A motorbike sped down the trail I had traversed the previous evening. It circled my tent and came to a stop. A man bent down, zipped open the tent and reached for my wallet and phone in the side mesh sleeve. Unsure of what to do, I grabbed his forearm and feverishly blew my whistle in his face.

And then, I opened my eyes to what seemed like a dream within a dream. Sweaty, yet cold, I was nestled in a shiny gray single-person tent with a muted yellow rain fly. The forest-green multipurpose whistle, my only safety tool, was by my side. Next to it was a headlamp at its lowest brightness illuminating a copy of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

I pulled the sleeping bag closer to my chest, trying to discern the fine line between reality and illusion. The dramatic dream was just like a handful of others I had seen in a week’s span involving thieves, thunderstorms or black bears. It felt as real as my breath, not just while I was in it, but for several moments after.

I could picture the world outside the tent dipped in inky darkness. Unlike my previous campsites by the Salmon and Zigzag rivers, I could not hear the Lower Twin Lake only a few feet away to my left, although it was much closer than the rivers had been. I could only rest in the implicit knowledge that it existed beside me, just like my mother, who had died a little over two years ago. The Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon’s Mt. Hood Wilderness was beyond the woods to my right.

The campsite was a primitive one, devoid of luxuries like a vault toilet and drinking water. It was nothing more than a clearing in the woods lined with fallen trees to create a sense of delineation. I wished I could delineate my own thoughts and reasons for being here just as neatly.

Was this trip a response to my therapist’s question of why I had never traveled alone in thirty two years? “You should try it sometime, it will help you loosen up a little,” she had said with a smile. Was it a brief respite from the screens that dominated my existence as a Software Engineer in the wake of side-effects from an eye surgery? Was it a test of my own limits while trying to reconcile the contradictions between my not-so-athletic body and my insatiable love for hiking? Was it an ode to my younger self who, growing up in India, had never imagined a world of solo travel for women?

There was barely any time to contemplate the implications of traveling alone before I started. In just two weeks, I had gathered the tent and almost everything in it – the sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and contents of my borrowed backpack – and like the pieces of a haphazardly assembled puzzle, everything somehow managed to fit together. But this didn’t leave me with much time to think about the people who would cross my path, except in a cursory way, as I cautioned myself to stay away from anyone likely to cause trouble.

I didn’t expect strangers to care about me or my trip. Yet, while trying to fall asleep again, I resorted to counting people instead of sheep. People who had crossed my path, both on and off the trail; the fleeting connections that had amplified and enriched my solitude. Their words and gestures slowly filled my mind and it wasn’t long before I turned on my side facing the lake and drifted away.

A warm welcome

Idling through the aisles of Portland Airport’s Travel Oregon Welcome Center filled with magazines and maps for every possible trip to the state, I met travel advisor Lorie Larson.

“Is it ok if I hike and camp near Mt. Hood?” I asked after brief introductions. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts of possible trail closures or air quality issues due to the latest forest fires at Columbia River Gorge. But since I had not mentioned the fires, it almost sounded like I was seeking permission to enjoy myself.

“Well, it is certainly ok with me,” she teased and broke into a good-natured laugh before confirming that the areas I was visiting were safe.

She turned somber as our conversation continued about the irresponsible human behavior that had played such a major role in the recent wildfires, yet remained hopeful of Mother Nature’s ability to bounce back. Based on recent inspections, the devastation was in a mosaic pattern indicating a better chance of recovery.

As we discussed my route, she recommended a stop at Timberline Lodge built during the Depression era and filled me in on its history. She asked her colleague at the computer to confirm the Mt. Hood Express stops on learning that I would use public transportation. I had a copy of the bus schedule in my backpack but could not bring myself to interrupt her swift concern.

Impressed with my idea and homework of the region, she handed me a couple of maps and smiled, “I don’t think you need any help, but let us know if there is anything else we can do.”

The next morning as I struggled with my backpack in the hotel room, overcome with the desire to extend my stay instead of attempting backpacking, Lorie’s words lingered in my mind. The water reservoir had leaked and soaked most of my bag midway through the packing, extra items purchased after arriving in Portland refused to fit in the pack, and I hunched and crawled after everything was squeezed inside. A swipe of the credit card is all it would take to extend my stay and end the misery.

But Lorie’s faith gently nudged me out the door. Given her knowledge and expertise, her admiration of my plans made me believe a little more in those plans myself.

Food for the soul

The morning backpack struggles meant there was an hour to kill at Gresham before catching the afternoon bus to Sandy. I headed for a hearty Peruvian lunch at El Inca to compensate for my dinner of instant noodles that night.

Walking into Claudia’s restaurant felt in many ways akin to walking into her home. Her broad smile drew me in, just as much as the rotisserie chicken in the large clay oven underscored by a broad white panel across the room.  Warm ochre walls with pictures of mountains in ornate frames were offset by a quirky tiled mirror arrangement across one of the walls. In it was the reflection of the short but wide window that offered a glimpse into the homey, spice-scented kitchen.

We began conversing in Spanish and within minutes my vocabulary was as dry as my throat. I abruptly switched to English, when Claudia exclaimed, “I thought you were from Peru,” signaling to my massive backpack resting on the opposite chair, “that’s where my husband is from, I’m originally from Guatemala.” I explained that I had recently started learning Spanish, sounding almost apologetic for my limited linguistic skills.

“But you’re doing very well,” she countered. “My English was this way too when I first started.”

She spoke of how she had moved to Oregon with her family nine years ago, after spending two decades in California. It took her a while to get used to her new home, “But the more I got to know Oregon, the more I liked it. We have everything here – the mountains, the coast, the desert, the cities.”

She listened intently as I told her about my plans for the week while sipping icy Chicha Morada. The arroz con mariscos or rice cooked in spicy sauce with seafood was so delectable that it seemed preposterous to throw away the leftovers. I clamped the small takeout package on my bulging backpack along with a complimentary Peruvian alfajores, the tender and sweet caramel sandwich cookie. These would be consumed at opportune moments later in the day. The rice would be used as a distraction when I couldn’t pick up my backpack from the roadside after a brief rest. The cookie would be the carrot for reaching the campsite before dark.

I was almost ready to leave the restaurant when a couple of regulars walked in with their friends and Claudia introduced me to the group. As I reached the door and the newcomers settled in, I could hear her voice beaming over my shoulder, “She’s come all the way from Chicago. She’s going to hike alone in the mountains.” And just like that, I found myself walking a little taller.

The kindred neighbor

“You are headed to my favorite place in the world,” the bus driver said, as she dropped me at the road that led to Old Salmon River Trail and my first campsite in Welches.

The information board at the trailhead spoke about scientists examining primeval forests, like the one I was about to enter, as a buffer against mounting climate change pressures. A few tiny and simple sentences under a photograph caught my eye “As you walk along the trail, engage all your senses. Touch a tree’s protective bark, smell the soil, listen to the river, immerse yourself and enjoy this rare environment.”

The green wonderland was home to trees older than 150 years with flowing mossy branches. It seemed like a respite from the cycle of life and death as dead trees, or nurse logs, continued to sustain life by providing a home to insects, amphibians, and small mammals and nursing young trees.  It was easier to think about my mother in such a place.

I spent that night in an almost packed campground amidst locals including at least a dozen National Park Service workers. In contrast, my second campground in Rhododendron looked eerie even in broad daylight. I kept looking over my shoulder for a disheveled man who had disembarked the bus with me and disappeared into the woods. My mind wandered to the small motel on the highway. There was no reason to fear the man yet I could not shake off the feeling of discomfort. I had lived through enough times when there had been good reason to be guarded around men.

The momentary silence between cars speeding past on Highway 26 was filled with a faint hum of the Zigzag River in the distance. I followed the muted sound passing several desolate day use sites and campsites until the trickle turned into a roar. A spacious and empty campsite stood before me, infused with the gentlest sign of human activity – a huckleberry bouquet neatly arranged in a beer bottle.

At a neighboring campsite, a figure in pink top and blue shorts was retrieving something from her cooler. That was my first glimpse of Katy, a kindred soul and a fellow lone woman in the woods. All thoughts of staying at the motel vanished instantly as I raced towards her and almost stop short of an embrace.

“I cannot imagine traveling without Luke,” she said speaking fondly of her Golden Retriever when I shared my earlier fears.

Her tent was pitched down the slope, closer to the river, in an attempt to drown out the highway noise.

“Just blow your whistle if there is any trouble,” she said. “Luke may be old but he’s a barker.”

She headed back inside to meditate while I made the campsite with the huckleberry bouquet my home for a couple of nights. The rushing river drowned all noise around it, whether it was the buzz of the highway nearby or the chatter in my head. It was easy to slip into a meditative spell by its side, as if the waters were preaching about letting go.

The days with Katy were an antithesis of the loud, constant conversation that is often used to stereotype female companionship. She and I meditated in our own spaces by the same river, not seeing each other often, yet finding solace in the others’ distant presence. Our short conversations ran deep and we exchanged old-fashioned notes when the other was not in sight.

It was Katy who gave me a rundown of nearby campsites and hikes which was integral in mapping the rest of my course. She told me about chalet rooms at Timberline Lodge that were only half the cost of regular rooms. She asked me to treat her cooler as my own. She shared her phone number so I could contact someone in case of trouble. And finally as I was leaving, she said that I was always welcome to come back and pitch my tent above hers if things didn’t work out ahead. While I didn’t need to take up the offer, it was a great comfort to know that I could.

Then there were Brad and Patty, my hiking companions for a day, who let me in on their conversations before graciously giving me a ride back to camp. Perched on the peak of Tom, Dick and Harry Mountain alternating between clear views of the Cascade Ranges and Mt. Hood, we ate grapes grown by Patty’s mother. They filled me in on the restaurants and attractions in Portland while her dog Paco played by our side. Our conversations continued on the hike downhill on religion, culture, politics and immigration – topics people shy away from in first meetings. On the trail, when another meeting may not be guaranteed, one learns to make the most of interesting company.

Like trail markers, these people among others, kept me going with their kindness and encouragement. Sometimes phone numbers and email addresses were exchanged, not with the delusion of always staying in touch, but rather as a token of the shared memory and possibility of reconnection. In the mountains, where expectations dissipate with every breath of fresh air, even fleeting moments of love and compassion are enough to fill one’s heart.

Solitude

My time around people was punctuated by periods of solitary hikes and time alone at camp. Camp meant small pleasures like a cup of hot tea or a bowl of upma – porridge of dry, roasted wheat middling with vegetables and seasonings. The mundane chores of setting up camp, making a meal and doing the dishes became less ordinary while listening to the river or peering at the lake. The exhaustion of the day’s hike inadvertently made every movement slow and deliberate. Camp meant being grateful for movement and even more grateful for stillness.

The hikes may have been solitary, yet were never lonely. Aged fir trees with mossy branches watched me like wise old men with flowing beards. Sunlight cast a spotlight on the forest floor, as if choosing the tree or fern of the hour for a performance on stage. Whenever I grew too tired to continue, something in the distance would catch my eye – a butterfly fluttering by the wildflowers, a Steller’s Jay with its outstretched royal blue wings switching trees, or a chipmunk chucking and flicking its tail. The flapping of the bird’s wings several feet ahead seemed closer than the sounds emanating from my own body – the swishing of hiking pants at my thighs and the clinking of hooks on my backpack. I would stop and turn around several times, almost expecting to see another hiker tailgating me.

The sense of an ending

The next morning I was up early as the sun started hitting the tips of conifers across the lake. As I went through my morning chores – digging a pit for defecating, packing the sleeping bag and tent, preparing a hot breakfast of tea and oats – I watched the warm orange sunlight gradually bathe the trees from tip to root before finally casting its glow over the lake.

Three birds circled the lake as if carving their own version of the Twin Lakes trail several feet above the ground. The stillness of the lake held a reflection of the coniferous landscape in its realms and a nearby tree reciprocated by reflecting the glittering sunlit waters in its branches. The fallen tree trunks along the lake were active with bees and insects buzzing through them.

A cup of tea in hand, taking a virtual dip in the lake, I remembered the previous night’s dream. I couldn’t help but smile at the juxtaposition of solitude and company that solo traveling had revealed. Meaningful company had led to deep reflections that I had only anticipated in solitude. And true solitude had exposed the invisible thread that unfailingly bound me to not just the wilderness, but the people who inhabited the world beyond.

[divider]Guest Contributor[/divider]

Farha Mukri is a Chicago-based freelance writer and Software Engineer who has contributed to The Philadelphia Inquirer and In the Know Traveler. She believes travel is as much about contemplation, as it is about adventure. So with every trip, she likes to explore a little bit more of the world and a great deal more of herself. She enjoys hiking as well as exploring small towns and interesting city neighborhoods.