Feeling the Burn: PCT Days 80-83

Day 80.  Miles: 14.3  Total: 1277.8

Quincy is a hiker-friendly town. In the morning, I pick up my package at the post office (this time, REI actually sent me a sleeping pad, not a spork), and then I walk over to the local toy store. Like a Starbucks in a Barnes and Noble, this toy store has an ice cream shop inside. PCT hikers get a free cone. I feel like I should support the business in some way, but as much as I would love to buy a puzzle or some DnD dice, I’m not about to add unnecessary items to my pack. Instead, I settle for dropping a few dollars in the tip jar and step outside with my cone. I chose peach, and it’s delicious. The temperature has already surpassed 90° outside, so I race to finish before it melts.
Back on trail, I leapfrog with an unfamiliar group of hikers. At a water source, we pause to chat, and they explain that they’re getting off trail in Belden tomorrow and skipping up to Old Station to avoid the Dixie burn scar. I hadn’t realized that hikers were doing this. I check the PCTA website to see if the trail is actually closed. It’s not, but the PCTA lists the potential hazards of burn zones (falling trees, unstable soil, sun exposure) and notes that hikers may choose to skip this area “for safety or aesthetic reasons.”
The weather forecast is good. Hot, but no wind or rain to make the region especially hazardous. I resolve to continue as planned. I haven’t missed any trail yet, and for now I still cling to the hope that 2022 will be a rare year when it’s possible to hike the full length of the PCT.
Wild Card passes me, but when I reach the campsite where we planned to stop, he isn’t there. I set up anyway. The trees are burnt here, but only their bases, with living green branches still growing in the canopy. I would probably hike on if it was windy, but the evening is perfectly still. Leaky arrives, and we chat for a few minutes. Then she proceeds into the dark to find her husband, wherever he is up ahead.
I use my new sleeping pad for the first time. I’ve already gotten out of the habit of blowing up an inflatable pad in the evening, and it feels like a chore. But the NeoAir is comfortable. It has that crinkly-potato-chip-bag noisiness of a new inflatable pad, but I sleep soundly anyway.

Day 81. Miles: 20.4 Total: 1298.2

Most of the trail is burned today. It’s an easy downhill into Belden, where I sit outside the store until it opens at 10am. The owner is there alone. He explains that his staff is all out with Covid. Since my own bout with coronavirus, I’d mostly been able to ignore it again, but this is a reminder that it’s still here.
I eat two ice cream sandwiches and then start up the infamous climb. It’s nearly noon. Not an ideal time to start a notoriously long, exposed uphill, but I don’t want to wait around until evening.
The climb isn’t really that bad. I use my umbrella for the first time in weeks, and within a couple hours, I reach a small oasis: a cold, clear creek called Rattlesnake Spring running through a patch of shady, unburnt woods. I drop my pack and stretch out on my Z-lite to rest. Wild Card is already here, and Leaky arrives just a few minutes after me. We wait out the hottest part of the afternoon and then keep going, over half the climb still remaining.
I take another break and both Wild Card and Leaky get ahead. When it’s near sunset and I’m feeling tired, I decide to stop on my own when I find a safe place. This area is mostly burnt, the trees black and white, the ground soft and ashy. The whole charred forest feels like it could blow over at the slightest breeze.
Then, as I near the end of the climb, I cross a wide, green meadow. A metal sign declares that this is boundary between the Sierra and the Cascades. Off to the side of the trail, I see a flat spot beside a boulder. Too small for my tent, but I could cowboy there, safe from the unstable woods nearby. I only cowboy camped alone a couple of times back in the desert. I’ve never done it in bear country. But the mosquitos don’t seem too bad, and I figure a bear is unlikely to be wandering the inhospitable burn zone. I lay out my sleeping pads and go to bed.

Day 82. Miles: 29.8 Total: 1328.0

The mosquitos got worse throughout the night. My right forearm, the part of me that guarded the air hole into my sleeping bag, is now covered in bites. I did not sleep well, and I am up hiking early. Two miles past my campsite, I pass Wild Card and Leaky as they’re packing up.
I still love hiking early in the morning. After the huge climb out of Belden yesterday, the trail rolls along much more gently now, and I make good time. At the first water source, I talk briefly to Leaky, but then she’s off again, hiking quickly.
At lunch, Wild Card passes me and explains that they intend to do their first 30-mile day today and hike all the way to Chester. I briefly consider trying to do the same thing, but for me, starting two miles south of them, a 32-mile day feels a little out of reach. But I resolve to go as far as I can, maybe breaking 30 myself and doing a nearo in and out of Chester tomorrow.
The miles accumulate throughout the afternoon. Twenty, then a marathon. Can I hike thirty miles? I’ve done a few marathon days now. My biggest day was the aqueduct day, 27.4. Thirty isn’t that much farther. I’m almost to the halfway point of the trail.
I’m going to do it, I decide. There’s a campsite at Soldier Creek, around 30 miles from where I started. All the gentle ridge-walking today meant I twice had to walk .3 miles downhill to off-trail water sources, adding more to my daily total. My Garmin watch inches toward 30.
I take photos at the halfway monument. I’ve seen almost no one today– it seems a lot of hikers are skipping the burn– but the logbook reveals that a dozen people were ahead of me today, and the Second Breakfast Club was here yesterday. Halfway there.
I don’t linger long. I have a 30-mile day to finish. Wait. Not thirty, I realize. With my water detours, it’s going to be just over 31. Fifty kilometers. I’m going to be an ultra-marathoner, I realize with a warm glow of pride. The slowest ultra-marathoner, of course– I’m on track to finish in nearly 15 hours– but the last place finisher in an ultra still did an ultra, right?
I reach 50k and save the workout on my Garmin. The watch is at 1% battery, and it promptly dies before I actually stop to camp ten minutes later. It’s nearly dark. I set up my tent in dusty, charred dirt. The trees around me are burnt to a crisp, but there’s a corridor of private land from here until Chester, so this is my only camping option. It’s a warm, quiet night, and hopefully it will stay that way. I’m too tired to blow up my NeoAir, so I go straight to sleep on my foam mat alone.

Day 83.  Miles: 12.7  Total: 1340.7

After a restless night, full of dreams of burnt trees falling, I wake and pack up hastily, eager to be clear of the eerie blackened forest. It’s only a couple miles to the road.
Chester has the best type of laundromat: the kind with a shower facility. Even better, it’s got a restaurant across the street with milkshakes you can order in regular or “jumbo.” Naturally, I go for jumbo.
The grocery store is just down the road. Because of how convenient everything is, it only takes a few hours to complete all my town chores, and I’m ready to hitch back to the trail with Wild Card and Leaky after lunch. A couple of young women are offering trail magic at the road crossing, so I eat some fresh fruit and drink a beer. While we’re there, Rookie arrives. I haven’t seen him since Truckee, and we spend a few minutes catching up before he seeks a ride into town and I start hiking again.
Once again, the forest is badly burnt. Not just the superficial evidence of a brushfire that sweeps through the understory– the natural, healthy sort of wildfire that allows growth and renewal. No, this was a catastrophic fire, one of the largest in California history. These intense, destructive fires are increasingly common for numerous interconnected reasons. When decades of fire suppression practices that allowed for unnaturally dense forests are combined with changing climate patterns trending toward extreme heat and drought, the result is a tinderbox. These woods are ready to ignite at the first lightning strike or mismanaged campfire.
I’m glad I didn’t skip the burn. At times, it is ugly. It’s certainly dirty, with sooty black soil coating our sweaty skin. Each time we clamber over downed trees, we get black smears on our calves and hands. I look like a chimney sweep by the end of the day. But mostly, it’s sad. When I think about the towering green forests between Tahoe and Truckee, coated in moss and surrounded by berry bushes and ferns, it’s heartbreaking to see this forest barren and dead.
Obviously, hike your own hike– there are plenty of good reasons to skip the burn. If the forecast had called for rain or wind, I likely would have skipped it myself. But at the same time, I feel like for me, it’s been important to see this destruction. To look at it, witness it, get it beneath my fingernails. The problems won’t be fixed by looking away, by simply choosing to recreate in the forests that are still beautiful.
As an East Coaster largely unaffected by wildfire, the recent surge in fires felt mostly abstract to me. When I moved out west in 2020, the situation became somewhat more real. Sometimes the air is hazy with smoke, and sometimes travel plans are disrupted because highways are closed while fires rage. But being here, living on the trail in this dusty skeleton of a forest, the reality is unavoidable. I always thought I was doing enough– I heed campfire bans, drive a small, fuel-efficient vehicle, and vote for politicians who support forest service budgets and investment in clean energy– but being here makes me wonder, how can I do more? For now, I take a baby step. I’ve done quick in-and-out town stops in Chester and (later) Dunsmuir, so I take the money I would have budgeted for motels and donate it to wildfire relief efforts. After some Googling for reputable organizations, I choose the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the California Fire Foundation. My donation is only a tiny drop in the bucket, but I probably wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t hiked through this burn. For that reason, I hope other people continue to visit and hike in these wildfire scars. Maybe by witnessing this destruction, we can work toward the small personal and large institutional changes necessary to prevent these disasters.
But that’s not the only reason I hope people visit the burns. The other reason is to see how much they’re already recovering. I’m glad I didn’t skip the burns for “aesthetic reasons” because in some ways, these woods are already alive and beautiful again.
I see a lot of people in my generation and younger expressing anxiety and even despair about the climate. We have plenty of reasons to worry, but walking through the burns has also been a reminder of nature’s incredible resilience. Fires like the Dixie fire are too big, too powerful, made by too much heat and too-dense fuel, but some amount of wildfire is natural. The forest knows how to heal. It will take time, but this area is not doomed to be charred and dead forever.

This sign, describing different methods of wildfire prevention, now sits at the edge of the huge Dixie burn scar.

So I appreciate the Dixie burn as a call to action, but also as a spark (too soon?) of hope. Future PCT hikers, please always hike your own hike and prioritize your safety. But if the weather is good and the winds are calm? I recommend you hike the burns.

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Comments 3

  • Michael Lewallen : Aug 17th

    I enjoy your writing and especially liked your thoughts on the Dixie fire and what we can do to mitigate these in the future.

    Be safe and enjoy.

  • P : Aug 17th

    Hey, Sib!

    I’ve been following and enjoying your posts–especially your most recent one on hiking through the Dixie Fire scar. The points you make– about fire being part of the western US environment for thousands of years, how destructive it is, yet how durable and re-boundable the forest remains –struck home. We need to admit that we’ve lost the battle against wildfires and must find better ways to live with them. HYOH, but if at all possible do see the fire scars as well as the hope they generate. It’s part of the journey.

    Living near the Dixie Fire as well as the tragic 2018 Camp Fire and serving on a team that locates, recovers and identifies the fatalities, it’s important to realize how devastating and lethal wildfires can be, consider our own culpability in causing them, and ponder how we can do better to live with them. BTW, we’ve hosted hikers at Humboldt Summit (NOBO 1312) for the last 13 years, this year on July 15-16. I’m sorry we weren’t there when you passed through to toast you and your amazing accomplishments!

    Thanks for taking us along!

  • Brock : Aug 28th

    Agreed. Thanks for taking us along. I loved this post for three reasons…

    Lots of ice cream photos. In the pantheon of great food, ice cream is right up there; in the same league as pesto, tapenade and hummus.

    Generosity. I too can’t accept something for free and then walk away. If I get 1 for free, I’ll leave 2 due to some ingrained need for giving and fairness.

    “Important to see the destruction.” I’ll send PCTA a note to add your post below their aesthetic/safety warning in the burn areas. It’s time to bring the problem of carbon footprint and global warming home.



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