Day One Hundred Two

Today's miles: 26
Total miles: 2138

Today started with a strange turn of events: I was the first packed up this morning, and Treekiller was the last. Usually I took my time carefully packing away my gear and having breakfast, while Treekiller merely shoved everything as quickly as he could into his pack and hit the trail before anyone else had time to pull stakes from the ground.

As it was, this put me first in the lineup today, so I lead the way down the mountain on a slow, switchbacking descent into the canyon. The views of Mt. Hood all along the way were nice, and we were lucky to have such beautiful blue skies lately and no rain. At the bottom of the ravine was the Sandy River, which I quickly discovered was a ford. The others hadn't caught up yet, so I slowly walked up and down the boulder-filled canyon, looking for a good place to cross. The river was glacial runoff, so the water was very silty and difficult to tell the depth of. I tried to find a spot where the water ran quickly over rocks, for this indicated shallower waters. I took off my shoes and put on flip flops, then carefully undid my backpack hipbelt and put my trekking poles in front of me for stability. Though the river wasn't very wide, it was moving very quickly, so I took my time. The current wanted to tear my shoes off my feet at each step, but I managed to keep them from washing downstream. Mid-way through my crossing, the river got unexpectedly deep and I found myself with water up to my thighs, the current trying to suck me under. Shocked with the cold of it, I quickly plunged my way through and up on the opposite shore. I hadn't expected the current to be so strong, and so I sat for a moment catching my breath. I didn't like river crossings at all, and I was glad that all the rivers in the Sierras had not been as high and fast as they could have been, otherwise my experience in the mountains would have been much different.

Wocka, Giddyup, Sunshine and Treekiller caught up shortly afterward, and I gave them tips about where and how to cross. After everyone was safely on the opposite bank, we contemplated taking a break. River crossings always took more time than expected, and we were getting hungry. But the terrain around the Sandy River was very rocky, so we decided to push on a few more miles to the upcoming Ramona Falls, which I knew had a nice break spot.

Ramona Falls was a local dayhike I had been on several times in the past few years, and it was nice returning again via the PCT. I like hiking this section a lot because it feels as though I'm home, linking together my favorite dayhikes into one long distance hike that happens to lead to Canada.

We lay beside Ramona Falls, enjoying the fairy-like tumble of water the green glen while we snacked and enjoyed the morning. Unfortunately, though, we had only covered five miles and it was already 11:00, so our break was short lived.

From Ramona Falls we climbed an excruciating hill; it gained 1,500 feet in three miles and had a total of two switchbacks. It was exhausting, but in true thru-hiker form, I didn't stop or slack my pace the entire way; even though my chest was heaving, my legs were strong and carried me through. I was proud of myself: even though some days seemed difficult, when put in perspective, I really had come a very long way. (Figuratively and literally!)

Everyone else seemed to agree with this sentiment, too. Later that afternoon, Sunshine related an incident on that hill that made him proud: "I was stopping to filter water beside a stream half-way up the climb when a couple of dayhikers with small packs passed me," he said. "I moved out of the way, and a few minutes later packed up my stuff to keep hiking. I realized I was catching up to them pretty quickly and I remember thinking to myself, oh, this will be fun!  So I put myself in cruise mode, said excuse me, gentlemen, and powered straight past them and up the hill. For a while I could hear them huffing and puffing behind me, trying desperately to keep up, but eventually they dropped back and stopped completely when they realized they couldn't catch me."
We crowed at this, having each had similar instances ourselves, and Treekiller laughed, "and Sunshine's the slowest of the thru-hikers!"

At the top of the climb we came to a trail junction and I suddenly recognized the start of one of my favorite hikes: McNeil Point. Once again it was delightful to link up familiar spaces in my mind, like puzzle pieces. The next few miles linked up a couple more points: Lolo Pass Road, and a view from above of my favorite camp spot, Lost Lake.

Wocka, Giddyup, Sunshine, Treekiller and I stopped for water and a lunch break later in the afternoon, discussing our destination for tonight and tomorrow. We were hoping to camp at the start of Eagle Creek Trail tonight, and hike it into Cascade Locks tomorrow. Eagle Creek is another beautiful dayhike I've done many times in the past few years. It isn't officially part of the PCT, but it's a much more beautiful alternate to the actual PCT (and the same number of miles) so most hikers opt to take that route, instead. It can't officially become the PCT because it isn't suited for equestrians, and the PCT, in its entirety, is a horse-pack trail.

Sunshine was delighted to hear that horses weren't allowed on Eagle Creek. Horses on the PCT are a sore spot for most hikers, but Sunshine tended to be overly vocal about his dislike of the creatures. Not that horses in general were so bad, but their impact on the trail could be pretty devastating. We hardly ever saw equestrians on the PCT, but we walked through miles and miles of their destruction nearly every day. Hooves kicked up dirt and caused the narrow trail to be overly muddy and difficult to walk through. Not a day went by when we didn't see or walk through horse poop, sometimes so prolific that it was unavoidable. We didn't often see the horse itself, but on the days we did see equestrians, they were usually uncomfortable around hikers. Apparently horses don't like large backpacks and trekking poles; they saw us as a threat and often shied or bucked at the sight of hikers. This makes the rider very nervous, understandably, so we have to pause our hiking pace to quickly scramble off trail and hide our trekking poles so that the horse and rider can pass. Eventually you get used to sharing the trail with horses, but some offenses never seem to be acceptable: imagine walking dozens of miles through hot, dry country, trying desperately to get to the next tiny water source. And then, when you finally reach that perfect, tiny little stream, you realize that your one water source in twenty miles has been fouled by a large pile of freshly dropped horse poop. It's enough to make any hiker cry.
So that, in a nutshell, was the main reason Sunshine disliked horses.
"How long is Eagle Creek?" he asked.
"Fifteen miles," I said.
"Fifteen miles! Without horse poop!" he cried. He began bouncing up and down excitedly, his lunch spilling out onto his lap. "No horses, yay!! I'm going to write them a note! It's going to say: dear horses. Ha ha! You... you'll... I.... you..."
He spluttered excitedly for a few seconds until Wocka Wocka suddenly pointed out in a dry voice, "Sunshine. You have Cheese-Its in your beard..."
We all cracked up.

"So how many miles to the start of Eagle Creek?" Treekiller asked.
"Thirteen more," I said.
"And are we going uphill or downhill?"
"Both," I said.
"Welcome to the PCT," Wocka laughed.
"But the terrain gets easier in a few miles," I said.
"Ugh, we've had so many stupid climbs today," Sunshine said. "When I get off the PCT, I'm going to make my own trail and call it the Pacific Valley Trail!" He paused a moment and then added, "that, or join Star Fleet!"
"In case you hadn't heard, we're watching Star Trek when we get back to Portland," I informed Treekiller.
We spent the rest of lunch laughing over silly jokes and stories, and as we got up to leave, I laughed, "God, I love the PCT.... Except for the hiking part."

The trail wandered around ridgeline for the next few miles, and we enjoyed beautiful views of Mt. Hood along our route. The elevation didn't change much, so we burst in speed and once the poop monster rearranged our hiking formation a bit, Wocka and I found ourselves at the front of the pack. At 5:00 we still had six miles to cover, but we were feeling good about our time, so we stopped for a short snack break. Sunshine plopped down beside us and said, "Hey guys, want to hear a joke?"
"Sure," we agreed.
"Okay: what do you call a stupid animal?" he asked.
We thought about this for only a split second before Sunshine burst out, "A HORSE! Bahahahaha!"
We laughed at his ridiculousness and I said, "Sunshine, you made that joke up yourself, didn't you?"

I was worried about finishing up our hiking day in the dark, but as it turned out, this was the perfect way to do it. In our last six miles we rounded the top of the peak line and were given a glorious sight: the peaks of Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier at dusk. We took photos and slowly made our way along the ridge, watching the sun set behind the hills and cast an array of colors over the valley. It was beautiful.

When we got to the Eagle Creek trailhead, there were two weekend hikers already there. They were making hotdogs for dinner and offered to share with us, a lovely treat. Wocka and I stayed up past bedtime and watched the stars come out, talking about our favorite moments on trail. When I finally said goodnight, I retreated into the trees where Sunshine and I had found a couple of tent spots. The two of us talked as we lay in our open-netted tents, looking up at the sky. We talked about his home life and how much he loved being on trail, even though his family didn't approve of his journey. We reminisced about when we first met in the desert, and those wonderful days with the rest of the Chain Gang walking through the Sierras. Sunshine admitted that recently his feet have been hurting him very badly and he worried that he would have to leave the trail permanently before the end. I told him he should see a doctor when we return to Portland, and he could take whatever happens one day at a time.

"Don't worry," I told him. "It's like they always say... the trail provides. Everything always seems to work out in the end, somehow."
Sunshine agreed, "yeah, it's not like I'll die. I mean... except that once."
I laughed and said, "I hope you don't have to leave trail for good, Sunshine. I'd really miss you."
"I'd miss you, too, Brambles," he said. "I've really enjoyed hiking with you these past few months. You continue to surprise me."
I smiled and said, "you too, Sunshine. You're always happy and making me laugh, and it makes such a big difference."

Looking back, I realized how different these past few weeks have been for me. In the beginning the trail was new and exciting, but every day was a struggle. Even as time wore on, the trail didn't get easier, it just got less hard.
There wasn't a day that passed that I couldn't say I wasn't in pain, or tired, or going through fits of depression or exhaustion. But lately, something seems to have changed. The terrain has gotten a little easier, my body has gotten stronger, my friendships have grown deeper. And I realized I've been truly happy every day. I've felt more like myself, less caught in my own shell, more prone to speaking up, to making jokes, to taking each day lightly. I find myself laughing more, pushing aside hardship more easily, and looking back on the day with a smile rather than a weary sigh. Somewhere in these last few weeks I've been completely and truly enjoying my hike, enjoying the people I've been spending time with, and the memories we've created, and it has made all the difference.