Our 17th morning on the trail, we broke camp early, with an urgency and zeal reserved exclusively for thru hikers on the cusp of civilization. Our legs and trekking poles carried us quickly across the wide, well-graded trail that signaled day hiker territory. By eight o’clock, we emerged in a gravel parking lot behind an aluminum out building, a smattering of shabby tents and pickup trucks populating the roadside trailhead. We had arrived at Stevens Pass, a ski resort, which marked the completion of our journey’s second and most arduous leg.
Colorful banners announcing espresso and ice cream beckoned us to a lodge on the other side of Highway 2. As we made our way, Saturday morning traffic whizzed by at speeds that were an assault to our unaccustomed senses. The juxtaposition of the serene, isolated mountains we’d been immersed in became further heightened as we approached the ski shop and restaurant to find a bow hunting event. Camouflage, safety orange, tactical gear and retailers crowded the walkway. As a vegetarian hiker sporting a dirt tan and week of trail stink, it was both hilarious and surreal, like dropping into an alien world. As we eyed a few familiar hikers milling about, it seemed like a summit of REI and Cabela’s customers hoping to negotiate a platform on how best to enjoy the great outdoors. REI folks tend to leave only footprints and take only photos, while the Cabela’s camp opts to assassinate the portrait’s subjects. For the day, though, we would put our differences aside and share the sublime luxury of indoor plumbing and overpriced concessions.
Bellies full of the most mediocre breakfast buffet in history and resupply packages in hand, it was on to the most pressing task of the day: snagging our first hitch. During the research and planning phase of my PCT journey, it became clear that hitchhiking to town would be a matter of necessity. Often times, the trail dumps you out on a remote road or out-of-season ski resort (i.e. Stevens Pass) with limited to nonexistent services. The only options become trusting a generous motorist to take pity on you or enduring a 5-20 mile road walk, an impractical and time consuming proposition when you’re trying to beat the clock to Mexico. While I orchestrated our resupply stops to minimize the number of hitches, there was no way around occasionally posting up on the side of the road, thumb out with a nervous twitch in my eye.
Thankfully, it was a gorgeous Saturday morning and the parking lot was full, ensuring an easy ride 16 miles down the road to Skykomish, WA. Loitering at the parking lot exit for only a handful of minutes, a Civic pulled up and popped the trunk. Victory! The trail gods blessed us with an entry level hitch. Our benefactors, Steve and Lori, a newlywed couple from the Seattle area, knew the PCT deal and were glad to cultivate some of their own trail karma. As it turns out, the next day they were to embark upon a 5 day northbound backpack of our next section, Stevens to Snoqualmie Pass, and were depositing a second car at the trailhead. Our Skykomish luck was just beginning.
The requisite small talk commenced, “Where are you from? What day did you start? What animals have you seen?” While most hikers offer a few bucks for gas or a meal as a token of appreciation, sharing stories from the trail is often the most valuable compensation for a hitch. A few miles into the drive, conversation turned to our plans for Skykomish – where should they drop us off? A reasonable question for which we had no answer. That morning, we’d attempted to book a room at the remote town’s only hotel, however, our efforts were thwarted by a lack of vacancies, likely due to the inundation of bow hunting enthusiasts. Upon hearing of our dilemma, without hesitation, Steve looked to Lori, his new wife, and suggested that they let us use their cabin. Wait? What? Seriously?!?! Yes, this generous, trusting pair offered to let two filthy hobos they’d collected from the side of the road use their well-appointed cabin, nestled at the base of the mountains outside of town. Unbelievable.
Within minutes, we were delivered to our private retreat and given the lay of the land. Limitless hot water, 3 beds, a comfy couch, spotty cell service and all the electricity our batteries could hold. The icing on the cake was the leftover goodies from their wedding reception – corn sugary beverages and potato chips. Entrusted with the key code, just like that, they were gone and the place was ours.
After some showers, scrubbing and civilized sitting upon upholstered furniture, Jason and I began formulating a plan to get to the town 6 miles off. Being rather naive and optimistic, we summoned an Uber. Then a Lyft. I stared at my phone as the app kept searching for available drivers. I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize this was a futile effort. Next up, we called a good old fashioned taxi. Surely that would do the trick, right? Once Jason actually got someone on the line, they flat out declined our request. Apparently there is a reason hitching in the only option in the Cascade Mountains. A steep learning curve for these suburbanites.
With our options exhausted, our course was clear: make a really neat hitchhiking sign! One Sharpie and a broken down resupply box later, I’d crafted a lovely sign that surely conveyed our friendliness and enthusiasm. In our clean clothes sans backpacks, we hoofed it out to the main road and proudly put ourselves at the mercy of the passersby.Jason and I agreed that the best strategy would be for me, an unthreatening woman, to hold the sign. Ten minutes passed. We tried to stay positive, but, I must say, the hardest part of hitching is not the fear of being picked up by an axe murderer. No, it is the fear of rejection and judgement. With each passing car, your confidence fades. And, to be clear, there was no shortage of passing cars. Most people seem to look right through you, but I would catch the occasional expression of disbelief and shock, as if to say, “Surely my eyes deceive me! These people cannot expect any sane person to allow them in their personal vehicle.” Compounding the emotional labor was my accute, if irrational, awareness of body size. It is an unfriendly and unhelpful delusion when your brain tells you that no one is stopping because you’re too fat to fit in their car, rather than the fact that it is culturally unacceptable to pick up hitchhikers. Hope flagging, Jason desperately called the taxi company once again. This time he was able to get a bit farther, but, having no actual address at which to retrieve us was a deal breaker. After nearly a half an hour of fruitless humiliation, on the brink of surrender, a shiny black Cadillac slammed on his breaks and pulled off on the narrow shoulder. Glee and relief washed over me, this wasn’t so bad after all.
Our rescuer was a software salesman named Nick meeting his family for some camping. Unlike most folks who are familiar with PCT hikers, Nick was a native of India who just thought we looked “lost, nice and white.” Thanks, Nick, for reminding me once again of my racial privilege. He dropped us at the Chevron Station, a trail resupply staple, and we began to explore the quaint whistlestop town along the Skykomish River. After enjoying the ubiquitous veggie burger at the Cascadia Inn and pounding out a blog post at the local library, it was time for another hitch. Thankfully, Jason easily snagged us a ride from a young family at the Chevron. I was grateful to have a hiking companion willing to make the ask, I don’t think my fragile self esteem could have handled any rejection at that moment. I’m willing to endure the passive rejection that accompanied holding the “PCT Hikers to Town” sign, but direct confrontation with my insecurities would have been too much for me.
We enjoyed an epic night’s sleep and lazy morning complete with gourmet coffee and online shopping. Out of excuses, it was time to return to the trail. Within 15 minutes, we secured a hitch from a May-December couple who, as luck would have it, operate a hiker hostel at Stevens Pass for the massive herd of northbound PCT hikers. Grateful for these trail angels and amazed what a small world it is between Canada and Mexico.