Walking through a NorCal burn zone
I’m taking a break from my chronological blogging to write a bit about the burn zones in Northern California. I spent much of last week walking through two massive burn zones, from the 2020 Bear Fire and the 2021 Dixie Fire. Walking through the destruction of a wildfire is not something I ever imagined I would do and I found myself full of thoughts and emotions that I hadn’t really expected. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of these fires, especially the Dixie Fire. It affected almost a million acres of land, which sounds like a lot, but that number feels so much more real after having spent 100 miles walking through it.
To skip or not to skip
A lot of hikers are choosing to skip over this section because it’s difficult and potentially a little dangerous. I actually didn’t know that people were doing this, because the Dixie Fire was only last year and there is no precedent. It was only after we passed Old Station and exited the burn area that I realised I was probably in the minority of hikers who had pushed on through.
However, I’m glad I did so and if I could go back knowing that people were skipping and decide again, I would still choose to hike it. For me, this hike is about experiencing nature in all its forms, the good and bad, and the reality of our planet today is that a lot of nature has been changed and is being damaged by the climate crisis. Choosing not to hike it would feel like turning a blind eye to how things really are in 2022.
Physically hard, mentally hard, emotionally hard
I won’t deny though that this was a difficult section, and I respect that the right decision for other people may be a different one. Walking through charred forests presents all sorts of physical challenges: there’s almost no shade to be found, which makes the already hot NorCal days hotter; the ash gets in your nose and mouth and makes you crazy thirsty; every part of your body gets filthy within minutes. Mentally it’s harder too, with unchanging landscapes causing boredom to set in. But for me, the hardest part was the emotional toll.
It was difficult to walk through these areas and think about everything that’s been lost. We passed the midpoint on the 12th of July and took pictures to post on our Instagrams, but the reality is that everything around that midpoint was burnt. The only reason it was still there, is because it’s made of stone and not wood. The trees around it were all burnt to a crisp.
The day before that, after a 14 mile climb through a burn zone, I reached the top of a hill to look over into the next valley and saw only burnt trees stretching to the horizon. I stood on top of the hill and cried.
During these days, I was reminded over and over again why this hike quickly went from being a dream that I wanted to complete “someday” to a dream I am completing today. Last year, as I watched wildfires rage across Northern California, I knew that I was running out of time. The climate surrounding the PCT is one in crisis and it is unclear how much longer thru-hiking this trail will even be possible.
Tackling climate despair
I am so grateful for the hundreds of miles that I have been able to walk through beautiful, untouched landscapes. They have made every second of walking through blackened forests worth it. But as I walked, all I could think about was how uncertain my future is, how uncertain all of our futures are, and it was hard not to feel depressed.
However, I wanted to write about this not just to express how upsetting I find it, but because I am a firm believer that climate despair helps nobody. Sure, it’s great when people truly realise how urgent the situation is, but often the despair is what causes people not to act. When we declare that our planet is doomed, it feels like there is nothing that can be done and we might as well all give up trying. This inaction and desensitisation is often referred to by climate activists as “climate nihilism”.
There are loads of great resources out there to help overcome this despair, but my personal favourite is the podcast How to Save a Planet, which actually has an episode specifically about wildfires. I would highly recommend listening to this episode for any hikers walking through these burn zones and struggling to comprehend how this could happen. The podcast as a whole is a great way to learn more about the climate crisis and what needs to be done to slow its effects. Plus if, like me, you suffer from feelings of gloom and uncertainty about your future, it might leave you feeling a little bit more optimistic than before.
It felt important to me to share these thoughts because the experience of hiking through these burn zones was powerful and moving; possibly more so than anything else on this hike. It made me sad but it also made me feel inspired to do more. It helped me realise the one greatest lesson I have learnt over the last 3 months of living outdoors: there is so much in this world worth saving.
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