Washington: Snoqualmie Pass to Skykomish

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August 12, 2003.
The room was completely dark, although I could see faint cracks of light around the curtains of the window and knew that it was time to get going. I wanted to make the highway at Stevens Pass as early as possible, three days from now, so that the hitch into Skykomish would go smoothly and I would have plenty of time in town to be lazy and eat. Moreover, in between here and Stevens Pass was supposed to be one of the best legs of trail: High alpine ridges, deep glacial valleys, stunning peaks. It was going to be strenuous according to the guidebook, with lots of elevation gain and loss. The numbers didn't seem particularly intimidating to me, however. The Sierra had more and I was sure that the Klammath Range was close. Sharon was stirring in the other bed when I got up to shower, our room a disaster area of clothes, food, and beer bottles. A partially read Seattle newspaper was sitting on the table when I left for my shower and I found Sharon reading it when I was through. It was not yet 8 o'clock and both of us were hungry already, it being two hours past our normal breakfast time. Sharon went to take a shower as I examined my pack for where.

The little ULA Zenith pack had taken a beating over the summer and wear was starting to show. There were a few mini-holes in the mesh superpocket and a few deep abrasions on the Spectra bottom from my rock sliding adventures in the Sierra Nevada. The stitching where the back panel attached to the Spectra flap then helped hold the Z-rest in place as a frame was coming undone and I could look easily inside my pack from the three inch gash. The stitching that held one half of the hipbelt to the pack body was coming undone as well and I had only less than 30 percent of the original left. I didn't really need the hipbelt any longer, though, as my load was light enough to do without it for long stretches during the day. The pack would make it, I was sure, to Canada. The lightweight materials used in the construction of the pack had only so much life to give and I, and the trail, had taken just about all of it.

Sharon dressed quickly and we left for breakfast at the hotel's diner, the same place that I had savored the bacon wrapped meatloaf the evening before while watching the rain come down outside, thinking of Sharon. There were few customers up this early and so our food came quickly. I had my usual omelet, hashbrowns, toast, and short stack of pancakes, along with several cups of coffee. After my unending yammering of last night when Sharon came in, hungry and wanting to get fed and clean, I was surprisingly quiet this morning. It was as if I had talked myself out and there was little left to be said. I mentioned my run in with the Greyhound and a few other odds and ends, but mostly we made the sort of small talk that comes so easily to close friends. When there was nothing to say, we were quiet. People that are unfamiliar with each other find such moments of quiet disturbing or embarrassing, but the two of us had long since let go of any such nonsense. I finished off my food and part of Sharon's, not feeling even close to full, and we paid our bill and left.

Both of us were looking forward to the upcoming trail much like little children might look forward to some day in which they might be festooned with presents. The clear cuts were behind us now, for the most part, with their heart rending images only in our minds and memories. I packed up and sat on the bed watching the morning news. Canada, and British Columbia in particular, where deep in the grasp of a drought even more severe than that gripping Washington and Oregon. It was only a matter of time before a fire broke out, sparked by lightning or a careless cigarette butt thrown out of window from a passing car, or even by a backfire from a jeep driven by a backcountry ranger, out to inspect the danger. Canada was only ten days away now and I hoped that we might be able to finish the trail without worrying about an active fire about us. At 9 I had to leave, but not with the trepidation of my departure from Cascade Locks, when I was sure that I would not see my friend again. I might outrun Sharon for a couple of days, but she would inevitably catch up at Skykomish. I loved the solitude that the trail gave so freely now, but I also liked having Sharon around from time to time, a break or at a camp, for she was good company. Never overbearing or needy, always independent and ready to be alone herself; we made excellent hiking partners. Each of us did our own thing, hiked our own hike, and that preserved and protected the freedom of the trail, while keeping a human dimension in our endeavor. She had a few phone calls to make and postcards to mail out before leaving and needed another hour or two in town. I put my pack on and left, feeling as different as possible from my walk out of Cascade Locks.

It was sunny, but cool, outside, with a gentle breeze that blew up into roar every few minutes. The storm of yesterday was gone, leaving only a few puffy clouds as a reminder of it. I retraced my steps to where I left the trail, crossed under I-90, the last of the interstates on the PCT, and walked up the paved access road to the trailhead. The trailhead was quite full, with two separate groups primping and strutting in the early morning light before beginning their respective hikes. Shiny, barely used packs, stuffed full with God know what, dangling waterbottles clipped to the outside, were strewn here and there around the vehicles that the groups had used to get to the trailhead. Everyone was fresh and clean and seemed rather confident about the trail ahead. I didn't stop to talk with them and knew that ten minutes up the trail the strutting would turn into an amble, and ten minutes later the amble into a shuffle. After a few hours, their shuffle would turn into a death march if they were not careful. It was almost 2,500 feet up from the trail head to the crest of the mountains above Snoqualmie, a straightforward proposition for someone with a light pack that had walked 2400 miles to get here, but tough one for those fresh out of a van. I plunged into the woods and began the climb, confident that I would not have to contend with the large groups, but knowing that others were somewhere ahead.

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The climb up proved enjoyable and well graded, through a series of tree tunnels that kept the wind from me. I passed a photographer a few hundred vertical feet up, snapping shots of a small stream, and paced two equestrians on their way up. They had come up from below me, and I could hear the horses' hooves on the rocks, but they were unable to catch up to me until near the top of the climb. I let them go past at a rocky stretch of trail before continuing the climb to the top. At a small outcropping of rock I took off my pack to rest a bit and enjoy the view back down into Snoqualmie. Interstate 90 snaked through the land on its way to Seattle, making frequent turns and dodges to run the easiest course through this mountainous land. The cleared slopes below the knoll on which I had stood yesterday evening seemed like a fitting, final view of the destruction that is visited upon the land when there is profit to be made. For most of the rest of way north I would be walking through designated wilderness or national park land. The parking lot below me was the boundary of the Alpine Lakes wilderness. It was a place that I had read much about in magazines and on websites, with nearly every sentence dedicated to extolling the scenic qualities of the land, even if it might be overused. It didn't seem particularly crowded to me at this point, but I was barely inside of it.

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I left the outcropping and continued my hike, heading along a sequence of blasted out contours that gave me, and probably everyone who had ever walked the trail, a feeling of floating in space: Below me the land dropped off precipitously, plunging away and a drastic grade. It was a trail that I would never consent to ride a horse along, but I could walk it with no feeling of fear, only levity. The contours, blasted out with dynamite, would occasionally connected to small meadows holding brilliant, crimson displays of fireweed as the foreground for the massive mountains in the distance. I was unsure why the fireweed was here, as there were no signs of a burn and the land had not been logged. Perhaps there had been a burn, but the land had already recovered from it. This part of Washington received vast quantities of rainfall and it would not take the land long to heal from such a natural thing as a fire. Loping through the meadows and back onto ridgelines, only to be forced back into a meadow, this was hiking at its best: Easy, stunning, and with excitement. Any beginner who got to the top of the climb from the parking lot without being broken would be hooked for life. I passed through a small cleft in the rock face and began the steep descent down to the first alpine lakes where I was sure campers would be. Instead, I found only the horsemen who had passed me just before my break. They were looking tired, despite having ridden up. It then occurred to me that their exhaustion was not coming from their bodies, but rather from their minds. The trail to get to the lakes would have frightened me greatly and I was impressed that they had forged this far at all.

I went by the equestrians with a wave and a friendly hello, continuing the serpentine path laid out by necessity from the topography of the land. I wasn't making terribly rapid progress as morning gave way to afternoon and that suited me just fine. I had raced yesterday to get here and it would have been utterly foolish of me to race through this place. Dipping down on ridges impossibly thin, only to switchback like a madman on the other side, the trail was proving as interesting as it could be. Flat, straight trails are good for making time, but do little to challenge the hiker. I had been rarely challenged since leaving the Klammath Range in California, and then only for brief moments. In the area of Jefferson Park, about Mount Hood, the Goat Rocks. Now, the trail was fun and challenging and I was thriving. Marmots shrieked at me every now and then, which lent the place a lived in feel. Once or twice I came upon one that was foolish enough, or wise enough perhaps, not to be afraid of the two legged thing passing through its area. These silly, or wise, marmots would sit by the side of the trail doing what marmots do: Chewing on flowers or grass in an unhurried way. The marmots began to bother me with their yelps and their calls, particularly the ones close to the trail. I felt as if they should be afraid of me and run, scurrying, whenever I approached too close. They were impugning my predator status and it brought my blood up when I thought of it too closely. Nearing Huckleberry Mountain, I could stand it no longer.

A marmot sat eating flowers not three feet from me, huddled on its haunches without a care in the world. I stopped and shouted at it to run away, to which it responded by continuing to eat its lunch. "Don't you know that I could kill you right now, my fat friend? You had better run away before I make a stew out of you," I told it in the most ominous voice I could muster. Still, it kept chewing, not even recognizing my presence. This, of course, served only to bring my blood up even more. "Listen fatty, if you don't get out of here right now, I'm going to crush you under my foot!" The lack of reaction on the marmot's part could barely be seen, which broke my temper completely. For the next five minutes I hurled every abuse I could upon the marmot. On his head I piled up a wealth of insults, taunts, and threats. The worst things I could imagine came forth from my lips as I attacked everything about the marmot, his relatives, and marmot-kind in general. A fury, a whirlwind, a veritable Hindenburg of verbal thrusts did not perturb the marmot on little bit. I shook my fist at it in a rage and stalked off, leaving the poor rodent to continue his snack on the flowers. And so I reached the calm meadows below Huckleberry mountain in something of a funk, caused mostly by my inability to convince the marmot that he should be afraid of me. It was silly and I laughed at it, but I was determined to frighten as many marmots as I could between here and Canada. At least, the bold ones that stayed too close to the trail when I came through. There was another backpacker that I passed just before the meadows, sweating under a load too heavy for the given conditions. I had said hello as I passed him and expected to see him when I took my break. I huddled underneath a shrub to escape the wind on my break and was a little surprised when he failed to materialize after a few minutes. Perhaps he had lost track of where I was, or perhaps he was going somewhere else. It wasn't until I stood up again to leave that I saw him, off in the distance, wandering about a knoll that probably had a good view off into the valleys below.

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I picked up a handful of small rocks as I continued on the trail, stuffing them into my pockets along with a Snickers bar and a bag of hot peanuts. The trail continued to impress, sticking as hard as possible to the tortuous ridgeline, dropping down only when dynamite made more sense than picks and shovels. I kept my eyes open for marmots, hoping to be able to use the stones in my pockets at some point. Before I had the chance, however, I came upon something much more interesting than frightening marmots. My senses had long ago allowed me to sense things further up the trail than I should have been able to. It wasn't so much a sound or a smell, but at times a feeling would pop into my head that something large and alive was in front of me. It could have been my nose or ears picking up something so faint that they did not know how to interpret it, and so send on only a vague message to my brain, or it could have been some sort of developed sixth sense. I thought the former. Whatever it was, I knew that something was coming and a few minutes later my eyes caught sight of some sort of motion fifty feet in front of me on the trail. The trail, and the mountainside around it, was composed mostly of white-grey rocks and it was difficult to distinguish what I was looking at up the trail. I stopped for a moment, and then the goats came squarely into view. One, two, three mountain goats were in front of me, aware of my presence but knowing that there was still a safe distance between them and me. I wanted to give these animals enough of a space not to spook them, but I also wanted a closer look and so moved forward slowly. The goats trotted around the corner. I stopped to give them time to escape before moving around the corner. And there they were, closer than ever. Apparently, when they lost sight of me they also lost any desire to run. There were five of them, not thirty feet from me. There were two young ones, two adults, and one ancient looking beast. Three generations of goats were in front of me, though once they saw me they calmly walked up the trail and around the corner. I paused again to give them some space and then continued, although once around the corner the scene from before was repeated.

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I was getting a little frustrated with the goats at this point and so continued walking without a pause when they ran around the next bend in the trail. They had made it onto a ridge just above the trail, perhaps twenty feet from me and were most casual about things. I snapped a few pictures and told them to be more careful. At some point they would do the same thing to a hunter and they might end up on someone's wall at home. Hunting, as it should be, is completely legal in many wilderness areas and the goats were certainly not safe from human predators or those out seeking a trophy. My verbal warning and my forward movement drove them off the trail and down the steep cliff on the other side. Mountain goats are more nimble than even the greatest of human dancers or acrobats, and I knew that the family was safe on the other side, no doubt put out by my interruption of their lazy afternoon.

The early part of the afternoon passed as I loped down the trail, hurling insults at marmots when I saw them and occasionally flinging a small stone in their general direction. I didn't think the forest service or environmental groups would appreciate my actions too much as they would probably see the rocks as a direct disturbance to the marmots, and that was not allowed under any circumstances. I didn't care much, though, as the rocks were never thrown directly at a marmot, but rather into the rocks near them. The clatter of my missle upon a rock was enough to send the marmots running, a little scared but unscarred. No marmots were hit or hurt and perhaps they might stay further back from humans, at least for the next day or so. Animals that were sensitized to human presence were almost always worse off than in a more natural state. Besides, in the end, it was just a few small rocks and a few scurrying marmots.

Nearing the end of my ridgeline runnings, I came upon two hikers lolling about in the sun on a grassy hill. A young man and a young woman, they had starting hiking the PCT from Ashland at a good and slow rate. I rested with them and listened with eagerness to their stories of Oregon in June and July. When I had come through it was hot, dry, and mosquito heaven. For them, it was snow, raging water, and generally cold. They were only making 8 or 10 miles a day, but seemed to be having a great time and had even run into Will a few days back. I warned them that Sharon would find them in a few hours and set off, wanting to get down the mountain side, along the valley below, and up onto Escondido Ridge, a long uphill slog that held several small tarns according to my map. Not only would it make, probably, for excellent camping, but it would also put one more 2000 plus foot climb behind me.

Shortly after leaving the section hikers, I reached the drop off and found three 60-something day hikers, pleased and happy with their progress. I wondered where the rest of their stuff was, as it was a long way back to the trailhead that I had left from. Too far for them to make it tonight, but perhaps there was another trailhead in the area. Across the valley below me I spotted the impressive Three Queens mountains and laughed as I thought of Freddie Mercury. The hikers found this amusing as well and I stopped briefly to fish out a few gummy snacks for the upcoming descent. I fielded the usual questions from them and gave my standard answers, much like an answering machine plays the same recording no matter who calls it. They were friendly, though, and excited about the land and it was hard not to absorb some of their enthusiasm. I said goodbye and silently wished them luck on their return (although perhaps they had set up a base camp somewhere), and began bounding down the trail that the guidebook described as a "bone-jarring, 2000-foot descent, twisting and pounding down literally scores of tight switchbacks..." I found the going considerably easier than the guidebook implied, but perhaps its warning was directed more toward day or section hikers, rather than thruhikers. My snobbery flashed its ugly visage for a moment before I was able to quash it back down into my soul.

The descent did not take long and I then ambled along the trail, crossing several streams and rivers on the nice, pleasant bridges. I didn't know why they bothered with bridges at this point, however. The streams were easy enough to get across and certainly would have been easier fords than many of the unbridged rivers in the Sierra Nevada. Still, I enjoyed their placement as I got to keep my feet dry. Walking in wet running shoes is only slightly less pleasant than walking in dry running shoes. The great problem is the next morning, after the cold mountain night has had a chance to freeze your shoes close to solid: Cold, wet, stiff shoes were the bane of every morning in the Sierra. I took a final break in the meadow just before the start of the climb onto Escondido ridge, towering above me. The valley held a pleasant stream and their was plenty of sheltered camping in the area. I thought for a moment about staying the night here, but one look above me convinced me otherwise. Escondido Ridge guaranteed something aesthetic, and I would not trade that for a logistically simple campsite.

The trail up to the ridge was a long zig zag of switchbacks and I was, for once, glad to be going up hill. It was getting cold and I needed the exertion to stay at a comfortable temperature in shorts and a t-shirt. I could have put on more clothes, but simply did not want to: As long as I kept moving, I was comfortable. Besides the warmth it gave, the climb also brought me up and out of the trees to where I could once again appreciate the powerful mountains that had forced me off the initial ridgeline and down into the valley. Glaciers dotted the snowy couloirs of the mountainsides, their bluish cast obscured by the orange-pink of the sunset. All around me the light was tangible, touchable, with texture. Hikers in humid lands speak of walking through the air and feeling it, like a wall, gently pushing down on the skin. Here, I was walking through the exotic light, like a soup that had no mass, as happy as could be. I was however, running out of time. The orange and pink faded slowly into purple, and the purple into black, just as I topped out on Escondido Ridge, slightly tired and ready for a campsite. The alpine tarn that I had planned to camp at had signs ringing it telling people to stay away, that camping was forbidden. Some wilderness, I chuckled, and kept moving. I could easily disobey the warnings without fear: I would not damage anything during the few hours I would occupy some rocky patch of ground, and no one was around to shake a finger at me in shame. I chose to obey the signs for no good reason at all. To obey because I was told to.

I passed the tarn and climbed up the short ridge above it, leaving the signs behind me. I followed the ridge around and about until it turned into a small plateau. In front of me was another tarn, but it would most likely have signs as well. Beyond that tarn there was supposed to be designated camping, but it was black now and I was cold now that I was no longer gaining elevation. I walked up hill off trail for forty feet and found a small clearing in between a few trees. Good enough for me. Not only was it flat and clear, but it was also wind sheltered and out of view of the trail, not that anyone would be coming by tonight or tomorrow morning before I left to see me. As I was setting up my tarp, I heard a small rustle on the plateau and looked up to see a few deer not twenty feet from me. My well adjusted eyes could make them out plainly in the moonglow. They had apparently not known I was here and had only become aware when I started putting up my tarp. They seemed not quite sure what to do, how to react,and it was sometime before they did anything other than look, well, sheepish. In a strong voice I bid them to come into my camp for the night and share a little company, at which they bounded off, now knowing what kind of fool was camped in their bedroom. The stars were out on this cold night, although once I got under my tarp I could only see a few of them, pinched between the mountains at the opening of my shelter. I thought of where Sharon might be tonight and concluded that she was most likely in the logistical camp back down below the ridge, where I had last taken a break. Tomorrow she might catch me, or she might not. It didn't really matter, as she would certainly catch me in Skykomish. I was as content as I had ever been in my life when I closed my eyes on yet one more day of this beautiful summer. One less day of my life, but one that had been well spent, in the strongest sense of the phrase.

I was moving northward once again as the sun came up over the mountainside, bringing warmth to my body, warmth that was definitely needed. I had left camp with my thermals still on and my jacket on top of it all and was moving hard to generate body heat. I passed the second tarn with its attendant signs and quickly reached the designated camping spots just past it. My choice was much better, I thought, as I flew by. I stopped just before the descent down to Waptus Lake to use the bathroom and admire the peaks in the clear, pale yellow light of first dawn. The trail dropped down via many switchbacks, following natural shelves when possible, at other times taking circuitous detours around rockslides and chutes. Nearing the lake, I came upon two hikers with small packs, a rare sight this summer, thought I did not stop to talk to them for very long. The day was warming and I the residual feelings of contentment from the night before were strong in my bones. I just wanted to walk for a while in the woods and listen to the birds singing, welcoming in the start of the day. And then my foot itched. The top part began to erupt and I used the other shoe to stamp down on whatever it was that was attacking my foot. This, of course, was not a wise move on my part and resulted in an explosion of pain as I spooked whatever insect was trapped in my shoe. Yellowjacket, wasp, whatever it was, I yelped out in pain and stomped harder and harder. Instantly, I could feel my foot beginning to swell in my shoes and cursed the insect world for their ability to fight back at times. I was limping along, waiting for the pain to pass. Finally, I had to sit down on a rock and take off my shoe for inspection. A red lump was square on top of my foot, a speck of black at its center. I fished the stinger out of my flesh and cursed the insect again, no doubt quiet dead from my stomping. How it got inside my shoe is a mystery to me, but regardless, it had left its mark. I put my shoe back on and continued down the trail in a little less pain than before and quickly met another two hikers, the comrades of the first two that I had met. Had they heard my oaths? I didn't really care, but was a little sheepish in my greeting of them as I had used somewhat strong language in relation to the otherwise peaceful surroundings. The hikers warned me of several large groups of foreigners in front of me, which piqued my interest. What sort of foreigners might they be? The hikers were unsure, except for the fact that their English did not sound like my English. An interesting mystery that perhaps might unfold better than the mystery of the insect had.

The climb up to Cathedral pass was a long one, though to be done in two more or less equal stages of 1200 feet each. As with the climb out of Snoqualmie and the climb up Escondido Ridge, the first half of the climb to the pass was well graded and easily accomplished, following a pleasant, meandering stream, from which I took water, into a large meadow which held massive Deep Lake. Thickets of trees appeared on the horizon and offered plenty of pleasant lunch spots. I was tempted, but wanted to get over Cathedral Pass before lunching. Being the PCT, something equally suitable and stunning would present itself when the time was right. Nearing the lakeshore, I could see several groups of hikers coming from it and then bending off toward my right. The first of the foreigners, no doubt. At the junction I thought that the trail should continue straight, from where the other hikers came, but their movement had confused me. I stopped to examine my map and concluded that they were going in the right direction. A sign not far up confirmed this assertion and I set out in chase.

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Not far from the junction was another, where some of the group was waiting for stragglers. They had assumed, as I had, that the trail continued straight ahead and found themselves at the lakeshore, with no where else to go. Being sensible, they lunched there and were now waiting for the remnants of their group to rejoin. There were nearly two dozen of them all told, British soldiers in their form of ROTC. They had come over to the States, as they did every summer, for joint exercises at nearby, sprawling Fort Lewis and were now out on a summer romp. Their excursion was half training, half fun. Some of their members were ahead still and there was yet another,independent group even further a field. I said goodbye to them, for now, and started up the trail, knowing that they would pass me when I took a break in a few minutes. My strong legs brought me past one group of three, and then another of four, passing the soldiers easily going up hill. With a few minutes of separation between myself and the soldiers, I took a break in a space off of a switchback and rolled a cigarette to wait for the soldiers to repass me. Up they came, some looking fit and strong despite the heavy packs (probably light for them), others with long tongues, looking as if there was no worse place on earth than the slopes of Cathedral Peak. They went by, and then the others from below passed me as well. The soldiers in the rear looked especially beaten and I tried to cheer them up a bit as they went by.

I had passed the entire group once more as I strolled up the trail, sweating slightly but not profusely, sure that I would never see them again. I left kind words as I went by and I hoped that they appreciated the amount of wild left in America as opposed to Europe. Europeans almost always see this as something remarkable. The sheer amount of uninhabited land in North America is most impressive to those from a land that has had all the wild driven out of it by many centuries of occupation. Just below the lip of the pass I spotted the stragglers from the second group cresting out, a little surprised that I had caught them already. The first group thought the second was several hours ahead, but here they were, with only thirty minutes separating the front of one from the back of the other. The top of Cathedral Pass was enjoying a brisk blow when I topped out and so I did not linger long. The last thirty or forty minutes of the climb had been in open terrain and I had many moments to study the landscape about me.

I admired the view briefly and headed down the other side. The rear of the group was not composed of the stragglers, but rather of the stronger hikers. They were acting, as is proper for a stay-together-group of hikers, as sweepers, making sure that the group doesn't get strung out. While not being particularly fond of limiting myself in the outdoors, it is a sensible strategy for hiking with others when ability levels are not close together: Hike at the pace of the slowest hiker. In the high winds of the pass, the people at the rear, actual officers in the British military, had not heard my approach and I startled them somewhat when I said hello. They were, as with the first group, out on a trek after completing their joint exercises at Fort Lewis. I slipped in between the officers and their juniors while we talked of various and sundry issues. The most interesting, however, topic was the US military. Joint exercises meant the Brits came here for a while, and later the US soldiers went to England. I wanted to know where the US soldiers went for their own trek. Scotland holds plenty of difficult terrain and bastard tough mountains, places that it would seem very natural for the US to send its troops for a holiday cum training mission. The captain told me that the US soldiers simply went home after the joint exercises. I was incredulous and asked why this was allowed to happen. He asserted that the US military risk assessment office had deemed going for a trek in England to be too dangerous for the soldiers to engage in. They might get sued, after all, if someone sprained an ankle or fell in a gully while out hiking. With all of the recent combat deployments, I found this funny, but not in a ha-ha sort of way. It was just sad that the soldiers could be sent off to fight and die, but could not be trusted enough to go off for a little hike.

I had hiked with the soldiers at a slower than normal pace until we reached the first flat spot after the pass, with a pleasant stream flowing through it. I wanted to be alone for a while and so bid them farewell as they dropped their packs for a break. The trail continued to hug the mountain side, though at times had to fight its way through thick bush. The guidebook had mentioned something about a dangerous ford of a glacial river and I wanted to make that before cooking lunch for the day. I crossed one stream by hopping over easily, then contoured around to a second, which was easily crossed on a log. I was beginning to get a little annoyed with the guidebook, as it had indicated that I should have reached the treacherous ford by now. I crossed a third stream as easily as the other two on a sequence of rocks. There was enough sun here to dry out some of my gear from the condensation of the night before, and their was plenty of pristine water to use for cooking. The treacherous ford could wait and so I sat down for my daily hot meal, this time the last of the wonderful potatoes that I had sampled at Big Mike Urich's cabin.

I had finished lunch, licking out the pot as before, and was in the progress of rolling a cigarette when I saw George coming down the trail. In his late 50s or early 60s, George Li had hiked from Mexico to I-80, then flip flopped to Canada and was now hiking south. He wanted to know how the dangerous ford was, which surprised me somewhat as I thought it was still ahead. No, he said, it was clear from where he came. The log crossing must have been the treacherous ford. I chuckled and told him not to worry about it. We talked for a while and he mentioned having passed Will. I tried to give him some information about resupply to the south and we parted both a bit wiser. George was documenting his journey by taking many pictures on his digital camera and he snapped a photo of me, looking as lazy as possible, before continuing on to the south. As always, I sent a message for Sharon with him.

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Fully rested, I continued to amble northward, ever toward Canada, the trail dropping away from the spectacular mountains and resuming a more forest oriented aspect. Still, the land was dotted with pleasant lakes and the hiking was generally easy. I would be climbing now and then, but I didn't have a long, sustained climb for a while. My brisk pace of the morning was beginning to tell on my body in the late afternoon and I found myself taking breaks closer and closer together. Rather than two hours between breaks, I was down to an hour and forty five minutes. Then an hour. I came upon two section hikers encamped on a ridge separating several lakes, trying to heat up a can of beans without actually opening it. I wondered if they would get to eat the beans, or if it would explode atop their stove before they had the sense to open it. Maybe they didn't have an opener and were trying to blow up the can to get at some of its contents? I didn't bother to ask and instead exchanged only the usual pleasantries with them before continuing on. The sun was beginning its descent, which meant that the cold of the evening would be returning shortly.

I took a break by the outflow of Deception Lake where I could get a little more water before starting the climb up to Pieper Pass and the corresponding drop to Glacier Lake, which I thought would make for a nice ending point of the day, thirty miles from my previous campsite. I had to go to the bathroom, but could not bring myself to do so this close to the lake. As I was standing, drinking my water, and looking around to see if I could easily get far enough from the water to make everything proper, a forceful whoosh of air battered my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a grey thing disappear into the trees. I had just been dive bombed by some bird of prey, perhaps mistaking the green bandanna around my head for a tasty morsel. I was glad that the bird had realized its mistake before it drew blood, for its claws would have been rather painful. Of course, it could also have been doing to me what I had been doing to the marmots: Warning me that it was the dominant predator in the area and that I would have to recognize its position. This, I thought, was unlikely as I had heard no shrill cries before or after the whoosh of air. Silence was golden for a hunter, and this bird had made no sounds before or after.

I still had not settled on a nice bathroom when I started hiking again along the shores of Deception Lake. A myriad of use trails greeted me, as did a few small swarms of mosquitoes, and I became lost on them as I swatted at the vile insects. I knew that I was off the PCT when the trail that I had been following ran right into a couple's campsite for the night. I stopped to talk with them briefly before returning from whence I came and, with their directions, found the PCT again. My bowels were starting to tell me that I had to stop pretty soon lest some sort of accident occur, but the mosquitoes continued around me even after I left the lake. I tried to encourage my system to hold on a little longer as I was not going to drop my pants and stay still with such flocks about me. Higher I would go and hopefully the mosquitoes would stay lower down by the lake. I was climbing toward the sun over an forested valley, loving the warmth of the sun and the peace of the woods about me. Even my aching bowels didn't detract from the simple pleasure of walking, despite it being uphill. I was recovering from my bout of late afternoon tiredness and feeling strong again. Thirty minutes of climbing found me near the top and well away from the mosquitoes. I dropped my pack and got my toilet paper out of it, then scurried up ten feet from the trail on the hillside. I was within easy sight of the trail, but was confident that I was quiet alone out here. Most hikers are in camp well before now, and the only thruhiker behind me was Sharon.

And so, quiet naturally, Sharon came strolling up the trail after I had been crouched over for a minute. She stopped and laughed at the sight of me."Are you doing what I think you are doing?" she asked."Well, what do you think I am doing up here!" I replied. Rather than move off, we had a conversation for a few minutes, without embarrassment on either side. I only then realized how close we had become over the summer. There was nothing between us at this point and it was the first time that this had ever happened to me. In the course of our lives, we make friends, some closer than others, but there are almost always some barriers, some artifices. Boundaries no longer existed between Sharon and I and this was a new experience for me. I buried with leaves and rocks what I had left, put the used toilet paper in my garbage bag, and cleaned my hands off with the gelled alcohol I carried before joining Sharon on the trail.

She had been right behind me most of the last two days and now that we were together again it was unlikely that we would be far apart for the rest of the trip. We were both going into Skykomish to resupply and the length of the hitch in and out meant that we would leave from their together. I was happy with the arrangement and we finished up the climb together, cresting out just as the sun slipped behind the high mountains and the world once again exploded in a fit of artistry. The pale yellow of that heralds the start of the day also announces the ending of the day. Glacier Lake was far below us, but within reach well before the light had left the land.

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We hiked down to the lake together, with Sharon breaking off toward the end to use the bathroom herself. I found a small cove formed by a few large boulders and proclaimed it good enough for the night. I set up tarp, more out of routine now than for any storm warning and settled down to eat some cookies and write in my journal. It had been a good day and a lot had happened, but I found the words lacking. Writing in short sentences, I tried to explain to myself why the day had been so nice, so pleasant, so wonderful, but knew that I was only jotting down facts and figures and not feelings. Skykomish was only a few climbs away, some steep, but it would be there for us tomorrow afternoon. The southbounders that I had met back in Oregon at Rockpile lake had told me, and Sharon later, of a wonderful motel in town. Only $30 a night complete with homemade cinnamon rolls in the morning, they thought it was a new place and might be closed when we got there. I hoped not, but didn't trouble myself too much about it. Unlike before Snoqualmie, I was fresh and rested and felt comfortable with where I was. And, more importantly, with who I was.

The lazy feeling that I woke up with was a good thing, as right out of Glacier Lake began the stiff climb up to Trap Pass. It was not even 15 miles to Highway 2 at Stevens Pass, from which we would hitch into Skykomish, and this meant that no rushing was needed. I could make the pass by noon without trying to hard and so I walked slowly up the trail toward Trap Pass. Sharon had beaten me to the top by a good five minutes but had become trapped by the early morning view from the top. Washington was starting to spoil me, just as California had spoiled me. It seemed that at every moment there was something to gawk at or smile for. I was sweating even in the cool air of the morning, a testament to the stiffness of the climb, but felt good. Contouring downhill, the trail took us through pleasant meadows and gardens and we even came upon several tents camped by scenic Hope Lake. A section hiker was heading southbound and was just as pleased as we were. At least we were happy until he told us that the nice place to stay in Skykomish was closed and that the only other place was something of a ripoff. Sharon stopped to chat longer and I moved off for another 10 minutes before sitting on a dewy slope to watch the clouds go by. A lazy day was all I wanted for the day and even the notion of overpaying at a run down motel wasn't enough to spoil the idyllic setting.

Sharon had passed by me while I was on break, although I caught up to her briefly when she stopped for water. Rather than stopping for long, she took off right away while I decided to take yet another break and get my own water. It was casual like that, just hiking and stopping at our own paces, with out expectations or obligations. Two friends out on their own. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness that I had been hiking through since Snoqualmie finally gave out under power lines and a gravel access road. The change was quiet shocking. It had been several days since the direct hand of man could be felt and now it reared its ugly head. Towers and lines for a chairlift dotted the ridges around me, proclaiming that I was no longer in the wild. The Alpine Lakes had been good to me and I was sad to leave it, particularly for this. There were other compensations.

Alongside the trail, for as far as the eye could see, were blueberry and huckleberry bushes, their branches heavy with fruit. I picked and ate and walked, slowly to accommodate my greediness. Ahead of me was another hiker whose greed put mine to shame. He had a quart ziplock bag that he was slowly filling. He went by the name of Jimmy Wiggy and was out on a section hike with another hiker named Mr.Coffee, heading for Rainy Pass, the last viable road crossing before reaching Canada. I couldn't eat and walk slow enough and so passed Wiggy on the walk up hill toward the final ridge before Stevens Pass, Sharon was on top resting and Jimmy shortly appeared, his bag almost full. "For my mother, you know." Wiggy's family was going to meet he and Coffee and head into Leavenworth, a large town to the east of Stevens Pass. I set off in front as Sharon and Wiggy chatted and ate the juicy fruit of the trail, the highway clearly in sight. The last two miles before any town always seemed to take forever, but not today. Perhaps it was the night in Snoqualmie that did it, but the two miles to Stevens Pass rolled off at the normal rate of 40 minutes.

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Waiting at the bottom was Mr.Coffee, who I was hoping would be as interesting as Mr.Tea, someone I hadn't seen since the snow storm below Benson Pass in Yosemite, almost two months ago. Coffee was a local, in some ways, but had gone off to hike part of the Appalachian Trail at the start of the spring. He bailed off at some point due to the horrendous rainfall that the southeast had been getting for most of the summer. I had heard bits and pieces of what conditions were like back east and they hadn't sounded good. Washed out bridges (the majority of bridges are not necessary, though), washed out trails, day after day after week of rain. So, he came back west to do some local hiking, with a twist. Rather than follow the standard PCT, he was going to do an alternate route. Glacier Peak was supposed to be one of the highpoints of Washington, rivaling even the Goat Rocks, and its eastern flanks were supposed to give a fun and beautiful alternative to the western route that the PCT took. Harder and longer, too. He was the first person that I had met that had used the same pack I had, but found it too small for the load that he liked to carry, and so had switched to a more conventional pack.

Sharon and I lazed about with Wiggy and Coffee for no particular reason other than the fact that they were good talkers. They had made it to Stevens Pass early and had a long wait for Wiggy's parents. Several hikers came and went, along with a few rangers who stopped to clean out the bathroom before getting back in their truck and driving off. Wiggy had a small digital video camera and he took some footage of us for kicks before we finally got out onto the road to hitch our way in to Skykomish. The only reason for leaving was our growing hunger and the thought of town food. The hitch was an easy one. After 10 minutes and old Cutlass slowed down, driven by an ancient man. With Sharon up front and me in the rear, we sped off to town.

Our benefactor was retired and lived east of the Cascades, but owned property to the west and was out to check on it and pick some berries. The wind was blasting through the rear windows, cutting me off from my obligation of conversing with the driver and so the entire task of telling entertaining stories fell to Sharon. I occasionally heard the words "Trail" and "Asiscs", but could not make out what they were talking about. Instead of trying further, I looked out the window to watch the world go by a sixty miles and hour, rather than three.

Our ride dropped us off at the bridge over the Skykomish river and wished us luck on the rest of our hike. We hesitated for a moment about what to do first: Meal or shower? Almost always a shower is best to do first, as no restaurant proprietor (nor customer) wants to deal with filthy, stinking hikers. But we were so hungry and the restaurant was so close. Hoping that the main lunch rush would be over by now, we went to the restaurant, dropping our packs outside, and entered into the perfumed, air conditioned establishment. Our guess about the lunch rush was wrong and the place had only a single table left for us. We ordered our own separate mountains of food and worked over our sodas, hoping that they might fill our stomachs somehow. As in any small restaurant, if you don't get your order in before the rush, it takes a while to come out. Forty five minutes was our wait, but when the food came, it really came. The bacon double cheeseburger, with swiss and mushrooms, rivaled, but could not quiet reach, the Jose Burger from way back near Idyllwild. The french fries were coated with a fine seasoning and still scorchingly hot from the oil that they had just come out of. The waitress returned five minutes after she brought us the food to haul away our empty plates, liked clean of crumbs and garnishes.

We retrieved our packs and walked back toward the river, splitting up to see what sort of resupply options there were. I walked into one convenience store and found candy bars and cheap ice cream. Not quite enough to get me to Stehekin. Sharon had better luck and the gas station, however. I left to find out about a motel room while she went to the PO to get some stuff. I found the fabled motel and knocked for five minutes, but it was indeed closed. So, I tried the only other place in town. Sure, we have a room. Only $75. I asked if they had a hiker rate and was told that this was the high season for them, which meant no. The room was reasonable, but definitely the kind of place that would usually cost $30. At least they would do our laundry for us. For $3, that is.

I found Sharon at the PO and retrieved my bounce box for the last time this summer. I found a bit of shade around on the side of the PO and sat down to sort out the contents for the last time. Everything was being done for the last time, I sighed. The last town. The last motel. Stehekin was ahead, but was not quite what one might call a town. Hamlet, perhaps.

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I sorted and packed, fished out and stuffed, and found that an hour had gone by in the shade, leaning against the PO wall. This was one of the joys of thruhiking: When you do nothing, you really do nothing. No schedule to keep, nothing to fixate on other than your next meal. The PO closed at 3:30, an hour earlier than most, and so we eventually had to mail out our bounce boxes, mine heading to Chicago, Sharon's to Racine. The only thing left was a stop at the store to resupply. The gas station provided plenty of food to fuel me for the next one hundred miles of hiking, and there were even a few treats to eat down before dinner time arrived. I pondered how long the hot dogs in the revolving tray had been there (Skykomish doesn't get many visitors), remembered Apu, and settled on an apple fritter and a 48 oz. Doctor Pepper. Lazy and happy, just like Tom and Huck might have been.

The afternoon faded into early evening without our noticing it. Clean and fresh smelling once again, our laundry tumbling, and our motel room looking beat, we had nothing to do, nowhere to go. No ridges to climb or tourists to entertain. I made a momentous decision. I was not going to eat dinner proper. Instead, I would have junk food and beer. Sharon thought this a risky proposition, but I was determined to see this course through to the end. In the cool air of early evening, I made my way back over to the store pastries and a six pack of Sierra Nevada that had been calling to me on my first trip there. I left with an additional box of donuts. And a pint of ice cream. An a 32 oz. Squirt. At some point, I returned to the motel room and Sharon left for dinner. It wasn't clear when or how, but the events happened anyway. Time was coming unglued for me in Skykomish, and this was exactly how I wanted it. I tried stitching up my hipbelt and managed to reinforce it somewhat. The tear on the back panel was beyond my fumbling hands, however. Sharon was back, although I could not say how long she had been here. An HBO documentary came on about the NYC branch of the Latin Kings, a Chicago street gang, and this proved comical watching. NYC Latin Kings and Queens Nation, as they seemed to like to be called, had made themselves out as a social reform group rather than a band of thugs. None of the members could go more than ten seconds without saying "A monterey!", sort of general blessing, greeting, apology, welcome, exclamation, and parting. A phrase for all times. The documentary ended with the leader going to jail on a narcotics charge and the lawyer who represented him, a famous civil rights attorney, ended with questioning why he believed the leader in the first place. My beer was done. My lazy day over.