Coordinates: 39.1728 , -120.2575
Just northwest of Lake Tahoe-Having joined the Tahoe Rim Trail ‘TRT’ for two and one half days and parted just a few hours ago, splitting down to the left, by the top edge of a ski resort and down into a valley far below where a campsite appeared next to an active and fresh stream. Good views of the lake earlier. ‘Biggest alpine lake in the world’ said the gentleman who hitched us from town to Echo Lake Pass.
Space. Stars. Absence of wildfire smoke. We sit at lunch recalling how we felt and who we were only a few months ago when before we’d even entered the Sierras. Before we understood what post-holing for nine straight hours actually does to your morale. We tried to piece it together.
Tehachapi had been the last time we saw John and Kris on the trail. Where I bought a second pair of shoes. ‘Remember the wind? So bad we couldn’t sleep a couple times. So bad I thought I’d get blown into a Joshua tree outside Lake Isabella.’ I hadn’t thought about any of these experiences in much length since Oregon. The pace changed. The wildfires sprang up and filled the sky with haze all the way to the Canadian border. And now we were suddenly back here, just 30 miles south of where we got back on the trail. After going home for three days essentially to say goodbye.
I’d called Aubrey from a Safeway parking lot in Tahoe and realized again how warped time had become our here. It hadn’t even been three months. I felt like I’d been gone at least a year. At least. I don’t know what causes the time dilation to occur. I assume it’s because of the sheer energy and movement taking place day after day. Never seeing the same thing twice. I haven’t known the day of the week offhand for at least three months. It only matters as far as post office hours go. When we were here last everything was covered in snow. The lakes were frozen. The creeks were raging with the first rays of summer sun but there had been a late snow and we’d turned back. Outside of Tuolumne Meadows we’d had lunch at Miller Lake. It was there that I suddenly knew at a gut level...and could feel and imagine what life would be like without her. I shuddered next to a broken crag and walked down to the water to try and scoop something clean out for my ramen.
We’d gotten out four days later and moved up to Donner Pass to beat the snow and come back when the weather was in our favor. Oregon blew by in a cloud of smoke and mosquitos. Washington was a beautiful wooded and mysterious place. Thick mist hung in the morning air. Streams crossed the path everywhere and moss hung beneath ancient grey slabs of metamorphic Cascade stone. The further we got, the more aggressive the climbs until switchbacks lasted five miles and took most of the day’s expendable energy to get through. But it was stunning. Unlike anything I’d come across before. The thru-hikers around us looked somber. The end was coming. They kept to themselves as did we. Small calculations inching us closer by the day.
We’d learned after Snoqualmie from an exuberant day-hiker on a corporate retreat that the PCT had been closed all the way from Hart’s Pass to the border. He told us casually as we ate our lunch leaving us both stunned for a moment.
‘Ok. We’ll find out more in Holden.’
Holden was a Lutheran-run sort of volunteer-based village tucked away in a valley a few days ahead. We trudged on. We passed a few more hikers. News was spreading fast. There were feelings of betrayal, talk of mutiny, threats to walk through the thirty-mile closure come hell or high water or legal repercussions. To some hikers the monument was everything. It was proof that they’d stayed true to the trail for five plus months. There would be champagne and high fives and midair jumps of joy caught on IPhones here. It didn’t seem fair, but after the shock wore off we realized we’d already done a few reroutes due to fire. The idea was to go from Mexico to Canada on foot right? The trail overall was a well-groomed foot and equestrian path and every detour we’d had to take reminded us how good we had it on the official PCT. So what if we hit Canada at a different spot? There had to be options. ‘We’ll make our own monument if we have to!’
We walked through more mist and more smoke. Five mile switchbacks with quarter mile turns steeper than anything I remembered encountering so far; camping next to oxygen blue alpine lakes that filled with pure runoff and emptied downhill toward larger creeks that met rivers far below. The northern Cascades felt untouched and rare to our senses. Greener greens, bluer blues, a richness to the air that came in unexpected moments and filled the lungs with something I’d never breathed before. After five months in nature the reasons behinds the motion within the greater cycles becomes apparent. Everything is always in motion and I realized it’s only in cities where we can simulate stasis for brief periods with right-angled walls and sidewalks, little rules and guidelines for cells of clustered people that have to live together somehow. I think we do alright as a species, that is I’m not as pessimistic as I once was. I’m part of a biological golden age with profound life-saving technologies and advancements at my fingertips and yet...
Nature doesn’t operate the way we do. It’s never ‘under control’. All animals work within the seasons to bring more animals forth into life. This seems to be the entire modus operandi of nature: to bring forth more life to live. To bear enough seeds. To pack the mountains with enough snow to melt and feed the lower valleys and leech down minerals from mountains that rise and fall endlessly according to tectonic dynamics all over the world. The planet we live on, as I have observed, isn’t just a lucky outpost on the edge of a galaxy among billions of other galaxies. It may very well be, but whatever it is; this realm that bears fruit and flower and lives and dies and feeds and nourishes with photon radiation smashing into a ball of matter tilted at 23 degrees...it boggles the mind and I’ve never felt it more apparent than out here. I’ve written about it before but never understood and just witnessed over and over again until it made sense.
And then we were in Holden standing in line to get the last slices of pizza from the great cafeteria where hikers, tourists, and Lutherans all came together in the summer to get away from it all. We talked with the volunteers and got some background on the property. It had been donated to the Lutherans by a mining company operating just a stone’s throw from the road which ran less than a quarter mile and was dotted with a few inns, a supply store, and the cafeteria. The entire compound ran on hydro-electric power and there were signs urging us to be conservative with our hot water and electricity use. We stayed the night in a modest room that was decorated sometime in the late 70s and lined back up at the cafeteria for eggs and coffee in the morning. We had to catch a bus to Chelan Lake in about an hour and then ferry to Stehekin, the last ‘town’ on the PCT before Canada. We’d researched alternative routes the night before and come up with a decent plan. When the PCT got to Rainie Pass we’d move west to Ross Lake State Park and walk the East Bank Trail thirty miles north to the Canadian border. We didn’t know if there was an official monument or marker there, or just a line of cleared foliage like most of northern border but it sounded like our best bet. It turned out to be the preferred route of a few dozen other hikers as well, including T-bone from Germany and his Estonian/Latvian friends that we hadn’t seen since South Kennedy Meadows back in May. He’d lost over forty pounds on the trail and had to start supplementing extra doses of protein. He was much thinner than when we’d seen him last and had picked up the name T-bone because of his first name and the fact that he was becoming skin and bones as the trail wore on. He was however in excellent shape and all smiles and we leapfrogged each other for the remainder of the trip along with Sunshine and four other Europeans. I was again, just like around Whitney to Kearsage, the only American.
Coordinates: 48.3093° N, 120.6565° W
Having taken a small ferry up Lake Chelan for about 45 minutes with twelve or so other hikers. We docked and walked directly to the Cascade National Park ranger station to plan our Ross Lake approach. Permits would be needed and camp sites had to be pre-arranged and mapped with an employee. It took us about 20 minutes. Three days in, two days out. Last night at ‘Nightmare Camp’ before a nine mile walk to the border. I suppose in a way, we felt a sense of finality. Even with 360 miles still ahead in the Sierras...we’d come from Mexico with the intent of reaching Canada and it was finally within reach.
The East Bank Trail along Ross Lake started with ease as we moved in and out of small coves with a wide and well-used equestrian trail. We set up at a stock camp just a few miles in and saw our Swedish friend Sunshine up the hill just a bit. He waved and smiled and went back to watching episodes of The Office on his phone. How you end up passing the time after 5 + months on the trail is different for every hiker. Some write, others read, some make extravagant dishes out of Pop Tarts and dried fruit. Some people like a little reminder of what home is like, and some write long blogs on their phones in tents and resorts and pack stations. Of course, even after this long there’s little more to downtime than eating dinner and falling asleep as soon as possible.
Another day took us to Nightmare Camp after a lengthy series of climbs that rivaled anything in the Cascades. We got in after dark and I tripped through bramble and wet broken logs to hang our food. It’s pretty simple: tie one end of your guy line to a rock and toss it over a high branch. Sometimes it takes a couple throws. Sometimes part of the line is caught in a bush and the rock comes hurtling back at your face at 9pm but after it’s over the branch just tie the other end to your food bag, haul it up, and tie it off.
And then, around 1pm the next day, swarmed by mosquitos as bad as anything in Oregon, we crawled up a muddy slope over rocks and roots and stood with a few other hikers at the Canadian Border. I didn’t get the German fellow’s name but he turned and gave me a big hug and we all told each other congratulations and took pictures from every conceivable angle. I wrote a note in the trail log: “Thank you to everyone who made this possible. For Dena Greenwood 1965-2018”. There were some tears...and so many had been shed already...it was a somber moment without any ecstatic hollers of triumph or fists in the air. It didn’t feel like a victory. It felt like a series of days, one after another, one foot in front of the other. It felt like something I’d said I would do...so I did it. For my mom and for myself. For us. And it didn’t feel finished at all. I’d been lucky enough to do it with someone like Hanne and we’d become a team over the months-moving like clockwork to arrange, resupply, fix injuries, and keep our heads in the game and we still had to turn around, head back two days to the main road, and get to the Sierras.
We walked back to a series of benches at a little park next to the lake and made lunch. We’d bought a tiny bottle of champagne in Stehekin and split it into our camping mugs.
A family of kayakers came to the shore and approached with two beers and we told them the condensed story over the next few minutes and packed up and headed to a beautiful lakeside spot with a massive view of the northern Cascades covered in low clouds.
The next afternoon we made it back out to the main road where T-bone, Latvian/Estonian, and Sunshine were all sitting waiting for pre-arranged rides to shore up. We’d planned to hitch it as close to Seattle as possible and after some long goodbyes and good lucks we were picked up by two forest ranger girls who were coming back from their last shifts in the Cascades. They took us as far as Concrete, WA-a tiny town with a supermarket, Asian restaurant, and motel that was booked solid for Labor Day. The next bus out wasn’t until 11am the next day so we were officially stuck in Concrete. A minute later outside the supermarket, a woman asked where we were headed.
“The KOA if it isn’t booked up.”
“Get in” she said, and ten minutes later we were at the road leading in, saying a prayer with her to help us find the spirit of The Lord in our journeys. I had no problem with this. In a way I felt like the spirit of The Lord was all over the PCT and we’d crossed paths during plenty of sunsets and small moments already.
We walked up, got the last available tent site in a small clearing and set up. Showers. Rest. Kids running around playing laser-tag in the warm late afternoon air. Glampers and campers, hikers and bikers, dogs and bicycles. I don’t mind KOAs at all.
The next morning we were heading toward Seattle on a series of five buses. Each stop more populated than the next. On the first bus I spoke with a man in his 90s with 1% hearing left who’d come to Concrete in the 1920s and owned half the land in the county, who’d lost the love of his life to cancer after 53 years of marriage, who now road the bus because ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I hit one of them kids on accident.’
I told him about my mom. He nodded and looked out the window.
Four hours later we were in the top level of a double-decker heading toward the downtown skyscrapers of Seattle. It was Hanne’s first time here. If lived in Seattle for about a year back in 2013. We finally got off the bus in the middle of downtown in Seneca and 5th and walked to the Grand Central Bakery where I’d gone almost every morning when I lived in First Hill. It was surreal and the contrast between the forest 48 hrs ago and metro Seattle was almost too much to bear.
We bought Sushi and...
blah blah blah
——————————-> returning to the Sierras ———————————>
We got a rental car and drove south to Silverton to say hi to John and Kris again. They’d been incredibly helpful a month before and helped resupply our entire Washington stretch, sending boxes from Silverton to various remote places where we didn’t have access to decent groceries.
We met Kris at their home and drove up to the property they’d bought and had been working on for awhile and just sat with some deer and antelope burgers and cold IPAs sharing stories, information, and some laughs before crashing HARD back at their place. I didn’t know if my body was quite sure of our trajectory at this point. It knew there was four full days off and it wanted to black out instead of drive hundreds of miles to South Lake Tahoe but we waved goodbye with many thanks in the morning, finished some laundry, got a big breakfast, and headed down I-5 toward Sacramento to grab our bear canisters that we’d sent to a friend of Hanne’s a few months before. They were mandatory for most of Yosemite and cost around 70$ apiece so we found a key left under a bag of soil, went down into a dark basement, found everything and got back on the highway. We made it into S Tahoe around 1am and crashed hard again.
We were back.
After 5 1/2 months. After backtracking three days from Smedberg Lake in the snow and waist-high creeks and hitching to Lee Vining and getting the news from my younger sister the moment I got online: “Can you get home any sooner?”
Everything had changed since then...
I’d returned to Donner Pass dazed, angry, helpless...determined to finish; to walk through all of it somehow.
In Chester I phoned home again and received the news.
In Burney Falls at the Christian ranch I’d sent words home for the memorial. Words wholly inadequate to express the experience...but there was solace there. When I broke into tears sitting on a picnic table the little Siamese cat crawled up my back and sat on my head purring nonstop until I stood up.
And now we were back.
We resupplied and hitched to Echo Summit in the afternoon, walking around Echo Lake in the Tahoe Rim Trail behind little getaway cabins on the shore. Hanne said it reminded her of the tiny villages in Norway she’d seen.
Since we were now joined with the TRT we began passing scores of day hikers and others who were doing the 120 + mile loop around Lake Tahoe. Since we were going northbound in September no one assumed we were PCT hikers which was a little amusing to us. We got congratulated for making it over small hills, eating lunch by nice streams, and making it into camp but it was also fun to share our story with people. The questions are endless and varied but there’s answers for all of them.
‘What do you eat mostly?’
‘Ramen, anything with salt, anything with carbs, anything lightweight’
‘What was your favorite part so far?’
‘Sierras. Still the Sierras...although the Cascades were unreal’
‘What are you going to do after this?’
‘No idea. Probably look for another adventure and spend the next six months saving for it.’
But these answers are all dependent on the fact that we’re here. We’re acclimated and we think and speak PCT to each other most of the time.
We headed north. With the snow gone the trail stretched out for miles ahead of us. The days were becoming shorter and for the first time I could smell autumn approaching.
‘You know, we’ll have hiked in all four seasons as soon as we hit the equinox!’
‘On the 19th of September we will have been out here for six months. Half a year.’
There’s a briskness to the air. Our bodies haven’t slowed with the elevation gain. We’re going from 3-7k to 8-12k although we already crossed the highest passes back in May.
When we reached Truckee 5 days later we came upon a ski resort offering showers for five dollars and affordable burgers. We talked to a couple locals and got back out on the trail, walking 1/4 mile to a spot by Donner Pass Road.
In the morning we put our thumbs out to head back south where we’d get back on at Echo Summit and become official SOBOs (south-bounders). Our goal was North Kennedy Meadows, a resort and pack station that hosted horse riders, hunters, and hikers altogether throughout the summer. We knew the Donnel Fire had forced yet another closure for 30 miles along the PCT but it was 85% contained and as we passed through on the 8th Hanne got reception for a moment and we saw that it was officially open again. Phew. We’d been through so many fire detours and gotten lucky so many times, getting through stretches just before they were closed.
The days are now perceptibly cooler and locals are urging us to press on although most feel that Oct 1st is a perfectly reasonable time to get out at Kearsage Pass.
The creeks are feet lower or even completely gone in some places. The Deer’s Ear plants, so soft and green when we came through last are yellow and withering and the Sierras are a bright mix of yellow, green, and red volcanic rock.
Last night we got to camp the exact same moment as a Russian section-hiker ‘Nikolay’ and we spent the night sharing info on NOBO/SOBO stretches. I gave him the last of my fishing equipment that I’d never ended up using because he was keen to catch some fish up north and he gave us some bacon because he was trying to unload any weight he could. Bacon is heavy as far as trail food goes! We took a picture of us three, all from different parts of the world and wished each other well. This stuck with me on the trail as we came toward Kennedy Meadows. That was kind of what it was about wasn’t it?
At the trailhead we caught a ride into the pack station with Vicky who was staying there to figure out insurance details after her family cabin has just burned to the ground in the Donnel Fire. She showed us pics of the rubble. After the nails and metal had been scraped out it was nothing but ashes. Fortunately they’d be able to rebuild. She’d lived in Berlin as a child like Hanne and we met again at dinner at the main lodge and shared some more stories.
Laundry, showers, soft bed, cowboy breakfast.
Next stop: Tuolumne Meadows, redoing 30 miles of a stretch we’ve already done twice when we had to abandon Yosemite.
At the bottom of the Kearsage Pass trail exiting into Independence, we will have finished the entire 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail. 2 1/2 more weeks until then and plenty of hairy passes and climbs in between.