From Miners’ Creek to Hemlock Camp
I knew that when I woke up this morning I would still feel terrible, knew it in my skin chills and deep down in the body aches – but a girl can hope. J coaxes me out of my purple and teal nylon cocoon with some hot tea. “Maybe we can just stay here today,” I suggest, although I know that even if I’m not eating any, we don’t have enough food to do that.
“No rush, but you know, why don’t we give it a try?” J counters, mindful of our flat-looking food bags. I get up, but only to pee.
I crawl out into the spitting rain and look back at our campsite: “Holy s—!!!!” I yell. “We need to go! Get out of the tarp! Get out of the tarp!”
“What’s going on?” J exclaims, scrambling from the tarp. I point to the tarp, strung in a beautiful two-tree pitch between a tall, slim pine and a widowmaker. In my feverish rush to get out of the rain last night I pitched the tarp to a tree broken entirely in half, leaning precariously over the top. I am too horrified to speak anything besides four-letter obscenities. If it had slipped and fell during the night, I would have been crushed from toes to nose. It probably wouldn’t have hit J, as it’s aligned very neatly over my side. I’m aghast. We both stare at it, for the first time totally unmindful of the rain on our heads. I feel like a rock climber who just reached the top of a hard, scary pitch only to realize that I never tied my knot. I’m still alive, but for a single gust of wind…
Frozen in horror, we snap back to action, stuffing sleeping bags, untying our tarp from our deaths. Guess we’ll hike today. We start up the switchbacks marking the beginning of an 8-mile climb to Suiattle Pass. I haven’t eaten anything.
Up, up, up. I follow behind J, trying to keep up. Head down, keep hiking. We wind our way through the gray forest and the rain. V catches up with us, then passes us by.
We’re nearly to the top, but we have to stop – I am too tired to keep going. It’s raining pretty hard, so we pull the tarp out and string it between two trees for a sloppy 30-second pitch. I find this strangely satisfying. One of the reasons I wanted to use a tarp for this thru-hike was so that we could do things like this – a lunchtime pitch in a rainstorm. Except, it doesn’t actually rain that much on the PCT in the summer, so here we are, 100 miles from the end, using this feature for the first time. J gets out the stove and nags me into eating some ramen and mystery hiker-box potato soup. It tastes good, but sits bad. Even with all my clothes on, under the tarp, it is too cold to stay here, so we pack up and keep going. All the things that came out of my pack go back into J’s.
I can’t keep up, so J makes me take the lead. I can’t go fast enough to stay warm. Oh, I feel so bad! I know that at this pace, J is cold and miserable too, and I feel even worse.
We climb out above treeline to Suiattle Pass. The clouds drift in brilliant, crazy fogs around white-dusted peaks, blueberry bushes incandescently red in the dim light, snow-melt streams pounding frenzied through scree. Tiny flakes of snow are falling all around us, and I feel caught, for the thousandth time, in overwhelming dichotomy that seems to define the PCT. So much beauty, so much pain. So amazing, so hard. Worth beyond measure, but it claims its pound of flesh. I walk, so slowly, through the mountaintops, and I throw up the entire way.
There’s a tiny campsite next to a snow-melt cascade. “What if we stopped here?” I asked J. He looks away uncomfortably.
“We’re just so high, and it’s snowing. I really think we need to get back below treeline, if you can. This isn’t a good place to stop.”
I know it’s a bad place to stop, I know it will be too cold, and I know we need to keep going, but I have nothing left. We keep going, so… slowly…
After a few miles of flat to downhill walking we hit another uphill. I start up, one foot at a time, even slower. I feel J’s presence behind me. I know he’s freezing, but he doesn’t complain. I know this pace must be killing him, but he stays patiently behind. I cannot do this. I cannot do this! My metabolism’s fiery furnace is burning me up from the inside, and I will be entirely consumed soon. I drop to my knees, put my face in the dirt, and sob.
This sends J into a panic. He is instantly beside me, barraging me with questions, pleading with me to get up, telling me I have to get up, begging me to get up. I just cry and don’t respond. He finally waits beside me, as helpless as me in the face of my utter exhaustion. It feels so good, to just lay here in the dirt. But I know, I know I can’t stop here. Calmer, I lay a while longer, reaching for everything left in me, down to my feet, around my armbones, perhaps deep in my center, and get slowly back up. We keep going.
The trail finally crests and we can go downhill again. I let my body weight carry me down, stumbling forward. It’s nearly 4pm – we’ve only done eleven miles. Back below treeline it’s not so cold, and I look around for someplace, anyplace flat enough to camp. We keep going.
Rallied, we make it all the way to a place labeled with a sign as Hemlock Camp, next to the South Fork of Agnes Creek. This is as far as I’m going today. In a strange twist of fate, that I can only classify as the universe having a warped sense of humor, the forest service has posted signs reading: WARNING – falling tree hazard. DO NOT CAMP HERE. The trees all around us lean slightly, this way and that, and the ground is dense with fallen logs. Well, we’ve made it fifteen miles today, fifteen brutal miles, and I’m not going any further. We situate ourselves strategically between a boulder and already fallen trees, looking up as carefully as we should have last night. I think again about that widowmaker and shudder.
Switch and Biscuit come into Hemlock Camp a little bit after us, one at a time, and choose to roll the dice with the falling trees as well, setting up camp in the light rain. It’s so nice to have them here – their good spirits buoy me. Only thirteen miles to Stehekin tomorrow. I’ll make it, because there aren’t any other options.
J makes me eat some more ramen, and then we tuck ourselves into sleeping bags to the sound of rain and the river beside us.