29.2 miles (1261.0 to 1290.2)
Greg drops me off at the trail after a night at home. Away I go. A few miles in, I come upon a crew doing trail maintenance. Awesome. I stop and chat. Then I chat with the folks working around the corner. Then, a little farther along, I chat with Justin, the coordinator. I tell him about trail conditions to the south, including all of the snow still up there. I burn up a lot of time chatting. At this rate, I’ll never get to Belden today. Finally I say goodbye and start moving again.
Ahead, a pale blur streaks across the trail. Am I imagining things, or is there an animal up there? A moment later, a bear dashes toward me in a puff of dust, like it’s been spooked by something ahead. Immediately it sees me and darts off the trail. Good. I really don’t need to be charged by a second bear. I walk forward clapping and shouting so it knows where I am.
I arrive at Bucks Summit and cross the paved road. On the other side, I find a hiker perched on a huge boulder taking advantage of cell reception. His name is Bam Bam. He asks me all kinds of questions about Quincy, then says he’s probably not going to town. So I’m just standing here wasting time? Dude, I could be half a mile up the trail by now. Finally I break away, sign the trail register, and get going.
Now it’s time to fly. This is the section of trail that I know best. I’ve hiked from here to Belden twice, day-hiked to Spanish Peak several times, over-nighted along the middle part of the trail once, and snow-camped the next few miles twice. Hello, my old friend. Up I go. Our winter camping site is almost as beautiful in summer as it is covered in snow. On I go, passing SOBOs around every corner. The trail levels out and now I’m really moving, pausing only for photos. I already have multiple shots of these views, but I don’t have them as a thru hiker.
The Plumas section of the PCT features delightfully ridiculous signs. I’ve always chuckled at these signs, but they’re even more ridiculous (and delightful) now that I know they’re unique to Plumas. In nearly 900 miles, I haven’t seen their equivalent anywhere on the trail.
I know exactly where I’m going to stop for lunch: a crossing of Clear Creek where the creek is deep enough to soak my feet. When I get there and bend over to take off my shoes, a SOBO arrives, the 14th in 14 miles. Her name is Monarch. I eat lunch with her and Unicorn, who both skipped to Ashland and hiked south from there.
Now begins the second worst descent of the entire trail, the first being the endless drop from San Jacinto. The problem was San Jacinto was the switchbacks were so mild that the descent was painfully long. On Belden, it’s the opposite: the switchbacks are so steep that every step hurts. The descent is just as painful now, when I’m in peak condition, as it was the first two times I hiked it.
Down, down, forever down. But I’m making progress. I spot the first poison oak within a few steps of the first live oak. Poison oak is having a good year. There’s nowhere to pee that won’t involve an accidental brush with toxicity.
My feet and legs hurt, and the pain is only going to get worse. Down, down, down. Still two miles to go. How can it be two miles? I can see the red bridge through the trees; it’s maybe a quarter mile away. Switchbacks continue. Finally, finally, I cross the railroad tracks and begin the road walk into Belden. This is the first time I’ve walked into Belden without a music festival in town. Town looks a lot different without the tents and the crowds. I stop at a picnic table near the river and take off my shoes and eat a snack and start my dinner noodles soaking. Then I have to keep going. I don’t want to camp here.
My uphill muscles haven’t done much today, so they’re ready when I call upon them to carry me up this canyon. A fact about me: I generally don’t like canyons, especially canyons where live oak lives. At night, live oak canyons freak me out. This is at least partially due to the kinds of people who tend to frequent canyons like these, people who tend to leave bottles and cigarette butts and heaps of trash behind. I’d rather not meet these people after dark. So I climb. I climb absurdly fast for someone who’s just hiked 23 miles. I don’t stop to investigate the first potential campsite a little over a mile in, which is down a steep side trail in some rocks by a tributary stream. No thank you.
A little later, I run into the spitting image of a canyon dweller, exactly the type I’d expect to see near Belden (having grown up here, I feel qualified to say so). He’s coming the other way wearing an external frame pack, and at first I mistake him for a crusty old hiker. But no. He’s wearing the metal backpack frame with a wooden crate strapped onto it and a bunch of stuff in the crate that I intentionally don’t look at. He stands aside to let me by and I thank him and pass and keep going, wondering who else is out here, hoping I won’t find the only campsite for miles already occupied.
Except, there isn’t a campsite for miles. There truly isn’t. Well, there may be something down a side trail marked “Chips Creek 0.3 miles,” but I’m not willing to risk it. If there’s no campsite, I’ll have gone an extra 0.6 miles and wasted precious daylight. If there is something down there, perhaps I won’t be alone, and perhaps I won’t care for the company.
Instead, I power up steep switchbacks. I cross many flowing tributary streams. At least there’s water here. At least I’m in the shade. The sun sets in Chips Creek Canyon and works its way up the opposite canyon wall, the one on which I descended to Belden. I glance at the PCT app. Three miles to the next campsite. For once, I don’t think there’ll be anything before that. Often there’ll be a little site or two tucked in somewhere, even on steep slopes, but not here. This is too steep. Well, I can do three miles by dark. Barely. But unless the trail suddenly gets a lot steeper, I can do it.
I climb and climb. How can this slope possibly flatten out enough for camping? Two miles. Two more miles. I don’t even try to calculate how far I will have walked today. It is what it is. I can’t stop here. One and a half miles. I’m going to make it. I just have to keep going. Across the canyon, sunlight disappears. Soon it will be dark. Darkness comes quickly in canyons. I push harder. Come on, come on, where is this campsite?
Finally the slope lets up. I cross a stream. I find the campsite off to the left. There’s no one here. No SOBOs. No canyon folk. Empty. Perfect. I take off my pack and select a flat spot and set up my tent. Now, food. I pour olive oil and salt into my black bean noodles, which have been soaking in my little mug, and eat them as the last of the light leaves the canyon. I finish by the light of my headlamp. Only then do I enter my mileage into my daily spreadsheet. Twenty nine point two. Even with all of those early distractions, talking with the trail crew and with Bam Bam, I did 29 miles before dark. The craziest part is, I could have done 30. My legs have another mile in them, and there’s another campsite one mile up the trail. If I had a little more daylight, if I’d started hiking 15 minutes earlier, if I hadn’t stopped to talk to the trail crew, I could have had a 30 mile day.
Now, however, 29 will have to do. It’s dark and I’m tired. I collapse in my tent and manage to stay upright long enough to go through my foot care routine. I’ve never seen my feet so filthy before. I scrub them as well as I can with a damp rag. There’s a stream maybe 50 feet away, but I’m too tired to go out and wash my feet properly. Maybe tomorrow.