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Fast-forward two years later, and I'm standing in the dark morning hours at a train station on the west side of Portland. It's four in the morning, and I'm leaden with nearly a hundred pounds of gear... a backpack loaded for one week, and an immense duffel bag at my side, filled with provisions for three weeks more. Sleepy early-morning commuters give me strange looks as I grunt my bags onto the light-rail train. After a night of anxious packing and nearly no rest, I'm already exhausted, and my trip has yet to begin.

A Greyhound bus carries me northward from Portland to Olympia, WA, where three local transit buses (a Gray's Harbor bus and two Jefferson Transit routes) take me westward and northward around the peninsula. I try to nap as the bus treks through the depressing ravished clearcuts so common in the Quinault Indian reservation. Ten and a half hours later, at 2:30, I stretch my arms and breathe the hot air of Forks, WA, a small logger's town on the west side of the Peninsula with the only stoplight in 165 miles. This will be home base for the next month... my only access to civilization, hot water, telephones and fried food. When I'm not in the wilderness, this will be my lifeline. Cate, a long-time veteran of the peninsula and a caring driver who has agreed to help me out in my endeavor, greets me in the parking lot and gives me the dime tour around town.
I drop my extra bags at her house, and we're off, headed for the trailhead. Her quirky jokes and passionate disdain for Oregon drivers keeps me awake and entertained for the remainder of our trip north and east towards the Elwha River valley.

My big-picture plan for the next month will take me on a disjointed spiral around the west side of Olympic National Park's million-acre wilderness. My route is varied enough to explore all the major ecosystems of the world's most ecologically and geologically diverse slice of land. Starting out in typical northwest spruce and fir forests, I will see the park's high alpine playgrounds, its extensive coastline beaches, its uncannily immense glaciers, and it's most prized treasure... the finest remnants of old-growth temperate rainforests left in the world. The route has been split into three manageable "legs," ending with a 16-day mega-trek through the most remote and untouched off-trail wilderness in the entire park. These first two legs (each a week-long trip) will be a fantastic "warm-up," a way to strengthen my legs and awaken my soul before testing my limits. All said, I will not return home for 31 straight days.

I pick up a permit and a stern motherly warning at the Elwha Ranger Station ("it's not safe to go out alone, you know"), and within the hour I'm standing at the trailhead register. I stand around, delaying the inevitable, getting a "Before" picture, reading the signs, checking my GPS & maps, looking at the plants. After years of poring over maps, planning with friends, reading books, talking to rangers, knowing I'm as ready as any man could be for a trip like this, I somehow hesitate to take the first official step. It's late in the afternoon and I only have a short hike tonight (2.4 miles to Olympic Hot Springs), but somehow it all seems too immense to actually be starting. Finally, I set my first foot in front of me.

The trail to Olympic Hot Springs used to be a road. A small resort was built decades ago, catering to tourists in search of magical healing powers the geothermal springs were said to provide. Since then, the Sol Duc Hot Spring Resort (in the next valley over) proved a better investment, and the Park Service closed this road, letting it slowly crumble back into the forest, washout by washout. Eventually, only a trail will remain.

The warm pools, however, still remain. Built-up from the springs into an extensive network of sitting pools, the sulfuric smells of the mineral-rich waters dot the forested hillside across Boulder Creek for a half-mile or more. I would have used the pools, relaxing myself in the bath-hot water under a fitfully cloudy sky, but unfortunately these springs have been over-loved by the adoring public in recent years. I've heard far too many stories of brimming bacteria levels in these untreated ponds to risk getting a funky fungus on the first day of my trip. Instead, I continue up-trail to the campsites before the imminent rain comes.

I set up my tarp like a newbie greenhorn, fumbling with knots and jumbled guylines. I'm tired and frustrated, and can't help but laugh at myself when my fitfully strewn tarp gets finally erected, with all the grace of a porcupine in a water-balloon contest. After a rushed dinner, I lay in bed, rather disappointed with my own ineptitude my first night out. I know that a good night's rest will help, so I quickly oblige and fall asleep under the pitter-patter of a blooming rainshower.

Tomorrow, I hope, will be better.