A Love Letter


Hiker or Hobo?

My wife Rodeo and I began this game in the early days of my hike. Who’s homeless, and who’s merely walking the PCT?

For the first few hundred miles, it was fairly obvious. Hikers and their gear were relatively clean. Later on, as dirt and sun began to make us all resemble cave-persons, we developed a more subtle test. Hikers had sharp tan lines at the ankle. Hobos did not.

Telling the difference got more complicated in northern Washington. Overcast skies and colder weather meant that folks pulled cleaner clothes out of their packs, like seldom-used rain jackets and long pants. So when I stopped to pick-up a hitchhiker on the trans-Canadian highway, sure it was a PCT hiker, I was surprised to learn the guy was actually a hobo making his way to Vancouver to find work and a winter roof over his head. He had a big pack, sleeping pad, water bottles with filter – the whole PCT gear-fest. It wasn’t until he was actually in my car that I found a dead give-away. He was far too clean to be a PCT hiker.

Ending my trek at the northern end of the detour at Ross Lake had not felt right. After taking a boat back to highway 20 and Rainy Pass, I decided there was no substitute for a real finish at the real northern terminus of the trail. Less than 20 miles separates the Ross Lake border crossing and the official PCT end point at Manning Park in British Columbia. That’s as the crow flies, however. As the car drives, it’s closer to six hours.

Call me a neurotic obsessive, probably rightly. But east I went from Rainy Pass, stopping in Mazama to check out the hiker scene in this charming little cross-roads, passing north through the border crossing at Osoyoos and onward to the west via the trans-Canadian highway to Manning Park. Arriving around 6:30 pm, I ducked into the lodge to reserve a room for the next night, without turning off the car, and drove half a mile to the trailhead and started up the mountain – a 4.5-mile 1300-foot climb to a camp at the foot of Mt Frosty.

I arrived at dusk in time to throw up my tent, pull out a peanut butter jar of rehydrated noodles for dinner and chat with the last two hikers not already bedded down. Weirdly, they had just done exactly what I did: hiked the Ross Lake detour, then decided they had to get to the true end of the PCT. Unlike me, who went east, they hitched west toward Seattle, rented a car, drove to Manning and then hiked south to the monument marking the spot where the PCT officially crosses into Canada.

Misery loves company, it’s often said. Nutcases like it even more. Suddenly, I did not feel like such a lonely lunatic.

I awoke to the patter of rain on my tent. And it was cold. Last night, I wore my fleece inside my sleeping bag. Sweeping through wet underbrush along the trail, I round a bend and, suddenly, hiking north was someone I have not seen since Warner Springs, barely one hundred miles into the hike. “Dodo,” I exclaim. “You made it,” says he, a little too surprised for my liking. “That was a long time ago,” we agree – and exchange a happy congratulatory fist bump.

Down, down, down goes the trail. Across a fast-flowing stream, past a campsite occupied by a woman with a furiously barking black dog, around yet another bend in the trail, and there it is — the Northern Terminus, ark of all our hiker hopes and dreams.

I arrive from the Canadian side just as another hiker comes from the US. She snaps my photo, sets up a tent against the drizzly mist and settles in to wait for three friends. One I know from Stehekin, 90 miles ago, named Sea Biscuit. There’s also a hiker from Japan, Speedy Gonzalez, who I believe I met in Drakesbad, in northern California, when he arrived late for dinner and we all shared out portions. Speedy cracks a beer and chugs it, filming himself on his iPhone. Another drapes Hawaiian leis over her own and a friend’s head. All pose boisterously atop the monument. I take their group photo.

No Mounties are there to inspect passports or visas. Neither are there any scowling American immigration dudes to keep folks from circling the monument on US soil, as some hikers earlier reported.

I give the rough wooden monument a knock, as I did its southern sister. Almost reluctantly, I turn back to conclude my hike. Ahead to the north, the forest is dark and overcast. To the south, the rugged peaks of the Pasayten Wilderness are shrouded in mist, sharp and angular, many with glaciers on stormy north-facing slopes. Not long ago I would have found it ominous. Today it’s almost unbearably beautiful.

What an adventure this has been. And what a revelation. To find ourselves, each and every day, on the path of beauty. To be so often overwhelmed, not just by the extraordinary world around us but also by what we find within – an unexpected grit and stamina, a possibly unanticipated capacity for joy, a new understanding of the happiness of true freedom, an appreciation of all we have and, for a few of us, a coming to terms with personal tragedy.

Near the top of the ridge that will dip down toward Manning, I sit by the trail for half an hour, listening to the wind and the creaking pines. Sun briefly breaks through the clouds, lighting up the fast-changing autumn colors — reds so deep they verge on purple, orangey yellows and golds. A bird nearby chirps hopefully.

Others speed by, intent on cheeseburgers at the lodge. So many cannot wait to be off the trail. “So done,” I hear again and again. But I don’t want to be done. I want this wonderful adventure to go on. It’s hard to choke back a sob, silly as it sounds, alone amid this austere but so generous beauty.

Is it too absurd to say? I love you, PCT. Goodbye, goodbye. Thank you, thank you.

The trail becomes a rutted jeep road. The sound of traffic rises up the mountain from the pass below. Tonight will be a celebration, as it should be. I’ve booked my room at Manning Lodge and will wash down a steak with a good bottle of red wine as I relive all I have seen and done.

The trail is now within us. We will miss it so.

Signing off,

Pause on the PCT


Manning Park, September 9




So fickle, fate.

First the gods of the PCT slam the door to a grand finale. The fire in the last 60 miles is a heart-breaker, for it means we hikers cannot get to the official northern terminus in Canada – the holy grail of the trek, at this point.

Then they offer up another twist. Hitting highway 20 from Stehekin, I drive down the mountain to the ranger station in the hamlet of Marblemount to get a permit for the designated alternative on the East Bank Trail along Ross Lake, 20 miles west. It doesn’t take you where the PCT would end, but at least you can say you walked to Canada.

Not wanting to repeat the 31-mile hike back to the trailhead, I also pay $200 for a boat taxi from the upper end of the lake, all arranged by a friendly ranger who lectures me on the dangers of bears in these parts. A shredded metal cooking pot, ripped apart by tooth and claw, is Exhibit A.

Just as I depart, he drops a bomb. “By the way, did you know the PCT to Canada just re-opened?” To my incredulous “You gotta be kidding,” he replies: “Yup. An hour ago. The fire died down so we opened a detour around it.  You can now go all way to the terminus in Canada.”

He says this as casually as a deli owner might say he’s out of Pepsi but would you like a Coke instead. For a moment, I’m stunned. What to do? The PCT is again open. You can finish the trail as it’s meant to be. Yet I’ve just bought this boat ticket, non-refundable. And there’s my rental car, which I can’t exactly leave behind. Outside, I think things through, then opt to stick with my plan – more than a little heart-sick at this latest reversal of PCT fortune.

That same ranger described the East Bank Trail in glowing terms. Oh, yes, he said. It goes along the lake with great views of the mountains. It’s easy, too — “a family hike any kid could do.”

In fact, it turns out to be rugged, with sharp ups and downs through tangled woods very unlike the above-treeline grandeur of the PCT to the north. Here and there, the trail comes down to the lake, dotted with beautiful boat camps on rocky promontories. At spots it’s carved into the living rock, with spectacular views of snowy peaks to the north and south.


I encounter a dozen PCTers returning from the border, most surprisingly philosophical in hearing about the official trail’s re-opening. “I’m glad,” says one, after a sharp expletive. “Hikers after us will be very happy.” Says another with a shrug: “I’ve walked from Mexico to Canada. At this point, it doesn’t really matter where I finish.”

I envy their equanimity. By contrast, I seem to be coming unglued. After so many miles, the soles of my boots have grown thin. I feel every pebble and for the first time since Mexico worry about blisters. Will I hobble to the finish?

I stop to tape my feet beside the lake and, soon after, camp for the night in an empty horse corral by a fetid creek, home to swarming hordes of mosquitoes that drive me into my tent well before dark. They are ferocious and, heeding nature’s call in the middle of the night, I so rush that I trip over a log in the dark and tumble, bare-arsed, in a series of head-over-heel rolls down a ravine, narrowly missing outcroppings of jagged volcanic rock and shards of broken tree trunks that could easily have impaled me given the speed and force of my fall.

Shaken, I begin the last lap of my hike mindful of all the things that could yet go wrong. At Willow Lake, five miles from the border, I list them as a mental check on my rising adrenalin. I could trip on a root, typing this blog as I walk, and break an ankle. Or inadvertently inhale a piece of trail mix, my rushed lunch eaten on the go. Or put a foot wrong as I admire some view along one of the sheer drops that line the trail and topple into oblivion. That none of these things have happened to anyone I’ve heard about this year is scant consolation.

And then, almost abruptly, the trail drops down to a dirt road and the ranger station at Hozomeen Park on the far tip of Ross Lake. Turn right, walk another half mile, step over a closed barrier gate at the deserted border crossing – and there it is. A sign marked INTERNATIONAL BORDER and, atop a rocky outcropping in the middle of an eerily straight clear-cut through the primeval forest, a squat silver obelisk marking the border.

O Canada, at 2:30 pm on Saturday, September 1.

No one’s here. Three hikers who arrived before me were quickly driven away by clouds of mosquitoes. “Worst on the PCT,” one told me, offering his head-net. With the road to the north closed by wildfires in British Columbia, Hozomeen is ghostly empty, like the set of a movie where all humans have been abducted by aliens.

I stand there for a time, nothing but a vista of trees and the endless swathe of clear-cut marching east and west, then snap a selfie. Rather than a sense of triumph, I feel only faintly glad I don’t have to walk so much in the morning.

I leave the mosquitoes to their kingdom and go down to the lake for a swim, wash my clothes and spread them to dry on a wooden picnic table in the hot sun while waiting for tomorrow’s boat.

A favorable wind blows away the rising plumes of smoke from the fires to the north, and the lake glitters blue and gold against the mountains rising from the far shore. The leaves on the trees have begun to change. An autumn sadness tangs the air.

What was it T.S. Eliot said about big things ending not with a bang but a whimper? So be it.

September 5


A Weather Change


What am I doing here? I kept asking myself. There was no end of reasons not to be.

For starters, I was walking south, not north, from Rainy Pass at mile 2588 to the picturesque town of Stehekin 18 miles away at the upper tip of serpentine Lake Chelan. For another, the weather was foul: a cold drizzle at times, threatening more at others. Smoke from surrounding forest fires deepened the gloom.

And the trail itself felt lonely and deserted. I could actually count individual footprints in the rain-mottled dust of the usually well-traveled route. The one or two north-bound hikers I passed told me the PCT north of Rainy Pass to the Canadian border 60-odd miles farther was closed by fire, and that they intended to get off the trail at the next road crossing.

Others seemed too tired and out of sorts to even speak. One, who I knew from 2000 miles back near the desert town of Tehachapi, blew by me without so much as a glance, grimly putting one foot ahead of the other and, presumably, so preoccupied with figuring out how to end his hike if we could not get to Canada that he had all but ceased noticing anything around him.

Depressed and by this time also out-of-sorts, I stopped at the North Fork campground ten miles from where I began, threw my food bag over a bear wire and went to bed on the bank of a gray and frigid glacial stream thinking I would likely turn around in the morning and call it quits on the PCT.

What a difference a day can make! I awoke at dawn under a full moon giving way to clearing skies, shouldered my pack and covered the next eight miles in time to meet the morning shuttle bus from the trailhead to Stehekin, which makes a mandatory stop at the justly famed local bakery for hot coffee and a 3000-calorie frosted cinnamon bun. This in itself was enough to buoy my spirits. Far better was that the sun, for the first time in weeks, was gloriously radiant. Two days of rain washed away weeks of smoke. The long lake, winding among snowy high peaks for 50 miles, positively glittered in alpine majesty.

If the prose sounds purple, it’s for sheer relief. Like many others I left the trail a few weeks ago in order to escape the smoke and forest fires. In the ebbing days of August, I decided it was now or never, crossed my fingers and flew to Seattle, rented a car and drove to Rainy Pass as my restarting point. It was a gamble, but from Stehekin it looked like a good one.

I pounded down a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at the Cascades Lodge, watched the morning ferry disgorge a dozen hopeful hikers, then returned to the trail to retrace my steps, this time northward. The sudden change in the weather made all the difference. Yesterday’s dismal trek through damp unending forest became, almost magically, an enchanted walk through lush valleys of giant cedars (many wider than I am tall) along often-precipitous cliffs above sparkling streams hundreds of feet below. Autumn colors – yellows, oranges and reds to the point of near-purple – exploded in the sunlight against the sheer walls of the surrounding mountains.


By the time I reached Rainy Pass, I knew what I would do. To bypass the fire that closed the PCT to the north, the Forest Service had established a detour along Ross Lake, 20 miles west on highway 20. From there you could take the reportedly beautiful East Bank Trail all the to Canada.

If we couldn’t complete the real trail, many of us concluded, this seemed an attractive alternative. According to a friendly ranger, there would even be a little border monument, an obelisk festooned with American and Canadian flags, there to greet us.

August 31

Full Circle



Shelter Cove has a special resonance. It’s where, almost a year ago, I began my adventure on the PCT.  I had three weeks free and thought I would try a distance hike, see how it felt, test whether a thru-hike might be for me.

My friend Nick Kristof, who’s been writing about his own family hikes along the trail each summer for much of the past decade, recommended the stretch from Oregon’s Willamette Pass through Cascade Locks. His infectious enthusiasm came with exclamation points. Three Sisters Wilderness! Mount Jefferson! Mount Hood! The Columbia River! Bridge of the Gods!

How do you pass up something called Bridge of the Gods? And so off I went — new tent, new sleeping bag, new boots and, little did I know, a new destiny, reborn as a child of the PCT.

I remember every step of that first hike as though it were only hours ago. The gentle path rising from the lodge at Shelter Cove through pine forest to the Rosary Lakes, Denny Lake, Charlton Lake. There I pitched camp, for the first time since I was a child, on a little promontory surrounded by alpine waters. It was bliss, and on and on it went.


Past Elk Lake with its resort and into Sisters, jumping a galloping forest fire around Mount Washington, up past Three Fingered Jack to Olallie Lake, where in the company of half a dozen other hikers I witnessed a perfect once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse.  The PCT caught me up and swept along, past Mount Hood and Timberline Lodge through Cascade Locks and across that divine Bridge of the Gods and into Washington past Trout Lake, across the Knife Edge and Old Snowy and all the way to White Pass before the game-over buzzer sounded on my allotted vacation time.



So here I am again, in Shelter Cove, about to the leave the trail for ten days to be with my kids in northern Michigan. I’ll return to pick up where I left off — not Shelter Cove but the northern end of the Goat Rocks Wilderness at White Pass, where last summer’s epic first hike left off.

It’s too soon to revisit that remarkable passage, scarcely ten months ago. So  I’ll put my head down and make a run for Canada.

August 5





















Lodge Hopping


Between the lodges at Lake of the Woods and Shelter Cove, another lakeside resort 130-odd miles up the trail, is the hump of Crater Lake.

Of course, there’s a lodge there, too — and a rather fine one. Along with Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood in northern Oregon, the Crater Lake Lodge is one of only two grand historic hotels on the Pacific Crest Trail. With their great timbered halls and walk-in stone fireplaces, not to mention their usually glorious terrace views, they are landmarks of a bygone era — and highlights of any hike along the PCT.

To either side of Crater Lake, the forest is indistinguishable. Giant woods of pines march on, broken now again by lava fields, meadows, small lakes and streams. For this year’s hikers, though, there’s an all-important difference. To the south, the air is thick with smoke. To the north, it’s clear as could be.


From Lake of the Woods, at mile 1770, the smoke is manageable. On the climb up to Crater Lake, as the trail passes Mazama Village where most hikers camp or resupply before climbing to the famous Rim Trail, the sun even breaks through its cotton-like chrysalis and the sky turns a faint white blue. For the first time in a week, I distinctly see my shadow.

But arrive at the summit, and stand on the lip of the crater anticipating one of the most iconic wilderness landscapes in the world, and … well, there’s nothing there. Crater Lake, with its famed cerulean waters, has vanished. In its place: a vast smog pit.

The smoke from the fires burning to the south and west, from Burney and Mt Shasta through Seiad Valley and Ashland, has come here too. As I hike the Rim Trail, up and down along the crater’s serrated edge, I catch occasional glimpses of Wizard Island, nearly 2000 feet below. But the far walls of the caldera, and the lake itself, are largely invisible.


Rodeo easily finds a room at the lodge. With the smoke, cancellations have been legion. For several days it becomes home base. She spends her time ferrying hikers between Mazama Village, the Rim and the post office; many would otherwise spend several hours hitching or hiking between these disconnected spots.

I hike, then return to the lodge for drinks and an evening of cards or Scrabble. We hope for a break in the weather and It comes, briefly, in the late afternoon of our second day. The sun breaks free of the cloud cover, the haze suddenly thins, and there it is — the lake, surrounding sheer cliffs, the whole panorama. It is faint, but magnificent even so. And it is gone again by morning.

A dozen miles north, all this abruptly changes. As the trail crosses highway 138, at mile 1845, the smoke has gone, By the time the PCT passes Mt Thielsen, the highest point on the Oregon trail, the sun is shining and the air is sweet. Such a difference: blue sky rather than grey-white, pretty much for the first time since Mt Shasta, more than 300 miles back.


At Windigo Pass, at mile 1876. I take expert recommendations and veer off the PCT onto the old Oregon Skyline Trail via Crescent Lake — more scenic, more lakes, less elevation. Best of all, perhaps, it ends at my next stop, Shelter Cove Resort on beautiful Odell Lake, with cabins, restaurant and grocery.

Its waters glisten with sun. Seagulls cry. The air is brisk and breezy.  I drink it down in great gulps, as though I cannot get enough.

August 2

Milky Way



This is like a Star Wars adventure. Call it “Escape from the Milky Way.”

The Carr fire in northern California near Redding grows daily and by some reports exceeds 250,000 acres – only a week old and already one of the largest fires in the state’s history. New fires to the north in Oregon only make it worse. Even high in the mountains, the air is an opaque milky white. In the valleys, it’s like walking through liquid cotton.

To escape, Rodeo and I have jumped ahead to Ashland, a wealthy counter-culture enclave a dozen miles up the trail from the Oregon border. Though not nearly as bad as Etna or Mount Shasta, it too is shrouded in smoke. Every third person seems to be wearing a face mask, like Darth Vader, except white rather than black.

Patch and Skywalker jump into the car at Seiad Valley, also seriously socked in. Our strategy: head north to Ashland, or beyond, then return to the PCT wherever the air clears, in hopes that distance and elevation put the smoke behind us.

Except, as it turns out, it doesn’t.

The first stop is Callahan’s Lodge, at mile 1718 outside Ashland. Though two thousand feet higher, at 4200 feet, it too is swathed in smoke.

Next stop: Green Springs, at 4500 feet, with its elegant timbered lodge two miles east of the PCT. It’s an ash tray.

Another stop: Hyatt Lake, around mile 1742. It’s even worse. The cooler temperatures of the lake seem to make the air heavier, and hence smokier. It’s like standing in a cloud, inhaling cigarettes.

A few miles farther north, I give up the quest and hop on the trail at Dead Indian Road, the cut-off for Lake of the Woods Resort and a scenic lake-side alternative route via the old Oregon Skyline Trail. Perhaps it’s the altitude – over 5000 feet – or a change of the wind. Suddenly, the milky haze begins to thin.

I take off my face mask. The neon orange orb glimpsed dimly in the cotton sky goes away. In its place, an almost-sun filters through the forests of giant pines, often a body-length in diameter, yellowy moss growing from 10 feet up above the snow line.

As if it were a sign of changing fortune, I come across the first ripening huckleberries. Laden bushes hang within easy reach along the trail, and I snag plump berries on the fly, scarcely having to bend down. Thank you, thank you, O Great God of Huckleberries.



Alas, it’s too good to last. The smoke comes and goes, sometimes thinner, other times heavier. After only a few miles, I put my mask back on. Even from the highest ridge, at 5500 feet, there are no views of any sort, on any point of the compass. Here and there, the forest gives way to rocky, treeless lava fields. I barely cast a shadow.

Approaching highway 140 at mile 1773 — where you can go west to the nothing-to-speak-of Fish Lake Resort, or east to the Lake of the Woods Lodge, an unsung jewel of the PCT — I hear traffic in the valley below but can’t see the road through the milky fog. Trees less than a quarter mile away are a blur.




It makes for rough going, these fires, At Hyatt Lake, I come across a hiker sick from days of breathing smoke. But he’s also suffering from something more. I call it Hiker Fatigue Syndrome. “I just need to see something other than the trail,” he says wearily.

At the Burney Mountain Guest Ranch, nearly 300 miles back, a veteran PCT hiker named Numbers explained that most hikers suffer a psychological downswing in northern California. The dramatic scenery of the Sierras is behind us. So is the newness of the desert, when the PCT was still a fresh adventure. More people drop off in northern California, said Numbers, than any other stretch except the first 200 or so miles. “If you manage to make Oregon,” he added, “the odds are very high that you will reach Canada.”

I thought of this today, walking through the smoke. So many of us are in Oregon now, or about to be. And yet the fires add another dimension to Hiker Fatigue Syndrome — pushing the psychological borders of northern California into the smog banks of southern Oregon.

Really, wearing a face-mask while hiking the PCT, smelling your own breath rather than the pine forests? It takes a certain something for folks to keep chugging along, under such circumstances.

May the force be with us.

July 30

Fire 2



I can’t get the image out of my head. It’s messing me up, threatens to ruin my hike. As if that matters, under the circumstances.

The Carr fire has again doubled in size overnight, engulfing 89,000 acres. Several hundred homes have burned; a dozen people have died or are missing and nearly a hundred thousand have fled the town of Redding and nearby communities.

The worst is the story I hear at Bob’s Ranch House diner in Etna this morning. A grandfather and grandmother were taking care of their grandkids for the weekend. Gramps goes to run an errand and soon receives a call from one of the children. The fire has suddenly burst all bounds. Flames are advancing on the house. Grandma doesn’t know what to do. Can he come home, fast?

But he can’t. Police have closed the roads and ahead is a wall of fire. Gramps is still on the phone with the kids. He hears their rising hysteria. Then the flames come. His family dies in the fire as he is on the phone with them through those last terrible moments.

I feel so heart-sickened that I choke up and can scarcely eat my breakfast. Up top, the smoke we hikers walk through, or if lucky merely look down upon in the valleys, is not merely forest burning, bad as that may be. It’s also the hopes and dreams and lives of many people. For me, going back to the mountains today is impossible. It confirms a decision I was considering yesterday, along with other hikers: to jump north to Oregon, or beyond, wherever the air is clear.

My swing through the Big Bend has gone well until now. From the trailhead at tiny Castella, a one-shop hamlet just southwest of Dunsmuir at mile 1499, the trail rises several thousand feet into beautiful Castle Crags, then the next day gains another thousand feet across talus-covered slopes full of flying grasshoppers (sounding deceptively like rattlesnakes) into the Trinity Alps.

In the morning, these legendary mountains are swathed in smoke. The famed views of Mount Shasta to the east are lost in a white murk beyond a ridgeline or two. It’s a bit like wandering through watery vistas of milk.

At first, I expect it to be like this all the way to Oregon, since there are major fires to both the north and south. But then around 6600 feet, just below the tree-line, a northwest wind begins to clear the skies and the upper reaches of distant peaks suddenly appear above the lower-lying haze choking the valleys.

This becomes a daily pattern. Each morning, as the Carr fire worsens, the smoke at lower elevations becomes notably heavier. Setting out on a stretch from Parker Creek Road at mile 1539, several days ago, my eyes begin burning and I don a nurse’s face mask, which I normally wear on my hands to protect them from the sun. But as the trail nears 7000 feet, and as the late morning winds pick up, the air clears. To the south and east, a heavy band of murk butts up against the mountains, with Mount Shasta and other peaks making only brief cameo appearances. But to the north, at high elevations, the skies are blue and pristine.

Deep into the Russian Wilderness, around mile 1585, I sit a spell with a pair of other hikers, Woodchuck and Gently Used. We look out at the sharp smog line below us to the southwest. Woodchuck, the older of the two, with a resplendent long white beard like Father Time, fears the Carr fire will grow so big that even here, around 7000 feet, there will be no escape from the smoke. If so, he says, he’ll just go somewhere else. “I’m old,” he says. “I adjust.” Besides, there are worse things. Like cancer. Over the winter, doctors removed the tip of one ear a slice of his lower lip. “Skin grafts suck,” he says in his soft mountain-man accent. “Feels like dead meat. Can’t drink my coffee without spilling.”


The Russian Wilderness is a day of sawtoothing — up a thousand feet, down again into a valley. Soft and fast trail through forest one moment, goatwalking along vertiginous rock cliffs the next. After one particularly hot and long climb, I look up at another ridge and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to climb that?” But the PCT offers no respite. Up and over she goes.

At Etna Summit, at mile 1599, a group of us hitch into little Etna, 10 miles to the east. The skies are clear. Fifty or so tents are pitched in the town park. And it’s a foodie’s heaven. The best place in town, the Denny Bar, distills its own gin and vodka and offers a menu and ambiance more typically found in Manhattan than a tiny hiker town in northern California.

I could easily have zeroed here. But alas. Overnight, the Carr fire again substantially worsens, and in Etna you cannot see clearly to the end of the block. Hiker posts from the mountains to the north are not much better.

It’s time to jump north, with fingers crossed.

July 29

Fire! And best burger on the Pct…

Usa Siskiyou County Mount Shasta California

Decisions, decisions. Will it be the Chocolate Candied Bacon Burger? Or the Arnold Alpha Burger, with extra hickory smoked bacon and double grass-fed patties in honor of ex-California governor Schwarzenegger? You can order it pink, no pink or hockey puck.

On the other hand, the Chili Lime Sriracha Aioli looks awfully good. So does Wllie’s Duck Chili. As we look over the menu, trying to decide, we’re awarded a special free treat: a slice of My Mother-in-Law’s Sticky Bunns. A couple dozen locally made craft beers are available to wash down all this yummy stuff, from Rogue Stout to North Coast, fresh from the Russian Wilderness and described on the menu as “old Rasputin on nitro.”

Rodeo and I are at Yaks artisan made-from-scratch burger shack in Dunsmuir, featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, GQ and rated by YELP as one of the top restaurants in the nation in 2015. I’m a bit wacko-delirious at all these delectable choices, so when the waitress drops a plate, I holler out: “Hikers! PCT special. For half price we eat it right off the floor!”

I’m having fun, or at least my odd brand of it, but the point is a serious answer to that perennial hiker quiz question: Who makes the best burger on the PCT? No contest. It’s Yaks.

We’re in Dunsmuir partly because of the Carr fire, which erupted not far from the PCT a few days ago and exploded from a few acres to more than 20,000 virtually overnight. On Friday, July 27, it is twice that size and spreading fast to the east. Parts of the city of Redding are burning and more than 37,000 people have been ordered to evacuate. A plume of smoke has spread in all directions, most dense over the PCT north of Old Station and well beyond.

To escape, we jump forward to the next major stage of the PCT – the so-called Big Bend, where the trail abruptly veers south and west through Castle Crags and Klamath National Park near Dunsmuir, at mile 1502, then loops north for 200-odd miles to Seiad Valley and the Oregon border. The problem: Big Bend – one of the most visually dramatic sections of the PCT — is also blanketed in smoke. And it’s not just the massive blaze to the south. To the north, the Hendrix fire in southern Oregon is sending smoke this way — a forest fire stereo effect, with us in the middle.

Like other hikers, we’re trying to figure out what to do. Some decide to hang in Dunsmuir. Most go on to the larger town of Mount Shasta, as Rodeo and I do. A fine place for a zero, I decide.

Dominated by the snow-covered 14,180-foot mountain that bears its name, Mount Shasta has its unique counter=culture vibe. Walk down the few blocks of its main street, and you’re immediately struck by its Soulfull Connection. In fact, that’s the name of the first store I come to. Then there’s Crystal Matrix. The Crystal Emporium. Crystal Keepers. Middle Earth Crystal Room. Shambhala Meditation Center featuring (naturally) the central rolee of crystals in universal Oneness.

So, what’s with the crystals,already? Not to mention the New Life Health Institute. Or the course posters in the windows of Mount Shasta University: Shamanic Journeys to Telos and Beyond. Spiritual Psychology Coaching. Holistic Healing. As for the town slogan, waving from street lamps? Mount Shasta — Where Heaven and Earth Meet.

As it turns out, Mount Shasta figures large in local Indian myth as the home of the Creator. More modern myth-spinners report encounters with what they call “ascended masters,” reincarnated beings who have lived many lives on earth and, for one reason or another, have chosen to make their home on the mountain.

Or in it. You see, among the Mount Shasta legends is the tale of Telos, a crystal city hidden inside the mountain inhabited by “higher dimensional” people called the Lemurians, well over seven feet tall and themselves survivors of an eons-ago natural catastrophe, possibly thermonuclear annihilation. One was reportedly sighted not long ago wearing white robes and sandals and stocking up at the general store.

You might think the Shastafarians would by now be able to distinguish a PCT hiker from an  other-worldly alien. After all, the Pacific Crest Association just officially designated Mount Shasta as its newest PCT trail town.

As for those crystals, they are used locally to communicate with Lemurians. Perhaps PCT hikers should routinely be issued one too?

July 26


Frying Pan


The infamous Hat Creek Rim is one of the hardest parts of the PCT.  Not for the ups and downs, for there are few, but for the heat. In mid-summer, when most hikers pass through, temperatures routinely hit 100 degrees. And for much of it, there’s scarcely a tree in sight.

For all its fearsome reputation, though, the Rim is among the most striking (and enjoyable) stretches of the entire trail. For mile after mile, it traces the lip of a sharp escarpment – forest to the east, thin air to the west. The views are among the best between the Sierras and the northern mountains of Washington.

We begin at dawn with a climb from the tiny hamlet of Old Station that soon flattens into gently rolling path. To the south, Mount Lassen catches the first rays of morning sun. To the north, snow-capped Mount Shasta peeps above a thin layer of haze. In-between, a verdant green valley, ringed by extinct volcanoes, stretches from horizon to horizon.

It’s been nearly a century since the last eruption, in 1915. Exploding Lassen Peak rained volcanic ash as far as 200 miles and devastated much of what is now the Lassen national park. The 1980 eruption of sister-volcano Mt. St. Helen reminds us that it’s only a matter a time before the next.

As the sun rises over the pine forests to the east, the temperature immediately rises – a harbinger of what’s to come. By 8 am, I’m shedding layers worn against the morning chill. By 10, the vibrant morning colors have bleached from the landscape. A hiker passes as I’m taking notes for this blog. A frying pan clangs rhythmically against his pack. We are on the frying pan, and the fire is lit.

Everyone is making for Cache 22, the pun-intended water tank roughly mid-way through the Rim at forest road 22. Sometimes it’s full, sometimes not. With the crush of hikers currently passing through, the chances rise for it being dry.

Cheryl Strayed famously bet on refilling her water bottles here in the movie Wild – and splashed her remaining supply over her head and face just before reaching the cache, only to find it empty.  If you’ve seen the film, you know how well that turns out.

Passing through a metal gate around mile 1385, I flip through a trail register of hikers. Jam, Milkshake and Philly have gone by in the past day or two, all starting at the Mexican border around the same time as me. “Hot,” notes one. “Unpleasantly so.” By 11, this egg (namely me) is already well-fried. Stupified by the heat, I plod zombie-like along, noticing almost nothing around me. The trail is a powdery dust underfoot. Plants rattle dryly as I brush past.

Around noon, 16 miles into the day, just past some power lines, the trail drops down to Cache 22. Who should be there but the godfather of trail angels, Coppertone and his big white van. “Root beer float?” he asks, offering his trademark magic. I gratefully plop myself into a camp chair amid a circle of half a dozen other hikers, all taking a prolonged respite from the heat in the shade of a small stand of pines. There’s Buzzard in his trademark black tights, which always make me wonder how he can stand it in such heat. A German hiker I’ve never met ices a badly swollen foot. Aurora, a hyper-thin Taiwanese woman, asks Coppertone for tring, which she uses to fashion a belt to keep her shorts from falling off her narrowing waist.

Coppertone tells us how, yesterday, a hiking doctor performed a modest “surgery” on a hiker whose back had erupted in ugly boils, so painful that she could barely carry her pack. A “slice” of life on the trail, he jokes. At a nearby horse corral, the cache water tank is mercifully full.

Another trail angel, Rodeo, arrives bearing Creamsickle floats, and before long a short lunch break threatens to turn into a several-hour siesta. In a collective act of hiker will, the group rouses itself and heads into the furnace-like heat of mid-afternoon, now 97 degrees in the shade of the pines. In a few miles, the trail dips down the escarpment into a desert of old lava fields, then meanders through another dozen miles of pine and oak forest to Burney Falls state park, where a small general store and campground await.

Demanding as it might be, at times, today’s hike testifies to the PCT’s extraordinary diversity. Yesterday’s 20-odd miles from Drakesbad to Old Station was pleasant enough — fast rolling trail, few climbs, cool and majestic forests of pine and towering cedars. But compared to this? Give me the Rim.

July 24




A 20-mile day through the wilderness on the western slopes of Mount Lassen. Aside from a faraway view from a ridge coming down on the north fork of the Feather River, I never catch a glimpse. Too many trees.

We have definitely caught up with “the bubble” — the hiker bulge of folks starting from the Mexican border in mid- to late-April. For longest time I’ve seen almost no one on the trail. Hotels and restaurants in towns along the way have been busy but rarely full. But yesterday in Chester, one of the larger stops in this section, every motel was booked. Late arrivals hiked back up to the trail for the night.

Among them were Amanda and Uncle Fungus. Rodeo and I picked them up just as darkness fell. They planned to grab dinner at Subway on the way out of town, but it had already closed. Tired and hungry, they waited by the roadside for half an hour before we show up. Rodeo does a quick U-turn. “They’ll never get a ride this time of night.”

They collapse gratefully into the car. We were returning from dinner at the Ranch House, the only good restaurant in Chester apart from the Kopper Kettle diner, with an generous “doggie box” of halibut, asparagus and wild rice — not your usual hiker fare. “”Bon appetit,” says Rodeo, passing it to the pair in the back seat. We last see them setting their “table” by headlamp on a big log at the trail-head. It happens to mark the exact mid-point of the PCT: 1335 more miles to Canada.

Today’s hike is a cruise through park-like forests of Ponderosa, White Pine and cedar. Giant pine cones a foot long cover the trail. I watch an eagle hunt for fish above the Feather River, tracing its winding course with scarcely a movement of its wings. It’s dwarfed by the condor I saw earlier, hunting above a marsh near Belden.

Rolling along a high ridge, with the mountains falling away to either side, I pause for a mid-morning break. The forest is so quiet. I sit for 20 minutes, watching and listening. Just me and the wilderness. It is good to feel so at home, and so free. A marked trail blaze catches my eye. Someone has penned in, “Be here now!”


Late in the afternoon, the trail passes a bubbling mud pot called Geyser Spring and the (literally) Boiling Lake, a lurid tarn of volcanic-heated water, before dropping into a lush green valley. Cross a wooden walkway over a grassy meadow, pass a horse corral, and you arrive at the Drakesbad Guest Ranch, run by the national forest service.

HiKers kick-back in rustic wooden swings. There are cabins with porches overlooking the nearby river and more distant mountains. The dining hall spills onto an outdoor terrace under pine trees. Cowpokes burnish leather saddles and tend their horses. The whole effect is downplayed western chic.

More monied guests pay a handsome price to stay in these idyllic precincts but PCT hikers are happily taken in, as they are (read dirty and hairy) and however many they might be. For half price, they’re served a one-choice but decent dinner, though only after the regular guests have eaten. Beer, wine and lemonade flow like small rivers.

By late evening, 15 or 20 of us are gathered around a pair of long tables under the trees, admiring the alpenglow of the setting sun on the mountains to the southwest. Among them are Uncle Fungus and his no-trail-name sidekick Amanda, who tells me her father is about 70 miles ahead, also thru-hiking the PCT. “He doesn’t like to stop,” she says, explaining his lead and absence from Drakesbad and other watering holes along the route.

Jetpack arrives just as dinner is over and cleans up everyone’s left-overs. I haven’t seen him since Campo, 1355 miles back. Shadow, a Frenchman, has fruitlessly been searching for that proverbial French restaurant near the PCT that Rodeo has also been unsuccessfully trying to find since the start of this walk.

Seemingly from nowhere, she brings out a huge bag of wild cherries, only slightly fermented from the heat, which serves as a meal for one of our number who announces as each dish arrives that it simply won’t do.

“I’m a vegetarian,” so no meat.

“Sorry, no carbs,” she adds, when the waiter produces a pasta offering.

Also no fruit, when he tries yet again. “I don’t eat sugar.”

When Rodeo produces that bag of cherries, she digs in as though it were life itself. We all pretend that cherries are a vegetable. “We’re doing the best we can,” the grey pony-tailed waiter tells me in his German accent when I go to pay the bill. “There are just so many of you. It’s driving our poor chef crazy.” Call it Bubble Mania.

By nightfall, most of the spots at Warner Valley campground, down the road from the lodge, have been taken. Hikers continue to come in well after dark, cramming into the most improbable spaces. I half expect to find hikers camped out in the toilets — enviably spic-and-span for a public place. It would not have been the first time. This is, after all, the PCT, where almost anything goes.

July 22