Hiker or Hobo?
My wife Rodeo and I began this game in the early days of my hike. Who’s homeless, and who’s merely walking the PCT?
For the first few hundred miles, it was fairly obvious. Hikers and their gear were relatively clean. Later on, as dirt and sun began to make us all resemble cave-persons, we developed a more subtle test. Hikers had sharp tan lines at the ankle. Hobos did not.
Telling the difference got more complicated in northern Washington. Overcast skies and colder weather meant that folks pulled cleaner clothes out of their packs, like seldom-used rain jackets and long pants. So when I stopped to pick-up a hitchhiker on the trans-Canadian highway, sure it was a PCT hiker, I was surprised to learn the guy was actually a hobo making his way to Vancouver to find work and a winter roof over his head. He had a big pack, sleeping pad, water bottles with filter – the whole PCT gear-fest. It wasn’t until he was actually in my car that I found a dead give-away. He was far too clean to be a PCT hiker.
Ending my trek at the northern end of the detour at Ross Lake had not felt right. After taking a boat back to highway 20 and Rainy Pass, I decided there was no substitute for a real finish at the real northern terminus of the trail. Less than 20 miles separates the Ross Lake border crossing and the official PCT end point at Manning Park in British Columbia. That’s as the crow flies, however. As the car drives, it’s closer to six hours.
Call me a neurotic obsessive, probably rightly. But east I went from Rainy Pass, stopping in Mazama to check out the hiker scene in this charming little cross-roads, passing north through the border crossing at Osoyoos and onward to the west via the trans-Canadian highway to Manning Park. Arriving around 6:30 pm, I ducked into the lodge to reserve a room for the next night, without turning off the car, and drove half a mile to the trailhead and started up the mountain – a 4.5-mile 1300-foot climb to a camp at the foot of Mt Frosty.
I arrived at dusk in time to throw up my tent, pull out a peanut butter jar of rehydrated noodles for dinner and chat with the last two hikers not already bedded down. Weirdly, they had just done exactly what I did: hiked the Ross Lake detour, then decided they had to get to the true end of the PCT. Unlike me, who went east, they hitched west toward Seattle, rented a car, drove to Manning and then hiked south to the monument marking the spot where the PCT officially crosses into Canada.
Misery loves company, it’s often said. Nutcases like it even more. Suddenly, I did not feel like such a lonely lunatic.
I awoke to the patter of rain on my tent. And it was cold. Last night, I wore my fleece inside my sleeping bag. Sweeping through wet underbrush along the trail, I round a bend and, suddenly, hiking north was someone I have not seen since Warner Springs, barely one hundred miles into the hike. “Dodo,” I exclaim. “You made it,” says he, a little too surprised for my liking. “That was a long time ago,” we agree – and exchange a happy congratulatory fist bump.
Down, down, down goes the trail. Across a fast-flowing stream, past a campsite occupied by a woman with a furiously barking black dog, around yet another bend in the trail, and there it is — the Northern Terminus, ark of all our hiker hopes and dreams.
I arrive from the Canadian side just as another hiker comes from the US. She snaps my photo, sets up a tent against the drizzly mist and settles in to wait for three friends. One I know from Stehekin, 90 miles ago, named Sea Biscuit. There’s also a hiker from Japan, Speedy Gonzalez, who I believe I met in Drakesbad, in northern California, when he arrived late for dinner and we all shared out portions. Speedy cracks a beer and chugs it, filming himself on his iPhone. Another drapes Hawaiian leis over her own and a friend’s head. All pose boisterously atop the monument. I take their group photo.
No Mounties are there to inspect passports or visas. Neither are there any scowling American immigration dudes to keep folks from circling the monument on US soil, as some hikers earlier reported.
I give the rough wooden monument a knock, as I did its southern sister. Almost reluctantly, I turn back to conclude my hike. Ahead to the north, the forest is dark and overcast. To the south, the rugged peaks of the Pasayten Wilderness are shrouded in mist, sharp and angular, many with glaciers on stormy north-facing slopes. Not long ago I would have found it ominous. Today it’s almost unbearably beautiful.
What an adventure this has been. And what a revelation. To find ourselves, each and every day, on the path of beauty. To be so often overwhelmed, not just by the extraordinary world around us but also by what we find within – an unexpected grit and stamina, a possibly unanticipated capacity for joy, a new understanding of the happiness of true freedom, an appreciation of all we have and, for a few of us, a coming to terms with personal tragedy.
Near the top of the ridge that will dip down toward Manning, I sit by the trail for half an hour, listening to the wind and the creaking pines. Sun briefly breaks through the clouds, lighting up the fast-changing autumn colors — reds so deep they verge on purple, orangey yellows and golds. A bird nearby chirps hopefully.
Others speed by, intent on cheeseburgers at the lodge. So many cannot wait to be off the trail. “So done,” I hear again and again. But I don’t want to be done. I want this wonderful adventure to go on. It’s hard to choke back a sob, silly as it sounds, alone amid this austere but so generous beauty.
Is it too absurd to say? I love you, PCT. Goodbye, goodbye. Thank you, thank you.
The trail becomes a rutted jeep road. The sound of traffic rises up the mountain from the pass below. Tonight will be a celebration, as it should be. I’ve booked my room at Manning Lodge and will wash down a steak with a good bottle of red wine as I relive all I have seen and done.
The trail is now within us. We will miss it so.
Pause on the PCT
Manning Park, September 9