Mile 2294 to mile 2313
I wake to the sound of Raho’s alarm, coming from his tent. It’s church bells, like the church bells of St. Joseph’s, the catholic church in the little desert town where I went to highschool. Dong, dong, dong, dong. I remember stepping from my grandmother’s oldsmobile that smelled of air conditioning, head staticky from lack of sleep, moving from the bleak sunshine into the dim interior of the church. Sitting in the wooden pews, intolerably sleepy and bored. Standing and sitting, standing and sitting. Compulsively working the pages of the songbooks. Afterward there were donuts in the basement and breakfast with my uncles at the railroad-themed greasy spoon down the street. Huge white platters of food covered in pork gravy, biscuits melting in the middle of it all.
The thought of biscuits shoots me upright in my sleeping bag. I stare at the walls of the tent. White Pass. It’s only eleven miles to White Pass, where there’s a convenience store. And a resupply box for me. I pick up my Gatorade bottle and take a long drink of water. I know what’s in the resupply box- more trail mix and granola- but I don’t even care. I’m like a hamster at this point, obediently eating my little hamster food. I suppose a part of me has died. But I ain’t mad.
As soon as I’m dressed I pull down my tent and sit on my sleeping pad on the damp ground to eat my breakfast- the last of Instigate’s stale trailmix. Instigate is up as well, and stirring; chewing on trail food and crinkling plastic bags. After breakfast I shake my water bottle; empty. I went to bed thirsty, which is not something I usually do. Now I’m extra thirsty, and the next water’s not for eight miles. Oh well. Going without- what else is new?
Instigate and I hike together through the warm morning, and I grow thirstier and thirstier as we walk. At some point I find myself fantasizing about diet coke with lime, of all things, which I used to drink in great quantities when I was a teenager who worked at applebee’s. At last we reach the flat, mucky lake, and I crouch on its edges to fill up my bottles. There are floaties in the water, and tiny creatures with their tiny propellers, but my steripen will make short work of that. Or at least of their DNA. I’m sitting on the ground, spacing out and working my way through a liter of water so I don’t have to carry any to the highway when a big man appears, walking softly and dressed entirely in realtree. He has a kindly face, and his pack has a huge metal frame. A bowhunter!
The man stops in our clearing and rests his techy, futuristic bow against a tree. He tells us that he is from North Dakota, but that he used to live in Spokane. He moved to North Dakota to work in the oil fields, has a wife and kids but manages to come out here a few times a year.
“Do you get an elk every year?” I say.
“No,” he says. “Haven’t in a couple years.”
“Why do you like bow hunting?” I ask him.
“I’m not into drunk people with guns,” he says simply, taking off his realtree cap and scratching his scalp. “Bowhunting is quiet.” He tells us that if he does get an elk he has to carry it out, which seems to me like an insurmountable task. But that’s what the big, framed pack is for.
I finish my water and Instigate and I take our leave, hiking on drowsily towards the highway. When we finally reach it, that anticlimactic ribbon of asphalt, the sky has clouded over and we walk the last mile along the shoulder in silence, each of us in our own private land of hunger and fatigue. Cars blow by, little blasts of wind from another world; people in parallel realities headed somewhere for some important reason, playing out the dramas of their lives. The gas station/convenience store looms ahead and then it is upon us, benches out front lined with dirty backpacks. We drop our packs on the ground and step inside the little store, setting the bells that hang from the doorhandle to jangling.
Ah, the convenience store. Never before in my life, before the PCT, have I studied a convenience store’s shelves so closely, never before have I relied on one so heavily for food. The candy bars you don’t want to eat, the dusty powerbars, the random selection of chips. The brisk business of cigarettes and energy drinks. A little glass case of chicken strips and stale burritos, if you’re lucky.
Today we are lucky. We claim our chicken strips and sit down at the cluster of little round tables with the other hikers, some of whom we know and some new faces- even this late in the game. Egg is here, which is exciting, her resupply box exploded all over her table, fishing out the things she’s tired of and offering them to other hikers. I have a fistful of mayonnaise packets and I gleefully mix them with ketchup for my chicken strips, happily doubling the number of calories. A Shakira song comes on the little radio in back and Egg turns up the volume and dances around at the back of the store. I wish the other hikers would get up and dance, but I know they won’t. We’re walkers, not dancers. After Shakira an awful Coldplay song comes on and Egg turns down the volume again, returns to her table to sort her food.
Instigate gets a text message from Spark. He’s hitched into Packwood, twenty miles away. I’m eating pizza, he says. Where are y’all at?
Spark! I text him back. We’re at White Pass! Come meet us!
The sun has broken through the clouds and I unpack my wet things and spread them on the picnic tables outside. There’s an inn next to the gas station and I become fixated on the idea of taking a shower, although I don’t know anyone who has a room this early in the morning and all the hikers from last night have checked out. I wander over to the Inn and ask the manager if I can buy a shower, but he says no and I return to my picnic table, where I sort through my boring resupply box. Trailmix, granola, a couple of foil packets of tuna. A bar of halvah and a snickers bar. Emergen-c and caffeinated crystal light powder. I supplement this with tortilla chips and salt and vinegar potato chips from inside the store, and as many mayonnaise packets as I can swipe without drawing attention. Enough food for a hundred miles? I don’t know. Who cares.
I rest my head on the table. I feel tired and my morale is very low.
“Janitor just got a room,” says Instigate. Janitor is section-hiking southbound and I leap from the table and run to the Inn.
“Can I take a shower here?” I ask him. He’s just getting settled, taking off his shoes and unpacking his pack. I realize distantly that I am being very obnoxious.
“Yes, yes, sure,” he says.
I shut myself in the tiny bathroom and turn the wall heater up as high as it will go. I stare at my face in the mirror- grime on top of sunburn, wild hair. I turn my head back and forth. I look tired at some angles, better at others. In two days I’ll be 31. Am I young or old? I don’t know.
I wash my clothes while I’m in the shower, scrubbing them with cheap hotel soap and rolling them in the towel before putting them back on. Afterwards I feel like a new person and I thank Janitor and walk back to the picnic tables, where some people are packing up to hike out and some are sprawled on the gravel, napping. Spark has arrived and is attempting to stuff a massive burrito into his mouth. He leaves the burrito on the table while he runs into the store and Instigate hides it, which almost leads to a fistfight. Instigate does finally hand over the burrito and a gentle peace returns to the picnic tables. All I want to do is sleep, or at least space out for a really long time, but it’s only 2 p.m. and napping will not bring me any closer to Canada, now will it? Raho is the first to really motivate; snapping closed his pack and heaving it onto his back. I am inspired by this and I manage to get my things together and follow him towards the lake behind the store, on a trail which leads back to the PCT. Spark and Instigate are faster than me; I know they’ll catch up soon enough.
We’re climbing up some steep switchbacks when Raho says
“So if you don’t believe in god, what do you believe in?”
“Um,” I say, vaguely annoyed, “I believe in everything?”
Somehow I manage to walk through my fatigue and by late afternoon I’m cruising, mashing up the switchbacks talking a mile a minute and watching the light fade. I try to explain my spirituality to Raho but I don’t really know how, and my efforts just make him look bemused. I remember how frustrating it can be to explain other belief systems to a Christian, how some Christians are taught to be judgmental pricks. I decide to stop talking but it’s hard, and I keep trying.
“Trees,” I say. “You know, trees. Also parts of Buddhism? Seek the mystery and stuff.”
Raho looks amused.
“I’m not really into centralized patriarchal religions that perpetuate genocide,” I say. “I’m deeply spiritual. I don’t have to explain my spirituality to you.”
Raho’s not even paying attention anymore. He’s stopped at a vista point, taking pictures of the boring mountains with his giant DSLR.
“FUCK!” says Raho. He’s beating furiously at his leg. A wasp’s nest in the trail, and one of them got him! We both start running, our packs jouncing against our backs. Nothing like a little wasp swarm to get the adrenaline going.
Dusk finds us at a flat campsite next to a little lake and we pitch our tents and crawl inside against the gathering cold. I eat my sad trailmix dinner and think of Spark and Instigate. I had hoped that they would catch us tonight but they haven’t, and my heart aches for the cat pack. Their reckless, free-wheeling humor, their good-natured stoicism. Tomorrow, then. Most likely I will see them tomorrow? Canada is only 350 miles away but I can’t think about that right now. It starts to sprinkle as I sit in my tent and I string up the little cuben fiber “door”. The sound of the rain grows louder, but it’s not too cold so I don’t mind. I brush my teeth and snuggle down in my sleeping quilt, letting the water lull me to sleep.