People are always asking me, “How is the PCT different from the AT? How is it the same?” It hasn’t been an easy question for me to answer. The question is too broad, the answers too many. There are millions of little differences between the trails that add up to big differences, but there are also millions of ways in which they are the same… On both trails there’s a lot of time between steps that you can spend thinking, and as I hiked through the woods of central Washington I found myself thinking about one of those millions of differences…
On the PCT almost all of the thru-hikers I’ve met have become trackers, we notice the tracks left by different people and animals on the trail… but on the AT, that didn’t happen very much (sure we could identify the occasional deer tracks, but that was about it). On the PCT, figuring the tracks on the trail in front of us was a required survival skill, and for most of us developing that skill wasn’t intentional… Back in the desert, hiking alone, I’d come to a fork in the trail and have to figure out which way the PCT went? The trails were rarely signed, and if there was a trail marker it was usually 30 feet before the confusing intersection, or 2 miles later. During that section of the trail whenever I saw a marker I thought, “Aha, there’s a confusing intersection ahead.” On the AT I knew that I could count on the white blazes (the AT trail markers) to lead me all the way from Georgia to Maine. The trail markers on the PCT were pretty decorations, but they definitely weren’t something that I could count on.
Instead of white blazes, all I had to go on were the footprints in the sand (my maps rarely showed the intersecting trails)… Which way were the thru-hikers in front of me going? Could I tell which footprints belonged to the thru-hikers following the PCT, and which footprints belonged to day-hikers following the side trails? At the beginning the answer was no… I had no idea which footprints belonged to whom, so I usually guessed that the trail most traveled was the PCT (not always the right answer, but better than 50/50 odds). Over time figuring out the footprints had become a game for me, a puzzle of sorts, that I would play to pass the time… Who/what was on the trail ahead of me? How long ago were they there? Was I catching up to it/them?
Now, over 2000 miles later, I could usually tell based on footprints alone whether or not the person ahead of me on the trail was a thru-hiker, and sometimes I could even tell which thru-hiker it was. The most recent set of footprints lingering on the dusty surface of the trail that morning were from a pair of Brooks Cascadia’s, the diamond shaped impressions in the forefoot and the series of parallel lines going down the instep gave them away immediately… If it were a perfect impression you’d be able to read the fine letters spelling out CASCADIA descending through the middle of the lines, but the impressions were rarely that good. As I hiked along my guessing game got more elaborate, what else could I figure out about the footprints and their owner? Hmmm… the footprints were big, probably a men’s size 12, but the distance between the footprints showed that a stride that was shorter than mine, so the person in front of me was probably a guy about 5 feet, 8 inches tall (maybe 5’9)… the stream of footprints showed a consistent, unwavering gait… no breaks, no stopping… Definitely a thru-hiker…and one who didn’t have any obvious knee, hip, or ankle injuries, so probably one of the younger guys… I thought about the thru-hikers that I knew that fit the description I’d developed, but no one came to mind…
It was strange to think that I was so effortlessly and carelessly tracking other thru-hikers as I walked… Most of the time I wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it… It’s just that there were always tracks there in front of me, and I couldn’t help but pay attention to them at some level… to register the differences… to try to solve the puzzle. If the footprints in front of me were from Brooks Cascadia’s or Altras, and if they were at least a women’s size 10, they probably belonged to a thru-hiker. If they were smaller than that they were either from a section hiker or from Ghost or Wardrobe. If the tracks were from Merrel Moab Ventillators they could be section hikers or thru-hikers, but the thru-hikers in Moab’s were often previous AT hikers or from one of the older demographics… if the tread was from a heavier boot, it was almost guaranteed to be a section hiker… if the tread was from a trail runner and the gait suggested they were hiking, not running, it was probably a thru-hiker from one of the younger demographics… It was always fun if I caught up to the hiker/s later and found out how good my guesses had been.
On the AT I spent a lot of time focusing on the trail in front of me, but the rocks, roots, and forest floor of the east coast don’t capture human footprints as well or as often. Instead of having to pay close attention to the trail to figure out which way it went, on the East coast I had to pay close attention so I could navigate around all of the rocks… if you didn’t pay enough attention to the trail you’d end up getting a much better look at the rocks than you wanted (face plants are no fun!)… Over time, figuring out the best way to navigate through the rocks had become the game for me, the interesting puzzle I wanted to solve… It felt a little bit like going rockclimbing where you’re trying to figure out the best route… or like playing a video game like dance dance revolution… What is the best route through the rocks? How quickly can you navigate through them? On the AT I could watch someone hike through a boulder field and know right away whether or not they were a thru-hiker… Thru-hikers just moved differently… After 2000 miles of practice, we danced through the rocks in ways that no one else could… but we couldn’t track each other… not very easily… not very well, and when it did happen it was weird.
I’d had someone try to track me through the woods of the AT, and it had been unnerving at best. “Let me see the bottoms of your shoes,” the guy had demanded as he approached the campfire. I was sitting there relaxing with an older women I’d just met, and his demand seemed very strange. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’d run into the guy earlier that day and knew that he was planning on camping here, by the stream. He’d been very polite then, asking me if I was ok with him camping at the stream too since he knew that this was where I was planning on camping… It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the time… Those conversations happen all of the time on the trail… I’d headed up the trail as he veered off the trail and over to a cafe for lunch and I hadn’t thought anything more about it. But now, 5 hours later, he was clearly very upset about something… the whole situation felt awkward.
“Why?” I asked, my posture stiffening as he approached. It clearly wasn’t the response he’d expected and he stopped to look at me quizzically. “So that I’ll be able to tell which footprints are yours and figure out which way you’ve gone when you’re ahead of me,” he responded grumpily, “I tried to figure out which way you’d gone earlier, but I wasn’t sure which footprints were yours.” This was not someone that I knew well, and the thought of him (or, frankly, anyone else) intentionally trying to track me was not a comfortable thought… The conversation, paired with his demeanor, was raising a lot of red flags for me… As I paused to think about how I wanted to handle this situation the older women spoke up, “That sounds like you’re trying to stalk her to me.” I had to admit, that’s how it had felt to me too… and why I thought that I needed to be very careful with the way I handled things.
He didn’t respond well to the not so thinly veiled accusation. His grumpiness shifted immediately into a self-righteous anger focused on the older women. How dare she accuse him of such a thing! He then angrily tried to explain to us that he wasn’t a stalker… that he just wanted to be able to follow my tracks in case he got lost etc etc etc… “I just call it like I see it and that sounds like stalking to me,” the older woman said shrugging. He paused, incredulous that he hadn’t changed her mind, violence brewing in his eyes. I took that time to excuse myself from the fire and head back to my tent. Even though it was early, the older woman followed my lead and did the same, leaving the guy, still fuming, to go set up his camp… I curled up in my sleeping bag, glad that the other women happened to be camping at that stream that night, and started drifting off to sleep.
Suddenly I heard a tap, tap, tap on the rainfly of my tent, “Patches, are you still awake? Can I talk to you for a second?” I unzipped the fly and looked out. The guy was crouched down in front of my tent, intent on talking to me. “Ok,” I said, a little bit hesitantly. He launched into an angry rant, explaining to me how outraged he was that the other women had accused him of being a stalker. The names he called her because she had the audacity to suggest that what he was doing was stalking would have made the heartiest of sailors blush. After he finished telling me exactly what he thought of the other women, he tried to reassure me that he was not a stalker, “If I was a stalker I wouldn’t have told you that I was trying to track you, I just would have done it,” he said. “You never even would have known that I was following you,” he continued. He went on and on with the descriptions of what he would have done if he’d actually been a stalker. He clearly did not understand that his position, at the only exit of my tent… with me essentially cornered, and his words, letting me know exactly what a stalker would do in his position, were less than reassuring. I was somewhat relieved but still feeling very disconcerted when he finally finished his rant and wandered off to bed…
As I continued hiking along the PCT I tried to figure out what was so different between what had happened on the AT, and what I was doing on the PCT. On the AT it had felt creepy, it had definitely felt like he was trying to stalk me… That, combined with some of his future actions, had kept me on edge whenever he was nearby. How was what I was doing different? Lots of PCT hikers knew what kind of shoes I wore, and could tell by my tracks that I was the person in front of them, but it didn’t feel awkward or weird out here… It just felt normal… Eventually, I decided that like many things in life, it’s not what you do, but how you do it that makes all the difference.
Though most of the tracks we see on the PCT are from its human users, there is plenty of nonhuman traffic that makes its way up and down the trail. I turned my thoughts to cheerier things. Though the footprints of the Brooks Cascadias were the most recent human tracks, there were even fresher tracks on the trail… elk tracks.
The first elk I’d seen had been just south of Crater Lake… They’d confused me at first since I’d never seen an elk before. Is that a deer I asked myself… No, definitely too big to be a deer… Is it a moose? Nope, it had the wrong kind of antlers to be a moose… What would happen if a deer and moose loved each other very very much and raised a family together? I decided that that would definitely result in the half deer, half moose, that stood before me :) Though the thought entertained me, I eventually remembered that there were elk out here on the west coast and figured out that the large creature standing there must be an elk… Though I’d only seen one at first, when I startled it 8 more materialized from the woods before they careened off into the bushes never to be seen again.
In the last couple of days I’d run into a lot of people that had seen herds of elk on this stretch of the trail, but I hadn’t seen any yet. Their tracks were everywhere… their hoof prints were bigger than those of the mule deer (which I seemed to see all of the time) and sunk deeper into the mud… I studied the tracks as I walked… the tracks indicated that there was one walking in front of me for a while… and then blam… there were the tracks of a whole herd… Was the herd going up the hill? Down the hill? How old were the tracks? Could I spot the herd on the distant hillsides if I looked in the right direction? I could always tell if the herd’s tracks were fresh because they’d be accompanied by the faint smell of disturbed earth, and the overpowering smell of animal dung… It reminded me of hiking through the cow pastures in the desert. Lots of people weren’t filtering their water here in the cascades because it was so remote, but do herds of elk crapping in the water carry fewer pathogens than the herds of cows? I wasn’t going to bet my health on it!
For days I saw signs of elk everywhere, but the elk themselves remained hidden from view. Was this going to be like Maine (at the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike) where I saw signs of moose everywhere and heard tales of moose encounters everyday, but never got to see a moose for myself? “There was a whole herd of elk at the basin this morning,” an approaching hiker told me gleefully, “but they’ve probably disappeared into the woods to find shade by now,” he continued. As I hiked through the basin he referred to I kept my eyes peeled… the meadows were idyllic, the views of Mount Rainier stellar, but the only wildlife I encountered were the ever vocal marmots.
Though the last section of trail had been spectacular, the section of trail I was approaching was rumored to be amongst the ugliest on the entire trail… it had been clear-cut and was criss-crossed by dozens of logging roads. I definitely wanted to camp in the nice, idyllic, protected portion of the trail, and not in the clear-cuts, so I decided to stop for the night at Ulrich Cabin. The cabin was in a beautiful spot, situated at the edge of Government Meadow, but it ended up being a little too crowded for me. Mostly it was the half dozen pack mules with bells around their necks that were shackled in the flat spots around the cabin that made me decide to keep on hiking. If I stayed there I imagined that the din from the bells would keep me up all night long.
Neither Halfmile’s nor Guthook’s apps listed any campsites within the next couple of miles, but I was hoping there would be a little spot that I could duck into after the trail crossed the next road… I didn’t want to go far, just far enough to get out of earshot of those bells. I hiked a little bit passed the road, but the cute little campsite I envisioned wasn’t there. The forest was densely wooded… filled with brush and boulders, and topped with a thick coating of moss… Not an easy area to create a new campsite in… I double checked my maps… It seem unlikely that there was going to be an awesome unlisted campsite anytime soon and it was starting to get dark… Hmmm… Where to camp? It was getting late and I didn’t want to find myself desperately searching for a campsite that might or might not exist after dark… especially since my guess was that I wasn’t going to find anything even halfway decent in the next couple of miles.
I ended up deciding to do something I’d never done before… I decided to turn around and hike half a mile back down the trail… back to a little spot I’d seen at the northern edge of Government Meadow. I hoped that it was far enough from the mules that their bells wouldn’t keep me up, and besides, it was a beautiful meadow and if elk were anything like moose, I figured they’d like this little meadow… Maybe I’d finally get to see my elk there. It felt very very weird to be hiking south though, even if it was just for a very short distance.
When I got back to the meadow I found the spot that I had in mind… It was just barely possible to get my tent fully pitched there without being in the middle of the trail, but it would work, and it was much flatter than the spot I’d camped in the night before. As I cooked my dinner and lounged around eating it, I was glad I’d made the decision to turn back. The meadow was beautiful and full of sound… There was chirping and chittering, singing and hooting… Apparently the meadows are where the wildlife parties are! I tried to identify the sounds, a squirrel, an owl, a bunch of birds… The chirping I wasn’t sure about… it could be a bird, it could be a squirrel… strange that I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a mammal or bird, but either way, I’d found myself a great little spot.
As I was sitting there deep in contemplation I was surprised to see two people in flannel pajama bottoms and oversized T-shirts walking down the trail towards me… It was almost completely dark out and they didn’t have backpacks… What were they doing out there? As they got closer I recognized them as the guys from Ulrich Cabin… Apparently there was one spot 3 feet down the trail from me where, if you were just the right height, and squinted just right, you could get enough cell phone service to make a call, so every night they wandered down there to call their wives and let them know that they were still alive.
When they headed back to the cabin they stopped to say hi and I told them that I hoped to spot some elk while I was here at the meadow. “Well, now’s your chance, there’s one right there!” The guy facing the meadow had glanced up and sure enough, not more than 20 feet away, standing in the middle of the meadow, was an elk. All three of us silently turned to watch it graze. “They’re not usually solitary are they?” I asked. “No, the rest of the herd isn’t far,” one of the guys replied. I hoped they would all wander out into the meadow, it would be cool to see the whole herd.
“Shhhh,” said the other guy and held up his hand, “Listen.” I didn’t take my eyes off of the cow, but I started to listen intently… the chirping I’d been hearing earlier… the cow was responding to it! As I watched, the cow turned it’s head to face the woods and made a lower, slower chirping sound back, but a chirp none the less. In response, there was another high pitch chirp. “Did you hear that? That was the baby elk talking to it’s momma,” he said, then paused to watch and wait for the mamma to reply, “and that, that’s the mom letting the baby know where she is.” I was fascinated as a whole new dimension of elk watching opened up to me. “The elk, they are the most vocal of the cervidae, or deer family. They’re always chattering amongst themselves.” The men in their pajamas were giving me lesson about elk, which was both awesome and completely unexpected! “Do you think we’ve scared the herd away,” I asked as the cow ambled back towards the woods, towards the place where the baby’s chirps had been coming from. “No, they bark, almost like a dog’s bark, when they sense danger… If we were scaring them away from the meadow we’d have heard them bark,” he said as he turned away and headed back to the cabin, “keep your eye on that meadow, they’ll probably be back.”
I continued to hear elk chirps in the distance as I prepared for bed, but I didn’t see anymore elk before the full dark of the night enveloped me… I figured I might have one more chance to see the herd, maybe they’d still be around and grazing in the meadow at dawn? At around 4:30 in the morning I awoke to a caucophony. It wasn’t yet dawn, but the herd of elk was definitely here, and by the sounds of it, they had found the shackled mules by the cabin and were causing trouble… It seemed like the elk were bugling almost constantly. I’d heard an occasional, solitary elk bugle a couple of times during the night, but this was incessant… I couldn’t imagine anyone sleeping through it, especially with the frantic ringing of the bells from the mules necks in the pauses between bugles. I peeked outside of my tent figuring that I might be willing to forgive the herd for waking me up if they would pose for an awesome picture, but light hadn’t even begun to tinge the morning sky yet.
I spend most my time on the trail taking in the amazing visual scenery, but this morning, as I waited for the sun to rise on what I hoped would be another amazing day, I snuggled back down into my sleeping bag and I just listened… I listened to the elk and the mules as they settled down, and then I listened to all of the other sounds of the meadow waking up on a late summer morning. What a spectacular auditory scene!