PCT Day 79: Sierra City Side Quest

July 6, 2022

Campsite at mile 1174.9 to Sierra City at mile ~1195.4

20.5 miles

I wake up before my alarm. I think what I’m hearing is a mountain lion doing that wheezing thing. Either that or a bird is making a great mountain lion impression. I was going to get up to pee, but that scares me back to being horizontal, at least until Jumbo tells me to look at the sunrise. It’s spilling orange and pink through the trees, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Mountain lions be danged. I’m getting up.

Breakfast is yet another vanilla almond Clif Builder Bar. I’m getting real sick of those, but Complete Cookies have been hard to find everywhere except Kennedy North. Jumbo joins me and makes instant oatmeal, then we set off. It’s downhill and so beautiful in these trees, then it’s uphill and so beautiful on a ridge with massive views to lakes and rocky ranges. It ges almost moor-like as we walk, with clumpy mint green plants that look like heather. It’s not exactly a “this reminds me of England” moment for Jumbo, but he does say it could be Wales. Whatever it is, it’s beautiful. Can the trail really manage to keep surprising me like this?

Jumbo trundles off for cathole time and I keep going to Mule’s Ears Creek. Appropriate name, don’t you think? I see Tribute’s trekking poles leaned against the sign. I think, either he left them here like he tends to do with his poles, or he’s down there at the spring.

I go down and collect water but don’t see the errant bearded figure. Then when I come back up, I hear a voice call to me in a fake whisper. “Passport!” I turn around and there he is, leaning against a tree like a wise sage. I laugh and gather my stuff to go sit by him. It’s already four miles for the day out of twenty, and the rest is downhill. I’m so not in a hurry. I make a hot coffee and chat with Tribute. He went a little less than two miles further than we did last night, thinking that we would be feeling good and would continue. Clearly we didn’t, but I’m glad we at least caught up pretty early on this morning.

Jumbo comes by not long after. We wait to see if he’ll notice us, which he does as he’s headed down to the spring. Obviously he’s more observant than me. He gets his water and then comes over to sit with us. I make him a coffee. It’s so nice not to feel like we have to rush to get 20 miles in for the day!

We walk together for a long time after that. The trail keeps oscillating between verdant, fragrant forest and mule’s ears ridges with windy views for days. We stop for lunch at a campsite just shy of ten miles. It’s not even 11 yet, so we take our time. I lay my tyvek on the ground and write for a while, somehow resisting the urge to fall asleep. This is such luxury. Somehow my brain is still in Sierra mode, and it feels weird for miles to be coming so quickly and to be able to relax.

I stick with Jumbo until the next water source, where Tribute has already collected a full CNOC of water for us so we don’t have to go all the way down. Aw! Tramily is nice. The three of us stick together for a minute, but then I have an itching to peel off and fly. So I do.

And I feel amazingly capable. Up a climb, past a few switchbacks, down a ridge that opens up and turns into rumble rocks with amazing views. I think the downhill switchbacks are never going to end and the forest will never pick up again, which is inconvenient because I really have to pee, but then it turns into trees again and I find my opportunity. There’s a massive tree lying right in the middle of the trail that I have to navigate, but after that, it’s pretty smooth sailing for a while. I’ve just basically sprinted five miles and I’m shaking. I eat a blueberry Luna bar while sitting on a rock. (Okay, have you had those? They are amazing. I’d eat one for dessert. Not a lot of calories for a hiker, though.) Jumbo passes me.

I finish my bar and then continue downwards, over a lovely footbridge, and then into a forest that reminds me so much of Kentucky, with rock walls next to the trail and verdant trees hanging over a creek. I feel a stab of unexpected homesickness. There’s something old and magical about Kentucky and Ohio in the summer. What are my parents doing? Are any of my friends out for a run or a bike ride on the Little Miami trail? What does the Red look like now? I breathe deep and feel the smell of July oxygen in my bones.

I walk with Jumbo for a while after that. We chat about whatever for half a mile or so, then stop by the side of Haypress Creek, a picturesque river with a roaring waterfall. We do a bit of trail laundry and showering, dunking our merino hiking hoodies in the water and letting them dry on rocks, then sponging down until the dirt is marginally less noticeable. Tribute comes to join us, and we sit in a circle eating snacks and talking about our plan for the night.

It’s only 4:00 now and we have just over two miles until the road crossing that will take me to Sierra City. The two of them plan to continue past the crossing and start the big climb on the other side. Meanwhile, I’ll be walking into town on my own, finding a place to stealth camp, and picking up my box in the morning. This will also give me a chance to get breakfast at the Red Moose Cafe and work on my writing, which I am, unsurprisingly, very behind on.

Recently, some dynamics within my tramily have made me want to take a few days to myself. I love those guys, and there’s something magical about hiking basically the whole trail with the same people, but it also sucks because you start feeling pulled along with the group and not really being your own person or making your own decisions. I talked to a few friends on the phone several days ago, including Wiggs, my ex who is also one of my best friends, and who I met on the Appalachian Trail. I told him about my hike and my dilemma about Sierra City and the group. “Dude, rule number one of thru-hiking is ‘hike your own hike,’” he said. “Take a few days if that’s what’s best, and that sounds like what’s best right now.” It was a good reminder that at the end of the day, this is my hike, not anyone else’s, and if I need to be alone for a minute to reset and put that back in perspective, then I’m going to do it.

We reach the road crossing and cook dinner there together. I have two dinners still, and my Sierra City box will be pretty hefty, so I eat as much as I can. I end up having to give some to Jumbo again, which he’s pleased about. We sit there chatting. Jumbo randomly asks me if I know any riddles, so I spout off some silly ones I know from teaching. “What travels the world, but stays in a corner?” “I’m tall when I’m young and grow short as I age. What am I?” Then we play Jumbo’s ridiculous “two up, two down” game. I finally figure out the rule just as we’re getting ready to head out.

At the road, I hug Jumbo and Tribute and tell them I’ll see them in a few days. Then they head across the road and up the mountain while I walk down the highway towards Sierra City. I already feel lighter, sauntering down this road on my own into the evening. It’s peaceful and there’s not a lot of traffic. I put on “China Cat Sunflower” from Europe ‘72, my favorite version of my favorite Grateful Dead song. I feel reestablished. This is who I am. It’s me, one hundred percent, walking past pink flowers and into town, not because that’s just what we’re doing, but because it’s what I want to do.

As I enter the town, I pass by a building with a sign that reads “LIBRARY” and a huge porch full of used books out front. I gasp. Books! For cheap! I browse and don’t find much interesting, but I do pick up a small children’s fantasy book called The Dark is Rising. It has a Newbery medal on the front, so I’ll give it a shot. It’s probably optimistic to think I’ll have time to read this, but hey, if I’m not being social for a couple of days, I might have the chance.

I continue down the road and the town properly starts. It’s tiny but so, so cute. There’s a cafe called Red Moose that advertises “olde English fish and chips.” Jumbo would either be dubious or excited, or both. I walk up to a little park with flowers and picnic tables and find the public restroom building that seems to be the hub of hiker activity in town. There’s wifi here, really good and really strong wifi. There are outlets too. I plug in my devices, use the restroom, and take a look around. The church next door used to let hikers camp, but now there’s a definitive “no camping” sign. The Masonic lodge also stopped allowing hikers to camp, unfortunately. I guess I’ll just tuck myself in somewhere here and hope no one catches me.

I start to sit down to write or read, but then I see three other hikers. They introduce themselves as Sting, Upgrade, and Flintstone. I decide to be social for a minute since I might be camping with them. We have a nice little chat about the trail so far and where we’re all from. Sting is from Tromso, Norway, which is extremely cool. I ask a bunch of quuestions and we talk about life above the arctic circle. Then, once I’m satisfied that I’ve been the appropriate level of polite, I excuse myself and start working on writing. Flintstone leaves as well, since he’s staying down at the hotel by the river.

It gets dark, and Sting, Upgrade, and I debate where we’re going to camp. We decide to just lay out our stuff here right by the restroom and take the chance that no one will care. It’s probably one of the weirdest places I’ve ever camped, but I’m oddly at peace. I met these two people an hour ago, but it still makes me feel comfortable that I’m not alone in this strange tiny city next to a bathroom. I’d still trust them with my life because they’re hikers, too. We just understand each other.

I write at the table until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore, then I crawl into my quilt with a sigh. I can’t believe this, but my shins are hurting. I think I might have pushed it a little too hard in my sprinting spat earlier today. Please, God, don’t let me have shin splints. I massage them, then spell out the alphabet with my toes a few times, then point my toes and flex my feet back. I’ll have to make sure I stretch in the morning, too. That hill is going to be rough if I have shin issues. Just as Jumbo is getting over his, too. Oy vey.

I’m lying here thinking about how simple and beautiful hiking is. I’m in awe of this place because there are restrooms that are free and clean, wifi, outlets, and water. In the morning I’ll pick up my box and get breakfast. I literally don’t need anything else. I can’t think of a single thing I wish I had or something else I’d rather do. I’ve got a book now. I have words. I have the whole internet at my fingertips. And I have myself—which is the best part.

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