When They Sleep in the Woods Again, They Will Not be so Proud
I packed up and made my way back to Ammirati's and then across the road to the interstate on-ramp, intent on hitching in to Mount Shasta. Despite the early hour there was quite a bit of traffic, though none of the commuters seemed inclined to stop. I found hitching a frustrating endeavor. Having grown accustomed to the complete and utter freedom of hiking along the trail, free from any constraints other than those that are self-imposed, it was hard to suddenly find myself at the mercy of passing strangers. After so many weeks of unhindered progression I found it hard to be stationary at the side of the road, dependent upon the whims of passersby to help me get from one point to another.
A woman drove by in a Subaru, staring straight ahead with a timid look on her face. I dismissed her immediately. "There's no way she's stopping," I thought, but stop she did, much to my surprise. It turned out she and her husband were incognito trail angels. They owned property near Castle Crags, not far from the trail itself. On occasion, if they ran into some hikers at Ammirati's and had a good feeling about them, they would invite the hikers back to their home, cook them dinner and offer them a place to stay. If they got a bad vibe, they would simply be on their way and the hikers would be none the wiser concerning the secret trail angels of Castella.
Heidi and her husband were from the Portland area and had been in search of a smaller place to live and raise their children. They had searched all over the Northwest but eventually had fallen in love with Northern California, enamored by "the big trees and clean water." Her husband was an electrician, though they now lived off the grid. Being an electrician in a place with no electricity, he had taught himself how to work with wind and solar energy. She had a job at the natural foods store in Mt. Shasta and was on her way to work. She dropped me off in the middle of town and I asked her if she could suggest a good place to try to hitch back to the trail the next day. She picked up on my not so subtle hint and took pity on me.
"I get off at 4 pm tomorrow. Just stop by the store and I'll meet you out front."
I found myself standing there alone on the sidewalk in the early morning shade, my brain surging with dopamine, relieved to have made it into town so early with the entire day ahead of me to rest and eat and drink. I checked into a motel and then headed to an old laundromat built of whitewashed brick with a hand painted sign adorning its facade. Alternating yellow and red dryers spanned one of the walls, shades of color that had only been popular decades ago. On a corkboard hung a flyer from a house full of Rastafarians. "Looking for a likeminded roommate to share good vibes with," the ad declared.
As my clothing washed I stopped into a barber shop to see how much it would cost to buzz my hair. I told the woman I would return after I had showered.
"Do it now!" she said. "You can shower after the haircut."
As she cut my hair she asked me about the PCT, sincerely interested in the trail. She was incredibly encouraging and when she was done gave me a big hug and charged less than the original price she had quoted. I tipped her well and went to an all-you-can-eat buffet and then to the grocery store to buy food for the next section of trail.
Two familiar packs sat on the ground - Rocksteady and Salty were inside. They asked if they could shower in my motel room and I obliged, raising the ire of the owner. We had yet to even enter my room when she emerged from the office.
"No! Only one person! They can't stay here!" she yelled out at us.
I couldn't blame her. I'm sure she was sick of cheap hikers trying to sneak as many people into their room for the night. I could imagine her and every other motel owner in trail towns north and south crying out like Torelli in Tortilla Flat as he admonished the paisanos: "Nest of snakes ... I will wipe out this pestilence ... Each man alone is not so bad, but the nest of them! Madonna, look down how I will cast them out into the street! The toads, the lice, the stinging flies! When they sleep in the woods again, they will not be so proud."
I assured her they were just waiting out the heat of the day and would be heading back to the trail in the afternoon. She reluctantly acquiesced and returned to her office. When later in the evening I turned down the covers on my bed only to find long black hairs all over the sheets, she refused to take responsibility.
"You had visitors! How do I know it wasn't their hair!" she exclaimed.
I left Rocksteady and Salty in the air-conditioned room and headed out into the heat. The town had a distinctively "new-agey" vibe and I passed by several crystal and gem shops, a store selling "flower essences for animals" and a giant medicine wheel painted on the pavement of a parking lot. I walked by a Volkswagen bus and a group of hippies danced in a circle beside it. I saw not one, but two different people wearing a shirt that read "You mess with me, you mess with the whole damn trailer park." One of them was wearing it ironically I thought, the other was not. In the library a group of vagrant men in their early twenties sat at the computer terminals, typing away with hands stained black from dirt and campfire smoke. One of them had a giant backpack and the librarian asked him to leave it outside.
"What if it gets stolen?" he protested. "Its, like, my house, man!"
Later I passed two young men who could have been thru-hikers, though I wasn't quite sure. I smiled and nodded as I walked by. A moment later I heard one of them walking up behind me.
"Hey, I just felt like I should talk to you," he said kindly, a distinctive stutter breaking up the cadence of his speech.
He told me about how he had hiked to the top of Mt. Shasta. He swam in a lake near its summit and then camped at Panther Meadow because "there's really good energy up there." Every few seconds his stutter would inhibit his ability to express himself. He would pause, close his eyes briefly, compose himself and then finish his thought. I appreciated his kind, serene demeanor and his willingness to connect with a complete stranger, something I was sadly almost never inclined to do. We talked for a few more moments then he placed his hands together, palm to palm in a prayer blessing, and said goodbye.
I ate dinner at an Indian restaurant and then strolled back to the store to buy beer and ice cream. I stood outside the Veteran's Club and admired the old neon sign.
"Yep, that's a 1942 right there," a man said. He had refurbished it himself and told me all about the various neon signs still illuminating the streets of nearby towns. Black Butte, a distinctive cluster of lava domes, rose silhouetted against the darkening sky. It was a series of straight, sloping lines and sharp angles - it looked two-dimensional and not unlike the jagged triangular depiction of a mountain that every child knows how to draw. A man standing in the shadows asked me if I had any change. I said I did not and he mumbled something incoherently, and perhaps a bit threateningly, as I continued on.