an ocean, or hike a long trail. You CAN do it if you put in the time.
It's funny how backpacking and life can be so similar....
Make it personal.