When I turned down a fully-funded graduate position in marine biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I had no idea what I was going to do. It was my dream position; funded, studying walrus and in Alaska, a place I loved with all my heart. When I toured the university in January, a pit in my stomach grew and did not abate until I got back on that plane. It was the most visceral rejection of a life choice I had ever felt and there was no ignoring it. Even though it seemed perfect on paper and I didn’t have a back-up plan, I came home and withdrew from the program.
I realized so much of what I wanted from that program was a fantasy. I wanted a log cabin in the woods, with a cohort of fellow students that loved the outdoors, to become the person I thought I could be. I would cross-country ski to school, learn to ice climb, backpack in Denali, go scuba diving under the ice. I would have a group of like-minded friends that were just as excited as I was to live this off-the-grid life. Never-mind the fact that I hadn’t hiked more than 3 miles before this point, I was convinced I needed to go to Alaska to become the outdoorsy person that was hidden in Seattle. When I realized off-the-grid actually meant a cabin without internet, where I knew no one, without sunshine for much of the year and a project that had switched from marine biology to chemistry, I knew I couldn’t stay.
Everything changed after that weekend, though not in the way that I anticipated. When I came home, I realized there was nothing stopping me from pursuing that life. There were endless mountains in my backyard, marine biology opportunities at my doorstep, devoted friends that were equally excited to hit the trails. I don’t have a cabin without internet, but I stay in one sometimes. I spend more time outdoors than I could have imagined when I sat in the snow in Alaska contemplating my future.
While I slowly became devoted to living a life outdoors, my community grew with it. First, it strengthened friendships I already had. Meg grew with me on the trail, bringing enthusiasm and joy to every adventure. I shared trips with family members and loved showing them the places that were important to me. Over the weekend, it brought me a whole new group of people that I met first through Instagram, bonding through a shared love of Washington’s wild places. We spent all day wandering around Cutthroat Pass, loving the larches, all of us deeming it worth the 3.5 hours it took us to get there. Then we slept in tents at a campground, for the love of chilly air in October, not ready to be inside for the winter yet.
In the evening, we sat around a campfire for hours, faces lit by an orange glow. This was no fantasy, no late-night tumblr binge of cabins in winter, no Patagonia catalogue. Rather, this was a group united by a love of being outside and I felt at peace. The person I hoped beyond hope was somewhere inside me was not hiding in a dry cabin in the Alaska tundra, but on so many wilderness trails and beside a campfire under the stars in the North Cascades.
Pacific Crest Trail
We gathered at a frosty trailhead as the sun began to creep up the sky. My alarm cried angrily at 4 in the morning as I prepared for the 3.5 hour drive to the Cutthroat Pass trailhead but it was all forgotten as I stood outside the car in the North Cascades. Directly across the street from the Heather-Maple Pass Loop that Meg and I completed the previous weekend, I was back for another larch march.
We were a large group composed of many new friends but quickly split into two groups to avoid monopolizing the trail. The trail climbed through forested switchbacks, and slow meanders up the valley. After a few miles, the thick forest began to thin and we got our first views of the peaks. Dusted with a light snow, only a week since the last time we visited, the area was transformed.
The trail climbed oh so gently, nudging us upward until the evergreen began to fall away, rock replaced trunk and golden larches began to dominate. Covered in a light dusting of snow, where we could still see our breath with each exhale, our feet took us higher and higher.
At last, we rambled over the pass and found the rest of our group spread out in the sunshine, enjoying lunch. With spectacular views down to Cutthroat Lake, surrounded by larches, snow, and sunshine, we rested in the morning light. We took our time reveling in the splendor before packing up and pushing off-trail to the little notch above the valley, looking across into the other basin where the PCT snaked along the trees. It provided views of layered peaks far into the distance.
After getting our fill of the rolling, rocky pass, we began the journey back down. I quickly fell in with the slower group as I stopped every few minutes to take another picture. The views deserved each moment of soaking it in.