The Decision to Flip North

My last two days in Northern California, thunderstorms lashed through hot, dry terrain. I felt grateful for the clouds rolling in to break up the heat, and for the sudden downpours. The rainstorms felt magical and also inevitable—as if the intense heat couldn’t last much longer without something giving.

But they were also the end of my northbound thru hike. Three miles outside of the Etna summit, I caught enough cell signal to get text messages and heard from friends further up the trail that the PCT had closed everything from Etna to Ashland due to an enormous fire. With smoke hazing the views and stinging the back of my throat, I probably should have guessed. But somehow I was still surprised. I was so focused on getting to the Oregon border—less than a hundred miles away—that it hadn’t occurred to me that anything could stop that from happening.

As soon as I got to the Etna summit trailhead, I was met by a trail angel named OG with his tiny dog, Baby Girl. OG had been working all day to take hikers down from the Etna trailhead. I hopped in his van with 4 other hikers, eating watermelon and hearing the details about the huge fire north of us.

Hikers sit talking around the open door of a sprinter van

Etna was crowded with hikers uncertain about their plans, many having gotten off trail earlier and hitched into town. The Etna police department organized shuttle busses to take the hikers to Ashland, but I didn’t join them. I wanted to stay put for a day and figure out my plan. I stayed two nights at the Etna Motel—one of the friendliest hiker motels I’ve visited—and spent hours on the phone trying to sort through options with my partner.

As I stayed in Etna for a day and a half, it became clear that Ashland was choking with smoke from the fires and more fires were breaking out across Oregon. Eating dinner with some other hikers, one of them said, “I feel like this is the end of the trail,” which broke my heart.

As much as I don’t want to worry about hiking every mile, the idea of skipping a section of the PCT felt wrong. More importantly, I was not in any way ready for this experience to be over. Even on long days in sweltering heat, ravaged by mosquitoes and filthy with ash, I love this trail. I love the things it’s doing to me inside and out. I love experiencing something so difficult and learning I’m strong enough to survive it, and the heart-breaking sunsets, delicate wildflowers and icy streams that reward my dedication. The thought of skipping a huge section or ending my trip was abhorrent to me.

So I made the decision to flip. After a day in Etna, I headed out to the park and waited to hitch a ride to Ashland. From there I made it to Medford, then flew on a hopper flight to Seattle, then made my way out to Hart’s Pass Campground, 30 miles from the Canadian border.

From there, I walked 30 miles north to touch the northern terminus and then turned around and began my southbound journey.

It was bittersweet to touch the monument. This isn’t how I wanted to experience the northern terminus. This isn’t what I planned, what I pictured all those times I imagined reaching this spot. But this is what my experience of the PCT is.

I’ve been in Washington about a week, and it’s hard to put into words how nice it’s been. Leaving sweltering, smoky Northern California, Washington seems refreshing. The air is clear and there is bright snow on the high mountain peaks. When I reached the border on August 4, there was a huge rainstorm that soaked me all day. The wildflowers, epic views, and shaded valleys are far lovelier than I imagined. The nights have been cool, and I’m no longer in a dense crowd of hikers. Instead, I see just a few rugged, skinny nobo hikers finishing up their hikes and a gaggle of section hikers who haven’t found their trail legs yet.

My first resupply was at the Stehekin Valley Ranch, a peaceful, off-the-grid ranch surrounded by steep mountain walls on three sides. I’ve spent a day drinking lemonade, reading, and petting the ranch’s gentle Norwegian fjord horses.

A horse faces the camera across a fence.

I don’t know if the fires will be resolved by the time I make it back down to Oregon, but I’m hopeful they will. My intention and my hope is to hike the whole trail this year, if that’s possible.

And for now, I’m just grateful to still be on this incredible journey.


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Comments 3

  • John Davidson : Aug 9th

    Very good decision. You are doing my favorite section all the way to Snoqualmie Pass. At prime time too.
    Look forward to reading about the rest of your trip.
    Good luck.

  • Nan : Aug 12th

    Bravo! What a brilliant decision. I’m so happy to know that Washington is treating you well. Looking forward to seeing more posts from you Rain! From your friend, Tinkerbomb

  • Vrooom : Aug 30th

    I know the northern California fire was a bad one, but Oregon is not burning down (I live here). There is the Plum Creek fire which will hopefully be in control in Southern Oregon, all the other fires in Oregon affecting the trail are fairly small right now. Hope it stays that way. Enjoy your hike.


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