The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

Pacific Crest Trailside Reader series Co-Editor Rees Hughes will be doing a reading from his new book Saturday, November 12 beginning at 7 p.m. at Village Books in downtown Fairhaven.
Exploring the people, places, and history of the Pacific Crest Trail as it ranges 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada, The Pacific Crest Trailside Readers bring together short excerpts from classic works of regional writing with boot-tested stories from the trail. Be sure and join Rees on Saturday evening to support this great work! 100% of author proceeds go to benefit the Pacific Crest Trail Association. Read below for a summary of the anthology, as well as a wonderful excerpt from the book by Rees.
At the heart of these anthologies are modern day trail tales, stories taken from PCT hikers that recount trailside humor and traditions, “trail angels” and “trail magic,” encounters with wildlife and wild weather, stories of being lost and found, and unusual incidents. Revealing a larger context are historical accounts of events such as Moses Schallenberger’s winter on Donner Pass and pioneer efforts like the old Naches Road that ended up creating access to today’s trails; Native American myths and legends such as that of Lost Lake near Mount St. Helens; and selections from highly-regarded environmental writers who have captured the region in print, including Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain; John Muir in The Mountains of California; and Barry Lopez in Crossing Open Ground. Readers will also enjoy a few more surprising contributions from the likes of Mark Twain and Ursula LeGuin.
Organized parallel to the geographic sections of the Pacific Crest Trail and presented in two regional volumes, The Pacific Crest Trailside Readers will entertain everyone from dedicated thru-hikers to lovers of regional lore.

– Trailside Press Release, October 2011

A Taste of Jefferson

By Rees Hughes.

Somewhere in the Trinity Mountains or perhaps the Marbles, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the murky border into the state of Jefferson. Although the state of Jefferson movement has a long and varied history, it gained momentum in late 1941 when angry residents of five rural counties of Northern California and southern Oregon announced a short-lived secession, proclaiming that this region would secede each Thursday. The highway was blockaded in Yreka, speeches were made, and photos were taken, but the fervor dissipated with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, the embers of disconnect have persisted and have flared up periodically since. Recent disputes over the water of the Klamath River and old-growth logging have rekindled the Free State movement and the Jefferson state of mind.

Signage outside the post office indicates that you have entered Seiad Valley, state of Jefferson. While this is certainly part publicity stunt, there is no question that there is something different about these remote reaches of the mighty Klamath River valley. California feels like it is a long way away. Seiad Valley is also no ordinary trail town–a fitting home to the “pancake challenge,” one of the great PCT traditions.

Walking north along Grider Creek into the little community of Seiad Valley, one of those wide-spot-in-the-road, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it towns, I was not totally surprised to see signs confirming our arrival into the rebellious “state of Jefferson.” Descending from the wild beauty of the Marble Mountains with my lifelong trail companions Rocky and Pierre, the final six miles had wound past a curious mix of “Beware of Dog” warnings and weathered homesteads, fecund gardens and satellite dishes, and the rusting detritus of what must have been a once grand civilization. I was not quite sure whether I had arrived in an idyllic trail town or had been transported to the set of Deliverance.
William Brewer, California’s first geographer, called this area “a delightful spot–it seems an oasis in a desert,” when he passed through a century and a half earlier documenting the existence of Chinese gold miners, Native peoples, as well as white settlers. But despite the beautiful setting and the fertile bottomland, he reported that the Reeves family, whose ranch then filled much of the valley, was eager to sell out, as they felt “caged up from the world.” Certainly those hardy souls who made this valley home today must still have a genuine sense of independence and self-reliance and a passion for isolation.
Contemporary Seiad Valley isn’t much more than a collection of houses distributed above the floodplain of the Klamath River, with the welcome showers and shade of the RV park and the adjacent cinderblock post office, store, and cafe. Just as in Brewer’s day, the deep valley with its surrounding peaks remains spectacular. The cafe, which I had heard about for years, seemed modest and unassuming given its legendary place among PCT walkers. The much heralded “pancake challenge” is anticipated no less than reaching Deep Creek Hot Springs, Forester Pass, Timberline Lodge, or Stehekin.
Five one-pound pancakes eaten in two hours and your breakfast is free. Five eye-popping pancakes as large as a dinner plate. It seemed so simple.
Challenge is to PCT hikers what blood is to sharks. The gauntlet of challenge is why we have PCT speed records, competition to minimize base pack weight, winter hikers in the Sierra, and side trips to bag nearby peaks. It follows that food would also be subject to conquest. By the time many PCT hikers reach Seiad Valley, their confidence is high, very high. The body is strong, the diet insufficient, and the hunger insatiable.
I have been hungry since birth and was especially ravenous after the previous ten days on the trail. I am tall and lanky and had survived this long by willingly finishing the uneaten portions from the plates of friends and family over the years. I had always prioritized quantity over quality when it came to calories. This pancake thing seemed the perfect match for my aptitude.
As we dropped our packs and prepared to enter the Seiad Valley Cafe, I found it inconceivable that my appetite would be bested by anything served at such a small eatery. How could the proprietor know that I had strategically been making preparations for miles? Drinking copious amounts of water to stretch my stomach. Reminding myself to approach the task slowly. Visualizing success. Confident that I was poised to become a name whispered reverently along the length of the trail.
My golden-brown pancakes were delivered with a side of syrup. Somehow they looked bigger in life than I had imagined–a little like an ocean swell viewed from the trough. And yet, I had survived lightning storms in Desolation Wilderness and a midsummer snowstorm on the PCT east of Mt. Rainier. This was a mere nothing. I enjoyed the first bites–warm and sweet comfort food. It was a welcome alternative to granola, dried fruit, and powdered milk. I devoured the first layer in but a few minutes. It was difficult to imagine anything standing between me and an empty plate. I may have even been guilty of a boast or two, and casting an eye to the sausages on Rocky’s plate. “Bring it on.”
By the time I began to attack the second layer, my senses had dulled. Instead of savoring bites, appreciating the taste and aroma of breakfast, I became more mechanical in my approach. But my speed was steady. Yet, as I neared the end of “el Segundo” (I thought it might help if I named each pancake) I had become aware of a long forgotten feeling in my stomach–the creeping fog of fullness.
I decided this was nothing a short walk around the premises wouldn’t remedy. I returned to the task at hand, pulling my chair back to the table. However, no longer was I thinking of the remaining stack of three as comfort food. The professionals of food excess at the Nathan’s hotdog-eating contest use water to soak the buns; I tried water too. It did make the bites go down easier. Conventional wisdom suggests that the moisture compresses the dough so that it requires less space in your stomach. As I finished my third pancake, though, the result was unmistakable. I was full. The only thing on my side was the clock. Seventy-five minutes more, one way or the other, and I would be through. A visit to the toilet helped.
I became aware of a new pressure. In addition to my fellow hikers, several patrons lent their support and encouragement. An ancient woodsman, perhaps a prophetic apparition, with his suspenders stretched to the breaking point, and his toothless companion nursed along a third round of coffee just to enjoy the spectacle. Rocky cautioned, “Just take your time.”
I flashbacked to Paul Newman’s downing of fifty eggs in an hour as Cool Hand Luke. “Get mad at them damn eggs,” exhorted George Kennedy. The increasingly public nature of my quest propelled me well into the next pancake. I imagined discrete wagering among the assembled, although even the most loyal would recognize that the pancakes were a heavy favorite. As I neared the end of the fourth slab of the damn dough, the exhortations of the cafe patrons had become insufficient incentive.
I started to become aware that my mind was working against me. “Why didn’t I just get the omelet? Why did I have to make such a big deal about this? I’ve heard about people’s stomachs exploding from eating too much.” I scanned the walls, imagining the prospects of flapjack debris adhering everywhere as I became the first culinary suicide bomber.
My plate had been room temperature for some time and the once supple pancakes seemed to have assumed the consistency of soft pine. I tried eating smaller bites but after ten minutes had trouble detecting any difference in the size of the fifth pancake. Time was proceeding agonizingly slowly.
I felt hands on my shoulders, massaging them vigorously. It was my cornerman with his smelling salts, cotton swabs, and an ice pack. I was the heavyweight with head down, towel covered, filled with self doubt while being prepared for the twelfth round. There was no hope of victory. I knew it and those cheering me on knew it. But the bell rang and I answered the call. I took a few frantic bites, stabbing wildly at the plate, hoping desperately for a knockout.
Rees Pierre’s voice revived me. I wondered how long I had been staring at the remaining pancake hoping that it would magically vaporize. Or that I would. I slowly sighed. My valiant effort was over. I paid the bill but declined to take the remnants of “the Terminator” with me in a doggie bag, and I staggered out.
It could have been worse. Someone reminded me of the thru hiker, perhaps apocryphal, who had arranged a joyous rendezvous with his family at the Seiad Valley Cafe. Partway through his challenge this cursed fellow violently regurgitated several pounds of pancake ignominiously across the table before him.
Although the number of individuals reputed to have successfully conquered the pancake challenge varies, there is no disagreement that the number is small. Unfortunately, the clean t-shirt I had purchased with the “XX” on the front, the double-cross icon of the state of Jefferson, no longer fit. I hoped that it wouldn’t take more than a day or so for my body to return to its earlier condition. The ache that permeated my belly reminded me of my quixotic journey of the morning. The thought of carrying the extra weight up the daunting climb out of Seiad Valley to Lower Devils Peak made a “zero” day very attractive. But, it was time to get on. I knew my discomfort and my embarrassment were only temporary.
I shouldered my pack. The trail, appropriately, slinks out of town alongside Highway 96 before abruptly turning north and up. I thought about Brewer’s climb up this same ridge long ago. He had been accompanied by two men from Reeves’ ranch, one of whom brought a bugle. Brewer commented that, “every little while [he] awakened the echoes of the silent mountains with its notes.” As the day waned and I looked down from the abandoned Lower Devils Peak lookout on the diminutive settlement, my failure receded into insignificance. I imagined myself sitting like Brewer, with this magical view of the distant ribbon of the Klamath River and the layered ridges of the Klamath Knot before me. I could even imagine the soulful notes of a cornet reverberating off the shoulder of the ridgeline to the north.


Leading Photo Courtesy Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Leave a Comment