Day 74: Angels in Burney

17.2 miles (1390.0 to 1407.2), plus 0.3 to Burney Mountain Guest Ranch

Less than half a mile from my campsite, I run into cattle on the trail. “Hello, ladies,” I say, to make sure they’re aware of me. “I’m going to walk by now. Nobody freak out.” I take a step. 

Behind me: “Hello.”

I turn. 

A hiker with an extra small backpack has come up behind me. I let him pass. He walks by without announcing himself to the cattle. I follow. There’s a bull in the mix, but he’s even less interested in our presence than the cows are. These animals must see a lot of hikers. 

Hello, ladies.

For maybe a mile, cattle congregate near the trail. They walk across the trail in front of me, or stand and watch me pass, or moo from somewhere in the shrubs. For long stretches, the trail is nothing but powder. Each step sends powdered soil into my shoes and my nose. Where it’s not powder, the trail is volcanic rock. I trip and twist my feet on the rocks. The slope may be mostly flat, but this is not an easy section. 

I descend from the rim into black volcanic rocks. The trail doesn’t have a clear destination. It wanders aimlessly through unpleasant terrain. Shrubs and foothill pine dominate a volcanic rock understory. How many miles of this?

I stop for lunch in the shade of a foothill pine. I text Marla, a trail angel who’s offered me a place to stay, giving her my ETA. After lunch I find myself in blue oak-foothill pine woodland. Are you sure this is the right trail? The PCT goes through blue oak woodland? I never expected this, though I probably should have, given the elevation profile. Blue oak. Foothill pine. Patches of medusahead thatch. Yellow star thistle. Unconsciously, I get to work cataloging the plants I recognize. Most are crispy beyond recognition. Someone I know once called this forensic botany – an excellent description. There’s rose clover. There’s a perennial grass. There’s a patch of perennials! Looks like blue wild rye, or something related. 

Are you sure this is the PCT?

I continue to lose elevation. It’s hot out here, and getting hotter. I’m hot and uncomfortable. The last two high mileage days have caught and tackled me. My body feels like one big cramp. My left shoulder hurts. I’m tired and I’m not feeling well. If I wasn’t already getting off the trail at Burney Mountain Guest Ranch to meet Marla, I’d probably have to get off there anyway. I’m too hot and too tired to go much farther. I’m so slow that I’m not even going to make my ETA, which I’d padded with an extra half an hour to make sure I gave myself enough time.  

Finally I leave the PCT and follow a series of hiker-friendly signs to the guest ranch. Marla meets me there. She takes me to her house, where I meet her husband Tim. They are top notch trail angels. They feed me a delicious dinner and a pint of almond milk ice cream. I get to shower and wash my clothes and sleep in a comfortable bed. Thank you for your generosity. I’m the luckiest hiker on the PCT. 

Day 73: Subway Cave and Hat Rim

25.3 miles (1364.7 to 1390.0), plus 0.8 to/from Subway Cave and 0.5 to/from Lost Creek

It’s cold. I zip my sleeping bag. All the way. Later (of course) I have to unzip. In the morning, I hike out of camp in my fleece hoody, with the hood on. My hands are freezing. I wish I’d put on my fleece gloves, but now they’re in the bottom of my pack, so I hike with icy fingers. 

Lots of hikers camped at Hat Creek last night. I stop to get water and count nine people nearby. I’m glad I stayed a few miles back. As far as I know, only deer came through our camp; no one bothered the plastic bag of food.

I walk through pine forest on sandy soil. Except for a few short climbs, the way is completely flat. I keep a good pace, but even so, two northbound hikers overtake me. I did over 29 miles yesterday, but when these two pass me, I suddenly feel slow again. I’m never going to be fast, I remind myself, but I can still do big miles. Turns out I’m an endurance athlete, not a speedster. 

Flat, easy trail.

I reach the junction for Subway Cave and follow the side trail. Chain link fence surrounds the cave entrance. I descend underground on a concrete staircase. The temperature immediately drops. I pull out my headlamp and walk through the cave. A few people walk by from the opposite direction. I exit the far end and find the parking lot, where there is an outhouse, two picnic tables, and a water spigot. I eat lunch. I load up with enough water to get to Lost Creek, eight miles ahead on Hat Rim. Then I go back through the cave in the opposite direction. If I didn’t have to hike the notorious rim this afternoon, I’d spend more time in this cave. Instead, I make my way back to the PCT and continue north.
Partial collapse in Subway Cave.

I pass a southbounder who stops and, without promoting, tells me about water conditions on the rim. The cache is empty, however there’s a stock pond a few miles north of the cache with decent water. What about Lost Creek? He didn’t hike down to it but saw others who had. Ok. Thank you very much. I keep going. Soon, I climb. I glimpse Shasta through the shrubbery. I come upon another southbounder. This one also tells me about the pond. He says I’ll find patches of shade on the rim, as well as a breeze. We chat for awhile, then part ways. 

On the rim, I have reception. I have business to take care of, including tracking down a package that shipped but hasn’t arrived, so I spend time catching up on messages. I learn that my Dad is leaving the trail at Burney tomorrow (he started at Highway 36 a day and a half ahead of me and had planned to hike to Ashland). His foot may be causing him trouble again. I’ll get to Burney tomorrow, too, but maybe not in time to meet him. There’s no word on the whereabouts of my package. 

I enjoy long views on the rim and repeatedly photograph Lassen and Shasta as I hike. This place isn’t as miserable as I’d been led to believe. It’s hot and dry, but so were the first 700 miles.

Looking back at Lassen.

I arrive at the turnoff to Lost Creek. Yeah, it’s a steep drop into a steep canyon. Yeah, I need to do it. If I’d carried one more liter of water from Subway Cave, I could make it to the cow pond and fill up there. But honestly, I don’t want to drink from a cow pond. This detour is going to be unpleasant, but the reward is cold flowing water. I leave my bear can and my tent at the rim and begin the descent. The trail’s steep angle is eased somewhat but a few switchbacks. It’s still crazy steep. At the bottom, as promised, I find a cold stream. I soak my feet and collect seven liters of water, which I have to carry back up to the rim, 400 feet above. By the time I’m back at the top and have repacked everything and am ready to continue, an hour has gone by. That was a costly stop. 

On I go. I want to do 11 more miles to the only campsite listed between here and Baum Lake, so I put on music and cruise faster than I thought possible. A SOBO appears. “There’s trail magic!” she says. “At the radio tower.” There aren’t many hikers today, so there’s lots of food available. I check the app. The radio tower is still over two miles away. It’s already after 5pm. I hope the trail magic stays put for another hour. 

I power up the trail and reach the tower shortly after my music ends. I see a canopy. Two canopies. Multiple vehicles. The trail magic is still here! A sign on the canopy says “Welcome home Zebra and Skittles!” Skittles’s mom Janine is the trail magic host, along with a bunch of family friends. I take off my pack and accept their generosity. Zebra and Skittles, it turns out, are the two NOBOs who passed me this morning. I eat a bread-less BLT, a slice of watermelon, a handful of strawberries, and piles of peanuts. I down a Gatorade, which I never do, but right now I feel desperate for electrolytes. My body isn’t feeling great, and I have more miles to cover tonight. 

Getting up is not easy. I leave the trail magic at 7pm and plod ahead. I’m tired. There’s nowhere to camp. The rim is covered with sharp volcanic rocks. Finally I find a little spot where I can fit my tent. There’s a view of Shasta. There are also cow tracks all over the place, including on the trail. Hmm. This time of year, I assumed cattle were in the valley on irrigated pasture. Maybe not. 

I pitch my tent. I photograph the sunset over Mount Shasta. I hear cows moo nearby. Great. I hope they don’t come over to investigate my campsite. I eat my noodles, which have been soaking for hours. Inside my tent, I hear Screech Owls calling. Have I heard Screech Owls yet on this trip? I can’t even remember. 

Shasta at sunset.

Day 72: 1,000 miles

29.4 miles (1335.3 to 1364.7)

Nighthawks wake me before 5am, calling and diving over my tent. I walk away from camp shortly after 6am. 

Today, I will hike my 1,000th mile of the trip. I keep track of my miles in a spreadsheet, and today’s the day. These 1,000 miles include the Idyllwild fire detour and my backtrack to Cottonwood Pass. I hiked those miles, so I’m counting them. One thousand miles. I’m not even halfway finished. 

I trek through forest with occasional views of Mount Lassen. For miles, I hear a timber harvesting operation. I descend. I cross the North Fork of the Feather River. I climb. I enter Lassen Volcanic National Park. I suddenly smell sulfur. I check the map. At mile 1344.9, I’m close to Terminal Geyser. I’d love to detour to check it out, but I’m not loving the idea of adding 0.6 mile to my day. I’ll be detouring to Subway Cave tomorrow; today I’ll stick to the trail. 

Boiling Springs Lake

As I descend to Drakesbad, I pass masses of day hikers. There are backpackers too, loads of them. It’s not even the weekend. I never expected to see so many people on a Tuesday. 

My feet hurt. They’re still swollen and tingly, making each step painful. At Kings Creek I stop for lunch and a foot soak. As I take off my shoes, I discover a hole in the toe of one of my socks. I finally wore out a pair of socks. I soak my feet while I eat. Then I lay out my tent’s footprint and take a short nap with my feet elevated on my backpack. When I wake up, I put on my shoes with no socks or insoles and wade across the cold, fast-moving stream. The water here is deeper than it looks. A few steps in, there’s a tricky part where I can’t get my leg around a large boulder. I brace myself and keep bracing and finally get across. There are two logs across the creek on which I could have crossed, but I don’t like crossing on logs. When possible, I’ll always wade. 

I pass lots of backpackers coming the other way. Some of them look like thru-hikers, some it’s hard to say for sure. I arrive at Lower Twin Lake at 3:30, completing 20 miles for the day. I eat a snack and study the route ahead. It would be so nice to camp at this lake tonight. So nice. It’s only 4:00. I could relax all evening. But it’s only 4:00. There’s a lot of daylight left, and a lot of miles ahead. 

Immediately after leaving the lake, I enter the area burned by 2012’s Reading Fire. I hope I can find somewhere to camp without dead trees overhead. 

Reading Fire

Five miles in, I stop for water at a little stream. Unfortunately there’s nowhere around here to camp. I eat dinner and keep walking. There should be a campsite a mile and a half ahead. Shortly before that, however, I find a flat area in (live!) lodgepole pines where I could pitch my tent. I don’t like the spot, though. I stand around debating what to do and finally keep walking. I hope I don’t regret this. 

The upcoming site looks promising. I’m still in mostly live forest. Soon, I’m standing right where the site should be, but I don’t see anything that looks like a campsite. Does the app mean that little semi-flat area down the hill? Yuck. I don’t want to sleep there. I keep walking. The next site listed has a three-week-old comment about bear activity. It’s a horrible site, anyway, with dead trees overhead, so again I keep going. I pass out of Lassen park. The next site is a few miles away. If it sucks I don’t know what I’ll do. Unfortunately there’s nowhere to camp between here and there. The slope is covered in dense shrubs. 

Sunset approaches.

I enter a grove (plantation?) of live ponderosa pine. Again the area looks promising. I find the campsite already occupied. Dang. But this time I can’t keep going. It’s only 2.5 miles to a large campsite at Hat Creek, but that’s another hour, and by then it will be dark. Plus, I don’t want to burn myself out; it looks like I may need to pull off a 30-mile day tomorrow. So I walk across pine needles into the site. The man in the tent sits up. I say hello. He may not speak English; he makes a positive sound in a European-sounding accent, but doesn’t say anything. He’s hung his food from a tree branch in plastic shopping bags. I’d rather not sleep near that. But I really don’t want to go on. After 29 miles, I shouldn’t go on. If a bear causes trouble tonight, at least there are two of us here to deal with it. 

I pitch my tent on a bed of thick pine needles. I eat a snack, then close up my bear can. Yeah, I’m carrying a bear can. Yes, even though they’re not required (outside of Lassen, that is). Before the PCT, I always carried my bear can while backpacking. I don’t want a bear or a rodent to get into my food, and I don’t want to worry about it happening, either. The can is worth it’s weight.

Day 71: Reunited with the trail

6.5 miles (1328.8 to 1335.3)

After all of my resupply boxes are packed and addressed, Mom drives me back to the trail. I start hiking at 6:40pm with the goal of reaching Stover Spring before dark. After three and a half days off, my feet are swollen and tingly and uncomfortable. My toes feel numb. I lurch along. I’m not going fast. I’m barely going at all. I glance at my phone. It’s only been 30 minutes! This is going to be a long evening.

Slowly I make my way north. Although it turns out I’m not as slow as I think I am. After a little more than an hour, I arrive at Stover Spring. Oops. I didn’t study the map closely enough. A road goes right to the spring. The campsites here are already occupied…by RVs. I’m not going to stay here, after all. But it’s six miles to the next water, so I take off my pack and collect a little more water for a dry camp tonight. 

I lift my pack and swing it onto my back, and when I turn there’s a black puppy coming toward me. There’s a man coming toward me, too. Great. Decades of social training put me on guard. I’m alone in the woods at dusk with a man approaching me. Women readers will understand what I’m feeling. Men probably never will. 

“Do you like kiwis?”

Huh? That’s not what I expected to hear. But yeah, I do. He hands me a kiwi and a knife. Cool, thanks. I ask about his puppy as I cut into the fruit. She’s a real cutie, four months old. I thank him again for the kiwi and pass the knife back and tell him I’m going to do a few more miles before dark. Off I go. 

On the topo, the terrain looks gentle, and it is, so I’m surprised there are no campsites listed for the next 3.5 miles. I’m even more surprised when I don’t find sites sprinkled along the trail, even where the ground is perfectly flat. What’s going on? Does everyone hike out of Chester first thing in the morning? Not one campsite? This is bizarre. 

As darkness closes in, I start banging my trekking poles together. This looks like perfect habitat for running into a bear; I make noise to alert them to my approach. 

Hiking after sunset.

Still no campsites. I cross a plethora of dirt roads. Still no sites. I investigate a few potentials, but they’re too lumpy or too rocky or just don’t feel right. Then I spot a little flat area nestled between sugar pine and white fir. Sold!

I pitch my tent and clean my filthy feet and listen to nighthawks call and dive nearby. By the time I lie down, my feet aren’t so uncomfortable. Hopefully tomorrow they’ll be back to normal, whatever that means. 

Days 68-70: Triple zero

I spend three days packing the resupply boxes that will get me to Canada. Packing, and eating. In fact, there’s no time for anything else. I organize and pack and eat. No time to rest.

Apparently it’s not a good idea to let a hungry hiker order food for the second half of her journey. I ordered too much. Way too much: I have four extra cases of potato chips. On the trail, I eat one bag of chips per day. I managed to order four extra cases. How does that even happen? I also ordered a whole extra case of bars, which is crazy given that I’ve already bumped my daily ration from two to a minimum of three bars per day. My boxes are also loaded with (gluten free) cookies, trail mix, and other snack foods, plus vitamins, salt pills, maps, and other essentials. 

Finally, finally I should have enough food. 

I hope. 

Day 67: Halfway to somewhere

15.6 miles (1313.2 to 1328.8), plus 0.6 to/from Cub Spring

I love that I’m now a hiker who gets to camp when others are already in their tents and leaves the next morning before the others emerged. 

Right out of camp, I hike 0.3 miles down to Cub Spring for water, then hike 0.3 miles back up to the trail. From here, the trail climbs, but it’s nothing like yesterday’s crawl out of the Feather River. I come upon a statuesque buck standing in the middle of the trail. He doesn’t move until I say hello, then he leaps off the trail and wanders away. 

Good morning, Gorgeous.
Near mile 1320, the landscape opens on a view of what seems like the entire Feather River watershed. I see Spanish Peak and even the Sierra Buttes way out on the horizon. I stop for a break. I have reception, so I upload a few photos to Instagram. A NOBO (northbounder) passes me. A little later, I pass him taking a break in the shade. 

A hazy view that doesn’t end.

I spend few hours meandering through white fir forest. I pass the PCT midpoint monument, an underwhelming thing, especially when you’ve skipped a few hundred miles and haven’t actually walked halfway to Canada. Not long after, I stop for lunch in a flattish tent site in an otherwise steep area covered by white fir. The NOBO passes me again. We laugh and wave. 

Halfway to somewhere.

After a long lunch break, I keep going. The trail takes me downhill through white fir. I can tell I’m losing elevation just by the increase in temperature. It’s hot out here. Suddenly I’m at Soldier Creek. The same NOBO is here taking a break in the shade by the water. I stop and we finally introduce ourselves. He’s Sticks. I’m not sure if it’s sticks as in twigs or Styx, as in the river (or the band!), and unfortunately I don’t immediately think to ask for clarification. We chat for awhile. Eventually I get moving again. 

An hour later, I reach Highway 36. I cross and take off my pack. Greg drives up. Wow, great timing. He’s brought a jar of peanut butter and a pint of almond milk ice cream. We head for home, and a few long zeroes. 

*More pictures on Instagram

Day 66: One hundred in four

23.0 miles (1290.2 to 1313.2)

For much of the night, I’m in too much pain to sleep. My feet and legs throb. I toss and turn right off of my flattened egg carton mattress, no easy feat. Well, I did just do my fifth day of 20+ miles in a row. Of course my feet hurt. Hey, have I done 100 miles in four days? I plug in my numbers and…I’ve done 99.5. Rounded up, that’s 100. But that won’t stand up in court. To pull off a legit 100 in four days, I’ll have to hike 22.3 miles today. 

Here in camp, I’m already six miles up this climb. I have about eight more miles to go. Those eight miles will take me from 3,600 feet to 7,100 feet. My clothes are still wet from all of the sweating I did last night. I pull them on and try to ignore the sticky funk. I eat breakfast. I make what may be my latest departure on the trail: 8am. Oh well. I needed sleep. 

I still need sleep. I lurch up the trail in a daze. My head feels like it’s underwater. Groggy. That’s the word for this condition. I stagger along, stepping over stream after stream, making my feet go one after the other uphill. Sections of this climb look exactly like sections of Canyon Creek Lakes trail in the Trinity Alps. I love it. This is beautiful country. 

But I’m having trouble getting myself up the trail. My head is barely attached. I need to stop and let myself sleep. In a campsite near Chips Creek, I sit in the shade and lean against my pack, which leans against a boulder. With my mosquito net over my head and my pants tucked into my gaiters, I drift to sleep. After my nap, I check my progress. I’ve done 3 miles by 10am. I’ve also – somehow – already climbed 1,100 feet. No wonder I was so slow back there. 

I take off my socks and remove the insoles from my shoes and cross Chips Creek. I’ll have to cross again in half a mile, so I walk that half mile without socks or insoles. I cross again and give everything a few minutes to dry while I sit and eat a snack. My shoes are still soaked when I put them back on. 

At mile 1295, I enter a gorgeous little meadow featuring wildflowers in every color. I also pass the first southbounder of the day, the first hiker I’ve seen since the dropping off the ridge yesterday. I keep climbing. I’ve seen the elevation profile; I know this climb ends. But when? All I do is climb. I think I’m near the top, but then the trail turns and takes me higher. I catch a view of Lassen and Shasta. On the ridge, I sit down for lunch at 1:30, having hiked only eight miles. 

Pretty little meadow on the long uphill slog.

A man and two horses pass me. I want to ask if he’s the magician I followed from Jackson Meadows Reservoir, who conjures horses over insurmountable obstacles, but the situation isn’t ideal for conversation. He keeps moving. Soon, I follow. Highway 36 is still over 30 miles away. I’m supposed to meet Greg there tomorrow. I have to make more miles today so there’s less to do tomorrow. 

I find myself back among snowbanks. But only a few, and soon I’m back on dry trail. I walk through an old burn, then through dense red fir forest. Am I in a grazing allotment? I see cattle trails and cattle prints and partially dried manure. I see no cattle. When I stop for water at Cold Spring, I see a doe, two cars, two motorcycles, and an ATV. I keep walking. 

The trail still goes up. I’m supposed to be going down now, right? I don’t want to believe the numbers coming out of my PCT app. If the trail would stop going up, I’d have a chance at getting somewhere. Instead, all I do is go up. At 5pm, I’ve only done 14.5 miles. I’m walking and walking but not getting anywhere. I don’t remember ever being so slow. 

The PCT and Lassen.

All at once, I’m out of red fir, walking across a huge volcanic rock formation. This is really cool. I go a little farther, and Mount Lassen appears. My camera gets a workout. Staring at the volcano, walking through these red rocks, I suddenly need to hear the Last Unicorn theme song. How…odd. But happily, I have the soundtrack on my iPhone. The music and the views revive me. One hundred miles in four days? I can do that. I bound down the trail. I’m aliiive!

When the last eagle flies over the last crumbling mountain….

I come to a dirt road. In the dust, I see two sets of northbound prints. So I’m not the only northbounder out here, after all. These prints look fairly fresh; these hikers aren’t too far ahead. At the intersection with the dirt road, there are a few signs nailed to trees. I know trail signage isn’t a contest. But if it was, Lassen beats Plumas. 

This sign makes sense.

Magically, at the end of the day I’m hiking faster and feeling better than I did this morning. I pass two campsites, both just short of my mileage goal. Good thing someone’s already set up in the second site; the view is so cool, I’d be tempted to stay. Instead I push on. One hundred miles in four days, here I come. My intended campsite isn’t much of a campsite. I walk another half mile to the next site. Someone’s already here, too. Two someones. But there’s room for a few more. I pitch my tent as the light fades. I did it: 100 miles in four days!

Nighthawks dive in the distance. Their booms reach me in my tent. Deer wander through camp. Deer in camp are always annoying. They linger and lick things and stomp around and cough and sneeze and generally keep me awake. Tonight, though, I’m not even trying to sleep. I’m massaging my feet, then I’m typing up a summary of my day. When I do close my eyes, I don’t hear the deer. 

*More photos on Instagram