Day 56 – Ashland, OR
We took a much needed zero day in Ashland. There are as a hostel in town but we got a hotel room for two nights, a little more pricey, but considering how little time we spent in town it seemed justifiable. Some people, mostly Northbounders who don’t have a schedule to keep, will stay in a hotel in every town. Budget wise we were doing okay. One of the beds became a pack explosion, all of our stuff jumbled everywhere while we sorted things out, threw away garbage, backflushed water filters, assesed what replacement gear we needed to purchase while in town.
I took an empty garbage can and filled it up with ice and water. I could only keep my feet in for about 10 seconds at a time, it was incredibly painful. I realized for the first time that my toes and the balls of my feet were numb, a problem that would recur from time to time for the rest of the trail.
Soaking my very swollen feet
Despite spending a good amount of time lounging, eating, and napping, we still managed to get our errands done. We went into town and crossed paths with our friends Fancy and Snacks, they were hiking out but they gave us some of their extra food from their resupply box they didn’t want. We went to the post office, I had a new, 10 degree quilt waiting for me there to swap out for my 20 degree quilt. I had ordered the quilt after just a week on trail, realizing that if I was getting chilly in June in Northern Washington, the High Sierra in September was going to be much worse. We also went to two different gear stores, O’Well bought a new pack and new shoes. We then went to lunch at an Indian Buffet, our friend Mary Poppins was there too and we all enjoyed stuffing ourselves full of Indian food. After we left O’Well and I had to sit by a creek half a block away for a while before it felt safe to move without losing everything we had just crammed in. The $12 buffet was completely worth it! Fortunately we were able to catch the bus back to the hotel rather than walking the two miles. We immediately passed out in a food coma when we got back.
After a nap and laundry we were once again ravenous and ate a big dinner of wraps made with hummus, sauerkraut, vegan pate, lettuce, and mustard and black beans. It was much tastier than you might think. I finished the long day of R&R on a great note. Earlier I had found an almost empty bottle of bubble bath in the hiker box and instantly knew what I had to do. Bubble Bath Beer.
Back on Trail
That morning we resupplied at Safeway then got breakfast with Mary Poppins and his trail family. It was 6:30’s birthday. She is a medical student, currently taking a year off before resuming her studies. We enjoyed breakfast with them, but soon it was time to check out of the hotel and get back on trail. We got a ride back to Callahan’s lodge and we were on our way.
We hiked out about 3 miles before we ran across Mary Poppins and his group again. There was a water spigot and picnic table on the property of someone who lived right on the trail, two huge luxuries that were immensely gratifying. The caretaker of the house was out working in the garden and he gave everyone a beer and let us hang out for a while. Slippy and Oily Boy were not present however. We had first met them back at Crater Lake when we hitched in out of the bad weather. Unfortunately Oily boy had some sort of IT band issue, they turned back to go to the hospital. The rest of the trail family was pretty bummed out, they had been together for some time and it was sad to leave members behind. But injuries are common on trail, especially for people trying to do big miles. In the next couple weeks we would hear the news of two other members of their family getting injured. John Mayo broke his metatarsal and had to get off trail for good.
Normally they hiked much faster than O’Well and me, but they were waiting on news from Oily Boy, hoping maybe he could catch up so they slowed down over the next couple days. We camped with them around 8 miles out of town that day. Since it was 6:30’s birthday O’Well had decided to give her his tent. He had been packing it for some time and not using it as we had taken to sharing my own Six Moons Lunar Solo tent which had a slightly larger footprint and could (with some effort) accommodate us both. 6:30 was carrying a tent that weighed three pounds at the time, two pounds heavier than most ultralight tents. While O’Wells tent had over 4,000 miles of use, it weighed just over a pound and it turned out it was the same tent she was looking to upgrade to. She was overwhelmed. We all gathered around to watch that night while he showed her how to set it up properly. It was a nice moment in the midst of pretty glum prospects for their trail family.
The next day we crossed the Oregon/California border. We saw 6:30’s group at the border crossing sign but that was the last time we saw them that day. Unfortunately we didn’t get much sleep the night before due to wind attacking our tent all night, and crossing the border didn’t do much to lighten our moods. Ashland had been a much needed zero, but on trail the mood is subject to swift change and it just seemed to be a day in which you trudge rather than walk.
I spent some time reflecting on my lessons learned in Oregon. We did the entire state in 19 days, a 24.2 mile a day average. Everything had changed for me since the start of the trail. My mind was calmer. My body was tougher. My path wasn’t any more defined, but I had ideas about how I would like to shape my life, and I found that I didn’t need things to be as clear as I once thought. I didn’t know where my path in life was leading but it didn’t matter so much. I was enjoying the journey on trail, moment by moment, and maybe that was how I needed to think about the rest of my life. I just hike all day and see where I end up – as always the trail is a metaphor.
Our first full day in California we somehow managed to see a rattlesnake. We had a good morning, cruising up and down rolling ridge lines. But around midday we were feeling pretty low energy, it was hot and we weren’t drinking our electrolytes. After we popped a couple fizzy tablets it became much easier going. Around mid-afternoon we were hiking along and quite suddenly we heard an unmistakable hiss and rattle. By the time I realized what was happening I had passed the rattlesnakes and O’Well was standing about 3 feet from where it coiled in the brush to strike, but it seemed to be recoiling too. We hesitated for a brief moment, startled, before we booked it to get out of there.
Once we recovered from the shock O’Well said, (in a way that suggested he had put a lot of thought into it,) “If you died on trail I would be sad.” I laughed for some time. We then reviewed our knowledge of what to do if you get bit by a rattlesnake and decided we should do a bit of research when we got some cell service. Our research told us that the only thing you can really do for a rattlesnake bite is get to a hospital as fast as possible. Anything else could make it worse. So just don’t get bit and you’ll be fine!
Overall it was a phenomenal day. The views in Northern California were already stunning, I had forgotten how much I missed the wide open mountaintop views. Oregon was beautiful, but there were definitely more days in the green tunnel than not. Right at the end of the 26 mile day we had a 4,000 foot elevation drop, straight down into Seiad Valley. When we got into town we came to a bar that was supposed to have food, but we arrived about 15 minutes after the kitchen closed. The owner offered us camping, shower and laundry for $20. Each. Another thing about thru hikers, we are cheap. We turned down the offer after a local hanging out at the bar whispered to me that there was free camping about a mile down the road. “Down by the river,” she said and I almost busted a lung when she walked away, Chris Farley’s voice playing in my head.
Disappointed from not getting any food and pretty tipsy from a single craft beer (dehydration and exhaustion can really kick your ass) we left the bar to discover 6:30 and the rest had paid the $20 to camp there that night. We departed for a nearby gravel pit and camped for the night, not wanting to walk another mile to the river after our long day. We found a spot that was hidden from the road, cooked some dinner and passed out in our tent.
The next morning we had breakfast with our friends at the local cafe, famous for the Seiad Valley pancake challenge. Eat 5 pounds of pancakes in one sitting and you get them for free! That is, 5 pounds of dry pancake mix. Then they add the water.
“How many people have done it?” Someone asked the waitress.
“I’ve been working here twenty years and I’ve seen hundreds of hikers try. Four have done it. Lots have thrown up.” No one tried the pancake challenge.
We still managed a solid breakfast however. I ate two blueberry pancakes, two blackberry pancakes, two vegan sausages, two vegan bacon strips, and a plate of hash browns. Afterwards we all hung out outside for a while, I laid down on a picnic table while my intestines worked overtime. No one was excited about hiking out. The climb out of Seiad Valley is the biggest one on trail, North or South. Going South it was about 5,000 foot of gain in one, long climb, with a 6 mile road walk to start you off. Breaking it up into two days seemed to be the thing to do. It was a hot day so we stopped twice to soak our feet and swim in the creek, taking our time. We camped about halfway up the hill, 17 miles out of town. That night while we were eating dinner the deer were prowling around our campsite, and after we went to bed we heard them invading, searching out our pee spots like addicts and stomping around noisily.
The next day we fell behind 6:30s group early, and we wouldn’t see them again for quite some time. He hiked 23 miles and camped by a German couple heading northbound. They shared a spliff with us (although it tasted like it was just straight tobacco) and told us that they had started the trail 5 months prior. We were planning on hiking California in two and a half months. If it took us 5 months we would be on trail until early March. They weren’t worried though, and I admired their desire to enjoy the trail to its fullest, even if it meant they wouldn’t finish. There was no way they were going to finish.
My Boyfriend Drugged Me
The next day we had 15 miles to get into Etna. We planned on getting up early and getting into town early, but that plan deteriorated pretty quickly.
We watched the sunrise on Mount Shasta while we cooked breakfast. I made the rare choice to have a second cup of instant coffee but I needed to go grab something from the tent so O’Well graciously decided to make it for me. He is not, however a coffee drinker, nor is he a reader of directions. After I drank my coffee and we finished packing up and heading down the trail we hiked about a mile before I couldn’t continue. I couldn’t focus and my fingers were going numb.
“How much coffee did you put in there?” I asked O’Well while my heart raced.
“Like a quarter.”
“A quarter what?”
“Cup. Maybe a half.”
“The package recommends a teaspoon for 6 ounces of water,” I informed him, too twitchy to be exasperated.
“Oh.” He paused for a minute. “Maybe we should sit for a while.”
He told me a story about his former coworker he had seen relapse on meth while I chugged a liter of water. I guess I reminded him of the co-worker. I was tweaking, I couldn’t keep my hands still and my heart was hammering, I felt light-headed. We couldn’t sit forever though so I tried hiking and only made it about a quarter mile before I had to stop again. My head was spinning and I felt panicked. O’Well said my pulse felt normal but in my head my thoughts were racing, I couldn’t focus on anything. I laid down and ate a bar and listened to some soothing music. O’Well talked me through some deep breathing.
An hour later I had peed twice, taken a charcoal capsule, eaten some and was feeling much better. I took ibuprofen to combat the headache I felt coming on and we set off for town. I don’t think he was trying to give me a seizure; he did at least promise never to make me coffee again.
The rest of the miles flew by. We got to the road and immediately got a hitch into Etna. Everyone we met in town was incredibly nice, it was by far the most hiker friendly town I’ve been to. It felt like they were excited to have hikers around, not just tolerant like most towns, or even openly opposed to us like some places. We learned that, it being such a small town, hikers constituted a sizeable portion of the local economy. O’Well and I were certainly no exception to that trend. Our first stop was the distillery for burgers and a rosé cider: perfection. We contacted the owner of R&R bunkhouse, Cate, who took in hikers on work for stay. We dumped our stuff in the garage turned bunkhouse and went to the grocery store on loaner bikes for a full load of fresh fruit, sweet potatoes, and other food. We spent over $100 on food that would be gone before we left town. It was the perfect place to stay the night. The town was very peaceful and only two other hikers were staying at the bunkhouse, making for a quiet and relaxing night. We cooked dinner, dancing in the kitchen while we did and enjoyed the evening not hiking.
We ended up taking a zero the next day. O’Well had ordered a new tent several weeks prior and it was supposed to be delivered to the Etna post office, but it got delayed a day. The one person tent was a fun novelty at first, but after a couple weeks of it we we’re ready to, “Buy a house together,” as O’Well joked to anyone who would listen. I was certainly ready to not be elbowed in the face every time he got into bed. The package was delayed however so we were “forced” to stay another night with Cate. I wasn’t mad. O’Well built a cat house, fulfilling our work for stay, while I chatted with Cate on the front porch about the town, her job, hikers, her dog, all pleasant things. We rode the bikes to resupply and later watched Monte Python on a real TV, truly novel.
I utilized the kitchen a couple times that day. For breakfast I made more sweet potatoes with a mango and plumb compote and crescent rolls, and for dinner we had a beyond meat sausage scramble with fresh veggies from Cate’s garden (tomatoes, zucchini, and onion) and roasted potatoes topped in hummus and salsa. I hadn’t realized how much I missed cooking until I had access to a real kitchen. For the first time in a long time I really missed home.
It was a lovely day. We chatted with the other hikers staying there, both of them were northbound. One, upon leaving left us with his words of wisdom.
“Good luck with your,” he paused, “Interesting relationship.” It was the second time someone had called O’Well and I “interesting” and I sensed a developing pattern.
The next day our tent, a Zpacks Duplex, came in to the post office around 4 in the afternoon. We were getting pretty bored by that time. All our food was eaten and my old tent shipped home. We took the time to quickly set up the Duplex in the yard to make sure everything was all good. It was lighter than my old tent, and so much more roomy. It felt like a mansion. Pleased but ready to be off we said our quick goodbyes and a short time later we were hitching back up to the pass with a man who did Humanitarian Aid work in Ebola outbreak areas. He gave me some good insight on what it takes to break into that field without a masters degree, another possible career trajectory I had considered. We hiked about 5 miles out and camped by a creek in our new tent for the first time. We were both a little exhausted from being in town so long, a little off balance. It felt good to sleep on trail again.
Nor Cal Continues
The next few days flew by. That section we hiked 27, 25, 24, then 18 into Dunsmuir. We ran into Lunar and Solar and hiked around them off and on for a couple days. I first met them in Washington, just before Snoqualmie pass and before I met O’Well. They hiked the Appalachian Trail as their honeymoon ten years prior, so their couple trail name was the “Sunnymooners.”
The views in Northern California were already excellent, it was quite the change in just a few days from Oregon. The weather seemed to have taken a quick turn too. It was very hot during the day, reminding us that we were in California in the final days of August. One day we swam in a lake with a whole group of other SOBOs, it felt like a big party and reminded us we were still in the bubble. Some days we would see hardly anyone, we spent most of our time hiking alone and camping alone. But other hikers were still on the trail, and we didn’t have to be alone all the time.
The day we got into Dunsmuir it was 104 degrees when we arrived. We were pushing to get into town earlier in the day before the post office closed. We hiked through Castle Crags Wilderness that day, supposedly a highlight on the trail. However I was either too tired to appreciate it, or it was hyped up to be better than it was. At the time I just thought it looked like a bunch of rocks, like any other bunch of rocks we had seen in the last thousand miles, though beautiful nonetheless.
When we got to town our box wasn’t at the post office. After some confusion we realized we had miscommunicated about where to send the box. It was at the Dunsmuir post office but we were in Castella, a tiny town about 20 minutes away by car. After cooling down and relaxing a little at the gas station we were picked up by Kelly Fish who runs the hostel in Dunsmuir. She is big into Burning Man and her hostel has a distinctly hippy vibe. It features an outdoor shower, outdoor kitchen, and outdoor beds, decorated with colorful tapestries and a bong or two. Everywhere you went in Dunsmuir Mount Shasta loomed above you. After we got our box from the correct post office and some additional groceries, we hung out with Solar and Lunar, as well as a guy named Moneymaker who was very loud but quite funny, and several other hikers.
We didn’t want to leave the next day. I woke up very early to do a Peace Corps phone interview. It took about an hour and a half, and I thought it went well, but I still didn’t know if the Peace Corps was really the direction I wanted to go after the trail. The next few days I thought about it quite a bit while hiking, and it made the miles incredibly difficult. I was excited about the potential for a new adventure, and the current adventure was feeling tedious. The signs were pointing towards burnout, but I couldn’t quite see that yet.
We hiked 11 miles out from Dunsmuir and camped at the top of the ridge. The next day we hiked 26 miles, and it is the first day in my PCT journal that I didn’t write a single thing. This was, I imagine, a combination of not a lot happening that day, and a reflection of my mental state.
The next day we did 27. Midway through the day, taking a short break at a water source we did the math. At our current pace we wouldn’t make it through the High Sierra’s until a week into October. Common wisdom for a Southbound thru hike indicates that you should be over Forester Pass, the last major pass in the Sierra’s before October first to ensure safe passage before the snow begins to fall. We had to hope that a week wouldn’t make too much difference, but we both agreed that we needed to pick up the pace a little bit. At minimum we didn’t have any time to dally. Although I had been developing an attitude of boredom, the idea of pushing more miles was also not thrilling. Time was passing strangely. Sometimes I would blink and be 5 miles down the trail. Other times the distance between breaks felt like a full week, I was in a mental fog and I couldn’t shake the feeling of not wanting to be there. My shoes were starting to break down again, the telltale pain in my feet the biggest indicator. Every step felt like a small battle.
The next day we did 25, and again I wrote nothing. From memory I know we were at Burney Falls that day, which was beautiful and we were able to get snacks and a couple beers from the visitor center. We hung out with some other hikers, including Shogun, a guy from California who taught English in Thailand, Footprint, a French girl hiking solo, and another British guy we never saw again. We all hiked out 5 miles past the falls and camped there together that night. The next morning we had 5 miles to the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. That day would turn out to be my Everest for the entire trail. The guest ranch was lovely, places to shower and do laundry, a small but well stocked hiker store, and even a swimming pool. All of our new friends were planning on staying a couple more hours, but O’Well wanted to shower, get some food, and hike out as quickly as possible. He reminded me about our new resolution to do bigger mile days, to not take too much time in towns (though the Guest Ranch was hardly a town.) I knew he was right but I wasn’t happy about it. I wanted to swim in the pool. I wanted to hang out with our new and interesting friends. I wanted to sit and do nothing at all.
In all reality the Guest Ranch was not the best place to spend a lot of time. But it was a place and it had amenities and when you were there you didn’t have to hike. We made it out around 2 pm. Even after a shower and picking up my package containing new shoes I was not excited to hike another 15 miles. I spent most of the afternoon angry. I had taken out my frustrations on O’Well and he called me out on what the actual problem was. I wanted the comforts of being in town while still completing a thru hike. Not ready to quit, still committed to the idea of hiking, but I was too focused on the luxuries I couldn’t have on trail, too focused on how much there still was to do. We weren’t even halfway, how was I going to finish this thing if this was the level of suffering I would have to endure? My feet were hurting more than usual, but it was the mental stress I couldn’t shake at that point, and I knew it.
That day was a breaking point though. Everything boiled over and burned out, and it turns out that it’s really hard to stay angry when you’re exhausted. You simply don’t have the energy for it. I realized that hiking is hard, and we were pushing ourselves to the point where it would be crazy not to feel a little crazy. This suffering was a temporary state, and I was temporarily within it. I stopped focusing on the trail in its entirety and started to hike every moment as if it were the only moment that existed. In hindsight that sounds like an oversimplification of a big problem, but there was nothing complex about it. To keep moving I had to stop thinking so much. So I did.
It was turning into a section of quick town stops.
We did 26, stopping in Old Station along the way and briefly visiting the subway tunnels. These are natural rock caves formed when the exterior of a lava flow cooled before the interior and all the molten rock still inside flowed out. They were fun to explore and a nice diversion, not to mention it was cool underground, much better than AC. We got some snacks from a gas station, the only place open in town then hiked a few more miles.
The next day we did 19 miles to Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a place that put me in mind of the summer camp in Dirty Dancing. We got there at 4:30 and had planned on doing more miles that evening, but the dining room only served dinner at 7 and we decided getting a proper meal was more important than the miles. We got to take a shower and swim in their pool, fed by natural hot springs. Complete with pool noodles and chatty (wealthy) vacationers. We had a blast, playing like little kids in the pool, then eating a delicious dinner with a good vegan option and an excellent glass of Rosé. We felt far too Hiker Trash to be eating such a fancy meal.
Despite our fun that day my blisters were acting up again on my heels. I had just picked up new shoes at Burney Mountain, so I was frustrated. Sitting on the side of the trail and applying layers and layers of foam tape, the only first aid supplies I had, I tried to remember my new resolution to be in the moment. Every step was painful, but we had to go on. I was learning more and more about type 2 fun. Type 1 is the kind of fun where it’s fun when it’s actually happening. Type 2 is when it’s not fun now, but later on you will have fun telling the story. My blisters are more like Type 3. Not fun then, not fun now.
We saw a bear cub that day too and it was adorable. Fortunately we didn’t see the momma. The baby caught wind of us, standing 20 yards down the trail and waiting for it to move on. It took off down the small hill towards where we assumed it’s mother was, running in a bumbling and rolly polly sort of way that you couldn’t help but adore. We got out of dodge pretty quick though after it disappeared in the trees.
The next day we hiked 26 miles, and after our fun evening at Drakesbad we were in high spirits all day. I finally realized that the best strategy to manage a thru hike is to just hike to your next break. You’re never hiking 26 miles, you’re just hiking 5 or 6 at a time, which is much more manageable. We ran into a big group of SOBOS that day, Carjack, Footprint, Pacemaker. It was fun to talk with other people and compare notes. I ate a gas station apple pie from Old Station as my reward at the end of the day. That became my other strategy for coping with the miles and the monotony, something to look forward to at the end of the day, always food related. Trying to tame my monkey brain was my new challenge, so I could maybe achieve some of the enlightenment on trail I had been seeking. Maybe. Or maybe training my monkey brain was just what I needed to do to get through the day. I felt I was closer to enlightenment by simply existing, whether the moment was brilliant or shitty, than I was by trying to find some higher purpose or meaning.
Day 82 & Day 83
We hiked 26, then 8 miles into Belden. I got pretty dehydrated, the water sources were very spread out and I wasn’t taking the time to hydrate when I should have. I was motivated and energized though and the miles came easy. At camp that night I didn’t feel like I was burned out, just done with my job for the day. We tagged the midpoint first thing in the morning, 1,326 miles hiked on the PCT. I had overcome some critical barrier, and my experience of the trail changed. Maybe. For a time at least. For that day I just hiked while I hiked and rested while I rested and felt pain when I was in pain. I enjoyed my time in the wilderness, doing new things with a man I loved, experiencing nature in a way that will likely be impossible in a generation or two. Even if I got injured the next day I would still have hiked 1,326 miles on the PCT and I was content with that.
Getting into Belden we heard fire helicopters the whole day and that night after we hiked out a few miles we saw the smoke and the glow of the fire from the next ridge in the dark. We had been lucky with Forest fires, typically a SOBO can expect to experience at least one if not several trail closures in Oregon and Northern California due to fire. We had had none, lucky with the high snow year in both states.
In town I ate too much greasy food and actually felt a little sick. I seemed to be losing weight again and I needed the calories though. We did laundry and showered, anticipating that we wouldn’t be doing so again for at least a week. We were bound for Truckee, pushing for our last zero day before the High Sierra, the last rest we would have for quite some time.