It’s a Win! (PCT Ditty)

Patches in Northern California

Hiking North through Washington I tried to focus on the here and now, on the beautiful scenery that I was still immersed in, on my love of backpacking, but my thoughts kept on drifting. I started reflecting on the amazing journeys that I’d been on, and on the future awaiting me when I returned to civilization. All of the existential crises that had been put on hold while I dealt with more immediate concerns like water, food, and shelter, were starting to flood back into those quiet spaces between steps. My vacation was coming to an end.

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I Heard the Herd! (PCT Days 148-150)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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“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!

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Goat Rocks (PCT Days 144-147)

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The clouds gathered ominously as I headed towards Goat Rocks… Rain definitely was not what I wanted on this section of trail, a section renowned for both it’s beauty and its open, exposed ridgelines.

Even though the clouds had been building all day, it wasn’t until around 4 o’clock that the first drops of rain started to fall. It was a strange kind of rain… the individual raindrops were huge, more like gobs than drops, but there weren’t very many of them, and the sun was still out and shining… It’s hard to complain too much about the rain when you have to block your eyes from the blinding sun in order to see it!

As I was marveling at the absurdity of the weather, my friend Charlie Dayhiker came ambling down the trail towards me. He caught me completely by surprise! I didn’t know he was planning on yo-yoing the PCT (having completed his Northbound thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, he is now attempting to hike from Canada back to Mexico)! I hadn’t seen him in months, not since the late spring snowstorm that clobbered the High Sierras and forced us down into Lone Pine, CA to wait it out. At least the storms brewing here weren’t likely to bring us snow! As we got caught up on the events of the last couple of months the rained stopped, but neither of us had much faith in the weather.

“I think the storm is going to get you as you go North,” he assured me. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get hammered by it as you head South.” We both smiled and eyed the dark clouds that had us surrounded. We’d been watching the weather all day, and between the two of us, we’d probably hiked in excess of 10,000 miles in the last 2 years… we had a lot of experience with mountain weather. Sure, the rain had stopped, but more rain seemed inevitability so I was anxious to get moving. I wanted to find camp and set up before the deluges arrived if that was possible, so I pressed onwards and upwards into the ever darkening mountains.

The skies got grayer as I climbed, and the rumbling thunder in the distance wasn’t sounding so distant anymore… I definitely didn’t trust the weather, so I quickly gathered water for dinner from a nearby stream (I hate having to deal with getting water in the rain: all of my stuff gets wet, my hands get cold/er, and all the streams start carrying siltier runoff) and donned my rain gear.

Moments later, as I followed the trail through the beautiful highland meadows, the skies opened up and dumped some of the heaviest rains on me that I’ve ever seen. It felt like I was walking through a waterfall, but, I have to admit I was feeling a little bit smug. I’d looked at that sky and predicted that I was going to be in a downpour in less than 5 minutes, and sure enough 4 minutes later  the storm hit.

Trudging up the hill I saw, through the veil of rain, a group of five backpackers taking cover in a stand of trees above me… I paused to look up at them and my grin and all of my smugness suddenly evaporated. The heavy rain was turning into nasty, whipping, stinging hail. Hailstorms are my least favorite storms because the pea-sized bullets that they call hail hurt when they hammer against you 40 mph! I dashed up the hill to join my soon-to-be new friends in the only shelter around, their small stand of trees… These new friends were feasting on gummy worms and invited me to join them. I happily joined their feast, and gladly took part in the ritual beheading of gummy worms as I waited for the hail to pass.

As a general rule, whenever real hail is involved I try to hike to the nearest shelter and stay there until the hail stops… Partly because the hail stings, but mostly because hail is usually accompanied by severe electrical storms, and it’s best to wait those out. When the hail finally stopped and the thunder faded into the distance, I decided to keep hiking… It looked to me like more storms were brewing, so I needed a place where I could pitch my tent and shelter for the night, and this little stand of trees just wasn’t going to cut it. I constantly scanned the terrain around me as I hiked. If I could find a spot to pitch my tent I would happily call it a day… It was around 40 degrees out (F, 4C) with heavy rains and high winds… the kind of weather I think of as perfect hypothermia weather… Sure I could keep hiking, but I would rather curl up in my nice warm sleeping bag, in my nice dry tent, and eat a nice hot meal! Besides, this was a view I was already really familiar with… A view I’d seen at least a thousand times before… It was the view of the inside of a cloud.

Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing that looked like a suitable campsite… It didn’t help that in heavy rains and with thunder rumbling in the distance I suddenly get very picky about where I camp… I felt like Goldilocks:

1) This spot is too flat! – when it’s rainy the flat spots turn into puddles and have a tendency to flood, so I prefer sites that have a slight (but consistent) slope so the water won’t pool underneath or around me. Flash flooding of creeks and glacial streams is also an issue, so the sandy riverbank sites are out of the running too.

2) This spot is too exposed! – during an electrical storm I don’t want to be the tallest thing around and I don’t want my tent to be either, so the beautiful open meadows are no longer on my happy camping list.

3) This spot is too crowded! – when the weather is bad I need enough room to set up and fully stake out my tent, so I need more space (and fewer rocks, roots, and trees) than I do if I’m just rolling out my sleeping bag under the stars or doing a half-as*ed job of setting up my tent.

4) This spot is too dead! – heavy rains, especially when combined with high winds, make it even more likely than usual that the dead trees will come tumbling down (I definitely don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night with a tree across my tent), so I try not to camp in burn zones (places with fire damage), in areas with heavy beetle damage, or in the fall line of any dead trees.

Nope, I definitely wasn’t running into any campsites that would work. Oh well, it was a good thought. As I rounded the next corner the landscape became much more desolate… On a good day I imagined that it would be phenomenally beautiful, but today it looked bleak and exposed… I was approaching Cispus Pass. The trail was going to be very open and exposed for the next couple of miles, but eventually it would snake down to an official camping area in what was rumored to be a spectacularly beautiful meadow with amazing campsites… There was bound to be a spot there that even Goldilocks would find “just right.”

I eyed the storm clouds suspiciously. The rain had let up again and the thunder was just a muted rumble in the distance, but the clouds to the North were awfully dark. Did I want to attempt to cross the pass in this weather? Not really. I looked carefully around me as I spun in a full circle… There certainly wasn’t anywhere to camp here, and I’d been looking around pretty carefully for the last couple of miles and hadn’t seen anywhere to camp there either… Did I want to backtrack two miles South to find a campsite? Not really, especially since that was the way most of the storm looked to be heading and it was open and exposed in that direction as well.

As I stood there contemplating my options two Southbound (Sobo) hikers approached. “How’s the weather up there, and how long does it stay exposed like this?” I asked. “The weather’s not too bad right now, but it looks like it’s rolling in. It stays pretty exposed for at least a couple of miles. How’s the weather south of here?” they countered. “Well, I got hailed on about 10 minutes ago, and it seems like the weather has mostly been gathering to the southeast all day,” I replied before returning to my contemplations…

At most I had two miles of exposed ridgeline along Cispus pass before I would get to a series of campsites scattered between the river and Goat Rocks. Two miles? As a thru-hiker, two miles was nothing… Well, I clarified to myself, two miles would be somewhere between 30 and40 minutes of hiking if I hustled… I would probably get sopping wet since storms love dumping their load of rain when they hit the ridges, but the distant rumblings of thunder were still getting further away and I hadn’t spotted any lightening at all… I should have a window of at least 30-40 minutes before any more electrical storms rolled in… I might as well get while the getting was good!

Once I’d made my decision I wanted to move quickly to get through the pass before there were any big changes in the weather. I quickly discovered that the trail was a muddy mess; criss-crossed by a series of eroded out ditches where the water from the steep slopes had tried to escape from the highlands. Despite the rough trail and the fact that it was all uphill, I was making good time. About half a mile from the pass, the skies opened up, and I found myself slogging through another torrential downpour. Ugh! I swore that if the rains got much heavier I’d have to call what I was doing swimming and not hiking!

Ping! Ping! Smack! “Motherfu**er!” I grumbled… “Hail!” I was getting hailed on… Again. I almost sprinted to the next clutch of trees… Well, maybe it was really just one tree, but it would provide some shelter from the whizzing hail. It wasn’t far, but by the time I got there I was out of breath and desperately trying to suppress the asthma attack trying to escape from my lungs…. “Dammit,” I thought. One thing I’d learned over the course of my two thru-hikes was that my inhaler was completely useless during severe thunderstorms after the humidity reached 100%… Yet here I was… in the middle of a deluge… Wishing I could use my inhaler… If I’d used my inhaler 20 minutes ago, I would have been fine. Why hadn’t I thought to use it then?

I silently cursed some more. This wasn’t the first time this had happened… You’d think that by now I would remember that I have asthma… That I’d remember that every time I try to run up a hill during a thunderstorm/hailstorm it triggers an asthma attack… Well, at least I remembered the disaster that repeatably results if I try to use my rescue inhaler during those situations… Emergency drugs in aerosol cans have some definite drawbacks! I rested under the tree and watched the bouncing hail as I carefully regained control of my lungs… Perhaps I shouldn’t hustle quite so much… I may be a thru-hiker, but I’m an asthmatic thru-hiker, and thunderstorms (especially the ones that come with torrential downpours) are repeatably a problem for me… I focused on nice slow breaths… in through my nose, out through my nose… In through my nose, wait a sec, out through my nose… Until my lungs decided it was ok to stop spasming…

By the time the hail stopped my lungs were ok again, and I made a new deal with them… I wouldn’t go more than 3 or 3.5 mph up the hill, and they wouldn’t spasm anymore… It was still a solid wall of rain out there, but as long as it was done hailing and there was no sign of an electrical component to the storm, I wanted to keep hiking. No more running though… Maybe this time the “no running during thunderstorms” rule would stick and I’d be able to avoid putting myself in this situation in the future.

Though it felt like an eternity, I only rested under that tree for a couple of minutes before continuing on. Despite my new, slightly slower pace, I easily made it to the top of the pass 5 minutes later and didn’t have any more problems with my asthma. There was no lightening, no thunder, and nowhere to camp anywhere in sight. There was, however, a group of 5 backpackers huddled together in a small copse of trees at the top of the pass.

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“You’re completely drenched!” They exclaimed as I approached. “Yeah,” I confirmed, “it’s pretty wet out here, and the hail is keeping it interesting.” “Come and join us for a bit,” they insisted as they shuffled their huddle around to make room for me. It was surprisingly dry in their copse of trees. “Did you see a group coming up behind you? They’re with us.” I knew exactly who they were talking about and told them about the earlier hailstorm, the gummy worms, and the progress their friends were makings, “They were probably half a mile behind me when the second hailstorm rolled through, a bit more than that now, but somebody in bright yellow rain gear is fast approaching.”

“Oh man!! Those guys must be bummed. A couple of them don’t have any raincoats or anything!” I was absolutely horrified, a backpacking trip, in Washington state, with no rain gear? And then caught in the same storms I’d been caught in… They must be sopping wet and cold. I wondered if I had extra rain gear that I could give them… I did have an extra raincoat, but it was an XS, which I was pretty sure wouldn’t fit any of them. “How come they don’t have raincoats?” I blurted out. I couldn’t help but worry that they were getting hypothermic! “Well, I’m not sure about them, but I just forgot mine at home. All I have is this hoody, so I figure we’ll just hang out here until the storm passes and then we’ll head out again.”

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I looked out at the clouds blowing around us and the rain that just wouldn’t stop, “I’m not sure that it’s going to stop raining anytime soon, but I am sure that it’s going to get colder and darker, so I think I’ll get a move on,” I said through almost chattering teeth. I was getting cold just standing around, I needed to either get moving, or to get into my nice warm zero degree (F) sleeping bag.

The rain definitely hadn’t let up at all, but it felt good to be moving again, and to be going downhill instead of uphill. Below me, below the clouds, I could see vibrant green meadows and tons of rushing water. Beside the nearest river there were four tents set up in a meadow… I desperately hoped that they hadn’t been forced to camp there because the river had flash-flooded… With electrical storms threatening, that was the only reason I could think of for camping in an exposed meadow like that. As I approached it became clear that the storm was causing lots of erosion damage to the banks, but that the river was still crossable. I breathed a sigh of relief, and crossed it without a problem. Clearly the tenters in that meadow had a different set of campsite criteria than I did.

Going downhill I wasn’t generating nearly as much heat as I had going up, so I was getting colder and my desire to find a campsite was getting stronger and stronger with every step. Maps and cell phones don’t get along well with rain, but I was tired of just hoping to stumble onto a good campsite, so I decided to check my phone. I crouched over it, trying to protect it from the rain, as it slowly acquired satellites and figured out my GPS coordinates. There was a campsite in just 0.2 miles!! I shoved the phone away and set off into the rain with renewed energy. Soon I would be warm and dry in my cozy little tent.

“Hmmmm…” When I got there I found that I wasn’t the only one stopping early to try to get out of the storm. There were already three tents set up in the little campsite. Even though it was a little crowded I decided to poke around a bit. There was a smattering of trees, a waterfall nearby, and it looked like there might even have a nice view if the storm ever decided to clear out. All the flat spots were taken, which suited me just fine. The tents set up in those spots were already in puddles and the only signs of movement were the muddy hands that periodically reached out under the flaps of their tents in a futile attempt to dig ditches to drain the growing puddles that had them surrounded. The resulting moats seemed to effectively keep the occupants inside their tents even if they didn’t keep the water out. I never did see the people attached to those hands.

Eventually I found a spot that met all of my criteria. The only downside to the spot was that I would be pitching my tent less than 3 feet away from a tent full of strangers… Normally I try to give myself and everyone else more privacy than that, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I was close enough that I could hear everything that they were saying inside their tent, but the din of the rain on their tent fly made it so they had no idea I was out there. “Hi, I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to have a new neighbor.” I shouted to be heard over the rain.

I quickly pitched my tent and scurried inside. Sure, I should make dinner before going to bed, but my zero degree sleeping bag was calling to me… besides, I could make dinner later. Right now I was going to luxuriate in the puffy goodness of my sleeping bag. As I lay there, in my sleeping bag, I listened to the rain ping against my tent and to the incessant laughing and giggling coming from the two women in the tent next door. I couldn’t help but smile as I listened. Laughter is infectious, even when you have no idea what the laughter is about… As a solo hiker, laughter wasn’t something that I heard very often… Laughter is something that you do with friends, it’s something that you share, it’s not something that you tend to do when you are hiking alone through the woods… I daydreamed about taking family and friends on backpacking trips with me, about the shared moments and laughter that would result, and despite the rain, I was incredibly happy to be exactly where I was.

Eventually the sun began to set, the rain slackened, and the rumblings in my belly convinced me that it was dinner time. As I prepared dinner from the safety and warmth of my tent I heard the unmistakable sound of hikers trudging through the rain at the end of the day. The two groups of 5 that I’d seen earlier had coalesced into a group of ten soggy, miserable hikers still pushing towards a distant camp (2.5 miles away). It was already 7:45 pm, so there was no way that they’d get there until well after dark. I remembered how much they were struggling 3 hours ago and was glad that I decided to change my plan and cut my day short. The wet and beleaguered hikers trudging off into the night gave me flashbacks to some of the backpacking trips of my youth… the ones my dad had called “character building”… the ones that were cold, wet, and interminably long… the ones where the hours dragged on and on and on… Backpacking can be a brutal sport at times, how is it that we come to love it despite those long miserable days? Why is it that decades later when I asked myself the simple question, “If I could do anything in the world right now, what would I do?” the answer had been, “I’d hike the PCT!”

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The next morning I awoke to a breathtakingly gorgeous day and one of the most beautiful stretches of trail on the PCT. As I hiked across the sparkling white snowfields and the rough-hewn ridges with the sun on my face and the wind at my back I was at peace with everything… At peace with myself… at peace with the weather… at peace with the world… I took a deep breath and looked around… It was just me, the mountains, the rocks, and the sky… This was why I endured all of those long, cold, miserable days and kept coming back for more… I did it because even on those really long, hard days there was always something for me to learn or discover about myself or the world around me… I did it for the days that were filled with wonder, joy, peace, and light… I did it because I loved it all!

***

P.S. Did you know that thunderstorm associated asthma is a known thing? I didn’t, but after 2 thru-hikes I’d figured out that certain weather patterns triggered my asthma attacks. Now I use my rescue inhaler about 20 minutes prior to the peak of those storm, which makes all of the difference in the world! Though it’s easy to find the research showing that other people experience thunderstorm associated asthma too, it’s been much harder to find information about why my inhaler ceases to function properly at the very moment when I need it most. Part of the problem is that aerosol inhalers are designed to be used at room temperature (68-77F, 20-25C), and I’m definitely using my inhalers outside of that range when I’m doing a thru-hike, but I think the biggest problem during the thunderstorms is either the pressure difference between the contents of the canister and the contents of my lungs or the 100% humidity… The problem I end up having with the inhaler is that the ejected plume from the inhaler feels like it burns my lungs and it triggers even more severe bronchiospasms. If I fire the inhaler into the air instead of into my lungs, the ejected plume extends for 3 feet before dispersing instead of the more typical 4-6 inches… So, in the case of my thunderstorm-related inhaler issues either the plume velocity has gone up or the particle dispersion rate has gone down or maybe both. The big question is why? What’s different about thunderstorms than the other weather conditions that I deal with on the trail? Why is it only a problem during torrential downpours? Why is it only a problem during the peak of the storm?

As I hiked I kept thinking about the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. I was dealing with the expansion of gases, the answer had to be hidden in there somewhere, could I derive it from first principles?… What’s changing in the thunderstorm? Thunderstorms come with severe low pressure areas… At sea level, fair weather is predicted by a steady barometric pressure of ~102kPa, and a thunderstorm might drop that atmospheric pressure by 3kPa… would that be enough to cause the problem? No, that didn’t seem likely since I’ve successfully used my inhaler at high altitudes (I used it on Kilimanjaro when I was at 15,000 ft elevation where the air pressure is only 57kPa). For this incident I was at an elevation of 7000 ft, which has a normal atmospheric pressure of 78 kPa. What else was different? Well, the humidity… It seemed like the torrential downpours were required for the inhaler to fail so annoyingly. Was 100% humidity the problem? What does the humidity do? As the number of water molecules goes up, the number of molecules of air goes down, so, the n in my PV=nRT goes down when the humidity goes up, was that it?IMG_1807.JPG

I hypothesize that in the failure condition the linear velocity of the spray increases and results in a greater plume distance prior to dispersion (3ft vs 6inches). Now all I needed were some equations and I’d be happy… I searched the internet high and low and eventually found much of what I was looking for in a book called Inhalation Aerosols: Physical and Biological Basis for Therapy edited by Anthony J. Hickey, which gives the equatios that directly link the pressure differences between the inside and outside of the inhaler canister with linear velocity.

I further hypothesize that the 100% humidity is crucial to the failure condition. Using Rault’s Law and Dalton’s law, the vapor pressures within the inhaler can be determined based on the solvents used and the mass of the drugs/surfactants. Dalton’s law can then be used to determine the impact of humidity on the pressure outside of the canister. In the case where 100% humidity is achieved, the air is considered to be saturated with water for that temperature and pressure. How would that impact the rate of expansion/evaporation of the medicated droplets and solvents in inhaler’s plume? My research seemed to suggest that the droplet size was key to the efficiency of my inhaler.

I was happy to finally find some of the equations that I could use to model the physics of my inhaler, but what I really wanted for now was a simple rule that predicted the failure condition for my inhaler that I could share with other people. Could I come up with a home experiment that would help me determine whether it was the changes in pressure associated with the storm and the linear velocity that caused the failure, or if it was the 100% humidity? Are there times that I experience 100% humidity other than in middle of thunderstorms with torrential downpours? Suddenly it dawned on me… I do that all the time… I absolutely love hot showers when I’m in civilization… I turn the shower on, close the bathroom door, and step into my saturated solution of water and air… The temperature will be much higher than it is in a thunderstorm and the atmospheric pressure will be much higher, but the high humidity? That I can model at home! If I try to discharge my inhaler in the shower will it generate the characteristic 3 foot plume that I associate with the failure condition? What do you think? I guess I’ll find out the next time I take a shower :)

Interesting links:

Thunderstorm associated asthma.

Inhaler science project.

The effect of extreme weather conditions on asthma.

 Atmospheric pressure and altitude.

The definition of rain? (PCT Days 143-144)

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Rain… On the AT, it rained 50 of my first 60 days on the trail, and I developed a whole new concept of the extent and variability of rain… It misted, it sprinkled, it drizzled, it rained, it poured, it flooded, and it was wetter than I could have ever imagined. Even though it hasn’t rained on me as much on the PCT as it did on the AT, I’ve still managed to see my fair share of rain… And the state of Washington has reputation to uphold… A reputation for rain!

West coast weather (and rain) has been very different than what I was used to on the East Coast… Here are my thoughts about the regional differences in rain so far:

East Coast Rain: Heavy rain that rolls in and hangs out for a while… Maybe a day or two… Maybe a week or two… And during that time you never catch a glimpse of the sun. A week or two later, after the rain stops, things might start to dry out… If you’re lucky, you’ll dry put by the time you get to Maine!

California Rain: A light mist, making a pathetic attempt at being real rain… Often when the rain finally appears it is just intermittent sprinkling, or maybe light rain/ice pellets that completely evaporate within 5 minutes. Usually the storm doesn’t last more than a few hours, and things dry out quickly afterwards (by the end of the day, if not before).

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Oregon Rain: Fire, what they really mean when they forecast rain in Oregon is fire. The thunderstorms move in, dump torrential downpours on you, and you get a side of lightening and hail. The water then evaporates quickly, making you think that you’re in the clear, but the lightening leaves hundreds of wildfires and felled trees in its wake. The fires may last for months, and leave you choking on their smoke forever!

Washington rain: TBD. So far Washington rain seems to be a cross between Oregon Rain, and East Coast rain. It often comes with a side of lightening, hail, and fire, but the moisture and dampness seems to want to hang out and things take forever to dry out again after the rain stops)…

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Trail Crews (PCT Days 145-147)

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I encountered some folks up near Goat Rocks doing trail maintenance, trying to fix some erosion damage, and making the glacier more cross able. Trail crews are my favorite people to meet on trail… they are my heroes! They also inspired my most recent pop quiz: name the artist and the song!
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Hikers, there’s a trail near your town
I said, hikers, pick a small stretch of ground
I said, hikers, ’cause the trails wearing down
It doesn’t need to stay crappy

Hikers, there are things you can do
I said, hikers, we’re relying on you
You can help out, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to volunteer now

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

Get away from all the harshest city noise
Turn the trail back into a joy

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

You can help clean the trail, then they’ll feed you a meal
We can all help our trail heal

Hikers, are you listening to me?
I said hikers, will we just let it be?
I said hikers, make the trail of your dreams.
Just remember one thing

The trail will erode by itself,
I said hiker, donate your time or wealth
Or just get there, to the P C T A
Start helping, as soon as today

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

Get away from all the harshest city noise
Turn the trail back into a joy

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

You can help clean the trail, then they’ll feed you a meal
We can all help our trail heal

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

Hiker, I was once in your shoes
I said hiker, I suffered from big city blues
I felt so trapped there, trapped on the inside
I had to get to the outside…

That’s when I chose a whole new life
A life hiking, the pacific crest trail
With trails maintained by the P C T A
They can get you hiking today

It’s fun to work with the P C T A
It’s fun to work with the P C T A

Get away from all the harshest city noise
Turn the trail back into a joy

P C T A… Working with the P C T A

Hikers, hikers, there’s a trail near your town
Hikers, hikers, pick a small stretch of ground

P C T A… Working with the P C T A

Hikers, hikers, there’s a trail near your town
Hikers, hikers, pick a small stretch of ground

P C T A… Working with the P C T A

Hikers, hikers, there are things you can do!
Hikers, hikers, we’re relying on you!

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