California Section M
I had prepared myself for a grueling climb under the hot midday sun. But, climbing up the slopes of the Sierra Buttes wasn't as tough as I had feared. The first part of the climb was through a shady forested area. By the time the trail broke out of the trees, clouds had developed, blocking out the direct sunlight. I really enjoyed the hike across & up the side of the buttes. The trail cut like a ribbon across the steep, brushy slope. We were afforded nice views of the surrounding peaks and the Sierra Buttes themselves. The only downside was the haze which had developed. It wasn't "absolutely clear", but that was a small price to pay for relief from the sun. Going up the side of the Buttes was so much fun, that we decided to take a side trip to the very top. The side trail to the top of the Sierra Buttes ascends about 1300 feet in one mile - a lot steeper than we were used-to. But, we left our heavy packs at the trail junction and had an easy time going up. The last hundred feet of the climb was up a metal staircase, which led to a fire lookout at the very top of the highest pinnacle on the ridge. By this time, the haze was getting thicker and we couldn't see the usual "forever", but the views were still well worth the extra effort. We headed back down to our packs at the PCT. The trail continued north along a ridge. Every now and then, I'd glance back to see the Sierra Buttes getting smaller and smaller.
A couple hours after getting down from the top, the afternoon haze evolved into a full-fledged thunderstorm. Luckily, the storm was localized to our east and south. (I later met hikers who were behind me at this point. Sierra City received a deluge, and lightning was striking right on the PCT in section L). We only had to deal with a couple errant drops of wetness. We continued hiking until it got dark. Once again, the trail disappeared under some snow banks, and we called it a day.
In the morning, we quickly found the trail and were on our way. We were going fine until about noon, when we encountered more snow, and just about lost the trail again. I looked at my maps and noticed that the peaks were getting lower all the time. The highest nearby mountain was only 7700 feet, and the trail wasn't getting much over 7000 feet. The snow just HAD to end soon! In Sierra City I had switched back to lightweight hiking shoes and sent home my ice-axe.
That afternoon, we headed down & across some more snow banks to Nelson Creek. I had my first view of Lassen Peak. Lassen Peak is the southern-most of the string of cascade volcanoes which stretch up the pacific northwest coast. We were going to be hiking by most of those volcanoes. When I saw Lassen, I really started to get the sense that I'd come a long way. It started to feel like I'd entered a new phase in the trek. I'd heard people say that northern California is sort of a "let-down" after the majestic Sierras. I didn't feel like that at all. I was excited to be hiking in new terrain. I had no idea what awaited me. I sincerely and eagerly looked forward to the experience. High rugged mountains are beautiful, but they're not an essential ingredient of beauty. Everywhere I looked was somewhere new, and that was more than enough to keep me going.
The rest of the day took us back up on the ridge line. The Sierra Buttes were already just a pointy silhouette on the southern horizon. We crossed a road right when a pickup truck was doing the same. The couple in the truck stopped to talk to us. He said he "worked in the woods". After a little small talk, they gave us some tootsie rolls and we parted ways. We later entered a semi-logged area and camped just as it was getting too dark to see.
We started the next day right where we'd left off - along a half-logged / half-forested ridge. We had been seeing more and more Sugar Pine cones. By noon, they were everywhere. The cone of the Sugar Pine is something to behold. They're usually about 15 inches long and about 4-5 inches wide. The longest on record was around 2 feet long. I felt like collecting every one I saw... as if they were so special that they deserved to be saved from a slow decay on the ground. After a while, there were so many of them that I just accepted them as a new wonderful natural feature of the trail. My sense of awe never left though. Every time I saw a bunch of Sugar Pine cones, I'd scan for the biggest one and try to determine if it was larger than one I'd seen earlier.
Later in the day, we headed down to the lowest section of trail (aside from areas near a town) since southern California. The Middle Fork Feather River was at 3000 feet elevation. The trail to the river was on the side of a steep incline. It cut across the hill, slowly bringing us down to the river. About halfway down, I spotted a brown fuzzy lump on the trail. Before I even had time to process what it was, it stood up, looked at me, and ran off. It was a bobcat, and it was gone in a matter of seconds. The only way I could really identify it was by the stubby little tail bobbing away from me. Still, it was cool. I could check that one off my list.
On the way down, we passed a man hiking with two young boys (at least one of them his son, presumably). They had enormous backpacks. They were heading downhill, and were having a really rough time of it - sweat dripping off their foreheads, a far-off look on their faces. Lord knows what they were carrying in those packs, but it wasn't making their walk fun. They'd only hiked a couple miles downhill when I first passed them. I passed them again a couple miles later at the crossing of the Middle Fork Feather River. They were going to camp there. Dad was sitting in a chair, exhausted. The kids were splashing about in the river. Donna mentioned that the Dad was carrying a large revolver in a holster attached to his waist.
Occasionally during the hike, I met people who asked me "are ya packin'?" (a gun). When I laughed and told them "no", they looked at me like I was crazy. One of them told me "Man, I'd never go out there without a gun!". I wish I had engaged one of these people in a more lengthy conversation. Why did they feel they needed a gun? Safety? Did they think there were "wackos" in the woods? (besides themselves of course). Were they worried about bears or mountain lions? Maybe they were just going to shoot at targets? The fact is, the largest danger they'd face is an accident with the gun. When you're hours from the nearest road, even a minor gunshot can be deadly. A ricocheted bullet to the leg and you could die. Worried about something making noise outside your tent? It could be your friend or a lost hiker that you're ready to shoot. Maybe you'll look outside the tent to see who it is first. Just trip on a twig and you could die. Any "hazardous" wildlife can be handled without a firearm. Maybe they've seen "those movies", or read "those reports" about the legions of crazy anti-social misfits out in the woods. I have breaking news - they don't exist.
We soon made it to the Middle Fork Feather River. The trail crossed the river on a large bridge, the largest such bridge on the PCT. Under the bridge, the river swirled and eddied into large shallow pools. The clear temperate water and hot sunny day combined to make the perfect conditions for a dip. When I arrived at the river, another hiker was already there getting refreshed. I spent a good 20 minutes floating around in the river. I didn't take many swims on the trail - a lot less than many other hikers. I guess I just didn't have a good tolerance for cold water. The water here was perfect though.
We packed-up our stuff and headed on. Crossing the river meant that we had to go up. In this case, 3000 feet up. We only went a short way before stopping to cook. The climb would be cooler later in the day, and we found a perfect little creek to cook dinner by. It was one of the most pleasant meals I had. I don't think either of us really wanted to leave, but somehow we psyched ourselves up and started hiking.
The trail in this area was lined with poison oak. Before I had started hiking the PCT, I was really worried about poison oak. I had heard horror stories about how it was "everywhere", and difficult to identify. The only other poison oak I'd noticed was on my first day out, at Hauser Creek. The poison oak here was obvious. It was virtually the only undergrowth around. It wasn't growing over the trail, and it was easy to avoid.
By early evening, we had reached the top of our climb. We quickly hiked past all the flat spots. We finally found an agreeable camp spot in the pitch-blackness at 10:30pm. It was the first day in which I hadn't walked on ANY snow since the day after I left Kennedy Meadows, about 6 weeks earlier. I was delighted, it almost felt like a victory.
The "alarm clocks" rang far too early the next morning. The spot we picked happened to be right next to a road. At 6AM, logging trucks were racing by at regular intervals. The noise of the trucks was annoying enough, but still worse was the squirrel from hell. If you've never woken up to the sound of a chirping squirrel, consider yourself lucky. The little bastard just did not stop. There was nothing to do. My last couple hours of "sleep" didn't really count.
We were about 15 miles from Belden Town. The trail wound through more forest, up some small mountains, and eventually came out on a brushy, boulder covered hill just south of Belden. The trail down to Belden consisted of endless forested switchbacks along an undergrowth of poison oak.
I was excited to get to Belden, I had heard some rumors about an "event" which was supposed to be taking place that weekend. It didn't take long for the rumors to be confirmed. On the way into "town", I walked by some tents with shiny Harley Davidson motorcycles parked out front. Before I got to the main part of town, a scruffy looking man called out to me "Hey, are one of those hikers going to Canada?". "Ya, I guess so...". "Well, have a beer man!". He let out a howl and handed me a Budweiser. We'd stumbled in to Belden Biker Weekend '99, and the party was just beginning! I quickly made the acquaintance of a small group of bikers. Donna showed up after a few minutes and got her budweiser too. The group invited us to camp with them, and we did.
A few beers and an hour later, we made it 300 more yards and into town. Belden is a privately owned town. It consists of one large building which houses a general store, a bar, and a restaurant. There are also some mobile homes scattered about which make up the town's permanent population. The biker weekend is an annual event. This year's biker weekend consisted of about 300 harleys (and about 10 hikers). Usually, I was told, it's twice that size. They got a late start on the promotion this year, and weren't able to draw as many people. The town was "closed". Only bikes were allowed in - no cars.
We ate dinner in the restaurant and tried to find Mary. Mary was a nearby resident who worked in the nearest post office. She was helping out the hikers by holding their packages and delivering them to Belden Town. We were surprised to find a number of hikers working at the biker weekend. One was at the ticket booth, one was tending bar, one was sweeping floors, and one was working "security". I had to laugh, a scrawny hiker was supposed to tell a 300 pound behemoth of a biker what he couldn't do? Oh well, it was all fun. They were getting free food for working.
After dinner, we made our way back to our new friends. More harleys were rolling in all the time. The loud shudder of each bike echoed through the woods. We couldn't help but stare at each one as it rode by. Most of these bikers weren't "weekend warriors" - white collar executives trying to get in touch with their rough spirit. They were the rough spirits through and through. Long hair, tattered black T-shirts, decorated leather, arms full of tattoos, and chrome... lots of shiny loud chrome.
A band started playing around 10PM - plenty of Black Sabbath, ZZ top, Led Zepplin and late 70's hard rock standards. They kept jammin' till 2AM. We tried to get some sleep, but the atmosphere was anything but peaceful. Harleys kept rolling in, right by us. People were "a hootin' and a hollerin' and a revvin' their bikes" basically all night. One of our campanions had a catch phrase: "F*ck you, you f*ckin' f*ck!!!". This seemed to be most effective when yelled loudly and repeatedly to everyone at 3AM. The final ingredient to this peaceful paradise was the train which squealed through Belden every hour or so. We were trying to sleep right under the tracks. The sound just wasn't right. It was a louder than loud screeching of metal on metal coming from every car at once. Every train produced this same high-pitched lingering blast... along with the standard rumbling and earth shaking that trains always produce.
By morning, my tent smelled bad. Apparently, I had set up right where someone had spilled beer, or puked or peed. I couldn't quite place the smell, I only knew that it was sickening and everywhere. Tired or not, I had to get out of my tent. We went down to the restaurant. By 10:30 AM, there was an angry contingent of bikers outside the bar. It didn't open until 11AM, and they didn't like to wait. I got a copy of the "day's events": the weenie bite, the slow ride, wet t-shirt contest, best buns contest, and a tattoo contest. Hmmm. This was going to be interesting, at least interesting enough to stay most of the day. Once they announced that money would be awarded to the winners of the contests, they got underway.
The weenie bite was first. I had expected some kind of eating contest. Wrong. An oscar meier wiener was slathered in mustard and suspended from a string, about 7 feet high. The object of the weenie bite was to ride your bike slowly under it. The "biker babe" on the back of the bike had to stand up and bite off as much as she could. They measured the amount of weenie remaining to get a "score". It was a team event, requiring finesse, skill, and technique.
The next event was the "slow ride". The object was to ride your bike as slowly as possible. Two contestants rode at a time. There was a 50 yard "course", the last to finish was the winner. If you touched the ground you were out. From the looks of it, riding a harley slow isn't easy. The contest was organized like a single elimination bracket.
I missed the rest of the contests, as I had heard some exciting news. The swiss couple was in town, and they had their pack goats with them. Hikers and bikers and now, goats? This was too much. They were camped just outside of town, and I went to go find them. I hadn't seen Sandi and Christian since Kennedy Meadows, I was excited to catch up with them again. The goats were a sight to behold. When I arrived, they were devouring every green thing in sight, like a couple living mulchers. They were about 3 and a half feet high, and had horns which gave them another foot. They had beady bulging eyes on top of their heads, and long fuzzy beards. They almost looked unreal. The goats were trained to carry packs and obey commands related to hiking in the woods (go, stop, turn, follow, lead, etc). Sandi and Christian were leasing the goats from someone in Idaho. Apparently, there was little the goats couldn't eat. Poison oak was one of their favorites. After I came back to town, the swiss couple came through. They were wearing broad brimmed hats, tan shorts and white shirts. They were carrying walking staffs, and leading a couple of goats with big packs. It was a classic scene. A group of people quickly gathered around them and started asking them "the usual" questions. The goats quickly noticed a bunch of hay bails which were set up as "lawn furniture". They bolted over to them and started eating the seats. Eventually, the swiss couple was able to pull their goats from the hay, make their way through the crowd and out of town.
When I came back to town, I heard that one of the hikers had won the wet t-shirt contest. Well, she'd actually tied with a 70 year old biker who "always won". I'm sorry I missed that event. But, sadly, this couldn't last forever. By evening, it was time to hit the trail again. We were tired from the previous night and needed to get some real sleep. We headed over the bridge across the North Fork Feather River, across Hwy 70, and straight into the next leg of our journey.