September 17th, Wednesday
2464 to 2476
I woke up that morning to hear rain pattering on our tent, but it let up by the time I sat up and unzipped the fly. The world around us was ghostly with a fine mist, and clouds hung low over the mountain peaks around us. We packed up quickly and hiked along, through the alpine area and back down into trees, through pines and yellow-needled larches, and across fields of fiery red huckleberry bushes. The mist cleared to a warm blue sky.
After a few hours, we skirted a rocky mountainside where construction for a ski lodge was going on— they were blasting stuff with dynamite, which thundered across the hills. We crossed under telephone wires and ski lifts and at last ascended over a ridge where a huge ski lift stood.
Near the top, we saw something we’d hadn’t seen in a few days: marmots. There were two of them, and one was standing on its back paws near the switchback, looking like a little gray bear. It was almost three feet tall this way, and I actually felt intimidated looking at it! He glowered at us as if to say, “You shall not pass.” We tried to scare him off, but he held his ground. At last, with a disgruntled “Cheep!” at us, he and his mate scampered away and we were allowed to continue.
Down the mountain we hiked, and the sun shone warmly on our backs. We stopped a few times for snacks and to chat with day hikers, but we kept our eyes on the goal: we were picking up a box in Skykomish today, and then going on to the Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven, which we’d heard rave reviews about.
Soon we saw a ski lodge to our left down the mountainside, and took a shortcut trail down to it when we saw that it was open for business. We wandered across the brightly-colored complex, walked inside to see that the food was very expensive, but discovered a hiker box that had both graham crackers and peanut butter! Snagging these treasures, we went outside and sat down.
We chatted with some hikers while we charged our phone and ate graham crackers and PB. Then we decided that it was time to try to hitchhike. Our hopes were low, because the only place to hitch was a highway, and there was a non-hiker trying to hitchhike there currently, which would hurt our chances. Not to mention all the gigantic signs posted along the road with the symbol of a figure hitchhiking crossed out with a big red line. Heh.
But there wasn’t any other way to get where we were going from here— Skykomish was fifteen miles away, and Hiker Haven was even further. So we stood on the highway and held out our thumbs.
Cars zoomed by, and I felt in despair, wondering who on earth would screech to halt on a highway to pick up a couple homeless people. But not five minutes passed before we heard a car pull up behind us, and a woman’s voice called, “Need a hitch to Hiker Haven?”
A shirtless hiker with a neon-pink ball cap leaned out of the passenger window. “Hey, hey, guys! Hop in!”
“Neon!” I said, recognizing him, even though we hadn’t seen him since the trail magic with Mountain Dog and Zippy back in northern California. We clambered into the back of the van with a scad of other hikers. The driver introduced herself as Jess, or Nightcrawler. She had thru-hiked last year and was spending this year giving hikers rides. “Is there anyone else?” she asked.
We looked out, and walking across the ski resort parking lot was Ken. “Ken is over there!” Zach said.
“Is he going to Hiker Haven?”
“He is now.”
Nightcrawler looked both ways, then peeled out across the highway, cutting across four lanes of traffic (with Neon still hanging out the window) and nearly ran down Ken while honking at him. Neon yelled at him to jump in. Ken looked startled, but obeyed, cramming in next to us.
Now Nightcrawler, the van full to the brim, took off down the highway, and we wound deeper into the mountains, leaving the hustle and bustle of the ski area behind.
Neon talked about how he and some of his friends had left the PCT when it caught on fire, and ended up hiking the Lost Coast Trail for a while instead. “At that point, we were so far from what we’d expected to be doing, we called it ‘The Lost Cause Trail,’” he said, grinning. They had returned to the trail at Ashland and been enjoying themselves ever since.
Now we entered the little town of Skykomish, charming and clean and built along a set of railroad tracks in the fold of the mountains. Nightcrawler dropped off most of the people here, who were spending the afternoon shopping and eating at restaurants, then drove Zach and me and Ken to the post office so we could pick up our package. From there she took us to Baring, a much smaller little burg deeper in the mountains, crossed the railroad tracks, and pulled up into a gravel driveway with a big wooden sign that said, “DINSMORE’S HIKER HAVEN.”
The property was spacious with a huge green lawn between the Dinsmore’s house and the outbuildings— a large shed with the showers/bathroom, and a warehouse shed for the hikers to crash in. Dozens of people milled about, some hikers, some volunteers, some other trail angels who were visiting.
One of the volunteers, who introduced herself as “Mama Piute,” told us to drop our stuff and get food before anything else. Stuttering out thank-yous, we followed her into the Dinsmore’s house, where she dumped massive heaps of fettucini alfredo onto styrofoam plates and handed them to us. Then she turned us over to a hiker named Milestone (he had finished the trail a couple days ago and hitched back here to help operations run smoothly).
Milestone gave us the grand tour, showing the hiker hideout which was fitted with a bunch of bunk beds, a miniature library, a buckstove, a TV, a pile of hiker boxes, and other odds and ends like PCT bandanas, taxidermy, and a pile of loose-leaf reading material. Most of the hikers were currently watching Back to the Future, and we saw several we knew.
Milestone showed us to the shower-and-laundry building with a sign up sheet for both, and said we could camp anywhere on the lawn, since the bunks were spoken for. We gratefully did so, pitching our tent on the edge of the lawn next to some blackberry bushes. Behind our tent, dramatic blue-gray mountains rose up and vanished into the mist. It looked like it would start drizzling any moment, and I was happy for the prospect of a warm dry building near at hand.
Now we hung out, watching a bit of Back to the Future, getting our photos taken by Andrea Dinsmore, a friendly no-nonsense woman who was responsible for the bounty all around us. We took showers, changed into loaner clothes, and ran a load of laundry. Now wearing a dress and sweatshirt (COTTON! SWEET COTTON!), I stamped my damp feet to keep warm as I scrolled through Zach’s phone, checking email and Facebook messages.
I paused in the middle of a message on Facebook, a list of prayer requests from my Bible study group. One of the prayer requests, from my mom, was, “Michael’s mother probably only has 6 months left to live.”
I stood still on the rain-soaked lawn, breath steaming. And staring at the empty sentence, I realized that Mom was talking about Nonni.
My dad’s parents, Nonni and Poppi as we call them in good Southern fashion, had been in poor health for a while. Poppi’s mind was sharp but his body was falling apart. Nonni’s body was fine but Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. But I didn’t realize that she was so close to leaving us. The fact seeped into my mind, but I was too numb to process it.
I called home after this, but Mom didn’t bring up the subject and I felt oddly shy and didn’t ask about it. Like asking her would make it real somehow. So instead we talked about how my brother Christian was home from his summer job in Yellowstone. I hadn’t talked to him since April, and was looking forward to seeing him again soon.
I hung up, and looked around at the gray sky, still feeling numb and a little sad, but not bitter or angry. Just sad.
Alone in my thought, I wandered over to the hiker hut to see if I could catch the last bit of Back to the Future. However, someone had put in a new movie: True Grit, the new one. The opening narration began, with a piano in the background softly playing an old hymn that I knew well: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Though it was just the tune, I knew the words.
What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms!
We used to sing that with Nonni, and my siblings and I learned the harmonies for it. Nonni loved hymns. She would sing them while she was baking or doing laundry or weeding the garden. It was her greatest passion that everyone should “know the Lord.”
Not wanting to watch the movie, I sat at a table outside, absently scrolling through the phone. But I could still hear the music, and for some reason, the hikers kept on restarting the movie, so the gentle music played over and over.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear?
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near
Leaning on the everlasting arms…
To this day, the sound of that piano tune still haunts me a little bit.
After Zach joined me, dressed in loaner clothes as well, and we decided to walk across the railroad tracks to the Baring Country Store for ice cream. We set out together, looking at the mountains ahead and behind.
The country store was decorated like a Swiss chalet. Inside it was warm, cluttered, and inviting, carrying an eclectic mix of groceries and supplies. We bought ice cream cones and observed that the breakfast cafe menu was very reasonably priced— we might stop here tomorrow. We hung out, watched other hikers talking, watched the stormy gray sky close in, and ate our ice cream cones.
At last we all stood up to go, because the store was closing. Shamiko Rassmison had left an entire pancake on his plate, and when I confirmed that he wasn’t going to eat it, I grabbed it, dumped half a cup of syrup on it, and rolled it up like burrito.
Back at the Dinsmores, we found a large-framed middle-aged hiker firing up a grill, saying that someone had asked him to grill hamburgers. His name was 45, which referred to his habit on his Appalachian Trail section-hike of saying that everything, no matter how close or far, was “about 45 minutes away.”
“So it’s not your age?” I asked.
“No,” he said, chuckling. “I passed 45 a long time ago.”
I turned away to do something else, and was distracted for a moment, so I didn’t see exactly what happened. Whatever the cause, I heard a loud whoomph and turned to see the gas grill erupt into flames at least five feet high. Ken freaked out, and Happy Feet rushed to grab the fire extinguisher. 45 dashed into the inferno and slammed down the lid, trying to close the vents only aided by an oven mitt. Happy Feet rushed up with the fire extinguisher, but we all shouted, “Don’t spray water on it! It’s a grease fire!”
A second later, the fire burnt itself out. 45 gingerly lifted the lid, and we saw a bunch of red-hot coals underneath, and completely blackened burgers on top.
“Okay,” he said in a matter-of-fact way. “Let’s try that again.”
He calmly cleared the old burgers and placed a new round on, this time grilling them successfully. Most of the hikers had already eaten, so Zach, Ken, 45 and I had the meal all to ourselves. I ate three burgers, and each of the guys ate four.
45 told us that he had lost 90 pounds since the beginning of the trail! “I know that at the beginning, everyone was thinking, ‘That fat fucker isn’t going to make a hundred miles. I showed them!’” We congratulated him. He also told us that he was a veteran, and was one of several veterans hiking the trail this year, stopping at VFW posts along the way to give talks. Most of the others had dropped out— one had finished, and he was now the only one left on trail. We wished him luck.
It was dark now, and it finally began to rain, so Zach and I climbed into the tent and settled in. Even though it seemed chilly outside, it was a much warmer night than we had gotten used to, so we sweated all through the night.