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. 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