Fire in canyon country

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The trail north of Green Valley

Green Valley is just as advertised. In late October, most valleys in California turn a sort of brownish yellow. But Green Valley remains.

We arrived in Green Valley around 1 pm and picked up some snacks at the convenience store. Just as we got there, a minivan pulled up.

“Hey hikers!”

It was Terrie Anderson, a woman well known in the PCT community for hosting hikers with her husband Joe.

Green Valley is a perennial favorite because of Anderson’s home known as Casa de Luna.

“There are two kinds of hikers,” Anderson said. “Those who stop at Casa de Luna. And those who wish they did.”

In 21 years, Casa de Luna has become the kind of place anyone on trail can call home. We were among those who stopped there, and we were lucky we did.

The day we visited Casa de Luna the Santa Ana winds kicked up with fiery force. Around mid-afternoon, a news alert caught our attention. A fire was burning out of control near Agua Dulce.

That was our very next stop. It was only 24 miles away — a day’s hike.

We checked in with friends on trail who were just ahead of us. They had made it to a spot about 10 miles ahead and saw smoke. Rather than risk hiking into the flames, they had to bailout at a road crossing and head to another town for a night in a hotel.

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A rule adorning the wall at Casa de Luna

We asked Joe and Terrie if we could stay at Casa de Luna and assess the fire danger in the morning. They welcomed us without hesitation and told us about the “magical manzanita forest” in the backyard where we could set up the tent. Behind their house, we wove our way through a grove with tentsites carved out among the trees. All through the forest, we found rocks painted by hikers over the years. Some have apropos sayings: “Home is where you hang your food bag.” Some are eye-rollers. “Caution: This Rock is Hard,” wrote someone named 6-Pack in 2018. Some have hikers’ names such as Hiccupz, Xena or Mr. Peanut Butter. Others are oddly beautiful renderings of trees, waves, a starry sky, a hummingbird or a raccoon. It was hard to walk through the magical manzanita forest without getting distracted by a rock at least once.

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One of the many rocks at Casa de Luna

I’ve read advice about getting to Casa de Luna early during the height of the PCT rush: “The good spots go quickly.” We found the perfect spot next to a plastic lawn flamingo perched on a manzanita branch. We were the only hikers that night.

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Casa de Luna

We went back to Joe and Terrie’s front porch. We watched the evening news for updates on the fire. Joe and Terrie shared a taco dinner with us.

 

This was Casa de Luna’s last season in operation. The Andersons are moving to Washington to be nearer to grandkids. Terrie was already packing when we got there and posing questions like “how many socks does a person need?”

 

We joined Terrie for a couple of episodes of Family Feud before we retired to the manzanita grove for bed. The last thing I remember hearing was the yip of a coyote in the hills outside of town.

 

In the morning, Terrie invited us for coffee at the house. We took our seats on the porch and checked the news. Firefighters had made headway to contain the blaze, but it was still at a dangerous stage. It was not on the trail, but it was near it.

 

Jake and I know what it’s like to walk through smoke. We had already been through it near Mount Lassen in Northern California. One day we reveled in a glorious red and pink sunset, and the next we were shrouded in smoke from a fire miles away. Smoke is not like fog. Fog cleans out your lungs. Smoke sweeps into your lungs like a virus. At first it feels like nothing — just a tickle in your nose hairs. Then it pricks the back of your throat. Slowly, it builds to a hacking cough that chokes away your energy. At that stage, the smell is overwhelming — as if you had smothered your face in embers. Then a wind comes through in the night and sweeps it all away. In the morning, it’s clear without even a whiff of a campfire. Or at least that’s what happened near Lassen.

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Smoke makes an eerie sunset near Mount Lassen, California.

In Agua Dulce, there was danger. It was not worth wandering into a forest fire. We asked Terrie if we could take a zero day in Green Valley. She agreed even before the words were out of our mouths.

In the afternoon, more hikers showed up — some walked up to the house. We ran into some people at the corner store and told them about the Andersons. Not that they needed to be told. Everyone knew about Casa de Luna. Joe and Terrie’s place felt like home. All were welcome. It didn’t matter how long they stayed. The Andersons told stories about hikers who had partied too much, made big messes, had too much fun — but never of anyone overstaying their welcome. When Joe and Terrie shared stories, they tumbled out all in a heap. Many trail angels say they host hikers to hear trail stories. But Joe and Terrie had trail stories and then some.

“I hear you used to mud wrestle hikers,” someone said.

“It was actually in oil,” Terrie responded.

And then we were off on another great adventure about trail pastimes and the old days.

“What’s it like in the summer?” someone inevitably asked.

“Oh, you wouldn’t recognize it,” Joe said.

“We have five porta-potties out front,” Terrie said. “People are everywhere. When it comes time for dinner, the line goes down the block.”

It was hard to imagine. Over the course of the evening, eight or nine hikers arrived. It felt nice to be in a group of so many people doing the same crazy thing as we were. It also felt a little overwhelming. Joe and Terrie told us they had nearly 90 at one time this year. It boggled the mind.

It must be hard for the Anderson to get to know the hikers in a herd like that. People come for dinner, they paint a rock, they take a photo and then they leave. But somehow, Terrie seemed to remember everyone’s trail name.

As the day dragged into evening, more news came in. Firefighters were making progress in Agua Dulce. The blaze wasn’t fully contained, but it was more controlled. The wind could still change directions, but we would have a day or so of protection to make it through Agua Dulce. Terrie called a trail angel who lived there. “They lost power,” that angel said. “But the fire is not a threat, and it was not near the trail.”

We decided to go to sleep and make an early start. The next day Terrie drove us back to the trail around 8 in the morning. She gave us big hugs and words of encouragement and sent us on our way. It made me smile as we labored up the hill out of Green Valley. We stayed to avoid the fire. I left feeling like my soul had been refreshed.

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One of the rocks at Casa de Luna

Terrie and Joe Anderson are selling painted rocks at their place as they prepare to move. You can find out more at: https://www.facebook.com/casadelunarockspct/?rf=226318344047448

Author: jenonthetrail

Jen is from Washington state between Seattle and the Canadian border. She grew up hiking in the North Cascades with her family. She went on her first backpacking trip at about 12 years old with her dad and brother. Jen is returning after seven years in Mexico City to the US to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s looking forward to mountain meadows and Cheez-it crackers.

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