Backstory: Outerspace

As early winter light spills over the North Cascades of Washington, dawn touches the heights of our little valleys. Eastward, my view stretches toward the silhouetted, ragged edges of an untrammeled landscape, snow draping everything. Gazing toward the near-solstice sun on this December morning, I bask in the knowledge that no roads interrupt the expanse to our east for almost 50 miles: nothing between us and the rising sun but true Cascadian wilderness.

As we travel into this untracked land, rhythmic motion becomes rest for the mind. The melodic creak of bindings and boots is a deafening roar that furrows the calm of this otherwise muted winter environment. With each screech of plastic on metal, day wears on and shadows shrink from deformed personages to more realistic depictions of their true nature. Under the imposing edifice of Mt. Baker, we continue. Our goal: to ride a line into Outerspace.


[Illustration] Pat Kinsella

Near the trailhead, every knoll, notch and glade has a name and many have two or three generational names, as each new group of explorers seeks to claim their own experience as unique. Magical Trees is also known as the Fortress of Solitude, but wouldn’t calling it the east face of its mapped name be simpler? Still, only sage riders know all the monikers Old Man Winter has given these woods.

Few groups venture past the easily lapped near-country because it takes hours, and the mindset of remaining close to cars is a harbinger of a deeper-rooted complacency. The drive to venture into the unfamiliar and to experience isolation is waning. People are losing their sense of adventure and, with it, the soul of wilderness fades. And once you travel as far as we have from the trailhead, things become referred to merely as Out There. It takes hours, miles and effort to navigate Out There.

But that is what I want. Where we travel today, there is less: less competition, less commotion, fewer people, fewer names, fewer tracks. We travel at a pace some would consider slow, but there is no hurry to cover the 20 miles that today’s roundtrip entails.

And there is something rejuvenating about seeing the sun rise and set while skiing in the alpine. To embrace the idea that, for today, at least no ray of light will go to waste. Today we devote our lives entirely to the journey, to adventure. Light, sound and distance all vanish as measures and perception of time becomes a futile skill. It may be noon, but the middle of our day is far off. And as long as there is battery to drain from a headlamp, the day is not done.

The line we plan to ski expands for hours before us. Its defined massif of crumbling ash and columnar basalt forms steep pitches of snow. The long draw of our skintrack fades to a faint line through the knolls and gnarled trees as we top out and gaze back. Its snaking and winding ribbon of faint shadow trails off toward the west and guides the way home. The track is the only blemish that mars this rolling snowscape.

As we summit the peak, a previously obscured vista unfolds. On the lower slopes of this Cascadian volcano, undulating glacial ice pours over and around a promontory. Farther away, a rocky ridge striped by ramps of steep snow appears. Along its back, an aesthetic double fall line breaks clean to the valley floor. It calls out as if to taunt my already sleep-deprived state.

Over hot tea and a bite to eat, conversation is scarce. Everyone has already decided. This afternoon we’ll ski home. Tomorrow, our journey will be even longer. Tomorrow, we’ll return to wilderness.

This story was first published in the November 2014 issue. To submit your reader essay, email subject “Backstory.”

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