Trail Update #11: Rain and Pain

Day 130, 12 noon, Stevens Pass WA

Hi everyone! It’s been longer than usual between updates this time, and for that I apologize. I’ve been fully in the flow of hiking and experiencing and being with the people out here as well as with my constantly-evolving thoughts… It’s been challenging and rewarding, miserable and joyful. The end is within sight now, though it’s hard to really deeply understand what that means. I guess I’ll just go ahead and tell you about my journey between Bend and here, and then some about the mental space I’ve found myself in as I approach the end of my PCT hike.

I really left Bend with a bang, and without meaning to I hiked 211 miles in a week, marking the most I ever have (and probably ever will?) travel on foot in one week. I guess I was feeling antsy about getting to Washington, and I just didn’t have a good reason at the time to slow down when it felt good to push myself and continue testing my limits. (So far I can’t say I’ve honestly found them.) The highlights of that stretch for me were Timberline Lodge, a beautiful ski lodge and restaurant set right at the foot of Mt. Hood, and the 50 miles of trail that took me from there to the end of Oregon. I, like most thru-hikers, took the Eagle Creek trail as an alternate to the PCT for the last 10 or so miles into Cascade Locks, and… wow. That trail blew my mind almost as much as the hike up to Mt.Whitney. It took me down into the Columbia River Gorge along Eagle Creek, which becomes the most breathtaking waterfall with the most sheer, heartstopping drop into nothingness… luckily there was a cable to hold onto, because the trail is cut into the side of a completely vertical rock wall, and you really get a feeling of vertigo when you see the land fall away from you so completely like that. There were more waterfalls after the first one, including Tunnel Falls, which falls over a rock tunnel that the trail passes through. Very cool. Also, this is a pretty popular day hike or weekend trip, so I bet you could find pictures on Google really easily if you were so inclined.

That last day in Oregon ended up being a very solid 37 miles into Cascade Locks, where I happily found a place owned by a trail angel named Shrek to camp and hang out at. There were other hikers there with a very chill and happy vibe, and I had a generally jolly night, except that from drinking a grand total of 3 beers over the course of the evening I was peeing all night and couldn’t properly fall asleep for hours. Go figure.

Going into Cascade Locks I told myself I could take the day off because I’d hiked so much the day before, but you probably know my style well enough by now to guess that I was too antsy for that. So by 11:30 I was out and heading across the Bridge of the Gods into Washington. It was sunny out, the river was looking beautiful, and I have to say I was feeling very appreciative of that little slice of the world as I walked through it. Hard to sum up quite what it felt like to cross into my third and final state… I’d been really looking forward to getting to Washington, but I think what I felt most acutely when I finally got there was fear. I had no idea what the rest of the trail held for me, but odds were good that it would include cold and rain, which I for the most part had dodged the first 3 1/2 months of this trip. The trail was also supposedly going to get a lot harder again, and I didn’t know what to expect from myself going over the tougher terrain on my own. It felt good to know I was in the final 500 miles, but I was definitely aware of just how much can happen in 500 miles. 500 miles is still a really long way to walk!

My anxiety and fear sort of propelled me quickly through my first stretch of hiking in Washington, 82 miles between Cascade Locks and Trout Lake. I did 20 on that “half day” out of Cascade Locks followed by two 31’s. I think more than anything I did it to prove to myself that I could still hike hard through more difficult stretches of trail, to let go of whatever doubts I still somehow had about my own physical capacity. It felt sort of good to be tackling the Washington trail with vigor, that at the end of my 211-mile week I decided I didn’t need a full day off and just kept going.

I still felt anxious about rain, which held off for my first 5 days or so and then came in when I was at White Pass for my next resupply. I got a room at the motel there with 6 other hikers and hid inside for my first night of rain, which on one hand was kind of cowardly and on the other hand made me feel actually more calm about it all… it was just a physical reminder that any discomforts that come with hiking through bad weather are temporary, that it’s okay to give myself a break when I need one. Already I was making plans to stay at the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie Pass a few days later, and knowing that I’d be inside and dry once I got there helped me get through a few days of being wet and cold.

Hiking in the rain, in moderation, hasn’t actually been so bad. I have good rain gear, and I tend to stay warm enough while I’m moving. Taking breaks can be tricky – if I stop for too long I get really cold, so if it’s raining ALL day then I usually end up just walking all day, which I guess is what I’m here to do anyway. The trouble with rain is when it’s raining for a few days in a row most of your stuff ends up getting at least a little damp, which is just… not cozy. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t yet had to set up and sleep in a soaking wet tent; I’ve had the chance to dry out my tent in short periods of sunlight or in well-placed shelters.

The most uncomfortable I’ve been is at night, when the temperature drops down and the humidity makes everything inside my tent get wet even if it isn’t raining. I was decidedly NOT carrying enough warm clothes for those few days of cold rain after White Pass, which resulted in a couple nights of being way too cold. The night before I got to Snoqualmie Pass it wasn’t raining but it was freezing cold and extremely humid. All night I was shivering in my sleeping bag, unable to fall asleep fully, trying fruitlessly to make myself warmer and more comfortable, thinking this is the last straw. This is the worst thing in the whole world! I’m done!  I felt so miserable, so angry at myself for putting myself through this whole ordeal, making myself do this stupid hike. I woke up in a very grumpy mood, angrily getting my things together because I couldn’t handle being in that same spot any longer and feeling helplessly cold.

One of the terrible and wonderful things about this trail is that you can never act on the impulses you have at your lowest moments… as much as I despised being in my cold tent that night, I had no option but to get through it and then walk my way out. As I walked, I calmed down. I realized I’d gotten through a rough night, and that as much as I didn’t want to repeat it, I’d be able to get through that circumstance again if I needed to. I felt deep truth in the sentiment that the best way out is through, that the moments we are most uncomfortable or most afraid are the ones most ripe for learning and growth. You can usually decide to quit in those moments, letting the fear and discomfort rule over you… OR you can choose to push through, and come out stronger and wiser for it. That idea has been a bit of a mantra for me lately, one of the lessons that I really want to take with me when I leave this trail. Don’t seek to escape; seek to move through.

Anyway, I made it through the cold snap and through that last stretch of hiking into Snoqualmie Pass. Staying a night at the Summit Inn when I got there was nothing short of heavenly. Words really can’t do justice to my feelings of relief at being warm and dry for several hours! I also had good company; many other hikers were staying in for the night, and my friend Alex drove out from Seattle to visit, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The whole stop there was exactly what the doctor ordered, a bit of a reset button for me after being shaken up by the rain and cold.

I left Snoqualmie Pass on Monday morning and it was beautifully clear out – I’ve never been so grateful for clear air in my life!! In the absence of rain and fog, I was able once again to fully take in the amazing views that this trail offers, which were particularly breathtaking as I climbed high up onto a ridge and was swallowed into the Cascades. I think that was the first day I really fully appreciated the beauty of this mountain range, comparable even to the High Sierra in its rugged wildness. It didn’t rain too much on this last stretch until the day I hiked into Stevens Pass, which was OK with me because I was on my way into town anyway. My mom and step-dad Paul drove all the way up here for one last trail visit, meeting me in the town of Leavenworth – which, incidentally, is definitely worth a visit if you’re ever nearby! Very cute Bavarian-themed town with good food and beer. I enjoyed yet another cushy night indoors, which I think is becoming a staple of my hike through Washington, and a lot of good conversation and hugs with my mom. Mom and Paul are now driving back to California, and I’m writing this up at the Granite Peak Lodge before hitting the trail again.

From here, I’ve got just under 200 miles to go. I just went through a big mindset shift about it… I have to admit that for probably the majority of the first half of Washington, I thought a lot about the end of the trail. I felt ready to be done with it already, ready to mentally check out, ready to not hike anymore, not be cold anymore, not have to deal with the fickle weather and the physical discomforts of this minimalist lifestyle… but hiking in that mindset was a real struggle, and slowly I’ve come to the realization that in focusing so much on the end of the trail, I’ve been robbing myself of the journey itself. So now I am trying to just be here; I’ve let up on the miles a bit; I’m taking it more slowly. I’m accepting right now for what it is, and it feels great.

When I talk to other hikers about their journeys, I see that many of us have been taking away some of the same lessons from this trip. A lot of people are slowing down right before the end, like I am; we’ve put in the long miles already and gotten here with ample time to finish, and now we can let ourselves just hike how we want to. We have new perspective on what this kind of trip is, and we recognize the things we’ve sacrificed in order to to make it the full distance. We look forward to backpacking trips in which there is no agenda in terms of mileage, in which we can be more spontaneous and adventurous and relaxed. Many of us are dreaming about other adventures we want to have, inspired by the people we’ve met out here and the places we’ve caught brief glimpses of. I’m really enjoying sharing moments with these people as we all approach the finish line, in varying states of fatigue, eagerness, happiness and sadness.

One really lovely thing that happened recently was that I caught my friend Polaris – a good trail-friend from very early on who I hadn’t seen since Tehachapi and who I’d been intentionally chasing for all of Oregon and Washington. It felt like everything came sort of full-circle when I caught him; we camped together, told each other all about our respective journeys, and shared our sentiments about the trip and about life in general. He’s probably going to be a day behind me from here to the end because he’s staying off trail at Stevens Pass an extra night, but maybe I’ll catch him again in Manning Park before I leave. Either way we decided we’re keeping each other as friends after the trip 🙂

I corresponded with Emily a little bit yesterday, and it looks like she’s not too far behind and that we’ll be able to catch each other in Vancouver when it’s all over. I’m looking forward to seeing her and hearing about her trip; again, it feels like things are just coming full circle and falling into place just how they’re supposed to.

The weather report looks better moving forward – fingers crossed – though I’ve got some warmer layers with me now just in case. (Thanks Mom!!) The next time you hear from me I’ll probably be off the trail for good! I am, as always, sending my love out to all of you. I really can’t say thank you enough to all of you for being a part of my journey, for supporting me from afar and sending your love and well-wishing, for being interested in what I’m doing and thinking.

Carpe diem! Canada here I come!

P.S. If you’re looking for a really badass hike in Washington state go to Goat Rocks Wilderness and hike the Knife’s Edge. It will blow your mind.


One thought on “Trail Update #11: Rain and Pain

  1. Sandy Gandolfo

    way to go Emma- You amaze me with your strength and courage. I love the mental journey you are on -lessons for all of us


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