The hike north out of Seiad Valley was reported to be one of the most grueling of the trail. I didn’t find it difficult. Sure, it was a lot of climbing, but it was mostly shady and the ground was soft. As I kept going, the sky got more and more hazy. The wind picked up, and clouds started rolling right over the tops of our heads. I’d had almost 2 months of continuously sunny weather, so this was actually a treat. Clouds… wow! I knew the Oregon border was about 30 miles away. I kept peeking over the hills to north… is that Oregon? That may seem a bit silly, but I’d been walking in one state for over 3 months. I’d had it with California.
I finally got to an area somewhat shielded from the wind, and set up my tent. It looked like it might raining any moment. 40 feet above me, huge gray clouds were rolling past. They were getting thicker all the time. There wasn’t much I could do about it though. I just huddled in my tent and hoped for the best.
There were a lot of hikers all bunched together in this section. They had all been in Seiad Valley, and all left the same day. In the early morning, I was treated to a PCT hiker parade, streaming by my tent: Jim, Ishmael, Heiko, Free, Michael, Brian, Rebecca, Laura… I finally decided that I should get moving. I packed up my stuff, and headed out.
It hadn’t rained the night before. The sky still looked about the same this morning. I thought maybe we’d get lucky – if it wasn’t getting any worse, maybe it’d get better (fat chance). I walked along the tops of mountains at about 6000 feet. They sky was a thick gray slab just above my head. All the valleys below had pockets of low morning clouds in them. The mountains rose out of the clouds like so many dark green islands. I was walking in a narrow band of cool clearness, biding my time before the moisture closed-in and crunched me.
In the early afternoon, I got to the border. There it was – A big wooden trail sign and a metal box which contained a trail register. All the hikers who had passed me in the morning were there. Everyone was jazzed. I read through the trail register and saw notes from others I’d hiked with. They were here 3 days ago, 6 days ago, 10 days ago… a slow progression of excited hikers entering a new state. This border was out in the middle of nowhere, and it was all ours. The only people who passed through here were those hiking the PCT. I felt like a member of an exclusive club, I had just finished the first initiation ritual. I couldn’t wait to get moving and actually “be hiking” in Oregon. I left after about 20 minutes at the border. Another 20 minutes later, it started to rain.
It didn’t just rain though, it downpoured, it hailed, lightning was striking far off peaks, the temperature had dropped at least 20 degrees. I put on my parka, and covered my backpack with a plastic garbage bag. I had sent my guitar home in Seiad Valley, so at least I didn’t have to worry about that. The cold wet wind froze my fingers, and the hail stung them as they gripped my hiking poles. It was like a 1-2 punch, and I was getting knocked out. I finally huddled under a thick tree with a couple other hikers. It couldn’t hail and rain this hard for TOO long. We had to laugh, “Welcome to Oregon!”. It was almost as if nature had held back her fury just long enough for us to get out of California. There had to be a higher consciousness at work here, the timing was just too perfect. 2 months of nothing but blue skies, then 20 minutes into Oregon and blamo!
The hail started to ease up, so we headed out. It was still raining hard, but we could cope with that. The trail formed a neat little trough which held the water. Streams were flowing down the mountainside, cutting across the trail every 5 feet. We splashed through the cold water, hoping that this wouldn’t last too long. About 45 minutes later, we got a break. The rain stopped for a little while. The sky didn’t show any sign of clearing up, but at least it wasn’t coming down on us. A little further down the trail we were presented with a new problem.
A big snowbank was blocking the trail. At first look it didn’t really look like much… the terrain was gentle, and the snow wasn’t steep. But, on the other end, it dropped almost vertical for 10 feet. Again, this wasn’t terrible, but there just wasn’t any easy way down. None of us were carrying an ice axe anymore. I tried my best to dig my sneakers into the snow. I got halfway down. Just when I thought I’d made it, I slipped. I fell down the rest of the snow and kept going down the wet loose gravel below it. I stopped just in time – another foot and I would have been impaled by a sharp broken tree trunk. I was a little scraped-up, but OK. Another hiker, Michael, was just behind a group of 4 of us. We convinced him to throw his backpack down the snow wall. He threw it into some trees. It broke through the trees, and rolled down the mountain. It kept rolling and rolling and rolling. It nearly stopped a couple times, but then it kept rolling some more. Michael was at the top of the snow, pathetically screaming “Stop!”. I felt bad, but it was pretty funny. He finally made it down and retrieved his pack. Nothing was damaged.
I kept hiking around the hills. Already, the terrain seemed different. Beside the fact that everything was wet, everything was just more green than before. The trees had more, greener lichens and moss on them, the grass wasn’t brown and dead. Before long, I saw the first beargrass I’d seen on the entire trip – a big fluffy tuft of grass with a single 3-foot-high stalk capped in white flowers. I’d only seen this plant before during my hikes in Washington. It was like seeing an old acquaintance. I finally stopped at a little stream to cook dinner. It was the last reliable water for about 7 miles. A few other hikers soon joined me – Brian, Rebecca, and Laura. I took my time enjoying my dinner on the slope of gravel and grass. Just as we were all packing up, the rain started again. It wasn’t as furious as before, more of a slow steady cold pounding. I had the feeling that it wouldn’t go away quickly.
The four of us had a quick meeting of the minds. We came to two conclusions: 1-“this sucks.”, 2- there was a little backcountry shelter about 2 miles ahead, half a mile off the trail along a forest road. We all decided to head for the shelter. It was already 5PM, none of us had any problem stopping a little early. We got to the road, and went down toward the shelter. As we got close, we realized that something was going on.
There were cars, trucks and trailers parked all over the place. Huge 6 person tents were erected here and there. The shelter was enclosed with blue plastic tarps. We could hear little kids inside. My first thought was… great, some boy scouts have “reserved” the shelter, and we we’re out of luck. But then I thought, how could they possibly turn us away? We looked pathetic. Wasn’t it a duty of scouts to help those in need… or something…? Just then, a kid came running out. He took a look at us, ran back inside and yelled “It’s some hikers!”. By the time we got near the shelter, we were greeted by a chorus of friendly faces all saying “Hello!”, and “Come on in!” at the same time. Just when we thought things were bad, we stumbled into paradise.
It was a family reunion. Every year, on the first weekend in August, the Saltmarsh family (and a bunch of other related families) came out to this shelter, 20 miles from the nearest paved road. It was a long tradition in this extended family. Generations of Oregon natives were represented. The family had even helped build and repair parts of the shelter. They said that a few hikers usually came by during the reunion. They also said this was the worst weather they’d had in years. They were an incredibly generous and hospitable bunch. I immediately felt comfortable. A huge fire was roaring in the fireplace. We all huddled around – it was perfectly hot. They had food and drinks set out everywhere. They even brought a gas grill with them. I was handed two of the fattest burgers I’d ever seen. A generator was thumping away outside, and lights were strung along the ceiling. They’d obviously had a lot of practice at this. There were people everywhere, and every one of them was happy. I thought I’d died out in the cold rain, and was now in heaven – it was just too perfect. I spent the night in the shelter listening to stories of river rafting and elk hunting, gossip about the local townsfolk in Medford Oregon, and remembrances of relatives now passed. The family seemed somehow interconnected with the land – this place was a true home. They weren’t some fly-by-night-california-transplanted-“forever from somewhere else” bunch, they were the real deal. This was the american spirit in flesh and blood.
I kept awake for the last of the conversation and slept right by the fire, warm and dry. The cold windy wetness outside seemed a world away.
Early the next morning, the grill was fired up. Before long, massive portions of bacon and eggs and potatoes were everywhere. I ate all I could and said good-bye. I was invited to stay of course… a bunch of them were going to shoot muzzle-loaders in the afternoon. But, the rain had stopped, and I felt I needed to get moving. The other hikers I had arrived with were already gone.
Everything was wet – the ground, the trees, the plants, even the air. Cool puffy clouds whisked by at eye level. I was hiking up through more deep green hills, moist rocks, tall dark forests, and open ledges. Occasionally, I’d be on the “wrong” side of the mountain, and have to tuck my head to avoid the blowing winds. But usually, I was able to walk peacefully down a soft misty path made from forest duff.
Hiking in the cool air was actually rather pleasant. It was like natural air conditioning – a perfect way to get rid of the excess heat generated by my body. I didn’t need to carry as much water, and I was perfectly insulated in my tight polyester shell.
The second half of the day was all downhill. The trail made a long winding path down to I-5 – about 20 trail miles from the shelter. After a little while, a country road appeared to my right, then houses in the distance. Finally, I could hear the continuous hiss and rumble of I-5 somewhere through the mist. I got down to a frontage road and looked at the map. It appeared that I was to follow the road a mile north, then cross I-5 on a bridge. The route took me right by a local restaurant which served the upscale crowds from Ashland… 10 miles up the interstate. I figured I’d treat myself to yet another nice meal.
I entered the restaurant. My filthy, wet, greasy body contrasted with the clean carpets and organized tables. They gave me a table in the back corner (I couldn’t blame them). The bartender wore a black and white monkey suit. He stood, utterly bored, under racks of clean wine glasses. Bottles of every imaginable liquor were behind him. Scattered throughout the dining area were neat middle-aged couples, quietly discussing their business. A way-too-mellow jazz trio was setting up along one wall. I started chuckling to myself. So, this is “high society”… these people think this is the highest evolution of “a good fun evening”? I thought back a couple nights to the Wildwood in Seiad Valley. Now THAT was fun. These people here didn’t have a clue, they seemed to think that money and service would make them happy and content. It just made them stuffy. I had some sort of shrimp dish, my bill was $20. It was really good, but not nearly as good as the pizza I had at the Wildwood – I had paid for that by cleaning the kitchen. The parallels went on and on…
I finally left, and looked at my map for section “B” of Oregon. What the hell? The trail was 2 miles the other direction up the road. I shouldn’t have even been here. Damn. As I started walking back up the frontage road, a couple hippies in a VW minibus pulled up. “you need a ride into town?”. “No, thanks”, I replied. As soon as they pulled away, I regretted my response. Doh! I hadn’t planned to stop in Ashland, but I could have easily had an excellent time there. Oh well, a good time was always waiting for me on the trail ahead.