PCT SOBO Journal: Ashland to Castella

In this section of my PCT thru-hike, the trio becomes a duo, I cross into California, encounter the unbearable amount of smoke of the summer’s wildfires, and deal with the complications of the Hirtz fire closure.

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Smokey skies in Northern California

Update time!

So, if you’ve been following me on Instagram, then you know I have finished the trail! Even more importantly, with everyone’s help, I’ve surpassed my fundraising goal with AFSP National: over $3000 has been raised towards suicide prevention and mental health programs! I’m so ecstatic, I can’t find the words to thank everyone enough!

My campaign page is still up and accepting donations, so click the below link if you’d like to make contribution:

Donate HERE.

As far as the journals go, I’m doing my best to update them in a timely manner. I kept detailed notes on my journey and at this point, I’m just filling in the blanks.

Thanks again for your continued support and patience.

Day 48: Ashland to Sheep Camp Spring, 23 miles

The smoke in the air is alarmingly thick when we leave the motel room in the morning. Pedestrians walking past are wearing respirators, and the sky is a dreadful color. After Cheesy Puff and Chance mail off a few resupply packages for the Northern California leg, we check out and head towards the freeway to begin our hitch back to the trail. Before we can even cross the street, let alone get to the freeway, a man sitting in traffic is offering us a ride.

Back at the trailhead, there’s a group of familiar and new faces lingering in the gravel parking area. Everyone seems to be stalling, including myself. There’s a climb ahead, as there always is leaving a town, but this time is different due to the air quality and the stifling heat. We get on with it anyway, and my lungs sting from the stale brown smoke of wildfire.

Everyone stops briefly at a picnic table and spigot near a charming little cabin. I eat a slice of pizza leftover from the night before, and fill up on water. My chest aches, and my legs feel like jelly under my heavy-with-resupply pack. Why must food and water weigh so much?

We cross meadow for some time, occasionally finding some relief from the heat when the trail leads us beneath forest canopy. A grouse wanders up the path in front of me for some time, then panics suddenly and flees into the dense thicket of the meadow.

We decide to make camp at Sheep Spring, just a few miles short of the California stateline. There’s no sheep here, however, but a herd of cows grazes on the hillside below us; their bells ringing softly. The piped spring is frigid and clear, and so soothing on feet and face on such a stuffy evening.

I collapse in my tent, dozing in and out as some northbound stragglers arrive and loudly make camp. Thankfully, it’s not enough to bother me and I fall asleep quickly.

Day 49: Sheep Camp Spring to Cook and Green Pass, 25 miles

We rise before the sun, and under the cloak of the early morning dark, I still can’t make out how smokey the atmosphere is. When the sun bursts up over the hills it makes a fiery entrance, setting the sky ablaze with neon layers of orange and magenta. It’s magnificent, but the beauty fades once it clears the hilltops and the sky returns to the depressingly drab beige of smoke and pollution. After topping off our water from the spring, we finally make our way out of Oregon and into California.

The border between states is perched on a slope, with tall trees surrounding us and a simple wooden sign that reads: Oregon/California. We sign the register and sit in the dirt for a bit, snacking on chips and candy. We’ve come a long way, and very quickly. I’m proud of our progress and I’m feeling rather elated with my accomplishments.

Signing the trail register at the state line

Not too far into California, while nearly skipping from my happy high of entering a new state, I trip on a rock in the trail and I’m sent airborne. I land on my bad knee, and although I’m a bit scraped up and bleeding, the inner workings of my joints don’t seem to be failing. Cheesy Puff is nearly falling over from laughter at my unfortunate flight, and Chance has arrived on the scene looking confused. We have a short break beside a creek, where I wash my knee free from the crusted on blood and dirt, and eat my feelings with a fudge Pop Tart.

The rest of the day is rather grim, traveling through recently burned forest that resembles a scene from a horror film. Everything is charred, black and brittle, making creaking noises during the occasional breeze. The smoky sky masks the sun, and we walk along in silence across the macabre scene.

We camp beside a dirt road, just in the edge of the burn and where the forest is green again to the south. There’s also a piped spring here, down a spur trail in the woods. I collect water and rinse my socks, and then defend my rice and beans dinner from a slew of aggressive hornets. After I’m cozy inside of my tent, some more hikers arrive to make camp after dark.

Day 50: Cook and Green Pass to 2nd Bridge of Grider Creek, 27 miles

In the morning, we break camp and I head down the spur trail to the spring to fill up on more water. When I arrive back at the camp, Chance is taking off up the trail ahead of Cheesy Puff and I. The two of us set off a few moments later, but never catch up to him.

We have a bit of a climb through the woods, before the trail gives way to a rocky ridgeline with gnarled manzanita shrubs lining the path. The wind has picked up and cleared the air, revealing blue sky and mountain peaks in the distance. We have a bit of a break at the top of a mountain, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the view.

The descent towards Seiad Valley is long and tedious, and hard on my achy knees. The trail winds down endless switchbacks that’s overgrown with prickly plants, which pull at the flesh on my legs as I hurry past. We encounter a few more northbound hikers, dawdlers who are now behind the pack.

When we reach the bottom, in the valley, Chance is there waiting for us. We have a long road walk ahead of us, and in this stifling midday heat, I’m really not looking forward to it. Thankfully, in between the agonizing stretch of pounding pavement, we have a stop at the Seiad Valley Store for resupply and lunch.

I grab my resupply box from the general store, and then we enjoy some lunch, as well as an impressively big milkshake, from the attached cafe. We linger in the shade of an oak tree for a bit more outside at the picnic tables, then press on to continue our road walk back to the trail. Road walking is grueling work, and I can feel my feet swelling with every agonizing step.

We pass several homes on our way back to the trail, in which a lovely lady greets us from her front garden and we make idle chat about hiking. In front of another ramshackle house, a herd of ankle high dogs rushes at Cheesy Puff. She deters them, though, with a pointed finger and a stern ‘NO!’

At the end of our long road walk, lies a primitive campground beside Grider Creek. It’s here that Chance announces his intentions on staying here for the night, and that he wishes to continue on solo from here on out. Cheesy Puff and I are obviously a bit floored by this, but a request to ‘Hike Your Own Hike’ must be respected. After soaking our tired feet in the creek below a bridge, and filling up our water bottles, we go on, leaving our friend behind. The trio is no more, and is now only a duo.

A quick dip in Grider Creek to cool off and rinse out the socks

The climb away from the creek is a somber one, but we know we’ll likely see him again on this journey. For seven more miles we wind up switchbacks, and then settle into a tight little tent site near another bridge over Grider Creek. After we set up our tents, I power through half of my bag of Cheetos and some cold soaked ramen for dinner. Cheesy Puff then trips over her tent and it goes down with her, and I can’t control my hysteria.

The sound of the creek lulls me in and out of sleep, but my emotions are high from losing a member of the team. It’s a restless night, but knowing that my other dear friend is nearby comforts me.

Day 51: Grider creek to Ridge Camp Above Summit Lake, 25 miles

Climbing is the name of the game today, and we get to it early. Up we go, steadily gaining several thousand feet through lush forest that eventually gives way to another burn area. There’s poison oak everywhere, creeping into the trail covering the slopes that the trail hugs. We do the poison oak shimmy, turning sideways to give our passage a wide berth and avoid the noxious weed. After powering through a few thousand feet, we arrive at a shaded cowboy campsite, with a cold flowing spring in the neighboring meadow. The spring is shallow, but clear, and swarming with honey bees and wasps. A yearling deer digs at the ground, unfazed by our presence and enjoying its salty treat that was likely a urination spot of a passing hiker.

Climbing is less fun when it’s hot and smokey
Bambi has a taste for pee
Smoke sits below us, in the Seiad Valley

We eat lunch in the shade, warding off aggressive hornets and the ever curious yearling. I cram down a tortilla wrap with Spam, cheese and mustard, a couple of handfuls of gummy bears, and camel up with a liter of cold water mixed with Gatorade. Feeling satisfied, but dragging our feet to leave, we continue our climb up into the hills of the Marble Mountain Wilderness.

At the top of the climb, we finally have a casual meander through meadows filled with purple thistles and the occasional blue-green alpine lake. The white, rounded cliffs of the mountains make for spectacular views, and a gentle breeze cools the back of my neck. Our last water source flows near a patrol cabin, and we stop briefly to fill up before our last push to camp. A mother deer and her fawn graze in a patch of trees. I make a cup of cold brew coffee, and release my tired and hot feet from their shoes and socks. It’s quiet and comfortable in the shade, and I’m tired and ready for bed.

We pass through another, somewhat small burn near the top of a ridge, just enough to get the sweat flowing off our foreheads again and for our feet to swell up. Thankfully, our chosen campsite is in a patch of forest that was spared by the fire. We have a view of Summit Lake below us, as well as the surrounding white marble mountains and forest. A Swiss thru-hiker arrives and makes camp near us as we’re having dinner.

In the night, I’m awakened suddenly by the stomping of an animal near our tents. I lay still, listening, and then shine my headlamp outside to see. Glowing eyes stare back at me, but it’s only a deer, and I sigh from relief and go back to sleep.

Day 52: Ridge Camp to Creekside Camp, 25 miles

The morning starts off with more smoke-filled skies, climbing through the blackened remains of forest, and the realization that we’re fresh out of snacks. It’s not an emergency, of course, as we have enough food to get us through until Castella. But salty junk food is a luxury that gets us through the day; much-needed calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates that release the feel good endorphins in our bodies. Snacks equal much needed bliss.

As we trudge along, we decide that if a ride is offered to us at the highway crossing ahead, we’ll head into Etna for a couple of hours, fill up on chips, ice cream and possibly a beer or two.

The terrain is scorched, following a high ridge that looks out across the boneyard of a once thriving countryside. We reach the top of a mountain, where things are green again thanks to the steady flow of water into a number of lakes. I fill up on water, enjoying the community of salamanders that are swimming in a small pond near the trail.

The smell of smoke grows faintly stronger when we enter the basin of a series of lakes. There’s a large family here, with the father stoking a campfire. Cheesy Puff comments that there’s a burn ban in effect, but they assure us that they have a permit. The entire west coast is on fire and they feel it’s necessary to have a campfire, during the midday heat? The situation leaves us dumbfounded, and shaking with anger. And the patronizing eye roll of the father nearly reduces Cheesy Puff to tears.

We reach the highway crossing in the afternoon, and not surprisingly, there’s no traffic. Cheesy Puff and I sit beside the highway, along with fellow hiker Twig, staring off into the valley before us. It’s dead silent, no wind, and no cars coming up the winding mountain road. Just as we’re about to give up hope though, a pickup truck appears. A man tells us to jump in the back, so long as we don’t mind riding with a dead deer. We scramble in, squatting to avoid soaking our clothes in blood.

There’s a first time for everything, I guess.

Once in town, Cheesy Puff and I head to the grocery store and stock up on Doritos, crackers and some powdered Gatorade mix. I chug a soda down, and our friend Plants shares two vegan ice cream bars with us. We head to the brewery next, where we eat a couple of sandwiches and enjoy the beers on tap. Another familiar face, Wip, arrives and joins us for a pint. We decide to hitch back to the trail together, and get a few more miles in before dark.

We try hitching beside the road, and near the town cemetery. Across the street is the Hiker Hut, a favorite hostel among the thru-hikers, and the owner stands out front eyeing us. A couple of cars pass us, and the hostel proprietor makes his way over with a coy grin smudged across his face.

“It’s difficult to get a ride back to the trail, you know. If you’d stayed with me, I see to it you get transport back…”

But before he can finish, a pickup truck pulls over and its driver is motioning for us to jump in the back. We scramble in, and are off in no time; it’s one of the quickest hitches I’ve ever had.

The dullness of light when we return to the trail says we have little time to get our miles in before night fall. We hustle up the trail, darkness chasing us through the woods and giving way again when we reach a high ridge. The sky is on fire again, red and heavy under the weight of the impending sunset.

Back in the woods, the three of us stumble through the dark and into a campsite alongside a creek. It’s pitch black now, and a voice calls out to us. It’s Plants, cowboy camping in a small bivy site beneath a tree. We find an even larger clearing nearby, and Cheesy Puff and I throw down our things onto our ground sheets. We’re too tired to pitch our tents, and settle in for a night of cowboy camping like our neighbor. There’s no bugs, thankfully, and I fall asleep quickly.

Day 53: Creek Camp to Cobra Lily Meadow, 30 miles

I wake up freezing cold, with Cheesy Puff whispering that it’s time to get going. I try to be respectful of my fellow camp mates, and pack up quickly and quietly, but it all still feels as if I’m creating a ruckus. The two of us hike a couple of miles in and then stop to drink some coffee and eat Pop Tarts for breakfast. The sky is magenta and purple, and the shadowy figure of Mount Shasta is cutting through the neon haze. Suddenly, Chance appears and offers a simple ‘good morning’ before disappearing around the corner.

The trail winds up and over hillsides covered in manzanita that claw at my bare legs as I pass. Unseen cattle wander nearby, their bells give away their presence and ring a gentle tune, echoing in the valleys and forest.

Cheesy Puff and I spend the day ascending and descending, rinse and repeat. The smoke on the horizon is thick and obstructing any possible views of the mountains. I’m feeling a bit sad and lonely, and as though it’s wrong to be here on the trail. I’ve taken Chance’s decision to hike solo very personally, and I’m terribly homesick as well.

Midday, we meet a couple of equestrians at the top of an exposed hill, along with their horses and lovely little border collie. They ask us about our journey and offer us some red licorice, which we gladly accept and wolf down.

Near the end of the day, we sit in the shade of a boulder in a scree field and eat potato chips and Oreos, trying to drown out our sorrows in junk food. My feet are tender and sore, and I’m covered in dirt and spots of dried blood from the vicious manzanita attacks. Wip comes around the corner eventually, and we decide to push on the 4 miles to the next camp.

The camp is in a large meadow, and happens to be a spot where I pitched on my NOBO thru-hike in 2016. It’s a bit more dry this time around, with brown grass and the remnants of a creek running through. However, just up the trail is a beautiful flowing spring, that’s surrounded by the carnivorous plant Californicus Darlingtonius, also known as a Cobra Lily.

The moon is bright on this night, and the color of honey. A comforting breeze rushes through camp and into my tent, but my mind is full of nagging thoughts of relationships and home, and sleep doesn’t come easily. I try to message home, with weak single-bar service, but I get no responses. It’s Sunday, and I imagine everyone sitting together at dinner, laughing and then curled up watching television. I miss it, all of it, and I desperately try to convince myself that this adventure is worth it.

Day 54: Cobra Lily Meadow to Porcupine Lake, 34 miles

I wake up when it’s still dark, but the moon is shining right into my tent. I’m feeling better since the night before, having cleared my head a bit with some sleep. The rustling noises I make while packing wakes up Cheesy Puff, and we get going before first light, our dim headlamps leading the way.

The morning is clear, with no haze veiling the bright blue sky. A cold wind has pushed the smoke away, and is keeping us comfortable as we go. After an initial climb, the trail levels out and offers easy walking nearly all day.

We stop at a spring to have lunch, and Plants, who was just behind us, sits with us. We sit in the sun, warming our backs and admiring the views of jagged granite mountains that are sprawled out before us.

By late afternoon, I’m feeling sleepy and we linger around Deadfall Lake for some time and finish off our bags of potato chips. We start a steady climb from there, passing up and over a red rock saddle, and back into the smoke.

My throat hurts now, having been huffing and puffing in the thick gray air that has settled into the valley and all the way up to the peaks. I feel positively ill when we roll into camp at Porcupine Lake, having completed a 34 mile day. We’re both caked in dirt, with matted and wild hair, and pink faces from too much sun.

After a good wash in the lake, I devour my dinner and head to bed, cuddled beneath fluffy down and feeling fresh for the first time since Ashland. Just as I’m about to fall asleep, an obnoxious bird begins its call, and Cheesy Puff and I can’t control our giggles over its strange song. I turn the airplane mode off and get a signal, and scan the PCTA website for fire information. My worst fear has become apparent: the trail has been closed just ahead of us due to fire, which explains the sudden thickness of smoke in the late afternoon. There’s nothing to be done now, so I clear my thoughts and lay my head down.

The late afternoon fills with smoke

My impressive hikertrash tan lines

Day 55: Porcupine Lake to Castella, 32 miles

Cheesy Puff and I wake up in the dark; it’s still an hour or so before the sun comes up, but we want to make it to the tiny town of Castella by late afternoon. The Hirtz fire closure has complicated things a bit, and we’re left with a bit of uncertainty as to whether we need to wait it out or go around. We hike off into the dark, with the glow of sunrise shimmering on the horizon.

Once the sun is up, the situation seems much more dire than expected. The sky is gray with smoke, and ash flutters down. With every mile we gain, it becomes harder to breathe. My eyes sting and my lungs feel as though they’re on fire. To make a worse, there’s little to no water in this stretch, and the heat is agonizing.

The trail descends for some time, under the scorching sun. We enter oak forest, dipping in and out of dry gullies where a flotsam of gnats swarm our faces. They don’t bite, but seem keen on just being flat-out annoying and Kamikaze diving into our noses, mouths and eyes. There are momentary lapses of sanity, and I want to scream bloody murder at the smoke, heat and gnats.

Cheesy Puff and I stop in a gully, shaded by trees and with cool pools of water from a once flowing stream. I wet my bandana, and immerse my head under the water; instant relief! After a few snacks, we continue onward, with the sound of the freeway in the close distance. Who knew such an awful sound could have such allure? The sound of traffic meant civilization, after all, and that also meant food that wasn’t in a package with a year-long shelf life.

I’m growing incredibly frustrated by the last few miles, which are a rollercoaster route of ups and downs and increasingly thick smoke. The two of us are walking with bandanas covering our faces now, and I want to just curl up and cry. We finally reach the road, where the I-5 freeway passes overhead us. We opt to take a residential road into Castella, but there’s little traffic for hitching except for the hurried firefighters speeding along. Finally a local picks us up, driving us to the convenience store another mile or so up the road. I suspect he’s drunk, and his rants about his ex-wife make me uncomfortable, but we make it in one piece anyway.

A smokey day on the PCT

We’ve decided for a couple of reasons to bypass the Hirtz fire by hitching to Redding, mainly to avoid the closure and the smoke inhalation.  After reading the current status of the fire, it seems it won’t be open until sometime in October, so there’s no waiting it out. I collect my resupply box from the store, and buy a fresh peach, deli sandwich and an ice-cold soda.

We attempt to yogi a ride from the gas station, but no one seems to be going south, or in one case, a man wasn’t going north or south (even though those were the only two options). The look of fear when Cheesy Puff approached motorists at the pumps was almost comical, as they likely had no idea what the PCT was and probably thought we were vagrants. I pointed out that her bloody nose might be scaring people, and we laugh before heading down to the freeway on ramp to give that a go.

A woman eventually picks us up, and offers us a round of beers.

“Heading to Redding? I’ll take you!” She’s so nice, and agrees to drop us off at the In ‘n Out Burger in downtown Redding.

At the In ‘n Out, a couple of people approach us while we’re in line, and hand us cash. They ask how the trail is going, and we’re so grateful for their generosity. After devouring our burgers, fries and milk shakes, we head to the Motel 6 a few blocks away and get a room for the night. There’s no sense in trying to hitch now, as it’s after dark, and a hot shower and bed sounds amazing after the long day we’ve had. Besides, the trail will be there waiting for us tomorrow.

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The very best trail magic
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2 Comments

  1. Stephen Keire

    Very glad to hear you got past the fire-threatened sections, was worried when the Garner, Hirz, Delta and Donnell complexes got big. Great snaps of Cobra Lily Meadow, the frog is endearing and the shot beneath the bridge was entrancing, as moving water always seems to be. Trust Heel the Sole saw you through.

    Good on ya-and Cheesy Puff-your daily mileages are inspiring.

    Like

    1. Staci "Artemis" Anderson

      Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for reading my trail journals. I think I may have been the only hiker that was seriously excited about the cobra lillies, Haha. Yes, ‘Heal the Sole’ did me well, as did the Runner’s High lip balm with SPF. And I think I forgot to mention in my earlier journals, my feet stayed warm in the Altras, even when wet, in Washington when traipsing through the snow.

      Like

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