Between bubbles

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.

A typical trail register found along the trail

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.

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Marble Mountain

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.

Sunset – last night

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.

Sunrise – this morning

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.

Leaving Stehekin and getting our thru hiking wings in the fog

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.

Stehekin
Hanging out at the bakery

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.

Stehekin chicken slice on the bus. Get it.

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.

Heading out of town. My pack

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.

Mika Lake

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.

Enchanted Valley – PCT warm up/shake down

After a night in a “cheap” motel in Forks and plenty of town food and hygiene, we hopped on board the 50 cents bus to Amanda Park via the Hoh Indian Reservation and then hitched up to Graves Creek Trailhead with a Colombian family whose friends happen to be hiking NOBO this year: Lupine and Happy Bear. Anyone got a picture of them? It would be cool to see them as we sail past each other in Oregon, high fiving with a picture to send our friends who drove 25 miles out of their way to drop us near the trailhead.

We started a little late and smashed out the 13.5 miles up to Enchanted Valley in about 7 hours. It was very easy terrain and we’re far from going at thru hiking speeds yet, yet it felt great to do some decent miles with a full pack on without the interruption of seaweed covered rocks to slow us down. Our (mainly my) feet were still sore from a long road walk the previous morning but we were feeling stronger than before.

Lots of lovely trail in the Quinault River valley

The Enchanted Valley is a truly beautiful spot. A ranger station is inside a huge building on the edge of the Quinault River and checks everyone’s permits coming in to camp. It was a busy Father’s Day weekend so quite a few people were camped out, but the camping area is huge and there’s plenty of space so we felt like it was our own.

The view was stunning, and for the first time in quite a long time I had huge mountains in my face towering over us. Streams crashed down the peaks above us in almost continuous skinny waterfalls. I’d secretly packed out a liter of wine and surprised Jen with it at the camp fire. We slept for almost 12 hours that night, full and tipsy and rose later than most to enjoy our breakfast and lunch in grassy meadows below the majestic view.

Enchanted Valley view from near the camp ground with the ranger station

Wishing we had reserved two nights on our permits to enjoy the valley more, we walked back out to camp at Pony Bridge. Gliding past a big herd of what I initially thought was deer, then as I wondered why they were so big and ugly, realized they were in fact, elk. We got down to Pony Bridge and camped just above a deep gorge. My photography skills don’t do it justice, but here it is:

We got out very early the next day, had a slow and road walky hitch and headed over to the Hoh Rainforest to hike up to the Blue Glacier. Getting some biscuits and gravy first. Obviously.

Leaving Mexico

I set off from Mexico, having said goodbye to most folks over the previous week and boarded an early morning plane to Seattle via Denver. Jen was already in Washington/Oregon.

I was relieved to take off, having got through the last weeks in Mexico without a major hitch. I was leaving behind a country I know and love having lived there for 11 years and will really miss my peoples but also happy not to have to deal with a lot of things in the city I no longer have the patience for.

I had high hopes for Denver, knowing Colorado was full of nature and hikers. I had 12 hours there before my connecting flight and figured it would be a good opportunity to visit a city few have that I know. I had built it up to be some kind of strange capital of these nature lovers with quirky bars and stores and a bit of an adventurous spirit and an edginess.

I was only in the city itself for about 7 hours so obviously I can only speak for first impressions of LoDo, RiNo and along the river. The people were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. I had some really nice interactions with them, though any taste of what Denver is/was in downtown has been razed and replaced with big open streets with literal blocks between shops punctuated by the worrying intrigue that surrounds clearly troubled drug addicts. They were everywhere and that was the edginess of the city I found.

Image result for confluence park denver
Confluence Park

The river, a couple of little parks and REI saved the day, people were hanging out, jogging and strolling. I went for a nice long walk down the river trails and watched the world go by. That was cool but I was very eager to move on. I suppose I should’ve ventured further afield and no doubt there is cool in Denver, somewhere, I just didn’t find it.

Valle de Bravo overnighter

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.

Valle de Bravo

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.

On top of Monte Alto

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.

Wet sticks after a storm

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.

Morning mist on Monte Alto