September 15th, PCT day 176, mile 2357, started normal enough, waking to clear skies and the distant flowing of the creek below. Crush and I took our time getting going and started hiking around 9:00am. I was up in front of her by no more than 400 yards, when down slope I heard and saw a giant Elk, a stag with giant antlers. His call was a combination of a screetch and a moan, somewhat eerie but also pretty cool once you know what it is making that noise. Elks are new to me, up until just last night, I had been wholly unfamiliar with them in the wild. I spotted this strong male as it began to climb the slope with a trajectory that looked as if it would intersect exactly with my path up ahead. I retrieved my camera and started snapping a few photos, then alternated this with taking a few quiet steps, then a few more photos, then a few more steps, until we were in sight of each other. He stopped. I stopped. For about 30 seconds it seemed like he was looking directly at me, so I remained still, staring right back. Finally, I got greedy and wanted to get closer, so I started to move again. With just the slightest noise that I made, he snapped a 180 and took off galloping in the other direction. I could hear the sound of his hooves hitting the earth and rock, could see the ripples of his muscle flexing in the hind quarters. He moved effortlessly and I stood there, awestruck. I felt as if the Universe had sent me a sprit guide, in the form of a powerful animal. The fact that our paths crossed so closely felt like a very special moment. I embraced this fully and walked on almost skipping down the trail. What a great start to the day.
Over the course of the morning, Crush and I had worked out a couple options for campsites for the day, with the choice of a 15 mile day or a 24 mile day. In the latter half of the day, there would be a 9 mile stretch that was high on ridges with no campsites, something that could be miserable in poor weather. Since the weather was excellent, and the moon was going to be full, we opted for the 24 miles and agreed we would night hike if need be. We had read the weather forecast and saw rain was on the way in two days, so we needed to get to Snoqualmie as soon as possible, where we would have the option of being indoors, warm and dry. Oh so appealing! For the time being, we needed to take full advantage of the good weather. Clouds were just beginning to slink in, but we were still able to hike bare shouldered. A great view of Mt. Rainier behind me as clouds approach.
As we hiked on through this beautiful landscape, appreciating the feelings of remoteness, and vastness, we continued our conversations from the day before. We were getting to know each other, sharing our PCT stories, why we were out there, and most importantly, comisserating on our various injuries: me with my ankle and feet and heels, her with some of the craziest blisters I have ever seen, plus a recovering ankle injury. So, we hiked about the same pace and supported each other through the pain and need to curtail the desire to speed up. For both of us, walking slower and taking breaks was necessary, but posed a challenge to our Aries spirits and shared athleticism. By lunch time that day, we stopped at a gorgeous place called Dewey Lake, and took great pleasure in soaking our aching feet in the ice cold shallow water. It was heavenly!
The cold water helped bring down the inflammation and hence, the pain, in my feet and I was able to keep a good, steady pace for the rest of the afternoon, with the addition of Vitamin I, of course. We soon approached a highway crossing that marked the entrance to Mt.Rainier National Park. Along the way, Crush and I spotted three marmots and a full herd of white Mountain Goats way way up high on a talus slope. Such a day for wildlife! Some day hikers accused us (jokingly) of making too much noise saying “we could hear you two coming from a mile away” to which we laughed and apologized in good spirit. I couldn’t believe it, I was that hiker, making noise. You know what, I’ll take it, I was enjoying the company of my new friend.
Nearing sundown, we still had about 7 miles to go, so we confirmed we both wanted to night hike and enjoy the light of the Full Moon that was about to rise. Oh what a beautiful moon it was. We couldn’t have timed it better, as the trail hugged some high ridges for a stretch of about 9 miles, alternating from the Eastern ridge to the Western ridge through small saddles. To the West, we could see Mt. Rainier and the glorious colors of the sunset, to the East, were vast expanses of trees under a ridgeline of layers of mountains, with the Full Moon rising above, giant and stunning. We hiked on into the night without the need for a headlamp to see the trail, it was so bright. As the night sky came to life and stars began to appear, the blackness in the background got deeper and darker, in contrast to the light of the moon.
On the Western ridges it was a little darker in the trees, and it was more difficult to see, the trail sloped down to the left and in places dropped off in loose dirt and even holes. It was here in a dark section that we ran into two hunters, heading South back to their camp. We stopped to chat with them for about 20 minutes in the dark. They were friendly and demonstrated a solid knowledge of the area, since they had been hunting up there for years. I am open to meeting people with different perspectives from me, and hunters definitely have an opposing view on wildlife (and life) than I do. I appreciate someone who hunts for survival, for the need of food, who uses the animal for sustenance and does not take more than necessary. However, I could never bring myself to kill an animal. Some people hunt for sport. This I truly do not understand. I think this desire to hunt and kill might be something that was wired into our DNA in the early stages of human evolution, and somehow, some folks just didn’t eliminate it from their brains. I understand that hunters, most of them anyway, enjoy wilderness, and do their part to protect wild places and environments. The BIG disconnect for me, is this thought: Wow, what a beautiful creature……lets shoot it! So, there we stood with these complete strangers with their strange ways of seeing the world, and yet, we felt a sense of comraderie being way out there enjoying the night under the moonlight. We parted ways with the hunters, they in their camouflage and Me in my garage sale dress. As we shortly turned a bend and exited the tree cover, there in the vast openness stood the peaceful giant, Mt. Rainier, capped in snow, glowing before us. Crush and I stopped and took in the view, the power, the peace. All night we had been exclaiming how fun this was, how lucky we were to be there, how special and how unique. Who does this? We could be in a town, at a bar, on the couch, in a bed or watching TV, and we CHOOSE to be here, and together at that. The trail provides.
We hiked on until about 9:20pm and finally made it to our campsite only to find all the spots were taken. Figures, that’s what you get when you arrive to camp that late. We had to scout around for about 30 minutes before finally finding a flat place that was somewhat protected by trees. We retrieved water from up trail at a very small trickle of a spring. It was quite cold by this time, I remember feeling very tired, hungry, pain and stiffness throughout my body, and my hands were so cold as I filled up my water bottle using a flat leaf as a funnel. It was a very slow flow and I had to tromp down a steep, loose slope to get to it in the first place, crouching down in an uncomfortable squat to get to the water. These are the little, simple chores one has to do at the end of the day, that at times take a lot of patience. These are little moments when you want nothing more than to be done with the day, and yet you have so much to do. Pitch the tent, unload the pack, take the shoes off, change into dry clothes, filter water, cook dinner, and finally….eat my hot delicious meal in the interior, protected shelter of my little tent, with my sleeping bag wrapped around me, staring at my tent wall. At least now, Crush and I could talk to one another since our tents were literally feet apart. It sounds a little unappealing, the way I describe it, yet there was never anything I would rather have been doing, as I stared at my tent walls, chewing my food. In doing this, was always the larger picture, and the simplicity of life on the trail. Walk, eat, rest, walk, eat, sleep. Repeat. Okay, maybe with a few more eats in it! As I fell asleep that night, I heard the calls of Elk up in the canyons, echoing mysteriously.
The morning light came all to quickly, and I learned later in the day that Crush was awoken to a conversation between a male and female elk before dawn. Apparently I just slept through it all! We hit the trail again by about 9:00am, and set a goal of 25 miles for the day. We knew it would be another night hiking day (or night), but since we had such a great experience the night before, we thought why not do it again while we have clear skies? We planned to have lunch midway through the day at Ulrich Cabin, just off the trail. This was a simple square shaped traditional log cabin with a deck and a loft, formerly belonging to a wilderness agency, like the Forest Service, and now it was questionable who was really in charge. I say this because when we arrived there, several young houdlums were literally squatting at the cabin. Upon arriving, we first saw paper signs on the door, signed by “management” that completely negated the wooden hand carved sign that was permanently attached to the cabin.
A peek into the interior of the cabin revealed a table loaded with every kind of booze you can think of. In speaking with some of the guys that were “living” there, I was told that they were there under the auspices of the “fire department” and the guy proudly pointed to the logo on his T-shirt. I have never met any group of people so full of shit. They even went as far as to say that PCT hikers had been trashing the cabin and they were always the ones cleaning it up.
Anyway, I was starving, and was glad to have a place to sit down and eat my lunch, which included making some hot coffee. I needed to stretch my legs and feet too, so I planted myself on the front porch and was, despite the debaucherous nature of this group, entertained by their shenanigans. The two best things about this experience, were that one guy in particular, who was incredibly inebriated, was wearing a hat that was a Unicorn head, and he offered to clean out my Sawyer water filter. Reluctant to let him help me, I handed my filter over, because it was working so poorly that filtering water had become the most loathelsome chore to me. He showed me the trick of basically whacking my filter repeatedly on the deck, to loosen the dirt, and then cleaning it by backwashing it. The water that came out was filthy, and lots of it. He must have cleaned it 10 times! It was actually quite impressive and after it was all said and done, I left there with a filter that was a good 75% better in function. I went from filtering a litre in 5 minutes down to 2.
We left later than planned, by about 4:00pm, with another 13 miles to cover still and dark clouds rolling in. Fortified by lunch and energized by rest and coffee, we tucked our heads down and hoofed it for the next 4 miles until we reached an opening on a ridge where lo and behold, there was trail magic! It was so unexpected, which is the best kind, and unlike the imposters back at the cabin, this man, named “Magic Man” was the real deal. He even had a PCTA t-shirt with his trail name embroidered on it. His daughter had hiked the AT last year and that’s what got him started in doing trail magic. He had all the stuff we hikers love, and more! For starters, he insisted that we partake in a Krispy Creme donut, to which I first hesitated and finally acquiesced. I bit into the doughy, chocolaty creamy squishiness. And it was good. Crush and I perched ourselves in the chairs he had proveded, and ate our donuts looking out over the amazing view of Mt. Rainier. It was truly a magical moment!
Magic Man was the nicest guy, and we enjoyed talking with him about the trail, his daughter, and trail angeling. He encouraged us to take anything we wanted from his table of goodies, which included: besides the donuts, a variety of snack size chip bags, snickers, apples, oranges, gatorade, soda, wet wipes, and, drumroll……Starbucks Bias and iced Frappuccinos!! Crush and I decided to share a frap and agreed that this meant we were definitely comitted to night hiking. Just as we were about to hit the trail again, and it was getting late, another hiker named “DJ Nightcakes” walked up. We had also seen him at the cabin, and we invited him to night hike with us. He was reluctant at first, as he had already hiked 23 miles that day, and hiking with us would bring him to 30 miles for the day. With this we hiked on ahead of him, and eventually he caught up with us on an exposed ridge where we stopped to layer up. It was getting windy, and dark. By then, he said he would join us, and the three of us continued on into the night. This evening was cloudier than the night before, but there were still views that took our breath away. One long corridor of trees vectored straight into an opening in line with the Full Moon rising up through some lenticular clouds, and we shared these prescious moments, knowing how special they were, how magic the moon made walking.
DJ spoke of making it to the US/Canadian border in a week. A week! I placed myself in his shoes and shuddered at the thought of my journey ending in just a week. Of course, I would not be there so soon, I had more like three weeks left, if the weather and my body all held out and up. I realized, though, that I needed to start preparing for the finish line. It was exciting to think that I would actually make it to Canada, yet I still had a humble grip on a reality that kept me so focused on just one day at a time.
Earlier that day, we crested a ridge and came across a view that showed us the grand mountains of our near future. The North Cascades were so close. It reminded me of that day when I first camped with Prince, back in the desert, back in early May. We set up camp in the faint light of dusk, and upon waking saw our first view of the Sierras. They were giants, imposing, intimidating, alluring in their grandeur, and just the sight of them made my pulse quicken. Seeing the North Cascades was much the same. I felt that being amongst these giants, with all their beauty and magesty, would bring my journey full circle, filling my heart and soul, allowing me to feel complete. But I still had so much to experience!
I hung back on the final climb of the night, thinking about my journey and acknowledging how much I had done and seen, and how close I was to “the end”. I knew I had to get ready, mentally and spiritually, to be two weeks away, then one week away, and eventually, a day away from the Monument at the Northern Terminus. But the only way to get to the end, is to move in the present.
By about 10:30pm that night, we finally reached our intended campsite. Guess what? Yup, full again. We scouted around in the dark, trying not to trip on tent guylines or tree roots, trying to be as quiet as possible, not finding a single place to pitch a tent. Crush offered to let me sleep in her tent, since it was for two people, as she would continue to say ” hey, worst case you can always sleep in my tent”, but I felt it was easier to just find my own spot with my own nightly routine and organization that was my home space. We continued up the trail about a quarter mile and finally settled on what little ground we could find. Crush and DJ were practically on the trail, and I found a little spot amongst bushes and under some trees, pitching my tent over holes in the ground, with branches of shrubs poking up from underneath and into the vestibule. Not the best spot, and it took some creativity to get my tent standing up, but it worked. By the time I finished all my camp chores and was finally tucked in bed to write in my journal, I noted it was after midnight. Crush and I agreed to sleep in a little nit the next morning. It was supposed to rain for the next two days, and we were about 34 miles from Snoqualmie Pass, where we could get warm and dry. We had been watching the clouds all day, and knew we were in for it. It was good we pushed on like we did. Even with 2 days of rain, that was better than three, so let the rain commense!