Cascade Locks seemed like a nice, quaint, and tranquil little town in which to take a rest day before tackling the notoriously difficult Washington section. However, as all things do on the PCT, it started to get weirder and more bizarre the longer we stayed.
My first order of business after establishing myself at Shrek’s Swamp was, of course, pizza. The ale shop, which doubles as a pizza joint, was a hiker favorite. This doesn’t necessarily mean quality, though. Hikers tend to like the kinds of places that provide huge portions at low prices, and reminds me of what a former Peace Corps travel companion in Ethiopia told me after I mentioned a local volunteer recommended a place. “Peace Corps volunteers are terrible sources for food recommendations. Our standards have degraded so much that you really shouldn’t rely on us for that kind of thing.” It applies to hikers, too.
I ordered a 15 inch (38cm) pizza for myself and ravenously ate it in about four minutes using my hands. I hadn’t showered or done laundry in a week or so, and my beard and hair were getting pretty wild from not having been trimmed since South Lake Tahoe. Two people came in claiming to be thru hikers shortly after I sat down. The hostess, who was used to our kind, asked if they wanted to join me. We often congregate and travel in packs, so restaurants are used to us clustering together. They looked at me and the father’s glance made it obvious he had no desire to be anywhere in my vicinity. I was puzzled that they claimed to be PCT hikers fresh off the trail, since they were ridiculously clean with shaven faces. I’d never seen them before, which is usually a good case for arguing they’re not thru hikers. They also shared a pizza of the same size as mine, couldn’t finish it between the two of them, and ate using forks and knives. Definitely not hiker trash.
Speaking of hiking charlatans, on our rest day at the Swamp we met Mahollow. He claimed to have gotten to Cascade Locks six weeks before, having lost all of his gear when it fell off a ridge in Oregon. He definitely didn’t have a hiker’s build, and it seemed extremely suspect that he started with us and got here six weeks previously without skipping sections as he claimed. The group I’ve been with since Mexico and I were on track to do a 4.5 month thru hike, which is by no means record-breaking but still places us in one of the faster tiers of hikers.
However, things started getting weird when I overheard Mahollow talking to Shrek’s dog about how he hadn’t been with a woman in the seven years since his wife left him. Shortly afterwards he asked me, “So, have you seen the three ghosts that live at Shrek’s Swamp?” I stared at him for a few moments, unsure of how to approach this situation.
“Um, no. Have you?”
“Of course. But Beer Goddess told me you do seances on the trail and can communicate with spirits.”
Goddamn you, Beer Goddess. But I guess I deserve it after telling people her trail name is Fear Goddess and that she’s a practitioner of dark magic. I played along with it for a while, thinking he was most likely joking. It quickly became evident that he was serious.
“Hey, I wasn’t trying to upset you,” Mahollow said as he started feeding Shrek’s dog some spam. By this point I’d started packing up all my things, wanting to get out of that place ASAP. “But do you really do seances?”
At this point I was starting to lose it. “No, that was all a joke. I don’t do seances on trail because I spend most of my time hiking from dawn to dusk, as I’m sure you’re familiar with from walking here from Mexico in such a short time.” He just stared at me, mumbled some apologies, and walked into the bunkhouse. I followed shortly after, getting my clothes out of the laundry and changing into my hiking outfit.
I overheard snippets of conversation while putting on my pink short shorts, and Ace and Hawaii filled me in on the rest after we fled that place. Mahollow was telling them the same things he told the dog about not being with a woman in seven years. He then started saying some totally inappropriate things. When I stepped out Ace said, “Oh, it’s One Of Us! Hey, sorry, but we gotta go.” She shot me a look that said we need to get out of here right now and you’re coming with us. I didn’t need to be told twice.
We reconvened outside the post office, where Hawaii and I sat on the bench and people watched with a guy named Baby Killer (I didn’t ask how he got that name).
“This is like one of those Stephen King novels where it seems like a pleasant town, but then the longer you stay the more bizarre and dark it becomes,” I mentioned. As if on cue, some guy walked down the street while stopping every ten steps to kick his dog.
“Yeah…” Hawaii trailed off as the dog kicker passed us. “Let’s go get a ridiculous amount of ice cream and leave.” So we did.
The border between Oregon and Washington, unlike that between California and Oregon, is not just a line drawn arbitrarily on a map. The Columbia River is by far the largest body of running water we encounter between Mexico and Canada. Standing at 200 feet elevation (61 meters; the lowest point on the trail), it marks the dividing line between the last two states and is crossed on the Bridge of the Gods.
The Bridge is a perfect harbinger of what’s to come in the next section in that it’s both beautiful and terrifying. There’s no pedestrian walkway across it, so when the massive semi-trucks come barreling at you it’s necessary to press up against the safety rail and hope nothing bad happens. The bridge is also grated, which means you can see all the way down the long drop to the Columbia.
Rather than spend another night in Cascade Locks, I just walked 80 minutes to the first campsite. It’s hard getting restful sleep in towns at this point on the trail, so I just laid my sleeping bag in the dirt by the trail and went to bed early.
The first few days of the Washington section has a reputation for being a “green tunnel,” in which you just pass through endless pine forests. It was hot but at least not raining, and I made good time. Even with later starts and earlier finishes it’s still quite easy to get 27-30 miles (45-48km) a day.
The day was pretty uneventful, and I just zoned out listening to Korean pop music as per usual. That evening I wanted to camp by a bridge spanning a decently sized river, but was a bit off put by a screaming elderly couple running along the beach who stopped and stared at me as I passed. I just kept on going until past dark and laid out my sleeping bag right on the trail. Not exactly ideal, but I’ve done trashier things on the hike thus far. At least I’m not sleeping in an outhouse (which is actually quite nice).
Later on Ace and I, who have been leapfrogging since Cascade Locks, stumbled upon a cooler with ice and beer. I put my water bottle inside to cool it down…AND THEN TEN MINUTES LATER FOUND SOME SOUTHBOUNDERS DRINKING IT.
“Hey, that’s my water!” I yelled as I ran over.
“Thanks for the trail magic, man,” the guy drinking it said.
“I’m a thru hiker, not a trail angel! I don’t give shit out to people, I carried that for 10 miles!” Those guys were obviously not thru hikers by their dress, especially considering they thought my disheveled hobo-like self was a trail angel. Luckily there was water a two minute walk away so I could just filter some more after I wrote a diatribe against day hikers in the trail log. Ace said it was a pretty entertaining scene to observe, so at least somebody got amusement out of that.
We busted out the next few hours to the highway to Trout Lake, the first trail town in Washington. It’s a notoriously difficult 13 mile (21km) hitch into town from trail, but we managed to get a ride very quickly. A local trail angel was there to pick up a guy who was straggling behind and wasn’t going to make it to the road that evening, but he was kind enough to give me a ride instead. Ace was just ten minutes ahead of me but gone by the time I got there, so I assumed she must’ve gotten a quick hitch.
I was reunited with my fellow hiker trash at Trout Lake’s best and only restaurant along the town’s only street. The grocery store there was surprisingly well stocked, and the three of us sat out front watching YouTube videos of people jumping into hay bale machines. Some guy came up and offered to let us stay at his place. We talked among ourselves and agreed he seemed insane and that we’d only do it if he had a hot tub, which he didn’t. Another guy sat in his car staring at us for a couple minutes before offering to give a ride in the morning if we paid some money to cover gas. I got a bad feeling about it, but we decided to go for it.
After spending the night at the local campground, we met the driver at the restaurant where we also met his Native Alaskan girlfriend (not his wife, who lives in California). Apparently they live in the woods near here during the summer months. I left most of the conversation to Ace, who of course talked with them about astrology for the whole ride up. They introduced themselves by Cheyenne and Bill, which they afterwards told us were fake names they decided to give us. Bill and Ace bonded over both being Capricorns, though.
Bill took Ace aside at the trailhead and asked, “Are you a powerful mind and a strong leader like most Capricorns? Because I am.” She then told him about something called “druid signs,” and I left while he was discovering what that week’s druid horoscope prophesied for him.
While crossing the road some woman randomly drove up and gave us what must’ve been $60 worth of high quality dehydrated meals. Kind of random, but I’ll take it.
The Mt. Adams wilderness was smoky from local forest fires and we couldn’t see anything of the mountain. This wasn’t that disappointing compared to the issue of water, which was getting serious as we kept passing dried up lakes and ponds. Usually the only place on the trail with a daily updated water report is the SoCal desert, but during the West’s worst drought on record it’s been expanded to NorCal and Oregon. They really needed one for Washington, which is kind of ridiculous but shows how bad the drought was getting.
I eventually got to a running stream, thankfully, and sat and drank a couple liters to get over my dehydration. It was getting scary with the lack of water, though a water report for Washington was eventually made.
When we got to the western side of Mt. Adams we could finally see amazing views of the massive peak, as well as new clouds of smoke springing up fairly close to us in the distance. That last part was not a good sign.
I found Ace sprawled out in the dirt by a spring, and we both decided to spend the night there. We talked about moving to better, more secluded campsites 10 yards further up the hill, but our laziness and exhaustion won out that day and we stayed right where we were. In the midst of our hour-long conversation about synthetic versus down sleeping bags, this hiker I’d been seeing off and on since the desert came out of nowhere and gave me a hug.
“Are you high or something?” I instinctively blurted out.
“No, I just decided my negative energies have been affecting people too much lately and that I need to be a force for good in the world.”
He’d spent the night before at the Buddhist/Druid Abbey, which doubled as a bed and breakfast, outside of Trout Lake. Rumor had it the Abbey was started by a Buddhist guy and his boyfriend decades ago, and neither had really left since then. Their relationship ended when the Buddhist decided to take a vow of celibacy and become a monk, and the other went on to devote more of his time to witchcraft. I heard you’re allowed to observe his spell sessions if you take it seriously and don’t laugh.
The next morning I awoke to find mouse poop in my cooking pot. The others complained of mice running through their hair during the night. The rodents in Washington are vicious. I’ve heard numerous reports of them chewing through tents to get at crumbs of food.
We had one more day before camping right before the Knife Edge in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, an iconic spot on the PCT. I cowboy camped under the stars because the strong winds were not conducive to setting up a tent, and even awoke at 2am to watch the stars through the cloudless sky.
At 5:30am I woke up confused, freezing, and soaking wet. I broke my record of breaking camp, which now stands at 8 minutes, and headed out to the Knife Edge. It was freezing cold, visibility was just about 40 feet (12m), and my glasses kept getting fogged up with water all over them in the inclement weather. It took me almost an hour to go what usually takes me ten minutes, all because the snowfields had frozen overnight and the trail was impossible to follow on the rocks.
Crossing the Knife Edge during what I later found out was 50mph (80kph) winds in very wet and cold conditions, with crazy drop offs on either side of me, was among the top three most terrifying moments of my entire hike.
After five hours the clouds parted and I was able to dry out all my soaking wet clothes by the side of the trail. Ace found me while I was in my sleeping bag at 11am on a log, my clothes scattered about on various trees to soak up the sunlight. She was smart and waited until the weather got better and sun higher to set off on that section of trail.
It was just a few more hours to the White Pass Kracker Barrel, which is a gas station on the highway about 25 miles from Packwood, WA. It’s a popular spot to send food drops and other packages, and is where I picked up my passport card and documentation required to enter Canada via the PCT.
It’s also where I realized I left my raincoat back at Shrek’s Swamp. Usually I wear my raincoat and long underwear while I do laundry, but decided to try my new trash bag raincoat instead.
I overheard a woman telling another, “Yeah, all those kids over there walked here from Mexico! There’s a hiking path from Mexico to Canada that crosses near here. They’ve been on trail four or five months already.” Right at the end of that conversation I walked by in my trash bag.