Hiatus.

I want to live in a place where eucalyptus grows.

I’ve spent the last week putting some serious mileage on my rental car, cruising around Northern California and a bit of the Central Valley, seeing the sights, taking the pictures, and drinking the beer. I found myself most often north of the city on winding county roads lined with fragrant eucalyptus and massive redwoods. I found this area more enjoyable than the popular regions to the south–the rolling hills and thick forests and angled grape vines do more to entertain the imagination.

I’ve been enchanted. If I’m not careful, I could end up moving here next.

I stayed Airbnb in Vallejo for the first part of the week, and received some pertinent advice from my host, who, having trained with the army in Southern California, had some experience in the desert. “Check your shoes every morning,” he said through a mouthful of bacon, “I found scorpions in my boots a few times a month when I was down there.” Right. Scorpions. In my shoes. Consider that a chore I’ll probably do more than is probably necessary. Yikes.

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Along Highway 1 south of Monterey Bay

I ventured south on one day to Salinas and Monterey on the scenic Highway 1 along the coast, stopping in at the National Steinbeck Museum (which turned out to be more a history of the Salinas Valley), Cannery Row, and the lovely Point Lobos for lunch.

The last part of the week I’ve spent in Berkeley, wandering up and down the streets, visiting the local parks and quirky coffee shops and the hole-in-the-wall bookshops and hat shops and record stores of Telegraph Avenue.

As I’ve allocated most of my funds this week to fuel and driving around the state a bit, I’ve only been eating turkey sandwiches, oatmeal, and bananas. I’ve also been keeping up my running/hiking most days, and being more than slightly stressed has taken a toll on my eating habits. My hiking pants, which I intentionally purchased a little snug, already need a belt, and my cardigan keeps slipping off my shoulders. I’ve never struggled with keeping my weight up (usually higher than it should be) (the truth), and this is an odd place to find myself. Last night I made a last ditch effort to give myself a little extra padding (pizza, ice cream, blueberry muffins) (I feel ill), and purchased my first (very high calorie) resupply.

Despite the stunning vistas I’ve seen, this week has been difficult for me. Before leaving Seattle, I was in such a hurry to get everything done, I pushed everything I was feeling out of the way to be dealt with later. My trip to Arizona was great, but allowed me to ignore what was going on in my own head for another few days. When I arrived in Oakland last Sunday, I had a car and a backpack and an empty week before me.

I know that this is what I want to do. And I know that for me, right now, it’s the right thing to do. But I’m still plagued with uncertainty. I don’t think I’ll regret attempting this hike, but I don’t look forward to starting all over again when (if?) I finish. It’s a fear no different, I suppose, from the ones I confront many days, whether or not I’m planning an five month hike. Am I taking the right direction?

Those thoughts coupled with several unresolved personal issues coming to a head has made this week emotionally exhausting and a little overwhelming.

Tomorrow morning I’m off to San Diego, where I’ll be picked up by Scout & Frodo, two local Trail Angels, and brought out to the trailhead early Monday.

I suppose there’s nothing now to do but hike.

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Child, don’t fear doing things wrong… I know I am naive, but if anything, that’s what’s going to save me.

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Deserts & Rocks & Bears, Oh My!

I love the way the desert smells.

I love the scent of various pines, sweetened by the breeze, and the crack of dry earth beneath my shoes.

Olfactory memories, unbidden, seeped in with the dry forest air–summers spent in central Colorado with cousins, chewing on rock candy and scrambling across alpine ridges; the several months I lived in southeast Utah, the Moab Rim rising like a massive saffron bowl, enclosing the town in slick red rock.

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View of the Mogollon Rim while we took a lunch break.

I’d never been to Arizona before this week, but had always associated it with endless dull desert and Jan Brewer groupies. Though the state proudly boasts both of my stereotypes and more, I found the landscape far more rich than for what I’d given it credit.

After arriving in Phoenix from the dank Seattle skies heavy with rain, Jess and I made our way north to the Tonto National Forest. The land was open and clear, but teeming with flora and fauna alien to me–forests of Saguaro rose eerily on hillsides, massive and ancient and silent. Acacia extended its fingers along the roads, quail and rattlesnakes and iguana alike taking respite in its meager shade.

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On Sunday morning, Jess’ folks dropped us at the Highline 31 Trail Head in Pine, AZ with well wishes and promises to pick us up on the other end. With fifty-four miles of trail before us, we started our climb. The terrain was unforgiving, inhospitable, and intensely beautiful. The Mogollon Rim rose above us, cinnamon cliffs jutting into the sky.

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The first day, large pines towered towered over the trail. The woods were sparse here, and high grasses grew tall against the exaggerated tree bark. As the trip continued, however, we entered a burn area affected by the Dude Fire of 1990. The largest fire in the state up until that point, it encompassed forty-four square miles, claimed the lives of six people, and destroyed over sixty structures. The landscape bears a stark scar, and the trail wandered through miles of low brush, loose red rock, and the charred bodies of Pinon Pines. The sun beat ruthlessly on our necks and shade was scarce in the hot midday.

Burnt forest land.

Burnt forest land.

The Highline Trail runs along with the Arizona Trail (AZT, a long distance trail, 800 miles from Mexico to Utah) for nearly twenty miles before breaking off to continue along the Rim. Trail conditions markedly deteriorated after departing the more popular AZT, and we lost the trail several times in wide meadows, burnt scrubland, and grazing properties.

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The new countryside brought with it novel plants and animals–we regularly scared up small lizards and horny toads from the rocks surrounding the trail; coyotes howled and barked several canyons away as we crawled into our tent, now fully clothed in wool and down to combat the night chill. Two evenings of the four we encountered bears in our camp. The first night Jess sighted one up the hill from our camp. And being the good choristers that we are, immediately began singing yodel tunes, ballads, and opera (we weren’t in a place to be musically discerning). Though it was likely long gone, we continued to speak in exaggerated tones for the rest of the night and took cautiously to our sleeping bags.

The second incident occurred on the third evening, in the wee hours of the morning. The bear sniffed and snorted around our camp, passing right by our tent before mounting a ridge and climbing away. Our palms were sweaty, heart rates jacked. We didn’t fall back asleep that night. Only upon returning to civilization did we learn that the Tonto National Forest is one of the most bear-populous areas in the country, averaging one bear per square mile. Figures.

The last two days found us back among the trees, and crossing streams with more regularity, though many flowed through grazing lands and required extensive filtering and/or chemical purification.

Our final morning was an easy three mile hike out to the trailhead, where Jess’ parents met us with hard cider, cold beer, and a ride to the closest burrito purveyor (after a shower, of course).

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The rest of the week was spent cleaning and parsing through gear in the small town of Quatrzsite in southwestern Arizona where Jess’ folks graciously hosted us in their low desert home. The area was foreign to me. Filled with sparse low brush, the flat earth extends for miles before rising out of nothing into harsh brown mountains, turned blue and purple in the sunset. The population is largely made up of snowbirds from the northern states, and perennial vagabonds moving from one spot to another. RV parks and mobile homes sprawl out from the main stretch of town which consists of a few gas stations, a small grocery store, and myriad stalls and shops of sundry items run out of the back of trailers.

I was hoping for this hike to act as a pack shakedown, but I didn’t end up ditching many items. I’ve discarded any and all luxury items (pencils, sketchbook) and repeats (merino wool undergarments, some first aid items, a larger cook pot), but have discovered that it’s really two of my big three items that contribute the most weight: sleeping bag and tent. I’m not in a place financially to replace either of them, and they’re both in excellent condition, but perhaps the ultralight tarp shelter is a possible future investment.

As I’ve been quite focused on this trip, I haven’t spent much time thinking about the PCT this week, beyond being grateful for a little desert hiking before I embark on the 700 mile desert section in Southern California. This hike taught me that I need less water in the desert than I thought (though the temperature here is substantially cooler than some PCT sections), that hiking up steep hills of loose rock will always suck, but I can do it, and that strawberry Starburst are definitely superior to all other flavors.

Today I leave Arizona for a week in the Bay Area to visit a couple friends, complete a couple final gear switches/replacements, and wander around the city before embarking down to San Diego, and ultimately to Campo, CA and the PCT’s southern terminus

A friend from Seattle began his PCT thru-hike on April 1st, and I’ve been following his blog and social media, hungry for pictures and information and opinions. My nerves have spiked up again, sitting here at my gate in the Phoenix airport. I’m not feeling anxious about anything in particular, but rather just a constant hum of unease wrought by excitement and apprehension.

One week and counting.

a few beans & some thoughts.

As my departure date looms ever nearer on the calendar, I’m continually surprised by the level of skepticism, snide remarks, and the barrage of unsolicited advice from non-backpackers about my hike. Everyone from extended family members, friends, coworkers and managers, the barista at my favorite coffee shop, and the checkout lady at Safeway (who inquired after the many bags of dried beans, pasta, and rice I was purchasing for resupplies), can’t wait to give me their two cents, tell me how miserable I’ll be, and ask me what type of gun I’ll be carrying (see FAQ post). While I try to remind myself that many of their thoughts are well-intentioned, answering the demand for justification with each person is wearisome. Though I want to spread the love of the outdoors with others, I find myself getting irritated with some of the more unsupportive interrogations and passing jibes.

Maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I’m not going into this blind. I’ve done my research. I’ve been out in the mountains. I have a water filter. I know my own body.

Concealed within these remarks, I suppose, lies a reflection of each commenter’s or inquirer’s or cross-examiner’s values. Perhaps even his or her own fears.

When I was in high school, I was deathly afraid of falling into the trap that is the American Dream. I hoped I wouldn’t meet a handsome, charming, and ambitious man in college and fall in love. I prayed not to begin my adulthood with the requisite 2.5 children, golden retriever, and SUV with a house in the suburbs, as so many of my contemporaries pined for, and what appeared to be a common thread in my community. I didn’t know what I wanted (still don’t), but it wasn’t that.

Of course, as I discovered, I didn’t have to. I’d caged myself in with what I believed my family & friends expected of me, when in reality they thought nothing of the sort.

Sometimes I still look at family and friends who have followed the more traditional course, and I envy their security. They have 401ks and stable jobs and reliable cars, and they stay around long enough to see their autumn tulip bulbs sprout in April.

And perhaps they fear leaving this lifestyle of certainty behind, or feel pinned to decisions and commitments they made many years ago, or ones that were made for them.

I am young, I’ll be the first to admit that. I often feel naive and humbled by the experiences of those around me. And I’m not prone to voicing grand pronouncements (but face it, we’re all more than a little supercilious about our chosen lifestyles), but I suppose I like to think I live intentionally–I fear frittering away my small allotment of existence at a menial job, tolerating a static or mercurial relationship, playing video games, or trolling the internet for entertainment. I sometimes get caught up checking up on old classmates I don’t even know anymore on Facebook, or standing in an impossibly long line at the store, waiting to purchase an item I don’t really even need, and I get a little flustered. Is this really what I want to be doing? 

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I don’t feel my decision to thru-hike the PCT was in any way crazy or brave–it just feels like the next thing to do, for me, in this moment.

Anyhow.

This weekend I’ve been dehydrating like a fiend!

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I purchased a million dollars worth of dried beans, soaked them all, cooked them, and then dehydrated them, so I’m back with a bunch of bags of dried beans again. I also picked up a few boxes of mac and cheese, a bunch of peppers and onions, and some ground beef to cook, dehydrate, and mix into chilis, pastas, rice mixes, etc.

My entire apartment smells like black beans, and the dehydrator (thanks LeeAnne & Nolan!) is working overtime and steaming up all of my windows.

I even found some little packets of silica beads to throw in each meal package to help keep it dry for as long as possible.

Things are coming together!