Rattlesnakes and Cowbells

July 27

PCT Mile 1653

The rain stopped and I got a quick hitch out of Chester to the trail. Within seconds I met a hiker new to me, Raven, who was doing the second half of the PCT this year, and we discovered we lived 3 miles from each other in Anchorage. Lassen National Park, with steam vents and hot springs was a short stretch but unlike anything else so far. Burn areas, old and new, were deadly quiet and gloomy. I listened to a James Lee Burke book, Wayfaring Stranger, the part where 2 soldiers discover a survivor in a burnt out death camp towards the end of WWII, so somehow the scenery I was walking through and the words I was hearing sharpened the miles.

I hiked 25 miles the next day, arriving at Old Station where I would have to wait till 11 am the next day to pick up my resupply from the tiny post office with its limited part-time hours. I used the down time to shower, do laundry, visit with other hikers and contemplate the upcoming 29 mile waterless stretch along the Hat Creek Rim. Got my food package and walked a few miles to JJ’s where I eat an enormous burger and encountered a dad and his 4 young kids.

“How far you hiking?”

Grinning while stuffing 4 Snickers bars into my pack, I said, “um, Canada.”

“Where’d you start?”

“Well, Mexico.” I turned to the big eyed kids and told them, “If you hike, you can eat 4 candy bars every day!” He laughed back and said, “We’re on the way to Oregon. Want a ride?”

I picked up 7 liters of water and walked 8 or so miles up to a campsite on the Rim. Sticky Buns and Milkshake and another hiker shared the space with me. It was so hot we all just set up our screen tents, leaving the rain flies off. Right on the edge of the escarpment we looked across the deep broad valley to the sunset beyond the next mountain range. All night, far off near Mt Shasta soundless, I saw heat lightning.

I finished the waterless stretch the next day, hiking about 12 hours. I stopped at Burney Falls State Park the next day to pick up more food and shower. The next few days through Shasta Trinity were beautiful, walking on the sides of ridges, crossing back and forth, dropping down off the trail to gather water at little springs. Big old cows (steers? beeves?) with tinny cowbells littered the meadows below the trail. I remember the music, gamelan like, the cowbells in Switzerland make, the bigger the cow, the bigger the bell, with tiny little tinkling chimes for the calves.

The miles and days and glory of this country just seem to tick by, time feels different on the trail, suddenly I’ve gone another 200 past half-way and find myself waiting once again on a minute post office to open at 11am. I used my time in great conversation with Scooby and Cougar who were waiting for relatives to pick them up for dome down time. Hot.

Me and a rattlesnake scared the shit out of each other. He was hanging out next to the trail and I was mid-stride, hauling ass, with my hiking stick about to come down on him. I paused but my momentum was taking me forward as he jetted across the trail, his rattles shivering in fear. As my foot came down on the spot he’d just been, I yelled at the top of my lungs, thinking how I’d have had to hit the SOS button on my satellite tracker before passing out from fang bites on my leg.

Camped at Porcupine Lake, 0.2 off the trail, the best campsite since the granite shelf heading into Belden. The next morning was the first I’ve awoken to smoke, forest fire, the valleys and vistas filled with it. Makes you kind of nervous, no flames, but wondering where it’s coming from.

I resupplied in Etna, a lovely little town, but had my first 2 bad experiences in trail towns. Eating dinner at the brewery with a couple of hikers I’d just met, an old guy in a straw cowboy hat and the ugliest bushy gray Fu Manchu moustache I’ve ever seen, walked from the table he shared with his wife and another couple to ask me, “Did you know that your voice sounds like it had a mic attached to it?” Whoa. I looked up and said, “Sorry, I’ll shut up.” He kind of backpedalled and said, “I wasn’t saying that, I was just commenting.” I repeated my statement and after a long while he finally went away. I changed seats so my back was to him, and asked my companions if I should just comment on the hideousness of his hat and facial hair, and comment “Did you know that your wife is fat?” I was glad to get out of Etna the next morning after a server at the other restaurant tried to shortchange me $5. Nobody else I’ve talked to had a problem here. Guess I’m just loud and look math challenged or something.

Two more days of walking and I dropped into Seiad Valley. This place I like. State of Jefferson. No Siskiyou Monument signs. Coming from a state where less than 1% of the land is private property, I have some sympathy. Of course the State of Jefferson is probably even less likely to secede than Alaska (rest in peace Joe Vogler).

I got bad news through the cafe wifi but had no cell service and the pay phone static made it useless. I was walking back to the RV park feeling shell shocked and there was a large man on a 4-wheeler. I told him the bad news and he said, “Follow me, I live in that trailer and have a phone.” Art, 74, retired long haul truck driver, lost his wife a year ago. I made my call, he handed me a silver bracelet, “I see you like silver. I was going to have this engraved for my wife but she died. Take it.” He kept talking and showing me the pots and baskets and turquoise jewelry in his house while I waited for friends to drive 2 hours to pick me up and take me to their home in Oregon where my husband would fly in from Alaska to help me deal with the detritus of death.

My father is gone. I’ll be off the trail for a few days and will get back on where I left it, in Seiad Valley. Thank you kind stranger Art. Thank you Nick and Jackie. I walk this trail and am embraced.  I am heartened and happy and glad to scatter my father’s ashes in Yosemite in the Fall, the place where his parents love of the mountains was passed to him and from him to me and my sisters.  This is how I came to hike the PCT, my Dad took me hiking as soon as I learned to walk.

10 thoughts on “Rattlesnakes and Cowbells

  1. Rattlesnakes, Cowbells and Chariots. The low slung, swinging kind. May you find a song in your heart to sing and sweet moments to sing it out. We are so so sorry for such a loss.


    • I’ve found silence and solace amongst the pines and plains of this trail, walking miles andiles day after day. I’ve moved through grief to gratitude, my Dad and I understood and enjoyed each other’s wicked wit. Love never dies.


  2. Our thoughts are with you during this difficult time Alison! Your dad would be so proud of you and your accomplishments. He will be your trail angel now!
    Much Love,
    Adam, Linda, Marshall and Austin Neil
    And Pepper Too!


  3. Alison/Catwater, your posts are so great and this one was the best one yet even with your bad news. I read it as I was going to bed last night and when I closed my eyes I could imagine being there, rattlesnakes, cow bells, the dufus with the fu manchu and all.Of course your encounter with him reminded me of another encounter you had that we like to laugh about.


  4. Hey There Catwater, We are so sorry to hear about your father, particularly at this point of your PCT sojourn. Michele DeCourten, Joel Sorum, and I (Michele’s husband), have been enjoying your posts. Indeed, we even tried to serendipitously meet you on the trail….we did from Humbolt Summit to Old Station two weeks ago, and though we met many other through hikers, we realized you were 80 miles ahead of us. Having the connection with you, made our saunter much more interesting. Your descriptions of the trail are wonderfully accurate, your “sidebars” very entertaining. We even ate at JJ’s eating their humongous burgers at the end of our 60 miles, as well. Your father has left a huge legacy in you. Michele and Mason


  5. Alison,

    I am so sorry to hear that your father passed away.I have no magic words to make grief disappear, so I am sending you virtual hugs.



  6. Alison, I got a little behind so I just now read the old post with the bad news. I am very sorry to hear about your father. I see from a new post that you’re back on the trail. What better place to work through the loss? I hope the miles are filled with wonderful memories of your father. It sounds like the two of you shared a love of nature. – John


  7. Hi Alison,

    I am so glad I finally got to meet you after all these years of hearing about you. I don’t think there was ever a time I visited with your dad (over the last nineteen years!) that he did not mention you and your latest adventure, whether it was snowboarding, hiking or running. He was mighty proud of you. I hope it works out that we can join you and your family at Yosemite in October and continue the conversation.


    • Cindy, the way you knew my Dad, and helped with him, did my heart so much good. I really can’t believe we’d not met before, you are wonderful! Still working on the Yosemite dates and you all are so, so welcome!


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