I wake in the meadow to a condensation soaked tent. Extra moisture courtesy of last night’s random clear-sky rainstorm. It’s too early to hitch to town, so I stay in bed and blog and surf the internet. It might be a damp meadow, but it is a damp meadow with service.
Just before 8am, I pack up, tent still dripping, and walk the easy mile and a bit to the road. The few others camped nearby skipped Chester, but I need fuel. That or I will be eating cold-soaked angel hair pasta for dinner this week. Which even by thru-hiker ‘standards’ is not a thing. This means hitchhiking solo for the first time, at least thumb-out-at-the-side-of-the-road style. As always seems to be the case, thirty cars cruise by going the wrong way, for the single one in the right direction. Despite my best smile, it passes me with an extra wide berth. I do have backup, as there was a phone number for a trail angel, Piper’s Mom, taped to a log just before the pavement. Ten minutes later, I get a second chance, and success: a clean-cut older man in a white pickup truck. He’s on his way to renew his post office box in Chester where he has a cabin.
He is incredibly talkative, spilling out an impressive array of local tidbits for the eight-mile ride to Chester. I learn that the recession has hit the town hard, with a whole new strip mall deserted; and that many of the residents that remain have substance issues. I also learn that Chuck Norris (!) has a house here. Chuck sounds like quite the local hero, always helping people. We check the airport for his helicopter as we drive by, to see if he’s in town, but no chance of Chuck today.
I had been warned in Belden that Chester is thru-hikered-out, with too many entitled-acting, disrespectful people passing through this year. Apparently the church had opened its doors for the season, only to close them a week later after too many incidents of hikers smoking marijuana. At the church. An unfortunate collision of trail culture and town culture, at the first town stop past the halfway point.
But my welcome is incredibly warm. I am standing, overwhelmed as usual, today in front of the most impressive array of vegan dairy and frozen items at the Holiday Market, when a woman approaches, holding a big bag of oranges. She’s wondering, with the kindest of smiles, if I need a ride to the trail since she’s headed there right now. I ask if she’s Piper’s Mom, from the sign in the woods and she is. She takes my photo, for her 2015 PCT hiker album, and tells me I shouldn’t have any trouble hitching back to the trail later, but am welcome to call her too.I sit in the little café area of the grocery store, devouring a Truckee Sourdough Company baguette slathered in vegan cream cheese, topped off with tofurkey slices and cucumber and washed down with soy milk. My plan is to continue snacking while doing laundry down the street. But the extra calories are inspiring. I bet I could catch the others at Drakesbad Guest Ranch for dinner and hiker swim time, I think. I call the ranch to confirm that a) they have laundry and b) space at dinner. “I’m in Chester,” I confess. “You can make it!” encourages the kind man from the ranch. It’s on. Buy fuel. Hitch back to the trail. Hike 18 miles. I have a little under eight hours. Go!
I grab fuel at the outfitter, then brazenly ask a middle aged bearded dude in the parking lot which way he’s headed. I guzzle the last half of my soy milk, attach a giant bag of vegan cheesey popcorn to my pack and hop into the second random stranger’s white pickup truck of the day. My ride is heading out on a fishing trip, though he has not heard of the trail, is nothing but polite.
Three miles down the trail, I sit by a dried up water source, downing the heaviest of the town food I hurriedly crammed in my pack, fruit first. Pack lighter, but belly is not. But dinner! I think, and a pool! Moving fast, feeling kind of terrible. Uphill. Downhill. Justkeepwalking. Cooling hot feet, finding a snickers in the river. “There’s snickers in this river” I say to no one in particular.
A 6pm I reach the boiling lake, a feature I have looked forward to for a thousand miles. I have to choose: slow down for the geothermal wonders or be sure I am make dinner. I compromise, taking the scenic route, but only pausing for a few minutes. The strange greenish-brown murky lake is not only boiling, but fringed with sputtering mud pits and hissing steam vents, a sulfur-scented feast for all the senses. I have it all to myself at this late-ish hour, strange cracked pink soil glowing in the evening light.
Then I press on, down rocky trail, clearly well traveled by horses. Soon I reach the edge of the forest, the ranch swimming pool directly below, main buildings just across the picturesque meadow. But signs plead against shortcuts, so I follow the trail which seems to snake forever and then some around and about the meadow before finally, reaching a dirt road after what seems like several dinner-less eternities later.I find the hikers, seated away from the patio as instructed (“at the picnic tables by the stables”). And hiker dinner has not yet been served! I collapse victorious in a chair, carefully spread a starched white cloth napkin over my hilariously filthy skirt. And then there is food. Thick pork chops, possibly the largest piece of meat I have eating by myself in an entire lifetime. Fruit compote, the most amazing salty-smoky kale. All cooked to perfection. After the meal is complete, a server approaches our table with a steamy ziplock bag. “I thought you might want this,” he explains a bit sheepishly, “it’s the leftover kids dinner and was going in the trash.” Hiker faces smile wide, and leftover butter meets leftover corn dogs. So much happiness.But there’s more. Having bought a meal, even the massively discounted hiker meal, so very, very generously qualifies us as guests. Use of the pool, showers, laundry. There are loaner clothes – even bathing suits – and without question the Best Shower of the PCT. Giant fluffy luxury resort towels. Soap and body wash and hot water for days. I vow to return for vacation one day.
We float in the hot spring pool in total bliss. As the light fades in the magical meadow, and hiker midnight comes and goes. Until the children are dragged off to bed. Until our skin wrinkles and the regular guests retreat to cozy cabins. Until the stars come out and even the swooping bats are asleep. This is the best place in the universe right now, I repeat aloud. This is the best place in the whole universe.