Rattle me timbers! (PCT Days 98-103)

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“Holy Sh**!!!” Adrenaline surged through my body as I danced five steps backwards, “Snake!” My first impulse when I saw the giant snake in the trail was to go backwards, but the only part of the snake I’d actually seen was the tail. From my new vantage point I realized that by going backwards I’d actually brought myself closer to the snakes head. “Holy sh**” I definitely didn’t want to do anything that would bring me closer to the head of a rattler!! I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. It hadn’t rattled at me, maybe it was just one of those snakes that imitated a rattlers patterning to confuse it’s prey?

The snake was stretched out diagonally across the trail with it’s head partly obscured by some oak leaves. It was so incredibly big that I couldn’t take in both the head and the tail of the snake in the same glance, so I slowly scanned the snake from head to tail. “Wow!” It seemed even bigger now that I really looked at it, and it was Definitely a rattlesnake… And not a young one either, it had a full set of rattles… I counted at least 10!

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Rattler. Rattler. Rattler! I had expected to run across bears on this stretch of trail, but not rattlers. Sure I knew that there were rattlers in Northern California, but I was in a shady pine and oak forest (mile 1473), not the sunny, rocky, exposed terrain where I expected to see rattlers.

Not only was this the first rattler I’d seen in 1000 miles (the first one since the Mojave desert), it was also the biggest rattler that I’ve seen! I was standing three or four feet away from it as I went through these contemplations. It still hadn’t moved, it still hadn’t rattled, and it was still in the middle of the trail. I was going to have to go around it, and now that I thought about it, I decided that I’d really like to be a little further away from it right now!

Since the rattler was splayed across the trail with it’s head pointed towards the southeast, I stepped off of the trail and went a few paces down the steep incline to the left (in a northwesterly direction).

Since I was a little further away now (and felt safer), I took a moment to admire the rattler and snap some pictures. It was different than the rattlers I’d seen in the desert. It looked greener than the Mojave Greens, and the black and white stripes on its tail extended from the rattles across at least a third of its body, , which was much further than the diamondbacks of the desert.. It was Absolutely gorgeous, as long as I was a good, safe distance from it.

“No, na, na, na, na, NO!” The snake had finally decided to move and it was moving the wrong way! It was supposed to continue moving to the southeast, the way that it was pointing, but that wasn’t what it decided to do. It decided to move towards me instead! It’s cold, golden eyes staring at me as it moved.

Suddenly I was feeling a lot less safe! Without breaking eye contact with the rattler I started to take a step backwards. As soon as I began moving the rattler gave one curt shake of its rattle, “bzzzzt!” Even though I’d seen lots of rattlers on the AT in Pennsylvania and in Southern California, this was the first one that had actually rattled at me! I got the message loud and clear. I wasn’t supposed to move while the rattler was moving.

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I stood there watching it, transfixed, as it’s body curled over itself and it headed to the westside of the trail where it stopped and coiled itself next to a log less than a foot from the trail. *sigh* This meant that I was going to have to try to go around it again.

After making sure it was all settled in and not moving I tentatively climbed back up to the trail. It watched me as I moved, but didn’t rattle this time. How was I going to go around him? I decided that hiking around him in an arc on the uphill side of the slope was the way to go.

As I started to hike around him he pulled out his rattle and gave it another curt shake. “Bzzzzt!” Ok, it was communicating with me clearly and efficiently… I was too close. I took a step back and made a broader arc up the hillside. This was apparently acceptable since he didn’t rattle at me anymore, though I was still unnerved as his head tracked my every step.

I made it back down to the trail and glanced back at the rattler. It was still there, watching me. I was reluctant to turn my back on it, but I had to… I took a deep breath, turned, and briskly walked away.

As I continued hiking towards McCloud River I was in a state of shock and disbelief… That was a HUGE rattler I’d just seen. Would there be more? I didn’t know. Though I’m not a parselmouth like Harry Potter, I congratulated myself for surviving my encounter with the rattler, and for understanding what it was trying to communicate to me.

“BZZZZZZZZZT!” Another rattler! Was I being punished for my hubris? Clearly it was too soon to be congratulating myself for handling rattler encounters well. “Bzzzzzt!! Bzzzzt! bzzzzt” This rattler wasn’t stationary or quiet. It was making lots of noise, and it was on the move. I’ve never seen a snake move so fast before in my life! It came flying down the hill above me, and then, when it got to the trail, it turned and headed towards me, still moving incredibly fast. “Bzzzzzzt!”

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“Aaaaaaaaaaa!!!!” I screamed. Not the scream of a child, not a scream of pain, but a scream of pure adrenaline-fueled terror. The adrenaline surge from the last rattler encounter hadn’t dispelled yet and here was a second rattler less than an hour later (mile 1475). What do you do when a rattler is speeding down the trail towards you (other than scream)?

From my last rattler encounter it seemed like a bad idea for both the rattler and the human to be moving at the same time, so I decided to stay put, right where I was. I was pretty sure that the rattler wasn’t coming for me, but I wasn’t sure where it was headed and I didn’t want to accidentally get in it’s way. If I stayed perfectly still it would just go around me and continue on its way, right?!

“Bzzzzzzzzzzzt!!” Here I was, playing chicken with a rattler. I didn’t like this game, I didn’t like it one bit! But I didn’t know what else to do.

“Bzzzzt!!” It continued rattling and coming towards me. Thankfully, at the last minute, it made a sharp righthand turn off of the trail and down the hill into the brush. “Bzzzzzzzzzt!!!!” It continued rattling until it was thoroughly ensconced in the bushes 10 feet below the trail.

“Phew!” It hadn’t been coming after me. I took a deep breath and realized that I’d been holding my breath ever since the rattler turned towards me. I watched it as it moved through the brush, slithering over or under branches at will. I’d never really watched a rattler navigate through complicated terrain before… It was fascinating. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was another big rattler (10ish rattles), but this one seemed to be more golden colored than the previous one. As I watched, the snake finally arrived at its destination, a hollowed-out log. It lifted its head up, looked inside, and then completely disappeared into the log.

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Suddenly I understood why it was in such a hurry, and why it was so grumpy. It was hungry, and I’d gotten between it and the meal it had spied in that log. I could relate since I get cranky if something gets between me and my dinner too!

Despite feeling like I might have some understanding (post facto) of the rattlers behavior, I was still feeling really shaken up. 2 rattlers in under an hour? Would my day continue this way? I wasn’t sure how many rattlers I could handle in one day without melting down. For the first time since Glen Pass I really wished that I wasn’t hiking solo… I didn’t want to be alone, and I didn’t want to be on this stretch of trail anymore. 2 rattlers in under an hour?! Why? What was different? Was this what Northern California was going to be like? Suddenly the trail felt like a scary place… My trail… My home… It wasn’t supposed to be scary!

I took a deep breath… I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to continue seeing rattlers at a rate of 2 per hour… I’d seen rattlers before, I’d probably see them again, but this was unusual. Also, I’d survived both rattler encounters without being bitten… Chances were pretty good I’d be able to avoid getting bitten in the future too. Besides, I was almost down to the river where I could take a nice long lunch break and collect myself.

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I continued hiking (it’s what I do!) and made it the rest of the way to the river without encountering anymore rattlers! Instead, what I found were 3 fellow thru-hikers (Blue Skies, Freckles, and Jawbone) and some amazing trail magic! After a quick dip in the river to cool off, Freckles’ aunt and her friend handed me a plate full of fresh, home-cooked food and a margarita! The food was amazing, and a margarita and good company was just what I needed to calm my nerves and regroup. After spending a few hours with my new friends at the river I was ready to face the trail again. Sure, there were rattlers out there, but there were also amazing people and views and new adventures awaiting me!

I was still a little bit jumpy as I headed up the trail, but my focus had shifted, there was poison oak everywhere… Since I was wearing a short skirt I was paying very close attention to all of the green plants by the side of the trail… Even though I’m not sure if I’m allergic to poison oak today definitely wasn’t the day I wanted to find out.

“BzzzzZzzzzzzzzt… Bzzzzt… Bzzzzzt!” Another rattler!

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“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you! I’m working on it!” I replied. My first rattler encounter I’d remained silent, the second rattler encounter I’d screamed, for the third rattler encounter I’d decided that if they were going to try to communicate with me, I would return the favor!

“Bzzzzzt…. Bzzzzt” I thanked the rattler for letting me know where he was. He was right, I hadn’t seen him until he started rattling. He’d been in the trail ahead of me, but covered by poison oak and other greenery (mile 1483). As soon as I head the rattling I took a couple of steps in the opposite direction and then turned to figure out where the rattler was. He was half coiled on the slope right above the trail. I don’t know rattlesnake physics, but it seemed like he’d have a pretty good striking distance with the mechanics of his position. He was slightly smaller (7 rattles) than the other two had been, and seemed slightly darker in color.

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To get around this one I stepped down into the ditch below the trail, carefully avoiding the poison oak, and didn’t return to the trail until I was well past him. He was still watching me, and I him, but we both seemed rather bored with the interaction, so I turned and headed back up the trail.

I was exhausted and it was getting late, so I checked my maps and started looking for a place to camp. The next campsite sounded perfect (mile 1487.0)! It was up the hill and around the corner from where I was, and it wouldn’t take me long to get there.

About a quarter mile from the campsite I heard some rustling in the bushes and the sound of branches breaking. I was either closer to the campsite than I thought, and there was a person in the woods, or there was a bear between me and my long-awaited campsite…

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I rounded the corner and sure enough… Bear (mile 1486.73)! “You’ve got to be kidding me, 3 rattlers and a bear, all in the same day!” It was unreal. I watched the bear with it’s golden fur as it ripped apart a fallen log searching for grubs. He knew exactly where I was… He’d turned to look at me when I rounded the corner, and after a moment of slow and thoughtful consideration decided that the grubs were far more interesting and returned to his log. I watched him for a minute before he tired of the grubs too and ambled down the hill, across the trail, and into the bushes on the other side. He was still making lots of noise as he foraged for grubs, but at least he wasn’t on the trail in front of me anymore, so I was able to keep hiking.

When I finally got to my campsite I could still hear the bear in the distance. I sighed. Even though it had been a long day, I couldn’t camp here… Not with a bear so close… I just wouldn’t be able to sleep. There was another campsite a little over a mile away, so I decided to push on… I could be there in 20 minutes or so… That wasn’t too bad.

Dusk was approaching and I was getting tired as I slowly and carefully picked my way through the poison oak encroaching on the trail. After about 10 minutes of picking my way through the poison oak you’ll never guess what I spotted in the trail a few feet ahead of me…

I stopped short. “Really, really?! Another rattler (mile 1487.22)?” I marveled at the absurdity of my day, 4 rattlers and a bear… I couldn’t believe it. In response to my utterances of disbelief the rattler finally figured out that I was there. It lifted up it’s head to look at me and lifted it’s tail to start rattling at me, “bzzz…”

I cut him off mid-rattle, “oh come on, why bother rattling at me? I saw you first, way before you had any clue that I was here… Is that really necessary?” I’m sure that the rattler had no idea that I was chastising it, but maybe it figured no one could hear it rattle with me chattering on, so it tucked its rattle away and slithered out of the trail… Wow! It was another really big snake. I counted 13 rattles before it coiled up and tucked it’s rattle underneath itself.

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“Dammit!” The stupid rattler had decided to coil itself up about 6 inches from the trail! I couldn’t safely pass it on trail, and the hillside was really steep both above and below the trail making it really hard to go off trail to avoid it. I stared at the rattler grumpily. I’ve heard lots of other people say that they’ve just flicked the rattlers away with their trekking poles… I looked at the massive rattler, and I looked at my trekking pole… Then I looked at the poison oak covered embankment. Hmmm… None of the options looked good, but to get enough leverage to flick the rattler down the hill with my trekking pole I’d have to get a lot closer to it than I felt comfortable with.

Hmmm…. I looked back over at the embankment… There were tracks where a bear had gone up to a tree above me, if I used it’s tracks I could avoid the poison oak and get around the rattler… If I slipped on that dang embankment I would end up covered in poison oak and less than a foot away from the rattler… There was only one solution… No slipping.

I grumbled at the rattler as I climbed up the embankment, went around the tree, and descended back down to the trail on the other side. I begrudgingly glanced back at it one more time before once again setting off for my campsite.

As I hiked the last little bit to my campsite I decided that if there was a rattler in my campsite I was going to kill it, cook it, and eat it for dinner… I was done with rattlers for the day! I was going to camp at the next tent site no matter what. I’d already had enough adventures for one day!!

When I finally got to my campsite it was beautiful. The sun was setting and the moon was rising, all amidst bright pink clouds… And do you want to know what was even better? There was neither sight nor sound of rattlers or bears anywhere! I pitched my tent, curled up inside, and went to sleep. What a day!

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Rattler mile 1473.07
Rattler mile 1475.20
Rattler mile 1483.20
Bear mile 1486.73
Rattler mile 1487.22
Bear mile 1494.63
Bear cub mile 1504.6

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For more information about California’s Rattlers click here!
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Extra Credit (rattlesnake physics): What is the spring constant for rattlesnakes? Does the stiffness of the rattle contribute to the mechanics of it’s striking distance? What are the advantages/disadvantages of fully coiling versus coiling in an ‘s’ shape? How are striking distances modified on steep embankments?

Extra Credit (cooking): Do you have any advice for cooking or preparing rattlesnake for dinner? Favorite rattler recipes? If you are on private property in California is it legal to have the rattler in your campsite for dinner? How about Oregon?

Where there’s smoke… (PCT Days 95-97)

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As I hiked up the hill leaving Baum Lake I started smelling smoke… It smelled like campfire smoke. Who in the world would have a campfire when the temperatures were in the 90s in July in Northern California during a drought? Didn’t they know that this place is just primed and ready to burn! Over the course of the next half mile or so the smell of smoke got stronger and I got grumpier. I was preparing to give the campers with the fire a stern talking to, whoever they were.

As I approached the crest of the hill I started to see smoke, but no signs of people anywhere! As I got even closer I saw plumes of smoke rising out of the bushes about five feet to the left of the trail. I leaned my hiking poles up against a nearby tree and then pushed through the bushes to check it out. This was not good… Not good at all!

There was a patch of ground covered with forest debris that was smoldering… It looked almost like the coals of a campfire that someone had tried to kick to break up, but more dispersed, and definitely no signs of a campsite… This was something different… Something that I’d never encountered in the woods before… It was an unintentional fire of some kind.

It was a patch of earth roughly 3 feet long and 3 feet wide with a dozen or so charred/smoking sticks and piles of leaves in it… There were no open flames, and it wasn’t spreading quickly. I tried to kick dirt over one of the small smoking piles and then tried stepping on it to put it out, but that didn’t come even close to subduing the smoke. This was going to require more water than I had, and more water than I could easily get. I needed help dealing with this thing. It was still so small that it didn’t seem like it warranted panicking (at least not yet), but it was Northern California, in a heat wave, in a drought… This thing needed to be contained and soon.

It looked like there was a road just up the hill from me and I thought I heard some kind of vehicle up there and maybe a radio. I called out, “hey, there’s a fire down here, is anybody up there?” But I didn’t hear a response so I started bushwhacking up the hill towards the road to find help as I pulled out my phone. My friend hotshot would know what I should do, so I tried calling her… I was pretty sure she’d just tell me to call 911 and get the fire department out there… She didn’t answer… 911 was next on my list…

As I got to what I thought was the road, I instead found a bunch of bulldozer tracks criss-crossed with fire hoses. A fire hose was exactly what I needed!! Well, that and somebody that knew how to use it! I heard another radio squelch… The fire department was already here, somewhere nearby… I just needed to find them.

As I starting walking towards the squelch I saw a very happy sight indeed, a fireman turning the corner and walking towards me with what looked to be another thru-hiker by his side. “There’s a patch of the forest smoldering by the trail,” I exclaimed.

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He nodded, “are there any flames yet?” I replied, “no, not yet… Just charring and smoking.” As I led the way back down to the scorched, smoking earth, the fireman explained to us that there had been a fire in the area yesterday that burned 68 of the adjacent acres, so this was probably just a spot fire that had escaped from the bigger fire. That made sense and explained why they were already in the area.

After we showed him where the fire was he thanked Easy Bee (the other thru-hiker) and me for our help, and for taking time out of our hikes to report the fire and followup on it. He then called it in to the rest of the crew who were going to get water and deal with this mess.

“Where is the trail from here?” He asked. We both pointed to the trail five feet below us. I then asked him a question that I’d been meaning to ask my friend hotshot for a while, “what should we, as hikers, do if/when we encounter a forest fire?”

1. Write down your GPS coordinates if you have them (halfmile’s apps will give them to us).
2. Call the local fire department or 911 to report it.
3. If you don’t have cell service make sure you get the GPS coordinates of the location of the fire, and the next time you get cell service call it in to report it.

If it is a small fire (like the one I encountered), he said that you can try to kick a perimeter around it down to the bare earth (it’s ok to include bushes within that perimeter if you need to). He kicked about a foot an a half to two foot wide buffer of cleared earth around the fire and said that that was likely to keep it contained. Even if you do that, still call it in.

If you come across a campfire that someone has unsuccessfully tried to put out, call it in. Chances are you won’t be able to completely put it out either. He said it’s funny the number of times they end up coming to an abandoned campfire site and find a note from a hiker saying they tried to put it out (signed with their trail name).

If there’s a large fire on the trail he said the biggest thing you need to do is keep your wits about you and pay attention to the wind directions. You want to go whichever direction the wind is coming from because it will be whipping the smokes and flames the other way. He said that usually you can tell just by looking at it which direction the fire is moving in… Don’t go that way, even if it means that you have to go back the way you came from. He also said that most fires around here burn to the northeast, so if you’re unsure which direction to go, you’ll probably be best off if you hike in a generally westerly direction. Avoid canyons, ravines, or anyplace that funnels the wind because that will also funnel the fire. Lastly, if you circle behind the fire, your best bet may be to walk along the edge of the section that has already been burned and charred… You know that that section isn’t going to burn again, even if the wind directions change.

I thanked him for his advice, and headed back up the trail. I hope that I don’t encounter anymore active burn sites on the trail, but at least I have a better understanding of what to do now if I find another fire.

p.s. Last night I saw another section of trees go up in flames in the valley from the overlook I was sleeping at. Be careful out there! For anyone near dunsmuir today:

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official news about the fire

Addendum:
I finally got a chance to talk to my friend Hotshot, who said:

“Only thing I would add to his ‘escape’ advice is that around here fire is often slope driven, not wind driven, going uphill from a fire can be really dangerous… No one can outrun a fire uphill.”

“Also, be careful walking through old burns… Fire weakened trees can be blown over pretty easily so try not to take a break or set up camp under them & keep your head up when you are hiking through a burn scar in the wind!! Welcome to west coast crazy:)”

Chomp, chomp, chomp! (94&95)

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“Snap! Crack! Boom!” Sure it was the 4th of July, but this wasn’t fireworks. It was 5:30 am and we were in the middle of a pine forest. “Crash! Boom! Bang!” The noise was startling and loud, and was a constant grinding/gnashing sound in the background. It was incredibly disconcerting, and it was getting closer!!!

We could hear it, but we couldn’t see it. What the heck was it? Where was it? Where was it going? Was it coming for us? It was just so loud and it sounded like pure destruction… It was downright scary.

As the sun continued to rise we saw the aftermath of whatever it was littering the forest floor. It wasn’t like the logging and lumbering areas we’d seen before. There, the stumps of the trees had cleanly cut edges, and so did the remaining felled logs. Here, there were plenty of stumps but they looked like they had been chewed up by a giant and then spit out all over the forest floor… It was really weird, and all of the shredded tree bits were fresh… Not more than a day or two old.

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“Griiiiiind! Smash! Crunch!” As the sky got brighter we saw bulldozer tracks criss-crossing the trail everywhere and we finally figured out what the noise was coming from. It had to be some kind of bulldozer/chipper combination… And it was headed our way… Would it be able to see us through the remaining trees? Did it know where the trail even was? Would we see the trees crashing down with plenty of time to get out of the way?

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I wasn’t sure and I didn’t want to find out, so I picked up my pace… I’d feel much better once we were out of this area. I kept looking back over my shoulder… I still couldn’t see the roving menace. I’d never heard anything like it before in my life, but the longer it went on, the more frightening it became. It had me looking over my shoulder even more often than I had the day that the mountain lion hissed at me!

Eventually we came to a dirt road, and on the other side of it a steep hill with untarnished forest on its slopes. I don’t think I have ever been so excited about going uphill before in my life! It meant that the chipper wasn’t going to get me! The whole scene reminded me of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. As thru-hikers, I feel like we stand for the trees, and there are some things that are just hard to see.

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Bear?! (PCT Days 92 & 93)

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Every road crossing I’d come to yesterday had had signs posted asking my friend, and fellow thru-hiker, to call home to contact her family or to use her spot device ASAP. Initially I’d worried that maybe something had happened to her. This morning, when I saw some southbound hikers, I asked them if they’d seen her. Sure enough, they had, and just the day before. I was incredibly relieved. She was ok.

As I continued hiking I came across some dayhikers. “Are you J****?” They asked. I let them know that I wasn’t, but that I knew who she was and had heard this morning that she was ok. “Good,” they exclaimed, “the sheriff was out here looking for her yesterday.” The Sheriff was out looking for her too? That seemed strange. I was completely lost in thought and in my own world worrying about my friend and her family as I continued up the trail when suddenly… Bear.

Bear?! I’ve never been pulled back to the here and now so quickly before in my life. There was a big bear with golden fur standing in the middle of the trail staring at me!

I stopped and stared right back. I couldn’t help it, the bear standing less than 20-30 feet in front of me was absolutely magnificent. It was also the first bear on the west coast that I’d gotten a really good look at (the other one I saw was in brushy woods and took off as soon as it saw me). It definitely didn’t look like the black bears I’d seen on the east coast with its light, golden brown fur. It was also strange that it didn’t immediately run away like almost every other bear I’ve encountered. Perhaps I should have been scared or nervous, but there were no cubs around and both of us had seemingly come to the same conclusions: there would be no sudden movements, and it was way too hot out to run.

The bear had clearly seen me before I’d seen it… I like to imagine it watching my approach and wondering when I was going to figure it out. After cocking it’s head and taking one last look at me the bear slowly lumbered off into the woods.

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I should take a picture of him before he gets too far off I thought, but the best photo op had already passed… The moment I saw him, in the middle of the trail, with the sun making his golden fur glow, framing his head almost like a lion’s mane… That is the picture I wish I could share with you and that is the image that will remain in my memory forever. The pictures I actually managed to get are off his sunlit butt sauntering off (probably the most common picture that hikers get of bears) and then a couple more as he paused to look at me from the shade of the woods. At one point it looked like he might head back towards me… It was only then that I fully realized how big he was… He probably outweighed me by double or triple, though it can be hard to gauge… I’d love to get a good picture, but I definitely didn’t want him to intentionally come towards me, not even a little bit. At that point he and I both seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time again… We decided that the best thing to do was to keep on walking… Me down the trail, and the bear up the mountain.

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Halfway Half Gallon (PCT Days 91-92)

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How did it get to be July already? It seemed almost impossible. I started hiking on April 1, and it was already July 1! I’d come so far that it shouldn’t have felt strange that months had gone by while I’d been hiking. I had hiked through the desert and through the high Sierra and it seemed fitting that on July first I was going to cross the midpoint of the PCT.

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Last year when I crossed the halfway point of the AT, I was feeling the pressure of a time crunch, I had started the AT late (May 8) and I knew that if I was going to make it to Mt. Katahdin before the October 15 deadline, I was going to have to hike the second half I the AT much faster than I’d hiked the first half (which I ended up doing without a problem, finishing on October 4).

This time, on the PCT, I started my hike early (April 1) and didn’t have the same kind of time pressure. Even if I hiked the second half of the PCT as slowly as I’d hiked the first half (which seems unlikely to me), I’d still be done by October 1, hopefully before the first of the big winter storms rolled it.

At the midpoint of the PCT I stopped in the shade to celebrate with Wardrobe and Stumbles… The last 1300+ miles had been amazing and had challenged me in ways that I hadn’t expected (the trail always does), and yet here I was, looking forward to seeing what the next 1300+ miles would bring.

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On the Appalachian Trail the traditional way to celebrate the halfway point is to eat a half gallon of ice cream. They call it the “half-gallon challenge.” As I sat at the midpoint of the PCT in 90+ degree weather I decided that that was how I wanted to celebrate this halfway point too!! A couple of miles down the trail was Chester, CA, the closest town to the halfway point… I could get my half gallon of ice cream there and relax somewhere in the shade (or maybe even air conditioning) and eat it. That definitely seemed like a good plan to me!

My friend Wardrobe headed into town with me and sure enough there was a grocery store with a great selection of ice cream. I paced up and down the ice cream aisle, which kind of ice cream did I want to eat a 1/2 gallon of? On the AT I had gone with black raspberry, but here I had a lot more options. I also had to take into account the fact that the ice cream manufacturers have all downsized their containers so that they aren’t full half gallons anymore… They’re either 1.5 quarts or 1.75 quarts… I would have to supplement my box of ice cream to bump it up to 2 full quarts if I wanted to truly have my half gallon of ice cream at the halfway point.

In a sudden stroke of brilliance (if I do say so myself) I realized that I could just get four individual pints and if I ate them all that would make a full half gallon! 4 pints… That also meant I could go for the fancy ice cream, and I could mix up the flavors… Mmmmm… They had my favorite Haagen Daz flavors (their Ben & Jerry’s selection was abysmal): dulce de leche and raspberry… So those were the first two that I picked and then, eventually, I decided on strawberry and vanilla bean as the other two flavors. That should make for a tasty combination!!!

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On the Appalachian Trail the half gallon challenge is a timed event, you’re supposed to eat your half gallon in under an hour. I’d finished mine in just under 40 minutes, but those last few bites had been a real chore, and I left feeling slightly uncomfortable. For the PCT I decided to eliminate the timed component… Or maybe make it half a gallon at the halfway, in half a day. I was going to savor and enjoy my 4 pints of ice cream because I was vacation and there was no reason not to. I was determined to try to maximize the fun parts of this trip and to minimize the uncomfortable parts whenever possible!

When Wardrobe saw me with my four pints of tasty tasty ice cream she said, “maybe you shouldn’t have had the strawberry milkshake, the root beer float, and the chicken fried steak earlier,” and laughed. “No problem,” I assured her, “I’m still hungry!”

“Mmmmm” I devoured first one pint (the dulce de leche) and then another (the raspberry). I was halfway through the challenge and still loving my yummy yummy ice cream. I was right, eliminating the timed component and going with my favorite flavors had been a stroke of brilliance, “tasty tasty calories!” Eventually, to Wardrobe’s disbelief, I finished off the two remaining pints (the vanilla bean and then the strawberry). I’d eaten my half gallon of ice cream at the halfway point! Each pint had had 3.5 servings, and was between 230 and 270 calories per serving, thus my half gallon challenge had given me an extra 3500 calories… Not bad, especially when combined with all of the other stuff I’d eaten in town. It was kind of funny to think that I would need to eat at least 8 pints of ice cream for each day that I spent hiking to make up for the calories I was burning!

Happy, and feeling full for the first time in at least a week, I was ready to head back for the second half of the trail! There’s no such thing as too much ice cream, and there’s no such thing as too much hiking. Now the only question was whether or not I should make a new challenge: 1 gallon of ice cream, in 1 day, at the completion of the trail?

If the shoe fits… (PCT Days 84-90)

My little toes longed to be free. They had been fighting against the newest oppressive regime (my Oboz trail shoes) in silence for some unknown period of time but they would be silent no more. No More!!!

“Ow!” I frowned… I recognized the sharp pain radiating from the two littlest toes of my right foot and I couldn’t help but hope that they would just give up and go numb… That would happen eventually, but it wasn’t a good thing.

In the silent war between my toes and my shoes, my toes were making slow and steady progress… They were ripping out the seams and wearing through the fabric on both sides of both shoes as the little toes and big toes of each foot tried to break free. The shoes retaliated, causing blisters and callouses to form on the outside edges of my big toes, which I mostly ignored. My little toes, however, had a much more effective strategy for getting my attention… No blisters for them… They went straight for the nerve, “just try to ignore this!” they shouted.

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It was a Morton’s neuroma… It had happened on the Appalachian Trail as well (after just 300 miles) but I didn’t know what it was then… I only knew that it hurt so much that it made me want to curl up and cry on the side of the trail. After I finished the AT, the neuroma on the left-side had gotten even worse, perhaps aggravated by running the Marine Corps Marathon. It didn’t stop screaming until I got custom orthotics and three cortisone shots.

I was lucky that I’d gotten through the first 1000 miles of the PCT without any real foot issues, but now, “owwww!” I tried to think, why now? What had changed?

Suddenly it dawned on me, I switched to the Oboz at Kennedy Meadows (~ mile 700), right before I headed into the high Sierra and submerged my feet in snow and icy creeks all day, every day. Now, as I neared 1100 miles, summer was beginning, the temperatures were going up, and my feet were swelling. My shoes weren’t wide enough for my poor feet anymore, and despite my toes efforts to the contrary, the boots were squeezing my feet and pinching/rubbing a nerve.

Should I enter the war and come to the aid of my little toes? I could just reach down with my knife and finish what my toes had started… I could cut my boots open and free my toes, but would my boots disintegrate if I did that? I wasn’t sure, so I just kept on walking. Besides, the pain wasn’t excruciating… Yet.

Was there another solution? The only one I could think of was to get new boots… I kicked myself for not having thought about that back when I was in South Lake Tahoe… It would have been easy to find boots there. Now it wasn’t so easy… Where was the next place I could get boots to save my toes, or to replace these if they disintegrated? Truckee? Sierra City? Belden? All of the upcoming towns seemed small and unlikely to have outfitters with great shoe selections.

Trail Magic to the rescue!!! My friend Peru, who I’d met back in the desert, said she didn’t live far from Truckee and could help me with anything I needed. It’s always nice to see a friend, and as it turned out I did need something… a new pair of boots! I excitedly hiked out to the rest area at I-80 to meet her… The fact that she was bringing ice cream and sodas my have accelerated my pace too… And the idea of *real* food for lunch… I skipped my normal lunch and made it to the rest area full of smiles.

Unfortunately, my friend wasn’t there. I called her and we had the “I’m here, but you’re not here,” conversation. Turns out the halfmile app sends you down a 0.25 mile trail to the rest area on the north side of I-80, and she was at the south side rest area. I was getting tired, but figured the was 0.75 mile walk back under the highway to the I-80 PCT Trailhead parking area was no big deal, so I started hiking to the other side. I hadn’t realized that the trail to the south side then added yet another 3/4 mile… Aargh, this was taking longer than I thought!

When I finally got there I called my friend and we had the “I’m here, but you’re not here” conversation yet again. I was hot, and tired, and on the verge of tears. Clearly I shouldn’t have waited for lunch or I should have stopped for more snacks. My friend and I were both a bit bewildered because at this point neither of us had any idea where the other person was.

Luckily a couple of dayhikers at the trailhead parking had seen me on both sides of the highway and knew my story… They chimed in, “don’t cry, we know exactly where your friend is and we’ll take you there.” I piled all of my stuff into their car and 10 seconds later we were at the south side rest area. How come it wasn’t obvious how to get there from the PCT? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter anymore, Peru and I were reunited and we were headed to the Diner in Truckee for food.

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With our bellies full of food we set off for our next adventure… The hunt for a new pair of shoes. It turned out there was an Outfitters in Truckee, so that seemed like a good place to start. “I’m hiking the PCT, and I’d like to try on the widest pair of shoes that you have in a Men’s size 10.” They didn’t have a huge selection, but he brought out a couple different trail shoes and trail runners for me to try on. They were all way too narrow.

I thanked him for his time, but our search was going to have to continue elsewhere. He suggested that we check out a store in Tahoe City called, “Alpenglow Sports” since they had the best shoe selection of any store around there… Especially when it came to trail runners.

In a car, the 10 miles to Tahoe City went by in a flash, and before I knew it I was starting the same conversation again, “I’d like to try on the widest shoes you have in a men’s size 10.” They asked me a few questions about what I wanted them for and if I had preferences about their weight and then came back with half a dozen different shoes for me to try on.

I felt like a dirty, smelly version of Goldilocks and Cinderella all rolled into one, “Are you sure it’s ok for me to put my dirty thru-hiker feet into these shoes?” I asked more than a little self consciously. I’d essentially come straight from the trail, dirty socks and all, and the shoes I was going to try on were pristinely beautiful and clean… nothing that came near my feet was ever going to be pristine again. They reassured me that it wasn’t a problem and I tried on the first pair. “This one’s too big!” and then the next pair, “this one’s too small!” I was having trouble finding anything that was “just right.”

The three most popular kinds of hiking shoes on the PCT this year seem to be: Merrill Moab Ventillators, Brook’s Cascadias, and Altras. I’d hiked the first 700 miles in Moabs and I knew the men’s size 10 wides would work, but I was hoping to find a lighter weight shoe that was even wider for the rest of the PCT. I tried on the Cascadias, and they were pretty comfortable, but definitely not quite wide enough for my feet (interestingly the Cascadias have a disclaimer specifically about thru-hiking).

Just when I thought that I was never going to find a pair of shoes that were wide enough I tried on the Altra Lone Peak’s. They were a little looser in the heel than was ideal, but the toebox was nice and wide… This shoe might actually work!

There was just one pair of shoes left to try on, the Patagonia EVERlongs. My first though when I picked them up was that they were incredibly lightweight… They’re only 8.4 ounces. They also felt comfortable and wide enough, but the heel was much looser than the Altra’s heel. I went back and forth between the Altra’s and the Everlongs for a long time trying to decide which ones I liked the best.

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After almost two hours of trying on shoes at Alpenglow Sports, I eventually settled on the Lone Peak Altra’s. They were wide, they were lightweight, and they were comfortable. The only potential issue was that they were zero drop shoes, which meant that they would be harder on my Achilles’ tendons… Since I’ve had trouble with Achilles tendonitis before I was going to have to be very careful for the first couple of days as my body got used to my new shoes!

***

With any luck my little toes will be happy with the new, more accommodating regime… Since I tend to break-in my new shoes with 20 mile days I’ll find out very quickly whether or not the new shoes will live up to their campaign promises!!!

Summary of Shoes for the PCT so far:

1. Merrill Moab Ventillators
Size: Men’s 10 Wide
Miles: 0 – 702.21
Weight: 1 lb, 8 oz
MSRP: $90
Quick review (4/5): a good, very stable shoe, good traction, and they showed almost no wear and tear after 700 miles of desert walking. I thought these shoes were perfect on the AT, but they felt like overkill on the PCT. For the desert section of the trail I wished I had something lighter weight and more breathable. I also discovered that the giant blisters on my heels were from the way the Moab’s pad just the upper portion of the heel cup and not the lower portion. I repeatably get blisters from the Moab’s at that junction. Switching to the Oboz eliminated that blistering issue.

2. Oboz Traverse Low
Size: Men’s 10
Miles: 702.21 – 1155.61
Weight: 16.6 ounces
MSRP: $125
Quick Review (4/5): these are the shoes that I wore through the high Sierra, and they performed well. They were constantly wet (they went for weeks without completely drying), occasionally frozen solid and dealt with both rocky and icy terrain and help up very well. I also used them with microspikes with no problem. They were definitely showing wear and tear across the toebox when I finished with them and it felt like the padding in the sole was shot by the end. Despite all the wetness, they had no delamination issues and held up well. I generally think the traction isn’t as good as the Moab’s, but these shoes gripped the granite of half dome admirably as I went up the cables, so no real complaint there. Their thru-hiker policy remains awesome! My main complaint is that they felt impossibly heavy when wet and were too narrow when my feet swelled.

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3. Altra Lone Peak 1.5
Size: Men’s 10
Miles: 1155.61 – ?
Weight: 9.9 oz
MSRP: $115
Quick Review (pending): I’ve been hiking in these shoes for 100 miles now, and will give a full review when I trade them out but so far I am loving them. My toes feel free and happy with these shoes (perhaps for the first time in their lives). I’ve been doing extra Achilles stretches and excersizes, but haven’t had any issues with the zero-drop nature of the shoes. Also, I love that thy have a built in gaitor trap. They have much more ventilation than the previous shoes (the downside to that is that my toes get dirtier, even when wearing gaitors). At this point I would consider getting these shoes again when these wear out, which is the highest praise that I can give a pair is shoes. We’ll see what the next 200-300 miles brings!

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Skip-and-go-naked (PCT Days 77-83)

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“Did you see the naked runner?!” asked one of the bewildered day-hikers. I laughed, “No, I haven’t seen a naked runner.” I was sitting on a rock contemplating cutting holes in my boots to set my little toes free from their smelly prisons.

“I don’t know how you could have missed him, we just passed him a minute ago.” My smile broadened as I realized I knew exactly who they were talking about. “He wasn’t naked when he went by me… He’s naked now? That’s awesome!”

He’d run by me about five minutes ago, and as he passed I had warned him that it was “hike-naked day” so he was likely to encounter some naked hikers ahead of him. As he’d jogged off down the trail he’d said, “sounds like fun, maybe I should join in.” I, of course, told him that he definitely should, and that was the last I saw of him.

I explained to the day hikers that hiking naked on the solstice is a thru-hiker tradition, and that I’d already seen one naked thru-hiker and had heard rumors of three more behind him that they were likely to encounter as they headed south.

“Well, I didn’t mind the naked runner,” said the woman, “he was kind of cute.” She was right, he was cute… I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the naked version, but I was incredibly entertained that I’d inspired him to join the solstice festivities.

I wish that I felt comfortable joining in the solstice celebration of nakedness too, but since I was hiking alone (and rather close to I-80) it didn’t seem like a good idea to me. Instead I was going to celebrate the solstice by enjoying every moment of sunlight I had since it was the longest day of the year.

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I had started my day by watching the sunrise over Lake Tahoe at Barker Pass, and now I was hoping to find a nice place to watch the sunset. Tinker’s Knob sounded promising. It would mean a fair amount of uphill at the end of the day, and Guthook’s Guide said there was no official trail to the summit, so it was a bit of a rock scramble, but the 360 degree view including Lake Tahoe sounded like it would be worth it. The only remaining wild card was whether or not I’d be able to camp up there. It looked both wide and flat enough on the map, so I was betting I’d be able to find a spot that was good enough for me. Especially since my main requirement was a good view of the sunset… I’m not very finicky about how flat or soft my campsites are.

As the day neared its end the winds picked up and Tinker’s Knob finally came into view. It looked like the final ascent was very steep indeed… Maybe one of the stands of trees on the ridge would make a better campsite? At the top of the ridge there was a big patch of snow… As I detoured to the left of it I caught a glimpse of Lake Tahoe behind me… If the view was this good from here, what must it be like from the top of the knob?

I decided to hike just a little bit higher… Sure, it involved some rock-hopping, but it was worth it, the views were getting better and better. It wasn’t clear yet how I was going to scramble up to the top of the rock face because it looked impossibly steep, but each time I scrambled up five feet, the next five foot scramble became obvious. Compared to some of the scrambles I’d done in the high Sierra this was easy!

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Hand over hand, I pulled myself up and over the rocks for the final ascent and made it to the top… It was gorgeous up there… The late afternoon/early evening sun lit my face almost as much as my smile. It was perfect!! Sure it was breezy and kind of chilly, but I had the summit completely to myself and there was a little rock nest there that I could cowboy camp in.

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I settled myself in and watched as the sun sunk ever so slowly into the western horizon. Some days and some moments are just so perfect that you can’t stop smiling. This had been one of those days and this was one of those moments. This was what it was all about… The moments of perfect happiness… When absolutely everything was right with the world… I sighed with contentment as I watched the sunset. I couldn’t imagine how the day could get any better.

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The pink and purple hues of the sunset still tinged the sky as I curled up in my nest of rocks… It seemed like my campsite could have been the sight of one of the epic battles in The Lord of the Rings… The only way up here was the way I’d come, otherwise it was cliffs, and with all the loose rocks if anyone or anything tried to come up I would hear them from a mile away… It felt very safe and cozy, and at the same time very epic… It felt perfect…

Somewhere in that perfect moment I fell asleep, because the next time I looked up the sky was full of stars highlighted against the backdrop of the Milky Way… The night was turning out to be just as amazing as the day had been… The 360 degree view of daytime turned into an amazing dome of stars in the nighttime, complete with two beautiful and bright shooting stars. As I drifted back off to sleep I knew that next time I woke I would either see the starscape or the sunrise, and either way it was going to be amazing. It reminded me how grateful I am to be on the trail where I can watch every sunrise and every sunset and have the chance to see so many amazing things in between!

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P.S. Back at Lost Lakes I was adopted by some jeep campers that had come up with a concoction that they called the skip-and-go-naked… It seemed appropriate to include the recipe with this post (if any of you know the proportions please comment below)!

The Skip and Go Naked
1 handle of vodka
X bottles of beer
X liters of lemonade