PCT Day 114: Three Sisters

August 10, 2022

Elk Lake Junction at mile 1952.6 to mile 1974

21.4 miles

It’s cold and my tent is covered in condensation. This is not going to be an early morning for me. I sit up and do all my tasks, but I can’t bring myself to get out of my tent. Tribute and Jumbo are moving slowly too, by the sounds of it. They’re looking at the sunrise over the clouds beneath Mt. Bachelor. Meanwhile, I’m tucked cozy in my quilt, wearing my beanie for the first time in a while. I take ten minutes to read my book. I write a bit. Jumbo leaves, then Tribute (though the latter has to come back because he accidentally left Samuel at camp). Finally, I pack up my wet tent and get moving around 7:30.

It is so beautiful, and I feel so good this morning. There’s a bit of soft, flat path through the forest at first, then it turns up and starts a three-mile climb that isn’t as bad as it looks on Guthook. I’m listening to Trevor Hall because Wiggs was playing his albums at the lake the other day and I was really into it, so I downloaded them. It is so perfect for today and for how I feel: reflective, quiet, present.

I crest over the top of the hill, then turn down, and the forest is even more lush. In between the trees I can see the snow-patched flanks of South Sister Mountain.

I want to cut myself open and pour the forest inside. Even then, it wouldn’t be enough. Even with my bones made of bark and my lungs full of moss and pine needles in my fingers I would never be able to get enough of this Oregon forest. I settle for breaths. Big, deep, green breaths of soil-smell and sap and sunlight. Trevor Hall sings about life in my ears and I want to cry with the fragility and hardness of it all. What is being a human? It is so many universes put in impossible places. Meanwhile the path winds through the trees. Meanwhile I am still hungry and tired. Meanwhile life crashes on in chaotic coniferous wonder.

I make it to Sisters Mirror Lake, where I see Tribute and Jumbo having a break and airing out their tents and sleeping bags. I stop and have a coffee and dry my stuff out.

The next three miles are unexpectedly amazing. The trees thin out after a short climb, and South Sister stands like a towering spirit over a flat plain where the PCT winds its way across. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful. I put my arms out and pretend I’m flying, Eagle Rock Day style.

There’s a water source in a meadow, and I’m surprised that I don’t see Jumbo here because it would be the perfect lunch spot. Then I think maybe I missed him pulled over on the side of the trail for either tea or cathole time, so I wait for a minute. Sure enough, he and Tribute come trundling along in a few minutes and we set up camp for lunch in the shade of a few nearby trees. It’s been so nice to feel like we can actually take breaks. Now that we know we can make it to Trail Days as long as we do 22 mile days, we have really been chilling out.

After lunch, the trail absolutely blows our minds. No one really talks much about Oregon; it’s seen as a pretty easy state, a place where you can really ramp up your miles and cover ground. But this afternoon section in the Three Sisters is beyond words. There’s a burn area at first, a highlight of which is Jumbo’s photo shoot with the “James Creek” sign.

Then we come upon the first wonder: a field of lupines like a purple carpet draped across the ground. From there, the wildflowers are basically endless. The trail walks through some forest, back out into fields of lupines, then around a corner, and then the South Sister is in full view in all her majesty.

The trail works its way around the western flank of the South Sister and then towards the Middle Sister. There are fields upon fields of lupine, and then the wild paintbrush starts. It feels like a familiar friend who has never left my side. These paintbrush are less red and more pink, more like the ones I saw in Montana last summer than the variety we kept seeing in the desert and Sierras. I ogle at them, then up at the mountains, and then back down again. Everywhere I look, there is a rainbow of beauty that my brain cannot process.

We alternate walking together and alone, back and forth all afternoon. I listen to music, feeling so light and free. These mountains just have something magical in them. We stop for a break in the middle of a climb that is way harder than it should be, and I eat large handfuls of Jumbo’s gummy worms because he buys them in industrial quantities. We get going again, and when the woods open up at the top of the hill, I almost literally lose my breath. We’re on the west side of the Middle Sister now, and some clouds are gently rolling over the volcanic, snow-dotted flanks. It’s evening and the light is growing more golden by the minute. I stop and stare at the mountain, the clouds, the lupine, the paintbrush.

Jumbo comes up behind me, smiling. We stand together and ogle at the mountain. Then, as we start walking together, he hits me with a profound thought: “For the longest time, I was drawing a blank on the name of the frog who hangs out with Miss Piggy. I was like, Curtis the frog. Yeah. That sounds right.”

I crack up. “Nice. I like the juxtaposition of these amazing mountains and what’s going through your brain.”

“Yeah,” he chuckles. “That’s why I was smiling when I came up the hill and stood next to you. I could tell you were having a moment, but I was just thinking about Kermit.”

This is thru-hiking in a nutshell, I think.

Soon we enter an area of trail that’s covered in obsidian. There are shards of it all over the ground, shiny boulders that glisten in the sunlight, smooth rocks that feel incredible to touch. It is astounding. We can’t stop picking up pieces of the volcanic glass, bending over and touching the smooth boulders. Soon we come upon the aptly named Obsidian Falls, which tumbles erratically over wet, shiny obsidian.

It’s a sharp uphill after that, and at the top, we’re treated to a clear, sparkling stream beneath the Middle Sister. It’s a Sierra-looking place, with what we decide is Teletubbies grass, perfectly green and unbelievably soft. A little ways down the trail we find another mesmerizing field of obsidian, where we all wrestle with the desire to take a piece before eventually overcoming it.

Photo by Tribute

Our last wonder of the day is another cold, clear mountain stream that cuts through a sweeping blanket of paintbrush and lupine. It almost makes me want to cry. It’s the golden hour properly now, a soft, magical time of day where everything feels right. It isn’t fair how beautiful this place is. It’s Wonderland. We filter water and then continue on the trail until we find a flat space. There’s a campsite we were trying to make it to, but it’s simply not going to happen. We’re exhausted, and it’s time to not be hiking.

We set up in a row and cook dinner as the light fades from the day. The come-down from today’s majesty is soft and peaceful. I feel so grateful to be out here with friends, experiencing the surprises the world has in store for those who walk. I crawl into my quilt, the dream world of the day giving way to the dream world of the night.

Photo by Tribute

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