The One About NorCal
Paralyzed by fear and to scared to move I sat hunched down on my toes with my arms over my head.
And just like that – we had finished the Sierras and entered Northern California. This section was tough for me. Not physically, but mentally. I struggled the hardest here, by far. The trail felt empty. Burnt. And dead. It was hot. And the views didn’t really compensate for the hardship.
Summer was here in full force
The sun was ruthless and shade hard to find. We sent away all of our snow gear, so our packs were lighter but the miles longer. From doing about 12 miles in the Sierras to aiming for more than the double – was tough. And from having water everywhere, we now had to get used to the longer water carries again. It felt like we had entered the desert, a place I gladly thought we had left behind us.
But there were nice moments as well. Of course. Even in the burnt areas where no birds sang and the mighty forest was turned into a graveyard. It was harder to find the beauty around me. But if I looked closely, it was there. In the black ash underneath my feet, flower had started to grow. And butterflies. Hundreds of them. Tiny, tiny ones with wings the color of the sky. On the blackened skeletons from what had once been trees, white mushrooms grew. It almost looked like they were bedazzled with diamonds from afar. I spent a lot of time thinking if they had been there before the fire or if they grew from ash.
It was also in NorCal I met people
Which I didn’t know then, but I would spend a lot of the remaining time on the PCT with. I came upon Sunflower, who was playing his ukulele on top of a ridge. Olaf, who devoured a hamburger in Sierra city. Coach and Snooze drinking beer in a bar. Steamy swimming in a lake. And many, many more. But I also spent a lot of time alone. Hiking and camping and eating. It was good, but I also started to realize how much I missed the social aspect of the hike. And how big of a role it played for me actually enjoying the journey. Luckily, I was leapfrogging most of the time with Guardian. It felt nice having someone I knew and trusted not more than a few hours either ahead or behind me.
I was hiking in a dress that I would never wear in normal life back home. It felt very freeing. It was so dirty and broken, and from the moment I bought it in a thrift store I didn’t take it off until a month later. I slept, hiked and swam in it. The summer nights were warm, and most of the time I just slept with my sleeping bag liner. I took every chance I had to swim and pack out healthier but heavier food. Me and Guardian both listened to The Hunger Games audiobooks, and we got so hungry from all the descriptions of food from the Capitol that we had a feast one night. Fresh bread, cream cheese, berries and fruits. Wow. Food never tastes as good as it does in the mountains.
One night coming into a small hippie village called Belden, we got invited to a rave. We went in our trail runners, dirty and smelly from the previous hot days. We danced and then hiked out into the night. Climbing out from the valley under the moonshine we could hear the music for a long time, pulsating out in the dark. The next morning was hard, being hangover and having to hike during the most gruesome hours of the day, but it was so worth it.
We finally reached the halfway point and cracked lukewarm beers to celebrate. I was so happy. And sad. This also meant everything was soon coming to an end. And I didn’t want it to end. Couldn’t imagine it. But after this point the landscape slowly changed.
The forest became more alive. For many days before, it had felt like we hiked through Mirkwood in Middle earth. The forest felt old and sick and there was not a lot of sunlight reaching the ground. Spiderwebs were growing everywhere and I didn’t see that many animals. But now the air felt cleaner and the views were greater. I got a new dress from a sweet old lady that gave me a ride, and I felt super hippie.
The night I thought I would die
Then the night of the lightning and the fire came. I was camping alone on a mountain just before Seiad Valley. Completely exhausted from the long day of hiking, I couldn’t be bothered to pitch my tent, so I decided to cowboy camp. I woke up at midnight by thunder in the distance. But because we had been so blessed so far on the PCT with good weather, I didn’t pitch my tent. I fell back to sleep just to be woken up by lightning all around me. It felt like I was caught in the middle of a war zone.
The lightning crashed down around me and made the ground shake. Paralyzed by fear and too scared to move, I sat hunched down on my toes with my arms over my head. Shaking. Suddenly the lightning strikes a tree not far away from me and it starts to burn inside the trunk. I know the rain will come so I scream to myself, “Pitch your tent Sara, you need to pitch your tent.” In the last second, I manage to get it up and throw in my sleeping bag before the heavy rain arrives. I notice the water takes out the fire and I lay in fetal position on top of my sleeping pad, unable to fall asleep until the thunder moves on.
The fire and the smoke
The next day is hot. More than a 100 degrees (41 degrees Celsius), and I still feel shaken from the night before. I come into Seiad Valley, and we decide together to hike out the same evening. Climbing out from the valley I start to smell smoke. On the other side I can see a big forest fire burning, not far away from where I camped the previous night. Being from Sweden, I have never seen a forest fire before, and at first I was almost amazed. But the amazement fast turned into fear when we awake the next morning surrounded by smoke. My throat hurts and my eyes water. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but I feel a bit nauseous and out of breath.
We make a decision to keep hiking and the smoke slowly gets better throughout the day, and I felt like we made the right choice. We meet a fireman that tells us that the fire was started by the lightning storm that happened during the night I camped alone. He shows me a map of all the places lightning struck and I point where I camped. In the middle of it all. To this day I still think that’s the most dangerous situation I happened upon during my six-month adventure in the US.
Last days in California
The last few remaining days in California were spent in smoke. I underestimate the heat and don’t bring enough water a few stretches which makes me dizzy and very dehydrated. One day I didn’t pee for almost 24 hours – not good.
And then just like that – we reach the border to Oregon. The four months hiking in California comes to an end. It feels cool to have been able to have a continuous footpath in a year where most people didn’t. And how lucky we were to just have made it through the fire closure. We spend a few hours at the border – me, Sunflower and Guardian, cheering with whiskey and eating lunch. And then we take the first steps into the green state, with newly gained motivation that we made it this far.
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