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.