July 21st, Monday
1361ish to 1382ish
We awoke to blue skies heaped with clouds, drifting above the blackened tips of the burned trees. We were hoping to get into Old Station today to pick up our resupply package, and it was 13 miles away, with mostly flat trail to get there. We set off, striding quickly on the level ground, occasionally slowing down in awe when we’d catch a glimpse of Mount Lassen draped in cloud.
In addition to Old Station, we were planning to start hiking the Hat Creek Rim today— in the words of the former thru-hiker Mountain Dog, “thirty miles of treeless trail, on lava.” Going by his advice, we were hoping to hike some of it in the cool of the day and then finish tomorrow. But the gray clouds billowing overhead made me wonder if the weather was going to catch up with us.
We hiked through pine trees planted in rows, with clear-cut strips through the middle as firebreaks. We wondered if firefighters practiced here.
Before we knew it, we saw a sign pointing us toward the small detour to Old Station. We were a bit surprised— even with a break, we had covered 13 miles in four hours, a record for us!
We followed the direction of the sign and walked along a dusty road that skirted the edge of a tent and RV campground. After a few minutes we found the town of Old Station: it consisted of the camp headquarters, a gas station with a convenience store, a post office, and little else. Everything looked gray under the storm clouds. Outside the convenience store, a few hikers (including one we knew, Nick) sat with their resupply boxes exploded across the picnic tables.
We said hi and Zach got our two resupply boxes: one full of food, and one containing our next pair of shoes. My new pair were identical to the ones I was wearing, but the ones on my feet felt hardly worn enough to replace. Still, the new ones felt much better, and if we were going to be walking on lava, I’d need them.
I began washing my socks, and since I didn’t have anywhere to do it, I just did it on the pavement in front of the convenience store. As I did so, a couple cops drove up, and I was about to apologize when one of them smiled, dug into the back of her car, and handed me a wash cloth to help me clean the socks better.
Meanwhile, Zach unpacked our boxes. We had stuffed our shoe box with candy bars, so we now had a ridiculous number of Snickers. I sat on the picnic table, feeling a bit listless, and ate a Snickers. And then another one. Nick laughed. “Y’all crack me up,” he said. “We’re at a convenience store, and you’re eating trail food!”
“Yeah, well, we’re poor,” I said. I meant “broke.”
Zach sipped the fountain drink he’d gotten, which was the only thing we’d bought so far. Our rations were lasting us much better now, and the food in the store was expensive.
Now Hat Creek Rim loomed in our thoughts, but we felt a bit worried— a chill wind had whipped up and the gray sky hung low above, threatening a storm. Since we imagined the Rim as an exposed 30-mile stretch of lava, it didn’t sound like a very good place to be caught in a lightning storm. But should we take a chance? After all, we really wanted to cover some of the 30 waterless miles in the evening. We couldn’t decide, so we just sat at the picnic table and I ate more Snickers and became antsy and a bit grumpy.
Several of the hikers were sorting their baggage and getting rid of weight by mailing it home. One guy was even getting rid of his sleeping bag now that we were out of the Sierra. With the chilly wind blowing, it didn’t seem like the best idea to me, but I didn’t know that hotter weather was to come.
The hikers chatted, and someone asked us where we were from. When Zach said Portland, the hiker snarled, “Oh really? How long have you lived there?”
Taken aback, Zach stuttered, “Well, I was born in Sacramento and I live in St. Louis, but I lived there from the time I was a baby until a couple years ago.”
“Oh,” the guy said, visibly calming. “I thought you were one of those stupid hipsters who’s lived there for three months and is like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m from Portland.’” Then, glowering to himself, he stormed off.
Hikers came and went, and we learned that most of them were camping a couple miles down the road, near a local attraction, a volcanic tunnel called Subway Cave. Zach and I decided that was probably a good idea.
As we were discussing, a middle-aged man drove up in a car and asked if we had seen “Gotta Walk.” We said we hadn’t, but he hopped out, saying she’d be there soon. He was her husband, and was running support crew for her this year.
A few minutes later, a middle-aged woman hiked up. Even the slightest glance in her direction told me that she knew her stuff. From her short hair and dangling earrings and well-fitted backpacking clothes to the tiny backpack (barely bigger than a tote bag), she exuded confidence and self-assuredness.
This was Gotta Walk, and her husband greeted her, but they stayed around to chat with everyone about incidents on trail and the proper technique for sleeping in a Port-a-Potty to keep out of the rain. When we went around the circle and said where we were from, I said St. Louis, and she perked up. “Did you know that the American Discovery Trail goes through St. Louis?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, perking up as well. “Just a mile from our old house, actually. My husband and I are hoping to be ADT trail angels when we get back.”
Gotta Walk looked thoughtful, then said, “Actually, I’m on the ADT board of directors, so if you want to make that happen, I can do it.”
Shocked, I said, “Yes, definitely! Just as soon as we have our own house again.”
“Let me give you a business card,” Gotta Walk said, and pulled one out.
I looked at the card and read her name: Marcia Powers. Below her name was a list of all the trails she’d hiked. Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, American Discovery Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, John Muir Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail… my eyes began to glaze over in wonder, and then I saw Zach start in recognition.
“Marcia Powers?” he said. “You and your husband Ken were the first people to thru-hike the ADT?”
“That’s right,” she said, and managed to sound humble.
Zach and I both stared open-mouthed at Marcia and Ken. We were literally in the presence of hiker celebrities— we’d read about them on Wikipedia, for goodness’ sake! They had hiked more miles than I would probably ever walk in my life.
Now everyone had questions for Marcia, and she answered them with entertaining stories, not once making anyone feel like their hike was less valuable just because we hadn’t hiked as far. She talked about the ADT: burying water in western desert ahead of time, crossing the Rockies, nearly getting caught in a tornado in the Midwest, being invited in by friendly strangers all across Kansas, hiking along the Katy Trail (“It was beautiful,” she told me, and I considered it a high compliment), finally reaching the eastern ocean. We all listened, rapt.
Gotta Walk/Marcia and Ken were going to go get a steak and stay at a hotel. But in the meantime, she offered a ride to anyone who wanted a lift a couple miles down the road to a cheaper convenience store. Zach and I accepted, along with a hiker we had just meet, named Happy Feet. He looked gnarled and bearded like all the other guys, but it was easy to remember his name because his toenails were painted bright pink.
The three of us crammed into the back of the Powers’ car, and they drove us a couple miles down the road to another convenience store. We hopped out and waved goodbye, still a little starstruck.
Zach and I bought some chips and a two-liter of soda, the latter mostly so that we’d have enough capacity to carry all the water we’d need for a thirty-mile dry stretch. We’d heard there were a couple caches, but we didn’t want to take any chances.
From here we walked along the highway a bit, then took a side road and eventually reached Subway Cave, which was about half a mile from the PCT.
The sky overheard was still threatening, so we were still undecided where to camp. We chatted with some of the hikers who were already camped near the cave, and drank our soda and ate chips, but were still on the fence. At any rate, we wanted to check out the cave first.
The volcanic tunnel, formed less than 20,000 years ago in the volcanic activity of this region, was dark and cool, with smooth floors pocked with blobs of dripping stone. We turned on our headlamps and wandered through the long, straight shaft, straying off to a side corridor, then returning to the main area. It was really cool!
When we emerged and found our way back to our backpacks, we saw that the sky was clearing, and we decided that we’d try to do at least a few more miles. We filled all our water bottles to capacity, drank a lot of water before leaving, then waved to the other hikers and walked back to the trail.
We could see the Hat Creek Rim from where we were, although it just looked like a straight mountain ridge. Soon the trail began climbing the mountain toward the rim, and the sun came out and poured one last blast of heat on us. We were sweating the whole climb, but when at last we reached the top, we were rewarded with another tourist attraction of the area: Hat Creek Rim Scenic Viewpoint. A round paved area, marked with informational signs, perched on the edge of the rim. From here, we could see everything.
We were standing on the edge of a sheer mountainside, covered in blackened trees. As far as the eye could see to the north, the rim ran in a sheer line, falling off sharply to the flat valley below. Across the valley, a range of mountains loomed up at eye level. The most prominent of these was Sugarloaf Peak, right across from us. But when we faced it, we could see Mount Lassen in the distance to our left, draped in clouds.
Zach pointed to the north, where clouds obscured the horizon. “Mount Shasta is somewhere over there.”
I was eager to see Mount Shasta, mostly because it was one of the few northern Californian landmarks I knew. The trail makes a huge loop around one side of the mountain, so I knew we’d be seeing it for days upon days. Right now, though, it was cloaked from view.
We read the informational signs, learning that the pioneers in this area had nearly despaired when they reached the rim, and sent scouts out in either direction trying to find a way through. In the end, they had to disassemble each wagon and lower each part of it down on ropes. Yikes!
After admiring the view a bit, Zach and I hiked on. We kept expecting the trail to turn to lava, but it was sandy and, for the most part, rock-free. This might be easier than we thought.
We hiked along the rim for a while, then turned to the right and delved away from it into scraggly forest. We passed a deserted trail camp, and soon found ourselves nearing the rim again. The sun sank below the horizon, and then we hiked in the cool evening air. It felt good to walk on flat ground with the cool air and the hurrying clouds sweeping back to reveal a deep blue sky.
At last we found a nice campsite near the rim (but not too near), ringed by small evergreens with the wide sky stretching out above us. After so many weeks of camping in the mountains, the open sky was beautiful to me. We set up camp, laid in our tent, and slipped into a deep, comfortable sleep.