At White Pass Ace and I decided to go outside to try to hitch into Packwood because, after that horrible experience on the Knife Edge, we wanted to take a shower and eat pizza.
“Honey, don’t hitch! We’ll give you a ride when our shift ends in 35 minutes,” one of the Kracker Barrel (the roadside convenience store) workers called out to us while we stood by the road with our thumbs out.
We were told not to go to the Packwood Inn, which was supposedly owned and run by meth addicts, so of course we went there. Beer Goddess, the guy who hugged me outside of Trout Lake, Ace, and I all split a room.
The next morning I stood out by the side of the road after breakfast, holding a sign to try to get back to White Pass by a hitch. After about 15 or 20 minutes a woman pulled over and offered me a ride. Score!
About five minutes down the road she said, “So I’m supposed to meet my husband back in Packwood in 20 minutes. Do you think we can make it?” It’s a 35 minute drive to White Pass, and then another 35 minutes back…”
“Of course! You have plenty of time,” I told her. She wasn’t convinced and asked if she could let me off by the side of the road. I told her no, and asked to be brought back to Packwood. Four minutes later I got a ride from some hikers who borrowed the car of one of the cashiers at the Kracker Barrel at White Pass. The hikers, two women doing a long section of trail, found out their car had been towed a few hundred miles back. They needed to get a notarized form authorizing another person to go pick up the vehicle, but the closest notary was over an hour away. One of the Kracker Barrel workers just gave them the keys to her car to go get the notarized form!
Back at the Kracker Barrel the mood was pretty grim. Trail and road closures had blocked off all access to Canada via the PCT once again, and there was now no way to walk into the Great White North via trail even with skipping around the fires.
“The Dinsmores (trail angels near Stevens Pass who let hikers stay at their place in Baring) are telling people not to go north, that the trail is closed and access to Canada is closed. The fires are growing, the smoke is bad, and people are going home from Stevens Pass,” Ace said after calling a hiker farther north. This was like a punch in the gut, having walked for months and months to be faced with the prospect of not getting to Canada on a Mexico to Canada hike.
Conditions and closures were changing by the hour with all the fires, though usually trending towards the worse. This was the largest set of fires in state history, with over 400 square miles (~1000 square km) of Washington burning. Three firefighters had just died, which made the dangers seem a lot more real. Then, we found out the section of trail we had just crossed was now closed due to advancing fires. The US Forest Service was sending riders on horseback to evacuate the Mt. Adams section, and the Department of Natural Resources was temporarily ending its ban on volunteers as the blazes were getting out of control. It didn’t look good, but we just headed north and hoped for things to be better by the time we got to Stevens Pass.
The next section, to Snoqualmie Pass, involved spectacular mountain scenery and a crossing of Mt. Rainier National Park. Because of the smoke we couldn’t see Rainier for the first day, but the second day the wind changed course and gave us breathtaking views of Washington’s highest peak. I can’t imagine what the previous day would’ve been like without the smoke. One day I’ll have to go back and do the Wonderland Trail, which goes around the base of Rainier.
I came across a cabin in the middle of the woods, which was a bit strange. We were really in the middle of nowhere out there. What was even weirder was that there was a small crowd around the ski cabin. Trail magic! A guy was giving out carrots and whiskey. I heard stories later about some ridiculous hiker trash party that went on there with all the whiskey.
Cabin in the woods. I’m not really sure how the goats and pizza got there, especially considering the nearest road is far away. That all happened after I left. They claimed the goats brought the pizza in the little cart.
I spent the night a couple hours’ walk from Snoqualmie Pass, deciding to meet my friends there in the morning. They let me take a shower in their room at the ski resort, and I spent the rest of the day feasting on ice cream and pizza in my never-ending quest for calories. The trail to Canada was partially opened! Hopefully we’d get more information at Stevens Pass in two days.
On the way to Stevens Pass we decided to take an alternate route which bypassed 11 miles of PCT but was much steeper. Trying desperately to get to Stevens Pass before the forecast five day storm, it seemed like a logical choice. Except that it turned out to be not well maintained in parts, ridiculously steep, overgrown, and all around a difficult experience. However, I got to fulfill my dream of sleeping under a bridge (too bad my trail name isn’t Troll). I woke up halfway through the night with the feeling that something large was near me, so I screamed at the darkness and went back to sleep.
I got to Stevens Pass just as the rain was starting, and after hanging out in the ski lodge bar with Super Classy I decided to go out and try my luck highway hitching to the Dinsmores in Baring.
It seemed like it took forever to get a hitch, but finally some hippie van picked me up and let me chill on their bed on their way to Seattle. Checking my watch, I realized it took me just 13 minutes to get a ride on the side of the highway in the near-dark. Not bad. I don’t look very threatening, so I tend to have an easier time than most getting rides.
It was 25 miles to the Dinsmores’ place, which is on a large plot of land in the middle of nowhere. They’re both about 75 and retired, and built a bunkhouse with shower/laundry facilities on their property for hikers. I sent a food package there and decided to wait out the storm in their bunkhouse, which had just four others by that point. Three were section hikers, either finishing up a hike of the entire PCT or just going south as far as they could this season, and the fourth was a thru hiker I’d never met before. Two of them had already been there for a few days. The hikers told me to “go talk to that pothead living in the tent under the tree. She’s here to help the Dinsmores, and will check you in and shit like that. Jerry (Mr. Dinsmore) calls her a ding-a-ling, but she’s friendly.”
After checking in and finding the closest store and restaurant was 13 miles away, the other hikers let me know that somebody had dropped off a cubic meter of old bagels from a local bakery. I didn’t have any food left, having eaten my last bar coming down to Stevens Pass, so this was a lifesaver along with the food package I’d sent myself. 12 stale bagels later, I was pretty content.
The Dinsmores, who are some of the most famous trail angels on the PCT, let hikers wear random clothes they got from God knows where while we do laundry. For some unknown reason they had onesies that fit people my size and larger, so I spent two and a half days wearing a glow in the dark dinosaur onesie.
More hikers showed up the next day and our number eventually increased to 16. I was surprised to know almost nobody in the group. A lot of them were section hikers or a good deal slower than me with earlier start dates, so I had just caught up to them.
There was a lot of drama at the Dinsmores regarding what to do in relation to the fire closure. Some were planning to hike through the closure, while others were going to take the ferry to Stehekin and from there tackle the last three days to Canada. I thought it was dangerous and irresponsible to hike through the fire closure, not to mention the $2,000 to $10,000 for which I would be liable if caught. When people were talking about walking through the closed section a hiker commandeered the stereo and yelled, “This is for all you idiots planning on walking through the closure!” A few seconds later Johnny Cash’s “Burning Ring of Fire” filled the bunkhouse.
When we get access to stereos, often at trail angel houses or at businesses naïve enough to let us take control, there’s always a strange mix of 80s pop music, trashy country songs, and Taylor Swift’s latest album. The latter is surprisingly popular on trail. Lots of people told me she’s great to listen to when kicking out some extra miles at the end of the day, and I have to agree with them after trying it out.
While we were stranded there Mr. and Mrs. Dinsmore were kind enough to take us along with them to their favorite diner in nearby (kind of) Skykomish for breakfast and dinner, and to the grocery store closer to Seattle. Of course, we paid for their meals at these outings. Because food was an issue, Hummingbird (she’s wearing the purple shirt in the above photo) organized a spaghetti dinner. Mrs. Dinsmore had a lot of dry pasta she wanted to get rid of, so we capitalized on that and made an enormous amount of spaghetti in their kitchen. I convinced some hikers that my food plan for the last section was to just fill up my food sack with the leftover spaghetti. They were aghast (I was kidding).
Eventually, storm or not, I was getting antsy to finish and get away from the confines and all the craziness. While some guys watched the entirety of the Godfather series, Hummingbird defended herself from accusations of being a serial killer. She was the only woman thru hiker during our stay, which is strange because women have a higher completion rate and thus the gender imbalance is less extreme at this point in the trail. We concluded it was because she killed every other woman she met along the way, and she refused to confirm or deny this.
The topic of conversation changed to grizzlies and wolves in the North Cascades, and somebody joked about them greeting us when we crossed the border to Canada. “Dude, how did you know?!” screamed this grizzled old crazy dude with a massive beard who had originally hiked the PCT years ago and was back for a victory lap. He’d chided me for not wanting to hike through the fire closure, and wasn’t terribly popular for being kind of a jerk. I’d just been in the background reading my kindle and eating spaghetti in my onesie, but my ears perked up when my sense for the bizarre started going off at the equivalent of DEFCON 1.
“When I finished the PCT in ’72 and reached the border there was a wolf, half in the US and half in Canada. It congratulated me,” he told us with the wide eyes of a true believer. “Man, how did you know about that?!”
Mrs. Dinsmore hooked another hiker and me up with a friend of hers, a retired National Park Service ranger, who was in town and helping shuttle hikers to the port town of Chelan. Chelan lies on Lake Chelan, and there’s a daily four hour ferry to the 75 person town of Stehekin inside the boundaries of North Cascades National Park. North Cascades is one of the least visited national parks in the contiguous United States, and Stehekin is the last resupply point on the PCT. In normal years, it’s possible to hike up to a ranger station in the park on the PCT from which there are multiple shuttles each day to the town on the only road.
Stehekin is a pretty unique place in that it’s inaccessible by road from the outside. You can take the ferry to get there from the town of Chelan across Lake Chelan (which is a massive lake), fly in, or take the shuttle from the Pacific Crest Trail.
Big Bear, Mrs. Dinsmore’s retired ranger friend, was talking to a few of us about leaving the next day for Chelan when the crazy wolf guy decided to include himself. Big Bear wasn’t too happy about this (apparently they had a slight altercation a few days prior when Big Bear told people not to risk walking through the fire closure and wolf guy said to go for it), and neither were we, but c’est la vie. On the ride I convinced a section hiker that I’d lost 200 pounds (90kg) since the beginning of the trail and had to replace all my clothes and gear because of that. I thought he knew I was joking, but apparently not everyone can understand my deadpan humor.
I’ve got a bit of a reputation for saying crazy stuff with a straight face on the PCT. After I got tired of being asked 4000 times a week by day hikers where I heard about the trail I started just saying, “In prison.” It ended the conversation very quickly. Word of that traveled fast for some reason. Word also got around that I was telling non-hikers a plethora of stories with a straight face. I.e. I came over to what is today the United States from the Black Forest of Germany over 2000 years ago, I was raised by wolves, am an urban pharmaceutical salesman, started being able to see in the dark after drinking some uranium-contaminated water in the desert, and that I wanted to go to medical school but my parents forced me to do the PCT first. It also became known much more quickly than I thought possible when I told this annoying hiker, “I want to be like you one day, except successful and happy.”
I hung out in Chelan at the library for a bit, entranced by the woman across the room talking about her witchcraft. She went on and on about how stupid her husband was for worrying her spells could work on someone as stubborn as him. Everyone knows that. He sounds like an idiot.
Word on the street was that you could camp in the abandoned parking lot next to the ferry dock, so that’s what we did. When there’s a large plot of land available for camping it’s customary to give everyone his or her personal space. Wolf guy obviously never got this memo, and decided to set up his cowboy camp right next to mine. It got a bit strange when he would shine his flashlight on my face every so often until I decided to just move everything towards the tents of Cliffhanger, Cardboard, and Courage. The latter three and I decided to tackle the last 90 miles (145km) to the border together, since the weather forecast was for lots of snow, rain, and cold. Those conditions can be dangerous, especially with all the road closures limiting bailout options on trail. We thought it’d be safer and more fun to do it all together.