Day One Hundred Twenty Eight

Today's miles: 8
Total miles: 2580

4:30am came much too early. I knew I didn't have time to lay in bed, because we had a bus to catch by 9:00am. It was freezing in the pitch blackness of my tent, so I rapidly got dressed, bundled up, and packed away my gear.
Katie made a hot batch of oatmeal and instant Carnation breakfast which she shared with Sunshine, Kazu and me. Feeling warmer, we donned headlamps and trundled off into the black.

It had been so long that I had hiked in the dark that it was a strange experience. My limbs were heavy with fatigue, but I had to keep moving to stay warm. My headlamp was running low on batteries, so its light was dim and nearly useless. The four of us stayed in a compact line, heel to toe, and the only words spoken to break the silence were bits of warnings.
"Tree branch."
The warnings were passed back, one by one, through the line, and heard just in time to avoid the inevitable obstacles. It seemed to take hours for the darkness to break. It was 6:30 before the sky was tinged with red, and another hour past that before we could see clearly enough to turn our headlamps off. But those hours dragged by. The terrain was frustratingly deceiving today. We checked the elevation profile last night and saw that the eight miles to High Bridge were all downhill, so we expected an easy walk. What we didn't realize was though the overall elevation was downhill, there were some very short, very steep staccatos of climbing thrust into the terrain. They didn't last long, not even long enough to register on the elevation profile, but they were so demandingly steep that I was quickly out of breath and cranky. Having expected an easy stroll to town, I was not amused by the PCT's final attempt to kick my ass.

As such, I was in an anxious mood all morning. We were running behind, having not gotten out of camp until almost 5:30, and we knew we had no time to stop for breaks. We wasted time clumsily tripping through the darkness, and even more time stopping to take off our warm layers when the morning chill seeped away. There was no time for snacks (not that I had any food left, anyway), or chatter, or even a pit stop. We were focused on reaching Stehekin on time, and with the sudden, rough terrain, it made our hike unenjoyable.
"I hate town days," I grumbled.

We reached High Bridge at 8:30, my mood permanently shifted to hunger, exhaustion, and crankiness. But we were here, at last, and for that I was grateful.

Even better: as we crossed the bridge toward the ranger station, I saw familiar faces sitting outside: Wocka, Giddyup, Sneaks, Coincidence and Horny Toad! We hadn't seen them since they took off into the rain, and it was good to reunite and share hugs. I realized that deep down I had been secretly fretting about all of them all week, and I was so relieved to see everyone safe and sound and back together.
"Where's Treekiller and Vince?" I asked, suddenly noticing that they were missing.
"They went into Stehekin last night," said Wocka. "We camped pretty close. Giddyup and I stopped since we were exhausted, but they kept going and caught the last bus in. Where did you camp?"
"Eight miles back, at Swamp Creek," I said.
Wocka checked her watch in surprise. "It's only 8:30!"
"I know," I groaned. "We've been awake since 4:30. I'm exhausted."
"Well, I'm glad to see you guys," she smiled. "We missed you."
"I missed you, too," I said. "I was worried about you in that storm."
"Yeah... we almost turned around," she said. "Actually, we did turn around. We kept meeting hikers who were quitting because of the snow dumping on Red's Pass. But we didn't really want to quit, so we ultimately just camped it out. And then Treekiller and Vince caught us, and I was glad to hear you guys took a zero, too."
"Me too."
"Have you seen anyone else this week?"
"Oh, yes!" I said. "There's a big group behind us. About twenty people, overall. But I'm not sure if anyone took that shortcut to Stehekin or not. We camped by ourselves last night."
It was then that I noticed Lighthouse sitting at one of the tables, and he had definitely been behind us yesterday...
"Lighthouse!" I said in surprise. "How did you get here before us?"
"I hiked after dark last night," he said. "I think I passed your camp around 8:30? But I didn't see anyone."
"Oh... yeah, we were already in bed," I laughed. "What happened to everyone else?"
"They camped like two miles behind you," he said. This was surprising. We had all assumed that everyone had taken the shortcut, and now we knew they would probably catch the noon bus behind us.

Waiting at the ranger's station. Click to see larger. (Photo by Sunshine)

Right on cue, the bus to Stehekin showed up at 9:00am. We paid $7 and rode it into town. The whole drive all of us were talking anxiously about only one thing: weather. No one knew the latest, our report being seven days old, but rumors had been flying and they made us nervous.
"I talked to one lady who said the snow level would be at 9,000 feet," Horny Toad said hopefully.
"9,000!" Sneaks said, "that can't be right. It was at 5,000 feet all week!"
"Well, I heard a southbounder say it was going to rain for five days," Katie said. "Like, heavy downpour rain."
"Does the trail after Stehekin drop below 5,000 feet at all?"
"Only once, fourteen miles after Rainy Pass. But everything after that is closer to 6 and 7,000 feet. If it snows, there will be no avoiding it."
Discussing gossip only served to make us more anxious, and we knew the real answer wouldn't be clear until we reach town. We dreaded learning the truth.

Our bus driver was very friendly; he was accustomed to seeing PCT thru-hikers, and so before getting to Stehekin proper, he took us to the one place he knew we wanted to go: the bakery.
"THE BAKERY!!!" we were all cheering, jumping up and down. It was the one thing that had the power to cheer us up. We had heard legends of this bakery since our early days in the desert, and after 2580 miles, we had finally made it. I think that warranted a pastry, at least!
In fact, it warranted much more than that. The driver said the record amount of money spent by a thru-hiker at the Stehekin bakery was $95. It wasn't hard to see why. Everything smelled and looked delicious. And who was waiting in the chairs beside the door when we came in? Treekiller and Vince!
I let out a squeal and tightly hugged them both, so happy to see them again. They had already eaten at the bakery twice since yesterday and were now waiting for the bus ride back to town. Once everyone had been through the line (I bought: a lemon tart, a huge iced ginger cookie, a piece of pumpkin pie, a marionberry crumble and a chocolate milk, and later regretted not buying the giant, fluffy cinnamon roll, too) we loaded back up in the bus and rumbled to Stehekin.

The town was adorable. We had heard it was the best trail town on the PCT from more than one veteran hiker, and on a sunny summer day, I would have wanted to spend multiple zeroes here in the small cabins beside the lake. But today it was overcast and threatening, and we had heavier things on our minds than enjoying the pleasures of town.

Our first order of business was to check the weather report. Stehekin, unfortunately, was so remote that it didn't have internet or cell service anywhere in town, not even a land-line. The only place we could check the weather was from the ranger station, who had access to satellite reports. The news was not promising. She told us that a heavy snow storm was supposed to dump starting tonight, and the forecast predicted it would last until Tuesday, October 1 - four days from now.
"That was supposed to be our finishing date," I sighed heavily. It was supposed to be a huge celebration with all the hikers we had been walking with for so long - and now nothing was certain.
"I don't recommend hiking out in this," the ranger warned. "The forecast shows snow above 5,000 feet, and it's supposed to rain 2-10 inches here, which could mean up to ten feet of snow on the trail."
We were horrified. This was not good news. We looked down at our thin rain pants and shabby, mesh trail runners, and we knew we were not equipped for this turn of events.
Only seventy miles from the border. What can we do?

We stepped aside and gathered in a small circle around a relief map of the PCT, Wocka, Giddyup, Katie, Sunshine, Vince, Treekiller, and me. For a moment we stood quietly, our brows furrowed with weighty decisions. For an hour we talked. We discussed our options. We battled both sides of the argument. We flew rapidly through the five stages of loss: denial, anger, bartering, grief, acceptance. But we wouldn't fully accept the reality of the situation. We didn't want to give up. But our group was divided on the outcome.
Katie didn't want to go out in the storm. Wocka, Giddyup and Sunshine were willing to walk through the storm before they gave up the trail. Treekiller and Vince decided the PCT ended for them here. And me?
"What do you want to do, Bramble?" Wocka asked. I had been silent for most of the debate, fighting an inner battle. It felt like all our plans, all our dreams, were shattering apart piece by piece. And all I could think was, I was so frustrated walking those eight miles this morning. And what if those are the last eight miles I walk on the PCT? What if that's my last memory of the trail? The thought was heartbreaking.
"I want to finish the trail, if we can," I said. "I'm not ready to give up. I can't give up. I just don't know how."
"What if we took a few days off?" Wocka suggested. "We could go into Seattle and get some winter gear, and come back out after the worst of the storm had passed. I think with snowshoes and good boots it's still doable."
"And if it isn't?" Katie asked. "What if the storm drops five feet of snow? Or if it keeps going past Tuesday?"
"We can't wait forever," Giddyup admitted, "but we can still try for a few days. There's always the road option. I heard another hiker talking about road walking to the border on another trail that's lower in elevation. Hopefully the snow won't affect it as badly."
"I don't want to road walk," said Katie, "I'd rather hike the trail next year in good weather than road walk this year in bad weather. You can't see anything anyway, so what's the point?"
The point is that we hiked the PCT this year, I thought, and we're not ready to give up yet.
"Let's get something to eat," Giddyup suggested heavily. "It's been a long week and we just got to town. We should sit down and think about our options."

We walked next door to the North Cascades Lodge and ordered the infamous PCT burger - two half-pound patties, bacon, cheese, ham, two fried eggs, lettuce, tomato and onion on a bun. Ridiculous. It would have been PCT hiker heaven if we hadn't been so melancholy and without appetite. Instead, all we could do was pick at our food.

After lunch we wandered to the post office to pick up our final mail. I was given the resupply box I packed so long ago, as well as a postcard from my aunt, which read, ironically, YOU DID IT!!
I clutched the mail desperately. For some reason, seeing that note and my food box made me achingly, horribly sad. I had hiked so far to get to this point; I had hit horrible weather and run out of food walking from Steven's Pass, and now here I was with a notecard praising the end of my journey and a full box of food for my final stretch of trail, and I wasn't even sure I would get to use it.
As I started to leave the small mail room, the postman said, "wait, there's one more...."
It turned out to be a postcard from Sunshine, who had sent everyone in our group something from Portland while he was staying there with Tanner weeks ago. Mine read: Brambles! You're awesome. Period. Your constant upbeat/ positive/ happy persistence has made my hike worthwhile these past weeks, and I love being around you! Thank you (and Tanner) so much for helping me in Portland. Seriously. Sunshine.
I felt like crying as I hugged Sunshine.
This can't be the end of my journey, it just can't. I wasn't ready to say goodbye, yet. To the trail, to my friends, to the journey.

I flipped through pages of the post office's trail register, woefully looking over the names of hikers who had arrived here in the past month. Their notes were all full of hope and excitement, and I knew many of them had reached the border already. Some of them, like Mudd and Dingo, were here only a day before us and would likely reach the border before the worst of the storm hit.
Life is funny that way, how just a day can change a person's whole fate.

Our quiet moods were soon cheered up by the arrival of friends. The rest of our group: Rotisserie, Sansei, Reason, Games, Toots, Tears, Alphabet Soup, Kudu, Pony and St. Alfonzo showed up on the noon bus and were quickly briefed on the latest weather news. All over Stehekin, hikers were having the same conversations, discussions, debates and frustrations. There was just one question in everyone's mind: where do we go from here?

More than anything, we knew we needed connection to the outside world. On any other day, the remoteness of Stehekin would be a nice break from reality, but we were desperate for weather updates and most of us needed to call home. The rumors were swirling fast and furious, now: snow was predicted at only 2,500 feet. Stehekin was under a weather advisory for mudslides. It was possible that the surrounding area would be evacuated. Ten inches of rain was still predicted for the weekend. Feet of snow on the trail. But how much would be hype and how much would be true? We didn't know, but one thing finally became clear: we needed to leave Stehekin. We had to take this journey one day at a time, just as we always had. A town called Chelan was the closest thing accessible from where we were; it was on the opposite end of the very long, winding Lake Chelan, and the only way to get there was by ferry.

So we bought a one-way four-hour ferry ticket and boarded at 1:00. It was a difficult scene. Most of us were going to Chelan, but others, such as Toots, Tears, Lighthouse, Games, Reason, Pony, St. Alfonzo, Cuddles, and Fun Size were staying in Stehekin for the time being. They were contemplating hiking the twenty miles to Rainy Pass to the next road crossing before making a final decision. It was so hard to say goodbye. No one thought we'd have to make these decisions so early. No one thought the final seventy miles would be so fraught with chaos. No one thought that winter would arrive at the end of September - hadn't we been playing it safe? Hiking big miles in order to beat the snow? But here we were, hugging and crying and not knowing if it would be the last time we would see each other, or the trail.

This isn't how it's supposed to end.

Boarding the ferry. Back row: Vince, Sunshine, Sneaks, Giddyup, Kazu, Horny Toad, Bramble, Coincidence, Treekiller, Honey Bunny
Front row: Rotisserie, Tears for Beers, Toots Magoots, Drop Biscuit, Wocka Wocka

On that four hour ferry ride, all we could think about was that one perfect dream still in our heads: hiking those final miles, reaching the monument together, taking photos and hugging and drinking champagne. Toasting to a trail fully accomplished. Saying goodbye at the proper time, with no hurry or weather to fret about. Reminiscing about a wonderful summer spent in the woods. But it felt like the dream was slipping away, like smoke, leaving behind a hollow echo as reality crept in.

We called home from the ferry. I talked to my mom and Tanner and unleashed a week's worth of emotions in one breath. They would no longer have to meet me at the border on October first. I wasn't even sure if I could make it there. They were sympathetic; they wanted me to be safe, to not make any rash decisions, and I promised that I was in a group of people I loved and that we would make good choices together. I told them there was the possibility of going to Portland to get winter gear and they offered to come get me. I told them I would call again when I knew more, but I wasn't sure if any decision we made today would be the right one.

When we arrived in Chelan, we caught another bus to the town of Wenatchee, an hour away. The bus was full of hikers, quietly talking amongst ourselves as the sky grew dark. The landscape was stark and rolling, with sun-burnt hillsides and low brush. It reminded me fondly of the Southern California desert. So long ago.
The man sitting in the seat in front of me swiveled around and asked conspiratorially, "So, what's going on, here?" Clearly he was amused by a full bus that was probably often empty.
"We're thru-hikers," I said, "hiking the Pacific Crest Trail."
"Oooooh!" his eyes lit up. "So that explains why it smells like campfire in here."
I laughed. "Better campfire than what we usually smell like!"
"How come you're going to Wenatchee?" he wondered.
Slowly I unraveled the whole tale of the past week, explaining the distance we've traveled, the weather we've encountered, the storm that's threatening our final miles. He was deeply sympathetic and slightly awed by the tale. I learned he owned a business near Stehekin taking tourists parasailing on Lake Chelan, and having been here some time, was surprised at the sudden, winter weather.
"It's usually warm and sunny here until mid October," he insisted. "This is so unusual."
"Yeah, rotten timing," I sighed.
"I wish you the best of luck," the man said sincerely as he got off the bus at the next stop.
"Thank you," I said, and meant it.
We got dropped off in downtown Wenatchee, which was definitely not a trail town. We felt lost and out of place in the bustling, busy streets. We walked the sidewalks, clutching our boxes of food and feeling more like homeless hobos than thru-hikers. Tired and cranky, we finally found a hotel nearby and rented a few rooms for the group of us: Giddyup, Wocka, Sneaks, Treekiller, Vince, Rotisserie, Sansei, Sunshine, Katie, Alphabet Soup, Kudu, Kazu, and me.

"You know what we should do?" Wocka asked, breaking the solemn mood. "We need to get drunk tonight."
And so we ordered pizza and bought bottles of rum and cokes, spending the night laughing and reminiscing together. This morning we had woken up at 4:30, not knowing it might be our last day on trail, and tonight we were far away from home, trying to ignore the difficult decisions we would have to make tomorrow.

For tonight, we had each other, and for now, it was enough.

Left to right: Acid Glasses, Coincidence, Hummingbird, Horny Toad
Vince, Giddyup, Sunshine, Toots Magoots
Tears for Beers, Treekiller, Honey Bunny, Wocka Wocka
Bramble, Drop Biscuit, Sneaks, Lighthouse