Washington: White Pass to Snoqualmie Pass
August 9, 2003.
Silence dominated the lakeshore in the cold light of the early morning next to
Leech Lake. The section hikers were not stirring yet, but I was nearly packed
up. I had finished the last few juice boxes and consumed some poptarts while
still in my sleeping bag and it was now time to go. Unlike the previous
evening, I was ready and strong to do some hiking. I had nearly finished
packing when the son starting to wake and he waved to me as I set off, sure that
I would not see the section hiking family again. One of the daughters had hiked
the Southern California section the previous year and the mother had met Wall and
Rye Dog in Northern California earlier this summer. They seemed to be going about
things the right way (i.e, they were having fun) and I thanked them once again,
though silently, for their help with my supplies before setting off into the woods
once more. Mount Rainer was on my mind, but the trees were in my eyes this morning.
Almost immediately I entered the William O. Douglas Wilderness area. William O. Douglas
or, as I liked to call him, El O, was the chief justice of the Supreme Court for a while
an ardent conservationist (not an environmentalist). He believed that the wilderness
had saved his life as a child when he was stricken with a debilitating disease that
made activity difficult. He spent many hours and days hiking and eventually got
better. He authored several books on the outdoors and upon his death a
large tract of wilderness was named after him, securing its beauty and quality for
generations to come. A fitting legacy for El O.
It was a cool morning and so it was with some trepidation that I stopped two miles later
to rinse out several pairs of socks in a large creek. Scrubbing out socks on the rocks,
in the water, is a bone chilling endeavor and not one that I looked forward to, no
matter how much good it did my feet. While I was scrubbing away the son came strolling
up, looking rather pleased that he had caught me. The others were further back he said and
moved on. I was hoping that the friendly daughters might catch up, as
I had started hatching plans in my head for convincing one or both of them
to continue north with me to Canada and then back to Indiana. It was a plan in the
same genre as plans to become a rockstar are, but it served to pass the morning while
walking through the land of El O. Will there ever be an El Thomas? Will people ever
give thanks to the land that Ginsberg wrought? I find it somewhat unlikely, but I
suppose it could happen.
My socks were clean and the daughters still hadn't arrived, so I set forth once more,
hoping that perhaps they would run me down at lunchtime. I knew it wouldn't happen, as
I would have lunch somewhere around the twenty mile mark, and most people don't
hike more than 15 miles in a day. Thruhikers excepted. Hope is a beautiful thing,
though. From the creek the trail began to wind through more of the lake country
that characterized the bottom lands further south, although it was still cool enough
for the mosquitoes not to become problematic. More lakes and more trees. More pine
needles, though few shrubs. The forest canopy was thick enough here to make the
land under the trees somewhat sun-starved, which partially accounted for the clear
ground and the tall trees. The lack of kicks didn't seem to be weighing on me as it
had in the past and I had hope that perhaps my snobbery might have passed. Hiking
California had been like dating a prom queen, I suppose. Shallow at times, but stunning
mostly. With a few exceptions Oregon had been more like the prom queen's less
attractive sister with the great personality. I was unsure of the character of
Washington at this point, as the magnificence of the Goat Rocks was offset by the
doldrums required to get there. Mount Adams might have swayed things over to the
plus side, but I had not been able to experience it except from afar, when I was
well to the north. I knew that the last 40 miles into Snoqualmie were supposed to
be heart rending, which gave me hope, in the belief that the world is balanced,
that the leg into and out of Mount Rainer National Park would have some quality
On a dusty trail, the father and son coming down toward me could barely be seen.
It was a dry summer in Washington, and it the dryness gave birth to dust, the
dust giving birth to obscurity. The father and sun were not smiling, but I suspected
that they were just tired. The land had been steadily improving since I crossed
Bumping Fork and began the slow climb into the alpine. The two hikers were coming
down and looking for a particular lake that I had just passed, where they were going
to spend the afternoon and evening fishing away, before hiking out tomorrow. I was
happy to tell them that Buck Lake was just around the corner, although I didn't
see a trail to it. No matter, I told them, it was an easy cross country walk.
They seemed cheered by it and lumbered off, under the crushing weight of their
packs, complete with all the comforts of home, no doubt. When they got into camp,
they would undoubtedly be happy with their set up (or, rather, I hoped they would).
I spent most of my time walking and so wanted to be happy during the day, as opposed
to the few hours I was awake and in camp. Thus, my light pack and minimal fuss.
Different styles of living in the outdoors for two different pursuits. Remember
the only rule: If you are not enjoying it, you're doing it wrong. Less than a
half mile later I found a microscopic creeklet and decided that this would be as
good of a place as any to have lunch. I was only seventeen or so miles from
White Pass and the daughters might make it this far, I thought.
My standard routine went off without a thought, and the quiet gully with the
stream was quickly transformed into a kitchen-cum-laundry room. I was cooking
up the polenta that the family had given me and needed to inspect it before
adding it to the boiling water. If she had used actual polenta, I would have to be
careful and add more water, cooking and stirring to get it to come out with the
desired texture. If it was just cornmeal, no problems. The daughter that had first
approached me in the parking lot of the store at White Pass seemed to be something of
a gourmand, as it was true polenta, complete with some sort of cheese powder, dried
milk, dried peppers, onions, mushrooms, parsley, garlic, corn, and peas. For the
first time in a long time, I was preparing food whose taste could be looked forward to
in and of itself, irrespective of its nutritive powers. I usually ate because I
was hungry, not for the taste of the food, but today was different. I added the polenta and
a little extra water, along with a healthy dose of olive oil and set to stirring. Over
an alcohol stove, food burns easily if you do not stir, stir, and stir some more. The
polenta thickened and began to bubble pleasantly, the aroma of the dried vegetables
floating directly into my brain as I hovered over the pot. I added a bit more water
and kept stirring away, thought carefully now as the polenta was getting close to the
top of my pot. The daughters had cautioned me that each of the meals was made for two
or three people, but I had arrogantly assumed that they had meant two or three
regular meals. They had, it seemed, meant that each pouch was enough for two
or three thruhikers. I grinned and shook my head at my foolishness at leaving them
so soon. I could add no more water without overflowing the pot and so sat back to
let the polenta cool before attacking it. Like my previous battles with time when I
was thirsty and had to let a sack of water sit while iodine worked its magics, this was
a losing proposition for me. I could only give it two minutes of cooling before I
tore into 1.3 liters of polenta.
The pot was well worked over, although I was still using my fingers to get at the last
stuck on bits on the bottom edges of the pot. Bits of polenta hung in my beard, an
unsightly consequence of having a thick beard. My stomach was bursting from polenta as I
pronounced this the greatest trail meal of all time. I thought about leaving a note on a
tree proposing to whichever daughter made the polenta, but decided that this might not
be quite in the spirit of El O, in whose land I was walking. I gathered together my
gear and started waddling up the trail, my hipbelt stretches unnaturally wide as it
tried to accommodate my swollen belly. I was actually looked forward to lunch tomorrow.
I had a massive pouch of dried potatoes done up right, another bag of polenta, and two
bags of couscous. I was glad that I had taken the extra dinners with me now, although
with the portion sizes, the potatoes would easily be enough for two meals and I could
safely split the polenta into two if I wanted to. The extra weight didn't bother
me at this point and the excellent food brought alot to my day.
Not far up the trail I began switchbacking in earnest, gaining elevation on route to
the alpine land once again. I was so pleased with myself, though, that I could have
been mired in the worst lake country of Oregon and still been having a blast. The
switchbacks eventually ended and the trail started to wind through boulders and trees,
with Mount Rainier leaping out every now and then to say hello to yet one more hiker.
There was a small patch of cloud around its midsection, but the summit was clear. I stopped
and gazed for a while and eventually decided that this might be a good place for a
break, though the shade was a trifle limited. My desire to be out of the sun while I
rested overcame my natural inclination to stop at an otherwise aesthetic place and so I
continued on, climbing up and about, until I crested. The other side of the mountain
offered good views as well and shortly down the trail I came upon a thick tunnel of
trees, whose exit provided a clear view of the mountain and plenty of shade along
the way. I took my pack off this time and floated over into the dust and rock,
content. I was afraid of the many changes that would come with the end of the summer,
but one of the worst was the fear, nay the knowledge, that this eternal feeling
of contentment would disappear with when I set got on the plane to go home.
The idyllic day stretched on as the sun made its way down toward the high mountains
of the land. I was passing through a good lake country now, lakes of some size and
depth, rather than the fetid, shallow, mosquitoes lands of Oregon or southern
Washington. Crossing one I met two women section hikers heading south from
Snoqualmie and stopped to talk with them briefly. One had hiked from Mexico to
Cascade Locks in 1999, as she sheepishly told me, a mere 2150 miles. She seemed
embarrassed somehow that she had not finished, despite my compliments and assurances.
She had wanted to finish in 99, but did not have the time and so was section hiking the
last of the trail. We talked about the various changes in the trail since then and the
subject of meaningless things like pack weight, resupply, and miles per day never came
up. It was pleasant to talk to someone who understood the general process and could
concentrate on the things that actually mattered. The sunset in the desert, the snowbound
passes of the Sierra, the grandeur of Crater Lake, the beer in Ashland. We parted, for
the day was not long to be in existence and I wanted to make Chinook Pass before it
got too dark or cold. I had been with El O most of the day, but had left his
legacy and entered into Mount Rainier National Park not far from the tunnel of
trees. Chinook Pass was one of the entrances into the park and a road cut the trail
there. It was also almost exactly 30 miles from White Pass, although I would certainly
have to hike onward for a while before I could find a place to stop for the night.
On my map, I had spotted a small lake called Sheep and thought that might make a
good place to stop. It was close to a road and today was Saturday, which meant that
it might be crowded, but then again it might not. Viewing American's as so lazy as
not to be able to walk two miles from a road, slightly uphill, the chances were
good that I would have it to myself. Viewing American's as wanting something
special in their lives, I thought it might be crowded. It didn't matter, I supposed,
but it was something to think about. Is the stereotypical lazy American really the
true character of America? Most of this summer indicated that this was just like
any other stereotype: Some were lazy and carbound, others were not.
I strolled along the lakeshore of Dewey Lake, pondering this question when the
riotous voices of a laughing group of friends floated down the lake toward me.
Dewey was large and had ample camping along it. It wasn't terribly close to a
road, which seemed to push the scale away from the stereotype. I passed a
few groups of tents, then a couple more, then some more near where the trail
left the lakeshore. Two more hikers with packs were descending the trail as I
was ascending, and three more were coming down just as I crested out.
Two day hikers were passed and an old man as I strolled down the flat plateau
above the lake. The old man stopped me as he said hello, looking at me deeply
and in a concerned way. "Having fun?" he asked. I suppose I must have looked
out of it, but I was having a good time. I grinned and answered in the
affirmative, although I don't think he believed me.
The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun barely showed over the mountains
in front of me. It was mid August, and it was already in the lower 50s at
6:30 in the evening. The trail led down the plateau and began an end run of a
large, deep chasm, the other side of which the highway running through Chinook
pass could clearly be seen, the large, lumbering RVs moving slowly uphill, groaning
with the weight of a house on wheels.
I hoped that there might be a bathroom at the pass and quickened my gait.
Dropping down to the pass through a pleasant field of waving grass, I could see no
bathroom and so stopped thirty feet from the bridge over the road to take a break.
I had a small patch of sun for the next twenty minutes or so to rest in, and so
dropped my pack. The presence of the RVs and the road didn't keep me from fishing out
my toilet paper and finding a thicket to use as a bathroom. I could see the cars driving
down the road, perhaps forty feet from me, but the chances of them being able to spot
me were slim, crouched over next to some bushes. I was beyond the point of caring,
I returned to the patch of sun in the grass and sat down next to my pack. I ate the
last part of the Triscuit that I had been munching on all day and rolled a cigarette,
doing little else other than watching the cars go by and the sun dip down. It
was cold enough, even with the sun on me, to put on my rain jacket for a little
extra warmth. A family of three came walking up from the road, staring at this
bearded, dirty, uncaring hiker sitting in the grass. The father nodded and complimented
me on my choice of rest spots. A former or current hiker? He had to be. To anyone
else, my rest spot would have seemed foolish: Why not just walk down and rest on the
bridge, where it was clean? But, the bridge was in the shade and was composed only
of sterile, pressure treated wood. The grassy field was in the sun and perfumed by the
flowers and I was already dirty. The family moved on and I began to think about how
nice a motel room might be tonight. Watching the people on the road didn't help, as I
could imagine them driving back to a motel or lodge and taking a hot shower after
a punishing five mile walk. Then to a restaurant for a well cooked meal and perhaps a
few beers or a bottle of wine. I could feel the warmth of the motel room and wanted
it, though not bad enough to do anything about it. I had to walk.
I crossed the bridge and began the flat walk on the other side, passing an outhouse in a
different parking lot. The trail paralleled the road for a while and I passed several
day hikers with little kids on their way back from Sheep Lake and to their warm rooms
for the evening. I started to think about Snoqualmie Pass and the motels there. I might
be able to make it to Snoqualmie Pass on Monday evening if I put in a longish day
tomorrow. I might be able to have a shower and food and beer and, most importantly,
a soft, warm place lay in for a bit. The climb to Sheep Lake wasn't even noticed
as I was deep in thought of the pleasures of Snoqualmie and I was a little surprised
to see the lake and its clutch of tents. Looking back across the land that I had
traversed, I was impressed: It looked tough. Today was one of the easiest days of
walking that I could remember, even though the numbers in my book told me otherwise.
The sun was mostly gone and I could see mist creeping up from the south. The climb up
to Sheep Lake, an immaculate alpine tarn, had warmed up my body, and this tipped me toward
hiking on, away from the temporary inhabitants of the lake. The trail was evident
ahead: Follow the lake, then switchback up the rock wall in front to the pass.
Sourdough Gap it was called and it was my destination for the night. No one would be
camped up there, and if I could find a slightly sheltered spot for the night, I
would be able to get my tarp up and have a perfect view. It didn't seem more than
another thirty or forty five minutes away. As I gained altitude on the switchbacks,
the wind picked up. Sheep Lake had been sheltered, but as I rose higher and higher the
shelter was gone and the wind became brutal. Buffeting me and cooling me rapidly,
despite my rain jacket, the beauty of Sourdough Gap was almost lost on me. Almost,
but not quite. At the top I stopped to survey the land once again and was
once again impressed by Washington. I couldn't camp up here, unfortunately. There
was little shelter and the pass itself was small. No place for a tarp, and the mist and
clouds coming in convinced me that I should put up a shelter tonight. I started down the
other side of the pass, switchbacking down the rocky trail with the wind swirling around me.
Several tents could be seen in the valley below the pass, well off trail but with little
natural shelter. The trail wasn't heading their way, however, and took off to contour
along a mountainside fifty feet above the valley floor. I scanned the countryside
below me, hoping for a grove in which to camp, or large boulders to hide behind.
Less than a mile from the gap, I saw a few trees twenty vertical feet from the
trail and scrambled down the mountain side to them. Not ideal, particularly with the
rodent holes about, but good enough. There might be something further down the trail,
but it was unlikely to be close and I was cold. This would do.
Sitting under my tarp, in my sleeping bag, I listened to the wind flap at my tarp.
It had shifted a bit and I was catching some of it from the side, which mildly
annoyed me. The temperature was in the upper 40s now and I ran the numbers again
to see if I could make Snoqualmie for an evening rest. I didn't want a day off
or even a half day. Just a warm night with a shower, food, beer, and some softness.
The world was purple once more and I hoped that with the ending of the light the
wind might settle down. It worked that way, frequently, in the mountains. Otherwise,
well, nothing. My tarp flapped away and the pole holding it up was occasionally
thrown into a fit by a blast of wind, but I didn't worry over it. Closing my
eyes and thinking of a warm place, I slowly drifted off to sleep, surprisingly
content, despite my desires for the future.
It was cold and I was tired when I broke camp shortly after 6 am, with a grey sky
and the same winds that had kept me up portions of the night. The lack of sleep
was my own fault, as I should have found a better place to camp rather. The weather
I could not blame on myself, but nonetheless I started walking north again
into the Norse Peak wilderness in something of a funk. After the blazing heat of
Northern California and Oregon, a temperature in the mid 50s was just a little
cold for my bones. I thought about where the section hiking family might be
today and why I never saw the son again. He had passed me, but I had not re-passed
him, and it was unlikely that the family would break apart on the first day out.
The trail continued to contour along the side of the mountain that rose up out
of Sourdough Gap, though after a mile from where I camped the contour hit another
gap where there was plenty of camping available, all nicely sheltered, with a
pleasant carpet of pine to provide cushioning and a nice aroma for the camper.
Navigating my way down the partially forested trail, I munched on small handfuls
of blueberry granola, my only lunch for the day apart from the gummy snacks.
The bag was large and it would last the day, but I knew that it would grow
monotonous at some point later in the day, probably when I was tired and
grouchy. The cold of yesterday and today were putting thoughts into my
head about Snoqualmie. It was nearly seventy miles from where I camped to
Snoqualmie Pass, a distance that I might be able to cover by tomorrow night.
If I could make Snoqualmie by the early evening, I would have a bit of
warmth and softness that I had not planned on. I hated to race anything,
but the idea kept coming into my head. Just a little further today, take
shorter breaks, hike long. The balance would swing periodically, and antipodal
thoughts would come inside: Walk slow, enjoy your time, camp when you want to.
A father and two boys were walking up the trail, coming from the north,
wearing bright, blaze orange vests. The two boys each had substantial packs
for their size and were carrying shotguns, obviously unloaded, whereas the
father had no gun and only a small pack. I stopped to chat with them and their
cheer made me warm up a bit to the day. They had been out for a few days
enjoying the area, but seemed to have shot nothing. The guns might have been only
an excuse to go out into the wilderness for a spell, to gain something back
that society had temporarily deprived them of. The father had the cool look of
one who was accustomed to, and comfortable in, the outdoors. Many people that I
had seen this summer (and on other trips) have a sense that it is a constant
struggle to stay alive when you are in the wild. That might be true in some places,
but in areas where people mostly go, it is not. The father was relaxed and
calm and his sons seemed to be absorbing some of this from him. Only they were
far, far more beaming this morning. The relative exoticness of the place,
the freedom and lack of constraint, these were things that appealed to young
boys for whom life is fresh and new. They would never leave the wild, no matter
how much the outside world might want them to. They were also one of the few
groups that didn't ask me the usual questions, that didn't want to know how
much my pack weighed or if I ever twisted an ankle wearing running shoes.
It was with a grin on my face that we parted.
The Norse Peak Wilderness seemed to be a popular place in August, as I quickly
ran into a large group of Boy Scouts sitting by the side of the trail, looking
tired but happy, with two adult leaders, looking very tired and less happy.
The adults were chunky, out of shape, soft. Their overlapped their belts on
their pants and the group as a whole provided a powerful contrast with the
three hunters earlier. One group was always in the outdoors, learning and
living and generally getting along fairly well. The others went out for
car camps once a month, with maybe a long trip during the summer time. The
outdoors were the primary place for one, the secondary place
for the other. Appearances, however, can be deceiving, just as my appearance
last evening indicated to the old man that I wasn't having a good time.
Fresh from my encounter with the hunters, I tried to share some of the
energy with the scouts and talked vigorously about my trip. The scout
troop, as a whole, was trying to section hike most of the PCT. This
summer they were hiking north from White Pass to Stampede Pass, a distance of
80 miles. This was, I thought, somewhat amazing for Boy Scouts. Eighty
miles through semi-difficult terrain for those unused to the outdoors and
carrying far too much weight was tough. To get through would teach the
Scouts, and their leaders, far more than four twenty mile backpacks. The
mental confidence and strength it would give them, if it didn't
break them entirely, would be profound, and I wished them well. They were
somewhat incredulous when I told them that I had left White Pass yesterday
morning, but I gave them every assurance that I was neither running nor
flying on the trail. Just hiking long.
The trail continued to bob up and down and around and around as I munched on
the granola. A microscopic handful every now and then gave me the constant
energy level that was so necessary for me now. Being hungry was worse than
being lost, and I was determined to be neither, at least until I
flew home, when I would be merely lost. Shortly after meeting the first
group of Scouts, I met a second group, heading south bound on the
trail to White Pass. They had started at Stampede Pass and were heading
to White Pass. Ambitious scouts out here in the Pacific Northwest, I thought.
The Scouts themselves must have been fresh off of a break as they were
bubbling over with enthusiasm for their daily task of walking. I stopped to talk
with the leaders, who were quite properly in the rear, about their trip so
far and about the scouts up ahead. The two groups had heard of each other,
but had not yet met face to face. The leaders wanted to know if I ever
twisted an ankle in my running shoes, to which I responded with my
usual, set routine. They were not convinced, of course, but that didn't
really matter to either of us. We each parted knowing that we were right and
the other was foolish.
Shortly after leaving the second group of scouts I emerged out onto a ridge
where the trees had either been cut down or had been knocked down in a land
slide. For whatever reason, the area was clear and I could see far out in
the distance. I was feeling good after my three encounters this morning and
wanted to celebrate some, so I found a rock jutting out into space and
had a rest. The Scouts came to my mind over and over again. I thought back to when
I was a Scout and tried to compare the two experiences. My troop had
concentrated on camping once a month from September to December (December was
a camp in a heated cabin) and February to April. The camping trips usually
left on a Friday night after the adult leaders finished worked and
were within a few hours of the Chicago-land area. We would pull into a
state park or forest and set up camp in a front country campground. The
next day the scouts were free to roam about the land as they saw fit, with little
supervision or other structure to get in the way of our good time. We didn't
even have maps. Just a desire to go somewhere and do something. The adults
sometimes hiked close us, other times they disappeared entirely. Two or
three hours from Chicago doesn't get you particularly close to anything
interesting, but it was the best the troop could do. During Spring Break,
in late March and early April, the older, more experienced Scouts would
go on something called the "Spring Stroll". This was an honest backpack of
three to five days, also within a few hours of Chicago. I even planned it
one year: A bold walk along the Illinois-Michigan Canal. Summers consisted
of two weeks at a summer camp in Wisconsin. A trip to the International Scout
Jamboree happened once. "Big Trips" were planned for future summers, although
these consisted of boat cruises in Florida or attending the Philmont
Scout Ranch in New Mexico. I had left Scouting before these big trips
came, bored and stupefied with the weekend camping and no longer carrying
about Scout Camp. The monthly camping trips had changed by then as I had
grown older. My desires had changed, but so had the trips. Whereas we
were once free and wild, later I, and the other older Scouts, were expected
to look after the younger ones, which put a severe crimp in our own plans.
The camping trips were not worth it, anymore, so I left Scouting, only a
service project away from Eagle Scout, the top rank a boy can earn. It would
be eight years before I would return to the wild.
After seeing, this summer, how much wild and open and free land there was in the
West, I questioned the sanity of any Troop that would pay money to get on a
waiting list for a lottery to attend two weeks at Philmont. Why not
take the money, buy some communal gear, and head to the millions upon
million acres of public lands in the West? North of Philmont were the
San Juans and the Weminuche wilderness in southern Colorado. Could
Philmont stand up to that? Was Philmont any better than, say, the John
Muir Trail? Could a boat cruise in Florida compare with a hike of
Central Washington along the PCT? The answer was no, in all cases.
That I thought such Troops foolish didn't really matter, though. It was their
time and they could spend it was they wished. At least some of them had the
right idea, though.
I had long since started walking north again, heading for Canada and the end of
the summer. I had passed several groups of horsepackers sitting around campfires
or chatting away and I barely acknowledged their presence, so deep in thought
and memory was I. I scooped up a little water from a snow melt stream next to
one of the horse camps, surprising the equestrians as I filled up my
waterbag and then drank straight from it without treating or filtering the
water. A dark scowl on my part hopefully imparted my desire that they had kept
their stock away from the water. I kept walking, the scowl on my face departing
from me as soon as the horse packers were out of sight. Mist was rolling in,
darkening the land around me, and rain seemed likely. It was past noon, and
I still had yet to remove my rain jacket. Snoqualmie was looking
nicer and nicer for an evening stop. Indeed, I started thinking about
the exact plan I would follow once I got to town. Should I get a room
first, and then eat, or eat and then find a room? Did I want a can of beer
while I showered, or should I wait until later? Resupply in the evening, or
in the morning? When things such as these are your major concerns, life
is very, very good.
Two old men, perhaps in their mid 70s, were sitting on top of the forested
gap when I came up from below, out of the mist. They were backpacking with
appropriately sized packs, barely larger than mine. In running shoes and
looking generally fit, they were out for the weekend and were now heading
back to their car. They were tired, as they should be, but had survived the
weekend without losing the joy of the outdoors, without crushing that
which they were looking for in the process of searching for it. I left the
old men quickly and begin powering through the hilly lands ahead. The trail had
many short up and down climbs in the 500 or 1000 foot range. These would be
major climbs on something like the Appalachian trail, but on the PCT they
were merely bumps, short hills that you could blast over in twenty or thirty
minutes. The grading of the PCT was generally conducive to this, although
from my experience on the AT, I did not think the PCT was graded that
much more gently than the AT. AT hikers were soft, I thought in a moment
of snobbery. Partying, soft, weak fools, my ego pronounced. I was
a rockstar, a superstar, a hiking hero, it belted out into my
head. I quickly returned to reality and dismissed such thoughts as
the arrogance that they were and simply returned to my own hike, hoping that
the AT hikers this summer were enjoying their time on the trail as much as
I was mine.
The mist began to lift as I dropped off the mountain and by the time I
arrived at "Camp Urich," it was downright sunny and pleasant. Camp Urich was
a cabin built in a meadow and was used by snowmobilers, equestrians, and
hikers alike, three groups that traditionally dislike each other. A
sign on the front of the cabin loudly pronounced that the ghost of
Big Mike Urich protected this area, and any who disgraced it with litter
or other unseemly behavior, such as cutting down trees,
would have his phantom to deal with. I
thought this quiet the place to stop for lunch, not only because it was
a structure in a pleasant place, but also because there was a
stream next to it and an outhouse. I fetched water and started my
usual routine, scrubbing out my socks in the stream as the water
boiled for my potatoes. Inside the shelter I found part of a Fresno Bee
newspaper. Fresno? California? It was dated from early July, but I didn't
find this particularly off-putting. The news from a month ago would be mostly
as current as the news from today. A man had attacked shoppers in a grocery
store with a samurai sword. Arnold was now expected to defeat Grey in the
recall election. The Israeli's were handing over control of some
parts of the occupied territories to the Palestinian Authority. I
read and stirred my potatoes simultaneously. The daughters of the
section hiking family had produced another miracle. Remembering my
flinging of the potatoes back in southern Oregon, I had not expected
terribly much from their potatoes. However, I had underestimated the
gourmet qualities of the daughters. The instant potatoes were seasoned
with a large helping of quality dried vegetables: Tomatoes, peppers,
mushrooms, corn, peas, and others. A packet or two of some sort of
creamy soup had been added, along with cheese powder. The result was a
silky smooth concoction that I might have eaten in the outside world,
back in my home in Indiana. I savored eat spoonful, not because it would
provide me with the energy I needed, but because the taste was so
immaculate. I finished up the pot of potatoes as I finished the
last bits of the newspaper and thought again about leaving a message for
the daughters begging them to marry me, or at least sending food for
the rest of my trip to Canada. But, Big Mike Urich would not look
favorably upon my leaving a message that could only end up as litter,
and I did not want a ghost to haunt me. Besides, I had no idea where the
family was hiking to, having either never been told or having forgotten already.
So, instead, I packed up and started hiking into a place that I had been
fearing for the past few days.
The guidebook had pictures. Other journals that I had read over the previous
year had pictures and laments. But none were enough to give a true sense of
the destruction that had been wrought upon this land. Whole mountain sides
had been laid bare, though always in a cute fashion that left some trees on
top, and some on the sides. Clear cuts done in a fashion so that companies
could point and say, "Look, we didn't take all the trees. We are not
guilty of clear cutting!" Slope after slope of dusty, brown hillsides
where once green forests had stood. A battered and broken land, with stumps
and husks of tree limbs, were almost too much to stand. The fury of the
environmentalists seemed somehow justified as I stood at the pass looking
across a land that could only now be described as a wasteland.
It wasn't just in the distance, however, that the clear cuts were
performed. I was walking through the result of them. I had nearly
unlimited faith in nature to recover from the hand of man, but now I
was unsure. I didn't seem too much sign of recovery. No small shoots of
trees coming up, nothing but stumps and broken limbs, interspersed with the
occasional shrub. I got lost when the trail hit a logging road that I was
to walk along, mostly due to a lack of signs and confusing road junctions.
Motorcycles, their high, two-stroke engines, could be heard in the hills and
I occasionally caught sight of them. I didn't know where I was, but knew that I
had to go up to Pyramid Peak, which my map indicated was the tallest thing in the
area. I had no problems with trees obscuring the view to the peak or to the
horizon. It was the first time this summer in which I wished that I had been
forest walking. I followed various roads that seemed to head to the
tall mountain, thinking about how this place could have come to pass. Some of the
land was private holding, only to revert to the forest service after it had been
harvested. Some of the land was probably forest service already. Our country,
and others, wanted wood to make products and so wood was found to chop down,
forests were found where access was easy and the trees taken without too
much expense. Until our society, and others, found a way to exist without
wood-products, or with a minimal amount of them, such behavior would continue.
I didn't have a solution and so it was hard to condemn the people who
had allowed this to happen. Indeed, I was one of those people. We all were,
even the environmentalists. For, society as a whole was responsible and
none of us could escape judgment simply by writing a manifesto or
proclaiming the guilt of another. We were all guilty.
I had eventually picked up the trail again and left, for the moment, the sight
of the clear cuts. The day was cooling and I had only a few hours of sunlight
left in which to hike. My data book implied that there was a saddle a few hours
walk away, and saddles are generally good camping spots. It would leave me with
more than 30 miles to Snoqualmie, but I could do that. I didn't want to think about
the difficult questions that the forest had forced upon me, and so I pinned
my ears back once again and began racing, knowing that it would distract me
from the tortured land around me. The forest that I had been walking through
gave out quickly to more clear cuts and the only way blazes that could be
seen were on the grey stumps of former trees. There was nowhere else to put them.
I kept my eyes on my feet, not wanting to acknowledge the land around me,
to feel its stare of condemnation upon my soul. Mileage errors in the
data book compounded upon the problems of the land around me and drove
my mood into a dark corner, from which escape seemed impossible. Up
to the top of a mountain, down to a valley. Up and down, up and down, my
body tiring as my mind grew more and more frustrated. I had no solution and
I had no rest. Light began to fade as I reached the logging road just before the
saddle, which provided some hope that I might soon be able to sleep and
forget, for a little while, what my society had done to our lands. The second
road, which held the saddle was reached, though I had no desired to camp at the
road itself. Recent ATV and truck tracks could be seen as clearly as the
gutted countryside. Beer cans and bits of paper added to the atmosphere of
the place, and I felt pity for Big Mike, whose ghost must have been busy. Hopefully
he could contract the spirits of Abbey and Muir, King and Mather, to help him in his
haunting. There were many people for Urich to visit and I hoped that I might be
overlooked for now. Despite the waning light and the cold air, I had to continue on
and hope that a flat spot might be reached shortly after the saddle. Unfortunately,
the trail climbed up onto the flank of a bare mountain and began contouring.
Unless I wanted to camp on the dusty trail, I would have to finish the contour.
I was pushing hard in the cool evening air, trying to keep my body warm, as night began
to descend upon me. My legs were not tired and my mind was still willing, but the
spirit had taken a pounding today. From the highs of the morning to the lows of the
evening, today had been a roller coaster for my soul and it needed the rest that
sleep would bring. A mile went by and I was still on the mountain side. Another mile
and I was still on the mountain's flank. The purple that creeps across the land with
the setting of the sun had faded to black as I reached the end of the contour
at a thick wood. Thick woods are difficult to camp and so I continued down the
trail, now completely in the dark, relying only on my eyes to pick out the
trail in front of me.
Eyes that have adjusted slowly to a lack of light are
better, in some ways, than having a flashlight. A flashlight separates you
from the land around you in the night. With a flashlight, the world
ends a few feet from the light source. With well adjusted eyes, even
under a dark canopy of trees, the world continues on much further. On a trail
across good terrain, a flashlight is unnecessary for walking. Its only
real purpose seems to be to give people a little more confidence and to
drive away the fear that the uninitiated have about walking in a dark wood.
I had no such fears, partially because I knew that I was the dominant
predator in the area, but mostly because I was comfortable and sure footed.
I could spot the obstructions on the trail far enough in advance not to
fall over them and could maintain a three mile per hour pace even in the
darkness. I could not, however, see far enough off the trail to find a
reasonable campsite and so had to hope that I would reach a clearing
in not too long.
By 9:30, I had found what I felt was a clearing and crouched down to feel out
the soft pine bed to see if there were any roots or rocks. I tossed a few out
and proclaimed this place to be my home for the night. I could see a few stars
over head through the trees and was not terribly worried about a storm coming in
tonight. I put my tarp next to my groundcloth, ready to be deployed in case of
rain and tried to block out the land that I had walked through since leaving
Camp Urich. I knew that more of the same was coming, and thought that perhaps
I should have continued through the night in a marathon hike to Snoqualmie.
Tacoma Pass wasn't too far ahead, and it was just less than 30 miles from there
to Snoqualmie. If I walked through the night, I might be able to miss the
destruction on the land simply because it was hidden from my eyes. This was
the tactic we, as a society, used to avoid facing the problems of our consumption.
No, it was better for me to walk with open eyes and see the results. Snoqualmie
could wait until after the lesson. Besides, I was tired and needed to rest
for a while before tackling the land ahead. I would easily make Snoqualmie
tomorrow and most likely would do so in the early evening, giving me plenty
of time to be soft and fat. I closed my eyes, and tried to dream of
other places, other times, hoping that Big Mike might forgive me for the
sins that I, as society, had perpetrated upon the land.
I was moving shortly after 5 after a deep and restful sleep and no visitations
from phantoms. It wasn't light out yet, but I had woken and was ready to go.
My eyes guided me down the trail and I reached Tacoma Pass by 6 am. Tacoma
Pass was simply a gravel road, but just before the road there sat a 5 gallon
plastic bucket, with a note on top saying, "For PCT Thruhikers Only." This was
one of the rare caches that people put out for hikers. Indeed, this was
only the third one, the other two coming at Three Points on the Angeles Crest
Highway, and the other just before the Tejon Ranch in the Antelope Valley.
I pried off the top to see what goodies were inside. Beer, juice, candy bars,
Little Debby snacks. Why did I just walk for another hour to get here last
night? A beer would have tasted really good! Damn my laziness for only hiking
35 miles yesterday! There was a register inside explaining who the cache
was from and offering advice for the thruhiker. Dewey lived in Seattle and
had thruhiked in 2002. He put the cache out two days ago and I was the first
to reach it, as Will was now at least five days in front of me. He left the
remark, "I know how you are feeling right now." I pondered this for a while and
tried to imagine if he really did or not. Was my hike like other's hikes?
Were we having the same experiences? Perhaps Dewey was tired and ready to be
done with his hike, or maybe he had passed through in late September when it
was truly cold and rainy and generally miserable? Perhaps, however, he was
referring to something larger, to something that had less to do with the
physical state of the thruhiker and more to do with the sense of dread that
the end brought. Maybe not. It didn't matter in many ways. I could take
Dewey to be all knowing or just to be a man, like any other, as I saw
fit. What really mattered was that he had gone out of his way to bring a
little pleasure, a little softness, to others' lives, and for that
Big Mike might pass him over. I left a note for Sharon in the book,
indicating that I would be in Snoqualmie tonight, safe and warm and
clean, while she would be in the woods, cold and smelly. A taunt, but
also a letter to the past. I ate several fun size candy bars and
several of the Little Debby Swiss Cake rolls and once again
thanked Dewey for his kindness and forethought. He had even stashed several
gallons of water for hikers, as the trail ahead was fairly waterless. I didn't
need the water as I had been hauling a lot from the last spring near the
logging road where I got lost. But, I appreciated the thought of the water
I crossed over the Tacoma Pass road as the world began to light up around me and
reveal more of the tortured land around me. I was pushing myself at this point,
no longer caring about the journey. Today's destination was all that I
cared about at this point. That and trying to keep my eyes open as much as I
could. I tried to see the beautiful in the broken land, but it was difficult.
Fireweed, a very pretty but fragrantless plant, was everywhere. Fireweed is one
of the very first plants to return to a land that had been scraped bare, whether
by fire or by chainsaw, and it gave the land a gaudy, painted appearance.
Mount Rainer hulked up in the clear light of the early morning and I got my
first full, unobstructed view of it from the top of a sandy, clear slope that
ran next to another logging road. For me, Mount Rainer was the Goat Rocks or
Sourdough Gap. I could not appreciate it from a sand box and so continued my
push. The trail would occasionally leave the fireweed and the broken stumps
for a brief drive through a forest, but these breaks were always short. I
was working hard and my body felt it, as both my lungs and my legs were
tiring already. I cleared Stampede Pass and walked along various sequences of
power lines before returning to the woods for a good, long spell of forested
walking. Bouncing up and down, the trail was exacting a toll upon my body for
my pace. Each foot of elevation gain was grudgingly given, only slightly more
so than a foot of loss. I wanted a flat trail, nothing more. I dropped
down through the woods, entering the watershed of one of the major suppliers
of water for the Seattle metropolitan area. Signs warned me of disturbing the land
and the creek.
I spit upon eat one, wishing the signs had been planted in the clear cuts before
they had been cleared. I raced across the bottom lands and passed a lake with a
tent in a flash before tackling the other side. This would be the last long climb
of the day, and I forced it with strength that my legs no longer had, going
only on mental will. Both my body and my spirit were united against my
mind and kept shouting for me to slow down, to take a more normal pace.
My mind, however, was dominant and put them down with a low snub, "You'll
thank me for this in a few hours."
The climb ended, for the moment and I began a contour around the shores
of sparkling Mirror Lake. An alpine gem, this should have been a place to
stop and rest. "No," my mind said, "damn your lazy arse, get to the top of
the next climb!" And so I continued past the lake, crossing its swampy
headwaters to get to the climb on the other side. "Keep moving! Just think of
now nice Snoqualmie will be! You can take a break at the top, dummy!"
Up and up I went, mechanically, before finally my mind let my body take a
rest. It was cool already, and it wasn't even four o'clock. I didn't
have much further to go and it looked like I would make Snoqualmie
by 6 pm, just in time for dinner. I could relax a little now, I thought,
with this last long climb done. There were several other short ones,
300 feet here, 400 there, but the hard part of the day was finished.
The chill brought me out of my rest spot and forced me down the
trail. I needed to walk to stay warm, but the more I walked the more
tired I became. With my spirit quiet after having been shouted down all day
by my mind, walking was becoming difficult. The only purpose was the destination,
and this is a terrible way to conduct even a few moments of one's short
life. Still, I walked, heading ever north and hoping for a flat trail.
I burst out into the open once more, although not because of a clear cut.
The trail was ran though meadows for a while before joining a gravel road.
There were cars parked here, fancy, shining cars. A 40,000 dollar Audi
was parked next to a brand new Subaru, complete with a raised hood air
induction system to feed its motor with oxygen. I had passed a few
day hikers but not enough to warrant this number of cars. Several
SUVs of the mammoth variety were scattered along the road, next to
hulking pick up trucks with camper shells. Where could they all be?
The sky was clear blue, but the wind was up and clouds raced by every now
and then. I could feel the storm coming as surely as my legs could feel the
accumulated mileage of the day. The trail led down the gravel road and my
body was beginning to fight back against my mind. The spirit was quiet and
still, not wishing to engage in any more battles with the dominant mind,
happy to wait for tomorrow. I was tired and could no longer ignore the fact.
My pace slowed as I turned off the road and went back into the woods.
The clear cuts were gone and I was back in a living thing again.
Creeks were slowly walked across, my legs unable to give enough power
for a leap. Less than two miles from Snoqualmie, I had to stop again. A
small lake with a comfortable boulder for a backrest provided the
opportunity as my mind caved in and assented to the break. Taking a good
rest before arriving for the night was always a good plan. It assured
me that I would reach my destination feeling somewhat refreshed and
not broken down. I ate the last of the Chex Mix that I had been snacking
on through the day and polished off my final fun-sized Snicker's bar that
I had taken from Dewey's exquisite cache. And I sat and did nothing, hoping
to summon a little more strength from my body for the thirty minutes it
would take me to reach town.
Standing on top of a knoll, after the long, slow walk from the lake,
I gazed down upon the object that had been driving me all day long.
I had wasted a day on the trail for this object. Had wasted a
day of my life. Snoqualmie no longer seemed like such a worthy goal,
but now that I was here, and now that storm clouds were rolling down the
mountainsides in force, I could not ignore it. I had covered thirty miles in
11 hours, including breaks. It wasn't even six and here I was, with softness
within my reach. I hesitated, there on the knoll, before starting the long descent
down the mountainside. Two hikers were coming up under heavy packs and they
stopped where I was to talk. They were out on a shakedown hike before starting
north from Snoqualmie with the goal of making Stehekin or Canada. Looking down
at the town, I asked them if it really was as small as it looked from up
here, which brought a laugh from them. One offered to buy me a beer when they
got back down and that I should ask for a special, hiker rate at the
Best Western, the only hotel in town. Snoqualmie was a ski town, which meant
high rates in the season. However, it was also ideally located for summer
hikers, which meant that the season probably extended year round. The
beer-offering hiker thought that I might be able to get a room for $40, which I
thought unlikely, but hoped for anyways. They continued over the knoll, heading
to the lake that I had rested at. And so I began the walk down the slopes to
Part of the way down I came across two dayhikers heading into town and stopped,
once again, to talk. The fire that had driven me all day to get to Snoqualmie
was long since dead and I felt no rush to get in. I answered one question
after another with the set replies that I always give. Yes, I use an
alcohol stove. I built it by cutting off the bottom two inches of a beer
can. I buy fuel at gas stations or supermarkets. I don't twist my ankles
even though I'm wearing running shoes. My pack weighs 10-12 lbs without
food or water. I buy food in the towns that I come across, usually
3-5 days apart. I work at a university, which is how I got the time off
this summer. I'm averaging about 25 miles a day, but have been averaging
more like 30 a day since leaving South Lake Tahoe. I hated answering these
questions, but wanted to put on a cheery face for the day hikers, who lived just
outside of town. We parted and I ran out ahead, even with my slowed pace.
The trail gave out at a parking area and I started the short walk into town
as the day hikers got in their car and drove in. I didn't get upset about
not being offered a ride in. Indeed, I always liked a short walk into a town
as it allows a certain perspective that isn't gained from riding. As I
crossed the main road into town, passing the various ski lift areas, I saw there
car come out of the parking lot of a small store and head toward me. Just
before I reached the Best Western, they pulled onto my side of the road and
a window rolled down. Coming by a 3 miles per hour, a hand was extended out,
holding a brown paper sack. I took the hand off and could feel what it was.
I grinned and waved at them as they went by and looked inside to see what
kind of beer they had bought me. A 24 oz. can of Coors Light looked back
at me, and the question of whether or not I would have a beer while I
showered was taken care of.
I walked into the Best Western and gazed around at its opulence. I had
walked almost 230 miles between showers and was quiet filthy. I only noticed
the filth, really, when I went inside and asked the young woman at the front
desk if they had any rooms available and if they might have a PCT hiker rate.
Yes on both accounts and it would only cost me $65. I grimaced, as I didn't
really want to pay that much. But, I had no other choice if I wanted to
break the hardness of living outdoors with a little softness. I took the
room, handing over my credit card, and tried to make small talk with the
woman. "You sure are lucky you didn't come in last weekend," she said.
"The place was booked full for a wedding and there wasn't a room to be
had," she added. I managed a smile and a thank you and went off to my room.
Two queen sized bed and a larger than normal bathroom greeted me, along with a
large television and a TV guide. Within seconds my clothes were off and
the Coors Light open. I was waiting for the water to run hot and glanced
at myself in the mirror. Laughter filled the room as I gazed upon my
body. A thick, wild beard combined with a heavily tanned face a neck,
connected to a stark white trunk. My arms below the shoulder were
deeply tanned and my legs below the knee were of such a color that
I cannot describe it. A base of tanned flesh combined with such an accumulation
of dirt gave my legs a color that was not brown, nor black, but rather
some sort of amalgamation that should not occur naturally. Yet, it had.
All I had done to gain it is go for a walk. I got into the shower with my
can of beer, taking care not to get any of the water into its wide-mouth
opening, and started scrubbing down in between sips. At home I generally
shower in less than five minutes, but now it was taking me more like
20. I was almost finished with the beer when I came out of the shower,
mostly clean, though still with grimy achilles.
I dressed and put my filthy clothes in the sink to soak for a while as I
headed off to the restaurant in the hotel, sans beer, which was now in the
garbage can. Feeling and smelling clean, I sat in a booth and watched the
rain came down, thinking of Sharon. I ordered the meatloaf plate and a
pint of beer, thanking my mind for driving me here today. Even if most
of a day had gone by without much interest, I was now able to sit where
it was warm and dry and watch the rain come down. Sharon was on my mind as
I worked on the salad that came with the meatloaf and ordered another
pint. She was being rained on right now, and would probably be rained on all
night long. The meatloaf came out with my second pint and I forgot, partially,
about her as I attacked the pile of food on my plate. I had never before
had bacon wrapped meatloaf, but it tasted so good that I wondered why
the practice was not more wide spread. I ordered the blackberry cobbler
with ice cream for dessert and held off on another pint as the rain
kept coming down. A Greyhound bus pulled up to the gas station next
to me. As an ominous sign, I thought about how easy it would be to get on
the bus and head somewhere, anywhere. I had no actual thoughts of
leaving the trail, but at the same time knew that it was a good thing that
I didn't see the bus until I was clean, warm, and well fed.
With my belly full I returned to my room briefly before heading out to the
convenience store to resupply. The rain was coming down very softly now
and I strolled across the parking area thinking about how fortunate my
life had turned out. No one could have predicted that I would be here,
right now, in Snoqualmie, Washington, doing this beautiful thing. It made
me proud that my life was a little unpredictable, that too much
structure had not yet been placed on it. I was free to do as I
saw fit, without a crushingly stultifying job to deal with, without
a wife and children to consider before myself. I wasn't trapped, yet,
and hoped I never would be.
I tossed the several sacks of food onto my bed and extracted the beer that I
had purchased before starting the process of washing my clothes. I had only socks,
underwear, a t-shirt, and shorts to work over, but this took a while to do.
The better part of the news was past and I was still scrubbing away.
Some inane movie played while I repackaged all of my supplies, tossing
away the extra plastic and cardboard to get everything into small
ziplock bags and thought about the clear cuts again. I was done with
my chores by 9 and was happily drinking away watching the television.
At 9:30, the phone rang. I didn't have to pick it up, as I knew that only
one person knew that I would be here. Sharon's voice rang clear and
true over the phone. I told her the room number and opened the door for
her before returning to the bed. She came in, as filthy as I, and we
exchanged our usual greetings of mirth. I was honestly surprised to see
her. She had found my note at Tacoma pass in Dewey's register and had hiked
more than 40 miles to get here tonight. She had been close to me over the
past few days, but had not been able to catch me as I had put in more
mileage than expected in the Mount Adams area. My resupply in White Pass
was quick, whereas she had to take some time to do it. She might have
caught me today if I had not been trapped contouring last night.
I kept talking and talking, spewing forth everything that had been kept
inside of me for the past week. She was hungry and had to eat before
the restaurant closed and so cut the conversation off.
Thirty minutes later she was back and I put forth a barrage of questions and
comments before she could cut me off again. I was, I suppose, a little lonely,
she thought. She hadn't seen me so animated before on the trail, but had to
buy food for the next leg before the store closed. And so I was left again
for a while. When she returned twenty minutes later with her own food and a few
more beers for me, my assault continued, although more subdued. At this point,
I knew that I would see her at the end of the trail, if not before. I would outrun
her to the point where she would not catch up. I was happy that Cascade Locks
was not our final parting and perhaps this feeling was what brought forth
my yammering. It was midnight, and we were both tired. I turned the light off
and went to sleep, in my soft, warm, bed, knowing that my friend would be there
in the morning.