Sep 30 - Oct 2
We spent the night in Stehekin at a campground near the center of town, which is not much more than a post office, lodge and visitor center. Nestled between the mountains, Stehekin sits next to Lake Chelan and is only accessible by foot, seaplane or ferry. This makes for dramatic views in all directions and is less touristy than other 'remote' places we've hiked to. The PCT skirts along the north side of the small town, past a bus stop where hikers are shuttled into the bakery and town every few hours. We were lucky to make it there before they switched to their winter bus schedule, but even then it's only one bus making four runs per day.
The following morning we woke up early and took the 8am bus out to the bakery, about halfway between town and the PCT stop. The bus normally makes a quick stop there, enough time for passengers to grab a scone and coffee, but after hearing about this bakery for thousands of miles, we decided to stay for the whole morning and take the noon bus back to the trail. GREATEST DECISION EVER.
When I first learned about thru-hiking, the part that most intrigued me/ terrified me, was hitchhiking. I'd never done it before and while I still wouldn't in most places, many times it's the best (only) way to get to town if the trail doesn't pass through. I've been extremely fortunate with all of my hitches, getting rides from high school teachers, retired veterans, foreigners traveling in the US and former thru-hikers. I can't thank them enough and in many ways, they are the reason America's long distance trails are thriving. A week or so before arriving in Stehekin, I'd caught a hitch out of Packwood, WA looking to go back to the trailhead at White Pass. No sooner had I stuck out my thumb, a car pulled over in the shoulder and motioned for me to get in. Inside was a husband and wife in the front, their one year old son in a car seat in back. I sat next to him for the duration of the ride trying my best not to stare at him too intently. You see, kids are a novelty on trail. That is, for the five or six months your out there, you don't come in contact with many. So, for me, even seeing a kid off trail was a unique experience. I remember one afternoon on the AT hearing a child's laughter while hiking through a dense part of forest. Terrified all I could think was 'What kind of Blair Witch magic was happening.' I later learned there was a mother hiking the trail with her twin six year olds and eleven year old son.
Anyway, the family from Packwood were locals and avid hikers themselves. We made pleasant small talk and they shared their favorite parts on the trail ahead. Before hopping out, the wife Gretchen, explained that she used to live up in Stehekin. "If you happen to stop in town and see any locals," she said "tell them Gretchen says 'Hi!'". Long shot, I thought, but agreed to.
Now, here I was at the Bakery in Stehekin. I hesitantly walked up to the counter and asked if any of the employees were local to the area. One girl raised her hand and came over.
"I got a ride from a family in Packwood," I explained "and Gretchen says 'Hi'".
"Oh my gosh!" the girl shrieked! "Did you meet the baby? Is he adorable?" she continued.
She turned to another customer in the bakery, "Hey Billy, this girl knows Gretchen!"
Bud, Fret, Six, Meerkat and I spent the next three hours hanging out in the bakery, stuffing our faces and relaxing. We might as well have been locals and known each other since childhood. That's the level of intimacy and comfort the trail provides. When the bus finally came we all hopped on, fed and happy, the PCT calling us home. Sitting on that bus, watching the bakery fade into the distance with less than 100 miles left to walk to the border- That was the first time I realized I might actually finish this thing.
I felt very much at home in this section, the perfect mixture of dense forest ( I'd become accustom to on the AT) and open vistas (like I'd seen in the Sierra). Much of today's afternoon was spent walking through dense forest, dappled sunlight flickering over my face.
I think I liked Washington's sunlight the most. I never knew I could like a state's sunlight more than another or that each state would have it's own quality of light, to begin with. But sure enough this was a reoccurring thought I couldn't shake. Three siblings all from the same family but I wasn't their parent, I was like the neighborhood babysitter - I could pick a favorite.
The light of California was direct and blatant. Always around with no clouds to disrupt its gaze. It was either there or it wasn't when the horizon said enough was enough at the end of the day. Though direct sunlight on top of blazing heat is like adding salt to a wound, I enjoyed it. Probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me. But I became complacent without variation. In many ways California ruins NoBo's by setting up the expectation of blue skies and cloudless days everyday.
Oregon's weather felt more or less like a transition zone. The southern half feeling much like NorCal but the increase of dense overhead foliage made the unexpected heat bearable. In the later half of the state, I feared consistent cloud cover and worsening rainy conditions was only foreshadowing what was to come. Luckily, it didn't pan out that way.
If you could translate a taste to a feeling, Washington's sunlight was as sweet as the wild blueberries that covered the state. Warm, necessary and sometimes found at the most unexpected times.
My trip to Winthrop wasn't planned and barely thought out. All I knew was that I desperately wanted a bottle of champagne (lets face it, Sparkling Wine) for the border and Winthrop was the only place left to get one. The plan, which I made the night before, was to leave camp early ahead of the group and crush some morning miles. Then, get a quick hitch into town, pick up the goods, hitch back to the trail and race to camp to catch back up with everyone. In theory the plan was simple and I'd done a couple In & Out's before. The problem was that you never knew what the trail's terrain would be like in any given day and Winthrop was 35 miles away. That's about a 45 min. car ride on the winding mountain roads, not to mention the time it takes if/when I'd get a hitch. In all honesty though, this is one of the reason I love trail life. The spontaneity, the challenge, the experience.
I took orders from the group and early the next morning found myself at Rainy Pass, thumb in the air. A couple from Seattle picked me up, they were headed to Winthrop as well for a weekend vacation. As we descended driving East, the landscape changed from mountains covered in dense coniferous forest to relatively flat farmland. I'd seen a similar transformation on the ride from PCT to Bend, OR. It was staggering how quickly the landscape changed forms, especially since I'd been surrounded only by mountains since entering Washington at Bridge of the Gods.
Winthrop itself looked like an old Western town. I was told it'd been planned with that aesthetic back in the 70's as a tourist destination. I gave myself an hour to spend in town and after picking up the goods, quickly caught another hitch back to Rainy Pass. This time it was from an older couple, hikers themselves and quite knowledgable about the flora and fauna of the area. The husband spent the majority of the ride telling me about the history of the area, the best hiking trails around (besides the PCT) and his fascinating adventures as a young adult. I simply sat in the back like a sponge, trying my best to soak it all up. For awhile now, I'd been seeing these golden yellow conifers. At first a few but now whole swatches of them. My limited tree knowledge told me, while beautiful, they were probably dying from some disease or invasive insect. To my surprise though, the elderly man told me these trees were called Larches, and as deciduous conifers, their yellow color was completely normal. If you ever get the chance to see one up close, their needles have an interesting bundle pattern and are soft to the touch.
At the pass I bid my final hitch adieu, and headed up the trial now carrying a small liquor store for our celebration at the border. What all did you pack out? Ahhh, I thought you'd never ask! In tow: a bottle of Bourbon, a bottle of Spiced Rum, three small bottles of champagne, a six pack of Washington's finest IPA and all the fixins' for S'mores. (Meerkat's Australian and had never tasted America's native snack before!) I almost had to put my pack back on Cheryl Strayed style.
This is Rainy Pass and thankfully it was anything but that day because the views were simply breathtaking. If you ever happen to find yourself in this part of Washington on a beautiful fall day, do yourself a favor and go hike! One of the most beautiful places I've ever been.
You can see the trail cut alongside the mountain face with spectacular Destiny Views!
I think it was my friend Wolf who summed it up best when saying "The Cascades look like waves frozen in time."
50 miles to go!
The last National Forest Wilderness before the end!
Maybe the photo that sums up my Washington experience best. It's raining somewhere but not on me!
I'll see you at the monument,