When we wake up there’s little bits of ash on our tents, but there’s also a bit of light drizzle falling off and on. The rain kindly holds off for the most part until we’ve breakfasted and packed up. While Backup finishes getting his things together and fills up his water bottles, I sit on a log and read Midnight’s Children, until I’m startled by a loud buzz and a poke in my lower back. It’s a hummingbird who mistook my fuchsia rain jacket for a flower! When I stand up, it swoops around me once, confused, and then flies off.
It drizzles all morning. It would probably be pretty if we could see much of anything.
Seven or so miles in, we hit what Guthook describes as “a rocky creek” and which is in fact a river, both turgid and turbid, dividing and recombining in a series of volcanic channels. There’s no obvious way to cross, and we pace the bank up and down, trying to decide whether to go for it. In the end, we pick our way across three different channels on tiny, scary logs, placing our trekking poles carefully in the rushing water. When we make it, we laugh in relief and high-five, then continue on our way. Less than a mile later, we meet a nobo hiker and warn him about the crossing, and he says, “oh yeah, the Boy Scouts back there told me there’s a log about 200 yards upstream?” Man, no one told us about the log. We make it our personal mission for the day to let everyone else know about it.
A bit further on, we meet a couple more nobos, and while we’re chatting with them (about the log), a sobo hiker catches up with us. His name is Beowulf, and when we ask him if he’s getting to Trout Lake today, he asks how far it is. “Ten miles,” we say, and he shrugs.
“I wasn’t planning on going that far, but what the hell,” he says. He started this morning twelve miles north of us, which means it’ll be a 32-mile day for him when we get to the trailhead at Road 23.
The three of us hike together as the rain gets harder. And harder. I’m pretty sure the terrain around us is pretty — burned trees with bright wood that looks almost orange in the flat light; little green yellow red plants; rocks; views, I’m sure, in clearer weather, of Mount Adams and other mountains — but as we start to wet through, we pretty much just put our heads down and hike hike hike. We sneak up on the remarkably oblivious Boy Scouts and pass them one by one (“Excuse me. Hello? Can we sneak past you? EXCUSE ME. HEY GUYS CAN WE GET PAST PLEASE? Ah, yes, hello, thanks.”) and truck on.
The rain is ridiculous. Well, the rain is rain. What is ridiculous is the water all over everything. It’s been so dry here for so long that nothing is soaking in. It’s just rushing in torrents down the mountain and down the trail. In some spots the trail is full of puddles around the edge of which we try with limited success to skirt; in other places it’s hopeless — the trail is a river, ankle deep and moving fast, with rapids and foam and waterfalls and the whole nine yards. Our feet are soaked. Our rain jackets are wet through and everything is soaked.
We fantasize about what might be waiting for us at the end of the trail: a building full of dry towels and hot food. A sauna. Maybe a car waiting for us to arrive, to sweep us off to warm dry places with pie. When we finally, finally stumble off the trail and onto Road 23, there is a car — we assume it belongs to someone currently on the trail, out for a night or a few days. But no, there’s someone in the driver’s seat! When he opens the door, we ask, “Is there any way we could get a ride into Trout Lake?” And get this, he’s waiting for a hiker who never showed. He’d love to give us a ride. He’s glad he didn’t drive out here in vain. He’ll drop us off right at the store. They’ll fix us up and help us find a place to stay. This, ladies and gentlemen, is real trail magic.
At the store, I dazedly buy chocolate milk and a plastic baggy full of homemade chocolate peanut clusters, and Backup buys an entire huckleberry pie. The almost incomprehensibly kind, patient, and friendly woman who works there calls around looking for a place for us to stay. All the usual places are full, but some locals who have a bunkhouse for hikers (which is full) on their farm are happy to let us sleep in their wood-stove-heated workshop. Warm and dry? We’re sold. Next, the three of us tromp down the block to the cafe, where we order veggie burgers and fries and cups of hot cider. When we return to the store, the woman who works there tells Backup she sold his pie… because the local woman who makes them brought some new ones over, so she saved him one that’s hot, fresh out of the oven. We and the pie are loaded into her car and she drives us to our home for the night, where another hiker has already built a hot fire in the stove. I finally peel off most of my wet clothes and warm up enough to stop shivering. It’s cozy and warm and there are cots and there is conversation and everything is good.
(Yep, that’s all the photos. After the river, my hands and phone were so wet that I couldn’t use the touchscreen, and didn’t want to take my hands out of my gloves anyway. My camera, of course, was safely buried in my pack. So you’ll have to take my word for it about the trail-river.)
A warm, hazy morning. The lake is just as pretty in the morning as it was yesterday evening. Unsure about hiking south into the smoke, Backup and I decide to hike together today, and leave camp around ten with our sights set on Lava Spring, about twenty miles distant. Pretty quickly we decide to press on, to see how it goes with respect to the smoke. We meet a few nobo hikers who, when asked, say, “Oh yeah, it was pretty bad this morning; I was using a bandana. But maybe it’s clearing up.” We catch whiffs of the fire off and on all day — Backup likes it, says it smells like campfire. There’s no seam in the sky today, but no red-black-yellow either, just a general haze over everything.
What happens today? When I ask Backup at the end of the day, he’ll shrug and say, “We hiked twenty miles.” The trail goes gently up and down through woods. Nothing is particularly notable, really, except maybe the smoky haze. We leapfrog each other, meeting at creeks or tent sites every few miles, until we’ve hiked twenty miles.
When we were in White Pass, I looked at the calendar and realized how close it’s getting to time for me to get off the trail for a couple of weddings, and I decided to end this section at Trout Lake. I’d hoped to be at Cascade Locks before now, or even, originally, much further than that. I’m humbled by how hard this has been. By how much my feet hurt (all the time. Still). By how grateful I am to get to town every time we get to town. By how very different this is from bike touring. When we first started, I told hikers who asked that, yes, I was a thru-hiker, going all the way to Mexico. I’ve been less and less ambitious in my self-identification since then. Today I tell a nobo named Toto (he’s from Kansas) who asks if I’m hiking thru, “I thought so, but it turns out I’m too slow to be a southbounder.” Then we chat for a few minutes about bike touring.
Bike touring is how I plan to salvage my fall. I’m going home from Trout Lake. Then I’m going to a wedding in California, and then to another wedding in New York. And then I’m going to ride my bike from Trout Lake to somewhere in California, following Adventure Cycling’s Sierra-Cascades route, which lines up roughly with the PCT. And then I guess I’ll get back on trail and hike to Mexico. One way or another, I’m going to cover this ground.
I’m trying not to be too disappointed in myself. Usually I’m pretty good about following through on my goals. But here’s a thing: many of the nobo thru-hikers we’ve met fall into one of two categories. First there are the cheerful hikers. They ask about views and wildlife; they want to know our plans; they cheer us on and wish us happy trails. Then there are the downtrodden, beaten-up hikers. They’re hiking to finish. They ask about water and terrain. They don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much. I don’t want to be the second kind of hiker. So I’m quitting, for now, while I’m ahead.
Here’s most of what I feel about getting to Trout Lake, and getting off trail for a while, tomorrow or the day after: relief.
I sleep poorly. My knees keep me up. They don’t hurt, exactly, but I just can’t get comfortable. Constants of the trail: my feet hurt and I have old lady knees. The weather couldn’t be nicer, though. When I get up, I pull on my puffy jacket as usual, but I take it off almost immediately; it’s already too warm.
Nervous about the forecast (which called for possible thunderstorms after 11am), we’re awake at 5am, but it’s eight o’clock before we set out uphill towards the ridge we’ll climb to Old Snowy and the Knife’s Edge. We are definitely back in alpine wonderland, with huge expansive views and rocks and snow-fed streams and glaciers in August. The uphill climb and the potential summit at the top (Old Snowy — there’s an alternate route that will take us past the summit spur trail, and I’m eager to get up there) invigorate me, and I’m far ahead of Backup for most of the climb. This is the only terrain on which I’m faster than him! It’s good for my ego. There are gorgeous views of Mount Rainier, and hazy clouds in the sky, but the wind is mild and the air is warm.
We’re both slower than expected on the ridge climb, and it’s already ten by the time we reach the junction where we have to choose whether to go for the summit or continue to the Knife’s Edge, a narrow ridge we’ve been hearing about since the border. The whole Goat Rocks Wilderness section of the PCT is supposed to be one of the most beautiful, and the Knife’s Edge is the jewel in its crown. Backup is especially excited about it, but I convince him to climb Old Snowy with me. “The weather doesn’t look foreboding at all really, and we can always drop packs when the alternate joins up with the PCT again, and go back and do the Knife’s Edge!”
The climb is great — steep and full of scree and talus of all shapes and sizes, including a long section of flat rocks that are dinner-plate-sized or bigger and make a loud racket when we walk on them. At the junction for the spur, a third of a mile or so from the top, we meet a father and son who are also on their way up, and we talk about the fire on Mount Adams briefly. “We saw smoke yesterday,” we say, “but today there’s no sign of it…”
The dad points behind him at Mount Adams, which is peaking out from behind Old Snowy and the other nearby peaks, and shows us the plume of smoke rising from the east side of it. Oh, yeah… what we took for clouds is smoke. Why does it look so different from yesterday’s wild red and yellow sky?
We all reach the summit together, and Backup and I spend a while up there taking photos in every direction and eating snacks. When the wind starts to pick up, I’m suddenly anxious to get down from there, and I start to pick my way back down the scree. Down is always so much harder than up for me. When Backup gets back down to the spur junction, he’s nervous too — we both feel weather rolling in. We hurry down to the PCT and follow it along a ridge. At one point Backup feels some static electricity in his trekking poles, and his hair is standing up — yikes! We hurry along until a nobo coming towards us points out that we’re not actually on the PCT. Shit! He was eating lunch on the ridge, or we’d have gone who knows how much farther before we figured out we’d missed the trail.
Yes, lunch. The sky looks like dusk but it’s around noon.
We hurry downhill. The smoke in the sky is changing character again, turning red and black and yellow, darkening half the sky. We never actually encounter rain or lightning, but it’s hard to read the weather when the sky is full of smoke. I pretend I’m a hobbit walking to Mordor as we walk down down down towards Mount Adams on fire.
Once we get lower and there are more trees, we’re both feeling less anxious. We stop for a snack break at a cool little rock formation where it looks like one giant boulder split into two a very long time ago. They both look beautifully climbable and one of them is covered in pockety holds; I’m too scared of downclimbing to go very far up, but we both do a move or two (ok, Backup does three and I do one) up the wall.
We wind down around ridges into the Cispus Basin, which is a beautiful area full of steep streams and, whaddya know, mountain goats! We stop to watch them up on the slope above the trail — several dozen at least, including kids, tromping up and down the steep slope, grazing and drinking from one of the streams. The fire is invisible from here, and daytime has returned to the sky to chase the hours and hours of evening away.
Then — over Cispus Pass and finally down to (another) Sheep Lake, where we set up camp and then sit next to the lake to cook dinner and hang out for a bit. While we’re there, tiny bits of ash begin to fall from the sky and land on our legs and clothes and packs, smearing white when we touch them. A gentle, eerie snow.
We’re feeling a bit apprehensive about the fire, but reassured by the number of day hikers and overnighters we’ve met today. If it comes down to it, it seems like we’ve got lots of potential bail spots. From what we’ve heard, the fire is all east of Mount Adams and not likely to affect the PCT except maybe in terms of air quality. Let’s see what tomorrow brings!
Success! We leave town while it’s still morning. The first five miles are all uphill, first through the woods and then below the ridge we’re slowly approaching. We can see the trail stretch out ahead of us and rise to the ridge, and it reminds us of the trail further north, when we’d see it far away across valleys hours before we’d walk those sections.
There are clouds coming over the ridge that we’re a bit worried about — the weather forecast calls for potential thunderstorms after 11am for the next few days. The clouds are tinged a beautiful but ominous red. When we’ve almost gained the ridge, Backup starts to ask a group of hikers coming towards us about the weather. Before he can get the question out, they answer him — about the fire! The clouds we’ve been watching aren’t weather but smoke. When we cross over the ridge, the smoke is unmistakable. To our left, the sky is blue, dotted with white clouds; then there’s a crazy seam in the sky where the smoke meets the blue sky, and to the right, the red-black-yellow smoke at cloud level, hazy blue below it.
The trail curves and we get an otherworldly view of Mount Rainier, partly shrouded by smoke. Backup manages to get a text through to his mom, who’s able to call a ranger, who’s able to text Backup. While we sit on rocks on a scree slope facing Rainier, the ranger asks for some information and gets in touch with the Mount Adams ranger station for us — the fire is down there, it turns out. It was started yesterday by lightning but, according to the rangers, the PCT is not in any danger. Phew.
We walk on and descend back into forest. The smoke has given the day a perpetual evening kind of feeling. The light the sun casts through the trees is golden orange. Golden hour goes on and on — until suddenly we turn a corner and day comes back. There’s no sign of the smoke or fire at all.
The rest of the afternoon we descend and climb and slowly leave the woods behind. Alpine wonderland! We’re camped tonight just on its edge, not far from a steep glacier-fed stream, protected from any inclement weather (though it’s been clear all day) by a little stand of trees.
Slow morning, potentially blustery / stormy afternoon and evening: sounds like a zero day to me. We pack up all our stuff and head to the store to move in the direction of getting back on trail, but a few hours later we head back to the motel and get a room for a second night. Well hey. While we eat dinner (spaghetti again), the wind roars through outside, and rain follows. Our room tonight has a DVD player and a selection of movies. We watch an episode of a Discovery Channel sensationalist series about climbing Everest, and then an only-okay moralistic thriller called Rendition in which Meryl Streep plays a bad-guy torture-justifying CIA higher-up. Back to the trail tomorrow morning.