PCT WA Section J Day 9: Endings

Mile 2459.8 to 2464.0 — Today’s miles: 4.2

It rains off and on all night, but I’m snug and toasty, all wrapped up in my fleece and down and merino wool. It never sounds that bad, but in the morning there are mud splatters and pine needles all along the outside of my tent, where hard rain splashed them up from the ground. I wait until the morning light seems as bright as it will get in the fog, wipe down the internal condensation (minimal, considering my overnight weather conditions), and pack up for the last time.

As I’m rolling up my wet tent, a hiker passes by and wants to chat about gear. He’s also hiking the PCT in big chunks, and we compare notes on the sections we’ve each completed. Together, I think we have done the whole trail. His name is Gimpy (“bad knee,” he explains succinctly), and his chipper mood puts me in an equally upbeat headspace for this wet morning and my last few miles of the trip.

Before leaving Lake Susan Jane, I search around for a private bathroom spot and stumble upon a backcountry privy. It is tucked away in some thick brush, though, so no epic privy views like we had on the Wonderland Trail. Then I’m off on gentle rolling trail, hiking in pleasantly cold morning air. Soon I hear an unnatural humming, the sound of high voltage power lines that I can’t yet see through the dense fog all around me. Their constant crackle grows louder and makes me feel anxious. At last I pass under the lines and then cross a dirt road before beginning one final uphill section.

The climb briefly takes me through forest, where I hear a bird (I think?) making strange calls somewhere in the trees, and then pops me out onto the mountainside. I can see the cables of the ski lifts now, and the fog is just starting to recede, morning sun finally filtering through the clouds in the distance. I walk under the ski lift chairs, eerily still, and continue my ascent. The air is cool and misty, the bugs are hiding from the weather, and I feel happily alone on the trail. I hike steadily and reach the top with a bittersweet feeling of triumph. The ski lift structure is up here, empty and imposing, and I turn away to savor the view beyond it, to reflect on my last climb, my last view out over these mountains.

Now it is just a long steepish downhill to the trailhead, and as I descend I listen to the pikas eeeping and think about warm food: hot noodle soup, french fries, hot cocoa. I’m still in the ski area all the way down, and parts of the trail here seem to maybe overlap with actual ski routes. I take my time until the trail eventually levels out a bit, and pass a couple of dayhikers enjoying the misty morning views from the forest near the bottom. Soon I can hear cars and see some buildings, part of the ski resort area at Stevens Pass. I reach an unsigned fork in the trail and can’t tell which to choose, so I take the trail that’s clearly going downhill, because I know I still need to descend to the road. But it curves around toward the ski resort and I have to backtrack uphill to take the other trail, rolling my eyes at my wrong turn here in the last half mile or so. Through the tall trees on soft wide trail and then quite suddenly the trail ends and I am standing on pavement, parked cars all around me. So this is Stevens Pass. My map shows multiple trailheads and trailhead parking lots in this area, and I text Jeannette with my GPS’ed location, unsure where to meet her. But five minutes later she pulls into the lot, and then we are driving away, and this season’s hike is officially over. (Curiously, I did not feel sad in that moment, but as I write this now I have a wistful little lump in my throat.)

As a fellow hiker, Jeannette knows the importance of one’s first town food after a hike. This time I have a powerful craving for french fries, but when we arrive at McDonald’s they’re only serving breakfast, so I settle for a disgustingly delicious sausage-egg muffin and hashbrowns. I inhale these on the drive back, enjoying the mountain views as we speed along, and Jeannette tells me there are new wildfires near Seattle; the smoke made her recent climb of Mt. Ellinor an especially tough one. So once again I emerge from a week without cell service to learn of new fires. A few days after I leave Washington, the Seattle area will be saturated by wildfire smoke, with residents warned to stay indoors as much as possible. The newspaper photos from Seattle will remind me of my hazy views at Sonora Pass, of the dusty-white smoke covering the mountain ranges near Bridgeport, of the images of Tuolumne Meadows colored a dense sickly green by smoke. But right now it is just cloudy in Seattle, so after my hot shower we walk through Capitol Hill to eat big bowls of pho, enjoying a quiet evening as I adjust to off-trail rhythms again. In the morning Jeannette leaves before dawn for her climbing trip in Colorado, and James walks me to the subway station, and I fly back to the Midwest where the landscape is even flatter than I remember. Back to Cyn and the pets and another fall semester, already dreaming of the next hike, and the next hike, always.

Early morning fog.
This weather makes for beautiful hiking and beautiful photos.
Passing beneath the first set of ski lift cables.
On my last ascent: power lines below, sun breaking through the clouds at last.
View from the top of my last climb.
Where the trail and the ski route seem to become one. This sign says that “Crest Trail” is a lighted run, and in tiny lettering declares it “more difficult.”

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