PCT Mile 2321.3 (Day 8)
Hiking Washington State’s Pacific Crest Trail
Chinook Pass to 2390.6-Snoqualmie Pass
-69.3 miles going NOBO
The highway weaves in and out far below, snaking around the mountain and the trail we hike on. I know it continues through the canyon in a roundabout path that bypasses White Pass, eventually falling out of the mountains and into the dry, rolling hills of high desert. When that happens it will be a long way from here. The truck is out of sight, somewhere in the middle of all that. Backpack, Roots, and The Man in Charge are on their way home. We will see them again in three days.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” The Man in Charge had asked four hours earlier. It was a reasonable question. We were both concerned about the forest fires that continued to grow in number and size all over the state. Smoke had been the color of the sky for several weeks. Add in the thunder storm forecasted for the Cascades over the weekend, it was fair to question the safety of continuing the hike at this time.
I looked out the window and up at the sky often as we drove towards Chinook Pass. The air was clearly still a chunky-ash mess and we were heading straight toward a forest fire that was burning two miles out of White Pass. The possibility of lightning had me spooked and this was to be our longest stretch hiking without any support. The Man in Charge started grilling me on what to do if we found ourselves caught in a fire while out in the middle of Cascade nowhere. I couldn’t deny the apprehension I had along with the excitement as we started driving into the mountains, the trail getting closer. I told him I was sure…
“We are BACK on the PCT!” Bugles chants. He is happy. His backpack is slightly crooked as usual, and he keeps taking his hat on and off. I am impressed. He has yet to drop it in the dirt of the trail. Shortcut, now Braveheart, replies, “Let’s do this… “ He is wearing his usual smile and is confident after completing the sixty-nine mile stretch south from Forest Road 24 to the Bridge of Gods several weeks ago.
Behind us the parking lot of Chinook pass is already far enough away to look small in the distance. Ahead, the trail leads straight as far as I can see, sliced flat into the side of the mountain. I know it won’t be long before we will be climbing up, over, and into the back country of the Cascades. For the first time this summer, we go north, instead of south. We are on our way to Snoqualmie Pass.
The trail is busy. A man followed by a woman in a dress and flip flops, holding the hand of a small boy step off the path to allow us to pass. We say thank you as we hike by. An older couple with a dog trotting at their feet, move off to the side, making room so that we do not have to stop for them. We pass several more groups of people who follow the same pattern. There seems to be a level of respect for hikers carrying backpacks such as ours. They look at us curiously. I wonder if they believe we are genuine, PCT thru-hikers.
We hike the trail cut into the steep side of the slope. The trees are sparse, though there is enough scrub that I think it would certainly break a fall if one of us slips off trail. If not, than it might be a long way to roll down because I cannot see where the fall would end. It’s a surprise when the trail bends inward and we are in a forest. Our path now spirals through tall trees. Somebody is calling out for a lost friend. His voice echoes on and off until finally, we no longer hear him. We pass two young men, day-hikers from the looks of it. Their packs look more like school backpacks which sling sloppy from the back of their shoulders. We hike on and than there are two more men and a woman. They are swinging water bottles in their hands. They do not carry packs and look like they are out for a Sunday walk. The parking lot at Chinook Pass had been full of cars, so the trail being busy was to be expected. Still it was strange to see so many. For up until today, meeting other hikers had been few and far between.
The trail leads us to a bowl-shaped clearing surrounded almost all the way around by razor-sharp mountain peaks towering above us. I think how we might have to climb over them soon. There is a small but pretty lake in the middle of the clearing. “Good place to filter water,” I comment to Braveheart who agrees with me. We pass a thru-hiker who has the same idea. Kneeling with his back to us, he makes his Sawyer Squeeze bag glide through the lake’s surface with a sweeping motion of his hand and arm. It is the way to fill the bag with enough water so one can filter easily. We continue along the trail as it curves to the right and than around the lake. From here, we can still see the thru-hiker. In the distance he looks very small, the mountains that much bigger, and I’m back to thinking about when and how it is, we will hike over them.
Bugles announces that he has to go to the bathroom. HIs loud manner attracts the attention of a large gathering of young people sitting by the water. They stare at us. I wonder why it is they do not have the same manner of acceptance that we have experienced with the thru-hikers we have met so far. I shrug my pack off and Braveheart does the same. We get busy filtering water and are almost done by the time Bugles wanders happily back.
“Great camping spot,” I point out to Braveheart. There is a flat area at the bottom of a small hillside by the water’s edge, straight in front of us. Three or four colorful tents are pitched among trees limbed high. Campers sit in chairs and the sound of their laughter floats our way. Behind us, on a small knoll up high, there is a tent and a hammock is strung. We don’t see anyone there but we can hear their voices. A glance at my map to note that we are at Sheep Lake. A short hike from the parking lot and yet secluded in the wilderness, it is beautiful here. It is easy to understand how and why this would be a popular place to camp in the summer. We move on…
The trail begins to climb. We pass several more groups of day hikers before there are no more. The last two we pass stop to brief us on how long it will take to get to the top. “I’m Bugles and Cream and I am a PCT hiker,” Bugles exclaims. I can tell these hikers are not as impressed about Bugles’ claim to fame as the thru-hikers we have met so far on the trail. But Bugles doesn’t notice and happily rambles on, busy discussing with himself how awesome it is to be a PCT hiker.
We keep hiking on rocky switchbacks that zig zag up one of the sharp-edged mountain peaks. Below us, Sheep Lake now looks little and we pass an older woman on a section hike that tells us that her brother thru-hiked the entire PCT a couple of years prior. The trees are once more sparse but there are wildflowers spraying the mountainside purple, blue, and velvety-red. The granite gray and white of the mountain ridges blends with the blue-gray smoke color of the sky. We finish our zig-zags as the trail pops up and over a saddleback cutting into the jagged peak we are on.
Bugles, Braveheart and I stop here. There is a enough room to sit on a rocky ledge overlooking the bowl-shaped clearing far below. We can look the razor-sharp mountain peaks that towered above us when we were at the lake, almost in the eye. Far to the south, the mountains unroll, layer after layer of green, blue, and than purple. There are two thru-hikers, a young man and young woman, sitting with their backs to us. They take in the view and somehow I know their hike takes them south, not north. I snap a picture. It’s not until much later that I see a photo on Instagram. It is of the same couple in the same pose with their backs to the camera. Their picture on Instagram will be taken several days or more from now, somewhere near Goat Rocks, south of White Pass.
I turn around because there is so much more to see. There is a grooved path cut in the ledge of red rock that is this cliff. We stand there and face east, looking in the direction that the Man in Charge would have been traveling on his way home. The highway is invisible from here but one can see the canyon and layers upon layers of more mountains. This time different shades of blue and gray define where one mountain begins and another leaves off. Braveheart ventures out on the ledge to take a look. I think it is safe for the amount of rock that rises up almost like a natural bannister from where he is standing. To fall off the other side would be a sheer drop-off down a granite-red and pink cliff that faces north.
I am nervous and am glad when Braveheart steps back down to where Bugles and I are standing. The older woman on a section hike appears. She takes off her backpack to rest a while. I ask if she would mind taking a picture of Braveheart, Bugles, and myself. She fumbles with my phone and than hands it back to me. I do not have the heart to tell her that she has captured Bugles frozen-in-time. One of his many facial expressions when he has tics is now immortalized. It is not a picture that will one day end up framed and on the wall. But it still means something…
I look at the tilted, slightly skewed photo more closely. A middle-aged mother slash grandma with a hippie-braid and hair in her eyes, a grown son, his smile turned smirk with the tics he cannot control, and the teenage son, who up to a couple of weeks ago, had no interest in hiking. We are bigger in the picture than the pointed mountains painted in swirls of chocolate chip and mint colors behind us. There is no doubt we are a motley bunch. But there’s a look about us. We stand with ease, smiles on our faces. It makes me think we are exactly where we are supposed to be.
“We’d better get going,” Braveheart says. He puts his arm around me to take a better look at the picture on my phone. I know he is right. We have a long way to go. Together we make sure Bugles’ backpack is on correctly. Shouldering our own packs, we wave goodbye to the woman and are on our way.
The trail cuts the slope in half. It is so as far as I can see. Rugged rocks drape the top of the mountain that shadows where we walk. I believe the trail will roll over the gap in the distance that this mountain makes with the next. I am wrong. Instead we descend on hair-pin turns and downward straights to another bowl-shaped valley. Before we can get to the bottom, the trail goes up again. A long time goes by. Than over a ridge, and from across the canyon, views of the other sides of the jagged mountain peaks we have seen all afternoon
“See…way over there? That is were we stopped to take the picture,” I point out the saddleback that we had been at earlier. It is very far away. Looking across the immenseness of the canyon makes Braveheart and Bugles feel good. It tricks them into thinking they have already hiked a lot of miles. The wind is strong here where we stand. There is a flat area to camp in the middle of trees facing the canyon and the mountains. “This would be a great place to camp,” says Braveheart. It’s become a game, to point out the best camp spots along the way. The ones we know we will not stop at. Braveheart is right. It is a perfect spot. But there is still a lot of daylight and we move on.
We hike to another ridge and stop to eat. It is cold and the wind is blowing. There are no trees here and we can see for miles in a 360 degree view around us. I shiver as I rummage through my backpack to find my down jacket. I look through Bugles’ packsack to find his as well. Braveheart takes care of himself.
I grab one of the dinner meals that I had packed for Bugles.’ It was one of the MRE’s that the Man in Charge had insisted we use. Braveheart and Bugles laugh as they open each mystery package of food. Spicy cheese for a pair of crackers. BBQ sauce to put on beef ribs that are, god only knows, how old. Mashed potatoes, hot chocolate that I mix cold, and a chocolate chip cookie that Bugles declares he has dibs on. I tell him it’s only fair to share if he’s expecting to eat some of the M&M’s that I packed in Braveheart’s dinner. Neither Braveheart nor Bugles wants the MRE Vanilla Latte drink mix which is just fine with me. I’m happy to drink it as I scoop out chunks of my meat stick with a spoon, my pocket knife being too dull to cut anything.
“Is that smoke?” I ask as we hike up and to the left side of another ridge. To the north I can see what looks like smoke clouds rising up and spilling over a much higher mountain slope. “No, it’s only clouds,” Braveheart reassures me. But I am not sure. “I think that’s smoke,” I mutter to myself. I go over what the Man in Charge told me about knowing where my escape routes are. I look back behind us, wondering if we should turn around and hike the ten miles or so back to the parking lot. My imagination runs wild. I am not excited about the prospects of outrunning fire. Bugles is oblivious to my concern, happy as he talks how much he loves this hike to himself.
We keep going as the trail rounds the mountain we are on and heads north towards the clouds. There is a canyon below us with miles and miles of blue mountains to the southeast. An army of more clouds march towards us in the sky. “Are you sure that’s not smoke,” I ask. My heart thumps crazy in my chest. “Mom… I know what smoke looks like. Those are just clouds,” says Braveheart. He is confident. I am not. I use my Garmin to message the Man in Charge. I ask if there are any new fires in the Cascades. The reply I get is no. “I told you mom,” Braveheart say. “We are going to be ok.”
I am uneasy but we hike on. The trail winds it’s way into a forest that is no more. Tall and darkened gnarls of what used to be trees lurk still, their trunks swallowed down low, into powder smooth, charcoal dirt. The clouds that I still am leery into believing are smoke, curl white tendrils up the mountainside we are on and tangle within the tops of the very dead trees. Forest fire has already lived and died here.
The forest fire must have felt that it couldn’t decide where it wanted to burn. After a few miles the trail hairpins 180 and takes us around an ultra-thin slice of another ridge. We hike in green forest where the grass is tall. I look a long way down to where the hillside of grass meets a line of trees. It makes me uncomfortable hiking on steep, dangerous sections like this. I’ve developed a weird habit of wondering what would happen if one of us accidentally falls. This time, I’m comforted to imagine that the tall grass would easily break almost anybody’s fall. It’s not an idea I’d like to test. But it helps me move on without being afraid.
We hike and hike some more. We see two lakes far below and for a while everything with all it’s green growth reminds me of Switzerland. The mountains like giants loom high above us and gleam red and pink with the setting sun. Another ridge and we hike down off a mountain. The sun is gone now. Bugles says it is time to camp. We pass four young men going the opposite way. They are not carrying backpacks and I wonder how they plan to spend the night without gear. They stare at Bugles when he loudly announces four times and again it is time to camp. I tell Braveheart that this would be a really good time to speed up our hike.
The valley is semi-flat with rolling little hills. The tops of the Cascades slice the sky in sawtooth patterns above. We pass by a lime-yellow colored tent set close to the trail between a tree or two. Bugles is getting louder demanding in a never-ending mantra that we must stop and camp. I let him know that we most likely just woke up whoever is in the tent that we just hiked by. This does not register with Bugles. He just keeps getting louder.
The little hills dip into a downward slope. There is a curious circle of thick fir trees, another perfect place to camp. Except that a large group of people have already figured that out. The red, orange, yellow, and blue colors of their tents make it look like they’ve decorated for a party. Laughter and conversation echo up from where they are to where we are on the trail. Bugles is insistent that we camp with the random group of strangers. There is no use explaining that inviting ourselves into their space and setting up camp is beyond awkward so I simply say, “Not going to happen…”
But we need to camp soon. It is still light but the sun has set and a breeze is quick to carry a chill. According to my map, water in the form of a seasonal stream is near. We stop to look for it. Bugles shrugs off his pack and dumps it into the dust cloud that puffs out of the trail where it falls. Braveheart and I hear running water and scramble down the hill and below the trail to find it. Tucked into a nook of earth, water pours out of the ground and through a curved leaf spout. It looks like something out of a make-believe world. We shiver with cold as we hurry to fill our water bottles. “I want to camp HERE!” Bugles’ announces loudly and several of the campers below begin to stare at us. I promise him if he just puts his backpack back on and starts walking, the very next camping spot we find is ours.
We hike around a bend in the hillside and than into another clearing. To the right of us are more brightly-colored tents, hiker-colonized in a cluster of trees. Clothes dangle from branches. For sure hung to air out for the night. All is silent and I think it is probably because these hikers, unlike the party of people camped in the trees below the water and the curved leaf spout, are thru-hikers and are already asleep for the night. Bugles is determined to camp amongst this group of tents but I say, “No, not going to happen” one more time.
“Over there,” Braveheart points to the left. I can tell fire burned through this area some time ago. Most likely the same one that created the blackened, gnarled trees that we had hiked through earlier. It is strange how the fire’s path has burnt miles of mountains and valleys, yet leaves so much untouched. The thick wedge of lush-green, forest trees that the hikers camp in on one side of the trail is in complete contrast to the twisted blackness of burnt trees that we see before us. Bugles breaks into a run to get there.
“I WANT to camp HERE! Say, can we put our tent up HERE?” Bugles is in overload mode as he asks me the same question again and again. I can see that he is trying to keep quiet. But his whisper is getting louder as he speaks. He is also shivering and that is unusual. He rarely feels the cold. I go through his backpack and find his down jacket again because he had taken it off earlier. I make sure he puts it on.
Braveheart has the tent laid out, and is getting the poles ready. “Here, let me do it,” Bugles says. Surprised, I look into Bugles’ earnest blue eyes. “It’s my tent, I want to help,” he continues, and picks up the stakes. I step back out of the way. Braveheart grins as he jokes with Bugles as they work together. I am grateful for whatever it is in this second, that Bugles is free of his OCD and tics. It is easy to see that he is pleased with himself when they are done. It is good to see him ‘be so.
Our tent stands in the midst of eerie beauty, skeleton trees surround us. Stars are growing bright in the sky. The ground is soft, dark-charcoal ash mixed with earth. When we take off our shoes, the still-warm dirt clings to our toes. It is cold now and we scramble to get inside and are quick to warm in our sleeping bags. Braveheart is asleep almost at once. Bugles surprises me by quieting down and than he too is asleep. Alone with my thoughts, I am deeply aware that being back on the trail brings me peace. I hear a howl in the distance. I imagine it might be a wolf. It is more likely to be a coyote. I am not afraid…