PCT 13 | Kingdom of the animals

Day 61: 100 Degrees in the Vortex

Zero in Dunsmuir

Louis gave us a ride to Shasta in the afternoon. He pointed out the exit for Lake Siskiyou, perfect for an evening swim. It was one of the perks of working at the old saw mill, before that industry packed up and left.

“Did that change the town?” asked Slippy.

“Oh yeah,” said Louis. “It changes everything.”

Not a lot of people were born and raised here, he told us. Shasta was a spiritual center now, and attracted both mountain climbers and crystal-magic-believers from all over the world. It sat just north of Dunsmuir, population 1,500 and home to Louis’ RV Park. (Mary Poppins’ mom had rented a cabin for us in honor of her son’s birthday.) Dunsmuir was the oldest and largest town in the area, he continued, until the railroad boom died down.

Every small town had a story like that — a story of what might have been. It’s never a sad or unhopeful story, because if something bountiful was possible once, it very well could be again.

In Shasta, we visited the outdoor gear store and heard horror stories about hikers who attempt to try on clothes without showering. We went to the thrift store, where Six and I bought dresses and Slippy bought a floral-patterned suit jacket. We entered a crystal shop, which was fancy and rather dull, to buy a birthday crystal for Mary Poppins. Malachite: Absorbs negative energies.

Back at the cabin, we cooked (pasta, steak, salad, chicken, corn, grilled fruit, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch paired with various combinations of milk, heavy cream, and whipped cream). We each chose a corner of the living room and spread out our gear without guilt or constraint. We got mega-blazed and watched the new live-action Aladdin. When Six admitted that she had bought a peel-off face mask from the Dollar General, we all decided to join in.

And of course we took full advantage of the hot tub on the deck. There was one particular jet, dubbed The Foot Jet, that spurted with unnatural force against our numb and weary soles.

Day 62: Our Path

Dunsmuir to Cabin Creek Trailhead, mile 1149

The woman who drove us to the trailhead was the local Uber, kind of. She came up for a few days from Los Angeles, met some PCT hikers, and decided to stay for the summer. The money was three times better in LA, but she wanted to support us on our path. “It’s just so wonderful what you’re doing,” she repeated. Christian tokens littered the dashboard and a laminated prayer implored us to be men of God. I thought about asking what was so great about our path, and decided against it.

It was always a long climb out of town, because that’s how towns work — they sit lower than the mountains. It was always the same, but never any less disappointing in the midday heat.

The light was waning when we finally reached camp, but the day had been so unbearable that we decided to jump in the creek anyway. I spotted a mysteriously deep pool decorated with marble-white rock and green ferns. I slipped in and the water closed over my head. It was freezing cold. I crawled out shivering just in time to see Mary Poppins soar overhead and plunge in with an almighty splash.

We made a plan for the heat. We called it Siesta, and it meant an early rise.

Day 63: Siesta

Cabin Creek Trailhead to camp, mile 1199

I used to think I preferred heat. But over seven years in the Rockies, I began to understand: you can fight the cold. You can add layers, do jumping jacks, make a fire. There is no escape from heat.

I started thinking about everything I did to prepare for the PCT. I walked away from a job I sometimes enjoyed, with great benefits and a substantial salary increase only a couple days before I announced my departure. My boss asked if there was anything they could do to get me to stay, and I didn’t even think before I said, “No way.”

I made a spreadsheet. Weights, dates, mailing addresses, expenses — if it was relevant to a thru-hike, it was on there. I looked at it every day for two months.

I said goodbye to my dog, my most precious angel, and my friends, and the magical Rocky Mountain summer, where mosquito season lasts a week and all the heat is dry until the monsoons sweep in to wash away your sweat. With climate change, I thought dourly, there might never be a Rocky Mountain summer again.

The siesta was planned for the hottest part of the day, 12:00-2:00pm, with seventeen miles already down. We took it at Butcherknife Creek in a shady campsite next to the water. I lay down and slept in tiny, startled spurts; Six said I was snoring. I was elated to fall asleep at all.

In the afternoon, a divine blessing brought dark clouds and precipitation. But soon it blew elsewhere, and the ensuing sweat washed away all traces of the cool rain.

Day 64: Lions and Tigers

Camp to camp, mile 1228

I couldn’t get up at 5:00am again. I just couldn’t. I wasn’t even asleep, but the exhaustion of the previous day was too heavy in my bones. But I made it up by 6:00 to beat a little bit of the heat.

Shasta sat closer than ever, purple in the dawn. Glistening glaciers carved sharp dimension and clouds gathered in an otherwise clear sky. It was easy to love and hard to appreciate on this late August morning.

“You’re moving along pretty quick!” said a day hiker, smiling condescendingly. I didn’t know what to say to him; I never do in the moment.

We found Carjack sitting next to the trail. She always took her breaks that way — as if she had suddenly collapsed, unable to stand the hiking and the heat a moment longer. (We likes to break at views or water sources.) She told us that she had seen several rattlesnakes, a throwback to her pre-flipping desert days. And worst of all, she had sat in her tent last night and listened to a mountain lion scream.

Shortly I walked onto a dirt road and saw Six and Mary Poppins sitting in the dirt. “This isn’t the spring,” I said accusingly.

“He saw a mountain lion,” Six replied.

It had jumped onto the trail about sixteen feet (“five meters”) in front of him. “At first I thought it was a deer, because of the color,” he said. “Then I saw the tail. And I saw a face I had only seen at the zoo.”

“Now we have the big three,” I said sardonically. “The fearmongering animals: rattlesnake, bear, and mountain lion.”

The day wore on. There’s an unspoken idea that if you’re not happy all the time, you’re a lesser kind of thru-hiker. When people write about the hard times, it’s always tempered by gratitude: There’s no place else I’d rather be. Well, right now, there was a place I’d rather be: McDonald’s, dipping salty fries into a vanilla milkshake. My room in Denver, reading a book next to my dog. Anywhere without mosquitoes.

It was so hot in my tent that night that I slept naked, wincing at the stickiness of my skin against my sleeping bag.

Day 65: Burney Falls

Camp to Highway 299, mile 1242

To my surprise, the morning passed quickly. We walked across Britton Dam, which turned a free-flowing river into a quote-unquote lake. It was still cool when we arrived at Burney Falls, a two-mile sure trip from the PCT. Like many sacred indigenous sites, it was now making money for California as a state park.

I lingered at the park store (Cheetos, chocolate milk, beer, soft-serve) and then booked it to the highway in the encroaching heat. We hitched into Burney and went straight to McDonald’s before laundry and resupply.

Thinking of the previous nights’ sleep and long climbs with a heavy pack, I mailed home my base layers, warm hat, and sleeping socks. I would get them back in Tahoe, before the Sierra.

The local church enticed us with free showers. During the summer, their entire gymnasium became a hiker haven with sleeping pads spread across the vast floor. A family from the congregation was barbecuing tonight, so we eagerly joined them the evening.

They had three daughters. Six and Slippy bounced basketballs and ran around the gym with the younger two. The oldest was twelve, and she told us that she wanted to hike the PCT one day.

“Right now I can’t even walk down the street by myself,” she said reproachfully.

There was certainly talk of staying. “Imagine not setting up our tents,” said Six. But we wanted a pre-dawn start to tackle the infamous Hat Creek Rim. So we got a sunset hitch and slept by the road.

I couldn’t sleep. (I could never sleep, not in the past year and a half.) There were cars on the highway. There was an animal scurrying around in the bushes. There were giant black ants, coming from somewhere in the tent and crawling all over my body, refusing to be squished. But most of all their was my own brain, sick, confused, enemy number one of my 2019 PCT thru-hike attempt.

I put in earplugs, I took melatonin. I took Benadryl, even though I planned to start hiking five hours later. I curled on my sleeping pad and wiped tears from the bowls around my eyes.

Day 66: The Hat Creek Rim

Highway 299 to Hat Creek Overlook, mile 1273

The morning was… cold? My fingers were stiff and my clothes were barely enough for the dawn air.

Oh, desert.

I walked through the grounds of a hydroelectric plant and gathered my last water before the cache in fifteen miles. The Hat Creek Rim was a contour along a high for almost twenty miles, encircling lava flows from Mt. Lassen. We heard there was no water, no shade. We knew there was heat.

The trail magic came a little too early: a cooler full of sodas, with an additional cooler for recycled cans. I took a Cherry Coke for the road. I wanted to savor it, but I was in a race against the sun.

It was a cloudless day, and the heat began to overwhelm me on the climb up to the rim. And then, from the bushes, an unmistakable noise: rattle. Like a slowed-down maraca. I scurried along, assuring myself that it was just a warning.

A few hours in, I didn’t understand the fuss. There wasn’t NO shade — just not much on the trail. But you could always duck under a nearby juniper to catch your breath. I guess I’m used to the desert.

I spotted something airborne near the edge of the rim. At first I thought it was a drone from the way that it was hovering, but I moved closer and saw that it was a bird. Probably a falcon, I thought. But that was a big falcon. Bigger than any falcon I’d ever seen.

It couldn’t be… a condor?!

I watched it, mesmerized. It was perhaps fifty feet above me, sitting on the wind and bobbing ever so slightly. And then it dove fast and far without moving its wings.

I whipped out my phone and frantically googled facts about condors. I didn’t know much, besides that they had ten-foot wingspans and had been successfully introduced back to the wild after being declared extinct. I remembered that there was a California Condor. Were they here? Yep — I was standing right on the northern edge of their territory. The Hat Creek Rim, a desert in a desert. Still, how could I be sure?

Then the bird returned. I scrutinized it for the signs: a curved beak, an unmistakable white t-bone marking under the wings, the ability to ride the wind with an otherworldly grace, defying natural understanding as if the bird had control of the currents and not the other way around. I was looking at a condor, a motherfucking condor!

Eventually it flew away again and I marched on, buoyed by the strange and unlikely sight. But the condor high wore off, and I was just hurtling through the hot desert again.

It was going to be a painful 33-mile day. The heat was slowly ebbing but our bodies were spent as we headed towards the final water source. We paused at the trailhead for the Hat Creek Overlook; the sun was about to set with two more miles to go.

But lo! Behold, water at the trailhead in plastic gallon jugs! We made ourselves right at home: sleeping pads on the concrete, food bags hanging off the picnic table, and the Milky Way spread above us in a cloudless sky.

Mount Lassen as seen through the telescope at the Overlook.

Day 67: Tubular!

Hat Creek Overlook to Warner Valley Camp, mile 1303

We started the day with a visit to the Subway Ice Caves… or were they Lava Tubes? Either way, hot magma flowed underground while the crust above it cooled, then drained to create hollow caverns that gave you the sense you might have crashed your Millennium Falcon in a giant worm.

It was just a short walk to Old Station, where we treated ourselves to breakfast cheeseburgers. That meant a roadwalk back to the PCT, and I grabbed a beer from the gas station for what I imagined would be a fun time chatting and playing games.

Not so. We spread out in the pounding sun, and I contemplated pouring the beer in the ditch where I stopped to pee.

The trail was dusty all day, and I didn’t need to see my feet to know that they were black with a mix of sweat and silt. Six told me she had run out of things to think about. I had too, I admitted. So while we hiked, I thought about that.

In Mount Lassen National Park, we weren’t allowed to camp without bear boxes. That meant another long day to the requisite campground, but weren’t they all long days, dictated by one reason or another? We found time to rest by a lake. My feet in the water was heaven on earth; truly, I could never hope to describe it in words. Slippy had accidentally stolen the foosball from the church in Burney, and I felt my heels crackle as I rolled it across.

We had to hike in the dark to make the campground. It was the kind with designated, numbered sites, so we cowboy camped in a large pile on the hill and snuck down to slide our food into someone else’s bear box. Several other PCT hikers showed up to join the pile, and I was fairly sure that not all of them followed the rules. Thru-hikers seem to think they’re above that shit.

As I tried to fall asleep, I noticed a definite sulphur smell in the air. For whatever reason, the temperature kept changing — I was warm, cold, then hot again.

Day 68: The Best Hitch Ever

Warner Valley Camp to Chester, mile 1322

The morning brought a short but sweet tour of Mount Lassen’s thermal activity. It was no Yellowstone, but who doesn’t love a hot stream on a cold morning?

Our destination was Chester, the town commonly known as the halfway point on the PCT. I asked Six if she was going to attempt the Half Gallon Challenge, referring to the amount of ice cream the challenger must eat in one sitting.

“What is a half gallon?” Six asked. “Like those cartons of Ben and Jerry’s?”

“That’s a pint,” I informed her. “A half gallon is four times that much.”

She looked horrified. We had been waiting almost forty minutes for a hitch, long enough for desperation and despair to set in.

Finally there was Bryan. He welcomed us into his SUV by pulling cold beers from a case under the drivers’ seat, and didn’t let us depart without a ziplock bag stuffed with home-grown weed. Sometimes, hitches are worth waiting for.

Up next: A surprise guest arrives in Chester, the weather begins to turn, and Cloud confronts a moral dilemma involving sirloin tips and beer.