Four thirty a.m. came early, but I was already awake and ready to get moving. It was still dark; dawn wouldn’t make its appearance for another hour. I looked around the yard and over to the dormitory, to see if anyone else was moving, but everything was still. I had to use my headlamp to complete packing my backpack. By now I could pack it with my eyes closed, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t leave anything lying on the ground, so I turned the light on.
In front of Andrea and Jerry’s home was a large wooden sign, with letters carved into it that read Dinsmore’s Hiker Haven. The base was surrounded by three rings of paver stones, placed one on top of another, with the inside of the ring planted with flowers. In the early morning light, I sat on top of the paver stones, pulled out my satellite phone, and made my call to KSL Outdoors Radio in Salt Lake City. The interview lasted about ten minutes, and then I repacked the phone and walked across the railroad tracks and stood a little way off from the front of Der Baring Store to hitch a ride back to Stevens Pass.
Most people who travel Highway 2 don’t have business in Baring; it’s just a place to pass through on their way to somewhere else. But Baring is unique in that it has one of those bump-in-the-road cafes that would easily appear on someone’s list of fifty great, out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-path restaurant/café/eating establishments, not to be missed in rural America. Der Baring Store is a combination convenience store/café that, at best, will sit a dozen people if they all crowd around the three tables, shoulder to shoulder. And despite its small accommodations, when the tables are full and no room is left, hikers will stand on the sidelines and order complete meals from the friendly waitress. Triple and quadruple bacon cheeseburgers are standard fare for the hikers, and no one leaves without ordering a slice of homemade pie.
At six fifteen in the morning, there was not a lot of traffic on Highway 2 heading for Stevens Pass. Even Der Baring Store was not yet open; in fact, it was still somewhat dark. For two hours, I stood at the edge of the road, thumb out, hoping for a ride. In the time I was there, the store/café opened, and many hikers sauntered over from Hiker Haven to enjoy breakfast with friends. Everyone saw me standing there, and many offered their condolences at my long wait. Twice, employees from the store/café brought me cardboard signs to wave in front of passing cars in an effort to clarify my destination. Even female hiker Lotus stood beside me and provided a few antics to entice a driver to stop – but, all to no avail. Finally, at 8:30 a.m., a resident of Baring, a fellow named Jim who provided shuttles for hikers to and from Stevens Pass, pulled alongside of me and offered me a ride to the trailhead at Stevens Pass.
It was 9:00 a.m., and after doing some searching, I located the trail at the far end of the parking lot, but before starting the long, uphill climb, I stopped beside the trail, let my pack slide to the ground, and prepared to make myself a large peanut butter and jam sandwich using rolls snagged from the Baring store last night.
After visiting with Jerry in his garage, I wandered over to the store, in hopes of buying some additional food, as I was always hungry. I bought five packages of Top Ramen, and a large jar of peanut butter. As I was paying my bill, I noticed a large box of bread and rolls sitting beside the front door. The sales clerk told me the bread was free to hikers, as it was out of date. Never one to pass up free food, I rummaged through it until I found a large package of fairly fresh rolls.
With my breath smelling like peanut butter, I began the long trek up the mountain. I was in the final days of a hard-fought journey; I was weak, but not defeated. I stumbled often over rocks and tree roots, but was determined to keep on going. I was lean, to the point of being skeletonized, with heavy, muscular legs, but the trail had not gotten any easier, and now, writing this in hindsight, I knew that the best of the trail had been saved for last.
I was now in the North Cascade Mountains, a place of true wilderness, a place that accumulated more snow than anywhere else in the continental United States. It was a place of heavy rain and heavy snowfall, a place prone to avalanches, a place of glaciers whose spring snowmelt and subsequent spring runoff destroyed bridges across raging rivers, and without the aid of these bridges, trying to ford these northern rivers, which were bigger than anything encountered so far on the trail, was not only extremely dangerous, but potentially catastrophic.
The twenty-five hundred miles of hiking to this point at Stevens Pass had only been preparation for what lay ahead. No hiker who has made it this far voluntarily bailes from the trail. Only the dedicated, determined individual who lives life to the beat of a different drummer, continues up the trail from Stevens Pass; all others had fallen by the wayside.
Those who now move beyond Stevens Pass were individuals who have prepared for their journey, much like Roald Amundsen, Norwegian explorer of polar regions prepared for his successful excursion to the South Pole. His success, much like modern-day PCT hikers, was due to his extensive preparation. Amundsen recounts his success this way:
“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.” (Amundsen)
The PCT hiker who departs from Stevens Pass headed into the rugged wilderness of the Glacier Peak Wilderness has a proven track record for being physically and mentally strong, a willingness to endure harsh conditions and mettle.
I love the word "mettle," for it fully and comprehensively describes the PCT hiker who has logged twenty-five hundred miles of tortuous hiking, and is now ready to ascend to the pinnacle of the journey – The Glacier Peak Wilderness and the surrounding environs that extend all the way to the Canadian border. When the term mettle is defined, by extrapolation it also defines a PCT hiker who stands ready at the Stevens Pass Trailhead, to ascend into Valhalla and to be crowned with ultimate victory – even the cherished medallion awarded to thru-hikers by the Pacific Crest Trail Association and its representative, Eric Ryback, the first recorded thru-hiker of the PCT in 1970.
By definition, mettle means "ability to do something well in difficult circumstances; ability to deal with problems and difficult situations; strength of character; courage; fortitude; spirit; motivation; resolve; drive; perseverance. " (Oxford)
No other term so completely defines a PCT hiker; it likewise characterizes an individual for whom I have the highest respect – Ernest Shackleton, an epic polar explorer of the twentieth century. Here is a thumbnail sketch of his greatest achievement, the rescue of all of his men from Elephant Island in the Antarctic, in 1916. I assert that Shackleton and PCT hikers are kindred spirits, created from the same mold, individuals who truly are “Souls Whipped on by the Wanderfire.” (Riffenburgh)