“I’m going to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring”, I told the Lyft driver as we headed into Portland. She was psyched about my plans and was asking if Jen would be suspicious and if I was nervous.
I’d told Jen that I was going to get a surprise for her as she hung out with her sister’s family. I tried to cover my tracks with small gifts and a series of cards for our second anniversary.
That didn’t justify a mystery trip into town though, so I just played dumb and figured she’d eventually forget.Time went by and the ring’s box sat in bubble wrap, wrapped in duct tape, in the bottom of my important things dry sack. As this bag has my ID and cards etc, it sat on every restaurant table and next to my sleeping bag every night. Jen thankfully never asked about that cuboid shape in the bag right it front of her.
A full 1200 miles and about seven weeks later, the Sierra mountains were at our feet. Now I had to decide where to pop the question.I had quickly given up on the idea of having a spot planned much prior as something could easily get in the way. Then logistical issues came to mind: what time of day would we be there? What about other hikers?! I didn’t want this to be a public show. What about the weather? What to do to celebrate, or otherwise?!
I decided then go for a place I had spent a day at four years before on my John Muir Trail hike. It was only another 6 miles further.
Thousand Island Lake should’ve been number one all along. The pristine lake sits below Banner Peak and is dotted with dozens of small islands. We approached the lake at sunset and found the perfect spot on the lake’s edge.We set up tent quickly by the water just in time to see the last whisps of orange clouds fade and as Jen heated up the Punjabi Potatoes by the tent, it turned out I was really nervous and Jen not at all suspicious.I just about managed to get the box in my hand the right way round and I plopped my knee down into the wet ground and popped the question.
The time that you get back on trail from town positions you just ahead of some hikers and just behind others. Some folks have taken a day off, some just a few hours, and some don’t stop; town gives us hikers a good shuffle.
This is amplified around large towns and when there’s bad weather. Town is like a bottleneck or a vortex in these circumstances and then little newly formed bubbles of hikers are spit out into the wilderness the next day. All with newly stuffed food bags, some are even clean.
The shuffle reveals some old faces and some new and occasionally, somone cool you haven’t seen in a long time. We stop to chat and share stories and plans at spots on trail or simply walk and talk. We leapfrog with hikers for a couple of hours or maybe even days, until the next resupply point.
Previously we used to leapfrog around hikers for a couple of hours and then not see them again as we were the tortoises (who liked days off). We would see their names disappear into the future in the trail registers where hikers sign and date along the trail.
“Oh look, it’s Carjack, she’s 11 days ahead now!”
We had met Carjack by the Canadian border almost 3 months ago and as she had done 800 miles in the desert previously, she promptly disappeared over the horizon and her name got further and further ahead in the registers.
The pattern of seeing names we knew ahead of us became a little too common and we found ourselves needing to up the pace to be in the Sierra by mid-September. This the advised arrival date to avoid bad weather.
The last time I posted, we were a few days into our big 15 day push to gain back some miles we dropped in the lazy days of northern Oregon. Since then we’ve done several 30+ mile days.
During the push we found ourselves scanning registers we came across for names we knew to check our progress against others’.
“Scarecrow, this morning. Jukebox and HanSobo, two days ahead. Dozer he’s three days now, he was four. Carjack, just seven days ahead now.”
This new pattern now continued. We were somehow gaining ground on oher hikers! We walked from dawn to dusk, literally, every day with short breaks to beat the weather. As we got closer, it felt achievable but we were also getting burnt out. The day we left Sierra City was particularly hard on me, then we saw the snow forecast and we needed to do 75 miles in 48 hours to avoid being exposed on a ridgeline in a huge storm.
We hiked long into the night twice and got caught out, just, by the snow storm. We promptly got a ride into town and were very relieved we had been on the southern side of Dick’s Pass.
As I returned to our motel room in South Lake Tahoe later that day, my phone buzzed as we took a well deserved rest day after having hiked 625 miles in 25 days.
“Did I just see you walk across a parking lot in a towel?!!”, the text said. It was Carjack and she was in town. We had caught her up!
I had indeed been in a towel outside (laundry chores) and we agreed to meet for pizza. We toasted our success and shared stories of the trail and then promptly passed out long before normal peoples’ bedtimes.
We made it into our campsite in Mable Mountain Wilderness as dark arrived. The deep oranges still stained the sky behind us on the (now Caifornian) horizon, the blood red sun had been swallowed by mountains stacked in flat layers of ever lighter blues.
Getting into camp just at sunset is a fairly regular occurrence on the PCT, especially as days have become shorter because daylight means walking.
We allow ourselves enough time to go to the bathroom, sleep seven or so hours, brush our teeth, filter water, eat and rub our painful feet a bit but that’s about it. Every waking moment is walking.
In Washington we used to be quite slow risers and tended to get hiking around 8am after eating fancy oatmeal and dried fruit, and a coffee maybe.
Now we’re early risers, typically we get out in twilight and now we hike till dark. No more oatmeal, no more coffee. Now bars and caffeinated drinks mixes. So cliché.
A typical day on trail now begins half an hour before setting out with grunts and air mattresses squeaking. You scan the aches and pains. All there? Check. A new one? Sit up and stretch a bit as you eat a bar and drink something.
Once we’ve eaten first breakfast in our quilts, we break down the tent and roll up our pads, stuff everything in our packs. A quick stretch and maybe a cat hole digging later and we’re ready to go.
We head off and cover as many miles before the sun starts beating down, usually eating second breakfast on the move. Typically chatting and discussing the pros and cons of large mayonaise squeezey bottles in our foodbags or other similarly deep questions.
This particular morning, we had a large goal in mind, 31 miles coming out of Seiad Valley, California. The first 17 miles from our campsite is uphill and continuous but elevation profiles make it look more like a landscape of Mordor. It wasn’t so bad to be honest but it was basically like climbing Snowdon twice in a morning.
We walk and talk, we walk and joke we walk separately, we walk and listen to podcasts, we walk in silence, we walk and dance while listening to music then we break. Every five or so miles. I’m usually lagging behind.
When we break, we filter water and eat, hopefully in a spot that offers both comfort and vista. Usually it’s next to a stream or on a log next to a tree though. We put our feet up and stretch. Once the gummies are eaten, time to move on.
We walk more and deal with the sweltering heat of the afternoon, plastering on the sunscreen and donning hats. Enduring all too common burn areas and being thankful for tree cover shade. A quick shower by dumping two litres of ice cold water over our heads, snatching our breaths to help with the intense heat and we move on again.
After repeating this a few times, all too quickly, the sky darkens and the horizon lights up in an orange blur and we have almost reached our target. We find a spot to camp, wherever is closest, put up the tent, inflate the pads and start up the stove. A quick “yeah, we did it” and then we drift off to sleep, ready to continue on the same path in the morning.
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.
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.
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.
It seemed for a minute this Monday morning that we had neither the food nor the energy to do the big miles needed that day to get us close to the highway to town after this past long section.
We stood at the bottom of a long downhill in the fog with our feet soaked from ferns which is pretty common in Washington, wrapped in our filthy runners, our bodies sore and stinking, our garbage bag bulging as the food bags were rapidly shrinking. But happy as Larry, obviously.
I always tell myself when things are down a little bit that the pain and rain are worth it and even then it’s better than the metro in rush hour or the out of hours work messages. But our bodies hurt and we had a long day ahead so even then it’s a bit of a challenge.
We were at the bottom of a long descent from our camp and, despite the descriptions above, were going strongly into a near 20 mile day as we bumped into some other SOBO thru hikers breaking down their camp and were spurred on after sharing jokes and complaints about the weather and our food. A quick change like that and everything looks up. We’d met all of them previously, Amber, Jordan, Black Hole, Poppins and Locahontas who now dub them(our)selves SloBos.
SloBo (noun): Compound of slow-mo and sobo, decided on after a fraught battle between SoboSlomo, SlomoSobo and obviously SoMoSloBo.
Anyway, we might feel a little slow at times but we’re far from it. We’re safely managing bigger and more consistent days now. Every day is in the high teens and we’re slowly creeping towards that magical 20 mile average. This last section marks the time we became actual thru hikers. We can do this.
In the past week we’ve come far in many ways since our last zero day in Stehekin (bakery) 108 miles ago on my birthday.
The day after my 36th (ouch) we packed up our mouse semi-chewed resupply (thanks Stehekin PO) and heaved them on, naively mocking their weight, now a little over 30 pounds (about 14 kilos) with food and no water. Ouch. Some people have heavier, no idea how they manage.
Before leaving, we did last minute chores and spruced ourselves up in one of those quarter eating showers you have to presoap before using to get the most bang for your literal buck.
We did that and hit the trail, via the Stehekin bakery of course. Let me say now, I patronised that establishment three times in three days, and nothing, nothing, beats the chicken pocket. Garden protein bomb delight. Must’ve been 1000 calories. Perfect.
The weather was absolutely glorious and we enjoyed the Stehekin river for a while and headed up the way. I was cursing the extra Hershey’s bars I didn’t think we needed as I remembered how a heavy carry out of town feels.
The sun was hot and everything ached after a day off. Days off (zeros) make you weak in the short term but stronger over the long run I kept thinking that as my feet pounded and back ached as we arrived in camp.
Red Feather camped by us that night, a multi-medal winning Canadian Olympic cyclist and speed skater. Just to make us feel strong, you know? Needless to say we didn’t see her again. We saw yesterday that she was already three huge days ahead of us. She’s doing 25-30 miles a day.
We were raided by mice that night, as we are most nights. I deserved it as I had mocked the west coast mice on the Stehekin shuttle to some flippers. The rodent gods were obviously listening and decided to stick it to me by sending their best that eve to chew open the bottom of my lazily placed food bag. Luckily only ruining a bag of peanut butter pretzel bits. Everything else was untouched and the bag now with duct tape was good to go.
Those extra Hershey’s didn’t seem so heavy now we’d lost the pretzels and we headed off over the bridgeless creek, steeply upwards into the thick forest and the ever so slightly encroaching fog.
That second foggy night Jen woke and told a bear outside our tent (maybe) to fudge off loudly practically giving me a heart attack in the process. Might have been a deer or cougar I suppose. Whatever it was it snorted at the tent.
I hobbled out the next morning with a new little injury. My muscle on my shin was tight and “shin splints” was mentioned for a second time. Old Jake would’ve freaked out more but I’ve been through more than my share of tendon and muscle issues so after a minute of stress I figured out the stretches, necked an anti-inflammatory and rolled it out with my pole to prevent it getting out of control.
Jen had a similar experience with her calf and so did much the same with a similar result: other minor injuries that need to be managed on the daily that’ll fade with time. All part of the trail.
I had blocked thru hiking foot pain from my memory and thought I was immune. I’m definitely not, especially on a Sobo schedule. Foot pain is here to stay. Sometimes it is agonising, but usually it is bearable.
The views at times in this section were jaw dropping such as Mika Lake, still mostly frozen. We arrived to shock sunshine and the perfect lunch spot. If it had been sunnier I would’ve had a dip.
Red and White Pass were intense and each time the fog dispersed enough to offer us a view or three. We got glimpses of pure magic before the grey curtain swept in again to cover the mountains. We had a rougher and more typically weather-swept Washington than the last section.
We covered the last 60 miles in three days and that was really something considering how challenging it was with extreme ups and downs, dangerously slippy snow covered passes (read Jen’s upcoming post for a related story) and the inevitable drizzle. The penultimate 19.7 mile day we did ended by 5pm in the blazing sun, our feet weren’t screaming and we had dried our gear and we felt like champions.
A new challenge awaited us though, clouds of mosquitoes and they’re here to stay.
When we arrived to Steven’s Pass, a ski resort on the highway we were very ready for a zero day, possibly a second one or at least a short second day.
We’re in Leavenworth, 35 miles from the trail. It’s a Bavarian themed town… ‘murikuh! Jen’s parents are very generously treating us. We’re here for the sausages and steins, the resupply and the mini golf. Absolutely love it.
We’ve got several things to sort out and buy and clean and send and collect and reorganise and eat of course. Busy as usual.
We now have our new tent – the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL3 which is bigger and a little lighter. It will help our sanity by having more space and a relative palace to hide from the coming mosquitoes.
Jen also has a new Enlightened Equipment quilt and is very happy. She’s in the bathroom using the tub to find an elusive hole in her pad. Once she’s found that, she’ll have the best sleeping setup.
We said we should hike the PCT in the Black Horse English pub in Mexico City in 2017 on our first date.
We didn’t know each other in 2015, but we had both hiked the John Muir Trail at almost the same time. Jen had gone SOBO and I’d gone NOBO. We missed each other by a day or so at Whitney and would have stopped for a chat as you do but we met a couple years later. We both lived in Mexico City.
Now we live in the woods.
Reaching the border had been far from easy. Jen’s parents very helpfully drove us to Hart’s Pass through the mountains of northern Washington which rival the Alps. This is where most SOBOs (or southbounders) start from, having to walk north first to tag the border.
They dropped us at Hart’s Pass and gave a hitch back to Mazama to Broken Toe just as he finished his annual section hike to the border and back. He was going to collect his van to set up trail magic at Hart’s.
We, however, first had 31 miles over snow (or so we thought) to the border and then we had to return the same 31 miles, starting our PCT SOBO thru hike on the border. But the views here are so stunning the repeat does not matter. We’re underway now. 10 miles to a campsite today and about 13 tomorrow. Apparently it might rain. Almost glad I misread the forecast, this is a surprise.
(It’s now 1:40am and the rain is pounding down onto our frankly tiny leaky tent.)
We’re 6.6 miles from the Canadian border which we made it to exactly 12 hours ago. I fell asleep at about 8pm and now I’m wide awake listening to the rain outside. Hikers are rarely up much beyond 9pm but my sleep cycles doesn’t really match up at the moment. We hiked in glorious sun with vistas yesterday and the following morning but now the rain is here.
Getting to the Canadian border means we’re now officially southbound thru hikers on the PCT. Previous to that moment we had been northbound section hikers. A strange experience compared to other hikes because you get to see those hikers a day or two ahead of you and behind you. This year is also busier than usual. I’ll get to that later.
The border monument was glorious and unexpected, blasted by the sun coming down into the 10 yard wide border, sliced through the pine forest the length of the Canadian border. This is a place mainly signalling the end of a NOBO’s 2650 mile hike and the start of Canadian land. For us it meant the beginning of the 2650 mile journey to Mexico, our country of residence till just three weeks ago.
We left late after drying everything following a big downpour the night before and slackpacked (just taking the necessary for the day) down to the border by 1pm.
We had the place to ourselves for about twenty minutes and posed for pictures and executed poorly positioned timer shots of both of us pretending we didn’t have about four mosquitoes on each leg. We signed the monument book to register our tagging of the border. Hadn’t really considered what I would say so I said something factual about where I was headed and added a second mosquito to a future trend in that book then we hiked off back to Hopkin’s Lake to camp, contemplating the gargantuan trail ahead of us. An experience that will no doubt shape us in some way. At least in terms of stomach size and calf tone.
Later the next day we stopped to set up the tent to avoid a heavy downpour 8 miles after Hopkin’s Lake and I’m glad we did because it hasn’t stopped raining now for ten hours. Jen’s blog post above beautifully describes all the gory details. Happy not to be walking in it like most surely did as it started at 2pm and camp sites are sparce in these steep hills.
With or without rain though, the land here is nothing short of awesome, in the dictionary sense. Huge crags, lined with snow tower above us at low elevations and we walk alongside them after conquering the switchbacks. Each turn gives you a unique view of the same stunning backdrop of Washington’s peaks. We hike over snow patches, some sketchy though most carefree. I only used my microspikes in one section when it was slushy and was giving way steep above a boulder with my name on it.
Away from the small snow crossings, most sections have steady with long ascents and descents that are a joy to walk on. The PCT is pack animal grade which is luxury for hiking and even in the most challenging sections you can more or less accurately predict when you’ll get somewhere.
Hiking this amazing trail alongside us are a lot of flip floppers. These were northbound thru hikers who didn’t want to go through the Sierra in the insane snow. I’ve heard crazy stories from Sunny and others about the climb up Forrester Pass and so I’m not surprised they changed their hiking plans. Others flipped to Oregon, to northern California, took time to go to San Francisco and then go sobo. This year is a bit of a crazy one I guess. Hikers are spread out all over the trail which should lead to the meeting of many more hikers, hearing of many more tales and reunited hiker parties. 2019, the most integrated year for the PCT?
Flipped hikers are easy to spot. They’re a more rugged and permadirty bunch than we currently are and in considerably better trail shape. I think most sobos were initially a little shocked by the number but after a couple of days everything is nicely spread out and they’re all lovely, they just have a bit more of a been-in-‘Nam-too-long look, more leg muscles, experience and stories to share. It felt like the first day in primary school and it now feels like highschool.
We felt the difference the first time at Hart’s. Broken Toe now had his trail magic set up. He had his van and a hot fire and tea and veggies, a hiker box and a good focal point for flippers and SOBOs, fresh and bordered all together. Broken Toe hiked the Appalachian Trail the same year as I did (2012) and he now hosts the official SOBO kick off (my words) magic at Hart’s and I think he’ll be going back earlier next year.
It’s perfect stop over with lots of good stories and a good group were hanging out sharing advice, weather reports and talking about tales of the 16 hour rain storm the day before. He hosted around 15 hikers round his camp fire, saving many from soaked and literal frozen misery. We missed that night in a tent covered in snow but we’ll hear those tales in Stehekin I’m sure.
After leaving Hart’s, the next two days were fantastic. The view coming up out of Hart’s was amazing and took our breath away. You just have to see it.
It was totally unexpected and then was our view for the next couple of hours as we sailed down the switchbacks to the valley floor. The hike stepped up a notch in terms of elevation gains and losses but it’s still smooth sailing on gentle sweeping trail.
We did 16 miles after a late start out of Hart’s Pass full of energy and enthusiasm after spending some time at Broken Toe’s. Then we did 18 to a site just north of the North Cascades National Park and tomorrow morning we get up at 4am to try and get the 12:30pm bus 17 miles from here. We’re going to hike with Sam and Ben, two SOBOs and Sunny, a Dutch flipper who had egged us along to do it. It’ll be worth it though.
Tomorrow (or today when I publish this) we get to Stehekin where we have our first zero and also mail drop waiting for us (I hope!) We will have to clean ourselves and our gear, sort what needs to be sent home, what needs to be ordered online (new tent for us, quilt for Jen and new Lone Peaks for me)