(actually more like “The Final 5½ Days”)
One step followed by another, by my 160th day of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I knew the routine. As Quinn and I began our well-rehearsed motions up and out of Stehekin, just 90 miles short of the Canadian Border, and over 2,500 miles north of our starting point at the Mexico border, this new section of hiking, the final section of hiking, felt a little different than all the others. In fact, as I sit here typing under fluorescent lights in a heated place, I would venture to guess that the last five days of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail were by far the most impressionable yet.
Tackling the immediate 30-mile straight climb out of Stehekin, the views emerged with every slow-going step forward. Quinn and I really took our time making our way up the trail, covering only 34 miles in the first three days. Maybe it was the friendly day-hiker that we camped with only a few miles into the first day that slowed us down. It could have been the few day’s rest behind us that made our legs soft to the relentless mountain incline on the second day. Or the Cascade scenery, the craggy peaks that cut through the skyline with permanent presence from every view, we may have taken our time taking all that in.
On the fourth day out, after barely breaching the total incline out of Stehekin, Quinn and I woke to a blazing sun rising over the cloudless Cascade ranges that surrounded our tents. It really hit me hard that morning just a few miles down the trail, when Quinn and I took our official breakfast on a sun-facing rock, scenes like these would soon be over, the feelings of tired muscles sitting on warming rocks overlooking the world, it was really coming to an end.
My nostalgia for the trail didn’t last long, because as we sat there idly staring towards the mountain peaks changing colors in the rising sun, I received a message on my satellite communicator from basecamp that forewarned of the winter storm fast approaching our location. It was hard to believe with the sun blazing through the blue sky above, but in conjunction with a similar warning from the day-hiker we’d met, it seemed likely to dump snow on us that night.
Abandoning our intentions of really taking our time with the end of of the trail, Quinn and I put our packs on and decided that our best bet was to get to Hart’s Pass by the end of the day. Hart’s Pass serves as the last road outlet out of the wilderness that crossing the PCT, and was 25 miles ahead of us. The idea was that if we needed to dig out of a snowbound wilderness, it would be a lot easier to do on a road, so with a relatively rolling landscape ahead of us, Quinn and I did what we had come to learn to do best, and we cruised down the trail.
Something I always appreciated about the trail from the very beginning was its seemingly straightforward nature. Their was only one direction to go while hiking, and that was forward, and it almost all boils down to that. Always go forward, each morning you know what you have to do and each evening you can track your tangible progress. There’s variables in between of course, and the physical demands weren’t low, but even that day, with a 25-mile push to Hart’s Pass, it was a good goal to aim and achieve for. The sunny weather didn’t hurt anything either.
When we arrived to Hart’s Pass it was immensely dark with only few stars out in the frosty air. Quinn and I had made it, and we’re ready to crawl into our respective tents and call it a night. I had begun the habit of cooking dinner in my vestibule while laying in my tent. Before the trail, I always had regarded such an action as dangerous, but at that point, and that night particular, nothing could have been more satisfying than two helpings of Ramen Noodles with a generous scoop of peanut butter, some chocolate chip cookies, as well as three scoops of trail-mix, and a dried cranberry and macadamia mix, plus a protein-bar (dabbed in peanut butter) and a hot cup of chamomile tea; all the while lying horizontally in my warm sleeping bag atop an air pad.
During the night as we slept, the winter storm arrived, and I woke up in the morning needing to push the snow off my concaving tent walls. I would be lying to say that I wasn’t sitting there, making assurances to myself that I could leave the trail now, 30 miles away from the border of Canada, and still have my head held up high. I had experienced my trail, and had already missed small parts here and there, so to me, in the grand scheme of things, I was okay with avoiding the snow travel and feeling like I had accomplished something. At least that’s what I was telling myself that morning within the security of my sleeping bag.
Quinn on the other hand, after we had cordially discussed the realities of our situation, of the possible snowed-in situation we could face by going forward, he finally said, “I’m going”, helping me to make my own decision. We packed our packs in the snowless square footprints left by our tents, and with the snow falling down harder than ever, I followed Quinn up and out of Hart’s Pass in a hurry, trying not to become caught on a steep ridge in a bad storm.
Among my concerns about travelling in heavy snowfall was the risk of losing the trail all together and finding ourselves truly in the middle of nowhere, with a lot harder time figuring out which way to turn. With that thought riding shotgun in my mind, Quinn and I hiked hard and fast for the first 10 miles, stopping only once to ditch some layers. The snow only increased in intensity as we hiked, and while the already-indented-into-the-earth trail remained partially visible the entire way, it was a chore not to slip and slide on the frozen puddles hidden beneath the snow.
It was such a far cry from hiking the day before, when the sun was shining bright unfiltered by no clouds in the sky, and it seemed to illustrate a collective impression I had of the trail. Everyday has something new to fend against, something unique to adventure towards and a general ability to keep even the all-day routine of hiking feeling fresh with every step. Sitting back home, in the same coffee shop as yesterday, sleeping in the same bed every night, it’s now even more apparent the importance of being able to discover new things daily.
After 10 fast miles cruising up the mountain path, Quinn and I caught our breath and catched a break. The precipitation was still falling, but the mid-day sun began to break through and change the snow from heavy and sticky to wet and soaking. While hiking in icy-cold rain slush isn’t necessarily ideal, it posed less risk for losing track of the trail, turning our final stretch from a perilous journey into almost a victory lap.
Continuing down the trail, approaching the last 12 miles of the entire trail and the dual Rock and Woody pass, we could see how lucky we were that the forecast had lightened up. Below where we stood, large switchbanks could barely be seen through the piling snow, leading down the side of a mountain towards an icy-white valley, and with the expanse of the situation before us, we could even spot the long climb back out of the icy-depths, eventually leading to a higher elevation than where we stood. Classic.
We continued forward, stepping in knee-deep snow on every switchback corner, noting the boulder size snowballs that had already begun to accumulate by rolling down the mountain side. Overhead, the snowfall had virtually come to a stop, and we were thankful as we navigated the bottom of the route along a trail with little margin-of-error for slipping off. Climbing out of the valley and beginning or hard-fight back up, the best thing to keep us going was the knowledge that it was the last mountain we’d be climbing on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Standing atop Woody Pass, knowing that it was nothing but down for the rest of the trail, it was a moment of small celebration. We’d be descending altitude enough not to have to worry about snowfall, and our reaching the monument was nearly a guarantee. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was getting dark, our whole bodies drenched from rain, snow and sweat, and the strong yearning for the shelter of our tents, we probably would have stuck around a little longer to celebrate.
The final 2-3 miles on that fifth day put us at an even 27 miles total since we woke up in the snow, and left only three more until the border. Cruise control was set and Quinn and I talked with a fluidity that matched the way our legs moved down the trail. Even setting up our tents in the dark, with a new batch of pouring rain fresh upon us, it was being within vicinity of a half-year’s persistent goal that made everything feel as fun as the first day all over again.
Sitting in my tent, on the final night of my PCT thru-hike, I knew that it was going to be the last time for awhile my tent would feel so secure, that mirrors, sinks and deodorant would soon be entering my existence again, and just getting to experience so much of my life outdoors, that too would soon taper off. It was both relieving and miserable, like a deep-tissue massage, and even so close to the end I felt like I wasn’t that close to be finished with the experience.
The rain continued all through the night and blotched the normal colors of the rising sun. Quinn and I took our time with things, but moved with enough efficiency to roll out of camp by 9 a.m. The rain was a bitter cold that made standing still the worst option, and the trail was in an equally sloppy condition which made puddle jumping key. It was still amazing to think about how many people blazed this same path in their journeys, after how far they’ve gone, I could relate to the experience and felt the collective community of the PCT finishing their trail all around me.
And then there it was, almost like it was waiting for me.
The monument of the PCT is a random touch of civilization in the middle of the woods. If it wasn’t for the symbol it stood for, or the unique, long swath of forest clear-cutted around it to serve as the border between the U.S. and Canada, the monument isn’t that much to look at it. Especially compared to the hundreds of unique mountain landscapes, geological features and natural displays of beauty found on the rest of the trail.
But it does stand for something very significant if you spent 166 days trying to see it. Progress was always so tangible on the Pacific Crest Trail, you could just look on the map to see how far you’ve gone, and just like that, the end was there, a concrete monument to show that you have done it.
Memories of departing from the Southern Monument flushed through my mind as Quinn and I approached the Northern Terminus, with the trail beneath our feet entirely connecting the two. It was strange, or perhaps not strange enough, it’s hard to say but surely that one exact moment of reaching the terminus was a bit anti-climatic. It was everything that led up to it, the peaks, people and life spent hiking towards a goal, that was the climactic part, the end was just a bottle cap to the whole experience.
What was more memorable than actually arriving to the monument was the two hours Quinn and I spent there, hiding from the rain, drinking the last remaining whiskey saved for the very occasion and doing what we had come to appreciate in the last 5½ months, just hanging out in the woods. As for me, there was a definitely a moment, perhaps catalyzed by the whiskey, where I got one clear look around me, feeling the raindrops steady patter upon my head, where I realized just exactly where I was at, and that it was someplace fairly special.