Purple twists of light tinted the sky. The sun hadn’t risen yet. In the distance, there was a faint but strange, honking sound. I turned my head to see Andy’s eyes wide open. He was lying still, listening.
“Elk,” he whispered.
I strained my ears, trying to hear them. The call sounds like the vuvuzela, the South African instrument we all grew to love during the 2010 World Cup. The rest of our morning was silent, birds still quiet.
When the sky grew pink with shades of yellow, I got out of my sleeping bag. The ground was soft with black ash and my flip flops were near useless, but I slipped them on anyway. The ground outside of our tent area was rife with hoof prints. I headed to the tree where Andy hung our food and took the bags down so I could begin my morning with a cup of tea.
Andy stayed in the tent while I brewed and sipped my tea, watching the sun rise, yellow light leaking onto the charred trees of The Burn.
When Andy rose, we ate our breakfast together and took down camp. It didn’t take us nearly as long as I thought it would. My tea took twice as long. Shouldering our bags for the morning, we picked our way back down to the trail, and before long, we got to Alder Creek. We refilled our water and set out.
The Burn area, from the 2012 fire, stretched across a large swath of the Eastern loop. No camping and no campfires were allowed. It was reasonable to hike through it all in one day, and luckily, the southernmost edge of The Burn was our next planned campsite. It would be an easy 8.5 miles to this unnamed lake.
I had already managed a blister on my left heel, but I was prepared with moleskin, and doctored myself up at Alder Creek.
There weren’t very many hikers on the trail. The ground was still sandy with ash, like a dried up beach. Dust continued to cloud around our legs, up to our knees.
The terrain was fairly flat, but with nothing but charred trees to keep us company, the sun quickly felt too hot. We refilled at Soap Creek, where our trail intersected with the Camp Lake Trail at mile 11.7 (5760′). Here we encountered several other hikers, including a father with his pre-teen daughter. He was teaching her how to filter the water, which was really cool to see.
It was nice to get the packs off and stretch, have some mid-morning gorp. Things felt good. We adjusted my pack again, and it felt better this time. My shoulders were taking less of the brunt.
We continued, knowing the day would just get hotter. I rolled up my sleeves, hoping to help cool myself as we walked. There were many small streams to cross, each with logs to act as bridges. Some streams were nothing but dried beds. I just appreciated being near water after yesterday.
The map showed a slight elevation change, though our milepost said nothing. We were still in The Burn, still without shade, and we walked up switchbacks that seemed to grow ever steeper. I was panting, still thinking that it was ridiculous to be this tired already.
Andy was in front, but I couldn’t keep up with his speed. Typically it is the other way around, but not in The Burn. Neither of us do particularly well in the heat.
“I’ll need to stop soon,” I called.
I watched him nod as he trudged around a switchback corner. It’s important not to break rhythm.
“But I can wait for a flat spot,” I said.
He nodded again, and soon I was rounding the corner he had just passed. We trudged until we finally reached the top. We found a sliver of shade behind a lone charred spruce tree trunk. We dropped the packs, and I slumped into the ash. I was covered in it, so I no longer cared if I was sitting on a log or the ground. We ate lunch–our two cups of gorp. Neither of us could eat much, but we drank down another Nalgene bottle. Water’s heavy. I wasn’t sad to see it go.
The Burn started to interspersed more with healthy trees. The leafy canopy gave us shade as we walked, and everything felt so much more bearable. We crossed a few more small streams and found the sign indicating we had finished traversing The Burn.
The lake was to our left and it looked so inviting.
But the ground had firmed up, the trees were healthy, and we felt good.
The guidepost we had printed from the internet said it was only 1.5 more miles to get to Park Meadow.
“At mile 16.5 (6180′) is the junction with the Park Meadow Trail #4075, which goes left (see Trail around Broken Top). There is a good drinking water stream. Nice campsites, but a little crowded. This is the last drinking water for a while. Stay right (southwest).”
Besides, if we camped at Park Meadow, we would shorten the next day, and have our vertical challenge done first thing. It was a better plan.
In our twenty-twenty hindsight, we should have taken a long break beside that lake. We should have gotten out the gorp, drank more water and kicked back.
But we didn’t. We stopped only for pictures and kept on trucking.
I said before that I’m a poor judge of distance. After what I thought was at least a mile, I kept thinking Park Meadow must be just over this ridge. We would cross a stream, and I would think, yes, this must be it!
My heel chafed under the bandaid. My shoulders ached from my pack shifting all over. Andy was looking a little worse for wear, too. I tried to stay positive: we weren’t trudging up those switchbacks, so that was something.
When we finally arrived at Park Meadow, we threw down our packs and ran to the stream. I eased off my boots and stuck my feet in the cool stream. The pain of the water on my blister burned, and the harshness of the cold vibrated up my bones. It was heaven.
I washed my face in it, and after we drank and snacked, we realized we had picked a poor campsite. We needed to move, so I slipped my aching and bloated feet back into my boots and hauled my pack back to a more removed site.
It was only 3:00 pm. We pitched camp, taking turns to stare at the mountains. There was an amazing view of South Sister, where we would hike the next day, and of Broken Top, which had stunning bands of different colored rock layered across it.
We chewed through the lunch ration of gorp, and then I took a few clothes over to the stream and washed the ash from my hiking pants and shirt with a mini bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Andy refilled all of our water bottles.
That night we made BackPacker’s Pantry Chicken Vindaloo, which we both thought was spectacular. We took turns running our fingers along the inside of the bag after we ate, sucking out the last of the spices.
Day Two Statistics:
On Trail: 8:00 am
Off Trail: 3:00 pm
Total Miles: 10 miles
2 granola rations with powdered milk
2 cups of gorp
1 Sierra Trail Clif bar
BackPacker’s Pantry Chicken Vindaloo
BackPacker’s Pantry Mocha Mousse
Water: 9 liters