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PCT day 13: burn / the lonely plight of the solo sobo section hiker

(Days 11 and 12 were zero days at home in Portland, spent eating a lot, drinking a little, sleeping late, cuddling my cats, making a few gear tweaks, and walking as little as possible.)

J. agreed to drive me back out to Cascade Locks (it’s not hard to convince him he should go for a run in the Gorge), and he picks me up at 11ish. We stop for bagels on the way out of town. I feel weirdly nervous and reluctant about getting back on trail. In the car, we chat about unhappy hikers and post-trail depression and I sort of wonder aloud how many long-distance hikers are really, like really, enjoying themselves. But I remember my bike trip eight years ago, and how amazing it felt to be a biological machine that pedaled and ate and slept and pedaled again. How long did it take, though, to become that machine?

It’s almost 1 by the time I hit the trail just south of the Bridge of the Gods. It’s crawling with day hikers, and I’m wondering why they’re on this fairly boring stretch of the PCT until I hit Dry Creek about two miles in. Oh — Dry Creek Falls is a quarter mile off trail, up a little dirt road. I take a detour to go check it out. It pours out of a deep gap in a rocky hillside. Very pretty.

I hop back on trail and climb through the forest. There are some cool rock formations here and there, and for a few more miles the trail roughly parallels the Columbia River, so I get a few last views of the Gorge. Mostly I play dodge-the-poison-oak. There’s a real difference, I think to myself, between hiking towards home and hiking away from home. Then the trail turns south and climbs up… and up… and up. I’m moving pretty slow, and it takes me most of the afternoon to reach the Benson Plateau. I’ve been up here just a couple times before — most recently, to do some trailwork last month before this section reopened, but also about eight years ago, on my second-ever backpacking trip. My ex-husband (then my boyfriend), two friends of ours, and I hiked a loop: Eagle Creek Trail to Eagle-Benson (very steep, I remember) to the PCT and back down Ruckel Creek. I got sick on the second day and my friends took care of me; we all piled into one of our two small tents, four people and a dog, and played cards and talked and laughed.

I’m looking ahead on Guthook now and wondering where we camped then and where I’ll camp tonight. I don’t think I’ll make it to Wahtum Lake — that would be a 16- or 17-mile day. The next tentsite back is 5 miles before the lake, right at the junction with the Eagle-Benson trail, and I stare at the picture on Guthook, convincing myself I recognize it.

Later, when I check again, I read the comments — someone has recently commented that the site is burned out; there’s vaguely flat spots, but it’s not great, they say. I’m not really keen on camping in a burn area if I can help it, anyway. There’s another tentsite a mile before that one, but when I pass it, there’s a hiker already set up with a nice-looking cuben ‘mid. Well, okay. I’m gonna get to Wahtum Lake. If I can do 20-minute miles, I might make it before dark.

I set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes, to see how far I can get in that time. If it’s a mile or almost a mile, maybe I won’t have to night hike. I’m on a downhill stretch, and I feel like I’m actually making pretty good time for the first time today. J. appears in front of me, on his way back to the river on a Herman Creek / PCT loop run. I tell him about my campsite conundrum, and he mentions a tentsite on the Herman Creek Trail not far from the PCT, plus a maybe-tentsite in a rocky area up ahead on the PCT. We hug and say goodbye and continue on our separate ways, both racing the dark.

I get a brief respite from the burned forest when the trail crosses a big talus area, complete with lovely views. I keep an eye out for the maybe-tentsite J. mentioned, but don’t see anything. Then I’m back in the burn. But — soon I pass a little side trail, and on a whim I climb up it. It tops out very quickly on a rocky ridge top, with a great view of Mount Adams. And there’s maybe just enough room for my tent. This’ll do, I decide. My feet are sore and I’m tired.

I make dinner as the sun slowly sets. Everything I touch leaves black charcoal on my hands. I do my camp chores and crawl into my tent, but I can’t sleep yet. I read, text my mom and Ben and J., and it’s almost midnight by the time I convince myself to sleep.

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