Molly Smithson

Ultralight Weight Ultralight Beam: 40 Miles through the Oregon Forest

Molly Smithson
Ultralight Weight Ultralight Beam: 40 Miles through the Oregon Forest

Six months ago, my mom and I made the most basic bitch decision of our lives. We watched Wild, bawled like babies and decided that we'd go on a mother-daughter 40-mile trek. At the time, it was a pipe dream, one contingent upon my parents' safe arrival in Oregon, what was then my work schedule and if we could both get our asses in gear enough to walk hundreds of thousands of steps. Somehow all those pieces came together. As the picture of our backpacking trip from the Marion Lake trailhead in Willamette National Forest to Olallie Lake in Mount Hood National Forest became more clear, our excitement and fear both grew. 

Day 1: So clean. 

Day 1: So clean. 

My mother has lupus. That means sun exposure and prolonged joint usage, two of the main things that happen when you're hiking 5-10 miles a day, can cause a flare, which would have knocked her on her ass and left us miles in the Mount Jefferson wilderness, unsure of what to do. I had never 'led' such a long trip. While I had backpacked before, it was with more experienced people who took the lead on cooking food, getting water, inspiring me on the uphill, or talking me through treacherous slogs downhill. 

When we began on Tuesday, it became apparent that that would be my role. And once I accepted that responsibility, the fear and uncertainty melted away. Lessons in leave no trace ethics and general wilderness safety I hadn't thought about for five years, since my pre-college backpacking trip, returned with immense clarity. 

For all the trails that we blazed, Maria kept us on track and steady. She set a safe pace and checked our maps regularly, something I'll admit I'm still not great at. 

Soon, we forgot about taking photos, because every second was a stunning, fleeting moment that wove a tapestry of an immense journey.

The first day, my mother made me laugh so hard I cried when she exclaimed that the ducks in Ann Lake were having a 'little duck party' in the same cadence as Linda from Bob's Burgers.

The second day, we grew so exasperated by climbing over about 50 fallen logs from a forest fire that, on the verge of tears, we put up our camp in a spooky outcrop of old growth forest. We awoke in the forest primeval, pine trees too big to wrap your arms around shooting up all around. 

As much as I love straddling wood, this got a little repetitive.. 

As much as I love straddling wood, this got a little repetitive.. 

When we hit the PCT on the third day, trail conditions improved immensely. It really is like a pedi-highway, connecting the best parts of North America. I fell into a groove, each bootprint propelling me closer to our camp spot at Scout Lake. 

First time on the PCT since I was probably 7 years old 

First time on the PCT since I was probably 7 years old 

I could keep going forever. There's nothing here to aspire to, just putting one foot in front of the other.

I thought of Santa Claus is Coming to Town where they sing that song- where walking inspires the mean winter warlock to cheer up. Ever since I was a kid, I loved walking anywhere because of that- it's so simple. 

Through the advent of technology, a dichotomy in how we represent outdoor activities has grown. We want the coolest photos, the most authentic Instagram moments. We need to climb the highest peaks, then be able to show off the most aspirational summit shots on our social channels. As a former social media manager for outdoor brands, it's something I grew to know well and strived for too much. I was glad to go out and return to what it all really means this week.   

I love sharing a record of my life on social media. If you think about what purpose media has served from the Gutenberg press to 'the Facebook,' it has always been to record our goings on, whether it be a journal or a newspaper, and social media is no different... Except it is, because a filter, angle, caption or hashtag subtly alters our perception. It makes that true, dare I say 'authentic' experience less accessible. 

These are the 'ultralight weight ultralight beam' moments, as Kanye would say: the fleeting moments in nature that can't be redefined via pixels or copy (thanks to Morgan Lambert for a phrase so witty, I have reserved it in my brain for the perfect usage). While trying to explain this via this post or Instagram may inspire you to go outside, it will never replace the real thing.

It is like eating huckleberry jam as compared to fresh huckleberries picked off a bush at the side of the trail at 5400 feet. Those moments get future generations invested in preserving wilderness areas, that connect politicians with natural lands and allow us to create outdoor industry jobs in America, not 140 characters or a photo on an Instagram feed. 

Wouldn't it be cool if you could taste these berries, Wonkavision style, so it wouldn't be so ironic that I'm trying to describe my epiphanies?

Wouldn't it be cool if you could taste these berries, Wonkavision style, so it wouldn't be so ironic that I'm trying to describe my epiphanies?

On our third day, we camped in Jefferson Park, beneath Mount Jefferson. The mountain glowed pink in the sunset. Whiskey and an MRE chocolate mudslide were greatly enjoyed. 

Our final day was the longest, which was daunting. I became anxious about making it in time. 

Again, my mom reminded me to slow down, to be proud of how far we've come and not waste the final day trying to make everything happen. You don't need to aspire to something you've seen on someone else's Instagram feed- you just need to win your own day, to be proud of how far you can safely and enjoyable go.

We made it to an fantastic outlook of Mount Jefferson and had some folks take our photo. 

For our southern friends, that's a real mountain... With real glaciers... 

For our southern friends, that's a real mountain... With real glaciers... 

How many people can say they've done this with their parent? Looked up from the base of the mountain and actually say you've completed a challnge you had just dreamt about together. 

The entire trip, my mother, as she always has in life, balanced defining her own experience while putting her children's needs first. She always gave me more food or would reach over and tuck my sleeping bag over my face. But if it was too much for her, she let me know. She celebrated her own successes while lifting us both up. 

Maria makes it through one of many rocky descents off the base of Mount Jefferson

Maria makes it through one of many rocky descents off the base of Mount Jefferson

"I'm amazed I made it," she said to me in our final mile, "I couldn't have done this with anyone but you."

We held hands walking into Olallie Lake, where we both spent our childhood summers fishing and swimming. My dad, Nora and Hayden met us there, for a night of beers, MREs that amazed the kids and bacon (BACON!) in the morning.