We took a zero day in the town of Mt. Shasta, spending the morning shopping and sorting food at Berryvale, the incredibly cute natural food store, and then wandering the streets in the afternoon and finally deciding to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that evening. The movie was so bad that it wasn’t even entertaining and never held my interest. We exited the theater, the stifling summer air enveloped us, and we found ourselves in the middle of a huge parking lot/strip mall with nowhere to sleep and nowhere to go. We wandered down a sketchy path near a large grocery store, which wound past the grocery truck unloading area and down into a field and grove of trees right along I-5. The sound of the interstate was almost deafening, but we were tired enough to sleep anywhere and probably could have passed the night just fine if we’d found a hidden place among the trees. But, for some reason, it seemed too sketchy to me. I couldn’t stop thinking about an axe murderer finding us there behind the grocery store, and envisioning the headlines: “Bodies of young hikers found along I-5.” I’m sure it would have been fine. But, after a brief argument about it, during which I tried to explain my axe murderer suspicions to Phil, we decided to walk back to the motel where we’d spent the previous night.
The next morning, we walked along an industrial-looking road in Mt. Shasta for a long time before an older man in a very beat-up car finally stopped and picked us up. He had long, white hair, and his car was littered with knick knacks of every shape and size. He said he made sage wands for a living, and as he dropped us off at the trailhead, he gave me one of the wands, saying it was his “offering” and that it would bring us good energy. I attached it to my pack and carried it as far as Etna.
We started up the trail, beginning a long ascent up past the jagged crags of Castle Crags State Park. It was noon by the time we got on trail and SO hot. Looking back, this day sticks out as one of the hottest and sweatiest. At one point, in a fit of desperation, Phil actually stripped off all his clothes and hiked naked. As the trail wound higher and higher, the day cooled and turned into a perfectly lit dusk. Mt. Shasta was omnipresent, usually behind us, but every once in a while I would turn around and feel like the mountain had shifted position somehow. Around this point in our journey I had started listening to every song on my iPod in alphabetical order, and I think I was around “G” that evening. We hiked until 10 pm, trying to get to the top of the climb, and finally found a perfect campsite. It was nestled in the sandy dirt and rocks at the top of the mountain, with a wide valley in front of us and a clear view of Mt. Shasta and the crags. Beyond the crags, we could see the orange glow of a fire.
The scenery was beautiful the next day. We hiked along the top of the ridge, now in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, and each turn introduced a new view and new rows of mountains in the distance. It was rugged, dry, and almost deserted. We’d been hearing about fire problems and possible trail closures north of us, and sure enough, throughout the day we were hiking closer and closer to a huge fire in the distance. That night, we passed some fellow hikers, Optimist and Lumber, who were waiting at a road crossing for a ride into Etna, the next town. Optimist told us how he’d tried to hike north earlier in the day, but the smoke was so bad that he turned back. We decided to hike on anyway – we were still 60 miles from Etna, and the trail was still open.
We continued to see fires the next day, but it was still beautiful and they seemed far away. The trail stayed pretty high, winding along one ridge after another. It was rocky and very dry. We got a great radio signal on our iPods in this area and spent many hours hiking in silence, listening to Morning Edition on NPR and then counting down the hours until 4 pm, when we could listen to All Things Considered. When we got good radio signals, our days fell into a schedule that revolved around NPR radio shows. It was comforting to hear about the civilized world, even if the news included beheadings and conflict in the Middle East. That evening, we got to Highway 3 around 7 pm, about 40 miles outside of Etna. There was a note on a tree from some hikers who had passed through the day before, saying they’d tried to hike past the highway but turned back because of smoke, ash, and burning debris falling from the sky. We stopped for dinner and weighed our options. By this point we’d heard that the trail was closed at Highway 93, about 17 miles ahead of us. We decided to continue hiking until Hwy 93, and climbed up the trail in the dark.
The next day, a Sunday, we hiked the last 17 miles before the trail closure. It was incredibly smoky, and got worse throughout the day. The air was a grayish-yellow color, and each step seemed to bring us closer to a plume of smoke directly in front of and below us. At one point, the fire was in a valley right below us and we could see helicopters dropping water. We got through unharmed, but we were both surprised that the trail hadn’t been closed. When we got to Highway 93, the trail was closed for the last 20 miles into Etna. We were disappointed, but I’ll admit that I was also a bit relieved. We hitched a ride with a young guy going as far as Callahan, a nearby town. Callahan was basically made up of one building – a bar – so we stopped for a beer and chatted with the locals. Everyone was talking about the fires. They made it sound like all of northern California was on fire. A cowboy with spurs on his boots and a trailer full of horses offered to take us to Etna, and spent the entire drive telling us about his cow-moving adventures that day.
When we got to Etna, it was full of hikers and the fire rumors were flying. It seemed like everyone was hitching to Ashland. We heard a different story from everyone we talked to – many said the trail was sure to close from Etna to Ashland. One hiker called the scene the “Etna Hysteria.” We had already missed 20 miles of the trail and didn’t want to miss any more, plus, the trail was still open. So, we decided to hike on. We had 100 miles until Ashland. We hitched a ride up into the smoky hills the next morning.
I was so glad that we decided to keep hiking. The next few days were so beautiful, and we saw country I had no idea even existed. We didn’t see another person for the next two days. The smoke was bad the first few hours, but then it cleared up and the mountains, blue lakes, and endless hills around us revealed themselves. Looking back, I remember this section as rugged and peaceful, colored by the blues of the hills and the yellows of the rock, flowers, and dusty trail. It looked almost prehistoric. Here are some pictures of the area between Etna and the next town of Seiad Valley:
After a few long days, we got to the town of Seiad Valley. The last 6 miles into town we had to walk on the road, and it was blisteringly hot. We finally met the Klamath River, and I was struck by how much it looked like Oregon. We were so close! Only 40 miles. The road opened up into a wide, green valley. We ate a late lunch at the tiny cafe in town, sorted our food, and then continued on. The trail climbed 5,000 feet out of town – the switchbacks wound up through sparse forest and then the rocky, dusty side of a mountain. We reached the top and decided to camp near an abandoned fire lookout. It looked like this:
We were determined to make it to Oregon the next day. The trail stayed high along a ridge the next morning and we got a good radio signal, so we listened to Morning Edition and then All Things Considered that afternoon. The scenery was beautiful, the trail was hilly, and it was VERY hot. I kept looking ahead at the mountains in front of us, wondering if I was looking at Oregon. We had a mac and cheese dinner (my favorite trail meal) around 6:30 pm, still with 12 miles to go until the border. I tried to stay motivated. We were frequently surrounded by cows, or at least the sound of cow bells, and huge, grassy expanses. I counted down the miles and the minutes, waited for the ascents, descents, and dirt road crossings I knew were coming and ticked them off my mental checklist. I divided the miles up in my head in every way possible, trying to come up with the best and shortest way to think about time or distance… by this point in our hike, I did these mental subdivisions all the time. A mile, five miles, 20 minutes, an hour, two hours – they had all started to take on different meanings for me than they ever had in normal life. Two hours was just four 30-minute sections – I could get through that anytime. With an hour left you were practically there. Finally, we got to our last climb of 1,500 feet. I knew the border was near the top of this climb. We hiked on through the dark, waiting for the wooden sign I had seen in pictures. In a valley next to us, we could see the orange flames of a nearby fire. Finally, around 10 pm, there it was. Oregon. We were in our home state, finally done with the 3-month, 1,702-mile beast that was California. It felt as if we had accomplished something. I was happy and sad at the same time.
We hiked another 2 miles before finding a campsite, making it a 34-mile day. Almost instantly, everything felt different in Oregon. The fresh smell of the air, the dirt, the valleys below us, the trees – it all felt familiar somehow. With 962 miles to go, we fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.