If you’re not from Seattle, the familiarity of the mailbox is probably lost on you. But when I first hiked it on a visit to Seattle, before the new, less steep trail even existed, it was so steep my sedentary college body felt overheated, and I laid on the floor for a few hours. The original trail, which is still loved by many and which I still always use, gains 4000 feet in 2.5 miles and is a classic training hike. There’s even an overblown warning at the bottom emphasizing that the trail is unmaintained and treacherous.
Of course I don’t think this hike is nearly that hard anymore, but personal growth stories are boring, and that story mostly serves as perspective on the local attitude toward this short hike (which on any given day hosts overwhelmed tourists, mountaineers training with heavy packs, and trail runners comparing their time with last week’s on Strava.) What this essay is actually about is getting dozens of strangers together for a silly event to run laps on this trail, several years later.
Westy and I both had the abstract idea to “hike mailbox until we couldn’t,” but I never actually got around to doing it because even chasing him up it weekday nights, I just wasn’t that into it. The steep terrain was hard enough to keep me from zoning out but not as interesting as scrambling. Westy did it twice in a row a couple of times, and I wondered where he got this tolerance for boredom. But when he suggested we make an event and invite a bunch of people, I was more enthusiastic. I could hike as much as I felt like, maybe just do a couple laps and then hang out with friends. I monitored the facebook group, trying to drum up enthusiasm among my friends who had never done the hike before, or who might want to try to do it twice. Some people (Westy included) seemed pretty keen to actually hike for 24 hours, and it sounded fun to watch. I loved the idea of taking a hike which nearly everyone considered “training for something” and turning it into an objective into itself. And, it’s often forgotten, but the view from the top really is beautiful.
The weekend of the event, I bought pineapples for trophies, drove to the trailhead by 6pm the night before, climbed on top of the van and arranged the pineapples, and slept a few hours before the midnight start.
When we woke up, a crowd of Brad’s friends was gathering in the pleasantly chilly darkness, wearing real athlete clothes and running vests. He had decided to attempt to “Everest” Mailbox Peak, which would consist of climbing it ~7.3 times to reach the height of Mt. Everest. They all came by the van, where me, Westy, Tyler, and two of Westy’s friends had gathered, sitting in the small space until midnight. Brad and company set off first with Tyler, then the four of us (and some girls who found the event on facebook!) got started.
“Are they running? Who are these people?” Westy’s friend asked about the others.
We started with the friends, and I tried to hike between them, unsure if Westy wanted to hike at his pace, my pace, or their pace. Eventually we left them, and he was still hiking around 10% too fast for me to make an all day pace out of.
We had a brief argument in which I was frustrated at not having planned to hike alone for the first lap but also really didn’t want to interfere with Westy’s ability to pace himself and hike all day. He’d said we would do the first lap together, but I didnt know if he actually wanted to hike faster. I’m sure I was disproportionately frustrated because of my inability to make decisions at 1am, the confusion quickly passed, and we just hiked. As we got above treeline, we could see wispy dark clouds near the city lights. The air was colder, and we talked about looking forward to the stars.
When we got to the talus field near the top, the stars were truly beautiful. By the mailbox were dozens of miniature pies Tyler had left. We looked at the city lights for a second and I left Westy letters for each of his laps, but then it was cold so we headed down, awkwardly jogging over the poorly defined, root covered trail in the dark. Near the bottom, Tyler and Brad were starting their second lap, and their passing was preceded by glimpses of their headlamps from far away.
I waited around while Wade, who had arrived and gotten into the van, finished his nap. A little after 3, Westy went for a second lap, but I was waiting for friends who were supposed to get there at 5:30. I found the whiteboard marker and made the scoreboard on the big blank side of my van. I greeted some people and set up chairs and read a book. One guy, whose name was Adam, started asking questions about the trail because he was about to start his first solo hike in the dark. I encouraged him and he headed off, armed with a stove to make hot breakfast at the top. He was grateful to know he would see other people on the mountain.
Eventually, Ali got there with glow sticks and we hung out in the van waiting for other friends. Hers came eventually; my other friend seemingly had not woken up. We headed up and talked about not being too competitive about running, about the lab they all worked at, about gimmicky instagram accounts. We saw some of Brad’s friends, who gave me peanut butter sandwiches to give to him.
We saw him near the top, and then I caught Westy near the top of his third lap. I hiked with him for a few minutes and then we waited for the others as other hikers started to come out for the day on the popular trail. We had the company of a fluffy dog and Adam from the parking lot, who was in great spirits. The sun had come out, and the shadow of the mountain showed clearly on nearby ridges.
They got to the top, we took silly photos, and we headed down, passing another of our friends, Jess, on the way down.
I sat at the bottom and saw Westy off. I had mostly been eating the cookies everyone had been bringing and felt kind of gross. After around 30 minutes, I was cold and wanted to hike again.
Luckily, one of my climbing partners, Rocky, happened to pull in along with one of his friends. I could tell from outside the car he had a cool sweater on, but not what was on it. I waited for them to park and get ready to hike. I tried to encourage one of Wade’s coworkers who had come out, Jeff, to hike a second lap.
When Rocky came back from his car, he was wearing a Christmas sweater covered in blinking lights. I gave him an overzealous hug. They talked for a while about whether to do the old or new trail, and eventually they said we would all at least start on the old trail.
Once we started, he kept asking “is this as steep as it gets?” and I felt validated in my insistence that it would be fine. At some point in a gap in the conversation I zoned out and hiked ahead. I didnt see them, so I just continued.
Soon, I saw Oscar coming down from a first lap. I hadn’t expected to see his unnaturally beamy smile and was excited. Then when I got to the top, I just caught up to Jeff, who I had apparently given in to my convincing and had apparently started just before me. He was out of water and very sweaty, so a stranger gave him some and we headed back down together. All of the pies had been eaten, and I left all three of the beers I’d brought up as I really didn’t actually feel like drinking one.
On the way down, we talked about what hikes he should do as a person new to Seattle, and about spicy food. After two laps right in a row, I wanted some time to digest some food since I was hungry but still feeling queasy.
Westy was about to leave for his fifth lap, and I thought about starting at the same time but decided to rest. Wade’s parents had come by and brought me a sandwich with vegetables, which was welcome because I’d eaten too many cookies. People came and went from our little aid station with some frequency, and we had way too much food from people leaving it, mostly Halloween sweets.
I thought about waiting for his next lap, but a girl showed up who had been hoping to find someone to hike with, so I started up again with Anya. We had never met before, but she recognized Rocky when we saw him coming down. We talked about the mountain biking clinics she had been to earlier that day, and we passed Westy and Brad and Tyler all on the way down. At this point, they were all on schedule to finish reasonably close to midnight, but Tyler was ahead. Tyler commented on the wonderful light through the trees as it approached sunset. When I gave Westy a hug in passing, his skin felt clammy and his heart rate was very fast even though he was going downhill, but he said he was feeling great. Near the top, Brad stopped answering “how are you doing?” with “good,” and said instead “I feel like I’ve climbed mailbox six times.”
We got to the top just in time to watch the sun set next to the tiny crescent moon. This time I left a pumpkin by the mailbox. We waited for the sun to go beneath the horizon.
On the way back down, I passed a bright red gummy lifesaver on the ground. A few steps later, I turned to Anya and asked, “is it weird I thought about eating that?” She responded that she also had, backtracked, picked it up and wiped it off on her leggings. It was a bit muddy.
“Do you want to split it?” She tore it carefully in half, we did a little cheers and it was actually pretty delicious. On the way down we talked about art.
When we got back, Anya left after some snacks and it was quiet. I felt like I had one more lap in me, but I decided to make sure I was still available for Westy’s last lap, partly because I was vaguely (and probably unnecessarily) worried about him, and partly out of curiosity for his mental state.
I got cold, and wrapped up in my bed. Around midnight, Tyler took a photo for me with his pineapple after finishing 8 laps and set up his sleeping bag next to our chairs and cookies. I called some random things out to his and Wade’s conversation outside the van and slept for around an hour at some point.
I missed Brad’s finish, and he was asleep in his car when Westy came back. Instead of doing an eighth lap, he wanted to do a half lap “for an even 30 thousand.”
I pried myself out of bed and once again had to go in front because Tired Westy was still slightly too fast. He told me about the weird gnomes and faces he had been seeing on the trail. I mentioned remembering one rock really clearly on every lap, and Westy said it had become a landmark for the others, marking 1000 feet of gain. This thing had started to become repetitive.
A little later, he said “Nastassia, I don’t want to hike anymore!” In a tone that was 80% humor and 20% exasperation. We were pretty close, though, and I finally forgot I was sort of bored of hiking until he suddenly glanced at his altimeter and said “we’re good.”
We got to the bottom at something like 3 am. The descent hurt my joints a bit, and I really appreciated how difficult it would have been for me to try to do more than 5 laps.
I felt extremely proud of everyone, but we all still had to scramble to organize the leftover food so Wade could drive the van away. I took the remaining pineapple photos, we drove home, and I prepared to go to work after another 1.5 hour nap.
After about 10 hours, I started wondering, “What would it feel like to do 6 laps?”