My walk through Washington
As a semi-recent college graduate with two degrees, one in the natural sciences and one in the humanities, I figured I would present my experience walking through Washington state on the Pacific Crest Trail first in terms of the hard facts and second in terms of the anecdote.
My walk through Washington took me 26 days. I started on July 7th and entered the state of Oregon on August 2nd. I walked an average of 19 miles per day, which takes into account the one full zero that I took during this time, and a few other lower-mileage days I took to get into town. I took one nearo (near-zero) day to get into Stehekin, and walked only 5 miles that day. Most days that I set out to hike, I walked anywhere from 22 to 26 miles per day, and my last day in Washington, a state which is about 505 miles long, I walked 30 whole miles — for the first time on trail. On my walk I went through one pair of Altra Timps (which had about 200 miles on them before I got on trail). I sent resupply boxes to Stehekin, Steven’s Pass, Snoqualmie, and Trout Lake, and resupplied at the Kracker Barrel in White Pass.
And now, for the story.
I had never been to Washington State before starting on the PCT. Actually, I had never been to any of the states on the West Coast. And here’s the real kicker: I have never been backpacking before starting the Pacific Crest Trail. But! All of this is kind of on brand for me; my first time running a marathon was when I ran an ultra-marathon race about a week before hitting the trail. My first time visiting the city of Burlington, Vermont, where I lived before trail, was essentially to sign the lease for the apartment that I would move into a month later. And my first time traveling internationally, to Europe, was by myself. (And for the record, have you seen the Madrid airport?! There’s a train to get to different terminals! It’s insane and massive, and, yes, I did miss my connecting flight but that’s neither here nor there because ultimately I made my way to Portugal, the final destination, albeit pretty late.)
So before anyone gets all up in arms by me taking backpacking for a spin by going out and trying it every day for four and a half months, let me reiterate that I wasn’t concerned at all. This seems to be how I do things. Also, I spend lots of time outdoors. I know I like it there.
I came into Washington with just a couple preconceived notions: 1) It’s rainy there, although definitely less rainy this time of year (SOBO perk!) and 2) the mountains there are big. One of those assumptions was spot on, the mountains are in fact huge. Luckily the former assumption didn’t give me too much trouble. In my 26 days on trail, I experienced 25.5 days of blue skies.
I flew into Seattle and dropped myself, like a pin on Google Maps, right in the middle of the North Cascades a day later, hiking from Hart’s Pass to the border in a day and a half. Being from the East Coast, hiking out here is totally different from what I’m used to, and I realized that pretty quickly. The Pacific Crest Trail is long and windy and undulating, and is cut alongside and through mountains via passes, rather than up and over them. Coming from hiking mostly in New England, I was surprised by how easy it was for me to crank out miles because of the lack of summitting so far, but that’s definitely not to say that the Cascades didn’t kick my ass those first few days.
That first leg of the trail can be characterized for me by mosquitoes and blowdowns, but also by some of the most rugged and raw wilderness I had ever seen. There was access to water every mile or so, maybe even less. There was so much water that I could even be choosy about the taste or temperature of it, sometimes opting to refill at the next stream so that I could get some that was just a liiiiiiitle crispier. The mountains were huge and looming and silent. Sometimes marmots screamed at the top of their lungs, but other than that I was constantly amazed by how quiet it could be out there. And tiptoeing across snow, which was melting rapidly but still present, was always exciting, especially around mid-day when it was slushy and you wondered if today was the day you’d go sliding down the snow field into the pit of rocks at the base of the mountain.
Its true what they say about how the trail teaches you so much that you can’t possibly prepare for beforehand during those first few days. Here’s an example: I had thought that I was going to be washing my underwear every night at camp for the next day. It was silly of me to think that I was even going to be wearing underwear at all while hiking, because after walking 20+ miles per day wearing them you can imagine the levels of chafe that occur there.
My walk though Washington also presented me with some strange towns. The first of which was Stehekin, which seemed to me like a really well-kept secret, nestled at the foot of a bowl of mountains with Lake Chelan as its moat. I loved Stehekin, and I loved their overpriced veggie burger. Another weird one was Leavenworth, which is a Bavarian village. When I first heard this, I thought that there was maybe just a high density of German immigrants that had settled there. When I got there, someone told me that actually it was once a town with a dying economy, in need of a facelift and some cash flow. The solution to that was to give it a theme: Bavaria. This meant changing the fonts of every storefront sign to something that looked like it was out of Shrek – down to national chains like Starbucks and Subway which were denoted in the official font of Bavaria. Downtown there was a band of accordion-playing folks dressed in lederhosen and people were eating soft pretzels and I thought about what a shame it was that I eventually had to wake up from this dream.
Another thing I learned while walking is how much people look out for thru-hikers. Multiple times I had day-hikers ask me where I was headed, and when I told them Mexico, they looked more excited than I was. One family walked with me for four miles, asking me question after question about thru-hiking, my gear, and what I eat, and they insisted on sending a photo of me and their dog to my mom once they got back into service, just to let her know that I was okay. This actually happened again later down the trail with another family, another dog, and another texted photo to my mother.
“We want her to know that you have people looking out for you on the West Coast,” the trail-angel had said.
Somewhere in between White Pass and Trout Lake I got my trail name, Sassafast. I had had a few less than enjoyable interactions with a couple other thru-hikers on the trail, which resulted in me picking up the pace to leave them behind in one case, and leaving town to head back to trail alone in another. I was telling the stories of both of these interactions to some friends at camp one night, and was probably being very sarcastic about it. My friend said, “What about Sassafras for your name? Because you’re sassy and you didn’t put up with those dudes’ shit?” My other friend chimed in, “And she’s originally from Mass! Even though she’s been telling everyone she’s from Vermont! Sass from Mass!”
So it was settled, I thought, until I got to Trout Lake two days later after hiking alone for most of it. (Trout Lake, by the way is an incredible town. Another instance where I felt truly supported and cared about as a thru-hiker by folks off-trail who really just want to help you and make sure you have everything you need in order to finish.) I was in the general store and had been in town for a couple hours when one of them stormed in, hot off the trail, and pointed at me. He said, “We changed your name! It’s Sassafast now, because when you left the next morning we thought we’d never see you again!” So, it was re-settled, and I like this version even better.
One of the most impactful moments for me in Washington happened just before I got into Mt. Rainier National Park. I passed a mother and her two children out for a hike when the mom asked me if I was thru-hiking. When I said yes, she looked elated, and grabbed her small daughter’s shoulders, asking me, “What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a young lady backpacker who wants to do the trail someday?”
Feeling like I was definitely not authorized to give any child any sort of advice whatsoever, and also barely even knowing how to talk to kids, I had to think about this for a minute. After all, this was my first backpacking trip, ever. I saw that she was already wearing a backpacking pack and trail runners and I told her just to keep at it because there’s so much you learn as you go – and she was probably already a better, more experienced backpacker than I was! Her mom said she was a runner and we talked about how a thru-hike is just aid-station to aid-station: you have to look at it in bite-sized pieces, not in its 2,650 mile entirety. Towns are aid stations, or a cold river swim after a hot day is an aid station, or a mouth-watering dessert at camp after (or in place of) dinner is an aid station; whatever you might need to get you through the hard stuff and up and moving again until the next stop.
As I walked across the Bridge of the Gods, I realized that I was done with a bite-sized piece, and trust me, Washington was a mouthful. I had never walked across a state before, never walked 500 miles ever, and never drank a Rainier beer so I brought one to cheers goodbye to WA as I walked across the bridge. I was crying and smiling and cars were no doubt wondering what my deal was as I drank beer through the tears. But I was just so happy to be onto Oregon, and so grateful for Washington but also kind of like, thanks for the memories, you bastard, you gave me a run for my money. But truly, Washington was a real treat, and she introduced me to the Pacific Crest Trail by showing me her best (Goat Rocks, exuberant day-hikers/weekenders/trail angels, meadows painted with wildflowers, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Rainier) and her worst (you guessed it, mosquitoes and blowdowns). I’ll miss Washington, but I hear Oregon’s not too bad either. I’ll let you know my review in a couple weeks.
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Damn you write so well !! And I read lots of vlogs and blogs . 4.0, A+. Well done
Also, quite inspiring, cant wait for your next posting.
What an amazing Journey, can’t wait to hear more, we’re all routing for you, you go girl!
Gorgeous photos!! Thank you for sharing them! And your post was wonderful to read – simple and fun. Looking forward to the story about Oregon.
Great story, really enjoyed it. Loved the part with that Rainier beer! Happy to have provided that. Nice to chat with you on the trail. Hope to read about Oregon and California. Enjoy yourself, best of luck.