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Out of the Woods

At the end of a rainy slog, a most pleasant surprise.

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e woke up at Twin Lakes to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent. Few things are tougher than getting out of a sleeping bag at such a time. You're warm, dry, comfortable. If you leave the tent, you will be none of those things for hours. Maybe days.

But the sooner you start walking, the sooner you get to the next camp, and the sooner you get back in the tent. So we dragged ourselves out, started the stove, and stared at the sky. Hopeless. Rain all day. And where we were going, it might be snow. The wind in the treetops didn't sound helpful either.

We were five weeks into a trek on the Pacific Crest Trail -- a leg-stretcher in the grand scheme of things. The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada, 2,600-plus miles of fatigue and inspiration that only a couple hundred or so people manage each year. We were just trying to finish the 460 miles across Oregon. We figured we were four days from the Columbia River. But with this weather and having been out for a week, we were focused on one thing: staying dry.

We had done 25 miles the day before -- because we were anticipating showers and laundry at Timberline Ski Resort that afternoon. We were about 4,000 feet up the flanks of Mount Hood, and the resort was at 6,000 feet. We only had eight miles to go, but that's no gimme even when it's dry. There's a lodge at the resort, but rooms are $200. We'd be clean, with clean clothes, but we'd be camping in this crap again.

We started walking around 9 a.m. A slow, steady slog up the hill with nothing to see but trees, clouds, and rain. We crossed a highway and caught a taste of the wind. Grim. We ducked back into the trees and kept climbing, but my mind skipped on ahead, to Timberline. Timberline, as in "line of timber," as in, beyond which there are no trees. No trees equals wind. Higher elevation equals colder temperatures.

Sitting at a rest break, I looked at Steve. His hair was damp and matted to his head, his pack was saturated, his raincoat was three shades darker than before. His face wasn't much different.

"You know," I said, "it seems to me that when we get up out of the trees ..." I didn't have to say the rest.

And that's when he smiled.

"I know something you don't know," Steve said.

"What's that?" I asked. I looked up at him, and a pellet of rain landed inside my glasses.

His grin got a little bigger, and his eyes lit up. "We've got a room at the lodge," he said.

"A room, for me and you, at Timberline Lodge?"

"Yep. It's an early birthday present. I wasn't gonna tell you until we got there, but this seemed like a good time."

Warmth! Comfort! A bed! A shower! Maybe a couple of showers!

A mile later -- a mile of stomping through puddles in the trail, wringing water out of our jacket sleeves, trying to wipe glasses with wet bandannas -- we popped out of the trees, and all hell broke loose. The wind was blowing 30 miles an hour, right in our faces. With nothing to see anyway, I lowered my head, pulled my hood down, and strode forward like a robot.

It wasn't long before I heard Steve yell out, "It's snowing!" And then it was sleeting. Then it was raining again. Massive bands of cloud were sweeping over us, bending trees, making it tough to even stay on the trail.

Must ... reach ... lodge ... Must ... reach ... lodge ...

We came to a trail junction that pointed to the lodge, and we looked into an angry fog. Then we saw it! A spectral, lodge shape in the cloud, like a pirate ship in a bad movie, beckoned to us -- and then disappeared.

We took off for it, into the wind, on a thin layer of snow now but ever toward where the lodge had been. In the parking lot, I tried to run past Steve, and we both took off, giggling, and a minute later he was at the reception desk, with his pack still on, and the collective energy we had brought in with us -- not to mention some snow and ice -- had captivated some folks in the lobby.

We didn't care. A shower was minutes away. We'd made it out of the woods.

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