Time for true confessions.
We are devils of the PCT, sirens of the sort that almost tempted Ulysses from his odyssey.
My wife Suzanne, aka Rodeo, is back on trail and offering her unique PCT concierge service. That means a car and “taxi” service to and from the trailhead, or wherever. That can complicate otherwise simple decisions. Like continuous-stepping the PCT.
It is hard to say no as you contemplate the 3500-foot climb out of Sierra City in the mid-day heat of a 96-degree day, especially when weak-legged after a 2-week stint off-trail. “There’s a road to the top,” says Rodeo, consulting Guthooks. “Why don’t I just drive you?”
I do not say no. Worse, I invite others to join us. As we ferry a clutch of hikers to the trailhead, I mention as casually as possible: “You know, the new rerouting of the PCT passes Packer Lake. I’m picking up the trail there,” saving a few miles and several thousand feet in elevation.
The three look at one another. “No, thanks” is the verdict. Obviously, they are made of sterner stuff than I. But I do know of others, earlier in the day, who happily took a pass on That Big Hot Climb. I won’t name names.
The trail north of Sierra City is a series of sharp ups and downs, interspersed with rolling stretches along forested ridgelines offering occasional glimpses far ahead of snow-capped Mount Lassen. Its main feature is the 3500-foot descent to the middle fork of the Feather River and 3000-foot climb up the other side. More positively, it’s also notable for some great stops along the way, beginning in charming Sierra City through the lodges around Buck’s Lake to the delightful river hamlet of Belden some 90 miles up the trail at mile 1287 on the north fork of the Feather River.
Right now, I’m sitting on the upper deck of the Belden Town Resort watching boisterous beer-drinking hikers balancing on a tippy wooden raft in the river running by the lodge. From the beach, one guy throws beers to those on the raft. The idea is to dive or jump off to catch the beer in mid-trajectory. A case or two goes into this game, without a single score.
Whenever a hiker passes over the nearby bridge, a chant goes up from the raft below. “One of us! One of us!” A girl crosses who everyone seems to know. They shout out her trail name, short for Fiona. “Pee-na! Pee-na!” It would be easy to mistake that for something else. She carries a twelve-pack and drops it into the rushing stream for the swimmers to dive and fetch. Aptly, there’s a lighted sign atop the girders of the bridge. It’s a martini glass with straw and olive.
As for me, I kick back in a cushy beach chair considering tomorrow’s climb — an utterly exposed, south-facing cliff, up which the PCT zigzags for 5000 feet over 11 miles.
Coming into Belden, half way down a series of unending switchbacks at 4400 feet or so, I caught a glimpse of the trail as it leveled out at the bottom of the valley. If there were hikers, they would have seemed no larger than ants, little black dots hardly discernible far below.
Much of the descent has been through old clear-cut, scarcely a tree in sight under the beating sun. At lower elevations the trail re-enters the woods but it gets hotter and hotter as you drop into the valley. Mid-summer circadas buzz amid the dry grasses and oak trees. My ears are ringing with the rapid loss of elevation. Belden, at 2400 feet, is one of the lowest points on the PCT. And that means pain on the other side of the river.
On the deck at the charming Belden Town Resort, over a cold glass of wine, I turn to Rodeo.
“Is there another option?” I ask. “Hmm,” she replies, again consulting Guthooks, complemented by Google maps. “There might just be.”
So, another confession: I am conflicted. Not because of the climb so much as the realities of time. For the past three months, I’ve been commuting between the trail and my job in Kenya. And as a dad, I have family obligations not always compatible with solo life on the trail. Like college visits with my junior-year daughter and an older son’s birthday.
That pushes me to a bummer of a decision. As my time grows short, I will start skipping ahead. After so many more or less continuous (or at least closely linked) steps, I am going into PCT sampling mode — our hiker version of urban restaurant “grazing” or “bar-hopping,” where you pop from one spot to the next – in order to get in as many meaningful miles as possible from here to Canada.
O well. Hike your own hike, as we say. I don’t know whether that will be 90 percent of the remaining trail, or 60. But one thing I do know: I’ll throw in a good share of days like tomorrow. Because it’s the hard bits that make the good ones all the better.
Who knows. Perhaps my daughter will go to college in California, and I can pick up wherever I leave off.