The Home Stretch

With my friend Brooks pulling away to drive back to Seattle, I changed mental gears and readied myself to climb up out of Snoqualmie Pass. I’d just bumped into my buddy Amtrak who was returning from a zero day of his own in Redmond, and we were both ready to get back to it immediately. I hoisted my pack onto my back and looked around for my trekking poles. It didn’t take me two seconds to form a perfect mental picture of where I had left them, leaning against the bookshelf in my friend’s entryway. Well, that settled an internal argument I’d been having about the need for them in this stage of the game. I’d toyed with the idea of dropping them for my crazy push through Oregon, but was glad to have them as pseudo-crutches when the shin splints got bad. Now I guess I’d find out how I’d fare without.

With a slight sigh, I gestured to Amtrak to roll out, and he shrugged and pointed us towards the trail. As we left the road and began ascending, the skies didn’t open up on us, but clear they were not. Six miles and 2500 vertical feet later we entered the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area and Kendall Katwalk. At least according to the signs and maps. We couldn’t actually see anything. Climbing up out of the pass, we had ascended into the heart of the cloud that had simply been blocking the sun when we were below it. Though the temperature remained chill, it never actually rained on us so I couldn’t complain too much.
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Amtrak taking advantage of a small break in the clouds.

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More waterfalls… Yawn.

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Bridges? We don’t need no stinking bridges!

Twenty-two miles was the goal for this late-start day, and it wasn’t until we were nearly to our campsite that the clouds parted slightly to remind us that it wasn’t yet night. Despite it not having rained that day, the trail was still the easiest route for all the previous days’ rain to find its way downward and our shoes were soaked. We stopped caring, knowing that not half a mile before our camp was a creek we would have to ford, so we just stomped through all the puddles and streams instead of dancing around them. It was liberating.

The ford was relatively easy, and we had our water-logged shoes off and camp made in minutes. After unfurling my tent and stowing everything I needed to keep dry inside it, I noticed the distinct absence of something. My pack had seemed unusually light, but I attributed that to the fact that I had left my big, 2+ lb DSLR camera in Seattle. But there was another 12 ounces missing that I hadn’t noticed: my inflatable camp mat. Shit. Having been drenched the day before going in to Seattle, my first order of business had been to spread everything out to dry. I had strung my tent components, camp mat, and sleeping bag out in Brooks’ garage and must have missed that as I was hurriedly repacking. Now, I could make due without the cushy comfort of a mattress for 2 nights, but a camp mat also provides vital insulation from the cold, cold ground at night. I was in a pickle.

My brain immediately started working on a fix. There would almost certainly be no cell service anywhere along the 52 mile stretch to the Pass, and no outfitters once I got there, so I would need to organize an overnight delivery or a very long hitch to a store to spend money I didn’t have. Neither was particularly appealing. After cursing sufficiently, I set about making a little nest out of every bit of clothing and kit I had, using anything to create a buffer between my backside and the dirt. Fortunately, a hiker named Sizzler was camping with us and he had a segment of a Z-Rest -a thin foam camp mat- that he used solely as padding for his pack while hiking, so he lent me the 3′ x 3′ piece of foam for the night so at least 1/2 of my body would have some padding and insulation. My backpack made up the rest. Needless to say, I slept like a baby. In the tossing and turning and crying kind of way.

I woke the next morning stiff, but not cold. Thanking Sizzler for the loaner, I returned his pad as I packed my own tent, grumbling. Amtrak’s current plan of attack had us doing 27 miles that day (Thursday) and getting in to Stevens Pass in the early evening of the following day. That meant only one more night of uncomfortableness, but not much time to sort out my mess. So around noon as we were having our second little break I told him I’d be hurrying off to try and make 34, leaving a short 18 mile day into the pass; plenty of time to make phone calls and hopefully get my mat overnighted to the Dinsmores, some trail angels who live near Stevens. So much for taking it easy through Washington.

So off I went again, racing when I promised myself a stroll. Despite the hurried pace I still took moments to appreciate (and photograph) the scenery. I passed numerous snowmelt lakes of an incredible blue and rounded the east side of Cathedral Rock, crossed numerous creeks with dubious bridges of logs tossed haphazardly across the rocks. Besides a brief period where I walked with a young couple of weekend backpackers I walked alone and in silence. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy to be alone again, I rather enjoyed hiking alone. But I was just starting to enjoy the camaraderie of having a hiking partner for the first time in nearly 700 miles. As I set up camp next to Deception Lake, however, I soaked up the sublime silence. I’d be alright.

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No tinkering with the colors, I swear!

 

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It might look idyllic, but I kept having to shoo away pesky deer from *my* campsite. Sheesh!

Friday morning I raced to Stevens Pass. I didn’t break pace or take a break until I was walking under the ski lifts, knowing I was home free. There was cell coverage at the summit and I set to work ticking off my options. Brooks wouldn’t be home in time to catch the cut off for overnight delivery, so I called my base of operations, The Hinchliffs. In addition to so graciously handling my food mailings, my friend (and fellow thru-Hiker) Caroline’s parents also took in boxes of gear i mailed back as I worked out my Ridiculous pack weight back in the first 500 miles. One of the items I’d swapped out, way back in Wrightwood (mile 365), was a 3 lb camp mat that was pure luxury. When I bought it I was less willing to make compromises on sleep comfort, but after walking hundreds of miles with it on my back I conceded and took daytime comfort over night.

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Normally very respectful of the private property the PCT passes through, I couldn’t resist climbing the lift tower.

 

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I loved the novelty of being at the summit of a ski hill with no snow.

With Peter on the phone, he located the mattress and agreed to run out immediately to drop it at UPS. I relaxed fully for the first time in nearly 48 hours, and as I strolled now along the perimeter of the ski lodge property I noticed a makeshift sign with an empty 2 liter of rootbeer taped to it. Coppertone!!! For those just running in, Coppertone is a former thru-Hiker turned trail angel who follows the herd of hikers and surprises them with rootbeer floats and other goodies at random road crossings along the way. Sure enough, as I closed in on the lodge I saw his truck parked down in the parking lot. I settled into a chair in his “camp” and had a cinnamon roll while he fixed me a float (a combo only a thru-hiker can get away with). My calorie fest was cut short, however, when Peter called to inform me that UPS didn’t deliver to rural areas on Saturday. I was about to let out a huge sigh of despair when Peter told me he was on his way up to hand deliver it! It was an hour drive for him, one-way, to the town of Baring and the Dinsmore’s, the trail angels I’d be staying with that night. I couldn’t believe he was willing to do that! I still had to get a ride to take me the 23 miles down the highway to Baring, so I leapt up, thanked Coppertone, and ran out to the road to stick my thumb out.

I arrived in Baring minutes before Peter, and I thanked him profusely as he handed off the package. With that huge weight off my shoulders I wandered over to the Dinsmore’s and got showered and settled in. There were numerous hikers there, but no one I knew. So in a very antisocial move, I posted up in a rustic gazebo situated in a sea of perfectly manicured lawn punctuated with large, leafy trees and read and texted friends for hours. I couldn’t remember being that relaxed in months.

Eventually Amtrak showed up, along with Dewey, Ballbuster, Tick-Tock, Banjo and a few others. I extricated myself from the gazebo and went over to socialize. They all took turns showering and doing laundry, and dressed themselves from the bins of loaner clothes the Dinsmores had provided. We all looked bizarre to one another in “normal” clothes. Tick-Tock took it up a notch by sporting a hot little onesie that was large enough for an adult, but patterned for a toddler. The prize, however, went to Amtrak for donning a purple sequined party dress and prancing around the property while Ballbuster conducted a photo shoot. Priceless.

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Latest PCT Fall Fashions.

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“Oh no you di’int!”

 

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Ab Fab.

All the hikers went to the store/cafe for breakfast in the morning before Mrs Dinsmore shuttled us all up to the pass again. It was another late start, but we managed good miles that day. It was 105 miles to the next resupply, Stehekin, and Amtrak had it mapped out for a four day run plus a very short fifth day to catch the first of 4 daily shuttles that run the 13 miles from trail to town. Normally, a schedule like this wouldn’t seem challenging enough, but looking ahead, the elevation changes were big and steep. Our first day heading north of Stevens Pass we hit 22 miles as we made a beeline for Glacier Peak. We were told this stretch was brutal, and my legs ached in confirmation of that. The next day we did a couple more miles and I was doing a little better, but still it was more of a struggle than I’d experienced in months. But we took our time, picking huckleberries as we walked and stopping for photos every few minutes. There was no rush.
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“I’ll be your huckleberry.”

The third day I was feeling good. We had camped right on the shoulder of Glacier Peak and had a nice easy descent in the morning with incredible views of the mountain behind us as we worked our way North.

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Glacier Peak in my rear view mirror.

There were some serious climbs ahead of us that day, in particular this one (below) which topped out just shy of 7,000 feet, making it a 3,500 foot gain over 4.5 miles. Not crazy steep, but enough to make you sweat. We filled up on water at the river that cut the valley before heading up. Amtrak moves at a very steady pace whereas I like to push myself on the climbs, so we have an unspoken agreement to meet at the top. I nodded to him, popped in my earbuds, and cued some LCD Soundsystem to get my feet pumping.

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That slope continues for 3 map pages!

I was cranking it up the hill when all of a sudden my ankle started hurting. My shin splints were bothering me out of the blue after weeks with no issues! OK, maybe it wasn’t it off the blue. Full disclosure: I may have been dancing a little and rotated my ankle in a weird way. But nothing that should have caused what I was experiencing now! I was annoyed. This occurred not 1/10 of the way into the climb, and I refused to stop to deal with it until the top. Once up there, the pain had grown in intensity, naturally, and was affecting my walk. I hobbled up to a stream at the summit and sat down to investigate. After removing my shoe and sock I saw a grotesque knob of hard tissue right on the front of my ankle. I started massaging it in the hopes that I could reduce the inflammation, and the pain was excruciating. All of a sudden the knob slipped to the right and dropped like a Tetris piece sliding into place. It scared the hell out of me, but the “swelling” was immediately gone. My guess is that my spin move (yeah, I said spin move, laugh it up) had twisted my already aggravated tendon and slid it out of place and over a bone or some other soft tissue, and it stayed there until I bullied it back into place. Anyways, once my shock had dissipated I got to my feet and walked around a bit. While it still hurt a little, most of the pain was gone in an instant!

Amtrak showed up a few minutes later and we found a more sheltered place out of the wind to have lunch. The fear I had been feeling about the reemergence of my shin splints was replaced with a giddiness at my good fortune. We moved on and everything was fine from there on out.

Despite the elevation changes, difficult terrain, copious fallen trees, ruined bridges and general trail disrepair we had managed to do a couple extra miles each day and were ahead of schedule. Day 4 had us scooting around Mt Agnes then down into a vast valley. We again surpassed our intended mileage and set up camp early, just 3 miles from High Bridge where we would grab our shuttle the next morning. I could already taste the cinnamon rolls from the legendary Stehekin bakery!
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They actually built one that stood!

We took full advantage of our near-o in town, eating absurd amounts of baked goods, showering, doing laundry, and socializing with hikers and common folk. We even went to Stehekin Valley Ranch for dinner and snuck a little very slow Wi-Fi. I can’t speak for Amtrak, but I felt downright civilized. The place itself was spectacle too, and we spent a lot of time just walking and sitting along Lake Chelan, watching seaplanes taking off and landing and tourists shuffle around gawking.

I can’t remember which day it was exactly, but at some point in this last stretch I decided to pull my “Application to Enter Canada Via the PCT” out of my pack. I had thought about it a couple of times, but it seemed like there should’ve been more to it. I had applied for my thru-hiker permit, then filled out this application, but I didn’t see anything to indicate that I needed to do more. Asking Amtrak about it, he said “Well you got the stamp, right?” “… Stamp?” I replied. So he pulls his out to show me the stamp and signature he received after having mailed in it in to the address at the top of the form. I most certainly had not. After printing it up, I scanned it to see if I needed to do anything else. Now, the operative word here is “scanned”. A little piece of advice, if you are dealing with paperwork to enter a foreign country, even one as benign and easy-going as Canada, READ the paper.

A ball of dread and embarrassment filled the pit of my stomach. I had heard of people planning to walk to the border, then turning around and walking 30 miles back Hart’s Pass, to the first road crossing in Northern Washington. These were people with criminal records who weren’t invited into Canada, or those too unorganized and/or lazy to fill out the paperwork. I didn’t fall into those categories, most certainly not! I’m just too lazy to READ said paperwork.

Amtrak tried to console me with the fact that Dewey, Tick-Tock, Ballbuster, Buck-30, Banjo and a few others were planning to backtrack. This cheered me approximately 4.7%. I brooded on my misfortune (read: self-imposed shame march) for a couple of days, but ultimately accepted my fate and started planning my exit strategy. I didn’t dwell too much, and the break up of the last few days would be nice round numbers with big markers, which gave me clear targets to focus on. Day 1 from Stehekin we would walk 20 miles to Rainy Pass and camp just beyond. From Rainy to Hart’s was exactly 30 miles, and Day 2 would be 27 from where we would be camped. Then from Hart’s Pass to the Monument 78 at the border was another 30 on the nose, so day 3 -and now 4, for me- would be round numbers to focus on, which helps me in an OCD sort of way.

The days flew by as we cruised easily over the much flatter (by comparison) and less tree-littered terrain. And with less steep pitches comes less dramatic and interesting views, so we stopped less and became fixated on the terminus and returning to our lives. The one obstacle we had was the weather. It remained sunny throughout these last days, but the temperature dropped below freezing and we were averse to leaving our tents until much later than our usual 6:30 rise. Still, we kept on track and the cold mornings and patches of fresh snow we encountered served as a reminder that soon the weather would not be so forgiving.

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Goods luck digging a cathole in this weather.

At Hart’s Pass we ran into Rock Ocean who spends his summers following the herd and ferrying hikers to and from the trail. He was hanging out there catching those who would be needing a ride after walking back to Hart’s after visiting the Monument. The town of Mazama was 19 miles away along a rutted gravel road, and from there one could hitch to civilization along Highway 20, so having Rock-O there made the task a lot easier. My hopes were dashed, however, as he was planning on rolling out the following day, so I’d be on my own. I had thought about leaving some things behind with him to lighten my pack for the 60 mile roundtrip, but there was a ranger station just near the campsite and with one little knock I shaved what must have been 10 lbs off my pack weight.

Amtrak and I tiptoed out of camp the next morning just as the sun was about to make its debut. We had a 30 mile day ahead of us and wanted plenty of time at the Monument to take pictures and have a good cry, or whatever. Er, ehem… Team sports.

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The sunrise is beautiful! I should get up this early more often! Or… sleep in like I always do.

The terrain wasn’t too challenging, and we had challenged ourselves to not look at the time (though I confess I caught it on my cell phone when I took pictures), maps, or the Halfmile app to check our mileage, so the time passed quickly. At the halfway point there was a sign advertising the distance to Woody Pass, so that little tidbit gave it away for Amtrak (I still has no idea where we were in relation to Hart’s or Canadia), then we started passing section hikers who would announce the remaining miles as an encouragement. It was a nice thought though. The last 4 miles dragged. It had been a steady downhill for 9 miles and by now we were in deep tree cover. When we heard an airhorn close by, we stopped in our tracks. We were there. Sure enough, we rounded a bend and there were others sitting around, relaxing in the knowledge that their ordeal was over. We had just completed a 2660 mile trek through the mountains, border to border. It was an incredible feat.
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I took photos, I did silly things on the Monument, I took a ceremonial sip of whisky (don’t tell anyone, I’m supposed to not be drinking this year), and celebrated like I was expected to. But in truth, it was anticlimactic knowing I’d have to get up in the morning and do it all over again, one last time. Sure, everyone had a little walk to do to get out to the Canadian highway 9 miles from the border here, but I had another fullday ahead of me. I ate my last dinner as a thru-hiker, and then I had second dinner, a dessert bar, and a triple hot chocolate before crawling into my tent for the last time on trail.

When my alarm went off and “Chocolate Salty Balls” rang out into the early morning air a couple chuckles came from nearby tents, so I felt less bad about waking to an alarm at 5:00am in a full camp. Amtrak got up with me and we walked the 1/4 mile back to the Monument together. He placed a token rock that he’d been carrying the whole way onto the pillars and we said goodbye. We’d be seeing each other in Seattle before he flew back to Israel, so it wasn’t too emotional. I had barely turned my back and I broke into my full stride.

Normally I have a warm up period of at least an hour where I’m not moving at full speed, but today I was on a mission. It was Sunday and there were plenty of people at Hart’s Pass, camping and day hiking in the Pasayten Wilderness, so if I got there early enough hitching out to Mazama (and beyond) should be a breeze. My goal was 2:00. That nice easy downhill yesterday afternoon translated into a 3300 foot uphill right off the bat, and I had that and the 9 miles it spanned behind me by 8:30. I hit 20 miles by noon, and when I reached the top my last major climb I started running. Spurts of uncontrollable excitement and joy flared up every few minutes and I started passing thru-hikers on their way north. They all congratulated me, and I them, but I didn’t dawdle long chatting. I was on schedule for 2:00, and my excitement wouldn’t allow me to sit still. Having not taken any breaks, my legs were not supporting my brain’s desire to run any more, so I downgraded to a power walk. The anticlimax that I experienced at the border was what I expected, and so too was this surge of happiness now.

About 2 miles from the campground at Hart’s Pass I was walking along an exposed ridge and looked to the West at the snow-capped peaks in the distance. I stopped dead in my tracks. Maybe it was just the emotional Grizzly Bear song in my ears at that moment tipping my emotional scales, but I started to well up. This was the last view of the Pacific Crest Trail that I’d ever have. These were the last moments I’d have in the vast wilderness of the Pacific Northwest for a long time. I had done it. Even though I’m incredibly stubborn and was confident I would finish, I had had my moments of doubt, of weaknesses both mental and physical. Now, standing here on this ridge, not 2 miles from a road that could carry me back to civilization, I realized I had pushed through all that and seen it through. Or thru, rather.

Some light sobs and tears of joy erupted from me as I started moving again. I was overwhelmingly happy to be finishing and going back to real life, but sad to be leaving all this splendor I’d been simultaneously savoring and taking for granted, cursing and consuming greedily. I was surprised at myself for getting emotional, and was just starting to roll with it and let it all go when I saw some other hikers approaching a hundred yards off. I killed the music as they neared to not be rude, but kept my sunglasses on and did my best to curtail the conversation. They trapped me for a few seconds, but I broke away with minimal delay, restarted the song and dug down for the feeling again. I no sooner got back to the bottom of my emotional well when another hiker approached in the distance. Applying the same strategy, I escaped in a few moments this time, but it was no use. With the song restarted and my eyes turned towards the horizon again I barely made it 30 seconds before another couple of hikers approached. I just gave up and let the moment pass.

A couple more thru-hikers passed by and I chatted with them for a few minutes apiece before I finally arrived back at Hart’s Pass. I collected my things from the ranger and set about giving myself a wet wipe bath as a courtesy to my ride-to-be. All freshened up and beaming with excitement to be heading home, I walked out to the junction of two dirt roads to maximize my hitch potential. With a little luck and a winning smile I’d be on my way back to real life by sundown!

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Comments
2 Responses to “The Home Stretch”
  1. Love how you captured the emotional ending of your journey, and the bit about “simultaneously savoring and taking for granted.” So true of all the best things in life.

    My dad also had big raves for this post and loved how you expressed yourself here.

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