I return to the trail at Ebbitts Pass after four days off with my parents in South Lake Tahoe. Catching up to my friends is the only thing on my mind as I get out of the car and walk back into the woods. Before too long I break from the trees into a landscape all too familiar, the desert. Sage brush lines the trail as well as wildflowers of all colors contrasting heavily against the red volcanic soil. Despite this mountains and rock formations surround me, not as high as what I’ve been through but still capped in snow on June 29. It was quite a happy medium between Southern California and the high Sierra. The trail goes up and down many times but the grade is gentle and the elevation gain per mile drops significantly. After four days off a whole new bubble has caught up, I play leapfrog all day with unfamiliar faces before reaching camp 28 miles from where I had started for the day. I wake up early the next day and hike through much of the same scenery for the first half of the day before reaching the rim of Lake Tahoe. At this point the PCT joins the the Tahoe Rim Trail through grassy high elevation meadows rich in Mule Ears, a yellow flower that looks similar to a sunflower. Lake Tahoe is a giant mass of blue below me but on the trail water sources have been becoming more and more scarce. After 17 miles I reach the road to South Lake and go to stay with my parents for one more night before meeting back up with Oakley, Wonder Woman, and Rocco.
We hike out around three on the First of July, my three month trailiversary. The surroundings completely change again as we hike along the edge of Echo Lake. The forest becomes old growth with the trees covered in a vibrant green moss. A thick understory of ferns and shrubs remind me of Vermont but the amount of lakes we pass is reminiscent of Maine. After six miles we reach Lake Aloha, surrounded by snowy mountains but way warmer than any other lakes so far. For the first time I actually went swimming instead of just jumping in and frantically rushing back out. We cowboy camp on the rocks by the water and do yoga while watching the sunset. It feels good to be back on the trail, it feels good to be back with my people. In that moment there was no where else I would rather be, a feeling that never seems to get old.
On our second day out of Tahoe I wake up early and get hiking by 6 with the others shortly behind me. The plan is to do big miles in order to get to the town of Truckee for the fourth, the terrain definitely helps us in accomplishing this. The sun rises as I make my way along another chain of lakes before I start a decent climb up to Dicks Pass at 9400 feet. At the top I blast music and cook breakfast, already having covered nine miles by 8:30. The northern face of the pass is still covered in thick snow, at this point it’s nothing more than an annoyance. I race my way through it, skiing on my feet down steep slopes without even bothering to find the trail until the bottom. Just as hiking in the desert had become second nature to me, the snow is my second area of expertise. The sierras have given me experience, they’ve made me stronger.
I hike along the gorgeous dick’s lake after coming down but push on to get more miles in before the afternoon heat. I’m back to taking Siestas between noon and three, it’s way hotter now than it ever was in the first 700 miles. By noon I’ve done 20 and break with Oakley and Meta at Richardson Lake which I had been excited to swim in but upon arrival it wasn’t too inviting. The plan was for seven more but once we at the campsite I decide to push out another 3 miles with Wonder Woman and Oakley to make for a 31 and a half mile day. The trail follows a beautiful ridge line where we get to watch the sunset before laying down in a forested patch and falling asleep in seconds.
We sleep in late after a long day even though we still have another 25 miles to crank out before reaching Truckee where we plan to spend the 4th of July. We walk through the many ski resorts surrounding the Truckee area and in turn have many climbs up along the chairlifts. Open views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains are quite breathtaking as we spend most of the day walking on top of a ridge line covered in Mules Ears and Lupine. On the way up to the second ski area I catch up to Ella who has been hiking with her friend Bill who lives in Truckee, as well as Short Shorts. We take a break at the top while waiting for Wonder Woman and Oakley. It’s nice to hang out with other people for a change, not that I don’t love the ones I’ve been traveling with but sometimes you forget just how many other awesome souls are out here. From the chair lift up top we continue to climb for 3 miles up through vast fields of Wildflowers with rock formations jutting out from the earth above us. The last 5 miles into town is an epic ridge walk where we should have been able to see the volcanic Mt. Lassen in the distance, but smoke from the nearby Trailhead Fire in Sacramento set in and covered all the views around us. Walking on the ridge is still an amazing feeling though, I seem to be on top of the world looking down at everything else even though my elevation isn’t even 9000.
After a million switchbacks Wonder Woman and I arrive at the road and get a ride from the first car that passes. We get dropped off at a bar and when they wouldn’t let me in I go outside for a cigarette. Someone else comes out and we get to talking about our travels, he had done some backpacking through Europe and received many acts of kindness just as I have on my journeys. He hands me a hundred bucks, from one traveler to another. Gourmet pizza and wings were now in my budget, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bite.
Bill opens his house to us and we spend the fourth on the beach at Donner Lake. Good food, good people, water, fireworks, and beer make for quite an enjoyable day but my mind is elsewhere. It’s July 4, I’ve been on the trail for over three months, and I’m not even halfway. This time last year I was but 500 miles from the end. Everyone else is excited about taking another zero the next day and then another in Sierra City, the next town only 40 miles away. I can’t do it. After the last fire in the sky, I say goodbye to my friends. Not for the first time, but likely for the last. In the desert taking time was necessary to let snow melt, in the Sierra it was necessary to enjoy the beauty. Northern California is the time to make miles. I have to go. I have to figure out my life. I have to deal with my demons. I have to hike my own hike. Wonder Woman and Oakley, if you’re reading this, I will never forget either of you.
It takes nearly three hours to get a ride out of town on the 5th and by the time I get hiking the heat is unbearable. I settle for a short day and stop around 7 miles in at the two story Peter Grubb Hut where I run into Meta and Oolong. Again I let myself be so bummed about leaving one group of people that I forgot how many friends I have ahead of me. As the day goes on more and more people show up, all unknown to me but the scene reminds me of the AT, everyone sitting around in the shelter cooking dinner and talking trail talk. It’s a nice way to spend my first night alone, I’m reminded that on the trail I will never be alone. Still I miss the ones I’ve left behind, not only Wonder Woman, Oakley, and Rocco but the many friends who are much further back. St. Nick, Central Booking, Tank Girl, Javi, even if I never see these people again they will live on inside of me, I try to learn at least one thing from each person I meet. Its quite nice to sleep in the warmth of the shelter without having to throw on extra clothes, it will make waking up early even easier. It’s 35 miles to Sierra City from the Peter Grubb Hut but I have no intentions on making it there until the next day when my package will arrive. I start hiking by six with plans of making ten miles by ten. The trail ascends and descends many times, alternating between old growth forest full of lichen covered pine trees that tower above me and high elevation meadows filled with wildflowers of all varieties but mainly Mule Ears which seem to take over every piece of earth they grow in. By ten I’ve covered eleven miles, 18 by noon when I stop to have lunch at the Mule Ear Spring with Oolong as well as Miles and Dairy Queen whom I had just met at the hut last night. I leave planning only ten more miles but they just come so easily and there’s so much more daylight left by the time I get there that heading the extra five or so into Sierra City seems easily doable, it’s all downhill after all. The trail descends to 4500 feet, so low that manzanita begins to pop up again as well as big leafy trees, a pleasant change from the constant pine forests out west. I make it to the road by 6, officially my longest day at 33.5 miles. It soon becomes even longer when I have to walk the extra mile and a half into town because no one will pick me up. When I get to town everything is closed but the church where hikers can camp is packed. The very bubble I aimed to avoid by starting early is here. Still I’m not all too upset about it, I’m grateful actually. There’s still so many people I’m going to meet in the next 1400 miles.
I spend the next morning hanging out on the porch of the store with at least 15 other hikers getting our wifi fix and recovering from the store’s “gut buster”, a one pound burger loaded with a bunch of other stuff on top of that. My package won’t be in until around two which worked out in my favor because it was so dang hot down at 4500 feet. Sierra City is a nice change from the touristy towns we’ve been frequenting as of late. The population is around 200 and it was extremely hiker friendly. I get a ride out from the local sheriff who probably had nothing else to worry about in a place like this. 3000 feet in seven miles brings me to the Sierra Buttes Spring where I camp with Ooong. The sunset is great from the ridge we’ve set up on and the water is ice cold. There’s no where else I would rather be.
We walk along a gradual ridge for much of the next days with amazing views making me wish I had pushed just a little further the night before. That’s kind of the beauty of long distance hiking, you never really know where you’re going to end up at night and it’s great when it does happen to be an incredible spot unexpectedly. The trail crosses numerous jeep roads indicating our proximity to civilization, at one point there’s even a signed “cell phone zone” where slobbers is vortexed by the LTE connection. I push on to a view of the Sierra Buttes, craggy granite monoliths jutting out into the sky, likely one of the last scenes like this as we push on into the forested Cascade Range. Around noon we take a break at the A Tree Spring. It’s been strange to have to stay on top of where the water sources will be again, for so long it wasn’t even a passing thought. Every day it gets drier out here, but luckily the water that has been on trail is pretty pristine. Still I’m back to filtering everything now, who knows what’s been in these low elevation sources. We face a long and steep uphill after lunch which really takes it out of both of us. Big mile days are easy, it’s consistent big mile days that really begin to take a toll on your body. Luckily as we near the top we find another spring and shortly after a campsite on top of the ridge. Oolong and I find it a bit funny that we’re disappointed with a 26 mile day but both of our feet pulse from soreness and there’s pretty much no chance of pushing on. It was around this point on the AT that my feet started to really hurt, an annoyance that lasted for at least a couple hundred miles. Overnight I hear rustling not far at all from where I’m cowboy camping. I sit up abruptly and shine my light around only to have two glowing eyes staring straight into mine, likely just a deer but at the time I was convinced it was a wolf. Good night not to be camping alone as it wasn’t long until everyone else woke up and started shining lights too. Getting back to sleep was difficult afterwards and by 4 I’m rolling a cigarette and contemplating packing up. By 5 I’m on the trail and the sun is beginning to rise lighting up the sky with neon colors. It’s not often I wake up so early but every time I do I enjoy it so much. I stop for a long morning break at Alder Spring about 7 miles in but no one from the campsite shows up, no one in general does for that matter. I walk through areas that have clearly undergone heavy logging. Occasionally I can hear or see a truck hauling loads of trees down the mountain, I secretly curse them for destroying my forest. The air stays cold even as the day gets later, big puffy clouds block me from soaking up the suns rays. I descend 5000 feet down to an elevation of 3000 at the Feather River, the lowest point the trail has gone for quite some time, lower than Sierra City and almost as low as Belden where I’ll be in a few days time. The forest is completely different at 3000 feet, I’m suddenly transported back to the Appalachians where big leafy trees cover the sky from view and overgrowth covers the trail. It’s quite pleasant actually, and the Feather River flowing through the valley is the icing on the cake. Clouds remain plentiful throughout the afternoon but it still gets hot enough to take a dip. I spend three hours at the river, it was 17 miles from where I camped but I was there by noon so I had plenty of time to kill. I still hasn’t seen a soul all day, so peaceful and such a good feeling to be ahead of everyone. My feet get a much needed ice bath which works wonders as I begin to hike again straight back up to 6000 feet. I take it slow knowing I’ll be happy with whatever mileage I make at this point and end up cranking out another 26 which puts me ten miles from the town of Quincy. I camp on another awesome ridge with superb views and cell phone signal. Oolong catches me as I’m making dinner but the site I’ve chosen is only big enough for one tent so he pushes on leaving me to enjoy the evening by myself. My attitude on hiking alone has totally changed from a week ago, I embrace it and love the freedom of doing what I want when I want. There’s no one waiting for me or counting on me, that’s nice for a change. I’ve hiked with other people for so long that it just seemed normal, but I forgot about all the amazing moments I had while solo on the AT. I’m happy to have had the moments I’ve had on this trail and love each and every one of the people I’ve spent time with to death but I’m content with the way this hike has transformed. It’s time to let the trail lead the way for a while, it’s time to hike the hike.
I sleep in until 8 only planning 8 miles into Quincy but my day is shortened to 2 when I get a message from Ella telling me there’s a trail angel’s house that I have to check out. I’m happy to do so, I need some relaxation after the past few big days. When I arrive in greeted with French Toast, Eggs, Sausage, and fruit by a lovely lady by the name of Nancy. My home for the day is a beautiful and remote cabin near Bucks Lake. I’m the only hiker here but it’s actually pretty nice to spend the day relaxing in peace. There aren’t many good towns for the rest of California so I’m lucky to stumble upon this little piece of heaven while the caretakers are here on vacation. The trail provides. Always.
Nancy drops another thru hiker named Star and Myself off back at the trail after an awesome night on a mattress and an amazing breakfast of French toast, eggs, and bacon. I let Star blaze on ahead before I start hiking in hopes of avoiding another game of leap frog. The trail is mellow on its climb up to bucks summit, mostly winding through more old growth forests until the last mile when it gets a bit steeper but also much more exposed just as the heat of the day is beginning to kick in. At the top is a trail register, the first one in quite some time. I’m happy to come across it as I’m always wishing there were more along the way. I enjoy reading what others have written and seeing when my friends ahead of me made here before jotting down my own thoughts.
“When I’m sad this trail makes me happy, when I’m weak it makes me strong, when lonely it gives me friends.
– Young Blood grooving to halfway”
The forest returns as I hike another of NorCal’s abundant ridge walks before beginning a 5000 foot descent to the town of Belden. The pine trees transform into a temperate deciduous forest as I get lower. The trail becomes overgrown with leafy shrubs and poison oak which I make no attempt to avoid as I barrel down the mountain hoping to score a meal before closing time. At the bottom I walk through Beldens festival grounds where music festivals are held every weekend but unfortunately I arrived on a Monday night. I make it to the restaurant in time for chicken wings and French fries, but the best part was running into Jester who I hiked about 450 miles of the desert with before he flipped up to Oregon and went southbound to avoid snow. Good times catching up and hearing how his adventure has been going. I head out around 8 and find a spot to camp just outside of town where the LTE connection is still strong enough to watch Netflix as I fall asleep.
The next day I wake up early to tackle the 14 mile 5000 foot climb out of Belden Town. I hope to knock it out quickly, the elevation for the rest of the day looks pretty lax after reaching the top. I get in my zone and push my body to its limits, passing at least 15 other hikers, many of which were still asleep. I haven’t eaten breakfast but my mind is set on getting over this mountain. The final miles are tedious but I make it up there by ten, excited to cruise for the rest of the day. I stop for breakfast at Frog Spring, a beautiful mountain spring gushing out of the rocks. My surroundings are painted with a variety of new wild flowers. The Mule Ears are gone now, replaced by purple and blue bell shaped guys. I hike only another five miles before having lunch at Cold Springs. It’s starting to feel normal to plan my day around the water sources again. It’s a good thing too because soon enough we will be coming up on the Hat Creek Rim, a thirty mile dry stretch through exposed magma fields. There’s no shortage at this spring though, water gushes out of the pipe like a bathtub and its ice cold baby. A short uphill into a more volcanic landscape brings me to my first views of Mt. Lassen, an active volcano still nearly completely covered by snow which was a nice sight knowing I won’t have to walk through it. My day ends after 27 miles on an exposed ridge where I eat dinner with an entirely new group of people; Alabama, T Rex, The Graduate, and Spreadsheet. A deer grazes through the meadow as the sun sets, all easily viewable from my cowboy camp. The night is calm but the insects are out in numbers, no longer mosquitos but buzzing black flies which will drive a man mad. They keep me up for hours but eventually I cave and put in my headphones to go to sleep, wanting some rest so I can wake up early again the next day.
It ends up being an even earlier morning than the one before. It’s still pitch black when I begin hiking but before too long I’m surrounded by a sky of pink, Mt. Laden lighting up right before me. The trail climbs 1500 feet to mile 1320, the halfway point. I’m happy but also a little sad, the countdown now begins. This trail has transformed so many times now, whether it’s the landscapes I explore, the people accompanying me, or the feelings I feel. With 1320 miles to go, it’s sure to change quite a few more times as well. It took me three and a half months to make it here, much longer than a lot of the people I’ve met lately. I’ve zeroed in every town, enjoyed many a side trip, gotten to know my fellow hikers as well as the landscape I walk through, I’ve had an absolutely incredible summer so far this year. I’m happy to have taken so long to get here, and I’m happy to take another three months getting to Canada. Last year when I finished the AT I was hit with the realization that I flew through it way too fast, I don’t want any regrets this year. I know the trail is where I want to be, and I wish it never had to end. Still the progress feels good and I celebrate with a blueberry pie I packed out from Belden before heading 8 miles more to the highway that leads to Chester. I get a ride with Cheese and Cornelius, we all head to “the pine shack” for their well known jumbo milkshakes before going over to the church where hikers can camp for free. So many people show up and I’m actually glad. I miss my team but meeting new people is one of the reasons I’m out here. With every person I meet I learn something new, so instead of dwelling on what this hike was I will instead embrace what it has and will become, I will live in the moment, I will have no regrets. I will go to Canada, even if it’s October and snowing. I walk because I must, because no lifestyle is as beautiful as this, because every day is a new adventure filled with new sights, new sounds, new people, new emotions. Time to rock the second half of this hike even harder than the first.