PCT mile 2184.7? (Day 6)
Hiking the Washington State’s PCT
Road 24 to 2144.5-Cascade Locks
-67.7 miles going SOBO
(cont… from Day 4 and Day 5)“Hey Mom… Uh, what do you think about slowing down just a little bit?

I hear Shortcut speak behind me. I’m in awe at how easily he seems to keep up. Yesterday he was not a hiker but something has changed in him and I do not know yet how great that change will be until much later. “Of course,” I reply. HIs request is both easy and hard because I don’t want to go slow. I want to go fast. I try to do as he asks but it doesn’t work out so well. My feet are flying…

The trail is almost all downhill this morning. Endless switchbacks on smooth trail that is a trail runner’s dream. It is a different forest than the one from yesterday. Ferns grow big and in some places are wet with morning dew. Huge leafs that are missing one from being four leaf clovers droop onto the trail and the trees here have a rain forest look. I think the seasonal streams we will see today will not be dry as they have been in many areas of the trail we have seen so far.

Bugles is right behind Shortcut. His hat is flying around his face by a string, his backpack is sometimes lopsided. I do not worry about him, at least not in the way of the trail. He is strong and sure-footed despite the tics that plague him. If he needs to be fast, he can be and he is so now.

Shortcut slides off the trail into a pile of green ferns. He grins as he pulls himself back up and I know he is not hurt. But it’s a sign for me to to work a little harder at slowing down. My backpack-style run turns into a fast hike. Shortcut is good with this and matches my stride, swinging his trekking poles in circles, helicopter style, rather than using them in the hiking way.

We have five miles to our first stop at Panther Creek. We are content with our current way of life. For two nights we have slept in a tent, our trail-dusty socks tossed above our heads, backpacks stacked neatly by our feet. We wear the same clothes as yesterday and we don’t care. Our pockets are full of snacks that are second and third courses to the breakfast that we ate while breaking down camp. I think I would like to hike on the trail forever.

We talk about the pile of bones placed in the dirt in a curious way a mile ago at a junction of several trails coming together and laugh that it was someone’s idea of a joke. The trail emerges out of what I think looks like a rain forest, to make it’s way through a random, rocky clearing. We see valleys below, purple mountains above, and a sky of blue streaks with dark and white clouds. The trail dips back into the forest and down we go. I wonder how far it is to the bottom…

A PCT thru-hiker is trudging our way. I do not envy his climb but am instantly jealous of his footwear. “Check out those sandals,” Bugles loudly exclaims. Shortcut will later wonder how many times the hiker has stubbed his toes on rocks since the origin of his journey at the border of Mexico.

We stop to talk to the hiker whose name is Stretch. He has long curly hair, a beard, and a smile in his eyes. Stretch patiently waits for Bugles to repeat several times, the questions he wants to ask. He nods his head in gentle understanding when Bugles explains that he must ask the same question until he, (Bugles), “gets” the question right. Stretch than becomes my hero, not only for being a PCT thru-hiker but for the careful manner in which he repeats the answer to Bugles’ question until Bugles is satisfied.

Several downhill trail zig-zags later, we run into another hiker whose name is Tootsie Roll. Neither Bugles, Shortcut, nor I think to ask him why. He also is a thru-hiker, wondering what he will do and where he will go next when his months of hiking the PCT are done. He lives in California but speaks of family in Washington. He thinks he will move to where his family lives, to be near the mountains and winter skiing. He, like Stretch, is patient as Bugles, who is tic’ing extra hard, has to start and stop his sentences several times before proudly proclaiming, “I’m THE one and ONLY … BUGLES N’ CREAM! … and I am a P*C*T HIKER!”

“Looks like bike tracks…” Sometime later, Shortcut points down at the trail. I admire his anything-wheels, tracking skills and agree that he must be right. “I don’t think anybody is supposed to be doing that on the PCT,” I say off-handedly. It is easy to see that the trail here is not only a trail runner but a mountain biker’s dream as well. I think though that I wouldn’t want to pedal the uphill of the almost vertical we hike down. I hear water and know that Panther Creek is near. Shortcut sees the bridge first and we walk across, Bugles asking the question over-and-over, “Are we here THERE yet? The Man in Charge waits for us. Shortcut and I look at the mountain bike that the Man in Charge is walking across the bridge, look at one another, and than nonchalantly look the other way. No need to say more…

Shortcut and Bugles sit on rocks with bare feet in the cold creek water. They happily eat two-day-old pizza. I peel off my dirty socks and wade in, ankle deep. The water soothes the growing blisters on three of my toes. Roots and Backpack appear and help us filter water. I wash my underwear and a shirt and clip them to the back of my pack, help with the water filtering and than, together with the Man in Charge, I look over my maps, eager to hike on.

I think to lighten my pack weight so leave my raincoat and a pair of dirty wool socks behind. The Man in Charge disappears to go get the truck, I join Shortcut and Bugles, in grabbing large handfuls of M&M’s out of a jumbo sized container and shove them in my pocket. I listen to Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart,” on my phone, which instantly becomes my go-to trail theme song and off we go. Roots and Backpack follow along until the trail meets a road where the Man in Charge is waiting with the truck. We will meet one more time in five miles at Trout Creek before they head off to Cascade Locks. There they will wait for us to arrive the following day.

We hike along overgrown forest growth that frequently drapes vines and leaves over the trail. The way here is low and flat, a short reprieve from the elevation gains and losses that we have hiked so far. I feel like we are in a jungle. Bugles’ eats all his M&M’s than asks to eat mine. Reaching into my pocket, one blue M&M drops in the dirt. I share the rest that are in my hand. Shortcut, Bugle’s and I discuss the ten second rule and all agree that we shouldn’t leave the blue M&M in the dirt. Somebody picks it up and eats it, but I won’t say who…

We hear road traffic. I tell Shortcut that we have reached the place where the PCT crosses the Wind River Highway. The same spot that I couldn’t find a couple of weeks ago when the Man in Charge was teaching me map navigation skills while driving on our way to Chinook Pass. We walk across the road and pct-it back into the forest. It’s not long before we climb up and around another mountain, walk across a couple of bridges and creeks, hike through meadows with no trespassing signs, march by some houses, and stumble over a graveled, forest road or two. The trail goes on like that for another couple of hours until we emerge onto a road that is paved. Our truck is there, along with two cars, all parked in a row. We are at Trout Creek.

I take off my backpack and set it down. Shortcut does the same. Bugles kicks off his shoes, one is lying in the road, the other flies underneath the truck. He slings the rest of his gear everywhere. I find one of his trekking poles later in the bushes behind the truck. I take off my shoes and than my dirty socks, interested to know if I still have skin left on my blistered toes. I do, but not for long…

A breve mocha finds it’s way into my hands because the Man in Charge knows that is what I like. Shortcut and Bugles’ disappear across the bridge that crosses Trout Creek in search of Backpack and Roots. I follow and when I see the creek, think that this would be a fine place to spend the rest of the afternoon.

A group of thru-hikers blend in near the water to the left and under the shade of the bridge. They laugh easily with each other as they eat their trail food. I climb down to the right where a female thru-hiker is curled up in sand dotted with river rock, circled by big boulders all around. I guess she is asleep. I think she will be awake soon. Bugles sits content, sharing a boulder with Shortcut, their feet dangling in the water. He loudly alternates his repeated questions from, “My legs are sore, may I dip my feet in? Do you have any gatorade?” .. to “Mom… are we ready to hike the PCT… I’m hungry, do you have any more to eat?” I don’t know at what point in the midst of Bugles’ questions, our answers, and more of his questions, that the hiker silently gives up on her nap and goes about on her way.

The water is bubbly and falls over big, round rocks here. The mirror clarity of the creek and the crisp white of the rocks’ surface is stark wonder in the reflection of the sky blue that no longer has any clouds. Roots and Backpack laugh and play in the creek. “They’ve been that way for a while,” says the Man in Charge. I watch them and smile. This place reminds me of the river that flows through the California mountain town I grew up in. The peace that I found when I was young there. It is good that Roots and Backpack are happy with their time here.

Mile 2159.6 has water, campsites, and the promise of 15 miles to hike the next day to Cascade Locks. It is also almost 15 miles from where we are now. The Man in Charge doesn’t think we will make it. He tells me that, according to the map, there is seven miles that we will be hiking on a steep, mountain ledge. He says we do not want to get caught on the ledge after dark. We talk strategy on different locations to camp for the night. Rock Creek looks to be a good option but is still ten miles away. Time to go, I quickly patch Bugles’ blisters, than my own, and we put our shoes back on. Packs on our backs, pockets full of M&M’s, Bugles, Shortcut, and I say goodbye and continue on.

We are in good spirits. I believe the M&M’s help fuel our climb as we hike the forever of uphill for most of the afternoon hours. The forest here is different from the morning, large pine and fir trees give plenty of shade with lot’s of opportunity to see the mountain views as we climb to the sky. Sometimes there is a breeze when hiking on the south or east side of an upward slope and it feels good when it cools the heat of the day. We finally reach the top and push on over and onto the forest-surrounded ledge that the Man in Charge mentioned. It is amazingly endless as it cuts it’s way down the other side of the mountain. We stop once to look behind us. I remark to Shortcut that it would probably be a good thing to build an alpine slide on the path that we have just hiked. He laughs as he agrees.

It is a strange thing when a summer blue sky is covered stormy gray when least expected. We hike through a low forest and can barely see the clouds through the tunnel of dark green turned shadow-black overgrowth above us. It is gloomy with the overcast sky and Shortcut remarks that he is scared. Water from a creek that sounds like a giant river parallels the trail and we pass by a campsite cradled in logs lying in soft dirt. It is the perfect place to camp. But it is still early and we are not anywhere near Mile 2159.6. 

Relief in the dreary landscape, yellow, red, and lime green are three of four colors of tents, lined on either side of the trail where it meets the bridge of Rock Creek. A party of folks sit around a campfire. Shirts, shorts, and jackets of orange, red, and brown hang on a line strung from tree to tree. Laughter and people talking mingle in a melody playing with the song of the creek Surely if the sun was shining through the tree tops, this place would be called magic. Instead it feels vaguely haunted despite the thru-hikers gathered to spend the night there.

“Let’s keep on going, we can do this,” Shortcut announces bravely. He and I wonder whether it is wise to try and push through another five miles to get to where we want to be. Bugles protests loudly, wanting very much to camp with the other hikers. We do not stay but keep on moving. In a mile or so, we eat dinner where a forest road cuts our path apart. In between bites of food, Bugles’ mentions quite a few times, we should have camped back at Rock Creek. Neither Shortcut nor I attempt to disagree. Without the sun shining it is dismal and lonely, raindrops begin to fall. We hurry to finish, jumping back on the trail that falls off the road and down a hill, before disappearing deeper and darker into the woods.

It gets dark, we put on our headlamps, and it feels like we are crawling. Bugles never stops talking about how we should have camped at Rock Creek The steepness of the trail makes us pause often to rest. There is another forest road and a flat spot warmly cocooned among the trees, suitable for putting up a tent. Bugles wants to stay there. But it is at the bottom of the rest of the mountain that we must climb up so we keep on going.

Bugles is getting louder and louder. Shortcut and I try to reason with him but nothing we say helps. Bugles starts to insist that we are all probably going to die if we do not stop soon. His OCD gets the best of us and we all escalate to ultra-loud in the never-ending answers to his questions. I worry but than realize that our loudness should not disturb other hikers. The trail’s edge falls sharply down the mountain and there is nowhere to camp. It is doubtful that anyone is nearby.

The wind starts to howl and it is getting cold, the trail evens out and unbelievably we are where we want to be. We look around in the dark and finally settle on a place to camp among the trees, on a spur trail that breaks off to the right of the PCT. In the inky-black night with only our headlamps, we have no idea if we are close to tumbling off the mountain top.  Maybe the wind will push us over.  It doesn’t matter, I hurry to get the tent up. It is hard to do. I assure Shortcut that I think it’s a good idea to put on the outer shell of the tent. Tonight, he does not wish to see out into the dark. I know he is still scared.

The wind chills us frozen and our hands get cold. Bugles is shivering uncontrollably but will not listen when I tell him to put on his jacket. Shortcut throws me the backpacks, I cram them to the back of our tent. While I get the sleeping bags and mats ready, he stakes the walls of the tent down. I help Bugles so that he will get into his sleeping bag to warm up. Shortcut is done with the stakes and climbs in. With the three of us, the cold outside stays put and we start to warm up. The wind pushes the top of our tent around but that is ok. We feel safe inside.

“We are doing this!…hiking the PCT! Mom, I LOVE THIS hike!” Bugles’ blue eyes are innocent, he has calmed down from his earlier angst. Shortcut is earnestly counting the number of miles he has hiked on his fingers. It’s starting to sink in that he’s really doing this too. They fall asleep in a matter of seconds. I do not…

I listen to the the trees bend and sway and once, I open the tent door just to smell the woodsy-fresh air that the wind tosses my way. I breathe in deeply, my eyes close, I am thankful I am here. My mind is still hiking and I know I never want to stop…

-Chris…

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