PCT 14 | A really long approach to the Sierras

Day 69: Living on a Prayer

Chester to camp, mile 1337

I went to the post office to pick up my new shoes. When I returned to the motel Oily Boy was there, drinking a beer in the parking lot like he had never been gone. He recounted his adventures since Ashland: rattlesnakes, Altra soles worn paper-thin, and an aggressive deer that stole his shirt and ate the buttons.

I lingered at the coffee shop then got an automatic hitch out of town. There were new Sobos hiking out too, which was alarming. It was easy to feel like our little group was the whole world.

I’m honestly not sure how it happened (head in the clouds, the curve of the ground) but I peed directly on my new shoes.

About eight miles out from Chester was the true midway point of the PCT: 1,325 miles. These milestones were funny because no one got excited any more. We knew exactly when and where they were coming. “A good excuse for a break,” we joked.

Is your trail half over, or does half lie ahead?

When I hiked the CDT in 2016, I was devastated to learn that the trail was halfway done. For whatever reason, on the PCT, I was not. Maybe the trail was different. Maybe it was me.

Either way, I was happy to have come so far with these fine folks.

Six was kind enough to hike the 0.2 miles off trail to collect the nightly water for everyone. She said that she heard growling down by the spring.

I lay half-covered by my sleeping bag and watched the stars come in, listening to the zips and rustles of my friends around me. Suddenly I realized this would not be forever. It struck me with an almost physical force: be grateful for this time. Savor it.

I hadn’t been feeling that way, so I had to thank that little signpost after all. I wondered if I’d feel the same way in the heat tomorrow.

Day 70: I Hate The PCT

Camp to Belden, mile 1366

I woke up to panic attacks that night.

It made so little sense that at first that I didn’t know what was happening. Why was my heart pounding? Why couldn’t I breathe?

I feel fine, I thought, searching for an explanation. It wasn’t my legs, it wasn’t my shoes or my pack or the people I was hiking with… as usual, the common denominator was me. No more denial: mental illness and its physical manifestations had followed me onto the PCT.

The outdoors used to be my number one ally against depression and anxiety. I felt a little betrayed. But a more mature part of me knew that this was an important reality check. Hiking the PCT wasn’t magic and it wasn’t going to fix anything by itself.

We got a ridgewalk that day, though it was not as welcome as the sprinkle of rain that graced us briefly in the afternoon. The world lit up with color and mosquitoes.

The descent into Belden was The Worst. It was easy to see why someone on Guthook had suggested a fundraiser to build a zipline across the river. For good measure, I dropped my phone in a creek.

Belden was a nothing town, actually just a resort. But this resort was a little different, a hippie enclave known for its drug-fueled raves. Unfortunately, it was a ghost town when we arrived.

The $18 burger in Belden was also The Worst: stiff and dense and barely edible. The campsite by the river was nice at first glance, especially in the fading light. The highway noise was overwhelmed by a droning symphony of frogs and insects, though the same could not be said for the train.

But cowboy camping was a questionable choice. A string of blue lights adorned the fence and blinked all night long. It was hot, so hot, and a strange animal ran around my head. In my 1:30am sleeplessness, I began to notice flashing lights in the sky. They could have been tiny bursts of lightning or a camera flash lighting up the world. And then it happened — the rain began to fall. As I sat up to pitch my tent, I saw Six and Oily Boy click on their headlamps too. Slippy remained sound asleep.

I stretched out in my tent and ate some doughnuts and chips. They were better than the cheeseburger. I changed my alarm from 4:30am to 5:15 for the infamous Belden climb.

Day 71: Night’s on Fire

Belden to Lookout Rock, mile 1393

Somehow, my start was delayed until 6:30am. The climb, 4,000 feet over seven miles, was not worthy of the relentless fearmongering. But a little ways in, I had to put on my bug net. If the bugs follow us into the Sierra, I swore, I am actually quitting this trail.

I direct a lot of threats at the PCT. So far it has yet to respond.

There was a smell like a campfire, and I noticed ghostly smoke rolling into the river valley. Alarmed, I whipped out my phone and checked InciWeb; the closest fire was near Reno, Nevada.

At the top, I discovered that my strawberry donuts from the night before were, in fact, moldy. I cursed Belden. I would have to carry them another 84 miles.

But we were back in airy country, with a view of the whole world. And it was ever-so-slightly raining.

Mary Poppins had hitched into Quincy to pick up his new inflatable pillow. Like a true friend, he met us back on trail with a tall, cold beer. The fire was a new one, he informed us. Burning fast and hot. He had watched the lightning strikes from his high camp the night before.

I checked again and now it was online: the Walker Fire, 0% contained and about twelve miles away. As of now, no threat to the trail.

We found a beautiful smattering of campsites at Lookout Rock. Poppins and I chose a particularly exposed ledge, and I set up my tent.

We saw the fire that night, flames and all. It was a dim orange light on the horizon, flickering like a dying sun.

Then sometime dark and late, I heard a terrible moan.

Day 72: Fish Fry on the Beach

Lookout Rock to camp, mile 1420

In the morning the fire could have been mistaken for a cloud again, red and purple and straddling the horizon.

The cry in the night was Mary Poppins, cowboy camping. His brand new pillow had blown off the cliff.

Sometimes the trail was littered in old leaves, and I told myself they were from the previous fall. But as we hiked down to the Middle Fork of the Feather River, there was no doubt. The trees were turning.

It was still good weather for a swim. I sat in the water and washed my socks and my shirt, scrubbing them against the rocks for good measure.

Oily Boy, Poppins, and I were packing up when a fisherman approached. He held out two small trout and asked if we wanted them. When we exclaimed in delight, he threw down two aluminum bottles of Coors Light on the rocks too.

I turned to Oily Boy. “I assume you know how to gut these?”

He shrugged hesitantly. “I’ve read about it.”

“Oh, you don’t know how to clean ’em?” asked the fisherman. “Trout are easy. Here, I’ll do it.”

The boys sat on the rocks while I followed the fisherman to the river, watching intently as he made a slit down the length of the fish and started to remove its innards, piece by piece. There was a lot of blood, and he used his fingers to scoop it all out before dipping the fish in the river.

Suddenly I realized that he might hand me the second fish to practice. I had just smoked a bowl and was in no mood for waterfalls of fish blood, so I chirped, “Awesome!” and hastily retreated. We thanked him profusely. This was my very favorite kind of trail magic: random, unintentional kindness.

We agreed that the fish could not be carried in the heat, so settled in to cook them on the rocks by the river. Being the ultralight bros that we are, we only had one-inch Swiss Army knives to cut up the fish meat. Poppins and I butchered while Oily Boy fried the fillets in olive oil and taco seasoning.

“This is like a Bud Light commercial,” exclaimed Mary Poppins, who is Swiss.

It wasn’t a wealth of fish meat, but it sure was fun. And it was precisely what I needed to keep going that afternoon.

Once we were back on the ridge, I turned my head every so often to check on the fire. When I got service, I screenshoted the updates from InciWeb. “It’s not looking good,” I told the others. “900 more acres burning since this morning, and still 0% contained.”

Day 73: The Price of My Soul

Camp to Sierra Butte Road, mile 1451, and then some

My body was having a hard time again. The climbs in NorCal were predictably brutal, and my feet and knees and ankles paid the price. When my mind asked why?!, I kept telling myself I was on a really long approach trail to the Sierra.

The Sierra. Doing it all for the Sierra. Cool air, blue skies, granite slabs like silver. Lakes like heavenly light. Only a hundred miles to go.

After one of the laborious uphill climbs, I ran into a group of mountain bikers.

“Are you aware that you’re on the Pacific Crest Trail?” I asked, tight-lipped.

“Yeah,” said their leader. “We’re only on it for a quarter mile.”

“Well,” I replied, “mountain biking isn’t allowed on the trail at all.”

They laughed and told me to have a good hike.

My fury was only compounded by the lack of understanding displayed by my friends. “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” they said. “There’s not a lot of hikers right now.”

“Therulesonlyworkifeveryonefollowsthem!” I mumble-cried. “They’reentitledwhitemenwhohaveprobablyneverbeentoldnointheirlives.” We followed bike tracks least another five miles.

I lagged. I felt like shit. We would be in Sierra City tomorrow morning, but it had never felt further away.

Slippy and Oily Boy were intent on sleeping at the Sierra Butte fire lookout, a 700-foot, 1.5-mile climb up a dirt road. Six and I agonized a little bit and then decided not to go. She thought it looked far away and I simply couldn’t walk another step.

We were about to pitch our tents by the dirt road when a truck roared around the corner. They stopped gladly for our outstretched thumbs and offered us beer for the ride up. It was a rough 4×4 road that turned the bed into a jerky amusement park ride.

The fire lookout was locked, but a whole group of sunset-chasers gathered on the metal grate around it. The sunset itself might not have been the most spectacular, but the landscape and the wind and the bottle of expensive tequila all added to the excitement. Colors streamed across the sky like brushstrokes and the Walker Fire surged like a monster about to pounce.

The men were all together on some kind of group trip. They invited us back to their camp for a catered dinner (steak!) and all kinds of decadent revelry. The whirlwind offer that felt born of this fairyland in the sky.

Oily Boy and Slippy wanted to sleep at the lookout and hike seven miles to the highway tomorrow. I deeply, profoundly, did not.

We rode to their camp in the pickup bed. “This is better than those seven miles tomorrow, right?” Six asked nervously.

“Of course,” I said. “This is the difference between thru-hiking and just… hiking.”

It was Dads Mountain Bike Camp, we learned, a yearly fundraiser for a private Christian school near San Francisco. Tables spread out under fairy lights and a full kitchen served gourmet food. We sat by the campfire to eat and watch.

There was a well-known prayer: God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Then there was another prayer, this one involving bikes, and romantic invocations of wind in hair, etc., all the while directed at God. “May you continue to let us bike in heaven,” the dad concluded. They gave each other awards for all things silly and serious, like wiping out over the handlebars or upholding the memory of a dad who had died. I cheered loudly for each one.

“Are those the guys that you told off today?!” Six hissed.

Slowly, their faces clicked into place in my memory. Oh my god.

“They’re cool now,” said Poppins.

I sauntered back to the kitchen tent for more steak and garlic-cheese polenta, making an effort to obscure my face. Yeah, they were cool now.

I can be bought, it turns out. Everyone has a price, and mine is sirloin tips around a campfire.

We camped next to a pit toilet, for which I was inexpressibly grateful. The music was blaring at hiker midnight but all was quiet by 12:00am. They were dads, after all.

Up next: When the crew ventures off the PCT, California adventures await! Can they rip themselves away from wine tasting and In-N-Out Burger to brave the chilly Sierra?