You have wandered mindfully? onto the site we are using to track our various Brianna & Marty adventures.
Our Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) adventure will begin in July 2022 – daily blogs will be a thing :-). Catch up on our IAT & NCT adventures in the daily blogs below. PCT posts will read from newest to oldest.
Reading these stories is easy. Arm chairing what someone should have done differently or explaining how the situation could have been avoided is natural. All I ask before continuing with this story is that you remember that no person is perfect. What is obvious today was not necessarily on yesterday’s mind.
With Shauna back in our company, the 4 of us, Shauna, Brianna, myself, and Doug, drove back to Doug’s, a spot he likes to call, Spirit Bend. Spirit, because he will tell you he is no angel of anything, not even the trail. Bend, because of his spot on the river bend.
We would spend the evening listening to Shauna tell her stories of what happened over those few stranded days in the mountains. Doug was kind enough to let us stay in one of the Spirit Bend yurts while we figured out where the car was and how we might get it back.
Wrong Side of the Gate
Shauna’s side of this search and rescue story begins on Thursday morning, breaking camp a couple of hours after Brianna and I had left to begin our hiking day. Her drive down Forest Road 1050 was well-graded and free of the giant holes and rocks she had experienced on the previous day. Imagine Shauna’s shock when a locked gate with a ‘Road Closed’ sign greeted her over halfway into the journey to our meet spot at the Cook and Green. She did not know it at the time, but this locked gate was the only thing standing between her and a well-maintained road to where Brianna and I would be waiting.
It’s more than a little amusing that Shauna had no car problems en route to the locked gate. A local DNR officer would later tell us that he has been trying to get that gate removed for years because it does not serve an actual purpose. Locals hate the gate so much that the DNR has shown up to find that the locks and the gate had been cut into half a dozen pieces. Since there are several groups needing access through the gate at any given time, and no real reason for the gate to be there, it is secured by 20 different locks all strung together in a chain. If you have 1 key or 1 combo, you can unlock and open the gate.
For Shauna, trouble struck just 7 miles after the forced turn around at the locked gate. Shauna had pulled the Toyota RAV 4 off to the side of the road for a quick pee break when it happened. She heard the sound of air escaping through flaps of rubber before she saw the two giant slices in the driver’s side rear tire.
Normally, a flat tire can be temporarily fixed by replacing it with a spare. Imagine her surprise when she looked for a spare tire and tire iron and found… an empty compartment.
Something I did not know before this whole experience is that many rental vehicles do not come with spare tires unless you pay extra. This is especially interesting because neither of us was asked if this was an add-on we wanted to pay for when setting up the reservations.
To Stay or To Go
My first question to Shauna upon her return was, “if you had enough cell signal to send us the text about the road closure, why didn’t you go back to that spot and let us know you were stranded?” The short answer is that the spot where she had a cell signal was on the other side of an off-grid town and up a side road she never intended to drive up.
There was no way for her to know that the quickest shortest path to safety would have been to walk back to the gate.
A left turn out of the gate leads directly to the Cook and Green. Brianna and I would have been gone by the time she would have arrived, but it is a fairly popular road and trailhead.
A right turn leads to the popular Applegate Reservoir area, a very active recreation spot for both Oregonians and Californians.
Likely, Shauna would not have gone back to the locked gate even if she had known the above to be true. She would have had to walk through the small off-grid town, a non-starter. No people were walking around or visible either of the times she drove through the area. Maybe there were cool people there that would have helped her, but I’m inclined to agree with Shauna’s decision not to go that route, not because I think there is anything wrong with that town, I drove through it 4 times and never saw anything out of the ordinary. Intuition is important in survival situations and she choose to follow hers.
The vehicle was disabled, this is true. What was also true is that the vehicle was filled with over a week’s worth of food, water, and other supplies. Shauna had access to a water filter, tents, and sleeping bags, everything she needed to both survive and be comfortable. If she wanted to have coffee in the morning and a beer at night, she could, because everything was in the vehicle.
Unsure what to do, Shauna packed her hiking bag up with provisions and headed back the way she had come. The walk would take more daylight than was left on that Thursday at around 1pm. Camping in the middle of nowhere is nothing new to any of us who search for the roads less traveled. She set up the hammock between a couple of trees and let the sounds of a completely silent forest rock her to sleep.
Friday morning found Shauna questioning her decision to leave the vehicle, forcing an about-face back to the Toyota for a new plan. The day was forecasted to be above 100 again, having access to air conditioning would help her do things like eat food, which had become almost impossible with all the anxiety rolling around in her head. She would spend the second night in the backseat made into a bed, leaving the car doors open. Whether it was hot flashes or she was on an area of the mountain that retained heat more so than others, a cool breeze helped with getting to sleep.
Shauna left the car again early Saturday morning and was about 7 miles down the road when the helicopter found her. The sounds of chopper blades brought a quick stop to the breakfast she had been preparing, jumping to her feet in hopeful anticipation. The helicopter appeared and disappeared without any recognition of her existence.
What could she possibly do to get search and rescue’s attention if they came back? Rummaging through her backpack, she found an orange towel and began waving it in a circle like a cowgirl at a rodeo. This time the helicopter hovered above her and acknowledged her existence over a loudspeaker, “Remove your sticks from the road and back away.” The sticks they were referring to was a wooden message she had created on the road, “HELP FLAT”.
The helicopter landed long enough for Shauna to jump in for her ride to safety. Search and rescue had not been able to find her car and asked if she could point them to it’s location before they headed back down the mountain. Not only could she point them in the right direction, she had dropped a location pin on her phone for exactly where the car was. The pilots took the phone and followed Apple Maps directly to the Toyota. Both of the men agreed that Shauna had done the right thing by moving away from the car, which was almost entirely covered by trees, and attempting to make a sign in a clearing.
Now that we know what happened to each side of the story over those 3 days, there is still 1 outstanding question – how do you retrieve a disabled vehicle from a remote mountain road in Northern California? We had no idea. Lucky for us, our new friend Doug is basically the Daniel Ocean of Seiad Valley.
There is a scene in the Ocean’s 11 movie where Daniel and Rusty are explaining their plan to rob the casinos,
Saul: I have a question, say we get into the cage, and through the security doors there and down the elevator we can’t move, and past the guards with the guns, and into the vault we can’t open…
Rusty: Without being seen by the cameras.
Danny: Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to mention that.
Saul: Yeah well, say we do all that… uh… we’re just supposed to walk out of there with $150,000,000 in cash on us, without getting stopped?
Saul: Oh. Okay.
Recovering the vehicle felt a lot like that.
Me: Once we get past the gate we can’t unlock, down the road that cannot be driven, and replace the wheel we have no way of fixing, we just drive the car back down the mountain?
Me: Oh. Cool.
All joking aside, Doug worked miracles. He donated 3 days of his time and truck to us, methodically attacking each of the problems. A local friend, Ed, reached out to the DNR on Saturday and got us a code to unlock the closed gate. On Sunday, Doug and I drove up past the gate we could now unlock and picked up the tire. On Monday, Doug and I rode over to Yreka (pronounced Y-reka) to have the tire fixed before driving another 2.5 hours back up the mountain and re-equipping the Toyota’s missing fourth foot.
Driving the Toyota back across the same road that had sliced Shauna’s tire was nerve-racking. It’s not a mystery as to what sliced through the rubber so easily, bits of sharp shale littered the forest road for .2 of a mile out. My concern wasn’t for the rental car, it was the thought that everything Doug had done for us could be undone by 1 wrong roll of the tire.
I don’t think it’s possible to truly ever repay someone for performing miracles on your behalf, but we tried. Not only was he one of the only people in the world who could have helped us with all of our needs, he also let us stay in his Yurt and hang out in his house the entire time.
Shauna and Brianna stayed back each day to watch the dogs, clean the house and help with random yard work. Doug stays so busy he had not had a chance to clean up ash and dust from the nearby fire from a month ago, so that’s what they focused on.
The thing about hiking that might not be obvious to some is that walking is only part of the adventure. Walking is the excuse I use to open up the door to a new world and experience the unknown. Sure, we have been off trail for 5 days at this point, but what an experience! Without the series of unfortunate events, we would have missed out on all of these crazy experiences, would not have met Doug, and would have had no idea how great the people of Seiad Valley are.
If you do not put anything out into the world, you almost certainly will not get anything back. At the end of all the chaos, Doug took us on a 3-hour whitewater rafting trip in his purple raft. Hard to complain about the last week when there’s nothing to complain about.
Northern California has been the most challenging section of the PCT for me. It’s not the trail itself, NorCal is an elementary school playground when compared to the mountains of Washington state. Still, only 40-something miles in and California has been an emotional roller coaster, a story of how the lost get found in the remotest of mountain regions around.
Our family is a hiking family. One of the reasons Brianna and I have never acquired a trail family, or tramily, over our thousands of hiking miles might be that we already have one. Brianna’s mom, Penny, and her husband, Curt, started both the IAT and PCT long-distance trails with us. Shauna, Brianna’s cousin and best friend, has hiked with us on pretty much every trail we have ever done. I even had a group of best friends that drove to Wisconsin from Michigan to support us on the trail for a week. Our family are also people I consider to be my closest friends, and we do everything together. A constant reminder that the things you decide to do with your life also impact everyone else, both the positive and the negative.
Our flip from the Trout Lake region of Washington back down to Medford, Oregon, involved a flight out of Seattle. Shauna met us in Seattle for the connecting flight to Medford where she had rented a car to be our trail support for the next couple of weeks. The general hiking plan was for her to slackpack us from where we left off at, Callaghan’s Lodge, down into Seiad Valley of Northern California. For those who don’t know, slackpacking is where Shauna would lessen our load by carrying most of our food and gear while we hiked each day. Why carry things like a tent, sleeping bags, or extra food when you’re meeting up with a vehicle-driving friend each night?
Slackpacking the Mountains
The first two nights of supported adventuring went pretty much as planned. Shauna was chilling at camp well before we arrived, sitting in her chair and ready to tell stories of her driving day. Driving on forest roads in any state can be dicey, throw in some twisting mountain roads and things go from cool to full-on butt puckering faster than you can say, “oh shit!” Signs do not warn normal people off driving these roads, but they are mostly used by wildland firefighters and cattle trucks.
Shauna’s drive from Ashland to our second camp night at Wards Fork Gap had more steep dropoffs and crater-size holes than she thought possible. There is only so much a butt can pucker before it starts to invert in on itself like a black hole. On one hand, she didn’t want to drive the roads. On the other hand, she didn’t want to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Her hope was that the road from Wards Fork Gap to night 3’s planned camp spot, the Cook and Green, would be less damage to her already blackened hole.
Wards Fork Gap is an intersection of 5 or 6 roads near the Oregon-California border. Free-range cows walk the roads more than vehicles drive them. Cowbells ring from every direction as the cows move from pasture to pasture. Camp for the night, our tent and Shauna’s hammock, was 20ft off the trail and 50ft up a hill and away from the forest road intersection. Cows, like hikers and wild animals, also walk the PCT at all hours of the night. We laughed as cattle jingled by us on the trail all night, not looking in our direction or caring that humans had invaded their stomping grounds.
The 3 of us shared a few cups of instant coffee and oatmeal before breaking camp at 715am the next morning. Shauna’s drive to the Cook and Green was only 20 miles but would take the better part of 3 hours to get there. She planned to relax in her hammock for a few hours before hitting the road. There was no reason to rush, our 18-mile hike wouldn’t have us to our rendezvous spot until 3:30-4:00pm
Brianna and I’s hiking day started with some struggles. Brianna was hungry, so we took our long morning break earlier than normal only to find out that she had left her entire food bag in Shauna’s car. Not ideal, but not a huge deal, she had some snacks in her hip pouch and I had packed more snacks than normal for reasons unknown. Misplacing things happens quite often when people visit us on the trail and our daily routines are shattered. Little did we know at the time, Brianna’s missing food bag was the start of a very bad day where every calorie we had on us would count.
Cell signal began to disappear as we hiked further south into the mountains of Northern California. Our phones stay in airplane mode for most of the day to save battery, only checking for bars of service when on breaks or hiking over peaks.
“We have service here, let’s take a break,” I said to Brianna after reaching a small clearing at the top of a hill. The time was 1:35pm and we had more than made up for the morning’s slow start, less than 7 trail miles stood between our break spot and where we thought we would be camping for the night. The day seemed to be getting better, that was until we received the text message Shauna had sent at 11:30am and everything changed.
“This is the only place I have service. The road is closed 😭😭. It may be a long day 😬”
Brianna and I looked at each other with concerned but confident expressions. We knew this might happen and had a plan for what to do if Shauna encountered an impassable forest road – we would walk the 12-mile road from the Cook and Green camping area down to Seiad Valley. A hiking day that was supposed to be 18 miles was now a 30-mile day. Sure, it was the biggest day we have ever done together on the PCT, but the last 12 miles were all downhill, and if we got lucky, Shauna would find us on the road and we’d take a ride into town from there.
It was around 4pm by the time we made it to our original rendezvous spot at the Cook and Green. Neither Brianna nor I were surprised when Shauna did not show up, but we waited a half hour under the shaded half camping/half parking area anyway. With a locked gate blocking the most direct route to us, Shauna’s day would have had 6 hours of additional driving. What concerned us was that no new text messages had come through since 11:30am and all of our attempts to call were going directly to voicemail. Cell signal is sketchy up there but would surely exist somewhere along her road back… right?
The sun dipped behind the mountains and plunged us into a blackened night during the 12-mile hike down to Seiad Valley, it would be many hours before the full moon would light up the darkness. Brianna walked faster at the end of this 30-mile day than I would have thought possible. My pace was much slower, requiring me to jog forward to catch up every 15-20 minutes or risk losing her from sight.
A twinkle of luck shined down upon us about a mile outside of town when a gentleman by the name of Tucker, from the town of Happy Camp, stopped his truck on the road next to us and said, “I know you’re almost to town, but do you want a ride?”
“Yes,” I replied, not needing to consult with Brianna to know the hiking portion of this night needed to end.
It turns out that the downtown of Seiad Valley is really only 3 buildings:
The main town building has a cafe, general store, and post office under a single roof. Next to the main building is the RV park and down the road is an unstaffed gas station that does not have any gas.
My iPhone’s clock had struck 9pm by the time Tucker dropped us off in front of the General Store, Shauna was still nowhere to be seen. The General Store and Cafe had closed at 8pm that night so the snacks we had on us would be all the food we would have until they opened in the morning – crackers and almond butter biscuits.
I spent the first 30 minutes in town walking up and down the road in search of a cell signal while Brianna set up “camp” against the cement wall of the post office. Even with 2 bars of LTE, my phone would not let me call 911 to report Shauna as a missing person. It was many “failed call” attempts later that it dawned on me – maybe the pay phone in front of the post office works… maybe it exists for a reason? and it did! The “payphone” looked like an old school “pay phone”, but was free of charge to use for local calls.
Dialing 911 is always difficult for me. As a 911 emergency dispatcher for part of my time in the Air Force, I understand what goes on behind the scenes. Being the person controlling the communications and keeping track of the information is much easier than being the person shouting the information out into the ether and hoping it finds the right people.
The Siskiyou county dispatcher sounded calm and competent during our call. She understood that Shauna was alone in the mountains and asked questions pertinent to our situation. I had written down all of the road names and timeline details prior to calling so the call could go as smoothly as possible. At the end of it all, the dispatcher asked me to stay near the pay phone in case they needed to call back with additional questions or updates. No problem! Brianna and I would be waiting at the prearranged meeting spot until Shauna showed up later that night. We had to believe she would be showing up later that night.
Shortly after ending the 911 call, a man came out of the closed cafe to see if we needed anything; Brian and his partner run the cafe. He listened to our story and ended up helping us out way more than he owed us, which was nothing. He started by letting me inside the building to fill our water bottles and followed it up by unlocking the nearby bathroom building and turning the Cafe WiFi on for the night. On top of everything else, he ended the good deeds by making us cheeseburgers and French fries for dinner. Brian did not want us to pay for the food, but I did anyway. If I have learned anything in my life and our adventures it’s that you take care of the people who take care of you.
With only an almond butter biscuit left for dinner, the burger and fries meant so more than a hot meal for Brianna and I. Yes, it was delicious, but more than that, it was a love on a lifeline. For a few minutes, we thought about how good dunking a burger in fry sauce tastes instead of wondering where our loved one was and how she might be spending the night. The hunger that creeps devious thoughts into a worried mind abated, even if only for a little while.
In case you’re wondering, leaning your hiking pack like a makeshift recliner against a cement wall is not comfortable. Without sleeping bags or a tent, we stayed warm by zipping puffy jackets up the top of our bodies and wrapping our legs with rain jackets. We made do with what we had. The 100-degree day quickly turned into a chilly 57-degree night that would not allow for sleep or comfort of any kind. I had my electronics bag with a battery and charging cables, so we helped each other with games of Wordle and played two-player pool by passing a phone back and forth for each shot.
I would be lying if I said we waited patiently for the general store to open at 7am that morning. Walking in the store’s door not only gave us access to doughnuts and coffee, but we also got to tell the store owner, Rick, our story. Rick helped the tale of our missing Shauna spread throughout the town. We would tell anyone and everyone who would listen and Rick’s phone at the store became the new contact number for us as the Sheriff’s dept called with updates.
Sleeping against and hanging out next to the wall of a general store/post office like Jay and Silent Bob was an experience Brianna and I appreciated at the highest level yet had no desire to repeat for another night. The RV park next to the general store charged $20 for showers and a camp spot. Our problem, of course, was that we had no tent. We decided that a shower and the ability to hang out in the RV park’s indoor hiker room were worth the $20. If nothing else, we would have a shower’s worth of distraction, be clean, and have a spot to shelter out of the day’s 105-degree temperatures. After telling our story to the woman checking people into the RV park, we were given permission to sleep in the hiker room for the night – bonus win!
However clean and comfortable we might have been at the RV park, neither Brianna nor I could ignore the coming and going of 11:30am that Friday morning. 24 hours had passed since our last text message from Shauna and her phone was still showing as offline in ‘Find My’ and was still going straight to voicemail when called. None of our family back home was aware of the situation up to this point, it was time to make some uncomfortable phone calls. I’m not sure how to properly tell family and friends that one of the most important people in their lives is missing, but we did our best. Concerned faces are easy to mask with brave voices and everyone took the news without audibly crying during our calls.
Physical and emotional exhaustion took its toll on both Brianna and I. We took turns passing out, me on the futon couch, she on the rectangular couch cushion shorter than the length of her curled-up body – an absolute upgrade from last night! ‘Friends’ played on the TV as we slept, waking up only to check our phones for updates that never came. The necessary rest felt sinful. Where was Shauna and could she be sleeping as soundly? If her car had broken down, she had weeks of food to survive on. If her car had run off a cliff, she could be trapped underneath the vehicle and living on borrowed time.
Saturday morning was the worst. The Sheriff’s dept had sent people out to the roads we reported her to have been on and had found nothing. Thoughts of what life without Shauna would look like crept into my head and I sobbed as Brianna cried on my shoulder. We were told a helicopter would be sent out later this day and we weren’t sure if that was a good thing or the beginning of the end of our sanities.
Our ability to wait had ended, we needed to find a ride and do something, anything. You don’t let people you love stay lost, you go out and find them. A Facebook message to Brianna from a local by the name of Doug interrupted my search for rental cars in Medford, a city more than an hour’s drive away that we had no way of getting to. Doug offered what no one else had, a ride past the Cook and Green and up to the road Shauna had reported as closed. In addition to that, he also had yurts on his property with cell signal and WiFi if we needed a place outside of the RV park to sleep – yes, please.
Doug met Brianna and I at the cafe for breakfast before heading up into the mountains of unknown. It wasn’t long before we were all in Doug’s truck driving back up and beyond the 12-mile road Brianna and I had hiked just a couple of days before. It’s not that we expected to find her, it’s that we needed to try. A locked gate greeted us about 10 miles past the Cook and Green. Whether it was the same gate Shauna had found when she texted us or it was a different gate on the opposite side of the road she had encountered was impossible to say. Either way, our search had ended.
I’m not sure how Doug’s house has usable Verizon LTE when nowhere else in Seiad Valley does, but pulling into his driveway changed everything when a text from Shauna popped into our phones!
“I’m alive, getting a ride from a helicopter.”
After over 48 hours of missing time, Shauna had been found and rescued. She will tell you that she was not missing and that she knew exactly where she was at all times :-). Semantics. Search and Rescue dropped Shauna off at the Yreka airport where the Siskiyou Sheriff dept picked her up and drove her to us in Seiad Valley.
From the minute I dialed 911 to report Shauna as missing to the moment she was dropped off at the Seiad Valley general store, our experiences with the local people and departments were all positive. When Brianna posted information about Shauna’s disappearance in the PCT Facebook groups, locals reshared them nearly a hundred times over. When the Sheriff’s dept thought Brianna and I might be sleeping outside in the cold, they sent deputies to check on our well-being. Thank you, Seiad Valley & Siskiyou County.
A successfully rescued Shauna is not the end of this story. No, there was still the matter concerning her rental car. What happened to Shauna that caused her to drop out of contact and need a helicopter lift? Where was her car?
Writing has been difficult these past few weeks. It feels as though I’ve only had negative things to say, with the plethora of people-related experiences we have had. I told myself I would write about both the negative and positive experiences, to keep them as real as possible. The problem is that I’m not really a negative person, which makes it hard to put time into reliving small things I did not particularly care to live through the first time around. It created a cycle of negativity that took some time for me to shake out of.
In the name of science, I did a little experiment today. I counted the number of hikers we passed without telling Brianna I was doing it. I wanted to find out how many people Brianna thought were passing us in a day as compared to how many we actually passed.
First question: How busy would you say the trail has been today?
Brianna’s answer: It seems like there are fewer people today.
Second question: How many people do you think we have passed today?
Brianna’s answer to the second question was not just wrong, she underguessed the true count by half. I counted 107 hikers and 1 dog in 11 hours, 104 NOBO / 3 SOBO. For those not doing the math at home:
9.7 people per hour
1.6 people every 10 minutes
If today felt like less people, how many did we pass on the days that felt super busy? I’m not sure I fully trust these numbers. Neither Brianna nor I remember seeing .7 or .6 of a person while we were out there.
Of the 107 people and 1 dog, we knew exactly 1 of the people and the 1 dog, Ian the man and Sandy the dog from Shelter Cove! The man and his dog appeared as dots on the horizon long before we could identify who they were. Two other hikers passed by us as we rounded a corner and warned, “that dog is not ours, we would have it on a leash.” Brianna and I scratched our heads at their odd remark before a twinkle of recognition moved from our eyes and into our brains, “Ian!”
Brianna and Ian became fast friends back in Shelter Cove, talking for much of the afternoon we spent there. Ian was the beneficiary of many hiker meals we had shipped ourselves but did not need at that time. It’s not a surprise that he also remembered us from way back when. We had a good 10-minute catch-up chat on the side of the mountain before heading off in opposite directions for the last time.
Shortly after saying goodbye to Ian, we ran into Mandy, the woman who owns the Purple Rain Adventure Skirts company that makes Brianna’s hiking skirt. Brianna has a black skirt and was instantly jealous of Mandy’s purple skirt. The chance meeting was a total fan girl moment for Brianna, they talked about their skirts and what they love about them for a good long time.
I’m not sure if today’s hiking day was the most challenging we have ever had, but it was very difficult. The trail was visible for miles and miles as we climbed up the knife’s edge toward Ol’Snowy. Sun beat down upon us all afternoon, but it did not bring our spirits down one iota. 360 views of the surrounding mountains lifted us up every incline, fueling our fire to make the top. This experience was majestically one of the coolest things I have experienced in my life. Last week was thru-hiking lows and today had more than enough highs to pay it back with interest.
I’ve never been to China, but the jagged mountain rocks formed into walls at places, making me think of what the Great Wall might look like if it had been created almost entirely by Mother Nature. The last quarter mile up was a steep 1,200ft/mile hill over large rocky plates of scree that slid and clapped beneath my feet as I climbed. Reaching the top made me feel special and powerful, looking to the horizon was a reminder of how small and fragile we all are.
Camp for tonight is also pretty grand. We walked past the dozens of hikers that were camped at the base of the knife’s edge and found our own home nestled in a small alcove of trees. Tomorrow, we say goodbye to Washington and plot a course to the neutral zone (California).
We did it. Today, we were those people. A planned 23-mile day turned into a 17-mile day in the blink of an eye. 12 miles of hiking through a burn area under the hot sun stole our motivation to go any further. If we had gone further, it would have been a 6-mile water carry to camp, through even more burn areas. No thanks.
This opportunity to be the first ones at camp with a tent set up by 3pm was another educational experience. Our campsite options were 1.) a beautiful site next to where we knew other people would be camping or 2.) a solo spot where we could see people had been going to the bathroom. We picked option #1.
It took less than an hour for our once vacant camping area to fill up with tents. Brianna and I enjoyed making small talk with other hikers as we ate an early rice & beans dinner. A thing I need to keep reminding myself about these backwoods campsites is that they are more like city campgrounds than they are wilderness campsites. Expect to hear loud conversations and cackling, the clanking of pans, and all the other nightly noises.
Our campground quieted into silence well before sunset, lulling me into a false sense of optimism about how much sleep we might get this night. New hikers arrived throughout the night and pitched tents anywhere they could. With new hikers coming in at night and old hikers packing up and heading out early in the morning, we were not able to get much rest.
Most of the hikers coming in and going out were not disruptive and did so with minimal noise and light usage. We wouldn’t have known the quiet people were there if the noisy flashlight people hadn’t already woken us up. Morning coffee was especially special when Brianna made eye contact with a gentleman taking a poop in a meadow just 10 feet away from camp.
These recent experiences around large amounts of people while we hike have me questioning if we would ever want to attempt the Appalachian Trail. Maybe the AT would be best for us to do in well-timed sections?
Today’s 21-mile trek was brought to you by – water! Water is scarce in the first 60 miles of the southbound hike from Snoqualmie to White Pass. Throw in that we are also avoiding some water sources for various reasons and it all adds up to dry camping and water carries.
As crazy as this may sound, we have made a southbound friend and have been hiking with her for the past few days. I originally met PBR (puked before rallying) at a camp spot by a few ponds, we were both filtering water. She is from Wisconsin, now living in Colorado. My affection for people from Wisconsin and her ‘midwestern nice’ attitude made for a fast friendship. We aren’t hiking together on the trail, but are leapfrogging each other on breaks and always taking an extra 5-10 minutes to chat when it happens.
Early Camping is Too Late
Today was filled with short steep climbs that we handled like bosses for the first 75% of the day. Our pace was fast enough to get us to where we wanted to camp by 5pm… unfortunately, the northbounders must have arrived by 4pm and the place was packed. Despite our effort to make it to camp early, we were still too late. Despite our efforts to avoid popular water sources, this one could not be skipped.
Beyond the frustration of arriving somewhere that is already overfull and not knowing where to go, there is another bothersome thing about this thing PBR refers to as “camp wars”. In some ways, it’s a lot like grade school. Some people have their tents up and their gear in the spots next to them, saving for a friend who has not yet arrived. I’m in 3rd grade again and we have walked into a cafeteria, all the tables are full, but many of the seats are still empty. Instead of eating our lunches at the tables with empty chairs, we have to walk 2-3 miles to the next cafeteria and hope for the best.
In the end, everything turned out for the best. We hiked southward for another half mile and found a single ridge site with a beautiful view of Mount Rainier. We didn’t want to spend the night around 30 other people. It was a good thing we didn’t have any tent site options to try.
These past few days are a cautionary tale to anyone hoping to hop on the trail for some solitude. These backwoods places can be just as populated as a nightclub on a Friday night. With only a few more days left in Washington, we are attempting to make the best of it. Hopefully, California will be around SOME people but not ALL the people.
Imagine hiking as a video game. Every hiker starts their journey at 100 life points. The more life points you have, the better you feel and the further you can go. If your life points get close to or reach 0, you’re more likely to be injured and knocked off the trail.
Every step you take has a life point value, controlling how far you can travel each day. Some events remove life points more quickly, like kicking rocks and roots, or tripping to the ground. Everything has a cost. As much as you plan based on past performances, you never really know how many life points a day will need to get it done.
It is possible to restore some life points throughout the day. We carry pounds of life points in the form of food and electrolytes. Sometimes playing tunes from your phone can even give a temporary boost. However, these are only temporary gains in life, one of the only true ways to reset back to 100 is a good night’s sleep, whether in a tent or town.
Today I made a mistake that took our life points from near 100 down to zero.
Snoqualmie the Sickly
Our stay in the town of Snoqualmie was cloaked in the shadows of sickness. Not us, mind you, we are perfectly healthy. A lot of hikers are coming down with what sounds like the norovirus. I’m still convinced it may be related to zombie flies biting people and turning them into undead human insects.
Being in a hotel stuffed full of sick people is not ideal. We hunkered down inside and washed our hands frequently whenever outside. Most of our time was spent planning for the next 5-day section into White Pass. With all the time in the world to plan, you’d think I’d have a pretty good chance of not mucking it up.
Brianna found an alternate that we could take out of Snoqualmie with the ideas being that we could both avoid sick people and have an easier day on trail. I found the Palouse to Cascades trail easy enough in my Gaia app and charted a course. Everything looked easy, probably too easy now that I think about it. Toggling between Farout, Gaia, and Apple Maps ended up being a bit more than I could handle. We had a course charted but would not realize the destination was incorrect until it was miles too late.
Seeing sick people everywhere and trying not to get sick sends the mind into overdrive. We can’t avoid drinking water from the same streams, but we can choose which streams we get water from and go further upstream when we do. We can’t avoid camping outdoors, but we can choose where we camp and how close that camp is to other people. One of my saddest overprotective thoughts is that we might need to stop eating huckleberries and blueberries for a while. They are on the trail and could be touched by the sickly? I don’t know.
Palouse to Cascades Alternate
Walking south from Snoqualmie to the Hyak trailhead was downhill and simple enough. We had hoped to see the Snoqualmie tunnel, an old railroad tunnel you can walk into. Whether I plotted it wrong or just misunderstood its location, we overshot it by about .4 (-10 life points). A hiker was walking into the Hyak trailhead area when we arrived and shared that she was infected with whatever was going around (-10 life points).
The Palouse to Cascade Trail is an old railway path with the tracks removed. It’s about as flat a walk as it gets, very similar to the Gandy Dancer we walked on the Ice Age Trail last year. We had a leisurely walk on this trail for about the first 9 miles of our day. Instead of continuing on the Palouse to Cascades Trail for another few miles to Stampede Pass road, we followed my Gaia plotted course up some old forest roads for a couple of miles before Brianna pulled out her phone and asked, “why are we going in the opposite direction of the PCT?”
You know that feeling you get when you’ve done something wrong but it’s too late to do anything to fix it? That feeling hit my gut hard when realizing we would be making it back to the PCT, but it would be 4 miles away from where we had intended it to be (-50 life points). The day would be longer and steeper than we had hoped. Brianna was distraught, I was sad and embarrassed.
We walked the 4 additional miles in relative silence. I knew Brianna was not mad at me, she was just digesting our new reality. In my head, it felt like making it to Stampede Pass could reset my blunders… little did I know, there was trail magic when we arrived! (+70 life points)
Trail magic, like a good night’s sleep, can also restore life points back to 100. Random acts of kindness go a long way. I cannot remember the gentlemen’s names, but one had just finished the Continental Divide Trail and wanted to give a little something back to the hiking community in the form of beer, pop, cereal, and a variety of other snacks.
Joining a circle of hikers and digging our hands into a common area of food and drinks was against all of our precautionary rules, but we did it anyway. Good conversation, a Coke, and a Coors worked in concert to lift our spirits higher than they were when we started the day.
Home for the night is a dry campsite in a valley between two steep inclines. Brianna set up the tent while I climbed .3 to a barely flowing creek to grab us the water we would need for dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow – my self-imposed penance.
It’s difficult to have a bad day, let alone back-to-back bad days, when there are so many wild huckleberries and blueberries around. These wild blueberries taste more like blueberry than any blueberry I have ever had before. One of my new favorite things in the world is tossing both blueberries and huckleberries into my mouth at the same time. If this flavor could be captured, it may be the most effective antidepressant ever.
I am feeling very blessed today. Not in a, “I’m so blessed to be out here,” kind of way, more like a, “I am blessed to be so lucky.” Is lucky a synonym for blessed? Brianna’s mom, Penny, always says that we have someone watching over us because of the good fortune we seem to run into everywhere we go. I know better than most that it only takes one wrong spin of the roulette wheel for fortunes to take a turn for the worse, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the win streak while you’re on it.
We had a huge hill to start the day. Every time we stopped for a breather, plump huckleberries were next to us, waiting to be picked.
Today was the first day of the past few without overcast skies. Every time we started a big climb into the sun, clouds would appear from the other side of the mountain and shade us from the heat.
(To balance it out)
The zipper jammed on my sleeping bag and ripped a hole in the side of it. We are stuffing the feathers back in every morning until a stick can be attempted.
The zipper jammed on my puffy jacket and ripped a hole in the pocket. No feathers are escaping, but the pocket is unusable.
Today’s biggest stress was northbounders. It’s not having to wait while they pass from the opposite direction, though we did see more today than any other day so far. The stress is camping related. We have observed many northbounders setting up their camps between 4 and 5pm, and the sun doesn’t set until around 8:15pm. While they are faster than us and can still get big miles in on early days, we have to hike until at least 6:30pm on most days. This leaves us at a disadvantage.
It’s mentally challenging to arrive at where you had hoped to be done for the day and find you need to get creative or hike on in search of something else. This is a solid reminder that we should probably stick to southbound hiking for future hikes. The camping problem is something these bubble hikers have to deal with on the daily… no thanks.
For tonight, our tent sits next to a rock overhanging the Waptus River. The ground is a fine dirt that gets into and onto everything. Luckily, being as dirty as we already are, a little more dirt doesn’t mean much.
We had no idea what the day would turn into when Anthony, our trail angel and host for the night, picked us up just after 3pm. We knew we were going to Skykomish and would be staying the night in a trailer, but that’s pretty much it. The evening ended up being so much more than that, so much more.
On Angel Wings
What image pops in your head when you hear the words, “trail angel”? The community is so diverse that there is no single race, sex, walk of life, or personality that comes to mind for me anymore. Anthony is a Skykomish-loving, ourdoors guide, and entrepreneur who is fueled by caffeine and moves 100 miles an hour. This guy is amazing. In the same breath, he mentions “taking a day off to relax” he often follows it up with, “after I pick up and drop off some hikers.”
Our contact with Anthony started one night with a text from our Garmin Inreach (we had zero cell service) to see if we could get a ride into Skykomish from Stevens Pass and stay at his place for a night. He responded the next morning with a quick yes and all of the wonderful details.
Bed (bonus to trinity)
We didn’t even ask any follow-up questions. The only thing to say when the holy trinity of hiker needs is being offered is, “yes, please.”
Anthony picked us and 3 other hikers up from Stevens Lodge and charioted us west to Skykomish. He would have picked us up sooner than 3pm, but he was leading an ATV trip for a youth group of future leaders.
In addition to his day job and train angel hobby, Anthony also recently opened an outdoor outfitter shop in Skykomish. As of 2020, Skykomish only had 127 full-time residents. His business and all of the other surrounding small businesses rely on outdoor sports and highway 2 traffic to succeed. The outfitter shop is not staffed all day every day, calling ahead for specific gear needs and timeframes is a must.
Trucking hikers into town is no short-term win for the outfitter shop, he probably wouldn’t make back enough to cover the cost of gas between Skykomish and Stevens Pass. No, I believe the real long-term goal is to show as many hikers as possible that Skykomish is a great place to spend a day for those not looking for the big city life Leavenworth has to offer. It worked on Brianna and I, we love this little town.
The Lovely Skykomish
Anthony dropped all of us hikers off in the middle of town for 2 hours before heading to our home for the night, and again for another 2 hours before heading out the next morning.
Our bartender at the Whistling Post Inn didn’t care that we smelled like hikers 6 days without a shower, she smiled and treated us like normal human beings. Hot food takes a little while to prepare, as the pub has only 1 deep frier, but the cold beer and good conversations helped to hold us over.
The barista from the Sky River coffee house greeted us outside the door before making us some amazing danishes and mochas. She also had epic body art to compliment her swirling snake earrings. One of the locals, an older gentleman, even offered us a ride back to Stevens Pass and asked us questions about the hike while we waited for our drinks to be made.
We packed out some bomb salmi sandwiches from the Louskis Deli. It took about 20 minutes for them to prepare our food, and in that time, we saw about a dozen hikers catch easy hitches on highway 2 back out of town. The deli even has a sign for hikers to use for hitches.
I loved Anthony and his Skykomish Outfitter so much that I paid $30 for a new camo hat to replace my much-loved military cap.
There is even a laundry mat called the ‘Sit and Spin Laundromat’. We did not go there, but I had to mention the name…
Every business in Skykomish has hiker food or something catering specifically to our world. It would be possible to do a full resupply here without sending a package, though I’d guess it wouldn’t be the cheapest option.
A Good Night’s Sleep
This post is getting long, so I’ll summarize the end of our night by saying that they let Brianna and I use their showers and laundry with open arms. Anthony’s partner, Mike, treated us like family, just the same as Anthony did. They gave us space to relax by ourselves and brought their Corgi dog, Boomer, around to play while they chatted with us every now and again.
If you’re not a big city person and unsure about Skykomish, don’t be. They love hikers and you will fall in love with the town, same as we did.
Sometimes, when the conditions are right, even when you’re in the middle of the woods and a hundred miles from nowhere, you can hear the squealing of a bus’s breaks as it makes a stop next to the trail. The bus driver pulls the lever next to the steering wheel and the door swings open. Whether or not to get on the struggle bus is often not a choice. The bus came here because it has been called. You bought the ticket and it’s time to get what you paid for.
While I have no regrets about yesterday’s late start, not hitting the trail until 11am cost us 4 hours of hiking. Getting roughly 8 miles less than we should have dashed our hopes of finishing this section in 3 days instead of 3.5. The dream of arriving in early to Snoqualmie and enjoying the town life a little bit more have all washed away.
Disillusioned dreams suck the energy out of your drive to press on. Instead of steadily marching towards something, it begins to feel like you’re chasing a rabbit down a track. We’re tired.
On the positive side of things, we have been passing some of our old Shelter Cove friends! We saw Bubble Wrap by Milk Creek a few days ago and Echo with her dog, Echo, just before the river we forded this morning. They don’t immediately recognize us, because they are going north and have met many more people than we have, but we make sure to stop and remind them :-).
What’s In a Name?
Before being on the PCT, I thought trail names were dumb. They were like hacker handles without the utility of anonymity. If the purpose of a trail name was to hide your identity, we would all name ourselves instead of waiting to be named. No, the utility of a trail name is quite the opposite, it’s very identity-based and usually comes with a story. If I tell someone that we chatted with Poptart or Smiles, it’s much easier than saying I chatted with Karen or Tom, to which there may be a dozen.
Two or more people with the same trail name on the same trail in the same year does happen. Brianna and I have met 3 Gandalf and 2 Puke and Rallys. Seems like all you need to do is carry a wooden stick instead of a hiking pole and you’re a Gandalf. Not a single Bilbo. Curious, isn’t it? As southbounders, we haven’t met that many people, so the dataset is small. When I think about it, it’s not curious at all.
In case you’re wondering, Brianna is still without a trail name. Maybe we will hike around people in California and she will get one then? Or maybe she will stay Brianna forever!
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when only one remembers to turn on the light.” -Dumbledore
Disembarking from the struggle bus is never as easy as getting on. This bus has a lot of people to pick up in the PCT area. There is one thing though – you’re not allowed to eat fresh huckleberries on the bus. The bus driver will kick you off for being too happy! Whenever we see that one of us is on or getting ready to board the struggle bus, we pick a berry for each of us. 10/10 smiles all around.
Camping at Glacier Lake last night was great. About 20 feet of large rocks separated the many tent spots from the lake. Many hikers set their tents up on top of the rocks for a premo view of the beautiful blue water. Our tent sat in a bowl, big enough to fit our set and flat enough for us to sleep comfortably. We’d have been screwed if it rained hard overnight. While sleeping in a bowl is not generally recommended, it is so comfortable to feel the ground hugging you to sleep.
Inclines continue to be steep in this Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie section. We are getting better at the 400/500 ft/mile climbs, taking less breaks and powering on for longer periods of time. Any time we can hike a steep 4-mile incline in under 2 hours, that’s something to get pumped about.
The past few days have been both mentally and physically taxing on us. Trail Maintenance has increased dramatically, which is lucky for us because so has the steepness of the inclines. One of the steepest inclines we had to conquer was a 750 ft/mile up Grizzly Peak. The PCT does not go up to the top of many peaks in this area and the trek up for southbounders is significantly more aggressive than what northbounders see on the other side. We are so thankful to have done the climb on a cool evening rather than a hot day.
Every extra mile we could muster into day 5 would mean 1 less mile to town on day 6, so we pushed 23.4 miles all the way to the top of Grizzly Peak. All of the normal tent spots were taken by the time we arrived, forcing us to be creative in selecting where our home would be for the night. We have been told that a huge hiker bubble is headed our way from Snoqualmie, and while 4 tents popping up before we arrive at a location is far from a bubble, it is the first time we have encountered this.
The sky was clear as could be as we sat next to the tent watching the sunset. Well, I opened the far flap of the tent so that Brianna could hide from mosquitoes and still enjoy the view. Clueless that these clear skies were not to last, we passed out to the of pikas pikaing, crickets cricketing, and the occasional jet plane on its way to Seattle.
My eyes opened at 3am, something was different, not right. I turned my head to see Brianna’s eyes were also open, “That smells like smoke,” I said to her. “Yep,” she quickly replied.
We had seen a fire to the east as we muddled through the day’s climbs. The wind was blowing the smoke north at the time and not so much as a smell existed for us to have known it was there by nose. A midnight change in winds and temperatures brought a thick layer of haze on top of us. It looked worse in the valleys to the north, but it was bad enough where we were that sleeping through it just wasn’t a viable option. Plus, there is something unsettling about waking up to smoke. You assume it’s the fire you know about, but what if it’s a brand-new fire that you have no way of knowing about?
We popped out of the tent and directly into the morning camp chores, me making coffee, and she packing up our sleeping kits. Strop waffles started our breakfast, biscuits and gravy capped it off. In no rush to ridge hike in the dark, we took our time eating, taking breaks to look at the stars. Civil twilight begins just after 5am in these parts, providing a thin light across the horizon that was enough light to see our feet, so that’s when we finally left camp.
Even with the slight light of the rising sun to the east, burning red coals from the fires were visible as we hiked downhill. There were now two plumes of smoke, whereas yesterday there was one. Unexpectedly waking up at 3am to smoke makes for a challenging day all on its own and walking in the smoke did not help. We tired quickly, and didn’t cough or have stinging eyes, but we felt it in every breath we took. With buffs over our faces, we raced the 14.4 miles into Stevens Pass.
Arriving at noon, 2 hours before our ride into Skykomish, gave us plenty of time to relax in the shade of what had become a 90-degree day. We picked up and sorted through the resupply boxes Mel sent to the lodge for us. These boxes had all of our normal food, plus extra goodies: gummy worms and bears for me, skittles and Reese’s for Brianna. And if that wasn’t enough, The Trek also sent me a ‘thank you’ bag with a new buff and all the snacks you see below. None of The Trek snacks nor the gummy worms made it out of Stevens Pass alive. You see, because of my zombie fly notes, I came into town with a completely empty food bag.
Anthony, our lovely host and trail angel for the night, picked us up from the Stevens Pass Lodge… but that is a story for tomorrow.