|This is the only picture I have of Catdog— she's in the upper right corner in the blue bag.|
July 15th, 2014, Tuesday
We awoke the next morning to the smell of coffee. It was very early, but Nancy was already up cooking breakfast. Zach and I sat up, looking around at the other hikers on their mattresses, all in various states of half-consciousness.
Nancy set out a massive pile of French toast, a casserole dish of scrambled eggs, and an enormous bowl of fruit salad. I grabbed some hot cocoa, Zach got some coffee, and we sat down to our third exquisite meal in a row. Nancy had done more for us than we could ever even hope to thank her for!
All the hikers sat around, chatting much more cheerily than most people at 7:30 in the morning would. Sideshow brought up that in some years, more than five hundred miles of the PCT were closed due to wildfires. “Can you imagine being a hiker that year?” he asked. Then he grinned his wide toothy grin. “I’m gonna just burn down the rest of California so that we can skip to Oregon.”
As with most conversations where everyone is well-fed and relaxed, we all thought this was way funnier than it should’ve been, and laughed uproariously as everyone added to the fantasy.
“Yeah, you could pretend it was just an accident… leave an alcohol stove burning in the middle of the trail.”
“Or just a line of five alcohol stoves.”
“With you on the other side fanning it.”
“And then,” Sideshow said, sighing dramatically. “They’ll arrest me and I’ll be a martyr of the PCT. But at least everyone else’s hike will be shorter.”
“They’ll build a statue to you!”
And so on we went, giggling and laughing way more than the joke demanded.
Little did we know that Sideshow’s dream would come true— but, since he was near the front of the pack, he never got to benefit from it.
At last, Nancy announced that she was taking the jeep for a hiker drop, to one trailhead or the other. Zach and I had decided to go the long way— this meant a 23-mile hike into Belden Town that night, but we knew there was a trail angel there who offered places to stay, so it would work out. Nancy let us come in the first car-load, and dropped us off at the trailhead.
For once in my life, I actually remembered to ask to take a picture. And so we have it, with Nancy in the middle, “Like a hobbit!” she said. I will always be grateful for the gifts that she gave us, especially since we didn’t realize that one of the toughest stretches of trail was ahead.
But for now, the trail was very easy, winding through rolling hills covered in tall pine trees. We breezed through the next four miles, whistling, chatting, and watching the scenery roll by. Zach listened to a podcast he had downloaded and then told me about it. We looked at birds and noticed little fuzzy yellow caterpillars with two black “horns” on their tails, crawling up the trees.
After a few miles of pleasant walking, the air grew hot (“Stinkin’ hot,” I noted in my journal), and as we cleared the trees and began hiking through a shadeless forest of manzanita, I began to sweat profusely. Again, this was a full-body sweat that I had seldom achieved before, and the sweat dripping off my nose made my lips taste salty.
Still, there was little to complain about— the terrain was fairly easy, and we were planning to stay at another trail angel’s house tonight in Belden!
About six miles before we hit the highway, we began a sharp descent that would take us 4,000 feet down into the valley, where Belden was. We were walking along a high, dry ridge, green with low-lying bushes and scrub along the open tips of the mountains. Here we caught up with Catdog, and passed her, saying we’d see her down in Belden.
In my memory, that descent into the valley marked the end of my favorite section of California (and, until the end, my favorite part of the trail), and the beginning of my least favorite section of the whole trail. Belden Town was the creepy harbinger of this section’s bizarreness.
As we left the open ridge and started zigzagging down through the forest, Zach and I immediately noticed that the breeze we’d been enjoying was gone. It was later in the day, though, so the heat was still bearable.
I glanced to the side of the trail and saw a glossy three-leafed plant reaching over the trail. Before I could sound a warning, Zach brushed against it.
“FYI, that was poison oak,” I said. At least it wasn’t as bad as poodle dog bush. Zach and I managed to never get a rash from the plant, but we definitely had to keep an eye out for it now.
The trail was steep, and after a few miles of nonstop downhill, Zach and I felt like our kneecaps were going to crack. However, there wasn’t anywhere to sit down because both sides of the trail were covered in poison oak. At last we found a small boulder and took a rest, then continued.
After a few more bone-jarring miles, the trail came to a trailhead near some railroad tracks. It was a bit unclear where to go from here, so Zach and I checked our maps and took off tentatively along a deserted paved road.
We crossed the railroad tracks, seeing a rushing stream to our left, which cut a divot in these mountains. The mountains rose up close on either side, much like Sierra City. But unlike Sierra City, these mountains trapped a choking humidity that made me feel a little faint as we walked along.
We passed a parking lot with a few unattended cars and at last stumbled upon Belden Town. It was actually a tiny resort/trailer park, not a town. The buildings looked cute and were painted like an old west town. Here we would try to get ahold of the trail angel who held our box.
A couple people we knew were sitting on the porch of the building complex: Happy Man and Godzilla. The rest of the people we’d stayed with (Sideshow, Shuffle, and the others) were inside the restaurant getting drinks.
I briefly stepped outside, but went out again— despite the oppressive heat, the store didn’t have air conditioning. Zach bought me some tortilla chips and I sat on a bench outside, eating the chips thoughtfully, while Zach tried to call the trail angel to let her know we were here.
Across the street was a picnic area, and on one of the tables laid a man, his hair and beard long and unkempt. He stared fiercely up at the sky, sometimes sitting up abruptly to look around, then lying back down. After a minute he walked over and sat on the bench next to me. I said hi, but he made no reply. After a few awkward minutes of him staring at the ground intently, he got up and walked back over to the bench.
Zach came outside, face a bit flushed in sweat. “Sideshow’s trying to call her, but we can’t get through.”
I nodded, continuing to eat the chips.
“I’m getting soda. Would you like anything?”
“No. I have chips.” I felt too hot to eat anything else.
I sat by myself a bit longer, keeping one eye on the homeless man across the street. The air lay thick and heavy around me, swelteringly humid. The sun had long since gone behind the mountains but it was late afternoon, so the whole area was bathed in a dim, dirty gray light of a day too soon robbed of sunlight.
As I sat there, a beat-up SUV pulled up and a family piled out. I tried not to stare at them, but I was appalled. Being raised by an artist, I’m keenly aware of the proportions of a human face, and the people who emptied from the car wreaked havoc on my sense of proper proportion.
There were seven of them: one man, two women, one teenage boy and a teenage girl, and two little blonde girls. The girls and teenage boy looked normal enough, dressed in swimsuits with wet hair from swimming in the river. The man’s face looked like something Picasso would draw, with close-set eyes and a long nose and a tiny mouth and chin that seemed to belong to a person of different proportions. He yelled at their dogs, who jumped out of the car and ran around peeing over everything. A slender woman in a bikini leaned against the car, then unselfconsciously grabbed both her breasts and readjusted them. The other woman, obese, with a face that looked impossibly tiny for her huge head, trembled on her massive cottage-cheese legs. Her daughter, also obese, stood by with a blank expression, digging her finger into her nose.
They all waddled into the store next to me, and I tried not to stare. Something about their faces and proportions looked inbred to me, as if the genes had started glitching. All around me, the half-twilight remained and the humidity thickened.
A side door opened and one of the cooks from the restaurant walked out, hanging up his apron. He said hi, lit up a cigarette and sat on the bench a little ways away from me.
I stared into space, sweating. “It’s humid,” I remarked.
“Oh yeah,” he said.
“Does no one around here have air conditioning?”
He exhaled and chuckled. “Not up here in the mountains.”
Somewhere up in the second story, I heard a strange rhythmic yowling. He didn’t seem to notice it, so I asked, “Did you grow up here?”
“Nah,” he said. “I’m from Reno originally. Moved here a couple years ago. It was good for me. Reno was so full of drugs.” He paused. “I mean, I don’t count marijuana. They had, you know, real drugs.”
The yowling continued, much louder.
“The cat’s in heat,” the cook remarked, standing up. “Either that, or one of the boys on the second floor is getting lucky.” Then he chuckled in a slow, humid way, and moseyed back inside.
Get me out of here, I thought.
Zach came out with his soda in tow (still no word from the trail angel), and he drank soda and we both sat and sweated and wondered whether we shouldn’t try to walk along the dangerous side of the highway to reach the trail angel’s house. Catdog walked up while we were waiting, and went inside for a burger. Just when we were about to give up, a brown station wagon pulled up, and a flustered woman hopped out.
Stress was hanging around her in a palpable cloud, and she looked very pink and pale. As we stood up to greet her, the other seven or so hikers walked out of the store behind us.
The woman drew a little gasp, and she began freaking out. “Oh my,” she breathed. “There’s a lot of you. And I already have eight at my house!” We could see her panic rising. “There isn’t room for everyone inside… you might be able to… sleep… in the yard… I suppose…”
Sideshow, catching her drift and more willing to acknowledge it than anyone else, said, “Would it be better if we didn’t spend the night?”
“Oh yes!” she exclaimed, obviously relieved. Her whole demeanor changed, and she was as perky as ever. Most of the people decided they’d just split a room at the hotel. Zach and Catdog and I politely asked her if there was anywhere to camp around here.
“Oh, yes,” she said, then grabbed Zach’s arm and pulled him aside, whispering urgently in his ear. Catdog and I exchanged a confused and slightly creeped-out look and then stepped closer. I could only catch the gist of what she was saying, but it didn’t sound good: our best option was a rest stop across the highway and right next to the train tracks, which wasn’t technically legal but was the only place to camp without paying. “Oh, and there’s a homeless guy who will try to steal your stuff,” she added. “Oh, and be sure to stow your supplies carefully— there’s a bear who likes to eat fuel canisters.”
Then she handed us our box, and we thanked her for holding it, and then she took off in the car, leaving us standing in this tiny, creepy town, faced with the prospect of camping illegally next to train tracks with fear of a homeless person or bear stealing our stuff in the night.
This didn’t put me in a very good mood. I wasn’t angry with her— she of course had no obligation to host anyone at her house, and holding our boxes for us was generous enough. But I was not happy that things had turned out this way. Catdog did say she would camp with us, so that made me feel a bit better.
Nothing to do but sort our food. For the first time in weeks, we actually had some extra! We put our uneaten meals in the hiker box. Then, packing up our bags, we took off into the gathering gloom, still sweating. “This town is really creepy,” I grumbled.
We headed down the road toward a bridge that would take us over the river to the foot of tomorrow’s massive climb.
As we left, a sign said,
NOW LEAVING BELDEN TOWN
AT YOUR OWN RISK!!
GOOD LUCK OUT THERE
Zach and I stared at it for a minute.
Zach said, “This town is really creepy.”
Catdog, Zach and I crossed the bridge across the Feather River and found the rest area— it was shielded from view of the road, so we hoped no one would hassle us. By now it was nearly dark, and the thick, sticky air pressed in on us, as hot as midday and much more humid.
We all set up camp, wished each other goodnight, and laid down. Zach and I laid on top of our sleeping bag, feeling choked with the humidity. The first thing we’d have to do tomorrow was climb 5,000 feet out of the valley. That wasn’t going to be fun.
It was simply too hot to sleep deeply, even in the middle of the night. Every time I drifted off, I jerked awake as a train roared by fifty yards away. The stars seemed foggy and distant. It was a sweltering night.