Day 23: I’m not going to have any skin left after this and I don’t even care

18.1 miles
PCT mile 2076.3 – Timberline Lodge
Total miles so far: 413.5

I have just drifted off to sleep when I hear loud stomping footsteps outside my tent. Sticks are crunching and breaking beneath the weight of whatever is out there, and I hear deep snuffling and breathing noises. My eyes are wide open, it’s pitch black, and I am terrified.

I hesitate over what to do. Should I be still and quiet, or should I make a loud noise to scare the animal away? It’s not like being still and quiet really matters, this animal can obviously smell me and see our tents.

A minute passes that feels like an hour, and I hear the animal retreating back into the woods. The stick-breaking noises fade and all is silent once again.

Except for my heart – my heart is definitely not silent. It’s pounding so intensely that I feel it in my throat and in my toes, and for the longest time I just lay there, unmoving, trying to calm my breathing and avoid the mental spiral of “WHY AM I OUT HERE WITH HUGE SNUFFLING BEASTS WHEN I COULD BE AT HOME? WHY WHY WHYYYYYYY!”

2am passes, and then 3am and 4am, and I know that I will not get any more sleep tonight. Might as well drain my phone battery, right? My external battery pack still has some juice and I’ll be at Timberline Lodge to recharge everything soon enough.

So I pull out my phone and take advantage of the one bar of reception, reading through all of the kind and supportive comments on Instagram that have been posted over the past few days. These comments have been left by both friends and strangers, and even though it only takes a few seconds to post a comment these folks have no idea how much their words and their few seconds of effort mean to me. It makes me feel that I am less alone out here, and that people care and are invested in this hard thing I am trying to do. I make a mental note to be more vocal in my support of others once I’m back from this hike. Encouraging words matter!

The sun comes up and the three of us begin to pack away our things. Neither Feather nor Sprout heard the animal last night (how?!?) but we discuss what it could have been. A bear, maybe? It was definitely bigger than a deer. Some kind of moose or elk? We’ll never know.

We hike out just after 6:30am, still wearing our warm jackets. The morning air is chilly and crisp; fall is definitely on its way.

We have 18 miles to go until Timberline Lodge, and we decide to stick together for the day. There is lots of climbing ahead, more than 4,000 feet, but we know if we just keep going forward, even at our slow pace, that we’ll get there. We won’t make it in time for brunch, but we’re spending the night at the hotel and can eat all the brunch we want tomorrow morning.

We reach Twin Lakes Junction at 9:40am and realize that we’ve been hiking much faster than we thought. We’re cruising! We stop for a 30 minute snack break, peering into our almost empty food bags, eating the last of whatever’s left. At this pace we’ll get to Timberline before 3pm. Maybe even before 2:30! We’ll have so much hotel time! And with this in our hearts we’re soon back on trail, hiking uphill into the hottest part of the day and barely even noticing.

The final few miles slow us way down, as the trail leaves the hard-packed dirt and takes us instead through deep, soft sand up to the base of Mount Hood. For every two steps we take in this sand we seem to be sliding back downward the same distance, and we’re sweating and yelling, me blasting Girl Talk through my phone speakers, all of us yelling that “this is BULLSHIT, this is such BULLSHIT.”

Look at all this glorious bullshit!

But then we see it: Timberline Lodge, up ahead on the left in the distance, and our hiking takes on a frantic new edge. There is no energy quite like the energy of a long-distance hiker who is this close to a shower and a hot meal. We’re three quarters of a mile away, and then half a mile away, and then a quarter mile, and then suddenly we’re standing at the bottom of the stairs that lead up into the lodge and I almost cry. I know that I still have a few days of hiking left, but getting here, to this point, having hiked 413.5 miles, feels like the accomplishment of a lifetime. This moment, climbing the stairs to Timberline Lodge, is the very first time that I fully believe I will actually complete this hike.

“Holy shit,” I whisper. “I am really going to do this.”

Inside the lodge we head to the check-in desk, and as I hand over my credit card I tell the woman behind the counter that this is the most excited that anyone has ever been to check into a hotel room, ever. She gives me a small smile, my room key, a token and detergent for the laundry machine, and a few minutes later I have closed the door behind me in my very own hotel room.

I have privacy! I have walls and a door and I am safe and there’s a toilet and a giant bed and a shower and fluffy towels and then I finally do cry. I strip off my hiking clothes and turn the shower on, still crying as I step underneath the hot stream of water. This is the first time in 23 days that I have not paid by the minute to use a shower, and I am actually going to be able to take my time and to get clean. I wash my hair with actual shampoo (!) and use a washcloth and soap to clean my body, scrubbing at all the dirt that doesn’t want to come off, scrubbing so hard that I fear I won’t have any skin left after I’m done but who even cares. I will be clean! Actually actually clean! The gratitude tears continue.

Once I’m out of the shower I wrap my body in a soft white towel with a second towel on my head (towels, motherfucker!), and I collapse onto the squishy cloud bed with its eleventy thousand squishy cloud pillows and I think about the enormous privilege of being able to spend the night in this hotel. The gratitude tears run down my face once more.

I meet back up with Sprout and Feather, and the early evening is filled with chores. We do our laundry, pick up our resupply boxes, charge our phones, and by 5pm we can’t stand it anymore, we need to sit down at the restaurant and order up some dinner.

The restaurant is not cheap, and I do not care. I order everything – a salad, a dish of smoked Oregon hazelnuts, tomato soup in a bread bowl, a fancy housemade strawberry soda, and an appetizer that is simply described as “artisan bread with local butter” – and even though I am vegan in my regular life and have been vegan throughout this entire trip so far, I eat the butter. I eat so much butter, and I’m not even sorry. Hiker hunger doesn’t care that I am vegan. Hiker hunger wants thick slabs of warm bread, slathered with butter, and by the end of the night the girls and I have eaten at least two loaves of bread between us, probably more. The food is perfect. If dinner is this good, we ask ourselves, what will their famous brunch be like in the morning? We are stuffed full of bread and still, we cannot wait.

At 7:45pm I am in bed, blinds closed tightly against the evening sunlight, body sinking into the squishy cloud mattress, plush blankets and pillows all around me.

This is the most comfortable I have ever been in my entire life. In my whole entire life.