Week 17: Return! Rowdiness! Rocks! (Miles 2092.2-1979.2: Yes, We’re Backwards Now)
An Unrelaxing Respite
Call this the hiker equivalent of Beyonce telling people they just can’t understand how hard it is to be perfect but taking a vacation from my vacation was exhausting! After hiking Washington in 20 days, taking planes, trains, and automobiles to another state, spending three days tramping around a little city trying to have a good time but also trying to cram in laundry, a resupply, and an REI visit, flying back to Portland, and taking a tram to a train type of thing to an Uber to a bus to the Timberline Lodge, I was fatigued. Like, can I get a vacation from my vacation’s vacation? Teeny tiny violins whine in the background.
Nowhere to Throw It
Crisis and I took the bus from the Timberline Lodge to a gas station outside of Government Camp so we could hitch back to the trail. The original plan had been to return to the Little Crater Lake Campground, where we’d gotten back on post-Amtrak. But we realized it’d be difficult and/or expensive to get a ride that retraced the series of Forest Service roads that had led us there; far simpler would be to hitch to the Frog Lake Trailhead, north of Little Crater Lake, and rehike the seven miles between the two trailheads.
The hitch to Frog Lake was excruciating. The thumb was ineffective so we made a sign. The sign was ineffective so we tried to call Uber and Lyft. Our apps were ineffective so Crisis started calling analog taxi services. No one was available.
I would also call the vibe during the hitch excruciating. Us metro folks are used to paying our way into and out of situations. But here’s a fun fact about the PCT: Even if you have money, if there’s nothing and no one to throw it at, that money is just numbers in a computer somewhere. We just had to wait.
After a couple of hours and quite a few heavy exhalations, we got two back-to-back hitches that brought us to the trailhead. That was that – back to the hike. Did I mention we were now hiking Southbound? We were now hiking Southbound! Direction of the gods! Very exciting.
In Washington, the sun had been setting around 8:20 pm. Our first day back in Oregon, it set around 7:45 pm. We set up camp near a creek after 22 miles, the evening quickly fading to night in a haze of jet lag and impending fall. I had a mix of thoughts as I ate dinner in the dark. The Canadian border we’d tagged a week earlier was now inaccessible due to fires that had started when we were hiking back to Hart’s Pass; our fateful fire skip had allowed us to reach the border before it closed. The time and weather pressure were off; now we were just hiking.
When we’d started hiking north from Little Crater Lake a month earlier, I hadn’t felt the feelings of pointlessness that my compatriots had. Here, though, there was an odd sense of continuing to hike just because. The fact that Quincy La Porte and a couple other friends had ended their hikes in Canada after about 2000 miles – a completely legitimate decision, and also a fuckload of hiking – made me ponder these arbitrary distances and the egoism inherent in a long-distance hike. I was annoyed that we’d wasted time hitching to avoid rehiking the miles from the Timberline Lodge to Frog Lake because if the whole point of being here was the enjoyment of hiking and the outdoors, then I should have been overjoyed to get to hike more.
On the less bittersweet side, all of the fire closures were now open! Lionshead: Open. Tolo and Windigo: Open. And the McKinney closure: Open. On Thursday, September 1st, 2022, every mile we had left to hike was once again open for hiking.
That lasted about a day. The Cedar Creek Fire, which had been contained west of Waldo Lake for about a month, grew overnight. It was now creeping around the lake towards the trail and highway; parts of the trail south of us were now closed. I was stressed – not because of missing miles, per se, but rather because I just wanted to hike. I didn’t want to find shuttles and hitch around and hemorrhage more money while trying to figure out how to get as close to the closure as possible. And again, the selfishness of the whole endeavor in a fire-scarred landscape crept into my mind. It was the forest equivalent of white Western tourists driving through the bustling downtown of a city in the global South, gawking at local people through bulletproof windows en route to a pricey resort. The fallacy of the long-distance hike as an adventure was made clearer and clearer as we went to such lengths to avoid any discomfort and danger.
Through Smoke and Disorientation
My excitement at being back combined with minimal elevation had made the previous day’s miles fly by. As we headed into the Lionshead closure, though, it felt more challenging than I wanted it to be. Despite being September, it was in the 90s. It was also quite smoky, and there was elevation that everyone claimed didn’t exist in Oregon. For much of the day, I hiked through a burn scar that felt like our days between Belden and Burney – ash-stained legs, permanent sweat – but with the addition of smoky air that made breathing deep a challenge.
I staggered into Ollalie Lake feeling like I’d traipsed through the desert, got chips, soda, and coffee, and plopped down for several hours. Crisis was there, too, in a similar state of sweat and demoralization. The woman in the small store told us that it was probably about 103°F in the burn, which was just the information we needed to hang out for a few hours while the sun descended.
We left Ollalie Lake late and resigned ourselves to night hiking, deciding to camp on a ridge at the end of a long climb. BAD IDEA! I will remember that climb as one of the hardest on the PCT, not for any particular reason but for many small reasons. It was rocky. It was dark. We were thrown off because of the Cedar Creek Fire. When we got to the top, all the tent sites were taken by a loud tramily so we camped in little nooks. I felt nauseous and could barely choke down a bar after a 29-mile day. I felt shaky. I heard raindrops pattering on my tarp, which I’d had to set up in a messy, make-shift way. It sucked.
My Period, Period
I woke up to rain on my tarp and my period on my person and immediately decided to go back to sleep. I was also thrilled. If you’re a person who gets their period, you understand the complex flood of emotions that inundate your entire being when you realize that it’s not you, it’s that. Relief! You’re not dying or insane or bad at hiking. Happiness! Another child-free month. Irritation! Another pair of underwear stained. Horror! You have one tampon in your backpack and are two days from town.
The rain tapered off eventually and hiking began. While I’m usually partial to the huge day followed by the tiny day, it was more feasible to do a solid day followed by a reasonable day. These are objective measurements. We were 36 miles from Sisters so would get there the following day no matter what.
By mid-afternoon Crisis and I found ourselves at Shale Lake with a minimal desire to crush anything but snacks. I should mention that, for these last few weeks of hiking, I’d done something pretty crazy by PCT standards: I’d brought a physical book on trail! I was living for this cheesy beach-read romance novel I’d found in a thrift store in Seattle! It was novel to have something to do besides look at The App. Also, I was hoping that by lying on my back for part of the day, I could make the most of the single tampon I had. (This, for the record, is probably unsafe.)
We left Shale Lake with the goal of getting as close to Sisters as possible. The scenery in this section was…burnt. It was still smoky and we walked across rocks and pebbles through former forests of blackened thinned trees that had become an accepted part of the landscape at this point. I got ahead and walked across a burn scar on an open ridge for a few miles. The smoke lessened and the sky went from gray to blue. I came upon Rockpile Lake less than 10 miles later and decided to dive back into my trashy novel. A few pages in, I decided to call it. Sisters was 14.5 miles away; we could make it in by noon. Furthermore, though there’s always a chance of incident or injury, there was no doubt in my mind that we would finish the hike. These last few weeks seemed like a victory lap, and thus a prime opportunity to enjoy the trail. Would this be the case every day? Hell no. But in my iron-losing state, with the sun setting early and a town on the horizon, it seemed like a good night to stop early.
Gosh, I Love Town
We’d planned on hitching into Sisters, doing the usual whirlwind of chores in a frantic frenzy, and heading back out to trail that night. But Sisters is a town town! It was somewhere I’d go for the weekend in real life. Is it semi-hilarious and anthropologically curious in a disturbing “what the fuck is wrong with this country?” sort of way to spend a night, say, camped outside a bar where there’s taxidermy deer draped over Coor’s Light lamps and Let’s Go Brandon stickers plastered everywhere? Yes, though that’s also because I’m white and not afraid for my life in places like this. Is it also nice that the trail occasionally passes through a boujee-hipster enclave with a fancy coffee shop, an independent bookstore, a Himalayan restaurant, a brewery with natural wine, and astroturf for hanging out? Absolutely. We simply had to stay. I don’t know that we simply had to drink but that’s what happened. In my defense, I was having a rough few days!
Months of hiking plus my period made my alcohol tolerance plummet; finding motivation the following morning was a challenge. Also, that coffee shop! The outside seating, the pastries, the clean bathroom…we sat outside reading about the Cedar Creek Fire and procrastinating.
The Trail Is Lava!
We fake-hitched (a.k.a. someone offered us a ride in the parking lot without us even putting a thumb out) back to the trail before noon and decided, once again, to hike as far as we could hike. It seemed we’d be able to at least make it to Elk Lake Resort the following day, where we’d be near Highway 372, which led to…other places? It was unclear how much of the trail was open. More than that, it was unclear how much of the trail was safe.
Crisis hiked out while I sat at the trailhead, eating my Subway Veggie Delight and drinking a SpinDrift (still menstruating, let me bouj in peace!). It was hotter than I wanted it to be, though the first part of the hike had some trees. The second part, though, was one of the Far-Out-Fearmongered Death Sections! An endless lava field that would destroy our soles and souls!
This section is volcano central, with Mount Washington to the east and the Three Sisters south of us. The trail cuts through a vast flat area where molten lava cooled and left dark brown nubby rock everywhere. It looks like mud but is ancient and hard, jagged and unwelcoming. The trail is a light brown winding path, rock through more rock. Every so often, a lonely tree pops up in the middle of nothing, or a few little ground plants are clustered in a small patch of dirt. As the sun went down, and with it the heat, the walk became exciting. How strange to traipse through a lava field! How very lucky!
We’d seen no people; the smoke had dissipated for the moment. We cowboy camped on flat ground next to giant boulders with no cell service. We found ourselves once again at the mercy of the present, not being able to do anything except wait.
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