Friday, May 29, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 84: Footsteps in the Night

DAY 84
July 17th, 2014, Thursday
1297.1 to 1316

I rolled out of bed the next morning feeling distinctly less demoralized, but still a little out of it. Zach and I ate breakfast and watched the nearby spring: since it was the only source of water for a distance around, all the birds flocked here. I noticed several warblers I couldn’t identify, as well as mountain juncos and red-breasted nuthatches. These tiny birds flitted down to the stream to drink and to bathe, and I watched them in fascination. 

I reminded myself that being this far out in the wilderness was a gift. These birds, each one of them, with their tiny graceful bodies, was each a gift to me. At once I felt a sharp sense of melancholy, thinking that the trail was almost halfway done— at that moment, I didn’t want it to end. I quickly checked myself: last night I had been moaning about having to hike on! What was wrong with me?

When we took to the trail I found that I was still slogging a bit, but now the trail was a gentle up and down through nice woodland, so I couldn’t complain. We gathered water at a piped spring, reminding us that we were heading into drier country. We were in Lassen National Forest by this point, and that morning we saw the snowy volcanic peak of Mount Lassen. The trail also became riddled with volcanic rock.

We hiked along ridges and through woods, sweat dripping down our faces, although we were grateful that it was much less hot than it had been the day before.

As we emerged from the woods to cross a dirt road, we saw a dirt parking area where some hippies had set up camp: there was a huge mural-covered trailer, and some people were sitting outside at a portable picnic table. As we started to cross the road, one of the men stood up and called, “Would you like some lemonade?”

Holy cow would we like some lemonade! We walked over to join them, and three cute little long-haired dachshunds raced up to greet us, yapping furiously (and dropping tennis balls at our feet). A man with worried brown eyes, a cheerful smile and a grizzled beard poured us two plastic cupfuls of pink Crystal Light. Two other hikers, a couple, sat nearby, both obviously higher than kites. 

A robust woman with a head full of dreadlocks, topped with a chef’s hat, stepped out of the trailer. “Would you guys like some penne?” she called. We of course accepted.

We sat at a rickety fold-out table while the man, named Jerry, told us that they were “Pop-Up Trail Angels.” His wife, “Chef,” was a professional chef and was putting into motion a dream of becoming a non-profit food truck that stopped along the PCT to serve food to hikers. (I’m sure some hikers would shun this notion as making the trail less wild, but Zach and I were always happy with free food.)

Soon the woman brought out paper bowls with penne. “That’s emu-burger marinara,” she said. Each bowl was accompanied by a chunk of carrot and chunk of radish, each one expertly cut to look like a flower. A photo album on the table, labeled, “Hiker Food Porn,” displayed more of her culinary masterpieces.

Zach and I devoured the penne (ground emu meat tastes like lean ground beef), drank Crystal Light, and chatted with Jerry while tossing tennis balls to the dogs. Jerry threw a ball a bit too hard and it flew off the side of a very steep hill. Before we could stop it, the dog plunged down the hill, and returned a full ten minutes later, without the ball, looking very ashamed of himself.

Emu egg!
We asked the other hikers how it was going, and they said that they were thru-hikers, but had been hanging out in the woods not doing anything for a week, and had skipped the High Sierra and random parts of southern and northern California. The guy deeply inhaled from his joint. “My lungs couldn’t take the elevation in the Sierra.”

His girlfriend, staring vaguely ahead, murmured, “We should probably get back to hiking again sometime.”

“Or have some animal sex in the woods,” the guy said.

She murmured sleepily. We turned our conversation back to Jerry.

After a little while we said goodbye, thanked them for the delicious food, and kept hiking. 

The trail wound up the side of the mountain a bit further, then followed a volcanic ridge scattered with igneous rock. The mountains marched out on either side of us.

We planned to camp that night half a mile off the PCT, to be nearer to one of the only water sources in the area. At the junction of this side trail we saw a hiker camped. He was young, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and clean-shaven, and introduced himself as On Point. He’d had to get off trail due to injury and had just gotten back today. 

We hiked down the trail, and about a quarter mile down, found a nice clump of established campsites. We decided that Zach should make an expedition to gather water and I would stay here and set up camp. He left with our water bottles and I busied myself with camp chores.

As I was setting up the tent, movement caught my eye and looked at the edge of the clearing to see a graceful mule deer gazing at me curiously. She skirted the edge of the trees, then trotted off into the woods. So beautiful! I also watched the red-breasted nuthatches, wren-like relatives of woodpeckers, hopping along the sides of the trees. I felt grateful to be out in nature where all these wonders were a daily occurrence.

Zach returned with the water, and we ate supper, then laid out in the tent, feeling content and well-fed. With the calming sound of a breeze in the trees, we fell asleep.

We woke up to the sound of footsteps.

It was the dead of night, and it took me a few seconds before I could even see the stars far above. I could barely see the silhouettes of the trees above us, black against almost-black, but all around us I could see nothing at all. 

Slow, deliberate, heavy footsteps were walking down the hill directly toward our tent.

Frozen in terror, I couldn’t make a sound. Then Zach jerked awake and sat up, staring into the darkness. We heard the rustling of polyester nearby and realized that another hiker was camped right next to us— he must’ve come down after we went to sleep.

“Hello bear,” Zach said loudly. Because of course we assumed it was a bear.

The footsteps hesitated, then continued walking toward our tent.

“Go away, bear!” I called in a commanding voice.

From the nearby tent, we heard a voice that I recognized as On Point’s. “I saw a bear on trail right as I was going to bed. I got so freaked out that I came down here to camp with you guys.” He clapped loudly at the approaching sound.

Having him there made me feel slightly less scared. Slightly. We all began clapping and making noise. The footsteps began circling our tents. 

“Where’s our headlamp?” Zach asked.

“They’re both in my backpack, outside the tent.” I strained to see into the blank blackness in front of us.

We heard the animal pause about six feet from the foot of our tent, and heard it gnawing on the log there. At this point I was starting to calm down a little. Very slowly, I unzipped the tent. The animal didn’t move, but kept chewing on the wood. Gingerly, I dug into my backpack until at last I felt the headlamp and drew it out.

I clicked it on, and the light shone onto the mule deer I had seen earlier, munching away on the log.

The three of us laughed in relief. My heart began beating again, and I clicked off the headlamp and laid back down next to Zachary, feeling the fear pass. It was just a silly deer! Nothing to worry about!

Zach and I were now determined to get back to sleep, but a few moments later, we heard the deer walk closer to us, right up to our tent. Then we heard a gnawing sound, and realized that she was chewing on our backpacks.

“Hey!” I shouted, sitting up. “Get out of here!” We heard her jump back a couple feet, but she didn’t run away. We laid down again. A second later, we heard her chewing on the corner of our tent. Again we yelled at her, this time striking the side of the tent, and she dashed off a few yards. Zach and I laid down, thinking we’d finally get some peace.

A few moments later, we heard On Point yell, “Hey! Go away!” She had paid him a visit as well. Again, her footsteps didn’t recede. 

“Aren’t deer supposed to be prey animals?” I mumbled. But she didn’t approach for a while, so we began to doze off again.

I heard a snuffle and a snort right above my head. I opened up my eyes to see the silhouette of her head right over mine— she had her nose pressed right up to the mesh of the tent, staring at me. I squawked and slapped my hand against the tent, making her jump back.

This continued for a solid hour, if not longer. Every time Zach and I were about to go to sleep, we heard the deer chewing on something and had to scare her off. Zach, burrowed under the sleeping bag, mumbled, “I should’ve brought my shotgun.”

At last, sometime in the dead of the night, the deer decided she had bothered us enough, and disappeared into the black woods. Then, exhausted, we fell asleep.


1 comment:

  1. Really enjoying your writing! FWIW, I understand that deer can become quite insistent licking and chewing objects layered with salt from our body sweat.