Light streaming through my windows wakes me. Yesterday it was rain-heavy wind that spattered against the panes and disturbed my dreams. Today, it is sunshine. Rising and stretching to the ceiling, I feel the cobwebs of sleep disintegrate. The Olympics, which grey clouds have hidden for the last few days, look regal with their dusting of fresh white snow. The picturesque horizon motivates me to shower quickly, inhale over-easy eggs on toast, and transfer various leftovers from the fridge to my daypack. It has been weeks since I’ve been on a hike. The weather is alluring and I have the implacable urge to take advantage of it.
A quick call to Chris and Anna nets me some companions. I drive to their place on Swansonville Road and find them preparing foodstuffs and raingear. Over the past half-hour the sky has gone from beauty to mediocrity, but I’m hoping the high regions are still clear by the time we arrive at a trailhead.
Which trailhead though? The three of us discuss options while the two of them are packing. I am more inclined to venture upward, towards snow and views and altitude of sorts. Chris is more inclined to meander along a river edge—the Dosewallips or the Duckabush—in search of fungus and charming little clearings where the flowing water reminds everyone of urinating.
Since it is already afternoon by the time we leave Swansonville—Chris sometimes moves like a retiree, a characteristic for which I am constantly chiding him—I convince him, for convenience sake, to head towards the Big Quilcene. A short while later we are turning onto Penny Creek Road and climbing the leaf-strewn pavement into the National Forest.
This is where decision-making skills come in handy. I have absolutely no trouble deciding which route to take on an unstable, crevasse-filled, late-season glacier, but I can’t come close to deciding which well-maintained trail we should take for a dayhike. Mt. Townsend is the obvious option and I am not opposed to that. The flat-topped summit looked gorgeous from my window this morning and, “I think we might hike right up through this ugly layer and get some amazing views.”
But, like Chris reminds me, Mt. Townsend is where he and everyone else always goes. I can’t deny that fact, but I’m seeing few other options until a brown sign with white lettering enlightens us. “ <– Tunnel Creek: 8” says the sign.
Although Chris takes his sweet time to pack, once he is seated in the driver’s seat of a powerful automobile—Volvo stationwagon in this case—he travels at an alarming velocity. As a result, the three of us have only a few seconds to voice our collective decision.
“Should we check out Tunnel Creek?” I ask.
“Have you ever been there?” asks Anna.
“No. Have you guys?”
“Well, lets do it.”
“Ok!” says Chris, and swerves sharply left in accordance with the all-powerful brown sign.
The next thing I know, we’re hiking lazily along the banks of a majestic creek; there are strange and beautiful mushrooms popping from every mossy stump. Chris is so absorbed with some white shelf-like specimens, which he thinks are Oyster mushrooms, that I am forced to leave him ranting and drooling, crouched next to a massive nurse-log that is absolutely rife with fungus. I continue hiking, trying to find a rhythm in my steps and breaths, enjoying the dank aroma and wet inhalations.
Chris and Anna’s black Labrador, Luna, joins me on the trail. She runs speedily ahead until she is almost out of sight, then sprints back by me and repeats the process. Watching her expend her boundless energy in such a useless and joyous manner reminds me of how much I love to do the exact same thing. I tighten my hip-belt and enter a trance of movement, a rhythm of motion that doesn’t end until I reach a cedar-shake shelter where I stop to wait for Chris and Anna, and the tinkling from the creek reminds me that I have to take a pee.
“I’m 98% sure those are Oysters,” says Chris.
“Alright, well lets pick a bunch on the way back,” I say, shoveling forkfuls of mashed potatoes and salty pork into my gullet.
“Did you see those big white coral mushrooms too?” asks Anna.
“Yeah, there are some on that dead-snag,” I say, pointing towards a rotting tree that is decorated by three or four massive clusters of branched fungus. The clusters look like horrific tumors. “I’m pretty sure those are edible,” I say.
After eating lunch we spend some time to make our mark, like everyone before us, on the wood of the shelter. With Anna’s artistic guidance, Chris and I carve the words “FUNGI ’09” into a prominent shake on the shelter’s trailside wall. I imagine the deep grooves will last a winter or two and you might find them if you venture up that way.
It is getting late in the day, and since the winter sun is so shy in the afternoon, we decide to head back to the car. Harrison Lake, a mile and a thousand vertical feet above us, will have to wait.
Along the way we pick many unknown yet seemingly familiar types of fungus. When we arrive back at the car and check our field guide—we left it behind because we were worried it would get soaked and destroyed—we discover that we have indeed collected some scrumptious delicacies. Here I must refuse to elaborate on our findings out of some small hope, however latent, that I can conceal the knowledge of these secret savories, which we were so lucky to happen upon. I will say, though, that the outcome is not at all what you would expect.
Regardless of the menu for “supper at Swansonville,” the three of us feel happily blessed to have discovered an excellent new trail, especially considering it happened as a result of our indecisiveness. As Chris speeds over potholes and swerves around chipmunks, we placidly discuss our love of the fall.
The next morning, the sun is even brighter. Chris and Anna are working today so I’ll be hiking solo, but I doubt I’ll be the only person on the busy Mt. Townsend trail. I don’t mind though. I want to find the first snow of the season, to feel the cold alpine air on my lips, to taste the immaculate crispness of northwest Octobers and know that I must soon become accustomed to the shocking clarity of winter aromas. I’m in search of views as well. Having stayed in the river valley throughout the day yesterday, I’m craving the vastness of altitude. My backpack, which leans against the foot my bed, hasn’t even been unpacked.
An early start would be nice and I’m on schedule when I leave the house, but road construction on Highway 20 creates miles of parked cars. The wait is excruciating, especially when my stereo begins malfunctioning like it’s been randomly doing for the past few years; I’m stuck listening to mass-market gangsta rap. The music reminds me of high school. Combined with the traffic jam, it brings forth grotesque and angsty emotions. Suddenly, I feel appalled by the complete lack of consideration that these public servants have for the psychological well being of their fellow man. Are they trying to waste everyone’s time? Is it absolutely necessary to stop traffic along miles of roadway and to use a pilot car all for the sake of replacing a single guy-line on a single telephone pole? The inefficiency is amazing.
When the cars finally start moving I coast past the “construction zone” and notice that, like usual, exactly two-thirds of the workers are just standing around and watching the other one-third do the work. The entire situation—the music, the traffic, the roadwork, my infantile emotions—have put me in a rather disagreeable mood. The only thing, I imagine, that will ameliorate the situation is the sight of a snow-dusted peak being gilded in sunshine. Luckily, it is not long before I am treated to that exact sight. And the angst is immediately replaced by appreciation for the resplendent and therapeutic view.
There is only one other car at the trailhead. Everything is quiet as I start hiking speedily up the trail. I guess I’m in some sort of hurry because I’m hiking as fast as I can. Part of me wants to push my heart rate into workout mode. Part of me wants to get to the summit before the clouds arrive and obscure the view. Part of me wants to keep an eye open for more mushrooms. It’s hard to pinpoint an edible cap when your velocity makes the vegetation blur. Either because of that, or because of the higher elevation and more exposed hillsides (this is the likely reason since, in all honesty, I don’t really hike very fast), I don’t find any savories, but what I do find, when I reach 5000ft, is my first glimpse of snow.
Pine boughs slightly sag beneath a glittering sheen of backlit flakes. Mud puddles are frozen into skyscrapers of ice that crunch beneath my feet. Mossy slopes soak white into their green backgrounds like…well, there really is nothing else like it. And everything is so heavy and clear and cold and gorgeous. With every step uphill, the snow spreads; it thickens and engulfs all color and leaves only white and black, and the sky is blue.
Trudging through drifts up to my ankles, I follow bootprints to the saddle beneath the peak. There is young man there. He is somewhat portly but in a healthy way. He wears khaki trousers, snow boots, a blue parka and a red school backpack. We make comments about the weather, the lack of other people, the snow. “You can see all the way to the Straights,” he says.
Our pleasantries are fleeting however, because the silence and the terribly beautiful views seem more to both our likings. When I arrive at the summit there are two other men sitting on a rock eating their lunch. They say they have come from Bon-Jon Pass. The four of us share the rocky crest of the mountain for a while. The sun, when it is not obscured by mist, makes everything bright and warm, but when a heavy cloud blots out that warmth and the wind picks up by a knot or two, my hands begin to freeze.
It is cold up there and I forgot what that felt like. Now I am reminded of how the cold can be invigorating. I feel invigorated by the shivers that run the length of my spine. I feel invigorated by the 6-inches of snow at my feet. I wish there was more snow and that I had a pair of skis. I know that soon I will not be able to get here because there will be too much snow. Soon I will not be able to drive the road because the drifts will be too deep. Soon I will have to bundle up to even walk the streets of Port Townsend. Some people would anticipate this moment with dread and I have done the same thing myself over the past few months. Now, sitting on the summit of Mt. Townsend and feeling the sensations of winter, I am reassured that I will love the dark cold season. I am reassured that I will love the drizzles and gusts and grey mornings and early nights. For all of this, I’ve decided that I cannot wait.