This story originally ran in NSpire Magazine. You can read the full story here.
There is a marker after taking the Kingston exit off I-90 that is better than all the others. It isn’t a mile marker, per se; it isn’t even visible to the naked eye. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it is, but my cell phone never misses it. I travel by this spot occasionally, and when my cell phone signal dies, the most beautiful words flash at the top of my screen: NO SERVICE
I realize this marker may not be the same for everyone. For some, this marker may live at the edge of their driveway or at their final destination. For some it may be an action, like clocking out of the office on a Friday afternoon. For me, on this particularly sunny day in March, as we drove about a mile-and-a-half past the Kingston exit, it marked the beginning of another adventure.
The day felt more like late May than mid-March. Not a cloud in the sky, the sun shone through the trees creating steam that rose from the damp road in front of us, dancing in the slight breeze. I rolled down my window, the spring air breaking up the solar heat that warmed the inside of our car.
As we traveled up the road, I went through my mental checklist one final time—not that it would help at this point. Snacks, water, camera, hiking boots, and sweatshirt were all accounted for. Moving my pack aside, I removed each of my flip-flops and began prepping for our hike ahead. Unfolding my white athletic socks, I glanced occasionally at the map I’d printed at home, making sure we didn’t miss our next turn. I reached for my hiking boots in the back seat and began loosening the laces.
I don’t know if my boots are not properly broken in, or if all hiking boots are this laborious to don, but each time is a struggle. I frequently end up in a light sweat as I simultaneously pull on the boots with my hands, and push my foot with as much body weight as I can muster. Pushing my foot against the dash of the car, I grunt and wiggle my foot around, hoping it will help. With one final push, my foot pops into the boot;
I tighten the laces, making sure that each is double knotted.
By the time my battle of the boots had ended, we’d made the turn that would take us a few miles up a dirt road, leading away from the river and into the heavily forested hillside. Several tree limbs from the surrounding pines covered the road, leftover from the winter. As we climbed higher, the trees opened up to display a vast valley of pines lit by the early afternoon sun.
Reaching our destination, we stopped the car and emerged into the light, admiring the valley and hillside spread before us. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the unspoiled mountain air, then turned to see Kyle appreciating the view, as well.
“Beautiful” I said.
Kyle said nothing. I could see the depth of the valley in the reflection of his sunglasses.
Miles away from city limits, the air seemed fresh and new filtered and reborn by the trees and plants.
The sun instantly broke any slight chill as it warmed my dark hair, creating a thermal blanket over my head and shoulders. Small buds were forming on the black cottonwood trees scattered throughout the firs, pines and hemlocks. I’ve always found it hard to look up or ahead anytime I’m on a trail. The unsteady rocks and roots, perforating through the dirt, steal my attention; my gaze almost always fixates on the ground directly in front of me to avoid an unwanted stumble. As gravel from the old road crunched under our boots on our way to the trailhead, I couldn’t help but notice the earth was alive with the bustling of ants and centipedes scurrying under our feet, evidence of a mild winter.
As I watched stone-by-stone pass beneath me, the sound of moving water grabbed my attention. I redirected my gaze to find a creek cavorting along the trail, dancing around the trees and rocks in its path. The water was perfectly clear, allowing the rainbow of river rock to sparkle along the bed. Kneeling down, I dipped my hand into the water to enjoy the bite of the chilly spring runoff.
I looked around at my surroundings; giant granite deposits marked the mountainside with cliffs and massive boulders. Moss and ferns sprouted in the cracks and crevices like vertical gardens lining the trail. Running my hand along the coarse rock wall, the thick green moss felt damp and springy. Tiny white flowers poked their faces out, reaching for some sunlight beyond their protected crevasses. Along the creek, many of the ferns were just waking up from the short winter. Among older plants already established and thriving, those new sprouts, only partially uncurled, awaited longer days before they would fully fill their space.
We didn’t talk much as we walked with our packs along the creek, our little trail leading us deeper into the woods. I used this quiet time to think; I thought about life, family, friends, and work. I spent time appreciating my surroundings and, although I may have seemed misplaced to the observer with my camera, phone-with-no-service and fancy hiking boots, I could not help but feel a sense of belonging. It is only once I removed myself from the excess of things and people that real life came to light.
I was no longer expected to look a certain way, behave according to awkward social norms, feign “liking” photos on Facebook, or plan my week according to someone else’s schedule.
Instead, I was with one of the few people that holds no judgment toward me, walking in the woods with the sole purpose of just existing. Life is simpler with no cell service.
Shaking me from my Thoreauvian moment, the physicality of the trail hit me in the form of a large root and an instantly throbbing toe. I focused my attention back to the trail in order to prevent any future tripping.
Having hiked moderately over the past couple years, I recognized a new strength in my legs that wasn’t there before. Beyond that newfound strength, I noticed many things had improved since taking up hiking and running. My clothing choices were smarter, having ditched my old cotton t-shirts for moisture-wicking layers, and trading my lightweight tennis shoes for strong, supportive hiking boots.
I adjusted my pack and stretched my neck a bit, again letting my mind wander, as I looked straight up to see some light clouds pass overhead. My backpack is small, designed to carry only my camera, a couple lenses and a water bottle. I had been reading a lot about thru-hiking, about people going on long journeys carrying everything they’d need for months in their pack. Some of these packs weigh well over 50 pounds – putting my 5-10 pound day hike pack into perspective.
Feeling grateful for my light load, I again looked around to take note of where we were. In the distance, I spotted a small bridge crossing what appears to be another, smaller creek joining the one we had been following. Within feet of the bridge, a misty chill filled the otherwise warm air and the familiar roar of waterfalls slowly took over.
The bridge was damp with the waterfall’s mist. Small pockets of moss clung to the joints of the railings and trusses. The falls themselves were small, but not underwhelming. The water cascaded in a delicate veil, landing softly on the rock bed below before picking up speed and joining the creek.
Kyle hiked down to a closer vantage point. He turned and yelled back to me, his voice drowned by the noise of the falls.
“I can’t hear you!” I shouted, not knowing if I was at all audible.
He motioned for me to join him.
I admire his adventurous spirit. I’d like to think we’re the yin and yang of exploration. I have a healthy respect for rules, and tend to err on the side of caution. Kyle lives for an adrenaline rush and is willing to bend the rules if he deems the reward worthy of the risk. Somewhere in between we find balance – I’m pushed to try new things and he has to minimize the number of risky situations we end up in.
So, I carefully picked my way down toward the falls. Finding a suitable rock, I stood and watched droplets of mist collect on my arms for a few seconds before retrieving my camera from my backpack. Adjusting my exposure, I knelt down to snap a few photos of the falls before climbing back up to the bridge. Kyle continued to explore the fairytale-like grove surrounding the waterfall, slipping here and there as he navigated through the creek. He walked behind the falls and, as I imagined how wet he must be from the splashes and mist, a chill ran up my spine remembering how cold the creek felt earlier. When he’d finished exploring, he came back to the bridge and hopped back over the railing with a slight bounce in his landing, and a cheeky grin.
“Ready to head back?” he asked, taking my hand in his. The late afternoon light flickered through the trees and danced on his face.
My stomach growled, longing for food. “Yeah, I’m ready for a meal,” I said.
The hike back passed quickly, my mind empty and tired. The sights seemed less notable the second time around; the creek, ferns and boulders fast-forwarded by. My attention shifted to the car, no longer the journey.
The sun barely peeked above the hills by the time we reached the car, painting the valley and the hills with a beautiful golden light. I closed my eyes to soak in its warmth one more time before leaving for home. Kyle wrapped his arms around me, his embrace warmer than the rays that were slowly retreating to the west. Again, I was consumed by a sense of belonging.
As we drove back down the dirt road, I rolled down my window, allowing the cool evening air to fill the car. Driving along the river, about two miles away from the onramp heading west back to Coeur d’Alene,
my phone lit up in the cup holder next to me, buzzing and dinging with notifications from the day: FULL SERVICE