SEIAD VALLEY, Calif. — After seven summers on the Pacific Crest Trail, nothing surprises me anymore.
An Israeli couple — trail-named Bugs and Bunny — hiking with speakers atop their backpacks, listening to rock music? Check.
Yours truly, deep in the Washington state forest and having not seen a human being all day, ducking into an out-of-nowhere outhouse for the luxury of an actual pit stop – and suddenly being interrupted by a hiker from Minnesota rapping frantically at the door? Check.
And this year: two days from completing a 190-mile stretch from Dunsmuir, Calif., to the Oregon border, a guy in hot-dog-decorated tights possibly saving our lives by warning us of a fire up ahead? Check.
And so it goes on the trail that twists and turns from Mexico to Canada like a 2,650-mile roller coaster.
To take to the PCT is to enter a play already in progress, not knowing what part you’ll play or what characters you’ll encounter. Weirdly, my barber from Springfield, Geoff Tyson, is a day ahead of us on the trail, headed for Canada.
On our third night out, we welcome a French couple to our camp at Deadfall Lakes. For the first time since beginning our quest to hike the entire trail, my brother-in-law and I have blister-free feet, thanks to discovering Altra shoes. Meanwhile, the French woman’s feet — two days into their trip — are already toast; it doesn’t help her that essentially the first 34 miles of this section are uphill.
Marion had talked her male companion, Theirno, into the trip after reading, of course, Cheryl Srayed’s “Wild.” For some reason, they chose Dunsmuir-to-the-Oregon-Washington border but I don’t like their chances of reaching it. Glenn gives her KT tape – she was using duct tape, a mistake the two of us had made early on, too — and I loan her my 29-ounce REI chair. I’ve found its evening comfort is worth every ounce.
“Just leave it near my tent in the morning,” I say. “We leave early, like 4.”
She does so, with a thank-you note that warms my heart. She calls us “trail magic.” I call us a couple of old farts who’ve been so busy receiving such magic over the years — we started in 2011 — that we’ve been unprepared to reciprocate.
When we meet a south-bound hiker, I ask if he’ll deliver a message to the French couple. “Tell Marion to call this Ashland outdoor store when she gets cell coverage. Her shoes will be there when she arrives.”
He does so. We know because Marion and Theirno camp with us again the next night. “He greeted us with a hearty ‘Bonjour, mes amis,’” said Marion of the trail messenger.
Later, via the trail’s “bamboo telegraph,” we learn that Marion and Theirno have left the trail — to watch, in the small town of Etna, France play in the World Cup.
We trudge on, averaging about 17 miles a day, amazed at how instead of hiking straight to Oregon we’re making a giant “C” with a ton of west- and, even, south-bound miles through wonders like the Trinity Alps. From our start point, Oregon is 60 freeway miles away — but nearly 200 PCT miles. Temperatures are near 100 every afternoon and our sleeping bags are hardly necessary.
On our last night before hitting the small town of Seiad Valley, I immerse myself in cold, clear Grider Creek and revel in how big, wild and rocky these mountains are, how easily you can feel so alone. One afternoon I saw more golden bears (one) than people (none).
Glenn invites Coyote, a 34-year-old solo hiker from Japan, to dine with us on this evening, “dine” meaning heating up something freeze-dried or scarfing down Fritos or a Snicker’s bar. We had bumped into him from time to time in the previous days, heeding his warning when, after consulting his iPhone language app, he had told us: “Very much deer feces.”
At dusk, a guy walks past us in hot-dog tights. Despite already having done 30 miles, he’s in high spirits and says he plans on trucking on into Seiad Valley, which is 8 miles away — on roads. Indeed, Glenn and I find him sitting in front of the town’s lone café the next day at 6:40 a.m.; we’d gotten up at 3:15 a.m. so we could make the 7 a.m. restaurant opening.
We eat with him and a kid from Colorado who says “38 miles a day feels right for me.” I almost spit out my pancakes. Everywhere, hikers are gobbling food from their plates and electricity from the outlets — to power their iPhones, which most use instead of paper maps to follow the trail. (We use both.)
We’re 36 miles from the Oregon border. Two days from home. On a whim, we decide not to stay the day in Seiad Valley as planned; so little shade and so little to do. Instead, we decide to leave at 11 a.m. – temperature in the low 90s — to make the treacherous climb out, which is equal to hiking the 5,000 feet from Devils Lake to the South Sister summit. The heat is a bear, but we figure every mile gained is gravy.
We’ve only earned half the 5,000 feet when a trail-side break morphs into an on-trail nap. We’re spent and it’s nearing 100 degrees. There’s little shade and no place flat enough to sleep on, even if we decided to hunker down.
Then along comes Hot Dog with news about the Hendrix Fire near the Oregon-California border. We don’t have enough cell oomph to call up info about the fire but we have enough to call Glenn’s wife, Ann, who does some quick digging from their home in Albany and calls back. It would be foolhardy to proceed, we realize; the trail is likely to be closed by fire near the border soon. No way out. The three of us turn around and hike six miles out.
Back in Seiad Valley, some hikers ignore the warnings and hit the trail. We learn that barber Geoff has bumped into the French couple; both are nearly to Oregon. I text, phone and email them about the fire dangers, unsure whether they get any of my messages.
At 8:30 p.m., our rescue ride arrives, courtesy of Ann and She Whose Idea of a Good Time is Not a Eugene-to-Seiad Valley-Roundtrip But Doesn’t Let On. We give four other hikers — Hot Dog, a couple from Brooklyn and a woman from Sequim, Wash. — rides to Talent and Medford.
We arrive in Eugene shortly before 2 a.m. Two days later I learn that Geoff and the French couple retreated and detoured around the fire and heading north on the PCT. Marion got her new shoes — and was blister-free.
And by the time you’re reading this, Glenn and I should be en route from Chester, Calif., east of Red Bluff, to Lake Tahoe, about 200 miles south, Part II of our PCT summer fun.
I can hardly wait to read the script.