Well, shit. That was one of the most nerve-wracking days I've ever spent in the woods. No good.
Let me back up a bit. After a super-pleasant day off in Etna, I packed up and hit the trail. The mountains were lovely; I was feeling good. I had enough supplies to last me the next 100 miles to Shasta City. I hiked one day out, set up camp, and slept like a baby.
The next morning, though, something was wrong. I woke up to the smell of smoke and a hazy orange sunrise. What the hell? I packed up quickly, then hiked up a ridge to get a better view. Smoke. I sat on the ridge for a half hour, watching the forest fire and trying to figure out a plan. The fire was about a half mile away, and the wind was blowing north -- the direction I had come from -- so I decided to push on, figuring that hiking south would take me out of the fire's path.
After a couple hours, I had a decent distance between me and the fire, so I figured I had made the right decision. Then, the trail made a long switchback towards the fire and the wind shifted direction. Suddenly a huge billowy plume was coming in my direction. #@$*^! I knew there was a road ahead (road = fire break,) so I hoofed it south, glancing nervously over my shoulder the entire time.
When I finally reached Highway 93, there was a pack of a dozen north-bound thru-hikers, and two Forest Service rangers. When I asked about trail conditions heading south, the rangers assumed I was going north like everyone else and said something like, "We're closing the trail that way. The fires are getting really dangerous." No kidding! When I told them I had come from the north, they looked at me like I was insane.
I wasn't sure what to do, so I picked everyone's brain. Had they seen any fires heading south? Everyone said it was fine. The rangers admitted there was "one little leaf fire, but it's under control." I set up camp near the road, and figured I'd see how things looked the next morning.
The next morning, the sky to the south of me looked clear. I packed up and hiked tentatively south. For about 10 miles, things seemed okay. I saw some distant 'leaf fires,' but they were small and far away. That afternoon, however, the wind picked up again. Northern California is a tinder box right now -- it's so hot and dry that the wind can turn a tiny fire into an inferno. I was getting nervous at this point. Then I turned a bend and there was some serious smoke. It blocked the sun so that everything was lit with an ominous orange color. No way. No f-ing way. It was seriously spooky, and I knew I had to go back to Highway 93. So I turned around and booked it 10 miles north back to the road. By this point, the other two fires I had passed earlier were much bigger and much closer. There were choppers flying overhead dropping buckets of fire-suppressant, but it wasn't working. It was terrifying. What a mess.
I reached the road, called Dad, and he swooped in late that night to pick me up. Phew.
We spent the next couple days at a campground in Douglas City. I tried to calm my brain and figure out what the hell to do next. Once I had internet connection, I learned that Northern California was covered with fires. In the weeks that followed, those fires caused some major destruction -- burning down a town and scorching hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. I wanted to get the hell out of Northern California.
Eventually, I decided to take an Amtrak south and catch the PCT again in South Lake Tahoe. This section of the trail looked lovely: moss, granite, lakes, and most importantly ... NO FIRES. Dad dropped me off at the train station, I transferred to a bus, and eventually crashed at a hotel in South Lake Tahoe.
Not gonna lie, the trail has lost some of its glitter right now. I feel edgy and uncomfortable. But at the same time, I have to get back on the horse. There's still a lot of beautiful (safe!) trail to see, and I'm not going home with my tail between my legs. Be careful and deliberate, but don't be chickenshit. All right, Critter. Keep on keeping on.