Week 15: Sausage! Stehekin! Scratchy Branches! (Miles 2443.6-2592.4)

Quick Slow

I didn’t write about the True NOBOs last week, so you can be forgiven for thinking the conflicts were over and everyone was hiking in harmony. But you would be wrong! While we still heard about “THE BUBBLE!” every day, the commentary shifted to my favorite topics: Hiking speed and distance.  

If you do a marathon at a 3 MPH pace, you’re crossing the finish line in the dark. You’re getting a participation medal. People are giving you sympathy claps and calling you an inspiration, asking if you’ve had a trauma or a health issue. Three miles an hour is not fast. 

Yet if you’re hiking down a trail at a 2.87-MPH, people – and I mean folks hiking 2.86 MPH or slower – have an opinion. They ask if you’re even having a good time. They make joy a competition and try to prove that you’re losing because even after all this time outside, people haven’t managed to de-center themselves from someone else’s experience. 

Let’s try to be sympathetic: Most people we were now hiking around had started late March through early April. Time pressure hadn’t been a factor in their hike; rather, they’d been able to consistently hike 20-25 miles, take plenty of zeroes, and have a pleasant experience. All of the sudden, though, not only were they surrounded by other hikers, but these recent arrivals – us – were May starters who’d been thinking about Canada since Cajon Pass. 

I’m not a super-fast hiker and we weren’t doing obscene mileage, particularly when compared to other late-season NOBOs who’d banged out the trail in three months. Yet we had it in our minds that we had to finish in four and a half months; even with the weather pressure removed, it was hard to turn that off.

I did not always feel this way. On the Appalachian Trail, my longest day was maybe 27 miles. It took weeks to break 20. It wasn’t a fitness issue; it was a complete lack of awareness that hiking longer days was something to want to do. If the point was to be outside for a long time, why would I want to rush? But as I psychoanalyze my on-trail mental state after the fact, skipping nearly 600 miles and getting shade about that skip from hikers who’d been lucky enough to get early start dates made me feel like I had to prove something, namely that I was a stronger hiker. 

Is this just as pointlessly competitive? Abso-fucking-lutely. But honestly, a lot of people were really shitty! If we made a comment about mosquitoes, five people would immediately tell us that we didn’t know the half of it because we’d skipped Oregon. If we said we’d had a great thirty-mile day, a whole-ass tramily would tell us we’d fucked up by not taking a siesta near a certain lake. 

A Bad Day

The start of the week saw us 22 miles from Stevens Pass. It’s a ski area on Highway 2 where you can hitch into Skykomish, a small hiker-friendly town, or Leavenworth, a larger town that isn’t hiker unfriendly, per se, but is a bit more expensive due to its being styled like a Bavarian village and thus attracting sausage-loving tourists. (Side note: Why are there Bavarian-style villages on American long trails?) Leavenworth had a Safeway – bananas! bagged salads! – and a Subway – veggie delights! – so Crisis and I planned on hiking to Stevens Pass, hitching into Leavenworth, rapidly doing all the chores, and hitching back out. 


22 miles falls into that nebulous spot between a longer nearo and a full hiking day. On easy terrain in good weather with an early wake-up, it’d been feasible for me to hike that distance before the early afternoon. This particular stretch of trail was not easy terrain though, nor was the weather favorable. It was hot. The elevation felt endless and the section was exposed. Tiny flies were abundant. I wanted to get to town to start the hitching process, which was rumored to be challenging, but the miles weren’t coming. I felt myself getting sunburned; I felt myself getting desperate. Hiking in ski areas is frustrating because they’re supposed to be places of speedy descents in cold weather, not wretched ascents in hot weather. The day was slipping away.

By the time we stumbled into Stevens Pass, I was low-key dehydrated and high-key over it. It was late afternoon and the probability of doing all our chores in a timely fashion was decreasing exponentially, as was my desire to do them. There was smoke in the distance; I wanted internet access to see what was going on fire-wise. I wanted to splash running water on my face in the bathroom. I wanted a Mountain Dew. My ferocity for forward motion had been replaced with ferocity for not hiking. I saw the traditional congregation of hikers sprawled out under the awning outside Stevens Pass. Camaraderie! Maybe that’s what I needed.  

I did not find camaraderie; rather, I found myself face-to-face with the Worst Woman Ever.

“I haven’t seen you before,” she said. “Are you fire skippers?”

A Welcome Tourist Trap

Cue Google search: “Lodging in Leavenworth.” I simply could not go back out that evening. What would we gain? Five more miles? Sometimes you just need to get drunk and eat a giant sausage. 

Staying at the (extraordinarily overpriced) KOA behind Safeway was the antidote to my malaise. I had a bratwurst and beers and immediately felt better. We did a drunk resupply at a Safeway that had been pillaged by “THE BUBBLE!” The shelves were forsaken! No Breakfast Essentials! No protein bars! I got tons of produce that, while delicious, would be gone by the following afternoon; Crisis bought out the bakery department and spent the following morning trying to pawn cinnamon rolls, fudge brownies, and lemon bars off onto me. A note to anyone preparing for a future hike: I recommend taking a picture of every resupply you do to track changes over time. I believe there’s a direct correlation between a declining mental state and the quality of the resupply but I don’t have hard evidence to support this theory. 

The upcoming section – Stevens Pass to Stehekin – is viewed as the hardest section of the PCT. SECTION K! K for KILL! K for KRAZY! After months of fear-mongering and dramatic proclamations by fellow hikers, we were wary of getting in our heads about the upcoming stretch. However, we would be out for four nights and it was a remote section. Our night at the KOA gave QLP a chance to catch up to us; he’d camped a couple miles out the night before. It also gave us time to reconvene at Safeway and soberly add more food to our packs just in case. The subtext being “just in case we all break our legs and have to live in Section K for…13 more hours.” 

Razor Thin

Long-distance hiking is not an adventure in the traditional sense; rather, it’s the outdoor, adult version of your junior year in France. You think you’re the first American in history to make out with a Parisian against concrete walls in the Passage Thiéré; you were actually the fifth one that night. There is very little “unknown.” The trail is well-marked and over-trodden and there are escape routes and shuttles and cell service. There are dozens of comments on every waypoint that tell you exactly what you’re going to experience, or at least what FireBall349 thinks you’re going to experience based on their version of a particular section. This doesn’t mean it’s not fun, that you’re not expending energy, or that you’re not accomplishing a challenge. But between the online intel and the array of services, it’s hard to view a hike of the PCT as a rugged, self-sufficient adventure.

Because of that, the challenge becomes living with less. Why carry a first-aid kit if there’s a town within a day’s hike in either direction? You’re good with a couple Advil and a safety pin, maybe a shitty hiker box Band-Aid or two. Rain gear? Your rain gear hasn’t been waterproof since your last hike and you’re hoping you’ll hike fast enough to avoid hypothermia. Fuck it. An extra dinner? It’s easier to just bang out a long day and get into town sooner. 

I think the reason Section K gets so much hype is it’s one of the few sections that does require a margin of error. There’s no cell service, the trail is less maintained, and, at least in 2022, the access roads were all closed due to fire damage from previous years. Theoretically, this should be exciting! We finally get to test our mettle, to see what hundreds of miles of hiking have done to our bodies and minds. But by this point in the hike, we’ve gotten so used to the rhythm of three-night food carries, constant cell service, and (the perception of) minimal danger. Just as the White Mountains and Maine give Appalachian Trail NOBOs a humbling reminder that this is, in fact, hard, so too does Section K remind PCT hikers that we have to work sometimes.

100 Days of Hiking!

On my hundredth day of hiking, we spent the morning in town, patronizing Das Thrift Haus for summit fits – I got some red metal hoop earrings and a $2 black cotton tee shirt with an eagle and the phrase, “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” – and dreading the heat of the day. At Stevens Pass we promptly deemed it too hot to hike and did not leave until mid-afternoon. 100 days of dawdling! 

We eventually left the pass with the goal of camping at Grizzly Peak, mainly because it’s one of the few mountains the PCT summits. Fires burned on the mountains east of us, with not just smoke but flames visible.

Quincy and I hiked up together.

“Do you think we’re safe?” He asked. 

I didn’t; not really. The more fires we saw, the harder I found it to justify hiking near them. National Scenic Trails exist for the general public but the general public is selfish, as evidenced by the fact that I, my friends, and hundreds of other hikers were walking into wilderness areas knowing that there were fires on the literal horizon. What if something did happen to one of us and we needed to be rescued, and something happened to the rescuer? At what point does the need to prove oneself by completing a goal get outweighed by the potential impact it could have on other people, whether it’s their job or not?

With this in mind, though not at the forefront of my thoughts, I hiked into Section K. The smoke-shrouded sunset, as they tend to be, was blazing and beautiful. 

K for (O)Kanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Our first full day in section K was uneventful. The smoke had drifted over to the trail, casting a haze over the day and making it eerie. Blowdown hell wasn’t rumored to start until after the ford at Kennedy Creek, which we’d hit the following morning. I hiked alone for much of the day, stopping to take pictures of patterned moths and bees on flowers. So much of this trail consists of spectacular, sweeping views that it was a welcome change to concentrate on the micro-beauty of the corridor. I pondered this: We expect big changes from this big thing we’re doing and are then surprised when we’re still us. But maybe there are smaller shifts, some barely perceptible, that we don’t notice because we’re conditioned to privilege momentous changes instead of little ones. 

It is the PCT, though, and I soon found myself up on a ridge with an endless view of pine-covered stratovolcanoes peeking up through thick smoke. Layers on layers of mountains extended in every direction before fading off into the horizon. Towards the end of the day, the paces of our Loose Alliance converged and we hiked the last few miles together, descended into the forest, and camped a couple miles south of Kennedy Creek, which we’d decided to ford together.  

K for Kennedy Kreek

2022 was a great year for a northbound hike of the PCT. Many people were able to complete the hike without significant fire detours. More importantly though, it was a low snow year and so fords, usually a significant concern, were reasonable. I hadn’t officially forded any bodies of water. I’d gotten my feet wet rock-hopping across faster streams, and there’d been a couple of shallow, wide creeks in the Sierra where I’d taken my shoes off, but we’d avoided any of the scary crossings that can make the PCT dangerous. 

This streak ended at Kennedy Creek. 

Quincy, Crisis, and I planned a shorter day just in case it took a long time. We arrived at the bank of the raging, silty creek. White water churned over boulders; mountains shot up on either side of the water. The overcast day lent a foreboding vibe to the whole scene. 

The main issue fording Kennedy Creek was – to paraphrase Michael Scott – that while we knew what we were doing in a general sense, we didn’t know what we were doing in an actual sense. Turn upstream, unclip your pack, step sideways, lean into it…that all makes sense in theory, but when you put one foot into the water and immediately feel the current sucking you down, the praxis is more problematic. 

The Far Out comments were, for once, somewhat beneficial, as people had outlined the specific boulders they’d jumped towards and the routes they’d taken. Adding to my nerves were the many traumatized reports from people in my height range (five feet, four and a quarter inches); quelling these same nerves was the fact that if they’d written a comment on the app, that meant they’d made it across. 

There was a lot of debate about where to cross. Crisis and I bickered about the where and why, whether to buckle or unbuckle packs; we both have extensive experience fording rivers in NYC so this dispute between two of America’s RCPs (River Crossing Powerhouses) was inevitable. In the end, we followed the comments and crossed slightly above the trail heading towards a large boulder. 

The actual ford was not pleasant but it went quickly. The current was fierce, the water was halfway up my butt, and I could easily see how someone could lose their footing and end up in a bad situation. I would not have wanted to do it alone; guys, thanks for letting me flounder in the middle. 

Fording tip in summary: Sit bitch, as you would in a friend’s car on the way home from the bar.

K for Karma, Baby!

I tend to make this blog solely about my experiences, but Quincy had an encounter at this moment that I simply must share. Crisis had hiked ahead while QLP and I sat on the safe side of the creek, wringing out our socks. The hard part of the day was over; now we just had to hike 23 miles! Easy peasy. 

Across Kennedy Creek, though, there was a solo hiker, a slim older woman who looked terrified. Quincy La Porte, a well-raised gentleman, all-around kind-hearted dude, and, most importantly, a very tall person who could potentially save someone shorter from a crazy current, got up and immediately began coaching her through the ford. He was calling out instructions, shouting motivational phrases, and generally supporting this near-stranger through one of the more terrifying trail experiences. 

I’m sure you can guess who this woman was. 

Later on, in Stehekin, we encountered her again. If the trail teaches us anything, it’s to accept people but not judge them, and to meet others with grace and humility. Maybe she’d been having a string of terrible days. Maybe she had amnesia. 

“I just wanted to thank you for helping me across the ford,” she said to Quincy. “I don’t know what I would’ve done otherwise.”

“Of course!” He said.

“Remind me again,” she said. “Did you all hike straight through, or are you fire skippers?”

Siri, search the PCTA website for “how to report on-trail harassment.” For fuck’s sake. 

K for Kalm Down

We forged on into the thickets! Yes, there were blowdowns. Some of them were enormous and it felt like an obstacle course. Crisis has a video series of me getting stuck on fallen trees. It’s pretty fucking funny. There were a few moments when we had to stop and scan the forest to see where the trail went; there were a few moments when the trail was frustrating. But isn’t that the point?! The three of us are assholes so we spent most of the day hiking happily amidst enormous trees and talking shit about the people who had talked shit about Section K. 

K for…Koochie Koochie Koo?

With the ford behind us and Stehekin – the last town before the border! – a mere 24 hours away, we continued our journey in the depths of Section K. If the previous day had been our reckoning with blowdowns, this day was our adventure into the overgrowth. And if the Far Out comments had undersold the crossing at Kennedy Creek, they were back to their “Real Housewives” level of drama for the ascent after Milk Creek. 

We headed in expecting to be torn to shreds by briars; I kept my knife handy in the event that I needed to do some on-the-spot trail maintenance to make progress. But people! There is a difference between “bushwhacking” – think traipsing through the Darien Gap with a machete and the possibility of death – and, to quote one astute observer, “having lil’ leafies touch your lil’ leggies” – think hiking a trail that has tall plants. There was overgrowth, sure, and we had to shoulder through a couple of taller plants that were hanging onto the trail. Remoteness plus road closures plus wilderness area chainsaw restrictions all contribute to this section being less manicured than others. But to say that the climb out of Milk Creek is miles and miles of bushwhacking does less to prepare people helpfully and more to demonstrate that hikers want to make their hikes seem harder than they are because…toxic masculinity? I don’t know. 

After the long ascent through tickly branches, the rest of the day was reasonable. I hiked alone, listening to podcasts and feeling quite motivated. We’d settled on Trapper Creek for the night, mainly because it was less than five miles from the High Bridge Historical Cabin. Here we’d catch the bus into Stehekin.

To Quote My Notes, A Legendary Nero

I eschewed many trail experiences – staying with trail angels, double zeroes, cuddle puddles – due to arbitrary self-imposed rules and a distaste for hordes of people frantically trying to have identical experiences. I was happy with my own twists, turns, and choices; at no point did I feel I was missing out. But I’d been hearing about Stehekin for, like, five years! I wanted to do it right.

For the next 24 hours, we were on vacation. We got the first bus in and went straight to the bakery, as everyone does. It was packed, as it always is. We over-ordered, as everyone should. We stayed for hours, gorging on pastries, drinking real coffee, and sprawling on chairs in the shade. Eventually, we wandered a quarter-mile to the organic farm down the street, where we looked at beehives and bought cherry tomatoes. It was hot out so after walking the mile to the campground, we set up our tents in the Hiker Area and went straight to the lake. We drank beer, ate more pastries, and went swimming. 

Stehekin, I Love You

This tiny town is magical no matter how long you spend there or how you arrive. Someone who takes the ferry from the town of Chelan across the 50-mile lake to spend the day will still feel the mightiness of the mountains that shoot up on both sides of the water, will still see the sun glinting off the lake, will still be unreachable and find themselves living in the present. There’s no cell service and very little wifi, though there is a free pay phone that we all had a blast using (probably scaring the shit out of our families, calling from an unknown Washington number when our phones hadn’t been working for nearly a week). Stehekin, more than any town I visited on this trail, is special. 

But to arrive after months of walking and know that it’s the last stop before the border imbues it with meaning. We watched bittersweet beauty from the deck of the general store, sipping beer and eating microwaved dinners. In Stehekin, you realize this is it: The thing you’ve been working towards for so long is drawing to a close. You have a sudden desire to halt your fervent perpetual motion, to stay on that wooden deck with this view forever. 

The Beginning of the End, Sort of

It was strange being near the end of the physical trail with the knowledge that I wasn’t at the end of my own journey. Post border tag, Crisis and I would take a few days off before reconvening at the Timberline Lodge, where we’d get back on trail to finish the final stretch of trail southbound. Over the past week, the Lionshead, Tolo, Windigo, and McKinney fire closures had opened up; in late August it seemed we’d be able to hike straight through back to Dunsmuir. 

For most of the Loose Alliance, though, it was the end of the road. Quincy La Porte had decided the border would be his final stop (well, Hart’s Pass would be, but more on that next week); the two friends we’d hiked with in Goat Rocks had, too. Even though I was going to keep hiking for another month or so, the trail as I knew it – northbound, these people, this energy – was going to be over in a few days. The days would soon be getting shorter; fall was on the horizon. 

We had a slow morning finishing our chores, charging, and hitting up the bakery one more time. The bus back to the trailhead took the scenic route and we didn’t start hiking until noon. We made it to Rainy Pass as the sun was setting and ate sandwiches from the bakery for dinner. We’d be at Hart’s Pass the next day. 

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Comments 2

  • Jan : Dec 9th

    Dear LilyMG, I thoroughly enjoyed your post. It is funny, informative and honest. You are a talented writer. Thank you,

  • lost and found : Dec 9th

    Lilymg – thank you for your posts. You are so great at expressing the things we all feel, sometimes things we don’t even realize we feel.


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