PCT 2 | All the small things

Day 5: Nearo to Hero

Stehekin to camp, mile 86

One last dance at the bakery, and we caught the $8 bus back to the ranger station. We had departed the trail a little over a day ago, which was strange. Time out here is measured in lakes and passes; numbers feel out of place.

There was a new group of hikers waiting for a ride to Stehekin. I studied them and wondered who might fly off and reach Mexico in 100 days, who might quit, and whom I might come to know well. NoDay and I drank beers at the picnic table and talked about privilege and selfishness, particularly the choice to thru-hike. What do any of us owe the world?

It was 5:00 pm by the time we started hiking, and we set up camp five miles later with two hikers we met in Stehekin. One of them needed a knee brace, and I had (for a reason I can’t quite recall) decided to mail myself one in my resupply. She was overjoyed. “The trail provides,” NoDay said. I nodded. It’s a unique little brand of magic; we’ve destroyed our artificial needs and everything else falls into place.


Day 6: Mouse After Midnight

To Miners Creek, mile 108

The creeks and streams in the Glacier Peak Wilderness ran with a force I had forgotten. At each crossing a sign pointed us to the “foot log,” probably not called a bridge for liability’s sake. I had to resist the urge to take out a pen and change it to footlong subs. I paused midway to take in the sight of the water; was it crystal clear or mystical blue?

A few miles in, we encountered a Forest Service crew clearing the blowdowns with cross-cut saws. (Chainsaws aren’t allowed in wilderness areas.) We chatted for a few minutes and I mentioned that we were surprised to see a bear hang in their camp, inadvertently admitting — whether they already knew it or not — that thru-hikers don’t hang their food.

The Forest Service woman smiled and encouraged us to do so, even though bears weren’t a big problem around here. “If nothing else,” she said, “for the mice and other critters. We have some very aggressive porcupines.”

“Last year a mouse chewed through my tent and food bag,” the guy added.

They also said they had gotten a GPS message about heavy rain this afternoon. But the weather could always clear up! It had been a very strange June, they assured us. Usually, it’s blue skies this time of year.

We crossed a river on a log, then stopped to take a break and admitted to ourselves that it was, indeed, mosquito season. I was bad at noticing them until NoDay smacked me out of nowhere on the arm or even the forehead. The forest floor was also populated by very large ants, harmless but nonetheless unpleasant to find on your bag or your body.

As we climbed, tension mounted between us and the sky. We pushed through thick plants until we should have reached a view, but instead worked to discern the shape of the basin.

The rain began. At first it wasn’t terribly unpleasant, but one by one, my body parts began to suffer. My shoes squelched. My bare legs shook. The latex gloves helped, but my fingers still went numb.

Still, the miles slipped away. We ran into two backpackers heading in the opposite direction; they were excited to meet thru-hikers at the “wrong” time of year. They repeated that the weather was unusual. And they told us about a dive bar in Skykomish, which lifted our spirits considerably even though town was still 90 miles away.

And eventually the rain let up, and the sounds of the birds alerted us to the fact that we were in a rainforest, just like the top floor of the National Aquarium in Baltimore:

And then the rain started again, though not as heavily as before.

And still, the miles passed — six more to our campsite. There were three hikers under their tarps already, and they remarked on our “big” 22-mile day.

Once again, the items at the bottom of my pack were mysteriously damp. How had the water gotten to the bottom? Should I call Hyperlite Mountain Gear and demand answers? NoDay said she had the same issue.

Maybe the Damp just finds a way.

A few hours later, I opened my eyes and saw pitch black — absolute dark. I blinked, expecting slivers of shapes to come into view, outlined by hazy moonlight or… something, wasn’t there something?

No. I blinked a few more times, disconcerted, and rolled over.

Clink. I heard the unmistakable sound of my spoon against my pot. They were both sitting in the vestibule of my tent, not far from my head. I heard it again, jolted, and reached for my headlamp, remembering what the trail crew worker had said about mice.

By the time I found my headlamp there was nothing. We continued the game for a while: clink, jolt, light, Cloud wonders what the heck to do. Finally I saw it: a mouse, ears and tail and all, perched on my pot. I let out a short bark. It ran.

I sat there for a while, eyes on the vestibule. I didn’t want to bring the pot inside in case it encouraged them to chew through the tent. Mice, in the fucking woods. This is the issue with campsites, I thought, but the brush here is too dense for anything else. I thought about waking the hikers in camp who had done the AT and asking them what to do.

Well, I knew, but I wasn’t about to go out in the rain at 1:00am to hang everything. At last I boiled water, washed the pot, and up-ended it a little ways away from my tent. Could mice knock it over? I stuffed my food bags inside my backpack and set a noise trap around it with a crinkly trash bag and microspikes.

I stayed wide awake, flinching at tiny noises and feeling stupid. Shouldn’t I, the human, be able to outsmart the rodents? Their brains are so much smaller. But I was bound by my lifelong reliance on store-bought mousetraps, airtight walls, and other ways to push buttons and get results without thinking too hard about it. These mice were born in the North Cascades, maybe in this campsite. They grew and survived on their wits, with no barriers between them and their own ingenuity.

I groaned. How was I going to sleep? Better mice than bears, I told myself. Better Damp than wildfire.


Day 7: The Damp Abides

Miner’s Creek to Milk Creek, mile 128

I slept an hour past my alarm, then sat up and threw a pine cone at NoDay’s tarp.

Slowly, she unzipped and stuck out her head. “Dude. The fucking mice.”

“I KNOW!”

“They got into my food bag.”

“Oh no.”

“There’s mouse shit everywhere. They got my Reese’s Pieces, arguably my best food.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Because you would have to console me if a mouse shit all over my stuff.”

“I know.”

As I started to pack up, I noticed a giant yellow slug sitting in my vestibule. It was thicker than a roll of quarters and longer than my hand. A trail of shiny ooze decorated the toe of my right shoe.

We were having a little trouble adapting to this ecosystem. But we kept trying, delighted to discover small beauties around every turn.

There were large beauties too.

Many of the old growth trees had collapsed or been cut — NoDay told me that they used to do this, back before they understood the forest. ‘They’ were the colonizers, who came west with no doubt that it was their god-given right to destroy.

The roots melted into the forest floor as if the earth was soft and porous, ever-shifting like the tides. It looked like it was opening its mouth to swallow everything back in.

In the forest we met John Mayo, although he didn’t have that trail name then. He was from the Czech Republic and on his first thru-hike, though no stranger to adventurous backpacking in foreign countries.

After lunch we climbed. It was hard but I was glad to climb again, and see the shapes I had come for.

The eponymous glaciers faded in and out of view. I was also glad to be back on snow, a dampness I could understand.

We picked Milk Creek for a campsite despite the ominous Guthook comments about mice. The descent was startlingly hazardous; the trail was overgrown with slick broad leaves and soft bushes, making it impossible to see the eroded and exposed edge. While careful not to complain, I remarked that this was not the level of maintenance I expected from the PCT.

After a bit of debate, we decided on a bear hang in camp. I was adamant that a simple mouse hang was tantamount to offering the bears cheez-its on a silver platter.

Neither beast disturbed us. I fell asleep happy, excited as usual to hike again the next day. The evening’s blue skies had bolstered me, and I expected that we would wake to more. After all, we had paid the rain tax.

But in the morning it was back. The Damp had taken on a new form, The Fog, and it would prove a defining presence in the days to come.


Up next: Will the mice return? Will The Fog ever lift? Will the team make it through the snow, or whatever the heck they’re supposed to be afraid of now? Find out tomorrow on the blog.