|The midday sun, as seen from Etna|
July 31st, Thursday
1570 to 1577.6 to Etna
We woke up the next morning refreshed, and also happy to see that the woods were not on fire around us. Since we were camped on a wooded ridge, a fair breeze rustled the pine trees over our heads. As we packed up, FIG JAM and Ché hiked past us, and we waved at them.
We got a pretty early start, and were soon sailing along the mountains toward more open country. The trail ran along the ridge, sometimes interconnecting with other trails, so we had to keep a sharp watch to make sure we didn’t take the wrong route. Dramatic gray clouds, edged with yellowish light, hung in the sky, and as Zach and I looked out over the valley, we saw that it was hazy— very hazy.
We strode along, chatting all the way and making very good time. In some ways, the possibility of a forest fire was kind of exciting— it was something new and different, something that posed a challenge. After the monotony of northern California, it gave us something interesting to think about.
After a little while, we saw a thick stack of smoke rising from over a distant ridge. With a bit of apprehension (and excitement), we hiked on. At last we turned a corner and saw the plume of smoke from the day before in more detail. Then we began to worry.
The thin stream had turned into a massive billow. It rose like a monster from the ridge opposite us in bulky plumes, streaming away in the wind, under-lit with a glowing orange light.
Zach and I hurried on, hoping the trail didn’t get too close to the inferno. It was only seven miles to the next highway, and we hoped that there would be something there indicating whether or not we could continue.
As we hiked down into the forest, thinking of that giant billow of smoke, we heard the whirring of a helicopter. We watched it sail over our heads, dragging a giant orange cone, presumably full of a thousand or so gallons of water. It struck me how futile that little water is against a forest fire.
At last we reached Carter’s Meadow Summit, Highway 93. We emerged from the woods to a little parking area to see a Forest Service truck. Two Forest Service employees were talking with FIG JAM and Ché, pointing at a map spread out on the truck bed. Another helicopter buzzed by overhead.
They quickly explained: “The next section of trail, all the way to Etna, goes really close to that fire you saw. The trail isn’t technically closed yet, but it will be in a few hours. We can’t legally stop you right now, but we highly recommend that you hitchhike around.”
They showed us the map, showing us how to get to Etna, our next resupply point, from here: hitch down to the tiny town of Calahan, then hitch to Etna from there. We’d be skipping about twenty miles of trail.
The Forest Service rangers were very helpful, asking if we knew of anyone who was hiking ahead of us— they said they had an employee hiking that section of trail southbound to try to turn back anyone who wasn’t in very far. One of the rangers said that hitching from here was hard because the road wasn’t well-traveled, but if we didn’t get a hitch by the time she was off work, she’d take us down later this afternoon. We thanked them and walked down to the deserted highway.
So now Zach and I stood on the shoulder of the empty road, sweating a little in the sun. At this point it didn’t occur to us that we would have to skip any more trail than these twenty miles— we were only thinking of the one forest fire.
About half an hour (and two cars) later, an auto mechanic pulled over and let us stuff ourselves into his truck (he had to move a lot of tools around to make us fit). He said he was only going to Calahan, but we were grateful for a ride down the mountain. FIG JAM and Ché graciously let us go first.
The mechanic drove us down out of the mountains, talking about the state of things in this county. “The drought is terrible,” he said. “LA uses up all the water, and we have none left. Ranchers have to sell their cattle and horses. The farmers can barely water their fields. All the streams and ponds are drying up.” He gripped the wheel, practically growling. “But we can’t do anything about it, because SoCal outnumbers us.”
He dropped us off in Calahan at the general store. Now that we were down in the valley it was sweltering (94 degrees, according to Zach’s phone), so we ducked inside to get drinks. Zach bought an energy drink and I bought some juice.
The woman at the counter introduced herself as “Crazy Kris.” “I’ve been working here a long time,” she said. She explained about fire ecology and how Calahan’s and Etna’s economy boomed during fires because everyone in town would get hired as firefighters. “Last year,” she said, “we actually had an arsonist who started forest fires to boost the economy.” She shook her head. Zach and I thanked Crazy Kris and hiked out to try to hitch.
There was nowhere to hitch in the shade, so Zach and I stood near an overpass and sweated. I leaned against the metal guardrail, feeling like the air was going to suffocate me. The sun was brutal. I pulled out my reflective umbrella and cowered under it. The road was sparsely-traveled, and no one gave us a lift.
After nearly an hour, a jeep pulled up. Flushed and almost to the point of heat exhaustion, Zach and I gratefully climbed in. Our driver was Fred, a former Forest Service employee. We told him what was going on, and he rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe they shut that part of trail down,” he said. “It’s so gorgeous! But leave it to the Forest Service— they’re really paranoid.”
As he drove, he told us how the Forest Service installs piped springs and why they’re so important both for people and animals. He told us about a PCT hiker who had gotten bitten by a rattlesnake not far from here a few weeks ago— the victim had hiked out, gone to the hospital, and been released soon after because the rattler hadn’t injected any venom.
As we drove closer to Etna, we descended into a world I had never experienced— a town on the brink of a massive series of forest fires. At first I thought the sun was shrouded by clouds, but I soon saw that it was thick gray smoke, the sun glaring red through it. Helicopters raced across the skies on the nearby mountains, filling the air with their sound.
And so we came to Etna under a blood-red sun. Fred drove us around the small but somewhat spread-out town, pointing out his favorite restaurants and such. He took us to the post office, where Zach picked up our box, then drove us over to a hostel called Hiker Hut. We weren’t planning to spend the night there, but we wanted to see if they had any information about the fires. Fred wished us luck and drove off.
Hiker Hut was a pleasant old house with a separate building for hikers to bunk in, and the lawn was swarming with hikers. We tracked down the owner and she said that, even though we weren’t staying there, we could hang out and figure out what we were doing, which was nice.
We soon learned that nobody really had any idea what was going on with the fires, except that there were a lot of them. A lot. Everywhere.
As we chatted with people, I noticed that a dusting of white powder was falling. It took me a moment to realize that it was ash. It drifted down like snow, covering everything in a fine coating.
At last we realized that no one here knew anything (including the Forest Service, who hadn’t issued warnings yet except about the section of trail we’d hitched around), so we decided to spend the night in Etna and sort it out in the morning.
The town had a charming downtown of historic buildings, and we were attracted to the library, which had a giant sandwich board with a PCT emblem on it. It said that hikers were welcome to camp in the city park on the edge of town for $5 per person. It was a good budget way to spend the night, so we planned on that.
We hung out in the library for a while, then ate a tub of full-fat yogurt and decided to walk to a cafe on the edge of town, called Dotty’s, for dinner.
Everyone in this town was very friendly— in fact, Etna has a reputation of being one of the friendliest towns on trail. Almost everyone we passed said hi or at least waved.
As we neared the edge of town, eyeing the deer that freely roamed on people’s lawns, we could see a more sweeping landscape. The sun blazed red through the smoke, casting a harsh golden light on the hills far away. Ash continued to fall from the sky while a sharp, hot wind whipped around us. Many miles away in front of us, we saw a massive billow of smoke from another fire, looming in a huge column on the horizon— because of the atmospheric pressure it ballooned up and spread out. It looked exactly like a mushroom cloud.
“Is this the apocalypse?” I asked. “‘Cause this really looks like the apocalypse.”
We reached Dotty’s and ordered a burger and fries to split. There were picnic tables on their lawn and we sat at one, looking at the bizarre scenery around us as powdered ash floated on the wind. A black lab came bounding up to us and dropped a pine cone at our feet, so we played fetch with it for a while in between eating half a burger and fries each.
It didn’t take long for us to find our way back to the city park. It was a nice open area with trees and bathrooms and picnic tables. I worked on setting up camp while Zach hiked back to the store to buy us dessert. He returned with something I had been craving for weeks now— a Toll House cookie ice cream sandwich! He had also bought some yogurt for tomorrow’s breakfast, which would keep chilled in the cool air overnight.
We laid down that night feeling contented. We didn’t know what tomorrow would bring, but we were confident that we’d get clearer direction. In the meantime, we were full of yummy food and not camping in the wilderness. Apocalypse or not, we slept great that night.