There's a Line of Men Along the Border Hating Canada Because it Stopped Them
The remainder of the day was one long descent, mostly under tree cover, down towards the small town of Seiad Valley. At one point I literally fell asleep while hiking - a combination of both exhaustion and the monotonous landscape. Monotony aside, the joy of thru-hiking, as it had become apparent to me, was not in the epic scenery, which could be sporadic at times, but rather in the constant progression - the feeling of being in the midst of a monumental journey. There was a constant satisfaction in reaching destinations that once seemed so distant and unattainable, only to move on towards the next one, feeling in real time the slow passage of miles and days.
In Steinbeck's The Red Pony, Jody's grandfather recalls his emigration along the Oregon Trail and describes it as a great "westering." "When we saw the mountains at last," he recalls, "we cried - all of us. But it wasn't getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering ... the westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed." He says that "it wasn't Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering."
Jody is inspired by his grandfather's story and voices his desire to do the same. The old man smiles and replies, "There's no place to go. There's the ocean to stop you. There's a line of old men along the shore hating the ocean because it stopped them."
"In boats I might, sir."
"No place to go, Jody. Every place is taken. But that's not the worst - no, not the worst. Westering has died out of the people. Westering isn't a hunger any more. It's all done."
That passage from The Red Pony is yet another iteration of Steinbeck's phalanx theory which explores the idea of the group becoming a living organism. Certainly the mass of thru-hikers slowly headed north along the PCT each summer could be aptly described as one big crawling beast - at least in Southern California. There, "the herd" has yet to disperse across the landscape and has yet to thin out, before many hikers throw in the towel and call it quits. I had completed my own personal westering a decade ago when I drove across the country from Virginia to California. Now, beginning in those Western mountains that had brought Jody's grandfather to tears, I turned my focus northward. I was part of the big crawling beast that moved with a hunger up the rocky chain of the Lagunas, San Bernardinos, San Gabriels, Tehachapis, Sierras, Klamaths and Cascades. It was a great "northering" and it was not the ocean that would stop us, but Canada. Instead of the coastline we would find a giant clear cut, a thin break in the great forest of the Pacific Northwest extending to both the east and west and marking with its erasure of the trees an international boundary and the end of our hike.
In the humid forest I saw lizards I had never seen before - slender and serpentine, with a long pointed head. There was bright, white rock everywhere, large boulders of it covered in green moss. It made sense, of course, considering we were in the Marble Mountains. The trail periodically crossed bridges over Grider Creek, passing back and forth between the sunny side of the creek and the shady side. I heard a loud commotion in the trees and then an animal calling out in distress. A large and ominous shape soared just overhead, perhaps an owl, disappearing into the dense greenery to eat its catch before I could identify it. After fourteen long miles the trail bottomed out and I neared the campground. I passed over a bridge and Red called out from below where he swam in the creek. I received a nearly imperceptible nod from Daniel as he sat quietly at a picnic table, then I claimed an empty camp site and settled in for the evening.
I was deep in the heart of the State of Jefferson. That region of rural Northern California and Southern Oregon had first proposed its secession in the 1940s, but the movement lost steam as World War II began and all attention shifted to the war effort. It is a region that felt little connection to the more populous areas of California and Oregon and considered itself underrepresented in state government. On the wooden post of a trail sign someone had carved "State of Jefferson" alongside two large X's - the double-cross logo of the movement chosen to illustrate the fact that the region was constantly "double-crossed" by the governments in Salem and Sacramento. The economy of the State of Jefferson has long been inextricably linked to natural resource extraction and with the current proposal for expansion of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the conservation efforts of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild), old wounds had been opened. What one side saw as protection of an area with unprecedented biodiversity, the other side saw as a federal "land grab" which would result in restricting access to public lands and a threat to their livelihood. I passed sign after sign proclaiming "No Monument" and "KS Wild Lies."
The trail gave way to road as I made my way towards Highway 90 and Seiad Valley. Music played loudly from inside a secluded home surrounded by a yard of tall grass - Metallica covering Bob Seger's Turn the Page. On the front porch of another home sat two women. They waved and called out to me. "Good morning! You're only a mile from the store!"
My path curved south and then north again, then east, before finally shifting west towards town where I crossed the Klamath River on a steel bridge. Seiad Valley consisted of little more than the fire station, post office, store and cafe. I met a young man standing outside the store eating Doritos and drinking Mountain Dew. He wore a FUBU shirt and sagged his jeans low. He asked me what I was up to and seemed to know nothing about the PCT, though we were technically standing on the trail at the time - it was routed directly through town. I asked him if he lived in Seiad Valley. "I've lived here my whole life," he said. "I'm a member of the local tribe."
I entered the cafe, sat at the counter and ordered breakfast. On the wall hung faded polaroids from over a decade ago. In them, PCT hikers smiled widely at the camera, all victors in the cafe's pancake challenge. I wandered around the adjacent general store, wondering if I had missed my window to tackle the infamous climb out of town before the day grew too hot. I signed the trail register, there's been one at the store since the early days of the PCT, and saw what I assumed to be the snarky comment of another hiker. "No Monument!" she had written, mocking the signs posted all over town. The man behind the counter told me the hottest part of the day was between 3 pm and 7 pm. I wondered aloud if I should spend the day in town or head back to the trail immediately. "There's one thing that never changes," he told me. "The mountain is always going to be there. It will still be there tomorrow morning. Really, it isn't all that bad. I've been up there to hunt and I'm old and fat and didn't hike here from Mexico."
Back in the cafe the only empty stool was next to Daniel and I failed miserably at engaging him in conversation. Several of my questions were met with a cold "I don't know" as he stared straight ahead, not even turning in my direction. I looked over and saw the other hikers at the counter engaged in animated discussions with locals. A vintage Multimixer milkshake machine caught my eye with its shiny metal and a teal color that clearly placed it from the mid-twentieth century. I wondered if perhaps, in this town where I wasn't known, I might order a beer milk shake like Doc in Cannery Row. That would at least have elicited some reaction from Daniel, but I thought better of it and settled for blackberry instead. I sat in silence as I savored each sip from the straw until the cup was empty. I then filled up my water bottles, said goodbye and slipped out of the cafe and into the heat. Back on the road, I left town as quietly and anonymously as I had entered it.
Blaisedell, the poet, had said to him, "You love beer so much. I'll bet some day you'll go in and order a beer milk shake." He wondered what a beer milk shake would taste like. He purposely didn't look at the milk shake machines lined up so shiny against the back wall. If a man ordered a beer milk shake, he thought, he'd better do it in a town where he wasn't known.
Steinbeck, Cannery Row
I soon saw a sign for the PCT, crossed the road and found myself back on trail and steeply climbing. The temperature reached triple digits and my body was almost immediately drenched in perspiration. My clothing grew dark as it soaked up the dampness. It was the most I had perspired on the entire trail. I reached Fern Spring where cold water flowed from a pipe into a concrete trough. The sound of the dripping water filled my ears. I placed my bottle below the thin stream and instantly the sound ceased and silence filled the forest. It was only myself and my thoughts and the little black water bugs that milled about inside the trough. Then I pulled back my bottle and the sound of water once again filled the air.
Jody traveled often to the brush line behind the house. A rusty iron pipe ran a thin stream of spring water into an old green tub. Where the water spilled over and sank into the ground there was a patch of perpetually green grass. Even when the hills were brown and baked in the summer that little patch was green. The water whined softly into the trough all year round. This place had grown to be a center-point for Jody. When he had been punished the cool green grass and the singing water soothed him. When he had been mean the biting acid of meanness left him at the brush line. When he sat in the grass and listened to the purling stream, the barriers set up in his mind by the stern day went down to ruin.
Steinbeck, The Red Pony
Near the top of the climb, by Lower Devil's Peak, I reached another spring. Wasps flew about and congregated in large clumps. I sat there gulping water, not caring one bit. I did not bother them and they offered me the same courtesy. I finished the final two miles of the climb and felt glad to have ripped off the band-aid and to be done with it, though I was completely exhausted. Any climb for the rest of the day, no matter how small, seemed entirely unreasonable. I glanced down at other hikers' footprints, all familiar after seeing them on the trail for many days now. Fifteen miles from where I departed the highway I reached Cook and Green Pass, where I stopped to set up camp. There was a young backpacker there and it seemed his parents had driven up a forest road and met him at the pass. They were eating a picnic dinner and I assumed they would offer me some of their food or at least a soda. As a thru-hiker I had come to feel entitled to such treatment. No such invitation was extended and when I returned from the nearby spring they were gone and I was alone.
I ate dinner and then lay in my bug net reading Cannery Row. Resting on my back, I held the book aloft, opened to a random page and read: "The pines above them soughed in the fresh sea wind. The boys laid in the pine needles and looked up at the lonely sky through the pine branches." I put the book down and with it removed from my line of sight, I found myself staring straight up at the sky through the towering pine trees above me. I smiled at the seamless transition between the book and my own reality.
There, just outside of Seiad Valley, the trail was at the apex of its long westerly curve, as it swung out widely to avoid the drier lands directly north of Mt. Shasta. Though there was no fresh sea wind and I was far from Monterey, as the crow flies I was only forty or so miles from the Pacific. It was the closest to the ocean I had been for nearly 1,300 miles, since passing through the San Gabriels in Southern California. If the trail continued west I could have stood amongst the coastal Redwoods in less than two days' time. I could have reached the ocean like Jody's grandfather. Starting tomorrow, however, I would hike due east, leaving the Klamaths and making my way into Oregon. I was headed back towards the Cascades, where I would remain until I reached Canada.