The Book of Tea, 1906Kakuzõ Okakura,
It is Day 110, August 15. We are eager to get away from the crowd of smelly hikers arriving for PCT Days, a three-day social and gear expo event. Shepherd and I prefer solitude. After showering we tuck into gourmet raspberry yoghurt topped with fresh berries and granola, a side of sourdough toast, and a memorable Yorkshire tea. Yum! We’re ready to tackle that massive climb by 7 am.
Until we both experience massive sicky burbs. Too much dairy is perhaps not the best breakfast choice for a strenuous uphill hike. I look forward to my usual staple of hot oatmeal.
Within minutes we stink from the clammy conditions. Laundry was just a time filler. When we briefly stop my sweaty shirt chills me.
Homeless men, masquerading as PCT hikers, join us. How can we tell? They have hiking gear on. They are grubby like the rest of us, but something is astray. They have a mangy little dog who has walked 1500 miles with them which I find hard to believe. Unless the dog is resting on their shoulders. Their cooking gear, hanging off their packs, is enormous and heavy-looking. They have no navigational tools and ask us for directions. The missing teeth confirm my assessment.
They scare me and look unpredictable. They are heading to PCT Days for the free grub. Will trail magic be available for them too? Homelessness exists everywhere. I’m fortunate I have a home. It’s not for me to judge. Scrounging to survive takes guts. Maybe PCT Days will inspire them to embrace nature, change their circumstances, and move forward in their lives.
The highlight of the day is meeting Oberon, a friend of Shepherd’s from Yorkshire. With flowing strawberry blond locks and a cinematic Lord of the Rings face I can see how his likeness to the King of the Faeries referenced in J. R. R. Tolkien’s literature earned him his trail name. Oberon intended to walk the PCT with Shepherd, but he couldn’t secure the same PCT Permit date as hers. Instead of waiting for a chance cancellation, he left a month earlier on his assigned date. He’s now only a month away from completing the whole trail. If he started with Shepherd, as planned, I wouldn’t be here. I hope she likes her second choice of walking partner.
This brief reunion of fellow countrymen is just the medicine Shepherd needs. We have been following Oberon’s PCT blog and spent many minutes estimating the day and time our paths would meet. After a cheerful photo together and best wishes for his epic finish, we head off in opposite directions.
We cross many other young PCT thru-hikers pumping their legs hard to get to PCT Days.
“Today is like Pitt Street,” I announce.
“Is this another one of your Australian sayings?”
“Yes. One of the busiest streets in Sydney since whites settled there in 1788. I’m highlighting the high traffic on the trail.”
“How about using ‘busy’ next time?”
“Not as much fun. You’ve got Buckley’s chance of me doing that?”
Groans and moans in the front row. For the record, ‘Buckley’s chance’ means little or no possibility. Its origin has two interpretations. One refers to a convict, William Buckley (1780–1856), who escaped from prison in 1803 living among Aborigines for 30 years. Few believed he could survive that long in the bush. The other is rhyming slang for a department store founded in Victoria in 1852, ‘Buckley & Nunn’ (meaning ‘None’).
I am such a tease and loving Australian slang. Half the time I’m unaware I’m doing it. It bamboozles everyone, even a Pom. Pom is Australian slang for a British citizen, derived from ‘pomegranate’ and rhyming slang for ‘immigrant’. Many Poms or Pommies arrived in Australia from 1945 to 1972 on P&O and the Orient lines to help populate our country. Small world isn’t it? There are connections everywhere. Shepherd wasn’t one of them. But thanks to Google, via the FRIO website, we connect.
I return to my musings on manners of speech. Shepherd knows plenty of unique British sayings herself. Should I mention spoonerisms next? As these are of British origin. Accredited to Reverend Spooner, a long-serving Oxford don, he made many a linguistical flip-flop. His mind was so nimble his tongue couldn’t keep up, often mixing up the syllables in a spoken phrase. His goofs at the chapel were legendary. “Our Lord is a shoving leopard,” he once intoned. I dare not promote further antagonism for my walking partner raising this one. Never do I see my Shepherd as shoving, pig-headed yes, but always loving.
My thoughts return to the trail. There’s not much to report. A pleasant camping experience at Wahtum Lake. Obstructed views of Mount Hood. Cool and misty with patchy rain. And two miles before our next campsite we reach the 1300-mile mark. We end up walking 19 miles (30.6 km) today. No energy for picking up stones or pinecones or leaf matter to make a sign. Shepherd photoshopped ‘1300’ onto our milestone photo that evening and saved us the extra effort.
Tomorrow we arrive at the famous Timberline Lodge with hikers claiming they offer the best breakfast on the entire trail. They have a campsite, but I want a room. We try the Lodge during the day, but no desperate cajoling can score us a room.
“Heaps of weddings today. Try us again at 4 pm. If we get a guest cancellation, we may have a room available.”
There are two alternative routes today, Ramona Falls and the Paradise Loop, which passes flowering meadows around the base of Mount Hood. We walk both. Ramona Falls is a decent horsetail-shaped waterfall cascading 120ft (37m) onto hexagonal columns of basalt at the base of a cliff. You access it via a pleasant gentle woodland walk surrounded by mossy banks and a fast-flowing meandering stream.
I can’t get Henry Hall’s words to ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ out of my head. This little haven is the perfect location. Has a spell fallen over us? Are we getting disoriented? We walk one mile off course and then retrace our steps before we find the correct pathway at Muddy Fork Junction.
After negotiating a hairy river crossing and a steep three-mile ascent we finally head in the right direction. Drizzle continues. We become clammy inside our rain gear. Conversation dries up. We plod on, wondering when this fantastic agony will end. The mist never lifts. Shepherd aptly summarises our day.
“It’s dramatic nothingness.” Every photo is discardable. All imperfect shots.
After two more killer ascents, we finally reach Timberline Lodge. It’s an impressive building completed by the Works Progress Administration, an American New Deal agency that employed millions of job seekers during the Great Depression. Trade workers and local artisans completed it entirely from local materials. Boulders feature strongly in the heavy rubble masonry of the lower exterior walls. They used Douglas fir, hemlock, western juniper, and ponderosa pine for the upper floors and interior walls. Discarded cedar utility poles were refashioned into decorative carved newel posts for the stairways. They even made the fire screen from repurposed tyre chains and old railroad rail irons. It breathes history, longevity, welcome hospitality, and cosiness. No doubt a fabulous ski destination during winter but also an ideal summer wedding venue.
We reach the reception desk at 4.05 pm desperate for a guest cancellation. After all the earlier knockbacks, we secure the last room. Someone is looking out for us.
Before retreating, we ask the receptionist if we could hold the replica of the ‘Here’s Johnny’ axe that Jack Nicholson used in The Shining horror movie. Shepherd looks unstable when her turn arrives. I flee down the corridor to our room. Once my heart rate returns to normal, we head to the WyEast ski resort building to retrieve our mail.
One box for me and one for Shepherd but she sent two here. It’s the bounce box, not her food resupply, that has arrived.
“Holy Mother of God, why is this happening to us now?” I exclaim, or words to that effect.
It’s Saturday. No more mail will arrive until Monday. We head out tomorrow. I am incredulous at this turn of events. Shepherd is annoyed and fed up. We mailed our food from Cascade Locks two minutes apart and only my resupply box arrived. On the same day, five hours later, she mails her bounce box, and it arrives. We don’t need this inconvenience. Our patience is being sorely tested with this delayed delivery.
“You can share my food and we can both resupply in three days. Ollalie Lake Resort might work,” I propose.
“No, I’m not leaving without my food. It cost me $70.”
“I understand, but what if it never arrives?”
“I have to give it a chance to arrive.”
“But it’ll cost us time if we wait.”
“I’ll camp out the back and hope for the best outcome.”
I love solving problems, but Shepherd rejects every suggestion I put forward. She wants to wait, and I don’t. I have a full six-day supply. I can go.
“Go. You’ll be fine. Text me with your Garmin InReach GPS each night so I know you are okay. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Shepherd has just permitted me to “Hike my own hike.” We have been inseparable for 113 days. Can I walk the PCT without her? Her excellent navigation skills have led to reliance and laziness on my part. I know I can, but walking it alone is a big first for me. Hiking together has been a secure way to hike in this vast and treacherous wilderness. I enjoy highlighting Shepherd’s occasional errors, for a laugh. Will I feel as jolly about it when it’s me making the mistakes? Can I lead myself successfully without her? Shepherd believes I can. There’s only one way to find out. I must take a leap of faith and test myself. Angry as I am, this recent turn of events could be the impetus I need to explore the world of solo hiking.
For now, hunger quietens further discussions. Shepherd buys me a divine meal in the Cascade Dining Room. We eat and talk politely, but I am distracted. Anger, disquiet, and nerves unsettle me.
The next morning the Timberline Lodge all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet becomes my Karen moment. In 2019, Dictionary.com defined Karen as ‘an entitled, middle-aged white woman’. One who likes to be in charge. She complains. A lot. No one wants to be a Karen. It is important to pull back before you reach ‘full Karen’.
Not this morning. The buffet is okay, but full of delectable treats I can’t eat unless I take a large dose of insulin. I want toast and a decent cup of tea. A hot cup of tea. What I get is tepid dishwater. I’m not happy. I call over the waiter and let loose with my complaint.
“I don’t want hot water from a microwave. Don’t you have a kettle for boiling water?” Instead of saying, “I’m sorry you are unhappy with the service. Can I get a hotter cup of tea for you?” he trumps my anger with his tirade.
“Don’t you talk to me like that? I’m only doing my job.”
On reflection, I can see how he interpreted my anger as a personal attack. I try to ease the tension. Shepherd looks to the farthest corner of the room keen to extricate herself from this scene. I apologise, suggest the server convey my complaint to his manager and hope there might be a discount for my dissatisfaction with the tea service. He walks off in a huff with no intention of taking it further and I pay an exorbitant price for toast and tea.
I have become a Karen. To avoid becoming Karen seriously ask yourself: is it worth the fuss? No, it’s not. The stresses of the journey are getting to me. I need to vent my anger elsewhere and not target the clueless server who couldn’t care less for a greying Aussie chick’s preference for a drink Americans only ever serve iced. I need to go for a lengthy walk, write in my journal, and kick a filing cabinet. The first two I can manage. The filing cabinet must wait.
Before vacating our room, I help Shepherd repair her Thermarest sleeping pad. It is now deflating as fast as she can inflate it. She thought she’d mended the leak, but I hear frequent re-inflates throughout the night. Mine is still performing well. The least I can do is help her locate this new leak. It will take us the entire day to locate a bubble the size of a pinprick in a small bathroom sink.
“Let’s take it to the swimming pool and submerge it there.”
“Worth a try.”
After flooding it with water, tiny bubbles reveal a miniscule-sized puncture. Marking the spot with my trusty Sharpie pen I leave it to Shepherd to seal the leak. I hope she’ll be okay, and her food resupply arrives on Monday.
Before my departure, we catch the 9.00 am bus to Government Camp to secure bread, cheese, and salami for our lunches. It’s a quick one-hour round trip. Enough time to buy two more pairs of nice hiking socks from the local outfitter. As I’ve mentioned to Shepherd before, I have a few things I can’t resist.
“Watches, sunnies (that’s sunglasses), baseball caps and socks.”
“What about pearl earrings?”
“Yes, those too. I forgot them.”
“And Fanny Packs?”
“Yes, I love them.”
“How d’you guess?”
“And your favourite shade of lipstick?”
“Well, that’s a given. Infinite Raspberry lifts my mood and is the only thing keeping me on the trail. It seems I can’t get by without a lot of stuff.”
As for Shepherd, she’s too busy looking after her flock, me, to care for fancy apparel. But I got her out of camo gear into Post Office blue. The public and I can now see her in photos and consult with her on postage charges.
At noon, we head to Shepherd’s campsite for the next few nights. With resolute stances, our parting is matter-of-fact and brief. An awkward kiss and hug follow. With nothing more to say, I venture out alone.
This unfortunate resupply hitch may prove beneficial. Time apart may be the medicine we need to help us regroup. No longer able to complete the whole PCT we must try to understand why we’re continuing the journey. Are our hearts still in it? We’ve taken a physical pounding and our mental strength is being tested to its limits, but will emotional fragility be our ultimate stumbling block?
I set out alone on a divine day walking on sandy downward paths peering over deep ravines. Mount Hood looks on from above and the mountain wildflowers offer wonderful compositions. I can dawdle without Shepherd, but I want to prove a point. They say you can walk 25 miles in the easier Oregon terrain. It doesn’t appear easier. There’s plenty of elevation to contend with but overall the path conditions are less hazardous. A lot of soft conifer litter makes for nice, cushioned walking. With a 1 pm departure, I aim to walk 10.5 miles.
Shepherd gives me my route for the day and suggests I aim to camp at Frog Lake. A little before this location, a passing NoBo thru hiker tells me there’s trail magic ahead. Oh, goody! The afterburners are engaged and I motor along eager to find them. A young couple, keen hikers themselves, have set up a gazebo with food and drink. They serve me a feast of fresh vegetables with hummus and a diet soda.
I grab a chair and enjoy a quick chat with them and other PCT thru-hikers. Our hosts talk of their recent summiting of Mount Rainier. Most impressive when they tell me it involves negotiating several deep crevasses. Sounds too much like mountaineering to me but I’m sure it was exhilarating. The day is advancing. I thank them for their generous act of kindness and farewell other PCT hikers still lounging there.
First, I must cross a busy highway. I stand beside it for several minutes, legs too weary for a quick dash. One campsite is available, but too near the highway. A single woman camped here alone, where cars have easy access, looks like a recipe for disaster. I push on for four more miles. Ace, another NoBo PCT hiker, settles in with me around 7 pm at a secluded campsite with a nearby water source. I feel safer here and settle into my routine. Before retiring I plan my route for the next day based on water sources and campsites and Shepherd’s earlier recommendations.
I walk alone for the entire day and find it most enjoyable, but I miss sharing it with someone else. Loneliness and being alone are different experiences. Shepherd and I avoided loneliness yet granted each other ‘alone time’ as we found our speed and rhythm. We spent much of our hike in contemplative silence even when only a few feet apart. Not every minute needed to be filled with constant babble and chatter. The silences were equally connective moments. A striking sunset on a windless night, all the more exquisite when shared with a companion.
How am I faring alone today? I managed 13.7 miles (21.9 km) in six hours. If I had walked an extra six hours in the morning with our usual 6.30 am start, I may have made 25 miles. But doing 25-mile days is a moot point. Further contemplation is pointless. We’ve shortened our journey and I must live with this decision.
Without Shepherd and Medicine Man, I have no excuse for not starting as early as possible. I love watching the dawn and being up this early gives me a greater chance of animal sightings. I aim for a 6.00 am departure but distant howling coyotes and a hooting owl put my plans back 30 minutes. I don’t know how close they are or in what direction, but I don’t fancy angry fangs for breakfast. Once the sounds abate, I set off alone at a cracking pace deep in a wooded forest walking on easy flat cushioned terrain. No wildflowers, mushrooms, or animals. Just peaceful green hues and a 10.30 am message from Shepherd.
“My food has arrived. Meet you at Jude Lake tomorrow around 2 pm.”
“Roger, Great news! Your plan sounds good. Over and out, Kit Kat.”
Ooh! This walkie-talkie communication is fun. I’m back in the 70s with my sisters in the Australian bush playing a childhood game.
Never in my wildest dreams could I envisage the PCT being a part of my life. 10 months prior I did not even know this epic trail existed. A Google search for the best long-distance walk in the world yielded the Pacific Crest Trail. And then finding Shepherd, another diabetic, is ironically the ‘icing on the cake’. The rest you could say is history. Life is a funny thing, but I marvel at everyone’s ability to map their destiny. Go with your gut feeling and embrace life’s opportunities.
Today I have plenty of time to ponder life as I meander around pristine reflective Timothy Lake. A few kayakers are sending gentle ripples towards the shoreline with their rhythmic paddling. The odd fishing dingy with a single occupant awaiting a nibbling trout. And a few overnight campers emerging from their tents to greet me with a cheery hello. Only me heading in a southbound direction. A few NoBos but our greetings are swift and minimal.
As we get to the pointy end of proceedings, hikers are now feeling an increasing urgency to complete their PCT journey. Cheery greetings become smiling grunts with brief stops to chat now a distant memory. Understandable. Most of us have been on the trail for four months. The PCT is still doing its best to break the resilient remaining thru-hikers.
My feet are taking a battering. I no longer need to kill myself trying to walk 25-mile days. I set up camp at Warm Springs River after completing 18.6 miles (30 km). The afternoon has been hot with mild elevation.
I experience a hypo, a mile from camp. What a pain! I don’t want to eat yet, but I must treat it at once. Lows. Highs. If it’s not one, it’s the other. You can spend a lot of time stuffing food in your gob or upping your insulin intake to correct the anomaly. Tonight, I suffer continuous low readings.
I eat a high carbohydrate Lentil-based dehydrated meal for dinner and believe I have dosed correctly. But Shepherd later informs me I should always reduce my insulin dose for pulses and baked beans. Pulses have carbohydrate content but for whatever reason they’re not as carbohydrate-dense as potatoes, pasta, and bread. I didn’t know this important fact. There’s always something you can learn. That’s why it’s handy for us to be together, watch out for each other, and share our knowledge.
When I leave the next morning, I message Shepherd, via GPS, with my ETA (estimated time of arrival) at Jude Lake where she will wait for me. With my walking pace increased to 2.5 miles (4 km) an hour, I estimate a 1.30 pm arrival. She confirms receipt of my message and I continue tracking to this location. So, while I’m walking, what has Shepherd been doing?
I expect Shepherd went back to Timberline Lodge for another breakfast buffet. She likes her food, is prepared to take a megadose of insulin to enjoy it, and they put on an impressive spread. Just not hot tea. Without a Kit Kat rant to spoil her enjoyment, I’m sure the second visit is just the reviver she needs before she starts her unique adventure.
With no post office at Timberline Lodge, Shepherd headed off to Government Camp to mail her bounce box. The next step was getting an Uber to drive her as close as possible to Jude Lake. No Ubers in Government Camp. She caught a bus to Sandy to find one. For a ridiculous price, the driver agreed to take her to Ollalie Resort, near Jude Lake. Most of the journey is on 4WD accessible roads only. He motors along in his sedan car before bees swarm them.
“I’m not driving any further. You need to get out here,” announces the Uber driver.
“Do you expect me to get out while we are being swarmed by bees? You agreed to take me. Please go further or at least wait until I can safely get out of the car.”
She gets a few more miles out of him, the swarm passes, and she alights somewhere, anywhere, who knows where. Shepherd gets out her GPS tracking app and FarOut app and bushwhacks her way through unmarked terrain to Jude Lake. Credit to her. This is courageous stuff. I didn’t realise what was involved in finding her way back to me, while I idly ate my lunch and admired the peaceful terrain.
My reunion with Shepherd feels good and bittersweet. I arrive at 1.30 pm and am raring to go but she’s not ready. I use this opportunity to rest my feet and reflect on the journey so far. Hesitant at first, I am proud of myself for hiking alone. Like Shepherd, I enjoy being the boss. I relished the solitude and the opportunity to get more involved in planning and navigational decisions. We discussed the best campsites for my brief solo journey, but I courageously changed them in the interest of safety and better water sources.
Once Shepherd is ready, we revert to the leader/follower roles that have worked so well for us. I feel trapped and hemmed in. I want to forge ahead. The slower pace is tiring me. So far I have walked 15.3 miles (24.6kms). Impatience builds.
Until we arrive at Ollalie Lake Resort, a popular recreational lake framed by Mount Jefferson, another impressive conical-shaped mountain in the Cascade Ranges. Mount Jefferson is the second-highest mountain in Oregon at 10,495ft (3,199m).
It’s nice to stare at Mount Jefferson as I enjoy a Shandy with the small convenience store stocking Diet 7up and beer. The drink helps ease my impatience and relax my mind. Shepherd and I enjoy a lovely half-hour with other hikers watching kayakers go by. Calmed, we motor on for a few more miles to set up camp at Cigar Lake. I walked 21 miles (33.8kms) today. Brownie points to me for putting in the miles and to Shepherd for finding me.
“‘Red sky in the morning, Shepherd’s warning.’ Isn’t that how the saying goes, Shep?” I enquired the next morning.
“Yes,” my soothsayer responds.
And she’s not wrong. We get an incredible closeup view of Mount Jefferson today before the heavens open. Huddled in our rain gear beneath spindly bushes we try lunch. Soggy or not, we need to eat and rest our feet. Drip! Drip! Drip! Until we can’t tolerate a single drip more. We soldier on and soon come to a burn zone; fire has decimated the trees. There is little regrowth. The exposure here would make for an unpleasant hot weather walk. In contrast, the rain and mist make for a moody and eerie atmosphere.
It continues to rain for the rest of the day. Mileage achieved is the same as yesterday. I set my tent up in the rain at a level campsite, but it’s not my best effort. Tomorrow, only two more days left before we finish Oregon and head to Sisters and Bend for much-needed rest and recreation.
I awake the next day to find myself positioned amid a pond. It feels damp, like the experience I had a few weeks back, but I’m not wet. Once again, the tent is waterproof. The tent floor has tall bathtub sides which prevent me from becoming part of the pond. Pleased to see my investment in a foolproof tent is being rewarded. Better camping knowledge may avoid this pond in the future but I’m not complaining.
Shepherd, a few yards away from me, sits on dry ground. My flat ground looks the same as hers but there must be subtle differences. I’ll ask her opinion next time when I’m forced to set up in similar rainy conditions.
The day starts chilly with persistent fog. I put on my wind jacket for added warmth. “Start cold, be bold,” Shepherd is always reminding me. Not today. Asking for a brief rest stop 15 minutes later to remove it will not please her, but I don’t care.
By noon, a delightful day treats us to magnificent views of Three Fingered Jack–a distinctive eroded basaltic-andesite shield volcano. It forms the highest peak between Mount Jefferson and the Three Sisters mountains. A pyroclastic cone buttressed by radial dikes forms its unique sawtooth-shaped summit.
This is turning into a magic day until we run into my nemesis from the desert.
Shepherd is motoring. As the afternoon progressed, I hurt more. The best I can do is try to keep up with her. The only way I can cope is to put my head down, increase my pace, and block out distractions. I’m making zero headway. Shepherd is far from me. I catch glimpses of her turning corners.
With effort I reach her. Wow! I am making progress. No, you’re not. She is talking to other hikers. This is the only reason you’re close. This is an immense disappointment. But an even huger one when I see to whom she is talking.
Nooo!! Not the know-it-all. Where did they come from? Shepherd is telling them of our revised plans when I approach.
“Uh-huh! Uh-huh!” is his response.
I’m sure Male Nosedive is about to give us his unsolicited advice. I greet them. His lovely wife doesn’t deserve my wrath, but he knows my thoughts on him. He directs his conversation to Shepherd. At least, she is polite, to everybody may I add. He may well have better plans than ours.
I refuse to ask him, but I will remember everything he says. Shepherd won’t remember the details. I note his recommendations in my journal. He is American, he knows the PCT terrain well, and he’s not stupid. There is merit in what he says. It’s just the way he delivers this information that irritates me. The tone is condescending. This may not be correct, but my gut feelings are rarely wrong. Still, in the words of Paulo Coelho, world-renowned Brazilian writer of The Alchemist, ‘Judging a person does not define who they are. It defines who you are.’ A grumpy old woman, perhaps?
Neither Shepherd nor I suggest we sit and chat further. The afternoon is advancing. We excuse ourselves citing the need to cover more mileage before we set up camp. They are heading towards Washington. Phew! But they might join us for the Sierra. Oh, please no! Shepherd knows my views of these section hikers and we resume our plodding without further discussion. Without fanfare, I gain another whopping blister and we put 1,400 miles (2,253 km) under our belts.
I awake the next morning with an upset stomach. I visit my outdoor restroom twice before breakfast and then want to vomit. Could it be a reaction to yesterday’s meeting? Is God punishing me for my lack of compassion? Could it be slight water contamination? I’ve been careful filtering my water and sanitising my hands. I hope the queasiness is just a 24-hour bug. Only four miles today and we exit the trail at Santiam Pass.
We spill out onto a busy roadway and have no success hitching a ride. If it were not for our chance meeting with thru-hikers, Donkey Goggles, and Space Dust at Three Fingered Jack yesterday, we’d still be there. They sent us a screenshot of local trail angels’ phone contact details. We thanked them and thought nothing of it until our smiling faces, taut and toned legs and dancing routines produced nothing but a few tooting horns.
Hitchhiking is illegal in Oregon and narrow verges make pulling over difficult. We call Marilyn from the list. Within half an hour she’s dropped us in downtown Sisters with the usual grace and good humour and no acceptance of payment for her services. So lovely to have a trail angel lift us from our misery and help us when we need it most. A cleansing hot tea with lemon and coffee and muffin for Shepherd awaits us at Sisters Coffee Co.
We saunter around the touristy kitsch shops for a few hours before hunger pangs overwhelm Shepherd. I’m still nauseous and don’t fancy fat of any kind. After I dismiss several options due to substandard décor or greasy menus Shepherd resorts to Google’s ‘Search restaurants nearby’ menu option. Got to give it to her. Within minutes she finds the best establishment of the lot. We enjoy a fabulous meal seated beneath a vine-covered outdoor terrace with several well-dressed ladies who lunch. Grubby clothes and stinky bodies aside, the ladies are keen to engage with us.
“What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“The Pacific Crest Trail.”
“Where does that go?”
“From Mexico to Canada. We’ve walked 1400 miles of it so far.” Aghast stares. “Yes, we know. A ridiculously long way. But we’re having a ball.”
A warm glow envelopes us as we sip our wine and soak up their admiring glances.
Time is ticking away. We need to get to Bend before the USPS post office closes. It could take time with hitching being illegal. We walk to the far end of town and stick out our thumbs. Zero success. It becomes hot and uncomfortable. I look to the sky for inspiration and see a sign directly above us pointing toward the Sheriff’s Office. We might have impressed those ladies who lunch but we’re a little off target at present. Nausea and general trail fatigue must be skewing our compass bearings. This is not the best location to attract motorists prepared to buck the rules.
Just as we decide to move, Mike comes along. He drops us right outside Bend’s USPS Post Office. What a stroke of luck! The generosity and kindness of strangers continue to amaze us. Shepherd joins the queue to collect her mail.
“Sorry, we don’t hold those sized boxes at this post office. Even though you addressed it here we sent it on to another USPS post office across town.”
Super! Our good luck is short-lived. Never get your hopes up. The PCT loves putting you back in your place. We head for our hotel instead.
Close friends of mine gifted us a two-night stay at this fine establishment to acknowledge our efforts to inspire people to follow their dreams. We’re most grateful for this special gift. It makes the physical pain, emotional tension, and mental anguish to get here worth it. Recognition of the Double Ds’ efforts is an uplifting gesture. It’s the boost we need for our last push through the High Sierra to conclude our epic journey.
I head for the shower while Shepherd departs in an Uber to collect her parcel. She has an hour. She does it. A big smile on her face when she returns. We relax on our enormous beds before heading out to enjoy the culinary delights of this town. First, a fine Latin American feast followed by a quick visit to a gelato shop to satisfy my craving for ice cream.
While Shepherd is wandering around the shop, I spot ‘52 great SPAM recipes’ novelty playing cards. She will either love or hate this gift. She’ll hate the weight, but I’ll carry them a distance before I give them to her. When she is struggling for meal inspiration and is on the verge of gagging on her last SPAM single serve, I will whip out this surprise and put a smile on her face. Or get them thrown straight back at me.
“But these are great for camping, Shep–a recipe book and game all-in-one. What’s not to like about it, even if you do hate Spam? How else will we get through this Problem-solving Constantly Trail?” I aim to present them to her at the right moment and lift our mood.
Bend is a great Oregon foodie town. No need for us to resupply here. We can eat ourselves stupid and simply chill out. We have finished walking in Oregon. Just need to work out how to get to the Crater Lake Rim Walk and from there arrange a hitch to Ashland, Shepherd’s next trail angel stop. After that, more transport options to get to South Lake Tahoe in Central California to link with another trail angel.
When working out our final PCT logistics, I thought we could drive from Ashland to South Lake Tahoe but the exorbitant dropoff fees for a one-way car hire are still prohibitive. Our know-it-all male Nosedive friend knew this when we discussed it with him just before reaching Santiam Pass.
“Each to their own. Do what works for you,” he responds. But thinking “I wouldn’t do it that way.”
The bastard is right. His way is the best. I note his suggestions and follow each one. We bus it from Ashland to Klamath Falls and travel overnight on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train to Sacramento. From there we catch a connecting Amtrak bus to South Lake Tahoe. He gave us great tips on where to dine in Bend too. A soothing ale with a covers band by the river at the local brewery. A burger to die for at another establishment. And where to find real espresso coffee.
Even met an Aussie at a cider house. It was comforting to hear an Australian accent. That I understood him stoked him immensely. Every time American patrons enquired about the Wi-Fi password he answered “It’s 123cider.” Sounds logical to me but they keep returning to him complaining the password doesn’t work.
“123cider,” he repeats.
“Just to make sure I have it right, you said 1 2 3 s o d a?” the patron responds.
Love this story. A similar thing happened on trail, with a New Zealander. James was his proper name, but the Americans thought he was saying Chimes. I couldn’t stop laughing at how hikers gifted him his trail name. We speak the same language, but accents are tricky. What one ear hears one way another will hear differently. Makes for interesting interactions.
I digress. We need to get a lift to Crater Lake National Park. This year rangers diverted PCT hikers to the Rim Walk because of sightings of a rogue juvenile male mountain lion on the official PCT route. Sounds reasonable to me. Have never fancied being someone else’s lunch and I much prefer the scenic route.
We appeal to the PCT Trail Angel Facebook page for a lift and see what comes our way. We get a few hits and settle on a ride the following morning to La Pine, a 30-mile drive away. The following day another trail angel couple will pick us up and transport us 60 miles further to Crater Lake National Park. We’ll worry over the hitch out of there to Medford later.
Trail angel Chuck deposits us in La Pine mid-morning and there we stay. We regale the Best Western La Pine receptionist with our best travel stories. She can’t stop oohing! and aahing! at our achievements. We start believing in our own press, but this banter won’t keep us occupied the entire day.
“What can we do here?” we enquire.
“Oh, there’s the State’s biggest Ponderosa Pine tree and a great Lava walk nearby. But you’ll need a car.”
“Is there an Uber or Taxi service in this town we can use?”
“Oh, no. Sorry, none of those services are here.”
Bloody marvellous! Stuck in a town with nothing to do.
“I guess we can eat. Any dining recommendations?”
“Yes, but I’m so sorry. Most of them are closed on Sundays.”
Brilliant. At least the motel is nice, and we can check in right away and ditch our heavy backpacks.
This is a trucker town with big gas stations, greasy food joints, and several supermarkets. Shops line either side of US97 Highway, each dwarfed by soulless bitumen parking lots. We walk along the new footpaths in the blazing sun assessing our entertainment options. A giant plastic rooster invites you to check out Red Roosters. I asked the owner to take a fun photo of us to post on Facebook.
“That’s a mighty big c…!” from my husband. I was asking for that.
Inside, the restaurant is drowning in every ceramic rooster ever made. Display shelves line the walls, and they are dangling from the ceiling. I guess every one of us has their preferred collectibles–why not roosters or c… s?
Tonight, as the Uber Eats advertisements go, we’ll dine on supermarket-purchased roast chicken, salad, and a can of wine sitting on our beds watching Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop and Tom Cruise in Top Gun. ‘Highway to the Danger Zone, Gonna take you, right into the Danger Zone.’ Fabulous nostalgic movies.
Our standards have dropped. The best part: it doesn’t take much to please us anymore. We’re becoming satisfied with less every day. I’m enjoying fewer blisters as each day passes. I use the opportunity for more self-surgery on my corns and bandage my feet for our Crater Lake Walk tomorrow.
At 8.15 am Annie and Jary Winstead arrive to transport us the 60 miles south to start the Crater Lake Rim Walk. We wasted a few days getting to Crater Lake, but you mustn’t miss the Rim Walk. It’s the deepest lake in the USA at 1,943ft (592m) and is famous for its deep blue colour and water clarity, at 143ft (44m). Formed when a 12,000-tall volcano called Mount Mazama erupted and collapsed 7,700 years ago, the volcanic basin, called a caldera, filled with water to become the Crater Lake we know today. No streams flow in or out of the lake. Only precipitation, evaporation, and seepage maintain the water level. Within the lake, you can see Wizard Island–the top of a cinder cone volcano.
Annie and Jary have been to Crater Lake often. Their love of the great outdoors brought them together. Their enthusiasm is infectious. While they find our stories interesting, I find their story of enduring love heart-warming. Their generosity, as trail angels to so many PCT thru-hikers, is wonderful to behold. It’s a privilege to have met them. A quick photo on the rim and they farewell us, not accepting any payment for driving us a considerable distance.
We head south. The day heats, the hazy skies subside, and the water is a striking ultramarine blue. We need water. Shepherd has left a two-litre bottle in their car. They are long gone. I give her one of my mine. Today, I’m not feeling the love for walking although the Lake is exceptional. We may have had too much time off the trail or general trail malaise continues. Expecting to walk 10 miles today, we call it quits after six miles. We drink an icy Diet Coke at the Lodge and decide against continuing the extra four miles to hitch a lift to Ashland. The path walks away from the Rim and Mazama Village is an overpriced pit stop.
Maybe we can secure a lift here instead. There are plenty of holidaymakers. We soon find their cars are full. No room for the Double Ds and their hefty backpacks. Feeling glum and disillusioned it surprises us when the driver of the Mazama Village Courtesy Trolley Car steps out, loads our packs, and drives us straight to Highway 62 where it should be easy to catch a lift. How nice of him.
A pity. There are no safe verges for cars to stop with several other hitchhikers trying their luck here too. We need distance from them to give ourselves the best chance. I suggest to Shepherd we walk back to the park entrance, a half mile away, which has plenty of space for cars to pull over. She stalls. Hitching in full view of the toll collector feels wrong. No time for niceties.
“I’ll ask him if it’s alright for us to hitch here.”
I’m unsure whether I’ll get a favourable response. Time to apply the charm with a sprinkling of old-age fragility.
“Oh, sure guys. That’s fine with me.”
I give Shepherd the thumbs up and then the universal hitchhiking thumbs up sign to every car that passes. Within minutes a lovely Indian couple from San Jose pull over to offer us a lift. When we tell them our destination is Medford, 60 miles south, they say they can’t help; they are taking a different route. Another couple pulls up and offers us a lift 20 miles south. We’re on the brink of accepting this ride when the Indian couple, still stopped ahead, announce they can reroute their journey for us and take us the entire way. Amazing luck!
We thank the other couple and head for the first couple’s car. I take my backpack with me as old hands advise: ‘Never part with your backpack when you hitch’. There are plenty of hitchhiking horror stories of people handing over their backpacks only to see the car speeding away without them. Without your pack, your hike is over. I dare not imagine the inconvenience and cost of replacing its contents such as passports, credit cards, and gear.
Shepherd may not have these concerns. The husband gets out and opens the cluttered trunk. Shepherd stuffs her pack in as best she can. Once everything is aboard, we enjoy a delightful trip talking non-stop to this lovely couple. We give them trail angel status, take a farewell photo, and head to a shopping mall in Medford to enjoy a drink and sort out how to get to Ashland only 13 miles away.
Medford is a big transport hub so Ubers will be available. What a day, as we sip our Starbucks concoctions in an uninspiring Food Court from the 70s. Blank faces look at us from other unwiped wobbly laminate tables. Best to get a move on if we are to arrive in Ashland before dark. The trail angel, storing Shepherd’s insulin, has said we can camp in her backyard.
Backpack on. Check. Retrieve trekking poles. Check. Glasses and hat. Check. Turn GPSs off as we no longer need them for road travel. Should have done this earlier. Check.
“No check” from Shepherd.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not on my pack. I can’t find it.”
That Problem-solving Constantly Trail (PCT) has kicked in again.
“Let’s retrace our steps. It could have fallen off in Starbucks, the car park, or the parking spot where Arun and Anita dropped us.”
We look everywhere without success.
“It’s in the couple’s car. I just know it,” utters Shepherd. “I had to shove my backpack in hard and the clip holding it to my pack has loosened. It’s in their trunk.”
“Is it still turned on?”
“Well, maybe we can track it. If that fails, we must rely on my GPS and stick together. Let’s focus on getting to Ashland.”
I can feel her pain. This is an expensive piece of equipment. We have looked after them. It’s an unfortunate mishap. It’s been an exhausting day. Dinner, or tea in Shepherd’s case, beckons.
An Uber ride drops us in downtown Ashland for a lovely meal at a rather flashy joint–the best macaroni cheese for me and Shepherd’s favourite–Battered Cod and Fries with Vinegar sauce–the British way.
The trail angel’s home is only a short walk away, but we have trouble locating the exact number. We walk side alleys and lanes by the same name trying to locate it. We admit defeat and phone for directions. Jeannie-Marie walks out of a house nearby and calls to us. We lurch towards her smiling form. Inside she introduces us to her adopted disabled son, her granddaughter who lives with her, and Ranger, a large calm chestnut Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
The house is small, hence the reason we need to camp in the backyard. Jeannie-Marie has enough challenges in her life, but she’s all cuddles and happiness on a stick. Her family laps up every bit of her affection before she showers them with more. Where does she find time for trail angeling? We put aside our misery as we witness the generosity of others.
Jeannie-Marie takes us around her backyard pointing out her impressive-sized home-grown squashes and her plastic aboveground swimming pool. It’s getting dark. I’m eager to pitch my tent. I don’t want to pierce her prized squash and pool with my tent stakes.
I can see the next morning’s scene.“Sorry Ma’am. There’s a flood in your backyard, and you weren’t planning on entering that twisty 15-inch marrow in a county show anytime soon, were you?”
I harm nothing and fall into a deep sleep. Shepherd stays awake. She contacts her partner in the UK and they locate her GPS. Garmin, the company that licenses the device, confirms you can locate your GPS if it still has a charge. They located the GPS in Weed, Oregon at a Motel 6. In the young Indian couple’s car.
We know their names and where they live but we don’t have their surname. Shepherd decides this limited information may be enough. She rings the Motel 6 receptionist and explains her predicament.
The night receptionist passes her message on. Arun rings Shepherd in the morning. He has checked his trunk and they have the device. They’ll mail it express post to South Lake Tahoe and Shepherd will reimburse them via a Western Union money transfer.
My, oh my! I understand if she wants to quit the trail right here and now. How much more can we take? We have another 11 hours of travel over the next two days before we reach South Lake Tahoe to resume the last stretch of our PCT journey.
Whatever Shepherd wants I will oblige. Food. Yes. We head out for breakfast where we both feast on healthy homemade goat’s milk yoghurt with granola and fresh berries in hand-glazed earthenware bowls. Next, lunch with our trail angel and her son at a place of my choosing because the décor and menu appeal to me.
Shops open late in Ashland, but I’ll wait. There is an outfitter in town I must visit. The popular Darn Tough sock brand has black bear-designed socks that are mine for the taking. Shepherd rolls her eyes at me. Again.
“How about this trucker hat then?” I strike a pose.
“No, for the tenth time, your head is too small. Like me, your ears stick out and you look stupid.”
“But Shep. I want one.” The lady brings out a suitable Outdoor Research alternative baseball cap in blue. “Yes, this works but I have this same hat. I want something different, and I love those trucker hats with the mountain artwork on them.”
“Not going to happen,” Shepherd matter-of-factly replies. “E-V-E-R.”
Spoilsport. Guess shopping is not one of our shared passions. I’m not finished yet. I find cute metallic cat earrings. They weigh little, and they will be a wonderful reminder of my Kit Kat days. Shepherd leads me away from further temptation.
Once we’ve completed our chores, our trail angel drives us to the bus stop to resume our southwards journey around 4 pm. Most appreciative, with the stifling heat. We exchange hugs and pleasantries and hope our paths might cross again one day. It has been another lovely stay. We board the bus for our one-and-a-half-hour journey to Klamath Falls.
The bus deposits us in a deserted industrial part of town. There are no amenities available until check-in around 8.30 pm. Another meal awaits. How far we are prepared to walk at dusk in a seedy part of town to find it? I leave it to Shepherd. We get a brewery pub, far enough away for feet to ache, but not far enough to exclude from consideration. We order without consulting the menu.
A couple alongside us is having a romantic meal. I remember the days when your date worked hard to impress you within their meagre budget. I hope she appreciates his efforts. At least, they look happy. Unlike Shepherd and I who are thinking more and more of reuniting with our partners. A half-hearted smile passes between us. We trudge back to the Station to check in our bags.
We join the queue and wait our turn as a dreadful stench permeates the station. I flick back my legs and check my shoes for dog poo. Nope. Am I the culprit? I head to the Ladies for closer inspection. Nope, no skid marks in my underwear but the smell persists. I exit the cubicle and am confronted by a half-naked woman, wiping her bottom with a paper towel. The floor is littered with soiled ones. Ewww!! She mumbles an apology, but I exit quickly.
We’re travelling cattle class this time to save money. We may find ourselves seated next to this fellow passenger. I practice breathing through my mouth to eradicate the pungent odour. I’m ashamed of my lack of compassion for this woman as she struggles for dignity in dire circumstances. How privileged am I to be doing the PCT? I call myself ‘hiker trash’ and live a homeless existence, but I have chosen this temporary life. I tolerate extreme discomfort to complete the PCT, but it’s finite. If I become too uncomfortable on the trail, I have the funds to seek decent shelter and sustenance. Surviving suburbia is enough for this woman. Her life is one of extreme hardship. She may wonder why we put ourselves through the torture of the PCT and call it a fun experience. Is there a message for me seeing this woman’s distress? Should I have offered to help her? What will her presence teach me?
I acknowledge these thoughts but put them aside. It’s time to board the train, a huge two-storey affair with a variety of interesting characters–the homeless woman, the elderly and frail, disabled people, weirdos, and families with small children. We locate our seats. They recline. I am asleep within minutes and manage a restful six-hour nap. Shepherd, not so, but that’s no surprise.
Freight trains always get priority over passenger trains. They delay our arrival in Sacramento by two hours. Fortunately, the Amtrak bus connection to South Lake Tahoe doesn’t leave for a while. Time for breakfast. Shepherd wants hot. I want Starbucks. We head in opposite directions: the best way now is to tolerate each other’s preferences and annoying habits. On our return, we retrieve our packs and promptly head for the bus stop. There, a charming police officer engages us in light banter.
“Where are you heading girls?”
“South Lake Tahoe to complete the best of the PCT.”
He grills us on the PCT. We know what the acronym means: Pacific Crest Trail or Problem-solving Constantly Trail. We’re familiar with key towns. We sound every bit the real thru-hiker. Does he think this older grey-haired woman is doing something illegal? I smile effusively. Finally, his suspicions ease and he becomes genuinely engaged in our story.
Our grubbiness is making us look suspicious despite our best efforts to keep clean and well-groomed. I briefly wonder if the homeless woman will have access to a shower. Can’t imagine the police officer bothering to interrogate her. Our grubbiness they see as a cover. Hers, a badge of pity. But the police presence is reassuring in areas of high civilian traffic. It’s not all guns and shootouts here. Most Americans are fine people.