PCT Days 119-127: Oregon Part I, Smoke and Berries

All through California, Oregon has been touted as the promised land of flat trails and big miles. No more mountains! Smooth dirt track through shady forests! Disappointingly, the trail does not actually turn level (or into a moving walkway) immediately after the state line, but it does feel like the landscape changes, somehow. Drier, more rolling golden hills… though maybe that’s just how everything looks through the forest fire haze.

Fires. They’re all around us. Smoke descends during our zero day at Callahan’s Lodge and our dinner trip into Ashland—it’s thick. Really thick. Like, this CAN’T be good for your lungs thick. Back on the trail, we have neon red sunsets and pink orange sunrises.

IMG_5886

But it’s pretty hiking, all the same. The trail is lined with Oregon grapes—big, plump berries that look like they should be tasty, but are actually very, very tart. The trees are covered in long strands of pale green moss. There are bees! (wasps?) Bees everywhere—you stand still in the forest and hear a low buzzing all. around. you. and realize that the undergrowth is vibrating with hundreds of hovering bees. They aren’t aggressive—they only seem to sting if caught under clothing—but they hover and investigate and our food and are just… unsettling.

IMG_5906

We keep making miles—with a string of 24- and 25-mile days, we hit 100-mile markers once a week. We pass the 2/3 point of the trail, which is in a field of lava. I finally replace the tips on my hiking poles, which had been worn down to nubs. Hiking speeds and schedules have somehow realigned so that we are leapfrogging again with friends from the start of the trail—Treeman and Hedgehog, Physio and Cashmere, Morningstar and Cookie Monster. We meet up in towns and compare notes on the past five hundred, six hundred, thousand miles of trail. There’s a huge crowd of hikertrash at Crater Lake National Park, where Fancypants’ parents meet up with us to provide trail magic—food, a ride to a hotel in a real town, more food, and some water caches along an otherwise dry stretch of trail in the park.

IMG_6049

After a near-o in town, we hike with FP’s parents along Crater Lake at sunset before saying goodbye. That night / early the next morning is the Perseid meteor shower, and we want to watch it from the rim of the lake. We’re rule-followers, though, so instead of (illegally) camping along the rim trail, we go down to Lightning Spring, 6/10th of a mile off the trail, and set our alarms for 3AM. At 3 we pack up and stagger back up to the rim trail in the dark and find a spot overlooking the lake to crawl back into our sleeping bags.

It’s a surreal few hours before sunrise—looking down into the crater in complete darkness, I have no sense of where the cliffs meet the horizon. There are flashes of light below, but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re boat lights on the water or lighting in the clouds. The Perseids are just ok—a few streaks of light, nothing too impressive, but then a sliver of moon rises over Crater Lake and holy wow is it beautiful.

IMG_6081

And the sunrise? Words fail.

IMG_6108_crop

IMG_6119

Day 119 / August 4 through Day 127 / August 12
145.4 miles, PCT Mile 1700.1 to 1845.5

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.

IMG_5470

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

IMG_4800

IMG_4827

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.)

IMG_5071

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.

IMG_5123

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.

IMG_5144

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

PCT Days 81-87: The Rest of Central California

We reach Sonora Pass in the midst of swarms of clean day hikers and raucous hillsides of wildflowers. Sonora Pass Resupply is there with our resupply box, and trail angel The Owl has an elaborate trail magic setup which includes bowls of fresh fruit, printed celebratory banner, and a copy of the New York Times, among many other wonders.

There are signs posted about the nearby wildfires, but the PCT is not actually closed—despite the days of rumors—and Casey of Sonora Pass Resupply assures us that it’s nothing to worry about. Some hikers are hitching ahead to Lake Tahoe to avoid potential heavy smoke, but we decide to continue on the trail.

The wildflowers continue to impress, as does the unfamiliar red rock landscape. It’s strange to find all of this in California, which I’ve lived in and traveled around for eight years—so much variety, so much that’s unfamiliar.

On Day 83 we cross Highway 4 at Ebbetts Pass—we last passed through here in a car, and I remember pausing to look at the PCT markers on the side of the road when the trail was just a pipe dream, not even a plan. We get bits of cell service at the top of a crest and check in with the world to discover that Obamacare has been upheld and gay marriage is legal. It’s surreal to learn of something so momentous days after the fact and without anyone around to celebrate with. (Fancypants points out that the most unbelievable part of this story to future generations won’t be that gay people at one point weren’t allowed to marry but rather that there used to be places without cell service.)

The wildflowers. Seriously, THE WILDFLOWERS. Day 84 brings even more. There are dozens of varieties in all different colors covering hillside after hillside with orgiastic exuberance. If this were a constructed movie set, the director would be all, “Let’s dial this back a bit, guys—we want it to be believable.”

We hike through a meadow of irises, and I take lots of pictures for my mom.

The approach to Carson Pass is a popular area for day hikers, and we start to feel like celebrities as strangers, seeing our packs and probably also going by our level of dirt and smell, ask us if we’re hiking the PCT and pepper us with questions. Old ladies stop us to marvel at our GoLite umbrellas—which we have up as sun protection—and then congratulate us for having walked here all the way from Mexico.

Day 85 is a quick hike down to the Echo Lake Chalet where we have ice cream for second breakfast and get a ride into South Lake Tahoe. There we pick up a rental car and head down into the desert to Reno—we’re taking a zero day there rather than Tahoe because the hotels are cheaper and there’s an REI where Fancypants can get a new backpack, as the metal stay in his second ULA pack has busted through its sleeve (just like his first one did).

Driving even in our crappy little rental car feels whizzingly fast. Reno appears to be a depressing shithole, but we eat lots of food, go see Inside Out at a movie theater, and are gleefully horrified at the ubiquity of gambling—there are slot machines at the convenience store, the CVS, even embedded in the bar at a pub where we stop for food.

We go to a public park on our second and last morning in town to treat our clothes and gear with permethrin, an insect repellant. As we sit surrounded by our backpacks and ragged-looking laundry, a young mother with three small girls arrives to eat lunch. As they are getting ready to leave, the mom sends the two older girls over, and they shyly extend a small wad of dollar bills towards us. It takes a minute to fully process what’s happening—she’s told them to offer money to the homeless people: us. We have to explain that we’re hikers and we only look homeless. We feel bad that she seems embarrassed—it’s a totally reasonable assumption and such a sweet gesture.

When we arrive back in Tahoe we find a veritable horde of hiker trash milling around Lake of the Sky Outfitters, a PCT-friendly store. It’s Friday, July 3rd, and people are in town to party. We promptly leave town, taking three separate hitches—all from locals, it’s always locals who stop for us, everywhere we go—to get back to Echo Lake.

We hike out in the evening light past beautiful lakeside homes and set up camp just past the wilderness boundary as a yellow moon rises over the trees.

Day 81, June 27: 11 miles, Mile 1017.8 to 1028.8
Day 82, June 28: 19.7 miles, Mile 1028.8 to 1048.5
Day 83, June 29: 20.3 miles, Mile 1048.5 to 1068.8
Day 84, June 30: 20.5 miles, Mile 1068.8 to 1089.3
Day 85, July 1: 5.2 miles, Mile 1089.3 to 1094.5
Day 86, July 2: Zero miles!
Day 87, July 3: 3.2 miles, Mile 1094.5 to 1097.7

PCT Day 80: An Early Morning and a Beautiful Afternoon

I have this problem in the mornings. Our trail sleeping setup (Thermarest NeoAir pads + custom Zpacks bags + Exped UL pillows + GooseFeet Gear down pillowcases) is so wonderfully comfortable—and I’m usually still so unbelievably tired—that when the watch alarm goes off at 5:00AM, I can’t force myself to move. When the second alarm goes off at 5:05AM, I still really, really don’t want to get up. It can take a good twenty minutes before I manage to begin to extricate myself from my wonderful, warm, comfortable bed.

On the morning of Day 80, we were camped just outside the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park, sleeping inside our net tent under our Ray Way tarp. At about 4:45AM, fifteen minutes before the alarm, we were suddenly wide awake. There had been some sort of jolt to the tarp—a branch falling on it? A line snapping and a support pole coming down? I looked around for a collapsed corner but didn’t see any. Looked out each end of the tarp, didn’t see anything.

I pitch the tarp with the side walls a few inches off the ground, so there was a small gap to look through, off to the side. Peering through the net tent mesh, I could see a small ridge of rocks about five yards from the tarp, and there, silhouetted against the morning sky and looking back at the tarp perhaps a bit reproachfully, was a bear. A small bear, but definitely a bear.

That bear just tripped over our tarp, I thought.

I was awake.

The bear had disappeared over the ridge (in the direction of some other tents), but my adrenaline was flowing and I was on high alert for any sort of noise or movement. We’d placed our bear cans (Bear Vaults, clear plastic cylinders with lids that latch in a way that requires opposable thumbs to open, so that while a bear can see and smell your food, in theory it can’t get to it) about 30 yards away. I couldn’t see them from within the net tent, but what I did see in that direction—the opposite direction from where the tarp-tripping bear had just gone—was another freakin’ bear. Same size as the first one—small—but looking straight at me and strolling closer.

Fancypants and I made some noise, and the bear stopped and stared. He (or she?) edged his way around the tarp to follow what I’m assuming was his sibling—I’m guessing they were last year’s cubs? I have no idea how quickly bears grow, but we didn’t want to make too many threatening noises in case Momma Bear was around.

The two of them wandered back past our campsite a few minutes later but didn’t seem all that interested in us. When we went to retrieve our bear cans, we found them tipped over and slobbered on—but intact.

The rest of the day, post-bears, was a phenomenal stretch of hiking. We passed the 1000-mile marker, which felt like a real accomplishment. One thousand miles is a crazy distance to hike.

Since leaving Yosemite, the land we are walking through has changed. Granite domes and thick forest are replaced by bare, rocky brown crests and expansive views. The smells are sunscreen, DEET, and wildfire smoke, and when we’re down in the trees the sound of cicadas adds at least ten degrees to the already warm air.

As we continue north we walk into a completely unexpected landscape: it looks almost Martian, rocky slopes with patches of snowfield and stubby white pines. Blue lakes and green valleys far below as we walk just below red and black cliffs with views of mountain ranges in every direction. It is strange and different and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in California—and I had no idea it was here.

We camp just south of Sonora Pass on a small rise, surrounded by hills covered in wildflowers.

Day 80, June 26: 18.8 miles, Mile 999 to 1017.8