Friday, July 24, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 101: The Smoky State of Jefferson

DAY 101
August 3rd, Sunday
1632 to 1654.2

I woke the next morning to the smell of smoke. I sat up, my heart pounding wildly, to find all the world around me drenched in a hot fog. It wasn’t difficult to breathe, but the pungent burning smell filled my nostrils. This ridge had been completely clear the night before!

Zach and I packed up, but we both felt like we were moving in slow motion. The woods around us seemed lifeless, thick with this haze. Already an oppressive heat was building, and we saw the orange sun rising over the mountains. However, despite our sluggishness and the miserable heat around us, the fight-or-flight burst of adrenaline did make us feel a little excited.

We had camped on a ridge, so the trail steadily descended from there, heading deeper into the settled smoke. We were soon walking through a forest of pine and ferns, and the smoke made it look like a rainforest even though the air felt dry and smelled acrid.

Zach and I hurtled down the trail, hoping to outrun the smoke as we had done the past few days, loudly singing Jonathan Coulton songs (not always in tune with each other, because it was hard to hear). 

This was a triumph, I sang.
I’m making a note here, huge success
It’s hard to overstate my satisfaction…

Zach chimed in, I’m your moon, you’re my moon
We go round and round
From out here it’s the rest of the world
That looks so small!

I countered with, I used to want you dead, but
Now I only want you gone!

And we giggled. He told me about the video game Portal and I said I should watch him play it when we got back to Portland. We talked about how close Oregon was, and how far away it seemed. We talked about finishing the trail, and going to stay with his family in Portland for a few weeks and eating pizza and playing video games for hours on end.

At last we reached the valley, and found a gravel parking lot, a primitive campground with outhouses, and a sign for the famous Seiad Valley CafĂ© which served pancakes literally the size of hubcaps. However, they were only open for business until 5:00. Zach and I took off down the road, practically sprinting because we didn’t want to miss the pancakes. We had 6.4 miles to go in an hour and a half, all on the shoulder of this paved road.

After about forty minutes, we realized there was no way we’d get there in time— even if we made it right at closing, we couldn’t expect them to cook for us. So we decided to forgo our dreams of pancakes for the moment. We plodded on, our joints jarring painfully on the asphalt.

We were soon walking along a stretch of road spotted with blackberry hedges (yummy snacks!) and a spattered line of very redneck-looking houses. All the houses had many signs posted: “NO TRESPASSING.” “STATE OF JEFFERSON” (the mythical 51st state of northern California). “NO MONUMENT.” (None of the locals could ever articulate exactly what the monument land dispute was about.) 

A dog ran out from one of the houses and began circling us. It didn’t growl, but its body was tense, which worried me. I seriously considered hitting him as hard as I could with my trekking pole, but chickened out. After about ten minutes he left us alone and headed back, but he put me in a sour mood. And in the meantime, the sun was shining red on us and there was still smoke all around and it was humid and sweltering hot and I was now not in a good mood.

After a while of walking, we found ourselves along the right edge of the Klamath River, the first big river I’d seen in quite a while, which was cool. It was depressing to look out and see some distance— the mountains less than a mile away were almost completely shrouded in smoke, and a misty-looking fog hung over everything. Just looking at the scene, you would guess that it was a chilly, misty day. Instead the heat and bitter taste and smell of smoke hung over everything. The clash of sight and feel was annoying. 

However, there was a bright spot in the midst of that— Zach stopped suddenly and pointed out into the water. “A bear!”

See the black dot in the river? It's the only bear picture I have.

Sure enough, there was a black bear, swimming across the river. We watched him in fascination— even though the river was far below us, we were close enough to see that he had a fish in his mouth. He crossed the river and lumbered onto the opposite side, disappearing into the brush. I couldn’t believe that we had gotten to see so many bears lately!

A couple hours had passed, and we were still plodding along the shoulder of the paved road in this swamp of lingering smoke. The whole valley was filled in like a lake, and the sky above was a dingy orange-tinged gray. I began to feel super tired and achy, and a bit like crying.

At last we turned left onto a larger road, crossed a bridge across the Klamath, and found our way to the tiny community of Seiad Valley. It had a few houses, a fire department, an RV park, and a little general store. We stopped at this last place, looking at the windows that were crowded with signs saying “State of Jefferson” and “No Monument.” Then we stepped inside.

A fan was set up just over the door, so we got a welcome blast of air as we walked in. The lady at the counter greeted us in a subdued way, and we poked around the store, looking at the snacks that were crammed between half-decayed taxidermy animals. Nothing looked good to me, and I felt a little sick with the heat and smoke. Other than the fan, the store had no air conditioning and nowhere to sit down, so I wandered back outside, where I found a picnic table under a pine tree. Here I sat, listless. I looked out at the valley in front of me, which receded into a blank white wasteland. I had never seen anything like it.

Zach soon joined me, and we drank soda and watched locals coming and going. Zach went next door to the RV park and gathered water and chatted with some hikers who were camping there, but got no clear answers about whether or not we should proceed from here. The trail was still open up ahead, and that was the extent of everyone’s knowledge. Meanwhile, one of the major highways leading to Seiad Valley was being closed due to fires. Some of the hikers were hitching from here before they got trapped.

While Zach was gathering this info, a local guy came lumbering up and asked if he could sit at my table and talk to me. I said yes, and he told me that he had thru-hiked in 2010. “I tried in 2000 as well,” he said. “But I had to get off at Carter’s Meadow Summit because my body failed me.” He had gotten a terrible hernia and was in critical condition when he finally allowed himself to quit.

“Anyway,” he said, “I was able to come back and do the whole hike in 2010.” He asked me a few polite questions about our hike, but it was clear that he was using these questions as segues to tell me about his own adventures. It all blurred together as he talked. Mostly he complained about how his ex-girlfriend was a lousy hiking companion.

Zach soon joined us, and then the guy talked at both of us. He said that he had gotten a job and now lived in the area. Then, he actually did ask us some specific questions. “Are you guys doing okay for money?”

“Okay,” I said.

“So you’re on a super-tight budget?”

“Yeah. We hardly spend any money.”

“Oh? Huh. Do you have a place to spend the night tonight?”

I felt my heart flutter. “No.”

“Oh. Huh. Well, good luck.” He then launched into another topic, and talked our legs off for another ten minutes. When he finished, he stood with a self-satisfied air. “Do you guys smoke?” he asked.

“No,” I said, shaking my head.

“And do you smoke tobacco?” he asked.

I stared at him, wondering if all northern Californians were completely high all the time. “No.”

“Oh. Huh. Well, take care, and good luck tonight!” Then he ambled off, climbed in his car and drove away.

I stared after him, feeling very annoyed. “Zach,” I said, “I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful brat, but why do people keep doing that to us?!”

Zach patted my arm reassuringly. “I’m going to go get more soda.”

Zach disappeared inside, and at that moment, an older man drove up with a convertible. He had a cute Jack Russell terrier in his front seat, and I commented on it. He thanked me and went into the store, but when he returned he struck up a conversation. He ended up saying that sometimes he let hikers camp on his lawn. “After all, you can’t hike 1700 miles if you’re in a bad head space.” He offered lawn space to us. I was so grateful and told him so. “The directions are really simple,” he said, then proceeded to tell me directions that sounded incredibly straightforward. Then he drove off.

When Zach returned, I excitedly told him about the guy’s offer. He seemed unsure about it, but I insisted. I relayed the directions, and we left in search of the guy’s house. We started hiking down the highway, panting in the overwhelming heat. We followed the first part of the directions, then began looking for a specific kind of mailbox. Soon we left the neighborhoods behind, and found ourselves walking with cliffs to our right and the river to our left. I pressed on, desperate, but at last realized that I didn’t know where his house was— I had heard the directions wrong and there was no way to find him now. We would have to look for camping on our own.

Camping on a lawn is not any more comfortable than camping on a flat spot in the woods, but the thought of grass seemed a lot better than anything else right now. Besides, the trail left the highway and immediately ascended 4,000 feet, so we weren’t even sure if we’d be able to find a place to camp.

We backtracked to the PCT trailhead, which was on a steep bank that immediately took to a set of switchbacks. We hunted around and up and down, searching for a flat spot that wasn’t covered in poison oak. Night was falling. We couldn’t find anywhere to camp. The smoke was thick around us, blotting out the mountains.

I’m not entirely sure what caused me to snap, but I snapped. I actually collapsed on the ground sobbing, my whole body heaving. I hadn’t sobbed like that since the High Sierra, and Zach stood by in a mixture of silence and annoyance. Without a word he walked by me to a somewhat flat spot covered in dry grass about ten feet from the highway, and plunked down his backpack. “We’re camping here.”

I practically crawled over there, and we set up the tent in silence. I was getting ahold of myself a bit better now that the sobbing was over. Then we sat down and ate dinner with a treat that Zach had bought: cream cheese. We spread it on tortillas, sprinkled it with walnuts, drizzled it with honey, and ate it. My blood sugar leveled out. We split the eight-ounce package in no time.

As we ate, Zach told me a story: “When I went into the store for my last soda, the lady at the counter warned me, ‘There’s a lot of smoke out there. You’d better sleep indoors tonight.’ I mentioned that Seiad Valley doesn’t have a hotel. She paused, then said, ‘Oh. Well, I guess a tent would probably help.’”

I laughed at his story, feeling worn out and realizing that the situation had reached a point where it was so bad it was almost funny. Or at least, it would be later.

It was twilight now, but the heat hadn’t abated at all— the smoke was trapping it in, holding on to every ounce of smothering swelter. Now we laid in our tent, on top of the sleeping bag, feeling the air wrapping us like a blanket. At that moment, I felt so completely done. I was finished. I was tired of being miserable.


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