Contributing editor Jeff Kish hiked the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. This is his final report from the trail. See Kish’s full collection of trip reports and gear reviews at GearJunkie.com/PNT.
“You do a lot of hiking?!”
I looked up from my third sandwich of the morning to find an elderly man standing over my corner table at a visitor center in Olympic National Park. He perched there, with his head hung low on his chest and his mouth agape, waiting for an answer while I finished chewing my bite. Wild white bristles of hair thatched the back of his weathered hands, sprouted from the collar of his frumpy blue sweater, and tangled around the hearing aid that he had pointed toward me, ready to receive my reply.
I had left the salty dogs of the Port Townsend marina a few days before; with their shaggy hair, weathered skin, and wooly beards that reminded me of the whittled wooden ship-captains of my childhood home, and set out across the Olympics for the Pacific coast. I was halfway across the peninsula now, and refueling at Hurricane Ridge.
He listened intently while I shared my tale. From my first steps through Glacier National Park in Montana eight weeks before, to this very table; his excitement grew with each detail until it brimmed over and he shouted across the tchotchkes in gift shop to his family, “Come over here! This man just walked 1,100 miles from Montana!”
His startled daughter looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, “I’m so sorry. I only took my eyes off of him for a minute,” and then she ran over to pull him away. He frantically tried to impress her with the details of my trip, but she grew impatient and interrupted, “Come on dad, it’s time to say goodbye, we’re going outside now.”
His daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren filtered through the door of the cafe to the back patio, but he remained.
His name was Bob, and he began to tell me about a lifetime of adventure in the mountains of the Northwest. He had been a logger for decades, starting at the age of 15, and spent most of his life in the forest. “I used to be the one that climbed up all the trees. This was back when everything needed to be tied off with guy-lines; before they came out with the machines that do everything for you.”
He told me about the time he speed-climbed Mount Hood when he was just 20 years old and working on a harvest in Oregon. “I was really something back then,” he recalled. Then he continued, “this is a good thing that you’re doing… while you’re still young…” His voice trailed off and his thoughts drifted away on a wave of nostalgia.
He finally broke the silence with a single syllable. “I…,” and then he stopped. Our eyes locked and I waited. He tried to start again, but dejection washed over his face, and he looked away, out over the Olympics. Dim orange light from the low-hanging sun pooled in a tear that welled heavily on his sagging eyelid as he tried to find the strength to hold back the emotion that clung to his words.
“I wish I could be young again,” he eventually mustered. Then he tapped the tabletop twice with his thick fingertips, looked into my eyes, and nodded goodbye with a quivering smile before shuffling out after his family.
Later on, alone in a stand of towering cedars, I reflected on that moment and tears streaked down my own dirty cheeks. I’d never seen a man so heavyhearted, and I couldn’t help but share in his sentiment: all good things would come to an end.
Autumn was creeping up on the Olympic Peninsula, and my summer of backpacking across the country was drawing to a close. Clouds and city living both loomed imposingly on the horizon. My heart had grown heavy too, and it wasn’t packing well.
Still, it was hard not to enjoy my final days on the trail. I soaked in the Olympic Hot Springs, traversed the High Divide and gazed at the glaciers on Mount Olympus while the haunting calls of rutting Roosevelt elk echoed in the valleys below.
Then I followed the Bogachiel River out to the ocean, and hiked north with the tides to Cape Alava, where I reached the western most point of the lower 48, and my completion of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
There was no sign; no monument; no finish line. I just stared at the tiny arrow on the end of the track on my GPS, and then turned down the cedar plank path toward the nearest road.
The Pacific Northwest Trail had been the most rugged, challenging, beautiful, and rewarding nine weeks of my life; full of highs and lows, triumphs and hardships, close calls and immense pleasures; and now it was done.
I looked up from my aching feet to see Hannah hiking down to meet me with a pack full of beer, champagne, and hot dogs, and I smiled a quivering smile. It was time to go home.
—Contributing editor Jeff Kish hiked the 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail this summer. This is his final report from the trail. See Kish’s full collection of trip reports and gear reviews at GearJunkie.com/PNT.