As I strap my pack together beneath the unfurling gray Alaskan sky, sheets of wind billow across the marbled taiga into which Stampede Trail disappears. After lacing up a pair of new waterproof boots, I shoulder the load and hit the trail with five days of food and a four pound inflatable raft added to my normal collection of gear. I’ve got twenty miles to hike, two rivers to cross, and a lot of reflecting to do.
And why did I come here?
I hope that visiting this rusting hulk of metal, seeing this place for myself, might yield a shred or two of clarity. I want to understand why Chris McCandless came here, what he was feeling at the culmination of his journey, what he found in the heart of the Alaskan bush. I don’t even bother to hope for answers, but I crave the details; the elk prints and bird songs, the night skies and the way the streams taste and the other fragments of this place that can’t be gleaned from the book or the movie or the online discussion forums. I need to connect with Chris’ story on my own, outside of the Into the Wild painted by Jon Krakauer or Sean Penn. There are, of course, similarities (and differences) between myself and McCandless, and I find myself confronted by the issue that all seekers must reconcile: I must walk the path for myself, even though so many have come this way before me, yet perhaps, in some cases, I can learn from the mistakes that others have made instead of making them myself. I remain fascinated by the intensity of the passions aroused by the McCandless debate, the slew of messy questions that refuse to be reduced to simple and dismissible black and white answers. But also, I am here because I want to better understand my own reaction to the story. What within me has been touched so deeply, and why? So, I am heading out to visit the bus from Into the Wild.
My heart started beating faster when I saw the sign for STAMPEDE RD an hour and a half out of Fairbanks. I bounced through eight miles of potholes and then tucked my car into a prickly thicket of buckbrush just above Eight Mile Lake. When I step out of my car into the gray cold, buffeted by the wind, the excitement and tranquility that usually accompany a hike into a remote place are strangely absent. Instead, I feel a nagging anxiety. Is this because I know what took place here? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ll be calling out “HEYYYY BEAR” every thirty seconds as I walk. For one reason or another, I just feel on edge as I begin the hike.
The trail is actually more of a muddy creek, and I carry a walking stick to keep from slipping. Wind tears over the hills and sweeps strong and full across empty plains of ruffled burgundy flecked with scrawny evergreen. Early on, I pass a handful of hunters plowing through puddles on four wheelers. “Where you guys coming from?” I ask a pair of Australian hikers. They nod to me as we pass each other. “Probably the same place you’re going.”
The trail closes in on itself, and I walk through dry streambeds of smooth river rock cradled beneath archways of yellowing aspen and alder. Peeling black and white trunks press against a gray expanse of sky. I hear branches snapping and I freeze; something big goes stomping off into the bush.
In other places, the landscape opens. Waist high grasses sprout from the center of the trail, and their feathery tips brush against my arms as I pass through. In clearings, red and white lichens form a chalky, bloodstained blanket beneath spruce boughs. A long hill peaks and falls away to reveal a sweeping panorama of the mountain folds into which the trail buries itself.
The loneliness of the landscape deepens as I walk into the bush. Is my perception of this place excessively influenced by awareness of its history? Or am I simply seeing the terrain for what it really is? That the bush is utterly indifferent to our intentions is axiomatic to most Alaskans. “Every force of nature out there is trying to kill you,” one Fairbanks woman bluntly told me. Yes, as critics have been quick to point out, McCandless was never more than thirty miles from the highway. Stampede Trail isn’t far from a major town, nearby cabins marked on topographic maps are supposedly stocked with supplies, and the entrance to Denali National Park is just over a dozen miles over the hills to the south. Neither this knowledge nor the fresh ATV tracks braiding at my feet do much to offset the wild emptiness out here. I feel as insignificant as I do when I stand beside the sea.
Whenever the trees give way to the sweeping muskeg, the wind rips through. The trudge keeps me warm, but when I drop down onto my pack to rest, the bitter indifferent wind tears at me and forces me to keep moving. I’m constantly aware that McCandless once walked this terrain. I try to imagine what he was thinking and feeling as he rounded a particular bend, stood at each overlook. I feel I’m starting to get the details I asked for, the things that were impossible to glean just from the book or the movie. For one, I think I’m starting to understand the day of Chris’ journal entry “TERRIBLE WIND.” My scraps of paper almost blow away as I write this.
Muddy humps and pools push me from the trail, and I walk into the foliage, following worn passageways that circumvent the brown water. When I do step into a puddle, my foot sinks down and the mud smacks as I pull against the suction. I wince as I feel the skin on my left pinky toe separating from the flesh. My first mistake of the trip: not breaking in these new boots. A week earlier, I’d met a French traveler who was intently rereading his copy of Into the Wild. When I asked him what he liked about the story, he said to me, after a short pause, “He made mistakes. I have too.” Even plenty of Alaskans have allowed that it was perhaps sheer misfortune that McCandless’ mistakes happened to cost him his life, while many of their own close calls have ended up as nothing more than good stories. My blister will grow and burn each day as I trudge through the miles, a self-asserting reminder of how easy it is to make mistakes, how debilitating even the smallest ones can be.
I cross small crystalline creeks bubbling over colorful stones, the rainbow riverbed as clear as if I am viewing it through glass. There is nothing too difficult in the hike, but the trail just goes on and on and on. When I reach the Savage River, I plunge in shin deep and splash through the swift current. Only when I emerge on the other side does the cold register. When I rip off the boots, my feet are the same bright red color as the blister. I pour water out and tug the boots back on sockless; I’ve only got another couple miles until the second river crossing.
An hour later, the forest cracks open and the trail spills out onto the empty riverbank. Frigid wind howls through the grasses and the Teklanika roars along, carrying the melted glacier deeper into the mountains. Yellowing hills loom in every direction and the trail has left me, alone now on this huge rocky beach. Huddling beneath a cold sky the color of ashes, I am shaken by the desolation of this place. This is the river that effectively killed Chris McCandless, the rising summer temperatures multiplying the size of the melting glacial torrent and barring him from crossing back to society. Hikers have to be rescued from this area each season, and this is the place where Swiss hiker Claire Ackermann drowned while attempting to cross last year.
I stare into the gray river. The water is not that deep; no more than up to my waist, I imagine, but the current is ripping along over huge rocks, and I know that just downstream the river funnels into a narrow gorge. I have been advised to hike half a mile upstream to a place where the river braids out into shallower channels, but I can barely move twenty feet right now. My body aches. I drop my pack, collapse onto the rocks, and let the scene batter me until I am shivering. The rushing waters echo through the emptiness of this place. Across the river I see reeds and grasses, mud and stones, but I can’t find the trail. I am afraid to cross. But: I have the packraft. Because I knew I would be alone, I wanted to do whatever I could to make this river crossing less hazardous.
When I summon the energy to move, I inflate the raft and drag it to the bank. I stuff my pack into the front, snap the paddle together, and climb in. The bottom of the raft scrapes across rocks as I throw my weight back and forth, trying to wiggle myself into the river. The choppy waters froth and spin as they tumble over boulders. I dig the paddle into the mud behind me, push off, and launch myself into the current. I’m immediately tossed up and down as I rock through the waves. I paddle hard, thrusting my body into it, and then suddenly I have beached the nose of the raft into a mud bank. I’ve crossed the Tek.
I do my best to deflate the raft and roll it up, heavy with cold water and gritty with glacial silt. I shoulder my pack, hug the dripping raft to my chest, and stumble around until I finally find the trail again. When it curves into the forest, I stash the raft and paddle under a tree. The weight off helps, and I decide to push on as far as I can tonight. God that mighty river was lonely. I longed to follow it upstream to the glacier or downriver deeper into the mountains. Why didn’t Chris? Why did he stay on the trail? Why did he want to hike it out rather than getting lost or blazing his own path Into the Wild?
My energy dwindles rapidly, and the hiking quickly turns brutal. Now I begin to envision the things that always come to mind on long wilderness excursions: food, comforts, home, even if I’m not sure where that is. I can feel the grease of a cheeseburger running down my chin as I take the first bite. The warmth on my fingers wrapped around a ceramic mug of steaming coffee. I imagine walking into a grocery store and being surrounded by extreme excesses of food. My aching body, warmed beneath a hot shower. I think of the women who have loved me, I feel the touch of their fingertips on my skin. Curling up under clean, soft sheets. I try to push on to one of the preexisting campsites, but I eventually collapse into a clearing of white lace lichens. In the fading daylight, I toss up my tent, kindle a small fire, and cook a bowl of rice that I’m not even interested in. I just want a bed. I hang wet socks on a branch, crawl into my tent, and disappear into sleep.
* * *
I am unenthusiastic about the arrival of morning. With stiff shoulders, frozen fingers, and a bleeding toe sticky with sock lint, I hastily tear down camp and throw my pack together. I have three or four hours of hiking ahead of me, though sleep did little to ease the exhaustion in my body. But I just have to keep moving. I haven’t seen any tracks, and I didn’t hear any warning stories from the hunters I chatted with yesterday, so I begin to relax on my bear calling. I focus on the ground as I walk, watching the world move beneath my footsteps. Suddenly I look up, and not fifteen feet ahead of me, blocking the trail and hemmed in by thick brush, is a 900 pound moose. She’s about eight feet tall and staring directly at me.
Stories flash through my mind of people charged and trampled by moose. In the span of about a second, I recall the various pieces of advice for dealing with wild animals: you back away from a bear, you get big and yell at a bobcat, but what the hell are you supposed to do if you surprise a moose? I don’t think they’re normally aggressive, but I can’t tell if there’s a calf somewhere in the undergrowth. “Heyyyy, moose…” I mutter as I start backing away. Then she takes a step towards me.
I ditch my pack and crouch behind a tree a few feet into the bush. Then the moose ambles down the trail until she stands directly where I entered the undergrowth. I can see her eyeing me through the shifting foliage. Should I run? Do moose chase people? Should I stay put? Maybe they are like dinosaurs—they can’t see you if you don’t move? Should I move further into the bush? Yell and throw something at her? We are making eye contact now. Is that bad? We remain there like that for a good thirty seconds, the moose glaring at me, me cowering in the fetal position, and then suddenly she turns and trots off into the bush. I proceed to wet myself and then continue down the trail, now highly alert and calling “HEYYY ANIMALS” much louder and more judiciously.
I hike for hours through the Alaska autumn. The clouds thin out until sunlight spills through, and the trail winds ever on, bleak and beautiful, orange and cold. “HEYYYY BEAR.” And then I emerge into a clearing, and I’m suddenly faced with the twisting green and yellow hulk of Fairbanks Bus 142. I immediately burst into tears.
I drop my pack and stand still for a while, taking it all in. The bus rests in a patch of grasses and flowers above a small slope tangled with spruce and fiery aspens. On the other side of the clearing, the sound of water trickles through evergreens that grow from a steep cliff. Below, bathed in sunlight, the Sushana flows over gray stones. At the far edge of the clearing, Stampede Trail disappears further into the bush.
It’s all how it should be. “FAIRBANKS CITY TRANSIT SYSTEM,” reads a strip along the side of the bus below a thick black “142.” The folding chair rests beneath cracked windows. This is the place. This is the chair where Chris McCandless used to sit. I see the blue oil drum on which he set his camera to take the photograph that would become known around the world. I walk slowly to the bus and I run my hand along the cold, rusted metal. The headlights are twisted into a strange grimace. A smoke stack sprouts from the roof, its rain shield crooked and rusting. I sit down in the chair and lean my head back against the side of the bus, and tears come again. I have given up on trying to understand or explain them at this point.
The doors squeak. They are connected; when I push one in, the other swings outward. I take the steps slowly. Another folding chair rests in the driver’s seat position, and I sit. How many times did Chris sit here, looking through this windshield? Inside, everything is in order. A wire bed frame abuts another frame holding a mattress covered with blue and gray blankets. Tarps are draped across broken windows. Someone has left a small pile of wood next to the rusting oil drum stove. The walls are covered with graffiti, but there are very few generic “NAME WAS HERE” inscriptions; instead, I find quotes of inspiration, messages to Chris, words of appreciation. A sign with an Emerson quote hangs from a rope strung along the ceiling. Above the wire bed frame is the plaque installed by Walt and Billie. “Chris, beloved son and brother, lived and died here,” it begins. I slowly read the rest of the inscription. Though I have seen pictures of this message, I have just glanced over them, waiting for this moment to read the words in person.
Two shelf units are stocked with clothing, blankets, and supplies—a head lamp, first aid items, pens, gas for a camp stove, soap, pots and pans, cutlery, rope, water purification tablets, carabineers, a cigar. In a suitcase, I find several books and notebooks, including a copy of the newly released Back to the Wild. I open a Ziploc bag and flip open a notebook. “…..from Carine McCandless…..My brother’s story is a very powerful one, as evidenced by your journey to this place,” it begins. I close the pages and set the book down for later this evening.
Gray rolls in again, and I step outside to gather firewood. There are no blueberries; it’s too late in the season, but there are no mosquitoes here either. There isn’t much wood nearby. Puddles of broken glass collect around the bus. Around back, I find a barrel filled with empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts. I’ve heard about the extensive vandalism that has been wrought upon this place through the years, but apparently others have worked hard to preserve it all. Aside from the broken windows, everything is neat and orderly.
When it starts to drizzle, I head back inside and lie down on the bed. The gray cold seeps in through the empty spaces that used to be windows. As many others have expressed, I can see why Chris decided to stay here. This place is beautiful. “It’s an appealing setting, open and filled with light,” Krakauer wrote. “It’s easy to see why McCandless decided to make this his base camp.” Yet there must be more to it than this. There was no shortage of strikingly beautiful spots along Stampede Trail; why, after traveling so far to get away from civilization, did Chris set up camp inside an old bus? On the hike in, I found myself longing, fiercely, for the comforts of culture. I wonder if Chris felt that same longing on his way in; could this be what impelled him to stay at this abandoned relic of society rather than seek out a place unadulterated by the traces of human presence? Maybe his search for solitude wasn’t so callous and misanthropic after all; maybe a small part of him clung to society the whole time. Chris hurt people when he walked out of their lives, but maybe leaving was painful for Chris as well. Perhaps ‘happiness only real when shared’ was something that Chris knew the whole time, even if this knowledge existed only in a visceral way that couldn’t be rationally tapped until he was primed by three months alone in the wilderness and then exposed to the right literature at the right time. And then the rains return. Chris must have spent hours and hours with this beautiful sound. I lie on the bed listening to the soft pitter patter of rain on the tin roof, and tears come for a third time.
The rain comes and goes through the afternoon, and I continue flipping through the journals. It’s hard to tell whether this bus is a pilgrimage site or a shrine. It’s strange to see so many conflicting messages in the same place. Pages that contain musings on dreams and idealism face others filled with grief and memories.
The clouds thin just in time for sunset, and I find a poem copied into one of the journals. “If I went there a second time,” reads the smudged ink, “surely the sunset would seem no more than a daily scald of sky healed by nightfall…” I step outside and climb onto the roof of Bus 142 as the sun settles into the mountains, searing orange and crimson burns into the sky.
And as twilight begins to heal the heavens, I follow Stampede Trail just a bit further, down to the gravel bar at the confluence of the rivers. Deep green spruces border the edges of the wide clearing, an expanse of gravely islands strewn with tall yellow-orange shrubbery. This is where the blueberries would be. I fill my water bottles in one of the shallow gravely pools, and I collect some crumbling wood for the stove. Unlike the clearing above and the interior of the bus, I do not feel like I have some knowledge of this place from the book or the movie. But I bet Chris spent tons of time down here by the water.
I light a fire as the gray moon appears through darkened evergreens. Despite the broken windows, the bus warms up almost instantly. After cooking rice, I step outside for a moment. Sometimes I like to leave the fire just so that I can return to it. I stand out there in the deepening cold, under the gaze of the moon, and silvery smoke unfurls against the dark sky. The flickering firelight dances within Bus 142, and then I step back inside into the warmth and squeak the doors shut.
I brought two candles, and I light them and place them beside a large votive engraved with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I feed another log into the stove and I scoot closer, opening Carine’s journey again in the firelight. I’ve spent hours today reading literally hundreds of entries written by others who have made the journey to visit this place, people from all corners of the world (the journal contains at least a dozen different languages). Why have so many people come here? Why has this story captured so many hearts and imaginations so powerfully? As I read, I think I am slowly beginning to understand. So many of the entries, orange in the flickering light, express gratitude for the inspiration Chris’ story has provided. The courage to dream, the will to be free, the discipline to seek and question, the drive to push and test ourselves; quotes in the journals reference all of these things. It seems that hearing about Chris’ life has helped people tap into something essential but forgotten that exists within themselves.
Of course, we do not view the story from a detached and unbiased perspective; we do not take it for what it is. Instead, we take it for what it means to us, clinging to certain details that resonate with us and ignoring others. (Isn’t this how we respond to most everything that comes our way?) For those of us who have been inspired by Chris McCandless, our personal understanding of his story has little to do with causing pain to loved ones, “disrespecting” the wilderness, willful non-preparation—things that might be considered his faults. We ignore Chris’ faults and hypocrisies, just as Chris ignored the faults and hypocrisies of London and Tolstoy and the other figures who inspired him. Instead, our understanding of the story centers around the things it stirs within each of us, the ways in which we need to be inspired: grasping life, embracing our spirit of adventure, freedom, living in the most full, deep way we are humanely capable of—the things which we consider McCandless to embody.
We needed a modern seeker with whom to relate. We always need examples of people living life in a better way, or trying to, and we need to be able to personally identify with those examples. We have endless sources of inspiration (Thoreau, Tolstoy, and so forth), yet these great individuals lived in a different era. Their ideas remain poignantly relevant, yet the gap in time between our lives and theirs diminishes our ability to relate with them. Maybe we convince ourselves that it’s no longer possible to embody those ideals in this day and age. We needed someone to demonstrate that it is still possible, because sometimes we lack the courage to just go and do it ourselves. Of course, the millions of seekers have always been out there, but they are hard to identify in a world where billboards and commercials scream for your attention, consumption is the way, everything is LOUD LOUD LOUD NOISE, and the enlightened seekers among us are perhaps the ostracized vagrants we walk past on the street corners. Maybe we are drawn to the story of Chris McCandless because he fulfills our need for an example of someone who embodies the things we seek. That he made mistakes only deepens our ability to relate with him.
Ironically, though McCandless certainly did strive to live honestly, it’s doubtful that he considered himself the icon of freedom and idealism that we now see him as. It is difficult in the messy midst of one’s own journey to truly see the big picture of what one is doing. Each day was imperfect, so his accomplishments might only emerge in the larger context of his journey rather than in the visible, graspable substance of his day to day existence. So, perhaps it is Krakauer’s contextualized portrayal of McCandless that we identify with as much as the actual life of McCandless. Rather than presenting us with a haphazard agglomeration of moments as documented in the photographs and scattered journal entries that McCandless left behind, Krakauer delivered a narrative that communicated McCandless’ journey as a wholly developed concept. Krakauer put it all into words for us, articulating something that was not new but that instead fulfilled something we were already seeking. It was only naturally for us, then, to grab hold of the story and to imagine McCandless not as just another imperfect human on a spiritual journey but as an icon of this lifestyle. His flaws, though we (and Krakauer) readily acknowledge their existence, are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that McCandless had a dark side too, that we can criticize him and list his hypocrisies, point out that he was far from perfect at living this ideal life. The importance of the story to us lies not in the details of McCandless’ life and his human flaws, but in his relentless striving to embody the ideals we respect so deeply. Through Krakauer’s words, McCandless became the modern example we have been searching for.
And the other side? What is it that so deeply offends and angers people about Chris McCandless? As much as some of us idolize him, why are others of us just as quick to condemn him and his entire life and path? “He was a self-correcting mistake,” one furious Alaskan told me. “He was just a dumb fuck.” We are so keen to find a shortcut to understanding; it would be so simple to just write him off as stupid. But we know that in reality, Chris was highly intelligent (his grades at Emory are a simple enough demonstration of this). So we really can’t get a handle on the story by just dismissing it this way. So then we try to condemn him for his recklessness, but that falls short as well. “It probably misses the point…to castigate McCandless for being ill prepared,” as Krakauer wrote. “…he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake.” Of course, risk taking itself is not something that offends us. The more you risk, the more you stand to gain: this is a principle that we happily accept in relation to business, economics, gambling, and so forth, but not, apparently, when it comes to following our dreams. What disturbs us is the intensity of Chris’ devotion to what he sought. We can’t understand how his search could have been worth such a risk. But, if we acknowledge his intelligence and the highly intentional nature of his risk taking, then we have to accept that he was not just an idiot we can forget about—he was a highly devoted seeker who was looking for something of fundamental importance. And that unnerves us. Don’t we all have dreams stirring somewhere in our depths, untapped longings that are essential to our identity as human beings? Chris’ willingness to risk everything for these dreams exposes the hypocrisies that might gape in our own lives, the chasm between our dreams and our willingness to take them seriously. Considering Chris’ story forces us not only to question what forgotten dream within ourselves is important enough to risk everything for, but it also forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we have abandoned this thing. Maybe we try to dismiss Chris McCandless with simple labels like ‘reckless’ and ‘stupid’ because this is something we don’t want to face.
Yes, Chris probably needed to fine tune the balance in his life. We see his youth and stubbornness, we wonder how growing up might have softened his sharp corners a bit, whittled him into a wiser and more effective intensity. We see the hypocrisies in his life, and we are just as unwilling to forgive them as he was to forgive them in his father. Yes, we are offended and angry at him for the way he treated his family and friends.
But we are also angry at Chris for dying.
We berate him for his recklessness, saying that the risk taking is the thing that upsets us. But what really upsets us is the fact that he didn’t make it. Any respect we might have for Chris’ commitment to his ideals, any progress he made towards this goal, is, in our minds, undermined by his death. He came so close to making it, so close to blazing a new and uplifting path that might serve as an inspiration for us all. But anything enlightening and inspiring that might be educed from Chris’ story is lost on us, because: “but he died.” So we blame him for trying at all, because it’s easier to do that than to consider what it means to end up a casualty of following your dreams. We are angry at Chris for letting us down. We can’t help but see his death as the final judgment of his dream-following lifestyle. The final point we take away from the story, regardless of his inspiring his life was, is not: it is possible to follow your dreams and be free and take life into your own hands, but: he did it, but he died as a result.
And then, of course, we have his being at peace on his deathbed to consider. Perhaps our degree of willingness to appreciate the intensity of his devotion to his dreams determines whether we care more about his peace or more about his deathbed.
I toss a few logs onto the embers rippling in the oil drum stove. Outside, a slate-gray patch of cloudy moon is wedged apart by a flock of geese flying through the night, bound for a warmer and perhaps less lonely patch of earth upon which to pass the winter months. I shut the door of the blazing stove with a clang, blow out the candles, and tuck myself into bed.
* * *
Through cracked windowpanes, the gray autumn sunrise pulls me from sleep. Rain spatters down intermittently and the wind is terrible, the cold just as bitter and indifferent. I don’t want to leave the safety of this bus, I don’t want to leave this place, but stronger is the feeling that I don’t want to stay. I am suddenly afraid; I want out. Out of the bus, out of the bush, out of the Wild. I want to get out of the wild, and I imagine the nauseating fear, the pressing panic, of being trapped here. It feels dangerous to leave this clearing—the cold rain, the possibility of disturbing a bear or another moose, I have two rivers to cross and twenty miles to walk. I will not make it out today. Yet I have no choice but to begin.
I write a few words in the journal and then finally shoulder my pack, taking a long hard look at the bus, obliviously rusting away in its corner, before hitting the trail. I call out for bears every thirty seconds without fail for the whole hike. Why, on that first day when I craved solitude, was I incessantly interrupted by ATVs and hunters, but today, in the depths of this loneliness, there is nobody and nothing to remind me of humanity? After a grueling and rainy five hours, blisters oozing pus, I reach the Teklanika. It seems even more menacing today, in the rain and gray. I would have liked to wait out the storm and try to keep dry, but I’m soaked, my gear is soaked, and there is no shelter out here on the gravel and tall grasses anyway. I just need to get across this river. I recover the raft from its hiding spot beneath the spruce, and I quickly scout up and down the riverbank for the best spot to launch out from. The raft almost gets swept away in the current as I’m snapping the paddle together. I climb in, and with my pack between my knees, I plunge myself into the river. The gray rain sweeps down in sheets as I’m sucked into the choppy current, and I paddle hard across. I’m pointed directly at the opposite bank, and the river slams against the side of the raft, threatening to flip me. Digging a paddle hard down to one side, I straighten out and allow the current to take me slightly downriver as I complete the crossing. I keep paddling, diagonally across now, and then the front of the raft sinks into the muddy bank and I’ve made it. I climb out, immediately shoulder the pack, and drag the deflating raft up a muddy embankment into a thicket of spruce. There I drop everything and collapse under the trees, my back against bark, and I sink into the earth. When strength returns, I halfheartedly paw through my pack until I find my bowl and stove, and I brew a cup of strong hot coffee. The rains come and go, the sagging spruce boughs shelter me, and I drink the most glorious cup of coffee of my life.
After a long time, I lash the dilapidated raft to my pack with a shred of muddy rope. I continue on, determined to make it beyond the Savage so that I have no more river crossings for tomorrow. When I arrive at the bank an hour later, I immediately tear my feet from the boots and stick them into sandals. I’ll rest once I cross. The raft and paddles are slipping from the pack. I hastily retie the knot around the raft, abandon my staff, and use the half paddles as walking sticks. In the center of the river, my legs go numb and start to seize up. Rain beads down my face. Once across, I plunge on, seeking shelter where there is none. I slip in mud, sandals and feet covered in freezing brown slime now. I make it fifty yards further down the trail before collapsing beneath another thicket of trees. When the rain wanes into a drizzle, I get the tent up. I huddle under the dripping trees as showers return. Finally, when the storm momentarily breaks again, I plunge into the tent. I strip off wet clothing until I’m shivering in my boxers, breath pluming. From my pack, I rip out a dry bag that holds my sleeping bag, warm pants, socks, a shirt. I roll the bag out and tug on dry clothes, grimacing as I pull the sock over the blister. The muddy boots and the pack stay outside under the sagging vestibule. Half of the tent is filled with sopping wet clothes, but the other half is dry. I rub a towel over my hair and then, finally, I stretch out on my sleeping bag and heave a great sigh. My calves burn. The sunlight is all but gone, just a gray smear through the rain streaked window of the rain fly. I swallow a handful of granola and some cheese, tuck myself into my bag, and pass into a dreamless sleep.
It’s still raining in the morning, but I am beyond having the luxury to care. I will myself out of the warm bag, pull on cold and damp jeans and socks, and tear down camp. I have about four hours left to hike, but no more rivers. I just sludge through it, falling into a mindless rhythm as my paddles click against the ground, ignoring the pain and the cold; click, click, stomp, stomp, click, click, stomp, stomp, “Heyyyy bear!” Click, click, stomp, stomp…. I finally begin to pass hunters on their ATVs again. Four long, brutal hours later, I have completed the forty mile trudge. After slipping up and down a long, ugly minefield of mud slopes, I reach my car. Everything gets sloughed into the trunk, all the wet gear, the wet clothing. I peel off my boots and find a gaping red hole; my toe looks like a skinned animal. I curl into the front seat, huddling in front of the blasting hot air until feeling creeps back into my limbs. Is this journey complete now? Can I say, “I made it?” I kick the car into gear and creep through potholes, unwilling to exert the energy even to push down on the accelerator.
When I reach the highway eight miles later, I park the car and stare for a long time at the sign that says STAMPEDE RD, green against the gray heavens above the yellow aspens.