Blueberry fields forever

September 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ashland to Bend – 253 miles 13 days Total: 1989 miles 130 days + 19 zero days

So it’s with a brand new pack that I left Ashland. I also took off with a new pair of hiking poles as well as a new pair of shoes. I bought sturdy boots this time as I wanted them to last the rest of the way and not a mere 600 miles like the last pair, but sturdy meant I had to break them. At 20 miles a day it only took a couple of days to break them but at 20 miles a day your feet have a long time to make it pretty clear that they hate your guts for what you’re putting them through. O boy, they hurt!

Oregon was a thermic shock. We had been warned, we knew Oregon and Washington would be wet and cold, especially as we’re late in the season, but we didn’t expect such a sudden change. Two days out of Ashland, we were hot and sweaty, cursing the weight of the extra warm clothes we now carried, for nothing it seemed. But on the 3rd day, the temperature dropped drastically. While hiking, we enjoyed it a lot, it was a relief from the heat and it was different, finally a taste of fall after the long summer of the last months. But the next morning it wasn’t so much fun as we woke up to frost on the tent and frozen Nutella in its jar! It turned out it was only a cold front and it hasn’t been so bad since. Nights do have become chilly though but days are still warm. Days are getting shorter too, it has become harder to fit all those miles during daylight hours.

The terrain has indeed been gently graded in Oregon but we haven’t quite reached the 25-30 miles days. First, there were my new boots. Then, there were the blueberries, yummy! Isabelle often waited for me as she couldn’t see me anymore down the trail and she was worried my feet were hurting in my new shoes. When I arrived, she would ask me how my feet were and I would answer that they were doing ok and flash her a blue smile. Yes, I had been picking wild berries along the way again.

And then I got sick 10 miles out of Crater Lake National Park. We were in the middle of a 20 miles dry stretch, we carried enough water to go all the way to Mazama Village that night so there was no choice but to keep going. So I hiked when all I felt like was to curl in a ball on the ground. I hiked 10 miles with an empty stomach, feeling like crap. In the last few miles I got so weak that Isabelle carried my backpack. I’m so grateful she was there, I don’t know what I would have done on my own out there. I don’t think neither of us would have made it that far if it wasn’t for the other one, helping you through the hard times, finding the strength for two, pulling you up when it takes all one’s energy to keep one’s own head at the surface. We make a hell of a team! The next morning it was Isabelle’s turn to be sick so we had no choice but to take a zero day and spend it in bed.

And then it rained and snowed, which means we didn’t get views of the volcanoes the Three Sisters. But the volcanic landscape we crossed with its jagged black rocks, red earth, volcanic cone powdered with fresh light snow under drifting clouds in the cold wind had an apocalyptic and savage beauty. We ended this section by sheltering from the rain and cold in the pit toilets on McKenzie Pass while waiting for a ride to come pick us up and get us down into the town of Bend!

We have to give it to Oregonians, they do have a beautiful state. The green and humid forests of Oregon are more enjoyable to walk through than the dry North Californian woods. And it’s been a succession of sweet spots. Crater Lake is gorgeous. Once we recovered from our sickness, we climbed the last miles up to the rim of the lake. You’re close to the top, you can’t see it yet, but you know it’s right there, you have the same feeling of anticipation as you get to the top of a mountain pass and you can’t wait to see what lies beyond and BAM! here it is, huge and magnificently blue. Knowing that you’ve walked about 1800 miles just for that view makes it even better. About 8000 years ago we wouldn’t have been standing next to the deepest lake in the US but at the base of the big volcano Mt Mazama. It blew up and left a giant crater that, once volcanic activity ceased, filled with snow melt and rain water. The colors of the spectrum get absorbed by water at different depths, blue is the last wavelength to go. Crater Lake is so deep that only blue gets reflected, which explains its incredible color. From the rim we got a last view of Mt Shasta (we first spotted it about 500 miles ago!), now tiny in the distance but still towering over its surroundings. Crescent Lake was another great spot. We camped close to the shore with views of Diamond Peak, a loon calling across the waters. An elk crossed our path without even glancing at us, a coyote watched us pass from a distant meadow, colorful skies have ended and started our days.

We spent 2 days in Bend getting the last gear required to survive the potential cold, rainy and snowy times ahead of us and getting around the loss of our bounce box with our maps and guidebook somewhere in the US postal service system. It’s already tough enough to hike all those miles, even more so now, the last thing you need is having to spend more energy and time handling the logistics of the trip. But well… Bend is a nice town and it has no less than 7 breweries… ;-) We stayed at a trail angel’s house. Robin is an amazing person. She let us stay at her place and use her car to get around town. Isabelle was happy to live the oh-so-American experience of using a bank’s drive-thru ATM!

Tomorrow we’ll be skipping 17 miles of trail and getting further than the 2000 miles marker as a small portion of the PCT is closed following a fire. We’ve past the high point of the Oregon-Washington segment of the PCT a few days ago so from now on we won’t go higher than 2300m. Keep your fingers crossed that we won’t run into too much bad and cold weather!

The fall of the bison and the rise of the bird

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

O mighty Tatonka,

You have seen the world all over

You have grazed the hills of Corsica

You have galloped the plains of the land Down Under

You have munched the tall grass of South America

-

O bison of glory,

When you started this adventure

You had had a full life already

Now you are headed for the final pasture

The hardships of the trail took you down without mercy

-

O fierce buffalo,

Nothing can soothe my grief

Rest in peace wherever you go

You shall not step with me into the land of the maple leaf

Forever through my soul sorrow for your loss will echo

-

But from your ashes, o mighty Tatonka,

Rose the majestic Osprey

North it flies away

Onward to Canada

-

For all of you none backpack nerds out there, which probably means everybody except Celine ;-), this is an ode to my old backpack – of the brand Tatonka, whose symbol is a buffalo – that I sadly had to get rid of as the metal frame broke and was poking me in the butt cheek, and another part was threatening to attack me in the kidney. So I bought a new pack – of the brand Osprey, whose symbol is the bird of the same name. We’ve been living with little possessions for the last 5 months, we should know better than to get attached to the material world but even so you love your gear so here’s a last tribute to my faithful Tatonka!

Bye bye California!

September 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Seiad Valley to Ashland, OREGON!!! – 64 miles 3 days Total: 1726 miles 117 days + 16 zero days

Yessss! After about 1700 miles, 4 months and much longing for Oregon, we eventually crossed the state line on the 8th of September. California hasn’t been bad but it was just way too long and, especially with the recent hard times, we were in great need of a milestone to make us feel like we were going somewhere.

Oregonians love their state. If you believe them, their state is the best. But as we can’t take their word for it, we had to go check for ourselves. We haven’t been here for long but we love it already!

We hadn’t walked 20 miles from the border that we stumbled on trail magic. Ashland is lovely. It has parks and greenery, art galleries, great restaurants, theaters, street art, nice shops… It’s the most European town we’ve been to yet, all it’s missing is a pedestrian street. And locals have bought us breakfast the other day!

We have great hopes for Oregon. We’ve been told it’s flat and easy hiking, that you can easily do 25-30 miles a day. So let’s see if Oregon holds its promises. Less than 1000 miles to go!

Do you still choose to hike to Canada?

September 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mt Shasta to Seiad Valley – 156 miles 9 days Total: 1662 miles 114 days + 16 zero days

I wasn’t quite right in my last post. We weren’t ready to keep on yet. We had checked out of the motel that morning, our town to-do list was fully ticked off, we were having an early dinner and the plan was to get back to the trail that evening. It was already 5pm and by the time we got a ride it would be too late to hike very far. Our reason was telling us to get back to the trail anyway so we could get an early start the next day and do most of the climb in the coolest hours but the idea of another movie night and of sleeping once more with one of those plump motel pillows was really tempting. We were debating what to do, hesitating, no one dared to take a final decision when, to help make a choice, so we wouldn’t be afraid to voice our opinion, Isabelle suggested we wrote on pieces of paper what we really wanted to do. And that was it! “You know what I REALLY want. I want to stay.” I said. So did Busted Magic. I turned to Isabelle: “And you, what do you REALLY want?” “I want to stay too!” So that’s what we did!

“Hang on past 1500 miles and it’ll get better.” a PCT thru-hiker friend of Busted Magic had told her. We hung on and indeed it got better! The last sections were beautiful. We hiked mainly along ridges and got great views of the rocks of Castle Crags, Mt Shasta, yet from another angle as the PCT skirts it, and we could even still distinguish Lassen Peak in the distance. The Trinity Alps, the Russian Wilderness and the Marble Mountains were gorgeous. We also had some encounters that comforted us and boosted our confidence. First, Marie, who helps hikers in Seattle and who was section hiking with her husband, reassured us that it’s possible to finish end of October, hikers have already done it. Another section hiker bowed down on one knee in front of us because we went through the Sierras with all the snow. And it wasn’t just anybody, that section hiker was no less than Strider, the head of kick-off! However, we couldn’t help noticing that him and his friend, who thru-hiked a couple of years ago, were both wearing knee braces. A thru-hike memory?

We got the fastest ride ever going into Etna. As soon as we arrived at the trailhead, we heard a car coming, we ran to the road (it’s a road known to have little traffic) and put our thumbs up. The car stopped and we got picked up by two gold miners. That’s one of the things I love about the trail. You get rides from the most random people and you get to places you would never go to otherwise – under freeways, in small towns like Sierra City, Belden, Etna… From Etna we rode back to the trail in the back of a pick-up truck. We swore never again. The three of us were sick and had to concentrate not to vomit.

“A thru-hiker is a slave to daily mileage.” a hiker wrote in the PCT register in Etna. Miles do become an obsession. You have a high number of miles to do in a limited number of days. If you choose to hike it all the way, there’s no escaping counting the miles. Which leads to the question I’ve been asking myself lately as there has been days when I have felt stressed to do the miles and there has been nice places we couldn’t stop in for a day as we’re running out of time: “Do you still choose to hike to Canada?”

Is this the Pacific Crest Trail you want? Wasn’t the reason you undertook this trip: to take the time? It’s not the destination but the journey that matters. It’s with a reasoning along these lines that you were able to take a decision about the PhD. What do you make of this saying now? You learn a lot from identifying your limits and pushing them further but how far is too far? When does it stop to be worth it?

A section hiker told us we were his heroes, another said we are royalties among hikers. You can often sense a feeling of superiority among thru-hikers. And I’ll admit I have sometimes thought that we were better because what we do is harder. But now I think we’re nuts and section hikers are clever, they do it the smart way. My next backpacking trip will be a 5-days hike that I’ll take 10 days to complete. There is truth in what our dad said: “Sometimes it takes more courage to stop than to keep going no matter what.”

But despite all this, yes, I still choose to hike to Canada. I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it myself but Canada is calling and I feel compelled to answer. It’s the goal we set ourselves. We’ve given too much already not to agree to the little sacrifice required to make it to Canada. We hurt and it’s tough – to give you an idea how tough I’ll quote Isabelle: “Once I’ll have thru-hiked the PCT, I think I’ll be ready to give birth.” – but overall we’re still having an amazing time. We get our kicks from days when we go for the sport, the speed, when we push our bodies as well as from days when we stroll leisurely. It’s just a matter of finding the balance between the two. But again it’s such madness, what pushes you to hike to Canada, whatever that is, feels so strong that you expect something big to explain it and all the reasons you find don’t seem enough. Once more let’s live the question!

Halfway!

August 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Sierra City to Mt Shasta – 309 miles 18 days Total: 1506 miles 105 days + 15 zero days

1325 miles. That’s the distance that lies behind us and that’s the distance that still lies ahead. The midpoint is a crucial point. You feel like celebrating and you feel depressed. It can boost your energy level and give you the strength to keep going or it can make you quit faced with the immensity of the task still at hand.

Standing at the mexican border you are crazy and unconscious; 2650 miles is just a number, a pretty big one and, yes, looking at the map you can see it’s a very long way but you don’t know what it means on the ground, you only have the faintest idea of how much sweat, energy and pain it will take you to cover that distance. Standing at the halfway point you are still crazy – some things don’t change – but you’re not so unconscious anymore, you know exactly what 1325 miles means because you’ve just hiked it, every single step of it. And you have to do it all over again! It seems so huge, it’s so daunting, there’s no way you’re hiking that distance again, it’s not possible. So I’m sorry, guys, but I have to tell you that…

… we kept on hiking. Because then you take a grip on yourself and you use the same strategy you used at the start of the trail. You break down the journey in smaller, more manageable parts: about 400 miles and we’re out of California, 400 more miles through Oregon, 500 miles in Washington and we’re in Canada. Anyway, the midway point is in the middle of the woods, you have to hike 10 miles to get to a road. By then you’ve already hiked 10 more miles so why not just keep going? And hopefully it’ll just work out the same way as when you started the PCT. You just have to give the hike the initial impulse, you just have to hike a few miles ignoring the doubts and the questions, and then, when the hike has gained enough momentum, it becomes self-sufficient, the hike feeds off itself. You don’t question the hike anymore; you hiked yesterday, you are hiking today and you will hike tomorrow.

Isabelle’s first pair of shoes took her beyond the halfway point. They bravely and faithfuly carried her 1377 miles. But by the look of them they deserved to rest in peace. After an emotional goodbye they followed my shoes in the bin.

One of my numerous falls eventually led to a fatal issue. I got the usual scratches and bruises but my hiking pole didn’t survive, it broke in two. I have now been walking about 300 miles with a shortened duct taped and wood splinted hiking pole.

The rare views we get these days are of an infinity of trees, forest as far as the eye can see. Only volcanoes break the green monotony. Lassen Peak, first looming in the distance, then growing bigger as we hiked before disappearing as Mt Shasta entered the scene. Mt Shasta is a huge mountain, made up of four volcanoes, standing tall on its own; it’s gorgeous.

We stopped at the Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Lassen National Park. This place is hiker heaven made real. It’s the kind of fancy place you expect wouldn’t welcome smelly dirty hikers but they do and what a welcome! You get shower, laundry (that is done for you!) and use of the swimming pool fed by hot springs for free. For 10$ you get dinner at the restaurant there: bread and butter, salad, main meal, dessert and hot chocolate, and the hikers get to finish all the leftovers. It’s dumpster diving without the actual dumpster diving, it’s dumpster diving in class!

One night we were camping in the woods near a road in the company of Busted Magic. It was dark, Busted Magic was cowboy camping next to our tent, Isabelle was already asleep and I was slowly drifting towards slumber when I heard noises like a large animal’s footsteps. Suddenly, Busted Magic was yelling with such urgency in her voice: “Girls, you need to get out, you need to get out!”. The next thing we knew, something was pushing against our tent. I couldn’t understand what was happening. What creature comes running out of the woods and attacks a tent just like that? Isabelle was thinking that it was a damn stupid bear as it was on the opposite side from the food and she suggested we make noise to scare it away. So here we were both screaming and I swear it was to frighten the bear and not because we were two little girls scared shitless. And that’s when we realised, as Busted Magic was now begging us to let her in, that she had been the one pushing against our tent. She had heard the loud thumping too, it had freaked her out as she was alone outside, she had looked for protection – a tent to a hiker is like the bedcovers to a kid having nightmares; you are safe in a tent, nothing can happen, nothing can get to you when you’re in your tent – she had freaked us out and that’s how you end up with 3 girls screaming in the woods in the night. We never found out what had made the noise but it was certainly gone, scared to death, the minute we all started screaming. What a night! We’ve been hiking with Busted Magic for 2 weeks now and thank God the nights have been much quieter. It’s been much fun hiking in her company. Adam and Luke joined our crew this last week but we had to say goodbye to Luke as he was going home, and Adam is skipping ahead.

The last sections have been really hard on the morale. Trail and environment facts, doubts and feelings converge at this point of the trail making it the most mentally challenging part. There’s the halfway point, that never seems to arrive at first, and then, once you eventually reach it, it doesn’t make it any better as it means you still have to do this all over again. Then it’s the Oregon border that never seems to come; you hike and hike and you’re still in the damn state of California, it feels like you’re not making progress.

Northern California is like the desert again. It’s freaking hot and the ground is dry and dusty, we sweat lots, our feet hurt and we get dirt all over. There are rattlesnakes again, the desperation in Isabelle’s voice when she saw the first one: “Oh no! It’s got a rattle on its tail…”. There was a 29 miles dry stretch. We did a 27 miles day to get to water that night. I ended up with a nasty blister under the sole of my foot. Spirits were low and we had dangerous ideas the next morning as by life’s weird sense of humour we were awaken by the calls of Canadian geese! As there are not many views in the forest, all you have to concentrate on is the ground and your footing. It makes for fast walking, but it’s dumb walking, it’s walking for the sake of doing miles. And we’ve been hiking a lot in the forest these days.

Hikers we know have quit or skipped whole sections. It’s always hard for the first person who takes the step. Once somebody has done it, it gets much easier to take that step, it reduces the shame and the guilt. Most hikers are feeling low at that point of the trail so we tend to drag each other down but it’s also because of other hikers that you hang on, you can’t let them down.

Depending on the weather in October up north, we might be forced to drop out before the end of the trail. We have a very purist vision of a thru-hike: in one go, in a straight line. So as doubts that we might not make it to Canada arise, a question creeps up: “What’s the point of keeping on if we don’t make it to the end?” The terrain has turned to rolling hills so as the walking has gotten easier and the window to get to Canada is getting narrower, we’ve started hiking faster and longer each day. But it has gotten too far, we’ve become obsessed by the number of miles, anything short of a 20 miles day has turned miserable to our eyes and there’s only so many days of mad hiking your body and your mind can take before you get tired, you feel you’re rushing, you’re not enjoying the hike anymore and you’re even more tempted to quit.

So we decided to take it easy for a few days. We took a zero day at Burney Falls to enjoy a swim in Britton Lake and the gorgeous waterfalls. The water rushing down the falls comes from snowmelt and travels underground before reaching the surface only one mile upstream from the falls. The next day we hiked out but stopped for a long break at a swimming hole. We’ve treated ourselves to a movie in Mt Shasta, the first movie in 4 months! We’re now ready to keep on. Only 200 miles and we’re out of California, yeah!

1093 miles on foot wears your shoes down

August 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

Bridgeport to Sierra City – 179 miles 11 days Total: 1197 miles 87 days + 13 zero days

And being soaked for days on end in the Sierras didn’t help. So I had to get a new pair in South Lake Tahoe, which means I’ve been dealing with sore feet again lately. Isabelle too, but because her shoes are too old and damaged!

We always look forward to getting into town but usually as soon as we’re into town we only want to be back on the trail. Life is simple on the trail. We just walk. Time in towns is stressful, we have to take a shower, do laundry, buy supplies, give news, update the blog… But it was particularly hard for us in South Lake Tahoe. Too many cars, too much noise and once again a hiker-nightmare town. I cursed a lot against America but I had to take it back. Americans are great people. We were at an outfitter looking for shoes but it didn’t have my size so the owner was recommending another store 5 miles away and looking up the bus info for us to get there when another customer, Doug, offered to take us there. He drove us to the other store, waited till we were done, drove us to the post office so we could send away the snow gear and the bear canisters as we didn’t need them anymore – Thanks Anchor! Our packs are so much lighter now! – waited some more and then took us back to the trail. It was such big help, thanks so much Doug!

We celebrated the Swiss National Day and our 3 months on the trail on the 1st of August. We only remembered the three first sentences of the Swiss anthem so we sang a medley from the anthem, “Lioba” and “La haut sur la montagne l’etait un vieux chalet”. We only discovered the Swiss Chalet restaurant in South Lake Tahoe the next morning so, although we were craving for a cheese fondue, we had to make do with the closest food, geographically speaking, that we could find: greek cuisine at the Artemis Mediterrean Bar and Grill. It was delicious! We nursed our continentsickness there at dinner and lunch the next day. We miss Europe. We miss its class, its food – we’re sick of burgers – its pedestrian-friendly towns full of character and charm…

The trail has gotten much easier and is almost free of snow now. We’ve done the most difficult. We broke our record: 23 miles in one day – ah, the face of the guys when we rolled into camp that night! They weren’t expecting us. Physically, we’re capable of doing 20 miles day and more. All is in the mind now, and the power of the mind on the body is incredible. There are times when you’re so tired you think you can’t go any much further but then a storm’s coming in, mosquitoes are chasing you or you see the rest of the group is just ahead and not miles away, and suddenly you can go for miles.

Unfortunately as we dropped in elevation again, we lost the spectacular views. I didn’t feel like taking pictures for days. We mostly walked through forest, which I’m afraid as the same potential as the chaparral to become boring, but sometimes through fields of wild flowers and scented bushes. The trail got “sexy” as we went around The Nipple and over Dicks Pass ;-) We got some views back near Lake Tahoe as there was a lot of great hiking along ridges. And we slept in luxury two nights in a row in huts along the trail. We’ve been walking just the two of us again these days.

We’re now in the adorable small town of Sierra City resting for a day and enjoying Bill and Margaret’s amazing hospitality at the Red Moose Cafe.

P.S. You’ve asked for pictures so here they are! Check them out on the Photos page.

Mosquito madness

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mammoth Lakes to Bridgeport – 112 miles 8 days Total: 1018 miles 76 days + 12 zero days

Terrible screams echo through the woods. They are the desperate screams of people under attack, they are the horrible screams of people in agony, being eaten alive… …by mosquitoes! Hoards of these vicious insects turned the section from Tuolumne Meadows to Sonora Pass in a living hell for hikers. They sucked our blood and our energy, they drove us mad and made us feel miserable. We fought bravely, many a bloodsucker died at the palm of our hand, but we were overwhelmed. We managed to escape with our sanity intact but we bore the scars, testimonies of that bloody battle, for several days.

After two days in town, Isabelle and I long to be back on the trail so we left the other hikers in Mammoth Lakes and hiked on our own again for a few days. Isabelle got mad at marmots after one of them chewed the handle and the strap of her hiking pole while we were having a nap on the shore of Thousand Islands Lake. We entered Yosemite National Park via Donohue Pass and along the beautiful Lyell Canyon. The group caught up with us in Tuolumne Meadows and we left as fast as we could, too many people around there for us to handle. We found the perfect spot on the smooth rock faces typical of Yosemite to watch the sunset, see the moonrise, sleep under the stars and get awaken by the first rays of the sun. Life doesn’t get any better! And on the 26th of July we camped at a 1000 miles!

The trail was still quite demanding until Sonora Pass, lots of high ups and low downs, a real rollercoaster. But as we lost altitude, the amount of snow dropped, making the going easier. Southbound hikers often nicely warned us about there being a lot of snow ahead but once we got there we couldn’t help but laughing because Einstein was right, everything is relative, it was nothing compared to what we’d had the past weeks. We have become blase. At creek crossings we usually didn’t bother anymore to look for rocks or logs but just trudge on through the water. Anyway either our shoes were already wet or they would be in a couple of miles.

As we walked on the ridge to Sonora Pass, we could see the mountains ahead had very little snow compared to the ones behind us and it dawned on us that this was the last of the High Sierras. We’d been walking fast all that morning to run away from mosquitoes but suddenly I was in no rush anymore, I wanted to prolonge our last moments in the High Sierras. As a goodbye we had our last opportunities at glissading.

Despite the ups and downs, we still managed to do a couple of 20 miles day. About 1000 miles of trail and the Sierras have made us fit. And it’s good we can push the miles and pick up speed as we’re not halfway yet, we’re short of about 300 miles, and we have about 2.5 months left to make it to Canada.

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