Day 4 (75 Total)
Mile 2188.4 to Blue Lake, 19.6 Miles
1,116.4 Total PCT Miles
I’m starting to become afraid.
A second pair of hikers has just passed us heading in the opposite direction, and all of them look like they’ve seen things. They are layered in pants and rain jackets, each of them with bug nets in various states of use – either fully on, or pulled halfway up their face as if in optimistic hope. Judging by the looks on their faces, our bug-free, Deet-free, Gore-Tex-free bliss is about to end.
That’s getting ahead of myself, though.
The days starts out similarly to yesterday. Although there’s no rain, it’s a cool morning and the miles begin with a long climb through lush forest. We start to get more epic Mt. Adams views, rocky cliff side vistas that I can’t stand too close to, and at least a billion ferns. The weather then heats up for our descent, the blue sky stretching perfectly clear above us and the sun beaming down through each clearing in the woods.
We stop at another piped spring to filter water, as it will be our last source until we hit a series of lakes at the end of the day. It’s not flowing very fast, more like dripping, really, but just the fact that someone at some point placed a PVC pipe into the hillside to allow us to utilize the water seeping from the earth is gift enough.
We stop for lunch later that afternoon at a remote campground. The trail crew we passed earlier in the day is making this their home base, so there are hammocks in trees and scattered tents, gear strewn about the area. This could potentially be the last stop before mosquito hell, so although conditions change constantly and not everyone provides reliable information, we savor what may be our last opportunity to cook outside and rest, our feet elevated over a log as we lounge on our foamies, dappled sun hitting us through the trees.
It’s not long after we leave our lunch spot that we begin to see the hikers whose appearance tells us of what’s to come. The trail will continue to climb and we will pass a series of small lakes – ponds, really – (read: mosquito breeding grounds) before we get to the larger Blue Lake later in the afternoon. There is a sense of foreboding as we carry on from the hikers moving in the opposite direction. Maybe they’re just bug wimps. Maybe it really is that bad. I’ve spent enough time in the outdoors, surely I can handle whatever lies ahead. How bad, really, could it be? The thoughts ping pong around in my head as we approach the first of the lakes until suddenly, as if a switch has been flipped, there is no room for a single thought.
Mania. I think I am close to mania. Kellen and I are not hiking we are charging, hurtling ourselves past the two smallest lakes at somewhere around 4 miles an hour. I hardly even notice the climb. I hardly even notice anything. Anything besides the obscene number of mosquitos that are not just present but are actively hunting me. By this point, we still have not pulled out our rain jackets (mosquitos can’t bite through them) or the bug spray. This is not from stupidity but rather from pure fear. I mean, we are close to running uphill and it’s barely fast enough to keep ourselves relatively bug free. Stopping? Pulling out bug spray and Gore-Tex? It will be a massacre of our skin.
“Should we just stop?” Kellen eventually calls back to me without slowing. We are both breathing heavily and the truth is, this climb is too long and too much elevation to maintain this pace.
“Yeah, I guess,” I tell him, sounding miserable as I mentally prepare to sacrifice my flesh to the mosquitos for the minute or two when I will be standing still. There’s just no way I can keep charging uphill for the rest of the day. So we do stop, eventually. We keep walking until we see a spot flat enough for us to throw our packs down, giving ourselves a count so we stop at the same time.
“Ok, three two one go!” I slide my pack off and grab my raincoat from the top, one arm furiously swinging around trying to swat away the mosquitos that have indeed begun to swarm while quietly thanking myself for packing the bug spray and my bug net to be easily accessible.
“Ahhhhh!” We look insane, our heads now little bubbles with our bug nets on, dancing around putting on Gore-Tex and hopping from one foot to another as we spray our legs with Deet. No, not just spray. Coat. Layer. And then I add some to the backs of my hands and my ankles. It’s a testament to how bad the bugs are that I’m being liberal with the bug spray. I hate wearing it, and it’s typically a last resort for me. It’s not because I’m tough and unbothered by bugs. I’m not. It’s because I hate the feeling of it on my skin. I hate that my hands don’t feel clean, even after pouring some of my water over them for a rinse. I hate that it’s not exactly good for my skin and it’s not good for gear, either. But today? I don’t care if it ruins my skin or my gear or if my hands are dirty until I wash them in town in Trout Lake as long as it keeps the mosquitos at bay. Now that we’ve geared up, we can at least slow ourselves down to a steadier pace. I feel some of the mania lifting, as our armor seems to be working. Up ahead we see another hiker coming towards us.
“These fucking mosquitos,” she says flatly with a shake of her head from within the shroud of her bug net, not breaking stride. We can only agree with her and keep moving forward.
Our climbing continues, the heat building as we slog onward. There is an unsurprising lack of photos from this day and I know it’s because to even slow my walking to pull out my phone would give the assassin mosquitos an edge. Even the photo above, I remember clearly, resulted in bites on my wrists, the small sliver of skin that was exposed between the edge of my sleeve and the face of my watch too tempting for the predatory skeets. It’s a shame about the bugs because it really is a gorgeous area, but there is no time to feel sad about this because camp awaits and I want to get out of the bugs.
This is perhaps the fastest we’ve ever set up the tent. Once we arrive at Blue Lake and find a flat spot up off the trail, it’s game on. I can only describe this state as being in some sort of robotic survival zone. I’ve felt it before setting up my tent in the midst of rain and wind and hail. Entering this zone is more of a subconscious occurrence than a conscious decision. I cannot think about a few minutes from now, I can only sprint from tent corner to tent corner shoving stakes into the ground and attaching the tent pole to nylon so that we can escape the elements. It’s even easier given that there are two of us, and if I weren’t hanging onto my sanity by a thread I probably would have stopped to ask, “Is this what I’ve been missing out on as a solo hiker? Have you all been out here this whole time having an easier hike because you’ve had someone else to share the tasks with?”
We dive inside and just lay there, trying to regulate ourselves. All afternoon we’ve been in our little bug net bubbles, the view tempered by our mesh shields that shorten our frame of reference to the few feet around us. Despite the horror at the mass amount of mosquitos gathering around our tent (don’t even think about sitting too close to the mesh, either, because they’ll get you through it), it is grounding to lay here. To let our breathing calm, the sweat begin to dry, our field of vision widening once again.
Kellen and I are in the middle of a conversation when he stops me.
“Kathryn, look at me!” I’m afraid there’s something terribly wrong, given the urgency with which he says this. “What happened to your eye?!” I pause, cautiously reaching my fingers up to pat my eyelid. Something feels weird. Now that I’m paying attention to it, even blinking feels weird. I pull out my phone and open up the camera, my mouth dropping open when I see how massive my eyelid is.
Oh darn, guess I’ll have to take a Benadryl and fall right to sleep tonight. I mean, it is slightly alarming (and uncomfortable), but there’s nothing to do about it right now so I pop the Benadryl and tell myself it’ll be better in the morning. As we get ready for bed, the conversation inevitably turns to mosquitos. How can it not, when they sound like a nightmare-ish white noise machine outside of our tent, droning on and on and on? We’re wondering the following:
1. What’s the point of mosquitos?
2. Why aren’t we, as a global community, devoting more money and resources to eradicating their presence on earth?
3. Also, what is Ty Pennington up to these days?
And with those highly important and clearly relevant questions floating through our heads, we eventually fall asleep.
Day 5 (76 Total)
Blue Lake to Mile 2223.6 NOBO, 15.5 Miles
1,131.9 Total PCT Miles
We cannot escapeth doth mosquitos.
From the second we wake up, they are screaming, begging us to step outside so they can drain our blood. Eventually we do – we must – but only once we have armored up. Bug net over a hat, rain coat, pants. Kellen and I both have to wander into the woods to use the bathroom, and I’m immediately enraged. It’s the mania again, the way in which being attacked by assassin mosquitos makes me nearly unable to think.
We make it about a mile before we agree that we simply cannot keep hiking in rain pants. So, as we did yesterday, we come across a piece of trail flat enough for us to both drop our packs, hurriedly shove our rain pants in, layer on the Deet, and begin hiking again within a matter of a minute. It’s only the second day with mosquitos but we are already skilled in the urgency at which any task must be completed.
That mania I mentioned? Yes. We are losing our minds. I start thinking up lyrics to the tune of “Old Town Road” (I’m embarrassed ok) starting with the shoes I’m wearing and then what’s worse, at least if you’re Kellen, is that I start singing him my new song and requesting he join in.
I’ve got Calderas on my feet
Legs covered in Deet
Kinda going crazy as I kill another skeet
It’s not long until Kellen is chiming in with a verse of his own.
I want a taco, burger, shake
Burrito and a drink
Mosquitoes are so bad that I can’t even think
When I’m not singing or brainstorming new lyrics, I’m muttering “Rumble rumble rattle rattle it will never die” and then pausing for Kellen to say it back to me. Our very first night on trail involved, per Sienna’s request of Kellen, an overview of the movie Snowpiercer, in which all of humanity is on this train just circling the globe because it’s supposedly an arctic wasteland out there. The quote references the train’s eternal engine, and since then, we’ve tried to use the jokingly inspirational mantra sparingly in moments of mild distress (when we’re tired, or it’s a hard climb, or the bugs are creating mania) but I’m pretty sure I’ve said it about 57 times already today. If that gives you any clue as to how things were going.
Quite frankly, the mosquitos add a massively draining element to our day. Want to stop for a break? Too bad. You can stop, I guess, but it won’t be restful. Want to have a normal field of vision? Not today. Oh, you’re thinking of lifting the bug net to take it all in? Hope you don’t get another bite on your eyelid. Eventually, we do find a shaded patch of ground next to a dusty trailhead parking lot where it is windy enough to keep the bugs at bay. At least most of them. It’s the most sane I’ve felt all day and it could not have come at a better time. I am hot and hungry (winning combination) and ready for lunch.
The rest of the day is hot but relatively bug free, at least comparatively. The mosquitos turn into opportunists rather than assassins, no longer hunting us but instead choosing to attack only if we stop moving for longer periods of time. So we hike on, stopping only later in the day to filter water from a source called, unfortunately, Mosquito Creek. Whoever named this creek gets about as much love from me as whoever named Bear Creek, a place I camped at a few days after my bear ~experience~ two years ago. Which is none. No love. Why bring up trauma like this?!
We step off the dry dusty trail, crouching through a handful of tangled branches before hopping down onto the damp sandy creek bank. It’s only a few feet wide, shaded by trees and running icy cold. I pause, tentatively looking around. There are mercifully few bugs here, allowing us to crouch down by the water and filter in peace. Small. Miracles. Abound.
Our final miles pass in a blur. We’re back in a humid green tunnel, and it is with a feeling of relief that we spot a flat space tucked into the woods where we’ll be camping tonight. It takes effort to shift my mindset away from that of a thru hiker. We stop at 3:00 pm because we’ve already hit our mileage for the day, and although the town of Trout Lake is just 8 miles away, I know that any more miles will absolutely be grumpy, aching, rage miles. And guess what? I don’t have to do those anymore! People walk past our tent armored in their bug gear well into the evening as the sun begins to disappear. As it does, the mosquitos begin to surface again so we sequester ourselves in the tent and prepare for bed.
Day 6 (77 Total)
Mile 2223.6 NOBO to Forest Service Road 23, 8 Miles
1,139.9 Total PCT Miles
Town day town day town day! The thought of real food and a shower and laundry propel us out of our sleeping bags. 8 miles is nothing. Kellen and I cruise the first three miles in an hour, feeling light as we walk through more green and whole hillsides of avalanche lilies. There’s a sense of relief that we didn’t do these miles yesterday. I know they would not have felt this easy.
With two miles to go until we’ll cross the forest service road from which we’ll get into town, we come upon a hiker rising from her seat on a log. Guthook had mentioned this meadow was the only service you’d get to try and set up a ride into town, and indeed, she is ending a call as we reach her.
“Do you have a ride into town?” She asks. We tell her not yet.
“Well I just called Gerry from the trail angel list and he’s got extra spots in his truck so he told me to invite other hikers if I come across any. He’ll be at the road in half an hour if you want a ride.”
It’s an easy, obvious yes from us.
When we had been planning this trip, Kellen (who is new to long distance backpacking) had questions of how people got into civilization when a resupply was needed. I’d thought back to my time on trail, remembering all the ways I’d been transported from trail to town. I’d walked. Gotten rides by hitch hiking. Taken shuttles. Gotten rides without even having to ask. I tried to explain that things kind of just fell into place, which wasn’t necessarily comforting for someone who has done more mountaineering – a sport in which just “seeing what happens” and “letting things fall into place” wasn’t exactly advised. But here, it had happened again. As it always seemed to do.
“The trail provides” people will say. And I believe it. Not in some mystical, trail as an omnipotent force sort of way but rather in the way of the trail being a tool – a thread of connection that placed puzzle pieces together when I had no idea how things would fit or play out. The more I’ve walked, the more I’ve discovered that tangible things, like rides, had a way of producing themselves when I needed them. It didn’t always make sense, and it was almost never what I would have planned, but I supposed that was the magic of adventure; the truth behind “the trail provides.”
The hiker, a woman named Linebacker who is tall and lean and looks nothing like one, leads the charge from there on out. The three of us are speed hiking, cruising through the last two miles at 4mph. Churning out 15 minute miles, we burst from the trees onto FS Road 23 with a giant exhalation, all of us seeming to emit a sign of relief at once.
We fling our packs into the bed of the truck and hop in, letting Gerry’s storytelling lead the conversation on the drive into Trout Lake. Fifteen minutes later, he’s pulling up to the general store and we all get out. As it always seems to be, town is slightly disorienting. Maybe less so here, as Trout Lake seems wonderfully sleepy, but still. There are suddenly people and noise and so many decisions. So many options. Food. Food must be first. We’ve hardly had any today, because how can you choke down another bar when you know that there is a real breakfast awaiting you in town? You simply cannot. Kellen and I shoulder our packs and cross the street, striding eagerly towards the only cafe (ok so yeah, Trout Lake is less overwhelming than surfacing in other busier towns after being on trail).
It’s almost hard to restrain ourselves with ordering. Everything sounds good and I am very, very hungry. Eventually we settle on our own eggs and toast and hash browns with a side of huckleberry pancakes to split. The second we begin to eat, the woes of trail disappear. Maybe they even began to disappear the second we jumped into Gerry’s truck. Mosquitos? Hardly! Heat? Didn’t bother me! It’s glorious to sit at a shaded picnic table listening to a creek flowing at the edge of the lawn and inhaling food.
Of course, once breakfast is complete there is a litany of town chores we’ll need to cross off our lists before leaving tomorrow. Shower, laundry, back flushing water filters, sort food and resupply, find dinner. These tasks are made infinitely easier by out decision to stay at the Trout Lake Inn instead of camping. The reality is, it is hot. We don’t want to wait in line for an outdoor shower or shark around the laundry machines to get a chance at cleaning our clothes.
The rest of the day stretches on lazily. We are clean, we are fed, we can nap indoors without a single bug and the air conditioning set to sub arctic. Later, we utilize the Inn’s bikes to ride the one mile back into town to resupply – pausing on the general store’s creaky wooden porch to savor fresh peaches, the juice dripping sloppily onto the ground. We bike in again for dinner at the taco truck where we order burritos and listen to a tall German man tell us about how he’s eating 6,000 calories a day and still losing weight. Gnarly. At a certain point in his story telling, I begin to think that maybe no one is actually honest about how much thru-hiking can actually suck, because there’s approximately nothing he’s telling us that makes it sound like any fun. Then again, even I know the worst times make for the best stories.
Back at the inn, we sit on the chairs outside our door and shoot the breeze with a pair of older men, longtime friends who are doing a section together. We laugh at how all the section hikers have ended up here, avoiding the chaos of thru-hiker camping in town and indulging in some peace and quiet (and, you know, personal bathrooms). Maybe part of why we hike is to remind ourselves how luxurious all the simple pleasures are. Showers. Clean water. Bug free spaces. Being out of the elements. It’s not until you have to crouch at a piped spring flowing at .5L/minute that you appreciate how fast water blasts out of the sink at home. Showers are nice in daily life, but when you are coated with dirt and sunscreen and bug spray and a nice layer of sweat, they are downright magical. And don’t even get me started on the beauty of toilets after having to go to the bathroom in a mosquito apocalypse.
Tomorrow we will revel in the continental breakfast and take an afternoon shuttle back to trail to begin the 60 odd miles to White Pass. Onward.