“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.**
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.
Jen went ahead to stay with her family and spend some time with her nephews in Portland, Oregon as I stayed on in el defetuoso (Mexico City – a play on words meaning it doesn’t work well) for another week. I didn’t have much planned apart from seeing people and ridding myself of possessions. Feels really good to go down to just two backpacks full of stuff, one of which is in the UK now; I can literally carry all of my things at once and that is pretty liberating. It was time to take it further though and give away or donate the rest of my stuff. My goal was to only have carry on luggage on my flight outta here.
A highlight of this week was paying a visit to a good friend of mine out of town. Engeli’s a friend and ex-colleague of mine from South Africa originally and has been in Mexico for even longer than I have. She was based in Mexico City for most of that time but relocated to the pueblo magico Valle de Bravo in the mountains a couple of years back and, wow, what a choice.
She has the bottom half of a tradionally Mexican house, tiled and wooded as you’d expect with a large garden and a westward facing balcony running its whole length, overlooking a now greening valley from the seasonal rains on the edge town. The valley is private land but she has access and hikes and bikes to the top of the hill each morning to a majestic view of town and its huge lake. The three times we’ve visited her we’ve really enjoyed this pre-breakfast hike to blow out the cobwebs.
Engeli lives with the regal Chaman the Great Dane, Toffee the smiling, butt-wiggling ex-street dog done good and her now blind cat. It’s always a hive of activity even though life moves slowly in the countryside. The dogs run in and out to bark at other barks while the cat bumps along walls and gets stuck on window ledges, then they scratch at the door once the garden has bored them and Engeli opens the door.
She’s got the cooking skills of your grandmother but with the speed of not your grandmother. In the space of five hours we had eaten three times, including an amazing paneer curry. We caught up on her changing plans and my select tales from Jen’s and my holiday. Later her neighbour and friend popped down and we sipped beer and talked the evening away on the balcony while the earth span backwards from the sun.
The next morning we woke and hiked the usual route with Toffee and three of Eugenia’s dogs running alongside us, scaling inclines at the speed of Andrew Skurka circa 2007. Once we returned to the house, we ate cheesy eggs, packed our packs with gear, food and water (and tetrapack wine, naturally for an overnighter). Engeli has a lot of my gear from my Appalachian Trail thru hike to ensure she converts into a thru hiker one day. Chuckle. I was decidedly lacking gear, most of which was totally inappropriate for a backpacking trip, but what the hell, most of my nice new gear is in the US awaiting my arrival on Samish Island, WA.
We set out across town to the state park Monte de Alto which has numerous interlocking trails. However, since a huge forest fire last year, there have been new blazes placed generously all over the park forming four main circular routes on each of the hills, most of which boast amazing views. We were really crushing miles and ended up completing a little over 16 of them before setting up camp at the top of one of the hills as the drizzle came over and thunder rumbled in the distance. We pushed it a little too hard that day; I didn’t do enough stretching or have enough breaks. I need to learn from that lesson especially as the diet didn’t exactly work well this year.
As we tended to a very high maintenance campfire, the wood damp from the deluge the day before, we cooked up some ramen and mixed in Engeli’s homemade peanut sauce. The cheap wine went down well after a big day and we slurped up our ramen as we listened to tall pines crashing through the forest on the neighboring hill as lumberjacks felled those too badly burnt to remain.
I slept incredibly badly, my old sleeping pad now leaking much faster than before and I ended up on the stony ground several times. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on my new pad and quilt that I’ll be using in the Olympic National Park and on the Pacific Crest Trail for the remainder of this year. Hopefully I selected well.
In the morning, strangely for Mexico it was still raining. Ee packed up our soggy tents and headed our way back to the house, thankful we’d driven to the trailhead as the rank outhouses didn’t look particularly appealing after a night of little sleep.
An hour or two later I said goodbye to Engeli and the animals and boarded a bus bound for el defetuoso, knowing Jen and I will surely meet up with her in the next couple of years for a long hike in British Colombia or Washington some summer week or two.