Day Ninety Seven

Today's miles: 24
Total miles: 2026

Sunshine and I were determined to meet back up with Treekiller, Wocka and Giddyup, even though they were a few miles ahead of us, so we got up early and hiked out of Big Lake Youth Camp in time to find TK packing up his gear on trail an hour later. Wocka and Giddyup supposedly had gone another four miles last night, but though we hiked as quickly as we could, they were early risers and we knew we wouldn't catch them. This is one of those strange trail phenomenons that always baffles me. There have been many times that good friends of mine have been hiking no more than three or four miles away from me for a whole week, but I will never see them on trail because our paces are so similar. It's always funny reaching town and realizing how close we were together for so long without knowing it.

Early in the day we crossed Santiam Pass and found a note left by Mudd, Dingo and Sneaks to Coincidence. We figured they must have gotten back on trail yesterday at this point and were at least twenty miles ahead of us unless they slowed their pace to let us catch up.

There was a climb after crossing the pass, into burned and stunted trees and under the heat of the day. Treekiller, Sunshine and I moved slowly, and I stopped to wait for them at snack breaks. The views of the mountains in the distance were beautiful, and even if it was hot I was relieved to have sunshine instead of rain.

The rest of today's terrain was fairly easy, so we cruised along at different paces, listening to podcasts all afternoon to pass the time. Oregon's terrain, overall, is much easier than California's, and I find that easy walking leads very quickly to boredom (even with pretty views.) So I have been listening to a lot of RadioLab lately and it helps pass the time.

I've noticed that easier terrain has different effects on different people, though. While I found myself getting bored, Treekiller found himself losing motivation. Sometimes when we stopped for breaks he would sigh and say he wished the hike was over already. I did my best to cheer him up, because he became solemn and moody when he said things like this, and I knew we still had a long way to go before we were finished. Still, some of the points he said struck home. Today while taking a break beside a lake and enjoying a view of Three Fingered Jack, Treekiller said,
"Don't you find it strange how hiking has become more of a thing we have to do than what we want to do?"
I had thought about this a lot, too. In the beginning, thru-hiking was so novel and different that it just felt like a really long weekend backpacking trip, taking it slow and trying to enjoy each step. But these days, hiking was so ingrained, so automatic, so normal, that it had become our job instead of our hobby. We woke up, we hiked, we slept. Some people went to 8-5:00 day jobs; we hiked. Granted, we were getting really good at it, but it was still just something that we did. A means to an end. A path to a goal that always sits just out of reach.
"I mean... there are people who come to this area to spend five days backpacking here," Treekiller continued. "And we can do this whole stretch in one afternoon!"
"That's true," I agreed. "I've been wanting to backpack the Three Sisters Wilderness for a few years... to take a long weekend and spend time enjoying the scenery. And we just hiked all of it without even noticing...."
"And how did we do it? Listening to podcasts and trying to cover as many miles as possible," he said.
I laughed. "That's because to a weekend hiker, this section is all you get to enjoy, so you walk maybe ten miles a day and enjoy the fact that you're not working. As a thru-hiker, hiking is working. As much as I hate to admit it, the terrain starts to look the same... you take it in, you enjoy it fleetingly, and then you move on. Life is always moving forward."
Still, it was strange realizing how much we had changed in just a few short months. I had noticed this on my trip to France, too. It had taken me a few days to get out of the move, move, move, hike more miles mindset and into the take time and enjoy the trip mindset. As a thru-hiker on a time schedule, it was a difficult adjustment.

We continued onward, and throughout the morning, I was hiking in front, trying to decide when to stop for lunch. Lately I had really been enjoying taking the lead of our small hiking group. Sunshine and Treekiller were both strong, steady hikers, but they walked a constant speed, whereas I tended to speed up when the terrain was nicer, so I often found myself in front. I discovered I really liked this arrangement. Instead of feeling like I was constantly chasing after faster hikers, often driving myself to hunger and crankiness to stay at their pace, now I had control over when we stopped or hiked. I knew how terrible it was to be at the whim of other's paces, though, so when I was leading I stopped like clockwork every five miles (or two hours) for a break and stopped around 11:30-12 for lunch so that Sunshine and Treekiller had time to catch up without getting too hungry in the meantime.

Today I found a beautiful ridgeline to stop along, offering a gorgeous view of Mt. Jefferson. While I waited for the boys to catch up, I ran through my daily lunch chores: take off shoes, pull out sit pad, lay out tent and ground tarp to dry in the sun, pull out food bag and carefully prep my lunch, filter water into my Gatorade bottle and add a drink mix.

When the boys reached me, we enjoyed our lunch with a view and were soon joined by two more new faces. The first was a 78 year old named Hard Tack who was working on completing a thru-hike that he started a few years ago. His official ending point was Cascade Locks, at the border of Washington, and we were inspired that someone at his age was so proudly and effortlessly hiking the PCT. I hope I'm that cool when I'm 78.

Our second visitor introduced himself as Cuddles, and when he said his name, Treekiller responded in surprise, "oh, you're the cello player!"
I realized I had heard of Cuddles, too. He was an infamous hiker on the trail - I had been hearing about him since early on in the desert. He was a professional cello player and had brought his cello along on the trail. He wasn't carrying it, of course, but he bounced it forward from town to town as he walked, and when he arrived in town, he would give pre-arranged cello concerts for the citizens and hikers. Pretty cool.

After lunch with our new friends, we tackled a few more steep hills and exposed ridgelines. We had a tough climb later in the day that wore me out, and I stopped beside Rockpile Lake with Hard Tack to take a break. He was camping for the night there, though I wanted to push further. We had calculated that if we did at least 25 miles a day, we would be in Portland in three days, so we were trying to stick to that schedule as best as possible. I think all of us were excited about reaching Washington, and I was excited about reaching home.

While I waited for Sunshine and Treekiller, I sat with Hard Tack and talked with him. As it turned out, Hard Tack was a fascinating person to talk to. He had done so much with his life that I couldn't help asking hundreds of questions: he had biked around the world with TwoBadDogs a few years back, visiting 48 different countries in one year. He had been to base camp of Everest and bunjii jumped from the highest bridge in South Africa. He had kayaked off 23 foot waterfalls and visited nearly every famous landmark in the world. When I asked him what his favorite place in the world was, he said he adored both New Zealand and seeing the Terracotta warriors in China. Every question I asked him brought up some new story - but he was modest, kind and humble about his adventures. I was envious on so many levels, but also in awe at how many of these things he had done later in his life. It was a thoroughly engaging conversation.

Sunshine and Treekiller reached the lake at 5:00 and we discussed trying to make it another five miles before dark. We said goodbye to Hard Tack as we packed up.
"What's your name again?" he asked me.
"Bramble," I told him.
"I'm going to call you Sherpani," he said. "a female Sherpa. A Nepalese adventurer."
I hoped to see him again - in Cascade Locks, perhaps, to celebrate a great achievement for him.
Our last five miles were more difficult than expected. There were very short, very steep climbs out of the lake basin and as exhausted as I was, I was having a hard time making my legs move uphill. Each bend of the trail brought a new beautiful view, and in the fading sunlight it was a gorgeous walk. I found the perfect campsite after four miles, overlooking the majestic Mt. Jefferson. I already had my tent pitched by the time the boys caught me, and the reason for their delay quickly became obvious: Sunshine held an entire bag full of huckleberries he had picked along the trail. We cooked dinner in front of our lovely view and agreed that it was one of our best campsites so far on trail.