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

ATT04587

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

Bubble!

 

ATT31449

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!”

ATT53115

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

Trail Devil

 

ATT07322

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.

ATT67144

ATT43155

ATT60793

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.

July 20

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

Street Brawl

pct flowers

It’s fisticuffs at the grand old Truckee Hotel. Seems the concierge arranged for one taxi driver to take me to the PCT trailhead on Interstate 80. When that looked iffy, she arranged another. Of course, both show up simultaneously.

Never mind the early morning hour, around 6 am. It’s show-time.

“Who the f*** are you?” one yells.

“Who the f*** are you?” replies the other.

“F*** you! This is my fare!”

“No, it’s not. The hotel called me! So f*** you!”

“You f***ing scab! You’re not taking my money!”

“It’s my money, a**hole!”

All this unfolds beneath the windows of the hotel’s (until recently) sleeping guests. I get in with the driver whose eyes haven’t yet rolled back in his head, but it’s a near thing. As we pull out, the competing driver is shouting unprintable imprecations and pounding on the trunk, thinking to grab my backpack and hold it hostage.

I suspect this is not your everyday Truckee scene. The town counts among the most charming on the PCT — like Julian, some eight hundred miles back — and Truckeeites consider themselves family friendly folk. I hitched in on a Monday after a long day on the trail, asked the tourist office for the best old-fashioned lodging in town and liked it so much that I spent a zero there the next day.

By hiker standards, it’s paradise: cool bars, patio cafes, restaurants, gear stores, supermarkets, hotels and motels, including a hiker hostel (literally) on the wrong side of the very busy train tracks that run through the center of town. The Truckee Hotel is the crown jewel, and among the most affordable, with a fine wood-paneled bar and the best chef in town. I returned to the trail almost reluctantly.

Just when you think you have the PCT figured, it surprises you. By repute, the 40-odd mile stretch from Donner Pass to Sierra City, at mile 1195, is considered something of a sleeper. Ten miles in, I had formed my opinion: pretty, yes, but nothing special. Deep pine forests, grassy open meadows, gurgling brooks and streams, the larger ones crossed by neat wooden bridges. The birds singing, wind in the trees, the trail soft with loam and pine needles — it all reminded me of my own northern Michigan.

Street Brawl photo

How wrong I was. By mile 15, I was agog. Woods give way to crestlines give way again to woods and then to ridges offering vistas worthy of the Sound of Music. And the meadows, meadows, meadows — miles and miles of them, nothing but flowers, rising up the slopes to sharp green ridgelines, etched knife-like against the sky, itself a hazy, milky liquid blue unlike anything I have ever seen.

Words rarely fail me, but today they do: dazzling, glorious, gorgeous, awesome — god-like, even. Yesterday – passed one hiker coming through a more modest patch of flowered meadow. “We’re in a fairyland,” she exclaimed, by way of greeting. What would she say today, I wonder? I gotta borrow from this morning’s taxi drivers. Unbelievable. Unfuckingbelievable.

flowers

And here’s where it gets embarrassing. For a moment, the sheer ineffable beauty is so overpowering that I go down on my knees. It just seems like the thing to do. “Thank, thank you, thank you,” I say, over and over, not sure who or what I am thanking but hands held out as if receiving a blessing. As I am.

I stop early for the night, after 22 miles, and camp overlooking a small stream with the sun setting across a green valley in the distance. A light breeze keeps the bugs away.

July 3

Primal Scream

Donner Pass 2

The family that eats together stays together.

The Donner Pass gives special meaning to the old adage about the bonding effects of the communal table. After taking a wrong turn in their Conestoga wagons, the famed Donner party failed to get across the Sierras before winter. As every school kid knows, the would-be emigrants ended up eating one another to survive.

That pass is today’s destination, and the trail wastes no time in giving me a taste of the Donner experience. No sooner have I climbed out of my sleeping bag, in dawn’s chilly light, than it’s up, up, up — first through the pine forests of the valley where I spent the night, at the Five Lakes campground at mile 1136, then through vast meadows of flowers often more than a square mile in size.

Doner Pass 1

After a quick 1200 feet of elevation gain, I camel up at a stream cascading from the ridge above, where you can see the top lifts of the Squaw Valley ski resort amid a few lingering patches of snow. According to the PCT grapevine, the lodge offers a free beer to hikers. But who in their right mind would climb all the way up there?

A pair of southbounders amble past, he in a cowboy hat, she in leopard tights. As it turns out, they just did. And so do I, it turns out, for after a series of long switchbacks the PCT passes right by the trail for the Squaw Valley mountain house.

As I slog along — shedding layers as the temperatures soar — I’m suddenly seized by an absurd hiker fantasy. A guy sent up by Squaw Valley sits by the cut-off to the resort, a cooler at his feet. As I pass, he opens it and pulls out a long-neck bottle of that promised beer. O how it glitters. O how it sparkles with condensation. He waggles it tantalizingly. It’s only eight in the morning, but I yearn for it. It will taste so unbelievably good!

Just then my phone chimes. Reception! And the mirage fades. That’s when I decide to get off the trail about 12 miles ahead and hitch into the town of Truckee. There I will find that beer. Little do I know that, in the coming miles, I will earn every drop.

For now, still early in the day, I sit atop the Squaw Valley pass, the ski lifts running up the mountain off to the side, and admire the forever views to the south across Lake Tahoe, and to the north and east ridge upon ridge of mountain ranges, each bluer than the last marching into the distance.

North of Squaw Valley, the wilderness deepens. I pause at one point along the twisting trail to simply look and listen. Silence, save for a distant woodpecker and, further still, a small plane. All around are high bare peaks, like mesas, flat-topped with the stones slowly eroding.

Donner Pass 4

A glance at the map shows that the trail goes over them, too. I let out a little primal scream, self-consciously as if disturbing the peace, and it echoes back to me.

The trail climbs and climbs. Then it climbs some more. Insanely, a group of trail runners comes by, 9 miles from where they began at Donner Pass, where I hope to get to by mid-afternoon. It’s the Truckee ultra mountain marathon. “You make this look easy,” I say as one group chugs pass, downhill at least. “You’re doing the hard work,” a man replies. “How much does that pack weigh?”

Too much, I confess. Too much. It’s laden with food for my next resupply at Sierra City, 50-odd miles away. My personal Conestoga wagon, strapped to my back.

My phone starts chiming again, telling me I am finally near the top of this particular ascent, marked by a peak called Tinker’s Knob at 8,900 feet and the slightly lower Mount Anderson. The sun beats on the south-facing slope as if it were still the desert. Climate change? I pack snow into my hat to stay cool. It’s dangerous up here.

The trail meanders along the crest ridge, far above the tree line, with no cover of any sort. It’s beautiful but a bitch. Up and down, up and down, with the temperatures rising into the high-80s. By now, the acres of wild flowers have ceased to charm. So have the views. Around mile 1152, an hour or so from Donner Pass, the trail enters a small stand of pines at a saddle in the ridge, then looks to go straight up another steep bare slope.

I let out an expletive. Who designed this trail? Why go over the top when there’s a perfectly good contour through those nice cool trees just below? That’s when I lose it. Fuckfuckfuckettyfucking PCT!

I yell. I stomp. I throw my hat, jump up and down and totally embarrass myself in front of some astonished day-hikers who abruptly materialize from around a bend. And then I realize that the trail in fact does just what I thought it should, veering off across a small snow field into the shade of the trees beyond.

Once again I pack my hat with snow, cool my temper and go on. And suddenly, not so far in the distance, just past Emigrant Pass that cost so many so much enroute to California, is Interstate 90 at the Donner Pass. And what should await at the trailhead? Those promised beers, left not by Squaw Valley resorters but by some anonymous trail angel.

And it’s cold, too.

July 1