August 1st, Friday
1597.2 to 1620?
We woke up late the next morning, enjoying the sight of deciduous trees above our heads. We sat in the city park and split a quart of yogurt with granola for breakfast. Dusting the layer of white ash off our tent, we sluggishly packed up, then headed into the center of town, hoping to hitchhike back to the trail at Etna Summit and continue our trek.
We stopped at the grocery store first. Outside was an informational sign with pictures of places that fires had sprung up— dozens upon dozens of them. We bought some Oreos and other snacks, then stepped outside.
Outside, who should we see but Sad Fish! It had been ages since we’d run into him, and we greeted each other enthusiastically. However, he soon became sober. “Have you guys heard?” he asked.
“There are fires all along the trail up ahead. Right off trail, from what people are saying.”
“What?” we gasped. “Why haven’t they closed the trail down?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “But a lot of people are hitching to Ashland.”
My stomach bottomed out. Ashland was our first town stop in Oregon, 130 miles away. Tears began to form in my eyes and I clenched my fists. “Ashland?”
“They don’t want to get up to Seiad Valley and get caught.” Sad Fish shook his head. He was clearly frustrated as well. “Some people are taking a road walk to Ashland from here, which is about 70 miles.”
“What are you going to do?”
He shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know.”
Now Zach and I really had no idea what to do. But I knew one thing for sure— turning to Zach, balling my fists, fighting back tears, I said, “We did not walk this far to hitchhike into Oregon.” I couldn’t think of anything worse. Oregon had been a prize in my head for so long, a goal to be reached, something closer than the Canadian border that I could focus on. But, abruptly, as much as I had disliked northern California so far, I realized that I didn’t want to skip any of it. I wanted to walk into Oregon. I didn’t want to skip 130 miles of trail. But I also didn’t want to walk on the side of a highway for 70 miles…
“I know,” Zach said. “I don’t want to hitchhike either. Let’s go talk to some of the other hikers and see what we can figure out.”
We didn’t see any hikers right away, so we made a beeline for the library. Even though it wasn’t open yet, the Wi-Fi was enabled, so Zach looked online and tried to figure out what was going on. No other warnings had been issued. However, when Zach looked at a list of fires that had sprung up, he was horrified.
“Hat Creek Rim is on fire,” he said. “And Castella. And Old Station. And…” He scrolled through. “Pretty much the entire trail behind us.”
I stared at him in shock. I imagined all the places we had been going up in flames, blotting out the sun, raining ash from the sky. It really did feel like the apocalypse.
Zach called the Forest Service, but they could only tell him that the 20-mile section we’d skipped yesterday was closed.
Now we wandered around town, trying to figure out what to do. Fortunately, we ran into Ché, who was walking around with Stumbles, the woman we’d met a couple days earlier. Ché said that a group of hikers had rented out a house in town, and a bunch of hikers were congregating there to hang out, do laundry, and discuss what to do. They invited us over, and we took them up on it.
There were about two dozen hikers at this house, some of them piled into the kitchen eating bacon, some of them lounging in a dark living room watching Lego Movie. Most were in their underwear because they were doing laundry. Ché and Zach and I split a load of laundry, and Zach and I each got a chance to take a shower, which was welcome. Someone called this the “Hiker Crack House.” But considering that everyone in there had been thoroughly instructed in Leaving No Trace, it was a quiet, considerate bunch.
We also saw The Animal there, who had met up with his girlfriend as promised. He introduced Zach and me to her as “Tabasco and Leftovers, who climbed Mount Whitney with me.” That seemed like an age ago.
I called home, wishing my mom a belated happy birthday. I told everyone what was going on, trying to downplay the potential danger, and said that I didn’t know what we were doing. “Please pray that we’ll make the right decision,” I said.
We talked with several other hikers, and they all had different opinions. One of them, who had started to hike out and then hiked straight back to Etna, said, “The fire is literally right off the trail. I would not do it.”
“But if it’s that dangerous, why wouldn’t the Forest Service close the trail?” I asked.
“I dunno. I guess they just don’t care.”
That rung false to me, thinking about how careful they’d been the day before. Besides, the Forest Service wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt on their watch, for legal reasons if nothing else!
Most of the people at the house were going to hitch to Ashland. Some were going to hike to Seiad Valley and then hitch from there. Others were doing a road walk. Some were considering hiking out from here.
Zach and I talked it over, and we decided that if the Forest Service hadn’t closed down the next section of trail, then the fires couldn’t be too bad. With all the hikers fear-mongering it was impossible to sort out the truth. So we were going to put our lives in the Forest Service’s hands and hoped it worked out.
Our laundry was done, and we were showered, and our stuff was packed, and Zach and I resolved to set out. I was shaking a little bit as we walked to the road that would take us up to Etna Summit. We ran into E.T. and Poison, who encouraged us to go forward (but they were doing a road walk to Ashland, just in case). Breathing deeply, we held out our thumbs.
After a while a guy pulled up, lectured us on why we should be hitching a bit further up the road, then told us to get in. His name was Chris. His car reeked of weed, and he drove at a breakneck pace up into the mountains, talking quickly.
“So you had to hitch around Carter’s Meadow Summit to Etna Summit?” he asked. When we affirmed, he shook his head fiercely. “Damn Forest Service,” he said. “They’re so paranoid! Those are the most beautiful twenty miles on the whole trail! You should just hike southbound from Etna Summit and then hitch around again. Seriously, it’s the most beautiful part of the whole trail.”
Zach and I made noncommittal noises, not bringing up the point that the landscape probably wouldn’t be as pretty if it was covered in smoke. But his words strengthened my resolve— he was the second local who had labeled the Forest Service as paranoid. So if the trail was really that dangerous up ahead, why wouldn’t they shut it down?
Chris went on to ramble and rant about Northern California— how SoCal steals their water, how their votes don’t count because of LA’s massive population, how the State of Jefferson should become independent so California would have to pay them for their water, how drugs had become a big problem recently. He also talked about his love of snowboarding and his trip to Alaska to visit the ice caves.
When he dropped us off at Etna Summit he seemed in a much better mood. As we stepped out of the car, he asked, “Do you guys smoke?” His inflection made it clear that he wasn’t talking about tobacco.
“Uh, no,” I said, trying to strike the balance of friendly smile and polite refusal. But he hadn’t actually offered anything, so I couldn’t say, “Thank you,” so we just stood there awkwardly for a moment. Then he chuckled, wished us luck, and drove off.
Now Zachary and I stood at a pass in gently sloping mountains, bathed in an eerie orange glow. My mind registered it as a sunset at first, until I remembered that it was only 2:00 in the afternoon and the sun was overhead. On the ridge far away but directly in front of us, a seething orangish mass of smoke drifted over the blue mountains.
Zach and I looked at each other through the softly-falling ash. “You ready?” Zach asked.
I took stock of my emotions— I was nervous, certainly, but to my surprise, I wasn’t that scared. I felt full of adrenaline, and a bit excited. This was going to make a great story later. “I’m ready,” I said.
And we hiked toward the inferno.
We climbed some steep, rocky terrain, keeping an eye on the smoky mountain ridge in front of us. Soon we could see that the smoke was rising from two distinct places, filling the air with a dank haze. The sunset color of the sun shining down overhead messed with my mind. However, despite the smoke all through the air, it wasn’t difficult to breathe, and the weather wasn’t too hot.
Soon we entered the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and it was easy to see how it got its name: the exposed ridges of the mountains were white with the mineral, ghostly through the smoke. I could only imagine how beautiful this area would be under a fair sky.
We did see some blue sky for a bit, which made me feel a bit cheerier. As we hiked, two people hiked past us— one was Stumbles and the other was a guy I hadn’t seen before. Near the end of the day we found them eating dinner near a creeklet, and they invited us to join. We sat down with them for supper. The guy, from Australia, introduced himself as Black Death, a name he had recently acquired after he had gotten something that resembled the plague and was in the hospital for a week. Stumbles talked about growing up in Montana, although she lived in New York now.
Both of them were hiking solo, while their respective significant others cheered them on from home. I couldn’t imagine being in a relationship while hiking the trail solo (if Zach or I quit, the other one would as well), but applauded them for it.
We talked until dark, then set up camp next to each other in the small space and cozied in. I felt more secure having two more people around— if a forest fire came along, we’d all die together. Still, the wind had died down, so there wasn’t much chance of the fires spreading quickly. And the air was clear.
That night, however, I woke up several times to the smell of smoke. It grew more and more intense each time, but I never felt heat, never heard the crackle of burning trees. So each time I drifted back to sleep into unquiet dreams.