The last ice episode

DSC_0118This is the last in a series of posts I wrote from a recent backpacking trip on the PCT in Washington. Thanks for all my friends and readers for following along, go back to the beginning if you’d like to read all six.

When I got back to my bivy sack the moon was in my face and I lay there wondering if I’d be able to fall back to sleep. I started thinking about the rock near my camp I was peeing on, if the salt or scent would attract bear, and if that was a bad idea. And then I thought I heard a rhythmic grunting sound right near me in the brush, and started imagining bear footsteps lumbering over, the sound of it sniffing me through the fabric.

It was hard to get the zipper open but once I did I shone a light in the direction of the sound and heard it react, judged its size by the sound it made, but it only moved a little and then settled back into the dark.

I lay back to collect myself and turned on my phone (1:52 AM), deflated my air mattress and started breaking down camp. I beat my pack up and down on the ground (it had a bear bell and cooking pot inside) to make noise and try to scare it, knowing I’d wake the other two parties near me — and then I duct taped my heels and stuffed my compression sack with all my clothes, disassembled my stove, the gravity water filter, emptied the last of it on the coals — and marched out of camp across a foot log back to the main trail, zig-zagging four miles down the valley to the bottom before stopping for an energy gel.

And it was another five miles to go still but mostly flat, just some gain at the end, and I hoped it would be nice with the sunrise — I wouldn’t need sunscreen or bug repellant, there was that at least.

I stumbled many times coming down but wore my headlamp even though I didn’t need it with the light from the moon, I really just wanted to be seen, didn’t want to startle anyone or anything.

I’d come upon these mountain drainages and meadows that opened to vistas, and the moon made the mountains majestic and shadowy against the sky but I couldn’t linger over it, the forest had a malice now with what I imagined, a menace in the dark.

I tried to make noise as I reentered the forest and sensed the presence of creatures sleeping or hunting, but when I did it only frightened me at how far my voice carried and echoed, the vastness of the wild and how small I seemed in comparison.

I got to a trail marker with the sun now up and knew there was just a mile or so left, had some food and rallied for the last of it, thought about boiling water once I got back to the car for a coffee and the drive home.

When I got to the end, the same place Brad and I started four days ago, there was the highway we crossed where Brad told me about the naked bikers he’d seen driving by — and though the sun was up and the mountains pink-yellow, it was too early for traffic on a Saturday, everything was quiet and still, and crossing the road I had to laugh when I saw the sign for the trail: I’d mixed up our meeting point because it only said trailhead on the east side of the sign, and I’d come from the west.

When I started my car it was 7:30 and I’d come 10 miles but still had a four hour drive ahead of me, though I’d cheated Death another day.

I sat on the tractor in my garage Sunday morning drumming the wheel, my family at church, looking down at my gear and everything I had to put away. I opened the bay doors to let in some fresh air, put on a CD, thought of a friend who was gone now I used to listen to it with, who died too young but probably wanted it that way, and outside some fallen leaves from the cherry tree stumbled up the driveway looking for a home.

The moon’s now the shape of a hook, that pink zinfandel color it was breaking down camp the morning I said goodbye to Brad. Our cat turned up at the backdoor with a bloody mouth and a swollen lip, hunkered down in the attic all night, and the vet said she probably faceplanted from a tree: fractured a canine tooth they had to remove, it went right through the lower lip, but no problems with the jaw. Dawn and I joked at how many lives she’s lost by now, all the ones we’ll never know about, there’s no way to measure it.

And I thought about the tree stump above me at the lake my last night, that looked just like the silhouette of a bear but maybe stood for something else, maybe Death itself looking down, ticking like a clock, macabre. And still it makes me feel more alive to look at life and death that way, to throw off whatever veils we use to cover our fears about dying — if we’ve got the time and strength, to get out while we can, to see what we can see.



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The Pacific High and Aleutian Low

DSC_0118These posts are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are standalone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed, or starting at the beginning. The series ends tomorrow (Sunday).

The boulders had Roman noses and dark hollows for eyes, and the pine trees gaps in the bark where bats folded up and slept all day, and as I climbed out of the burn area by Stehekin I watched the line of the morning sun come down the hillsides as I rose up to meet it. But when I crossed a stream to the other side of the valley the angle of the sun flipped to the bottom, and I climbed the switch backs above, glad to stay in the cool of the forest.

With my hardest day ahead of me and now alone on the trail, I wanted to get to camp early enough the sun wouldn’t be so bad, knowing it would be deep in the 90s by afternoon. I found a patch of raspberries so ripe they slipped right off, they looked like red reindeer noses, and I was grazing on them when I heard a deep grunting sound, a sound I’ve heard deer make when you’re on their territory, rhythmic and nasal — but this was an adult bear up the trail from me looking down.

We admired each other for a beat and then I lifted my poles and clapped them and hollered, and it reacted, but didn’t exactly hop to, it just shuffled to the side and down into the brush, and I heard it stop but remain out of view there, and I waited for a little while and then high-tailed it out, and for a time kept looking over my shoulders thinking I’d heard it again.

You’re supposed to make noise on the trail so you don’t happen upon a bear and frighten it, that’s why people wear bear bells, but mine was muted by the permit on the outside of my pack and so instead I belched loudly or slapped my poles, and sometimes sang. But as I did, the sound of my voice was soon replaced by the silence of the forest, the backdrop of birdsong, and I was reminded how lonesome and strange it is to be so remote in the wilderness alone.

The camp at McAlester Lake was the same one where I stayed in 2009: no camping at the lakeshore, but a few established camps in the forest spread out from one another, a stock camp and braided trails leading down to the lake. There were two other parties there and I was grateful for the company, a loud, large guy from Brooklyn you could hear laughing for miles — a young couple from Alaska on their last weekend together before he moved to Montana.

Because we were by a lake the bugs were especially bad, but I put on my mosquito net hat and lay on the ground flat, convinced they couldn’t see me, listening to them circle above. By the fourth day I’d gotten like those cows or steer you see covered in flies that don’t seem fazed by them until they get three or four on their eyelashes and then shake them off.

I set out my things, my bivouac sack and bear canister (which doubles as a stool), gathered wood for a fire (no branches bigger than your wrist, the rule) and went down to the lake for a swim.

It was hard to get in and out of the lake for the fallen timber along the shallow shores that was muddy and covered in slime, but I did so on all fours, dove in, swam to the middle and floated on my back, admired the surrounding mountains, the mosquitoes dancing on the surface, the occasional plip-plop of small fish arcing out of the water to catch them.

There were boulders in the lake and it was shallow enough I was able to find one I could perch myself on and keep my head at the surface level to meditate, with the sometimes sound of the guy from Brooklyn in the distance snapping limbs or yucking it up with his friends — and I was glad for it. The ranger tried to sell me on the one spot at the High Camp she said I could have to myself, but I knew I’d be happy for company here instead.

I sprawled out on the lakeshore to dry off in the sun and on the timberline above, thought I saw a tree stump in the distance that looked just like the silhouette of a bear standing upright with pointy ears: and I had to keep looking back to see if it moved, it was so life-like. But after a while I was convinced the head was rotating like a clock, and thought I might be losing my mind, so I nodded goodbye and returned to camp.

I cooked my last meal, had a small fire and watched it burn down, aware of the young couple from Alaska nearby: the guy said I was welcome to come by their fire but I didn’t want to, and doubted they really wanted me there either, and fell into the same low-grade sorrow I experienced before, the irony of wanting to get away and then just feeling lonely or sorry for myself.

I forgot I had my mosquito net on as I went for a drink of tequila and had to laugh, and the gaps between the trees in the sky turned pink, and I got into my bivy sack and lay there feeling good, feeling strong.

As soon as it got dark though I heard the sound of feet running toward me and over my sleeping bag: it was only mice, but at ground level it sounded a lot louder and I didn’t like it at all. It was dark when I nodded off but when I woke in the middle of the night the moon was up, I’d had a bad dream, knew I needed to get out of my bivy sack to pee but it was cold, and that’s when things went sour.





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“These large granitoid intrusions”

DSC_0118These posts are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are standalone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed, or starting at the beginning. The series ends this Sunday.

When I took my socks and boots off my feet looked foreign to me, pale and shriveled as a newborn — the bites hardened and crusted over but my body didn’t need as much food now, it’s like it got more efficient, and we grazed on nuts and cheese, an English cheddar that crumbled and looked like the nearby schist on the cliff walls about to break off.

The two women in the camp next to us left and we moved in to take their spot because the sun was hitting ours and I emptied my bear canister to clean the contents with anti-bacterial wipes because the packet of smoked salmon I brought, though vacuum sealed, oozed fish oil all over everything and made us feel like bear bait, made everything in the canister taste like salmon.

Most of the food I brought didn’t need to be refrigerated and I assumed the food that did would reconstitute at night if it cooled down but it never did, so the cheese just continued to melt, and the boiled eggs looked suspicious, and Brad and I resolved to do our best to consume it all before we broke camp, taking turns on the salmon with our pocket knives but fastidious about cleaning the oil off, not smearing it on our shorts.

They say you’re supposed to consume like 6,000 calories per day when you’re backpacking but that’s impossible: on the first night neither Brad nor I had eaten much of anything, but made it 11 miles on energy gels and the beers we drank at each stop, to lighten my pack.

And though I’d prided myself on never getting a blister in almost 20 years of this, I discovered one at the river, an angry looking red marble on my heel, a sickly eye, milky and knotted.

Brad gave me an ointment and I used bandages from my first aid kit, wrapped it in duct tape, and we packed for the shuttle bus that comes up an old mining road along the PCT and carries hikers and sight-seers from the woods into the mountain town of Stehekin at the top of Lake Chelan.

We grabbed a table on the deck at the restaurant, Brad got a six-pack and a bag of chips, and we sat there for a few hours in our bare feet burping and making other sounds, talking to a couple through-hikers at another table, two guys in their late 20s doing around 40 miles a day who’d been on the trail since May and were almost done, killing time now in Stehekin drinking beer, waiting to meet friends at Rainy Pass for their final leg.

One of them was finishing Into The Wild on his Kindle, and I retold the part where Krakauer borrows his dad’s tent while trying some first ascent on a peak in Alaska but almost burns the tent down smoking a joint, catching it with the cherry, then summits the peak, but when he tries to talk about it in the local bar later no one cares or believes him.

There was also a Swiss guy who’d come up from Mexico and was about to finish, who’d started in April and averaged 30 miles/day (which you’d have to, to go 2,600 miles); Brad asked me if he could tell him the story about our first night out, how I had my privates exposed looking for a tick when another hiker came up the trail and saw me like that.

By the time we had to get ready for the shuttle to drop us at the trailhead the sun was low enough it was really hot again, well into the 90s, and we knew we had a thousand feet to go through a burn area where they’d had a forest fire in 2010, a couple miles up the valley to our camp. We finished the beer and each had burgers but that didn’t help, and we got on the bus and off again, and then everything went quiet except for the crickets and the mosquitoes, and off we went once more, back up the trail.

It was our last night together and a solemn feeling in the camp, which looked like it didn’t get much use but had nice fire rings with rusted steel grates you could raise and lower. A ptarmigan came up to greet us with its little headdress and the bats kicked up as the sun went down and we wondered how long until the moon came up, we’d probably be asleep, both of us wanted to get an early start the next day.

I made a small fire and boiled water for dinner and we hacked our way down to the creek to collect water for our gravity bags, to filter a good four quarts or so for the next day, which would be my longest stretch, nine miles and lots of gain over a 6,000′ mountain pass and down to an alpine lake where I had a permit to camp for the night.

Though the area was burned out and many of the trees blackened and ghostly looking some survived, little islands of trees that helped reseed the area, Brad noted. It was a vast valley surrounding us no camera could convey, and I had the sense it didn’t get much human contact, and there were likely all kinds of creatures in the sky and brush around us interested in our fire.

Brad copped to the fact it wasn’t his last pack of cigarettes, he had another stash, and returning from the creek we talked about addiction, his brother and sister, and could I relate, and we nestled in by the fire on a log bench and proceeded to take pulls off the tequila but couldn’t finish it — and I offered Brad a hip flask for his journey south, but he declined.

The moon lit the hillsides before we could actually see it and Brad pointed out Polaris, how you can spot it from the Big Dipper which I’d forgotten, and that was the direction I’d be going the next day — Brad back down to Stehekin and further south more than a hundred miles, back to work October 3.

When it was time to get up the moon was a pale brandy color picking up the morning sun, and I ate the last of the eggs and an energy gel, some coffee, and we hugged goodbye, I said hopefully it’s not our last time out and Brad said, you mean for the season, or for our lives — and as I left camp I joked I should get going before we start getting blue and singing Elton John songs, and we both riffed on “Daniel,” I can see the red tail-lights, I can see Daniel waving goodbye — and I let the rest of it play out in my head as I got back on the trail and climbed up to the pass.




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“The hydrographic apex”

DSC_0118These posts for the next week or so are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are standalone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed, or starting at the beginning.

I realized all those Grateful Dead songs I’d been playing on the drive to the North Cascades have death themes, which makes sense given the band name and the skulls and skeletons on the album artwork. And passing Darrington, I remembered a bootleg I had from an organic raspberry farm where they played in ’68, you can probably imagine what that was like then. At the ranger’s station in Marblemount I overheard them telling hikers about Desolation Peak, that Jack Kerouac spent a summer up there working the fire lookout and wrote about it in his books. Brad described how he died, throwing up large quantities of blood, an untreated hernia, bar fights, alcohol abuse, aged 47. We put Jimi Hendrix on Brad’s phone speakers and set it in the cooking pot to act as a resonator and it threw his guitar chords up into the trees and I worried we’d wake the other campers but they were gone before dawn, we never did see them.

Brad said you could tell by the look of them they were going the whole distance, the through-hikers coming up from Mexico (2,600 miles through California, Oregon and Washington, ending in Canada). We passed a young woman on the trail after we’d seen the two bears and she was doing the whole thing solo, nut brown and radiating she was so happy, but also wearing ear buds and we wondered if that was a good idea with the bear.

Brad was planning to quit smoking on the hike, to have his final cigarette on the flanks of Glacier Peak where he’d spread the remains of his brother’s ashes and drop the empty cigarette pack into a deep crevasse — those slits in glaciers like wounds that close and reopen each year, parts of us we’re drawn to look inside but maybe shouldn’t get too close.

He had a cigarette with his coffee and we ate oatmeal and took pain medication, treated our heels and broke camp for our second day, heading south toward the small town of Stehekin, population 87 year-round, which you can only get to by boat or floatplane and the boat takes three hours, the fast one. They just got internet last year and still don’t have cell service: Brad was planning to use their emergency satellite phone to see what happened to me if we hadn’t met at the trailhead, and if I died he would’ve ended his trip there and gone back to Seattle to grieve with Dawn and the kids.

But Dawn said she always felt better when I was out with Brad because she trusted him, and yet the two of us would have to split up after we left Stehekin as Brad continued south to Snoqualmie Pass and I returned north to Rainy Pass, wrapping around some mountains and going up high country for my final night out, solo.

It would be the same area I’d come in 2009 seeking solitude but quickly got enough of it, breaking camp in the middle of the night and hurrying back to Seattle to be with Dawn and my kids, only 1 and 4 at the time. And we were getting ready to take our first sabbatical in Germany, to move there for three months and see if we could get Lily into kindergarten, and possibly go again for a longer period some time in the future.

I befriended a family of hikers on the trail with their young son and complimented him on his pack, but a few hours later when we met again the dad and mom got into a spat about the route and he said to her follow the map, not your emotions — and used his wife’s name when he said it: ‘follow the map, not your emotions Andrea,’ which felt like a beat down and they went quiet for a while, and I pretended not to hear.

There wasn’t much at the High Bridge camp out of Stehekin, just a couple dusty camps and one already occupied, but the nearby river flowed hard through a steep gorge into the mouth of Lake Chelan stretching 50 miles south, the largest lake in Washington, the third deepest in the States.

We found a spot by the river to bathe and gang our beers together with some rocks in the cold water so they wouldn’t float away, and I got into Supta Baddha Konasana pose on a rock to dry off and stretch out, and we took pictures from the surface view of the river to try to capture its mysterious green color but couldn’t, and when we got back to camp we passed a couple young women and realized they were the ones at the camp right next to us.

Later we got out the tequila and had it on the picnic table when one of them came over to introduce herself, and Brad made small talk but I felt shy — and he invited them over for a drink but I hoped they wouldn’t come and they didn’t — and in the morning Brad walked around in his long underwear without a shirt on and I spotted one of the girls changing as I was coming up from the river but pretended not to see, and just kept my eyes on the trail.

Brad had the Led Zeppelin box set on his phone and we got through two of the CDs trying to hit the same notes as Robert Plant but couldn’t, and I feared we were too loud but stopped worrying about it after a while. The next day was a rest day in Stehekin where we’d take a bus shuttle around noon into town and just hang there in the afternoon, climb a couple miles to our final camp for Day 3, say goodbye in the morning, then go our separate ways.

I put on a song by The Band called Tears of Rage, and Brad seemed to struggle with the lyrics so I helped him:

Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief
Come to me now, you know we’re so alone
And life is brief



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“Complexes of talus and escarpments, valley bottom alluvium”

DSC_0118These posts for the next week or so are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. The posts are stand-alone but probably better if you can read them in order, going back if needed.

I had too many beers in my pack and because they were in the top it cranked down on my shoulders, and I tried not to complain about it but couldn’t help myself. When we crossed State Route 20 Brad told me about the bikers he’d seen driving past: he flipped them a peace sign and they did back, and as they passed it was a guy and a girl, both of them buck naked. We didn’t have a watch and kept our phones stashed to save the battery life but guessed it was between 5 and 6 when we got going, about 11 miles to camp. Somehow I worked it into the conversation about my new shorts, the fact they have this inner mesh, and did I need underwear in addition to the shorts — and as soon as I said that I realized I didn’t and felt stupid, and at our first rest stop I got out of them, and was right as rain.

I was going on about how good it felt with no underwear and just the mesh when I felt something else down there the size of a fly or a tick, it had the same contours through my shorts, and when I pulled over to self-examine it was just the tip of the waistband strap so I adjusted it, but I had myself out in my hands and exposed as another hiker appeared from the brush and it must have looked really bad; he pretended he didn’t see anything but had to have, and I turned my back and Brad giggled, and when the hiker came by he gave a hearty greeting (‘Evenin’, gentlemen’) and just kept going.

We started drinking beers at each stop, two I remember, a third one we split, and yet the beers didn’t affect us we were sweating so much; though the sun was almost down the forest was still hot, the large granite boulders in the drainages warm to the touch.

You couldn’t stop longer than a couple minutes before the bugs really kicked in, a medley of mosquitoes, yellow jackets and flies, a trio of folk singers layering on top of one another, the mosquitoes slow enough you could slap them into a paste to discourage the others, the yellow jackets inquisitive but alarming when you’d feel one kneading you, the flies didn’t bite, they just harvested salt from our sweat: it’s the mosquitoes that would suck you through a straw and get themselves in a state of ecstasy, even when your hand came down for the kill they wouldn’t budge, it was probably a good way to go out, engorged like that.

Because my pack was heavy and I wasn’t used to the trail like Brad, who’d come down 30 miles from the north, with the altitude and the heat and the beer my mind went to dark places, and I wondered if I was cut out for it.

There was the achilles problem I developed stumbling down the steps in a German train station on my way to a beer festival in a pair of trachten shoes a half size too big; there was the risk of inner thigh chafing I hadn’t dealt with yet; I’d started wondering if my nipples would bleed with this new shirt, and did sunscreen lose its potency over time because mine came out like mustard juice.

Brad stopped to treat the hot spots on his feet and I was admiring the look of the valley with the sun making everything pink, and that’s when I sensed the bear off trail and looked up to mark it, eating some grass, cinnamon colored and innocent looking, and it spotted me and seemed curious, and I lifted my poles and clapped them together and shouted, and it ambled up the hill a bit, and I waited for Brad to catch up so I could point it out but when I did another one popped its head up and this one was bigger, and black — and Brad said we should get going, we don’t want them to feel challenged.

We knew it was almost a full moon but it would take some time for it to get up, and held off with the headlamps as long as we could to acquire our night vision. The trail ran along cliff sides and cataracts Brad called them, about a foot wide but with bad drop-offs to the valley floor. I found myself staggering if I stopped, my balance poor, and really needed the poles to keep myself up.

Brad went ahead and spotted a bullfrog on the trail and then I did another, and Brad offered a shamanistic interpretation for what the sightings meant: because they were frogs and there were two of them, perhaps they gave us the agility we needed for the stream crossing we made in the dark, once the moon finally came out and it was maybe 9 o’clock, and we’d come to a large opening, a canyon of sorts, and the stream was going so loud it echoed over the woods and crashed down on the rocks, and with the moon coming down the barrel of the valley it was like a spotlight with us on stage, and it took all I had to keep my balance and use my headlamp to go from rock to rock sometimes grunting, and when I got to the other side Brad had gone around the corner, disappearing into dark of the forest.

There was the gray squirrel corpse we marked on the trail with our lamps next, and all the black ants going in and out of it like some freaky mask, deflated down to the hide — we wondered what that meant. But we got into camp at last, it was dusty and dark, and Brad boiled water for a freeze-dried meal we split, and set to hang his food from the bear wire but bunged up the chord, and now there was no way to hang it, it was a good 20 feet in the air dangling from the line they provide for people to hoist their food on, and he asked what I thought we should do but I had nothing to offer, and he said we could jerry-rig my pocket knife with duct tape to try to saw it, to cut the chord, but I didn’t think that would ever work, and it took a good half an hour of us fucking around before we gave up and just hung it on a tree high enough maybe a midget bear couldn’t reach it, he joked — and Brad said I could get into the bug hut with him and we could sleep head-to-foot configuration but I let him have the space to himself to lay his things out, I was self-conscious about my body odor that felt like Peter Pan’s shadow now, it was hard to shake, and only Day 1.


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The vertical pattern relief


Bill – waiting in N. Lot, resting behind Latrines –“

I took the 530 east off 5 toward Darrington, past the town Oso where they had that landslide in 2014 — but the fog came down at Union Slough and though the sun was up it made everything turn ghostly, the outlines of the nearby peaks and barns, bundles of wood for sale — and once I got to the scene where all those homes collapsed it was taped off with orange temporary fencing, construction guys with four-ways blinking, and you could see where the earth cleft off the hillside and all the homes with it, and as the fog thinned out it looked like smoke.

I texted Brad from a Starbucks in Marysville just after 6; we were going to meet at Rainy Pass so I could join him on a leg of the PCT he was hiking, down from Hart’s Pass near the Canadian border, about 200 miles south to Snoqualmie Pass, off I-90.

I sat in the Starbucks with a sandwich taking notes, realizing as I watched the baristas pass in and out of the backroom I’d worked in this store before, studying their milk waste for a few days and trying to draw conclusions, and when I left I sat in my car looking at it but it didn’t look the same from the outside, they’d renovated it.

Through the town of Darrington where there’s not much more than a couple bait and ammo shops, a church and a bar, an IGA and some meth labs, where I stayed a couple weeks doing salmon research once — a mountain called Whitehorse I had to climb like a kid at a playground throwing my arms around its neck, holding on — and further, to the town Marblemount where I pulled into the ranger station at 7:45.

They had a diorama with the Cascade mountains in the waiting area and life-size tracks showing the difference between grizzly and black bear prints, pointing out that grizzlies have nails as long as human fingers, and the difference between the shape of their noses, the muscle on the grizzly’s neck that forms a hump, real examples of cooking pots and propane bottles chewed on in camps. But there’s a funny arrogance that comes with warnings like that, you never think it will happen to you because you’re too lucky or smart — and the ranger warned of activity in our camp at North Fork, and read a series of reminders she checked off one by one, and I initialed.

I got to the parking lot at Bridge Creek and looked for Brad but didn’t see him, and got myself ready: sunscreen, boots, bug juice, everything I needed for five days and four nights. It would get into the 90s by afternoon, so I rolled the windows down and sat in my car listening to the clickety-clack of the crickets bouncing in the grass, the sound of a car coming, to see if it was Brad. I sat there a couple hours though, probably more, and got restless worrying where he was (we had no cell service at the pass) and this went on from 9:30 until 4 PM, when we finally met at a different trailhead, just a mile and a half up the road.

As I sat in the car waiting I went through stages of anger and confusion, wondering what happened (we’d traded texts from the Starbucks, he was coming in from Mazama with his girlfriend and should be there by 9), and I had to assume their car broke down or worse — and resolved to drive east for cell reception to see if he’d left a message but he hadn’t, and I did the calculation of what time we’d get to camp if we left late afternoon; it would probably take a good five hours and we’d be hiking in the dark.

I drove to the western towns of Winthrop, Twisp, stopped for gas, debated should I turn left or right as I pulled out of the station — left took me back to Rainy Pass, right, further south to Wenatchee, where I could head west to Leavenworth, Blewett Pass, Cle Elum, back home to Sammamish.

I changed out the Grateful Dead CD I had because I was bitter, and put on a mix CD my friend Loren made for our drive across the UK last winter, this one called Bleak Isle Moods, and I got it for the first time, the mood of it, and stewed in my self-pity mad at everything: mad at the tourists at the traffic light in Winthrop, mad at the signs saying VACANCY, mad at the dead bugs on my car, mad at the Grateful Dead. Mad at the Grateful Dead!

I sat in my car like a dog moping by the window watching other hikers get ready for their trips with their trekking poles and their whistles and still no sign of Brad, and I set my phone timer resolved to return to Seattle at 4 if he hadn’t come.

But driving west I came to the Rainy Pass picnic area, which I assumed didn’t have trail access to the PCT but it did, and there were notes with Brad’s handwriting I recognized, and he was there in his bug hut sitting up in the shade and I called to him and we hugged, and we each thought the other one was dead, he’d started writing my obituary and thinking about what he’d say to Dawn and the kids, how sorry he was about everything. He was right where he said he’d be but I’d misunderstood, and both of us had sat around or scurried around worrying all day, but Brad wasn’t mad or if he was, didn’t show it — and we agreed we should get going, and did I have a cold beer he could have.

These posts for the next week or so are from a recent backpacking trip I made on the PCT with my dear friend Brad Shaffer. The post titles are taken from the great climber Fred Beckey from his Cascade Alpine Guide which I have no business owning. “Vertical pattern relief” refers to mountain rock faces in this context.





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Frou-frou foxes in midsummer fires


Charlotte in Germany 2009, with mom’s old dog Merlin

I dropped the kids off at theater camp with the other awkward-looking children not cut out for sports, pale and withdrawn, future artists: and Charlotte’s outfit, a riot of stripes and patterns — she’s still doing that thing where she closes one eye and flicks her head to the side then closes the other but has no self-consciousness about it, just walks and toggles eye to eye (the Parallax View Phenomenon), and she’s right where she belongs now, at theater camp.

And I spend the morning doing chores to feel less guilty leaving Dawn with the kids for the rest of the week while I go hiking, and finish packing for my trip, stealing her maxi-pads for my first aid kit because they’re good to stop the bleeding I explain, and she agrees — and I’ve gone back to November in Scotland for some reason, maybe visiting our English friends up the street who asked where we went last winter and I sketched our route on the palm of my hand, starting on the east coast at Arbroath and zig-zagging to the southwest where we left by ferry for Belfast, and what it was like in that chauffeur’s house by an old castle where we spent Thanksgiving: that memory like a stone we took away but it doesn’t look the same removed from its original context, it changes over time. Every framed picture there, every view out the windows windswept and exotic, the rain and the leaves, the wind: hunkering down with our puzzles and boardgames, the wood stove, our beer and wine, the game meats I found at the local store, the Victoria sponge cake their cook baked for us we ate the very first night.

Now the morning light has softened and it’s sleeping in some, it’s not that bracing light of early summer but the golden hour of the season instead, and everyone’s away now enjoying the last of it, and the lake shore is low, with a stretch of beach pebbles drawn out, all the left behind rafts deflated and life jackets from the weekend put out on rocks waiting for their owners to come get them, a pair of cotton socks still wet.

The morning light is golden and warm, pours thick like syrup with just the sound of the lawn sprinklers and my sandals on the walk home and I forget where I am; I toggle between views too, looking forward, looking back, having to remind myself to just stop and look up.

Post title from the Cocteau Twins song of the same name, from the album Heaven or Las Vegas.


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