Back in September, I was making my way via bicycle through North Cascades National Park. I was not quite a week in and had just emerged from my very first backpack-by-bike experience: after getting backcoutry permits and the requisite bear canister from the ranger station in Marblemount, I’d ridden my bike to the Cascade Pass trailhead and spent three days backpacking there.
While I’d backpacked, I’d stashed my panniers and locked bicycle in the woods near the trailhead. I’d been nervous about it (would critters get into my panniers? Would my bike get pillaged? What would I do if I came out from my trip and my panniers or bike were gone?). But of course when I emerged from the woods, my bike was still there. My panniers were still intact, lovingly covered by the protective layer of stinging nettle I’d nestled them in (my theory being that stinging nettle would keep everyone away;)
It was great. Not only had I biked through and to an amazing place, but once I got there, I’d been able to put all the gear I needed into my lightweight backpack and spend three whole days backcountry. That is, I’d been able to fulfill my dream of both biking and backpacking on the same car-free trip, removing that either/or decision I’d always previously felt like I had to make. Either go by bike, or get into the backcountry? It turned out I could do both. I’d biked the roads I needed to take, then, off-road completely with my backpack, I’d seen incredibly few people, several black bears, glaciers, and miles and miles and miles and miles of uninterrupted, mountainous wilderness.
It was great. And there I was, now that I knew it was possible, triumphantly emerged and on my way back toward the Marblemount ranger station to get some more backcountry permits for some more backpacking. I was in no hurry, though, and camped outside of the National Park, thinking that I’d get up early the next morning to take a day trip up to Monogram Lake.
The trail to Monogram Lake is also the trail to Lookout Mountain — and, it turned out, the Lookout Mountain fire lookout. When the trail split into an eastward trek to the lake and a westward trek to the mountaintop and lookout, I decided in favor of mountaintop. Who knows where these sort of gut-level decisions in life come from, but once I was there at the choice point, it was the lookout I was after, not the lake: views, not swimming.
As I got closer to the top of the mountain, following a crazy trail that threatened to slide back down to the valley at any moment, the lookout came into view. And when I got to the lookout — what the heck? You can stay in it?
Let’s back up for a minute. I was intending a dayhike, so I had not brought my sleeping bag, extra clothes (other than my layers for morning warmth and potential waterproofness), or enough food. I had a water filter with me and about 3/4 of a liter left in my 2L waterbottle, but there were no water sources on top of the mountain. I did have my book and my journal; I always carry those. I didn’t really have stuff for an overnight stay. But, again, what the heck?! You can stay in this lookout??
I went back and forth about it. There were, after all, a few shitty sleeping bags in the lookout. It was an enclosed space, so I might not actually freeze, despite the fact that it was really fricken cold, even in mid-afternoon. If I didn’t eat more than a granola bar and an apple for the rest of the day, carefully rationed the water I had left, and hiked down early enough the next morning, I’d be able to rehydrate at a creek about halfway down the trail and then get back to my bike and the rest of my gear and food before I was too hungry. It seemed silly, but then again, why not? How often am I fortuitously at a lookout on top of the world that you can stay in that’s actually semi-furnished? With no one else already staying there? How many times in life do I have this chance?
I opted to stay. And of course it was the right decision. I don’t remember being hungry, or thirsty, or cold. I do remember the amazing sunset. I remember setting my alarm for 3:30 am and going outside wrapped in two of the lookout sleeping bags to lie out under the bazillion stars. I remember the sunrise, exploding pink over the mountains and then the entire world. I remember the quiet. The feeling of utter bliss, of sleeping on top of the world, the giddiness of hiking back down early-early-early with the birds coming to life around me.
For some reason, travel seems to bring out this ability to seize the moment. In real life, I might have been deterred by other obligations or schedules or what have you. I might have done the “responsible” thing and gone back down to my dinner and left-behind bicycle. In the North Cascades, I still felt the phantom pull of pragmatism (“is it safe to leave my bike down there? Is all my gear okay?…”), but it was easier to turn it off and remember how very fleeting and precious every moment of life is. It was easier to remember and act on the fact that every moment is a choice, and that I get to determine how to inhabit it.
This is what I love about travel: the loosening of obligation, the return to wonder and the reminder to take advantage. It’s something I try to continue in my normal life when I get home, sometimes more effectively than other times. But recently I’ve been thinking about that a lot. If you don’t seize the moment when you can, what glorious parts of life are you just letting pass you by?
Thanks to Lookout Mountain for reminding me.
(Psst: if you want more North Cascades bike+backpacking pictures, they’re here:)