Charlton Lake (my mile 1296, trail mile 1925) to Santiam Pass (my mile 1465, trail mile 2000)
“The trail provides” is one of the many sayings often uttered by PCT thru-hikers. Nowhere has that been truer for me than in Oregon, which I pieced together in sections after getting forced off trail by an Afib episode at Charlton Lake. Exiting from a dirt road with no transport connections in the middle of nowhere created a huge logistical headache, but I managed to overcome it – with a lot of help.
I booked a room at The Graduate Hotel in Eugene after I was discharged from hospital, and resolved to take a zero the next day while I considered my options. Tidbit and I hung out at the hotel bar, which is decked out like a shrine to the Oregon Ducks. We made friends with the bartender, a nursing student named Nancy, who offered to let us stay in her spare room for our second night in Eugene.
We went to see Rocketman the next day, then caught the bus back to The Graduate. It was the grand opening (it had recently been converted from a Hilton), and we got free food and drinks out in the courtyard. I even met Puddles, the Oregon Ducks’ mascot.
By this point I’d decided to get back on trail, but we knew getting back to Charlton Lake was going to be difficult. Instead we caught a bus to Bend, where we stayed with a local trail angel named Heinrich who we’d met hitchhiking at Crater Lake just a week or so earlier. Heinrich took us to the Bend REI, where I picked up my third pair of Altras. After more than 600 miles my second pair was falling apart, and my right ankle was paying the price.
The next day Heinrich took us to see Smith Rock, a local climbing mecca. Afterwards he drove us to Santiam Pass, a busy highway crossing about 75 miles up the trail from where we’d exited. We began the long climb through a hot, exposed burn area into the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. After 14 miles we made camp by the shore of a pretty alpine lake.
We decided to slow our pace for the next section and average only about 20 miles a day to Timberline Lodge, on the slopes of Mount Hood. Somewhere around the base of Mount Jefferson I hit 1,326 miles – the midpoint of the entire trail.
I should have savoured the achievement, but the experience of the past week had left me feeling low. I was acutely aware that my A-Fib could come back at any time and end my hike. I was also unhappy about skipping another section, which only made it more difficult to finish the trail before I miss the weather window at the end of the season. Mosquitos were also swarming us at every turn, sapping our energy and souring our mood. Still, we pushed on.
As if sensing my flagging morale, the trail provided me with plenty of pick-me-ups over the next few days. The area north of Mount Jefferson was full of beautiful clear lakes, which looked magnificent against the backdrop of the dramatic snowy peak. After a long climb I got my first view of Mount Hood from more than 50 miles away.
Tidbit and I came across some snow fields on the descent, so we decided to have some fun. We glissaded down the slopes (albeit pretty slowly), and I found a Complete Cookie still its packaging at the base of a slide. Later that day we arrived at Olallie Lake, where a trail angel named OG was grilling hamburgers for a small group of hikers. He made us two each, which we supplemented with cookies and cider from the nearby resort store.
We experienced more trail magic the next day at a horse camp, where a local woman had set up a mini cafeteria for hikers in a pop-up tent. We made our own sandwiches, ate homemade brownies and drank a few cans of soft drinks each. We camped that night on the shore of Timothy Lake, where I found an unopened can of PBR on a rock. I don’t even like beer that much (I’m a terrible Australian, I know), but in that moment it tasted delicious.
The next day we took a short side trail to see Little Crater Lake, a 40-foot-deep, spring-fed lake that’s so clear you can see the bottom. We pushed on toward Timberline Lodge, where we’d planned to camp. Tidbit decided to skip the long climb up to the lodge, and yogi’d a ride from a couple of day hikers at a trailhead car park.
I really enjoyed the climb, which offered spectacular views of the Mount Hood summit for the last few miles. The last mile or so was a tough slog through soft volcanic sand, but the views made it worth it. I arrived at Timberline just before sunset and set up my tent between it and the mountain. The lodge is a beautiful historic building, constructed during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal. It was also the set for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. We ordered pizzas at the bar, then spent some time exploring.
In the morning, after stuffing ourselves at the breakfast buffet, we caught the bus down to Portland where a rental car was waiting for us. The plan was to drive all the way back to Charlton Lake, where Tidbit would drop me off. I’d hike the 75 miles back to Santiam Pass, plugging the gap I’d created when I got off trail. Then, I’d try to hitch a ride back to Portland. We camped by the lake before saying our goodbyes in the morning.
I spent the day walking from lake to lake, stopping at one particularly pretty one for a midday swim. I camped alone at Dumbbell Lake, on a small peninsula. I went for a short swim as the sun went down before retreating to my tent to escape the growing cloud of mosquitos.
The next day I reached the Three Sisters Wilderness, where the trail left the dense forest that characterises most of the PCT in Oregon, and entered a chain of wide-open plains. It was a nice change of scenery. I hiked for 26 miles – my longest day in a while – so that I would have a shorter hike into Big Lake Youth Camp the next day. The summer camp puts on a nightly dinner for hikers, and I didn’t want to miss it.
I left my campsite early the next morning and soon passed the last of the Three Sisters. The smooth ground under my feet gave way to jagged volcanic rock, and before I knew it I was in the middle of a lava field that stretched as far as I could see. I spent several hours slowly picking my way through the field, praying that I wouldn’t aggravate my right ankle. I eventually made it through, and the trail returned to the forest.
I reached Big Lake in time for dinner, and was greeted by camp counselor PCT Mama. Every southbounder I’d met for the past few days had made me promise to stop in at the camp, and now I saw why. The camp has a whole building dedicated to hikers, with showers, laundry facilities and a kitchen. At dinner time I followed a group of other hungry hikers into the dining hall, where we joined a few hundred Seventh Day Adventist kids for taco salad.
All of us hikers camped on a black sand beach just outside the summer camp’s property. In the morning, we had eggs and pancakes with all the campers. The camp doesn’t charge hikers anything for all of this, but does accept donations.
My plan for the day was to hike the last five miles to Santiam Pass, then stick out my thumb on the highway to get back to Portland. I’d never hitched that far before, and was worried it would be difficult to get a ride away from the trail corridor. Just as I was about to leave Big Lake, a trail angel walked in and asked if anyone needed a ride to the interstate, which was more than halfway to my destination.
I knew I could get a bus to Portland from any of the towns on I-5, so I accepted. It meant I’d skip the five miles between Big Lake and Santiam Pass, which is the first time on this trail I’ve skipped any section with no intention of returning to it. After everything I’d been through in Oregon, I just didn’t care.
I arrived in downtown Portland in the afternoon and rejoined Tidbit, who was staying in a hotel. We later moved to a couchsurfing host’s place on the east side. I spent a couple of days hanging out with Tidbit before I headed to the airport this morning and boarded a plane. I’m writing this from the skies over Crater Lake, on my way back to California to finally hike the Sierra.
Tidbit is staying in Oregon for now due to some commitments, but will join me at some point after the Sierra. The Sierra is supposed to be the most spectacular part of the whole PCT, and it’s coming right at a time when I need some motivation.
The trail provides.
Crater Lake (my mile 1192, trail mile 1821) to Charlton Lake (my mile 1296, trail mile 1925)
Our day off in Fort Klamath was sorely needed, as both Tidbit and I could feel our bodies protesting against the longer days we’d been hiking since the Oregon border. By the time we reached Crater Lake it felt like we were both running on empty. After a night at the Aspen Inn we walked to the Fort Klamath post office, which is only open for two hours a day.
We collected our resupply box and I picked up my new Dirty Girl gaiters, replacing my old pair of Salomons that I’d worn out. A local artist named John offered us a ride on our way out of the post office, then drove us back up the highway to Crater Lake in his camper van.
A bear was crossing the highway just before the park entrance, then scurried off the road as the van approached. We stopped, and I managed to get a great photo of the bear as it paused to look back at us.
Tidbit hopped out at Mazama Village and took the trolley up to the rim, while John dropped me at the trailhead and I walked the 4.5-mile alternate that took me to the same spot. Taking the Crater Lake Rim Trail is technically cheating since it’s not the PCT but almost everybody does it because the PCT doesn’t actually go to Crater Lake.
Instead, it takes a wide arc around the lake that is around five miles longer. I’m not so much of a purist that I’d miss out on such a highlight just to stick to the “official” trail, but I want my path from Mexico to Canada to be connected by continuous footsteps. Thus, I panted my way up the steep climb from the highway to the rim while Tidbit relaxed at the Rim Village cafe.
I power walked the whole way to the cafe, and surprised Tidbit when I rocked up earlier than she’d expected. We strolled out to the rim, and I got my first view of Crater Lake. As advertised, it was enormous. The lake lies at the bottom of a volcano’s caldera, which stretches all the way to the horizon when viewed from the rim. The original volcano, Mount Mazama, tore itself apart in a massive eruption around 7700 years ago, creating the huge crater.
The lake is fed only by snowmelt and rain, and sparkled a brilliant blue beneath me on what was a cloudless day. In the middle of it all was Wizard Island, the beginnings of a new volcano, jutting out of the lake near its western shore. Hordes of tourists swarmed the rim trail closest to the car park, but disappeared as we followed the trail away from the village and around to the north side of the rim.
Snow covered the north end of the trail, forcing us to walk along the road for a stretch. We stopped for one last look at the lake at its northern end, then rejoined the PCT a few miles later. We trekked through nine miles of flat forest in the dying light to make it to a water cache at a junction with a forest road just outside the park boundary.
We climbed half way up Mount Thielsen the next morning, then followed the trail as it skirted the mountain’s slopes. We hit snow on the north face, and had to strap on our microspikes for a steep descent into the forest. We had no idea we were descending into insectoid hell.
Melting snow, as it turns out, creates a lot of stagnant ponds, which are a favourite breeding ground for mosquitos. Thousands of them swarmed us as soon as we reached the cover of trees, forcing us to cover our faces with our bug nets. I was glad to be wearing long pants. We hiked on, praying that the swarms would dissipate somewhere. They didn’t.
Tidbit and I had decided to push all the way to Windigo Pass, making it a 30-mile day. From Windigo, Tidbit could take a 20-mile alternate to the resort at Shelter Cove while I would hike the PCT, which is eight miles longer. The 30-mile was tough but fast, as the mosquitos left us no opportunities to take a break. They were in absolute plague proportion at the pass, so I put on my rain gear and sprayed myself with DEET before making dinner. I dived into the tent the second I’d finished eating.
I wasn’t really in the mood to hike 28 miles the next morning, especially while being attacked by yet more mosquitos, but I resolved to push on. The extra miles would earn me a zero in Bend, the next town, while keeping me on schedule to finish my hike in mid September.
It was a miserable day of hiking, with no reprieve from the winged blood-suckers. I scoffed my lunch while they buzzed around my face, and jogged sections where they were particularly bad. The snow-covered Diamond Peak was the day’s only highlight, but I couldn’t stop to appreciate the views.
My ankle began to complain five miles from the resort, and it was nearly 9PM by the time I limped to the campground. Tidbit had already set up the tent and had spent the afternoon hanging out with other hikers after getting a ride from the camp hosts at Crescent Lake, half way between Windigo Pass and Shelter Cove.
We lingered around the resort past lunch time the next day as we washed our clothes and filled up on scrambled eggs and hamburgers at the resort cafe. When we finally rolled out at 2:30 I was feeling queasy. I was trying to stop myself vomiting as we walked the road out of the resort, but when we started going uphill I couldn’t hold it any longer. I puked in the ditch, and spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself before we hiked on.
I figured I’d have lost a bunch of electrolytes when I retched, so I dropped some Nuun tablets into my water bottle. We made it 14 miles before we decided to make camp, where we were again swarmed by millions of evil f**king mosquitos. I munched on a Clif bar in my tent, not willing to brave the mozzies to cook.
As I lay back in my sleeping bag, I felt my heart flutter – just like it had back near Idyllwild. I held my finger against my neck and took my pulse. It had almost no discernible rhythm. I realised I’d slipped back into atrial fibrillation. I went to sleep and hoped I would cardiovert naturally.
I was still in A-fib when I woke up the next morning. Elk Lake was 31 miles ahead. I hoped my heart would return to normal on the trail, so we packed up camp and headed north. When we reached Charlton Lake four miles later it was still beating erratically. I tried meditating, coughing a lot and a bunch of other tricks to stimulate cardioversion, but with no luck. We spotted a couple of canoers as we worked out what to do, but decided to push on.
A mile later the trail began a gentle climb which left me panting for breath. We stopped by the side of the trail as I agonised over what to do. I remembered Frodo’s advice to us hikers back in San Francisco – “make good choices” – and decided to turn back. Tidbit and I returned to the lake, and found the car park the canoers had come by.
We waited for an hour or so until they returned, and I explained my situation. They were a friendly elderly couple, and agreed to take us back to civilisation. The couple were staying nearby in Oakridge, but drove me all the way to the nearest hospital in Eugene.
I was admitted right away, and was immediately attached to a plethora of electrodes. I’d been expecting a long stay, like my first hospitalisation at Eisenhower, but the doctors at PeaceHealth wasted no time. Given I’d already been diagnosed and knew exactly what was going on there wasn’t much to do but shock me back to normality. They put me under, and then it was all over. I walked out of hospital less than three hours after I’d arrived, sporting a new bright red burn mark on my chest from the defibrillator.
I was stressed out and worried my hike was over. Now stranded in Eugene, we had no idea what to do. I booked us a room at a hotel downtown, and we ordered a Lyft to take us there. The driver who picked us up, a cheery local guy named Chris, offered to take us on a tour of Eugene since I was new to town. He switched off the meter and took us to the spot where legendary Olympic distance runner Steve Prefontaine died in a car accident back in the 70s.
Eugene is the US capital of track and field athletics. The University of Oregon, which is based in the town, is the training ground for America’s Olympic track athletes. Tidbit, a former college track runner, was nerding out. We drove by Hayward Field then stopped for ice cream at Prince Pucklers, a local cult favourite. “Oh hey, that’s Marcus outside,” said Chris. “He’s a Heisman Trophy winner.”
I’m a big football fan, so I went outside to see who it was. It was Tennessee Titans quarterback and Oregon Ducks alum Marcus Mariota. “Holy shit, are you Marcus Mariota?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. He let me get a photo, then we chatted for a second about the trail. It was a happily bizarre end to my weirdest day on the trail so far.
Seiad Valley (my mile 1027, trail mile 1656) to Crater Lake (my mile 1192, trail mile 1821)
Independence Day in Ashland was like a city-wide party. Tidbit and I walked along the main street as we watched the miles-long parade, then enjoyed hearty lunches at an English pub (the irony). At a street fair, we watched pro-choice protestors face off with pro-life protestors welding signs with pictures of aborted foetuses, until the police got involved. Only in the land of the free.
We stopped by a microbrewery on our way home, then sprawled out on our trail angel’s garage floor to pack resupply packages for the trail ahead. I also finally managed to replace my trekking pole tips, which had been worn down to nubs. It was tricky to get the old tips off, but we eventually managed with the help of boiling water and some pliers.
I could have stayed in Ashland for weeks – maybe even a lifetime – but with full stomachs and rested legs, Tidbit and I decided it was time to get back on the trail. That was a little easier said than done, as we’d skipped up from Seiad Valley for Independence Day. Luckily a trail angel named Tor responded to our Facebook plea for help and offered us a ride. He picked us up from the Ashland UPS store where we’d mailed resupply boxes.
Tor dropped us at Seiad around noon, but warned us that the trail ahead was overgrown with poison oak that was impossible to avoid. He suggested we hike a parallel forest service road that makes the same 4500-foot climb before rejoining the trail. We took his advice, and spent all afternoon gradually working our way up and out of the valley. It was hot, especially in some recently burnt areas that offered hardly any shade. We stopped at a waterfall near the top and cooled off.
At the top we ran into Grit, who’d just hiked up the trail. I asked her what the poison oak was like – she told me it was no big deal. My inner purist wishes I’d stuck with the trail. That’s the problem with listening to warnings on the trail: sometimes the information is out of date, and it’s pretty much always subjective. One person’s “impassable overgrowth” is just a minor annoyance to others.
Just before camp that night I spotted my second bear of the trail. As I climbed a ridge, I saw the jet-black bear scurrying down the hill at full speed to get away from me. We stopped for the night at a spot with a spectacular view of the valley below, with Mount Shasta looming in the distance. I watched my last sunset in California (for now) before crawling into my sleeping bag.
We reached the Oregon state line late the next day after some more ridge climbing, and made our first camp in the state at another beautiful spot. The sky put on a show, as if to welcome us to the beaver state. I’d crossed into Oregon 629 miles earlier than most PCT hikers thanks to our decision to flip north, but reaching my second state still felt like a huge achievement.
My first full day in Oregon was spent hiking through green pine forests full of moss and lichen, with many great view of the yellowed grassy hills of the Rogue Valley. Some graffiti on a trail marker gave us a warning: “Don’t believe their lies, Oregon is NOT flat”. Hikers often describe Oregon as “flat” because it is, comparable to the Sierra section most have just hiked through, but a glance at the state’s elevation profile reveals it’s not a walk in the park. Sure, the highest point is less than 8000 feet, but there is almost no point in the whole state where you’re not either climbing a big hill or coming down it.
By the early evening Tidbit and I reached Callahan’s, a lodge on the highway that leads to Ashland. The resort is famously hiker-friendly, and offers bottomless spaghetti bolognese to hikers for $14. I had two big plates of it. We picked up the first of our resupply packages from the front desk and stuffed the contents into our food bags. Another box was open on the table, full of Clif bars and peanut butter. Attached to it was a printed email from the sender, explaining that he’d quit his hike and wanted the contents given away to other hikers. I salvaged three or four Clif bars and added them to my food bag. Score! Once packed we hiked out into the night, making it two more miles down the trail before we camped near a dry stream.
We made long miles the next two days, pushing to make it to Fish Lake resort. The second day was 29 miles – Tidbit’s longest ever – which we hiked in record time in order to make it to the restaurant at the nearby Lake of the Woods resort before their advertised 9PM closing time. We practically skipped over 10 miles of volcanic rocks in barely three hours to make it to the highway by 7:15PM. Tidbit, who usually hikes behind me, blazed past me about an hour before the end. She was breathing like a woman in labour. “If I slow down I won’t be able to keep going,” she said. “I’m just running off the adrenaline from the pain.”
We tried desperately to get a hitch, but car after car passed us by without slowing down. Finally, just before 8, an old man driving home to Klamath Falls pulled over in his pickup truck and gave us a ride. We reached the resort by 8:15, and limped up to the restaurant. I tried the door, but it only rattled. Two other hikers we knew, Shelby and Super Trooper, unlocked the door and came outside a moment later. “Are they closed?” I asked incredulously. “I don’t know, we just ate,” Super Trooper said.
I walked in to find the waitress mopping the floor. “Are you closed?” I asked. “Yeah, it was really slow so we closed early,” she said. It took all of my self-control not to have a full-blown tantrum. “But we hiked so far to be here before 9!” I said. “Sorry,” was all she could offer.
I stormed outside and gave the bad news to Tidbit. We were both tired and grumpy. Super Trooper offered us a ride back to Fish Lake (on the same highway) with his family, who had come to collect him and Shelby for a wedding. We were about to take up their offer when the restaurant manager came outside, evidently having taken pity on us. “I can make you guys a couple of burgers if you want,” he said. We got them to go, and rode back to Fish Lake with Super Trooper and Shelby.
We slept in the next morning, and spent the first half of the day doing laundry, showering and charging our electronics. We finally hiked out at 2PM, and got a hitch back to the trail. We made it 18 miles by sunset and camped in a burn area. As I was making dinner we both heard what sounded like a low animal call. We couldn’t work out if it was a bear or an elk, or something else. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
It took Tidbit and I two more days to get to Crater Lake, hiking through bright green forests, areas scarred by fire and past snowy peaks. At a junction a day’s hike south of Crater Lake Tidbit and I both separately went the wrong way, thanks to some idiot who’d marked an arrow on the ground pointing in the wrong direction. I made it nearly a mile before I noticed, and had to backtrack. Lesson learnt: always check the map.
The trail was surprisingly dry and dusty, requiring us to carry heavy loads of water for long stretches. The weight wore us both down, and by the time we reached Mazama Village, on the outskirts of Crater Lake National Park, we needed a break. We booked a room at the Aspen Inn in nearby Fort Klamath, where we needed to pick up packages anyway, and took the afternoon off.
The motel’s owners were incredibly friendly. They didn’t have any washing machines, but they gave us a bucket and a drying frame so we could do laundry ourselves. For the first time since Etna I slept in a real bed. It was heavenly.
Dunsmuir (my mile 872, trail mile 1501) to Seiad Valley (my mile 1027, trail mile 1656).
My own poor organisation caused me to spend nearly two full days in Dunsmuir while I waited for a package with my new odour-proof food bag. In hindsight I’m glad it worked out that way, because Dunsmuir is delightful. It’s an historic railroad town on the Sacramento River in the shadow of Mount Shasta, tucked away in a wooded valley.
We stayed at the Crossroads, a hostel three miles out of town run by local woman Kelly Fish. She provides bicycles for hikers to make trips into town, so Tidbit and I took a couple and cycled along the river. We passed pretty 1900s timber houses and stone cottages along the banks of the rushing river before crossing the railroad tracks on the outskirts of downtown.
Comments from other hikers on the Guthook PCT app strongly urged us to try Yaks, a burger restaurant on the far town. I ordered the “Melt Your Tongue Off” burger, which lived up to its name. It was also the most delicious thing I’ve eaten on trail.
I did a whole resupply for the next 98 mile stretch to Etna at the Dollar General, which was great for my wallet but not great for my tastebuds or general health. I still need to work on my food strategy, or the combination of instant mashed potatoes and candy bars will probably kill me before I get to Canada.
A UPS truck finally arrived near 5PM on my second day in town, and I couldn’t get a ride for the 1.5 mile distance back to the trail. I said goodbye to Tidbit, who was skipping ahead to Etna while she waited for her feet to heal. I walked out of town along some railroad tracks, and only made it three miles further before I came across a friendly British couple camped by a river and decided to call it a day.
I got up early the next morning, determined to make up some of the time I’d lost. I was out of camp by 6:20 and soon began the long, arduous climb out of the valley and up to Castle Crags, a chain of spectacular rock formations that tower over the forest. I schlepped my way straight up for six miles, heart pounding and sweat pouring from everywhere. When I finally reached the top, I had a magnificent view of the crags.
Somehow I’d manage to make the climb in decent time, and I was feeling good. I wanted to get some decent miles behind me, so I took a quick lunch break and pushed on. By late in the afternoon I was in sight of my first 30-mile day, so I decided to go big. Guthook promised a beautiful campsite by a lake at 32 miles and I was determined to make it. An hour before camp I had to traverse a snowy peak, so I strapped on my microspikes and ploughed across.
Around 8PM I finally made it to the lake, which was as beautiful as all the comments on Guthook suggested. Deer wandered around the water, which was set against the backdrop of a snow-capped ridge. I met Hoarder and Bubbles, section hikers who walked from Campo all the way to Castle Crags last year and were picking up where they left off. We all enjoyed a stunning orange-red sunset before crawling into our tents.
My legs were stiff and a little sore, but in good shape considering. I was glad I’d proved to myself that I can do these kind of distances if I have to. I’ll probably need to at some point if I’m going to finish on time.
The next day I managed 28 miles, through more alpine terrain and dense pine forests. I came across a sunny meadow in the mid-morning, and spotted the rear end of a bear disappearing down the trail ahead of me. Cautiously, I crept forward. Again I saw it scampering up the trail. Then a third, then a fourth time.
I stopped at a stream and was collecting water when Hoarder and Bubbles caught up to me, so I told them to be on the lookout. They passed me, but came back to the stream a minute later. They said they’d come across the bear sitting near the trail, and it wasn’t moving. We waited a few minutes and continued together, making as much noise as possible. We didn’t see it again.
I made it 26 miles on my third full day out of Dunsmuir, through a gallery of colourful wildflowers. I’d planned a slightly shorter day to give my feet and legs a break, but a complete lack of flat ground for the last five miles forced me to tackle a long climb I intended to do the next morning. At a particularly high peak I had cell service for the first time in days, and checked in with Tidbit. She’d made it to Etna and was staying with a trail angel, who was happy to drive up to the trailhead at Etna Peak the next morning to bring me into town. It was a relief, as the quiet road is a notoriously difficult hitch.
I was excited to see Tidbit, who I’d been missing since I left Dunsmuir. I make more miles when I’m hiking alone, but mostly just because there’s nothing else to do with my day. I missed having someone to share my experiences with, and to talk about anything other than hiking with when it all gets too much.
My third long day in a row left me just nine miles out of the Etna trailhead, a distance I covered quickly the next morning. I was met by Tidbit, Grit (who I’d caught up to), Buck the local trail angel, and Buck’s aqua blue 1960s Chevy Suburban. The Chevy was a thing of beauty. It rumbled down the mountain and into town. Buck dropped us at his place, where his brother Chris made me a plate of bacon an eggs. The brothers served in the military together, and now hosted a plethora of hikers at their two family homes in Etna.
Tidbit and I wondered around the charming little town, which consisted primarily of one main street with an assortment of historic brick buildings. We had lunch at Denny Bar, and upscale brewery and distillery that seemed curiously out of place in such an out-of-the-way corner of northern California.
Around town we noticed mailbox stickers and flags proclaiming Etna to be not in California at all, but in the “State of Jefferson”. Jefferson is a fictional state dreamt up by disaffected northern Californians and southern Oregonians, most of whom are conservative and feel unrepresented by their predominantly liberal and metropolitan states. The separatist movement has been clamouring for independence for decades, but the idea doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction. Still, Jefferson flags are everywhere in this area, all the way up to Ashland.
After resupplying at the Dollar General, I returned to Buck’s place where the brothers were putting on a feast for about a dozen hikers. We gorged ourselves on burgers, steaks, chicken wings and all manner of salads, nearly all prepared by the jovial Chris. I’m constantly amazed at the lengths trail angels will go to extend their hospitality to PCT hikers. It’s truly humbling to experience that kind of generosity.
The next morning, Buck and Chris’s younger sister drove me, Grit and two other hikers back up the mountain to the trailhead. I didn’t start hiking until nearly 11, but still managed a 21-mile day. Midway through, I stopped for lunch with six other hikers at a picturesque lake, set against a backdrop of snowy peaks. The trail for the next few miles was essentially a river, thanks to a torrent of snowmelt that was gushing down from the parallel mountain ridge. Two of the hikers I’d share lunch with rushed ahead of me, while the rest lagged behind.
I saw nobody but a couple of southbounders the next day in 26 miles of walking. A couple of deer stumbled across my path early in the morning, and didn’t seem at all bothered by me. I stopped and took a video as they grazed nonchalantly on some bushes.
Around noon I passed my personal 1000 mile mark, which happened to be by a spectacularly beautiful lake that looked like something out of The Sound Of Music. I stopped for a long lunch to celebrate, and spent a long time trying to compose a selfie to mark the milestone by propping my phone up on my backpack, only for it to fall off the first four or five times before I finally got my shot.
In the middle of the afternoon I began the long descent toward Seiad Valley, along a section of trail that is notoriously poorly maintained. I’d be warned of fallen logs and thick overgrown vegetation, which there was, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been expecting. After a few wearing hours of clambering over log after log, I arrived at a campsite by a footbridge and set up my tent.
In the morning, I left camp early and made good time on the last few miles of the descent to the Klamath River. According to a local I met there was once a bridge here directly into Seiad Valley, but it was washed away in a flood and never replaced. Now, hikers have to road walk for about four miles to the highway bridge on the other side of town. I did so, and made it to the town’s only cafe by 10:30.
Tidbit was there waiting for me, along with the rental car she’d brought from Ashland. We’d planned to skip up there to celebrate the Fourth of July, which turned out to be a great idea. We stayed with a local trail angel, Nancy, who took us to the town’s famous parade. We had lunch at an English pub downtown afterward (irony) and watched the fireworks at the college stadium in the evening. Best zero day ever.
Kennedy Meadows (mile 702) to Dunsmuir (my mile 872, trail mile 1501).
I got a ride out of Kennedy Meadows from a trail angel, along with Tidbit and a young German girl named Grit. We’d booked a rental car down the mountain in Ridgecrest. Our plan was to take our time driving the Pacific Coast Highway up to San Francisco, where we’d drop off Grit, then continue up to the redwoods.
On the way up we stayed with Steinbeck in Salinas, near Monterey. I’d last seen Steinbeck in Idyllwild, right before I landed in hospital with my freak heart problem. He’d been forced off trail at Cabazon by some problems at home, but was determined to try again next year. Given the snow conditions on trail this year, it was probably for the best.
Tidbit got a phone call in the middle of the night at Steinbeck’s place with some bad news. Her grandma, who’d been severely unwell for the past weeks, had just passed away. She would need to fly back to Texas for the funeral. Tidbit was very close with her grandma, and had been understandably anxious about her deteriorating health since I met her in Wrightwood.
The next morning we drove to San Francisco and dropped off Grit in Berkeley, where she was staying with the family of another hiker. We’d arranged to stay in the city at the home of Claudine, the wife of hiker All-In. I’d met All-In before Deep Creek and he’d asked me to join his crew that was braving the Sierra, but the reports I was reading of treacherous river crossings, knee-deep postholing and high avalanche risk were making me lean towards flipping.
I dropped Tidbit at the airport a couple of days later, while Claudine headed out to Bishop to meet All-In. I had their beautiful house near Golden Gate Park all to myself, but a persistent stomach illness (I think I may have had giardia) kept me from making the most of my time in the city. Tidbit returned from Texas a few days later, and we drove up to the redwoods in Humboldt and Del Norte counties for a few days. These trees are among the oldest living things on the planet, and they are spectacularly beautiful.
I enjoyed being in the comforts of civilisation for two weeks, but spent most of the time anxious about being off the trail. I was continually aware that I wasn’t doing what I came to America to do – fulfil my dream of the past four years. So I was relieved when we finally decided to commit to the flip, and began the long and complicated journey to the northern California town of Chester. As we’d hoped, a lot of snow had melted during our time off. The trail north of Chester appeared to offer the longest stretch of relatively snow-free hiking available.
Because of the difficulty of booking one-way car rentals for long journeys we had to drive all the way down to Sacramento to return our car, then immediately pick up a second rental car and drive it back north to Redding, then get on a bus back south to Red Bluff and east to Chester. It took the better part of two days. Finally at 4:30PM on Monday, a bus dropped us off at the trail outside of Chester. We made it nearly 10 miles before sundown, and spent our first night camped by the raging Feather River. Northern California’s notorious mosquitoes descended on us immediately, so we scoffed our dinner and retreated to the tent.
In the morning we entered Lassen Volcanic National Park, and soon reached a boiling sulphurous lake with bubbling mud pits that looked like something from Mars. Not long after, we hit the only stretch of snow between Chester and Burney. I’d been feeling guilty about skipping the Sierra and breaking up the continuity of the hike, but the snow was a convincing reminder of why I’d made that decision.
The snow only lasted for six miles, but it was tough, slow going as we trekked up and down snow drifts and repeatedly lost the trail. We used a fallen log to make a slightly dangerous crossing of a raging river – something I’d be doing several times a day if I were in the Sierra. Two hikers drowned in 2017 – another high snow year – doing just that.
We crossed another stream earlier than we were supposed to, and found ourselves bush bashing along the bank to try and rejoin the trail. At 6PM, only 13 miles after we left camp that morning, we came across the only flat piece of dry ground we’d seen for miles and decided to call it a day. In the tent that night, I calculated how many miles I would have to hike per day to finish by my target of mid-September. The number shocked me: 21 miles a day, not including any days off. I’d killed a lot of time in the desert and since while I waited out the snow to melt, but I’ve run out of days that I can afford to waste. From hereon in, I’m going to have to step it up.
Determined to make up for lost time, I got up early the next morning and we headed back into the snow. Four more hours of frustratingly slow hiking later, we cleared the snow and began the long descent towards the tiny town of Old Station. We passed through a long stretch of burnt forest, which exposed us to the blazing sun. Despite the distant sea of green, this felt more like the desert than the real desert had ever been.
I reached the spur trail to Old Station in the early evening, and Tidbit arrived shortly after. She was in bad shape. Her feet were acting up, and she was in a lot of pain. She hobbled with me to the gas station – the only store in town – and we bought a frozen pizza. The manager, an unflinchingly friendly guy in a ten-gallon hat, kindly cooked it for us.
Tidbit was in no shape to continue the next morning, so she hitched a ride about 30 miles up the trail to my next stop at the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch. I left at 7:30, and stopped by the Subway Cave on my way out of town. The cave is a quarter-mile-long lava tube with openings at both ends. It was creepy exploring it alone, but well worth the hour-long detour.
By 8:30 I was climbing up towards Hat Creek Rim, which I would follow for the entire day. At top, I got my first view of the magnificent Mount Shasta. This stretch of trail is the only significant waterless section north of the desert, and is almost completely exposed. The afternoon was hot, but the trail was mostly flat so I didn’t have to work up too much of a sweat. I took long breaks at the road 22 water cache and under a large tree to cool down and wait out the heat.
Mosquitoes began to emerge at dusk, and I started jogging down the trail to escape them. Unfortunately the trail in this section is full of jagged volcanic rock, so I could only go so fast without risking my ankles. I made it to a tent site at dusk and hurriedly set up my tent. I’d made it 25.3 miles – my longest day on trail so far.
I started early the next morning, and it made it the seven miles to Burney Mountain Guest Ranch by 9:30. Tidbit was there, and her feet were feeling better. I showered, did laundry, and bought more supplies from the ranch’s small hiker store. The ranch is a religious resort of sorts, complete with a replica Noah’s Ark and an enormous wooden cross looking out over a valley to an identical twin cross. Only in America.
The hiker store sold spray-on permethrin, an insect repellent used to treat clothing. Fearful of more ‘skeeters, we sprayed our entire load of laundry and left it to dry on a washing line. I lazed around the campground for longer than I’d planned as we waited for electronics to charge and clothes to dry. Finally at 4:30 we got back on the trail, and headed towards Burney Falls state park.
We reached the turnoff to the falls just before sunset, and were glad we did. The falls were spectacular in their enormity, and the viewing point offered the best possible view of the awesomely powerful spectacle. A couple of car-camper visitors peppered us with questions about the trail on the way in. Some hikers have made an art form out of using these conversations to milk curious civilised folk for their snacks and beers, a practice known as yogi-ing (after Yogi the bear). We got nothing, so I clearly need to get better at it. I think the secret is having no shame.
We camped at the park, which turned out to be a bad decision. We’d already paid our $5 each before we realised that the hiker sites were half a mile from the ranger station, at the very back of the park. As the only campers who don’t have vehicles, this seemed absurdly unfair. We had to trudge past every cabin and RV site in the entire park on the way to our patch of dirt, next to an old cemetery and miles away from the toilets.
You might think this would be nothing to hikers used to walking 20+ miles a day, but the hiker brain doesn’t work that way. After a long day on the trail, the last thing you want to do is walk more miles that don’t even count towards your total. Most of us will happily wait by the side of a road for an hour if it means some driver will save us from walking half an hour to wherever we’re going. In summary, sort your shit out California state park service.
Tidbit and I hiked 70 miles over the next three days, mostly through dense forests of ponderosa pines and incense cedars. It seemed we were always on a long climb or descent to and from tree-covered ridges, and water was everywhere. For the most part, we only had to carry a litre of water at a time. It was just as well, because I’d been lugging a heavy bear can and an ice axe since Chester.
I was carrying the axe in case we came across steep snow, but never needed to use it. I gave it a whirl on a short slope, using it as brake while I glissaded to the bottom. It’s so much fun, and in the heat I didn’t even mind getting a wet butt.
We woke up yesterday 12 miles from Dunsmuir, and began the descent into town early. I was going to mail the ice axe ahead from town, and had the axe stowed in the outer mesh pocket of my pack. As I tried to push through some overgrown vegetation, a branch snagged on the axe and catapulted it behind me. Tidbit Matrix’d herself out of the way in the nick of time, and it flew by her head and into some bushes. Oops. I retrieved the axe, and she went through the overgrown vegetation first this time.
We made it into town without the ice axe embedded in anybody’s skull, and I mailed it forward along with my bear can and some other snow gear I no longer needed. Tidbit’s feet are becoming painful again and are covered in blisters, which she thinks are caused by her new shoes. She’s skipping ahead to Etna, and is going to try and find some different shoes in the meantime.
I’m waiting for a package with some more gear which is supposed to arrive today, then I’m continuing into the Trinity Alps and the last section of California.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on my decision to flip past the snow over the last 170 miles, but the more time I spend out here the more comfortable I am with it. More and more hikers who tried to brave the Sierra are bailing out, and those staying in them are contending with deep snow and terrifying river crossings. I wish them all the best, but I’m not here to be miserable or put myself in more danger than necessary. I’m here to enjoy myself, and I don’t want my Sierra experience to be a death march. I’ll return sometime in August, when the snow and the runoff should be much lower. Until then, my goal is the same: Keep on Truckin’.