Saturday, July 22, 2017

Going Up and Bleeding Out in Washington

CAUTION: Mensuration talk ahead. Click away now if buying tampons for your wife/girlfriend/daughter makes you uncomfortable. Read ahead if you want to better understand the challenges of a woman on the trail...but you have been forewarned--I'm not holding back with describing the reality of what it's like.

Sometimes I wonder if my body wants to sabotage me. Why is "Aunt Flow" such a bitch? She always shows up just before the vacation, special occasion, long trip...pretty much any time she can get in the way and make you miserable. You mark your calendar, count out days to try to work around her, but no. Here she is, a whole week early. "SURPRISE, aren't you glad to see me?!"
Thank God my fourth day brought me to the town of Cascade Locks, Oregon. This is the home of the famous "Bridge of the Gods", where the PCT crosses over into Washington. I was so excited/nervous about walking over it...but first things first. I had to find a store, and head directly for the "feminine hygiene" isle. 
Oregon is really concerned that you don't get lost
I bought what I thought was an absurd amount of products (turns out it was barely enough--apparently it's impossible to have too many baby wipes) and some period medication, (wine and chocolate) then headed back to the bridge.
Had to get a burger too, of course
I have to say my nerves were not so much about the cars and height, but more about the exposure of feeling like everyone is looking at you. Normally I'm not opposed to that kind of attention (I might even like it a little ;)) but because I'm not a "thru-hiker", I felt like a big fat fake. I have SUCH respect for those who have crossed after coming from Mexico or Canada, that I felt like I should have a sign that said "I'M ONLY OUT HERE FOR 9 DAYS! I DON'T DESERVE YOUR STARES! LOOK AWAY!" 
But I have to admit, I was geeking out too. (Can I say "geeking out" about hiking?) I thought about what a thru-hiker experiences as they cross--it must feel a bit like a right of passage. I felt it a little too...even as a big fat fake. ;) 
I knew as I started Washington's "section H" that I shouldn't expect much. Most hikers heading to Canada skip the first 21 miles altogether and instead march 14 miles up the highway where they can easily connect again at Panther Creek. Descriptions I read included "not great views, loads of poison oak, rocky trail, dry waterless stretches"... pretty much misery on a plate. But I was avoiding snow, and getting my 9 day goal in, so I just excepted that this was part of the deal. And besides, misery is what makes a hike great! Serve me up!
Beautiful wildflowers made up for the ugly power lines.
At first it didn't seem so bad. Lots of day hikers were on the trail who were also headed to Gillette Lake, where I planned to camp. It must be beautiful if these people are spending their 4th of July holiday going there! But suddenly I hit the clearcut--an ugly, no shade, poison oak mess. Oh well...the lake will make up for it! 
This is kind of nice...
What happened?!?!
After an impossibly long mile, I crossed the forest road where Gillette came into view. Not exactly mind blowing, but not that bad either. Though, once I got down there...bad. Never have a seen campsites so trashed.(Except at Lake Blanca, but that's another story.) It started putting thoughts in my head. Anyone can drive that forest road and come down here and party. People do drugs in places like this, right? This does not feel like a grandma-friendly environment. As I was filling up my water and contemplating what to do, a couple came up behind me. "Did you camp here last night?" she asked me in a sort of dreamy/weird way. Oh, and did I mention she was completely naked? No more contemplation needed...deuces, I'm out.
Gillette Lake
I thought maybe I could go just a little bit further where my map showed another area for tents, but the people who had already taken it over looked like they may have been there for the last few months. Of course, as my mind quickly jumped into complete paranoia mode, I concluded they were homeless meth heads that would kill and rob me if I even stopped for a second.
Unlike Oregon, Washington only gives a
tiny little shit that you don't get lost
I kept going, crossing more forest roads, more and more clearcut ugliness...what was I thinking doing this section!!!! One time I thought maybe I'd just "hide" off trail where it was flat, but as I went to investigate, I found a party area with a big bonfire firepit. OMG, I can't escape! The druggies are going to find me anywhere I go!!!
A view of the damn
It took me awhile to calm down. But once I hit the forest and realized I had not seen anyone since the lake, I started to feel safe again. When I finally got to the next camp site, I felt far away from anyone; and for the first time that felt comforting! I took my "medication" by the fire, and went straight to bed.
The next day, Aunt Flow followed me hard. Again, as much as I prefer having some other hikers around, this time it was a comfort to be alone. Stopping to pee is bad enough...stopping to pull out my cup and dump it, attempt to clean it, and then shove it back in and wipe all the blood off my hands...that is another show altogether. For those who are wondering what a cup is; it's the only way to survive when you are bleeding like a stuck pig. Supposedly it will hold 8 hours worth of menses, but for those of us who are blessed to be pre-menopausal and are having a "full shed" kind of day, it will get you through an hour or two at best; but that is way better than stopping every 20 minutes to change a tampon. 
Besides being upset with my period, this day felt like I would never stop going up. Relentlessly up and up and up. I let out a sob when I looked at my watch, thinking I had been going for hours when it had only been 20 minutes. This is when I learned lesson # 54: For heaven's sake, just stop and take time to collect yourself when you feel overwhelmed. I know this seems obvious, but I really don't like to take breaks. I pride myself with my "slow and steady wins the race" determination. When I'm feeling frustration, my ego tells me to keep going so I can "earn" the privilege of stopping at my destination. But this trip really taught me it's okay to be slow AND take your time. What a relief!
Again, good job with the signage, Washington!
The good thing about "up", is it usually brings you
to the views.
I was so ready to stop for good when I got to the place I thought the camp must be, but I could not find it. Either I keep going, and hope it would show itself soon (and risk that I had already missed it and would have to go another 5 miles to the next camp) or I just make my own camp at the first available flat spot. I opted for stopping. 
More clearcutting and forest roads, but at least there's
a good view of Mt. St. Helens!
So many wildflowers! I can't get enough!
I had not seen a single soul since Gillette. Never had I been so isolated, and it was starting to get in my head. Being in an "un-designated" campsite added to the stranded feeling, and the fact I was leaving puddles of blood everywhere certainly compounded my uneasiness. 
That night was bad. I was too scared to leave my tent, but thankfully I was so dehydrated I didn't have to pee. (They weren't kidding when they said "dry waterless sections"--we're talking 11 miles!) But what do I do about this ridiculous amount of blood? I couldn't use my cup, unless I wanted to go out and add to the predator bait; so I reverted to the tampons and the 20 minute change. But is having zip locks full of gore in the tent any better than having a circle of blood around it? I didn't think so.

And then I heard it. That's called a cliff hanger. :) Next time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Alone, or Lonely?

I don't hike solo because I crave solitude; I just want to make that clear. I crave many things that a backpacking experience provides, but loneliness is not one of them. Though, being alone does not necessarily make one feel lonely; in fact, for me it rarely does. But much of this trip was an exception. 
I had pangs the very first night, which surprised me because I was surrounded by humanity. I'm not exaggerating when I say there must have been 50 people staying the night. Thankfully, there are plenty of sites along the creek once you hit Seven and a Half Mile Camp, but I didn't know that at the time. (Found at 7.5 miles in...real creative naming with that one!) All I knew was there were a whole lot of people on the trail with full backpacks on; so many, that I was actually worried about even finding a place to lay my head.
My happy place
One group of girls assured me they'd squeeze me in if need be, after I took a group photo for them. (Just after they passed me--everybody passed me, of course. Nobody can touch my slowest hiker crown!) When I finally did arrive, a man (whom I assume was the scout master for the large group of boys who were settled in the largest site) directed me to a small spot off to the side of them that was the perfect size for me, myself and I. Bliss! I couldn't have been more content with my state of one-ness. Then I decided to go and try to find the girls to say hi.
My unhappy place
I don't know what I was expecting, but clearly I was hoping for something, because I left quite downtrodden. Girl bonding time? Did I think they'd ask, "Why don't you come sit by the fire, have a drink, and tell us all about yourself and your adventure?" Maybe I did; why else would I walk away feeling like an outcast? It's not that anyone was being unkind; it's just I felt I was teetering on being that creepy person who is making everyone uncomfortable because they don't fit in. I went back to my tent feeling like I should have a big "L" on my forehead. Sometimes being around a group of people can be so much lonelier than being alone. 
Mt Hood behind me once I got up to the PCT

Mt Adams in front of me, heading towards Washington
Overall though, my first 3 days couldn't have been better. Looking back, I realize how much the smallest personal encounters fuel me; a quick stop on the trail and a few minutes conversation is all I need. The couple who were excited to tell me about their plans to do all of Oregon of the PCT next summer, the family who filled me in on an easier way to get to Lake Wahtum, the guys who shared their beef jerky and told me a funny story about getting caught skinny dipping in said lake...each one made me feel part of the community, and therefore not alone. 
My amazing site on Lake Wahtum. I was confused as to why nobody else had taken it,
but concluded it must have been because everyone else thought someone was "saving" it with a fishing pole that was left by the fire pit. IMO, a fishing pole is not "dibs" worthy, so I got it, and never even had someone come back for the pole.
My PCT maps would have led me almost 3 (steep) miles up to Indian Springs,
then another almost 3 down to Wahtum. No need; stay on the Eagle Creek trail
and get there in 4 flat miles from the Indian Spring cut off!

Not once in the those 3 days did I feel afraid; even my last night (by myself on the tiniest site overlooking the Gorge) when I thought all the day hikers were long gone and suddenly a guy surprised me from behind. He was thoughtful in trying to make me aware of his presence so I wouldn't be startled, he made pleasant conversation about the great sunset view, and then he was on his way. Just another hiker, out enjoying what we all love. It did not even occur to me to worry if he might come back and "get" me. But all this serenity and peace would drastically change once I was on Washington soil. To be continued...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

9 days, 90 miles, and 9 States When I Turned 49

Okay, of course it wasn't nine states...but two states didn't fit well in the clever play on my theme. ;) And maybe it wasn't exactly 90 miles...just a little over 80 actually, but close enough, right? And so, supposedly now I'm ready to turn 50 and tackle my original goal for the big "50/500/5". Ha. I wish this trip did make me feel confident about being on the trail for 50 days, but I'm afraid instead it has put new doubts in my mind about my ability to be alone for so long. I'm still determined to make it work somehow; though of course, only time will tell. 
Years ago, I was sure my last big test before 50 would be the world famous Wonderland Trail. (A 93 mile loop around the iconic Mt Rainier--what could be more perfect?) But I can't be trusted to remember to apply for permits on time; and sure enough, I totally blew it. I'm glad though. I never would have wanted to experience "The Wonderland" all by myself. And I feel being solo, because it was most difficult aspect of the trip, was the test I really needed. I just wish I passed with a better grade.
Whoa, what a great shot, huh? Ummm, I didn't take it. Thanks, Chuck!!!
This one either. How'd you guess?
Once I knew I couldn't do the Wonderland Trail, the challenge was to find a good 9 day alternative. I didn't have much time, because I decided only a couple weeks prior that I had to take advantage of the 4 day weekend that our Independence Day holiday would provide, because then I only had to ask for 3 days off of work. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that it's been a big snow year (great for skiers--bad for hikers) making finding a 90 mile stretch that didn't include a nasty snowy patch nearly impossible. 
Finally a plan emerged. Start at the "alternate" PCT route of Eagle Creek in Oregon, follow it south until it merges with the original PCT, then follow that back north into Washington and continue on until just before the Indian Heaven Wilderness. (Still covered in snow, or I would have made that part of the plan somehow. It sucked knowing I had to stop when, supposedly, the best part was just starting.)
Being solo, and not having the luxury of a loop like Wonderland, I needed someone to drop me off AND pick me up, or just pick me up and drive me all the way back to my car. This is asking a lot, considering it's a 4 to 6 hour drive from where I live (depending on traffic) with an hour drive between where I was starting and where I was stopping. Thankfully my daughter and her boyfriend were willing to not only be my drop off, but to also go the extra hour to park my car at my exit point. I am a lucky lady!
There is nothing sweeter than love birds!

Eagle Creek is mind blowing. I knew this because I've done it before, so I sold it big as worth the drive, even for just a day hike. I don't know if it was my good luck, or Amber or Chuck's, but we somehow got a parking space just feet from the trailhead. This is more like miracle status, honestly. Eagle Creek is NUTS on any weekend, but fourth of July weekend?!? Beyond nuts...whatever that is.
Yep, another Chuck pic.
He's quite talented.
I tried to hype them up to be able to make it to Tunnel Falls (6 miles in, making it a 12 mile day hike) but with the noon start (due to the car drop off) and the fact that neither of them are much into hiking, I had to concede it was an unreasonable objective. We said our goodbyes just after High Bridge, and I was on my own...if you consider camping with about 50 other people "on your own". I will pick up on that note next time.
Thanks again, Chuck and Amber, for everything.
I couldn't have done it without you!!