audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Tammy & John, caretakers

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.

Margaret Mead

“Don’t mind the dust, we’re remodeling.”

It was thick forest and I was heading down – finally – on the last descent in the state of Washington, careening towards the Columbia River. It’s a natural boundary and I’d cross the Bridge of the Gods before heading straight back up again towards Mount Hood and all of Oregon. The rain let up this far south, though mosquitos were out in full force and I had no plans to linger even though I was surrounded on both sides by multitudes of black-, blue- and huckle-berries, all within easy reach. I felt happy and so alive, punch drunk that my intention of walking a little wisp of trail had grown to my being on the verge of checking off an entire state.

A rough section of dirt and rock loomed in front of me, a landslip that appeared to have just been cleared. Unlike hardcore tramping in New Zealand, a landslip of this magnitude was never going to be left there for hikers to climb over. Someone took it upon themselves to dig right into the side of the mountain and create a wider, more stable path. Aside from a bit of dust on my La Sportivas, I barely broke stride.

A Pacific Crest Trail worker in the North Cascades shows off her muscles and tatoos.
A trail crew worker in the North Cascades taking pride in her gritty job.

Ahead, two people covered head-to-toe in long sleeves, long pants, gloves and helmets were lumbering along, snipping away at errant bushes and kicking loose stones aside. Their manner was focused and meticulous, like a proud home owner. It wasn’t just respect and reverence they exhibited for this gorgeous patch of trail, they acted as if they owned the place.

And to be fair, they earned that attitude.

Tammy and John are caretakers of the PCT – perhaps more precisely, of eleven miles of the 2,653 mile-long PCT. For the past sixteen years, they’ve set aside their free time to ensure the trail is walkable by removing downed trees and limbs, cutting back overgrowth and fixing any damage like the huge landslip I managed to simply float over. Why do they do it? That’s simple – because they want the trail here.

Neither of them identify as long distance backpackers. Just like thru-hikers desperate for a break in town every so often – they begin to miss beer and flush toilets.

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PCT Day 50, Mt. Ashland to Bearground Springs, 25 miles

You can waste your lives drawing lines, or you can live your life crossing them. – Shonda Rhimes

The morning is so – thankfully – mellow. I have a few tents near me, but the people in them are absolutely chill. We give a thumbs up to each other before I set off, then it’s up into meadows filled with a forest of wildflowers in all colors, some as tall as me. There’s water everywhere, and Aspen crowd in for a drink.

I forgot to mention that Maria says “Yay!” a lot. In fact she, her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law have “Yay!” tattooed on their ankles. It slips my mind to ask Andrea and Tom to write on my backpack, and Maria remembers just as I am getting out of her car. She creates an exact replica of her tatt on Olive Oyl’s lid in ball point pen. I hope it survives the walk because it kind of says it all right inside this bowl of beauty under Mount Ashland’s summit. Again, I am thrilled to be without headphones so I can hear the cacophony of buzzing bumblebees, high on nectar.

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PCT Day 49, Highway 66 to little tent site above Mount Ashland Inn, 23 miles

The difference between successful people and others is how long they spend time feeling sorry for themselves. – Barbara Corcoran

It was a bit of a whirlwind waking up and getting ready to go. I wish we had a week together to talk, make food, take some hikes and even see a few plays, but there was only this sliver of time to get to know Maria – like a soul sister.

We still talk non-stop as I pull together my resupply and Maria sews a denim heart patch on the bottom of my ripped pants. They’re now as cute as can be – and serviceable, maybe even to the end. Maria feeds me eggs with kale, pepper and onion plus plenty of coffee and we’re off, back to highway 66 to pick up where I left off as she will go on a hike in California to a hot mineral spring.

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PCT Day 48, Klum Landing to Highway 66 (Ashland) 15 miles

Knowing what must be done does away with fear. – Rosa Parks

I had a purple sky lull me to sleep, the wind died and my tent stayed up with help from my phantom stake providers, but someone ran a generator all night and a guy was yelling bright and early.

I pack up and ship out, eating on the trail. It’s ten miles to water, up and down on a rollercoaster of trail in the forest. I think of one of my mom’s coolest friend named Barbara who was tough and never took things personally. How healthy that must be to have resilience and not stay stuck in the groove that replays past hurts.

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PCT Day 47, creek near Lake of the Woods Highway to Klum Landing Campground, 24 miles

If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it. – Erma Bombeck

I wake up all on my own, just the gurgling, splashy creek next to me and the sky lightening. It got chilly at night, so I zipped up the footbox, put on my hood and tucked in.

I approach the day tired and unsure about seeing through this enormous undertaking. I don’t know what will happen or what I will learn about me, but I do know that if I quit, I will always wonder what might have been.

So I put on the ripped REI pants, button up my $1 shirt, lace up the newish La Sportivas and get ready to head south. Several hikers are camped between my spot and the road, and I warn that I am not a mountain lion – or a bear – as I pass. The road is busy and I’m grateful the stream covered the sound, but no trail magic, toilets or cache awaits, so I just cross.

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PCT Day 46, stream near Seven Lakes to creek near Lake of the Woods Highway, 28 miles

Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement. – Golda Meir

My spot is absolutely flat and I am, oh, so comfortable. Suddenly, a giant in snappy flip flops passes three feet from my head and shines his headlamp at my face.

“Knock it off!” I yell and he slowly flip-flops away. I’m now comfy and wide awake, considering everything that could go wrong in my life, wondering if my reputation is in tatters.

It’s up to me to calm myself down. I cry and then talk soothingly to myself. I’m glad I brought my tiny Kobo reader. I eventually fall asleep and a new day dawns, absolutely crystal clear and cool.

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PCT Day 45, Crystal Creek to stream near Seven Lakes Basin (via Mazama) 23 mileso

You are the one that possesses the keys to your being. You carry the passport to your own happiness. – Diane von Furstenberg

It was a beautiful night of a full moon lighting up my little clearing in the forest. My backpack slumps and jolts me awake as I shine my light and use my full-on ‘scary’ voice. It doesn’t help that mountain lions have been ‘active’ in the park. I figure they followed me here.

Just as the sky lightens a tiny bit, two guys walk past and I catch, “I don’t want to go back to San Francisco,” which pretty well wakes me up for the day. It was lovely while it lasted, I think, as I organize my gear, have a quick coffee and head to Mazama.

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PCT Day 44, Thielsen Creek to Crystal Creek, 28 miles

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning. – Gloria Steinem

The sun lights up the triangular rock fortress of Thielsen while I still lay in my quilt, cozy and lazy. Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ fills my mind on this perfect morning. No one joined me on my hill except one hiker just making dinner before moving on.

I love my solitude, eventually making breakfast and packing up. I cross the stream below a mini-waterfall. Once below, I hear other campers including a barking dog.

The trail heads up and I test my legs, wondering if they’ll balk at such long days of many miles. Up is my strong suit, but I take care to go easy. I hope to get into Crater Lake National Park and walk the rim, but it is a long way from my start.

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PCT Day 43, Oldenburg Lake to Thielsen Creek, 26 miles (+2 off-trail water gathering)

If I stop to kick every barking dog I am not going to get where I’m going. – Jackie Joyner-Kersee

My beautiful, private lake produced a layer of mist and the alicoop is cold and damp, but ali, herself, is cozy and cuddly inside the puffy quilt. I almost don’t want to get up as the light show begins at sunrise, but a chattery squirrel leaping from tree to tree coaxes me out.

I am so careful packing, that when I leave my orange TP bag behind at my cat hole, I know to go look for it before closing up Olive Oyl. It’s still a good walk to finish the alternate and reach the road at Windigo Pass. Two unfriendly German speakers pass and I recall meeting others in Washington who I overheard ensuring another hiker knew they were Austrians. “That would be as insulting if you assumed a Canadian was an American.” I really wish I’d reminded them that they were in America and long trails are an American idea as are wilderness areas and national parks. Sadly, I held my tongue.

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PCT Day 42, Shelter Cove to Oldenburg Lake (via Skyline alternate) 16 miles

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope. – Helen Keller

I awaken in my cozy bed to the soft tump-tump of cat paws on the hardwood floor above me. I feel so good having seen my lovely friends and taken a day off to experience a bit of the ‘Hippie Capital of Oregon’ and reorient my perspective on this grand undertaking of walking another long trail.

Tom makes me a cappuccino from his fancy machine and whips up eggs and potatoes while Andrea picks up bagels on her run. Life is beyond good this morning. I read my program from Shakespeare in the Park and want to share a snippet from the dramaturg.

Pericles is about taking risks, falling short and suffering consequences. It’s about having the fortitude to endure the hardships Fate inflicts on us. It’s about losing everything and then – astonishingly, miraculously–finding it again. Adventure, suffering, joy, love, loss, redemption; isn’t that the best we can hope for in life?

Yes, I say out loud and Tom wonders if I mean I want a second cappuccino.

Yes, please!