I’d walked on a lot of pumice fields already, but the pumice field north of McKenzie Pass was the bleakest one I’d seen. Hardly any life broke through the dark brown rocks. They stretched for miles in every direction. The tread on the trail was loose – with every step, the pumice shifted and crunched. Walking on this stuff was a real workout. After almost an hour of labor, I made it to an area just east of Belknap Crater. Soon, I was out of the worst of the pumice, and back in the forest… and snow. I skidded over the snowbanks at a vigorous pace, I felt like I had to hurry to make up for some long breaks earlier that day. The pinnacle of Mt. Washington was getting closer all the time. I took out my camera to get a picture, and… aaah! I’d run out of film. I couldn’t believe it. I thought I had a ton of film with me, but it was all used up. My next stop wasn’t for another 4-5 days, and I was headed into one of the most scenic sections of Oregon. I decided almost immediately that I would have to hitchhike out at the next road. It may delay me by a day, but it was worth the hassle to avoid future frustration.
I cursed myself as I passed under Mt. Washington. The evening sun was hitting it just right, and I all I could do was commit it to memory. I tried to convince myself that a simple memory was more personal and zen-like, but it didn’t help. I was a film addict.
I finally made it to the flat north slopes of Mt. Washington and pulled out my sleeping bag. I was just settling down when I noticed a couple people further in the bushes. I walked over and said hello. They were two young men planning to climb Mt. Washington the next morning. It was a technical climb, and they had all manner of ropes and metal apparatus. They said it wasn’t too difficult, but they’d never done it before. I wished them luck and returned to my camp.
I woke up with one thought on my mind – make it to a town and get some film… dummy. But I was also out of water, and that was a priority. I had just passed a dried-up spring, and I noticed that there wasn’t any water source on the trail for a while. I’d have to take a side route to Big Lake and the youth camp run by the Seventh Day Adventists. I’d heard good things about the camp – they were supposed to be friendly people. But, I just wanted to get my water and move on. I arrived at the camp, which was a sprawling compound of buildings on the shore of Big Lake. I wandered around, confused, looking for a place to get some water. A man called out to me and pointed me in the right direction. There were a lot of buildings, but the place looked pretty dead. A couple kids playing basketball, a man watching them, and that was about it. I got my water and started heading out. I didn’t want to carry all my heavy water any farther than I had to, so I looked for a place to prepare some milk and cereal. I got to the road-entrance of the campground, and there were cars parked everywhere… where were all these people? I sat down on a nice rock in the parking lot and ate my breakfast. Just when I was getting done, a young man came up and started talking to me. I figured he’d either ask me to leave, or start quoting the bible, but he was just interested in where I was hiking. After a minute or two I mentioned my film problem, I figured maybe some of these cars were going to head back into town. He told me that they had a camp store which sold film, they were going to open in about an hour. Perfect! Sure, it was just film, but it was darn important to me. He invited me to come have breakfast at the cafeteria. I’d just eaten, but I always had room for more.
It was pastor retreat week. All the seventh day Adventist pastors from all over Oregon were here eating breakfast. Some of them had their children with them. They were serving delicious pancakes (with tons of fixin’s), cereal, and other yummy meatless items (I learned that most of the Seventh Day Adventists were vegetarian). All the people there were exceedingly kind. The man who’d invited me in was a pastor. He also led hiking and climbing trips for kids that came to the camp. He was planning to climb Three Fingered Jack either today or tomorrow. The store finally opened, and I bought three rolls of film. Re-energized and happy, I continued on my way.
I walked through about 5 miles of scrappy flat dry forests which were criss-crossed with dirt roads. Finally, I popped out at Hwy 20. The clouds had been thickening all morning, and I finally got a good view. The sky was dark in patches all around me. I really didn’t want to hike in a thunderstorm. I was headed up Three Fingered Jack and didn’t want to become a cold wet lightning rod. So, I took a break and tried to figure out what the clouds were doing.
While I was there, Yosemite John showed up. We quickly realized that we were standing on the 2000 mile mark of the PCT. Time for the 2000 mile commemorative photo. John decided that he didn’t like the look of the clouds, and started hitching to the town of Sisters. I noticed the patches of blue sky getting larger, and figured I’d take my chances. I headed up Three Fingered Jack.
Halfway up, I passed an exhausted group of teenagers. They were sitting under the shady trees, trying to re-energize themselves. They were planning to hike to the top of the mountain…. eventually. About 20 yards later, I passed a smaller group of teenagers who looked in much better shape. “Have you seen our friends?”, they asked. “You mean those people right over there?”. I pointed down the trail. They’d been waiting here for a half-hour, oblivious to the fact that their friends were resting only a few footsteps away.
I finally came out on the bare western slopes of Three Fingered Jack. The rough irregular pinnacle of the mountain was 1600 feet straight above me. I was walking on snowy slopes, trying to keep my balance while swatting at swarms of tiny black mosquitoes. I stopped to get some water, and had to run in circles to avoid significant blood loss. I finally made it around to the crest of the ridge and had an impressive view of the north face of Three Fingered Jack. It was a vertical cliff, painted with horizontal bands of red and brown colors. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad here, so I decided to stop and eat dinner. A small family of weekend backpackers passed by me. I told them why I was eating here and invited them to join me. “Hmmm, that sounds like a good idea.”, the father said to me. His son wanted to stop and eat too, but they moved on after a few minutes. Either they weren’t interested in good ideas, or I smelled really bad.
I headed down the mountain and back into the forest. I passed an older couple doing some trail maintenance. They were sawing through a foot-thick log with a hand saw. I think they’d spent the entire day on that one log. They told me that the trail up ahead was completely clear. There were blowdowns all over the place. They were a really nice couple, but I had to wonder if they had it together.
I headed back up a to a mountain ridge on the way to Mt. Jefferson. I passed a group of Outward Bound kids headed the other way. They were looking the part – feathers in their long hair, natural wooden walking staffs, beat-up backpacks… they looked tired. I kept going up and passed a group of 4 old men camped at Rockpile lake. I asked them if they’d heard a weather forecast. “Oh, we don’t know, we’ve been out here for 3 days!”, they proudly explained. It was early evening. They looked confused when I told them I was going another 4 or 5 miles. They told me the trail up ahead was clear. About 100 yards later, I ran into a 10 foot vertical bank of snow… what trail had they taken?
I continued on across an expansive high mountain plateau. I would have camped there, but I realized that it was going to be an awesome sunset – I wanted a better view. The clouds from earlier in the day were still above me, but the western horizon was clear. When the sun went down, it would illuminate all the clouds in the sky.
I passed by South Cinder Peak and did a double take. There was somebody camping out on top, about 600 feet above me. The person’s silhouette was plainly visible against the pale evening sky. We waved our arms to acknowledge eachother’s presence. That person was going to have a private first rate view of the sunset, I was jealous. There was another minor peak a mile up the trail. I raced to get there, cursing at the occasional snowbank which impeded my progress. I finally made it to the area and found a good place to camp right on the trail. I ran up the nearby hill to my west and soaked-in the setting sun. The entire sky turned a deep red. Mt. Jefferson was just to my north, a perfect pointy pyramid covered with splotches of snow. The red sky illuminated the mountain, giving it a martian appearance. Just before it got completely black, I headed back down the hill and set up my tent. The area was mostly barren and comprised of pumice and gravel. As the evening changed to night, the clouds got thicker. The sun was no longer around to keep them in check. As the air cooled, they grew and filled the sky. I heard distant thunder to my southeast. The wind picked up and rocked my tent. By 10PM, it started raining. I was busy trying to hold my tent in one position. I finally had to go outside and find some heavy pumice rocks to weigh down the flapping nylon fabric. I wondered how the person on top of South Cinder Peak was faring… there was a price to pay for a sunset that good. The storm never got too bad though. The clouds rained themselves out, and the lightning never got closer than a few miles.
I awoke to a magnificent scene. Mt. Jefferson was waiting quietly to my north, the sky was blue and the air was clean and crisp. I continued my trek around the ridge which led me always closer to Mt. Jefferson. The trail often disappeared under the snow. I had some problems finding it, but I managed… for a while. I headed down to a broad saddle. The trail split in three different directions here, but everything was covered in thick snow and I couldn’t find the junction. I headed in the direction which seemed right. After a quarter mile of cross-country hiking across steep snowy hills, I realized I was well above the trail. I headed down a steep forested slope and eventually ran into it. The trail led me in and out of the snow, over to a few isolated mountain lakes. Then it was time for 1500 feet of downhill. The forest got thicker and older as I went down. I was walking among huge Douglas Firs, 6 feet in diameter and hundreds of feet tall. It felt like the trees were here only by the work of divine magic. I realized that if all these trees fell over, they’d create a jumbled mass of wood a hundred feet high. In a sense, I was walking below the living earth high above me. I eventually made down to Milk Creek and headed back up the mountain.
The climb up was a lot different. The sun was beating on me, and the tall bushes which surrounded the trail offered no relief. I just put my head down and trudged along. I made it to Russell Creek faster than I had anticipated. Russell Creek was a minor dirty torrent fed by glaciers high up on Mt. Jefferson. The river basin was made of nothing but drab gray boulders. I could see all the way to the top of the mountain – a giant slope of volcanic ash and boulders ending in dirty white glaciers. At the top of it all was a steep gray cliff to the tip of the mountain.
The trail climbed more, then leveled out in a large flat valley called Jefferson Park. Jefferson Park was odd and beautiful. It just didn’t seem to jive with the geology I’d become accustomed to. What was a green grassy valley full of lakes doing here? The best I could figure, it was a giant saddle between 10,497 foot Mt. Jefferson to the south, and the 7000 foot mountains to the north. I stopped to cook a meal at a little pond in the “park”. I spent most of the time just staring at Mt. Jefferson above me. There was enough intricacy and magnificence to keep my mind occupied indefinitely.
Too soon, it was time to move on. I headed north, straight at those 7000 foot mountains. Almost by sheer luck, I came across the trail, poking out of the snow and heading up. As I got higher, the terrain got more bleak and snowy. It reminded me of the mountain passes in the Sierra. Water was flowing everywhere from the melting snow. The trees were getting more and more sparse. Every time I turned around, I had a higher angle of view back at Mt. Jefferson. I spotted new ridges and glaciers that weren’t visible from below. I finally got to the top of my climb at 7010 feet. I took one last look back at Mt. Jefferson, it seemed larger than ever. I then turned north, and headed down a broad snow field.
The trail was completely gone under the snow. Faint footprints were visible, but they offered little help. I spotted a couple small lakes and headed for them – the trail was supposed to be there. Someone had done a lot of work in this area, giant piles of rock were erected every few hundred yards, guiding trail hikers in the right direction. I arrived at one of these piles and saw a steady stream of footprints heading straight ahead. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw a tiny bit of trail in the other direction. Those poor fools… they’d probably spent hours lost up here after making that one mistake. It was getting late, but I wanted to get out of the snow before nightfall. A lot of the snow was steep, and I wanted to take advantage of the evening softness which allowed me to get a foothold. All this snow would likely freeze during the night.
I plunged ahead, around bent trees and bushes, still encased in snow that had fallen 8 months ago. I finally managed to get down to Breitenbush Lake. There was supposed to be a shelter there – that sounded pleasant. I discovered that somebody had essentially “moved-in” to the shelter. Some overweight former high-school metalhead had his junk and clothes and beer cans scattered all over the place. His pickup truck was parked nearby, and he had a huge coleman dome tent erected there. I think he was spending his days fishing in the lake. I pitched my tiny tent across the campground road, and waited for the morning. It had been a long tough day.
I headed out around 9AM the next morning. I hiked through a little more snow, but it quickly passed and I was back in the forest again. I was heading through the miles of rolling mountains and woods which separate Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood. I soon came to Olallie Lake. This was a place where many hikers had resupply packages waiting. I didn’t have a package there, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for some snack food. The girl who worked there told me about all PCT hikers who’d passed through before me. I knew almost all of them, it was nice to hear that they were all doing well. While I was there, Nathan and another hiker, Michael, showed up. They had left Elk Lake a day after me. I had been hiking fast, so they must have been hiking at an completely insane pace – 30-35 miles per day.
A 9-year-old girl and her mother approached us. The girl was interviewing all the PCT hikers that came through for a big school report. We had a great time answering her questions. She was a real sweetheart.
A few minutes later Denny showed up in a car. He’d taken a few days off in Portland, and had to get back there in about two days for another appointment… he had to get moving. So, the four of us took off with Denny leading the way. I hike fairly fast, but I had a real hard time keeping up with Denny’s crazy pace. We blazed through the rolling forested hills of north central Oregon. I hadn’t hiked “with” anyone for quite a while, so I talked and talked… blah blah blah… probably drove everyone nuts. By evening, we’d gone about 20 miles from Olallie Lake, and arrived at a spring. It was already dark. I was ready to just cook a meal and call it a night, but the others wanted to keep going after eating. I wished them well as I pulled out my sleeping bag.
I woke up in a thick dark forest. The blue sky was barely visible through the tops of the high trees. I hiked a couple miles down the trail and came across a couple who was camping with their two dogs. They had started hiking south from northern Washington a couple months ago, and told stories of immense impassable snowbanks. They asked me if I had any rolling papers or cigarettes (I didn’t). They had so much stuff with them… I don’t know how they had even made it this far. I kept hiking. Miles of monotonous beauty rolled by.
I walked along the shore of 2-mile wide Timothy Lake, which had a road along the other side and boats zooming back and forth – getting nowhere. I stopped at the shallow northern arm of Timothy Lake to take a quick dip in the water. Unfortunately, I got more dirty than clean. The surface of the water was covered with fuzzy seeds and dead insects. As I got out of the water this gunk clung to my skin in a uniform distribution. I don’t know why I did that. I did my best to rinse off, and kept hiking. A short while later, I arrived at a spur trail to Little Crater Lake. Looked like a good place to cook a meal.
Little Crater Lake is an artesian spring. It’s a deep shaft about 20 yards across, fed from the bottom by some of the clearest spring water I’d ever seen. The “lake” was 45 feet deep, and the bottom was clearly visible. The cold water was an incredible fluorescent shade of sky blue. I’d never seen anything like it. Even the “real” Crater Lake wasn’t this blue, and that’s famous for its pristine color. I sat under a nearby tree and cooked my dinner, made with water from Little Crater Lake. Yum!
I wanted to get as close as possible to Timberline Lodge that night. I headed up more forested hills (which for some reason had multitudes of mosquitoes) and finally come out to a ridge which offered views of Mt. Hood to my north. I hadn’t seen the mountain since I was on the slopes of Three Sisters. Then it was a tiny point on the horizon. Now, it was a massive volcano only a few miles past a green valley. I could see all the land between me and the mountain, and how it slowly changed as it rose up the steep southern slope. I was now pretty anxious to get to Timberline Lodge – 6000 feet up on Mt. Hood. It had been a while since my last resupply. I crossed Hwy 35 and headed into the woods on the other side. The ridge I was hiking on led right up to the mountain.