The Challenges Have Begun, The Trail has not
I finally made it up to Winthrop last night, 10 days after driving away from Vermont. I road tripped with my precious pup out to Montana where he’ll be staying with a friend while I hike.
I’ll start with some housekeeping notes, because I know this can be confusing. The PCT starts in the middle of the woods at the Canadian border, the best/most common way to get there is to get dropped off on the PCT at Harts Pass, which is 30 miles south of the border. Hikers then will often hike 30 miles north to tag the border, and then turn around and rehike those 30 miles and continue south. The closest towns to Harts Pass are Mazama and Winthrop, where I am now.
Now, I knew that wildfires and learning how to avoid them would be a significant piece of coming out here, but I didn’t think it would be a major source of stress and concern before I even started. There’s currently a fire that’s not on the trail, but close to it on the east. It closed the main road to get up to Mazama and Winthrop and has diminished the air quality for a 30-mile section south of Harts Pass. This has caused a lot of south bound hikers to skip the first 60 to 100 miles and start at Rainy Pass or Stehekin. I think all PCT hikers have to acknowledge that they will need to skip portions of the trail due to wildfires, but skipping the actual terminus is a tough pill to swallow.
I have no intention of doing anything unsafe out here, but determining what is actually safe has been tougher than I thought. By just skimming the SOBO (southbound) Facebook group it seems like the prudent choice is to start further down the trail and skip the border and it sounds like the road is closed from Mazama up to Harts Pass. Talking to the person who runs the shuttle from Seattle up to Winthrop and then the hostel owner I found out that neither the road up to Harts Pass nor the trail itself is closed. A section of Highway 20 is closed, and that just means getting from Seattle to Winthrop is a longer drive, and it’s actually not too difficult to get up to Harts Pass at all. After much frustration I made the very hikeresque choice to just get up to Winthrop and see what other hikers were doing and figure it out as I go.
When I arrived at the hiker shuttle pickup in Seattle my worries were magnified and the sinking feeling in my stomach grew. There were two other hikers there talking about how they wanted to handle the fires, one had just hiked the PCT from the Mexican Border to Tahoe and then was hoping to Southbound back down, but he was on the verge of scrapping it and heading to Maine to do the Appalachian Trail instead. He showed us pictures of his flight up to Seattle and all the smoke and fires he could see below. Shit.
Just when all hope was lost and I was beginning to accept that I’d have to skip the border section, one more hiker wearing literally the same shirt and shoes as me (Trail name Dabbles, and a Colombia button up and Altra Lone Peaks for those who are curious) showed up to the group. When asked what he was going to do about the fires he had the answer I had been hoping to hear for days, he was going to try to get up to Harts Pass, tag the border, and if the fire gets worse take a detour on the Pacific Northwest Trail that would avoid the potentially dicey area and meet up with the PCT further south. Perfect. The other two hikers stayed back in Seattle to take some more time to decide if they really wanted to do the trail and Dabbles and I took the shuttle up to Winthrop. Assuming the road remains open we’ll get another shuttle up to Harts Pass tomorrow morning and finally get on the trail and do this thing!
Not only do Dabbles and I have similar trail fashion inclinations, like me, he also hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) a few years ago and we talked over salads at the Schoolhouse Brewery in town about some of the similar goals we have for ourselves for the trail this time around. We both want to do a better job of not eating complete junk (hence the salads for dinner), we also want to spend less time goofing off in town (on the AT I completed it in 4 months and 3 weeks and took 28 zero days, when he did it he took 30.. although I don’t know how long his total trip was). I’m hoping to drink less (4 years as a bartender and then this past year of depression has not been particularly good on the liver) and he doesn’t drink at all anymore. Some of these things will be taken care of simply by the pace we have to maintain if we want to get through the High Sierras by early October to avoid getting caught in the snow (we have to average something like 26 miles a day to do this), so there isn’t much extra time to goof off and take extraneous zeros anyway. Note: a “zero” is just a day off where you go zero miles.
I had wonderful experiences on the Appalachian Trail. Between the newfound freedom, being 23, having a very doable timeline, and still figuring out if the whole hiking thing was for me, there was a lot of weird and unhealthy stuff that we did just because we could. The novelty of the hiker lifestyle was a huge part of the fun. Like hey, why not pack out beers and drink them at 6am at the Maine border? Why not eat a massive burger sandwiched between two grilled cheeses? Why not chug 16 oz of maple syrup at the Vermont border (would not recommend)? Why not stay in Rangely for 3 unnecessary zeros and then bust out consecutive 30 mile days until the end? Now that some of that novelty has worn off, I would like to push myself physically harder and see what I’m actually capable of. I’m excited to see if I can do it and how a tight deadline will impact and change the overall thru-hiking experience.
Now if only these damn fires would get out of my way!
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