I woke at 4:00 a.m., as planned. I let Georges sleep until 4:11 and then woke him. Silently, we began dressing and packing our stuff inside our tent. I hushed Georges when he tried to talk, telling him nearby Pete and Ben should be allowed to sleep if they wanted to. As planned, we were out of the tent by 4:30 and began packing the tent–headlights on. With our experience in team work we were able to pack the wet tent without letting it touch the ground and shaking the water off in complete silence. Perfectly on schedule, we climbed back up to the road (passing the other tents in darkness and silence to respect their sleep) and started walking at exactly 5 a.m.. It was pitch black–the sun rose around 6:30 plus we were in a valley with mountains on all sides. We walked with only one headlight on at a time to save power. The road was a rocky and uneven gravel with large rocks and large holes, so we walked quickly but carefully. We drank from our flavored water but our bodies said it was too early for a breakfast bar. We couldn’t even see the sides of the road, let alone anything around us. We had no idea what kind of terrain we were passing.We checked the map at every intersection when the road split, but the map showed no splits. Looking at the map, we had only to hike one road for several hours with only one turn off, which the trail notes detailed. We weren’t sure why we were seeing the road split so many times, but we were lucky to always find an orange marker pointing us in the right direction. We came upon one split marked only with a G that didn’t have a marker, so we stayed on the road we were on because it was in better condition and G was clearly a turn ‘off’ the road. At the next fork there was no marker or sign. We picked the road that looked in better condition and hiked up a very steep hill–still in total darkness. At the top of the hill, the road seemed to open into a large parking lot sized, flat space. As far as we could see, we had reached a dead end. No big. Despite Georges just-under-the-surface grumpiness, we turned back and went back down the steep hill to the last fork. Taking the other direction, we climbed a short steep hill and found another plateau with seemingly no way to go. Georges grumpiness surfaced. I was confused, but figured it must have been the fork before the last, road G. Georges demanded we get out the GPS and confirm our location. Though I didn’t see the point, I obliged. Having not yet used the GPS, I gave it to Georges to turn on. He turned it on, and it turned itself off. “Foreign declarative!” He turned it on. It turned itself off. We repeated the process, adding a few more seconds of foreign declaratives each time, and G finally concluded that the batteries were dead.
I tried to calm him a bit and said we couldn’t be lost because we saw a marker and the way must just be back at the G off-road. The sky was lightening ever so subtly, so we could see the sides of the road by now–but still nothing beyond. We hiked back to road G and looked down the steep, downhill road. The road was in very bad shape and seemed to turn at the bottom of the hill. Georges said it couldn’t be right and it surely didn’t look like the way–especially without a marker pointing us down there. We decided to go back to the last marker we saw, at signpost F, and try moving forward from there.
Keeping our eyes scanning in every dark direction, we watched carefully for signs of missed trails. We found none but found the last known marker on the signpost for F and some road. The marker clearly pointed up the road we had come from and the map showed no splits at all–making it nearly useless. Georges was very grumpy. Thinking my friend Molly and her need for exactly the right amount of sleep, I encouraged him to stay positive and apologized for making the morning’s plans so early. We didn’t know what to do. We could sit and wait for the sun to rise, hoping we would then see the path. We could go down the unsightly G road and see if it is the way. We could wait for Pete or Ben to pass (probably after sunrise) and use their GPSs…..we decided to try G. We walked through the dark and kept our eyes peeled for any sign of a path or marker. I watched every curve of the road on the map and tried to find the way. We walked the perimeters of road, confirming there were no subtle turns we had missed. At G, we decided to go down. The road was abysmal,but it was the only option. At the bottom of a long, steep hill it turned left and after a while a stream crossed over the road. The stream looked improbably passable and there was still no sign of a marker. The sky was lightening now as we watched the minutes tick by on the clock.
We turned back. We hiked the huge hill back up to G, hoping not to have missed Pete or Ben going the right direction. G kept hiking and I explored a worn foot path partway up which lead nowhere. By the time I made it back to the G signpost the sky was light. There was no way we could make our 13-hour day fit anymore. There was no point in having gotten up at 4 in the morning. Georges was grumpy and pissed (he says only about the batteries). We had explored all the roads and none were correct. We really didn’t know what to do.
Now that the sun was up, I had G sit at G and make sure we didn’t miss anyone walking by, and I went out to verify 100% that the dead ends were dead ends. I hiked back up each of the steep hills and walked the entire perimeter of the forest and made sure there was absolutely no trail or marker leading into the woods that we didn’t see in the dark morning. Being able to see the scenery now that the sun was up, we could see we were in the heart of a logging forest. There were hills on all sides, some with trees still standing, others stripped of their trees. As I verified each road was not the way, I pulled large, white pieces of wood out of the hillsides and made big X’s on road (which were made of dark gray gravel). I cleared each road and X’ed my way back to G. There was absolutely no option ahead of G. Behind G there was the last marker pointing toward G. Talking it through with Georges, who had had no company while I was hiking around the logging tracks, we decided we had to take G.
We hiked back down G, keeping our eyes peeled for something other than the ugly stream crossing the road at the bottom. Finding nothing, we began to plan how to cross the dirty, muddy stream. With a bit of jumping and praying we both made it to the other side. Looking up the hill now, we saw a steep climb of mud that could possibly have been a road for something very heavy and with very big tires. We jumped and climbed through and across the deep clay-like substances, avoiding the sickly black and green oily stream running down the ‘road’. It was a true insight into the dark side of the logging industry. Maybe the oil was coming from the ground?
As we continued to climb we passed a few pieces of heavy equipment used for logging. We wondered if we had been passing through this section on a week day, if it would have been possible. We had no idea if this was the correct path or not, but we could see a road running perpendicular to ours further up on the hillside. We figured we would just pick a direction when we got there and figure out what to do. When we finally reached the top of the other side of the valley, we saw–to our extreme relief and frustration–an orange marker. So it was the correct path. And we knew now to turn left. But where was the marker at G!??! All the hours we had spent wondering around trying to figure out which way to go could have been saved with one tiny orange triangle. We met some folks later that day and they said they were grateful for the X’s on the road and Pete said he totally missed the X’s but his GPS didn’t have the correct path either. We all needed that marker but no one suffered the number of hours we did. Pete and I agreed that the logging company must build roads so fast that the DOC can’t include them all on maps or (apparently) get markers on the forks.
Having finally reached the correct road, we walked a bit and then decided to stop and brush our teeth. We couldn’t make our scheduled day, so why hurry? A few hundred meters after brushing our teeth we decided to change shirts and so stopped again. Yet again, a few hundred meters after that, we stopped to address blisters on Georges’ tiny pinky toe. We weren’t moving very fast, to say the least.
After we had stopped a dozen times, we ran out of reasons to stop and so had to keep walking. We followed the road as it wound through farm land–showing us views of rolling hills and cattle, some abandoned old farm buildings and some residences. After a while, we saw a group of three coming down the hillside behind us. Ben the French guy is very distinct with his large pack, so we knew it wasn’t him. We hiked on and they caught up to us eventually. It was Pete and a couple from Holland, Rosa and Jonevo (no idea how to spell that). Jonevo had the longest legs. We merged our groups and hiked together for an hour or two. Pete, who is a very fast hiked, walked ahead with Jonevo and his long legs. Rosa walked with Georges and I as we wound our way into a small township with the road becoming pavement. We talked with Rosa about Pete and long legs and dating on the trails. It was a nice section for company, being able to walk side-by-side. Soon I became tired at her brisk pace and I pulled Georges back as the trail left the main road and began its climb up another mountainside (methotrexate day). Rosa, Pete and Jonevo hiked on without noticing our lagging behind.
Back to just ourselves, we began our own dragging ascent of the mountain road. I was very low energy and Georges tolerated my pace well by hiking ahead a bit and waiting as I slugged up behind. I had thought we would enter into the forest soon after the road started its steep ascent, but over an hour passed and we hadn’t entered. There was no sunshine and it wasn’t a very good road. I began to be further discouraged by the sheer steepness of the road and its endlessness. Around 11:00 we sat down on the road and had lunch. I had hopped to have it at the entry into the forest, that being my major milestone of the day, but there was no entry in sight and I think Georges didn’t think I’d make it much further. It helped a lot to have a snack and a sit down. I really hadn’t sat down since getting out of the tent at 4:30 that morning and my musli bars were not holding over.
After our twenty minute rest we got back to the road. It became pretty gross as it was clearly used for cattle herding. The few streams that crossed over it looked less than desirable to get water from as we weren’t sure what was water and what was simply cow pee. Looking at the map we knew we needed to fill water before the first section on the day’s mountain because there wasn’t a stream until about five hours in. We found a stream that looked safe enough and hydrated there. G had a liter there, but I was only able to have a few drinks. We filled the juice bottle (750 ml) and G’s one liter bladder. In you, not on you.
In a few short turns more, the road dead ended and a foot path lead off into the forest. The orange marker showed us that was our route and we headed back into the jungle.
The hours that followed are indescribable. Within the first hundred meters G and I both made mental notes to write his brother and my best friend to tell them we appreciate their feelings on the West Coast Trail now. Feelings of extreme misery, unbelievable physical demands, and a complete lack of motivation for enduring that amount of suffering.
We struggled for hours through jungle so thick it suffocated you as leaf after leaf after branch after tree slapped you in the face while you swam through the forest–all the time watching your feet in an effort to try to see where there were rocks, roots, fallen trees and mud holes deep enough to swallow your leg. Multiply that by the ascent of the mountainside. A ladder would have reduced the struggle hundredfold. But no ladder. Push, pull, scramble, and swim up. Always up. Up, up, up, up. I had no idea what this forest track had in store. If the trail had been tough the day before, it was nothing compared to a single element of the trail on this day.
For hours we suffered. Me more than G because of my fitness level, but G too suffered and struggled. When we did reach a levelish patch we rested and planned. We knew we would have to sleep in the forest, but we would have to be diligent about finding a spot large enough for the tent in a part of the forest when the jungle wasn’t so thick. We decided we would walk until 3:00 and then start looking for a spot. Having an early evening would allow us to rest some and prepare for the next day–in which we would finish the mountains and the forest. Looking at the map, we hopped to make it over the highest summit before making camp. Without the GPS we had no idea what was a summit and what wasn’t. We hiked until 3:00 and found a spot for the tent within about forty minutes. The tent was a bit bigger than the space and the ground was a bit slanted, but it was a good spot considering the possibilities (or lack there of). Including a tree in our front tent, we put the tent up and got organized. We hadn’t made it to a stream and it looked like it might be several k to the next one on the map, so we had tortillas for dinner–saving water by not cooking. We spent some time studying the maps for the coming days and discussing how grueling the day had been. We went to sleep long before sunset, knowing we weren’t even halfway through this forest section.