From Red Bluff to the shoe tree
Sometimes you just need to sleep on it, and then in the morning you know what to do. 3D seems just as lost this morning as last night. She wants to come to the coast, but she’s not going to ride the passes on the 36. She wants to get back on the trail, doesn’t know where to start back to. A bus to Arcata? Redding? Ashland? “I’ll flip a coin. Heads I come with you guys.” Tails. “Best two out of three.” Tails.
We go to the donut shop, hang out for a bit, then it’s time to part ways. 3D rides off alone in the other direction. Oh man.
Up Main Street, then a left back onto the 36. It only takes us a few minutes to get out of town, start riding through the countryside. We pass a goat farm, and Pacman bleats at the goats. They bleat back. “Did you see that little goat back there?” he exclaims, “he was all, ‘I’m coming too!’ ”
It’s super hot. The high for Red Bluff today is 99 degrees, and we’re not any higher in elevation. The sweat is rolling down my face, my arms, my back. We pull over onto the side of the road under some oak trees, and we all lie on the ground to sweat some more.
Ride, stop. Ride, stop. Heavy laden blackberry bushes hold us up for a bit, sweet, purple, warm (hot). Ride, stop. It’s simply too hot. We’re aiming for the South fork of the Cottonwood River, marked in blue on our road map. Cool blue water, swimming holes, water to drink and pour over ourselves… all figments of our imaginations.
The river is dry.
If this is dry, it may be a long time till our next water. “Let’s wait it out here?” suggests Pacman, stopping past the river in the driveway of a gated dirt road. “Wait till it cools off. No point sweating out all our water.”
It doesn’t cool off, but it’s 4pm and we decide to start back up. I’m in front, pedaling away, but all of a sudden we’re losing Pacman. We’d planned to ride for an hour but I stop early to wait up. He rolls up, lays down his bike, pulls out a Gatorade bottle, frozen solid.
“Wait a minute, where did that come from?” I ask. “Have you been carrying that all day!?”
“Nah, I stopped at the farmhouse we passed, asked for dinner water. The lady gave me this. Chick was cool, but wouldn’t open the door. I turned around for something and when I turned back the water was outside.” He has some other water as well, and we share it, passing around the frozen bottle until the ice is melted across hot necks and backs and bellies. We’ve been short water all day – this helps, but isn’t enough. The Middle Fork of the Cottonwood is also marked on the map (in blue), and at fifteen miles away seems achievable.
Achievable some other day, but Pacman is done, toast. I’ve been slow to realize the seriousness of the situation. J and I are hot and exhausted, he’s in danger of heat stroke. We’re out of water. It’s getting late – soon it will be too dark to ride. This whole bike trip is turning into something of a mess: a dehydrated, hot, exhausting mess. The back of my brain keeps asking me how a PCT thru-hike turned into being stuck in California’s central valley, on a bicycle, when it’s a hundred degrees, without any water. “I don’t know, brain! It seemed like a good idea two days ago!”
Hot, but charming.
There’s a sort of pullout where we’re stopped, and we decide to try and camp. I start rolling my bike across the grass and fill both my bike tires with thorns, instantaneously. Pacman too. “Stop! Stop!” I yell at J. “Don’t bring your bike back here!”
Pacman’s tires seem ok, and my front seems ok, but my back tire starts to hiss when the thorns come out. I swap in my spare tube.
We really need water now if we’re going to continue. Pacman is laying on the side of the road trying not to vomit. I take the lid off my ditty box, white plastic, and write WATER PLEASE in sharpie across it, in hard black letters. (Ah-ha, I think. This is a low point.)
Two cars pass – ZOOM ZOOM which is incredible to me. What would I have to write on my sign to get these people to stop? A fire truck zooms past, then slams on the brakes when they get in reading distance. They’re skidding to a stop; J is riding to meet them. By the time I’ve turned my bike around and met them there are four firemen, arms full of water bottles and Gatorade. I can’t stop saying thank you. They end up emptying their personal canteens into our bottles as well, while telling us that the river is dry, but Platina is fifteen miles from here – we’ll have to make it there tomorrow. The firemen are from Denver, where my parents live, which seems like a talisman, or omen maybe. Like the force of my mother’s love charmed them here to help us.
We ride another half mile but Pacman can’t do it, and we stop under a huge oak tree with a wide, gravel pullout for us to rest at. There’s a pair of old underwear and a crusty sleeping bag there already, then I look up. Shoes! Hundreds of pairs, flip flops, boots, sneakers, all festooning the sturdy oak limbs. “I don’t know whether to think this is cool or creepy, guys.” (The old underwear is definitely creepy.)
“Hopefully it doesn’t mean anything,” replies J.
“We can try and keep going,” adds Pacman.
“No, I don’t think we can. We’ll stay here.” So we camp beneath the shoe tree on the side of the road, grassy hills dotted with oaks rolling out in all directions, split up by dry gulches. It’s like an illustration out of a children’s book, charming and golden. I hope Pacman can ride tomorrow. I hope we don’t get murdered tonight.