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To The End – Mt. Hood to Cascade Locks

(This blog entry is from my Patreon blog, where you can see my Adventure Blog entries before anywhere else while supporting my trade and craft. Along with early blog posts, Patreon backers also receive access to trail comics, drawings, and videos.)

Originally published on October 8th


August 15th – Wednesday – 5.1 miles hiked – 398 total – m. 2102

My last morning in this awesome hotel started with a hangover. Dammit. Just a light one, however, and it would have been worse had I not noticed that the cider I was drinking the night before was 8 months expired. I wondered why it tasted skunky.

This is all your fault

Bones didn’t sleep well, like the night before. He’s had a toothache for almost a week now and it’s getting worse. We’ve been in this situation before though, and sometimes it goes away on its own. Let’s hope it does this time. We only have a short section left!

After breakfast and our annual binge watching of Teen Titans Go!, we pack up. We’ve noticed that during our hotel stays while backpacking we always end up watching the same shows: Teen Titans Go!, the Simpsons, or any of the Harry Potter movies. This summer we haven’t gotten any Harry Potter, and it’s kind of a letdown.

I’m surprised all my food fits in my bear can, minus two items. It’s only three days, and we actually got access to a grocery store this time around. So, of course, we loaded up on impractical backpacking foods. Carrots, green beans, potato chips, canned fruit, fresh fruit, cheese, summer sausage, and Bones is bringing an entire load of rosemary bread. Of course, we’ve got the standard Clif bars and stuff, but why not indulge in the super tasty stuff while we have room? I’ve also got a wide assortment of Japanese snacks my friend Shing mailed me. I have no idea what half of them are, so I guess I’ll find out when I open them up. They also sent me one of the “illegal” Kinder Eggs. Hehehe. I’ll be opening that tomorrow. Anyway, so we’ve got a bunch of ridiculously heavy foods, and it feels like we’re packing out for eight days instead of just three. But I see no problem.

We check out at 11, loiter around downtown Sandy for a few hours waiting for the Mt Hood Express bus, and end up getting off at Government Camp first because we need to buy stove fuel. This adds another 2 hours to our trip because of the way the bus schedule works, and then we loiter around the Govy rest stop while we wait. So much waiting. I get super sleepy and dazed. It’s smoky right now, apparently, it’s blowing in from 3 directions–California, Oregon, and British Columbia. Is this how bees feel when they’re smoked by the beekeepers?

Finally, we make it to the lodge by 4:30, and we don’t waste much time. We dump our excess food in the bare hiker box (some lucky hiker is getting a full bag of almond M&Ms), stash our bus day passes somewhere someone else can find them if they need it, and hit the trail.

Not far into the trail Bones stops and is hesitant to continue. It’s his tooth. Should we continue and hope it goes away? Or should we turn around and head into Portland for an emergency dental clinic? I don’t know what to tell him, and I know he won’t be able to go by himself while I continue hiking. He needs me in these times for emotional support just as much as I need him. We agree that we’ll hike the 5 miles to camp tonight and if it’s still bad in the morning we’ll turn around.

So we head out. The trail is just as sandy on this side of Timberline as it was the other day, and soon my toes are swimming inside my shoes, full of sand. We hike and hike, and at some point, we realize we took a wrong turn and hiked almost a half mile in the wrong direction. This side trail would have eventually looped back to the PCT, but we didn’t know how long it was. There go 45 minutes.

We arrive at camp just after 7, a little ‘island’ in between two creeks. I don’t know what to have for dinner so I just munch. Some cheese, some chips, some veggies, my can of sliced peaches. I’d rather get rid of this 1lb low-calorie lump in my pack as soon as I can. As I’m sitting in my tent writing this journal entry, I feel on edge. The sound of the two springs on either side of us obscures all other sounds, and the crickets are really loud tonight too. I can’t hear the critters that may sneak up on me tonight, and for some reason that bothers me. Why now, after almost 400 miles of hiking in bear country, this is an issue, I don’t know. I guess it’s an earplug kind of night.

Today was the twelfth anniversary of the relationship between Bones and I. Crazy that it’s been this long. I don’t think there’s anyone else that I feel so close to in a platonic AND romantic way. He’s more than a husband, he’s my life partner. That seems to carry more weight in my mind than just husband. Here’s to twelve more years of adventure.

Circa 2006, just a few months after we started dating.

August 16th – Thursday – 19.3 miles hiked – 417 total – m. 2121.3

Late in the night, maybe 10 pm (hey that’s late for hikers), a loud group of hikers come into our tent site with their LED flashlights going everywhere. There’s ten of them, and there’s obviously not enough room for them here. There wouldn’t even enough room were Bones and I not here. But they stand nearby, yelling at each other, shining their lights back and forth over our tents. For fucks sake. They apparently split up and found a bunch of awkward areas to camp. I don’t feel bad, that’s what they get for hiking as such a large group and so late into the night… There were so many empty sites just before this one.

Finally, the lights out, I get to sleep.

I let myself sleep in this morning. Bones had said he wasn’t sure how today would go, if we turned back or not, and I didn’t want to be five or more miles down the trail already when he got up and made that decision. To be perfectly honest, I don’t like sleeping in while backpacking. I naturally wake up around 5:30 am, and the longer I sleep the less I get to hike in the cool morning air. But I give Bones this morning. He wakes and says we’ll keep going, the toothache seems to have gone away for the time being. Cool. We pack up and go.

As we hike the 5 miles down to the Sandy River, the switchbacks occasionally bring us out onto an exposed ridge that lets us not only peer down at the rivr, but up at the west face of Mt. Hood in the morning light. There are clouds lingering, and I wonder if it’ll rain. A while later we get down to the river, cross the precarious log bridge, and take a break. As I’m flossing my toes with my socks to free them of their sandy crust, it begins to rain. Just sprinkles at first, but eventual,ly we’re pelted with fat drops. It doesn’t last long, sadly, and it doesn’t break the ridiculous humidity either. My glasses fog up. When we hiked this section before we took the Ramona Falls alternate trail, so we this time we take the proper PCT. Honestly, the Ramona alternate is prettier and is around the same mileage. The PCTA should just switch the trails and consider the alternate as part of the PCT.

We cross another river, this time on a much larger fallen tree. Someone nailed some rope onto the log for handholds. It’s an awkward crossing. Some time later we sit down for lunch, and I happily munch on my green beans, carrots, and apple. I’m startled by the number of day hikers out here. It feels so crowded. Granted, we are rapidly approaching the Columbia Gorge, which has some of the busiest trails in the state. That doesn’t mean I have to like it though. I realize the last time we were ‘alone’ on this adventure was those few days we hiked the desert at the start. Man. It’s either hike the desert portion of the PCT, or find another trail.

Not long after lunch, we approach Lolo Pass. There are some folks setting up a folding table that call us over, they’re doing trail magic! Wow, we’re getting spoiled out here. I drink some iced coffee and think about my conundrum. A quieter trail would mean less trail magic like this. That wouldn’t be so bad, honestly. I won’t refuse someone’s generosity, but I’d definitely appreciate it so much more were there less. Didn’t we get trail magic just a few days ago?

The hike afterward goes quickly. I’m loaded up on caffeine (huge thanks to that iced coffee and the subsequent coke), and I power up the trail. It’s easy to go fast when the trail is this level. We eat dinner at a spring, don’t see any other hikers, and continue on to our tent site.

We’re alone when we arrive on the sheltered but windy ridge. Nice. We set up our tents, and no sooner am I in my tent that a bunch of other hikers begin to stream in. Quickly it feels like there’s a party around us of a dozen other hikers. I’m glad I put my fly up to protect against the wind, but now I’m more glad to have some privacy. There are two hikers standing on either side of my tent, talking at each other over it. Come on, guys.

Hope they like 5:30 am wake up calls.

I clean myself EVERY NIGHT. So this is just ONE day worth of dust… from ONE leg!

August 18 – Friday – 18 miles hiked – 435 total – m. 2139.2

I’m writing this one long after the day has passed, I’m trying to remember how it went. I was so caught in the moment of our last night on the trail that I didn’t want to spend it journaling.

I didn’t wake up at 5:30 am after all. It was sometime around 6, and I immediately knew I was staying in bed a bit longer today. Our camp was situated in a saddle between two ridges, and it funneled the icy wind through at high speeds. My tent was staked down surprisingly well, I had entertained myself the night before by getting the rain fly so taut that it resembled a drum when flicked. I also positioned the tent headfirst into the wind to be as aerodynamic as possible. Boy did that work out. While the other tents in the site flapped and whapped, which is what actually woke me up, my own stayed firm and strong.

But it was cold! Most mornings are cold, yes, but this morning was colder still. I curled into my down quilt and figured I’d get up when I felt like it.

My cell had reception, so I did some internet things, not realizing I was dipping my toes back into my old routine. I had a voicemail; for some reason, my pharmacy keeps refilling my elevation sickness medication and my doctor wants to know why I need so many. Dude, I didn’t even need the full bottle of the FIRST fill. This is apparently the fourth refill it’s gotten, even though the bottle said ‘NO REFILLS’. Thank goodness there was no copay on this medication, though I’m annoyed that all of it will go to waste instead of to someone who needed it.

Eventually, I crawl out of my tent and find most of the other hikers took off already. The tent site is quiet. Bones is already up and packing up. What’s this strange turn of events? “If I don’t get hiking, I’m going to freeze to death,” he says. It’s not THAT cold, but okay. For the first time in weeks, he takes off before me.

I’m on the trail not long after him. I kept my puffy jacket on because of the cold, but truth be told I stripped it off in less than 2 minutes. When will I learn? I’m a human furnace.

My musical choice for the morning is movie soundtracks, then specifically The Force Awakens. Hiking to Star Wars, oh yeah. My routine has been to listen to music in the morning, then switch to my audio book after lunch. It’s a good routine.

The trail in this area follows the curve of Bull Run Lake, one of the drinking water sources of Portland. You can’t actually see the lake from the trail, but quite frequently I pass ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs just to the west of the trail, signed “Bull Run Management”. I’m flanked by young but tall trees, and the forest is quiet. There are huckleberry bushes and sword fern everywhere. I’ve yet to eat a huckleberry straight from the bush. I think I’m scared. Of bacteria? Parasites? Mistaking eating one that will lead another hiker to find my cold, stiff corpse in a bush with my pants down? Who knows. I’m a risk taker, but not that kind.

I remember, from last year, this stretch of trail follows the ridge until a wide, rocky space with a sweeping view of Mt Saint Helens and Mt Adams. ‘I’ll take my first break there,’ I tell myself. It can’t be more than another mile.

But it must have been several miles because I didn’t reach that plateau for another hour, maybe an hour and a half. I became increasingly frustrated as the trail teased me with openings just over the next hill that turned into switchbacks or gaps in the trees. My stomach growled. I need to have a snack but I don’t want to stop until I reach that area. I want to see the mountains in the morning light and fog.

It’s pushing on 9 am, and I know if I don’t reach it soon I’ll miss the scene.

When I finally reach it, my expectations are thwarted. The mist is gone, the sun is high in the sky, the air is full of smoke, and the mountains are barely visible. As I climb and round the ridge, I realize what I thought was Mt. Adams is actually Mt. Rainier, and the actual Mt. Adams is much, much closer. While I can see the mountains with certain clarity, they don’t show in photos. I guess this one will have to stay in my memories.

It’s too windy here for a break. I have to hold my hat on with one hand, and I get dust in my eye. Okay, looks like I’m going a bit farther for my break. In .2 miles is the junction to Eagle Creek, the favorite alternate trail down to Cascade Locks.

Funny, we took a break here last year too. But we argued and bickered, leaving me in tears, and that night turned into our longest day yet, twenty-eight and a half miles. I didn’t even have dinner. I’m grateful that Bones and I have a healthier relationship these days and have a better understanding of the things that plague us.

When I reach the junction, the old picnic table is there, and so is Bones. As I ate fruit snacks and crackers he told me of another hiker that scolded and yelled at him for smoking a cigarette during a burn ban and high fire danger. Even though he was standing in a huge, empty area with no dry materials nearby (as permitted by the NFS).

We hike together for the rest of the day, realizing this is our last full day on the trail. Let’s spend it together. We walk around Wahtum Lake, thigh deep in ferns and small rhodies. Lunch is spent at the same junction we crash camped at last time. This whole area is new to us in the bright sunlight, our previous experience being in the dim twilight hours or in a thick mist. Like we’re hiking a completely new trail.

But coming up we know the trail will be like nothing we’ve ever hiked. We’re approaching the area destroyed by the huge 50,000 acre Eagle Creek wildfire last year, just 2 weeks after we hiked through ourselves. We felt privileged to have witnessed the full splendor of the Columbia Gorge forests in their last moments. But as we entered the burn zone we felt nothing but bitterness for the reckless teenager that started it. With a smoke bomb, no less. As the trail turned and started to descend into the gorge, the landscape shifted from a lush forest to a barren wasteland. This wasn’t just a simple wildfire, or even the Whitewater fire back near Mt. Jefferson. No. The land has been stripped of all life here. No life. Just the scorched black corpses of trees, and the sand.

Tea kettle spring was still dribbling through the earth. At least deep down below there was still life. “Maybe it’s charcoal filtered now,” I joked.

We found camp just a little bit down the trail at the edge of a switchback. Just enough room for 2 small tents. There was a crude fire pit built here. I scowled, and kicked it apart.

The breeze was gentle and the air was mild, so I didn’t put my fly up. I wanted to see the stars. Dinner was nibbles of all my various snacks, wasn’t feeling up to breaking out my stove and pot and then washing it. No, I just wanted to be here. Cascade Locks blinked into life down below and through the trees. A train sounded in the distance.

This is it.

Our adventure is coming to a close.

August 19 – Saturday- 7.5 miles hiked – 442 total – Cascade Locks

The sky was still dim when I rose from my tent. I knew this was the last stretch, but I was anxious to get walking. I exist to walk, to hike, to get myself to the places I want to be with my own two feet. As I passed Bones a kiss, the sun rose over the mountains behind me. Time to go.

I can’t remember if it was my knees or my ankles, but something hurt on this steep downhill. The hike down to the Columbia Gorge is a nearly 2000 foot drop in roughly three miles (and then another 4 mild miles), walking a long stretch northwest with the occasional switchback. I passed in and out of the burn area, grateful for the patches of life as I was given them. I was even grateful for the spiderwebs that clung to my body as I silk blazed down. I savored it. No rushing was required, but I loved storming down the trail. I can’t help it. I wanted to keep hiking forever.

But like my audiobook, in its final hour, this adventure too must end. I can’t stay here, or its magic and wonder may soon be lost on me as it becomes normal. What even is normal? I have so much work to do when I get back to ‘real’ life, and I too am grateful that I’ve constructed a life that revolves around my adventuring. While I fret about using my passions to pay my bills, I’d rather do this than anything else. Backpacking allows me control in a crazy world. I have full autonomy over my body and decisions in the wilderness; no other person has power over me. I’m not pulled in ten different directions by written words on the super computer in my pocket, and my mind has the time to settle and actually reflect on the things that have happened and will happen.

I acknowledge what I do is extremely privileged, and I constantly try and make it matter. As basic as it seems, it is even privileged to be able to collect water out of the earth and purify it for consumption. Some folks don’t even have that. Lots of other backpackers say that you don’t need anything to explore the wilderness, that you can use whatever you have and just leave. Screw bills and society and obligations. Sure, buddy. Not everyone has that kind of freedom though, whether it be debt, family, medical, or whatever. But that’s a story for another day.

We make it to the Locks by 11am and find it full of other backpackers. This weekend is PCT Trail Days, essentially a backpacker convention scheduled when most of the PCT thru-hikers are in the general area. Other hikers hitch their way up the trail to get here, then go back to where they were and keep hiking. It’s an event where thru-hikers can meet your gear manufacturers, enter raffles, go to panels on relevant topics, and score a free breakfast on the last morning.

I feel out of place as a section hiker. Last year I thought I’d be making my way up to Canada, not knowing within another 50 miles I’d be going home from another bout of weeping eczema on my heels. Hikers are allowed to camp out on Thunder Island, and we feel even more out of place here, as the best spot we can find is situated in between two groups of young, loud, beer drinking, true Hiker Trash. The kind that gives the rest of us bad names. They drink and party late into the night, one of them pees on the ground near Bones’ tent, and we wake up bitter at this community on the last morning of our adventure. This is the first time we’ve been around the actual PCT ‘Herd’ of hikers this year. These are the Class of 2018 PCT Thru Hikers, and I am embarrassed.

That morning I leave my tent early as the trash slept and head on over to the breakfast being thrown for this year’s hikers. It’s for the thru-hikers leaving to make their way to Canada (or Mexico, if southbound), which I am not. But I get a single bagel and pay for a coffee. I speak to the other hikers–the ones that were sober enough to wake up this early–and find that maybe the whole class of hikers aren’t that bad. Those were just the bad eggs, there will always be a few of them. And as the classes get larger every year, the ratio of good hikers to assholes will remain the same.

But the good hikers–the mature, considerate, funny, and respectable hiker trash–will always be the most amazing people I have ever met. We all have this deep seated connection, knowing that we’ve all experienced the same kinds of pain and struggle, but have also witnessed the beauty and wonder of the wilderness. It’s easy to be friends with someone you just met.

The day winds down as hikers leave to continue their adventures, and Bones and I wander up and down the main strip of town before we hop on a bus to Hood River for the night. There we rent a room, wash down, buy some town clothes, visit a friend, and get ready to acclimate to our old lives again. I’m ready, and eager to get to work on my projects.

While it didn’t go the way we originally planned, we still finished. The plan was 440 miles of the PCT, and we got that, plus two. The plan was to hike until Trail Days, and we did that. We didn’t go home early, and we didn’t cut our goal short.

The plan was to have an adventure.

And that’s exactly what happened.