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Moment of truth at Spectacle Lake

by Jason Wilmoth For Coeur Voice
| December 10, 2018 2:17 PM

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(Above Spectacle Lake) Dale had just enough cell service to call his wife Sarah from high above Spectacle Lake. (Courtesy photo)

At first there were the children’s voices. Then came the shadows of people darting across the trail.

Several people passed Dale along the trail earlier and asked him if he was OK, which at the time struck him as weird.

By the time the hallucinations began, though, the hour was getting late and there was nobody left on the trail.

With something like four miles left, Dale knew that if he stopped now, he wouldn’t be able to move again.

His knee was wickedly swollen due to his heavy pack. He had left all of his food and much of his gear along the trail earlier in the day in a desperate bid to minimize the weight in his pack.

When Dale finally reached the parking lot, on the cusp of evening, he took one step onto the asphalt parking lot and disintegrated.

He was physically unable to take another step. Sarah found him, slouched on the ground just off the trail, some time later.

The hike to Spectacle Lake on the Pacific Crest Trail had a deeper meaning than just the immense views and solitude. Dale was trying to finally say goodbye to the son he had struggled to maintain contact with over the years. Their relationship had been strained for a long time, becoming desperate for many years and then dissolving entirely.

With Dale in his backpack was a container carrying some old toys — a miniature skateboard Dale’s son had played with for hours as a child — remnants of memories Dale desperately wanted to reconcile.

The route into Spectacle Lake was 23 miles. That’s a substantial number of miles to pound in one day, so by the time Dale dropped off the ridge to the lake on the first day, he was worn thin and feeling ill. He set camp and hoped he would feel better in the morning.

With the rising sun, he knew he was in trouble. He felt awful and was getting worse.

I had asked Dale if he would tell me a story about a moment that changed the trajectory of his life, something so poignant to him that he catalogued it in his memory as a “before” that moment and an “after” that moment.

Knowing a little bit about his younger years, and always blown away by the stories he has shared with me, I expected something different than the deeply personal one he told as we sat drinking coffee at a local shop.

Now in his 50s, having lived what I have always thought an extraordinary life, the story he shared with me resounded more from his heart.

And Dale, I feel a little bit like a thief by taking this story from you, but I also think this narrative may hit others in the gut like a blow from a memory in their own lives, as it has for me.

Everyone arrives at different methods for resolving pains from their past. For Dale, this hike was supposed to be cathartic. He was going to leave the sadness associated with his son’s abandonment of their relationship behind in the mountains and come back less burdened than he had felt for a long time.

As he sat at Spectacle Lake that first evening, holding the container of his sons’ memories, Dale felt God speak to him. He heard words which explained that the son Dale mourned, was also HIS son. Dale was comforted to understand there were reasons for the anguish he had carried with him for so long. There was a greater purpose that’s understanding was out of his grasp.

Dale packed away his son’s items and fell asleep with a newfound sense of acceptance and compassion.

Upon waking the following morning, he realized that he wasn’t just exhausted from the long hike, he was in fact becoming seriously ill. Dale decided to pack up and immediately begin the hike out,

As he walked along the ridge he was sweating much more than the August heat warranted.

All at once everything was quiet. He heard the wind in the trees below, then the sound of the creek descending towards the lake below.

He was struck by how appealing the shade below looked, when he heard the voice again:

“Why are you struggling on this ridge? I named you valley for a reason.”

In Old English, Dale is a topographic name for someone who lives in the valley.

Dale was immediately struck by the understanding that he had spent many years looking for validation and closure to the pains of the past on the ridge tops and other extreme places.

But here he was, happily married to his wife Sarah, with a happy family and a good job. His life was happy, even though he always seemed to reject that happiness. Dale descended to the shade below with these profound thoughts heavy on his shoulders and set camp for a second night as his flu worsened.

The third morning, he realized the desperation of his situation. He had the full-on flu and was 20 miles of hiking from his meetup with Sarah at the trailhead.

He threw his 80-pound pack on his shoulders and began the grueling hike out. His knee began to swell under the weight of his pack, so Dale did what made sense to his delirious mind and began dropping pounds.

He left all his food, then his camp stove and headlight, anything that would lessen the strain, along the trail. His feet began to swell in his boots, to the point where the following week at home he lost all but one of his toenails.

Through the fever, Dale believed he couldn’t stop. Decision-making under these conditions becomes complicated. Whether he made the correct decisions or not lies on his shoulders only. We can never second guess someone’s decisions, unless we have been under the same type of duress. I have been in similar, though not as desperate, situations. I’ve made some awful decisions which at the time seemed like the only available option.

Whether or not Dale should have asked the hikers he passed for help or not does not matter. There are so many what ifs, but they can only ever be that - what if?

Dale could have NOT made it back to the trailhead by dark, and Sarah may have called search and rescue. How long until they had made it into the mountains to reach him?

Regardless, Dale’s will alone carried him out of the wilderness.

My wife Karen has a sticker that reads: “That which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, except for bears, bears will kill you.”

I can look at my life and wonder how I made it through so many poor decisions.

But I have made it through. And that’s not what matters.

What matters, though, is what we have learned as a result of the poor decisions we all have made.

There are a few words that describe this act of growth throughout the duration of our lives: Experience. Wisdom. Understanding. Compassion.

Dale now reflects on those three days as a defining moment in his path.

He took the lessons and moved forward into a new chapter of his life. He left some things behind in the mountains, but perhaps not what he was expecting, and he brought some stuff home with him which he hadn’t been looking for.

“I’m still gonna hike on the ridge tops, but now I know that my happiness is waiting for me in the valley,” he said. “And I’ve fixed the whole 80-pound pack thing, that’s just too much to carry!”