Day One Hundred Twenty One

Today's miles: 19
Total miles: 2476

We left Deception Lake early this morning, taking time to stop by the small, wooden pit toilet before leaving. I love the campsites along the PCT in Washington. In general, they are spacious, gorgeous, and have nice, clean rustic boxes with hinged lids that act as pit toilets near the campsites to cut down on waste. There's hardly anything better than a privy with a beautiful view of the countryside.

The hike this morning was stunningly beautiful; one of my favorite days on trail, overall. Upon leaving the lake we hiked over a ridge and then down into a bowl of mountains, with the stunning, jagged peaks soaring all around us. There were crystal blue lakes everywhere, green meadows, and Mt. Baker rising up in the distance. I was thankful for the lovely weather that allowed me to stare in wonder at the Northern Cascades as I hiked. It was like wandering through a postcard.

We descended down, down, down into the bowl until we reached the valley floor, and stopped briefly for water. I checked my maps and the upcoming elevation profile for today, and stopped short in amazement.
"Holy crap!" I cried, my hand flying to my mouth.
"What's up?" Vince asked.
"Check out the elevation we're about to hit."
I showed them the profile, which had been steeply climbing and falling for the past few days, as was usual for Washington. But within the next few miles, the topography suddenly jumped up 900 ft in 3/4 of a mile, making the line on the graph look practically vertical.
"Holy elevation change!" Sunshine cried.
We had a few miles to come to terms with our imminent climb, and all along the way we referred to it as, "The Staircase of Doooooooooom!"

When we finally reached the climb, it was indeed very steep, but it was peppered with switchbacks so that it wasn't as terrible as it might have been. Still, there were times I was climbing up the mountain face when I looked up and saw Treekiller's ankles at the same height as my eyes. We took it slowly, carefully, pausing every so often to admire the steadily rising view of mountains around us. And though it was a rough climb, it was very short, so within a mile we had reached the apex.

There was a nice lookout at the top, with a small, windy space that seemed perfect for second breakfast. To my surprise, however, the rest of the group wasn't there. I paused beside Treekiller, Sunshine and Vince, wondering aloud, "where are they?"
"I think they left already," said Treekiller, motioning down the hill where we could faintly see Katie disappearing around the bend. "Wocka and Giddyup were ahead of her."
"What, do they not get hungry?" I said grumpily. "We've gone eight miles already! What happened to second breakfast?"
Rotisserie and Sansei were somewhere behind us, so we decided to take a break and wait up for them. I plopped below a rock to block the wind and pulled on my wool sweater. It was definitely getting colder these days, and harder to stay warm when we took breaks.

Since we would be arriving in town at the end of today, I was enjoying one of my favorite perks of the last day before resupply: eating everything in my food bag. I loved not having to ration food, and enjoyed whittling down the weight in my backpack with shameless abandon.
"Fuck it, I'm having two packets of oatmeal this morning!" I crowed. "YOLO!"
The boys laughed and ate the contents of their food bags with similar gusto. Treekiller and Vince finished first and took off down the ridgeline, while Sunshine and I sat lazily for a while until Rotisserie and Sansei caught up, and then we all continued together.

Sunshine and I trucked away at the front of the line, pausing to admire the increasingly lovely views along the way. We were both bubbling with excitement at our good luck with the weather. Whatever happens in the future, I remember thinking, I'm glad I got to see this.

A group of trail runners coming up the mountain passed us on our way down, and we skirted to the side to get out of their way. But the very last runner in line stopped beside us, keenly curious.
"You're PCT hikers?" he wondered.
"Yes," we agreed, expecting the usual dayhiker questions. But the runner wasn't interested in asking us how we got food or how long we had been hiking. Instead, his questions were intellectually intriguing: had the weather dampened or strengthened our resolve for the finish? Were we excited or dreading the ultimate conclusion of our trip? Did we think a long distance hike could be completed by anyone with the courage to do so?
It was a remarkable conversation, and Sunshine and I both enjoyed the short encounter. We felt less like celebrities putting up with an awkward group of fans, and more like intellectuals at a panel discussion. We found we loved to talk about our trip when asked the deeper questions, for the PCT was about so much more than food. (Even though you wouldn't think it to watch us eat.) The PCT is about the journey in all of us, and who among us is daring enough to respond to the call.

We trekked through the afternoon, past a series of lakes, trying to catch up with Treekiller, Katie, Vince, Wocka and Giddyup. But no matter how fast we hiked, they were always one step ahead.
Surely they'll stop for lunch around this bend? Or this one?
But each beautiful lake we reached, each campsite we stumbled upon was empty of hikers.
"I hate town days!" Sunshine griped as we trouped to the next lake to see if we could catch our friends. "Everyone thinks it's so important to get there as fast as possible, and no one wants to take breaks!"
I agreed that it made me grumpy, too. If we only had eight miles to get to civilization, I could understand the excitement that drove a person to kick it into high gear and get to town as fast as possible. But we had nineteen miles to hike today to reach Stevens Pass. That was a full day of hiking, and it was impossible that we could do it with no breaks.
"I'm with you," I agreed, "let's just stop to eat at the next good spot, regardless if they're there or not."
The next spot turned out to be Mig Lake, which was, unsurprisingly, deserted. But it was a great spot for lunch, and Sunshine, Rotisserie, Sansei and I took our time and lay in the sun eating the last of our food. We were shortly joined by TwoBadDogs, who had been tailing us all morning.
"See? Isn't this so much better than hiking?" Sunshine asked.
"This might be our last good day without rain, who knows?" I agreed. "We have to enjoy it while it lasts."

After lunch we had eight miles and two large climbs to tackle, one after the other. They were large and rounded on the elevation profile, which led us to calling them the "boobs," and they were no picnic. The left boob was our first challenge, and it was as steep as this morning's Staircase of Doom, but even longer in duration. I was tired and growing slower on the climb, trailing after Sansei, who was animatedly chatting the whole way up.
"I've been impressed by the PCT volunteer work in Washington!" he pointed out as we walked, "have you noticed all the beautiful walkways through the marshes and the nicely cleared trails? This has been the prettiest stretch of PCT yet!"

It was true that the maintenance crews had put a lot of work into this stretch, and it was appreciated. We were reminded of our days trying to bushwhack through poisonous Poodle Dog Bush in the desert, and overgrown grasses in Oregon, and it was nice to have such a well-beaten track to follow here. It must be amazing - the amount of man hours needed to maintain a trail as long as the PCT.

By the time we reached the right boob we were all slowing down. We scrambled through a rocky area, with a hillside covered in boulders. I generally enjoyed hiking past these boulders, because they harbored some of the cutest animals on the PCT: rock pikas. They looked like a cross between a guinea pig and a small rabbit, and they announced their presence with the cutest noises, little meeps! that sounded like someone squeezing a squeaky toy.
Sansei's favorite game was to talk back to the pikas. He wandered through the boulders ahead of me, playing call-and-repeat to the rocks.
"Meep?" said a shy pika, and he yelled back, "MEEP!"
We soon came upon Stevens Pass ski area, and discovered that the trail ran right up one of the blue runs. It was discouraging to hike up the hill when I knew how fun it was to ski down it, but there was hardly any other choice. We passed beneath ski lifts and finally reached the top of the climb, where we fell into a heap and gulped down bottles of gatorade and water. We gazed down at the opposite side of the hill, where we could see the highway far below, two and a half miles away.

While we rested, a small pika scurried from under a rock and poised himself at the top of another. He ruffled up his fur as if in preparation, and then began calling loudly into the valley:
"Meep. Meep. Meep meep. Meep meep meepmeepmeepmeepmeepmeep!"
We watched in fascination as this performance went on in a string of uninterrupted syllables for several minutes, and then slowly began to taper off again:
"Meepmeepmeepmeep meep meep. Meep. Meep.... Meep.... Meep."
There was a moment of complete silence, and then, as if to conclude his aria, the pika uttered one final, definitive, "Meep!"
We all broke into laughter at that, and the pika, suddenly startled by his audience, scurried back under his rock.

Sunshine, Rotisserie, Sansei and I hiked the final miles down to the highway where the Stevens Ski Resort lodge was located. This was apparently a difficult place to hitch a ride into town, as it was a highway and there were several signs along the way that read "do not pick up hitchhikers." It was 5:00pm already and everyone but Treekiller had gotten a ride to the local trail angel's house in Baring, WA (the Dinsmore's). Treekiller had stayed to wait for us, and now we stood awkwardly on the highway, hoping a local would pick us up and take us the 25 miles to Baring.

We hadn't stood there long when a worker from the ski resort motioned for us to hop in his truck. Delighted for the quick hitch, we jumped in and he took us to the Dinsmore's Hiker Haven, where Wocka, Giddyup, Katie, and Vince were already waiting, along with our friends Alphabet Soup and Kudu! The Dinsmore's was an amazing mecca of trail magic - they had been hosting hikers for twenty years and, like the Saufley's in Agua Dulce, had the process down to a science. They had built an addition to their garage which had been turned into a hiker hut, complete with bunk beds, hiker boxes, loaner clothing, laundry bags, couches, movies, and a wash basin and clothesline outside for gear. There were signs all over the hut that said things like the rules of the establishment ("your stay is limited to two nights. It rains MOST of September and October!"), the weather report for northern Washington (snow above 5,000 feet for the next week!), and advice for the last 175 miles of our journey ("line your backpacks with trash bags! Did you remember a pair of micro-spikes for your shoes? Plan for winter weather ahead!") It was strange thinking of hiking in snow when we had just come to terms with potentially hiking in rain for the next ten days.

The hiker bunk was already full of hikers, so Sunshine, Vince, Treekiller, Rotisserie, Sansei and I laid out our ground tarps on the floor of the attached garage and figured we'd bunk there for the night. We took showers and gave our clothes to Mrs. Dinsmore to wash and walked across the street to the small cafe for dinner.

The cafe had a very friendly staff and wonderful food, and it was delightful being in town and relaxing again, even if we knew our stay would be short. Everyone was murmuring about the weather; no matter which report we pulled up, they all seemed to disagree on the intensity and length of the storm, but one thing was certain: rain or snow was in our future, starting tonight, and it was going to make our journey infinitely more complicated.

I called my mom before returning to the Dinsmore's. She and my sister were planning a trip to meet me at the Canadian border and would be flying out to Oregon in a week. Our group was still planning to finish the trail tentatively by October 1, allowing for a day off in our last trail town, Stehekin, before pushing the final 80 miles to the border. Mom was excited to visit me for this momental moment, and talking to her on the phone seemed to make the finale even more real for me.
In just two weeks I will be at the Canadian border! It hardly seemed possible. Had it only been five months since I left the monument in Mexico? And then again, hadn't it been forever since that moment? So much had happened in such a swift, stolen summer.

When we got back to the Dinsmores, more hikers had arrived for the night, totaling about twenty people. We stayed up late talking excitedly in the garage and making plans for the future. Tomorrow, our final push for the monument would begin. And tonight, the rain began. Beating on the tin roof of the garage as though it would never stop.