What’s in a Name? … Hiking from Etna Summit to Castle Crags: Section P on the PCT Part 1

My nephew, Jay, and I couldn’t resist the beautiful wood sculptures along the PCT between Etna Summit and Castle Crags. I liked the drama created by rendering this one in black and white.


It’s official: I am The Wanderer, or more simply, Wanderer, which will come as no surprise to followers of this blog. Trail names are important out here on the PCT. You are supposed to earn one by your actions, looks or quirks. For example, a young woman came in to get water at Deer Creek Springs above the McCloud River where I was camping for the night and introduced herself as Pez. Apparently, she likes the candy, was using it for encouragement along the trail, and was glad to share.

“I’m running low,” she told me, somewhat concerned. I understood. It would be like my eating the last of my nightly Oreos before reaching Peggy and my resupply. It’s like seeing your gas needle hit empty on a lonely road. I pictured Pez raiding the stores in the Castle Crag area, buying enough to get her over the next mountain range.

Pez allowed that she might not keep the name. Through-trekkers are allowed to accept or reject the trail names they are given, and choose another— if a better one comes along. Does that make us a fickle bunch? She chatted for a while, maybe a little lonely. Her boyfriend was hiking the Appalachian Trail while she was hiking the PCT. She seemed so young. “I felt it was important for my independence.” I admired her.

There is great equality out on the trail. We are all hiking up the same mountains, facing the same issues of weather, biting insects, and miles and miles to travel. The lack of water in the last section I just hiked through, added the serious problem of having adequate water to drink. Forget having enough to bathe or wash clothes! My nightly sniff-test suggested I was deteriorating rapidly.

Beat up feet are one of the things that PCT hikers share, although problems like blisters are more likely in the beginning before feet toughen up. Paper tape has always been my go-to solution. I earned the black and blue toenail on the Rogue River. In six months there should be a new one.

“Grab a handful of fir needles and rub them over your shirt,”Pop Corn! suggested. “Then you will smell like a fir-tree.” I was bemoaning the fact that there was no swimming hole in Peavine Creek to jump in before I met up with Peggy. None of us ‘smell like a daisy’ out on the trail, which isn’t a problem until we approach civilization. I thought Pop Corn’s! suggestion was the ultimate in PCT wisdom. (grin)

Temperatures climbing above 100-degrees F (37.7 C) on the sizzling hot afternoons didn’t help. There was also a major lightning storm. It missed me; Peggy was worried. Another through-trekker was struck. Luckily he wasn’t killed and is recovering. Several forest fires were started as well, which are always a worry for those of us who live and travel through Western forests in this era of global warming. I can smell smoke now. One is out there lurking, waiting to pounce.

As a general rule, the through-hikers are a cheerful bunch. I rarely hear a negative word, regardless of how tough the day. A ready smile and “How are you doing?” is the normal greeting. “Great” or “Good” is the normal answer. And there is always, “Have a great hike!” or something similar. Occasionally we stop and chat. But the need to get on down the trail always drives us on.

As usual in my life, I am going against the flow. While the vast majority of trekkers are going south to north, I am going north to south, hiking to my own drummer, so to speak. In fact, I have only met one other couple going the same direction I am. It makes it more difficult in the name game. One minute, or even five-minute encounters along the trail, are hardly enough time to observe a quirk or trait that might suggest one. “Grey Beard” Peggy urged. And that fit. At 75, I am certainly of the age that a name implying elder seems appropriate. And it made me think of Gandalf the Grey! But I have seen several youngsters along the trail in their 60s with magnificent grey and white beards that put my puny efforts at growing whiskers to shame.  (My students in Africa where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching high school in the 1960s called me Ho Chi Minh because I sported a see-through beard like his.)

It’s pretty hard to claim the name Grey Beard when the competition is this tough. Jay and I ran into Bill Whittaker as he was climbing out of Castle Crags.

I was hiking up Grider Creek out of Seiad when I came on Adam and Eve. They wanted to know my trail name. “Happy Wanderer,” I replied spontaneously. I had just been singing the song to help me up the trail. Immediate recognition filled their eyes as they sang a few bars of the tune that was once popular in my (and their) youth. It fit even better than Grey Beard.

The title of my blog is “Wandering through Time and Place.” My business card for this trip announces ‘celebrating 75-years of wandering in the wilderness.” I have a lifetime of wandering behind me. But it goes further. Ancestors on both sides of my family were wanderers. My father’s side, the Mekemsons, arrived in Pennsylvania in 1755 and had soon moved on the Maryland. (All six sons fought in the Revolutionary War.) They were living in Kentucky by the late 1700s and had then moved on to Illinois, Iowa and then west coast by the early 1900s. My mother’s side, the Marshalls, followed a similar route, arriving even earlier in Boston in 1630. They had moved on to Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and then west. Wandering is in my blood.

The name fit well but I had given it to myself, which certainly happens… but isn’t supposed to. I was reluctant to use it.  The next time someone asked, I replied “still searching,” meaning I was still searching for my name. They assumed it was my name and liked it! It certainly isn’t a bad one. I am ‘still searching’ at 75 and would love to be at 95. But now I had three active names, and that can get a bit confusing.

I was hiking along the ridge above Moosehead Springs a few days ago between Castle Crags and Burney Falls when a fellow with a large red beard, named Red of course, stopped me and asked “Are you Curt, or Grey Beard, or Wanderer?” Naturally I was delighted. The question meant he had run into Peggy and was carrying a message. But you can see the difficulty.

It came to a head when I was hiking out to Burney Falls. Peggy was a bit confused about when I would arrive and had found a much better location to pick me up. The confusion wasn’t surprising. My first four days on the section had been tough (I’ll cover them in a later post.) I’d given myself a semi-layover day on the McCloud River and fallen behind. Three days out from the falls, I’d found myself with over 45 miles to travel— a walk in the park for the hardened PCTers with 1500 miles under their belts, but tough for my 75 year-old-body that was already complaining.  None-the-less, I buckled down and vowed to do it. I dutifully arrived at Peavine Creek, 15 miles from the Falls at the end of the second day. The next morning found me shooting down the trail at 3-4 miles per hour. I can still move when inspired and It was mainly downhill. Peggy, cold beer, a shower, a good meal, and clean clothes were waiting!

I’d made it 10 miles when Patch stopped me. He had pointed to his belt pouch and pulled out my card. “You must be Grey Beard or Wanderer, or something else,” he had announced laughing. ‘Peggy is waiting for you at the Dam and she is a really neat woman.” Peggy had given him and his buddies apples and PCTers respond amazingly well to fresh fruit. Thus, it started. A dozen people must have told me that Peggy was waiting and raved about her. “A lovely young woman is waiting for you at the Dam and she said you should hurry,” was one comment. I hurried. Peggy was now distributing cold beer and I wanted to make sure I got there before she ran out. (Kidding, sort of.) A couple greeted me at Rock Creek and the man asked if I was Graveyard— at least that’s what my ears heard. “Um, not yet,” I had responded. He assured me he had said Greybeard. His companion asked, “Wanderer?”

Patch pulled out my business card and told me Peggy was waiting for me at the Pit River Bridge/Lake Britten Dam.

That did it. When I reached my lovely wife, and had been properly greeted and handed a cold beer, she announced, “We have to do something about this name thing. You are Wanderer!” Peggy had spoken— and I couldn’t have agreed more.


Now it’s time to drop back to my 100-mile trip between Etna Summit and Castle Crags of a week ago. There is a lot to cover, having hiked through the Russian Wilderness, the Trinity Alps, and the magnificent Castle Crags Wilderness. I was lucky to have my nephew Jay along. He had joined when he was a somewhat shy 16-year-old as I wrapped up a 360-mile backpack trip from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney 15-years ago. Now he was 31 years old and a talented photographer, cameraman, and director in the early stages of a Hollywood career. He was also in love; no longer shy. I heard a lot about the young woman. (grin) More to the point of this trip was his incredible enthusiasm for the country we were hiking through. I’d often hear him exclaim “Wow!” as he found something of interest or beauty. It seemed that half of our hiking time was taken up with photography as we found something new to photograph.

Jay on our Etna Summit to Castle Crags trip.

At age 16 on top of Mt. Whitney when he joined me on part of a 360 mile backpack trip I did from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Whitney.

I could tell that Jay was a serious photographer by the various poses he assumed while taking photographs— all with a pack on his back!

Here’s my photo of what I believe Jay was trying to capture.

I am going to do several posts on this section. One, because there is so much to cover, and two because I would like to do a separate post featuring Jay’s photography and another featuring Peggy’s photos of Etna. The small towns along the PCT are very important to the through hikers. They are where they pick up their resupplies but they also provide a break from the trail. Again: think cold beer, good meal, shower, and clean clothes.

I’ll do these as photographic essays on a thematic basis. Where to start is the question? Logically, I would show photos of the general terrain we were hiking through. But for fun, I am going to start with the natural wood sculptures Jay and I found along the trail. These almost guaranteed a frenzy of photography. Also, there were the strange faces peering out at us from the wood. The forests are alive. A little theme music please…

I am a bit of an Animist when it comes to nature. I believe that awareness flows through all living things, be they animal or plant. Finding faces staring out at you is totally for amusement, however. This fellow with his bulbous nose and laughing eyes resembled an ancient Greek comedy mask.

While this guy hidden in the crack seemed a bit more ominous!

And this one was just ducky. Check out his bill. Is he grinning or grimacing?

It was the ‘wind-blown’ hair that captured my attention here.

This was our first view of the wood sculpture I featured at the beginning of the post. It guaranteed that Jay and I would be off on another detour. Completing the PCT would probably take the two of us years because of all the time we spend being sidetracked.

This was another impressive wood sculpture that caught our attention. It looks like it was climbing the cliff.

A close up.

Less dramatic wood sculptures created by dead trees also demanded stops. I thought of these two as ‘family.’

This large dead tree provided…

… this interesting limb.

Roots grow around rocks and continue to hold onto them after the tree dies, providing for interesting contrast of wood and stone.

And one of the downed trees that give Deadfall Lake its name provided Jay with a convenient place for a nap.

I imagined a discussion going on here. The bird with the large beak is giving the snooty creature on the left an earful, and he doesn’t want to hear it!

I’ll conclude today’s post as I started, with another black and white.

I am back into the woods today, but this time for a short 50 miles. I’ll get up more posts on the PCT between Etna Summit and Castle Crags when I come out, including photograph collections by both Jay and Peggy.


29 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? … Hiking from Etna Summit to Castle Crags: Section P on the PCT Part 1

  1. You certainly meet a great bunch of people on the trail. As I said, I think, in the last post, I’m surprised at the amount of people you’re meeting. Since the song, “Wanderer” was made popular by Dion, maybe that should be a short for your nickname? No, I think Wanderer suits you.

  2. Wanderer is a perfect name! Love the faces! And the wood sculptures, especially your interpretation of the yappy bird lol. Thanks for another entertaining post Curt. Trek on!

    • Wasn’t that bird great, Alison? And the other wood sculpture really did seem to be saying, “Not again!” I can amuse myself forever with that type of stuff. Comes in handy when hiking up mountains. 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

    • I was fond of still searching, Ray. I confess. But overall, Wanderer seemed to be the name most people preferred— and remembered. 🙂 But I will continue to search! –Curt

  3. The wanderer full of wonder?
    Great post, Curt. How are your knees holding out? Just saying it because trying to do some serious 10 000 steps daily walking, has given me twitches in my knees.

    • 10,000 steps a day is serious walking, Gerard. Good for you! It seems like every day, some joint or the other is whining! Including my knees. I joke about them, but I listen. My goal is to make it through the trip, not disable myself! So I pay attention to the complaining parts. I break out my walking stick to reduce stress on the parts. It seems to work extremely well. Paper tape takes care of blisters. A foot to knee compression sock got me over my shin splints. So I walk on… Thanks, as always. –Curt

  4. And here I’ve been driving myself to distraction at work with thoughts like, “I wish I were out on the trail with Curt and his pals, instead of working in this 100 degree heat.” Whoops! You’ve got it, too! So much for my illusion of cool mountains — and lovely, cool mountain streams at every turn.

    That paper tape really works well. Love the smile it’s carrying. Your comment about general cheerfulness reminded me of the docks, too. It’s odd that no one really is grumping about conditions just now — commiseration, yes. But no grumping. And I love that the wandering song is still popular with others.

    As for trail names, I pondered “Wrong Way Curt Again” for a while. But “Wanderer” is about as perfect as you could get. After all — as Tolkien noted — “Not all who wander are lost.”

    • Ha, Linda— cool mountains, maybe when I get to the Sierras, especially the southern Sierras.
      But we don’t have your humidity. That would be insult to injury! But maybe the smoke is the equivalent, if not worse.
      Cheerfulness seems to be the rule along the trail, and I like it. God only knows, I had enough grumpy people in my years of leading treks. 🙂 People liked to blame me for the fact that they were out of condition. (grin)
      Tolkien’s quote has always been one of my favorites, ever since I first read his books in the 70s, or was that the 60s?
      “Wrong Way Curt Again?” Thanks a lot. 🙂 Sometimes, but it usually isn’t out on the trail. –Curt

      • There’s no question that the smoke’s worse — at least in my opinion. We get a dose now and then when they’re burning fields in Louisiana or Mexico, or in our local refuges. At its worst, I’ve seen it drop ash for a couple of days; burning eyes and tight lungs are no fun.

        You do know I was playing with “Wrong Way Corrigan,” right? 🙂

    • I’ve been amazed by how social it is out on the trail, Craig. I really didn’t have a clue. I miss most of it, since I am hiking north to south while 90% plus of the through hikers go south to north because of desert conditions in California and snow conditions in Washington. Still, I can experience it when I camp with through hikers at night. “All who wander are not lost” has been a favorite quote of mine for a long time. Thanks. –Curt

  5. So like a natural story teller to see faces everywhere.
    Agree with Shoreacres about the naming (Besides there’s that old song by Dion and the Wanderers..great tune… “around and around and around and around”)
    Pez – that’s a great choice. Will remember that one.

    • It’s easy to see where the Native Americans and other early peoples obtained their myths, Phil. Watching the rocks and trees for faces is like watching the clouds, or the stars. Our mind is programmed to make the connections, if we allow it. Besides, it’s fun.
      Pez was a neat young woman.
      Around and around and around… and out here, up and down, up and down, ups and down. 🙂 –Curt

  6. You are doing really well and keeping very upbeat. The heat sounds a lot to cope with but you must be toughening up! Great photos — looking forward to seeing Jay and Peggy’s. Have a beer on us!

  7. One of the most interesting aspects when we hike is to meet other people. You certainly meet fascinating folks, up there 🙂
    I imagine the added challenge of the heat. The scenery must helps. And knowing that Peggy is never too far. Enjoy and be safe, Curt.

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