Weekly Peakly Volume 11
Or: Reaching Out for Another Hand
This hike was weird. It was a series of weird things that culminated in one hell of an experience but not a lot of distance. It wasn’t so much a “hike” as it was two false starts and then a jittery panic that sent me back to my car, but it was an attempt that was worthy of being chronicled, and thus I shall.
So, I left with the intent of hiking a trail called Lava Canyon, which sounds about as bad ass as you can get. It was down by the Mt. St. Helen’s monuments, an area I had yet to venture to, and I was pretty pumped up about it when I rolled out of bed that morning. I’ve never been anywhere near volcanic anything, so I anticipated a great deal of curiosity and wonder as I encountered the remnants of a blast I’d heard the adults in my life speak about in hushed tones.
Unfortunately, it was closed. Doubly unfortunate, I drove about four and a half hours to the trailhead to find this out, as it wasn’t listed anywhere online that I could discern.
I found myself at the edges of a volcanic eruption site without much of a backup plan (I swear I’ll get the hang of “planning ahead” one of these days).
I turned into a small area just off the road towards Lava Canyon and wandered around trying to see what it had to offer. It was set up to be very kid friendly, I think, and there were two pathways. One to a boardwalk that looked like a guided tour area, and another that trailed off into the forest without any clear direction. I tried this area first, meandering around to see a few of the interesting sights, but I turned back after a short bit.
The trails here were not technically mapped for hiking, and they wove in circles around each other, creating a web of confusion. I do not have navigation skills strong enough to get through that kind of mess without getting hopelessly lost, so I headed back.
I detoured around the boarded path, which was a very short circle that was obviously intended to be an attraction for little kids (an assumption that was proved later when a bus full of them pulled up as I was leaving). The most interesting thing about this part was a tunnel called “the crawl”, which was a hollow lava tube that insinuated you could navigate it on your hands and knees. I peered over the top of the ladder, even daring to swing over the first few rungs, but that shit was unnerving, and I climbed back up without entering. I don’t think I would have fit, at any rate. These size 18 hips do not belong in toddler-sized tunnels.
After that, I glanced at my Fitbit, miffed to realize that I’d only traversed about a mile so far. I had driven four hours to get here, and the idea of giving up while I was still so full of energy was a disappointing prospect. So, I got back in my car with the intent of driving around and exploring the area, and I remained in my car for a good bit, driving around the mountain roads.
It was a gorgeous day. Full sunlight without the heat, glittering rays of gold falling through the leaves like bubbles, a reversal of champagne that had spilled through the air.
I don’t recall if I’ve talked about it before, but I quite like driving. Especially by myself. There are few places where you can be truly alone with your thoughts as you are on the road, strapped into a tin can as it hurdles across the roads at whatever speed you dare dictate. I suppose it’s similar to the way that I love hiking alone, though driving is a different beast. There’s not as much physicality to driving, and so I feel your mind wanders on different pathways. I do some of my better brainstorming while on the road, solving plot problems for my stories and thinking up character traits more often than not. I forget about half of my ideas by the time I’m out of the car, but the good ones stick, and those are the ones that matter.
Suffice it to say I enjoyed the drive, but eventually wanted to burn more energy, so I found myself pulling into the trailhead for Apes Caves.
I didn’t know anything about it when I arrived, having been unprepared to find alternate hikes, so there was an energy of mystery surrounding it as I got out of the car. Signs demanded that I clean off my shoes to help protect the local bat population from something ominously called “white nose syndrome”, to which I dutifully complied. I had a small hope that I might see some of the bats that I was saving by brushing off my shoes, but I don’t think it was the right season for them to be around.
The trail here was a short one before it turned to a stairwell that led into the “caves”. Apes Caves turned out to be a series of tunnels created by hollow lava tubes, and they almost immediately descended into a darkness that I find difficult to describe.
I approached with trepidation, digging in my pack until I realized – with no small amount of frustration – that somehow my flashlight had gotten taken out and I didn’t have it with me. I turned on the light for my phone, holding it up towards the leering edge of the cave, but it didn’t penetrate further than a few inches at best. I had enough sense to know that if I tried to navigate with that alone I would find myself laying in the dark with a broken leg in no time, and that was one of the least grim outcomes I could imagine.
I hopped back up the steps, shuffled back to my car, and went up the road to the nearest gas station where I purchased a flashlight. I headed back and rushed my way to the steps, turning on the electric torch and staring into the gaping maw of black before me with wide eyes.
In I went.
In my second hike of the year I was out after the sun had set, and I talked about a darkness that felt alive. Like you could feel the whole world around you but were robbed of the sight of it, and how exhilarating that felt. A darkness that held magic and delight in the hidden reaches of a world that shuffled around your passage.
This was not that darkness.
The rays of the sun disappeared behind me far sooner than I would have thought possible and I was swallowed by an impenetrable black that was frigid and seething. Echoes of my passage bounced off the glittering black obsidian in the walls and smacked into my ears, as though all sound was an afront to such a place. The only noise native to the tubes themselves was the steady drip of water falling through the crevices it had carved over the years since the eruption. Occasionally a drop would shake loose and slap into the top of my head, startling me like a jittering fawn. I would look up, trying to find the source, but never could.
There was absolutely no light beyond my flashlight, and the light coming from that was snuffed only a few feet ahead of me. When the illumination glanced against the walls it was like opening a curtain to see endless stars where they didn’t belong. Little points of glow flared to life as the light hit whatever reflective bits were entrenched in the stone, but what remained around it was as black as the stale air. It gave me a sense of weightless drifting that was directly at odds with my feet being planted on the ground, and it sent my thoughts whirring in a circle of unease as my poor brain tried to align the conflicting data. I was floating yet tethered. I was falling yet stumbling. None of it made sense.
It was wondrous. It was…terrifying.
Before this hike, I would not have said that I was afraid of the dark. I’d like to think of myself as a night owl, in fact. I enjoy the stars, I like the deep shadows that fill the world when the sun is gone, I love the way lights hit deeper corners of the room and make everything feel more intimate.
But that’s not darkness. Night is not the same as dark. Even in the woods all those weeks ago, that was only a surface level of darkness. This darkness was so much more impenetrable and crushing. It was cold and uncaring, and while it had a sense of being alive, it was not like a force that lived around us always but was unseen in the light. This darkness felt like a creature that lived just out of reach of your eyesight, staring down the back of your neck and waiting for a moment when you had no defenses left. It felt like a shaking box in the back corner of a strange room, chains rattling as it moved with something unspeakable locked inside. This darkness felt affronted by my presence, angry that one with such a thunderous heartbeat would dare tread into its territory. I felt as though I had disturbed something that was never meant to encounter my kind, and it wanted to see me pay for that crime.
This was not my domain, and I was not welcome.
I have reflected on this sensation much since that hike, turning it over like a puzzle whose picture made no sense. After all, what did I have to fear from a place where children clambered, shrieking with delight? Why would the darkness welcome them in groups but shun me? I think that a lot of that feeling came from within rather than the darkness itself. The problem with darkness that thick is that it becomes far more a mirror than any reflection could ever be. With nothing to occupy my eyes, with no warmth from the sky scattering across my skin, all that was left was to search for sensation within.
And within I found loneliness.
I know that is not a particularly optimistic view, but it’s an honest one. I’m not certain if that’s what I experienced because I have some thriving vein of loneliness within myself, or if it’s a more common trait of humanity. Perhaps each of us, when venturing into the salivating darkness underground, where the furious heat of our planet has retreated to leave only cold and broken stone, perhaps we all would feel alone. A natural emotion to have when faced with such a daunting place and having the full knowledge that if I stretched out my hand, if I reached into the black, there would be nothing there to find. No hand would be there to find my own.
I did not finish this hike. I felt the fear coil thick around my chest and I felt my breath stick in the back of my throat and I knew that I was so far beyond my comfort zone that I was more likely to hurt myself than prevail. I turned around and went back, out into the sun. I felt silly when I was back in the light, and I half turned to try again, but seeing that darkness sent another shiver down my spine, so I gave up.
I went home thinking that this was perhaps one hike I should not do alone. I didn’t have the same words to describe the feeling as I do now, not understanding what it was about the darkness that had so thoroughly driven me away, but even still I had the instinct that I needed someone to explore this place beside me. I needed to know that if I held out my hand there would be another hand to find it. I needed to know that another heart beat alongside my own, mooring me to the world of light. How else could I be sure I did not lose myself in such murky depths?
I would very much like to return to Apes Caves and explore it again. If and when I find someone willing to brave that blackness by my side, I will be happy to show them the brilliant terror of the dark underground. Even having turned back, scampering from the lack of light, I still feel like it was a worthy experience. I think it would be also be worthy to share it.
Hopefully one day, when I throw my hand into that deep black, I’ll find another hand waiting for me. Until that day, Apes Caves will remain a mystery unconquered to me.
Mistakes and R E G R E T S:
1. Forgetting my flashlight. The damn thing doesn’t do me much good if I forget to add it to my pack. I’ve since returned home to discover that I have no idea where it’s gotten to, which is doubly irritating since I handed off the one I purchased at the gas station to a group entering as I left that were wielding their phones like they would help. I am happy in the knowledge that my contribution to their day probably kept them from smashing their bones into the bottom of a dark pit, so I don’t have much to regret in that regard, but I still don’t know where my fucking flashlight is, and I’m piqued over that fact.
2. Trail closures. You know, I’m not actually sure how I would have avoided this mishap, but I sure wish I had known the trail was closed before I drove 4 fucking hours to get there. I couldn’t find anything online in my cursory search, but there’s got to be some way to confirm if a trail is open or not. Maybe a number to call that I overlooked. I will be looking into it for some of the more far flung hikes I take in the future, because making that kind of a day trip only to find a locked gate is a disappointment I don’t want to face more than once.
Hot Takes for Hikers:
Love Your Frailty
Part of me, and not a small part, wanted to feel ashamed that I left this hike early. I was able to shoo that notion away for the most part, because as I pondered the reasons that I fled, I realized that it was a bit of frailty about myself that I wouldn’t want to lose. It was not a lack of fitness or determination that sent me away, but an overabundance of emotions that made me feel very…human.
I think that often we look at the most human aspects of ourselves and wish they weren’t there. The parts full of fear or vulnerability. I think it’s because a lot of the time when those things come to surface, they are immediately followed by pain. It is when I have been my most vulnerable that I have received some of the deepest scars. It is when my fear has been most acute that I have been swallowed by the worst of my despair.
That’s not the whole of the story, though. You see, my vulnerability and fear have also been rewarded with astounding amounts of joy. These hikes are excellent illustrations of that. I have been shaken to my core, muscles screaming and breath barely escaping my chest, pain thrashing every nerve I have, but then I’ve crested over a hill and seen the whole world spread out before me. Would I have felt that joy so keenly if I had tempered my humanity? If I took a chisel to remove the parts that held fear and vulnerability, would I lose my enthusiasm and spirit with it?
What I’m saying is that I don’t feel ashamed of the fact that the darkness in that cave made me feel lonely. I don’t feel ashamed that I got scared. I don’t feel ashamed of anything I feel.
I am not always able to be honest with everyone about all my feelings, but that doesn’t make them wrong. I had a few people in my life spend a lot of time telling me that they were, that every thought in my head was incorrect. But…they are my truth. They are what shape and define me. My feelings are who I am. Sometimes they are positive and bright. Sometimes they are cold and dark. I appreciate that I can experience both. I appreciate that I have them all. Even if they feel like they rip me to shreds.
So, appreciate that humanity within yourself. Love your frailty, cherish it and know that as delicate as it feels, as much as you may believe yourself the moth with paper wings cascading into flame, no matter how many fires you pass through, you will always rise from the ashes.
Song of the Hike: Flaws by Bastille. For obvious reasons, I think.
Animals Seen: None, save the monsters created in my own head.
Mood: Fear of myself followed by an acceptance that extends to the edges of the horizon.
Trail Rank: Harrowing, full of secrets about myself I didn’t think I still needed to learn. Would recommend for anyone wanting to test their mettle, would also return with someone to serve as my light.