4:30 AM: Riiiiiiiip *snap* CRASH
For once I wake up before Carrot and pivot a little on my neoair. The mosquitos have swarmed to the vestibule of our little single wall shelter and they are all clamored up in the peak built by the trecking pole, which holds the whole fragile thing together. I watch them buzz and bump against one another as I rub the sleep from my eyes.
Carrot stirs and reaches for me, unbuttoning the top button of her quilt and pulling me close.
“This might sound crazy” I mumble. “But did you hear a tree fall this morning?”
Apparently it’s NOT crazy, instead entirely possible and yes- she did hear it too. A tree just snapped right off and collapsed to the ground!!!!! Well I never.
It got smokier as we slept, again. The air smells of thick campfire and the sun is rising in a formidable hot pink globe that says “This shit is fuuuuucked” without having to speak a word. Carrot and I do our morning shuffle and we’re both thinking something that we’re not ready to say yet. For now we just try to start hikin’.
I lace up my shoes and look at my feet really deeply, for just about the millionth time. The truth is, I just can’t believe them. They are filthy—- like really filthy, crusted with dirt and also tacky goo from the medical and KT tape holding together my hot spots, blisters, and bad ankle. My toenails are all jammed up and both the little ones seem like they might pop off. The skin on my heels and soles is peeling away from hours and hours of pounding in wet shoes and my whole foot feels like it’s now made of a different fabric. Before my feet were soft cotton and now they are stiff canvas. In a nut shell, they are toughening up.
We’ve decided to take a steep alternate to make up for our foreshortened day yesterday. It goes straight up and straight down, takes us off the little red line in our apps that tells us we’re on the exact right path, and shaves off two miles of uppy downy droll. A steep rocky down is not really my favorite but I am buoyed by the impending veggie burger and fries that I know are waiting for me in the town. I am more than happy to be suddenly two miles closer to that.
Within minutes of walking we’re off the PCT and into the alternate. The up is the kind of steep that would make me work regardless but the smoke adds a new layer. I can’t breathe through my nose because of the congestion it’s caused, and I am trying to suck in oxygen in great gasps through my mouth. It’s futile. There’s not enough air in my air.
By the time we crest to the saddle of the climb I am cooked. I’m having trouble focusing my eyes and I am resoundingly dizzy. I click my pole down just ahead and lean into it. This is how I’m going to have to descend I think, as I look to the steep rocks below. Dangit.
I crawl down those rocks. I’m stumbling over my own feet again and again and the floor feels like it’s moving below me. I suck- again and again- at the air. I just can’t catch my breath! How can anyone breathe at all?
Carrot is waiting for me at the bottom and the bugs are swarming her, darting for her mouth, her nose, and her eyes with a specific ferocity that just feels mean. She gets up to lead back to the actual, real live, gentle roll of the PCT and I feel ashamed. Why aren’t I better at this? I think. Stupid smoke.
We agree to meet at Mig Lake in 7 miles and I put on African pop music and try to cruise. I am tired of being held back by my narrative that I am slow on the descents, and so I test myself to see if I can get any faster. I can, I discover, it’s just that when it’s steep it’s really more of a controlled fall down a mountainside than a hike. Is this really what the more sure footed do? Just fling themselves into the abyss?!
I find Carrot at the lake and we eat. I have granola in protein powder milk and peanut butter by the spoonful with dried cherries and the last of my Juanita’s jalapeño chips. This is my fifth finished bag of chips in a four day section and I lust for more.
We have seven and a half more miles to Skykomish and though the bugs have chilled, the air is acrid. We plan to take a double night at a hotel – a Nero (though 15.5 miles hiked is hardly near zero imho) and a zero – and my body needs the rest so bad. From my lungs to my shoulders to my inner thigh chafe to my aching legs and my healing knees and fucked up ankles and feet, I am DONE. get me horizontal.
We have a steep climb, a steep descent, a less steep climb up and under rows of abandoned ski gondolas, a gentle descent into Stevens Pass and then a quick hitch to Skykomish. I do all of this with single minded drive. Must. Get. To. Town. The second town feels close I can think of nothing else.
We reach the peak of our last climb and my phone jumps to life. First and foremost I see texts from Jukebox and Homework. They’re bailing on account of the air, which makes perfect sense but also makes me sad. I open Instagram: The smoke in Washington and Oregon! the people say. It’s worse than Beijing! they say (which makes me sad. People, like, live in Beijing and I come from no fantasyland but must we talk about it like it’s poison?) They’re recommending no outdoor activity! the people say. Air quality in Chelan (our next destination) is worse than it’s been in years!
Carrot and I are crestfallen. We’re just now seeing tiny glimpses of our bodies will to strengthen. We’re getting over our injuries and into our stride and …..now what? Nothing?
We hike our last two miles introspective and sullen. The trail is easy, the hitch is easy, the veggie burger and fries are fine. But are we done?
Do we have to go?