It’s day 151. I shake the ice off of my tent as I peel it open to watch the last sunrise I will see on the Pacific Crest Trail. The air is cold and still, I lie in my sleeping bag dreading the thought of putting on my pants and shoes that are still saturated from the storm the night before. I’m not sure where Dennis is, we were separated by the rain and sleet that had pounded us. I assume he is camping ahead of me and did not see my tent set up slightly off of the trail. Canada is only 11 miles away, I’ll be done with the entire hike before lunch. I hope I am able to catch up with him so we can hike the last few miles together. For the first time in over 5 months, I do some push-ups to get my body temperature up before putting on my wet, cold clothes and begin hiking the end.
Two Weeks Earlier
Skykomish was going to be one of the last towns we would stop in to resupply. I had a package sent by my girlfriend waiting for me at the post office. Or so I thought. After back and forths with the post lady and text messages, my girlfriend eventually found the tracking number for the box. It turned out the box had left Boston, made its way to New Hampshire, then to Boston again, back to New Hampshire, over to Boston, into Western Mass, then back to Boston again, New Hampshire, Boston, New Hampshire, and finally… into Boston again where it still sat over a week after she had sent it.
This left me with the fun task of resupplying from a gas station, the one store in the whole town of Skykomish. I bought a box of Special K cereal from them which I later found had been taped shut and the bag inside had been partially ripped open. Thankfully Dennis had some extra food to share with me as we made our way through a section we would dub “The Gauntlet.”
It was three straight days of 25 miles. Unlike doing long days in Oregon, hitting this kind of mileage in Northern Washington was far more strenuous. None of the terrain was flat or ideal for cruising along, it was steep and unrelenting whether we were going up or down.
The difficulty of the climbs was enough to leave us exhausted, but the challenge didn’t end there. For these three days the trail felt like it could’ve been abandoned. Blown over trees had us scrambling about, overgrown bushes left our legs and arms scratched up, and broken bridges made crossings rivers just that much more exciting. At one point the trail was so bad I ended up following a path off of the trail that had been created purely from endless hikers getting lost in the same way.
But with all this pain came great rewards. The views of the not-so-distant mountains were absolutely incredible. We made our way through the Glacier Peak wilderness, and I would put the views there as some of the most breathtaking on what has been an endlessly breathtaking trip.
Some of those overgrown bushes I was complaining about gave us some amazing treats as well. Wild blueberries, huckleberries, thimble berries and salmon berries lined the trail for miles and miles every day. Dennis and I couldn’t stop eating them they were so delicious and sweet. An all you can eat berry feast.
I haven’t even gotten to how incredible the woods were. It felt like we were in an enchanted forest as the light peered through the branches and illuminated moss covered old growth trees. The deeper we hiked into the Glacier Peak wilderness the more and more ancient the forest became.
At one point we reached a grove of trees that was alive when man discovered gun powder and created the first form of paper money. Trees as old as 600-1000 years old made up the bulk of this stretch of the forest. We hiked slow, I felt so serene as I walked among these ancient and peaceful behemoths.
The Gauntlet was over as we made our way into Holden Village. Not normally part of the PCT, this Christian camp became a stop of ours due to having to take an alternate route around a fire burning on the trail. The town was given to the Lutheran church as a donation from a mining company. It was quite the experience, they had an ice cream parlor, a barber shop, a bowling alley, and more, all with designs reminiscent of the 60’s. What made this particularly unique is this village could only be accessed by foot or by ferry.
We filled our bellies, washed up, and made our way to Stehekin – considered by many to be the last stop on the PCT before Canada. After a grueling day that rose to an honorary addition to The Gauntlet we were rewarded with a ride on the back of an ATV/golf cart hybrid with a cold beer in hand thanks to the kind folks who picked us up.
Just like Holden Village, Stehekin could only be accessed by foot, boat, or float plane. It really felt like a wilderness community with scenery reminiscent of the great wilds of Alaska. Our stay was brief, the next day we received our last resupply boxes of the PCT and began our way to Rainy Pass where we would be meeting my Mom for a final day off.
Rainy Pass lived up to its name. As we made our way to the highway crossing it began to drizzle before eventually turning into a light rain. We knew we had a warm hotel room to stay in that night so the weather was of little consequence. But little did we know that this was the point at which the switch had flipped – our days of dry skies was about to end.
It was a wonderful last day off with Mom. We reminisced about the journey so far, rested up, and relaxed on the back porch of a Northern Washington Ranch. Being on the west of the mountains, the climate was drier and nostalgia of the beginning of the hike began to kick in. For part of the day we toured the town of Winthrop, even further west then where we were staying. The area was a straight up desert filled with chaparral bushes and sandy hills. It felt like a fitting final stop, to be able to see the stark contrast of the dry, arid scenery of the beginning as we approached the cold, damp end.
My Mom joined us for a mile and a half of hiking when she dropped us off. It was a nice memory made, despite the fact that it began to heavily rain on us as we made our way forward. We had a quick goodbye, it was too cold and wet to have a long farewell. Dennis and I headed up the trail and my mom turned around to walk the road back to the car. Only 65 miles left to Canada.
As the days to the end dwindled down I became more and more reflective of the journey that we had been through. The novelty and newness of the desert. The intensity and excitement of the Sierra. The difficulty and trials of Northern California. The beautiful forests and incredible volcanoes of Oregon. The grandiose finale of Washington. Every section had its ups and downs, both literally and figuratively. And I was feeling sad to see it all end.
But intermittent snow and rain kept pulling me back into reality. We were really out there in the great northern wilderness. It was cold and wet, there were no signs of civilization, no cell service, just us and the dispassionate wild. This was not a place for humans to be, yet there we were. It was beautiful and also terrifying. Incredible views left me wanting more, frigid nights left me wanting to be done as fast as possible.
On our very last night of the Pacific Crest Trail we would receive the worst weather of the entire trip. For most of the day we got lucky – cloudy skies but the rain held off. We were making speed, we knew the forecast was for more rain and any ground we could cover while it was dry would be miles we wouldn’t have to hike in the rain.
About an hour and a half before we reached our potential camp site for the night a light rain began to seep out of the sky before eventually growing to a steady moderate rain. The weather itself began to soak our gear, but what really became a problem was the overgrowth all around us. Bushes had reached into the trail and with each step we had to unavoidably push through them. Water that had accumulated on the leaves poured down our pants and into our shoes with every stride. I could feel the water squishing around my feet, as if I had just submerged them in a lake. My pants were so wet they clung to my skin.
As we continued to hike up the mountain pass and gain elevation the weather only got colder. What was a 50° rain became a 40° rain. The forest coverage lessened and the winds picked up, the only thing providing any warmth was hiking. This was no warm summer shower, it was hypothermia conditions.
I got to the potential campsite before Dennis did. Up there on the mountain ridge the winds whipped and the rain was mixed with sleet. There was a small cluster of trees that I was able to find some shelter in while I waited. The sites were not the best – they were flat but on the ridge it would leave the tents exposed to the elements. However looking at the map it was unlikely anything better was going to come up for miles and we needed to get out of this weather. For about 20 minutes I waited in my small cluster of trees for Dennis so we could decide our plan. But after 20 minutes I needed to make a decision ASAP.
Because I hadn’t been hiking my body temperature was now dropping. I left my small tree shelter and went into the wind swept and sleeting ridge. The most important thing for me to do was get my tent up, change out of my wet clothes, and get inside my sleeping bag. I needed to get warm.
My fingers were numb and the cold left me extremely irritable. I hammered in my tent stakes trying to keep the inside as dry as possible. With every thing that went wrong I found myself cursing audibly and loudly. I eventually propped up my tent and crawled inside. Changing my clothes with the deceased dexterity of my frozen hands proved to be as hard as setting the tent up. I eventually made my way inside of my sleeping bag and warmed up as the sleet and wind wailed on the outside of my tent.
That last night I never saw Dennis. My tent was slightly off trail, it could be seen if he looked back after passing by, but otherwise he would likely not see me. I assumed he was ahead of me as there had been no spots to camp between where I was and where I last saw him. I hoped he would figure out that he had passed me and not hike all the way into Canada wondering where I was. It was sad to spend that last night alone. We had hiked pretty much the entire trail together, and on this final night of this incredible journey we were not together.
After watching my last sunrise on the PCT, I finished up my morning routines and put on my sopping wet clothes. They hadn’t dried overnight, in fact they were slightly frozen. I had hoped too sleep in a bit on this last morning, but I had to catch up to Dennis. All packed up and ready to go for one last time.
Thankfully Dennis had figured out I was behind him and was taking it slow that morning. We caught up with just 6 miles left to Canada. It felt surreal as we walked these final miles. Before we knew it there was only 5. Then 4. 3. 2. 1.
It was hard to come to a realization that this was it. In 20 minutes we would be done, no more hiking day after day after day. We could hear cheers in the distance of hikers a little ahead of us who were reaching the monument. These sounds of celebration helped cement the fact that this was really it.
The next signal of the end was a view of the clear cut that marks the US/Canada border. It was as clear as a line on a map, distinctly showing which side was the United States and which side was our neighbors to the north. Then about a quarter mile before reaching the monument we got a glimpse of it through the trees. It felt like seeing a unicorn, this mythical structure that we had been seeking for over 5 months.
Minutes later we reached the monument ourselves. The big finale. The end of the amazing journey. It was crowded with about a dozen other hikers. Some of them I recognized but none of them I knew. I felt like I had walked in on someone else’s party. Dennis and I had to wait our turn to take pictures. The commotion felt chaotic and made us uncomfortable. As soon as our pictures were taken Dennis continued on into Canada to setup camp. I lingered for a few more minutes to send some satellite messages to my girlfriend and my family.
It wasn’t until I left the monument and made my first steps, alone, into Canada that I felt excitement for what I had just accomplished. I felt relieved to be done with this huge trip, no more endless days of pushing my body to exhaustion. But I also felt a pensive nostalgia as I remembered all the incredible parts of the journey.
I got to the camp, Dennis was already setting up his tent. My dad would be meeting us there that evening with some celebratory bourbon and then hiking out with us to the road the next morning. The two of us hung out and reminisced for awhile until some light rain pushed us into our tents.
Dennis said he felt the end was anti-climatic. I got what he meant. We spent 5 long months hiking over 2652 miles through deserts, mountains, and forests. The journey was dramatic and at times overwhelming. But the end was just a whisper. A period at the end of a long sentence.
I was now in Canada yet the meaninglessness of a border was even more reinforced. Nothing was different. The Earth doesn’t care what people say is theirs. It all belongs to nature. I felt the same way as I feel on my birthday. When people ask “What’s it like to be one year older?” the answer is it feels no different.
After a few hours of waiting around my dad finally arrived. It didn’t feel like we were meeting up though, but rather like I was having a visitor. The woods had become my home, and my dad was coming over to see my new digs. At the same time his arrival helped to stabilize my realization of the end. My dad helped provide a grounding back to my life as I began my adjustment back to the real world.
In my interactions with my dad I could see the contrast of where my journey had taken me. He was the one who first introduced hiking and backpacking to me. All of my outdoor techniques and habits had been adapted from him. But after nearly 6 months in the woods many of those had evolved and changed, and I could now see where they had all started.
We made our way down to Route 3 in Canada and from there my dad drove Dennis and I to Seattle. It felt surreal to be done and it was hard to come to grips with what we had just accomplished. My dad kept trying to tell us how immense of a feat we had done, but it didn’t really register.
That night in Seattle we took a ride up to the Space Needle for sunset. From the top we could see Mount Rainier and the entire length of the Washington Cascade Mountains. As I gazed out at the horizon I thought to myself “I hiked everything I can see out there and more” and for the first time I felt the scale of what I had completed. A guy walked by me and and passively said “Epic isn’t it?” I simply responded “Yeah”.
Beauty in the Pain
In the wee hours of the morning Dennis woke up to catch his flight down to San Diego. He packed his things and our goodbye was a few quick whispers followed by a fist bump while my dad slept. A big adventure together with a farewell that lasted less then a minute. It really felt over now. It was hard to fall back asleep.
I spent the next day walking through Seattle with my dad. Everything felt more intense. My senses seemed heightened, I noticed the people, the cars, the wind through the trees, everything so much more. I felt more relaxed and in the moment. There was no pressure to go, go, go.
One week later and it already feels like a distant memory. I feel integrated into normal life again, my feet are feeling better, the dirt and tan lines are fading. It’s almost as if it didn’t happen at all.
I am already feeling nostalgic of the trail. Its beauty and its adventure. But I am forgetting all the pain. While I was hiking I was missing parts of life back at home but blocked out the hard parts there too. Whether embarking on a huge adventure or working a desk job, every part of life has its pains and its beauty. The Pacific Crest Trail was a once in a lifetime journey, but really every moment only happens once in a lifetime. If there was one takeaway from this trip it is to savor the present and to always try and find the beauty in the pain.