Week 14: Families! Free Food! Friendship! (Miles 2260.4-2443.6)

Malicious Mosquitos

The previous week drew to a close with me crying in my so-called shelter accepting murder by mosquito. I slept in fits and starts before giving up and heading out early, refusing to be a slab of flesh any longer. The head net had been useless; I looked like I had the mumps. I was itchy, not to mention sweaty from hiding in my quilt all night. It sucked.

At a certain point, though, the mosquito level went from Extreme Emergency to Normal Annoying and my attitude went from Abject Misery to Very Excited. We’d reached the Goat Rocks Wilderness and were heading up into one of the most anticipated sections of trail! 

Goat Rocks Wilderness

I’d imagined this section as days of rugged mountain terrain, a mini-Sierra. When I looked at The App, though, I realized it was a mere half day of hiking and that a place I’d heard of so many times would be over before sunset. Were we rushing? This was a place where we should set up a base camp and do day hikes, not blitz through taking quick pix in order to crush miles! Goat Rocks makes long-distance hiking seem stupid.

(Caveat on the above statement: I’m writing this from a heated room in New York where I’ll stay until I have to get in my heated car to drive to my heated job in a couple of hours. My outdoor time these days is limited; the thought of gallivanting in Goat Rocks for a long weekend seems desirable. In mid-August, though, I wasn’t thinking about spending a long weekend base camping in this vast wilderness; I was thinking about getting to White’s Pass and its reportedly well-stocked gas station. Maybe long-distance hiking is stupid…)

After three months of hiking and one single day of bad weather (the “snow event” in the Sierra), it started to drizzle as we approached the exposed ascent to the Knife’s Edge. Nothing crazy, but there were menacing clouds. Crisis got the forecast on his Garmin and it was calling for rain. More tangibly, thunderheads were forming in the not-distant-enough sky. We decided to hide out in a copse of trees and wait it out. 

Our hunkering down was well-timed as it allowed the two friends we’d reunited with in Cascade Locks to catch up. The four of us weather-spoiled babies hid from the 0.01 inches of rain under a ground cloth, eating Crisis’ food – caloric underestimation would become a major theme of Washington – and having a rollicking good time.

Most People Don’t Even Live Once

Though there was a persistent wind, the storm seemed to be holding fast in the semi-distance and we decided to keep hiking. If there’s four of us, we rationalized, the lightning will get scared and run away. Right? These are the poor decisions you make when you underpack food and overpack confidence. The “safety in numbers” argument makes sense in, say, a crime-laden neighborhood; it’s not as compelling against forces of nature. But a fun fake fact is that every 7 miles of hiking are equivalent to one alcoholic beverage on a decision-making level. Once you’re 20-ish miles into the day, you’re not thinking with your coherent brain. We didn’t want to stay all day because we wanted to hike at least 27 miles so we could have a quick stroll into town the following morning and head back out by the early afternoon. Thus we began the ascent to the exposed ridge instead of waiting. 

Drunk luck was with us, though! We battled the wind as we hiked up to Cispus Pass and then across the Knife’s Edge. It. Was. Epic. Snow-covered Mount Rainier towered in the foreground, rising into the ominous clouds. We stumbled on the thin dirt path, balancing with trekking poles, watching the volcano remnants we kicked while walking fly over the side and tumble down to the valley below. Despite these mountains being far lower than many others on the trail, it felt like we were looking at the world from on high over this endless expanse of uncut nature. 

The entire trail, from the iridescent blue lizards in the desert to the glittering lakes in the Sierra to the sweeping, wildflower-drenched climbs of northern California, inspires awe and wonder. For that reason I refuse to say that Goat Rocks was “the most beautiful section.” But it’s a day that stands out not just for the sheer beauty of the landscape but also the serendipitous reunion with our two friends from the original Loose Alliance. 

None of us knew it at the time but this would be the only day we’d all hike together. We’d catch up in towns a few times, and would ultimately cross paths between Hart’s Pass and the border but we couldn’t quite sync up again. Sticking to the Terms of the Loose Alliance, none of us even camped together that night. But on that day, the clouds drifted away as we started descending and the sun exploded over fields of wildflowers. Rivulets of snowmelt streamed down the mountain. Light glinted off grass blades. 

Meeting the Parents

On the note of friends, Quincy La Porte had left us early that morning (thought not that early, TBH) in a fast and furious attempt to meet his parents at the trailhead 35 miles away by late afternoon. Insanely, he’d pulled it off, and had invited me and Crisis to have breakfast with them in Packwood the following day. 

When was the last time you met anyone’s mom or dad? There are people I’ve been friends with for over a decade of my adult life and the only interaction I’ve ever had with their parents was a thirty-second “so nice to finally meet you!” at a graduation or a wedding. There are people I’ve known for years who, in my mind, sprang up as fully-formed parentless adults. Honestly, the only parents you generally meet as an adult are the parents of romantic interests, which can often be unnecessarily laden with pressure, mainly because you’re fucking their kid. 

Before arriving at the trailhead, I was not looking forward to this breakfast. Packwood was 20 miles from White’s Pass and I was sure we’d get stuck there all day. More than that, though, we’d spent months just being and all of the sudden having “something to do” felt stressful. Also, these days I was clearing a diner breakfast plate in under a minute and barely touching my silverware: I felt like a foul, feral, fucked, up fairy and didn’t think I should be introduced to anyone’s parents. Also, talking to strangers seemed hard, though I realize hiking the PCT can be defined as “a months-long experience wherein you constantly make conversation with strangers while incidentally walking a lot.” 

Is It A Vacation?

Spoiler: We had a fabulous time! Quincy’s parents were delightful, Packwood was cute, and we got a hitch back to White’s Pass from an off-duty Forest Service ranger who took us on a quick side trip to see basalt columns (though I did think we were getting kidnapped for a brief second). Indeed, why I bothered mentioning the pre-meal malaise would be a fair question. But as we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon at the White’s Pass gas station, eating ice cream sandwiches and charging our battery packs, I felt not just like a spoiled brat but also a goal-oriented sociopath. Had I really been stressed about taking a couple of hours in the morning to meet the lovely family of someone I’d spent months basically living with? Had I learned nothing in over three months on trail?

I think long-distance hikes can have the opposite effect than what we expect. We think changing our environment and daily activities will somehow work magic on us, and transform us into the people we wish we were. If anything, they amplify what we don’t like about ourselves. I set my alarm every single day of the trail for 5:45 am and rarely emerged from my quilt cocoon before 6:45 am. Rather than leading to open-mindedness and a spirit of adventure, my desire to complete the hike lead to an extreme desire for control and an unwillingness to deviate from my plan. Excel spreadsheets and long-distance backpacking go well together for a reason. 

But this type of hiking is strange because it’s a vacation and an endeavor. It’s not a single feat, like a marathon, but it’s not a string of aimless days, like a trip to the beach. You have a daily goal, for sure, but there are not terrible repercussions if you fall short of that goal. Similarly, there’s no ticker tape parade for exceeding a particular daily goal. If you think about it too much it can feel futile. Maybe it’s better not to think too much about it in the moment; it’s far better to wait until you’ve finished and can wear rose-colored glasses.

Wandering North

Goat Rocks was behind us and we were officially immersed in Washington. Yes, the ascents and descents were hard! But the benefit to hearing constant dramatics and fear-mongering is that nothing remotely approaches the difficulty people report. Hiking up and hiking right back down, while sometimes frustrating, were things we had to do in order to exist among lakes and peaks and trees. 

I wasn’t becoming numb to the beauty; indeed, persistent burn scars – which, in my ignorance and lack of research, I hadn’t expected in the wet state of Washington – meant that just as the scenery was becoming less spectacle and more standard, I’d turn a corner and find myself among the charred remains of yet another forest.  

There was a long scar from the 2017 Norse Peak Fire just after Chinook Pass that continued for miles. The five years between the fire and the present meant tall green grasses and flower bushes had grown among the jagged black stumps. Yet the fire had overtaken both the PCT and the surrounding mountains as far as I could see and the scene looked unredeemable. I wondered how this would look in five more years: Would it continue growing or would another fire raze the progress? Will the trail ultimately end up a long walk through black earth, as many people say? It’s hard to walk through the tangible effects of a warming climate and not wonder what the future holds and what your place in it is. We often wished for an on-call geologist to help us understand the features we were seeing, to explain why certain valleys cleaved in sharp Vs while others took a U-shape. How did lakes form between some mountains while others tapered down into steep rock-falls of sharp shale? 

PSA: Don’t Send a Package to Snoqualmie!

In terms of resupply, I would recommend sending a box to absolutely nowhere. NOWHERE. Not even Stehekin! Every box I sent was a disaster to obtain, unduly expensive, and/or full of food I no longer wanted. I sent a box to Acton but ended up going to the Von’s at Humphreys, which I didn’t know existed before hiking. I paid $75 to send myself my bear canister full of food and clothing at Kennedy Meadows South because I’d read the resupply was horrible; Triple Crown Outfitters had a stellar resupply and you could rent a bear can for $40. There were random unmentioned towns that you could go to in a pinch, not to mention the slew of businesses that haven’t been listed on Big Guthook and so don’t come up in a casual scroll.  

The online lists, though, made it seem imperative to send a box to Snoqualmie so that’s what we did. I sent mine to the Summit Inn with the plan of staying there, thus waiving the $15 pickup fee, which is what their website said would happen. The pickup fee was not waived. I paid the $15 pickup fee plus the $16.90 USPS Priority shipping fee to obtain about $28 of shitty Walmart food. When I got to Snoqualmie Pass, I found the Chevron store exploding with hiker treats at a not-above-average markup, plus a mini-Whole Foods-y store that had additional victuals. I cast a wistful glance at everything before heading into my room and organizing yet another week of Maruchan, blue Propel, and Fast Breaks. 

Brooks: The People’s Choice

I also recommend arriving to Snoqualmie Pass on the Saturday of the Brooks Running Festival. Unbeknownst to us, the company that makes the trail runners I desperately needed to replace was having a weekend shoe try-on event at the bottom of the ski slopes. Scott and Jenny Jurek, ultra runners and kind hearted people extraordinaire, were present as (official? unofficial?) hosts of the event and invited all of us hikers to partake in a free unlimited buffet. OF FOOD. I cannot tell you the joy of getting into town and having the freaking Jurek family come up to you and be like, “Hey guys, we have tons of extra food and you can eat as much as you possibly want, and also you can stuff your pockets with Starbucks Via packets, and there’s fruit and kombucha on that table over there, and you can totally take pictures with us, and also you should come back for dinner tonight at six, and also here are some tickets for free beer at the beer garden.” What?? 

In addition to the infusion of joy that came from gorging on healthy food while admiring mountains we didn’t have to climb that day, I was gleeful about the Brooks thing. My current kicks, obtained in Belden, were already shredded. I’d been agonizing over where to get the next pair sent, whether or not I should just hold out till the border, whether I should switch shoes in the hopes of finding something that’d last more than 450 miles. Now, though, a huge podiatry problem was solved: My beloved-yet-behated Cascadias were available for purchase on this particular day only in a tent in a ski resort of a town because of the running festival. Not only that, but they gave me a PCT discount of 30% off! Huge Brooks stan right now. 

A Joyful Reunion!

The true highlight of Snoqualmie Pass, though, was that I finally crossed paths with my dear friend from the Appalachian Trail, who I’ll call MC. She started SOBO in late July, and we’d figured we’d meet up around Portland in September. With the fire flop, though, our reunion was expedited. She’d been slated to get to Snoqualmie Pass the following day and we’d planned to get breakfast before I headed out. In the late afternoon, though, she texted that she’d hiked faster than anticipated and was debating night hiking. 

“I have an extra bed,” I said, knowing that the long-distance hiking body is capable of making miracles when there’s food and shelter on the horizon. Hers was able to add 11 more miles to a 26-mile day and head out to the beer garden/fire pit/music portion of the Brooks Running Festival. 

You’ve probably realized you won’t catch me saying “it’s the people for me” in the context of the trail. However! I must admit that you connect with people here in a way that isn’t always feasible in non-trail life. We’d hiked 1000 miles of the Appalachian Trail together in 2017; the last time MC and I had seen each other was in NYC in January of 2018. We’d kept in touch via long phone conversations about our meanderings, chaotic relationships, and future plans. (Also, we send a lot of memes.) I was so happy our hikes had lined up and even happier that we were able to spend the night sitting up in a motel room, gossiping and laughing while trying not to pass out from exhaustion.

Kendall Katwalk and Beyond

We had a slow morning, enjoying the comfort of four walls and someone who’d known me for years. Indeed, saying goodbye to MC was hard. She was heading into Seattle, and there was part of me that wanted to join her for the rest of the weekend, to wear normal clothes and wander around and stay up late chatting. But we were 71 miles from Steven’s Pass, where we’d start the notorious Section K, which would end at Stehekin, which would be our last town before Canada…so up into the mountains I went again!

The trail out of Snoqualmie Pass led to the Kendall Katwalk, an expansive ridge walk to yet another glittering lake. We’d planned to hike about 19 miles that day, 31 the next, and then 21 into Steven’s Pass the following day. It was numerically manageable but physically more challenging than it seemed because of the sharp slippery rocks. I was thrilled I’d gotten new shoes.

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