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PCT day 15: paradise?

I wake up at 6 and cook breakfast at the picnic table. One of the thru-hikers packs up while I’m cooking, but he doesn’t really look up. When he hefts his pack and walks past me, I greet him. He nods and keeps walking. The other two keep sleeping while I finish breakfast and break camp. I feel more lonely than if I hadn’t shared my campsite. Or maybe (probably) I’d feel lonely either way.

The trail this morning climbs up through forest towards the Timberline Trail and, once again, familiar territory. At the Top Spur / Timberline / PCT junction, though, I get confused and trot a quarter mile down the wrong trail. I won’t realize until later that this is because the Timberline and the PCT are not actually the same trail between Top Spur and Ramona Falls — I’d assumed they were, or forgotten they weren’t.

In any case, I (eventually) follow the PCT down through the woods towards Ramona Falls. It’s hot. I feel like I’m coated in several millimeters of sweat and dirt. I cross the Muddy Fork on an only mildly terrifying set of logs and then head down the Ramona Falls alternate — actually one of my favorite forested trails ever. It runs alongside Ramona Creek, which is lush and mossy, with a huge rock face on the other side.

At the falls, I drop my pack and find a tree to sit and lean against. I write a list in the little notebook I’ve been carrying and haven’t opened before today of, well… backpacking trips I’d rather do, I guess. “But if I keep going I’ll be going through Jefferson Park,” I write below the list. “That’s supposed to be nice. I’ll have a chance to bail at Olallie Lake when J. meets me with my new fuel canister. And tomorrow I’ll get a real hearty breakfast at Timberline Lodge. Maybe I’m not eating enough.” I pull a candy bar out of my pack and eat it. It’s worth a shot.

When I start to feel too cold by the water, I head out again, crossing the Sandy River on a few tiny logs. One of the logs is a little bit higher than the others, so I lean over and hold onto it with one hand while I slowly shuffle my feet across a couple other logs. I think about filtering some water, but I’ve got a liter or so and it’s only about three miles to the next stream.

…Three miles of climbing. In the heat of the day. I swallow the last of my water a mile from the top. If I’m being honest, I’m a little proud of myself — I have never run out of water before; water is one of those fears I pack. But I’m also hot, sweaty, and maybe getting a tiny bit dehydrated. The trail offers some beautiful, expansive views of Hood, but I don’t linger on them, ducking back into the shade as quickly as I can.

I reach the turn-off for the Paradise Loop Trail and hurry past it to the stream a quarter mile further down the PCT. I fill my dirty water bag and suck half a liter directly through the filter, then fill up a couple of my bottles. I sit a few extra minutes, and then backtrack to the turn-off. I need some alpine wonderland. My only plan for the rest of the day is to find a beautiful campsite in Paradise Park and chill out.

It sure is pretty up here. Meadows and wildflowers and gorgeous views of the mountain. I pass Split Rock sooner than I expect to, and I consider finding a nice site up there, but I’d like to get a little closer to the lodge if I can, to reduce the hiking I’ll have to do tomorrow before breakfast. I’m also hoping for a site near water — I would love to wash my disgustingly filthy shirt, shorts, and socks.

But my dream site next to the stream is already occupied. I am way more disappointed by this than is probably reasonable. I climb up off the trail along a use trail above the stream, but someone’s already at the little tentsite up there too.

I continue on and hit the junction with the Paradise Park Trail (not to be confused with the Paradise Loop Trail I’m on). The trail leads off to the right downhill, but an unofficial spur also leads further up the mountain. I camped up there my first night on the Timberline Trail in 2016. Today, though, I have this terrible suspicion that passing this junction means I’ve pretty much walked all the way through Paradise Park without finding my perfect tentsite. I have a little signal, and I text J., who runs up here regularly, for a little trail beta. “Am I leaving Paradise Park?” He misunderstands me, though, and says the PCT is a bit further on.

I continue down the trail, but I’m losing elevation, and I’m pretty sure that soon I’ll be heading down into Zigzag Canyon. There’s a little blue line on the map up ahead, though — another stream. Maybe there’ll be something there.

There’s not, though. No water, no campsites, just a trail slowly losing elevation, and a couple day hikers who ask me how far it is to Paradise Park. I tell them they’re almost there, and then I try not to cry. I feel weird and sad and foolish, ostensibly about not finding a perfect campsite, but also about, like, not really understanding why I need to find a perfect campsite, or why I’m doing this damn hike. Also it’s hot and I probably need more water and maybe some food.

But if I keep going down the trail, all I’m gonna find, I’m sure, is “shitty PCT tentsites,” as I text J. I don’t know. Maybe this whole walking-for-the-sake-of-walking thing isn’t working out for me. In 2015, when I was trying to thru-hike, the PCT made sense as this huge, singular undertaking. But this year, the longer I’m out here, the less I understand why I’m section-hiking it. There are prettier trails, you know? And here I am in one of the prettiest parts I’ve hiked so far this year, feeling too cranky to enjoy it.

I sigh and turn around and start back uphill. I run into the day hikers again. “Did you make it?”

“I dunno, we’re turning around here…”

“Oh, you’re so close. It gets prettier. Less than a mile.” Encouraging them helps me a little, too.

I reach the beautiful stream with no available campsites again. A little ways past it is a campsite in the trees above the trail that I’d rejected on my first pass. But it’ll do. There’s not quite a view of Hood, but I can see it peeking out behind the hill above me just a little bit. I pitch my tent, then gather my water bottles and sort out my dirtiest socks and shorts. I load everything into my pack and walk back down to the stream.

There are the day hikers. “You made it! Worth it, right?”

“Definitely!” one of them says. They’re smiling big as they head back down the trail towards Timberline Lodge.

I fill a gallon ziplock with water and use it to wash my shorts and socks, emptying and refilling it several times. Then I strip down to my bra and wash my shirt, and finally I wash my arms and legs and face with a wet bandana. Thus refreshed, and with plenty of water for dinner, I head back up to my tentsite and drape my laundry over my tent.

I eat dinner and then lie in my tent for a while, reading and writing, until I look up and see the red light cast by the setting sun. Oh shit! I jump up to catch the sunset. It’s incredible, red and orange and purple. I feel a little better. I won’t quit tomorrow.

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