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PCT day 17: heavy pack, light heart

I wake up at 7ish, which means I’ve missed the first bus back up to Timberline (I kinda planned to miss it) and I’ll catch the next one at 8:43. I pack up my things and eat breakfast on the porch, then head out. At Timberline I wave to Snowman on his way to catch the bus himself (he’s headed to Portland for a trail vacation) and then walk up to the lodge, where I fill my bottles, adjust my socks and shoes, and eventually convince myself to hit the trail. My pack is so much heavier than it was yesterday, with 12 pounds of food to last me the next week. Oof.

I descend some sandy trail I recognize from my Timberline circuit, and then the PCT and the Timberline Trail diverge. I follow the PCT into the woods. At a little seasonal stream, I filter a bunch of water; there’s a dry stretch ahead and I don’t want to run out of water again. Now my pack is even heavier, hurray!

I entertain myself while I hike by trying to figure out the rules that govern Ms. Frizzle’s magic (or her bus’s, I suppose). I spot a sign and blue markers for Yellowjacket Ski Trail and remember trying to use Halfmile to find the PCT — and this, our snowshoe route — earlier this year with Jay’s Mazamas BCEP group. I cross Highway 35. I wonder whether my shoes are in fact too small. J. suggested that as a possible reason for my various aches and pains when I was in Portland, but I wrote it off. Now I’m not so sure. I can feel my toes against the front of my shoes a little bit. I guess my feet are swelling — or, as Ben suggested, beefing up.

I get to the trailhead at Highway 26 right behind another sobo hiker. There’s trail magic!! Squirrel came out to meet her hiking friend Snowflake and brought a cooler full of La Croix, a bunch of chips, and bananas and oranges. Minutes after we arrive, two former AT hikers, Fish and Tex, show up with another cooler full of beer and soda. We sit around and chat and sip and eat for over an hour, me and the other sobo, Superstar, and two nobo thrus, Bird Shit and Himalaya.

I have a bit of signal and I ask J. to pick up a new pair of shoes for me to bring me at Olallie Lake. REI only has a whole size bigger in stock, so hopefully that’ll work okay.

At 3 I tear myself away from the picnic table at Highway 26 and hike on towards Little Crater Lake. I’m feeling pretty good and enjoying hiking… until I start to feel a new pain on the front of my left ankle. I can’t really take the pain too seriously, since I’ve had a bunch of different aches, none of which have lasted more than a day or so before fading away again. I’ll soak my foot in Little Crater Lake, I decide.

By the time I get there, the pain is throbbing halfway up my shin with every step. I follow the pretty boardwalk path to the lake. The lake is stunning and completely surprising — it’s one thing to hear “clear water” and another to see 45 feet down to the bottom of a turquoise lake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.

I find a spot on the edge of the lake to take off my shoes and dip my feet in. The water is so cold (a sign says 34 degrees!) that I can’t hold them in for longer than 30 seconds at a time. I dunk my foot in a few times, and then get up and continue on — limping (oh shit) down the trail to Timothy Lake.

Camping is only allowed in designated sites around the lake, but there are a bunch of them. The first five or six I pass, though, are occupied — and there’s a bit of distance between sites. It’s a huge lake! My ankle/shin/whatever is killing me. When I finally find an open site, I sigh with relief. It’s even pretty, right on the lake shore.

I pitch my tent and then hobble to the edge of the lake and find a rock to sit on. I soak my feet. The water is much warmer than Little Crater Lake, so it’s not much of an ice bath, but it feels nice anyway. There’s a tender spot on my left shin above the ankle. I can’t tell if it’s swollen. I try not to even think the words “stress fracture.” It’ll probably feel better in the morning. Here’s hoping, anyway.

Timothy Lake has a trail going all the way around it — the PCT on the east side, and another trail on the west side of the lake. A sign I passed earlier said the whole way around is 13 miles. Might be a nice long run sometime — I’m still within a couple hours’ drive of home. And I think that’s a reason this hike is worthwhile, even if it’s not nonstop gorgeous or whatever. It’s showing me things I didn’t know about my home. Places I didn’t know were here, or in any case hadn’t really bothered to investigate (yet).

Once the sun has disappeared behind the hills on the other side of the lake, but before the light has faded, I make dinner. Then I drink some herbal tea and watch the light fade and the fish jump. Except for the occasional distant yell or boat noise, I could be alone at the lake — but there are probably hundreds of people scattered around its shores. Probably a few even walked here from further away than me. Hah!

PCT day 16: satisfaction

The moon shines so enthusiastically into my tent that when I wake up in the middle of the night to pee, for a minute I think it’s a hiker’s headlamp at a nearby tentsite.

I wake up again when my alarm goes off at 6:30. I’ve slept well, but I snuggle back into my sleeping bag for a few more minutes anyway, until biological urgency gets me up and out of my tent. I pack up without eating breakfast and head out around 7:30, down towards Zigzag Canyon.

I cross the river (an easy rock hop) and then start heading up. Somehow last night I underestimated both the distance and difficulty of the trail between my campsite and Timberline Lodge. From here, it’s pretty much all uphill or loose sand… or both. The breakfast buffet is open until 10:30, but I want to have plenty of time to enjoy it. I’m going to have to push hard to make it by 9:30 — so I do.

I pass an obvious thru-hiker. I can’t quite describe what makes a hiker look like a thru — some combination of some of the following: small pack, probably from a cottage manufacturer; earbud in one ear; Altra shoes; Dirty Girl gaiters; button-front filthy shirt; beard. He asks as I pass, “sobo thru?”

“Just a section!” I answer, and we exchange “happy trails,” but I don’t stop to chat. Breakfast awaits!

The next two thru-hikers ask the same question. “PCT sobo?” At least I look like a thru-hiker. A day hiker compliments my skirt. “That’s badass.”

A mile and a half from the lodge, I put an earbud in and put on Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer for about the millionth time. My tummy is audibly grumbling; I can hear it even over the music and the crunch of my feet on the sandy trail. Then, a little less than a mile from the lodge, I get my first view of Mount Jefferson. “Django Jane” starts playing and I’m suddenly feeling totally thrilled and exhilarated, just fucking pumped to be right where I am (and, you know, close to breakfast). I run along the trail — like actually run — and soon I’m passing under ski lifts, and then there’s the path down to the lodge. I skip down it, my arms spread.

I walk in the first door I find and look around while my eyes adjust to the relative dimness inside. Then I beeline to the dining room. The host waves me in and sits me down, and only then do I realize that I should really wash my trail-filthy hands before I eat. I leave my pack and find the restroom, and then wander in a daze to the buffet. The first place my eyes fall is on the waffle iron, so I make a waffle and cover it in berry sauce, whipped cream, and maple syrup.

By the time I shuffle out of the dining room an hour later, I’ve eaten the waffle plus another half-waffle, a biscuit, a bunch of cheesy eggs, some melon and Greek yogurt, two small glasses of smoothie, and two big cups of decaf coffee with cream and sugar. I’ve maybe never been so simultaneously uncomfortable and completely satisfied in my life. My very sweet, very hiker-friendly server brings me a little glass full of a house-made digestif — apple juice, apple cider vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, and plenty of ginger. Oh, and a lodge guest asks me if I’m Anish! Hah — super flattering.

I walk maybe fifty feet out of the dining room and plop down in a comfy chair in the lobby near an outlet where I can charge my external battery and phone. I’m still there (and my external battery still isn’t fully charged) two and a half hours later. I do some blogging and a little reading, but mostly I just kill time. I do serve briefly as an exhibit for a ranger giving a tour of the lodge, a nice segue into his explanation of the PCT. Eventually I figure I should go pick up my resupply box, so I wander down to the Day Lodge.

I kill a few more hours sitting in the Day Lodge and chatting with a nobo thru-hiker, Snowman. Another hiker runs out to catch the bus to Government Camp. Oh hey, there’s a bus to Government Camp? I’d assumed I’d hike out today, but I could also maybe stay at the Reed ski cabin…

I can’t get ahold of the ski cabin manager, but at 4:40, five minutes before the last bus for three hours, I decide I’ll go see if there’s anyone there to let me in.

I’m in luck. I drop my pack inside the cabin gratefully (my new resupply weighs 12 pounds. Yikes) and walk to the general store, where I wander around like a kid in a candy shop, putting things in my basket. I’m just barely starting to feel the first inklings of hunger after my enormous breakfast. I decide on mac and cheese and a beer for dinner, and oatmeal with real milk and some fresh fruit for breakfast tomorrow.

Back at the cabin, I do laundry, eat, shower, and sit facing the window and listening to a current student play guitar on the porch. He’s playing the same music we listened to when I was in college: David Bowie, The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire.

I have a little pain in my outside left ankle that’s made itself known in the past few hours. I find an ice pack in the freezer and ice it before I go to bed. Que sera, sera.

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.

PCT day 14: mount hood sneakin’ up on me

I wake up much too early when the sky lightens and the wind picks up. I try to sleep, but it’s windy enough that I’m worried about my tent stakes pulling out. The ground here is soft and sandy in some spots and too rocky to stake in others; I’ve got rocks piled on a couple of my stakes, but I wasn’t counting on a lot of wind when I pitched last night. Eventually I give up and start packing up. I’ll hike to Wahtum Lake and have breakfast there.

I continue through the burn, and finally reach the section I helped log out last month. I eye a few of the cut logs, wondering if I can recognize which ones I helped pull a saw across. It’s easy walking, fairly level, with nice tread.

While I walk I think about how tired I am, how lonely I felt last night, and some cheesy motivational quotation I read somewhere recently: “if you’re not improving yourself or enjoying yourself, you’re wasting your time.” Which am I trying to do with this trip, enjoy myself or improve myself? If I’m trying to improve myself, to challenge myself, to see how fast I can go and how strong and brave I can be, then I need to have a better attitude about being bored, tired, lonely, in pain, or all of the above. If I’m trying to enjoy myself, maybe I should slow down, soak my feet in rivers and lakes, take all the side trails, draw, read. Or just quit and spend the rest of my summer going on dayhikes and short backpacking loops in beautiful places.

I don’t know.

I reach the lake and settle down on a big log near the shore to eat breakfast. I mix a packet of hot chocolate with a packet of instant coffee and sip it slowly. Three people come down the trail from the nearby Wahtum Lake trailhead carrying an inflatable boat. While I filter water, they bring it to the lakeshore, put in the water, wade out after it, and float into the middle of the lake. As I’m walking away, they pull out fishing poles.

I walk through the forest. There are views of Mount Hood from time to time, from rocky ridges or peeking through trees. Throughout the day, Mount Hood will appear for a while, then disappear, and the reappear again much bigger and closer. Like that cute internet cat video in which the cat is closer every time the cameraperson steps out from behind a door frame.

A few miles south of the lake, I reach the last junction with a trail leading to Eagle Creek. There’s a little spring just past the closed signs, where I fill up with plenty of water. Soon after the spring, the forest drops away and the trail traverses a beautiful semi-alpine area, open and rocky. I round a corner and see Mount Adams… and then Mount Rainier… and then Mount Saint Helens, all in a beautiful row along the horizon, Table Mountain in the slightly-less-distant foreground. Wow! I start to have a good time, picking my way along the rocky trail, admiring wildflowers.

I walk through lovely lush forest. I enter the Bull Run watershed, which I’ll hike through for the rest of the day. I keep an eye out for those views of Hood. I meet some nobo thru-hikers and section hikers.

Lolo Pass Road marks about 20 miles for me today. There’s a stream across the trail about a half mile before I reach it, and I fill up with water. The road is an awkward place to stop for the night, but there’s a trailhead with a picnic table and a flat spot to camp. The next tentsite is 3 miles further, at the top of a climb. I don’t think I have it in me. I feel a little nervous camping so close to the road, but I remind myself that I camped at places like this all the time on my bike trip. So, I enjoy the picnic table while I cook and eat dinner, and then I pitch my tent and crawl inside.

At 11pm I hear footsteps coming up the trail from the south, and a bunch of thru-hikers (I assume, based on their hiking nobo in the dark) turn into my little camping area. “Hey there,” I call out. “You guys setting up camp here?” They answer affirmatively. “Cool, there’s plenty of room.” I’ll sleep better now, honestly. I roll over and do just that.

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.