Start: Mike 1578.6, Elevation 6720 feet – Campsite near unpaved jeep road
Finish: Mile 1597.3, Elevation 5980 feet – Off trail in Etna
Total mileage (including detours): 21.4
Total elevation: Gain +3329 / Loss -4069 / Net -740
I got up early despite the morning chill, eager to spend my afternoon without shoes on my feet and eating a hot meal. I had been dreaming about having a burger and a beer all of yesterday after I learned there was a brewpub in Etna, and as much as I wanted to see more of Mt. Shasta, I hoped the miles ahead would be fast and painless.
I was distracted from the cold by the beautiful views as I walked the ridge that started my day. I had a view north over multiple valleys, which were separated by a thin veil of fog. The sun was just starting to hit the top of distant high peaks, coloring them red. On the south beyond one massive ridge I could just see a group of tall mountains, also red, jutting upward. Unfortunately, this view was fleeting as I soon ducked back in the trees, and I knew I couldn’t stop or I would be overtaken by the cold.
Following three miles of trees, I smelled moisture and soon was in a meadow with wildflowers, including red star-shaped flowers that I knew hummingbirds loved. Sure enough, I heard the loud distinctive buzz of a hummingbird above me and knew they were near. I kept climbing to mile 1583 through the meadow until I hit a sun-baked ridge with incredible, 270-degree views. The snow-topped mountains I had seen earlier above the ridge were even more clear, and Mt. Shasta cast a massive silhouette beneath the sun to the east. Lakes in front of me bounced a shimmering white light my direction as rising mist demarcated the valleys behind them. As I admired these sights, a cowbell echoing faintly below, a hummingbird came by and checked me out from various angles.
After a few minutes of gawking, I went down the cliff face into and out of the trees – and therefore in and out of the sun – for five miles. I slowly and steadily climbed uphill, gaining a few hundred feet each mile. But like a rollercoaster cranking toward the apex of its track, I knew this was just setting me up for a tumultuous, 2000-foot downhill over the ensuing nine miles.
About mile 1588 – near the local high point of the trail – I passed through a burn area. It was quiet except for the rhythmic beating of a woodpecker against a dead trunk. There was a fresh, crisp, piney scent to the air that reminded me of New England fall. Nonetheless, my legs were getting tired, and I had to push through the next three miles.
I gave in to fatigue about 10:30 a.m. at mile 1591 near the outlet stream of Paynes Lake. Normally I would have lingered here for a couple hours, taking a nap or talking to the two women who were doing a southbound section to Burney Falls (about mile 1350), but I knew Etna was just a few hours away so I only read and relaxed for only 45 minutes before packing up. As I was getting ready to go, a bit of pine sap fell on my hand. I washed it off quickly, so it didn’t have time to harden on my arm hair and rip off skin, and I actually enjoyed the scent it left behind – it was certainly better than the smell of anything I was carrying.
After taking a peek at Paynes Lake, which was lake with a steep moraine behind it, I went up a northern ridge toward an amazing view that I had no idea was coming. The trail at first seemed punishing and dull, traversing steep and rocky sections with loose granite, trudging through pines with the usual fresh green and decaying black lichen, disturbing chipmunks and flies alike. Then, at mile 1594, the trail exited the trees on to a steep cliff edge to reveal a blue-green, heart-shaped lake with a broad agricultural valley behind it, and Mt. Shasta behind that. I stumbled a few steps with uphill momentum then stopped in my tracks.
This was perhaps the most beautiful sight I had seen since getting back on the trail at Dunsmuir. I had the view to myself; my only company was the blooming broad-leaf succulents that edged out of the cracks in the granite boulders behind me. A soft, cool breeze whisked away my sweat as I squatted to take photo after photo, adjusting slightly to arrange the pine trees in such a way to frame the lake just the way I wanted.
When I finally managed to wrestle myself away, I turned the corner back into pines to witness a strange, bewildering, and slightly comical scene: two men coming off a steep, brush-filled slope back onto the trail. I couldn’t figure out what they were doing at first. Had they been off going to the bathroom? Exploring some unseen attraction? Chasing wildlife?
As I approached them, they took their final shaky steps back onto the trail. One man with a graying goatee, who called himself FROGGY (an acronym for Fucking Really Old Guy Getting Younger), lost his hiking poles in his last steps and stumbled back down the screen. His younger companion, Snowshoe, had scratches on his left forearm and blood on his right arm, both of which bore tattoos. It turns out they had climbed through the loose pine dirt to avoid a snow bank that lay a couple hundred feet ahead of me. They advised me not to follow their lead, but instead go below the snow. I offered them first aid, but they were fairly well off and continued on their way.
Their wounds and description of the snow bank filled me with a bit of trepidation as I walked on toward it. When I saw the impediment, I approached cautiously, glancing up and down the slope for alternative paths. Both directions seemed like steep, arduous, tree-thick choices, so I eased onto the snow bank, where I could see the indents of a few footsteps. I was surprised to find, just a few feet into the snow bank, that I could see the opposite side and the trail just 30 feet away. With each step, I jammed my toe into the snow, creating a divot where I could put my weight without slipping. I splashed a bit of snow into my sneakers and onto my legs, but it was slightly refreshing in the heat, and with about 20 steps I was back onto dry land, bushwhacking my way about 50 feet back to the trail. As soon as I got across, I felt bad for Froggy and Snowshoe since I had such ease with a section that caused them so much trouble.
The trail careened downhill from the snow bank, and as I was headed down, I ran into an older man named Stretch. He had hiked the trail back in 2003 and was hoping to do so again, but was convinced otherwise by his wife and an impending hip replacement in the spring. Instead, the slim Salem resident was doing a series of day hikes with a light pack. I warned him about the snow bank ahead and headed on downhill, but with his experience he probably didn’t need the advice.
About 1:30 p.m., when I got down to mile 1598 and the highway where I could catch a ride, I found four people hanging out near the trailhead – three hikers and a middle-aged woman named Janice standing next to a horse trailer. Janice immediately handed me a beer then continued to answer questions from the hikers about how it was to do the PCT with a horse. I learned that Janice’s husband, Gary, was on the trail with their horse, Beegee, a 16-year-old that regularly did 20 to 25 miles per day and could go up to 45 miles in a day if needed. Janice was waiting with their other horse, Mercedes, their collie mix, Rose, and many bundles of hay.
As I threw a stick for the ever-attentive Rose, Janice told us about the first time Mercedes had a pack put on her; she spooked and ran off down a road. The second time she donned a pack, she ran in circles around a ring for 30 minutes. Now used to the pack and able to go over fallen trees (but not snow banks), Mercedes would take the next section once Gary and Beegee arrived. Typically, the horses only did two to three days in a row on the trail.
After we finished our drinks, the four of us left Janice and grabbed a ride downhill toward the quiet town of Etna from Lionheart, a woman who had done the PCT in 2009 and again in 2013. A quiet and seemingly serious but friendly person, she dropped us off at the Hiker Hut, a B&B where she worked that offered lawn space and amenities for hikers.
With food on our mind, we walked down to the Etna Brewery for lunch. There I learned more about my three companions – Caboose (Nick), Side Dump Car (Amber), and Little Engine (Savannah). Nick and Amber taught at a charter school in Phoenix as sixth and third grade teachers, respectively. Savannah was old friends with Amber and hailed from Santa Cruz. The trio had been on the trail since mid-April and had done a small portion of the Sierras in early June before jettisoning off after a couple hairy river crossings. I also learned that Nick, who sported a hiking kilt, had lost 50 pounds on the trail.
After we wolfed down our sandwiches, salads, and beers, we parted ways. I went back to the Hiker Hut while they headed off to the small city of Yreka, where Nick’s brother had a couple hotel rooms. Back at the Hiker Hut, I was shocked to see Blawesome, who was now working here after the hikers thinned out at Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce. She and I caught up a bit before I did laundry and cleaned myself up.
After a few hours, my hunger returned and I went back down to the Etna Brewery for a beer. There I was joined by a young man from Israel with black curly hair named Ophir. Between huge bites of his sandwich, he told me that he had done the Sierras back in May before any of the snow had melted (he had no river crossings, but rather just walked over snow bridges), and was aiming to finish by Sept. 7 so he could return to Israel for his brother’s wedding. He had already traveled for three months prior to the PCT – journeying through Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico – and was hoping to work on organic farm in Australia after completing the trail.
Since I had only had a beer, I was still hungry and went down to Dotty’s Korner Kitchen for their storied burgers and shakes. Ophir did a bit of grocery shopping then caught up with me at Dotty’s, ready for another burger. In his previous life, he had been in the bomb defusal division of the Israeli army, stationed along the Gaza Strip and Lebanon before becoming an instructor. When he got back to Israel, he would attend college to study teaching (but it paid poorly) or computer science. For now, however, he was focused on trying to overcome the logistical hurdles of getting his Australian visa (namely, he needed to get a physical examination and to a consulate in just a couple days).
Following dinner, I was eager to update my blog, so I sat outside at the plastic tables in the dark, typing away and swatting mosquitoes until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.