On and Off the PCT

Back row (from left to right): Periscope (Ohio), K.O. (France), Sketchy (France), Zippo (Denmark). Front row (left to right): Yoga Daddy (South Carolina), Marmie (Bavaria), Baggins (Montana) Photo by Wesley Zhao

“Disaster” earned his trail name from an unfortunate miscalculation made while in the Sierra Nevadas. A thousand miles into the Pacific Crest Trail, his equipment was showing wear: “I had these shoes I thought I could push through to the next section.” He planned to resupply at the next town. “But halfway through, they fell apart, so I had to walk the last fifty miles in sandals and flip flops, tied together with shoestring. It was kind of a disaster.”

Disaster is one of the seven hundred or so thru-hikers every year who attempt to complete the PCT. And like most, Disaster began at the southern end, at the US-Mexico border, an hour's drive from San Diego. He then moved north through California, Oregon, and into Washington, with hopes of reaching the northern terminus at the Canadian Border. In total, the trail is 2,653 miles long. NOBOs (northbound hikers) encounter the Sierra Nevadas near mile 650 and complete the range at mile 1,700. Stevens Pass is another seven hundred miles from there, marking mile 2,464. After four or five months of continuous hiking, with less than two hundred miles left, NOBOs often pause here and hitch thirty miles into Leavenworth for one last set of “zeros” (rest days with zero miles hiked). But this year a greater number of NOBOs have been flowing through town and staying longer than usual.

Shopkeepers, including longtime Dan’s cashier Jeremy Radach, said they have noticed two or three times more PCT hikers in town this season compared to the last few. During the last several weeks, slightly browned, dirt smudged, NOBOs with their packs, sleeping pads, and grocery bags could be spotted all around downtown, near the Post Office, and by the river.

I met Disaster trying to catch a hitch along Highway 2, by Starbucks. Then, biking past the post office I met Siesta, an Argentinian woman who frequently took siestas in the heat of the Mojave, and Dory, a Texan who forgets a lot. In front of Das Sweet Shoppe I met K.O., a Parisian who accidentally punched herself in the face, resting with her large “tramily” (trail family): Zippo, a Dane who smokes a lot; Marmot, a Bavarian who naps like a marmot; Yoga Daddy, from South Carolina; and several others.

They all explained their hikes had already been interrupted by three fires, one in California and two in Oregon. They took shuttles or hitched from trail closures back to open trailheads. From Leavenworth, they face one final fire obstacle: Since September 2nd, a fire along the Canadian border has forced the closure of the final twenty miles of PCT. For NOBOs who have gathered from around the world to finish, the fire closure is a particularly disheartening inconvenience. The PCT Association, accordingly, has offered their condolences: “Reaching the Northern Terminus of the PCT is monumentally important to so many…We’re so sorry.”

Regardless of the fire, K.O. and Disaster said they would have come into Leavenworth. They both said Leavenworth has a great reputation on the trail. “We’ve all heard about this German village,” K.O. recounted. “I’ve heard a lot of people compare it to Disneyland in a way,” said Disaster. The hikers made it clear that Leavenworth is not only one of nicer towns to visit along the trail, but the townspeople are some of the nicest and most welcoming. Some hotels allow hikers to do free laundry, residents are more accommodating to hitch-hiking, and restaurants let hikers bring their packs inside and occasionally help them with temporary storage (other towns say the packs are too dirty or smelly). The K.O.A campsite also provides a very affordable option that includes a shower. The other major town before the border is in Stehekin, but it requires a boat ride to get to, and is smaller than Leavenworth. K.O. speculated Leavenworth’s growing reputation may account for more hikers coming into town and staying longer. Her tramily rented an Airbnb across the river to enjoy several zeros together.

Radach suggested another reason for the increase in PCT hikers: he checked many more foreign ID cards for alcohol this year than the last two. The US only opened its borders to incoming international air travel a few months ago, on November 8, 2021. With a growing interest in outdoor activities due to stay-at-home ordinances, once borders opened up, even more foreign hikers have taken to our trails.

I spotted Dairy Queen, Tuna, and their tramily hurrying along US-2 toward the 76 station. They spent a few days in town deciding if they wanted to continue along the trail at all, given the fire closure at the terminus. If they could not reach the border anyhow, Leavenworth served as a very comfortable and convenient stopping point. So, they decided to finish their journey here, and were on their way to catch the Amtrak bus to Seattle where DQ would catch a flight back to Alaska, and Tuna back to Germany. I met Potato sitting under a tree by Bushel and Bee’s contemplating whether she wanted to continue on or head into Seattle (she eventually decided to hitch into Seattle). Others are weighing their options too while in Leavenworth.

It might feel disappointing to complete ninety-nine percent of the trail and be disallowed from completing the final one. But the hikers I spoke with had already spent five months reflecting and learning from nearly half a year spent on the trail. After a ten-year relationship ended for Siesta, she started spending more time outdoors, where she realized the mountains brought her peace. So, she decided to endeavor the PCT without any backpacking experience. She has survived so far. Siesta has become more confident in her own resilience and fortitude. She told me she has learned how capable she is at helping herself. Dory explained that he learned to be more open-minded. He grew up in Texas, but his tramily comes from across the globe. He learned about the breadth and variance in perspectives that exist across the world and has developed a more moderate position on gun control.

I asked Disaster why he decided to take on the PCT. He told me his father passed away when he was eighteen. “He always wanted to do a long through-hike, and he never got to do it.” He held up a small, bronze, cylindrical capsule attached to his necklace: “I’ve got his ashes around my neck right now. And I’m kind of helping him do it.” While on the trail Disaster decided to focus more on developing and nurturing his relationships. Before the PCT, Disaster had been working too much, always taking overtime on weekends. Now he wants to spend more time with his family and prioritize finding a partner. He spent a few extra days in town recovering from a stomach bug but decided to get back on the trail. As he walked away from me, he looked toward the ridges and told me, “Leavenworth felt like a nice harbor to seek refuge in… before going back out there…”

Leavenworth is indeed a nice harbor. It is one of the last major towns before the end; one of the more comfortable towns along the whole trail; and — most importantly — one of the most welcoming towns to the hikers. I think Leavenworth is so welcoming because PCT hikers and Leavenworth residents share a reverence for our outdoors. We have a finite amount of time, but countless options of how to spend it, where to spend it, who to spend it with. We have all chosen to be here, a city that offers daily communing with nature. Over other options, we have chosen nature’s beauty to appreciate, the adventures she offers, and the lessons she continues to teach us. This choice reveals the shared values that bond us together, with our other residents, and our other through-hikers. While we stay, Disaster, K.O., and the rest, hike on, for at least one hundred more miles, toward the Canadian border, hoping the fires might calm.



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