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PCT day 14: whatever will be, will be

The rain wakes me up in the night and I close the last open flap on the tent, then roll over and go back to sleep. When my alarm goes off at six, it’s still raining. I lie awake for a few hours, curled up in my sleeping bag, reading Cloud Atlas on my phone. It’s still raining. We can’t bring ourselves to pack up and go out into it. So we stay in our tents, reading and dozing, until the rain finally dies. It’s three by the time we walk away from the campsite. I would not say morale is high.

We hike a few miles, eating huckleberries along the way, before the rain starts again. Then we’re pushing through overgrowth and I’m soaked from the knees down. It’s dim and foggy and night is approaching and we’re not going to make very many miles today and that feels shitty. We stop at a marginal campsite — a pretty grassy meadow by a stream that would be lovely if it were dry, but since it’s not, we explore a bit further from the trail and find a flattish spot under some trees. 

Setting up the tent sucks. The ground is either rooty or too soft, and whenever I tighten one guyline, another pulls a stake out of the ground on the other side. But then there’s a dry space, and I crawl into it. I pull up my book (Consider Phlebas, now; I finished Cloud Atlas this morning) to read while I inflate my sleeping pad. Backup asks why. 

“I’m distracting myself,” I answer. 

“From what?”

“I’m not happy.”

“Well, what’s going on?”

I’m cold, I’m wet, I’m going so much more slowly than I thought I would be, I miss my cats, I don’t feel like I’m any good at this and I don’t know why I’m doing it…

“Did you write down why you wanted to do this, when you first decided? Could you read it?”

“No, I think I thought it was self-evident.”

“Because it’s a challenge? Because it’s beautiful?”

“Because I love things like this. At least, I thought I did. I love hiking and I loved my bike tour. But I guess it’s different when you can stop in town every day.”

I eat a Clif bar and listen to the first couple songs on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, which I wisely offlined before leaving Portland. Then someone says “hello!” outside our tent; it’s a nobo thru-hiker named OCD looking for a spot to camp. We chat for a bit about the trail and other trails and it cheers me up a bit, it does. 

We’ll see, we’ll see. I don’t know. We’ll get to Stevens Pass when we get to Stevens Pass. Those silly lyrics I wrote the other day, I even said it: whatever will be, will be.  

PCT day 13: buckets of rain

We camped last night in a river valley, so today starts with a climb. The trail is pretty and crosses several streams. We work up a sweat, strip off our layers, stop to filter water, get chilled and put our layers back on.

We climb towards Red Pass and emerge from the trees into a wide valley with a steep wall to one side, fog clouding the top. It’s beautiful, and we both stop to take photos. The fog keeps rolling in, and the air is getting wet. “Hey,” I call down the trail to Backup, and hold out my hand, palm up, looking at the sky. 

“Yeah,” he says, and we both stop to pull out rain gear and check that everything important is tucked away in our packs in waterproof dry sacks or pack liners. 

It never rains really hard, but everything is very wet for the next several hours. My jacket and rain skirt keep me mostly dry from the knees up, but we’re pushing through fields of lupine and heather, and the wet plants send water pouring down my legs and into my socks and shoes. The cloud we’re traveling through limits our visibility to the trail immediately in front of and behind us; we’re traversing an alpine slope that drops away into white nothingness below us.

Fellow humans emerge from the mist; one laughingly asks us, “Enjoying the view?” 

I bet it’s beautiful on a sunnier day. 

The trail is so well-trod up here that it’s been worn into a trench in some places that comes up past my knees. In some places there’s a slightly shallower trench paralleling the original trail, and a third footpath on its way to being a trench. Where the trail is on a slope, marmots like to dig their holes into the side; I have a several-minute conversation with one such marmot who’s hanging out on the trail as I approach. I step towards him; he ducks into his hidey-hole but almost immediately pokes his nose and then his whole head out to watch me. I step closer; repeat. 

Backup catches up to me while the marmot and I are eyeing each other. He’s been snacking on blueberries as he hikes. I backtrack a bit and we sit on the trail to chat. We’re still trying to figure out how to reconcile our different hiking styles and our goals for this trip. I’m still trying to figure out what my goals for this trip are. Am I trying to hike 2660 miles and get through the Sierras before the snow comes? Is it already too late for that? Am I trying to spend some time in beautiful wild places? Am I learning how to be alone? Am I on vacation? Can I skip to the Sierras when I finish Washington because I just want to spend more time in alpine wonderland? Is that cheating? Do I care? Am I a thru-hiker? Am I putting my life on hold? Did I really quit my job and sublet my apartment and leave my cats with strangers for this? What is this

We set up camp near a lake along with a bunch of other people and, apparently, a dog (arf arf!). We cook dinner in the tent vestibules ’cause it’s cold tonight and the air is still full of mist. The line across the peak of the tent is hung with our socks, gaiters, hats, and bandanas. My shoes are wet wet wet. My feet and shoulders are sore per usual, but it’s probably worth noting: nothing else hurts. 

Maybe someday soon I’ll get to use Vonnegut for a blog post title: everything was beautiful and nothing hurt. 

PCT day 12: yes we’ll hike hike hike all the whole day

I decide to try a new strategy today. Rather than focus on the big goal — twenty miles, or whatever distant landmark or campsite we have in mind for tonight — I’m going to pick mini-goals, one at a time, of five miles or so. Today, first it’s down down down to get water at Milk Creek. Then it’s up up up for a wonderful break at beautiful glacial Mica Lake. Then it’s up down up down up to the last high point before a long descent. And so on. 

The down down down to Milk Creek is nothing to write home about. We leave alpine wonderland early on and switchback through overgrowth. On the bridge over the creek while we filter water, we chat with a couple of former thru-hikers who are circumnavigating Glacier Peak. 

Up up up — back to alpine wonderland, and oh my Mica Lake is wonderful. It was the camping destination we didn’t make it to yesterday, but it’s nice to be here midday too — I soak my feet in the cold cold water and we eat snacks and watch marmots climb the rocks nearby. The water is deep and clear and blue, and we hear fish jumping but never see them. 

We do hear and see two fighter planes fly overhead, executing crazy banking maneuvers before disappearing behind a mountain. We saw one yesterday, too, actually — it just, you know, didn’t fit into the narrative. They are hugely loud and bizarre and incongruous. The one we saw yesterday sparked a conversation along the lines of “what if something terrible has happened in the world and we just don’t know because we don’t have cell phone signal?” We concluded that the wilderness was probably the best place to be. 

I’m still feeling good as we hike towards our next mini-goal. I hear Backup yelp up ahead, and ask if he’s okay. “Just tripped on a root!” That gets “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” stuck in my head (“root root root for the home team,” you know), and I find myself writing a silly thru-hiker version:

Take me out to the trails
Take me ‘way from the crowds
Buy me a nice tent and a backpack
I don’t care if we never go back
Yes we’ll hike hike hike all the whole day
Whatever will be, will be
‘Cause there’s one, two, three states we’ll hike
On the P! C! Teee!

Hey, never said it was a masterpiece. 

We’re worried about making miles. What else is new? Backup offers a few new mini-goals. Tent sites we could aim for. Whatever will get us twenty miles today, I tell him. We’ll hike in the dark if we have to. 

But some miles later, when dark really is approaching, I am not so keen on hiking in the dark. I mean, I’ve never been very keen on it, but we’re pushing through these huge blueberry thickets, and the trees above are big and dark, and I am desperate to get to camp before dark. I’m navigating blowdowns with grace like never before. My feet are moving fast. I’m even running a bit. I guess panic is a good motivator. We make it at nine o’clock, almost exactly. The woods are dim. I set up the tent furiously. I can’t believe I’m scared of the dark, but there you have it. This thin structure of cuben fiber and mesh will protect me from mountain lions and bogey men. I believe it. Ugh. 

But Mica Lake was so beautiful, readers. Mostly, it was a good day. 

PCT day 11: Fledgling and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

We knock out five uphill miles this morning in two hours, looking for not-so-silty water. Unfortunately, two hours into our day is already 12:30. And a mile or two later, as I’m crossing a small stream, I slip on a wet log and land squarely on my ass. I almost cry, but don’t. “Are you okay?” Backup asks.

“I’m not doing too well,” I reply from the middle of the stream. “Physically I’ll have a bruise on my butt, but okay other than that.”

I pick myself up and we walk on. A little bit later, there’s a huge — really huge — fallen tree across the trail. It’s too big to go over, but there’s space underneath it to squeeze by. I could maybe do it with my pack on if I got down on the ground and wiggled. Instead I take it off and toss it under ahead of me, then crouch down and follow it. On the other side, I just can’t bring myself to put it back on and keep walking. Instead, I sit down on a log and put my head in my hands. 

Backup wiggles under the tree (pack on) and sits next to me. “What’s going on?” he asks. 

“I’m not doing too well,” I say again.

“Yeah, I got that. What kind of not well?”

I’m quiet for a minute and then I say, “I’m sick of hiking!” and start crying. I tell him I’m exhausted, my feet hurt, my shoulders hurt. We’ve gone a little more than six miles today. This is so much harder than I thought it would be, and I feel like the biggest idiot on the planet. “I want to take a nap.”

We agree I can take a nap when we get to the campsite near the top of this climb, about two miles away. 

We’ve only been walking again for a minute when Backup slips off the trail and nearly falls down the slope. He’s banged his knee and for a minute he’s scared he’s really injured. When he calms down and figures out that he’s okay, he says, “Adrenaline! Did you get an adrenaline rush when you fell?”

“I dunno. Maybe a little bit.”

“There’s usually a crash afterwards.” 

“I mean, maybe a little bit. I don’t think that’s it though.” (Clearly everything really is terrible. Don’t tell me it’s just adrenaline.)

The climb from here is all switchbacks. Switchback after switchback. Partway up I open up Guthook and count the switchbacks that are left: 30. I mentally tack on a couple in case I counted wrong or the GPS placed me on the wrong one, and decide that as I count down I’m going to spend each switchback thinking about the year I was that age. I spend the first few switchbacks thinking about what I want this year that I’m 30 to be like, and what I want to have done by the time I turn 31. Then I’m on switchback number 29, and I think about last year, when I was 29. And so on. Some years I dwell on, as that switchback goes on and on. Others pass by before I can remember what I did for my birthday that year. 

I notice that for my twenties and late teens, I’m thinking almost entirely about the people I loved during those years. I’m simultaneously running through failed relationships and beating myself up about not being a better, faster, happier hiker. 

I remember one of my college exes telling me when he broke up with me, “You have enough willpower for two people… for a while.” I don’t think I’m as scared of that kind of aloneness as I used to be — lord knows I’ve been in enough relationships to know that being coupled is no defense against existential loneliness; that’s just something you have to learn to wrestle with by yourself, eventually. But I am afraid of being alone in the woods. Every time Backup gets fed up with me (usually when I’m complaining about how long it takes us to get out of camp in the morning) and suggests that he should just get off trail at the next town or road, I’m desperate to have him stay. 

I guess I’ve got a lot of miles to figure this shit out. 

When I’ve counted down to zero (I guess I did miscount), we’re at the campsite, but it’s occupied. I make Backup promise we can rest at the very top of the climb, a few more switchbacks away. 

We’re up in beautiful alpine wonderland again, finally, and at the top there’s a meadow with a great spot to sit in the sun. There are two unattended packs sitting there right now, but we find a spot 20 feet away. I want to do a little blogging and close my eyes for a bit.

We’ve been sitting there for just a few minutes when one of the pack owners shows back up. We do the usual hiker greetings, and I tell him we’ve just stopped for a little break before hiking on. His buddy shows up and they sit down by their packs and chat with one another, and I return to my blog entry. It takes me a minute to realize that this dude is talking, in an increasingly loud false whisper, about us. “…Whole damn mountain and they sit down in somebody’s camp and start texting,” etc.

I look up at Backup, and then I look over at the hiker. “Hey man, if you want us to leave, just ask us,” I say. (It’s not an established campsite, by the way. It’s a meadow.)

“Yes. Please leave.”

I start to gather up my things. He says something about texting again, obviously disgusted. “I’m not texting,” I tell him. “I’m writing things down about the day so I can remember what a beautiful day it was.” I hoist my pack and tell Backup I’ll meet him back up the trail. I get out of sight and then curl up next to the trail and cry again. Why am I having such a goddamn terrible day? Why was that dude such a passive-aggressive dick? 

I can’t let it go. I’m holding onto it like I used to hold on to the assholes who’d yell things at me while I rode my bike. I got hit by a car in 2008, and for a couple of years afterwards I was really sensitive to that shit. Someone would yell something at me and hours later I would still be telling anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) about it, needing them to agree with me about the person’s asshole status and the horrible state of the world and so on and so forth. Basically, I was the asshole. And doing more damage to myself than the original comment ever did. 

So I’m stomping through alpine wonderland. Letting the asshole ruin it for me. We watch marmots romp over the rocks. We sit by a ridiculously beautiful creek, with purple flowers everywhere, to filter water. We stomp onwards. I stop to pee and then climb up onto the big boulder I peed next to. The view is beautiful. The light is long. It’s evening and we’ve gone less than ten miles.

Backup climbs up next to me. “Can I have a hug?” I ask him. He puts his arm around me. We stay like that for a while, and eventually decide to give up on our goal for the day. We’ll camp nearby and try to be well-rested for tomorrow. This plan makes me feel better. 

We backtrack a little for extra water, then walk a little over a mile to a campsite surrounded by eeeeping pikas. We set up the tent, then climb onto a rock outcropping to make dinner while it’s still light outside. We don’t have a lot of wiggle room, food-wise, on this section. We’ll have to crush some miles tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. But tonight, my feet are only a little sore. My belly is full. I’m hopefully all cried out. So hey. Maybe the day was a little good, after all. 

PCT day 10: ten up, ten down

We roll out of camp at ten this morning. I’m almost starting to enjoy my lazy mornings, sitting against a tree reading after I’m all packed up, waiting for Backup to be ready to go. We’ve got twenty miles on the docket for today: ten up and ten down, says Backup, who’s been perusing the topo.

The first few are more through than anything; we’re feeling more than seeing our way along the trail as we push through overgrown vegetation. Huckleberries and thimbleberries (sadly without ripe fruit) and what I think of as dinosaur plants, with huge leaves a foot or more across and stems and stalks covered in spikes. My calves are covered in bloody scratches. “What I wouldn’t give for a scree field to cross right about now,” I tell Backup.

Backup looks up at the hills above the valley we’re traveling along and almost comments on the fog before realizing it’s smoke — there’s a small fire up there. We can’t report it (no signal), but we’ll run into a few hikers headed to Stehekin and we’ll hear airplanes all day.

We also have our first real water crossing this morning. Seems like the weather in the winter here is pretty nuts; we’ve crossed some pretty mangled bridges and hiked more than a few sections of rerouted trail to new bridges. Here, the bridge is gone completely, but the water is wide and shallow, not over my knees at its deepest point. I go barefoot, maybe inadvisedly, and nearly slip once, but make it to the other side unscathed and mostly dry. Backup wears his waterproof socks and sandals, and when he gets to the other side he makes me touch the inside of his socks. “Completely dry!” He’s very excited. 

Finally we’re headed up, and up means alpine. We emerge in a bowl full of bear grass and heather, mountains rising up on every side. There’s even a scree field to cross, and in it, an adorable pika with a bundle of seed pods sticking out of its mouth. We hear the pikas’ high-pitched eeeeps until we head back into the woods. 

Later on the trail is smooth duff and the trees are big and tall and everything is covered in moss. Backup points to the stumps and logs with baby trees growing from them and says, “this is the most Pacific Northwest thing I’ve ever seen.”

The last few miles are tough, like they always are. We’re both sore and quiet and cranky, unwilling to stop for the food and water we really probably need. We get to our destination, a bridge over the roaring Suiattle River, and stress out about how to get to the tent site on the shore, then about how to filter the silty river water, then about the mice who keep trying to join our little dinner party. 

But now we’re nestled into our tent and the river is like a white noise machine, drowning out all the breaking twigs and creaking trees that might otherwise keep me up and anxious. Goodnight, dear blog.