A lot can change in a week

As I neared the end of Northern California, I found myself leaving the group that I had been hiking with since Yosemite. I didn’t do this on purpose, it was just one of those things that happens on trail without you really noticing: I wanted to spend the night in the small town of Etna and they didn’t, then I wanted to make bigger miles, and before I knew it I was ahead of them. Not by much, but enough that we were out of sync.

I found myself instead with three new people and our hiking style was very different to what I’d been doing before, much more chaotic. I never knew where the day was going to take us and quite often we’d end up night hiking in order to get in the miles we wanted to do. Every day felt new and exciting, which turned out to be the perfect antidote to the NorCal blues.

We started to joke that we were cursed, because we could never get a good night’s sleep. To be honest it was our fault at first, we stayed up too late chatting to other hikers, then we night hiked, but then there was a heat wave and it became really hard to sleep. Every day I would say to my friends, “tonight I’m going to get to camp at a reasonable time and I’m going to have a great night’s sleep” and every day it didn’t happen. Little did I know what was to come.

Crossing the Oregon border

On the 29th of July, we finally crossed the border from California into Oregon. It was a hot day, but we were all in great moods. We whooped and cheered and one of my group had carried out some whiskey for us to drink in celebration. It was a really brilliant moment.

About a mile afterwards we encountered some trail magic and whilst we were hanging out, another hiker mentioned that he’d seen a small plume of smoke in the distance. We didn’t think much of it. By that evening, as we were getting our last miles in for the day, my friend and I noticed a much larger plume of smoke covering the sky about a valley away. We looked at it with a bit of concern, but continued on to where we were going to camp that night.

We set up our beds just before dark, and lay down for about 15 minutes before we heard people talking about the fire being only 3 miles away. We got out of our sleeping bags to look at the sky and saw that it was completely red. The fire looked much closer now and certainly much bigger.

We spent a panicked 15 minutes trying to decide what to do, but eventually we all agreed as a group that we’d be too worried about the fire growing to be able to sleep, so we decided to hike. We’d already hiked 29 miles that day and it was 11 miles to the road, but we figured if we weren’t going to sleep anyway, we might as well hike this section, especially since it didn’t seem likely that it would be open soon.

As we hiked, we headed away from the fire but we got a better view of it, seeing actual flames at one point on the ridge. It was pretty scary to be honest, even though we knew we were far enough away to be just out of danger. As time passed, there seemed to be more ash falling on us making it hard to breathe and making everything dirty.

Our view of the McKinney fire as we hiked away from it

We finally made it to the road at 1.30am, having now walked 40 miles that day. Whilst we’d hiked, we’d managed to arrange a trail angel to come pick us up and let us sleep at his house. He even stopped at Taco Bell on the way to get us food. It was truly amazing to feel so looked after in a moment of real fear.

Arriving to the road at 1.30am after walking 40 miles

I didn’t get much sleep that night, maybe 3 hours, and we all woke up in shock to what we had just experienced and to the news that that section of trail was now closed and hikers were being evacuated. It was certainly not the start to Oregon that we’d imagined.

We spent a zero there in Ashland trying not to freak too much as the news came in of more and more fires ahead of us. Another section of trail was closed not far ahead and more people were being evacuated. Sitting in town didn’t feel great, so we decided to hike as soon as possible. We left early the next morning, getting back on trail thanks to an incredible trail angel who took us to breakfast and bought us all coffee. It was pretty smokey that first day, but never to the point that I felt in danger. By the second day the skies were totally clear.

Caught in the storm

I was still exhausted from our many nights of no sleep. On our second day out of Ashland I got to camp and set up my tent, determined to have an uninterrupted night of sleep. About an hour later, the thunder and lightning started.

This storm was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The thunder was so loud it sounded like a bomb going off. It was dry for the first two hours, which scared me even more because all the fires around us had been started by lightning hitting trees. Then around midnight there came a rush of rain and we were in a torrential downpour. The thunder and lightning continued, seemingly right above our heads.

I found myself lying there terrified but also laughing. Of course we were in a thunderstorm, it was just our luck. What was going to happen next?

I fared pretty well that night: there was only one small puddle in my tent and my belongings were mostly dry. But one of my group only had a tarp, and spent the night with a river of mud running through his bed. I don’t think he got much sleep. It took us 4 hours in the morning to get up the motivation to keep moving.

The end of our continuous footpath

We did finally get a good night’s sleep that day and were all in much better moods afterwards, which was timed perfectly with our visit to Crater Lake. We had an incredible evening going up to the watchtower for sunset. We had so much fun together that night, but we knew that the next day we would come up against the Windigo fire closure and our continuous footpath would be broken. We didn’t know what that would mean for our hike or our group, so this night felt like a fitting ending for this part of trail.

Trail family trip to Crater Lake

The sunset from Watchman’s Tower

We woke the next morning to news of a new fire in the section we were about to skip to. It wasn’t that close to trail, so it seemed like it might be okay to hike out, but lots of people were turning back because of the smoke. We spent the day not sure what to do, unwilling to hike out into this unknown situation, especially given our experience earlier that week.

We knew we ultimately all had to make the decision that was best for our own hike and we each had different things to consider, but after discussing it through we all came to the conclusion that jumping up to Cascade Locks would make the most sense.

We managed to get ourselves to Bend that night, and took a zero there, and within the next day we were in a van on the way up to Washington. I had not expected this when we’d crossed into Oregon exactly a week before. This was not how it was supposed to go. But that’s part of thru-hiking: it’s unpredictable and it’s wild and sometimes you can’t do what you want. I felt a bit sad and confused as we drove into Cascade Locks, but so grateful that I was making this decision with other people by my side.

At the Bridge of the Gods a few weeks earlier than expected

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