(Happy Birthday to me! When I was prepping this post, I couldn’t stop giggling, and I felt ridiculously sentimental about the trail— even though at the time I was terrified out of my mind. Funny how the nostalgia works, huh?)
July 24th, Thursday
1430ish to 1459ish? (or 1461.5)
When we woke up, it was actually chilly outside, so we took the opportunity to snuggle and put off hiking for a little while. But we did in fact want to get some miles in today, so at last we dragged ourselves out of the tent and fumbled to pack up our gear.
Every muscle in my body ached today, and our breakfast of cold oatmeal did little to quicken my limbs. Zach was tired too, and demoralized. We walked in silence through the dense forest (which occasionally opened to reveal the jumble of mountains all around). I let him listen to podcasts and I prayed, trying to keep my mind off the tedium. At this point, our capacity for conversation had been maxed out— there was little to talk or think about. The podcasts were a nice break from this, but still, they only provided so much conversation material before our brains went back to the same subjects.
The trail was tortuous (or, as my family would say, “weendy-windy”), but often revealed stunning views beyond the verdant hills of Mount Shasta, which was growing closer by the day.
I have little memory of this day, and don’t have any mental images to match to my sparse journal entry: “Stopping @ spring for tuna pasta. Tromping on. Stopping near ridge to call ppl.” I do remember how odd it was that we saw no one that day— it was the first time on trail that this had ever happened. It was just us and the brooding forest. For all we knew, a zombie apocalypse had wiped out every other human on the planet.
After a full day of walking through the woods and along ridges, we decided that we would camp a bit off-trail near a spring. It was a half-mile walk to this spring down an old jeep road, and Zach and I slogged along as twilight seeped into the sky.
About a quarter mile in, we came to a crossroads that was clearly marked with several “No Trespassing” signs (even though our maps insisted the only water around was past them). We decided that we might as well camp just outside this menacing circle. Zach left me with the gear and took the water bottles to walk the rest of the way to the water. “See you soon,” I said, and he hiked off.
Now I was by myself in the darkening woods, with black pine trees all around and a gray sky overhead. I busied myself setting up the tent, laboriously blowing up our sleeping pads (Why are we still carrying these silly air mattresses? I wondered), and prepping food for dinner.
I have an overactive imagination, and being alone in the dark woods never helps with that. I began humming to myself, trying to keep my mind occupied. Then, only ten or so yards away from our tent in the woods, I heard an animal snort.
I froze, staring into the trees. I could see nothing. I heard the snort again— definitely a large animal. Probably a deer, I told myself. But when I spoke aloud, I said, “Hi bear!”
It’s not like I had expected a bear (or deer, or whatever it was) to actually attack me, but I couldn’t get that sound out of my head. Now the creature, whatever it was, knew that there were humans camped here. Humans with tasty food. What if it decided to come back? I was less afraid of getting attacked and more afraid of a bear slashing into our backpacks. We didn’t have money to replace our packs. What would we do if they were destroyed? My heart was racing now.
I heard a twig snap to my left, and jumped. To my relief, I saw that it was Zachary, speed walking down one of the roads. I’m not sure what it was about his gait, but I could immediately tell that he was scared.
He walked up to me, looking a little pale. “I think I heard a bear down by the water,” he said. “Crashing through the woods.”
“I heard something, too. Probably just a deer, though.”
“They probably wouldn’t bother us.”
We looked at each other.
“Do you want to—?”
In a frenzy of motion, Zach and I laid into our campsite and tore everything down in record time. We stuffed it into our backpacks haphazardly, slung the packs on our backs, and raced back the way we’d come, toward the PCT. By now the sun was long gone, and only a bit of light still hung in the sky above the pines.
Panting with the speed of our retreat, Zach said, “I didn’t want to say this a minute ago, but I also saw a lot of bear tracks along the road.”
“What did they look like?” I asked.
Zach spread out his hand (and he has large hands). “About this big. They looked like human hand prints, but with claws.”
A shiver started in my neck and convulsed down my body. We walked faster.
We had been speeding along the jeep road for ten minutes when Zach said, “Something isn’t right. We should be back to the PCT by now.”
We paused, sweating from exertion, and looked around. Zach pulled out his phone and turned it on, waiting for the GPS to load. I glanced around the woods anxiously.
“We took a wrong turn somewhere,” Zach said, looking at his phone. “The PCT is about a quarter mile that way.” He pointed to our left.
“How could we have gotten lost?” I asked in frustration.
“It’s no big deal. We’ll get back there.”
Thanking God for GPS, we kept going along the jeep road for a while. A hedge of manzanita was to our left, preventing us from going through. But at last, Zach realized that we were going to have to go cross-country. “Follow me,” he said, and shouldered his way into the bushes.
Walking through the manzanita felt like some sort of labyrinth— the wiry branches interlocked with each other, creating an impenetrable maze of greenery. The twigs slashed us and caught onto our backpacks as we fought our way through. One advantage, though, was that we weren’t afraid of bears following us into here!
At last we found a large fallen tree, which created a sort of bridge over the tangled bushes. We hopped up on the trunk and walked over, bushwhacked a bit more, and at last found ourselves on the narrow track of the PCT.
We paused, panting a little. Nighttime was full in the sky now, and stars twinkled through the canopy of trees. We were on a steep slope with manzanita all around— nowhere to camp.
We pulled out our headlamps and put them on, then looked at the map. “I don’t think there’s any camping for a while,” Zach said, pointing to the red line that showed the PCT’s route. It seemed to be winding its way along the edge of a fairly steep ridge.
But unless we wanted to backtrack into the bear’s territory, there was nothing to do but go on.
So we hiked, fueled by the aftereffects of adrenaline, leaving the forest behind and walking along a ridge blanketed in manzanita. The wide black world stretched out around us, dotted with stars. Far in the distance, we saw red lights on the top of windmills breathing on and off.
After nearly an hour, we finally found a small stretch of flat ground next to the trail, backed by a tangle of manzanita. Relieved, we set up camp all over again, then collapsed in the tent. Zach had a snack, but I felt too stressed to eat. My legs, which had been sore at the beginning of the day, now ached with a vengeance, putting me in too much pain to go to sleep.
I laid in the tent, with thick bushes outside the tent on one side, and Zachary on the other. My heart was still racing, but I felt very secure. I laid on the pad, aching from every muscle, and watched as more and more stars winked to life in the sky above. Despite the pain in my legs, I felt awe settling over me like a blanket.
When at last the sky was so full that I could see the Milky Way, I drifted into a shallow sleep.