I hiked 320 miles in 15 days, covering a lot of ground out of Cascade Locks, but finishing slowly towards Steven's Pass, grasping at permanence. I made a lot of new friends, very dear to me, most of whom I will never see again. I saw a vast array of amazing sights, and missed many more completely: the trip was bracketed by blue-sky days, but the dark center was smoke, fog, and rain. No visibility, those days, beyond maybe the next curve in the trail. I ate a lot of cold-soaked mashed potatoes, but also an entire 19" pizza and a complete Bavarian meal. I had euphoric highs and dismal lows. It was, in the grand scheme of things, a short, totally normal thru.
Goat Rocks was a beautiful, smoky disaster. Threatened by fires on the edge of the park, I pushed through as fast as I could.
I haven't started letting go of / processing / coping with the loss of / filing away / sorting through pictures from / literally unpacking after the Washington trip. I should probably start planning for Lowest to Highest, but instead, I'm going to organize this particular corner of my mind. First, a note to myself, handwritten in the afterglow, scrawled out on my friend's kitchen table in a Seattle suburb. Mentally, in some kind of twilight, with the experience decidedly over, but not yet out of view.
"It's exceedingly likely that I never see any of the trail friends again. But maybe I will. After all, the trail never really ends-- you just take a lot of zeroes, right? I saw Section in the Chicago airport, of all places. I could run into Gummy Bear in San Diego, or see Door 3 in Tucson, or the AZT, or the Catalinas. Lopsided and I have both talked about doing the CT. And Old Goat seems like a fixture who will certainly be there the next time I visit, trucking along.
I feel like Rocky or Pink or Chipper are the people I'll truly never see again, halfway across the world, and yet that's what makes it even more likely for them to show up anywhere. The tide will push & pull us where it may. Maybe I'll see them on up ahead, like I said, and maybe not, and that's part of the magic of the whole thing. It was the premise, and I don't think I'm suffering for it. It's a curiosity more than anything.
How very, very odd & unlikely this whole thing is. Under what other set of circumstances could I have met any of those people?"
Hand Me Down and Mads picked me up in Portland, and we perused coffee shops and parks for the majority of the day before making our way to Cascade Locks. I bought fuel, a burger, and a PCT-themed beer before crossing the Bridge of the Gods at 6 pm-- such a landmark and a symbol in my mind, it feels surreal to have been there, and especially to start a trip there. One day I'll hike Oregon, when it's not ablaze, and actually finish at the line. Or if I do send it on the whole trail, and earn the starting of the final state.
The first days were full of berries, endless sun, from which I was largely sheltered by the green tunnel, and gentle inclines. The views were rare, but the walking was good and the energy was high. I saw nobody.
I recall the climb to Panther Gap being a little rough, the first long climb of the trip, on a hot day, and as part of a 10+ mile water carry. But I also remember the top coming relatively easily once I got close. I got 8 skips on a rock a few times, but never quite found 9. I walked through the entire day, sometimes laying down for 15 minutes in the afternoon, nursing sore feet, but often not truly stopping while the sun was up. Camp was eagerly approaching the site, setting up my tent, crawling in, and falling asleep. Chased by hornets, I must've dropped my spoon at Crest Camp. I hiked 33 miles to get to the Trout Lake hitch in the evening, and was in and out of town in a few hours in the morning, Even then, I'd wished I'd spent more time, and I certainly do now. Some of the folks there would show up at intervals through my hike, though most were headed south, or north, but more slowly. I was struck by the kindness of the folks in town, going out of their way to give a hitch, to cook some food, and to seek out hiker feedback for their impeccably stocked grocery store. I would absolutely resupply there again.
After Trout Lake, the trail gains some altitude, and gets up close to Mt. Adams. The mountain is ever-present, a massive snow-capped installation in the corner of your eye. Everything becomes scenic when there's a volcano in the background. Despite not getting on trail until the afternoon, after town, I covered 20 miles in my enthusiasm, wandering through the re-growing burn zones, fording a raging glacial melt in the evening, and climbing ever upward. Unbeknownst to me, that day would be my final views of Adams. It's never quite clear when an experience is going to be over. It didn't strike me for days that I hadn't seen the mountain in a while. Odd.
I met Lopsided just in time to watch the distance between he and his group grow from 3 to 30 miles. We leapfrogged for the day heading out of Adams. It must be odd, gaining that ground from a trail family that had existed for four months, and only a few hundred miles from the terminus. Nobody's fault, it just happens. Some people want to hike fast, some people want to carry a 30 pack of beer out of town. HYOH!
The air after Adams became thick with the smoke from the Goat Rocks fire, which had worsened and moved closer to the park. Fires sometimes remind me of growing up in southern CA, where we'd have Smoke Days off from school, and have to stay inside. The sun would grow orange and heavy in the afternoon, washing everything in an apocalyptic glow. It feels comforting and familiar, somehow. But the proximity of the fire to the trail was less comforting, and I checked in with the ranger station via inreach to make sure the route was open and safe. I was given a thumbs up.
The lakes were a brilliant red as I climbed toward the south entrance to Goat Rocks. Lopsided and I had to make our respective decisions about whether to press on, or to hitch around. I decided to continue on, and said I'd see Lopsided atop Cispus-- I didn't see him on trail again.
Despite the smoke, the morning that followed was one of the most memorable on trail. Goat Rocks, even the version of it that comes with no visibility, impaired breathing, and a vague sense of danger, is awe-inspiring. The scree underfoot, the smoke, and the views made for slow and stiff going, but it was some of the most fun I had in Washington, on any day, in any conditions.
Outside of White Pass, I awoke to the dew and condensation soaking everything I owned. Within ten minutes on trail, I was hit with the heaviest rain I would see in Washington. My final mile toward the iconic Kracker Barrel was done at a headlong sprint, On the highway, I could barely see car headlights until they were upon me-- safe to say I was as far out on the (thankfully) wide shoulder as I could be.
I spent six hours in the paradise of the gas station. I took a shower, I did laundry, I resupplied, I dried my tent out under their awning, and I met Wingspan and Camel, who, injured, had dropped back from their group to hitch up to Snoqualmie. I watched a hiker quit, unable to stomach the same food and routine after over 2000 miles of the same vegan granola bar options. It was a bizarre, sobering, totally understandable moment.
The two moods of Washington, taken 12 hours apart
Fearful of the norovirus outbreak infecting unknown water sources between WP and SNQ, I gathered only from flowing sources when possible, and boiled the two suspicious sources I had to use. The days were mostly foggy and socked-in; I saw very little. The noro made perfect sense, as the human waste LNT was abysmal, a lot of exposed TP and waste, much of it disturbingly close to sources. I was disappointed in my fellow hikers.
The section through Mount Rainier National Park was lovely, walking in a cloud for a few days. I certainly didn't see the mountain, but I had a blast all the same. I'd have my first run-in with Old Goat at the snowmobile cabin, filled with mostly SOBO sections & SOBO flip-flops during a pretty dismal night of weather. Old Goat was retired, and being crewed by his wife via van. To keep up with the young'uns, he was hitting the trail every day hours before the sun came up. I'd leapfrog with him on my final day into Snoqualmie, and see him again after my nero there. I hiked pretty fast through much of this section, pushing close to 30 miles a day in less than 10 hours. Not much to do but walk when the fog was so thick, and the lack of heat made the water carries trivial-- I went 11 miles on half a liter. I ran out, but only just.
Heading into Snoqualmie, I had been told by a Swiss hiker, White Shirt, that I needed to stay at the Washington Alpine Club, which serves as a hiker hostel in the summer months. $30 for a hot shower, food, a bed, an excellent community space-- this was incredibly worth it. I met people taking zeroes there, and for good reason. There were excellent food options, with the new gastropub that had opened, and the classics: Pie for the People (I finished the 19" pizza, but it was tight, and I was not brave or hungry enough for the 23"), the gas station tamale stand, and of course, the brewery. My beers arrived before the pizza, and did quite the job on my calorie deficit. I was delivered two pizzas, on accident, and, drunk and bearing free pizza, I became the best friend of everyone in the brewery.
I made my way back to the WAC, where I ran into Wingspan, Camel, and the rest of their group: Door 3, Beeline, and Bubbles, as well as a solo hiker named Zinc. Drunk and tired, I slept nearly right away.
The next morning, I putzed around the coffee shop before hitching into Cle Elum to resupply. I got a ride down almost immediately, with a woman on her way to Wyoming for a funeral, attended by some of her over 50 siblings. I arrived, walked through the town, sampled a few coffee shops and bakeries, and resupplied at their very, very well-stocked grocery store.
Hitching back took almost 2 hours-- limited traffic, and not the types of folks who tend to pick up hitchhikers. I eventually got a ride with a newly anointed section hiker, who'd done about 10 miles of the PCT and was sold on the dream. We got up to the pass safely, despite her day-drinking.
I packed up at the WAC and chatted with the hosts-- incredibly nice Alpine Club volunteers-- as well as the next day's hikers rolling in. Late September, the season was ending, and the WAC was closing to hikers in two days. I was lucky to be there when I was. I got on the trail around 5 pm and made it a few miles up trail before losing the sun.
The next morning, entering Alpine Lakes Wilderness, the terrain shifted dramatically, becoming a miniature Sierra. The trail followed the crest dramatically, with a memorable section providing some fun exposure, and sketchy passing around southbound parties.
I caught up with Door 3, Gummy Bear, Bubbles, and Beeline at a water source. Door's an AT/AZT hiker, who'd hiked the AT the same year as Bubbles, though they didn't meet until the PCT, only a few hundred miles from Mexico. At this point, the four of them had been hiking together for over two thousand miles. Door and I set off a similar pace, and leapfrogged some through the stunning miles ahead.
An exciting milestone: I was overtaken by northbound hikers! Most of the late-season folks had been early starters, March or April, hiking longer rather than faster, and I was moving slightly more quickly than most folks I'd met. While I was drying out my tent at the lake view above, Rockhopper bounded around a corner with a massive DSLR, said "picture?", snapped one, and continued down the trail before I knew what had happened, closely followed by Chevy.
Door and I caught up to them at the next river and made introductions, and while we were eating lunch, the rest of their group arrived: Chipper, Petunia, and Pink Panther. As Door and I would temporarily pull away from his trail family, we'd leapfrog with this one all the way to Steven's. Rockhopper is an excellent photographer from Japan, Pink Panther is a rowing instructor from Australia, Chipper is the most energetic person alive, from Canada, and despite their two Americans (Chevy and Petunia) this group probably wins an award for most international unplanned tramily. No, the group of 6 from Austria doesn't count.
It was a lot of fun to hike around others after so much time solo. We'd usually only see each other at water or at camp, but trail has a way of forging strong bonds very quickly. I felt, and feel, a deep connection with many of these folks, even now, months after the experience is over. Other joined the group, foremost among them in my memory Chaos Muppet, from Alaska. Zinc caught up, too, and some names I've forgotten in the months that have passed. But as always, I digress.
The smoke rolled in at the end of the second to last day: the fires northbound were making themselves known. For most of the day, it lent an ethereal haziness to everything, and accented the impending sense of loss-- soon, this would all be over. The last day into Steven's was a blur, fast, easy miles, dragged out by force and power of will.
The final approach to Steven's.
And not just for me. Still 200 miles from the terminus, much of the remaining section was closed due to fires. Folks 2,450 miles into their journey were being turned away from the unsafe finish line. And so getting to Steven's was a celebration and a mourning, all packed into one. The trail as they knew it was over, and my trip was done.
L2R: Pink, Rocky, Chipper, Petunia, Door, Chevy
But first, we had to get off the mountain. With the highway closed to thru-traffic, there were no cars passing through. The only car we saw in our first hour of hitching was completely full, and the apologetic driver waved at us. But, as always, our luck shifted-- half the group got a ride with a passing SUV, and the rest of us piled into an employee's pickup bed. We all made it down to a small gas station on a real road, where we were quickly picked up by a mom taking her daughter to soccer practice, the rest of the group waiting for her husband in the next car.
And so the celebration started! We made it to Leavenworth, to showers, to beers, to real, hot food, to heated buildings, to comfortable chairs, and the overwhelming hustle and bustle of a small town on a Tuesday evening. We took over a booth in one of the Bavarian restaurants (the whole town is themed), and as per tradition, the beers arrived before the food. It was a well-deserved celebration, as my trip ended and the final miles of the group's were in sight.
In the morning, I said my goodbyes, and set out hitching back to Snoqualmie, where my dear friend Lexi was picking me up. I scored a lucky hitch, and the first car to stop offered to take me all the way there-- a 200-mile, extremely specific hitch that was well out of his way. The kindness of people astounds me.
I wondered what I would do with my spare couple hours after my hitch had gone so smoothly-- until I saw Lopsided and Gummy Bear walking out of Pie for the People with way too much food, having miscalculated how big 23" of pizza was. They were camped just outside of town, and were picking up beers. We spent the afternoon and evening at their camp, catching up, exchanging beta, talking about the end of their hike, future plans. It was good to see them again. And before I knew it, Lexi had pulled up in the lot. I again said my goodbyes to my friends.
Lexi is an angel, driving hours to rescue me from the mountains, and letting me crash in Seattle with her housemates Leif and Hans for a few days while I sorted out travel, and while I tried to re-integrate to society. I walked 20 miles around Seattle in a day, not knowing what else to do, and hopped on a plane back to California. The next day, I'd go to Iowa, then Florida, then Lowest to Highest. It had been a bizarre couple weeks, but it was just the start of a bizarre two months.
To end, the last bit of the scrawled note, from the table in Lexi's kitchen, as I tried to wrap up the racing thoughts from the previous two weeks:
The PCT is an infinitely thin, 18" wide, two thousand, six hundred and fifty mile long collective hallucination. It absolutely does not exist in any meaningful way. It cannot truly be revisited or returned to. Experienced again, certainly, but the experience will be markedly different. The key components (conditions, people, and circumstance) are all so brief and so fleeting. A difference of a few days in a start date may have a profound impact on the experience, or may have none at all. There is no way of knowing. But to revisit weeks, months, years later, the trail, or what remains of it, will be unrecognizable. And one must discover all over again what the PCT is in the first place.