I woke at about 4:00 in the morning to what I thought was wind moving through the nearby trees. Then I heard the sound again. It wasn’t wind.
I lifted my head out of the sleeping bag and held my breath, listening keenly. Off in the treeline, maybe 100 feet away, I heard a branch snap. Then another. I made sure my bear spray and knife were in arm’s reach.
In retrospect it’s amusing how ABSOLUTELY SURE I was that a bear had made off with my un-hung food bag during the night. I was mentally cataloging how many Clif bars were in my backpack to live on, and how I’d be able to boast that I had indeed been attacked by a bear (it was a supply-line attack! It counts!) But as the sun finally rose and I found my food bag undisturbed, I chuckled at my own skittishness. Hitting the trail in search of fresh water, I wondered whether it had even been a bear I’d heard. Then five minutes later…
There was bear scat a bit farther down the trail. Yep, so that was my official close encounter with a bear. I started singing or talking to myself as I rounded corners or walked into the wind.
Immediately after refilling my water at No Name Gulch (actual name), I lost my footing and plopped ankle-deep into the same. Swell. I marched another 30 minutes to squish as much water out as possible, then found a spot to dry out my feet. When I squeezed my socks out, the water was as brown as hot chocolate. Ick.
Breakfast was oatmeal, powdered milk, brown sugar, and freeze-dried blueberries—surprisingly yummy for where I was. Then I marched on, wet socks dangling from carabiners, eyes constantly sweeping the forest for a bear.
I crossed the Sun River for the last time at 11 AM and found a nice pre-made campsite. From here, I’d be following a tributary west and making the Big Push, elevating from 5400 feet to 7600 feet in only a couple of miles. I had a mish-mash of a lunch (pistachios, bacon, a sesame seed bar), then a shot of Clif Gel for energy, and then I was headed uphill, singing to myself like Clark Griswold: “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beer…”
I had to stop at 94. I needed the breath.
About halfway up the big rise, I rounded a corner, and there she was.
Only now did it occur to me that, not only is the Chinese Wall incredibly remote, it doesn’t even have a good viewpoint. If there were a convenient highway turnoff, it’d be as well-known as anything you see in Glacier; but I’d had to walk this far, within a couple miles of it, even to SEE the thing.
I should’ve refilled on water around this time, but didn’t. Tactical mistake. My Nalgenes got scarily low, almost to empty, before I finally heard a babbling sound to my right and excitedly hopped over to refill. While I sat there a pair of hikers walked downhill past me, the only TWO people I’d see that entire day. (I’m almost sure they didn’t see me at all; it made me wonder how many people, bears, or marmots I’d narrowly missed seeing.)
After a number of switchbacks, walking particularly slowly, I finally made the saddle at 2:15, two hours after I’d left the previous stop. I got my first full view of the Wall, stretching away to the north, already in shadow.
Then it was down the other side of the saddle, another series of switchbacks, knowing wearily I’d have to retrace each and every step back up on my return trip. For the first time, I realized, I’d truly underestimated the difficulty of a portion of the hike; topographic map or not, I’d definitely thought to myself, When I reach the Wall I’m done. I wasn’t.
I went over yet another saddle a mile along the Wall, surprisingly steep, and felt the strength quickly sapping from me. On the far side, after MORE switchbacks, I found another little creek and suddenly had the sweeping epiphany that I was done. Here in the shadow of the Wall was as far as I was going to get on the trip. I literally said out loud, “I give up.”
30 feet away, around the next tree, there was a perfect campsite and fire-ring already set up for me. Even the Bob agreed this was where to stop.
It was only 4:30 in the afternoon, but a weird kind of false night, since I was deep in the shadow of the Wall as I set up my tent. Strangely enough, my biggest pain was the pulled muscle in my right ribcage; I’d taken to letting my right arm dangle as I walked, rather than using the pole with it.
As I gathered firewood, I found more tracks, either moose or elk, next to the creek. Mosquitos buzzed in my ear (a different annoying insect every campsite, I swear). As I unzipped my sleeping bag, I yelped in surprise to find a caterpillar inside; I welcomed it to its new home and wished it luck as I tossed it into the bushes.
I was in my bag, reading Hardy Boys, way before any realistic bedtime. It occurred to me that the icky, smelly, need-a-shower feeling was the New Normal for me; Hey, I thought, we come out of the womb icky, smelly, and needing a shower.
I still really really needed one, though.