Walking into a town like Stehekin was an unparalleled experience for me. You can only get there by boat or plane, or hike in from a trail. It feels incredible. Lake Chelan is a tropic blue and the town is tucked away along it’s corner. The bakery is incredible. Hikers had been talking about it for many miles, and even with that much to live up to, it was not at all disappointing. The cinamon rolls where big and gooey, the sticky buns were delighfully messy, and the place itself was warm and full of smiling, friendly people, locals and tourists alike.
We got off the bus that picks up at the trailhead at about 7pm. The sun was just getting into set mode and the water looked incredible. We were greeted by a slow clap from a picnic table full of thru-hikers and we ate “dinner” and drank beer by the lakeside together. There’s this feeling in the air in Stehekin, and there’s certainly something in us too, being at the last stretch of such an amazing journey. We were clinking together our beer bottles, scarfing down our food and feeling touched. Humbled even. We’d take turns looking around and saying, “Awww! How amazing is it to be here!” “Yeah, and how amazing to have walked here from Mexico?!” Followed by a hearty cheers.
We camped right on the lake. I got sad. I was looking up at the stars and taking in the still of the night and thinking how desperately I wanted to hold on to it forever. I told Eric how scared I was to go back. I just didn’t want to give this up. He was as comforting as he could be, saying it will all work out, we’ll find an apartment, we’ll get back to work, we’ll pay our bills. I just felt like I was bargaining with my fate. “But, what if I didn’t have any bills. What if I got rid of my car and my cell phone and paid off my student loans and owned nothing so I didn’t need storage. Then can I stay?” He seemed scared to hear this, partially because he might be worried about my emotional health getting used to life again, though I wonder if it might have been partially because he’s not so sure that I won’t run a muck and take off all of my clothes and build a camp fire in the middle of downtown Steamboat this winter while dancing around it shouting, “People! You need to listen to the trees!” And you know what? I can’t promise that won’t happen. Eric deserves a cookie for what he’s put up with in me.
The next day was beautiful. There was plenty of drama (hence the last post “Basket-Case”) but once I got through it, it turned out to be amazing. Eric and I stayed at this incredible ranch. It was secluded, friendly and wonderfully slow-moving. People were actually relaxing. No gadgets, no dumb glazes into screens, just people in hammocks and chairs and on the grass talking to each other, or sinking into the ground properly with their eyes closed and a light smile across their lips. There’s a motto here, “Stehekin is what America was.” I think that says it best.
We rested a second day there, and camped again by the lake, and really enjoyed some of the best quality swimming I’d found all summer. We joined other hikers on a log that rolled from side to side every time another one of us jumped off or on. It felt great. Gave Eric just enough time to get out of excruciating pain enough to hike on.
The next morning we hit the trail. The weather was incredible. Not a cloud in the sky. We left with a group of young hikers and had the “genius” idea to road walk around a part of trail we heard was washed out. What ended up happening was a hell of a bush whack combined with free climbing against a washed out cliff side next to a raging river. Backpacks full of 40 lbs of gear are just not ideal for such endeavors, but it didn’t kill us, so I guess that made us stronger. There was a lot of that crap on the AT, and hadn’t been any on the PCT so far, so I figured it was only fair. That was just a 5 mile detour, so in a couple of hours we were back to the familiar.
The next 2 days were glorious. Eric kept doing more miles than I expected and the weather was cooperative. Too hot, if anything. On the third day, we made it to a trail camp with magic. A guy called Meander had graced us with a delicious meal and plenty of beer. As well as a roaring fire full of very happy hikers, many of whom had finished the trail and hiked back to catch a ride. So there was champagne and laughter along with this great hospitality. Meander was quite a guy too, he poured me a whiskey and root beer and we talked into the night about his thru-hike in New Zealand. Which is on my agenda. I was glad that Eric got to witness this kind of magic, because it never fails to amaze me.
The next morning we said goodbye to Meander and thanked him for the magic. Along the way we started trying to brainstorm trail names for Eric, and I thought of Gopher. I thought of it because I was thinking of how he just gets up and goes for it, like how the first mountain he climbed was Rainier, and how he’d never hiked a long day hike before, but he up and did 20 miles in the desert with me on the first day of the trail, and then 22 miles up 6,000 feet of elevation up Mt. Whitney. I like the Minnesota reference too, because no one can get three words out of him without saying, “You from Minnesota?” He’s got it pretty thick. One of the only people from my home state that I’ve ever caught saying “Oofta” and “Oh ya” in his regular dialogue. It’s quite endearing.
The hike was beautiful too. And it was our last full day in the woods. One of my favorite thru-hikers, Chief, caught up to us at lunch that day. The three of us walked together and talked a bunch about his career as chief fire fighter in Santa Barbara, CA. It was fascinating to hear his stories, and great to see him. I’d been around him on and off since mile 1000, and secretly had hoped I get to finish the trail with him and have celebration drinks with him and his wife, Maureen, who’d been doing all kinds of trail magic in northern California and had such enthusiasm for the trail.
Chief quit for the day a few miles before us, knowing there was a washout coming up. Eric and I decided to get through it, then set up camp. It sure was interesting. We walked through quite a few small washouts, then came to the big one. It was about 15 feet deep and an alarming site. It’s not too often your trail just drops into a small canyon and you’re left to just figure it out. Yet, just like life, variety seems to spice it up.
I found a bear spray on the ground during the scramble back up the loose rocks to the trail. I liked to pick up dropped items just to clean up mother nature a bit, but I have to admit I felt like a pansy. My first day on the AT I was carrying bear spray, and a local made fun of me. He laughed and said, “Shoot, you don’t need that around here. What are you going to do with it, pepper your food?” I passed it away to my cousin, Jessie, in fear that my trail name would become Bear Spray, and was properly embarrassed. So when I saw Chief that next day, I told him not to judge me for it. That I had just picked it up on the trail. He laughed and was like, “Sure. Mrs. I’m-not-afraid-of-bears.” Which had been one of my lectures to him and his wife to comfort them about hiking in Glacier National Park.
Our last night camping was perfect. We camped on a grassy ridge, with incredible orange and red lights reflection off the great rock wall surrounding us. It felt right to have such an epic scene around me for this finale. I knew how much I was going to miss these nights.
The next day was an easy hike to the border. Chief caught up to us and we had some more good conversation to pass the time. Before we knew it, we looked up and saw the big line across the 49th parallel. We were nearly to it. I stared blankly at it. Thinking, ‘Whoa!’ and nothing more. For that was about all I could process.
We were there moments later. It was 12:01 pm, September 15th, and the trail was over. I’m still not sure I have words for it.