Pacific Crest Trail Diaries 18: Day 124 + 3 Days off trail (Sequim, WA)
Updated: Sep 21, 2018
It’s been three days now since I finished my walk of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve had time to think through everything again and again, look at it from different angles, wonder what it was all for, what it all meant, and ask myself why I already want to be back out on trail again. I miss it and I love being away from it at the same time; the trail itself has become a contradiction of emotions. I miss it and I’m so glad to have it done.
Before I get too far away from the trail though, and before the blisters heal, I want to write one final post about my time on the PCT, and that’s what this is today.
My last post was written after I departed Steven’s Pass and rested at a trail angel’s home for a day. It was written from a place of sorrow and desperation, but through that I was able to find a way to bring the trail to a completion and find closure.
When I walked into Steven’s Pass I was hoping for good news. The fires in Washington had been burning for almost a month at that point. For a long time they just seemed to get worse and worse with each passing day, but then for some time the news seemed to be improving. This was the case when I left Snoqualami Pass to head for Steven’s, and I had high hopes that by the time I arrived at Stevens there would have been a route established around the fire closure so that everyone was able to continue their hike. That turned out not to be the case though. The first hiker whom I met (“Aloha”) was the one who broke the news to me. “It’s gotten a lot worse.” he said. “The 20 is closed and it isn’t going to reopen possibly until the spring. A land slide came through and dropped trees and rocks all up and down the road. No one is getting up the 20.”
This was devastating because Highway 20 was the last access point to the PCT before its northern terminus. With the 20 closed it was ostensively impossible to reach the end of the PCT without driving into Canada and walking south to reach it. This wasn’t an option for me though, and so I was devastated. It potentially meant that it would be impossible for me to reach Canada. I asked “Aloha” if there was a way to reach Canada via any other means and he briefly mentioned the PNT (which was unfortunately also dealing with fire closures) and that he was going to try to access the trail via Cascade Pass, which he did only to be turned away three days later when the fire conditions worsened still.
I was a wreck while I rested at the Dinsmore’s (Steven’s Pass trail angels). Everyone who walked into that place came in with a smile, hoping for good news, and was instantly shot down when they got the news of worsening fire conditions. It was a terrible place to be. The place itself was quite nice, but it was a field of shattered hopes and dreams. One after another I’d watch as hikers funneled in and had their hearts broken. For five months they had walked north with dreams of seeing the border of Canada at Manning Park, but those dreams were suddenly out of reach.
Some hikers decided to try and wait out the fires and see if the situation would improve with time. Most hikers however stopped there. They decided, with heavy hearts, to end their hike there at Steven’s pass—150 miles south of the place that they’d dreamed about since starting their expedition in the spring.
Even though I had hopes of walking on, it was hard to take this new reality, and even I had a breakdown. In fact, I might venture to say that it impacted me more heavily than some other hikers at least as it was expressed outwardly. On the first day I held it together, but then we went to breakfast the next morning and there it all set in. I broke down into tears and stepped away from the others to find solitude where I wept alone for some time. It was a purging of my emotion as well as my dreams. I came to accept that I may never see the northern terminus of the PCT, but at the same time I couldn’t put aside why I had come to this trail and the promises that I made to myself before starting it all. It was not an option to stop short of Canada. It hurt to think that I’d have to end my journey by walking miles on a highway, but if that was the only option, then that’s what I had to do.
I sat down with one of the trail angels and asked for help in finding a route via road where I could get to Canada. He asked me if I was sure that’s something that I wanted to do and warned me about the narrow shoulders on those roads and the “drunk trunk drivers” that were known to make up much of their traffic. I told him that those things really didn’t matter to me and that if walking the roads was the only way to get a continuous, unbroken path from Mexico to Canada then that’s what I was going to do.
He told me that after walking the remaining 75 miles of open trail north of Steven’s Pass, that I’d have to walk out the Suiattle River Trail (7 miles), then walk the unpaved Suiattle River Road (23 miles). That would connect me with the 530 which I could walk 11 miles to Rockport, then from there I could walk another 25-ish miles along Highway 20 (west of the closure) to Sedro-Woolley and from there I would follow Highway 9 for 40 miles to get to the Canadian border at Sumas, Washington. It would be about a 100 mile walk after departing the PCT to get to Canada via that route, but if it was the only option, then that’s all there was to chose from.
I bit the bullet, signed the guest log at the Dinsmore's saying that I regretted to have to end the hike with a road walk, but that I was still getting to Canada.
I caught a ride back to Steven’s Pass where I’d left the trail with two other hikers (“Fainting Goat” and “Krumadore”) and we started back up the last 75 miles of the PCT towards the fire closures.
It was good having them there with me on the last stretch of trail. It would be the last time that I got to spend on trail with other thru hikers. We’d all experienced much of the same things in the preceding four or five months. We’d been through the deserts, climbed the mountains, seen the snakes and bears, and walked through blisters. It occurred to me that this very well could be the last time in my life that I’d get to be with people whom I could relate to like I could relate with them. It made those last miles really wonderful.
The three of us hiked about 10 miles that first day to a lake where we set up camp early, talked about experiences we’d had on trail, and watched as the sun drop behind the mountain horizon and the sky turned to dark.
The next morning I woke just a bit before the other two. We all three planned to hike together for the remaining two days, but I ended up leaving camp just a bit before them, expecting that they would catch up, but once I got on trail, I realized that I needed to spend these last days alone on the trail. I was so grateful to have them with me on that first afternoon out of Steven’s Pass, but this trail had largely been an experience that I had by myself, and so it felt important that I should end it by myself as well. I regretted that I would never hike another mile of the PCT with “the others” in this season, but having time to myself to reflect on what this hike had meant to me was important.
I enjoyed that second day out of Steven's Pass. The sky was a bit smoky from the fires, but the trail itself was extremely isolated. Since most hikers had decided to stop at Steven’s Pass I literally didn’t see a single other thru-hiker that entire day—something that was extremely rare at any point on the PCT. I appreciated that isolation and had a lot of time to think about the things that I needed to reflect upon.
Unfortunately, I failed to bring enough food on that segment because I had been in such a terrible state of mind when I was packing for it, so I had to stop regularly and pick berries along the trail. This however turned out to be a blessing too because it forced me to stop and enjoy the majesty of the mountains that I’d miss so much after the trail was done.
On the third day, I reached the end of that portion of the PCT which was clearly marked with pink tape and warnings not to hike any further north because of the fire closures. From there I walked the Suiattle River Trail and then took a hitch into Darrington where I resupplied and then hitched back to the place where I’d left off to start the road walk the next day. A friend from the trail (“Eagle Eye”) gave me a ride back to the start of the road walk and he planned to hike parts of that with me.
The first day of the road walk was hard. It was going to be a long stretch, and walking on pavement was a completely different thing than walking on trail. Even though the first day of the road walk was hard to deal with, at least it was dirt road and the traffic was almost nonexistent. The next day is when the pavement and traffic started.
The second day I walked with “Eagle Eye” into Rockport where we had a beer and burger, then to Concrete where the milkshakes flowed like wine, and from there we headed towards Sedro-Woolley. On the way we had the fortune of unexpectedly stumbling upon a brewery right in the middle of nowhere along Highway 20. We stopped in there for a beer and the bartender told us that another PCT hiker had been through just an hour before. I never ended up finding/meeting that hiker, so I’ve no way of knowing who he was, but he would be the one and only other thru-hiker whom I heard about taking the road walk.
On that second day we learned about a storm that was headed into Washington in the coming days. It looked as if the next day (day 3 of the road walk) would be a bit rainy (50% chance throughout the day) and then the following day a massive storm would strike Washington. That was hard to take in, but it was what it was. If I was going to make it to Canada it wouldn’t be without hardship.
“Eagle Eye” caught a ride back to his home at the end of the second day (he lives in the area) and I camped alongside the road just off in the bushes a ways. I listened to traffic as it rolled by and watched police lights flash every now and again. It was very strange camping there. After so many nights of peace and solitude in the woods, something felt profane about that place alongside the road. I felt “homeless” in a way that I hadn’t in the preceding four months. I missed the trail.
The next morning I woke at 6 and started walking just as the rain started falling. It began as a steady drizzle, but within an hour became heavy. I took each step and struggled to wrap my mind around the idea of doing that again and again and again for the next two days. It wasn’t going to be possible I decided. Walking a road in the rain was just too dangerous, and so I called my dad for help—to ask him what I should do.
My dad and I have developed a relationship that is hard to explain in brevity since I’ve started this hike, but in short, he has become a source that I can call when I need clarity or when I need a decision to be made from an objective perspective. He was able to see my situation from the outside and advise accordingly. He was the one who I called when I was at Steven’s Pass and unsure what to do next. He had told me to do the road walk, and so I did. But here I was in the pouring rain and I didn’t know what to do, so I called him and he said that basically I needed to post up and wait out the storm. We both looked into it a bit more fully though and saw that this third day of the road walk was actually projected to get better; although there was rain in the forecast in the morning, the afternoon was only a 20-30% chance. The following days were going to be bad though. It was calling for 100% chance of heavy rain for the next five days, and so if I posted up to wait out the storm, I’d be in a motel for 5 days just so I could get clear weather and walk the remaining 48 miles to the Canadian border. So we collectively decided that if I was going to make it to Canada, I had to do it today. It would be the longest day of my entire trail; I would be hurt the following days; it would be the most grueling and unpleasant of all my days on the PCT, but if I could muster it, then I needed to make the push to Canada that night.
The final day was 48 miles. My longest day up to then on the entire PCT was 40 miles. They would be road miles too and the traffic was going to be a challenge to deal with, but I had wanted Canada for so long that this was going to have to be it. He wished me luck and told me that he’d book a motel just south of the border in Sumas so that once I was done, all I’d have to do would be to cross back over and it’d be done.
I would love to tell you all about that final day, but I think it’s best to just keep it short and sweet. It was a terribly rough day. Rain fell off and on, but the biggest challenge was the traffic. Most of the vehicles that rolled by were indeed logging trucks, as the trail angel at Steven’s Pass had warned. Each time they came by I’d have to step into the steep ditch alongside the road and brace as they plowed by. It was awful. There was trash everywhere alongside the road. Road kill also populated each mile. Sometimes the road kill was decomposed into bones and it held a sort of beauty, but most of the time it was just putrid. I didn’t enjoy that last day at all, but there was something beautiful to ending in such hardship after such a long and brutal four months.
At eight o’clock that evening “Eagle Eye” was able to rejoin me for the last nine miles into Sumas. It was good having him there with me, as I wouldn’t have felt safe walking alone on such a narrow shoulder after darkness fell. It was also good to have him there for moral support. I was happy to have that, and I think that he was grateful for the opportunity to cross into Canada too.
My feet hurt that day like they never had before. I popped Advil like they were M&Ms, and that was just enough to make the pain bearable, but never was there a step where my feet didn’t scream in pain as they clapped step by step along the paved highway.
At 11pm we walked into Sumas in the drizzling rain, and I knew that it was the end. It was the first moment in 124 days that I actually knew that I would make it… I had made it. No words can describe the feelings that ran through me as we worked our way down the main street.
We checked into the motel, dropped off anything that we didn’t want to bring over the international border crossing, then with a s***-eating-grin on each of our faces, we stepped back out into the slight rain and walked the last ¼ of a mile north to Canada. When I first saw the border patrol check point I was elated like I’ve never felt elation before. It was ecstasy. I had worked for this moment for four months and one day. It was the first moment in who-knows-how-long that the pain in my feet was out of my mind.
We took out our passports and walked into the border patrol point. The celebration was simple. We stated our reasons for entering Canada, told the agents that we had no seeds, weapons, or illegal paraphernalia, and they granted us each a stamp on our passports. It was the hardest that I’d ever worked for a stamp. And from that moment, it was over. We were free from all the burdens that had been held over our heads for so long. We were free.
We walked north another 50 yards to a giant sign that said “Welcome to British Columbia” and the Canadian border agents snapped a couple of pictures for us before we turned right around and walked back into the United States.
It was done.
It was a feeling like nothing that I’ve ever experienced.
I was free.
We walked back towards the motel room, but before getting there decided to stop into a bar for a celebratory beer. It was a Mexican bar and they were just closing. We’d walked all the way from Mexico to Canada, and the first thing that we did was stop into a Mexican themed bar for some unknown Mexican beer of the bartender’s choosing.
Never had a beer tasted so good, and rarely, if ever, before had I felt so empowered. I had made it to Canada and I had upheld the promise that I’d made to myself so long before. It was done and the burdens were lifted.
The next day the storm really did hit. It turned out to be the largest summer storm in Washington state history according to one news source. Winds knocked out power to over a half a million people and two people died from falling trees. Rains pounded much of the state, and it really would have been impossible for me to be walking the roads that day. It made dropping a 48 the day prior worth the effort, even through all the pain.
Reintegration into the real world has been challenging though. Almost instantly I wanted to be back on trail. I miss the simplicity of waking up every day and knowing that all that is in front of me is trail. You wake, you walk, you eat, you sleep, and you do it all again. All day and every day. It was romantic in a way that I’ve never felt anything before.
My grandparents picked me up at Sumas the day after crossing the border and I’ve been settling back into the “real world” for the last three days at their home in Sequim. It’s been difficult and I’ve felt a lot of depression and anxiety being away from the PCT, but I think that’s to be expected. Here shortly I’ll be traveling back up to Alaska to spend time with my family and do some hunting and fishing. After that I have made some plans, but I’d rather not expose them to such a general audience yet, suffice to say that I’m really excited for the next two months and by November I should have a pretty big surprise for some people.
Until then I’ll be working on writing and hopefully settiling into the civilized world again.
I appreciate those of you who followed me on this journey from Mexico to Canada, and I hope that soon I’ll have more for you.
Until then, I wish you all much love. I couldn’t have made it without your support.
Brandon “Wormwood” Kelone