I wake up in the early dark hours and spend an hour convincing myself to get up and pee. Then I fall asleep again, a deep and cozy sleep until eight or so, a good ten hours from the time I turned off my headlamp last night. I’m lazy about getting up and at ’em in the morning, and I take my time eating my oats, drinking a cup of chai, repacking my panniers. I strap everything to my bike, and put my wet leggings and shorts — freshly-washed with hand soap in the bathroom sink after an incident that I’m sure will be comedic at some point — on top. It’s a little past eleven when I roll out.
Up, up, up. I still have a whole bunch of miles to go before the top of Bennett Pass. At least my quads are feeling better today. I’m making slow progress, but it’s progress, and it doesn’t hurt. I turn onto 35 early on — a fast, smooth highway with a decent shoulder, running alongside Hood River. I stop and take a break on the shoulder, leaning my bike on the guardrail and leaning myself next to it. I look down the highway and think about how much nicer it would be if everyone traveled this way. No cars rushing past. Imagine the roadside fruit stands and cafes that would pop up to serve travelers. Imagine the socialization opportunities! Need to go far? In this scenario, cities and large-scale and medium-sized towns are all served by an extensive network of bike-friendly high-speed trains, of course.
The rain interrupts my reverie. First just a little bit. I’m not even sure I need my rain gear, but I stop and pull it on anyway. Then it starts raining harder. I keep pedaling uphill. It goes on and on. It kind of sucks. Every once in a while, the sun teases me by shining without chasing away the rain. During one such moment, I snap a selfie, with the intention of illustrating my misery. But in the photo, with my sarcastic smirk and thumbs up, I look like I’m having fun. Am I having fun? I ask myself. I decide that I am. As long as I don’t get hypothermic, this is some solid type 2 fun.
And then it rains even harder, and the climb continues endlessly, and it stops being fun at all. Fuck! This sucks! My jacket and pants are soaked through, and I can feel that my shirt and fleece are soaked through too. As long as I’m going uphill, I’m working hard enough to stay warm-ish. I can’t decide whether it’ll be worse or better when I reach the pass. On the downhill I’ll be able to manage more than my current 4mph pace (yes… really), and my knees won’t hurt so much, but I’ll also be really fucking cold.
With five miles to go to the top, I promise myself a break every mile. I eat food and drink water. I push on. Finally, finally, I crest the top. I stop underneath a conveniently-located railroad overpass that offers a tiny bit of protection from the rain to pull on nitrile gloves (cheap vapor barrier) and pull the hood of my fleece over my ears. Then I zoom down the other side, wiggling my toes to try without much success to keep them from going numb. Five mostly-down miles to 26. The route goes east, but fuck it, I’m going west. Government Camp is 3-point-something miles from the junction, and the Reed ski cabin is in Government Camp. Maybe I can stay there tonight. At the very least, hopefully someone will be able to let me in so I can dry off and warm up.
There’s a rest area at the edge of town. I roll my bike into the overhanging entryway by the women’s bathroom and call Backup. I surprise myself by getting shaky and teary as I describe my day so far. Then I ask him to look up directions to the ski cabin. I don’t wait for him to find them; I gotta keep moving, so I figure I’ll see if I can find it by feel. I’m almost within sight of it when he texts me a Google Maps screenshot pinpointing it. There it is.
No one’s home and the most recent door code I can find in my email has long since been changed. But I only have to wait a minute or so before a whole bunch of students — the residents of the Outhaus theme dorm — return from a hike. They let me in, and I strip off my rain gear and proceed immediately downstairs to the sauna in the basement. I sit in it while it warms up from room temperature to 130 degrees, and then I am finally warm.
The kids share their taco dinner with me. I drape my wet things in front of the wood stove. What a refuge.
27 miles in five hours today. Humbling as shit.
I wake up early and run around checking things off my last-minute to-do list. Sound familiar? J./Backup has agreed to be my resupply person, so I ferry a bunch of food items and a box full of stuff I might want at some point (I mean, exactly how cold is it going to be in the desert at night? Down booties cold?) over to his place. I like this plan — I like that it’s not really a plan and that I don’t have to know right this minute where I’ll be getting back on trail and where I’ll want boxes and what I’ll want in them. ‘Cause I have not done that kind of planning.
Not too long after eight, which is when we planned to leave, my folks and I load the car and head out. My dad will be riding the first 36 miles of my tour with me, from the trailhead north of Trout Lake, where I got off trail three weeks ago, to White Salmon, where we’ll meet my mom for lunch so she can drive me across the Hood River Bridge, which is a no-bikes, no-pedestrians bridge. I’ll pick up Adventure Cycling’s Sierra-Cascades route in Hood River, and head south.
We make it to the trailhead around ten. It’s forty degrees out, and we shiver as we take our bikes down from the roof rack and pull on extra layers. I leave my panniers in the trunk; I get to slackpack (as it were) to White Salmon. I get my mom to take a couple photos of me and my bike in front of the trailhead sign. I won’t exactly have a continuous footpath, but I am pedaling from where I stopped walking.
Then we turn around and ride south, down down down. Mom stops to pick up a couple hikers, then passes us in the car. It’s so cold I’m fighting to stop shivering while I ride, but the further down we get the warmer it gets. The fourteen miles to Trout Lake pass quickly, and in town I pull off my jacket and we stop at the coffeeshop for a huckleberry smoothie (me) and a cappuccino (Dad). Dad’s still cold and bored to boot; he’s the strongest cyclist I know, and even without my panniers, my pace is too slow for him to really warm up. Eventually he pulls over at a gas station and tells me to go on ahead, so he can push hard to catch up.
The road levels out and there’s even a bit of climbing before we get to White Salmon. I can feel my quads a bit — they’re not used to this. It feels good to chase Dad around the curves, though. We make good time (by my estimation) into town and find Mom at the brewery, at a table by the window.
After lunch, we load the bikes back onto the car and drive across the bridge. Mom pulls into the gas station immediately on the Oregon side, and I unload my things and strap my panniers to my bike. My folks wave goodbye and I walk my bike across the intersection, then straddle it and pedal somewhat wobbily off as they drive past me onto the freeway.
The road is uphill immediately. I pedal hard for half a mile, eager to find the turn for the road I’ll be taking out of town. When I do, I pull over immediately and take deep breaths, trying to calm my crazy heart rate. Oh yeah: a loaded touring bike ain’t kidding around. This morning I tossed way, way too much food into my panniers, knowing it was too much but figuring: my bike is carrying it! Not me! Now my quads are speaking up, loudly. They have opinions about this.
After a couple of minutes, I head out and up again, in a lower gear and a little more slowly. A little bit up the road, there’s a right turn for “Panorama Point,” which I take. Yeah, I think. This is what I remember loving about bike touring! Stopping at every little thing, checking it all out! Panorama Point is a concrete shelter and a viewpoint at the top of a short winding road, with a parking lot and a bathroom and a low stone wall to lean my bike against. It turns out my quads hurt even more when I’m not pedaling, somehow. I awkwardly pace, then sit on the ground against the stone wall, trying to find a comfortable position. Then I stand up and bike down and out to the road, then up. Up up up.
I cross Rte 35 and in front of me is the kind of hill I remember from the Appalachians: straight up. I bike up it. The next one is worse. “16% ahead,” says a road sign. I walk this one, pushing my bike the quarter mile to the top. I grin to myself when I remember something A. said on the first day of our 2010 tour: “I need a great-granny gear!” I hope these are just first-day pains and will go away quickly. At the top of the hill, I pedal pedal pedal, mostly past orchards full of trees positively dripping with pears.
I stare at my single-digit mph on my cyclocomputer. On that cross-country ride in 2010, I made a little duct tape flap cover for my cyclocomputer so I wouldn’t have to see my speed all the time, and I will clearly need to do that again. The uphill is constant and brutal. It’s well into the afternoon, and I don’t think I’m going to make it to the USFS campground that was my goal for the day. I pull over at an antique-shop-slash-fruit-stand and buy a juicy ripe pear. I eat it on a bench in front while I look at my map and reevaluate. There’s a campground in Parkdale, about ten miles from here. Parkdale it is.
I ride the slowest ten miles I have ever ridden. For a lot of it I’m quietly moaning in pain as I ride. My quads are considering murder in revenge for what I’m putting them through. Nothing else hurts, but oh my god, my quads are killing me. Then, in the last two miles or so before town, the terrain doesn’t improve but my pain abates a little bit. Why? I don’t know, but I’ll take it.
The campground is in a park that’s a couple more miles through town, but they’re almost entirely downhill miles (my last downhill till I crest the pass sometime tomorrow, I think). I zoom to the park, then ride the campsite loop twice, after the camp host asks me to pick my own site and then come back. They’re out of tent sites, so he gives me an RV site for the $5 hiker/biker rate, and I cheerfully pitch my tent on the lumpy ground. By the time I’ve finished making, eating, and cleaning up dinner, I’m too tired to care about or even really notice my noisy neighbors. Me ‘n’ my sore quads snuggle into my fluffy sleeping bag and hit the hay.
I woke up last Saturday morning in my sleeping bag, on a cot, in a concrete-floored workshop, on a farm, outside of Trout Lake. I fell asleep Saturday night in the huge and absurdly comfortable bed in my parents’ guest room in Portland, and I finally got a good night’s sleep. Days later, my feet were still sore and my knees were still creaky. I mean, they’re still kind of sore and creaky, respectively, now. That Saturday in Trout Lake, sprawled on the sunny lawn outside the grocery store, I talked to a nobo named Radish about the differences between bike touring and thru-hiking, and, laughing, I said, “bike touring, your body eventually stops hurting.” Totally seriously, she told me that, well, when you’re thru-hiking it takes about two months. Maybe there’s hope for me and my hiker hobble yet — or maybe I’ll have to start all over when I get back on trail.
Trout Lake on a sunny Saturday: food, beer, hikers everywhere. We said goodbye and happy hiking to Elroy (who’d beat us to town) and Beowulf and the nobos we met in town, and then my mom drove us to Portland.
I’ve been off trail for well over a week now. I didn’t do much of anything for a few days. On Thursday, I drove with my friend Eliot down to Eugene, where we picked up Landon, and then to a farm outside Medford, where our friend Jess is living. The four of us spent the night under the stars, sleeping on a tarp in the middle of a field, visited by a kitten named Rascal who pounced gleefully on our toes.
In the morning, Eliot, Landon, and I continued south into California and its smoky hazy brightness. Shasta floated above us, disconnected from the earth by a band of haze. The whole west is burning. We drove all the way to a little state park in Mendocino County, and slowly other cars arrived full of people we loved. A whole bunch of my college friends piled out and we made campfires and ate food and drank beer and hugged each other a whole lot until a park ranger had to come over and tell us to simmer down.
(super awesome fisheye photo by Dusty Gridley)
On Saturday, my friend Judith married my brother Scott’s friend Jeff (Scott was the best man! We were not at all responsible for them meeting! It’s a small small world!). The wedding was beautiful and fun and I did not take a single photo — the first wedding I’ve attended in years that I didn’t work, and I am so glad. I caught up with friends and cried like a baby during the ceremony and danced like crazy for hours and then we all collapsed back into our tents.
(Reedies in a boat photo by Barry Levine)
In the morning we scattered to the four winds again, and Eliot and Landon and I drove to Ashland and got dinner with Jess. We dropped Landon off with her (they’re on their way to Burning Man as we speak), and continued up to Roseburg, where Eliot grew up. Yesterday we slept in and then went for a little rafting trip on the North Umpqua River with his dad before driving home to Portland. Not bad at all. On Thursday I’m leaving town again to fly to New York for another wedding — this one I am working — and a few days in Brooklyn with Elana and Ben.
I’ve spent a lot of time off-trail talking about the trail and what I was doing before the trail and what I’ll be doing after. I have a little notebook that I’ve been carrying since I started (and covering in stickers), and on the first page I wrote “STACIA’S LITTLE RED BOOK OF A BETTER LIFE.” What do I want to do? What really matters to me? In Roseburg the other day, Eliot mentioned that his dad used to travel a lot, but now he’s found his spot on the Umpqua River and he just doesn’t want to leave anymore. Sometimes I get anxious and think that this — what my life has been like for years now — is going to be my life forever. Trying to find my place. Looking for a job, or a partner, or a place to live. Sometimes I believe the crap about making the life you want, making yourself into the person you want to be, and sometimes it seems like a total crapshoot. Some people get lucky and find what they’re looking for — and recognize it when they find it — and some people are seeking forever. The belief that I’ll find or make or discover what I’m looking for someday is like the belief in free will. I have to believe it, because the alternative is despair.
I know I’m already lucky. I’ve met so many wonderful people and some of them have thought I’m wonderful too. I’ve visited so many beautiful places. I’ve done so many awesome things. I’m ridiculously, inconceivably lucky to be doing what I’m doing this season. So here we go. Onward. Further. And then back again.
When we wake up there’s little bits of ash on our tents, but there’s also a bit of light drizzle falling off and on. The rain kindly holds off for the most part until we’ve breakfasted and packed up. While Backup finishes getting his things together and fills up his water bottles, I sit on a log and read Midnight’s Children, until I’m startled by a loud buzz and a poke in my lower back. It’s a hummingbird who mistook my fuchsia rain jacket for a flower! When I stand up, it swoops around me once, confused, and then flies off.
It drizzles all morning. It would probably be pretty if we could see much of anything.
Seven or so miles in, we hit what Guthook describes as “a rocky creek” and which is in fact a river, both turgid and turbid, dividing and recombining in a series of volcanic channels. There’s no obvious way to cross, and we pace the bank up and down, trying to decide whether to go for it. In the end, we pick our way across three different channels on tiny, scary logs, placing our trekking poles carefully in the rushing water. When we make it, we laugh in relief and high-five, then continue on our way. Less than a mile later, we meet a nobo hiker and warn him about the crossing, and he says, “oh yeah, the Boy Scouts back there told me there’s a log about 200 yards upstream?” Man, no one told us about the log. We make it our personal mission for the day to let everyone else know about it.
A bit further on, we meet a couple more nobos, and while we’re chatting with them (about the log), a sobo hiker catches up with us. His name is Beowulf, and when we ask him if he’s getting to Trout Lake today, he asks how far it is. “Ten miles,” we say, and he shrugs.
“I wasn’t planning on going that far, but what the hell,” he says. He started this morning twelve miles north of us, which means it’ll be a 32-mile day for him when we get to the trailhead at Road 23.
The three of us hike together as the rain gets harder. And harder. I’m pretty sure the terrain around us is pretty — burned trees with bright wood that looks almost orange in the flat light; little green yellow red plants; rocks; views, I’m sure, in clearer weather, of Mount Adams and other mountains — but as we start to wet through, we pretty much just put our heads down and hike hike hike. We sneak up on the remarkably oblivious Boy Scouts and pass them one by one (“Excuse me. Hello? Can we sneak past you? EXCUSE ME. HEY GUYS CAN WE GET PAST PLEASE? Ah, yes, hello, thanks.”) and truck on.
The rain is ridiculous. Well, the rain is rain. What is ridiculous is the water all over everything. It’s been so dry here for so long that nothing is soaking in. It’s just rushing in torrents down the mountain and down the trail. In some spots the trail is full of puddles around the edge of which we try with limited success to skirt; in other places it’s hopeless — the trail is a river, ankle deep and moving fast, with rapids and foam and waterfalls and the whole nine yards. Our feet are soaked. Our rain jackets are wet through and everything is soaked.
We fantasize about what might be waiting for us at the end of the trail: a building full of dry towels and hot food. A sauna. Maybe a car waiting for us to arrive, to sweep us off to warm dry places with pie. When we finally, finally stumble off the trail and onto Road 23, there is a car — we assume it belongs to someone currently on the trail, out for a night or a few days. But no, there’s someone in the driver’s seat! When he opens the door, we ask, “Is there any way we could get a ride into Trout Lake?” And get this, he’s waiting for a hiker who never showed. He’d love to give us a ride. He’s glad he didn’t drive out here in vain. He’ll drop us off right at the store. They’ll fix us up and help us find a place to stay. This, ladies and gentlemen, is real trail magic.
At the store, I dazedly buy chocolate milk and a plastic baggy full of homemade chocolate peanut clusters, and Backup buys an entire huckleberry pie. The almost incomprehensibly kind, patient, and friendly woman who works there calls around looking for a place for us to stay. All the usual places are full, but some locals who have a bunkhouse for hikers (which is full) on their farm are happy to let us sleep in their wood-stove-heated workshop. Warm and dry? We’re sold. Next, the three of us tromp down the block to the cafe, where we order veggie burgers and fries and cups of hot cider. When we return to the store, the woman who works there tells Backup she sold his pie… because the local woman who makes them brought some new ones over, so she saved him one that’s hot, fresh out of the oven. We and the pie are loaded into her car and she drives us to our home for the night, where another hiker has already built a hot fire in the stove. I finally peel off most of my wet clothes and warm up enough to stop shivering. It’s cozy and warm and there are cots and there is conversation and everything is good.
(Yep, that’s all the photos. After the river, my hands and phone were so wet that I couldn’t use the touchscreen, and didn’t want to take my hands out of my gloves anyway. My camera, of course, was safely buried in my pack. So you’ll have to take my word for it about the trail-river.)
A warm, hazy morning. The lake is just as pretty in the morning as it was yesterday evening. Unsure about hiking south into the smoke, Backup and I decide to hike together today, and leave camp around ten with our sights set on Lava Spring, about twenty miles distant. Pretty quickly we decide to press on, to see how it goes with respect to the smoke. We meet a few nobo hikers who, when asked, say, “Oh yeah, it was pretty bad this morning; I was using a bandana. But maybe it’s clearing up.” We catch whiffs of the fire off and on all day — Backup likes it, says it smells like campfire. There’s no seam in the sky today, but no red-black-yellow either, just a general haze over everything.
What happens today? When I ask Backup at the end of the day, he’ll shrug and say, “We hiked twenty miles.” The trail goes gently up and down through woods. Nothing is particularly notable, really, except maybe the smoky haze. We leapfrog each other, meeting at creeks or tent sites every few miles, until we’ve hiked twenty miles.
When we were in White Pass, I looked at the calendar and realized how close it’s getting to time for me to get off the trail for a couple of weddings, and I decided to end this section at Trout Lake. I’d hoped to be at Cascade Locks before now, or even, originally, much further than that. I’m humbled by how hard this has been. By how much my feet hurt (all the time. Still). By how grateful I am to get to town every time we get to town. By how very different this is from bike touring. When we first started, I told hikers who asked that, yes, I was a thru-hiker, going all the way to Mexico. I’ve been less and less ambitious in my self-identification since then. Today I tell a nobo named Toto (he’s from Kansas) who asks if I’m hiking thru, “I thought so, but it turns out I’m too slow to be a southbounder.” Then we chat for a few minutes about bike touring.
Bike touring is how I plan to salvage my fall. I’m going home from Trout Lake. Then I’m going to a wedding in California, and then to another wedding in New York. And then I’m going to ride my bike from Trout Lake to somewhere in California, following Adventure Cycling’s Sierra-Cascades route, which lines up roughly with the PCT. And then I guess I’ll get back on trail and hike to Mexico. One way or another, I’m going to cover this ground.
I’m trying not to be too disappointed in myself. Usually I’m pretty good about following through on my goals. But here’s a thing: many of the nobo thru-hikers we’ve met fall into one of two categories. First there are the cheerful hikers. They ask about views and wildlife; they want to know our plans; they cheer us on and wish us happy trails. Then there are the downtrodden, beaten-up hikers. They’re hiking to finish. They ask about water and terrain. They don’t seem to be enjoying themselves very much. I don’t want to be the second kind of hiker. So I’m quitting, for now, while I’m ahead.
Here’s most of what I feel about getting to Trout Lake, and getting off trail for a while, tomorrow or the day after: relief.