Sunday, July 24, 2016

Day 85 : Etna

31 miles today
1053 miles to go

Sometime in the middle of the night the breeze stopped. It wakes me up it's so quiet. Not a whisper, no sounds at all reach my ears. I lay still and comfortable in my bag thinking about what it might mean. Probably that the day is going to be hot. I drift off to sleep again.

I wake as the pale light on the eastern horizon signals the coming of a new day. After two thirty plus mile days I feel surprisingly healthily and pain free. I heat a few ounces of water and pour them into my almost empty pouch of Trail Butter and shake it up. The hot water melts the coconut oil and makes a trail butter slurry that I pour onto my shredded cardboard, instant breakfast, and Starbucks via caffe mocha powder. Super chocolatey! I add more water to make it easier to eat. I am out of granola till resupply at Etna thirty one miles from here.

I pack and start hiking about a half hour later than normal, whatever normal is. There is still no breeze, it's hot already. Everything painted with golden highlights in the glow of the rising sun. Trees, rocks, plants, all are glowing, the world seems to be showing off its golden jewelry. I walk on paths of gold, winding between trunks of trees with golden sashes. 

The trail goes over a rise. I walk down into a darkened theater. The forest canopy above hides most of the sky, the branches are a deep forest green, like dark curtains. The sun gleams from somewhere far behind. Like a spotlight it highlights a singular young fir tree, perfect in its dimensions and branch structure. It's like a beautiful young performer standing on stage just before the music starts. I wait for the music to start. It only plays inside my head. For whatever reason it's Billy Joel singing Piano Man. Over and over again. Wasn't quite the song I expected but now that it's in my head I get to listen to it over and over for hours.

I've been heading south for miles and miles. The PCT reaches a junction with the Bloody Run, a trail with a bizarre name. Sounds steep and dangerous. That's the end of the southing. If I wanted to go further south I'd have to take the Bloody Run. I don't, I follow the PCT north. It's a sudden sharp right hand turn. Bam, I swing around the ridge to the cool blue light of the west side of the ridge and I'm finally head north again. North to Etna, north to Oregon, north to Washington, Monument 78, and finally Canada. Yay! I feel like a milestone has been reached. Yes there is still more California to hike, but it's like eleven thirty on New Year's Eve. Everything is filled with the anticipation of something new. Thoughts of the north fill my mind. People to see, places to visit. Will I be able to maintain my new thirty miles plus pace? Will I reach Canada sooner than planned? 

The day progresses and the miles tick off one at a time. I try to avoid noticing or tracking the miles as that is a sure way for them to get longer and longer. It's much more productive and mile shortening to live in the moment. Capture the wonder of the place I am right now. The trail has been wonderfully graded and smooth. Like a decision has been made and now the trail is serious, like it realizes, “the snow is coming and we've got to beat it to Canada.” It descends down to a seemingly random spot on the trail then, boom, now we are going up. The grade shifts from down to up. I don't know the angle but it doesn't change, doesn't waver. There's clarity in its grade. I know that we are going up for a reason. This isn't a whim, this is a well thought out decision by a trail engineer. Maybe working backward from some spot in the north, the trail need to start going up here so that we reach there at the right elevation for whatever pass or saddle that we are shooting for. It's comforting and reassuring to know the trail engineer was thinking of me when this trail was planned. On and on I climb, it's fairly steep but the grade doesn't waver, the trail is smooth no rocks to avoid. Through the forest, across a couple of dirt roads, higher into the alpine zone. Trees are further apart, the views open up. There is a saddle I walk over and a sign that says Russian Wilderness.

I walk into the Russian Wilderness and the reassurance goes away. The trail is no longer an even grade. I seem to be traversing a slope, a rather steep slope, down. At times the trail turns and starts climbing again. Then it goes back down but steeper than before. There are rocks to trip over and trees to climb over and around. The trail is soft powdery dust an inch thick, it's sliding down the hill. Oh wait we are climbing again. The forest is dark, the trees are thick. On this west slope the only thing that's consistent is that we are going north. I enter a burned zone, everything is burned, recently. Many places there is nothing green at all, it could be the moon except for the dead wood and snags in every direction. The day goes on and on. The sun swings around to the west side. Now it's hot and the shade is minimal under these burned snags. The trail is rocky and exhausting to walk on. When will something change? Has it always been this way? Finally the trail rounds a little ridge and there before me is the trail. Climbing clearly across a burned out slope. Up, Up, impossibly up. Really? That look like thousands of feet up, I can see the top most point where the trail disappears over a ridge top. That looks so far away, that looks so high up. The sun shines down mercilessly on this exposed slope. Hot, way hot! The burned trees and sterilized ground offer no visual enticements to move on. The slopes opposite are also burned. This is awful. Or this is a challenge. I choose the think the second. I take it on. Let's do this thing. The trail surprises me by an unseen fold in the ridge that hides a clear, clean, cold running stream, a vertical oasis flowing down this otherwise barren inhospitable steep slope I'm crossing and climbing. I dip my buff in the cold water and wrap it around my head under my hat. Now I'm ready! Up we go! I climb without stopping, without pity, hard and eyes set like flint on that rock, onward and upward. No pause, no deviation. Everything in my past prepared me for this climb. Every mile every kicked stone. My muscles are taut responsive. I feel powerful and in control. Every fiber in me is focused. To the top! What will I see? What’s next, more hill?

I climb to the vest and over the top. I look down on a valley of desolation. The fire has consumed everything green and living. Everything is in black and gray. Dull lifeless trees with branches drooping down. Bark burned to crispy black flakes are falling from the trunks with the slow decay of time. Where the bark has fallen away the wood is unburned and white, it's like looking at the exposed bones of the dead trees. The ground is bare, rocks, sand, and charred cinders. The trail stands out a different color of gray from the pounding of so many thru-hiker feet. I think back to the fire closure I walked around is Southern California and can't imagine anything worse than this. Why was that closed and this left open? I don't know the answer. But all in all I'm glad to get the chance to walk through this. Wildfire does destroy so much more than trees, it completely eliminates the ecosystem until plants and animals from the surrounding forests can repopulate it, seems like it will be decades. I stop. There in the middle of all this devastation, a small sprig of life. No more than three inches tall, a few green branches reassertion themselves. Death has no power over life. Life always wins in the end, that's what I believe.

Past the destruction, I pass over another saddle, the sterile ground gives way to grasses, then shrubs, then full untouched trees. The green is vibrant and robust. A startling contrast to the gray emptiness a few yards back. This far and no further. Whether an act of God or man, the power and fury of the fire was stopped right there. You can draw a line. A foot on one side of it is sterile ground. A foot on the other side, wildflowers and grasses, life starts here! I follow the path around and up again and finally down, all the way down to the road. Down into the heat. I feel surprisingly good after completing my third thirty plus mile day in a row. A little before sixish. I find Blazer here. He is a strong hiker about my age. I first met him way back in Independence when we shared a hostel room together. He is also blogging for his grandkids. Here we are, no shade, hot dry breeze blowing. The asphalt of the road seems to magnify the heat somehow. Cars? No cars. No traffic at all. How long will we stand in this heat? Maybe until the sunsets, then at least we're out of the sun. It doesn't occur to us that it's Sunday. So regardless of the fact that it's quitting time, it's not a work day. Nobody may come till tomorrow. But somebody does come. Lionheart, the trail angel I met at the market in Castella comes. She's dropping off hikers back on to the trail on the turn out up the road. She's waves us over and we have a ride to Etna. Just like that providence intervenes into our tiny thru-hiker world and saves us from a lonely dry night on an empty road.

I lay in my tent in the camping area at Alderbrook Manor reflecting on This place. They take in Thru-hikers here. For twenty bucks you can camp in the camping area, get wifi internet, loaner clothes, loaners bikes, showers, etc. For three bucks more you can do a load of laundry. Unlike the madhouse chaotic feel of the places south, the vibe is calm and subdued. A total of less than fifteen hikers makes that possible. Everything is easy. Blazer and I hop on loaner bikes and ride to Bob’s for dinner. Cheeseburgers, sodas, salads, milkshakes with the can. We feel good, I feel full. At least until the bike ride back to the Alderbrook Manor. Then I realize that a stop at Ray's Food might have been worthwhile. I could have got ice cream. I settle for some water. It's late I'm worn out. It's warm tonight. Laying in my tent with just my loaner shorts on. Waiting for a breeze. My coach towel covering my forehead and eyes, the only coolness I feel coming from the water slowly evaporating from it. Every now and again a bullfrog croaks in the pond nearby. The pond, though man-made has a thriving scenic aquaculture. A small wooden bridge separates us thru-hiker campers from the lawn and garden around the Manor proper. Reserved for use by the boarders at the Bed & Breakfast. Two of which have decided that tonight is a good night to sit out in the garden and have a heart to heart conversation. I can't hear the couple’s actual words, perhaps romance, perhaps disagreement, their discussion is louder than it needs to be especially this far past hiker midnight. Ear plugs all but mute them completely, now if only a breeze. I drift off, waking later, much later. The moon is casting shadows on my tent. The breeze came, it's cooler now. I quietly inflate my mattress and put my sleeping bag into quilt mode. Agh, so comfortable. Sleep, blessed sleep.

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