It was going to be a long day. We knew that from the start. After 5 days of sunshine, it was threatening rain, and we would be reaching Blowout Peak, which promised great views but was one of the highest elevations we would reach. There was also the question of where we would stop that night. Mom wanted the 11 mile day I had advertised, but I had been eyeing another spot on the map, 5 miles further, labeled simply on the map as “Urich’s Cabin, Shelter,” and the possibility of a zero day. It was an issue that was not fully discussed when we began our day.
The morning felt cold. The kind of cold that reminds you that hypothermia occurs more easily at 55 degrees when its wet than 35 degrees when its dry, and the landscape truly resembled the northwest forests of such classic works of art as “Twilight.” Tall skinny pine trees, Adirondack trees that had been pulled like saltwater taffy, hugged closely by thick, yet somehow still ethereal fog. There were no views, so I spent more time looking down, and found that there was just as much to interest me on the ground. Elk prints, much farther apart than usual, and skidding off the side of the trail as if it had barely been keeping its footing, and the cause was obvious; soft padded prints and the occasional furry scat—a mountain lion had mounted a chase where we were slowly plodding uphill, and not too long ago.
Blowout Peak, it should come as no surprise, was viewless, which we accepted with good humor, taking pictures of both of us looking out at the incredible vista, which closely resembled the patchy grey background of a middle school yearbook photo. On the descent, which we both grew to dislike more than ascents—on one memorable day the two mile climb up to a pass took half an hour, while the two mile climb down to the valley took more than an hour and a half—the trail was dotted with lupine, not flowering. Each wagon wheel arrangement of leaves, whether 5 inches across or the size of a dollar coin, held a silver raindrop, sparkling in the slowly emerging sunlight.
As the sun emerged, so too did the views. Everything was soft and misty after the rain, low hanging clouds still wrapped around mountains but gradually lifting. As we walked the terrain changed, from trees to stumps, fertile dirt to sand, the results of clear cutting. The ground was less stable beneath our feet, no roots held it to the mountain, and we wove back and forth across the open hillside. Ahead there were trees visible, but they were smaller than the trees we had come from, fairly new growth.
We ran into a gentleman probably my mom’s age or older. He had the well trimmed beard and posture that would lead me to call him a gentleman. He had just seen a mountain lion. We were torn between awe and jealousy, and sympathy for how that must have shaken him—a single hiker coming face to face with the fiercest hunter on the continent. He said he’d been looking behind him ever since. He was hiking northbound, as everyone we encountered was, and we asked him about the shelter. He painted a picture of a magical place, in the middle of Government Meadows, where herds of elk greeted you outside every morning, a full cabin with a wood stove and a porch. That just about settled it for us. What finally made the decision was arriving at our originally intended campsite, after hiking furtively for several miles, peering up into the trees for any sign of mountain lion (although realistically we were too loud to have any chance of seeing a squirrel, let alone a mountain lion). It was not a good campsite. Great views, but no level ground and barely a trickle of water. Perfect place to finish a hunk of cheese and keep walking.
The threat of more rain as clouds rolled in only made us feel better about our decision when we picked up our packs for the unexpected extra 4 miles. It had already been our longest day yet, and the addition of 4 miles would push us past where we expected to be physically at this point on the trail. I can honestly say I don’t remember much of the four miles. I remember when the dirt turned to sand. I remember crossing a road. I remember eating nutella on a granola bar, although that may have been a different day. But I definitely remember walking down a dirt jeep road, past the Government Meadows sign and seeing the cabin. It was so solid. A real building in the middle of this expanse of waving grass. With smoke coming out of the chimney. That was unexpected. As we approached the porch, a real, solid porch, we heard movement inside. After 5 days on the trail, we were about to spend extended time with another person. Maybe it’s surprising, but that was not something we were looking forward to. The door swung open, and in the wall of smoke that came rolling out stood Troy.
I want to make one thing very clear before I continue. Troy is real. I need to make this assurance because he’s the kind of character that a creative writing teacher would reject because he was too fantastic, there was too much extreme and contradiction in his description. He was spending several nights at the cabin—his feet had been in incredible pain when he arrived and he was running a fever. He had the woodstove running as hard as it could, generating massive amounts of smoke and heat, and had his sleeping bag set up right next to it. People are sometimes surprised that we, two smallish women, were comfortable staying in a cabin with a strange man, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest Wilderness, but believe me, it was not a concern. Troy had a perfectly, almost cartoonishly round torso, resting precariously on birdlike legs, which were layered in long johns, wool socks, and athletic shorts. He was on the second leg of his thru hike of the PCT.
He’s completed the California section already, and this year was setting out to complete Oregon and Washington. It was partly a weight loss experience. He’d had three surgeries over the past year, and with each surgery had put on more weight. He was losing weight at a rapid pace, and expected to lose another twenty pounds by the end of the trail after his “mad dash to Canada,” which he anticipated taking another two weeks. He had earned money for the trip be working on a fishing boat in Alaska, work he partially blamed for his surgeries, and had spent all winter preparing his food. Since he didn’t want to carry the weight of a stove, his diet for the entire trail was deer jerky and prepackaged lentil soup. Even now I wonder how he was eating all this lentil soup with no stove. We had developed a love/hate relationship with lentils in our time on the trail, and we had both a stove and spices to improve the lentil experience. Unseasoned cold lentil soup. Every day. I would make a mad dash to Canada too. He was excited to finish. Excited to go home and see his dogs, who he had left with his mom. Three Pomeranians. Three. Pomeranians.
We went to bed early, setting up in the loft just in case he turned out to be crazy, also so we could play rummy and eat our candied ginger in peace. Troy went to sit on the porch. We talked idly about his chances of actually making it to Canada. At the very least we were concerned about his cold tolerance. He had cranked up the wood stove to an intolerable temperature, and he had hundreds of miles further from the equator to go before he would be finished. We heard voices outside—some jeepers had come in to check out the cabin. Troy asked them for a cigarette. As we dozed we suddenly heard hacking and coughing outside. It seemed Troy, who had been a smoker before he started hiking, was not handling his tobacco well. As the hacking turned to retching I covered my head with my fleece and tried to ignore both Troy’s misery and the mouse that I knew was watching me, waiting to make a move on the food in my pack. When we woke Troy was gone. He had left us some tea packets, a thoughtful gesture. I hope he made it, he was a nice, if odd, man. He probably doesn’t eat jerky or lentils anymore.