PNT Days 15 & 16: Rail & Rest

Today’s miles: 21

Total miles: 185.5

Despite not feeling any big need for a zero, it’s a struggle to leave my hotel room in Concrete this morning. Partly because of the conveniences of shower, running water, fresh food…but mostly because today is 20+ miles of completely straight, completely flat walking to Sedro-Woolley, and it’s hard to psyche myself up for it. Still, it looks like it’ll be a hot day, so I emerge from my room around 8am and turn onto the Cascade Trail. This is a rail trail, converted from former Burlington Northern railroad into a no-motorized-vehicle path primarily used by pedestrians and cyclists. Rail trails are (to me) an interesting and complicated aspect of trail development and maintenance. The practice of “railbanking,” or transferring out-of-service railroad corridor property to trail agencies instead of merely abandoning it, was added to the National Trails System Act in 1983. I still have a lot to learn about how this practice relates to public vs private property, various financial interests, environmental preservation/destruction, etc.

At any rate, hiking a rail trail generally means very flat walking, with the promise of a speedier pace and the risk of leg/foot pain from many miles of extremely repetitive movement. I set off with optimism in the shady cool morning, saying hello to many large snails along the crushed gravel path. Not far from Concrete, a person with two unleashed dogs appears ahead of me. The dogs rush up to me, completely ignoring the person’s calls, and I’m glad I’ve gained some experience in reading dog body language these past several years. I greet them calmly and then mostly ignore, while the person yells at them, “Leave her alone! Get outta her pockets!” Ah, gender misrecognition, my constant companion.

Beautiful snail enjoying the morning

I keep a steady pace for the first six or seven miles, and then suddenly feel a sharp pain in my right calf muscle. It’s a strange pain, unfamiliar, and at first it’s intermittent, kind of jolting through the muscle every few minutes, brief but intense. I bend down and rub my calf, try to stretch it out, but the pain persists. Well, this is not optimal. I slow my pace and try to focus on my walking mechanics, but over the next several miles the pain settles into a more continuous ache. For a little while I walk backwards, hoping that mixing up my movements will help, but it doesn’t. I also try walking sideways, but that doesn’t help either and is too physically awkward to sustain for more than a minute or two anyway. I reach a stop for the local bus route that could take me to Sedro-Woolley, but the next bus is several hours from now, and I could be in town faster by continuing to walk. My brain worries about what this leg pain means for the remainder of my hike: will it resolve itself? Will tomorrow’s zero day be enough rest for it? Will it just be increasingly worse on all of the upcoming roadwalks in my next section? I listen to my audiobook, walk slowly, and try not to let the anxieties take over.

Farmland with mountain backdrop

H is for Hawk carries me through most of the day, distracting me from my calf pain and giving my brain something to chew on in the absence of much visual stimulation. The rail trail parallels the highway and doesn’t offer much in the way of views, especially compared to the mountains I’ve hiked through these last many days. I walk past tons of wild blackberries, sometimes get a few views of distant mountains, and a couple of times walk the edges of tiny towns. Mostly, I keep my head down and just try to keep going, grateful for the shaded portions. I pass a few people out for walks, a few people on bikes, and leapfrog with a pair of bikepackers for a while. I stop to chat briefly with the bikepackers as they have lunch near the Skagit River. Later, I stop for my own lunch on a bench in a sliver of shade. There is really no way to get far off trail for a pee break, so I have to take my chances trailside, hoping I can go quickly enough that cyclists won’t happen upon me.

Skagit River

The late afternoon is hot and dry, and my calf muscle is still aching. Pulling out my trekking poles after lunch has helped marginally, but by the time I finally reach Sedro-Woolley I’m mentally and physically worn out. The rail trail shifts to pavement here and I drag myself into town and to the hotel. I’m so sweaty and disgusting that you’d never know I had a shower just last night. To my dismay, there’s no laundry at the hotel, and I just can’t imagine walking another mile across town to the laundromat. I buy some groceries a block away and then wash my clothes in the bathtub, hanging things around the room to dry. After drinking a large Gatorade, I use the empty bottle to roll out my calf muscle, which is alarmingly tight but hardly responds at all to stretching or rolling. I talk to Cyn on the phone, telling her that I do need that zero day after all.

In the morning, my calf muscle is only a little better. I walk downtown for breakfast (giant veggie omelet with cheese, hashbrowns, toast with jam, apple juice, hot cocoa), mail postcards, and buy my resupply for the next section. Mid-day, I return to downtown to visit the PNTA office, picking up a bunch of brochures for my research archive and chatting with the staff member there who coordinates the western Washington trail maintenance work. I’m looking forward to visiting again in the off-season to peruse their archival materials on the trail’s history. He also informs me that (a) another hiker reported getting clipped by a car on Hwy 542 (I feel renewed gratitude for the dad who gave me a ride) and (b) tomorrow’s highway walk to get from town to the trail is at least as sketchy as Hwy 542 (ugh).

The remainder of my zero is spent lying in bed, stretching and massaging my calf, and repackaging my food. I feel a bit anxious about this next section, which entails mostly roadwalking through towns, west to the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound. I always feel more nervous in and near towns than I do in the mountains and forests, because humans/strangers remain one of the scariest aspects of hiking for me. But also because most of this next section goes through private land with little opportunity for camping, so I have no real idea where I’ll spend my nights. Cyn encourages me to post on the PNT facebook group asking for a ride to the trail tomorrow, so I can avoid the highway danger. (My PNT motto: don’t get hit by a car.) I do so reluctantly, but within an hour I’ve lined up a ride from a local and connected with a trail angel near the next town who will let me camp in her backyard! These immediate anxieties alleviated, I feel ready to tackle the next section bright and early tomorrow morning.

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