Friday, September 25, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 140: You Mean a Woman Can Thru-Hike?

DAY 140
September 11th, Thursday
2350 to 2368

Again, my diary entry says it best: “COLD! Freezing morning. My hands are so cold I cry.” We woke up to find our breath hanging over our heads like a cloud, and the condensation at the bottom of our sleeping bag stiffened with frost. It was already late in the morning, and a bright sun was shining in slats through the trees, but a cheerful, intensely cold wind had whipped up that cut through every layer of clothing I had. I fumbled with our gear, trying to help pack up, but my fingers were throbbing with pain from the cold, and tears began running down my face, which made me even colder. Ditching my useless damp gloves, I grabbed a pair of wool socks and put them over my hands like mittens. This made it nearly impossible to zip up anything, but my hands hurt less.

Packing up seemed to take forever, all the while being blown and battered by the breeze that drove the breath right out of my lungs. At last we heaved our packs onto our shoulders and barreled down the trail as fast as we could, trying in vain to warm up our stinging extremities. However, the trail went downhill, which for once was a bad thing because it was hard to exert enough energy to warm ourselves up!

I thought this was funny.
I have vivid memories of that morning: the wool stocking hat against my ears which smarted with pain, switching trekking pole from hand to hand, gripping it through the wool sock, my fingers stinging, my feet like blocks of ice, my muscles pumping in a speed-walk but refusing to warm. I imagined that this was what the rest of Washington would be like… except with rain. This thought made my heart quail.

We barreled along the trail for five and a half miles without a break, at last warming ourselves up enough that we weren’t in active pain. The woods were quite pleasant except for the cold, and we crossed a clear stream and saw a wide meadow to our right. On the edge of the meadow stood a cabin, a ski shelter according to our maps. As we glanced at it, we saw a wisp of smoke rise from the chimney.

Our hearts leaped for joy, and we scrambled like cartoon characters toward the promise of warmth. Ski cabins were usually locked up this time of year, so the thought that there might be a fire inside lifted my hopes.

We weren’t disappointed! When we rushed up we saw the door open, and a guy in jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt was leaning in the doorway. We balked for a second, clearly seeing that he wasn’t a hiker. But he was friendly, and said, “Come on in!”

We walked inside to see the cabin strewn with every car-camping convenience available, and three guys were sitting inside, chilling and tending to a fire in a buckstove. They introduced themselves, saying that they were firefighters. They always came and stayed at this cabin for a week every year, just the guys, as a vacation. This year they had intentionally planned the trip over September 11th, today, as a way to remember and memorialize their buddies who had died in the line of duty.

I huddled next to the buckstove, nearly crying in relief. One of the firemen asked if we would like any food or drinks, and we gratefully accepted coffee for Zach and hot chocolate for me, as well as Oreos, Chips Ahoy, and brownies! We munched contentedly, soaking up the warmth of the fire. The dry heat felt so good after a morning of damp chill.

After our first round of drinks, they offered us another, and this time we accepted alcohol (when you’re a hiker, time of day doesn’t affect whether or not you drink alcohol). The lead fireman gave me a cup of cider with a shot of cinnamon whiskey, and Zach took some apple pie moonshine and another coffee.

One of the guys, noting our rings, said, “So you guys are married?”

“Yup.” I was still shivering a little.

“And you’ve hiked the whole trail together, from Mexico?”

“Yup, we’ve hardly been ten feet apart the whole time.”

The three of them made noises of disbelief.

“Damn,” one of them said. “I could never do something like that with my wife. I love her, and we have five kids together, but I couldn’t stand to be out in the woods with her.”

“Yeah,” another one agreed. “When you’re out in the woods, you can’t have a woman with you second-guessing everything you do. This is survival. I don’t have time for her to question my judgement every step of the way.”

Describing car-camping in a cabin as survival seemed a bit melodramatic to me, but I listened with interest.

The third one said, “Yeah, the only reason I’d hike with my girlfriend is so we could snuggle at the end of the night.”

“Yeah, but it’s not worth the aggravation during the day, with her nitpicking everything and telling you what to do. It’s better to be out with another guy. You won’t get snuggling, but that’s not what you come out in the woods to do.”

The first one added, “The woods are where you go to be in charge. If you bring a woman along, it ruins that. Women get to be in charge all the time at home— taking you to yoga classes and telling you what to do.” He turned to us. “That’s why we have to get away, just with the guys, once a year, so we don’t have to listen to our wives for a week.”

I stared at them blankly, sipping my cider. I felt sorry for them and a bit repulsed, and also suddenly self-conscious of the way I was presenting myself: I had to appear completely confident, or else I would just confirm their paradigm about women in the woods.

“Yeah,” one of them sighed, then chuckled. “If my wife and I tried to hike a trail together, it would be a bonding experience… me bonding her to a tree and leaving her for the wolves.” He glanced at me, perhaps feeling that this statement might be offensive. “Like I said, I love her, and we have five kids, but I’d kill her if we were out here together.”

I tried to make my expression noncommittal. After all, I couldn’t feel too upset at someone who was letting me sit near a warm fire and sip cider. It just seemed strange to me that they considered their wives and girlfriend’s worlds to be “the real world,” where they were powerless and beaten down, but out here in the woods was some mystical realm where they could be unapologetically men. I felt saddened that they felt their masculinity was mutually exclusive with respecting their wives.

Still, they had a strong sense of responsibility. One of the guys mentioned that he and his girlfriend were never going to get married, and the guy with five kids snorted. “Man, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s like saddling up a horse and saying, ‘Nah, I’m not gonna ride it.’”

“I’m just not wanting that much commitment.”

The guy with five kids rolled his eyes. “You’ve got to commit. Commitment is important. Even if she drives you nuts, you can’t just date her forever.”

After this, the conversation turned back to the mystical place where we found ourselves, the woods. They talked about the PCT hikers they had met, and how confusing it was that none of us traveled armed. 

“There are wolves in these woods, and grizzlies,” one of them said. “And elk the size of horses that could trample your tent. I don’t know how you guys hike without a gun.”

Considering that wolves basically never attack people, and there are a grand total of six grizzlies in the whole Cascade range, the elk remark was the only one that held any weight (and not much at that). We brought up the problem of a gun— one heavy enough to take down a large animal is certainly too heavy to lug. The guys scoffed at the idea of anything being too heavy, and almost remarked at how weird it was that everyone wore polyester instead of jeans. We remarked that cotton loses all insulating power when it gets damp, but this seemed like a minor inconvenience to them.

They said that if they ever hiked the trail, they would build shelters instead of bringing a tent, and build fires every night. We said that this would get you arrested if you tried it almost anywhere on trail, and they insisted that they understood the principals of Leave No Trace— “Of course we’d put everything back and make it look like no one had been there.” I’m not sure how you make it look like no one cut down a tree to build a lean-to, but they seemed fixed on this idea.

Most of all, they marveled that I, a woman, had made it this far on the trail. It wasn’t so much the miles walked that impressed them, but that I could survive out here in the Woods, the mystical man’s world. They finally explained it to themselves when I mentioned that I had spent a lot of time playing in the woods when I was a kid— the magical influence of the woods had managed to overcome my womanly weakness. We tried to convince them there were a ton of other women on trail— we talked about Stumbles, Catdog, Lobby and Trinket, Marcia Powers, and of course, Heather Anderson, who held the speed record. But nothing could convince them that women could be in harmony with the woods the way that a man could be.

This conversation lasted a long time. It was a bit exasperating to listen to, but they were so kind about giving us food and drinks, and the fire was so warm, that it was hard to leave. Finally, it was mid-afternoon and Zach and I really had to get going. We heated our hands by the fire one last time, then thanked them for giving us so many yummy drinks and snacks. Now I was paranoid about showing any weakness, and as we hiked off, I walked with my head held high, feeling like I was representing my entire sex.

The weather was warmer now, and the wind had died down, although it was still chilly. As we hiked along, we talked about the odd conversation we’d just had. I fumed a bit about their male chauvinism, but in some ways, it was so innocent, so assumed, that I had a hard time being angry at them. At that moment, though, I realized something: I really appreciated all the guys that we had met on trail. Every one of them that I could think of had an overarching respect for women. Never once on trail, until now, had anyone made me feel weak or insignificant because I was a woman— on the contrary, several guys had talked about how jealous they were that women’s bodies generally held up to thru-hiking better than men’s did. In light of what had just happened, I appreciated this a lot more.

We hiked up and down, over hills and under trees. In the valleys the cold air was pooled and we shivered like crazy, but on the ridges the sun was hot and we sweated. We hiked into a huge burned area and out again, the temperature constantly changing. It was hard for our bodies to adjust to freezing one minute and sweating the next!

We found cell phone reception and anxiously called Canada’s border patrol. We learned that our permits had been approved, and that our documents were being sent to the last resupply point, Stehekin. We were so relieved! A huge weight was lifted from me that day. We strolled along in high spirits after that, eating huckleberries from the red-leafed bushes.

And we hiked through another burned area.
Despite our late start and several-hour-long break at the cabin, Zach and I managed to hike 18 miles well before dark. We paused on a windy tree-covered ridge with open sky visible through the trees on both sides. Looking at our maps, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to camp anywhere soon up ahead, so we decided to just take a low-mileage day and camp here. 

We set up our tent in the flapping wind, then sat in the lee in the last cold light of day, trying to decide what to eat. There wasn’t any water here so we couldn’t make a hot meal, so we made tuna and parmesan wraps for dinner, and peanut butter and chocolate wraps for dessert. Then we ducked into our tent and read two chapters of The Silmarillion. Despite the wind, it wasn’t a very cold night, and soon we were lost in a deep sleep.


1 comment:

  1. You have surely met some characters on the PCT. :) I'm surprised they were so open and vocal about their significant others and not wanting them on the trail with them. I would love it (I think) if my husband loved kayaking/camping/hiking and being outdoors as much as I do. Absolutely love reading each and every day's journal entry...sometimes more than once. I imagine I will start over and read them all again. Sure do hope you compile your journey into a book. Would love to have the whole shebang together! :)