Independence Day

It’s the Fourth of July in Sierra City. That’s mile 1195 in PCT Time. And no one has shown up. Except us hikers, that is.

Back in Truckee, some 40 miles south, the main street is lined with sight-seers. There’s a parade, with floats and marching bands. Flags fly, the music swells. There are barbecues and country western concerts and fireworks.

Not everyone is happy about that. The woman watering the flowers on the corner across from the grand Hotel Truckee complains that July 4 celebrants pick all her daisies. “They just pluck ’em. None’ll be left,” she says, shaking her head sadly. And those PCT hikers, camped out in the park at the east end of Donner Lake. Sleeping wherever they like, in violation of all town ordinances not to mention polite behavior.

In Sierra City, by contrast, a weird quiet marks this festive day. “I hear there might be a parade,” one hopeful hiker says as he passes on the trail early in the morning, making speed for Highway 49 and a hitch into town so as not to miss the fun. Alas, organized fun is not on the schedule. Could it be that Sierra City is just too small — population 167 and a dozen dogs, on a good day?

Quaint and charming, Sierra City comprises a handful buildings lining a twisty mountain road in the Yuba River valley. It survives on hikers, who descend on the place in the hundreds during peak season. Yet on this day of days, the cafe and the town’s two restaurants are closed, with signs on their locked doors saying, in effect, “Gone Fishin’.” So are its two hotels cum boarding houses. So is the post office, where hikers wait to pick up resupply boxes. The saloon won’t open until 4:30. And not a flag flies.

Thank the good Lord, then, for the General Store. Its famous front porch is packed with hikers ordering up its famous one-pound burgers and downing chocolate malts with incredible focus of purpose. Calories, calories, calories. Fodfoodfood.

This morning, when the first hikers arrived, the store’s shelves had been stripped bare by the previous day’s invasion. By afternoon, in true July 4 American spirit, the owners arranged a special holiday delivery. In less than a hour or two, though, our hiker hordes have again snatched up everything. What do I do for breakfast, I wonder, as I grab what I can for my next week on the trail? Only two small packs of instant maple-flavored oatmeal, my favorite, are left. “Wow,” says the woman in charge. “I had four boxes just an hour ago.”

Beer, however, is plentiful. Coming to the highway into town, the trail crosses the Yuba River across a steel-girder arched bridge. “Come down, come down,” shout a growing congregation of hikers on the rocks beneath. I ditch my pack and clamber down. Immediately someone tosses me a beer — and then another as I down the first. The water is fast and frigid. From a rock cliff on the other bank, the more daring jump into a deep pool at the base of a small falls. “Smack,” go the jumpers as they hit. “Clap, clap, clap,” go those watching the spectacle. “Glug, glug, glug,” go the beer-drinkers like me. It’s Acapulco on the Yuba.

Thinking I had better get to town for a late lunch, I leave the river merrymaking and climb the last stretch of trail to Highway 49. And there is the first trail magic I’ve seen a few hundred miles. Saint John the Baptist, so named for his bushy beard, did the PCT last year, and previously the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail — the Triple Crown! This year he’s trail angeling, and what a feast he lays on. Pasta bolognese. Bagels and salmon and cream cheese. Baguettes with fresh tomatoes and cheese. Not to mention beer, sodas and apple cider. After three helpings of pasta and a sandwich or two, I sit back for more leisurely snacking. “Another beer?” asks Saint John, helpfully. “Maybe a plum or some wild cherries? Apricots?”

The white-clapboard Sierra City church lets hikers pitch their tents on its grounds, and I add mine to the growing mix. Only inches separate one from another, and hikers cluster at picnic tables sorting provisions and talking strategy for the coming day’s five thousand foot climb out of town to the mountains above. It’s an infamous brute of a slog, and with the temperatures nearing 90 it will not be easy.

But for now, no one is stressing. The river is cold and refreshing. And so is the beer. It is the Fourth of July on the PCT.

July 4

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