White Pass to Cascade Locks
8/5 to 8/11
I sleep until 7:30 a.m. in the glorious bed in the old guesthouse and turn on my phone immediately after waking to finish my blog, staring at the tiny screen in the smoky light from the window. Mary Poppins heads out in search of good coffee. By the time I finish three hours later it’s warm already and I walk down into the hazy street and meet Mary Poppins at the pizza place, which serves the only real breakfast in town. After stuffing ourselves we return to the guesthouse and I sit on the porch talking to northbounders who are in various states of demoralization depending on how much of CA and OR they had to skip for snow and fires, respectively, while Mary Poppins does acupuncture on a hiker with a bum knee. After she sticks the needles in him (she carries the needles on trail) he lays sprawled on the grass and I can practically see him drifting away from his body- free, for the moment, from this earthly suffering.
We hitch out in the afternoon and at 3:30 we are on the trail. I’ve got fresh legs and the smoky forest is beautiful with this insane orange light and we’re climbing 2,500 feet. We wend our way through the trees, and at one point I see a young woman in a brightly colored shirt walking towards us, and we stop to chat. She’s a northbounder, hiking solo. Her face is covered in dirt and her pack is filthy. Her name is Alexa. And she’s nineteen. Talking to her buoys me considerably- nineteen and thru-hiking already, not afraid of anything! If she’s thru-hiking already, I think, there’s nothing that she won’t be able to do.
We reach our campsite after 11.5 miles and find it completely full of tents- we’re in this insane bubble of northbounders right now, as well as edging into Goat Rocks wilderness, which is popular with just about everyone. We find flattish corners for our wee shelters and drift off to the sound of other hikers snoring- or wait, was that me? I didn’t realize I was asleep…
I wake too early at the very first hint of light. I forget how this happens on trail sometimes, I’m just so excited to get up and walk that I can’t sleep. We’ve got a long climb up into Goat Rocks this morning, with a total of 5,848 feet of elevation gain for the day. If you haven’t been to Goat Rocks, it’s basically a bunch of high narrow ridges with alpine meadows and cute snow patches and views in every direction. Normally you can see Mt. Rainier on the climb, but today it’s obscured in smoke. We heave our way up out of the forest and into the meadows all trickling with snowmelt, and we use our imaginations to place Ranier on the horizon where it should go. “Like a melted icecream cone,” as a woman in Packwood described it. We joke that the view from Goat Rocks is so dang incredible that it must always be at least partially obscured by smoke or rain, otherwise the beauty would kill you.
This is actually my fourth time hiking this section of the PCT in Washington, from White Pass to Cascade Locks. I southbounded it with my friend Jess in 2014, after finishing my northbound thru-hike. For this reason I worried that I might be bored this time around. But I’m not. Boy howdy, I sure am not.
The Old Snowy summit is a short scramble off the Old Snowy alternate of the PCT in Goat Rocks. I’ve never done this alternate before, and Mary Poppins and I leave the trail and happily work our way up the bright warm rocks, hand over hand, the talus clinking under our feet like breaking glass. Soon we’re on a summit, a real mountain summit! A big stack of rocks with views in every direction, albeit smoky ones! I feel elated. This is such a break from the grind of the PCT, where the only way to quantify a day is in the number of miles you’ve hiked. I miss this, this intimacy with the earth that one gets while traveling cross-country. Touching boulders, grass, dirt, slopes, scree, blowdowns with your hands, your cool mammalian ankles going all-terrain as you adjust, with each step, to the infinite angles and textures of the surfaces in the natural world. Crawling like an ant over something that is not, and never will be, flat. Something too convoluted to be measured, too wild to be quantified.
We take a long break on the summit, eat our lunches and make tea. Down below we can see tiny hikers on a snowfield, hazy nested ridges, a wee jewel-colored tarn. It’s really fun to hike with Mary Poppins. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about her, so far:
-She northbounded the PCT last year
-She likes smoked salmon, chocolate croissants, and good espresso
-She has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo
-She drinks like a third of the water that I do while hiking
We’re sun-roasted by the time we get down to the snowfield where we saw the tiny people and rejoin the PCT superhighway. There are heaps and heaps of dayhikers and weekend backpackers out, as Goat Rocks is a very popular place. I understand why. Cute mountains, cute flowers, cute water to drink. A couple of cute waterfalls and then we’re over Cispus pass, and we drop back down into the cool shady forest. We roll up on our cute campsite for the night and it’s already full of cute tents. But they’re nice, and they let us squeeze in. 24 miles today.
The night is loud with stick-breakers and scurrying things and the moon is full and I can’t sleep. In the morning I’m hiking tired eating sweet-sour huckleberries in mosquito hell sweating like crazy in the humidity. We have lunch at Lava Spring, which I would vote as one of the top 5 coolest water sources on the PCT. A big stack of grey lava rocks, almost a whole hillside of them, and the coldest best most delicious water pouring out from between the rocks, all day and all night, forever and ever, irrespective of what might be going on elsewhere in the world.
“Isn’t it wild,” I say to Mary Poppins, “That not only will we one day die, but eventually enough time will pass that no-one will remember that we ever even existed at all?” This idea has been tripping me out lately. Basically, in the grand scheme of things, one day it will be like I never even happened, and this concept is incredibly freeing. I mean, why give any fucks? Seriously what are the reasons to give fucks, in the face of this. I cannot think of a single one.
We contour around Mount Adams, in and out of a million lava rock wildflower drainages with streams heavy with glacial flour, and then are released into the most beautiful burn in the world. The smoky yellow sun sets on the fireweed making it all aglow and the dead trees rustle with the sounds of insects. There is a spring that explodes from the ground and a bucket on yellow twine that must be dropped into the spring and the water is the coldest thing imaginable. In the last mile of the day I feel something wet in my sock- a blister that’s been building under the pad of my foot has exploded. So it goes. We set up our tents on a bare patch of ash and watch the full moon rise through the blackened snags. Infinite peace, infinite quiet. 28 miles today. We sleep.
The full moon is like daylight and still I don’t sleep good. Fucccccc. It’s three miles to the highway to Trout Lake, and one bar gets me there. Gary the kind generous amazing trail angel picks us up in his truck and drives us into town, where it’s smoky and blazing hot. We spend seven hours in the two-block town of Trout Lake, and here are the things that I eat in that time:
-A large breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns and gluten-free toast.
-A huckleberry shake.
-A burger on a gluten-free bun with sweet potato fries.
-A large green salad.
-An icecream bar.
I also pay $4 for a 10 minute shower at the campground and manage to wash my clothes with shampoo in that time as well. Not that they’re clean now, but at least they smell like shampoo, as well as sweat. I get my period. Hallefuckinleujah! Maybe now I’ll sleep.
Gary drives us back to the trail at 5:30 and we’ve immediately got a long uphill climb in the heat and I’ve definitely eaten too much and feel, unfortunately, as though I’m going to vomit. I guess I forgot this lesson… no matter HOW much your hiker hunger tells you to eat, if you have to hike afterwards, you must cut yourself off before you make yourself as stuffed as I am right now. Or else.
The ELSE is pretty rough. I visualize watermelon, which is something I discovered in 2013 when I was sick from the altitude in the Sierras. Imagining watermelon is the only thing I’ve found that helps with nausea while hiking. As long as I fix a slice of watermelon in my mind and repetitively focus on every aspect of it, my thoughts will not wander back to all the greasy salty food I ate (plus icecream!) and the party it’s having in my bloated stomach. I ponder the sensation of nausea, as I sweat my way uphill attempting not to hurl. What IS nausea. Is it a kind of pain? Is it an emotion? Is it a sort of longing? There’s nothing else like it, that’s for sure. The Moment When The Food I’ve Consumed Becomes My Enemy. The Intolerable Longing To Vomit: A Trout Lake Story.
Watermelon! Cold cold cold watermelon! Not too cold though. Too cold watermelon is somehow nauseating. Also not too sweet. Just a little sweet. Mostly water, and that delightful cellulose texture.
I catch up to Mary Poppins just as a lil black bear, quick like a panther, sprints across the hillside in front of us. So afeared! Poor lil guy. Humans really are the most dangerous animals in the woods.
We camp at Steamboat lake after eleven miles, which is a quarter mile off trail and not full of a thousand tents, thank god. Dang the trail is crowded this section. I put myself to bed without dinner- I’m still so full that I’m fairly certain I’ll never want to eat again. Why did I even bother to pack food? All foods, except for watermelon, are inherently revolting.
Tonight, instead of stick-breaking, there is splashing in the lake. Lots, and lots, of splashing in the lake. I wonder what, exactly, is going on. Full-moon swim for all of the forest creatures? Eventually though I am sleeping deeply and I sleep in next to the lake and don’t start hiking until 8:06.
Unlucky number 8! No matter tho. This is the warmest softest most loving dappled forest in recent memory and I am walking through it all day as if floating, floating through a magical land far away from human civilization, nevermind the illusion of it all. The forest is real, the forest is out there. Always remember, never forget.
We stop for lunch and swimming at Bear Lake with its deep deep turquoise waters so clear I can see the logs tangles like shipwrecks at the bottom.
In the afternoon I am flying along a ridge above the smoke, high out of my mind on endorphins from the climb up, passing scads of nobos and then down down into a forest like a steambath and the smell of petrichor- did it rain? The trail hugs the edge of the forest beyond which stretch mounded lava fields with their labrynthine caves to a piped spring that I remember from 2014. My butt chafe is getting bad- I’m the only hiker who wears pads on their period, I know, and then this humidity and I’m soaked to the skin in my own sweat and pretty much guaranteed to be on the fast train to buttchafe town. As long as I keep walking, though, it gets kind of numb. It only becomes really painful bothersome when I stop.
The end of the day finds Mary Poppins and I switchbacking up through the tall doug-firs that shatter the golden sunset light and the Hurray for the Riffraff song Forever is Just a Day comes on my phone and it’s all so beautiful that I could weep. We roll into camp amongst the large still trees to find eleventy billion northbounder tents but we acquire a corner for ourselves and I make too much dinner and sweat eating it in the dark sitting naked on top of my sleeping bag waiting for the night to cool. 28 miles today.
I never even get in my sleeping bag, that’s how warm it is. This morning is the longest descent, all the way down to Panther Creek at 800 feet of elevation. So close to sea level! The forest grows lusher as we drop, the trees larger. The air smells of warm western redcedar. I love this part of the Washington PCT, especially the stretch between Panther Creek and Cascade Locks. Nowhere else on the PCT do you get to linger as long in low-elevation temperate rainforest, climbing in and out of it and wending through it for miles and miles, absorbing all the good juju of the hemlocks and doug-firs, the big-leaf maples with their jackets of moss. Salal appears, and I eat a few mealy dark berries. I like them, although I don’t think they are popular, generally. Then Oregon Grape. I bite one of those berries and then spit it out, for the bitter tang of berberine. I eat a citrusy leaf of oxalis, pretending I have to keep scurvy at bay. The heat intensifies as the trail drops, and my butt chafe with it. Devil’s club crowds the understory.
It’s 95 degrees when we stop to have lunch at Trout Creek which has, incredibly, a really nice swimming hole beneath the footbridge- deep and slow and cold, but not so cold that it makes you cry.
I get in the water in all my clothes and then lay there for a long time, letting the cool water bring my body back to balance. It is a mistake, however, to get my clothes wet. Because next we’ve got a 4k foot climb in the humid heat, and so I stay soaked to the skin until camp. And in this manner I develop the most painful butt chafe I have ever had in my life, really just a set of weeping sores known colloquially as “clown mouth”. I pull the pad out of my underwear and freebleed while walking, simultaneously holding my buttcheeks apart, all in an effort to allow things to dry and ease the excruciating pain. I pretend, not for the first time on a trail, that I’m in that scene in Fight Club where Brad Putt pours the acid on his hand and he has to see how much pain he can endure. Realtalk, people. Thinking of hiking the PCT? Don’t do it. Long-distance hiking is almost nonstop suffering, and you’ll hate it. If you enjoy your regular indoor-cat life even just a bit, you’ll hate it. I promise. On the other hand, if you like your euphoria in 10 to 40 minute increments between 5-10 hr stretches of physical deprivation, you might just take to it.
We drop back down and camp in the warm humid low-elevation mossjungle next to a creek and I pitch my bug net just-so beneath the devils club. 26 miles today. I do the full buttchafe care routine- soap and water (away from the stream), dry everything, vaseline, sleep with no pants on. I take my 40-minute euphoria ration post-dinner and before I fall asleep, laying on my sleeping pad where I am exactly perfectly comfortable, staring up at the bigleaf maples hung with lichen thinking about how good life can be.
21 miles to Cascade Locks today. One last long climb in the heat (my extended routine seems to have helped- much less chafe pain today!) and then we are dropping, more or less, with some up-down thrown in for variety, all the way to the Columbia River, aka the Oregon/Washington border, and sea level. The trail contours around ridges, third growth and old growth and cleacuts, one and then the other, and then down into dead yellow grass and then lush lush forest all running with water. I have exactly enough snacks to arrive kind of hungry, and I dream about the burger I’m going to eat. The trail intersects a dirt road, and suddenly there is an entire wall of himalayan blackberries growing ripe in the sun! I eat and eat, taking a 10 minute euphoria break getting lost in the sensual tactile experience of extracting the very ripest berries from the tangle of brambles, my hands spotted with purple juice and blood, feeling the weight of the fruit in my hands and the way they explode on my tongue, so sweet it’s almost unappealing. Did I tell you that invasive himalayan blackberries are my favorite fruit.
The Bridge of the Gods will never appear and then, it does. Mary Poppins and I walk across it in the wind trying not to get mowed down by RVs or blown into the river that writhes beneath the metal grate and then we are in cascade locks.
Washington. I did it.
We go to the restaurant that looks out at the water and I order a GF burger and fries and the all you can eat salad bar.
I did it. It is done.
My health is good. My feet don’t hurt. I’m getting stronger. I thought for a moment of continuing on into Oregon on the PCT but… there are fire closures. And now that I know I can hike again I kind of want to do something I haven’t hiked yet, crazy as that sounds.
So… to be continued!