“There’s an animal in the trail,” I said. My words were slow. My heart was sprinting.
“It’s a cougar,” my friend Eli responded. Not because I needed him to tell me that – it was very clear that the large cat in front of us wasn’t a bunny rabbit. It was the size of a quarterback and its long tail dangled from its muscular haunches.
Eli’s obvious words were simply to fill the space between paralysis and panic. While our fight-or-flight instincts decided how to respond to the threat of a wild carnivore with jaws of dagger-teeth and legs that can leap 40 feet in a single bound.
It couldn’t be more fitting that we were standing face-to-face with a large predatory feline at the end of this particular run. We were on our 35th mile of the day, and nearly every single one of those miles had thrown some new and heinous challenge at us. We’d endured harrowing river crossings, slick hillsides where we slipped and slid into faceplants and beehives, and steep scree fields that turned our ankles into jelly as we surfed loose rocks for thousands and thousands of feet. And, of course, the fatigue from traveling so many miles on foot – all for a run we were doing for “fun.”
Before shit went sideways, the day had gotten off to a very gentle and pleasurable start – we’d watched sunrise paint the sky from a sprawling meadow, which was shifting to the golden hues of fall. The trail was soft and buttery beneath our feet and the horizon was flooded with mountains.
But by the time we were on our fifth mile, the run had gone real downhill. This particular loop has a several-mile off-trail section that travels over Yakima land. The tribe allows recreation on this stretch of earth, but hasn’t developed it to include a formal trail. We’d foolishly believed this was because they didn’t want to encourage too much recreation, but we soon realized it might have more to do with how downright hostile this slice of land is.
The end of the designated trail deposited us onto the rim of a glacial canyon that felt closer to “cliff” than I prefer my running terrain. We gazed at the ground ahead of us and glanced down at the GPX track of the route – which was our primary guide through the off-trail section. The track on our screens instructed us to go straight down the belly of the beast of a scree field. We stared ahead in disbelief. Then back at our map – which confirmed we should plunge our bodies into the steep and rocky abyss. “You should go first,” I said to Eli. Mostly to spare myself the embarrassment of a witness to my movement. I have all of the grace of a drunken giraffe on loose and dicey terrain.
Eli scrambled down the rocky slope. His arms waving in every direction. His feet two-stepping across the sea of boulders.
When we got to the bottom, we glanced back up and shook our heads in disbelief at the thousands of feet we’d just descended. The land behind us was a violent swath of crimson cliffs and steep and unforgiving slopes. Geography that looked more appropriate for an apocalyptic battle than a fun run.
“You would have to pay me at least $10,000 to do that again,” I declared. Not realizing I was about to be served a heaping helping of steep scree slope seconds. We’d scoured the internet for trail beta before the trek, but information was real scarce and none of it did this section any justice.
We continued on across the vast valley of the glacial canyon. The snow-capped volcano towered above us with the spidery limbs of its glaciers crawling down the mountain.
It wasn’t the friendliest terrain, but it was indisputably striking. We were the lone humans in some of the wildest and most remote land I’d ever traveled. It was impossible not to be flooded with awe at where we were and how we were experiencing it.
“Emily! Emily!” Eli hollered. His voice squeaked with desperation. “Where are you!”
I burst into laughter as I saw Eli’s bright blue cap just a few inches away, through the dense brush that swallowed us whole.
“I’m right here,” I giggled back at him.
“Oh my god, this is wretched! I am not experiencing any pleasure right now!”
I started throwing my arms into the wall of willow like machetes – with much poorer results than a sharp blade might get.
By the time we emerged from the extra thick thickets, our limbs were covered in bright red lacerations – a promise we wouldn’t forget this tender moment on the flanks of Mount Adams anytime soon.
When we reached the top of that canyon, we realized we had another steep wall of scree to descend. My gut did a gymnastics routine at the reality before us. A thundering river pounded below, an ominous warning of the next heart-pounding hurdle that awaited us.
When we finally saw the designated trail on the other side of the off-trail section, I fell to my knees and planted a kiss on the soft soil. I’d never been happier to see a strip of man-maintained trail.
“Just a casual marathon to go!” Eli cheered.
We started running and rotated between expressing gratitude for our time in such incredible terrain and trading jokes about how wretched the trail was.
But, as so often happens, our soaring spirits devolved with the miles.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, our hearts sank with the realization we wouldn’t make it back to civilization before the closest pizzerias powered down their ovens for the night.
“At least the stars are pretty!” Eli cried.
I grumbled something about how I couldn’t order my stars with pepperoni and extra cheese. But, once I could see past my negativity, I had to concede that the night sky was spectacular.
And then we encountered a cougar.
If I wasn’t so terrified, I would have appreciated how comical it was.
But I was real terrified, so instead of laughing, I started swearing – as loud as my tired vocal chords could go.
“Get the fuck out of here!” I cried at the big cat.
The mountain lion kept staring at us and didn’t budge an inch.
“You know how people tell you to throw rocks at a cougar?” I shouted to Eli. “How the hell do they expect you to get the damn rocks?”
Our feet were surrounded by rocks of every shape and size. But you’d have to pay me way more than $10,000 to crouch over and pick one up while a massive cougar was just a few feet away, watching my every move.
“NOT TODAY, MOTHERFUCKER,” bellowed Eli.
The big cat finally decided he’d had enough of our nonstop profanities and leaped onto one of the downed trees by the trail. After staring at us from his perch for a very uncomfortable stretch of minutes, he disappeared behind the log.
We took advantage of the moment to grab large rocks and started banging them together as we shuffled back-to-back down the trail, scanning every inch of the dark forest around us for glowing eyes.
As we saw the silhouette of the trailhead and our car emerging through the dark night, I let out a deep exhale. The promise of safety – and finally being done with this run – was just a few steps away.
“I’m so glad that is over!” I cried, as we threw our bodies into the shelter of the car and yanked open a bag of kettle chips.
I shoved a handful of chips in my face and thought about the day – full of more lows than highs. But we had made it. We had powered our way through some of the hardest terrain my feet (and butt and arms) have met. And we had covered some of the most striking trail – and not-trail – miles I’d ever run while doing it.
“That was the worst run I’ve ever been on,” I laughed. “But, I think it was maybe fun, too.”
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