The climb out of Belden was steep and hot, a precursor for what was to come. Across the valley we could see lush pine forests providing shade and shelter for the creatures and visitors that passed below. But where we were was a burn zone. The charred gray remains of trees stood amongst small chaparral bushes, reminding us of the shade that was once there and taunting us as we instead were subjected to the blistering heat of the mid afternoon sun.
After hours of pushing through the inclined frying pan we finally ascended past the burn zone. For the next couple of days we put on the miles under the protection of the forest until lo and behold- the Pacific Crest Trail halfway point!
It was a momentous occasion, or at least it was supposed to be. Halfway done with this crazy journey, yet it just felt like another stop on the trail. Another trail register to sign before I would be on my way to the next point.
As I looked through the pages of the register my apathy wasn’t replaced with excitement, but rather a twinge of sadness started to creep into me. Most of the entries were signed with people’s trail names- nickames given to each other by those met and befriended on the trail. I didn’t have a trail name. I hadn’t made any friends on the trail. The hiking community that had been talked up so much on the forums online was not something I felt apart of. I felt alone and a bit insecure. At the end of the register I signed my name, my real name, “Kyle S. – Acton, MA” and I closed the book and continued hiking.
A couple hours later I caught back up with Dennis. We took a break and had some banter and laughs. He commented on how the amount of other hikers we’ve run into really seems to have dwindled down. “And most of them seem to be hiking alone” he added, “and I would be too if we weren’t hiking together.”
After that talk I felt a lot better. I did have a friend I was hiking with, and a community as well, even if it only consisted of two people. As I continued on that day the feeling of being on a thru hike really started to hit. Up until that point it had felt more like an extended backpacking trip. It took hiking halfway and over 1300 miles to finally feel like the long distance adventure that it is.
Feel the Burn
We made our way to Lassen National Park as we circled the base of a volcano. Along the way we got to see a thermal geyser that spewed steam 100 feet into the air. A small stream flowed out of the bottom of it, steaming and boiling it’s way down the mountainside. At another point was a lake literally named Boiling Lake. The water bubbled and churned and the gurgling and hissing could be heard even at a distance.
The wonders of the volcano wasn’t the only thing coming in hot. We pushed a 33 mile day through the park, our biggest record yet. Along the way we spent several hours in another exposed burn zone. Charred tree corpses created a creepy hallway as they ghastly swayed in the wind. The lifeless and leafless trunks provided no reprieve from hours of afternoon sun as we hiked mile after mile.
At nearly eight o’clock I finally reached Old Station where Dennis was waiting. My body was beaten, my feet sore and numb, and I had run out of water a couple hours before. Unfortunately the promised town turned out to be quite the disappointment. There was one store, and it was closed. I filled up my water bottles from a garden hose in the back and chugged several liters until I could think straight. That night we set up our tents and went to sleep in some grass behind the post office.
The next day we had to wait until 11 for the post office to open. While initially frustrating, we did need the rest so the down time ended up being appreciated. We attempted to hitchhike to a breakfast place a few miles down the road while we waited. For an hour and a half we put our thumbs out as car after car flew by until we eventually gave up.
At 9am the one store in our immediate vicinity finally opened up. They sold some hot food and a small assortment of junk food. As I perused about, I noticed another hiker standing in line. He seemed to be stretching, but in a really odd way. It was almost as if he was leaning back to the point of falling over. A moment later my brain correctly processed what was happening, and to my realization he was in fact falling over. His head hit the edge of a shelf before his body collapsed limply on the floor.
In the next instance every bit of information from my 2 day Wilderness First Aid training came flooding into my mind all at once. I reached for my phone as I tried to pick out the parts I needed from the confusing jumble of procedures that swirled inside of my head, the difficulty only enhanced by the stress of a real first aid situation arising.
As I grabbed my pockets I remembered I had left my phone plugged in and charging in another room. I shouted for someone to call 911 as I ran to the downed hiker. In nearly 80% of the exercises I had done in the First Aid training we had to assume a possible brain or spine injury. The reason being is that a simple fall from an upright standing position is enough to cause one. I understood in that moment the importance of that emphasis. Through the jumbled thoughts I knew the first thing I needed to do was to stabilize the patients head to protect it in case of damage. All this happened in a matter of seconds.
As the hiker came to I explained to him what happened and that it was best for him to stay lying down until the paramedics came who would have the experience and tools to properly assess any injuries. I began to go down the list of the questions I was taught to ask, going in the order that I remembered them as opposed to the order they were supposed to go in. After a few minutes a cook from the store came out of the back and told me he was an EMT. He took over from there until the ambulances arrived.
The hiker was thankfully fine. He had had a pressure point in his shoulder that when he went to stretch it he blacked out. The fall did not cause a concussion and the paramedics left without any additional medical assistance needed. The hiker went back out onto the trail later that day.
Feel the Burn
That afternoon we packed back up and continued onward. Along the way we stopped to check out an old lava flow cave. We walked a quarter mile underground from one entrance to another. We could see where the lava had dripped and hardened on the ceiling. The best part, though, was that it felt like we were in an air conditioned building. If only the rest of the trail could’ve felt like that.
As we marched on, we witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets yet. Huge dramatic clouds filtered reds and oranges onto the open landscape. At one point I came across a doe and her two babies. We made eye contact as volcanic mountains and glistening clouds towered behind them. I followed the deer family off trail for a few minutes where I watched them gallop across an open field and into the sunset.
We awoke the next morning to the rumble of distant thunder. A sunrise as spectacular as the sunset greeted us from behind the distant rain clouds. We were hiking over a section know as Hat Creek Rim and it had a reputation for being hot, dry and exposed. The overhead clouds blocked the morning sun, giving us a false sense of cool temperatures. We would soon learn why Hat Creek Rim had gained such notoriety amongst PCT hikers.
By late morning the clouds dissipated leaving the hot sun directly overhead. The trail was not without trees, but they tended to be off on the edges. It almost felt like the trail was intentionally designed to avoid any and all shade.
Hours went by and I passed other hikers sprawled in the dirt under the few trees they could find. I myself occasionally did the same, the hot sun wearing me down physically and mentally. As the hours neared our final destination for the day, I found myself running out of water. I was rationing a few ounces of water and scourging through my snacks to find anything with a hint of moisture.
The next day was no better. We made it 10 miles where we stopped at the small Burney Falls state park. Tired, sore and wiped out we decided to wait out the heat of the day and hike some more miles that night. We cooked up some hot dogs from the park store and fell asleep under some trees.
The pain was real. Every night I went to sleep my legs would throb and I could feel them pulsating. My feet had been numb for several weeks, something hikers called “Christmas Toe”. A pinched nerve would cause numbness in one’s toes and feet and it would clear by the time Christmas came around. The heat would drain me, just being in the sun for a few minutes would be enough to warrant taking a break. And Dennis was having just as much, if not worse pains.
If it only took three months to hike from Mexico to Canada that would be alright with me. Three months would be enough to experience the newness and excitement. To transition into a routine and hiking as a lifestyle. And then for the shininess to wear off and feel the challenges of pushing through the pain and over the finish line. But instead that last section continues for an extra 2 months.
Don’t get me wrong, I have still been able to find enjoyment out of each and every day. It’s just that the fun-to-pain meter had finally notched a bit over to the pain size. Quitting was not an option though. Canada was waiting and we were over halfway done. The only way to end the trip was to make it all the way through, one mile at a time. So we got back on the trail and kept on hiking. This is the challenge we signed up for after all.
The Key Ingredient
We made our way into the next town, Castella, only to find it’s amenities at the same bare bones level as Old Station. There was a gas station store and an RV park and that was it. My socks had holes in them, my toes were still numb and I needed new insoles, the fabric of my shirt had worn so thin you could see my skin through it. All that on top of needing some rest, showers, and a hot meal. This “town” just wasn’t going to do.
There was a local trail angel that was able to give us a ride into the nearby town of Mount Shasta. There we were able to gorge ourselves on burgers, Thai food, and avocado filled breakfast burritos. It was fantastic. I needed the break too. While doing my errands I felt like I could’ve fallen asleep walking around the stores. I dozed off on the floor of our motel room while packing my food later that evening before eventually climbing into bed.
The next goal was a week away, and it was a big one. Seiad Valley, while it’s amenities were on par with the other towns (it also has a CAFE, so slightly better), it would be the last stop in California. After over three months of hiking through this giant state it was very exciting to be finally reaching the end of it and moving on to Oregon.
The terrain over that week did not give us any breaks. If we wanted to leave California we were going to have earn it. We spent day after day hiking through exposed burn sections. The steepness was comparable to what we had in the High Sierra, only this time it was 95° and humid. Every morning we would wake up ready to tackle the day, but by 3 o’clock moral had dropped to the ground.
About halfway through Dennis and I had to come to a decision to temporarily break up the band. In a couple of weeks I was going to get to spend a few days with my girlfriend who was flying out to see me. A side trip I was very excited about, also one Dennis obviously would not be joining me on.
Before we started this hike, we were unsure how long we would hike together. But we turned out to be great hiking partners, and at this point we had done over 1500 miles together. We had experienced the jaw dropping views and magnificent sunrises together. And we had pushed through all of the pain and hard parts together. We were determined to finish this trail together.
For the second time on this trip we said goodbye. He hitched into a nearby town, looking for some needed rest and to make up for the time I would be taking off with my girlfriend. After that I was hiking alone for the first time since we split while I went home back in the desert. It was sad, but we will back hiking together in a couple of weeks, and at that point it will be the endgame.
I’ve come to realize why it took so long for this trip to feel like a thru hike vs just an extended backpacking trip. The missing ingredient was pain, both physical and mental. A backpacking trip is an outdoor vacation. It’s all fun, pushing your body and seeing some amazing sights. But a thru hike is a challenge, a life experience. Once the shine wears off, the pain and emotions start to set in. It’s in that fight to push through that pain and keep going all the way to the end that makes this an adventure of a lifetime and not just an extended vacation.