Ore-Gone But Not Forgotten: Skipping Around Fires and my 50 Mile Day
Well, that’s depressing. I just calculated how many miles I’ve actually hiked versus how many I have had to skip (below). While I knew the general ballpark it’s painful to see it written out. It has been tough to get any momentum since my last post, there have been a lot of stops and starts and energy focused on logistics. I’ve taken more days off in these past 2 weeks than I intended to take off the whole trail!
We made it to Oregon with all smiles, having completed 505 continuous miles from the Canadian border. The first fire closure was about 50 miles in to Oregon, for a section of about 100 miles. We made it to the town of Government Camp via Timberline Lodge and skipped down to Bend where we took a couple days off to recharge and got back on at Santiam Pass. Even though I knew there would be fire closures to skip, actually coming back to the trail at a different spot and knowing the trail mile marker was not our actual miles definitely took a toll on my morale.
If I thought I was bummed out then, fast forward a few days and we got the news that all of Northern California from the border to Sonora Pass was closed, a 600+ mile section of trail bigger than the states of Oregon or Washington.
The section from Santiam Pass to Diamond Lake Lodge was a great stretch. Dabbles got back on trail a day before me from Bend, so I did a lot of this stretch solo, but I knew I’d be able to catch him with some big days. The terrain in this area was relatively flat and dispersed throughout this part are a couple lakeside resorts with 1-2 mile side trails from the PCT. Perfectly placed for finishing a long day with a burger and beer. I had one really beautiful, clear, smokeless day in this section and I could see why some people really love and rave about the Oregon section of PCT.
If you’ve been following along since my intro post, you’ll know that a big reason why I came out to the trail was because my mom died and I’ve been having a tough time handling it. As the 1-year mark approached I thought about how I wanted to spend the unfortunate anniversary, knowing that I would struggle with a lot of emotions on that day. I didn’t really want to be in a town or around a lot of people, so I settled on the idea of doing something physically challenging and trying to do my highest milage day ever – I decided I would try to hike 50 miles.
The night before, I made it to one of the rare shelters on the PCT. It’s a really cute building the local ski club maintains that even has solar-powered lights. When I got there, there was one other hiker staying the night, a north bound girl named AWOL. She instantly offered me tea and we chatted over dinner about what was coming up in either direction. I apologized because I knew I was going to be getting up super early and didn’t want to wake her. She said she was also going to try to do a 50-mile day, so the early wake up was welcome. 4:00am came fast. We packed up our things in the luxurious solar-powered light, got our headlamps on, and headed out into the early morning wishing each other luck. If all goes as planned, 24 hours later we’d be 100 miles away from each other.
I felt great. I had the early start I wanted and having slept in the shelter I was able to get everything together and even have a cup of tea before leaving. That mood was shattered before the sun even rose when I got to a ridge with cell service and saw a text from Dabbles that he was at the next campground/resort, Shelter Cove, coming up in 7 miles. He was going to quit the trail but would wait for me there to say goodbye before hitching out. I hadn’t planned on stopping at Shelter Cove, I had enough food to get to the next town and didn’t want to take a multi-hour break at the start of my big day. But my only friend was leaving the trail, and I couldn’t not say goodbye, right? Right.
I made the turn when I got to the side trail and headed down to Shelter Cove. Upon arrival I found Dabbles, got a breakfast burrito and orange soda, and met some other south bounders discussing how they were going to manage the northern California fire skip. It turns out Dabbles wasn’t as set on going home as I thought. His achilles were hurting him, but within an hour or so he was convinced to at least do the next section. By this point, with 2 hours lost and injuries on the table, I figured 50 miles was not in the cards.
I was pretty bummed for having given up on my goal so early and spent the afternoon trying to reflect on the last year and how to move forward. That was what was important to me that day regardless if I hiked 5 miles or 50. I couldn’t beat myself up too much, knowing that my mom would probably rather I be there for a friend than hike an arbitrarily high number of miles.
By 7:30/8ish every step was painful and I was almost relieved that I wasn’t going for 50 anymore. I figured I’d come around a corner and see Dabbles setting up camp. When I caught him, however, he asked how many more miles it would be for me to get to 50. We looked it up and it was 13, it would take 4-5 hours. I assured him that I was ok with stopping if he was hurting and I didn’t need to do 50 miles. He assured me that he wasn’t in too much pain if he was moving, and that we could do it. Ok! Game back on.
The next few hours were hard and I felt a bit disoriented focusing so long on the dim oval of red light coming from my headlamp. I couldn’t really tell if I was going up, down, or flat and time stretched waaayy out. My feet however got a second wind and the pain from earlier had subsided. There was a full moon that was both spooky and helped light up the landscape. Dabbles was ahead of me but every now and then when I looked up I could see the light from his headlamp bobbing along in the distance which gave me reassurance that I was, in fact, actually still on the trail that I could barely see.
Around 12:15am, when I was pretty sure we must be getting close I finally checked Guthook (the map app) for the first time in hours. When I saw there was still a mile to go I think I actually groaned “noooo” out loud. I decided I could listen to a podcast to help me through the last mile, I hadn’t been listening to anything since the afternoon. I looked at my list of downloaded Moth episodes. One was quite fittingly titled “Help Me” so I put that on. I forget what the first story was, but when the second one started it got my attention right away; “It took 326 strangers to help me get over the death of my mother…”
It was a beautiful story about a man whose family goes through the diagnosis and eventual death of his mother from cancer and how he and his family got involved with Relay for Life, an organization that raises money for cancer research, and how that helped him cope. Relay for Life also happens to be an event/organization that my family has participated in over the years, long before mom got sick. I couldn’t believe that that story came on in that moment. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, or perhaps mom chose that story to let me know she was with me for that last stretch. The story ended, seconds later I came around a corner and saw Dabbles’ red light and he exclaims “Yayyy! Sparky! You did it!”
It felt good to finally be done with the day. It felt really good to complete the physical challenge I had been thinking about for weeks. I set up my tent, shoved an Almond Joy in my mouth, and tried to crash. The shooting pain from blood returning to the feet I had just stomped on 100,000 times over 20 hours barely even registered.
The stars really did align for that day to go as well as it did. The early start from the shelter, the good weather, the full moon, even the side trail to go to Shelter Cove was the perfect length so that my total milage would be exactly 50 when we hit the campsite where we stopped. I also know that mom would have hated me doing that night hike alone, so the fact that I had Dabbles with me to push me on past sunset and keep me company was huge.
The next day we woke up late and hiked 18 miles to a highway to hitch to Diamond Lake Lodge where we’d take at least a day off as we figured out what to do with the upcoming smoke and fires. We ate dinner at the lodge set right on a lake that we couldn’t see with all the smoke that had rolled in. The question of the evening was whether to get back on trail where we hitched off and hike to Ashland, or to skip the rest of Oregon and do the Northern California skip and restart at the Sierra. Between my smoke-induced headaches and aggravated asthma I already knew what the best decision for me would be, I just had to accept it.
Letting go of the idea of thru-hiking the way I wanted to is difficult. I wanted to hike around Crater Lake, I wanted to finish Oregon, I didn’t want to skip single mile! However, when it comes down to it, the options were to skip the smoke or to hike through it. It’s not worth it to me to hike through days of smoke just to not see anything just so that I could say I did it. I’ve thru-hiked before and I don’t need prove to myself or anyone else that I’m capable of distance or difficulty. Shit, I’m out here because I’m trying to recover from my mom dying due to the inhalation of toxic smoke. The irony of being out here breathing smoke every day is not lost on me, and pushing on through it for no real reason seems irresponsible.
We hitched to the Medford/Ashland area the following afternoon. My family was all beyond supportive of me skipping that last smoky section of Oregon. What felt like a big and tough decision the day before suddenly seemed obvious. We took the next few days off to see if Dabbles’ achilles would get better and figure out how to get to Sonora Pass. We decided to rent a car and drive down to my aunt’s house a bit east of San Francisco. From there, he could theoretically fly home from a bigger airport or join me when my aunt brings me to the trailhead.
Ultimately, his achilles did not get better, so he flew out a few days ago. I head back to the trail alone tomorrow. While I’m sad Dabbles is gone, I am confident that I’ll make friends fast with so many other southbounders having to restart at the same place. Until then, I plan to spend one more evening watching chick flicks and drinking wine with my aunt and not thinking one bit about the trail or smoke.
Day 28 – 32 miles
Day 29 – 17 miles – to Timberline Lodge/Government Camp
Day 30 – 0 miles – Bend – skipping around fire closure
Day 31 – 0 miles – Bend – skipping around fire closure
Day 32 – 18.5 miles – Restart at Santium Pass
Day 33 – 31 miles
Day 34 – 38.5 miles
Day 35 – 50 miles
Day 36 – 18 miles to Diamond Lake Lodge
Day 37 – 0 miles – hitch to Medford – skipping around smoke
Day 38 & 39 – 0 miles – Ashland and Medford – determining how to skip Northern California closure
Day 40 – 0 miles – Rented a car to drive from Medford to Fairfield, CA
Day 41, 42, 43 – 0 miles – Hanging with my aunt in CA
Miles hiked: 710
Trail mile when I restart at Sonora Pass: 1636
Miles skipped: 926
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