August 22nd, Friday
2018 to 2041.7
For some reason we were exhausted that day, and slept in far too long, getting a very late start. We lurched into action, packing up in a frenzy, and hitting the trail amid the burned trees as the day heated up.
We pushed through the burned area, at last skirting a ridge that had live trees and even some flowers. As we paused to rest, we ran into a group of middle-aged weekend hikers. They told us that they had been hiking weekend sections of the Oregon PCT since the 70’s, when the trail ran a different route. “We did a two thousand foot climb yesterday,” one of the women said, visibly beaming.
“It was murder, but we did it in one go,” another person said.
“That’s impressive,” Zach said, because it was. But all we could think about were the climbs to the top of Mount Whitney, and out of Seiad Valley, which were nearly double that.
The trail took us along the shoulders of Mount Jefferson today, a handsome snow-capped peak that seemed to attract billowing clouds. We caught glimpses of Mount Hood in the distance, thrilled to think that that was the last big peak in Oregon.
Our schedule for the next several days was carefully planned out— we would arrive at Timothy Lake on Sunday, then stay there for three nights, camping with Zach’s dad Gary and sister Ivy. After that, we were aiming to cross the river to Washington on the following Friday. By a strange coincidence, the trail ran right by the site of a music festival Zach used to go to, and the festival was happening right as we passed through. So we planned to spend Labor Day weekend at the festival, then tackle Washington in the month of September.
My feet started killing me again today, and every step was exhausting. About mid-afternoon, we paused at Milk Creek, a raging milky-colored torrent that rushed between steep sandy banks, to eat lunch. I took off my boots, and my shins were throbbing so badly that I couldn’t touch them. I felt like my boots had squeezed all the blood out of my ankles, and they hurt so badly that I was in tears. “I have to go back to my trail runners,” I sniffed, thankful that I hadn’t thrown them away.
Zach agreed to carry my boots— we’d give them to Zach's dad to hold for us until we could return to Portland after the trail. I slipped on my worn-out trail runners and felt an immediate sense of relief. I would never hike in boots again.
We hopped from stone to stone across Milk Creek, then climbed into a forest. About an hour later, we delved into a cleft of the mountains with a rushing stream through the middle, called Russell Creek. It could be dangerous, depending on the year, but this year it was narrow, if still frighteningly swift. With the aid of trekking poles and each other for balance, we inched across a log, jumped from one stone to another, and got safely to the other side.
At that point we met a couple who were hiking over the weekend, and were now hopelessly lost. We showed them our maps and they found out that they’d been going in the wrong direction for several miles now. They groaned. “We didn’t even want to go camping this weekend,” the guy said. “We had some friends sucker us in, and then they backed out at the last moment!” Since we were going the same direction, we hiked with them up the trail.
It wasn’t long before we found where they’d been trying to go: Jefferson Park, which was a beautiful alpine meadow along the side of Mount Jefferson with several serene lakes and fir forests. They split off to camp at a lake, and we hiked on, noting the signs that camping was only allowed in designated sites.
At last we saw a sign for a designated camping site near Russell Lake. We walked along the narrow dirt path that ran between the thick turf of a typical alpine meadow.
The site was not very promising— there was a veritable family reunion going on there. The people were friendly, but there wasn’t any room to fit our tent. They pointed further down the lake and said there was more designated camping over there. Thanking them, we dragged ourselves in that direction. We were tired, a cold wind was whipping up, and we just wanted to eat supper and go to sleep.
Fortunately, the second site only had one tent tucked away in the corner, with a patch of perfectly-flat pine needles about thirty feet square. Happy to have a place, we dropped our packs on the opposite corner and began pulling out our stuff.
Just then, the couple who owned the tent came walking up, and started in alarm at our presence.
“Hey,” I said cheerfully. “Mind if we set up here?” This, of course, was code for, “We’re setting up here whether you like it or not, but we’re friendly.” However, the couple took it as an actual question.
“Oh,” the wife said, with deep reluctance in her tone. “Isn’t there anywhere else to camp?”
“No,” I said. “We’re PCT hikers, but we can only camp in designated sites, and we just hiked 22 miles and we’re really tired. We’re not going to bother you— we’re just going to cook supper and go straight to bed.” The wind was whipping colder and louder now.
The wife and husband exchanged annoyed glances, and then the wife said, “Well… yeah… I guess you can stay here… if you can find a spot.” She looked, with convincing despair, at the perfectly flat ground, as if to say that there wasn’t possibly anywhere to set up a tent.
“Thanks,” Zach said, and we promptly gutted our backpacks and began setting up our tent. It’s not like this was a paid campsite with a reservation system!
The wife huffed and stormed away, the husband following her, perhaps to pacify her. Zach and I, not feeling sorry at all, set up our tent and lashed it down against the thrashing wind. Then I dove inside and Zach began cooking chili.
While we were doing that, a forest ranger walked up— he was making rounds reminding everyone not to make a fire. “Oh, you guys must be PCT hikers,” he said, noting our gear. I poked my head out of the tent to say hi. He was very friendly and asked us about our trip so far, and assured us that incredible views were yet to come. He glanced at the other tent. “The other people here haven’t given you any trouble, have they?”
Zach and I glanced at each other. “Uh, no, not really. I mean, they’re not happy we’re here, but they didn’t chase us away.”
The ranger rolled his eyes. “Don’t let them give you any trouble. They’re just pampered weekend hikers. You guys walked 2000 miles to get here— you have more right to this campsite than they do!”
His response made us feel more confident, and he smiled and walked back the way he’d come. Zach finished the chili and ducked into the tent so we could eat out of the wind, if not out of the cold.
The couple we were camped next to seemed very concerned about bears— they had a bear canister and had hung their food. Zach and I, eating chili in our tent, wondered if we should be more cautious. As I put the chili-crusted pot at the base of our sleeping bag, I said, “You know, if they get mauled because of us, I will feel bad.”
Zach nodded, and then we giggled a little and curled up in the sleeping bag, wondering why so many people we’d met in Oregon were so uptight.