As we approached the end of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, we had become increasingly aware of the ever-shortening window we had to complete the PCT. Over the past thousand miles, we had enjoyed a number of lower mileage days, soaking in the incredible scenery in the mountains and perhaps taking a few too many rest days spent relaxing and drinking with friends in town.
I still vividly remember sitting on a giant log during one of our afternoon breaks, pouring over the maps and calculating the distances ahead. "I just don't see how we can possibly make it at our current pace," I said to Sam. "At just 22 miles per day, we will finish by mid-November, which isn't possible, as the snow will have locked us out".
We affectionately referred to the loose group of friends that we formed bonds with as, 'the back of the bus' group. Far from the hyper-competitive energy driving the hikers in front, we had all chosen to soak in the new experiences (along with quite a bit of liquor), and seemed to do so at the unfortunate cost of time. From the very beginning, Sam and I had made the commitment to walk the entire trail. We felt it remained integral to our sense of accomplishment. So when some hikers chose to hitch ahead, we stayed behind to complete the less desirable sections. So far, we had missed less than 50 miles, and the miles we had missed, we all due to fire closures and concerns from lack of water. We had also attempted to make up many of these miles by backtracking as far as possible around the closures. "I can't hike much faster," said Sam. "We'll just have to hike longer days. After all, it's still summer and the sun doesn't set until 9 pm."
With easier terrain ahead, we began to hike well into the night. At each town stop, we replaced the batteries of our headlamps in preparation for the many hours we would hike in darkness. As always, our day would begin around sunrise, but we would often find ourselves hiking until around 10 or 11 pm each night. That said, our average daily mileage steadily increased from 20 miles, to close to 30 per day.
Our most memorable days in Northern California were spent in the company of good friends. These were friendships we had built over the last thousand miles. Hikers use the term 'vortex' to describe an enticing place near the trail, that hikers often find difficult to leave. Drakesbad Guest House in Lassen Volcanic National Park was just one of those places. Directly on the trail, Drakesbad was an unexpected surprise. Without the usual amenities of a typical town stop (such as an affordable motel, grocery or liquor store), we had imagined Drakesbad would be a quick stop, simply to pick up our mailed food package and move on. When we finally arrived in the late afternoon sun, we realized quite quickly that this would not be the case and were amazed to be reunited with so many friends.
We learned that the owners of the high-end resort had been incredibly kind to PCT thru-hikers. For a nominal fee, they would serve good portions of whatever food was being served to the paying guests that night, outside and behind the restaurant. These were truly five-star meals, with menu items such a filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes. The rooms would have been exorbitantly expensive for us on such a limited budget, so we considered ourselves extremely fortunate when the owners allowed us to sleep on the covered porches surrounding some of the rustic buildings. They also offered laundry service and a purpose-built outdoor shower, just for thru-hikers wishing to get clean. Sam was in heaven. It was no wonder when we arrived that we saw so many well-fed and friendly faces, already two or three days into their stay.
Eager to clean away the dirt and grime that had accumulated on our bodies, we rushed to the shower. We had been told that dinner would be ready in thirty minutes, so we had just enough time to quickly clean off. It felt truly amazing to stand under the steady stream of hot water and wash away a weeks worth of dirt. To this day, Sam compares the feeling she had in that moment to a song by Santo & Johnny called 'Sleepwalk.' She is convinced the song was written for "thru-hikers around the globe who have just stepped off trail and into a hot shower." Life on trail really was about appreciating the simple things in life.
Ravenous, we hurried to get dressed again and rushed back to the long dinner table, which was now under the dappled light of the evening sun. There was a certain magic that night, as over a dozen hikers sat down to a beautiful evening meal in the middle of the wilderness. After months of crouching over a small flame, while cooking barely edible food, it was surreal to leave the discomforts of hiking behind and share laughs over good food and wine. In total, we spent two sun-soaked days, lazing around in the outdoor pool while eating and drinking together before setting off early one morning to begin the long climb out of the valley.
Some of the best experiences we had were in the most unlikely of places. We had heard for days about the dry and fire ravaged section, aptly known as Hat Creek Rim. Northern California isn't usually associated with the extremely dry conditions of a desert, however this section of the trail was notorious for being one of the longest stretches without water. Left completely exposed, the charred remains of fire-blackened trees stand as sentinels over a dry grassland. The exposed trail was baked in the intense and unyielding heat of the Californian sun. The vast majority of hikers choose to skip this section altogether, as summer temperatures can exceed 40 degrees. Regardless of what lay ahead, we set out early that morning with extremely heavy backpacks, each laden with 7 liters of water.
Diverting from the trail, we began the day by descending into the cool darkness of a series of underground lava tubes. The lights from our headlamps seemed to be swallowed by the blackness surrounding us. As we ventured further into the tunnels, I ran my hand along the strange rippled surfaces left by the hot lava long ago. How strange, I would never have imagined being in such a place just half an hour ago. Returning to the surface, we were glad for the short respite from the already baking sun. Shortly after, we began the climb from the valley floor to the top of the steep cliffs surrounding Hat Creek Rim. The sweeping vista from the top was stunning, with views of both Mt Lassen behind and Mt Shasta ahead. We spent the next number of hours walking along the dramatic cliffs formed along a fault line, where the earth's crust had been shifted vertically.
The tinkle of bells accompanied us through this section, as free-roaming cattle wandered around us under a giant and reddening sky. After sunset, we found a small patch of scrubland to bed down for the night. When the weather was clear, as it was that night, we often opted to 'cowboy camp'. A popular alternative to setting up a tent, cowboy camping involves sleeping on the ground without a tent. It saves precious time and energy during set-up and teardown of camp and the views are unmatched! That night we were treated to a sky teeming with millions of stars as we closed our eyes to the quiet tinkling of the cowbells around us. Over the next two days, we saw hardly a soul as we soaked in the beauty of this harsh but beautiful landscape.
On our last stop before crossing the border into Oregon, we resupplied in the tiny town of Seiad Valley. Seiad Valley was a place I can only liken to a strange South Park episode. With a small conglomeration of houses and farms huddled together, the people of the town live isolated from the hustle so common in Southern California. Many of the surrounding communities feel so separated from the rest of California, that they wish to secede from the state to form 'The State of Jefferson'. It's a unique place, where ATV's replace cars as the preferred mode of transportation. We needed to arrive in time to pick up our mailed food package from the only 'general store' in town. Time was running short when we managed to flag down a park ranger who was willing to give us a ride for the last mile into town. The ranger was traveling with his trusty companion Bob, a short and chubby basset hound, who had to be lifted in and out of the truck due to his weight. We were lucky to get the hitch and even luckier in Sam's opinion to be accompanied by the "ridiculously cute" hound.
We arrived just before closing and managed to pick up our package. We also bought a tub of ice cream, a number of snacks, a case of beer, and some wine for the night ahead. We were overjoyed to see a number of familiar faces relaxing by some picnic benches when we rounded the corner. That night we spent hours chatting, eating, drinking and enjoying some music when a few locals showed up. I'm not sure what time we finally passed out, but I can remember waking up peacefully in a parking lot the next morning with all of our gear surrounding us on the pavement.
A little worse for wear, we were all eagerly awaiting the adjoining restaurant to open. We had heard they offered a massive stack of blueberry pancakes and even a 'pancake challenge' for those with the stomachs for it. While we were waiting, I followed an elderly man wearing blue overalls to his workshop. We had met the night before. I had mentioned that one of my tent poles had snapped earlier and he kindly agreed to try and repair the damage. Just ten minutes later, we managed to fashion a small sleeve out of scrap metal to shore up the weak joint. I thanked him profusely for the help and tried to pay him for his time. He would have "none of it" and wished us a safe and happy journey ahead.