Seeking Hidden Lake
omeone always, always asks the question, and so I learn to veil my nerves.
“Nope, not really that scared at all,” I say with a sustained grin. "But of course I'm scared," I think to myself in an actual response, from the moment my eyelids open to the moment they close.
Most everyone bought my bull and congratulated my fortitude on the spot, saying things like, “You’re going all by yourself? I could never do that!” My own mother, though, is none too enchanted by my bravery. In one of those panicked moments when I can't actually believe what I am about to head out to do, when my smile contains as much honest excitement as Gushers contain real fruit, she strikes.
“Just think of everything that can happen to a twenty-four year old woman driving five thousand miles alone, backpacking, staying with strangers and camping out in the wilderness. What if someone you interview reacts negatively? Violently? What if someone you photograph sues you, or worse, follows you back to your campsite, sees you cooking by yourself and makes an advance on you? Overpowers you? What if you run into a Grizzly bear? You gonna put your voice recorder up to his drooling mouth and ask for his perception of joy? This whole thing is just… it’s romantic, Nicole, this sleeping under a starry blanket, this touching hearts business — I mean, really, what the hell are you thinking?”
She stares right into my eyes. We're at the kitchen table on a Thursday night, she in her chair, I in what was once my father’s. His death two years earlier is why I am so willing to put myself in danger. It's been those same two years since I felt joy, and I know that if I don’t rock my lifeboat now, it will remain commandeered, but adrift.
Five days later, I do it. I declare myself the Joy Scout and set out on a six-week expedition through the western US and Canada. I've been thinking about this for months and finally it's just me, my gear, and my Subaru out there on the open road discovering how people define, find, and experience one coveted feeling: joy. By Labor Day, I'm in Montana at the Continental Divide. I arrive at Logan Pass by way of the Going to the Sun Road, serpentining above bowl-shaped valleys to connect the west entrance of Glacier National Park to the east — and before that, Flathead Lake, Missoula, The Grand Tetons, Jackson, Salt Lake City, Provo, Bryce, Zion, The Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas.
At one in the afternoon, I turn into what appears to be the most crowded parking lot in GNP and am surprised by my visceral response to it. My jaw clenches and my back edges away from the driver’s seat. There are too many people, too many cars. Cars in parking spots, cars in spots that aren’t actually spots, cars in lines waiting for spots to empty. If this congestion is any indication of how packed the trails will be, I think, I’ll go elsewhere — and then the Mazda to my right pulls out. A spot. Cue the 'Hallelujah' chorus.
In the Visitor’s Center, a tall man, Ranger Rob, unfurls a map on the low, glass counter to show just how many trailheads I have to choose from. “For a solo hiker in the middle of bear country,” he says, his words muffled by a dense beard, “Hidden Lake would be the place to start. It’s got remarkable views and moderate foot traffic — though I highly advise you tack onto someone’s group, or, in the least, trail closely behind.”
The one occasion that I've ventured out completely alone so far was in Zion National Park four days prior; a Mountain Ram the size of a Mini Cooper charged me along a narrow ledge, and though I evaded injury, all color in my bold streak faded rapidly. Thus I opt to share the trail than to walk it in stark isolation and heed Ranger Rob's advice.
For a mile and a half, I pace young couples with Baby Bjorns strapped to their fronts and their backs. I alternate between passing groups of phone-clutching twenty-somethings and retirees with their thumbs interlaced behind their backs. I slow behind kids as they snake between their father’s legs in pursuit of Marmots, and fall back in humility when I remember to look up and around. There is no question that I feel safer with people in sight, but each laugh, cry, bicker, and banter are keeping all that stands around me just out of reach — those distractions, like a velvet rope at a museum, distanced me from the Alpine meadows, the wildlife, the art.
Up above, there's still snow between rock folds. Clouds part and the sun beams down as hikers catch breath and snap photos at the boardwalk that overlooks Hidden Lake; this boardwalk doesn't end, but rather turns into a cul-de-sac, turning people around and ushering them back down the very planks they've just ascended. Only after I step away from the crowd do I notice a faint trail stretching out like a finger from a palm — it led to Hidden Lake and it was empty. Each person, family, everyone — they come this far and they turn around.
Whether they had second thoughts, I’ll never know, but a pang in my own chest, and perhaps the whisper of a Robert Frost poem, tells me to finish what I started. I wait a few moments, thinking that surely someone else will want to forge ahead, to sit on the lakeshore and skip rocks and submerge a toe into water that was once a thick ice block. No such person emerges for me to follow. No such security. Ranger Rob, the mountain ram, that taste of metal and adrenaline in my mouth, my father, my mother, the drooling Grizzly with my mangled voice recorder hanging from his mouth, my ego — it all envelops me in a hypnotic swell and I'm dizzy with unsolicited advice and warning, disappointment and fear. I'm at the intersection of 'should' and 'must.'
Maybe everyone has it right to head back; what could I see down there that I couldn’t from up here? This is good enough for them, they got their exercise, their pictures, their fresh air; I shouldn’t hike alone; no one knows I’m here; my phone has no service — I swayed like a convert between 'go' and 'don’t go.'
And so I go, damned if I let another day go by without a burst of courage. From the lookout, it's a mile and a half down to Hidden Lake — I'll be fine. Totally fine, I think as I take a deep breath and project the "Hey Bear" chorus out in front of me, a tip I picked up at a bar in Jackson.
“It’s like you’re visiting someone’s home,” a retired chair lift operator in a denim vest with a wool collar said to me while spinning his snifter, “you wouldn’t just barge in and show up in their bedroom. You’d knock, and give them a chance to decide whether or not they want to come to the door — that’s what you’re doing when you yell ‘Hey bear’, you’re knocking on a bear’s door.”
The puddle of ice water that my former leaders overlooked grows bigger and ever more beautiful, and when its shores are no longer hidden, I sit and lay along them, alert and on guard, sweating and sighing reliefs with great enthusiasm. No one is around to see my rock skip, and yet it does, seven triumphant times. No one is around to watch me realize just what it is the hell I'm thinking — that fear will not paralyze me. My place wasn’t with the cold, timid souls that Theodore Roosevelt once described as knowing neither victory nor defeat. I'm doing what I feel I must. I've entered the arena. [H]
Nicole Varvitsiotes is a traveling writer who catalogs joy. A contributor to Kinfolk Magazine, Darling Magazine, The Daily Muse, Forbes and Mashable, she lives in San Francisco, California. Follow her on Instagram here.