Washington is where I began to fall apart. Maybe my crossing of the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods was an omen– there was a steady drizzle, and I came within six inches of being smeared by an RV– but I kept my spirits high even for the next week or so. Walking along the wet trail, even when no rain fell from the sky, meant I was getting soaked constantly by the car-wash effect (a term coined by my hiking friend, Tangent, referring to the wet leaves that brush against you and soak you with dew as you walk by). Washington made up for the lack of rain in the rest of the PCT.
For the first few days I walked through dense forest, though the skies were relatively clear and the climate was downright tropical. The humidity and heat made me wonder if I really was in the west coast, or if I had somehow teleported back to Maine in the middle of the summer. I caught my last view of Mount Hood in Oregon, and started to see Mount Adams just ahead in Washington. I got one hazy silhouette of Mount Saint Helens one evening, but the next several days were a mixed bag of clouds and fog– we would have some clear vistas near Mount Adams, but soon we would be walking in the clouds for days.
As we approached Mount Adams and watched the summit begin to be enshrouded by clouds, we started encountering several weekend-hikers who told us that we should have had beautiful views of Rainier, Saint Helens, and Adams, not to mention all the minor peaks surrounding us. Everything should have been gorgeous. In fact, having been to this area once before, I knew how beautiful everything was. The mountains in Washington have been one of my favorite places in the world ever since I first saw them a few years ago. Alas, after our few days of clear weather with few views, the clouds came down and surrounded us for the next several days. Even our traverse of the Knife’s Edge in Goat Rocks Wilderness, supposedly one of the most gorgeous sections of the entire PCT, was so thickly enveloped by a cloud that I couldn’t see more than twenty feet ahead of me. It was all I could do to stay warm and somewhat dry.
Even after a half day of rest in Packwood, and then several days of walking through clouds and frigid rain, the bunch of us were miserable but not broken. The day before we arrived at Snoqualmie Pass, about halfway through the state of Washington, we had a miraculous clearing and were able to dry our belongings at an open meadow around lunchtime. Then we ran into a volunteer trail crew who gave us a ton of food and raised our spirits with their kindness. And later that day I stayed with a group from The Mountaineers at one of their backcountry lodges, happy to be indoors despite the better weather. The night before had been so wet and cold that almost everyone agreed it had been one of the worst nights on the trail. “What’s the wettest you’ve been on the trail,” one of the Mountaineers asked us. “Last night,” was the completely truthful reply.
After another restful night in the hotel at Snoqualmie Pass, we awoke to clear skies. Though we had had a few clear days so far, this one day seemed like a miracle. As the rainy days drew on and on, we had begun to wonder if we would ever see anything but fog and rain, but with our ascent into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness we got our first views of Mount Rainier and the rugged mountains of the Cascades. It was beautiful. I can’t even describe how gorgeous those mountains are, but I can say that you must see them on a sunny day in summer. Very few mountains in the US can compare.
By this time I was hiking consistently with Tangent, whom I had met in Northern California, and Tangent’s 1997 hiking partner, Tick. The three of us stuck together for the rest of Washington, and for those days after Snoqualmie Pass we added a large group of hikers known as MeGaTex, a fun-loving group that knows how to keep anyone’s morale high regardless of the conditions. We continued on in this new, beautiful weather for a few days, but on the third day out of Snoqualmie Pass the rain began to fall again, this time harder than ever. We made it into the town of Skykomish, a tiny town with almost nothing to keep us busy, to take shelter from the storms.
At this point we had to make some hard decisions. There were less than two hundred miles left before we got to Canada, but time was closing in. All of the locals we talked to were certain that the early autumn meant there would be snow and rain in amounts that might end our hike. Tales of three-foot blizzards in the middle of September that stranded hikers in the mountains abounded. We had already seen the temperatures dip to the low 30’s while we sat in our tents listening to the rain outside. Rain that cold is more than unpleasant– it’s downright dangerous. Tangent, Tick and I looked at our options, then decided that we couldn’t wait for the weather to get better. It was just as likely for it to get worse, so we decided to make a rush for the Canadian border. We headed back to the trail without MeGaTex, who had decided to take an extra day of rest in Skykomish, and got ready for the last push to Canada. Shin, a Japanese hiker I’d met way back on my third day of the PCT, joined us for the last stretch, and we were a group of four for the last week.
Then things really began to fall apart. The weather had steadied to a cloudy and drizzly constant from Skykomish north, but within a few days we ended up walking through torrential rain for an entire day. Each morning we were soaked with condensation and had to hope for a few moments of sunshine with which to dry our things, but those moments never seemed to come. Halfway between Skykomish and Stehekin, the sun poked out of the clouds a few times during the day, only to hide again as soon as we thought it might be time to dry our belongings. And then it began to rain harder. And harder.
At the end of the wettest day I had hiked alone most of the day through the wet and cold, my camera died because I didn’t waterproof it enough, everything I had was damp from the humidity, my rain jacket was falling apart, and my life was just miserable. I sat down in camp, drank a large mug of hot cocoa, another of hot kool-aid, ate almost all the rest of my candy, then ate two hot dinners before I finally warmed up and could think about going to sleep. That’s it, I decided. If the next few days don’t suddenly and miraculously get sunny, I’m done. I’ll get to Rainy Pass, sixty miles from the Canadian border, and hitchhike to Seattle. I’m done.
The next day was less rainy, but still miserable. My friends along the trail shared my misery, though, and somehow we brought each others’ spirits up a tiny bit. And then our wishes came true. On the morning that we arrived in Stehekin, the final trail town, we awoke to clear, blue skies and cool temperatures. We got a big room at the hotel in Stehekin, warmed up, dried off, ate like kings, and luxuriated with views of the gorgeous Lake Chelan off our porch. With ninety miles to go, even one more day of weather like this was enough for me to take the chance. No more thoughts of bailing out.
From Stehekin we had one more clear day, and then we were back in the clouds. Still, the final few days were beautiful, and I’ve decided I must go back someday. The last days were a different kind of hell, with Shin walking on a sprained ankle, Tick with battered feet, and me with a minor yet infuriating gastrointestinal bug. Then the temperatures dipped below freezing and we awoke to a fresh dusting of snow on two mornings– beautiful beyond compare, yet painfully cold.
Finally, on our last morning, we had an oddly idyllic day sandwiched between two days of icy, frigid rain. We awoke on September 25 aching from a long, hard day of hiking the day before, but the sky was clear and the temperatures were mild. We had nine miles to go, and we covered those miles at a breakneck pace, arriving at the border before we knew it. And that was that. I got there, having anticipated it for so long, and was still surprised when I arrived.
We all walked into Manning Provincial Park, BC, and eventually made our ways to Vancouver, Seattle, and beyond. But that part is a story for later. For now, I was done with the PCT. 2650 miles, give or take, over five months of hiking. My entry in the final register at the Canadian border put it best, I think.
“I walked here from Mexico. What more can I say?”