PCT Days 163-172: Washington Part II, Larches and Lurches

It feels like we reach Washington-Washington, finally. The colors! The views! The COLORS!

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Purples, reds, oranges, yellows… There’s actual sunshine casting actual shadows; there are valleys and mountains and views.

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On the day we hit 2500 miles, we meet a guy who shot a bear. The bear pieces are sealed in a barrel to be safe from other bears until the guy can carry them out. So it goes.

September’s shorter days are definitely here, with lots of drizzle and the occasional sideways rain. The consolidating hiker herd creates competition for campsites at the end of long, grey days. Clouds descend and we walk all the way around Glacier Peak with barely a peek at the glaciers. We clamber over giant blowdowns and slide down muddy slopes.

The elevation gains and losses are intense. According to Halfmile’s app, on Day 166 we lose 7,052 feet in elevation while also climbing 5,404 feet. On Day 167, it’s -5,052’/+6,166′. My feet do still hurt, of course, but mostly I’m just tired, lurching forward because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 2500 miles. So I can do it for another 150.

At Stehekin, the bakery is everything it is rumored to be, and more. A red shuttle bus picks up dirty hikers at the trailhead and stops at the bakery on the way to town. We buy All The Things and eat All The Things and it is good. On the way back out of town, we stop again and stock up on pastries and breads and amazing warm treats baked by the bakery employees, who are all lovely hippie girls.

And the larches! Let me tell you about the larches, because I didn’t know: larches are conifers that turn bright yellow and drop their needles. They’re a thing. And they’re beautiful.

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We hit the last passes of the trail. They are beautiful. We stop at an overlook with epic views in every direction where it’s quiet enough to hear a bird’s wings flapping overhead. It’s beautiful.

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Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful:

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On our second-to-last day on the trail we hike through snow all afternoon and camp by a mountain-rimmed lake as the full moon rises over the snowy landscape. Tomorrow: Canada.

Day 163 / September 17 to Day 172 / September 26, 2015
Stevens Pass to Hopkins Lake
182.4 miles, PCT Mile 2461.3 to 2643.7

PCT Days 144-162: Washington, Part I

The rain starts as we walk into Washington across the Bridge of the Gods and sticks around for the next nine days. Being soggy and cold is a downer, but I remind myself that water puts out forest fires, and right now forest fires are what’s blocking our hopes of a continuous footpath to Canada.

The trail changes dramatically in Washington—instead of dry forest filled with huckleberry bushes, everything is lush green, an orgy of ferns and mosses, layer upon layer of decaying trees, populated by slugs and salamanders.

We leave the dripping forest and climb up to Goat Rocks Wilderness—a legendarily beautiful stretch of trail where the path follows a narrow crest (the Knife’s Edge) with thousand-foot drops on either side and 360-degree views of snow-capped volcanos all around. The photos I’ve seen are stunning.

This is what it looks like when we hike it:

Sideways hail, 32 degrees. It’s… frustrating. And cold. But! We get a tiny bit of cell service on the far side of the Knife’s Edge, after exiting the snowstorm, and discover that A) Dilly and Dally have quit the trail after days of nonstop Washington rain (boooo!) and B) the trail is now open all the way to Canada after days of nonstop Washington rain! Hooray! With the trail closure near Stehekin, we would have faced a choice between hitching much farther north, creating the first gap in our hike—or a 100-mile road walk. But now, no choice necessary: Continuous footpath from Mexico, here we come!

We also get a few glimpses of how beautiful this section is when you can, y’know, actually see it:

Then the weather clears, and we get to enjoy clear blue skies and fall colors in full effect. Mount Rainier is ridiculous.

At Snoqualmie Pass we take a zero and get visits from Dilly and Dally (looking so clean and so relaxed in their “normal” clothes) and from a Peace Corps friend and her husband. Donuts, double breakfast, pre-dinner milkshakes… Man, I’m gonna miss feeding my hiker hunger.

Leaving Snoqualmie Pass we take the Goldmyer alternate, which leads us to Goldmyer Hot Springs, a hike-in-only campground + hot springs where the hot springs flow from inside an old mine shaft—which has been built up so that you can actually climb into the horizontal tunnel and slowly cook yourself.

After oh-so-flat Oregon, Washington brings the return of Sierra-style climbs and descents—epic, rocky, unrelenting—which means tough hiking but dramatic views. Though I suppose we’ve technically been in the Cascades since clearing Donner Pass back in California, this is the first time the landscape feels truly… Cascadey.

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Hiker-wise, the end of the trail begins to feel like the beginning of the trail: people are bottlenecking, clumping up as we near our common goal. Hiker Herd, reassemble! Crowds of hikers are passing us who started in May, a full month after we did—I try not to feel abysmally slow. After all, we’ve all hiked the same distance—and, as hikers say, last one to Canada wins.

One moment of trying to wrap our brains around how far we’ve walked: the first major interstate highway we crossed under was I-8 at Mile 26, with San Diego due west. One hundred and fifty-six days and 2,364 miles later, we walk under I-90, where road signs point to Seattle.

Day 144 / August 29 to Day 162 / September 16, 2015
Cascade Locks to Stevens Pass
317.1 miles, PCT Mile 2144.2 to 2461.3

PCT Days 128-143: Oregon Part II, Lava and Glaciers

I didn’t know what to expect from Oregon.  What I got was more mountains, beautiful forested views, and glaciers(!). More weekenders and section hikers. Couples from Portland hiking with tiny dogs. Lots of drippy pale green moss. And smoke. Always smoke.

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Also: lava beds. Lava bed hiking is The Worst.

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But obsidian fields: obsidian is The Coolest.

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Glacial creek crossings: not as terrifying as expected!

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Also, infrastructure is back: Shelter Cove, with its fishing competition and camp store. Elk Lake Resort: ice cream! campsites! Big Lake Youth Camp, a haven of efficient, cheerful amenities delivered by oh-so-clean teenagers.

The seasons are starting to shift. There’s one morning when the light and the breeze and the temperatures bring Fall rushing in like a river—but is it the time of year, or is it our ever-more-northerly latitude?

We’re clearly making progress, slowly inching up on the map, but still I have an array of frustrations: with my aching feet, my slow speed, how heavy my pack still feels, with each other. 24/7 is a lot of time to spend with another person, especially when doing something so physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. One person gets frustrated, then the other person gets frustrated with their frustration.

We pass 2,000 miles (two thousand miles!)  and walk through huge swaths of burned forest where the wind rushes through sounding like a raging river on the other side of the crest. On Day 138 we decide to do A Thirty for the first time: a thirty-mile day, just to see if we can, just to say that we did. We hike separately so that in case I can’t make it I won’t be holding Fancypants back. It’s a wonderful day—a solo adventure, setting my own pace, taking my own breaks—the whole adventure of the trail compressed into one epic day. I make it: 31.1 miles, the last mile uphill through effing sand, ending with dinner and a hotel room at the Timberline Lodge.

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There are more glacial creeks, more green ridge tops, more hazy views of volcanos. Finally, we charge through crowds of day hikers on the Eagle Creek alternate and into Cascade Locks for a double zero in preparation for the last push: Washington.

Day 128 / August 13 through Day 143 / August 28
298.7 miles, PCT Mile 1845.5 to 2144.2

PCT Days 119-127: Oregon Part I, Smoke and Berries

All through California, Oregon has been touted as the promised land of flat trails and big miles. No more mountains! Smooth dirt track through shady forests! Disappointingly, the trail does not actually turn level (or into a moving walkway) immediately after the state line, but it does feel like the landscape changes, somehow. Drier, more rolling golden hills… though maybe that’s just how everything looks through the forest fire haze.

Fires. They’re all around us. Smoke descends during our zero day at Callahan’s Lodge and our dinner trip into Ashland—it’s thick. Really thick. Like, this CAN’T be good for your lungs thick. Back on the trail, we have neon red sunsets and pink orange sunrises.

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But it’s pretty hiking, all the same. The trail is lined with Oregon grapes—big, plump berries that look like they should be tasty, but are actually very, very tart. The trees are covered in long strands of pale green moss. There are bees! (wasps?) Bees everywhere—you stand still in the forest and hear a low buzzing all. around. you. and realize that the undergrowth is vibrating with hundreds of hovering bees. They aren’t aggressive—they only seem to sting if caught under clothing—but they hover and investigate and our food and are just… unsettling.

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We keep making miles—with a string of 24- and 25-mile days, we hit 100-mile markers once a week. We pass the 2/3 point of the trail, which is in a field of lava. I finally replace the tips on my hiking poles, which had been worn down to nubs. Hiking speeds and schedules have somehow realigned so that we are leapfrogging again with friends from the start of the trail—Treeman and Hedgehog, Physio and Cashmere, Morningstar and Cookie Monster. We meet up in towns and compare notes on the past five hundred, six hundred, thousand miles of trail. There’s a huge crowd of hikertrash at Crater Lake National Park, where Fancypants’ parents meet up with us to provide trail magic—food, a ride to a hotel in a real town, more food, and some water caches along an otherwise dry stretch of trail in the park.

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After a near-o in town, we hike with FP’s parents along Crater Lake at sunset before saying goodbye. That night / early the next morning is the Perseid meteor shower, and we want to watch it from the rim of the lake. We’re rule-followers, though, so instead of (illegally) camping along the rim trail, we go down to Lightning Spring, 6/10th of a mile off the trail, and set our alarms for 3AM. At 3 we pack up and stagger back up to the rim trail in the dark and find a spot overlooking the lake to crawl back into our sleeping bags.

It’s a surreal few hours before sunrise—looking down into the crater in complete darkness, I have no sense of where the cliffs meet the horizon. There are flashes of light below, but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re boat lights on the water or lighting in the clouds. The Perseids are just ok—a few streaks of light, nothing too impressive, but then a sliver of moon rises over Crater Lake and holy wow is it beautiful.

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And the sunrise? Words fail.

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Day 119 / August 4 through Day 127 / August 12
145.4 miles, PCT Mile 1700.1 to 1845.5

PCT Days 101-118: Finishing California

After our break in Chester, we’re back on the trail and headed through our fourth national park of the trail: Lassen Volcanic, which does not disappoint. Raging steam vents, boiling lakes, dire warnings to stay on the trail—woohoo! Drakesbad Guest Ranch is a nice trail stop—resupply, a hot-spring-heated pool, and a multi-course dinner. As hikers, we’re not allowed in the dining room with the “real” guests, but after dinner the staff brings us a baggie of corndogs and chicken tenders, leftovers from the kids’ menu. 

The notorious Hat Creek Rim is bad—hot, dry, shadeless—but the section after it is even worse, all lava beds and red dirt, like walking into an open oven. 1400 miles, 1500 miles—at this pace, we cover 100 miles in under five days. Progress is measured by Mount Shasta: how close and where on the horizon it is as we make a long slow swing around its west side. On July 26th we meet our first confirmed southbound thru-hiker.

My foot pain is back (did it ever leave?), and the miles can feel endless. Why is there so much California?! I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Correction: fantasizing about food. The Hardcore History podcast I’m listening to one afternoon mentions bread riots during World War I, and my immediate thought is “Mmmm… bread!

The good news is, trail magic has returned in abundance—rides offered before we have a chance to ask, elaborate meals served at road crossings, coolers full of cold soda waiting between trees. Set up a wildlife camera at those ice chests, and you would capture pure hikertrash joy.

Then the smoke moves in. At Mile 1600, climbing out from the turnoff to Etna, a forest fire haze descends, and it doesn’t really leave. We walk through previous years’ burn zones—recent ones. They are filled with blackened trees, burned trail markers. On July 31st we watch helicopters dropping water on a spot fire burning on a hillside below the trail.

In Seiad Valley, deep in the State of Jefferson, it is 102 degrees in the shade. We stop for cafe lunch (sandwiches! milk shakes!) and showers. I eat enough ice cream to give myself a serious stomach ache, which makes the road walk and smoke-filled climb out of town that much worse. We stop early because of my bad ice-cream-related choices, but sucking all that smoke in on an uphill trudge really couldn’t have been a better choice. The smoke is so thick at night that the moon looks like a red light in the sky.

And then… Oregon! We can hear the cheering at the border from half a mile away—there’s a crowd of hikers signing the log book and taking pictures under the border sign and sprawled out in the middle of the trail eating their lunches, smoking their joints, all the things that hikers do.

We’re finally done with California—all 1700 miles of it. “Only” 950 miles left, through two “quick” states.

Day 101 / July 17 through Day 118 / August 3:
371.3 miles, Mile 1328.8 to 1700.1