5:30 and it’s cold and dark and I’m awake, lying in my sleeping bag waiting for the light to come. Golden dawn finds me walking down Etna’s single street, sunrise shining off the closed-up store windows. The only other people out besides myself are the old ladies with their paper cups of coffee, blinking in the empty road. I peer in the glass door of the drugstore and the bell jangles, a sleepy woman in a red apron holds it open.
“You can’t want icecream this early,” She says.
“No,” I say.
The grocer is sweeping the lot in front of the little grocery store. I’m the first customer and I wander the aisles, feeling dazed. Pork rinds, wilted lettuce, packages of hot dogs with bright orange price stickers. Dusty cans of aerosol room spray. I put lettuce and a can of chili in my basket. Tortilla chips and jerky to supplement my resupply. An avocado. There’s a flat of huge, ripe peaches, swarming with fruit flies. I grab one of those too. The whole store seems too small inside, as though it was shrunk.
Back at the hiker hut I start a load of laundry. The other hikers are stirring, packing their things away. Some of them are headed back to the trail. Instigate and Spark arrive- they’ve been up for a while, drinking coffee and eating pastries.
“I can’t believe it’s August already,” I say.
“I know,” says Instigate.
I post up at the little table in the hiker hut to blog. Instigate writes emails, and Spark naps. Soon it’s afternoon, and some other hikers have arrived.
“The smoke up there is crazy,” they say. They show us photographs- huge plumes of yellow, rising up over the ridges. Engulfing everything. Outside a pale haze has settled on the town. “Seven new fires since yesterday,” say the hikers.
“Dang,” I say. It’s like the whole world is trying to burn.
Instigate, Spark and I borrow loaner bikes from the hiker hut and bike to Bob’s Diner for dinner. My bike is an old, rusted mountain bike with a seat that’s way too low. It makes me feel like I’m ten years old. We wind back and forth on the empty main street, pretending we are the neighborhood children.
“Let’s go throw rocks at cats,” says Spark.
The waitress at Bob’s Diner is mean to us but later her mood improves. I eat one of the most underwhelming lettuce burgers of the trail. I propose the idea of hiking out after dinner.
“I don’t know,” says Instigate. “The smoke makes me feel kind of sick.”
It’s true. Instigate is really affected by smoke, and she’s been trying not to show it. Our post-dinner bikeride is a solemn one- the smoke outside has grown even thicker. It appears to be pooling in the valley, inversion style.
Back at the hiker hut Instigate curls up in a ball on the couch. We shut the doors and windows in hopes of keeping out the worst of the smoke.
“I definitely can’t hike in this,” says Instigate.
“Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow,” I say. “Up on the ridges where the trail is.” But I wonder if that’s true.
The other hikers trickle in and we pull The Fifth Element from the large selection of VHS tapes. I haven’t seen it before, and it’s wonderful. Afterwards I pitch my tent in the dark in a new corner of the yard, next to the hammock and the little creek. Hikers come and go as I lay in my bag, waiting for sleep. Someone is smoking nearby, and I can see the cherry of their cigarette. I’m exhausted, but I also feel overstimulated, and my stomach is still being weird. Only a hundred and twenty miles until Ashland, where we’ll stop for a couple of days so that we can make our resupply boxes for Oregon. Oregon! I can’t believe how close I am. All I have to do is make it through this smoke. And whatever else comes my way.