I was kinda self-congratulatory last night about how comfortable I felt alone in the woods, but then I wake up at 4 and lay afraid in bed for an hour, until the sky starts to lighten, before I can manage to fall back asleep. The area where I’m camped seemed fine last night, but now it feels ominous — no undergrowth whatsoever, just dry branches and brown ground. The trees seem dead until you look way up at their drab green canopies.
I wake up again at 6 and wonder if it’s raining — it doesn’t seem to be, but everything feels damp and heavy. I pack up pretty quickly and get on trail. Almost immediately the undergrowth returns, ferns and wildflowers and beargrass and huckleberry (no berries though!). It’s not raining, but it’s very foggy. And then it is raining, and I grumble to myself as I dig in my pack for my rain jacket and rain skirt.
I eat a bar while I walk, and then luck onto some ripe thimbleberries for breakfast dessert. The trail is overgrown in parts, and my legs are soaked from the wet plants I can’t help brushing against. It’s not raining hard at all, but everything is wet and visibility is poor.
The forest gives way to a huge clearcut; I can’t see where its edges are in the fog. There’s some kind of truck or equipment somewhere in the foggy distance beeping its horn or sounding some kind of chime. I follow the trail across a maze of logging roads. There are no trees, but tons of blackberries, wildflowers, lots of plants I can’t name.
Back in the woods, a hiker catches me — I passed him and his daughter early in the morning while they were breaking camp. His daughter is nobo, and he joined her for a day out of Cascade Locks. We chat for a while about places we’ve hiked (he’s hiked into the crater of Mount Saint Helens! So cool) until I pull over for a pit stop.
I keep stepping wrong and slipping on little rocks like ball bearings under my feet. I don’t fall (yet?), but I’m moving slow and feeling pretty tired. I’m finally at the right elevation for ripe berries, though, and use every red thimbleberry as an excuse to stop for a moment.
The weather starts to clear, and then in no time at all it’s a hot, sunny day like yesterday and the day before and the day before that. I strip off my layers right around the time I reach the first trail junction for Table Mountain, about halfway, mileage-wise, through my day. From here I’m in familiar territory… or I thought I would be, in any case. For some reason, nothing looks familiar. Is this really the right trail? I would swear I’ve never hiked this trail before, but I know I did it just a couple of months ago, when I was training for Rainier. Jamais vu — I check Guthook on my phone after every turn, making sure I’m still following that red line. A Stellar’s Jay yells at me from a tree.
J. is going to meet me on trail today (mid-run for him) and then drive me home from Cascade Locks. I’ve been keeping an eye out for him, and finally I see him struggling up a hill on trail, head down — I have to call to him twice to get his attention. We hug, and he continues past me to finish his run. I have about five miles left before the Oregon border, and he wants to run up a bit further, run back down, and then walk out the last couple miles with me.
I continue on, slow and not particularly steady. My feet are aching and I feel kinda zombie-like. It occurs to me to eat some snacks, and that helps a little bit. The trail still looks unfamiliar. I realize I’ve maybe never seen it in full sun. It’s always been blustery or overcast when I’ve been up here.
J. catches me again when I’m still a couple miles from the bridge. I shuffle along the trail, J. walking behind me. After approximately forever, we step off the trail and onto the pavement, and then we cross the highway to the Bridge of the Gods.
It’s narrow and windy and I’m surprised to feel my mostly-manageable fear of heights kick in. I walk my left hand along the railing, giving oncoming traffic the predator stare. J. takes a few photos of me and then says, “you should look down!” At first I refuse, but then dare to look down through the metal grating we’re walking over at the river many, many feet below.
On the other side, I follow J. to his car and we drive to Thunder Island, where I drink and eat and moan a little about how sore my feet are, and then we get soft serve at East Wind, and then we drive back to Portland, and I greet my impossibly soft cats, and I take an amazing shower.
I spent a little while massaging the sore spot on my foot last night, and in the morning it seems to have actually made a difference. I pack up, eat a bar, and head out around 7 again, walking through the fairytale forest.
The day is punctuated by lovely wide creeks with (relatively) big bridges over them, and by high rocky outcropping with views of trees and trees and trees and occasionally a mountain in the distance. Every break I take is wonderful, because I’m resting my feet and there are no mosquitos. I rest for at least half an hour at a little viewpoint I find twenty feet off trail, a cliff edge high above a river valley. There’s a little bit of breeze, the sun is shining, and it’s glorious.
I climb up for the first part of the day, then descend to my starting elevation again, to Snag Creek and Rock Creek. At Rock Creek, I collect four and a half liters of water — not quite my max capacity, but close. The next water source is in ten miles, and I’m planning to camp before then — at the top of another tough climb of a few miles. I heft my pack, almost ten pounds heavier than it was a few minutes ago, and start up the hill.
I’m slooooow. The sore spot on my foot is, mercifully, not giving me problems like it did yesterday (though I’m definitely looking forward to resting for a day — or maybe two — soon), but I’m kinda all-over sore and tired. One foot in front of the other, and then finally, I’m pretty much at the top. There’s a short little side trail to another rocky outcropping with a view of Mount Adams, and I drop my pack and sit for a few minutes. I think about cowboy camping there on the rocky ledge, but I have a hunch I’d regret my choice sometime in the night when I woke in terror of the dark woods on one side and the dark abyss on the other. Hah! I walk a few hundred feet further and find a small tentsite in the trees. A little sloped, but it’ll do. I don’t have any energy left to look for something better.
I’m only fifteen miles from the Bridge of the Gods. Just a little further from a cold beer and a hot meal at Thunder Island Brewing. I can’t wait.
I get out of camp around 7 and start walking south. I almost immediately encounter some fairly fresh, definitely-not-herbivore poop in the middle of the trail. I wish I knew a little bit more about tracking so I could narrow it down a bit more than that… or maybe it’s just as well.
I’m walking in forest again, but the land is obviously volcanic — I assume from a long-ago eruption of Mount Adams. The trail curves around big mounds of jagged rocks, collapsed caves, dark holes in the ground. The trees are shorter and the forest feels more open — and then the trail begins to skirt denser forest on a hill to the right, full of big, tall, impossibly straight trees. A few are dead and look exactly like telephone poles, deposited incongruously into the woods.
There are no mosquitos. None to write home about, anyway. It is an enormous relief. I am so excited to dawdle all day. To stop for breaks to enjoy views or rest my feet. To filter water leisurely.
Indeed, the first time I stop to filter water, I sit on a log near the spring for much longer than necessary, unable to tear myself a way from Ancillary Mercy. I walk away with four-ish liters of water. The next source is Panther Creek, over 10 miles away. I’m hoping for another 20-mile day, and I’ve only hiked 5 miles so far, but there’s a spot on the outside of my right foot that’s really sore, and I want to make sure I’ll be okay if I need to camp before the creek.
The trail climbs and descends, descends, descends. I stop to pee at a pretty overlook with a view of Mount Hood. I turn off airplane mode on my phone to check for signal, and just a moment later my phone rings — a call from Ben. I pick up just as he hangs up. He calls back a moment later: “Did I just call you?” He’d accidentally called just as I happened to be available, holding my phone! Serendipitous. We chat for a few minutes and I tell him about how much better everything is without mosquitos. It’s true! The forest is lovely. The views are lovely. The hikers I pass occasionally are lovely.
My feet are sore, though. I take another break a few miles later. I lean against my pack and finish Ancillary Mercy. I’ll make it to Panther Creek tonight, but likely not beyond.
The hill down to the creek is long and hot and never-ending. I count the switchbacks on Guthook, but the long stretches between turns drag on and on. Finally, I hear and then see the creek. I cross the bridge and wobble down to the water. I pull my feet out of my shoes and sweaty socks and put them in the cold, cold creek. I sit there on a rock for a long time, soaking my feet in the water, pulling them out, putting them back in again, before putting my socks and shoes back on and ambling slowly up the trail to the campsite Guthook promises is right around the corner.
The forest here is beautiful, lush, full of big trees with exposed roots, dripping with moss. Huge ferns everywhere. I feel like I’m in a fairytale. I find my site, tucked away from the trail behind a tree. I pitch my tent and pull out my food bag.
I’d had a bit of signal last night and texted J. a complaint about my stove; today he sent me several messages about how the fuel I have really should work, and maybe I should just make sure the stove is seated correctly and try again. So I do — and nothing. Gas escapes when I crank open the stove (I can smell it), but the stove doesn’t light even a little bit. Oh well — either the fuel is wrong, or my stove is broken. Guess I’ll try cold-soaking. I pour my dinner into my mug and add water, but I don’t really have enough patience to let it completely rehydrate and soften. Good thing I kinda like crunchy pasta.
After dinner I crawl into the tent to blog and read and stretch out my feet. My toes tingle. The sore spot on the outside of my right foot complains when I flex my toes and ankles. Hmm.
I wake up at 3:30am and have to pee. I know I’m not going to be able to fall back to sleep until I do, but I procrastinate for an hour anyway, reading Ancillary Sword, and then I face the darkness outside the tent. I fall back asleep around 5, and wake up again at 7.
The mosquitos are already hounding me while I dig my morning cat hole, so when I finish that I grab my bear bag and bring it into the tent with me. I’ll have a bar for breakfast; I don’t want to cook outside. I slowly pack up while I read some more of my book, and then I unexpectedly reach the end. Well, good thing I downloaded this one and the last in the trilogy while I was in Trout Lake.
I finish packing up (tent on top, packed last, ready to flee the mosquitos), spray my arms and legs with bug spray, and take off. I cross Mosquito Creek, then reach a road with a little kiosk and a hiker logbook. I sign it: “Stacia ‘Fledgling’ — sobo section — but maybe you should just call me Itchy. Ahhh!”
More forest. This section would probably be more peaceful and less boring if it weren’t for the mosquitos.
The forest gives way briefly to meadow, and I pass a dirt road (there’s even a single car parked nearby) and a wilderness permit kiosk. Then back to the woods.
I take the Sawtooth Mountain Trail, a little alternate that parallels the PCT for a mile and a half or so, hoping for a break from the endless forest hiking. Mostly it’s still forest, just with climbing, too, but I do get some nice views of Adams, Saint Helens, Rainier, and even Hood peeking over the top of a hill. I also find a breezy spot (fewer mosquitos) and a tiny bit of cell phone signal.
Then — back into the woods. I pass through a short section of new burn, from a small fire last fall. I pass by a few pretty (and buggy) lakes. I climb down a steep access trail to one of them to fill up on water — I’ve actually almost run out. North of Trout Lake, there were streams everywhere, but I think I’ll have to pay a little more attention to water sources in this section.
I walk and walk and walk and walk. I spray my arms with bug spray several times, and worry a little about emptying my small bottle of it before I get to Cascade Locks. This morning I put my earbuds in my fanny pack, and eventually in the afternoon I put one earbud in and listen to some podcasts to pass the time and distract myself from my sore, tired feet while I walk and walk and walk and walk. This is what I came here for. To walk!
The trail follows a ridge for a while, with lovely peekaboo views of Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens. Then it dips back into the forest. I walk. I exchange nods with determined-looking nobo thru-hikers, and I chat with section hikers.
I fill up my bottles one more time at Sheep Lake (how many Sheep Lakes are there in Washington? There are at least four just on the PCT) and then walk a few more miles to a dirt road and what passes for luxury out here: an established (free) campground with a pit toilet! Two nobo section hikers introduce themselves with their trail names, and I use mine too. They tell me the mosquitos south of here are not a big deal. Honestly, they weren’t so bad today either. Things are looking up. 21 miles today, and I have the butt chafe to prove it. Whew.
I pitch my tent and start to cook dinner. After just a minute, though, my stove sputters and goes out. I let it cool, disconnect it, and shake the gas canister. The store in Trout Lake hadn’t had isobutane, just a butane/propane mix, but I figured it would work okay. Guess not. I try a couple more times, but the stove just sputters and then goes out again.
I ask the nobo section hikers if they have any fuel to spare, and they let me boil some water on their Whisperlite. I eat, then crawl into my tent and poke at my weary body.
I wake up in the still-dark of early morning with a terrible headache. I rummage around in the mess strewn around the room — the contents of my pack, disgorged — for my first aid kit, and take a few ibuprofen. Then I sleep a few more hours and wake feeling much better. I think I let myself get a little dehydrated yesterday.
I sort my resupply, repack everything, and cook some oatmeal and hot chocolate with the last of my fuel (I’ll have to buy another canister before I leave town). I put the rest of my leftover food in the hiker box at the back of the store, along with the trekking pole piece I found. Then I spend a few hours sitting on the porch of the grocery store, alternately working on my blog and chatting with locals. One older gentleman volunteers another to give me a ride back to the trail; I ask him if he could and he nods genial assent. Wonderful!
First, I want some lunch. I wander over to the little Saturday market in the community center across the street, and find a woman selling one-pound bags of fresh blueberries. Yes, please. That counts as lunch, right? I buy some cheese and a bottle of chocolate milk from the grocery store and call it good.
Gary, who drives me to the trailhead, used to be a Forest Service wildland firefighter, and he tells me stories about his travels all over the country. Then I’m back at the trail and walking south, alone now. This section will be my first solo trip longer than an overnight. How long, I wonder, before I stop convincing myself there are cougars stalking me in the woods?
The mosquitos aren’t too awful, but they’re bad enough that I put on my headnet and test out my new bug spray. It seems to do the job okay, or else I’m getting a little more tolerant of being bitten. I walk through the woods. The trail is mostly smooth duff; the trees are big conifers. It feels familiar, very Pacific Northwest — the species in the undergrowth vary here and there, but I could be in the Gorge. And I suppose I will be, in a few days.
I meet a few northbound section hikers, including a couple who turn out to live in Portland just a couple miles from me. They say the mosquitos get bad just south of Mosquito Creek. I’d figured they’d get bad way before then — I mean, Mosquito Creek! — but if I can delay the inevitable a little longer, I may as well stop for the night at the tentsite just north of the creek, so I can maybe stand to cook dinner outside. That’s ten miles for the day, anyway, and I didn’t get started until 2ish.
I set up camp, cook dinner (the mosquitos are present but bearable), do my camp chores, and then lie in the tent reading and listening to the forest’s strange and inexplicable noises. I get up after dark to pee, and then spend several minutes pursuing and killing the mosquitos that follow me back into the tent. I’m pretty sure there’s one more I can’t find — I hear it buzzing. But there’s nothing to be done. I turn out the light and lie alone in the dark.