Three weeks had passed since my last hike to Mason Lake and Bandera. I desperately needed some solitude in nature. At the beginning of the day, I had no idea that in several hours, I would be narrowly escaping injury.
My dog, Ajax, and I usually start hiking at dawn. Tuesday, we tried something different. We headed for the mountains after dropping my daughter off at school. The familiar yearning to be “first up the trail” grew until we arrived at the Pratt Lake parking lot. At least four other groups had beaten us to the trailhead. I locked the car at 8:30, with Ajax on a leash and a restless feeling in my gut.
Race up the Mountain
We soon caught up to the largest group of six at the first fork. They turned right toward Granite Mountain. Ten minutes later, we passed a trio of backpackers taking a clothing break. All that remained were two pairs. Could they have been heading toward Granite, too? Soon after that, I felt the whisper of spider webs across my face.
I smiled and my mood improved. Even leaving this late, we were first on this section of the trail. Not only could I let my dog off-leash, but we could enjoy the peace surrounding us. No more need to race. The only deadline facing us was returning to the car by 3:15, or else dealing with rush hour traffic through downtown Seattle.
Around us, vanilla leaf plants, ferns, and maples shone vibrant yellow. Mushrooms of all sizes, shapes, and colors peeked out from fallen leaves. Rushing streams crossed our path. Rivulets that flow from alpine springs even in times of drought now had more water volume due to October’s rainfall. I spotted small salad-plate patches of snow on the highest ridge, signs of approaching winter. But the day itself was balmy, in the low 60’s, with a slight breeze. We’d enjoy one last hurrah before storms hit the Puget Sound region.
As we hiked, I pondered blog post ideas. Other writers have written about finding creative inspiration while walking. I do, too. We reached the second fork at mile two and headed right toward Pratt Lake. At the Olallie Lake overlook, we snapped a photo of Mt. Rainier towering over the surrounding hills in the mid-autumn sky. Four minutes later, we came to the third fork. Left leads to Rainbow and Island Lakes, which I’d visited earlier this year, twice. Right leads to Pratt Lake Basin. We turned right.
Down we wound past several switchbacks. As we crossed the boulder field, I took a selfie in front of beautiful bright yellow, orange, and red maple leaves. Part of my excitement about “getting my nature fix” was enjoying fall foliage before storms blow down all the leaves. This hike did not disappoint.
A Surprising Spill Hours from the Car
Once we passed the boulder field, we entered the woods where I’d gotten stung by a yellowjacket three months earlier. I stepped down onto a slanted boulder stuck in the middle of the trail, and before I knew what was happening, I slipped.
As I landed on both feet, I felt more than heard a pop on the lateral side of my right knee, just below the knee joint. I’d fallen correctly – not on my hips, tailbone, face, wrists, or elbows. But popping is a bad sign.
I gently loaded it to test it – no break, no dislocation, no fracture. No shooting pain, no buckling, no sprain. Sometimes Ajax can sense my mood shifts. He didn’t react at all. You’re okay, I told myself.
A tiny voice of reason whispered, “Turn around.” I was 2 hours and 20 minutes from the car, 90 minutes of which would be downhill. Once I climbed out of the basin, that is. I flexed and extended my foot, drew circles, took a few more steps – the ankle felt fine. I did a few stretches, then bent and straightened my leg. Tight.
I have a high tolerance for pain. I know a lot about the human body. I’d endured natural childbirth without pain medication. I’d also climbed Kilimanjaro five weeks after fracturing my foot. I had no swelling, nothing I could see or feel externally, just tenderness and tightness where a tendon popped.
Am I Really Injured?
This was nothing compared to incidences I’d experienced in the past. Yet except for Ajax, I was completely alone. That niggling voice of reason persisted. Could I trust my right leg to get me back out if I kept going? Was I walking into a troubling rescue situation if I continued? Was anyone else camping in the basin if I suddenly couldn’t walk? What if I fell again?
Lured by the Destination
I got my trekking pole out of my pack. I don’t always use it, but I always have one with me. The lure of the destination and the last bit of beautiful weather overpowered my logical brain. We kept going, but instead of thinking about future blog posts, I cued into bodily sensations. I can always turn around, I thought.
My pole stayed out over the next three and a half hours. I found myself leading with my left leg on unknown or steep steps. Were they slick or solid? Fortunately, we’d already descended most of the way into the basin. Walking on level ground boosted my confidence. I only had a slight limp. I could do this.
For the next half hour, we traversed Pratt Lake, shooting photos of the brilliant fall foliage. At the fourth fork, we turned right toward Melakwa Lake.
Only .6 miles farther, we reached our final destination, windy Lower Tuscohatchie Lake. I took a short ten-minute break to feed Ajax, mix a protein shake, and shoot some photos. I couldn’t risk spending any more time. Not knowing whether my leg injury would become more painful, I wanted as much leeway as possible for our return to the car. We were forty minutes ahead of our turn-around time when we started back, buffeted by strong wind.
Returning to the Car
At Pratt Lake, we spotted two tents near the trail. Somehow, we’d missed them on the way to Lake Tuscohatchie. Did they belong to the three hikers we passed earlier that morning? We continued on toward the Pratt Lake traverse and took another quick snack break. Each time we stopped, I felt my calf stiffen. We had to keep it warm by moving. I’d rest it in the car.
Fortunately, I have very strong legs. They behaved as well as one might expect. We hiked out of the basin without seeing anyone else. Two miles from the trailhead, two Asian women approached with a huge fluffy dog. They didn’t respond to my greeting. Within a mile of the car, we spotted two other solo hikers, both women.
I felt the top of my calf with every step, but the low-grade ache told me I’d heal in a few days. On the way out, I briefly wondered what I would have done if I’d gotten seriously injured. What if I’d tried taking a step and couldn’t bear weight? I could have been in big trouble. And seeing so few people on the trail — nobody equipped to help anyone beyond themselves — I had to trust my ability and be self-reliant. There was no other option.
During the last hour, I said aloud, “Thank you X,” for all the things I was grateful for: my strong legs for getting me out safely. My boots for protecting my feet. Ajax, for his wonderful companionship. The light breeze for keeping me comfortable. The melody of the streams, and the colorful leaves. Not a single piece of trash anywhere. And the first sight of my car at 3:14.
We’d reached Lower Tuscohatchie Lake, gotten some great fall foliage shots, and made it out safely, all while avoiding panic. After several days of resting and stretching, I’m ready to hike again. Injury averted. Mental wellness re-established. Confidence restored. Mission accomplished.