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

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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