There I was, in Oregon. After almost 1600 miles (or 2575 kilometres) and four months of walking through California, I reached Oregon and everything changed.
It wasn’t the landscape that had changed so much, or the people around me, but the circumstances certainly had. Until now, most things had gone quite smoothly, now it was time to make some hard decisions.
Just after crossing the border with Oregon, a forest fire broke out right behind me and the part of the trail I had just passed was closed down. This made the immediate future quite uncertain, with more thunderstorms and possible fires predicted, and the likelihood that the trail would be full of smoke ahead of us.
In the small town of Ashland, the first Oregon PCT stop, my tramily and I had planned on one single ‘zero’.
But when we arrived, the sky was orange and ash particles were raining down. All the evacuated hikers just behind us and the hikers skirting around the closure gathered in town, it got busier by the hour.
On top of that, more ‘dry’ thunderstorms were predicted. Lightning without rain was rumoured to be the cause of this current forest fire, and more fires might well follow.
We all decided to wait it out another day and see what the thunderstorms would bring.
Ashland was full of uncertain hikers. What next? Many had just seen their dream of an unbroken footpath to the Canadian border shatter, and the atmosphere was slightly downcast. Hikers were discussing their options everywhere we went. Keep walking? Skip to Washington and leave Oregon for later? Take a different route through Oregon?
My tramily was divided as well. Some didn’t want to take the risk of having to walk through smoke for days. They preferred to go up to Washington, which was at its most beautiful in August, and come back to Oregon later, after the fires had been extinguished.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. If the trail hadn’t been re-opened by the time Washington was completed, I knew it would be very hard for me to come back to Oregon later. I was the only international hiker from the group, and the others could potentially come back later in the season or even next year. Flying back next year wouldn’t be an option for me, and my visa would expire in September.
Besides, my hopes for a continuous footpath to the border hadn’t been dashed yet. With a bit of luck, I could still make that happen. Leaving for Washington now would mean arriving at the Canadian border without really being done.
That just felt wrong to me, so I decided to take the risk and keep walking. There hadn’t been any other new closures so far, and I had to at least try.
So after two days in Ashland, we had to say goodbye. Two tramily members continued on with me, two others left for Washington.
Every goodbye is hard on the PCT, as you never know if you’ll see each other again. You can run into someone on the trail a hundred times and then suddenly never see them again. So we agreed to meet up in Seattle after we all finished. With the hard part out of the way, we took off again, not knowing what the future would bring.
The hiking hadn’t changed, but the unending trust that I’d had that everything would work out just fine had taken a bit of a beating. Oregon’s reputation was that of a green, flat state with hordes of blood-thirsty, extremely determined and DEET-resistant killer mosquitoes. We came prepared: bug spray, head net, long pants, quick pace.
The state lived up to its reputation at first. It was green, it was beautiful. Fortunately, there was little smoke from the fires and the terrain, though far from flat, was much easier than in California. We flew through Oregon in three weeks’ time.
And then there were the mosquitoes…
Ah, the mosquitoes. On the afternoon they drove me to despair, I realized this constant maddening attack was far, far harder to me than any river crossing or mountain climbing that had come before. Every inch of bare skin was immediately decorated with a varied collection of itchy, red bites. I had been bitten around 20 times within the hour, even though I was wearing pants, long sleeves and a head net.
I had considered wearing my tent while hiking and had just given up any hope of stopping for a break that day (just thinking about stopping in the midst of those unrelenting, bloodthirsty hordes made me shiver with fear) when a sign on a tree told me: ‘The trail provides’. A popular saying among hikers. What it means is: don’t worry, whatever it is you need, it will come to you.
I’ve encountered that phenomenon before on other travels. If you really, really need something, it will materialize. Sometimes not as you expect it, sometimes not how you expect it, but it will happen. All you need is some faith.
And the trail did provide.
After that first sign, which I mainly took as an encouragement, a second one appeared. It said: ‘Trail magic ahead’. And then another sign. And another one.
Now, if anything can get a hiker to increase their pace beyond even the mosquitoes-high-speed-chase-pace, it’s the promise of trail magic.
Trail magic can take many shapes or forms. It comes in the shape of a ride to the nearest town, a bed in a stranger’s home or someone mailing packages ahead for you. But probably the most welcome sight for a hiker’s sore eyes (or feet) is the unexpected appearance of a trail angel setting up shop along the trail with food, cold drinks and a place to rest. A ‘trail angel’ is anyone who helps a hiker, often even without expecting anything in return, with whatever they need at that moment. Some do it occasionally, some do it structurally, for years and years in a row.
I encountered trail magic in the strangest places and in all shapes and forms. Sometimes it is ‘just’ a can of soda or a bag of chips, or someone sharing a bar of chocolate with you, sometimes you come across entire camps set up with multiple volunteers, making hamburgers, handing out fruit, cookies, drinks or coffee, carrying out your garbage for you, and much more.
These moments easily make your day, and sometimes the days after that as well. Many trail angels are motivated by the fact that they have walked (part of) the trail themselves, or know someone who has. I met many parents of former hikers, for instance.
And that is exactly what happened here in Oregon. After five signs, I rounded a corner and saw an oasis. Or perhaps it was a fata morgana?
People were sitting quietly on chairs and benches. In shorts and T-shirts. Perfectly quiet and without jumping up and down, hitting themselves or running away. With a cold drink and a hotdog in their hands.
‘Ducky’ had walked the PCT a few years before. His parents were here now, handing out hotdogs to this year’s hikers, as they had been doing each year since Ducky had hiked.
There must have been some true magic there. I sat down, gingerly. Not a single mosquito. We sat by a lake. I drank a can of Coke, ate a hotdog and didn’t get bitten once. I ate an ice cream. Still nothing. I asked myself: ‘What just happened?’ I felt myself slowly calming down, just sitting there.
And the amazing thing is that, after that day, there were still mosquitoes, but not to that scale anymore. Annoying, yes. Fear-inducing, no. Perhaps my threshold had changed, who knows, but the rest of the hike, there were never more mosquitoes than I could handle.
Could it be…?
My optimism levels were on the rise again. I made it through California, I made it to the halfway point and beyond, the miles came ever easier and so far there was not a lot of smoke and no additional fires on the path. I was mostly injury-free, apart from some minor inconveniences. There was no reason why I couldn’t make it to Canada. This was real. I could do this.
And then, another fire broke out…
Close to Windigo Pass, another lightning strike had started a new fire just ahead, and 60 miles of the trail were closed off. The only way around it on foot that we knew of at that time involved walking alongside the highway for five days, with cars buzzing right past you, no shoulder to speak of and plenty of drunk and speeding drivers. The alternative was getting a ride around the closure and bypassing it in a matter of hours.
This is where my dream of a continuous footpath ended abruptly. The risk of walking along the highway seemed too high, so we arranged a ride, but it was hard to give this up. I had walked many more bonus miles extra elsewhere on the PCT, so I wouldn’t be cutting down the number of miles walked, but they weren’t PCT miles, and so it felt different.
I’d had this idea in my head beforehand that the only things that could stop me from my end goal would be injuries or accidents, but I simply hadn’t considered fire as a factor in this, silly enough. Isn’t it weird how you can walk thousands of miles and still feel like a failure for skipping 60 of them?
I kept reminding myself that it would be a very acceptable end result if these 60 miles were all that I’d have to skip in the end. Chances of completing the PCT with a continuous footpath seem to be decreasing every year, or so it seemed to me.
We came back onto the PCT at Shelter Cove. Smoke was hanging over the lake there, we could see it being blown across the mountains, but just before we got back onto the trail, it started pouring rain. It made for a welcome change, but unfortunately, it was just a brief downpour. It did help clear the air though.
Surely, everything would be alright in the end. I was back on track, on my way to Canada.