CT Day 13 Weathered

July 11
Miles: 21
Trail Mile: 226

CW2 Mile 11.9 to CW3 Mile 7.3

Today we weathered a storm, and are beginning to feel a bit weathered ourselves. The clouds arrived early or stayed late, but either way it’s not the clear morning sky I was hoping for. A bit of a late start and I can’t find my groove, stopping in the first miles for multiple costume changes, to pick up dropped trekking poles. To dig a hole. Combine my clumsiness with multiple (very easy) creek fords and hello wet feet. I manage to fall in not one, but two creeks today. Most impressively I brace myself for a grand leap across a narrow channel, jump and land, thinking I’ve made it. Only to slide off the bank into a thigh deep pool. While wearing my wind pants.

Texas creek is the ‘big’ ford of this section, possibly of the trail (mostly the CT has amazing bridges, for the bikers maybe?). It’s not particularly intimidating, just a resign yourself to wet shoes and get across situation. It’s over my knees skirt-deep, and certainly flowing but not especially cold or fast.The real challenge is what comes after: miles of fallen trees to play over-under-around, just in case I wasn’t already feeling slow today.

I crawl under one, thinking I will fit only to have my pack snag a branch. Unable to go forward or back, I try down only to end up stuck lying on the ground in the dirt. I have to sheepishly take my pack off to extract myself. 

Even without the extra leg lifts, dirt baths, an detours the climb through the forest would be a true slog. But slog long enough and the trees relent, until there’s more meadow and all views. I perch on the last ridge before the highway to enjoy lunch with a view and wait for Steph (who wasn’t feeling the best today either), watching dark clouds trailing rain traverse the sky behind me. By the time we are at the road, there’s thunder and the deepest darkest blue-grey clouds have again settled up where we need to go. But this time we are already above the treeline, at Cottonwood Pass, a parking lot on the continental divide. The expanse of pavement offers no shelter, and the trail promises to stay above the treeline for the next seven miles along the divide. Which happens to be exactly where the storm is angrily perched.

So with lightening striking, we drop below the ridge to sit under some small trees and hope it all passes soon. Except the clouds seem to be stuck circling the divide. The thunder grows more distant and then with a flash it is closer again. We reevaluate our spot and decide it will do. The rain comes down with a vengeance. Then hail. We shiver under our scraps of plastic ground sheet, rain finding ways to trickle down my back. We sit counting between flashes and booms until it is right on top of us with one great FLASHCRACK and then the rain eases and thunder seems mostly to be behind us, if still too close for my comfort. We wait a little longer until we’ve spent a hour and a half huddled in plastic wrap under dripping shrubbery.

We chat with an older couple back at the parking lot (the woman hiked the PCT in 1986!), who offer us a ride to Buena Vista to dry out. But the sky is a bit brighter now and after much debate, we decide to head on rather than lose a day. It’s only 43 miles to a Salida zero and the important things are still dry.

Up on the divide snowfields still hide some switchbacks, bootsteps now filled with hail. There’s some rock scrambling to get around, slippery with the rain, but nothing scary compared to yesterday. The sky stays grey, but the views still go on and on in both directions.

The trail climbs over the divide one last time before the faint promise of “possible” campsites (after a guidebook warning not to try to camp in this section). I’m so excited I follow footsteps waaay down what think is the trail, but isn’t. I trudge through the damp valley of my stupidity, through flooded meadows and across small streams, soaking my shoes anew, until I have climbed back up to the trail feeling terrible for dragging Steph through my mistake while simulraneously admiring the dramatic evening light.We poke around rocks and trees and melting snow patches until a magic cairn Steph spots leads us to a cozy spot under some trees. Just as I settle in my tent, I hear the first few gentle drops. I am too tired to worry about lightening, and fall asleep to the clatter of rain.

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CT Day 1: A Lightning Start

June 29th
Miles: 20.5

Segment 1 Mile 0 to Segment 2 Mile 3.5 (the CT is divided up into 28 more easily digestible segments bordered by road crossings)

Slumberkat and Maestro, two of my favorite PCT 2015 peeps, have been totally upping their trail angel game. Yesterday Slumberkat picked Steph and I up from the train and took us on a hiker dream tour to REI, (vegan!) happy hour and a grocery store. This morning Slumberkat wakes up early to drive us to the trailhead, and generally fuss over us, making sure to take plenty of start photos and offering again, to meet us down the trail should we need anything whatsoever. You two are the best!At Waterton Canyon there are eight others, in ones and twos, starting out for sections and thrus at this same hour, a surprising number to me. I wonder if the CT will be John Muir Trail busy. Or worse, since so many have come here after bailing on the still snowed in Sierra.

The official first six miles of the CT follow a wide dirt road and are almost dead flat. Not a terrible start really, as the miles come easily and the river is pretty, if tamed by various bits of infrastructure culminating in a large dam.

Two miles in, and we are already grateful for company and conversation because the walking doesn’t exactly require brain power. I am kind of tired this morning, not exactly bubbling over with the combimation of excitement and nerves that often mark the start of a long hike. Maybe I just need to get some miles between me and my work life to get back into happy hiker mode. But what if I am bored with backpacking? I worry about this to myself and about work aloud.

There are pit toilets and picnic tables every mile or two. Most notably, the last one comes with a small herd of mountain goats (?) intently slurping some mysterious nutrients out of the gravel road. There are plenty of bikers, walkers and runners out this mornings too.

But soon the road ends for us and while the single track finally feels like hiking the way is mostly up. I distract myself with all the pretty flowers and plants along the way. Some familiar, like sky rocket. Some I only know from photos, like Colorado columbine. Which is much bigger than I expected in real life. And some, I have never seen before. There are delicious surprises too, in the form of tiny wild strawberries. I perform a unintended thigh workout, via a series of strawberry picking squats with fully loaded pack.

We stop for a “proper” lunch (read handfuls of various snack foods) at Bear Creek, which is still running well and clear at the main crossing. But, after carrying a few litres of water another mile up a steep hill, we discover that the seasonal upper creek is also still running – right across the trail in three places -further up as well. Yay for bonus water carries!?

It’s only four hours in to day one, but talk has drifted to town days. Here I am planning to eat eggs and spinach in six days. Mostly though, it’s generous switchbacks both up and down, and with our steady pace, segment one turns out to be not so hard. At 4:30 we reach the campsites just above the South Platt river. They are already mostly occupied and the spaces left are not so flat or welcoming. And there’s word that the pit toilet is a poo- smeared trash filled disaster. I cannot confirm this as I was unwilling to investigate.

We chat with one of the hikers already camped here who is carrying the full CT guidebook (too heavy for me, but seems to have more campsites listed than the data book or Guthook) and learn that the next campsites are in about 2.5 miles, up a massive hill, of course. And in a 13 mile waterless stretch. Through an exposed burn area. Fun!
We decide to go down to the river, and only water source, and think about it. But of course I already know I will not be dragging my pack backwards uphill today. So forwards uphill it will have to be.

Before the climb we stop for dinner on a dusty patch of riverside that almost passes for a sandy beach. I stand in the cool water and rinse off dust and salt. The air is so dry I seem to be sweating solid crystals. I had planned to get all the way in the water to rinse, but of course the clouds are at their darkest just at this moment. I eat my heaviest dinner before semi-reluctantly filling bottles with enough water to dry camp and make it 10 miles to the next source in the morning. At least we will we doing the bulk of this exposed climb in the cool evening air. But such effort it takes! My pack feels like a sack of bricks (even though it can’t be more than 26 pounds), and though they are switchbacks there are some steep sections.
But up we go, to hard earned ridges and the promise of camp. The sun even peeks out for some stellar late day illumination, brightening distant hills and peaks. Except when we reach our intended campsite, it just doesn’t feel right. The spots are super exposed on a ridge and a wind has kicked up and the afternoon’s thunderclouds have yet to dissipate. Steph decides she can manage one more mile. We plod on, imagining all kinds of flat spots that really aren’t (Steph even hallucinates a fire ring!). I must be overreacting, I think. We should have just stayed at those lovely first view sites. I must be too tired to know a good site when I see one, way too cautious with the clouds breaking up for the day. Both of us, however want the site to feel ‘right’ so we can get a proper night’s sleep after two travel-shortened ones. 

Then finally, exactly one mile later we find it: lovely, flat, cleared spaces among the trees with grand views between, slightly below the ridge and with a lot more tree coverage.
We set up tents and settle down for some good sleep all content with our big first day, feeling pretty accomplished for having conquered what was supposed to be most of tomorrow’s big climb too.

Until….

I wake in the dark listening as drip…drop…drip becomes a steady patter of rain against nylon above my head. I tuck in my groundsheet, close my tent flap and hope the stakes hold in the shallow soil. Hope Steph has everything inside where she is camped a few hundred feet away. Rain the first night. When I thought the cloud situation was clearing up. When I thought the storms were more of an afternoon affair. Colorado weather you are a mystery to me!

Then the distant rumble of thunder, and I am so relieved we pressed on that last tough mile to find somewhere more forested and somewhat less exposed than the first ridge. Hoping it passes fast and far off. Then the flash and rumble closer. I am live blogging this storm to myself (without service) as I can do little more than be a spectator at this point (other than run off a ridge into the dark rain in my pjs). Welcome to 3am our first night! So much for a good rest after a long day.

One one thousand… two one thousand…three…BOOM! Closer still. Lightening truly freaks me out. Scares me more than bears. More than hitch hiking alone.

FLASH….one one-thousand… twBOOM!!! And I am terrified, shaking a bit to be honest, thinking about death by lightening. Thinking about that one time on the PCT when the storm was stuck swirling against the ridge again and again for 12 hours. Please, please let the next flash shows signs of moving on.
And then, half an hour later it is gone. The rain tapers back to drips and the thunder fades into the distance, off to terrorize other hikers on other ridges.

I’m starving now that I have time for more feelings. But of course my food is all tied up in my ursack (a bear resistant bag) attached to a tree. And with my senses all riled up and over sensitive I think I hear footsteps in that direction. But maybe it’s just the last fat drops falling from the trees. Or a deer licking up my pee. It just might be time for the earplugs. Oh blissful oblivion! Much better.

2080 Blueberry Miles of My Dreams. And a Thunderstorm.

I spot the first ripe huckleberries just after leaving camp, and then blueberries too. Sweet spheres of temptation dotting the bushes all along the trail within easy reach. They are the color of distant ridges just after sunset and they taste like summer. My early morning start is stalled first for this breakfast desert, and then for Little Crater Lake. A wondrous puddle of coldest, clearest blue just off trail; an artesian well with aspirations of lakehood. Or, less poetically, water pouring through a crack in the earth, eroding away soft rock and forming a pool in the process.

IMG_7435

IMG_7179Berry stained and content, after 20 miles waking southbound, I somewhat prematurely decide I am now an expert on being SOBO (as well as on berries of the color blue) and hold Q&A in my head on the subject:

Q: Is the trail as well marked in the other direction?
A: So far, yes. And there are tons of vintage PCT markers up here covered in amber sap and bits of rusts; representations of trees on trees, slowing becoming part of the forest.

Q: Is the sun really in your face all day?
A: Sun? Does Oregon even have sun?

Q: Does heading south feel like walking downhill the whole way?
A: Yes but this might be an effect of getting dropped off on top of mount Hood instead of at Cascade Locks.IMG_7437

But even conversations with my SOBO self get a bit lonely¬† after a while, so when I see a solo woman headed north I stop to chat. She asks my name, and says she heard of me last year. Then we put the pieces together: it’s Ice Bath!!! Who joined my trail family after I left for work last August. I’ve seen many photos of her hiking Washington and finishing the trail with Soccer Mom and the gang. But we’d never met until now.IMG_7195For three miles or so the trail, so flat and soft and wide now, follows Timothy Lake, which I see Pacific Northwest-style, cobbled together from glimpses through the trees: boats and canoes and stand up paddle boarders; campsites with Costco-sized tents and battalions of coolers. I imagine all the food these campers are harboring just off trail, but have no excuse to investigate further this early in the day.

Then who do I see but Jon, one of the three NOBO thru hikers I met on my first day this year at Burney Falls. “Fixie! What are you doing!?!” he asks, with a giant grin. We stand in the woods and tell tales of our respective adventures; me and the snowstorm, Jon getting to don a hardhat and hang a PCT sign in a trail crew cameo. I give him a big handful of the jolly ranchers (the first trial magic I was ever given, back on the JMT), that I am carrying to hand out to NOBO friends.

Q: Is SOBO hiking lonely?
A: Yes! It’s all miraculous but always fleeting meetings, intense two-minute friendships and reluctant good byes.

Dark clouds have congregated while I was chatting, and by late afternoon they erupt in storm. I ignore the first odd drops until the thunder is unmistakably thunder and rain and even some hail is tumbling down (though nothing like last year’s sky-marbles). This is no Pacific Northwest drizzle. Water pours from the sky, runs in impromptu rivulets down hillsides until trail becomes river and my feet are soaked from splashing through miles of pine needle topped puddles.

At least I am warm and thunderstorms always have breaks. I can even see the blue sky ahead. The rain and thunder keeps up for a few hours, still pouring down summer storm style for thirty minutes after the sun comes. So I walk through a glittering, soaked forest, through bright curtains of illuminated raindrops. The sun and rain so incongruous it feels like a movie set, or very damp fairy dust.IMG_7469A section hiker warns me a of a campfire left smoldering and now spreading up in a saddle where I was planning to camp. [PLEASE, people, do not leave fires burning in the forest. And if you don’t know how to put a fire out, then you probably have no business starting one especially on dry hilltops miles from water sources].

So I push on past the still smoke-smelling campsite, where thanks to quick thinking by PCT-hiker Mouse who found phone service and called it in and to hard working forest service employees the damage has been contained. I make a big day of it, wet feet and all, by biggest day ever at 28+miles, though even with the train it was not the hardest day by far. Though all morning I was conscious of going SOBO, the last miles of the day are like any others: drawn out despite my efforts to hurry. By the time I reach camp, sky firing out a sunset apology for the storm, I am not worried at all about having flipped direction.IMG_7222

July 17, 2016
Miles: 28 (new record!)
Trip: 446
PCT: 1,862