Miles: 25.5 (back in the game!)
Lots of big ups and downs today, trail wise and emotionally. But both ended on a high: I’m back up at seven thousand feet, cowboy camped near the last glowing embers of a campfire.
Descending from last night’s hilltop, I take an early break for water and snacks at the middle fork of the feather river. There is a spectacular swimming hole here at the bridge, and the water is warm, but not quite warm enough for a morning dip in the chill of a valley not yet graced by the sun.
My trail notes had warned of the return of poison oak after Sierra City. For the last three days I have eyed everything green and leafy suspiciously, but did not have any certain sightings (flashback to the poodle dodge days). Perhaps I have forgotten how to identify the rash-causing plant? Or maybe it just looks different this far north. But it doesn’t. Heading down to the river, the familiar leaves of three appear as promised. And on the way back up, they take over, with only a narrow passageway through, no room for tripping. The occasional lone scraggly specimen sprouts right from the path, ready to brush ankles when you least suspect. I feel something touch my leg, which I wash with soap at the next creek. But there are too many possible encounters, and too much hill to focus on climbing. Will have to see how that works out in the morning.
Between the steep climb and my general weariness, I have a bit of a rough day. I am grateful for Mamma Squirrel’s energetic company, as she leads the way. We talk through all kinds of things, contemplate aloud whether I should get off trail before Oregon, if getting there in the time I have is too much of a struggle, not the best way to spend the last weeks before a new job in a new town. The answer is perhaps in the mossy trees, one of which instructs passers-by to “find peace of mind.”
Despite the seriousness of climb and conversation, there’s time for jokes. Part way up the never ending poison-hill, Mamma Squirrel happily proclaims that “we are training!”. I reply. laughing: “Lets hike the PCT some day!”
There’s more up, still, enough to remind me of the relentless climb into (and out of) Wrightwood, but today at least the water sources are evenly spaced every few hours. Around dinner time, a hiker couple I met way back, just before Kennedy Meadows catches me at the creek. I tag along a few miles to the next road crossing, a trail head parking lot with some traffic. We scheme to cook dinner at the side of the road, hoping to look interesting or hungry enough to elicit magic from passing cars.
An SUV comes by, slowing as it nears. So much excitement as the window rolls down. “All I have is a few bottles of water” comes the offer. We try not to look disappointed, as we politely refuse through fake smiles. Then “I have one last beer too, but you’d have to share.” And hiker faces light up genuinely happy. We split the beer, passing it back and forth. The man joins us for a chat, waiting for the empty bottle (Anchor IPA, another win!) so we don’t have to pack the glass.
Just up the trail, there’s a register. I look for the gang, and find my long-time trail friends a week or so ahead. But there’s candy in the metal box.
The last few miles fly by in a sugar rush of walking and chatting, reaching camp just as it gets full dark. Seven or so others are already here, gathered, chatting, happy beside a bright little fire. And so am I, cowboy camped with the perfect cool breeze up on this hillside, falling gently asleep with the last of the embers glowing nearby.
Shouting rouses me from my peaceful sleep: “HEY BEAR! GET THE F*** OUT OF HERE YOU BIG OL’ BEAR!” Echoes across the campsite. It’s Fashion Plate Dan, and he has been seeing eyes near his hammock, listening to deep breathing, too deep to be human. There’s crashing in the bushes as the bear lumbers off.
“Are you OK Fixie” someone calls from a tent, knowing I cowboy camped. “Yeah,” I reply with half-confidence, now sitting up with my headlamp on peering furtively into the darkness around me.” But I’m going to set up my tent now.” A-Z gets up and shines his light so I can pitch my tent. I crawl into the false security of my nylon shelter. At least this way I won’t wake up with a bear licking my face. Laying in my sleeping bag, I am scared of the wild for the first time this trip. Worried, at the very least that the bear will be back for my ursack, that I will need to get up and defend my food, yet very much grateful I am not camped fully alone.
I wake again to the sound of footsteps and cracking branches. I check my phone, equal parts scared and amazed that I had actually fallen asleep. It’s 3:00AM. I squeeze my eyes shut and have almost convinced myself nothing is there, until someone in a tent further down yells “GO AWAY BEAR!” Right. I unzip the door and shine my light to check my food, which appears to be untouched. Somehow I fall asleep again listening, listening. Sorting out my own rustlings, and other hikers turning over, from forest noises in the night.