Sunday, July 15, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section M, Sierra City to Belden: The worst six miles on the PCT (and a whole lot of good ones)

Waking early in Sierra City, we resigned ourselves to a late start on the big climb back into the mountains. Rushing the store the minute it opened, we found a disorganized mess in the resupply area. Boxes were piled everywhere, with no accountability. Staring at the unappetizing Kind bars I had optimistically packed, I wondered if somebody else's box had better stuff.

But of course, the store accepts the boxes for free, so there was not much to complain about. We struck out on the road walk back to the trailhead. California tourists zipped merrily by, not caring about our uphill slog. Gaining the trailhead at the alpine start of 1000, we steeled ourselves for the hot climb ahead. However, it proved to be gently graded and tree-lined, much less worse than we thought. A rocky section that traversed along ridgelines slowed us down, and I watched the thru-hikers with envy. After three months of walking, they danced along the rough terrain, unlike us graceless section hikers.

Though this section of the PCT passes close to many lakes, it teased us by staying just out of reach. We could look, but it wasn't worth the steep and long descents to reach them. Plus, many of the lakes in this lake management basin were off limits to camping. We weren't sure why. They looked deserted and appealing.

However, after eleven miles a lake opportunity presented itself, a camping spot we couldn't pass up. It was early in the day, but seize the lakes when you can. We went for a swim and enjoyed the view.

The next couple of days stayed high on ridgelines, providing great views. Until they didn't, and we dove way down into the Middle Fork of the Feather River. I had planned this trip so that we could swim in its mythical deep holes, but after 23 miles we couldn't take it any further, so we camped on an old road instead. Sadly, I looked at the river as we descended into the canyon and again as we took on the seven mile climb out--again, a well-graded and forested climb.


Sierra Buttes, with haze from a distant fire
Our camp that night was not great--a dustbowl shared by many other hikers. PCT camping etiquette is not the same as regular backpacking. In normal life, if you see someone camped at a site, no matter how sweet, you move on, letting them have privacy. In PCT life, someone bounds into your site and commences setting up, often only feet from you. It's hard to understand, but after you've walked multiple 25 mile days, you sort of get it. Hunting for a campsite at those times seems almost beyond capability. Plus, an astonishing number of thru-hikers have never backpacked a day in their lives before taking on the PCT. I am not a fan of the crowded camping experience, but I have learned to expect it. If we wanted to camp away from others, Flash and I learned, we had to make our own sites.

We had heard about the descent into Belden for years. Billed as a torturous, steep ordeal, complete with resplendent poison oak, I had been worrying about it for quite a while. I'd much rather climb a mountain than climb down one. But as we approached the canyon, I relaxed. So far it had been great. How bad could it be?

With those famous last words, I soon regretted my optimism. Short, steep pitches, endless switchbacks, and dense heat greeted us. We could see the river, and some associated techno music, but never seemed to get there. Poison oak grew merrily along the edges, discouraging any stops. Sunk in misery, my feet hurting, I trudged around yet another switchback. Then I screeched to a halt.

A striped object lay in the trail. A rattle filled the air. A rattlesnake!

We stood in the trail, nobody willing to concede. Whenever I advanced toward the snake, it lifted its head and rattled. The slopes were too steep and brushy to go around. I threw a few rocks, but soon ran out. Would I be stuck on this trail forever?

Finally the snake slithered off the trail and Flash and I scampered across. Several more switchbacks and we were inexplicably walking through...a rave.

What is a rave, you ask? Drunk people, techno music, river floaty toys, and tents crammed together in a small space. Feeling like strangers in  a strange land, we dubiously walked past to the tranquility of a trail angel's house. Asking only a donation, she allows four people at a time to stay at her little cottage, and with the rules of no alcohol, smoking or drugs, eliminates 90% of PCT hikers. We shared our cottage with a German hiker named Salty.
The "town" caretaker
Having hiked 31 and 26 mile days, Salty retreated to his room, vowing not to start the climb out of Belden until 9. We were pretty sure this was a mistake. The climb out was reputed to be difficult, almost 5000 feet with just as much poison oak. We resolved to start by 6, even though the vortex of a quiet cottage, showers, and loaner clothes to wear proved difficult to escape. (Later, having spotted us in our long, homemade-looking dresses, another hiker said he thought a cult was in town. Flash and I preferred to refer to ourselves as sister wives).

We had hiked about 130 miles in a short amount of time, and once again I wondered why I opted for this. Flash revealed that she was done with PCT style  hiking and was ready to go back to regular backpacking. I sort of thought I was too--once I finished the PCT.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, California Section N, I-80 to Sierra City: Walking through a flower garden

As Flash and I set our feet onto the first of 177 miles of the last section I have to complete in Northern California, I had several goals: to have fun. To erase the memory of my last section, where I felt like I could have made better decisions and gone on to finish it even if I had had to stitch together a series of day hikes. And to hike only about 17 miles a day. Two of those goals were met.

It became immediately apparent that we were in the forefront of "the herd", the bubble of northbound hikers intent on making it to Canada. Any time I catch myself thinking I am a somewhat fast hiker, all I need to do is drop myself into a group of people who have been hiking for three months straight. Tanned and dirty individuals blew past us without pausing.

Plenty of water!
While most said hello, it was clear that the majority were suffering from the "northern california blues." This is a common syndrome seen in thru-hikers who realize that after three months they aren't even halfway, and that they aren't even out of their first state yet (California is 1700 miles long).

We,  however, suffered no such phenomenon.

The views on this section (38.5 miles) were stunning. We wove through fields of flowers and gazed out at expansive scenery.  We had hit it just right for no mosquitoes and hordes of wildflowers.We easily covered fifteen miles, stopping beside a seasonal creek. To add to our delight, all the "seasonal" creeks were running, meaning we rarely had to hike with more than a liter and a half of water at all times.

The scenery the next day was raised the bar even more. Both Flash and I are early risers, and we get ready about the same time. So we enjoyed the magic hours between five and ten, hiking in the relative cool of the day.

A spring after my own heart.
As we hiked, we realized that if we beat feet, we could make it to Sierra City that evening in order to retrieve our food resupply boxes from the store. This seemed entirely possible even if  it meant a  23.5 mile day. Our goal was to beat the heat on the large climb out of Sierra City. The trail seemed promising, until it didn't.

Nice trail gave way to annoying rocks, but on we raced. We had until eight, our maps promised us. Until we didn't. Reaching the road, we limped along the pavement until a kind couple stopped for us and gave us a ride into "town" (which mainly consisted of a few buildings). Demoralized to learn that the store closed at five, we collapsed at the only free place to camp, on what had been promised to be the "church lawn." A church it was, but lawn was only a suggestion, as it was hard-packed, slanted dirt strangely festooned with broken glass.

Resigning myself to the fate of being closely surrounded by other tents, I sat and brushed my hair. An Australian hiker commented, "it's nice to see a lady brushing her hair."

"There's some things I can't give up," I replied, to which he said, "There's some things you shouldn't give up."

While comments like this on what "ladies" are doing are sort of wrong on many levels, it was still sort of charming, and much better than the American male twenty somethings, who mainly ignored us. We weren't young enough to be their girlfriends yet we weren't their moms. This being true, they didn't know how to address us. I've noticed this phenomenon in younger men on trail: they seem to lack the social skills that previous generations had. Perhaps this has always been the case when confronted with middle-aged women who don't fit the usual mold.

 An injured hiker limped around insisting she could hike out the next day. Others, like us, awaited the store opening, at the horrible hour of nine. It would be hot on our climb out. We had seen other hikers struggling back on the road from town, unable to obtain a hitch. All we could do was wait for the morning and what it would bring.