A Triumphant Human Magic
I woke to the shuffling of a mouse crawling across the netting of my tent. We packed up as a light rain fell through the trees and hiked to the Wind River Highway, where we turned right and began to walk towards the small town of Trout Lake. Mt. Adams loomed ever closer just to the north. Washpot called the hiker-friendly Trout Lake General Store and asked if we might get a ride. The woman on the other end called out to whomever was in earshot, "Hey! Anybody want to go get some hikers?"
Someone volunteered and Washpot began to describe our appearance.
"I'm a tall guy with a beard and a green shirt. My buddy has a hat and a blue shirt ..."
The woman cut him off. "Yeah, you'll be the only two people walking down the road."
At the store we rented a room for a song and then made our way to the cafe, the only restaurant in town that was open. I appreciated the simplicity of having only one choice, of being in a town so small there was only a single place to eat. I ordered a salmon burger and read the newspaper. "The beloved, boisterous Robin Williams is dead at 63," read the headline. The cafe was connected to a Chevron service station and it all seemed to be run by the same family. A woman, friendly but slightly sardonic, took our orders and a man dressed in a grease-covered Chevron shirt, presumably her husband, stood behind the counter brewing coffee. I ordered a huckleberry milk shake and sucked up every last ounce of it, revealing a layer of huckleberries clustered at the bottom of the cup. I tilted the cup and slid them into my mouth.
The afternoon grew exceedingly warm and along with Washpot, Grams and Blue Skies, I headed to Trout Lake Creek. Rusty metal pilings rose up out of the water, remnants of some long ago dismantled bridge. The water was ice cold and we stepped gingerly over jagged rocks on the creek bed, making our way out to the deepest point. I felt like the four of us had bonded in recent days and was glad to be a part of a group. We devised alter egos - the town versions of our trail personas: I was Northhoof, Washpot was Dirtbasin, Grams was Pounds and Blue Skies became Thunderstorms. As we swam we nervously eyed the sky to the north. Actual thunder storms were rolling in, the sky grew dark and rain fell off in the distance.
We made our way back to the store just as a heavy rain began to fall upon Trout Lake. As with my stay at the Peter Grubb Hut in California, I found it uncanny that with bad weather being so rare I would once again find myself sleeping under a roof during a storm, rather than out on the trail. With the rain, Grams and Blue Skies decided to stay with us in the tiny room above the store. Washpot, Grams and I took the three single beds, while Blue Skies, the shortest in the group, slept in the closet. With four thru-hikers crammed into the tiny room it grew hot and, as one would expect, began to smell. We drank beer and ate ice cream. Washpot played videos of Robin Williams' stand-up on his smartphone. To amplify the sound, Grams placed the cell phone in his metal cooking pot - German engineering at its finest.
I chose to hike the PCT alone, though in reality there was no other option - I did not know anyone interested in hiking for five months straight. In the end I was glad I had spent my thru-hike unencumbered by any commitment to hike with others and were I ever to thru-hike again I would probably be inclined to do the same. I feel as if I were more "open" to the experience and to my surroundings. I was able to exist more in the moment and to fully digest everything I saw and experienced. Steinbeck wrote in Travels With Charley that "two or more people disturb the ecologic complex of an area." I had discovered that to be true during my time living in Japan. A solo foreigner traveling through Japan is a novelty and a curiosity to the Japanese he encounters. They wish to help him, befriend him and converse with him. Because of this I felt I was able to more fully experience Japan and have more substantial interactions with the Japanese people I met. Two foreigners on the other hand are a nuisance and a disruption. They stand out like sore thumbs and are a hassle more than anything else - to the shopkeeper, to the hostel guest or to the waiter. They are unapproachable and their presence is begrudgingly tolerated until they move on and equilibrium can return to the "ecologic complex."
That of course is a one-sided and perhaps limiting way to look at things. During my first year in Japan I was mostly solitary, yet during my second year I developed a group of close friends, most of them Westerners, and in many ways my time was all the richer for it. It was the yin and the yang of my experience - keeping things in moderation and realizing there is more than one way to experience something. I seemed to have the best of both worlds - time on my own and time with others. In the same way, I was able to experience that on the PCT. I could fall in and out of groups as I pleased and there in Trout Lake it seemed I was in the midst of what had become an increasingly more tight-knit group.
It is an evening I look back on fondly - the four of us crammed into that tiny room listening to stand-up, eating ice cream, drinking beer, talking and laughing. It was a social highlight of my trip and stands out amongst an already impressive treasure trove of solitary experiences amidst natural splendor. At one point I took out my camera and did something I wish I had done more of during my hike: I took photos of the people around me. In one photo Washpot lies on his bed, one arm behind his head and a beer in his other hand. His legs and bare feet stretch out towards me and his face looks as I often remember it - plastered with a broad smile. His eyes are squinted - just dark slits below his brow. He looks perfectly relaxed and content. In another photo Grams poses with a plastic cup - it is bright yellow and features the iconic smiley-face image: black oval eyes and a semi-circular smile with creases at each end. He had just unleashed a barrage of flatulence and I jokingly told him the smile on his cup had transformed into a frown. He grins deviously in the photo, taking on the devilish look I remember him often having. A ring loops around his pierced nostril and two black discs rest in his enlarged earlobes. Tattoos adorn his scrawny shoulders and on his face he wears a thin, wispy goatee, while his cheeks are devoid of any hair. In the third photo Blue Skies stands stiff-shouldered in front of the closet where he had set up his bed, caught off-guard by my camera. He gives a tight-lipped smile and a pair of large, black-rimmed glasses are framed by a riot of hair - the thick, dark hair on his head and a bushy beard. He is short and fit, with bronzed skin and the defined thigh and calf muscles developed from hiking nonstop for nearly four months. An hour or so later I took a video of him emerging shirtless from the walk-in closet, dancing and singing Diana Ross' I'm Coming Out, while Washpot tosses his head back in boisterous laughter.
In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck recounts inviting a group of French Canadian migrant workers into his camper and describes the atmosphere as such: "... there came into Rocinante a triumphant human magic that can bless a house, or a truck for that matter - nine people gathered in complete silence and the nine parts making a whole as surely as my arms and legs are part of me, separate and inseparable. Rocinante took on a glow it never quite lost." I felt that tiny room in Trout Lake took on a similar sort of glow, alive with the camaraderie and joy of four hikers forming a unit and sharing the bond of a unique adventure. It wasn't an experience I had often on my hike and as a result I think I appreciated it all the more.