Side Trip to Stehekin
I was up early, packing camp by the light of fading stars. I had plans to meet my parents at Manning Park, in Canada, in just a few days. The vicious climbs of the last few days had already put me behind schedule, and I had my heart set on a side trip that would cost me yet more time. For days now I had been reading in my guidebook and hearing from other hikers that the tiny resort town of Stehekin was worth a visit. Not only would it be my last shot at a hot meal, it was also home to a bakery with a reputation for the best cinnamon rolls in the world. If I pushed myself, I could treat myself and still make it to my rendezvous on time.
My hike began with a 1,500 foot climb up Middle Ridge, which offered a nice view back to Glacier Peak. From there it was no rest for the weary; I had another 1,500 foot climb up to Suiattle Pass. The morning had barely begun and already I was bushed. However, I knew I only had one last 500 foot climb before the trail turned back downhill toward Big Agnes Creek. From there, the rest of the morning and early afternoon would be a gentle 12 mile downgrade to the High Bridge Guard Station at Stehekin Road, where I hoped to catch a shuttle to the resort.
I made good time and arrived at the road just in time to catch a dusty old shuttle bus that was soon to depart for Stehekin. A couple of through-hikers were already at the shuttle stop, waiting for the departure, and I quickly fell into conversation with them. We were all excited to be so close to Canada, and our collective relief loosened our tongues and broke our dirt encrusted faces into beaming smiles. Those smiles wavered only slightly when the shuttle driver informed us that this would be the last shuttle of the day. That meant we had to choose: food and showers at the resort, or tacking on a bit more mileage for the day. The road to Stehekin was 14 miles, so there would be no way to do both. I was deeply torn. On the one hand, I had promised myself this last treat, and my worn body ached for the extra calories. On the other hand, I was already behind schedule and had planned only a short stop at the resort. Taking the shuttle now would mean losing more precious miles, which would have to be made up for with a blistering pace over the next two days.
The decision was made for me when I looked at my gear and realized that the rigors of Glacier Peak had led me to eat through more food than anticipated. I needed resupply, and Stehekin was now the only game in town. I jumped onto the shuttle with three other PCT hikers and a young couple that had been out for a day hike. The ride was slow and winding, giving our small group of hikers additional time to chat and get to know each other. The young couple listened, wide eyed at the stories we told about bears, blizzards, hunger, and the psychological trauma of a long solo hike. Eventually, one of them asked how we could spend so much time alone. “What do you think about?” she asked. It was a good question, and one I couldn’t readily answer. I reflected on the last month or more and drew a blank. “To be honest,” I replied, “I ran out of things to think about months ago.” The couple laughed at what they assumed was an attempt at humor. The rest of us laughed because, absurd as it sounded, it captured perfectly what we had all experienced.
The road took us past Rainbow Falls and dropped us at the combined restaurant, general store, and office of the resort. It was too early for dinner, so the three PCT hikers and I bade the young couple adieu and checked into a primitive campsite not far from the restaurant. After a heavenly shower and a bit of shopping at the general store, it was finally time to satisfy my craving for real food. I ate a delicious meal of eggplant Napoleon, and then joined my fellow hikers on the patio for a few beers as the late afternoon light burnished the surface of Lake Chelan below.
My companions represented an interesting cross section of hiking culture, with diverse backgrounds, goals, and motivations. Charlie was a repeat offender, having hiked the PCT on more than one occasion. In fact, he hiked parts of the trail every year. As it turned out, he was also the friend that Andy (Wolverine) had been waiting for all the way back in Idyllwild. Snapper was a German tourist who had come halfway around the world to hike this mythic trail. He would be turning back at the Canadian border rather than continuing on to Manning Park, as his visa would not allow him re-entry if he left the country. Finally, Sleep Ninja was a tough looking Texan who was wrapping up a section hike that had begun in Northern California.
After dinner we retired to our camp site, where we sat back to have a few more beers and chat. I wasn’t used to sharing a camp with other people, so it was nice to relax, watch the stars burn their way through the deepening blanket of night, and bullshit about whatever topics came to mind. As the night wore on, one additional thing became clear about Charlie: he was a crusader. “Crusader” was a nickname I gave to a fairly common subset of hikers – those with extremely strong opinions, over which they were ready to argue vehemently if given the least provocation. Crusaders tended to feel that honest questions undermined their carefully constructed world view. Thus, instead of discussing and exchanging point and counter-point, they talked over, insulted, ignored, redirected, or used any other tactic to dominate the conversation. I had seen it, time and again, as hikers I met began to bicker amongst themselves about topics large and small. I was able to avoid conversations with these people by simply giving a noncommittal answer and moving on, rather than to trying to wade into the morass of their logic. I’m not sure why crusaders are particularly common among through-hikers. Perhaps it is the same will power that allows a person to hike hundreds of miles that also prevents them from backing away from a debate. Or maybe the PCT attracted idealists and zealots. I’ll admit, most of my life I had struggled to pick my battles, so perhaps I was just one more data point.
In any case, Charlie went to bed frustrated because I had questioned his position on something silly. As I recall, it was some minor point about the relative merits of CSAs and farmers markets. “Where are you getting your information from!?” he had demanded. His question caught me off guard. I had no information; I had thought it was clear that I was just speculating and asking clarifying questions. I told him as much. “Well this conversation is OVER. I’m not going to bother talking to someone who’s just guessing!” His sneer, lit by the dying embers of the fire, showed his contempt for my ignorance. “Well, where did you get your information from?” I asked innocently as he rose to go. “I’m… guessing,” he said lamely, the anger in his eyes faltering slightly before rekindling brighter than ever. “But I told you that up front!” So there you have it; if you must guess, say so up front and your guesses gain bonus credibility points.
I let the conversation roll off my back, turning my attention to the night sky instead. The stars were now out in force, their brilliant cloud threaded every few seconds by the silky tails of shooting stars. I didn’t get to see the stars as often as you might think. At this time of the year the sun set late, and the sky often didn’t get dark enough for truly great star gazing until the wee hours of the morning. I was, of course, fast asleep by then. Now, under the soft glow of the stars, I let the events of the day wash over me until weariness dragged me to my tent and into the warm cocoon of sleep.
Despite a late night of stargazing, I woke before the sun and walked down to the water alone to watch the sunrise gradually color mountains on the far side of Lake Chelan. Breakfast was not served until seven at the only cafe in town, so I had some time to kill. I took pictures of the lake and read what little my guidebook had to say about it. Lake Chelan is a glacial scar that runs 55 miles from Stehekin down to the town of Chelan – a natural wonder that I considered worthy of a dedicated trip to northern Washington. I pictured gliding along in a kayak for mile after mile, taking in the sharp peaks that border the lake on either side.
Eventually, the cafe opened and I set my sights on a massive stack of pancakes. They were disappointingly undercooked, but I needed the calories, so I stuffed myself anyway. I was joined by the other through-hikers, including Charlie, whose pleasant banter signaled that our tiff from the previous night was water under the bridge. Through-hikers tend to have a good deal of respect for each other, so it’s hard to maintain a grudge. After breakfast, I caught the first shuttle of the morning back to the trail. On the way, the shuttle stopped at the Stehekin Pastry Company, that famed bakery that had so strongly influenced my decision to make this side trip. We had a pleasant surprise when the proprietor informed us that a former PCT hiker turned trail angel named “True Grits” had paid in advance for a cookie for each PCT through hiker. I chose a snickerdoodle, which I ate during the rest of the shuttle ride, along with two large cinnamon rolls for the trail. Thus, armed with enough food to last the rest of the trip, I resumed my hike.
The first half of the day was a mirror image of the hike down to Stehekin Road. A long and leisurely climb along the banks of Bridge Creek – 3,200 feet over 20 miles – brought me to Highway 20 at Rainy Pass. Early on in the day I heard a crashing in the bushes ahead of me and assumed I was coming upon some hiker returning from a bathroom trip. I kept hiking, unconcerned, until a black bear suddenly emerged onto the trail approximately 20 yards away. He stood there, sniffing and staring at me, no doubt trying to figure out what I was and whether I posed a threat. Apparently he decided I did not, because he eventually turned his back on me and ambled slowly off into the bushes on the other side of the trail. The rest of the morning’s hike was pretty but uneventful, with the exception of a hanging bridge crossing that reminded me of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Highway 20 was the last major road I would cross before reaching Canada, so I stopped there for lunch. As I ate one of my cinnamon rolls, I contemplated the fact that, just as there is a first time for everything, there is a last time for everything as well. In these final days, I was noticing a series of last times that were bittersweet. For a while I indulged my thoughts as I watched people and cars come and go. It felt good to be part of society, even if that society was busily rushing to and fro while I sat as still and neglected as the trees around me.
From the pass, the trail climbed 2,000 feet to Cutthroat Pass, where I got some of the most spectacular views of the entire trip. On the eastern side of the pass the Northern Cascades really showed off, with open views of sparsely forested, craggy peaks. Each mountain was garbed in stony robes of coral and gold, which was just beginning to glow like embers in the slanting light of early evening.
The climb to Cutthroat Pass had taken a toll on my legs. Mercifully, the trail from there was easy hiking. A gentle downgrade took me from high ridges down toward Methow Meadow. Darkness was rapidly approaching, and I hoped to camp in the meadows, so I began a slow jog. Despite my best efforts, I arrived in Methow Meadow Valley after dark and had to knock out the last few miles by the light of my headlamp. I hiked on through constantly shifting shadows, which groped at me from the deeper void of the woods. The kaleidoscope of dimly lit branches was fascinating at first, until I heard a branch snap somewhere off trail to my right, at which point the scenery took on a decidedly more sinister quality.
There are plenty of noises in the nighttime that can get you spooked, especially when you are alone on the trail. The initial snap alone was not one of these. After all, I knew there were plenty of deer and other harmless creatures sharing these woods with me. The soft padded steps that followed the initial snap, however, made my blood run cold. This was no deer, and judging by the volume it was too big for something like a raccoon or fox. It could be a bear, I told myself, though I didn’t really believe it. For one thing, the footsteps were parallel to me, and sounded as if something large was stealthily following my progress. I took a few tentative steps, straining my ears all the while. The padding to my right followed, maintaining a consistent distance. I stopped and a split second later the footsteps in the darkness stopped as well. For the first time on the entire trail I felt watched. I shone my light into the night and saw nothing but vague shapes that did nothing to ease my alarm. I had read that there were mountain lions up here – lots of them – and suddenly knew I was being stalked by a big cat, curious to see if I might be dinner.
The phantom cat continued to follow me; soft steps and pauses, never too close, but never far, either. It went on like this for another mile – perhaps 15 of the longest minutes of my life. With relief, I came to a bridge over a stream whose banks were fairly steep and choked with downed branches. Whatever was following me would have to come down to the trail to follow, and at least then I could see what I was up against. I kept on at the same pace, turning frequently to look back at the trail behind me. The sounds disappeared after the bridge, and I was able to breathe freely once more. Whatever had been stalking me was gone.
Shortly after the bridge, I found an inviting campsite by the gurgle and rush of the Methow River. Although the bugs here weren’t bad, I was mindful of the stalker I had just left behind, and I set up my tent for the semblance of protection it offered from the pressing dark. I had hiked 35 miles, making up a bit of the deficit created by my stop in Stehekin. Still, I was well behind schedule and knew that the following day would be a long one.
A Dream Realized
Elation, uncertainty, and regret hit me in equal measures as I packed up camp. It had occurred to me that this would be my final full day on the trail. I had 51 miles left before the Canadian border, and then another eight miles to Manning Park. I had already made up my mind to make this my longest day so far, in terms of mileage. That would mean knocking out all but a dozen or so miles of trail, which I could easily hike the next morning on my way to meet my parents at the terminus of the trail. The reality of the end of the trail had been solidifying in my head for weeks now, so it came as no surprise. What was surprising, though, was the mixture of emotions so strong that I couldn’t decide whether to spin joyful circles or burst into tears. In the end I decided to do what I had done for months; I slung my pack over my shoulder and set one foot in front of the other.
The trail traversed Methow Meadow and an adjoining forested valley before reaching my last major climb of the trip. I had 2,800 feet of climb to get to Glacier Pass, a saddle between this valley and the next, then to Grasshopper Pass, and finally past Tatie Peak. Before I could get to the start of my climb, I stumbled across a female black bear and her cub. I was hiking fast and came around a corner to find myself face to face with the animals. The cub bolted uphill and away from the trail, which was fortunate for me because it put momma bear between me and her baby. She stood her ground, about 20 yards to my left, and stared at me. Her posture was not exactly threatening, but it was also clear she was ready to rumble if I came any closer. Our standoff lasted another minute before she decided the cub had a good enough head start, at which point she lumbered off in the same direction.
The climb to Tatie Peak was about as tough as anything I had done in the last few days, yet I barely felt the strain. The promise of completing the trail was drawing me onward, like a metal filing caught by the irresistible draw of a strong magnet. After the peak, the trail dipped to Hart’s Pass, the last trailhead accessible by car on the PCT. There were plenty of day hikers out, and I received many warm and heartfelt congratulations from these total strangers. Hearing their earnest well-wishes reminded me of how lucky I had been to have the support of so many people throughout my journey. I thought of the car rides, words of kindness, and trail magic that made my experience all the more amazing. After all, hiking the PCT had turned out to be about so much more than wilderness and introspection. It turned out to be an opportunity to view humanity and civilization in a different and more appreciative light. As I’ve said before, I had gotten pretty jaded in recent years, but on the trail I saw mostly the good and admirable side of humanity, which was refreshing beyond belief.
It’s worth repeating, though I know I have said it before, that I had also come to appreciate the great works of human engineering. Imagine being in the woods for days at a time, and then coming across something as seemingly mundane as a concrete freeway. We take such infrastructure for granted in our day to day life, but the cumulative knowledge and experience necessary to keep modern civilization running is truly impressive. These ribbons of concrete and asphalt are the veins and capillaries through which the lifeblood of commerce flows. Each car is more than a flash in the sun or the guttural cough of a combustion engine. It is the physical manifestation of the human propensity for invention, adventure, interconnectedness, and the pressing desire to see what lies over the next horizon.
A sign at Hart’s Pass let me know I was 35 miles from the border, a testament to how far I had come (and how far I still had to go). On any other day 35 miles was an ambitious bit of hiking, and I had already put 16 miles behind me. Of course, I didn’t need to tackle all that mileage today. And so I put my head down, refused to get over-excited, and pushed onward. A number of rolling ridgetop miles, as well as a couple of minor climbs – including a 1,400 foot jaunt to Woody Pass – saw me through to the end of the day. As the last light of late afternoon warmed my face, I paused to enjoy my final sunset on the trail. Below me, golden light rippled on the surface of Hopkin’s Lake, while to the west ridge after ridge marched away into jagged silhouettes of purple and black. A haze of smoke from distant forest fires softened the sky, mixing with thin wisps of cloud that captured and amplified the constantly shifting colors of dusk.
I was momentarily saddened to think my journey was also in its final transition to the peaceful slumber of night. I had no time to indulge in sentimentality, however, as I still wanted to get a few more miles under my belt and save myself some work in the morning. A few miles later it was too dark to see, so I stopped to eat my last supper and dig out my headlamp. As I ate, I watched the stars blink into place, witnesses to my last push toward Canada.
With a sigh, I packed up and turned on my light. There were no more challenging hills to climb or streams to cross. From here it was a long gradual downhill to the border, and I was content to hike through the night while my thoughts drifted. The rhythm of my footfalls and the pattern of my breathing lulled me into a comfortable frame of mind, in which I could pass mile after mile with ease. By the time I began paying attention once more, I found myself switching back and forth down a short slope toward Castle Creek. I realized where I was and, just like that, my journey was over. Materializing out of the darkness was the set of wooden posts marking the PCT terminus, and next to it Monument 78, which marks the Canadian border. Somehow, without being fully cognizant of the fact, I had hiked all 51 remaining miles.
I set up my tent slowly on the only level spot available, which happened to straddle the border. By coincidence I lay down, my head in the US and my feet in Canada, as if the trail somehow knew my feet were taking me North but my thoughts were already home with friends and family. I lay awake for a long while, looking at stars through the mesh ceiling of the tent and thinking, surprisingly, of nothing at all. For now, it was enough merely to exist in the moment. Later, I would allow myself all the time in the world for reflection and nostalgia, to rethink, rehash, and rewrite the thoughts and emotions of my PCT adventure. For now, I let the full weight of exhaustion, held at bay so long by momentum and will power, to finally take me completely. I slept – deeply, peacefully, and without dreams.