July 11th, Friday
1197 to 1214ish
I woke up in the middle of the night to feel a raindrop on my face. I murmured sleepily and shook Zachary. “It’s raining,” I mumbled, then turned over and snuggled in while Zach launched out of the tent to grab our rainfly and set it up. Apparently I’m not very selfless when I’m half-asleep.
A few hours later, morning had come. I sat up and leaned out of the tent to unzip the rainfly and see what the morning held for us. The lawn sparkled with water and the tin roof of the church gleamed. A cloudy sky hung overhead between the peaks of the surrounding mountains, but the rain had stopped for now, leaving behind a washed and earthy-smelling air.
Catdog and Raindance were packing up. We said goodbye to both of them, and then walked down the quiet main street. With one last glance at Sierra City, we started the mile-long road walk back to the PCT.
We got about a block before a big black van pulled up by the side of the road. Raindance popped his head out from the passenger side. “This guy’s offering rides!” he called.
We hopped in the van, trying not to scare the labrador retriever in the back, and we saw that the driver was the church groundskeeper we’d seen the day before, Jim. “Would you like to go to my favorite place for breakfast?” he asked. “I’ll take care of it.”
We stuttered a thank you, and within five minutes he drove up to a general store/cafe in a nearby little offshoot of the town. We walked into the cute, well-scrubbed building full of historic photos of the town when it was a brand-new mining village. We gladly accepted his generosity: I got a bacon breakfast sandwich with a side of hash browns and Zach ordered bacon and sausage with a biscuit.
The four of us chatted about anything and everything: the Burning Man Festival in Nevada was fast approaching, and Raindance (as well as several other hikers we met) were hoping to attend. Jim said that he had gone every year, and told us stories about the way the festival takes that patch of desert by storm, transforming it from a barren plain to a hub of activity.
Jim also told us that he used to volunteer at a ranger tower on the peak of the nearby mountain— he would spend a shift up there three times a week, keeping an eye out for lightning strikes, wisps of smoke, and other signs of danger. The tower is near the PCT, so he said that hikers would often come up and visit him, and he would feed them snacks and have them sign his trail log.
At last we had all finished eating, and Jim paid for all our meals, refusing our polite protesting. Then we all piled back into his van and he drove us back to the trailhead. Zach and I hopped out and thanked him. With a friendly wave, he drove off.
We stood at a narrow path heading upward into a steeply-sloped forest, the beginning of California, Section M (California goes to Section R). We looked at our map and saw that the next eight miles were a steady uphill, taking us almost 3,000 feet out of the valley where Sierra City was tucked. It was high morning by this point, and even under the deep shade of the trees, we could feel the heat and humidity pressing on us.
Well, no time like the present. We started hiking, quickly at first, then slowing down. The bacon and sausage lay like bricks in our stomachs, and we often had to pause to pant or chug water or both. Gigantic pine cones littered the trail, which I thought were ridiculously cool.
After a while, we came to a jeep road and saw another hiker sitting there, drinking a huge bottle of Gatorade. He had a broad face, a shaved head, a thick beard, and unnervingly-blue eyes beneath two dark bushy eyebrows. “Would y’all like some Gatorade?” he asked.
“Sure,” we said, and sat down next to him. He introduced himself as Nick (we thought he didn’t have a trail name, but later learned that that was his trail name). He had just taken a couple days off and was getting back on trail. He asked if we smoked, and when we said we didn’t, he pulled out a joint and smoked alone, not showing much interest in talking. We chugged some of his Gatorade, grateful for the drink, then said goodbye to him, leaving him lounging on the side of the road, smoking and looking very much like a philosopher. It wasn’t the last time we saw him.
After a long set of switchbacks, we cleared the forest and found ourselves in a wild and open landscape: a thick blanket of manzanita bushes rose up around us, scaling the side of the mountain at first like a carpet, then in scraggly patches, before dying away to reveal the craggy bare peaks of a ridge of mountains. These peaks were, more properly, buttes, the Sierra Buttes. (Teehee.)
I paused to look at the scenery: on one side we had a verdant blanket of manzanita and majestic towering mountains, and on the other side the mountain fell away in a deep fold, rising again to a range of mountains on the other side from where we’d come, blue with distance. Far below in the valley, we could see the tiny tin roofs of Sierra City. This image is burned on my memory, sharp and vivid and beautiful. I knew I’d have to come back someday.
As we continued up the switchbacks, headed further up the mountainside, the trail grew increasingly rocky, with large shards of black stone that made us watch our footing. I saw little wren-like birds darting among the boulders. This open mountainside had to be some of my favorite scenery yet: it was like a patch of gorgeous desert in the middle of this vast pine forest.
Near the top of the mountain, we caught up with Catdog. She was having a rough day. “A couple miles back, I tripped on a rock and fell hard,” she said, cleaning her glasses. She set her square jaw. “I cried pretty hard. You know, sometimes on trail I’ve just cried because it’s hard. But today, I cried because I thought I had broken my leg.” She patted her leg. “But it feels okay, so I guess it’s fine.”
I stared at Catdog, trying to imagine what it would be like to hike the trail at the age of 63, solo. I decided that when I grow up, I want to be her.
The three of us hiked together for a while, skirting the edge of the buttes before heading downward onto a flatter stretch of ground, where manzanita and pine intermingled. This was a popular day-hiking area, and we passed a lot of people. We paused at a parking lot to try to figure out where the trail went from here, and chatted with a group of day-hikers. They offered us bottled water, which we accepted gratefully.
Something that most people found it hard to grasp was the idea that PCT hikers don’t usually travel in distinct groups. When they saw Zach and Catdog and I hiking together, they assumed that we had been hiking together since the Mexican border. Although there were several groups of people who paced each other on trail, it was never official, and people often got behind or ahead. It was hard to explain why it would be very impractical to stay in rigid groups all the time.
We said goodbye hiked for a little while, then paused at a windy ridge overlooking the stunning cobalt-blue Gold Lake with a tapestry of gray-green-blue mountains behind it. Zach had reception, so he called home while Catdog hiked ahead. I sat on a volcanic boulder, careful to avoid the tiny red flowers that grew in the nooks and crannies, and tried to catch up on my journal. I had done a better job of this since we had left Sacramento, writing longer entries with more details. I had already forgotten so much— I didn’t want to assume that I’d remember everything.
I wrote, “I love Sierra City: the tin roofs and mountain peaks and enclosed feel and general store and pretty houses. It’s a day for adventure.”
After Zach had made a few calls, we hiked down off the ridge. Checking our maps, we saw that water was going to be scarce for a while, so we aimed for a campsite near a spring marked on our map. It was only a few miles away.
When we reached it, a sandy alpine area pocked with ponds, we found we were in good company: a dozen other hikers had had the same idea! We still managed to score a flat camping side (in the lee of an unstable-looking dead tree). I took the spur trail to a shallow and swift-flowing spring. It took forever to filter water because our water filter was getting a bit clogged. Dawn Patrol and Star Rider joined me to gather water, and we chatted for a while. They said that they had left all their material possessions in storage to hike the trail— afterward, they were going to rent a car and travel cross-country. It sounded like fun to me.
At last I had filled bottles for all our cooking, washing and drinking needs, and hiked back to camp. Zach had set up the tent and was cooking one of our rare rice meals. We poured the rice and chicken onto tortillas and ate them as wraps— so delicious!
As we ate, more hikers walked up and began looking for places to camp. The Sierra had spoiled us— no one wanted to dry camp anymore.
The sunset over the distant mountains was gorgeous that night. Zach and I, full of food, were soon asleep.