September 24th, Wednesday
We woke up the next morning to see a steady downpour outside the wide open windows of the boathouse. The other hikers were already awake and packing up their stuff— even though all of us were staying in town tonight as well, we wanted to stay mobile in case the lodge or the tourism center suddenly decided that we weren’t allowed to camp here. Zach and I stuffed our gear into our bags and got ready to hop the early-morning bus to the bakery.
“How’s your ankle?” I asked Zach as we packed up.
He stretched it, and we heard a little pop that made me flinch. “It still hurts, but not as bad as yesterday.”
The rain was only a mist when we clambered onto the bus, accompanied by Happy Feet and an old weathered-looking hiker who was headed back to trail. As we drove on the road through the forest, the older hiker introduced himself as Shrek. He seemed very annoyed that someone else named Shrek was on trail this year. “I had the name long before anyone else,” he said. “I thru-hiked in ’75. It was a high snow year, and only 12 people actually hiked the whole trail that year.”
Zach and I applauded this kind of accomplishment, but Happy Feet, who was very devoted to the “Hike your own hike and never measure accomplishment in miles,” was not impressed. He gazed out the window, looking mildly miffed.
Shrek then proceeded to lecture us on proper hiking technique, which seemed like an odd thing to do considering that all three of us had hiked well over 2000 miles. When Shrek mentioned that you should wash your hands with soap multiple times per day, Happy Feet contradicted him. “That’s a lot of soap scum to be dumping in the wilderness,” he said, and we agreed.
Shrek, shocked to have someone question his hiking wisdom, stuttered, “Well, it’s not like you’re washing your hands over a stream.”
“Still,” Happy Feet said.
“We use hand sanitizer,” I said. I didn’t mention that we only used it after bathroom breaks— we never bothered to wash our hands before eating.
“I brought a little travel-sized hand sanitizer to the border,” Happy Feet said, and grinned. “But I’ve still got the same one.”
Shrek was clearly alarmed at this. “That’s not safe! You’re lucky you don’t have Giardia. It’s important to wash your hands after bathroom breaks, before meals, after handling stream water—”
Happy Feet, clearly in a mood to be adversarial, said, “Nah, who cares about hygiene. Germs don’t affect me.”
“Germs affect everyone,” Shrek said, growing a little red in the face. “So it’s important—”
“I think that a positive attitude and all this fresh air is good enough.” Happy Feet was on a roll. “I’ve just been hiking from the border like a dirty hippie, not washing my hands and having lots of unprotected sex.”
I bit the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. Zach was hiding a smile, too. Shrek, huffing a little, said, “Well, if you want to get Giardia, that’s your choice,” and fell silent.
We were at the bakery now, and we said goodbye to Shrek, wishing him luck. We stepped out into the misty air, then ducked inside the warm bakery where the smell of baking bread and sticky icing filled our heads.
Zach and I weren’t worried about money anymore, but we still tried to pace ourselves. We each bought a stuffed croissant, fresh cinnamon roll and one pastry from the day-old discount shelf. Then we took our treats to a big table in the corner and sat next to Shutter. I bit into the cheese-stuffed croissant I had bought, and it tasted so good that I almost cried.
I was finally able to plug in our camera, and we waited for it to charge, hoping and praying that it would reboot successfully so we could take good pictures of the last section of trail.
|Shutter, Zach (Tabasco), Happy Feet, Ouzel|
We flipped through magazines, reading articles about celebrities, the California water crisis, hiking destinations, and everything in between. Shutter, Happy Feet, and Ouzel and we talked about anything and everything, including an animated discussion about religion and politics. I got to share my faith and learn about their world-views, and we discussed politics and what had happened in St. Louis and the role of police in peacekeeping. We all came from markedly different faiths and political backgrounds, but it was one of the most civil religion/politics conservations I’d ever had. Chalk one up for hikers!
We stayed at the bakery for several hours. Our camera successfully recharged and seemed to be in working order again. We chatted about this and that, and bought pastries every hour or so. Hikers came and went, hanging about, headed to town, headed to trail.
One of the hikers began talking about his experience on the Appalachian Trail. “Really,” he said, “the PCT has been easy. Anyone could do it. But the AT— God!” He shook his head in some horrific memory. “It’s so damn hard. The constant up and down and the rocky trail. And it rains every day. PCT hikers don’t understand how hard it is.”
I kept my expression neutral as he said this, but I felt tears welling up inside. Here we were at the end of the trail with someone who had hiked as much of it as we had, and he was saying that it was easy. He didn’t mean it this way, but I felt like he was dismissing our entire accomplishment with a wave of his hand. We’d only really accomplish something if we hiked the AT.
Near the end of the day, the hikers began drifting back to town, catching the shuttle bus or hitchhiking. Zach and I lingered by ourselves in the booth, waiting for his phone to finish charging. When everyone was gone, I looked outside and began to sniff, letting some of the tears leak out of my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Zach asked.
“It’s been hard,” I said softly. “That guy says it’s easy, but it’s been hard for me. Why are AT hikers so uppety? Wouldn’t your first trail always be hard?”
“He doesn’t mean it like that,” Zach said. “He’s probably had a lot of PCT hikers look down on him because they think the AT must be easier because it’s shorter. He’s just trying to convey how hard the AT was for him.”
“You’re right,” I said, though I wasn’t entirely convinced. “I just feel so insecure.” And I began crying for real.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Zach said. “We’ve hiked almost 2600 miles. That’s a big deal.”
I nodded, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. Not compared to all these people who had hiked 4000, 5000, 6000 miles in their lives.
After all this time, after all these miles, I still felt like the rookie who didn’t know what she was doing.
Zach sat next to me and rubbed my back until I felt a bit better. We had some chores to do before the day was out, so we decided to try hitchhiking back to town. We heaved our packs, grabbed some pastries to go, and stood outside in the misty rain.
After a few minutes, an woman in a pickup truck stopped and let us load in and cram into her cab. She was a local, one of the few people who lived here year-round, and she talked about how much she loved it. She dropped us off in town, and then it was time for our camp chores.
We reconned at the boat house, where Shutter and Happy Feet were hanging out. Happy Feet, taking advantage of a little burst of sun, stripped down to his undies and trotted out onto the docks, running the full length of the longest dock before doing a flailing jump off the end into the lake (this greatly amused the local fishermen). We laughed as he swam to shore and toweled off with a pair of dirty socks.
A new flux of hikers came to the boathouse (still room for all, if we got cozy). I sat next to an Asian guy who introduced himself as Sloe Gin. We chatted for a bit, and I asked him what made him decide to hike the PCT.
“The accomplishment,” he said.
I did a double-take. I hadn’t met anyone in months who had given that reason. (Everyone always gave hippie-worthy answers about appreciation of nature and how it’s about the journey, not the destination.)
“What, really? Us too!”
“Really?” he said, surprised as well.
“Yeah! I mean, I love nature, but there’s no way we would’ve suffered through all those burned areas if we hadn’t been getting a medal at the end.”
Sloe Gin grinned, and we talked a bit longer, talking about why caring about the destination as much as the journey was an okay way to hike. For him and for us, it was the only way this hike could happen. “The destination is more important than the journey” probably would’ve gotten us about a hundred miles and no more.
It was time to get to work. Zach and I were both tired and Zach was still limping, so we slogged through our chores: repacking the food we’d gathered, hanging stuff to dry in the boat house, buying food at the local store (we needed olive oil but they didn’t have any, so we bought a stick of butter and packed it in a little Tupperware we’d found in the hiker box), and getting our laundry in a pile to wait for our turn.
I also trekked up to the tourism center, and was able to gather than the forecast this week looked pretty clear: no scary snowstorms predicted at all! This gave me more confidence.
Another hiker gave us a phone card and Zach was able to use some of the remaining minutes to call his Aunt Rose, whom we were planning to meet soon. We learned that our schedules were lining up perfectly— she was going to be in Manning Park, our final destination, on the dates we were planning to arrive, as a birthday celebration for herself! We made plans to meet her at some point during the weekend— anywhere within a three-day period would be fine.
I sat on the dryer in the little laundry room, the door propped open to avoid too much humidity, though it felt good to be sitting in the warmth since it was dark and chilly outside now. I had grabbed some bread at the bakery, and now I ate it with some of our newly-purchased butter for dinner. My raincoat felt cold and plasticky against my damp skin and I couldn’t wait for my clothes to be done drying. Out the open door, I saw gray clouds lowering.
It was pitch black out by the time our laundry was done. I got dressed and stepped outside, trying to find my way by scuffing my flip-flops across the ground, since I could literally see nothing except the distant dock lights.
At last I found my way back to the boathouse, and Zach and I found some space on the floor. Hikers were scattered all over, under, around, and sometimes on top of the picnic tables. We all snuggled in and started to go to sleep.
That’s when we heard the chewing.
At first I didn’t recognize the sound, but Zach did. He sat up and looked around, then raced over and grabbed my backpack, which I had left against the wall. I had foolishly left a cinnamon bun (tightly wrapped in plastic, but still) in the top pocket, not even thinking about it. Zach called me over in a hushed voice, and I came over to see a giant nibbled hole in the top of my pack. A rodent had chewed right through it!
Groaning, we decided to hang our backpacks from hooks on the ceiling. One of the other hikers sleepily asked what was going on, and we said it was a mouse. We went back to bed, but Zach kept his headlamp close to hand.
A minute later, we heard a scuttling go by our heads, and Zach reacted lightning fast, shining his headlamp at the rodent. I missed it. “Did you see it?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” he said, and his tone put me on edge.
“It’s a rat.”
“What! Are you sure? What did it look like?”
“It looked like a mouse.” Zach held his hands a foot apart. “But this long.”
Stifling a shriek, I jumped up, scanning the room. The thought of a mouse crawling over my face in the middle of the night wasn’t pleasant, but I could deal with it. But a rat? No, that crossed a line.
We searched for the rat, to no avail. The other hikers woke up and began frantically hanging their gear. Shutter chuckled at us and rolled over, going back to sleep— rodents of unusual size were par for the course at AT shelters.
At last, all the food was off the floor, and all we could do was lie back down on the ground and try to go to sleep. But the thought of a rat climbing over my face in the night never left me, even in my dreams.