It was a day when I felt like I had hiked 10 miles, but I had only gone 5.5. We took an enormous break at 11 AM and continued the hike towards a fire station 7 miles away, the nearest source of water.
This was the Station Fire section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Entire ridges of dead, barren pines with bark so charred they left your hands black if you touched them. There was no shade, and there was the omnipresence of Poodle Dog Bush- an organism that sounds like a bad joke/nightmare/Goosebumps villain if you’re unfamiliar with it. Suffice it to say, the Poodle Dog Bush, PDB, is a bushy plant that causes severe allergic reactions when touched, and loves to colonize the destroyed land in the wake of forest fires.
PDB was everywhere that day. The bushes were so close to the trail we were slowed down by having to do strange maneuvers to avoid contact on our skin, clothing or packs.
By the time we got to the fire station, we were behind on time, hot and tired, and still looking at another 12 miles of difficult terrain. The sun beat down overhead, heat radiated from the earth, and hikers doused their clothing in water from the spigot just to get a little relief.
We whined to one another and our trail buddy, Border Patrol, about what was to come on the rest of the day’s leg, eventually finding a shady area near the fire house to take a more comfortable, longer break.
“God this sucks.” “Why did we want to do this again?” “12 more miles of this? I can’t even.” “I really don’t want to hike right now.” Blah blah blah, the usual beleaguered hikerisms.
“Let’s just quit,” one of us joked.
“My mom told me she would pay for me to go to stay with family in Italy this summer,” Border Patrol said, licking Nutella from his camp spoon. “But I wanted to hike the PCT…”
We began to cook up schemes we could execute. Something fun and adventurous still, but anything other than what we were currently doing. Another hiker, one we didn’t know, silently walked up to the picnic table and began to take off his shoes and socks and snack.
“We could buy a car and drive to Patagonia,” Indiana said. This would be his quitting trope. Literally every time someone complains he suggests it. Still, we explored the finer points of such an itinerary.
“Let’s just hitch to the KOA,” Border Patrol said. “The road is right there. And tonight is movie night. We could be watching a movie from a hot tub right now.”
“Are we seriously talking about quitting? And skipping?” I asked. “No. We’re finishing out the day today, on the trail.”
We snacked a little more, but it didn’t take long for talk of skipping to resume and as hot and tired as I was, I didn’t put up much more of a fight.
“Look, let’s just call the trail angel and ask for a ride. We can definitely throw in gas money.” We looked around at one another, trying to assess the ethics of what we were suggesting. “Let’s just see what she says. She might not even be able to do it.”
More squabbling over options and the push and pull of let’s-skip-no-let’s-not ensued and probably over an hour was spent on the whole thing before Border Patrol finally took Indiana’s phone and dialed the number for that section’s trail angel.
Service was spotty, but the call went through, and as we listened, it seemed that she would be able to pick us up.
“Where are we? We’re at the fire station. Which one? Um, hang on one second let me just double check,” Border set down the phone for a few seconds to double check the name of the fire station. When he picked it back up, “‘Call Dropped?!’ It lost service?!”
An onslaught of curses stormed out of our mouths.
“What is this ‘No Service?'” Border Patrol was irate. “We don’t have this in Canada! There’s service everywhere! What’s with this country?!”
Try as we might, we could not get cell service again after that.
The trail gods had spoken. We had to hike on.
We looked over at the new hiker, still mostly silent through all of this, and definitely judging us at least a little bit.
“What would you do?” Indiana asked him, point blank.
The new guy fumbled a bit, beating around the bush and grasping for a diplomatic answer. Point taken.
“You know,” he said, “I’m going to be taking a slight detour on this next section. I’ve read online that the trail ahead has been cleared of Poodle Dog, but there’s a road that parallels that part of the trail for 10 miles. Maybe I’m just using it as an excuse but it’s right next to the trail so…”
Running out of options, we decided to go with this new guy. He was way more knowledgable about the conditions and details, almost down to the individual mile, and supposedly we would shave off 2 miles with his route.
It turned out to be a great decision. The road itself was closed from the fire damage, so we were free to walk right down the middle. Actually walk side by side! The pavement was so smooth, we didn’t have to step over rocks and roots as we walked, something that would only get more difficult as the sunlight waned. The best part was the Poodle Dog: though the plants had grown undisturbed for so long and were massive, the road was wide enough to easily avoid them. No shimmying along here.
We enjoyed ourselves, strolling up along the road, having actual conversations as we walked side by side. It felt like a little bit of cheating, but not really because the trail was just a stone’s throw away in some parts, and in the end, we weren’t getting a ride to our next stop.