PCT Days 101-118: Finishing California

After our break in Chester, we’re back on the trail and headed through our fourth national park of the trail: Lassen Volcanic, which does not disappoint. Raging steam vents, boiling lakes, dire warnings to stay on the trail—woohoo! Drakesbad Guest Ranch is a nice trail stop—resupply, a hot-spring-heated pool, and a multi-course dinner. As hikers, we’re not allowed in the dining room with the “real” guests, but after dinner the staff brings us a baggie of corndogs and chicken tenders, leftovers from the kids’ menu. 

The notorious Hat Creek Rim is bad—hot, dry, shadeless—but the section after it is even worse, all lava beds and red dirt, like walking into an open oven. 1400 miles, 1500 miles—at this pace, we cover 100 miles in under five days. Progress is measured by Mount Shasta: how close and where on the horizon it is as we make a long slow swing around its west side. On July 26th we meet our first confirmed southbound thru-hiker.

My foot pain is back (did it ever leave?), and the miles can feel endless. Why is there so much California?! I spend a lot of time thinking about food. Correction: fantasizing about food. The Hardcore History podcast I’m listening to one afternoon mentions bread riots during World War I, and my immediate thought is “Mmmm… bread!

The good news is, trail magic has returned in abundance—rides offered before we have a chance to ask, elaborate meals served at road crossings, coolers full of cold soda waiting between trees. Set up a wildlife camera at those ice chests, and you would capture pure hikertrash joy.

Then the smoke moves in. At Mile 1600, climbing out from the turnoff to Etna, a forest fire haze descends, and it doesn’t really leave. We walk through previous years’ burn zones—recent ones. They are filled with blackened trees, burned trail markers. On July 31st we watch helicopters dropping water on a spot fire burning on a hillside below the trail.

In Seiad Valley, deep in the State of Jefferson, it is 102 degrees in the shade. We stop for cafe lunch (sandwiches! milk shakes!) and showers. I eat enough ice cream to give myself a serious stomach ache, which makes the road walk and smoke-filled climb out of town that much worse. We stop early because of my bad ice-cream-related choices, but sucking all that smoke in on an uphill trudge really couldn’t have been a better choice. The smoke is so thick at night that the moon looks like a red light in the sky.

And then… Oregon! We can hear the cheering at the border from half a mile away—there’s a crowd of hikers signing the log book and taking pictures under the border sign and sprawled out in the middle of the trail eating their lunches, smoking their joints, all the things that hikers do.

We’re finally done with California—all 1700 miles of it. “Only” 950 miles left, through two “quick” states.

Day 101 / July 17 through Day 118 / August 3:
371.3 miles, Mile 1328.8 to 1700.1

PCT Days 88-100: To the Halfway Point

Just when you congratulate yourself for hiking over one thousand miles and think “Wow! I’ve come so far!”… you realize that you still have over six hundred miles of California left to go.

Six. Hundred.

As one fellow thru-hiker put it, this is when the mental game kicks in. You’ve been walking for months—months!—so you’ve probably figured out that you can physically keep hiking (though everything hurts, and you’re so freakin’ tired all the time). But now you have to keep deciding that you want to keep hiking. Or, more precisely, that you will keep hiking, even when you don’t want to in that moment.

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Luckily, there’s a lot of beautiful trail in Northern California—Lake Aloha, ridge tops overlooking Lake Tahoe…

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On the Fourth of July weekend we pass a family and hear the wife say, “I’m not a thru-hiker! This is not what I signed up for. I’m done,” and I think, I AM a thru-hiker, and I know how she feels.

I’m a thru-hiker; we’re still walking. We pass 1100 miles, 1200 miles. Friends text us announcing the birth of their daughter; we’re still walking. The trail goes way, way up to ridges with views of all this California that I never realized was here—and then goes way, way back down to rivers with beautiful swimming holes that we don’t have time to stop at because we have to make miles.

We are rained on and hailed on, but water is scarcer here and we have to be careful about how much we carry and we walk off-trail to small springs. Our gear is starting to smell like farts and wet dog. We reach Belden, a weird little town that’s half-bikers, half-hikers and apparently all-ravers on some weekends. We eat burgers there, and I seriously consider washing my feet in the ladies’ room toilet. (I find a spigot outside instead.)

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We haven’t seen some of our early-trail hiker friends in hundreds of miles. Instead, a wave of unfamiliar hikers has caught up to us—they’re mostly young and they’re all fast and they started from the Mexican border weeks after we did. We overhear lots of talk about 30-mile days and 40-mile days, bro, and we don’t mind that we won’t see the majority of them again once they pass us.

The uphills are hard—the climb out of Belden is almost 4,900 feet in total, and hot—and the steep downhills can feel like a controlled fall, climbing over fallen trees and dodging poison oak. A lot of the trail scenery is just nondescript pine forest. The trail markers are often plain silver diamonds rather than the beautiful PCT badges, and someone has been writing on them in sharpie. The first one I see says “ASS HAT,” and in that moment it is the funniest thing I have ever seen. There are lots of others—some plays on what PCT stands for (“Pork Chop Taco!”), some drawings built around bullet holes.

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In some stretches there are so many trees down, it’s a wonder any are still standing at all. Lassen National Forest is an absolute mess—apparently the drought has been so severe that the forest is too dry to use chain saws, so trails get cleared much more slowly. After a day of climbing over and around and even under downed trees, Fancypants loses his shit and we take an unplanned zero in Chester, where we pay way too much for a motel room and eat burgers and shakes and pizza.

We’ve passed the halfway point of the trail: one-thousand, three-hundred and twenty-five miles hiked. Only one-thousand, three-hundred and twenty-five miles left to go.

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Day 88 / July 4 through Day 100 / July 16:
231.1 miles, Mile 1097.7 to 1328.8