August 13th, Wednesday
Lightning Springs to 1853.6 (I think)
When we woke up the next morning, our bag was still damp and the air was still clammy and it was still freezing cold. Zach and I were in no hurry to leave the relative warmth of the sleeping bag, and ate our cold oatmeal slowly, as we always did— from one bowl with one spork, passing the meal back and forth to take a bite while the other chewed.
At last we decided that we had to get up sometime, so we put on our layers. I was already wearing a t-shirt, long-sleeved hiking shirt, and thin jacket, and the only layer I had left to add was a rain jacket and a hat and gloves (the gloves were useless insulation when they got wet). Zach said that when we met up with his family in a couple weeks, we should ask them to bring some warmer clothes that we could borrow. This sounded like a sensible idea. Washington loomed on the edge of my thoughts, and in my head it was all rain, cold rain.
When we finished packing up, we started the set of switchbacks that would take us back to the rim trail. Gray stratus clouds drifted close over our heads, and I came to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t get to see Crater Lake under a sunny sky— I would have to come back someday for that.
Still, when we reemerged at the edge of the lake, it was bluer than it had been the day before, and below us at the very edge, I caught a glimpse of the unearthly turquoise color of the water. We hiked for a little bit, then paused when we saw a side trail up to a high point on the rim, where there was a watchtower. We debated a moment, then decided to go for it. We dropped our packs at the junction, then practically sprinted up the steep switchbacks. Moments like these made me remember what incredible shape I was in at the moment— I sped up the trail like it was even ground, my legs pumping like tireless mechanisms. When we reached the top of the steep peak, I wasn’t the slightest out of breath.
The view at the top was well worth the slight detour— here we could look straight down at the lake and Wizard Island and get a better sense of their sizes. In front of us was the lake, and behind us rolled wide tree-covered mountains, covered in tattered fog. The clouds were nearer above than ever before, and scraped the peaks of the rim on the other side.
Looking down at the volcanic island in the lake, Zach said, “If I ever become an evil overlord, that’s where I’ll put my castle.” I nodded supportively.
We read informational signs about how many times Crater Lake was “discovered” by explorers who were never able to compare notes. It was named several variations of “Blue Lake,” but my favorite title given it was “Lake Majesty.”
After taking some photos, we flew back down the switchbacks, slung on our packs, and took off along the rim trail again. Soon we were walking on the shoulder of a road, and at last the trail turned away from the rim of Crater Lake.
“Goodbye!” I called to the lake, waving to it. I knew I’d have to return someday.
The landscape before us now was beautiful and a bit barren— a wide stretch of fields, mostly crumbling brown rock but speckled with red plants, stretched out to meet the distant rolling mountains, which were still capped with fog or clouds. Rain spat on us as we walked along, and I felt a sudden surge of nostalgia and happiness to be here. It was so beautiful, so incredible. I couldn’t believe that we had actually made it to Crater Lake.
Now we left the field into woods full of slender-trunked trees. In my diary I record, “We fight & eat. Later we fight some more. Well, more like arguing.” I hardly remember what either tiff was about, but whatever it was, it didn’t last long.
Soon we were walking through a dense wood of tall trees with no underbrush. The gray sky lowered above us, making the air about us dark and a little spooky. In our hiking all day, we saw no one except for one sobo. As we hiked along, I was grateful that there wasn’t any snow— when my parents had hiked in 1981, the snow was waist-deep in places.
The trail soon took us onto the shoulders of the dramatic Mount Theilsen, a triangular spike of granite that juts up near Crater Lake. From our vantage point it looked less sharp than it had in the distance, but still jagged. We saw its ghostly peak above us, looming impressively, before it was shrouded in mist.
It was near the end of the day now (as we could tell by the slight failing of light in the grayish fog all around), so we began to look for a place to camp. We paused at some spots, then decided to go down to Theilsen Creek to gather water first. We zigzagged down to a small muddy bank alongside freezing water, and as we crouched to gather water, we heard cheerful voices not too far ahead. Curious, we quickly climbed the opposite hill, and emerged into a veritable campground— flat pine-needle-covered ground with evergreens all around, scattered with tents and hikers, most of whom we recognized.
“Hey!” Stumbles called as we walked up, grinning at us. Happy Nomad and Butterfly turned around as well and waved. Happy Nomad’s arms were full of wood. “We’re starting a fire!” he called.
We soon were introduced to the other two people there— Trinket and Lobster. We’d seen them at Crater Lake but not been properly introduced. “Lobby,” as everyone called her (even though her full name was The Immortal Lobster) was as tall as me, with brown hair, wide brown eyes, and a cute grin. Trinket was her mother, a middle-aged woman with frizzy red hair, twinkling blue eyes, a smile that could make anyone grin. Trinket had joined up with Lobby at Kennedy Meadows and they’d been hiking together ever since.
There were a couple other people milling about, but this was our core group. Within a few minutes, Happy Nomad had a fire going in the pit, and we all contributed a liter of water to help put it out when we were done. Still, in the dripping dampness of an Oregon evening, none of us were too worried about setting the woods on fire… for once.
And so, on day 112, Zach and I had our first campfire on trail. Most people can’t fathom camping without one, and frankly, I can’t imagine car-camping without a cheery bonfire at the end of the night. But backpacking in the dry desert, where every road crossing contained signs emphasizing how very easily California can catch on fire, when most of California required a special permit just to light a camp stove, and when even in the less-flammable High Sierra you weren’t allowed to build a fire above 10,000 feet, the urge had not been very strong nor the opportunity very often.
But here, on a chilly night with a ghostly mist hanging around and a group of friends gathered in the perfect camp site, it was glorious. Zach made mashed potatoes and we all crowded around the fire, sitting on our rain jackets or logs or whatever else we could find. As the night crept in, our backs grew freezing, but our faces were warm in the light of the cheery fire.
That night is possibly one of my best memories on trail. Everyone ate together, chatted, talked about what they were doing next. Butterfly and Happy Nomad were some of the most accepting and encouraging people I’d met on trail, and they inspired me to be less uptight about the “thru-hiker” label. We should just let people experience the trail the way they wanted, and not worry too much about the “right” definitions. I was never able to quite let go of my idea that “thru-hike” should be a word with a clear definition, but on that night I began to realize how silly it was to be a purist.
I don’t remember everything we talked about that night, but that’s not what really matters. When I close my eyes I’m taken back to that moment, which a damp half-rotted log as a chair, the ghostly misty night pressing on our backs, the crackling warmth of the fire at our faces, Stumbles’ wide smile and shining eyes, Butterfly’s serious face, the light glinting in Happy Nomad’s glasses, Zach feeling relaxed beside me, the jokes about why didn’t we pack out some marshmallows and wine.
Several more people joined us over the course of the evening, including some people we’d see later: Gingersnap, Stampede, and Mr. T., who all looked like they were about thirteen years old. Gingersnap was blonde as blonde could be, with a nose ring and a cute Belgian accent. His girlfriend Stampede had a half-shaved head (the other half was long and blondish-brown), several piercings, stylishly raggedy trail clothes, and a tiny backpack. Mr. T. was her younger brother (the family resemblance in their faces was clear), and he was in fact only 17, trying to hike as much of the trail with them as he could before he had to go back to school for his senior year. Gingersnap and Stampede were giving him a hard time because they had gotten separated at Crater Lake for several hours because Mr. T. took the Equestrian PCT instead of the Hiker PCT. Tomorrow we’d be coming up on another junction, so they scolded him like parents, trying to drill into his head to take the right path. I watched the three of them with a bit of awe, trying to imagine hiking this trail at their age. Zach and I later agreed that we would totally let our teenaged kids hike the PCT someday if they wanted to.
We also met some southbounders who had started at Cascade Locks, the Oregon/Washington border, and were headed to northern California. Their external-frame packs were dizzyingly huge: they carried heavy Mexican-style blankets in addition to their sleeping bags, as well as a full-sized pot and enough gear to clothe an army. They said they’d done 14 miles today, their longest day. We congratulated them— walking even 14 miles with a pack that obviously weighed about 70 pounds, if not more, was pretty impressive to us!
At last we all decided we should get to bed— night was thick around us. We each dumped a liter of water on the fire, stirred the ashes, then retreated to set up our tents in the cold darkness. We hurried as quickly as we could, then ducked into the tent that now seemed chilly and dank. Zach and I huddled together, wondering if our sleeping bag would ever not feel damp, closed our eyes, and pictured the fire, crackling and bringing warmth to us on this chilly Oregon night.