Bubble!

 

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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!”

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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

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