You are currently viewing Chapter 7 SoBo to Snoqualmie

Last night Melinda promised us a delightful breakfast at a café near Concrete. “I call it Cement,” she laughs “so I can remember the name of the town.” Good word association. I’d do the same. With an 8.30 am departure, Shepherd and I are keen for that promised breakfast stop. I see an enormous old water tank or silo with the word C-O-N-C-R-E-T-E painted on it.

While Melinda is conversing with the other hikers, I peel our surroundings for signs of this café. 20 minutes pass.

“Hey Melinda? Could I just ask–are we near the Concrete café or have we passed it?”

“Oh, sorry guys. I’ve been too busy chatting. We’ve passed it. I’m sure we can find another one.”

I hope so. Shepherd and I are about to implode. We spot a camping ground with a small building advertising ‘Real Espresso’ at the front door.

“Shall we give this place a go?” asks Melinda.

We’re out of the car before she parks, eager to place our cappuccino, café latte, double espresso, and flat white orders. The disinterested 18-year-old server brings identical drinks to the table as we inspect the sticky breakfast menus. I can assure you they didn’t harm any beans making these ‘real espresso’ coffees.  

“Well, They’re hot. That’s good isn’t it?” from Garratt, the eternal optimist.

For breakfast, I order Oatmeal, a dish I eat every day. Here’s an opportunity for me to try something different but I dislike surprises. I prefer meals I can trust. Shepherd goes for a fry-up of sorts, as do the boys. Melinda orders a cinnamon bun, five inches in every direction. It’s hard to imagine one person consuming this cube of starch in one sitting but this is a normal American portion size. Fortunately, we all get to sample this delicious morsel.

Garratt struggles to squeeze tomato sauce on his meal. He passes the bottle to Josh who then decorates himself, the table, and Shepherd.

“We should call you Ketchup, Josh,” I suggest. I’m getting Josh’s I’m-not-buying-it face. He retreats to the bathroom. Poor bloke. Not what you want to happen when you are entering bear country. The whole incident looks as if he’s garnishing himself on purpose to appear more appetising.

A few hours later we arrive in Mazama. The town has a General Store with gourmet handmade sandwiches and healthy slices. I sneak a few extras into my bag. We kiss and hug Melinda goodbye and take a group photo before she hands us over to PK, another trail angel, who will drive us the final 19 miles up a treacherous two-car-width 4WD road to Hart’s Pass. 

Santana Bandanna transports Shepherd, Garratt, Josh and me to Mazama, WA

I sense Shepherd’s exhaustion. It’s taken us three days to find our way from Bishop in California to Hart’s Pass in Washington. She needs loving. We squeeze into the back of PK’s ute and a gorgeous white and caramel border collie, named Shiloh, jumps up on her lap. Love at first sight. The name means ‘peace’ in Hebrew. He’s just the pick-me-up we both need. The journey takes an hour and I share Shiloh with Shepherd, but I can see where the dog’s affections lie.

The last few days have been tiring and have taxed our patience. We needed to curtail our frustrations and work through the difficulties, agreeing to actions that gave us the best outcome. The PCT makes nothing easy. There are no gimmes in this game. I believe the PCT relishes every opportunity to break you. It almost has. But we are fighters, and we are nearly back on the trail. 

Meanwhile, PK is a qualified linguist. He picks me for a New Zealander. Close. Shepherd, to within 21 miles of where she lives.

“Leeds.” That gobsmacks us. Impressive!

Conversations, such as this one, are a major bonus of the PCT. If we hadn’t asked for help on the PCT Trail Angel Facebook pages, we’d never meet these people. Or even make it to this little remote camping ground called Hart’s Pass. Time for a photo with PK before we visit the Ranger.

We need a six-day carry for this section before our next resupply in the town of Stehekin. It’s a three-day 60-mile (97km) round trip to get to the Northern Terminus Monument at the border of the USA and Canada and return to Hart’s Pass. Instead of carrying six days’ worth of food, we take three and leave the remaining three with the Ranger. This husband-and-wife team is now in residence. We place our extra food on their spare bed. If we don’t arrive back in time, they’ll put our food in their outhouse hanging from the rafters, safe from bears. A thru-hiker will always welcome the opportunity to ‘lighten one’s load’, so to speak. How fitting that a toilet should prove the perfect setting.

At 2.45 pm we resumed the PCT. The early morning drizzle of Sedro Woolley has given way to a mild sunny afternoon. Snow-capped mountains decorate the horizon. A mass of purple and yellow surrounds us. Purply pink phlox daisies; spreading fleabane–a double-leafed lilac daisy; white sandwort daisy; lemon sweet fennel and yellow tiger lilies delight us. We stroll through the cliff-side meadows relieved to be back amongst this captivating terrain. Nothing else compares to the pleasure of walking in the great outdoors. It clears the mind and heals the soul. Shepherd and I can get back to the business of walking the PCT and put that logistical nightmare–the FLIP–behind us.

Washington State is black bear country, even grizzly bears, but hard-sided bear canisters are not mandatory here. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take precautions to protect your food, at least from rodents and small mammals. There are several options available. Bear and rodent-resistant bags (Ursacks) are one choice or hanging your food using the counterbalance method is another. For me, the Ursacks are too heavy to carry, and I’ll never master hanging my food.

Instead, I focus on being extra clean. Not spilling my food around camp, not even a crumb, and sealing my food in large Loksak Opsak odour-proof ziplock bags. This includes any item with a scent–my cooking washcloth, my eating utensils, toothpaste, toothbrush, antibiotic cream, sunscreen, and antibacterial gel. Even my Infinite Raspberry lipstick. This might take me extra time each night, but I consider it worth the effort.

Shepherd and Medicine Man, the more experienced campers amongst us, are being far less vigilant than me or plain unlucky. When Medicine Man joins us for a short time in Washington a large ruckus comes from his tent one night.

“Everything alright there, Medicine Man?”

“Yes, all good. Just had a visit from a mouse.”  

The following evening the commotion moves to Shepherd’s tent. She finds a calling card on her muesli bars. Even her favourite Sour Jelly Babies have nibble marks. Medicine Man and I don’t care for her sour sweets nor does the mouse. Beheaded jelly babies await her when she steps out of her tent.

“Your turn tonight, Kit Kat,” they both chant.

“Not on my watch. You might think I’m pfaffing around in my tent, but I’ve got this nailed. I’m being obsessively careful to avoid inviting any creatures into my tent. That’s the anal-retentive part of my personality.”

Not a single rodent or bear ever found its way into my food. I think I earned their respect after that. This novice is earning her stripes. 

If only my feet would behave themselves. My left heel, which has bothered me from the start, is becoming more painful. Corns beneath my pinkie toes are multiplying at an alarming rate, absorbing every bit of grit from the trail. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Blisters persist on the top of every toe, even after going up one and a half sizes from my normal shoe size. And the balls of my feet are screaming. I need new Compeed blister plasters, new custom Orthotics, new Injinji toe sock liners, new outer socks, and new shoes in a smaller size. I thought conditions in the Desert were dire when I had two blisters. Now every toe needs attention. These new shoes are simply too wide and sloppy for me.

Details, details, details! Yes. Foot care is a major concern for every thru-hiker. It’s your feet that will get you to the end. Any discomfort is a gigantic warning sign. You must find solutions asap. Otherwise, infection or injury will develop. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself off the trail for good. 

It helps to use trekking poles in this treacherous terrain. Good for support up hills and on the slopes when sheer scree cliff faces spell potential disaster. I look towards the horizon and notice another perfect photo opportunity. With polar fleece gloves protecting my hands I whip them off to access my iPhone. The wrist strap on my right trekking pole comes off with the glove. The pole careers down the cliff face before coming to rest near a rocky outcrop. I just had one of them replaced and now I’ve lost another one.

“Oh, no!”

Shepherd gives me the look. Of exasperation, despair, annoyance, or exhaustion? Yes, all those emotions. But with more restrained tolerance for a walking partner, she is fast growing weary. What’s she up to now?

“I’ve just sent my trekking pole 20 feet down that slope there. I’m going to get it.”

“No, it’s too dangerous.”

“Yes, you may be right but I’m trying, anyway. I can scamper onto those rocks there and reach out for the pole. I’ll be careful.”

“I don’t recommend it,” her final comment.

I go, regardless of her thoughts, but I always err on the side of caution. This time I trust my instincts and successfully retrieved the pole. Hairy there for a moment. Reckless too.

This course of action has annoyed Shepherd. As have my frequent stops to treat blistered feet. Understandable. After lunch, I suggest she go ahead to our agreed campsite at her own pace, and I’ll meet her there. It’s difficult to stay with another person or group when people walk at different paces. By hiking my own hike (HYOH) I have the freedom to sit and rest without hindering Shepherd’s progress.

The shift north has been a traumatic event for us. Our relationship strains. A brief break from each other’s company may ease the situation.

Shepherd accepts my suggestion, and we agree to meet at Hopkins Lake. With no cell reception, we must use our Garmin InReach GPS devices to message each other. I see no problem with this plan. FarOut will lead me to the tent site. What we don’t know yet is Hopkins Lake campsite has six lengthy entry points and a half mile further on is Hopkins Pass.

It was a good decision to separate. My feet need several lengthy treatment breaks. There is no noticeable improvement. I have lost time. I wince with each passing step. The blisters won’t be tamed. “Hide us all you like, beneath your plasters and tape,” they taunt me. “Our pain can penetrate every layer.” “ENOUGH”, I shout. This day must end. At last, I reach Hopkins Lake.  

I limp along several access paths calling out to Shepherd. No answer. It’s late afternoon and an eerie quietness descends. Creepy as. I shout again. Still no answer. I send her a GPS message for clarification. I get no reply. The dense conifer forest must hamper satellite transmission.

Did Shepherd say Hopkins Pass instead? I best continue if I can’t find her here. Each step is torture. I reach Hopkins Pass and see a Marmot on a rocky outcrop. I enjoy photographing these cute possum-sized rodents full of personality and cheekiness, but I’m too distressed to care.

“Not today, mate. I have more pressing issues on my mind.”

“Shepherd! Shepherd!” each iteration more desperate.

She’s not here. She must be at the lake. I take 30 minutes to return with dusk fast approaching. I pick one path I tried earlier and start calling again. Out of the woods pops a hiker unfamiliar to me.  

“Hi there! Are you walking with another hiker?”

“Yes, yes, I am. Is she here?”

“Yes, just over there,” she points. Dense vegetation surrounds the spot. I’d have never found Shepherd on my own.

“Thank you so much. You’ve made my day.”

“No worries. She asked me to look out for a woman in an orange hat.”

My trusty orange baseball cap. Once fluorescent orange, the cap is now apricot and looking worse for wear, but it’s saved my bacon today. I’m wearing this cap until the end.

Shepherd looks relaxed and settled, oblivious to my recent harrowing exploit.

“I sent you a GPS message identifying my exact location. What’s the problem?”

The problem is her GPS message arrives 20 minutes after I set up camp with her. Handy to know the GPS works but not ideal if the satellite transmission delays the message. Not worth discussing further. I’m pleased to see her whether she wants my company or not. I eat quickly, toss back a few extra Vitamin I and paracetamol to ease my foot pain, bid Shepherd goodnight, and retire spent. Hopefully, well-bandaged feet and a good night’s sleep will have us raring to go the next morning.

Well, this proves to be the case until I leave behind my treasured Nalgene wide-mouthed collapsible Cantene bottle. I love this piece of equipment, which allows me to pee during the night without leaving my tent. Shepherd is envious of me, having just ordered one herself.

“Sorry, Shepherd. I must retrieve my Nalgene bottle. I left it where I toileted this morning. I’m not leaving without it. I won’t be long.”

I can’t fathom Shepherd securing this piece of equipment soon and me leaving this indispensable luxury item behind. I’m sure Shepherd gives me an eye roll. I don’t care. Pole one day, potty the next. I might leave them behind, but I’m not losing them.

It is 6.45 am and we have a few hours walk before we reach the Northern Terminus Monument which marks the border between the USA and Canada. The walk is tough with thick undergrowth encroaching on the path and copious amounts of fallen trees from earlier fires which we negotiate over, under, and around. The promising sunrise deteriorates into a drizzly day. We arrive at the monument at 10.00 am.

There’s no one but us to witness the event. Shepherd and I take the obligatory photo and give you our best smiles. I feel nothing. Deflated, more than elated. We haven’t earned a photo of the PCT finishing line. We haven’t finished. I’m hurting in every way imaginable. Not sure what Shepherd is feeling. Concern for each other is the least of our worries. But we need to restore rapport between us.

If you complete the PCT in a NoBo direction, you enter Canada from this point and continue a further eight miles to Manning Park which has a resort and little else. It’s a troublesome destination because you need a Canadian Permit to enter Canada via this unmanned entry point. The permit allows you to re-enter the USA and explain why you left the United States. Shepherd and I secured this vital piece of paperwork, shrunk it, and laminated it for this part of the journey.

I do a pee in Canada, illegal without a permit, but legal if I have one. But is it legal to walk back to the US side? We’re talking three feet here; one step and I’m in Canada, another, and I’m back in the US. Despite rumours of surveillance cameras, there doesn’t appear to be anyone watching us. Few people walk to this monument just to access the adjoining country. It’s so remote. I risk it, and Shepherd takes a photo of me crouched doing my business in Canada. A light-hearted moment amid a dismal day.

Time now to turn around and return to Hart’s Pass. Another retreat. We completed 773.5 miles (1,245kms) in a NoBo (Northbound) direction before our exit from the Sierra region at Horseshoe Meadow in California and now we have walked 30 more NoBo miles getting from Hart’s Pass to the Canadian border. From the US-Canadian border, our remaining PCT journey will be SoBo (Southbound).

With little photographic opportunities, we walk well today helped by good blister plasters. We cover 19 miles (31 km), a feat I couldn’t have achieved the previous day. Commendable too considering our declining fitness levels from the week’s layover and more time-consuming water filtration stops. This is because Shepherd’s Sawyer Squeeze Filter froze in the desert, and we’ve resorted to sharing mine.

It happened when we camped at Death Canyon Reserve. Experts had warned me to avoid freezing my Sawyer Squeeze Filter and my insulin. Both are useless if frozen. To prevent this from happening, I insert these products in a small zippered cosmetic bag, inside the base of my sleeping quilt each night where it remains nice and warm. Shepherd forgot this routine on one occasion, leaving her Sawyer Squeeze outside her tent. It froze, but still partially worked. She suspected damage when we were in Bishop, but they’re expensive items to replace. She delayed buying another one.

When we are far from cell reception and outdoor outfitters, it misbehaves big time emitting something akin to shredded wet toilet paper. Shepherd now has no way to filter her water, apart from boiling it. I offered to share my filter with her. She’s a whiz at filtering, perfecting the squeeze. In the beginning, I thought she had a better Squeeze filter, but when we share the same device, she’s still faster than me. We collect our water with a Cnoc 2L Water Reservoir, attach the Sawyer Squeeze to the other end of the Reservoir, and then squeeze the unfiltered water into clean Smart Water bottles. There are several other filtration methods available, but the older Sawyer Squeeze PointOne Filter (not the mini or micro versions) is still the preferred one for most PCT hikers.

After another decent day’s hike, we return to Hart’s Pass around 5.00 pm. First, we retrieve our remaining three-day food supply from the Ranger’s station. Next, we pay $8 for a campsite at this popular campground with a proper toilet and toilet paper. The toilet is a big plus, but the ground is hard here. It will be difficult to erect my tent. I have no energy. Shepherd is up and running. She’s erected her tent and step two–inflating the mattress–has begun. I hate that sound with a vengeance. It brings visions of a major head spin to me every time.

I love my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Women’s Inflatable Sleeping Mat, but it takes over 70 blows to inflate. One way to avoid the head spins is to use stuff sacks to insert air into the valve. Another method is an ingenious Chinese-manufactured Air Pump designed for the Therm-a-Rest sleeping mats. It weighs less than 3ozs (74gs) and I have one. It takes a few minutes to inflate the mat. You can complete other camp activities while it does its job. The real drawback is the loud sound it makes.

I suspect every bona fide thru-hiker is looking at me thinking–What a wimp. Can’t even blow up her air mattress and takes onboard unnecessary weight. I did. I shipped this little gem back to Rebecca on Day 15 and have regretted it ever since.

The only change I make is to swap out the NeoAir XLite Women’s Sleeping Mat for a shorter version. Overall, less sleeping mat but I always wake each morning with 12 inches of unused mat above my head. The major saving, apart from weight, is it eliminates 20 inflations. I’m thankful my new mat reduces the head spins, but blowing it up remains one of my most hated chores.

Thermarest NeoAir XLite Short Version saves me 20 inflations but it’s short. Best suited to the foetal sleeping position.

Shepherd’s first deflation sound when she releases the valve each morning is equally annoying. I sit on my mat to dress and prepare breakfast. It’s too cold once I deflate it. The longer I put this task off the better. For me, the deflation sound is one of the last decamping sounds I make. I could avoid this sound if I used a sleeping mat, but this comes at a cost–no padding, reduced sleep, and aching shoulders, and hips. At 58 years old, I need padding. My “Embracing the suck” must include those 50 inflations.

After settling in, Shepherd and I head to Trail Angel Broken Toe’s camper van to chat with other hikers. Renowned for his hiking feats, with a broken big toe no less, my blister issues are undeserving of complaint. 

“Would you like a cup of English tea?” Is the Pope Catholic?

“Yes, please.” Broken Toe has driven the treacherous 19-mile road and returned with pizza.

“Slice of pizza?”

“Am I dreaming Shepherd, or did Broken Toe just ask us if we’d like pizza?”

“He did.”

There is a fair bit of weed smoking happening here. Maybe I am inhaling it, or we just got lucky. We finish our meal with fresh strawberries and dried nuts from a well-maintained Hiker Box. Time to retire and prepare for our return to Mount Whitney, without the treacherous snow.  

When we leave Hart’s Pass for the second time, we’re officially SoBos (South Bounders). We’ve been walking for two months and covered a third of the PCT’s ridiculous mileage. In retrospect, touching the Northern Terminus Monument feels fraudulent. You must earn the right to touch it by walking the PCT’s entire distance. With our original plans for an October 10 arrival, we may never have reached this monument. Most experts recommend an October 1 finish to avoid the bitter snowstorms that can end your PCT hike. Our revised schedule misses this potential end-of-hike complication, but is it right?

Is flipping cheating? The PCT class of 2019 is doing it in droves. Most PCT thru-hikers prefer to walk the journey in a single, continuous, Northbound direction, but sometimes circumstances make this impossible. Last year’s heavy winter snowfall turned the High Sierra section of our summer hike into a challenging mountaineering expedition. A PCT hiker needs to be adaptable. It’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most. Your life is still your life whatever pathway you take. No use debating at length what other people may think of our flip decision. There’s no right or wrong answer. We flipped and we’re executing it well. So, how much further is our PCT hike?

To complete Washington State, we need to cover 512 miles (825 km); Oregon 456 miles (734 km), and the rest of California 724 miles (1,165 km) before we return to Mount Whitney, our adjusted endpoint. We have 1,692 miles (2,723 km) remaining with 100 days left before our six-month visa runs out. Not insurmountable at an average of 16.92 miles (27kms) per day. But this doesn’t account for zero days, high altitude terrain days where high mileage is unlikely, and buffer days for potential injury or illness. Still, an achievable target if our daily mileage increases. Shepherd can cope with 16-mile days, but will she cope with daily 20 or even 25-mile days until the end? I do the math and prep her for this eventuality.

“Can we talk about this later?”

“Sure,” I respond, hoping for more discussion. Now is not the time. 

Best gravitate to the things that give me the most pleasure. Plentiful wildflowers. Washington State is a white wonderland. The forest floor is full of masses of low-lying daisies. The most appealing ones are the Apache plume–a medium-sized white symmetrical flower with multiple yellow stamens; queen’s cup–a six-petal daisy; bunchberry–a four-petal daisy with purple stamens and yarrow–a cluster daisy.

A return to an image of my wedding day surfaces when I see enchanter’s nightshade and false mitrewort mimicking the baby’s breath garlands every 80s bride wore as coronets upon our heads.

Animals remain works-in-progress. They move. We see pikas–a small mammal related to rabbits; plenty of ever cheerful burrowing marmots; sooty grouses–a speckled brown wildfowl with their young, and the odd deer. Capturing the outstanding shot is proving a challenge. Shepherd has a camera with a reasonable zoom, so I leave the creatures to her. Positioned at the front she often sees them first. By the time I arrive, they’ve fled. The only exception is when I’m lowering my pants to toilet and two brown garter snakes choose this time to greet me.

“Yikes!”

“That was quick,” comments Shepherd.

“Didn’t fancy getting bitten on the bum. Lost the urge entirely.”

I’m seeing more snakes here than I ever saw in the desert. But I hang around to acknowledge the 800-mile (1,288km) mark on Day 71. Go the Double Ds! We may not be gelling right now, but we’re moving in a forward direction. Hopefully, guts and determination will get us through these trying times. 

We made it ourselves. Disassembled quickly to avoid confusing other hikers not flipping like us.

Our change in direction brings a welcome change in the weather. From extreme cold in May to harrowing heat in June, July is pleasantly mild. By Washington State standards, conditions are ideal with only the occasional light drizzly shower. We notice locals hit the paths late in the afternoon for a leisurely day’s stroll.

Why so late? Are they mad? The reason for this, after several days’ observation, is Washington State remains misty until 3 pm. Mist shrouds dawn’s brief rays of sunlight and persists for much of the day. Makes for great cloud inversions, moody mountain views, and quiet forest walks. The perfect setting for the solitary walker hoping to avoid the crowds.

Elevation in Washington State ranges from 3,000 to 7,000ft (900–2,100m). This is a large decrease from the High Sierra elevation in Central California of 6,000 to 13,000ft (1830–3962m). We expect our diabetes management to improve with our recent observations of higher elevation leading to more frequent hypos. But high elevation, of any degree, still causes low readings. Frequent, lengthy periods of low readings overnight are leading to sluggish daily performances as we try to raise sugar levels to a safe range, suitable for sustained long-distance walking.

We get it wrong quite often. Criticisms of each other’s diabetic management serve no useful purpose. A listening ear and understanding are sufficient. The Double Ds are doing this well. As long as we plan and focus on safe management of our disease, we find greater issues to contend with than living with diabetes.

We arrive at Hideaway Camp. PCT hikers don’t have permission to camp here. Disregard the sign and you risk a hefty fine. There’s not a soul around. Plenty of camping spots in this secluded nook. Risk assessment. Low risk.

“Fancy a cup of Yorkshire tea, Shepherd?”

“Fancy a cuppa with real powdered milk, Kit Kat?”

Bliss. We sip our hot milky teas in contemplative silence. It’s been a pleasant day. Not too much elevation, scenic mountain views, good river crossings on stable logs, and nice level forest walks. When it’s time to pee the tea, I head to the outhouse, a lovely wooden seat perched on an elevated platform deep in the forest. A pika looks on as I sit on my throne.

We’re heading for Stehekin (pronounced Steh-HEE-kin) today. There are 13.5 miles (21.7 km) left before we catch the 3 pm red bus service into town. $8 cash one way and I have none. Shepherd has offered to pay for me. She sets a cracking pace. I noticed bunchberry again. And baneberry, a bush with small red berry clusters. Oh, and huckleberries too, with a cinnamon-coloured bear eating from them.

Huckleberries – there’s a bear in there

“Hey Shep, slow down! You just walked past a bear in the wild.”  

That gets her attention. She rushes back to take a photo. A total NO NO! Black bears can be light brown, but so can grizzlies and you don’t mess with them. It’s only ten feet from the path when I spot it. Not too big. Is it a cub? Are we standing between the bear and its mother? We’ve been dying to see a bear but is it safe to stay?

I hide behind a tree and take a blurry shot. Shepherd ventures closer. Not one bit scared. Impressive? Stupid? One of them, for sure. Neither of us knows much about black bears beyond keeping our distance which we are disregarding. Once this awe-inspiring spectacle gratifies us, we come to our senses and move away. The bear doesn’t give us a second glance.  

Can you spot it?

“Why you and not me?” asks Shepherd.

“Are you asking me how I saw the bear, and you didn’t when you walked past it first?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Oh, that’s simple. I’m observant and you’re not.” The animal whisperer fumes. “I just heard it nibbling as I passed. I turned and looked in that direction. Luck, Shepherd. Don’t beat yourself up.”  

There’s a consolation prize for Shepherd when we reach the bus stop. A deer awaits us near the ranger station. She snaps away. Then just when we thought we’d seen everything for one day, a massive rattlesnake slivers across the entire length of the impressive High Bridge, which towers over Stehekin River.

Enough excitement. We’re looking forward to rest, a decent wash, a meal, and resupplying. There’s no cell reception here, so we trust luck to help us secure a room at the Stehekin Lodge on arrival. Stehekin is a picturesque town on the banks of Lake Chelan. There’s no car access, but they have cars and buses. They ship everything by boat. This might explain why their red buses, from the 50s, are still running. These folks must be handy maintaining what they own.

The remoteness of this town means they can charge what they please. Shepherd and I pay an exorbitant amount to share a queen bed.

“Oh, and just a last reminder,” the manager adds. “Please don’t put your backpacks on the bed linen or there may be an added cleaning fee.” As if.

I can’t handle a grubby town campsite tonight. Squeaky clean after showering, we head to the laundry to wash our clothes. We return to the Lodge and order dinner. Most of my trail evening meals involve mashed potatoes. Tonight’s no exception. Shepherd joins me in a tasty homemade meatloaf and mash. The white vino accompaniment followed up with espresso-flavoured ice cream is most enjoyable.

Tomorrow’s activities include a trip to the Post Office to get our resupply, Rebecca’s insulin delivery, and our bounce boxes; mail back weighty items; top up our fresh food supplies from the General Store and Hiker Box; and secure cash for the return bus trip. After accomplishing these tasks, we should be right to resume our next seven-day section. The bus returns us to the trail around noon.

We cross High Bridge, without rattlesnake, to resume the trail and look down at the river’s turbulent flow. Sources tell us this next section is the toughest terrain outside the High Sierra region. We intend to walk ten miles but only manage four. The next designated campsite is three and a half hours walk away. Too far. We need to eat some of our pack weight. Rebecca has sent me new Orthotics, so my feet can handle this heavy load. And Shepherd taught me a helpful new lacing technique to keep my foot in the shoe and lessen the pressure on my pinkie toes.

With an early start, we managed a respectable 15 miles (24 km) the next day. Still not ideal, but an improvement on yesterday’s effort. The early morning mist gives us wonderful atmospheric shots of both the forest canopy and the forest floor. Most of the wildflowers are white, but many show hints of pink. Western Spring Beauty is a white daisy on a stalk with the finest pink lines drawn on its petals. There’s mountain heather; the great-named kinnikinnick creeper with heather-like bell-shaped flowers and the delightful little pippsissewa. This last one always has its flower pointing downwards so I spend much time on my haunches trying to photograph its delightful drooping face.

Claytonia lanceolata (Western Spring Beauty)

There are interesting bird calls too; one reminiscent of a hooting owl, another with a soccer referee whistle response to a different mating call, and one with a clicking sound. No animals. They camouflage themselves well. Just like Shepherd, before her wardrobe change in Kennedy Meadows South. Khaki-coloured shirt and hat accompanied by dark grey everything else meant Shepherd was impossible to see before I convinced her to drop the drab. It was time to migrate to a soft cornflower blue long-sleeved shirt and white cap.

I can see Shepherd far in the distance now. A woman on a mission. And if she ever wants a job as a US Postal worker, she has the uniform. I can’t recall how many times people sought her advice on postage matters when we were loitering around the USPS Offices. It didn’t click it was the shirt colour, not her perceived knowledge, prompting these enquiries. She became a deft hand at calculating priority mail rates for various-sized boxes. Go Shepherd!

Today we meet Cabbage. He tells us he’s contracted scurvy because of a lack of Vitamin C in his diet. Is he kidding us? Does scurvy even exist in today’s society? I know a thru hiker’s diet can lack nutrients, but frequent town stops allow everyone to eat semi-decent food. My tongue does a somersault in my mouth feeling for signs of gingivitis or dare I say the word, S-C-U-R-V-Y. Shepherd always drinks orange juice (OJ) at breakfast when we’re in town. I may need to do the same. I usually avoid OJ because of its high sugar content but I guess I could fix this with a few extra units of insulin.

“Well, I hope you get better soon, Cabbage. Do you know there’s a plant on the trail comprising small, clustered daisies that resemble a cabbage? Pearly everlasting is its name. Every time I see it, I’ll think of you.”

“Thanks, Kit Kat. Well, I must get moving if I’m going to catch Juicy and No No.”

“See you around then.” I remember these hikers too. We met them at Hostel California in Bishop and nabbed their excess food for our Washington State resupply boxes. Their bulk-purchased peanut brittle bars were divine. It’s great fun meeting fellow hikers along the trail. This year, with massive hiker flipping, you never know who you’ll meet and when. It’s nice to catch up with our NoBo friends and hear their stories. Everyone’s experience is unique.  

With scurvy on my mind, Shepherd and I start eating the huckleberries. There’s plenty available on either side of the PCT pathway although we stay on high alert for any snacking bears before we pick them. Scientific research on wild huckleberries has found them to be rich in antioxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin B, and potassium. They have a pleasing mix of sweetness and tartness. Just watch your hands as the berry juice stains.

We awaken the next morning to an upset stomach. Did we overdo the tasting yesterday? Were they huckleberries? With time, our stomachs settle. No harm comes from our food experimentation. We’re enjoying foraging in the wild.

Beneath the dense forest canopy, you can also find mushrooms. Without access to good local knowledge, we pass on them. Only a 50:50 chance they’re edible. Best not to risk finding out the hard way although those familiar with them say the mushrooms are a handy flavour enhancer to any breakfast or evening meal.

We covered 17.2 miles (27.7 km) today. We’re getting better. A pleasant walk in the Redwood forest with lots of shade. Ideal, as the day is tropical with high humidity.

Days five to seven of this current stretch prove the most difficult to date. There are so many finicky steep switchbacks with huge elevation gains. When it’s time to descend, the path is littered with ankle-twisting rocks. Nuisance creek crossings too with powerful water flow from the snow melt. At elevation, snow returns. Highlights are Mica Lake with its pristine reflections, aquamarine-coloured water, and icy coating. Pear, Janus, Valhalla, and Heather Lakes also rate a mention.

Mica Lake

There are three words to describe this next section. The first two are Obstacle Course. And the third is Concentrate. Picture this. Select a path of the steepest ascent or descent, put a narrow channel in the middle, mimic a creek bed with lots of uneven-shaped pebbles, add a few huge rocks for good measure, make it muddy, and then insert a fast-flowing stream you must cross via those uneven, slippery rocks.

Next, insert a multitude of impassable fallen trees and make the path so narrow it proves impossible to use both trekking poles. Tucking one pole under my arm I adopt the Captain Mainwaring pose from the popular 70s UK sitcom, Dad’s Army.

Overgrown undergrowth prevents you from seeing a metre ahead of you. Fine specimens at their usual height, cow parsnip, tiger lilies, yellow Klamath weed, and lilac Tahoka daisy grow tall and rampant near water sources. Accompanied by a nauseous pungency I find most displeasing; fishy, mouldy, dead.

The path is a mix of tree-tripping roots, rocks, and ungainly slopes. To cap it off, one side is a sheer cliff face. One misstep and the PCT will catapult us to the bottom of a deep ravine. Mileage gains are difficult in this tough terrain. We must concentrate. Our life or avoiding injury depends upon it.

And who doesn’t concentrate enough? Moi. We come to a tricky water crossing. We can ford the river but risk getting our feet wet. I’m covered in blister plasters and want to avoid dislodging them. My first aid supply is low. I need them to stay on for a few more days. I find a suitable log to cross the river and beckon Shepherd. On my way to it, I miss seeing a protruding jagged limb. I fall, and face-plant myself into the sandy bank. I nearly break my trekking poles, again. But I keep my feet dry. The shin on my right leg is bleeding and covered in gashes. Without further ado, I right myself and cross the river. Only to meet a wall of loose gravel on the other side embedded with large rocks. Damn it. More scrambling is required before I finish this little side excursion.

This time a large rock I lean on to help me climb up the bank slips and I tumble. My left foot wedges itself between two boulders. With dogged persistence, I wriggle it free. The shin of my left leg is now blood-stained. I don’t know what Shepherd is doing but I make it to the top looking every bit the wounded warrior. I whisk out a bandanna and a hanky to stem the impressive stream of blood flowing from each leg. Glad no one at home is watching this debacle. We stand up, stuck in the middle of a mass of driftwood debris and boulders from a past flood.

“All good, Shepherd. Follow me. We’ll be out of this mess soon.”

“Never again, Kit Kat.”

“Aren’t you having fun?”

It’s hot. There are bees and I lead her 130 more feet (40m) across more dodgy terrain. She has a point. 15 minutes later we cross a well-established wooden bridge over another tributary of this river. Moral of the story: “Embrace the suck” and get your feet wet even if you don’t have replacement blister plasters.

I could have eliminated 30 minutes of pointless scrambling and avoided a heap of slow-healing grazes. On the positive side, these obstacles are great training for the river crossings in the High Sierra come September.     

Amid the mayhem, we reached the 900-mile (1,448km) mark. Another celebratory photo in front of a well-curated pinecone arrangement we assemble on a vibrant green mossy backdrop. Are we still feeling the love for the PCT? I think so. Dodgy river crossings, fallen trees, and steep slopes which take us three to four hours to ascend are the new norm. As are the humid conditions and being besieged by mosquitoes and flies. The mozzie nets come out to help us keep our faces protected.

The only problem for me is I forget the net is there and I keep squashing my peanut butter sandwich into it, instead of my mouth. A minor inconvenience, as I continue to accumulate blisters and suffer frequent lows. Shepherd is also experiencing frequent low readings, but she still powers up those mountains. Hate to think where she’d be if her sugars were in range. The Sierra?

These past few days have been exhausting. After setting up camp and completing my housekeeping duties, I retire at 6 pm. I suffer eczema in my ears whenever I use earbuds so, apart from conversations with Shepherd and other passing hikers, I’m lacking other forms of entertainment. The exception is my thoughts. How much more can I take? What must I do to keep thinking positive thoughts? To laugh off mishaps, like this recent disastrous river crossing, is one strategy. Keeping Shepherd and my friendship alive is another. We need to stick together, tolerate our annoying habits, and talk to each other if we have concerns.

So many things can be misconstrued. At the outset of our hike, I always felt inadequate when Shepherd addressed me at the start of each day with “You right?”  

Of course, I’m bloody f @#*ing right. Why do you keep asking me? Do I look like I’m not? It’s a common British expression. It means “Are you right to go? Shall we start?” Not a backhanded comment on my camping prowess. Feeling a tad fragile in this area, I completely misunderstood it. Took me 15 minutes to get over the insult. Took me half the hike to work it out. If I’d only shared these thoughts with Helen from the start, I could have avoided a lot of unnecessary angst. And Helen looked confused because I always looked peeved each morning. As with any couple experiencing relationship problems, the best way forward is to keep talking and listening to one another.      

And if that doesn’t work, I can always look outwards for inspiration. Capturing the gorgeous wildflowers is a strategy that works well for me. The hot pink beavertail cactus was my mascot in the desert. It popped up every time I needed a daily boost to the finish line. My replacement in Washington State, which Shepherd and I both adore, is the seedpod of the western pasque flower. I call it the Hairy Mammoth. Shepherd, the Shaggy Haired Rockstar. Its appearance can vary from a manicured 60s Beatles-style hairdo to the most windblown dishevelled look. Often clumped in groups, we enjoy concocting a story for each unique arrangement. Shepherd’s mascot, Bert from the Minions, even gets a new hairdo with the pasque flower’s villous long and soft hairs neatly positioned on his little Lego-sized body. 

I love getting clean. Today we arrive in Skykomish but first to Stevens Pass, a ski resort, to pick up Shepherd’s Nalgene bottle for her in-house peeing. The day is damp and worsening. The perfect time to exit the trail. After grabbing a coffee at the Pass, we head out in the teeming rain to try hitching. I imagine we don’t look too appealing. Who wants to pick up a wet, smelly hiker? As it transpires, a nice young man.

As we settle into the journey Shepherd notices spent shell casings on the backseat floor. We’ve met weed dealers and meth heads. Why should a murderer surprise us? Shepherd can’t help herself. The suspense is killing her.

“What’s with the casings in the backseat?”

“Oh, those. Me mate and I do drive-bys and shoot randomly at people on the weekends.”

Only kidding. He doesn’t say that. The opposite, but he’s been shooting with a friend at a licensed rifle range. You meet every sort on the PCT. Shepherd and I find America’s relationship with ammunition interesting, coming from countries where most of the public doesn’t own guns. We’re getting an education on the pros and cons and seeing just how powerful the NRA (National Rifle Association) is and how passionate its members are in defending a disputed interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which it argues gives US citizens the right to bear arms.

Putting politics aside and deaths reported in the press from gun use, I felt safe in the US for my entire six-month stay. Most of its people are law-abiding citizens. Their willingness to help thru-hikers, often accepting strangers into their homes, speaks for a nation full of unconditional generosity. Australians and British citizens may not be as welcoming. We can all be quick to judge people and their opinions because they don’t agree with our own, but it doesn’t make their opinions less worthy. I’m sure I’m being given a valuable lesson on tolerance with these varying viewpoints. The PCT throws much at you–this time life lessons.

Our gun-toting trail angel deposits us outside the historic Cascadia Inn. The rain is heavier. A perfect day for a nearo. Or a zero (a two-night stay) if the weather worsens. The hotel proprietor says we can wait out back while they prepare our room. Here we find a lounge room, kitchenette, hiker box, and loaner clothes. We give the amenities nine out of 10 for hiker friendliness. Shepherd and I change into loaner clothes, ill-fitting and unfashionable, but clean and dry. We bundle our filthy items together and head to the laundry.

After removing a sticky mass of band-aids, I change into camp shoes to help my feet breathe and hydrate. Thick as sausages they are, tight feeling, with an unhealthy purplish sheen to them and three angry new blisters. I’m pushing for a zero. These feet need rest.

Skykomish is a small town with an interesting railway history, but we’re only interested in the Post Office and where we can eat. The choice is the gas station, the Sky Deli and Liquor Shop, The Whistling Post, and Cascadia Café. They each have their specialties and their quirks and, with time on our hands, we visit each of them, twice.

A PCT hiker can resupply from this town, but we don’t risk it. Off to the USPS to pick up our resupply boxes prepared in Bishop three weeks ago.  And those warm ultra-light goodies I expected in Kennedy Meadows South finally arrived. Not sure I’ll need them now, but they’re light enough to carry. The bonus is they include an award-winning stove I’d entirely forgotten I’d bought.

Supposedly excellent in windy and wet conditions, I find the stove’s most redeeming feature is its built-in piezo ignitor button. This will change my life. No more uncooperative arthritic hands fighting to light it with BIC lighters, ferro rods, or useless waterproof matches. Or needing to ask for Shepherd’s help. I could cold-soak the whole way and avoid a stove entirely but a hot chocolate, warm oatmeal, and comforting mashed potato appeal to me. I can’t wait to get out into the woods and try it. Am I becoming a happy camper?

Off to the pub, The Whistling Post, for our last dinner here. For me, the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, accompanied by their famous Jo Jos–glorified wedges. Several other hikers are there for a drink and chat. We hit the jukebox seeking classic songs from home. Plenty of great British pop and rock ‘n roll to choose from but Aussie numbers are sparse, except for INXS’s great songs ‘Mystify’ and ‘Suicide Blonde’. Shepherd is learning what appeals to me, as am I for her taste in music. Our top pick from the current charts is Billy Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’. The wine and beer mellow us, and we enjoy chatting with other PCT hikers.

This morning I met another hiker, with a car, heading to Stevens Pass. His trail name is Very Slow, and I chat to him about my broken shoelace; an issue which will soon make me very slow too. He reaches back into the tray of his ute and pulls out the exact lace I need from a pair of shoes he’s no longer wearing. Another “The trail will provide” moment. I can’t believe my luck.

“I can drive you back to the trailhead if you’re ready to go in 30 minutes.”

“Ready as we’ll ever be,” as I rush off to find Shepherd.

When we arrive back at Stevens Pass, the coffee shop is no more. They’ve removed the seating to make space for a massive archery event. Instead of guns, we have camp-clad archers, including young children, with high-tech crossbows waiting to venture into the wild. Archery has become a huge competitive and recreational activity nowadays. I haven’t seen guns on the trail but are crossbows a new threat for Shepherd and me? I trust my bright orange rain jacket will alert them to our presence.

“I thought you were a deer,” they would lament when they locate me prostrate on the forest floor.

“Deer my foot. Do I look like a deer? How many deer do you see with bright orange hi-viz vests?”

“None.”  

“My point exactly.”

After a few aborted attempts, we finally located the trail’s southern route beneath the ski lift. Fear of getting an arrow in the back is possibly affecting our navigational skills. No superb views today. Or new plants, beyond a sweet yellow bulbous Indian pond lily I spot on several smaller lakes. I see sooty grouse with their babies and glimpses of frogs. For the most part, the trail is wide and easygoing. Quite pleasant really, until Shepherd slips heavily when the track becomes wet and muddy.

This could be the same section of track where Marmalade slipped. It surprised me to see such an experienced hiker, with a YouTube following, at the coffee shop with torn leg ligaments. I suspect his hike is over for the year. Fortunately, my leader is ok. These incidents highlight our need for constant vigilance. He had speed, strength, and competence on his side, but these attributes count for little when a serious injury occurs.

The highlights of this section are the picturesque lakes–Trap, Susan Jane, (Not tonight) Josephine, Mig, Waptus, and Deep–to name a few. The weather is fine and mild. We’re making acceptable mileage, but I’m still being hampered by blistered toes, tight hamstrings, and left heel soreness. Shepherd’s bugbear is hip soreness. I can’t see them being eased anytime soon as Washington State’s challenging terrain continues to deliver us shocker ascents, tough stream crossings, and other irritations.

Decent rest stops are few and far between. Often taken standing, we sometimes perch our bottoms on a rock and rest our body weight on our heels, to ease throbbing pain in the balls of our feet for a few precious minutes. Campsites, really decent rest spots, are scarce too. Above Trap Lake, we pitch our tents looking at one of the PCT’s most scenic views. A deep valley of picturesque lakes, conifer-covered slopes, and distant snow-peaked mountains are spread before us. We revel in the peaceful scene. Our three-tent site from which we secured two spots soon turned into a six-tent site for seven people. Lots of rustling around with multiple stoves being ignited but everyone settles by hiker midnight. That’s 9 pm for the uninitiated. If you’re not asleep then, you will be soon afterward. Exhaustion always wins.  

Trap Lake

The next morning, we woke to an amazing sunrise. The steep climb afterward is hardly remembered. Life could be worse. The PCT is in an unusually good mood today. We are further rewarded with nine flat miles.

At lunch, our conversation takes an introspective turn. More deep and meaningful and more revelatory than at any time before. We know each other well now. Gosh, we’ve lived in each other’s pockets for three entire months. Our annoying quirks can’t be hidden. But do we know what the other is thinking? What motivated us to try this hike? What hidden demons are we hoping to overcome? Are we finding the answers? We speak of loneliness, the welcome solitude of walking alone, and depression.

I have done a few epic walks now, and I suffered post-trail depression on each occasion. With the PCT being ten times the distance of my previous longest hike I suspect the depression may be worse than ever this time. It’s always hard on my husband to witness my torment and decline. Post-trail depression is real. It’s an unpleasant side effect after experiencing life’s most exhilarating moments. I owe it to Mike to prevent myself from succumbing to it and put plans in place to lessen its impact.

I may write a book, learn how to paint my favourite wildflowers, spend more time with Mike and my children, or focus on lowering my golf handicap. Shepherd has a job to return to, but I risked mine to be here. As I approach 60 years of age, I will face ageism. I may never secure another satisfying job. It was my choice to leave my job. The powerful urge to walk this epic long-distance trek was irresistible. Will I live to regret my decision? Will I enter the soul-destroying job market again or will my passion for work subside? Does it matter, or will financial circumstances dictate the direction I must take?

Yes, Shepherd has kept her job, but does she want it? She enjoys being outdoors. We talk about a career change, possibly becoming an outdoor guide or navigation expert. I encourage her to pursue this passion. There’s genuine interest but doubt remains about job security and how to make it happen. She’s also considering getting a dog on her return, maybe from a shelter. Her love for Shiloh at Hart’s Pass was plain for all to see. Like me, lots to discuss with her partner, on her return.

So many unknowns for both of us. I know only that the PCT is in my blood. Despite its challenges, I think of nothing else. I know I made the right decision. We gain some clarity by listening to each other’s thoughts and musings. But there are internal battles I must work through alone. The day is progressing. There is ‘walking’ work to do.

In my head, I continue to ponder my life’s future direction. I become entrenched in these thoughts. I focus my eyes on the path, looking for obstacles. The flatness of this section lulls me into a false sense of security, and I trip over a low-lying loose piece of tree root. My left foot catches in the root stretching it beyond its range. I feel the base of my foot tear.

“Shit! Double shit! Triple Shit!”

Not good. The woods come alive with my colourful swearing and pointless stomping. I berate myself for this stupid lapse in concentration. In a split second, have I brought my PCT hike to an abrupt end? It’s painful to walk. We are two days away from help at Snoqualmie Pass. I summon every bit of strength needed to hobble in a forward direction.

Shepherd looks on with concern. She knows this injury could spell the end of my hike. It will disrupt her plans as much as mine. I don’t want to end her dreams too. I wet my bandanna with cool stream water and ice the injury. There is swelling which means damage. I try to pretend it hasn’t happened. Denial is my strategy. A tear becomes a sprain, becomes a bruise, becomes nothing. What if I have a week’s break to aid recovery and resume with Shepherd at the next supply town? This idea doesn’t appeal one bit. Shepherd is not walking any section of the trail without me. But will this injury allow me this choice?

My infected right little toe is a minor ailment compared to this current strife. I encourage Shepherd to walk on and wait for me at the top. I promise her I’ll catch up. She is hurting too. She won’t find it any easier to get up these steep ascents if she walks beside me at a reduced pace. I soldier on injured, tired, and still needing to treat low sugar levels as the elevation rises. My left foot drags.

I trip again, without warning. Fall flat on my face. Land my entire body on my trekking pole and break it. Sunglasses fly off. Blood drips from my left temple. My wrist aches. Another hiker rushes to my aid. Shepherd is long gone. Within hours I’ll have a great shiner on my left eye to add to my woes.

At least, my sunnies are unharmed. Not a scratch. I can still walk. I plod on hoping to hear Shepherd’s encouragement soon. “Come on girl. You can do it.”

Nothing. Where the F@#* is she? Oh, I see her. At the top of the mountainside battling her own nightmares. Not the time for a cheap dig at her for not coaxing me.

“I made it. A little worse for wear,” as I point out my fresh face injury. “Shall we have a StickPic moment? Just look at that epic snow-capped mountain scenery over there?”

Shepherd, as always, helps me attach the device to my one remaining trekking pole. We smile at the camera relieved to have made it. There’s a purple-tinged puncture wound on my left temple, but this photo ends up being one of our favourites. It can make anyone laugh. It’s not because of the turmoil preceding it. It’s because it looks fake. The idyllic backdrop is unreal.

“Oh, yeh! That’s a Walmart moment if ever there was one.” Chuckle, chuckle, is the most common response. What they are referring to is the stunning backdrop a shopping centre studio might use to put city slickers in an outdoor setting. The amazing thing is we are there, in the actual scene, living the dream, injured or not.

I wake the next morning to a swollen left eye clotted with blood.

“That’s a great haematoma you have there,” my mother would say.

“Yes, it’s a good bruise, Mum.”

And it warrants the correct medical terminology. I hope it doesn’t need any fancy, expensive medical intervention. I slap more antibacterial cream on my infected toe and then look at my foot injury. There’s swelling, and it doesn’t hurt too much sitting, but will I be able to walk on it?

I suspect a torn plantar fascia, the fibrous tissue along the bottom of your foot that connects your heel bone to your toes. It’s painful to walk on and I yelp every time I stub my toe as it aggravates the tissue but something good has happened. The left heel pain has gone. The tissue tear has eased the tension in the plantar fascia. To think I might have a boring day on the PCT.

After three hours of solid walking the next day, to add insult to injury, our corns scream. The camber of the path rolls your foot. We writhe in pain every time our corns hit the edge of our shoe. I undertake day surgery to ease the problem, but they need a professional’s touch to improve. We had no luck in Tehachapi in the desert. I’m not confident we will fare any better in Washington State.

Shepherd is adamant she needs treatment before she’ll return to the PCT. This turn of events could help me. If she’s prepared to rest for a few days, this may give me enough healing time to get back on the trail with her. She suggests I see a doctor.

“Not happening.” I know what the problem is. I know what they’ll say. “I recommend you rest the injury for two to three weeks.” Why should I pay hundreds of dollars to be told the obvious?

A thru-hiker is only interested in medical help which gets them back on the PCT as fast as possible. I’ll only commit to RICE–Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation–together with a physiotherapist for stretching exercises.

Midway through this drama Shepherd and Kit Kat reach the 1,000-mile (1,600km) mark–a most cumbersome exercise. We need to concentrate hard with loose rocks, overgrown undergrowth, tree roots, log river crossings, and steep ascents as part of the daily ritual. We manage it by shuffling along with sore and damaged feet.

In unison, “I hate Washington State,” springs from our mouths. But we don’t hate a celebration.

We bring canned wine from Skykomish to celebrate this special moment. We assemble our mileage marker, made of tiny pinecones, on the one remaining support of a once-complete wooden bridge. It’s the perfect location to show the world no impediment can stop us. We save the wine for dinner later that evening, but I’m battered and bruised. The alcohol isn’t easing the pain and I can’t finish it. It’s not wise to throw the wine away because of its scent. Those pesky bears are still out there. I either drink it or offer it to Shepherd. A small hand reaches beneath my vestibule to finish it for me.

“Sleep tight, Shepherd. You deserve it.”

15.7 miles (25kms) later we are spat off the trail at Snoqualmie Pass, another sleepy ski resort town. Section J is now complete. From the trailhead, we face another agonising mile on a desolate bitumen road to the Chevron Gas Mart to retrieve our next resupply. After that, we must secure a one-hour hitch to Issaquah to reach REI, the much-loved outdoor outfitter, Shepherd’s insulin supply, and a podiatrist. Within seconds, a car drives by and gives us a lift. Phil has walked the trail and wants to give back as a trail angel. Is heaven looking down on us and giving us a reprieve? Are we being rewarded for being stoic? We can’t believe our luck.

“Where can we drop you?” No idea. “D’you know where you’re staying?”

“Nope.” We give them our budget and they find us a cheap Motel via Google. We continue talking on matters related to hiking and our food choices. Their parting gift is a bundle of Vietnamese three-in-one gourmet instant coffee sachets called G7 you can buy in bulk on Amazon. It has a good creamer and sweetener in perfect proportion. Perfect for when I need a sugar hit. Very lightweight, has minimal waste, and is convenient. What another great find!

If we don’t meet these helpful trail angels, completing the Pacific Crest Trail is impossible. There are too many instances to name where you must ask for their help. If you don’t ask you won’t make it. I don’t find it easy to ask for help as I treasure my independence. But I could get used to the joy I put on people’s faces when I allowed them to give and help me. I know giving is rewarding but receiving other’s warmth and generosity of spirit is an equally uplifting experience. Torn plantar fascia. What’s that? I forget I’m in pain.

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