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The enormous meadow stretching before me was like nothing I’d ever seen before.

After a five-hour hike into the mountains, I expected to find craggy peaks and sharp blue lakes — but I didn’t expect to see something that looked like a well-groomed park.

The steep, high-alpine grassland had a strange effect on me when I saw it. My wobbly hiker’s legs were suddenly forgotten. I threw down my backpack and dashed headlong into the broad valley with my arms outstretched like airplane wings — zooming around wildflowers and leaping over rotten logs.

This is what Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness does to a person. It turns mature adults into giddy fools who don’t mind running down hills and falling on their faces like they’re re-enacting the opening to a “Little House on the Prairie” episode.

I had embarked on a weeklong backpacking trip with my friend Courtney, who has been hiking the Pasayten (pronounced “Pa-Satan”) almost every summer for 28 years. She swore it would blow me away, but like many people I’d never heard of the protected half-million acres just east of the North Cascades.

The Pacific Crest Trail travels through part of it yet, aside from through-hikers, it sees few visitors — which is a shame, because it’s one of the more unusual places in Washington: part Ireland, part Austria, sprinkled with a little bit of Yosemite and a whole lot of “Lord of the Rings.”

By the time I found myself gleefully soaring across the fields, I knew the Pasayten had seduced me.

The freedom to go anywhere

We set up camp on a rolling hillside and left our map behind while we scouted vistas atop the craggy hills surrounding us. We dipped our toes in the freezing emerald lakes and streams that pockmarked the landscape.

Courtney told me that the Pasayten was a perfect place to visit when she was young, because you never know what kids will want to do or see. “In the Pasayten, if you feel like heading up a mountain, you just go. It doesn’t matter which direction you head, there’s always something cool to see.”

We spent our days in warm lazy valleys and walked barefoot among the rolling fields, sneaking up on the ground squirrels that peeped out all around us. When we found small patches of snow, we made red-wine snow cones for our midday refreshment.

Somewhere along the way I began to understand something very profound. No one would argue that the scenery was spectacular, yet it was the downright freedom that was so enticing.

Off the beaten path

Anyone who has ever visited a national park in the summer knows that it’s almost never a pure wilderness experience. The tour groups, luxury buses and lines for the bathroom don’t exactly scream “nature.”

Not so in a wilderness area like the Pasayten, where a person can step back in time and feel like one of those early explorers — the Lewises and Clarks of this world who were lucky enough to see America in its virgin prime.

“We don’t mess around with the ecosystems,” says Jennifer Zbyszewski, a recreation and wilderness program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District. “In wilderness areas, we let nature do its thing,”

Our backpacking trip took us to only a small part of the Pasayten — centered on Horseshoe Basin. From there we felt the freedom to go off-trail, following our noses and striking out on our own (so long as we didn’t trample wetlands or ruin anything for the next person).

Alone and without trails, I could imagine the early explorers who once roamed this frontier, because in a place as empty as Pasayten, a person can roam unfettered for weeks at a time without encountering more than a handful of people.

A border without fences

One of the most unusual features of the Pasayten is its northern boundary — the 49th parallel — also known as the Canadian border.

In the spirit of a true wilderness area, there are no border guards or fences in this part of the world — only a swath of cut trees to divide the two nations.

One afternoon, we scrambled up Arnold Peak to survey the line that spans more than 50 miles. It snaked up and down mountains as far as the eye could see, with empty wilderness on both sides, and not a road in sight.

We discovered a 3-foot concrete marker letting us know we had officially crossed the border. We jumped back and forth, “Now I’m in Canada! Now I’m in America! Canada! America! Now I’m in both at the same time!”

Lewis and Clark we are not.

Seattle-based freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at