After crashing in Etna, I stopped at Ray’s Food Place on a chilly morning and picked up some supplies. The manager, noticing I was a hiker, gave me an update on the snow up ahead. It didn’t sound good, and considering I’d skipped around a few spots just yesterday, maybe pushing forward wasn’t advisable. But I was willing to give it a try.
After resupplying, I headed to the main strip in town and stuck out a thumb. There wasn’t much traffic at this hour in a town of this size, but in about 20 minutes, a young guy pulled over in his pickup and I hopped in.
Mitch was an enthusiastic one and smiled the entire 30-minute drive up to the trail. He wasn’t even driving in that direction when he picked me up, but simply thought it was cool to give a hiker a ride. By the time we got to the top, I’d learned that he used to be an accountant somewhere in the midwest, but moved here to be closer to the outdoors. He now worked as a waiter at Denny Bar, an upscale restaurant in town.
At the top, it was foggy. And windy. And cold. And raining. If I wasn’t uneasy about hiking before, I surely was now.
Mitch pulled to a stop. I stared out the window. I didn’t move. “It’s raining,” was all I managed.
“Yeah! Can’t make it to Canada without a little rain!”
I thought back to my first day on trail. One of the worst days of hiking I’d ever had. Did I want to march through dangerous amounts of snow for this??
“Um, Mitch, we barely know each other, but could we have a little talk, man-to-man?”
What followed was a five-minute discussion regarding why people thru-hike, the difference between challenge and misery, and so on. While hiking isn’t Type 1 Fun 100% of the time, it’s supposed to be fun. Trudging through snow, staying outside in cold rain and wind, and risking my life to do so was a bad idea all-around.
“You want me to take you back down?”
“I mean, I feel bad asking you to do that after you took me up here…”
“I gotta head back down either way!”
“...yeah, I do.”
We headed down.
Mitch could tell I was down in the dumps after calling it quits, however temporarily, and drove me to a bakery, where he bought me a coffee and one of the best pastries I’ve had, ever. I’m gonna say that nails down the donut-and-coffee requirement for California, and set a high bar. Mitch simply said that if he bumped into me in town again, I could repay him the favor.
I decided to stay a few days, since the forecast was for rain. By mid-week, I’d decided to stick around until the weekend, when it would finally not only stop raining, but would also be warm. First, I hitchhiked back to where I’d left the trail, farther south from where most people get off-trail to reach Etna. It took three hours before I got a ride.
When I got to the sloped snow bank where I’d previously turned around, there were now footsteps in the snow. The height of the snow hadn’t gone down at all (if anything, it was a little higher), but having footholds made a huge difference. At least the spot in which you place your foot was level. I still felt nervous at times, but made it through without much physical difficulty.
I wound up camping at Paynes Lake, where I’d planned to camp on the day I turned around. Beautiful setting. There were a couple other groups there, simply out for an overnight camping trip. One sent me off with a chicken curry hiking meal, and the other gave me an entire bag of marshmallows. Thanks, guys!
I made it back to the road into Etna by 10:00 the following day, then had to wait until 1:30 before I finally got a ride into town. That entire time, I saw five cars. By the time anyone pulled over, three more hikers showed up. Etna is evidently hard to get in and out of, and it was definitely the most interesting hitch I’ve ever taken.
I wound up staying yet another week in Etna, because I kept getting bad reports about the snow up ahead. But if you’re going to be stuck in a town, you could do a lot worse than Etna! The city park allows hikers to camp for $5/night, and the park even has WiFi! Showers at the park cost $1, but the public pool, which has showers, is free. Etna also had a decent grocery store, a used bookstore, a library, and a few decent cafes. Every day, I went for a short hike on some trails behind the city park, which led to a waterfall.
Upon first arriving in Etna, there were only 1-2 other hikers there each night, but by the time I left, there were typically a dozen. The bubble had arrived. Many of them had hiked through miles upon miles of snow in the Sierra, so the idea of forging ahead through more snow didn’t bother them as much as it did me (and most of them had microspikes).
By the time I left Etna, I’d read three books, locals were starting to recognize me, and I’d made friends with several hikers that I’d probably never see again, since they left before I did. And I’d lost most of the fitness gained over the first week of hiking. If I was ever going to get into trail shape, I’d need to hike consistently for a few weeks, without these long breaks interrupting it.
from PCT North