PCT 5 | The sun’s in my heart

Day 17: Champagne Fireworks

Snoqualmie Pass to Mirror Lake, mile 268

Jacuzzi beers took their toll, and I split the morning between prone rest and mad rush. We didn’t make it out of town until 1:30pm, but everyone seemed antsy to leave as I repacked and stuffed a final burger in my face. Finally, I got the sense they were waiting for me. Did I have a trail family now?

We hiked under the ski lifts and across a meadow choked with flowers. John Mayo asked about their medicinal uses. I pointed out the Indian Paintbrush. Slippy said the beargrass were his favorite. He called them champagne fireworks.

I started thinking of new names for Washington’s mysterious entities. The North Cascades — pointy bois. Glaciers — ice mamas. Mosquitoes… tiny Satans. Tiny, infinite Satans.

I had service at the campsite and used it to text Ax, a friend from the CDT who had offered to come do trail magic at Chinook Pass. I wasn’t totally sure what that meant, but I was excited to see him. I told him we had seven people and no vegetarians. Only one special request: Washington’s famous cherries.

Day 18: Homemade Lemonade

Mirror Lake to Tacoma Pass, mile 288.5

I woke up at 3:00am, certain I could hear a mouse digging through the walls of my tent. I realized long after I barked and shook the tent that it could have been the crinkling of Jan’s sleeping pad. When my alarm went off at 6:30am I rolled up the flap of my vestibule, saw the socked-in fog, and half-intentionally fell back asleep. By 7:30am it had unwound into scattered clouds that skimmed quickly over the hilltops. When I started hiking, the sky was a mosaic white and blue.

We were all taken aback by the sudden appearance of water carries. 13 miles? Inconceivable. But this stretch of Washington was sparser and dryer, bringing relief from humidity and mosquitoes at last.

It was a Washington miracle: sunny and hot for the entire day, which was welcome except on the very severe uphill and again around 2:00pm, when we realized we had missed our last certain water source before camp. Sprinkles, Grum, Slippy, and I strolled along the ridges looking for glimpses of Rainier and trying not to talk about ice-cold lemonade.

Thankfully, a dry stream bed had a bit more than a trickle, and it was enough for each of us to grab a few liters. As we hiked on, I passed another hiker with a familiar hat and whipped around. “Oh my god!” It was Boston Chris, with whom I hiked hundreds of miles on the CDT.

I stopped and sat on a log while he made coffee. He was heading north, so this was our first and last encounter. We did what hikers do best, talk trail — old times and new, weather and gear, the many people we met three years ago and where they are now.

I said goodbye and hurried towards camp for dinner. As soon as I sat down by the fire, Slippy handed me a Smartwater bottle of cold Crystal Light lemonade.

Day 19: Fogetaboutit

Tacoma Pass to Mike Urich Cabin, mile 307

I woke to rain, plunking like a steel drum. For a while I pressed snooze and then lay with my head on my arms, staring at the gap between the tent and the pine needles, watching the drips fall. Finally I pulled on my shorts and raincoat and walked to the spot where my food hung between Chief and John Mayo. The tree canopy was so thick that their tents were dry. I sighed. Washington.

Oatmeal, coffee, and the inevitable. A wet tent was routine by now; it went on the outside of my pack until the sun poked out and I was farsighted enough to stop immediately and dry.

That wasn’t until almost noon, and by that time I was dragging. Was it lack of sleep or malnutrition or both? I was extremely paranoid about losing weight like I had on the CDT.

Right after my break, I came upon a group admiring the fog. I joined the parade, unloaded my woes, and Sprinkles advised me to count calories and eat every two hours, no matter what.

We made our way into a fantastical burn area from a 1988 fire, now overtaken by the biggest field of beargrass I had ever seen. Thirty years, and no new trees.

“I can hear your shoes,” said Mathilde. A watery squish with each step.

We brainstormed more state slogans.

Washington: Is It Raining?

Get Washed in Washington

Washington: You Just Mist It!

We were excited to sleep in the Mike Urich cabin, a no-frills free outpost maintained by snowmobilers and featuring a wood-burning stove. Things got a little dystopian with the arrival of more than a dozen northbounders. They crowded the floors and snored and talked incessantly about magic mushrooms and how much better it would be if we had an English word for namaste.

But it was raining, again, and the cabin was warm and dry. So what if a mouse ran through my hair while I was trying to sleep?

Day 20: Fire and Feast

Mike Urich Cabin to Chinook Pass, mile 329

In the morning, we got to walk through the best burn scar yet. It was from 2017, the Year of Ice and Fire on the PCT.

John Mayo learned the English word spooky.

Can you spot John Mayo?

I told John Mayo about Leave No Trace. “But it doesn’t count for blueberries, right?” he asked.

I hesitated. “Right. It doesn’t count for berries.”

Rumor had it that there would be sun on the other side of the pass. Nope — it was hot and sweaty, but the rain was blowing sideways. There were no good clothes for this.

I picked a sprig of sage and tucked it behind my ear. “I can’t pick flowers, but you can?” John Mayo said drily.

We saw sharp, snowy peaks on the horizon and guessed that it was the famed Goat Rocks Wilderness, by some accounts the highlight of Washington and our next destination after White Pass.

“Why is it so special?” asked John Mayo. “Do they have rocks shaped like goats?”

We didn’t know. And with the fog what it was, we didn’t know if we would find out.

We gathered at the Chinook Pass viewpoint to wait for Ax. When 45 minutes had gone by, my friends looked pretty convinced that he wasn’t coming. But then…

It was the best trail magic of all time. Pulled pork, chard and garbanzo, jalapeño popper potato salad, beans, slaw, fresh Rainier cherries, and all the beer and Gatorade we could drink. Everyone was flabbergasted, and on the walk back to camp they all talked about paying it forward.

It pays to make friends, kids.

Day 21: Joy or No Joy

Chinook Pass to Beusch Lake, mile 352

Rain, again. Cold, again. The mountains behind Slippy’s tent appeared and disappeared as I was making breakfast.

I hiked out alone, thinking about my interactions with Ax and Boston Chris. I had to acknowledge it: this trail didn’t have the same magic as the CDT.

But the CDT was about embracing the brutality, right? Why didn’t that feel more applicable now? We had it easier than before. We’d done the bitter cold. We’d done the swamps. Now it was just wet, wet, wet.

These challenges were dreary, not exciting. There was no adrenaline rush, just disappointment and discomfort, and uncertainty about the point of everything.

And then it hit me: Cloud, that is the challenge.

Cold wind picked up and blew rain onto my face. “Woo!” I cried. Immediately, a northbound hiker rounded the corner and grinned.

“Woo!” he replied. We raised our trekking poles and fist-bumped the air.

The rain persisted. Dreams of a 26-mile day quickly gave way to dreams of a sleeping bag and instant pasta. WET WET WET, I sang in my head. Describe this section in one word: FOGFOGRAINFOGRAINFOGFOGFOGRAINFOGRAINRAIN. I allowed myself to hate it. I entertained bitter words for the friends who told me the PCT was pretty-cushy-trail and I could cowboy camp. But I kept hiking.

I moved aside for John Mayo. “You go ahead. I’ve lost some steam.”

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, just tired.”

John Mayo nodded. He pointed his trekking poles at the sky and declared, “No joy!” before taking off down the trail.

I guffawed. He sometimes criticized his own English, but he always had the right words.

I pounded through the last two miles; as always, the distance widened even as it closed. (The Royal Mile, Chief and Slippy called it; the last was always the longest.) My shoes made a wet slap against the mud and it was the only thing that told me I was still walking, always fast but never fast enough. Dimly, I realized that my shorts were soaked and my fingers stiff.

For the last mile, I fantasized about hypothermia. I imagined different scenarios in which one of us got it, repeating the necessary steps in my head. I wasn’t really afraid of that, but it was a way to pass the time.

I rounded the corner and saw Chief, Mathilde, and John Mayo setting up camp. I stopped walking. In mere minutes, a stuff sack the size of a football would yield a shelter, and I would lie swaddled in dry cloth. The rain would once again pepper the roof all night, and condensation would gather and fall. In the morning it would be six miles to town, where i would take a shower.

“How are you doing?” Chief asked.

I smiled weakly and said, “Joy.”

Up Next: Will the gang see Goat Rocks? Do they look like goats?! Find out next week on the blog!