Meeting the Sisters

By Kara Kieffer, PCTA P3 Hiker

The alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. and I do not want to get up. “Starman,” it would seem, is also reluctant. We snooze and snooze again, our secluded campsite insulating us from the clacking clomping footsteps of other hikers. I know we have a 24-mile day planned, plus a two-mile detour into Elk Lake Resort to pick up stove fuel, but I cannot get worked up about getting on the trail late today. I’m tired of feeling like I’m always rushing toward something, always looking one step down the line when truly I have nothing to do but be here. There is a pervasive sense of false urgency in thru-hiking and I’ve decided I just don’t care to participate in it anymore. Not when I could be eating breakfast next to a perfectly calm blue green lake.

It’s almost 9 a.m. by the time we’re walking, and I observe my utter lack of caring as though I’m watching someone else. Who is this new person who is wearing my body and doesn’t particularly care if we’ll have to night hike. Around me the forest is quiet. The trail rolling and undulating below us as it ferries us up and over a ridge into Elk Lake. We eat nachos and ice cream in the cool darkness of the resort’s dining room, weekend tourists in swimsuits and cover-ups take shots of vodka and thoroughly ignore us until after 1 p.m. when we finally drag ourselves outside and down the trail.

We’re still supposed to hike 18 miles or some such malarkey. I guess we’ll see, maybe.

On the climb out of Elk Lake we can see the three sisters along the horizon. We climb up, up, up onto their shoulders, the trees shrinking back into the ground while volcanic rock begins to pepper the landscape. The sky, a perfect blue, expands above us and I can finally see the forest and the mountains without the hindrance of the trees. South Sister stands alone and red, her dark face pockmarked with small grey bowls, as though someone giant has eaten into her sides, taking great ice cream scoops out of her. We walk before her along the Wickiup Plains, heading north toward Middle Sister.

Middle Sister looms large over the rest of the day, grey and dominating the skyline. Her darkness is shot through with the white of snowfields, drawing the eye along her smooth sides. The grey fading to brown and red as the sun angles toward the western horizon, she has a thousand faces in the shifting light. While North Sister hides behind the skirts of her sibling, neither prominent nor brave as Middle or South, we only catch the occasional glimpse of her face as she peeks at us like a small nervous child.

Our path wraps us north below the Sisters, and in the warm slanting light of evening, the world feels both grand and small. Above us, mountains loom while to the west, an enormous maw of a valley opens up as though we might slide right off the shoulders of the Sisters into the waiting pine teeth of the forest below. Even as the sky near the horizon burns yellow and orange, above us, the air is a deep unending blue. The iridescent middle of an enormous donut of smoke that surrounds us on the horizon and makes for a dazzling sunset. We eat dinner ensconced in our warm tent, watching the world go dark around us.

Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something that you’re still living through? Maybe. But I know that I’ll miss these moments so much. The knowledge that our trip will soon come to an end settles inside my chest like a dark, heavy stone and I try my very best to hold onto the moment as the sun burns red and disappears from view.


Kara Keiffer.

About Kara

Kara grew up a tomboy in Boulder, Colorado, where she spent most of her time outside collecting rocks in her overalls. On any given weekend, you can find her backpacking, climbing or running ridiculous distances up and down mountains, so much so that her friends refer to her as “an outdoor dog.” Kara later moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams in the film industry, working on Hollywood feature films, Super Bowl commercials and more. She’s now taking a little time to refresh and get back to her outdoor roots, embarking on another remarkable journey. Her mission is to help the hiking community become a better version of itself by being a voice who helps spread LNT ethics and inclusiveness for all in the community.