PCTA Trail Crew: Sierra Buttes

In mid-July I drove out to Sierra City, a town just down the road from PCT Mile 1195, for a few days of volunteer work with a PCTA trail crew. The project I was on is a multi-year, ongoing project to construct new trail and incorporate existing trail into six new PCT miles in the Sierra Buttes.

This was my first trail crew experience, and I think I lucked into a truly great one: building brand new trail with an awesome group of crew and volunteers, surrounded by gorgeous Sierra scenery.

I got to dig out roots, break up boulders, and build a rock retaining wall that will (theoretically?) last decades. I learned the names of tools—single jack, double jack, rock bar, cutter mattock, pick mattock, Pulaski, McLeod—and how to use them. I dug holes, wrestled rocks into place, jumped on them to make sure they were stable… I ended up with sore muscles that I didn’t even know I had (forearms?!) and bruised my shins from kneeling in the dirt working.

The people were great—a mix of PCTA staff, American Conservation Experience (ACE) crew, and volunteers who ranged from semi-retired Bay Area tech folks to college kids road-tripping from Oklahoma. We were on our way to the work site at 7AM every morning and ended every day with a trip to the river for swimming—which was desperately needed because we were DIRTY. I even managed to make time to drive a few thru-hikers from town out to the trail.

It was a hugely satisfying experience to be out there for such a short time and yet be able to walk away having made such a visible difference in the creation of the trail—even if the last step in rock wall construction was covering it up with dirt and branches to make it disappear.

Being near the PCT and around thru-hikers again also just felt good. It made me remember that feeling of forward progress. Of walking all day and finding a new place to sleep every night. Of how much beautiful land there is to see. People even called me Bucket again.

Perhaps my proudest moment, however, came right before I headed home. I was outside the Sierra City general store, a major resupply point where there’s always a crowd of hikers lining the porch, and a guy came up to me and asked if I’d started my hike at Scout and Frodo’s (trail angels in San Diego who host hundreds of thrus every year). I said yes—I had dinner there the night before starting the trail—but, uh, that was last year. He blinked at me, and I realized he thought I was a current thru-hiker. I laughed and asked if that meant I really looked that dirty. Which I suppose I did—huddled on the steps of the general store with a Gatorade and an ice cream sandwich, poaching the wifi, grubby fingers jabbing at my iPhone.

Once hiker trash, always hiker trash.

And learn more about volunteering with the PCTA on their website!

(More photos on Flickr!)

PCT Day 173: Canada!

This is the way the trail ends
This is the way the trail ends
This is the way the trail ends
Not with a bang…

Canadacanadacanadacanada. Taking down the tarp, shoving everything into my backpack, picking up my trekking poles—one last time. It’s cold—there’s snow and frost covering the ground. It’s early—the dudes camped next to us are sleeping in.

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This is the way the trail ends. As we’ve approached these last miles to Canada, we’ve seen familiar hikers headed back south to Harts Pass, the last road access to the trail. Any hiker who doesn’t get—or is denied—the necessary paperwork to enter Canada by trail has to turn around at the border and hike 30 miles back south. Poor bastards.

This is the way the trail ends. We walk through trees, over one last pass. The air is cold, crisp. I can see peaks ahead, bathed in early morning light. Is that Canada? Looking up at those mountains, at the rocky saddle between peaks that I know has a view of everything northward… part of me wants to keep walking. Just keep walking, through all this beauty, without any deadlines other than when the food in my backpack runs out.

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The rest of me is ready to finish. I see the arrow-straight clearcut line that marks the border, and that’s where I’m going. This is the way the trail ends. 

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And then, suddenly—”suddenly” somehow encompassing both the last six miles this morning and the last six months of my life—there’s the monument. Turn a corner, hike down a small hill, and there are the pillars, the little flags, the line through the forest.

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We take pictures, write in the log book. Take more pictures. (Canada!) A helicopter passes overhead, patrolling the border.

There are two day hikers there, waiting to meet thru-hiker friends. It’s slightly awkward—they aren’t part of our celebration, they’re talking about workout clothes and brunch. They walked 8 miles from their cars; we walked 2,650.1 miles from freaking Mexico. But it’s ok—we’re almost back in the world where we’re not thru-hikers anymore, where you have to replace your clothes before they’re full of holes and hopelessly discolored with sweat. Where brunch is just overpriced breakfast rather than eating all the things.

Walking last eight miles to Manning Park, the first Canadians we meet are a couple out for a morning hike; they force a fifty dollar bill (Canadian!) on us after hearing what we just did. My parents, who have flown to Vancouver to meet us, are there on the trail when we round a corner.  At the road, there’s a crowd waiting for sleeping-in dudes with signs and balloons. Food, car ride, showers, more food… and most of all the strange knowledge that we don’t have to keep walking tomorrow.

There are no more PCT miles to hike—we’ve hiked them all.

Thank you, Pacific Crest Trail. Thank you hiker trash, thank you trail angels, thank you mountains, thank you desert, thank you forests, thank you feet—thank you thank you thank you.

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Day 173 / Sept 27, 2015
Hopkins Lake to Manning Park, Canada
15.2 miles, PCT Mile 2643.7 to 2658.9

PCT Days 163-172: Washington Part II, Larches and Lurches

It feels like we reach Washington-Washington, finally. The colors! The views! The COLORS!

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Purples, reds, oranges, yellows… There’s actual sunshine casting actual shadows; there are valleys and mountains and views.

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On the day we hit 2500 miles, we meet a guy who shot a bear. The bear pieces are sealed in a barrel to be safe from other bears until the guy can carry them out. So it goes.

September’s shorter days are definitely here, with lots of drizzle and the occasional sideways rain. The consolidating hiker herd creates competition for campsites at the end of long, grey days. Clouds descend and we walk all the way around Glacier Peak with barely a peek at the glaciers. We clamber over giant blowdowns and slide down muddy slopes.

The elevation gains and losses are intense. According to Halfmile’s app, on Day 166 we lose 7,052 feet in elevation while also climbing 5,404 feet. On Day 167, it’s -5,052’/+6,166′. My feet do still hurt, of course, but mostly I’m just tired, lurching forward because that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 2500 miles. So I can do it for another 150.

At Stehekin, the bakery is everything it is rumored to be, and more. A red shuttle bus picks up dirty hikers at the trailhead and stops at the bakery on the way to town. We buy All The Things and eat All The Things and it is good. On the way back out of town, we stop again and stock up on pastries and breads and amazing warm treats baked by the bakery employees, who are all lovely hippie girls.

And the larches! Let me tell you about the larches, because I didn’t know: larches are conifers that turn bright yellow and drop their needles. They’re a thing. And they’re beautiful.

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We hit the last passes of the trail. They are beautiful. We stop at an overlook with epic views in every direction where it’s quiet enough to hear a bird’s wings flapping overhead. It’s beautiful.

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Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful:

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On our second-to-last day on the trail we hike through snow all afternoon and camp by a mountain-rimmed lake as the full moon rises over the snowy landscape. Tomorrow: Canada.

Day 163 / September 17 to Day 172 / September 26, 2015
Stevens Pass to Hopkins Lake
182.4 miles, PCT Mile 2461.3 to 2643.7

PCT Days 144-162: Washington, Part I

The rain starts as we walk into Washington across the Bridge of the Gods and sticks around for the next nine days. Being soggy and cold is a downer, but I remind myself that water puts out forest fires, and right now forest fires are what’s blocking our hopes of a continuous footpath to Canada.

The trail changes dramatically in Washington—instead of dry forest filled with huckleberry bushes, everything is lush green, an orgy of ferns and mosses, layer upon layer of decaying trees, populated by slugs and salamanders.

We leave the dripping forest and climb up to Goat Rocks Wilderness—a legendarily beautiful stretch of trail where the path follows a narrow crest (the Knife’s Edge) with thousand-foot drops on either side and 360-degree views of snow-capped volcanos all around. The photos I’ve seen are stunning.

This is what it looks like when we hike it:

Sideways hail, 32 degrees. It’s… frustrating. And cold. But! We get a tiny bit of cell service on the far side of the Knife’s Edge, after exiting the snowstorm, and discover that A) Dilly and Dally have quit the trail after days of nonstop Washington rain (boooo!) and B) the trail is now open all the way to Canada after days of nonstop Washington rain! Hooray! With the trail closure near Stehekin, we would have faced a choice between hitching much farther north, creating the first gap in our hike—or a 100-mile road walk. But now, no choice necessary: Continuous footpath from Mexico, here we come!

We also get a few glimpses of how beautiful this section is when you can, y’know, actually see it:

Then the weather clears, and we get to enjoy clear blue skies and fall colors in full effect. Mount Rainier is ridiculous.

At Snoqualmie Pass we take a zero and get visits from Dilly and Dally (looking so clean and so relaxed in their “normal” clothes) and from a Peace Corps friend and her husband. Donuts, double breakfast, pre-dinner milkshakes… Man, I’m gonna miss feeding my hiker hunger.

Leaving Snoqualmie Pass we take the Goldmyer alternate, which leads us to Goldmyer Hot Springs, a hike-in-only campground + hot springs where the hot springs flow from inside an old mine shaft—which has been built up so that you can actually climb into the horizontal tunnel and slowly cook yourself.

After oh-so-flat Oregon, Washington brings the return of Sierra-style climbs and descents—epic, rocky, unrelenting—which means tough hiking but dramatic views. Though I suppose we’ve technically been in the Cascades since clearing Donner Pass back in California, this is the first time the landscape feels truly… Cascadey.

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Hiker-wise, the end of the trail begins to feel like the beginning of the trail: people are bottlenecking, clumping up as we near our common goal. Hiker Herd, reassemble! Crowds of hikers are passing us who started in May, a full month after we did—I try not to feel abysmally slow. After all, we’ve all hiked the same distance—and, as hikers say, last one to Canada wins.

One moment of trying to wrap our brains around how far we’ve walked: the first major interstate highway we crossed under was I-8 at Mile 26, with San Diego due west. One hundred and fifty-six days and 2,364 miles later, we walk under I-90, where road signs point to Seattle.

Day 144 / August 29 to Day 162 / September 16, 2015
Cascade Locks to Stevens Pass
317.1 miles, PCT Mile 2144.2 to 2461.3

PCT Days 128-143: Oregon Part II, Lava and Glaciers

I didn’t know what to expect from Oregon.  What I got was more mountains, beautiful forested views, and glaciers(!). More weekenders and section hikers. Couples from Portland hiking with tiny dogs. Lots of drippy pale green moss. And smoke. Always smoke.

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Also: lava beds. Lava bed hiking is The Worst.

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But obsidian fields: obsidian is The Coolest.

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Glacial creek crossings: not as terrifying as expected!

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Also, infrastructure is back: Shelter Cove, with its fishing competition and camp store. Elk Lake Resort: ice cream! campsites! Big Lake Youth Camp, a haven of efficient, cheerful amenities delivered by oh-so-clean teenagers.

The seasons are starting to shift. There’s one morning when the light and the breeze and the temperatures bring Fall rushing in like a river—but is it the time of year, or is it our ever-more-northerly latitude?

We’re clearly making progress, slowly inching up on the map, but still I have an array of frustrations: with my aching feet, my slow speed, how heavy my pack still feels, with each other. 24/7 is a lot of time to spend with another person, especially when doing something so physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. One person gets frustrated, then the other person gets frustrated with their frustration.

We pass 2,000 miles (two thousand miles!)  and walk through huge swaths of burned forest where the wind rushes through sounding like a raging river on the other side of the crest. On Day 138 we decide to do A Thirty for the first time: a thirty-mile day, just to see if we can, just to say that we did. We hike separately so that in case I can’t make it I won’t be holding Fancypants back. It’s a wonderful day—a solo adventure, setting my own pace, taking my own breaks—the whole adventure of the trail compressed into one epic day. I make it: 31.1 miles, the last mile uphill through effing sand, ending with dinner and a hotel room at the Timberline Lodge.

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There are more glacial creeks, more green ridge tops, more hazy views of volcanos. Finally, we charge through crowds of day hikers on the Eagle Creek alternate and into Cascade Locks for a double zero in preparation for the last push: Washington.

Day 128 / August 13 through Day 143 / August 28
298.7 miles, PCT Mile 1845.5 to 2144.2