July 20th, Sunday
1345 to 1361ish
I woke up to the sound of stray drips of water on the tent, although the rain had obviously let up. Our sleeping bag had survived without getting too wet, and the air felt cooler. I unzipped the rain fly and lurched out into a wet world lit with diffused light, smelling of rain-soaked earth.
Soon Zach and I were both up, packing up and half-eyeing the cloudy sky above, wondering if it would rain again. Our backpacks were a little wet, which made them feel cold against our backs.
We hiked up out of the valley, determined to make good mileage today. With any luck, we’d reach our next resupply point, Old Station, tomorrow, although we certainly weren’t running out of food. Northern California had been a lot more populous than I expected, with a lot more opportunities for food.
We saw on our maps that today was no exception: we’d be passing by the Drakesbad Guest Ranch, which was only a slight detour from the trail. There might be a hiker box there. While we were at it, we decided to take a little alternate trail that passed by a geographical feature called, “Boiling Springs Lake.” It sounded interesting to us!
After walking through pleasant woodland for a while, we split off to the left and followed the detour trail. Soon we smelled sulphur in the air, which reminded me of the smell of Fourth-of-July fireworks. Then the trees parted to reveal a creamy tan-colored lake. It was definitely boiling! The edges popped and bubbled, and steam rose from it like mist.
Stern signs warned us that it was illegal to leave the boardwalk as we hiked around the perimeter of this interesting feature. Then the trail took us back to the PCT.
Soon we saw a wide meadow to our left, interspersed with cabins and a swimming pool. We were skirting the edge of the Drakesbad Guest Ranch.
At last the trail arrived at a trailhead, and we chatted with a couple women who were staying at the Ranch. They said that there was a hiker box, so we decided to make the detour for sure.
We walked down a road toward the ranch, our trekking pole tips clacking on the pavement. Soon we arrived at a complex of wooden buildings, but it was unclear which one was the main building. Feeling a bit self-conscious, being the homeless snoops that we were, we wandered around, hoping to figure out where we should go. After a few false starts (and some curious looks from guests), we finally found a hiker box outside the dining hall.
The hiker box was accompanied by a sheet of laminated paper that gushed about how happy the ranch was to have us visit, and all the amenities they offered for a small fee, and where the hikers could hang out, and so on. I was encouraged, seeing that the management clearly wanted to be hiker friendly. The hiker box wasn’t labeled as such, so Zach spotted an employee and asked to make sure we were allowed to take stuff out of it.
“Yes,” the employee said tersely, glaring at us, then disappeared inside.
Zach and I pulled some nice granola bars from the box (but left a few too), then grabbed two sleeves of Ritz crackers and a half-eaten jar of Nutella. Eating Nutella from a hiker box involved a willful disregard of the germs accumulated by the way hikers eat such things: dip in a spoon, lick the spoon, repeat. We followed suit, each eating a sleeve of crackers spread with Nutella.
When we had finished that and were thinking of heading out, a blonde woman walked up to us and said hi. We started chatting, and she told us that her husband had been a guide for many years at the National Outdoor Leadership School. She said that she would buy us a buffet lunch if we wanted. We couldn’t say no! She told the employees to add us to her tab, wished us luck, then headed back to her cabin.
The rules stated that PCT hikers had to wait until the guests had gotten to the buffet before we could approach, and the employees practically snarled this reminder at us. We were not to eat inside, but at the picnic tables. We grabbed orange juice, salad, grilled cheese and sandwiches, then headed outside and ate, watching the hungry thieves— Steller’s jays, chipmunks and squirrels— circle us in search of food. I felt a bit glutted with all the delicious food, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to eat as much as possible whenever I could.
When we went in for seconds, the employee at the door said that we had seven minutes left, and when Zach went for dessert, the employee snarled that they were closing in two minutes. By this point, the message was clear: the management wanted to be hiker friendly in theory, but this sentiment clearly hadn’t filtered down to the employees.
At any rate, Zach and I got a sumptuous free meal, and unloaded some of our extra meals into the hiker box, and soon we were on our way again. We waddled back to the trail and began hiking through the woods, stopping to gather water at a campground, then starting a set of switchbacks up a mountain. Then we had to stop. My stomach was cramping a little, but it was nothing compared to Zach. He doubled over, clutching his gut, shaking and sweating. A few minutes later, he stumbled off trail and furiously dug a hole just in time to throw up into it.
Now we were halfway up the mountain, with barely anywhere to sit, much less camp, and we were in full sun, which wasn’t helping.
I put on my pack and said, “Zachary, I’m going to scout ahead and find a place to camp, and I’ll leave my pack there and come back to carry yours there.”
Zach was too queasy to protest, so I kissed him and set off, booking it up the mountain as quickly as I could. After about ten minutes, the trail delved into a pine wood, and I found a decently flat spot on the pine needles. I dropped my pack there, then flew back down the mountainside, springing like a deer without my pack on. I found Zach stumbling his way up the path, looking pale green. I took his pack and slung it on my back, and together we hiked back up the mountain, at last returning to the flat spot. Zach collapsed on the ground and lay there, groaning faintly.
I asked him if I should set up the tent, but he said no, he might be able to weather this. So we sat side by side in the patchy shade. I peeled the bark off fallen twigs. Zach laid on the ground in misery. We sat this way for well over an hour.
At last, Zach was starting to feel less bad, and said that he thought he could go on, especially since the trail was mostly downhill from here. We shouldered our packs and booked it down the mountainside. Soon we left the live trees and found ourselves in a burnt forest, where the tall trees rattled and swayed and smelled like charcoal. By this time the sun was behind the mountains, casting an eerie gray light over everything.
Walking through the woods at this time of evening was a bit spooky; all was silent except for the creaking and groaning of the trees. I felt like I was in some sort of Halloween movie.
We wanted to camp, but with the breeze and the precarious dead trees, we were hoping to get into live growth. However, we soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. At last we found a small ring of spindly, scorched, but live trees, and set up camp there. I stuck close to Zach as we ate dinner in the twilight, feeling a bit nervous and on edge in this ghostly forest of trees. We fell asleep listening to the eerie silence all around.