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.
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.
Luckily, there’s a lot of beautiful trail in Northern California—Lake Aloha, ridge tops overlooking Lake Tahoe…
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.)
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.
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.
Day 88 / July 4 through Day 100 / July 16:
231.1 miles, Mile 1097.7 to 1328.8