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Backpacking Journals: 7 Days Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington

April 20 2019

We are spoiled on the West Coast with the endless wilderness that threads our cities together. As a kid, I ran through sequoia forest floors with my brother, became a Boy Scout touring Northern California for trails, looked for swimming holes with my family in Arroyo Seco, and forayed into weekend trips after college.

There was always one adventure that loomed over us. The great adventure, the outdoor grail, my brother and I knew it as, and we’d talk about doing the Pacific Crest if we could ever get work off or just cancel obligations for a summer.

We grew up. My brother joined the military and I went abroad for a few years, aching for my playgrounds in those trees and canyons. In my first days back in the US, a friend invited me on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington—new territory—and I threw an expensive, last minute flight on my credit card and landed in Seattle.

The morning of, he arrives at some ungodly hour, waving coffee and a breakfast sandwich out of his running truck. I throw my bag in the bed, count my freeze-dried meals, and we drive southeast.

“To the Cascades,” he says. Seven days, seventy-five miles. I had not helped with planning apart from meeting up somewhat on time, hungover from the night before. That night, we will hike with some of his college friends and camp at Spectacle Lake. While they turn back, three of us will continue on.

Section J of the PCT runs up and down ridges from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass, where we’ll hitchhike to Leavenworth. We tear down I-90, stopping only for whiskey and bananas before arriving at the trailhead.

After walking for a few hours, the canopy peels away to an open burn area where the fireweed—orange and lavender flowers—burns luminously at our necks. Most striking is the immediate contrast from a few hours ago: trading concrete and fiberglass for granite sundials.

We cool off in waterfalls and drink from the moss beards that filter out bacteria. After eleven miles, we camp beside a lake and dine on coconut pho. Tomorrow we will hit the actual PCT, a ribbon that runs 2,653 miles from Canada to Mexico. It is ever-present, impossible to turn your shoulder to.

The PCT remains the most popular and well-known outdoor trail in the US, more recently due to Cheryl Strayed’s book and movie. I actually crossed the PCT a few years earlier in Desolation Wilderness in the California Sierras, envious of the trail bums taking all summer to walk three states.

I will meet people again on the trail—herds of them—and we’ll trade greetings and the day’s destination. Most people have a plan, some ride the day’s vibes. Occasionally we hear, “Going to Canada,” sparking nods of respect, a little jealousy.

Going to Canada in August means they had started in May or June in Southern California. There is a lightness to these people, a transcending glide over everything they came from back in spring.

They are usually the nicest, too. Backpackers are generally a benevolent sort; at least no one goes camping for weeks in a shitty mood.

The trail widens as it winds up the crooked spines of switchbacks. On the second day we trek twelve miles, on the third, fifteen. Day three is a gruelfest. We crawl through valleys over felled trees and brooks. For energy, we pluck huckleberries that hug the path. We are burning so many calories with fifty-pound packs that we can fuel up with anything at this point.

I am often last, snagging photos, wolfing down berries from my stained hands, waiting for people to slip out of sight to have a small stretch to myself; The PCT does not disappoint in beauty.

Section J lies in a mountainous chapel of the Cascades that makes climbs and descents difficult, but pays off in vistas and alpine lakes. Going to lakes provides water and a place to bathe, or really just to smell less bad.

However, the trail is busy. It is well-trodden, wide and deep, literally dug out and inches lower than the grass beside it. We see people all the time, detracting from the Waldenesque solace of nature. We have to go two to three miles off the main drag to camp where people became scarce.

Day three is no different, and we scrabble on all fours up a rock face to Lake Vicente. After fifteen miles our legs are gummy, but we are rewarded with isolation and tranquility for an evening. Lake Vicente nestles into a granite bowl, mountains rising hundreds of feet above in a semicircle.

We whoop and the echo boomerangs back as the cold lake ices our legs. In August, a snowpack melts on the other side and we spend the night gazing at nameless constellations we can’t see from the city.

I wake the next day feeling great. We all do. My two trailmates hike before our main trek, but I read lakeside and pen some thoughts. Our circadian rhythms have adjusted to mountain time: rising with the sun and falling asleep at the late summer dusk. Also, our moods lift the more time we spend out here. I have surpassed my longest trip and my body feels clean, calm, and balanced; the PCT detox has me in its good grips.

We go skinny-dipping when they return, taking long running dives into the clear alpine lake. We yell into the bowl. We spot goats on the buttes. The primitive pureness of being wild sapiens is not lost on us.

Seven easy miles on day four followed by nine miles downhill on day five go by very fast. At night, a dash habanero salsa precedes bourbon—a Hobo Jacket—to add a little kick and fire to our insides. Our city lives and our problems are so far away, though one of us confesses, “My mind has been on women and cheeseburgers all day.”

We think about calling it a trip on the penultimate day, hustling the last six miles to Leavenworth before dusk, but I want the full week. Six days on the PCT does not sound as good as a humblebrag compared to a full seven. There are several splashes on the lake and an osprey boasts its wings, a small trout wriggling in its talons.

The last PCT miles are downhill, fast, almost non-existent; I have become desensitized to the common lush backdrops and the conversations of rivers. Moreover, I am used to the trail, the boost of energy I have on the PCT. At the trailhead, we debate jumping train, but settle on hitchhiking to the town of Leavenworth.

A full week on the Pacific Crest Trail was not quite the resting vacation I needed, but the way my body feels after 75 miles is unbeatable. The week-long detox has great advantages, including my mood.

While crowded, the PCT is worth the fuss. You can get on at any point with hundreds of access points, from crossing trails to highways, perfect for a weekend warrior adventure. Seeking peace in nature, we were able to choose our own adventure by getting off the wide, well-beaten trail to our own sites of seclusion.

Recently, I moved to Portland with much wilderness in reach. There are PCT segments I have my eye on: Three Sisters, the hundred-mile section in southern Washington, or a weekend trip just outside of Portland. I have not done the PCT in some time, but I find myself craving the smell of the forest floor, the good night’s sleep in the woods, and an ice bath in the alpines.