Part Seventeen – Catching Second Wind: Entering Washington
I spent the better part of the weekend in Cascade Locks laying down in bed, icing and rolling my shins so that my body would hopefully be ready and free of pain to undertake Washington, the last State on the PCT—the last 505 miles. Reaching the town of Cascade Locks was liberating. Not only did it feel like I had made great progress, coming out of a rough stretch through Oregon, but it felt like I could touch the end with my finger. I felt like nothing could stop me now.
On a gloomy Monday morning, while people dressed themselves to go to work, I departed my motel room and walked up to the infamous Bridge of the Gods; a 565-meter-long steel truss cantilever bridge that spanned 43 meters above the Columbia River, connecting both the States of Oregon and Washington. The bridge was famous for its appearance in the final moments of the movie “Wild,” except for me, the adventure continued for another few hundred miles.
Singing in the Rain
Crossing the Bridge of the Gods felt like having a big bowl of fresh air. I was excited to explore Washington, a section that many on the PCT considered their favorite with the Sierra. It would bring us back to the mountains, hiking over high passes and deep canyons, and offering unforgettable views. I felt light, both psychologically and physically. After being angry at the trail for most of Oregon, I felt as if I was falling in love with it again. These two days of doing completely nothing helped a lot. My body felt rested, and my shins didn’t hurt anymore even though I could feel the tissues attached to my shinbone creaking every other step. But still, no pain.
Leaving Cascade Locks, the lowest point on the PCT, and climbing back up in the mountains, I managed my efforts. I didn’t want to get injured again and wished to finish the trail in good shape. My goal was to do 25 miles a day until I reached the Canadian border. Almost a marathon per day. This would put me on track to finish in mid-September, which I judged early enough to avoid early winter storms. 25 miles didn’t seem like a lot compared to what I had done so far, but in Washington miles, it would. The last State on the PCT had the reputation of being hard, with long and steep climbs through blowdowns and overgrowth, that made the Sierra look easy. The trail was not going to make it easy on us, I knew that by now. I also didn’t mind it. Easy wasn’t what I was looking for. If it was, it would take away all the fun.
Washington also had another reputation: rain. And it lived up to it. For the first five days after entering Washington, it rained every single one. Hiking through shrubs soaked in water felt like walking into a carwash. My legs and feet were wet only a few minutes after leaving camp in the morning. Even when the rain would give me a short break, the water that had accumulated on the leaves of the lush forest continued dropping on me. When reaching a viewpoint, the landscape around me faded and disappeared into the whiteness of the mist, giving me the impression of looking at a painting that had yet to be finished. The absence of views could have impacted my mood, and yet, I was happy. I felt no pain and was full of energy. The rainy weather kept me from taking breaks for fear of getting cold, and as a result, I covered my daily 25 miles quite rapidly. While the weather was wet and cooler than in Oregon, this was a change that I welcomed. I managed to stay dry enough most nights to not let it affect my sleep. One afternoon, I was hiking through the green lush forest surrounded by lakes (but no mosquitoes!) when suddenly I came across a group of four female hikers walking with… lamas! As I walked toward them to greet them, the first of their group addressed me:
“Ahh, you know when I saw your big smile from far away, it just made me so happy!”
I hadn’t realized it until she pointed it out, but it was true: I had been walking with a smile the whole day.
The Beauty of Washington
After four days of rain and not being able to see anything, and just as I was starting to feel a little bit annoyed by the fact that I was missing out on all the beauty of Washington, the hiking Gods finally offered me some relief.
I pitched my tent in a thick mist, not knowing what was around me. Throughout the night, I could hear loud rumblings in the distance wondering what that may be. When I woke up in the morning, I stuck my head through the door of my tent to check the weather outside. I was expecting to find the same layer of fog swallowing everything around me, but what I discovered left me euphoric. Just in front of my eyes, right where I couldn’t see anything just the day before, laid the snow-covered Mt Adams. It was there all along, speaking to me through the sound of its glacier breaking. I started laughing alone, like a kid who had just gotten the Christmas gift he had waited for so impatiently all year. The clear blue sky was my gift.
Full of gratefulness and joy, I made my way through the Mt Adams wilderness. The whole horizon had cleared out, and Washington unveiled its beauty to me just in time as I reached Knife’s Edge, a popular ridge walk in the Goat Rocks wilderness offering panoramic views of the mountainous landscape. With Mt Adams in my rear mirror and Mt Rainier ahead, I carefully walked on the narrow dirt path, taking in the moment while being greeted by the whistling sound of marmots standing on rocks.
Words were hard to find to describe the beauty of Washington with the fairness it deserved. Similar to the Sierra, Washington made you feel small by showing the full extent of nature’s unpredictable power. The wind, so strong at times, seemed to move the sky, with clouds of different shapes and sizes swirling majestically in the air as if they were dancing the waltz through the immense canyons. Rivers, taking their source in the glaciers up above, surged through the rainforests, growing bigger and stronger the lower they went. Wildfires triggered by the rage of the Gods burnt freely through valleys and let us know of their threatening presence by covering the horizon with a smokey haze. The unpredictability of Washington’s elements was impressive, but thrilling. Its wilderness too. As I walked through the dense forest toward the Ulrich Cabin, the ground suddenly started shaking under the vibrations of a herd of elks that were running away from me. They had probably smelled me from afar. Note to myself: time to take a shower.
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