Episode 17: Bump in the Night
White Pass to Snoqualmie (Mile 2410)
We stayed at White Pass for the night and picked up some packages to get us through Washington. Looking ahead at the final stretch, our gear has been failing faster than we can keep up with. Both of our Platypus bladders finally blew leaks in Oregon, so we ordered a new one and patched the other. We also ordered a new backpack for Little Spoon. His old ULA has survived (almost) two thru-hikes, and the stabilizer straps have completely detached from the pack. Although he assured me that he could keep holding it together with paracord, the mouse holes in the bottom of his bag and the broken zippers on his hip belt suggested to me that maybe it was time to invest in an upgrade. ULA managed to get the bag to the general store outside of Naches in a couple of days, expediting the shipping at only a small and apparently unimportant cost to address accuracy, since we still left White’s Pass with a shiny new pack for ‘Mike Santuski’ at ‘Nachos, Washington’.
Feeling prepared and full of gas station pizza, we made about 20 miles after lunch on some of the nicest terrain we’ve seen in a while. Centerfold and Spoon went ahead and I followed with one eye on the trail and the other on a stunning sunset. As the sky was starting to get really beautiful, I saw a note some hiker had scratched in the dirt. It just said ‘Goat’ and pointed to the left. My first thought was that it was a note for a hiker with the trail name Goat, maybe letting them know about camping? But I looked off to my left and only saw a field of rocks that would have been pretty unsuitable. Then I wondered if someone had actually left this because they saw a mountain goat. I laughed out loud at the thought that somebody had ‘labeled’ such a fleeting experience as a goat sighting. Then I realized there was actually a goat there.
Perched way up on the rock face, a bright white mountain goat seemed to be lying down on the air. It’s amazing how goats can cling to sheer rock so effortlessly; this goat looked like it was trying to sleep here, staring out at the same sunset I had been distracted by. I often find animals looking out at sunsets and I always wonder what their reasoning is. Are they looking for predators and prey or changes in the landscape? I imagine that they are appreciating the last daylight; that they are soaking in the light because they value it more than us. If anything, they see the sunset as it should be seen – the end of a utility, a time to find safety.
The time for day animals was ending, and as I reached camp where Centerfold and Spoon were, the night dwellers were coming awake. We are aware always on the PCT that we have neighbors; we share the trail with more four-legged travelers than two-legged, and we’ve gotten used to their habits. Squirrels chide us for coveting their acorns, grouse pop out on a whim and flap around wildly, deer stare at us dumbfounded, and lately some creature has been making this absurd squeaking sound from scree piles. Even the extremely rare sighting of a goat from far away is exhilarating, but not unexpected. Animals, unlike people, are predicable.
We were the only tents that side of the lake, and we fell asleep after eating dinner under the stars. At 4AM, we woke up to the sound, directly next to our tent, of a woman screaming.
We came out of our dream state to the horrible realization that the sound we heard wasn’t human. The scream faded to a guttural sound and then, before we could react, something enormous came thundering towards us. It ran between our tent and Centerfold’s, so close that we could feel the ground vibrate with each footfall. Whatever was out there was big, and I only knew of one big animal that screamed.
“Mountain lion,” I whispered to Spoon. This area has cougars, and while I knew in my rational brain that they rarely threaten humans, I couldn’t erase the mental image of a tawny predator creeping so close to our tent that its shadow could pass over us.
Spoon was braver than me, and he threw open the rain fly and searched the surrounding area with his headlamp, but the animal was gone. We called out to Centerfold, who seemed to be still, impossibly, asleep, and eventually we lay there listening to the chorus around us. We were in a bowl and for the rest of the night we heard screams from all directions, followed by eerie flute sounds. For two hours we stayed awake, full of adrenaline, listening to what sounded like someone playing a recorder or pan flute in the woods. It was like trying to sleep in a Guillermo Del Toro movie. The cacophony was both horrible and beautiful – almost melodic – and when we did fall asleep our dreams were haunted with this faceless night music.
In the morning, we woke up to the sound of Centerfold packing up. The light had brought back the sounds we knew; for once, I was happy to hear disgruntled Jays cawing over us. This was the soundscape we were used to. We called out to Centerfold, “Hey! Did you hear that animal last night?”
“Oh, that’s what you were freaking out about?” He said. “I thought you had set your alarms to East Coast time or something. I take sleeping pills and wear earplugs.” He had woken up to our headlamps, not the screaming hell beast beside him or the passing of what might have been a predator that outweighed him. “Well, good to know you guys still know your time zones!” He added, and trotted off down the trail while we sat red-eyed with our morning coffee. I guess it’s good to know we can’t accidentally wake him up with our snoring.
We got a justifiably late start that day, for a nice change of pace. Today we went through Chinook Pass, which turned out to be a pretty eventful experience since it was also a gorgeous Saturday. We must have seen a thousand people on the trail. As we got closer to the pass, the trail became an assembly line of day-hikers asking us questions that we didn’t know how to answer. “How far is the view?” Asked a couple standing in front of what I thought was a beautiful view. “How far to the top?” Another person asked vaguely. Many people asked us where we were camping and we answered honestly. “We’re not sure, maybe in another fifteen miles?” For a couple hours, we waded through a sea of perfume, cologne, and laundry detergent before leaving the ‘fragrance range’. I can only imagine what we smelled like to them, since we haven’t been able to smell ourselves for months.
At the last day-hiker refuge, we filtered water out of a lake while the parents of children who were apparently bathing in the lake stared at us in horror. It wasn’t our first choice for water sources, but it was still no Mojave horse trough. We were glad to see another obvious thru-hiker, and spent lunch chatting with Amoeba, who was a welcome change in our usual conversation (mostly, we talk about our bodily functions and which song has been stuck in our head for the past five days). He worked in news in both Vegas and Florida, so listening to him was the next best thing to a podcast.
We had told Centerfold we’d make it 27 miles but only 22.5 miles in, sunset was close. We were still a little spooked from our previous night and when we passed a great camping spot with Amoeba, we broke down and stopped for the night. We figured that Centerfold was probably used to waiting for us by now anyways, and we had a feeling we’d see him in Snoqualmie no matter what.
After a comparably dull night, we got up early and put in big miles with Amoeba’s company. We reached the Urich Cabin early and were confused and surprised to find it full of people. As we stood on the porch, looking out over morning mist coming off the meadow, a guy came outside holding an empty handle of rum. “We went through two of these last night, not one!” He said to the couple sitting on the porch. We decided we should probably move on, even though we were kindly offered a breakfast beer. The trail can be a crazy place, but I’ve learned that drinking before 9AM doesn’t suit my constitution.
Not a hundred yards later, we came out into a dirt parking lot where a bright orange jeep was circling. The guy behind the wheel yelled to us, “You guys hungry?!” For a thru-hiker in Washington, ‘hunger’ is a state synonymous with ‘conscious,’ so we nodded. “I’ve got fried chicken and cold cuts! The rest of the fixings are coming!” Just then, a second jeep that had been patched together from several different vehicles came flying into the parking lot and circled us. A dirt bike whirled by. It felt like we were getting trail magic from Mad Max. Pretty soon there were three jeeps, a handful of excited dogs, and a whole family of people feeding us platters of food. They were all dressed in SeaHawk gear and blasting the game on the radio. It was one of our best trail magic experiences yet. We were offered a beer for the second time that morning and, not wanting to upset the trail Gods, we gladly accepted. It was also after 9 at this point, so I figured I’d survive.
We left the trail magic full and yelling, “Go Hawks!” After the trail magic we hiked for a few hours without incident, then came around the corner to a hunter with a crossbow. “Thought you were a gaggle of geese with all that noise you were making!” He yelled, “I’m not going to get anything around here now!” We smiled and moved on, breaking into laughter when we were out of earshot. The rest of the day was a blur, and by the time we reached an old road bed at dusk, we had made our 28 mile goal, putting us closer to actually hitting Snoqualmie when we told Centerfold we would.
Amoeba hiked ahead the next day, hoping to get near to Snoqualmie. I suspected we wouldn’t get as far as him since we were both tired from the day before. I have no idea how Centerfold consistently does back-to-back 30 mile days; I always feel tired after a day in the high 20s. We hiked about 23 miles to a campsite 5.5 miles from Snoqualmie, leaving us with a short day tomorrow. Without Amoeba’s company, we were more aware of the change in the forest sounds. The reedy musical call we had heard during our mountain lion vigil repeated itself several times, albeit without any screaming. The squeaking sound we’ve been hearing is also more pronounced. It sounds like a dog’s chew toy is living in the rocks and piping up when we walk past. It makes us laugh and distracts us from the weird woodland orchestra.
The following morning, we had a gorgeous tiny hike to Snoqualmie Pass, which is a paradise for hikers. It has a food truck, a brewery, a hiker-friendly motel attached to a diner, and actual Wifi. It might be the only stop in all of Washington with reliable service in fact, and it was there that we were able to research the identity of our night visitor – an Elk. It’s their rutting season, and the sound they make called ‘bugling’ is better described as ‘nightmare music’, but I guess the latter name doesn’t sound as good in a nature pamphlet.
We met up with Centerfold and Amoeba at the motel, followed by none other than Boy Drogo (formerly known as Hagrid). We hiked the AT with Drogo back in 2013 and always seemed to be a day behind him. The funny part is that on this trail, it was just the opposite. For the first time since we split from Mile 55, we were in a town (or at least, a pull-off on the highway) surrounded by friends. In the false light and warmth of the motel, we sat drinking beers and talking. The early fall chill, the weather warning of snow, and the constant threat of rain couldn’t reach us here, and now the haunted night where we whispered until dawn seemed far away and even funny in the company of friends.
We are half way through Washington, with the most challenging terrain still ahead of us. We are ‘almost there’ by comparison, but there is 260 miles of remote wilderness ahead, with the promise of surprise in every day. We fell asleep that night with good beer in our heads, dreaming of monsters with antlers and the orange sun sinking.
Other links to check out:
Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski)
The Camel of Corvallis’ Instagram
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca)
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey)
Toe Touch’s Blog
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