Catching My Breath On Mount Si
I could feel the sweat beading at my temples, threatening to drip into my eye and deliver the dreaded “sunblock burn.” But before I had a chance to wipe the sweat away, it slid down into the groove beneath my jaw line, then traversed my collarbone before disappearing into the depths of my sports bra. My calves were already throbbing after just two miles of continual upward momentum. This is not what I signed up for, I thought. I’d wanted to do an easy hike, I told my best friend, David, as we sipped beer on his porch a few nights before. “Nothing too demanding.”
But two miles into an eight-mile trek in western Washington’s Cascade Range, I realized what I was really in for. Mount Si, they lied about you. But I’m coming up. This is my day.
And it was my day. That cloudy Saturday morning marked my first hike of the season. More importantly, it was my first hike as a free woman after spending the last six years in the U.S. Army.
Needless to say, I didn’t expect this hike to be so grueling, especially since the Mount Si trail is considered a novice-level trail by most. But as I quickly found out, Mount Si’s difficulty doesn’t lie in its length or trail condition, it’s the continual upward push. Four miles of slow, steady climbing to make it to the top of that mountain. And if you’re considering climbing the Haystack, a vertical, ominous rock face that some consider the true summit, you’ll need to add at least another quarter mile of climbing beyond the end of the trail.
Once I reached the top, I didn’t even have the energy to pretend I had any intention to climb the Haystack. No, I was right where I wanted to be: taking in the view from above the cloud line. And I’ll admit, at two, even three miles in, I didn’t recognize the beauty of Mount Si’s challenge.
But when I finally stepped through the thinning treeline at the end of the trail, where boulders littered the mountaintop like giants, it finally hit me: I’d started a brand new chapter of my life, and I did it by completing an incredibly challenging hike.
And better than anything else was the slow realization that no one pushed me onward except myself. It was just little old me, convincing myself to stay on the trail. Recognizing that I had the discipline and endurance to work though so much physical discomfort, that I could convince myself it would be worth it, was extremely rewarding.
I stood at the top of Mount Si for close to an hour, letting my thoughts linger on the personal gratification as I snapped photos, ate lunch and took in the view of the town below. I could even make out Seattle in the distance, teeming with life while I enjoyed the silence and rare sunshine of a Washington summer day.
It was hard to believe that only a few days before I was standing in formation with hundreds of other Soldiers, toiling away in a familiar, if uncomfortable, uniform. I remembered the promise I’d made to myself about a month ago, when I decided to allow myself six months of hiking, traveling and some soul searching after leaving the service; I wanted to take a sort of extended vacation before switching careers and chaining myself down to another job.
And here I was on day one of my vacation, soaked with sweat and so thirsty for water that I didn’t even consider popping open the celebratory beer I’d stuffed in my pack. Perhaps I needed to redefine “vacation” to include more leisurely activities. I put a pin in the thought and decided to revisit it over milk and cheerios some other day because right then, I realized, I was content with my decisions. I was blissfully free.
And as I headed back down the trail later that afternoon, zigzagging along the switchbacks, I thought about all the good omens the hike presented for my upcoming adventures: the spotty but light rain that muffled the sounds of the town below, the surprise difficulty of the hike, my determination to make it to the top and the beauty of fallen, old growth trees covered in bright, velvety moss.
I decided Climbing Mount Si was probably the perfect way to start all over. It was a much needed opportunity for me to “catch my breath” in life while leaning against the trees, even if only for a moment.
Christina Butcher is a professional Linguist by day and a writer and book reviewer under the cover of night. Currently, Christina lives with her husband in Tacoma, Washington, where she hikes and reads in her free time. Christina also volunteers with a local literary organization, Creative Colloquy, where she produces a literary-themed podcast titled “Literally Tacoma.” For more of Christina’s work, visit her blog at Writebrave.org.