PCT SOBO WA part 4: heat and smoke

Snoqualmie Pass to White Pass
99 miles
7/31 to 8/4

Day 18

I have good dreams and good sleep and in the morning Mary Poppins gives me a homemade GF chocolate cookie from her resupply box and I drink hotelroom drip coffee that reminds me of Ajo mornings with No More Deaths and the thermos of drip coffee I’d make that was half hot water and driving the truck that felt like it was rattling to pieces down sandy jeep roads in the sonoran desert with the sun coming up.

I finally finish my blog ten minutes before checkout but I ain’t mad about the extra chill time, my feet are grateful for it. 

One more giant curry from the aardvark express foodtruck in front of the chevron and then Mary Poppins and I are rollin out. I have a new trail fren to hike with! I’m so excited.

It’s noon and hot, we’re in a heatwave and the thick flowers are making the air humid, I’m sweating buckets and rings of salt are forming on my shirt, adding to the rings of salt that already exist on my pack. We climb into third-growth forest, short and brushy, and the sun beats at us and sweat trickles into my eyes. Then the trail winds back into cool serene old-growth, dim like a cathedral and heavy with a sort of quiet sentience, and then out into clearcuts with their bright pink fireweed and huge, bleached-white stumps. Then back into third-growth. The hills in every direction are spiderwebbed with logging roads. I feel emotional about all of this. I mean I use as much paper products as anyone and I know if it’s not cut here it’ll just be cut somewhere else, where we don’t have to see it. I know that the most we can ask for, right now, as human civilization continues to crash through the natural world like an iron snowball rolling downhill, gaining momentum, is an illusion- and that if you have the right amount of privilege, an illusion is definitely for sale. And I know that hiking the PCT as a white person is me using my privilege to frolic, for a little while, in this illusion. I pause in the old-growth and put my hand on a tree and I know that the forest loves us, in spite of everything, that it can see longer and larger than we will ever be able to and yet it still loves us, and wants us to find peace. I don’t have any clear answers but at least there is that.

We camp on an overgrown logging road after 18 miles and 4,565 feet of elevation gain and I eat my little dinner and lay under my mosquito netting, watching the last of the light drain from the sky and then experiencing gratitude as my own consciousness drains away as well, towards sleep.

Day 19

I sleep poorly and in the morning the distant mountains are hazy with smoke- there’s a forest fire! 

I have reception so I check on my phone- four fires, actually, and growing. None of them are close, but their collective smoke is obscuring the views. The PCT in washington is such a gamble, between the rains and the fire season- I feel grateful to have had the sparkling, sunny views that I did for the first 300 miles. Now the air is thick and the light has gone heavy and orange, and the meadows are faded like old photographs. 

We have 6,155 feet of elevation gain today, in the heat and the smoke which seems to be growing thicker, and by evening I feel a bit like I’m going to throw up. Camp is at a spring that seeps from a patch of spongy earth on the side of the mountain and although there are a bunch of other hikers there Mary Poppins finds us a secret extra campsite that probably only the elk know about. We cowboy camp, optomistic about the bugs. 23 miles today.

Day 20

The mosquitoes wake me promptly at 4:30 and although that wasn’t enough sleep I imagine I’ll thank them later, on account of the heat. The smoke is definitely thicker today and so there are no views and there are great masses of swarming, biting blackflies. I actually think about quitting. I’m a section hiker, why not? But I don’t quit. Which is good. Because in a few days the smoke will seem almost… charming. Although I don’t know that yet.

All day I am too hot again. 4,362 feet of elevation gain today through the same third-growth mixed with old growth and then up on forested ridge where the light comes through the trees in six different ways. And then out into alpine meadow with the lupine and the slopes of talus and an explosion of marmots, whistlepigs running in every direction with their kitchen-smokealarm calls. My feet don’t hurt this section! My feet don’t hurt anymore! 

Mary Poppins

We crest sourdough gap and pound downhill to Sheep lake where we throw ourselves into the cool clear water with its soft mud bottom and we paddle around until the heat and the ache and the day are washed off of us and we’re new again, and we’re hungry and elated and tired. There is a perfect campsite in a ring of spruce trees and a soft neo-air bed under my bug net where the biting flies can’t get me. 26 miles. I sleep.

Day 21

Ok, the smoke is kinda cute. Even if it does make me feel slightly ill when paired with the heat. We’ve been circling Mt. Rainier, even tho we can’t see it. Which is kind of mystical in a way.

What Ranier? I don’t see a Ranier

So there still aren’t any views, but the water is back today. There are lakes and ponds everywhere to keep us cool and in the afternoon we dunk in Bumping River, which is so cold it scalds me. I rinse my clothes and hiking afterwards, in clothes soaked with icy stream water, is much more tolerable. Mosquito hell is here at last- I thought maybe we’d miss it but the gentle swarms hath descended and combined with the biting blackflies, it really is something else. Peak Biting Insect gets the adrenals going, it helps a person hike fast! If we can do 28 miles today we’ll be three miles out from White Pass and we can spend all day tomorrow in Packwood, eating and resting. This sounds like a great plan, to me. And only 4,200 feet of elevation gain, over those 28 miles. For washington, that’s practically flat!

I pass so many beautiful lakes in the last hours of the afternoon and dream that I live on the banks of one of them, in a cabin with a huge screened in porch, where I sleep on a real bed in thick dark with the loamy summer air moving to and fro…
Camp is at a wee pond ringed in elk prints. I feel stoked. 28 miles and my feet don’t even hurt! I’m definitely getting stronger. All the little tendons in my feet/ankles/knees are once again getting used to this hiking business. I fill my bottles with pond water to make dinner. Pond water still tastes at least five times better than city tap water. The stick-breakers are out early, we hear them tromping around in the woods. Not yet, I think, as I drift off on top of my sleeping bag, the night too warm to climb inside. I’m not asleep yet.

Day 22

One tiny pot of tea, one bar and three miles gets me to the highway and White Pass, where I pick up my box from the convenience store and Mary Poppins and I hitch a ride into Packwood. In Packwood, which is just a few blocks long, the heat and the smoke are practically blistering- yesterday, apparently, it was 104° here. The pizza place has huge breakfasts so we do that. The clump of kindly bros we’re hiking around is there, staring into space after comsuming massive plates of food. I greatly relish my five bacon strips, three eggs, and hashbrowns. Mary Poppins gets an omelet full of all the standard veggie pizza toppings, I try a bite and it’s really good.

The Hotel Packwood is the kind of place that I like to think was originally, back in the 1800s when this was a booming logging town, a brothel. Sixteen small square rooms along a long narrow corridor, shared bathrooms at the end. The rooms are furnished with well-worn antiques and an oscillating fan. Windows with floral curtains look down onto the smoky street. No air conditioning. Creaking floors and a comfortable parlor downstairs.

Definitely a brothel.

I love our room. I buy blueberries and salad from the small grocery and then hole up to blog, but presently fall asleep in the heat with the small sounds of the village coming in the window. When I wake I pick up my phone again, and finally get some work done. By and by Mary Poppins returns and we go to the Blue Spruce Saloon, which looks rundown on the outside but is packed with about a hundred people on the inside. 

Almost every seat and barstool is taken and the noise is deafening. Where do all these people live and what are they doing in this wee town? It’s amazing. We find our bro friends and squeeze in at their table and presently I have a burger on a gf bun with tater tots and it is amazing. Afterwards we return to the Hotel Packwood and I finish off the 2lb carton of blueberries I bought earlier and then stare at instagram in the dark in bed until the air coming in the open window at last starts to cool and then I am asleep.