Mile 2155 to mile 2182.5
I sleep hard and wake to a flat grey sky, sprinkles on my tent. I pack up and then fish the foil-covered plate of leftover tri-tip from the hiker fridge and stand on the back deck, eating cold rare meat. Other hikers are stirring, walking around, digging through the hiker box. Eating payday bars and broken pop-tarts.
The post office doesn’t open until ten, so Spark heads out to find some coffee. I fill up my water bottles and shoulder my pack. Washington, I think. It’s time.
The Bridge of the Gods crosses the Columbia River, the wide, fat, slow river that separates Oregon from Washington. There is no room on this bridge for pedestrians, but the woman in the toll booth is used to PCT hikers.
“Just walk against traffic,” she says. “And stick close to the railing.” I do as I am told, stopping in the middle of the bridge to look out at the misty gorge, the gunmetal water, the forested mountains rising up on either side. Traffic crawls by me, headlights on even though it’s morning.
It starts to rain just as I reach the other side of the bridge. Big, heavy raindrops, drumming against the ground. I take shelter under a stand of red-cedar on the roadside, looking out at the rain from inside the hood of my rainjacket, waiting for it to let up. Water begins to sift down through the cedars, and I hear it bouncing off my pack cover. Oh well, I think. At least it’s not cold.
I climb up, up, up in the cloudy damp, wet thimbleberries brushing against my legs, good Portland pop radio on my little MP3 player. Eleven miles later I am way above everything looking down, the river a silver snake, the gorge like the earth broken open. I eat some trail mix and then Spark appears, bouncing up the switchbacks. We chat for a moment and then he goes on, disappearing around a bend. I will see him later, most likely, and maybe Instigate and Sarah too, depending on how far they hiked last night.
In the afternoon I climb down in elevation to the sheltered folds of the mountain and suddenly the world is made of epiphytes: life on life on life. Heavy moss growing on big-leaf maples growing out of massive nurse logs. Yellow-green usnea like crepe paper, strung over everything. Little streams burbling from the earth. I hike on and on into the evening, through these sheltered folds and around the contours of the mountain, until the light is fading and my hiking boner is gone, gone. Soon dark is draped like a blanket over the mountain and I still have not found Spark or Instigate. I’m hiking on fumes now, alone through the nighttime forest, my feeble headlamp keeping the ghosts at bay. Next campsite, I think. I’ll stop at the next campsite. On the PCT a “campsite” is just a little flat spot big enough for a very small tent; in some areas it’s surprising how rare these can be. Here in the rainforest the understory is especially convoluted, every square inch claimed by some strong, growing thing. Soon, I think, turning the quavery light of my headlamp on the impenetrable blackness of the forest. Soon.
I see a faint whiteness in the distance and there is Egg, her bright tent pitched on a little ledge.
“This is the best I could find,” she says, her head sticking from the vestibule. “I was so tired.”
I hike on and cross a dirt road. I could camp on this road, but what if there was a car? Is it overgrown, or do people on ATVs come up here? In the darkness I can’t tell. And where are Spark and Instigate?
Finally there is a little wash next to the trail, covered in indigenous blackberry and sheltered by vine maple. I pitch my tent there just as the rain starts up again, hard. This will be my first night camping in my tent in the hard rain- Will I stay dry? I wonder, as I spread my saran-wrap-like groundsheet across the mesh floor of the tent and arrange my water bottles next to my head. I eat a little dinner and then lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the rain patter on the maples. I feel safe and sheltered in this little wash, with the green growing things crowded up against the fabric of my tent and the trees overhead and the foggy dark mountain all around. It’s peaceful here, almost deliriously slow. I’m drifting off, drunk on exhaustion and happiness. The way it should be, I think, as I feel myself melt into the earth. Life.