Pit toilets are a dismal attempt to domesticate the mountains. The stench hit my nostrils as I rounded the corner and came in view of the toilet, a simple wooden throne with a single step up to it and a hole in the middle. Flies hovered over the opening, which looked half rotten, drenched in years of urine and God only knows what else. It sat downhill from the Winchester Peak lookout, partially hidden by a scattering of trees on one side. On the other side was a panoramic view across the valley to the Canadian Cascades. Hungry and cold, my legs ached from the climb and my bladder begged to be emptied as I stood there in a stare-down with the pit toilet. There would be no more clean seats, warm baths, or soft beds for the next 24 hours. Why the hell did I keep doing this to myself?
My partner had planned the hike, returning to the place that had made him fall in love with Washington: Winchester Mountain. Summer was nearly over and it had rained all week. All I wanted that weekend was to curl up and binge Netflix. I called it off because I didn’t want to hike in the rain, but the day before the sun came back out, and a wave of Northwest guilt twisted my arm.
We made the long drive to the trailhead at Twin Lakes in the Mt. Baker Wilderness area. I huffed and puffed up the trail trying to enjoy the meadows of alpine flowers and reddening leaves, despite my inability to breathe. My 20-pound pack of gear and food felt more like 100. The lakes fell away and grew smaller as we climbed. In places the trail became narrow, about two feet wide, with a sheer drop-off straight down to the lake below. A slight trip is all it would take to send me tumbling to my death. What if it snowed that night? I couldn’t imagine having to walk on this trail if it was slippery. With my legs trembling from fatigue, it was all I could do to not look down and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Finally after two painstakingly slow miles, the peak came into view. At the top, a U.S. flag greeted us, flapping in the wind. Past the flag sat the lookout, a square whitewashed building, the shutters down to protect the windows.
Inside the hut was dim, but as my eyes adjusted I could make out an old rickety-looking cot in the corner, along with a few benches, a table and a podium holding a tattered guest log. Maps, colorful prayer flags from Nepal, and old mountaineering books adorned the walls and shelves. That evening thick clouds rolled in and drops of rain began to fall. We kept shelter in the lookout over a modest meal of pasta and made friends with three other groups sharing the peak that night. We stayed up late telling stories, playing cards, laughing, and running outside every so often to marvel at the stars as the sky cleared.
The next morning our alarm went off early and we wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bag cocoons and dragged ourselves outside. The light was still dim, but a low blanket of fog hung in the valley, illuminating the surrounding peaks. A few stars still twinkled in the sky, and Mt. Baker towered out of the fog across the valley like a mighty snow-covered fortress. With the light growing in the east, we sat down to await what was coming. That moment when the ego flees and all you can do is sit in awe of nature.
That’s why I keep doing this. The mountains will not be domesticated no matter how hard I try. They humble me and the non-essentials disappear. The things domesticity fusses about don’t matter, like the cleanliness of toilets or soft fluffy beds. Everything I need I carry on my back. It brings out an inner wild in me, usually tamed by all of our modern luxuries. I feel small and inconsequential again, thankful that I’m alive in such a beautiful world.
Hannah Lunstrum is joyfully surprised every day that the sun comes out in the Pacific Northwest and tries to get out in it as often as possible. She has worked for nonprofits for over 16 years and recently took up writing and photography. She has an affinity for owls, Instagram, and whiskey, and she lives in a historic mansion with 10 other people in the suburbs of Seattle. This is her second article for Kindred.