Juniper Peak: Where is everyone?

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I stood at the edge of the Goat Rocks Wilderness looking at an upright mammal 100 feet away. It appeared to be a large, half-naked woman with her wrinkly butt facing me. Or was it? I squinted, and thought maybe it was an equestrian in those tight tan pants they wear.

She stood between my and the parking lot. I had hiked 20 miles in the previous 24 hours, and I was eager to reach the food and other comforts waiting at my car.

A couple steps later I was certain the woman wasn’t an english-style equestrian. I backed around a corner behind some dusty thimbleberries and waited for her to leave, or at least put pants on. A couple minutes later when I rounded the bend again, the pantsless lady was nowhere in sight.

It was the afternoon on the third day of a four day road trip in the South Cascades. I had another day to hike, but I didn’t know where to go. Back at the parking lot, I consulted road and trail maps while flipping through guidebooks and various lists and notes I had made in preparation for the trip. The formerly naked woman and her hiking partner rested on a picnic table across the lot.

I impulsively picked a trail and drove off toward Juniper Peak in the Dark Divide roadless area. Forest Road 2904, on the way to the parking lot, was narrow and full of earthen speed bumps. The speed bumps should have been my first clue.

While coasting through a switchback, my engine died. I twisted my key in the ignition and the engine turned over, but it wouldn’t idle. Seconds later the dash lights flashed on and the engine vibrated off.

My car sat under a tree, rarely driven, for several years before I bought it. It didn’t idle well for the first month I owned it, but the problem gradually faded away. Now, more than a year later, it seemed to be back. I considered turning around, but the car ran fine if I constantly gave it gas. And if it did really die, I could probably coast all the way back to the highway, I thought. I revved the engine the rest of the way to the trailhead in fading daylight.

In my haste to pick a trail, I had chosen one that’s open to motorcycles. Skid marks and ruts ran back and forth between the two trailheads on either side of Forest Road 2904. Discarded cans of Miller Lite and camp fire remains decorated the bushes at the edge of the parking lot. I cringed at the thought of motorcycles blazing by on the trail the next day. Two-stroke exhaust, dust and roaring engines are features I try to avoid in hiking trails.

I got a slow start on the trail in the morning. The days of continuous hiking were beginning to wear on me. Knobby tire tracks covered every moist spot on the loamy trail. But the forest was big and lush.

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Three miles later, I hadn’t seen or heard a motorcycle. I hadn’t even seen a single human. It was a sunny Saturday and cars packed the lots at more popular trailheads nearby.

At the top of the climb on Juniper Peak, I looked out over the Dark Divide Roadless Area toward icy volcanoes. I felt like I had somehow cheated – I had a pristine place to myself on a mid-summer weekend. I was the luckiest hiker in Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Legendary Northwest author Harvey Manning had this to say about the area: “The hiker with a bit of luck may meet wildlife – elk and mountain goats. Paradoxically, he may also find, thanks (no thanks) to motorcycles, solitude.”

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After reveling in solitude on the summit for half an hour, I heard the roar of a motorcycle. The sound slowly grew for 10 minutes, until two motorcycles emerged from the treeline far below on Juniper Ridge. I watched from above as the riders wheeled to a viewpoint. One rider yelled to the other through his full-face helmet, “Is this fucking cool or what?!”

It was fucking cool, I thought. Manning also said this in his description of Juniper Ridge: “Something there is in the spirit of a hiker that cannot abide machinery on the trail. When the wheels are let in, the feet fly out.” The riders headed south along the ridge and I went north down toward my car.

My car hummed to life, idling perfectly. But before I left, I flipped through my guidebooks to read about a couple other trails in motorcycle country.

 

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