August 4th, Monday
1654.2 to 1677
I had hoped that a good night’s sleep would make me feel better, but it didn’t. Although I woke up feeling surprisingly rested after a deep night’s sleep (considering the heat, smoke, and highway ten feet away)— once I woke up, I still felt completely done with life. The sun was still red and the sky was still orangish-gray and it was still hot and everything was still covered in smoke and we still had no idea whether or not it was safe to hike on.
“Well, I guess we should pack up,” Zachary said.
I looked at him for a moment, then slid into the sleeping bag and pulled it over my head. I closed my eyes and pretended the world didn’t exist. I pretended that we didn’t have to walk.
“Lisa…” Zach said, and I could tell he was choosing his tone in a carefully neutral way.
“I can’t face it,” I said. “Not right now. Just give me a minute.”
Zach wisely did so, but got out of the tent and began packing up. I heard him say, “It’s weird… cars keep slowing down right where we are.”
I peeked out from the sleeping bag. “They’re probably wondering why we’re camped on the shoulder of the highway.”
“I don’t think it’s that. It’s just—” He pulled up short, staring at the highway. “Whoa.”
I sat up. “What?”
“It’s a dead bear.”
Forgetting about my sorrows, I scrambled out of the bag and tent and ran over to join him on the shoulder of the highway. Sure enough, on the other side of the road, its nose pointed toward us, lay the bloody corpse of a bear.
It was the size of a St. Bernard, with thick powerful limbs and claws. Its meaty tongue lolled out of its mouth, trailing into a pool of surreally-bright red blood.
Zach and I stared at it for a minute, blinking. Another person pulled up in their car and came to look at it with us. There it was, lying dead on the road with blood draining off into the grass.
“So here we are,” I said, “caught in the middle of a bunch of forest fires, and there’s a dead bear next to our campsite.”
“Yeah,” Zach said, still staring at the corpse.
It was too weird. It was too bizarre. It was going to make such a strange story afterward…
And suddenly, like a burst of sunshine on a rainy day, I didn’t care about finishing the trail, and I wasn’t worried about fires or wild animals or money or anything else. I just knew one thing: “Zachary,” I said, “I would like to go get pancakes.”
And so we did.
It was nearly a mile back to the Seiad Valley Café, and we sang Frank Zappa songs all the way (well, mostly “Seiad Valley Pancake Breakfast” to the tune of “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast”). The sun blazed eerie orange overhead, and the heat nearly choked us. But when we sat down in the café and ordered, I actually felt happy.
I read Good Housekeeping magazine and read about why we should be vulnerable in our interpersonal relationships and nine different ways to fix watermelon. We learned that we couldn’t get the hubcap-sized pancakes unless we took the great pancake challenge, but that was too expensive so I just got a short stack of regular pancakes and Zach got eggs and hash browns. The prices were reasonable and the waitresses nice. My pancakes were still the size of dinner plates! I ate and felt full and content and didn’t worry about anything for a while.
And so, ever afterward, a new phrase entered my vocabulary: a bright spot in a bad situation is “a stack of pancakes on a dead bear day.” Some days are just Dead Bear Days, and there’s nothing you can do except make it through.
Our research was now conclusive: no one knew what the heck was going on with the forest fires. And so, once again putting our safety in the hands of the Forest Service, we decided to hike on and let the chips fall where they may. We were going to hike into Oregon unless they physically held us back.
We licked our plates clean, slung on our packs, and hiked back down the road to where we’d camped the night before. The highway department had taken away the bear’s body, and all that was left was a river of bright blood. With one last fascinated glance at it, Zach and I stepped onto the trail to start the 4,000-foot ascent.
In my diary, I described this ascent as, “a very steep smoky hill in blazing heat.” That pretty much sums it up. The trail was long and fairly barren, winding into a burn area. As we climbed, the smoke got thinner and the brutal sun shone down harder, although the sky was still gray. The mountains around us looked blue, fading to blank white, like layers of torn tissue paper. We wound through manzanita and live trees and I was sweating so hard I felt like I was going to pass out. I had to stop and rest a little bit, draping my shirt over my head to keep off the blinding filtered sunlight.
We met our first southbound thru-hiker that day, although he said that he had skipped 500 miles of Washington due to snow. On that sweltering, smoke-choked mountain, it was hard to imagine snow. We asked him about the trail ahead, and he said that the smoke was certainly thick, and you could see some forest fires, but that he had felt pretty safe hiking through it. “This is the worst it’s been so far,” he said. We were extremely relieved to hear this, and had more confidence going on.
Despite a noon start and a murderous climb, Zach and I managed to make 15 miles that day, and the trail leveled out for the last part. We gathered water from a piped spring and chatted with a hiker who was trying to make it to Oregon tonight (a 35-mile day). We wished him luck, though our hopes were more modest, reaching Oregon tomorrow. It was hard to believe that we were this close!
Near the end of the day, we had finally hiked out of the smoke and even saw blue sky, although the sky still seemed a bit hazy. We ran into Stumbles again, as well as a girl about my age named Alex who was section-hiking from Etna to Ashland (heck of a time to do that!). The four of us ended up camping in the same area, a place with several spots near a jeep road.
I went to gather water at a spring just a few hundred yards off trail, and once I finished, I turned to go back.
Just as my right foot was at the point of no return in hitting the ground, I heard a sharp, ratcheting sound, like a cicada buzzing twice. My foot hit the ground, and I looked down to see a rattle about two inches from my foot.
I felt like a cartoon character, leaping into the air with a vertical jump I’ll never achieve again, and flying down the trail without touching the ground. It was hard to remember that we were still in rattlesnake country!
After I calmed down from that incident, we sat with Stumbles and Alex and ate dinner, chatting about the challenges of the trail and how excited we were to get to Oregon.
We said goodnight to them and crawled in the tent. Then Zach pulled out Lord of the Rings and read me the last chapter. When we started this book, it was summer of the previous year. A solid year had passed, and this book had been with us on so many journeys.
I watched the stars come out overhead as Zach read— it had been a few nights since we’d seen them.
The ending of Lord of the Rings always makes me cry, but this time it was infused with a sense of longing and time passing like never before. When Zach read the final words, I crept into his arms and he held me and we both cried, silently, beneath the slowly winking stars. We had finished the book, and tomorrow we would reach Oregon.