Episode 11: Emigrants in motion
Bridgeport (Sonora Pass) to Belden town (mile 1284.5)
I’m going to try something new in this entry, and write it somewhat live-action as I move through our unintentional day off to illustrate what a typical day can be like on (or near) the PCT.
This episode is a little overdue, and by now a lot has happened. For one thing, I’m writing this from a hospital room while I wait to hear the results of a Giardia test that I’m hoping turns out to be negative. The staff so far have been ridiculously friendly at the hospital though; it’s been strange to have people with a decade of medical training speak admirably about three months of my life.
On a more positive note, we’re almost to the halfway mark! Two more days of hiking and the miles ahead of us will begin to grow shorter than those we’ve already walked. The snow is almost completely gone and the trail has grown soft and dry again under our feet. Gentle grades carry us over rolling hills and along ridge lines bursting with life, and in California’s kind, 6,000 foot high Mediterranean climate, we are really starting to move.
Marmots are a rare sight now. Once the little furry bodies rolled over the rocky tops of passes, racing us to the top, but now we mostly see the less-gregarious squirrels or voles in their place. There is a new type of bird that Little Spoon has been describing as the Gilbert Godfried of birds; it sounds a little bit like a crow who smoked a pack of cigarettes and gargled acid after waking up. Usually, it comes around our tent at 7AM to let us know it’s time to wake up by making us think we’re in a prehistoric jungle.
We met a kind stranger in Bridgeport who drove us the long 45 minutes up to the trail head even though he wasn’t heading that way. Tim was a park worker who had been flown out from Glacier to interview for a job in Yosemite (he got it). He said he had nothing better to do, and although we didn’t believe him, we gladly accepted. The climb back up to the trail was dry and gorgeous, but the North side was still covered in slick snow chutes. We kept our ice axes but we didn’t need them again, as it turned out. The snow still clung to distant mountainsides but, over the next week we watched the patches shrink slowly like stars winking out.
Dick’s pass still had some good snow on it, but after that we didn’t have more than a quick patch to navigate; almost overnight, our GPS went from being a survival tool to a neat way to track our mileage.
As the snow melted, also, the trail angels started to come out of hiding. We got hit with trail magic three days in a row, hiking into South Lake Tahoe. The first experience was probably my favorite though. We came down to Ebbetts pass and found Chipmunk, a veteran of trail angel kindness, almost ready to close up shop for the day. “You’re here!” He shouted At us as we arrived at the road, packs bobbing behind us. Then, when he heard my name was Chuckles, he looked like he was about to cry. “Oh, no… I’ve been waiting for you. I hate to say it, but…” He paused and looked truly miserable, “I’m out of chili.”
I laughed, but inside I was dying. I find hyperbole distasteful usually, but chili is the best food ever created. It’s not my opinion; it’s a fact. I order chili in town so often, the rest of Mile 55 snuck a pin onto my backpack from a chili competition in 1989. It says I was a judge, but I wasn’t. I was only 2 at the time and no one asked me.
Anyhow, I swallowed my horror and pretended not to mind. I ate a banana at the table Chipmunk set up for the hikers and chatted with some of the hikers we’d been bouncing back and forth with. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Chipmunk produced one last bowl of chili and put it in front of me. I was a little emotional so I don’t remember exactly what followed that, but I definitely at the chili. Long story short, it was the nefarious Toe Touch’s plan to fake me out all along. She and Chipmunk had been in cahoots, which I should have figured out immediately. Now that she’s ahead of us, we need to keep our wits about us…
But the chili trail magic was an important time for us, since we also met up with the long-anticipated other people from New Hampshire. We’ve been tracking these guys for a while and were starting to think that people were making them up to toy with our state pride. But in the midst of chili and bananas and Toe-Touch-inspired shenanigans, we suddenly met Indie, Chicken, and Nana (who’s actually from England, but we consider that Old Hampshire). That night we camped with the three of them and decided, since Mile 55 has become pretty spread out, to try to be Crew Hampshire for a while (Name credit belongs to Bivvy and we personally love it, but other people’s responses seem to vary widely in enthusiasm).
We hiked with them part of the way to South Lake Tahoe, stopping in the middle to check our phones on a ridge when we got service (yes, hikers do this and it looks ridiculous). It looked like Camel and Centerfold were pushing on from South Lake Tahoe and skipping Truckee, which meant that we’d be going to Reno alone if we went. That sounded decidedly less exciting than going in to South Lake Tahoe, and we made plans with Crew Hampshire to stay at Budget Inn (whose name was not misleading). The next day we were bombarded from all sides with trail magic. Everyone was out and about for the Fourth, and we benefited from their patriotic generosity. The rangers at the station we passed that morning surprised Little Spoon and I each with a giant plate of food. Less than an hour after that, a woman who was fishing stopped us and gave us apples and big boxes of candy. Then, coming down into the road for South Lake Tahoe, we found Coppertone, a previous thru-hiker who gives root beer floats and donuts to all the hikers he sees. We barely needed to eat our own food that day.
South Lake Tahoe turned out to be a madhouse. Bordered by the vast beaches of Lake Tahoe and the casinos of State Line, Nevada, it was crawling with tourists. Which actually made it pretty tough to be on foot. The public busses were all running several hours late, the hotels were bumped up a couple hundred dollars in price, and the campground was full. So we decided to look at it as sort of an almost-halfway / Fourth of July celebration and not panic about our budget. For all the expensive amenities, though, SLT was good to us. A couple on vacation insisted on buying our drinks at the bar and then taking us out for breakfast the next day. Base Camp pizza makes free personal pizzas for thru-hikers, and the outfitter in town gave us lemonades. We even went into a casino to try our first table games and won a hundred dollars after Little Spoon bet our anniversary on roulette (really, I didn’t make that up).
Overall, if you’re hiking the PCT and you need to do laundry, take a shower, and Resupply – don’t go to South Lake Tahoe. But, if you’re hiking the PCT and feel like having an adventure, South Lake Tahoe will deliver for better or for worse.
We hitched back to the trail head much later than Crew Hampshire because they’re better hikers than us, frankly. But we did hike until dark and managed to sneak about 6 miles in. Unfortunately, some of that mileage was in the wrong direction. We hiked out with Alastair (trail name: Shaggy), who made for great company as we hiked an oddly long distance straight up hill looking for a campsite. After dark, we realized we had gone the opposite direction and accidentally climbed a small mountain next to the PCT. Anyways, we slept well that night and found a side trail to connect us the next morning.
We decided to try to hit four 23’s, which would get us within 8 miles of Sierra City and ‘buy’ a Nearo (a near zero or a short day into town). If we’re finishing in mid to late September, we’ll want to aim for averaging about 20 miles a day from here out, which means that every time we hike over 20, those miles go towards town time – time when we can figure out our resupplies, get clean, and eat everything in sight. Our first 23 mile day through Desolation Wilderness was incredibly gorgeous. We walked past Aloha and dozens of other alpine lakes, rough rock formations rising up out of them, and camped by a large lake with lots of camping in the evening. The days that followed were similar, crystal blue water, smooth-barked trees that grew wildly to the side, and jagged stone edges that made us feel like we were walking through Hawaii. The whole area had a tropical feeling that sat strangely well alongside the many coniferous trees.
On our third long day, we got distracted. For one thing, we spent the morning on the phone sorting out packages during a rare moment of service. We don’t get much phone service on trail, maybe a couple bars at the top of ridges in more populated areas, but on this stretch we were near a ski resort and had enough to use our phones as actual phones.
We needed to bounce some boxes from behind us ahead to Sierra City, since we had decided not to go to Truckee. Most hikers ship themselves priority mail boxes since they can be bounced ahead at no cost. Twin Bridges bounced our package, no questions asked. Then it took us several tries to get our phones to connect and several more tries to get someone to pick up, but we got through to the Truckee PO at last, where we were told by a kind, elderly man that we couldn’t forward priority mail without “a signed letter or telegram” – which was a surprise since telegrams haven’t existed for more than a decade.
I tried to convince him that I was, in fact, the real Maggie Wallace, but he wasn’t able to take vocal verification since, I imagine, his rule book seemed to have been written before phones were invented. We had this image of Truckee as the last frontier town, caught in a Brigadoon-like vortex where it remained in 1890, emerging only once per year to frustrate hikers. I was on the brink of sarcastically offering to wire him the tracking number using my morse code dictionary or perhaps send a lock of my hair by carrier pigeon when he said “we get husbands and wives deceiving each other here with mail, so I’m sorry but I have to be careful.” At this point I realized my ruse was over. He’d seen right through my jealous lover’s intentions and realized that the real Maggie Wallace was tied to a train track awaiting the noon engine and her fate. So I gave up and asked if the package (which contained our water filter) could be returned to sender and he pleasantly agreed. Hopefully it will not be detained further by plotting Indians or highwaymen.
We crossed over Donner pass that day – which is an eerie experience under any circumstances, especially with the Sierra snow still sitting in the back of our minds. There’s no way as a hiker to walk through Donner Pass and not feel sad, fortunate, and maybe a little absurd. People used to make this unbelievable voyage across our uncharted country, at the expense of their own health and the lives of loved ones, to find a better life. We’re walking half the distance with a fraction of the weight and we’re doing it as a form of recreation.
I didn’t realize the correct distinction between emigrants and immigrants until we traveled through Emigrant Wilderness. Emigrants are travelers in the process of leaving a place; the parties who came out West against all odds were East Coast emigrants. Immigrants are people who have settled in a place, so those emigrants who made the journey successfully became West Coast immigrants. In other words, emigrants belong to where they came from, in a sense, and immigrants belong to where they end up. It’s just a different way of defining home.
We had plenty of time to ponder this in the ski lodge and bar, which is where we ended up after Donner pass on this particular day. It seemed too good to pass up a bar that was .3 off trail and offered a free drink to thru-hikers. After that, I think our hiking improved (although I’ve been accused of having ‘trail goggles’ after the beer). We sacrificed 3 miles and hiked only 20 that day, ending up at… A SHELTER!
Our very first PCT shelter (unless you count Muir hut which is at 12,000 feet and freezing), the Peter Grubb hut, was incredibly cool. Our standards have been firmly set in place by the AT and we were expecting a three walled shelter, but when we reached the hut, we found a stone cabin with working lights. There were hikers inside at the long tables, playing cards and making food. We realized how much we had been missing the social aspect of shelters at the end of a hard day of hiking. Then we slept in the loft upstairs and remembered how much we didn’t miss the tossing and turning or the ‘snorechestra’ of fourteen people trying to sleep together.
We noticed at the hut that Crew Hampshire had signed in earlier that day, so we were pretty sure we were close on their heels. The following day, we hiked 26 miles and camped at the top of a ridge, with only 8 miles left to town.
The long day we put in to make up for our lazy day didn’t feel much harder. The grade gets more gradual by the day, the terrain grows less and less muddy, and wildflowers now line our path – walking North, we seem to be hiking always on the edge between spring and summer. The day was spent traversing scenic ridges or walking through towering, moss-covered trees. The whole day had the feeling of summer breaking over us. The chirruping and buzzing of summer bugs became a thick background that we eventually droned out; big, lazy yellow daisies drifted in a warm breeze and the sun was warm enough that we felt hazy as we floated along, hardly thinking about our steps. These are probably the days I’ll think about when I’m missing the trail later.
Coming back to present reality, I just found out I don’t have Giardia. Just a normal stomach virus. A normal, very expensive stomach virus. Also, since Little Spoon didn’t get sick and I did, the words ‘sensitive stomach’ now exist in my medical file. Emergency room trips are never short, so we’ve come to realize we need to find a place to stay in Quincy, but not before they discharge us.
Back to trail life, we woke up the day after our 26 miler bright and early to get to Sierra City and caught Crew Hampshire just as they were packing up their tents. We all walked in together, but they were thinking about leaving that evening. We set up our tent in town, pretty dedicated to the idea of an evening off, and found ourselves toasting beers with our soon-to-depart friends by early evening. That was when an older gentleman approached us and asked if we’d like a half bottle of wine. The general thru-hiker consensus was ‘yes, we do like free wine.’ Then he re-approached us with a case of uncorked bottles and unveiled himself as the local vineyard owner. Crew Hampshire did not end up hiking out that night.
We woke up to discover that 1. We weren’t going to hike out early that morning and 2. Crew Hampshire had heroically hiked out at 8 AM. I still don’t know how they did it.
When we accepted the reality of hiking up the hill out of town in our slightly dehydrated state, we started walking the 1.5 mile road walk back to the trail head. We figured we wouldn’t get picked up for a hitch because 1.5 miles isn’t very far to go, but within five minutes we heard a car honk at us. A couple pulled up and told us to hop in. They were dropping off their father / father-in-law at the trail head and decided to ferry hikers back and forth in the process. As they were telling us this, we realized that the woman in the front seat was Promise, who we met on our 2013 thru-hike. It’s a small world, but the world of hiking is so much smaller.
Our climb out was tough due to a lot of loose, baseball-sized rocks, a surprisingly strong wind, and tons of prickly bushes over growing the trail, but we made it up and camped about 11 miles in, having been convinced by Heaps, Big Hunk, and Fruitcup to camp with them. We were on the brink of pushing on further, but they’re unfortunately very funny people. Then we got serious about this 90 mile section ahead of us and decided to do some bigger days.
The next day we did our first 30, which we actually started at 8:30 AM (a little late by most hiker standards). But we did manage to end before dark. The next morning we slept in again and stopped for a long lunch break, swimming in the Middle Fork River with Trigger and Yodeler’s group – but we still made 27 miles! We’re not alone in this – 30 is becoming the new 20 on this easy terrain, and 40 is becoming the new 30. I don’t know if we’ll be doing any 40s soon, but we’re confident in our ability to move faster now. We even had time that day to call the infamous Truckee PO again (since our package was sent back to them by accident) and get it forwarded at last by a really helpful postal employee who had a better grasp on modernity.
The next day was an easy 21 mostly downhill into Belden, but by then I was starting to get stomach pains and nausea. Coming down the eternally long hill into Belden to catch Crew Hampshire on their way back to trail, I started to worry about our water treatment. We’ve been using aqua Mira, but we’re running pretty low on our supply. After showers and laundry in Belden, we hitched to Quincy and got picked up, of course, by a couple from New York who knew Toe Touch when she was growing up. We keep trying to meet new people, but we consistently get picked up by familiar strangers. And that’s where we found ourselves, roughly around darkness, wandering the streets of the town looking for a place to stay.
Which brings me to here – our tent in the middle of a motorcycle rally. Apparently the convention booked all the motels in town (the Norton motorcycle has a very devoted fan base). After asking around for a while, people suggested we try the fair grounds – as we walked in past a row of hundreds of Norton bikes, we realized we were at ground zero for the convention. As luck would have it, the bikers were friendly – I think they thought we were a little crazy for doing what we’re doing (and not owning a Norton), but they were happy to have us camp with them and immediately offered us beers. A man with a thick Scottish accent told us that if we had any trouble camping we could say “George sent us!” He added that we should do the same when we get to Canada and that’s what I plan to do at customs.
In the past weeks, we’ve slept in casinos, the rugged beauty of the Sierra buttes and desolation wilderness, and even, in Belden, a small community built by gold-panners. We’ve felt like migrants moving through this state but now, as we near its Northern terminus, we’re beginning to realize how much we’ll miss it. We entered California as emigrants of New Hampshire, but have been treated by its people, young and old, rich and poor, eccentric or ordinary, as true immigrants – as people coming home.
Now I have to sleep in hopes that tomorrow, I’ll finally get a hitch on a motorcycle.
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