Zero Days/Side Quest
So for about two weeks I’ve been off the CDT on a side quest.
For three days I sat in the town of Winter Park as weather rolled in and out of the area, all the while dumping more and more snow up in the mountains. At certain times the skies would be beautifully clear over the town and surrounding area, but the trail and mountains to the east were totally blanketed in clouds and fog. What could be described as a gorgeous day down in the town, would be damp, whiteout conditions up at elevation. The word is, “frustrating.”
On Friday morning, our third day in Winter Park, it was still overcast, windy, and intermittently raining/sleeting. On top of that, some more bombshells got dropped. Puma decided to get off trail to go thru hike the “Vermont Long Trail” with some other friends. He made the decision that if he couldn’t hike the actual trail, he wanted no part in road walking or skipping ahead. This was some sad and tough news to take, but completely understandable. Stomper made the call to finally skip ahead to southern Colorado and take a low route into New Mexico. Sonic (who is ahead) decided to get off the CDT and go hike the Arizona Trail. So in the matter of one morning, our merry band of four hikers decreased to two, Red Bass and I.
Merlin and Hummingbird were going to continue on road walking, so Red Bass and I were going to join up with them. OG, Ride or Die, and Starfish had gone into Denver and had not returned yet, so I had no idea what their plans were.
We all went out for one last lunch together. While enjoying a pulled pork sandwich, the wheels of my mind began to turn. The snow and bad weather had caught us way, way earlier than anyone anticipated. The race to beat the snow was essentially lost and over. This race to beat the snow had also been the only thing keeping me from making a side trip up to the PCT to finish the trail with my girlfriend Jessica (Dixie). We’d loosely planned this out months ago when I first began my thru hike, but abandoned it when my time crunch to get through Colorado became to tight. Now that the time crunch had essentially “crunched” me, I saw no reason not to re-adopt our old plans. So I did.
In a matter of about five minutes I made the decision to temporarily leave the CDT and head up to the PCT to finish with my girlfriend. I looked up the nearest car rental dealership (50 miles away), and reserved an SUV. As luck would have it, Stomper found a ride in that exact direction and I was able to tag along with him and our driver named Haley. The plan set into motion.
It was hugs and “goodbyes” all around as the group disbanded. I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t see any of them again on this thru hike. A little over an hour later I was getting dropped off at the “Enterprise Rent a Car” in the town of Silverthorne. One last hug and “goodbye” to Stomper, and I was alone again.
Of course no plan ever executes smoothly out here, and just as I suspected, they weren’t going to let me rent a car without a credit card. They said they used to rent cars out with just debit cards, but had experienced two thefts in the last month alone. The manager came out and let me know that I could rent a car with my debit card so long as I could provide two recent utility bills with an address that matched the one on my drivers license. The address on my drivers license has been my parent’s address for the last four years, regardless of where I was renting/staying. I didn’t have a single qualifying utility bill with my name and their address on it. Even my cell phone bill is under a “family plan,” and I send my parent’s money for it every month. I was back to square one.
So there I was, sitting in the lobby of the Enterprise dealership, brainstorming a way around this latest obstacle. I told the manager I was going to dig deep into my emails and see if I could find some utility bills. In reality, I was using my phone to forge utility bills online from scratch with all my current information and preparing to format them into a PDF to show the manager. It took me all of about 30 seconds using Google to figure out that this was a thing/possibility, and that there were programs online to help you do it. One of my favorite sayings has always been, “I’ll find a way, or I’ll make one.” In this case, I was literally making one.
As I was finishing up forging my second utility bill, I guess the manager either got tired of looking at me, or felt bad. I’d already explained my entire story/predicament, as well as what I was using the vehicle to do; surprise my girlfriend up in Washington. It hadn’t immediately gained enough sympathy to earn a debit card rental when I first told it, but suddenly things were beginning to go my way. “I’ll tell you what,” said the manager. “If you show me how much money is in your bank account, I’ll rent you a car if there’s enough in there to do more than JUST rent it.” I thought this was a very strange request, if not inappropriate/unethical, however I was desperate and this sort of request isn’t something I get sensitive about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the “log in” information for my online banking, so I had to walk down the road to the nearest ATM and print out a balance receipt. I brought it back to the manager, showed it to him, and he rented me a car. I was the proud, temporary owner of a brand new Hyundai Santa Fe.
Even though I’d been successful in my car rental, the manager couldn’t help but screw me just a little bit. That’s the price to play ball, unfortunately. Even though I had current and up to date car insurance, the manager only let me get the rental under the condition that I pay for full coverage through them. This more than doubled the original price to over $700. I was less than pleased, but at least I was getting on the road.
So off I went, Washington bound. Due to a closure, the GPS took me east through Denver first, where I ended up just getting a room early. The next day I drove over 800 miles and slept in the parking lot of a Motel 6 in Boise Idaho. This was the main reason I wanted an SUV; so i could sleep in the back. Long distance hiking has turned me into a dirt bag who can sleep practically anywhere with comfort and without shame.
As luck would have it, I encountered another obstacle. I didn’t realize it until Saturday, but I didn’t have my passport with me any longer. I’d sent it home in Montana. So I called my parents and they were able to overnight it to Winthrop, Washington; where it was guaranteed to be delivered by Monday. Crisis averted, or so I thought.
My plan was this; Jessica had absolutely no idea that I was coming, and I had no intention of telling her. I knew where she was at on trail, and I knew her average pace. The plan was to get on trail at the northernmost terminus in Canada at the resort area called “Manning Park.” I’d then hike 9 miles south to the border/PCT northern terminus and continue south until I randomly ran into her in the middle of the northern cascades. I figured that was about as random of a surprise as I could make it. Once I found her, then we’d hike together into Canada where the vehicle would be waiting and could leave out from there. It helped eliminate a lot of logistics and expenses on her end. So that was my original plan.
I reached Winthrop in the late afternoon on Sunday. I had nothing but time on my hands, so I drove up to the northern most trailhead of the PCT on the U.S. side, Hart’s Pass. Hart’s Pass is 30 miles from the Canadian border, and if you don’t have your passport, then you have to double back 30 miles after you reach the border and finish the trail. This is what I did last year when I finished the PCT.
So I drove 33 of the treacherous and remote miles up to Hart’s Pass to see if there were any thru hikers looking for a ride down to town. I found three of them sitting up there, hoping to come down and avoid some weather. As it so happens, one of them had thru hiked the entire trail with a cat they found early on when it was four weeks old. Very cool!
I drove the three hikers down to town, had dinner, watched an independent film at a small theater, then slept in the parking lot of another hotel. In the morning I went to the post office to find that my passport had not arrived as guaranteed. It didn’t show up for the rest of the day either. So I was stuck waiting around town all day, killing time. I watched another independent film, then slept in the same parking lot again.
Tuesday morning came and my passport STILL hadn’t arrived. I couldn’t wait any longer, so I had to change my plans. There would be no hiking south from Canada, so I needed to start hiking south from Hart’s Pass before Jessica passed it.
Before heading up there I stopped at the grocery store and picked up three pounds of steak, three pounds of pork loins, two pounds of bacon, a pound of Apple Cider Bratwurst, a bundle of Asparagus, various spices, and a bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon. I even grabbed a grate to grill it all on. I was set.
It was almost 11am when I started south from Hart’s Pass. I’d almost forgot how physically easy the PCT was with its gentle grade. I flew down the trail, passing 16 northbounders in the first 20 miles. Out of the 16, only 3 of them had seen Jessica the day before when they hiked out of Stehekin. Based on her average pace, and knowing where she’d been the day before yesterday, I estimated I’d run into her and our friend Perk (who she’d started the trail with) somewhere between the 20 and 25 mile mark going south from Hart’s Pass.
It was around 5:30pm, and I’d just finished a 2,000+ ft climb to reach 21 miles when I saw Perk coming down the trail. “Do you even hike, bro?” I called out to him. I knew he didn’t recognize me at first, but when he was 40 ft away it all clicked and he ran up to give me a hug. Quickly I explained my plan to surprise Jessica, and we ducked north down the trail before she could round the corner and spot me. As icing on the cake, I pulled out my umbrella and opened it up to hide my face before heading back south on the trail in her direction. I was recording everything on my cell phone while it was mounted to my chest strap. Looking out, I could see a pair of legs getting closer. At about 30 ft I lowered the umbrella and called out, “Is this the way to Mexico?” Her face was one of disbelief as she immediately began to run, throwing each other into a tight embrace. The only thing missing was the field of daisies. We hadn’t seen one another in over 4 months, and up until 10 seconds prior, she had thought I was freezing my ass off in Colorado on the CDT. What a reunion!
I turned around and hiked a little ways north with them before making camp. We grilled out that night and had one of the best trail meals I’ve ever had. There was still left overs for one more night. The next day we hiked over 19 miles to Hart’s Pass and I took them down to Winthrop for dinner, laundry, shower, and a room.
The new plan was to pick up my passport the next morning, take them back up to Hart’s, then drive around to Manning Park in Canada, hike south to meet them again, finish the trail with them, then drive out of Manning. Unbelievably, the USPS had royally messed up and sent my passport BACK to Florida after it had already arrived in Winthrop the day before when I was hiking back to Hart’s Pass with Jessica and Perk. Back to square one again…
Once again the plans changed, but this time for the extremely inconvenient. I’d come all the way out there to finish with my girlfriend, so that’s what I was going to do. So the new plan was to hike north out of Hart’s Pass, finish with them, then double back 30 miles, get the vehicle and pick them up from the nearest U.S town they could get to from Canada. I wasn’t about to ask either of them to double back when they had all their ducks in a row, and were also excited about actually going into Canada. So that was the plan.
So at around 1pm on Thursday, the three of us hiked north out of the remote Hart’s Pass. About 6 miles in, as I was walking just behind Jessica with Perk somewhere ahead, we spooked up a Blue Grouse just off the left side of the trail. “Perk has been trying to get one of those for two thru hikes now!” Jessica exclaimed. Perk is an avid outdoorsman, hunter, and fisherman like me. The guy lives for living off the land, and there’s nothing he won’t try. I saw this as an opportunity to help him fulfill one of his trail dreams. I picked up a large, edged stone and side armed it at the chicken sized bird that was maybe 35 feet down the embankment. Direct hit, and a crippling strike. I quickly ran down and cut off it’s head to end any suffering or pain, and just like that it…It was done. If this offends you, angers you, or changes your opinion of me in a negative way…I promise you I won’t lose any sleep over it. Was I starving and out of food? Absolutely not. Did I NEED to kill the grouse? Absolutely not. Did I want to share the experience of hunting, cleaning, cooking, and eating wild game on trail with my girlfriend and friend? Yes. The bottom line is that the animal was not wasted, is not endangered, and not protected. It is regulated, but it was in season, and within the bag limit of “4 per day.” The only gray area was the fact that I do not have a hunting license in the state of Washington; although I’m not sure if you need one for grouse. Most likely you do, in which case this was unlawful except for the fact I did not use a firearm. Which puts me back in the gray zone. Either way, I’m not losing sleep over it.
Long story short, Perk was ecstatic over my gift of grouse, and insisted he clean it for us to eat with our feast later that night. Everything was delicious, and I couldn’t imagine a better “final night” on trail.
The next day we trekked the final 19 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through freezing rain, wind, and snow flurries. Perk and Dixie finished the PCT a little after 5pm on Friday October, 6th; exactly one year and one day after I finished it in the exact same spot. After pictures and celebrating, we made camp a little ways into the Canadian side. I would have to double back to Hart’s in the morning.
The weather was deplorable the next morning; freezing cold, and it had snowed all night. Nevertheless, I planned to do the 30 miles back in one day, no matter what. Knowing that I had a vehicle waiting for me was a huge motivator.
I set off back south a little after 8 am. The higher I climbed, the deeper the snow got. Throughout certain stretches I was up over my knees in snow drifts. Throughout the entire day it snowed heavily, and only several times did I dip low enough for the snow to turn into sleet and mud.
It’s funny, at any other time in my long distance hiking career, these conditions would have made me incredibly nervous. Not today. Perhaps because I was familiar with the area and had hiked through here in similar conditions last year. Whatever the reason, I positively enjoyed myself throughout the entire day. My umbrella and hand warmers were once again the fine line in the sand between misery and relative comfort. My feet were the only part of me that suffered, as they went totally numb from my toes to my lower shins about halfway through the day. Later on that evening they would throb and hurt as they thawed out. As far as clothing went, I only wore my long underwear and a thin base layer top for the entire stretch. I was moving fast enough all day that the wind and ice couldn’t cut through the ample heat my body was producing. I didn’t see a single northbound or southbound soul for the entire day. In these conditions I knew any thru hikers would be laying low.
I arrived back at Hart’s Pass a little before 6pm. This was the time I was shooting for, but I was genuinely surprised that I’d actually been able to pull off a sub ten hour, 30 mile day in the conditions that I did it in. It was a nice confidence booster.
So my side quest stint on the PCT ended at Hart’s Pass after slightly more than 100 miles hiked over the past five days. However, not before another thru hiker could rub me the wrong way. When I got back to Hart’s Pass there was some trail magic going on. It was the same guy in the same old van who’d been here at this same time last year. He’d set up a big canopy and had a big barrel fire going. As I threw my stuff in the car and got it warmed up, I figured I’d go see if any hikers needed a ride down. One of them beat me to the punch, sort of. I was scraping the ice and snow off the windshield when a young man maybe 19 or 20 years of age approached me…
“Where did ya hike from?” He asked. “Just coming from the border,” I replied. “All the way back from there today!?” He asked surprised. “Yeah.” “How’s the trail looking?” “It’s getting deep,” I answered. “Damn.” He said. “Well, can I ask you a favor?” I figured I knew what he was going to say, so I answered while chuckling, “Yeah, I’ll give you a ride into town.” “Oh, no, that’s not what I was going to ask. I was wondering if we could borrow your car to go down to town and get some pizza, or if we could give you some money and you could go down and get it.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hadn’t told this kid I was a thru hiker or anything. As far as he knew, I was just some stranger with a car who’d hiked a big day today. The sheer entitlement it took to make this request of a stranger, knowing that this was almost a 70 mile, 2+ hour round trip (not to mention I’d have to drive BACK down again after I brought it back up) was unbelievable. If he’d needed to get down there to make a phone call or take care of something that was actually important, I wouldn’t have hesitated a heartbeat. But to make such a request just so you could get pizza while an incredibly nice man is putting on a very elaborate trail magic…unreal. This is the sort of behaviour and entitlement that is earning thru hikers a bad name/image in the eyes of the public…and the eyes of many other thru hikers as well.
I let him know that his request was not an option, but that I’d be more than happy to take anybody down on a one way trip. Nobody actually needed/wanted to go down there, so I left alone.
I slept in the hotel parking lot one last time, then drove a couple hours to Oroville on the border of Washington and Canada the next morning. I picked up Jessica and Perk at the border crossing checkpoint after they’d done some Canadian hitchhiking. Then we were off! Off to where?
Yet another new plan unraveled. While I was up here, I might as well go pick up my truck I’d left in Kalispell, Montana with Hannah and Tyler back in June. I added Jessica and Perk to my rental agreement during a quick stopover at an Enterprise location in Spokane, Washington. From there we chugged on along into Kalispell. The next morning I picked up my 4Runner from Tyler and Hannah and thanked them for their kindness once more. From there we split ways from Perk. Jessica and I planned to take our time driving back down to Winter Park, Colorado. Perk was going to return the rental in Silverthorne, then catch a short bus ride into Denver and fly out to Arizona. It all worked out favorably for everyone!
So as of the writing of this, I am enroute back to the CDT feeling dubious about it at best. The weather hasn’t gotten any better down there, and everyone I’m in contact with who’s still on the trail is either road walking, or skipping down to New Mexico. Some decisions are going to have to be made…