My pack was heavy. A heavy pack was a common negative aspect of beginning a section. On top of that, I had to climb up about 4000 feet. 4000 feet really isn’t a lot of elevation gain, especially when it’s spread out over 15 miles. The gentle rise of the PCT almost makes it worse though. All day it’s “up”. There aren’t any little “downhill bits” to break up the monotonous grind. I had started hiking around 11AM, so 15 miles was about all I had planned. It was hot when I started.
If there was any positive aspect that made up for the uphill climb, it was the bleach-white jagged cliffs rising a couple thousand feet to my right. Castle Crags looked like the wall to some tremendous mysterious castle. It was as if a wizard had conjured up some spell that made the rock shoot straight up out of the ground. The tops of the peaks were a random maze of pointed saw teeth. They seemed unimaginably high. As the trail wound up the side of the crags, the view slowly changed. Every time I looked over my shoulder, it was a slightly different scene. Before long, I was above some of the lower peaks, which had previously towered above me. A little later and I was eye-level with the tops of the crags. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky. Sharp shadows redefined the edges of the rocks. I continued my climb. I stopped for dinner at a little stream, not more than a couple hundred yards old.
Wild california pitcher plants called this area home. I had often wondered where these plants evolved. I’d only seen them in exotic greenhouses, where they looked so fragile and otherworldly. Their mission of “trapping and feeding on insects” seemed so difficult that they couldn’t possibly get by without human help. But, here they were. Not abundant, but healthy. I let out a satisfied grin and kept moving.
A little while later Mt. Shasta rose above the nearby hills. The sun was starting to set. The massive volcano was glowing. It would be the last feature of the landscape to see the sun. Later, when everything else was dark, the snowy tip of Mt. Shasta still had a bit of sunny orange glow.
By now, I was looking down on the top of Castle Crags. They no longer looked ominous. They were just another rocky ripple on the horizon. Somehow, when I got above them, they lost all their magical properties. They were still pretty to look at, but they were more like an old friend that was getting more distant with every step. Our whole relationship had only lasted part of a single day. I finally found a nice place to camp on a ridge where the trail finally leveled out. I had entered a new mountain range. The Sierras had slowly faded away, the Klamath mountains were ahead of me. To me, they were the forgotten mountains of California. I didn’t really know what to expect from the Klamath mountains. Castle Crags were a great introduction though. I looked forward to the next couple weeks. I knew that I’d be hiking in the Klamaths until Oregon… Just before I went to sleep, I focused on the far northern horizon. Oregon. It didn’t seem so distant anymore.
The next day, the trail followed a mountain ridge at about 6500 feet. Every half mile, I passed high above deep blue lakes, surrounded by dark green trees. The terrain on the top of the ridge was occasionally forested, but mostly it was bare rock. It was the dividing line between pleasant valleys on either side. The twisted trees growing between the rocks seemed to take the brunt of the wind and weather. Today was beautiful though. One more in a seemingly endless string of sunny days. I continued most of the day on the ridge. At one point I got up to 7600 feet, and had a great view of 9000 foot Mt. Eddy to my immediate north. The sparse trees on its flanks slowly disappeared near the desolate rounded top. The PCT rounded Mt. Eddy and crossed the shore of Deadfall lakes below it. I realized that I hadn’t stood on the shore of a mountain lake in weeks. I passed farther up the trail, and eventually stopped for dinner at a spring. A number of weekend backpackers and day-hikers passed by me as I sat, cooking and eating, right on the trail. Most of them were visiting the nearby lakes, some were taking pictures of the flower-covered hillside, and an older couple had just come down from the top of Mt. Eddy.
I wanted to cover as much ground as possible. It was still about 5 more days until my next resupply. The further I moved, the less I’d have to worry about the distance in front of me. The trail rounded a valley and headed south… yes, that’s right, south, around the side of some more mountains. I finally came to a minor saddle just past Bull Lake. I spent much of the night fishing big black ants out of my sleeping bag. Apparently, I’d set up on top of an anthill. They weren’t bad enough to make me re-locate though. I just let them crawl around until they tickled me awake.
I woke up with only one thing on my mind. Hike. It was life at its simplest. All my concerns were about things that truly mattered. Where is the next water? Do I have enough food? My foot hurts, will it get worse? Is there a flat spot to camp on? During my recent stay in Dunsmuir, I watched some TV in the hotel. I suddenly realized… none of this matters. All the 100 channels of mindless blather didn’t enlighten me one bit. Every time I heard news, I got the same feeling. Even if it was interesting, it really didn’t matter. Sure, some of it would be important 5 or 10 years down the road, perhaps it would even impact the way I lived my life. But true “importance” was becoming larger than any of that. I was spending all my time looking at trees which were hundreds of years old, mountains that had seen eons pass, and a sky that stretched back to the beginning of time itself. Every aspect of humanity paled in comparison. Every day, I was the happiest I’d been in my entire life.
The trail continued on. I was now going generally south. In the distance I got views of some solid white peaks on the horizon, the Trinity Alps. Before long, I was cutting through the northern section of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. At one point I passed a couple I’d seen the day before. They were the ones who had hiked to the top of Mt. Eddy. They looked at me funny, and said “I thought you were hiking north”. “I am”, I laughed in reply. Sometimes on the PCT, you have to go south in order to go north.
The area got more beautiful all the time. The mountains were more rugged, decorated with clear blue lakes and grassy meadows. It was reminiscent of the Sierras, but had a character all its own. The Klamaths were almost the cute little sister of the Sierras – smaller, friendlier and more playful. I felt like could go anywhere I wanted to, but I chose to remain on the PCT. I stopped for dinner on a grassy mountainside. The trail then wound around more high forests, and I started looking for a place to camp. I noticed the fresh tracks of a mountain lion. It had recently walked a few hundred yards down the PCT before jumping back into the bushes. I never saw a mountain lion on the PCT, but I’m sure that many of them saw me – sizing me up as I blissfully walked along the trail beneath them. I finally made it to a small saddle just as it was getting dark. I shed my pack, placed my equipment in a night-time arrangement, and crawled into my bag.
The next morning, I felt crummy. I couldn’t quite place it. I was still in good mental spirits, but something in my body was bringing me down. I didn’t have an appetite, but I ate anyway. I knew that I needed to eat. As the day progressed, I felt worse. I took a lot of breaks. After each of them, it was a struggle to get moving again. At least I was headed north again. Eventually, my mind pulled my body along over a snowy ridge, and I was rewarded with a beautiful sight. I had just entered the Russian Wilderness. I was on the side of a huge alpine bowl. Bright white snowfields made giant patterns across the black rock and green grass. The trail followed the South Fork Russian Creek for a while, then went uphill into the mountains east of the creek. I still felt lousy. I looked at the trail cutting up the mountainside, and just stood there. I certainly didn’t feel like going uphill. Eventually, I realized that I had little choice. I had to go up. I stopped every 20 feet to measure my progress. Finally, I made it to the top of this small climb, wishing that I felt better. This enchanting valley deserved praise, not scorn. The trail wound around the other side of the mountains, and eventually down to secluded Paynes Lake. The Lake was bordered on three sides by high barren rocky cliffs. I decided to take yet another break. I sat on a rock which bordered the lake, hoping that the serene water would make me feel better. I spent some time flicking ants into the water, and watching them swim back to the rock. I saw something odd in the water under my feet. Salamanders were slowly crawling through the water. They were about 6 inches long, and had greyish-red markings. They moved in slow-motion among the lake plants, a carefree 3D life. They appeared like unborn fetuses which had no desire to leave the womb.
My “re-energize plan” seemed to be backfiring, I didn’t want to leave. I was content to just sit there and become one with the rock. It was already getting late, why not? Somehow, the left side of my brain woke up, and realized that I didn’t have enough food to allow me to get lazy. Reluctantly, I left the shore of the lake and continued down the trail. I decided to make it to Etna Summit that night. If I really needed to go to a town, I could find a ride. When I got to Etna Summit, there was only one car there. It was some kind of SUV. A middle-aged couple was sitting in lawn chairs behind it. I walked up and said “Hi” to them. We exchanged a little small talk. They were pleasant, but apparently wanted privacy. The whole scene looked like a Jeep Cherokee commercial, except that I didn’t belong. He’d driven his sweetie up here for a private sunset in the mountains. They’d stopped for Thai food on the way (at the “best Thai restaurant in Northern California”). He was proudly pointing out all the local peaks to her “those are the Trinity Alps on the horizon…”. I sat nearby, behind a highway barricade which shielded me from the cold evening wind. I pulled out my stove and proceeded to make a completely disgusting meal of cheesy corn pasta. I overcooked the pasta and it turned into cement. I didn’t have an appetite anyway. I took maybe two bites and laid there like a worthless lump. At one point, the man came over and gave me some sticky rice and a beer. I said thanks. They were both good gifts, but I didn’t have an appetite for either. They left me there with a heavy full bottle of beer. I didn’t want to carry this thing another 57 miles to Seiad Valley. I hiked a few hundred yards down the trail and plopped down right on the path. I yanked out my sleeping bag, and hoped for a brighter day tomorrow.