Week 11: Blisters! Belden! Burns! (Miles 1209.2 – 1400.1)
Quickly Moving Slowly Along
After the climb out of Sierra City, the trail was California coasting: Reasonable ascents and descents, good honest hiking. It’d be easy to say on the eleventh week of the hike I became invincible. It was mid-July and the days were endless streams of sunlight. The steep climbs up to ridgewalks were gently flattened by seasoned legs. The excitement of the upcoming halfway point quickened my steps. I hiked nearly 200 miles this week, averaging 27.27 miles per day and still having time to make coffee in the mornings. The temperature reached the high nineties and low hundreds every afternoon but I just dripped sweat and hiked on, getting a sick pleasure out of the excessive expenditure of energy transpiring on high ridges in glorious places: This was what I had imagined the PCT would be.
Trouble with Gear, Among Other Issues
Though I’d like to paint the week as one of power and persistence, it was quite rough.
My trail runners, which I’d gotten in Lone Pine, were fucking over it. I felt every rock deep within my soles. There were holes in the mesh on the inside and outside of the toes, which meant I was stopping every few miles to empty whole-ass ecosystems back onto the trail. My feet, though not visibly swollen, were trying to escape the size 8s they’d been fine in for years, so I’d stopped wearing Darn Toughs altogether and was hiking in my Injini liners, which had quickly acquired multiple holes. All this had led to blisters, which pissed me off to no end. After hiking for two and a half months, was I really having to stop in the middle of the trail because of slightly raised pieces of skin on my tiniest toes? Were grains of sand going to be the end of me? I had a snazzy new pair of neon pink Cascadias in a size 8.5 waiting in Belden, just three days after Sierra City, but by the time I got there the damage had been done.
I was also having a hell of a time with my pack, previously denounced at length in my post from Week Seven. 4000 miles was its edge; it was having a breakdown. The back panel was peeling off; holes were forming. The mesh pockets had huge rips that made me the Gretel of Gear Loss. The right shoulder strap was hanging on by mere threads, detached from the pack body and pulling heavily on my right shoulder. It felt like I was getting consistently stabbed by a hot knife. To compensate, I pulled the hip belt tight as hell and started hiking with my right arm out of the strap like it was in a sling, neither of which were sustainable alterations. My back, probably because of the blisters, rotting shoes, and an ill-fitting pack (and, TBH, resulting stress), really hurt. I was fine hiking in a straight line on a manicured path but every time I bent down, reached up, or turned to the side, there was a jolt of searing pain. I, like the pack, was having a breakdown.
I didn’t want to shell out for another Hyperlite but there was no way I could keep hiking with this tattered bag. What to do? I’d used the same pack for years and had no idea what a suitable replacement would be. I suddenly found myself in the unenviable position of having to talk – excessively – about gear.
Ugh: Let’s Talk About Talking About Gear
Gear! We love to hate to love it. It’s the lifeline to capitalism that white Westerners need to survive in the backcountry. Fuck firestarters and goose down – give us a forty-minute conversation about Robic vs. Cordura to warm our cores and beat hypothermia.
But everyone hiking has, at some point, obtained gear. And honestly, the pre-hike gear acquisition period is exciting! It brings a hike from the theoretical realm of a dream to a tangible act you’re now equipped for and can actually do. Also, it’s the laziest way to convince yourself you’re preparing for this endeavor: Heading out on a shakedown hike on a rainy Saturday is hard; researching packs and quilts from the comfort of your couch is easy.
If people spent half as much time training physically and mentally for a long-distance hike as they do on comparative analyses of similar quilts, there probably wouldn’t be such a high dropout rate. But then there wouldn’t be so much great stuff on r/ULGearTrade! (That’s a joke. The people on that subreddit suck, specifically the person who got a second Duplex as a gift and is trying to resell it for $610.) Purchasing backpacking gear, particularly ultralight products from small companies, has become its own hobby, one that seems completely separate from backpacking itself. People engage in aspirational purchasing, accumulating sun hoodies and Dyneema accessories and doubles of single-wall tents (see above) which is ironic because the whole goal of backpacking is to realize how little you need. But this is a country where people save jeans they wore in college in the hopes that they…what? Have a nervous breakdown, stop eating, and return to the body shape they were when Adderall was a breakfast food? Americans are so fucked up.
My Gear Evolution
It was 2015 when I decided I liked backpacking enough to invest in gear. I did basic research and ended up with a Deuter 45+10 ActLite pack, a 20°F EMS sleeping bag, the Z-Lite Therma-Rest, and a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. All of these are solid gear choices, albeit not the lightest options. My pack wasn’t too heavy but it wasn’t ultralight; I didn’t even know that was a standard to which one should aspire. Gear was a means to an end, a way to facilitate my new hobby. Also, wasn’t one of the joys of the activity that you felt strong? The first solo backpacking trip I did was the Tour de Mont Blanc in Europe; I brought five novels with me (I read all of them). I felt fit as hell circumnavigating the tallest mountain in Europe with a heavy pack, hauling my life on my back. I felt safe knowing I had everything I needed with me.
As I got more into hiking, though, I quickly realized there was an entire world of gear. There was a competition of gear. More specifically, there was a competition of weight of gear. This isn’t to say lightweight gear is stupid; rather, I eagerly swapped out piece after piece. It’s the only time in my life I’ve gotten aroused by something getting smaller rather than larger. As my base weight and pack volume decreased, so too did my physical discomfort. My speed and enjoyment increased. I got really into it. I desecrated my gear with scissors and smugly weighed the tags I’d removed from my clothes. I bought a tarp. I went stoveless.
Then I found myself on the Arizona Trail in a snowstorm with NO PANTS and NO HOT FOOD and, more than anything, BORED. I had a small pack and a smaller chance of enjoying myself. I got a ride to the Flagstaff Goodwill, bought a book and a three-pound sweater that went down to my knees, resigning myself to having a good time and an average base weight.
Reasons I’ll never be a SUL beeatch: Love of colored pens, physical notebooks, and books on trail; a desire to wear more than one outfit for weeks on end; fear of cold; the need for hot coffee. Do I love gear and talking about gear? Abso-fucking-lutely. But I hope I’ve settled at the intersection between a reasonable amount of nerding out about the incredible lightness of fabrics and a logical analysis of personal needs, thus allowing for a comfortable, safe, and enjoyable on-trail experience.
Back to the Past Present
Anyway, I needed a backpack! I asked and I looked and I took advantage of the magical NorCal Verizon service to Google pack after pack after pack. I asked every hiker how they liked their pack, what other packs they’d used, and what they thought I should get. Almost everyone said to get a LiteAF pack, which is almost as expensive as a Hyperlite, takes three months to arrive, and whose main draw seems to be pretty colors. Cool, guys.
The night before Belden I was having A Bad Time. I’d decided not to go into Buck’s Lake with Quincy La Porte because…stupid? I’ll get into that momentarily but know that the image of my friend eating pizza in a town while I scrunched up beneath the few green trees at the end of the Bear Fire burn scar was depressing me. My pack was lying in the dirt with all my stupid snacks strewn on the floor. My shoulder hurt. My toes were somehow numb and throbbing at the same time. A mouse could have slipped through the hole in my shoe. A friend from home called when I was hunched over a stream, using a trekking pole to take the weight off my aching back as I tried to filter water from a busted Sawyer bag using one hand. I’d maintained a pretty damn high level of jolliness throughout the hike thus far but this moment was just too much. I started crying on the phone. I decided the pack was my albatross and had to go.
When I got to Belden (everything happened in Belden), I ordered a new pack to the post office in Dunsmuir, a Six Moon Designs Minimalist with running vest straps. I figured the vest and load lifters would give me better weight distribution, and an array of multi-sized pockets would allow me to store gear and snacks without stopping. I had extremely high hopes for this pack! I was still a week away from wearing it but the mere knowledge of a different pack seemed to take the weight off my shoulders. The joke, of course, was on me! See yet-unwritten blog posts from upcoming weeks for detailed diatribes about how much I detested this goddamn pack.
As indicated above, I’d also been having an ongoing existential crisis that centered around the number of towns the PCT goes through or near, my apparent inability to skip them, and a subsequent decision to go into fewer towns. I love town! Who doesn’t? When the trail is the default location, town becomes this exciting novelty. But hiking longer days meant I was hitting towns every three or so days; sometimes there were back-to-back town/restaurant situations. It was the Camino de California, town after town after town! I was hemorrhaging money on overpriced meals and shitty resupplies. I was losing time waiting for cars to pass to even begin hitching. I had caught up to the April bubble and found the hiker groups in town to be aggressive, large dirty masses of clingy people who were frantically pushing their way around tiny general stores in an attempt to snatch the last HoneyBun.
I wondered if it was the actual act of going into town and breaking up the rhythm of being on trail that was troubling me. A long-distance hike is less an immersion in the backcountry than it is a succession of shorter wilderness trips bookended by cultural and community experiences in smaller towns you wouldn’t hit on a regular vacation or road trip. Towns are filled with kind and generous people who, for reasons unfathomable to me, take it upon themselves to provide hospitality and aid to a mass of peripatetic putzes on extended vacations. It almost restores your faith in humanity! (Then, of course, you realize you cowboy-camped next to used toilet paper and you’re back to where you started.)
I decided to space out my town trips. I’d skipped Truckee, though I did go into the Donner Ski Ranch. I skipped Buck’s Lake. I skipped Quincy. I skipped Chester. What was the point of hiking, I thought, if I’m just going from town to town, which is ostensibly what I wanted to head to the trail to get away from?
Then, though, I started to wonder why I was skipping towns. That, because I’d decided to remove myself from productive society for half a year to pursue a seemingly pointless and self-indulgent goal, I hadn’t earned a town visit? Was I trying to prove my mettle? Was I abstaining from town as a way to chastise myself for non-specific transgressions of the past? Was I just fucking loopy from sun exposure?
Belden Should Probably Get Its Own Blog Post
Ironically, after all this anti-town talk, I soon found myself having the best day and night ever in blink-and-you-miss-it Belden. Everything from the Costco burgers to the tee shirts to mom’s fried balls to the late night swimming to Crisis pulling a 37-mile day to catch QLP and me to the beach camping to the Jameson shots to Caribou Crossing to the Coors Banquets to the drunk driving to the tearful phone conversations to the Mary Poppins magic bag of a hiker box to the murder threats and the car thefts to the It’s-Its to the size 22 leather pants to the wine-stained postmistress was perfect. It was also bonkers and there’s no way I can write anything coherent about it. What happens in Belden should probably just stay there.
The Dixie Burn
The main difficulty of this section was the miles of burn scars from the Bear and Dixie fires. According to the PCTA website, 85 of the 106 miles between Buck’s Lake and Belden burned from the Dixie Fire; a majority of the 30 miles before Buck’s Lake burned in the Bear Fire as well. These fires ended many hikes in 2021 and the fact that they’d opened the section was surprising. It was open, though, and so I didn’t consider not hiking it, particularly because the halfway marker was somewhere in there.
Many people, however, skipped this section. Maybe it was because of health concerns, maybe it was nervousness about hiking and camping in an area with loose trees and falling branches. Maybe it was because the PCTA website suggested skipping it for “aesthetic reasons,” something discussed at great length by those of us who hiked it. Something else done at great length by those of us who didn’t skip the section was we talked shit about those who did.
Hierarchy of Idiocy
The psychology of our rage is interesting and, of course, stupid. It’s similar to my arbitrary decision to forgo various towns. We wanted our decision to hike through the burn to mean something, to show that we were doing something hard. We argued that skipping the burn was akin to skipping the hard parts of life, that if the trail is a metaphor for existence, choosing to avoid the hard ugly parts was to choose to dissociate from reality and live in a fantasy world. We argued burn scars show the truth of climate change and wildfire in the American West and the people who decided to jump to Old Station and hang out for a few days, waiting for friends to catch up, were denying the reality of environmental devastation in 2022. That seeing the wreckage first-hand – inhaling the ash, hearing branches fall close to campsites – made our hike more valid. Like the “waterless” section between Tehachapi and Walker Pass, whether or not one hiked this section became a marker of dedication and grit, of whether or not someone was hiking “for fun” or “for real,” as though there was actually a difference.
Not to spoil the yet-unwritten posts about Weeks 12 and 13, but the ironic part is that all of us who went through this section in late July had to skip a significant amount of trail due to active fires. A large number of us, myself included, jumped up to northern Oregon or Washington, where we were positively excoriated by the “true NOBOs” who had started earlier in the season and hadn’t missed any significant number of miles. With that in mind, it’s honestly embarrassing how much time we all spent talking about the people who had chosen to forgo this challenging section. But at the time, in the shrunken world of the Dixie Burn on the Pacific Crest Trail, it seemed so damn important.
Walking the Burn
That said, it was challenging. QLP, a recently-reunited Crisis, and I headed out of Belden just before 10 am – way too late. The climb is about 13.5 miles with 5800 feet of elevation gain. It hit 99°F in Belden that afternoon; locals were telling us it could be 10° hotter in the burn. I can’t speak to the veracity of that but it felt fucking hot. The blackened scraggly remains of trees reached out of the ground like the arms of demons. Clouds of black ash erupted every time we took a step; within an hour everyone was filthy and would remain that way until Burney.
Over the next few days, my already-blistered feet got destroyed; I had eight toes taped up by the end of the week. I was shooting snot rockets of blood and ash; some people were getting bloody noses every day. It was shocking to see how many miles of trees and plants had burned away. In the second half of the trail we’d get accustomed to older burn scars with bright green grass and vibrant flowers, the striking contrast of destruction and renewal as the flora-as-phoenix emerged from razed ground. But this fire had happened less than a year prior so there was absolutely nothing but scorched trees and black ground.
The Witch Is Dead!
With the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of what 98.34% of the PCT looks like, I feel confident saying that Lassen Volcanic National Park is the worst stretch. The park was incinerated the previous summer. We entered in the morning as smoke from the Washburn Fire in Yosemite drifted north to Lassen, adding to the macabre scene. Our one stroke of luck was that the smoke clouded the heat of the sun, giving my burnt skin some relief.
We speed-hiked the flat stretch out of Lassen, reaching the northern limit of the Dixie Fire as the sun hovered over green hills. Green hills! How long it’d been! It was like stepping into the color-soaked world of Oz after being in the dank dark doldrums of black-and-white Kansas. Though I hadn’t consciously felt unenthused about hiking, the re-entry into the verdant landscape jolted me with energy about being on trail.
People. Are. Stupid.
We got to the Hat Creek tent site, a big camping area just a few miles south of Old Station. My joy and purpose dissipated quickly: The first thing I noticed was the smell of fire. Sure enough, a large group of hikers had built a raging bonfire at the campsite.
The first thing people will ask upon reading this is, of course, “but were they section hikers?” No. No, they were not. They were the same long-distance PCT hikers we’d been leapfrogging with throughout the last section, the same people who had traipsed through the charred trail we had. I was sad; I was mad. I wanted to ask them why but I knew the reason: Hubris, selfishness, the belief that they were different, that nothing could happen to their charmed lives. I wanted to pee on their pyrotechnic display of idiocy. I wanted to yell, “what the fuck is wrong with you people? Did you not just hike those miles? Did we not all spend the afternoon at Twin Lake in Lassen talking about the tragic state of the forest? And you dare light up a huge-ass blaze in the first mile of unburnt trail?”
I didn’t, of course. I muttered obscenities to Crisis, kicked rocks, and ate ramen.
Hat Creek Rim: Logistics
The last challenge of this week – which, in retrospect, seems like the most action-packed, longest week of my life – was the Hat Creek Rim section. The morning after Bonfire Rage Night, we hiked into Old Station, a tiny town that consists of a gas station/store and a closed-when-we-got-there diner. There are 38 miles between Old Station and State Highway 299, a.k.a. the road to Burney. Those 38 miles of trail have minimal elevation gain but are quite exposed with few water sources: There’s a reliable off-trail creek 8 miles north of Old Station, a fairly reliable cache about 18 miles past that, and then a powerhouse/dam/pond situation a few miles south of 299. The Old Station gas station and its picnic tables function as a bootleg base camp for this weird walk across a throwback desert section.
When we arrived at the road, a recent Guthook comment had the mass of hikers in a tizzy, for once with good reason: The water cache was empty and wouldn’t be refilled until the following Tuesday! I know, I know: #dontrelyoncaches. But every other cache had been reliable! Shit! The high was near 100 and we were beaten from the burn. This would require strategy, sure, but it would also require two pepperoni Hot Pockets, a large dark roast coffee, grapefruit Bubly, and two ice cream sandwiches. (Just reading that combination of food and drink post-trail has given me diarrhea, WTF.)
I sat with a group of hikers, some known and some new, talking about how to proceed. We watched other people arrive, hear the waterless news, and immediately put their thumb out to hitch to Burney. At this point, any feelings of superiority I’d had during the burn about my “continuous footpath” (again, LOL from the future) had been sweat out of me; part of me wanted to hitch to Burney as well. What was the point of hiking through all of these unpleasant, objectively dangerous sections? Even in my new shoes my feet were torn up. Everything hurt. It was fucking hot yet again. I looked like a lizard.
There’s no logical reason to walk this random section of the outdoors. It’s not productive on a community or societal level. It’s often physically and emotionally exhausting. But completing a goal of this magnitude requires a certain suspension of disbelief; in other words, you have to actively choose to ignore the fact that it’s kind of dumb, accept the structured world you create, and live in that world as long as you can. Did it make sense to walk through a notoriously hot dry section at the bottom of our game? Hell no. But in our specific version of Hiking the PCT: The Board Game that’s what we had to do to stay within our arbitrary lines.
Hat Creek Rim: Enacted
We bought extra water bottles and stupid amounts of junk food. We hiked the 8ish miles to the off-trail water source, filled up five liters each, and hung out until the sun went down siesta style. We were a small group of hikers sprawled out under trees, performing shade-seeking maneuvers as the sun moved lower. I ate mashed potatoes. I didn’t sleep. I felt a light version of the nervous excitement I’d had at Hikertown before the 40-mile push to Tehachapi, though with the knowledge that it was 10 fewer miles and we were going to sleep at some point.
Crisis and I set out in the early evening and hiked until midnight. With no mountains to block it, the sunset from the rim lingered with us late into the night. Mount Shasta came along for the ride, getting closer with every mile. After dark, we only saw what fell in the beams of our headlamps and judged the surrounding area by sound and feel: Cowbells and faint mooing in the distance, the jolting switch from an easy-to-walk dirt path to a grating volcanic nightmare that ate our shoes by the step.
They say nothing good ever happens after 2 am. If 9 pm is hiker midnight, then 11 pm would be hiker 2 am; nothing good ever happens after that. Indeed, if I could use one phrase to describe this night it would be “progressive decline.” We didn’t have a specific campsite in mind; rather, we figured we’d hike till around 10 or 11, setting us up for a short day into Burney. What we didn’t factor in were the jagged black rocks that surrounded the trail, turning what looked like a flat line on the elevation profile into an Inquisition-era bed of torture.
As we hiked on, the fun continued to wane. We checked our map (JK LOL – we perused The App, obvi) and saw there was a tent site coming up. It was occupied. The next marked one was occupied as well. The third one, allegedly under some powerlines we couldn’t locate, didn’t seem to exist.
It was closing in on midnight: The trail equivalent of being 21 and stumbling around at 3 in the morning scratching at the windows of closed bars – just one more shot of SoCo and lime! – surely a universal experience. I would describe my mood as “dead tired and ready to sleep on a bed of knives.” I would describe Crisis’ mood as “tetchy.” On the plus side, our day into Burney was getting shorter and shorter!
Despite the continued prevalence of the artist formerly known as magma, the next site was tent city. We’d been noticing it over the last week but it was during this campsite struggle that we finally came to grips with our new normal: We had caught up to The Bubble. WE WERE IN THE BUBBLE. And we. Were. Pissed. Our early-burn smugness returned as rage: “If all these people hadn’t skipped the Dixie Fire then there wouldn’t be a logjam of people and we’d be able to fucking camp!” (For everyone reading this and being like, “THIS WRETCHED BITCH,” please don’t worry! We get a huge taste of our own medicine very soon.)
The ground was literally lava but I did not give a shit. I found a sliver of dirt between bushes with only a few potential rock shards and threw my ground cloth down, probably on a pool of someone else’s urine. Crisis, convinced that the terrain would annihilate his sleeping pad, stood next to a tree and considered moving on. There was so much angry muttering. Time, oddly, kept ticking. It was real-life-4-am and we were the PCT equivalent of begging random strangers on, like, 5th Street and B for cocaine. Bad bad scene. We had no fight left. We set our alarms for 5 am and passed the fuck out.
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