The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep”
— Robert Frost
There’s an old abandoned railroad grade called the Iron Horse Trail, the old railbed of the Milwaukee Road, that winds up to Snoqualmie Pass from North Bend along the northern flanks of Mount Washington, Change Peak, McClellan Butte and Silver Peak before running into what was in its day the longest tunnel on the Milwaukee Road system, then to emerge at the west end of Lake Keechelus at the top of the pass. This blog post is not really about that trail.
Pictures of the Iron Horse Trail online now show repaired trestles that have no rails across them but instead smooth, walkable, bikeable, joggable paths, but when my friend Rich and I hiked along the railway there long ago, it was still physically a railroad, with rails and ties, and there was one trestle that we walked out on whose middle had collapsed many years before. We always saw it from the highway going up into the pass. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but it was the crumbling infrastructure of a world long gone.
The day we hiked along the rails we heard gunshots, someone shooting a rifle, but didn’t worry about it until we emerged from a wooded section of the railbed and saw a man standing next to a pickup that was parked next to the rails and looking sheepish. When he realized we were not authorities of any kind he told us he’d been target practicing along the tracks, hadn’t expected anyone to be walking up here, and was surprised when he saw my tee-shirt in the cross-hairs of his scope. My tee-shirt was blue and had a big rooster on it. Both the marksman and I were lucky that day, to say nothing of the rooster.
I had hoped my hiking buddy Scott and I might hike part of the Iron Horse Trail this past Saturday. But a sick man allegedly shot his wife and his daughter in their North Bend home the previous Sunday, then burned down the house by setting a can of gasoline in a skillet on a lit stove and headed for his bunker in the woods, where he had stockpiled food and ammunition for a last stand. Scott, who lives in North Bend, didn’t want to hike anywhere in the Snoqualmie Valley while the manhunt was going on. I agreed. The night before our hike, news reports were quoting forest experts who said that the man, a well-equipped survivalist, might be able to remain hidden in the mountains for months or years, which left us with the future prospect of hiking where we ran the risk of running into this desperado, or forsaking the Snoqualmie Valley completely and using up precious hike time on the highway to places further away.
As it turned out we needn’t have worried; the police work on this case was executed very swiftly. Images on the man’s computer, which survived the fire, practically put an X on the map for those in pursuit, and by the time I was driving to meet Scott the next morning I heard that special police teams were watching the man’s bunker, and before our day of hiking was done they would find him dead inside it, leaving us all to realize over and over again that even if they’d taken him alive there would have been no use asking what he was thinking.
Our wives had only given us shore leave until one o’clock, but we started early and drove up to Highway 2 to hike the Lake Serene trail, figuring if we didn’t have time to get all the way to the lake we could go as far as the Bridal Veil Falls Lookout.
We stopped for breakfast at the Hitching Post Cafe in Monroe, old Monroe, Main Street Monroe, which most people driving through Monroe don’t even know exists because it’s across the tracks from the main highway. I love Monroe’s Main Street because you can drive down the street and when you see a cafe you want to eat at advertising “A Taste of Old Monroe” you can just tug the steering wheel a little to the right and angle into a wide space, which is what we did.
A day like this would not be complete, would not start well, without a good hungry man breakfast. I had the French Toast combo — I always do — and Scott got a similar arrangement with griddle cakes. The old men of the town were already there, having finished breakfast and now chatting over coffee. We sat in a booth painted with a little mural of a steam engine, “Pat McCoy’s 4-4-0”. There were other, larger murals covering all the surrounding walls, one depicting the street in the 1950s. Wood models of Conestoga wagons lined the shelves, and there were several old pistols, a guitar and a long logger’s crosscut saw hanging on the walls. The food was delicious and plentiful.
The trail was adorned with trilliums, yellow violets and salmonberry (I took pictures, naturally) and as far as the fork between the falls lookout and the lake it was fairly easy going, which fooled us into thinking we could make the lake in another hour. If this were an official report, I would note that there was a fair amount of downed material lying athwart the trail and that the trail was pretty much a streambed after the turn-off to the falls. Had the trail not been chiefly composed of crumbled granite rocks it would have been muddy going. And it was very steep. In many places there were wooden stairs that might as well have been submarine ladders.
During a water break near the top I called Angela on my cell phone. I don’t normally do this. I like to leave technology behind me when I’m in the woods. She had walked with the girls to a restaurant near the house and they were eating brunch, which made me glad. I knew that at a certain place on their walk home they’d be able to see Mt. Index, and I asked her to point and tell the girls that that’s where I was, and have them wave, which she did. She told them that even though I would not be able to see them waving I would feel it in my heart.
A snowfield lay over the last quarter mile of the trail, and Lake Serene was covered in snow and ice. We were way behind schedule now so we only stayed at the lake’s edge long enough to snap some photos, watch a few avalanches high up on the rock walls that rose from the lake’s far shore — the northern face of Index — and eat our lunches. Then we bolted back down the trail. The only wildlife I saw was a single chipmunk because the trail was so difficult, each step so full of potential for a twisted ankle, that I could never lift my eyes from the trail ahead of me.
Scott and I are attempting to plan and execute a hike — a no-kids, just-us-fellas hike — every other month this year, the even months minus December, so just five hikes. After we met a man on the trail who seemed in his seventies at least, Scott said to me cheerfully that we still had a few good hiking years in us. I got to thinking. That’s just twenty years for me now — Scott is a little younger. If we hadn’t committed to these five or six hikes every year (and we missed February because of bad colds and scheduling mishaps) then realistically I might only do one hike every year, if that. Twenty more hikes only? In the whole rest of my life? It reminded me of the lines by Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky:
Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Twenty hikes. The thought made me very sad and I said so.
Scott’s happy retort, “but a hundred is better!”, went ahead of us like the call of a trumpet, seemed to be picked up and amplified by the forest.
Faithful Scott. Yes. I’ll take a hundred, please. A hundred more hikes in these rolling fir hills that hatched me. And I’ll be grateful for them. I don’t like it that we get old. That death comes for us all. I hope someday to find a grace and a rhythm and a dignity in it, but right now it just bums me out, as it bums me out that a man can go round the twist without his neighbors knowing it, without them knowing that he’s spent six years building and stocking an underground munitions bunker in the woods, and that he will be willing to kill his family when he has decided the end of the world is at hand.