Mile 1939.5 to mile 1969 (+1.5 miles to Elk Lake)
I sleep and wake, sleep and wake to the streetlamp moon. Instigate is tossing and turning saying Brrrrr, cold, brrrrr, cold in her sleep like she likes to do. It’s how she got her trail surname- Brrrrrcold. Instigate also has a middle name, Sleeping Beauty, and in Washington she’ll acquire another middle name, Baywatch, on account of a bright red sports bra. Instigate Sleeping Beauty Baywatch Brrrrrcold.
Spark got his name on his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. He started the trail with a flint sparker that he’d use to make fires. Spark doesn’t have a last name but we call him SparkleMotion, Sparkletoes, SparkleMagic and, recently, lil’ Sparkums.
Carrot isn’t actually a trail name- it’s the name I’ve used for the last twelve years. The only place people call me by my boring legal name is at the bank.
In the morning my tent is beaded all over with condensation and my sleeping bag is damp. It’s fall in the mountains, and the nights are getting cooler. I eat some almonds and raisins and drag myself out into the big world- the air is fresh and still and all I have ahead of me is the trail, stretching on into forever. Dang, I think. I love Oregon.
I hike fast, leapfrogging with the others, talking now with Instigate and now with Egg and then I happen upon Raho, sitting on a log next to the trail spooning nutella into his mouth. I sit down next to him and unwrap a probar. I bought a bunch for cheap at the shop n’ kart in Ashland, and the chocolate ones taste like cake.
“You want to walk together?” I say.
“Ok,” says Raho. He’s got nutella in his beard, and his hat is on askew.
As we walk we talk about our lives, and Raho outs himself as catholic.
“You’re, like, a practicing catholic?” The concept is absurd to me, like people who believe the earth is flat.
I tell him that I was raised catholic; first the hallucinatory catholicism of my schizophrenic mother and then the strict, conservative catholicism of my grandparents, who adopted me when I was fourteen. The poverty and despair of my youth; God, the devil, the Virgin Mary; the warmth of empty cathedrals when we were homeless, sunbeams coming in the stained glass catching dust motes. Little rooms full of votives and my thin, acrid-smelling mother, working a wooden rosary through her yellow-stained fingertips. Speaking in tongues. You’ve got the devil inside of you, she says to me. I should’ve let you die when you were a baby. And then later my cold grandmother, bringing home the communion wafer wrapped in a paper napkin and forcing me to eat it when I have the flu. Lying on those faded sheets with the tiny flowers, bright desert sunshine making the curtains move. So sick I can barely swallow. Body of Christ, she says.
Raho’s parents are both liberal Archaeologists.
“I think my experience of Catholicism is probably a little different from yours,” I say.
The lake where we stop to fill our water is full of copepods, the little propeller-shaped crustaceans that make their homes in the shallows. I hold my Gatorade bottle up to the light and look at them, swimming around. They’re bright red.
“I’m sorry you have to die,” I say as I stick my steripen into the bottle.
“They don’t die,” says Raho. “It just scrambles their DNA.”
“Well,” I say, watching the way the steripen makes the water glow with eerie ultraviolet light. “Well.”
Soon we’re at the trail junction to Elk Lake, a resort of sorts on the flank of Mount Bachelor. Raho has a box at Elk Lake and so I hike the mile and a half there with him. Two summers ago I biked from Bend to Elk Lake with my friend Seamus. It was June, and they’d just plowed the road. There were six-foot snowbanks on either side of us and the forty-mile ride was all uphill. At Elk Lake we’d rented a dark little cabin and turned the propane heater up as high as it would go. We were the only guests.
Now it’s August and the road to the lake is hot and sunny and crowded with cars. At the resort there are people everywhere- barbequing, drinking beer on blankets, sunbathing. The lake is stuffed with boats and ripples with the wake of jetskis. The lodge itself is unremarkable- sided in dark wood, tilting into the ground. On the porch of the lodge is a stack of clear plastic tubs- the hiker box. Shoes, discarded hiking clothing, toiletries, and tons of food. I find a bag of doritos and a cold bottle of pepsi. Raho and I split the pepsi, sitting at a picnic table wiping the sweat from our faces. I set up my solar charger in the sun.
“This is nice,” I say.
The pepsi restores my flagging hiking boner and soon we’re back on the trail, cruising 3 mph. I know that for many hikers 3 mph is like no big deal, but it’s a new thing for me, something that I’ve been working towards but haven’t mastered until now, in Oregon. I love hiking this fast- the time it saves allows me to take real breaks and still get to camp before dark. And it makes me feel like I can do anything.
We pass a string of twinkling green lakes, Oregon style, and then we’re crossing a sort of enchanted meadow with South Sister in the distance, dramatic and beautiful. We see a little white tent and then Egg, standing on a patch of bare ground eating pomegranate gummi bears.
“You want these?” she says, handing us the bag. “I don’t really like them.”
We eat the bears as we cross the meadow, the shadows lengthening on the mountain. There’s a campsite in three miles and we reach it right at dusk- soft ground, clusters of trees and a stream that burbles down the mountain. We pitch our tents and then sit on the ground, eating dinner and watching the moon rise. The others are ahead of us, somewhere in this magical wilderness. Tomorrow we’ll cross a bunch of lava and then reach the highway, where we’ll hitch to Sisters a second time- although this time we’ll be much closer.
“I feel so lucky to be here,” I say to Raho, as I scrape the last of my beans from the jar.
“Yeah,” he says, tinkering with the flame on his canister stove. “I know what you mean.”