They call it a town vortex for a reason: it’s so easy to get caught up in the swirl of friends and food and comfort that leaving can become near impossible. After a massive vegetarian breakfast, I finally manage to say goodbye to Shuffles and Dribbles just before 11am. I am so sad as I walk down the trail that I spend much of the 11 miles to the highway working out how to get home from there. Catching friends was so bittersweet, my southbound motivation dissipating with each step I take in the opposite direction. I am walking so slowly, as if an invisible force is trying to pull me back to the camp.
After a few miles of more burn forest there are some serious lava fields to contend with, ankle-rolling dusty black marble covered trail. This is what everyone’s been talking about I think, suddenly understanding all the warnings about “The Lava.” Then I reach the top of the hill. The forest ends abruptly, taking the meager shade with it, and the trail disappears under a wall of lava. Six miles of black golf balls to walk on, at once novel and brutal, petrified rock rivers flowing all across the land. Now THIS is “The Lava,” I confirm, tip-toe- roll-sliding my way toward Three Sisters. I look back on Mount Washington, newly ominous with the path to mordor approach, half expecting to see flames bursting from the top.
There are other, quieter forms of wonder. A single tree somehow manages to grow green amidst the dark volcanic crumbs, what secrets do your roots know, I wonder, to grow in such a place? There are things we humans simply cannot comprehend.
A forest island provides incredible relief, the transition from rough rock to softest dirt produces that satisfying “ahhh…” feeling of returning to smooth pavement after hours of driving on a gravel road. And then I reach the actual road, and see car parked and tent set up. My spirits lift, trail magic! But not for me. It’s the support team for two ultra runners, gunning for the Oregon PCT fastest known time. The current record is something like 7 days and 22 hours. These guys left four and half days ago and are at mile 292 of 498 when I watch them leave. It’s all kind of insane.
Between the sad goodbyes, sweltering sun, tough tread and trail magic disappointment, I am feeling more than done for the day, for the season. On top of this, the random blister between my big toe and its neighbor (seriously, I never get blisters – why now, after 500 miles?) cracked today and filled with the fine sand that’s been working its way into everything. I keep stopping to dump little piles of trail dust from my shoes to make room for my toes, but with water sources scarce today, I cannot properly wash my feet.
Despite the challenges, mental and physical, in true thru hiker spirit, I walk eight more miles. Uphill. Over more lava. Into the storm clouds that have gathered while my eyes have been glued to the lava obstacles that constitute the ground here. The clouds look ominous, dark grey thunderheads on a collision course with the mountain I am climbing. I try to race to the next water and camp spot hoping to beat the rain.
Winds gust, and temperatures drop, but the rain holds off so I continue on past my intended campsite for a few more miles, the way I do when it’s not quite late and there’s no one to camp with (Autumn Leaves skipped breakfast to leave early this morning, and I was oh so sluggish much of the day). The trail is glorious: lava sand first grey, then gold, takes over from the treacherous marbles. I weave between green, living forest, otherworldly lava formations and lush flowering meadows, watching the clouds curl over North Sister in a massive wave. Eventually the clouds swirl down to where I am camped alone, tendrils of mist unfurling toward the valley below.
July 21, 2016