Oregon: Crater Lake to Sisters
July 25, 2003.
Even though I was not taking a day off, my earlier than expected arrival in
Crater Lake gave the impetus to take a little time off this morning. Plus,
there was the store, and the store had coffee and newspapers. I got Sharon a
cup of coffee and one for myself and was able to fish out yesterday's editions
of USA Today from the recycling bin. Sharon was just starting to move when I
handed her a steaming cup of coffee and sat down on the picnic table to read yesterday's
news. As always, yesterday's news differed from the all other days by a few details.
Still, it was nice to sit for a while and read the paper over coffee and donuts and
watch the park campground slowly come to life. It was still a bit cold in the
mornings and the prime season for the park had not yet arrived, yet there
were still a few hearty souls out camping in the forty degree morning.
Coach and Sharon went off to resupply and I left the paper for them to engage in
the almost daily task of sock washing. Since I had started putting on a clean
pair every day the foot fungus problems that I had started having after Mojave
had cleared up completely. And my feet smelled better, which was no small
benefit, according to Sharon.
Rye Dog made his appearance from the woods and joined the three of us for
some breakfast out of the store. All of his money was in his bounce box, and
his bounce box was in the post office up the road, which was one reason
he didn't stay in an official site last night. His lack of money also meant a
lack of food, and he was quite happy to accept a small loan from Sharon to
buy some cereal and milk. My pack seemed extraordinarily heavy, though not just
because of all the water I was hauling. On the alternate route I was taking, I
would not go near water until late in the day and I was hauling 2 gallons of
water in addition to the food required to get me 155 miles down the trail.
This worked out to around 15 lbs of food. Combined with 18 lbs of water, plus
my normal gear, my little rucksack was a pig this morning. I went to the
store for a second breakfast of 2 Microwave "Cheeseburger" pizza rollups.
Each promised 800 calories and, while I'd rather of had a omelet and
pancake combo, the rollups really were quite tasty. Maybe I was just
With a last quart of chocolate milk drunk, I said good bye for good to
Rye Dog, who was planning on slowing way down to wait for Beast and
Tutu. I would not see him again on this trip unless I got hurt. I
was sure that Coach and Sharon would catch up with me sometime soon,
probably by the late afternoon. Leaving the campground around 10 am, I
started walking up the road to the rim of Crater Lake. About 100 yards
of road walking convinced me that another 8 miles of it would not be
pleasant at all. There was no shoulder to walk on, and in places I
would have to be on the road itself, not a good idea when sightseeing
tourists are driving large, overloaded vehicles in the same space.
100 yards, and my thumb was out. Two cars passed without a glance and
then a ranger in a truck pulled over. I ran to the truck, thankful for
my goodluck, only to hear that hitching was illegal in the park. However,
he would give me a ride up to the rim if he had the time. A few radio calls
later, I was being whisked up to the rim in comfort and safety, chatting with
the ranger. I liked talking with rangers when I could, partially because I
thought it might be an interesting job to have. But, also because rangers
had interesting stories to tell and always seemed to know a few fun
facts about their place of employment.
The ranger dropped me off at the main visitor center at the rim and pointed out
the trail/sidewalk I was to follow. After a brief stop inside the visitor
center to fill up on water, I walked out to the rim for my first view of
Crater Lake itself.
Perhaps my expectations had been too high, but what I saw, while grand, was
not on the scale that I thought it would be. The blue of the lake was deep
indeed, but not the otherwordly color that I had expected. I had seen
more interesting colors in a body of water in other places; this was
just really, really blue. The lake was dramatic, being rimed with high cliffs,
and had the mysterious Wizard Island, slightly offset from the center of the
lake. Yes, the lake was large, but not mind-bogglingly so. It was something
that I would not be able to take in completely using my camera, but I
could with my eyes. When I first saw the Grand Canyon this March, I was amazed
at the sheer size of the place. On that trip I had hiked down to the river
and then along it before looping back up after a few days. Great fun in one of
the only places that I had been that was simply too large to take in with a
single view. Crater Lake just couldn't compete. Tourists were starting to
form in clots along the rim, and so I pushed on in the still cool morning
air (the lake is more than 7000 feet above sea level). The trail was a paved
sidewalk for a while, though it quickly turned to a well worn, graveled trail.
Steeply graded in places, it tried its best to stay alongside the rim of the
lake, dodging back to the main road every 1/4 mile or so. The steepness
of the trail kept most of the tourists down by the road, standing by their
cars in "official" lake-viewing locations. The reasons they had for not walking
just a little bit on the trail I was on escaped me, but I had to admit that
the official places did have great views of the lake.
The heavy pack and the generally lazy feeling, driven, no doubt, by the
presence of the lake, induced me to stop in a grove of trees overlooking the
lake, where there were no tourists and the wind was calm. Making up some
instant hummus, I smelled a rather disturbing scent coming from the bottom of
my food bag. While the beginnings of the scent had been present on previous
days, this was now rank: My organic garlic-onion bagels were decomposing.
I had purchased a sack of them in Ashland and still had three left (they were
not very good). The heat and the lack of preservatives combined to force a
quick decay. Although they still tasted fine (I cut off the grey parts),
they were smelly to a great extent and made my food bag, and hence my pack,
reek. I sat and lounged for an hour, thinking that Coach or Sharon would
be coming by soon, but no one did. I was all alone out here and was
perfectly happy being so. They could catch up with me tonight at
Thielson Creek, the first water source since the rim visitor center.
And so I set out, dropping away from the lake for the last time, traversing
through fields with distant views of the spire summit of
Mount Thielson (the creek being on the other side), heading down to cross the
road one last time.
Dropping away from the lake also meant dropping into forested valleys and
the end of the distant views. I would not be able to see Thielson until
I was almost upon it, and this was slightly depressing. The heavy pack
and the afternoon warmth, slightly less than the usual heat, kept me in a
languid mood and my pace slow. At every break I thought Coach or Sharon would
come upon me, but they never did. Tracing my way across another
stretch of Oregon desert, I saw something odd in the sand-like volcanic
soil. Something odd, because it should not have been there. Imprinted,
quite visibly where the alternate route rejoined the official PCT, were
a set of Asics Eagle Trail tracks. I had worn these shoes through the
Sierra and their sole was very distinctive. Coach wore Eagle Trails,
but he couldn't be ahead of me. I left before he did and with the exception
of the short stop in the visitor's center I had been on the trail or
nearby the entire time. He couldn't have come by me, but yet here were the
tracks. Perhaps there was some day or section hiker wearing the same
shoes. Perhaps, but not likely.
Across HWY 138 the PCT began to climb out of the forest that I had been hiking through
since leaving the expansive views of the immediate Crater Lake area. I saw a
figure moving slowly up the hill in front, a person, to be sure, was under the
enormous external frame pack that blotted out the form of the person. I
could see the blue jean clad legs and a bit of a flannel shirt on the arms,
signs of a person new to hiking. I caught up with the sweaty man, who must have
been broiling in the heavy clothes and huge pack, and exchanged the usual pleasantries
before leaving him far behind. This was an easy climb for a thruhiker. But, for
someone just out of their car it might be difficult. I didn't even bother to
look for what kind of shoes he was wearing. I didn't have to. The trail
topped out at the perfect time: 7 pm, cool, and with an incredible view of the
backside of Mount Thielson. I was even ready for a break and the a bit dirt
with a boulder for a backrest provided a perfect place to relax for a little
while. I had become a big fan of taking a break an hour before reaching camp.
By doing so, I always felt fresh and rested and unhurried on my way to bed.
Having Thielson tower above me was an extra treat and I didn't even peak at my
map until just before leaving. It was fun just looking at the mountain and trying
to pick out nice climbing routes on it. It was nice even just to look at it with
an artistic eye, rather than an analytical one. It was nice all around.
I had reached Thielson creek and loaded up with yet more water: It was a long, dry
trail to the next reasonable water, and even that was off trail. I had drunk down
most of the 2 gallons of water that I had left Crater Lake with and my shoulders had been
happy for the last few hours, when only a liter was on them. I was planning to
camp next to the creek, but found several tents occupying the exact spots I wanted.
No matter, the land is large and I could put in another mile or two. It was
nearing 8 pm and I still had plenty of daylight to find a good, scenic campsite.
Crossing the river, I came across an elderly couple just as the woman was about
to drop her pants behind a tree (but in front of me). I gave a short whistled and
she jumped out of her crouch in a fit of astonishment. We both had a good laugh over
this and I continued forth in search of my room for the night. In the end, I had to
settle for a room without a view, as I was solidly within the forest and had neither
the desire nor the time to climb out of it. A small plateau down hill from the
trail was flat and isolated and formed my bed for the night. Despite being in the
Mount Thielson wilderness, sounds of rock music wafted up from down the hill, where
a few cars and some locals were out having a good time in the semi-outdoors.
Remarkably enough, the music was turned very low around 9:30, and I was able to
sleep. The sounds of rocks falling off of Mount Thielson could be distinctly heard,
crashing and banging their way down the mountainside. The rocks would not bother me,
this far from the mountain, and the creekside campsites were well protected by both
trees and some distance. There was nothing for me to do but to sleep, and sleep
I did, knowing that tomorrow would bring yet another day in this bit of paradise.
I sat in the mud, and wanted to cry. Not because I was tired or sad or
angry, but rather for the simpler reason of disappointment. It was hot, I
had been walking hard, and I was thirsty. I'd been out of water for the
hour before reaching this spring and really needed the water. The spring
was, of course, steeply downhill and about 1/3 mile off the trail. The
spring was a swamp, with a little mucky water and some mud. There
was nothing for me here and my hopes of a cold drink were dashed.
The morning had gone well and I had been moving efficiently and with
relative happiness. And now I had another 2 hours to the next water,
in the heat of the day, and even those two hours might not bring me
relief. I might have another 3 miles on top of the 6 to Windigo
Pass. There were rumors of water at the pass, but they didn't seem likely.
At the pass, also, I had a choice. There was an alternate route to the
PCT that was shorter, flatter, and actually had water. Of course, the
water was from ponds, but it was water nonetheless. Crying wouldn't make
me less thirsty, and so I tried to stiffen by backbone and make the
best of it.
Being thirsty when there is water available isn't such a bad thing. People do
it all the time. Being thirsty when there is no water to be had is
wretched. Add in a mid 90 degree day and lots of hill walking and you have a
formula for frustration. Coach's tracks were still in front of me as I wandered
down the trail, still surprised that he was in front of me and that Sharon
had not yet caught up. I was frustrated physically by the lack of water, and
that led to a degradation of my enjoyment of the trail. When I finally
got to Windigo Pass, I was fairly certain I would take the alternate route.
But, perhaps a long, cool drink of water would change my mind. A note
from Coach on a bulletin board said that he could not find the water.
A note from Will was also on the board, as was a message from Wall. I
left one for Sharon and set out on the alternate route: Its water was
closer than that on the standard PCT. It had been almost 3 hours since my
last drink of water and I still had another hour to go. I was still
sweating and not in any danger, but it was severely unpleasant.
Today was just not to be mine, I thought, as I looked at the lake.
Lined with reeds, it was nothing more than a breeding pond for
mosquitoes. Perhaps 2 feet deep at the center, it was stagnant, stinking,
and warm. I didn't even hesitate to wade out to the center in my shoes to
try to get the best water I could, avoiding the scum around the edges. The silt
at the bottom of the pond was so loose that suction from my waterbottle
(used to put water in my bag) stirred it up. I could fill 20 oz. before I had to
move to a new spot. My waterbag was filled with something liquidy, somewhere in
between green and grey. On the bank, you could spy my route through the lake
perfectly. Tracks in the water.
Now that I had water I also had to wait for the iodine I dumped in it to work. I
needed to give it another half an hour and set the timer on my watch. The
pond was the very definition of a bad water source, but I needed the water
and couldn't skip it. The iodine would have to do. In the mean time I
started boiling water for the instant potatoes I had purchased in Crater Lake.
Looking at the package, I saw my mistake. They really were just instant
potatoes. No other flavorings. Not even salt. The package contents
were just:Dried potato flakes. I was even out of olive oil. And so I
sat in the shade of a small bush, trying to beat the heat,
thirsty, yet with a bag of water next to me, and hungry, yet with a pot of
something inedible cooking away. I waited twenty minutes and called the
iodine done, drinking down most of the 2.4 liters in the water bag before
turning on the potatoes. Without any flavoring, they were like eating
paste. Or, at least, what I imagined paste might taste like if it had no
taste at all. This was all too much.
In a fit of anger, I hurled the contents of the pot over my shoulder and into the
woods behind me. Instead of landing in the woods, the clump of potatoes hit the
trunk of a tree, and stuck, a whitish mass of goo stuck to a small tree.
Providence had again provided, and out came a few squeals of laughter at the
sight of the potatoes on the tree, and at my situation in general. The
laugh did me some good and I packed up, wanting to put in some long miles
before the end of the day. I wanted to get to the Three Sisters Wilderness and
their attendant mountains as quickly as possible, even though they were still
around 60 miles to the north. And so I set out walking, laughing as much as
I could as I went. I laughed about the potatoes on the tree, about my
water gathering excursion in the lake, about Arnold and Grey, about
the color of my socks and the fact that I had both red, blonde, black, and
brown hairs in my beard. I laughed about how silly mathematics research
is. I made up jokes about tree sitters and Dick Cheney, and short
rhymes about, well, anything. I felt better than I had since leaving the
mud patch called a spring, and it was with actual contentment that I
cleared exited the trail onto a road, which led directly into a developed
campsite where there might be water.
The campsite was large and seemed to cater mostly to horse riders of one sort
or another. Near the entrance was a friendly old couple who were acting as
campground hosts for the summer. We talked for a while about the weather and
the heat, about the mosquitoes and whether there were any bears in the
area. We both agreed that it was hot and that the mosquitoes were bad.
They, incidentally, had a fire going to keep the mosquitoes away. They pointed me
up the road to where I could get some water and where the trail might go.
I wished them well and thought how nice it might be, when I'm 75, to be a
campground host somewhere interesting.
I used the toilets and dumped out the last of my pond water in favor of something
a little more palatable from the camp's many spigots. I chatted briefly with a
variety of equestrians, who seemed to be gather for some large ride this
weekend. I always seemed to get along well with the horsemen, I think perhaps
because they have such a negative image with hikers. This causes, I think,
many hikers to take an adversarial approach to equestrians, and equestrians
to hikers. Perhaps I was a bit starved for company, as I had been alone all
day. However, I suspect that the interest paid to me by the hosts and
the equestrians as a thruhiker made me loquacious. After nearly an hour in the
campsite, I finally shouldered my pack and headed out for another hour or so
of hiking. Picking up the trail again was a bit difficult, but at last I
left pavement for the woods, yet again. And then the mosquitoes came.
In the lake country of Oregon, mosquitoes are omnipresent, in swarms, no less,
but they are only active at certain times of the day. The heat of the
late morning and afternoon was simply too much for them and so during the
bulk of the day they presented no problem to a hiker. However, once 6 o'clock
in the evening came, they were out with a bang looking for food. I was
the food, as much as I might not like it. I had 100% DEET in my pocket and
used it liberally. It was enough to keep the mosquitoes off me for 10 or 20
minutes, but not more. They were just to rapacious. I had experience bad
skeeters before in northern British Columbia. These ones couldn't beat the
Stikhine bugs, but they were close. I killed them in scores, just by closing
my palm in front of me. I knew that I couldn't kill them all, and so I tried
to outrun them, blazing up the trail at 4 miles per hour. The skeeters understood
this folly and all it served was to run into new packs of them sooner. There
would be no escape from them until I was under my netting. At the same time, I
wanted to get as far as I could tonight before stopping. I wanted to get back
to the mountains that I had last seem from the flanks of Mount Thielson
yesterday evening. And so I hiked on, swatting and killing, cursing and
sweating, as I roamed through the unmentionable terrain. It was a test of
desire and patience and I was able to hold out till near 8:30, when the mosquitoes
were just too bad. A dry stream bed looked good enough, considering all I wanted
was to get under my netting and away from the bugs. I found a relatively flat,
stony area and through out, racing the mosquitoes to see if I could get my sweaty
clothes off and into my bag before they completely drained me of blood. This
wasn't how I liked to end the day, but I just couldn't take them any longer.
The mosquitoes had another hour and a half in which to try to feed off of me
this morning, although I certainly killed more of them, far more, than
were able to get sustenance from me. I quickly rejoined the PCT from the
alternate route I had taken yesterday, thankfully rejoining at an actual
creek where I was able to replenish my water supply and avoid more pond water.
Near the creek I came upon two backpackers, out for a few days on this stretch of
the PCT, which they had heard was fairly empty, but scenic. They were out for the
summer hiking various parts of the PCT, doing a lot of camping and fishing, and
generally having a lazy summer outdoors. I agreed heartily with their philosophy of
recreation and left to their work. I was on a mission this morning for the
Three Sisters Wilderness, a massive tract of land in central Oregon centered around
three volcanoes, known as the Sisters. I would not be able to make the mountains
today, but I could breach the wilderness at least: From the southern boundary to
the Sisters lay 20 miles of forest.
The mosquitoes went away for their nap during the warmer hours just as I arrived
at Diamond Lake, a spectacular expanse of blue with long Diamond Peak above.
In the quiet and still of the morning, the lake's surface was the perfect
mirror, providing even more splendor to it than normal. I was glad, though,
that I camped where I had last night: The thought of the number of mosquitoes
that must live here chilled me. But, Diamond Lake was to be the last of the
scenic stuff for quite a while. Oregon was like this, as I was finding out.
In California, the scenery went on and on and on, and the trail rarely had a
lengthy forest walk, under thick trees, for any extended time. There were
times when I was buried in forest during a long, multi-thousand foot climb,
but I knew that when I got to the top I would be back on a ridgeline or
plateau and the scenery would be grand. In Oregon, things didn't work this
way. From Ashland, I walked for nearly 100 miles with little that I would call
scenic, the exceptions being a a few miles around Brown Mountains and
a few miles north of Christie Spring. Then I got
Crater Lake and all of its grandeur, but quickly went by. Twenty miles later,
I got Mount Thielson, which also quickly disappeared. Then, nothing until
Diamond Lake. Now, another 10 or 15 miles got me to quaint Rosary Lakes,
and a few more to Charlton Lake, where I rested for lunch.
Charlton Lake was large and fairly accessible, and a few canoes disturbed the
water, a few tents were seen on the shores. The mosquitoes had made a noon-time
appearance in a fit of hunger, bothering me during the usual peacetime that
the heat brought on. Thankfully they were not here, at this marvelous lake, and
I was able to eat my supper of Lipton's Noodles and Sauce in serenity. Why lakes
are so peaceful I'll never know. But sitting by the shore of one in the
peace and quiet of a July day in Oregon was not only restful, but rewarding.
Just sitting and watching the ripples on the surface, caused by a slow breeze
and the occasional canoe, was a good way to spend time. The mind was quieted,
and everything seemed to float in the very present. No worries about the
future, no troubles over the past. I should like to live in a place like this,
though that might spoil much of what is so special.
It was nearing 6 o'clock when I entered the burn area. A desolate stretch of
land that had once been a forest, and might be one again sometime in the future.
For now, though, it was white, charred trees, with dead fall and cinders
everywhere. It was also the end of my time away from the mosquitoes: It was
time for them to wake up and make their daily search for food. I took some comfort
that I was not an easy target for them, and that many more would die by my hands.
Even if I swatted whole generations of them, however, some would get a little
blood from me and so perpetuate their lines. Mosquitoes had the numbers on me,
and killing them served only to make me feel better, rather than actually
alleviating any problem.
I left the burn area happy to be among the living again and crossed the
boundary into the Three Sisters Wilderness. I left the burn area in a sad
state because with the increase in living things, and with the increase in
time, the mosquitoes were now out in force. It was only a matter of time before
their incessant buzzing, swooping, and biting would drive me under my netting.
The DEET I was carrying was good, as usual, for 20 or 30 minutes before the
effect was no longer strong enough to keep them off of me. And so last night was
repeated, with me racing through the woods hoping that the mosquitoes might be just
a little less thick ahead. Racing against my patience, knowing that once I was in
the mountains, the skeeters would be thinner. The mountains were 20 miles away, a
distance I could not make tonight. However, humans' perhaps are unique in the
natural world in that they can, and often, do things for non-logical reasons.
We are spiteful and vengeful and like to feel our power. And so it was that at
8:30 I found myself at Brahma Lake, a giant mosquito breeding ground, the smooth
surface of the lake glowing yellow with the sunset. How long had it been since I
had seen the sunset, I thought to myself. Not since walking into Crater Lake, my
memory informed me. Why not stop here, my laziness asserted. Show how much
stronger you are than the mosquitoes by staying here, in their prime
domain, my ego argued. Yes, I would stay here, in the thick of them.
As I had a few more minutes than usual this evening, and was the only one at the
lake, I took the opportunity to take a short sponge bath and scrub out my
socks. The mosquitoes loved this, as my skin was exposed for easy feeding, and
my still body promoted a good landing area. My feet felt better after a long soak and
looked to be in good condition still. The pads of my toes were starting to hurt,
however, and I noticed that small cuts, or grooves, had begun to form on them.
My feet usually hurt at least a little in the New Balance shoes I was wearing, but
the consistently long days, paired with shoes whose toe-box was just a little
too narrow, were beginning to take their toll. No matter, I would be in Sisters
the day after tomorrow and I had new shoes waiting for me there. The sun was down
and my glow was gone. I was at least partially clean and felt I had proved how
much stronger I was than the mosquitoes, though I did not care to prove it any
more tonight. I ate my cookies under my mosquito netting, taunting the
skeeters that landing on top of it, knowing that dinner was now out of reach,
but wanting to try nonetheless. I was content, unlike last night, knowing that
the mountains were again within my reach, that I would be able to wave goodbye to the
mosquitoes for a while, and that perhaps they had less power over me that I
had previously thought. Or, at least, I was able to fool myself into thinking so
nodding off for the night, all alone by the shores of still Brahma Lake.
Today was the day. The day I would return to the mountains and leave, for a
little while, the deep, dry forests of Oregon. It was roughly twenty
miles from Brahma lake to the basin before the South Sister, and I was determined
to get to it before stopping for lunch. This was just as bad as racing
a PO: I was hiking for a goal, a location, rather than enjoying the
time that I had here, in this place. It was everything that I did not
want, yet I had to do it. With some effort, I could get back to a
land that I really loved, and leave behind one that was somehow much
less appealing. I hadn't developed enough to be enjoy the long forest
walks in Oregon. I hadn't developed enough to truly enjoy the journey,
rather than only the destination. All of the this was very apparent
to me, yet I pushed on anyways, wanting to get up high again.
Shortly after 1 pm, I found myself hiking up a dry, southern California
style mountain, through waving brown grass. Winding higher and higher
along the mountain, switchbacking furiously, I was sweating immense
sheets, soaking every bit of clothing I was wearing. It was hot again and
the mellow grade of the trail could not overcome the heat and the
lack of shade. For, you see, I was leaving the forest behind. I was
almost there. And then, I rounded a hump on the flank and in to view
came a giant, red mountain. looming in the distance, too far to the east
to be on the PCT. Still, it was my first warning that I was getting
close, that I was returning to the mountains of my youth on this
hike. The South Sisters must be close, and ten minutes later, it
too came into view. A massive hump, this former volcano had
mostly collapsed into itself, leaving a lump, rather than a
cone. Unlike the Sierran mountains, the South Sister, like its
relatives Shasta and Lassen, stood by itself, rising massively
from the lava strewn countryside, a single sentinel in a land otherwise
dominated by forest. Even though I knew that a lake was not far,
I had to sit for a spell to look at the mountain, knowing that it
marked the end of my racing; I could once again focus only on the
journey, and not on the destination. It was easy to do so now, seeing as
how I was at my destination.
The humidity of the past few weeks had
faded, making the heat a dry one, as in southern California. My
sweat body was dry within ten minutes of sitting in the shade, and
I felt it was again time to hike. Dropping down from the mountain
side, I quickly gained the base of Mirror Lake, which would have
reflected the face of the South Sister in its expansive waters
had they not been occupied by several swimmers and loafers. Even though
the place was different because of them, I could not grudge anyone the
enjoyment of this place. Besides, the distance from a road meant that
they had walked her, suffering greatly, no doubt, based on the massive
amount of gear that they had. I spotted three children and two or three
adults splashing around, either in the water or on top of blow-up
rafts. Nestled in a far shore were two large family tents, with assorted
furniture set around them. There was a certainty that that at least
one of the splashing children would take the memory of this trip
with them into adolescence and adulthood, adding to it by continuing
to explore the outdoors, though perhaps accompanied by less gear.
I settled into a clearing near a side trail, protected from view and the
sun by large bushes. I didn't want to disturb the tranquility of the
camping family and tried to hide my presence as much as possible
during my time at the lake. If they looked carefully, they might be
able to pick out my orange shirt near the shore, but it was unlikely.
I settled in to wait for my noodles to cook, lamenting my empty
olive oil bottle. Lipton's Noodles and Sauce were always much better
with a healthy dose of oil tossed in. Without it, they didn't quite
cut it. The noodles bubbled away for a few minutes before the
alcohol fuel ran out and I set the pot on the ground so that the
food could finish cooking. I had been in the outdoors long enough
for my hearing to become extremely acute. A person was coming my
way and they were close. It could be Sharon, although the steps
didn't sound like a hikers. Whomever was walking, they were doing
so with a forced effort, rather than the smooth, energy-minimizing
gait of a thruhiker. The person was also trying to be quiet, perhaps
not wanting to disturb the family, just as I had not wanted to.
A clean shaven face wearing boots and a day pack came around the corner
with a look of surprise. Looking me over, he knew rather quickly
what I was doing out here. And he wanted to talk.
I was no longer an idle California kid, out of a walk. Rather, I
had hiked far enough to have the sort of wild-eyed look of a long
term traveler. I was not a mere professor of mathematics, but
someone doing something that many people found intriguing. Few people
would want to be a college professor, speaking of calculus and
differential equations to young minds, but almost everyone liked the
idea of setting out far a long walk in the woods. The idea of
leaving everything behind and leading a simple life, of recapturing the
spirit of the frontier than was such a formative issue in my country.
The land was mostly settled now and the frontier was now relegated
to Alaska and the desert. Still, it was an image that could not be
burned out of the American mind despite the influence of things like
Fox News, American Idol, and Starbucks.
I spoke with the hiker for 30 minutes, my noodles cooling even in the
intense heat of the afternoon. I was doing something that he wanted to
do sometime, if only he could get the time off. If only he could get over
the idea of living out-of-doors for months at a time. If only he could
separate from his wife and children for a summer. If only...what?
And so he listened to every word I said, rather than simply nodding and
waiting for a turn to speak. When students sit watching me in the classroom,
they take copious notes, but rarely actually listen. They
take down what they think will be useful later, to be discarded after
the next quiz or exam. To be fair, there are some that are truly
interested, but for most my class is something to be completed so that
they can make progress in a degree. The man was listening to me, trying
to extract as much as he could for later use, also. But, the stories
and experiences I was relating to him might exist in his memory for more
than a week or a semester. When he left, and I began to eat my
now congealed noodles, I felt like some sort of rockstar. I'm not
sure which one of us came away with more from our brief encounter in
With the lake behind me, I was now in the basin. The South Sister loomed
high above, with the Middle Sister peeking slightly over the flank. The
Middle Sister was black, contrasting starkly with the reddish hue of
the South Sister. It was spikey and spire like, having escaped the
collapse of its more southerly kin. Walking out in the open, away from
the trees, the trail ran through the heart of some of the greatest terrain
north of the Klammath range. And it was flat walking, clear across this
plateau. I could see, perhaps a mile from the trail, a group of a dozen or
so people in camp. Spread out along the banks of a snowmelt creek that
ran off one of the Sisters, they were evidently in for the day,perhaps with the
intention of climbing one or more of the Sisters in the morning.
I waved to them in the distance, but declined going over to talk with them.
My 30 minutes of being a rockstar was enough for the day.
Near the edge of the plateau, the Middle Sister came out in
full view, though I quickly lost it as the trail plummeted down to a
river valley and the trees again.
After watering at a comfortable creek, I dropped to the river bank on
innumerable switchbacks and crossed the valley where it sat.
Two tents were spotted off on the edge of the valley and further up
were another set, their occupants fetching water on the edge of a
tributary of the river. I exchanged the usual greetings, but did not want
to stop and talk with them. The heat of the day was gone and the light
was just right. I wanted the beautiful land all to myself and think they
understood: The man had a heavy beard and the woman was wearing
near-thread-bare nylon pants. They were used to being in the backcountry
and knew what I knew, thought like I thought. And so I left them and
began the climb out of the river valley, passing several other hikers
on the way up. This was justifiably a popular place. Bend was
close by and was known to be something of a mecca for the outdoor
oriented. Supposedly like Boulder, CO, before it got large and
was swallowed up by the wealthy looking to flee Denver, Bend
was ideally situated for those with a mind to be outdoors: Rock climbing at
Smith Rock, backcountry hiking and alpine climbing in the Sisters, and
skiing opportunities at Mount Bachelor. Though I had only driven through
it, Bend seemed at this time to represent the ideal, the perfect place
to settle when I was done in Indiana.
Eight thirty found me out of the river valley and in a halo of orange and
pink. I was standing in the middle of a sage dotted, lava plateau
looking at the sunset, not caring that the bits of lava rock under my
feet would not be the most comfortable place to camp. It didn't matter, when
I had other, more important things to consider. I kicked a few
horse turds out of the way and threw out my ground cloth so that I
could recline while watching the horizon. Mosquitoes were out, though
not in the ferocious swarms that had characterized the last few nights.
As the horizon darkened with the setting of the sun, I nestled deep into
my sleeping bag and pulled the bug netting over my head. As it seemed
I always did when I was camped at spot like this, I continually thought
how fortunate I was to be out here, how fortunate I had been to make the
decision to come out here for a summer. It wasn't a hard decision to justify
when I had a bedroom like this for the night. I was doing something beautiful
that, come what may in the future, I would always have with me. If nothing else
came in my lifetime, I would always be able to reach back and hold on
tight to the memory of this summer. At some point in the near future,
I would be sitting at home in Indiana doing nothing of particular
import. But, sitting inside me would be the memory, the core of a
experience that, perhaps, would leave me as a different person.
I could lose my books or my futon, but I would still have this.
I might lose my sight or my legs, but I would always have this.
As long as I retained my soul, I had something that could never
be taken away, and that gave me confidence and hope in the future:
I had grasped something immortal and undying. A little piece of
the infinite, here in this finite world.
Leaving my plateau in the clear light of the early morning, I began the end of
the climb that I had started the evening before. Leading up back into the
forest, moving steadily along the flank of the mountain, the trail began
slowly to leave the trees behind and begin the lava traverse that sprawled
through the area. Trees began to thin until I was left with only small
flowers and shrubs as vegetation. This, by itself, was fine with me although
the cause of this would prove unpleasant a little later in the day.
The trail led up a narrow gully dotted with lava and grass, climbing higher
until topping out with a spectacular view of the North Sister and the
hanging glaciers that emanated from both it and the Middle Sister. I was
now completely on lava, without even a plant to smell. The glaciers
were the first that I had seen, as neither Lassen nor Shasta have glaciers
large enough to be spotted from any distance. The blue, shattered ice
that so characterize glaciers could be seen, distinctly at several points.
On top of exclusively red lava rock, it was difficult to find a comfortable
place to sit and take in the view. Indeed, I had to walk ten yards off the trail
onto a spit of land overhanging the gully below to get the view and the
comfort that I desired. As much as I liked the Klammath Range in
northern California, this was, perhaps, the best land since leaving
the Sierras. I was hopeful that it would continue for a long time as,
sitting on the spit of land, I could see all the landmarks that would guide
my trip through the rest of Oregon, all the way to the Columbia, 175 miles
distant. Lined up in a row where Mount Washington, Three Fingered
Jack, Mount Jefferson, and, barely visible, Mount Hood.
While a few trees could be seen along the route, for the most of the
rest of the day I would be on lava. When the sun came out, it was
going to be an anvil against which I would be crushed. I was
planning to resupply in the town of Sisters, a 20 mile hitch from a
highway maybe 8 miles distant from here. Hiking well, I could make it
to Highway 242 before noon and hopefully score a ride into town before
the heat of the day was too awful. It could spend the afternoon in Sisters
resupplying and eating, and picking up my new pair of shoes at the PO. My
feet were hurting from the grooves on the pads of my toes, and I wanted
out of the traction poor, uncomfortable New Balance shoes as quickly
as possible. If I had average luck with hitching, I should be able to
be heading back to the trail by 4, when hiking on the lava would be a fun,
interesting experience instead of a baking one.
Leaving my roost near the North Sister, I dropped quickly down into a slightly
forested valley, which bent and undulated in a general descent down toward the
highway. Along the way I was again transformed into a rockstar as I met
a group of ten sixty-somethings out for a day hike. Spending thirty
minute with them telling them about my trip and about some of the logistics
of it (why did everyone want to know the weight of my pack?), I was less
thrilled with the rockstar status that the PCT was conferring on me, but it
was fun to talk with the day hikers, regardless. The enthusiasm that
spilled out of them was inspiring. Not so much for the fact that they
were toward the end of their life and doing something that I liked doing
now, but rather because the more than 60 years that they had spent being
bombarded with advertising and marketing and the general dross that
permeates normal, civilized life had not left them dull, boring
The last mile of the walk to the highway was on pure lava. Looking across
the distant highway, I could see the lava extended for a long, long way.
Dark and jagged, traversing it in the heat of the day would be unpleasant,
to say the least. I was staying in Sisters for a while, though I was
determined not to stay the night there. Looking back, I kissed the
Three Sisters goodbye, having enjoyed, immensely, their company for the
past day. I was invigorated by our short encounter, something I
desperately needed after the long walk through the mosquito filled woods
north of Mount Thielson.
When I stepped onto the highway, thirty minutes before noon, I knew that
the hitch might be difficult. The two lane highway was about half as
wide as normal and had an abandoned look to it. There were two
general routes from the heavily populated Willamette Valley across
the Cascades to a town like Sisters, and this was the one less
traveled. The guidebook said something called an observatory was
just over the hill and I thought that would be a better place to hitch
from, as it might draw tourists, who might give me a ride. I walked over
the hill to find a heap of rubble that was supposed to be the observatory,
complete with an expansive parking lot and an interpretive trail. There were
a few cars in the parking lot, but no shade of any kind. It was hot, there
on the black asphalt pavement and I put my sun hat on in anticipation of a
long wait with my thumb out.
In thirty minutes of standing out with my thumb pointed in the direction
of the road, three cars had driven by. With each car that pulled into the
parking lot, I smiled at the occupants and tried to say hello and something
witty. A single male trying to hitch is not normally viewed as a safe bet,
which is why I had, in the past, tried to hitch with Glory or Sharon.
However, they were not around and I was on my own. To mitigate the
fear factor of picking up a bearded, filthy man, I made sure they
knew I was a PCT hiker before they went to see the observatory.
I was hoping that when they were done and heading back to Sisters,
I would no longer seem such a fearsome person. A cyclist crested over the
hill and I put my thumb out, no so much hoping for a ride as hoping
for a little conversation. The rider, a 20 something man, thought this
rather funny and stopped in front of me, promptly falling over when he couldn't
get his feet out of the clip-in pedals in time.
The cyclist was just starting a ride across the country, having started
out on the Oregon coast six days ago. Although he had lots of new, fancy
gear, he was still traveling fairly lightly and we understood each
other immediately. "It is all about freedom, you know?" was his response
to my unasked question of why. I knew, indeed.
He had been squatting on some land near
Crater Lake for most of the spring and early summer, working various jobs
to get enough money to spend the rest of the summer and the fall cycling
to Wilmington, North Carolina. He was heading into Sisters for the night,
where he was meeting a friend of his. They were planning on camping in the
city park tonight and he encouraged me to meet him and his friend their.
They would buy me dinner and drinks in exchange for more stories from
the trail. As nice as this sounded, I wanted to get back on trail tonight
so that I could be off the lava fields before it got too hot tomorrow.
As we talked an elderly couple came down from the observatory and began
pulling out. They stopped and smiled and offered me a ride down the
hill. I said goodbye to the cyclist and wished him luck on his trip.
I would be doing what he was doing sometime in the future. I had met enough
long distance cyclists this summer to become enchanted with the idea of a
long ride along the backroads of this huge country.
My ride down the hill was courtesy of a husband and wife who used to live
in the area and came out every summer for a few weeks to see old friends and
relive old times. The wife was suffering from a degenerative disease which
made it more convenient to live in Salem with close access to top-grade
medical care and physical therapy. Whisking me quickly down the road, feeding
me grapes and a sandwich along the way, they gave me a quick summary of Sisters
and where I might be able to get supplies and a good meal. They dropped me off
at the post office, seventy minutes after first putting out my thumb, in the
stifling heat of mid day. Unlike the higher than that I was used to, Sisters
sat at the base of the eastern slopes of the Cascades and was only a few thousand
feet in elevation. What had been low 90 degree temperatures at the observatory
were now upper 90s, with the mercury rising. The postoffice was air conditioned,
though being self aware of my smell I did not linger inside after picking
up my new shoes and socks. Since leaving the Sierra Nevada, I had stopped
shredding socks, partly because my feet were no longer constantly
wet and my shoes no longer held large amounts of abrasive sand. I put my
new Asics on, bidding farewell to the New Balance that had so hurt my
feet over the last hundred and fifty miles. I mailed the socks to myself
at Cascade Locks, where perhaps I might need them, and then retreated to
the shade of the bench in front of the PO to rest a bit and think about
what I wanted to do next. With the heat, nothing happened quickly and
I was not going to give up the shade without a plan.
While I sat thinking a man in his sixties, wearing a thick white beard,
came out of the PO and struck up a conversation. A long time resident of
Sisters, he was interested in what I was doing, as I was clearly not a
normal tourist. Sisters doesn't see too many PCT hikers and I was enough of
an oddity to spark his imagination. A truck driver by trade, he was very
friendly and we wheedled away thirty minutes talking of the weather and
what eastern Oregon was like. He was heading out to Ontario, OR, this afternoon
to drop off a load of machine parts and so we talked of Ontario. I'd been through
Ontario several times in the past and sympathized with him. As hot as it was
here in Sisters, it would be five or ten degrees hotter in the east. After
giving me advice for where to find the best food in town and where to
buy supplies, he offered me the use of his shower. I politely declined,
not wanting to put him through any trouble and wanting to get something to
eat. We parted amiably, he heading around the corner to his house, and me
down the board walk to a local grill that he recommended.
Sisters is one of the uglier tourist towns that I've been to, beaten out
only by the Pigeon Forge-Seviersville-Gatlinburg complex on the
north slopes of the Smoky mountains in Tennessee. The downtown area
was designed for wealthy, transient families passing through on a
summer vacation to nowhere. Fudge shops, clock shops, t-shirt shops,
and even a cigar shop. The plural on the first three of the above shops is
intentional: There were, unbelievably in a town so small, multiple fudge shops.
If one store selling novelty clocks is too much, then what is said about
a town that has two? I couldn't imagine that the inhabitants of Sisters
actually liked the way that their town had turned out, but perhaps they
did. Just as I did not mind being dirty and smelling right now, perhaps
they did not mind the way their town was right now. Perhaps after the summer
the tourists go away and the town returns to normal for most of the year.
Sisters has a great setting, so maybe the rest of the year is palatable.
Right now, though...
I had eaten my standard bacon-double cheeseburger with fries and a coke, along
with a slab of Marion berry pie with a scoop of vanilla icecream, and had
found my way over to the supermarket for supplies. Sitting on the sticky
concrete in the shade near the trash area of the store, I ate down my
pint of Chunky Monkey in peace and quiet, reading the free housing market
ad magazine. Although I was a sight, no one bothered me here and it was
cool to boot. Store workers came and went occasionally, but offered nothing
except a smile and a wave. I think they realized that this was the only bit
of shade to be found close by, and that it was better for me to be here than
sitting in the frozen foods section eating my pint. My pack was again heavy,
with supplies enough to last me the 166 miles to Cascade Locks. I was counting on
making it in four days and a morning, a rapid pace but one that I could maintain
without sacrificing my enjoyment. However, the longer miles required more
food than a normal hiker would consume and I had at least 15 pounds of
food. Additionally, it was nearly twenty miles to the nearest sure
water source, which with the heat meant that I was hauling five liters of
water, for an additional 11 pounds. For now, though, I was happy with my
ice cream and my shade, quite content to let the heat of the day pass before
returning to the road.
Riding in the back of a pickup truck is perhaps one of the great ways to see
a short stretch of the countryside. Like riding a motorcycle without having
to worry about the driving part, the bed-of-a-pickup truck rider gets to
be out in the air, the world rushing by, without a care. In the bed with me
were three other hikers, clean and fresh from several days off in town.
The pickup was old, of 1960s vintage, and had various Grateful Dead
and Free Tibet stickers on it, driven by a man with long white hair
and a mischievous grin that belonged on a eight year old whose hand was
perpetually in the cookie jar. The truck had driven past me, heading into
Sisters, and on its way back out stopped to give me a ride. During the
hour I had spent with my thumb out, only one or two cars had given me
a look. One had stopped, but was only going a few miles up the road and
couldn't take me all the way to the observatory. The occupants of my ride
were section hikers. The previous summer they had hiked from Mexico to
Sierra City and had come out this summer to finish up the trail. The
white haired man was a friend of theirs and they had spent three days in
town resting and relaxing with him. He dropped us off at the trailhead and
sped back to town after leaving us with a few encouraging words. The
three section hikers each had two liters of water, not nearly enough to
make it to the next real water source. They were counting on being able
to hike cross country to a lake for the night and I wished them luck,
though felt doubtful that their plan would come to fruition.
With the onset of the early evening, hiking across the lava fields was
pleasant and provided many long distance views back to the Sisters and their
icy summits. I leap frogged with the other hikers, although by seven they had
tired and I was on my own. I was hoping to find the turn off for the cross
country route to the lakes that they were heading to, but never found it.
Despite wandering down a few use-trails that looked promising. With the
light growing dim, I gave up on my task to help them and hiked on into the
red light of the last of the day. A large, open meadow at the base of
Mount Washington provided a perfect campsite, although something about
it felt very wrong indeed. It wasn't until I was laying on my groundcloth
nearly naked, eating cookies, that I realized what it was: There wasn't
a single mosquito anywhere. The buzz that normally filled my ears from six o'clock
until falling asleep was not present. I didn't have to continually swat at the
insects, nor was my skin reeking of DEET. For the first time since leaving
Ashland, I was able to sleep without my mosquito netting and enjoyed the
odd feeling of freedom immensely. Tomorrow I would cross Santiam Pass and
break the 2000 mile mark for the summer. It didn't seem so impressive out
here and I knew that when I returned I would be constantly asked why I
hiked so quickly. People, particularly Appalachian Trail hikers, assumed
that if you hiked more than 15 miles in a day, you were somehow missing
part of the experience. That you couldn't see anything in your rush to
fly down the trail and were having a terribly time being a mileage slave.
They made the age-old mistake of assuming that they way they liked to
do something was the only way to enjoy it. It was one of the things that
I most hated about the AT, and something I would have to confront when the
summer ended. For now, though, I had the meadow and Mount Washington, awash
in alpinglow, all to myself, shared only with the few deer feeding unaware,
or uncaring, of my presence near the edges of the meadow. How perfect
this life is, how fortunate I am, how beautiful is this summer. All
were in my head as I nodded off, the stars above the constant companions
to my usually bedtime thoughts.