Bats, bugs and noises in the night
Notes from an adventure-filled hike on the Pacific Crest Trail
It’s 6:45 a.m., and we are loading up our gear at the Dome Store in Concow. “We” are Jason, a therapist who has visited Tibet; Joshua, a self-proclaimed “abbot” of a Lutheran intentional community in Paradise; and yours truly, a psychiatric nurse.
Neither of the other guys has ever backpacked before, but they are young (at 30 years of age), enthusiastic and full of testosterone.
I’ve packed my sleeping bag, two gallons of Gatorade, backpack stove, too much food, hiking stick, topo maps, rope, long underwear, penicillin, Vicodin, Imodium, Benadryl (I am an RN, after all!), new water filter and a fifth of Scotch. I’ve forgotten my copy of Walden.
For food, The Abbot has brought only trail mix and a huge bottle of Bacardi 151. The Therapist has more connoisseur tastes. He packs gourmet salami, natural peanut butter, café bagels and a half-liter of Jack Daniels.
I am nearly 50 years of age—20 years my two comrades’ senior. I am also out of shape, roly-poly, 60 pounds heavier than The Abbot. I give him the two gallons of Gatorade to carry. Consider it his 16-pound handicap.
The Abbot has our hike programmed into his iPhone’s GPS. Move five feet to your left and the little blue dot that announces your position actually moves on the little screen. Fool-proof hiking! No way to get lost!
My wife transports us 29 miles up Highway 70 to the Belden rest stop in the Feather River Canyon. Our goal is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Belden to the St. Bernard Lodge on Highway 36. We’ve penciled in five days of our lives for this endeavor.
At the trailhead, one last visit to the men’s room, a struggle heaving the 40-pound pack onto my back, a kiss for my wife—and we are on our way.
The plan today is to hike up Chips Creek Canyon to Williams’ Cabin, a distance of some 6.5 miles. Starting at 2,300 feet, we are on the trail early. Gotta get the miles in before the temperature approaches the century mark.
After about a mile of climbing, I hear my wife holler from down-trail. She’s got our barefoot, sleepy grandchild in pajamas in tow. I have the car keys in my pocket! I walk down with my backpack on, hand the keys to my annoyed spouse and then realize I have to carry the damned 40-pound pack back up the hill.
When I arrive, my buddies comment on my lack of intellectual acumen in hiking the hill twice wearing a backpack. I can see a glint of doubt in their eyes. Some leader! Perhaps going on this journey might be a mistake.
I wanted to see my back yard.
Not just my three acres in Concow. No, I wanted to see the thousands of acres of national forest—the people’s yard—beyond our foothills home. Specifically, I wanted to hike the nearly 50-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that wanders through Butte and Plumas counties.
The PCT is one of America’s longest hiking trails, 2,650 miles from the Mexican border along the crest of the Sierras and the Cascades, ending in Canada.
I wasn’t expecting much. This section is not on anyone’s “life list.” It is reported to be ugly, dry, logged over and with less-than-impressive views. Hiking books about the PCT state that you should go fast through this section because it is boring, shadeless, somewhat dangerous and dry.
Still, it’s a good way to see our back yard. That’s what I told my trail mates, who were brave enough to go with me despite the hike’s bad reputation.
So here we are, on mile one of our 48-mile walkathon.
We hike along the Feather River for a while, climbing all the way. Then we make the big turn up Chips Creek Canyon. It looks impossibly long. And steep.
At one stream crossing a sign says: Rattlesnake Springs. The guidebook states that rattlers are very common along Chips Creek. It also says this portion of the trail is uninteresting.
That isn’t what we are experiencing! The trail winds up the canyon with 1,000-foot granite walls on both sides. Chips Creek is raging whitewater. Beautiful!
After a few hours of constant climbing, we come to the Williams’ Cabin. But it’s not there! I’d promised my buddies an evening of bacchanalian frolicking at the cabin. Evidently, sometime after the guidebook was published, the cabin burned down.
Unhappy with the cabin-less campsite, we trundle on to Myrtle Flat, another mile up the trail. Someone is already there. A Thru Hiker. Taking off our heavy packs that feel like crosses on our backs, we relax. Make introductions. I bring out my Scotch.
On all the long trails in the United States it is customary to have a “nom de trail.” Your hiking name. Your identity for the duration of your (sometimes) five-month trip. Tradition states that another Thru Hiker must give you your name. The graying, grizzled, somewhat portly Thru Hiker we meet at Myrtle Flat explains this to us after introducing himself as “Old School.”
“I got my name because of the old, outdated equipment I used to hike with.” Old School is a college music professor. Veteran of the Appalachian Trail, now completing his last section of the PCT. He is funny. Kind. And well-versed in hiker lore.
We share our hooch and try out various trail names for ourselves. “The Abbot” is an obvious choice. The Therapist doesn’t particularly care for the title of “Pink Cosmo” (because he is drinking 151 with pink lemonade). My wife has already given me a hiking nickname: “Trail Biscuit.” A couple more Thru Hikers join us as we cook our suppers and enjoy a buzz.
Dusk. The mosquitoes come out. The Abbot hates bugs. All bugs. Despises mosquitoes. Can’t stand them. Before the hike I had assured him there would be few mosquitoes.
“You promised no mosquitoes,” says The Abbott.
“These aren’t mosquitoes. They’re California miniature humming birds,” say I.
We turn in. “Cowboy camping”—meaning no tent. Nothing between us and the full moon. Except mosquitoes. I fall asleep listening to mutters, curses and slapping sounds from my companions.
The next morning, we make coffee, pack and head out. Today we climb up, up, up—out of the canyon and onto the crest of the Sierras, 2,600 feet to struggle up in 13 miles.
But trails aren’t linear. They have an exasperatingly awful way of climbing 500 feet only to descend 200. Up 600 feet; down 100. And so on.
The Abbot’s iPhone GPS makes it easy to stay on the trail. But now a challenge confronts us. The path crosses Chips Creek. We must negotiate across the roaring stream. Hop from rock to rock, or, the way I did it, just plunge in and take your chances. I get across. The Abbot decides to try another route, requiring a young man’s dexterity and daring. Unfortunately, he drops his hiking pole into the waist-deep water and impulsively jumps in before he realizes his iPhone is in his pocket.
Survey the damage: The iPhone is dead. No more GPS. From now on we will have to find our path the old-fashioned way: with a topo map.
It takes us 30 minutes hiking without GPS to get lost.
This back yard of ours is beautiful! And if you pay attention you can see the Sierra marry the Cascades. You can watch the transition from granite to basaltic rocks. The older Sierra gives way to the younger Cascades.
It is hot. I am sweating. Still, when you run across 300-year-old Douglas firs, six feet in diameter, you can’t help but feel awe. And the cedars! This hike is worth it for these huge, reddish-barked trees. Some cedar species can live to 1,200 years of age. My church. Every ancient tree a cathedral.
We hike through a mountain meadow filled with flowers that bloomed at my homestead two months ago. Brodiaea. Mariposa lilies. Shooting stars. And the guidebook calls this ugly? Boring? No way! This is bliss.
We come to Poison Springs (I drink from it without using a filter, brave man that I am). Now that we are out of Chips Creek Canyon, the water sources become scarce. We could camp here for the night, but decide to push on to our destination: Cold Springs, the next water. Six and a half miles away.
Off we go. Up to 7,000 feet. Legs quivering. Sweating. Sucking air. And this damned pack is so heavy! Just when we can’t take it anymore, we climb a ridge and Lassen Peak appears. Our first view of this majestic mountain since we started this hike. Ahhh!
After some 15 miles of mostly climbing, the trail flattens, then descends. We make good time. Some other hiker must have felt relief at the sudden ease in not climbing anymore, as she (it must have been a she!) painted “I Love You All” on a rock.
It is much easier to be filled with love when hiking downhill.
At Cold Springs, we again enjoy the fraternity of Thru Hikers. All male. All solitary. All thin (except Old School). All wearing the requisite uniform of green nylon pants and a Patagonia shirt. They have the same beards. The same GPS gadgets. The same hiking poles. The same smiles on their weary faces.
Cold Springs actually does have a cold spring. It rises straight out of a pipe, plunging into a trough at eight gallons a minute. I’ve never tasted water this cold. Or this good. We bring out our whiskey and pass it around to the assembled hikers. Make supper. Brave the mosquito hordes. Feed ourselves, and then the mosquitoes feed on us. Once again, I fall asleep to the sounds of muttering, curses and slapping.
Coffee. Oatmeal. And a prayer for divine assistance.
Yes, prayer is required today. From Cold Springs to Soldier Creek, a distance of 24 miles, there is no water on the trail. None. Zippo. Nada. Zilch. This is one of the driest sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Dangerous, if you’re ill-prepared. One delirious Thru Hiker warned us that “two liters wasn’t enough water for that section!”
We camel up on water. Fill our water bottles (around a gallon each) and head out. Twenty-four miles to our next water, plus mountains to negotiate: Humbug Mountain and Butt Mountain. No wonder we don’t meet any locals on this trip: Who would hike here? It’d be better to have named these peaks something more inviting, like Peace Mountain and Naked Lady Mountain. Poor marketing.
We have more elevation to climb with these pesky packs. These newfangled “internal frame” packs absorb the sweat directly into them. A terrible design flaw. The sweat accumulates in the pack, making it way too heavy. It’s like carrying a load of wet laundry up a mountain.
But the beauty keeps us from complaining (too much). Ridges. Views. Lassen Peak getting closer. More obtainable. Keeping an eye on us. A bald eagle takes off from a branch. Encouraging us.
“Trail Angels!” Old School calls out when we reach Humboldt Pass.
Three local couples have driven their SUV up the gravel road to the top of the pass. Once every three or four years, they fill coolers with water, beer, sodas and fruit and give the loot to hikers. They bring cookies! Chips! An answer to my prayer? Seems uncanny that they would do this on the one day we’re passing through. It’s a 1 in 1,200 chance.
Trail Angels help hikers on the PCT and other long trails, especially where a road crosses a difficult section of hiking. Trail Angels will give hikers a bed for the night; feed them a meal; drive them to town; pass on messages; let them take a shower in their own homes. Sometimes Trail Angels will leave coolers full of beverages at the end of long dry sections.
Fed and watered, we start to leave. The Trail Angels applaud us, call us heroes. I smile. Trail Angels make a person believe in the goodness of humanity.
The trail levels, making a giant horseshoe around a mountain valley. We can see Butt Mountain, menacingly steep and high above us. We could camp at the 12-mile point, in a saddle just before the last huff-puffing climb to the 7,660 foot summit. However, with all the beer, chips, soda and cookies on board, we get grandiose and decide to shoot for finishing the whole 24-mile waterless section in one day.
Every good hiking trail should have a section or two where great care is taken not to fall to your death. Adds interest and drama. We encounter two such sections where the cinder trail slumps down a 500-foot plunge. Steep. Leaving no path across an impossible angle to negotiate as you look down at certain death. Easy to slip. We live.
At the base of the last climb, we say good bye to Old School—never to see him again. The Abbott goes on ahead, feeling fresh and full of vigor. He takes a gallon of water with him. The Therapist lags behind to babysit the elderly (me!).
Trudge. Trudge. Climb. Climb. This sucks. Hurts. Gawd, this pack is heavy! Hours tick by. No shade. The sun turning us into raisins.
We meet a Thru Hiker with a message: The Abbott has a full gallon of water at the summit. He is waiting for us. Finally we catch up and share a late afternoon lunch of salami and bagels. We drink half the water. From the 7,660-foot summit we have only 6.5 miles to the fresh waters of Soldier Creek.
Down the mountain.
Tired. Moving slowly. I can feel blisters developing. The sun starts to set. Lassen is much closer. It almost looks like we could jump to the top of it. To the southeast, we can see the mountains that surround Lake Tahoe.
We talk as we walk. Will peak oil change everything? Will 2012 issue in a new era of higher, communal consciousness? Will the St. Bernard Lodge be open to serve us a Farmer’s Breakfast tomorrow? Important questions.
Darkness descends. We get out our headlamps (still no sign of Soldier Creek). We are walking on a narrow path along the side of a mountain. I start to question whether we are still on the path. Best to stop for the night.
So we find a place where the plunge off the path doesn’t look lethal (only 30 feet or so) and pull out our sleeping bags. No alcohol tonight; we are too tired. We “cowboy camp” right on what we think is the path.
I fall asleep.
Lying on my back, I feel something crawl past my ear, continue down inside my sleeping bag and finally stop on my stomach. Jeez!! I gotta get out of this bag! I fall off the precipice feet first and crawl out as the sleeping bag keeps sliding down the hill. The Therapist quickly turns on his headlamp. I grab the sleeping bag.
“There’s something in my bag!”
The Therapist sheds light on the situation while I turn the sleeping bag over. A bat flies out of it! A bat! Thankful it wasn’t a rattlesnake, and also thankful the bat didn’t bite me (I don’t want rabies), I make sure the bag is empty and crawl back into it, ever so gingerly. With faith. A gutsier thing I have never done in my life (including entering into three marriages).
Just then there is a crashing all around us in the woods. Branches breaking. The Therapist again uses his headlamp to scan about. Looking for the glow of eyes in the illumination; none peer back. Not satisfied, he stays awake the rest of the night holding vigil, expecting to be some predator’s moonlight snack.
At dawn we all are awake. We finish off the rest of the water (no need to carry it anymore) and discover that we are still on the trail. Fifteen minutes of walking and we find Soldier Creek. We’d walked almost 23 miles the previous day! Just 5.5 miles to the St. Bernard Lodge!
The trail leaves the pristine beauty of Lassen National Forest to enter private lands. We pass through a clear-cut (on land owned by Kimberly-Clark) and witness devastation as barren as the moon, just so we can blow our noses and wipe our asses.
The trail is easy from here on out. We find the highway, walk to St. Bernard’s Lodge, and despite the place’s being closed to non-guests, the charming staff compassionately agrees to make breakfast for us. Bacon! Sausage! Eggs! Pancakes! Hash browns! Joy!
This is our back yard. A treasure.
So here’s an exhortation: Dust off that old backpack and go see it! Have an adventure. Use those legs (they’ll remember what to do once you get that pack on your back). Climb down a rung on the food chain. Sleep with a bat! Get the bejeezus scared out of you by a rattler! Traverse some heights. Slip. Slide. Nearly fall. Become a creature again and not just a nurse, office nerd, professor or cog. Go enjoy, on foot, the way we were meant to travel, the wonders of what we call our home.
What I’ve packed:
• sleeping bag
• two gallons of Gatorade
• backpack stove
• too much food
• hiking stick
• topo maps
• long underwear
• penicillin, Vicodin, Imodium, Benadryl
• new water filter
• a fifth of Scotch