In northern Washington, the tiny town of Skykomish is the last outpost of human civilization for many thruhikers. We reached it in the early afternoon one day, almost entirely out of food but still energized. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness north of Snoqualmie was beautiful and everything we were looking for from Washington and we were on a high from once again being surrounded by so much natural beauty. We stopped at a deli in town to eat and restock our food when we rain into Paint Your Wagon, an infamous character on the PCT.
The last time we saw Paint was our second day, at the campground in Lake Morena, just 20 miles north of Mexico, and somehow he was up in Skykomish now, going south just like us. He raved about the Dinsmores, the local trail angels, and how great staying there had been. True to small town life, Mr. Dinsmore stopped into the deli just then and extended the invitation personally.
We were only going to stop in to buy cannister fuel but… sloth got the better of us. We decided to stay the night.
After going through the standard introduction to the property and where to find utilities with Mrs. Dinsmore, we headed inside to select a bunk and sort our dirty laundry. Inside there were a pair of hikers, lounging on recliners while watching a movie and eating snacks.
We introduced ourselves and went through the usual schtick: where we were from, where we started, when we started, etc.
“April 14th,” said one hiker.
Cool, I thought. Just two weeks before us and over 1,000 miles ahead!
“I started in late April,” said the other, in an accusingly “duh” kind of tone and gesturing to his facial hair. “I haven’t shaved since I started the trail!” Indiana and I glanced at each other in knowing amusement at this little manchild’s- we’ll call him Proud Beard- emphatic anti-shaving proclamation.
Another hiker walked through the door, a young woman (I would later learn she was 18) with an ultralight set up. I realized she was the hiker who flew past our camp the previous night as the sun was going down.
The two hikers recognized her and struck up a conversation about the past hundred or so miles of trail and then the fire closure a few days ahead. The new girl had a long reroute already planned out in order to maintain the purist ideology of a “continuous foot path.”
Proud Beard sighed and rubbed his forehead exasperatedly. “It sounds like a big hassle. Maybe I’ll just skip it.”
“I plan on finishing my thruhike the first time,” said the new girl, slipping her pack off her shoulder as nonchalantly as she had uttered the diss.
They then began discussing hikers’ most favorite thing: who was ahead and who was behind. Indiana and I watched without joining in. With slow simmering wonder, we realized we were smack in the middle of another bubble.
bubble noun [thruhiking term] a large group of hikers traveling at a similar speed and within a few days of one another, resulting in a familiar social group that hikes, camps and convenes in town together
After the initial speed freaks had gotten out of our way in the desert, we had, more or less, hiked with the same group of people into Kennedy Meadows, and another group from South Lake Tahoe to the half way mark. Now we were in a completely different bubble, and recognized absolutely no one.
The five of us tried to find other people we knew in common, but our two bubbles were so far apart that there was no overlap. There were even quite a few names Proud Beard mentioned that we recognized, only to discover that they weren’t the same from our bubble, but in fact another hiker with the same trail name. It was strange being in this new bubble, and realizing for the first time how many people were hiking this year on the PCT, because outside of these new hikers and their bubble, was the huge herd that had been steadily about a week and a half ahead of us for the majority of the summer. The herd was still weeks away, and probably strangers to these hikers too.
“I think we’re going to be in like, the top 50, right?” Proud Beard half asked, half said.
I began to feel, that on the spectrum of outdoorsy-ness, I was as far away from these hikers as I was from people who freaked out at the notion of peeing in the woods.
Whereas we had started within just a few weeks of one another, these hikers were almost done with their Pacific Crest Trail hike. They were literally just days away from the Canadian border. Unintentionally, we had landed ourselves into a den of legit hikers. I resisted comparing myself to them, “hike your own hike” repeating, mantra-like through my head, but it was just too interesting not to.
It was no secret to Indiana and I that we were slow hikers. Not only did we not push ourselves very hard, but we enjoyed our rest, and depended on it. In order to maintain the blog, I did marathon writing sessions whenever we were in a good town because I was too tired and unfocused to write at night on the trail, resulting in a hefty number of zero days (which I refused to feel bad about).
These guys were a different breed. Every one of them was outfitted ultralight, and also possessed a drive to reach the finish line that created starkly different habits than ours. Habits like consistently hitting high mileage days, hiking into the night to reach a certain mileage, and rarely zero-ing. New Girl only took 4 zeros on the entire trail.
New Girl and Proud Beard were also completing their second thruhike, having finished the Appalachian Trail the year before (when New Girl was just 17, might I add). The other two hikers who would journey with us to Stehekin the next morning were still on their first thruhike, but would most likely attempt at least the AT as well. One hiker raved about how he was completely “addicted” to long distance hiking, after telling us about his current case of shin splints, which he’d had once on the trail already.
In walked two older men, one a bearded Boomer, and the other an old hippie with a long, white and wizard-like beard and 60’s style round sunglasses. Boomer started the trail in Campo, and had to give up due to a knee injury, so he was driving around and serving as a traveling trail angel to hikers. The hippie was section hiking the trail, going southbound.
They went through a quick round of pleasantries, but wasted little time into involving everyone in a discussion about the upcoming fire closure on the trail. Not only was there a small fire on a section of the trail, but the official detour was being burned to a crisp by the massive Wolverine Fire that had been burning the western shore of Lake Chelan since July. The old hippie was trying to convince everyone to take his personal recommendation, a route involving many forest roads.
“Hey!” Proud Beard hissed at me from between our bunks. He gestured for me to come closer and whispered, “Don’t ask him about the fire. He’s been talking about it all day and once he starts he won’t stop.”
Though I’d just met the old hippie, I could see what Proud Beard was talking about. More than a handful of times on the PCT, we’d run into self identified veteran hikers and outdoorsman who would talk you to death about the trail, usually that their way was best and anyone doing things differently would probably die.
Rambling old hippie or not, however, we needed to decide on a plan for getting around the fire. So in the end, we opted to ride with Boomer and two other hikers south to Chelan, where we would take a ferry up the lake. This meant we’d skip the fire, but also additional miles of trail that weren’t closed, just remote and hard to get to.
The next morning Boomer dropped the four of us off at the Lady of the Lake Ferry, at the southern edge of Lake Chelan. From there it was a four and a half hour ride to the northern tip of the lake to the small community of Stehekin, where we would pick up the trail and hike straight into Canada.
The air was dry and clouded pinkish gray and smelled of firewood. As the ferry progressed into the lake, we were able to catch views of the smoke, rolling down into the valley and hanging over the water. By the time we were outside of Stehekin, we were just over the mountain from the Wolverine Fire. A huge, conical column of smoke rose up from the mountain and blocked the sun, and if you stood out on the deck of the boat you could feel the heat from the blaze.
“What does it feel like to be so close to being finished?” I asked one of the other hikers, as the two of us sat on the dock at Stehekin.
“Like, wow, already? That was fast,” she said in monotone and took a drag from her cigarette. She seemed so bored by everything I wondered how she’d managed to stay interested in the trail.
Her partner returned and they headed off to the campground without a word. They had plans to relax in Stehekin that night, and I think now that they were so close to being finished, they were trying to stall the end of their thruhike for as long as possible. We weren’t moving particularly fast up to the border, but I’m not sure if they passed us or not. We never saw them again after that.
Four days later, with good mileage but thick, smokey skies, we reached the US – Canadian Border and the official Northern Terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.