I was in no rush to get out of town that morning. I enjoyed one last cup of freshly brewed coffee at the Mazama General Store while playing a Charades type game with a fun group of “flippers.”
Traditionally on the PCT there are two groups of hikers, the Southbounders (SOBOs) and the Northbounders (NOBOs,) with NOBOs being more numerous. This year has been a little bit different due to the varied and unusual snow levels in Washington and California. Typically, SOBOs can be expected to have the more difficult snow crossings right at the start of their hike, early summer in the Northern Cascades, while NOBOs may encounter some snow in the Sierra Nevada’s, but they have already been on trail for 600 miles through the desert and have had time to develop their “trail legs” and gain some experience. In 2019 though, the snow levels in Washington are dramatically low, while snow in the Sierra Nevada’s is much higher than normal. Many NOBOs made the decision to “flip up”, getting a flight up to Seattle and getting on trail at Hart’s Pass to continue their thru hike, now as a SOBO. I have heard several stories from various Flippers, the third group of PCT hiker that is unusually large this year, who described scenes from the Sierra’s that were near apocalyptic.
The PCT has grown dramatically more popular in recent years, this year and most years there are 50 people starting their thru hike every day from March all the way through May and even into June from the same point at Campo, CA, the southern terminus. Not only does this create something of a traffic problem, it also threatens the delicate wilderness we are all there to love and enjoy, but often damage in our human clumsiness. Because thru hiking is so accessible, many people come out to hike who have never backpacked a day in their lives, which is perfectly okay in typical conditions. People learn as they go, and the desert is a perfect training ground. The situation in the Sierra’s got messy very quickly this year however. While Rangers were strongly suggesting people wait several weeks for the snow to melt before they entered the Sierra’s, many were entering anyway, possibly having little to no snow experience. Injuries abounded. One Flipper told me they were seeing rescue helicopters every day. I have nothing but respect for the people who decided to stay safe – Washington is a beautiful section in the summer, and all the Flippers who came out to join the SOBO’s for it only enrich our experience. I will say, however, there are many more people on trail heading SOBO than I expected because of it. One of the advertisements for hiking the PCT southbound is the promise of more solitude. In my first week I worried that this influx of Flippers would threaten that, but I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have to worry. I may not get week long stretches where I don’t see another soul, but I would have plenty of time to my own thoughts, just one of the lessons I ultimately took from this section.
I hitched out from Mazama on my own, a lovely woman from Winthrope heading over the pass to visit a friend – she had stopped in Mazama to pick up one of their apparently famous salted baguettes to bring as a gift. We talked about her horses and her husband’s job monitoring wildlife for the National Parks. She dropped me off at Rainey Pass and just like that I was back on trail. I loved my time in town, it was a perfect way to recoup and rest, but it was time to move again.
I hiked 15 miles to Bridge Creek camp near the turnoff for Stehekin that day. While I started off on my own, I overtook and hiked for a while with a kid named Milk Jug who I had met up near the border. He just graduated high school in Chicago and decided to hike the PCT before he goes to college to study landscape architecture. He had next to no backcountry experience, and I admired his tenacity.
The thunder storm we knew was coming rolled right over us mid afternoon, greeting us with a flash and a crack of thunder. I left behind Milk Jug but quickly caught up with Almonds, a friend from Mazama, and hiked with her to Bridge Creek camp. We were thrilled, after hiking through a torrential downpour and getting briefly lost, to discover the campsite had a lean-to shelter, one of the few that exist on the PCT. At least for that night we wouldn’t have to get our tents wet.
Several hikers were at the shelter already, and we were all in good spirits as we hung up our wet stuff on nails and selected spots to sleep in the shelter, we were giddy with our good fortune. It was a warm afternoon despite the storm. Just when we were getting dry a family of four who had hiked out from Stehekin for a weekend trip showed up. They were soaked and fairly miserable, it seemed to be the first family backpacking trip they had attempted and they didn’t seem to be wearing the rain gear they said they had. There wasn’t enough room in the shelter for them to sleep but the rain stopped a short time later and they only stayed long enough to get dry and warm up before they left for their tents. I had bought an emergency blanket in Mazama to line my sleeping bag with on colder nights, and I gave it to their daughter to warm up with. Milk jug showed up a short time later, also miserable and soaked, but by the time everyone had eaten dinner and settled in for bed we were all laughing, pleasantly full and warm. We enjoyed the camaraderie and the security of a roof over our head for one more night. Kanga and Milk Jug maybe a little less so; they both had mice running across their sleeping bags in the middle of the night.
Everyone who stayed in the shelter was going in to Stehekin to resupply. They had to hike the 5 miles from our shelter to where the Shuttle bus would pick them up at High Bridge at 9:15, I waited out of the way until everyone had packed and headed out to start packing my own stuff. I hiked out alone after everyone had gone. I came down to the road to Stehekin just in time to see the bus rolling away at 9:15 on the dot. Then I really was alone again. Or so it felt for about ten minutes.
Just as I was crossing High Bridge, a group of British tourists rolled up in a golf cart and they began asking me questions, I was the first thru hiker they had met and they were ecstatic. One lady took my picture, in fact this was the second time a day hiker has wanted to photograph me. It felt ironic somehow how quickly I had become a tourist attraction. I thought I was still pretty fresh, it had only been two days since my last shower, I was only about 100 miles into my 2,650 mile thru hike. But already I had become a part of the trail in some way.
Just up away from Stehekin I saw my first blueberry bushes, not ripe yet. It soon became painful, passing by hundreds of green blueberries that I knew hikers a couple weeks behind me would relish.
I felt good, good spirits, energized. I somehow began to form a blister on top of my original blister that had begun to heal in Mazama, another was forming on the ball of my right foot, but otherwise my body felt strong.
I hiked 17 miles along South Fork Agnes Creek. Somewhere along the way I entered Glacier Peak Wilderness. That day was my first encounter with the “car wash” that would become regular for the rest of the section. While it wasn’t actively raining, the thunderstorms from the day before had soaked the brush that had become overgrown in many sections, making for wet legs and, worse, soaked shoes most days.
I thought a lot that day about the group of hikers I had parted with. Most of them were SOBO hikers, and I felt an affinity with them I didn’t feel for the more experienced Flippers who had already been on trail for 600 miles. I thought about slowing my pace, letting them catch up, but I had a feeling they may spend more time in Stehekin than they had originally planned, the weather forecast for the next few days being a deterrent from getting back on trail, and I only had so much food with me. I had to hike on, but I missed the company.
I got to my campsite early, most of the day being relatively flat through the valley. I laid in my tent and read the book I had picked up in Mazama, deciding a real book was worth the weight to save my phone battery and having the comfort of turning real pages. It was still sunny at 5:00, and that was about when I fell asleep, still reading. I woke up at 9 to the steady downpour of rain on my tent.
That day started out well, I was in good spirits and the weather was nice, although I did encounter more of the same car wash as I hiked the last section up and out of the valley. I started to feel a touch of anxiety just before lunch, a state that has been almost nonexistent on trail. When you have nothing to do but take care of your fundamental needs and walk every day, what is there to worry about? I wasn’t thinking about interpersonal problems, or bills, problems at work, how I looked, how I behaved. All I had to do was wake up, get myself moving, eat, hike until I was too tired to go on, and sleep. Repeat cycle. No problems. But that day I felt that familiar nervous bubble forming in my stomach. Where am I going to camp tonight? What if I don’t make my miles? What kind of elevation is up around the next corner?
Around noon I got to the top of Suiattle Pass. I ate a huge meal, maybe more than I should have considering the importance of rationing. I needed to spread out my tent to dry, it was wet when I packed it up, and the view from the top of the pass was my first of many stunning views in Glacier Peak Wilderness, and I was seeking some sort of comfort.
Shortly after I started back down trail I ran into Heart Attack, another hiker I hadn’t seen since before I had come back through Hart’s Pass heading South. I hiked with him for a while and had a good catch up – we weren’t together that long but it was good to see a familiar face. He had gotten lost in the snow field over Suiattle Pass for a couple hours and had just gotten back on trail when I stumbled across him, he seemed to be pretty relieved to know he was back on track. I joked with him that I may be lost too – who knows?
After parting ways with Heart Attack my monster of a lunch was catching up to me, I had to make some room in my shrunken stomach. I found a good spot with nice soft ground to dig a hole, realizing as I went about my business that I had picked a spot with my first distant view of Glacier Peak. It was magical.
Once I was back on trail I realized how much better I felt. The anxiety bubble had burst. Note to self, if you’re feeling downspirited, you’re probably either A) Hungry, B) Lonely, or C) Need a good poop. In my case it was all of the above.
Shortly after I got to my camp that night a man named Plugging Along showed up – I quickly realized I had already heard other people talking about him. He started SOBO on June 18th, three days earlier than me, and nearly every night had been cold or rainy for him so far. It was nice and sunny that afternoon, so I built a fire, hoping it would lift his spirits a little. The last time he had a fire was up near the border when another hiker had built a fire then tasked Plugging Along with keeping it going while he took off to tag the border, the fire was more of a survival mechanism than a fun pastime for them as it was snowing that day. I asked him what his reasoning for being on trail was and he declared proudly, without missing a beat, “To get away from my wife.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, I won’t tell,” I joked to lighten the mood and he laughed.
“Oh she knows! I just hope she sends my resupply boxes anyway.”
We were also joined that night by Watercolor, another Flipper who I had met my very first day on trail and not seen since. We enjoyed the warm, dry night with our “hiker TV” and friendly conversation.
I only hiked 15 miles that day, but felt that I had been on a long journey.
I hiked with Watercolor most of that day, although we ended the day with Plugging Along again. It was a sunny day. In the morning we hiked through a beautiful old growth forest, all enormous cedars, lush mosses and ferns. It was familiar in a way and I felt the ancient souls of the trees more than I looked at them.
That day was our first big climb in Glacier Peak Wilderness. Up till that point it had mostly been strolling through the woods along two different rivers. But every SOBO knows that Glacier Peak Wilderness is the most brutal, most challenging section in Washington, and by the end of the day my feet knew why. Watercolor kept a good steady pace, marching along up the 2,500 feet of elevation in one push over Cloudy Pass. We got to enjoy the views of Glacier Peak and the rolling meadows at the top of the pass for a short time before we lost the same 2,500 feet in one drop, switchback after switchback. Just as we started to descend we heard the thunder rolling and I saw the storm moving over the next mountain range.
It rolled past us for the most part, we barely got rained on but the whole descent was a car wash, our shoes were soaked when we arrived at camp, but our tents stayed dry that night under the trees.
In all it was a 19 mile day, and I knew my gentle warm up had ended. I was in deep.