Backpacking in the Cascades: The Power of a Group

North Cascades, Washington

By Christina Hickman

This trip was a first for me. Though I have car camped and backpacked with small, mixed-gender groups and my fiancé before, I had never just camped with a group of women. Last weekend, I joined 14 members of New England’s Alpine Women Collective (AWC) on their trip to the North Cascades of Washington to spend three days and nights hiking and camping. One of those 14 was a close friend, but for me, an introvert filled with thoughts of self-doubt and inadequacy and constant questioning of life choices, meeting so many brand new people at once is overwhelming.

I felt my heartbeat noticeably quicken as I arrived from Seattle to the first night’s campground. I thought maybe I could just climb back in and drive away before… Nope, I’d been spotted. Cait, co-founder of the AWC, approached me, and gave me a hug. “We are so happy you could come!” Soon, my friend Brittany appeared from the other campsite, and I felt a little more grounded. AWC’s other co-founder, Sarah, also found me, giving me hug too, expressing her excitement for the days to come. Britt and I quickly set up camp before a group huddle and dispersing to the cars to go on our first hike.

Before leaving, I was asked to introduce myself and so I did, awkwardly–to me at least.  And then I loaded into a truck with four new people.

There is something freeing when you realize that no one around you really knows you-knows the things you are thinking, knows your failures or neuroses or past. You suddenly have a chance to be a better version of yourself, a chance to let go and try again, to do something new, to be someone new, someone more like the person you’ve been trying to be. I thought maybe this was my time.

Photo by Kelsey Gayle

Being from Massachusetts myself, the ladies of AWC and I shared a sense of place. As much as I love my new friends in the PNW, there is something really comforting about saying the name of the place you grew up or referencing Dunkin’ Donuts, and being met with knowing affirmations (even if Dunkin’ still has the worst coffee).

On the drive up the long unpaved forest road to the trail, we intermittently sang along to 70s & 80s hits (note: there is never too much “Rich Girl” for one truck ride) while peering out the windows to take in the scenery, or lack thereof, due to the thick layer of smoke deposited over the state from wildfires to our north in Canada. It depressed me, to think of the rest of the AWC members who flew 3,000 miles to get a view of… well, a valley of nothing. But I was continually proved wrong. In the car and on the hike, everyone was in awe of all of things – the tallness of trees, the abundance of wildflowers and ferns and mushrooms, the tiny little stream crossings, even the rock avalanche shoot just off trail. To me, it was the typical forested slog of switchbacks that start most trails. To them, it was enchanting. I thought back to when I first moved here, and everything felt big and new and glorious. When had I lost that feeling? Could I get it back?

It depressed me, to think of the rest of the AWC members who flew 3,000 miles to get a view of… well, a valley of nothing… To me, it was the typical forested slog of switchbacks that start most trails. To them, it was enchanting. I thought back to when I first moved here, and everything felt big and new and glorious. When had I lost that feeling? Could I get it back?

Of course, the views at the top were socked in. I watched the faces, one by one, as they appeared at the top, in awe of the layers of trees surrounding us and recognizing the vastness of it all – and me realizing I was the only one who really cared about the view. How often do I overlook an experience or human connection because I am too busy focusing on the bigger things, the things out of my control?

We extend our hike and head down to a path to a lake we’d passed by earlier. I was toward the head of the line and therefore heard and saw the exclamations and expressions of pure joy upon most of these ladies seeing their first alpine lake. How could they not go in, they said. One by one, they dipped toes and then legs, and soon off came shirts and shorts and shoes and underwear. How empowering to witness a group of women being completely free, completely open, with each other and with the earth, without a hint of judgment or comparison, only encouraging words.. As someone who struggles with an eating disorder and body image issues, I sat at the shore and watched in awe–these carefree, exuberant, beautiful, strong women inspired me and reminded me how our bodies are merely vessels for everything else we possess.

Photo by Cait Bourgault

The ladies on this trip were of all different fitness and hiking levels and ages. Many girls had never hiked back-to-back days. One woman, who we all dubbed our Mountain Mama, is 56 and signed up for the trip knowing absolutely no one and made the six-hour drive to the airport solo. When she casually mentioned she’d only been on one hike prior to this trip (after she decided to come) and had never camped, we all nearly lost it. Here I was thinking I was testing myself and my boundaries. We all vowed to try to be as cool as her one day.  

Photo by Cait Bourgault
Photo by Northeast Mountaineering

The next morning, we loaded into our vehicles again, this time to our second day’s eight-mile hike. The smoke still hung thick in the air, shrouding the surrounding peaks. As I watched the ladies’ faces while they soaked in the panoramic scene and then as they ran to catch a glimpse of a black bear meandering across an alpine meadow before disappearing down trail, I would have never guessed the day was anything but blue skies for miles.

Back at our new campground inside the North Cascades National Park for days two and three, the girls put up tents while marveling at the old growth setting. The trees were indeed massive, something I love about Washington. So much has changed over the last hundreds of years, but they have remained steadfast through it all. The others clearly shared my feelings, soon finding the biggest one to be seen, encircling it with arms outstretched. It took six people to embrace that tree. We walked down to the icy creek, washing up and soaking our pained feet, and nourished our hungry bodies before settling in for some not-so-spooky stories and lots of belly laughs by the campfire, the sounds of our voices and the crackling flames and the flowing water the only things we could hear.

We built our hammock city amongst the loving arms of our old-growth mothers. The next morning, I rolled out of the tent and made my way over. As I gently swung, I felt surrounded but not trapped, alone in my thoughts but far from lonely. I journaled, I read, I peered up at the moss-covered limbs, feeling so lucky to be miles away from any cell service. I sat in quiet reverence of our majestic earth, who gives us so much that we gladly take. I am reminded to remember that our relationship should be one of reciprocity. I hope she hears me as I thank her.

I felt none of the things I usually feel in classes in the city; the judgment, the competition, being hyper-aware of my belly rolls as I bend over. My overactive mind was calmed, for the first time in awhile.

Our meditative morning continued with yoga beneath the canopy, as the morning sun snuck through the trees. I felt none of the things I usually feel in classes in the city; the judgment, the competition, being hyper-aware of my belly rolls as I bend over. My overactive mind was calmed, for the first time in awhile. No one cared about the little things I spend so long dissecting in my mind. That feeling of getting to start over again washed over me.

Photo by Cait Bourgault

Our group split in three to follow different schedules. I would not being seeing my friend Britt until we arrived back at camp much later; I’d be truly on my own with all of these new people. Today’s hike was one I’d wanted to do for years.

After a brief beginning through forest, the trail became exposed. We got a later start than I usually do and I can be a cranky midday hiker because I am not a fan of hiking in the heat of the day. I had to learn to go with the flow for most of the trip, another lesson for a person who prides herself on her ability to plan every plan-able thing possible. As others took it slow through a blossoming field of wildflowers, I steamed ahead in a futile search for shade. Soon, I was on my own. It felt good to be hiking solo again, but I missed my group. I’m sure I missed many things that day, as I climbed faster, barely pausing to look around at times. I know they hadn’t missed it. That leisurely pace, that way of hiking I had become so unfamiliar with, it allowed for those little moments, when you realize that sometimes, the quiet strength of a single wildflower can be more beautiful than the sweeping mountain vistas at the end of the trail.

That leisurely pace, that way of hiking I had become so unfamiliar with, it allowed for those little moments, when you realize that sometimes, the quiet strength of a single wildflower can be more beautiful than the sweeping mountain vistas at the end of the trail.

…I realized how much I’d come to enjoy sharing the moment when you peer over the edge and see that lake or those mountains or that lookout tower. I knew my experience would be heightened by seeing them experience it.

I waited for the group before the final push upward, partially because the trail was snow-covered (yes, still) and hard to find, but also because I realized how much I’d come to enjoy sharing the moment when you peer over the edge and see that lake or those mountains or that lookout tower. I knew my experience would be heightened by seeing them experience it. And I was right. After a rest and more scrambling, we headed back down. I didn’t rush this time. I was the last one off the trail that day.

Photo by Ally Schmaling

Back at camp, we feasted on pizza brought back from a small town 30 miles away where our Northeast Mountaineering guide found cell service to check the flight itineraries for the following day.  A bit over 48 hours prior, I’d met almost all of these people for the first time. I struggled to memorize their names and little tidbits of information about them and measured my words so as not to look foolish. And there I sat, encrusted in sweat and dirt, wearing the same clothes for three straight days, talking about all of the places that I didn’t realize a person could actually get a bug bite. In other words, not caring what they thought of me. In my everyday life, I spend more time than I’d like to admit aiming to please others and meet expectations. Somewhere, on some trail, or maybe in that icy creek, or over the edge of that summit, or perhaps up into the wildfire smoke, my hyper-awareness of all of my perceived shortcomings had… vanished. I didn’t feel complete relief, because I knew that those feelings would come back in the city bustle. But in that moment, I knew something else – that it was possible for me to vanquish these thoughts. And who knows? Maybe if I practiced enough, they stay away for longer, and longer, and longer.

Our alarms went off at 5:30am the next morning. It was time to say goodbye to hammock city and the trees, to the creek and sleeping under the summer sky, and to each other. They would all head to the airport, and me, back to Seattle.  

Photo by Ally Schmaling

Much can happen in three and a half days. You can hike 22 miles and drive countless more. You can wade into an icy creek and sit by a roaring fire. You can transform uncertainty into joy, apprehension into fearlessness, strangers into friends. What we all saw became a beautiful backdrop to building kinship and memories. It’s an experience, bittersweet in essence, that can never be replicated – fate worked to weave each element and person of this trip into something far greater than the sum of its parts. I carry that with me now. Thank you to Northeast Mountaineering for documenting and meticulously coordinating this trip, and to the Alpine Women Collective for welcoming, accepting, and inspiring me – and allowing me to become a little more of the me I am trying to be.

 

Unless otherwise specific, photos by Christina Hickman

Note: Christina attended this trip for free as a media representative from She Explores, but her words and opinions are unbiased and entirely her own.

Christina Hickman is a Seattle-living, PNW-exploring, Massachusetts-born freelance writer. She loves to find the tiny spaces where her passions of hiking, writing, speaking up for the environment, food & food access, and de-stigmatizing mental health issues/eating disorders intertwine. Follow her personal Instagram and check out her upcoming blog, insidemeetsoutside.com.