I have done my fair share of backpacking over this past year and have learned A LOT since my very first overnight trip. Every experience has been an absolute blast, that I just can’t seem to get enough.
That is, until this past weekend at Ancient Lakes in Eastern Washington.
Now, Ancient Lakes is a very easy trail, which is what makes this whole situation even more ironic. There’s hardly any elevation gain (325 ft) and it’s less than 5 miles roundtrip. A group of us just wanted to go camp out, relax, swim, and enjoy the beautiful outdoors. This was not meant to be brutal by any means.
But man, did I have a rough time.
This picture here looks awesome (in my opinion) and it has nothing to do with ME, but it’s the lighting and the background and the curiousness of the photo that draws me in.
If that wasn’t me in this picture and I came across this shot, I would want to know exactly where this was taken at so I could go visit, I would try to imagine how spectacular that woman was feeling in that moment, I would assume life was made for her, and I would even maybe want to be her friend (and as her friend, remind her to apply sunscreen several times throughout the day). But since that IS me in this photo, I know the truth about that moment and the events that led up to there. Although we easily get the impression that all beautiful photos come from beautiful moments, I am here to debunk that.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I invited my co-worker to come along on his first ever backpacking trip. This was going to be easy, yet beautiful, and no doubt a fun adventure, but also nothing daunting. I asked him to meet me at my place at 5am in the morning, KNOWING he would be late. He text me at 4:57am and said “Morning! On my way over.” (We’re neighbors.) Dammit. I wasn’t even packed. I let him in and started rushing around my condo trying to get everything in order and pack. Thank goodness for my mental backpacking list, but seriously, this was pushing it even for me. We had a 3 hour drive ahead of us, and I was already running late. Plus I needed a coffee for the road. Plus I needed to get gas. Plus I needed to load the dog up and get her situated. *Breathe, Jen, breathe.*
Myself, Sean, and Ellie (the chocolate lab), all got into my car and we sped away, finally! They both were clearly excited.
I honestly had no idea if I packed everything I needed, but since this wasn’t a hard hike I wasn’t worried. I didn’t have time to make breakfast so I thought I could grab a breakfast sandwich and some coffee as I filled up my car. I got off the highway, got myself food and the blackest coffee I could order, and then got back on the road. It wasn’t until my gas light turned on miles later that I had completely forgotten the whole point of stopping the first time: to get gas.
We were already getting into the middle of nowhere, so I had to turn around and backtrack to find a gas station. Fine. It needed to be done. We stop for the second and last time and are officially on our way with no more stops. So I thought.
Google maps took us to the wrong place (go figure), but I should have taken it as a sign. The directions led us to the middle of a vineyard. No, seriously. I was driving my little, white Audi through fields of wine grapes with workers staring at us. This is where I should have dropped Sean off at the trail and taken Ellie and I to brunch. But as that dream flashed by, we finally found the trailhead where some other ladies were also waiting. The rest of the group was late and/or lost, so my anxiety started to slip away knowing “it wasn’t just me” having a difficult start to the day. Sean, Ellie, and I decide to take a nap while we waited for the others, which was much needed. Things were looking up! But after an hour, I started wondering where everyone else was. Turns out, we were at the wrong trailhead this entire time and the rest of the group had been waiting for us miles away. (I don’t even know how this happened. Don’t ask.)
Ok, whatever. Everything is fine. This isn’t a big deal.
I follow the other two women to where we think the correct trailhead is and we continue on a dirt road. (My Audi lives a life she doesn’t want to live. I mean dirt roads, really?) It’s pushing 95 degrees outside so I have the AC blasting and I really just want to get there. All of a sudden, I hear this warning sound and look at my dash and I am getting a red engine light saying I have no oil and I need to stop my car immediately. I pull over and turn my car off, thus stopping the AC, and head to my trunk where I always keep an extra quart of oil. This will be fixed in no time. I am searching and looking and pulling our massive packs out of the trunk and searching some more. Ah-ha! I find some oil! Oh wait. That one’s empty. I keep looking and looking and finally there is relief as I find another quart of oil.
You’ve got to be kidding me. That one’s empty, too. (Why am I hoarding empty oil cans?)
I have no oil. We are literally stranded on the side of this dirt road in this heat. Poor Ellie. The sun is no friend to her chocolate coat. I WILL fix this. Sean WILL have a great experience during his first time backpacking. This WILL be fun. This will. This will.
But will it?
I start waving down every single vehicle that passes asking if they “By chance have any oil?” They all say no and ironically all give me the same guilty look of “I’m glad I’m not you…”.
I get ahold of another hiker in my group and we come up with a plan. Her and another guy, Ryan, we’re going to find us and take me to the nearest gas station to get oil. Sean and Ellie stayed behind. In the heat.
I get oil and another gallon of water, as the campsite’s water is no good to drink, even with a filter. We get back to my car and I put oil in (the wrong type might I add, but it’s all they had in this town in the middle of nowhere), and we’re back in business! But Ellie is already looking too hot for not even doing anything.
But as I keep saying, it’s going to be fine.
We find the trailhead and get all ready to go, 3 hours late. The rest of our group already hiked out and set-up camp, so now it is our turn.
[Shout out to Ryan for hauling all of this gear.]
It’s blazing hot and there is no shade whatsoever. We are trekking along and Ellie starts panting harder than she should be. I immediately regret doing this. The panic starts to rise in me. We start dumping water on her and trying to force her to drink and she’s not having any of it. The ground is hot so she doesn’t want to stop, so we keep going.
I voiced over and over that I should probably turn back and head home, but we were closer to the campsite than my car. Ellie is literally convulsing and shaking and panting even harder than before, which I thought was impossible. She’s trying to lie down, then viciously dig at the ground to find cooler dirt, all to realize nothing will make her feel better. We have limited water but are using a good portion of it to try to keep her cool. IT’S NOT WORKING. *You know what Jennifer. Taking deep breaths is also not working. Try panicking and crying instead.*
So that’s what I did.
I cried under the protection of my sunglasses the rest of the way to the campsite, begging Ellie (a dog) to forgive me. Begging her to not die. Apologizing over and over again. Her muscles were twitching and I was basically having to drag her because she had no strength. I stopped to try and pick her up but my pack was way too heavy and I was carrying gallon jugs in my hands.
I was mortified and completely panic-stricken.
What seemed like an eternity, we finally make it to the campsite which is full of strangers. My introduction to them all? “Hi, this dog right here is not doing well so I will introduce myself to you all later after I get my tent set up.” Thankfully, some angels rushed over and started pouring ice and water all over Ellie as she flopped instantly to the group, and immediately took her to one of the lakes to jump in in hopes of cooling down.
I was so mad at myself. How could I let this sweet dog endure that? Was she even going to be ok? I grudgingly set-up my tent to get her some shade and wanted nothing more than to be back home, alone, having nothing to do with this wretched place. Dramatic, yes? But seeing a dog, who isn’t even yours, be tortured like that because of your idea of fun is awful.
It took hours for me to calm down, but I eventually did. But it was so hot and miserable that I just wanted this whole thing to be over. All you could do was rest and wait for the sun to go down. So I posted up next to my tent on this rock and ate ProBar gummies like so. That face is mid-chew, by the way, but I’ve had a rough day so leave it alone. Also, ignore the dirt on my face. Rough day, remember?
We also took cover in this little shade tent thing that saved our lives. We all agreed Ellie needed to be in there, “and so did I to watch over her”. I’m a terrible person. But do you see these freckles? They need shade, baby.
(Don’t let that smile deceive you, either.)
We all went swimming (including sweet Ellie) and that lifted our spirits as the water felt great, but soon enough we were back at camp just staring at the sun and wondering how it wasn’t moving in the sky.
We eventually all found a massive rock and sat behind it in the shade, just waiting for the Washington sun to set as late as it usually does.
We were all pretty beat up by dinner and all realizing how burnt we got, even though we had been applying sunscreen. Man, my skin that’s prone to skin cancer is going to eat this one up. It’s already blistering. (This isn’t about The Sexy Woman, ok? This is about The Whimsical Woman who sometimes effs up!!!)
As the sun lowered, we were able to explore a bit, but not too much because we all seemed to be dehydrated or something. Just look at my eyes. (No drugs were taken.)
We all got pretty over it and decided to head to bed. I had my rainfly on for shade purposes, but once I got Ellie in my (brand new) tent, I realized it was too hot to sleep. So, I got out and started removing my rainfly. I hear this noise and my tent starts moving, and out of nowhere pops Ellie, sniffing my leg. I am so tired and exhausted that it took me a couple seconds to realize what had even just happened.
I think, “No, it can’t be!! There’s no way this day can get worse!”
OH, BUT IT CAN, FOLKS.
I look down and see that Ellie finally got her revenge on me as she pummeled right through my brand-spanking-new tent, of which I haven’t even spent four full minutes in myself, creating a hole big enough for myself and all my anger to crawl through.
I wanted to scream and yell and cry, especially at Ellie, but she did that because she wanted to be next to me. (Is this what being a parent is sort of like? Feeling massive amounts of anger and resentment but also love and patience?)
I just stared at this gaping hole and literally felt numb. There were already so many mosquitos, ants, and spiders in my tent. How could I sleep like that!? Also, there are rattlesnakes everywhere. All I was imagining was one slithering into my tent and biting me, or even worse, Ellie. We also had heard coyotes, so staking Ellie outside and me crawling into someone else’s tent was not an option. All of this emotion made me want to laugh. But I’m an engineer. I solve problems for a living. This is no different. I figured the only option was to pack up right then and hike back to my car in the dark. I had a headlamp and it was cooler, although still hot, but Ellie would have been fine. But there were coyotes. And rattlesnakes. And probably a murderous man lingering in the bushes. All of those thoughts made me stay put.
I did my best to patch up the hole, but it was inevitable that I would be sharing a tent with more than just Ellie. The amount of bites on me is comical. I even woke up to a wasp in my tent.
We packed up early the next morning and we were already hiking by 6:45am, and it was still too hot to even make sense of it. But it was over.
That trip was my worst experience outdoors yet. I almost had several mental breakdowns and my anxiety was definitely simmering on the surface the entire time.
But I don’t regret going.
There was a moment when I was woken up by spiders literally crawling on my arms and face. It was around 3am and everyone was sleeping, including Ellie. I was slightly sweating as the night still provided no relief for the heat. My tent has a fully mesh ceiling, so I lied there, on my back, and stared up at the night sky. There was NO light pollution out there. There were no clouds. Just the darkest sky you have ever seen with the most brilliant, dazzling stars glimmering in abundance. I just stared, and stared, and smiled to myself, and wanted to honestly cry. It was beautiful. I was in awe. The world we live in gets so taken for granted. And it’s so easy to not even notice those most precious moments because we’ve made mistakes throughout the day mixed with some bad luck and our moods are shot. I am thankful those spiders were crawling on my face (and probably in my mouth and ears) just so I could experience that night sky. All to myself. It will be a memory locked in my mind forever.
This weekend made me more resilient. Made me respect the wilderness that much more. This weekend humbled me.
I am no backpacking expert. I am just a woman who has fallen madly, deeply in love with the adventure climbing mountains brings. But I am grateful I was able to learn a different side of nature, and even more grateful I was surrounded by people who were patient with me, loving to me, and did everything they could to help me.
Life gives, but sometimes life takes. That is for certain and we must learn how to bend with it.
Backpacking, like any other endeavor, is not always going to go the way you planned, and something you have always loved and enjoyed may one day turn into resentment and bitterness. But don’t let it stay like that.
Push through the challenges.
Become a critical thinker and do your best to find a solution.
Ask for help. We all need help at times.
Learn from others.
Don’t harden your heart because of one bad experience. (Or even two, three, four…)
Allow change to have room in your mind and soul.
Be positive, but also realistic.
And make sure to forgive yourself.
I’ll see you on the trails (with my patched up tent)!
With love and hopes of adventure,
Jennifer Mabus, The Whimsical Woman