Episode 13: Oregon-bound
Mt Shasta to Ashland (mile 1716)
After stocking up on our power crystals in Mt. Shasta, we returned to the trail in the evening. We’ve discovered that unless we leave a town first thing in the morning, we end up getting out later in the evening. We’re getting to the point of the summer where the noonday sun is sweltering – and there’s nowhere quite as hot as the scorched pavement of town, baking our feet and reflecting the sun back on us, making us re-think getting on trail at noon.
Eventually, we made our way back to the trail and started up the usual climb out of town by late afternoon. Coming out of Mount Shasta, we hiked with Sneaky Elf for a while – a section hiker making up some trail she didn’t get to on her 2014 thru-hike. It was convenient because we’re kind of moving a section hiker pace right now, letting our mornings stretch out and enjoying our days at a pretty leisurely pace. Lately, it’s just felt too hot to go fast.
With the Midsummer heat, the forest seems to be coming fully alive. Every day a parade of animal life entertains us. We’ve seen several bears now, always in full flight mode. They seem to be even more skittish than the black bears we’ve seen on the East Coast, if that’s possible, but they are definitely not stealthier. We’re usually alerted to their presence by the loud crashing sound created by a furry bear butt tumbling away, knocking over dead trees and flattening any undergrowth in its wake. It’s like watching a massive bowling ball take down half the forest.
This panic among the bears does not seem to be trickling down to the deer, who are about as friendly and distracting as untrained golden retrievers. We frequently find deer standing, sitting, or sleeping on the trail. They let us know their concern usually by slowly standing, taking a few tentative steps uphill, and sticking their head behind a bush. Looking up at their fully visible deer body about ten feet away, we’re never quite sure if they think they’re hiding from us or if they just aren’t feeling social at the moment. When they are feeling social, after all, they stick their heads under hikers’ rain flies and look for something salty to chew on, like trekking poles. Hikers have been electing to take their packs and poles into their tent with them lately since they’ve been waking up with distressingly soggy gear.
In their defense, most hikers are basically human salt licks by this point. Walking through patches of sun in the dry, dusty air is like walking into a furnace, and our hiking clothes can pretty much stand up by themselves now. The other day a hiker named Mountain Dew asked us if we had trouble with rats chewing holes through our shirts, which is exactly the kind of question that we feel validates the extra effort we put into pitching our tent each night. A lot of people are cowboy camping now, but we’d rather force tent stakes in than meet these Orwellian evening intruders.
Then there’s the grouse, who are as fearful as the bears but seem to have learned their escape tactics from the deer. They waddle ahead of us on the trail for sometimes up to a quarter mile, flapping and clucking their displeasure. They must think by now that we’re really bad hunters, since we give up the chase immediately when they veer into the surrounding brush.
My favorite animals might be the cows. As we head through the pastoral country of Northern California, our hike is often accompanied by a soundtrack of cow bells clanking all around us. The cows are an almost ethereal force; we hear them everywhere (and our shoes find plenty of evidence of them on the trail) but we rarely ever see them. One morning last week, we were the last people to leave our campsite. We spread all of our gear out and made coffee by the water source while we listened to the clanking of the cow bells. Then we noticed it seemed to be getting louder and louder. Suddenly, a huge group of cows broke through the trees near us, headed for the water. Level headed as always, I yelled, “Stampede!” And started to pack up our gear as fast as I could, unable to ignore the mental image of it being trampled by mindless bovines. Little Spoon was a big help, taking lots of pictures and laughing at both me and the cows. The cows, in the meantime, stopped short when they saw us. They stared at us for about two full minutes – a small biped jumping around and making high-pitched noises and a large biped who stood still and pointed a black box at them. Then they seemed to come to an agreement that it was too much trouble to get water today. In short, it was our liveliest water break yet.
Still, the most abundant animal life so far remains human. Hikers, racing along the trail, passing each other back and forth. When we sit down to take a break, dirt-stained calves step over us. At night, colorful tents rise up and dot the flat spaces, sometimes forcing us to walk an extra five or more miles to find a free space. In town, bands of backpacks and colorful gaiters parade by. We have stepped over sleeping hikers in the trail, dug up other peoples’ cat holes, and heard the march of trail runners in our sleep, walking by in search of flat ground. As the bubble swallows us whole, the trail is becoming a circus.
It sounds like a complaint, and in a way it is. After all, hikers come to the PCT for solitude, for a conversation with nature. But at the same time, these hikers are company we didn’t realize that we were craving. We meet new faces every day now, bounce back and forth with familiar faces, and feel fully in tune to the trail rumors that bounce up and down the trail, magnifying with each new voice. What is on fire? Who has gotten off trail? Where is there trail magic? Is Oregon flat?
By the time we reached Etna, we were glad to see a familiar face: Bivvy, who had zeroed there and waited for us. Etna was a cool little hiker town, and we were there for beautiful weather. The night was so gorgeous, in fact, that I decided to walk across the cool green grass of the RV park barefoot. Staring up at the stars, the way lit by moonlight, the breeze finally relenting to coolness, I walked straight into a patch of cactus burrs. Unfortunately, it was too late to go back by the time I realized what was happening, so I hobbled forward over them to the safety of the grass on the other side. Etna was great, but it’s marked in my memory by the half day I spent soaking my foot and digging out thorns. Fortunately, Ice Man (the younger) gave me his tweezers and we eventually made it out of Etna.
Two and a half days later, we were descending again into Seiad Valley, and ran into Ice Man (the younger) talking to Ice Man (the older). It was their first meeting and they were discussing how they got their names. Ice Man (the older) told a long story about his days working in a research laboratory in the North Pole and his harrowing sailing trip to the Australian Arctic. Then Ice Man (the younger) had to say, “….I was laid up with an ice bag on my leg.” The origins of trail names are all over the map.
While in Seiad Valley, we got an earful about the State of Jefferson secession movement, which was interesting to say the least. It also meant that, unbeknownst to us, we already passed into our second state of the trip. We plan to let the State of Jefferson rebels know at a later date that a border sign on the PCT would be a really big pick-me-up to hikers feeling fatigued by California’s length.
We’d been hearing about how bad the climb out of Seiad Valley was for miles, but even in the midday heat, it wasn’t that bad. Exposed, but pretty well graded. Lately, everything seems to be exposed, though. We’ve walked through a dozen forest fires in the past couple hundred miles, and we’re moving steadily towards an active one. Crater Lake, the jewel of Oregon, is on fire and thru-hikers are pretty nervous about the closure. We seem to have a guardian trail angel, though, since it re-opened just after we crossed the Oregon border.
I have to admit, there were days where I worried we wouldn’t get to the Oregon border, as if we were going to reach it and the trail would just revert to Campo, CA like an old twilight zone episode. The California section of trail is almost 1700 miles long, which on the AT would have put us in Vermont by now. The desert was both hot and frigid; the Sierra Nevada range was brutal and intimidating; and the Yosemite range was buggy and rough – but none of these setbacks can compare to the mental struggle of working towards a goal that seems to never arrive. It’s unfair to call Northern California banal, because it had gorgeous views and beautiful weather, but maybe that was part of the problem – at times, there seemed to be no distinction between one day and another, the scenery melted and flowed like a river without change, without either great difficulty or great excitement to make it dynamic.
As if in answer to this craving we had for change, we heard the low rumbles of thunder on our final day in Northern California. We haven’t seen precipitation since the storms in the Sierra Nevada, but as we left the sunshine state behind, fat drops of rain sought our arms and legs. We raced ahead, breathless and excited because something was happening. We were being chased into Oregon by the state that had coddled and supported us for months. When we got to the border, we stopped and stared at the black clouds gathering. On one side of the ridge sat California; on the other side, Oregon. Then, a dozen people caught us and came rushing over the border. We made a human tunnel for hikers to run through, raising our arms above us and screaming, “Welcome to Oregon!”
Our first sunset in Oregon was stunning. Red painted the sky dramatically, catching on the diminishing clouds. The storm broke up after we entered our second state and son stars appeared in a clear sky above us. The next morning, we woke up before sunrise and walked the first few miles in the glow of the day’s potential. By midday, we hit Ashland – and passed about twenty day hikers, twenty two dogs, and at least ten Subarus. Apparently, it was a Saturday.
And that brings us to Ashland, the home of hikers, nature lovers, and breweries which will fill your platypus with beer:
We’re counting down now. With less than 1000 miles to go and all of Oregon in front of us, we’re ready to get excited again about this adventure.
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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