Northern Washington: The End is Nigh.

A WEIRD HITCH

The day we get into Steven’s Pass I am exhausted and my feet hurt. It’s hot. The last hot day I’ll see on trail. The final climb drains me so much that I throw my pack down as I cross the saddle, sit down in the shade and cry.

We get another weird van hitch. Man I’ve had a lot of weird hitches. Some of them, like this dude, are a wee bit creepy. He asks that the women sit up front with him and I tell myself it’s because he’s old fashioned or because his dog doesn’t do well with men. He (generously) offers us all whiskey from solo cups and I pause for a moment after my first sip. I let my imagination follow a storyline in which he has spiked the whiskey and we’ll all wake up hours later in the woods, but not in a good way.

Mostly I enjoy weird hitches. Like I enjoy the small, strange American towns we’ve passed through. A woman who drove me to Yreka weeks ago told me that she hates the new California governor. When I ask why she explains that he’s gotten rid of the death penalty, which she fervently supports. She was a victim of a terrible crime earlier in her life and this is now her single issue platform.

THE BORDER. IT’S CLOSED YOU GUYS.

We go to Leavenworth, a faux Bavarian mountain town where you can cover a bratwurst in twelve different condiments and spend several hours in a Christmas themed store.

It’s in Leavenworth that we find out the final 17 miles of the PCT are now closed due to wildfires. We are not going to the border. We may not be going any further at all. There are wildfires near the trail for the entire remaining stretch – the last 190ish miles. With the air quality worsening, no sign of rain and with no chance of seeing the Northern Terminus, hikers all around us are calling it quits in Leavenworth. They’re bailing off the trail and heading home.

We drink. We drink and then we decide to keep hiking and see how bad the smoke is. None of the fires near this section are big or very active at present.

After our last planned zero Downhill Daddy and I hitch back to Steven’s Pass, where we cowboy camp outside the visitor’s centre on the concrete under the florescent lights. It is maybe my grimmest campsite yet.

BALD EAGLES AND MARMOTS

Hiking into the twilight through a pink-tinged boulder field I hear the haunting cry of a… bald eagle? People in books always describe them as having haunting cries. This thing is wailing and hooting as sorrowfully as a 90s Disney Princess who’s been locked in a tower in a morally bankrupt tale about filial obedience and being rescued by a dude who thinks being locked in a tower means she’s not like other girls. It’s quite beautiful.

When I see other hikers at camp I ask them if they heard the eagle. Was it an eagle? They look at me skeptically and say they haven’t seen or heard anything like an eagle. I tell them about the haunting cries and they gently suggest it might be the marmots. Marmots whistle very loudly they say. Nonsense! This is definitely a bird. Couldn’t possibly be those chunky mountain beavers.

The next day as I walk through a dramatic landscape of granite and pine an enormous marmot ascends a boulder. It raises its head, nose to the wind, majestically surveying its rocky kingdom. It glances at me, supremely unconcerned before rocking back on its haunches, filling its lungs and wailling with all its might, its haunting cry echoing across the mountains.

THE LAST, LONG STRETCH

The section from Steven’s Pass to Stehekin is roughly 107 miles and we’re planning to take 5.5 days to do it. The elevation profile looks like the teeth of a comb. Looking at it makes my calves hurt. My calves are enormous now by the way. Huge and hairy to go with my EU size 44 hobbit feet. I knew my feet would get bigger on the trail, spreading under the constant load over thousands of miles, but I didn’t think they’d expand into the range of sasquatch.

It’s the longest food carry (by miles) that I’ve done so far (I think) and we’re hungry. Climbs make you hungry. Our resupply took up the entire eight person table at our airbnb. I try to pack it all into my food bag and it spills over the top. I crush some things and heft it several times, testing the weight. Then I take a bunch of food out until it fits and tell myself I’ll be fine if I’m a little hungry.

The next day I’m hiking along a narrow section of trail bordered by the thriving blueberry bushes of Northern Washington.

I slip down the steep side of the trail where the bushes cover the crumbling edge.

With one foot still on the trail and the rest of my body hanging somewhere down the slope I pause and wait for things to hurt. Donwhill, who was right behind me, reaches out reflexively to help me and falls clear off the trail himself, the edge disintegrating under him. He is okay; my leg is scraped up and I’ve sprained my left thumb. It starts to swell and by nightfall it’s a squishy, pulpy mess, but I can still hold a trekking pole.

It’s getting dark when we arrive at the ridge we plan to camp on. It’s windy and I’m freezing. The water at this campsite is off trail and I volunteer to climb down the steep trail to where it’s supposed to be. I get… lost. It takes me almost forty minutes as the sun sets and the light fades from orange to pink. I find the water, collect it from the barely flowing trickle and climb back up to our camp just as the sun dips completely behind the mountains.

In the morning a visitor sits atop my pack. A huge insect clad in stiff brown armour, her atennae the length of my finger searching out a path forward. I snuggle into my quilt and watch her lift each wonky leg high, taking comically exaggerated steps as she explores this neon world. Eventually, I lift her gently out of the vestibule and back into the big, wide world before finding my socks and getting dressed.

It’s not long before we can see the fires that are near the trail in this section.

They’re small and burning slowly, thin pillars of white smoke drifting upwards, unbent by wind. We see them from every angle as we move north winding through peaks and valleys, surrounded by white capped mountains on every side. They are sedate, the air quality is good, it is raining and we are not worried.

Blueberries. There are so many blueberries.

It feels like this must be where all the blueberries in the world are growing. How do people get up here to pick them and send them to grocery stores? I don’t know. Every day I get up and decide I will move faster, get an extra few miles in before dark. Then I come across an extra-luscious patch of berries and it’s only when I start to shiver that I’m motivated to stop picking and keep walking. My lips and fingers are permanently stained purple.

I’M COLD ALL THE TIME

It’s not actually that cold – it’s not even freezing at night – but I am cold and I can’t seem to warm up. I am cold every second of the day unless I am actively climbing. Unhelpfully, I’ve finally ditched my pants for the last 200 miles. Not that my hiking pants were warm anyway. The trail isn’t as exposed anymore, the bugs have eased off and I feel comfortable with more exposed skin. Now in the mornings I’m rocking the bare-legged snowman look – every layer I have on top, including gloves, and goosebumps on the bottom.

I’m finding it difficult to take breaks because I instantly start to shiver. I stand in the direct sun but it doesn’t warm me. When we stop to eat, we hurriedly bundle me up in both our puffies and rain jackets but I still shake. It’s making me miserable, and for the first time since I started Washington, I want the trail to end, just so I can warm up. I’m not sure why. I haven’t lost that much fat, I’m eating and drinking enough and I’m not sick. Anaemia? The inescapable exhaustion of hiking 1700ish miles?

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Comments 7

  • Craig Leuthold : Oct 10th

    Jamie

    The berries you describe as blueberries are actually huckleberries indigenous to the mountains of NW America

    Reply
    • Jaimie : Oct 11th

      The berries I described are most likely Vaccinium caespitosum (dwarf bilberry), Vaccinium ovalifolium (oval-leafed blueberry) or Vaccinium deliciosum (cascade bilberry). Vaccinium membranaceum (Montana huckleberries/black huckleberries) also grow in the area and I ate plenty of those too. I believe they are all native to the Cascades. Vaccinium membranaceum are taller shrubs with berries that range in colour on a single plant from pink-red-purple. The berries always grow singly in a leaf axis. Bilberry/blueberry bushes will only have blue-coloured berries on a single plant and their berries often grow in pairs. Blueberries within the section Vaccinium Cyanococcus grow in clusters, and these are the ones that have pale flesh rather than red/purple flesh.

      Reply
      • Marc Av : Oct 16th

        Man, you womansplained the heck out of that.

        Reply
  • Michael lewallen : Oct 11th

    Jamie, nice writing style. Detailed with humor, i will miss the descriptions of trail life when you complete this great adventure.

    Reply
  • Kriss : Oct 11th

    Would love to read more of Jaimie’s adventures on the PCT.

    Reply
    • Kate : Oct 13th

      Perfectly funny read says an experienced hiker,
      Thanks

      Reply
  • Seattlefreeze : Oct 15th

    I’m in love with you adventure. Thank you for the photos 🙂

    Reply

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