Smoke days

Word spreads along the trail about smoke conditions north and south. Don’t believe everything you hear: rangers are turning hikers back, it’s horrible at mile 89, it gets better, it gets worse, people are quitting. Who knows?

The Rough Fire (they name forest fires, like they name hurricanes) is not far from the trail. Fortunately for us, the old saw “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is not true. It’s swell that there’s no fire here… but wouldn’t it be extra swell if the smoke stayed over there next to the fire? No such luck.

Smoke is predictable not by where it was hanging out yesterday, but where the wind’s blowing now. You might guess smoke would drift east, like weather, but now it blows north, upcanyon in an afternoon wind, filling valleys and nostrils for miles. The NPS ranger posts warning signs at junctions, ominous in tone although in appearance they resemble a sixth grader’s homework.

I did meet the friendly ranger. She looked about sixteen and managed to be extremely stylish despite her uniform.
I did meet the good ranger. She looked about sixteen and very stylish, despite her government issued uniform and her post in the sticks.

Smoke’s effects on humans vary: sinus issues, headaches, windedness, and plain glumness, a mental smog combining resentment at robbed vistas with dread that it might stay this way for the rest of the trail.

Afternoon at Charlotte Lake
Afternoon at Charlotte Lake

However, let us have an attitude of gratitude, boys and girls! Thus, I now present:

The Positive Effects of Smoke

  1. Improved snot rocket technique. I have two hankies, but one’s for pee and the other for “clean things,” so there’s still no place for snot except whizzing through the air and landing, on a good launch, somewhere besides my shoe.
  2. Smoke keeps the day’s warmth upon us like a blanket, so it doesn’t get awfully cold at night.
  3. Nice sunsets, kind of?? (See above)
  4. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.

I did figure out that if I tie a damp bandana around my face while hiking, the smell is filtered out, so that’s something:


As a result, the old Wylie & the Wild West tune “My home’s in Montana, I wear a bandana” plays constantly in my head. And the trick doesn’t work at night: thick smoke drops from the sky while I sleep, the moon rusty and amorphous outside the tent, the smell alarming. I put the hankie over my nose and mouth, but detailed imaginings of suffocation prevent sleep just as much as smoke did. Hankie off, thoughts on: Will I be able to finish this? What if I don’t see anything for the rest of the hike? Wish I could sleep…

Oh! There is one more positive effect of smoke. It alllllmost makes it worth enduring:

4. Hyper-oxygenated giddiness when it goes away. On another night when smoke awakens me at intervals, I finally open my eyes just as the last stars wink away — wait! Stars? It’s all blown out!

The morning is perfectly clear, and chilly as frozen hell. I whoop, inhale, and shoot up the pass, eyes and lungs feasting on a freshly unveiled world. It may not last… so revel while it does!

3 Replies to “Smoke days”

  1. Stumbled onto your blog by googling “Sierra gooseberries,” which fascinated / delighted me on a hiking encounter pretty identical to yours. I stayed with your blog long after: such a joy to read! I feel compelled to comment for two reasons:

    – my worry, unreconciled from where your blog left off, that smoke ruined the rest of your hike (?)

    – my love of your observation that aspens are “nature’s jazz hands” — I write this from Tahoe, watching the populus tremulus tremble in their October glory.

  2. I am so glad you lived to tell your tale! It is probably more entertaining to me than it was while you were experiencing the smoke!

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