The Higher You Get
The Better It Looks
Story and Photos by Jeri Walker
The blazing sun and cloudless blue sky that first weekend of May was perfect for the picnic my Internet date had planned at Camel’s Back Park in Boise. I texted to ask Tom if I could bring anything, only to be told my life story would do.
I then sent an image of an iceberg’s hidden depths, with this message: Call it a hunch, but it seems like your personality might fall into this category.
We shared life snippets while gorging on finger food and sangria before heading on a hike through the foothills. The powdery dirt clung to our shoes, and the clumps of sagebrush and lupine flanking either side of the trail occasionally brushed our calves. The midday heat and lack of shade did little to deter either of us, and Tom soon went off-trail. I eagerly followed, glad to be freed from the usual first date interview-style dinner.
I told him about growing up in the northern Idaho mining town of Wallace, a place infamous for living outside the law in the realms of prostitution and gambling. As for growing up in Weiser, he pointed out a mother’s warning to her daughter, “Stay always from the likes of him. He doesn’t have rules.” Misfits can always sense their own kind. Summer loomed, and I couldn’t help but think he’d make a good hiking partner.
Before we said our goodbyes, he scrambled up a random tree and I was smitten. We quickly became a thing, and a couple of day hikes later, Tom mentioned being up for his first backcountry trip. I picked Pioneer Cabin in the Pioneer Mountains within the Sawtooth National Forest near Sun Valley. Looking back, I chuckle at my choice. The nearly 3,400-feet gain in elevation was on the advanced side for someone who’d never donned a pack, but my heart had been set on that hike since the summer before when a dining room manager at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum praised its superior scenery.
We left Boise on a Friday afternoon in late July. Little by little, we were unwrapping each other’s layers, as only kindred souls can do. Our rapport bloomed thanks to the synergy created by a common fascination with any sort of process. I learned to mine his lofty abstractions for concrete details, and in my onslaught of specifics, he learned to swim in a sea of intimacy. Neither of us was afraid to ask “why” about anything.
Eventually, we pulled into a campsite, and Tom got to work building the fire. Apparently, I was going to be the one to pitch the tent. This marked new territory, since the task had fallen to my ex-husband for years. I wasn’t incapable, but the top-of-the-line backcountry tent had been purchased only the year before and setting it up proved quite the task for my spatially challenged self. Tom ended up helping, but he didn’t do it for me—which my independent soul noted.
Twilight brought its calm gray patina, and we held each other in an embrace before settling into our camp chairs and breaking out a bottle of cabernet. The hours slipped by as we chatted and kissed and drank under a thick swath of stars. All the while I wondered if it was time to utter those three words. The ink on my divorce decree was barely dry, and our relationship screamed “rebound.” No matter. Serendipity can’t be planned.
When the fire died down, Tom started to baby it along.
“Could you go and grab some more small dry sticks?” he asked.
“As you wish.”
A smile played on his lips as he picked up on the reference to The Princess Bride. Much as the farm boy Westley would have done anything at Princess Buttercup’s command, so too would I at that point. But we hadn’t yet gone into much depth about what the other was looking for in a relationship, and I held my tongue.
Instant oatmeal and coffee made for a quick breakfast in the late morning. Tom marveled at my specialized gear, from the tiny butane burner to the titanium-frame collapsible chairs to the two lightweight air mattresses complete with built-in hand pumps. We laid everything out to distribute the weight equally between our packs, and he admired the efficient design of my multipurpose cooking pot, noting the cleverly nested parts. As a user experience designer, small details were not lost on him, and the observant editor and writer in me approved.
We set out not long before the crack of noon at the Johnstone Creek trailhead near Hailey. It struck me as the less traveled, more local, and potentially most scenic route. With a return via Hyndman Creek, it was the longest loop, at ten miles, as opposed to the eight-and-a-half miles of going up the Pioneer Cabin Trail and coming back along the Long Gulch Trail. Each ranked fairly high in difficulty. The most direct route would have been the seven-and-a-half-mile approach from Corral Creek, but even then, the elevation gain would have been 2,400 feet. Anything less than five miles didn’t even qualify as noteworthy in my book, and I was intent on taking Tom on a hike he would never forget.
After slathering on some sunscreen, we set our packs upright on the tailgate of my SUV and hefted them onto our shoulders. Much pulling of straps and clicking of plastic hooks ensued. He swayed a bit, but quickly found his center of gravity. Once we were off, it didn’t surprise me that Tom turned out to be quite the trooper. The ups and downs of the trail didn’t give him much pause, and he never complained, aside from being wise enough to stop a few times along the trail to adjust his pack.
I let him set the pace. We fell into a rhythm, lost in the moment of putting one foot in front of the other. Each new scene delighted him more than the previous one, and the first vista brought a broad smile to his face. He stepped onto a rock outcropping to survey the view with its swath of thick pines on competing hillsides and dollop of playful clouds.
At one point, we paused next to a series of waterfalls alongside the trail. It didn’t take long before he cried, “I want to go up there!” The high crevice in the rock wasn’t something I’d normally explore, but his enthusiasm compelled me. Each of us pulled on our wading shoes for an off-trail, mid-hike adventure.
He bounded from rock to rock like a mountain goat while I crawled between the larger stones—slowly, steadily, safely—encouraged by my nimble-footed friend and his willingness to lend a helping hand, but never a coddling one. Exhaustion was not in the man’s vocabulary, and invigorated by a thorough dousing beneath a cascade of water, he crawled even farther downstream to satisfy his whimsy. I knew my limits and stayed put—I’d climbed quite far up the narrow waterway. We returned to the main trail exhilarated, and my willingness to test my mettle was noted by my new hiking partner.
At some points, the trail leveled off into a more gradual incline, and we found ourselves walking through open expanses of wildflowers and sage. I took a bunch of pictures, torn between whether to focus more on the gorgeous guy or the gorgeous scenery. We eventually came upon the first view of the Pioneer Mountains and paused to remove our packs. The wind nearly whipped us off our feet at times, but the panoramic view held us upright.
The jagged outlines of Hyndman Peak, Goat Mountain, and Standhope Peak served as a reminder that we’d come far, yet for each destination reached, another always awaited. We pushed on, the mishmash of talk at times quelled by the rhythm of our feet or the urge to reach into a bag of cherries we kept passing back and forth. The last push found us running on empty and resting often. He wanted to cut across switchbacks, only to have me point out proper trail etiquette. Tom noted more than once how, aside from this being the first time he’d trekked to an overnight spot, it was also the longest hike he’d ever been on. Not once did he complain, scoring heaps of bonus points in my book.
My body ached. My toes screamed. I’d hiked a lot over the years, but was off my game. I knew to slow down and rest more, but also knew giving up was not an option. If hiking has imparted any gifts to my soul, it’s taught me how it’s always possible to reach the top, no matter how long it takes. Effort becomes its own reward.
The sun had just started to set when we topped the ridge and began the descent to Pioneer Cabin, where the large white lettering on the roof said it all: “The higher you get, the higher you get.” Except for the distant drone of a band of sheep, those craggy peaks and rapidly lengthening shadows made our top-of-the-world isolation quite clear.
The weathered wood of the rectangular cabin retained the heat of the day beautifully. It’d been built in the 1930s by the Sun Valley Company to serve as alpine skiing accommodations. Our tired bones soon decided to sleep in the cozy warmth of the filthy cabin rather than pitch the tent in the quickly cooling temps. I grabbed a broom and swept the rough-hewn plank floors while Tom went back outside to unpack our sleeping rolls and pump up the pads.
I then got busy heating water for the night’s deluxe meal of dehydrated chicken fajita mix while Tom crawled into the macramé chair dangling from the ceiling. He instantly dozed off. If left to his own devices, he may have snacked on trail mix and crawled right into bed. Our water was running low, but thankfully another hiker had left behind a half-gallon in a plastic jug.
After eating, we treated each other to foot rubs and cozy talk. Few words were needed to sum up the success we felt in our happy tired bones. It wasn’t long before we wrapped ourselves in warm sleeping bags on the slivered floor. The light from a citronella candle cast long shadows over the bric-a-brac and graffiti left behind by other travelers. Our contented sighs filled the former ski hut. We were quite sore but exquisitely alive.
The next morning, Tom greeted the sun with yoga moves before we packed. The descent via Hyndman Creek went much faster as I once again let his exhilaration lead the way. The switchbacks were not well maintained, and I ended up scooting on my rear a few times. At one point, the path leveled out, and he reached for my hand. We walked side by side in the woods, connected to each other and to the path endlessly stretching before us.
“This is just wonderful. Why don’t I do this more often?”
“That can be arranged,” I replied.
When we stopped for water, Tom once again marveled at my equipment, though a bit skeptical that the ceramic insert could actually filter harmful impurities. Off came our dusty shoes and sweaty socks as we perched on big rocks facing each other, our toes dangling in the icy burble. Those three words still lingered on the tip of my tongue as we played footsie in the creek, but I couldn’t muster the courage to say them aloud. Time stood still.
To complete the loop hike, it was necessary to walk about a mile on the dirt road back to where the car was parked. Our talk veered toward the journey of finding ourselves. He likened himself to a goth hippie and me to a folksy idealist. Both of us conceded we spend too much time thinking about things rather than doing them.
Another month passed before I finally told him that I loved him. The proclamation didn’t go according to plan, and by the six-month mark, we’d weathered some serious miscommunication to realize how much we upheld honesty and forthrightness.
When I think back to the long, hard climb that has marked the nearly three-year evolution of our relationship, I often think of Tom’s reply to the iceberg picture I sent before our first date: Such insightful flattery will get you everywhere. The animated ellipsis churned as I waited for more words to appear on the screen. And given the “takes one to know one” factor, my curiosity is further piqued and attraction deepened.
I think the people in our lives who inspire us to reach new heights and stay on a path of growth are the ones to keep around. Love is a verb, not a noun, and it requires constant recalibration. Tom and I have tested each other’s mettle over and over, and continue to pull through and hold the other’s respect. I believe the rewards of climbing life’s mountains are there for the taking by those who aren’t afraid to venture forth. Sometimes, a person gets lucky enough to find someone else who can keep up. Don’t stand still, I say. Not even for one second.