Pacific Crest Trail 2017

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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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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Mental Endurance

Date: 9/19/16

Miles: 23.6
Total Miles: 2549.9

The moon was bright and clear in its corner of the sky as it rose above the shoulder of the mountain we camped high upon last night, but it didn’t last–it too was soon swallowed by the clouds that cast a light but cold rain down on my tent overnight. When I woke this morning, little had changed and it was off again in full rain gear once more, hoping for the best. The emotional pendulum had swung wildly back from the high of having dried out all of my gear yesterday and into the uncertainty of what was in store today.

During that first hour of the early morning, windows of sunshine and blue sky would open and close in a matter of minutes, draping the entire landscape with a sense of uncertainty. Will this be a repeat of two days ago, or will the sun push the clouds out to pasture once and for all? At that early hour, I knew that the answer to that question would have signficant implications for my psyche one way or the other and it illuminated the notion that, despite the obvious physical challenge, this entire adventure is far more a test of mental endurance than anything else.

I may not believe in fate, destiny, religion, or "the universe", but what I do believe is that, on balance, things tend to work out for the better more often than not, provided I’ve empowered myself to see things as they truly are and not merely how I wish them to be. And so it was with that internal steeling that I pushed ahead, ready to meet whatever the weather might bring.

The answer to the morning’s question turned out to be: a little of everything. Down through yet more of the rough, overgrown trail that has defined the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the glimmers of sun disappeared, replaced with a steady rain that would only briefly abate when the trail passed by the trunk of a large cedar or hemlock whose foliage created a mini umbrella.
An hour later, the rains had disappeared and the sun seemed to be making more of an effort to pierce the gray, but by lunch time it was back to a light rain that would steadily build as we climbed away from the Suiattle River.

As it became more persistent during the long climb up, the rain at first seemed to thicken slightly before my eyes realized that it was slowly transitioning to sleet, which in turn gave way to snow. By now, we’d ascended through not one but two separate layers of clouds, above which was the best weather we’d had in hours. It was a winter wonderland in September.

With ever-evolving weather, I went through more wardrobe changes than perhaps any other day on trail thus far. The wet and cold final hours of the day magnified the usual end-of-day fatigue, and with only 100 miles remaining, the trail certainly appears to be doing its best to exact its pound of flesh. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of down, it’s time to recharge for another day.

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