The sun creeps above the crested horizon as I am creeping out of my tent, perfectly pitched on a ridge with 360 degree views. It’s 6.45am and I’ve slept my usual 9 hours, a fine dose of rest when you walk 8+ hours a day. The last spasms of summer are fighting to keep the morning temperature at a comfortable level. Today is a Nero for me, as trail-lingo calls it: a near-zero, that is. A day where you almost does zero miles. I’m heading into Ashland to resupply food, wash my clothes, take a shower. And maybe even a haircut. I only carry one pair of clothes so the laundry-task is always a bit funny… What to wear while “all” my clothes are being washed? “Errrrm… Guess you can borrow this bath-rope” the friendly lady at the resort informs me. I washed my clothes twice and my socks actually got almost-clean. My shirt is beyond the hope of cleanliness by now, at least visually. Granted, it only leaves my body when it’s getting washed. A sign in front of the shower requires me to pre-wash: “wash legs and feet in outdoor sink, before entering shower”. Guess they are used to “hiker-trash” around here.
“Better hitchhike from here, you’ll get stuck in Seiad Valley if you continue South. Hardly any traffic down there, due to the smoke” the resort manager tells me. The trail is closed from Seiad Valley due to wildfires and I get a bit stubborn about it: if the trail is open for the next 65 miles, then I’m walking that section, even if I end up in no-where. Don’t wanna skip more than absolutely necessary. And there seems to be a bus that leaves with the typical frequency of American Public Transport: 3 times weekly. Next bus is in 2 days, guess I’m pushing on with two long 33 mile days to get there.
“Shoot, the fires might have been brought under control in the next two days, and the trail will open” I am optimistically thinking. Gotta give luck a chance. Luck. What is luck?
I push for yet another 30+ day and make it halfway to Seiad Valley. Next day works out just fine, but 10 miles before The Goalline, I cross the last ridge and a scary view fills the horizon: the fires are very far off from being under control. A massive wall of smoke is covering an area that extends for tens of miles. Helicopters are circling around the fire-complex like tiny distant flies against a burning haystack in a failing attempt to control it. Or “To suppress it” as they say. A nearby town carries the name of Happy Camp, a reference to some serious luck during the Gold-rush days, and the official name of the fire is hence called the Happy Camp Fire. One helluva campfire, that is, and I’m not very happy.
So I make it into Seiad Valley in time for the bus. Out here, it isn’t called a bus but is referred to, in writing and in conversation, as The County Stage. It’s a modern day version of the Wild Wild West and I joined the locals for a cup of coffee in the one and only shop in town, a roadside cafe. A newspaper article from 2003 is framed on the wall, informing me that some city-slicker from New York Times made it out here and put them on the National top 10 of roadside home style diners, or “pigouts” as it apparently is referred to.
The wildfire starts half a mile from here and everything is clouded in a dense suffocating smoke, reducing the visibility to 30 meters. The bus is scheduled to leave at 8.23am and as time ticks on to 9 o’clock, I finally admit if to myself: the “County Stage” ain’t coming today, because its Labour Day. So I’ve walked 65 miles in 2 days to catch a bus that doesn’t leave because it happens to be the one-and-only public holiday that Americans allow themselves. How ironic. Guess I’m hitchhiking from here, but the prospects are terrible: 100 miles on 3 different roads. I need to stop in some town to resupply food and there’s no cars on the road due to the fire. Not an easy hitch. For weird reasons, I was perfectly calm about the situation, something told me that it’ll all sort it self.
“Guess I’m starting with a huge American omelette for breakfast” I’m concluding to myself as I head back into the wonderful roadside cafe. Locals are reading the newspaper from the bar stools in front of the local mama that is busy frying hashbrowns and bacon. Conversation centers around the huge fire:
“Old Tom nearly had his barn burned down, but the fire crew saved’im”
“Got my stuff packed ina pickup, so I’m ready to roll if they call an evacuation”
“You know me John, I ain’t to happy about them environmentalists, but they might be right about some of that Global Warming stuff”
“Well, the drought and the fires does seem sturdier that’s fo sho”
It’s oozing of “American rural small town wild west” atmosphere here, I love the place and so would you.
But omelette is eaten and its time for action: gotta try to catch a hitch. I stand outside the cafe with a “hiker sign” and nothing really happens. Only fire vehicles are around and they aren’t allowed to pick up hitchhikers. Random firecrews drop by the cafe, some of them inmates from prison that gets a discount on their sentence if they assist in fighting wildfires. More than 2000 men are involved with fighting this Happy Camp Fire. 100+ water trucks and 8 helicopters are busy, there is firefighters from many different states, a public notice informs me.
My hopes are dwindling, but I have no other option than to hitchhike, as the next County Stage leaves in 2 days. But then the miracle happened: an elderly gentleman exits the cafe and walk straight towards his car, parked next to me with my hitchhiker sign. He looks doubtfully at me and I smile back. “Where ya goan?”
“Trying to get away from the fire, the trail is closed” I answer in a positive tone. “I’m going into town, throw your stuff in the back” he says. Perfect.
“I’m heading down the highway 3, think the trail crosses down there” he continues “welcome to ride all the way if you want”. I can’t believe my own ears, cause that is literally where I need to go, exactly. “That would be perfect” I exclaim, unable to hide my enthusiasm. “I need to stop in town, I can swing by the store if you need to buy summin’ ” he says. So I can even do my resupply, what extreme luck!
However, It felt like something else, not simply “luck”. I sensed it already more than an hour ago, by my calm reaction to the non-arriving bus. Not just coincidence or luck, something more complex.
We cruise through old towns, protected by law to keep their western 1850-something settler and miner facade. My gracious driver is a retired manager for the US Forest Service. “Just at the level where you still get dirty hands and boots on the ground. One level higher and you’re just moving paper in a glass building in the city, which ain’t me” he explains. We talk about wilderness reservations and conservation issues as we moved across the dry landscape. I get off at the trailhead 95 miles further south, exactly at the point where the trail is open again. Fire 0 Henrik 2.
I walk along the empty trail, super happy about the luck that maybe wasn’t luck maybe was everything and nothing. A crackling noise bursts out of the side if the trail, like an aggressive grasshopper but louder and more consistent. A rattlesnake. He warns me politely “stay clear of me or I’ll strike”. I barely have time to write a goodbye letter if he were to bite me. I walk until sunset to reach a creek, but it’s dry as I arrive. Walk another two miles and scramble down a steep gravel-slope to reach a tiny lake in this desolate desert-landscape. Filter water, eat food, go to bed.
The hitch-around could’ve taken days. It took 2 hours. I knew now that it was more than luck. Does fortune, indeed, favor the brave and who is it and how does it choose?