Esmerelda Basin to the Cle Elum River via Fortune Creek Pass, Lake Ann, Van Epps Pass, and Fortune Creek
August 8, 2021
I sleep uneasily in the seeping rain. Thin ribbons of water run through my headlamp light down the outside of my tent. Once or twice an hour, a deer wanders through my camp, and I worry a bit that I’ve taken its bed. I hope it has a place to keep dry.
It’s still raining as the sunrise turns the black sky grey. I try to wait it out, read for a while, write Krista a letter. But I can’t wait forever, so I put up my things wet and start my slow limp up the trail.
The trail here’s an old jeep track, wide and rocky and wet. The flats beside the Teanaway River are lightly wooded with scraggily fir, but further up the hillside’s bare, the soil made mostly of mineral-poor serpentine rock.
My leg’s killing me, but the scenery’s beautiful: sharp grey granite against a shifting sky, floods of forest in the valleys and basins. Sheets of rain come and go, interspersed with curtains of sun.
I’m so happy to be here.
The trail fades as I pass into the Cle Elum drainage, then braids on the steep hillside that drops toward Lake Ann.
I stop for a moment at the lake to collect some water and check on my leg–I think it’s fine?–then sidehill through the sodden flowers below Ingalls Peak. Here and there small streams drop through the hanging meadows. One deer, then another runs in front of me on the rainy tread.
The trail ends unceremoniously at a tangle of jeep roads, which I follow uncertainly up to Van Epps Pass.
It’s a party up there.
Half a dozen Jeeps are parked at unlikely angles in the clearing, and dozen people—all women, I realize—are gathered around a literal pyramid of beer. One of them shouts out at me: “Who wears short shorts!” Another whistles.
“Oh shit!” The whistler stops as I get closer. “I didn’t realize you were a dude!” I look down at my legs. “You know, it always comes as a surprise to me too.” A second to think. “These…” I’m not sure if this is too much information, “these are my wife’s shorts.”
“We didn’t mean to harass you.”
“It’s no problem! Better that than the other way around.”
This seems to win me some points, and the shouter asks if I want “some beers.” It doesn’t really seem like a question.
It turns out they’re part of an all-female off-roading club out of Seattle, “Tits in Trucks,” and they’re halfway through getting very, very drunk.
We talk happily for a half hour, during which I drink two beers and fend off offers of three more.
My new friends talk about off-roading, what a boy’s club it is, how much they love this place. They started teaming up because they’d often feel unsafe out here alone, alone with the boys. “I bet you could hold your own.” A redheaded woman in her early 20s gives me a high-five—or attempts to (I’m terrible at high-fives)—and smiles broadly. “Hell yea we could.”
I wish I could stay for longer, but I still have miles to go, and so say a too-soon goodbye and turn back down the road. “Hey,” I think of something as I’m leaving. “Do you all have, like, business cards or something? My wife would love you.” The redhead slurs. “No.” She takes on a Batman voice. “But, wherever there’s a road into the wilderness, we’ll be there.”
I’ve been having so much fun that I somehow missed it starting to rain, and it showers on and off for the next few hours as I drip down the absolute maze of jeep roads that switchback circuitously to the Cle Elum River.
Some roads are rocky—big stones that are difficult to walk on, to say nothing of driving—and some are smooth, but by late afternoon I find myself speeding easily on an obvious arterial toward the river. The morning rain’s given way to a bright afternoon, small pools and wet rock glinting in the gentle sun.
I’d imagined a long day today, but my leg’s aching badly by the time I reach the river, and I scan the thin band of forest between road and river for possible places to pitch my little wet tent.
I don’t have to wait long: a mile or two after I reach the river there’s an ancient clump of cleared camps nestled along the water, just barely visible from the road.
I set up in the furthest one, stretch out my dripping rain fly, yard sale my stuff to dry in the dappled sun filtering through the old trees. The river here’s wide and shallow but fast, echoing through a wide bend up Goat Mountain’s shining granite.
I wash off my leg in the river. I’m sure it must be the sun lightening my mood, but the cuts already look better.
Then a long, lovely afternoon spent moving my things from sun patch to sun patch as they slowly approach something almost like dry. Cars come and go, mostly big rigs roaring in the distance.
I eat by the water, watching tiny trout the size of tadpoles tearing back and forth, perpendicular to the current.
I get to thinking about my friends from earlier, swimming against the stream. About how much richer the world is for having them in it.