On another scorchingly hot afternoon I made my way to the last town of California all alone. In just a few more days I would be crossing into Oregon, the first state line I would walk over since I started at the Mexican border 4 months earlier.
Some of the locals might’ve insisted I had already crossed into a new state, the State of Jefferson. Back around World War II, a section of Northern California had attempted to secede and become their own state. Then Pearl Harbor happened and focus diverted away as most of the region’s men went off to war. Nonetheless flags and signs declaring themselves the State of Jefferson remained throughout the small town and its outskirts. There was even a “border patrol” for the “state”, what they were patrolling was beyond me.
The next morning I began my literal climb out of California. I had to start early, before the heat of the sun would bear down on what would be 9 miles straight up through another exposed burn zone.
This became my routine for the next few days. Wake up early and get as much done in the coolness of the morning as I made my way through burned forest after burned forest.
The difficulty of this section didn’t just come from fires of previous years, but from active ones as well. Even though none of them were within a dangerous distance of the trail, the sky was completely filled with smoke.
The views were nearly gone as the haze of smoke filled the entire region with a thick white fog. I felt it in my lungs and in my stomach, as if in a constant state of breathing in second hand smoke. Between this, the exposure through the burn zones, and the steep elevation, I was really missing having Dennis to complain with at the end of the day.
As the countdown to the Oregon border became closer and closer, the charred landscapes started to turn green again. Shade from the trees provided a much sought after relief from the sun. Even more than that was the morale boost brought on by the life of the forest.
I finally found myself approaching the long awaited border, a line drawn by men hundreds of years ago that was otherwise meaningless to the whims of nature yet held so much significance to those who embark on this hike. Unlike the midpoint which left me apathetic on arrival, this border felt like an accomplishment.
After 102 days, I had hiked the entire length of the state of California. Entering into Oregon also signified nearing the end. It would only take a handful of weeks to finish this state and be on to Washington, which truly would be the final stretch. It was a little sad to be enjoying this moment alone though. I had been hiking with Dennis since the Mexican border, it felt weird not to be celebrating together as we crossed this milestone. I would be meeting back up with him soon though, so the celebrations would have to wait.
Time to Sit
A few days into Oregon I made it into the city of Ashland. It was an oasis I had been looking forward to, I hadn’t taken a day off since my family had visited over a month earlier. On top of that, almost all of the “towns” since then had maybe one restaurant to choose from, if I was lucky.
My body was more than ready for the break. I rented an AirBnb I spent my time eating and watching Netflix on my phone in sweet, sweet air conditioning. I did make my way into town for a few hours where I ate more and went to a movie by myself. It was awesome.
Unfortunately the air of Ashland was just as thickly filled with smoke as the trail was. People on the streets walked around with masks on to protect their breathing. I talked to several locals who commented on how in all the time they’ve lived there, this has only become a recent phenomenon. I was only a visitor to this, but to them a summer of smoke had become the standard.
Not long after getting back on the trail I found myself once again hiking in burn zones. The smoke had thickened to a fog that not only hide all views, but even obscured the charred trees just a couple hundred feet away from me. I felt like I was hiking through a ghost town.
One night I camped in one of these burn zones. The ground was brown and barren, devoid of any vegetation. The sun burned red though the smoke, feeling like sunset hours before it was supposed to. Everything was silent except for the creeking of dead branches and a ghastly wallow as the wind funneled through the desolate environment. I was sleeping in a graveyard.
Forest fires are part of a healthy ecosystem. Or rather they were. Long periods of drought followed by an increase in severe lightning storms is causing damage faster than the forests can keep up. I was walking through the effects of climate change and it depressed me. These beautiful forests are being destroyed more and more, and at the rate we are going at the Pacific Crest Trail will look very different in a few generations.
It’s not just nature that’s at stake here. Talking with the locals and hearing the news of the fires spreading across the west coast, there are communities and lives at stake. Towns are burning down, citizens are spending every summer breathing in smoke, people are dying.
This isn’t some hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, this is a real crisis that is already affecting us. So much irreversible damage has already been done, and more is inevitable. But we can stop this. Everyone has to do their part now, because if we keep waiting there won’t be much of a planet left to keep fighting over.
For me there was a light shining through the smoke, and that was a visit from my girlfriend, Jessie. She was meeting me at Crater Lake National Park, just a few days from Ashland. I hadn’t seen her in over 2 months and I was so excited to get to spend some time with her.
As I got closer and closer to the park she was sending me texts with updates on her flight status. New England was having severe thunderstorms, causing major delays in takeoffs. She ended up missing her connection, having to sleep on a bench in the San Francisco airport, and catch a flight to Oregon in the morning.
Despite the flight issues, it ended up being the smoothest trip we had been on together. Previously we had a trip to Puerto Rico cancelled due to a hurricane; a trip to New Hampshire where I pulled my hamstring days before and it was too cold out to even use the hot tub; and then a ski trip in Colorado where we got into a car accident on day 1 and spent the rest of the trip recovering.
After a delayed but gleeful reunion we drove up to Portland for the weekend. We had a wonderful time, sightseeing through Oregon’s forests, wandering the trendy streets of the city, and eating some amazing food. It was a short but wonderful trip.
Jessie dropped me back off at Crater Lake. After a tearful goodbye she was off on her way back to Boston and I was back on my way towards Canada. Part of me wished I could go back home with her, but I have to finish. The end was coming closer and closer.
A few miles into hiking I met back up with Dennis. Other than a brief day of feeling sick, he was doing well. He had taken some rest while I was with Jessie, and his body was thanking him for it. It was good to see him again and I was glad to have a hiking partner again.
The hike made it’s way around Crater Lake, providing what should have been spectacular views. Instead the dense smoke of the region continued to fill the air as the day went on. When Jessie had dropped me off it was hazy, a few hours later the lake was completely gone. We couldn’t even see the ground at the bottom of the cliffs we were standing on.
The further north we pushed, the more the smoke decreased a bit. The views were still faint, but after a few days we could at least see the mountains right in front of us again.
We started hitting record mile days- 32, 34, 35 miles a day. The terrain was easier than what we had been on, and our bodies were adapted to thru hiking at this point.
Our pace needed to stay fast now. We were on track to finish mid September, and there was a strong drive too keep us to that schedule. Around then is when the Washington rain switch is flipped. It’ll be sunny all summer long, but once that switch flips it won’t stop raining. While rain is what happens in the valleys, in the mountains that rain becomes snow. We did not want to be hiking in snow.
The weather wasn’t the only motivation to go faster. I wanted more time with my girlfriend and to see my family again. I wanted to be able to give my body the rest it needed and to take regular showers again. I even missed the little things, like being able to pour milk out of a carton instead of rehydrating it with pond water.