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Today is the day I have been anticipating since passing the midpoint of the PCT two and a half months ago. It will be the last day of my journey to Canada and the end of the monumental struggle defining my persona as Space Age. The prize is now within reach and I have apparently benefited from unusually mild weather in Washington for this time of year. I have also been lucky enough to avoid a host of potentially hike-ending injuries and illnesses.
I wake up in a cold tent all alone at my campsite. Zero left the trail yesterday at Harts Pass due to inclement weather and is presumably waking up in town this morning. It was a crime of opportunity since a passing motorist noticed us sheltering outside a park bathroom during a break and offered us a ride into town to escape the cold. Neither of us is equipped with proper late-season gear and my hands and feet get wet and cold whenever it snows. I have been able to keep my sleeping bag and thermal underwear dry, however, so I know that I can shelter in my tent and warm up, when needed.
I don't know if Zero has a plan for finishing the last 30 miles of the hike but his wish came true. He wanted enough snow to make the final section a "challenge"! However, with the goal closer than ever, within one very long days hike from Harts Pass, there was no way I was going to leave the trail yesterday. I already felt like we were hiking on borrowed time and that we had been given a second chance, a narrow window in which to earn victory before the heavy snows arrive.
The rainfly is wet with softly falling snow on the outside and my own condensed breath on the inside. As has become my habit, I reflect on other difficult mornings and remind myself that the present discomfort is not the worst I have experienced. The trail has taught me how to be tough, resilient and confident. My new strength comes from pushing through countless obstacles and living well outside my comfort zone for nearly half a year. I have a critical job to do and my feelings about it are secondary.
I actually enjoy digging the cat hole this morning. The ground is loose and easy to shovel and it may be the last one I dig for a long time. The sun rises behind a thick bank of clouds and big, heavy snowflakes fall all around me as I take down the tent. The scene is serene and beautiful with no wind but I curse at the soaked, frigid fabric and balky tent poles, just the same. I estimate that the temperature must be just above freezing, the same as at Harts Pass yesterday afternoon. I talk out loud, spurring myself on to finish the task and begin walking as soon as possible. Walking generates heat and this is the quickest way to warm up and dry out.
I must hike 22 miles today to reach the monument at the Northern Terminus of the PCT. I last spoke with Megan by phone from Stehekin and we agreed on a plan to meet at the monument today. She plans to hike southbound to the US-Canada border from Manning Park in B.C. The exact timing of my arrival will be hard to predict but I have been sending GPS updates so that family and friends can track my daily progress.
As I break camp for the last time and set off down the trail, I admire the mantle of fresh snow deposited overnight on the surrounding mountains. Low-hanging clouds obscure the peaks but create a magical light and a mysterious mood. After descending steadily for a couple of hours, the trail crosses Holman Pass and begins climbing again toward Woody Pass. I am warm enough now to shed a few layers, including my thermal underwear and rain gear. Apart from a group of short-distance hikers and somebody sleeping under a tarp, I don't meet anyone else on the trail.
The trail climbs above the tree line on the way to Woody Pass. There is no shelter from the cold wind and I keep pushing ahead from one river valley to the next. The few trees at the higher elevations are encrusted with rime frost. In the late afternoon, around 3:30, I reach a protected switchback on the Devil's Stairway and sit down for a quick meal, my last on the trail! I send another GPS update and rest up for the final push to the border. From here, the trail is all downhill to the monument. I hope to reach it before nightfall so that I can take a few victory photos in daylight before decorating the monument with Christmas lights for the nighttime photos. If Megan is not there to meet me, I am prepared to hike the remaining 8 miles to Manning Park tonight. I don't look forward to night-hiking again but I don't want to set up a wet tent tonight, either!
As the snow begins falling again, I finish eating, pack up my stuff and hurry along down the trail. The last 7 miles to the monument are easy hiking and they go by quickly. The daylight has been waning for at least 45 minutes when I abruptly arrive at the monument. It is decorated with both American and Canadian flags and a small Mexican sombrero. No one else is there so I set up the tiny tripod for my camera and take a couple of victory shots using the automatic timer. As darkness falls, I unpack the Christmas lights that Zero and I have been carrying since hiking out from Steven's Pass and begin stringing them around the monument. Then I take more victory pictures. I notice that a tiny little mouse is scurrying around, checking out my backpack and food bag when my back is turned. He looks totally harmless and flees whenever I shine my headlamp on him. I pause for a few minutes to sign the trail register hidden down inside the silver-colored boundary marker.
Now it is nighttime and I am getting cold. I am resigned to hiking the remaining 8 miles into Manning Park tonight, in the dark. I wonder where and how I will meet Megan. She could be at the hostel in the park or hiking southbound from there to meet me. As it turns out, she is staying at the campsite only about a quarter of a mile from the monument and already has a warm, dry tent set up next to a cheery campfire. I am very happy to see her friendly face out here in the middle of nowhere and we celebrate my success with food, drink and song late into the night before retiring.