I interrupt this blog to relate this long piece on our recent hiking trip. I only plan on leaving this up for a couple of days. I welcome your comments, suggestions and derisions!
“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the god damned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something. Maybe.” Ed Abbey.
Not just the three acres that comprises my “off grid” home in Concow---no---I want to see the thousands of acres of National Forest--the People's Yard--that starts after you leave our Foothills home. Specifically, I want to hike the nearly fifty mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail which passes through Butte County. The Pacific Crest Trail is one of America’s longest hiking trails. It travels from the Mexican border in southern California, along the crest of the Sierra and the Cascades, ending in Canada. 2,650 miles in length.
We are loading up our gear at our meeting spot: The Dome Store in Concow. 6:45 am. My wife will transport three of us, 29 miles up the road to the Belden Rest Stop. Our goal is to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Belden on Highway 70 to St. Bernard’s Lodge on Highway 36. Forty eight miles on the trail. We’ve penciled in five days of our lives to this endeavor.
Going with me are Jason, a therapist who has visited Tibet; and Joshua, a self proclaimed "Abbot" of a Lutheran Intentional Community in Paradise. Neither of these guys have ever backpacked before, but they are young (at 30 years of age), enthusiastic and full of testosterone. I've packed my sleeping bag, backpack stove, too much food, sleeping pad, old wooden hiking stick, topo maps, rain fly, rope, long underwear, spare t-shirt, rain gear, penicillin, ibuprofen, Vicodin, Lomotil, Benadryl, new water filter, a journal and a fifth of J and B Scotch. I forgot my copy of Walden. The Abbot packs sparingly, and has brought only trail mix and jerky for food and a huge bottle of 151 Bacardi Rum. "I want more bang for the buck", he says. The Therapist has more connoisseur tastes. He packs gourmet salami, farmers' market beef jerky, peanut butter and a half liter of Jack Daniels filled in a plastic bottle.
The Abbot has our hike programmed into his iPhone’s Global Positioning application. 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! Or maybe not?
We drive up Highway 70 (a neglected, under appreciated part of the State Highway system). We get to the Rest Area where the Pacific Crest Trail intersects with highway 70. One last visit to the men's room, a struggle heaving the 40 pound pack onto my back, a kiss to my wife--and we are on our way.
I am familiar with the first part of the hike, as I visited Belden the week before. Belden, according to Wikipedia, has 26 residents; 13 households; and an average income of $8,500 per person. During my visit the week before, there were several hundred nearly naked, twenty somethings lounging in the Feather River that lies just below the town. Techno Music played in an endless loop; a large plastic, forty foot, inflatable Gorilla swayed in the wind watching over the beach. A Rave! Seemed peaceable enough.
But this early morning in late July, there is nobody around. We start our hike.
I am closing in on 50 years of age--twenty years my two comrades’ senior. I also am out of shape. I certainly couldn’t be inconvenienced by actually training for this hike. I’m Roly Poly, weighing 60 pounds more than the Abbot. I give him the two gallons of Gatorade to carry (weighing 16 pounds). Consider it his handicap.
The plan today is to hike up Chips Canyon to the Williams Cabin...a distance of some 6.5 miles. We start at 2,300 feet above sea level. We are on the trail early as the temperature is supposed to approach the century mark. Gotta get the miles in before we swelter.
About a half mile into the hike, I hear my name being yelled: "Allan!!!" Instantly I realize I have the car keys in my pocket. My poor spouse is left alone at Belden (unable to start the car) with our barefoot, sleepy grandchild in pajamas. I walk down the hill with my backpack on; return the keys to my loving spouse and only then realize I have to carry the damned forty pound pack back up the hill. Dumb!
I climb back up to where my buddies wait for me--who immediately comment on my lack of intellectual acumen in hiking the hill twice wearing a backpack. Being the planner and leader of this expedition, I can see in their eyes a glint of doubt that, perhaps, going on this journey just might have been a mistake?We hike along the Feather River, climbing all the way. Then we make the big turn up Chips Creek and Chips Creek Canyon. Our destination lays some forty eight miles up and over this canyon. It looks impossibly long.
We climb in shade, crossing several streams. On one stream a sign says: Rattlesnake Springs. The guidebook states that rattlers are very common along Chips Creek. The book also proclaims that this section (from hwy 70 to hwy 36), my backyard, to be ugly. Dry. Boring. A place to be hurried through.
That isn't what we are experiencing. The trail winds up the canyon with 1,000 foot granite walls on both sides. Given that the last winter was wet, and spring late, Chips Creek is raging with white water. As are the smaller tributary steams. Perhaps two gallons of Gatorade is overkill for this first day (when there is so much water on the trail)?
After a few hours of constant climbing, we come to the Williams Cabin Site. The problem? It isn't there. I'd promised my buddies an evening of Bacchalian frolicking at the cabin which was supposed to be complete with a wood stove. Evidently, sometime after the guidebook was published, the cabin burned down. Unhappy with the campsite, we trundle on. Up to Myrtle Flat--just another mile up the trail.
When we get to our campsite, someone is already there. A Thru Hiker (a Thru Hiker is a person who attempts to hike most, if not all, of the PCT in one season). Taking off our heavy packs that feel like crosses on our backs, we relax. Make introductions. Relax. I bring out my Scotch and our day is done.
On all the long trails in the United States (the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail) it is customary to have a “nombre de trail”. Your hiking name. This is your identity for the duration of your (sometimes) five month trip. A badge to be worn with pride. Hiking tradition states that another Thru Hiker must give you your name.The gentleman sitting with us is an old grizzled hiker; he introduces himself as "Old School".
"I got the name because of the old, outdated equipment I used to hike with", he explains. Old School is a college music professor. A bit portly. A veteran of the Appalachian Trail (a thru hike) who is now completing his last section of the Pacific Crest Trail. He has lost twenty pounds since starting his hike two weeks ago. He is funny. Kind. And well versed in hiker lore.
He tells us stories and introduces us to PCT etiquette. We share the booze 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 the 151 combined with pink lemonade). My wife has already given me a hiking nickname: “Trail Biscuit”. Later, a couple other Thru Hikers join us at the campsite as we cook our suppers and work on getting a buzz. Ben from Israel joins us. He is 27. Waifishly thin. Looking exhausted. He has been hiking 20 to 30 miles a day since May 4. My comrades and I had just done 7 miles. We feel embarrassed to tell him we only plan on doing forty eight miles.