The trail has become our everything. I don’t just say that in a conceptual or figurative sense, but I mean it really very literally. While that two-foot wide stretch of trail that occupies our endless numbered days was once reserved solely for the act of walking, we have become so intimately entangled with its existence that this 2,663-mile section of cleared ground has become where we eat, nap, pee, take breaks and occasionally even set up camp for the night. In short, our everything. It is sometimes just that much easier to plop down right where we are (especially when ridge-walking, which we do quite alot of on the Pacific Crest Trail) than wait for a flat or clear spot to rest our walking legs. The fact that, up until recently, we have been behind the main ‘pack’ or ‘herd’ of PCT hikers, has also contributed to our new-found uses for the trail. Most of the time, we are not bothered by others if we eat/sleep/pee on the physical trail.
However, a week or so ago, Gus and I had stopped for a ten-minute break, which had turned into a cooked lunch, which quickly escalated into a mid-day nap, (IN the middle of trail, of course), when a group of ladies on horse-back came along. As we moved our every possession off the trail in order to make room for the group, the typical trail conversation commenced,
“Are you guys on the PCT?”
“Did you start in Mexico?”
“You guys going the whole way?”
“That’s the goal!”
“How many days have you been out? What do you eat?…” etc. etc.
They were a friendly group of travelers, but as they were riding away, we heard one lady say to another, “Why would anyone want to do that?” I couldn’t help laughing as we had probably given them quite an ungraceful show throwing our gear/life every which way in order to clear the trail for them. It wasn’t our best moment. But this lady’s query brought up a question that we have asked ourselves on occasion.
Why did/do we want to hike the PCT? Why would anyone want to walk for five months, making themselves vulnerable to Mother Nature’s every whim, becoming so dirty and smelly that immediate entrance back into civilization brings with it stares, snarky comments, or sympathy for the ‘homeless kids’? Who in their right mind would sign up to be so completely out of control of life as they knew it, without the comforts of running water and electricity, or the security of a job or a plan? What is the draw to living with minimal personal property and being sometimes so utterly reliant on the kindness of strangers?
The initial allure for me was the simplicity of living with so few possessions and having only the most basic of duties to attend to each day: walk, eat, sleep, stay warm (or cool off). However, after hiking or sleeping through a few thunder storms, or peeing on my shoe one too many times, I’ve realized it’s much more ‘simple’ to have a shelter that you don’t have to worry about drying out if it gets wet, or to have a porcelain throne with running water. Gus and I definitely have our on and off days in regards to appreciation for trail-life, and the ‘on’ days are becoming more frequent as we get closer to the border (funny how that works). With the increase in gratitude, our answers to the ‘Why?’ question, when asked, have become less abstract/elusive and more concrete. But sometimes it’s still a struggle, after days on end of walking, and over a month ahead of us of more walking, to justify the trekking on. However, while grappling with this question one evening over a bowl of mac ‘n cheese with other thru-hikers, one veteran hiker shared with Gus and me that “many of the lessons and secrets of the trail reveal themselves to you after you’ve finished, and then, throughout your whole life.” So, on the big ‘Why?’ question, I guess we’ll just have to wait.
But anyways, back to life on the trail.
Last Gus wrote we were enjoying a zero day with our wonderful grandparents in Ashland, OR, where they treated us to many a delicious meal and a showing of the Midsummer’s Night Dream in the open-air Elizabethan theater. I headed back out into the lovely Oregon woods with images of fairy kingdoms and forest nymphs frolicking in my mind. From the Rogue River National Forest, up through Sky Lakes and Diamond Peak Wilderness we walked, appreciating the wide, gradual, and well-maintained trail. Many thru-hikers complain about the Oregon section of the PCT because (save for Crater Lake and Three Sisters Area), they say, it is ‘boring’. Gus and I, on the other hand, have immense gratitude for the gentle climbs and generously wooded trail: a plentitude of shelter from the sun for our PNW grey-sky loving partiality.
One of my top-five favorite PCT moments happened the night/morning before we entered into Crater Lake Wilderness. As we were walking in the evening, the trail meandered up along a ridge and we witnessed a fiery sunset to our left while the humongous, almost-full moon rose on our right. The next morning our alarms went off at the ungodly hour of 4 am. We still had 25 more miles to go and wanted to get our resupply box before the store where it was being held closed. We woke to bright white light streaming over our campsite. It was like someone had installed a lamp post in the grove of trees behind us. Getting out of my sleeping bag at that hour was considerably easier when I could use the light of the moon rather than my headlamp to pack up camp. We hiked in the dark for an hour and a half before the trail changed it up and decided to ascend a rather steep ridge (for Oregon) switchbacking back and forth, back and forth. We started to climb and as we walked east, we saw the horizon beginning to turn a deep red. The switchback turned and we headed west, looking out into the dark blue starry night sky with a big white moon illuminating the Crater Lake Wilderness below. Then back east we walked, where the maroon on the horizon had expanded and was blending into a deep purple bordered by a beautiful rosy salmon pink. After another five minutes, we were directed due east once again, where the moon had turned yellow and was nearing the horizon as the sky began to lighten from its majestic ocean blue. We were nearing the top as the we turned back west and saw that the sky was exploding from pink, to orange to electric yellow. Finally, almost simultaneously with when the climb reached the crest of the ridge, the deep orange sun rolled over the horizon, signifying that the day had begun, and the show was over. It was a beautiful, almost spiritual experience that helped us see that sometimes its little moments like these that make the whole thing worth it.
^sunset moonrise………….sunrise moonset vThe rest of the day was spent hiking towards Crater Lakes Wilderness. Unfortunately Gus and I had both run out of all of our food except dinners, so we had mac ‘n cheese and alfredo for breakfast, lunch and snacks. An all-around balanced diet we like to believe.
We were welcomed into Crater Lakes National Park with a sign listing the many rules and stipulations that one must abide by when they are in this particular protected wilderness. Now, both Gus and I understand that when there is such an enormous influx of people everyday, as there is in any national park, there must rules. However, reading this sign in conjunction with the cold greeting we received from two park rangers in the parking lot did not help our fondness towards this particular wilderness preserve. As we came off the trail, tired, dirty, very hungry and just really wanting to get to our resupply box, two park rangers drove up in their massive four-door Force V8 Toyota Tundra. They were not exceedingly helpful as they verbally (and almost accusingly) enforced all the park rules that we had just seen in two different signs on the trail. It hurt a bit to feel more or less reprimanded by these two very clean-cut, fresh-smelling people who supposedly were big fans of being outdoors, but apparently not big fans of those people who had been living in it for the last three months. It was also a bit frustrating to be told what to do in an environment which we had felt so comfortable in for so long. Anyways, we said goodbye and begrudgingly walked the two miles on the concrete road down Hwy 62 to the Mazama store, even though plenty of hitch-able cars passed by.
The evening improved significantly however, when a couple who was visiting Oregon for a bike trip from Alberta, Canada heard that we were on the PCT and bought us beers while we shared stories from our respective adventures. That night the designated campground was full, so we waited until the store, lodge and restaurant had all shut down and the employees had gone back to their dorms so we could sneak into the woods behind the parking lot and find a flat area to spend the night. We had stealth camped on occasion outside of towns before, but I had never felt so guilty or anxious as I did that night, despite the fact that we were sleeping on public land. Crater Lake National Park did got better the next day however, as the trail took us up to the rim of the crater, and for eight miles we looked out over one of the deepest lakes in the world. In other national parks that the PCT had taken us through, the trail merely skirted the edge of the park, rarely taking us by the most-desired vistas. But in Crater Lake NP, the trail took us right smack-darn through the middle of the park. The trail followed a paved trail for a while and took us by almost every view-point on the rim. It was funny to see the hordes of people drive up in their cars, snap a photo, and leave. We even had a taste of stardom, as one man asked to take a picture of Gus and me. He told us that his daughter was reading the recent bestseller Wild by Cheryl Strayed and that she wouldn’t believe that he had met “real live PCT hikers.” We told him that he was, in fact standing on the PCT. That yes, that nicely paved path that extended from viewpoint to viewpoint was a part of the trail. And thus maybe not entirely as rugged as it seems. He was stoked nontheless, and it helped buoy our own energy and inspiration for the trail, as hearing other peoples excitement generally does.
The next few days we experienced our first Oregon thunder and lightening storms. Although they dampened our clothes considerably, I think both Gus and I appreciated the excitement that the cacophonous noise and dramatic light show added to the sometimes-somewhat monotonous trail. (Mt. Thielsen right before a storm) (Stormy sunset)
Our mileage went up considerably through Oregon. In large part because of the gentle and gradual trail, but also because we were meeting Leah (Gus’ girlfriend) at Willamette Pass, and therefore had a deadline (and incentive) to keep those miles in the 28-32 range a day. Once we met Leah however, we were able to hike at a much more relaxed pace, thus being able to enjoy Oregon’s wilderness that much more. HIking through the Willamette National Forest was an absolute pleasure. There were lakes every 5-10 miles which we had time to enjoy. Willamette Pass also designates the beginning of the Cascade Range, so it felt good to finally be in our home mountain range.
After a few days of lake-frolicking, the trail entered into one of the most famous parts of the PCT, the Three Sisters Wilderness. One day we were hiking along, and a big mountain (the South Sister, we later found out) just popped out from behind a hill. Although Gus and I grew up in Tacoma, where you become accustomed to seeing the majesty of Mt. Rainier every day, we realized that we hadn’t seen a mountain mountain up close in a real long time. Although we saw Mt. Shasta from the trail, the PCT didn’t pass by too closely. The beauty and overall substantial size of so much rock mesmerized me the whole time that we were walking around/under the dormant volcano. The High Sierras were epic, there is no arguing with that. But there is something about the cylindrical shape of those dormant and extinct volcanoes sprinkled throughout the Cascade Range that just can’t compare with other mountain vistas, at least in my book.
The last couple days of this section were one of the most enjoyable parts of the trail so far. We had beautiful views the whole way and found huckleberries and blueberries galore. We hiked through the lava fields before hitting Hwy 242 at McKenzie Pass where we were greeted by two trail angels from Bend who had come up for the weekend to serve chili, pop and beer to PCT hikers. Our parents also came down to see us ( and brought the dog!) so it was really good to see them and have a mini family reunion here in Oregon.
(Bend-ian Trail magic)
Gus and I took Labor Day weekend off from the trail (Gus in Tacoma, myself in Bend), where we gathered strength and did a gear overhaul to prepare for fall in Washington. However, we are now very well rested and more excited than we’ve ever been to get back out there, on to the homeward stretch. A humongous thank you to Tracy and Laura Curtis for being the most gracious and helpful of hosts this week. Also, a big thank you to Kent and Beth Wickham for a delicious dinner and great company. And finally, to Kathy and Mark Falk to an awesome surprise BBQ on the trail.
Until next time,