Trudging up a steep incline in the hot woods, I alternate applications of sunblock and bug repellant (although I am pretty sure the latter is not working, if the constant stinging and subsequent slapping is any indication). It’s been nearly 8 hours of uphill hiking, and we stop frequently to catch our breath and convince ourselves — and each other — to keep going. My shoulders and hips are sore where the pack is digging in, but I try and maintain a smile and positive attitude, especially knowing that I have the lightest pack, by far. My lightweight pack is a tribute to my own paring down of necessities, but more thanks to my husband’s packing skills and willingness to carry more weight for the both of us. Still, the journey is grueling, although mostly marked with upbeat banter between 6 friends, and a steadily rising anxiousness for the impending arrival at our destination.
Just as moods begin to sour and [justified] complaints and determined silent stretches become more prevalent than the joke-telling and stories that peppered the beginning of the day, we turn the corner and see it.
Emerging into a clearing after mile after mile of trees and dirt and roots and rocks, we are finally treated to the payoff.
I suddenly find myself stopping much more often, although this time it is not due to a steep climb (we are descending at this point, having just reached the apex of our trek), but instead to breathe in the beauty of the gorgeous view before, below, all around me. I keep murmuring to my cohorts, “This is the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen.” It may or may not be a subjective statement, one I’ve used many times in our past travels. But in this moment, I believe it wholeheartedly.
We continue down a little further to finally find ourselves at the shore of Upper Cataract Lake, our final destination. Although we still have another quarter-mile of hiking to find the perfect campsite (and I do mean perfect — filled with soft green grass and lively yellow wildflowers, bordered by the lake shore and a gently trickling creek), we quickly dismiss the difficult hike that got us there and simply bask in the reward.
The rest of the night treats us to some sketching by the lake as the sun dips down behind its mountain border, some hammock relaxing to only the sound of splashing water, collection and filtration of icy cold creek run-off to quench our thirst, a little freeze-dried food action (which is surprisingly delicious after a day of hard work), some hard-earned adult beverages, and most of all, revelry with good friends.
The morning comes all too soon, and we re-fill our packs in preparation to depart. While the end of our second day’s journey does not hold the promise of this sweet mecca, and instead the return to our everyday lives, at least we know it is all downhill from here.