Backpacking, writing and good brownies
September 6, 2008
Harriet Aiken and Debbie Lee cross the Lostine River en route to Swamp Lake. ( EMILY MOORE The Spokesman-Review)
The sun has set over the Wallowa Mountains by the time 11 women gather around a pan of frosted brownies to celebrate Odette Engan’s 45th birthday.
In the glow of tiny pink and blue striped candles, we sing “Happy Birthday” and pass the pan around the campfire.
And then we pass the fresh dates. And homemade cinnamon rolls. And pea pods. And a bottle of red wine.
When you backpack with women, the eating is good.
I made this discovery on a recent five-day, women-only backpacking trip in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Northeast Oregon. Two Pan Trailhead is about a five-hour drive from Moscow by way of Enterprise, Ore.
On Aug. 29, I find myself climbing into an 11-person van just outside the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute house in Moscow, Idaho, along with 10 other women. Collectively, we vary in age – from 25 to 61 – and occupation.
We have two artists, a kinesiologist, a stay-at-home mom, three writers, a children’s therapist, a former member of the U.S. Equestrian Team who now runs Greenbriar Farm, and the associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Washington State University.
Our organizer and leader is a young, pixyish woman with ample amounts of rented gear and a feverish enthusiasm for the outdoors.
Caroline Pechuzal, 25, is an AmeriCorps member working at Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute as an environmental educator.
Pechuzal explains, “I am serving an 11-month AmeriCorps term and one thing I have to do as part of my service is complete a Community Action Project. It’s a project that involves serving the community while addressing my personal or professional interests.”
An avid backpacker, Pechuzal knew she wanted to organize a trek, and she had two goals in mind: the adventure needed to involve more than hiking, and men would not be included this time around.
“I wanted to create an opportunity that empowered women to explore the wilderness independently by teaching them skills that aren’t traditionally taught to girls and women,” she says.
“My two older sisters taught me how to backpack, and I value the intimacy and flexibility that a group of women offers. Journaling and writing have been very therapeutic forms of expression for me, so I thought combining writing and backpacking would be a great way to create a meaningful wilderness experience.”
Enter Debbie Lee, 48, professor of English at Washington State University and our resident fire builder.
“I’ve been going into the backcountry of the western U.S. for five years now, and I’ve taken large and small groups – some of them have been groups of students and professors, others are groups of family and friends,” says Lee.
“When Caroline approached me with the idea of taking an all-women’s group, and the idea of writing on the trail, I jumped at the chance. I knew it would be hard to find time to write on a difficult backpack such as this, but I also knew that if the participants did set time aside to write each day, we would produce some amazing material. That proved to be true.”
Lee is joined by instructor Andrea Mason for the first night of the trip. Together the two compiled readings – some excerpts, some pieces in full – relating to the wilderness, and personal stories, such as Ursula LeGuinn’s “Coming Back to the Lady” from “In the Blast Zone,” Terry Tempest Williams’ “Whistling Swan” and “White Pelicans” from “Refuge,” and Joshua Dolezal’s “Selway by Headlamp,” from “Fourth Genre.”
The readings are grouped by theme. That theme is reflected in each day’s writing prompt, which often challenges the group to use the stories as models for exploring individual experiences.
We spend the first night at the trailhead, sharing stories and getting to know one another.
The women on this trip are survivors. Some have been through divorces, some have conquered health issues that might have debilitated others, and one recently lost an adult child. But they also are creators, and share a desire to absorb the wilderness and clear their minds.
For artist Ellen Vieth, it’s a chance “to explore memory and space in a wilderness environment with regard to kick-starting my thesis on similar topics for my MFA. … I just wanted to go – test my mettle, if you will.”
Others express the need to get outside of their own head, to heal from grief, and to challenge themselves physically.
Our soundtrack for the 19-mile round-trip adventure consists of intermittent meetings with horses, one of which sounds like an opera singer in the early morning stillness; a tin flute, played by Erin Jepsen, a 31-year-old mother of two and Celtic music enthusiast; the sound of our hiking boots softly crunching down the path; and the creak of our packs shifting from side to side.
By the second night we have ascended from 5,600 feet to somewhere just over 7,000 feet. As we crest the cirque and enter a meadow reminiscent of the New Zealand portrayed in “Lord of the Rings,” the temperature quickly drops into the 40s as the sun disappears behind the rim of the mountain.
We find ourselves around the campfire once again, eating black bean soup and sharing stories. The sound of each voice makes an impact on the silence. And we listen.
Sheila Reed, a 49-year-old child counselor, shares what it feels like not to be able to listen. Reed suffers from the side effects of drugs prescribed by a physician. That makes it painful for her to sit still and listen, something that is at the core of her profession.
She has discovered that physical movement is the only thing that helps her condition. She moves, sometimes from side to side, sometimes in the beautiful, fluid moves of a dancer. But she has never wanted to be the center of peoples’ stares.
On this trip, she teaches us to connect with our own mind/body rhythms. When we read aloud from our stories, her request that we slow our cadence not only allows her to understand our speech, it reminds us to slow down and take in the beauty of the mountain wildflowers, the sound of water running over rocks, our own breathing.
One of the readings from our packet of stories involves a woman’s encounter with a bull moose. The next morning, I awake to the sound of hooves galloping across grass and a gentle snorting. Terrified, I peek out of my tent only to come face-to-face with a chestnut-colored horse that came loose from its stake at a nearby campsite.
I am relieved, but reminded that when you share your bedroom with the wilderness, all bets are off and all encounters are unscripted.
It seems the deeper we go into the wilderness, the deeper we go into our personal stories and more insight we gain into both the storyteller and her listeners.
By the time we peak at 8,610 feet and drop down a steep set of switchbacks into the decidedly unswamplike Swamp Lake, we are intimately familiar with each others’ stories and personalities.
Sure, there’s a bit of whining – including jokes about the “Law of the Conservation of Misery,” which skeptically claims that when you put something into your pack, the weight of the pack grows disproportionately to the weight of the object, and when you take an object out, the weight of the pack remains the same.
However, more often than not, it’s notes of encouragement that are shouted from the trail. The vistas are incredible, the water in the lake a shimmering turquoise, the granite warm to the touch. It’s difficult to maintain a bad attitude in such surroundings.
On day two, a few of the women squint up the first set of intimidating switchbacks and say in uncertain tones, “I don’t think I can make it.” Just two days later, these same women are ascending from Swamp Lake, exhilarated by their own strength.
As we sit on some boulders at a trail junction waiting for the others to finish their ascent, Harriet Aiken, 61, a former endurance racer for the U.S. Equestrian Team, looks at me with honest blue eyes and says simply: “I love seeing people grow into this. On the first day people were saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ The expansion of their self-confidence is really fun to see.”
Our writing expands as well. Ellen Vieth captures the feeling of climbing in Alpine country in her poem, “Air”:
my breath at 8500 feet
born from clouds
I wear as a halo –
and stars so cold
so close, I laid them
bare, picked by hand
We spend our last night in the first meadow. As snow begins to fall, I reflect on the diverse women of this trip.
Odette Engan says, “I went on this trip as a gift to myself, and it was the best gift I’ve ever received or given. I love the fact that my senses are rich with images, memories, smells and sounds of this experience. It was grand on every level.”
The women taught me that life is not always circular; sometimes it is cirque-ular. There are stops and starts, celebrations and setbacks, and if you allow it, openings to endless possibilities.