Following the Trail Home

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

In 1977 when my twin daughters were just a few months old, I read with interest an article in Signpost magazine about the formation of a new trail association whose goal it was to advocate for the creation of a new National Scenic Trail, The Pacific Northwest Trail. The proposed route would extend from the Continental Divide to Cape Alava on the northwest coast, crossing seven different mountain ranges on its way from the Rockies to the Olympics.

With two babies I was hardly in a position to take off on a mountain trail, but I became a kind of armchair hiker that summer, following the route of two through hikers, Janet Garner and Rex Bakel, who would become the first to hike the entire distance and write of that experience in a series of articles for Signpost. Later that year Backpacker magazine published a cover article about the historic hike.

I followed these journeys and did my part to advocate for the trail by writing to my congressional representatives, as I often did for many environmental issues, but over the years my life changed and I lost track of what was happening with the trail. My marriage ended when my twins were just three years old, and I was faced with the overwhelming responsibility of raising these two little girls as a single mother. I had just started graduate school and was working part time on weekends and nights at a hospital in Tacoma.

You might think I did not have time for hiking in those days, but quite the opposite was true. My daughters at that time were spending six weeks with their dad every summer, so the burden of child care was lifted. Since I did not have a full time job, I was free to spend however much time I could afford hiking alone on mountain trails. These hikes became my salvation. However chaotic my life was in those days, I had the satisfaction that for at least one week every summer, sometimes more, I would be alone on a mountain trail, and all would be well. The challenges I faced on the trail were easy ones: where to find water, where to pitch my tent, how to stay warm and dry in a storm. Moreover, there was the affirmation that came each time I lifted that heavy pack onto my back, a reminder that I could do this hard thing, carry this heavy pack into the wilderness for ten days and emerge ready to face whatever challenges the world had in store for me.

I hiked most of the trails in the Olympic Mountains near my home. When they became too crowded for me, I began to hike in the North Cascades and then in the Pasayten Wilderness, a much longer drive but worth it for the solitude I found there year after year. I did not know it at the time, but I was hiking much of the future route of the Pacific Northwest Trail.

Sometime during those years, I don’t remember where or when or even why, I purchased an early trail guide for the proposed trail, Pacific Northwest Trail Guide by Ron Strickland. Likely I found it on a book shelf at REI. By then I had developed a kind of obsession for trail guides. It must have appealed to me because I had already hiked much of the route in its various sections. The volume was copyrighted 1984.

It does not appear that the trail guide received much use. It was not as dog eared as other guides, though some pages had been well marked up, as I am fond of doing when I study routes. At some point it was placed on the shelf, along with other outdated trail guides. During my various moves, it most likely was packed into boxes and then placed again on a bookshelf in a new house in a new location, but I never picked it up again to study until after my retirement in 2012, three years after the route had been designated a National Scenic Trail. It had been included as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 and signed into law by President Barack Obama. I had discovered a sign for the newly formed trail on a day hike in the Olympics and immediately went home and retrieved the trail guide from its dusty location on the book shelf.

There was a kind of fondness to holding it in my hands after so many years. Though it was clearly out of date by this time, the book reminded me of the enthusiasm I had felt as a much younger woman when the trail was first proposed and I was convinced I would someday hike every trail that ever beckoned to me.

So it beckoned to me these many years later, especially so after a disappointing trek on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015, when the crowds were overwhelming to this old woman who had so many years of solitary hiking experience behind her. I had heard the PNT was less crowded. I wanted to find out.

That trip would change my life in ways I could not have known when I first began planning it in early 2018. I at first thought I would through hike the entire route, but I was sixty-eight years old by then and had learned that too many miles for too many days were hard on my arthritic joints. Instead I focused on a section of the trail and of my home state that was unfamiliar to me, what is sometimes called the Inland Empire, northeastern Washington.

Having grown up in Washington and explored much of the state and its mountain ranges over the years, it was strange that I knew almost nothing about this isolated area, but my ignorance was not unusual. Most western Washingtonians think of the area “east of the mountains,” as they are fond of saying, as consisting of little more than potato fields and basalt strewn scrubland, the kind of vistas that are apparent on a drive along Interstate 90. That there are mountains in the north that comprise the western most ranges of the Rockies is a fact lost on many.

I chose to section hike that undiscovered part of my home state and began my journey on a hot July day in the little town of Metalline Falls, not far from the Idaho border. There were others on the trail, mostly through hikers who had started a couple of weeks earlier in Glacier National Park. Most nights I camped alone, finding the precious solitude I had been seeking, even though much of this part of the PNT consists of road walking. Even in developed campgrounds I was often alone, a feature of this little known part of the state that was becoming increasingly appealing. If you have not figured it out yet, there is a reason why I call my blog The Solitude Trail.

When I arrived in the little trail town of Republic I liked the town so well that I decided to spend two extra nights. My daughter and grandson met me there with my resupply box, and for the next couple of days we visited the shops on the main street of town, ate bacon and eggs for breakfast at the diner, went swimming at Curlew Lake north of town, and shared a bottle of wine in the brewery at night. There is one more thing we did on that fateful visit to this sweet little town. We stopped in front of a real estate office and admired the photographs of homes that were for sale. A log home caught my attention, and I kept thinking about it as I got back on the trail and made my way across the Okanogan Highlands. By this time the air was a hazy blue and beginning to sting my eyes as I continued my journey west. When I arrived in Oroville I learned that the entire Pasayten Wilderness was in flames and closed to hikers.

This was heartbreaking news for me, and not just because I would be unable to complete my chosen route, but because I spent many years hiking in the Pasayten, and every trail there was precious. I had hiked them all. Every hiker has a special place, and the Pasayten was mine. Sadly, I called my husband to come and pick me up in Oroville and made plans to end my trip early.

When Stan arrived I casually mentioned over breakfast one morning that we might want to take some extra time before returning home to visit a little town southeast of Oroville, a town I thought he might like. I was thinking of the log home, of course, but I am not sure I mentioned that in our first discussion. One has to be subtle about such things. I think I probably said something like this: “There’s this lovely little town nestled between the Okanogan Highlands and the Kettle River Mountains. I think you might like it there” He did.

We looked at the log home. We went back and looked again a few days later and walked around the property. We made an offer. We bought the house. We moved.

Well, okay, it was a little more complicated than that but only a little. It was the following summer before we actually made the move, almost exactly one year from the time I had first visited Republic on my PNT hike.

So it was that first night, my daughter and I were again sharing a bottle of wine, this time on the deck of my new home. It was early August. The alpenglow was resting softly on the Kettle River Mountains. The garden was drenched in soft pink light. I thought I had never seen anything so achingly beautiful in all my life, and I was going to be sitting there looking at that view for a long time to come.

In a very real sense it feels as though I walked home on that day in 2018 when I took a break from my PNT hike and rested for a couple of nights in that little town of Republic. I had been going to that place all of my life. I was finally home.

Published by Colleen Drake

Colleen Drake (AKA Teacup) has over sixty years of hiking exerience (yes, I'm really old) and has seen some pretty big changes over those many years. Join her on the Solitude Trail & share some of these adventures while exploring with her the value of solitude in the wilderness.

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