Heartbreak at the Northern Terminus
My eyes are sore and puffy from the smoke. I breathe in, also smoke. The air is thick with it and I’m amazed that I’m allowed to be here. I am so, so close to the Northern Terminus, only 3 miles away, yet I’m still convinced for some reason I won’t make it. Yesterday hiking from Harts Pass to Windy Pass, I had seen flames, a tree on fire, smoke plumes rising into the air, close to the trail, and floating away to make ironically beautiful sunsets and red tinged clouds. The drive from Mazama to Seattle can only be described as smokey. The drive from Seattle to Manning Park, we had seen the red glow of fire next to the trail. My injury aches and protests at me, it has done for over 1000 miles now. I tell myself, just get to the terminus, it doesn’t matter what happens after. I dare not believe that I am going to actually get there. So, so many obstacles, logistics, wild fires, 2 trips out of the country. I am in Canada now. For the first time since starting the Pacific Crest Trail, I walk South. I walk South towards the United States. It is only when I am 0.3 miles away, I start to cry. I realise that I will get to to the Northern Terminus. The tears are of relief, pride, gratitude but most of all, heartbreak. I hear my friends cheering ahead. They had made it. Finally my moment comes. I am in awe. There is monument 78 and next to it, is this wooden monument which every single hiker dreams of seeing, dreams of touching. A closure, that not only had I succeeded in my thru hike, but for now, my journey had ended, and then the tears of a broken heart started and I put my arms around the cold wooden statue and cried and cried and cried, longing for it to not be over. I had made it.
Fear or Fact
My journey to the terminus had taken me through Washington in October, which is famously a time that is advised to be avoided. I’d hiked all of Oregon alone, in a blissful state of solitude and reflection. For my final miles in Washington however, myself and Moo decided to hike together, to finish with a friend.
I am glad we did.
‘Don’t go alone into Glacier Peak Wilderness’ I had heard people say. Fear mongering on trail is to be taken with a pinch of salt and its something that really annoys me. Everybody has different limitations. ’No, seriously don’t be alone’. Why, after over 2000 miles of hiking were people still trying to scare me. The hiking in Washington is harder than Oregon, or most of California. Steep and rocky terrain, huge climbs and then descents, and the sun setting earlier and rising later, made it harder to get in the miles during daylight, but It still wasn’t clear why people were warning me though, as its not like any of the trail was easy.
A few days into Section K, what is known as the hardest section on the entire PCT, I started to understand.
Dark was falling. Moo was about one mile ahead of me. On FarOut someone said that they had counted 126 blowdowns in an 11mile descent. Another commented that they’d hurt their knee and were not sure they could hike out. ‘Be careful’ they wrote. I interpreted this as more fear mongering, but soon I would understand. When I found myself in front of a huge blowdown, unable to see which direction the trail was going in, I assumed it was on a switchback, and that the bear prints which I’d thought were footprints were heading down to that direction. It was steep. Really steep. I threw my pack and poles down towards a bush and slid down towards them on my butt. I looked around only to not be able to see the trail. I slid down some more. The river roaring below me at the bottom of the mountain, seemed louder. I had lost the trail, and I didn’t know how to get back up to find it. The terrain was dry, wood chips and pine needles. It was slippy and there were only a few small roots to cling on too. Think. ‘How would a bear get up? A bear has claws!’ I looked at my hands. Could I use my fingers like claws? I tried it. I dug each finger into the side of the mountain. Shaking, I pulled myself up. I texted Moo through Garmin. ‘Please could you wait for me? I just had an incident’. She coaxed me through another 50 blowdowns in the dark that night. We camped exhausted and bewildered. The following morning I walked through ancient forest and more blowdowns. The most innocent blowdown of all. A shiny white fallen tree, I put my foot over it, knowing all I needed to do was to keep my balance and I’d be over it. I paused. I felt myself slipping down it, down into the steep cliff. Again. I dug into that tree with my thighs. Kicked into the ground with my heels. Stabbed with my poles, trying to self arrest in the dirt. Nothing worked. I couldn’t stop my fall. It’s over. I wonder what will be broken. Less than 100 miles and it’s over. I opened my eyes. My face was in the dirt. My body was splayed open on my front. My backpack was still on, and my poles were flung. I had been very, very close to hitting a tree. Everything hurt, but nothing hurt too much. Nothing was broken! I was alive! I stood up, dripping blood from multiple wounds and went to find Moo, who I should add, is a nurse.
Section K, I decided, was hard. There are river crossings and other obstacles, but the thrill of the risk and the colours of Washington in fall, made it one of the best parts of trail. I walked all of Washington, all the way to Windy Pass, the official closure.
October 17. Manning Park, BC.
I had made it. I stood at the Northern Terminus with Moo, Blender, Lightening Rod and Twinkle Toes. Moo and I had driven through the night to get there, hardly daring to believe the Canadian side would still be open as the smoke was so bad. The others had bought Timbits and Prosecco and despite the fact I had chosen to hike alone for most of the trail, I will always be incredibly grateful to have shared this moment with friends. A memory we will always have together.
No break up is easy and after all, it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The last few weeks of the PCT, it was like I knew the breakup was coming. I knew that it wasn’t going to last forever, that the end was near, yet I kept going, kept loving the trail regardless. I kept throwing my trail weary body down every mountain and staggered up every climb. I started to resent each climb. The 25 miles out of Steheiken felt impossible. I was tired, I hurt, but I still loved fiercely, even though I knew the end was coming.
And then it was over. Turning my back on the trail and then leaving Manning Park. I cried when I washed the dirt from the trail off my body and my clothes for one last time that night. I felt so sad to know, for now, there will be no more dirt.
I told my friends and my family that I had succeeded my attempt to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail. They congratulated me, and then they asked me; ‘How do you feel? Are you Ok?’ I didn’t understand how they knew that I would be broken. I didn’t understand how instead of joy, I felt empty and lost. A 3 year journey, a dream since I was 20. All the planning, working, dedication to achieving something, it ends so abruptly and then we are thrown back into society confused and unsure and not realising that its not acceptable to wipe your nose on your sleeve and put Neosporin or chapstick on the cuts on your knee in public.
I’d wanted the lifestyle. I’d wanted the Pacific Crest Trail to be my home. I’d wanted to sleep out under the stars and sweat up climbs and watch the sunset on beautiful ridge lines every single day. It was never about reaching Canada, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t make it. I’ve heard rumours of hikers walking through the border fire closure, but after seeing how close the fires were to the trail, seeing actual flames and fresh smoke plumes starting before my eyes, I didn’t want my ending to be something I couldn’t be proud to share. I love how I also hiked the Canadian miles. The International Pacific Crest Trail! My ending was perfect.
I walked every single mile of the PCT which was officially open totalling 2577.1 miles. My journey started on the evening of May 4th and ended October 17th.
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