18.1 miles (1752.8 to 1770.9), plus 0.4 mile to/from creek and 2 miles to Fish Lake Resort
Raindrops hit my tent off and on throughout the night. Near 1am I get up for a call of nature. When I return to my tent, my headlamp catches movement in a tree beside my tent. A flying squirrel freezes in the beam, clinging to the tree trunk. It’s been years since I’ve seen a flying squirrel. Cool!
In the morning, everything is wet. Ferns and shrubs along the trail dump water onto my pants and shoes. In a matter of minutes, I’m soaked.
I hike through red fir forest. Soon, Douglas fir enters the mix. Back home, you’d never find these two species living together. When I see hemlock, I laugh out loud. Hemlock and Douglas fir? Unheard of in my neck of the woods, where Doug fir is a mid-elevation resident and hemlock only grows on the highest peaks.
For awhile I leapfrog with three NOBOs who are much faster than me but keep stopping. At 10:06 the day’s first sun beams break through the clouds and find me in the trees. I do 10 by 10:20, and when I stop for a break, I’m not in pain. Hallelujah.
I keep walking. Forest opens onto black lava rock and a PCT made of crushed red rock. The contrast of red and black is striking. I feel like I’m on an alternate version of the Yellow Brick Road. Pointy Mount McLaughlin appears and disappears. Red trail winds on and on, taking me in and out of boulder fields, in and out of forest. Six hikers blaze past me. Am I really so slow?
After lunch, I pass three SOBOs. I also pass the six hikers who zipped by me earlier. They’re sprawled beside the trail with all of their gear spread to dry, including their sleeping bags. Must have been a rough night.
I meet two more SOBOs. (They’re actual SOBOs who started at the northern border!) They tell me that the Crater Lake trail closure has expanded. I’ll now have to exit at Sevenmile Trail, 32 miles ahead. However, the PCTA recommends getting off at Highway 140 for logistical reasons and to avoid excessive smoke. Highway 140 is less than one mile from where I stand. I don’t have much time to decide what to do.
I manage to call Greg and my parents, but reception is so bad that they can’t understand what I’m saying. Greg gets on the PCTA’s closures page and confirms what the SOBOs told me. Apparently I can hike those 32 miles to Sevenmile Trail, take that trail down to Highway 62, then walk the highway into the park. However, Crater Lake National Park is under a Level 1 evacuation notice. Each day the situation there has worsened. Each day more of the PCT closes. By the time I get to Highway 62, conditions may be even worse. The safest choice, and the most infuriating choice, is to get off now at Highway 140. Which means I’ll be skipping more trail.
By “the safest choice,” I mean the choice with the lowest possibility of encountering major difficulties, logistical and otherwise. Smoke from the fires is supposed to be extreme north of Fish Lake. I’m very sensitive to smoke; I don’t want to make myself too sick to hike, which is a real possibility if I spend the next 3-4 days inhaling thick smoke. If I had WIFI, or the ability to hold a real conversation with someone who does, I might make a different choice. Given the resources available, I choose to bail at Fish Lake. My mother-in-law Charlotte will meet me there.
I have no idea where I’m going to get back on the trail. If I get on north of Crater Lake, I can only hike 160 miles before I’ll have to get off again due to the closure in Jefferson Wilderness. If I get on north of Jefferson, I’ll be outside the zone of totality during the upcoming eclipse. I’ll also be hiking into smoke from Canada’s wildfires. Air quality in Washington is supposed to be miserable right now. Where can I go?
Right now, I just need to get to Fish Lake, a little over two miles away. I keep walking. Immediately, I run out of water. I’m only 0.3 mile from the next water source, located at the creek by Highway 140. I have plenty of time before Charlotte arrives, so I’d planned to walk to the highway and back anyway (by hiking this 0.3 now, I won’t have to backtrack when I return to complete this stretch). At the creek, I get water, then sit with the six hikers who passed me earlier. (They passed me again when I was on the phone.) They, too, are checking mileages and directions. They’re planning to hike to Sevenmile Trail. One of them has family coming to the park. One of them tells his companions that he’s still sick. He’s nauseous. So it’s still going around, whatever it is.
I hike two miles down the side trail to Fish Lake Resort. I sit at a picnic table and eat dinner. Two golden mantled ground squirrels harass me for handouts. No way, you little tick carriers.
I wander down to the lake and sit for awhile with my feet in the water. A smokey haze dominates the view. Then, I hear thunder. I know I’m not supposed to be by large bodies of water during thunderstorms, so I dry my feet and head back to the picnic tables.
I shouldn’t feel guilty for getting off the trail here. But I do. I feel like a failure – again – because I can legally hike another 30 miles. Today you can, I remind myself. But tomorrow, the closure may expand yet again. This time, bailing out isn’t my fault, or even my decision. The trail is closed.
Another hiker shows up and sits across from me at the table. He’s Tatters, from Australia, and he doesn’t know how he’s going to handle the closure(s), either. We discuss the options, and we don’t like any of them. Three more hikers arrive. They eat dinner. They joke about having had diarrhea. I say nothing of my own problems, but secretly I’m wondering why we’re all having the shits. Darkness comes. The others move out to find a campsite. Charlotte finds me and we drive to Medford, where we check into a hotel and I enjoy the luxury of a shower and air conditioning. Tomorrow I’ll have to decide what to do.