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PCT Update 5: Happy Trails

PCT Update 5: Happy Trails

AnthonyFoti Nov 2nd, 2021
Hot Sauce's 2021 PCT Thru-Hike

Well this is it. The last section of the PCT. I am in peak hiking condition, I feel like I can tackle anything. To be honest the hiking had become… less exciting. Just the thing I had to do to get to the places I wanted to be. It was still incredibly fun, but I was in such good shape I never had that doubt that I couldn't get through a day or section ahead of me. I knew I was going to finish by this point, but the closer I got the slower I wanted to go. I was happy, and calm, and just soaking up everything I could and I didn't want that to stop. In the few days leading up to the state border the hike became less about the challenge of hiking, and more about how I can find the best way to enjoy the time I have left out there. It was peaceful.

Before we set off into Washington, our three man team decided we were going to slow down a bit. There would be more elevation change in Washington so we couldn't be doing the 30+ miles a day we were doing in Oregon, at least not if we wanted to have time to enjoy ourselves. So we bumped it down to ~25 miles a day, and for whatever reason we started to struggle to hit that. We had a mindset shift, and this hike became less like a job, like a challenge, and more like vacation that was never going to end. I guess how could you blame us? Before we left Cascade Locks we had befriended a very nice brewery owner who gave us a tour of the brewery. He then played his and his wife’s favorite card game with us, and then let us keep the deck so we could play on trail. He also offered to set us up with a friend in town who took people out on the Columbia River in his custom sea canoe. We can't say no to anything so we were making this happen the next day before we had to leave. The only problem is that we needed 6 people, 4 wasn't going to cut it with that size boat. So at the bar, the two girls went around selling a “life changing experience” that would be canoeing with 4 complete strangers. They pulled it off though, and we had two random guys from Portland who would drive out in the morning to come with us. Sure enough at 9am the next morning we walked down to the waterfront to complete our 6 man team. Our new friend Val showed us all the techniques we needed to take the boat out, row in proper form, stay in sync, and make callouts to each other. It took all of 15 minutes for us to become a team and get some serious speed going. It was freaking awesome. We went up and down the river, over to the Washington side, and even under the Bridge of the Gods. I couldn't help but think at that moment, that my life was a vacation. Oh and if you are wondering about the two random guys we picked up, well they loved it. One of them was even getting Val’s contact info because he thought it would be a great experience for his son's boy scout troop. We did say it was life changing…

Cascade Locks is technically the lowest point on the PCT. The Columbia River is close to sea level and the divide between Oregon and Washington, so when you come into town you have a 4,000ft descent (you can choose to go through eagle creek area for some awesome waterfalls). When you hike out of Cascade Locks, over the Bridge of the Gods, you have a ~4,000ft climb out. Something I had to look forward to was seeing some friends who were visiting me on trail in a few days. For the hike into trout lake, we gave our packs to my friends to drop off at the general store so Popcorn and I could hike/run the 30 miles into town without our packs on. We sorta messed up the timing because we didn't make it to the store until 10 minutes before they closed. We actually had to sprint down all the hills to make up on time, which turned out to be really fun in the end since we never got to run due to our packs. Fun way to mix things up.

What made Trout Lake so amazing was the hospitality of a Christian group retreat center that was basically an old high school turned into a kids summer camp. They didn't have any groups coming in, so they let hikers stay and use the facilities instead. They had showers, bunk beds, and a VHS player and TV that let us watch a whole lot of classic movies the way we all grew up watching them. It was homey, and also hiker trashy - perfect for a double zero. It actually felt like we were at summer camp. The best part of it all - when we showed up and the owner was giving us the grand tour, he asked us if we had dinner yet. We were running to get to town on time so we hadn't eaten and were pretty hungry by this point, we didn't even have a plan for dinner though. He then directed us to his old Ford Windstar minivan parked out front, told us the keys were on the seat and made sure we left before the pizza place closed. He even insisted we take it so we could get a hot meal. Freaking amazing. We ended up using that car the next two days to get around town, pick up and drop off hikers, and go shopping. It was awesome, and they didn't mind at all. Honestly, the facilities were more than perfect for everyone who needed it, and if it wasn't for the hospitality of the people and that town and the owner of Camp Jonah, we would have probably left town a lot sooner and a lot less happy. Super amazing people in a place I never thought I would spend so much time in.

After Trout Lake, the wilderness part of our hike was back in full swing. We got to hike under Mt. Adams into one of the most beautiful sections of the PCT - Goat Rocks Wilderness. This section sits between Mt Adams and Mt Rainier and gives you an amazing view of both mountains. There is also all sorts of wildlife including elk (which you could hear calling all through the night), and some funny looking white mountain goats. We also found probably my favorite campsite on the entire PCT, which we made it to during sunset so we could see both Rainier and Adams right from our cowboy spot. It was also here that things felt like they were finally getting back to the really remote hiking I loved. Goat Rocks had some of the best views I had seen since the Sierra. That night I sat in my bed covered with my down quilt eating my cold soaked Knorr rice side, absolutely amazed at this life I was getting to live. It was one of those soul touching moments I won't ever forget.

Coming into White Pass, something scary happened: it rained. It hadn’t rained since Yosemite in the middle of California, so this was pretty surprising. It was also a wake up call that things were changing. It would be cloudy most days, and there was always a chance it could start spitting on us. It was moody all the way into Snoqualmie Pass. It was getting cold at night but a really nice temperature during the day. The colors were starting to change, it was fall vibes all around. I loved it… besides the rain. That sucked.

Snoqualmie was our next town, well more of a truck stop. It was a quick in, but a tough out because it was raining the day we left. The only plus side was that the hiking was about to get marvelous. Jagged rocky mountain peaks and alpine terrain was back to stay. We were entering the North Cascades and the views were about to be out of this world. We felt like we were entering the real backcountry. There were no more dirt roads or exit points from here north. The only way out from here was to keep moving up the trail until you found one of the few highways coming across the state.

At Stevens Pass, the real rain was on us. It wasn't a spitting fog that just got you a little damp, this time it was pouring rain all day. The kind that got you soaked through to your base layers. If you weren't moving, you were shivering cold. Our saving grace was the town of Leavenworth about 30 miles off trail to the east. If you didn't know, Leavenworth is entirely Bavarian themed, so the whole town was about beer, bratwursts, and fancy german things. We took advantage and had a blast. It was an awesome place to wait out the rain storm that was happening over the weekend. We only had one resupply left after this, and this time we would really be playing with the upcoming weather windows. We enjoyed ourselves as much as we could so we could be ready for the last major grind to the end.

So where was my headspace during all of this? How was I feeling now that I was getting this close to the end? I think I was in one of the most bittersweet moods in my life. I loved where I was. I loved the life I was living. I was with my friends. I was relaxed and at peace with myself. Everything was so beautiful and everyday was a treasure. I was tired of hiking and being dirty all the time, and I was already tired of the cold and rain, but besides that I was in my place. Either way the weather was clearly starting to shift, so even if I wanted to stay forever I had to keep moving.

We had nice weather coming into Stehekin after waiting things out in Leavenworth, but when we got into town and got some service we heard the reports that another storm was coming in a few days. We knew we had to make our run to the Canadian border ASAP. But when we got to Harts Pass - the last road before the Canadian Border - things were bad. The temperature was dropping below freezing, there was constant rain, and all of our stuff was soaked through. We made another tough call. We would get a ride off the mountains into the town of Winthrop, and stay at the hostel until we had the three day window that we needed. Even though it pushed our finish back into the month of October (something discouraged by a lot of PCTers), it actually was a great decision. Once again - and for the last time - we found a gem of a town to stay in. This time: for four days. I was anxious to finish, but because we were stuck in town and I knew the rain and snow on trail would be miserable, I had to slow myself down and enjoy as much of it as possible. it would all be over in less than a week. We were 30 miles from the border, and if we didn't wait it would be the worst 3 days on trail. In a way it felt like the trail forced me into a mindset that I needed to be in. It made me slow down and I'm glad it did.

Side note: Because of Covid, the Canadian border was closed for most of 2021, and even when it did open, they weren’t accepting applications for walk-in permits. So there was no option to walk into Canada. You had to hike the 30 miles from Hart’s Pass, and then the 30 miles back. It made things way more difficult, but in the end wasn't so bad because that 30 miles is a fantastic section of trail that was totally worth hiking twice.

On Friday, October 1st, the hiking gods shined down on us a gift. Three days of sunny weather. The clouds were gone, and sun was out, and the snow that was now covering everything was melting away as we hiked out of Harts pass. It would be three lovely days of hiking, and on day two we would be slack packing most of it since we were going to the border. The shrubs in the mountains were a bright red and orange. The larches were a bright yellow. It was a picture perfect fall in the mountains of Northern Washington. I thought I was late to the border, but I was right where I was supposed to be, right when I was supposed to be. If I did it all again, I wouldn't dare do it any different.

October 2nd was a cold day, but the vibe on trail and at the Northern Terminus was oh so warm. Everyone had a massive smile on their face, everyone was happy for one another. We were all so proud. It was surreal. You have been doing this thing for so long, how could you possibly expect it to just be done? Really, it just feels like another moment on the PCT. Just another special place that felt really amazing to get to, but not like the end. That feeling didn't hit me until days after, when it really set in that I wasn't going back. But for now, at this moment at the border, it was just… happy. It felt nice. To know how far I had walked, how much I had seen and experienced. I felt tough, strong and capable. I could feel that I showed up to that terminus a different and changed person. Even weeks after I still can't pull together the exact feelings I have about finishing my hike. It just feels big, and amazing. I took so many photos, and we all took photos together to remember this moment. I signed the log book to make sure I left my mark that I was there. I also read through what a lot of other hikers had written. We reminisced about our favorite moments, the friends we made, the experiences we had. My heart was full.

I set out on this journey for so many reasons. Most of which I didn't even know until I had already been on the hike. I also think I decided to hike the PCT because I couldn't find any reason NOT to do the hike. There comes times you just need to take the chance and shake up your life. I'm immensely glad that I did. Getting to that end marker gave me so many feelings about myself and the mark the world leaves on me. I got to think about my experiences since reaching the border, the highs and lows, the range of experiences. It was… a lot.

In the desert I made a lot of friends, young and old and learned how you can never judge someone by their age, look, or even personality. People are meant to be different and it's up to us to learn from those differences, to appreciate them. In the Sierra I was shown some of the most incredible, picturesque parts of this country that gave my soul so much love for this planet. In Northern California I decided to throw away the notion of what I thought was the correct way to do my hike and started saying yes to as much as possible. If it wasn't for the friends I made and their openness, I never would have learned that in the first place. The joy and positivity they provided to my life was amazing. In Oregon, I pushed my body to a place I've never taken it before, and I found the amazing amount it can handle. I did my longest and toughest days of hiking, but also made sure that I was still enjoying each challenge I faced. Lastly in Washington I found peace with myself. The North Cascades was absolute hiking perfection. It was in that perfection where I saw how all the experiences on my hike and in my life came together to make me who I am. I realized how these things had shaped me up until that point and with that I found love and admiration for myself. The kind I had been needing for a long time before my hike.

Doing a check in on myself and my hike made me realize again, that this hike wasn't about what I thought it was. It was never about hiking. It's not about miles, days on trail, pace, cities, states, elevation, mountains, or any of that. This hike was about the meaning it provides. What it means for the hiker, and more specifically what it means to me. This adventure taught me so much in such a short amount of time. I feel like so much life experience was packed into a 5 month time period. My life was stripped down to its core and it gave me clarity. I feel more relaxed and sure in myself, because now I know what I'm capable of. I have it in me to give the world way more than I ever thought I was able to. I also know that the world is capable of proving all of that and more back to me. For every time I got through a difficult situation, like a long hiking day, or hiking with no water, there was an equal amount of situations where something amazing happened, like a complete stranger giving me kindness, or a rewarding sunset waiting for me after those long days. The trail always provided. I learned the importance of appreciating the randomness of the adventure and the importance of saying “yes” a whole lot more than saying “no.” It took a lot of people to show me that, and I now know that if I didn't open my heart and head to those people I wouldn't have ever gotten those lessons. The weight of these things that I learned aren't light for me, I know how important they are so I'm glad I got the chance to write them down here and now.

I’ve changed. At some point on the trail, I realized how much I pushed myself to change. I realized that it's in my personality to always be learning from the world around me, and an experience like hiking the PCT was 100% going to have an impact on me. I knew that at some point I put a lot of trust in myself to let go of who I was, so that I could come out of the experience as a new person. It sounds silly but In a way I had to let Anthony die, so I could go on to become Hot Sauce - the adventurous hiker I needed to be. The new me might look a lot like the old one, and I'm sure in a lot of ways I still am the same person, but I don't feel like the same person and I think that counts for something. The new me is way more willing to say yes. The new me is way more trusting in the world. I'm more happy with simple things. I cherish the randomness that can come with doing what your heart feels like doing. I value the people around me more. I value my own values, and I have a much better sense of who I am and the thoughts and feelings I have. All around I feel like I've gained some understanding of myself, and my life. If I carry nothing else back with me as I transition into the real world, I hope I carry this.

I keep asking myself: Where would I be without all the people that helped me along the way? So many rides were given by complete strangers. People who gave away food, or shelter for me, or just any small act that made sure I could accomplish my journey. There were also so many people who supported me online as well. A lot of people were willing to give me such positive words and that gave me the boost in confidence I didn't think I needed. A lot of people also reminded me how special it all was, they put it into perspective and that became so important. I am immensely grateful. It really did mean a lot. I wont forget to pay all this good will forward. I never would have imagined I would receive so much love. I have a karma to pay off for the rest of my life, and I'm going to make sure I repay this kindness any chance I can get. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So what's next? Following my visit to the border, I still had to hike 30 miles back to the nearest road. A great part about the hike back was hyping up all the other hikers on the way to the border. I was even lucky enough to see a couple of people who I had been hiking with on almost the entire trail. People who had been showing up in my life over and over for the past 5 months, and they just happened to be there for my final days on the trail. It was perfect.

After getting a hitch down from the mountain - a weird one because this time we weren't hitching back - Popcorn and I decided to stay at our favorite hostel in Winthrop one last time, and then set off for Seattle in the morning. Three hitches, and one bus ride later we made it to downtown Seattle. We wanted to see the city for a few days so we found a hostel across from Pike Place Market. Then we took a train down to Portland, where we explored downtown before staying with a friend in the area. A few days after that, we rented a car and headed south. Popcorn is from the Czech Republic and only had about two weeks left on her visa, so we decided to make the best of it. We had been talking about a road trip for most of our hike through Washington, so we decided we would see the parts of the west coast we couldn't see on trail, basically the ones we needed a car to visit. We headed southeast to see our long lost tramily leader Airdrop in Bend, OR. Then across the state of Oregon, into Idaho. We saw Twin Falls, then down to the Bonneville Salt Flats, and Salt Lake City, UT. It wasn't until we were two days into our trip that we made an actual itinerary for the rest of the journey, and the order we would see the Big 5. The next day we started with Arches, then Canyonlands, stayed at a hostel in Moab, then Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and finally Zion (we did the Angel’s Landing trail and was our personal favorite). Then we made the trip south to see the Grand Canyon, went west for a night in Las Vegas, through Los Angeles, up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco, not leaving the coast until we got to Santa Cruz. Then finally we headed back to Portland so we could go rock climbing the night before Popcorn had to catch her flight home. It was a grand tour of the west coast that honestly felt like we were right back on the trail, doing the same random adventure we had been doing for the last 5 months. Any night we were too close to a big city, we stayed in a hotel or hostel, otherwise we slept in the car and cooked our own food the entire rest of the time. It was an all out adventure that let us say goodbye to our trip in dirt bag fashion. It also helped start the transition back into the real world.

I'm back in Michigan with my family now, but the adventurous fire is burning inside me. I'm not sure what I will do next, but I'm certain I have more exploring ahead of me. The PCT was too good for me to not search for something similar, I don't know if that's another hike, or something totally different. But I know it's out there for me. My soul has been changed and there is no going back. What's next, who knows, but for now I am just happy with who I am and the life I get to live. Life is amazing and short and as long as I keep an open heart and mind, I know it'll be good.

Thanks for following along through these months of my journey. I had a lot of fun putting my experiences into words and sharing them with you. I think everyone should take more leaps to learn, grow and experience, so if writing my experience down can give at least one person even a little motivation to take a leap in their life, then that feels like a win to me. I gained so much from my hike and I hope I was able to convey that in a way you can understand. My heart is full, and at my core I am so incredibly happy with everything that has happened. Thanks again for sticking with me. It's been a fun journey, and I wish you the best with your adventures to come. Happy trails!

Hot Sauce

Previous: Nov 1st, 2021

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