September 29th, 2014, Monday
2653.8 to 2668.8 (Manning Park, B.C.)
I drifted to the surface of consciousness, feeling damp polyester against my nose and frosty air against my ear. Something had woken me, but what? Still half asleep, I burrowed deeper into the sleeping bag, snuggling closer to Zachary. Then, half in the dream world, I heard what had woken me.
It was a man’s voice, singing in an ethereal falsetto, that floated down from the trail far above our campsite, echoing across the lake.
A whole new world!
A dazzling place I never knew
No one to tell us no
Or where to go
Or say we’re only dreaming.
A whole new world…
|These guys were just ahead of us.|
With that, I drifted back to sleep, slipping into pleasant dreams. I never knew who that hiker was, but his voice was the perfect beginning for our final day.
Soon after, I woke up for real, and Zach and I ate cold oatmeal one last time, then got out into the chilly morning and packed up our tent one last time. We moved with deliberateness but not with hurry. We were determined to get to the border, but not that excited. This day, anticipated for so long, seemed utterly surreal.
Now we headed out, leaving Hopkins Lake behind and rejoining the PCT. The trail wound through a close pine forest, sometimes threaded with little trickling streams. We were playing tag with Me Too, but otherwise the trail was deserted. Low gray clouds hung overhead and the air was chilly, but no rain fell yet.
It was one of the longest 6.3 miles of my life, and we only took one short break to eat a snack. We kept checking the map, trying to figure out where we were. At last we knew to look for a long straight stretch, and then a series of switchbacks down the side of the mountain. The border would be soon after that.
Finally, we reached the straight section. We barreled along, walking faster and faster. We glimpsed the border: a stone’s-throw-wide clear cut that runs along the entire US/Canada border. The trail turned and switchbacked. We were almost there. I tried to feel emotion. I desperately tried. It didn’t work.
And then, in a clearing up ahead, we saw the Northern Terminus. A metal border marker, shaped like the Washington Monument, stood with its top askew. A cluster of square poles, just like the ones at the Southern Terminus, stood next to it, topped with a little American flag on the left and a little Canadian flag on the right. I took a video of us walking up, but the only vague emotion I could conjure was disbelief.
We stood at the monument, and stared at it. I giggled and crossed to the other side, saying, “I’m in Canada!” (The first time I’ve ever been to Canada, incidentally.)
We were alone; the woods were silent. I had been half-hoping to find a party here, but it was just the two of us. Again, I tried to feel emotion. I touched the monument, feeling the damp wood against my hand. I couldn’t find any emotion inside.
If this had been any place other than the Northern Terminus, we would’ve hiked on then and there. But we couldn’t just do a flyby. Besides, we had to get pictures. Me Too wasn’t far behind us, so we sat down on a damp log to wait for him.
We ate a Clif bar, but decided to save the boxed wine for after the pictures. We also found the trail register (hidden in the metal monument) and spent a long time looking through it, seeing all the people we knew. Chéte and Brunch. Side Show and Balance. Smokey. Anchor. Banjo. Sad Fish. Goosebumps. Shutter. Happy Feet. Thistle and Ouzel. Angry Bird. Godzilla. Pesky. Catdog. Lobby and Trinket. Landfill. Zen Dawg. The whole group of people we had camped with at Hart’s Pass. Each of the names brought a face vividly before me.
Me Too came trekking up, and we all congratulated each other. We offered to take his picture, and as he took off his pack, a wrist-sized chunk of log fell out from under his hip belt. He saw our curious looks and said, “I’ve got a hernia there, so I’ve been hiking with the stick lodged between my hip belt and my hernia so it doesn’t explode.” We stared at him, realizing that this accomplishment for him was far greater than it was for us.
We took each other’s photos in front of the monument.
We chatted with Me Too for a while, and then he hiked on, limping a little. “You’ll probably pass me,” he said. “When you get to the road, tell my girlfriend that I’m right behind you.”
Now Zach and I were alone again, and the gray clouds were lowering overhead. I took a picture of Zach sneaking booze and drugs (boxed wine and Ibuprofen) over the border, a picture I’d been dying to take since a year ago.
We also took a short video. Later, when I showed it to family and friends, they all remarked that I was crying. But I wasn’t, not even close. It looks like I am, but I was just talking weird. My ability to process this life event completely failed.
We uncapped the boxed wine and poured half of it into one of our camp bowls. We had meant the wine to serve as a celebratory beverage, but as Zach poured it out, I felt like this was a solemn moment. We faced each other and cupped our hands around the single bowl, and bowed our heads over it, foreheads touching. Zach said a prayer, thanking God for getting us through the trail. Sand and snow, fire and mountains, exhaustion, hunger, discouragement, fear. God had seen us safely through. He had been with us every literal step of the way.
I drank from the bowl, and then Zach did. It didn’t feel like a celebration— it felt like communion. I believe that it was. This was a sacred moment, and even though neither of us could experience emotion, we shared a Christian sacrament, in silence and reverence.
With barely a word, we packed up our stuff. We hoisted our packs, tightened the straps, and stepped forward into Canada. We still had eight miles to walk to get to the highway, where we would hitch to Manning Park and try to track down Zach’s Aunt Rose. We had agreed to meet her anytime within this three-day span, so we were right on time.
Those last eight miles were very surreal. We were finished with the trail, but still out in the middle of the wilderness. We had one last big climb to tackle (about 2,000 feet), which we sped along amid huffing and puffing, passing Me Too.
Now the trail leveled out, and we wound through a pleasant coniferous wood, passing trail camps and crossing log bridges over little streams. We were on top of a mountain, and soon the PCT turned into a trail wide enough for a jeep, headed down the mountainside. We flew down the trail, eager to get to see family. We were planning to stay in Vancouver, B.C. for a few days with Aunt Rose and her partner Jon, and then we’d hop a bus to Portland and stay there for a few weeks before heading home to St. Louis. It was so strange to think that these plans were immediate. For so many months, everything was, “When we finish the trail…”
But now we were finished.
The trail leveled out and grew narrower, winding through a bottomland near a river. I glimpsed the deciduous trees along the bank off to our right, turning yellow with the chill of autumn.
I looked up, and we saw our first people of the day other than Me Too: a couple of day hikers strolling down the trail. “Oh cool,” I thought. “Our first Canadians.”
But Zach let out a cry of recognition and sprinted down the trail toward them. The woman, calling his name, ran toward him as well. I was stunned— it was Aunt Rose and Jon! She and Zach hugged while I hurried up behind. We stuttered through introductions and asked how in the world they knew we were coming today.
“We didn’t!” Rose said. “We knew to expect you yesterday, today, or tomorrow, but we thought we’d just hike this trail and see if we got lucky. We didn’t even know for sure that this was the PCT.” She laughed. “I feel like you’re huge ships coming in from a long journey, and we’re the tugboats come to help you get into the harbor.”
It really did feel like that. We strolled down the last bit of trail, crossing a bridge fringed with yellow trees, chatting with Aunt Rose and Jon. We came to the parking lot, said hi to the woman waiting there and passed on the message that Me Too was close behind, then piled into Aunt Rose’s car.
They drove down the road to Manning Park, a little resort, and announced that Grandma Kathy and Grandpa Ray had given money for us to stay in the hotel. Rose had brought loaner clothes for both of us, including swimsuits, and had bowls of homemade soup for pre-dinner snack. We stared at her, uncomprehending, through this. We walked into the lobby, decorated with wooden creatures. The lady at the front desk congratulated us and gave Rose the PCT discount on the room. We were numb.
We took showers. We changed into clothes (mine was a pretty dress) and ate some black-eyed-pea-and-collard soup, which was surprisingly delicious and felt nourishing down to my bones. We got into our borrowed swimsuits and hit the pool. I floated in the cool water, clean and well-scrubbed and knowing that, if I didn’t want to, I’d never have to sleep in a tent again.
We did laundry. They took us to the restaurant for dinner and I ordered a chicken burger. I ate mechanically, but I wasn’t starving. In exactly two hours, I had assimilated back into civilization. The trail must have been years ago. Decades.
We saw the Hart’s Pass group and went over to congratulate them. Tomorrow we’d be leaving Manning Park, going back to Vancouver. Everyone was going their separate ways. The trail community was parting and scattering to the four corners of the earth.
Zach and I laid down on our bed in our hotel room that night (on a bed big enough that we could both lie on our backs without touching each other, which I couldn’t quite wrap my head around yet), completely unable to comprehend what had happened. The trail seemed like a dream.
It felt like it never happened.
The last few words in my diary entry read: “Strange, soft, luxurious sleep.”