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PCT day 22: three weeks on the trail

I wake up remembering vague dreams about my cats. We soak in the springs again in the morning till we have to leave. Nothing like a cave full of steamy water to make one feel like a goddess.

The trail south through the woods is dry but everything in the environment betrays its usual wetness: moss, yellowed and brittle but covering every surface except the narrow footpath we’re following. The moss fades in and out as we switchback up scree fields, showing us where the ground is stable and where it clearly moves and shifts from time to time. 

The climb feels long and we’re low on water. We eye the ridge above us, sure that Snow Lake is just on the other side. Indeed, when we finally crest the ridge, we have a great view down to the lake, which is crowded (relatively speaking) with day hikers and weekenders… we’ve abruptly left the backcountry and entered, maybe, the medium-country. 

We fill up on water and then hike the last bit of trail. When it ends, we’re standing in a parking lot right outside the ski area I used to ski at all the time when I was a kid — Alpental. I stare up at the slopes I skied a million times but have never seen without snow, grinning in amusement at this minor serendipity. Oh yeah — I grew up just down the highway from here. 

We start the short road walk towards Snoqualmie Pass and get about halfway before hitching a ride from a passing car full of day hikers, who cheerfully drop us right across the street from the Chevron station and, much more importantly, the food cart parked in front of it. Aardvark’s! We’ve been hearing about this cart from nobo hikers since we left Stevens Pass. I get tofu curry and a downright transcendent fruit smoothie. The cook gives us complimentary Rainiers and we cheers. It’s good to be in town.

PCT day 21: hot springs

This morning Backup takes some time to repair his shoe — the repair has become obligatory at this point, with a huge gash in the upper along one side, from arch to toe. He sews it together handily with dental floss, covers that with medical tape and duct tape, and tacks the tape down with more floss stitches. When we start walking, he’s pleased with his handiwork: “My shoe feels like a shoe!”

Today’s hike is beautiful! We find ourselves in the kind of forest that’s all decomposition and recomposition, fallen logs and little trees growing from the fallen logs, moss and mushrooms everywhere, the trail springy with pine duff. We spot pink flagging on a branch by the trail. “BIG TREE VIEW,” it says, with an arrow — we look and see another bit of flagging twenty feet off the trail. Modern-day will-o-wisps! We follow and do indeed get a view of a big tree. We’re in big tree country.

We cross a bridge over what I think is the Snoqualmie River — some branch of it anyway. The rushing water has worn the rocks smooth into chutes. We climb down to collect some water and can’t resist hopping around on the rocks for a few minutes before we hike on. 

Further down the trail, we hear water again. Another creek no doubt — but when we get closer, the noise is revealed to be from an actual honest-to-god showerhead attached to a tree trunk. There is an honest-to-god shower right next to the trail, plumbed from the river (we assume) and constantly going. “What!” I exclaim at least a half dozen times. The water’s cold but we rinse our hands for kicks. 

And just a bit further — a fountain! Made out of pipe and old rusted parts of something, with rocks placed in a circle all around to make a little pool. This trail crew was definitely having some fun. 

Another bridge over the river, but instead of crossing, we follow signs for Goldmyer Hot Springs. In no time at all, we’re arriving at the little cabin and the sign that says “ring bell when arriving.” Turns out they do have room for us; we pay to camp for the night and go claim our spot down by the river at a site with big log benches and a little table made out of old metal equipment of some sort. It’s early, sure, but what a sweet spot. We spend the rest of the afternoon lounging in the sun, soaking our feet in the river, and doing as much nothing as possible. In the evening we make dinner with our mosquito headnets pulled down over our faces while we cook and cinched down around our foreheads and over our ears, lunch-lady-style, when we need to take bites. 

The hot springs themselves are a little hike away. We have them briefly to ourselves as dusk falls: a few pools of varying temperatures and, most wonderfully, a deep dark cave full of water and steam at the top. Backup sits at the very back, immersing himself in it, while I mostly sit in and out of the slightly cooler pool just outside the mouth of the cave. It’s fantastic, and we stay until dark, then walk back down to our campsite and drink mint tea by moonlight. 

We’re up later than usual, but tomorrow we just have ten miles into Snoqualmie Pass. In the morning I bet we’ll soak again before we leave, anyway. 

PCT day 20: alternatively

A few days ago we met a few nobo hikers who totally sold us on the Goldmyer Alternate. “The hot springs are great! Plus the trail is better maintained than the PCT, has less elevation gain, and it’s ten miles shorter.” Ok, ok, twist my arm. A mile into our hike this morning, we leave the PCT. We’re carrying several liters of water each, just in case the only water source mentioned for the alternate in Halfmile’s app is in fact the only water source available. Weighed down thusly, we start uphill in the sun.

Mercifully, we encounter two hikers coming the other way within a few miles. “There’s plenty of water!” they assure us. “A gorgeous lake at the top of the climb, prettiest we’ve seen, and plenty of water after that.” We dump some water and chug some of the rest, relieved, and climb in the heat towards the promised lake. 

We take breaks: first at the first creek we cross, which turns out to be “oh, maybe three football fields” short of the lake according to a group of hikers who’ve just gone for a swim there. Then at the lake itself, where I take off all my clothes and try (and fail) to dare myself to swim — I get knee-deep, but the water’s cold! Then above the lake, where the trail crosses an inlet and the inlet forms a beautiful blue pool below a dozen little waterfalls — here I take all my clothes off again, and this time I slip in semi-accidentally down a slippery rock and end up in water up to my chest, so cold I can hardly take a breath. But it feels good, too; as soon as I’m out of the water and back in the sun, I’m sweating again.

A few more switchbacks and we’re finally at the top. Off the PCT, the terrain is more variable and sometimes trickier and steeper. We’re slower on the downhill than we usually are, and the hot sun isn’t helping. We break one more time at another creek crossing, sitting in a shady clearing to snack, filter water, and debate the merits of pushing miles tonight. 

In the end, we don’t. We walk a few more miles and stop at a wooded campsite next to yet another stream. I’ve got a headache from the sun and/or from a good day gone less-than-awesome. Backup’s decided to get off trail, or at least to stop hiking with me, at Snoqualmie Pass, which is tomorrow night, unless we decide to spend tomorrow night at Goldmyer Hot Springs (assuming they have room for us) and extend this section an extra day (luckily, I am not eating anywhere near the 4000 calories per day I packed starting this section). I have mixed feelings. I hope that we both remember the last few weeks as mostly positive. They’ve definitely been challenging, but I’ve also enjoyed Backup’s company very much.

PCT day 19: rock ‘n’ (ankle) roll

In the morning, when I go down to the lake to collect water, the surface is perfectly calm and flat. The ripples I make when I dip my cup in are the only ripples, and I watch them expand out and out, watch the reflection of the trees and mountains across the lake start wiggling and get hazy. 

It’s already warm out when we start hiking, and it only gets warmer. The sun still feels novel and wonderful in the morning, but by afternoon we’re ducking into spots of shade whenever we find them. Still, we’re making good time, and I’m feeling great. “I’m really enjoying the trail today!” I tell Backup. We’re not even in alpine wonderland, but today I’m loving the trees, the streams, the berry bushes, the boulders and rocks, all of it. It feels new again, and beautiful again. I try real hard and I make this feeling reinforce itself. I feel good, so the trail is beautiful and fun, so I feel good! 

We stop for water five miles in at a place Guthook descriptively calls “cascading stream” and which we’ve been warned by maps and signs may be a difficult ford. It’s not so bad — a few logs have been carefully placed across the only spot where a rock hop would be tricky, and we’re able to pick our way across. When I’ve crossed and am waiting for Backup to finish packing up, two older hikers come down the trail heading in the opposite direction. One crosses and the other stops to chat with me for a few minutes. It’s Bipolar, whose blog I read before I got on the trail. We exchange notes about hiking and the trail; Bipolar is enthusiastic and kind, and the encounter leaves me energized for the big climb of the day, next up: Cathedral Pass.

We climb rocky switchbacks, then wooded switchbacks. We stop on some logs next to the trail about halfway up for snacks and shade, then continue. Near the top, there’s meadows and trees and bushes and the trail rolls around and between all of these, with big rocky summits rising up above.

Three miles down to Deep Lake. Every section hiker we’ve passed today has asked us: are you camping at Deep Lake tonight? No, we plan to go further, but when we get there, it’s clear why they’re asking — it’s very pretty. We fill up on water and take another break, then push on. 

I’ve stepped wrong and rolled my left ankle twice so far today. Both times I’ve taken a few nervous steps and the pain has quickly faded. Now, a little tired, I do it two more times in quick succession. After the last time, the pain thankfully still fades away, but the joint feels weak, and I baby it for a few slow miles as the day starts to fade and shadows lengthen. We’re still walking through a million different environments: rocky outcroppings, steep river valleys, a section of forest bowled over completely by an avalanche at some point, huge ferns that come up to my shoulders, and more. 

The last few miles go a little quicker when the terrain eases and I start to feel better about my ankle. We finally find our campsite, just a little clearing right off the trail, mercifully unoccupied. It’s just around the corner from Spade Creek, a reliable creek big enough for a steel-cable-reinforced bridge. We set up the tent and then find big rocks to sit on below the bridge. I soak my feet and ankles in the cold water for a few minutes, and then we cook dinner and watch the frogs.

Here’s a little thing I’m really good at on this hike: I keep my mug and spoon very clean. I lick my spoon thoroughly after every meal, and when I’m finished eating or drinking out of my mug, I add a little hot water, scrape the sides with my spoon, drink down the water, repeat. It’s silly but very pleasing to have a clean mug and spoon the next time I eat, without ever dumping out any food residue in the wilderness. 

Bedtime and it’s still warm. I felt good today. I feel good now.

PCT day 18: beginner’s mind, shmeginner’s shmind

I admit: I am frustrated by the learning curve I’m traveling on this trail. I thought I had the skills I needed. But: this morning we stop for water a few miles into the day, at a pretty little lake. When I’ve rounded the corner, I see another hiker on the lakeshore, packing up his stove. Backup and I drop our packs twenty feet away and say good morning.

“I’ll yield a bit of shade to you,” the hiker says, moving a bit further away from us. 

“Oh, I’m still really enjoying the sun!” I say, and I pull out my water filter and set to work gathering and filtering water. 

A little bit later the hiker gathers his pack and heads out. As he passes, he says, with a bit of sarcasm, “Nice sharing this lake with y’all.”

Ok, ok, at first I am offended because what is with these passive aggressive jerks, eh? But this is twice now I’ve pissed hikers off by quietly existing in the same space as them. Backup, when pressed, tells me (more or less) that my city social skills do not serve me well in the backcountry. “People come to the backcountry to be alone.” When I protest that I needed water, he tells me I should have made conversation in that case. I am so frustrated with myself and these people and these rules I don’t know. 

“What happened to ‘beginner’s mind’?” asks Backup, and I stew in my frustration for a while longer, upset with him and myself. 

Ike catches and passes us in the morning, and then Wallace catches us and the three of us hike together for a while, chatting about the trail and what we eat and vegetarianism. We’re in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and we do indeed pass alpine lake after alpine lake. By early evening we’re all spread out again, and Backup and I climb the switchbacks to Pieper Pass alone. There’s a beautiful view of Glacier Peak over Glacier Lake, and a perfect snack stop rock halfway up the climb. Yesterday I told Backup that my goal for this section was to not stress out. I’m trying hard to be cheerful.

We catch up to Ike and Wallace at Desolation Lake, but they’re hiking on and we’re stopping for the night. There’re a ton of folks camped nearby, but we manage to find an empty spot tucked away up above the lake. Dinner, blog, bit of reading (Fahrenheit 451), sleep.