NorCal’s Grand Entrance: PCT Part 6

For the last three weeks, I’ve been walking the crest of Northern California.  It has been a stunning time, and the trail has been oh so good to me.  I’m now in South Lake Tahoe, at the amazing Mellow Mountain Hostel, but let’s take a look at how I got here, shall we?

The End of Oregon

After my wonderful night at Callahan’s and a morning spent in the haze of AYCE pancakes (a dangerous phrase to be slinging around hikers…), I got a ride into Ashland itself.  First on the list was a haircut, as my mullet was feeling a bit unruly and the “business” end was too long and causing excessive heat.  With the flow well-tended, I put together an amazing and cheap resupply at the local Dollar Tree.  I made my way downtown for lunch and to kill some time to wait on Chris’s arrival.  I had been dying to get back on a mountain bike pretty much since I started hiking, though I was afraid renting a bike might be an expensive venture in a town with such great riding.  Just my luck, I stumbled upon Ride and Roam, where a brief conversation with the owner revealed we had some mutual acquaintances from when he used to live in Minneapolis.  This then turned into me giving him $20 to borrow his personal bike for the afternoon!

I was unbelievably stoked by the opportunity and his kindness, and the riding did not disappoint.  Although, I forgot how different cycling and hiking muscles are, so the uphill portion was TOUGH.  After returning the bike, I got into Chris’s place and relaxed a bit before heading out to sample some local food and beer (both excellent).  The next morning, we went to Ruby’s for breakfast burritos that more than lived up to their reputation before Chris returned me to the trail.

I got a bit of a late start and climbing was hot.  On my way up to Mt Ashland, I met Roller who is hiking SOBO but had just jumped down to Ashland to get around the multitude of fire closures in Oregon.  That day, I also met Otter and SnakBlok, not 15 minutes apart.  It was super exciting to meet fellow Trek bloggers, whose trips I’d been following this whole time!  If you haven’t been checking out their blogs, you totally should!  Once Roller and I made it to the top of the hill, we were treated to a big mountain ridge that definitely did not feel like the rest of Oregon.  Things are changing!  Excitement is in the air!  And there was TRAIL MAGIC!  In the form of Shasta Cola and lawn chairs.  Score!  I spent my last night in Oregon at Sheep Camp.  The sunset was gorgeous and the sound of clanking cowbells from the bovines grazing in the meadow made for a dreamy night.

I woke up with Cali on the mind.  I just started hiking, not knowing where exactly I was in relation to the border.  I’d seen pictures from other hikers so I knew what I was looking for, but I still nearly walked right past the damn tree because I got there sooner than expected.  “Here it is,” I thought, “My last border until THE border.  And I still have 1700 miles of trail to hike before I get there….”  I sat for a while, enjoying my last Oregon craft beer of the trail, then signed the register and hiked off into the sunny California morning.  My first impression was lots of ridgelines with (still smoky) views, plenty of water, and just delightful hiking.  Although the water there was disappointingly gross, my campsite at Kangaroo Springs was impressive, and I knew I would be treated to a nice sunrise view after just a few short switchbacks in the morning.

It took less than 24 hours for California to bring me to tears.

In the purple pre-dawn, I packed up and got to the switchbacks.  As I crested the rise, I was sobbing before I had time to process what I was seeing.  Like, chest-heaving, nose-dripping, body-shaking sobs.  It was one of those moments where I felt completed, empty, insignificant, tiny, and yet undeniably connected to the physical world in all of its immensity.  If I had taken any other decision at any point in my life leading to this moment, I might never have seen this view.  I might have missed this feeling.  I anticipated moments like this in one of my first posts to this blog.  They’re one of the reasons I am drawn to this wild, amazing life.

It took me a moment to gather my corporal self, but I eventually covered the long, steep descent into the tiny town of Seiad Valley.  I sat around the store for a few hours taking care of resupply and calorie-gorging, waiting out the heat of the day before beginning the long road walk out of town and the climb back to the ridge.  Roller came through while I was there, and we hiked out together which made the dreaded road walk more tolerable.  And, we saw a little bear cub along the way (luckily with no mama nearby)!

The next day I hiked through the Marble Mountain Wilderness.  Just like the trip out of Ashland, Marble Mountain was another marker of change to rockier, more exposed, and just plain bigger mountains.  I was positively giddy walking across the long ridges with miles upon miles of uninterrupted views.  I traversed above Man Eater Lake in the evening, then followed a contour to a nice ridgetop campsite.  I had seen a fire burning way down below in the valley, and I spoke with a passing firefighter to confirm that I was safe where I was for the night.

The next morning as I hitched into Etna with a large group of NOBOs, I learned that the section I had camped in was in the process of being closed by the Forest Service due to increasingly dangerous fire conditions.  What a comforting piece of news!  Etna was a wonderful town, and the Hiker Hut proved to be one of my favorite hostels so far with comfortable accommodations and great people.  It felt great to get body and clothes thoroughly cleaned after a lengthy, dirty stretch since Ashland.

Big Miles, Bigger Smiles

I’ve been hiking big days since about the middle of Oregon.  Much bigger days than I would have thought reasonable before I began this hike.  On the AT, I never did more than 28 in a day and my “full” days were usually somewhere to the tune of 22-24 miles by the end of the hike.  On the PCT, I’ve been feeling really good putting in consistent low 30s, while still having time to sit for lunch, gawk at scenery, and jump in convenient rivers and lakes.  Hiking that distance each day doesn’t feel like a chore at all.  In fact, I’m getting an immense amount of satisfaction out of covering that distance, especially when I can look forwards or backwards and track my progress.  It’s not a push, it’s simply what feels good to me.

And then I did my first 40.  Encouraged by some of the NOBOs I met in Etna, I planned my big day over high but flat terrain, which would end at the base of Castle Crags.  The day before, I hiked a beautiful 30 miles through the Trinity Alps Wilderness, full of craggy mountains and vibrant green bowls.  As I’ve come to enjoy, I dry camped (slept at a site with no nearby water source) on a ridge top with excellent views of sunset and sunrise.  On the big day, I was hiking before dawn and got to watch a beautiful sunrise over Bull Lake as I started ticking the miles down.  For much of the day, I was able to see the trail ahead of and behind me, which was mostly motivating for tracking my progress.  By 10am, I had already cleared 16 miles, well beyond my usual goal of 10 by 10.  My game plan was to keep moving as much as possible, getting most of my calories from trail mix and other handy snacks that I could eat on the move.  I did stop for a lunch break, mostly to have a few minutes with my shoes off, where I also consumed a beer that I had hiked out from town.  Beers are great sugary calories to push you through a few fun miles, and in my opinion are well worth the weight!

The afternoon got hot, but the terrain was gentle as promised and I still felt pretty good.  As I pushed on, I got my first views of Castle Crags, an impossible seeming structure of many tightly spaced granite spires.  My goal was to camp at the base of the Crags, so I would only have a short walk to the road in the morning.  After hitting 30 miles in the mid-afternoon, I snarfed some more snacks and got ready for the final, big downhill.  The switchbacks were exposed and still fairly hot, but the views of the Crags were well worth it.  Exhausted, I found a campsite near some smelly water, but it was wet and I was too tired to care much.  When I did the final math, I had done 39.6 miles, but I’m calling it 40.

That mileage hurt.  I had been pretty comfortable doing 35s, but there is some magic number between that and 40 where I have to put everything away in a box and just push my muscles forward.  The wonder of seeing such a long stretch of land in a day wore off, and I decided to stick to mid-30 days after that.

In the morning, I walked in a very stiff fashion out to the state park and the road.  Since Etna, I had travelled about 100 miles in under 72 hours, and I was excited to reach the town of Mt Shasta for a deserved rest.  The hitch was tough and I ended up having to stand on the side of the interstate for almost an hour before one of the whizzing cars slowed to pick me up.  It was only later that I learned that there are a host of wonderful trail angels in town who will give you a ride.  Lesson learned!

This post, like all of them since Washington, is long overdue and extremely back-dated.  I’m working on catching up, I promise, but I wanted to at least post something.  Plus, I can’t get pictures up right now due to restricted internet, so sorry for an all-text post. Pictures to come.

So, where am I now?  I’m actually in Lone Pine, having hiked through the Sierra Nevada (or, as the legendary John Muir called them, the Range of Light).  From where this post ends, that’s a total of about 750 miles.  Which is also about how much trail I have left before I reach the Southern Terminus.  I’m going to try really hard to get back up to date on this blog, but I wouldn’t encourage you to hold your breath.  The next update will likely cover from Shasta to South Lake Tahoe, and then I’ll dedicate a whole post to the glory of the High Sierra.

Thanks for reading and being patient with my lack of updates! -Righteous

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