On Independence Day, Jason and I boarded a full flight from O’Hare to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to play tourist for 36 hours. On the morning of the 6th, a Ford Flex pulled up, driven by a retired military man sporting an impressive beard and a bowler hat. Joe is a trail angel and, for some ungodly reason, generous folks like him offer to help PCT thru hikers in a variety of ways – fresh fruit, laundry, showers, a place to sleep in town. Joe’s gift to us, and three other aspiring PCT hikers, was a five hour ride across the state of Washington to Hart’s Pass, the closest US PCT trail access point to the Canadian border. One of the added challenges of hiking southbound is that U.S. law forbids entry into the country at anywhere other than an official port of entry. Long story short, the monument at the border of the North Cascades National Park, abutting Canada’s Manning Provincial Park, is not a port of entry. And, so, to officially begin our 2,650 mile journey South, we have to first hike 30 miles North from Hart’s Pass. What’s another 30 miles in the scheme of things?
The final ten miles of the drive were up a steep single lane, gravel road which delivered us to the Hart’s Pass Ranger Station and campground located at 6,100 feet in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. By then, it was 5:30 in the evening and we were itching to start. While storing a food supply that we’d pick up upon our return trip from the border, we heard of possible rain and storms overnight. Joe, a longtime western Washington resident, had suggested we may be lucky enough to make it through our hike with no rain. We weren’t to be so lucky that night. Wrestling with whether or not to delay our start, waiting out the rain at Hart’s Pass, or to take advantage of the several hours of daylight remaining, Jason proved himself a decisive companion and out we went into what is to be our four and a half month wilderness odyssey.
Of course, the rain and fog came, making for poor visibility in what is purportedly one of the most gorgeous sections of the PCT. Wet and cold, we pitched our tents at a rather exposed campsite 3 miles in and, as a consequence, the wind brought my trekking pole (which doubles as a tent pole), down on my in the middle of the night. When your tent upon your face shakes you from your sleep, it is always a bear, even when it most clearly is not a bear. So, that was my first night.
By the next afternoon, the precipitation has abated and sun shone warmly as we walked the narrow, undulating path. We were delighted with the beauty that surrounded us. At six and seven thousand feet, we had expansive views of coniferous forests, emerald balds, and craggy snow topped peaks in all directions. I will not waste my words trying to convey how magnificent the mountains are, but, as a Midwesterner, I will encourage my brethren to experience the Western mountains at least once in their life. They make you feel small, grateful and humble in the best way possible. Also, the air is pretty sweet.
On our second full day of hiking, we reached the border where we each signed the PCT Trail Register and took the obligatory “start” photo. Up until that moment, I had been elated, giddy with our experience. We had been exceeding my mileage projections, climbing over multiple snowy passes and cruising down switchbacks with relative ease. Along the way, I had cheerfully greeted other hikers (there were more than I expected), sharing brief exchanges confirming we’re all on the same mission: tag the border, turn around and head to Mexico. Everything was grand until I looked at those photos on my phone, the first reflection of myself I had seen in several days. All that I could see was a body that was too large to undertake such an athletic endeavor. It did not matter that an instant before I was proud of my strong body; my brain was hijacked and I was overwhelmed with shame. My vision of myself as fat immediately warped my perception of interactions with other hikers over the previous days. I felt foolish for smiling at these people, cheerfully asserting I was attempting the same feat as these people with sinewy, spry bodies. I was embarrassed that, surely, they thought this thick, ungainly woman was kidding herself.
The next six and a half miles were a grueling climb, which did not help to engender a more positive mindset. Instead, I was tired, tripping and chaffing. We retired to camp at Hopkins Lake, a little glacial jewel I struggled to appreciate, where I felt asleep in my dejected state.
Fear not! I would never leave it on such a depressing note. If that was the end, I would have abandoned the trail and returned home by now- no blog post necessary. Instead, I rose the next day for more hiking, which is what you must do when you’ve decided to hike a few thousand miles before the snow flies. The trek back to Hart’s Pass over two and a half days was even more challenging than the hike in, requiring us to climb a total of 7,513 feet and descend 5,5586 over 30 miles. While climbing one of those relentless inclines, I encountered a European couple (I am terrible at placing accents). The woman brightly exclaimed, “You have strong legs!” She is right. And, after conquering more mountain passes on this section of the trail – Hopkins Pass, Woody Pass, Holman Pass, Jim Pass AND the dreaded, snowy Rock Pass – I know that she is correct, and that I do not need to excuse my body, or reprimand or hide it. Rather, I need to be grateful I have this rare time and the good health to, with any luck and a positive attitude, carry me through the amazing places before me.