Written and Edited at Home
Greetings from Iowa City, Iowa! It is surreal to be walking on these familiar streets again, yet here I am, minus a heavy backpack and no seemingly straight-forward trail to follow. The feeling of being off trail after 5 ½ months is similar to stepping onto dry land after a long voyage at sea, but I’ll touch upon that later. For now, let’s pack our bags one final time and take a trip down the final 550 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. (Don’t forget to bring your rain jackets!)
When I lasted checked in (2,094 Miles Later), I had just resumed the trail in Northern Oregon at the Timberline Lodge. With a few relaxing days in Portland behind me, I hit the last 50 miles of Oregon with a renewed energy and speed, covering the distance in two days and arriving into Cascade Locks before the post office closed.
On my way there, I took a fairly famous alternative route known as the Eagle Creek Trail. While it didn’t cut off many miles, and the grade was certainly steeper than anything I’d seen on the PCT, the trail did provide some amazing views of waterfalls including the well-photographed Tunnel Falls. This trail-engineering feet consists of a walkway blasted through the back of a waterfall, creating quite the view and a slight feeling of vertigo as you approach the falls. Suffice it to say, it was well worth the extra steepness.
Cascade Locks serves as one side of the border between Oregon and Washington, connected by the impressive steel truss Bridge of the Gods, which spans across the two state’s natural border, the Columbia River. Crossing over this man-made structure and into Washington, all the while avoiding oncoming traffic, it was exciting, but as it turned out my real introduction into the state of Washington would be found only a couple of miles down the trail.
As is the case for most low-lying resupply towns, the PCT shot straight up out of Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods (which is actually the PCT’s lowest point). Switchback after switchback, mile after mile, I climbed into Washington with no sight of the top. To make matters more fun, just two miles into the 15-mile climb, the clouds rolled in. My first day in Washington was entirely spent slogging uphill and sloshing through the cold precipitation, and for some reason it just felt right.
I had been spoiled until entering the Evergreen State, having been caught in the rain only 7-8 times in five months (a record of which Washington would easily double). It didn’t take me long to understand that a life in the cold, wet rain has its difficulties. The only way to stay comfortable is to stay warm, to cut down on your non-moving breaks, and with those tired muscles always moving, keeping a positive attitude was at times more difficult than the constant climbing of Washington’s terrain.
I suspect that is why a lot of solo-hikers like myself tend to group up once they find themselves crossing into Washington. Besides just the safety-in-numbers factor in a region and season where snowfall is imminent, but it’s always a small comfort to suffer with someone else, because in those moments where the rain, the hurt and the darkening skies wash away all the fun, it’s often other people who can provide a little bit of light.
With a new gaggle of hikers around me, the Southern Washington portion of the trail passed by pretty smoothly, averaging somewhere around 25 miles a day. The weather even eventually let up a bit, just in time as we progressed 100 miles into the state and found ourselves approaching the infamous Knife’s Edge within the Goat Rocks Wilderness.
Knife’s Edge, with unusually clear weather and at the end of a long hiking day was truly a gift, and that’s not even mentioning the brilliant display of craggy, cascade ranges that we passed by to get there. Standing at what would be the top of the mohawk of the mountain, carefully stepping on the dinner-plate sized, moving boulders that scarcely defined the trail, watching the sun setting over Mt. Rainier in a dazzling display of smoldering orange and purple, it nearly defined my entire PCT experience in a blink of a moment (and the pictures didn’t turn out half bad either).
After a soggy night cowboy camping just below the Knife’s Edge, where the ground was too rocky to put tent stakes in, the small crew that I was with casually strolled into White Pass the next day ready to dry our gear and rest our weary bones. There, five of us crammed into a hotel room, emitting what was surely a deep, dank odor that was imperceptible by us, but now is forever embedded into the floorboards, and I set a personal record on a quart of ultra-rocky road ice cream.
At White Pass, and crammed into that hotel room was Quinn, a fellow hiker who I had met somewhere in Southern California and hiked through the Sierras and all Northern California with. Quinn and I would eventually cross into Canada together in an epic five-day run for the border, and for that reason, he will forever be part of the story.
Over the next 100 miles of the trail, Quinn, myself and the slowly changing group of hikers around me made the distance with relative smoothness. There was snow, rain and everything in between, and we even met a few interesting locals at a community cabin built nearly on the trail. While those 100 miles in four days did go smooth enough, the lack of sleep from the local’s interaction, the periodic rain and snow plus the consecutive miles attained just leading up to that point, I was ready for my first (but not last) zero day in Washington.
For a day, while sitting in the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie Pass I rested up, resupplied and ate a lot of food. It was good, and probably not enough, but my excitement for what was coming up next on the trail kept me from staying grounded for too long.
Nearly 3 years ago, when I moved out to Washington, in pursuit of expanding my freelance writing career, I had never heard of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Over the next 1 ½ years living in Wenatchee, I slowly got to know the region and drew from it much of the inspiration that I still thrive on today. That’s why when I left Snoqualmie Pass, crossed I-90 and found myself once again entering the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, it really started to feel like the beginning to the end for a fantastic journey.
The reunion wasn’t exactly a blessed one however, and much like how I remembered exploring the mountains earlier in my life, the wet weather of the west coast followed my every step. The real rain, the constant, coming from every direction, soaking wet and ripping rain didn’t hit me until day two of this 80-mile section.
Even in the grey-sky, low-hanging clouded vision of the wet day, the scenery was still spectacular, and the dense fog that shrouded the long views seemed to isolate me even more, making the remoteness of the wilderness speak just that much louder. I pulled 20 miles down on that second day, not seeing my shadow for a second, and like a wet, tired animal I literally crawled into my tent at the end of the day ready for sleep.
I emerged from the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at Steven’s Pass wet, shivering and probably fermenting, but happy nonetheless, because suddenly I was very much in the vicinity of my old Washington stopping grounds of Leavenworth and Wenatchee. Within proximity was also the friends and community that I hadn’t seen since I moved back to Iowa nearly two years prior.
I should have gotten right back on trail at that point, having already bought my plane ticket back home earlier in the month (and not leaving a lot of slack in the schedule), but it was hard to pass up the opportunities to see some old friends and the recent newborns they have brought into the world, plus the opportunity to sit under a roof for a couple of days while the rain poured down, no complaints could be heard from either Quinn or me.
While visiting one particular couple in Wenatchee, plus their 1-year old son, I came across a note I had written in December of 2014, stuck to the inside of a book I hid on their shelf before moving out of town. After seeing the note again, not having remembered what I wrote, and having walked all that way to see it, I couldn’t help but feel some form of completion of a small circle in my life.
With the combination of impending winter weather, an upcoming flight home and the side adventures seeing some old friends in Wenatchee and Leavenworth, Quinn and I made the decision to skip the notoriously difficult Glacier Peak section of the trail. This 100 mile jump represented my second trail skip of of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and as I’m writing this now, I can’t help but wonder where that portion of the trail would have taken me.
It was a difficult decision to miss this part of the trail, which mostly ate at my ego, and in the thick of the action that is full-time thru-hiking, I may have imagined my accomplishments to be lessened by the off-trail traveling that I did.
While that may be true, as Quinn and I caught some public transportation from the pre-dawn Wenatchee, boarded a ferry to cross the 50-mile long Lake Chelan and landed squarely in Stehekin to hike the last 80 miles of the trail, those concerns soon vanished under the weight of my resupplied pack and the (momentarily) beautiful weather around us.
As it turned out, although I didn’t know it at the time, the skip up to Stehekin was instrumental to actually reaching the border before true winter weather would hit the Northern Cascades, and the following five days that would follow our footsteps would prove to be some of the most adventurous and outstandingly beautiful days on trail…
No thanks can be big enough for all the people that supported me on this journey, you are the kind of people that make this world go round!
Until next time,
-The Hiker Formerly Known as Hawkeye