Week 12: Packages! Problems! Portland! (Miles 1400.1-1501 → 2078)
A Post Office Problem, Solved
The pack I’d ordered was at the Dunsmuir Post Office, which would close at five p.m. on Friday and not reopen until 8:30 the following Monday. Incidentally, it was my birthday that Thursday and there was nothing I wanted more than to get rid of my wretched pack. In Lassen Depressing National Park, Crisis and I found ourselves at a picnic table debating that classic trail conundrum: Hike faster to get there Friday before five or hike slower and arrive Saturday, take a b-day zero on Sunday, and then go to the post office Monday before heading back out on trail?
I’d been leaning towards a few days of grinding to get there on Friday. But as we’d sat there, picking at foot skin and sweating out sadness, we’d had an epiphany: For what? Most of the zeroes I’d taken up to this point had been functional: Wedding in Denver, gear organization at Kennedy Meadows, post-snow regrouping in Lone Pine, chores in South Lake Tahoe. We’d get to town, spend a frenetic day doing chores, and then head back out. Why were we brutalizing our bodies? Why were we hiking into the night? Why were we rushing to town? You only turn 36 once! It seemed like a good time to have a good time.
We’d hiked towards Burney with a weight off our shoulders. We’d do low-to-mid twenties for the rest of the week, leaving a short day into town on Saturday. Then we’d have nearly two full days to hang out, rest, and celebrate. After all, 1501 miles is a lot! 36 years of life are (kind of) a lot! We’d hit the post office on Monday morning en route back to the trail, where we’d have a mere 190 miles to the California/Oregon border!
Compromising, or Lack Thereof
That Tuesday at the Dragon Palace, though, I had an idea.
I looked at Crisis.
“I have an idea.”
Crisis, who had previously been enjoying his shrimp, looked up.
A Brief Aside: The Ongoing Mileage Controversy
Though our on-trail acquaintanceship had endured hundreds of miles under the banner of “The Loose Alliance of Similarly-Paced Hikers,” Crisis, QLP, and I had accepted the fact we were hiking together. We had no tolerance for trite tramily bullshit – we often didn’t hike together, and we sometimes didn’t camp together. Sure, to an outsider we did things that could come off to the untrained eye as things a tramily might do: Share fuel canisters, stoves, and power banks; buy food in the grocery store and split it; send texts while hiking despite being half a mile apart; hang out in towns. But it was different, seriously! Like, we would rather dig up someone else’s feces than engage in a cuddle puddle.
(A sub-brief aside re: the “cuddle puddle”, a.k.a. my waking nightmare: People on trail want to pretend that long-distance hiking is a grueling sport-slash-badass feat of endurance like ultrarunning, but I don’t think all the millennials stop at the 17-mile mark during the Leadville 100 and feed each other Doritos while taking grainy selfies and making a fort out of expensive quilts. I’ve never run that race, though, so I could be wrong.)
It would be sooooo chill to say that our mileage goals were consistently aligned and planning was easy but that was not the case. To clarify, QLP – younger and fitter than Crisis and me – did not seem to care about mileage. He was happy to hike 10 miles and hang out in town; he was more than capable of leaving camp mid-morning and laying down a 30. After nearly three months of hiking together, however, Crisis and I were still spending a patently absurd amount of time bickering about the number of miles we should or shouldn’t hike on a given stretch of trail. I don’t mean we’d wake up and spend a few minutes casually debating whether we should do 24 miles or 26 miles that day. We would spend hours upon hours – whole-ass chunks of days – defending dissertations about how the next 100-mile stretch of the trail should unfold.
My favorite part of this controversy was that we rarely diverged on what day we should arrive in a particular town; rather, it was a question of what time we would get there. Crisis preferred a more equal split of mileage (ex: 26, 30, 27, 17) while I leaned towards longer days that would allow for more town time (ex: 29, 31, 34, 6).
Crisis had long since gotten accustomed to making a plan, hearing me agree with it, hiking separately all day, and then meeting up at a campsite, where I’d reveal the new and slightly more unhinged plan I’d developed over the last 27 miles. Again, the differences between our two plans were often so small as to be irrelevant. We were hiking longish days but not crazy long days. We may as well have been arguing about which brand of vanilla ice cream is the best to have a single scoop of at a diner, so minute were the differences and so boring were these debates. (Clarification: Boring to an outsider. I had a great time.)
Back to Plan Dunsmuir
Since I was going to be stuck with a king-sized Fast Break instead of cake, I wanted to have something to symbolize the 36 candles plus one for good luck I’d have enjoyed at home; why not miles? My new idea was to do the complete opposite of what we had decided: Hike around 30 miles out of Burney on Wednesday, hike my age, etcetera, on Thursday, and finish the remaining 23.9 on Friday. There was a bus from the trailhead to Dunsmuir in the afternoon that would arrive at the P.O. around 15:00. We’d be in Mount Shasta before dinner. Since it was not his birthday, Crisis had no desire to hike 37 miles; however, I sold him on the merits of a Friday night arrival. The plan was on!
The Last Sequential Miles
There are 89.9 miles between Burney and the I-5 on-ramp to Dunsmuir/Mount Shasta; I remember about twenty of them. The trail to Burney Falls State Park was flat and fast. We sat at a picnic table eating soft serve and drinking coffee, watching the temperature break 100°F, and heading back out. We hiked well into the night, tripping over blowdowns in a section of trail turned over to loggers.
The following day lacked the mountain morning chill; it was going to be in the low 100s. We were in the throes of the bubble and meeting new hikers every day. Far from being a nuisance, there was a collective vibration as the stream of people who’d walked through California for months got closer and closer to Oregon. Oregon! Who’d have thought I’d have such a desire to go to Oregon?
Like animals in the plains, we gathered at water sources, chatting. The trail was, mercifully, under trees, so despite the heat and humidity – humidity! – we were spared the blazing sun during this hottest of stretches. I drank 10 liters of water and Propel but felt nauseous all day. My food was repulsive. I left Crisis at the McCloud River 30 miles into the day and hiked into the night, reaching my 37-mile goal around 22:15.
I woke up at the ass-crack of dawn, hiked up up up a shaded and reasonably graded section before beginning the long descent to I-5. There was an alternate that shaved off about three miles, which I gleefully took, though it was a steep roadbed with no tree cover. I saw no one from the moment I left camp until I got to the trailhead. My weather app said it was 108°F. Sitting here in a temperature-controlled house, months after the fact, it seems fucking deranged to have been hiking all day in those temperatures.
But I did, as did everyone else. A blessed magic individual had left Natty Lights and Pepsis in the Sacramento River. I did not give a shit how much of an LNT infraction it was; I grabbed the tepid soda and let the frothy elixir feel me up from the inside out. Good LORD! Have you ever had soda? But like had soda? It’s so damn good.
“Have You Heard About the Fires?”
I hadn’t, honestly. There was no news online. Information came pouring in from unverified sources. A large fire had broken out the previous night. Hikers had been evacuated. It was growing rapidly. Rangers were stationed 30 miles north of I-5 turning hikers away. People were saying “fuck it” and hiking towards Etna anyway. The trail was closed from Etna to Ashland. It was 113°F in town. My main priorities, though, were getting to the Dunsmuir Post Office, eating food, and then hightailing it to the KOA in Mount Shasta, where I’d reserved a site for two nights. Crisis showed up and we ate a legit dinner in a Hipster Starter Pack restaurant: Wooden tables and one exposed brick wall, the white and blue dish towel napkins, the hanging Edison light bulbs. We’d deal with the situation tomorrow.
I almost don’t want to write about what happened next because you already know. You already know because when the McKinney Fire broke out, followed quickly by the Windigo and Tolo Fires, every hiker in a 200-mile radius fled to the black mirror and took to the ‘gram, posting pictures of smoke with the caption: “And then…everything changed.”
It’s not that things didn’t change. Indeed, our Zero Day of Fun quickly became a Day of Zero Fun as we learned more about the fires and came to terms with the fact that a continuous footpath would not be possible. But everyone goes into the PCT knowing that a wildfire could derail the hike; indeed, the fact that so many people had made it past the zones of concerns was the exception rather than the rule. The instant jump to dramatization on a social media platform was making my skin crawl. Fire equals danger and danger ups your coolness quotient in the outdoors. It felt like everyone was using their relative proximity to a dangerous situation to make the fact that we were going to hike fewer miles seem hardcore. Which it definitely is not. It’s like drunk middle school out here sometimes!
Yes, we’ve been lemmings in thrift store shirts, walking a prescribed path for months. Yes, we have to deviate from it and we’re all lost. But there was a contagious helplessness combined with extreme cockiness and entitlement that permeated the entire town. People said they were going to keep going. THROUGH A FIRE. People were planning on hitching around the closures, of which there were currently four including the Lionshead closure. Also, people were just saying things with no basis in facts.
It was so hot. Everything seemed dumb. It was not a great day for anyone, though it was definitely worse for the firefighters and people living near the fire. I mention this because if you were a fly on the picnic table at the PCT section of the KOA, you might not realize that the worst thing happening was not that a bunch of semi-fit adult children’s summer activity was about to be slightly altered but that that thousands of acres of public land were burning, resulting in the mobilizations of hundreds of firefighters and other USFS personnel who were currently risking their lives to protect America’s natural resources.
The direct quote from my notes for this day is: “I feel like a spoiled brat pussy ass bitch because there are people fighting fires and I’m hiking for fun.” (Aside: My notes are just, like…badly written. Also, I am toxic masculinity.) This is true. But also, despite going into the hike knowing that a wildfire wasn’t a matter of if but when, I was disappointed. We’d been hiking well! I felt good! It was fun! Then I felt shitty and selfish for being disappointed over my stupid hike instead of the acres and acres of land burning. Then I felt sad that we seem to live in a world where everything is a competition and that I felt guilty for trying to hold space for two sad things at the same time, radically different in scale though they were. On and on it went.
And throughout it all, the IG posts continued: “And then, California erupted in flames.” “And then, we were off trail.”
Decisions, Decision, Decisions
We lay around the pool at the KOA, reloading stagnant websites and hoping the PCTA IG would post something – anything? – about the fires. We debated hanging out in town for a few days and seeing how everything played out. We debated jumping to Ashland but there were multiple closures north of there. We debated hitching around each of the four closures but it seemed expensive and slow. We did not debate doing the Oregon Coast Trail. We debated skipping everything to get north of all the fires.
In the interest of getting the fuck out of the mayhem and simply hiking, we chose the latter. Despite a day of debate, we ultimately made our decision in a five-minute flurry over pizza. We snagged three coach seats on Monday’s Coach Starlight, We’d leave Dunsmuir in the wee hours of the morning Monday and get to Portland in the late afternoon.
Arrested Development: A Thank You
Consider this paragraph a post of appreciation for Quincy La Porte. He’s in his early twenties, stuck hiking with two elder millennials – from bold, brazen New York, no less – who did the absolute bare minimum when it came to the logistics of our northerly journey. QLP booked our train tickets (we had the decency to Venmo him) and sweet-talked a motel owner in Dunsmuir into giving us a last-minute double-wide for a very reasonable price. He also secured us a ride from the Portland train station to the Little Crater Lake Campground at mile 2078, thus allowing us to approach Cascade Locks from the south and have at least one border crossing. While he orchestrated our escape, I ate chicken nuggets out of a small paper bag; I think Crisis was next door at Walgreen’s buying Band-Aids. In short, QLP was the MVP of the McKinney Fire Extraction and for this I’ll be forever grateful.
The next morning, we found the train platform littered with hikers who’d had the same idea we had: To skip up 578.6 miles and get back on near Portland with the intention of hiking straight through to the Canadian border. As we spoke to the others we played trail telephone, getting inundated with information that may or may not have been true. They said I-5 to Ashland was unhikable, either because of closures or thick smoke. Ashland was a disaster, they said. Rumor had it the Red Cross was setting up tents to house the overwhelming number of people who were arriving in droves. Car rental places and hotels were jacking up their prices in response to the sudden demand. Any uncertainty I’d had about our decision dissipated. I just wanted to keep hiking.
Scenes from an eleven-hour train ride: Rolling through smoke for hours, a sepia-toned train ride paralleled the NorCal we would’ve seen on foot; staring out the window and watching the landscapes blur; visiting the café car every couple hours to buy another round of mushy grilled cheeses; scouring the Internet for fall seasonal jobs as I realized I might be finished with this endeavor in August; flipping through Guthook in hopes of figuring out something; entering Oregon via the Pacific Crest Train, how very sudden.
Mile 2078: Little Crater Lake Campground
We were in Portland for an hour, tops. We ran to REI…because it was the metropolitan version of the trail? Why did we go to REI? We found it teeming with other hikers who’d also skipped the fire and didn’t know where else to go in Portland. Call me close-minded but when hikers are like, “oh my goddddd – town is so overhwelllllming,” I don’t buy it. Like, most of us have spent 95% of our lives in the front country, be it in towns or cities. Do you know how I felt when I got to Portland? Overjoyed. We were in a train station! How novel! We got coffee! How fabulous!
After touching everything at REI, we did a frenzied resupply at Safeway before heading out with QLP’s friend-of-a-friend. Once in the parking lot of the Little Crater Lake Campground, we organized our resupply and ate dinner. Any thoughts of hiking even a short distance had been bounced out of my head during the nausea-inducing Forest Service road on which we’d spent the last twenty minutes, so we took a side trail back to the PCT and set up in a horse camp.
It was dark in the forest as I set up my tarp, finally able to tie it off to two trees instead of using my trekking poles. Despite being an hour from Portland and right near a trailhead, it felt like we were deep in the woods. The first part of the hike was over.
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