[Postcard] | Dark Side of the Mountain, by Wudan Yan | Harper's Magazine

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"I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe." Read more...

Photograph by the author

On an uncharacteristically warm Sunday in June, Darth Vader stood on some fallen logs at the edge of an alpine lake in central Washington State. He struggled to find his balance; the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Forces prefers flat surfaces.

“Hope he doesn’t fall in,” said thirty-three-year-old Melody Saltzgiver as she carefully adjusted the position of her approximately four-foot plastic doll.

“Yeah,” said her husband, Paul Moore. “That’s happened a few times.”

Once Darth Vader steadied himself, Saltzgiver stepped a few paces away, crouched down with her Sony point-and-shoot camera, and snapped a photograph. In the picture, Darth Vader looks pensively over the mountain peaks. The distant mounds of granite—some still capped with a blanket of snow—were reflected perfectly in the stillness of upper Twin Lake. The lake basin was otherwise lined with pine and maple trees, all basking in the sun.

I first learned that Darth Vader was going hiking around Washington in early May, when I was researching destinations for an early-season backpacking trip. For trail-seekers in Washington State, the Washington Trails Association’s webpage Trip Reports is an indispensable resource. Community members write posts to give others snapshots of trail conditions: whether a route has snow or signs of wildlife—such as bears—or whether hikers will be ravaged by blood-sucking mosquitos that have no regard for DEET. When I went on the site, I was greeted with a new blog post titled “A Pig, T-Rex and Darth Thaddeus Go Hiking.”

The photos W.T.A. user Darth Thaddeus posted had me fooled; I thought someone had dressed up in a Darth Vader costume and hit the trails. As it turns out, perspective is everything for Saltzgiver.

“I try to make it not show how small he actually is in photos,” she said as we hiked to upper Twin Lake.

Darth Vader became a mainstay in Moore and Saltzgiver’s lives two Christmases ago, when they first moved to Entiat, a small town in central Washington, from Detroit. The large Star Wars “battle buddies” were one of the popular Christmas toys that year.

“I told my mom, ‘I WANT THIS!’” said Saltzgiver.

“It was kind of a joke, but we still got it,” Moore added. “So here we are.”

Both of them unabashedly confess to being “pretty big nerds” when it comes to Star Wars, although they wouldn’t say they’re “psycho fans.”

Star Wars is just a space soap opera,” said Saltzgiver. “It’s hard not to love it.”

Moore and Saltzgiver met in Iowa in their high-school years. They went to see Star Wars: Episode II in theaters on their second date. Saltzgiver dressed up as Padmé Amidala, queen of the planet Naboo, complete with red freckles on her face. Moore, however, didn’t dress up. “I was lame back then,” he said. “I was all goth with black hair.”

Darth Vader occupied a small nook between the laundry and the television in the couple’s living room throughout the winter, but after the snow started melting and spring came around, Saltzgiver decided to bring him along for a hike. She and a friend went to Ingalls Lake, a blue lake nestled among the craggy granite peaks of Ingalls Peak and Mount Stuart. Once they reached the lake, she perched Darth at the edge and snapped a photo. At first, Saltzgiver thought it was slightly odd to be taking photos of a large Darth Vader toy out and about in nature. But when other hikers on the trail were enthusiastic to do the same, she was inspired to continue bringing the battle buddy along on hikes and photographing it. Over the course of the following year, Darth Vader has, more or less, become his owners’ main day-hiking companion.

And Darth Vader has inspired Moore and Saltzgiver to be more active. During the week, Moore is an English professor, teaching online composition courses and writing short stories; Saltzgiver works as a plant geneticist. But on weekends, they’re out exploring the diverse landscape of Washington—waterfalls situated in old-growth forests, glacially carved alpine lakes with sawtooth ridges and granite spires in the backdrop, cave formations within basalt coulees, and more.

After a year of hiking with their battle buddy, Saltzgiver realized she had accrued so many photographs of Darth Vader from her hikes that she should, perhaps, do something with them.

Moore and Saltzgiver decided on the W.T.A. handle “Darth Thaddeus” in honor of what Saltzgiver would have been named, had she been born a boy. When Saltzgiver’s mother was pregnant, there were no sonogram machines, and doctors determined gender using cardiograms. “The doctor told my mom, ‘you’re obviously having a boy,’ since my heart rate was apparently so slow. My mom was going to name me Thaddeus Bartholomew. When I heard that name, I was like, ‘hell no.’” Instead, Saltzgiver repurposed the name for her hiking buddy and occasionally calls him Thaddeus.

I met the Dark Lord and his masters at the trailhead to upper Twin Lake, far from the bright center of the universe. Saltzgiver is partial to hikes with lakes and waterfalls, and this particular trail to the lake seemed to be relatively less visited.

Their main objective for embarking on this hike was to post about it on Trip Reports. Many of the trails they explore on aren’t extremely popular and don’t have much written about them. The directions to the upper Twin Lake trailhead said drivers would pass a campground, but when Moore and Saltzgiver pulled into the parking spot next to me, they were a little confused. “It said that the trailhead started after the campground, but driving in, I was like, ‘Where the heck’s the campground?’ I want to write that up,” said Saltzgiver.

To carry a four-foot-tall plastic Darth Vader toy, Moore and Saltzgiver had to get a little creative. They cut holes out of the bottom of a canvas backpack bag to accommodate the toy’s legs. Riding in a backpack is much less efficient than the T.I.E. fighter in which he usually travels in Star Wars. “This thing really isn’t meant to go out and about,” said Moore while struggling with Saltzgiver to force the fallen Jedi into the backpack—one of them holding the toy, the other shimmying the bag up his legs. When Darth Vader was secured in the bag, he appeared to be wearing a pair of canvas shorts.

We got our bearings and followed a wide dirt road lined with red and orange Indian paintbrushes, lupine, and yarrow for approximately two miles. Finally, we reached the trailhead and after zigzagging through a short, shady trail, arrived at the lake.

It was just the four of us on the trail that day, but on more popular hikes, other folks take notice of the hulking plastic toy strapped in a backpack. Some kids ask if they can take a selfie. “Sometimes people think we have a kid in the backpack, inside the Darth Vader,” said Saltzgiver.

Darth Vader can’t really move. At least, his legs don’t, but his wrists and arms do. And he talks, when either the green or red button on his suit of armor gets pressed.

At the lake, I stood by the shore and took everything in: the sunshine dancing through the trees to my right, the reflection of the mountains in the lakes directly ahead, and the Darth Vader photo shoot happening close by. As Saltzgiver picked up the toy to move it, she pressed a button by mistake. I heard him speak, in his deep, mechanical voice: “Impressive. Most impressive.”

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