Saturday, October 25, 2008
Here it is -- the long awaited conclusion. Really, it would be much less dramatic without all of the suspense!
Reason and I completed the Pacific Crest Trail on September 17th. The Canadian border was a long way from Mexico, and a far cry from that ugly barbed wire fence, the armed helicopters, and the attendant politics. We just walked right in to Canada, crossing a six foot wide mowed line that spans in either direction through the trees and over the peaks. We carried mini bottles of champagne to celebrate. As it was a sunny afternoon and we'd already hiked 14 miles, the bubbly went straight to our heads. What more can you ask of four ounces?
Despite the earlier inclement weather, Washington failed to intimidate us and soon dried and reddened into a beautiful Indian Summer. Actually, Reason simply ordered up the nice weather from Buddha, who in all his benevolence, or perhaps in reward, provided. This confirmed for me my long-standing suspicion that Reason has the power to affect the weather.
Let me back up and provide a little context. It rained most days of April, May and June when we hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003. When we meet other hikers and make the inevitable exchange of hiking credentials, a look of astonishment comes across the faces of knowing audiences when we say we are ATGAME03. (This abbreviation, like an MD or PhD, is how hikers qualify themselves. ATGAME03 indicates that we hiked the Appalachian Trail northbound from Georgia to Maine in 2003.) The astonishment is often accompanied by intakes of breath and the declaration that we made it through The Wet Year.
Before hiking the PCT this year, I was unaware that 2003 had attained the moniker "The Wet Year." But I'm not surprised. It rained so much that even if we dried out in the morning, another afternoon thunderstorm would roll in and drench us again. Water, taking the path of least resistance, often flooded the trail until it became an ankle-deep stream. Our packs and clothes grew specks of black mildew. I can't describe what the saturation did to our hiker funk. You don't want to know. The Wet Year is the reason I couldn't conceive of hiking in the Southern California desert without a full suit of rain gear.
The real problem for me was that every time it rained, Reason would shake his trekking poles at the sky and ask, "Buddha, is this all you've got?" Furious, I'd ask Reason why he felt the need to tempt fate. "What? Are you superstitious?" was always Reason's reply. Such taunts made my blood boil, fueling my logical, scientific Reason's requests of Buddha. He insisted that we were being tested.
And we were. Thru-hiking is a test of endurance. You won't be successful if you don't wake up every day and keep hiking, no matter how hot, cold, rainy, tired, thirsty, or hungry you are. On the AT, you won't make it to Maine unless you pack up your gear and step out of the dry shelter into the cold rain.
I couldn't help but notice, however, that it did seem to rain harder when Reason asked Buddha to bring it on. So when I suggested that Reason "be positive" and ask Buddha for Indian Summer instead of rain, and we got Indian Summer, we decided that Reason must indeed have the power to change the weather. Secretly, I think Reason enjoys his weather-altering superpower!
The warm, beautiful weather was a delight and a relief, but also took a bit of drama away from the finale. The reason we hiked 25 miles a day from Yosemite, after all, was to beat the cold and potentially snowy fall weather in Washington. In 2007, many PCT hikers were prevented from completing the trail due to heavy September snow. We had no intention of setting out for Canada and not making it, so we pushed hard and hiked until dark almost every day. It was hard to rationalize a day off from hiking on a blue, sunny day in Washington. But the final ten days of beautiful weather made me wonder if we could have slowed down a bit to savor the last few days.
When it comes down to it, though, I'm grateful for the weather - and Reason's superpower. Our success this year had much to do with favorable weather conditions. The spring in the desert was mild and the scarce water sources were flowing, the snow levels in the Sierras were low, and Washington and Oregon were for the most part dry and warm. The earlier heavy snows in Oregon and Washington provided ample water sources by the time we arrived. We did keep putting one foot in front of the other until we made it to Canada, but we were lucky. Other years on the PCT are notable for being High Snow Years or Dry Years (meaning water is scarce). Maybe this year will be a Good Year.
While celebrating our good year at the border, we were joined by a gentleman heading south. Like many folks we have met on the trail, this man was a PCT enthusiast. He belongs to the PCTA, goes to trail conventions, and follows on-line trail journals. He even brought along a list of 2008 PCT hikers so that he could check to see if they had signed into the trail register hidden inside the Washington Monument-esque border marker. Like many such PCT enthusiasts, though, he rarely hikes the PCT. When, while interrupting our border reverie to pronounce that the US/Canada border is really an anticlimactic place to complete the PCT, being in the middle of the woods at the bottom of a valley, I had to snap back. "Actually," I said, "I'm pretty excited about it!"
After a short while of being subject to this gentleman's comments and advice on how to hike the trail, I decided to pack up and get ready to hike the final eight miles to Manning Provincial Park headquarters. We had some celebrating to do, and there was a restaurant just ahead.
Once we were out of earshot, I remarked to Reason that I couldn't believe we had just been "post-officed" at the border, on our last day! Post-officing is a term I made up to describe a syndrome that plagues hikers, though typically this happens in town. As you may know, hikers are often dependent upon General Delivery service at rural post offices. Many hikers send themselves packages of food, and of course they need occasional gear changes. (In Reason's case, mere proximity to a post office is reason enough for a delivery of new gear.)
When receiving a package at a small post office, it is typical for a hiker to then proceed to spread the entire contents of his backpack and package around him on the floor in the corner of the post office, or perhaps on the sidewalk outside, for organizational purposes. This is just part of being homeless and lacking the luxury of real estate and privacy. If it has recently rained, the hiker may also spread out his tent and sleeping bag to dry on a nearby wall or fence. This practice is known as hiker-trashing-up a place. The perpetrator is known as hiker-trash. This can be a derogatory term if you are a denizen of the place being hiker-trashed. Alternatively, this can be a term of endearment inside the hiker community, as in: "Look at that hiker-trash over there! I haven't seen you in 200 miles!"
Nevertheless, surrounding yourself by all of your earthly possessions in public tends to draw attention. At the post office, this attention comes in the form of retired gentlemen who seem to have all the time in the world to ask you about your hike. Now, I'm all for cross-cultural exchange, but several factors make post-office syndrome stressful. For one thing, the hiker is usually at a small post office which may only be open for a few hours a day, every other day. The hiker is under considerable pressure to organize his gear before the post office closes for the two hour lunch break or three day holiday weekend. In a short window of time, the hiker needs to focus on what gear to send home or ahead, where exactly to send it, and how long it will take him to get there. To me, this is usually a simple choice, but for gearheads such as Reason this may be a very complicated decision that probably requires advanced math.
Needless to say, a hiker in the throes of critical gear decision making with an ever approaching deadline who has also spread the entire contents of his backpack on the floor around him is a sitting duck. A hiker in this position cannot physically walk away because he needs to finish his PO business before it closes and he can't abandon the very items he depends upon for survival. Further complicating the situation is that hikers are smelly, dirty, unemployed homeless folks who must be on their best behavior. Every hiker who steps foot into a trail town is an ambassador. It only takes one badly-behaved hiker to make the great unwashed hiker community unwelcome in a particular town, and hikers are dependent upon these towns for food, showers, mail, phones, laundry, etc.
Now, the well-behaved hiker will do his best to kindly answer every question that the post-office offender has to ask, but what makes this syndrome particularly punishing is that often the offender is more interested in telling you a long, long, long story. As I said, I'm all for cross-cultural exchange - it is part of why we go hiking - but the window of opportunity at the post office diminishes with every twist and turn of the offender's fish-story.
Obviously, this syndrome is not confined to the post office, nor are offenders just retired men who seem to look forward to spending their mornings at the post office on Saturdays. It happens everywhere. Like when a few hikers were gobbling fresh, gooey cinnamon rolls at the Stehekin, WA, bakery and a resident of the town asked if he could join us at our table. "I just love to hear your stories! So anyway, I was a fisherman in Alaska for twenty years. Let me tell you how I think Japan fixes the price of fish." And he proceeded to give us a very detailed account of the price per pound of fish and the impact of collective bargaining over the last twenty years. Now, I had never thought much about commercial fishing before, but I seem to have learned quite a lot during that "conversation." I was glad to have some insight into this man's life, but we were also four days from the end of the trail and wanted to spend some quality time with our fellow hikers.
Then there was the time at the first post office on the PCT, at Mt. Laguna, CA. Of course we were there on a Saturday and the hours were 10-noon. In this very sleepy neck of the woods, the general store adjacent to the PO has rocking chairs on the porch. And on this particular Saturday morning, those rocking chairs were full of retired gentlemen. I'm certain this had been their destination all week, the PO being a convenient excuse for their wives to send them out of the house or for them to escape their wives. Having been clued in to post-office syndrome on the AT, I gave the men a wide berth on the way to the PO. Reason and I had our ice axes with us, carrying them through the desert due to poor organization, and now we wanted to mail them ahead. One of the rockers pointed at our obviously aluminum-crafted axes and hooked us. "Are those made of carbon fiber? I've been making fishing rods from carbon fiber and they are fantastic!" This went on for a good twenty minutes, and though neither Reason nor I fish, we have a great idea for a simple marinade that can easily be transported into the backcountry. Makes some really tasty trout if you cook them up with the marinade in a foil packet over the fire. Or so I've been told.
So that's that. Now you've been post-officed for six months!
The hike was over before we knew it. Now I'm enjoying sleeping in a bed and regular showers, but I have a hard time sitting still. I just want to keep moving.
Thanks to you all for your interest and support. We had a wonderful hike, and it was all the better knowing that we had fans. Somebody somewhere said something along the lines of 'There is no bore so boring as the travel bore.' It is always hard to describe traveling to someone else, and so I have really enjoyed that so many of you have enjoyed my emails.
Stay tuned for a link to our pictures. Don't worry - we're culling about 100 from our collection of over 6,000 so we stay in your good graces!
Hope to see and talk to all of you soon. All my best,
Cruiser, ATGAME03, PCTMEXCAN08