PCT 15 | Squad goals

Day 74: King’s Buffet

Zero in California!

I volunteered to ride in the trunk of Peter’s car. I thought I could stretch out my legs, which were sure to be in pain on a three-hour journey. I could work on my blog; I could read everything on the internet about the Sierra High Route. I hadn’t anticipated getting so terribly carsick.

In the three hours to the Bay Area, I only threw up a tiny bit inside my mouth once. My nausea disappeared miraculously the moment we entered King’s Buffet, the first of Peter’s incredible surprises.

The buffet was full of families that had likely come from church. They held mounds of cocktail shrimp spilling from plates in fantastical decadence.

We’re dead, I thought. Who knew thru-hiker heaven would be so fluorescent and boxy?

Sushi, salmon, crab, wonton soup, pot stickers, crab wontons, momos, sesame chicken, a rack of barbecue beef, a begrudging spoonful of broccoli, more sushi, and a handmade soft-serve parfait with jello, shortbread cookies, and a single shrimp on top. Of course, Slippy and Oily Boy ate more than that, and later admitted to regretting it.

We drove to the Saisun Valley, Napa’s off-brand neighbor. The destination was Larry’s Produce, an open-air market surrounded by palm trees and cypress. I bought two plums, two small avocados, and a giant yellow peach for $3.55. Peter said you could pick your own produce here if you had time.

Then it was Costco, and finally Peter’s house in Fairfield. He came to California from then-Czechoslovakia in the eighties. Among the friends he left behind was Oily Boy’s dad, so


Day 75: California Dreaming

Zero in California!

“Hi Peter,” said the young waiter, setting down a cup of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. “How are you today?”

We had tamales for breakfast, carnitas with red and green chile that reminded me of true New Mexico. We had giant bowls of posole with fresh handmade tortillas. Peter ordered everything and we shared it, family-style, with the exception of chicken tacos for Mary Poppins, who doesn’t eat much meat. I marveled at the sheer perfection of the breakfast, about which there was nothing remotely breakfast-y.

Our strange and wonderful tour continued with the Jelly Belly factory.

Napa Valley was not green like I had imagined. So far, the hills of California bore the hues of dry grass and brittle sage; one long look and you felt thirsty. In May, the state’s seven-year drought had officially been declared over — PCT Nobos certainly felt that in the Sierra. But here near sea level, one had to wonder how they watered the grapes.

A few weeks back, Six had mentioned her desire to visit a Napa Valley winery for sheer culture’s sake. I love side adventures, even if I hate wine, but I reluctantly told her it was too far to hitch. When Oily Boy announced our invitation to Peter’s, I joked that Six could get her wish.

“Yeah, we could do that,” Oily Boy said casually. “He has memberships at some wineries.”

Ask, and the trail provides.

Our wine guide, David, also knew Peter by name. He was so welcoming and enthusiastic about our hike that I abandoned my plan to ask if they served PBR. He very much enjoyed hiking, he told us, and had recently taken his wife glamping in Big Sur. She didn’t know this, but it cost more than a night at a fancy hotel in Rome. He also had an impressive handlebar moustache, and told Slippy that its cultivation took time.

“Things I learned today,” I said. “I enjoy nice wine.”

“It’s not hard,” Peter replied.

On the way back to Sierra City, we had the most anticipated meal of all: In-N-Out Burger, a California fast food chain that was acclaimed for… reasons? They had chickens running around on the patio, which seemed strange given its proximity to a major road and a bunch of car dealerships.

“They don’t serve chicken here,” Slippy said, “so they probably feel very safe.”


Day 76: Isn’t It Ironic

Wild Plum Campground to White Rock Creek, mile 1486

It was 42 degrees as Oily Boy, Mary Poppins, and I hung around the picnic table in the morning. Oily Boy had his bear can already (it would be mandated in the High Sierras) and we drank hard cider with orange juice as we watched him struggle to fit his food inside.

I hiked. Every so often, I regretted not buying a knee brace while I had the chance. Every time I felt the sharp weighty twinge, I recalled tumbling down Lake Ann Pass in the Collegiate Peaks on the CDT and tasting the bitter rock. It would probably never completely heal as long as I kept hiking like this.

It was cold. I also regretted sending home my base layers.

For a little while in the middle of the day, the cold air turned pleasant — at least in the sun. We were climbing up to 8,000 feet today!

Afternoon wore on. It was raining in the distance on Sierra Butte, which looked more like a dark fortress than ever. There was no way around it: fall was here. The weather doesn’t care about our calendar days. The air turns cold. The sky turns dark. The vegetation crumbles and crunches underfoot.

There were already two section hikers at my intended campsite. We chatted as I pitched my tent. “Is it always this cold?” one of them asked. I told him glumly about the Siesta days — practically last week! — and my decision to send my base layers home until Tahoe.

Slippy lent me his long underwear to sleep in, but I still shivered in the early dark.


Day 77: Can We Live Here?

White Rock Creek to camp, mile 1510

fucking cold, read my notes from the morning. Other than that, I felt pretty good. The knee pain was ebbing again, coming and going as I started to realize it always would.

The ascent to Donner Pass found us walking on gray-white slabs of rock, another reminder that the High Sierra were near!

The Donner Ski Ranch just west of the pass allegedly offered free beer to PCT hikers, which was obviously too good to be true. Still, it was only 0.2 miles off trail, so I walked it with skepticism.

Not only was it true, but it was a full 48 oz of Coors. Were they trying to trap us here and fatten us up to eat? Six and Poppins only wanted half of their share, which either benefitted or hurt the rest of us, depending on how you see it. The others played Jenga and corn all while I crawled under a picnic table to work on my blog. The day was fucking hot.

There were literal hordes of people on the trail south of Donner Pass. One group comprised about forty high school kids, and it warmed my heart each time I saw a happy face.

I hurtled uphill, fueled by my half-drunken lack of pain. Yes! I chanted to myself. Rock ‘n roll! I was so powerful; I was CRUSHING IT!

Two hours later I was hauling my ass uphill with a headache. I felt like I had seen the Sierras before. Maybe in a dream, maybe echoed in the shapes of other mountains… maybe in the countless photos of PCT hikers before me.

We scrambled up Tinker Knob and I told the foreigners the story of the Donner Party. Basically, I said, these migrants lived on the trail for a season longer than intended. They were their own society; they had their own internal economy. When the frozen Sierras blocked them from the fertile valleys to the west, the sick began to die. The hungry began to sicken. They murdered two men, both Native Americans. The rest of the cannibalized bodies were already dead.

And as thru-hikers always do, we had The Talk. “If I’m already dead,” I assured them, “of course you should eat me.”

And everyone agreed, although this was coming from a group that didn’t even know how to butcher fish.

When we made camp in the valley, I discovered that I had lost a tent state. Almost immediately, Six found one on the ground. Sometimes the trail provides a little too eerily.

The temperature was supposed to dip below freezing tonight, and Slippy kept his base layer. I borrowed Oily Boy’s hiking pants, the kind that zip off at the knee. They had a strong odor, but that didn’t matter.

The wind shook my tent flaps and the shifting temperatures kept me awake, fidgeting with drawstrings and zippers. Around midnight, I heard Six hammering a tent stake back into the ground.


Day 78: At Last

Camp to camp, mile 1538

When my alarm went off at 6:00, I could still hear the wind whipping madly through the trees. I ate sausage and peanut M&Ms for breakfast, remembering how my ribs had looked in the bathroom of the Donner Ski Ranch.

I climbed under ski lifts to a beautiful ridge, replete with cell service and signs of civilization on either side. There was Lake Tahoe, as extremely large as it was blue. And there, like a crown on the horizon, were the real, true Sierra!

Later on, an old lady stopped me on the trail. “Do you know… Six?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Are you Five?” she exclaimed.

I laughed and shook my head. “I’m Cloud.” She delivered Six’s message about her intended campsite.

When I arrived, Six shakily informed me that she had An Incident. She had run out of water and felt compelled to hike to the next source to camp, even though there were Guthook comments about a bear that walked right next to cowboy campers’ heads. She had panicked.

Clearly everyone was feeling a little stressed. The trail can be meditative, or it can be an echo chamber for fears.

“Oily Boy gave me the best pep talk this morning,” said Six. “He said, look where we are. Look how green the leaves are. Look how blue the sky.”


Day 79: Aloha!

Camp to South Lake Tahoe, mile 1561

Hiking on town days is never fun. It’s too bad, but that’s the rule. That’s why it’s best to leave yourself six or ten miles, not twenty-two. It was made all the more urgent — and less fun — by the fact that Slippy’s aunt would be waiting at Echo Lake at 4:00pm to take us into his pre-New Zealand birthplace, South Lake Tahoe.

There was no shortage of reasons to be disgruntled as I left camp. I was cold. I was behind. I had weird armpit chafe, caused by a shoulder strap but not in a way I could understand enough to combat. I jerked my tank top around and swore a little bit.

Then I huffed and puffed my way to Fontanillis Lake.

Strange, to feel such exhilaration on a town day. But the fun was about to end. It was over 1,000 feet of climbing to the top of Dicks Pass, and no amount of dick jokes (“I hope it isn’t hard”) could soften that blow.

But I practically sprinted up, each giant step pushing me harder towards the view and killing the negativity in my head. I was back at elevation, over 9,000 ft. It is possible that a brain gets too much O2 at sea level? I wondered. Does thin air actually bring peace?

A day hiker near the top asked me how I was doing. “Awesome,” I said with relish, which seemed to surprise him.


Up next: Sierras!!!!! When Cloud gets her base layers back in Lake Tahoe, nothing can go wrong… right?