Danger lurks around every corner in the wild. When you hike alone, the bear doesn’t have to choose, so nature takes its course smoothly. When you factor in other hikers, that proverbial can of worms becomes a bucket of electric eels…especially if they want to bring their psycho kid along. Which the bear will love, by the way.
I used to have this hiking buddy. His wife worked with behaviorally disordered children, which makes this tale all the more Damian in its scope. His daughter was a sociopath. No, seriously, I ticked off the list of psychological characteristics: Cold, calculating, lacking empathy–the little succubus had nearly every one of them, she just hadn’t gotten around to skewering family pets yet. The parents were unaware. To them, she was “willful” and “self-actualized” and how dare I squelch her Girl Power at such a young age?
To watch this ten-year-old work the adults around her was to see a budding Fox News reporter spread her little wings and fly. She would lock a chilling gaze on her victim and deliver a line meant to probe, wound, and dishevel, all at once, and she knew how to single out the introverts for their lack of sparring skills. People squirmed in her presence, other kids gave her a wide berth. People did that thing where they claimed to feel sorry for her but sat at the other end of the table, anyway.
Death came on swift wings to my hiking relationship with her father. After years of successfully dodging the dreaded Family Hike, I finally caved and joined him, Nurse Ratched, and Miss Damian. I skillfully avoided the demon all day until we sat down to lunch, then the little shit lit into me with inappropriate questions with all the ferocity of Robert Shapiro on Red Bull. Mommy and Daddy gazed at us silently and chewed, looking relieved to be out of the line of fire. Before long, I’d had enough. I set up a Berlin Wall of boundaries with the imp and was promptly abused for my efforts.
“You’re obviously just not comfortable around children.”
Oh, yes. Eighteen years of experience with YMCA from camper to counselor, youngest senior counselor ever hired at YMCA of the Rockies, Camp Chief Ouray, and favorite among kids there (my cosplay was legendary), first Program Director for the children’s Latchkey Program at my university, self-employed at 16 as a children’s birthday party coordinator, babysitter to dozens. Yep, children are icky.
The pivotal moment came when Rosemary’s Baby needed to pee. Bathroom breaks on the trail are self-explanatory pauses of silence and discretion among hikers. Not today. She walked a few feet off the trail, removed all her clothes from the waist down–yes, you read that right–squatted in full view of everyone, and then calmly got dressed again while disturbed hikers tried to pass us with their eyes nailed to the sky. If anyone glanced at her, she shot them a look that could solder lead and then complained to her mother how creepy people were. Mind you, this was a kid whose puberty fairy had visited her early. You may commence squirming in your seat…now.
My hiking buddy got divorced a few years later.
Demon spawn are not the only threat to life and limb on the trail, there are other dangers, emergency room dangers. Cougars, hailstorms, hillbillies, forgetting to bring your wine corkscrew–it’s imperative that you have a survival plan. Normally, I’m like a Boy Scout in a bra, stacked and always prepared, but one warm day I decided to travel light.
I’d been hearing much about the Lyle Cherry Orchard Trail on the weekend warrior grapevine. It’s remote, they said. There’s cherry trees, they said. Unpopulated AND fruit? Where are my car keys? But they neglected to mention the unique tortures this trail had in store.
The views were pretty tasty, I’ll give them that. After a relatively short stream of expletives up the initial switchbacks, I found places to pause and take in the Columbia River while a stiff wind had its way with me. The wind knows what I like.Whitecaps = comfortable hiking + bad hair day.And there was all the romance of Convict Road. The industrial magnate Sam Hill busted it out using prisoners in 1910 as a demonstration to convince Washington legislators to fund a highway all the way up the river to his bizarre estate in Maryhill. When Washington told him to go suck a thumb, he ousted their governor, wooed the entire Oregon legislature with trips and food, and quickly got the Beaver State to build the Historic Columbia River Highway on the other side of the river, instead. To this day, it’s the only thing I will begrudgingly admit I’m thankful to a Republican for because when you’re in a hurry to drive upstream, Oregon rules and Washington drools.
The remains of Hill’s original vision crumble a little more every year into the bottom of the gorge but if your personality test scores are Curiosity: 99, Acrophobia: 0, you can have a grand ol’ time trying to traverse it, anyway.See the railroad down there? That’s where your body parts will finally come to rest if you screw this up. Happy trails!
I relaxed when I saw the meadow open up around me at the top. Flat trail! Open space!
Bloody agony.Yellow Starthistle is described as a highly aggressive noxious weed. That means it takes over places and poisons livestock. What they leave out is how it lunges at human flesh like a maniacal seam ripper. In just a few steps, I was flinching. A few more, and the blood came. I felt like I was wading through a kiddie pool of scorpions five hundred yards long. The shit was everywhere, there was no circumventing it, and I wasn’t even half way to the cherry holy land.Remember how I said I packed light for this hike? Yeah, well, I was only in the sheerest of summer zip-off hiking pants, the type designed for maximum ventilation and minimal deterrence. They had all the impact of a bell in a bear country. Meanwhile, the bullet-proof Cordura nylon gaiters sitting at home in the closet were becoming more valuable than pepper spray at a Trump rally with each successive step.
(When I got home that night, I actually squeezed blood out of my pant legs. I bring gaiters with me everywhere, now. And Agent Orange in a squirt bottle.)
Wildlife distracted me from the electric pain of sweat dripping down my shredded shins. Fence lizard didn’t give one scaly damn.Large jumping spider wasn’t all that impressed, either.Cedar waxwing tried to be interested, but the wind was messing with his cool.The gently undulating hills of a white oak forest at the very top brought shade and a reprieve from Mother Nature’s Stairmaster. This route is described as “Challenging” by popular hiking websites. That’s Latin for “guilt-free junk food tonight.” I think it also means “beer” in Greek.Those sites said the cherry trees were at the edge of a large field….
Oh, thank god.End of the bloody, sweaty line.That’s a cherry tree, alright, now where’s my pie? Damned waxwings.I announced lunch to the wind and took a nap in the grass afterwards. Then I sat up, packed up, and absorbed the magnificent view one last time. But something wasn’t quite right. A soul-crushing dread was creeping in from the edges of my consciousness. I started to sweat again and my heart rate took off like a Weimaraner after a squirrel. Then, it hit me, a horror so traumatizing that I had to visualize
heroin and Girl Scout Cookies happy things to regain my equilibrium:I still had to walk through all those Yellow Starthistles again on the way back down.
July 12, 2012