Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Climbing out of Belden meant going uphill for 14 miles straight. No part of that was steep, but hours upon hours of climbing will wear on you. Throw in the unusual heat, due to Belden's abnormally low elevation, and I was glad I was doing it in the morning. I was even more glad it turned out to be a rare cloudy day on the PCT.
I managed to crest the hill shortly after noon, to my great delight. I could probably pack in a lot of miles by the end of the day, which would make the last week a snap. Not only would each day be significantly shorter than this one, but there were no major hills left to climb. In fact, the one hill out of Belden represented 20% of the climbing I'd do for the last ten days of hiking. Almost everything from here on out was flat and easy, though perhaps hot.
It was only 16 easy miles into Chester before I stopped the next day. Chester was home to a Lutheran Church that allowed hikers to camp out back, and just as importantly, had free WiFi and was located within walking distance of a full-size grocery store. If I hadn't resupplied exclusively out of the hiker box (again), it would've been the first grocery store I'd visited all summer.
By nightfall, about 30 hikers were gathered at the church. One of them found out another was a Mormon and proceeded to grill the guy with essentially the same two questions over and over:
"Why do you call yourself a Christian if you follow people like Joseph Smith and Brigham Young?"
Correct answer: Mormons don't believe those people are the messiah. A Christian is anyone who believes Christ is the messiah. To a Mormon, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young are more comparable to Abraham and Moses than they are to Jesus.
"What's the need for the extra scripture? What does it say that the Bible doesn't? Why don't you simply do without it?"
Correct answer: We might as well ask why anyone believes anything. Why does a Christian believe in the Bible but not the Quran? Why does a Jew believe in the Torah but not the New Testament? Why does a Buddhist follow the teachings of Buddha but not Greek mythology? What's to stop us from asking everyone to disavow anything and everything they believe in because not everyone agrees?
It was about this time when a visibly drunk Welsh hiker staggered onto the deck, dropped his pants, did about a dozen push-ups, then high-fived everyone he could while repeatedly shouting, "All God's children can dance!"
He later confided to a few of us he had only done it to break up the uncomfortable conversation he saw us sitting through. The Mormon, oddly enough, appeared to enjoy the display. I came to the conclusion I wouldn't see anything better all night and went to bed. It was past hiker midnight (after sunset) anyway.
About ten hikers decided to stay awake until midnight, drinking and talking loudly on the deck, about ten meters from where the rest of the hikers were trying to sleep. Many of the same ones had plans to watch the World Cup final in town the following morning. I might've considered it, if not for two things:
1. I was essentially legally required to hike exactly 19 miles that day.
2. I'd have to hang out with the same loud, obnoxious guys.
The hike out of Chester takes you into Lassen National Park, the last few miles of the PCT that require a bear canister. PCT hikers have three options when hiking through Lassen National Park:
1. Hike through the entire park, 19 miles of trail, in a single day without camping in the park
2. Camp at Warner Valley Campground, coincidentally 19 miles from Chester, and keep your food in the bear boxes
3. Carry a bear canister and camp wherever
Option #3 means you'd have to carry your bear canister for an additional 300 miles past the Sierra range, all for one night of camping in Lassen. Most people opt for option 1 or 2. Based on how the timing worked out, I was opting for #2. Hiking the 19 miles to Warner Valley Campground could easily take most of the day, so staying in town long enough to watch the World Cup final wasn't an option.
Only a couple hikers were even awake by the time I'd taken down my tent, shouldered my pack, and hitched out of town. Good. Now I wouldn't have to worry about all the campsites being taken at Warner Valley. I noticed a rash on the inside of my right elbow. Poison oak, most likely. Probably got it on the way out of Belden, where there were a lot more leafy plants. I'd itch for a week, but I'd be fine.
By the time I got to Warner Valley Campground, my arm looked worse. The rash had opened up a few sores, there was now rash on my right side and thigh, and my arm had swollen somewhat. Not fun, but simply expected symptoms of poison oak. No big deal. I made sure to clean it, used some disinfectant. As long as it didn't get infected, it would be annoying for a while and go away on its own.
I shared a campsite with a German guy, who had just gotten on trail, and Disney, who'd partially earned her name by getting caught singing on the trail a few times. We had an engaging discussion about favorite princesses. Hers is Elsa; mine's Belle. I like that she was an outcast like the Beast, but for different reasons. And if you had to guess, she's probably one of the smartest Disney princesses. According to Disney, I need to see Mulan and Moana.
I was barely able to sleep that night, since my arm decided to take that opportunity to start leaking. I repeatedly woke up to a furious itching sensation with my elbow sitting in a puddle of orange pus. Each time, I blotted my arm with my bandana, then tried to find somewhere comfortable to put my arm and did my best to get back to sleep.
By morning, parts of my sleeping bag were damp. I looked at my arm. It was dappled, glistening, and most notably, swollen. Only the area just past my elbow had leaking sores, but the swelling had reached past my elbow on one side and all the way to my wrist on the other. Somehow, it didn't itch much; most of the discomfort was now due to swelling. My thigh and side itched worse, but they were only red, so I was less worried about them. It sucked, but it'd get better.
It wound up being a fairly hot day, reaching roughly 30 C, and a long section of trail through a burned area meant no shade to escape from the sun. Heat was the only topic on the trail all day.
By night, my arm was about the same, possibly a little more swollen. I chalked that up to hiking in the heat, nothing to worry about. But I was starting to worry that it was infected somehow. As luck would have it, two hikers I camped with were nurses. Both agreed that it wasn't infected, and also approved of my "see if it gets worse" strategy, but recommended I go to a clinic in Burney, now two days away, if it got worse by then.
Another nearly sleepless night, due to incessant leaking again. During the day, it wasn't so bad, because the pus either dried up in a crust or simply dripped off. In the sleeping bag, it formed puddles, and somehow the sensation of having your arm sitting in it drives you freaking nuts. There was no good way to keep my forearm elevated while asleep and keep from waking up repeatedly.
It didn't look any better or worse in the morning. I took that as a good sign. If it hadn't gotten worse overnight, then it's probably peaking now, and it's about to get better. I clicked the straps in place and soldiered on.
By midday, my arm had gotten still worse. The swelling had made it to my hand, to the point there was some resistance when I tried to make a fist. I could straighten my elbow, but not without effort and pain. Fortunately, the position your elbow makes while using trekking poles was a comfortable one, but it would be better if always holding my elbow that way wasn't necessary.
I managed to bum some hydrocortisone cream from another hiker, which, according to the nurses, was what I needed to get better. That and maybe some anti-allergy medication. If I'd picked them up in Chester, where there was a grocery store, it might not have gotten so bad.
By the end of the day, my arm was still getting worse, and now there was swelling in my abdomen. The nurses recommended getting off-trail ASAP, since even though it still wasn't infected, the swelling was getting to the point that it could cause vascular problems and/or an abscess. When I reached a gravel road late in the day, I decided to try to find a way off, rather than hiking into Burney tomorrow.
As luck would have it, my dad knew an old Navy buddy who lived 90 minutes away, and by some miracle, I had a weak cell phone signal up there. I managed to get a call out and left a voice mail, but the weak signal meant it was so badly garbled they barely understood a word. They managed to make out "ASAP." Hearing those words from a hiker usually isn't good news. They decided to ask my family if they'd heard from me.
When I didn't get a response for 15 minutes, I tried hiking up the hill, away from the road. All at once, my phone blew up with text messages not only from Brian and Heather, but also from half my family, asking if I was OK. I decided to switch to texts, first telling Brian and Heather where I was and what was going on. They immediately agreed to pick me up and were on their way by the time I even tried texting anyone else. After that, I had to text my mom, dad, and brother, and tell them it was only poison oak and I'd be fine.
By the time Brian and Heather were able to get me into a town, the only things open were ERs. So that's where we went. I figured if I waited until morning and it got worse, I'd wind up in a hospital anyway. I was given over-the-counter anti-allergy medication and a steroid pill to accelerate the healing process. According to the doctors, one of the worst things I could do now was go out in the heat, exercise, and get lots of UV exposure, since those would all exacerbate the condition. Sounded like I wasn't going hiking anytime soon.
from PCT South