Where there’s smoke…

Drawing water from Timothy Lake

“Do you smell smoke?” Jake asked.

We were hiking around picturesque Timothy Lake in Oregon at about 8 in the morning. It’s normal to see smoke at night but not in the early morning, especially not on warm mornings like that one.

We were about an hour into what we hoped would be a 31-mile day, our longest yet on trail.

Through the trees, we could see a campsite but no tents. Jake went to investigate. A few seconds later, I heard, “The fire is still burning here! Bring your water bottle!”

After a month of cold in Washington, the weather is starting to feel like summer in Oregon. Hot oatmeal and coffee are unnecessary. We now breakfast on granola bars and cold lemonade. We’re using more sunscreen and breaking out our rain gear less often.

Naturally, the dry weather has us on alert for the possibility of forest fires, which in previous years have closed sections of the PCT.

So when Jake told me there was a fire, I rushed over to help him. He was already drawing water from the lake to pour over a smoking section of soil. A poorly extinguished campfire had somehow burned underneath its fire ring and was smoldering along a scar outside the ring. Jake poured a few liters on the scar, and copious steam erupted. The fire went deep.

The smoking scar

I found a stick and started scratching into the dirt to find out what was burning. The fire ring had clearly hosted a huge fire. Large chunks of wood remained inside the ring. They blackened as if campers had poured water on them. The campers were nowhere to be found.

As I scratched at the ground I found still burning embers. The fire had migrated into the roots of a nearby tree. The more water we poured on it, the more it steamed. Because the fire was underneath the tree, it was tough to douse it with water, so I kept digging, trying to expose whatever was still burning.

Eventually, we started separating rocks in the fire ring as well to expose anything still burning below the rocks. Many of the volcanic rocks were still very hot to the touch. They smelled like a sauna and erupted with steam as Jake poured water to cool them down.

Steam coming off the burning roots of the tree

It took us about an hour and somewhere around 50 liters of water, but finally the fire seemed to be out. Tired and dirty, we resolved to hike on.

Just to be safe, I called 911 with the bar or so of cell service on my phone and was put through to the local wildfire dispatch. I was cautious about alarming them or diverting resources for something that was probably not an issue anymore. I told them that, while it wasn’t urgent, it would be good for someone to check on the campsite in a day or so to make sure the fire remained out.

A fireman from the area updated me by text later that day. They had found the spot and the fire appeared to be successfully put out.

It was tough hiking after all that, but the trail was kind to us and seemed to level out. We made it the 31 miles to our campsite, and set up our tent just before dark.

The sun setting on our 31-mile day

Stretching hiker space

Camped with other hikers at Cascade Locks, Oregon

“I’m not sure where to camp,” Jake said.

We we standing in the dark, staring down a dilemma. We had just hiked five miles in the dark to get to a campsite. The campsite was full. The next site was five miles on. The previous site was five miles back. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to camp.

A rare night with a campfire

Before the PCT, this would have been an impossible situation. Five weeks on trail have redefined my sense of what’s possible.

In outdoor activities, there’s a sense of personal space that I will call “hiker space” in this post. Hiker space defines how far you pitch your tent from another hiker you don’t know. It defines with whom you eat your dinner and with whom you hike. Before this trail, if I had a choice, I would set up my tent as far away from other campers as possible. I would eat dinner with people whose names I knew. I would walk with hiking partners. It’s only polite.

We’re hiking the PCT. The rules of etiquette are different. On this trip, my sense of hiker space has morphed and changed more than I expected.

It started the first night on trail.

That night, Jake and I camped at a spot 11 miles from Harts Pass. Two guys were already there, awkwardly chatting and eating dinner at a campfire pit.

We arrived and set up our tent within view of the trail and within spitting distance of the other tents. We took a spot at the campfire pit, started making dinner and joined the conversation.

Twenty minutes later, another guy showed up. He joined the circle after setting up his tent at the last visible tentsite.

Tentsites are flat spots with space for one tent. They are cleared of debris. They’re in greater demand than you might expect along this trail. In any given space in the forest, you might find trees, flowers, downed logs, ferns and other undergrowth. Making a tentsite involves clearing downed trees, branches, and other debris. In most places along the trail, you’re not allowed to camp anywhere near the trail. Even if allowed, it takes a lot of energy to make a tentsite and it can damage the fragile ecosystem. In other words, it’s mostly out of the question.

With the addition of the last hiker. We thought the campsite was full. We were wrong.

All through dinner, more hikers showed up. Some kept hiking, but many squeezed in. They found spaces between tents. They found tentsites we hadn’t noticed. One group of four somehow found space off in the woods somewhere.

The five of us around the campfire pit stared in awe.

During a momentary lull in the conversation, one guy turned to the four of us and said, “This is the biggest social gathering I’ve been to in the last six months.”

At least I wasn’t the only one feeling awkward about the amount of people on trail!

A visitor to our campsite

Last week, when Jake and I showed up after night hiking to a full campsite, we knew it wasn’t full. We found a spot next to the trail across from a tent with a snorer. Hoping the snoring camper would be least likely to be disturbed, we set up our tent as quietly as possible.

And it worked! The snorer droned right through. When we left in the morning, the snorer, who turned out to be a fellow PCT hiker, was just waking up.

“I didn’t even hear you get in,” he said.

We breathed a sigh of relief. Hiker space, such that it is, had been maintained.

Cooking dinner at a campsite south of Stevens Pass

Hello, town. Goodbye, pain.

The final miles are the worst when you’re looking forward to getting into town. We don’t stop often on these runs and this stretch was the longest we’d done, nineteen miles southbound into Cascade Locks.

Town feels next door when you set out at first light on that morning before beer and cheeseburgers. You wake, stir your throbbing feet alive in your quilt and struggle to stretch to touch your toes as you chew into first breakfast. Everyone is buzzing a little about the prospect of food, and food and more food.

Once the initial adrenaline boost dies down, our destination seems to get further away the closer we get. It’s getting hotter and our feet are barking at us like rabid hounds. The 2000 foot climb just to go down 3500 into town seems utterly pointless at times like these. A moment of hiking, staring at scrolling rocks like a manic computer game can be blissful meditation, but today it was all encompassing pain.

We had done this section relatively quickly, keeping up with the hiking machines that flipped from the desert and breaking our own mileage records. We saw hikers we assumed were days ahead. We felt good about our progress and our ability to keep up with the younguns.

But our feet were beaten and bruised. Trail discomfort is something akin to a state of permanent fleeting pain. It might be your heel for five seconds, your achilles for three days or a shin for six weeks: you’re always dealing with some issue that could make you stronger or equally knock you off the trail if you don’t tend to it. Jen calls it “walking the tightrope between adrenaline and injury”.

Due to this increased focus on our bodies and miles, we have struggled to post on the blog. We just haven’t had the time. We’ve gone from 8-12 mile days in the Olympic National Park to 20-27 mile days in the past couple of weeks on the PCT.

In the past seven days we have hiked over 150 miles and in the last two days alone we completed two marathons. This leaves less time for other things as practically every waking moment is focused on walking or preparing for walking.

This focus is necessary though and needs to continue in Oregon as we move towards a comfortable experience in the Sierras, a place we have both hiked before and have no desire to experience in freezing dangerous conditions that are common in October.

Yet we can’t only look to the future too much now, or focus on the pain either. We must enjoy the present, especially this cider that I have in my hand, a breakfast burrito I’ll have tomorrow, a burger and PBR I just had, biscuits and gravy I ate this morning, the free beer that’s coming this afternoon, the showers over there and every other joy town brings.

This is our day off walking and we will enjoy it. A lot. Miles and rocks can wait for tomorrow. Pain takes a back seat for a few days after these trips.

A little cabin in the woods

Thick fog remains even after the rain stops between Snoqualmie Pass and White Pass

There’s a cabin halfway between Snoqualmie Pass and White Pass. On this leg of our journey, that cabin became a kind of holy grail.

We knew it would rain last week, but we walked out of Snoqualmie Pass anyway. Other hikers stayed in hotels and hostels, drying out from the previous section and nursing arches and ankles. But we couldn’t let a couple of days of rain get in our way.

On Tuesday, the rain hit. At first it was only drizzle. Then it became a downpour. The wind picked up.

In a few stretches, we walked under power lines so high in voltage they buzzed. No trees sheltered us, and the rain blew sideways into our faces. Drops battered my jacket, finding my pitzips and soaking my shirt. It was about that moment when I started thinking about the cabin.

The app we use as a trail guide calls it “Mike Urich Cabin & Stream.” From the app we could see the cabin is at mile 305.6 and open for public use. It has a wood stove and a pit toilet or two out back.

The idea of four walls and a roof were intoxicating. A log cabin! It sounded sturdy. It sounded warm.

Then I opened the comments about the Mike Urich Cabin…

A screenshot from the app we use as a trail guide

The app allows users to comment on places along the trail. This comes in handy as the trail can change from week to week — seasonal streams dry up and campsites become buggy.

The reviews about the Urich place were all over the map.

“Watch out for the mice,” wrote one thruhiker.

Mice? I scoffed. There are mice everywhere! How bad can they be?

I read on.

“Nice spot to dry out and do some axe-throwing,” wrote Bearman’s Girlfriend.

In the middle of the downpour, I really focused on the “dryout” part of the comment. Then my eye caught on “axe-throwing.” Were we going to be dodging axes?

Then I read the thread about the “locals.”

“Some locals are here,” wrote one hiker.

“Be prepared that party people may be having their party until 3 a.m.,” commented another.

That, presumably, was a dig at the locals because hikers tent to pack it in around 8 or 9 p.m.

Someone named h.r. filled in the details: “Got here on a Saturday night. Some locals were partying HARD. A 45-year-old man got so hammered that he cried all night while he puked all over the cabin floor.”

“Hey [full name redacted] – did you read h.r.’s comment below? Was that you??? HAHA! Enjoy man!” wrote reddog.

Not only was it the kind of place someone might have a drunken epiphany and toss around axes, it was also the kind of place they’d get called out by their full name!

The cabin’s amenities were no better. The cabin’s wood stove, and biggest selling point might or might not have been attached to a clogged chimney that was ready to “burn the place down.”

And the toilets were likely very, very dirty. Someone whose sole interest, besides thruhiking, is to review toilets on the trail commented, “I’m writing this review from one week later and my nostrils still haven’t recovered.”

To be fair, some people were more positive.

“Pit toilet smells bad but it still beats pooping in the rain,” wrote a well-known hiker who passed us on our first day and is now states ahead of us.

Other people even suggested there was a cooler full of Mountain Dew awaiting us.

The cabin was either a magical dream or a horrible nightmare. Jake was taking everything in stride. He hiked the Appalachian Trail, which I understand is littered with shelters. He still has PTSD from the East Coast mice. So he suggested we “consider” camping near the cabin at a tentsite. I said I would “consider” it.

We eked out 16.8 miles in that rain and were still more than 20 miles from that cabin.

We shivered as we set up our tent. We shivered through dinner. And we shivered as we brushed our teeth. We only stopped shivering when we finally bundled ourselves into our quilts.

Our tent is brand new but has some serious shortcomings: Any condensation that collects on its rainfly falls on us in the middle of the night. When we called Big Agnes to complain about it, they calmly explained that it is an issue they’ve “noted.” Their solution involved using the guy lines and making sure the rainfly is completely dry when we pitch the tent — a perfectly reasonable suggestion for the ultralight car camper and a perfectly ridiculous one when you’re thruhiking in Washington state. We diligently followed their instructions, and still it misted all night inside the tent. We awoke in the morning with a layer of that mist on our down sleeping bags and everything else inside the tent. Every scrap of Jake’s clothing was soaked.

“This is the worst rain I’ve had on any trail,” he said, looking miserable.

I looked at him as he zipped his wet rain jacket over his wet fleece jacket.

“We’re going to that cabin!” I said. “Locals or no locals. Stove or no stove.”

Jake agreed.

We continued to shiver as we ate our oatmeal, brushed our teeth, packed up the sipping wet tent, and trudged through those 20 miles. But we made it to the cabin.

The fabled cabin

The pit toilets were a mess, but at least there was toilet paper, recently replenished by a lovely and totally sober local.

There were only two other people who stayed at the cabin Wednesday night. They went to bed at a reasonable hour.

Mice were maniacal but only woke me up once when they came over to investigate the loft of my down quilt. I squealed. They went away. And they stayed away from our food thanks to an ingenious trick Jake learned on the AT that involved hanging a paper plate between the hooks and our food bags.

Setting up “camp”

And, most importantly, the woodstove worked like a dream. We were able to dry all of our clothes out. And there was no axe-throwing.

Woodstove inside the cabin

***In case you’re wondering, the cabin was built and maintained by a local group of snowmobilers and dedicated to Mike Urich (1888-1957) with this epitaph:

The mountain gods from seats on high

rejoiced to see Mike Urich die

And at his death gave this decree, ‘To all who pass here, know that we

entrust to big Mike Urich’s hands

these camps, these trails, these forest lands

to rule, protect, to love and scan

well as he did while mortal man.

And deal out sentence stern and just

on those who violate his trust.’

Stranger, beware, leave not a fire –

foul not Mike’s camp, rouse not his ire!

A distant rumble

I was half awake at 2am in our camp at Susan Jane Lake aside a retreating bolder covered mountainside that towered a thousand feet above us. Two leaves brushed along the tent fly making semicircular sillouetes for me to stare at while my thoughts went round my head of the days ahead. Everything else in the valley was dead still. Suddenly out of that ocean of stillness came a rapidly approaching rumble.

We had walked out of town after two wonderfully relaxing days of sausage and cider with Jen’s parents in Leavenworth. It was time to get serious with some real hiking in this 70-mile section from Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie. We have to move now, we should be doing 20+ mile days every day till November to make it before the snow comes. My feet hurt just thinking about it.

Our campsite

The problem that day was we left late and weren’t far from civilisation when we decided to camp early due to post-zero day laziness, sore knees and a even sorer Washington apple filled head.

As listened to the rumble I wondered if it was truck shifting down gears on the highway we had crossed earlier and remembered living close to large avenues in Mexico City. But there was a whole mountain between us and the highway. Maybe it was a plane?

I started to slip off to sleep again and as I drifted off I heard the same sound again in the distance. This time it was deeper and louder. It came from the west with a dull but rapidly increasing rumble, then the sound got louder and closer, then sharper as rocks shifted on our valley’s walls.

The adrenaline started surging. We were having an earthquake. My body always reacts faster than my own realisation of what’s going on. After experiencing being in large quakes, your body takes over in future situations. Not much time for rational thought, just enjoy the rush and hope you’re in the right spot.

I heard bolders shift, crack and clack together close to us across the water and at the very same time the floor jolted up. My sleeping pad amplified the wave.

Then it was gone even faster than it came and again it was just me again in my rational thought but with my eyes wide, pressed against my pad and the feeling of four espressos inside.

We found out later that it was a 4.8 and close to the trail. It was the talk of the trail the next morning.

We’re thru-hiking the PCT!

Mount Rainier, as a cloud island, from above the alpine lakes near Snoqualmie Pass (before the rain set in)

“People like you are the reason I come out here!” A trail runner cheered at Jake and me.

We were hiking into Snoqualmie Pass in the rain when we came across a very energetic runner who stopped to ask our trail names.

“We still don’t have them,” we told him.

He was a little disappointed but he stopped to chat with us anyway. He asked us about our favorite sections of the trail so far and told us about a trip he was training for on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier.

Rain had been showering us that morning and we were soggy and tired. But something about his energy and enthusiasm lifted my mood.

Hiking in Washington drizzle

And then came the question:

“Are you hiking to Mexico?”

I’ve been nervous about telling people on trail that I’m hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It is such an audacious declaration like a college freshman declaring she’s getting a PhD. We’ve been officially on trail less than three weeks. I’ve completed less than 10 percent of the trail to date. So when people (day hikers, park rangers, a clerk at the hardware store in Leavenworth) ask if we’re hiking to Mexico, I have generally responded, “I’m trying.” Depending on my resolve at any given moment, “trying” might be paired with a smile or a shrug.

At any given moment I am probably not thinking about the Mexican border but instead our next resupply, the place we plan to camp that night, or on tough days, the next step I’m about to take.

At some point in the last five days (Saturday, to be precise), I crossed from 213.7 miles to 213.8 miles. At that moment, this became the longest I’ve been on an official trail in my life. The John Muir trail is 213.7 miles. I hiked it in 2015 with my friend Maria because it had been on our respective bucket lists and I love Yosemite. I thought the JMT had cured me of long hikes. It turned out to be my gateway drug.

So on Saturday, somewhere overlooking Hyas Lake and the Cle Elum River, somewhere between Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass, when I crossed to 213.8, I decided that I am a thru hiker on this trail.

Canadian monument, mile zero

When the trail runner near Snoqualmie asked if we were hiking to Mexico, I proudly told him, “yes!”

And grateful for his energy and enthusiasm, I added, “People like you are the reason we stay on trail.”

Rescue on Red Pass

Jake crossing a dangerous snow bank earlier in the trail.

“Haaaaaa!”

We heard a voice — very faintly. It seemed so far away — maybe on the other side of the valley. We couldn’t tell how far. Jake and I stood frozen.

We were at the top of Red Pass in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, smack in the middle of what we were told was “the hardest section of the PCT.” We were less than two weeks into the trail, still nursing constant aches and pains. Each little twinge threatened serious injuries like plantar fasciitis or shin splints, but many of which healed after a good night’s sleep or a diligent stretch in the morning.

That day had been punishing. Dense, bone-chilling fog descended on us as we made our way up seemingly endless switchbacks to a mountain pass. After living in Mexico City, I used to scoff at any peak or pass under 12000 feet. But that day, a 6300-foot pass was killing me.

A brief moment of lightness in the fog

Finally we rounded the last bend and wrenched our wrecked hamstrings up onto Red Pass. I nearly collapsed into a puddle, knowing that wasn’t even the last pass we would need to cross that day. It was barely noon.

We emptied our food bags and began to assemble our lunch of tuna and tortillas. While doing so, we chatted with another hiker who had breezed past us on the uphill. She had hiked the Appalachian Trail the year before and had impressed us with her light pack and carefully chosen gear. After telling us a bit about her story, the hiker moved on. Jake and I both commented that she seemed to be such a strong walker, she would probably be days ahead by the time we made it to the next trailhead at Stevens Pass. We were then quickly distracted by a friendly marmot who ran into the pass, only vaguely afraid of hikers.

The marmot atop Red Pass

Then we heard the shout.

“Jen, be quiet,” Jake whispered. “I think I heard someone.”

We waited, but heard nothing. I was cold on the pass so I packed up my trekking poles and buried my hands in my pockets. We hoisted on our backpacks and started down the pass.

After 20 feet, we heard the voice again. It was the same hiker who we had been chatting with moments before. Then we saw her.

She was perched in the middle of a snow bank, hanging on to her trekking pole.

“I slipped,” she called to us. “I’m stuck.”

Jake and I ran over to her.

Ever since we arrived in Washington, we we heard about the north-facing slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Less sun and more exposure meant those hillsides were more likely to have snow. This year, the snow melt was early in the Cascades— we were able to start our hike a few weeks earlier than we expected. For the most part the snow has melted, but it still remains in sections, especially on those northern slopes. Most of the time, it is quite slushy and there are clear footprints showing the way through. But sometimes the snow is steep and drops off at a sharp angle. For those moments, we carry micro spikes. Micro spikes are like crampons but a little bit lighter and a little bit less grippy.

The snow in Glacier Peak Wilderness has melted significantly but hangs on in sections.

As we approached the hiker in the snow bank, we saw a trail of footprints. They rose a few feet above the track of the PCT, which was still covered in two inches of ice. Those footprints told us exactly what had happened. Just three steps across the snow field, one footprint skidded down at a chilling angle. Ten feet below was the hiker. She was stuck on the side of the trail, unable to move from her spot. Below her were several hundred feet of slick snow. The bank was so steep at that point, she was wedged up against the icy track of the PCT. She had managed to reach her micro spikes, but her position was so precarious she couldn’t put them on. And she was too far into the snow field to crawl out.

Hurriedly Jake pulled on his own spikes and rushed over. Before he could reach her, he had to knock ice off the trail first. He slammed his trekking poles into the mud, slinging chunks of ice as he went. Meanwhile the hiker hung on, worried any movement would sent her skidding down the bank.

After several nerve wracking moments, Jake was able to reach her, grab her backpack and pass it over to me. At that point I had my micro spikes on as well, but the ledge Jake was working on was so narrow and mucky, he told me to stay where I was in the muddy — not snowy — section of the trail.

Jake inched closer to the hiker, hacking through slush and ice. When he finally reached her, she was able to shimmy sideways. He grabbed her arm to hoist her up onto the spot he had just cleared of ice, first, in a sitting position and then to her feet. We asked how she was. “Cold,” she told us, “covered in mud, but otherwise fine.”

We took a few moments to collect our thoughts, but there was little time to rest. We still had to cross the same snow drift she had just slipped on.

Crossing a snow field

All three of us in micro spikes venture up along the trail of footprints. Jake went first, kicking in steps as he went along. The hiker went next. I followed after her. With Jake’s steps, the micro spikes and my trekking poles, I felt very secure on the snow. We reached the other side, and the hiker doubled over in visible relief. I felt tears tugging at the corners of my eyes in my own relief for her and us.

We removed our micro spikes and took stock. Suddenly the dense fog that had blanketed us all day parted. I won’t say there were blue skies, but the lightest hint of blue could be seen above the clouds. And finally we saw the view: lush green mountain slopes ahead. We continued hiking, the three of us in a row, as the marmots cheered us on with their high pitched chirps (marmot-call). Eventually, the hiker passed us and went on ahead to camp. We only saw her once after that. She’s probably a day or so ahead of us by now.

**I left the hiker’s trail name out of this post.**