A week removed from the PCT, I sit here in my new room, in a new town, at a new university, and already the trail grows distant. How quickly life changes; that alone never ceases to amaze me. As life changes, so do its challenges: finishing my econometrics homework, reading reams of journal articles, and finding my way through a labyrinth of one-way streets and obscure classrooms. The trail seemed simpler. What follows is a reminder and a tribute to that simplicity, and to the life of being a thru-hiker.
When I left Mazama and headed north from Rainy Pass, I was on the proverbial homestretch. Less than 70 miles lay between me and Manning Park, Canada. Not only was the distance comprehensible (even now the entirety of the PCT is surely not), but I had all the support of the home crowd along those final miles. My dad, sister, aunt, and uncle resupplied me with all sorts of goodies, and would meet me again at Hart’s Pass, the last road intersection, to do so again. Needless to say, my days of cold oatmeal and instant potatoes were over early. Hurrah! Rainy Pass did live up to its name, though tamely. Luckily for me, the clouds lifted the following day for what would be two final days of glorious alpine scenery. It’s understandable why the Sierra usually get the best reviews: they are an incredible range that often have equally incredible summer weather. But when walking Washington in September or even October, hikers are not so lucky. So while the North Cascade peaks easily hold their own–glaciers, cirques, vertical faces, knife ridges, u-shaped valleys–much of the time it’s all hidden in dense, wet clouds. Thus, when you get a clear day, that perfect blue sky kind of day, it’s simply brilliant. That’s how it all ended for me, one final sendoff from the mountains.
From the Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven at Steven’s Pass to the border, I mostly walked alone. I crossed with Balls and Sunshine a few times (father and 11 year old daughter), but wished I could have my old friends around me for those final 150 miles, especially at the end. My schedule forced me to press on alone, a timetable I’d set for myself many months before, now with no way to shake it. I’d pushed back my finish date as much as possible, and now school was knocking almost as loud as Canada. In the last few weeks my mind would often wander to Oregon, envisioning what shape life would take after the trail. Those mental wanderings, like many on the trail, would then cease as I snapped back to the moment around me: rock underfoot, mountain overhead, sun washing out and highlighting the landscape all at once. I thought those last miles would be lonely without the company of friends, but instead it felt peaceful; I was finally hitting my stride. Moving through wilderness has always been relatively comfortable for me, but as this walk progressed I found that even the day to day concerns of the trail started to drop away. At the beginning, I was constantly thinking of what gear I could ditch, the next water source, or what would be a good mileage goal for the day. There were always plans for the next resupply: days of food, gear changes, and post office hours. These logistics still mattered, for without the details the big picture would never come into focus, but they seemed to quiet the further I walked. By the end, I felt as if on autopilot; not mindless walking, but instead clearing my mind for other matters. My maps mattered less, the rhythm of my pace more. The pitch of my tent, the feel of my pack, the next water source, the route ahead, dinner; they all seemed to come easily as my feet and hands knew just what to do. Like a potter who knows just how to work the clay on a wheel, the movements and habits become second nature. Maybe I am a slow learner, but I had never walked long enough before to grasp the many nuances of backpacking, and then let them slip away.
The Canadian border of the PCT is a strange thing (so is the Mexican one for that matter). Coming down a small valley I looked up and saw the photo that many hikers before me have taken: a faint clear cut in the trees, heading straight down the mountain. How they bulldozed that, I’ll never know, but that boundary is made real, and it jolts you. Another minute and you have a flashback: the same wooden monument that you started from five months earlier. But this is no longer Southern California with its dry dust and border patrol. Here there is simply a small clearing and the silence of the forest at what could be Anywhere, PCT. I smiled to myself, but it was a bemused smile. Walking this long, the trail seems as though it will never end. Indeed, the only sane conclusion is that it simply continues forever; hoping to reach a finish line would be sheer mental folly. Accept this premise, the miles float by, and suddenly you’re confronted with the Northern Terminus at Monument 78, a sight full of both joy and contradiction. Alone at this monumental yet unassuming landmark, there was only one thing left to do–crack open my celebratory can of Rainier beer and raise it high,
To wet feet, dirty feet, tingly feet, and frozen feet,
To cold oatmeal, instant potatoes, and snickers galore,
To a trail with relentless climbs, snow, and streams,
To five months of the best of times and the worst of times,
To an epic year that will go down in the history books,
To the best summer and greatest adventure I’ve ever had,
To meeting strangers and locals at every road and in every hamlet, and to walking across America,
To trail angels no matter how great or small–there is still magic in this world,
To family and friends near and far, and your tailwind of support,
To all with whom I shared the miles, without you it wouldn’t have been worth it,
To the Class of 2011, the speed demons, the herd, and the back-of-the-pack…Congrats, we made it!
And finally, to future adventures, wherever they take us.
Special shout out to an amazing group of thru-hikers and new friends: Cerveza, Softwalker, Iguana and Kcop, 8mile, Hotrod, Gourmet, Mr Fox and Rocklocks, Garfunkel, Holden, Quake, Unload, Topsy Turvy and Data Muffin, Tickette, Spicerack, Happy Meal, Lafawnduh and Eurotrash, Yankee, Jimbrick, Wiz, Buttercup, Mowgli, Daybreaker, Balls and Sunshine, Scout’s Honor, and Headbanger. You guys made it real.
More photos coming soon!