From Mica Lake to Miners’ Creek
The blue beaten steel of mica lake last night is transformed – just for a moment – into a bowl of molten gold. The weather forecast had said rain for today, but instead it is this golden morning. V, Thinkfast, and Goosebumps came in to Mica Lake a little bit after us last night, and it’s a companionable morning. The light shines across the deep valley and through Thinkfast and Goosebump’s tent, making the little gray envelope of silnylon look like the castle of a queen. We share the coffee and the view. I think this might be as good as it ever gets, and I don’t even like mornings.
We begin the descent into the valley, getting back our views of Glacier Peak. The big mountains appear and disappear out of our lives like fellow thru-hikers. You see them every day for a long time, and then, with no warning, they are gone from your life forever. You never know which lunch break will be the last time you ever see them.
“Look,” I point out to J. “The trail.” We both look across the valley and see, winding a perfect zig-zag upwards, the trail taking us up the other side of the valley, more switchbacks than I’ll bother to count.
“Well, always nice to know where we’re going.”
Uphill, downhill, it’s nice not to care. I can walk it.
Back down below timberline, across the raging glacial streams, back up again. A thin veil of clouds is slowly materializing over Glacier Peak. I’m about halfway up the switchbacks when it hits me – I need to poop. Now, I need to poop now. I look around me – sheer drop at the end of the next switchback, a sheer drop at the end of the last switchback, and if I try to go over the side of the switchback, I’ll hit hikers below me with an… unpleasant surprise. I hustle up another switchback, then another, then another, until in total desperation I drop my pack and go bushwhacking off the end of a switchback thick with brush. I’m climbing more than walking, dangling from pine branches as I try to keep my footing, but I make it work. It’s a hiker’s life for me.
Finally on the ridge above timberline, back in blueberry country (this holds us up). The clouds are thickening fast, and the high country that felt so soaring yesterday seems precarious today. We run into Thinkfast and Goosebumps filling up their water bottles at a snowmelt stream, and they point out a tiny black speck roaming the blueberry meadows below us. Our first bear sighting since the Tehachapi Mountains!
I’m losing a little steam this afternoon. I can’t tell if I’m coming down with something or if it’s just the clouds.
I’m relieved to head down out of the exposed high country into the forest again. Too bad all the trees fell down. “This must be the section Storybook told us about”, J says, as we precariously slide over yet another downed tree, or army crawl underneath, or hike above and around on slick mud.
“Yeah, I remember her warning about this section.” The PCT is probably the best-maintained trail I’ve ever been on, and one of the best marked, which only makes it all the more obvious how spoiled we are when we have an actual obstruction. “What?? I have to walk around??”
I’m beginning to think I am actually unwell.
“Hey Dirtnap, what do you want to do about the alternate route?”
“The old PCT?”
“Yeah. If we take the unmaintained trail and cross the Suiattle River on the sketchy fallen log, it cuts 5 miles off. Otherwise we can take the new trail with a bridge.”
“Ooh, that’s a tough one. Five extra miles or taking our chances with an ice-fed river.”
“Yeah, I know. I can’t make up my mind. I guess I would say that if it’s raining, let’s take the new PCT. I don’t want to mess around with a slick log crossing. If it’s not raining, let’s take the old PCT.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Of course, if we take the old PCT, that will make us ‘non-purists’,” I follow up.
“What are you talking about?” J answers.
“Didn’t you read the note in Halfmile’s maps? It says the old PCT might be passable for “non-purist hikers”.”
“What the f— are they talking about? There’s a purity test for thru-hikers?”
We go back and forth on this for a while. It’s one of the things we talk about the most out here – the philosophy of thru-hiking. Can you be a thru-hiker if you ARE thru-hiking, but haven’t hiked “thru” yet? What differentiates a thru-hiker from a section hiker? How many miles do you have to do on trail to make it “count”? What if you hitched around a fire closure? What if you took an alternate route, but still walked the entire way? I know that there are hard’n’fast definitions of thru-hiking out there, but this ain’t the Olympics, with a rulebook and governing body. Good luck telling J what to do (or to think) anyhow.
There have been points on this trail where I was more orthodox, if you will, but I have to admit to being happier now that I have allowed for other possibilities. The “purist” note in the maps still puts me off a bit.
We hit the turnoff for the old PCT – it’s not raining. Old PCT it is.
We have barely finished a first hazardous stream fording when it starts to rain, a light drizzle. Too late, thru-hikers never go backwards. “C’mon,” J tells me. “If we hurry maybe we can get to the log crossing before it gets too slippery.” He goes blasting off down the faded trail, thick with downed trees and moss. I follow behind, trying desperately to keep up.
I can’t keep up. I am feeling worse by the second, my whole body rippling with chills and aches. When my skin starts to hurt when the breeze blows on it, I know I have a fever.
The two miles to the log crossing feel like the longest two miles of my life, and J has to keep stopping so I can catch up. We have picked up Smokey and Tintin on the way though, and we make our way to the giant old tree bridging the Suiattle River. The river churns madly down the valley, white with rock dust and choked with great boulders that send it thrashing in frothy rapids and eddies. All the bark has worn off the tree long ago, and its long, smooth trunk is slick with rain, and a good six feet higher than the water. “You first, or me?” asks J.
“Why don’t you go first.”
He crosses slowly, smoothly. And it’s done – my turn. “The absolute certainty that I will not fall in is what keeps me from falling in,” I repeat to myself. It’s a mantra I’ve taken from a free-solo hotshot rock climber – one who hasn’t died yet. It hasn’t failed me yet either, although when I’m 3/4 over the river, my laser focus on the log so far above the madly rushing water starts to make me dizzy. But a second later I’m over it as well. Smokey goes next, losing his nerve halfway across and dropping from his feet to his butt, now securely straddling the log. He scoots awkwardly across the second half. Tintin finishes it off, also choosing partway across to scoot instead of walk. Her fumbling transition into a seated position makes me more nervous than anything else has, but we all make it.
We’re not done yet though. We have to bushwhack a little more to make our way back to the new PCT. “I’m glad we took the old route,” I think out loud. “23 miles for the price of 18. I’m not sure I would have made it another five miles today.”
We break our own rules and go backwards a quarter mile on the trail to a campsite by Miners’ Creek. I spend at least ten minutes examining every clear spot there to make sure I pick the one least likely to flood. No more midnight earthworks for me. J cooks dinner, but I go to bed without supper, too ill to eat. Hopefully I will feel better in the morning.
The trusty blue tarp, V’s tent, and a rigged up rodent hang (hard with no trees). It wouldn’t do anything to keep it out of the reach of a bear, but it would keep a bear out of our tarp. So there’s that. Photo by J.