Week 13: Bullying! Bugs! THE BUBBLE! (Miles 2078-2260.4)
The New Plan and Subsequent Confusion
Done with California! Hiking through Oregon! Days away from Washington! You’re confused? I’m fucking confused. (Yes, that’s in the Fezco voice; yes, I’m 36 and watch Euphoria.)
The plan was this: We’d hike to the northern terminus, get back to Little Crater Lake, and then complete the remainder of open trail southbound. In actuality, it could work out well. The pressure to get to Washington before the weather turned was officially gone. The fires could be suppressed by the time we headed south. There were even rumblings that the Lionshead closure was going to be opened soon. There were still hundreds and hundreds of miles left to hike. We christened our new adventure a fire flip-flop and tried to head out as if nothing had changed.
Yet bypassing nearly 25% of the PCT in a day had jolted the rhythm of the hike. In general, while you have an awareness of most trail towns, it’s not until the week or so before arriving that you start to hone in on what’s there and how that will affect your next stretch. This avoids the information overload and messiness that will happen if you try to plan everything while ensuring you don’t find yourself in Ye Olde Pillaged-By-Hikers Country Store spending $87 on gross protein bars and Kirkland beef jerky. For example, if I’m somewhere with a real grocery store and I see that the next town has a gas station resupply, I’ll load up on Breakfast Essentials because if I don’t have Breakfast Essentials I might die.
We’d time-traveled six weeks into the future and were lost AF. How many days were we planning for? What was the next town? Where were we? We’d soon arrive in Cascade Locks and cross the Bridge of the Gods into the Evergreen State. It was supposed to be momentous. Now it was just another place to get a burger and three days of food. For most of the trail, we hadn’t sent ourselves resupply boxes and had rarely struggled to find food. But everyone said that in Washington we had to send resupply boxes? There was somewhere called Trout Lake that none of us had heard of? Everything was weird.
Unearned Everything and Timberline Lodge
As stupid as it might seem, there was a palpable sense of failure. We’d set out to hike 2653 miles from Mexico to Canada and we were not going to do that. Compounding matters, for me at least, was the fact that our return to trail started 18 miles south of the legendary Timberline Lodge and its epic buffet.
Whether you arrive at breakfast or lunch, you’ll eat copious amounts of delicious food in a historical building with epic views. You’ll have probably hiked a long day on easy terrain, your hiker hunger will be in full force, and you’ll be not only pleased with yourself but deserving of the thousands of calories you can consume.
But I hadn’t hiked to the Timberline Lodge breakfast buffet from Campo, Mexico; I’d hiked there from a random horse camp at a random trailhead in northern Oregon that I’d arrived at after a car ride from Portland after a day-long train ride from Dunsmuir after a hitch from Mount Shasta, where we’d spent three days laying by a pool, eating overpriced meals, and being generally self-indulgent. I hadn’t earned a buffet, dammit! I’m not saying this in a disordered “I have to earn my calories” type of way: It’s not about the food – it’s about the abject failure. (I mean, it’s also because of FIRE, but I wasn’t thinking clearly…)
So when we got to the buffet, I abstained while Crisis and QLP headed inside. I sat in the lobby on a leather couch, charging my phone and eating Hummus from Safeway. Quincy La Porte snuck me a cookie and a pudding-like dessert, an acceptable compromise. I realize this seems like some demented Opus Dei-lite shit but at the time, it seemed an appropriate punishment for not hiking a large chunk of trail (which, I’d like to reiterate, was in the vicinity of a wildfire).
The Oregon Blues?
Pathological rejection of the buffet aside, I was delighted to be under towering trees in the green tunnel. Oregon reminded me of East Coast trails, but with bouncy pine duff and gentle grades. The snow-covered volcanoes against the blue sky looked fake in a good way. Sure, the logistics of getting back on trail had been stressful but we were northbound once again!
QLP and Crisis, on the other hand, were not as jolly. The sudden change in the landscape, the missing miles, and the alteration of a dream fused to formed a Wall of Low Morale around them.
The thing is, when you tell people you’re going to be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, they are often supportive. This is because you don’t sit down with your boyfriend and say, “Hey, I know we’ve been together for, like, three years, but I’m going to need you to do all the life admin BS while I abandon my responsibilities and abscond to the woods to eat Dollar General food and have lengthy conversations about the Te Araroa with relative strangers instead of continuing to build our life together. Also, you’re gonna need to send me stuff via Priority Mail whenever I ask for it.” You don’t tell your work supervisor, “Yo bossman, it’s depressing as hell to be on Zoom doing pointless meetings with and staring at everyone’s Old Navy button-downs while we circle jerk each other for our social media presence and SEO success so I’m going to go sleep in a tent and live like a college student again.”
No! They’re supportive because you say, “Love of my life (this could be the romantic partner or the job, TBH), we’ve been together for five of the best years of my life. I want you to know how much I cherish what we’ve built together. You’ve inspired me to be the fullest version of myself and to pursue goals I never thought I could achieve. Because of you, I dare to pursue my ambition to hike the length of the United States, to see its splendor and understand its complexity. Don’t think of it as me walking away from you, but walking towards our better future.” At this point, you push play on “The Star Spangled Banner” and bask in their applause.
It’s Just Freakin’ Walkin’
In short, the home team supports a long-distance hike because it is an Ambitious and Impressive Goal. We embark on long-distance hikes for that same reason. And it is ambitious; many people find it impressive. But it’s also just a walk. That’s not a bad thing. Framing it as “just a walk,” though, makes it challenging to justify to the people back home. If someone tells their boss they want to go to Germany and do a year-long Master’s degree in Economics to gain skills and credentials to excel in their career, that’s reasonable, maybe even encouraged. If that same person said they were going to go to the Seychelles and spend a year reading books, writing in a journal, and looking at the stars to gain clarity, most jobs would not welcome them back, regardless of the benefits reaped by the traveler.
I’m not saying this outlook is correct or that there’s anything wrong with going for a long-ass walk (or, for that matter, spending a year looking at the stars); rather, I’m trying to explain the vibe in our small group in the first few days in Oregon. I think there were feelings of displacement and aimless ambling that made it difficult for me and my compatriots in those first few days back on trail.
Everyone’s an Asshole
You know what wasn’t helping our reassimilation into trail culture 578 miles north of where we’d left it? Other hikers.
A few facts:
- In late July of 2022, multiple large wildfires broke out on or near the Pacific Crest Trail, causing many, many hikers to head northward to keep hiking.
- In late July of 2022, there were many, many hikers already in the northern Oregon/southern Washington area.
- Many, many hikers + many, many hikers = many, many, many, many hikers
- Another word for many, many, many, many hikers is “THE BUBBLE!”
Imagine the scene now that most of us from the Shasta bubble had floated on up to the other bigger bubble of hikers that had hiked there “correctly.” It’s a scene with a lot of people, that’s for sure. But in my mind, it should have been a scene of camaraderie, of acceptance.
It Was Not
I received the first comment during our first day back on trail. I was filtering water and a potential new friend strolled up to do the same.
“Hey. You NOBO or SOBO?”
“Yeah. But like…are you a true NOBO?”
I’m sorry – A true NOBO? Is this how Jon Snow felt being Ned Stark’s bastard?
“So you didn’t miss any miles because of the fires.”
“Actually, we were in Shasta when the fires broke out, so…” I launched into the story eagerly, expecting sympathy, if not shock. It’d been crazy, after all!
“So you didn’t hike here.”
“Well, we took the Pacific Crest Train, haha, to Portland, and then got on south of Timberline, but we’re going to hike the rest after we get to the border.” Why do I talk to men? Why? Did I think I was going to have a fucking meet-cute at the water source?
“I’m probably one of the only people who’ll be able to say they hiked every inch of the PCT this year.”
“What about the Lionshead?” Rhetorical question, as I already knew the answer.
“Oh, fuck that. I just went through at night.”
“Yeah, so I’ve done it all. And now it’s just like…I have nothing against you personally, but I was really enjoying having the views to myself.”
Whoa! What a dick!
“Well, sorry to ruin your views,” I said, packing at the speed of light and hiking away from this terrible individual.
I was peeved, obviously, but didn’t dwell. Can’t control people’s emotions, one bad apple, etc.
Not an Isolated Incident
The next day, though, we all reported similar interactions. In fact, nearly every goddamn conversation on the PCT between Cascade Locks and Canada was the same: Were we NOBO or SOBO? Were we “real” NOBOs? When had we started? Then they’d stand there and make diarrhea faces as they tried to do the math: 2167 minus 576 divided by…wait, when did you start? So this is day…92? Wait but how much did you skip?” It was exhausting and annoying and pointless.
We Mudbloods, as I started calling those of us who had bypassed flaming wilderness areas in the interest of safety, simply smiled beatifically and took it. Because what can you do?
The Worst Lady Ever
I try to be as vague as possible while maintaining a relatively interesting narrative. My friends have fake names, I rarely describe people or businesses in identifiable ways, and I try to make general statements about the ridiculousness of hiker culture without making personal attacks on individuals. I love snark – I love snark – but there’s a fine line between mischief and malevolence. After all, this weird little subculture is my weird little subculture. I’m out here in a black and magenta thrift store shirt eating Fast Breaks and posting on IG as much as anyone else.
All this to say that I’m making an exception to lambast an individual who I’ll refer to as The Worst Lady Ever. She was a mid-sixties hiker and a proud True NOBO. She was one of those people we could not shake, no matter how many miles we hiked or didn’t. And she was wretched.
“Hmm…I haven’t seen you,” she said upon meeting us, scanning us up and down. “Are you fire skippers?”
We rolled our eyes and dealt with it the first time, hoping she was like an annoying pop-up ad on the cheap version of Hulu: You watch the whole thing once, thinking that’ll let you get through a show uninterrupted, only to find out that you’re going to have to watch a minute and thirty-eight seconds-long spot about Rinvoq every other scene. This lady was the stupid-ass ad for Rinvoq.
She had a penchant for popping up constantly. This would’ve been fine had she not also had selective amnesia that only manifested itself when we appeared on trail. She desperately needed to know if we were fire skippers and asked us every damn time: “Remind me again: Were you fire skippers?” or “I can’t keep track of all of you: Are you fire skippers?” I wish I could say I was zen about everything but in truth I was furious. This lady sucked.
Within a few days, I noted two factions of hikers: The True NOBOs and the Fire Skippers. Meeting other “fire skippers” was a breath of fresh air; we’d commiserate about the needlessly unwelcome reception we were getting from belligerent hikers who’d happened to get a better slot than us in the permit date lottery. Encounters with the self-proclaimed true NOBOs were grating and unpleasant.
I’m making this sound worse than it was. In fact, this was not the biggest issue during this moment of the hike. The real problem was “THE BUBBLE!” Not even the actual bubble, per se, but the phrase itself: “THE BUBBLE!” Everyone was talking about the bubble. We were talking about the bubble. People in towns were talking about the bubble. True NOBOs were screeching about the bubble. (Another classic: “I busted big miles to get ahead of the bubble and now I’m in another bubble! This is bullshit!) The poor SOBOs were finding themselves as adhoc therapists as we fire skippers descended upon them, squawking: “OMG! It’s so nice to meet you! Everyone’s horrible!” And then trauma-dumping our not-actually-traumatic sadness onto the unwitting hikers who probably went south to avoid all this drama in the first place.
It’s not that we weren’t in the bubble. But again, what could we do? Saying “THE BUBBLE” wouldn’t make the bubble go away but no one could accept the bubble for what it was: Just a natural part of hiking during a period of social media and climate destruction. Like, everyone wants to blame Cheryl Strayed for “THE BUBBLE” but I think we should blame Big Oil.
At a certain point, we just started yelling “THE BUBBLE!” in a Pee Wee Herman voice. Yes, I realize this makes us part of the problem.
Chasing Waterfalls: Alternates on Alternates
Skipping nearly 600 miles of trail led to Hiking Nihilism. There were no more rules! It was all meaningless anyway! As Crisis said (perhaps too frequently), we are all a bunch of fools spinning around aimlessly on a dead rock or something to that effect. (I hope no one reads this for inspiration.) While this might sound depressing, it was actually liberating. As luck would have it, the Cascade Range in northern Oregon is laden with waterfalls, giving us new things to look forward to during this strange transition period.
Waterfall#1: Ramona Falls, or Not Impressed
Perk of being an atheist: You can say whatever you want about different land features and not worry you’re offending their creator. To that end, I often feel like waterfalls are overrated and Ramona Falls did nothing to sway my opinion. I didn’t even mention it in my notes from that day, so little of an impression did it make.
What does one even do at a waterfall? How many waterfall shots does one need? The pictures can’t capture the rush of the water or the spray on your face so you just end up with weird grayish lines. Crisis and I got lost on the PCT at some point after the Timberline Lodge, had to bushwhack back, decided to take the alternate, got a seven-second dusk view of Ramona Falls, yay, and then struggled to find somewhere to camp on the nearly-nonexistent river banks. We ended up camping on opposite sides of a fork of the Sandy River. QLP never showed up. When I woke up in the morning, Crisis was gone and QLP showed up. The two of us spent most of the day together and didn’t see Crisis till Cascade Locks.
Waterfall #2: Tunnel Falls, or Gaslit by Guthook
After the anticlimax of Ramona Falls, I didn’t have a particular desire to take the Eagle Creek alternate to Tunnel Falls. However, it’s the most popular alternate! A must, if you will. When I read about it on The App, people said the alternate was steep and dangerous and I got scared. In short, I fell for the fearmongering and took the alternate to the alternate, which was longer but fine, though it was in a burn scar that still smelled like fire.
Tunnel Falls was cool! Renewed my faith in waterfalls.
I ran into Quincy at a water source shortly after. We’d hiked 35 miles and so decided to call it a night even though it was still light out. Reading that sentence post-hike is ridiculous because these days my knees make a funny noise when I walk to the bathroom.
The Hot Mess of Cascade Locks
We headed into Cascade Locks intending to head back out again that same day. However, we had chores! We needed to resupply, we wanted to send boxes ahead to Snoqualmie and Stehekin, and we wanted to eat hearty food. There was a Walmart about 20 minutes away in Hood River so the plan was to take the bus there, get three resupplies of food, take the bus back to Cascade Locks, efficiently assemble the resupply boxes, ship them off, grab some food, and be out on trail by early afternoon.
That’s not what happened.
Firstly, I’d gotten my period the previous evening, and the thought of heading out into the woods on the notorious Cycle: Day Two was more than I could bear. Secondly, the bus schedule was extremely confusing and we ended up hitching both to and from Walmart. Thirdly, it’s not easy to “run into Walmart and grab three resupplies of food.” Fourthly, Quincy was, for some reason, having a hell of a time assembling his resupply boxes. He was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk in a straw hat, surrounded by drink mix packets and Luna Bars and Complete Cookies. The whole scene was stressing us out, so Crisis and I were heckling him, which was stressing him out, which was causing him to pack the boxes slowly. Fifthly, none of that mattered because the Cascade Locks P.O. closed for an hour for lunch at the exact time we were about to send the boxes. Sixthly and most importantly, though, two friends Crisis and I hiked with in the desert – members of the original Loose Alliance of Similarly-Paced Hikers – had texted that they were about to get to Cascade Locks.
Whew! Town is hard. We decided to stay.
The Bridge of the Gods
Is there anything more magical than an on-trail reunion with people you didn’t know you’d see again? No. We spent the night at the waterfront campground – a veritable tent city in the heart of “THE BUBBLE!” – catching up with our old hiking companions, meeting each other’s new hiking companions, and generally having a fabulous time. We’d all had to skip miles, we’d all made it this far, and we were all about to enter the fabled state of Washington.
The following morning, our small trio headed out on trail. Kidding! We made it a block and a half to a coffee shop and spent an hour and a half there. Then we crossed the Bridge of the Gods. Certain on-trail moments are so hyped up that they become anti-climactic; this was not one of them. Who cared about what was south of us? We were heading into 505 miles of epic, gorgeous, challenging trail in the height of summer – how lucky were we? Whatever had happened during the previous week didn’t matter. We’d gotten to cross a state border; we were going to hike to Canada.
Waterfall #3: Panther Creek Falls, or Are We Even PCT Hikers at This Point?
The morning after Cascade Locks, I found Crisis and QLP three miles into the day involved in a hiker feed – doughnuts, chips, and huckleberry soda. The real trail magic, though, was they’d learned about yet another waterfall-ternate – and this one was a little sneaky. There was a waterfall, yes, but it was also a roadwalk that would cut off six miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, including the long, large climb that dominated the day.
I was conflicted. The other alternates had been trail alternates but this just seemed like cheating! Also, a road walk? Who wanted to walk on the road? But who wanted to climb a random, viewless mountain only to descend it immediately? I debated taking the PCT for seven seconds and then said, fuck it.
In Cascade Locks, a hiker – who we called The Weed Fairy – had given us weed chocolate. A tedious road walk seemed like the perfect place to consume them. They took a while to kick in, as edibles tend to do, but by the time we reached Panther Falls – falling at a “fine” on my anti-waterfall rating scale – I was suddenly very high, not in an “I feel super relaxed” type of way but in an eye-spinning “when the edibles hit” type of way.
There were a few other hikers there (fire skippers, thankfully) so we joined them in The Sprawl: Pack explosion, legs akimbo, half-eaten bags of food everywhere. On most parts of the trail, this is fine because there’s rarely anyone else around. Panther Creek Falls, though, was not on the trail; rather, it was off a paved road down a really short trail easily accessed by the general public. Also, it was a beautiful August Saturday.
I lay in the dirt, head-to-head with Quincy, shamelessly creating an 11-foot-tall degeneracy mess that occupied a quarter of the small viewing platform. Are you kidding me? Imagine you’re a cute local couple out for the day with your kids. You decide to go to Panther Creek Falls. When you get there you find adult humans with $300 backpacks laying in the middle of the ground. For this you left Seattle??
There was no way we could have moved, though.
At least QLP and I were just laying there. Our chocolates had been called “Chill” or “Peace” or something. Crisis, bless his heart, had eaten “Love.” He didn’t last long at the busy viewing platform, choosing instead to go off on a different trail to be alone. I don’t wanna know.
Trout Lake: A Perfect Trail Town
Many people say Washington is the hardest state to hike. It’s certainly not easy, and there is significant elevation. However, most people get to Washington when they’re physically and mentally exhausted. They’ve hiked 2000 miles; they might be over it.
We, however, got to Washington in our NorCal prime. We’d feared the long food carries and steep climbs but realized that if we were hiking 30 miles a day, the food carries wouldn’t be as long and thus our lighter packs would make the climbs less brutal. We left Cascade Locks on Friday morning and were in Trout Lake by lunchtime on Sunday. It felt fucking amazing.
Trout Lake is one of those genius towns where they took their proximity to the PCT and ran with it. Town is about 14 miles from the trailhead so they’ve organized donation-based shuttles throughout the day (though I and two other hikers got a hitch from the first passing car). Once in town, there’s a general store with laundry that allows camping and charging. A couple blocks away, there’s a church that also allows camping. There’s also a paid campground with coin showers. Trout Lake is everything you need and nothing you don’t run by extraordinarily welcoming people, even as droves and droves of needy hikers descend upon their town. There’s also a restaurant!
The number of hikers in Trout Lake was truly hilarious. Hikers on the lawn. Hikers in the street. Hikers fighting over laundry. Hikers wandering around. Hikers eating frozen meals and taking massive shits in the Porto-San, though I benefit from having stayed at Kennedy Meadows South when the fecal cone was above the toilet seat so my bar for public restrooms is very low. It felt like a massive sleepover party with a bunch of people who kind of hated you for buying the last Mountain Dew.
Ascent to Hell
Except for a couple days in Yosemite, mosquitoes had not been a main part of my trip. Bypassing most of Oregon, known for having problematic bugs in later summer, helped. On the 91st day of this trip, though, that changed.
The morning out of Trout Lake was slow for me, as post-town mornings often are, but the trail was pleasant. Cold water flowed everywhere and wildflowers exploded everywhere I looked. Plus, we’d hit Goat Rocks the next day! Another highlight! I hiked along, listening to murder podcasts and having a great time.
At a certain point, I started to notice mosquitos. Annoying but it’s the woods; it’s to be expected. As I climbed, the number increased. Exponentially. Horrifically. Maliciously. I hiked uphill as fast as I could, figuring they’d thin out at the top of the climb. False! The higher I got, the more there were. It was terrible. Crisis and I fluttered around trying to find spots with fewer mosquitoes, as though moving ten feet to the left would make any difference. We were officially under attack.
I’d switched from a tent to a tarp sans bug net after the desert and been fine thus far. On this night, though, I was miserable. MIS.ER.A.BLE. Ultralight? Ultra-stupid. There was no damn door. No way to block them out. Crisis zipped himself away in his Duplex and I braced myself for a wretched evening.
Wretched it was. The underside of the green tarp was black with bugs. The sound of them buzzing was psychological torture. Every once in a while I’d lose my shit and smack the tarp in vain. It’d rain dead mosquitoes for a second and then more would swarm. I tried to hide in my quilt but it was fucking hot in there. My stupid Coughlin’s headnet did absolutely nothing; they still bit my face. I could feel the bites through the cheap mesh. They were unescapable. Was this fun? Was it worth it? I can deal with most situations but this was too much. I felt tears welling up, the kind of unwilling tears that burn in the back of my eyes when someone mansplains at me and I want to punch them. Fuck it. I sobbed silently. Maybe they’d be gone in the morning.
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