Day 2.84-89: Great Friends Well Met

Ashland to Crater Lake
Mile 1715 – Mile 1820

Ashland from eastern ridge

I arrived mid afternoon at Callahan’s Lodge, a hiker friendly establishment several miles south of Ashland on Interstate 5. In addition to a coupon for a free beer, a modest fee availed me laundry facilities and a hot shower complete with towel and white robe. “Such luxury!” I thought to myself as my phone dinged with a new text message: “We are here and having a drink on the back patio” My extraordinary friends from Seattle, Chris and Shannon, had driven down to meet up and show me Ashland, their unofficial home away from home. Shannon came looking for me and knew she was getting close when she saw “a bunch of bearded skinny dudes walking around in white robes.”

Chris and Shannon rockin’ the campground

I made sure to redeem my coupon before we headed off to Wellsprings, a hippy hot springs just north of town where Chris and Shannon had camped. It was such a perfect place for my fourth zero day with friends, chill camping, and several rejuvenating soaks in healing hot water. Chris lived in Ashland some 20 years ago and since they visit often, I enjoyed a ‘best of’ tour that included delicious restaurants, juice bar, bakery, and even a round of golf. I tried to tell them I lacked proper golf attire but they said “Oh, you’ll fit right in. You look local!” I was refreshed in all the best ways. Thanks Shannon and Chris!

Klamathon closure

Chris drove me back to Callahan’s the next day where, unfortunately, the PCT remained closed for ~15 miles due to the wildfire. Chris’ local knowledge helped me plan a road walk around the closure to a place called Green Springs Summit. I should have realized that any detour from a ‘crest’ trail necessarily implies walking down and then back up. What followed was a fairly agonizing slog along two paved highways made better by the four unsolicited offers of rides, one bit of route advice, and a can of ice cold Mountain Dew. I can only conclude I must have appeared most pitiable in the hot sun as I stubbornly held to my conviction of ‘walking my way home.’

Two thirds home!

Volcanic trail with red pumice

I reconnected with the PCT at the northern end of the closure with a newfound appreciation for that 24” dirt path through the forest’s shade. I spent that night at Hyatt Lake Campground lured by the promise of running water but alas it was not to be. Some vaguely described problem had cut off all water and to make matters worse, the lake level was a good ten feet below the bottom of the boat launch. I collected some odd looks as I tromped out to the dregs armed with my trusty water filter. Though it was a pain, I had seen (and collected) water from sources far more suspect than Hyatt Lake.

Dawn’s early light

Devil’s Peak

The Oregon PCT’s reputation for being a ‘green tunnel’ asserted itself over the next two days. There was not much to see and the forest became a bit monotonous save for the added excitement of mosquitoes, fierce and persistent. I had just been thinking that bugs had not been much of a nuisance and the ever present trail gods must have taken note. I have yet to break out the Deet repellent but the head net preserved my sanity. It didn’t matter how fast I walked, the pesky suckers had no problem matching my speed by the swarm full.

Last year’s burn

Entering Crater Lake National Park

Eliminating the desirability of rest stops, a silver lining emerged in that I made faster progress than expected. My long time friend Michael was spending the week in Bend and had asked when I might arrive at Crater Lake. When he inquired the timing seemed like it wouldn’t work out but add some mosquito incentive and et voila, midday Saturday became the answer. Even with late notice, Michael made the drive to meet me. What a guy! He treated me to lunch and even supplied some additional hydration in the form of Makers Mark. Thanks Michael!

Longtime friend Michael

After Michael had left and I had completed my laundry, shower, and resupply, I wandered back to the restaurant for an early dinner. I’m sure my scraggly appearance and bulky backpack had nothing to do with it but a kindly couple from Medford pegged me as a thru hiker. Eugene and Linda(?) were just returning from a trip to the Grand Tetons and we enjoyed a nice chat. They also surprised me by buying my dinner! What have I said about the kindness of strangers? Thanks Eugene and Linda!

The kindness of strangers

While I can’t recommend the PCT stretch between Ashland and Crater Lake as particularly scenic, as with real life, the addition of good friends make all the difference. I am happy, content, and getting closer to home every day. I woke up early, walked the west rim of Crater Lake, and renewed my sense of wonder for all natural beauty that defines the PCT. The past days’ investment paid off and then some. Spectacular!

Bottomless mirror of Crater Lake

Day 2.76-83: The Circuity of Trinity

Mt Shasta to Ashland
Mile 1498 – Mile 1715

Celebrity guests!

The PCT in northern California carries the reputation of being where northbound thru hikers experience a general malaise and flagging enthusiasm for their long journey. What better place for an infusion of pride and joy? My oldest daughter Kayla and her boyfriend Chuck had a wedding to attend in the Portland area and weeks beforehand Kayla inquired where I might be on July 1st. All the unknowns of the trail conspire to make any answer to such questions speculative at best. At the same time, I have noticed that declaring bold goals have a way of making them come true. When she first asked, Mt Shasta seemed too far although the PCT crossing of I-5 would certainly make a convenient meeting place so I set about to try. Knowing that I had celebrity guests ahead also helped keep any doldrums at bay and magically all the miles fell into place.

Me and my Kayla Bear

I hitched into Mt Shasta early enough in the day to get cleaned up, do laundry, shop, and organize my resupply all while Kayla and Chuck made the 6+ hour drive south. Seeing their bright, smiling faces refueled me far more than any food or drink but, covering all our bases, we also shared a big Italian dinner and hearty breakfast. Beyond grateful for the effort they made to meet up with me, I waved goodbye at the trailhead with a happy “See ya back in Washington real soon!”

Cinnamon roll French toast!

Castle Crags

I logged around 15 miles that day climbing up and around Castle Crags, regaining elevation and camping once again with a view of seemingly ever present, Mt Shasta.
Should you ever be in need of a free beer, here’s a bar bet that you can win more often than not. Ask: “The western end of the Panama Canal opens into which ocean?” The answer of course defies logic until you look at a map. Similarly, going northbound on PCT after Castle Crags entails an almost 50 mile button hook that dips way back south before heading west. It’s almost as if the trail planners said “Whoops, we forgot to include the Trinity Alps Wilderness! No problem, let’s just do a big u-turn and head that way.” To go north, follow the trail south.

You owe me a beer if you said Pacific

Circuity of Trinity

Adding to my consternation as I walked the convoluted path, two wildfires, one south and one west, filled the air with a gray haze. I could tell I was traveling through spectacular country but the irritating smoke, blown north by strong winds, both stung the eyes and spoiled the views.

Smoky view

Spoiled view of idyllic tarns

“Okay, we can turn back north any time now please” I thought to myself not really knowing the status or location of the fires. Lacking any connection to discover more, I understood enough to know that walking away from smoke was better than walking toward it. Soon enough, blue returned to the skies ahead as the trail swung back north.

Smoke makes for pretty sunrise

Early the next morning as I was walking through some low brush, I saw my first bear. It was a juvenile black bear and we saw each other at about the same time with maybe 25 yards separating us. The bear did a quick duck down and dodged off the trail to my left and remembering the guidance about getting between a Momma and her cub, I immediately began to imagine sounds in the brush to my right. Must have been my imagination and nothing more came of it other than another good adrenaline bonus to quicken my pace.

Ghost forest

Austere beauty

Trevor from SMC

After Trinity, the PCT enters the Russian Wilderness, a place of austere beauty with steep slopes marred by fire scars old and new. Just as I was noting how well groomed parts of the ghostly trail had become, I encountered the source of said maintenance in the form of a trail crew from Siskiyou Mountain Club (SMC). In addition to singing their praises, I learned that they sign up to spend 40 days over the summer doing trail work in four 10 day stints. The young crew I met seemed to be enjoying their time outdoors just as much as I enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Kudos SMC!

Spectacular Marble Mountain

Another day, another wilderness but the next, Marble Mountain Wilderness, stood apart for its exquisite beauty and vibrant colors. Towering cliffs of white marble, thrust above the lush greensward and set off beneath a cerulean sky, enchanted me as I wandered through. It appeared a popular pace for rock climbing too as I traversed a large group’s encampment.

I spy Klamathon!

I skipped past the trail town of Etna the next day but benefited from its proximity to get some cell coverage. I learned that a wildfire had broken out just south of Ashland temporarily closing Interstate 5. Dubbed Klamathon, the fire, spread quickly and was out of control but still 3 days or so ahead of me. I figured that should be enough time for crews to get a handle on it.

Seiad Valley CA

After a restless night spent shooing an overly familiar deer, I walked down out of the hills into quaint Seiad Valley where I collected my next resupply box, expedited by my sister Lisa. A gaggle of hikers had converged at the tiny café there and all the talk was about Klamathon. Enter our three horsemen of old: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. News came down that ~20 miles of the PCT had been closed just east of Ashland about 60 miles ahead. Smoke wreathed some of higher hills above Seiad Valley but the trail immediately ahead remained open. A good number of hikers were bailing and trying to hitch into Ashland which made little sense to me since that’s where the trail was closed. I suspect the imposing 5000 foot climb immediately north of town had some influence on such decisions. For myself, I saw no reason not to continue. Two other hikers, young guns named Farley and Einstein, concurred and set off about an hour ahead of me.

Red rock mountains

It was a hot and arduous climb but I planned to camp only about halfway up. Just as I was nearing my intended stopping point, Farley and Einstein appeared returning back down. “Dude, the PCT is on fire!” they exclaimed and tried to show me video of what they had seen. They said they saw smoke and aircraft dropping water over a ridge about 3 miles ahead. As they sped off back to town, I stopped to consider my options. When hiking, I have learned the internal metronome tends to speed up and rash decisions can result whether crossing a difficult creek or making some other critical choice. STOP has become my go to mantra in such situations- Sit, Think, Observe, Plan. I could hear aircraft in the distance but hidden somewhere behind the hill I had been climbing. I could not see any smoke and decided to just wait and see. I set up camp on a visible saddle, made dinner, and settled in to see what would happen. I saw no one and after about an hour, the helicopter and airplanes seemed to have departed. “I guess we’ll see what the morning brings” I said to myself.

Baby rattlesnake

The next morning, still seeing no smoke or further evidence of fire ahead, I resumed my climb eventually cresting the ridge. Atop one of the many peaks the PCT traverses, I came upon an area that had clearly been recently doused with copious water and a patch of burned brush maybe 50 yards wide. Given its proximity to the trail, the fire was clearly caused by a hiker and I can only speculate that it was extinguished so quickly due to resources already mobilized for Klamathon. After about 10 miles, I happened to reconvene with Einstein and Farley who had found a forest service road that circumvented the incident.

We did it Momma!

Woot!

In any case, it was good news for me because it removed the last unknown that stood between me and completing California that day. The thought of finally, after 82 days and 1689 miles, crossing the border into Oregon held no small amount of satisfaction. All the other points along the way, mile markers and map changes, could not compare with the thrill of crossing a real border at long last. You may have heard my whoop from where you were that day.

Behold Oregon!

My first clue about the indirection of the section between Mt Shasta and Ashland should have been the sign Kayla, Chuck, and I saw on I-5 that said Ashland was 76 miles north. On the trail it took 215 miles but certainly included some unforgettable adventure.

Day 2.68-75: Halfway Home

Belden to Mt Shasta
Mile 1284.3 – Mile 1498.9

Old stamp mill used for mining gold

The heat of the day had dissipated by the time I wandered out of Belden around 8pm. Fresh clothes, a real shower, and several beers shared with Gilbert, the long time maintenance man at Belden Town Resort, had me feeling fine. At 60 years old, Gilbert was one of those most affable humans with more stories than time to tell them. He reminded me of my brother in law Matt and we enjoyed comparing notes on life.

George Washington in profile?

Glorious sunset in Lassen National Forest

But I had a big hill to climb the next day and so made my manners and camped just across the river beneath some power lines. I awoke early the next day in order to make the 12 miles of up out of the canyon before the sun found me. I wound up playing leapfrog with two other hikers, Oats and ShyBear, who shared the same idea. That night I was treated to a spectacular sunset along with a most unexpected video call from my sister Lisa. I didn’t even realize I had signal when my phone jangled and magically I was transported into a family reunion happening in Ohio on the occasion of my aunt’s 60th year as a Sister of Notre Dame. The connection lagged making conversation difficult but just the happy smiles and waves from everyone lifted me high.

We made it halfway!

The next morning, just as I was nearing the midpoint of the PCT, a young doe appeared on the trail ahead of me. As I approached, the doe pranced off down the trail as if beckoning me to follow. Around another corner and there again the doe, moving lightly away, dappled in morning sunlight, and leading me onward. When I reached the monument, I took great satisfaction in signing the trail register and enjoying a quiet moment of peace and gratitude with the companionable deer grazing nearby. I am pretty sure it was my Momma incognito.

Beautiful butterfly named Jillian

Volcanic landscape emerges

Just down the trail I encountered the first southbound hiker whom I had met earlier. I first crossed paths with YourHighness outside of Tehachapi doing trail magic for other hikers. He mentioned that a whole group of folks behind him had flipped north to Ashland and were now headed back to the Sierra in hopes that much of the snow would be gone by the time they arrived. The logistics of skipping around seemed complicated but I liked their chances of finding the Sierra largely snow free.

Jackpot!

Later that day, the trail crosses a highway leading to Chester, the town closest to the PCT midpoint. Correspondingly, Chester has become known as a place where many hikers leave the trail daunted by the thought that for all the miles lay behind them just as many lay ahead. Sparing myself from such self destructive contemplation, I just scooted across the highway where I was rewarded by the sight of a blue cooler. A breathless moment came right before opening the lid, when all hope and devotion to higher powers peaked, and I was elated to find 8 cans of BudLight floating in ice water. Pure unconstrained joy had become as simple as a cold beer.

Happiness is…

Entering the park

In an odd quirk of the trail, the only other place that requires a bear can outside the Sierra is Lassen Volcanic National Park. Fortunately a loophole exists whereby if you hike the whole 19 miles across the park in one day and don’t actually camp within its borders, no bear can is required. Game for a long day, I planned around ensuring I’d get through and down to Old Station where my next resupply awaited.
Twice along the way I heard distant shouts of “AppleJack?” First up, MilkShake and Lady MeowMeow, last seen at Kennedy Meadows and now southbound, were stopped for lunch and we traded trail intel (also known as ‘beta’ in hiker parlance) on what lay ahead. A bit later, MudFoots and SafetyChute hailed me from a nearby ranger cabin and again I got the low down on where to go and what to do ahead. Happy people making people happy would be an apt description of such encounters.

Boiling mud lake

A more inviting lake

Knowing there would be no way I’d get to town before the post office closed, my plan was to call ahead and request my box be left elsewhere. The flaw in said plan was that it assumed I could make a phone call. When halfway through the park and still no signal, it occurred to me that I could tap the home team for assistance. I sent off a satellite text from my GPS beacon asking my brother Dave to call the post office and impersonate me. He graciously did so and replied that I had until 6pm to collect my box from the general store next to the Old Station Post Office. I had to hustle but made it with a half hour to spare. It was a perfectly efficient resupply with Lisa sending, Dave expediting, and me collecting in stride.

Hiker snacks and sundries within but even better advice

My only regret was listening to the store clerk’s advice about JJ’s Café, three miles down the road where, purportedly, dinner was served until 7pm. I quickly dumped the entire contents of my resupply box into the top of my pack and boogied down the road dreaming of hot food and cold drinks. Uh no, JJ’s closed at 3pm that day. I settled for a microwave burrito and bag of chips from the service station next door.
At a picnic table behind the gas station I met another hiker named Saunter. A fifty something snowboarder from Breckinridge, CO, he too was thru hiking north and we connected quickly swapping trail stories. It was late and getting dark when we realized that there weren’t any good options for camping nearby. I desperately needed to recharge my battery pack and left in search of an outside outlet somewhere. I found one in back of one of JJ’s outbuildings where Saunter soon joined me. “Who are you, king of the hoboes?” he asked laughing when I told him to move all his stuff behind the building so we couldn’t be seen from the road. We ended up cowboy camping right there on a concrete walkway, uncomfortable but out of sight alongside our coveted electrical connection. It’s odd to consider how trail life can so quickly change one’s sensibilities.

View down from Hat Creek Rim

A peek back at Lassen

Between Saunter’s snoring and the unforgiving concrete, another early start felt more like an escape. Ahead I faced the dreaded Hat Creek Rim Trail, a difficult and hot 28 mile stretch lacking water. Fortunately, last year a kindly trail angel donated, installed, and keeps maintained a large water tank 4 miles past midway that had defanged some of the notoriety.

Picturesque Burney Falls

The balance has shifted!

Lake Britton Dam

Burney Falls, the poster child of Northern California’s PCT, awaited me the next morning. Just before I arrived I ran into HardWay again, last seen south of Tahoe, and together we strode past several early tour buses to view the falls. My brain drew me toward the spectacular falls but my visceral being leaned more toward the general store. My brain prevailed at least temporarily and I walked down the paved path leading to the bottom of the falls. Stunning and beautiful, I’d recommend a visit if ever you find yourself close. As I was walking back up, there appeared Darwin. It was hiker homecoming at Burney Falls! We all hung around for a bit enjoying high caloric intake before departing again north one by one.

Professional nutrition/hydration scheme

Behold Shasta

Hot country

The next couple days were all about the miles and except for ever nearer glimpses of Mt Shasta, the camera did not come out very often. The trail snaked up, down, and through steep, forested gulches obscuring any views. Lucky for me I was drawn forward by the promise of more celebrity guests meeting me in Mt Shasta! I made it down to Castle Crags State Park where the PCT crosses under Interstate 5. I had heard the roar of the highway from 12 miles away and was hoping all that traffic would make for an easy hitch into town. John and Dana, kind souls from San Jose who had just recently climbed Lassen Peak, rescued me at the onramp and I was in Mt Shasta by noon.

Castle Crags from the Soda Springs onramp

Day 2.63-67: NorCal Dayz

Donner Pass to Belden
Mile 1157 – Mile 1284.3

Wet passageway beneath Interstate 80

Leaving town or worse yet, leaving behind family, makes the first few miles back on the trail challenging. All that comfort and companionship dissolve around the first bend in the trail and spartan trail life resumes. After Dave dropped me off, I tried to focus on just making ten miles that afternoon. First off, I had to cross Interstate 80, the major freeway connecting Sacramento and Reno. Fortunately two dank culverts pass beneath the high speed thoroughfare and wheeled travelers remain oblivious of the foot traffic moving beneath the pavement.

Creepy Peter Grubb Hut

Once on the north side, the trail climbs up and over Castle Pass on its way to the famous Peter Grubb Hut. Owned by the Sierra Club and ostensibly rented out by reservation, I took a moment to check out the accommodations. The second floor entrance is gained by climbing a steep ladder. I opened the door to see a sleeping porch of sorts and an interior ladder descending to the kitchen area. The musty air and generally spooky atmosphere of the place made further investigation unnecessary. I imagine hikers do actually stay the night there but this hiker said a quick ‘no thank you’.

View from ridge camp

After making my miles for the day, I camped on a high ridge in a makeshift site that I created. I rose early the next morning with my sights set on distant Sierra City and my next resupply box. I made good progress walking up and down ridges adorned with blooming mules ear while viewing many small lakes far below.

Mules ears in bloom

Water water everywhere

Squadrons of orange and blue butterflies patrolled the trail asserting their brief dominion. Despite seeing lots of water from afar, the trail proved surprisingly dry resurrecting the need to plan around water sources. By 4:30 I made it to Highway 49 and caught an easy hitch down into Sierra City.

Big, fancy, new PCT sign

Sierra City General Store and Post Office

For some reason I had it in my head that my box had been sent to the post office and so groaned to see the hours posted there, 10am-2pm. I chatted up Larry, the kindly proprietor of the general store and a Jon Voight look alike, who referred me to Herringtons where I could find a bed and a good meal while I waited. Part of the PCT charm for me lies in discovering these small town places that would otherwise remain unvisited. I enjoyed a surprisingly fine meal of fresh trout, netted daily from their large pond out front. I was not able to do laundry but settled for a couple hot showers and cotton sheets.
I strolled back into town the next morning unhurried and biding my time for 10am. I met up with TootsieRoll, an anomalous thru hiker at age 35 who hails from San Diego, and we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Red Moose. During breakfast it dawned on me that maybe my box had been sent to the general store. Sure enough, at 9am the store opened and my box had been there the whole time. Oh well, the trout was delicious!

My sister Lisa outdid herself again sneaking treats into my box along with another great note from the kids. This time three precious little bottles of Grand Marnier, my Momma’s favorite, were stowed along with the other things. TootsieRoll, an Austrian hiker named Rambler, and I were psyched to enjoy an early morning toast.

Long climb up to Sierra Buttes

One of the old time locals who had been breakfasting at the Red Moose went out of his way to give me a ride back up to the trail and the notorious long climb up Sierra Buttes that awaited me. A pack full of food and a stomach full of pancakes made for slow going and the warm day didn’t help much. Though I made it out of town well before TootsieRoll or Rambler, their much faster pace soon had them past me.

Milepost this time

Sierra Buttes from the north

I was super fortunate to follow the guidance of my mapping app along the ‘old PCT’ versus the incomplete trail signs that suggested a new reroute on the north side of Sierra Buttes. Apparently mixed use had developed on the PCT with mountain bikers also using the trail. TootsieRoll and Rambler followed the new signs and arrived where I had camped about an hour after me grumbling about the steep, crazy new trail. Glad I missed it. I encountered a few mountain bikers who were nothing but friendly and courteous and I was happy to share the trail with them.

Anyone trade me an ‘i’ for an ‘e’ ?

The first day out of Sierra City was also the first day in almost a month that required no snow travel. Elevations had gradually lowered and a hypnotic sameness took hold as the trail made its way through the Plumas National Forest. Tree lined ridges and steep valleys became the norm and stunning views around every corner lapsed. At one point, to cross the Middle Fork of the Feather River, the trail went below 3000 feet for the first time in many miles. The steep valley walls created a dim world of leafy green plants I had not seen for some time. I shifted my focus from the big wows of towering mountains to the small wows of the forest floor. In an effort to amuse myself, I made up little games to play. For example, on uphill switchbacks, instead of turning the acute angle into the hill, occasionally I would pivot outward performing a full pirouette before continuing uphill. It felt like the difference between dancing and just moving my feet.

Cool leaf patterns

Red salamander named Easton Thomas, E.T. for short. So close EJ!

Bear Creek but no bears

June 21st, Summer Solstice, and also International Hike Naked Day, passed unobserved though I sorely missed having at least a lake for swimming. I went so far as to free style off trail a bit through dense underbrush to a nearish lake that turned out to be a stagnant pond covered with a film of tree pollen. Sigh. I was also hoping for water enough to diagnose my still leaky air mattress but alas not.

Forest in morning, the best!

Feather River and Belden way down in the canyon

There were more steep descents to canyon bottoms followed by long ascents back up to the ridge tops. The last was a punishing long set of switchbacks down to the North Fork of the Feather River where Belden is situated alongside Highway 70. I had planned to wait out the heat of the day, forecasted to be 96, but a lack of cell service and dysfunctional Wi-Fi demoralized me. I did a brutal 3 mile road walk to another hiker haven up the highway that advertised Internet access but that also proved inaccurate. I did at least manage to do laundry, shower, eat/drink twice before heading north once again.

Day 2.59-62: What Fools These Mortals Be

South Lake Tahoe to Donner Pass
Mile 1090.7 – Mile 1157

Sunrise over distant Lake Tahoe

Just like the satisfaction of turning that last page of a book well enjoyed, heading north from South Lake Tahoe meant it was time to switch to a new map file. I use an app called Guthook to navigate the PCT and they break the trail into five parts- Southern California, The Sierra, Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Heading north from Tahoe meant it was so long Sierra and hello NorCal in an arbitrary but nonetheless momentous occasion.

Windswept Echo Lake

I checked out of the delightful Paradice Motel in South Lake Tahoe early Friday morning. In addition to providing great hospitality, the manager there, Mei, also dreams about doing the PCT someday. She wanted to know all about my hike and declared ‘next year!’ for her own journey. Go for it Mei!
Hitching out of town on a Friday morning against the tide of weekend visitors proved difficult. I resorted to that best friend of travelers everywhere, Uber, and soon had my new boots on the trail. Many PCT hikers who choose to postpone the Sierra section skip north to Echo Summit. In addition to day hikers and weekend backpackers, traffic on the trail stood in sharp contrast to what I had become accustomed. Though it was only 9:30am, I paused at the Echo Lake Chalet for a beer and bag of chips to allow time for the congestion to abate. (How’s that for convenient rationalization 😉)

Lake Aloha why?

Fueled up with second breakfast, I set off and made good time entering Desolation Wilderness. A string of beautiful lakes chain together and made for a scenic morning hike. One of the largest, Lake Aloha, appeared to me as misnamed as the wilderness in which it resides.

This one’s for my father

After the many lakes, I was psyched to tackle Dicks Pass, the last of the high passes and the last time the PCT goes over 9000 feet. I didn’t even mind to mushy snow slog coming down the other side because I could tell my days of slippery travel were waning.

Creek flowing down from Fontanillis Lake

Rounding the shores of Fontanilis Lake, the trail soon crossed the lake’s outlet which was flowing swiftly when I arrived late afternoon. “Nah, I think I’ve had enough for today”, I thought to myself while the trail gods took note, chuckled, and spun their wheel of mayhem. Oblivious, I found a nice flat slab of granite near the creek and pitched my tent securing the corners with large rocks. It had been windy off and on all day but nothing unmanageable. “Watch this”, one capricious god snickered and sent a sudden vicious gust of wind that both relocated my fully loaded tent and ripped the air mattress I had been inflating right out of my hands. I watched dumbstruck as my yellow kite flew hundreds of feet into the air, swirling ever higher in a vortex, and out over the creek. “Please, please, please land on this side”, I hoped aloud but no such luck. I watched it fall from the sky a good distance downstream and on the opposite side. “Looks like I get to cross the creek today after all”, I commiserated with myself. After collapsing my tent and weighing everything down with rocks, I set out to find my wayward gear. Donning my flip flops and grabbing just my trekking poles, I soon found a freezing but doable ford across the creek. I was super lucky to find my Neorest wedged between some boulders about a quarter mile downstream. Had it not been bright yellow or if I had already closed its valve to keep it inflated, I’m sure I’d be in the market to replace that spendy piece of equipment. The only good news was able to practice the ford a second time returning to camp so I’d be really good at it the next morning.

Crossing at the lake outlet

Day 60 began with frozen feet in the creek but soon relaxed into a pleasant stroll through the woods. For the first time in weeks, I found myself on trail below 7000 feet and was convinced that at long last I’d have a whole day of snow free travel. That didn’t happen but it was close with only a handful of mushy crossings. I camped just on the edge of Granite Chief Wilderness.

Good morning deer

A walk in the park

An unwelcome souvenir from its maiden voyage aloft, my air mattress now had a tiny hole somewhere that caused deflation overnight. I needed to find a lake or at least some standing water large enough to submerge and locate the leak.

Morning sun on distant Tahoe

Anotherof only a few glimpses of Lake Tahoe from the PCT

Unfortunately there was a marked lack of any water as the trail followed the dramatic ridge line through Alpine Meadows and then Squaw Valley ski resorts. As I was picking my way down the still snowbound slopes of Squaw Valley, Wifey appeared behind me. It’s always awesome to encounter someone you know out on the trail. He’s on a mission to meet his girlfriend in Ashland early July so we didn’t talk long but of course I asked about his hiking partner, Sunshine. Apparently Sunshine stayed in South Lake Tahoe nursing a sore knee. The day was already cold, windy, and overcast but ain’t no Sunshine too? I was bummed.

An uplifting vestige of civilization

I did however find a large puddle of snowmelt in which I eventually located the tiniest of air leaks in my mattress. I marked it for later patching and set my sights on Tinker Knob, the final climb for the day. The climb up was common enough with innumerable switchbacks but once gaining the ridge things turned extraordinary. The trail hugged the ridge line for miles north affording sweeping views in all directions. The cold, blustery wind did its utmost to intrude but failed to ruin a simply beautiful stretch of trail.

Not quite 9000′

Idyllic mountain scene

North from Tinker Knob

I pitched camp just ahead of an afternoon rain shower and woke the next day disappointed to find my mattress half deflated. “Rats, there must be another small leak somewhere” I complained to myself but then I remembered the date was June 18th! My brother Dave had to be in San Jose on business and so had hatched a plan to drive the almost 500 miles(!) round trip just to meet up with me on the trail. Suddenly, the cold, wet morning couldn’t touch me as I all but jogged down to Donner Pass where the trail crosses Interstate 80.

Breakfast of champion hikers everywhere

Just as I was drying my things in the morning sun, Dave arrived bearing doughnuts and beer! Oh baby! Celebrity guest appearance on the trail are my newest favorite thing. We hopped into his rental car and drove to nearby Truckee, CA where he helped me accomplish all manner of town chores. We had my glasses fixed, bought more stove fuel, resupplied food at Safeway, all before sitting down to a mondo burrito lunch. I took in a deep draught of family sustenance from Dave and life was good.

To brothers!

The visit was over all too soon and he drove me back to the trailhead where he left the rest of the two dozen doughnuts along with a bunch of Gatorade for other hikers. He’s got the angel blood in him for sure. Thank you David for going above and beyond yet again to make your little brother a happy guy!😊

Day 2.55-58: The Trail Relents

Kennedy Meadows North – South Lake Tahoe
Mile 1016.9 – Mile 1090.7

Less elevation and less snow northward!

“Congratulations! You made it through the grinder”, exclaimed our waitress at the restaurant in Kennedy Meadows. She was referring to trail knowledge she’d gathered from previous years’ PCT hikers. I was having breakfast Monday morning with HardWay, a 28 year old financial adviser from Chicago, on his way to NYU’s MBA program mid-August, and one of the handful of hikers I’d seen on and off through the Sierra. He and I had tried to hitch back up to Sonora Pass late Sunday afternoon but to no avail. Without any Wi-Fi or cellular service, the main attractions of Kennedy Meadows were the fresh food and the opportunity to jettison our unwieldy bear cans.
Failing to get back to the trail Sunday night, we did what any other self respecting hikers would do, we went back to eat some more. After dinner we stealth camped in the woods across the road and hoped for better luck hitching Monday morning. Alas not. So it was back to the restaurant for breakfast where fortunately our kindly waitress referred us to Mike, a retiree living at the campground who provides rides back up the hill for a nominal fee.

Stunning volcanic rocks of Mokelumne Wilderness

The PCT joins the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT)

Again frustrated by my own unfounded expectations of what I’d find at Kennedy Meadows, I was eager to be on my way. Three days or so would see me to South Lake Tahoe where I knew for certain I could reconnect with civilization.

The trail goes where?

Ah, cruiser trail!

I was also sensing the trail starting to ease a bit with gradually lower elevation and by slow degrees, less snow travel. Having to make a decision of where to place every footfall grows tedious in a hurry. The change did not happen quickly or completely but I began to notice more what I came to think of as ‘cruiser trail’ versus crummy route finding through snow. As a result, I noticed my daily mileage start to creep back up and with it, my sense of forward progress.

I spy Darwin on the trail, can you?

On the second and third day I played leap frog with another hiker named Darwin. I came to learn that he has about 100k(!) followers on his YouTube channel and enjoys a bit of celebrity at least in the hiker community. One of those followers apparently tracked him closely enough to rendezvous with him at Carson Pass bearing gifts of food. For myself, I was surprised and delighted to find Forest Service volunteers also at Carson Pass handing out drinks and snacks. It turns out that trail magic and road crossings are highly correlated so I’m thrilled to know I’ve returned to where such roads are possible.

Trail magic at Carson Pass

I camped just a few miles shy of Highway 50 where I could see the lights of South Lake Tahoe’s airport down through the trees. For the first time in many days I also had two bars of LTE service with AT&T which meant I could finally connect again with family/friends and update this blog!

Patterns in bark

Snow plants are way better than snow

The next morning I caught an easy hitch into town from Ewok( a former Appalachian Trail hiker) and his girlfriend Okra. I spent the day consuming mass calories, resupplying food, doing much needed laundry, getting some new shoes, calling people, and even relaxing a bit. South Lake Tahoe shines as a magnificent destination for all things outdoors. I wish I could have gotten an unlikely picture of me buzzing around town on one of the many Lime electric scooters. Scraggly backpacker meets modern technology was a sight to behold I’m sure. I wonder if they make an offroad version? Now that would be some cruiser trail!

Round one

After 1100 miles, Daddy needed a new pair of shoes! My Merrel Moab Ventilators performed remarkably well.

Day 2.47-54: The Company You Keep

Vermillion Valley Resort to Kennedy Meadows North
Mile 878.8 – Mile 1016.9

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments” The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Spectacular solitude

The quote above comes from a poem I read to Katrina when I asked her to marry me. Emotions running high, heart racing, I could scarcely finish the recital that fateful night but the words have remained lodged in my memory and resurface on occasion. Poor woman had no idea what lay in store for her and with regard to the trail after VVR, neither did I. When I set off for another 8 day stint, destination Kennedy Meadows North, I did not comprehend the remoteness, the isolation, and the challenge of the week ahead.

Sisyphus getting coffee

Around 9am Sunday morning, Ray, VVR’s boat captain extraordinaire, shuttled both Hershey and I back across Lake Edison to the trailhead at Mono Creek. Hershey, a 24 year old on his way up to Bend, OR for a new job, was on a solo mission to meet up with his friend Nightingale in Mammoth the next night. As the last leg of his section hike, Hershey meant to tackle Silver Pass that afternoon regardless of any soft snow. As for me, I was less than gung-ho for that particular brand of misery and since, oddly enough, the eastern end of the lake somehow had cellular service, I dawdled away the morning posting the last blog entry and calling people.
I only had to make ~6 miles that afternoon to get in position for Silver Pass the next morning. After Hershey took off, I saw no one all day and walked until the snow covered trail became drudgery. I made camp amid stunning scenery and enjoyed the solitude that evening.

The PCT and JMT share ~170 miles

I had hoped Silver Pass, at 10,779 feet, would be less snowbound than some of higher passes behind me but alas not. Fortunately I started early enough to avoid most of the spectacular post-holing that marked Hershey’s passage the day before. Some of the deeper ones looked positively life ending or at least future life limiting. Eventually I made it down below the snow line and the trail reappeared making progress much easier. Visions of cold beer and fresh food propelled me toward Reds Meadow Resort, a rustic horse camp to the west of Mammoth Mountain ski area.
It was around 4:30pm, when, after seeing nary a soul for 30+ hours, another hiker materialized ahead at a creek crossing. She was hiking the John Muir Trail headed southbound so after a quick quiz about the snow conditions on Silver Pass, she set off and I was back to my lonesome.

Ho hum lunchtime view

As much as I try to rein in my expectations of places, I failed to consider that Reds Meadow Resort might not yet be open for the season. Salivation became chagrin as I arrived at the eerily deserted camp. Boarded up cabins and disused facilities greeted my arrival and I had the whole place to myself. To be honest, staying there that night was Stephen King creepy but I escaped unharmed.

Something I’d hope to see

The next day promised a visit through Devil’s Postpile National Monument. I had visited it virtually countless times with my buddy Brad on the fancy treadmills at the Pro Club. You would expect one of America’s premier scenic trails running through a national monument would be routed to offer a view of said monument. You would be wrong. When I discovered the flaw in my expectations, I lacked the drive to backtrack. I soon forgot my disappointment however when I came upon the beautiful Minaret Falls. It’s generous cascades of water made for a tricky, wet, and all together frigid crossing. As I was attempting to dry and warm myself in a small patch of morning sun, lo and behold, three PCT hikers cruised on by seemingly careless of their cold wet shoes. I took it as a good sign that others were northbound from Mammoth, a popular hiker town that I skipped since I was already well supplied.

Minaret Falls in morning

My objective for the day was to get in position for Donahue Pass, the last pass over 11,000 feet. At only 10,226 feet, I had hoped Island Pass, 5 miles beforehand would be manageable. Nope. Soft snow stopped me just after Thousand Island Lake well short of Island Pass but the setting for my camp that night stands out as one of the most spectacular yet.

Thousand Island Lake though I only counted 17

I resigned myself to what I hoped would be my last oh dark thirty wake up. The next morning I began climbing around 4am and the snow mostly cooperated, being firm enough to walk upon rather than within. After struggling a bit to find the trail, plain determination eventually saw me up and over both Island and Donahue making it my unlooked for two pass day.

Looking down into lovely Lyell Canyon

The top of Donahue marks entry into Yosemite National Park. Looking down I could see the beautiful, glacially carved Lyell Canyon stretching its way some 10 miles north to Tuolumne Meadows. Though mud bound and still very soggy, the trail down through those meadows flew by with one idyllic scene after another.

Meadow view looking north

Must be getting close to the visitor center

As a kid I remember always watching for the gleam and flash of parked cars through the trees at the end of a hike because it meant the trip was complete. Arriving in Tuolumne Meadows, I felt the same excitement glimpsing shiny signs of civilization though, truth be told, this time may have been the promise of beer. I headed straight to the general store to find it abuzz with activity but unfortunately of the laying in new stock, ‘we open in two days’ variety. Mistaken expectations let me down again. Starved for social interaction I hung out at the store regardless swapping trail stories with a delivery guy and chatting up the driver of a beautiful new Sprinter van.

Crossing at Lembert Dome

Already having had a long day, I ventured across Highway 120, the first paved road in ~240 miles of PCT(!) and wandered just far enough to stealth camp away from the early season tourists. Next up was Benson Pass, the last pass above 10,000 feet but first I was treated to a spectacular morning walking past Tuolumne Falls and through Glen Aulin. The high backcountry of Yosemite holds every bit of the magic associated with the more frequented sights down in the valley.

Tuolumne Falls flowing well

In another rude reminder that map truth and physical reality often diverge, I was treated to my first of many Yosemite creek crossings that required fording. Walking in wet shoes became the norm. I did my best to dry and change socks often enough to prevent trench foot but the whole process took time. The upshot was just because Benson Pass appeared reachable according to mileage, the many water crossings in between made it unlikely and I camped short.

View from Benson Pass

The next morning as I was slogging down the north side of Benson Pass alone, wondering just when exactly I would again enjoy an easy trail day, behind me appeared Sunshine! I met him and his hiking buddy, Wifey, way back on the climb up Pinchot Pass. Sunshine, a graduate student from Sweden (and 24 years old just like everyone else), reminds me so much of my youngest son Keegan that my mood immediately shifted to happiness. Tall, lanky, with long hair, a quick smile and bright spirit, Sunshine even displays what I had thought was Keegan’s patented ‘lope speed’. Long legs and easy manner belie just how fast that kid can move down the trail. Even such brief encounters helped keep my spirits up after so much solitude.

Sunshine on the trail, literally and figuratively

After descending Benson, more deep, wide fords awaited at Piute Creek. Slow moving water made the experience more uncomfortable than dangerous though let’s just say that I’m glad I have already had all my children.

Wilmer Lake reflection

The PCT in this part of Yosemite goes from ridge to canyon back to ridge making for arduous days. Going over Seavey Pass the next day before descending down along the infamous Rancheria Creek proved difficult. Then it was back up and over another steep ridge only to descend once again to ford the creek in Stubblefied Canyon. I recall seeing video of groups crossing here last year, all but swimming in neck deep water, so getting across at mid-thigh felt fortuitous.

High meadow

On the second to last day, just as I began to believe progress would become easier, I encountered the cleverly named Wide Creek. In retrospect I should have just done the waist deep, slow moving ford at the trail crossing. Instead I headed upstream hoping to find something better. I eventually found a wet foot rock hop that got me 80% of the way across but was left with a waist deep crossing of swifter water than at the trail. Note to self: A pocket full of Jolly Ranchers is much nicer before submersion.

Trail through a waterfall

After drying a bit in the sun and changing what clothes I could, I headed up toward Dorothy Lake Pass. Mosquitoes had started to make their appearance and I much preferred the slow, stupid 9000 foot variety to the sub 8000 foot fast moving swarms. Unfortunately I was still relatively low and walking through more sodden meadows. Just as the fierce little buggers were starting to attack in earnest, Momma stepped in and dialed up the wind machine effectively canceling all flight ops for the day.

Woot!

At 3:19pm on Saturday June 9th, I arrived at the 1000 mile mark. I say if you are going to have an arbitrary celebration at a nondescript location in the woods, at least make it sound important. I imagined Dave, my brother, trail conscious and most stalwart supporter, cracking a cold IPA back home to mark the occasion. As for me, I had the ahi jerky and found it superb.

Changing trail

The geology of the trail changed markedly the last day into Sonora Pass becoming volcanic shale versus obdurate granite. I happened upon Nightingale on the way up one of the snowbound ridges and the poor guy told me he had lost his sunglasses. My heart went out to him as we had significant traverses of steep snow ahead and the glare would be blinding. Apparently the invincibility of youth carried the day and I lucked into a ride down to Kennedy Meadows from Momma Nightingale who was meeting him at the pass.

High highway

Beyond the demands of the trail itself, I felt very disconnected and unplugged from all that I hold dear back home. There were certainly other people out there but I’d guess maybe I had a total of two hours of social interaction for the week. Coming on the heels of my last jaunt, I look forward to having the long, remote stretches behind me now. My hiker battery, aka belly fat, has also been depleted so large quantities of fresh food will nourish me too.

I did in fact emerge from my granite cloister still on speaking terms with myself so I suppose that means the company was at least decent.