It wasn't until the fourth day of the journey, once we'd left North Cascades National Park, that I finally began to understand what it means to thru-hike the Pacific Northwest Trail. Soaked to the skin and out of dry clothing, having spent a sleepless night in my tent with the relentless rain showing no sign of stopping, we were in need of a recharge. Getting wetter by the minute, we decided to hitch a ride into town to dry out rather than continue as planned. The hitch meant sitting at a road junction hoping a stranger would look kindly on two wet and dirty hikers and give us a ride to town. It was 45 minutes later, having been passed by so many cars going our way, that a woman named Joyce stopped her red minivan, rolled down the window, and asked if we needed a ride, and I all but screamed yes. Michael Sawiel, my hiking companion, having started on the trail in Glacier National Park, smiled knowingly, already having taken numerous hitches that materialized after a little patience. This was the PNT, a trail that is as much about the trail angels, the uncelebrated people who help out weary thru-hikers, as the incredible scenery found along the way.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Four days earlier I'd met Michael at Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park to join him on what would be a six-day stretch of the PNT. The trail in its entirety stretches 1,200 miles from Montana to the tip of the Olympic Peninsula skirting the border with Canada for much of the way. The trail passes through three national parks and many more national forests along the way. Michael started his journey on the summer solstice, and he had crossed the halfway mark a few weeks ahead of schedule and with energy to spare. He is one of less than fifty people who will take on the newest of the National Scenic Trails this year, a group of thru-hikes that includes the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
Given its nascent infrastructure and the reality that it is relatively unknown outside of the thru-hiking community, many consider the PNT to be the most challenging of the four. The trail is a work in progress. The route is still being finalized, and thru-hikers are presented with a myriad of alternative routes to consider when hiking through any given section. My journey would include three days through the North Cascades, then a day hiking across the saddle between Mount Baker and Shuksan, and two more days finishing up at the south end of Baker Lake. From there I had 14 miles of road to walk to get to Concrete, Washington, where I planned to spend the night and hitch a ride back to my car parked 50 miles away at the parking lot above Ross Lake Resort. I knew I was going to have to find a way to hitch one ride to get back to my car. It took a lot more than that.
The first three days through the North Cascades were nothing short of incredible. The area was on my bucket list of places I'd needed to visit, and it didn't disappoint. The PNT traverses a section of the park that includes rivers lined with old-growth forests of massive western redcedar and Douglas fir trees, and goes over three grueling but beautiful mountain passes. The hike up Whatcom Pass switchbacks up a sheer grade gaining nearly 2,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile, and it is surrounded by glaciers and thickets of mountain blueberries. We didn't see a bear up there, but it was as likely a place as any to find one. At night the air echoed with the rumbles of ice and rock falling off the glaciated mountain cliffs. At Whatcom Pass Camp the forecast called for showers and thunderstorms, but the sunshine held out just long enough for us to make it through the night. Woken at 5 a.m. by the sound of thunder and flashes of lighting, we packed up in a hurry before the inevitability of rainfall headed our way. We had another grueling 22-mile hike ahead of us to get over Hannegan Pass and make it out of the park, and an early start was all the better. For the final 9 miles we got soaked, only to find a campground that offered no shelter from the rain. Wearily, we setup our tents, tried our best to dry out our wet clothes, and went to bed before the sun had set, hoping the rain would die down for the next day's journey.
After our wet night and hitched ride, Joyce dropped us off at Chair Nine in Glacier, Washington. The restaurant sits on the edge of town. We started looking for a place to stay, but with a wedding in town, everywhere was fully booked. Just when we were feeling like we were running out of options, Pete Cook, Chair Nine's owner, generously offered us couches to crash on at his place, use of his washing machine to dry our stuff out, and a hot shower to boot. Elated and grateful, I told Mike that it seems like every time we hit a snag, someone would appear ready and willing to help out. That, he confirmed, is the magic of the trail. Angels usually appear when you need them. Thanks to Pete's generosity, which included a return drive back to the trail, we were back to the route and ready for three more days on the PNT.
The next section of the trail was as memorable for its mosquitoes as the scenery. With close-up views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, an uneventful bear sighting near Lake Ann, some river fords that proved much easier than we'd feared post-downpour, miles of walking along paved and gravel forest roads, and the almost constant drone of motorboats breaking the silence of the forest along the shores of Baker Lake, it was the PNT at its most honest. Bitten and itching from head to toe, we hitched a ride with another trail angel named Steve and his son from the road out of Baker Lake back to Concrete. Again, Steve had shown up just when we'd reconciled ourselves to walking the 14 miles to town, knowing it'd be long past nightfall when we made it, and saving us from what would have been a 35-mile slog of day.
Finished with my section of the trail, between bites of hamburger and sips from a milkshake, I confided to Michael that thru-hiking probably wasn't my thing. I was all the more impressed with his ability to overcome the aches and pains of hauling a heavy pack on one incredible trail. But what a memorable trip, where the kindness of strangers is as important and memory-etching as the landscape we walked through. I gained a new perspective on place, and a new perspective on helping out a stranger in need, having been on the receiving end for the few days time. It took two more hitches to get back to where I'd left my car the week earlier, but at this point I felt like a pro, sharing the story of the PNT and getting to know Karen from Rockport and Andy and Kelly from Seattle, three more regular old folks turned trail angels for a brief moment in time.