Cooper Lake sits in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Salmon La Sac, Washington. Not particularly high for the Pacific Northwest, seated at the base of the Alpine Lakes, offering views of snow capped Chikamin Peak and Lemah Mountain. The mountains around here feel endless, though this spot is not true wilderness, defined in one dictionary as simply a pathless area, a wild or uncultivated state, a bewildering situation. I am waking here alone this July morning for the first time since starting to camp here in ’92, when I was a rising poet, Kurt Cobain was still alive and Washington was only DC, wanting to touch base with what I know these mountains teach.
I have spent many slow hours here watching the forest wake, first beside a boyfriend who became my husband, then my husband and children, then with my children as we divorced and they grew, and now me, alone and a dog, a white shepherd like the one I traveled across country with, when it all still felt like adventure. There is a wide openness to my life now that is in some ways bewildering, how I came to be by myself under these trees, circling back through seasons and years, a girl and a book, dog, same camping shirt. Sun rises with a specific slow gravity, hitting the still-snowy range across the cold water first, then the tips of the Douglas Firs around our site, trees tall enough to be warmed by that sun while exhalations near earth stay visible. I know no other mornings like these.
This forest is vast, western, stretching 180 miles from the Canadian border to the Goat Rocks Wilderness. We leave early on a Saturday, make the 5:20 ferry off our island, cross the Salish Sea, grab dog, food, water. We park, we set up camp, the dog is happy. The tent I have brought is unfamiliar, cannot find my old LL Bean four-man, right now need to travel light for I am in love with someone who is not, and who would be the best company here of all the company I can think of. Have come today to outrun what desire I can, force freedom into my cells, get out of my head on this whole thing and the state of the world. Turned a half century last year, and the only certainty I have about lessons is that they repeat and return until learned.
Smaller backpack, the run to Pete Lake, the hikers we pass who ask how much further. We keep running, fording narrow creeks, waving insects away, establishing a rhythm. After the first flat green half mile, through cedar and fir, the glacial lake to the left, the landscape suns up. That is the only word I can think of for it, when you are one minute deep in forest and then moving higher, boulders bigger, the way you feel the heat on the back of your neck, the way the smells change and the borders of alpine blooms appear-lupine, paintbrush, fireweed . High ice clouds cast sun dogs. Path keeps rising, to the right, the first real climbing rock, the dog scrambling to top first. I sit to try and just feel it, the sun warmed rock, hands on moss, not think about the rest, shut it down to raise it up. There is a different kind of need to be fulfilled, oxygen, getting the body to the place in movement that is immediate and necessary, stripping us down. Already that which I could not let go of is leaving me, washed away by the wind in trees and my own breath.
By the time we make Pete Lake, the day has warmed, and we wade into the water, cold enough to take breath away but welcome. The dog stays on shore, watches me float on my back, staring up at clouds and sky, then warming on a fallen log. We eat our lunch, rinse one more time, run down the mountain the way we came, build our fire, stare at stars you cannot see from the city through tree boughs, watch the sky turn, rest our bodies. There is a freedom in waking there, every muscle cold against the ground, dog curled into herself and my legs. The sunlight touching the start of the day, the highest trees first. Turned fifty-one this year, how everything in life has changed and yet here I lie, curled up next to a dog in a tent because to be here, all trees and rock, cold water and slow light, is the one sure way out, every time.
It is this we have come for, the teaching the mountain always shares. Submerge in what is elemental, move your animal body, keep things fluid, take only what you need. The days and seasons will take care of the rest. What I have come to be relearn, complications fading when offered peak and river. Rushing water and fir scented air washing everything clear. Again and again.