July 18th, Friday
1316 to 1340ish
We woke up the next morning feeling a bit dazed and sleep deprived after the deer harassment of the previous night. We crawled out of the tent and noticed that my trekking pole had been dragged a few yards away from our tent, and Zach’s was nowhere to be seen. After a few seconds of searching, we discovered his trekking pole in the underbrush, the strap on its handle gnawed into a slobbery mess. Stupid deer!
We packed up quickly and hiked back up to the PCT, already sweating a little. Fortunately we were walking in the woods most of the time, even though we were following a ridge with wide views to either side.
We had motivation to hike steadily for the first part of the day: we were racing to reach the “official” halfway point of the PCT. (The length of the trail changes each year due to rerouting and other factors, so the midpoint varies. We knew that there was a monument at mile 1320.7, though.) Midmorning, we reached it, and found a simple square post with slightly outdated mileage written on each side. A box at its foot contained a trail register.
Zach and I sat down and ate a Snickers to celebrate. Reaching the halfway point was a bit exciting at first. However, when the initial excitement wore off and we began hiking again, it felt a bit demoralizing. I imagined everything we had been through— the sand, the thirst, the mountains, the snow, the doubts, the fears, the discomfort, the sheer force of will to keep putting one foot in front of another— and thought, Oh man, we have to do that all over again. That thought was nearly unbearable. I consoled myself with the fact that the Sierra was supposed to be the hardest section of the trail, and Oregon the easiest. So even if we were halfway as far as mileage was concerned, in terms of actual days we were more than halfway.
We wound down the side of the mountain, hurrying through open patches and lingering in the shade to avoid the blazing sun. After a few miles, we stumbled upon Highway 36. Here we had the option of hitching into the town of Chester, but we saw no reason to. Plus, there were people giving out trail magic by the side of the road! This couple had thru-hiked in 2013 and had returned just for today to congratulate people on reaching the halfway point. I soon learned that the wife was an incredible baker, and ate several of her homemade cookies and banana bread. I was feeling so hot that I even drank a soda, which I don’t normally like.
As we were sitting on a log talking to the couple, a brown VW van pulled up and some hikers hopped out of the back. A young guy in a button-up shirt smiled at us from the driver’s seat. “Would you guys like a ride into town?” he asked.
Zach and I looked at each other, and figured that if an opportunity was just going to drop in our laps, we might as well take it. “Sure!”
We hopped into the back of the van, and the driver, who introduced himself as Ty, took us down the highway eight miles to the charming little town of Chester. It was big enough to have a few hotels and restaurants and a fairly long main street, but still a sleepy little town where hitchhiking looked like it would be easy. We sighted several hikers milling about.
“I’m the new pastor at the Lutheran church in Chester,” Ty said as he drove. (I was a bit surprised— having attended a Lutheran church for many years, I didn’t think any Lutheran pastors were young and cool enough to drive a VW van.) “I just got here three months ago and I’m still learning about the whole PCT thing. But we’ve opened up the church— there are snacks and wifi and a hiker box there, if you want to check it out.”
We said we’d love to, so he drove up to the little church on the edge of Main Street, and we hopped out. He opened the door to let us in, and asked if we wanted drinks. Soon we were both sipping Capri Suns and sorting through a hiker box— which was obviously stocked with food that people had donated, not the throwaways of broke thru-hikers: high-quality granola bars, fruit snacks, and candy. Wandering around the church a bit, I saw a bulletin board that announced to the congregation a special prayer meeting to pray for the PCT hikers (taking place last Saturday): an offering would be taken to buy snacks for the hikers. I was really touched and encouraged by what this church was doing.
Zach and I left our backpacks at the church, with Ty’s permission, and set out to explore the town a bit. The hot sun radiated off the pavement, making me feel a bit woozy.
We decided to eat lunch at Subway, and split a foot-longer. We were feeling less stressed about money since our birthdays, and were experiencing the novelty of being in a town without actually having to resupply. After I ate, I began feeling a bit sick to my stomach. It didn’t stop me from asking to stop at the local burger joint for an ice cream cone, though! We sat inside, enjoying the air conditioning.
Zach called home, and I ate an ice cream cone, and then we both finished and sat staring across the table at each other. Now what? Go back to trail, I guess. It was hard to get out of the habit of constantly walking— sitting still just felt weird.
We stepped outside, blinking in the bright heat. I groaned and held my stomach. Zach decided to pop into the hardware store to buy a fuel canister, and I stood outside, looking around at all the asphalt and sidewalks and buildings shimmering with heat, and gleaming surfaces that scattered the harsh light in every direction.
At that moment, a couple in a convertible drove up. “Hi!” they said. “Are you a PCT hiker?” They went on to say that their friend’s daughter had hiked the PCT last year. “Is there anything you need?” they asked.
I glanced nervously to the side, feeling embarrassed. They were being so very friendly and so very vague. My mind raced. What are you offering? To buy us a candy bar? To let us do a load of laundry? To sleep at your house? Unsure what to say or do, I chuckled. “That’s really sweet. I think we’re good. We’re getting ready to head out of town.”
“Oh, you spent the night here last night?”
“So, we just came in today. We don’t have enough money to stay in town so we need to get back to the trail.”
“You guys are on a tight budget?”
“Yeah, pretty tight!” I said lightly.
The couple hesitated and exchanged a meaningful glance. My heart leaped into my throat in excitement.
Then they smiled in a friendly way and said, “Okay, well, uhm, let us know if you need anything!” And then, beaming at me, they drove off.
I stared after them, two thoughts swirling around in my head: first, how did they expect us to let them know if we needed anything? Second, “Is there anything you need?” is probably the most unhelpful question on the face of the planet, and I resolved to never say that to someone ever again.
Zach came out of the hardware store. “Who were you talking to?”
“A friendly couple,” I growled. I suddenly felt in a very bad mood.
We walked back to the church, and Ty said that his wife Jessica would give us a ride back to the trail. As we walked out of the building, we met a couple women who attended the church, and had a nice conversation with them.
Jessica, Ty’s somewhat frazzled wife, let us load up into her car and drove us back to trail. We thanked her for her generosity and tried to encourage her that the church was doing a very good ministry here. She dropped us off and wished us good luck.
We started back toward the trail, but I had to sit down on a log. My stomachache had mostly subsided, but was now replaced by a pervasive feeling of weakness. After a few minutes I was able to hike, but slowly.
Fortunately the terrain was easy: we were hiking through the “Park 40,” 40 acres of woods set aside for educational purpose, featuring smooth trails, nice open woods, and lots of interpretive signs.
Zach was in high spirits at this point, but I felt weak and tired of being outdoors. For the first time in a while, I desperately wanted a roof over my head. The deer incident last night had shaken me up more than I had initially realized— the idea that a wild animal, even a harmless one, would come that close was unnerving. It reminded me that a tent is no actual barrier to an animal. It reminded me that we were still very much in bear country.
Zach began whistling as we wound through a maze of manzanita bushes punctuated by tall pines. “I like this,” he said. “It reminds me of Oregon.”
I looked around at the landscape that seemed exactly the same as it had since the beginning of the trail. “Why’s that?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and began whistling again.
(The next day, we ran into a guy who was knowledgable about the geology of the land, and he congratulated us, saying that we had crossed from the Sierra to the Cascades. Zach’s Northwest sensors must’ve been on high alert!)
After a few miles we paused at a spring. I sank down beside it while Zach collected water, and we were entertained by veritable flocks of little red-breasted nuthatches which fearlessly sipped and splashed in the water nearby. Despite my anxiety, it was a joy to watch them.
Loaded down with enough water to last the next several miles, we kept hiking through the woods. At last we found a nice spot, tucked in the middle of a sparse ring of trees and shaded from the trail by manzanita. I was still feeling weak and a bit queasy, but I hoped I would feel better in the morning. A sticky heat lay over us, but despite that, it wasn’t long before I was out.