Monday, August 20, 2012

Day Four: To Milton Creek… andTrail Delirium

I woke up early at the Saddle Campsite and decided to skip coffee and to skip breakfast and to just pack up and go. Hit the trail early. I had visions of burgers and beer, a shower and clean clothes and a real bed in Sierra City and thought I just might make it there with an early enough of a start.  Plus there was this pesky question of water; I didn’t have enough of it.

I drank about a liter before leaving. I saved half a liter of water for emergencies. That’s my policy: never finish all the water unless you absolutely have to. I was not going to drink anymore water until I got to Mule Ear Springs, 3.7 miles away.

But before that, there is this annoying mountain to climb. I leave camp and proceed with my burden up the mountain. From close to the top I called Joni and just described to her, briefly, that I was on the move and that I only had a ½ liter of water and that I was 3.7 miles away from a springs. I told I was planning on taking a rest day in Sierra City and that I planned to be there that night. I told her I would call her when I got there. This is where hiking with cell phones can cause increased worry and frustration: After I made that call and started down the mountain, I was then out of cell phone range for the rest of the trip.

Joni and I had made some contingencies as to when to call Search and Rescue. I told her if I didn’t make it to Sierra City in six days, and she hadn’t heard from me, she should call Search and Rescue. I knew the trail would be deserted and lonely. And the fact that over the last four days I had seen exactly four backpackers and one day hiker confirmed that. This is a section of trail that doesn’t experience trail boots often.

I was elated when I achieved the top of the mountain and then began the long descent to Jackson Meadows Reservoir. I managed to make it to Mule Ear Springs and stopped for a long, well deserved, drink of water. I still wasn’t hungry. I drank as much as I could, filled three liters of water and headed down the mountain.

Down. Down. Down.

At one point a sign warned about a Sierra Pacific Clear-cut operation and that any hiker should get the loggers attention before proceeding through the clear cut. I didn’t see anybody cutting wood. Later, another sign advertised just how wise it is to clear cut the forest.  The sign boasted that the particular clear cut we were looking at had been logged in 1992 and that we hikers could watch how painstakingly wonderful the forest would re-emerge. I looked at the clear cut and noticed almost no growth in the patch. There wasn’t much to boast of in the last twenty years when it comes to tree growth. Propaganda gone bad. This demonstration plot is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Sierra Pacific is the largest private landholder in California. The question of how to log, or whether to log, in the mountains of California is one asked only by idealistic Sierra Clubbers. We live in a culture where what you do with your land is your business and we certainly don’t want any Enviros or Government Bureaucrats telling us what to do. The problem is that logging can be very destructive to fish, wildlife, to watershed protection, biodiversity (think tree plantations) and, even, to our health (from the herbicides sprayed after a clear cut). The practice of clear cutting forests should be ended as being much too destructive to the land on any scale. It is the moral equivalent of bloodletting in humans. Our forests should be for watershed protection, wildlife habitat and recreation. Logging should be done on a micro basis, very selective and done with overall forest health in consideration. But don’t we need lumber? Yes. But let’s get it from places that make sense, log trees that make sense (smaller and rapid growing varieties) and let’s make the price of this resource cost enough that all wood is seen as being precious and rewards recycling and/or the reuse of wood.
Sermon done.

This is a long downhill stretch to the reservoir. I could feel hot spots developing in my boots. Thus far, I hadn’t developed any blisters. That was about to end.

I make it to the paved road at Jackson Meadows. There are two forest service developed campgrounds there. I think, briefly, about setting up camp in one of them.  Of taking a couple lazy days next to the artificial lake. The cell phone doesn’t work, so I cancel those plans. I will move on to Sierra City.

Sitting by the side of the road, I tend to my feet. Those seven downhill miles took a toll; I have blisters on my right foot. I put on mole skin. Then I lean back against my pack and fall asleep. When I wake up, I fill my water again from a stream. I’m still not hungry but I eat a granola bar anyway.

Time for the last leg to Sierra City--which has all the attractions of Paris, Amsterdam, New York, London and San Francisco combined to me right now. I find the trail head for the last leg and read the sign: Milton Creek: 7 miles. Hwy 49: 11 miles. Sierra City is two miles beyond Hwy 49. It is mid-afternoon and it is 13 miles to Sierra City. I realize I’m not going to make it there tonight.

Oh well, we move on. Off we go blisters! Into the forest! And why the hell must we go uphill again? Can’t I catch a break and walk on a nice flat forest path? Why must this damned thing go uphill? I am cursing the misguided fools who created this Pacific Crest Trail. It is as if they decided that torture and making things tough should be a pre-requisite to the trail. We’ll build those hikers character, the trail designers mutter to themselves, as they take out all their misplaced anger for every wrong ever done to them by creating the most uphill, gut crunching, despair inspiring trail ever. Or so it seems.
Anger often precedes Delirium.

And so I grunted my way through a canyon and then up a mountain. An endless climb. There was a spring at the beginning of the climb, but I thought I had plenty of water to make it to Milton Creek. After a couple hours of heavy sweating, I achieve the top of the mountain and look at the path down. I have a liter of water left.

The path down winds on a narrow ledge of rocky scree. The drop off is hundredsof feet. The exposure is extreme. It would be quite easy to slip and fall to a pummeled, meat tenderized, rocky death. The guidebook states that this is a “steep section”. Steep?! Hell, this looks like the Grand Canyon!  And this little rocky scree filled ledge is endless.

I start down. Careful. Watch your step, Allan. The canyon is a bowl shape and the switchbacks angle along about a quarter of a mile in duration. I take my time because, frankly, I’d like to not slip and die.

At the bottom of the canyon the path levels out into a nice inviting forest. I take my pack off and notice that I have half a liter of water left. There will be no more water until Milton Creek and there will be another dose of switchbacks before I find that creek. It shouldn’t be too far. But it is 7pm and I am tired. I'm sitting next to a bear track.

I look at the water in my last water bottle and I start having a rather bizarre thought: “I have to save this water for my friend”.
Right then, I knew that I was starting to have some bizarre thoughts. I, of course, had been hiking alone; I’ve been hiking alone for four days. The “friend” I was saving the water for was me! I was on the verge, or rather, I was having a dehydration based, delusional thought. Trail Delirium. I realize I’m on the very edge of becoming psychotic. Literally.

This scares the shit out of me that I’m having strange thoughts such that I heft the pack back on and set off in search of Milton Creek. I’m not going to dry camp tonight. I’m going to find water or die trying.

You can hear Milton Creek before you see it. That sound of running water with a bit of humidity as I switchback my way down yet another narrow canyon is tantalizing to my thirsty body. Finally, I find a spring just before the creek and sit down and drink some of the finest water God, or if you prefer, Gaia, has ever had the wisdom to create.

Another quarter mile and I am at Milton Creek in an ideal setting. I drink more water straight from the fast flowing creek. I don’t make supper. I set up the tent, crawl inside and fall fast asleep. It is 8 pm and I only wake up twice in the night to drink more water.
Before crawling into the sleeping bag, I try the cell phone to call Joni.  It doesn’t work. I know Joni is worried about me.

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