September 17-21, 2022
I wake up on the morning of September 17 in the ranger cabin feeling groggy. I don’t know why, but the quality of sleep I’ve experienced on the PCT is far lower than on the AT. It could have something to do with the fact that my sleeping pad is still deflating slowly, or that I don’t easily adjust to new sleeping environments. I should probably fix that pad right when I get home, but I know myself. I won’t. Oh, well. From now on, it’s a bed. We’re going to Seattle today, assuming we can get a hitch, and we will sleep in a bed in an Airbnb and not have to blow up our dirty Thermarests anymore. I can’t bring myself to be sad about this. I get three days in the city with Jumbo, and I can’t wait.
It takes us (read: me) longer to pack up than I expect, and by the time we’re heading back to the dock, I’m literally running down the road ahead of Jumbo to make sure that we get there in time for our 8:30 pickup. We arrive there well before the boat, and once it turns up, we’re flying back across the lake. Bye, Canada! Bye, end of the journey! Bye, beautiful fall morning! It’s time for the last hurrah!
We think it’s going to take a long time to hitch. After all, Seattle is well over two hours away, and it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to make the journey with just one ride. So Jumbo asks Jared in the Ross Lake office for some cardboard, which he gives us, and we make a sign that reads PCT HIKERS TO SEATTLE. Jumbo, being the polite Englishman he is, adds a tiny little “Please!” in the bottom right corner.
At the road, we settle in, expecting to wait for a long time for the first leg of our journey. But within twenty minutes of me standing there with the sign, a vehicle whose size is somewhere between a van and an RV pulls over. The driver offers us a ride all the way to Seattle, and we happily and gratefully accept.
I feel terrible that I can’t remember their names because these folks are super nice and really helpful. They are two brothers, or perhaps two friends, and an older aunt who rides in the back with us. The aunt is a doctor who has worked all over the world. She hears that I’m from the Cincinnati area and surprises me by saying that she used to live in Northern Kentucky, right down the road from where I grew up. What a small world. At a rest stop, they give us smoked salmon that they made themselves on bread they bought at a bakery in Mazama. It’s absolute heaven. We stand around stuffing our faces, with our trail angels encouraging us to eat, eat, eat. I can’t believe this. What an incredible way to end our journey on the PCT.
We get dropped off a mere couple of blocks from our Airbnb. Even this amount of walking is a struggle for Jumbo now, though, with his chalk ankles. We get there in one piece, though, and the place is a perfect little studio apartment steps from the bus line that will take us downtown when we want to go.
Our first order of business is to dump all of our clothes into a pile for laundry and then plop down on the bed. Then we have a group call with the rest of the Turbo Twats, including Petra—who is now in a hospital in Denver recovering from a massive hip fracture. That’s a long story, but basically, she was hiking with Machine in Washington, then she went with him to Colorado to hike the Colorado Trail, fell hard, and broke her hip so badly that she had to be airlifted out, first to Durango and then to Denver. It’s not looking like she’ll walk any time soon, let alone hike. I haven’t talked to her since we ran into her on the way to Bishop, so while it’s awful to hear about what she’s been through, it’s good to catch up.
After the call, Jumbo and I lounge around for a little while longer in the Airbnb before finally mustering the energy to figure out the bus schedule and go to Goodwill. We’re after town clothes, and we have what is perhaps far too much fun looking for them. I take a fairly normal approach, locating some actually comfortable jeans and a few tops. Jumbo, being Jumbo, goes for the weird route, ending up with a sort of funky patterned button-down shirt and a khaki blazer that does not exactly match the khaki pants he buys. Just to really tie the look together, he finds some white tube socks, which he proudly wears with his Tevas. Irritatingly, because James is James, this ridiculous ensemble actually looks good on him.
Across the street is a dispensary, which Jumbo is adorably nervous to go into because he’s never seen one before. We go in and pick up a few gummies, and Jumbo is shocked that they come in actual packaging with actual labels. After that, we walk a few doors down to a gin bar called Joli, which also has incredibly good food. The spicy chicken sandwich is heaven, and the cocktails are lovely. It still feels so weird to be in civilization after spending five months on the trail. And this time it’s even weirder because this is it: the trail is over, and civilization is the new reality.
But we’re not really thinking about that yet.
There isn’t a whole lot of motivation or a reason, really, to get up earlier than we need to in the morning anymore. So Jumbo and I end up staying in bed until almost 11:00 the whole time we’re in Seattle. On September 18, we eventually get ourselves together and take the bus downtown to a restaurant near Pike Place Market for brunch. Andy meets us there. It’s so weird to see him in town clothes! (Actual normal ones, in contrast to Jumbo.) And with a huge trail beard! We haven’t seen him since that chaotic reunion in Ashland, so it’s amazing to sit there with him and catch up.
After that, we walk around the market for a while, eventually picking up Feather Blue and Tribute, who have also been wandering around this afternoon. We end up at the Old Stove Brewery, where the four of us sit in the surprisingly hot sun and drink flights of beer, talking nonstop. I’m so joyful. I know that the end is looming, but not yet. I’m just here partying with my friends in a cool city in the shockingly beautiful weather.
We mosey around the market for a while longer, stopping when we feel like it, visiting the gum wall, getting drinks at Rachel’s Ginger Beer. Out of nowhere, a desire to lie down hits me like a sack of bricks, and I simply need to go back to the Airbnb. Jumbo and I make a stop at Target on the way for some real people essentials—deodorant? what is that?—and then go back to our place for a bit. I take a shower and get horizontal. I think the city has just overwhelmed me. I’m not built for this.
Tribute comes by a little while later and drives us (Cars? Tribute driving? This is so weird) to Dick’s, a tasty little local fast food place. Then he drives us downtown, where we think we’re all going to meet up with Andy and go out, but Tribute parks the car, gets out, and gives us hugs, saying goodbye.
It’s not as hard this time since we had that tearful goodbye in Leavenworth, but this feels more final somehow. Tribute is just done. I think he’s been done for a while. He was ready to call it early, and he’s ready to go home and become one with his couch. I admire this. I almost wish I felt that way. It would be a cleaner break. But I feel like I’m holding onto Jumbo for dear life. If there were a way to make him stay, not get on that flight in two days, I would do it. But Tribute? Tribute is chill as ever, promising we’ll stay in touch and that we’ll see each other soon. I squeeze him tight, remembering all the miles, all the silliness, all the chill moments and shenanigans. And then he’s gone.
Andy ends up deciding to stay in for the night, so it’s just Jumbo and me wandering around Seattle in search of a party. It’s surprisingly dead. I mean, it is a Sunday night, but this is a big city. Surely there’s something going on somewhere. We wind up at an arcade bar called Jupiter, where we get some photos in a photo booth, then Jumbo buys me a gin and tonic. We sit outside drinking and talking for a while. Then we’re off in search of a place to dance.
The first club looks completely dead, but we decide to try to go in and see what it’s like anyway, which ends when we see the cover charge. Then we keep walking until we see another club with a line around the block and music blasting out of it. Whoa. Alright. We found it. But the problem is that we’re both stone-cold sober. So we walk to a bar across the street and order shots. Two does it for me, but in case you’ve forgotten, Jumbo is both English and Very Tall, so he’s just got a mild buzz after a whole handful. We sit there talking, laughing, getting progressively more ridiculous, until we walk across the street. Jumbo asks if the club is still open, but then starts laughing out loud when he hears that the cover charge is $80.
Hard pass. We’re done with this. It’s bedtime.
We giggle our way to the nearest bus stop, laughing at our silliness. We sit huddled together on a bench until the bus arrives. Jumbo falls asleep on the bus and I have to wake him up when we get to our stop. Then it’s back to our cozy little haven in the city.
It’s another late start on the 19th. We get lunch at a small Mexican restaurant near our Airbnb called Sazon. Holy cow. It is delightful. We devour it. Then it’s off to be tourists for the day. We visit the Space Needle, but we’re too cheap to go up, so we just take silly photos in the park beneath it.
Then it’s back to the market, where we visit our favorite types of stores: mine a used bookstore, and Jumbo’s a record store. There’s also a weird little store called Orange Dracula.
Something catches Jumbo’s eye. “Passport, is that one of those chicken machines you like?”
I look. It is! I’d been telling him about this store I loved in Columbus that had a machine where you insert quarters, then a plastic chicken on the inside spins around and clucks until it “lays” an egg with treats inside it. This is one of those, except it’s labeled as the “Psychic Chicken,” and when you insert a quarter, it “lays” a fortune that you can read. I’m very pleased. We both get our fortunes told. There are no big revelations, really, but ain’t that just the way.
Later, we go to a sushi happy hour at Umi Sake House, where Andy, Rolls, and Royce had told us they were going to go when we ran into them earlier. We sit at a table next to them and eat a surprisingly affordable spread of tasty sushi. Afterwards, Andy hugs us goodbye. He’s still in town for a couple more days, but we don’t know what our plan is for tomorrow, and it will probably involve a lot of chores, so we may not get the chance to see him again. We’re calling it here.
This goodbye is pretty emotional for me. Andy lives on the other side of the planet, and I don’t know when I’ll see him again. And although we didn’t hike together after Kennedy Meadows South, he’s such a foundational part of my PCT experience. I met him before I even started hiking, and he defined those early days before we hiked with the full group. I hold him tight, promise to visit New Zealand, and then he’s gone.
I start crying on the bus on the way back to the Airbnb. If that goodbye was sad, I can’t bring myself to acknowledge what it will be like to say goodbye to Jumbo. Why do we do this to ourselves? How can the trail worm its way so thoroughly into us that saying goodbye to our friends is this painful?
But I don’t have to say goodbye to Jumbo yet. I have tonight, and I have tomorrow. We’re here.
Our last day in Seattle is, as I predicted it would be, full of chores. We sleep in again, then lounge, then finally go in search of breakfast. After that, we get a few things we need at the grocery store across the street, pop into Trader Joe’s, make a post office run, then do laundry. While the laundry is in, we get drinks at a cute little bar called the Dray, where I try very hard not to cry (and ultimately fail) while I sit across the table and look at Jumbo.
“I’m sorry,” I say, looking up, fighting the tears. “I’m just going to miss you so much.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. I’m going to miss you too.”
“Yes. It does.”
Back at the Airbnb, we pack up our bags while listening to music. Jumbo takes a shower, and I order Chipotle delivery, which we’ve been talking about all day. When it arrives, we queue up Paddington 2, one of Jumbo’s favorite movies, and we watch it while eating the Chipotle in bed. It’s cozy and low-effort, and it’s so much fun to finally watch this movie we’ve been talking about for months on the trail.
I don’t want to go to sleep because when I wake up, it will be the morning of September 21, which is the day that’s been coming, like all days do, the day that we will finally have to say “see you later.” I don’t want that day to come. So we stay up too late. We hold each other. We talk. It’s just the two of us, for one last night. And then the gray light of morning is touching the white walls, and the alarm goes off, and it’s time to leave. Our Uber arrives. I close the door. And we go to the airport.
James’s flight isn’t until the afternoon, but he comes with me early in the morning anyway. Mine is the flight that departs first. This is a blessing in a way. But it means that I have to check in first, and that I only have an hour before I have to rip myself away. We get a coffee, and I eat a breakfast sandwich. Then the moment I’ve been dreading for months comes.
James and I stand there right before the security entrance. I’ve allotted 30 minutes to hug him and cry. We’re standing there with our packs, still looking like hikers, now out of place in this fluorescent tiled world. Eventually, enough time will pass that this will be my world again. Eventually, the daily routines of screens and artificial lights and artificially constructed schedules will feel normal again. Eventually, the trail will feel like a dream, a gorgeous story somewhere in the past, not my current reality. But the worlds haven’t switched yet, and we’re standing on the knife edge between them. I’m about to tip forward into my place: home, Cincinnati, run club, teaching. And James is about to tip forward into his: a holiday in Cornwall with his family, and then the Midlands again, friends, looking for a new job, continuing on his path. Our worlds are different. They don’t overlap. They will not merge. We’ll return to our own realities. But for a while, for a beautiful, heartbreakingly lovely period of time, our world was the same. We were on the same trail, literally, looking at the same views, waking up and eating lunch and going to sleep in the same place. Day after day, we lived the same wild and precious life.
I know that Jumbo and I will always be friends. No matter what happens, the PCT has bound us. There’s something special in this shared experience. But the trail is ending, and James is keen to move onto whatever is next for him. He wants to settle, find a home base in England, dig in. And I’m not there. I don’t want to stop moving. I’ve got itchy feet. His life is his. My life is mine. Full stop.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might be wondering what’s been going on between Jumbo and me, given my obvious feelings for him. I’m going to let you keep wondering. It wasn’t linear or easy to explain. It was human. It won’t continue past the trail, not in the same way. But our friendship? I think that’ll stick. That’s the best kind of love story anyway.
In the airport, I cry and cry while James holds me. His blue merino hoodie is soaked with my tears. I keep pulling away, intending to start going through security, but I am pulled back. I know that when I let go, that’ll be it. He won’t think twice about moving on. He already has. He’s been mentally half in England for a while now. But I’m clinging. To him, to the PCT. To this last vestige of the life I would prefer to live forever.
I can’t make a temporary thing last. I can’t make what’s bound to slip away stick around. I can’t keep what isn’t for me. I have to let go.
So I do.
I’m crying as I write this. It’s been well over a month since that day in the airport. September 16, the day at the border, was nearly six weeks ago now. Time is a white, formless thing, growing exponentially every moment, shifting and moving until it is unrecognizable.
It was hard to adjust to being back at first; I knew it would be. I shoved my calendar as full of socializing as I could. I started writing a zine about the PCT that I’m calling Absolute Creatures. It will have one section of writing for each of my five original tramily members. I’m so excited about it, and I hope to have it out before Christmas. I’ve spent time with my family, and I’ve met new people. I’ve enjoyed the heck out of the most beautiful autumn I can remember. I’ve run a lot; going back to my run club has been so amazing. I’ve seen Machine a couple of times, and it’s so good to be with a PCT friend again, someone who, even though he wasn’t in my tramily, shared and understands the experience. And I’ve gone back to teaching, which I didn’t realize I missed. I love my kids. I love their brains, their curiosity, their capacity to learn. There is joy here. There is so much joy here.
But I miss the trail. I always will.
Since being back, I’ve had a handful of video calls with Jumbo and one with Andy. Our group chat is still active, and even though we don’t talk every day, we’re still connected. Jumbo cut his hair and shaved his beard last week. From the pictures he sent me, he looks like a completely different—and much younger—person. He’s James again. Jumbo is gone. Gone is the scruffy, ratty creature with the macaroni-blond hair and the tired lines beneath his huge blue eyes. Gone is the dirt, the trail clothes, the dilapidated pack.
And Passport? Where is she? I look in the mirror and feel the same, but different. My trail legs are going away, but my running legs are coming back. I feel stronger. I feel older, more mature. I feel calmer and more okay with whatever happens, with treating life as an experiment. I feel, as Whitman put it, “larger, better than I thought, / I did not know I held so much goodness.” I know I won’t stop learning as long as I live. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot to see. It is far from the end of the journey.
And what of you, reader? You. So many of you have come out of the woodwork to tell me you’ve been following along. You, who have commented much, and you, who have remained silent. You, who have hiked, you, who have not yet, and you, who may never set foot on the PCT. You’ve been here with me, and that means everything. Thank you for being here in spirit on this adventure. This isn’t the last you’ve heard from me.
What’s next? I don’t know. And I like it that way. Whatever it is, it will be good.