Welcome home-walking through Southern Oregon

PCT miles 1726.6 to 1912.2 – Ashland to Willamette Pass – Total PCT miles 1912.2

When we left Medford/Ashland on Sunday, August 21 we were excited to be northbound hikers once more. Turns out our first 4-5 miles of the day had us hiking south to reach Canada. Southbound to get northbound. Again. It had worked for us so far.

Within the first mile or so someone had written on a trail marker:

An apt greeting. It felt good to be in my home state of Oregon. Though most of the PCT was new to us, this path would be leading us to familiar destinations and mountains that live for us in the stories of our friends and family. “I was here with Miki and Laura, and Miki’s parents. We camped at Diamond Lake and Judy and I climbed Mt. Theilsen.” Or, “That’s the ridge of Mt. McLoughlin my dad skied down.” Places where our footsteps and lives intersected the trail. Layering memories. Connecting webs of intertwining worlds. Indeed, it felt good to be home.

Changing Landscapes                                                                                                            As the trail heads out from I-5 (Exit 6) it leaves the Siskiyou Mountains lush green Douglas-fir and red fir forests and heads east to the oak woodlands, grasses and Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine forests of the Rogue Valley. Gradually the trail turns north and climbs into the Southern Cascades and its forests of mountain hemlock and firs and huckleberry-laden understory.

Southern Oregon has many miles of walking on nearly level tread through shady hemlock forests, perhaps 20 miles of a 28 mile day. But just as the hiker wonders, “Are we really on a trail traveling along the crest of a mountain range?” the PCT makes a few switchbacks and climbs up to the crest or into a meadow with ever changing views of the nearest High Cascade mountains: Shasta, McLoughlin, Scott-and therefore Crater Lake, Thielsen, Diamond Peak, the Three Sisters. The trail confirms that yes, we are in the Cascades, just the gentle end of rolling forests and older dormant volcanoes. It is beautiful, peaceful country. The ever ripening huckleberries and views heighten anticipation for the promised North Cascades.

Making Miles and Seeking Long Lost Friends                                                       With nearly level trail, good tread and the fitness gained from walking more than 1700 miles, it’s not much effort to hike 27 or 30 miles a day. So we did. In part to keep to our goal of making it to Cascade Locks by Labor Day. And also in hopes that we’d catch up to beloved friends. Rocklocks and Mr. Fox. Topsy Turvy and DataMuffin. LaFawnda and Euro Trash. Garfunkel. Hotrod. The Canadians-Light House and Broken Record. Sourdough. Turtle and Magellan. By reading the entries in trail registers we knew these folks were just a day or so ahead of us. Could we catch up to them on one of their zero days?

Not that Gabriel and I didn’t enjoy the company of one another, but we missed our friends. We’d briefly intersected with them on our southbound stint, but we hadn’t been able to hike with or near them since mid-June in the early Sierras. We wanted to know how their hikes had been going and to share stories. And the hemlock canopied trail of Oregon can feel a little sleepy at times-besides the mosquitoes-so it’s good to have some company to keep you moving along.

Our first 100 or so miles to Crater Lake entailed only a few intersections with other hikers. Folks spread out and drop off by Oregon, so encounters with other hikers become more scarce. Less of a given, more of serendipity. We met some nice guys (and one nice girl), but not people we’d bonded with in the early miles.

We’d felt a little discouraged as we’d entered the Mt. Thielsen Wilderness that we hadn’t caught up to anyone we knew. And as we were talking about where/when we’d like to set up camp, Gabriel and I met Light Heart. A kind man that lived in the area and had just been out on a trip up Thielsen. He gave us good tidings that just a few miles ago he’d met Hotrod, Broken Record and Light House! This news greatly lifted our spirits! Light Heart wished us blessings for a safe rest of our journey and inspired us to push out a few more miles that night. It a good nights rest on the slopes of Thielsen looking over to Diamond Lake and Mt. Bailey.

It would take us about 10 miles north of Mt. Thielsen (PCT mile 1868-ish) the next morning, to run into our friends. But it was AWESOME to turn a bend and surprise Hotrod, Light House and Broken Record! Reunion time and sharing of peanut filled M&Ms (thanks Hotrod!).

When one good thing happens, a snowball effect elicits and more good things turn up. A few miles after catching up to The Canadians and Hotrod, we ran into Sourdough, Turtle and Magellan. Friends since Little Jimmy Spring-near Wrightwood and the Mt. Shasta area respectively. And the makers of trail swirls and smiles that delightfully remind other hikers that a friend (or friend in the making) is just up the path. All of us were delighted to reconnect, especially since we hadn’t seen many other PCTers in the last few days.  We’d hopscotch with one another for the next 50 or so miles.

A Chance Encounter with Scott Williamson                                                        On the morning of the day we reached Willamette Pass (PCT mile 1912.2) we encountered our first southbound thru-hiker. A very fit man who looked to be in his late 30s and carried the lightest of packs. He said he’s started southbound from Manning on August 8th. A quick calculation of the miles and days in my head: ~760 miles in 19 days = 40 miles per day. Wow! There’d been a lot of linger snow in the North Cascades too. Double and triple Wow!

Who was this guy? He said his name was Bink and that he’d seen 30 or so northbound hikers a day for the last two days. (Guess we’re close-ish, still in the pack.) And that the mosquitoes would be annoying for a little while north of Willamette Pass. (Something for us to look forward to.)  We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes exchanging the usual hiker stats and beta for the next few miles. And then we headed northbound and Bink headed southbound. As we parted he said, “Have a good life.” His words felt like a blessing.

We thought, that’s a guy who is cruising and perhaps looking to set a record. We wouldn’t be able to confirm who this hiker really was for a few more days, our inklings were pleasantly confirmed when we found out it was indeed Scott Williamson. Legendary PCT thru-hiker. First yo-yo’er. Guy who continues to hold the record for fastest unsupported hike northbound and now southbound. This year Scott set the newest fastest record for thru-hiking the PCT: 64 days 11 hours 19 minutes. A lot more Wows! A nice, humble guy out to test his personal limits.

Pizza Celebration at Willamette Pass                                                                        While Bink was off to complete more 40+ mile days of hiking. I was finding it hard to stay in the high 20’s/30 mile per day range. On the morning we met Bink my shins were giving constant, minor twinges of pain that reminded both Gabriel and me of the shin splints he experienced last season. Uh oh? Perhaps we needed to ease up a little? On the one hand I wanted to. On the other, I was determined that we’d make it to Willamette Pass Ski Resort on the weekend so we could guarantee a stop for pizza.

A town stop and food were so often our benchmarks, particularly mine. Town stops are confirmation of distance made and rewards-once said distance is achieved. I’d like to think I don’t need such worldly things as pizza to motivate me for 28 miles. That the pure delight of walking through mossy hemlock forests and admiring the changing views of mountains-living in the moment-is enough to satisfy my soul. But it turns out I want pizza as much as I need mountains.

We stuck to our plan of reaching Willamette Pass that Saturday night; despite the early indication of shin splints. To get to WP the trail traveled through the beautiful Diamond Peak Wilderness with up close views of the long-ridged high mountain and faint views of the Three Sisters peaks ahead. We walked by springs with cold delicious water, some of the best on the trail and a welcome change from water dipped out of mosquito-laden ponds. This stretch of wilderness with snowy Diamond Peak felt a little bigger and more in-tune with my personal definition of wilderness created and enforced by wanderings in the North Cascades, British Columbia and Alaska. Instead of being on an island of wilderness, one could feel this area is connected to a larger realm of wild country. It felt good to be in the heart of Oregon’s High Cascades.

We passed mile 1900 and headed onto the ski resort. Gabriel got ice for my shins while we called our moms and grandmas and sat in the lodge waiting for our food. Being at Willamette Pass, meant we were close to a familiar river and valley of the same namesake, it made us feel all the closer to home. And all the more excited to be in Oregon on the PCT.

Light House, Broken Record, and Hotrod had also made miles to get to town food and joined us for dinner! One pizza per person (or a salad and half a pizza each for Gabriel and me), ice cream and a few sodas or beers. A delicious change in calories from our trail meals and self-recognition for the miles traveled.

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