To be Humble is the biggest lesson I have learned on this trail. It does not matter who you are or what you can do, this trail, this journey, this land and it’s wilds are humbling. I left the view at Mt. Jefferson feeling great, having rested, prayed, meditated and felt ready for the days ahead. But, within the first 30 minutes, the pain set in. I was suddenly on a steep downhill slope with very loose chunky rocks perfect for stumbling. In fact, I fell down once on that descent. Meanwhile, another hiker came zipping down the trail literally hopping from rock to rock on the balls of his feet. What can I say? Nothing. I am not him. My hike is slow. My hike is longer than most. I celebrated five months on the trail while others celebrated four. They have all passed me up. I struggled with this for a while, feeling inadequate, pressuring myself to keep up a better daily mileage pace. But, I forget I am injured and I hate to admit that, as if admitting will result in a compromised hike. As I slowly make my way down this mountain, in pain, I reflect on the past 12 hours and remind myself what I was just feeling and just knowing. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and also realize that I am leaving yet another giant Mountain behind and walking towards another. For, off in the distance is Mount Hood, and when I catch my first glimpse of it, the adrenaline starts pumping through me again and I speed up in anticipation of what is to come.
The mountain looks so far away, yet I know it will only take a few days to get there, since I have been doing this routine for over a month now. Approaching one giant Volcano, walking right up to it, passing it by, and finally seeing it fade into the distance to the South, where the past is, where my memories rest. Those are the moments where I think I have come so far.
Later that day, I was determined to make it to Lake Timothy, where I was convinced there would be some pretty great camping along the shoreline, so I pushed in the afternoon. I was lucky the trail turned out to be super easy, flat, soft, all the stuff we thru-hikers love, which allowed me to walk miles in 17 minutes. For me, that’s fast! I made it to the lake and scouted around for the perfect place to cowboy camp, just in time for the sun to sink behind the treeline. It was a very nice day and although the air temperature was dropping, I decided this was perhaps the last opportunity I would have to swim for the remainder of this adventure. I also had a fire ring in the campsite, so I planned to warm up by the fire, a trail luxury I have rarely treated myself to. This spot was nested in a grove of conifer trees, down below the trail, and only 30 feet from the water. After setting up my camp, I stripped down nude and got in the silky water. I swam about, feeling buoyant and soft, and as I reached a certain distance from the shoreline, I could see Mount Hood off in the distance. The water was so clear and clean, and nobody was around. This is freedom. Feeling chilled but invigorated after the swim, I built a fire and got warm and dry. I cooked my dinner and wrote a Birthday card for my Mom, as her day was approaching and I wanted to write it when I was in a special space and place both physically and mentally. It was all perfect. I thought to myself, this is the last of Summer. And it was.
The next day, I was on a mission to make Mount Hood. At Mount Hood is the PCT famous Timberline Lodge, which also happens to be the hotel where the movie The Shining was made. I had made arrangements for my friend Mika, who lives in Portland, to meet me there in a couple days so I was also motivated to see her. On the afternoon that I was climbing up to Mount Hood, the fog had become very thick and wet. I was climbing up a steep hill in deep gray loose powdery sand. I would slide downhill with every step, and my trekking poles sunk in deep, it all reminded me of hiking in the snow. Remember that? I was also getting wetter by the minute and had to stop to put on my rain gear. I wished I could see this beast of a mountain that towered above me, but alas, visibility was down to a minimum. Later, the guy in the ski shop would show me photos on his phone of what that section of trail usually looks like. I guess I will just have to come back!
By the time I reached the front steps of the lodge, I was drenched, cold and hungry. I had an hour before Mika would be there, so I got out of my wet gear and promptly seated myself in the dungeon-like pub, The Blue Ox, and ordered myself a beer and a bunch of Spanish olives, the real good ones. The combination was a hikers dream, the mellow feeling the beer produced and the salty fattiness of the olives really hit the spot.
Soon I was swooped off my feet by Mika and off we drove to Portland to her home. She cooked me a delicious pasta dinner with fresh tomatoes and basil, a hot buttery baguette and some red wine. We stayed up chatting and catching up like girlfriends do, and I even took a shower and washed my clothes. Whoa, getting all fancy now! Being in the city was intense though. For one, as we came down from the Mountain, I could actually see a skyline that was below the mountains and it did not get dark until much later than it does in the woods. We watched a dramatic sunset shaped by billowy clouds as we entered the grind of the city world. I decided then that I really don’t want to make a side trip to Seattle on my way home as I had been loosely planning. It was just too much structure, metal, cement, wires, electricity, cars and their noises and frenetic energy. But, it was nice to be in the home and warmth of my friend, so nice. The next day, I woke before her and made myself a delicious cup of coffee and scrambled eggs and sat at her kitchen table writing post cards. Later, she graciously drove me back to the trail at Timberline, and we said goodbye on the steps.
And thence came the rain. I started hiking at 3:00 pm, the rain began at 3:05 pm. No joke. I passed tents in the forest just outside of the lodge, but I needed to progress down the trail, as I was only a few days away from Washington. All geared up, once I entered the forest it wasn’t so bad. I even passed some day hikers, one of which was walking barefoot. Surely he had a warm dry place to sleep that night, not a tent! I made it to a sweet little Eden of a spot to rest my head just before dusk, and ended up camping next to a couple of weekend hikers who were getting a break from parenting. I would end up seeing them several more times in the next day. Just as it got dark and just as I got into my tent, it started to downpour. I was to fall asleep to the tapping of rain on my tent and the roar of a sizable creek just feet away, and in the morning I started the day once again in the wet.
No matter though, this day was the day of my Mom’s birth, so I would be thinking of her all day and sending all the beauty I was absorbing out her way. I was also looking forward to two prominent and legendary waterfalls coming up that day and the next, just before I would reach WA. I found myself walking happily in the rain, as it was not so heavy that I was getting soaked. I entered a forest that became wetter and greener, the deeper I went in. When I reached Ramona falls later that morning, the same couple was there and I asked them to take my picture next to this gorgeous waterfall.
Straight away after the waterfall, I proceeded to begin walking uphill for about 30 minutes before I realized I was on the wrong trail. Ugh! There is nothing like walking extra miles out of the way on your thru-hike, especially when it’s uphill, and in the rain. It was a bit of a bummer, and I felt like I lost time, but when I finally got back to the PCT and heading in the right direction, the rain had taken a brief repose and some sunlight was starting to warm the interior of the forest. I found myself walking along side a gentle stream which was surrounded by ferns, mosses and lichens. The whole forest was dripping, sighing, expanding and contracting, it was so alive I could feel it’s pulse in my own and the oxygen filled my blood as I practically levitated along the trail, feet lightly connecting with the spongy damp earth.
I hiked on and on in similar conditions until finally there were climbs, descents, traverses on ridges and a large river crossing which required some technical skill. It was reminiscent of the creek crossings in the Sierras, however, easier and less threatening. I did need to take my shoes off and was finding that being precariously balanced on rocks that were underwater with a current tugging at my legs, at least got my adrenaline pumping and sharpened my concentration. It was a nice little challenge for my solo self. Then, on the way up the steep slope, I slipped, and almost had a bad fall. Glad I was able to catch myself. One has to be so careful when hiking alone, especially when injured, and when the weather can increase the dangers of your hike. I brushed myself off and felt relieved I was okay. By that evening, I was really really hurting. My feet had taken enough abuse for one day. My back and shoulders were in spasm. It was still raining. It had gotten dark, and where the hell is that tent site anyways? By 7:30 pm, I made it to my intended destination, modified as the day had gone by to only 15 miles. I was disappointed in myself. I had planned on 20 miles, and I didn’t make it. The rain can do that. So can taking the wrong trail. I had to set up my tent in the dark, there was one other tent across the trail from me, whomever was in there was already quiet and lights were out, so I tried not to make too much noise. My feet were soaking wet, so were my pants, my hands freezing cold, my nose dripping with snot, and I just tried to get everything inside my tent assembled in a way that my sleeping area would stay dry. This is difficult to do. I discovered that when every piece of your gear is wet, your living space in a tent shrinks exponentially. I fixed my dinner, and began to eat it tucked inside my sleeping bag, and as I has carried a tiny bit of wine with me from town, I poured the last bit into my mug and said a toast to my Mom. “Happy Birthday Mom, I hope you had a wonderful day, I wish I was with you right now instead of sitting in this miserable rain”.
I managed to keep dry enough trough the night and when I woke, the fog and mist were thinning, and there was a hint of sunlight eeking its way through. Still, I had to start the day with wet everything, the feet being the worst, but at least once I started to warm up it wasn’t so bad. After several miles I came to an opening in the forest along a ridge where in my guidebook it stated panoramic view of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helen’s and Mt. Rainier. Really?
And another reason I will just have to come back. I plodded along down the mountain and back into the forest where the trail split off to an alternate called Indian Springs which leads to the Eagle Falls trail along the Columbia River Gorge and ending in Washington. This is not the official PCT, but everyone takes this trail. Today I would make it to the Bridge of the Gods and the OR/WA border, but I had to get a move on it!
The first section of the alternate was intensely steep and I was walking very precariously on my injured feet, hoping it was not going to be like this all the way. By the time I reached the Eagle Falls trail, it mellowed out and found myself in a wonderland of waterfalls. In particular, I was looking forward to the famous and stunning Tunnel Falls, a special little spot on this big blue planet. I promised myself I would get someone to take a photo of me standing by the waterfall, even if it meant waiting. As luck would have it, there was a nice Korean couple on the trail who were happy to exchange hands with our cameras. The trail follows a lot of narrow ridges that drop off into gorges and pools that catch the falling waters, the walls covered in glowing green mosses and rich with chlorophyll. I hurried down the trail to get as close to the waterfall as I could for the photo, as an exercise in perspective. Once again, I am humbled, I am so small.
I spent a while traversing that little section of trail, attempting to make time slow down, soaking up the beauty and energy. We hikers travel so far to get to these places on foot, and when we get there, so little time we have to absorb it all. This is one of my greatest conflicts within the journey of a thru-hike, as it is always time to keep walking on. I walked back and forth through the tunnel carved out behind the waterfall a few times, and felt like a kid at an amusement park, though this was nature’s amusement. The creativity and artistry of nature are second to none. This is the view from the other side of the tunnel:
And then came the Gorge. I had NO idea it was going to be so cool. For miles and miles, the trail easily meandered along ridges high above the gorge which was a slender snake of water squished between deep rock walls. There were lots of day hikers at this point, and I could tell I was getting close to civilization. That meant many things to me. I found myself enter an emotional zone of many mixed feelings. I had been so miserable the previous night, yet now I found myself wanting to stay out in the wilderness. I was enveloped in beauty and the sweetest energy. I felt held by this place.
I stumbled along more and more slowly, knowing I was delaying my arrival at the Bridge. I was not feeling particularly strong, or elated, or motivated. I started looking for places to camp and stay in that forest near the gorge, but found lots of signs that said “no camping”. I just didn’t want to arrive at the Bridge alone and not feeling enthused, I wanted to feel elated and inspired. They say that the trail provides, and it does, it truly does. The trail holds the space. No sooner had I decided that I was not going into town that night, did another thru-hiker named Quotes came up behind me, and walked with me, we started chatting. All the gears suddenly clicked back into place and we started a lively conversation, and my pace picked up to match his. This all shifted my plans and suddenly I felt like getting to the Bridge after all, and felt like going to town for all the niceties. We walked together for the next two hours, with the final three miles being along a road paralleling the Columbia River, which we could not see. My feet ached and burned so badly, yet at this point I was determined to get to that Bridge before it got dark. Having someone to talk with is a great distraction from your pain. Quotes and I gabbed away and shared stories of the trail, of each of our separate journeys thus far, and our hopes for finishing. We got along fabulously and when we reached the Bridge, we had someone to share the moment with. I did feel elated, proud, excited, happy, and of course, humbled. In my heart I bowed down to that Bridge and that sunset over the river, and ultimately I bowed down to myself. I have made it to Washington.