The Other Side
I took one of my favorite hikes late last season, up to Cramer Lakes in the Sawtooths. The lakes lie at an altitude of almost 8,400 feet, and Redfish Lake—that’s where you start up—is a little over 6,500 feet, so it’s what’s called an “accessible” hike. There are much harder ones in the area, believe me, but it’s a full day up and a day back, and I spend another day poking around and shooting some photos and maybe hooking a few fish, so it’s a good three days in all.
I’d parked behind the lodge, eaten a big breakfast and talked for a few minutes on the dock with one of the other hikers, an older fellow, before setting out on the shuttle. He had a weathered look about him, along with decades-old clothes and jacket to match, and we made the kind of small talk you make when you’re going to be in a stranger’s company for a while. I mentioned where I was going, and he replied that he was headed to Madeline Lake. I nodded, hating to reveal my ignorance, since I’ve lived in the Stanley Basin for years, but the truth is I’d never heard of Madeline Lake. (On top of everything else, I’m guessing that’s how it’s spelled, since there’s more than one way.)
It was a crisp morning—they’re always crisp here when they aren’t downright freezing—but I’ve never found the five-mile trip across the lake to the trailhead unpleasant. It’s a restful prelude to the hike, and a good chance for me to clear my mind of the extraneous thoughts that are normally crowding it.
I’m going to call the old man “Joe,” since I need a handle for him, and somehow, he looked like a Joe. In any case, our routes apparently lay together up the cleared trail through the valley floor for the first part of the climb, so I let him take the lead. Whatever concerns I might have had about his age, he didn’t seem to have any trouble with the climb, but after about half an hour, he sat down on a boulder to retie his boots. As I joined him on a nearby boulder, he fumbled open the pocket of his flannel shirt to take something out. I assumed it would be a map, but when I glanced over, he was holding what looked like a snapshot.
“My wife,” Joe explained. “She asked me to keep her picture with me.”
I nodded, but all I had seen was a pale rectangle.
“She says things are a little … indistinct there,” he continued.
He stared at the snapshot, and I had the impression that he would have kissed it if I hadn’t been there. I turned away.
“Well, this is where I turn off,” Joe finally said, putting the photo away and nodding toward a wooded ridge that rose alongside the trail ahead of us. “I’m headed for the other side.”
I wished him luck and he raised his hand in farewell as he began working his way through the brush around a deadfall at the tip of the ridge. Could there be an unmarked trail there? I thought about checking, but I didn’t want to lose my momentum, so I continued on my way.
# # #
Finishing a long hike is as satisfying as starting it, and I try to stretch out the pleasure for as long as possible. In this case, I visited the bar that runs along the side of the lodge, an unpretentious little place that can’t have changed much since the lodge was built in 1929. I was looking forward to a quiet hour nursing a beer, resting my boots on the fender of the fireplace and thinking over the hike as the evening set in.
I’d set up my tent in a good spot between the upper and lower lakes and enjoyed a big meal of pan-fried trout the second night. And I’d gotten some good panoramic shots of the Stanley Basin that I would work up back home. But thinking about my photographs reminded me of Joe and his snapshot, if that’s really what it had been. It wasn’t important, but the incident puzzled me. Like I said, all I’d seen was a pale, empty rectangle. When I’d questioned the shuttle pilot on the way back an hour before, he didn’t think that he’d seen Joe since that first morning, so maybe the man knew another way out. Or maybe he was still up there. His pack, which had looked about as old as he was, wasn’t that big, so he’d have to be eating a lot of trout.
# # #
A few days later I had some business at the ranger station and thought I’d ask the ranger about Madeline Lake. He hadn’t head of it either, but that wasn’t conclusive.
“I learn something every day,” he explained. I knew from long experience that he tended to talk in clichés.
“Let’s see,” he continued, taking one book and then another off the shelves behind his desk. I recognized all of them, but didn’t say anything. Next, he pulled open a wide drawer and pulled out some topos. I’d tried those too, but it was reassuring to see someone else going through the same motions.
Finally the ranger turned to his computer and checked a USGS database of place names. I recognized its layout immediately.
“Huh!” He shook his head and finally turned back to me. “Maybe the fellow knows something we don’t.”
Thinking that I couldn’t have put it better myself, I thanked the ranger and headed back to my pickup. The first storm of the season was on the way, and I wanted to get home before it hit.
# # #
My thanks to Jim Stark for describing the incident I’ve dramatized in this story and for providing me with detailed information about hiking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Reader’s Guide to the Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (Scarecrow Press, 2002), Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor ofArt Patronmagazine.He blogs about travel and related matters at worldenoughblog.wordpress.com.