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Mind the gap

For our third hike on this adventure Mom had picked out a trail called Mt. Pugh. “I’m not sure if the gh is supposed to be pronounced like in through as Mt Pyoo, or like in rough as Mt Puff, or like in spaghetti as Mt Pyug, or …” “Mt Poo, Mt Puff, or Mt Puke… no matter what it needs help from marketing team that named Dirty Harry Peak and the Devil’s Punchbowl. That name stinks!” I said. “How did you find this place?” “It had great pictures,” Mom shrugged. “I don’t know… I didn’t read the reviews.” If she had read the reviews, she would have seen the one that said, “Watch the videos on YouTube. If you’re good with that, then go for it.”

This was one of those trails that makes you do a worksheet before you enter the woods, and when Mom was finished writing down who we were and why we were hiking, she closed the lid on the wooden box and said, “Ugh, I hate that.” “What? It’s just for safety, Mom.” “No, I mean in the spot where you had to write the reason for your hike, one idiot wrote ‘Masochism.’” “What’s that?” I asked. “Is it a name for someone who kicks over Karens?” “It means when you do something because you are looking for pain and suffering. Sure, this trail is long and strenuous, but it’s not meaningless suffering. It’s beautiful and it’s a privilege to come out here.” “I agree with you, Mom. On trails like this I get to smell new things, and climb on all kinds of stuff, and drink from mud puddles. And when I’m done I get to nap in the car with my head in your lap for hours while you pat my head. Why would anyone call that suffering?” “Some people act like the only reason for strenuous exercise is to punish yourself; like anything that makes you sweat is suffering. It ignores and cheapens the feeling of accomplishment and pride you get from climbing a mountain and being with nature for half a day. And it makes all the people who never tried for that kind of accomplishment belittle your pride and effort by calling you crazy. If someone comes out of the woods or a race bragging about the pain, then they did it wrong.”

Before long we met two hikers who had been up Mt. Puke before. “Are you going all the way to the summit?” one of them asked. “That’s the plan,” Mom said. “Why? Is there some reason why I might not?” “Well, there’s just a gap…” said one of the men. “What’s a ‘gap?’” Mom asked. “It’s a store. They sell jeans, Mom,” I explained. “White people love it; I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it.” “It’s not so bad, it’s not very long at all…” the other man said. “Like is it something I jump over, or…” “Aw, take it slow and you’ll be fine,” the first Man said, not answering Mom’s question.

If you don’t already know, Mom is heart-stoppingly, dog-cringingly 

afraid of heights. So she spent the rest of the hike through the forest imagining all the horrible things a “gap” might be, and the ways that we would die when we got there. “Maybe we can just step across it without looking down…” she suggested hopefully. “Or maybe it’s not actually that high up and it won’t be scary at all.” The further we hiked, the more I could smell nervousness coming off of her. “Maybe it’s just a section of trail cut into a sheer rock face where we’ll be scared but we can squeeze against the wall for safety… Or maybe someone will have left safety ropes up there. Do you think there might be a railing?”

Just like the other trails on this trip so far, we had to hike through lots of woods to get to the interesting part.

The Muppet forests of Washington are beautiful in a soft and gentle kind of way like being hugged by someone you love while you take a nap. The trees are covered in furry moss, the rocks are covered in plushy moss, the dirt is spongey, and there is even something soft about the air. But when the trail slithers through these kinds of woods for mile after mile, it starts to feel like the scenery is on a loop since there is nothing to stop and look at. It took us four miles climbing up, up, up through the endless arrangements of trees and logs and rocks before we started to see the sun shining through to the trail and before we had something new to look at.

Finally, after an eternity in the dark forest brainstorming all the exotic ways we might die at the “gap,” we came out of the trees to find ourselves at the bottom of a wall of mountain that could have stood in for Castle Black on a colder day and without all the flowers. On the section of The Wall directly in front of us was an enormous blanket of wildflowers hundreds of feet high spilling down the side of Castle Black and bordered at the top and  sides with a spiny fringe of sheer rock. The trail climbed the flower wall, taking us past flowers that were every grey of the rainbow. Now that we were out of the trees, I saw piles of mountains in every direction, sticking their rock heads aggressively out from their forest bases, and white dirt decorating them in spots like jewelry. Mom wanted to stare at all of the wild mountains, but we had to look down and pick our way up the sandy, rocky trail carefully. It was very steep, and if we slipped we would fall hundreds of feet down, down, down through the wildflowers. Could someone call this wall a “gap” maybe?

When I poked my head over the top of the flower wall I discovered that the mountain dropped straight down 100 ft at the edge of the trail. At the bottom of the hole the mountain slid down  many hundred feet more in a giant slide of white dirt before flattening into something a dog could hike on. Even though it was a warm day and we were hot from climbing, a ghastly cold wind came out of the valley and froze Mom to the spot when she saw the cliff. When we looked away from the cliff in one direction, a gigantic block of rock dropped straight down all the way to the forest below, and reached straight up in an unbroken line to high above our heads. Even though Mom wasn’t touching the giant rock and was standing 20 feet away from it, she was still afraid she might fall off of it at any moment. In the other direction the trail continued up the mountain away from the Falling Wall, but it was steep and narrow, and covered in things that slip. From now on the mountain fell off into the sky on one or both sides of the trail at all times.

We slowly started climbing into the death zone, but Mom had become possessed by a screaming fiend. Every move she made was small and tight, and she held on to things and shuffled her shoes along the ground even in the places where she could have walked normally. I wasn’t possessed, so I didn’t need to walk like I was trying to balance on slippery river rock, but every time I moved in a way that Mom didn’t like she would make a noise. At first they were words I could understand, like, “NO!” or “OSCAR!” but soon she was just speaking in warbly and urgent tongues every time I made a quick movement or got more than a few feet from her. Suddenly we heard a noise above our heads, and saw a rock the size of a dog’s head fall down the mountain. It didn’t fall right into open air, but whacked into the mountain several times on its way down, and every time it did it knocked more rocks into the abyss with it. Mom froze in place and watched it fall, and when we couldn’t see it anymore she listened to it fall. It fell and fell for what seemed like an impossibly long time until we couldn’t tell if it had stopped falling or if we had just stopped hearing it. After that, Mom’s movements got even smaller and she hiked even slower.

After awhile we caught up to a man. “What do you know about this ‘gap?’” Mom asked him. “Gap? I don’t remember anything about a gap, but I haven’t been up here in years. There are spots that get pretty narrow, but… what do you mean by a gap?” “I don’t know. That’s what those guys up ahead said,” Mom explained. Then she asked, “Narrow like this?” She pointed to the open air on one side, and the one foot of rock that separated us from open air on the other side. “Narrower.” Mom gulped.

Soon we came to a place where the trail was the only thin line of land through the empty, hollow, groundless space on either side. The section was only a couple of Oscars long, so I ran across and started exploring what was beyond it*. “OSCAR!” Mom screamed. So I ran back across the land bridge to check on her. “OSCAR!” She screamed again, crouching down as if she were getting ready for a monster to come and tackle her. “Do you want one of my hiking poles?” the generous man asked. “No, if I get any more scared I’m going to want to crouch down and crawl on the ground. I need to feel solid rock with my own hands, and I don’t want anything in my way if I need to lie down on my stomach and close my eyes for awhile,” Mom explained, like it made sense to anyone but her. Mom walked upright across the bridge, but her steps where impossibly tiny and she stood as if the world was moving underneath her.

When we got to the other side the man said, “I think that was it. That was the gap.” “Oh thank god,” Mom said. “Because I don’t think I can get across anything else like that. I could handle it if it were just myself, but the dog running around, looking over the edge and jumping on things is really freaking me out.” Mom had never called me “the dog” before, as if she had never met me. That’s how I knew that the demon had taken over and Mom was completely lost inside.

Mom was walking so slow by now that I had plenty of time to run around and look over all the edges to see what was there. At one spot I couldn’t see what was up ahead at all, so I jumped up on a high rock and peeked over to see an even longer and narrower land bridge than the one we’d walked on before**. Mom screamed the loudest she’d screamed all day when she lost sight of me, and when I looked back, she had climbed off the trail and was curled up against the rock that hid the drop on that side. “I don’t think I can go any further,” Mom said. “Well let me go see what’s up there, and I’ll tell you if it’s scary or not,” the kind and patient man said. He and I switched places, and when he saw the narrow walkway through the sky he called back to Mom, “This is definitely the gap. But it’s not that bad. Check it out?” “I don’t want to see it,” Mom said. “I think I need to go back now. If I get any more scared than this, I’m going to get seriously stuck and block the trail for everyone else.” So we watched the man walk alone into the sky, and then Mom took a deep breath, announced “Aboooooooout face!” and we slowly started walking (me) and boot scooting (Mom) back down the mountain. The problem with walking back down was that there was no way for Mom to look away from the drops below us, but at least she knew that there would be no surprise gaps anymore.

Eventually we got back to the Flower Wall, and from there Mom’s movements gradually grew back to normal size, and the parts that were crumpled tight in fear slowly expanded to their usual shape. On the Flower Wall we stopped to talk to a man who knew the trail well, and he told us a story that made my blood run cold. Shortly beyond the “gap” was a place where humans needed to climb the rocks with all four paws like flies, and where no dogs could go. “I’ve seen people leave their dogs tied up so they could summit,” the man told us. “They left their dogs?!” Mom said and I thought in unison. “How could they?” I imagined the terror of watching Mom climb the mountain without me, not knowing if she would fall off when I wasn’t there to watch her. Being left tied to a tree on the edge of this rock spike in the sky forever sounded scarier than waiting outside any Starbucks, and I probably would have lost my marbles as badly as Mom if I had to do something so scary. “I don’t understand it. But what I’m saying is you probably wouldn’t have gotten him all the way up there anyway,” the man clarified. “So give yourself a break.”

As we hiked the endless four miles back through the Muppet forest, I thought about what might make someone hard-hearted and desperate enough to tie up their hiking buddy alone at the edge of a cliff so that they could go to the summit all by themselves. You would need to think that there was something more important than love and companionship to leave your life partner behind like that and go on to face death alone, and the lonely accomplishment would be hollow without somedog to share it with. What could possibly possess someone to do something like that? Then it came to me: Mask-o-nism! If Mom believed that our hike was all about suffering, of course she would have wandered into the dangerous sky on her own, because she would be motivated by pain, not love. And because misery wants to bring everyone down with it, she would only think it was fair that I be terrified on the mountainside, too. The more I thought about it, the happier I was that Mom wasn’t a mask-o-nist and was brave enough to chicken out before the hike was ruined.

Oscar the Pooch

*You can see this section of the trail in the first few seconds of the Youtube video. **This section is 30-60 seconds into the video.



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