Well, Jason and I got off the trail two days ago, and I must say, I’m just now starting to come off the high. Seems I got used to the endorphins and adrenaline that came with each day on the 75-km long and wild West Coast Trail.
At constant mercy to the weather and forces of nature, we carefully trotted over mushy terrain of sand and soil, over dozens of rickety and suspending bridges and ladders, and problem-solved our way over slippery boulders, and roots and logs and mossy decade-old wooden boardwalks. The trail was challenging – but not so much for the body (at least for us – we learned we’re quite fit!) as it was for the mind.
We had to concentrate on each step as we navigated the diverse terrain. Moving mindfully, one step and rung at a time, under the weight of our new “evolved” bodies (now weighing an extra 40 pounds with packs). My hiking poles eventually felt like extensions of my body – two new limbs – so much so that without them it seemed something crucial and innate was missing.
At times, I visualized myself to be like one of those circus elephants balancing on a ball, as I teetered across fallen trees, then, like a fat ballerina, plie-ing down into a not-so-graceful squat before hurling myself forward again so that my pack would carry me up and through like some long-legged turtle. By day 5, I had developed and successfully user tested what I call the “Vish maneuver”, ideal for short people like myself, whereby I’d practically sit on my heels to bring my centre of gravity even lower before nudging a step down, one foot at a time. Here was thoughtful method intricately developing, but as the kilometres trailed behind us, our movements seemed only natural, divinely summoned by some greater power, instinctual. What other way was there than the steps we were taking?
A certain intuition took hold, as I looked forward at the “trail” ahead – often no path was to be found really, but my mind would somehow visualize it, discover it in the mess ahead. With every new step the next one would reveal itself, and like that, one step at at a time, we’d made it – through 3 kilometres of windey overgrown trail and mudholes, 4 kilometres of sloshy pebble walking, 2 kilometres of slip-to-your-death boulders and slimy green rocks. More than once did I ponder, “If only my mother saw me…” like when I pushed on above a deep canyon holding on to a very simple – but effective – wooden structure called a ladder.
Initially, the ladders were my greatest fear. Towering upwards of five stories high, often above deadly canyons, they were all the talk in the WCT Facebook Group I had joined prior to starting the trail. Most people feared them. One misstep, and you’d be a goner. As we got closer to Logan and Cullite Creeks, the spots that earned them their scary reputation, we heard stories. We were told one ladder hung at a 20-degree angle, dangling you over towards a rocky creek. Another was missing rungs. One was wobbly and seemed like it hadn’t been replaced since the seventies, back when the trail was called The Dominion Lifesaving Trail, constructed (or rather, cleared) for use by shipwreck survivors along what was then dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific. Go figure..
Little did I know that with some experience of the ladders, I’d grow more fond of them. They were sturdy and could be trusted. In fact, this became true of everything, from my own gear, to the trail itself and my own self, too. The more we trekked, the more I learned: what slippery looked like, when to test terrain and prod it with my pole, how to place my foot, when to pause and eat, when to go straight through and when to take a detour (you see, the shorter way may wind up being the longer way – if you fall or worse, get hurt).
ladder (n.) Old English hlæder “ladder, steps,” from Proto-Germanic *hlaidri (source also of Old Frisian hledere, Middle Dutch ledere, Old High German leitara, German Leiter), from suffixed form of PIE root *klei-“to lean” c. 1200, from Old English hlinian “to recline, lie down, rest; bend or incline”, from Proto-Germanic *hlinen. Transitive sense “cause to lean or rest” is from 14c. Meaning “to incline the body against something for support” is mid-13c. Figurative sense of “to trust for support” is from early 13c. Sense of “to lean toward mentally, to favour” is from late 14c.
Before this trip, I had never backcountry camped before, used hiking poles, or even made a fire on my own…and I have to say, I’m really proud of myself. (I’m not great at celebrating my accomplishments but for this particular one, I’m really feeling it. I am proud of myself!) I got over many fears – including the ladders – and learned to lean into them. I had to really look at the fear and think outside it, around it, through it.
When we jumped our first surge channel (I didn’t even know what a surge channel was going into this!), I was reminded that even at moments when I couldn’t picture a way forward, I had to trust in my ability more than believe the fear. The fear was a signpost, to be cautious and mindful and concentrated though, not a STOP sign.
I couldn’t have done this without Jason, though, who was my rock, my puddle, and my soft place to land during every step of this exhilarating adventure. Things got tough, we bickered, but we leaned into this with trust and we made it through with our bodies intact and hearts full 🙂