WEEK 19: Borders! Breweries! Bees! (Miles 1763.3-1594)
Ten More Days
I cannot underscore how excited I was to get back into California. There was unfinished business, dammit! For those of us who’d been south of the McKinney Fire in late July, the section between Dunsmuir and Ashland had been a big question mark. The fire had been massive; we’d been certain those final NorCal miles would have to be a future trip. Knowing the section was open felt like the biggest stroke of luck yet.
During the final full week, the blur of Oregon dissipated, and the hike regained technicolor clarity where every day felt like its own complete adventure. Perhaps this is because of all the stops: Hyatt Lake Resort on Tuesday, Ashland Wednesday through Thursday morning, Seiad Valley on Saturday, and Etna on Monday. Perhaps its because the air was literally clearer: As we’d gotten further south of the Cedar Creek Fire, which continued to grow, the smoke had eventually disappeared. Whatever it was, the late-stage blues were lifting and I was once again excited.
Once Again Hungry, Too
The resupply at the Mazama Village General Store had been, shall we say, unique. I’d set out on the 103-mile stretch to Ashland with three Otis Spunkemeyer muffins, four 400-calorie health cookies, several ramen packets, a bag of Kettle Chips, a few string cheeses, and candy. I was able to bulk it up with a few things I’d scrounged from the (surprisingly ample) hiker box, but they were mostly disgusting (example: No-Rizo, a dehydrated vegan version of chorizo). It was one of my worst stretches, food-wise, but with Ashland – a real place – only three full days away, I hadn’t been worried.
At some point between packing my food and getting back on trail at Mazama Village a few days earlier, though, I’d lost a muffin. I was more annoyed about the fact that I’d wasted $3 than the fact that I was down 525 calories. When Ashland was 45 miles and a full 24 hours away, though, I was worried. I was hungry. I was also disappointed! Again? Did having to do lines of lemonade powder off the back of my hand at Hart’s Pass teach me nothing? (No.) My inability to properly ration food (or, more accurately, my unwillingness to carry the actual amount of food I need) was once again causing me distress.
Luckily, I was not in the North Cascades but in resort-laden Oregon! I’d hit the junction to Hyatt Lake Resort 22 miles into the day. There would be burgers and sodas and hopefully enough resupply to make the rest of the hike to Ashland fun.
Hyatt Lake Resort
If you need tangible evidence that hiking is mind over matter, a mental more than physical pursuit, consider what the body can do when there is food on the horizon. I called ahead to the restaurant at the resort to make sure they were open – because that would have sucked – and was able to hike 22 PCT miles, 1.8 road miles, and order a double bacon cheeseburger and a giant club soda before three pm. This was not normal; this was food-motivated.
As I sat inside, other hikers began to show up. I wasn’t the only one who still sucked at resupplying this late in the game! The overall vibe with other hikers during the last few weeks of this hike was the polar opposite of how judgy and annoying people had been in Washington. Everyone was out there finishing whatever they felt like. Some people were going to finish in Ashland because it was easier to get to a bigger transportation hub. Some people going to finish in Etna and do the 100-mile stretch to Dunsmuir at a later date because they’d been hiking for a while and felt satisfied. Sitting in this rustic resort, meat juice dripping down my palms, not a care in the world, I was happy among strangers.
I’d accepted the inevitability of the night hike and so the remaining miles felt exciting rather than sketchy or dreadful. The Reese’s I’d bought for dessert helped, too. I had cell service and was able to talk to my sister as I climbed up into the hills surrounding Ashland. I cowboy camped under a tree near the water source; Crisis had camped near the trail up the hill. I stayed up late reading on my phone; it felt like a Thursday before the Friday before vacation in school. There would be a bed tomorrow night!
Chores Chores Chores Chores Chores
When I woke up, I’d barely come off my Hyatt Lake high from yesterday and had a double dose of town adrenaline zipping through my veins. In other words, I was able to start hiking early. The 11.5 miles into Ashland were surprisingly beautiful. There were brown grasses and dried flowers; the hints of fall we’d been seeing were becoming pushier, more present. We were high up with sweeping views of the surrounding towns and mountains. Just as we’d walked from the desert into the Sierra slowly, we were transitioning from the flatter trail of Oregon back into the open expanses of Nothern California.
We got to the road and quickly used the power of cell service and credit card to summon an Uber. Ashland – FINALLY! It’s a city! I’d heard of it before! The mantra was “chores first” so we got dropped off at a laundromat. We changed into raingear in the restroom and then headed to a Thai restaurant for an early lunch while our clothes spun around in their own filth for a little while. Real question: Has anyone ever successfully done laundry on the PCT? My clothes frequently came out with more dirt stains than they’d had before going into the machines. And yes, I pre-rinsed my socks (sometimes).
Next stop was the Safeway. I’ll miss a lot of things about the PCT but Safeway is definitely in the top five. It’s a very pleasant grocery chain. I’d noticed that when we had a real grocery store at our disposal, it was necessary to do a double resupply. We’d do “the resupply” when we got to town. Coming straight off the trail, though, meant that this resupply was less a logical accumulation of food I’d need for the next stretch and more a dream-made-reality purchasing explosion of things I’d salivated about during the previous stretch. I’d buy a bell pepper, a bagged salad, a Naked Juice, maybe an apple, and maybe some ice cream. I’d also get trail food, but nowhere near the appropriate amount. I’d sort through my food post-shower, eat half of it, make a list of things that I still needed, and head back to the store before getting back on trail. I’d try to make good decisions but I was really into Safeway doughnuts.
Post-first-resupply, Crisis and I parted ways. He was staying in a hotel and had to go to Medford for new shoes; I was staying in the hostel and, thankfully, only had to go to the Ashland running store to find my final pair of Brooks Cascadias.
A Note on Shoes
I went through six pairs of shoes on the PCT. I started with a used pair of Brooks Cascadias (#1). I wore them until Acton, where I’d sent another pair of barely used Cascadias (#2). I got a pair of Brooks Calderas sent to Lone Pine (#3). I got a new pair of Cascadias sent to Belden (#4). I bought the next pair in Snoqualmie Pass at the Brooks running event (#5). And I was now grabbing one last pair in Ashland (#6). Shoes are a pain in the ass, very expensive, and very necessary. I’d thought I’d be able to make the Snoqualmie pair last till the end but there was no way.
Thank you for reading this boring interlude.
Ashland: A Mini-Vacation
I got to the hostel and beelined for the shower, which was exploding with toiletries and had ample hot water. Most of my showers had involved coins and timers and a shit load of hand soap from a cruddy dispenser so I took full advantage of the luxury. I washed my hair, shaved my legs, and just hung out under the scalding tap. I got dressed in clean clothes and sat on the bed, applying lotion and drinking a bottle of Pellegrino. It was a spa day.
For the first time maybe ever, I didn’t feel rushed in town. All my chores were done; there was nothing to do except enjoy Ashland. I wandered around, going into stores and touching things for no reason. Most PCT towns are small and it’s obvious you’re a hiker. Ashland, though, while not a bustling metropolis, was big enough and crunchy enough that I could have just been a random person with no fashion sense wearing trail runners by choice. I got coffee and a brownie and sat at an outside table writing, taking pleasure in being a faceless hipster in a cafe-slash-bike shop. There was a movie theater down the street with a free showing of Elemental, a documentary about wildfire. So you know what I did? Went to the damn movies.
My Friends, The Smiths (Maybe)
We left Ashland later than we wanted to, of course, with the sole goal of getting out of Oregon. I soon got ahead of Crisis and hiked most of the day alone, fluctuating between feeling excited and bored, then feeling bratty for feeling bored in a beautiful landscape. There was a dirt road that paralleled the trail for a while and I crossed paths with a couple who was checking out the view. They didn’t know much about the trail and so I explained what it was and told them what I was doing. When I tell you they were floored! And you know what? I started to feel pretty impressed as well.
The number of people trying to hike the PCT in a given year is comparatively small. When you are one of those people, though, you become enmeshed in certain thoughts and standards that cause you to forget that there is a world outside of what you’re doing. 29-mile days seem short. 12-pound base weights seem heavy. Showering once a week seems lavish. World-class sunsets become ways to tick off nights between shitty breweries (more on that below). My point is, sometimes you just need a random middle-aged couple to gas you up and remind you that what you’re doing is fucking amazing and lucky and perfect.
To The Border!
As the day wound down and the border got closer, I was positively exuberant. Though we still had about a week of hiking left, this felt like we’d done it. What was it? I’m not even sure. But it felt good. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as strong and as gleeful as I did in the section between South Lake Tahoe and Dunsmuir: The epicness of NorCal, the stifling heat, the big miles, the desire to just keep hiking. When that had stopped abruptly, I’d felt like I’d lost that flow. The miles still came, and the trail was still incredible, but something – imperceptible only to me – had been lost. I’m sure others felt it in themselves as well. But now we were back!
I’d been resisting the headlamp but the sun was setting and I didn’t want to miss the wooden border sign. I hiked the last half mile with my phone – open to The App – in my hand, not wanting to miss it. Would it be on the left or the right? Would anyone be there? How would I feel?
Then, there it was! On my southbound left, for the record. A small wooden sign: Oregon/California. And a metal stand with a logbook, too. Crisis was a bit behind me so I made dinner and sat next to the sign, waiting for him to get there so we could crack the can of sparkling wine we’d packed out. (See? We had fun sometimes!)
The Canadian border had been strange, not in small part because of the ostentatious tramily making it rain champagne and doing an influencer photo shoot draped on the monument. This border, though smaller, felt more satisfying. Hiking the section we’d bypassed south felt like we were slowly zipping up the PCT, waving goodbye to people and places as we approached our finish line. Ashland had been our last night in a town. Our last Safeway. We’d crossed paths with people we’d seen before but would never see again. This would be our last border.
It was predicted to be in the 30s that night so we hiked a short distance to the Donomore Cabin, a restored-by-volunteers closed cabin in the woods. There were fiesta mice and creepy noises and dirty-ass cots and murder vibes and I was so happy to be inside on a freezing night that I thought it was the fucking Ritz. Evidence that my mind was warped by the situation I’d been in all summer can be seen clearly by the fact that I sent a friend of mine a picture of the scene – the dirt-stained windows, the random cots, the pieced-together carpet – like: “Check it out! Last night’s digs! Pretty sweet!” and their response was, “No. Bad,” and I was v. offended.
Beauty and the Bushwhack
I headed out late the next day, unwilling to get off the cot and into the cold. The majority of the morning was dedicated to temperature regulation, the taking off of layers, the donning and doffing of hat and gloves many, many times. The trail was packed dirt, speedy. I wanted to hike fast and move forward. I proceeded to do that; I also proceeded to fall not once but twice, flat on my face, cracking both my cell phone screen and a trekking pole. Legs, you’re drunk. Go home. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I was searching Spotify for a new podcast at the time.
Though many things irked me during this hike, the worst by far was the hyperbole in the comments section on the Far Out app. While Washington’s Section K had been the most hyperbolic, the area surrounding Seiad Valley was a close second, comments-wise. NOBOs and SOBOs alike are indeed treated to a vicious descent, a long road walk, and a steep ascent. There was overgrowth for sure; four months later, I still have little white scars on my legs from doing it in shorts. But reading these comments would have you thinking the trail took a detour from NorCal to the Darién Gap, that hikers had traded in their Melanzanas for machetes and were forced to blaze a trail into the State of Jefferson while blindfolded.
An aside: Our experience hiking from Ashland to Etna, which includes Seiad Valley, was a hell of a lot better than most people’s. The various flips and flops allowed us to miss minimal miles, hike through stellar weather, get through all the earlier-season closures, and – this is a big one – go through certain sections late in the season after trail crews had done their summer work. The cleared blowdowns and the mild temperatures leveled this section down from The Horrible Stretch to Just Another Challenge.
But still! Can people just not? Whether it’s a Far Out comment or a Yelp review or an article online, I will never understand the compulsion to write something purely negative and devoid of self-awareness to strangers. None of these comments ever present the surrounding conditions. No one ever writes: “I hiked out of Seiad Valley on a 105°F day after spending the afternoon drinking beer and eating grilled cheeses at the diner. I was super cocky and thought I could bang out a 30 but I barely made it 12 miles so I was a sad boi. I didn’t get a good permit date so I went through early in the season before trail crews had done their work so there were more blowdowns than there would be if I’d planned better. I had diarrhea twice because I didn’t want to carry the heavy Lact-Aid pills I need and I was too lazy to walk off trail to poop so I got a briar in my butt. The combination of global warming and my own poor choices made this tough for me in particular on July 22nd, 2022.” Instead, they write: “The PCT should be ASHAMED of themselves. This is not a TRAIL. This is a LIFE THREAT. Bushwhacked for miles, thought I was going to plunge to my death. Also, the store at Seiad Valley didn’t sell Mango Juul Pods or Oat Milk Frozen Dairy Dessert and they wanted me to pay in cash. BOYCOTT!”
And yes, I realize I could have just not read the comments. But what would I write about? Stay safe out there, guys.
Seiad Valley and More Logistics
Fueled by an insane sunset, perfect temperature, and an endless horizon, I kept hiking into the night. I traversed “the bushwhack” by headlamp with minimal difficulty, only getting off trail a couple times and only losing about a teaspoon of blood total. The southbound descent was in a burn area with scary widowmakers so it was late before I found a tiny spot to cowboy camp. Camping in burn scars requires either a complex analysis of how branches could break and fall or a crossing of the proverbial fingers. As it neared 11 pm, I chose a combination that favored the latter. On the plus side, the stars were outrageous.
The early-morning descent went quickly and I soon found myself at a picnic table waiting for the general store and diner to open. Crisis showed up as they were turning the grill on. We sat at the old-school counter for quite some time, waiting on food and having a classic protracted argument about the best way to finish the remaining miles.
There were, for a change, logistical moments on the horizon. Not complications, per se, but a need for time management. We were both flying out of San Francisco on the 24th of September and were planning on taking the Amtrak from Dunsmuir to San Francisco…at some point before then. (Aside: You might wonder why I feel the need to write these very detailed, very tedious accounts every time there are logistical situations; it’s because I want there to be no misconceptions that annoying and increasingly expensive logistics are not a huge part of hiking this trail.)
We had 51ish miles to Etna, which would be the final town before Dunsmuir. There are about 98 miles between Etna and Dunsmuir. I wanted to make it to Etna the day after tomorrow, spend a good chunk of the day in town, and hike a couple miles out of Etna. Then we’d have two long full days – including a 40-mile day, just to see if I could do it – and then bring it home with 20ish miles into dear old Dunsmuir. Once in town, we could hang out, get food, drink, and be merry, and take the gold line to paradise, a.k.a. the Amtrak to San Francisco.
Crisis didn’t want to hike a 40-mile day. I did. That should have been that. He stated, over and over, that I had a mental illness that made me want to hike an arbitrary number of miles. I stated, over and over, that we’d been hiking for over four months and it was well within our abilities and that he should sack up and just hike the damn miles. On and on and on we went. He didn’t see the point of getting to Dunsmuir early to spend the day hanging out because there was “nothing to do.” I wanted to spend the day in Dunsmuir because it would mean we had finished hiking the PCT and also, as far as I’m concerned, Dunsmuir is the place to be. The whole hike was Dunsmuir. On and on and on we went.
Cold and Damp
The miles between Seiad Valley and Etna were gray, long, and cold. For the last couple weeks, the mornings and nights had been crisp but our days had been sun-drenched and pleasant. It seemed our weather luck was expiring, though: The Marble Mountains were bone-chilling and raw, with intermittent rain, thick fog, and wind. Everything was wet from condensation or rain, not dangerously so, but still not dry. The night before Etna, we hiked into the darkness and set up in the middle of blowdowns and tree stumps just as it started to rain, bracing for another cold night.
The trailhead on the road into Etna is somewhat remote – “a hard hitch,” as they say. We’d read on The App that there was a local woman who would give rides to people but that she was a terrible driver. Crisis had contacted her and set up a ride the following morning around 8 am, so we hustled out of the cold rain, eager to get to town and dry off.
This car ride is a perfect example of why the PCT is so dumb. Imagine: There’s a GPS map app that sources comments from people who are living outside about the best way to do things. There are multiple comments about an elderly woman who is a horrible driver yet who spends her time giving people rides. These comments suggest that people felt extremely unsafe, were fearful for their lives, and would not recommend calling this person for a ride. So we called her for a ride. She was gregarious and jolly. She told us she’d read online that morning that the double yellow line was obligatory for everyone but her and proceeded to careen down the mountain towards Etna on the wrong side of the road. Clearly, she was leaning into her reputation. There were no other cars on the road, though, so we filed this one under “fake adventures” and vowed not to avail ourselves of her services for the ride back later that day.
Etna: A Good One
If you make it in alive, Etna might be a perfect trail town. There’s a laundromat, grocery store, campground with coin showers, public restroom, cute shops, multiple restaurants, and a thrift store. The only drawback is almost everything is closed on Mondays, which is when we arrived.
The misty morning faded away as we descended into town and by the time we reached the main drag, it was sunny and warm(er). The grocery store was the only thing open until early afternoon so we got an assortment of breakfast items and parked it on rocking chairs in front of the library to charge our devices and warm up a bit. There was no hustle or bustle,
Even though we were less than 100 miles from the end, I figured my outfit could use a little sprucing up. I found a flowery red button-down, a pair of leggings (which I didn’t realize had a sheer panel down the entire leg, thus rendering themselves completely pointless for warmth), and a faux-fur hat, all for a few bucks.
Despite my desire to finish strong, I also wanted to hang out in town one last time! It was sunny, I’d ordered a giant pot of coffee (unintentionally), and I would’ve been content to chill. Crisis, on the other hand, did not want to linger. I think this largely had to do with Brussels sprouts. We’d ordered an appetizer of crispy Brussels sprouts to share. He’d ordered vegetarian tacos and the only vegetables in them were onions and Brussels sprouts. The Brussels sprouts were not good in any of their iterations. The number of Brussels sprouts on the table was outlandish. Sometimes the straw that breaks the camel’s back is small but poorly timed; these Brussels sprouts put him over the edge. He said he was just ready to finish the trail but I don’t see how the Brussels sprouts couldn’t have been a factor. He was steaming mad. He was write-a-Yelp-review mad.
I saw where he was coming from. We’d spend the days on trail talking about the delicious and nutritious food we’d eat once we got to town. Once in town, though, we’d usually find that the “good” restaurant wasn’t open on whatever day we were there, but that there was a brewery. Every brewery on the PCT, and perhaps in America in general, has the same menu: Allegedly-farm-to-table barely-elevated American fare with an attempted Mexican flair and poutine three ways. They’re always expensive. The beer list has 17 IPAs, one bad sour, and maybe – maybe – a lager that kicked the day before. Like, has anyone ever gone to a brewery and enjoyed the food or the beer?
Back On for the Last Time
We got a hitch out with a long-distance hiker who had done much of the trail with her husband and was now slackpacking him across his final miles. She was heading to the trailhead to pick him up. Coincidentally, Crisis had met the couple earlier in the hike, making our last hitch together less a singing for our supper situation and more of a fun ride from a friend.
The remaining five miles were rough. I was attacked by bees on my legs not a few steps into the trail and emerged with three stings. I hate being stung by bees! Once, the last time I got stung, right before Big Bear, my lips swelled up a ton. I was scared of what my impending reaction would be, especially since adult bee allergies are like Russian Roulette. Two, it hurts like a bitch. Third, My Girl came out when I was five. Bees can kill.
A post-Brussels sprout taco Crisis had no tolerance for nervous ladies so he hiked on while I lingered behind, monitoring myself, not amused. I hiked slowly. Though the stings were throbbing – and I had to cut open the new $1 leggings I’d just bought to give my thigh room to expand, fashion fail – I decided my throat was the same width it had been pre-stings and hiked on. Unfortunately, my brewery lunch didn’t want to hike on; it wanted to evacuate immediately. I found myself, for the umpteenth time this year, in an emergency poop situation. I gripped my non-broken trekking pole and crept down the side of the mountain, probably causing erosion. Imagine: You survive a trifecta of bee stings and die taking a shit? No, thank you.
I vaguely remember the campsite at Paynes Lake; it’s only because of the mileage that I even know where we camped. There were three nights left. Crazy!
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