How a thru hike slips thru your fingers

  • Tough decisions sweetened with coffee and cream

It’s all such a routine until all of a sudden maybe you’re getting off trail.

 

Sashay gets word from the doctor and the news is good – the knee is ok. Hiking on it will most likely not make it worse, though he should listen to pain.

We could possibly get right back on trail, but do we trust his knee for 20 mile days far from towns and exit options? We don’t, at least not right away.

The Glacier Recovery Vortex

After a few days in Bonner’s Ferry, we’re feeling a bit old news. One zero is wonderful, a double zero is an occasional treat, but a triple zero makes me antsy. My body and mind start feeling stale.

Sashay hasn’t hiked on his knee since the pain, so we want trial milage. Bonner’s Ferry has good food, but without a car it’s hard to get to test hikes. Plus, if we have to do shorter miles they might as well be gorgeous. We hop a train to Glacier.

The trip is easy with the help (and hang out time) of trail angel Cathy and the Amtrak from Sandpoint, which drops us a short walk from Glacier NP.

Visiting Glacier without a car is a dream. We spend the first days in the front country. It’s easy to get hiker-biker sites, the shuttle drops us at day hikes so we do breezy 11 mile loops of pure views. Sashay’s knee complains, but not vigorously. A week after our ditch out, we decide his knee can likely handle the backcountry PNT northern traverse of the park. We keep the milage low, 13-15miles a day, and keep an eye on exit options.

The traverse is stunning and Sashay’s knee does well. We hike from Kintla Lakes, over the still snowy Boulder Pass. We camp at Lake Frances with a thousand foot waterfall in our backyard. I swim every day (read: jump in freezing water and make involuntary gasping hoots while  inelegantly scrambling back to the shore). We camp at Waterton lake and slack pack out to the Waterton border monument (to scratch an itch from my CDT hike last year when I ended at Chief Mountain). We see Wolverine and Twig, who’ve hiked all the miles we Amtraked. Stoney Indian Pass is overgrown but clear of snow and the walk out of the waterfall studded valley is dreamy. It takes us 4 cars to hitch from Chief Mountain to East Glacier, and then we’re at Looking Glass Basecamp – a hiker haven created by the beautiful Luna, one of the places on earth where I feel most comfortable as a happy, dirty piece of hiker trash.

It’s a triumphant stretch, but reality is seeping in. We’ve been making small decisions that individually seem innocuous but together are heralding the end of our hike. We hiked the Glacier section from West to East. If we were maneuvering to get back to thru hiking we would likely have gone the other way to ease transportation logistics. We hitched some miles of road from Polebridge to Kinla Lakes. If I knew we were getting back to our thru I would have walked that. We’ve taken over a week out of an already tight hiking season. The question is only half asked but eventually it’s answered. Our thru hike is over. We let it slip through our fingers, choosing not to push and grind but instead to swim and wander and slow. 

There are trips where getting off trail would have been crushing, but this is not that trip.

Part of my pre-hike prep for every trip is knowing my goals. It’s as important as checking that my gear works and deciding what layers to bring. I get a nice cup of coffee, write down all my goals and rank them in importance.

When a trip goes sideways, this is single best thing I do for myself.

Our most important goal was to spend time on the PNT and use the trail to do a reset. We were both ragged. We went on trail to feel healthier – mentally and physically – and in that sense we reached our goal. Sure, another goal was thru hiking it in a season. But for this trail, this year, that goal was far down on the list (below physical and mental health, having a good time together, lots of time outside in beautiful places, and making some good drawings.)

Didn’t finish this one on trail which means it’ll likely stay unfinished forever – after Trail ends there are other things to draw

But still, it’s a strange shift. Thru hiking is a reason, a structure, a meaning, a plan, a guiding principle, a badge of honor, an identity, a goal. Releasing that is tough. And your body is confused. It’s used to walking all day every day.

And there’s a shift from outdoor animal to indoor/outdoor. Things that are special treats on a thru hike – a bathroom, a bed, coffee with cream – they quickly shift from treats to norms. They’re lovely, seductive, they pad the reentry to off-trail life with perks and comforts but soon you turn around and recognize how you’ve traded these comforts for your wild self, that 20-mile self, that frame of mind and wad of muscle. That special self that really exists only when thru hiking. You have to say goodbye to it for now, and be the self that has a foot in both worlds. Eventually you don’t have an excuse to ignore your email anymore, you can’t eat a bag of chips every few days, you are no longer walking all day, every day, and that changes things, even if you get coffee and cream.

Glacier and the Olympics and other stunts in cherry-picking and section hiking

We decide if we’re scrapping the thru hike, we might as well get the good stuff. We’ll use Sashay’s knee on the best of the best. After Glacier, we hop the Amtrak again and take it west to Seattle where we finish our season with a week on the Westernmost miles of the trail – a few days in the mountains and then 3 days of beach walking on the Pacific Coast.

A perk of our hike getting disrupted – I got to do some drawings with different tools, in this case my ipad.


The beaches of Olympic National Park are some of the most beutiful hiking of my life.

There are rope ladders to haul yourself over headlands, tide charts to time your beach walks, tent sites nestled in driftwood on sand, rain forest trees wrapped in moss, sunsets and sunrises and the smell of brine and tide pools and slick rocks and swimming and waves as the last thing to hear before you fall asleep.

 

So our trek ends this year. Our apartment in the city is still sublet so we head to the island we’ve worked at before, doing some end-of-season hospitality work by the sea. I’m in the kitchens, and when I look up from slicing fruit there are waves crashing and gulls crying and the ocean’s horizon and there are plenty of things to draw. As for hiking, there will always be more.

 

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Comments 2

  • val vitols : Aug 27th

    Delightful narrative and sketches. A real treat! thank yu for sharing!

    Reply
  • Don : Aug 28th

    Eloquent in many ways

    Reply

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