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Hiker smell

Courtney was driving Ben and me across the Bridge of the Gods from Oregon over the Columbia River into Washington, when we came upon a bearded man with a large backpack and his thumb out, and we pulled over. The man tossed his bag in the truck bed, climbed inside the back seat, and sheepishly said what they always say: “Thanks so much for picking me up,” and “sorry for the smell.” His name was Ofir, and like so many folks in this neck of the woods at this time of year, he was thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.

We were used to the thru-hikers by now. For the past three months our road trip had inadvertently followed the course and pace of the PCT from Los Angeles County up to here to the Oregon-Washington border. We’d decided early on, after I’d first given a ride to a young hiker named Al in the Angeles National Forest in southern California, that whenever we could we’d always stop for PCT hitch-hikers in need of a lift.

In Bridgeport, CA, near Yosemite, we picked up 3 older guys trying to get back up to the trail at Sonora Pass. They called themselves Cheerful, Ironman, and John, and we had to toss their packs in the Airstream because they wound’t fit in the truck bed. In Crater Lake, OR we gave a lift to a solo hiker called Lost Dog in the morning, and a British couple who didn’t believe in trail names in the afternoon. In sandwich shops, ice cream parlors, and post-offices up and down the western mountain ranges we saw the thru-hikers. They all had the same wild eyes, layer of dirt, and musky smell, and they were always a pleasure to see.

We dropped off Ofir in the nearby town of Stevenson, WA, where he had hoped to find a new phone charger. Besides conveying that information and thanking us for picking him up, he didn’t have much to say; his mind seemed to be elsewhere. We rolled the windows down to ventilate the truck and continued on our way up into the mountains. We had more PCT in store for our day.

I had become a bit of a PCT fanboy as we criss-crossed it this summer, but I’d never hiked any of it. Today, with Ben as my partner and Courtney as our faithful chauffeur, I was finally going to get out and hike a piece of it. Specifically, we were going to do the southernmost 18 mile section in Washington, from a landmark called Three Corner Rock, southbound to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia and into Cascade Locks, OR, where we had a cabin reserved for us that night. This was the shortest section we could find that had an easy drop-off point, 10 miles up a gravel road from Stevenson, just into the lower corner of Washington’s renowned Gifford-Pinchot National Forest.

Courtney dropped us off and took our picture, and we kicked things off by hiking a mile in the wrong direction (thus making it a nice round 20 mile day after we’d realized our mistake and turned around). The weather was cool and drippy, and the trees were all covered in green moss, the ground a blanket of ferns. This rainforest was a stark departure from the hot, arid landscape of brown grass and exposed basalt cliffs up the gorge in Hood River where we’d come from that morning. We followed the trail joyfully through changing landscapes of ridges, scree fields, evergreen forests, and clearcut hillsides, finally stopping for lunch about 6 miles in under a high-voltage power line tower.

By then the thru-hikers, who were all going the opposite way as us, had started streaming through. Most of them had the same kit of ultralight gear, and they all had that unmistakeable odor. I was crunching on a tube of Pringles when I saw a bearded hiker striding up the trail with a huge grin on his face. It was Ofir, from this morning.

“Ben and Jeff, right?” he said, greeting us with fist bumps. He was a changed man from the quiet, forlorn-looking guy we’d picked up a few hours earlier. He explained that he’d been hiking from the beginning of the trail at the Mexican border with his two friends, and they’d stuck together doing 30 miles a day for some 2,144 miles. But recently Ofir had hurt his knee, and had decided to break from the group to do the last piece—the state of Washington—on his own, at a slower pace of 25 miles per day. Today was his first day hiking alone. I understood more now why he might have been so quiet when we’d encountered him down at Bridge of the Gods. Breaking from the pack is a humbling and scary thing, but judging by his upbeat demeanor here under the power lines it seemed clear that this shift to the meditative solitude of solo-hiking had suited Ofir well.

We wished each other luck and bid him farewell. Ofir carried on northward toward the Canadian border and trail’s final terminus 500 miles away, while we marched south toward the Columbia River a half day’s hike down to the lowest elevation of the PCT. Our paths were going in opposite directions for distances that differed by orders of magnitude. But those paths had crossed nonetheless, and they’d crossed out here on the great PCT. Today I was not just a transporter of hitchhikers, I was a fellow hiker myself. I had a long way to go yet, but by the end of the day, I’d even smell like one too.

August 11, 2018

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