Eagle Creek Alternate mile 4.8 – Cascade Locks
Total miles so far: 459.7
I sleep well down here on the Eagle Creek Trail. It’s not nearly as cold at the lower elevation, with the warm damp air, and I’m wonderfully cozy in my sleeping bag.
As I pack everything away I can’t believe that I’m doing it for the last time. I will be in my own bed tonight! What will that even be like?
I grab my little shovel and walk into the woods to dig my final cathole. No more digging holes in which to poop! No more dirty toilet paper to hike out with! If there’s one thing I will not miss about this hike, it’s the bathroom situation.
Hands sanitized and pack on my back, it’s time to hike. The trail is easy, dirt and rocks, one waterfall after another, and I pass each one in anticipation of the one waterfall I’ve been waiting for this entire hike: Tunnel Falls.
Finally I reach it, this tunnel that has been carved out behind a thundering waterfall, and I am lucky enough to have it entirely to myself. Sunday morning in the church of nature, indeed.
With three miles to go I finally have phone reception, and I call Paul. He’s disappointed that he won’t be there to greet me when I finish, but I promise him that it’s okay. There’s actually something fitting about finishing this thing by myself.
I know I’m getting close to the trailhead when I start to cross paths with squeaky clean day hikers in their brightly colored clothing, and the scent of their detergent and soap overwhelms me after so many days in the wilderness. I’ve never noticed it before, but man-made cleanliness has a very distinct smell. It’s not unpleasant – surely I’m the one giving off the unpleasant smell – but it’s powerful nonetheless.
The Eagle Creek Trail ends at a parking lot, and from here I follow the directions I ripped out of my guidebook before leaving home. I walk to the end of the parking lot, stop at the pit toilet, and follow the paved road down to the campground. At the edge of the campground I find a sign for the Gorge Trail, which I follow until it runs into a paved bike path onto which I am to turn right and continue on for two miles. That’s it, just two more miles to go.
I am back in civilization now, surrounded by cars and highways and power lines and buildings, and all of the sudden I cannot stand being alone. Not now, not right now.
So I call my mother, my sweet mother who has been going out of her mind with fear this past month, and the relief in her voice is profound when I tell her that I am just two miles from being done. We talk for about twenty minutes, and I try to answer her question about why anyone would want to do this. Why would you choose suffering when you don’t have to? How is it possible to enjoy something that feels absolutely awful while you’re doing it?
I tell her that I did not do this hike for fun, and in sharing this I also try to explain the difference I see between fun and joy. Fun is going to a party, to the movies, or eating ice cream with a friend. Fun is wonderful and necessary, but it is fleeting. Joy – deep, lasting joy – has only ever come to me through doing something hard, something I cared about and had to work for.
I’ve heard it said that a good story is one in which a character wants something and has to overcome obstacles to get it. And isn’t this also what makes a good life?
I wanted to walk from the California/Oregon border to the Oregon/Washington border, and there were obstacles every single day. Blisters and pain, thirst and exhaustion, bears and rattlesnakes, insecurity, terror, loneliness, and doubt. But in just one more mile I will be standing at the Bridge of the Gods and I will have done it, I will have hiked 460 miles. Me, the girl who grew up in Manhattan and who had never been camping a night in her life until this summer. It might not have been all that much fun while I was doing it, but the joy I feel at this accomplishment can never be taken away.
My mother and I say goodbye with half a mile to go, because it turns out that I do want to finish this thing alone.
The bike path runs parallel to a main road at this point, and cars rush by on my right, filled with passengers who have no idea what this moment feels like for me. Finally, I can see the bridge in the distance and I start to cry. I am hiking faster and faster, almost running, and when I reach the sign that says, “Welcome to Historic Cascade Locks” I collapse on the grass beneath it and sob.
I did it.
Against all odds, despite every single obstacle, I did it.
I really actually did it.