Washington: Skykomish to Stehekin

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 surprisingly content.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 hiking.

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 break.

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 shade.

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 interested in.

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 border register.

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 town.

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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.