There were three inches of fresh snow on the ground as we settled in for the breakfast buffet. After a week in the woods, of foam mattresses on the ground, of sleeping bags, of breakfast bars and instant coffee, the magic couldn't be overstated.
The night before, we had stumbled in like refugees, whipped and bewildered from a freaky September snowstorm. A gifted piece of timing had us in the lodge for the first sampler of winter: a little hail, a little snow, a lot of wind, plenty of rain ... and we spent the night in a 1930s ski lodge by a crackling fire, glancing out the window occasionally and thinking about how soft the beds were. The beds were difficult to get out of. Making it tougher that morning were the fresh coat of snow, the forecast for more rain, and the 17 miles we were planning to cover on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The Timberline Lodge is a great stone behemoth on the side of Mount Hood, a glacier-covered, 11,000-foot-plus volcano that's the highest thing in Oregon. The lodge was built by the WPA and dedicated by FDR in 1936, a grand recreation project built by artisans and artists. It sits near the edge of a canyon, at the top of the forest, snuggled under the summit like a puppy curled up under its mother, with a view of rolling hills, forests, lakes, desert, and another big volcano to the south.
And it has the breakfast buffet. All you can eat, $11.95, from 7 to 10 a.m.
People base their timing on this part of the trail to make the buffet. The trail wraps around the back side of the lodge, and while most hikers don't stay in the lodge -- the cheapest beds are dorm-style with shared bathrooms for about $60 -- they generally use the laundry, the showers, and the post office. Then they hit the buffet. Hard.
When the meal is ready, among the camera- and tourguide-toting tourists, among the families with their red-eyed teens, there are the unshaved, the scrawny, the raggedly-clothed, absolutely joyful hikers. They approach the line ready to pace themselves -- blessed fresh fruit the first time through, then much-missed breakfast cereal with actual cold milk, and then the excessive eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits -- or they come in as architects, culinary engineers aiming to show off how much food a human can get on one plate.
In either case, they're in for the long haul. They go through plates of food like a skeet shooter with his clay pigeons -- bang, bang, bang -- and the prize at the end, the one thing everybody makes themselves, is a fresh waffle on the iron.
The crowd when we were there was particularly joyful. Chowder -- that's his trail name -- had been talking about the buffet so long that people up and down the trail were doing 30-mile days or even hitchhiking just to get there. At least a dozen hikers took over one of those dorm rooms, and when the bottles went empty, the loonies spilled into the hot tub, sauna, and heated outdoor pool. The blowing snow stirred their scene to higher levels of revelry, and when several of them were the first to hit the buffet promptly at 7 a.m., looking fuzzy and hungover but eager as hell, the families looked at them with a combination of fear and awe.
We were not such hard-core hikers or partiers. We were just three days from the end of a five-week trip; the real hikers had started 2,100 miles away, in Mexico, and had 500 left to reach Canada. But the trail is a great equalizer, and we all stuffed ourselves and marveled at the piece of technology that produced fresh-squeezed orange juice at the push of a button.
There came a point, after three plates of the meaty stuff and halfway through the second waffle, when I put down my coffee, looked out the window, and let out a big sigh. There was, as they say, "nothin' to it but to do it." We would have to get up from this table, use the toilet one more time, load the pack onto our backs, and walk off through the snow. There was, more than usual, the threat of injury and discomfort mixed in with the promise of adventure and a damn good story.
All of that was out the window. And all of that could wait, just a little while longer, while I finished off my waffle.