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.

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Friends & Mountaintops

Over the last several days I’ve been moving through innumerable and often contrasting thoughts and sentiments. A lot of doubt, and then erratically leaping to enthusiasm. Apprehension. Love. Strength. Fear. Weakness. Excitement. Joy.

On Friday, I borrowed my roommate’s 1982 Subaru and drove north. I don’t drive that often, and my hands were glued to the wheel and gear shift, the engine roaring beneath the worn muffler. The morning was warm and mild, clouds hung high over the Cascade peaks as I turned east. Driving on Highway 2 always makes me think of Michigan. The road’s eastern terminus is St. Ignace, MI and it winds gracefully along the northern shores of Lake Michigan–a route I took many times between my hometown and college.

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The lovely northern shores of Lake Michigan

My destination on Friday, however, was just beyond Skykomish to a recently rehabilitated trail to Beckler Peak. The forest road was long and full of potholes… it took me nearly a half hour to drive the 6.5 miles to the trailhead from the highway. There were only a couple cars in the gravel parking lot when I arrived, and after donning my mostly-full pack (about 20lb), I started up the trail. It was boring at first. An old logging two-track, the trail is wide and grassy with hyperbolic switchbacks past tree stumps and eroding ridges. I started to get hot. My long sleeves and pants stuck to my limbs, and my ears were fiery beneath my headband. Shit, I thought. It’s only 60 degrees. What am I going to do in the desert for two months? My legs began aching, my heart rate jacked. I paused in the middle of the trail. Caught my breath. Waited for my legs to regain their normal composure. Pressed on. Stopped again a minute later. Just twenty or thirty seconds. Continued up. How am I ever going to make it 2,660 miles? I found myself contemplating. I’ve only gone two so far today. The road turned into a trail as it entered third growth forest as giant western cedars towered over my head. I stopped to listen to the creak of the branches. To hear the sounds drowned out by my daily city life.

I heard voices above me, distant at first, and then closer as I rounded a few switchbacks. I traversed a small snow field and met up with four women chatting on the trail–one headed down, three on their way up, all in their 50s or 60s. One, Diana I later learned, noticed my pack. “Is that a ULA? I’ve got the Circuit & the CDT. Great packs.” And off we flew into gearhead mode and trail talk. They were all familiar with the PCT–Diana lives very near The Dinsmores at Hiker Haven in Baring, WA, and works at the Skykomish Deli–both necessary stops for any thru-hiker. Another works at the visitor’s center at the Ranger Station in Snoqualmie Pass. I pushed on, knowing the summit couldn’t be far off now.

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The views, suddenly and somehow, made everything worth it. Made me forget the work I’d done to get there. The three women joined me several minutes later, and they named each of the peaks for me, telling stories of previous hikes or commenting on this glacier or that, and which fed what lake or watershed. They asked me about my preparations and wished me well, and told me to come find them when I passed through.

And then I left.

It had me thinking about the nature of relationships of all sorts–long or short term, professional, platonic, romantic, familial, even the small, brief moments spent on mountaintops with those momentarily intimate kindred spirits. There are some relationships I know won’t survive quitting my job or the five months I’ll be hiking the PCT. What do you say when you look into the eyes of a friend you know you’ll never see again? As one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer, writes, “So many people enter and leave your life–hundreds of thousands of people! You have to keep the door open so they can come in–but that also means you have to let them go!”

Delicious Foodstuffs & Training Hikes

I don’t think I’ve ever spent this much time thinking about food. And I work as a cook.

The last month or so has been a flurry of dehydrating foods (and buying them when I got sick of that–Harmony House has excellent vegan/vegetarian options), blending up a few different trail mixes (all with chocolate. Lots of chocolate.), repackaging fruit snacks and hot chocolate, and putting meals together.

As of now, I’m planning on having my point person send me sixteen resupplies over the course of my hike–though that number is still rough. I suppose it sort of depends on how much food I end up with after my fixed supply points are covered.

My friend Jessie stopped over for an afternoon beer and took the liberty of garnishing many of the pictured trail mix bags with little notes. They started off sweet and lovely–“Jessie loves you,” and “We miss you!” and slowly turned sassy, till the final ones read “you’re gross” and “I’ve already replaced you.” It’s always nice to get an ego check, and will be even more lovely to see her handwriting while I’m crying under a tree in the rain in the middle of nowhere.

Though some of my pre-packed resupplies will just contain food, others will have the next set of maps I’ll need, a new pair of shoes/socks, a restock of first aid and medical products as well as hygiene items like a couple q-tips and a little baggie of wet wipes to get the grit out from behind my ears before crawling into my sleeping bag.

Beyond food resupplies, I’ve been paying close attention to the water reports coming out of Southern California to give me an idea of what I can expect in terms of stream levels in the desert. Trail Angel and former PCT hiker Double Tap maintains the PCT Water Report–a website to which hikers can contribute information about a particular water source by email/text/voicemail if they happen to pass by. Two hikers (trail names Trauma and Pepper) completed the first successful winter thru-hike of the PCT headed southbound on March 1st. Their water reports have proven invaluable to my plans of what to expect in just a few weeks.

My mother flew out from Michigan at the beginning of the month to see me off before I leave (and possibly die), cart me around Seattle to help pick up items I wasn’t willing to haul onto public transportation (see above Costco picture), and take a little training hike along Eagle Creek in northern Oregon.

Not absent from my daily thoughts are incredible excitement and anticipation sewn together with nerves. Am I prepared enough? Am I going to run out of food or water? I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about the trail as some of my fellow hikers–I can’t rattle off the list of passes in the Sierra or major climbs in the San Jacinto–but am I enlightened enough about the difficulties I’ll face? Am I planning my resupplies too far apart?

As my departure date slowly edges closer (seventeen days, now), I find myself taking stock of where I am. I heard an interview on NPR with a neuroscientist several months ago about the nature of memory. She posited that as adults, time seems to slip by more quickly not because the hours and days make up a smaller percentage of our lives as we age, but because we enter routines. There is nothing new to recall on this day or that, no significant changes or events, and so they meld together into a week or a month or a year or ten years.

Jon Krakauer wrote that the core of man’s spirit lies in new experiences, and I don’t intend on wasting my strongest, healthiest years doing menial work to reach a non-existent goal. So this weekend I wandered more slowly through Saturday’s farmer’s market; I walked more deliberately through my neighborhood and along the waterfront to work, as if I could physically immerse myself in the little details of my life–the small parts that so often seem insignificant, but actually make up the majority of our day-to-day lives.

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In the last year and a half I’ve cultivated a life in a new city, I’ve found a new and favorite hobby to which I’ve decided to dedicate a full five months of my life, I’ve met fascinating people and seen incredible things and experienced intense love and joy and gratitude. I don’t know what’s next for me, but I’m happy to wait and see.

Nerves, Resupplies, & Parsing Gear Choices

With only two months and some change until my departure, I’ve been busy planning & preparing. As the date approaches, I’ve begun taking a look at California’s snowpack reports for the Sierras, and water reports for Southern California especially–this creek is flowing, that one is dry, there’s a faucet on at this road crossing, but it’s turned off, and that horse trough is full.

And I’m getting nervous. Excited, mostly. But also incredibly anxious.

What if the water report is incorrect, and I’m stuck in the desert without a drop to drink? Are my resupplies in the Sierra too far apart? Will my reduced mileage through the rock and snow force me out for several more days than I anticipated–without my requisite 3,500+ calories/day? What if I tumble down a remote ridge, traveling without a GPS location/rescue device?

My heart rate increases ever so steadily, I feel a slight sweat on my palms.

Am I an idiot? Am I really doing this?

Looking south to Mt. Adams on the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, WA

Looking south to Mt. Adams on the PCT in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, WA (Sept. 2014)

An idiot? Probably.

And yes, I’m really doing this.

Two weeks ago I sat down with Halfmile’s PCT maps, Yogi’s PCT guide, The Internet, some wine & cheese & crackers, and planned out my resupply stops. Though subject to change, they are as follows:

  • Mt. Laguna, CA (42.6)
  • Warner Springs, CA (109.5)
  • Idylwild, CA (179.4)
  • Ziggy & the Bear at Cabazon, CA (210.8)
  • Big Bear City, CA (266.0)
  • Cajon Pass/I-15, CA (342.0)
  • Wrightwood, CA (369.5)
  • The Saufley’s at Agua Dulce, CA (454.5)
  • Tehachapi, CA (566.5)
  • Kennedy Meadows at Inyokern, CA (702.2)
  • Independence/Lone Pine, CA (788.9)
  • Muir Trail Ranch, CA (857.7)
  • Mammoth Lakes, CA (906.8)
  • Tuolomne Meadows, CA (942.5)
  • Kennedy Meadows North, CA (1018.5)
  • South Lake Tahoe, CA (1094.5)
  • Soda Springs, CA (1155.6)
  • Sierra City, CA (1197.5)
  • The Braaten’s at Belden, CA (1289.5)
  • Chester, CA (1334.7)
  • Burney Falls State Park at Burney, CA (1423.5)
  • Mt. Shasta, CA (1506.5)
  • Etna, CA (1606.5)
  • Seiad City, CA (1662.1)
  • Ashland, OR (1726.0)
  • Crater Lake/Mazama Village, OR (1829.3)
  • Shelter Cove Resort, OR (1912.3)
  • Bend, OR (2007.4)
  • Timberline Lodge, OR (2107.3)
  • Cascade Locks, OR (2155.0)
  • Trout Lake, OR (2237.5)
  • White Pass, WA (2303.0)
  • Snoqualmie Pass, WA (2402.0)
  • The Dinsmore’s at Skykomish, WA (2476.0)
  • Stehekin, WA (2580.2)
  • Manning Park Lodge, BC (2668.8)

Those towns marked in blue designate places wherein I’ll have resupply boxes mailed to me, as stores are sparse or non-existent; the parenthesized numbers denote which PCT mile the town lands on, or to/from where I’ll be hitching a ride.


Though I’m waiting till mid-late March to put my boxes fully together, I’m experimenting with a dehydrator. If all goes well, I’ll throw a few meals together, dehydrate, and mail them to myself–just add hot water!

Along with the particulars of my mail drops, I’ve been going through my gear, ensuring I have everything I need, ditching this item or that, and deciding what exactly I plan to carry on my back for 2,660 miles. Though I’m sure I’ll switch up an item or two before departing–not to mention chucking the things I realize are useless and/or not worth the weight while hiking.

My baseweight (how much your pack weighs, minus consumables–food, water, fuel) is hovering around 18lb at the moment, landing me in the upper echelon of the “lightweight” backpacking designation. Ultralight hikers boast sub-10lb baseweights, lightweight under 20lb.

IMG_4101As of today, this is what’s in my pack/on my body, though I’m still waiting on a couple smaller things (Ursack, a couple smartwater bottles, some first aid items). Some things I’ll only want or need during certain portions of the trail. Warm gloves (and maybe warmer pants?) for the High Sierra, a bear-proof (heavy and incredibly inconvenient) canister required in Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and IMG_4102Sequoia National Parks, and my little alcohol-burning brass stove. This stove is currently disallowed in Southern California as part of the campfire ban, as it requires uncontained fuel and can be a bit dangerous. I’ll likely switch out my canister-fueled MSR Pocketrocket for the brass stove when I reach Northern California.

For those interested in specifics, see my Gear List.