Day 17: Bear? Bear bear BEAR

24.8 miles
Elk Lake Resort – PCT mile 1973.7
Total miles so far: 291.8

Paul drives me to the trailhead in the morning, and of course I am crying. Of course. I feel like all I do these days is hike, cry, and eat. It’s like my very own version of Eat, Pray, Love, only with more blisters and fewer Italian men.

At the trailhead I have a choice to make. There are two ways to get back to the PCT, one is the way I came in and the other is a slight shortcut, bypassing a mile or two of the trail. It’s the Mazama Village/Crater Lake Rim shuttle all over again and the outcome is the same: I am here to hike every mile of this trail, and so I do.

Back on the PCT I walk through the forest in the early morning sunlight, sad about leaving Paul and anxious about Kate’s final race tomorrow. I wish I could watch!

My mind is wandering as the PCT crosses the other trail to Elk Lake, the shortcut route, and just as the two trails intersect I see movement off to my left, about 20 feet down the other trail. I stop. Is that… a bear? My heart pounds frantically – yes, it’s definitely a bear, big and brown, standing on its hind-legs in the middle of the trail, starring at me.

Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod.

For a moment, my brain stalls. And then the questions rush in. What am I supposed to do? Can I keep walking? Will the bear follow me? Should I stay in one spot? Should I make noise? Should I raise my arms up to appear larger than I am?

I read all about what to do in case of a bear encounter but now that I am having an actual bear encounter my mind is just… blank.

“Okay,” I tell myself. “Think.”

I am at a perpendicular trail intersection, which means that I can continue on without having to pass directly in front of the bear. I decide that this is what I will do, and I take one tentative step forward, banging my trekking poles together in front of me to make noise as I go.

The bear doesn’t run away, but it doesn’t move toward me either. It just stands there, watching me, until I am out of sight.

I hike the next two miles in a blur of adrenaline. A bear! I saw a bear! And I actually followed my rule of “safety over selfies” and didn’t even try to snap a photo. I do not have a photo of my one and only bear sighting, but I am alive and unharmed. Little victories, people!

I take a short break just before 9am to drink water, eat snacks, and investigate my shoe situation. Paul brought me new shoes at Elk Lake, ones that are a half size larger than the shoes I started out with, and I’m not sure if they are making things better or worse. My swollen feet have more room, which is a relief, but the fit is different and so there’s friction in new places, which hurts. Maybe my feet will just be totally fucked until I’m done with this hike. Is that it?

I pack my snacks away, and in a flurry of excitement I pull out my iPod shuffle. It’s happening! For the first time in almost 300 miles I am going to listen to music. I turn on an upbeat playlist from my running days, and for the next 8 miles I just cruise. Is this what other hikers have been doing all along? How did I forget that music is this good? I hike and sing, with views of the Three Sisters Mountains, and it is pure ecstasy.

I take a break at 11am, and again at 12:40pm, trying not to overdo it in my newfound music-induced hiking euphoria, but I can’t help myself. My body feels good! Other than a few blisters on my left foot and some arch soreness on my right foot, I’m pain-free. Rest days work, apparently. And so does music!

By mid-afternoon I reach the Obsidian Limited Entry Area, and the trail is dotted with sparkling pieces of black obsidian rock that lead me all the way to Obsidian Falls. I sit at the base of the waterfall for 30 minutes, just watching the water cascade over and down the rocks, over and down, over and down.

When I stand up and put my pack back on, I can feel fatigue starting to set in. How much more can I hike today? I fill up my water bottles at Sister Spring and decide to push on for another four miles. I can do that, right? There will be more water there, and flat spots to camp, but that would mean a 24.8 mile day – my longest yet. Can I do it?

Just as I’m putting my water bottles back in my bag a woman approaches; we’ve been passing each other on and off all day, and she is headed to the same spot up trail that I’ve been considering. Which means I’ll have company for the next four miles! Done. Let’s go!

I quickly realize that these four miles are not just your average four miles of trail. We’re soon forced to leave the even tread of dirt behind and walk instead through red and black lava rock fields that stretch on in all directions as far as I can see. It’s other-worldly, one moment we were getting water at a creek and the next we’re in a barren landscape of pumice and lava, hiking uphill into what we’re sure is some kind of Hunger Games/apocalyptic end-of-the-world setting. What even is this? Where are we?? The lava goes up and up, on and on.

Endless lava landscape of doom

We make it to camp just before 6pm, and for some reason I can’t pitch my tent properly. The ground seems flat enough, but everything I try is just awkward, leaving the sides of the tent flapping in the wind, and it is windy. It’s just going to be one of those nights, I guess.

I climb into my sleeping bag and eat the last of Paul’s donuts, which I packed out this morning and have been saving all day. And I was right, no donut is better than a trail donut at the end of one’s longest ever day of hiking. I smile to myself; I feel proud.

For the first time on this trip, I really do feel proud.