Washington: Skykomish to Stehekin
August 15, 2003.
How joyful these days are, how filled with contentment and happiness and the stuff
that makes life so worth living. When you can awake, with the sun shining and the
everything in its place, the world is easy to deal with, easy to live in. The Buddhist
notion that Life Is Suffering seems so remote and unthinkable that one has to wonder
why it had persisted for so long. I could intellectually understand how it applied to some people,
some lives, but my heart could not grasp how it applied to me. More and more I was
encountering the question of Why? Why are you doing this thing? What are you getting
out of it. I knew the answer, but the words were difficult to form, the ideas
beyond my ability to explain my answer to those people who asked the question.
I showered again for the gluttony of the experience rather from any dirt that had accumulated
on me since my last. In the ten minutes of showering, Sharon had managed to stitch the back
panel of my pack together with a scrap of nylon she happened to have in her repair kit and
the resulting patch looked strong and ready for the last push north. In a week I would be
in Canada, not even two hundred miles distant. But first there was packing to do
and breakfast at the restaurant and then the hitch. There wasn't a great rush today as it
was 100 miles to Stehekin, a distance we couldn't make given our late start today. It
would take today, two solid days of hiking around Glacier Peak, and a morning to get to the
little town cut off from the world. I had been interested in Stehekin for many months,
and not because it was the last outpost before Canada. Rather, it was because of its
location. Stehekin was not connected to the outside world by anything normally called a road.
The only realistic way in was on foot, in a float plane, or by boat. For Stehekin sat in the
woods around Lake Chelan and was one of the few places I had heard of, outside of Alaska,
that was so cut off. I didn't expect to find it operating under wind power and filled with
Luddites, but I thought it might prove fun and was looking forward to it.
We checked out of the motel and dropped our packs outside of the restaurant before
being handed menus and cups of coffee. I didn't have to think terribly long, having memorized
the diner's breakfast offerings the afternoon before. The place wasn't busy, which meant that
my omelet, hashbrowns, toast, and short stack came out quickly and professionally done. It
seemed that there was some sort of philanthropic group of chefs who had conspired to
place their members along the PCT to provide for hikers. Nearly every town had a place
that could cook omelets properly: The alluring and paradoxical combination of lightness, density
of texture, depth of flavor. Ingredients were added at just the right time and with just
the right technique to insure their incorporation into the whole, yet without watering down
the eggs. The toast had been made with bread that you cannot buy anywhere: You have to make it,
or have some one down the street make it for you.
Even the smallest of towns seemed to have the star chef. The places
rolled out of my head like some sort of honor roll: The Red Kettle in Idyllwild,
Thelmas in Big Bear City, The Roadhouse in Agua Dulce, My Man Roy in VVR,
The Tuolumne Grill in Yosemite,
Caesar's in South Lake Tahoe, The Coyote Grill in Old Station,
The Dunsmuir Bed and Breakfast, the nameless place in Ashland. And now Skykomish was
added. The capstone would be in Stehekin, where there were rumors of a bakery that
made pastries of heavenly proportions and quality. It would have to wait, though,
for my breakfast was demanding attention.
It was a little after ten when we finished feeding, paid, and walked out to the highway
to get a lift back up to Stevens Pass. We were hoping to run into one Don Johnson at the
pass. Don had been leaving notes as far south as Oregon that he would be at Stevens Pass
camped with his RV, making pancakes for hikers and generally helping out. Repaying a
debt, he had said. He wanted to meet every thruhiker coming through to make a photo record
of the class of 2003, but had already missed two of them, Wall and Will. Wall had been done
for two weeks now and today would probably be Will's last full day on the trail. Don was
supposed to get to the pass today and I secretly hoped for a second breakfast. Hitching is
something of a combination of tactics, art, and luck. We stood by the road at the end of a
long gravel shoulder, giving potential rides plenty of room to see us and pull over safely.
Our packs were out and in plain sight to convince them that we were nothing more sinister
than hikers. To help, I folded my bandanna until the "Hiker to Trail" letters were
exposed to the passing cars. Stand up straight, smile a lot, and make eye contact.
Exude friendliness and a spirit of safety. Now, it was up to Providence or luck.
It took forty minutes, but a minivan eventually pulled over and asked us where we were
heading. The driver was a doctor at a hospital system for the area and was driving around
taking inventory and doing gear demonstrations for some of the smaller places. He
was heading straight to the pass and was happy to give us a lift. As it turned out,
he worked in neo-natal emergency care, the same field that Sharon did which gave them
something to talk about while I sat in the back seat of the mini van and admired the
land as it went by. I jumped in on bits and pieces of the conversation, but mostly
loved the sight of moving up hill, fifteen miles, without a picayune of effort on my
part. The driver dropped us off at the pass and sped on to Leavenworth, a bit
richer in dharma for almost no effort at all on his part.
There were no RVs at the pass and Don Johnson would miss two more thruhikers in his
photo record. Finding the trail on the other side of Highway 2 was a bit challenging, as
many use trails and gravel access roads left from it, but Sharon and I finally found the
right combination and set off, each of us on our own and at our own pace. I was
quickly alone as Sharon got out in front. I stopped to rest near a spring and
felt alone in the woods again. My solitude was running out as surely as the
trail was running out. Canada was close, and that would be the end of it, the
end of my beautiful thing. Gaining elevation, I tried to make a mental list of all the
people that I had met that had made an impression of me. This led, quite naturally, to
trying to make a list of every place that I had slept during the summer, and a
remarkable characteristic of each one. Where was my last break before entering
each town? Lost in thought of the past, I barely noticed when I crested out and
passed Sharon taking a break of her own. I dropped to a lake, sat down, and she
went by me once again on her way to the top of the ridge above the lake. We had been
warned by some section hikers in Skykomish that it was easy to get lost here and go
far off trail. I couldn't tell where they had gotten lost, as I found my way away
from the lake and over the ridge without issue. They were coming from the north, however,
which made everything look different, though.
The world on top of the ridge opened up once again and the north Cascades sprung up in
all their regal glory. Snow capped and jagged, the Cascades were brutes of mountains.
Hulking, oppressed, and mysterious mountains. The contrast with the Sierra Nevada or the
Klammath, or even the southerly Cascades, was stark. The Sierra were light, airy,
and powerful the way that a middleweight boxer is powerful. The north Cascades were
more like a bruising heavyweight. The trail was generally open and through meadows or
fields, or contoured around open slopes, providing constant views to the north and
the goal for the next two days: Glacier Peak. We would be in its namesake wilderness
until almost reaching Stehekin and the place promised as much as the Alpine Lakes had.
Before reaching it, however, we would first have to hike through the Henry M. Jackson
Wilderness, about whom I knew nothing. Perhaps he was like El O, or maybe the naming
was more akin to Kissinger getting the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in Vietnam.
Whoever Jackson was, he got a beautiful tract of land named after him.
Glacier Peak is a massive mountain in the same way that Shasta and Rainer are massive.
Its flanks and ridges sprawl outward, glaciers dotting its haunches, everything
rising to a pinnacle of rock. One could climb this mountain from just about any
direction, but it would be tough. This was not a toy mountain like Lassen or even
Shasta. It was the real deal with real mountain hazards, like crevasses and
bergshrunds, rockfall and avalanche. It was spectacular in the sun.
Topping out on Grizzly Peak, up which the PCT had been climbing for a while,
I found Sharon, Mr. Coffee, and Jimmy Wiggy relaxing in the waving grass,
smelling flowers, and eating blueberries.
It was such an idyllic spot, but I did not want to take a break. The world was so good, I
just wanted to keep going and going, despite the qualities of their chosen spot. And so I
compromised and stood and talked, and did not much at all for the better part of twenty
minutes. Wiggy and Coffee were excited about their eastern traverse and the excitement
was spilling out in happiness. It was hard not to happy in a place like this, under a
blue sky and with mild temperatures. The whole of the north Cascades everywhere the eye
could see and alpine flowers at your feet. I finally managed to say goodbye to Wiggy and
Coffee for the last time and set out north, desiring only space and the time to move through
it. I wanted more of both, but both were running out. Now I had the best of America all about
me and was in something of a state of grace.
In two weeks, I would have my job and my stuff and be woken by an alarm clock every morning.
The blue skies were not to last, however. Shortly after leaving the three on Grizzly Peak, a
wind picked up and clouds started moving in. Low, ominous clouds that were heralding the
coming of a weather system that could hang about for a long time. Long enough, anyways,
for me to out walk Glacier Peak. I had been fortunate almost all summer long with weather
and only the day around Adams had been spoiled by weather. Now, Glacier Peak was
threatened. However, unlike Adams, one does not out walk Glacier Peak in a matter of
hours. It would take the rest of today, all of tomorrow, and most of the next day to
get out of reach of the peak. I had a chance and hoped for the best. Mist descended and
blanketed the land in the grip of despair. I started losing elevation on switchbacks
through a forest, no longer sure of where I was or where I was going. I was on the PCT
for sure, but the destination or my present location were unknown. The thick mist
obscured the sun and that meant that I had less light in which to hike, and no stars for
companions once I did. Moreover, it was getting cold and I was forced to put on my
rain jacket for warmth while going down hill. The rain was holding off, but the air
was saturated; the water droplets on my thick beard testified to the fact. I could hear
Sharon on the trail above me as I reached a saddle and called a halt for myself for the
night. It was sheltered in the trees and flat. An aesthetic view would not matter tonight,
as visibility as less than ten feet. I had covered only 23 miles from Skykomish, but it
was enough for today. I had most of my tarp set up when Sharon came by in the dark light
and I whistled for her to let her know where I was. I was only twenty feet off the trail,
but I would be hard to spot, even with my orange jacket on. She was carrying sticks to use for
supports on her own tarp and called it a day as well. The cold and the mist intensified and
occasionally a little rain dropped out of the air. I was happy to get inside of my
sleeping bag and under the shelter of my tarp, out of the wind and mildly warm. And
It has finally happened. For the first time on the PCT, on this the one hundredth
day and after almost 2500 miles of hiking, I awoke on trail not wanting to hike.
My stomach was a bit upset at something that I ate yesterday and the land was
shrouded in a cold, wet mist that moved around occasionally under a chill wind.
I didn't feel ill so much as just not motivated to eat anything and I have no
explanation for this. I sat in my sleeping bag doing nothing more than forcing down
a little breakfast and thinking about how nice it would be when I could get back into
my bag. I wanted Fire Creek, thirty miles distant, but more than that I wanted a
clear day in this magnificent land. Sharon was rustling about, making something hot to
drink before heading out. I had to hike, and so I mechanically packed up my gear and
started moving, complete with thermals and my rain jacket. I mentioned my
desires to Sharon, who was thinking exactly the same thing: Wish for good weather,
but would settle for getting to Fire Creek early and back into our bags.
I would love to write about the glories of Red Pass and the Glacier Peak wilderness, but
I cannot. There was nothing to be seen past twenty feet from my person. Like the
day around Mount Adams, I knew that the land would normally have given me much hope
and inspiration, but for now all I could think about was getting to Fire Creek and
crawling back into my sleeping bag. Being a Saturday there were a few backpackers out
on weekend trips, including one interesting man that Sharon and I met on top of Red
Pass, where we could see the world start its plunge away from us, where the PCT was
supposed to be at its best. Instead, we found a man cloaked in mist, quiet wet from
the spitting rain and thick mist, sitting by the side of the trail. Rather than greet
him with the standard stuff, I instead immediately prodded him for the answer to
some obscure question that Sharon and I had been arguing about. I don't recall the
point of contention, but it was something equivalent to the argument that Will and I
had had back in the Sierra about the effect of altitude on cook times and boiling.
The man thought the point a rather funny one and it was several minutes before we
came around to actually introducing ourselves. He was headed straight up the
mountain on a bushwhack, hoping beyond reason that the weather might clear sometime
today. I thought this a grand plan and wished him well on his novel trip. His climb would
be all the easier, though, in the bad weather. The low visibility would ensure that he
would not see the top, and hence would not see false summits, until he was almost
standing on the high point. Sharon and I left him in good spirits despite the depressing
weather and pushed on in our drive for Fire Creek.
With my stomach still telling me to keep the food to a minimum, I had decided not to
cook a lunch during the afternoon, although I wouldn't have even had my stomach its
voracious, normal self: The weather just wasn't conducive to laying about and my
sleeping bag was calling me. However, after dropping down into a valley by a
large creek system, the temperature increased slightly and we were sheltered from
the wind. I needed calories and a something warm inside me, despite the protests of
my stomach, and so Sharon and I flopped down in the driest looking spot to cook
lunch. I was having the couscous that the section hiking family at White Pass had
given me and was looking forward to another of their wonderful creations. Two
section hikers came by and stopped to chat briefly before moving on. Both were
young males and were hiking from Skykomish to Stehekin, completing their next to
last section of the Washington PCT. They, too, wanted to make Fire Creek tonight although
didn't think they would make it given the weather. As every Appalachian Trail
hiker knows, bad weather has a way of shortening days considerably. However, unlike
the AT, the PCT does not have shelters that are so easy to hide from the elements in.
I was going to Fire Creek, confident that I could make it by 7 if I worked at it.
The trail had already thrown a lot of elevation gain and loss my way, and their
was a massive climb out of Kennedy Creek coming up, but by now large gains were
common place and nothing to be worried about.
The couscous proved excellent and even made my stomach feel much better. My body warmed,
I set off after the section hikers, leaving Sharon at the creek to finish her own lunch.
Following the creek on its descent, I passed a turn off for a newly built trail.
It was not open to the public, yet, but this would eventually be a re-route for the
PCT, although I was unsure what it was trying to get around. The PCT just dropped,
via switchbacks, down, down, down, to the raging Kennedy Creek. Then I knew what the
re-route was supposed to accomplish: Kennedy Creek was a big, fast, glacial river
without a bridge, and without a rock hop. The milky grey water was moving hard, the
way clogged with entirely and partially submerged rocks, though none placed in
such a way to allow for a dry crossing. I had passed the section hikers just before
the creek and they now joined me in staring for a dry crossing. It wasn't so much a matter
of keeping dry feet, but rather safety. I had no way of knowing how deep the river
was, or even where a safe place to cross might be. We started scouting the river for
rock hops, first down stream, and then back up. There was nothing within 1/4 mile in
either direction, although there were a couple of possibilities. In one place a narrow
tree had fallen across part of the river. One could rock hop out to it and then try to
tightrope it across, something I was loathe to do given the seriousness of a fall from it
and the fact that the log was wet. There was another place where one might be able to
rock hop part of the way out, ford a fast, gushing rockless area, then get back up on rock,
cross a little ways, then ford the last part. I focused on this, trying to evaluate the
danger of the first ford, while the section hikers headed up further upstream hoping to
find something else. The gap in the rock hop was a serious one. The water was moving
exceptionally fast here as it was focused through a more narrow opening and there was
even a drop off. I couldn't see what the river bed looked like and that worried me.
Having long ago learned to rely equally on instinct and logic, I dismissed the
rock hop-ford-rock hop-ford crossing to look more carefully at the narrow log.
This, too, didn't look appealing. I crossed on rock out to where the log began
to get a better appraisal. The log should be able to support my weight, assuming it
wasn't rotten inside (it looked okay from without). The problem was in the narrowness
of the crossing: It was about as wide as my foot was! A good twenty feet would have to
be balanced, although there was a boulder mid way across which would provide a
little insurance. Looking down at the grey, fast river, I pondered the consequences of a
bad fall off the log and into the river. I was frozen and looked up stream for the section
hikers, hoping they had found something. They were stumped and were staring back
down at me. The log was the best option.
Screwing up my courage and trying to calm myself, I quietly whispered some words of
assurance to myself and put my feet on the log. I made a few steps out onto the log,
moving slow enough to stay in complete control. And then I started to lose my
balance. My weight shifted in one way, then to the other, then I was wobbly.
I fought for control, wheeled, and lept back onto the rock. Okay, try again,
don't panic, this is just a damn log. Keep it under control for ten feet to the
next rock where you can get a hand hold and stabilize again. I looked back up at the
section hikers and found them staring at me. One step, another, and then a third and
I was almost to the rock. Shuffle, keep balance, don't panic, don't lose control.
I reached out for the rock for stability, shuffling my feet under me. Now that I
was half way out, there was no turning back. Cool as a cucumber, something my
friend Mike Bennett had told me when I went into the mountains for the
first time, cool as a cucumber. That is all I have to be. I let go of the rock
and calmly crossed the last ten feed to the other side of the river. I turned to
look at the section hikers and threw up my arms in a sign of success. They seemed to
be in conference.
I walked back down stream to where the PCT picked up again and found a boulder on which
to wait for Sharon. I was not going to leave until I saw her safely across.
I didn't have to wait long and ten minutes found her staring at me, staring at her,
on the safe side of the river. The roar of the water made verbal communication
impossible and so I simply pointed up stream to the log. She looked, turned pale, and
nodded. Sharon hated river crossings, but seeing me on the other side helped: If I
had done it, so could she. She thought to get a branch to help with stability, but the
log was too high above the river and the river too fast to make this practical. And so
she scurried across, slowly, but smoothly, reaching the other side. My arms went up
again, dropping my hands parallel to the ground, and I hopped around in my favorite imitation
of an ape, complete with grunting, as some sort of victory dance for us both.
The section hikers were still in conference when we left the river to start the long climb
up. Sharon quickly left me behind on the climb and it was not for another ninety
minutes that I finally came upon her hidden in the mist near the top, standing next to
an idyllic creek with alpine flowers scattered throughout. This creek was a simple
step across and, if it wasn't for the weather, would have made a most excellent place
to camp. As the weather was still on the poor side, I was not going to camp here. Might
as well walk on in the cold. I had shed my thermals, but not yet my rain jacket and
the temperature was dropping now that we were gaining elevation. On the way up to the
creek, however, we had passed two climbers who had failed a summit attempt of Glacier Peak.
They gave us the first good news of the day: Up high on Glacier Peak, it was clear.
That meant that there was only a thin layer of clouds and mist left. The sun might
be able to burn it up given time, and I began to hope once more, rather than just lust
after my sleeping bag.
Leaving the creek after a short break, signs and portents began to appear. A small bright
spot in the clouds indicated that the sun was not far off, the first evidence that
we had seen of this phenomenon so far today. A little gap opened, just for a moment,
showing a blue sky beyond. The bulk of the climb was behind us and trying to read the
weather gave me something to focus on, something to ponder. A larger gap opened briefly,
before being shut down by the clouds. A third. The strength of the clouds and mist was
being shattered by the power of the sun, and my voice rang out through the woods in a
song of cheer, urging the sun on. And then, like a building undergoing a demolition by
explosives, the entire facade of the mist broken and shattered. Almost all at once the
system broke into pieces and the sky shown blue in a large patchwork of clarity.
Parts of Glacier Peak became visible and I was surprised at how close we really were.
Although a big mountain, it had still looked far off when I had last sighted it
from the top of Grizzly Peak. I had covered more than thirty miles and was now on the
other side of it, though just barely. A little sun fell on my face as I broke through the
trees and started climbing up the flanks of a grass and flowered coated mountain,
waving a sign of thanksgiving to Sharon above me.
The trail led up to a ridge and then down the other side. On the other side was
the descent to Fire Creek, less than twenty minutes away. With the sun and
reasonable weather for the first time, I was going nowhere without a proper
break, rather than one huddled in the cold and the mist. Sharon, incredulous that
I would stop to take a break so close to camp, continued on down the ridge while I
sat down on the trail to look at Glacier Peak. Yes, indeed, a bad mountain. The
sun was out and drying off the land. As everything was coated in a light dusting of
water, the land shown forth, each flower or plant acting as a beacon for my eye,
demanding attention. There is something about a wet land being dried out by the sun that
seems so peaceful and tranquil. No, I was going nowhere for a while.
It was an hour later when I was scooping water out of Fire Creek, looking around for
campsites under the pleasant sun. My sole desire for the day, getting back into my
sleeping bag, had been driven away with the clouds and the mist. There was a residue of
it still, but the drive for it was gone. I had spotted a blue tent by the creek on my
way down from the ridge, nestled in a sea of fireweed and purple lupine, and nearby I
found Sharon, setting up her tarp. She had been there for a while, but had spent time looking
for the driest, best drained campsite and hunting for sticks to use as supports for
her tarp. She had met the occupant of the blue tent but didn't comment much on
him, other than saying that he was tired and was from somewhere in New York.
When her back was turned, I promptly stole and hid one of her sticks and got down to the
business of setting up my own tarp. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her
looking for the stick that she needed, thinking about where she put it last.
Behind this tree? What about over by that shrub? Surely not back on the trail?
With my own tarp now set up, I picked up her stick, sitting in the tall grass next to
me, and tried to put it next to her still down tarp. Unfortunately, she turned around
at just the wrong moment and my game was spoiled.
I was quickly into my sleeping bag, eating all that I could, for now my stomach was
back to normal. Tomorrow had a tremendous amount of elevation gain, beginning right off
with a climb of more than 1000 feet up to Fire Creek Pass. Then, plunge down to the
Milk River, cross it, and climb 2200 feet up to the next pass. Then, down to the
Suiattle River, cross it, and up 3100 feet to yet another pass. And those were just
the long climbs. Adding up the smaller climbs and bumps in the trail that were
omnipresent would result in another 2000 feet, or so, of elevation gain. I needed
the calories now to keep warm at night, but also to prepare myself for tomorrow.
Tomorrow, judging from the grandeur of the land when the weather cleared, should
be tremendous right from the start. Of course, the bottom land walking would get
annoying, but there was so much to look forward to that I hardly gave it any thought.
The weather looked good as the sun went down, casting its friendly light
about the basin in which we were camped. One hundred days down, and 2524.4 miles
hiked. How perfect this all was.
A day that dawns bright and clear, with tinges of purple and orange, fire and
shine, is the best of heralds, particularly when the previous morning had been fog and
mist and wind. Fire Creek pass was above, a thousand feet above, and had to be climbed
before anything else could happen. With each step, my body loosened from the
stiffness of the night and found its rhythm for the day. The mountains began to peak over
the ridges around me, showing their snowy tops and hanging glaciers, glinting in the
sun and promising future adventures and places to go. Everywhere out here is a little
adventure, every place somewhere worthwhile. Exertion does not matter when life
is this good.
Sharon had arrived on top of the pass a few minutes before I crested out and I saw her
scrambling up a side hill for a slightly better view than could be had from the pass.
My camera batteries were barely functional and I had to take them out and warm them
in my hands in order to snap the requisite pictures. I didn't particularly care,
at this point, whether or not my pictures would come out. I would remember everything
from this place, from every place, and the photographs would serve only to
confuse and disappoint me. After holding on to the batteries for a few minutes,
my camera fired up and I was able to take one or two photos. The rest of the morning
sat at my feet: Down, down, down, all the way to treeline and the Milk River. Then,
climb up 2500 feet on the other side to another plateau. Although I could not see it
from here, there was then another long drop to the Suiattle River, followed by a
long climb on the other side. That, however, was a strictly after-lunch affair and of
no concern for me right now. The only thing that mattered at this point was that I
was here and had time. Time that was my own, to be spent as I saw fit. For now,
I wanted to find out what the land below me held.
I left Sharon, still on the hill, and began wandered down the trail, with complete
exposure in front of me and no silly trees to block the light from my eyes.
Of course, I thought, this would be a really terrible place to be during a
storm. Dropping low, I passed one wonderful lake after another, each with a
few tents clustered around it. Mica Lake held a group of eight young, college
age women who, judging from their bathroom visits, heard neither my approach nor
traverse above their camp, and saw me only as I left the area, waving to them as
I went. Llama packers had a camp close to a small stream.
Two college men were camped by yet another lake. I was glad to see the people out,
enjoying this land. It is hard to log or mine or drill a land that is so loved,
even if the price is crowding. There will always be space to get away from others,
if so desired.
A thousand feet down. Two thousand. Time for a snack and the first instance of morning
laziness, brought on by a little patch of sunshine peeking through the dense
trees. Pack arranged, food in hand, there was nothing else to do but put up my feet
and do nothing at all. Sharon came down the trail a few minutes later and curled up
next to me, sharing my pack for back rest. Nothing was said for ten minutes, as
we both did nothing, but together. I grunted that I was moving on. Sharon
stayed where she was. I slowly extracted my pack from her and she slumped over on
her side, now laying on the trail directly in a broken mass. This struck me as rather
funny, and I left her with a little laugh, on my way to the Milk, which I could hear,
but not yet see, directly below me.
My sojourn in the forest was brief, as from the Milk River the trail began climbing
once more, although gently. The PCT in Washington was repeating itself: Lots of long climbs,
but all well graded, and stunning views at the top and cruel rivers at the bottoms, with
plenty of trees in the middle. The day was warming nicely and the sweat flowed freely from
my body, particularly since I was still wearing my thermals and rain jacket, having
been too lazy to remove them at the last break. Emerging from the trees, several
thousand feet above the Milk, I came in the open once more, with Vista Ridge still
above me, but no longer in the forest. Glacier Peak, that beast of a mountain,
was still hanging out behind my shoulder, as if taunting me to try to get to its
top, to stand on and above it. I hurled a rock at a marmot, sending it squealing away.
I couldn't frighten the mountain, indeed it didn't even recognize my existence,
but the marmot was a different story, a different kind of beast.
Pushing up toward Vista Ridge, I could see a speck in the distance, moving slowly
along the trail. Will was probably finishing his hike today and their were no other
thruhikers on the trail. Perhaps a section hiker? Too far out for a day hiker.
I looked for tracks and found a few prints that looked like Coach's. Asics
Eagle Trail shoes leave a very distinctive pattern in the dirt and dust. Very
few hikers used these shoes, but it couldn't be Coach in the distance. Still, I
let my mind wander through the possibilities, trying to find some explanation for
how he could have jumped past Sharon and I without our knowing about it. The sunny
grass and alpine flowers distracted me, as did the gravity of Glacier, and I
chose instead to lay about, rather than resolving the mystery of the hiker.
I selected a rather fragrant patch of small red flowers, with plenty of sun, and
lazed for a while, occasionally watching the hiker slowly traverse around the flanks of Glacier
Peak. I was able to spare some precious time to look off to the horizon and think about
the future. There is something about being able to see forever to the horizon, to the
edge of the earth, that brings about hope in me. The world seems so endless, perhaps.
Sharon walked by, twenty feet from me, lost in something of a daze herself. It
was good that no one else was around, as they might have taken our respective
states for something bordering on sorrow or emptiness. Quite the opposite was
true, however. Life was so full that small things, like a normal expression or
behavior, became meaningless and useless in comparison. Like the old man
who I ran into shortly before reaching Chinook Pass, those on the outside would
see me and think that I was having the worst time of my life. They could not understand
without, well, doing.
My curiosity eventually overcame my inclination toward laziness and I once more shouldered
my pack and set out to find out who the other hiker was. Sharon was gathering some water
off the numerous snow melt streams as I went by, grunting. Our communication had become
perfect over the last few days. When one of us had something to say, we said it.
Important things were expounded upon, while the unimportant ones (such as "Good morning")
had reverted to grunts or nods or a grin. There was no reason for idle chit-chat and
long pauses in conversation seemed as natural as asking about the weather. I lengthened
my stride as the trail turned down hill, taking a long, curvy, gentle path down toward
the Suiattle. I glimpsed the other hiker occasionally. He must have taken a break
shortly after I had. Good man.
I stalked Ed silently, quietly, and it was with a little surprise in his face when he
saw me as he turned one of the innumerable switchbacks in the flank of Vista Ridge.
Ed was not Coach and the mystery was gone. So, I only said hello before loping past him
on my way to a lunch date with the Suiattle River. Dropping lower and lower into the woods,
I began to feel, as I almost always did, a little hatred for the topography of the land.
Hatred, perhaps, is too strong of a word. After all, it was the topography, or
parts of it, rather, than I did enjoy out here. But, dropping down meant the
forest and a long climb up the other side. Of course, I was guaranteed of something good
once I got up, but here, now, on the way down, I wished the trail was flat and high.
Perhaps if the weather wasn't so good I could look forward to the shelter of the trees.
Bottoming out I decided to take a short break, despite being less than thirty minutes from the
river. Sharon promptly passed me as I sat by the side of the trail, quite used to my
laziness at this point in the summer. To surprise her, I jumped up, shouldered my pack
and raced after her. Sensing, perhaps, some challenge, she sped up and I slowed down,
realizing that I couldn't keep up with her today.
The Suiattle River is spanned by a large, sturdy bridge. This is a good thing as a
ford would have been on the dangerous side of stupidity. A pure glacial river in
origin, down here it was wide, fast, and brown like the earth. I walked across and found
Sharon on the other side with her gear strewn about in the sun, drying off the evening's
condensation. I picked up some silty water from a side stream and started my water
boiling before attending to the normal afternoon tasks, like scrubbing out socks,
drying gear, and getting in time for laying about. Ed arrived and sat down for a
chat. A writer from Manhattan, he was out hiking the Washington section of the PCT.
Wit, true wit, is a somewhat rare commodity in this world, and Ed had it in dry spades.
He pushed on, hoping to make it to the top of Suiattle Pass, some 3,500 feet above,
before stopping for the night. An old man and two Africans walked up, looking
tired. The old man had organized the hike, but had miscounted mileage. Today they
had twelve miles to hike, rather than than seven he had planned on. They were
getting tired, but thought they might be able to make it up to a flat about half way up
the pass where there was a creek and camping. I wished them well, knowing that in
thirty minutes I would leave my lunch spot and catch them twenty minutes after resuming
Sharon had passed me, uphill, not long after I left the banks of the Suiattle, although
I found her with the old man and one of the Africans at a seep, collecting some water.
She was moving before I started to collect some water for the rest of the walk up hill.
The elder of the Africans had set out ahead, leaving the old man and the young kid to
find their own way up. The reiterated how tired they were and I again wished them
luck, warning them not to hiking very hard, as they were only a few miles from the flat
and it was still mid-afternoon. Long switchbacks, gently graded, make for the most
boring walking imaginable. There is nothing to do but to go upward, ever upward,
into rising hope that something good is above. I found the other African tromping through the
bush, probably coming out of a bathroom break. He wanted to know how far back the
others were, a question hard to answer, but I estimated a couple of hours. He seemed a bit
shocked, but I didn't stay around any longer, preferring to find another stream and take a
Ninety minutes later, I was nearing the pass and had run into several other groups of
hikers. Boy Scouts, out on the land. A father and two sons, pondering where to camp now
that they were high on the mountainside and without a water source. The trees were falling
away with the land and somewhere close by was the pass. Hard to spot from below, the
exact top of a pass is a wonderful thing to reach, and it was with celebration in
my voice that I whooped out loud, thinking of Will and his howls of arrival at the various
passes in the Sierra. I thought for Will for a while, wondering if he was in Canada tonight
and how his trip had gone. I thought of Glory for the first time in several weeks and hoped
that she was enjoying her hike. It was cold at the pass and I did not linger, though I
did stop briefly to admire the land. On the other side I could spot Ed and Sharon
making their way down the switchbacks into an impressive bowl of land. Tufts of trees
dotted the glacial bowl, with much rock and river. Blowing a kiss back to the
Suiattle, I dropped down the other side with long strides, knowing that my light
was fading fast.
Ed pulled off and camped early as Sharon and I pushed on. There was a bus into
Stehekin at noon and I wanted to make it. That meant getting to within fifteen
miles or so. Otherwise, I'd have to wait until 3 pm for the next one. We rolled
up and down hill to the sound, or, better, screech, of the resident marmots and
pikas. One silver backed family was perched on a boulder pile forty feet off the
trail,nearly invisible against the grey rock. The pink light gave them away,
as did their incessant howling. I threw a rock and a curse. The curse was, as
always, unheard, and the rock clattered off a boulder twenty feet from the marmots.
Howls of terror were piped from their little mouths and the family went scurrying
in every direction, bringing forth peals of laughter from Sharon and myself. There was
something in the way that they all dodged in different directions from an unpresent
threat that seemed so comical. We were still laughing when we reached a sign that pointed
into the bush for a campsite. The guidebook indicated that there was another, better
one, just one hundred yards up. Thirty minutes later, we had arrived at a small meadow
next to a creek, the first good camping that existed since the first sign post.
I uttered an oath and hoped that perhaps it might rain on Schaeffer tonight, although the
author of the guidebook could hardly be held accountable for a sign post being
taken down or a campsite being closed.
I put my tarp up in hopes of keeping condensation off of me tonight, although Sharon
just threw out. We were fifteen miles from the final stop of the summer. Everything
was becoming final. Tomorrow we would enter our last (out of seven) national park.
Was I ready to be done with the trail? I wasn't sure, one way or the other.
The only thing that I was sure of was that I did not want to go home to Indiana.
My job and my stuff waited for me, and nothing else. My real home was here.
The normal sadness swept over me as I burrowed into my sleeping bag for the night,
hoping that, perhaps, I might find a letter in Stehekin giving me another
few months off. Or, rather, another few months of living, before I went back
to Indiana to hibernate for another nine months.
The first thing I saw this morning was Sharon's smiling face in front of the grey sky
of early morning. She laughed and called me lazy as she set off down the trail in
search of a town called Stehekin, cut off from the world, but with a legendary
bakery. I packed up quickly and was moving shortly after 6:15, with fifteen
miles separating my feet and stomach from cinnamon rolls rumored to be larger
than my stomach of three and a half months ago. The trail was supposed to be easy
today, with little elevation gain and a lot of flat walking. The grey sky turned to
blue as the sun peaked over the mountain sides and I left the plateau where Sharon
and I had camped for the night. It would be a glorious morning, a glorious day,
as long as I didn't ruin it by racing or by missing the bus. I just had to walk
as I always did and I would make the fifteen miles before noon. No racing,
no missing. I tried to forget about the time and the distance and settled on
pondering the future, one of my most cherished hobbies this summer. When the present
is full and rich, pondering the future becomes enjoyable, rather than the plan for
killing time that it normally is. I thought about the end of the trail and whether or
not it was something to be lusted after or something to be mourned for. I felt at
home and at peace out here. Comfortable. Back in Bloomington, how long would that
last before culture set in and began its crushing process of bringing back to the
ordinary, the mundane, the useless.
There were a few groups of people camped along the river than I was following and
I waved to them as I walked through their campsite. Some of them had set up directly
on the trail, or in open areas that the trail had to cross. They seemed happy this
morning, as everyone out here did. There was no sadness in Washington, only sweat and
joy. Did any of them have the bug? I wondered. I was sure at least a few of them
did, but whether or not they knew what it was was the tough question. I hoped some
of them might be able to embrace the bug as I had this summer, hoped they might be
able to feel as I had, worked as I had worked, loved as I had loved, lived as I
had lived. Not in exact repetition, but rather in the same style of openness and
freedom and joy and passion. Sitting in a clutch of bushes, by myself, three
miles from the Stehekin bus, I knew the answer to the question that had been
biting me for the past few days, few weeks. I was ready to be done with walking north
on the PCT, but I was not ready to return to settled life. I wanted the metaphysical
summer to never end and for my life to continue down the path that I had been
walking for the past one hundred and two days.
This, of course, carried me
nicely down the trail as I thought about what I might do if I was not going
back to Indiana. After paying off credit card bills, I would probably still have
more than a thousand dollars of spending money. Perhaps walk to Vancouver
and stay there for a few weeks with friends. Down to my father's house in
Oregon for a week or two. Then maybe walk over to the Oregon coast and follow it
south back into California for a spell. I would need hard cash, but could find a
basic job for a few months until ski resorts started hiring. Or, perhaps,
hitch to Death Valley and spend the winter working in that preternatural
land. When the time was right, perhaps bus over to Georgia and start north
on the Appalachian trail, or maybe hike across Arizona in the relative cool
of early spring.
And then I found myself staring at a sign proclaiming my entrance into the
North Cascades National Park, the river in sight, with the Stehekin bus road
in sight. Time had passed and distance had been traveled, but I had been
so wrapped up in the gluttony of possible freedom that I had not noticed
it. It was only 11:30 when I found Sharon drying out her gear by the side of the
gravel road that linked this trailhead with the town of Stehekin. Milling about
were a few tourists and a temporary park ranger out for some free time in the
hills. Vans pulled up and disgorged tourists from one of the local resorts for
their daily dose of activity. There was nothing to see here, which meant that
they had to walk somewhere. I listened to another ranger patiently explaining
to a day hiker that the creature that she had seen at a lake was not a
grizzly bear, but rather a beaver. Funny stuff, this re-entry into semi-civilized
society. This was my last re-entry before the big one, the one that really
seemed to matter. I sat next to Sharon and chatted about the bakery for a
while, waiting for the bus.
The large bus, a former child hauler, showed up around 12:30 and dropped its
load of passengers, picking up Sharon and myself, coated in trail dust and
funk, and a dozen or more fresh day hikers, who had spent a few hours outdoors
and were happy, and better, for it. The bus cost $3 to ride into town, making
a stop at a resort called only The Ranch, and at water fall, where everyone
clamored off the bus to snap a few photos. I sat in the shade, in the dirt, and
ate some cheese crackers instead. Seeing a waterfall by the side of a road held
as much attraction for me now as seeing a stereo in the window of a shop. The bakery,
now that was the real attraction. Twenty minutes later I had finished my
crackers and was rolling toward the bakery. A pleasant log structure, I
could smell it several minutes before we arrived. Inside, I was confused
once more, just like the Russian donkey found dead in front of equal, but
separate, piles of hay. There was too much to choose from. Sticky buns, cinnamon
rolls, four different kinds of pizza, croissants of various shapes, sizes, and
fillings, three different muffins that dwarfed my fist, one, two, three, four
scones, brownies, blondies, a shelf of cookies, soda, coffee, my head hurts.
I made a random mental choice and settled for a couple of slices of pizza, a
stacked brownie, and a soda and promptly ran out of the place to find some
I was in a chair in the shade, ready to attack my snack, when several
weekend hikers sat down next to me to ply their usual questions. Here was
this marvelous pizza, with feta, mozzarella, red onion, basil, and black olives,
all ready to be worked over, and instead I of chewing my mouth was
running on, prattling something about "10 lbs. without food or water",
"in towns", "my feet are fine in running shoes", "about thirty
miles a day", "alcohol", "Indiana", "I teach at a university". Sharon
emerged from the bakery with a sack under her arm and sat down by us.
The weekenders sent her the usual questions, forgetting about me for the
moment, and I was able to eat down both pieces of pizza and the soda,
grateful to her once again. The weekenders really were nice people and
were out doing some interesting stuff. But now was the worst of all possible
times to have to answer questions. The idea of a thruhiker card came into
my head again. A simple card that had my personal information on one side and
some common answers on the other. I could simply hand it out at moments like
this and escape, rudely, the innocent questions that everyone seemed so
The bus pulled out of town with Sharon and I on it and the weekenders still at the
bakery. It was another twelve or more miles into town on the bus, but my mouth was
full of a dense, black brownie and I was moving without walking. Happy and content,
in other words. The big lake appeared, followed by a few beat cars and eventually
the town itself. Access to the town itself was limited to plane or boat or foot,
with the cars presumably for driving to the bakery. Sharon and I hopped off the
bus and found the post office. The last PO of the summer was holding my
passport and immigration papers, sent certified and registered by my
mother. Also awaiting me was small package, sent my a god unknown. Rather
odd, I thought. Sharon stood next to me, grinning, as I pulled out a massive
dark chocolate bar, and a note from her. Afraid that she might not catch me,
she had sent me a little treat from Cascade Locks, just as she had sent
me postcards to Skykomish.
In a town like Stehekin, there isn't much to do, which makes it a perfect town
to spend some quality time in. First, there was the hiker box to look through.
Hiker boxes are places for hikers, or others, to leave food or unneeded supplies
for others. The Stehekin hiker box was well stocked and I snagged a couple of
dinners and a few snacks. Resupply in town was supposed to be tough, but with
the hiker box it became a matter of getting a few candy bars and some breakfast
items. Then there was the hiker register to look through. Wall had passed through a
few weeks ago, but had not signed in, and Will five days ago.
He was, no doubt, now in Manning Park sitting
around waiting to go to Seattle and then home. Track practice was
starting soon, you see. There were plenty of entries from various southbound
section hikers praising Washington. I flipped back to previous years to see what
the class of 2002, of 2001, of 2000, of 1999, were thinking as they were so close
to the end. Some were sad, some were happy. Most had been poured on and were
freezing, as the standard finishing time is in late September or early October.
Winter comes to northern Washington early. Some had insightful comments, others
were just in a plod mode. I had no insight left in me for the public, and so left
a taunt from the state of California to the state of Washington, from the Sierra
Nevada to the Cascades. I'll have to think of something better for the
Sharon and walked to the other end of town in that slow, lazy gait that is a
characteristic of long distance hikers: In town, the three mile per hour pace
drops to barely a mile per hour. The store in town was fairly empty, but I
was able to score some poptarts from under Sharon's nose along with a good
supply of Snickers Bars and some Mac and Cheese. We inquired about lodging
at the resort in town, but found it full. The Ranch had an information
desk and we inquired there as well, but it was full, too. We were able to
reserve a space at their dinner table. Not All-You-Can-Eat, but served
family style. I wasn't quite sure what this meant, but the woman at the
kiosk assured me that no thruhiker ever left The Ranch hungry. And
so I sat down, on a lawn of the greenest, plushest, grass since the Saufley's,
way back in Agua Dulce. Southern California. The LA Megaplex. How dear that
all was. I sat about in the sun to dry off gear and package food. And nap
a bit. Sharon was busy and so I simply dozed by myself as she called Manning
Park to make reservations for a night in the lodge there and did other
chores. Being content is, perhaps, the most wonderful state possible.
The only contender is its cousin, the state of grace. As four o'clock rolled
around (confirmed by my watch), it was time to take a shower. A note in the
post office had informed us that there was a public shower in town and that
it was a recommended stop for thruhikers. I found Sharon there
washing clothes in the sink and looking clean, having fought, and lost,
the battle with cleaning her feet. My feet had not been clean since before
Agua Dulce. No one who has walked for a while can ever have clean feet until
they leave their hike. I worked mine over for a good ten minutes, and
emerged with brown achilles and dirt until my toe nails and around my ankles.
But, at least the smell was gone. Sort of.
I washed my clothes as well and sat at the picnic table waiting for them to dry as
Sharon wrote postcards. Ed came by, having caught the 3 pm bus into town.
Sharon had gotten a free campsite in town, complete with bear lockers, and
directed Ed over to it and The Ranch kiosk. For dinner was approaching, and
Ed was a man who, having walked across Washington, was capable of enjoying a
good meal with friends. I had known Ed for a total of perhaps two hours, and
I was already calling him "friend".
Ed made the bus, just barely, having gotten showered and set up in camp before
coming out to the dock, where the bus was waiting whisk us, and a
crows, away to The Ranch. The dining room of The Ranch was packed with jolly
tourists, but it was the line of food that attracted me. It wasn't the
Caesar's buffet in South Lake Tahoe, or Firehouse Ribs in Big Bear City,
but there were three salads, three sides, and a massive carving board of flank
steak. And them I saw the pies. Later, though. For now, my several pounds
of food on my overloaded plate were calling for my attention. The
three of us found a table outside, by ourselves, and tore into the food,
chatting away between mouthfuls. I went back for a second plate: The flank
steak was masterful, as were the mashed potatoes and the three bean salad.
I was contemplating a third trip to the flank steak, but knew that the
pies were there and settled instead for some dessert. In front of me
was a woman with her daughter. The young woman behind the serving line cut them a
sliver of pie and put a dollop of ice cream on top. This concerned me, as a
sliver of pie would not cut it. I suppose it would be considered a normal
serving, but I had no normal appetite. It was the time of decision, for there
was before me a selection of six pies. I stuttered. I paused. I hesitated.
And then I asked the pretty woman, with my best smile, which was the best
pie of the lot. "The apple and cheese," she responded. "Then that is what I
want. With ice cream, please." Rather than cut a normal wedge, she instead
lifted the remaining 40 percent of the pie and put it onto a plate, followed with a
softball sized scoop of ice cream. I smiled and thanked her and returned
to the table, pleased with myself. Although it may have been my pleasantry and
smile, it occurred to me that the extra large serving may have been due to my
obvious summer occupation, and her knowledge of what it meant, rather than
any charm I might have had.
The owner of The Ranch, who was also driving the bus,
came out to find us and have a chat. He was a hiker himself and asked the
non-usual questions that were actually fun to answer. Ed made arrangements
with him to stay the next night at The Ranch and he snapped some photos of
us before the crowd of growingly irate tourists, wanting to return to their
resort rooms and televisions, prompted us to get back on the bus and return to
We settled into the campsite by the lake, drinking a few beers that Sharon
had bought from the store. Drinking beer, in the pitch black of night in a
town with few lights, looking at the stars while chatting, this night was
perfect. The thought of the end still plagued me. The perfection of the
entire day only brought out what was waiting for me in the very, very near
future. The end of the summer and my return to Bloomington. Ed and Sharon
went to sleep as I sat at the table thinking. Thinking. Would I ever again just
sit out at a picnic table, in the dark, thinking? The next summer seemed
horribly far away and the Eternal Summer, as wonderful as it seems, was
something I did not know, yet, how to seize and hold. And so I settled on
sleep and the thought that the bakery would have nice hot buns and rolls
in the morning. And the stars. Those stars that had traveled with me from
Mexico to here, close to Canada, close to the end.