Mile 2500 to mile 2528
I sleep beautifully there in the dark, stormy forest, sheltered beneath the redcedar, the storm raging all around me. I sleep deeply, I sleep soundly; it’s the first good sleep I’ve had in what feels like weeks, since that fateful, hypothermic night of my birthday. Now, at last, I’m not feverish, I’m not starving, I’m not cold or wet. I’m safe on the trail with my friends, on my good hard sleeping pad on the soft loamy ground, way up in the dark mountains far from everything. Finally my body is able to relax.
I wake in the dim, gray morning and eat a little trail mix in my sleeping bag; the bag is damp on account of brushing up against the side of the tent but I figure it’ll be dry enough for tonight. The night after that, though, I don’t know. If it rains like this every day I won’t have a chance to dry it in the sun, and each night the bag will be a little more wet. This section is a hundred miles, or four days. So two more nights in this bag and then Stehekin, our next resupply. I peer out the mesh at the dripping forest. How do people keep their sleeping bags dry in Washington in September? I just don’t understand it.
Outside my tent the air is cold and it’s drizzling, that light mist that gathers on your face and eyelashes and slowly penetrates every living thing. I open up the trash compactor bag that serves as a pack liner, stuff my things down inside it, and then stretch my pack cover over the outside of my pack. I stock my hipbelt pockets with granola and trailmix and fill my bottles in the stream. I’m wearing just my running shorts, my wool t-shirt, and my rain jacket. I’m saving my long underwear and down jacket to sleep in. I pull the hood of my rain jacket up over my head. I wish I had gloves and a hat.
The cold makes me stiff and being stiff makes me slow. I stumble along the trail, which is technically difficult this section, rocky and narrow as it clings to the mountainside and then up, up, up over gravely passes draped in fog. Boulders everywhere, downed trees to climb over, slippery mud. It’s especially cold on the passes and I hike as fast as I can to stay warm- the water’s already wicked its way through my rain jacket and if I stop to rest I may never get warm again. It’s forty degrees and I’m soaked to the skin; hypothermia’s chasing me like a dog.
To make matters worse, I’ve already lost Spark and Instigate. Instigate doesn’t have a rain jacket at all, just a long-sleeve thermal top and thermal tights, and her m.o. in the rain has always been “can’t stop hiking or I’ll die.” And when she wants to hike fast, she flies- she doesn’t stop to eat or drink or rest, she just mashes miles. She’ll be flying down the trail until camp, wherever that is. And Spark will be with her- he hikes four miles an hour, even in good weather. The only reason we see him at all is because he stops to wait for us, posts up in the shade to read his sci-fi books. But not today.
Today I’m on my own. I’m shaking with hunger and I stop to pull the wet bag of trail mix from my hipbelt, but my hands are too numb to work the zipper. Tears well up in my eyes but I finally get it out, palm some damp trailmix and then stuff the bag back in my pocket, not bothering with the zipper. Another factor I hadn’t considered is that when it’s cold like this I need to eat almost constantly, especially in the depleted state I’m in, if I’m going to keep my core warm. I’m eating my food much faster this section than I’d expected, and yet it barely stokes the fire inside of me. I should’ve brought more food than usual, but instead I dumped half my trialmix into the hiker box at the Dinsmore’s. Why did I do that? Now, I realize, I’ll have to ration my food. I’ll be hungry until Stehekin. And cold. Very, very cold.
I climb up onto another dreary pass and the wind picks up, blowing the tiny, stinging rain into my face. I haven’t drank any water all morning and I stop to fill my bottles at a stream but it’s a struggle to get the tops off the bottles with my numb hands, a struggle to use my steripen, a struggle to hold the bottles in order to drink. By the time I’m ready to go again I’m shivering uncontrollably and I start to cry, snot and tears mixing with the cold rain dripping down my face. I try to hike quickly to warm up but I’m stumbling, slipping on the damp rocks, mincing my way down the other side of the pass. At last I drop below treeline and the dim forest blocks the wind, the path is loamy and straight. Finally I am able to hike fast.
In the evening I happen upon a giant encampment in the woods. Tarps, tables, coleman stoves, coolers. Day hikers everywhere, milling around in their bright, new raingear.
“Hullo,” says one of them to me. “You a thru-hiker?”
“Yes,” I say. “Do you guys have any extra food?”
“No,” he says. “We don’t.” He looks a little exasperated and I realize that I am most likely not the first hiker to ask him this.
“Have you seen two other thru-hikers?” I say. “A woman with long hair and a guy?”
“We’ve seen so many,” he says. “But the guy had some short facial hair? I think they passed about forty minutes ago. They said they were headed to Fire Creek.”
Fire Creek- that’s seven more miles. No way in hell I’m camping alone tonight. I check the time on my phone. If I’m fast, I can make it there by nine.
“Thank you,” I say. The man gives me a tight little smile, and I realize how I must look- the foolish thru-hiker in running shorts with bare legs, soaked to the bone, hungry and carrying no food. Going nowhere fast.
Night falls and it’s too cloudy for moonlight. I switch on my headlamp but the battery is dying, not that the thing made much light in the first place. Now there’s just a dim circle that barely shows the trail. Next time, I tell myself, I’ll bring a real headlamp. I list all the things I’d do differently, if I had the chance to do Washington again- more layers, fleece instead of a down jacket, gloves and a hat, a double wall tent. More food. A better headlamp. I’m circling the mountain on a narrow trail, thick wet salmonberry on one side of me and a steep, crumbling dropoff on the other. I remember that I once heard someone refer to the Washington part of the PCT as “the car wash” and now, as broad, dripping salmonberry leaves slap against my torso and bare legs, I think I know why. Now and then the trail is washed out and there are only the footsteps of other hikers to follow across the loose, sloping soil. And in almost every fold of the mountain there is a wide, shallow stream. I pick my way across these streams in the inadequate light from my headlamp, slipping and soaking my feet in the icy water. At one point I see the small, yellow point of another headlamp, far away in another fold of the mountain, and I feel hope break open inside me- Spark and Instigate! But the trail, just at that moment, becomes rocky and uneven and I am forced to hike slower, stepping carefully so as not to fall off the mountain entirely. As the hour grows later I grow colder, and more stumbly, and thirstier, and more hungry. But I can’t stop, won’t stop and besides, there’d be no where to camp if I did. There is only the black, vertical face of the mountain and beyond it the dark, uncaring night. I keep walking.
I am delirious with cold, thirst and hunger when at last I reach the muddy, trampled campsite beside Fire Creek.
“Carrot?” says Instigate, from inside her tent. “Is that you? You night-hiked so late.”
“I didn’t want to camp alone,” I say.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” says Instigate.
I wish there was a tent big enough for all of us; a big, square tent filled with pillows and blankets, a hundred thousand blankets, and a king-sized air mattress. And a dog? A big fluffy dog. A pile of dogs. But there is not and I am faced with setting up my wet tent in this wet clearing in the rain, in the last faint light of my headlamp. But first I must unclip my hip belt, and my hands are so numb that this is proving impossible to do. I start to cry a little bit, panic percolating up through me, and at last I unclip the belt by pushing the sides of my hands into it and I sling off my wet, rain-soaked pack. I pull out my water bottle and take a long drink of water, gripping the bottle with two palms like a three-year-old. Then, of course, there are the myriad little manipulations of setting up my tent and I suffer through each of them, coming up with clever ways to do everything with just the palms of my hands. This, I think, is what it would be like to not have any fingers. When at last my tent is up, my ground sheet and sleeping pad are spread out, I am in my tent and the zipper has been wrestled nearly, but not all the way, closed, I am faced with one last humiliation- I cannot pull up my long underwear. I sit there for a little while, bare ass on the sleeping pad, long underwear up to my knees, trying to get my breathing to relax. I realize, then, that I am no longer cold. I don’t know why this is but I figure it probably has something to do with hypothermia, and I hook my hands under the waistband of my long underwear and lay on my back, flopping like a fish until I’ve finally gotten them up. Then I pull my sleeping bag from my pack and realize, with horror, that it’s completely soaked.
There must’ve been a tear in my pack liner. I pull the liner out and examine it and discover that this is true.
Well, I think. What can you do. I lay back and pull the bag over me- at least it’s not quite as wet as it was on my birthday. Still, I can’t get warm enough to sleep and I lay there, curled in a ball on my side, shivering and miserable, waiting for whatever the next thing might be. And I’ve lost enough weight at this point in the trail that my hipbones ache when I lay down, even when I’m on my back.
It doesn’t get much worse than this, I think. But there’s nothing, nothing, nothing to be done.