Sometimes it's incredibly difficult to motivate. I often find myself putting off departing from the safe haven of home before a big run, procrastinating the necessary "letting go" part of the adventure equation. It was that way this past weekend in fact; in the hours before leaving for my last long training run before the Bear 100 I kept dilly dallying and eating and re-organizing and packing my things. When it got late I finally forced myself to get on the road and tackle the 3+ hour drive in the dark that I'd been avoiding. It was Friday evening and I was headed for McKenzie Pass where I would be starting (and ending) a ~50 mile loop around the 3 Sisters Mountains the next morning, solo. I wasn't sure exactly where I would be sleeping that night but that was the most minor consideration, first I had to get out of the house to get there in the first place.
The gas tank ran low and I decided to drive all the way into Sisters to spend the night and then get gas the next morning before heading for the pass. I slept in the dust next to my car on the side of a dirt road by the high school. I woke up early the next morning after just 5 hours of sleep and drove into town at 6:30. I got gas and went to the classic old donut shop on main street for coffee and, of course, a few donuts. Then I was ready to go. I headed west on 242 and soon was at McKenzie Pass, amidst the crazy lunarscape of black volcanic rock and wild lava flows. Totally unreal, I'd never seen anything quite like it. That would become the theme of my trip: being constantly in awe of the amazing variety of landscapes in the 3 Sisters area (and Oregon in general) and just how much variation and beauty --sometimes subtle, sometimes not-- can be found out there. Nature never fails to impress.
With my small pack and things all ready to go I set off at 7:45 am; not exactly the early start I might have wanted but good enough. I was minimally but adequately prepared with plenty of food and gels, a space blanket, headlamp, warm hat, windbreaker, two handheld water bottles, a water bladder in my pack that I could refill and have as a back up just in case. I had a camera too so I knew I'd be stopping more often and going slower overall. It would be a long day in mountains…which is exactly what I wanted. Right after locking the car and turning to run off I realized that I did not know where the trail was. My map of the loop stopped just short of the pass so I couldn't see exactly where it crossed the road. Hmmm, I really dislike being lost from the first second, never an auspicious start. I had seen a sign down the road a bit on the way in with something about the Pacific Crest Trail, which is the trail I wanted to be on for the first few miles. I ran down the road and eventually found myself at the Lava Lake Trailhead. I filled out my wilderness registration permit, put my copy in my pocket and headed off into the woods down the sweet single track trail.
The 3 Sisters area was still relatively new to me and I'd never been on any of the peaks or the trails that traverse them. Every sight was new and fresh to my eyes. The fantastic, mysterious, needle-sharp peaks to the north and west were jaw-dropping and every direction yielded another dazzling view. I had to restrain myself with the camera and just focus on running or else I'd have been out there for days. The entire route is between 5 and 7 thousand feet in elevation, which is one of the reasons I chose it as my final training run. The Bear 100 averages ~7,000 ft. in elevation so the 3 Sisters loop was a decent way to get ready for it. I could feel the altitude a little bit as I ran but was able to keep a good pace on long sections on the moderately graded terrain. It was deceivingly tough though at times; the footing was often loose and sandy soil which made for beach-like running conditions, even though it wasn't often steep up or down it really wears you down. I was headed clockwise and so was on the east side of the mountains in the morning and first half of the day. I tried to keep moving and not stop too often on the rolling terrain that slowly climbed up into some meadow lands and eventually to the pass between South Sister and Broken Top, above the stunning Green Lakes. I looked up at the sides of the looming volcanoes as I passed beneath; I gazed at the gothic and foreboding slopes of the North Sister and at the scoured and glorious rubble-strewn heaps of the Middle and South Sisters. Red Meadow and Park Meadow were idyllic and just perfect, spread out nicely beneath the peaks. I found myself all alone in the silence and stillness and fresh air, in the middle of an ideal day--not too hot, not too cold--and it was good. I sat on logs for short breaks, taking bites of food, soaking in the goodness. I finally crested the pass and saw two hikers who offered to take a picture of me with my camera. We chatted and I wished them well and then continued down to the shores of the Green Lakes area where I saw more hikers and backpackers, which was no surprise. Places that spectacular and accessible are going to get a lot of traffic, and that's ok, just as long as people try to be respectful users of the land.
My trail followed a gorgeous stream down from the lakes to the south, along banks filled with all colors of wildflowers. I had to stop again here and there for I couldn't help myself. Yeah I wanted to push myself and keep a good pace but also, when would I be out there next? What if I died the next day and hadn't taken a second to smell (or photograph and enjoy) the flowers? That'd be a shame. I cut up and over by Moraine Lake and soon crossed the standard hikers route up to the top of South Sister. I saw more people at that junction as well and it was there that I experienced the most confusing route finding of the day. It was nothing serious, just lots of intersecting trails that weren't on my map, but when it happens at the farthest point from your car I sometimes get a bit anxious for a second. But no problem, I had things figured out and was on my way to the Wickiup Plain and the Pacific Crest Trail in no time.
The terrain just kept changing, not only the individual views or sights but in the general feeling of the space too. It's hard to describe without visual aid but each section just seemed so separate from the last, like I'd entered a whole other state or mountain range. There were wide open, long stretching meadows that felt like Montana or Wyoming and there were great expanses of snow and lakes nestled into steep craggy slopes that felt like Colorado. Then there was the Obsidian area which was unlike any other place I've ever been, where the trail and the land shone wildly with light reflected off the thousand glassy shards of the glimmering black rock. The color palate of the Green Lakes area was grey, silver, and slate with eye-popping lime greens while the west side was more burnt, beige tones with darker greens. Everything just kept changing all the time, little by little, different area by different area.
I'd been wary of eating enough throughout the day. Besides my gels I had a small bean and cheese burrito and a couple Snickers bars. I made sure to stop and sit and enjoy them. I'd been deliberate and preemptive about hydrating too because I'd been told that there were long sections with no water and some exposed areas where you could really get zapped by the sun. Luckily the day remained overcast and cool, perfect for running. Once on the Pacific Crest Trail, heading back north, I saw more backpackers which is always a nice sight. Great to have people out there enjoying themselves and choosing to spend quality time with nature. The long, rolling meadows on the west side of the Sisters were a pleasure to run and it was easy to keep a good pace on the gentle terrain. I found my nostrils filled with heavenly aromas as I ran through meadows bursting with color and wildflowers, as overwhelming as entering a perfumery.
The day wore on and of course, as always happens, I began to grow tired. I still had plenty of food but I was slowing down and getting ready to be done with the whole thing. I love being solo in the mountains but it's always a little bit anxiety producing so at some point I find myself ready to feel totally safe and relaxed again. The sun was getting lower in the sky as I passed through the Obsidian area and started contouring around Little Brother and ascending toward Opie Dilldock Pass (what a name!) The terrain changed drastically again, transitioning from soft, lush and forgiving green meadows and forests to jagged, barren, rocky expanses with little plant life. I hiked up to the pass, beneath the massive Collier Cone, my feet scrambling on the jagged lava rock that comprised the path. I looked out west at the setting sun and at the dramatic scenery all around. Once again I could see the totally insane looking needle-peaks to the north, looking like the masts of gigantic ships, sailing through the hazy sea of twilight. The footing kept getting more difficult and technical as I grew more tired and the light faded away. Perfect combination. Out came the headlamp and I ran on into the night, my beam of light illuminating my path through the wild land, until the final mile or so before the pass when it got so rocky I just had to walk. It was ok, I was ready to simply stroll it out to the end.
I hit the road and headed to the pass proper where my car was waiting in the dark, starry night. There was one guy in his car up there who said hello but otherwise it felt like the most deserted place in the world. It was Saturday night and the blackness and quiet was calming and nice. The air was chilly and the changing of the seasons was in it, as distinct as the smell or embrace of a loved one. It's always a little jarring to finish a big day like that. You've seen so many sights, covered so much ground, expended endless energy, and then it's over and you're body is totally reeling and you try to fathom what you just did and how awesome it was. I sat on the bumper of my car and ate and drank a beer in the dark and thought about what I wanted to do for the night. It's ironic that after big efforts like that I often can't really go to sleep, as exhausted as I am. Too much energy still coursing through my body I guess; I've heard of many others who experience the same thing. Anyway, I decided to just drive on home back to Portland and avoid tossing and turning for hours, although another night under the open sky was tempting. I was awake enough to make it an acceptable venture and even stopped for coffee at one point to be extra safe. I made it home to NW Portland by 2 a.m., without mishap. By that time I was finally ready for bed.
I woke up the next morning reinvigorated to be an Oregonian. What a state! I mean really. I guess if you're really not looking and you don't take any time to stop and really see then all forests "look" identical, all "nature" scenes are one and the same, all mountains and rocks and rivers are just mundane, "stock" material without differentiation. If you DO decide to delve into that world you will find a million variations in leaves on the trees, in the lakes, the smells, in the textures of the rocks and mountain slopes and grasses that brush against your feet as you pass. Some places have zigzagging, lightning bolt markings on the rocks while other places have smooth, shallow, gentle striations on polished surfaces. In one area silty red sand covers the earth and surrounds the trees while in another the glinting black Obsidian shines among the emerald grasses of a lush meadow. All in a single day you can see these infinite beauties, or in two or three or four…or more. You could spend a whole lifetime diving into the mysteries. Take advantage of the glorious lands of Oregon and beyond! Marvel at the staggering variety of the earth and its textures, its immense palate and its fine taste. It's all right there, just a few hours away.
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.