I strode quickly through Bear Valley, trying to put as much distance as possible between myself and the hordes of families with strollers, the elderly nature-walkers, and the enthusiastic mountain bikers that crowded the wide, manicured path meandering through the shady valley. I had come to the mountains to be alone, but a sunny autumnal Saturday meant “alone” was going to be hard to find.
Three brisk miles later and I crossed the creek to follow Glen Trail into the mountains. I visibly relaxed as I stepped on to the rutty, narrow, overgrown path; the sign at the cutoff had made it clear that bikes and horses weren’t allowed on the trail, and the incline and unkempt appearance would deter all but the healthiest of hikers. My stride shortened as I made my way up the mountain, but enthusiasm kept me going at a steady pace.
My first clue that something was different should have been the meadow. As I crested a little knoll, to my right was a view of a small clearing dominated by tall brown grasses, speckled here and there with a large fir tree. There was an ethereal otherness to the clearing; it vaguely reminded me of the meadows I would see in the mountains in my home state of Washington, and I half-expected to find white-tailed deer nibbling at the grass, even though Tule elk dominate the national seashore. I smiled at the meadow and the cobalt sky that stretched above it, then hoisted my pack higher on my shoulders and continued up the mountain.
Glen Trail leveled out, then split, offering a loop to the camp within the canyon and the trail along the canyon wall. Since I had no intention of staying the night, I made a mental note of the fork and continued upwards. I had yet to see another human since stepping off the main path, and with every inch traversed I felt more and more at ease. I began to look around me, and noticed the trees were slightly different than the trees I had come to associate with Northern California. They looked similar enough, and cognitively, I knew they had to be the same types of trees as the ones in the rest of the forest, but something was distinctly divergent about them on a spiritual level, in an a priori sort of way. I continued along, my expression changing from one of happy peacefulness to a wide-eyed wakefulness.
I came to another vista, this one looking over the canyon to the hill immediately to the south of me. There was no mistaking it this time: the trees, the canyon, the mountain itself was different than the surrounding areas. My first impression was that I had unwittingly stepped through a portal to another location, had teleported from California in the fall to Montana in the late spring. That idea was gradually replaced by the notion that I had exited the plane of reality I had started in and was in a parallel world, just one plane of existence over, whilst still looking upon the original. I had the curious sensation of being on either side of a window, seeing the same view both with and without the glass in my way. The boundary between realms was distinctly thinner here, I decided.
I descended from Glen Trail and followed Stewart Fire Road down the far side of the mountain, the sensation of otherworldliness dissipating as I stomped along. My head spun a little when I encountered multiple groups of backpackers on their way out of Wildcat Camp; their grounding presence made the spiritual sensation stand out in sharp relief in my memory. I pondered the intangible elements of the canyon as I walked along the seaside cliffs, and considered it further as I ate a small lunch overlooking the Pacific Ocean, pausing my thoughts only to watch the giant condors swooping so close to me I could see their eyes and make out the textures of their naked necks.
It goes against my grain to take the same trail back that I took out; I don’t like to see the same thing twice if it can be helped. But I had to know if Glen Trail really was otherworldly, or if I had merely let the endorphins run away with me. Doubt began to creep in on me: if I went in search of the boundary-thinness, would I dupe myself into believing I had found it a second time? Or would my search for certainty leave me empty-handed and on a trail I had already traversed? Had the mere act of intellectualizing the experience ruined my chance to recreate it?
There was only one way to find out.
I luxuriated on Wildcat Beach for a while longer, listening to the waves crash before me, and snapped pictures of the bright orange poppies along the trail before I made my way back up the fire road and returned to the mountain.
As I climbed up the canyon wall, I could see where the air almost shimmered up ahead. There it was: the portal, or the thinness in the planes of existence. Although my legs had been weakened by the miles they had already covered, I picked up the pace and sped through the forest, pulled towards the point with the driving force of a magnet. I couldn’t say for certain when, exactly, I crossed the line, but as I retraced my steps, I began to have the same double-vision sensation that I had experienced mere hours before, and I knew I had arrived.
I laughed with abandon. I took pictures, fully knowing they wouldn’t do the place justice. It’s possible I even sang, disturbing the wrens and quail in the brambles. I delighted in the surrealness of the private trail, made all the better for the fact that it felt like a secret to which only I was privy.
I loathed the thought of descending back to Bear Valley, of mingling with the throngs of people on their way out of the park, but the air chilled quickly as the sun sank lower in the sky, and I knew I had to make my way down the mountain before true darkness set.