I borrow Kayla’s Brazil backpack — cerulean with a yellow silk flower — so I can join a co-worker for a short hike and camp trip somewhere around Stanley.
“Want to meet up sometime next month and go for a hike or something?” my co-worker Jesse asked in a Slack message.
“That would be great,” I answered.
All of us in the small company work from home. Having started only a few months ago, I’ve not yet met any of them in person. Jesse would be the first.
I live in Boise, Idaho, and Jesse in western Montana. After a low bandwidth discussion, we have a plan for the famed Sawtooth mountains near Stanley, Idaho — a bit over three hours’ drive for me and almost four for Jesse. Within the Sawtooths “are 57 peaks with an elevation over 10,000 feet” and almost 350 miles of trails.¹
Fog and low clouds swirling into an azure sky, succumbing to the morning sun, help allay apprehension I’ve had about matching my perennially pained knees with the highly accomplished hiker and skier that Jesse is.
“I got here like thirty seconds ago,” Jesse says as we shake hands in the gravel lot alongside Stanley Lake.
Until two days ago, it turns out, he was expecting a day hike, not camping. Our communications team recently went on a camping, backpacking trip. “I guess I took my cue from them,” I explain of my overnight assumption. “And the drive time.” We chuckle at the near miss.
“The first water crossing” I muse as we balance across wet limbs and clumps of grass where marsh has overcome the road. It would be funny to fall in the water before we even reach the trail.
“How much does yours weigh?” I’d asked Jesse back at the parking lot.
“About eighteen pounds.”
I allowed a bit of extra weight to test the idea of a longer trip with my brothers in a month but was shocked to hear his pack is 27 pounds lighter than mine. How did he do that? I imagine I’ll start setting up my tent and he’ll just pull out a bunch of balloons — “Surprise! I only brought these.”
The trail is littered with deadfall, more than I expected outside of a burned area — step up, step down, left quadricep, right quadricep, ignoring Jesse’s sprightly hops ahead.
The trail follows the old road to Greenback Mine which first saw claims in 1903, was worked in the mid-1900s and abandoned by 1967.¹ Most indications of the road, and that way of life, are now long erased.
U.S. Geological Survey, Bulletin 1319-D, “Studies Related to Wilderness Primitive Areas: Sawtooth, Idaho,” p. 93: pubs.usgs.gov/…/report
After finding no logs to balance across, we grudgingly pull off socks and shoes to wade through Stanley Lake Creek and continue up the trail. I looked for a clever way to carry my usual camera gear but now I realize the hassle of it hanging off the front of the backpack’s waist belt.¹ I almost can’t bend over to reach my shoes.
“Maybe it’s a wilderness boundary,” Jesse suggests when I wonder about the point of a no-motorcycles sign several miles into a hiking-only trail.
Our first destination is Bridal Veil Falls, a name I think every state uses at least once. Pictures I’d seen led me to think it was readily accessible at the base of the thousand foot descent from Hansen Lakes but now we see it’s a good ways up. The day is young so up we go.
Sweat running off my head (I gave up the hat a while ago) elicits no obvious sympathy from Jesse who might as well be whistling as he walks.
Snow still reigns above 7,500 feet but the climb is leveling off as we near the lake basin so we opt to push on and see if there might be a place there to camp.
Photo by Jesse Crocker
“Glad I didn’t bring my pole,” Jesse says when finally we reach the lake expanse of snow and ice.
“Deep U-shaped valleys, sharp arêtes, cirque headwalls, tarn lakes, and roche moutonnées define the topography. The steep peaks are further accentuated by steeply-dipping joints, which give the range its trademark name, ‘sawtooth’.”¹
We aren’t prepared for snow camping so after a look around, we begin backtracking. Jesse is kind to lend me one of his poles for the snow descent.
“I’d rather not have to cross the creek first thing in the morning,” Jesse observes.
“Good thinking,” I acknowledge. Our shoes are already wet so we just walk through the creek and slog up the valley another mile or so to the next clearing. It’s a relief when finally we pull off sopping shoes and hang our socks from limbs.
Apparently he brought more than balloons. Jesse just smiled when I asked, “do you snore or something?” after seeing him set up a ways off. I think it’s just a nice flat spot but I’ve camped alongside guys enough to appreciate the wisdom of distance.
We spend the afternoon propping our shoes at different angles near the fire while discussing software, small towns, kids and western politics. The air turns brisk as the sun finally sets beneath a clear sky.
“I hope you haven’t been up long,” I say when finally I slither out of my small tent to find Jesse tending the fire. He usually starts work a few hours earlier than I do so I wonder if he’s been awake a while.
“No, not too long,” he answers. I can’t tell if he’s just being polite.
It got chilly overnight (so says my frozen cup of water) so we spend a while with hot coffee by the fire before packing for the walk out.
We have to cross the creek one last time. Jesse takes a shot at balancing across a small tree but it’s wet and slippery. We both end up wading again.
The initial miles of the Stanley Lake Trail are designed to be wheelchair accessible. It’s pretty fancy. Our strolling discussion turns from how to eek academic success from a teen as disinterested as he is capable to Gaia GPS feature ideas.
“Oh, sorry, there’s no snow,” I say to a couple we pass with skis on their backs.
“We’ll see,” they laugh.
As we’re crossing the meadow near Stanley Lake, Jesse nods at a ribbon of snow reaching the top of McGown Peak and explains that’s what he really enjoys — snow axing his way up and skiing down stuff like that.
“Alongside that highest point?” I ask incredulously.
It looks pretty crazy to me. “You climb straight up?” I wonder.
“I get in the zone,” he explains. “One foot in front of the other.”
“The zone,” where everything but the task at hand falls away. We all need things that take us there, that reset our perspective and help us find joy again in simplicity.
“Shall we grab lunch?” Jesse suggests after we’ve dumped our packs in our cars. A middle aged couple loading their dog into a pickup next to us suggests it will be hard to find a restaurant open this early. I’m not sure if they mean early in the year or early in the day. Probably both.
“Try the bakery,” they suggest. “Go a couple blocks into town then it’s on your right.”
“Oh, I know where that is,” I say. Jessica and I have eaten there. Then I think of Bridge Street Grill¹ in Lower Stanley and we agree to head there.
Just a half mile down the road from the Stanley Lake turn-off, though, I notice the neon open sign at the Elk Mountain RV Resort café so we opt for the sure-thing.
“We don’t serve lunch until noon,” we’re told so we order up some breakfast and grab more coffee. “Coffee is free” we’re reminded more than once.
These two days with Jesse are “on the job.” Coming to work for Gaia GPS wasn’t an obvious decision. Tangible benefits were traded for a philosophy, a commitment to the clarity, serenity and interpersonal bonds cultivated by outdoor experiences, expressed in trips like this and others to come. Now I can’t imagine going back.
“See you online,” we say as we return to our cars to head opposite directions. It was good to meet you in person, Jesse.