The Roller Coaster Effect

Aside from the literal ups and downs of this trail, the emotional highs and lows are staggering. Let me bring you up to date with the recent ongoings of the PCT, as we approach the final leg of our thru hike. 

Up: Crater Lake, one of the most scenic gems of the trail and a place that I've been personally excited about visiting, was right around the corner after we left Ashland.

Down: We arrived in Mazama Village in Crater Lake just as they closed the trail because of the nearby fire. Previously the Rim Trail had been open to hikers but the section of trail where it linked up with the PCT was now closed, as well as the nearest roads. This meant we would have to somehow procure a ride (from a complete stranger) out of the National Park and back around to where the trail crosses Hwy 138 by way of a 70+ mile detour.
Up: Because of the closure, we got the opportunity to catch up with all of our hiker friends that we had met and lost track of because they had been hiking just days ahead of us for months. The huddled masses were all gathered around the Mazama Village general store in a sea of abandoned backpacks and dissected resupply boxes, sipping on bottomless fountain sodas and heady Oregon craft beers, donning windbreakers while their laundry was being done and swapping insider info about which shower stall was free.

More Ups: Two girls, trail angels from Bend, showed up around 9:30pm the night we had arrived at Crater Lake and offered us a ride back to the trail (remember: this is a 70 mile or so ride) and some fried chicken and pizza. We crammed six people and packs into the back of their truck and hunkered down for the hour and a half ride back to the trail, setting up camp in the smokey wilderness around midnight.
Then we continued to accept a hitch in the morning to Shelter Cove from another trail angel named Steve. We stopped along the way at an awesome little roadside diner for gigantic pancakes served to us by the fly-swatting, toothless owner/cook and her smart ass teenage granddaughter waitress from Reno, who had already managed to perfect the disgruntled and overworked server act. 

Once at Shelter Cove, a quaint little vacation/fishing spot on Odell Lake, we rented a charming cabin with some friends and spent the afternoon on a pontoon boat, skinny dipping and cannon balling off the sides of the "Party Barge." Then we spent the evening eating frozen pizza and watching Seinfeld and snuggling on overstuffed leather couches. It was glorious.
Although we skipped about one hundred miles of trail between Crater Lake and Shelter Cove and were ultimately bummed about not even seeing Crater Lake at all (and missing the "highest point in Oregon" on the trail), we were actually sort of stoked to have jumped ahead a bit. It was a nice mental and emotional boost. Plus, boat stuff was super fun.

The afternoon we hiked out of Shelter Cove, we broke a personal record and swam in FIVE lakes in one day. That was also great.
Then the trail took a turn for the better. The dry stretch of Southern Oregon turned into lush forests (still terminally dusty) that opened up into glassy blue lakes every few miles or so. Matted tufts of moss hung stiffly from high branches of the sugar pines, as though the Grinch had recently molted everywhere. 

Sisters Wilderness took on a drastic landscape change when the forest opened up into wide meadows as we hiked through the late afternoon shadow of the South Sister mountain. 
Down: Then everything got ultra volcanic in a hurry as we spent the next day climbing begrudgingly through vast and exposed switchbacks of sharp and blackened pumice stones. It would've been a curious scene if the volcanic rocks had lasted for a mile or two but they carried on all afternoon, much to my dismay. When we finally got to the road to hitch into the town of Sisters, I was pissed at the trail for being so awkward and crumbly. Stupid volcanos. 
Up: We hitched a ride with another nice woman from Bend and her little three year old nugget who had been out day hiking. Best part: she actually worked at the same bakery in Bend with the other two girls who had given us that outrageously long ride from Crater Lake. Small world.

Down: Major wildfires raging through Washington. As if Oregon wasn't smokey enough from its own fires, the PCT in Washington has been closed for weeks due to fires and things are not looking promising. High winds aren't helping the situation, Obama has declared a State of Emergency and firefighters from Australia and New Zealand have been brought in to assist the Hot Shots who are already working their asses off to contain the blazes. 
Up: We have a coffee table book at home that lists German words for various human conditions. They're all about twenty letters long and spelled out phonetically so you can attempt to pronounce them. I'm sure that the book contains a word, which I can't seem to come up with in English, whose definition reads: "acting disappointed, but secretly elated." This accurately sums up our feelings about having to probably skip nearly 200 miles of trail in Washington. 
We may have to just turn this thru hike into a road trip from Stevens Pass up to Manning Park and day hike south from Canada to the terminus. One way or another, we are getting to that border. But sometimes enough is enough, and quite frankly, if we are forced to hike a little bit less in the end, well hell.

So that pretty much brings us up to date, as we are lounging here in touristy little Sisters, Oregon. You can't even see the legendary trio of mountains from here because the smoke is so thick, but that can't stop me from enjoying an arugula salad and a bath. Back to the trail tomorrow and up towards Cascade Locks, where we will cross the Bridge of the Gods into Washington. 
Who knows how far we will get from there, as these historic fires are zero percent contained and there's no rain in the forecast. Towns are being evacuated and homes are being destroyed. In the grand scheme of things, completing our thru hike of the PCT is a pretty small priority in comparison to, well, everything else going on in Washington right now. We plan to hike as far as we can within a safe and reasonable distance from the fires. 
But we will get our damn picture with that terminus somehow. Stay tuned.

Oregon Haikus

First impressions of
A state I've never been in
As seen from the trail 

Mushrooms like small fists 
Throwing rubbery punches
Wear soil berets 

Logging trucks bellow
Complain of overweight loads
Kick dust in protest 

There is none to spare
So water is only served
Just upon request 

Dally scours maps
Seeking all the shortest routes
This trail is too long

Smoke fills the long green tunnel
A fire detour 

This Is Not A Hike

Let's be clear about one thing: this is not a hike. It is a thru-hike. The nature of this beast is entirely different than that of a jaunty walk in the woods. It is a pure chore of an adventure. 

Thru-hikes are not leisurely. They are not relaxing. There is a clear goal and a regimented schedule. We set an alarm in the morning. Our snack breaks are short. We can't loiter and enjoy nice scenic spots or views or swimming holes for too long because we're on a time crunch. There are miles and hours and weather to take into account. We pass up great campsites because it's too early to stop hiking for the day. People hike late into the night, traipsing by us with their headlamps glaring through our wax paper shelter (our Cuban fiber tent) as we huddle together on our inflatable sleeping pads and marvel at their determination. But the days have been so damn hot lately, nearly 100 degrees, that maybe they've got the right idea.

Twelve hours of hiking each day becomes your job. Getting to a town and staying in a hotel, your vacation. 

I'd like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to the Hat Creek Rim section of trail we just passed through. Not only was the Hat Creek Rim completely devoid of any natural water sources for nearly thirty miles, but it was so exposed and hot that it gave me a super cute heat rash all over my thighs and the backs of my knees. Thanks Hat Creek Rim! 
This section also pulled a fascinating presto-change-o in which my shoes that I had been hiking in since South Lake Tahoe magically became too small. In other words, my feet swelled up from the heat, a phenomenon I had heard other hikers complain about but had yet to experience. It suddenly became unbearable to wear my sneakers, with my toes squished together and accumulating the first painful blisters that I've had in about 1500 miles. 
My solution: hike in the Crocs. For 50 miles to Mt. Shasta. Okay, so I put up a bit of a bashful fight about even buying the Crocs to begin with. They're hideously dorky and I had a major identity crisis when I was stuck wearing them out in public while visiting friends in LA and San Diego prior to hiking the trail. I was embarrassed of their duck footed appearance and their rubbery sheen. But I'm admittedly singing a different tune after they saved my ass and were actually extremely comfortable to hike in. The Crocs are also a glaring red flag (or chartreuse, in my case) of a thru-hiker when plodding around town in them. So there. I said it. Viva la Crocs! (But I'm still not gonna wear them when I'm done hiking.)

This section of trail also happened to have been trampled by horses during some event last weekend and was unbelievably dusty. Literal clouds of dirt erupted with each labored step through the thick, sandy trail. Plumes of dust loosened by heavy hooves settled into your clothes and nostrils, blackening your feet through your shoes and socks. Needless to say, we were filthier than usual. Don't forget: there was no place to swim or wash for nearly two days. 
In other news, NorCal is becoming increasingly greener. Each sweeping ridge top view is similar, rolling emerald pine covered hills for as far as you can see, fading away into layered blue shadows of distant peaks. Mt. Shasta's volcanic snow-capped summit simmers in the late July heat outside our balcony, muted slightly by smoke from nearby wildfires. And from what I understand, the landscape will only get greener as we head north into Oregon in the coming weeks. Which is fantastic news, because Lassen was a total bore, with burned trees and a boiling lake or two. But the trail approaching Shasta was fantastic for about sixty miles, winding smoothly through shady and overgrown gulches (chock full of poison oak!) and across mossy bubbling springs before gently climbing up over ridges, providing impressive panoramic views and glimpses and the mighty Shasta, standing 10,000 feet above its surrounding landscape. 
Hiking 25 miles every day in this heat is literally kicking our ass so we will spend tomorrow eating our way through the town of Mt. Shasta and laying low on our air conditioned hotel room watching Naked and Afraid and daydreaming of reaching the Oregon border.

Captain's Log: An Honest Midway Assessment

July 22, 2015
Hot, sunny & dusty on trail
A crisp 67F in the Best Western's Eagle Suite, Chester CA

Status: pooped, yet content 

I'm not gonna sugar coat this: hiking this trail has easily been the least glamorous and most challenging task that I've ever voluntarily chosen to undertake. It is fucking hard hiking 20+ miles every day. Sure, it's just walking, but the enormous ups and downs and the mental doldrums are often maddening. 

Andy has been listening to a constant stream of audio books and nerdy podcasts. Meanwhile I've been shuffling between New Orleans Funk Vol. 2, the Motown mix my brother made me, various Putamayo collections (Brazil and Africa are my favs) and some Les Claypool, White Stripes, and Rage Against the Machine for those long uphill slogs. The Talking Heads are also ideal for a high energy boost, sans aggression. Dylan & the Band or Robert Johnson are reserved for downhill jaunts. And of course the Dead and Railroad Earth are good anytime.

We are tired. We admit it. 

It would be so easy to just quit and be done with it all. Day hikers we keep crossing paths with inquire with awe, "Would you do it again?" Nah. This is our once in a lifetime chance to nail this thing. This is our mission and we chose to accept it.

But this isn't all sunshine rainbows, except that it actually is.

We recently passed through Beldontown on the Monday morning after a festival had ravaged the town, surrounded by the hung over aftermath. Oddly enough, this scene provided a glimmer of normalcy amongst my otherwise very nature-centric summer. We found ourselves borrowing some inflatable rafts that were littered about the riverside and floated for a while in the Feather River beside the still bedazzled crowd, watching the crew disassemble stages and installations. Ah, to be amongst the company of people other than hikers! Beardless boys and accessorized girls!

All the boys on the trail look the same: white early thirty-somethings, long and disheveled beards, tattooed, short running shorts, thick muscled thighs, filthy, stoned as hell. They've probably hiked the AT. They probably ate weed cookies for breakfast and washed them down with Fireball. They'll probably hike more miles than you, too. They night hike with headlamps and cowboy camp without tents. 

The 5000 ft climb over the course of fifteen miles out of Beldon was a nasty bit of trail. It was a hellish, humid and grueling experience that lasted two days. Towards the top there were lots of downed trees and clambering over them took every ounce of strength you could muster.

Pre-Tahoe we had been averaging 17-19 miles/day. Now we're up to 20-25 miles/day. This may seem like a small difference in miles to you but, trust me, you feel it. Emotionally and in your butt muscles. We are working our way up to 25-30 mile days in Oregon. We have only just reached our halfway mile marker today. Only 1325 miles to go til Canada.

And for our next trick: we will complete the same amount of miles in just half the time. We want to get to Canada by mid-September. We are attempting to achieve this by upping our mileage and desperately trying to resist the allure of motel beds and hot springs.

The last few quirky little "towns" that we've passed through have been bizarre and useless, at best. Sierra City, Buck's Lake and Beldon were "hiker friendly" and sold burgers and milkshakes but their "general stores" mostly consisted of a variety of canned seafood items and expired bagged cereal. I waited over an hour at the Beldon Lodge & Bar for a slimy plate of iceberg lettuce with no dressing and a smattering of mandarin oranges. The Buck's Lake Motel was a total dump with shag carpet, a bedspread and curtains that were darkened yellow with age, and cobwebs with dead bugs in every corner. The room also boldly sported a tip jar for the housekeepers and a handwritten note encouraging you to enjoy your stay. There wasn't even a fitted sheet on the mattress.

The other upcoming Northern California towns of Chester, Mt. Shasta and Etna seem more promising. After all, Etna used to be named "Rough and Ready" in the 1800s. And Chester allegedly has the best milkshake on the whole trail.

We've met hikers named Dutchess, Gum Ball, Skeeter Bite, Daytripper, Sarge, Stump, Bucket, Fancypants, Pot, Lid, Mason Jar, Half Time, Double Time, Mr. Noodles, the Better Half, Fixie, Stop Watch, several Shaggys, Serenade, FM, Butt Plug, Blueberry, Raspberry, Grapefruit, Burgundy, Giggles, 2nd Lunch, Lucky, Lint, Justa, the Count, Rattles, Nomad, Sherpa, Dream Catcher, Meta, the Optimist, Thunder Bunny, Nutella, Simba, Ox, Cat Whacker, Prospector, Pine Stick, Wallaby, Wall Street, Snow White, Starfish, Aunt Jemima, Sando, Franklinstein, Fly Balls, Cosmic Bubbles, Zappa, Dollywood, Starboard, Good Time Grant, Steady Eddy, Llama, Bender, Take it or Leave It, Gush the Lush and his dog Beast, Let's Party and her dog Bottoms Up, Zoolander, Hedgehog, Treeman, Secret, Toolbox, Papa Smurf, the Doobie Brothers, Rally, Squatchie, Honey Bear, Kale, Square, Professor, Salt, Pepper, Glide, and two Shenanigans (male and female). Our friendly bubble we had been hiking in for a while has burst, with mostly everyone we once knew ahead of us and a few stragglers in the rear (after our week long Tahoe stint, we lost 'em all). Some friends have "gotten off trail," which is a fancy way of saying they quit. So we make new friends, and there are plenty to be had.

Some good old PCT folklore for you: legend has it that a hiker named Aqua Dump is defecating in all the water sources. And he's hiking just ahead of you...

A word to the wise: if you like to do something, I wouldn't recommend forcing yourself to do that thing every day for ten to twelve hours a day for five or six months. You may just start to resent it.

But we're already mentally planning our trip to Spain to hike Camino de Santiago, so we're clearly not too resentful towards hiking.

When I do get really sick of walking every day, all damn day, I just think of my mom-- who has MS and is stuck in a wheelchair-- and how much more it would suck to NOT be able to walk every day, all damn day. "Inspiration, move me brightly."

"Hiking is fun, hiking is fun," we remind ourselves; this is our mantra. After all, anyone should be so lucky to just be walking in the woods all day eating Snickers bars with no responsibilities other than to do just that. It's the American Dream. 

Sometimes I feel like a shepherds boy in a Paulo Cohelo book, repeatedly stabbing the dusty earth with my single hiking pole, my imaginary herd bleating encouraging words all around me. 

I was going to write more about the landscape: the volcanic "meatball" rocks clinging to the mountainsides south of Tahoe, looking as though they'd tumbled down the earth while wet, collecting everything in their path, all lumped together and multicolored and uncomfortable. About the Sequoia trees that sprout up between rocks in unlikely places, sharp dressed and doing their best broccoli impression. About the burnt and skinny tooth pick tree trunks that nonchalantly lean against the live trees, looking like pulled taffy. The white and withered ghost pines, nothing but skeletons with bared rib cages beckoning you in for a hug and secretly begging to get struck by lightning. The out of control wild flowers. The macerated tree guts that are spilled all over the forest ground, impossibly loud and crunchy beneath the hooves of deer grazing in the moonlight. The thick, looming trunks that are clothed in striped electric moss sweaters. But I'll spare you the woodsy details. More about the beautiful agony that is the Pacific Crest Trail. 

While the walking does become borderline tortuous at times, the landscape and all of its glory is still a joy, most of the time. The warm, still, silent nights beneath the stars in our open air tent and the ongoing treasure hunt for swimming holes are still entirely rewarding. So we walk on. 

The PCT: it is our ball and chain. And our baby. People ask if we've found "that intimacy" with the trail yet. Some goofy lady hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail babbled on about how hiking the PCT "gets rid of all your problems." I snickered and muttered cynical remarks to Andy as we walked away from her but... the PCT, like many things, is probably a very transformative experience. But you can't realize those experiences to their full capacity while you're having them. In hindsight, months or years from now, surely we will look back at our accomplishment with pride and wonder. But now, in the present, we're mostly just looking forward to the next shower.