Six months! How did six months already go by on this trail? I started walking one day back in March, and have been walking now for 185 days. My hair has grown several inches, it’s messy and wild and I have not washed it since Crater Lake. I don’t need or want to. My body has changed into a shape I’ve never had before, my legs are so strong in new places, my hips more curvy on the top from all the climbing, and my feet are bigger and flatter. My appetite has grown exponentially, and I am so much less picky about what I eat, because it is ALL good! My desire for beauty and solace in nature has only deepened and intensified, actually it’s become more like breathing, it’s just essential to my every day. What will it be like to not walk amongst these trees, roots, rocks, mosses and creeks every day? I’ve made friends that I will have for the rest of my life and whom I will hopefully hike with again in the future. The future, what does that even mean? My phone is full of more than 5,000 pictures, all memories of each step I took along this path that I will refer back to over and over again.
I remember last Summer when I hiked across the French Alps for a month by myself. It was the longest hike I had done so far, lasting about 30 days and traveling close to 400 miles. I remember when I finished that hike, my knees were a wreck, and I was definitely ready for a break. I remember thinking “So, when I hike the PCT, I will have to do what I just did 5 more times”. At the time that seemed quite intimidating. Yet, in retrospect, I would do that hike again in a heartbeat, it was amazing on so many levels, and my knees and fatigue were temporary. Knowing this, having done that, helped me prepare for the Northern Cascades. It’s not that the PCT is ever so steep or technical, however, the section ahead did have some of the biggest days of elevation change I faced on the entire hike, closer to what I experienced in the Alps. In anticipation of that, and with all the pain I had endured, I had some anxiety going into this week. That being said, I knew every aching, painful step would be 100% worth it….and I would get through it. I did and it was.
The dramatic landscape of the North Cascades was only getting better and better. Recognizing that I had fallen “behind” on my schedule for the PCT, a long time ago, I now really began to appreciate this fact. What it meant to me now, was that I had the privilege of being on the trail longer than many others. I had struggled with being “slow” and getting passed by literally hundreds of other hikers, facing internal struggles as a result of that. I also worried about making it to Canada before the snow hit, so I placed pressure on myself to finish by the first week of October, an entire month later than I had originally wanted to make it. So here I was, it was September 20 something, and I still hade two weeks of hiking ahead of me. I still questioned my ability to finish this hike at the Canadian border. I had to really come to terms with myself so many times to accept whatever the outcome of my hike, it has been the best time of my life. I had to understand that outcome was not equivalent to Canada. That was tough to still grapple with, being so so close. I had lots of time to accept and really understand that the trail gives you what you need, and everything I had gone through, was what I needed. NO matter what though, I planned to keep hiking all the way to the end as long as I did not get stopped by snow. Eventually, I came to realize and appreciate that while so many other people had already finished this trail, and were already back home or even back at work, I was still out there, I got to spend even more time on this journey, and that was an incredible gift. That was the gift of what being injured taught me, the slowing down and the resultant humility was paying off in ways I never expected, as I entered deeper into the Fall season filled with the most beautiful colors and scenery!
The week from Steven’s Pass to Stehekin was some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever been privileged to walk through. The Fall colors were so rich, deep and vibrating. Seeing this transition into a new season also brought my journey full circle in the sense that I felt like I got to walk through every season along the PCT as a whole, Spring in the dessert, Winter in the Sierras, Summer in Oregon and now Fall in Washington. The last two weeks of my hike on the PCT ended up being the pinnacle of Fall beauty, driving itself directly into my heart. I was so happy to be ending this adventure in such an incredibly beautiful place. I had to stop a lot, just to soak up the immense beauty, savoring the bittersweet bite of knowing it would soon be over. Really, I should not say “over” I should say “full circle”. Full circle, four seasons, six months, I was just so grateful for every last moment, every glorious sight. Inhale…… peace, Exhale……peace.
September 26th, 2016 I reached the 2,500 mile marker at about 3:00 in the afternoon. It was situated on a section of trail which traversed an uphilll slope for miles. It was a gradual but steady climb, and the views were spectacular, with so much depth and layers as far as the eye could see. I rested a few minutes there with the little rock formation of the numbers 2,5,0,0 in the dirt, feeling happy and warm in the sun. Just about two miles or so later, Crush and I found ourselves following a man with two mules. It was just the three of them and the mules would follow along at their own pace behind the man. I enjoyed watching this and hoped to be able to get close to them. At the top of a ridge, and in a saddle where the trail crossed over to the East side of the slope, we did catch up with them and got to chat for a few minutes. The man was super friendly and was even being so considerate as to where his mules pooped, making sure it was not in a camping site. We got him to take our photo with the most breathtaking view now to our right. As we glided along happily up the trail, Glacier Peak made itself known and we gaped at this sight, this imposing, snow-capped monolith which we would be walking so close to in just a few days. It was awesome!
September 27th, 2016. I got off to an early start that morning, and the trail was pretty sopped in with fog and moisture of all sorts. As I climbed a ridge, eating wild blueberries and huckleberries along the way, admiring the red foliage against the white cloudy sky, I saw off in the distance, some clouds beginning to part, and streams of sunlight shooting down into the valley below, showing off the depth of the topography. Crush soon caught up to me and as we walked this ridgeline together we got to see more and more of the lush color below in its reds and golds. Washington had developed a reputation for having lots of great clouds, but on this particular morning, they were truly special.
The next day, we entered Glacier Peak Wilderness, it was September 28th, PCT mile 2,508 and I had a record breaking day ahead of me. I planned to hike about 20 miles, climbing over 8,000 feet and descending over 6,000 feet. That’s 14,000 feet of elevation change in one day and I could not think of any other day on the PCT when I had accomplished such a feat. Back in the Alps last Summer my record was 10,000 feet in 20 miles one day and I recall being so completely done at the end of that day. I decided that I needed a pre-dawn start for this day and began hiking in the dark, with my headlamp beam bouncing off the mist in the still, silent forest.
Crush and I strategized on how we were going to tackle the day, and agreed to break it into two sections, aiming for Mica Lake for lunch at the half way point. Along the trail that morning, we ran into some serious blow downs and some seriously beautiful waterfalls. There was one section of trail that was just completely missing. We had to backtrack and take a cut between switchbacks that was nothing but loose scree-like mud with lots of roots and branches sticking out. It was slippery, gnarly, muddy and great fun! Later we crossed a stream that was a gushing waterfall that seemed to have come from miles away and was heading out for miles below. That water was pristinely clear and rushed over dark gray rocks ladden with electric green moss. I sat there on a rock situated right in the middle of the stream, and stared out over the rushing water, absorbing the movement and the lulling, meditative sound. I could stay here for hours….
Later, we hit yet another section of blowdowns and crazy re-routes up a slope of plants that hit your legs like whips, all whilst slipping down-slope trying to gain some traction unsuccessfully. Eventually I made it up through some deep dirt and bushes to the trail again, always a relief! After that first climb of the day, we were rewarded once again with stellar views. The breadth and height of the land that lay below reminded me a bit of Goat Rocks and made my adrenaline surge with excitement for what was to come. My heart pounded not only from the climb, but from the suspense I felt as I approached the top of that ridge, where I knew the entire world would be displayed out in front of me. I love those vast expanses that drop off on the other side after reaching the top, and you just stand there looking down into that huge unbounded space, trying to see if you can find where the trail goes. Then you take off down it, like you are flying. It’s the best, so freeing!
In a couple miles, I reached the pristine Mica Lake for lunch, Crush was already there and with a fun group of other thru-hikers. We all spent the next hour laughing and talking over lunch, some even plunging into the icy water for a wake-me-up. The water was some of the most turquoise, clear, inviting water I’d ever seen. It reminded me of some of the lakes I’d been to in Canada, in BC, and made me realize how far North I really was. I sat there admiring the reflection of rock in the bowl of water which they surrounded. I spent time just gazing into the deep pool with all the beautiful hues from sapphire to aquamarine, shining like the gems for which those colors are named. I sat on a rock and soaked my feet in that icy cold water, letting it numb my feet, such great trail therapy. As I sat there, it was like time slowed down and I reflected on something Prince used to say to me in similar moments. “We brought ourselves here” he would say, and we would just smile from ear to ear, feeling proud and grateful. I did, I brought myself here. I walked here more than 2,500 miles to get to this exact spot. I would have loved to camp there by that lake, and had I not been trying to push to get to Stehekin by a certain time, I would have done it. Alas, it was not my fate for that day. My fate was to complete this hell-of-a-day of climbing and descending, and make it as far as my body would take me. I guess I just have to come back!
After lunch and relaxing in the sun, it was 2:00pm and definitely time to get moving again. We descended for a few miles until we could actually see where we were headed by the end of the day. It was going to be a ton of switchbacks over about 4 miles with 4,000 feet of descent down to the bottom of a river bed full of silty glacial run-off, followed by an almost 5,000 foot ascent over 5 more miles, up to a ridge where there would be camping somewhere nearby. From the top where we were after lunch you could see that ridge over on teh other side, it was only 2 miles away as the crow flies, yet we had to hike nearly 9 miles and traverse more than 8,500 feet to get there. It was crazy, it was awesome!
I had been carrying around a bit of anxiety because of this challenge and my plan of attack for the day consisted of caffeine in the form of chocolate covered espresso beans, plenty of actual coffee, and lots of electrolytes and a steady flow of Ibuprofen. You know what though? It worked. The downhill from Mica Lake was easy, fast, if not a bit hum-drum after a while with so many switchbacks. I could hear the river rushing below and thought we were so close for such a long time. Eventually we got there, and I could really see there were absolutely no places for camping, which I got an odd reassurance from, I had to do it, there was no out. Once I started that second climb of the day, I kept it slow and steady all the way up. All the other hikers passed me, no surprise there, but I made it pretty easily given the context and my preceeding apprehension. Actually, I felt that day had turned out great, it was one of my most memorable days on trail, both because of the beauty and because of the challenge. I suppose hiking for six months was indeed strengthening me, even though I had not realized it. Being so slow because of my pains, I had also thought my hiking had become weaker, but this taught me that I was not weak after all. I was strong. I started to think about how my hike would have been different had I been taking bunches of Vitamin I all along. How would that have affected how far I pushed myself? How would that have affected my confidence? How would that have affected my ego? Within this thought-space, I realized truly how much the pain I went through had humbled me. I never had a reason to brag. I never even broke a 30 mile day on the entire PCT, and part of me felt embarassed about this. It seemed like almost everybody I met had records of at least 35 miles and many people even more. I suppose if I had discovered Ibuprofen long ago, I probably would have pushed to do those miles too and I would have been part of the club. In retrospect, I would not change aything, though. I learned what I needed to learn and that lesson was to slow down and be humble, not superhuman. I took care of my body, and the biggest reward of all, because of this, I got to spend more time doing what I love, being on this trail. As I once said to Prince “we all have more miles than time”…..as it turned out in my case, it was the end of September and I still had more miles…. and more time, how lucky was I?
By the end of the big climb that evening, I found myself walking into the falling darkness and staring far off into the distances admiring the pink and purple colors of the post-sunset glow. Reluctant to stop and put on my headlamp, I new I was close to being done for the day. The light was cool and purple with Glacier Peak looming large and glowing in it’s permanent state of icyness off in the distance. The hiking day ended just at dusk when Crush signaled to me from about 200 feet off trail with her headlamp bobbing around. She had found a perfect campsite surrounded by cozy protective trees that blocked the wind, and from a larger perspective, they were centrally located amongst giagantic rock formations and layers upon layers of vast mountain slopes all around us.
I slept extremely well that night and I woke in the dark to my alarm at 5:15am, hurting, aching, and feeling like I could just go right back to sleep. My body felt the work I had put in the day before. I didn’t return to slumber though, instead, I made coffee and went out to watch the sunrise. We were surrounded by 240 degree views and a vastness that I’ve only ever seen in the Sierras and the Alps. This was definitely my happy place. I climbed up a slope to get a better vantage point, facing East, and watched the sunrise in reverie, meditating, sky-gazing and giving thanks for my life, for my blessings, and especially for this journey. It was one of those mornings where you want to stay, not go. Time stood still. I held on. Inhale…..peace, Exhale…..peace.
I tried to stretch that morning out as long as I could, yet it seems like on a thru-hike, you just always have to go. Especially now, I was pushing to get to Stehekin and pushing to get to Canada. Once the sky was light, I made my way back down to our camp and got packed up, hitting the trail shortly thereafter. Crush had also gone out to enjoy the beautiful sunrise, and was just a bit behind me. Along that section of trail that morning, I must have stopped a hundred times, taking photos and gawking at the breathtaking views. There was just so much beauty all around me. Some of the plants that had faded from Summer were now yellowed and covered in frost. There were big dandelion-like plants that had gone to seed and were tall and proud, facing the sun as it crept above the ridge-line, bathing everything in golden light. There were giant craggy, thick, walls of rock that reminded me of Evolution Valley in the Sierras, and I wished I could have hiked up into them and explored every crevice. Next time….I thought again.
Later that afternoon we followed the trail on what seemed like a way out of the way stretch down river, across the river and then back up river just across the way from where we started. Strange, why did the trail go this way? Come to find out, not too long ago, the trail had been washed out near the river and there was a large drop off at the edge of the riverbed, maybe 40-50 feet, and a ton of deadfall in the bottom that looked more like a shipwreck. Apparently a few hikers still tried to go that way, I’m not sure how they fared. At one point crossing the river there was the official PCT, but the “new PCT” was routed through a lovely old-growth forest of Cedars, some of which were 12 feet in diameter. Definitely worth the extra, flat, easy miles. Those giants had such a presence about them and Crush and I kept stopping to hug them and absorb their strength, their wisdom. As we continued back up river and started a gentle climb, we found ourselves immersed in a patch of liquidambar trees, donning leaves as giant as our heads, with hues of gold and yellow. The wind would rush in suddenly and stir the leaves, making them go fluttering through the air, falling so gently to the earth like rain. Dried leaves would crackle in the wind and under the stomping of our feet, that sound of Fall. I stopped and listened, paused to look up in the sky and watched the wind set free hundreds of leaves. I felt like I was one of those snowmen in the glass jar with glittering snow swirling all around me except these were leaves. It was a beautiful stretched out series of moments that like so many on a thru-hike, that can only be re-lived in your memory, and perhaps a video.
September 30th, 2016 was the day we made it to Stehekin, I started hiking in the dark again. There was a decent climb that morning and it was foggy and misty. It was so thick with moisture that at one point I actually stopped to put on my rain gear. I was tricked though, as the water was just dripping that heavily from the trees. Eventually I emerged onto a slope at the top of the climb and crested a ridge. On the exact opposite side of the ridge, I broke through the mist and entered the sun. It was like stepping through a looking glass the transition was so quick. As I walked on, I was relieved to be able to see the valley below, and the direction we were headed. I was tempted to stop and sit on a rock and meditate with the sun on my back, which I did for 45 minutes. I used this time to come to yet another level of peace within myself within this journey, and to embrace and accept the closing of it. It was a very valuable time, sitting on that rock, and I will never forget how wonderful that sun felt, how silent was my mind and how happy was my heart. Inhale….peace, Exhale….peace.
Shortly, I got going again, and as I looked back to where I had come from, the clouds were literally billowing in over the ridge and forming waves, the kind of waves you see in the ocean, picture perfect barrels.
When I made it just shy of our lunch spot, it looked as if we needed to ford a creek, so I waited for Crush and made myself some coffee in the meantime. Shortly she joined me and we had a brief lunch, not a relaxing one like the previous days had been. We had to book it, if we were to make it to Stehekin that day. We forded the creek and after getting shoes back on, we took off down the trail at a swift pace, chanting “bay-ker-ree” over and over again. We held unrealistic hopes that we would be able to get to the bakery that day, not knowing how late it stayed open. I had been reading about this bakery for more than a year, and it was definitely something we were all looking forward to. At this point on the trail, it inevitably came up in every hiker conversation, it was the same when we got to Mount Hood and Timberline Lodge.We even had discussions about what each of our fantasy pastries were and what we hoped they would have there. Crush’s was millefueille and mine was pain au chocolat. I had developed a serious addiction to chocolate croissants while hiking the the French Alps last Summer, and I have to say, they just hit the spot like nothing else. Along the PCT, I developed a habit of hitting up the pastry shops in every trail town I passed through, hoping for one, or two. As much as I was enjoying all this beauty and every moment on the trail, the pastries beckoned, and going to town was also a special part of the whole adventure of thru-hiking.
Stehekin was this elusive place I had been reading about for a year and it was the last town stop on the PCT. How can I be at the end? There was only a couple of ways to get to the town with a population of 75 people. The options were to walk in by an 11 mile road from the trail where it intersected with the river and a dirt road, or take the shuttle from that bridge (called the High Bridge), which ran about four times a day, stopping at the bakery on the way in. These were hiker options, and I don’t know of anyone who opted not to take the shuttle, especially since it stopped at the bakery! Other visitors could take a boat or small plane that seats maybe four passengers and lands on the water, from the town of Chelan into Stehekin. It was also a little unclear what was in Stehekin, like a restaurant or possibly two, but there were 7 miles or so between the two places that served food and had potential lodging. There was a campground, and a post-office at one end and the bakery was a couple miles from there. It all seemed a bit confusing until we got there. Because of all these things, Stehekin held it’s own mysterious power for me. When you look at the overall map of the PCT, Stehekin is so far North, and one of those places that just seemed to always exist in the future, I was so far away for so long, like I was never going to actually be there. For the past six months, Stehekin was in the shadows of Canada. Now, it was smack in front of me! During the past couple of days I had been getting messages from Southbounders letting me know that Mama Lion and Boone were not too far ahead of me. It gave me hope that if they took a day off at Stehekin, I just might catch them! I held on to that hope, but knew there was always the possibility that I may not see them again. Since Sisters in Oregon, they had been consistently two days ahead of me. I could not seem to catch them! Fingers pressed on and figured if they were anywhere in Stehekin, I would find them.
I planned to take one last zero in Stehekin, pining to get a room of some sort for a night, because there was a forecast for rain again. I didn’t want to have to start my last week on the trail already wet. Plus, I wanted the time and some privacy to write and think and process what it was going to mean to be done with this journey. I would have all the zero days in the world after next week. What a concept. It was hard to wrap my head around. So, taking a day off there was sacred to me. I could not rush this last push to the border with my head down in determination. I did not want the shock of being done just suddenly one day, like that’s it, finished, with that last week being a blur. I needed time to start saying goodbye to this life, to the trail, to burn the feelings into my memory of what this life felt like, to make sure I would never ever forget how prescious this all has been to me.
By about 5:00pm that day we had made it to the border of North Cascdes National Park, which Stehekin is a part of. We rushed across the river and met up with several other hikers who were waiting for the shuttle into town. The bakery, unfortunately was closed for the day, so we would have to wait just a little bit longer, like 10 more hours, but who’s counting? I was exhausted and in pain by the time we got there, yet I was happy we made it, and still full of emotional energy from the beauty of that whole section that week. We saw and felt so much, it was so rich and overflowing with color, depth and vast beauty, and it had been breathtaking, literally and figuratively. It was all that which feeds your soul, and it was not only just that past week, it was all coming full circle to me from my entire hike, all of it, barreling in, pumping my heart. Inhale…..peace, Exhale…..peace.