El Fin

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(life on the trail)

We both got off the trail on Monday in Winthrop pretty shaken up, exhausted and cold. In the last ten miles of section K, Gus had developed shooting pains in both his feet every time he took a step and both of our backs felt compressed because our water-logged backpacks were about ten pounds heavier than usual. I didn’t completely stop shivering until a full twelve hours after I became warm and dry. Luckily our Oma and Opa reside in Winthrop and thus were able to help us recover from our stormy hiking binge.

We took Tuesday completely off. Resting, eating, sleeping and epsom salt baths were the activities that occupied our time. We learned that a few other PCT hikers we knew were holed up in the Mazama/WInthrop area as well and, like us, were planning to hit the trail the next morning.

Wednesday dawned dark and clear. I finished the final touches on packing before checking weather reports (for the gazillionth time) and checking our source of PCT news, the Class of ’13 facebook page. The most recent post was from just that morning. Fellow hiker named Toots Magoots had tried to hike north from Rainy Pass the day before with a group of people. Her blog described waist-deep high snow on the trail and post-holing at a pace of one mile per hour before hitting a wall of snow and deciding to turn back.

We were all so close. Winthrop and Mazama are literally the last possible resupply on the PCT. Hikers hitch into these towns from Rainy Pass, only 60 miles from the Canadian border, 68 miles from the end of the trail. In normal conditions, PCT hikers fly through this last stretch in 2-3 days. But post-holing through snow is a much slower endeavor.

But PCT hikers are a creative bunch. The group that got denied by the trail in said blog had decided that they would do a 20 mile road walk to Ross Lake trailhead (in the North Cascades National Park) and then take a trail at lower elevation up into Canada. Walk from Mexico to Canada anyway possible became the goal, we don’t need the PCT! So that was an option. I was still pretty smitten with the trail, so I called up a friend who was heading out with another group that day to hear their plans. Snowshoes. When the snow gets too deep to walk through, walk on top. I thought it sounded like a fabulous idea and said I’d meet them at the WInthrop Mountain Sports Store when it opened.

After reading Toots’ blog that morning, in conjunction with continual shooting pains through his feet, Gus made the decision to stop hiking. He said that he could deal with extreme foot pain for 68 more miles under normal conditions, but walking in snow with impaired abilities did not sound like a good idea to him. Neither did walking on pavement for 20 miles. So Gus was done, and I was on a new mission to figure out how the heck to get to Canada.

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The Winthrop Mountain Sports store was a whirlwind of PCT hikers. My friend, Krusteaz, was headed out with a group of four that were leaving immediately after renting snowshoes and snow gear, and I planned on heading out with them. I met another group of friends that were heading out the following day with snow shoes as well (Puppy, Cherub, Bad Seed and El Jefe). As I was in line waiting for snow shoes, my Oma and Opa’s friend and neighbor who works at the store saw me and said that she could outfit me for free with her own gear if I could wait until she was off work. Seeing as how I was already way over my PCT budget and snow-shoes and gear had no place in that plan in the first place, I jumped at the offer. I would just go out with the group that was leaving the next day.

Upon leaving the store, I ran into a friend that Gus and I had hiked with in the desert, Mac the Wizard, and his friend, Appa. They were stuck in the same predicament as all the rest of us. So close, but not the right gear, or knowledge, go winter camping in October. I told them that I would be around town and had access to my grandparents car, so if they needed anything, a ride to the trailhead, grocery store, etc., to just let me know.

Later that day they decided that they would have a go at the trail from Harts Pass, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, and asked if I’d be willing to drive. I was eager to check out the snow conditions, and one of the hikers that would be going out in the group the following day wanted to try out his snowshoes, so the four of us crammed packs and snowshoes into my grandparents’ Subaru Impreza and drove up to Harts Pass.

Most of the car ride felt like we were driving through a beautiful brisk autumn day in Eastern Washington. Spirits were high and we were all hopeful. This was going to be a piece of cake. Just in the last few miles of the drive the weather started to turn. Rain turned to snow, which started coming down hard. A snowplow came down the road and told us not to go past the parking lot at Harts Pass in the car that we were in.

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We reached the top in almost a foot of snow. Although we had GPS and wooden signs pointing us towards the trail, no path was to be seen. As we walked around the area, up the road, down the road, trying to find the trail, the snow banks grew and my drive and inspiration to hike those last 60 miles was diminishing rapidly. In light of the experience that Gus and I had just had in the previous section, I did not want to put myself in another situation in which I felt incompetent powerless to Mother Nature’s wrath of indifference towards hikers. Not being able to find the trail, with snow continually falling from the sky was what led me to make my final decision. Snow with snow-shoes is one thing, but being lost in snow is a different game. There was a weather window for the next few days, but Sunday was supposed to being with a major storm, a Pineapple Express. I wouldn’t want to be lost in that. And even if we found the trail, how fast could we go in snow-shoes? 15 miles a day? 20 miles a day? Definitely not the 30’s we were used to. There was just no margin for error either way. IMG_2223

(feeling defeated in the snow at Harts Pass)

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Appa and Mac also decided that they were done that day up on the pass. Besides snow-shoes, the gear that we all had was made for hiking light, not necessarily keeping us warm. We drove back down into Mazama to get a beer and talk to the outdoor outfitters about snow conditions and winter camping. El Jefe was going on. He had come the way from St. Louis and had yet to skip a mile on the PCT (the rest of us had hitched or skipped a few miles or so over the last 4-5 months). As we sat in a melancholy haze trying to figure out
what we thought, what to do next, reports started coming in of missing PCT hikers. First off, four hikers that Gus and I had last hiked with around White Pass (Shotput, Pepperflake, Unicroc and ScatTracker), were stuck in the area between Stevens Pass and Rainy Pass, section K. No one had heard from them and snow was building. Secondly, three other PCT hikers were lost somewhere in the Goat Rocks Wilderness.

We drove back to Winthrop and I told the group that I had planned to leave with the next day of my decision. That I personally didn’t feel comfortable going the last 60 miles, but that they were all very welcome to use any of my gear (two-person tent, z-lite, liner…) to help make their winter camping experience more enjoyable. The decision was difficult, and telling them was even harder, but I also knew I made the right choice. My stomach had been in knots for the last four days and making a definitive choice after having seen the conditions for myself helped ease the tension.

But I still needed some kind of closure. For me,the trip couldn’t just end like that. Talking to other PCT hikers at the brewery that night, I discovered that the group that attempted the road walk to Ross Lake had made it 20 miles on the highway before getting to the entrance of the North Cascades National Park. There, they had been turned away by a ranger and told that they would be arrested if they entered the national park. Great timing for a government shut-down.

At this point I had decided that the easiest thing to do, to get that closure I needed, was to drive up to Manning Park and hike that last 8 miles in to the monument. Luckily, Mac and Appa were on board with the idea, as Gus didn’t seem to need that same culminating experience. Gus’ feet too, were still in major swell mode, and even a 16 mile day is tough when your feet are in pain.

So, bright and early Friday morning, Appa, Mac and I set out in my Opa’s ’91 Subaru Legacy, Canada bound. Manning Park was about a six hour drive from Winthrop, and the majority of the trip passed by uneventfully. We picked up a German hitchhiker who had been fruit-picking in Canada, to try and start paying back all the hitching karma that we owed. We made it through the last town before the park, Princeton and started climbing into the mountains. The road continued to slant up and after about five miles of this, the hood started to smoke. We were an hour away. We pulled over and checked the coolant, oil…all good. Well, we figured, old car and a big hill, maybe it’s just overheated. We poured water on it, waited for an hour or so, made lunch… We got back in the ready for the moment of truth and-the car starts, with not much smoke. We shift into gear and…it doesn’t engage, the clutch simply doesn’t engage. The gear shift says we’re in first, but the car is very clearly rolling backwards. So, uphill is not an option. Mac and I stop traffic while Appa maneuvers the car so that it’s facing downhill and we coast, hoping that if the car gets going, the gears will engage. No such luck.IMG_2366el fin

Long story short, we ended up pulling off to the side once the downhill ended and hitching back into town. We got a tow-truck ( called a ‘wrecker’ in Canada) and brought the car back to the shop. They diagnosed the little Subaru with a slipping clutch. In other words, the clutch was out, a $1500 fix with labor and parts, plus a five day wait. Because we were in Canada, communication over phone with my parents and grandparents was difficult, but they blessed the decision to carry on to Manning Park and deal with the car later.

So then it was; our last PCT hitch. We got picked up by and awesome Canadian couple, a musician and spoken word poet who entertained us with a playlist of Canadian bands. And then we were there, glorious Manning Park at last. elfin4

(Our awesome Canadian saviors)

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We made it to the monument the next day, on October 5th. There were eight other PCT hikers that had the same idea, and as we passed eachother on the trail we were joined in bittersweet jubilation. On one hand, we were all so close, the last 60 miles is an excruciating place for mother nature to kick into her winter gear. But at the same time, we all did it. We had all just walked such an incredibly long distance, and had spent 4-5 months of our lives living in the woods, mountains, and deserts of the west coast. We had all pushed ourselves past boredom, pain, the allure of the comforts of civilization; past fear and insecurities we had, to make it there. To walk to that dang Canadian border and it’s wooden monument and touch that thing. We were joined by an experience that is unique for each different person, yet similar in the ways that we all know how it feels to sleep under the stars night after night after night, to drink solely form mountain-fed streams for days on end, to wake up and walk from dawn ’till dusk, and want to do it again, to hike one day with someone and feel like you’ve known them for years, to feel that immense gratitude when a car finally pulls over after you’ve been waiting for a hitch, to know that your feet hurt terribly, but maybe they’ll feel better tomorrow, to choose to go to the bathroom in the woods over an outhouse, simply because it’s easier, to walk into a bar or restaurant in a town you’ve never been in and have dirty hiker trash friends already inside, to smell bad, to look dirty, to not look in a mirror for days on end, to always be hungry, to always be eating, to always be minorly physically uncomfortable, but never happier to be right where you are, to see countless epic sunrises and sunsets, but never lose that same sense of wonder…it’s the little things that make the trail.

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( v on the trail to the monument v)


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(a snowy October jaunt in Canada)

And we were done. My dad very graciously drove up to Manning Park to pick us up. It felt good to be done, it IS good to be done, but I am glad I got the final closure of seeing the monument. I needed that.

The two groups that snow-shoed both made it through the last 60 miles. I had lunch up in Seattle with hikers from both groups and it sounded like an adventure. The group that was stuck in section K in the snow ended up back-tracking to Stevens Pass, postholing in waist-deep snow for five days. Another hiker was heli-evacked out of that section that week. Two of the PCT hikers that were stuck around Goat Rocks Wilderness got heli-evacked on Friday, but the other PCT hiker was stuck in the snow by herself for eight days. She finally hiked out/was rescued on Saturday.

If there’s one thing that the many miles of this trail has taught me, it’s having the grace and flexibility to deal with whatever comes at you. We didn’t get a hitch out of town today? We’ll try again tomorrow. Running low on food? We’ll start rationing. Winter came early and snow is obscuring the last section of the trail? Find a way to finish with integrity, a task that is different for everyone.

So we did it, Gus and I in our own ways. We’ve hiked our own hikes over the last four and a half months and have seen and learned many things; things that we may not realize we know for days, weeks or months to come. But as for now, we have a plethora of useless information about ultra-light gear, know the best way to dig a poop-hole, how to deal with blisters on ANY part of our feet, ford a river in the most expedient way possible, how to make a meal with the random assortment of foods from the bottom of a food bag, and, how to walk. We really learned how to walk.

Until next time,

Elena

“…There are two ways for a baseball player to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said-which sounds almost the same, but is really very different-is to want the very pitch you’re gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also that’s the one that’s gonna strike you out looking. And even the one that’s maybe gonna bounce off your head.”

-David James Duncan, The Brothers K

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(August and Tigger)

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Section K (Day 137/ Mile 2600) – Gus

Imagine that four siblings are playing a game of Uno. The kids’ names are Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. They are sitting in a circle in the order I have written. All is well and Summer has just taken her turn when suddenly, out of nowhere, their mother, Nature, comes in to the room and throws down a ‘skip’ card. Autumn’s turn is skipped and Winter is up next. Winter then excitedly plays his ‘let it snow’ card and everyone is unprepared and cold.

This anecdote explains how the weather has treated us during this past week.

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Elena and I packed extra warm cold weather clothing and more rain gear while we were at home in preparation for the Northwest fall. We envisioned the last tenth of our trip to be a pleasant walk through familiar woods. Our dad dropped us off at Snoqualmie Pass in the dark early morning rain. The trail climbed to a catwalk. The rocky hillside rose straight up to our left and fell dramatically to our right creating an eerie atmosphere in the stormy fog.

The foggy catwalk

The foggy catwalk

As the day progressed so did our knowledge of the fact that none of our rain gear was waterproof. Quite to the contrary our rain gear was water absorbent. Wringing water out of our only barrier against the rain was miserable. At one point we reached a sign that read “Lemah Bridge Out.” Unfortunately we did not process what those three words in our minds. A couple of miles later we came to a river. Support beams for a bridge stood on both sides of the river., but the part of the bridge that spans the river was completely missing. That was when we processed the phrase “Lemah Bridge Out.” We were forced to ford the river which ended up teaching me another lesson: waterproof boots are only waterproof up to a certain extent. Now I had water in my waterproof boots that was unable to drain because of the fact that they were waterproof. The two gear changes I made in Tacoma were picking up new rain gear and buying waterproof boots; all my clothes were now soggy and there was a puddle in my boots. Staying dry just is not my strong suit I guess. We set up our tents hoping for blue skies the next day. When I peeked out of my tent the following morning I was greeted by blue skies and white earth. Winter had arrived and entire season early. Snow days are awesome as a child because school is cancelled; hiking is never cancelled. It took awhile to unfreeze the zippers on Elena’s tent.

Frozen fall

Frozen fall

Eventually we packed up and resumed walking. We cruised through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness into the dark. We became tired and didn’t want to walk any further to a campsite so we set up camp right where we were on the trail.

Trail camping

Trail camping

Inside my jungle home

Inside my jungle home

We cleared off of the trail before any other hikers came through and discovered our tent blockade. Soon enough ski lifts came into view and we were descending down to Stevens Pass. Our Aunt Beth hiked up and enthusiastically met us. She kindly took us to a peaceful little cabin on the Skykomish River and treated us to good food, relaxation, and advice. Elena and I lamented over the difficulty of the past few days, but little did we know that it was paradise compared to what awaited us. The forecasts that I had been reading called for 5-10 inches of precipitation over the weekend, a freezing level around 6,900 feet, and advised people not to plan any hikes.

The advice

The advice

The advice

The advice

We hit the trail around midday with high replenished spirits and bodies. Thank you so much to Auntie Beth for helping us recover as much as possible in one evening, it was very much appreciated.

Elena and Aunt Beth

Elena and Aunt Beth

The PCT is split into sections to make planning easier. Sections tend to be separated by major highway crossings as they are the main access points to the trail. Section lengths and difficulty range greatly. From where we entered at Stevens Pass to Rainy Pass is section K. It is 123 miles with over 30,000 of climbing and another 30,000 feet of descending. We heard from many former thru-hikers that section K is arguably the toughest due to strenuous climbs, river crossings, and fallen trees. Another hiker said that “Section K is hell” because there are no emergency escape routes; it is remote wilderness. The weather did not attack us that first day back on the trail. It just threatened us.

Stormset

Stormset

Sunsplosion

Sunsplosion

We hurried out of camp in the morning to beat any rain that might fall. The last thing we wanted to deal with was wet tents. Slowly, the mist turned into rain which began to turn into slush and then into snow. By ten in the morning the snow began to stick on the trail. The snow became worrisome when the trail was completely covered and there were a couple of inches piling up all around us. As the day warmed up the snow turned back into rain and our fears were assuaged for the time being. Elena still decided to take off her chacos, which she had been wearing due to blisters, and switch into running shoes.

Trail fashionista

Trail fashionista

Later in the afternoon we spied a PCT hiker hiking south towards us. It looked as if he had just been crying as he told us he had been on the trail for six months, but now was forced to end his trip since the passes were too snowy. Five minutes later we encountered another PCT hiker who had come to the same decision. This man worriedly cautioned us about the danger we were heading towards. We decided that we would check out the conditions and make a decision for ourselves once we reached Red Pass. We passed two more hikers who were going home and two more shortly after. All in all, we ran into six hikers who were deciding to turn around; that should have been a strong enough message for us. Around sunset we reached Red Pass where the ground was hidden by snow. The trail was nicely boot packed and easy to follow. We made the choice to trudge on. Considering the wet weather that was supposed to fly in anytime we decided that we ought to hike all night to knock out as many miles as possible. Under starry skies we hiked for many hours up towards Firecreek Pass. Our headlamps illuminated the trail and I began to think that the forecast may have been way off. That was not to be. At around three in the morning the snow started to float down to the earth. Thirty minutes later the snow was coming down by the bucketful. The buckets of snow piled up and the trail began to play hide-and-seek with us. Fear began to eat at me when we could not even discern the trail; an uncontrollable panic that we might get stuck in the great big wild. Elena bravely led the way and got us to Firecreek Pass where we started to descend out of the snow.

Firecreek Pass 4 A.M.

Firecreek Pass 4 A.M.

By the time we got below the freezing level we had been awake hiking for twenty-four hours. A nap was necessary so we set up our tents in the pouring rain and attempted to sleep. An hour later I woke up violently shivering. I was wearing all of my warm layers and inside of my zero-degree down bag, but I could not manage to warm up. Elena was having a similar issue so we quickly packed up. Walking was the only way we could stay warm. This realization was frightening as we were over fifty miles from the nearest road no matter which way we hiked. I would say about now is when my fear completely overtook me. Luckily we had brought some hefty trash bags along so I was able to craft a makeshift rain jacket to cover my innermost layer. The trail dropped a couple of thousand feet and then regained it all with endless switchbacks. Rain continued to piss out of the sky and flood the earth. Mini rivers and rapids were streaming down the trail. It is a shame that no squirrels or marmots raft because they would have had some sweet class IV rapids.

The Trail River

The Trail River

As we were making our way around many overflowing creeks, and descending from the third pass that section, we were passed by two other fellow thru-hikers (who are both safe and sound, thankfully). Seeing them simply made us feel less isolated and scared. Our breaks could not last any longer than five minutes or so. After the five minute mark one of us would begin to shiver and warming up takes some time. Down, down, down we went to the bottom of the Suiattle River Valley. The escape plan we had formulated was to hike all night again and make it to High Bridge in time for the first shuttle into Stehekin. Once we reached civilization everything would be all right. Having this plan made us feel confident that we would be dry, warm, and out of the woods soon. The Glacier Peak Wilderness had other things in mind though. After hitting the valley floor we hiked along the river towards the bridge that crossed the Suiattle river. Downed logs were everywhere and plants overgrew the trail in many places. Rain fell at a monsoon rate and the entire valley floor was either a puddle or a stream going downhill. Finally we reached a brownish river that was gushing more water than the riverbed could contain. Rivers and creeks were becoming monsters in all of the rain and snowmelt. Naively, we thought that this roaring snake of water was the Suiattle. The only thing missing was the bridge. Fording the river was not an option and we actually had no options except to wait for the water levels to decrease. The idea of setting up a wet camp and being sedentary for a night was scary, but there was not much else we could do. After finding a dry area to camp and setting up our tents nearly everything we owned was soaked. Our down jackets and sleeping bags were dangerously damp. Once again I was periodically woken up by fits of shivering. Finally the sun rose and we wasted no time in packing up our gear and getting on the move. Walking back to the river was nerve-wrecking as we had no idea whether the water had gone down or not. All we knew was that we had to cross it some way or another. Thankfully it had gone through a complete transformation. Brown and scary the night before, the river had turned into a calm, clear creek. Easily we crossed it and eventually reached the Suiattle River bridge. It was nice and warm to be on the move once again. For the next four hours we climbed and climbed up to Suiattle Pass. Around a mile from the pass we encountered snow once again.

Our baby brother

Our baby brother

Elena claims that the overflowing creek was a blessing in disguise. If we had climbed up to Suiattle Pass the night before then we may have been caught in a major blizzard. As we neared the pass the snow kept falling harder and harder until footprints on the old snow were covered. Quickly we descended and got out of the snow zone. During our next break we did the hokey-pokey for a while to warm up. A little fun and humor can always take the edge off of a seriously scary situation. Our new plan was to hike until we reached Rainy pass, 40 miles away. Night fell and the rain followed suit. For most of the nighttime hours we followed Agnes Creek in a torrential downpour. The underbrush was up to our shoulders. I could have believed that I was in a rain forest if it had not been so chilly. Coffee was necessary every couple of hours to keep our eyes open. Elena began to have short vivid dreams every time her eyes shut. Finally the rain passed and was replaced by fiercely cold wind. We began to hear noises that sounded like boulders being hurled at the ground. I guessed that it was trees falling, but we definitely did not stop to investigate. After walking out of our mind all night long we reached High Bridge and the entrance to North Cascades National Park. The trail hit a dirt road and it took an hour of aimless searching to find the trailhead. Then the sun rose. Seeing the sun rise that morning put a blanket of comfort and calmness on my manic mind. Elena and I cooked beans and rice for breakfast. We gave each other a big hug and just said “We’re alive.” The twenty miles to Rainy Pass from there were painful and long, but they passed, as all things do. Before we knew it, we were both safe and sound in Winthrop at our Oma and Opa’s house. A big thank you to our Oma and Opa for putting up with wet, smelly hikers and their wet, smelly gear. We even had a preemptive 23rd birthday dinner for Elena with Oma’s classic raspberry cloud cream cake and mimosas. Many fellow hikers are still out in the cold and the wet. The PCT community is one big family to us now regardless of how well we know someone. We have shared miles, poptarts, pain, and an unbreakable camaraderie. Keep all these hikers in mind and send them good thoughts as they make their way out of the cold, damp woods as well.

23!

23!

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So Long Summer (day 123/mile 2402)

We have dubbed Washington “The ‘Shroom State.” Not because of a hallucinogenic experience, but because oodles of toadstools have lined the trail since we crossed the border. They come in every shape, size, form and color that one could imagine. It helps the miles pass by more quickly to play ‘Count the Amanita mushrooms’ or other fungus games. One day I even found mushrooms falling from the sky, only to turn around and find Gus spearing mushrooms with his hiking poles and propelling them over my head to rain down on the trail in front of me. Yeah. Fun Gus.

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Walking across the Bridge of the Gods into Washington was a supernal experience. Despite the fact that there was no pedestrian walkway or shoulder over the two-lane bridge. Despite the fact that the bridge had a grated floor, where we could see 100 feet down to the river flowing below, seriously challenging my fear of heights. Despite the grumpy man at the toll booth, who had, maybe, seen one too many PCT hikers, telling us to ” walk on the left side, so you’ll see the car that hits you.” Despite these things, the feeling was sublime. Since our dad had kicked us out of the car at the Mexican border nearly four months before, we had traveled 2155 miles by good old step-by-step walking, and we were finally back in our home state. The home-land.

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Having slept at nearly sea-level, down in the Columbia River gorge, the night before, we had to climb and climb, and climb and climb and climb to get back up into the mountains. We continued up switchbacks for what seemed like days, but what really was about 11 miles. However, the first five miles of Washington, before the ascent started, were absolutely euphoric. The air seemed fresher, the forest more interesting, the water was cleaner…We were buoyed by the knowledge that it wouldn’t be long before we would be hiking by the triumvirate of our home mountains (Adams, Rainier and St. Helens). And that the trail would soon take us over the three ski resorts that we were raised on: White Pass, Crystal and Snoqualmie. And most exciting of all, the Trail Angels throughout Washington would be the familiar faces of friends and family. So, exuberated by these thoughts, the seemingly interminable switchbacks were much more bearable than they would have been otherwise.

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(Mile 2200 and new shoes)

The next day we meandered through the Indian Heaven Wilderness, unable to resist stopping at many of the beautiful blue alpine lakes for a rest or a swim. We ran into a group of middle-aged men out for a ‘boys weekend,’ who paid us homage and literally kow-towed to us right there at our feet on the trail. They praised us for being such ‘mountain people,’ but we told them that they were gravely mistaken and that your average boy-scout has a more extensive knowledge of survival skills than we do. After four months on the trail we are very proficient at making mac ‘n cheese and following a (very well-marked) trail. Half the time our maps don’t even download or our phones are dead. But that is all. We thanked them for their reverence nonetheless. That night we hiked late (like 11 PM) and found a nice flat place on the trail to sleep.

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Day 116 brought with it views of Mt. Adams galore. We approached the barren south side and skirted around her west face, crossing many a river in the process. At one point we were only three miles from the 12, 281 ft. summit. Had we the time, energy, or will, It would have been a glorious day to climb. The north face of Mt. Adams was almost completely covered in snow and looked much more like the mountain I was used to seeing from the Tacoma area. The day was splendid, as we soaked up the Washington beauty.

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Saturday, however, took a turn for the hungry. As we left Mt. Adams Wilderness and entered back into the no-mans-land of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, we realized that we were cutting it close with what we had in our food bags. Somehow, trying to ration and knowing that you only have x amount of calories left to eat gives you the urge to eat that much more. I resorted to the infamous tuna poptart sandwich (sweet & salty, protein & carbs) and Gus to the ‘mix-everything-left-in-your-food-bag-and-cook-it’ tactic. That night we broke down and did that which we had never done before – that is, ask weekend backpackers if they had any food to spare. Luckily it was a Saturday, and furthermore, we had made it into one of the most beautiful places in the world-the Goat Rocks Wilderness. Thus, there were weekend adventurers galore. One group was generous enough to gift us with a bag of salted nuts, jerky and even a fresh cucumber from a hiker’s garden. We thanked them profusely and made it about five minutes down the trail before stopping to devour our plunder. Hungry is as hungry does, I guess.

The next chapter of Washington brought us the highlight of our trip so far: the Goat Rocks. We walked from Snowgrass Flats over the Knife’s Edge just as the sun was rising and were treated to a pink and purple alpenglow on both Rainier and Adams.

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We were treated to a wonderful night and delicious dinner at Tatoosh Meadows in Packwood. So many thanks to Melisa, Jill, Tricia, our Mom and Dad, and the dog pack, for coming out and being such wonderful hosts. It felt like a night in heaven.

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After being dropped off at White Pass Kracker Barrel Store around 11 am the next morning, we found it difficult to get back out onto the trail. In part, because a pretty consistent drizzle had commenced with no signs of stopping anytime soon, but also because a pretty constant stream of fellow PCT hikers had found their way into the store/café and we had pretty much taken over. We reconnected with a few different people we hadn’t seen in a couple weeks, but we were most excited about seeing some people who we hadn’t seen since the desert. We even saw one guy that we hadn’t seen since the first day of the trail, down at Lake Morena.

I’d say about a third of the other thru-hikers we’ve met are like us — newbies to the whole long-distance thru-hiking thing. The remaining two thirds have hiked some other 700+ mile long distance trail, the most common being the Appalachian Trail (the AT). It was fun to see some of the other newbies we ‘d last seen 1700 miles before. They seemed older and wiser in the ways of the trail; we only hope we gave them somewhat the same impression. Not only are we rookies in the thru-hiking game, but we are young-uns as well. Just last week we met our first other hikers who recently graduated from high-school. They were the only other two male hikers with conspicuously clean-shaven faces. We’ve met a few other hikers recently graduated from college but I’d say the average age of fellow PCT-ers ranges from 26-45 (ish). There are a few inspiring white-haired souls roaming the trail as well. I hope that I am half as fit as they are when I reach that age.

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We’d heard mixed reviews about the White Pass to Snoqualmie section; beautiful views of Rainier, but lots of hiking through logged forests. Unfortunately, we had an experience similar to the one we had in Jeff Park. Rainier was nowhere to be seen. For 100 miles we hiked in and out of the clouds and rain. We even made it into the boundaries of Mt. Rainier National Park without once seeing our glorious mountain. However, we barely noticed the lack of view due the bounty of huckleberries that lined the trail almost the whole way through this section. It was a constant struggle of will power to keep on going and not stop for hours to pick. There was always a bush with more berries, bigger berries, bluer, sweeter berries. We also discovered at least three different species of huckleberries along the trail, and became quite the connoisseurs of the subtle huckleberry flavor.

While the lack of views did not bother us, knowing quite well that we would have limitless views of Rainier when we got home, autumn’s dramatic entrance into our trail experience was a different story. The seasons are a-changing in Washington. The two most consequential developments to our life on the trail are 1: shorter days and 2: more moisture. In the desert in the summer we could walk from 5 am to 10 pm without turning on our flashlights; almost 17 hours of pure, uninterrupted, blissful walking. These days we get about 13 hours of light. This translates into less walking, and thus, lower mileage. The number of hours of walking you do a day translates directly to how fast you get to Canada. As far as walking goes, even the ‘fast’ walkers only go about three miles an hour. There is not much variety in speed, like there is in running. For example, the two speed record holders this year did the trail in 59/60 days not by walking significantly faster than all us other thru-hikers, but by walking from 4 am to midnight every day.

Constant moisture is another adjustment that we are trying to get used to. From White Pass to Snoqualmie, there was almost constant drizzle, rain or mist. Since our sleeping bags and warmest layers are down, and down becomes worthless when wet, it has become our biggest challenge to protect those feathery essentials from the Washington’s autumn dampness. Other harbingers of fall have been the slow transition of green to red in the trees and bushes lining the trail, and the crisp, cold smell that is distinct to this time of year.

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(Our best view of Rainier in Mt. Rainier National Park)

After four days of soggy hiking, we walked across the slopes of Snoqualmie Pass, the same slope on which I painfully learned to snowboard. We were greeted by our mom and Kava and were driven down I-90, to highway 18, onto I-5 and back into the beautiful city of Tacoma for a day off.
Today (Saturday), we relaxed by attending Etta Projects 10th Birthday celebration where we drank the Etta brew, listened to some great live music and celebrated surpassing our fundraising goal of raising $1 per mile that each of us walk ($5,326). Thank you to ALL of you lovely people who donated. We raised over $6800 to go towards the many wonderful projects Etta Projects has going, including building water filtration systems and ecological latrines in rural villages in Bolivia. For more information on this fantastic organization visit ettaprojects.org.

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We head back out to the trail tomorrow for our last and final stretch. 270 miles to go. We’re hoping hard that the snow in the Northern Cascades will hold off for just two weeks longer and that the colors and crispness, rather than the damp and coldness, will define our final fall days on the trail.

Until next time,
Elena

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Oregon: Act Two (Day 113/ Mile 2155)- Gus

I can see the land of state sales tax across the Columbia River from where I sit. The sight is glorious.

Elena and I began the second half of Oregon from where we took Labor Day off at the beginning of the Mt. Washington Wilderness at McKenzie Pass. The trail followed miles of lava beds, thankfully solid lava, as we wound our way around Mt. Washington.

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We set up camp early as we saw some ominous looking clouds float towards us. The weather still hadn’t cleared up, or struck, by the time we commenced our northward movement the next day. As we came around Three Fingered Jack, we were only able to make out one of the fingers. I cannot speak to whether the other two fingers are still there or not, since the view was obstructed by low clouds. Our progress that day was slowed by the abundance of huckleberries alongside the trail. By mid afternoon the visibility was limited to half a small lake and the gods were going to war in the clouds where they were creating frightening booming and crackling noises.

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Soon enough the heavens opened and dip ‘n dots, blueberries, and marbles of ice were flying horizontally. Bright flashes filled the sky a few times every minute accompanied by loud thunder. Visibility increased enough for us to realize that we were hiking along an exposed ridge. We quickly hurried off of the trail so as to not become human lightning rods.

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Once the storm calmed down we trudged on northwards in what had  been newly transformed into the Pacific Crest Puddle. Finally we found a dry area to set up camp. Our campsite had a beautiful open view of Mt. Jefferson, or so we liked to imagine since our visibility was nil. At around midnight the rain began to splatter on our tents. The rain did not cease until ten the following morning when we broke down our soggy camp. We meandered through Jefferson Park in the clouds all day. Although we were still unable behold Mt. Jefferson, the heavy fog made us feel as if we were traveling through a woodland wonderland. Green was everywhere we looked; ferns, trees, bushes, and moss. Little glacial creeks would appear out of nowhere and descend into the cloudy nothingness. If a forest nymph or fairy had appeared out of the trees, it would have fit in perfectly and would not have been a surprise at all.

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As soon as we exited Jeff Park the skies cleared. Never have I ever been so relieved to see blue skies. I was beginning to think that most of world had disappeared and all that was left was a little trail and the forest. As always, the stormy weather gave us a better appreciation of the sunshine and blue skies. During our two-days in Jeff Park this is the best picture I took of Mt. Jefferson. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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From the edge of Jeff Park the trail descended into a vast ocean of trees until it reached the timberline of Mt. Hood. This section of hiking was physically the easiest. The trail on the forest floor was relatively flat and made of soft dirt. Nevertheless, this section was one of the toughest mentally. The lack of views, ascents and descents, and excitement made us feel lethargic and uninspired. We joked that if anyone wanted to find out why we wanted to hike the trail we would need a time machine because we, ourselves, had forgotten why we wanted to do it. Up until then I had never thought about how much one’s surroundings affect a person. I think all surroundings, including the environment, people, and culture, can shape how one thinks, feels, and acts. As we were nearing Timberline we met a couple who had been day hiking all day. Let me tell you, a person gets very, very hungry after a full day of hiking, but this couple gave us their Subway sandwiches (I’m sure they had been fantasizing about them all day) and insisted that we take them. It’s acts of kindness like this that make the Pacific Crest Trail worth hiking. If someone were considering hiking the PCT, I would recommend it because it allows one to experience the warmth and compassion that all humans are capable of. Being on the receiving end of trail magic or any other beneficence inspires us to do acts of good will ourselves. Kindness is a chain-reaction.

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An exquisite breakfast buffet of fresh fruit, waffles, and French toast awaited us at the historic Timberline Lodge. Once we felt sickly full, as usual after getting a resupply, we began the long descent to the Columbia River Gorge.

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Oregon did not let us leave without excitement. We had to cross many fiercely flowing glacial rivers which radiate from Mt. Hood. I waded up to my waist multiple times and nearly lost my poles in the racing current. Elena was more strategic and found alternative crossings where she stayed drier and safer.

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At one point before the final descent we came around a ridge and saw what we have been eagerly anticipating all trip; a panoramic view of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams, in a perfect line across the horizon. Boom, boom, boom. Then the trail dropped a whopping 2,000 feet in 2 miles to Eagle Creek. Eagle Creek is nature’s version of Disneyland, except it is free and there are not even any lines. Pretty cool, right? Innumerable waterfalls and swimming holes are strewn along the creek. At one point the trail goes through a tunnel behind a waterfall. Needless to say, it felt pretty dang cool.

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The creek spits you out at the little town of Cascade Locks which is across The Bridge of the Gods from Washington. I am fairly certain that it is called The Bridge of the Gods because we are about to enter heaven (the heaven of the trail, at least). Two states crossed and one to go. It is good to see you Washington. Man, how I have missed you.

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Just Toodling Along (day 107/mile 1990)

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The trail has become our everything. I don’t just say that in a conceptual or figurative sense, but I mean it really very literally. While that two-foot wide stretch of trail that occupies our endless numbered days was once reserved solely for the act of walking, we have become so intimately entangled with its existence that this 2,663-mile section of cleared ground has become where we eat, nap, pee, take breaks and occasionally even set up camp for the night. In short, our everything. It is sometimes just that much easier to plop down right where we are (especially when ridge-walking, which we do quite alot of on the Pacific  Crest Trail) than wait for a flat or clear spot to rest our walking legs. The fact that, up until recently, we have been behind the main ‘pack’ or ‘herd’ of PCT hikers, has also contributed to our new-found uses for the trail. Most of the time, we are not bothered by others if we eat/sleep/pee on the physical trail.

However, a week or so ago, Gus and I had stopped for a ten-minute break, which had turned into a cooked lunch, which quickly escalated into a mid-day nap, (IN the middle of trail, of course), when a group of ladies on horse-back came along. As we moved our every possession off the trail in order to make room for the group, the typical trail conversation commenced,

“Are you guys on the PCT?”

“Sure are.”

“Did you start in Mexico?”

“Sure did.”

“You guys going the whole way?”

“That’s the goal!”

“How many days have you been out? What do you eat?…” etc. etc.

They were a friendly group of travelers, but as they were riding away, we heard one lady say to another, “Why would anyone want to do that?” I couldn’t help laughing as we had probably given them quite an ungraceful show throwing our gear/life every which way in order to clear the trail for them. It wasn’t our best moment. But this lady’s query brought up a question that we have asked ourselves on occasion.

Why did/do we want to hike the PCT? Why would anyone want to walk for five months, making themselves vulnerable to Mother Nature’s every whim, becoming so dirty and smelly that immediate entrance back into civilization brings with it stares, snarky comments, or sympathy for the ‘homeless kids’? Who in their right mind would sign up to be so completely out of control of life as they knew it, without the comforts of running water and electricity, or the security of a job or a plan? What is the draw to living with minimal personal property and being sometimes so utterly reliant on the kindness of strangers?

The initial allure for me was the simplicity of living with so few possessions and having only the most basic of duties to attend to each day: walk, eat, sleep, stay warm (or cool off). However, after hiking or sleeping through a few thunder storms, or peeing on my shoe one too many times, I’ve realized it’s much more ‘simple’ to have a shelter that you don’t have to worry about drying out if it gets wet, or to have a porcelain throne with running water. Gus and I definitely have our on and off days in regards to appreciation for trail-life, and the ‘on’ days are becoming more frequent as we get closer to the border (funny how that works). With the increase in gratitude, our answers to the ‘Why?’ question, when asked, have become less abstract/elusive and more concrete. But sometimes it’s still a struggle, after days on end of walking, and over a month ahead of us of more walking, to justify the trekking on. However, while grappling with this question one evening over a bowl of mac ‘n cheese with other thru-hikers, one veteran hiker shared with Gus and me that “many of the lessons and secrets of the trail reveal themselves to you after you’ve finished, and then, throughout your whole life.” So, on the big ‘Why?’ question, I guess we’ll just have to wait.

But anyways, back to life on the trail.

Last Gus wrote we were enjoying a zero day with our wonderful grandparents in Ashland, OR, where they treated us to many a delicious meal and a showing of the Midsummer’s Night Dream in the open-air Elizabethan theater. I headed back out into the lovely Oregon woods with images of fairy kingdoms and forest nymphs frolicking in my mind. From the Rogue River National Forest, up through Sky Lakes and Diamond Peak Wilderness we walked, appreciating the wide, gradual, and well-maintained trail. Many thru-hikers complain about the Oregon section of the PCT because (save for Crater Lake and Three Sisters Area), they say, it is ‘boring’. Gus and I, on the other hand, have immense gratitude for the gentle climbs and generously wooded trail: a plentitude of shelter from the sun for our PNW grey-sky loving partiality. IMG_1572

One of my top-five favorite PCT moments happened the night/morning before we entered into Crater Lake Wilderness. As we were walking in the evening, the trail meandered up along a ridge and we witnessed a fiery sunset to our left while the humongous, almost-full moon rose on our right. The next morning our alarms went off at the ungodly hour of 4 am. We still had 25 more miles to go and wanted to get our resupply box before the store where it was being held closed. We woke to bright white light streaming over our campsite. It was like someone had installed a lamp post in the grove of trees behind us. Getting out of my sleeping bag at that hour was considerably easier when I could use the light of the moon rather than my headlamp to pack up camp. We hiked in the dark for an hour and a half before the trail changed it up and decided to ascend a rather steep ridge (for Oregon) switchbacking back and forth, back and forth. We started to climb and as we walked east, we saw the horizon beginning to turn a deep red. The switchback turned and we headed west, looking out into the dark blue starry night sky with a big white moon illuminating the Crater Lake Wilderness below. Then back east we walked, where the maroon on the horizon had expanded and was blending into a deep purple bordered by a beautiful rosy salmon pink. After another five minutes, we were directed due east once again, where the moon had turned yellow and was nearing the horizon as the sky began to lighten from its majestic ocean  blue. We were nearing the top as the we turned back west and saw that the sky was exploding from pink, to orange to electric yellow. Finally, almost simultaneously with when the climb reached the crest of the ridge, the deep orange sun rolled over the horizon, signifying that the day had begun, and the show was over. It was a beautiful, almost spiritual experience that helped us see that sometimes its little moments like these that make the whole thing worth it.

IMG_1636IMG_1481 ^sunset moonrise………….sunrise moonset vIMG_1562The rest of the day was spent hiking towards Crater Lakes Wilderness. Unfortunately Gus and I had both run out of all of our food except dinners, so we had mac ‘n cheese and alfredo for breakfast, lunch and snacks. An all-around balanced diet we like to believe. IMG_1566

We were welcomed into Crater Lakes National Park with a sign listing the many rules and stipulations that one must abide by when they are in this particular protected wilderness. Now, both Gus and I understand that when there is such an enormous influx of people everyday, as there is in any national park, there must rules. However, reading this sign in conjunction with the cold greeting we received from two park rangers in the parking lot did not help our fondness towards this particular wilderness preserve. As we came off the trail, tired, dirty, very hungry and just really wanting to get to our resupply box, two park rangers drove up in their massive four-door Force V8 Toyota Tundra. They were not exceedingly helpful as they verbally (and almost accusingly) enforced all the park rules that we had just seen in two different signs on the trail. It hurt a bit to feel more or less reprimanded by these two very clean-cut, fresh-smelling people who supposedly were big fans of being outdoors, but apparently not big fans of those people who had been living in it for the last three months. It was also a bit frustrating to be told what to do in an environment which we had felt so comfortable in for so long. Anyways, we said goodbye and begrudgingly walked the two miles on the concrete road down Hwy 62 to the Mazama store, even though plenty of hitch-able cars passed by. IMG_1589

The evening improved significantly however, when a couple who was visiting Oregon for a bike trip from Alberta, Canada heard that we were on the PCT and bought us beers while we shared stories from our respective adventures. That night the  designated campground was full, so we waited until the store, lodge and restaurant had all shut down and the employees had gone back to their dorms so we could sneak into the woods behind the parking lot and find a flat area to spend the night. We had stealth camped on occasion outside of towns before, but I had never felt so guilty or anxious as I did that night, despite the fact that we were sleeping on public land. Crater Lake National Park did got better the next day however, as the trail took us up to the rim of the crater, and for eight miles we looked out over one of the deepest lakes in the world. In other national parks that the PCT had taken us through, the trail merely skirted the edge of the park, rarely taking us by the most-desired vistas. But in Crater Lake NP, the trail took us right smack-darn through the middle of the park. The trail followed a paved trail for a while and took us by almost every view-point on the rim. It was funny to see the hordes of people drive up in their cars, snap a photo, and leave. We even had a taste of stardom, as one man asked to take a picture of Gus and me. He told us that his daughter was reading the recent bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed and that she wouldn’t believe that he had met “real live PCT hikers.” We told him that he was, in fact standing on the PCT. That yes, that nicely paved path that extended from viewpoint to viewpoint was a part of the trail. And thus maybe not entirely as rugged as it seems. He was stoked nontheless, and it helped buoy our own energy and inspiration for the trail, as hearing other peoples excitement generally does.

IMG_1635IMG_1634 The next few days we experienced our first Oregon thunder and lightening storms. Although they dampened our clothes considerably, I think both Gus and I appreciated the excitement that the cacophonous noise and dramatic light show added to the sometimes-somewhat monotonous trail. IMG_1632(Mt. Thielsen right before a storm)   IMG_1630(Stormy sunset)

Our mileage went up considerably through Oregon. In large part because of the gentle and gradual trail, but also because we were meeting Leah (Gus’ girlfriend) at Willamette Pass, and therefore had a deadline (and incentive) to keep those miles in the 28-32 range a day. Once we met Leah however, we were able to hike at a much more relaxed pace, thus being able to enjoy Oregon’s wilderness that much more. HIking through the Willamette National Forest was an absolute pleasure. There were lakes every 5-10 miles which we had time to enjoy. Willamette Pass also designates the beginning of the Cascade Range, so it felt good to finally be in our home mountain range. IMG_1715 IMG_1633 IMG_1611IMG_1623

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(Morning meditation)

After a few days of lake-frolicking, the trail entered into one of the most famous parts of the PCT, the Three Sisters Wilderness. One day we were hiking along, and a big mountain (the South Sister, we later found out) just popped out from behind a hill. Although Gus and I grew up in Tacoma, where you become accustomed to seeing the majesty of Mt. Rainier every day, we realized that we hadn’t seen a mountain mountain up close in a real long time. Although we saw Mt. Shasta from the trail, the PCT didn’t pass by too closely. The beauty and overall substantial size of so much rock mesmerized me the whole time that we were walking around/under the dormant volcano. The High Sierras were epic, there is no arguing with that. But there is something about the cylindrical shape of those dormant and extinct volcanoes sprinkled throughout the Cascade Range that just can’t compare with other mountain vistas, at least in my book.

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The last couple days of this section were one of the most enjoyable parts of the trail so far. We had beautiful views the whole way and found huckleberries and blueberries galore. We hiked through the lava fields before hitting Hwy 242 at McKenzie Pass where we were greeted by two trail angels from Bend who had come up for the weekend to serve chili, pop and beer to PCT hikers. Our parents also came down to see us ( and brought the dog!) so it was really good to see them and have a mini family reunion here in Oregon.

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leg lyfe

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(Bend-ian Trail magic)

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Gus and I took Labor Day weekend off from the trail (Gus in Tacoma, myself in Bend), where we gathered strength and did a gear overhaul to prepare for fall in Washington. However, we are now very well rested and more excited than we’ve ever been to get back out there, on to the homeward stretch. A humongous thank you to Tracy and Laura Curtis for being the most gracious and helpful of hosts this week. Also, a big thank you to Kent and Beth Wickham for a delicious dinner and great company. And finally, to Kathy and Mark Falk to an awesome surprise BBQ on the trail.

Until next time,

Elena

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California Rest In Peace – Gus (Day 90/ mile 1727)

Hellllllloooo Oregon! After three months of walking, eating, sleeping, and pooping in California we have arrived in Oregon. I am getting ahead of myself though. I will start back where I miraculously healed in Mt. Shasta, California.
After Elena left Chester to get back on the trail, I made my way by public transportation and hitching to the quaint little town of Mt. Shasta. I was resting on a bench with my house, food, clothes, and all my other belongings (my pack) when a vagabond sat next to me with his dog. We began to talk. He introduced himself as ‘Dirt’ and his dog, who was a mix between a dingo, a coyote, and a pitbull, as Alabama. When he heard that I was injured, he said that he had something for me. Dirt pulled out a bottle with an herbal tincture that he had created and instructed me to squirt some down the back of my throat. Last time that I had an injury similar to this, it took a month to recover with a walking boot so my morale was rather low. Maybe if I hadn’t been so tired or bummed about my shin or desperate for a remedy I wouldn’t have taken it, but as it was I took the dropper and gave myself a liberal squirt. For the next couple of hours I received a lecture on time, being, ego, and the interconnectedness of the universe as well as being treated to an energetic bluegrass concert from this wanderer named Dirt.

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Later, I was picked up by our family friend, Weston, and taken to his house. I owe many thanks to Weston for being a wonderful host and to the Stroud family for allowing me to recover at their awesomely off-the-grid, solar powered home. I awoke the morning after taking Dirt’s homemade medicine and thought I was dreaming. Even when I would try to induce pain in my shin it refused to hurt. A 100% recovery overnight. I do not know if the healing was due to Dirt’s potion, which I thought could only be produced by Professor Snape, or if my body is better at repairing itself after months of continual damage. I am exceedingly grateful either way. After spending the better part of a week around Mt. Shasta, which is reminiscent of a naked Mt. Rainier, I met back up with Elena near Castle Crags State Park.

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We ascended up from the I-5 corridor to an elevation where we looked eye to eye with the crags. The Castle Crags are tall granite spires which poke out of the rolling hills of Northern California. It’s as if a small part of Kings Canyon National Park was transplanted and placed just south of Mt. Shasta. From here the trail followed many ridges northwest. The forecast for the next few days called for likely thunderstorms which greatly excited Elena, as usual. Unfortunately for her the PCT was built underneath blue skies. Over the course of the next day we avoided the rain completely, but when we looked at where we just were or where we were going there were ominous thunderheads and streaks of rainfall.

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The same day that we managed to evade the rain was the same day that the trail led south. Around the Trinity Alps the PCT takes a U-turn and leads you towards Mexico for 30 miles. Imagine a teacher asking you to write a paragraph for an essay in class and then telling you “Okay now erase that paragraph, but write it again once you have erased it.” That is kind of what it felt like to turn our compass rose around and then continue cruising. As with all things, the frustration ended when we decided that the whole hiking south deal was so absurd that it was hilarious. Nothing defeats anger quite like some light humor. We attained a northward bearing again and made an unexpected hitch in to Etna under cloudy skies.

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Elena and I ran out of batteries and wanted some food so we figured Etna would be a pleasant stop. After we filled our bellies, restocked our snacks, and charged our electronics, we arranged a shuttle to get back up to the trail. Once we reached Etna Summit we took our packs and were immediately entranced by the view. On the horizon was a dense mixture of clouds and smoke from the Salmon Fire. The clouds and haze were salmon pink as if they were on fire as well.

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We were so awestruck that Elena didn’t even realize that her phone did not make it out of Etna. We flagged down a ride for the fourth time that day and rode down to Etna with the man who was in charge of the fire camp near the fire. Now I will take a time-out to recall a couple of other instances when Elena forgot an instrumental piece of gear. Day 7: Elena forgot her solar charger at a trail angel’s house and did not realize until we had camped 2 miles away. This made for a refreshing starry run under the full moon to retrieve the charger, as I was the only one in our party who was not in some sort of pain. Day 15: Elena forgot her poles at another trail angel’s house. The trail angel was kind enough to take us back to the house to pick them up. I became frustrated the first time it happened, but then I noticed that some of my favorite conversations and moments occurred during these unplanned trips. They are what make this trip an adventure. These unexpected happenings allow me to not think about what just happened or what will happen, but to be in the moment which is conducive to being more immersed in the experience at hand.

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The next morning we returned to Etna Summit to begin hiking again. Armadas of fire trucks drove by us and helicopters buzzed by overhead. This was a war zone and the enemy was the fire. At first, all of the activity inspired and excited me, but then it left me a little hollow. All of these firefighters had a distinct purpose in being there and doing what they were doing; to fight the fire. I, on the other hand, am walking from Mexico to Canada without the same type of purpose. I now see that a balance is necessary between pastimes done for oneself and activities done for a cause greater than oneself. For the next couple of days, Elena and I slowly descended down to Seiad Valley. Walking through all of the smoke was eerie as we could only make out the outlines of the nearby hills and Marblehead Mountains.

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After watching some people attempt the pancake challenge in Seiad Valley, in which a person must eat 5, 1-pound pancakes in two-hours, we began the steep ascent back to the mountains. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve that night as I was trying to fall asleep. The next day we would cross the border into Oregon. We did not realize how big California is until we had to walk across it. We woke up early and started to hike under the stars since our excitement wouldn’t allow us to sleep anymore. During mid-morning we met a woman who had sold her home four years prior and had been traveling ever since. She told us of its rewards and we could feel her happiness emanating all around. On the PCT we have met many folks who haven’t followed the status quo lifestyle of going to school and then getting a career. Lots of these people work seasonal jobs, find work where they travel, or have other ways of supporting themselves. To them, the idea of working to support a lifestyle in which it is necessary to work seems like a pointless cycle. Instead these people find ways to do what they want to do even if it means sacrificing some comfortable securities like having a home. They don’t lack work ethic or ambition, they just see life differently. Everyday is a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore the world and all its curiosities for them and from what I perceive they are all the happier for it.
Elena and I reached the border a little after midday. I pulled out the bottle of champagne I had been carrying since Seiad Valley and tried to pop the top, but the top just fell off without an exciting pop. In the same way, reaching the border was a huge achievement for us, but we had no rush of elation or overpowering sense of joy. Similar to the midpoint, reaching the Oregon border was an anti-climactic experience, one that is more exciting conceptually than in reality. According to old, wise Elena, many things in life turn out that way. I, young, foolish Gus, am learning the value of the much used cliche that it is the journey that matters most, not the destination. It was only then that I was able to look back on all of California, including the desert, with a fond mind. I guess that through the haze of nostalgia even unpleasant experiences can be remembered with an ounce of appreciation.

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Fuelled by a bottle of champagne, pounds of gummy candy, the fresh Oregon air and the blood orange moon, Elena and I walked through the night until we found a nice rocky stream bed to sleep on. We slept 40 miles from where we awoke that day. The following morning we walked east towards I-5 again. In Ashland, our Oma and Opa treated us to some Shakespeare, some good food, and plenty of much needed rest. It was a wonderful treat and we are grateful for it.
Thanks once again to everyone who has supported us in any manner whether it is words, thoughts, rides, food, or any other help. Also, Elena and I are nearing our goal in our PCT: Promoting Community Transformation fundraiser! If you are unsure what this is or would like to donate, check it out at http://ettaprojects.seeyourimpact.org/.

See you soon Washington!

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NorCal Bootcamp (day 81/mile 1506)

(Pictures to be added when I get a better internet connection)

After almost three months on the PCT, it’s gotten to the point where the majority of my dreams are about, or revolve around, the trail. Whether I am having a conversation with a friend or playing a game of soccer I always seem to have this feeling that I need to get back to something,that the activity that is occupying my attention in the dream is only secondary to some other duty or task that I really must get back to. After having this experience night after night, I realized that it was not only in my dreams that I felt this perpetual pull towards the trail, but the feeling has pervaded my waking life too.
It’s like being in the middle of writing a senior thesis. You know that no matter how many articles you read in a day, books you read in a week or pages you write, the end goal and finished project is still months away. But with that, its very difficult to be fully satisfied with the progress you make each day because that timeline is so long and it feels that you always could do more in a day. It’s always pulling at the back of your mind. There’s always progress to be made. Likewise with the trail.
I’ve spent the last week trying to find that fine line between enjoyment (the living in the moment part) and the all-consuming obsession of getting to Canada (pushing harder, getting bigger miles, finding limits). It’s made for a week of ups and downs for sure.

Last time Gus posted we were staying at a trail Angels house in Beldentown. Brenda Braaten treated us to homemade peanut butter cookies and a stirfry with vegetables freshly picked from her garden. Trail heaven. There were a few other hikers there and as we chowed down we swapped stories of bad-ass-ery (or stupidity) on the trail. One guy had just gotten back from trying to south-bound the PCT in Washington. His attempt ended when he had to get heli-evacked off a snowy ridge because he got vertigo so bad that he couldn’t move and ran out of food. Another hiker told us about how, at the beginning, he had tried to fuel his body off of pure glucose with very little protein. He lost 20 pounds in 20 days and came in to one trail angels house smelling of ammonia. He found out later that this was because his muscles had started eating themselves with so little body fat to keep him going. There were mostly tales of extremity to a stupid degree. The baddest ass award however, went to a story told by a trail angel about Anish, a woman who is attempting to break the overall speed record for unsupported PCT hike this yearn. I guess this trail angel asked Anish if she could bring anything to the trailhead for her. Anish replied “Yes please, French toast and super glue.” The French toast was for the obvious reason but the superglue, as the trail angel soon found out, was so that Anish could glue moleskin onto her tailbone. She had so little body fat left that her pack was rubbing her tailbone raw to where ( the trail angel claims) it was coming out of her skin! Nothing like a little moleskin and superglue to fix it right up.
Anyways, Gus and I were pumped up/mesmerizingly disgusted by these stories. But it also helped to realize that we were not the only ones hurting everyday out here. Pain is just part of this game, I guess.
With renewed vigor to just go, the next day we headed out of Beldentown and into Lassen National park. After ridge-climbing for the better part of the day we found a five-star campground with a stunning view of Mt. Lassen and the surrounding mountains.
The following day, day 73, we made it to the halfway point! It was a little anticlimactic seeing as how the monument was a little two foot post sticking out of the ground, but it was humbling to be there nonetheless.
A few more miles down the trail, a mountain lion jumped out in front of us. In fiercesome hand-to-paw combat, Gus fought it off, leaving him with debilitating tendinitis in his upper ankle. Well, almost all that is true. Save for the mountain lion part, a few miles after the halfway mark, the soreness that Gus had been experiencing in his lower shin region for the past few days transformed from a dull ache to searing pain. He wisely decided that this was not a “no pain, no gain” or “grin and bear it” situation (as some other thru-hikers had suggested). We were lucky enough to pass through the lovely town of Chester, CA in the next ten miles, so he wrapped it up, popped some ibuprofen and made it to civilization in one piece.
After a zero-day in Chester, Gus and I parted ways. He took the bus to Mt. Shasta where he was able to stay with Westin, the cousin of my dear best friend (thank you Strouds!!) and heal up a bit. I made my way back to the trail and NorCal bootcamp began.
The first 36 hours I did not see a single other PCT hiker. This was odd because for the last two weeks we’d seen about 5-10 others a day. This pushed me to do bigger miles at first, hoping that I’d catch up with other hikers that we’d met earlier. It wasn’t until the next resupply that I ran into people I knew and hiked with them for awhile.
Some people wanted to night-hike so they could get to church in Redding the next day so I thought, what the hay, a little night hiking is always fun. Day 78 I hiked until 1 am with a brutal 5 am wake-up the next morning. The scenery was beautiful as we walked along a rim overlooking Mt. Lassen, but around 1 pm the next day I completely bonked. As my college roommates know very well, I am not one of those people who can function, or even remain coherent, on less than 7 hours of sleep. I told the people I was with to go on and that needed take a big fat nap. And nap I did. For five hours.
My mood had become so foul from lack of sleep that I was experiencing a serious crisis of motivation to be on the trail. Everything hurt and Canada seemed so far away. However, after a refreshing nap my head was back on straight and after walking a few more miles, I was pleasantly surprised by the Wild Bird trail magic cache where I feasted on Pringles, cracker jacks, a butter finger and a beer for dinner. Yum!
I had discovered my limit on hours of sleep needed and the next few days I played with pushing miles and figuring out the most effective way to fuel myself (constant stream of sugar all day or just when tired? Snack throughout the day or three meals?). One would think that we’d have all this figured out halfway in, but I am still learning.
The low point was sugar crashing hard one day at 2 pm. I fell asleep by a stream and didn’t wake up until hikers were making dinner around me. I met some awesome new people but didnt get too many miles in that day.
The high point was (almost) getting in my first 40-miler. Around 6 pm that day, some nice dad-like campers out for the weekend stopped me and the girl I was hiking with and told us that “we hadn’t lived until we had had an espresso in the woods.” They whipped out two deluxe camping espresso makers and entertained us with stories of their kids and own youths (all the while telling classic dad jokes). We had a caffeine kick going for the rest of the night but clocked in at 38 miles when our feet finally quit. Ah well, next time.
Meanwhile, Gus was given some healing elixir from a vagabond in Shasta (his story to tell in the next post), and is feeling almost 100% better. He hiked in and met me before Castella and is now back on trail. We spent the day today picking blackberries, getting our resupply box and talking to other hikers. An enormous amount of people are becoming injured and dropping out through NorCal. We thank our lucky stars that we are healthy and have made it this far!
I know that I’ve said it before but thank you all again for your support and words of encouragement. They help re-inspire us when we’ve forgotten why we wanted to hike this dang trail in the first place. We are so looking forward to crossing a state border (finally!) this week and being that much closer to beautiful Washington (although we are very excited for Oregon, too).

Until next time,
Elena

Marathon Sandwich (day 72/mile 1289)- Gus

Elena and I are already nostalgic for the casual, relaxing days of central California. The days when we could swim at every lake and sleep in past the sunrise. Those days when we would take three hour lunch breaks with Leah and feast on spoonfuls of her peanut butter and Nutella. Since leaving my dad and Leah a week ago, we have walked 170 miles from Tahoe City to the community of Belden Town.
We began to hike sans Leah at Barker Pass. The trail took us up along ridges which overlooked Lake Tahoe and through Squaw Valley Ski Resort and many other ski areas. It finally felt like we were on the Pacific Crest Trail as we were walking along a ridge line instead of hiking in and out of valleys. Also, seeing ski areas in the summer never fails to remind me of the perks of winter, notably that of skiing.

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The next day we returned to our 6-8 job of walking a lot. The trail that day took us across Donner Pass where my dad and Leah had thoughtfully left a little trail magic for us (thanks guys!).

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Both of us started to return to the “zone” where we are able to walk for hours and not notice it at all. The day ended at a little creek and this was our first marathon day. The trail followed a ridge line again the next day as we slowly descended into the valley where Sierra City was located. The valley was located a little above 3,000 feet which gave us a completely different feel for the trail. Previously we hadn’t been this low since the desert. The valley was filled with creeks and leaves! Leaves were quite an inviting sight since we had mostly seen shrubs and pine trees up until now. Any reminder of home makes the walk much more bearable. A few miles before Sierra City there were some trail angels who offered us some beers which we gladly accepted. They told us that their daughter was hiking the trail as well. I was reminded of our parents because they are involved, interested and invested in the trail also. We reached Sierra City in the evening and set up camp at the Red Moose Inn. This mountain town is known to have many bears that wander through the streets at night and it turns out that one ran right over me and Elena in our sleep unbeknownst to us (another hiker let us know in the morning).

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This sign explains why one of the main areas where people leave the trail is in Northern California. Hikers who reach NorCal realize that they are not even halfway and have been hiking for months, and then become bored or decide that they should rejoin the real world. I don’t blame a single one of them. Everyday, Elena and I battle with the ennui of walking from waking to sleeping. It is more taxing mentally than one would imagine. As Elena puts it, “I hate it in the morning when I think ‘so what am I going to think about today?'” I have created Gatorade Art to help ease the boredom of the trail. Here is a sample.

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Although the mental challenge is becoming more noticeable, the physical challenge is as big as ever. Sometime during the day that we left Sierra City I started to have a pain in my shin. The problem with healing on the PCT is that the main treatment a doctor will prescribe is extended rest. The only activity a PCT hiker tries to avoid is a period of extended rest.
We skirted around many lakes and a thunderstorm without getting rained on much to Elena’s disappointment.

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I have learnt that inclement weather makes walking exciting. It also makes the landscape look more awe inspiring.

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In the past five days we have hiked 26, 28, 26, 28, and then 26 miles again; a perfect marathon sandwich. Our feet are swollen, but so is our excitement and motivation as we near the halfway point. We’ll reach mile 1330 in a couple of days and then Oregon and then Washington and then Canada. It sounds so easy when put like that.
Well, we’re off to climb out of Feather River Canyon and on towards our fourth national park; Lassen National Park. Thank you all so much for any support and good vibes sent our way, recognized or not. They make this trip far more enjoyable and push us northwards!

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(Icing my shin with a popsicle)

In the lap of luxury (day 65/mile 1130)

We have been living large of late – at least for PCT thru-hikers. After three lazy days in Mammoth Lakes (where life for Gus, Carter and me consisted of watching huge amounts of HBO, the Tour de France and leaving the hotel room a grand total of two or three times a day), it was a little bit tough to get back on the trail. Our recuperation time in Mammoth was probably the most physically lazy time that I have ever had in my life, a nice antidote to the physical endeavor we are on right now. It was also the longest time that we had spent in civilization for the past 47 days. I thought it would take me a bit longer to get used to the comforts of civilized first-world society (i.e. running water, electricity, shelter that’s not made out of netting, a plethora of food choices within walking distance…), but by day two the initial gratitude I had felt going into town  was gone,  to be replaced by my normal attitude of general complacency towards the whole modern world sha-bang — acceptance that that is just the way our developed society is, and with that, just totally taking the comfort of it all for granted.

It was a bit scary how fast I fell back into the mind-set of contentment sans gratitude for the ease in which all the comforts of life were available after spending 47 days in pretty consistent discomfort. After three days in Mammoth Lakes, living the good life was completely normal again, to where I had barely a fleeting thought to what life had been like for the past month and a half. Experiencing this drastic change in mentality in such a short amount of time-from being wholly appreciative of every little comfort present in the developed world, to taking it all for granted once again- helped me become a little bit more thankful for the different perspective that life on the trail provides.

Despite the fact that we had eaten (more than) our fill, and any ailments that our bodies may have had, had ample time for recovery, all three of us dragged our feet getting back on the trail. As we meandered back to the trailhead at Reds Meadows, we stopped for lunch, an ice cream sandwich, more bug repellent, and milkshakes, making our final start time a whopping 4 pm. But we weren’t back on the trail for long.

We hiked that evening, passing The Devil’s Postpile, one of the most magnificent national monuments I have ever seen. We slept, woke up and hiked, and slept again, before entering into Yosemite National Park, and descending into Tuolommne Meadows. IMG_1209[1]

 

IMG_1208[1]My mom and dad who were down in the area to hike part of the John Muir Trail met us at the Tuolomne General Store with Gus’s girlfriend, who was going to join us for a couple weeks. It was really good to see familiar faces. Our parents took us back down into Mammoth for yet another night of hotel comfort and even spoiled us with a delicious dinner and re-supplied some of our necessary food (candy bars, chips, hot chocolate and dried fruit).

While we were only planning on spending one night off-trail with our parents, as we were driving back to the Tuolomne trailhead, Gus, Carter, Leah and I, on a whim, decided to prolong our absence from trail life just a bit longer and travel to the floor of the Yosemite Valley to see some of the legendary sights, (Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls etc.). It was a detour well worth it. We stayed at the tourist zoo that is Curry Camp and we were almost as amused by the people watching than with the views. Almost. The wildlife down in the valley was pretty interesting as well. Nothing, not bears, deer or ducks seemed to have any inherent fear of close proximity to humans. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but it did make for some good pictures. IMG_1204[1]IMG_1205[1]IMG_1206[1]

Unfortunately Carter had a commitment come up back home, so on the drive back to the PCT trailhead we dropped him off at Camp 4 with a sign that said “North, please.” He is now safely back in Tacoma and will hopefully be able to rejoin us for some sections in Oregon or Washington.

And then it was Gus, Leah, and me, back on the trail.

I say that we have been living “in the lap of luxury,” so to speak, for the last two weeks, for a few different reasons. The most prevalent of which, for Gus and me, has been the ability to take a break from the thru-hiking mentality and instead relax into what we now understand as “true backpacking.” Hiking with Leah for two weeks gave Gus and me a reason to slow down, stop worrying about mileage each day and simply enjoy. I have described our newfound distinction between thru-hiking and backpacking before (thru-hiking=worrying about mileage, skimping on comfort to make your pack lighter and being in pretty consistent pain whereas backpacking=enjoying nature, having enough food, being able to stop in a pretty place and appreciate what is around you), and over the last two weeks Gus and I were able to experience this dichotomy in full.

With Leah we hiked between 10 and 15 miles a day (although we did have two 20+ days, props to her), giving us ample time stop at (almost) every swimming hole, take naps at lunch, have hot chocolate in the morning and at night, sleep in, play cards, read good books, sunbathe…life on the trail has been very good.IMG_1207[1]IMG_1202[1]IMG_1003[1]IMG_1200[1]

Although everyone is required to carry a bear can through Yosemite, only Gus was lucky enough to see a bear while we were hiking through the park. We did have a scare one night, however, as we were all snug in our tents and heard a large animal huffing and puffing and moving around our campsite. We could see a very large outline against the moonlit sky. As we prepared to make ourselves big and make alot of noise (the prescribed action for scaring off black bears) Gus turned on his flashlight only to find a buck with a full rack of antlers (hence the big silhouette) grazing around our tents. Leah and I were relieved, but Gus was a bit disappointed that another bear-wrestling story had eluded him.

After about five days of beautiful and leisurely Yosemite hiking, I was running low on food (I had planned for seven days but Gus and Leah had enough for ten) so I decided to go ahead to the next resupply in Echo Lake and wait for them there. As I hiked away solo, I passed the Yosemite boundary, leaving the park once and for all, and then onto the 1000 mile mark…at last!IMG_1009[1]

I hiked for awhile before running into two other thru-hikers, “Coyote” and “Road-kill” that we had been leap-frogging since Kennedy Meadows. We hiked until we reached Sonora Pass, and with it a road that was a 40-minute hitch from the nearest town of Bridgeport, which, according to one PCT guide book had delicious pizza, burgers and beer. Although none of us had been planning on it, we decided to give the hitch a try. Food was just too tempting. After about ten minutes a green Subaru Forester pulled up, confirmed that he was headed to Bridgeport, and also that he had room for three. We were in luck.

It turned our that our driver had hiked part of the PCT in ’99 with his wife until a knee injury took him off the trail in Mammoth Lakes, where they consequently ended up settling down, and he is now a defense attorney in the area. This ended up being to our advantage (no, we didn’t get arrested), as he dropped us in Bridgeport and asked if we were trying to get back to the trailhead that night (which we were), he then talked to his friend, the friendly local Sheriff, who told us that whenever we needed a ride back, just to flag down the patrol car. He said that the the cops in town like giving rides to PCT hikers, as it is considerably safer than hitch-hiking. No objections there.

After pizza, beer, a few rounds of pool and some much needed re-stock of food from the general store for me, we walked outside to a waiting patrol car. “You girls still need a ride?” We were back at the trail-head by 11:30 pm. A successful town trip we decided unanimously.

I met up with Gus and Leah the next day, now with enough food to get me through the few more days to Echo Lake. Even after one day of ‘fast’ hiking I already missed the relaxed pace and leisurely breaks. We made it to Echo Lake with food to spare and were even greeted by a box of goodies from our Oma and Opa.

The luxury continued when we called family friends who lived in Gardnerville and had offered us a place to stay. We were driven to their beautiful home on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe and treated to delicious home-made food, beds and showers for two nights. Thank you so much to Allan and PJ for being such gracious and generous hosts! IMG_1221[1]IMG_1220[1]

(Sushi and sunset on Lake Tahoe)

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With only three more days on the trail with Leah, we lived it up, ate really well and swam to our hearts content. Allan recommended jell-o for breakfast while hiking and I think we are all converts. We even saw a baby bear in our last three miles!

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Leah goes home today and Gus and I are back to the trail. The past two weeks have been refreshing; we both remember now why we liked backpacking in the first place. When it’s about the activity of being outside, not an obsession over the miles, hiking becomes a much more enjoyable endeavor. Hopefully we will be able to incorporate some of the appreciation into our next section. However, now we are cutting it close. We want to make it home before October, before the snow starts falling in the North Cascades. Thus, we are in for many high-mileage days over the next few weeks.

Our waistlines have expanded back to their normal sizes, and our thru-hiking ethics have all but disappeared (a 12 mile day felt long the other day, I can’t wait to see how consistent 25-ers feel…), but our bodies are considerably well-rested and pain-free and we are starting to smell the fir trees of home. In a week-ish we will be hitting the halfway mark on the PCT, 370 miles later we’ll roll into Oregon, and 450 miles later we’ll be in  Washington, sweet Washington.

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Trail magic!

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(Lake Aloha at sunset)

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Cheers to Leah for being such a trooper and hiking 180 PCT miles! Especially with waterproof boots which were conducive to blisters galore…IMG_1212[1]

Also, many thanks to Karin Sable for letting us stay at her house and introducing us to her precious new puppy, Ptygo!

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Until next time,

Elena

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