We were just a few miles into the Three Sisters Wilderness when we met an older man trucking along. He greeted us with a “How are you?” When we asked him the same he replied: “Close to excellent! I’m almost out of the Sisters Wilderness. It’s been arduous.”
I should have been forewarned already. Mackenzie Pass north was where our hike really started, as we managed to complete our first short stretch before a ten mile snowfield turned us around. At the time we were told by mountaineers that the worst snow conditions were by the Three Sisters.
As we tackled this section south of Mackenzie Pass on July 22 there were no ten mile snowfields. Indeed, I failed to remember how spectacular the scenery was through here, a source of continual awe were it not for being focused on the footpath. The lava fields made for some tough footwork for Cindy, as did the snowfields. For though they did not last for ten miles the patches occurred frequently over such a length.
Cindy did quite well with the snow at first, but she grew more tentative over time. Adding to her challenge were a couple of tough blowdowns and two creek crossings she failed to negotiate. Over the course of the day we averaged only 1.5 miles per hour. I suspected we would not reach our destination that evening; an evening thunderstorm put an exclamation to that thought as I found a passable place to put up a tent around 7:30.
I efficiently went about the tasks in the necessary order to account for Cindy’s affliction: set the tent up, settle Cindy inside the tent, get water, settle my stuff in the tent, treat Cindy’s cut from stumbling on a snowfield, cook dinner, eat, give Cindy’s medication, take ibuprofen, help Cindy “use the woods” and brush our teeth. When all was done we were both snuggled into our sleeping bags at dusk.
Then came a special moment. I could tell we were feeling the same thing. Here we were in our tent, protected from the elements once again. This was the same tent for our American Discovery Trail hike, protecting us from a fierce thunderstorm in Utah, a blizzard in Colorado, a dust storm in Kansas, numbing January cold in Illinois and a torrential downpour in Ohio. A look of pure contentment was on Cindy’s face and I asked, knowing the answer, if she was glad to be hiking the PCT. With a big smile she gave an emphatic “yep!”
I put Seals and Crofts on the iPod, reminding me of something Cindy made for me after our AT hike. Framed along with two leaves and a picture of us holding hands on Katahdin were the lyrics from “Ruby Jean and Billie Lee:” “He is the object of our longing and we’re his Creation.” I often get emotional when I hear those lyrics.
This was the essence of us as a couple: content in our sleeping bags after a day’s hike, weathering the storm. This was normal for us, the way things should be. I looked over at Cindy and absorbed the music, knowing just how fleeting such “normal” moments now are. I wanted to freeze and hold onto that moment forever.
The thunderstorm was east of us, east of the mountains. What we got through the night were only pockets of drizzle. Morning came suddenly, indicating I slept well, yet I hardly could believe I already had to tackle the morning tasks. These were tougher than the evening tasks, even more so when squeezing them in between pockets of drizzle. We needed to be on the trail close to 8:00 in order to make a rendezvous with our daughters by 5:00.
I needed to do things quickly while Cindy needed to just watch. As has been the case this makes Cindy feel helpless and she forlornly commented how she can no longer do “all of this.” Turns out, that was the high point of the morning.
At 8:00 I had most things ready. My pack was outside the tent ready to go. I just needed to help Cindy “use the woods,” pack up her sleeping bag and pad and then take the tent down. At that moment a “pocket of drizzle” came and I climbed inside the tent to wait it out. This pocket was different though, continuing on and getting heavier. I fetched my bag from my pack to stay warm while waiting it out, but first I finally had to help Cindy “use the woods.” While so doing I noticed the rain and temperature had become noticeably colder. I wanted to rush Cindy for her sake, but some things just can’t be rushed.
We got a late start, when the rain appeared to subside. Ever conscious of Cindy’s problems with the cold I broke camp as quickly as I could. The rain came back and in the process contributed some extra weight in water and mud to the tent and ground cloth I had to carry.
As we hiked I knew it was now impossible to meet our daughters. I still wanted to get a few miles in just to account for the late start we would likely get again the next morning drying out, but to my chagrin the trail brought us to more snowfields and exposed subalpine tundra. The rain and wind were relentless, reminding me of a similar day in 1977 by Mt. Jefferson, not too far north from the Three Sisters.
By that time even the tenderfoots were strong hikers. The rain waited until after we broke camp which got us started on the right foot. Treating the day almost as a lark, I climbed over one blowdown that easily could have been ducked under and crawled under another that easily could have been stepped over. Beyond that we handled the cold rain as any strong hikers would, by hiking faster and seldom breaking.
Despite her thru-hiking pedigree, Cindy did just the opposite in the cold, driving rain, hiking tentatively and prone to stopping. All rain gear not made of rubber, to my knowledge, have a saturation point. Ours had reached that in the continuing rain. Wet and cold, I knew Cindy faced hypothermia conditions. After only three miles I knew I had to find a campsite soon. This provided the oddly comforting thought that our late start did not matter, we were destined to leave our daughters waiting and wondering about us regardless.
We stopped a couple times as I scouted for a suitable place to put the tent. Cindy obediently waited each time, shivering. Once I found a spot I went to work as fast as I could, throwing in an occasional “I love you” and “I’ll take care of you” as my cold fingers worked with the tent poles and stakes. I breathed heavy with my urgency while Cindy shivered; we must have made a strange sight together.
I got Cindy’s gear into the tent with her sleeping bag unfurled. I sat her down on it and firmly said “I need you to trust me.” I took off her rain jacket and shirt as she recoiled, then quickly put on her a dry shirt and her fleece. Soon we were both prepared to snuggle in our bags inside our cozy tent yet one more time in our lives. I knew we would cause our daughters some anguish, but that simply could not be helped. When we finally see them I knew we would be coming up with Plan G, or was it H, for this journey.
Yet as long as Cindy ended each day glad to be hiking the PCT, as she once again claimed that night, I knew the journey would continue on. The next morning brought on a mixture of emotions for Cindy. Her side of the tent faced a spectacular mountain scenery, slowly unfolding through the clouds, drawing several approving comments from her. Yet this was the morning and Cindy once again had her moments of forlornly watching. I asked her to collapse the tent poles and she eagerly replied she could do that, claiming someone showed her how, not remembering that this was our ritual that I established. No matter, anything to make her feel useful I thought, as we once again collapsed the poles together. Another storm had been weathered as we both adjusted to our new “normal.”