PCT 8 | The Promised Land

Days 30-31: Shaggin’ Covered Wagon

Double zero in Portland

The dream of the PCT is alive in Oregon!

Cowboy Stripper bought the car for $600 — less, Slippy noted, than the price of many ultralight tents. It was a Ford station wagon in a bold yet sensible green. What used to be the backseat was paved in beige carpet, with a sinkhole where the spare tire had sat. “Duck!” I ordered when a cop rolled by.

To my surprise, it didn’t stall out at any of the intersections as we made our merry way to REI, Goodwill, and Winco for a disastrously overzealous resupply. The unadorned food trucks in the grungy parking lot had far better food than the hipster ones. Oregon, baby!

I picked out new hiking clothes and took a chance on Hoka trail runners. Slippy bought me a golf ball to roll on the bottoms of my feet. It had a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness, so we could all tell ours apart. “Ironic,” I said. The surreal breast cancer scare that put me on the PCT seemed very far away.

Cowboy Stripper was one of my dearest friends from the CDT. We hiked many hundreds of miles together in New Mexico, and were lucky enough to cross paths often after that. In addition to summit-sunset burlesque, he was well-known for his jorts, which he cut one inch shorter in every town. (The 3,100-mile trail necessitated multiple pairs.)

I could tell that the trail had transformed Cowboy in similar ways to me. We didn’t triple crown or start a YouTube channel afterwards, but we slowly changed our lives to reflect the freedom and courage we had discovered. And we held on to the friends we had made out there.

Long distance trails create webs of generosity. Cowboy Stripper’s roommates didn’t know much about thru-hikers, but they let us make ourselves at home and now they’re pretty much experts. My four international friends will leave this country with tales of Ax and our feast at Chinook pass, Cowboy Stripper and the city of hipsters, the Shaggin’ Covered Wagon, and the overwhelming grocery store that sold furniture and diamonds and way too many kinds of ice cream. (They were not impressed by the American appetite for consumerism or large cars.) I will remember the Czech words for hello, blood, and sweat. The unlikely intersection of people in time and space will spread until each of us are stories in many languages, repeated as proof of the kindness of strangers.

Day 32: Make It Better

Cascade Locks to Indian Mountain trail junction, mile 525

My first night in Oregon, I did something I thought was impossible — I cowboy camped on the PCT. My moldy old Tyvek, which I meant to replace in Portland, fit perfectly over a patch of rocks. With my head on the ground I counted Adams, Rainier, and Mt. Saint Helens in the distance. The sunlight was turning gold, the air was somehow both cool and warm, and the grass and lupin wavered in the wind. I am alive again, I thought. I wasn’t exactly sure what I meant by that.

I closed my eyes and opened them. Even with the light pollution from Portland and Cascade Locks, I could see the Milky Way smeared across the sky.

Twelve hours earlier, I hated myself. I let the weight on my back morph into heavy self-loathing, anger at myself for buying so much food and new shoes and generally being weak. Three toes were already numb. I wobbled 4,000 feet up from the Columbia River, swearing each time I rolled my ankle.

We would learn that burn scars told the story of Oregon. This one was particularly recent, from the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. It was ignited by a 15-year-old boy setting off fireworks and tore through the Columbia River Gorge. 150 hikers were trapped in a horrifying overnight ordeal, and the entire town of Cascade Locks was evacuated. And of course, it closed the PCT.

To everyone’s dismay, there was a rumor going around that the famous breakfast buffet at the Timberline Lodge did not include bacon. Dramatic buffet-related speculation is common, but this matter was particularly serious. Oily Boy said he wasn’t that excited.

“What kind of hikers are you?!” I burst out. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good buffet or a bad buffet. It’s a cultural institution!”

The international crowd shrugged; they obviously hadn’t come to the U.S. for the culture.

We made camp abruptly that night. I found John Mayo at the top of a hill, surveying the view of Ranier, Adams, and Mt. Saint Helens. It was too good not to stop, we agreed. So he ran down the trail shouting for Slippy, who was ahead.

There was a pile of rocks on the hill with a metal cross and an inscription. Alarmed, John Mayo asked if the man was buried here. I assured him that the Forest Service wouldn’t allow that.

Then I saw the tiny chainsaw spikes and took notice of the fact that we were camped in a very old burn area. “Oh,” I said suddenly. “He was a wildland firefighter.” I envisioned the flames sweeping up the hill. I thought of my friends who are wildland firefighters — some on hotshot crews, which this man probably was too. They could be out on a fire right now in their chaps and chainsaws, maybe spitting dip at the fire line and making dirty jokes, maybe watching spirals of thick black smoke lick the sky. Out here it was clear and smooth as a crystal lake on a windless day.

We made dinner in the windbreak. By now the routine, the gathering and unwrapping and lighting of stoves, was unspoken. We rolled our golf balls on our feet while we ate.

After dinner we sat five in a row on the hill, Six in her sleeping bag and the rest of us in colored jackets that echoed the gradient in the sky. We stared at the horizon so long we got white spots in our vision and had to look away.

The colors deepened once I slid into my own sleeping bag. Overheard, airplanes soared towards Portland but I could still pick out a star, or maybe a planet, stalwart in the sky.

Day 33: Chasing Waterfalls

Indian Mountain trail junction to Lost Creek, mile 551

At my urging, we took the alternate to Ramona Falls.

As I led the way back to the PCT, we hiked a full half mile north before I realized the sun was on the wrong side. You win some, you lose some. But the wrong turns always seem to come when I’m the most exhausted. It was still a long way to the buffet.

The many glaciers of Mt. Hood drained into many whitewater creeks, each a tantalizing puzzle. Would we get our feet wet? Was it possible to be swept downstream? As the day wore on, the challenge was less appreciated.

I fell behind Slippy and Oily Boy a couple miles before our intended camp. Once again, I was sad and infuriated at my sudden loss of speed and stamina. The climbs in particular were hard, and as I made my way up Hood in the waning light, I started to cry.

This wasn’t right. I wasn’t supposed to lose strength or faith on the PCT. But it was happening.

I can’t do it, I told myself.

You ARE doing it, I replied. You’ve done every step. It just sucks.

“My heart is in this,” I gasped out loud, noting the whine of uncertainty.

“You’re doing a great job,” said the woman I hadn’t seen ten feet up the trail.

When I arrived at camp, the boys weren’t there. They must have gone further, I thought desperately. Closer to the buffet tomorrow morning. But I had hobbled the last mile; I couldn’t walk another step.

So I camped alone for the first time on the PCT. It wasn’t scary; I’m used to it, and there was even a stranger’s tent nearby. But I dreamed that everyone was at the buffet without me.

Day 34: No Day But Buffet

Lost Creek to Little Crater Lake, mile 574

As I hoisted my backpack onto my back, I heard two people on the trail below. I trotted down to investigate; it was Oily Boy and Slippy.

“We stopped too early!” they exclaimed. “We didn’t realize until we pitched our tents that it was the wrong campsite.”

“NBD,” I said jovially, the woes of the evening forgotten. “Happy Buffet Day!”

There was another epic inversion below Mt. Hood with our next volcano, Jefferson, in the distance. “It reminds me of whipped cream on waffles,” Slippy said dreamily.

The clouds were closing into a thick mass and the marbled silt of the trail told me it had rained last night, three miles from where I slept under the stars.

How was the buffet? You’ll just have to use your imagination. I’m not going to spoil it in case you ever hike the PCT.

We did have fun with the axe, which was on site to celebrate Timberline’s claim to fame as the exterior of the hotel in The Shining.

Out on the patio, we dried our gear and loafed in beach chairs. Slippy chatted with a self-important white man who seemed a little desperate for conversation. I tried to clean my feet and discovered twin raw patches of skin where my third toes met my fourth on either foot.

“It looks like athlete’s foot,” Slippy said. It was definitely a little juicy.

I shook my head. “It’s just rubbing from the new shoes. Look, it’s in the same spot on both feet.”

“Looks like a fungus,” interjected our new friend. “I have some cream if you’d like.”

I wavered but ultimately accepted; it wasn’t going to hurt.

The descent from Mt. Hood was hot and immensely sandy. As usual, Six and John Mayo had departed long before Slippy, Oily Boy, and I got moving.

Mercifully, the trail led us down into the forest. We ran into a group of elementary-aged children with backpacks. As we approached, they stepped into either side of the trail and raised their little trekking poles to make a tunnel. “Good luck!” they cried as we raced through, clinking our own poles against theirs like a xylophone. “You can do it!”

Even though Oily Boy carries only paper maps, he was good at knowing our mileage compared to the entire PCT. “Twenty percent!” he announced.

“Soon we’ll have 2,000 miles left,” I said. “Soon less than that.”

“Sometimes it seems like a lot,” Slippy replied. “Other times it doesn’t.”

I felt that strongly. It had been a lifetime since I slapped the Canadian monument in the pouring rain; it had also been thirty-four days. Time folds and multiplies in the human mind; we’re living tesseracts, and as we hiked along in silence, it struck me that PCT miles are like years.

I turned thirty a few days before starting the trail. I’ve angsted over that, mostly because I wish my life had more direction and fulfillment. (Well, now it has a direction… south.) I thought about thirty as if it was our spot on the PCT. There were so many miles left.

“So how many miles are we actually doing tomorrow?” I asked as we ate dinner.

“The same?” said Oily Boy. “Thirty-three to Olallie Lake Resort.”

My heart sank. I had assumed that camping early would change our plans. I was hobbling again and very, very tired.

“Okay,” I said. “We can certainly try.”

Day 35: The Desert

Little Crater Lake to Olallie Lake Resort, mile 607

I left camp at 7:00am — not an auspicious start. I told Slippy I didn’t think I could do it and set off.

Could I do 10 by 10:00? No. Could I do 10 by 10:10? With zero minutes to spare, YES!

I took a ten-minute break and checked my toes. Sure enough, the moisture between them was gone, leaving only a red patch ringed by flakes of white. Maybe Slippy and the mansplainer has been right. .

I felt great. Slippy caught up and I announced my newfound confidence in our plan. I told him we were doing 20 by 2:00.

I made it by 2:06 and decided to stop playing number games.

After we took a lunch break, I took another urgent, ugly shit. My stomach gurgled and groaned for at least a mile after that. Slippy and Oily Boy has been joking about giardia, but it was starting to feel a little unfunny.

Most of the day’s trail was on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. It was an important reminder that all of the PCT is on stolen land, a term which insufficiently captures the genocide involved in stealing it. I thought about the land acknowledgements that people put on our instagrams, which I needed to be better about. Most people simply input their location into an app called Native Land and copy/paste names they can’t pronounce.

I was on Molalla land, according to the app. But the signs told me the land was governed by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs: Tenino, Wasco, and Northern Paiute. The more research I (later) did, the more confusing a picture it painted. Migration, wars, treaties… and who could really trust the internet anyway?

Either way, lands once stolen were now “mine,” my dearly beloved public lands that I’ve fought so hard to protect. How did the goal of decolonization figure into that?

I hiked on.

As the afternoon became early evening, I found myself slipping back into what I now called Mt. Hood Mood. In MHM, I was crying and everything hurt. I questioned, as I now did almost daily, whether I belonged here. Because if suffering built character, I should have had character long before now. Because I had no idea why I was pushing so hard to reach Olallie Lake.

I thought of a poem that my friends quoted incessantly in college. It was by Kazim Ali, a professor at our school.

You came to the desert intending to starve,

so starve.

And there, at 600 miles, I stumbled upon a clean serenity. Not for the first time, but at least for today.

Mt. Jefferson, which I called El Jefe because fuck naming mountains after slave-owning rapists, was fading like a ghost against the sky. The sun sashayed sideways; a cool breeze hung about the ridge, and I watched the miles dwindle into amounts that even a tired, sore, potentially sick person could do.

I couldn’t stop, not now, because I might not start back up again. 2.5. The mountains turned blue against the horizon.

I didn’t want cold beer, though I knew I would take it. 1.7.

I did want cold beer, wet and smooth in my palm like a compress for the day’s pain. Holy shit, I wanted it now. 0.4.

I stabbed my trekking poles in the ground, said “Cheerio, motherfuckers,” and John Mayo handed me a Busch just like I had imagined. I even made it in time to buy canned macaroni from the Olallie store.

Should I steal a rowboat and paddle to Mexico?

I walked off my torpor and stayed up past hiker midnight, twirling around the dock. Slippy tested out his camera’s long exposure settings as I danced with my headlamp. I named constellations but couldn’t find Orion, and squealed at every shooting star.

“I’ve never seen so many stars before,” Slippy said.

“Out of all the things we see out here,” I said, “the stars are my favorite.” I lay on my back and tried to explain that we are time travelers, that we see dead light, and it shows us how small we really are. We cannot be measured, our only importance is self-assigned, and it’s really too bad about our endless bullshit — until the stars shine, and it all disappears.

Up next: Oregon doubles down on heat, mosquitoes, and magnificent volcanoes. Cloud doubles down on self-doubt. What’s wrong? What’s right? Find out next time on the blog!