Mile 2313 to mile 2321 (plus 14 miles on a side trail)
It rains all night and I sleep/wake sleep/wake to bursts of lightning, the water pounding the forest. I manage to stay warm and dry in my magic tent, which is made of butterfly wings, and the Teflon tape I used to repair the seam on top holds well. Raho wakes me at six, with a proposition- there’s a side trail that drops four thousand feet down the mountain to a place called The Grove of the Patriarchs, wherein thousand year-old redcedars and massive, monolithic doug-firs can be seen. I know these forests are there, but the PCT in Washington stays mostly above four thousand feet, and so we don’t get to see them. I love me some old growth, so I say why not? After The Grove of the Patriarchs we’ll take another trail that loops back to the PCT. Our side trip will add an extra fourteen miles. The only drawback is that Spark and Instigate will likely pass us while we’re down below, and then we’ll have to catch them.
I tear the top from a packet of caffeinated crystal light and dump it into my filthy Gatorade bottle. We’re going to have to hike fast, and I need to get pumped. Outside the rain has stopped and the world is bathed in fog; we climb uphill through the misty trees for eight miles to the trail junction and then stand, eating snacks from the pockets of our hipbelts, looking at the trail that cuts away down the mountain.
“Should we do this?” says Raho.
“Yeah,” I say.
My stomach fills with nervous excitement. We’re going to leave the PCT. We’re about to hike on another trail. This feels like a really big deal to me. My feet and heart, and this point, have become attuned to the PCT; to its whims and fancies, its general shape and overall temperament, and to the subtle trail of electrons left by the hundreds of hikers just ahead of us. I’ve grown with the PCT, changed with the PCT. I’ve spent every waking moment nurturing and maintaining my relationship with this eighteen-inch by 2660 mile ribbon of dirt. I am not my own free agent, charging through the wilderness; I am as faithful and obedient as an ant.
But Raho has maps, so that’s cool. He pulls them from his pack- they’re printouts from the internet, vague overview maps, and they don’t have nearly as much data as I’m used to working with (and the mileages, I think, are probably wrong!) but we’re following a clearly marked trail to a boardwalk-encircled cedar grove next to the highway, so there’s not a lot to worry about.
We hike down, down, down and the forest grows slowly more lush; now there is moss, now there are big nurse logs, now the standing doug-firs are larger. I run down the switchbacks, just for fun, my pack bouncing on my back. I want to run all the way to the bottom; I want to arrive among the cedars breathless; I want to drop into the old-growth like a stone into a well. When at last we reach the highway my feet are sore and I feel the beginnings of a new blister; going downhill can be rough.
“And tomorrow we climb back up,” says Raho, ominously.
We take a lunch break next to a frothing river whose name I do not remember. The cedar grove is only two miles away but sometimes you put off eating for a long time and then your low blood sugar stops you in your tracks, forcing you to eat just where you are. I fill my bottles in the river and eat my pathetic lunch, staring morosely into my food bag. Raho dumps his food bag into the dirt and looks at the bright packages, half of them empty.
“I’m not sure I have enough food for this section,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Join the club. I’m, like, the president.”
We glance at each other, sharing looks of concern. So we don’t have enough food. What can we do? Nothing. We can walk.
“The trail provides,” I say. It’s a saying you hear a lot, and so far it’s proven to be true. And by that I mean there has been lots, and lots, and lots of trail magic. And plenty of highways where one can hitch to town. And then even more trail magic. But now we’re in Washington, with its long stretches of roadless wilderness areas and super remote resupply points, and the odds are not exactly in our favor.
“We’ll be fine,” I say again.
Raho looks unconvinced, and frowns as he eats his payday bar. I impulsively pick up one of my snickers bars, and toss it into his pile. The other I’m saving for tomorrow, for my birthday.
“Are you sure?” he says, looking at the little candy bar.
“Yeah,” I say. “They make me feel kind of awful, anyway.” Really I just want him to stop stressing so much. Turn that frown upside down.
Raho gives me kind of a dark look. I know it’s a really big deal, giving another hiker your snickers bar. But these are hard times, Washington, and hard times call for extreme measures. For morale. And besides, I know that everything will work out. I can’t explain how I know it, but I do.
And another thing is that Raho needs more calories than I do. His pack is heavy and he has more muscle mass- the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn just being alive. His blood sugar crashes before mine does, and he can’t go as long without eating. And yet, we’re carrying the same amount of food. This is one reason that I think women thrive on the PCT, while many of the men end up sort of… wasting away. They simply cannot eat enough to replace the calories they’re burning. And the logistics of doing so would be ridiculous- we’re hiking from sunup to sundown. There is very little time to eat.
Hungry or no, the cedar grove makes us ecstatic. Trees so big they play tricks on your eyes, hulking from the earth like ancient beasts. So old, so full of secrets… I circle one of them, touching its plaited bark. This tree has seen… what? So much. So many things. I lean my body against the tree and smell its non-smell. The smell of the forest, the smell of my living room. The smell of the world where I live right now, for a little while, the ground that I sleep on, the air that I breathe. Trees! The forest! Tell me, I think, moving my fingers over its convoluted surface. I know that the outer part of the tree is dead, that only the core, deep deep inside, is alive. I also know that the mass of the tree below ground is roughly equal to the mass of the tree aboveground. I feel completely held by this tree, encircled by this tree, above and below. This patient tree, just standing here through the centuries. Watching without judgment. Watching the megafauna disappear, the Europeans come with their axes, the americorps volunteers reverently building this boardwalk. This tree and its unconditional love.
I hike slowly in the afternoon, stoned on sleep deprivation and the opulence of low-elevation old growth. We walk through the forest along the river; we pass so many big, beautiful trees. We cross the river in the evening on a footbridge just as the rain begins to fall. Lightly at first, and then harder. There’s no way we’re night-hiking in this dark, cold rain to Chinook pass, where the trail meets back up with the PCT. Dark comes so early now, in September! We pitch our tents in a loamy little spot next to the water and crawl inside, eat dinner in our sleeping bags listening to the rain pour down.
I hope my stuff stays dry, I think, as the rain pounds even harder. And harder still, like a monsoon. Lightning flashes, illuminating the fabric of the tent. I do a poor job of brushing my teeth, line up my water bottles and then lay down to watch the show. The tent fabric flashes again and then thunder cracks, rending the fabric of the sky. My heart is pounding. I roll over and accidentally push my bag against the steamy wall of the tent. I pull the bag away; I want to maintain some semblance of dryness. If it continues to rain tomorrow, I won’t have a chance to dry it. It’s warm tonight but what if tomorrow night, at higher elevation, I am not as lucky? A wet sleeping bag in a wet tent in the cold. I shudder. I feel a patter on my legs and look down- there is water bouncing through the mesh door of the tent. It’s begun to rain inside the tent.
“Fuck it,” I say, and shut my eyes, as the torrential rain grows louder still.