Mile 2330 to mile 2350 (plus 5 miles on a side trail)
All night lightning flashes, water drums on the tent, water leaks through the tent and onto my bag. I wake, I sleep, I wake, I sleep. Thunder cracks, rattling the ground.
I fall asleep towards morning when the rain becomes more gentle. I wake to the sound of Raho’s church bells, coming from his tent. It’s my birthday.
“Do you want to hear some Balkan pop music?” Raho shouts at me. Soon there is tinny music in the clearing, via his ipod. I yank open the tent door, look out at the wet, cold forest and laugh. I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to get up today at all. Not even one little bit. I pull the gallon Ziploc of trailmix from my pack and paw through it. I’ve eaten almost all of the raisins and prunes, which are my favorite part. Just almonds and coconut now. I take a handful and sort it in my damp palm. Time for hamster breakfast.
Packing up my wet tent, wet sleeping bag, wet sleeping pad and then putting on my cold, clingy wet rainjacket leaves me in a foul mood. But then as soon as I’m hiking I feel better- we’re climbing and the trail is nearly overgrown with fat, ripe blueberries- I’m eating handful after handful and there are still infinity of them, brushing up against me as I hike. They’re the best blueberries we’ve had so far, grown heavy and sweet on this hillside that must get a lot of sun when it’s clear.
“It’s my birthday!” I shout as I eat the blueberries. “It’s my birthday today!” Raho is behind me, huffing and puffing.
“How do you go so fast uphill?” he says.
“I don’t know,” I shout, “happiness? And my pack is lighter than yours. And caffeine!”
At last we’ve gained the 4,000 feet we lost when we left the PCT and we reach Chinook pass, where we are unceremoniously deposited back on our home trail. It’s cold up here, much colder than down in the valley where we camped, and a wet fog is draped over everything. We crouch next to a glassy lake beneath the shelter of a redcedar, eating a little lunch. It has begun to rain again.
“Fuck,” I say as a scrape the tuna out of the bottom of the foil packet. “I’m cold.” I’m shivering, and I can’t get warm. All I have is my running shorts, wool t-shirt and wet rain jacket and the temperature feels like it’s right around forty degrees. I could put on my down jacket but then it would get wet while I hike and become useless. I think of the sodden sleeping bag in the bottom of my pack. If it’s this cold right now…
“You think we can do thirty miles today?” I ask Raho.
“I don’t know,” he says.
I’m looking at the app on my phone. In thirty miles there’s a shelter with a woodstove. In thirty miles there is heat, a warm place to sleep, a way to dry our stuff. Salvation. And I’m certain that that’s where all our friends will be tonight. Spark and Instigate’s stuff will be just as wet as ours and I can almost feel them out there, gunning for the shelter.
And if we don’t make it? I think of my wet sleeping bag, wet tent, wet everything. I’d shiver, if I wasn’t already shivering.
I grip the birthday snickers in the pocket of my rainjacket. Not yet, I think. You have to hike so fast.
We’re hiking on a ridgeline way up above everything when suddenly Raho and I have cellphone reception, for the first time in days. We sit on the narrow, rocky trail, our backs against the slope, and poke at our phones. I have many birthday voicemails and text messages from friends and it makes me feel a little less lonely, a little less sad and despairing way up on this ridgeline in the North Cascades without even my cat pack here to tell me that they love me. I poke and poke at my phone until it’s time to hike again and then I push myself to walk faster, faster, faster still. It’s cold and I’m chilled and walking fast is the only way to stay warm. I don’t see the forested slopes draped in fog, the little streams trickling across the trail, the bright lichen on the rocks. I want nothing more right now that to be with people that I love, somewhere warm, somewhere far away from all of this.
I eat my birthday snickers in front of a lake. A man and his son are out in the lake in waders, fishing. I give my phone to Raho so that he can take a picture of me eating my birthday snickers.
“You make this really dumb face in photos,” says Raho, as he hands the phone back to me. It’s an extra bad picture.
“You’re supposed to direct me,” I say. “I don’t know what face to make.”
I keep hiking. Everything is wrong today.
I’m ahead of Raho and it’s near dusk when I know that I can do it. I can hike the thirty miles. I can make it to the shelter. I look at the time on my phone, look at the mileage that’s left, remember our late start and average out my pace. I might not get there until ten, but I know I can do it, I know I’ve got it in me. I look behind me at the trail. Where is Raho? At this point I can either haul ass and pull ahead or wait for him. I’m pulling a scrap of paper from my little notebook to write him a note telling him I’ve gone ahead to the shelter when he rounds the bend, charging under his heavy pack, trekking poles sticking into the earth like spears.
“I was just thinking we should camp,” he says when he reaches me. “My foot is really bothering me.”
Raho has reoccurring foot pain, and sometimes it’s pretty bad. Later he’ll learn that he has plantar fasciitis, but he doesn’t know that now.
“Dang,” I say, looking out into the darkening woods. Suddenly the cabin is snapped from me, the warm shelter full of friends. The chance to dry my sleeping bag. “Alright,” I say. We hike another mile to what may or may not be a campsite, according to halfmile’s app, and stomp around in the dark woods, looking for a spot flat enough for our tents. There’s a little trickle of a stream on the hillside and I gather water there, using the “leaf method” (wherein one wedges a leaf into the trickle to make a tiny spout to fill one’s bottles). As I’m waiting for the bottles to fill I think of Spark and Instigate in the warm cabin, and maybe Egg and other hikers we’ve met, laughing and having a good time. I think of showing up, flinging open the wide wooden door, the orange light of the woodstove. Happy birthday! Everyone would shout, and then I would crawl into a living pile of my friends. I shiver in my wet rain jacket as the water trickles into my bottle. I’m feeling pretty epically sorry for myself today. But hey, it’s my party I can cry if I want to.
And of course, on top of everything, I have hardly any food left. I sit on my wet sleeping pad on the damp ground, eating handfuls of trailmix and granola. I am tired, hungry, and demoralized. I am depleted in every way. And now that it’s dark, it’s cold- the coldest night we’ve had so far in Washington. After dinner I crawl into my tent, roll out my sleeping pad, and put on my down jacket, which is somewhat dry. At least I have that. I lie down and pull my wet sleeping quilt over my body, all the way up to my chin. The fabric is clammy and I immediately start to shiver. I close my eyes. Lying on that cold ground under that wet sleeping quilt is one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced, and it rocks some deep part of my psyche. My edge. I have found my hypothermia edge. I curl up in a little ball on my side but still I shiver, still I can’t get warm. I feel lethargic and cold, half asleep in a strange way, staring at the tent wall waiting for sleep to come. I’m so sleep deprived and yet rest evades me. I feel panicked and scared, tired and weak. Some crucial part of me has lost its heat like opening the door on a small, warm room and that part of me just can’t seem to get warm again. I’m hungry, too, in a painful way. I’ve been hiking for a long time and my stores are gone. I shut my eyes and finally, at some indeterminate hour, I sleep.