Rising like a black wedge 5,600 feet into the star-packed sky, Alaska Mountain towers above the surrounding Alpine Lakes Wilderness in the North Cascades. An inky darkness washes out the valley below as my brother and I inch our way along the steep terrain, hauling ourselves through rain-soaked brush and slick boulder fields by the light of our headlamps.
As our legs grow weary and our path becomes increasingly treacherous, we start to wonder if this was all a mistake.
“This was stupid,” my brother says, shivering. “I’m gonna be pissed if I get hypothermia and die.”
With summer waning into September, we had started north from Snoqualmie Pass on a warm Saturday afternoon, hiking up Gold Creek Trail into the mist-topped mountains to disconnect for a few days. Free from cell service, email and the constant stream of status updates, we hope to unpack our minds and quiet the nagging chaos of the work week.
In my pack, I carry a dog-eared copy of Walden, the kind of dense and meditative read I rarely spare the concentration for anymore. In the book, philosopher Henry David Thoreau rails against the myriad distractions of modern life. Simplify, he says. While cliché, it fits the spirit of the trip.
“We need the tonic of wilderness,” Thoreau writes. “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features. … We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.”
Exhausted and unable to continue without risking injury, we rest amid a sprawling rockslide and drop our packs. A chilly wind sweeps through the valley. Rain and sweat have drenched our clothes while our water bottles have run dry. Each and every one of our bones ache.
We have had enough of nature.
So we roll out our sleeping bags between the staggered boulders and settle in for the night. No moon shines overhead. No glimmer carries from the lights of Seattle. We have disconnected, caught isolated and alone in the immense darkness of an open mountainside.
We lie all night with only our thoughts and our sore muscles. An occasional shooting star streaks the sky.
But as a pale blue glow edges over the ridgeline, we get our first glimpse of why we made this trip. In the morning’s light, we can see out across the crooked valley far below, shimmering green and wild and beautiful.
And despite our aches and blisters, we continue farther up the mountain in the following days, wandering the Pacific Crest Trail and nearby Kendall Peak. With every step forward, we put more elevation behind us, earning through our own determination the next, and still higher, vantage. From those high ridges, we can see for miles across untouched forest and craggy peaks.
In the wilderness, everything is earned. You get what you deserve. It’s simple and fair. You get to make shelter where you stop. You get to eat what you can carry. You get to gaze out from atop only what you have already climbed. No free rides. No cheating. No distractions.
Maybe that’s the clarity Thoreau found alongside Walden Pond as he worked his living from the land. When modern life seems to constantly demand more time, money and attention, maybe that’s what makes the wilderness such a rare and essential tonic — it’s an even trade between yourself and the world.
As we skirt around Kendall Peak on our final day, we spy the winding concrete of Interstate 90 in the distance. We long for hot showers and comfy beds, noting the return of cell service with relief. Even Thoreau enjoyed the occasional modern convenience, often taking his laundry to his nearby mother’s house for washing.
So my brother and I can cross Alaska Mountain off our list. We can come home with some new insight, a few amazing photos and plenty of blisters. We earned them.