We’re at the convenience store at White Pass, Washington, and my heart is racing from caffeine. Hiker’s packs are lined up on the bench outside the store, which sells pizza and honeydew melon and has a cluster of metal tables where hikers can hang out while they charge their phones. It’s noon. I peek inside the store, but I don’t see anybody that I know or recognize- just a few bearded strangers, wolfing down corndogs. I didn’t get to meet very many other thru-hikers this year, as I raced north to Canada to beat the rain, so I’ve decided to hike this section from White Pass to Cascade Locks south, two weeks after finishing my thru-hike. Actually it was Orbit and Redbeard’s idea, a couple of thru-hikers I met on the trail last year. Redbeard lives in Seattle and is a rafting guide although once, back when he could tolerate it, he had a desk job editing film. Orbit is an unemployed barista, just moved to Portland, with dreams of going to school for astrophysics. She’s also one hike away from her triple crown.
It’s strange to climb up the goat rocks “backwards”- the views are inside out, the ups are downs, the downs are up. The sun is out and the views are brilliant and then, at the top, cold fog rolls in, a harbinger of fall. It’s September!
We hike towards Mt. Adams in the dusk, watching the moon rise, and reach our campsite, a little overlook sheltered by trees 22 miles in, at 8 p.m. I was curious to see how my body would do after two weeks off the trail- I’ve been biking and running in the city, but not for twelve hours a day. Now I discover that what I’ve always suspected is true- nothing can approximate the intense nonstop physical activity of a thru-hike. While my muscles are still strong and I can still hike uphill at 3mph, the tendons in my hips, ankles and knees have grown soft, and now, at the end of the day, I ache all over in that special way that reminds me of the beginning of one’s thru-hike. Ah, the pain of the desert! How I’ve missed it! Two weeks, and my body is no longer the invincible machine that took four months and 2,660 miles (minus the fire detours in SoCal) to create. Two weeks is all it takes.
But I can still hike. And so can Orbit and Redbeard! And it feels so good to be out here. Orbit and Redbeard build a fire as a deep cold moves in and the clouds blow away, revealing ice-hard stars. It’s beautiful up here, so beautiful. I passed this spot this summer, but didn’t camp here. That, in itself, is good enough reason, for me, to hike the PCT more than once- there are so many epic places to camp! We’re tired and it’s probably colder than it should be, this early in September, but the fire is warm and bright and we sit around it, eating our dinners. Orbit makes ramen on her alcohol stove.
“I love ramen,” she says.
We fall asleep under the stars in the infinite quiet, the trees sheltering us from the wind.
In the morning I wake after six and paw through my backpack- how do I do mornings again? We’ve packed five days of food, which seems like an incredible amount, more food than I think I’ve ever packed before. Orbit is already up, sitting on a rock next to the firepit wearing all her layers, making a little plastic cup of instant coffee. The sun is somewhere behind the mountains. Redbeard wakes and rolls over. He’s got to hike back to the car today, to get back to Seattle for work- he can’t come all the way to Cascade Locks with us. Why can’t we all be free, all the time? Work, you know.
It’s so cold this morning that Orbit and I are hiking in all our layers- it’s clear going over Cispus Pass and then we drop down, into cold fog, and can’t see anything anymore, save the trees. We start to pass clusters of northbounders, singly or in groups of two. They all have the same look about them- lean, small packs, wild hair, torn clothing. In their eyes a sense of urgency, an intense focus that’s been whittled to a fine point over many months. These hikers are determined. Eyes on the prize! I remember hiking north, how section hikers would tell us that we had this look. Now, after two weeks in the city, I’ve grown soft, and I no longer wear my sense of urgency like a mask. And hiking southbound, today, I can finally see it for myself, in the faces of these hikers-
Hunger not just for real literal food but for rest, for accomplishment, for warmth, for shelter, for companionship. For clean clothes and soft chairs and significant others and pets and electricity and wifi and hot coffee and sleep and nutritious meals and music. For sitting down without 30 miles of hiking in front of you and clean running water and an amplitude of food and maybe your cat, there on your lap. For relief and accomplishment and an end, an end, an end. Thru-hiking is, at its most basic, an experience of deprivation- Do Not Sit. Do Not Be Warm. Do Not Be Well Fed. Do Not Be Hydrated. Do Not Be With The Ones You Love. And now, after nearly five months, this deprivation has etched itself into the faces of these hikers so deeply that it’s really remarkable to see. It’s not a look that we see often on the faces of young, white, college-educated americans, aka the dominant demographic of the PCT- a hunger and determination so strong that it makes its own light, that it glows like a lamp.
I know, from my own two thru-hikes, what this specific light feels like.
It feels like being alive.
It’s wonderful to pass, and meet, these northbounders. They are without fail kind, polite, happy, adorable, glowing, and hungry- hungry to talk to us, hungry to make it to the top of the next climb, hungry to hike the next four hundred miles. They stare off into the distance, stars in their eyes. They don’t realize how soon it’s ending, or how much they’ll miss it when it’s gone.
“Are you thru-hikers?” they ask us.
“No, just section hiking,” we say, and it feels good to say. We’re on vacation. I remember the anxiety of my last month on the trail, the way I would sometimes cry while I hiked. On a PCT thru-hike you’re locked into the weather window, you’re on a schedule. There’s not a lot of flexibility if you want to beat the rain or snow. Now I’m freed from that and I’m just here, almost blissful, on the PCT, this place that I love. It’s like magic.
Magic. Is that what the PCT is? My main motivation for thru-hiking the PCT a second time was to answer one question- what is the PCT? And I think, now, hiking southbound two weeks after ending my thru-hike, that I finally know the answer.
There is no PCT.
Or, the PCT does not exist. The PCT is something that we make up, collectively, with our imaginations- it only exists because we come together, here, for a summer, and agree that it exists. The PCT is only real as long as you believe that it’s real, and after your hike is finished it fades away, back into non-existence. The PCT is a place that we construct with our imaginations that has its own culture, value systems, traditions, vocabulary, cuisine (block of dry ramen covered in peanut butter, anyone?), beauty standards, and mythology. We come together, agree that this place exists, and then we all live there, for a little while. It’s a totally unique conception of reality that’s 18 inches by 2,660 miles long and you can live there, for a summer, as long as you keep moving. And as soon as you’re finished- that world is gone. As though it never existed at all.
Kind of cool, right?
These lean, wind-burned, starry-eyed northbounders don’t realize how soon their world is ending and I wonder, afterwards, how they’ll feel. Sad? Relieved? Empty? Many of them come from middle-class or upper-middle-class upbringings and have followed, until now, a very traditional track in life. And now they’ve been shown, via this long ribbon of dirt, an entirely new way to construct their experience of reality. Will things ever be the same? How could they possibly be? And will these bright-eyed young people ever fully recover?
Orbit and I had talked of doing some crazy big miles today but now we realize, because of the limitations of our own bodies, that this won’t be possible without a good deal of suffering, and besides it starts to rain. Cold rain. Really, really, cold rain.
“Motherfucker, motherfucker,” I mumble as I repack my bag inside its trash bag liner and pull on my clammy rain jacket. I didn’t sign up for this, except actually I did. Hiking in the north cascades in September is a gamble, which is why, I remind myself, I finished in August. But I’m a fool and an addict and the weather was beautiful and these good people invited me along and I just couldn’t stay away. Hiking, it’s what I like to do! And sleeping on the ground!
All afternoon in the cold rain my morale is in the gutter. Instead of the bliss of hiking fast in the good clear weather over the backs of mountains I am pushing myself through the cold, unloving forest, anxiety piling up and falling away, piling up and falling away, like the tide. This rain makes me unbelievably weary and I remember August, how ready I was to be home. I’m done with this trail! Why am I out here? I pull out my phone, but there’s no reception. I have no music. Orbit is somewhere behind, or ahead. I have no distractions, no way to check out. Only this unbearable feeling of discomfort, front and center in my brain, this tired unhappy feeling that is yelling at me.
Two weeks off the trail, and I’ve already forgotten how to endure the highs and lows of a typical hiking day. And now I’m here, trapped, and I can’t escape it.
An hour later the clouds blow away and a little thin sun comes out and I’m warm from climbing and I discover something else that I’ve forgotten-
The moments of almost god-like peace that appear, like magic, on the other side of all that suffering. When you can’t check out, when you can’t escape, when there’s nothing else to do or look at or think about, and so you just keep walking, almost writhing in pain inside your own body, and then, just as quickly as it appeared, that epic feeling of discomfort is gone- and what’s left in its place is this big, open emptiness, full of light and warmth and well being, and you suddenly know more than you’ve ever known before that, to quote Kerouac, everything is fine, forever and ever and ever.
All afternoon we’ve been following a set of southbound brooks cascadias footprints- I’m pretty sure they belong to Christine, my friend from southern Oregon, who this summer hiked the Oregon section of the PCT and is now southbounding this section- she left White Pass the day before we did and we figured that we’d catch her sometime today. I’m excited to see her and in the last hour, Orbit notes, the tracks have grown fresher, and they’re on top of all the other tracks, which means that we’re getting closer. We’d planned on going five more miles, somewhat arbitrarily, for a 34 mile day, but then we round a bend in an alpine meadow and see a tent pitched in a perfectly sheltered little cluster of trees, a waterfall nearby, and it’s Christine! and we are glad to have a reason to stop.
“I’m trying not to burn my tent down,” says Christine. She’s boiling water in her vestibule, her soaked sleeping bag spread over the top of the tent to “dry”.
“I didn’t get a chance to lay it in the sun today,” she says.
“It’s so cold,” I say.
“A ranger told me it’s going to get down to 37 tonight,” says Christine.
A strong wind is blowing but there’s plenty of room in the little copse of trees for us, and although it’s begun to rain again, the ground is dry in here. Orbit strings up her hammock and I sit on my sleeping pad, eating salt and vinegar chips. Christine is happy, chattering on as she cooks her dinner. This is her first long hike and I haven’t seen her since spring, before she started.
“I love this,” she says. “I love thru-hiking. It’s my favorite thing. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I love this life. I love it so much.”
Christine tells us that she was in a series of lightning storms in Oregon- the lightning was starting fires all over the place and many of the thru-hikers behind us hitched from Etna to Ashland, skipping the area entirely. Christine hiked through it, weathering one electrical storm so intense that her hair stood on end, the tips of her fingers were tingly, and she was “glued to the floor of the tent”.
“I couldn’t lift myself off the floor of the tent,” she says. “I don’t know why.”
“I think that was ground to ground lightning?” I say.
“That would explain a lot of things,” says Christine. “I felt so calm the next day. Really serene.”
I ask Christine if she’s going to farm next year- she’s been farming in Southern Oregon every summer for a while.
“I don’t think so,” she says, eyes almost ecstatically alight. “I have a new hobby now.”
I tell her that she should hike the whole trail, beginning to end, but she says she likes the solitude of section hiking.
“I don’t like the groups of dude-bros,” she says. “I don’t like how competitive they get. I don’t like how people leave trash everywhere. I saw one guy dump his leftover soup onto the ground, in a campsite. It’s like they don’t know about Leave No Trace.”
We go to bed well after dark, bundled in every layer we own, scrunched down deep in our sleeping bags. Long underwear, down jacket, rain jacket, fleece hat, neo-air, hoods pulled up and everything cinched up and zipped up tight. Finally I am warm and horizontal on the ground, and finally the tension in my muscles begins to unspool. Outside it’s cold but here, in my mummy nest, it’s warm. Within seconds I am unbearably sleepy. I call this “survival sleep”- the wonderful deep black sleep of a person safe and warm in a little cocoon against the harsh elements outside. It’s my favorite way to sleep- in the winter I sleep with the heat off and the windows open, a million blankets on top of me, in an attempt to induce it.
At four a.m. I wake to what sounds like a wolf howling. It’s unbelievably dark outside, the sky overcast and the trees close. I can’t see anything. A hostile world out there, if the temperature of the tip of my nose is any judge, and I’m not getting up for anything.
In the morning I wake naturally at 5:45- I’m back on my thru-hiker schedule!
“How are you up this early?” says Christine groggily, as I dig through my food bag and assemble some breakfast. Orbit is packing up her hammock.
“I had a nightmare last night,” says Orbit. “I dreamed I was suffocating.”
“So that’s what that sound was,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Orbit. “I should’ve warned you.”
“Are you sure you’re not a werewolf?” I say.
“That’s probably what it was,” says Orbit.
Christine is still in her sleeping bag when we leave camp- she wants to take it easy and enjoy the rest of this section. I admire the way she knows what she wants, her unwillingness to hike anyone else’s hike. And I’ll see her soon, in southern oregon!
It’s cold and overcast and the “sunrise”, when it comes, is a swirl of light and fog, clouds pouring over the top of Mt. Adams. It’s beautiful and everything is glittery but Orbit and I are hiking in all of our layers and we agree that if the sky doesn’t clear by the time we get to the road to Trout Lake, we’re bailing. No more freezing rain! Also, Orbit’s been hiking in a pair of chacos she bought at a barter market in Nepal for $8 and in the wet conditions they’re rubbing what look like holes into her feet. She’s not complaining, but I can only imagine what that feels like.
As we hike we tell stories. Here’s one-
Orbit loves stars. There’s a star, Vega, that’s 25 light-years away, and Orbit knew that if she could find this star on her 25th birthday, she’d get to see the light that was emitted the day she was born. So she went to Nepal last winter in order to trek the Annapurna Circuit and she arranged it so that on her birthday, in February, she’d be on the highest point on the circuit, Thorung La pass, at 17,769 feet. A storm was raging the day before her birthday but she assumed, along with the two friends she was traveling with, that the storm would blow itself out. It did not. The day of her birthday was meant to be a 9 hour trek from basecamp, over the pass and to a village on the other side but instead, because of the storm, it was a grueling, slow-motion slog in a whiteout. Her group left basecamp at 5 a.m., following the windblown tracks of a party ahead of them and tall markers stuck in the snow, and marched tirelessly into a wind so strong that if you leaned into it, it would hold you up. The group didn’t stop once all day except for a few minutes at the pass, where they found a young french woman, Emily, who’d lost her party the day before and had spent the night in the shelter there. Emily was disoriented from the altitude and her clothing was torn, and she had frostbite on her fingers and toes. Orbit’s group adopted Emily and made sure she was with them as they slowly and with great difficulty made their way down the other side of the pass. The group reached the warm little village that was their destination at 8 p.m., and there they consumed dal bhat and spicy pickles, the first thing Orbit had eaten since the rice pudding she’d had for breakfast. Emily was so affected by the altitude that the next day, when they visited her in the hospital, she didn’t remember meeting them. And that had been Orbit’s 25th birthday.
The clouds break at the exact moment we reach the road to Trout Lake. It’s one p.m. There’s a subaru across the road, unloading hikers.
“Do you two need a ride into town?” says the woman driving the subaru. We stand in the warm sun, torn.
‘What do you want to do?” I say to Orbit.
“Coffee sounds good,” says Orbit.
“We’re on vacation!” I say.
It’s hot and sunny in Trout Lake, as if the cold September weather in the mountains isn’t happening at all. We spread our sleeping bags to dry on the wooden fence in front of the diner, take off our shoes, change into our shorts, and order burgers and fries. Orbit becomes ecstatic over a cup of coffee.
“I love coffee!” she says. I order huckleberry pie with vanilla icecream- it’s not Stehekin blackberry pie, but it IS pie. Orbit walks to the general store and comes back with a pair of cascadias, in her size, from the hiker box.
“I love hiker boxes!” she says, as she puts them on. She straps the chacos to the outside of her pack. “My feet feel better already!”
We get a ride back to the trail from an older woman who’s following the herd in her van, giving trail magic, and set off into the sunlit, if still cold forest, powered by all the good food we’ve eaten. It’s 3:30 p.m. but we’re fast hikers, and we know we can get 29 miles in by dark. And our bodies are starting to feel better- we’re adjusting back to all this walking. Which makes sense for me, as I just finished a thru-hike two weeks ago, but I’m amazed at Orbit- she hasn’t thru-hiked since 2013 and yet here she is, charging up the hills at 3 mph, doing 30 mile days in Washington. She tells me that last year she hiked Washington in 16 days, averaging a little over 31 miles per day. No zeros, no bathing, and she almost didn’t stop in Stehekin. Almost.
Dusk finds us in a flat patch of forest, eerily quiet, and we spread our bedrolls among the sticks and vanilla leaf. My brain plays that game where it looks at the quiet, dimming forest and waffles back and forth- creepy? peaceful? creepy? peaceful? PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL! I shout at it, knowing I won’t be able to fall asleep otherwise. The last of the light leaves just as I’m brushing my teeth and then I’m tucked in, almost smothered in the absolute silence. So peaceful.
We sleep in but we pack up quick and we’re out by 6:45. We’re headed 34 miles today, all the way to Panther Creek, where there’s a road we can hitch into Cascade Locks. It’s the NotaChance alternate, the road the rest of my group walked leaving Cascade Locks, while Mac and I hiked 35 miles and 9 thousand feet up and over a bunch of arbitrary mountains to catch them. But now I’m a section hiker, and we’re going to go the lazy way, chopping off the last day of our hike. This means we’ll finish in 3.5 days and we have, in fact, brought way too much food. So the walking feast continues into the morning, through the bright cold forest, which is mysteriously devoid of thru-hikers- I figure they’re all holed up in Cascade Locks for PCT days, which happens this weekend. Not having northbounders around makes the trail sort of boring, and I’m extra fidgety until Blue Lake, where we collapse in the warm sun and eat chocolate and cheeze-its, respectively. Orbit jumps in the water and then sits on rocks on the edge of the lake, braiding her hair.
“I could stay here forever,” I say.
“There’s fish in this water,” she says. “We could live here.”
“We could build a little cabin,” I say, “and make a living selling fried fish to thru-hikers. Every now and then one of us could hike out for supplies- oats and salt and things we need.”
Orbit and I start brainstorming other ways we could “live” on the PCT. We decide that the best way would be to somehow get paid to hike up and down the trail as fast as possible, teaching other hikers about Leave No Trace. We’d wear leather jackets and sort of materialize out of the bushes when people least expected it.
“Hey,” we’d say. “Is that an orange peel?”
We leave Blue Lake after an hour, climb up onto the baking ridge from which one can see both Hood AND St. Helens, and then start the long, long descent to Panther Creek. I don’t see Orbit all afternoon but know that she’s just ahead- we’re both determined to make it to Panther Creek by 7:30.
The descent is too much on my now-soft joints and after a couple of hours my whole body starts to ache. Feet, knees, hips. My morale crashes- there’s that inescapable suffering again! And I fidget my way down the mountain, running my phone battery dead listening to podcasts that I don’t even really like. The forest grows lush, and dense, and the air becomes thick and warm, as I drop all the way down to 800 feet. I wonder if there really were panthers here at one time? I think. I feel like I’l probably have this thought every time I come to panther creek, for the rest of my life. I hear the rush of water and then I’m walking stiffly over the footbridge at 7:28, babying my sore feet. I see Orbit with an armload of sticks. The cold is coming on, and she’s headed to the campsite beneath the big cedars, to make a fire. Sweet.
The forest is heavy and close, ferns and western redcedars and bigleaf maples all draped with moss, and our campsite is flat and soft. I sit on my sleeping pad and stare into the fire, feeling my muscles twitch and relax, as Orbit makes her little pot of ramen. A mouse zig-zags around, promising to bother us at night, and as we feed sticks into the fire we talk about how we wish more women would thru-hike, and that women knew that they were capable of being just as fast as the dudes. Tomorrow we hitch back to Portland, via Cascade Locks, but we don’t really want to, and so this last night in camp is bittersweet- we both want to live here, on the trail. But there are other lives, a whole other world, the demands of western civilization, and we eventually run out of sticks to feed the fire.