“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the god damned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something. Maybe.” Ed Abbey.
I want to see my backyard.
Not just the three acres that comprises my “off grid” home in Concow---no---I want to see the thousands of acres of National Forest--the People's Yard--that starts after you leave our Foothills home. Specifically, I want to hike the nearly fifty mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail which passes through Butte County. The Pacific Crest Trail is one of America’s longest hiking trails. It travels from the Mexican border in southern California, along the crest of the Sierra and the Cascades, ending in Canada. 2,650 miles in length.
I’m not expecting much. This section is not on anyone's "life list". It is supposed to be ugly, dry, logged over with less impressive views. Hiking books on the Pacific Crest Trail state that you should go fast through this section because it is boring, shade less, somewhat dangerous and dry.
We are loading up our gear at our meeting spot: The Dome Store in Concow. 6:45 am. My wife will transport three of us, 29 miles up the road to the Belden Rest Stop. Our goal is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Belden on Highway 70 to St. Bernard’s Lodge on Highway 36. Forty eight miles on the trail. We’ve penciled in five days of our lives to this endeavor.
Going with me are Jason, a therapist who has visited Tibet; and Joshua, a self proclaimed "Abbot" of a Lutheran Intentional Community in Paradise. Neither of these guys have ever backpacked before, but they are young (at 30 years of age), enthusiastic and full of testosterone. I've packed my sleeping bag, backpack stove, too much food, sleeping pad, old wooden hiking stick, topo maps, rain fly, rope, long underwear, spare t-shirt, rain gear, penicillin, ibuprofen, Vicodin, Lomotil, Benadryl, new water filter, a journal and a fifth of J and B Scotch. I forgot my copy of Walden. The Abbot packs sparingly, and has brought only trail mix and jerky for food and a huge bottle of 151 Bacardi Rum. "I want more bang for the buck", he says. The Therapist has more connoisseur tastes. He packs gourmet salami, farmers' market beef jerky, peanut butter and a half liter of Jack Daniels filled in a plastic bottle.
The Abbot has our hike programmed into his iPhone’s Global Positioning application. Move five feet to your left and the little blue dot that announces your position actually moves on the little screen. Fool proof hiking! No way to get lost! Or maybe not?
We drive up Highway 70 (a neglected, under appreciated part of the State Highway system). We get to the Rest Area where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with highway 70. One last visit to the men's room, a struggle heaving the 40 pound pack onto my back, a kiss to my wife--and we are on our way.
I am familiar with the first part of the hike, as I visited Belden the week before. Belden, according to Wikipedia, has 26 residents; 13 households; and an average income of $8,500 per person. During my visit the week before, there were several hundred nearly naked, twenty somethings lounging in the Feather River that lies just below the town. Techno Music played in an endless loop; a large plastic, forty foot, inflatable Gorilla swayed in the wind watching over the beach. A Rave! Seemed peaceable enough.
But this early morning in late July, there is nobody around. We start our hike.
I am closing in on 50 years of age--twenty years my two comrades’ senior. I also am out of shape. I certainly couldn’t be inconvenienced by actually training for this hike. I’m Roly Poly, weighing 60 pounds more than the Abbot. I give him the two gallons of Gatorade to carry (weighing 16 pounds). Consider it his handicap.
The plan today is to hike up Chips Canyon to the Williams Cabin...a distance of some 6.5 miles. We start at 2,300 feet above sea level. We are on the trail early as the temperature is supposed to approach the century mark. Gotta get the miles in before we swelter.
About a half mile into the hike, I hear my name being yelled: "Allan!!!" Instantly I realize I have the car keys in my pocket. My poor spouse is left alone at Belden (unable to start the car) with our barefoot, sleepy grandchild in pajamas. I walk down the hill with my backpack on; return the keys to my loving spouse and only then realize I have to carry the damned forty pound pack back up the hill. Dumb!
I climb back up to where my buddies wait for me--who immediately comment on my lack of intellectual acumen in hiking the hill twice wearing a backpack. Being the planner and leader of this expedition, I can see in their eyes a glint of doubt that, perhaps, going on this journey just might have been a mistake?We hike along the Feather River, climbing all the way. Then we make the big turn up Chips Creek and Chips Creek Canyon. Our destination lays some forty eight miles up and over this canyon. It looks impossibly long.
We climb in shade, crossing several streams. On one stream a sign says: Rattlesnake Springs. The guidebook states that rattlers are very common along Chips Creek. The book also proclaims that this section (from hwy 70 to hwy 36), my backyard, to be ugly. Dry. Boring. A place to be hurried through.
That isn't what we are experiencing. The trail winds up the canyon with 1,000 foot granite walls on both sides. Given that the last winter was wet, and spring late, Chips Creek is raging with white water. As are the smaller tributary steams. Perhaps two gallons of Gatorade is overkill for this first day (when there is so much water on the trail)?
After a few hours of constant climbing, we come to the Williams Cabin Site. The problem? It isn't there. I'd promised my buddies an evening of Bacchalian frolicking at the cabin which was supposed to be complete with a wood stove. Evidently, sometime after the guidebook was published, the cabin burned down. Unhappy with the campsite, we trundle on. Up to Myrtle Flat--just another mile up the trail.
When we get to our campsite, someone is already there. A Thru Hiker (a Thru Hiker is a person who attempts to hike most, if not all, of the PCT in one season). Taking off our heavy packs that feel like crosses on our backs, we relax. Make introductions. Relax. I bring out my Scotch and our day is done.
On all the long trails in the United States (the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail) it is customary to have a “nombre de trail”. Your hiking name. This is your identity for the duration of your (sometimes) five month trip. A badge to be worn with pride. Hiking tradition states that another Thru Hiker must give you your name.The gentleman sitting with us is an old grizzled hiker; he introduces himself as "Old School".
"I got the name because of the old, outdated equipment I used to hike with", he explains. Old School is a college music professor. A bit portly. A veteran of the Appalachian Trail (a thru hike) who is now completing his last section of the Pacific Crest Trail. He has lost twenty pounds since starting his hike two weeks ago. He is funny. Kind. And well versed in hiker lore.
He tells us stories and introduces us to PCT etiquette. We share the booze and try out various trail names for ourselves. "The Abbot" is an obvious choice. The therapist doesn't particularly care for the title of "Pink Cosmo" (because he is drinking the 151 combined with pink lemonade). My wife has already given me a hiking nickname: “Trail Biscuit”. Later, a couple other Thru Hikers join us at the campsite as we cook our suppers and work on getting a buzz. Ben from Israel joins us. He is 27. Waifishly thin. Looking exhausted. He has been hiking 20 to 30 miles a day since May 4. My comrades and I had just done 7 miles. We feel embarrassed to tell him we only plan on doing forty eight miles.
Dusk. The mosquitoes come out. The Abbott hates bugs. All bugs. Despises mosquitoes. Can’t stand them. Before the hike I had told him that we wouldn’t encounter many mosquitoes (having grown up in the Mississippi River Valley, it takes nearly a million mosquitoes to get my attention).
“You promised no mosquitoes”, said the Abbott.
“These aren’t mosquitoes. They are California miniature humming birds”, said I.
We turn in. “Cowboy Camping”—meaning we aren’t using a tent. We lie there talking with nothing between us and the full moon. I fall asleep listening to mutters, curses and slapping sounds from my peers.
We make coffee; pack our packs and head out. We climbed 7 miles and 2,000 feet in elevation gain thus far. Today we climb up, up, up—out of the canyon and onto the crest of the Sierra/Cascades. 2,600 feet to struggle up before we descend to our next campsite at 6,400 feet (Cold Springs). The distance will be 13 miles.
But trails aren’t linear. They have an exasperatingly awful way of climbing 500 feet only to give up half that amount in a descent. Up 600 feet; down 300 feet. And so on.
The Abbot’s GPS Iphone is working well. It is easy to stay on the trail. But now a challenge confronts us. The path crosses Chips Creek. We must negotiate across the roaring stream. Hop from rock to rock, or, the way I did it, just plunge in and take your chances. I get across. The Abbot decides to try another route, requiring a young man’s dexterity and daring. Unfortunately, he drops his hiking pole into the waist deep water and impulsively jumps in before he realizes his Iphone is in his pocket.
Survey the damage: the Iphone is dead. No more GPS. From now on we will have to find our path the old fashioned way: with a Topo map. I dig it out of my backpack.
It takes us thirty minutes hiking without the GPS to get lost. We miss a stream crossing in an over-grown section of the trail. After some rousting about for thirty minutes, trying to withhold a certain amount of panic (I’d hate to have the Search and Rescue people come find us!), the Therapist finds the trail on the other side of stream. Relief!
This backyard of ours is beautiful! And if you pay attention, you can see the Sierra marry the Cascades within this section. You can watch the transformation by watching the granite turn into basaltic type rocks. The older Sierra gives way to the younger Cascades (of which Lassen is the first, most dramatic peak).
It is hot. I am sweating. Still---when you run across 300 year old Douglas firs, six feet in diameter—you can’t help but feel awe. And the Cedars! This hike is worth it for these reddish, barked trees. Huge. Some species can obtain an age of 1,200 years. It is like church to me. Every ancient tree a Cathedral.
Finally we climb out of Chips Canyon, through a mountain meadow filled with flowers that bloomed at my Homestead two months ago. Brodaiae. Mariposa lilies. Shooting stars. And the guidebook called this ugly? Boring? No way!
After seven miles we come to Poison Springs (the water was just fine; I drank from it without even using a filter—brave man that I am). Now that we are out of the canyon, the water sources become fewer and fewer. We could camp here for the night, but decide to push on to our destination: Cold Springs, which is the next water source. Six and a half miles away.
Off we go. Up to 7,000 feet. Legs quivering. Sweating. Sucking air. And this damned pack is so heavy. Just when you can’t take it anymore, you climb a ridge and Mt. Lassen appears. Our first view of this mountain.
After some 15 miles on the trail since we started, mostly climbing up, the trail becomes flat. Follows an exposed ridge with remnant of snow (on July 25?). We make good time. Some other hiker must have felt relief at the sudden ease in not climbing anymore as she (it must have been a she!) painted “I Love You All” on a rock. It is much easier to be filled with love when hiking downhill.
Just before we got to Cold Springs, we find Old School resting on the trail. We walk to Cold Springs and camp for another night. Again, the fraternity of Thru Hikers joins us. All male. All solitary. All thin. All of them wearing the requisite uniform of green nylon pants and a brown shirt. They have the same beards. The same GPS gadgets. The same smiles on their exhausted faces.
Thirteen miles done today. Cold Springs actually does have a cold spring. It rises straight out of a pipe, plunging into a trough at eight gallons a minute. I’ve never tasted water this cold. Or this good. We bring out more booze and pass it around to the assembled hikers. Make supper (Spanish rice). We wait for the mosquito horde. We feed ourselves; then the mosquitoes feed on us. Once again I fall asleep to t he sounds of muttering, curses and slapping.
Coffee. Oatmeal. And a prayer for Divine Assistance.
Yes, prayer is required today—as this is the day I’ve been dreading. From Cold Springs to Soldier Creek, a distance of 24 miles, there is no water on the trail. None. Zippo. Nada. Zilch. This is one of the driest sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Dangerous to those who aren’t expecting it. We met one delirious Thru Hiker who warned us that “two liters wasn’t enough water for that section!”
We camel up on water. Fill the gallon sized Gatorade bottles. Fill our other water bottles (someplace around three gallons of water for the three of us) and head out. Not only do we have 24 miles to cover to our next water, we also have to negotiate two mountains: Humbug Mountain (what a name!) and Butt Mountain (again, what a name!). No wonder we don’t meet any locals on this trip. Who would go there? Better to have named these peaks something more inviting, like Peace Mountain and Naked Lady Mountain. Poor marketing, if you ask me.
This section peaks out at 7,600 feet with various drops down to 6,100 feet. More elevation to climb with these pesky packs. These new “internal frame” packs absorb the sweat directly into them when you carry them. A terrible design flaw. The sweat accumulates in the pack---making it way too heavy. It’s like carrying a load of wet laundry up a mountain.
But the beauty keeps us from complaining (too much). Ridges. Views. Mt. Lassen getting closer. More obtainable. Keeping an eye on us.
In a meadow, some fifty feet away, a Bald Eagle takes off from a branch on a tree. We make good time and climb to the top of Humbug pass. Old School had left before us that morning. When we get to the crest of Humbug Pass, Old School calls out my name.
Three local couples had decided to drive their SUV up the gravel road to the top of the pass. Once every three or four years, they fill coolers with water, beer, sodas and fruit. They bring cookies, sandwiches, and a variety of chips. They lounge at the summit pass and wait to feed and water hikers. An answer to my prayer? Seems uncanny that they would choose to do this on the one day we would be passing through. It’s a 1 in 1,200 chance.
Trail Angels are people who help hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail (and also other long trails, such as the Appalachian). Thru Hikers have an oral tradition of passing on who will help a hiker along the way. A Trail Angel will give a hiker a bed for the night; feed them a meal; let them use a phone; drive them to town; let them leave extra supplies in a “trail box”; pass on messages; let them take a shower in their own homes. Sometimes Trail Angels will leave coolers full of beverages and fresh fruit at the end of long dry sections. And these Trail Angels were there to feed and water us. Eight miles in to a 24 mile dry section. Trail Angels make a person believe in the goodness of humanity.
As will Thru Hikers. They share their food. Water. Booze. Give helpful advice. Pass on messages to other hikers. They leave the campsites in pristine condition. They build rock cairns in tricky sections of the trail. Point the way to water. A mutual aid society so very refreshing in our capitalistic, individualistic society.
Fed and watered, the Trail Angels applaud us as we leave. They call us Heroes. I smile.
The trail stays reasonably level as we do a giant horseshoe around a mountain valley. We can see the next mountain, Butt Mountain, which looks unbelievably steep and high above us. We could camp at the 12 mile point at a saddle just before the last leg quivering climb up the 7,660 foot summit. However, with all the beer, chips, soda and cookies on board we get grandiose and decide to shoot for finishing the whole twenty four mile, waterless section in one day. Twenty four miles with sunny, exposed climbs in the intense heat of a late July afternoon.
Every good hiking trail should have a section or two where great care should be taken not to fall to your death. A hazard. A place where your skills are tested. We encounter two such sections where the cinderly trails have slumped down a 500 foot plunge. Steep. Leaving no path across an impossible angle to negotiate as you look down at certain death. Easy to slip. We live.
As we get to the base of the last climb we say good bye to Old School (never to see him again). The Abbott goes on ahead, feeling fresh and full of vigor. He takes a gallon of water with him (untouched). Jason stays behind to baby-sit the elderly (me!). Together Jason and I talk religion, family, politics, Ed Abbey, Wendell Berry—as we begin the last climb.
Trudge. Trudge. Trudge. Climb. Climb. Climb. This sucks. Hurts. God this pack is heavy! Hours tick by.
Along the way, we meet a Thru Hiker coming the other way. He brings us a message: The Abbott has a full gallon of water at the top. He is waiting for us. Finally we catch up to the Abbott and share a late afternoon lunch of salami and bagels. Along with the cold water. At the 7, 600 foot summit we have 6 ½ miles to go before we reach Soldier Creek. Only 11.8 miles to St. Bernard Lodge on Highway 36 (our take out spot). We have two liters of water left; but the path is all downhill from here.
We are tired and moving slowly. I can feel blisters developing. The sun starts to set. The views are magnificent. Mt. Lassen is much closer. It almost looks like we could jump to the top of it. To the southeast, we can see the mountains which surround Lake Tahoe. We talk as we walk. Will Peak Oil change everything? Will technology save us? Will 2012 issue in a new era of higher, communal consciousness? Will the St. Bernard Lodge be open to serve us a Farmer’s Breakfast tomorrow? Important questions.
Darkness descends. We get out our headlamps as we descend (still no sign of Soldier Creek). We are walking on a narrow path along the side of a mountain. Trees all around us. I start to question whether we are still on the path (remembering getting lost before). Best to stop for the night. Don’t want to get lost. So we find a place where the plunge off the path doesn’t look lethal (only 30 feet or so) and pull out our sleeping bags. No booze tonight; we are too tired. We “cowboy camp” right on what we think is the path. There is a rock under the small of my back, but I am too tired to move. Too tired to move the sleeping bag to a new spot on the path.
I fall asleep.
Lying on my back, I feel something crawl past my ear. The movement continues down my sleeping bag and stops on my stomach. Jesus!! I gotta get out of this bag! I fall off the precipice feet first and I crawl out as the sleeping bag keeps sliding down the hill. The Therapist quickly turns on his headlamp to see what is going on. I’ve jumped out of the bag and I grabbed the top of it.
There’s something in my bag!! I yell.
I stand up while the Therapist uses his headlamp to shed light on the situation. I turn the sleeping bag over and a bat flies out of it! Wow! Thankful it wasn’t a rattlesnake, and also thankful the bat didn’t bite me (I don’t want rabies) ---I make sure the bag is empty and crawl back into it, ever so gingerly. With faith. A more gutsy thing I have never done in my life (including entering into three marriages).
Just then there is a crashing all around us in the woods. Branches breaking. It sounds like a rock band destroying their hotel room. The Therapist again uses his headlamp to scan the horizon. Looking for the glow of eyes in the illumination; none look back. Not satisfied, he stays awake the rest of the night holding vigil; half ways expecting to be someone’s moonlight snack.
Five minutes after the bat incident, and the crashing sounds---I am asleep. Too tired to care.
At dawn we all are awake. We finish off the rest of the water (no need to carry it anymore) and discover that we are still on the Trail. Yahoo!! Fifteen minutes of walking and we find Soldier Creek. We’d walked almost 23 miles the previous day! 3.7 miles to go to Highway 36. Then just a mile and a half more to our breakfast at St. Bernard Lodge. The trail leaves the pristine beauty of Lassen National Forest to enter private lands. We pass through a clear cut section (owned by Kimberly Clark) and witness the deforestation of this type of logging. It looks as barren as the moon. Such destruction--just so we can blow our noses and wipe our asses.
The trail is easy from here on out. We find the Highway, walk to St. Bernard Lodge, and despite the place being closed to non-guests, the charming staff compassionately agree to make breakfast for us. They took pity on the grungy dirty hikers.
Adventure complete. The Therapist’s relieved wife is on her way to pick us up.
“Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire and razor wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways, beyond the cemented banksides of our temporarily stopped and mutilated rivers, beyond the rage of lies that poisons the air; there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it.” Ed Abbey
This is our backyard. A treasure. Under-utilized by locals (we only met Thru Hikers on the trail, most of whom are from other states and even other countries). Why not dust off that old backpack and go see our backyard? Have an adventure! Get stung by a bee---get the bejesus scared out of you! Use those legs. They’ll remember what to do once you get that pack on. Climb down a rung on the food chain. It will make you feel alive. And you’ll be miserable enough to make you ecstatically happy! At least, that’s what it does for me.
Life was not meant to be lived indoors!