Oregon: Ashland to Crater Lake

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July 21, 2003.
I awoke in a sweat, despite it being 6 am. I was tired and grouchy and hungry, the night having been spent in a fit. I was never this tired while out hiking, no matter how difficult the day before. I had always well and woke up refreshed and ready for another day. I slipped on my clothes as quietly as I could and left the hot room. It was surprisingly cool in the TV room, and outside of the hostel is was comfortably cool. Sharon and Will were up and about and had the same complaints that I had. Except more. Will had been in a room with a loud snorer, whose alarm went off repeatedly in the early morning. The snorer, not wanting to get up at the early hour, kept hitting the snooze button. Sharon, too, had a snorer in her room, although with the heat I asserted that it didn't really matter. The hostel slowly came to life and Rye Dog made his appearance. Breakfast was on our minds and we solicited the staff for a suggestion. Just walk down the street a ways, till you find this great little place, we were assured. And so thirty minutes later, we found ourselves well outside of Ashland, no closer to an omelet and pancakes. The others decided to cook their own and set off for the grocery store. I was not so easily defeated, and headed back into the central area of town, where I found nice looking nook and settled in with a cup of coffee. Quality coffee is difficult to find, and this place had some of the best. The Oregonian newspaper provided some entertainment, though was of no better quality that what I had read in California. It was, however, a different state and I read it from end to end while drinking my coffee and eating my pastrami-green chile-tomato omelet with hashbrowns and a scone. As with almost every breakfast place on the PCT, the cook was skilled and turned out an excellent product, for which I did not mind paying $10. I had work to do today, despite it being a day off, and headed out into the still cool morning air to start the process.

I was low on cash and needed to visit a bank. I had long ago forgotten the PIN number to my ATM card and so had to find a bank in which to take out a cash advance on my credit card. I also had to go to the post office to pick up my bounce box and buy food for Oregon. I had planned on sending out food drops to Crater Lake and to two resorts on the trail. There were no towns close to the trail between Ashland and Cascade Locks, and so food drops were the standard route for PCT hikers. Still, it would mean buying a lot of food and the main grocery store was a bit far away. Then I would have to box everything up and send it out. However, even this was complicated, as I had to send some of the boxes UPS, and others by the USPS. On top of all this, I had to order new shoes to be sent somewhere and buy a plane ticket home. That meant that I had to figure when I wanted to fly and whether to do so from Seattle or Vancouver. I had to call my mother and let her know I had made it safely, and I had to see Terminator 3, whose lure had brought Will into town. He wanted to get out today, which meant we'd have to catch a bus to the theater in the afternoon. And the owner of the hostel, who was writing a book on the PCT, wanted to interview us. We were the first thruhikers to stay at her place this season, the front runner (Wall) having opted to stay at one of the fancy hotels when he had come through several weeks before. Zebediah had stayed at the hostel and had been interviewed by her, but I certainly wasn't counting him as a thruhiker. My lazy day was looking like a busy one, exactly what I did not want.

I was able to get my cash advance and bounce box, deciding afterward that the business end of my day off could wait. Instead of rushing off to do things, I bought six donuts and went back to the hostel. Will, Sharon, and Rye Dog were sitting on the porch and playing Trivial Pursuit after finishing off a massive egg breakfast. They, too, had gotten a box of donuts. Their game finished, and then another was started, with Sharon eventually laying claim to the champion of trivial facts. As much as I tried to dispute this, she only had to show her cap full of markers to put me back into place. In solace, I finished my box of donuts. This was what I wanted to do on my day off. Eat and do trivial things, not shop and mail and be logistical.

And so it came to pass that, as I sat in the shade near the post office, my bounce box off to Cascade Locks, that Sharon made an assertion. She would just try to buy food at Crater Lake, and then hitch into Sisters, thus avoiding maildrops and schedules. It made such perfect sense. Tuolumne Meadows had plenty of food, and so Crater Lake should be manageable also. Sisters was a 20 mile hitch, but was also a tourist town, which meant traffic (of course, the fact that tourists usually didn't pick up dirty, bearded hitchhikers didn't faze me). It was 100 miles to Crater Lake, then 155 to Sisters, and 165 miles from Sisters to Cascade Locks. Perhaps further than I might like, Oregon had a reputation for being easy hiking and I could make each of the longer legs in five days. A major set of chores was removed from my day and my zero day was looking promising again. Now, I just had to buy food to get me to Crater Lake, order shoes, and buy a ticket home (how depressing that was). Taking Sharon's approach to making things simple rather than complicated, I decided to have my shoes send to Sisters and to buy a ticket from Seattle home on the 25th of August, the latest I could. I still had to get on the internet to buy these things, but that would be easy from the hostel. Will had called the theater to find out that we'd have to wait until the evening to see Terminator 3, and Sharon had arranged to have dinner with the hostel owner. The afternoon was mine again. And I had precious plans for it: Buy supplies, buy junk food, sit around.

Setting a goal of being lazy is good on a long walk, and I had perfected the art. In the afternoon I was able to buy food from the natural food co-op and eat some junk food, but mostly I sat around. A trip to buy stove fuel from a gas station and to an outfitter to look around were the only distractions, and even these were enjoyable. My supplies for the upcoming leg were strewn about my bunk, but I could repackage them later. For now, I just wanted to sit on the porch for a bit until the hostel owner showed up to interview us and take us to dinner. Rye Dog hitched out of town, although it was likely that we would see him again in Crater Lake. He wanted to link up with Beast and Tutu, which meant he would have to hike slowly for a while. My zero day was really coming together.

Jennifer was waiting in the parking lot for Sharon and I to buy our goodies before she dropped Sharon and Will off at the movie theater. I had decided over dinner that I did not really want to see the movie and instead opted to finish packing my food and laying about. She had interviewed us for a hour at the hostel, asking a lot of the usual questions. Questions that I didn't have much of an answer for, though questions that I should have been thinking about. I had lots of longwinded replies, but nothing that could be considered coherent to a non-thruhiker. What I needed were sound bites, little phrases and set answers to people who would ask the inevitable questions along the trail, not really wanting to hear the truth, but wanting a little bit of the experience nonetheless. Jennifer listened patiently at the hostel and over dinner to our rambling answers. I wish I could have been more concise, but I had difficulty summing up 1700 miles of hiking. And so I found myself back at the hostel, alone with the bike mechanics, eating a pint of Chunky Monkey and reading a National Geographic magazine from 1982. So heavenly was this life, right now, that I was somewhat put out by the end of my pint. It seemed somehow grossly irresponsible of me to have run out, yet I had. I took solace in getting my pack ready for tomorrow. Jennifer was meeting us at 7 am to give us a lift back to the trail. Why did she take such an interest in us? Why did she buy us dinner and drive us around? Why get up early to take us back to the trail? She was nice, that was all. No ulterior motive could I think of, nor did her personality indicate that she was doing these things for any reason other than simply being nice. Perhaps it made her feel good to help others, or she enjoyed being a part of the trail experience. No doubt she did, but these things she would not have done if at the bottom she wasn't just a good person.

My icecream-less state was easy solved by walking down to the corner store for another, though this time I came away with a pint of Cherry Garcia. Two large bottles of beer came with me as well. The hostel had a no drinking policy, which didn't bother me much as I was not planning to drink them in the hostel anyways. Besides, I had spied plenty of beer bottles in the hostel's recycling bins. I took up residence in a comfortable place under the trees outside the hostel and ate my ice cream and drank my beer, continuing to work over the dated magazine. Israel, it seemed, was having difficulties in 1982 with the Palestinians. There was a war going on in west Africa. The president of my own country was doing things that environmental groups didn't like. The persistence of history disappointed me and I returned the magazine to the shelf as I finished off the last of my beer.

Will and Sharon returned early from the movie, apparently having met one of the hostel workers out front of the theater and so got a ride back quickly. I had purchased my shoes and my ticket and had even showered. Will was staying the night and both he and Sharon still had a lot to do tonight. So, we spent the better part of an hour arguing the merits of various movies before finally settling down to watch Donnie Brasco. And so the night repeated itself, right down to the heat and the thick air and a lack of sleep. I was almost overwhelmed by how fortunate I was to be here, but the hot room saving me from that ignominy. Laying on my silk liner on top of the bed, I thought about the most important question Jennifer had asked during our conversation, "Why are you doing this?" A note, a tune, and voice from a radio that was nowhere close reminded me of the answer. This place, this life, this summer, was simply a beautiful thing. Being immersed, completely and hopelessly, into beauty of all kinds and for all the senses, was something I could not trade and could not live without, I felt. It wasn't only the grand mountain vistas and fearful desert land, nor the massive trees and the cool streams, nor the sonorous birds or lazy reptiles. It wasn't just the way that the world looked as it went to bed or how it awoke. Not just the brilliance and hope of the stars in the heavens or the smell of sage and juniper warmed by the sun. It was all the physical sensations combined with the life I was living in my own mind. It was the body, mind, and spirit all combined in a harmonious and balanced mixture. It was beauty as Socrates might have tried to define it. And so I tried to sleep, anxious for the morrow, anxious for the trail.

I was just as tired and unrested this morning as the one before and was happy to be heading back out to the trail where I might be able to sleep with some comfort. I had been told before the summer began that southern Oregon could be unpleasant: Viewless, mosquito filled, and hot. Once north of Crater Lake there was supposed to be better terrain, but that was 100 miles in the future. Jennifer dropped Will, Sharon, and I off at the trailhead back near I-5 a little after 7 am. I never got a chance to say goodbye to Will, as he powered away from Sharon and I after 5 minutes on the trail. If he wanted to finish, he really had to hustle across Oregon where the trail was supposed to be easy. I would have to average 30 miles a day to finish in Canada; Will had five fewer days than I did at his disposal.

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Leaving Ashland I was treated to a dusty, hot, mostly viewless trail, broken up occasionally by some interesting rocks and views back to Mount Shasta. The heat of the Oregon summer was generating a lot of haze and the distant views I had had atop the ridgelines in California were gone. I did not think that the haze was from pollution as we were far from a major urban area, though I still took the lack of views somewhat hard. Compounding matters was the mixture of land found along the trail. Some was private, some was public, either Forest Service or BLM. Some the private land was owned by logging or cow companies, other parts by private individuals, and some by environmental groups. All sported warnings to stay on the trail and not to linger. Surprisingly, it was the BLM land that was in the best shape. On the Forest Service land there were frequent blowdowns and other obstructions in the trail. The BLM land, it was clear. The FS and BLM lands had just as few views, but at least the BLM had a water spigot at a horse camp where I could get some fresh water. And so I walked, completely alone, with Will somewhere far ahead and Sharon somewhere in the rear. I had last seen her at a lunch break that we both took near a dammed river. I was only a day into the trek to Crater Lake and I already wanted to be done with it as quickly as possible. This was, I felt, really against the spirit of the hike so far. What had changed, I pondered.

Sharon had come across my pondering as I sat on a bridge across a small canal that held the outflow of a man-made lake, its stinking, stagnant water hurting my nose. I needed water, but the stink of the canal wasn't very appealing. Even with iodine, it might still do my system some degree of harm. Sharon found another outlet stream that stunk slightly less and we both filled up before hiking on into the evening. Oregon was not looking very good when we camped near Moon Prarie Road in a dried up pine forest. I had no sunset and ants were crawling over me in camp. The water tasted as bad as it had smelled, even with a heavy dose of lemonade powder poured into it. Since we were in a forest, I would not be able to see many stars tonight. I tried to think back to the best part of the day, to write something in my journal that might alleviate my growing displeasure with southern Oregon. I could find nothing. The best part of the day had been eating donuts in Ashland before leaving. To make matters even worse, I had little hope for the morrow. This was not good.

The ants had denied me the restful night I was so looking forward to, and I awoke as a grouch. They didn't bite or otherwise molest me, but they crawled inside my sleeping back, exploring this strange body in their homeland. Walking was not going to be much fun today, I assured myself. There is something about feeding a bad attitude that is so reassuring, so comforting at times. It is easier to continue in a poor mood than it is to try to correct it. And so I powered forth, hoping that somehow I might be magically transported to Crater Lake and have this stretch of trail over and done with. This was the first time so far this summer that I asked the inevitable question: Why am I doing this? And not in a good, introspective way, but in a way that suggested it would be better to be sitting at home in some comfort. Looking at blank walls, I asserted, was more enjoyable than walking through this garbage land. And then I reached the cabin.

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On the Appalachian Trail there are three sided shelters the entire length. Sometimes small, six person affairs, other times fancy 14 person models with two levels, a front porch, and a skylight. The shelters were spaced about a half days travel apart (for a normal AT hiker) and acted as focal points for the trail culture that formed so much of the appeal of the AT. On the PCT, there was no shelter system: This was only the second on trail shelter that I had seen, the first being near Donner Pass. This was a modest affair, but it had a hand pumped well, which brought up cold, sweet water - a refreshing relief from the outlet water I had been drinking. I found a bit of shade outside the shelter and sat down to drink some water and try to pull together my floundering hike. Perhaps it was the reminder of the AT that the shelter provided. Afterall, the past two days would have been considered scenic on the AT. The beauty queen of California just made the homely southern Oregon meager in comparison. I had to find something other than stark, grossly apparent beauty to focus on for a while if I was going to continue to have an enjoyable summer. Days were so precious out here that I could not afford to waste them in a funk of depression over a lack of grandeur. And so I looked at the pines surrounding the shelter and felt better. I scanned the forest for signs of flowers or small plants, and found only minor rodents. The mice and squirrels, however, were something to look at I wondered what they might think of my invading their space for a while. Mostly, I just sat for a spell, trying to pull myself together.

I was getting ready to leave when Sharon arrived in search of water and we exchanged the normal greetings. It wasn't clear what she thought of the land, but I was fairly certain that she was having the same difficulties I was. Maybe not. She was a veteran of many long trails, not all of them as scenic as California had been. How grand could the Ice Age Trail have been? I know she liked it, but her affection for it, and the AT, could not have come from the sheer visual spectacle of it all. I would have to find the same. Moving down the trail, I tried to lose myself in logistical thoughts of the future in an attempt to forget about the land around me, to put off the problem at hand. I felt better after leaving the cabin, or perhaps more content is a better word. Regardless, I was here and I was continuing on. No, I would not rather have been at home. If nothing else, I at least had the smell of the pines. And then I had the lava.

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In the shade of the forest, the heat and sun were not terribly oppressive. However, the trail began its climb up onto the flanks of an old volcano, and then around it. The image of a volcano can be a powerful one. Shasta and Rainer are old volcanoes. All the major peaks of the Cascades are, in fact, volcanic. Some of the these are very scenic, white topped monsters that you can look at and admire from a far. Others, like Brown mountain, were simply rubble heaps. The rubber was sharp, black lava. Lava comes down in flows and trees do not survive when the lava comes down. Without trees, walking on a black surface, the trail took on the character of a road walk. Like the day heading into Seiad Valley, I roasted on the shadeless terrain. To be fair, the people who built the trail through here had a distinct reason for doing so: It was one of the few areas with a view. It was above most of the surrounding forest and, despite the discomfort, was really rather scenic. The heat-haze prevented rangy views, but I could at least make out Mount McLaughlin towering in front of me. This was the first real peak of Oregon, each leading up to Mount Hood in a succession of grandeur. It was a sign that, perhaps, I was in the process of leaving southern Oregon for a better place.

I had traversed the lava fields and then stopped just past a highway to have lunch and rinse out my socks from yesterday. A big, strapping man made river was flowing near by and there was plenty of shade. Sharon appeared and began a siesta as I was leaving, though I was not alone for long. Not three minutes down the trail, I ran into a man in his late 50s, carrying all the gear that a thruhiker might. But, there wasn't a thruhiker in front of me that I had not yet met. Coach had begun hiking the PCT last summer, but had to get off after a parasite left him in a weak state. He was back this summer and had hiked most of the Sierra region before skipping ahead to northern California to continue his hike north. I kept expecting him to drop back during the few minutes that we hiked together. After all, I was the all-powerful thruhiker and was a mere 29 years old. Coach was a section hiker now and had just come back from a wedding. Coach passed me, uphill, motoring on without any difficulties.

I arrived late in the day at Christie springs to find Coach well camped and Sharon poking about for water. This was an important water source as there was precious little between here and Crater Lake, 39 miles away. The sky was grey rather than purple, and it was clear than a storm was on its way, the first since the snow at Benson Pass, exactly one month before. Sharon and I found some space near the spring and set up our tarps, getting set just before the storm introduced itself with a drizzle. Then it rained. Then it poured and the sky lit up with lightning flashes the size and power of which I had not seen outside of the midwest. Thunder roared and the rain came down harder and harder. My tarp was pitched well and no rain hit me directly. However, the ground was so dry and so hard that after a few minutes of rain, the ground just couldn't absorb it quick enough. Rivers and creeks formed around us, flowing under my floorless tarp. To keep my sleeping bag dry, I had to put it back in its stuff sack. The heavy rain kept up for thirty minutes before abating, giving the ground a chance to soak up the water. The rivers dried up and I was able to get into my sleeping bag again. The rain died off completely, replaced only with the wind and some occasional lightning from the storm. My first rainstorm of the trail, I thought, had occurred after hiking for 76 days. Even with the crash of thunder, I slept deeply and comfortably, even with my slightly wet bag. It was cool again and there were no ants. My hike was back, even with the loss of two days to a funk.

The morning greeted me with a mist and a fog and a slow, cold wind. Mosquitoes were out and and about, prompting me to put a full coating of DEET on my legs and ears and neck and I hiked out, waking Coach in his tent with a cheery Goodmorning. I felt better than I had for the past two days and had a long day of walking in front of me. Crater Lake was within reach, the land was looking more mountainous, and fog in my head was gone. My expectations were not dashed, as the trail from Christie spring led out onto ridges and the mist began to burn off. The cooler air that came with the storm and the rain that it dropped had washed away much of the haze, and I walked with actual pleasure, even with the mosquitoes and gnats swarming about me. The DEET on my face kept them from landing, but they swarmed about nonetheless. The ridgeline that I had walked from the spring eventually gave out and I was forced down into the valley below, but the sun had finished burning off the mist and driven the mosquitoes away with its heat. Coach and I swapped places as our breaks were staggered at odd intervals, but I was able to sit down with him at a quiet stream side location for some lunch and a general drying of gear. Sharon had hiked on, apparently on a real mission for Crater Lake.

Coach was from Superior, Wisconsin, near the border with Minnesota and was something of a legend, as it turned out. Sharon had heard of him, but was very familiar with his exploits. Superior was not a large town, yet it held one of the powerhouses of Wisconsin highschool football. Coach was the headcoach of their football team and had been recently inducted into the highschool hall of fame for the many state championships that he had brought home to the small town in the northwest corner of Wisconsin. I should not have been surprised to find that he was a football coach, as many of his mannerisms reflected that. He was driven and leadership spewed forth from his every pour. But behind that was a warm, kind soul. He didn't have the constant antagonism of most of the highschool coaches (in any sport) that I had known. The coaches I had known had only one way in their small minds to motivate people: Try to taunt them and embarrass them and in the process somehow their anger might make them perform better. It was a method of motivation that actually seemed to work with a lot of people. It also drove alot of people away, as it had me. Coach, however, was different. He was able to grasp the fact that not everyone can be treated as a mindless machine, as something to be molded by fire and forged against a hard anvil. Inside of him was an understanding and caring and a certain softness. This softness could be seen in his eyes when I asked him if he had children. The quiet stream and the valley we were in went deathly silent as he began to speak of his children, one of them in the past tense. One of his sons had died recently in a traffic crash and the wound was still fresh. I listened to him speak of his boy and it was clear that he was still coping with his loss. I changed the subject to the future, not wanting to intrude on his pain, and asked him if this was his last outing before heading taking up golf in Florida. Coach thought this rather funny, as it was meant to be, and declared that this was only the start. He had other grand plans, such as cycling the perimeter of the country and paddling from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the rivers of the US. Given that there is no NorthWest Passage, I thought this a rather good scheme. It would involve a lot of paddling and portaging, and some walking in between. It would mean lazy days floating down a river like the Ohio, and strenuous days paddling against the flow of the Missouri. Walking with the ghosts of Lewis and Clark through the Bitterroot mountains before flowing down the broad back of the Columbia. After packing up my now dry gear, I said good bye to Coach, thinking that I would not see him again. He had had several days off attending a wedding back east and, surely, would not be in the kind of hiking shape to crank out a 39 mile day. The wedding, by the way, was one of his former player's. He was the best man at the wedding, a fact that no longer seemed so surprising to me after talking with the man for a while. I wanted to be just like Coach when I got older and hoped that some of his zest for life had rubbed off on me in our short time together.

Coach's pack disappeared over the hillside in front of the grass where I was taking a break only four miles from Crater Lake. Not only was he going to make Crater Lake tonight, but he was going to beat me there. I was not competitive out here and the fact of his making Crater Lake showed more about his abilities than a lack of my own. I was comfortable with how I was hiking, but it was perhaps a sign of the strength of the hikers out here that I could put in a 39 mile day and be the last of three to make it. Sharon was somewhere in front and would certainly make the campstore before it closed tonight. I would be in before 9 pm, but it was unlikely to stay open that late. I started off through what the guidebook described as an "Oregon Desert", though the description certainly didn't fit with my idea of a desert. There were pine trees a plenty, though spaced far enough apart that it didn't truly feel like a desert. There wasn't a lot of sand, but there was a lot of grey volcanic soil. The one true comparison between here and the desert was given by, of all things, the sun. I had missed the sunset for the past two days, and then the two before that when I was in Ashland. Like a strung out junkie, I was itching for a sign of the pink and the orange that the end of the day brought. It was growing in intensity and reached an apex when I reached the road to Crater Lake. The official PCT continued along north, but I was not going to follow it. Because the PCT was officially designated to be used by horses as well, it was at times routed around sensitive areas. Hence, it was going to miss Crater Lake, but I was not.

Walking the road to the Mazama Campground was, like the aquaduct walk in the Mojave, a real joy. Not a single car was to be found and the relative openness of the road gave the sunset full honor. It was cool and pleasant as I rode a high all the way into the campground, finding Coach and Sharon's packs in front of the still open store. Coach was inside and somewhat surprised to see me in the store so early. He had warmed up some hotdogs in the microwave of the store and anxiously rushed outside for dinner. The tide of good feelings brought my energy levels up as I realized that I was done with the really bad southern Oregon stretch and had nothing but the grand Crater Lake and the big Cascades in front of me. In a fit of energy, I even resupplied for the long leg to Sisters in the well stocked, cheap store, before sitting down outside with Sharon and Coach and a quart of chocolate milk. I had a box of donuts for desert and a box of donuts for breakfast. Sharon thought my boundless energy somewhat amusing and distracting, but tolerated it well enough. She had arranged for us to stay in a campsite for a mere $14, which seemed enough of a bargain. Rye Dog was somewhere in the woods she thought and we would doubtlessly see him tomorrow morning.

Set up under my tarp and eating the last of my desert donuts, I was happier than I had been for some time. I was out and free and the land was again good. Coach was, by his example, supplying me with, well, all sorts of good things. I had hiked further today than I had ever before, although not by much. Perhaps best of all, I felt that the two days out of Ashland had been more beneficial than I had thought at the time. I knew that not all of Oregon could be stunning, and that the mosquitoes were supposed to be ferocious until I reached Sisters. I knew that I would have long stretches of trail with obstructed views and the heat was going to be oppressive at times. But, I also knew that it was here that I needed to be. That, even with all that I dreaded about the next 155 miles, there was nowhere else I would rather be. With the bad would also come the good. I just had to enjoy the bad as best I could and the good would eventually come.