This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
I leave Chester feeling well rested, for the first time after a zero. Normally it takes me a few days to get my mojo back after town, but this time it is waiting for me at the trailhead. We head through the forest towards Lassen National Park. Mt. Lassen has loomed on the horizon for days, and now we loop around it, past bubbling lakes that smell of sulphur. We head towards the campground when we hear a shout behind us - Bear Bait! We left him in Sierra City, where he came down with the Norovirus that has been spreading up and down the trail, but he has caught us easily.
We stealth camp just outside of the paid campground. In the morning, I am first to leave and I climb, up and up. Bear Bait catches me near the top. He is maybe fifty feet ahead when I see it- beautiful cinnamon-blond fur. “Rob! Bear!” I shout, as he walks towards it, head down. We yell and bang our poles together. It takes a few steps towards us to show us it’s leaving because it wants to, not because it is scared, and then it ambles off into the brush. As we leave the park, it heats up. My head spins as we approach Old Station,and I dream of cold Gatorade. A lady tells us it was 96 in town, and 106 on the rim. Tomorrow, when we will tackle the 30 mile waterless, shadeless stretch of hat Creek rim, promises to be even hotter. We form a plan- hang out in town during the day, then night hike until we drop. We head out at four, when it is still scorching. Up to the rim, past the baleful eyes of cows too weary from the heat to bother us, and on to the long, flat waterless stretch. A fire burning near LA has filled the air with haze, and as the air cools, it drops to reveal our first glimpse of Shasta, the volcano that we will loop around for over three hundred miles. The sun goes down, the stars pop out, and we stop for dinner. Hodge podge and Danger Dave pass us, and then we are night hiking proper. I am in the middle, sandwiched between Shake’nBake in front and Bear Bait behind. Put the person most likely to be eaten by a mountain lion in the middle, we joke. Mice jump in front of Shake’nBake’s feet, and he does his best to shoo them away. Then, in the middle of the trail, a dead mouse, blood pooled under it. What would kill a mouse and leave it in the middle of the trail? We bunch closer together, talking loudly to warn off our imaginary cougars. We come up on Hodge Podge and Danger Dave, camped by an old look out. We ask them about the mouse and Hodge Podge laughs, while Dave looks abashed. Turns out Danger Dave tripped over the mouse. Hodge Podge tried to reassure him that it was just stunned, but we have broken that illusion. We leave them, hiking three more miles to camp by the water cache at forest road 22, finally falling down to sleep by midnight. We wake as the sun comes up and race its heat as we run to water. The trail passes through broken lava fields and my shoes kill me, the cushioning long since worn out, as it feels like I am walking barefoot. Finally, we are to a stream and shade, where we wait out the heat of the day. We leave the stream, and I am hot, so hot. Like a mirage, a man appears on a dirt bike, telling us he runs a guest house with cold drinks for sale. His daughter in law takes our packs on her four wheeler, and then we are in the shade, where they feed us home made ice cream and we drink cold soda. Then, we are running for Burney Falls State Park, where I have new shoes. They close at eight, so we have to hurry. 3mph is no longer the challenge that it used to be for me, and we are flying, when I hear music playing. Umbrellas are set up by the trail, with a couple sat under them. We have to make it to the store… but trail magic is so rare now. They offer us a beer, and we are lost. The store reopens at eight, which will put us hiking in the heat of the day. We hit the state park as dark falls and struggle to find the PCT camping. The campsite marked on our maps is full of families, kids screaming and not respecting hiker midnight. Grumpy, we finally find a spot under the quiet pines.
The section from Burney Falls to Castella is typical of Nor Cal. We walk along the tops of tree covered ridges, drop to valley floors, then climb back up panting. My new shoes hurt my feet- I have heel blisters for the first time since the desert and my arches ache and burn. It’s easy to forget though, as we circle Shasta. In Castella, a man stops me and gives me detailed directions to the river. He tells me there’s a swimming hole perfect for someone like me. I guess I must look pretty dirty. The climb out of Castella is long. I nap by the highway, then again the next day. I sit down for lunch and wake up two hours later. The elevation and increase in miles exhausts me. I dream about a motel room in Etna, with a shower and laundry. When we arrive, the hiker before us takes the last room. I resupply hungry and upset and end up buying a weeks worth of food for five days. Oh well. We get a hitch back to the trail as the light is fading and cowboy camp under a radio tower next to the highway. We hike through the marble mountains, dark peaks giving way to white rock. We are climbing and Shake’nBake is behind me when I hear him shout. Bear! I look up, see nothing, then dart back to help him chase it off, but he just points to the valley floor far below. Two black cubs tumble after their brown mama. That night, I can’t fit all of my food in my Ursack. I sleep with half of it, then wake up in the middle of the night, spooked by a deer running through the bushes. We descend to Siead Valley, then climb four and a half thousand feet in six miles. We walk along the California- Oregon divide and bump into a group of people doing trail maintenance with horses. One of them recites a poem he wrote while we eat dinner. We fall asleep to shooting stars and are woken by three owls having a conversation. Then in the morning, we are running for Oregon. Like all major milestones on the PCT, we round a corner and it is there, with no fanfare. From there, it is only a days walk to Ashland and my first zero in almost 400 miles.