Half of California's PCT done
Around May 1st, about 300 hopeful hikers touched the Mexican border and started walking north to Canada. They are the Northbounders, or Nobos.
Nearly two months later, on June 23, I crossed the Canadian border and started heading 2,650 miles south to Mexico. I was a Southbounder, or Sobo.
We were destined to cross each other's path. Nobos vastly outnumber the Sobos. For example, this year, like most years, there were less than a dozen Sobos. Because the snowpack in the Cascades was 200% of normal, nearly all of them quit. I have never met another Sobo, although I heard there is one who is several hundred miles behind. She is an African American and goes by the trail name Notorious Bob.
Since the Nobos left nearly 2 months before I did, I expected to see them in Oregon. Yet in the middle of the state, I asked one section hiker where all the Nobos were hiding. She was from Oregon and asserted that they "all got stuck in the snow around Crater Lake," which is in southern Oregon. That sounded farfetched.
Although Crater Lake did have a ton of snow this year (they opened their roads in July), when I got there in late July there was hardly any snow and no Nobos.
That section hiker was obviously a proud Oregonian who was bitter about thru-hikers blasting through her state, doing on average 30 miles a day. So she made up a silly story to make herself feel better: "Ha! Finally Oregon stops the thru-hikers!"
Not quite. In fact, few had even entered her state!
I left Oregon behind, having met only a dozen Nobos - a fraction of the 300 who left Mexico.
The mystery remained: "Where are the Nobos?" I wondered as I entered California.
Then came the deluge. On my first day in the Golden State I met over 20 Nobos. They came by the literal busload. They had all taken a bus around 55 miles of trail in the spectacular Marble Mts. The mountains were on fire and the trail was closed. Violators faced a $5,000 fine and 6 months in jail.
Entering the inferno
I wasn't about to let some measly fine stop me from seeing one of the finer portions of the PCT. One thru-hiker described the Marbles as "the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
The Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon had also been closed due to a fire but Maiu and I had snuck through and survived.
We snuck into the Marbles using the same strategy - starting the day around 5am, while the fire fighters and authorities were still sleeping. Once again, the fire was far enough away that it was hardly noticeable. However, on the second and last day of the 55 mile section we started seeing and smelling smoke. We pressed on.
We finished the 55 mile section, and got to a paved road, the Etna Summit, at dusk in a swirl of smoke. The cops weren't there at that hour. Breathing was fine and my eyes were only a little watery.
Unfortunately, there was no traffic on the road that evening so we had to camp at the trailhead parking lot. I told myself that the smell of smoke was just like going to sleep with a campfire nearby - a really big campfire.
The next morning we hitched out at 6am and concluded that smoking is bad for you.
Lassen National Park, the alternate route
Nearly all the Nobos we met told us that the PCT route through Lassen National Park either sucked, was disappointing, or just plain dull.
That's shocking because every national park I have ever been to has been breathtaking. Obviously, the PCT must be missing something. I grew up in San Francisco, and Therefore, I'm decided to make my own route through Lassen to make sure I saw the highlights of the park.
I wrote a summary of the alternate route I devised, but I'll just say for now that it was awesome and one of the highlights of the PCT!
After meeting about 100 Nobos (over half had already quit the trail), I finally met the stragglers. They are Nobos who are way behind schedule. It's always sad to see these folks, because they are either:
a) Depressed, because they realize they will not complete their journey.
b) Delusional, because they somehow believe they will complete their journey.
They are like the Donner Party, heading into the mountains, irrationally hoping that winter will wait for them.
"My husband and I just need to do 22 miles a day and we can take one day off a week. That's just 132 miles a week and we'll make it," she told me with the utmost confidence. They would camp at 3 p.m. if they made their 22 mile quota.
Never mind that it took us two months of walking 25-35 miles a day with just 8 days off to get that point. It was the middle of August.
Her math didn't compute. I estimate that they would arrive in Canada's mountains in November - at which point Popsicle will live up to her trail name.
(If the above paragraphs offend you, read more about it.)
Stragglers who will make it
Of course, some of those at the back of the Nobo train will make it without skipping. For example, Lady Bird led expeditions in Alaska's 20,000 foot mountains. She can handle snow.
Gnome Sherpa loves camping snow. He was disappointed that there wasn't more snow in the Sierra. He's from Georgia and said, "Bring it on."
Oh, trust me, the Cascades will bring it on.
Gnome Sherpa got his name because he carries a plastic gnome on his backpack. He stole it from someone's garden. Now he travels around the world with the gnome, takes pictures of it next to famous locations, and mails the photos to the house he stole the gnome from.
Funnybone was snowed on in the middle of September the first time he who thru-hiked in PCT. He hopes to be the last thru-hiker to Canada by arriving November 1. Having started on March 22, he will have spent over 7 months hiking. When I met him he said, "I really gotta get over doing these 6 mile days." After I met him he got Giardia and was out for 5 days. This hilarious man with long legs is slow by choice. He was on the same team with Lance Armstrong. I think he will make it.
Lastly, there is The Dude. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in winter. He left from Maine in November. He is purposely stalling so winter can set in. This dude is rugged. He will also make it.
When two halves don't make a whole
That's right, there are two halfway point markers south of Chester, CA. One is a rectangular shaft that marks the point that is 1,325 miles from both Mexico and Canada. About two miles south of there is a message scrawled on a rock announcing the halfway point. The second is not as official, but might be more accurate. Either way, it begs the question: if we hit the halfway point twice, can we say that we have hiked the whole trail?
Entering the magical mountains
After 1,500 miles I have arrived at the point I have dreamed of thru-hiking for years: the Sierra Nevada. Lake Tahoe is already behind me and the biggest, most beautiful mountains on the PCT lie ahead.
Sponsor spotlight: GoLite
One reason my backpack is so light is that I carry few clothes. The main reason people load themselves down with clothes is that they like to lounge around camp at night and in the morning. If you can avoid doing that, then you can leave behind some clothes. Just do all your camp duties before getting to camp. For example:
- Cook your meal during the hottest time of day so you can relax with minimal clothes; it also helps with keeping animals away at your campsite since cooked food attracts them.
- Brush your teeth and do other chores before you get to camp.
- Camp right before a good climb; this will warm you up in the cold morning.
- Make breakfast from inside your sleeping bag, eat it, and go.
This way, all you have to do is jump into your sleeping bag with all your clothes on.
However, in one week I expect below freezing temps in the Sierra. Although I will keep doing these techniques, the temps will be just too cold for just my GoLite shirt and windjacket. Therefore, I will be using the GoLite Cumulous Down Jacket. It weighs less than a pound, but its down insulation will keep me toasty at 13,000 feet.
Sept 4, 2006