Episode 12: Welcome to the Bubble

Belden to Shasta mile 1498The climb out of Belden was hell. If you ask any other hiker what was the worst part of the trail so far, they’ll wince and say, “Belden….. Belden.” I know we’ve gotten spoiled by this terrain, but it reminded me of hard parts of the AT. The trail wound up the mountain through a burn area. When we left Belden, the temperature was 97 degrees and rising, and we were completely exposed to the midday sun all the way up. We realized our mistake quickly, but pushed on anyways. Finally we collapsed in the sad tiny patch of shade a little bush afforded and waited out the hottest part of the day in a pool of sweat.

Some hikers taking a waterfall shower.

Once we got going again, we edged around the side of the mountain into a wall of wind. The wind howled and ripped at our bags, trying to toss us off the mountain. The trail was awful – full of baseball-sized rocks and scree that tripped us constantly because we couldn’t see our feet; the thorny bushes we had to force our way through obscured everything below our ankles and covered our legs in scratches. Eventually we made it to cover in the trees and were met with swarms of mosquitoes. We weren’t able to outpace them because the grade suddenly shifted and we found ourselves going straight up hill. The trail was completely eroded and we had to grab onto roots and rocks to pull ourselves up while the dry dust filled our noses and mouths. It was like we were hiking through each circle of hell.

To top it off, Spoon was in uncharacteristically glum. His foot was really hurting him today. It’s been getting worse and worse since he got his new shoes that don’t seem to fit quite right. So far he’s hiked through it and ignored it, but the way out of Belden I could tell he was in a lot of pain.

Suffice it to say, we were pretty miserable by the time the sun set, but then everything changed. We forced our way up over the rocks and broke out of the buggy woods into a meadow. There were no mosquitoes or gusts there, only wildflowers and tall grass and a dusk coolness that hovered in the air. Around the meadow was a fractured ridge of pines that stood dark against the last waves of colored light. Slowly, the jagged edges of the bowl that held us became silhouettes on night sky, stars slowly blinking on all around us. Everything was still; the chorus of birds and bugs had hushed and the night air was full of a thick summer smell. Our feet stopped hurting, our packs felt lighter than they had been. And we weren’t tired of hiking anymore.

This is how our days have melted into night lately with the summer now filling all the gaps around us. We wake up late, push through the dry heat and swim when we can, then come out the other side into evening, where we glide like water bugs over the trail. We don’t feel our joints in the evening; everything is warm movement on our insides and cool skin rising to meet the night breeze outside. The sun sinks and paints full leaves golden green, the birds sing it down and locusts spring out of the grass to clap for them. Even the dust seems to grow more contemplative in the night. I sometimes feel like every day’s troubles – the sticky heat, the dust that plumes up and settles into everything, the stinging, biting insects and thick-skinned feet that feel like bloated bags of blood we beat on the ground – are only a fair price we pay for this one hour where the trail is perfect. So we’ve been moving through Northern California, the fever dream where we come awake for dusk.

But for all its steepness and overgrown trail, Northern California has made for more efficient hiking. The post-solstice July days stretch out into 25 or 30 mile portions of trail that move by under thru-hiker feet quickly. The trail grows more even and repetitive every day, and that’s lead, counterintuitively, to a lot of injuries. Hikers have been walking themselves into repetitive use injuries – joint issues, strained tendons, and blisters, rising out of our calloused feet for the first time in hundreds of miles. Little Spoon developed a rough limp on the stretch from Belden to Drakesbad Guest Ranch, and it grew bad enough that we bailed out a day before hitting Drakesbad, in Chester.

Chester is a fun stop for PCT hikers because it comes immediately after the halfway-point marker: a stone post in the middle of the trail that we reached at 10:30 at night. By the light from our headlamps we read what we’d been waiting three months for:

With everything leveling out and our trail legs under us, it should only take 2 to 2 1/2 months to finish the second half, and Spoon and I have been feeding off the impatience of the other hikers around us. We all can’t wait to finally be out of California! At almost 1700 miles, it’s less than 500 miles short of the entire Appalachian Trail – and it’s one state! But standing in the dark by the halfway point, toasting the trail with a bottle of whiskey we’d been sent (thanks Joe and Karen), we could finally feel the closeness of the Oregon border.

In Chester, Spoon had his turn visiting the Emergency Room. His trip was more expedient than mine, though. The doctor didn’t even check him in; he heard his symptoms – top of the foot pain, difficulty moving his toes – and diagnosed him on the spot: tendinitis. With rest, ice, compression, and elevation recommended for the day, followed by lots of ibuprofen and beer. At least, that’s what Spoon told me he said. It was actually a huge relief to have a diagnosis. We’d been hearing for a week that top of the foot pain might mean a stress fracture, which is what’s known as a ‘trail-ender’. It was also a big relief to reach Chester and find Centerfold! He’d been waiting 5 days for us with a foot injury of his own (plus he totally missed us). We spent the day catching up with him and drinking beer as per doctor’s orders.

The next day, we got on trail predictably late and hiked the 19 miles to Drakesbad in about six hours, practically running to make sure we’d get there in time for dinner. We’ve been hearing about this dinner for about 500 miles, so we weren’t about to miss it. We almost did, though, when we took the boiling springs alternate around Lassen’s sulfur lake. It was a bizarre spectacle, coming down the volcanic rocks to see a milky green lake, steam escaping from the bubbling water and bright red clay replacing sand on its shore. While we stared, a deer crept down the steep embankment and seemed to drink out of the water. We were so fascinated watching this we nearly forgot about dinner, but we still made it in time. Drakesbad gave us a hero’s welcome that we weren’t sure we deserved after hiking less than 20 miles in two days. They served us after the other guests, charging us a tiny amount of money for an incredible rack of lamb dinner that might be the best thing I’ve eaten all summer.

The most appropriate trail magic yet: a bag of soap!

Unfortunately, REI dropped the ball for the second time that week with Spoon’s shoes. REI doesn’t overnight packages for thru-hikers, but they do offer 2-day shipping for an exorbitant price, and we were desperate enough to pay it. Unfortunately, they got the address wrong the first time around because they let auto fill supply the zip code instead of using the one we gave them (we’ve also come to realize this summer that REI is pretty bad with PCT addresses in general), so a week after ordering Spoon’s shoes, we still had to hang out at Drakesbad until almost 4 pm the following day to get his shoes. Fortunately, Drakesbad has hot springs and amazing shower stalls, so we didn’t mind too much.

We hiked on through Lassen National Park, chasing Centerfold once again. We told him to go ahead the day we waited for Spoon’s shoes, figuring we’d catch him, but he took off like a shot and it took us until the town of Shasta to catch up. The whole Lassen area was beautiful – mostly along exposed ridge lines where we had a two way view of Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta – but the volcanic rocks made walking more complicated.

We got pretty side-tracked by the many convenience stops of Old Station, not to mention all the new hikers. With all the days we’ve taken off recently for various health problems, the hiker bubble has started to overtake us. We’re surrounded by hikers now, which has both its upsides and downsides. It’s not always the greatest thing when we’re hiking late into the evening only to discover that all the flat spots are taken, but it’s allowed us to hike with some really cool people – and offered some escape from our own thoughts, which we’re starting to run out of by now.

Just a cow blocking the trail.

We ran into a giant crew of New Hampshire people at Old Station, and then hiked from one convenience store to another with Bamboo, Double Down, and Morning Kid who also hiked the AT in 2013. We were talking about how crazy it is that we’re meeting all these people we know or share some connection with as we hiked up to Hat Creek Rim – a 30 mile waterless stretch. We night hiked the first part of the rim by the full moon, but stopped after Spoon tripped on the sticky volcanic rock and re-injured his sore foot. The next day, we were out of water as we hiked the last three miles towards a creek – and then we found BeeLine. BeeLine hiked with us for a little while in Pennsylvania on the AT, but it took us a second to recognize him because he was carrying the most ridiculous backpack. He had a full foam mattress and an isobutane torch strapped to the back, and we still have no idea why. He was out making up a stretch of the PCT that had been closed due to fire damage the year he hiked. Almost immediately once he realized who we were, he reached into his massive pack and pulled out two beers. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got 18!” Dehydrated and laughing, we drank a beer in the middle of the trail with someone we hadn’t seen in three years as we talked about the AT. The trail world is a strange one.

We stopped at Burney Mountain Guest Ranch, which felt like being home. They served us huge portions of food, offered showers and laundry, and let us sit in their TV room and watch movies while kids and cats played around us. It’s a necessary stop on trail and let us get our ‘town chores’ done without really having to leave the trail or lose any miles. Toe Touch had paved the way for us here as well, befriending everyone at the ranch and telling them that we’d be along soon so that we were treated like royalty. Classic Toe Touch.

We hiked to the state park the next day and didn’t make it much further. It was a super hot day and we ran into E.T. and Hefe, who we hadn’t seen since back in the beginning of the trail. They’d been a day or two behind us for a long time apparently, but we had thought they were ahead of us. We’re doing short days now, usually around 23 miles to give Spoon’s foot some room to heal so we only camped with them for one night, but we’re hopeful that we’ll catch them again.

We also met one other person we weren’t expecting to see: Poptart, or Carly Moree. Not only did she co-author Pacific Crest Trials with this guy you may have heard of, but she’s going after Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson’s unsupported fastest known time on the PCT this year! She’s currently cruising along NOBO on a section to train for her upcoming record attempt, but pretty soon she’ll be jetting Southbound from Canada to Mexico in, hopefully, under 64 days. We can’t wait to high five her as she passes us!
We heard that Mash from the AT was out here, and we finally ran into him and his girlfriend, Knee Deep – who also hiked the AT in 2013! They went to the same school, hiked the AT in the same year, and we’re both planning to hike the PCT this year when they happened to meet each other on top of mount Passaconaway in NH.

We love that with all the chances they had to meet, it took the least likely situation to bring them together.

Just before hitting 1500 miles, we hiked an easy 5 miles down hill to where the trail crosses under interstate 5 and met up with our friend Kristen from Seattle. She kindly drove us around the town of Shasta and never mentioned how bad we smelled. As we traveled around, we found both Centerfold and Bivvy and kidnapped them. We felt very spoiled, having a car to do our chores with. Thanks, Kristen!!


Kristen, Spoon, and I trying to fit in in Shasta.

Shasta is pretty amazing. Centerfold’s been calling it Crystal City, since there are over ten shops that carry crystals. Apparently Mt. Shasta is ‘a source of tremendous energy,’ which makes this the most stereotypically Californian place we’ve visited yet. Every person has dreadlocks, long-boarding does not have an age limit, and you can wear anything you want here. I walked by a homeless man this morning who was doing yoga and drinking fair trade coffee. No one cares that we have giant backpacks or that we showed up covered in dirt, and we met a lot of interesting people at the local bar, including a cage fighter and a blonde ‘second cousin’ of the artist formerly known as Prince. It’s been a pretty fun place to take some time off and let Spoon’s foot rest (we’re not writing anything off, so maybe the power of the mountain and the sheer volume of crystals will heal his tendinitis. We’ll keep the blog updated on the progress of that.)

Centerfold and Bivvy hiked out a day before us, with big plans to do 33 mile days so Bivvy can get to his book signing in time (seriously, if you haven’t checked it out already, look into his new book, How to Survive in the North). And now here we go back towards the trail and Oregon, wondering who we could possibly run into next.


Sponsors of Chuckles and Little Spoon that you should check out:
Mary Jane’s Farm organic dehydrated meals https://www.maryjanesfarm.org/
Honey Stinger bars, waffles, and energy chews https://www.honeystinger.com/
Big Sur Bars  https://bigsurbar.com/
Katabatic Gear https://katabaticgear.com/
Mom’s Stuff salve https://www.momsstuffsalve.com

Little Spoon’s Instagram (Mark Santoski) https://www.instagram.com/marksantoski/
Centerfold’s Instagram (Jon Graca) https://www.instagram.com/jograca/
Toe Touch’s Instagram (Julie McCloskey) https://www.instagram.com/jtmcc272/
Toe Touch’s Blog https://seeyajules.com/

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Comments 2

  • Siren : Jul 28th

    I love that you ran into so many AT 13ers!

  • jalan jalan : Jul 28th

    I loved your description of the transition to evening. Great writing. Thanks for the inspiration.


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