You are currently viewing Chapter 8 The best black eye I’ve ever seen
Kakuzõ Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906

Issaquah is a pleasant town but spread out. Tons of strip malls mixed with more modern open-plan ones. With our foot problems, we spend a fortune on Uber rides. As always, our usual preparations engross us for the next six-day resupply. We collected the bulk of our food from the Snoqualmie Pass Chevron Gas Mart yesterday. Our biggest priority is to get our feet sorted and buy new shoes.

I’m not keen on getting another pair of Merrell MOAB (Mother of All Boots) Ventilator shoes. The Men’s size is too wide for me but REI has a great returns policy. They offer a full refund if you can demonstrate good cause. Dissatisfaction with the shoe’s performance is valid enough. And Shepherd can return hers too. Each sole has separated from the boot section. We hand over the offending footwear.

I try on every brand available and settle on La Sportiva Bushidos. While waiting to pay, I feel an ever-so-slight rubbing in the heel area. Nothing a Band-Aid can’t fix.

“If they hurt now and you haven’t even walked in them, they won’t get any better on the trail,” cautions Shepherd.

She’s right, of course. I go back and select another pair. Brooks Cascadias this time. Nice looking with a wide toe box and a soft upper covering that cushions my toes.

“Yes, these are the ones.”15 minutes later, I feel as if I’m walking on tennis balls. The narrow middle part of the shoe is pushing up my orthotics. These are not the ones.

I should return them, but I’m too embarrassed. My stupid fault. They’ll be fine as walking-around-town shoes. I’ll mail them back to Rebecca in LA. Half a day gone and the feet still need sorting, as does my injury. So much for resting them. Shepherd, meanwhile, settles on Vasque waterproof boots. More options for her with petite feet.

My flipper-sized feet have always been a challenge. At only 5ft 4in tall (164cm) it amazes me too. Their most redeeming feature is they keep me grounded. At park benches, I tuck them under the seat to avoid tripping small children. They must serve some purpose. Long-distance hiking seems the perfect job.

One final REI bonus is a free trekking pole to replace the one I destroyed. Not the same brand, but a close fit. It’s made of the same carbon fibre material and the weight is similar. I’m most grateful for this excellent customer service.

Earlier in the day, while breakfasting at Issaquah Café, we called every podiatrist in town. There are plenty of them. Can they please squeeze us in under the circumstances? The best we can get is an appointment in a month. Shepherd is against self-surgery and won’t return to the trail until she can secure an appointment.  

Okay, maybe this is dinner. Margaritas were not our usual breakfast fare. Love the black eye.

I’m getting despondent, but my Problem-solving Constantly Trail (PCT) won’t win this time. We need to appeal to the Trail Angel network in Washington State and find a trail angel who can transport us to another town for treatment. Santana Bandanna from Sedro Woolley even gets involved and helps us locate potential trail angels.

Meanwhile, I find a physiotherapist to look at my injury.

Full credit to her receptionist though. “Wow! That’s the best black eye I’ve seen in a long while. Can I help you?”

“Yes, please. Thanks for the compliment but it’s my foot that’s the problem. I need a physio to look at it, strap it, and give me exercises.”

“How about in an hour?” Total relief. We’re getting somewhere–at last.

Shepherd departs while I await the appointment. Rima, the physio, confirms my diagnosis.

“Do full leg and bent knee extensions on both feet. Your range of motion is nine. It needs to be 15. Keep up the exercises and you’ll get back on the trail. But these new shoes are squashing your orthotic. They won’t improve things. Alternate them with standard inner soles.”

When I leave the appointment, the receptionist is nowhere to be seen. Despite texting my details, they never pursue me for payment. Unbelievable! I just received a free consultation. I’m feeling invincible, although clearly I’m not.

Back to Motel 6 to work on our podiatry problem. By a stroke of luck, we get a joint appointment for the next day at Bellevue Podiatry, in a Seattle suburb. Darren, a search and rescue trail angel, drives us there and Midori Higashi, a former champion ice skater, treats us. She listens to our list of woes and asks us to walk the hallway for a final diagnosis.

“Yes, I can see you pronate Kit Kat, and your arch disappears when you walk.”

Shepherd’s turn. “Has anyone told you, Shepherd, you may have a leg length discrepancy?”

Raucous laughter from the consultation room. My raucous laughter. Shepherd reminds me later how insensitive and unsympathetic I am.

“Yeh, but Shep. Who wouldn’t laugh? You never knew you had one leg shorter than the other and you have just walked 1,000 miles? It’s more of an amazing achievement than we thought. Peg leg!”

My sick sense of humour increases with the mounting logistical traumas. It’s my way of coping. I do not amuse Shepherd. A teeny bit, perhaps. To cap it off, Darren drives us back with his sparkling gold acrylic nails gripping the steering wheel.

“I have a story to tell you.” Weed grower, meth head, murderer, and now a cross-dresser! “I dress up every year for charity at a music festival.” Shows us photos to back up his story. He looks fetching in full makeup, a long-haired wig, and a dress. Wonders will never cease.

Corns treated. Next, Urea 40% cream. Midori said our feet are dry and need serious rehydrating. She writes us a prescription for this magic cream but warns it might be expensive for overseas travellers without US health insurance. Rite Aid’s best price for us is US$190 a tube. It retails for US$7.99.

“Are you kidding me?”

“No,” responds the pharmacist, “but we have Urea 20 which we sell over the counter.”

“Yes, please.” That’s a no to US$190, and a yes to US$7.99. We wait and continue to wait. How difficult can it be? They bring us the US$190 tube. “I’m sorry. I thought you were getting the lesser strength Urea 20 for us?”

“Oh, sorry for the confusion. Yes, the cream is available but not here. It will take us a day to order it.”

We leave empty-handed. A laborious ring around and we find Bartell Drugs stock the cheaper version. Shepherd asks them to reconfirm.

“Yes, we have Urea 20 in stock.” Fabulous. We’ll get a tube each. When we rock up to the counter, “Sorry, we only have one tube.”

Why didn’t we enquire as to the quantity in stock? How are they to know we want two tubes? We’re learning fast. You need to be very precise with your enquiry when addressing Americans.

It takes an eternity to sort everything out in this town. You haven’t heard the half of it, but I’m sure you get the drift. Despite my injury, I’m getting antsy. Off trail for four days, I must get moving soon. Shepherd agrees. The time has arrived. And we have more wonderful news.

Medicine Man is eager to return to the trail with us. I make enquiries via the Trail Angel network. Chris kindly offers us a lift to the Snoqualmie Pass trailhead the following day. 

A return to the trail is reason enough for celebration.

“What do you want to eat tonight?” enquires Shepherd, as we await Medicine Man’s arrival.

“Modern Australian, please.” This request should keep her Google-occupied for several minutes. “If you can’t manage that, I’ll go a half-decent coffee.”

She gives me the look. I snigger. The constant discussion over food is sending me around the bend. Our ability to annoy each other is intensifying but we’re still together.

We settle on a lovely Gastro Pub meal in Old Issaquah. We’ve spent the past few days covering every square inch of new Issaquah. After surveying the current landscape this old part of town is much more appealing. It has restored buildings, the prettiest street frontage, and lots of quaint shops. Right down my alley. Or is it?

Stylish merchandise, homemade soaps, and perfumed candles may have interested me once. But I’m done with looking glamourous and maintaining a Vogue-inspired home. Hiking stores and the great outdoors are now my thing. Warehouse-sized REIs and Dicks Sports, are my preferred shopping experiences.

This is the new me. Hiker trash through and through. And even I don’t believe my eventual choice. I settle on another pair of Merrell MOAB Ventilator shoes, the shoes I’ve worn the whole time, to resume the trail. This time, one size smaller. Better the devil you know.

Chris picks us up at 8 am for the one-hour return journey. We offer to pay our new trail angel for transporting us back to the trailhead but, as most invariably do, she refuses money happy enough hearing our life stories. To this day, I’m thankful Chris accepted me as a Facebook friend. Our brief chance meeting revealed little of her true personality. I now know of her equal passion for magnificent trails, like the Wonderland Trail encircling Mt Rainier in her home state of Washington and the captivating Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia. And her strong advocacy for women’s rights and social justice. I’m so glad we met this wonderful human being who thought nothing of her two-hour return trip to get us back on the trail.

Kit Kat, trail angel Chris, Shepherd, and Medicine Man returning to Snoqualmie trailhead

As we farewell Chris we also say goodbye to Issaquah’s fine weather. Persistent drizzle descends upon us. Donning rain gear we happily tramp into the wilderness. Despite lingering injuries and battered feet, it’s an enormous relief to be back on the PCT even if today’s terrain lacks appeal. Little elevation, few views, and minimal flowers. But the company and trail magic is good.

With Medicine Man’s help, I spot weird and wonderful mushrooms. I enjoy today’s stroll. Our four-day absence from the trail has slowed our pace considerably. We only manage nine miles. And Medicine Man is walking gingerly with his foot problems. He’s unsure he can cover 19 miles a day to get us to White Pass in six days. I hope he can. We can’t slow our pace any further if we are to reach our revised PCT finish point at Mount Whitney.

We reach Mirror Lake. Very picturesque, as the name suggests. This is where they filmed the popular TV series ‘Twilight’. Misty mornings, I imagine, are the perfect backdrop for a moody atmospheric show. Today Shepherd and Medicine Man are ready by 6.30 am, but there’s scant enthusiasm for the early start. Medicine Man wants to get to Cascade Locks, the town bordering Washington State and Oregon for PCT Days, a hiker’s expo event on August 16–18.

I can think of nothing worse. All those filthy bodies in a confined space looking at the latest gear you can’t afford, smoking CBD and partying hard. PCT Days is not my scene. I suspect not Shepherd’s either. But if you’re as much of a people lover and giver as Medicine Man then it could have its appeal. Best get a move on then.

With a few quick stops, we cover 10 miles by lunch. Medicine Man and Shepherd decide if they put the slowest member of the pack in the middle, we can move even faster as a group. I’m not pleased. I can’t stop and take photographs at my leisure, and I can’t fart indiscriminately. I thought Medicine Man was the slowest.

We pass two hikers, Produce and Shark Bait, whom we met way back in our first week in the desert. They’re moving at a phenomenal rate claiming a distance of 44 miles (71kms) yesterday. I don’t believe them but looking at how Produce is running I diagnose a serious Iliotibial band syndrome (IT band syndrome) overuse injury of the connective tissues on the outer part of the thigh and knee, common in marathoners. Aren’t I a genius diagnosing this, never having run in my life? I admit Medicine Man helped me here. To cut a long story short, she didn’t look right. Hysterical laughter did little to hide her pain. We were witnessing true trauma in a fellow hiker who chose this outcome. Hardly a laughing matter.

How can Produce enjoy this magnificent trail running at this pace? Her PCT is a race to the end. She risks permanent disfigurement to complete it in record time. That’s not my intent, but this couple shows us everyone has unique motivations for attempting this challenging trail. Medicine Man offers anti-inflammatory painkillers to ease her discomfort.  

With little scenery to photograph I focus my attention on a captivating array of fungi and mushrooms. The fungi present themselves as bright orange and yellow blobs on long fallen logs, some resembling hot dog buns covered in ketchup. Others are firm calcified formations, with the texture of dentures, forming steppingstones on trees and fallen logs. There are a variety of deepest black and creamy white ones and others with filigreed edges resembling delicate wood shavings.

The most impressive ones resemble McDonald’s sesame seed buns–orange crescents dappled with spongy white spots. So uniformly formed, I’m imagining this forest floor is the factory where they make them.

After a respectable 17.2 miles (27.7 km) yesterday I am raring to go again at 6.30 am. My black eye is healing. I look less like a cast member of The Rocky Horror Show. I crave a view. A few miles ahead, Mount Rainier awaits.

“Come on Medicine Man. Get out of bed. You’ll miss something spectacular.”

Grumble, cough, splutter. “Be with you soon, girls. I’ll catch up.”

“Okey Dokey! See you there.”

Medicine Man joins us and takes photos of Shepherd and I pitting British dominance against Aussie pluck as we wave our miniature country’s flags in front of each other. A light-hearted moment for us all. 

I refuse to walk between these two today and retreat to the rear. They’re enjoying each other’s company and I’m enjoying mine. They motor on and I retreat further into my world. When they’re within earshot, my head rears up in surprise. Did my recent fall damage my hearing as well?

“Look at ‘hat li’le un?” Shepherd announces.

“Yes, it’s a beauty,” Medicine Man replies.

He knows what Shepherd is saying but is she dropping many of her h’s and t’s?

“Hey Shep, has your speech changed or am I having a moment?”

“Yes, bu’ no. This is ‘ow I speak. It’s a Yorkshire accen’.”

Great! I am not losing my mind. I hope it means my company relaxes her, or Medicine Man’s at least, but could it be a sign our relationship is unravelling? Doesn’t she care enough to speak so I can understand her?

Shepherd continues. “Your speech ‘as changed too. I canno’ understand a word you’re saying when you revert to Australian idioms, and you put o’s on the end of everyt’ing.”

“I’m devo you should say that Shep. I put y’s on the end and lengthen or shorten words depending on how they start. This arvo I’ll put the billy on and have a choccy biccy with my tea. Righto! Care to join me?”

“Jus’ lis’en to yourself.”  

If you are as confused as Shepherd, devo = devastated; arvo = afternoon; billy = boiling water in a cooking pot with a wire handle over a campfire; choccy biccy = chocolate biscuit (i.e., American cookie, not scone) and righto = agreement i.e. are you right with that?

We might find our patience stretched when trying to communicate with Americans, but our versions of speaking the Queen’s English cause equal confusion. Oh, the challenges of communication, even when you speak the same language.

I need more light moments on this journey. There is change abreast. Glorious cloud inversions today. So high up we could touch them, but the mist prevails, and our antsy mood returns.

“Hey, Shep and Medicine Man! Can you pretend to be gnomes and poke your heads out either side of that delightful house-sized conifer over there?” They both oblige. I snap away. “Thanks, guys. It looks great with those shards of forest light beaming on you.”  

Shepherd spots a white flower we have never seen. It is bulbous, full of intricate tiny white flowers on a lengthy stalk. “That’s bear grass,” announces Medicine Man. The best example resembles a giant microphone. Shepherd grabs one and does her best Helvis impersonation (that’s Shepherd as Helen plus Elvis). Snap. Snap. Snap. We’re on a roll.

In the afternoon Medicine Man helps us find blazes. They are simplistic notches on the oldest trees made with an axe or knife as a way of identifying established tracks before the US Forest Service introduced the traditional PCT signage.

‘Before the PCT’s designation as a National Scenic Trail in 1968, a traveller along the Pacific Crest Trail System might have been walking from Forest Service trail number 101 to State Park Trail number 6902, and so on. They connected these trails to make what we now know as one continuous PCT route. For consistency, all national scenic trails are numbered, and the PCT became trail number 2000. However, they don’t use the numbering consistently on signage or maps, so it can be confusing. The uniform marker, or reassurance marker, is the famous PCT logo triangle, usually made of plastic. In designated Wilderness areas, they make the markers with branded or routed wood, for a more rustic and natural look.’

I love looking for the older white metal diamond-shaped markers with a single conifer in the middle surrounded by the words ‘Pacific Crest Trail System.’ Many of these are so old the trees’ bark has completely consumed them.

In the evening Medicine Man gives us a lesson on starting a fire with that ferro rod he helped me buy back in the desert when we first met him in Big Bear Lake.

“There’s plenty of Spanish moss on the trail. Nice and green when it hangs off trees, but it will go black when it detaches and rests on the ground. Black is not good. It makes a smoky mess. And never select moss or kindling from the ground. It has absorbed moisture and will be too damp to light. Select conifer leaves, twigs, and moss from the limbs of the trees. There are many suitable dead limbs above the ground. Fashion a nest with the items you gather.”

Shepherd and I listen and then go foraging. Now for the lesson on how to strike the ferro rod and light it. His demonstration is simple enough. Sparks from striking the ferro rod will ignite the kindling.

“Your turn now,” as he looks at me.

I’m so tired. I’m still eating my evening meal. I want to go to bed. I’ve taken recent delivery of an automatic ignition switch never-fail stove. When will I ever need this ferro rod skill? This feels like camping to me, my least enjoyable part of the PCT.

Medicine Man is insistent. He wants to help people learn new skills. His patient kind brown eyes gently encourage me to try. I can’t grip the rod with my gnarled arthritic hands.

“Oh, give it here. To hell with it. Here goes.”

A fury of jerky strikes. I get a few sparks flying but they never fall over the kindling, and I’m defeated. Shepherd’s turn next. She struggles to light it too. We await the report card.

“Kit Kat, you gave it a good shot, but your hands don’t allow you to strike the rod deftly. I need to devise another striking method for you. Shepherd, while you didn’t master it on this occasion, your technique is excellent. You’ll succeed soon.”

Damn, damn, and triple damn. I hate the fact Shepherd can filter water, blow up her air mattress, and erect her tent faster than me on every occasion. He confirms she’s better than me at this task too. The lesson concludes with a brief demonstration on how to douse a fire and know when to leave it unattended. Shepherd and I thank Medicine Man for the demonstration. He’s only trying to share his knowledge and help us improve our outdoor skills. But I’m not happy. I need a win. At least, I still have the goal of finishing the PCT within my reach.

It is Day four of a six-day carry and I’m feeling miserable. Despite prepping my feet and trying on hundreds of shoes, to end up reverting to my original Merrell MOAB Ventilators, I’m still in agony. Both of my little pinky toes are red raw. I think my plantar fascia is healing but blister pain is now trumping every other ailment. I’m delirious with pain. Or ready to pick a fight.

We stop at Mike Urich’s Hut, a skiers’ retreat, for a second breakfast. It’s dark inside but warm. Remnants of a fire from a combustion stove. Table and bench seats. Loft accommodation. We return to brighter light outside and greet other hikers. A young thru-hiker preps his feet. Another is packing his possessions. We ask them where they’re heading and how they are finding it. Nothing too deep.

Shepherd announces, in passing conversation, that she will not be completing the PCT. Perched on the verandah, I sit beneath her on the steps. My head twists in disbelief. What? This is the first time I have heard these thoughts. My combative streak rears.

“Is this true, Shepherd?” An awkward silence. The others disengage from us and focus on their tasks. She looks uncomfortable and dejected.

“We’re running short of time,” she starts. This is true but I don’t acknowledge this pertinent observation. “I’m not prepared to average 25-mile days throughout Oregon and Northern California to complete the PCT.”

I recall the conversation we had over three weeks ago when we were leaving Hart’s Pass. I had brought up the distances required when we began our SoBo journey. This has been brewing for a while then. Sullen faced I let her continue.

“I want to enjoy myself. There’s no way I will try 25-mile days.”

“But I thought you were enjoying yourself? You’re leading and walking well. I’m confident you can do it.”

“I’m sorry. I won’t go above 20-mile days.”

“Won’t you even give it a go when we reach Oregon? It is common knowledge even the slowest walkers can ramp up their mileage in the easier terrain.”

“No. I won’t walk those distances daily for the remaining months.”  

“I thought we were the Double Ds, in this adventure together. I thought you wanted to finish the PCT. When did you plan on discussing this change of mind with me?”

“I’m sorry. I’m just not prepared to walk those miles to finish the PCT if it compromises my enjoyment.”

Silence. Medicine Man makes himself small and doesn’t interrupt. His warm brown eyes emanate concern. He’s observed how well we are getting on but has not seen these chinks in the armour. Nor had I. Had it widened since Medicine Man joined us? We both enjoy his company. He leaves us soon anyway as he has other plans for tackling this journey. It’s a pivotal moment for me.

It would have been nice to have discussed this change of plan privately. I have never part-completed any long-distance hike. I can still complete it, but it’ll mean leaving Shepherd. I don’t want this outcome. I value our friendship more. I couldn’t have reached this point without her. She’s an integral part of my journey.

“Okay, I’m sorry to hear that. I’m disappointed in your decision, but I respect it. You never complain so I assumed you were managing the hefty distances. If you don’t want to complete the whole PCT can I suggest we spend our remaining time together walking the best of what’s left of it?”

No major reaction from Shepherd. Does she want to get rid of me? I refuse to let her go that easily. In salvage mode now. I talk on the fly. I need a solution she can accept.

“I think we should complete Washington State so we can say we have walked a whole state. But let’s look at a revised itinerary for Oregon, miss Northern California, and conclude our journey back in the High Sierra, at Mount Whitney. Are you amenable to this revised itinerary, walking no more than 20 miles a day?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, let’s leave it for the moment. I’ll get back to you with firmer suggestions once I’ve mulled it over more.”

Medicine Man makes suggestions and I take it upon myself to engage with other NoBos we pass for their opinions on the PCT’s must-see sections. The storm has passed. The mist surrounding Mike’s hut lifts too. It’s time to move on and look at alternative possibilities.

I am wounded. I hover behind the two processing this revised approach. We walk amongst devastating burn zones. The destruction is immense. Scorched bark peeled off in great sheaves comes to life in my mind. I imagine the heat of the fire’s attack and the trees’ powerlessness to fight back. And wildlife fleeing. Only shiny charcoal stumps remain. Is it mimicking the turmoil of the present? It’s hard for me to accept Shepherd’s decision, but I must let it go. My friendship with her is key.

Signs of regrowth with the stalky purple fireweed together with periodic glimpses of snowy Mount Rainier suggest hope for us. Yes, winning and doing things my way defines me, but compromise, patience, and tolerance of others are becoming more important. I need to develop these attributes. We’ll complete this journey together only if we can work together.

Fireweed

Fortuitously we cross paths with German Lucky, whom we last saw in the desert at Cajon Pass. He insists on a photo with us and lightens the mood with his much-needed words of encouragement.

“You can do it, girls. Keep moving. You’ll love Goat Rocks Wilderness. It’s only a few days away.”

Can we do it? My feet are screaming. The next morning, my fixer-upperer, Medicine Man, suggests I remove the lacing closest to the toe box. I have only two eyelets on either side of the tongue keeping the shoelaces secure but the new lacing is working. This suggestion has widened the toe box and reduced my toes rubbing against the suede interior lining. I’m walking with reduced pain for which I am most grateful.

The scenery is exceptional today–sweeping mountain views with great close-ups of Mount Rainier and good distant views of Mount Hood in Oregon. Tall bluebells, cerise-coloured Lewis’s monkey flower, broadleaf purple lupine, pink foxgloves, and a pink version of Shepherd’s adored scarlet paintbrush decorate the pathway.

We pass many lakes–Sheep and Dewey the standouts on either side of Chinook Pass, a popular lunch spot for those driving through Mount Rainier National Park. Shepherd spots a fox with black, grey, and white markings and I spot the cutest chipmunk peeking out of his burrow. We meet day hikers too who help us name more edible berries. We add salmon and thimbleberries to our approved eating list.

On Day 96, Thursday 1st August, as we near Laughing Water Creek Trail, the Double Ds reach our 1,100-mile (1,770 km) marker. We choose a sandy-sloping part of the path to assemble rocks to mark this event. Our StickPic moment is memorable. We’re still smiling. I’m so proud of our achievement. It’s taken great guts to get this far. The moment is ours to savour alone.

Medicine Man is napping in the sun around the corner oblivious to what we’re doing. We disassemble the milestone to avoid confusion for others. We know how many miles we have completed in the desert and how many miles in Washington State. To calculate our completed mileage, we add these two numbers together. But this method has been a hot topic of debate for us. My calculations are always 43 miles (69 km) more than Shepherd’s. I always include the 13 miles to Horseshoe Meadow Camp Site when we retreated from the High Sierra and the extra 30 miles we walked from Hart’s Pass to the Canadian border before we started our SoBo hike.

“Why shouldn’t we include them? They are not non-PCT miles. We were on the trail when we completed them.”

Shepherd is adamant I am wrong to include the 43 miles. The perfectionism in me believes I am right. To resolve this debate, we consult others for clarification. The result is we are both right, but the consensus tips in Shepherd’s favour. Retreats and extra mileage are ‘hiking’ miles but if you are calculating ‘actual PCT trail’ miles we must remove the 43 miles from our calculations. Picky. Regardless, it’s a bloody long way.   

We pass more wonderful lakes–Crag, Fish, Snow, and Pipe–with us settling on Beusch for our campsite. No shortage of water supplies. The only real negative is mosquitoes. They can be a real pest at this time of the year when the snow melt is at its peak. Medicine Man is not a fan but if you don’t mind retreating to your tent to cook in your vestibule, they’re manageable. A nearo at least tomorrow, when we reach the Kracker Barrel store at White Pass to collect our food resupplies.

͠

White Pass is another out-of-season ski town where not much happens. Our accommodation requires sorting. Passing hikers suggest we hitch to Packwood, a town with good amenities. Time now to shout ourselves a late breakfast at the Kracker Barrel store. Shepherd wants a huckleberry shake. Medicine Man something hot. I want a Diet Dr Pepper. Nestled amongst other stinky hikers we devour our gas station grub.

They call out our names once they locate our resupply boxes. We’re free to go. We put on our rain gear and head to the highway. Six hikers now try to hitch a ride into Packwood. We try every trick in the book. Nothing works. 45 minutes pass.

“Sorry. I need a rest.” Arms aching from holding a heavy damp resupply box. I collapse into a plastic chair outside the store. They follow me. “What should we do?” Within seconds, a young woman rocks up in a compact car. Hikers mob her. We gather our gear and mob her too. No way will we miss this ride.

“I can take you all. Just hang on a minute while I make space for you.”

I never get her name, but she is the girlfriend of another thru-hiker, and she knows what trail angeling involves. A ride for wet and weary hikers is perfect trail magic.  

Packwood is a delightful town. Our Inn does our laundry while we recharge our devices, catch up on social media, and eat. Lunch and dinner are at the Blue Spruce. Average fare but Medicine Man butters up the waitress something fierce. Tells her how fantastic the food is.

“Making people feel good won’t harm anybody and most times it guarantees excellent service,” he comments.

So true. I will try to practice this approach more often. He works his charm again at the Mountain Goat Café where we enjoy tea and zucchini cake. And at the local brewery where he joins Shepherd in a local ale. Lots of laughter between us. We have restored equilibrium.  

͠

Section H–White Pass to Trout Lake–is the second last section before we complete Washington State. Amanda, the Packwood Inn’s receptionist, kindly drives us back to the trailhead around 11.30 am. A four-hour uphill slog awaits. It’s manageable, despite our heavy packs. The group’s mood is excellent. No rants from me, wise comments from Medicine Man, or moody introversion from Shepherd. We silently enjoy those wonderful last views of Mount Rainier, together as one.

Now it’s Medicine Man’s turn to struggle with foot pain. We pass Bing, a Mexican girl, who he helped in the desert when they stayed at Casa De Luna, another trail angel-managed stay. She’s in awe of his healing powers, hence his trail name. It’s a pity he can’t help himself. Of similar age to me, I’d say his problem is mainly old feet. Constant heel pain. Plantar fascia? Tendonitis? Arthritis? Who knows? I’m no expert. I give him a pair of unused Dr Scholl gel heel lifts to try.

Medicine Man’s preference is to walk in quality walking sandals. Not for me. I might stub my blistered toes and cause further grief. But if it works for him, he should take this approach. We adjust our mileage to help him walk at a more relaxed pace. Tomorrow will be the test. A big day awaits with the much-touted Goat Rocks Wilderness region, a series of rugged peaks on the crest of the Cascade Ranges at 8,200ft, within our grasp.   

On our way to Goat Rocks Wilderness

After three miles of downhill, the rest of the day’s hike is a steady steep ascent. Taxing. Difficult. Dangerous. It traverses wildflower-filled mountain meadows to a precipitous single-file scree-laden path. Squeezing past northbound hikers takes my breath away, literally.

The captivating mountain scenery is breathtaking. I could weep at this moment. This is life-affirming, awe-inspiring stuff. I stand alone inhaling the experience. Distant Mt Rainier, shrouded in haze, reigns supreme. Snow-capped ridge lines with striking eroded volcanic cliff faces surround deep green ravines dotted with meadows and lakes. Who wouldn’t want to see more of this?

The take your breath away section

We rest at the top of heaven for lunch. But heaven eludes us. Tension remains. Shepherd and Medicine Man look exhausted. I want to try an unofficial PCT hairline ridge route for even more spectacular views. Medicine Man’s not sure about that with his continuing foot problems. Shepherd is non-committal and disengaged. Live in the present, guys. You may never get this opportunity again. Two against one. Not worth the fight. I’m struggling for energy too. I end up going with the majority decision.

I wander off in search of wildflowers still unsettled with the recent turn of events. They’ll catch me soon enough. I see white English daisies, cushion buckwheat, a cute little variegated pink and white pompom flower, and partridge foot, a mat-forming semi-shrub with leaves resembling its name topped with stalks of white daisies. These flowers are endemic at this high elevation. Very picturesque, but my mind is elsewhere.

As predicted, my walking partners catch up to me and our threesome enters the next challenging section. The path remains narrow, surrounded by scree and large unstable rocks, often obscured when snow blankets them. Without microspikes, we tread cautiously. Medicine Man’s sandals behave like snowshoes. I love these difficult sections. It brings back the fun side of hiking. True adventurers are we.

Shepherd chooses this moment to discuss going home early. She tells me she’s happy to split if I’m intent on finishing. We have spoken little of our revised itinerary. I’m still working on it. I reassure her this possibility is no longer the case. I want to continue with her. “Okay,” she responds but I sense her passion to continue waning.

I can’t imagine her not wanting to see more of this dramatic scenery. Many thru-hikers say the High Sierra in Central California, the John Muir Trail section in particular, is better than this magic stretch of the PCT.

I must come up with an appealing plan fast. If I include excellent food, I’m in with a chance. I continue to ask hikers we pass for their suggestions. That evening I note down the best options. Tomorrow I hope to seek her approval to try one of them.

We’re ready to leave at our usual time of 6.30 am but Medicine Man hasn’t moved. He says he’ll catch up with us later. He may sense we need time alone. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to discuss our revised itinerary. Shepherd listens.

“We have nine more days to complete Washington State. Whatever the terrain, we must complete this State in its entirety. It’s been a tough hike with challenging conditions. A sense of achievement in finishing this section is the morale booster we both need.”

“Yes. I’m comfortable with this suggestion.”

“After we reach the border at The Bridge of the Gods, we should rest up at Cascade Locks for a few nights, do our housekeeping, and then continue another nine days before exiting Oregon at the Santiam Pass trailhead. This enables us to see Timberline Lodge where the famous breakfast and lunch buffet is available and where they filmed the 1980 psychological horror film The Shining. And Mount Hood will watch over us as we traverse meadows, wooded areas, lakes, and Ramona Falls.”

Another nod of assent from Shepherd. 

“Do you remember when we were in Stehekin I picked up a magazine at the Lodge with a brilliant article detailing the best restaurants in Oregon? The article gave Sisters and Bend a major rap for their towns’ coffee culture resurgence. After we leave the trail at Santiam Pass let’s give ourselves time off at these two towns for a foodie reconnaissance.”

“I want to see these towns.” A promising response.

“This wraps up Oregon for us. Any further south we just risk being eaten by mozzies with little scenic gain. But missing Crater Lake would be a tremendous disappointment. It’s a pain to get to but we can make it happen. We can enlist the help of trail angels to get us there and we’ll just hitch from there to Ashland where you need to collect your next insulin supply.”

With a nod, I’m encouraged to continue. 

“Forget Northern California. We don’t have the time. Apart from Lassen Volcanic National Park, it’s the drabbest section of the entire trail. No major loss missing this section. We then work out transportation to South Lake Tahoe to pick up your insulin supply and resume the High Sierra at Echo Lake. We’ll have two weeks to get to Mount Whitney before we hike out, with luck, via the Whitney Portal route.”

You need a permit to exit via the Whitney Portal route, but we might sneak out that way and claim a medical emergency because of our diabetes if we ever get questioned. It’s the quickest way to get back to Lone Pine.

“We can visit all of these places, averaging 16 to 20 miles a day, before you leave in late September. What d’you say? Does this plan appeal? Can we try it together?” Not pleading. Fingers crossed. I hope she’ll say yes. Expectant calm-as-can-be eyes await Shepherd’s decision. It will be what it will be.

“If we can achieve this before my departure date, I’ll give it a go.”

“Is that a yes?” I need confirmation.

“Yes.”

No hugs and kisses but I’m relieved. I’m not ready to go home. In no way indicative of a lessening of my love for my husband I’m not ready to return to his embrace. We’ve been apart for three months, but I want more time away from living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Am I being unreasonable or selfish demanding more ‘me’ time? Is it wrong to choose the PCT for my mental health escape? Do my thoughts show how tough our lives are if I consider walking the PCT my rest and recreation?

For me, I see it as an opportunity to leave my everyday life, re-energise and prepare myself for life’s next challenges. Shepherd has been a lifeline to me. I don’t want our PCT journey to conclude. Putting tensions aside, she’s been a delightful walking companion and accomplished navigator who I see as a potential lifelong friend.

If only I knew what she was feeling. Is it British reticence and formality preventing her from opening up her inner thoughts? Is my personality wearing thin? Is there something deeper tormenting her? Is it weariness and homesickness trumping her desire to complete more of the PCT? Has she simply found what she was looking for and is comfortable with her decision to return home?

Now where is Medicine Man? Oh, here he comes. At a cracking pace might I add. I thought he had sore feet. The anti-inflammatories must have kicked in. He informs us he wants to get back to the PCT Days event at Cascade Locks and isn’t keen on mosquito-infested camping. He much prefers hiking till 8 pm which doesn’t suit our diabetes. We need fuel, not more exercise late in the day.

“See you around again girls. It’s been a delight hiking with you both.”

“You too, Medicine Man. You’ve taught us heaps. I’m much more confident pitching my tent. It looks like a real tent now; taut, and upright. And if I ever master that ferro rod I owe it to you. We appreciate your help and insight.” Shepherd expresses similar gratitude.

Our perfect pitches thanks to Medicine Man

“Always here to help. Hike well. Be well.”

My little white-haired gnome sandals off into the distance. Hmmm, I ponder. I thought he’d continue with us. How can one walk longer distances with damaged feet? Did the tension get to him or maybe his behaviour is a perfect example of the need to “Hike your own hike”? Our fine-tuned diabetic routine may be too restricting for him. Or was Medicine Man just the person we needed in our lives at a crucial juncture in our journey?

His earnest wish to help others at every opportunity was a joy to behold. In his last PCT YouTube video on his vetonthepath channel he said, I quote, “Met a lot of great people. A lot of good folks. It will let you think about what you have to fix. And probably help you fix it.” I was thinking hard. What did his brief entry into our lives mean?

Just Shepherd and I again near Yakima Reservation

Without Medicine Man our punctual 6.30 am camp departures resume. We continue to camp in Shepherd’s suggested camp spots near lakes for access to water. We can’t understand the hype amongst other thru-hikers over the mosquito problem. Current conditions are manageable, teetering on the ideal. The Flip has helped us avoid the worst of the mosquitoes during the peak of the snow melt and our revised itinerary misses their horrific presence in Southern Oregon.

The past few days have been hot, but elevation has been easy. For a large part of the day, we have adequate cover walking under dense foliage. Plenty of berries to snack on alongside the path and yes, more new wildflowers. Clustered small yellow daisies on stalks today, narrow goldenrod, and arrowleaf groundsel.

We meet Jukebox and Chopsticks from the desert. They recognise my faded orange cap. We’ve lost weight, so our faces are often unrecognisable. For the men, a beard makes it impossible to remember how they looked beforehand. Shepherd is half her size. She looks great, but she hasn’t been dieting. She’s eating well. The daily mileage is shedding the excess. It won’t be easy to stay this size when we return home. It’s a snapshot of yourself if your normal lifestyle was less sedentary. A tall order with most of us being forced to return to desk jobs to help fund our next trekking adventure.

Our next hurdle is a dangerous river crossing. Medicine Man is now a half day ahead of us. He has Shepherd’s GPS address and messages us a warning. “Go upstream and cross at the log.” When we reach the crossing mid-afternoon, the log is hard to spot. A better description–submerged spindly logs bunched together. The river’s flow is furious. Our packs, while only carrying two days’ worth of food, are still heavy. I’m not positive we can use our trekking poles to touch the bottom to aid our stability.

It looks deep. The flow is deafening. We must shout to hear each other. There’s massive hesitation. I love these challenges but is there a calmer section we can cross? Downstream can often be more dangerous with hazardous dropoff points having the potential to suck you under and trap you if you can’t release your backpack. We unclip our hip belt and chest straps just in case. Upstream we can see no other suitable alternative crossings. We can continue to explore further on precarious rocks, but this could go on for miles. We must decide on a route.

“I’m choosing the logs,” I announce.

Shepherd is not convinced. I don’t encourage her to follow me. If I can show her I can do it, she might try this route. We’re working as a team, but we need to decide for ourselves the level of risk we’re prepared to take. Something easy for me might not be easy for her and vice versa. I put my hesitation aside and edge my way onto the logs, testing for slipperiness before I plant each shoe. Both shoes submerge within seconds, and the force of the flow startles me. I can’t stay here long, or I’ll lose my balance.

Back in 2008, when I walked the treacherous Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, I fell from a log when hikers in front of me stalled their advance. I could balance only for a few seconds before I fell into the stream. You need both haste and care to advance over a balancing point. I continue to move forward over the logs. Before I know it, I reach the other side. My heart is pounding. I cross it unscathed, but celebrations must wait. Shepherd’s turn now. I hope I looked confident to her.

She follows the path I choose. I’d love to photograph her crossing this turbulent river. But it’s a treacherous moment, not a frivolous one. Time to coax and encourage, with restraint, not joviality. Her advance is tentative. It seems to take an eternity but less than a minute passes. Safe on the same side we sigh with relief. Laugh too. The only response for a tough crossing. We add walking on water to our list of achievements.

The PCT rewards us for our efforts with a new mountain–Mount Adams, my new BMF (Best Mountain Forever), the second highest mountain in Washington State, after Mount Rainier, at 12,281ft (3,743m). It has a nice conical asymmetrical shape with a flattened top. The PCT traverses its western flank. It’s a wonderful backdrop to the sparkling streams and meadows we pass oozing with colour from the wonderful abundance of wildflowers. My favourites are there; Lewis’s electric cerise monkey flower, lilac penstemon daisies, deep purple lupines, and red scarlet paintbrush. My friends from back home suggested these photos could make terrific jigsaw puzzles. I agree with them. How lucky am I to be seeing these scenes in the flesh?

The next morning, a sticky humid 10-mile (16km) walk to the road junction for the 12.30 pm bus into town. Trout Lake is our final Washington resupply town. A restaurant and coffee shop at the gas station and a grocery store are our only forms of entertainment. There are camping spots outside the store. They have a few basic rooms upstairs if you fancy a bed, bathroom, and access to a washing machine. I do. With patchy reception, we nab one.

We arrive at the trailhead earlier than the bus departure time and hitch a ride into town with a few other hikers. Two men in a pickup truck pull over. Keen hikers themselves the driver and his friend tell us of their adventures. Then they swallow handfuls of something, at a phenomenal rate. Pills? Surely not! The high front bench seat prevents me from confirming my suspicions.

It is 100°F (38°C) when they deposit us at the gas station. I surmise they are devouring M&Ms to avoid them melting. Yes, I will go with this explanation because I can’t handle any more surprises. They’re pleasant enough and we thank them for taking us into town.

We stroll into the restaurant with our packs ready to sit in a booth and order something with huckleberries in it. “Sorry, guys. No packs allowed. Put them on the seats outside please.” A slow trudge back. We get our wallets and phones and return to the cooler interior.

“Be with you soon, girls. Menus are on the way.”

We sit. 10, 20, 30 minutes pass. Catatonic, mouth agape, I stare into nothingness. With only a cook, cashier, and a single server, those menus are never coming. Our huckleberry shake and a slice of huckleberry cheesecake hit the spot when they finally arrive. Best move on to the Grocery Store and see what awaits us there.  

“Medicine Man!”

“Hi girls, good to see you.”

The story of our river crossing impresses him. When he crossed earlier in the day, the logs weren’t submerged. Good to cross rivers in the mornings for that reason. River levels increase as the sun heats the snow and escalates the melt. Medicine Man is leaving in a few hours to catch the last bus shuttle to the trail.

“See you in Cascade Locks.” Big hugs all around and minutes later he leaves us once more.

A good night’s rest has done wonders for our mood. We hit the Café early to avoid the lengthy wait, but the locals beat us there. We must still wait our turn, but we enjoy our huckleberry granola and pancake. Our mood today is good. We should consider their huckleberry ‘mimosa’, the morning girl’s drink, full of bubbles and cheer to further lighten our mood. Instead, we return to the Grocery Store to buy fresh sandwiches, finish packing, and gather outside for the noon return shuttle bus service. Nothing further to do than share our stories with other waiting hikers.

“If you ever get back to the Dow Villa Hotel in Lone Pine don’t forget to look up the Guest book for Doris Day’s signature the week before she died,” one hiker suggests.

“Okay.” I remember these words as Lone Pine is the town where we’ll exit the trail from Mount Whitney. I wonder if I’m being told a tall tale.  

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