After two wonderful nights of recouperation, thanks to a friend of a friend with a cabin, I found myself in Cascade Locks, ready as i’d ever be to start the final push. A final burger and coke at the cascade locks ale house were followed by an ice cream, too large to be successfully contained in a waffle cone without spillage, from the Eastwind drive-in famous for being visited by hiker and writer Cheryl Strayed. Initially it wasn’t obvious how to get up to the bridge itself. The slipway off the highway curled around well above the sidewalk and aligned itself with the old clinker clad toll booth at the entrance to the bridge, but there did not initially appear to be a pedestrian walkway to the bridge. After over two thousand miles of hiking I had learned that America is built for the motor car not the pedestrian, so after climbing a wall and scrambling through the undergrowth where others had clearly gone before, I emerged by the toll booth where, true to form, a road sign instructed pedestrians to walk across the narrow iron bridge, in the road, facing the on-coming traffic, including the big trucks for whom this was clearly a major thru-route.
Emotionally the Bridge of the Gods was a huge milestone. I don’t think I really started to believe I might complete this hike until that point. Finally what had always seemed a dream, the sort of adventure that happens to other people, was coming within reach. I have dreamt, talked and read about this hike for over ten years. During that time it’s popularity and the number of people attempting the hike have increased, helped most recently by the film ‘Wild’. I had to remind myself that while Washington was the final State, the journey was far from over and Washington weather had ended the dream early on more than one occasion for previous hikers, as I was well aware.
On those first days in Washington the humidity seemed to dominate every moment. The change had seemed almost immediate after crossing the Colombia River. Lush, rich undergrowth and dark, peaty earth demonstrated that moisture was not a problem here. Sweat trickled repeatedly down my back, neck, even into my eyes which stung from the salt it carried. As the sun got higher in the sky by midday, shafts of light would catch on the dew resting on every leaf and frond.
Rich ferns and bracken now dominated the ground around and the lichens that were tinder dry wisps hanging from the Oregon trees, were now lush lime green cloaks that clung tenaciously to trunk and branch, full of life and territorial ambition. Even the rocks seemed to sweat, droplets oozing from dark crevices and dripping from moss covered slabs. Slugs had appeared on the forest floor too. Thick, slimy specimens up to seven inches long oozed their way across the damp rock, mud and pine needles, negotiating pine cones like ships avoiding rocks on an ocean. Bracket fungus clung heroically to dead and fallen trunks, determinedly extracting every last nutrient of life from these rotting hulks. Twisted and knarled roots were disguised now, laying below the decaying leaf matter, awaiting the unwary or tired hiker and inviting a trip. The trail climbed and fell daily here and small changes started to happen. Here and there a leaf would appear out of place: red amongst its green compatriots.
Then over the coming days more and more would follow their lead until it seemed that the greens were in danger of being taken over entirely by yellows and reds. Nights had started to get colder too and collecting water began to mean freezing hands. One night I was camped with a couple of other hikers at high altitude when the mists that had hovered all day cleared at dusk to reveal incredible views of the glaciers on Mt Adams. Once wrapped up in my sleeping bag I lay awake listening to the ice cracking and breaking on glacier. Deep rumbles and sudden sharp cracks. It was the first of many nights to come when I would struggle to stay warm enough to sleep.
It was now elk hunting season. An unnerving time to be a hiker in the woods. As well as occasionally passing other hikers, I had started to regularly see men in full camouflage, faces painted as if at war, creeping around the woods armed with dangerous looking and powerful crossbows. Many also carried guns but those I spoke to assured me that only bows were allowed to be used, for another few weeks at least. It must have been target practice I was hearing some evenings then. The elk seemed to be aware that they were being hunted and it seemed too that they knew who was hunting them. While many hunters would be seen traipsing back to their pick-ups empty handed in the early hours of the morning, the elk seemed quite content to spend the night grazing close to hikers tents. I secretly think they had adopted the guerrilla tactic of the human shield!
Along with the cold nights and cooler days there had also been an ominous development going on in the sky above. The once clear blue skies had begun to be dotted with cloud. Fluffy, white puffs at first that did little more than decorate the canvas. Then splashes of darker shades were added and these grew together until the sky hung above with a weight that could not last. All summer I had known this would come, and when it came it was a deluge. On the day I was due to hike into Snoqualmie Pass it was raining before first light. Packing up the tent was quite challenging. I’ve never figured out quite how a ‘waterproof’ material can successfully hold so much water. Quicker than I could pack, water pooled in every fold and the resulting wad of soggy material was too fat to fit into its dedicated bag as well as being three times heavier than it had been all summer. The ground cloth was no better and all the while I was packing rain stole its way into every corner of my pack. The resulting weight once lifted was significantly more than I’d been carrying previously.
All around me the steel grey cloak of mist and rain, that hid all but the nearest trees, sat heavily on my shoulders and galvanised the feeling that this was not a brief shower. The feeling was not wrong. The swirling mists would continue to lay over the landscape all day and the rain pounded down relentlessly. The trail became a series of deep pools, connected by torrents of rushing water. Suddenly my lightweight gear and well-vented boots didn’t seem such a good idea and very quickly I was soaked through. My pack cover did little to protect my pack either and by the time I reached the Summit Inn at Snoqualmie I was a dripping mess. The character of the hike had changed overnight and I could not be more aware of the weather window that appeared to be closing in fast on me. In some previous years the trail had become impassable with snow by early October. The forecast was for more rain and the temperature had been dropping daily so it was hard not to have some anxiety about what the next couple of weeks might hold.