Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Finding balance in the Jewel

When I had to get off the PCT last year with a stress fracture, I was confronted with a painful truth—I lacked balance in my life.  Nothing felt as good as being on trail.  Post-backpacking depression is a huge issue in the long-distance hiking community.  It’s so common to chase trail after trail and have a life that revolves around getting the next long-trail fix.  But because I was forced by my injury to stay off trail and heal for 10 weeks, I could see how tying my identity and basing my happiness in just one thing was a recipe for disaster. I resolved to seek ways to find fulfillment when off-trail, and to build a more sustainable life.

Desire for balance (as well as other things that I'll describe later) led me here, to Montana.  In the month and a half since I’ve arrived, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and I haven’t done a single backpacking trip.  I’ve been focused on getting up to speed with my work, on getting settled.  I resolved to go out this weekend.

Everyone I’ve met in Montana raves about the Jewel Basin.  I look out across the Flathead Valley at it several times a day, wondering what all the fuss is about.  It’s much earlier in the season to go there, but the snow is melting faster this season.  A couple of people say that it’s possible to get up there, maybe.
Eli and I head up the steep winding FS road to the Camp Misery Trailhead.  We park where snow blocks the road, and hike up the snow-covered road to the trailhead.

It’s the most stunning country I’ve seen since the High Sierra in California.  Maybe even prettier.  I stare in disbelief.  How could it possibly be this incredible?  How can this beauty be less than an hour away from where I live?  I am overwhelmed with gratitude for being here.  So thankful to Eli for offering to go with me up here because I hadn’t the courage to venture up here alone.
Glacier lilies.
 Up snow-covered trails, then over the pass to the sunny, snow-free side of the mountain. 
Views of the Flathead Valley.

Glacier lily and spring beauty country.
More views.  I don’t have words to describe it.  I feel small and insignificant and loose myself in the grander.  Fears and worries melt away.  I breathe in, I breathe out.  This is all that matters, this moment.  Peace.
Impossibly beautiful.
Then climbing higher into more snow.  Finally, arriving at Birch Lake.  Wow, so much thick snow.  A different world of ice and frozen country, and yet there is melting too, cracks.  Doubt we can go further to the next lake though, but let's go see the other side.  Yes, let's circle around the lake.
Birch Lake.
Birch Lake, another angle.
Around the other side of Birch Lake.
Cross-country travel around the lake is not easy.  Dodging tree wells, navigating around snowy traverses.  Eli seems to float over the snow, sliding down the steep parts while I try to control my way down.
At the edge.  Don't fall in!
Eventually, I catch on, and soon I am sliding, gliding, glissading.  Time to play.  Then, my feet give out from under me and I’m in free fall, then my self-arrest instincts kick in and I am stopping myself.  Fear of falling replaced by OH WOW THAT WAS FUN.  It’s OK to let go.  Mindset shifts. 
Bursts of wildflowers.
We run into a large group of people on the way back to the car.  The wild feel of the place, the illusion of solitude, it all cracks.

Eli and I decide to try for a lower elevation trailhead to find a place to camp.  I’d been starting longingly at the well-spaced trees for my hammock near the ice-covered lake, but up in that highcountry, Eli found nowhere suitable for his tent. 

We get to the Echo Broken Leg trailhead, and follow it into a different world of lushness and wildflowers.
Meadow rue.
An hour up the trail, and still no campsites. Next, into a logging area that smells like dead trees.  Then, lightening, thunder, and torrential rain.  Waterlogged, it is clear that Eli has had enough, and I don’t want to be down here either. 
Where are the campsites?
Let’s go home.  Are you sure?  Yep.  We retreat.

Back at home, I gather up soaking wet clothes and head to the laundromat. There is just enough time to do a load but not enough time for them to dry before they close.  So, my trailer transforms into a long-distance hiker hotel room, wet laundry and gear hanging from every surface, and despite the washing, hiker aroma filling the air.  It smells like long-distance hiking, like sharing a hotel room with a bunch of happy new backpacking buddies and laughing so hard my belly aches--all fond memories associated with the PCT and AZT.  The scent of happiness and home.

I curl up in my down top quilt in my little bunkbed and watch the city lights far below twinkling.  And that deep inner peace fills me, and I know in my heart that I am tasting that balance.  Because I can be here in my little trailer home, and not out in the backcountry, and realize it’s exactly where I want to be.  Here in Montana, I have found a place where I can have adventures and be in epic scenery that feels like the most beautiful place in the world, and also be close to my work.  If there is anywhere I can discover balance, it is right here. 

I didn’t need to go backpacking today to find happiness, I’ve got it right here, just like this.  Maybe next week I’ll go backpacking.  Maybe.
For more information:
Jewel Basin Hiking Area
Jewel Basin map
Birch Lake Trail


  1. YES! You've said YES! to life.

    1. Absolutely! It's a choice. We can say YES.

  2. Thanks for taking me along on your journey. I love hiking in the Jewel. Wait until you see the view from the top of Mt. Aeneas! Awe-inspiring!

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting here! Delighted to share it with you. The Jewel is truly special. I can't imagine anything that could be better than what we've already seen, but I'll look forward to climbing Mt. Aeneas for sure. :)

  3. Thank you so much for this post... I struggle with finding this balance all the time even without having had the chance for a thru-hike yet. How to find balance without living and breathing only for those minutes on the trail is so hard, but you're words are inspiring. Enjoy your breathtaking new home!

    1. Thank you so much for commenting--this was something that I find a hard time talking about, so it's very nice for the reassurance that sharing this story is helping someone else out. I know it's common to have this struggle, but I often think I probably should have figured out how to deal with it by now.

      Loving my new home! :)

  4. I've been missing your posts. So good to see one! I'm sorry your hike didn't go as planned, but it looks awesome anyway!

    So much I can relate to here....happy hiking this summer!

  5. Replies
    1. It's so incredible out here, my friend. I love these mountains. They are a bit unbelievable, like a dream. I am so grateful to you for helping me to get here. HUGS!!!!

  6. Joan,
    I continue to be amazed at the incredible places you've shared with us. That place is beautiful and you captured it perfectly in words and pictures.
    My only concern is that it's a long way from SC. I fear we may lose you for good.

    1. I must admit, Swampfox, that I am thinking I may stay here a while, if I can figure out a way to make that happen. The big unknown is how I will fare in the winter here. Backpacking along the Chattooga River in the middle of winter makes GA/SC so appealing. I also really miss my friends and backpacking buddies back home--still haven't found them here, and miss things like our hammock hangs. Ah well, I'm still looking. I know that community or a similar thing must be out here somewhere....

  7. I can't say I would blame you for staying. We have some beautiful places here but it is more subtle. Those spectacular snow covered peaks just kind of smack you in the face.
    Be careful and keep posting.