Alone in the Burn Scar
Mile 1264, Bear Fire Burn Scar
The only sounds outside my tent all night are falling branches, a consistent crack and thud at all hours, despite the still air.
I give up on sleep just before 5 AM, peering out at the silhouettes of live trees next to me, and burnt ones for miles beyond. I unzip my tent door, and no cool air rushes in. The sun isn’t up, and I don’t feel the need to hide under my quilt, my usual morning routine. I don’t bother to cook my oatmeal, sipping cold instant coffee apprehensively.
This is my first day of hiking in a burn area, and I can tell it’s going to be hot.
As I sip my water sparingly I cough shallowly. That’s new. Dust? I’m nauseated and exhausted as I eat and watch a red sun begin to crest the ridge. Smoke, I guess. I inhale deeply to see if I can smell fire, and cough on the warm air.
As I hike through the morning, the golden light, usually beautiful and fleeting, lingers too long.
The sky never brightens to blue, and I feel like I’m walking through a perpetual sunrise, time standing still. For hours I am alone, no one in sight. It’s just me under towering charcoal trees, ominous under the pearly grey sky. There’s eerie beauty to the forest, trees covered in constellations of bright white mushrooms and the sounds of crows overhead. Ash flies up with each step, and I’m quickly filthy as it settles into every pore. Where’s the fire? I wonder. It could be hundreds of miles away or dangerously close. I have no service to check, so I just keep walking.
Eventually the novelty of the burn area wears thin, and the quiet becomes unsettling.
I double down in taking good care of myself to try and ward off anxiety. Hike a few miles, break, drink water, eat, reapply sunscreen, repeat. My mind spirals anyways. Where is everyone? Did they get off trail at that road behind me? Should I be more concerned for my safety? How bad is it to be covered in ash while breathing in smoke? What am I trying to prove? There are no answers. I keep walking.
A few days before in Sierra City, it seemed half the hikers I spoke to were planning to skip over 100 miles of burn areas.
Their reasons ranged from health concerns to seeing no point in suffering. Why would anyone hike through hazardous trail willingly? Their talk made me question my determination to maintain a continuous footpath, and when I vocalized this, another hiker quipped “you’re not letting them make your decision for you, are you?” Well, no, defensiveness kicked in. I’ve always said I wanted to face the challenges of the trail, and that meant walking every mile I could, especially the shitty ones. So I tuned out their hitching plans and debates about the meaning of a thru hike. I’ll just walk there.
Now, in the midst of it, I’m annoyed with my stubbornness.
In the sweltering heat I have to go up and up, and the smoke has become so thick the hills next to me look grainy, like an old film photo. All I want to do is curl up and nap, but I need to get to live forest to camp safely, and I don’t have time. Angry that I have no other choice, I want to collapse in protest, quit right now. But then I’d have to walk to the road anyway. So I drag myself up the hill, wanting to cry, too tired for tears.
I try to summon anger that there was a forest fire.
I want to run on the political rage that has fueled my work for the past few years, but I can barely form a thought. I know how to turn this into a protest story or an op-Ed, but in this moment all I can come up with is this sucks. That’s it. It sucks, and I have to hike it. I don’t have the energy to grieve the burn or fear the gathering smoke. There’s only the trail in front of me and the next step.
Eventually I find another hiker sitting on the hill, and we commiserate about the slog.
In a few more miles, there is a second human at the water source. As we talk about our days, I start to feel like a person again, one who’s seen so much beauty on this trail and will find many more views ahead. We leapfrog one another for the next few miles, and live trees start to outnumber scorched ones. The presence of life, plant and human, calms my nerves. I get service and my partner tells me there are no active fires nearby, so my sole focus becomes finding a safe campsite. There are still dead trees everywhere, and all night I listen to them drop branches, hoping my tent is out of harm’s way. One day of burn section down, so many to go. I fall asleep wondering what it all means, and decide I don’t have to know. I just have to walk.
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