Today was fun. And the fact that I worried about that possibility made the joy infinitely more pure.
When I woke my left knee was aching. This started sometime on Tuesday’s 17 mile hike, going downhill. If you haven’t hiked before, I should explain that the downhill sections are much harder on our knees. And irregular surfaces with lots of stones that slide around don’t help. So Tuesday’s long downhill segment set off something that was gone when I woke yesterday, but flared again midway through that hike.
I was hoping the pain would be gone again when I woke this morning, but it wasn’t. The smart thing to do would have been to rest rather than hike. But I only had one more hike and it was only 10 miles, so I took ibuprofen and walked it off, stretching the muscles (I’m convinced it’s a muscular issue rather than intrinsic to the joint).
By the time Yüksel dropped me off at the trailhead and I started hiking, I was pain free, which was good because most of today’s hike would be downhill.
Today was a day of obstacles and challenges, and that’s really what makes hiking so much fun for me. Yes the woods are lovely and the views are extraordinary, but its much more than just a 10 mile walk in the wilderness. There are unexpected barriers to get past. They’re like little puzzles to work through in an effort to reach the end of the level.
Yes, in a sense it’s a real-life video game.
The first of these was this gate. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but opening random gates is not something I’ve tended to do. And yet, I’ve done it enough over the last few days, that one glance at the sign and the red and white stripes on the gatepost convinced me it was correct. I, of course, made sure to close the gate behind me.
The next puzzle was surprising. I was provided with a summary of what to expect during the hike, but they didn’t mention this. I double checked the map. I looked at the trail on either side, and just wished there was some sort of trail marker, but none was to be found. And there were no other paths through the fence, so I tested my weight on the rickety wooden ladder, and was soon back on my way.
I had the option to bypass a ravine and took it, instead choosing a long walk on a forest road. No need to test the knee more than necessary.
Eventually I came to the third challenge of the day. Crossing the canyon river.
My guides had described this part of the trek as, “You now arrive back at the riverbed at the giant round pieces of rock. Here you walk to the right riverbank. Climb down several metres into the riverbed. Shortly after that the route continues to the right up the embankment and through a pine forest.”
That doesn’t begin to cover it. The fording of the river involved stepping from stone to stone to stone, as well three crossings of the river back and forth to reach the goal. I tried to follow the red trail markers, but they weren’t always helpful, and I found safer routes through on my own. Sometimes, when I wasn’t comfortable standing, I sat down and slid from one stone to the next, always hoping I wouldn’t get into a position I couldn’t get out of.
The most precarious moment came when I was compelled to gingerly step on the smallest of stones peeking their heads above the surface of the water, all while stabilizing myself on a massive rock just to my left.
I don’t know how much time I spent there, but I passed a good portion of it using very colorful language.
And when I reached the end of the challenge and saw the poorly marked trail rising in front of me I felt ebullient. As difficult as that had been, it had been awesome, and the feeling was one of victory.
Adding to the success, Yüksel later informed me that many people just remove their shoes and wade through. So that felt good.
Continuing on my journey I climbed to the top of the mountain, moving steadily, and only occasionally getting disoriented. As I progressed along the trail, I saw more and more Russian and Ukranian hikers (one of whom even helped me find a hidden turn-off).
With 2 miles left to go, two Russian women stopped me to ask if I could help inform the authorities of a fire up ahead. I had no cell signal, but was worried. A fire in a pine forest couldn’t be a good thing. I asked if it was large, but they didn’t understand. I asked if it would block the trail, and they said I could probably go above it.
It all felt uncertain, but I had to get off of the mountain, so I continued forward with caution, testing the air for any sign of smoke, which I expected to be my first warning. In the end heard the fire before smelling or seeing it. As the crackle of the burning wood sounded in my ears, I stopped and saw the flames and smoke rising ahead to my left, where the trail seemed to turn. I tried to call Yüksel, but had no signal. I considered going back, but instead paused to observe further.
The conflagration seemed very localized, so I continued on slowly, ready to return to safety. I rounded the corner, and found a large log ablaze to the side of the trail. And there were also flames lower down the slope well below me. I was reassured that there was little smoke, so I continued forward quickly. Rounding the next corner a few flames were licking the berm to my left, but after a few yards the fire was well behind me.
As I moved downhill, quickly now, I warned other hikers of the peril ahead and eventually found my way out to the canyon.
Here … here I stepped in the water. So, just as in video games, sometimes we miss on the most obvious challenges.
As I walked happily from the canyon to the parking area where Yüksel was waiting, I was euphoric. I felt like a champion, and that’s a feeling that can’t be beat.