Roots

Date: 9/26/17

archaeology: noun | är-kē-‘ä-lə-jē
1 the scientific study of material remains (such as fossil relics, artifacts, and monuments) of past human life and activities

One year and one day ago, I arrived at an unassuming stripe of cleared forest that would never have been identifiable as an international border had it not been for the small silver obelisk marking precisely that. A few feet away, a collection of square wooden posts also declared this the end of a Pacific Crest Trail adventure that had begun 2,650 miles and nearly 5 months earlier at a similarly humble set of posts beside the US/Mexico border.

The time since that day has gone by in the proverbial blur, often punctuated by the tangled emotions that arrive when memories of the past come colliding with the reality of the present. Reconciling that nostalgia with a day job that does not involve hiking for a living has been a challenge that I alternately succeed and fail at.

I wasn’t terribly surprised then, to find myself rummaging around in the dusty corners of our bedroom closet, sidetracking myself from the task of packing for an upcoming flight. A few minutes later, what I had unearthed and lined up on the floor before me looked less like a collection of humble sandals and more like a historical record of the last 13 years of my life.

Memory is a funny thing, and never moreso than when it comes to inanimate objects that only hold meaning to their owners. Case in point: one glance at the photo above, and you’d be forgiven for wondering why any sensible person would have such a ridiculous collection of footwear. But I see something quite different. I see thru-hikes of long trails, thousands of miles of achingly beautiful wilderness, peaks climbed, obstacles overcome, persistence, endurance, and sandwiched among them all, the day of my life when I married my best friend. And just like that, the worn rubber and faded webbing take on an altogether different quality that belongs to those things that have been quietly present for them all. It’s not often you can hold a thing in your hands and catch a glimpse of where you’re from, what you’ve done, and who you are. People often reminisce about their roots; seeing them in the flesh is another thing entirely.

For me, those roots extend far from our home here in Seattle, all the way back to the comparatively modest peaks of the Adirondacks in upstate New York, long shaped by millennia of erosion into the coarse piles of stone they are today, and traversed only by the steep, rough trails that are their trademark. And roots. Lots and lots of roots, not of the figurative kind—the literal ones.

It’s easy to love something when the sun is warm on your back, the views are endless, and the tread is easy beneath your feet. It’s something else to love it when clambering over rock and root, toiling not under a cloudless expanse of sky, but beneath a thick cloak of forest. Suffice it to say, these old mountains will always feel like home, where as a young boy I learned to love not only their beauty but the struggle.

Covering some 6 million acres, the Adirondack Park stretches across nearly the entire northern “lobe” of New York from the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain, an area large enough to fit Grand Canyon, Olympic, Mt. Rainier, North Cascades, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks…with room to spare. Perched in the northern reaches of the park, just to the south of Lake Placid, lies a crown of peaks known as the “46ers”, named as such for being the 46 peaks originally surveyed to have a summit elevation of at least 4,000 feet. 25 years ago, I summitted my first of the 46ers, never knowing that a quarter century later I’d be rummaging through a closet in preparation for climbing my 46th.

In reality, this story is not merely my own. In 2004, my Mom joined me for a week during my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. After persevering through the summer swelter, rough ascents and descents, and some of the worst blisters I’ve ever seen even til this day, she went home having found a new appreciation for and interest in hiking. It wasn’t long before she set her sights on the goal of attempting to climb all of the Adirondack 46ers, and one by one we began to tackle them together in the years that followed, struggling up one rock- and root-choked path after another often to nondescript summits offering little in the way of a view.

Fast forward 13 years and not only had my Mom come to within two peaks of reaching her goal, but I’d fallen behind, so before we could celebrate those final climbs together Emily and I were back in the Adirondacks playing catch-up on the two peaks I had missed out on last year while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Off under an overcast sky, the trail up and over Mt. Colvin and finally to our destination of Blake Peak was silent except for the passing of a single hiker. It was as if we had the whole of the park all to ourselves.

One day later, the clouds had begun to drift away on a freshening fall breeze, exposing the brilliant blue sky we’d been hoping for. The climb to the summit of Rocky Peak Ridge is unique among the 46ers in that it follows a ridge that alternates between young forests and sweeping views from exposed swaths of bedrock, all courtesy of the Great Fire of 1913 that devastated the mountain and its neighbor, Giant Mt. Through quiet thickets of stately birch and over several false summits, we were at last delivered to a broad summit with large rock cairns and the heart of the high peaks laid out before us.

It may only have been the 1st of September, but the icy gale that greeted us on the summit certainly felt more like late fall than the final throes of summer and it made our attempt to light the traditional candle in a Swedish fish for Emily’s Birthday a pretty fruitless effort.

With Rocky Peak Ridge in our rear view mirror, we were off the following morning to meet my Mom and her friend Jane for the first of our final two peaks under what would be the last of the nice weather. With hardly a breath of wind and clear skies overhead, the mercilessly rough climb up to the patch of dirt at the top of the Panther-Santanoni ridge known as Times Square was about as pleasant as it could ever be, assuming the meaning of pleasant could ever be stretched to apply to such a thing. But this was Adirondack hiking at its heart, and it was hard not to appreciate it for the microcosm of the entire 46er experience that it was.

I’ve always thought that the true character of Adirondack hiking was best captured by the state of my Mom’s poor legs when we arrived back at the trailhead. Not the streaks of mud, but the scrapes, cuts, bruises, and occasional punctures with tinges of blood that she wears like temporary tattoos. You’d be forgiven for thinking we just took her out in the middle of the wilderness to beat her with sticks. And yet, she kept coming back for more like the little force of nature she’d slowly become over the last decade. Hiking here can do that to a person, building up something inside of you that you didn’t realize was there before. Watching my Mom give more of herself to achieve this dream than I’ve ever given of myself for anything has been the most incredible thing I’ve ever borne witness to.

And so there she was, 9 hours into the day, still putting one foot in front of the other—or one hand in front of the other as the case may be—when the next step landed her on the unassuming summit of Couchsachraga Peak. An indigenous word for the Adirondacks meaning “dismal wilderness”, Couchsachraga is marked by a large boulder that allows you just enough height to see over the tangles of krummholz fir that cloak its flanks and into that very wilderness.

Under headlamp and a full 15 hours after leaving the trailhead this morning, we had finally arrived back at our tents to settle in for some rest, with number 45 safely behind us. The familiar patter on my tarp told me all I needed to know about what the weather held in store for number 46.

O Canada

Date: 9/25/16

Miles: 19.8
Total Miles: 2650.1

It began like any other day: morning coffee from the warmth of my sleeping bag followed by deflating and rolling up my sleeping pad, and stuffing my few belongings one by one into my pack before emerging from my tent to take it down once more. The only difference was the air of finality that surrounded each of the mundane daily tasks. Of course they didn’t feel any different, but they were all the same. It was an inescapable fact that it was the last time I’d do any of these things on this trail, and with that fact came the familiar bittersweetness that arrives at the end of every thru-hike, the joy of the achievement forever tempered by the end of the experience that is its very foundation.

As the six of us–Beardoh, Sweet Pea, Gazelle, Roadrunner, Hammer and I–walked along under the now familiar grey skies of Washington, I struggled to focus more on the joy of at last reaching Canada, of seeing Emily, and less on the palpable sensation that this hike was an hourglass whose last grains of sand were soon to fall. After a break to filter water for the last time–yet another in a day filled with “lasts”–we had just over a mile to reach the border, and setting off once more my stomach was filled with the butterflies of apprehension. I found myself asking “How should I feel about this coming to an end?” without having the slightest clue as to what the answer ought to be.

But as the border swath came into view for the very first time, I decided that there would be plenty of time for that kind of reflection after the celebration. Around the next switchback, we could hear voices that we knew could only be those of fellow hikers reveling in the moment of completion, and it was only then that I felt the routine of hiking melt away, the welling up of excitement rising to take its place. Fittingly, it was only a few steps later that I recognized some very familiar names on a printed sign sitting next to the trail…

With that, and the silver border monument coming into view through the trees around the final bend, the celebration began.

There was my dear wife, waiting patiently since mid-morning, and I couldn’t have been happier to see her and to have her share in this moment. First things first, there was champagne to pop…

And although the trail has been filled with countless joys and a boundless supply of some of the most dramatic landscapes to be found anywhere in the world, it is truly the people that are the trail. From fellow thru-hikers of all stripes to trail angels and owners of hiker-friendly businesses from Campo to Manning, though the journey would still be possible without them it would certainly lack the richness that they alone add to it.

Among the many incredible people on the trail, you’d be hard pressed to find any better than these three…Gazelle, Sweet Pea, and Beardoh.

Having all met on our very first day on the trail, I could never have known that we’d share so many great trail memories and eventually stand together at the Canadian border. As my hiking companions for the overwhelming majority of the trail, I cannot fathom how much less fulfilling the experience would have been without knowing them and learning from them. They’re a special trio that I’m lucky to have known on such a great journey. As for Roadrunner and Hammer, I only wish they had joined us sooner!

Arriving at the border in a body worn from the miles and effort, thoughts of doing a “yo-yo”–turning around and thru-hiking the entire trail again in reverse (yes, it’s crazy and yes, it’s been done a couple times)–never entered my mind, but as opposed to the Appalachian Trail when I reached Mt. Katahdin on tired legs in a tired body, I reached this end still feeling the strength that you might imagine comes with the territory of walking from one border of the country to the other. In the end, in a few short days and from the comfort of the home I’ve missed so dearly, I know it will feel as though it all went by in a time that was far too short.

3 states. 146 days. 2,650 miles. 133 hiking days. No matter the lens or quantitative metric you choose, it’s been an undeniably long journey, but its awesome scale is hardly the trait that best defines the qualitative experience of the thing. Much like a work of impressionist art whose up-close details only resolve into full meaning when viewed from a distance, what it means to have completed the entire PCT is a truth that I know will only become clear to me across a sufficient expanse of time. And so, I will wait, contemplating every moment of this wonderful adventure, of the people who made it more special than I could have imagined, and of the next trail that waits to guide me along its path.

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Confessions of a Chacoholic

Date: 9/24/16

Miles: 19.3
Total Miles: 2638.8


I love Chacos. True story: I own 8 pairs of them. Two pairs hiked the Appalachian Trail, two have hiked the John Muir Trail and the Wonderland Trail twice, and three have now hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Combined they’ve been my companions for well north of 5,000 trail miles. The 8th pair? I got married to my best friend in those.

It’s no trade secret. All of my friends and family know of my love for these sandals and fully expect to see them on my feet nearly every day of the year, but on the trail is where they excel most. I’d gone through the usual progression of lighter and lighter weight footwear long ago, never quite finding my sole mates until I tried on my first pair of Chacos. With the tread of a leather boot, a thick sole for cushion, great support for my high arches, and webbing that may as well be made from the same tough material as seatbelt straps, my days of strapping on a pair of foot prisons for hiking, or most anything else for that matter, were over. Throw on a pair of neoprene socks, and they’re good for the snow too. And while most thru-hikers go through a new pair of trail runners every 500 miles or so, my sandals see a premature retirement with at least 1,000 miles, easing into their sunset years of day hiking service. I’m still convinced that with proper care, one pair could see you through an entire thru-hike. And when days of rain turn a thru-hike into a slog, like it has been for much of Washington, rather than putting on a wet pair of shoes day after day, I simply wring out my wool socks and walk them dry within an hour of sunshine. Most importantly, they’ve carried me safely this far, and hopefully for many future miles to come.

By the time the day came to a close, my Chacos had carried me 11 little miles away from the border of Canada and the end of the PCT. Although we started walking in a cloud this morning, the threat of rain was finally gone and it was only a matter of time before the sun decided to end its game of hide and seek.

Strolling along beautiful trail through the Pasayten Wilderness, the sadness of it all coming to an end just one day from now began to sink in. How do you capture the simplicity, the drive and determination, and the daily awe of the natural world that defines this experience and distill it into something portable that you can take with you wherever you go and inject it into your daily life? There’s no easy answer, and it’s a challenge I’ll surely be grappling with for quite some time to come.

Every now and then, I’d look off into the distance and wonder if what I was looking at was actually Canada. It’s been a far-off, almost imaginary destination for so long now that it’s hard for my mind to accept that the imaginary is soon to be reality.

With only two miles left on what had already been a relaxed and leisurely day of hiking, we looked down the ridgeline from our perch on Rock Pass to our destination just below Woody Pass where we’d be spending our final night on the PCT.

Tucked among a stand of larches beneath a towering wall of rock whose craggy upper reaches had been lightly dusted with snow, Beardoh, Sweet Pea, Gazelle, Hammer, Roadrunner and I sat near our pitched tents eating one last dinner together and sharing stories of our favorite and most challenging moments of the trail.

Come morning, I’ll pack up and shoulder my backpack one last time. On to the border monument, to Canada, and the celebration to come!

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Liquid Sunshine

Date: 9/23/16

Miles: 21.1
Total Miles: 2619.5

Well, it started out promising anyway. Bright stars and the Milky Way had illuminated the night sky as I cinched up the sleeping bag around me last night, and although a layer of clouds had moved into the valley below us by morning, the red flare of the rising sun seemed to be a harbinger of another nice day in the North Cascades.

But that wasn’t quite the way it turned out. Cresting Methow Pass, you could see an even thicker cloud settled into the valley we’d now be descending into. Before we’d gotten very far, we passed the last of the major mile markers: the 2600-mile mark. The only milestone that remains is the US/Canada border and the northern terminus.

After snapping a photo and continuing down the trail, it was only moments before it began, first as sleet and then by pure rain as we dropped in elevation. Our 13th day of liquid sunshine in Washigton was now well under way. Fortunately, although it was yet again perhaps a high of 40 degrees, the rains today would come and go, at least giving us a chance to catch a dry breath before the next round would come. Climbing up into the clouds and then dipping down just beneath them, the pattern repeated all throughout the day, the cold drizzle a nearly constant companion. Of the few highlights on such a cloudy, wet day was this little guy: a pika who was friendly enough to let me snap a photo from only a few feet away.

It was discouraging to know that we were missing out on so many of the endless views we might otherwise have from the trail as it ridge-walked at around 7000 feet, but there was still beauty to be found in the few more brightly-colored larch trees that stood defiantly against the gray backdrop of the cloudscape.

By day’s end, we’d reached Harts Pass, the very last road crossing before Canada, and a remote dirt road at that. Having been here with Emily and our friends Jason and Julie for a trip last summer, it felt natural to think back on how I looked forward to this very moment, imagining what it might feel like to have gotten to this point of the trail, only 30 miles from the end, and what I might have enjoyed and endured to get there. It’s hard to know now exactly how I ought to feel with only one full day and night remaining before I finally reach the border, and I doubt I’ll know how to feel even as the moment nears closer. Nevertheless, my excitement is beginning to build. Sadness over the final chapter of the trail, of course, but happiness at knowing that Emily and my home await me when it all comes to an end.

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The American Alps

Date: 9/22/16

Miles: 21.2
Total Miles: 2598.4

The clear skies that we’d fallen asleep to were the same ones we woke to, but somewhere in between we had yet another dose of overnight rain. Fortunately, it was the last we would see of the wet stuff for the rest of the day. Under the newfound sun, steam was quietly rising off of the damp understory like smoke from a smoldering fire as we began the steady 17-mile climb from our camp up to Cutthroat Pass. Along the way, we got to see up close what the power of water and neglect can do to otherwise solid trail work…

As we anxiously watched the clouds for a repeat performance of the last few days, we crossed Highway 20 at Rainy Pass, the last paved road the trail will cross.

Into the afternoon, little by little the puffy clouds that had ultimately conspired against us in the past week began to drift off, unleashing yet more sunshine as we neared the top of the climb. Looking back, we could see deep into the heart of the North Cascades, full of jagged peaks, some dusted with snow, others cloaked in glaciers.

By the time we’d reached the top of the pass, soaking in the dramatic landscape that stretched out before us, it was easy to understand why this range has been dubbed the "American Alps." Returning here now at the culmination of this great adventure after seeing these mountains only from weekend and day trips in the past, my sentiment is still the same: It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.

Though not quite in peak color, the western larches that flecked the slopes near the trail had begun to show signs of their trademark fall color. Growing only in a very narrow band of elevation between 6000 and 7000 feet, the larch is a fir tree with very soft deciduous needles that turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn before falling to the ground. As one of my favorite trees, I had hoped that large stands would be at peak color but I had to settle for a lone tree here and there whose golden needles had set off a beautiful contrast against the snowy peaks in the distance.

Rounding a bend over another pass, we had a whole new perspective into another part of the range that appeared quite different, though no less dramatic, and by the time we made the traverse of the final few miles for the day, the sun had grown to dominate the sky with only a few harmless clouds remaining.

The countdown to Canada is officially underway, and tonight is the first of only three remaining nights on trail. Camped in a small meadow with sweeping views, it promises to be another clear and cold night nestled into the warmth of my sleeping bag.

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Final Resupply

Date: 9/21/16

Miles: 7.8
Total Miles: 2577.2

With only a short nearo planned out of town this afternoon, there was plenty of time to enjoy Stehekin and its beauty. Sitting by the water’s edge and staring into the valley that leads back to the trail and the jagged peaks of the North Cascades, I thought back to the memory of my Dad and I in Glacier National Park almost 20 years ago, a place that bore a striking resemblance to the scene before me now. How much he would have loved this place.

It was also the ideal spot for reflection as the trail winds down to its final miles. Despite the weather challenges of the past few weeks, I thought of how lucky we’d each been all along the way, particularly not to be stymied by wildfire closing the trail, something that many thru-hikers both ahead of and behind us were not as fortunate with. I don’t know why it’s worked out so well, but I’m thankful that it has. Stehekin was the perfect place to look back and marvel at it all.

Only 80 miles from Canada, Stehekin marks the very last resupply stop of the trail. One more heavy load from here to the border. A huge thank you both to my dear wife Emily and to The Sainsburys, for sending me a treasure trove of some of my absolute favorite foods to carry with me on these final few days. It’s way more food than any single person ought to eat in the course of 4 days, but I’m happy to accept the challenge!

At 2:00, we were back on the bus heading for the PCT and one last stop at the bakery along the way. An hour later, we were heading up the trail to squeeze in a few leisurely miles before calling it a day. Although the forecast is steadily improving, we weren’t spared a few afternoon showers–our 12th day with rain in Washington. By the time we’d pitched our tents, however, it was clear skies all around and the sound of rushing water from the nearby creek setting the evening’s soundtrack.

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Stehekin

Date: 9/20/16

Miles: 19.5
Total Miles: 2569.4

The snow of yesterday evening and the cold that came with it lingered all through the night, with an occasional new dusting adding to the blanket of white that now clung to everything. By the small hours of the morning, however, the sky was filled with nothing but stars, setting the stage for a beautiful sunrise.

All the weather sins of the last few days would be forgiven since this was a day into town, and not just any town, but one of if not the most anticipated town stop on the entire trail: Stehekin. Whether owing to its location near the northern terminus of the trail, its stunning setting or its renowned bakery, it occupies a special place in the hearts of thru-hikers.

Taken from the Salish Indian word meaning "the way through", Stehekin sits on the eastern slope of the North Cascades and at the very northwest corner of Lake Chelan, which at over 50 miles long and 1000 feet deep is the largest and deepest lake in the state of Washington. Barricaded by the Cascades to the west, Stehekin is accessible only by ferry and by floatplane, and although there are roads in the tiny town, all cars have to be barged in from the town of Lake Chelan at the opposite end of the lake. The PCT crosses a dirt road that leads 11 miles into town along which operates a bus shuttle that makes several stops along the way at trailheads, the town/ferry landing, and, of course, the bakery.

Just shy of 20 miles separated our snowy camp near 6000 feet from the road into Stehekin, and I packed up all of my now frozen crusted gear for the cold hike down. Having volunteered to race ahead and catch an earlier bus that would allow me to pickup goodies from the bakery for everyone before it closed, I had the trail all to myself in the clear cold morning. The landscape was dusted with the first snow we’d had since the Sierra, and with the crystal clear sky above there was almost an impossible number of things to photograph.

The sun began to drip down the snowy granite peaks that soared above the trail, and the dark shadows receded like a curtain.

Finally, every detail of their upper reaches was visible, every nook and cranny exposed by the bright morning sun.

Once I’d descended below tree line and down to the creek that would lead all the way to the road, the trail was as pleasant and smooth as can be, making for speedy hiking. Only a half mile shy of the road, I crossed the creek and the boundary of North Cascades National Park.

Appropriately named, there is crashing water everywhere here, all of it as clear as can be. Upon closer inspection, what I thought were colorful rocks visible beneath the surface of the water were actually fish: Kokanee salmon, aka landlocked sockeye salmon, that turn bright red and swim upstream to spawn in the river of their birth.

It was only noon by the time I’d arrived at the ranger station where the bus would come to take me into town, and the first stop along the way was the much anticipated bakery. Brimming with all manner of delicious bites, both savory and sweet, the bakery has a reputation that percolates through the trail grapevine for nearly its entire length. The hype was definitely not overstated. I’d have one of their amazing (and amazingly large) cinnamon rolls every day for the rest of my life if I didn’t think it would shave precious years from it.

The final bus stop was the end of the line, at the ferry landing where the Lodge, restaurant and post office constitute the entirety of the town. For a Tuesday in late September, it was oddly busy but it must have been my lucky day because I got the last available room at the Lodge for us.

While I waited for Gazelle, Beardoh and Sweet Pea to arrive on buses later in the day, I watched a floatplane take off on the lake below peaks that give Stehekin a fjord-like setting. There was nothing left to do but relax and enjoy the scenery in this final trail stop as I waited for my friends, using every last ounce of willpower not to eat the entire bag of bakery goodies that awaited them.

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