It was probably a minute or less before I noted the sign: Pacific Crest Trail! Right here!
You guys, it screamed out at me.
My heart skipped a beat. I’d first heard about this trail when my dad and I took a day trip around Mount Lassen and Lake Almanor. We’d stopped in Belden to grab a snack from a small shop right alongside the road. Guess where the trailhead for the PCT was? Yeah. Like, right there across the street. I walked up to it. I remember the sign designated the PCT was situated underneath the trees. On top of it, someone had balanced a few rocks, one on top of another in one of those cool rock formations.
My dad told me that there were people who literally hiked it from Mexico to Canada. I marveled over the idea. How could someone be able to do something like that? And why? Wouldn’t that take a while?
Well, yeah, several months, but people do it.
So. Freaking. Cool.
Yet, I scoffed. Yeah, right, I’d never do something like that.
And then I read Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild.
Man oh man, did that book make me want to hike a freaking mountain! It also cemented the idea of the PCT in my head. Made me want to hike portions of it, at the very least. But hiking the whole danged thing? That kind of commitment takes thousands of dollars for the equipment you’d need, not to mention hiking experience and the ability to carry I don’t know how many pounds of gear on your back the whole way. Still…
Lately, I hadn’t been able to get the PCT out of my head. So I slowed down as I approached a parking area adjacent to a small cafe. I noted a hiker walking alongside the road with a massive gearpack strapped to his back, and another one- also with a gearpack- traversing the hills just behind the café. It was called Summit Haus.
I parked in a dirt and gravel area (a lot smoother, too, than the one near the railroad tunnel) and made my way toward the trail. I’d decided already that I would go to School Rock, mentioned in Wild, maybe a little bit further, and then turn back. I didn’t get a good look at the Summit Haus, so I assumed they were an indoor/outdoor (because there were tables outside) type of café where you could sit down for a simple, but nice meal, maybe with some coffee or something. Turns out, I later found out I was wrong about that assumption.
At this point I really wished I’d brought that iPhone wallet instead of my bulky purse, but no use crying over that now. I grasped it, along with a bottle of water I’d bought at a gas station a few hours before- it was warm; but, hey, it was water- and trekked to the trail’s entrance.
In hindsight, I probably could have locked my purse in my trunk and just brought my phone and keys with me, but I didn’t think about that. Next time. Actually, next time I’m bringing that danged iPhone wallet so I won’t haveto bring a purse. Plus, I didn’t exactly plan on going far, so I didn’t think it would matter too much.
So, purse slung around me and water in hand, I set off.
I waited for a truck to go by and then scurried across the road before officially stepping foot on the PCT. I ascended the path, adjacent to a rock face, at a steady clip before it eventually levelled out. If you can call it that. The path was also marked by small boulders and the like that I got to scramble across. I felt great, though! Who doesn’t love a good bit of exercise like hiking? Especially on the famed Pacific Crest Trail, amirite?
Almost as soon as I started my short hike, I met a guy- couldn’t have been older than high school- who wore a t-shirt and sports shorts. He, like me, had stopped just to do a little hiking around. After we’d said the typical “see you later, take care” mantra, I saw him- out of the corner of my eye- scaling a large boulder.
This part of the trail seemed fairly well-populated which wasn’t surprising, given its proximity to the road. In the distance, I could see Donner Lake and, beyond that, dark clouds.
Along the way I passed by two hikers who had come up from Mexico. They had those large gear packs and at first I thought they were thru-hikers; but no. They’d just come up for a few days and were hiking from the Donner Pass rest area to Echo Lake. I wished them well.
After spending a few minutes with them, I moved on and passed by a guy with a book in his hand and, slung around his neck, binoculars
“Looking for birds?” I curiously asked.
“Yeah, actually,” he said. He seemed surprised that someone would be interested.
“I’m with a summer class from a local community college,” he continued. Yes, he told me which one and, no, I won’t tell you. “It’s a bird watching class and we had to come up here for our final.”
I remembered in college, I took a rock-climbing class for PE credit. For our final, we had to go to Joshua Tree National Park for our final: actual, real-life rock-climbing. I mentioned this to Bird Watcher.
“Cool,” he replied. He pointed vaguely down the path. “There’s some rock climbers over in that direction.”
I remembered reading about this in Wild.
“Have you seen many birds?”
“A few,” Bird Watcher shrugged. “We started at Boreal this morning and we’ve been hiking and watching all day. We’re supposed to all meet up at that café down the road.” He gestured back the way I’d come.
“Oh yeah, I parked back there.” Seemed relevant to mention at the time. Now I’m not quite sure why.
“What are you doing up here?”
“Visiting a relative. I’ve been in the car for hours on end. Needed to stretch my legs.”
Bird Watcher laughed. “Yeah, I get you.”
“Well, take care,” I said, eager to continue my hike.
“Yep. You, too.” Bird Watcher held up his binoculars in a general good-bye wave.
I eventually reached School Rock. To my right was Donner Pass Road and a sheer drop of probably thirty feet. A couple climbers were scaling the rock face and I stood there, a few feet from the edge, gazing out at Donner Lake. Even though it was warm, there was a pleasantly cool breeze.
I could have turned around then. I mean, I had to go meet my relative soon. But I didn’t want to; not yet. So I continued just a little farther. Through the trees and past the rock faces along the well-packed dirt path. Soon after leaving School Rock, I was alone. I couldn’t hear anyone or anything except the sounds of nearby wildlife and my own breathing. Just as the path veered off again into another thicket of trees, I stopped.
I decided that this would be a good place to turn around. I mean, come on. The PCT was absolutely gorgeous and I knew that if I didn’t turn around now, I never would until I hit the Donner Pass rest area. I can see how people want to hike the whole thing. I promised myself I’d come back in cooler weather and go to the rest area and back, at the very least. Or even drive to a different trailhead and hike a different section.
I forced myself to turn back the way I’d come. Is it weird that I felt like I was leaving a piece of myself here? Kinda sorta notsomuch? Maybe it was the sheer beauty of the area that did it.