“The guidebook says this this is Charleton Lake,” I yell ahead to my mom and sister. “Let’s take our break here.”
My mom and sister shout back their agreement. Smiles are sparse today. We’ve been scratching our heads for 5 miles over the snow-covered trail, orienting ourselves by constantly consulting our guidebook, topographic maps, and the sun.
“How much longer do we have?” Mom asks.
I flip through the guidebook and add up the mileage. We have 10 more miles to go today. Mom ponders the number, once too large to imagine, but now a simple formula of time and effort. We should get there around 5 pm.
We cycle through much in a day: we fight, we reconcile, we talk, we fight again, and then one of us breaks into a Les Miserables number and the sequence restarts.
It’s fun – even the fighting. The trail makes it impossible to think in any other form than truth, and so our complaints, our issues, our thoughts spill out, unfiltered and uncaring, for the entire world to hear. And yet here, the world is only three women, one trail and the forest bustling with unseen life.
We take a lunch break on a side trail and eat silently, Charleton Lake expanding magnificently before us. We pack up our trash, put our boots back on and make to hike back to the PCT.
Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood
Soon, it’s 5 pm and instead of being comfortably inside of our tent, we are angrily swatting at swarms of mosquitoes. We find ourselves frustratingly off course, at a trailhead unmentioned in our guidebook and missing from our maps.
A couple miles back – 2.33, to be exact – we came to a dead end. To our left was the Harrelson Horse Trail, and to our right was the Lily Lake Trail. No mention of the PCT. I scoured the guidebook. “When the PCT meets the Lily Lake Trail, you can take the Lily Lake Trail to descend to a small, clean lake,” the guidebook recommends, but makes no mention of this Harrelson Horse Trail – not even in the index.
The question: should we follow the trail that the guidebook mentions leads somewhere other than the PCT or should we follow the trail that the guidebook makes no mention of in the hope that it is the PCT? I decide on the latter and, tiredly and without argument, we tromp forward angrily, following the broken path dissected with light dirt trails and burned down trees.
But now we are on a trail that we now know to be wrong so I come up with another plan: We are going to backtrack, take the Lily Lake Trail and if we don’t encounter the checkpoints mentioned in the guidebook, we’ll turn back and head for the highway, a two-day trek. I suggest that we call a “PCT Expert”, a member of the Pacific Crest Trail Association who has a hotline that doles out advice for situations like these.
On the third try, we leave a message explaining what we’re going to do. We try to be overly specific and let them know that we have a plan – that we’re thru-hikers with the proper amount of equipment and food.
We wait for 30 minutes but they do not call us back. So, eager to get back on the correct trail, we make our way back to the fork, look with clearer heads at the Lily Lake Trail sign and see, scratched on the side of the sign, the letters “PCT” with an arrow instructing us to follow the Lily Lake Trail. We have now reached the part of the cycle where we all, realizing the need, drop our differences and support each other.
We hike onwards and stop only 11 miles further on the trail than where we started this morning, though my watch tells me that we have walked 17 miles in total. We set up camp amid the swarms of mosquitoes and call it a day just as the sky darkens and the familiar nocturnal sounds begin to tuck in the sun and welcome the moon.
A New Day, A New Way
The sights the next day are breathtaking. We pass mile after mile of trailside lakes and ponds, crisp blue waters with trickling waterfalls of slowly melting snow. The mood is constantly jovial. Because of our early departure, we arrive earlier than expected, and we spend several lazy hours making hot chocolate, gazing at the cliffs surrounding the lake, giving each other much needed foot massages and finally tucking ourselves into our warm cocoons and dozing off for the night, dreaming of the burgers and beer that tomorrow’s destination promises.
Back on the trail, our excitement is palpable. “We only have to go about 9 miles today!” I shout ahead encouragingly.
My mom and sister pump their fists excitedly and we engage in a long and hopeful conversation about the sorts of burgers we are going to order and just how many beers we will enjoy. The distinct sound hooves pounding a bend of the forested dirt path interrupts our revelry.
“Are you Mary Zakheim?” A booming voice yells around the corner.
Confused, I answer, “Yes?” and watch as two equestrians round the corner, each wearing a bright yellow vest etched with black lettering: “SEARCH AND RESCUE.”
Shit is the only word that comes to mind.
They seem confused that we are all right.
In their desperation to help us, the woman offers us Band-Aids. They tell us that Oregon Search and Rescue volunteers have been combing the forest trying to locate us following our emergency call for help two days prior.
“We didn’t call for help,” Mom interrupts. “We called an expert PCTA line to ask for advice, but we never said that we were lost or needed anything more than advice.”
They seem embarrassed for us. One of the riders pipes up, “The Sherriff told us that this was all just for practice, to get us ready for real emergencies.” I think she says that to make us feel better about being tracked for so long for no reason.
As they’re about to turn away, the woman asks hesitatingly, “Would you mind taking a picture of us? It’s our first find.”
The Lost Girls
We start hiking again and wonder what awaits us at Elk Lake Resort: apathy, anger, joy? But soon enough, the hike and the heat take up most of my mind’s capacity and we walk in silence, day dreaming of hot meals at the end of our day.
About a mile out, we encounter two women walking side by side. It isn’t until they nearly run into us that they raise their heads and see the three of us walking towards them.
“Say,” She says, a look of comprehension dawning on her face, “Aren’t you those lost girls?”
With trepidation, we continue to the resort. We are met with shouts of our new trail name. Plastered across the evening news, in the morning paper, and on everyone’s lips is that unshakable title: “The Lost Girls.”
Hiking 101: What to Know Before You Hit the Trail
Grab a Hiking Buddy: Choose someone who is more experienced than you and can show you the ropes.
Plan Your Supplies: Bring more than enough food and water than you think you’ll need.
Bring Maps: Ask park rangers for one, they’re usually free and always helpful or order in advance of your journey to plan your stops for longer hikes.
Tennis Shoes May Be Okay: If you’re a first timer, don’t worry about getting “the best” apparel before heading out. Your shoes and clothes should be comfortable for the duration of your hike. If you are carrying heavy weight, you’ll need shoes with strong ankle and sole support to prevent injuries.
Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: Never been backpacking before? Start small and work your way up.
Have Fun and Explore: The outdoors are there to take advantage of the surrounding beauty.