Yesterday I had a bit of a town hangover. After two days off, it took a whole day on trail to remember how to hike again. This morning I wake refreshed and with enough energy that walking is finally fun again. Even the uphills. The sky is nothing but blue, the sun warm, but not hot. This is especially welcome, because up until a few days ago, this was the section choked almost to closure with smoke from the Washington fire.
The trail angles gently up and down, the landscape seems all interesting and new, red and volcanic topped with lumpy spires, like giant piles of dripped sand. The flowers continue to stop me in my tracks. I don’t know how many times I abuse already taxed knees to bend down with pack on and snap photos of the colorful show, wishing I knew more of their names.
I say hello to a women section hiking southbound solo. The brief conversation is dominated with big animal stories, almost too many to seem true. A cougar outside her tent last night; a bear that followed her all predator-like yesterday; another hiker who had her ursack (bear-resistant food bag, which I now carry outside the mandatory bear can zone) straight up taken by a bear in the night. I shrug all this off and keep walking, making a note to securely tie my ursack to a sturdy tree, as directed.
As if on cue, the telltale wisps of clouds appear just before noon, growing into dark masses. The sky crackles and growls, but the action seems mostly distant. I don’t worry too much, mistakenly assuming that because the trail stays below 9000 feet, it will not be exposed.
The volcanic soil, however, is sandy and dry, only supporting trees in deep creases. Between clumps of pines, the vegetation is barely knee high. I spend the afternoon dashing across exposed ridges to the next stand of trees where I am no longer the tallest entity. All afternoon, I repeat this pattern, scanning the sky for lightening growing closer, then anxiously crossing to relative safety. On several occasions, I swear my leg hairs are standing on end, static electricity building. Or it is just the warm breeze roused by the storm.
The minor dose of fear, and a well-fed, rested body, make for quick miles. I find myself with twenty-two down by 6pm, and stop early for the night. The mosquitos have returned with a vengeance, the worst since Squaw Lake. I eat dinner and brush my teeth in a rush, before retreating to the safety of my tent.
Helicopters chug back and forth above camp. At first, I worry that I accidentally set off my SPOT beacon, and am unknowingly beaming a ‘rescue me!’ signal skyward. With all the thunderstorm activity, it is far more likely they are scanning for new fires. That they are out looking is comforting and disconcerting at the same time. For all the recent afternoon storms, today is the first time I’ve really connected lightening to fire risk in an immediate capacity.