WEEK 18: Skipping! Smoky! Sunrise! Miles 1979.2-1763.3 (Miles Skipped: 1952.6-1907.9)
Onward To Elk Lake
The break from the smoke was short-lived as the next morning meandered through the rest of the lava field and across a flat, exposed plain. We walked towards a thick wall of haze for miles and miles. I could see the trail unraveling ahead, walking into nowhere.
We passed Obsidian Falls, which was indeed surrounded by glimmering obsidian, but didn’t linger: enjoying the scenery is hard when there’s a huge plume of smoke rising in the distance. It smelled burnt. We knew the trail was closed but we weren’t sure where. Still, the air wasn’t as thick as it had been on other days and with the absence of official guidance, it was hard to know what to do.
We stopped at a water source, a small stream that bubbled from nothing in the middle of tall grass. There were two other hikers there, also finishing their fire flip-flop and also planning to get to Elk Lake before making any more decisions. As annoying as it had been to be in “THE BUBBLE!” walking in a mass of humans feels purposeful. Everyone else is doing this thing so there must be value to it. Our first week back had been quiet, while blissful, lent an air of arbitrariness to the endeavor. Meeting other confused hikers was reassuring.
Official guidance appeared soon enough in the form of a USFS ranger. She was stationed a short distance from the junction to Elk Lake and told us the trail was closed from that point south to Willamette Pass. With our options reduced to one, we took a side trail to the resort.
The couple from earlier was there, as were two section hikers. The store was closed but, in a stroke of luck, the shopkeeper had posted her cell phone number with a message to another hiker. I intrusively called the number and she kindly walked over from her bunk to sell us beer and snacks and campsites. What could we do? We drank beer and smoked cigarettes and bemoaned the fires while thanking the forces of sheer luck that we’d tagged the border before those fires had broken out. It was one of the more fun nights on trail.
Next Moves, Yet Again
I woke up on my un-tarped sleeping pad to rain, hungover for the second time that week. PCT hikers are so damn stupid! I packed up and convened with the other hikers at the picnic tables near Elk Lake. Despite all our maneuvering and Amtraking and analyzing and closures reopening and SOBO fire-flopping, it seemed our luck had run out! Crisis and I were going to have to skip, like, for real.
I can’t decide if having people around at these junctures is beneficial or detrimental. The section hikers weren’t particularly concerned about the “integrity” of the hike and planned to hitch somewhere and get back on somewhere else. The couple – more specifically, the guy – wanted to walk the highway around the closure to have a continuous footpath. In theory, I wanted to do that, but if the highway was smoke-filled, and also closed to cars, it seemed like a terrible idea. Crisis and I decided we’d try to hitch to Highway 58, south of the closure, and get back on near Shelter cove. We’d only miss about 45 miles of trail and we’d be able to keep hiking later that night. There’s still part of me that wishes I’d three-wheeled my way along with the couple, and had that off-trail adventure of connecting steps. That said, we never saw them after that moment. (I’m sure they’re okay.)
We stood on the road outside Elk Lake Resort, sign in hand, and tried to get to Highway 58. The late-season hitch was proving to be the bane of our existence; additionally, the road we were standing on was partially closed and it was smoky as hell so there wasn’t a lot of traffic in the first place. We wanted to get to Willamette Pass but cars kept pulling over and asking us if we wanted to go to Bend, which is in the other direction. After a few hours, we decided to go to Bend in a soon-to-be-pimped-out school bus driven by a former restaurant industry dude who was burned out on hospitality and who, along with his girlfriend in the car in front of us, was making the full-on transition to van life. How slightly pathetic, this car of clichés, a culture-less people clawing for meaning in the wrong places.
Two Hours in Bend
We got dropped off in the upscale downtown where we awkwardly tried to maneuver with dirty packs, dirtier hangovers, and general disorientation in one of those places that seems like it wants to be hippie-ish but is secretly swanky. We were hungry, obviously, but the restaurants were either closed, fancy, or both. We settled on a pizza place with outside seating where we ate comparatively decent slices while performing the now-routine task of finding an expensive way back to the trail from an inconvenient location.
Had the hike had become a series of weird long day hikes through burns with resorts and crazy expensive Ubers in between? I wasn’t loving it. We resupplied at the Safeway (a.k.a bought a bunch of weird little treats that had no nutritional value whatsoever; Key Lime Pie Cups stand out in my memory) and got an Uber to Willamette Pass, skipping the closure and missing 44.7 miles. We sat at the trailhead for a long time, eating weird food (macaroni salad – maybe potato salad? – is another thing that stands out) and saying “what the fuck?” a whole bunch. There was no way we were hiking any significant distance; instead, we hiked three miles and set up at Midnight Lake, a very nice lake indeed. We’d try again – again! – tomorrow.
Mid to Southern Oregon: Kind of a Blur
People talk about Oregon as though it’s this forgettable flyover state, 492 miles to blitz through in 40-mile days, a quick couple weeks after conquering California and beginning the wilds of Washington. So far, Oregon had not been forgettable; it had been a real pain in the ass. It had been burnt up and smoke-filled and unnecessarily expensive and jolted and contained a black hole of miles we hadn’t hiked. This isn’t going to be a paragraph about how it got better; rather, my notes from this week are sparse and dull. I hiked through long stretches of minimal elevation where smoke followed us, making breathing difficult. The bloody noses of Belden were back with a vengeance; my throat was scratchy and I was bracing for blisters and chapped cheeks as the burn areas continued. The trail was rocky and there were long water carries.
As my hike progressed, I had developed a weird water-rexia wherein I just didn’t want to drink water. My filter was all but shot, I was using AquaMira when I remembered, and you know what? I was fucking sick of peeing. So while the lack of water in Oregon came as a surprise, it wasn’t intimidating as it had been during the desert. But we still had to carry four liters. There were caches maintained by the incomprehensibly-kind-hearted trail angels, including several under the hand of the same individual who was responsible for several caches in the desert. One of the Oregon caches had the same logbook I’d signed in June, in the “waterless” stretch between Tehachapi and Kennedy Meadows South. It was funny to see my name and the names of all the people I’d met and passed and who’d hiked on. Had I learned anything in the last three months? Or had I just been careening blindly towards an ever-changing point on a map? Thus were the type of thoughts I had in southern Oregon.
A Bright Spot
Luck was on my side, though, because in the middle of this otherwise blah week came Crater Lake National Park. The Pacific Crest Trail passes through seven national parks. I’d hiked through six so far and they’d all been spectacular (except for Lassen, which, sadly, no longer exists). That said, the PCT tends to go through less trafficked parts of these national parks. The 70 miles through Yosemite were amazing…but so were the three hundred miles north and south of them. North Cascades National Park was epic…but so was all of Washington. It’s not that the parks aren’t awesome; it’s just that the trail doesn’t go past famous features – Half Dome, for example – but rather explores the terrain itself.
Crater Lake, though, is a famous feature. And while the actual PCT doesn’t pass by the lake, there’s an alternate that includes the Rim Trail. This allows you to hike alongside the rim of the crater high above the lake. I assume the reason the PCT isn’t concurrent with the Rim Trail is stock-related; I cannot begin to assume why anyone wouldn’t do the alternate.
After getting on at Willamette Pass, Crisis and I decided to hike the 65 miles to the entrance of Crater Lake National Park in two days, setting us up for a nine-mile hike to see the sun rise over Crater Lake. Now, I’ve alluded to the fact that I don’t enjoy waking up early on trail in general. But since we’d gotten back, the sun wasn’t rising until the sevens and it was a lucky day if I was hiking before eight. This was a special day, though! I somehow managed to be up and hiking by 5 am, even though it made me want to vomit and I never want to do it again. Me, Crisis, and a third hiker who’d joined us a couple days prior hiked out into the cool morning.
Crater Lake National Park
Loathe as I am to admit it, I love hiking in the dark of morning. Night hiking has a desperate feel to it: It gets darker and darker, you’re aching to stop, you’re struggling to find a campsite, the glowing eyes are making an appearance and the shadows are out to play. Waking up in the dark and hiking into the day, though, feels like you’re stealing hours of your life back, getting to live longer and see more than you usually would.
We hiked briskly, racing the sun itself, and made it to an overlook with an unfettered view of the lake and the horizon. There was a light screen of smoke, though significantly less than the next days would bring. We sat in silence for a while, watching the earth wake up. Everyone knows the beauty and power of a sunset, of course; it’s trite to mention it. But particularly in the midst of skipping miles and a dry, rocky, empty-feeling section, I do think making the effort to catch this sunrise was worth it.
But one can only ogle at nature so much when there’s a fucking breakfast buffet around the corner! Though the restaurant was COVID-safe and thus required asking servers every time we wanted more food (nothing like the shame factor to decrease bacon consumption), it was still amazing. We spent time sitting in Adirondack chairs on the porch of the Crater Lake Lodge but the sun was fierce so we moved to the cozy leather couches – with proximity to outlets – inside. (Outlets! So much of this damn hike is about outlets!) We eventually paraded down the trail to Mazama Village, a proper campground with a general store and a restaurant and somewhat functional wifi, and, thankfully, more outlets. What would we do without them?
Another highlight of late Oregon was meeting people who were closing in on the ends of their hikes. Some people we’d met at different points of the summer; others were new folks finishing in Ashland or Etna or Shasta after fire-flipping. These endings felt appropriate: the transition to fall, the weaving together of different threads as the story winds towards its eventual end. Indeed, after the grand climax of the Canadian border, this Oregon stretch felt like a series of denouements to the little stories we’d knit into our larger narrative. This improved the stark smoke days after Crater Lake and amped me up for my own eventual finish.
The miles, as they had for months now, passed. I listened to podcasts, talked on the phone, and spent an inordinate amount of time looking up jobs online whenever I had service, which wasn’t infrequent. The impending end of the hike meant a return to the money-earning world. I had a restaurant job secured for the fall and a winter job lined up after that, so I was mainly just reloading websites and hoping they’d post the seasonal jobs for the spring and summer of 2023. It was unrealistic and a waste of time.
If there was a section of the trail where I felt bored, this was it. California seemed far away, the daylight hours continued to decrease while the number of miles I wanted to cover did not. I was struggling to avoid comparing this last month of the hike with my last month on the Appalachian Trail five years prior. But how can one not compare the two? At this point on that hike, I’d been in the throes of an experience with two friends – who I still talk to weekly if not daily – to whom I was bonded by snowstorms and Disney music at ass o’clock and Little Hotties and Gatlinburg and just the craziness of the hike itself; the end felt meaningful and we grew closer the harder and further we hiked. This felt completely different. Quincy had departed, Crisis and I were hiking together but not hiking together, and everyone else I met was either a stage-five clinger or a total douche. But it couldn’t be the trail…it had to be me! Right?
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