PCT mile 2212.2 (Day 4 and Day 5)
Hiking Washington State’s PCT
Forest Road 24, going SOBO

My feet sink in the soft, sand-colored dirt of the trail. I am ready to go. The rest of them walk in a straight line of four and I can see their shoulders and heads bobbing, a short distance ahead, above naked, twisted branches and wheat-dry, forest-grass. Bugles’s voice can be heard, echoing back through the clearing, loudly asking the same questions over-and-over. This time, it is Shortcut that provides the scripted answers which seem to satisfy Bugles enough that he moves on to demand answers to his next series of questions while all of them hike on.

It wasn’t easy getting ready when everyone piled out of the truck earlier. Afterwards when they all had their packs on, we were still waiting for Bugles who inevitably took his time pulling on socks and shoes, his backpack completely awry and hanging from his body, that it took three of us to make him hiker-ready. But that is the way it is.

In a curious twist of bending trail, our Support Team now joins us on our hike. One is Shortcut and he does not like to hike. The other, who as of yet, does not have a true PCT trail name, for now is called Backpack. Roots, who quit at White Pass has no choice but to hike as we will not leave her behind.

The Man in Charge was leery of dropping us off in the middle of nowhere but we have plotted out potential bail-outs along the way if things go bad. Several weeks have passed since pulling off trail at White Pass and I am better prepared this time. But that means nothing and I know it. I don’t talk about it with the Man in Charge, but I know I still have much to learn about trail life.

I wave goodbye with what I hope looks like confidence. There’s no point in showing I am nervous. We are to hike southbound, thru-hiker lingo, “SOBO.” This is the section of trail that was bypassed several weeks ago when record high temperatures and armies of mosquitos chased us off course. We are headed to Cascade Locks, 67.7 miles away. It is afternoon and time is short with a long way to hike to my target camping spot tonight. I run to catch up with the others.

The way is rough here. Sections of rocky, crooked trail turns into an obstacle course as the five of us work as a team to help each other climb over, or crawl under, the fallen trees that are everywhere. Some parts of the trail are so bad, that detour options include pushing our way through young forest growth with trees so close together, their branches act like rubber-bands, pushing back so we cannot move forward. A mile or so and it occurs to me that something is not quite right. Already I am lost. The trail we are on is not the PCT. I lead everyone back to somewhere close to our starting point and discover that the PCT routes parallel to the unknown trail we are on. We hop on over tall grass and scrub to land where we are supposed to be, and begin to hike on a much smoother path.
In the sun, it is hot and that is good. It keeps the mosquitos away. But the trail winds it’s way through the trees and the mosquitos are there waiting. I know better this time. Everyone has long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and face nets. Bugles is dressed in a full length mosquito net suit that covers him from head to toe. We hike on…

Spirits are high this afternoon. Roots, Shortcut, and Backpack talk as they walk, Bugles joins in from time to time when he is not busy holding conversation with himself or intent on asking his questions over-and-over. The open grassy areas get smaller, and the trees get thicker. The trail we follow winds in a rolling up and down pattern through the forest. Every once in a while, there is a hole in the trees, and mountains hobnobbing with blue skies peak through. After hours of viewing only firs and pines, splash-painted a thousand shades of green, keeping an eye out for such holes becomes a welcomed habit.

The Man in Charge and I had talked strategy before the hike. With 16.8 miles between Road Forest 24 and Road 60, and where he is to meet us the next day, the best case scenario is to hike as near to 10 miles as possible this afternoon. I hope to make Blue Lake which will leave us 6 miles to hike in the morning. It doesn’t take long to realize that the chance of this happening is getting slimmer by the second. Backpack and Shortcut lag behind and it is getting to be that time when the sun hangs low. They cheer when they see a lake come into view on the right but it is not Blue Lake. According to the map, it is the much smaller Bear Lake and really not much more than a pond. We stop for dinner.

The mosquitoes find us. They must be as hungry as everyone else as they buzz their way through our head nets. Bugles is getting bit around the ankles of his net suit and the mosquitoes decide that our hands are just as good as dessert. Fixing dinner, filtering water, while trying to avoid anymore mosquito bites turns into some kind of weird backpacker dance, hopping first on one leg, and than the other, our arms slapping random body parts at odd moments. We eat quickly.

I want to keep on hiking. There is still a little bit daylight left and we are not afraid to use our headlamps if needed. Roots is eager to move as well. So we climb away from the lake and back on the trail. It is a short hike. The trail curves around the hillside, the lake disappears, and I realize it is much darker than it is light. I remember the mistakes I had made the last time on trail. I know better and call off on going any further, turning everyone around instead to head back to the lake to camp for the night.

We find a flat area in the trees, high on a slope that looks out and down over the water. I am grateful because it is across the lake from where I notice a solitaire tent quietly settled on the shoreline. I think it is best not to camp too close. Bugles’ voice echoes and he is not up for whispering. I feel bad that our loud group may be disturbing the hiker’s solitude. But there is nothing I can do. It is a while before the laughter and the in-and-out bulging walls of the inside of Bugles’, Shortcut, and Backpack’s tent subside from all their goofing around. Somehow, everyone quiets down. I am not sure how they sleep as I do not. Mosquito bites burn my legs for the rest of the night as I discover that my tent is not in anyway mosquito proof.

I am awake when the dark turns light and it is morning. We are once more on the trail, not an easy thing, after almost two hours trying to get camp broken down, repacked and breakfast made. Maybe we walk fifty feet when we run into a couple named Ridgeroute and Shortcut. “Hey, I know you!” I exclaim while they look on in surprise. I had met both of them several months prior while hiking at Baden-Powell, a mountain in California. Meeting up with them again is “selfie” worthy and we wish them well after our pictures are taken. They hike north. We hike south.

It is hot. The mosquitoes follow us. Backpack lags behind and Shortcut’s rain pants are falling off. Roots wants to go on ahead but I tell her she has to be a part of the team. Bugles is talking to himself. Hours pass and I realize that the chance that had been getting slimmer by the second the night before is long gone. We are not going to meet the Man in Charge at the time we had planned for this morning.

We reach Blue Lake and know instantly that it would have been a way better place to camp the night before instead of Bear Lake. It is windy, crispy cold, and the lake is as turquoise-clear as can be, nestled on three sides by steep, rocky mountain edges. The water ripples along a dirt bank that we stop and climb down to filter water at. The mosquitos are mysteriously gone.

We keep going on the trail that slides down a mountain and we hike through a burnt up forest. The blackened trees stand like uneven bundles of telephone poles, the ash-dirt of the trail curving in switchbacks that lead us through desolate and strangely beautiful destruction. Roots gets her way and moves so far ahead that she is now gone, taking Backpack with her. I think this is strange because Backpack has been hiking unbearably slow all morning but obviously not so, anymore. Shortcut and I discuss how this makes us feel and I wonder when it is Roots will reappear. This will happen an hour or so later.

The hot day gets hotter and I am reminded of our hike from Chinook Pass to White Pass. I know we will not run out of water again. I have made sure of that, we are all hiking water-heavy. We trudge through meadows with little shade on a muddy-trail that forks two ways. I am lost as to which direction to go and everyone except Bugles is put out when we hike back and forth several times in both directions just to make sure the Garmin map is showing the correct way to go.

Lunch is water poured into Mountain House Chili Mac and Cheese. Bugles, Shortcut, Backpack, Roots, and myself with all our gear are sprawled crazy all over the trail. Roots is disgruntled with the heat and mosquitos, throws her body around as she loudly yells that she hates this hike again. I realize a change is in order.

The disappearance of Roots and Backpack several hours earlier concern me. I know it is highly likely that Roots, in her think-for-herself-way, will choose to do the same thing again. There is a potential of danger for all of us if this choice is made. Listening to her yell, I make a final decision that I am going to be leaving two, maybe three hikers with the Man in Charge and continue on to Cascade Locks without them.

Maybe an hour later, while heading down a mountain slope, the Man in Charge appears out of trail-nowhere to hike the rest of the way to our meeting point. There is a group of northbound thru-hikers eating lunch. Easy is their hiker-life that they sit and talk as if they have known each other for life. Roots and Backpack will stay with the Man in Charge. Shortcut astonishes me when he decides he wants to hike on with Bugles and myself. “I don’t want to let the team down,” he says. “Let’s do this,” he exclaims bravely, his heart gleaming gold in his kind eyes.

We leave the rest and hike through big boulders, a trail of sand, the sparse trees and it is hot. But a small miracle, the mosquito armies are gone, and we do not see them for the rest of the summer. Bugles is content with Shortcut who is easygoing. We stop for spring water that flows ice-cold out of a pipe onto the trail and than we stop again to talk to a thru-hiker named Tinker who looks like a forest elf with his flowing white beard and hiker garb. He speaks of the way of the universe and whatever happens is meant to be, than claps his hands together twice, holding palms out towards us. Maybe this is his way of saying farewell as he than magically disappears to follow his destiny. The afternoon changes to evening, we find ourselves in the best camping spot ever, near a mountain called Huckleberry and we think we would like to stay the night. We face one way and Mount Adams gleams white in the blue sky to the north. If we decide to go on our way forward, Cascade Locks is that much closer. We choose to keep going.

There are more camping spots, this time, flat areas on high cliffs with awe-inspiring views of Mount Hood and the mountains to the south. Bugles and Shortcut are unimpressed or leery of setting up our tent so near sheer and certain death drop-offs. We eat dinner staring at Mount Hood in a leveled out spot high up on another mountain. It is windy, much cooler than earlier in the afternoon and the skies are clear and blue though it will soon be night.

We are satisfied when we finally do stop for the evening. We find a camping spot overlooking the trail not far from one of several forest roads that we pass along the way. We set up our tent without the outer covering so we can see the stars. We laugh as we imagine that we have just seen a UFO. There is a rustle in the woods that we say may or may not be a bear or cougar. We know we have five miles to hike the next morning to meet the Man in Charge once more in a place called Panther Creek. Shortcut is proud of the miles he has hiked so far. Bugles is happy Shortcut is with us and I stare up at the stars when they are asleep, at peace with what life IS when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

-Chris…

 

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