Day 24: Waffles and waterfalls and sketchy water crossings – oh my!

12.1 miles
Timberline Lodge – PCT mile 2106.5
Total miles so far: 425.6

When I wake up this morning it isn’t like I’ve been merely sleeping, it’s like I’ve been in a coma.

The absence of fear about whether something will try to eat me in the night has given me an incredible feeling of peace, and peace apparently leads to the best sleep of one’s life. I don’t climb out of the cloud bed until 8am, and even then the only reason I get up is because there is brunch out there, just down the stairs from my room, and I must have it. I must have it!!!

Here’s what happens next:

Feather and Sprout and I get a table with Colin, Feather’s boyfriend who arrived late last night and who will be hiking the next section with them, and we sit at this table for over an hour, during which time we eat everything.

My first plate is filled end-to-end with a deep, crisp Belgian waffle that I have made myself at their waffle station. You can barely see the waffle under the mound of fresh berries and syrup that I’ve piled on top, but that waffle is there all right and it is perfect. Vegan? Who’s vegan?

My second plate has banana pancakes and seasoned potatoes, mini blueberry muffins and chocolate croissants. And my third and fourth plates are just melon. Melon!

And through all of this the waiter keeps bringing me freshly squeezed orange juice, which is not included in the buffet price and is something outrageous like $4 per glass, but it is sweet and pulpy like the nectar of the Gods so what do I even care? Here, take all my money. Just never stop bringing me this orange juice.

After brunch I stumble back to my room in a food haze. Check-out isn’t until 11am and I don’t plan to leave even one minute sooner. Especially since I have made myself sick at brunch, which is a) not surprising and b) not entirely unwelcome. I have almost two hours to work out my stomach issues in my own private hotel bathroom after all. It’ll be fine!

Back in my room I climb under the sheets and snuggle deep into the cloud bed. I call my best friend, Jamie, and we are able to talk for real for the first time since I started this hike. 11am comes around way too soon.

With great reluctance I drag myself and my gear out of the room, return the key, and commandeer a small section of the hotel’s lounge area in which to organize my resupply, clean out my pack, and get ready to go. By noon we’re climbing up the paved parking lot ramp toward the trail, and immediately I am back in blister hell, swallowing down some ibuprofen and trying not to think about my feet until the drugs kick in.

I hike alone all morning – the girls are going slow with Colin since it’s his first day on trail – but I pull ahead and soon pass a few southbound hikers who want to talk to me about one thing and one thing only: the brunch at Timberline Lodge. Is it as good as they’ve heard? As good as everyone says?

“It’s better,” I assure them. And then they speed-hike away, stacks of waffles calling their name.

Much of the trail is downhill today, and I never need to take a second dose of ibuprofen. Is my body finally adapting? Of course this is what would happen two days before I finish my hike. Of course, right?

In the late afternoon I hit the junction for the Ramon Falls alternate, where one can either continue on the PCT for two miles or hike the same mileage on a side trail that goes by Ramona Falls. I love waterfalls! So what the hell, let’s take the alternate.

This decision does not disappoint. The entire two-mile section is wonderful, so green and mossy and wet, almost rainforest-like, and I sit at the base of Ramona Falls for a while, watching the water cascade over the rocks with the early evening light filtering down through the trees. Tomorrow will be my last full day on trail. What does that mean? What does it mean that this hike is almost over?

Right before the alternate trail connects back to the PCT I have a choice: I can set up camp right here, at a tentsite by a creek, or I can push ahead for a few more miles. It’s been a short day though, and I feel good. Let’s do this. Let’s keep going!

The final obstacle before camp is that I need to cross Muddy Fork. The trail ends at a steep drop-off, below which I can see the quick-moving water of Muddy Fork, and the only way across is via the two downed trees that connect this bank with the other side, where the trail resumes.

The trees have fallen in such a way that one is slightly on top of the other, and someone has attached a thin cord of rope all along the top tree. From what I’m seeing, my only option is to stand on the lower tree, lean on the upper tree for support, hold the rope, and shuffle my feet side-to-side all the way across. I am terrified, but I don’t have a choice. This is the only way forward.

“You can do this, you can do this.”

I am chanting quietly to myself as I hold my trekking poles in one hand and step onto the tree. I use my free hand to hold the rope and I begin walking sideways, very slowly, refusing to look down into the water, just taking one small step at a time, chanting nonstop.

When I reach the other side I find that it’s not as easy as simply stepping off the tree, I need to get myself up and over the roots. This is the side of the trail that the trees came from, and the roots are large and formidable. I toss my trekking poles over first, hearing them clank as they hit the ground on the other side, and then I am carefully pulling myself up, holding tight to the roots, climbing over them one leg at a time, and finally jumping to the sturdy ground with a sigh of relief. I did it!

don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall

I find a spot to camp just a few minutes later, across the trail from two men who are hiking southbound, and even though they are perfectly friendly I have a moment of apprehension in which I remember that I am a woman hiking alone, preparing to sleep in the woods next to two strange men.

I do my camp chores to ease my nerves, eating my beans and veggies with olive oil and tortilla chips, setting up my tent and sleeping pad, and looking over the maps for tomorrow. I’ll be climbing over 4,300 feet, but I know I can do it. I made it to Timberline Lodge, I crossed that sketchy tree bridge, and I believe in myself.

I finally believe in myself.

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.

Day 22: Horses! 41 horses!

22 miles
PCT mile 2055.5 – PCT mile 2076.3 (+ side trail to/from Little Crater Lake)
Total miles so far: 395.4

The main topic of conversation in our campsite last night was the brunch at Timberline Lodge. I have never been to Timberline Lodge, but apparently there is a gourmet all-you-can-eat buffet brunch that people talk about up and down the entire PCT. By the time a northbound thru-hiker reaches this brunch they have hiked almost 2100 miles, and I marvel at the thought of how much one could eat at an all-you-can-eat brunch after hiking 2100 miles.

Chipotle, who camped with us last night, is about to find out. I hear him leave at 4:45am this morning, and his plan is to hike the 38.9 miles to Timberline Lodge today, camp there tonight, and be the first one in line for brunch in the morning.

38.9 miles! I cannot even imagine.

Feather and Sprout are the next to leave camp, and I finally drag myself to the trail about 20 minutes after them. I didn’t sleep well last night (again) and my feet are killing me (still, again, always), so I hobble along until the ibuprofen kicks in. But just like Dragon said: drugs work, and the rest of the morning passes easily.

I hike to Warm Springs River by myself, the trail staying mostly in the woods, and I think about life after this hike. I haven’t even been gone for that long, but it feels like everything is different, like I am different. I think about the future of my podcast, Real Talk Radio, and about my writing and my decade-long dream to go to pastry school. Do they even have vegan pastry schools? Is that a thing?

I filter one liter of ice cold water at the river, shivering as my fingertips go numb, and hike on as soon as I can toward Oak Grove Fork, 9.5 miles away, which is where I plan to stop for lunch.

The trail climbs 1,000 feet, which means it’s time for my iPod. I listen to music, and then to Twilight, and with another two miles to go I start to feel awful, weak and shaky and desperately tired. I sit off to the side of the trail and make lunch; why am I pushing myself so hard to reach an arbitrary stopping point? I can eat whenever I want! Who cares that it’s only 11:45am? Lunch time isn’t a real time!

So I sit, and I eat my nut butter and jam tortilla, and I take more ibuprofen. 22 days into this hike and I still haven’t been able to let go of my addiction to schedules and plans and productivity. I wonder how long of a hike it would take for that to happen. Would it ever happen?

At Oak Grove Fork I take a long break with Feather and Sprout and another hiker named Rome. I wash my socks, filter water, and eat Chex Mix with my grubby little hands. The minutes tick by but we’re all hesitant to move. It just feels so good to lay down. So so good to lay down.

When we finally hike out we decide to aim for Little Crater Lake, which is supposed to be deep and blue like the real Crater Lake, only much smaller. It’s five miles away, but the miles pass quickly now that I have new people to talk to. Hiking buddies! How incredible these young women are, doing this hard thing at only 18 and 21 years old. This is most certainly not what I was doing at that age. Wow, but what if, you know? How different would my life be now?

We step to the side of the trail to let a few people pass on horseback, only it isn’t a few people or a few horses. It’s 41 horses. 41 horses! From the snippets of conversation we overhear we’re pretty sure it’s a boy scout type trip. 41 horses!

We reach the junction to Little Crater Lake at 4:30pm, excited to see what awaits us down this side trail. A half mile later and we have our answer: it is indeed a tiny Crater Lake!

We head over to the campground to refill our water bottles and dump our trash, using the pit toilets and picnic tables, but it’s $20 to camp here and that is just way too much money for a patch of dirt. We eat dinner by the small deep lake and discuss our options. There really isn’t anywhere good to camp around here, but we’re all too beat to keep hiking. Someone suggests that we just camp right at the trail junction, just right off the PCT on the side of this other trail, and we all agree. It’s not great etiquette to do this, to just camp basically on the trail, but we’re completely worn out and this is the best we can do tonight.

We set our tents up end-to-end, blocking as little of the trail as possible, and tell ourselves and each other that it’s fine, it’ll be fine. And anyway tomorrow we’ll arrive at Timberline Lodge (!) where we have all splurged on hotel rooms (!!) and where we’ll be able to do laundry and shower and hang out inside and eat a thousand million servings of brunch (!!!!!)

We lay together on the hard ground, using a sign post to do legs-up-the-wall pose, and say over and over again how we absolutely cannot wait for brunch.

BRUNCH!

Day 21: Beast mode

21.3 miles
PCT mile 2034.2 – PCT mile 2055.5
Total miles so far: 373.4

So apparently I just don’t sleep anymore.

I’m curled in my sleeping bag as the sun comes up, peeking out at the world around me, thinking longingly of those few days on trail where I somehow managed to sleep for 6+ hours per night. Six hours of sleep. What luxury! And to think that I feel cranky at home if I’m not sleeping for eight or nine hours each night.

I turn that over in my mind as I pack my things away, thinking of how strict my criteria is for myself at home, about how many things “must” happen in order for me to feel good. Everything from how much I sleep to when/what I eat to how much rest I need throughout the day, and more. And yet out here I am not doing any of those things. I am not sleeping enough, and I am not sleeping well. I am not eating fresh fruits and vegetables. I’m probably not drinking enough water, not when filtering it and carrying it is such an annoyance. And I’m certainly not getting enough rest or downtime, even though I’m doing more physical activity than I have ever done in my entire life.

And yet here I am, surviving. It’s a good reminder that I am not the delicate flower I think I am. The story that I tell myself at home is no longer true. I am strong and tough. I can do hard things, in hard conditions.

I hike out, unsteady at first as my mind adjusts to the pains of my body, and I will myself to ignore the blisters on my left foot. There is a new one now, in between my toes and wrapping down onto the bottom of my foot, and it hurts so much that I almost laugh. What the fuck is this life! What am I doing!

As I hike I eat dried pineapple, a generous gift from the two very clean men who camped nearby last night. They’re headed back to their car today and were happy to give us their extra snacks.

I am grateful for this pineapple, but it isn’t enough to pull me out of my pain-and-exhaustion-induced funk. And then, of course, the trail turns rocky again. GREAT. This is just GREAT. Every rock is sharp, every step is painful, and I feel myself falling deeper into the pit of despair that seems to eagerly await me in my heart each day of this hike.

You know what? No. Fuck this. I am stronger than this. I feel my pain start to melt into anger and that anger fuels me, and as I round a bend in the trail and catch up to Feather and Sprout I am in full-on beast mode. They watch as I throw my pack down, rip off my jacket and long-sleeve shirt, put a t-shirt on, braid my hair off my face, swallow three ibuprofen tablets, turn on my aptly-named Assassin Training playlist, and prepare to fucking HIKE.

It’s seven miles to Olallie Lake, where there’s a small store that sells food and supplies for hikers, and I am stubbornly convinced that they will have jam. They. Will. Have. Jam. Jam! I have been fantasizing about jam for days and days, and as I pound my way down the trail I imagine opening my new jar of jam, pulling out a tortilla, smearing it with peanut butter, and then covering the entire thing in a thick layer of sweet fruity goodness.

Beast mode works, apparently, because it’s not even 10am when I arrive at Olallie Lake. I throw all of my trash away in their trash bins, drop my pack on a bench, head into the store, and with crazed eyes I ask the woman behind the counter if they have any jam and if so what kind of jam and how much does the jam cost and WHERE IS THE JAM, PLEASE??

If she is alarmed she doesn’t show it. She just leads me right over to the glass jars of grape jam and I don’t care that glass is heavy and breakable and that I probably shouldn’t hike with it in my pack, I buy it anyway. Jam!!

I buy other things too – apple juice, chocolate almond milk, Oreo cookies, and a large container of salt & vinegar Pringles. Oh yeah, the hiker hunger is here for sure.

Outside I sit on the bench and eat like a person possessed. Other hikers show up and I think I speak with them, but I honestly don’t even know because I am just so strung out on this beautiful, beautiful jam.

An hour and forty minutes later (oops) and I have eaten a quarter of the jam and every single other thing I purchased. I dump the leftover jam inside a clean ziplock bag, and double-bag that with another ziplock, and it’s at this moment that I realize I will be able to eat jam every day for the rest of this hike and I won’t even have to carry the glass jar. This is, without a doubt, the best news I can imagine.

I hike out toward Trooper Spring, one of my water bottles fizzing away courtesy of a caffeinated electrolyte tablet, and beast mode continues on high. I hardly ever drink caffeine so when I do, it works, and I spend the rest of the afternoon all jacked up on caffeine and jam, even entertaining the thought that I’ll be able to hike fast enough to catch Dragon & co. I saw their names in the trail register at Olallie Lake, they came through last night and might have even camped there, so how far ahead can they really be?

In my heart I know I won’t catch them, but having someone to chase helps to fuel my beast mode hiking, so I indulge myself with thoughts of surprising them at their campsite tonight as I fly down the trail.

With four miles to go until Trooper Spring I have to stop for an emergency poop situation. Ah yes, maybe don’t eat an entire container of Pringles + a package of Oreos + a quarter of a jar of jam + apple juice + chocolate almond milk in under an hour? Maybe don’t do that.

I meet up with Feather and Sprout at the spring, where the water is stagnant but refreshingly cold and mostly clear. We lay on our little foam pads in the shade, my tummy doing all kinds of gross-feeling things, and we are there so long that we basically own this patch of land. Hikers come by, asking about the spring, and we point them back toward it like ushers and tour guides. “On your right you’ll find the water. Beware the strange stuff floating on the surface!”

At 4:15pm we finally manage to drag ourselves away. We have about 700 feet of climbing to do to reach what our map says is a series of small tent sites, each about a tenth of a mile apart. I muster the remaining fumes of my beast mode, power up the climb, and at the first clearing I reach, I’m done. Plus, there’s phone service here!

I’ve just finished pitching my tent when the girls arrive, followed by a dude named Chipotle, and we all share the small space. I call my people, post photos to Instagram, eat dinner, and poke at the blister between my toes. Is it infected? It certainly looks infected. I clean it off with an antiseptic wipe, apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment, get into my tent, and hope for the best. In two days I’ll be at Timberline Lodge, and Paul is going to call them tomorrow to see if he can reserve a hotel room for me (!) so this blister situation will just have to keep it together until then.

All of the sudden it’s 9pm (hiker midnight!) and why aren’t I in my sleeping bag yet??

I snuggle into it, my small inflated mattress crinkling beneath me, and close my eyes.

Beast mode, out.

Day 20: Letting go

18.2 miles
PCT mile 2016 – PCT mile 2034.2
Total miles so far: 352.1

I fall asleep sometime after 3am, and I wake up to a brilliant, beautiful sunrise. The sky goes from black to purple to pink, with the bright orange sun casting a glow over all the trees in the distance.

It’s freezing up here on this exposed ridge though, and all of my items are soaking wet. I suppose that’s what happens when you ditch your tent, sleep on the ground, and just let the fog and condensation settle down on you all night?

The sun has yet to make its way over to our little campsite, and I am too cold to pull myself from my sleeping bag until it does. So I sit there and watch the sky as it changes colors, and I think about the fact that I’ve been living in the woods for 20 days and that I have now survived a night of cowboy camping as well. And nothing tried to eat my face in the night!

“I’m proud of you, Tink!” Dragon says as he makes breakfast

“Thanks,” I say, still wet and shivering. “But fuck cowboy camping forever, oh my god.”

By the time the sun has warmed me enough that I can finally convince myself to climb out of my sleeping bag and get moving it’s already 7:20am. That’s a late start for me, and it’s slow going every step of the morning from there.

My feet are on fire of course, but I’ve grown so sick of myself and my complaining that I decide I will try to go one full day without complaining about my feet. I won’t obsess about the pain in my mind, and I won’t mention it to anyone else, no matter what. I still have over 100 miles left of this hike and I do not want to complain the entire way.

I stop for water at Shale Lake just before 9am, and I’m still there a half hour later when Dragon and the others drop their packs next to me and start filtering their own water. I re-wrap my blisters, and I am successful at not complaining. Miracle! It’s only been four complaint-free miles so far today, but that’s a start.

The group passes me shortly after I’m back on trail, and they tell me where they’ll be camping tonight. It’s far, definitely more miles than I’ll be able to do, but I give them a wave and promise to try and make it. You never know, right? Maybe I can make it.

They hike off down the trail, leaving me to my thoughts, and I know that the only way I will be able to avoid complaining is if I’m fully engaged in something else. So I do what I’ve been waiting to do since Paul gave me my iPod at Elk Lake: I click over to the Twilight audiobook (my emotional child’s pose) and I press play.

By 11:25am I reach Milk Creek, a fast moving body of water that will require some careful jumping and rock balancing to get across, but the sun is beating down and this seems like a great spot to dry out my gear and eat lunch so the rock jumping will have to wait.

I spread out my sleeping bag and everything else that got wet last night, and I eat to fuel up for the 3,000+ feet of climbing ahead. I know that each minute I spend sitting here is another minute that I will have fallen behind my friends, and this thought makes me sad and anxious. Will I be able to catch them? How much can I hike today? What if I never see them again? I don’t want to do the rest of this hike all by myself.

After lunch, I climb. The trail goes up, up, up, endlessly up, with overgrown branches on all sides that scrape and scratch my legs as I hike through. Eventually I have to pause the audiobook, I’m just too anxious to pay attention, pushing myself to hike as fast as I can to catch up with the others. But an hour later I sit down to rest and I know that I have to let them go. I’m hurting myself – literally hurting myself – by trying to hold on and catch up. My time spent hiking with these people has been wonderful, but it’s over now, and when something is over I need to allow it to be over.

“Thank you,” I whisper. To who I’m not sure – to my momentary friends, or to God, or to myself for having the wisdom to let go. “Thank you.”

At the next water source there’s a bridge for me to cross, and as I come up to it I see a small folded piece of paper that’s being held down by a rock, and the paper says “Tinkerbell” on the front. It’s a note! For me! From my friends!

Dear Tink!

It was lovely meeting you and wish you all the best with finishing. We totally think you can do it!!!

Hope your foot gets better.

Love your secret admirer,

Dragon

PS – Tux and Neon think you have a nice bum personality, lol!?!

I read it again, laughing out loud. These guys are the best, they knew exactly what would make me smile, and even though I probably won’t see them again, that’s okay. I am comforted by the fact that our short time together meant something to them too, enough that they took the time to leave me a note when they realized I wasn’t going to catch up. My hike is only one month long, which means that they are a larger and more important piece of my story than I am of theirs, but this little gesture warms my heart.

I put the note in my pack, fill up my water, and think through the rest of the day. It’s 3:30pm already, how much more can I hike? And another question: how little water can I carry and still be okay? I’ll be dry camping tonight, water is heavy, and I am trying to give my feet (which I am still not complaining about!) the best chance possible.

I decide to go with two liters, and head back out into the Jefferson Wilderness.

The rest of the day’s hiking is beautiful, but hard. The trail climbs 1200 feet in just under a mile and a half, and almost all of that terrain is rocky and sharp.

At the top of the climb is a sign that says I’m now entering the Mt Hood Wilderness, which means that I’m one section of wilderness closer to Washington. Washington!

From here it’s only 0.7 miles to camp, but those seven tenths of a mile take forever as I step carefully downhill on gravel and rock, losing the trail under the snow, and I entertain myself by talking out loud in a British accent, narrating my journey as if this were a documentary. I decide that this is my solution to the fact that I miss Dragon and Neon; in times of struggle I will hereby be British on their behalf.

In the final half mile to the campsite I get passed by two very clean men who are hiking in the opposite direction with no packs on. How is this possible? There aren’t any trailheads near here. Where are they going? How are they so clean? But they are gone too quickly for me to ask questions.

And then I am passed from behind by a barefoot hiker, who is just loping gracefully across this rocky trail like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Barefoot!! He’s barefoot!

What is happening out here right now??

I set my tent up in a small clearing amongst the trees, doing my best to shield myself from any wind that might be headed this way tonight. After the cold, wet, windy terror of cowboy camping I am determined to be comfortable tonight. I will be comfortable, damnit!

In the hours before dark I am joined by an older English man, the two clean men from earlier (who are out here for a night and whose packs were stashed right near me while they went exploring), and finally by Feather and Sprout who I convince to camp here as well. It’s a little hiker party! I miss Dragon and his crew, but this is the next best thing.

I crawl into my tent and zip it closed behind me. Fuck cowboy camping. I am so happy to be back in my little nylon envelope!

I look at my maps before bed and plot out the remaining days of hiking. Today is Monday and on Thursday I will reach Timberline Lodge. Then, on Sunday, I will be done. I will have hiked 460 miles. Excitement begins to bubble up in my chest but I push it back down. I’m not done yet. Not yet.