Hike of the Triad
Shelter Cove might’ve been another good spot to take a day off, since hikers were allowed to camp for free, but I’d had enough zero days for a while. For once, I headed out first thing in the morning.
Leaving Shelter Cove involves a few miles of road walking, followed by a long climb away from the lake. During the road walk, I came across another hiker named Business Time, and we immediately began hiking together. She kept a fast pace! Maybe she likes to put the pedal down while road walking, and she’ll slow down on the hill. Then we got to the hill. She didn’t slow down. Six years my senior, and I could barely keep up. And I’m no slouch, either. This chick works out!
As it turns out, Business Time had been a two-sport athlete in college, soccer and lacrosse. Her university, a small one in New York, happened to have one of the best lacrosse programs in the country. After graduation, she worked for the NCAA in Indianapolis, where she still lives, now working privately as some kind of consultant in the field of college athletics.
Once we’d finished the majority of the climb, we caught up to none other than Sherpa, who fell in behind us.
“Did you wanna hike with us? You don’t have to, if you’re going your own pace…” voiced Business Time.
“If you’re hiking with Coyote, I’m good. I’ve hiked with him, and he sets a good pace.”
And so our triumvirate was born. The three of us hiked together for the next four days, which felt like more; we covered a ton of miles, and the trail was particularly memorable in this area.
As it turned out, Business Time was also married, to a woman.
“Have you met many other gay hikers out here?” asked Sherpa.
“Not really. Well, I could’ve met a few briefly, and never found out they were gay,” answered Business Time.
“So not only am I the only straight one in the group,” I remarked, “I’m hiking with the only two gay people on the trail!”
For one reason or another, I was usually put in the front of the group, I think simply because I was in the middle in terms of hiking speed: Business Time was faster, and Sherpa could keep up with a little effort.
Central Oregon had more greenery, more lakes, and more mosquitos than any other part of the trail. Fortunately, the trail itself wasn’t muddy, despite the frequent occurrence of water nearby. I’m not sure if that’s due to the soil itself or if good trail maintenance has helped.
Every time we stopped for water, we tried to do so in an open area, where we might get enough wind to keep the mosquitos from swarming us. Business Time and Sherpa both preferred to take long lunch breaks, nearly an hour long, compared to my normal 15-20 minutes. I adjusted, but also wound up eating more for lunch than I normally would. What else do you do while you’re sitting around for that long?
Somehow, Business Time took less time to pee than anyone I’ve ever met, and she’s a gal. I never watched of course, but she used a funnel and somehow took less than 30 seconds. The routine generally started with her saying “Hang on, I gotta pee,” I’d hike a few extra steps up ahead, and by the time I pulled out my phone to look at the map, she was already walking up.
One day, Sherpa dropped a piece of dried mango that he was snacking on. It fell into soft, slightly muddy dirt and was unsalvageable. He’d been truly enjoying that mango, and one way or another, it was a grand tragedy on a scale large enough that all of us felt it. For the next few hours, we lamented the loss of the mango.
On our first two days together, the three of us covered 27 and 26 miles, and it didn’t even seem hard. Both nights, we camped next to a pristine lake, and there was just enough wind to keep the mosquitos away.
We knew hiking through the Sisters Wilderness was going to be a challenge, due to the snow reports (“but it’s melting fast”). This section alone was the primary reason I’d kept taking days off, trying to let the snow melt up ahead before I got there. At this point though, it was obviously going to be weeks before all the snow would be gone, so there was nothing to do but push forward, snow or no snow. We knew it would be difficult.
For most of the morning, it wasn’t! The majority of the snow was in flat, wide-open areas, and you could easily walk across it. The Sisters Wilderness is populated by three mountains referred to as “The Three Sisters,” and by noon, we were already past two of them. Not so bad!
On top of that, the snow made for dramatic landscapes, and excellent pictures. It was easily the most scenic day of hiking for the entire summer. We spent a fair amount of time taking photos of one another.
I normally don’t like stopping to pose for photos, but Business Time talked me into it.
“These are for your mom!” she exclaimed.
Alright, fair enough.
My mom always complains that there aren’t any photos of me during my summer adventures. Of course, that makes sense: I’m the one taking the pictures, not the one in them. And since I usually do it alone, no one else is around to take a photo of me. And besides, what do I want with a bunch of pictures of myself? Am I supposed to look at them and affirm, “What a handsome guy!”?
At one point, we found mountain lion tracks.
Kidding! For over a mile, we followed mountain lion tracks. They were headed the same direction as us, right next to the trail. If they were this well-preserved in the snow, they couldn’t be more than a day old.
Business Time didn’t like it one bit. “There’s a reason it’s following the trail. There’s something about hikers it likes…”
I felt pretty OK as long as we were following the tracks. I’d be much more uncomfortable if the tracks were in the opposite direction; that would indicate the mountain lion is somewhere behind us, and mountain lions almost always stalk prey from behind.
At nearly noon, we came across another hiker heading the opposite direction.
“How’s the snow look ahead?” we asked.
“You’ve got about another 30 minutes, maximum.”
The idea of getting out of the snow in less than an hour sounded fan-freaking-tastic. We’d gotten all worked up about a day that was turning out to be easy!
But as it turned out, that guy was full of shit. The snow went on for about another four hours, and kept getting worse as we went. Higher, steeper, and more dangerous and disorienting. We were forced to climb over drifts on our hands and knees, traverse dodgy crossings with steep banks, and at times, we had to guess where the trail was located.
Late in the day, we found a day hiker that agreed to take a picture of the three of us. I only mention this because it wound up being one of my favorite photos of the summer.
Once we finally got out of the snow, we were nearly past the North Sister, and found ourselves in a field of lava rocks. Initially, we liked the change in landscape, and we were glad to be out of the snow, but that wore off quickly. Lava rocks are a terrible surface to hike on; they’re hard enough to bother your feet, but loose enough that you can’t get a good footing. It’s the discomfort of hiking on sheer rock combined with the difficulty of hiking in sand. And on top of that, the lack of shade in the area makes it hot, and the rocks themselves are noisy!
At one point, the trail led into what appeared to be a box canyon from which there was no escape.
Where the hell is the trail?
I was in the lead, as usual, and stopped briefly to let the other two catch up. I looked upward.
It had been hard to tell, since all the rocks were black, but the trail made switchbacks up what initially appeared to be a wall. Even the switchbacks had to be a 20% grade, if not more. And on lava rocks. Pushing up through that was going to be hell.
Sherpa caught up and saw what I was looking at.
“Aw, fuuuck!” He dropped his pack.
Business Time burst into laughter. “Now that’s a Mango Moment!”
We paused for a minute or two, in order to gather ourselves and have a drink before we took on this ridiculous monstrosity. It wasn’t that long, so I knew it would only take about 10-15 minutes. I simply focused on one switchback at a time, and kept count. It was miserable, but with each one, I was getting closer, and soon enough, it was over.
Unfortunately, the lava field wasn’t over. The majority of the remainder of the day was downhill, but on lava rocks, it still wasn’t easy (and it was still hot). Sherpa was starting to fade. There weren’t many options for camping, since the ground was entirely made of rocks. As far as we could tell, our only choice was a lake where thru-hikers aren’t supposed to camp. Instead, the area is meant for locals, through a reservation system.
However, it was about an hour before sunset, and there was no other water for miles in any direction. What else are we supposed to do? We decided to camp there anyway, as we surmised that after 8:00 PM, the risk of a ranger stopping by was low.
By the time we got there, Sherpa was physically at the end of his rope. All three of us were worn out. The hike had been five miles shorter than the prior two days, but felt longer. I walked down to the pond, dunked my feet, and sat for at least 20 minutes. After a day like today, it was nice. A few fish jumped. There weren’t any mosquitos.
Big Lake Youth Camp is a summer camp put on by Seventh-Day Adventists, out at the aptly-named Big Lake in Central Oregon. While the primary function is to serve as a Christian camp for children aged 7-17, they happily take in PCT hikers, and they even have a cabin set aside just for them. PCT hikers can’t stay the night, but they’re welcome to join for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the cabin has hot showers, laundry, and WiFi. Everything a hiker could want!
For the past few days, Sherpa, Business Time, and I had been planning our daily mileage specifically to get to Big Lake for lunch, then stay the afternoon and have dinner as well. Hours worth of conversation centered around fantasizing what meals would be served. As it was a Tuesday, I had my heart set on tacos.
After hiking through another lava field first thing in the morning, we had the easiest downhill I could remember for the last three hours into Big Lake. It was a 16-mile hike, only six miles shorter than the previous day, and we had it done before noon.
Lunch was mac ‘n cheese, salad, and peanut butter cookies. Business Time enjoyed three plates of mac ‘n cheese, while I had an equal amount of salad, to go with three cookies. We were hungry, I guess.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Business Time as happy as she was upon getting out of the shower. I was equally happy to use a washing machine for the first time in nearly two months. Since we had all afternoon, I split my laundry into two loads, shared with other hikers, which allowed me to get everything washed, including the clothes I’m usually wearing.
Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians, so dinner was vegetarian chicken nuggets and more salad, of which I had another two plates. Fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to come by on the trail, and you desperately crave them by the time you finally get a chance to eat them.
While hikers aren’t allowed to stay at the camp (I imagine parents of the kids wouldn’t be thrilled about that), it’s perfectly OK to set up a tent in the woods just off-property, which was only a 10-minute hike away. After dinner, that’s what the three of us did, as well as another 4-5 hikers that had been “caught” by the camp during the day.
In the morning, Business Time and I continued northward, but Sherpa decided to hang around and take another day off. He didn’t have to be in Portland until a particular date, when his husband was driving out from Minnesota to visit him. Our trio was down to two. Sherpa and I hugged before parting ways. At this point, I’d hiked with him more than any other human on this planet.
from PCT North