Day 41: Fire on the Mountain
Bend to camp, mile 703
I tiptoed around Sue and Tom’s house, wincing every time I slammed a door or dripped egg yolk onto the kitchen counter. I licked my fingers guiltily. I was a wild beast! My skin was coated in sunscreen and speckled with dust! How did people live so spotlessly?
I sipped coffee on the porch and waited for news from back east. Cars grumbled by and dogs sniffed the bright green lawn. Bend was the high desert but it didn’t feel it, not with three-story oaks and weeping willows, rows of shady colonizer trees.
Around ten, my sister called with good news — everything was going to be fine.
I texted my friend Stummy, who kindly offered to drive me to REI, then took me out to lunch, waited while I got my hair cut, and brought me right back to the PCT with a stop at Sparks Lake for some beer and paddle-boarding.
When we arrived, there was a BLM engine truck in the parking lot. Stummy’s friends proudly informed us that they had called in the fire after lightning struck a tree on the slopes of Broken Top. Thankfully it hadn’t spread and was extinguished naturally.
I gazed uneasily at the mountainside. Was this it? The beginning?
After many hugs and a cute drawing on my backpack, Stummy dropped me off at the trailhead.
At the water source where I planned to camp, I found a trail family of Nobos already in their tents.
“What’s your name?” the alpha demanded.
“Cloud,” I said. It gave me a shiver of delight to introduce myself totally solo. This was the feeling I remembered: true, anonymous freedom.
Day 42: On My Own
Camp to camp above Waldo Lake, mile 732
10 by 10:00 again. And again, strikingly on the nose. I sat impulsively on a log and rooted through my backpack. No time limit on this break.
I revelled in independence. It wasn’t as though the group has inhibited my freedom in any way, but there was always a self-imposed pressure to catch up, to take breaks together, camp together… but this was the age of Cloud. She acts on impulse! She flies on her own wings!
The thing was, I still kind of wanted to catch up. I guess I missed them. I mentally calculated ways to close the gap, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t bust ass to do so.
A search and rescue helicopter circled directly overhead. Uneasily, I remembered a story about an acquaintance’s off-and-locked InReach sending out an accidental distress signal. That was just what my family needed right now.
I felt good. My feet and legs felt fast and strong. Best of all, my heart was light.
As soon as I saw Waldo Lake, I knew I was camping there. I had planned to stop about a mile further, but that was the beauty of hiking alone. Oregon’s second-largest natural lake was barely off the trail, just a little bushwhack and sashay across rocks to get there.
I cooked Soy Sauce ramen and watched the sun go somewhere mysterious. Currents rolled across the gleaming water, although the wind didn’t quite reach my perch. I knew that because of the mosquitoes.
Finally, I escaped to my tent and watched the colors fade from behind the mesh. For the first time, I was camping alone on the PCT and couldn’t see anyone near me. This was something I hadn’t known I missed.
Day 43: Gimme Shelter
Camp above Waldo Lake to Whitefish Creek (alternate)
My illusion of solitude was shattered when I encountered three people within my first five minutes of hiking. Oh well, town day! If a remote commercial resort counted as town.
There was not much to look at besides lakes. At first I had been underwhelmed, but now I took the time to study them, namely the colors of the water. One lake could hold so many!
From Willamette Pass, I walked the road to Shelter Cove Resort. It looked shorter and it was, by almost a mile. The thru-hiker mentality was coming on strong. I resented any extra walking like I was being punished with hard labor, even though it was what I had signed up for.
Shelter Cove was more low-key than I had expected. There was a walk-up grill with huge burgers, beer for sale, and no one cared that I sprayed down my feet at the fish washing station. A few large canopy tents were reserved for PCT hikers.
I walked up to a crowded table. “Where my Sobos at?” I exclaimed awkwardly. Silence.
I waited for the bathroom next to a female Nobo. “How did you like your time in the Man Tent?” she asked.
I suddenly realized that we were two of three women in a crowd of twenty-five or so hikers. “Honestly,” I said, “I’m so used to it, I barely noticed.” And for a moment I was sad, and wanted to say something meaningful to illustrate the power and perseverance of women, but she was ultimately a Nobo so we just talked about mosquitoes.
Back in the Man Tent, I met fellow Sobos Teflon and Timeout. The Nobos around me chatted about mileage, the Sierra, and occasionally themselves. One of them was a captain in the Danish military, and he told us that he was deploying to Afghanistan after the PCT.
“My buddy did a tour in Afghanistan,” said Timeout.
The Danish captain shook his head an hesitated. “It is not the same thing,” he said slowly. “This is a… training operation.” It sounded like he was trying not to say, We don’t do what you do.
I texted my friend Rampaige. She was headed northbound and I expected that we would cross paths sometime soon. I sorted food from my resupply box and drank IPA from the store. (I hadn’t intended to buy a six-pack, but it was called Vicious Mosquito.) I charged my external battery and packed my pack. My chores wound down and I lingered. I cracked another IPA.
Because that’s the thing about me. I linger. I chat and sit heavily and stare off into space. I have great daily aspirations, but often linger them away.
I had to get out of Shelter Cove! I realized that my old group had helped keep me on the straight and narrow. Now I was hovering dangerously on the edge of my old ways, meaning that I would probably spend the night in Shelter Cove getting rowdy with a bunch of trashy hikers I would never see again.
“I’m going ten miles to the horse camp,” I announced to my new Nobo friends. It was 5:45.
“Just in case you don’t make it ten miles,” one of them said, “there’s a good lake in five.”
Back on the trail, I wondered what the hell I had been lingering for. This was what I loved the most! The dying golden sunlight, the cool breeze, the sound of a creek… and of course the mosquitoes, which were so thick at 7:15 that I had to stop and take out my bug spray.
Day 44: Rampaige!
Whitefish Creek to Maidu Lake Trail, mile 787
My existential malaise seemed to be gone for now. It seemed to be a facet of hiking alone — I was very focused on the business of decision-making.
The host at the horse camp offered me water. “Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.
“Mexico!” I said gaily. And then I had to listen to her directions, even though I knew the way.
I lingered at the horse camp and lingered again at Windigo Pass, where there was a massive water cache and “charging station” that consisted of a box of phone batteries. I talked to a German hiker who worked in Denmark as a clean energy scientist. He was also a vegetarian.
We got onto the subject of mice and he told me that he had killed three in one night. “With my bare hands,” he continued. “And I liked it.”
Okay. I strapped on my backpack to go. Rampaige has texted me that she was only a few miles away! Today was the day!
For the first time in what felt like forever, but was really about two-and-a-half weeks, clouds spread across the sky. A passing Nobo, an older man, stopped me.
“You hear the thunder?” he asked.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I’m glad I’m coming down rather than going up.”
I rolled my eyes and kept walking in the thick forest. And then, coming up from the other side of a small crest, Rampaige! I was so excited to see her that I actually ran about ten feet uphill, water-loaded pack and all. It’s funny what the human body can do.
We sat on the hill next to the trail; it would have been unfathomable to move to a flatter spot and condemn someone to doubling back. We talked about our feet, our hikes so far, our dream of an artists’ retreat at a cabin in British Columbia, and the people we knew from the CDT, where we met in 2016. Rampaige had gone on to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail and then the Appalachian Trail last summer.
“I miss the community on the CDT,” she said. “It isn’t quite the same here.”
“I’m glad you said that,” I replied.
“It was like that on the PNT too.”
“Maybe it’s the number of people,” I said. “Those two like small towns. And the AT and the PCT are large cities.”
After a few hours it was clear that neither of us wanted to go, but we both had places to be. (Mexico and Canada, or Crater Lake and Shelter Cove if you’re thinking short-term.) We took a picture and parted ways.
Rampaige turned back for a moment. “Remember!” she cried. “You’re never gonna make it!”
It was an old joke. It meant, Good luck. I believe in you.
Day 45: Shitshow
Maidu Lake Trail to Grouse Hill Camp, Crater Lake alternate route
My alarm went off to a backdrop of light rain. I had set it early — 4:50am — for a big day. I groaned and hit snooze.
I was thinking about sitting up when thunder screamed like a landslide across the sky. Then the rain came fast and hard, and the lightning began. I tried to remember the counting system for distance — was it one second for five miles? Oh well.
(Editor’s note: It is NOT one second for five miles.)
I fell asleep again and didn’t wake until 7:00. My tent walls were an alarming yellow-green and it was raining lightly.
I pulled on my clothes. Ugh, it smelled like Washington.
I hiked with Timeout and Teflon for most of the day. Our promised views of Mt. Theilsen, Oregon’s last major volcano, never materialized through the clouds.
“You hike really fast,” Timeout said. “Did you know that?”
“No,” I replied.
At the water cache just before Crater Lake, a man approached us and immediately started bragging about his incompetence as though it made him a rebel. He didn’t carry paper maps or have GPS navigation.
“At intersections, I used to just wait for someone to come along,” he said. “Now I look for footprints.” Then he told us how he had forgotten to bring water to the very start of his hike, a long dry stretch.
“His trail name should be Shitshow,” I said when he left.
“The water cache, 5:30 on the tenth,” Teflon said. “In case they need his last known whereabouts.”
We camped at Grouse Hill just inside the National Park. As we strolled around looking for a campsite we came across a couple with a campfire, the prohibitive sign standing ironically in the foreground.
“You can camp here if you don’t tell on us for having a fire,” the woman teased.
“You should not have a fire,” I said sternly.
We walked away and Teflon shook his head in disgust. “This time last year, the whole lake was obscured by smoke.”
As soon as I settled into my sleeping bag for the night (7:30pm), it began to rain again. But at least it drowned out the sound of someone snoring.
Day 46: See You Later, Crater
Grouse Hill Camp to camp, mile 843
Drops of water were hit the tent like popcorn as I woke and considered the sunrise over Crater Lake, three miles away. I groaned and grunted and rolled around, but ultimately packed up and hit the trail in barely enough time.
An old friend was back: the wall of fog.
At first I was devastated. It was Washington all over again! Everyone said that Crater Lake was the highlight of Oregon.
But this time the fog had returned with a gift. Just as I reached the rim, the sun broke through like a fiery chariot and the sky swirled and broke open in a heavenly clash between good and evil.
I had whispered a spell to lift the fog. I could see Mt. Thielsen now, silhouetted in the distance like a dark fortress.
I scrambled to the top of a rocky outcropping and looked at the lake for a while. There it was, the promised blue.
I felt an unexpected emptiness. It was a big space, but all I could see on the other side were walls. It was different here at Crater Lake. Not bad. Soft and still. I was so glad to visit before the Park came to life.
The fog rolled in again. I assured a glum Nobo that these things come and go.
I hitched from Rim Village to Mazama, yellow-blazing three miles because I was tired and cold. So long, continuous footpath! I took a coin-operated shower and did laundry in a dingy room attached to the general store. By then it was sunny and hot.
As I hiked back into the sunny pine forest, the morning seemed more and more like a ghostly dream. Was there even a place called Crater Lake? How could the water be so impossibly blue?
Occasionally camping alone was spooky, and this was one of those evenings. I heard animals scurry around the burn as I pitched my tent.
Day 47: What’s With Today, Today?
Camp to camp overlooking Fourmile Lake, mile 871
I woke and it was cold. I couldn’t drag myself out of my sleeping bag at 6:00 or even 6:30. There were ice crystals on my tent door. My Sawyer Squeeze must have frozen overnight… I guess I would know for sure if I got giardia.
What had happened to the Oregon I loved?
I screamed at myself to get out of my sleeping bag. There I was, upset and hating the PCT again. So I made hot oatmeal, even though I didn’t have the time or the water. The PCT would have to deal.
Is it even worth writing again that I walked off a foul mood over six or seven breakfast miles? Well, that’s what happened. It was all burn, pine, and huckleberry bushes without any huckleberries. So I kept my head down, hiked 3mph, and thought about life.
Is it worth writing that the mosquitos came back? Well, they did. Their hum filled the air like the world’s most sinister refrigerator.
Just like I had invented the promise of sunshine in Oregon, I decided that NorCal would be mosquitoless. After all, the former had come true.
I was sluggish. I missed the turnoff for Snow Lake, the last water before a ten-mile carry. I backtracked a mile, a whole extra fucking mile. The pond I finally found was dense and green. Perfect for my potentially-defunct Sawyer.
At the last spring of the day, a strange Sobo man walked up and immediately asked me where I was camping tonight.
“Further,” I said. He gave me a demanding look and I concentrated on my squished package of HoHos, which I had to lick off the plastic.
“You do know there’s not much water up ahead?” he asked.
“It’s 11.8 miles to the next source.”
“Okay, you’ve got it then.” He didn’t sound pleased about that. “Well, happy trails.”
A bee l stung the back of my left calf as I was walked along, oblivious. It was a little unsettling, although I knew I wasn’t allergic to bees.
I made camp on a whim and estimated my mileage for the day. 28.4. Not too bad for a bad day. The moon rose large and bright over a faraway lake.
Day 48: Another Fire on the Mountain
Camp to camp, mile 904
35 miles today, I decided. It was a humorously lofty goal — unprecedented — but I found that setting such goals, even if I failed, got me closer than I would have been otherwise.
I hiked a strangely consistent 3mph. At Fish Creek, the last source before another ten-mile water carry, I drank a full liter and ate my last HoHo. Sorry, Cloud of tomorrow.
I was glad to have hiked Oregon southbound. Because I had to admit it: besides Crater Lake, the last half of the state lived up to its reputation as Boring. It was hard to motivate myself through endless unremarkable forest.
When I first heard the highway in the distance, I thought it was a massive cloud of mosquitos filling the sky.
Oh no! Huckleberries, and ripe ones. They choked the trail as far as I could see, plump and purple.
NoDay liked to say that she never made it to Canada in 2013 because she kept stopping to pick huckleberries. I used to scoff, but now I understood.
My right ankle began to hurt, and once I found myself limping I needed to take it seriously. I threw on some tape, took an ibuprofen, and packed up, even though my body didn’t want to.
I spotted a wildfire in the blue beyond. I was bad at estimating distance but it was very far away, softly swirling smoke into the sky. I checked for service — yes! — and called 911, just to be sure.
It was the Ward Incident, they told me. Ignited three days ago by lightning.
While I had service, I checked my messages. John Mayo has written: Tmrw Ashland, we booked room can you make it? It has an outdoor pool. Should we count on you?
Ahhh fuckkkk maybe, I replied. I checked Guthook. 37 miles; it was 4:30pm.
I really hadn’t expected to be reunited with my old group so soon, if ever. But suddenly I really wanted it.
And I wanted to stay in a motel. God, I wanted a motel.
I wrote: I’ll be there.
I got in my tent right before the familiar droning lit up the evening air. It was a warm night and I didn’t need to curl up inside my sleeping bag. But as soon as I put my legs down on the pad, the back of my calf with the bee sting shot through with a terrible pain.
It was so bad that I couldn’t lie on my back. I took a Benadryl and ibuprofen, but they didn’t help. Finally, around 2:00am, I pulled my leg out to re-examine. There were two swollen blisters.
Weird. I assembled my best sterile equipment and drained them, then applied a large band-aid. I wasn’t getting much sleep tonight.
My alarm was set for 4:45am, with 30 miles to go. I was definitely going to make it, I thought. I pictured my friends’ faces. I pictured the motel.
Little did I know…
Up next: When a strange disaster strikes, can Cloud catch up to her friends after all?