Tuesday, October 13, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 152: It's All Over

Lake Chelan, as seen from Stehekin. (I took this on the 24th, after our camera rebooted.)
DAY 152
September 23rd, Tuesday
2560.5 to 2580.2

The next morning, as it had in the desert, my shin splint had magically vanished. When I crawled out of the tent into the chill fog-draped morning and put weight on my leg, it felt strong and solid, as if I hadn’t just walked 2500 miles. Weird!

Zach and I packed up quickly in the damp mist and got an early start, barreling along the foggy alpine landscape on an easy path. We flew through the miles, warmed by our vigorous pace, as the sun peeked through the clouds overhead and it began to clear to be another gorgeous day.

Our goal was to reach mile 2580.2 by 6:15, where a shuttle bus, the last one of the day, would take us to the little town of Stehekin (apparently accessible only by hiking or boating in). We’d heard rave reviews of this town, including many legends about the best cinnamon rolls you’ve ever tasted, and were eager to get there.

We left the alpine area behind and wound through a forest, ducking under or over fallen logs often, as we had many times in Washington. I remember we were having a rather Calvinist discussion about the uselessness of regret, when we crossed a log over a little stream.

Mid-sentence, Zach hopped off the end of the log, and I heard a faint snap. He howled in pain and collapsed.

For half a moment, I was frozen. It’s all over, I thought. We’re done. The trail is over. Zach just broke his ankle and it’s over. But I can’t. I can’t stop here. Will I have to hike to the end by myself?

This passed through my brain in a rush, and then I dashed over to Zach’s side. “What happened? Are you okay?”

He cringed, rocking back and forth, cradling his ankle. I hadn’t seen him in this much pain all trail. “I just landed wrong,” he managed through gritted teeth. “Ow, ow, ow.”

A hitherto unnoticed hiker materialized out of the trees, startling us both. “Are you okay?” the lanky dark-bearded guy asked. “I’m an ER nurse.”

Zach immediately pulled himself together. “No,” he grunted. “I think I’m okay. It just really hurt.”

The hiker looked at his ankle placidly. “If it starts turning purple, splint it.”

We had both calmed down by now, and Zach thanked the hiker, who introduced himself as Landfill, for the advice. Landfill waited until Zach stood up again and tested his weight before he nodded and hiked on. “See you in Stehekin,” he said as he disappeared into the trees.

“I hope so,” I said nervously. (“And who was that masked man?”)

Now we were alone in the sun-dappled woods, Zach still flinching, but able to put weight on his leg. 

“Do you think it’s okay?”

“It’s not broken,” Zach said. “Just sprained.”

It’s over. We’re done. He won’t make it past Stehekin. My throat felt tight.

“Okay, let’s keep walking,” Zach said, and began limping down the trail. I tried to give him my trekking pole but he insisted that his was okay. 

We walked this way for several tense minutes, and Zach, perhaps to distract himself, consulted the map. “We made good time this morning,” he said. “You know, if we speed-walk, I think we could catch the 3:00 bus instead of the 6:15.”

“You think so?”

“We’d have to average three and a half miles per hour, but yeah.”

This pace was faster than we normally walked, since up-and-down terrain and snack breaks put us at a much lower pace. But getting to Stehekin earlier rather than later sure sounded nice. “Is your ankle up for it?”

“I’ll give it a try.”

So we set off down the trail at a much faster clip. Soon Zach wasn’t limping at all, and we sped along the easy trail, cutting through the woods. We paused for a short snack break, then dashed off again, shoving off with our trekking poles and pushing ourselves to the limit of what we could hike without gasping for breath.

The trail had some climbs, but we barreled through them, and at last found ourselves on some easy switchbacks leading down into North Cascades National Park, where Stehekin was located. We flew down the mountainside and up another hill, laughing and yelling at how this hill was sabotaging our speed. We crested it to see the path leading across a bridge to a parking lot. There, in the parking lot, sat the shuttle bus. The time was 2:58. 

“Run!” I yelled to Zach. Yeah, tell the guy with the sprained ankle to run. But he did, and I barreled after him, never as fast a runner as him, stumbling, my backpack slamming against my torso. Zach laughed as he ran, his trekking pole flailing wildly in his hand.

At exactly 3:00, we stumbled and staggered into the shuttle bus, where a woman with dozens of silver braids beneath her ball cap smiled at us. We plopped down in the only remaining seats, next to Happy Feet. “I told the driver to wait,” he said with a grin. Zach and I nodded in gratitude, gasping and red-faced.

The bus was crammed full of tourists staying at the local resorts. Most of them tried to be politely indifferent, but a few of them began chuckling at us, and we smiled at them. We knew we were ridiculous. “Sorry for the smell,” I said, and that opened a conversation. Everyone asked about our hike, and we answered as best we could. 

Our bus driver, Anne
The shuttle stopped at two different resorts, unloading and reloading tourists at each, and then stopped at the legendary bakery. We would be there for five minutes, so we could grab something if we wanted. Zach and I dashed into the cozy but spacious room, with a huge glass case stuffed with icing-glistening baked goods of all kinds. Pressed for time, we each ordered a cinnamon roll and another pastry (I got a sticky bun) and vowed to return tomorrow. We loaded back into the bus, and after a brief stop at an organic produce stand, the bus took off down the pine-lined road toward the town of Stehekin.

Later, Zach said, “I think that when good hikers die, they go to Stehekin.” I think he’s right. It’s a tiny town, a tourist spot in a national park, right on the bank of the gorgeous Lake Chelan, third-deepest lake in the US, a wide stretch of water with looming mountains on the opposite side. It has only one street. In addition to a bakery, it has a little post office, a lodge and restaurant, a tourism center, an A-frame building that holds a landline phone and a washer and dryer, and a free campground for PCT hikers. Zach and I asked to be dropped at the post office, and we hopped up the wooden steps and stepped inside. An older man was at the booth, and had to rummage around for quite a while before he found our box. Last resupply stop. This was our last box. We never had to worry about resupply again.

We wandered outside, and saw Shutter walking down the street. He recognized us and waved hi, and we walked over to chat. He said that he and a bunch of other hikers were camped out in a boat house right on the water’s edge— he said no one in authority in the town would give him a straight answer about the legality of this, but the people at the lodge said, “If the tourism center will let you camp there, that’s fine,” and the tourism center said, “If the people at the lodge let you, that’s fine.” 

Excited at the idea of not having to soak our tent again, we followed him to a little building on the edge of the lake, near some docks. The structure had large open windows but a solid basic structure that would keep the rain out, so we dumped our stuff on the picnic tables inside with the other hikers’ stuff. It looked like it would be Shutter, Happy Feet, Landfill, and us here tonight. There were a dozen other hikers in town, but some were at the campground and some had opted to stay at the lodge. 

We sat down for a while on the picnic tables in the lake house and chatted, while ghostly gray clouds settled over Lake Chelan. A chilly breeze whipped up and the air smelled like fresh lake water. After a while, we decided to check out the little general store to see if there was any good resupply material. We stood up to walk, and Zach let out a muffled cry of pain and crumpled back onto the bench.

“Are you okay?” I asked, suddenly remembering that he had badly twisted his ankle.

Zach pulled up his pant leg, and we both started in surprise to see that his ankle was twice its usual size. Landfill looked at it placidly. “You need to ice that. The lake should be cold enough.”

Using our trekking poles like crutches, Zach limped outside, clambered down some concrete steps to the shore, and sat on the step, his foot immersed in the icy water. I left him there and went up to the tourist center to see if I could find a weather forecast that would allay my fears. It was closed.

When I returned, I found that Zach had stopped icing his foot and was now hobbling around town, leaning heavily on his trekking poles. I watched him from a distance with a pit in my stomach— he was using the poles like crutches, and it was obvious he couldn’t put any weight on his ankle at all.

I drew a deep breath. I made up my mind that if he had to stop here, I would do everything I could to finish the trail by myself. I didn’t want to— really, really didn’t want to— but I hadn’t come this far to give up. Only a direct order from Zach to the contrary would stop me now.

I sighed and brushed away the tension. We’re in a gorgeous town with a free place to stay, I told myself. Give it a day to rest, and maybe it’ll be better.

Zach limped up to me. “The store has some supplies, but not a lot.”

I nodded. “How’s your ankle?”

“Icing it helped.”

“We’re gonna stay here all day tomorrow, right?”

“I figured. We could go to the bakery.”

I smiled. Since we had stopped worrying about a budget, town stops had gotten much more exciting. Imagine if we had been like this all trail! (Okay, maybe we would still be paying back debt. It still probably would’ve been worth it.)

We walked back to the boathouse and got settled for the night, laying our sleeping pads on the concrete floor and stashing our backpacks nearby. We chatted with Happy Feet and Shutter, and our boathouse had several visitors, including Frank, Ouzel and Zen Dawg. We stayed up late talking, nibbling on food and getting a little slaphappy. I forgot all my worries about Zach’s ankle and just was happy to be in the last trail town, with people we knew, knowing that we got to hang out in a bakery tomorrow.

Outside, the sky darkened to night, and we watched the dock lights wobbling on the glassy black water. The wet breeze washed the air around us. At last we climbed into our sleeping bag. As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard rain start to splatter on the roof. Before I was asleep, it turned to a downpour that thundered on the roof. Cozy in our bag with four walls around us, I was very glad to be here.


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