One day to rest my stressed ankle after my 100 miles-in-3-days stunt and I am anxious to get going again. The views of spectacular Crater Lake understandably attracts swarms of tourists and it gets a little hectic when you are used to the Silence of the Woods. But a memo on the notice board in front of the souvenir store brings terrible news: 45 miles of trail closure due to a wildfire. Dammit.
Talking to some other PCT hikers that are heading in the opposite direction, I realize that they had been escorted through the fire-zone and hence manage to avoid being de-railed off the trail. The risky bit is, if you disobey a fire closure you might get a steep 2500 dollar fine. That’s pretty much my budget for the entire walk and means I’ll be foraging huckleberries for dinner, together with the bears, for the remaining 3 months. And ok, the fire in itself is also a risk, if you are stupid enough to walk straight into the flames without noticing a slight rise in temperature. Natural Selection, dare I say?
The easy option is to get out on the highway with your thumb and try to hitchhike your way around the fire closure. However, Neil, a fellow hiker and friend by now, is brewing up a plan that has immense interest to me. He is downloading ancient topographic maps from the US Forest Service unto his smartphone and he might be getting somewhere. “Seems like we can take some alternative trails here and connect to these other trails and maybe reach some tiny gravel forest roads and then connect back to…” He thinks out loud. “How old are these maps?” I inquire. “Dunno” he says. “But you have a GPS in that smartphone, right?”. “Yup” he says and adds “could be a day or two longer, so stash up on food”. “Sound like great adventure, I’m game” I hear myself say.
We start walking the, officially closed, trail and are enjoying the complete silence that continues for hours. No one else are here? And we are getting closer and closer to a smoke-cloud with the mushroom-shape of a nuclear-bomb. “Guess they are serious about it, no one are being escorted through anymore” I conclude. “And we probably shouldn’t get closer to that fire, fine-wise and safety-wise” Neil adds. We look at each other. Commence Plan B, The Walkaround.
It all starts great. The alternative trail is actually a trail and we make progress, sleeping at a little meadow. Next day it becomes obvious that the trail has been abandoned, years, if not decades, before. We scramble through bushes, fight our way forward across giant fallen trees, guided by the topographic features around us and a GPS smartphone that is running low on battery. Now, this is adventure!
We are both bleeding from multiple places on our lower legs, nothing serious, just cuts and scruffles from the “bush whacking”, as they call it. Neil is a sturdy hiker, he has already hiked the entire PCT once before in 2012 when he “Northbounded” from Mexico to Canada. This year he is going the other way, against the mainstream current. SoBo’ing as its called. He is the kinda player you want on your team when you are outdoors and fooling around “behind enemy lines”.
We walk through large sections of dead forest and cross a river before we start to crash our way out of the valley. At one point, we connect back to a trail that actually seems to be in use and our “bush whacking” stops, we can return to a normal “walking mode” again. My shoes are torn, already my second pair on this walk and they have 2 large holes in them. I fetch a needle and stitch them up with dental floss, the strongest thread you can use, in case you ever want to make a serious repair job on your gear.
We make it to the tiny forest gravel road after 2 days. Eat food and celebrate our success up to now before heading off to sleep, tired, dirty and covered in cuts from knees and down. From our tents we hear noisy breathing. “I’m reading, Neil, and I don’t snore anyways”. “It’s a bear” he says. “I thought so” I reply and return to my book after we both yell to scare off the bear. “Tuck your food away, he’ll likely be back during the night”. “Sure” I reply and flip a page. Amazing how indifferent you become after spending months in Bear-Country.
I did, however, wake up that night and exited my tent to check on the fire. A strong smell of smoke is hovering around us and I check that no actual flames are close to us, within visual distance. We are west of the 2000 acres of fire and with predominantly western winds, we should be fine. Just checking. After all, we are on our own, haven’t seen any other humans for 2 days.
We continue our walk on tiny gravel forest roads and unto a larger paved road, before arriving at a fish-resort 2 miles from where the PCT is open again. Next morning we have a huge breakfast, with the lovely American tradition of free-refills on coffee, think a drank 4 large mugs. And a Root-beer float for desert: ice-cream drowned in a toothpaste-tasting soda. Calorie explosion, just what we needed!
We part ways, as Neil slows his speed to rest his feet and body a bit. I push on and reach a lake where I camp for the night. The water level is 10 meters below normal and it’s teeming with buzzing insects that seems to love the warm, stagnant, shrinking waters, perfect for breeding. The sun is “setting” 2 hours before it should, behind a red carpet of smoke from the forest fire. Ahead if me is a series of multiple, and much larger, fires and giant sections of “my trail” is closed. “It hasn’t really rained for some years and we didn’t get any snow this winter. The ski-resorts were closed, all winter. And them creeks are all dried up, ya better watcha water supply as you walk on, young man” a rancher told me with a serious tone in his voice.
I was happy to have made it around the fire closure but something felt deeply disturbing about the whole scene.
I imagined the lake with boats, people fishing, laughing bikini girls and noisy kids, playing and swimming. Now, it was a sad, little, infested and abandoned puddle. The sky was an endless orange, it was oh-so-quiet, wildfires were raging in all directions and my only company was a trizillion buzzing insects, celebrating the decline of Mankind. It felt post-apocalyptic.
“So this is how it’ll look like in 100 years when Global Warming has left the useless political discussions and entered harsh reality” I was thinking.