Here is my entry. This took place along the PCT in the year 2000:
“We have a problem.”
“Huh? . . . Oh $#*!”
I had first learned of it a few days earlier. I was hiking along the trail and could hear the sound of a dirtbike in the distance. I’d been seeing dirtbike tracks on the trail for nearly a week, and I was mad about it. They aren’t allowed on the PCT. Hearing the sound of the bike now made me even madder. And it seemed to be getting closer.
I turned and saw a helmetless dirty guy with dark hair and a slight stature bearing down toward me. Simultaneously angry and a little scared, I turned and faced him, standing my ground in the middle of the trail. I raised my trekking poles slightly . . . ready . . . for something. I’m not quite sure what. As he got closer I could make out something strange affixed to the back and side of the dirtbike, many times longer than the bike itself, one end dragging in the dirt behind it.
What is that?
I squinted. Whatever it was, it was big. I glanced up and saw the rider smiling. I was so baffled that I stood staring as the bike went by, unable to think quickly enough to realize I wanted to confront him for riding on the trail. As he passed, I looked down again and realized he was dragging a long bundle of rebar.
Hmm. He’s doing trail maintenance.
It still angered me that he was riding a prohibited dirtbike on the PCT, but it seemed obvious that he had the permission of the powers that be to do his work, and they probably also granted permission for him to use the dirtbike to do it. I relaxed, turned around and started hiking north again.
A minute later, though it was silent, I could sense something behind me. I turned and saw a dog running as fast as it could muster. It gave me an offhand look of desperation as it passed me, barreling down the trail and trying its best to catch up to the guy on the dirtbike.
Ten minutes later I turned a bend to see the man whacking a long section of rebar into the ground with a mallet and the dog curled into a ball on the trail, looking as though he had been there resting comfortably for days.
“Where you headed?”
“North. Toward Belden.”
“Oh. Did you hear about the fire?”
No, I had not heard about the fire. This can’t be good.
“No. There’s a fire?”
“Yeah, north of Belden, on the other side of the highway. A big one.”
“I will. Thanks.”
The next day, having not seen another person since the dirtbike rider, I stopped to cook a meal right on the trail, as it was the only flat spot I’d seen in a while. The water was nearly boiling and I was relaxed and in a near meditative state on account of the silence around me.
Hearing Beaker yell my name split the silence so violently that I jumped, hitting my cook pot in the process. It teetered to the left, nearly tipping, but then settled back down. This all happened in the span of time it took me to realize that I would need to move my leg to avoid getting boiling water spilled all over it, but before I could start to move it.
“Geeze, Beaker. You scared the $*#T out of me!” Ignoring my statement completely, Beaker exclaimed, “I haven’t seen anyone in days! How’s it going?” It was good to see him.
Over the next few hours, Beaker regaled me with stories of his upbringing, the pranks he and other students pulled at boarding school, and his antics in college. I always loved Beaker’s stories. He had a lot of them. And they were always good. The ones he told me this day had me so enthralled that I didn’t initially notice that it looked hazy around us and it smelled like a campfire.
“Hey, did you hear about the fire?” I asked.
“Yeah, crazy.” A few minutes later we came to a clearing and could see a massive white and red mushroom-shaped cloud in the distance -- right where we were headed.
“I wonder if we are inhaling our resupply packages right now?”
Passing Bucks Lake Road, we came to a trailside register. On it was a recently posted sign warning of the fire north of Belden, and informing of an alternate route north of the highway running through town. I filled out a self-registration form to place in the box: “Heading to Belden. Will figure out the alternate route after that.”
I later learned that, shortly after leaving that register, a ranger had stopped there and replaced the sign. It then read: “This section of trail is closed due to fire. Hikers shall take alternate route along road to Buck Lake.”
It was disconcerting, but not hugely surprising, when I came around the corner.
“We have a problem.”
“Huh? . . . Oh $#*!”
About 200 yards in front of us, and about 100 feet from the trail, grew a medium-size tree on top of a hill. It was on fire. Blackened manzanita bushes, still sparkling, crackling, and smoking, lay before us in every direction. I walked forward and found the silence of my footsteps on the light ash covering the trail remarkable, but not as eerie as the immense heat I could feel coming from both sides.
Stepping gingerly, we pressed forward to get a better view, wondering if the fire had passed, rendering the route down to Belden now safe to descend. In the middle of the first of innumerable switchbacks leading down to the town below, we stopped to assess the situation.
“Well, most of it looks burnt.” Indeed, the ash was so think that my shoes left an imprint an inch deep. “It might be safe since there isn’t any more fuel left.” As the last rays of sunlight left the ridge, and we contemplated our options while surveying the steep rolling hills below us, we were overcome by a soft but terrifying sound. It was a deep and resonating WHOOSH that can’t really be described. The smoke clouds on the far side of one of the hills came to life with a glowing angry orange color.
“Maybe we should turn around.” “Yeah, good idea. Yep, let’s turn around.”
In the meantime, my mother had heard about the fire on the news and had rushed to Buck Lake. She managed to locate where the trail crossed the road leading to the lake, and then had located the trailside register. She opened the box and found my self-registration form, stating that I had headed north and would then take the alternate route. Looking at the sign now posted there, she saw that, as far as the sign stated, the alternate route started right there, and involved a road walk to Buck Lake.
She drove along the road to Buck Lake, and along the rest of the alternate route headed north out of Buck Lake, but didn’t find me. So she called the Sheriff.
We had already hiked over 20 miles before we turned around, and it was 16 more back to the last road we crossed – the one leading to Buck Lake. However, we were highly motivated. Fear of being burned alive can do that. We hiked by headlamp, and we hiked fast.
As our watches ticked past midnight, though, the adrenaline high wore off and we started to fade. When we got to the only creek between the fire and the road to Buck Lake, we rationalized that if the fire managed to advance that far, we could jump in the stream and hopefully avoid death. Had we not been so tired, we probably would have realized that this idea was preposterous, but the siren call of sleep was too strong. We threw down our groundsheets, sleeping pads, and bags, and fell asleep quickly.
We awoke just as the first rays of sun started to filter through the thick haze surrounding us. There were no indications that the fire had grown imminently close, and we were both still perfectly alive. Then Beaker tried to kill me.
I hopped down to a large rock in the middle of the stream with my filter and water bladder in tow. Fiddling with the connections, and then pumping through a filter element that probably could have used a scrubbing, took time. Beaker was already packed and ready to go, and he was bored.
Strewn about the trail in random places, and at precarious angles, were many large cross sections of logs which had been cut out by trail crews clearing blow-downs. Each was four or five feet in diameter, and three to four feet thick. I’m not sure how much they weighed, but if you told me 300 pounds, I wouldn’t disagree. Some were lying flat on the ground, and others were perched at an angle leaning against those lying flat.
Beaker leaped upon a flat one. Then he jumped about 4 feet to the top of another one. There were no others close enough to leap to, so he set to work finding something to do with one that was perched at an angle leaning against the one upon which he was standing. I looked down to my task of filtering water, and I could hear him straining over the sound of the trickling water. I didn’t think anything of it, but a moment later, I heard him yell “Oh $%*t!”
I looked up. Beaker had gotten the section of log up on its side, and it slowly started to roll . . . toward the creek. It looked like it was going to land about 15 feet upstream of me. Interesting. I wondered if the splash would be large enough to get me wet. The log, now moving more quickly, hit a root and shifted course. Now it was going to land about 4 or 5 feet away from me. I sighed in resignation that I was going to get soaked. About 10 feet from splashdown, the log hit a rock. My eyes widened as I watched it head straight toward me. Everything that happened next moved in slow motion. I pushed myself into a standing position, but it felt like doing so took hours, and the log was nearly on me. Looking at the bank in front of me, I realized I couldn’t leap toward it without leaping over the advancing log, and that was just not going to work. I didn’t have time to look behind me, and even if I did, I’m not sure I would have wanted to turn my back to the 300 pounds charging toward me. I leaped straight up and backwards, having no idea where I was going to land.
While I was in mid-air, I watched the log smack into the water and wedge itself with a horrendous thud between the far bank and the rock upon which I had been sitting a fraction of a second ago. Pieces of bark flew into the air. My feet hit the water with a small splash, and my right foot landed on a rounded rock beneath the surface. I shifted my weight to my left foot to regain balance. As I could feel the cold wetness of the water start to filter through my shoes, I looked down at the rock. The edge of the log was about an inch from my half-filled water bladder, but had not actually touched it or my water filter. I looked up at Beaker. He stood staring with wide eyes and his mouth hanging open.
“How ‘bout you finish filtering my water for me while I change my socks?”
“Yeah, ok, sounds good.”
While barreling down the trail at a more than respectable clip, we frequently could hear helicopters or planes fly overhead, only about a hundred feet above us. I wondered aloud if they were searching for us, but quickly dismissed the idea because these monstrously loud machines seemed to be heading to their destination – the fire – with purpose. They sure didn’t seem to be scanning the ground.
We reached the road in short order. Beaker and I stood on opposite sides of the road with our thumbs out. We figured that quickly getting to a phone should be our highest priority, and that would involve getting a hitch, in whichever direction, as fast as possible. One car went by without stopping, but the driver of the second, headed toward Buck Lake, was happy to offer a lift.
Ten minutes later we stood in front of a restaurant, and in front of the restaurant stood a payphone. I quickly called my Dad. He seemed incredibly distraught, and had actually stayed home from work out of worry. He said that my Mom had already driven up to Buck Lake, and that they had informed the Sheriff’s Department and Search and Rescue that I was missing in the vicinity of the fire. This struck me as having been blown out of proportion, but I suppose that’s what parents are for, even once their kids are adults.
I called the Sheriff’s Department and told them I was fine and they didn’t need to search for me. They didn’t seem to have any idea about who I was or what search was being conducted.
Beaker and I sat down in the restaurant and ordered. Just as soon as the waitress left, my Mom walked in the front door. She seemed exhausted and somewhat relieved, but she also seemed to react to the situation less intensely than I expected. My Dad had seemed a lot more hysterical.
My Mom sat down as our cheeseburgers arrived. I took a giant bite and smiled. Before I could finish chewing, the front door opened again, and the Sherriff’s Deputy walked in.
“Is this your son?” he said to my Mom.
“Yes, we finally found him.”
“You know you had a lot of people worried about you. Why did you continue down the trail after it was closed?” he said to me.
“The sign we passed at the Buck Lake Road register said the trail was closed only north of Belden, so we didn’t think we were on closed trail.”
“You had a lot of people out searching for you.”
I seriously doubted that seeing as how the aircraft above us didn’t seem to be looking down along the trail, and how the Sheriff’s Department seemed not to know who I was, or anything about a search, when I called. I simply stared at the Sheriff and said nothing.
“Well, why didn’t you call? Weren’t you carrying a cell phone?”
“It doesn’t get reception and it’s wasted weight.”
“It gets reception out here.”
I just looked at him. He stared back at me. Neither of us said anything. After about ten seconds, he softly grunted and walked out the front door.
I turned to Beaker. “Isn’t this cheeseburger great?”