slow glowing » glowing, slowly

PCT day 21: the burn is the world (or, 32.4 miles!!)

I wake up six minutes before my alarm is set to go off, but I don’t manage to crawl out of my sleeping bag straight away. I do manage to pack up and get out of camp by 5:40; none of the hikers camped nearby have stirred. I hike in my fleece and puffy, with my still-slightly-wet bra and my shirt tied to the outside of my pack. I skip breakfast for now, but my hip belt pockets are full of snacks.

I enter the burn pretty immediately — last year’s burn. The ground is black and everything is covered in soot, but here and there are clumps of green beargrass. I can see the dry burnt tufts of last year’s growth, but a significant fraction of the beargrass is recovering and regrowing just like I assume it does after the snow melts every year — new green growth straight up out of the burnt tufts.

There’s a dead horse in Russell Creek. I’ve known about it for a few days — there are plenty of funny and punny comments on Guthook about leading a horse to water, beating a dead horse, etc. A little ways before the creek, I pass a sign from the Forest Service: “Animal carcass in the area. You may see increased animal activity in the area as a result.” In the still-dim morning light, I feel just a tiny bit anxious.

At the creek, I try not to look for the horse, but I’m a curious human and can’t help myself. It’s in the water just below where the trail crosses. Its head is hidden below a rock, and its body is bloated and round. It looks like a sort of fuzzy brown rock, with something green starting to grow over the top.

The creek is pretty low this early in the morning (it’s 6 o’clock), so rather than trying to climb over the big boulders upstream to find a perfect rock-hop, I ford the creek right at the trail. The water is only about ankle-deep till I’m halfway across, and then I finish the crossing with an easy rock-hop. From the other side, I can see the horse’s tail and hind legs lying in the water. The trail up from the water is narrow; I imagine the horse fell from the trail into the creek. Pretty terrible.

I continue through the burn as the sky turns from pink to blue. I’m starting to feel warm in my fleece and puffy, but I also keep walking into strange patches of cold air — microclimates related to the burn or the shape of the mountain — I don’t know. My left Achilles tendon is buggin’ me a bit, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any worse, and my current policy is to not really pay my pain any mind unless the same spot hurts more for more than a day.

I cross another creek and push through some big bushes trying to eat the trail. I’m through the burn, at least this section of it, and climbing through old, thick, dark, dim forest. The sun is still low in the sky and hasn’t touched this part of the woods yet.

I keep walking, and at exactly 10 o’clock I reach Shale Lake, 10.8 miles into my day. 10 by 10! I stop long enough to filter some water, take a photo or two of Mount Jefferson’s reflection in the lake, and pull off my fleece and puffy and put on my bra and shirt. Then I continue on through some pretty semi-alpine stuff and into an older burn — white skeletal trees and lots of green undergrowth, plus short evergreens two or three or four feet tall. It’s quite pretty. There are also beautiful views, including a glimpse of North and Middle Sisters.

My next stop is Rockpile Lake at mile 18 or so. I filter some more water and continue on into the heat of the day. It’s really hot, and in this burn there’s very little shade. My Achilles is feeling better though — my feet are generally sore, but not specifically. A few more miles and I stop at my last water source, a small pond surrounded by burned forest. I crouch by the water and enjoy a little fantasy about being, like, a peasant in a fantasy novel set in Arthurian times, being dirty and sweaty and traveling through the landscape and, you know, being on a quest or seeking my fortune or something. It feels like the whole world is this burn.

I set off with three and a half liters, probably more than I need for the last ten miles of the day, but it’s really hot and I’d rather have too much than not enough. A mile later, J. runs up behind me; he’s been running a loop around Three-Fingered Jack today that finishes on the PCT. “Do you have any extra water?” he asks. I give him a liter. That worked out.

The burn continues (the burn is the whole world, after all). I leave J. sitting on a log drinking water and catching his breath; he’ll pass me again in a few minutes. We’re climbing up to a pass right below Three-Fingered Jack, which definitely has more than three fingers if it has any. I keep on keepin’ on. I take a lot of photos. I reach the top of the ridge and cross over to the other side, traversing a slope across stream beds where in other seasons snowmelt clearly flows — the trail goes up and down into and out of these paths.

My feet are really hurting by now, but my morale is pretty good. Jefferson is in the distance now, looking beautiful but surprisingly small. I’ve come a long way today! I listen to podcasts and work on maintaining forward momentum.

On through the burn — sandy brown trail, white trees, green undergrowth, blue sky. A few miles from Santiam Pass, the heat rash on my back starts to hurt again. I stop and strip off my shirt and hike in my bra. If I straighten my spine and keep my shoulders back, I can kind of create a little airflow gap between my back and my pack, but then it jostles against the rash and maybe that’s worse. Honestly, that pain distracts me a bit from my sore feet, which is kind of nice.

I hike on. The sky starts to turn pink. The Three Sisters, and maybe Broken Top? — I don’t actually recognize the mountains down here as well as I’d like to think I do — hang out on the horizon in the decreasing distance. I check Guthook for the umpteenth time to see how close I am to the trailhead, and it shows me off the trail. I panic for a moment and find a weird little triangle of trail on Gaia; this trail will lead me back to the PCT, but it’ll add a little distance. I’m super cranky and wondering how I missed a junction. What the heck!? Then I get back to the PCT and it’s clear there’s been a reroute that’s not yet reflected in Guthook; the old PCT has logs strewn across it to block the way. Sigh.

Just a couple miles left — let’s go. I stop to dig in my pack for my external battery (my phone is almost dead; I’ve been texting with J. as I approach the trailhead) and my headlamp (just in case).

Half a mile from the trailhead, I hear a dog barking in one direction and an odd whistle in the other direction. Oh — it’s J. He walked in to meet me. He’s feeling pretty beat up from his run, so we hobble out together to the trailhead. It’s not quite dark when we finally arrive. I have him take a victory photo. Thirty two point four miles, my friends. I’ve never moved my feet so far in one day before.

They hurt a lot. I collapse into J.’s car and we head into Sisters for food and showers and beds.

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