PCT 9 | The space between volcanoes

Day 36: Choose Your Fighter

Olallie Lake Resort to Mosquito City, mile 629

I lingered at the picnic table while the others packed, not understanding the rush. Here we were in the land of faucets and hot coffee! Even Oily Boy and Slippy were long gone by the time I had my bag assembled.

I washed my feet under the water spigot or at least I tried, rubbing futilely at my blackened toes. The dirt was stuck on like paint; it hadn’t ever been this bad before. I realized I needed gaiters to keep it out of my shoes.

I saw the first PCT blaze and my stomach sank automatically, which was upsetting. I counted the days since Portland: just five? I needed a break. Bend in three days, I told myself.

I ate one of my huckleberry-flavored weed gummies and quickly felt better.

It was a long slog uphill, but the terrain soon morphed into the rocks and open air of the high alpine tundra. My spirits soared; this was my kind of climb!

I heard a whistle and found Oily Boy and Slippy lying next to a lake. Lying was an understatement; they looked as if they had been hammered into the earth. They told me they were beat.

I was relieved to hear it. I didn’t say anything except that mentally and physically, weed gummies go a long way.

Goodbye, Mt. Hood, we called wistfully, looking back again and again to see that yes, it was still standing in the same spot it had been for the past 500,000 years.

It’s hard to see a beloved volcano fade into the horizon. But we crested the saddle and there was El Jefe in all its glory, glaciers slicing down the rock to deep blue lakes below. Some views hit you all at once, like a million-dollar jackpot.

We joked that they could be contestants on a dating show.

“Mt. Hood, you’re out. Too sandy.”

“Jefe’s a little too chiseled. A gym body.”

“He does crossfit and he won’t shut up about it.”

The day had hit its high point, but it wasn’t over. As we slowly rounded Jefe, there were more stream crossings and then a final climb to camp. It was painfully endless and my whole mind and body were dedicated to the yearning to be done. We finally cleared the ridge and saw two tents.

Six’s voice cried, “Activate mosquito protocol!”

So we scrambled in a panic, pitching our tents haphazardly. At one point I ran in circles just to throw them off my scent. Then at long last I collapsed inside, and lay without moving on the nylon floor. Safe.

Day 37: No One Is Alone

Mosquito City to Big Lake Youth Camp, mile 658

The mosquitoes didn’t fall back overnight. We had once again made a silent pact to leave early, and the only soundtrack was the shoop of tents unzipping, the hissing of John Mayo’s stove, and the soft muttering of the word fuck.

Oregon was indeed a tinderbox. Each new ridge brought overlapping burn scars into view. Some were very old; wind and rain had stripped away the char and polished the bark smooth — driftwood against an ocean sky.

With slow, simmering alarm, I imagined the PCT as one long burn scar. Climate change will make continuous thru-hiking a thing of the past, I often predicted. Snow, fires… now I saw it in skeletons.

I passed a woman going nobo. “Are you hiking alone?” she asked.

I said yes, more or less.

“So many solo women!” she exclaimed happily. “You’re the fourth one I’ve met!” I whooped.

I wasn’t really hiking alone, I thought as I walked away. I had come here alone. I still felt independent. But I’d found friends every step of the way. On a trail packed with so many people, what does it even mean to be alone?

You can hike solo, but no one hikes alone, I had once written. I was talking about all the people along the CDT: towns, trail angels, and unexpected strangers that gave me the strength to step into the woods again and again. Here on the PCT, I sometimes wished there were fewer of them.

I didn’t know it then, but in a few days my proclivity for solitude would be tested.

The final climb of the day came around lunchtime, a wall of switchbacks up to Three-Fingered Jack. I ate lunch — cold-soaked couscous and tuna — and dried out my tent. Slippy and Oily Boy arrived. We did the math and figured we would make it to Big Lake Youth Camp just in time for dinner.

We said goodbye to El Jefe and spotted the Three Sisters, a series of successive volcanoes that all formed during different geologic time periods. The space between us and them seemed immense.

“I think that’s the Big Lake we’re going to,” Oily Boy said, pointing.

The continuous beauty of Oregon was in the closing of distance, the journey from landmark to landmark against a forever sky. I had never seen my path of travel so clearly laid out before me.

We dipped down into another long burn. But once again, Oregon was gentle and the breeze was forgiving. There was even a water cache at the next road. We were absolutely on track to make it by 5:30 until we hit the trail magic.

She was a social worker and he was a wildland firefighter on the local hotshot crew. Neither had hiked the PCT, but somehow they knew what we wanted most: beer and fresh fruit.

The dust of the day sat softly on my skin as we made our way down the dirt road. We played a word game: I went to the store and I bought a purple parrot, a pair of trekking poles, a bag of sand…

Big Lake Youth Camp was both wonderful and strange. Guthook comments touted it as “the most hiker-friendly place in Oregon,” and I guess you could say it was in terms of amenities — there was a whole hiker building with laundry and showers, plus buffets for each meal, entirely donation-based.

It was a Christian summer camp. Each new hiker to arrive got the same bright, fast-paced spiel from a young counselor. We were told not to go near the kids.

The kids were in high school, and at the dinner buffet, they sat at gender-segregated tables. Many dressed in strangely formal attire. I studied them, recalling my experiences at both summer camp and Catholic confirmation camp, and hoped that this was a nicer place than either one, especially the latter.

We said goodbye to Sprinkles and Field Trip, who were blasting ahead and then getting off trail for a wedding. Then the rest of my group decided they didn’t want to go to Bend. They would quickly stop in Sisters to resupply, then onward. There was no talk of rest days, just boxes and miles and making it to the Sierra. That was the kind of drive I needed, I thought miserably. That I had hoped for. But right now, they had seemingly endless reserves of energy that I couldn’t match. Our quick transition from 20- to 30-mile day’s had gotten the better of me.

I lay in my tent by the lake and thought through all my problems, one by one:

Feet. New shoes were likely to blame. But they seemed like they were stretching and mellowing day by day. I could wait and hope.

Legs. The pain seemed like it was due to impact. It could be the gelatinous nature of my insoles. I could get new ones.

Insomnia. The leg pain woke me at night, but it could go away. And I didn’t have any sleep aids — but I could get melatonin in town.

Morale. I needed rest. And maybe I needed a break from group decision-making.

To address these things, I would go to Bend. I texted NoDay, I think I’m leaving my group tomorrow.

Day 38: Trail and Family

Big Lake Youth Camp to Sisters, mile 669

I got bad news in the morning.

It was a family emergency, or at least something that might turn into one depending on the outcome of a medical procedure. Regardless, I needed to be in cell range on Tuesday — two days from now. I could keep hiking until then if I wanted.

It was strange timing. I didn’t know what I wanted.

The lava rock was an excellent distraction. It’s hard to capture the sinister grandeur of a lava flow, how it looks frozen in time and also like it’s reaching out to grab you. And the hopping from rock to rock reminded me of my scrambling days back in Colorado, which I often missed on the very straightforward PCT.

Around noon, I hitched into Sisters and met Six and John Mayo at McDonalds, where the latter had already consumed six McDoubles. (I had two, plus large fries and a McFlurry.)

We found Slippy and Oily Boy at the town campground and we sorted our resupplies on the picnic table. I checked my phone.

“There was a mass shooting,” I announced. “In El Paso. They were targeting immigrants.”

This wasn’t the first time I had emerged from the wilderness to news of a mass shooting. Aside from the tragedy, it was unsettling the entire nation had been gripped by a collective wave of fear and grief that had missed me because I was somewhere on a mountain.

I looked around the picnic table at my foreign friends — Canadian, Czech, Swiss, New Zealand…er. (Slippy once told me that their prime minister declaring war on white supremacy after the Christchurch mosque shooting was the only acceptable course of action and didn’t merit much praise.) They looked at me with an uncomfortable mix of pity and horror. My face burned. I didn’t know if I wanted to rail against the depravity of the United States or try to convince them that there is goodness in the hearts of some people, and not all hope is lost.

Did I believe that not all hope was lost? Not usually. I took a rage shower and drank a lot of beer.

Day 39: Woodstock

Sisters to camp, mile 691

I told Slippy and Oily Boy about my family issue. “I don’t know if I’m hiking out,” I said. “What’s the point, if I just have to get off again? But what else am I supposed to do?”

They nodded in neutral support, and I didn’t want to leave them. So of course, we hitched back to McKenzie Pass and hiked into the Three Sisters Wilderness.

It was a wildly good decision.

Washington, Hood, and Jeffersonian the horizon

There is nothing like a winding path between volcanoes to make you consider the impermanence of everything on earth. There is nothing like rocks in unearthly colors to drive home its beauty, nothing like the heat and the climbs for its pain, nothing like twisted lava to show you that everything will move and shift forever, a length of time beyond counting or comprehension.

It’s half cathedral, half wasteland. Even the trees are turned inside out. Where am I? you wonder. What kind of twisted story is this? Far-up lightning shakes the sky.

I had a relationship that dominated my life for four years. It coincided with the onslaught of mental health issues and it was volcanic in its fury, hot and all-consuming, alive with passion but never peace. He talked about Oregon and the Three Sisters a lot; he wanted us to move there. I hadn’t thought about this until I realized I was looking for his face in every bearded stranger.

The frozen magma spilled before me in a maze of what if, what if. God, this day was grave.

It would have been the same, I concluded. Exactly the same, but in Oregon.

This is the best day on the PCT, I thought suddenly, and laughed because that was such an absurd idea. It couldn’t be. There was tragedy in the air. My foot hurt. But everything was raw and pure and real.

Thunder began to purr behind the sisters. It was the first thunder since Rock Pass, way up north in Washington. I heard it echo as I walked away into the forest, reeling.

I found Slippy and Oily Boy collecting water at a stream. We hiked into the Obsidian Limited Entry Area, where the world exploded in a whole new way.

Bright black obsidian lined the trail and the world of rock around us. It glowed and shimmered in the rain like nothing I had seen before.

A Forest Service guy told us that only PCT hikers were allowed through because of overuse. From the seventies through the nineties, he said, it was the Woodstock of the area. People had a marvelous time tripping on acid, but they left their poop everywhere.

I hummed the Joni Mitchell song Woodstock as we walked away:

Gonna camp out on the land,
try and get my soul free.

Lightning lit up the sky over the South Sister even as the sun shone on us. We stopped for dinner.

I was getting up to gather water when I heard a sound like the wind picking up. “It’s coming!” cried Oily Boy.

I turned towards South Sister and there it was — a moving wall of hail! It rushed towards us at incredible speed, and suddenly there were little balls of ice bouncing off our heads and onto the red rock. I laughed incredulously as I threw my dinner things underneath a tree, which shielded us for all fifteen minutes of the storm.

I don’t know who I am
but life is for learning.

Day 40: Off Trail

Camp to Elk Lake TH, mile 700

The next day was Tuesday. I asked Slippy’s family friend for a ride into Bend and she said I could stay at her house. It was beautiful: an old boarding house by the river with trees and green lawns that did not feel like the high desert.

Sue told us that she met her husband Tom bike touring across the country in the seventies. Love is love, a sign in their front yard proclaimed. Black lives matter. Every Tuesday Sue joined a group protesting Trump on a street corner.

Alone in the bathroom, I stared at myself in the mirror. What had I done? How could I be so far from the trail? I should have just stayed at Elk Lake; I might have had service there. I had to get back!

I took a deep breath and reminded myself that this was reversible. I would go back, providing everything tomorrow went okay.

Alis volat propriis. The state motto of Oregon. I had looked it up this morning to make sure I remembered correctly: She flies on her own wings. I sat down in the shower and rubbed water into the dirt-black calluses on my feet.

Up next: Will Cloud make it back to trail?