Noisy Water Review

Stalk-Raving Mad

Jeff Thompson

Once upon an August seventeenth, twenty ten..

 

Gnarled and twisted, otherworldly junipers litter my peripheral and the otherwise barren landscape rushing passed. The trunks of these trees spider and curl around themselves, creating what seem like deliberately silly shapes. Is that one a guy flipping me off? I wonder. That other one is a throne, no question. It's as if these trees were sloppily scribbled across the landscape as part of a creative six-year-old's drawings. Surreal, I note. Somehow, central Oregon ended up with only his trees. While, thankfully, the rest of this kid's portfolio was lost in transit. What lies around, in utter contrast to these unrealistic trees, is a very real desert.

Wait, I'm confused. Desert? How did a desert make it's way all the way up here from California? It must be lost. I should report this. Shouldn't I be in the Pacific Northwest by now? My mind wanders.

This whole scene barely catches my attention, because my mind is who-knows-where right now. Playing frisbee golf in San Diego, probably. One thing is for certain; an incoherent daydream has taken priority. I'm so out of sync with the reality of the situation I'm in, you could call me Justin Timberlake. Luckily, I have a smidgin more time to gather my thoughts. For a little while longer, an artificial barrier lies between this stark-raving mad land and myself. In less than an hour that will change though. By then, the twenty-five-miles-to-the-gallon barrier will have gone, and it will have taken my friends, Splinter and Aloe, with it. Off they will venture to the safety of Portland's sprawl. And here I will stay; me, the stark-raving mad juniper wilderness of central Oregon and no one or nothing else for miles, save for a shrub or two. And some creepy crawlies.

Six months ago, I would have been more on-edge than I am right now. My mind would have been a clogged toilet of questions and concerns. Do I have everything I need to make it to the next town? Do I have enough food? Water? My stove? Tent? Tent poles?Maps? Knife? Bear mace? Lighter? Sleeping bag? Toilet paper? Book? Cell phone? More maps? Because, you see, six months ago I had never, ever been on an overnight backpacking trip. No, not once.

That all changed in late April when I, maybe ignorantly, set out to hoof it across the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. This trail system runs, unbroken, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. For nearly three thousand miles, it snakes its way across deserts, mountains, glaciers, rivers, valleys and tiny towns in all three of the west coast states.

Starting at the Mexican border I've been hiking, more than less, non-stop since late April, and believe it or not, I've had company. Apparently, other crazies exist. Who would of thunk? Along the way I've met plenty of like-minded dudes and dudettes: doctors, lawyers, students, climbers, sailors, foreigners, artists, drifters, writers, hippies. Young, old and neither.

Splinter and Aloe, a young couple from Portland, are two of the many friends I've made over the last five months. Off and on throughout the never-ending California section of the trail we shared enough experiences to form a bond tighter than Gorilla Glue on plastic. Through adventure, hardship and a ridiculous common goal of Canada the bonds made out here, on the trail, are as strong as can be.

So here I sit, riding in Splinter and Aloe's car across the stark-raving-mad juniper wilderness of central Oregon, more than five and a half months later. They both finished the trail weeks ago, while I'm still puttering through Oregon. As I daydream about frisbee golf or who-knows-what, they're driving me back to the trail from their place in Portland proper. Having been disconnected from society for long enough, I took them up on their offer to chill out out in Portland for awhile. As long as you need, they had said.

Apparently two weeks was as long as I needed, because that's as long as I stayed. And this marks the longest break from my trail adventure yet. Over the course of my stay, I became so used to the comforts of modern life that I didn't want to leave. If I hadn't packed up when I did, someone would have had to drag me back to that central Oregon wasteland kicking and screaming. That's not to say I didn't want to get back out there and continue my trek, because I did. It was just tough to leave behind the comforts that I almost always took for granted prior to my hike. Tap water, ice cream, cold beer, oh my!

The day I left Portland we all agreed that visiting the beer brewing town of Bend would be a swell idea before hitting the trail. So, in a fit of excitement I packed in a hurry. Cramming what I thought was a week's worth of gear and food into every orifice of my pack until it was bursting at the seams. Naïve six months ago me would have been more cautious. Check and quadruple check that everything is there, he would have nagged. No excuses. But since he no longer exists, I didn't listen.

We race across central Oregon, passing the tourist trap known as Sisters, and I can smell the complimentary brewery tour on Splinter's breath as he asks, “Dude, you sure you have everything you need? This crap shoot of a town is your last chance.”

 “Yea, I'm totally good,” I hope.

Less than an hour later I thank them for everything. We say our goodbyes, give our hugs, and before I know it Splinter, Aloe and the twenty-five-miles-to-the-gallon barrier are gone. Poof, I'm alone. My guess is there are no cars in the parking lot, because no one wants to day hike in this stark-raving mad place. You would be lucky to find anyone other than someone hiking the whole trail out here. Just before seven I shoulder my pack and north I go. To Canada!

Two hours later, I'm singing Lamb Chops at the top of my lungs because a) I'm bored b) I don't want to surprise any wildlife and c) there's no one around for miles.

 “This is the song that doesn't end! Yes, it does on and on, my friends! Some people started singing it not knowing wha-,” I freeze. “The hell is that?”

I’m suddenly shaking like a junky without a fix as I stare into the eyes of a giant, golden cat. It doesn't move, only blinks. This monster is crouched no more than fifteen feet from me, staring. Creeping.

 

My unwanted new friend, Franklin, and I have been locked in a pseudo Mexican standoff for at least ten minutes now. I think. I don’t know anymore. Time seems to have ceased to exist for me, and I wonder if Franklin is in the same boat. Is he scared?

At some point, one of us will have to give in. Something has to happen here, good or bad. I was not prepared for this. Having already hiked over two thousand miles this summer, this is not what I had come to expect.

Day one back on the trail, within hours even, and I'm having a pissing contest when an adult cougar. This isn't fair. My mind is elsewhere, and my pack unorganized. When I packed in a hurry before leaving Portland, I crammed every item I own into the main compartment of my backpack with random efficiency. I have no idea where anything is, and I’m not about to call a time out so that I can take my pack off and rummage through it to find my puny pocket knife, which has likely fallen to the bottom. So, my only possible defense, if Franklin gets testy, are two trekking poles that have been beaten to nubs over the last two thousand miles. Sadly, I didn’t have enough forethought to pack a giant ball of yarn. Yea, that’s unfortunate, because right now I can’t realistically think of anything else that could get me out of this situation alive. A raw steak maybe, but that was also absent from the pre-hike gear checklist I didn't do.

 

As night fades into our peculiar little situation I start to panic. I need to get out of here soon! Except for the silvery reflection of my flashlight in Franklin's eyes, he has disappeared. He might as well be wearing Harry Potter’s cloak. To make matters worse, I’ve completely lost all sense of time.

How did it get dark? How long have we been here, getting to know each other in this all too intimate fashion?

I never planned for this, because I never imagined myself in such a situation. I literally have no idea what to do. This could possibly come down to survival of the fittest, and I’m in no way as fit as two hundred pounds of salivating muscle.

Over the course of our standoff, I haven't been action-less. I’ve tried throwing rocks, making myself look big and awesome, screaming and backing way. I even insulted Franklin's mother a time or three. He was phased by none of these things. In fact, when I backed away, he crawled towards me in the best stalker posture he could muster, like a Siamese chasing a laser pointer. At this, my involuntary reaction was to scream, but I quickly regained composure in an attempt to zipper my mouth shut. The last thing I want to show is weakness. That could be the kill code he has been waiting for.

Eventually, and against my better judgment, I decide that my only option is to turn my back to him and walk away. My goal: civilization. My best bet is the highway I started from earlier this afternoon, ten miles south. Constantly checking behind me, I slowly make my way in the pitch dark. From a distance, Franklin stalks me the entire way. Thinking that he has finally made his move, I want to scream at every sound that pierces the horrible silence.

Several hours later, I see his giant, curious eyes for the last time. He is maybe forty or fifty feet from the trailhead parking lot, creeping behind a bush. As I make my way into the parking lot I am relieved to see cars where none had been before. I pass a small group of campers bedded down right at the trailhead. At this point my survival instincts tell me, “If Franklin is brave enough to come this far he’ll likely run into these guys first.”

So, without warning the sleeping bait, I venture deeper into the parking lot to set up camp. Finally feeling somewhat safe, exhaustion takes over and I fall asleep in minutes, totally uninterested in one of the coolest meteor showers I've ever seen, doing its thing above me.

 

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