Life with Luna

I’m parked on a dirt road a few dozen miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the namesake peak barely visible in the night sky, wreathed in stars.

From the backseat of my car, a little string of LED lights hanging over my head, my fingers are cold as I scribble in my notebook. I suppose I should mention that when I say “backseat” what I really mean is “bed-length platform with a sleeping pad.” That’s right, y’all, I’ve joined the #VanLife movement. Well, sort of.

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Taking it easy with Luna the Highlander at the base of Steens Mountain

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This is Job. Named after the guy in the Bible who totally got screwed over, he’s a prayer plant who lives in the passenger seat/on the back table/upended at the back of my car. I’ve put him through a lot, and he’s never wavered.

I got sick of paying Seattle’s exorbitant and ever rising rent, bought a Toyota Highlander, decided to call her Luna, and putzed around my friend’s shop for a few days, drinking Rainiers and providing moral support while he tricked it out for me. It’s a little cramped, but its dry and cozy and it can manage most of those gnarly BLM and Forest Service two tracks I’ve found myself following more recently.

I took off from Seattle last Thursday, and I don’t know when (or if, really) I’ll be back. Through a stroke of luck, more than a little self-advocation, and leaving a lot of voicemails, I landed a seasonal job as a wilderness park ranger in California’s Sierra Nevada. It still feels pretty surreal; I keep waiting for something to go awry with my paperwork or the position with lose funding. I am beyond excited to live amongst those stocky granite peaks which both so fueled me and conquered me as I clambered up their desolate passes two years ago.

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Spent a day camped out on the playa of the Alvord Desert in southeast Oregon

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Looking south to the Pueblo Mountains and into Nevada. Here, there are no trails past the muddy, clay-filled two tracks that curl along the base of these hills. A remote land of old-school ranchers, it’s hard to believe this places hardly sees any dedicated recreation.

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Since leaving Washington’s dreary skies last week, I’ve swerved south, east, west, east again, and further south, chasing the sunshine that’s so elusive in the Pacific Northwest, visiting friends, ordering up blackberry milkshakes at general store counters in remote towns, pulling off onto unnamed dirt roads to snag a hike or a snowshoe or just set up shop for the rest of the day.

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Steens Mountain

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Tumalo Falls; Bend, OR

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Lots of post-holing on this hike up to catch a glimpse of Three Fingered Jack in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness

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Wiley the crag dog; climbing and hiking at Smith Rock

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An intimidating view of the Strawberry Mountains near John Day, OR

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Reconnected with a fellow classmate from the Wilderness First Responder course I took for a day of hiking and climbing at Smith Rock.

There’s a place on the PCT I haven’t stopped thinking about since my thru-hike in 2015. There are a lot of sections I’ve thought of often, but there was some quality to these memories–some intermittent but vivid snapshots of the day it took to traverse–that drew me back to the place. It’s not particularly beautiful; the trail here is inhospitable and exposed, a nearly 30 mile dry stretch comprised almost exclusively of gritty volcanic rock and cow pies, it wanders a geologic rim not far south of the town of Burney, CA.

So I went back. It wasn’t especially meaningful or fulfilling, nor was it any more pleasant than in my memory. The unforgiving sun curdled my pale skin and water evaporated off my lips, leaving them chapped and bleeding, and I was surprised how specifically I recalled even the small twists and turns of the trail.

Maybe there’s something to reliving one of my more miserable days on trail. Maybe there was something I felt like I needed to conquer, or needed to remind myself I could still persevere. Whatever the reason, it felt good to be home, there on that small boot path, back when I knew where I was going.

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Hiking the Hat Creek Rim

Though this lifestyle has its perks–freedom, openness, new opportunity for community and connection, and minimalism, I’ve found it exacerbates some of my more muted stresses. Having a place to be. An inherent loneliness. A seated feeling of rootlessness that is at once both exhilarating and isolating. I’m not sure how this life will pan out for me–the van life or life in general–but I’ve spent the last year figuring out how to be ok with that. I might not be ready to embrace the unknown, but she’s in the passenger seat, and for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Met up with a PCT friend for beers and foods and good views of Lake Tahoe

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Unfinished Business

 

“Yo, Suds,” Double Dip unceremoniously threw her gear into the trunk of my car and clambered into the passenger seat, “how’ve you been?”

It was 6:20 on a Saturday morning, the cloudless sky bright to my sleep-filled eyes. I rubbed them. Yawned. Started the car.

“Hanging in there,” I said, unsure how to encapsulate the last ten months into a palatable synopsis.

Ten months give or take a few days, since we’d reached the northern terminus of the PCT. It felt at once impossibly long ago, and yet as if we’d only just made a resupply stop in town.

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The July sun rose above the trees as we drove, leaving Seattle’s city limits, the roads empty and quiet. We curved off the expressway into a suburb north of the city to meet up with a four other thru-hikers from our year. We were headed out to hike a 109-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail from Steven’s Pass to Stehekin, through the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Last summer’s Wolverine Fire, encompassing over 62,000 acres at it’s height, closed off this section of the trail for several weeks, forcing hikers to wait it out or, as we did, take the ferry from Chelan to Stehekin and continue our hike from there.

Nomad and Rattles greeted us in the parking lot of their apartment building, followed by Ricky Bobby, recently flown in from Michigan to complete the section, and Radish who’d driven up from Bend to join the adventure. After working out a few travel logistics, we piled into a couple of cars and headed out, our voices betraying giddy excitement.

The year seemed to melt away as we fell back into the routine of the trail. It was awkward at first. Our packs were weighty, our ankles contorted, unaccustomed feet stumbling over stone and soil. But after an hour it felt like we’d never left. We moved quickly, stopping to bandage up hotspots and threatening blisters, tending to some pains and ignoring others. Complaining equally about the long climbs and the steep descents; the thickets of vines and thorny shrubs overgrowing the trail; the blow downs and loose rock; the mosquitos and bees and gnats and the thousands of insects for which we didn’t have names.

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It was the happiest I’d been all summer. Even in those arduous afternoons when I had to remind myself that I signed up for this, I couldn’t help grinning like an idiot. Reintegrating into the “normal” world after my thru-hike proved difficult, and being back on the trail among friends to whom I didn’t have to explain myself was invigorating.

We rehashed our favorite trail memories as we rounded the majestic Glacier Peak, coveted one another’s snacks, and slowed down in the late afternoons to forage the almost-ripe huckleberries and salmonberries and wild blueberries. Our conversation quickly fell into the trail routine: how many miles are we going to hike today? Is everyone staying regular? How many pastries are you going to get at the bakery in Stehekin? How many feet of elevation?! I was thinking Ramen with peanut butter—what are you having for dinner?

We spoke about our more recent adventures, but how nothing quite added up to thru-hiking. About how we’d come to relish the nomadic lifestyle, even in its loneliness. Pushing our limits, physical and mental every day. Waking up on the shores of reflective alpine lakes and hitching into remote towns for pancakes and beer and cresting difficult passes only to be rewarded with another incredible vista. How special the ordinary things became—a clean load of laundry, a shower, a cold soda, an apple—we learned to savor the small pleasures.

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People choose to thru-hike for myriad reasons—the physical challenge, the beauty of nature, the accomplishment in itself, mental and emotional healing from military deployment or addiction or a broken heart. “I’ve never finished anything I’ve started,” another hiker confided as we neared the monument at the Canadian border last fall. “Not school, not work projects, not a relationship. This will be the first real thing I feel proud of. The first real thing I’ve finished.”

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When I left the southern terminus last spring, I didn’t know why I was hiking. Not at first. With only two short backpacking trips and a handful of hikes under my belt, I was walking into the unknown. But I knew I had to do something. I didn’t like myself and I didn’t know what to do about it.

The PCT seemed just crazy enough, just vast enough, just difficult enough to challenge the way I was thinking about myself and other people and to help my question the fundamental ways I was operating in the world.

And it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.

After a month or so, the physical difficulties fall to the wayside. You know you can make that fifteen-mile climb. You know your legs and shoulders and hips and feet can put up with a beating, and even as you test your limits, nothing seems completely out of reach. But the mental and emotional fortitude vital in reaching the northern terminus nearly broke me, and there were weeks wherein I wanted to quit every day. The effort of fashioning a person and a soul I wanted to live in entwined itself with the twelve-inch swath of dirt beneath my shoes, and the trail became a part of my story. A foundation on which to build a new self.

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“Lets just keep going,” Radish called out our final morning, hiking in the last four miles as a group. “Rainy Pass is only another eighteen miles!” We laughed, seriously considered it for half a moment before realizing we didn’t have enough food, work and family routines to return to, and flights to catch.

We clambered onto the bus to Stehekin and then the long ferry down Lake Chelan, our shorts sweat-stained and rank, legs scraped and bruised and sore, tired but happy smiles catching our chapped lips. We parted ways, slinging our packs one more time over weary shoulders. “See y’all up the trail,” I said.

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Originally written for and published by ALDHA-West, Fall Gazette

http://www.aldhawest.org/resources/Documents/Gazette/2016/Fall%202016%20Gazette.pdf

Loving & Being Present

I’m not sure if ya’ll’ve heard, but at some point in the next fifty years, the Pacific Northwest will experience an earthquake whose magnitude can only be described in multiple expletives (and also the seismic richter scale number 9.6). From Vancouver and Victoria, Seattle to Salem to San Francisco, geologists predict tsunamis that takes out the entire coast, rockslides covering roads and towns, and the impending eruption of the Cascadian volcanoes. In short, unless Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise suddenly use their fictional powers for good, 40,000 of us west coast dwellers are facing death or injury in the initial hours, another 1 million displaced, 2.5 million in need of food and water.

As a member of the “best coast” demographic and in my current physical location, I am poised to crumble along with this bluff and the family-of-four next door right down into Puget Sound.

Awesome.

Life in the wake of my thru-hike has improved since my last post. I’ve found myself surrounded by the most phenomenal community of people–friends giving and thoughtful in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I never dreamed I had such love around me here, in the city which still feels somewhat foreign. Gratitude is incredibly humbling.

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Music has provided the best friends and the greatest community a girl could ask for.

I’ve also kept in contact with several hikers–ones I never thought I’d see again. Someone I knew for an afternoon on Fuller Ridge or another for a  windy lunch atop Baden-Powell or someone I saw only once every month or so in the most unexpected places, and that’s been strengthening and uplifting.

Still, I’ve struggled in facing some of the regrets about how I hiked the PCT. I wish I would’ve taken more time–not just longer days and lower mileage–taken more time for people. I wish I would’ve gone into Julian for free pie. I wish I would’ve left my cell phone packed inside a box in my friend’s basement in Seattle. I wish I’d been more ok with not being ok all the time. I wish I would’ve packed out a whole jar of vanilla frosting in Trout Lake. And there was a while wherein I wasn’t hiking my own hike, and I regret that most of all.

As much as the intro to this blog post may seem to the contrary, I’m not pulling the old Glenn Beck fearmongering card. Quite the opposite, in fact. Being always afraid of death or injury, and preemptively mitigating for failure or rejection is no way to live.

One of the many hundreds of things I learned  on that 12″ swath of dirt trail last summer (and the 5″ between my own ears) is that the present moment is the most important.

I’m struck on a daily basis, in the small moments–in rinsing shampoo from my hair or tying up my running shoes or shaping round loaves of rye bread in the dark hours of the morning, by how often I’m living somewhere else; existing in some counter-factual history of my own past, a fictional land of the future, or in the meaningless validation of social media.

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Approaching Walker Pass from the south in Southern California

I’m not one who generally makes New Years’ Resolutions. I tend to find them trite and easily cast aside or forgotten. But this year, this year I’m jumping on the Gregorian bandwagon.

The first PCT thruhiker I ever met has a tattoo–I can’t recall what it looks like, but I remember asking him its meaning, to which he answered “to live with fire.”

And as Shaman Piney, a fellow thruhiker and Michigander I met early on in SoCal, likes to say “Love NOW!” There’s no better time–no more important time than right now.

I want to love now and to love better. I want to live with a fire. I want to fill my life with only the things and the relationships that add value, and to find the value in whatever I’m doing. I want to be present in my interactions with others. I want to be less busy. I want to say “yes” to more things because as Jack Kerouac wrote “In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing the lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”

You too, reader. Run that extra half-mile. Go on that spur-of-the-moment afternoon trip to the lake. Throw away the kitsch materials you don’t need. Kiss that person you like. Hand-write your friend a letter. Tell the people you care about how you feel about them.

Afterall, we really could actually die tomorrow.

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Kick Off, San Jacinto, and Michigan Beer.

It’s Tuesday (I think) and I’m sprawled across a massive bed at a ridiculously fancy Hyatt Regency in Palm Springs. How did I get here? My very own personal trail angel! I posted a photo to Instagram yesterday from San Jacinto State Park and a friend who happened to be in the area for work sent a message offering to pick me up, a hot shower, and a cozy bed to sleep in. Social media for the win. She even had Bell’s Two Hearted from Michigan! I nearly cried I was so happy.

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I’m not hiking today on account of some nasty blisters on my heel. I’m frustrated, especially after taking four zeros last week, but I know I wouldn’t get far with my feet in this condition.

After a day and Idyllwild, I headed down to AZDPCTKO (Annual Zero Day Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off) back at mile 20. I crammed into a Jeep Cherokee with several other hikers and drove the 2 1/2 hours back south. It was strange to be moving so quickly after several weeks of a 2.5mph pace. Interesting as well was driving through the terrain I’d already hiked – glimpses of the trail itself as it crossed the highway, thruhikers heads bobbing among the brush. Kickoff itself was a bit anticlimactic. With the trail’s increasing popularity, the organizers decided to split this years kick off into two separate events. As a result there are far fewer people at each one and it felt spread out and a little drab. This wasn’t helped by a torrential downpour over the weekend.

 

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A ranger from Yosemite came to kick off to talk about bear management

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Cold bean burritos will warm any hiker’s heart!

There were some interesting events, including talks about flora, fauna, and geology along the PCT. A ranger came down from Yosemite National Park to talk about bear management, and my favorite–Trauma and Pepper came down to talk about their thruhike of the PCT during the winter… The first of its kind. It was fascinating and inspiring and with Halfmile, Yogi, and Warner Springs Monty wandering the camp, I felt surrounded by trail celebrities.

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Girl Scout and Squatch offering shitty advice at their AZDPCTKO (it’s a steal!)

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I found some fellow Grand Rapidians!

I got a ride back up to Idyllwild on Sunday and began hiking a little after noon. I can’t say that I recommend hangover hiking. It was a long drawn out climb up 3000′ to San Jacinto. I walked slowly, and I took a lot of breaks, and as I gained elevation the temperature dropped significantly. As I reach over 8500′ I could no longer see more than 30 feet or so in front of me. The entire peak was socked in, the trails were snowy and slushy, and ice from the evergreens cascaded down onto the trail. The woods were loud with the sound of clinking icicles. I donned my rain gear and tried to move quickly beneath the trees to avoid falling ice. I was cold but sweaty, my shoes were soaked my feet freezing and still I was going up and up and up. I started to feel jaded. This was too hard. Could I really do it for four more months? I didn’t even know if I could finish out the day.

      

I hadn’t seen anyone for hours, and I was moving so slowly. If the ground weren’t sopping wet, I probably would’ve sat down and cried.

Just as I climbed another crest, I was met by a search and rescue team. They were looking for a hiker, missing since the previous day. They weren’t hopeful at this point, considering the weather, but asked me to keep my ears peeled. I pressed onward.

I passed several other thruhikers–even two I met at kickoff! I reupped my water supply at a crystal clear stream and carried my now even heavier pack up a final climb.



Finally, FINALLY I got to go downhill. The trail wandered below the clouds and I was met with an incredible view of the desert 6000′ below.

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Wind farms on the desert floor, as seen from San Jacinto

The air grew warmer as I descended, and just when I thought my feet couldn’t carry me any further, I stumbled on a large campsite full of other thruhikers. Many were cooking dinner, setting up camp, or inspecting toes and soles of feet.

“Uh, man, that climb killed me!” One of them said, stirring chunks of spam into his instant rice.

I was relieved suddenly. These people knew. They knew everything. All of the little daily trials. They knew about foot sores and ripped tents and broken sunglasses. They knew about tightened leg muscles and long, arduous climbs over basins and saddles and peaks. Almost in an instant my resolve was restored. Everyone has shitty days, but it’s nice to be able to commiserate with strangers become friends over a plastic bag of Ramen noodles.

 

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Laundry at Ziggy & the Bear’s

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Stopped in at Ziggy and the Bear’s–trail angels near Cabazon, CA

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Passed the 200 mile marker yesterday!

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The trail followed a wash for nearly 2 miles–slow going

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I didn’t do any of these things.

 

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Taking a break with Unbreakable and No Trace under Interstate 10

  
Before Emily picked me up, I stopped in at trail angels’ Ziggy and the Bear’s near Cabazon. They have their entire backyard set up to help out hikers, accept packages, deliver outgoing mail, and provide water for drinking, washing up, and rinsing out clothes.

I met up with the Bobsled Team again–an entertaining group of guys hiking about 10 miles a day, who I can’t seem to figure out how I keep running into. They’d taken a zero at Ziggy’s that day, and told me how they’d been the ones to find the camp with the missing hiker’s items on San Jacinto. They’d called up local Search and Rescue when they found the hiker’s thermal clothing and food supply.

IMG_5521IMG_5522IMG_5519     Today I’ll rest up my feet, swim in the gigantic pool, and head out again tomorrow.

Of Trail Names & Detours

Day 9 and I’m laying on my stomach on a bed in a cozy motel hut in Idyllwild, CA. It’s my first zero day, and I had every intention of relaxing, but have instead found myself bustling around town, finding gear, food, coffee, and catching up with other hikers I haven’t seen for a few days.

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Trail Angel Mike Herrara’s at mile 139

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Cooking dinner above Tunnel Spring

Picture credit: Jesse Wiegel

Picture credit: Jesse Wiegel

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The morning hours are the most productive and the most beautiful.

The morning hours are the most productive and the most beautiful.

Two days ago I reached mile 152 at highway 74, and walked down the road to Paradise Valley Cafe–easily the best known eatery on trail. After stuffing myself with burgers and milkshakes, I pulled out my maps with Jesse, Dana, and Evan, and we planned our next move–hiking through the Mountain Fire Detour. Several years ago, there was a massive forest fire near Idyllwild which destroyed part of the PCT. Most hikers either hitchhike into town or roadwork the 17 miles. The detour itself adds an extra five and winds through neighborhoods and biking trails after completing the rest of the open trail. We wanted to walk the entire distance, and walking the road can be quite dangerous as there are many twists and turns and a narrow shoulder.

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Adventures in night hiking

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Jesse assuming the fetal position at our cabin in Idyllwild

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Jesse, Dana, and me entertaining ourselves on the detour

Taking a break amongst the boulders

Taking a break amongst the boulders

Despite the extra miles and a walk on Forest Roads, we didn’t regret our decision to hike the detour. We push through massive boulder fields and across high ridges, we saw a massive rattlesnake which wriggled slowly across the trail, and switched on our headlamps as we climbed over the saddle into the dusk.

I went and got myself a trail name this week: Suds. This is on account of my putting laundry detergent in all of my resupply boxes–making all of my food taste like soap. And as my fathers daughter, of course I ate it all. Mouth froth and all.

Some other trail names I’ve run across so far are Daytripper, Mouse, Stinger, Motown, Snack Master, Coppertone, Justa, Rally, Squatchy, Bush-tit and Tom-tit (The Tits), Witch Doctor, and Growler. Trail names are actually much easier to remember–and I often don’t even learn hiker’s real names.

 

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Pizza, beer, and sandwiches at Idyllwild Pizza  

IMG_5435 There’s something about the PCT, about hiking it, that is intensely personal. Like a good book with whose characters you feel intimate – as though no one could possibly experience the same feelings from the same literature. I want to share it with my family, friends, with the world, but I’m simultaneously jealous of its tread.

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Me and Stella at the Red Kettle

 

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Hiked with Joel and Mark for a couple days–two lovely sections hikers from Southern California (and I’m not just saying that because they might be reading this)

At the same time, it’s interesting to think about those who have come before me – those I know and those I have met or read about, hiking in the same place – struggling over the same rocks and seeing the same views… It makes me feel connected to those people and a community.

Conversations with strangers fall quickly into a relaxed speech and those you’ve only known a day or two become fast friends.

I’m headed down to the PCT kickoff this week–basically a big trail party back down at Lake Morena around mile 20–and it’s strange–I’ve only known these people for several days and yet it makes me incredibly sad to think I likely won’t see many of them again, or at least not for a long while. Taking four days off will put me in an entirely different group of people. The transient nature of this hike is one of its draws, but also one of the more difficult aspects.

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Overindulging at Paradise Valley Cafe

 

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Dana was the only successful hitch-hiker this day

    

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.

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.