My friend Aaron and I spent parts of two days tromping in and around Denali National Park in early May. The mountains were spectacular, the moose were enormous and the snowy owl that flew across my line of vision was a delightful surprise. Even the ptarmigan that sat on the side of the road looking like a punk-rock chicken was a charming diversion. Indeed, everything about Denali was wonderful. But I had traveled 3,700 miles to get there, and I wanted more than wonderful.
I wanted to see so many eagles I got bored with them, to have call-and-response howling with coyotes, to play gin rummy with bears. Just kidding. Bears play euchre. But seriously—you know how it is before a hike you’re excited about, right? You set your expectations so sky-high, or at least I do, that even a great hike can’t live up to them. I couldn’t count how many friends I’d told before the trip, “We’re going to hike Denali,” over-enunciating Denali, as if the very word foretold awesomeness.
I expected the hike to give me a searing freeze-frame memory, a tremendous true tale worthy of the Tall One, which is what Denali means in Koyukon.
It didn't—at least not while I was there.
My Denali moment came long after I left. A week after we got home, Aaron texted me two photos and they transformed my entire memory of Denali. Gone was my subtle disappointment and in its place was a tremendous true tale I’ll tell forever.
My Denali experience made me think about the great expectations we all set on hiking. We go in with preconceived notions and come out disappointed when they aren’t met. But I’ve noticed a strange trend in my hiking life: Some hikes have a way of becoming retroactively better than I had ever hoped.
That’s why the photos Aaron sent me made me think of my first-ever backpacking trip, which was on the Appalachian Trail (AT). That hike, unlike Denali, wasn’t wonderful in the present. In fact, it was a disaster of such monumental proportions that if the aftermath weren’t so great, I might have never hiked again. But that hike, like the one in Denali, got better after it was over.
I was so excited the night before the AT hike that I couldn’t sleep. I felt foolish—a 41-year-old man shouldn’t be so wound up that he tosses and turns all night. On the other hand, it was going to be my first overnight hike, and I had been looking forward to it for three months.
Night finally ended, dawn arrived, we put our boots on the trail and yikes. What a mess. Start with the rain. The famous brown ribbon of a trail that runs from Georgia to Maine became a creek. The only way to avoid stepping in ankle-deep water was to straddle the sides of the trail. The rain fell in such thick sheets that if one of the four of us lagged just 50 feet behind, he disappeared into the torrent.
On top of the terrible weather, add my poor choices due to inexperience. I wore a pair of bargain-rack rain pants. About five minutes into the hike, a briar pricked the right leg. That tiny tear became a full circle, and three-quarters of the pant-leg dropped down to my ankle. An hour later, the left side tore and separated, too. We hadn’t even stopped for lunch, and my rain pants were already in three pieces. It looked like I was wearing matching leg warmers and shorts.
That was bad enough. Under those rain pants, I wore 100 percent cotton pants, which was 150 percent foolish. They were waterlogged minutes after my rain pants fell apart. I carried a borrowed backpack, and I had not asked for the rain cover. Everything inside got soaked.
By mid-afternoon, the drenching turned me from miserable to—I don’t want to say afraid, but I was close to that. I worried about sleeping in wet clothes in a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent on wet ground. The only way to get warm and dry was to build a fire. That would have been impossible, because even if it had stopped raining, every piece of kindling and wood would have been soaked beyond burnable. The temperature was 10 degrees cooler than had been forecasted. The difference between high 50s and dry and high 40s and sopping is the difference between awesome and never hiking again.
By luck, our targeted campsite happened to be close to Overmountain Shelter near the Tennessee–North Carolina border. We immediately decided to sleep there. It’s an old barn, and on this night, it must have been one of the most populated shelters on the AT. By nightfall, I counted 27 people spread across the two floors. We passed around food and drink and stories of rain-soaked horror with our shelter mates. The fact we all suffered meant we all suffered a little less.
We set up a tent inside the shelter for privacy, though I was walking around wearing dark blue long johns in front of complete strangers, so it’s not like I was bashful. All night, I heard the pitter-patter of little feet, not because there were small children running around, but because mice used the roof of my tent to throw a dance party.
Somehow, I still got a good night's sleep. The next morning, my clothes remained drenched. One of my buddies let me borrow some of his; he’s about six inches taller than I am, so I pulled the pants nearly up to my armpits. That still beat my three-piece rain pants.
Someone at the shelter made excellent coffee. It warmed my still-chilled bones. So did the sun as it rose above the mountains. The good morning started the redemption of the previous day’s misery.
The hike continued it. I walked alongside Andy. Before that trip, Andy and I had been friends—we lived in the same neighborhood, and our daughters, who have the exact same birthday, were friends. But we hadn’t been close.
That hike—because of the shared suffering, the talks on the trail, the laughter about the pants—started a transformation of our friendship. In the months and years to come, Andy became one of my best friends. We have hiked all over North Carolina together, spent hundreds of hours talking as we watched our kids play at the park and leaned on each other in tough times. It makes all the cold, all the soaking, all the worry worth it—many times over.
Just like my memory of that AT hike is a fond one because of what happened after, so too, is my Denali memory. The two pictures Aaron sent me were of a four-legged creature we had seen from the car on the main road in Denali. The conversation had gone like this: What is that? Is that a dog? What would a dog be doing way out here? It can’t be a wolf, can it? It has a collar. And what would a wolf be doing in the middle of the road? Wouldn’t a wolf run when it saw our car?
I had forgotten about the animal until Aaron sent me the pictures. Once we looked closely at them, we both wondered if we had missed something big. In one picture, the animal looked like a dog I’d love to play fetch with. In the other, it looked primal, hungry, mean.
But was it a dog? Neither one of us knew. All week long in Alaska, from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back again, while hunting, hiking, boating and riding ATVs, I had from time to time seen a splash of brown out of the corner of my eye and jerked my head quickly, sure that what had turned out to be a downed tree had actually been a bear. (I really wanted to see a bear.) Now, I didn’t want to jump to conclusions that a creature that looked like a dog, walked like a dog and had a collar like a dog was anything but a dog.
I forwarded the pictures to a public affairs officer at Denali. After receiving the first picture, she said that she thought it was a wolf but wanted to check. After the second: “It’s definitely a wolf.” She said only a fraction of people who go to Denali see a wolf. “Congratulations,” she said in an email.
When you get congratulated because of what you saw on a hike, you know the hike was awesome—even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
Now Aaron and I laugh about that picture, and our less-than-informed response to it, just like Andy and I laugh about the rain and my torn pants. Neither of those hikes went anywhere near like I imagined they would. Neither of them met my preconceived notions of great. But both turned out far better than I would have imagined, and that’s a lesson I’ll remember every time a trip isn’t perfect.
Now it’s time to prepare for my next hike, which will be in Big Bend National Park in Texas. It looks like it will be totally awesome. I can’t wait to find out how.