A trail of cards

One of Jake’s cards

From time to time on trail, I have found a little green envelope on my backpack.

Inside there is a card with a message from Jake.

“Let’s go hiking!” says one.

Jake has been giving me these cards since we celebrated our two-year anniversary on trail.

As our mileage has increased, the cards’ messages reflect that intensity.

“Let’s do 34.2!” says another card.

They always make me smile. I have saved them in a ziplock bag.

As we hiked into Tuolumne Meadows in late September, that bag was buried deep in my backpack, safe from the rain and freezing temperatures of the high Sierra Nevada mountains.

Walking into Tuolumne Meadows

Tuolumne was a significant milestone for us. We both hiked the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2015. That was before we met. We bonded over tales from that hike. It has always felt like an important part of our story.

As we hiked out of Tuolumne Meadows, Jake teased me that another card was coming by showing me the corner of a green envelope in his pocket. Throughout the morning and midday, we hiked the miles up to Donohue Pass.

After the pass, the trail turned from switchbacks through vertical, almost hanging gardens to a winding path through a lush convergence of creeks and streams. I remember that meadow from the JMT. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. But like all the best places it’s not easy to get to.

The last of flowers of the season

We still had another pass to climb before camp.

As we came over its rise, we saw an expansive lake dotted with islands. The still water reflected the pink light of sunset behind Banner Peak, which was still dotted with snow from the winter. I had stopped at Thousand Island Lake on the JMT in 2015. Jake had camped there that year. He was looking forward to camping there this time.

Thousand Island Lake

We hiked a few hundred feet off the PCT to find a tentsite. Jake found an amazing spot on a spit of land by the water. The sun was just setting as he staked out the tent. I fired up our stove and started boiling water to heat up a packet of Punjabi potatoes — one of a few dinner items left at Tuolumne Meadows Store.

The sunset

The water hadn’t yet boiled when Jake walked a couple of steps toward the lake and said, “Come over here. Look at the sunset.”

“It’s OK,” I said, focused on dinner. “I can see it from here.”

“No really,” he said. “It’s better over here.”

I figured I should probably check out whatever was over there.

I got to my aching feet and walked the few steps over to him. He had the green envelope in hand.

“The card!” I said.

I opened it.

And then he got down on one knee.

I was stunned: The sunset, the lake, the ring.

I looked at Jake and our whole relationship flashed before my eyes — meeting in Mexico City, our first hike, that time my apartment flooded and Jake came over to help, and so many other memories.

The feeling overwhelmed me and I started crying and hugged Jake.

“You have a drip on the end of your nose,” he said, laughing.

And there we were laughing and crying, snot-covered and engaged.

Riders on the storm

Jake captured this moment in the winter wonderland heading down from the trailhead to South Lake Tahoe

“There’s a red flag warning,” Jake was checking the weather and speaking in the measured tone of a person who is definitely not freaking out.

We were already 23 miles into the day. And 68 miles from the trailhead closest to South Lake Tahoe.

“What?” I said. I had checked the weather earlier in the week and saw that it might rain, but a red flag means a storm.

“Wind gusts of 75 miles per hour… damaging winds,” Jake went on reading. “Snow showers… accumulation of three to five inches.”

It seemed impossible. The late summer sun had warmed us all day. The sky was a delicious blueberry.

Sun before the storm

We checked other sources. We checked other locations. They looked worse.

We exchanged glances. We expected storms. Jake and I hiked through the Sierra Nevada on the John Muir Trail in 2015 before we knew each other. We expected storms but not for another week or two. Plus we had been booking it for three weeks just to get to that spot. We had been keeping up with hikers far faster and far stronger. We were tired and ready for a day off.

We quickly agreed we would hike as far as we could that day and the next day.

A few hours later, we sat at picnic tables at Donner Pass, named for another set of ill fated travelers. We made dinner there and discussed our options. We searched online for what high wind feels like. Somewhere around 45 mph walking becomes difficult; around 60-70 mph trees can be uprooted. We found a bailout point “if things get really bad” about 28 miles ahead. Then we hiked on, hoping for the best. It was midnight when we laid out our sleeping quilts to cowboy camp under a nearly full moon and howling wind. We had hiked our longest day at nearly 37 miles.

Jake woke me at 6 in the morning as pink crept into the horizon. It was time to get up. The wind was already picking up over Tinker Knob. Another ridge beyond found us bracing against our trekking poles.

Windy but sunny

By the time we reached the “bailout point” that afternoon, the wind had died down a bit. Some friends caught up to us. They were discussing the possibility of hiking all night to avoid the storm. At this time we were in blazing sunshine. A sign declared 32 miles to the trailhead. We could do that mileage in a day easily but not after already hiking 20 miles.

Jake and I decided to press on for a few more hours. We would hike until 9 pm, set up our tent, sleep until 4 am, and hope that the storm hit an hour or two later than forecast.

We cooked dinner with the last of our fuel that night and set up in the most protected section of forest we could find. At one point, in the middle of the night I opened my eyes and saw that outside the tent, the trees were swaying in all directions. I closed up the tent and awoke before my alarm at 3:50. I began stretching my legs for the trail ahead.

We were up and out quickly. Hiking in the dark, we made our way toward Dicks Pass at 9,376 feet. The wind picked up. It threatened to knock us over at points.

Storm clouds gather

Off in the distance, I saw a bank of clouds galloping toward us. For the rest of the day, “Riders on the Storm” cycled through my head like a dirge. At the top of the pass, we ran into the first couple of hikers we saw that day and there was enough cell signal to check our fantasy premier league teams and text family.

On the way down, we stopped for peanut butter and jelly tortillas. I don’t even like PB&J. At this point on the trail, I eat anything. The break spot was sheltered from the wind and even sunny. We ran into a couple of hikers we hadn’t seen since Oregon. It was a strange reunion in the midst of impending doom. The sun gave us a false sense of security.

Hiking on, we ran into more people on long weekend excursions. We hiked past glorious lakes lined by fireweed and paintbrush. The wind whipped our cheeks and clouds gathered. Just after Lake Aloha, hail began to fall. Then it became rain, then sleet, then snow. We were still two hours from the trailhead… two hours ahead in wet snow. Faster than I’ve ever experienced, the snow began to stick. The temperature was dropping. It coated granite and turned dirt trail into a river. I began to panic. I couldn’t get warm. My beanie and down jacket were in my pack. I wasn’t thinking straight.

Jake stopped me to put on more layers and we resumed the climb. We slipped over rocks and hoped we could make it to the trailhead before our resolve dissolved. We skidded past other hikers. We slid in ever accumulating snow, seeking out the trail as it disappeared before our eyes.

Finally we made it to the trailhead. Looking for a hitch, we saw a section hiker getting into a Jeep. Jake dashed over to ask for a ride. The driver warned us that his Jeep was a convertible but we were just happy to be on the move. Less than an hour later we were washing the dirt off our feet and planning our town meals.

In the end we hiked 90 miles in two and a half days. We got to town tired, soaked and hungry but glad to be dry.

Lost dog

It was drizzling as we came up the hill, but we felt buoyant. We were heading into Ashland, Oregon for our first day off in 11 days.

And then we saw him: a dog.

Looking lost

At first glance, we couldn’t tell if he was friendly or grumpy.

His head was lowered and he was standing in the middle of the trail. Either he was lost or blocking the way.

I held out my hand to give him a sniff.

He obliged and then I scratched behind his ear.

He greeted Jake, as well, looking forlorn.

He had the coat of a mutt but a collar told us he must have a home.

We looked around. Although that section of the trail was close to Interstate 5, we couldn’t see any houses nearby.

“Hello? Has anyone lost a dog?”

No one replied.

“Do you think he’s thirsty?” Jake asked.

We had filled up on too much water at a spring 12 miles back.

I grabbed my titanium dinner cup from the back pocket of my backpack, and Jake filled it with water. The dog sniffed the cup. He didn’t need water.

“Too bad we don’t have any food!” I said.

The dog wasn’t skinny but had the look of a someone looking for a snack.

Unfortunately, we had nothing left.

I had eaten my last Snickers bar (not really suitable dog food anyway) a couple of hours before. Jake has shared some of his last Snickers with me at lunch. All that we had in our food bags were empty ziplocks and trash.

It was about 4 pm. We were in the last miles of a 25-mile day. We were heading toward a side trail that would take us to a lodge and restaurant and freeway to Ashland.

So we walked on. The dog took a few steps in our direction. We hiked on and he ran to catch up.

Oh, well, I thought, we have a new friend.

Every so often, he stopped to mark territory, giving the impression he was familiar with the territory. Sometimes he even walked in front of us as if he were showing us the way.

Leading me down the trail

We rounded the corner onto the side trail down the lodge and the freeway that would take us to Ashland. I was sure he would head back then. I looked back. He paused but continued following us.

The side trail sloped down steeply. At one point I felt a weight fall against my leg.

“Oh! He fell down!” I cried.

The dog’s legs had given out on the steep terrain and he had slid into my leg and trekking poles.

I started to worry. What are we going to do if we can’t find his owner? Big sections of the trail have bans on dogs. We knew a hiker who had a service dog, but that took paperwork and lots to training. I ran a few scenarios through my mind — none of them favorable. Then I put it out of my mind. “The trail provides.” The refrain I’ve heard so often since we started this hike flashed through my mind. A solution will present itself, I thought. I just don’t know what it is yet.

Within seconds, the dog was back on his feet again. We crossed a set of railroad tracks and had to redouble our steps as we momentarily followed the wrong trail. Through it all, man’s best bud trotted along behind us. I wondered if he, too, was imagining a new direction — abandoning his home for a life on the road with two homeless travelers. And then I remembered: he was a canine. He probably just thought we were going to feed him.

Crossing the railroad tracks

Finally we reached the road, which was really the off ramp of the I-5. We crossed it in the rain. And only here, the dog hesitated. There weren’t any cars but he seemed afraid of the road.

Eventually he mustered up the courage. And it was at that point I heard a car’s breaks.

I stopped in fear for this dog we had met only 30 minutes before. He had followed us. I felt responsible for him.

I whipped around.

The dog was ok. The car’s driver was leaning out the window.

“Bennie!” shouted the driver. “What are you doing down here?”

The dog turned toward him.

The driver knows him!

I walked back toward the white SUV.

“Are you his owner?” I asked.

“I’m the neighbor of his owner,” the driver told me.

“We found him up on the PCT,” I told the driver. “He followed us down.”

“Their property is near there,” the man said, already helping the dog into the backseat of his car next to his small child in a car seat.

It all happened so fast. The dog was found fortuitously — right as we were heading to the lodge and road that would take us to Ashland.

Finding his way home

Jake and I looked at each other in disbelief.

The trail provides was all I could think.

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

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!

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.”