Feel the Burn: PCT Days 80-83

The weather is good. Warm, but no wind or rain to make the area particularly dangerous. I decide to continue as planned. I haven’t missed a track yet, and for now I’m still clinging to the hope that 2022 will be a rare year where it’s possible to run the full length of the PCT.

Wild Card passes me, but when I reach the campsite where we had planned to stop, he is not there. I settled down anyway. Trees are burned here, but only their bases, with live green branches still growing in the canopy. I would probably walk if it was windy, but the evening is perfectly calm. Leaky arrives, and we chat for a few minutes. Then she goes into the dark to find her husband, wherever he is ahead.

I’m using my new sleeping pad for the first time. I’ve already gotten out of the habit of inflating an air bag at night, and it feels like a chore. But the NeoAir is comfortable. It has that crisp bag of chips sound of a new airbag, but I’m a sound sleeper anyway.

Day 81. Miles: 20.4 Total: 1298.2

Most of the trail is burnt today. It’s an easy descent to Belden, where I sit outside the store until it opens at 10am. The owner is there alone. He explains that his staff are completely out of Covid. Since my own battle with the coronavirus, I had mostly been able to ignore it again, but this reminds me that it is still there.

I eat two ice cream sandwiches then I begin the famous ascent. It’s almost noon. Not the best time to start a notoriously long and exposed climb, but I don’t want to wait until evening.

The climb really isn’t that bad. I use my umbrella for the first time in weeks, and within hours I reach a small oasis: a cold, clear stream called Rattlesnake Spring that runs through a shady, unburnt patch of wood. I drop my bag and lie down on my Z-lite to rest. Wild Card is already there, and Leaky arrives a few minutes after me. We wait for the hottest part of the afternoon, then continue, there is still more than half of the climb.

I take another break and Wild Card and Leaky get ahead. When sunset is near and I feel tired, I decide to stop alone when I find a safe place. This area is mostly burnt, the trees black and white, the ground soft and ashy. The whole charred forest looks like it could crumble with the slightest breeze.

Then, as I approach the end of the climb, I cross a wide green meadow. A metal sign declares this to be the border between the Sierra and the Cascades. On the side of the trail I see a flat spot next to a rock. Too small for my tent, but I could cowboy there, safe from the nearby unstable woods. I’ve only camped a cowboy alone a few times in the desert. I’ve never done it in bear country. But the mosquitoes don’t seem too bad, and I think a bear is unlikely to roam the inhospitable burn area. I lay down my floor mats and go to bed.

Day 82. Miles: 29.8 Total: 1328.0

The mosquitoes got worse all night. My right forearm, the part of me that held the air hole in my sleeping bag, is now covered in bites. I haven’t slept well and I get up early. Two miles after my campsite, I pass Wild Card and Leaky as they pack up.

I always like to hike early in the morning. After the huge Belden climb yesterday, the track is rolling much smoother now, and I’m having a good time. At the first watering hole, I talk to Leaky briefly, but then she walks off again, walking briskly.

At lunch, Wild Card passes me and explains that they plan to do their first 30 mile day today and walk to Chester. I briefly consider trying to do the same, but to me, starting two miles south of them, a 32 mile day seems a bit out of reach. But I decide to go as far as I can, maybe breaking 30 myself and doing a near return to Chester tomorrow.

The miles accumulate throughout the afternoon. Twenty, then a marathon. Can I go hiking thirty kilometers? I’ve done a few marathon days now. My biggest day was Aqueduct Day, 27.4. Thirty is not this much further. I’m almost halfway through the trail.

I will do it, I decide. There is a campsite at Soldier Creek, about 30 miles from where I started. All the gentle ridge walking today had me walking twice 0.3 miles downhill to off trail water sources which added more to my daily total. My Garmin watch is approaching 30 inches.

I take pictures at the monument halfway. Saw hardly anyone today – it seems like a lot of hikers are jumping the fire – but the logbook reveals that a dozen people preceded me today and the Second Breakfast Club was there yesterday. Half-way.

I don’t linger long. I have a 30 mile day to complete. Expect. Not thirty years, I realize. With my water detours, it’s going to be a little over 31. fifty kilometers. I’m going to be an ultra-marathoner, I realize with a warm glow of pride. The the slowest ultra-marathoner, sure – I’m on track to finish in almost 15 hours – but the last runner-up in an ultra still did an ultra, right?

I hit 50k and save the workout to my Garmin. The watch is at 1% battery and it quickly dies before I stop to camp ten minutes later. It’s almost dark. I pitched my tent in dusty, charred dirt. The trees around me are burned, but there is a corridor of private land from here to Chester, so this is my only camping option. It’s a warm, calm night, and I hope it stays that way. I’m too tired to inflate my NeoAir, so I’m going straight to sleep on my foam mat alone.

Day 83. Miles: 12.7 Total: 1340.7

After a restless night full of dreams of burnt trees falling, I wake up and hastily pack my bags, wanting to be away from the strange blackened forest. It’s only a few miles down the road.

Chester has the best kind of laundromat: the one with a shower. Even better, there’s a restaurant across the street with milkshakes you can order in regular or “jumbo” size. Naturally, I opt for the jumbo.

The grocery store is just down the street. Because of the convenience of everything, it only takes a few hours to complete all my chores around town, and I’m ready to hit the trail again with Wild Card and Leaky after lunch. Two young women offer some trail magic at the crossroads, so I eat some fresh fruit and drink a beer. While we’re at it, Rookie arrives. I haven’t seen him since Truckee, and we spend a few minutes catching up with him before he tries to get into town and I start walking again.

Once again, the forest is badly burned. Not just superficial evidence of a bushfire sweeping through the understory – the natural, healthy kind of wildfire that allows for growth and renewal. No, it was a catastrophic fire, one of the largest in California history. These intense and destructive fires are becoming more frequent for many interconnected reasons. When decades of fire suppression practices that have allowed abnormally dense forests are combined with changing weather patterns tending toward extreme heat and drought, the result is a powder keg. These woods are ready to ignite at the first strike of lightning or a poorly managed campfire.

I’m glad I didn’t jump the burn. Sometimes it’s ugly. It is certainly dirty, with a sooty black floor covering our sweaty skin. Whenever we climb downed trees, we get black spots on our calves and hands. I look like a chimney sweep at the end of the day. But mostly, it’s sad. When I think of the towering green forests between Tahoe and Truckee, blanketed in moss and surrounded by berry bushes and ferns, it’s heartbreaking to see this barren, dead forest.

Obviously, do your own hike – there are plenty of good reasons not to burn. If the forecast had called for rain or wind, I probably would have jumped it myself. But at the same time, I feel like for me it was important to see that destruction. Watching it, witnessing it, putting it under my fingernails. Problems won’t be solved by looking away, simply choosing to recreate in the forests that are still beautiful.

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