Central California: Sonora Pass to Sierra City
June 26, 2003.
After yesterday, I awoke depressed, thinking that I had reached the pinnacle.
The best that the trail had was behind me, I thought. How could I go forth,
knowing what I was leaving? Such thoughts were silly, I assured myself.
Who knows what today, or tomorrow, or the next 1600 miles might bring?
I just had to be here and let it happen. The trail wound through the
forest along the edges of the valley, slowly climbing up one of the
confining walls, until it switchbacked steeply up to the top. I was
tired already and needed a break. I needed to rid myself of the thermal
underwear that I had slept in during the night and left camp still wearing,
the cool of the morning making hiking in shorts an unpleasant
alternative. The others were around, somewhere, but I needed to be alone.
The intensity of the day before had driven me to look inside, and I could not
do that with the others around. Since leaving VVR, this had been coming: I needed
to separate from the others and reclaim this hike as truly my own. To be by
myself during the day and during the night, with only the land and its plants and
trees and flowers. With its four legged inhabitants and winged transients,
the land would be my companion. If only the others would not be around. Will and
Sharon would prove no problem and it was only Glory that I did not know how to
deal with. A mature, intelligent person would explain things simply and directly
to her, hoping she would understand. But I was afraid. To speak directly to her
would hurt her feelings and then mine in the process. Even if it would achieve
what I wanted, I was afraid of the consequences. So, I did nothing, hoping that
by some miracle a natural separation would occur.
This was no longer a land to be feared. The snow had disappeared for the most part
and the imposing rock and mountains were being replaced with soft forest and
gentle slopes. Green abounded and brought a sense of security to me. The
beauty of the High Sierra had been imposing and stark: It was not a land to
be trifled with and it was constantly making sure that I felt small and
insignificant. Almost like dating the Prom Queen, I suppose. This land, however,
was nurturing and caring, a place where one could dally or waste away a day
with few consequences. The numerous lakes would provide not only fish and swimming,
but also a shore to contemplate by. This was a
place that I could built a small cabin in and spend
a summer doing nothing but walking around, thinking, napping, and writing.
It was like dating the quiet girl that was ignored by everyone, yet with
only the world to give.
The trail was easy today, with gentle climbing and descending now that we
had left the valley below Wolf Creek Saddle. I was alone and happy,
but soon ran into the others. It would soon be afternoon, and that meant a
break for a hot lunch. There was no reason to push the others away and
a little company during lunch was usually nice. The day had grown warm, but
there were numerous places with shade and with water close by. A Russian proverb
warns that a donkey will starve to death in front of two equal piles of hay.
This rang through my head as we passed perfect spot after perfect spot, all in a
search for a perfect spot. Someplace just a little better must be only a
few more minutes ahead. It was two in the afternoon before we finally halted,
close to a trickle and in the shade, with a view of the surrounding mountains.
As always, the sleeping bag, groundcloth, and a few bits of clothes went out
into the sun to dry out from the evening's condensation and the morning's
sweat. I thought about announcing to the others that after South Lake
Tahoe I was going to hike on my own for a while. I looked at my maps
instead. What I found disturbed me a little: I had only brought the maps and
guidebook sections to get me to South Lake Tahoe and had left those necessary
to get to Sierra City, 100 miles further, in my drift box. My drift box was
nearing Sierra City, and I would be hiking with only the benefit of the
data book, the same as Glory. I became slightly annoyed and then slightly
afraid. I thought about Glory, and understood a little more than I did before.
I still needed and wanted to be alone, but perhaps I was a bit wiser.
The afternoon brought a darkening to my mood. While the land stretched out
as before, the warm feeling from it could not penetrate an iciness that
was permeating my body. Glory was close, but not saying anything. We
were traveling along, and all I could think of was her and her nearness.
I wanted to be alone, but could not hike away from her. She was just too
strong. My courage to directly confront her was buckled under, hiding somewhere
in my soul and would not come out when I called. I stopped, hoping she
might go by. She stopped and sat as well. I stared at my data book, not wanting
to talk, and played a childish game of silence. Glory seemed to be talking to
me, but all I could do was grunt occasionally. Was this the road? I looked
around, and not seeing any road could not believe she was asking this.
Will and Sharon moved past and I made motions as if to leave.
Glory followed them, assured that I would be along shortly. Instead, I sat back
down to get some space, leaving ten minutes later.
Dropping down into a valley and climbing back up the otherside, I was happy again.
All my problems seemed to vanish and my heart was contented again. It seemed
that the ease of the land was providing the time for my mind and heart to think and
be dissatisfied. Yesterday, the excitement and power of the land drove the longing
for solitude away. Today, the longing was overpowering at times. Spotting
Glory in the forest ahead, I stopped and hid behind a tree, hoping that she
had not seen me and would continue forth. Peering around the tree five minutes
later, I could see that she had left. My happiness was gone along with my
maturity, and I stumbled down the trail in a black mood.
As the trail crossed a small state road, I spotted the three sitting on the
other side in the middle of a break. I could not stop. I had to keep going and
be alone for just a little longer. I said hello and continued up the
other side, climbing along the trail past a parking lot and into the Mokuleme
Wilderness. Shortly after the parking lot, a spur trail ran out to an overlook,
which I thought the others might pass by. I walked out to the overlook to rest.
I sat in the sun, out of sight of the trail, and contemplated the open world
around me. Life would be much easier if I could summon some courage every now
and then. The warm light felt good upon my skin, and I had no intention of
leaving for a while. I heard Glory's foot steps coming up the trail and then
heard them nearing me. She came to within ten feet of where I was sitting, but
either did not see me or was more perceptive than I was giving her credit for,
was better able to read my mood than I had thought. Either way, she retreated
and continued down the trail.
Will did make it out all the way to the overlook and I chatted with him a bit,
confessing my current state of mind. He understood how I was feeling and
pushed on. Sharon was next to come down the overlook trail, and she too understood.
We talked for a while about Glory and her empathy helped. Even if I
was not strong enough for a confrontation right now, talking with Sharon
alleviated some of my pent up frustration and we left the overlook together,
talking along the way.
After recovering from being briefly lost, we encountered Will and Glory again.
Sharon and Glory started up a conversation, with Sharon walking slowly, helping
to separate Glory from me. I was glad beyond words, for I felt that I was
near a breaking point with Glory: I needed some space from her, otherwise the
tension upon my nerves would have built up to the point where I might lose
my temper. Losing my temper would mean saying things that I did not mean, saying
things whose only purpose was to wound. I did not want to do that, and Sharon
helped rescue me from that fate. I surged out ahead, alone, and at least
partially happy. I must not camp with the others tonight. This was a big land,
and I could surely find my own place. It was not to be.
In the pink-orange light that so distinguishes an evening in the wilderness,
I traversed the open hill side of the Mokuleme, hoping to spot some
isolated and small campsite on the hill side. Nothing was to be found, despite
my scrambles into various thickets and groves. After my third such attempt,
I found that the others had gone by and were now standing on a small ridge, staring
at the snowy trail below. The trail dropped from the mountain side that it had been
following into a valley and that valley was coated in snow. We would have to
camp here, or face another hour of hiking. It was 8 o'clock, and we had already
covered more than 30 miles. No, here it would have to be. Will and Sharon set out
toward a small pasture on the other side of the trail, while I retreated to check
out a flatish looking spot in a thicket on the side of the mountain. I searched and
searched, but could find no ground clear enough and flat enough to camp. It
was 8:30, and I returned, full of failure. The pasture that Will and Sharon had
explored was full of dried cow dung, but it was reasonably flat and there were
enough open patches of dirt for everyone to have a little space. I found a slot
between two large boulders, out of the wind, and where I could feel at least
a little separated. Glory was back up on the ridge cooking a dinner. What was
I to do, I thought, when Glory came back down? Instead of doing anything
constructive as she returned from cooking and eating, I simply buried my
head in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. An ostrich could not have done
My dour mood continued in the pale morning light that usually brought so much
comfort to me. I set out early from our cow-dung campsite, hoping that the
stillness of the land would bring about the open heart that might allow me to
reach an understanding of what it was that had been eating at me for the past
few days. An understanding of that thing that had driven me close to
fury the day before. What was it that, truly, that I found disturbing about
hiking with Glory that I did not find disturbing with Will and Sharon?
Looking inside oneself in a search for understanding is not an easy task, and
neither is it a pleasant one. Only so much progress could be made at any
one time. Perhaps it was her constant presence that made me lose my feeling
of possession of the beauty that I was moving through. That seemed to happen
when the others were around as well, though. Perhaps it was something as simple
as the noise that her trekking poles made against the rocks along the trail.
No, I did not think I was as petty as that. Perhaps it was the need of another
human mind for companionship that struck a chord with me. Glory needed and
wanted to be with others, whereas Sharon and Will seemed to be more
independent. Was it something as simple as seeing a reflection of myself
in Glory? Whereas I was striving for an individual hike and plenty of time for
thinking, Glory seemed to represent the opposite. She seemed to reflect those
things about myself that I was trying to avoid. Her desires were different
from mine, and seeing these, perhaps, brought out a fear that I would be
drawn to them. I wanted to be self reliant to the greatest extent possible,
while she seemed to want to be with others, to share the burden of a wilderness,
perhaps. I thought about independence and self reliance and the
conflict between individuals within a collective group. My thoughts
strayed from the task at hand and roamed to other places, other problems.
Within a society, what responsibility did individuals have to the group,
and what responsibilities did the group have to the individual? Who
made the rules that governed this conduct? Did they come from just
a few words on a piece of paper, or were they more natural?
I found myself along a mountainside, with Glory nearing. I had to have
more time to work things out, but there she was.
I decided on a simple and
childish expedient. Deception, rather than confrontation or tolerance would
be my (temporary) salvation. After cresting out on the mountainside, the trail
entered a dense forest. I ignored my sense of honesty and stepped ten feet
off the trail, hiding behind a large tree. A few minutes later, I heard
Glory's footsteps go by. Stepping back onto the trail, it was quiet again
and I sat down to take a rest. Will came strolling by and was amused by my
trickery. He understood and moved along, walking slowly to let Glory lead
ahead. Sharon came by as I was getting up to leave and was unamused with my
trickery. She was understanding, but her understanding was complete. She understood
my motives, but also my failures. Or, at least, I thought I could read such
things in her eyes. My deception gave me more time to think, although I could not
regain it in a pure form. Instead I engaged in an internal debate over
the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It seemed to fit in the general
tone of my morning's thoughts, but was not what I needed to concentrate on.
I would have to wait another day to think things through.
At Wolf Creek, I found the other sitting in the sun by the water, beginning to
cook a lunch. This would make for a nice lunch spot, I conceded, and
moved to join them. My dourness was gone and I was happy again, the morning's
contemplation having done me good. In a place as idyllic as this, it was
impossible, I thought, not to feel good. My mind had already forgotten yesterday.
Up from Wolf Creek, I came through the trees, running out in the open, waving grass,
beneath craggy peaks and with distant, snowy mountains on the horizon. Artists
and poets, musicians and writers. It would be nice to be able to create
art, I thought. To have that talent for expressing emotion and thought in a
condensed form. In a form that might be able to express the majesty of the
world around us without direct experience of it. On the other hand, I had the
direct experience now. I had the end goal of art, and that was a satisfying
feeling, even if I could not convey it to others without the experience.
Running along the side of a mountain, as the trail seemed to prefer in this
region, the expanse of the land lay to my side, always there for a quick look
when I wanted. I found Will snapping photos like a madman, impressed and
overwhelmed by the lakes and the open air of this section. I understood
completely and we chatted about the grand land on the way down to crossing of
several dirt roads where we rested. Glory appeared, followed by Sharon, just as
Will and I were setting off to leave. Glory followed, and we left Sharon
under a tree, happy and content with herself. It was really hard not to experience
positive emotions out here, the past few days excepted. Encountering masses of
snow for the first time, we also encountered our first hikers for a while.
An older man and woman with a couple of dogs, they were out on a hike and had
decided to go off the trail to avoid as much snow as possible. Besides, there
was little trail to follow with all the white stuff around. Losing the
way once, twice, many times,they seemed to have had the right idea. The speed
with which we had moved this morning and early afternoon ended, and a slow,
measured progress now began. Maybe if I climb to the top of this boulder, I'll
be able to see something. While I could always see plenty, this scheme never
netted me the trail. Will separated from Glory and I, following a path that he
thought was right. He was and we heard his long, "Traaaiiillll!" howl from a
distance, in a thicket of trees well below the rocks we were standing on.
Even with the trail located, hiking would not be easy. For, after another mile of
hiking, we reached the formation that the guidebook called the Elephant's Back,
or Head, or Snout, or some such body part. I could see nothing to justify this,
but I could see the trail. Or, rather, part of it. The part that was not buried
by a steep, well shaded snow slope. Testing the snow, it was ice hard. The slope
was steep and ran into rocks below. A fall here would be bad. I sat to smoke
and contemplate as Will moved out along the snow, as bold as ever. The two day
hikers and their dogs showed up fifteen minutes later. Will had made it thirty feet
out onto the slope, not even half way through.
I formulated a plan to walked down to the valley below
to where the rocks were, traverse over them, and then back up the rock to the
trail, where it looked as if the snow improved. The four of us and the dogs
set out down the trail, with Glory following the day hikers through the
valley toward the forest on the otherside, while I climbed up through the
loose rock to reach the trail again. Tired from my climbing I watched the
other three moving slowly across the valley floor until they disappeared from
view in the trees. Will was not in sight, having made it across the bad snow
and along the trail through snow that did not look as intimidating. While Glory
was taking a safe route, the high route here was well worth it. The snow was still
slick, but it was on more moderate angle and a fall was much less likely.
The danger of pitching over the edge and down the slope was still great, but
with care I picked my way through, hearing Will's howl of success perhaps a half
mile up. Cresting out on the top of the Elephant, I had the most marvelous views
down into Carson Pass itself.
Unsure of where to go now that I was on top, I wandered about, failing to pick
up Will's tracks, nor catching sight of him. The trail was sure to be below me,
but the map was of little help and I did not want to go down the wrong side,
only to have to climb back up. I moved around the plateau trying to assure myself
that I was going the right direction, when the trail was spotted below and Glory
and the day hikers appeared from the forests below, quite pleased with having
avoided the snow. Dropping down the trail toward Carson Pass, I chatted with the
day hikers and found them to be of a most enjoyable type. From Berkeley, the
woman was a retired mathematician who used to work at Lawrence Livermore
laboratory. The snow was gone and the easy trail was back, but after the recent
snow experience, I was going to have to carry my ice axe until at least Sierra
City, rather than mailing it home from South Lake Tahoe as I had planned.
I found Will waiting at the highway parking lot at Carson Pass, pleased that
he had gotten through the snow slope in its entirety. I explained the different
methods that Glory and I used and sat down to wait for Sharon to show up, hoping
that she had passed through the snow without difficulties. The day hikers offered
Glory a ride into South Lake Tahoe, which she declined. I was searching through
my food bag as Sharon arrived, having followed Will's careful tracks through the
snow and my wandering, lost prints above on the plateau. My food bag was
most empty, with only a King Size Snickers bar and two granola bars left.
I was going to be hungry tonight and tomorrow. Perhaps it was for the
best, though, as South Lake Tahoe had all you can eat casinos just across
the California-Nevada stateline. In my jocularity, I made a joke trying my
best to imitate Glory. Initially there were chuckles, but when Glory
did not understand that I was mocking her frequent behavior at rest stops and
added that it was funny that I was behaving in such a way, Will and Sharon almost
lost control of their bodily functions. After recovering from my own laughter,
I glanced over at Glory, who now understood. She looked like a kicked puppy
dog, and I no longer felt my self so humorous.
Glory was not the sort of person to stay hurt for long, and within a mile of
crossing the highway and heading toward the Truckee River, she seemed to be
back to normal. Spirits were high as we knew that South Lake Tahoe and all of
its attractions were close by. Will and Sharon were not planning on going in,
as both had mailed themselves resupply boxes to Echo Lake, where a resort
stood right on the trail. I knew that their talk of bypassing Tahoe was
a hollow one, and I made pains to explain to them where I was planning on staying.
I had gotten a recommendation from a thruhiker in 2002 named Mags for a
place to stay that was close to the casinos and fairly cheap. Will seemed to
know that it was unlikely, when push came to shove, that he would be able to
pass up a classy buffet.
We hiked through the mosquito inhabited meadows surrounding the valley of
the Truckee, encountering more and more backpackers. It was now nearing
the start of prime season and no longer would we have the land to ourselves.
I suspected that the land north of the Desolation Wilderness, just out of
Lake Tahoe, would prove to be unpopular with backpackers. After all, the
grandeur of the land we had just passed through should prove irresistible
to people with only two or three weeks of vacation time a year. North
might be the domain of thruhikers only.
We had all seen it coming. In order to truly cross the meadows and continue
into the mountains on the other side, we had to cross the Truckee at some point.
Finding the trail at an end on one of its banks, we turned upstream briefly to look
for a narrow spot where we might leap the river. We had leaped one of its tributaries
not five minutes before, and that gave us hope. Nothing narrow enough to jump
appeared. However, I spotted a large, sloping boulder close by. Perhaps a
running jump from it might be enough. With the added elevation that the
boulder provided, it might be possible. I steeled my nerves, took a few
loping steps, and launched myself into space from the boulder, clearing the
river by a good two feet. Will tossed his pack across to me and soared
across without problems, our tall bodies playing to our advantage. Whether or
not Glory would make it, with her foot shorter frame, was in doubt. Across
came her pack and she lined up a good ten feet from the boulder. Making a
sprint toward it, she took off.
She came down with an inch or two to spare, happy and proud. Will and I
gave her a round of cheers and waited for Sharon. Following tradition, across
came her pack, then her camera, which almost fell into the river. She was
not as sure as Glory was of success, and paused at the starting line thinking it
through. This was the best way, though, and across she came, landing with her
heels in the water, but across nonetheless.
With the river crossed in such fine style, we headed around the lakes on the
other side of the meadows, and then up into the mountains. As always happens
when one begins to look for a campsite, we found ourselves switchbacking up a
mountainside, with no flat land to be had. My stomach was growling even though
I had just put my last candy bar into it. We had covered more than 90 miles in the
last three days and had another thirteen or more to go till reaching
South Lake Tahoe. I had two granola bars and nothing for tonight. Topping out
on the mountain, we strolled to a grove of trees with clear ground
beneath, the dark waters of Schneider Lake below, and called it good.
My lack of food particularly worried me, but I was cheered that town was
within striking distance tomorrow. Will and Sharon again assured us that
they were not going in to South Lake Tahoe. When Will discovered that he had left
his ice axe back at the parking lot at Carson pass, I knew they would be in town
tomorrow night. Will would have to hitch back to Carson pass to try to retrieve
it. Sharon was sure to go along. Once they were hitching, I knew they would
be drawn into town without fail. Will mentioned that it might be a possibility.
Perhaps we could meet at 6 pm at the South Shore Inn to go to the buffet together.
Yes, that might be possible. For the first time in several days, I slept warm
and without the frustration that stemmed from my relationship with Glory.
The stars were out, I noticed, seemingly for the first time in a while. Of course,
they had always been there. I was able now to see them again, to appreciate
them for what they were. The stars never made me feel small or insignificant.
Rather, they filled me with hope and wonder, and it was that feeling that took
me and my empty stomach into the realm of dreams yet again.
I woke weak and lethargic, my empty belly reminding me that I did not have the
fuel to make this a pleasant stroll to HWY 50 and the fastlane to South Lake
Tahoe with its buffets. I ate one of my granola bars and set out, with Will
only a few minutes in front. Passing by the lake below our campsite several
large tents came into view. Their size and weight meant that the people who
can camped here had not come far and were obviously not thruhikers. Somewhere
in front of us were Walt of the PCT Express, and Floater, another thruhiker.
They had left Tuolumne the day that we had gotten in, though I was a little
surprised that we had not caught them yet. My body continued to weaken, and
with it my judgment. Glory and I became lost in the snow and milled about,
at which point Sharon found us, also lost. We spread out in a fashion to
search for a trail, which I eventually found in some trees. Not thinking that
there could possibly be more than one trail in the area, the three of us
followed in into a boggy meadows. Sharon began to have doubts. Her compass
indicated that we were going in the wrong direction and that we should not
be crossing a meadow anyways. We stopped and pondered and spotted Will on
the far side of the meadows. He couldn't be lost, we speculated, and walked
out to him to confer. Sharon was sure. Will and I studied the map and
were equally sure. However, we decided to cut cross country in hopes of
reclaiming the trail without retracing our steps. Sharon returned to
where we had become lost initially, hoping to pick up the correct
trail there. Glory followed Will and I into the woods.
Cross country travel in the dry West is much easier than in the water soaked
East, where the abundance of precipitation chokes the countryside with
life. Walking through the forest here, off trail, is simply a matter
of picking a direction and walking on soft pine needles, rather than on a
trailbed. But, without being able to see very far to sight a landmark, it is easy
to become turned about. Running into a cliff, we knew that we were nowhere near
the trail. The cliff turned out to be the top of a deep valley, the other side
of which probably held the trail. Looking at the maps and trying to identify the
mountains about us, it was clear to Will that we needed to head back toward
the rim of the head of the valley. I concurred and Glory let out a squeal,
upon hearing our thoughts, that she knew she should have followed Sharon.
I wanted to tell her...what? I didn't know how to respond without anger at
her. Not so much because Sharon was right in this case, but rather because
I didn't like the feeling of having someone else view me with responsibility.
That is, I wanted to be our here and be independent of the care of others.
If I had someone else to help and guide, if I had to be responsible for
another, I could not be truly independent and much of what I wanted to get out
of my summer would be lost. This was the answer, I thought, to my questions and
searching of previous days. This was what had irked me about Glory and
drove me to frustration. It all made sense now. Will and Sharon were
completely independent and I did not have to look out for them beyond what
common courtesy, and the desire to help those you care for, demanded. Glory
was relying upon others to help with her hike. She was doing all the walking
and carrying her own gear, but
there were aspects of the PCT that were beyond her experience on the Appalachian
Trail and she needed help to get through those things safely. I could sympathize
with her, but felt that there were better hiking companions for her than I.
There were people who might be able to help her and would feel upon whom she
could rely. Without a mutual desire for something similar, relationships become
one sided and both parties suffer. I felt better now
that I was beginning to understand, but was still unsure how to proceed.
I ate my last granola bar and thought, instead, about how fatigued I was.
An hour of cross country hiking brought us to the top of a steep, forested slope
that was partially covered with trees. The trail must be close, Will declared.
Indeed, Sharon was standing at the base of the slope, on the trail, and called
up to us. Racing along the trail for the highway, I stopped at a fine meadow
and a cluster of rocks for a final break. Will and Sharon said their goodbyes
and proceeded on. I was sure I would see them again shortly. Glory and
I sat about for a while, soaking up the sun, until my stomach forced us to
move onward. While the snow returned in bursts, the descent down to the highway
saw few problems, and we emerged from the woods and onto a dirt road leading
to, quite closed, ski resort. In hopes that the resort might have a
restaurant in it, Glory and I investigated the main building, but found that
uninhabited and quiet. Setting down to rest again, I thought only about the
food that awaited in town and my dead body. I would not make the mistake
again of not having enough food, I promised silently to myself. Two
twenty-somethings appeared at the building, apparently workers at the resort
who were moving out today. The started up a hack between themselves and
we chatted away as the little sack flew around them. One of them declared that,
upon finding out what we were doing, he was going to hike the PCT next
summer. Encouraging him as much as possible, Glory and I then faced the litany
of questions that we knew were sure to come. How do you get food? What kind of
shoes do you wear? What about the bears? Answering them as best we could,
we took our leave of the youths and went to the highway. Remember, one of
them called to us, a big smile all the time. You're sure to get a hitch if
At HWY 50, we found a place where a car could safely pull off and put our
thumbs out. Any annoyance with Glory had faded the moment we had left the
woods. I no longer felt like I had to look after her and this seemed to
lift a burden from me. We chatted and laughed together as we had not
since the first few days of the trip. After twenty minutes of no
luck, despite the parade of traffic, I decided on a social experiment.
I sat down next to Glory, with her body between me and the oncoming traffic.
A motorist with very sharp eyes might be able to see me, but it was unlikely.
Within three minutes a pickup truck stopped, and we quickly ran over to it.
The driver was another twenty-something, bare chested with several colorful
tattoos on his arms, and a mohawk. Very friendly, he told us he couldn't
take us all the way into South Lake Tahoe, but could get us into the
next town where we were sure to get a lift. He was a carpenter from a
near by town and was making a run to a hardware store to get supplies.
Glory and I hopped into the bed of the pickup truck and we flew down the
mountainside on the highway.
There is, perhaps, no better way of seeing the country from a car as from the
bed of a pickup. With the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces, it was
a most pleasant ride, watching the mountains that we had struggled through
recently fade into the background easily and quietly. We arrived at the
town on the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe where the hardware store was.
Thanking the driver profusely, particularly since we were next to a supermarket,
we took our leave of him and went into the store. Aisles upon aisles of food
spread out before our eyes, although their charms were a bit too much, perhaps.
The starving donkey in front of the two piles of hay came to my mind again.
Rather than think, I grabbed a super-sized bag of cheetoes, a liter of
Squirt, and a quart of chocolate milk and joined Glory out in the parking lot.
How happy these days, eating junk food and feeling transient, yet purposeful.
The freedom that this hike allowed was a powerful stimulant, highly addictive and
yet still good for the entire being. That freedom would have to be asserted when I
returned to the trail. Glory would have to start to find her own way, or find
a new group of hikers who were more interested in hiking as a collective,
rather than as individuals. For now, though, only sunshine was about. The
soda and cheetoes finished off, a ambulance pulled up. Glory and I quipped about
how stylish it would be to get a lift into town from an ambulance. Maybe they
had room in the back? The paramedics went inside to get some lunch and
Glory and I joked about the possibilities. Ten minutes later they came out again,
their lunches in hand, and Glory got up to find out. Asking sweetly and nicely if
they might be able to give us a lift into town, the paramedics took it as a joke.
When Glory appeared to be serious to them, they gravely said that it was not possible
under the regulations. That unless we were hurt and going to the hospital, we
could not ride with them. I thought about making a display of a hurt ankle,
but realized that they would not take kindly to me running away from the hospital.
Besides, there was a lot of slow moving traffic on the road and hitch should not
Our thumbs had been out three minutes after the ambulance left and we had a ride.
From an orange BMW no less. The driver was a local fisherman on his way back from a
morning of casting and was as friendly as possible. A former Easterner, his
New England accent was still thick. He had come across some years ago for
a job, which did not last long. As he started to hitchhike back east, he
made it out to Lake Tahoe and fell in love with the place. There was much to
love. No signs of casinos or the vulgarity of Las Vegas could be seen.
Patrick drove us around town, with a pride stronger than I had seen any where
in the midwest, showing us the sights. I had a vague notion of where the
South Shore Inn was located. Somewhere on Pioneer, maybe a 10 minute walk from
the state line. Around town we went, stopping at a pharmacy where Patrick
needed to pick up a prescription, and along the outskirts again so that
we could see some of the new housing that was going up. Ordinarily tract
housing would not interest me, but this was being done in a small
stretch of forest and it seemed that the builders had a sense of
what they were doing. The houses were hard to see through the woods, and did
not appear to be the usual suburban sprawl that characterized so much of
new housing. No, the builders were trying to create a community that might
fit in with nature, rather than an antiseptic block with emerald lawns and
a few small decorative trees, the houses pilled upon one another.
In the parking lot of the South Shore, Patrick dropped us off and wished us
well on our journey before speeding off for home. Inside of the Inn the
owners gave us a special PCT rate, effectively half of the norm. It
was a Thursday, and from Thursday to Saturday prices were double what they
were during the rest of the week. We got a double and the owners told us
we could use their washer and drier tonight if we wanted to. We could also
use their computer and internet connection if had such desires. The fact
that we were doing what we were had a tendency to bring out kindness from
strangers to strangers, something which warms the heart of all who see it.
Glory and I spent the day lounging about, taking only the effort to
shower and to make a run over to the
local shopping mall to buy food for the next leg and to look around an
outdoor store. I wanted to buy another pair of pants and Glory was hoping to
find the guidebook. She had had hers sent to Tahoe City, which was another
50 miles up the trail and a long, hard hitch off of it. Returning to the
hotel will several sacks of food, a new pair of pants, but no guidebook,
we settled down in front of the TV. Feeling energized, I crossed the
street to the 7-11 to buy a quart of V-8, a newspaper, and some donuts,
returning to find Glory unmoved. Email was checked and
food repackaged, but even these meager tasks were looked upon with
suspicion: It seemed wrong to do anything at all other than eat or
rest during a partial day off.
Six o'clock came and went and we could wait for Will and Sharon no longer.
Perhaps I had underestimated their will power. Walking down to the
state line in the still warm evening air, the number of people and the
bright lights and loud sounds were a bit too much. After the quiet of the
forest, we had the flashing lights and booming stereos of Nevada. Caesar's
was on our minds, with its huge buffet. The huge buffet had a long line of
truly obese vacationers and I had to take an electronic buzzer to let me
know when there might be room for us. Glory had struck up a conversation with
a little kid, not more than 8, who was waiting for his mother. They had gotten
up very early in the morning and made the drive out from Sacramento so that
she could spend the day gambling. Not being able to afford a babysitter, the
child had to come along and was now stuck here, sitting on the plush red carpet,
quietly passing the time until his mother would be done. I left Glory and
the kid to themselves and walked about the casino, finally stopping in a
bar to have a beer. Boxing was on the television, although I had little
interest in it. Glory appeared and sat down next to me, and was quickly
ejected by the bar tender. She was only 19, and could not be in here.
I felt like telling the bartender that she was my daughter, but could not
think quickly enough.
Like a starting bell at a horse race, my buzzer went off. I pounded down the
remains of the beer and went to find Glory. Racing to the buffet,
Glory and I ran straight into Will and Sharon, filthy and stinking and
with protruding bellies from three hours at the buffet. They had finally
been kicked out by the managers who informed them that there was a strict
two hour time limit. We told them where the hotel was and promised to join them
soon. Only, we couldn't talk now. There was business to attend to.
The amount of food in the buffet can only be appreciated by those who have
carried their food on their backs for an extended period of time. There was
prime rib, next to a steak bar. No cheap cuts here. Only ribeye and strip.
There was a pasta bar where the workers actually cooked for you, rather than
using lots of canned sauces. There was a stir fry bar. There was 50 square
yards of various salads and fruit. There was a square with pork roulade and
barbequed brisket, red snapper with basil sauce, one temptation following upon
another. Sides and fixins' and breads and rolls and mountains of soft butter,
There was a cheesecake bar, next to a desert display, next to an ice cream
counter, next to a sundae bar. There were parts of the buffet that I never got
to explore. Would I like another iced tea?
After ninety minutes of gorging, Glory and I could take no more. For the low
sum of $22 each, we left fat and happy, having, we thought, beat the house and
eaten more than we had paid for. I picked up a bottle of wine and some donuts
from the supermarket on the walk back and found the PCT Express in the
parking lot of the hotel. It was quite dark, but Walk and Floater were
in the van along with Pat, with the Japanese Couple beside them. They were
leaving tomorrow morning, however, and were staying somewhere else to boot.
There were many miles left to chat, and I quickly excused myself and found
Sharon and Will. Glory went to bed quickly, and so I spent the evening in
their room, drinking wine and breaking into the donuts that I had bought for
breakfast. They had hitched back to Carson Pass from Echo Lake, a mile
from where we had hitched in, after picking up their resupply
boxes. No ice axe was found and they made the decision to come into South Lake
Tahoe for the night. Their ride had dropped them off at Caesar's and they
proceeded into the buffet, with 150 miles worth of dirt and stench on them.
It was good to see them again. We made plans for an early morning run to
a breakfast buffet. All of us thought that getting back on trail by noon
would be good.
I returned to a slumbering Glory after watching Terminator, some how appropriate
given that I had read that afternoon that Arnold Schwarzenegger was
going to run against Grey Davis in the recall election. It might be a long
time before I had my next real town stop. The trail didn't pass through
another town the size of South Lake Tahoe, and only Ashland, in Oregon,
was of any real size. Dunsmuir was of some reasonable size, but the
rest were mere exits on an interstate or off in the backwoods, consisting
of a few homes and a store. I slept deep, my only thoughts being of
tomorrow morning's shower and breakfast. And maybe how nice cotton sheets
It was early and I was hungry. I had agreed to get Sharon and Will at
8 am to get some breakfast, and so rousted Glory before stepping into
the shower. At 8 am, Glory and I knocked on their door. Nothing. More
knocking, and still nothing. After five minutes, ready to leave without
them, a disheveled and sleepy Sharon opened the door, not a bit happy that
we were getting her up early. My hunger of the night before had been
staved off my the gorging at Caesar's, but had come back during the night.
I only had one donut left and was really hungry. They would be ready in
fifteen minutes, Sharon said. Taking my place on chairs in the parking lot,
I sat to wait them out, glancing at my watch every thirty or forty seconds.
My hurry was for naught, as none of the buffets were open until 10 am. I
got a coffee at a Starbucks in Harvey's casino to pass the time, before
the four of us descended upon the buffet at the Horizon. Plate after plate
of delectable breakfast foods came and went, as I made four trips to the buffet:
Three for breakfast and one for dessert. Will put away four plates of
breakfast, and two of dessert. Unable to eat anymore, indeed, without the
desire for food for the first time in a while, we waddled back to the
hotel and began to think of how we might get back to the trail. It was a long
hitch, although many people were sure to be headed out toward Echo Lake
on such a fine day. As Will and I thought, and Glory slept, Sharon asked the
owners of the hotel if they might give us a lift up to Echo Lake. For $5
total, they sure would. Getting a lift to Echo Lake meant that Glory and
I would miss 1.5 miles of the official trail, but this didn't bother us
in the least. There was no pure PCT hike and I was not in the mood to
pretend that somehow my summer would be compromised in missing thirty
minutes of additional walking.
The four of us sped quickly to Echo Lake which was, predictably, jammed with
tourists. Thanking the owner of the hotel, we carried our packs over to the
main area and found two worn out looking backpacks sitting unattended.
The owners, however, were close by and we instantly recognized each other
as thruhikers. Alister and Gail were from Calgary and had started in early
April, moving slowly but surely. They had left Kennedy Meadows in very
late May and were the first people to get across the Sierra without the
aid of snowshoes. They had been in the PCT Express the night before when
Glory and I returned from Caesar's, but I could not see them in the dark of
the parking lot. Walt and Floater had left at 6 am, which meant we would not
be able to catch them for several days. Thruhikers were becoming rare and
it was great fun to finally track down people we had been following
for so long. Who was in front of them? We knew of Beast, Tutu, and Rye Dog,
but of no others, and Alister and Gail couldn't think of anyone else.
Sharon and Glory got rather large ice cream cones to match those that Alister
and Gail were eating, but I could not stomach the idea of more food. I
bought a soda, hoping the carbonation might help my digestion a bit through
burping. The lethargy-inducing buffet meal was fixing my position on the
porch of the resort; the desire to hike was gone. It was sunny and pleasant
and I was in a T-shirt for the first time during the hike, my long sleeve
shirt being stowed in my clothes bag. The sun felt good one my arms and my
face, and my generally clean body was happy to sit for a while. An hour
passed, and finally the inertia of the meal was overcome. The six of
us started out on the trail together, although we quickly left
Alister and Gail behind, never to see them again.
The trail ran along the edge of the intensely blue lower Echo Lake, climbing
past various resort cabins until these last vestiges of culture were
left behind and the wilderness was regained. Today we would enter,
and mostly traverse, the Desolation Wilderness. The proximity to Lake
Tahoe and the incredible scenery, combined with generally easy hiking,
meant that this was a popular area. Indeed, we saw several backpacking
groups and, gasp, our first backcountry ranger. A recent college
graduate, the ranger was a rather stunning young woman who was out to
check permits and make sure people followed the regulations as regard
camping and fires. Will and I were, rather naturally, interested in
chatting with her and it was ten minutes later that she finally
asked to see our permits. The permit system on federally owned land is
really rather civilized. Permits are issued by which ever agency happens
to manage the land where you start. As long as you do not stray from
the trail too far, the permit, once issued, is good for all federal
lands. Thus, I was carrying a permit from the Cleveland National
Forest, and it was quite good for travel in the Desolation Wilderness,
which was managed by the Tahoe National Forest, more than 1000 trail
miles north. Will, Sharon, and I all had permits, but Glory had neglected
to get one before setting out. Knowing this, Will and I shielded her from
the ranger's attentions, allowing her to move down the trail without
having to make up an excuse for not having a permit. With our permits
checked, I continued to chat with the ranger about anything I could think
of, enjoying the company of an attractive and interesting young lady for
as long as I could. Finally, bidding her farewell, I continued down the
trail, quickly tracking down Glory who had stopped two hundred yards up to
After battling through thick forests of pine, the emerged into the
landscape that gave this wilderness the name of Desolation. Rock
benches spread out everywhere, surrounding numerous small tarns and
larger lakes, the most impressive of which was Aloha. It was along
the snowy banks of Aloha Lake that we found our second backcountry
ranger of the entire trip. Again, a very attractive recent
college graduate, she was out checking permits and dispersing signs of
campfires, breaking up fire rings, and generally looking out for
the tourists. Again, Will and I talked with the ranger intensely,
while Glory was able to slip past. Could she see our permits? Why,
of course you can, and, by the way...I, again, thought of any way to
extend the conversation with the ranger, but again had to leave eventually.
A third, and again attractive, recent college graduate, ranger was
met, this time with a dog, just before we began the climb up to
Dicks Pass. She was not checking permits, but was acting as some sort
of liaison officer. From how she described her duties, it sounded
like she was being paid hike and camp in the area and find out the
needs and wishes of the various people who visited the area. Again,
I was loathe to leave her, even the slowly fading sun. Dicks Pass
was not far ahead, although this last ranger, who had come over it
the day before, had warned us that the snow on the other
side was thick and the trail obscured. Furthermore, we
should make sure not to drop straight off the pass, but rather
head to the right, climbing up, before dropping down. While I
listened attentively to the information she was imparting, she could have
recited the phone book for Indianapolis and I would have been as alert.
As the climb up Dicks Pass began, my stomach become to trouble me. I
became rather nauseated and was on the verge of losing what ever
part of my breakfast had not been digested yet. Climbing higher and
higher was certainly not helping, even though the grade was easy. The
trail was partially buried, which meant that I had to take to the
rock next to it for long stretches. The medium sized rocks dictated a
sequence of hops, like crossing a stream, and the jolting was
not doing my stomach any good. The top of the pass was windy and
unsheltered and would hardly make for a good spot to cook dinner.
I was uninterested, anyhow, in eating, and so we followed the
ranger's directions and climbed up to the left. Not far along, the
trail flattened out and dove into a small grove of pines, providing
a good wind break for a meal.
Beyond lay a land of lakes and trees, with the glint of snow sitting
at their bases. The others began to quickly cook dinner, but I could
barely manage to sit still and not vomit. It was odd that I should be
affected, and the others unaffected, given that we had eaten at the same
places in town. Perhaps it was the plate of blueberry blintzes that
pushed me over the edge. Two pounds of sweet cheese, pancakes, and
blueberry topping might not have been the best thing to have before hiking
Setting out after an hour of rest, I did feel marginally better, which
was good as the hiking became decidedly difficult. Hard snow buried everything
and there was no way to follow the trail. We began to hike down the
slopes of the mountain, heading for a lake in the distance where we thought
the trail would be. Dodging in and out of the trees, picking our
way slowly through the undergrowth, Will and I took turns leading the
way down. An hour of confusion brought us to the lake and to the
trail again. It was here that we met Stone for the first time,in the
waning light, camped on a spit of land in between two lakes, smoking a
pipe and stroking his thick beard. We had not heard of him before and
were most surprised to see another hiker out here. My desire to
chat with him was overcome by my desire to find a campsite for the
night before it got too dark.
Dropping down on the trail, well out of the snow, we approached
the Velma lakes, after another thirty minutes of walking. Even though
it was practically on the trail, there was a small clearing in
the trees that had lined the trail which was large enough for four.
Even better, a short walk led a cascade of rock benches leading down
to Middle Velma Lake. I walked out to the benches for a view of
the setting sun, perched well above the lake. The familiar orange and
pink light greeted me upon leaving the dark wood, the sun throwing
those rays of so much hope upon me. I was going to regain my
independence as soon as possible, I thought. I would have to
confront Glory, lest the dark feelings of a few days ago
return. Walking back to the others, I spread out my ground cloth for
the night and unstuffed my sleeping bag. Making camp was as easy as
that. No impact, no effort, no waste. While not the style of camping
that would make many people happy, this simple life was all that
I wanted. Putting up a big, solid, safe tent would isolate me from
the woods, its smells and sounds wasted. The weather was good and
there was no reason to sleep indoors. Yes, this was how things
Dante once lamented that during the middle part of his life, he found
himself lost in a dark wood, where the true way was lost to him.
Fortunately, for him, he found a guide through the wilderness of
the soul in front of him, and a guide well versed in story
telling to boot. In the middle of this this long journey of
mine, I found myself neither lost nor lamenting for a clear path,
but rather happy and proud to be here. Today was the half way
point, time wise, of my summer walking. I had another 53 days
in which to hike and more than 1500 miles to go to Canada.
By the end of the day I would have made it 1139 official trail
miles from the sheet-metal fence that divides Mexico from the United
I spent much of the morning and early afternoon alone in the woods,
leaving the Desolation Wilderness shortly after leaving camp,
with Will and Sharon out in front and Glory ranging somewhere
in between. Shortly after crossing a forest road at Barker Pass,
I decided, quite without reason, to have lunch at a trailhead parking
lot. Glory stopped with me, though Sharon was determined to keep up
with Will, who was well ahead at the time. Will's birthday was
in less than a week, July 6, and she wanted to stay together until
then. My plans for lounging in the sun over a quiet lunch were
broken, however, by the distinct lack of water here. All morning
I had convinced myself, that there would have to be water here. I
had only my data book to go by, the relevant guidebook sections sitting
in my bounce box in the Sierra City PO, and naturally assumed that
a trailhead would have some sort of water source. Finding this
lacking, I had to continue on, with Glory close behind me. Winding
through the hills, passing one off-road trail after another, and hearing
the high whine of two-stroke powered motorcycles racing down them,
I found Will and Sharon sitting in the shade of a steep slope,
taking advantage of a small bit of snow melt. My stomach problems
of the day before were long gone, and I joined them for a meal consisting
of a half pound of pasta with a sauce vaguely resembling pesto.
A disagreeable meal in the end, but what could I expect from
a pesto sauce that came out of a packet?
Shortly after lunch we entered and then crossed the Granite Chief
wilderness and were rewarded with our last views of Lake Tahoe.
Negotiating what I hoped would be the last of the winter
snow, the trail climbed along covered mountainsides, presenting
a challenge considered easy only in relation to what we had traversed
so far. I was not going to send my ice axe home until I had one full
day of hiking without taking it off of my pack. Sierra City was only
two more days ahead, and I wanted to mail it out from there. Failing
that, I would have to carry it to Belden, or even Chester, The
trail came out of the Granite Chief wilderness and into the beginnings
of the ski area around the Donner Pass area. While still many miles from
the infamous pass, the ski resorts were beginning to appear. Denuded
slopes and mechanical devices, run-boundary markers flopping
in the wind, everything seemed so out of place here. For miles and
miles the views extended in almost every direction
with little sign of the hand of man. However,
a look in one particular direction and a mass of steel and aluminum
would strike the eye. The vastness of the wild combined with the
deliberate construction to form a incongruous whole. I found Will
on the side of a ridge, mesmerized by the snow slopes below.
Someone had been skiing down them recently, their tracks still
apparent. Will, having grown up in Golden, CO, was a skier and
was looking at the runs lustfully, as a gourmet does a basket of
As the day stretched out, I was again alone with my thoughts as the light
began the transition from clear to yellow to pink to orange. The
transitional time that is almost never noted by city dwellers, myself
included. No, in the city there are only two kinds of light: The complete
light of noon and the blackness of night. The gradations in light were fascinating
to watch as I stepped across the trickle that represented the headwaters
of the Middle Fork of the American River. The American River was one of
the most important in the history of California, providing water to the
inhabitants of the upper Central Valley and transportation to and
from the Sierra Nevada. Before the coming of railroads, and the roads,
rivers had been the primary means of moving the oar cut out of the
granite of the Sierra Nevada. The American river was one of the largest
and most important of these transportation links. Its headwaters
looked to be outdone by a garden hose.
Climbing away from the Middle Fork, the trail was leading me toward
a pass, on top of which I could see more apparatus of the skiing
industry. My friends were somewhere far ahead, a fact that seemed
to have little relevance right now. I was here, and that was important.
I would certainly see them tomorrow or the next day in Sierra City.
For now, though, the prospect of being able to camp by myself
snuck into my thoughts and cheered me, bolstering my spirit against
the growing cold. Topping out on the pass, I could see their footsteps
clear in the snow, leading cross country down the steep slopes to the
valley below. The snow was hard and slick and again the axe was out,
cutting steps where necessary, but mostly acting as a belay point
in case of a fall. I would not fall far, however, as I was descending through
the trees would surely crash into one quickly if I did fall.
Finding myself at the bottom of the slopes, I also found my friends standing
on the other side of a creek, which I hopped over, both happy and disappointed
to see them. I liked being around them, but I also wanted to have a night
to myself. It seemed so silly to me that here, with all the space and
the freedom to go where ever I saw fit, that I would feel constrained
and hemmed in by others. But, I also knew that Glory would stop and
camp where I did and I did not feel like a confrontation just now.
Distributing some wasabi-roasted peas to the others, we began the
climb out of the other side of the valley with the sun almost on the
horizon and a distinct chill in the air. The nights had been fairly
mild since leaving the Sonora pass area and I had been sleeping
well. The falling temperature indicated that tonight would not be
an easy rest. Just before all light was lost, we crossed a trail
junction to the Granite Chief on top of the last hill for the
day and called it good. There were plenty of clear places to camp
and room for all to spread out. Will's snoring or, rather more
accurately, clucking, required a minimum of twenty feet of
separation in order not to disturb my sleep. On some of the
previous nights I had barely been able to manage five feet.
I camped next to a snow drift, a good twenty feet off, and
ate my evening cookies, thinking about how simple today had been.
There had been no negative emotions on my part and I had gotten plenty
of solitude. With the exceptions of lunch time and little stretch through
the Granite Chief wilderness, I had been alone most of the day until
now. We had covered nearly 33 miles today, making it the longest of
the summer so far. I wasn't tired or exhausted, as I had been on
some much shorter days just a few weeks ago. The trail was moderating
in difficulty and my body was strong and fit for the trail head.
Despite being two hundred miles short of the distance-half-way point,
I had arrived at the time-half-way point. If I was to have any hope of
finishing the trail this summer, I had to reach Ashland, OR, roughly
three weeks from today. But, I assured myself, finishing wasn't important.
I was above such petty, goal oriented thinking, wasn't I? Burrowing
down inside my sleeping bag to escape the cold air, I wasn't so
sure anymore. Surely finishing wasn't more important than enjoying
my time out here, but would I sacrifice the enjoyment of a day or
two to crank out long miles in order to make it to Canada this
summer? I wanted to say no, but I could not be sure. I just
have to walk, to spend the time,
in order to find out what my desires are.
The cold of the night was continued into the morning, and I left camp
at first light with my thermal underwear still on and my Frogg Toggs
anorak covering up my upper body. It did not help things getting lost
right away. Will, Sharon, and I started down the trail but were
immediately confronted by a small, snowy meadow, the other side of
which did not appear to hold the trail. So, we wandered around the
mountainside for thirty minutes, until Will actually walked to the
other side of the meadow and found the trail. By this time, Glory
had packed up and was with us as we set out for Donner Pass and I-80.
In September of 2000, I went on a weekend backpacking trip through
this area, leaving from I-80 and hiking along the PCT for a mile or two
before splitting off and heading to Waren Lake. Even this passing
moment made the place feel like home. My axe was out quickly as the
trail made a short traverse through a icy slope. In the afternoon
this stretch of trail would not have caused any problems for
hikers. Right now, though, the snow was rock hard and
footing non-existent. Will borrowed one of Glory's trekking
poles for support and moved out onto the steep slope, followed
by Glory. I was taking no chances and spent some time cutting
steps into the slope, moving slowly but safely, with Sharon
right behind me.
The trail quickly climbed out of the trees, leaving the snow behind,
and out onto a
long ridge line, with views extending to...Well, to wherever.
If someone told me that I could see France from here, I would
believe them. The mountains, crinkled upon the earth, stretched
back for as far as the eye could see. Even the curvature of the earth
could be seen in one direction, where the mountains flattened out after
Donner Pass. I could see Will scrambling up a small peak, just off the trail,
with Glory following. I wanted this all to myself kept going, battling the
strong, ever present wind.
Even with the cold, punishing wind, this place would forever be etched in my
memory, I thought. The expansiveness and feeling of space that large,
open places give are good for the soul. Whether a long tract of desert or the
vastness of an ocean, there is something about being in an area with unlimited
views in every direction that promotes reflection. It is as if the mind
no longer has small details to focus on and instead turns inward. The human
being becomes truly important, for there is nothing else to consider.
Except, perhaps, for a perfectly shaped throne of lava on the side of the
ridge, out of the wind and in the sun.
I could not pass up such a wonderful resting spot and sat down on the world's
most scenic throne to have a bite to eat and a little tobacco. Sharon came
rumbling by, impressed with my choice of a rest spot, although she herself wanted
to get out of the wind before taking a break. I completely understood. That
was one of the attractions of my throne, you see. As I pushed forth from
the throne, I could see the others a mile or more ahead, still following this
glorious ridge whose end I could see not much further along. Nature could only
hold out so long, and I vocally thanked whoever was responsible for putting
the trail up here. Sure, this would be a terrible place to be in a storm,
but right now it was only a step away from Heaven.
Dropping down off the ridge, we came face to face with the Donner Pass
ski resort. Or, rather, we saw it from far below, but were forced
to confront it because of snow. The trail cut across a short, steep slope
that happened to be covered with very hard snow. Even cutting steps on
this thing, it would not be very safe. There was another way: Just climb
up to the top, where a ski lift terminated, then come back down. An easy
solution, even if it required a steep climb. Arriving hot and sweaty at the
top, the mangled ski area looked even worse after the perfection of the
previous ridge. Dropping down, cross country, there was simply nothing wild
left. Nothing but signs and banners, towers to support the lift and its
steel cables overhead. I wanted out, right now, racing down the hillside,
heading for I80.
I had been sitting, alone, just above Donner Pass and the old highway 40 for twenty
minutes when a dog came up to chat. I needed to take off my warm clothes for
it was nearing noon and I was getting hot. The dog, obviously used to humans,
didn't have much to say but was rather inquisitive. I tried to spark a
conversation, but had little luck until his human owner came strolling up
the hill, out on a day hike to the top of the ski resort. Another forty minutes
later I was finally underway again, the victim of a good conversationalist
with interests common to mine. We had talked about mountaineering and
alpine climbing, what the PCT was like, ways to lighten up a load,
where my pack came from. I had been resting for an hour and was sure that
the others were now vastly far ahead of me. I might even get the
rest of the day to myself. Unfortunately, I had a date tomorrow that I
wanted to keep. This was one of my first, and hopefully last, races against
a post office. I wanted to get to Sierra City tomorrow in the early afternoon
in hopes of getting my bouncebox, new shoes and sleeping pad, letters from
home, and sending out a maildrop to Burney Falls State Park. That was almost
45 miles from here. I needed to hustle, and that put me in a bad mood. To
resolve the bad mood, I was determined not to hustle. Then, it would occur
to me that I had to hustle...and so on and so forth.
At HWY 40, I found Stone, who had gone by me while I was talking with the
dog and dayhiker. I was swinging toward the no-hustle state of mind and
so stopped to talk with him a while. He was trying to hitch to a small
town close by in order to get a burger. I didn't think his prospects
too good, as the road was small, he was alone, and he had a big, thick
beard. Stone was from Fairbanks, Alaska, and was done in the lower
48 for a summer romp, away from the mosquitoes and the midnight sun of
his normal residence. I spent 15 minutes talking with him before I
set off again, now in my must-hustle mood. Tearing around the
mountain side, I passed many climbers out taking advantage of the
solid, easy rock. Many short routes were evident and everything could be
top roped, making this area highly attractive for beginning climbers.
Toss in its proximity to a road and you can be sure of its being filled
during warm summer weekends. In my rush, I got lost on the innumerable
climbing-use-trails, detouring for perhaps 20 minutes before
finding the true path. Rather than go around the mountain, as the PCT
normally did, the trail went over the top of it.
I passed the other three having lunch in the shade shortly after topping out
on the mountain. They had found a convenient spot for lunch,but I wanted
the interstate first. Besides, it had been so nice to be off on my own
for a while that I continued forth. The interstate rest stop, by which
the trail passed, might have a soda machine and the notion of pounding
back a few cans of sugary syrup sounded delightful to me. I rumbled on,
eventually becoming annoyed that the trail was not shorter. I was
in my must-hustle mood and was not to be trifled with. I eventually
recognized the trail from my previous trip here three years ago,
knowing that the interstate was close. The trail ran underneath it via
a drainage tunnel and came out on the other side close to the rest area.
Hiking up along a creek quickly got me to the junction where I and my
friends had split off from the PCT to go to Waren Lake. A side trail
ran to the rest area and I thought this an excellent lunch spot.
The others came and went as I cooked and ate my lunch of instant mashed
potatoes with Velveeta, stopping, as I knew they would, for a thirty
minute break. Will even ran down the side trail to the rest stop,
only to report that there were no vending machines of any kind.
They moved forth as a group, leaving me with a dirty pot and a King
Sized Snickers bar for dessert. My must-hustle mood was broken
by the lunch time hour, and I set forth from the trail junction
at a leisurely, unconcerned pace. Strolling slowly and
comfortably, I walked alone and in the quiet of the woods, bypassing
even a ski hut that was identified in my data book. There was no
reason to go there, even in my relaxed mood. Stopping at a near
by stream to rest and get some water, it was already 5 pm and
I still had a long way to hike tonight if I wanted to make
Sierra City by early tomorrow afternoon. My mood would
rotate yet again.
Stone appeared and sat down beside me, intent on taking a long break
before setting out again. He tended not to take a long afternoon lunch,
as I did, but rather took an hour off around 5 to relax and smoke
a pipe or two, before continuing on for another hour to camp and a
hot meal. The others were at the hut, he said, and he had been
successful at getting a burger. Shortly after I left him, a young
lady picked him up, dropped him off at the burger shack, and came and
got him twenty minutes later. She had some sort of business in the
town and so it was very convenient for her. We both thought her
brave and friendly for doing so, though. Will, Sharon,and Glory came
walking by, amazed that I had not detoured to the hut, which was filled
with various bits of old food. Not yet ready to leave my
relaxed mood for a final spring this evening, I let them go on for
five minutes before setting out at a furious pace. Stone assured
me he would be in town tomorrow night, but might not make the PO
before it closed.
It was nearing 6:30 and starting to get cold when I came across the other
three huddled around a young woman, chatting nervously and seriously.
She had set off from the rest area in the morning with the intention of
hiking to a peak in the area. She had gotten lost and decided to hike
cross country to try to find the peak. Unfortunately, for her, the
way to the peak was not obvious and her route finding skills were
not good. She had a rudimentary trail map with her and a compass,
but that was about it. She had wandered through the woods for
quite sometime, eventually finding the PCT, where we later found her.
She was in shorts and a t-shirt and had no warm clothes beyond a
windbreaker in her pack. No food, either. She had a friend
that was supposed to meet her back at the rest area in the evening,
so at least someone could call in help if she didn't show up. However,
a search would not be started until sometime later, unless her friend
could convince the authorities that she was in immediate danger, which
she was not. We showed her where she was, a long 9 or 10 miles from
the rest area. Sharon and Glory began giving her food and even
bits of clothing and a light, which the woman reluctantly accepted. They
gave her the address of the PO in Old Station and Dunsmuir for her
to mail the clothing back. We told her about the hut, not too far
distant, in case she needed to spend a night out in the wild.
I advised her, strenuously, against this, however. It would be cold
tonight and she would not be able to stay warm without building and
maintaining a fire through the night. Even this would prove to be
uncomfortable for her. The trail was good, more or less, but for
an inexperienced person, in the night, it might be hard to follow
it across some of its snowed-in places. While simple for us, after
having dealt with the snow for several hundred miles, it might be
easy for her to lose it. But, if she followed our tracks she might
be able to make it back to the rest stop in four or five hours.
It was crucial for her to keep moving in order to keep up her
body heat. We offered to take her along with us, as there was a
National Forest road another two hours ahead. She could spend the
night with us and then walk the road back in the morning. She
declined, thanked us, and we parted ways.
Sharon and Glory were worried about her fate, but neither Will nor
I had too much sympathy beyond hoping that a life would not be
lost so foolishly. When a person hikes off trail, that person
must be prepared to spend a night out of doors in case of
encountering a problem. She had taken no precautions and had still
left the trail to wander through the woods. Hopefully she would make it
back safe, but it was in her hands now. Setting out in my must-hustle
mood again, I verily raced down the trail in the waning light. Sensing that
the road was near, I began looking for a campsite, though none appeared.
The cold came on as the light left, though with luck we reached the National
Forest road and a stream with a few minutes left to find a campsite
before total darkness set in. At the stream, we found a hammock
strung up between two trees and a tarp-tent rigged next to it. We
had finally found Walt and Floater.
They had been camped here for some time now and encouraged us to camp
with them. They, like us, had not seen many new thruhikers in quite
some time and wanted some new company. Although I wanted the same
at the moment, there was nowhere close by, that I could see in the low light,
to camp. The others seemed intent on camping with our two new friends and
so I moved off by myself to find some place quiet and flat to camp.
Ten minutes up the trail, almost in the dark, I found Glory
behind and was a little put out that my mind alone was not to be,
yet again. I found a small clear spot off the trail large enough
for only one person, hoping that Glory would push on. She found a
place next to a tree, eight feet from me and started setting up.
Five minutes later, Will and Sharon arrived and also found places.
I was tired from the thirty miles that I had hiked today, but I was much
more worn out from my worries about making the PO in Sierra City early
enough to get everything done before it closed. It is 21 miles to the
road leading to town, and then another 1.5 miles on the road. Pushing
hard, I might be able to make it by 3 pm. I didn't like being on a schedule
like this. It took away a measure of the freedom that I so lusted after.
If I didn't make the PO before it closed, would it really be so bad? I could
just stay around until the next morning and simply get a later start
out of town. Why hadn't I thought about this today during my rush?
The answer was simple, there in the woods. I was rushing because there
was a goal in front of me that I could make if I tried. I had not examined
whether or not I really wanted the goal itself, or just to achieve it.
That is, the prospect of doing something was more important than the
thing in and of itself. In some cases, this was a good thing. The walk
from Mexico to Canada was the important part. Being in Canada was
not. In some cases this desire was not good, as today showed. Being
able to recognize the different situations was the hard part.
It was time to run. Walt and Floater went striding by as I was getting out of
my sleeping bag, and that seemed to push me to start my race to Sierra
City. Pushing hard coming out of the campsite in the woods, my enthusiasm
faded appreciably with each step I took toward my goal. By the time I reached
Jackson Reservoir, one of the largest bodies of water we had yet gone by,
my drive was completely gone and I was in hobo mode again. There was no
reason to rush, at least for now. Relaxing by the side of the park access road that
the trail crossed, I passed my time in style, eating dried, sweetened cranberries
and listening to the forest twitch and move in the wind. A loud crash and the
sound of chainsaws drowned out the stillness. This was prime logging land,
I had been told. The loggers carved out a checkerboard of land, slowly
turning over the land they cut to the forest service. With luck, the
land might come back and the forest service might decide not to sell the
timber if it did. Perhaps in fifty or a hundred years this land might not
feel the bite of the logger's saw. I was dubious. After all, the National
Forests were created initially as a way to manage the trees as a material
resource, not to lock them away indefinitely. If the land was not tagged as a
wilderness or given some other higher protection, and it was accessible enough
to be profitable, it would be logged eventually.
The trail was heavily impacted by the logging in some areas, and greatly helped
in others. In some places vast blow downs had been cleared by the loggers,
though it was unclear whether or not the trees had come down as a result of
bad weather, or only a chainsaw. In other places the trail was completely
blocked by down trees, requiring a short climb or slither. Occasionally
trees were down parallel to and on the trail. Because of the steep mountainsides,
this usually meant that going around was not possible and instead I had to
climb onto the tree itself and walk it. With a bare log, this is easy enough.
However, a tree has branches and these branches make tree-walking a
difficult proposition at times. Strolling peacefully, I passed Sharon taking
a break, while Glory and Will seemed miles ahead. The trail began its plunge
toward Sierra City, needing to lose several thousand feet of elevation before
making the highway. The elevation would have to be regained on the other
side either tonight or tomorrow.
Switchbacks have a way of never ending, particularly when you begin to get close
to a town. Every 100 yard long switchback seemed to drop me down perhaps five
feet. To get down at this pace would take forever. The un-driven me, at the
time, decided to fight the system as best as I knew how: Take a break in the
shade and relax. Accordingly, I flopped over into the dirt and spent twenty
minutes examining my well destroyed shoes. I had put five hundred miles on these
shoes and I could see my socks in at least four places. The cushioning was
shot and every rock I stepped on left an impression in my skin. The Sierras had
just been too much. I loved my shoes, but they died a hundred miles ago and I was
glad to be getting a new pair soon. Sharon sauntered past, admiring my fit of
resistance to the trail builders. Letting her get something of a lead on me, I
continued down the trail, hoping that the switchbacks would end sometime before tomorrow.
On and on and on the went. Ten minutes of hiking would go by and it felt as
if I could reach out and touch the place I was before, 1/2 of a trail mile before.
Finally, and without ceremony, the trail reached the river and a pile of trash
The trash consisted of buckets and sleeping pads and bits of rope, along with
sundry other gear. A sign pronounced that this garbage was left behind by
tree sitters. By environmentalists. No, I thought. No environmentalist
left this behind. People with a cause that they did not understand, perhaps.
People who liked the ring of a name without understanding even the first
part of what it meant. I had known many people in my short life who lived like
this. They would proclaim themselves devoted to some cause and take on a title.
The title gave them purpose and usually relieved them of the responsibility for
thinking through their actions and words. Without understanding, or even
trying to understand, they would do and say certain things because they were
supposed to. Only, they wouldn't get things right. And their failure would bring
disgrace and ill repute to the cause they thought they were helping.
Pro-life people that would assert
that to take a life was wrong, but yet still be in favor of the death penalty.
People would declare themselves as anti-hunting because it was cruel to animals.
Yet, they had no qualms about eating meat. Conservatives that support the
largest, most expensive government in history. Unionists who support
NAFTA. This trash was left by people who believed in a cause because it gave
them purpose, not because they understood the cause and why it was important.
I thought it a rather clever display and made sure to file it away in my
memory for later use. Of course, I could be completely wrong and the
trash was simply pinched from someone's garbage can and put into the
woods to discredit the tree sitters. But, I liked my explanation more.
The road to Sierra City was hot and empty. I was sure that Sharon had gotten a
hitch and was equally sure that I could walk the distance into town faster than
I could get a lift. Setting out along the hot, black asphalt, I tried to
keep in the shade as much as possible. The Sierra Buttes towered above, craggy
formations of the last bit of granite I would see until the Trinity Alps, far ahead.
One car went by, then another. A third beat me to town, but that was it. Sitting
outside the post office I spotted the entire crew: Sharon, Will, Glory, Walt, Pat,
and Floater. It was only 3 pm and I had more than an hour to take care of my
mailing. I immediately went into the next-door store to buy supplies for
the leg to Belden and for Burney Falls State Park. While not the greatest of
selection, the store was perfectly adequate for resupply, and I marched out
with large load of groceries, including three individually wrapped Mrs. Fields
cookies. Heh, heh, I taunted Will, I got the damn cookies. In shock and
awe, Will muttered something about hiding them. As things turned out, Will had
visited the store a few moments earlier to buy some snacks and had seen some
cookies. So, naturally he hid them from me until he could resupply. I had
found three other cookies, but not the ones that he had hidden, which he
thought were the only ones. Things worked out for the best and we each had a
stash from Mrs. Fields to get to Belden on.
I had my bounce box, two boxes from REI, and a letter from home waiting for
me in the PO. Flipping through the register there, it appeared that there
were only five thruhikers in front of us: Beast, Tutu, Rye Dog, Graham, and
Falcor. There was a sixth, Wall, that I knew about as well. The resupply
boxes from PCT hikers had spilled out into the reception area of the PO and
were clogging up the entire place. Unfortunately, as I told the postmaster,
it will be at least another week before the main pack gets here. Outside, I
put all my stuff down in the shade provided by the PO and within a minute or
two it was complete chaos. I carry so few things that this overload of
material defeated my organizational skills quickly. My old shoes were tossed
off and the new ones tried on. My old Z-rest found its way into the garbage
bin and the new one unwrapped (shiny blue!). One box was stuffed with the food
I thought I would need at Burney Falls. Another box took the trash from repackaging
the food for the next leg. My bounce box had to be sorted through, with
some stuff being jammed in and other stuff taken out, and both types of items
confused at times. With 15 minutes to spare, I sent out my resupply package to
Burney Falls and by bounce box to Castella.
The others were resupplying still as I sat down to lounge and eat and chat with
the arrivals. I certainly wasn't going anywhere until I had something to eat,
and I wasn't eating until the place across the street had their BBQ going.
Moreover, I wasn't going to even think about leaving or staying until I
had eaten. Sharon and Glory went off to take a shower as I relaxed with snacks
and sodas from the store. Walt and Pat had gotten a cabin for themselves, as had
Floater. The cabins were large and could sleep several people. Would we be
interested in staying there? I vocalized the decision making process I had
laid out in my head. Will wanted to leave town tonight. I repeated the process out
The barbeque across the street was fired up and so we migrated over as a large
group. Fruit was brought out and burgers and other treats ordered. The
restaurant was a family affair, the husband cooking, the wife looking over the
front area, and the barely 10 year old daughter taking orders. A hiker
named Popcorn had been in town for a few weeks and was working at one of the
local resorts trying to get up enough money to continue his hike. Stone
came into town and joined us at the table. While very tasty, the food didn't
have quite the bulk that thruhikers were looking for, and a second dinner
was required. Then, a stop at the store for ice cream. Will and I decided
to split a half gallon, while Glory and Sharon decided to split a pint.
This, Will and I thought, was rather humorous. Of course, our half gallon
was so hard that it was impossible for me to eat it with a wimpy plastic
spoon. Will had no qualms about this and ate his half first, while I took over
after it had begun to soften up. With a belly full and the sun almost gone, it
was finally time to make a decision as to where to stay tonight. Given a
choice between a shower and a bed and a little rest, or hiking back out to
the trail, I took the easy route out. The four of us were in agreement.
Stone, Floater, Will, and I in one cabin, and Walt, Pat, Sharon, and Glory
in the other. I gave Floater $10 for the night and purchased a 6 pack of
donuts for breakfast, along with several 24 oz. cans of beer for the evening.
The cabins were a mile down the road, which with the PCT Express made quick
work. Floater and I got our one hideaway beds, while Will and Stone split the
king sized bed. A shower was much appreciated, although I had worked up so
much dirt on my feet over the course of the summer that I had begun having
difficulties getting them clean. In particular, my Achilles would never
turn anything other than a light brown, despite my best scrubbing. Settling
in for the night with some beer and Larry King, I tried to get to know Floater
as best I could before the morning might separate us. He was a horse doctor from
New Jersey, which is where he got his trail name (horse doctors apparently have
to "float" the teeth of horses). An AT veteran, he had bought the hammock at the
ADZ (Annual Day Zero). A sort of kick off party to wish the thruhikers a
bon voyage, it was held two weeks before I had left Mexico. There were various
auctions to help support various trail related causes and Floater had gotten
his hammock at one when he decided to start the bidding off. No one else had
bid on the hammock and so it was his. As things turned out, he really enjoyed
sleeping in it. His daughter lived in Valdez, Alaska, which gave him a connection
to Stone and they swapped stories of Alaska, some true and some obviously
fabrications or enlargements. It was good to hear other voices. It was
good to be around people who understood what life on the trail was like and
had the attitude, free and easy, that it forced upon its inhabitants.
It was good to be here, right now, in this place. Tomorrow would bring the
hiking back, but I felt like I was still on the trail tonight, here in this
cabin in the woods with the taste of cheap beer in my mouth and the dream of
6 Old Fashioned Donuts for breakfast on my mind.