The final miles

I woke early, shivering a little and clasping the sleeping bag tightly around my face. If I released it a rasp of icy air entered the bag and stole valuable warmth from my head and neck. I’d listened hard from the depths of my sleeping bag for the patter of rain on the tent. It had rained persistently, although not hard, for several days in a row and I really needed to at least get my clothes and sleeping bag dry. Fortunately the temperature had been staying above freezing or I might have been somewhat more uncomfortable. The forecast out of Snoqualmie Pass had been favourable, however the reality had not lived up to expectations. That day was the first in several days that I did not wake to the sound of rain. It had started well but throughout the morning grey mists swirled and built as the sky darkened and eventually, in the afternoon, the rain returned.  This latter section of Washington was considered to be some of the most remote and challenging terrain on the whole hike, second only perhaps to the John Muir Trail section that we had followed through the High Sierra. The trail would see me climb pass after pass and I frequently encountered creeks and rivers to be crossed, many now a little more exciting than they’d been perhaps just days previously. At some of these log bridges had been constructed, and some had subsequently collapsed or been destroyed by falling trees, but for many such crossings the challenge was left to the individual to find an appropriate and safe crossing point, picking a way across wet and slippery rocks, dripping with moss, or accepting the inevitable wet feet. 

In the rain the narrow trail, where it climbed steeply through the dense and dripping undergrowth, had become a treacherous mudchute that required careful use of hiking poles and even the occasional use of roots and branches to ensure that upward motion was not lost to unwitting slides backward as gravity battled to hold me back. Occasionally bursting out of the undergrowth near the top of a long climb meant emerging from the trees to find oneself looking down upon a cloud inversion, out of the rain momentarily,  even if sweat and moisture-laden shrubs conspired to ensure that, even for a brief moment, I should not be dry.
That afternoon, as the sky darkened further and rain turned to sleet, I paused to fill water from a creek at the base of a climb. Despite stopping for just a few minutes, my sweat-soaked shirt quickly began to chill me and I hastened up one more long climb, resorting to my headlamp for way-finding as dusk became darkness and I stumbled over hidden rocks trying to find a sufficiently flat and protected spot to pitch my tent. The following morning was cold and clear, as well as blessedly dry, which meant a quicker and safer descent to reach Stevens Pass for resupply. This was for many hikers, a difficult section for resupply, with long hitches required on quiet roads. I was fortunate however to have been regularly hiking with another hiker who had family in the area. Their help and support with resupply throughout Washington had been invaluable and had undoubtedly saved me considerable time.

From Stevens Pass my sights were set on Stehekin, a remote habitation set at the north of Lake Chelan and only accessible by boat, float plane or on foot. No road reaches in to Stehekin, all goods must travel the four hour journey by boat and that isolation is what defines it’s character. A sense of excitement was building in me as the end was drawing near. Stehekin was to be the last supply stop in Washington. After that, all that remained was about eighty miles to the border which I’d planned to do in four days. I’d heard former thru-hikers talk about the conflicting emotions felt toward the end of such a hike, but until that point hadn’t appreciated the intensity of the conflict. A part of me was exhausted, with painful feet and sore knees, and longed to be done, to sleep in a bed again, and eat at a table. However, a side of me knew that this had been a very special summer, one that was rapidly coming to an end. I had become accustomed to watching the sun rise and set, to waking at night to the most stars I had ever seen, to observing the little rituals of the birds, animals and insects that I shared every day with, to drinking from gurgling mountain steams and stopping in awe several times each day to gaze in wonder at the beauty and grandeur of the landscapes around me. All of that would soon be over, and deep inside me I felt an almost overwhelming sadness forming that I would not shake for a long time to come. 

I pushed all that out of my mind as I set out from Stevens Pass on a gorgeous afternoon of delicate autumn sun that filtered gently through the many shades of reds and yellow and softly probed under the corners of the growing carpet of peaty leaves and pine needles. Each of these days had its own unique character and the following day could not have been more different. I set out in low cloud and persistent rain which only eased momentarily throughout the day. It was not hard but it worked it’s way through every gap, up sleeves and into my pack. The trail took me up and up all morning, climbing to the high ridges of the Cascades, precipitous slopes and rocky crags reminding me strongly of the Sierras. Long drops into thickly forested valleys were only occasional glimpses and I sacrificed the amazing vistas for which the section was known, for a wilder, wind-swept and somewhat more desolate experience, isolated in the cloud, but with a heightened awareness of the immediate surroundings and the powerful potential of the weather which periodically reshaped this landscape. 

A lone marmot was sat high on a rock. I heard him long before I saw him. A high pitched whistling, emitted in rhythmic blasts, initially had me wondering whether a fallen hiker was using a whistle to draw attention. However as I descended, there he was, sitting prominently calling out, a marmot telegram, to a neighbour in the next valley. Sure enough between his whistles came an answering blast, clearly heard despite the distance and weather. I’d never seen them do that before. 

During that afternoon the weather really closed in and after the long climbs on exposed ridges in the wind I was glad to be descending deep into the belly of the forest, among the bracken, lichen and fungus, the smell of decay and the soft moss underfoot, where the air was still and I could camp in shelter. I’d passed a small stone marker that afternoon, constructed by another hiker and marking two and a half thousand miles of trail since Campo on the Mexican border back in April. I was feeling good, if a bit wet and cold.

Stehekin proved to be a fitting final stop. A small community, nestled between the mountains, well away from the ‘real world’ included several former hikers who’d either gone no further or returned to stay close to the mountains. Despite the number of hikers still around, the lodge/store, bakery and bustling post room were clearly getting ready for winter and in just a few weeks, when the summer visitors were gone, only a handful of hardy residents would celebrate the first crisp silent snowfall that would blanket the settlement until next year. 

It was fitting that my final days on trail were every bit as memorable as the first. The sun stayed with me and nights were clear and crisp. The Aspens were at the height of their colour change, glowing yellow amongst their evergreen companions, splashing the hillsides with rich colour. Ptarmigan were dotted amongst the shrubs, their feathers showing the first white flecks of their own winter change, and occasional elk could be spotted, grazing intently in the thickets between passes. The trails of the Cascades between Stehekin and the Canadian border were simply thrilling. Good, high paths that twisted around cliffs and canyons, with distant vista’s that stretched to views of Mount Baker among other snow capped giants. Scree slopes dropped away dramatically, and on more than one occasion required some careful footwork to negotiate. The lofty aspect and clear skies made my heart soar and I felt no doubt that this place, and the memories of this journey, would remain with me forever more. 
The border, when it came, was an anticlimax. Deep in the trees, in the final valley before the climb to Manning Park and the first highway in Canada, it was marked with a small metal monument, numbered 78, and a wooden marker post to match that one I’d stood by, many months ago on the Mexican border. I’d thought that this monument marked the achievement of a long-held goal. The fulfillment of a dream. Yet somehow it didn’t seem to represent for me the culmination of everything this summer had held. It couldn’t match the peace that I’d found sitting in absolute stillness high on a mountain top, nor the exhilaration of successfully crossing a river raging in snow-melt. Neither did it capture the kindness and generosity I’d received from strangers, some of whom had never met me but who had undertaken numerous acts of ‘trail magic’ for me, and hikers like me. It is an old adage that the journey is more important than the destination, but it had never felt truer or more real.

I have made many friends along the trail and met many wonderful people and I am full of gratitude to them for being a part of my hike. For sharing the experiences and reminding me what it is to live simply and happily. Thank you to you all.

Author: ahumanpace

Working less, travelling more, getting outdoors with friends, talking to strangers, slowing down and trying to live life again, at the pace of a human!

2 thoughts on “The final miles”

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