PCT 7 | By and by

Day 26: Two Houses, Both Alike In Dignity

Camp to Trout Lake Creek, mile 429

Another Nearo, another 85 dollars spent in town, mostly on… breakfast. Pineapple coconut pancake, bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy, coffee, and the staple of any thru-hike in the American West, a huckleberry milkshake.

It was still strange to see towns like Trout Lake react to our presence. They certainly catered to PCT hikers, with a little store full of instant dinners and a nearly empty shelf of Clif bars. We did laundry out back and took showers in the park for a couple bucks. Everyone was kind and no one batted an eye at our dusty legs or the contents of our backpacks spilling across the lawn. But their faces all said the same thing: Oh, another hiker. We had sixteen of y’all yesterday.

Most of the hikers in town were Nobos — northbounders, who had skipped around the snow-laden Sierra and were now heading to Canada. Like warring tribes of gorillas, we had to compete with them for campsites and town resources. Sprinkles declared that before the PCT was done, he would fight one. We had quickly determined that they were Full of Lies: lies about snow, lies about mosquitoes, lies about rain. I admitted this to a Nobo in the general store. “Never trust a northbounder,” I told her regretfully.

She batted her mascara-ed lashes and said, “WE say the same thing about SOBOS!”

For an instant I was taken in. Were we really just Montagues and Capulets? But after a few hours of sitting in a gaggle on the lawn, it was clear the town was literally not big enough for the both of us.

I was happy to get back on trail. Well, happy wasn’t exactly the word for it, not with uphill climbs on a stomach full of burgers and beer. And I must have overpacked for only three days…

But look at the gentle evening light in the forest.

I took off my sock in camp and discovered a bulbous blister on the tip of my left toe. It had been years since my last one. So much for a blister-free PCT.


Day 27: Shit Happens

Trout Lake Creek to camp, mile 458

“Your friends all left you,” the man said. He watched hungrily for my reaction.

I paused midway through rolling up my tent. “I don’t need them,” I spluttered, which was not exactly what I meant. But I also didn’t want to start a conversation with this dude about a woman hiking alone.

He sat on a log and peppered me with questions about the section to the north. “By the way, I’m waiting for someone,” he said finally. “Not just watching you pack.”

“Thanks for letting me know,” I replied. Then silence until my pack was full and I hiked briskly away.

Here is the abrupt truth: I spent the first hour deciding which friend to call and say, “Convince me not to quit the PCT.”

Why? A bunch of snobbish reasons that embarrassed me. Vermin-infested hell-swamp Mall of America escalator ride, I thought bitterly. I was young; I could be anywhere. Why did I think I wanted this?

Also, it was time to admit to myself and the world: I went into this hike with a backpack full of misplaced confidence. I didn’t think the PCT would be that hard for me. I imagined myself outpacing other hikers in both speed and attitude, soaring along with a light load and a smile. After all, the wilderness is the best medicine out there!

But the PCT has been very hard. If you’ve been reading the blog, you already know that.

Then I did something I normally struggle with — I talked myself down. What else can you do when there’s nothing else to do, but walk?

I thought of cold nights in Denver, when I woke in the early hours and pushed my bedroom window open because I couldn’t breathe in the stagnant air. I thought about what I’d told Six a few days ago: When you stand at the Mexican border, it will feel so much better because of all the times you wanted to quit. Sometimes I say things because they just sound true, you know?

I kept walking.

“Life is pretty good!” said a Nobo, one hour later.

“Yeah,” I agreed. I listened suspiciously to his position on the mosquitos ahead. Supposedly they weren’t bad, but soon after I passed someone wearing a bug net.

The bumpy morning continued. I like to tell non-backpackers that shitting in the woods is no big deal — preferable, in fact. Squatting is healthy. And in a sterile society driven mad by the capitalist plot to divorce us from our own bodies, it’s important to discover that we survive easily without bathrooms.

But sometimes shit goes awry. I would learn later that everyone had a little digestive trouble after dinner in Trout Lake. I cleaned myself up and hiked on through the now-black mosquito cloud. It was the highest level — I couldn’t even pause to drink water.

My spirits hadn’t improved much as I approached Blue Lake. But I rounded a corner and there it was, a magical nexus with wind and bug-free air and water that shone both green and blue through the trees. There was a small crop of hikers and I joined them to make lunch. I didn’t know anyone, but I unloaded a few tales of my day.

“I’m starting to see why your trail name is Cloud,” smirked one guy.

“Huh?”

“Because you’re so negative.”

I seethed, but I didn’t know what to say.

The ducks glided across the inky shadows on the water. I ate ramen, cheered up, and even smoked a bowl with a cute Nobo. Behind enemy lines…

Incredibly, the mosquitoes dried up after lunch. It was as if they were a manifestation of my mood and not the other way around. The trail followed a ridge and treated me to a dramatic view of Mt. Hood; the clouds blended seamlessly into the glaciers that lined its slopes.

I caught up to the rest of the group at a campground, where an elf-like stranger popped out of the trees with trail magic: kettle corn, bars, cherry juice, and a whole avocado. It was another three miles to camp. Oily Boy (Chief, rebranded) lingered by the spring, filling far too many bottles.

We sat around the empty fire pit, exhausted but still planning another 29-mile day. “Guys, I have a problem,” Oily Boy announced suddenly. He pulled a bottle of vodka from his food bag. “It’s too heavy.”

The next day was his 29th birthday, and his friend had mailed him the vodka as well as eight little umbrellas. It was awkward, but we figured there was no point in delaying our gift — a fifth of fireball. Time to rally! Slippy threw some wood on the fire and we each selected a flavor of Crystal Light for cookpot cocktails.

We sang Happy Birthday (they have it in the Czech Republic as well) and told our favorite stories about Oily Boy. Mine was less than two weeks old, which I only knew because it was the lifespan of my contact lenses.

I always tell myself, take more pictures of people. It’s not the landscapes you’ll strive to remember when you’re old.


Day 28: Thirty

Camp to Rock Creek, mile 486

Thirties are a funny thing. (Daily mileage, not the liminal decade between youth and middle age.) Who decided that this number is the ideal for a peak-fitness thru-hiker on cruisy terrain? Did they do math at some point, to average speeds and daylight hours and net elevation gain for a magical number equivalent to three times ten?

Whatever the reason, thirties are the gold standard. Some hikers never do them and some do them with ease, but it looks a little different for everyone.

For me, it looked like this:

Miraculously, I had no hangover to contend with. Even the temperature was cooperative as I set out, alone, on the first climb of the morning.

There was a water cache, gallon jugs that a kind soul had stacked around a cooler next to a dirt road. It wasn’t entirely necessary, but nonetheless appreciated in a dryish stretch. However, there was also a plastic garbage bag tacked to a tree, which thru-hikers had been filling with their trash.

We really appreciate the thought, I wrote on a piece of paper. But if bears come and eat the trash, they’ll become habituated to looking for human food in the area and possibly killed because of it. I underlined killed and taped it to the bag.

“That’s due diligence,” said a Nobo.

There was more trail magic at Wind River Road: water, fresh apples, and ramen, this time in a bear-proof bucket, and a camp chair that smelled like cigarette smoke. I lingered; I wasn’t feeling well. Slippy arrived and he seemed tired too; his usual buoyancy had faded over the last two days.

“I can’t wait to walk across that fucking bridge,” I said.

“What, the footbridge just ahead?”

I laughed. “No, the Bridge of the Gods into Oregon tomorrow.”

But actually, it was a very nice footbridge.

The uphill began sooner than I expected, and in intensifying switchbacks. I was so, so tired and starting to get a bad feeling.

I checked Guthook. I was off.

When I realized how far I had needlessly climbed, I started to cry. Wryly, I realized that the extra mile would make today’s twenty-nine-mile day into a thirty.

7:21pm, 4.5 miles to go. I sat numbly on some plants by the side of the trail. The bottoms of my feet were fiery and I had a painful hotspot on my back, where I had accidentally wedged the end of a pack strap that started rubbing before I discovered it.

Its downhill, I told myself. Then up 2,000 feet tomorrow, then down again, all the way to Cowboy Stripper’s house in Portland, where I will lie on a god damn sofa.

Sofa. I sling my pack back on and hobbled downhill.

“Shut up,” I said to a bird.

The sun was tucked behind the mountains as I scooted down to the valley floor. It was dark enough by the time I reached Lost Creek that I might have gotten out my headlamp, if I thought it would be possible to stop and then start walking again.

But it was impossible not to arrive in good spirits. It’s not every day that you hike your first thirty on the PCT… even by accident.


Day 29: Bridge of the Gods

Rock Creek to Cascade Locks, Oregon, mile 505

I went down to the creek in the morning and washed my feet and hands. The night had been almost unbearably sticky.

Washington,

I’ve given you all and now my legs hurt.

Not sore, but a shattering pain that comes only at night. My bones disappear and my flesh is left screaming.

My worldly possessions consist of a single-wall tent, a fifteen-degree sleeping bag, a pad that holds air, an old backpack, two poles, slippery shoes that squeak with every step, clothes smelling like the dumpster behind a cheese shop, an eighth of discount marijuana, and whatever flavor of instant potatoes I packed but did not consume this time.

Your dewdrop dirt clings to all of it. One of your mice put a hole in my tent.

I want my tent back, Washington. I want my legs. I want all my sleepless nights back too.

I did the 2,000-foot climb without stopping. “Almost there!” said a Nobo. It was another lie.

At the start of the PCT, when day hikers asked where I was going, I’d say, “Mexico. Well, I hope. We’ll see!”

“Everyone says that,” they’d chuckle.

Then I remembered what my old friend Uberdude said in the Bootheel of New Mexico, right at the beginning of the CDT. The ones that make it know they’re going to make it, he declared sternly.

So I stopped qualifying, and the spring of surety found its way into my voice. “Mexico!” I declared to the day hikers.

Their eyes widened. “All the way?”

“Yes!”

You made me second-guess everything, Washington.

You hid, you played games with our yearning, but Washington,

when your peaks appeared they lifted us into the sky.

We crested our last ridge in Washington and saw the Columbia River.

The boys reached the 500-mile mark before me. When I arrived, they were smirking in satisfaction at the dirt, where they had unceremoniously piled five pinecones. I nodded approvingly. “Deconstructive.” Six pulled up and whipped out her phone, and we danced to The Proclaimers for sixty seconds before continuing our mad dash to Oregon.

But another thousand feet down, the heat and humidity hit us in a stifling wall. Once again I was struggling to breathe, taking big breaths of the soupy air until I began to pant, which made me anxious, which led to more panting.

“I’d rather be below zero in the snow,” I told Six and Chief at a water source.

“We were just saying that,” she replied.

“Washington,” Chief said. “There’s always something wrong.”

Of course, Washington had motto before we arrived. I had first seen it months ago, scrawled on a whiteboard in my friend’s art studio in preparation for her Nobo PCT hike. It’s a Chinook word, Alki, and it means by and by.

Patience, I thought. Perseverance. Good things come to those who push on.

We paused just once more, for a thicket of blackberries on the side of the trail. I had to scan for the ripe ones but they were tart and juicy,

“Any other day,” I muttered, and we took off again. The trail was rocky and the soles of my shoes had worn down

Slippy, Six, and John Mayo were waiting when Chief and I finally stepped onto the highway.

“Washington,” I said. “We did it.”