Tell Us Something is a live-storytelling event featuring eight performers telling 10-minute stories (with zero notes), and it was my recent honor to participate in the December 2018 show with the theme, “Did That Just Happen?”
To secure my spot on the stage at the historic Wilma Theater in Missoula, Montana in front of a sold-out crowd of 900 people, I left a three-minute voicemail on the Tell Us Something pitch line and practiced like crazy. As the last of the eight performers to tell their story, I feel pretty good about the results, but you can decide for yourself:
Coming across the cowboy and his two horses, I knew I had to take their picture. Set against the upright backdrop of the Klickton Divide, on the boundary marker of the Yakima Indian Reservation, my hiking partners and I met the equestrian group as they were enjoying the view.
The cowboy didn’t mind his picture being taken, neither did the horses I suppose, and their photo would eventually land me second place in the Equestrian Category of the 2017 PCTA Photo Contest. Following the impromptu photo shoot, Snacks, King Arthur and myself, Hawkeye, alongside the cowboy and his two horses, made little small talk as we appreciated the mountain scene.
After four months of daily hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the route never failed to provide something new to appreciate. Little did we know at that moment though, standing next to our cowboy gate-greeter who had just come from the other way, this was just the beginning of the most beautiful stretch of trail on the entire PCT.
“Ya’ll have yourself a good time,” our cowboy companion tipped his Stetson our way.
We awoke early that same morning not to the usual programed alarm clock of the rising sun, but instead by the guttural mating call of a bull elk somewhere nearby. Not exactly a soothing start to the day, spirits were high nonetheless. The 20+ mile day previous had us navigating the glacier-blue base of Mount Adams, and despite the sounds of serenading before sun break, we woke up still riding yesterday’s high.
With the well-rehearsed motions and intentions to bag ten before ten (10 miles before 10:00 a.m.), we cruised through the old-growth pines and lush woodlands that define the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. Sometime during the near 20 miles of trekking prior to meeting the cowboy and his steeds, signified by a half-worn wooden sign on a tree, we crossed into the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Shortly after departing our horse-backed friend, the colors of autumn lined the trail. I trekked ahead of King Arthur and Snacks as the well-worn path traversed alongside the southwest slope of Gilbert Peak. Navigating across glacial waterfalls and a side slope that put extra weight on my inside trekking pole, the trail made an elongated S-curve up and around the divide, enabling a stunning mountain landscape to bloom .
I turned around to see Snacks and King Arthur less than a half-mile behind me. To their backs, the glacial-blue base of Mount Adams we navigated the day before now towered to the south, lending a view of just how far we had traveled in a day. Between Mount Adams dominating the background and the massive boulder garden in the forefront, the value of foot travel really seemed to shine.
Mount Adams wasn’t the only mountain vying for attention, and the distinct purple-hue of Mount Rainier was shining brighter as the trail moved forward. After crossing a year-round snow patch above tree line, I stopped and waited for King Arthur and Snacks as they navigated through the snow. I wanted to snap some pictures, and more importantly, I didn’t want to tackle the next section of trail alone.
The sun was beginning to set in the distance, casting a cool orange and purple across the sky. We were about to ascend a fabled part of the trail, the Old Snowy Alternative, which had us scrambling up and across a narrow ridgeline comprised solely of hubcap-sized boulders. The rocky outcropping seemed to shift with just the thought of a step, and massive drop-offs lined either side of the route.
A few jokes were cracked as a steam-vent for fear, and as we progressed up the steep incline, the sun smoldered deeper into the horizon. With careful foot placement and a few choice curse words with each unstable step, the three of us were able to catch our breath at the top and enjoy the last bit of the golden hour before it faded to dark.
The Old Snowy Alternative within the Goat Rocks Wilderness isn’t only known for its tough ascent and narrow ridgeline features, but sitting at over 7,000 feet and completely exposed, the route also carries a reputation for fast-moving and inclement weather conditions. Without the rain, fog or sleeting snow, however, as we discovered with a lucky enough ascent on a crystal-clear end to the day, the top provides one of those views that can shape who you are.
As the sun spread like melted butter over the mountain scene, it brought about both the end of the day and the end to my most beautiful stretch of trail on the PCT. As we pitched tents about a mile down the trail and off the ridgeline, struggling to puncture stakes into the frozen soil, I couldn’t help thinking about the 2,000 of the PCT miles behind me, and how they all added up to this moment here, smelling like a wild animal with a distinct satisfaction in my soul.
I was set to see the 2017 Solar Eclipse in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I was not looking forward to it. I had inadvertently planned a three-week reporting trip in South Dakota and Wyoming at the exact time totality would be crossing the nation. With an already logistically stacked schedule ahead of me, it seemed the stars were not lining up in my favor when it came to the solar eclipse.
Grand Teton National Park was predicting the busiest day of the park’s history, and all I could see ahead of me was camping jams, idling engines and unwelcomed shoulder rubbing. Plans were eventually written down on paper, park rangers were spoken to and I learned the correct way to pronounce Gros Ventre (“GraVant”).
Soon the Subaru was packed, I was on the road coming from Iowa, and South Dakota was already in the rearview.
Making our way from the Black Hills through Casper, auto-touring the Wind Canyon Scenic Byway as an impromptu sidetrack, my travel partner and I arrived at Hoback Junction later than expected.
Waiting for us at Hoback Junction, just 15 miles south of Jackson, were the two other party members of our group who had arrived earlier in the day. . Upon our arrival and their addition, a party of four was created.
With the sun quickly setting on the rendezvous, we made quick work to pack the Subaru with the extra belongings and begin searching for a campsite. In much haste and great surprise, within 10 minutes of driving, the first U.S. Forest Service (USFS) campsite we came across waved us into their overflow camping area.
With less than 36 hours before the eclipse, we pitched tents next to the car, noticing the chill in the air from the increased elevation, and tried to get some decent sleep before the big day ahead.
The plan for the next morning was to find a trailhead to ditch the car, hike into the Bridger Teton National Forest, and into the Gros Ventre Wilderness specifically, where overnight permits aren’t required. From there, the groupwould spend the night in the backcountry and enjoy the eclipse the following morning.
After a restless night’s sleep camped next to the Subaru, and rising slowly to thaw in the morning sun., at nearly nine o’clock and approaching 24 hours until the eclipse, the Subaru pulled onto a dusty canyon road and drove deeper into the Bridger Teton National Forest.
While the radio station was slowly lost to static, I knew, but perhaps no one else did, that this was the end of the plan on paper.
Pulling into a trailhead already marked with cars, and utilizing the all-wheel drive, the Subaru mounted a parking spot. Using the gravel road for a workspace, the group pulled gear from every direction and assessed the situation.
We had bear mace, bear vaults and one person had a bell. Everyone carried dinner and a breakfast, plus a conservative amount of snacks for two days. Water and water filters were added to the mix. Tents, sleeping bags and thermal undies were all packed up, and after spending too much time in the parking lot, everyone was ready to go.
Topographic maps of the area had been packed, but the signpost at the trailhead seemed to be relied on the most. A lake had been mentioned in the hours prior, as in “I want to swim in a lake”, and that really seemed to resonate as the faded photographic map was studied. A lake was spotted, Shoal Lake, and as best that could be done, a course was plotted.
Hiking straight up and into the Gros Ventre Wilderness was no easy task, and with each switchback that brought knees to chest, once good intentions really began to sweat. With more than one packs-off, snack break, plus a couple of inclines that felt worthy of handrails, after five miles of rediscovered muscles, our party of four made elevation.
With some luck of the mountain, more than one hiking party on the trail knew the off-route, backcountry beta to make it Shoal Lake. Statements like, “you see that peak over there, it’s just below that” guided us off the beaten path and through a boulder field the size of a crumbled residential suburb.
There was a point here, after crossing over dozens of boulders, stepping through streams, and always trekking at a slant against the mountain slope, where backpacks were slumped off and everyone laid sprawled out against the boulder-strewn landscape.
After testing out camp stoves and cooking meals, everyone began to pep back up and slowly but surely, the search for a lakeside campsite resumed. From the impromptu dinner spot, we descended the landscape hoping to see a massive glacial reservoir with every turn.
After two miles of downhill scrambling, no one was disappointed in the reflection shining off Lake Shoal, and the straight-shot trail leading directly to its shores.
Bolting down towards the shore, a group decision was made to veer off the established route once again. Seen on the other side of a formidable stream that cascaded into Shoal Lake, and separated by a dense collection of automobile-sized boulders, a large plateau could be seen jutting from the canyon wall.
From our vantage point, the plateau looked to be roughly smaller than the inside of a baseball diamond, covered in grass, and definitively overlooking the entire lake basin. Better yet, it was facing east, and it was unanimously understood it had to be the spot for the night and the next day’s big show.
Approaching 15 hours from the solar eclipse, the group crossed the formidable stream, climbed through the automobile-sized boulders and pitched tents atop our own personal, private backcountry camping spot overlooking Shoal Lake. Following a sunset to our backs blocked by canyon walls, sleep came easy that night under the full shine of a starry night sky.
The morning hours leading up the solar eclipse were spent drinking instant coffee, overlooking the great view and occasionally listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, in which someone had downloaded to their phone specifically for the occasion.
Before I even knew it was happening, after donning a pair of well-packed eclipse glasses, the moon had begun its orbit in front of the sun. If it wasn’t for the intensely dark glasses, I wouldn’t have known anything was happening above me.
After another round of “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, the eclipse glasses revealed the moon to be more than halfway across the sun. Everyone began finding comfortable seats on the ground, and I searched for a good rock to hold onto. The edge of the plateau was just out of spittin’ distance, but close enough to have eyes on the entire lake basin.
Wearing the eclipse glasses, watching as the moon made unperceivable progress against the sun, a collective murmur let out through the group. As the last sliver of the sun remained in sight against the darkened glasses, no one said a word.
Everything faded to black. The shimmer from the lake abruptly disappeared and the shadows of the trees blended back into the surroundings. I had not realized I would be able to see the totality with my naked eye, and when I looked up at the sun, I was immediately stunned by the sight above.
Dominating the sky with a pulsating ring of light, a perfect oval of black surged over the landscape, and with no more control than the leaves have over the wind, words like “oh my god” and “look at that” began falling out of my mouth.
The magnitude of the darkened sky exceeded my expectations. The moon appeared much larger in my eyes than ever before, with a crisper edge defining the negative space. Surrounding the celestial display, the glowing corona permanently seared the image in my mind forever.
Light returned to the valley. A last look through the eclipse glasses showed the orbit of the moon on its way out, and as quickly as it had left, the day had returned. Everyone looked around for assurance we had all just witnessed the same thing.
After some professional-grade lollygagging around the campsite, the group packed up camp and made quick work on the eight-mile trail back to the trailhead. Navigating once again through the boulder fields, and careening down the switchbacks we had just the day before struggled to get up, spirits were high and a pretty good start to a two-week endeavor was nearly complete.
Getting back to the trailhead, I was relieved to see with unsubstantiated relief that the Subaru received no damage from a sleuth of hungry bears. The party of four on the other hand had chaffed shoulders, tender knees and one burning blister on the inside of a big toe. Overall though, as I sat in the open hatchback of the Subaru with my pack on the ground, in the process of untying my hiking boots, I felt pretty lucky to have survived the 2017 Solar Eclipse.