What I Did Next
Santiam Pass to Elk Lake
I took a couple of days in Sisters, OR. I love this area and this town: recreational opportunities year round and super friendly locals. The weather continued to be unsettled, clouds and rain in Sisters, snow up higher. Catwater’s Kid drove 6 hours from Seattle to spend the weekend providing “emotional rescue” to Mom. It worked! Clean clothes, a comfy bed, good food, great coffee and beer didn’t hurt either.
I got back on the PCT at Santiam Pass, Hwy 20 and a short while later, walked into Big Lake Youth Camp (BLYC) to collect my resupply box. While unloading the contents and stuffing my backpack, I had great conversation with the youth counsellors who had the day off and were heading out to hike or climb or do something else fun on this fine, sunny day. Last year on the NOBO, I happened to arrive at BLYC the day after camp ended, and the counsellors and staff were all on a retreat. I had no idea what I was missing. My in-laws were Seventh Day Adventists in eastern Washington and they were the most wonderful people I’ve ever known. Glen and Marie, and their church community, were excellent representatives of this branch of Christianity. (I went to Unitarian Sunday school as a kid in the college towns where my atheist father was a professor and my lapsed Lutheran mother thought we needed to at least learn about the world’s religions so we could “choose.” Do parents still raise kids like this? To choose a religion?) They knew how to have good clean fun, laughing and joking and celebrating life without meat, beer or crass humor. BLYC is expanding and improving the building they provide PCT hikers but they already offer showers, laundry, a hiker hangout with hiker boxes and plug ins, the ability to mail your resupply boxes there, and a very positive vibe.
Resupplied, I headed back to the trail and continued a few miles and camped on the edge of the lava fields, the a’a’ lava piled behind my tent was pocked with snow patches that I collected and melted for drinking water. The following day I got back up into snow fields, but the terrain was easy to navigate. The third day out was as slow as the previous one, hiking through blowdown and snowfields is just time consuming and I wasn’t making the miles I needed to stay on my new schedule. But it was insanely beautiful the fourth day walking through the Obsidian Limited Area, sun on snow through valleys and canyons with the black glitter of piles and piles of obsidian everywhere. Across one gulley I saw a robustly fluffy, red fox hunting varmints in piles of rocks. Deer tracks, human tracks to follow, rabbits, and chipmunks, made the slow miles glorious, if no less arduous plodding through snow.
Having made my point to myself, I walked into Elk Lake Resort and took a shower while waiting for Oregon friends, Nick and Jackie, who were camping in the area, to pick me up and get me to the Medford airport in a few days. Somewhere on the trail south of Timberline I had had an exchange of voicemails with my dermatologist’s nurse who told me that I needed plastic surgery on my throat to remove the margins of a basal cell cancer that had been initially and conservatively removed a week before I headed out of town for the PCT. A consult had been scheduled back home, appropriately, per the surgeon’s schedule, not mine (“you shouldn’t wait 5 months till you’re done hiking to take care of this”) and so I’m back in Alaska and have had to change my hiking schedule. As Noreen says, “It will all work out!”
I left a voicemail with the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) over the weekend because I was angry and upset that they would “share” an article about me without either checking their membership database or my blog which is listed on the trail journals section of their website, a “share” that set me up for public humiliation, criticism and shaming. I got a return call from Jack Haskel and we had a lengthy discussion. He started by telling me that first of all he was glad I was safe and we went from there. I really, really appreciate the return call, Jack’s sincerity, honesty and time. The PCTA is a non-profit that has a huge variety of tasks, responsibilities and types of members. As usual with non-profits (I donate to and volunteer for many) the budget is limited. So in answer to my question to Jack about what the stats were on Search and Rescue (SAR) missions on the PCT—how many, where, top causes for rescues—there is no database. As thru-hikers and other PCT advocates know, the trail goes through a zillion different regulatory agency jurisdictions, volunteer SAR group boundaries, and law enforcement jurisdictions. To collect data on rescues would require someone first researching who all these groups are, then reaching out to each of them, developing a standardized but quickly completed debrief of a rescue, then sorting and analyzing stats—it actually sounds like something I’d enjoy doing as a volunteer. I mean does everybody who calls SAR get slammed for calling SAR? Last year I knew people that SAR responded to for injury glissading or falling down the snow chutes on the Sierra passes, for being incapacitated by GI infections, for dehydration, and for snake bite. As I said before, shit happens in the wilderness. Who at home gets to decide and deride one type of shit as preventable and another type as not? To set the record straight for the cretins who don’t think it is SAR’s job to respond to preventable incidents: you’re wrong, rescuing idiots like me is what they love to do and it is in the job description. I hit the button before my situation got so dire that I’d place other human beings at greater risk to get to me. That was a conscientious decision. Although lost, I got a lot of the rest of it right, I had proper cold weather gear, extra food and a sturdy shelter for example.
And shouldn’t there be greater emphasis on educating about high incidence causes of SAR responses? We can’t teach or learn if we don’t have the facts. While I’ve been back in Alaska just a couple of days, there have been two true searches for lost people. Two hikers overdue on their trek out to the “Into the Wild” bus on Stampede Road outside Denali Park were found and rescued, they carried no tracking satellite device. And another SAR for a man way up on the North Slope who drove out to go on a hike and didn’t turn up for work on Monday. No tracking device. The list of aircraft and skilled personnel searching for this man is extensive, so far no luck. I hope he is found, I hope he is safe. Life is precious, he is worth the effort. Nobody goes out there thinking they can take risks because there’s someone to come save them if things go bad. Nobody goes out there with a 100% guarantee that their skills and gear are all that is needed to be successful—even the best prepared can run into trouble and need help. We’re humans, crazy, wonderful human animals, a dominant and adaptive species of life, but life is messy.
I’ve learned some lessons, maybe not the ones all the Facebook critics think I should have learned, but who are they to me? A bunch of internet addicts reacting to a poorly written article about a rescue, inexperienced fraidy-cats, PCT groupies, worst of the Wild crew, people who think that reading about the PCT gives them the right to peer over the tops of their computer screens and instruct me and the SAR community. My contempt for the people who judge me so blithely is unhealthy. I have to let it go. But there are calmer, more rational commenters too, and my friends and family, people who know me, have reached out and helped. The tiny hiking news cycle has spun on and my name and story have dropped to the bottom of the feeds.
Four of us intend to start at Hart’s Pass July 15, heading north to Monument 78, turning around and hiking SOBO. As of now, the road to Hart’s is still blocked but other hikers are walking past the blockage and getting on to the PCT. There are alternate routes to the PCT from Ross Lake or Rainy Pass. Snow persists up there, as in Oregon.
So my revised, revised, revised master plan is: WA SOBO to Cascade Locks, bump down to Ashland and go SOBO through Yosemite and the JMT, making it through the Sierra in October. Bump back and pick up the missed OR sections SOBO. Finish “the desert” of Central and Southern California a bit later in the Fall. We’ll see how it plays out. Never back down.