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PCT day 5: trout lake

In the morning, I ask Ben to look at my eye. “Does it look weird? It feels like there’s something in it I can’t get out.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely swollen,” he says. I put my phone camera in selfie mode and peer at it. The eyelid is swollen and drooping slightly. Ah — there’s a mosquito bite right on the outside corner of my eyelid. Goddamnit.

I don’t cook breakfast; I don’t want to be outside. I eat a bar instead. Ben wears the bee suit and cooks for himself. The mosquitos are awful this morning. We pack up and head back up to the trail. I’m wearing my leggings and my rain jacket — it’s hot, but if I don’t keep the mosquitos off my shoulders I’m gonna end up throwing an embarrassing tantrum. I’ll sweat instead. It’s really hot, though, and eventually I can’t stand that either. Which is the lesser of two evils?

We climb up into a pretty, old burn that we’ll hike through for a big chunk of today. After an initial gentle 400-foot climb, the rest of the day is pretty much all downhill or flat. We get lots more pretty views of Rainier, Adams, and Saint Helens, and eventually the trail drops down into thicker, darker, greener forest.

We pass a PCTA trail crew and make a bit of conversation with a group of women who identify bunchberry and queen’s cup for us — two of the many species of wildflower we’ve seen. Soon, we hit the wilderness boundary, and then a dirt road, and then a river with a wooden footbridge, and then — Road 23.

I’d called the Trout Lake Grocery Store 7 miles back when I’d had a little signal to arrange a room for the night, but I hadn’t wanted to arrange a ride to town since we weren’t sure how long it would take us to finish the last bit of trail. There’s no signal at the trailhead, though, so we set off south down the road. It’s sunny and hot, but eventually my phone gets enough signal to get through to Doug, a trail angel who says he can come pick us up in 40 minutes. Just a minute later, a truck pulls over — they don’t have space for us, but they offer us a cold orange soda, which I gratefully accept. We walk a bit further and find a tiny shady spot, where we settle down to wait.

Doug pulls up in his green pick-up a little later, and we head to town. I love Trout Lake. Ben gets lunch and a huckleberry shake with me and then walks to the junction with a cardboard sign reading “OREGON.” Later he’ll tell me he hitched to Carson, where he caught a bus to Portland.

I hang out, sort through photos, fight with the WordPress app, work on my blog. I also buy some bug spray and place an order for a permethrin-treated shirt and a pair of mesh pants, which I’ll pick up in Portland after this next section. Just gotta get there. It is what it is. Doug said a northbound hiker told him: “Oh, it was so fast! There were so many mosquitos, they basically picked me up and carried me!”

I do laundry, take a bath, cook some dinner on a picnic table outside, then go to bed.

PCT day 4: water is wet, mosquitos are monsters

Our tent is tucked back between some trees at the edge of the meadow, and I sleep better than I have the last couple of nights. I wake up when it’s light out at 5:30 and decide it’s much too early. I wake up again at 8. Whoops.

We eat breakfast in the meadow, standing in the sun. There are all kinds of creeks and streams up ahead, so when we leave camp at 9 we don’t carry a lot of water.

The trail straightens out and flattens, and for a lot of the day we’re just walking through the woods on what looks like an old double-track jeep road, with one track filled in with sticks and branches to encourage reclamation by the wilderness. We leave the Goat Rocks Wilderness and enter another with a permit box but no sign — when we leave it the next day we’ll see it was the Mount Adams Wilderness — of course.

I’m ready to go at the wilderness boundary before Ben is, and I walk ahead of him, past lots of blooming beargrass. Suddenly, I hear a loud noise in the woods to my left, and then a bear leaps onto the trail and gallops off ahead of me. 50 yards later, it leaps back into the woods and disappears. I’m standing there frozen but totally unafraid, watching it’s bushy haunches wiggle down the trail. Belatedly, I yell after it: “Have a good one, bear!”

Ben, behind me, thinks I’m talking to him and yells something back. I turn around and wait for him to catch up. “I saw a bear!!” I’m pretty excited.

The forest changes gradually as we get closer to Mount Adams. Huge chunks of black lava rock are piled up above the trail to our left. Soon we get to Lava Spring, where J. and I camped our last night on trail in 2015. We filter some water and continue on.

We cross a few rivers on little wooden footbridges, and stop at one for a break. I get a little antsy, though, when Ben finds and kills several tiny brown-red ticks. Before we walk on, we both pull down our shorts for a quick tick check. Ugh!

We stop for a longer break at super-pretty Killen Creek, where the water cascades down a rocky slope and wildflowers bloom everywhere and Mount Adams rises majestically above… but the mosquitos find us. Uuugghhhh.

We walk down some more flat, straight trail, and then we get some ups and downs, the trail weaving back and forth along rough contour lines. We’re on the lower slopes of Mount Adams now. It’s subalpine, with lots of lava rock and shortish, gnarled trees.

And then — Adams Creek. I remember this river from 2015 — we struggled to cross it. It pours down from the mountain, finding channels in a broad rocky drainage. It’s moving fast and it’s hard to tell how deep it is. In 2015, we managed to cross and then had two or three different people on the other side mention the log 100 yards upriver you could cross at. Any chance of something like that this year? There are no recent notes on Guthook. We pick our way up the bank a long ways, but it looks just as tricky up here. We pick our way back down, and try our luck downstream. I’m sure I’m going to get my feet wet, and that’s fine with me, but Ben is still hoping to turn off and head up one of the ridges on the mountain we can see above us, and he’d rather keep his (waterproof, non-draining) boots dry.

Eventually I choose a spot slightly downstream of the trail and cross the first of several channels. I probe the next with my trekking pole and then wade in. The water comes to nearly my knees, but I move slowly and place my feet carefully, and I’m actually feeling pretty good and confident. I judge poorly where to finish the crossing, though, and step (albeit with purpose and grace) into a hole where the water comes up to mid-thigh. I’m able to grab a big rock on the edge and pull myself out without much trouble, though. The next channel is easy to cross. I turn around to yell over the river to Ben. “Don’t cross there!” I probe a spot a tiny bit further downstream; it’s not more than knee deep. “Here would be good!”

I toss him one of my trekking poles, and he pokes around a bit. He eyes the rocky dry ground where I’m standing. “I’m gonna jump!”

This seems like a terrible idea to me, and I tell him so. I am imagining all the terrible things that could happen if he misjudges the distance (which is significant) or slips. I shake my head at him, but he goes for it. He makes it, barely, catching his balance and stepping forward onto dry land. I’m immediately emotional and upset, and I turn away from him.

“Do you wanna talk about that?”

“Not yet.”

We walk in silence for a few minutes, and then have one those it’s-not-really-about-that-is-it conversations you get to have sometimes if you’re lucky enough to be in a relationship with someone patient and emotionally intelligent and kind. Ben says he’ll walk with me to Trout Lake, and we talk about what that means.

We cross a few more creeks, though none quite so challenging. I love my shoes (Altra Lone Peak 3.5 Mid Mesh — my favorite Lone Peaks since the 1.5); they drain quickly and they feel great.

We get some lovely views of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, and Mount Saint Helens. The mosquitos continue to doggedly pursue us, but they’re maybe a little better than yesterday. In any case, as long as we keep moving, I don’t feel the need to use my cedar branch “horse tail.”

We stop for the evening at a campsite below the trail, not far from a silty creek. We pitch the tent and rest for a bit before contemplating dinner — and the mosquitos swarm around the tent, collecting on the mesh doors, lying in wait. They were a little better today, but still pretty bad. A hiker we met today told us they’re even worse in Oregon. What have I signed myself up for? How am I going to do this? I’m not stubborn enough to do it just to do it. I want to have fun.

Well, guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Eventually, Ben gets dressed in a beekeeper outfit of sorts: his rain jacket and rain pants, my headnet and fleece gloves. He goes out to collect water and cook his dinner. I can’t stand the thought of being outside the mesh walls of the tent just yet; I hang out inside and read instead (Ancillary Justice — great space opera!). When Ben’s all done and it’s almost completely dark, I borrow Ben’s rain pants and don the bee suit myself. I cook dinner, do my camp chores, and crawl back inside to sleep.

PCT day 3: hell is many mosquitos

The wind roars down the basin all night and straight into our tent. At least, that’s how it feels to me. I burrow as deeply into my sleeping bag as I can, but I’m envious of Ben’s mummy bag for the first time ever. I don’t sleep great.

But when I wake up in the morning, my shoes are dry. We get an early start and start our short climb up to Cispus Pass. The basin is in shade, but we can see the sun at the top of the pass. We cross over, and we’re in it.

There’s a big snowfield on the other side of the pass, steepish, with an unfriendly-looking runout. The sun is shining, but it’s still early, and the snow is firm. If there were any time to use my ice axe and microspikes, this would be it… but we can see the other side of the snowfield, and I’ve got my poles, and for some reason it seems more fun or interesting to be able to say I carried my axe and spikes for no good reason (though the axe really is great for digging cat holes!). So, we cross, carefully, without accoutrements.

The trail traverses the slope and we cross a few more small snowfields. Above us, there’s a huge rock wall that looks like stacked firewood, and the slope ahead of us looks like one of those stacks tipped over and fell — if each piece of firewood were big enough to use as a bench. The next snowfield leads across this pile. Ben takes a couple steps and then looks back: “Hey, can I use one of your poles to probe?”

“Of course!”

He probes his way across and I follow a few steps behind. “Don’t step here,” he tells me, and I don’t — I step onto firm snow and slip, instead, into the hole he’s told me to avoid. I’m okay, though, and manage to climb out onto the trail by breaking more of the snow crust to see the rocks below.

We find a section of a trekking pole on the trail. I shrug and ask Ben to tuck it into one of the side pockets on my pack. I’ll carry it to Trout Lake, rather than leave it here.

The trail leads back over the ridge and then begins to descend into forest. With the trees come the mosquitos. They’re really bad. They’re everywhere. They’re awful. Soon, I’m stumbling like a drunk down the trail, slapping myself, wobbling from side to side, failing to outrun them. I ask Ben for some of his deet. He kindly slathers it on my legs and arms. It helps a little, but they keep biting my shoulders and my thighs through my shirt and shorts.

Finally, we can’t stand it. The trail passes a flat spot and I throw down my pack, pull out my tent. We have it pitched in two minutes flat, and we dive in, then systematically massacre the mosquitos that followed us into our mesh-walled sanctuary. We’re not entirely in the shade, and the temperature inside the tent is a little intense — but we’re both so eager for some respite from the mosquitos that we happily lie there and sweat.

We’ve only hiked 11 miles today, though, and we can’t stay here and hide from the mosquitos all day. We stay for an hour and a half, and then choose a tentsite destination on Guthook that’s 7.5 miles away. Let’s go. I pack up my bag as much as possible inside the tent, then pull the tent down and shove it in the top of my pack.

“Deet me!” I cry to Ben, doing the “ahh fuck these mosquitos ahhh” dance. He does. We hike.

A few minutes later I veer off trail to a little cedar tree and yank at one of the small branches. “What are you doing?” Ben asks.

“I want to, like, make a horse tail,” I tell him. In an instant, he gets it. He pulls out his pocketknife, helps me cut the branch, and cuts one himself. I hike on, using the cedar to brush mosquitos away, rhythmically whacking my shoulders with it like a self-flagellating monk. Not the most leave-no-trace move ever, but these are desperate times.

My morale is not high. I’m worrying about the rest of my trip. Why didn’t I think about mosquito season? Is my whole hike down to central Oregon or wherever I get to going to be like this? I complain aloud to Ben. When he steps off the trail to pee, I tell him I’m going to walk on ahead. “I’ll just be self-flagellating… literally and figuratively,” I tell him, whacking myself with my cedar branch.

Finally, we meet a northbound hiker who says the mosquitos are a little better about six miles ahead of us. “That’s the best news I’ve ever heard!” I say, a little louder than necessary. This has an end? Glory be! We give him the bad news that he’s got ten miles of mosquitos in front of him, and then we continue on our way, descending.

I’m getting a hot spot on my finger from flinging my cedar branch back and forth repeatedly. I’ve been carrying my poles in one hand for miles, reluctant to stop long enough to secure them to my pack.

Finally, the mosquito density decreases a little. Footsore and tired, we reach the stream and the meadow campsite we’d chosen as our destination for the day. I pitch the tent while Ben starts water boiling for dinner. We’re able to eat outside the tent with minimal discomfort. I even take my bandana to the creek after dinner and wash it, then strip to my bra and skirt and use it to wipe myself down. I feel like we’ve climbed out of hell (or descended down from it, as the case may be), to be honest. We survived.

PCT day 2: an island in the clouds

I wake up not long after falling asleep to Anoushka sniffing near my face. Then I remember where I am, and am wide awake in an instant — what is sniffing near my face!? But it’s just the sound of cuben fiber rubbing against mesh — my rolled-up tent door moving in the wind. Still, I turn on my headlamp and peer outside for a minute, looking for movement. There isn’t any.

It rains all night. The wind blows and sometimes roars. The forecast called for some wind tonight, but also for clear skies. I wake up a lot throughout the night and toss and turn, feeling anxious and disappointed.

It’s still sort of drizzling when we finally decide to get up around 8 o’clock. I pack up the tent, wet, while Ben gets water for our breakfasts from the spring a quarter mile back along the trail.

When we’ve finished eating, we heft our packs and head back to the PCT. Everything is wet, but it’s not really raining anymore, and yesterday’s mosquitos are mercifully mostly absent. If rain is what it takes to chase them off, then I guess I can live with a little rain.

We march through the forest, slowly gaining elevation. It’s funny to me how much my memory of this section from 2015 consists of a few highlights, with all the regular ol’ forest hiking in between foreshortened into nonexistence in my recollection. Oh well! I like hiking. I feel remarkably energetic, considering how poorly I slept. And we’ve got the Knife Edge coming up today. Maybe the weather will clear.

It seems like it might, for a lot of the day. We get some lovely views here and there, and little windows open up in the clouds, revealing blue sky. The trees thin and shrink and get a little more gnarled. We take a snack and water break in a gorgeous basin full of little rivulets of water and patches of green growth and wildflowers interspersed with snow. The ground is covered in what looks like frozen straw, where snow pushed down last year’s growth and buried it, with small green shoots growing up between the dead plant matter.

As we head up to the next ridge, we watch a pair of hikers glissade down the slope and pick their way across the meadow below us — the first people we’ve seen all day. Soon, we’re crossing a basin I do remember — J. and I camped somewhere near here — and that means the long gorgeous alpine climb up to Old Snowy is right around the corner.

We get some killer vistas as we ascend, and then we’re just below cloud level, and then we’re in the clouds, and our visibility is limited to a small area around us in any direction. It feels like walking on a small, moving island surrounded by nothingness. It feels like one of those old-school video games where you walk around a grid but you can only see the contents of the squares directly surrounding you.

We climb and climb and climb. The snowfields to our left blend into the horizon. We zigzag slowly up the rocky trail, picking up odd rocks and pointing out strange formations to each other. I pick up a small heart-shaped rock and hold it up to my chest, flashing Ben a cheesy grin. He snaps a picture. Later, he picks up a much larger piece of shale also shaped like a rock, and holds it up for me, grinning. “Hold on!” I say as he starts to set it down. “I gotta get a picture of that. How can I get you to smile like that again?”

“Tell me a joke!” he says. I can’t come up with anything, though, and eventually he saves me from myself with a self-deprecating pun and a somewhat sincere smile. We keep hiking, and he looks over his shoulder at me. “Wanna hear a nerdy joke I heard?”

“Yeah!”

“What do you get when you cross a mosquito with a mountaineer?”

“I dunno, what?”

“You can’t do it. You can’t cross a vector with a scalar!”

I entertain myself giggling at that joke for a few minutes of uphill struggle. We try to guess when we’re at the Knife Edge (in 2015, J. and I didn’t even realize we’d hiked the Knife Edge, expecting a bit more exposure than we found). “This is kind of knife-y.” Eventually we reach the junction with the side trail to the summit of Old Snowy, and the PCT switchbacks downwards. “Guess that was it!”

There’s more snow on this side of the ridge, and the trail criss-crosses snowfields. By the looks of the boot tracks across the snow, it’s been a day or two since anyone passed through. A couple times, I pull out my phone to aim us in the direction the trail should go. At one point, we cross a snowfield that’s wide enough that, standing in the middle, all we can see is white in every direction.

We find a few hikers camped at the first campsite on this side of the Knife Edge. We chat for a few minutes — they were hoping to climb Old Snowy today, but decided to wait for clearer weather. We run into a solo hiker soon after that, and exchange notes. Then we hike on.

The sky is starting to clear as we lose elevation. Maybe soon we’ll get a little sun! The next highlight in my memory is a big split rock just off of the trail, and I keep expecting it around every bend. Instead, we follow the trail past a million tiny, lovely seasonal streams; lose it in snowfields and find it again; and start to see Mount Adams peak through the clouds. We take a break next to a natural rock wall overgrown with small trees.

Almost as soon as we start hiking again, Ben points to the left of the trail. “Is that it?” It is! I ask him to take a silly picture of me climbing the pocketed wall of one of the large boulders, to match the picture I have from three years ago. Then Ben scrambles to the top of other boulder and I wince a little while he carefully climbs back down.

The trail is beautiful through here, wending its way across meadows towards Mount Adams, which is now visible in all its glory against an increasingly blue sky.

We descend back into the trees, but there are still no mosquitos, and I can’t wait for the next thing in my mental highlights reel: Cispus Basin. We’ve set it as our goal for the day, and we’re not too far away.

When we round the bend, I give a little cheer. “See?” I ask Ben.

“Yeah!” he obligingly replies.

The first campsite we pass is only so-so, but it’s the only one indicated in Guthook. I point to a cluster of tree on the other side of the basin. “I remember there being some campsites over there. But, I mean, I’m not SURE…”

“Let’s risk it,” Ben says, and we set off around the basin. The Cispus River pours across the trail just ahead of us, and as I watch Ben cross (in waterproof boots), I know I’m about to get my feet wet. I try to step on the rocks closer to the surface of the fast-moving water, but one of them sinks when I step on it, and water rushes into my shoes. Oh well! I wade the rest of the way across.

Then I spot one of the campsites I remembered. “There!” I say, pointing it out to Ben.

“Perfect!” he says, and we set off towards it. We cross another couple forks of the river and then descend below the trail to the little tent site tucked between some trees. I set up the tent while Ben starts boiling water for dinner. We eat with our backs to the trail, looking out over the basin, and then we crawl into the tent to warm up. Pretty freakin’ good. (Except for my very wet shoes.)

PCT section 2018, day 1: a feast for mosquitos

I wake up on the morning of my 33rd birthday an hour before my alarm clock is set when my cat Anoushka sniffs near my head, demanding attention. That’s okay. I pet her for a few minutes until she curls up, purring, next to my pillow, and then I get up and putter around my apartment, packing a few last items in my backpack, cleaning things up, and writing a couple notes for Alex, my cats’ unofficial godfather, who’ll be staying at my place and keeping them company while I’m gone.

At nine I carry my pack and my resupply boxes down to my folks’ place, and my mom and I drive to Ben’s to pick him up — then we hop onto the highway. From I-5, there’s just one turn en route to our destination three hours away: White Pass, Washington! I’m heading out for a month or so on the PCT, overlapping a bit with the end of my 2015 section hike. Ben is joining me for the first part of the hike — he’ll either hike with me to Trout Lake, or turn off when we’re near Mount Adams to climb a route he’s had his eye on. After that, I’ll be on my own.

We stop for burgers in Packwood and get to White Pass sometime after noon. Mom hands us some cookies, takes a picture, and nudges us off down the trail.

In my memory, the PCT south of White Pass immediately emerges in alpine wonderland, traversing a rocky slope above a broad basin. In reality, there are several lower-elevation miles to slog through first, through trees, and THERE ARE MOSQUITOS EVERYWHERE. While Ben had applied deet to his arms and legs at the trailhead, I’d brushed off concerns about mosquitos: “they don’t bother me much” is what I said, but what I meant is “I haven’t been around many mosquitos recently and I’ve totally forgotten how completely terrible they are.” Rather than borrow repellant (since, umm, deet is, well, repellant), I double down: “I’ll get used to them! They’ll stop bothering me!” I put my headnet on and hike as fast as I can manage to try and outrun them. It only sort of works and is also exhausting.

Eventually, though, after several miles, exhausted as we are, we emerge from the thick forest into the transitional alpine-ish environment I remember — low, scraggly trees, chunks of talus, grassy meadows down below — ah, and there across the basin, the trail slowly ascending as it traverses the rocky slope. Yes! That’s the stuff. It’s a bit breezier and less mosquito-friendly, thank goodness.

We follow the trail around the basin, picking our way across intermittent snow slopes by stepping carefully in the footprints of hikers who’ve come before us. Not too many — but a few. Earlier we ran into two women who’d hiked up from Cascade Locks, and asked them about the Knife Edge. “Oh, it’s okay!” they told us. We’re carrying ice axes and I’ve got my microspikes, but it’s looking like they’ll be unnecessary weight. Oh well. Later today, Ben will use my ice axe to dig a cat hole, so hey. Multi-use item.

We cross over the ridge, relish the alpine views, and then begin to descend into the mosquitos’ territory again. They’re not quite as bad here, but I still hesitate to stop for more than a moment. I’m probably not eating enough food. Ben is feeling pretty beat — he was already feeling less than awesome on the car ride, and racing mosquitos with a heavy pack has done him in. When we get to the turnoff for Hidden Spring, we decide to follow the advice of the women we met earlier and camp near the spring. Guthook says there’s a spot with a great view just a little ways past the spring.

We walk all the way to the campsite without stopping to look for the water (we’ve got enough for dinner). The view really is stunning — Goat Rocks arrayed in front of us. I try to find a spot with a view to pitch our tent, but we settle for a more sheltered spot and eat dinner with the view instead.

After dinner, we lie down in the tent and I read some of Moonwalking with Einstein, which I started reading a couple months ago after finding it mentioned in several “any books I should read before PT school??” threads online. I try to blog, but feel distracted and tired/not-tired. Ben’s not feeling well. There’s nothing I can do to help, so I keep reading while he crawls out of the tent to find a spot to sit, hoping that being upright might help a bit.

After a while, I hear a few drops of water hit the tent. When it becomes undeniable that it’s raining, though thankfully not very hard, I pull on my rain jacket and go find Ben, who’s sitting on a log watching moody clouds settle over the mountains. He’s feeling a bit better. We chat for a while and then he says he’s ready to lie down again. As we’re picking ourselves up, he points to the end of the log. “Want a loaf of bread?” he asks.

“What?” But I see what he’s pointing to.

“It looks like a loaf of bread.”

It does indeed, but it must be something else — a strange rock or a piece of bark or something. I walk over and poke it. Ben laughs at the face I make. “It’s a fucking loaf of bread!” There is a for-real dense loaf of wheat bread of some kind, just sitting on this log getting soggy in the rain. I look at Ben. “I mean… should we bury it?”

“How about I chuck it as far as I can?” he suggests. We’re basically on the edge of a cliff, so throwing it would get it pretty far away from us — and any future residents of the campsite — quickly and efficiently. I’m not sure what the correct action is here, but I hand the loaf to Ben (the underside is host to a few ants) and he tosses it over the edge. “Enjoy!” he calls after it.

“Please don’t come up here!” I add.

We curl up in our dry cozy sleeping bags, the sun sets the rest of the way, and we go to sleep.