My Breaking Point

Julian Tapia

Summertime is coming to an end on the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern Washington. The fall colors nudge their way into the trees as the days get shorter and the nights bring a chill. I’m hiking with two other thru-hikers, with the trail names of Cowgirl and Rawhide. We have leapfrogged each other on the trail so much the past couple of months that we have become good friends. Casual hellos have turned into much more meaningful relationships. They are my trail family. We look out for one another, and no matter how different we are, we share a common goal: Get to the Canadian border before winter arrives. On the Pacific Crest Trail, it can become a race against Mother Nature. Northern Washington can drop a few feet of snow overnight. If that happens, our thru-hike attempt ends. The winter season is approaching; if we want to achieve our goal, we must move no matter the conditions. We are determined to make it. 

The three of us hike into Snoqualmie pass with sunshine on our faces. The small ski town offers warm smiles from locals, a great breakfast cafe, and a local brewery with draft beers that go down easy. At the brewery, we catch wind that bad weather is rolling into the area. Other hikers don’t seem too worried, so we order another round of drinks and continue to enjoy the small luxuries towns offer stinky hikers (toilets, running water, beer).  After a couple more rounds we load up our packs and head back to the trailhead. As the evening settles in I notice a few ominous clouds developing in the distance. We set up camp and enjoy a sunset and small droplets start falling as I finish my dinner. I retire to my tent, zip up in my sleeping bag, and just as I’m drifting off to sleep I think how lovely the pitter-patter of rain on my tent is. If I had only known that I am about to endure the hardest week I’ve ever experienced in the backcountry.

Morning comes and the rain hasn’t let up. Water droplets bead up and run down the inside of my tent. I hear the sound of lighters clicking and stoves firing up. It must be coffee time. I follow suit and get my coffee started. Packing up my things, I’m feeling optimistic as the idea of battling the weather is romantic. No matter what is thrown our way we must move on. Winter is coming.

The start of the day is slow and cold. There is no sign of the rain letting up as we hike through clouds. Visibility is low and morale is trending in the same direction. The trail is narrow with wet vegetation on both sides and it feels as if I’m walking through a carwash. The wet leaves and branches scrape and rub against my body transferring all the moisture to my clothes and me. By lunchtime, I’m happy to eat something hot. Lunch in the rain isn’t casual dining. We quickly make our food, scarf it down, and then continue hiking. Any time I stop I become very cold. The theme is that movement is warmth and walking is safe. Evening comes and I’m ready to be dry.  Putting up my tent in the rain is a nightmare; I’ve stopped hiking so I’m cold and I lose dexterity in my fingers. By the time I pitch the tent,  the entire floor is wet and muddy. I happily put on some dry clothes, cook dinner and go to sleep. Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow?

The next morning comes and the sound of rain is still there. Looking up at the ceiling of my tent I can see my breath. It’s cold but I’m warm in my bag. Putting on cold and wet underwear is a torture I do not wish on my worst enemies. As we get the day started Rawhide and Cowgirl both seem to be happily coping with the weather. I guess from the outside I look composed too. Maybe we all are keeping it together so that we don’t look weak in front of each other. Either way, it’s working. The day passes cold and wet as we hike through more clouds.

By the third day, Cowgirl speaks up over the pitter-patter of rain “This is type-2 fun!” she yells with a smile on her face. Type-2 fun, by definition, is miserable while the experience is happening, but fun in retrospect. This concept is a turning point. Just that small statement changes my mindset. Almost instantly I feel I’m allowed to be miserable.  This frees me to be positive in our situation. Yes, everything is wet. Yes, I am freezing. Yes, we have three more days until we are in another town. I can’t control these variables. I can control how I react to them. Almost instantly I start to notice some really positive things about our surroundings. We haven’t seen any other humans in three days. Northern Washington is beautiful, even in the rain. Most of all, I am sharing this experience with two amazing people. Instead of walking in silence we sing songs, talk about our favorite warm meals, and reminisce about other type-2 experiences. We create a game. Anytime someone sees a glimpse of blue skies they yell, “Bluuee Birrd!” The days become easier as we welcome the wet and cold. Nights are the hardest. Sleep is no longer a thing. Nighttime consists of shivering uncontrollably while constantly looking at my watch hoping it’s time to make coffee and start walking. When it’s daytime we can at least hope the sun will come out. Optimism is our fuel.

The fifth day rolls around and the rain is still there. Like the annoying friend who just can’t get the hint, “go away!” By this point, we are all losing our minds. We grasp at anything to stay positive. Cowgirl jumps in puddles claiming it’s fun and Rawhide starts up more songs. We need the sun. I’m not sure how much more we can take. In the evening the pitter-patter of rain turns into a steady downpour. I am so cold. I sit on my wet tent floor, hugging my knees to my chest, shivering. Hot soup warms me but then the sensation disappears when I reluctantly slide into my damp sleeping bag. I lay there miserable as ever.

The morning of the sixth day, I wake up to something different. Silence, the pitter-patter of rain is not there. My eyes widen and my heart jump-starts with excitement.  I quickly unzip my tent and am joyous to see no clouds in the sky. Without hesitation, I wallow out “Blueee Biirrd!!” Excited shrieks and grunts come from Rawhide’s and Cowgirl’s tents. It’s like Christmas morning. We pack our things up in record time and race up the hill to where the sun is beaming. The sun hits my skin and I welcome it like an old friend. I turn to Rawhide and Cowgirl; we laugh and hug each other. The simplest thing has brought us so much joy. Our clothes are steaming from the sun pulling moisture out of them. I thank them both for their positive attitudes and optimism this week. We lay out all our stuff in the sun, start cooking hot meals and bask in the great week in the backcountry.

 

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Rawhide and Cowgirl during a short break from the rain.

 

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This is the first time the sun has touched my skin in six days.

 

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Drying out all of our wet gear.