Washington: Snoqualmie Pass to Skykomish
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.