Northern California has been the most challenging section of the PCT for me. It’s not the trail itself, NorCal is an elementary school playground when compared to the mountains of Washington state. Still, only 40-something miles in and California has been an emotional roller coaster, a story of how the lost get found in the remotest of mountain regions around.
Our family is a hiking family. One of the reasons Brianna and I have never acquired a trail family, or tramily, over our thousands of hiking miles might be that we already have one. Brianna’s mom, Penny, and her husband, Curt, started both the IAT and PCT long-distance trails with us. Shauna, Brianna’s cousin and best friend, has hiked with us on pretty much every trail we have ever done. I even had a group of best friends that drove to Wisconsin from Michigan to support us on the trail for a week. Our family are also people I consider to be my closest friends, and we do everything together. A constant reminder that the things you decide to do with your life also impact everyone else, both the positive and the negative.
Our flip from the Trout Lake region of Washington back down to Medford, Oregon, involved a flight out of Seattle. Shauna met us in Seattle for the connecting flight to Medford where she had rented a car to be our trail support for the next couple of weeks. The general hiking plan was for her to slackpack us from where we left off at, Callaghan’s Lodge, down into Seiad Valley of Northern California. For those who don’t know, slackpacking is where Shauna would lessen our load by carrying most of our food and gear while we hiked each day. Why carry things like a tent, sleeping bags, or extra food when you’re meeting up with a vehicle-driving friend each night?
Slackpacking the Mountains
The first two nights of supported adventuring went pretty much as planned. Shauna was chilling at camp well before we arrived, sitting in her chair and ready to tell stories of her driving day. Driving on forest roads in any state can be dicey, throw in some twisting mountain roads and things go from cool to full-on butt puckering faster than you can say, “oh shit!” Signs do not warn normal people off driving these roads, but they are mostly used by wildland firefighters and cattle trucks.
Shauna’s drive from Ashland to our second camp night at Wards Fork Gap had more steep dropoffs and crater-size holes than she thought possible. There is only so much a butt can pucker before it starts to invert in on itself like a black hole. On one hand, she didn’t want to drive the roads. On the other hand, she didn’t want to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Her hope was that the road from Wards Fork Gap to night 3’s planned camp spot, the Cook and Green, would be less damage to her already blackened hole.
Wards Fork Gap is an intersection of 5 or 6 roads near the Oregon-California border. Free-range cows walk the roads more than vehicles drive them. Cowbells ring from every direction as the cows move from pasture to pasture. Camp for the night, our tent and Shauna’s hammock, was 20ft off the trail and 50ft up a hill and away from the forest road intersection. Cows, like hikers and wild animals, also walk the PCT at all hours of the night. We laughed as cattle jingled by us on the trail all night, not looking in our direction or caring that humans had invaded their stomping grounds.
The 3 of us shared a few cups of instant coffee and oatmeal before breaking camp at 715am the next morning. Shauna’s drive to the Cook and Green was only 20 miles but would take the better part of 3 hours to get there. She planned to relax in her hammock for a few hours before hitting the road. There was no reason to rush, our 18-mile hike wouldn’t have us to our rendezvous spot until 3:30-4:00pm
Brianna and I’s hiking day started with some struggles. Brianna was hungry, so we took our long morning break earlier than normal only to find out that she had left her entire food bag in Shauna’s car. Not ideal, but not a huge deal, she had some snacks in her hip pouch and I had packed more snacks than normal for reasons unknown. Misplacing things happens quite often when people visit us on the trail and our daily routines are shattered. Little did we know at the time, Brianna’s missing food bag was the start of a very bad day where every calorie we had on us would count.
Cell signal began to disappear as we hiked further south into the mountains of Northern California. Our phones stay in airplane mode for most of the day to save battery, only checking for bars of service when on breaks or hiking over peaks.
“We have service here, let’s take a break,” I said to Brianna after reaching a small clearing at the top of a hill. The time was 1:35pm and we had more than made up for the morning’s slow start, less than 7 trail miles stood between our break spot and where we thought we would be camping for the night. The day seemed to be getting better, that was until we received the text message Shauna had sent at 11:30am and everything changed.
“This is the only place I have service. The road is closed 😭😭. It may be a long day 😬”
Brianna and I looked at each other with concerned but confident expressions. We knew this might happen and had a plan for what to do if Shauna encountered an impassable forest road – we would walk the 12-mile road from the Cook and Green camping area down to Seiad Valley. A hiking day that was supposed to be 18 miles was now a 30-mile day. Sure, it was the biggest day we have ever done together on the PCT, but the last 12 miles were all downhill, and if we got lucky, Shauna would find us on the road and we’d take a ride into town from there.
It was around 4pm by the time we made it to our original rendezvous spot at the Cook and Green. Neither Brianna nor I were surprised when Shauna did not show up, but we waited a half hour under the shaded half camping/half parking area anyway. With a locked gate blocking the most direct route to us, Shauna’s day would have had 6 hours of additional driving. What concerned us was that no new text messages had come through since 11:30am and all of our attempts to call were going directly to voicemail. Cell signal is sketchy up there but would surely exist somewhere along her road back… right?
The sun dipped behind the mountains and plunged us into a blackened night during the 12-mile hike down to Seiad Valley, it would be many hours before the full moon would light up the darkness. Brianna walked faster at the end of this 30-mile day than I would have thought possible. My pace was much slower, requiring me to jog forward to catch up every 15-20 minutes or risk losing her from sight.
A twinkle of luck shined down upon us about a mile outside of town when a gentleman by the name of Tucker, from the town of Happy Camp, stopped his truck on the road next to us and said, “I know you’re almost to town, but do you want a ride?”
“Yes,” I replied, not needing to consult with Brianna to know the hiking portion of this night needed to end.
It turns out that the downtown of Seiad Valley is really only 3 buildings:
The main town building has a cafe, general store, and post office under a single roof. Next to the main building is the RV park and down the road is an unstaffed gas station that does not have any gas.
My iPhone’s clock had struck 9pm by the time Tucker dropped us off in front of the General Store, Shauna was still nowhere to be seen. The General Store and Cafe had closed at 8pm that night so the snacks we had on us would be all the food we would have until they opened in the morning – crackers and almond butter biscuits.
I spent the first 30 minutes in town walking up and down the road in search of a cell signal while Brianna set up “camp” against the cement wall of the post office. Even with 2 bars of LTE, my phone would not let me call 911 to report Shauna as a missing person. It was many “failed call” attempts later that it dawned on me – maybe the pay phone in front of the post office works… maybe it exists for a reason? and it did! The “payphone” looked like an old school “pay phone”, but was free of charge to use for local calls.
Dialing 911 is always difficult for me. As a 911 emergency dispatcher for part of my time in the Air Force, I understand what goes on behind the scenes. Being the person controlling the communications and keeping track of the information is much easier than being the person shouting the information out into the ether and hoping it finds the right people.
The Siskiyou county dispatcher sounded calm and competent during our call. She understood that Shauna was alone in the mountains and asked questions pertinent to our situation. I had written down all of the road names and timeline details prior to calling so the call could go as smoothly as possible. At the end of it all, the dispatcher asked me to stay near the pay phone in case they needed to call back with additional questions or updates. No problem! Brianna and I would be waiting at the prearranged meeting spot until Shauna showed up later that night. We had to believe she would be showing up later that night.
Shortly after ending the 911 call, a man came out of the closed cafe to see if we needed anything; Brian and his partner run the cafe. He listened to our story and ended up helping us out way more than he owed us, which was nothing. He started by letting me inside the building to fill our water bottles and followed it up by unlocking the nearby bathroom building and turning the Cafe WiFi on for the night. On top of everything else, he ended the good deeds by making us cheeseburgers and French fries for dinner. Brian did not want us to pay for the food, but I did anyway. If I have learned anything in my life and our adventures it’s that you take care of the people who take care of you.
With only an almond butter biscuit left for dinner, the burger and fries meant so more than a hot meal for Brianna and I. Yes, it was delicious, but more than that, it was a love on a lifeline. For a few minutes, we thought about how good dunking a burger in fry sauce tastes instead of wondering where our loved one was and how she might be spending the night. The hunger that creeps devious thoughts into a worried mind abated, even if only for a little while.
In case you’re wondering, leaning your hiking pack like a makeshift recliner against a cement wall is not comfortable. Without sleeping bags or a tent, we stayed warm by zipping puffy jackets up the top of our bodies and wrapping our legs with rain jackets. We made do with what we had. The 100-degree day quickly turned into a chilly 57-degree night that would not allow for sleep or comfort of any kind. I had my electronics bag with a battery and charging cables, so we helped each other with games of Wordle and played two-player pool by passing a phone back and forth for each shot.
I would be lying if I said we waited patiently for the general store to open at 7am that morning. Walking in the store’s door not only gave us access to doughnuts and coffee, but we also got to tell the store owner, Rick, our story. Rick helped the tale of our missing Shauna spread throughout the town. We would tell anyone and everyone who would listen and Rick’s phone at the store became the new contact number for us as the Sheriff’s dept called with updates.
Sleeping against and hanging out next to the wall of a general store/post office like Jay and Silent Bob was an experience Brianna and I appreciated at the highest level yet had no desire to repeat for another night. The RV park next to the general store charged $20 for showers and a camp spot. Our problem, of course, was that we had no tent. We decided that a shower and the ability to hang out in the RV park’s indoor hiker room were worth the $20. If nothing else, we would have a shower’s worth of distraction, be clean, and have a spot to shelter out of the day’s 105-degree temperatures. After telling our story to the woman checking people into the RV park, we were given permission to sleep in the hiker room for the night – bonus win!
However clean and comfortable we might have been at the RV park, neither Brianna nor I could ignore the coming and going of 11:30am that Friday morning. 24 hours had passed since our last text message from Shauna and her phone was still showing as offline in ‘Find My’ and was still going straight to voicemail when called. None of our family back home was aware of the situation up to this point, it was time to make some uncomfortable phone calls. I’m not sure how to properly tell family and friends that one of the most important people in their lives is missing, but we did our best. Concerned faces are easy to mask with brave voices and everyone took the news without audibly crying during our calls.
Physical and emotional exhaustion took its toll on both Brianna and I. We took turns passing out, me on the futon couch, she on the rectangular couch cushion shorter than the length of her curled-up body – an absolute upgrade from last night! ‘Friends’ played on the TV as we slept, waking up only to check our phones for updates that never came. The necessary rest felt sinful. Where was Shauna and could she be sleeping as soundly? If her car had broken down, she had weeks of food to survive on. If her car had run off a cliff, she could be trapped underneath the vehicle and living on borrowed time.
Saturday morning was the worst. The Sheriff’s dept had sent people out to the roads we reported her to have been on and had found nothing. Thoughts of what life without Shauna would look like crept into my head and I sobbed as Brianna cried on my shoulder. We were told a helicopter would be sent out later this day and we weren’t sure if that was a good thing or the beginning of the end of our sanities.
Our ability to wait had ended, we needed to find a ride and do something, anything. You don’t let people you love stay lost, you go out and find them. A Facebook message to Brianna from a local by the name of Doug interrupted my search for rental cars in Medford, a city more than an hour’s drive away that we had no way of getting to. Doug offered what no one else had, a ride past the Cook and Green and up to the road Shauna had reported as closed. In addition to that, he also had yurts on his property with cell signal and WiFi if we needed a place outside of the RV park to sleep – yes, please.
Doug met Brianna and I at the cafe for breakfast before heading up into the mountains of unknown. It wasn’t long before we were all in Doug’s truck driving back up and beyond the 12-mile road Brianna and I had hiked just a couple of days before. It’s not that we expected to find her, it’s that we needed to try. A locked gate greeted us about 10 miles past the Cook and Green. Whether it was the same gate Shauna had found when she texted us or it was a different gate on the opposite side of the road she had encountered was impossible to say. Either way, our search had ended.
I’m not sure how Doug’s house has usable Verizon LTE when nowhere else in Seiad Valley does, but pulling into his driveway changed everything when a text from Shauna popped into our phones!
“I’m alive, getting a ride from a helicopter.”
After over 48 hours of missing time, Shauna had been found and rescued. She will tell you that she was not missing and that she knew exactly where she was at all times :-). Semantics. Search and Rescue dropped Shauna off at the Yreka airport where the Siskiyou Sheriff dept picked her up and drove her to us in Seiad Valley.
From the minute I dialed 911 to report Shauna as missing to the moment she was dropped off at the Seiad Valley general store, our experiences with the local people and departments were all positive. When Brianna posted information about Shauna’s disappearance in the PCT Facebook groups, locals reshared them nearly a hundred times over. When the Sheriff’s dept thought Brianna and I might be sleeping outside in the cold, they sent deputies to check on our well-being. Thank you, Seiad Valley & Siskiyou County.
A successfully rescued Shauna is not the end of this story. No, there was still the matter concerning her rental car. What happened to Shauna that caused her to drop out of contact and need a helicopter lift? Where was her car?