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!”

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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!

Fears & Changes & Wild

I’ve changed.

Several days ago I was clicking through some photographs from earlier this year on my computer, and was struck by their strangeness. That girl in the pictures–standing next to my sister on the Oregon coast in May or backpacking with friends in the Alpine Lakes in June–she’s not me anymore.

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Sure, our lives are always in flux. Our opinions and behaviors and speech and beliefs altering ever so slightly over the course of a year or a decade or a job or relationship. But I’ve never felt so completely removed from a life and a way of being as I have over the last six months.

I can’t say with any specificity what, exactly, brought this about. A handful of new, sometimes exciting, but often less so, new experiences perhaps. I think, though, that I can attribute a lot of this (most of it?) to the trail. Though I have yet to set out from the Mexican border, the PCT has become an intricate part of my daily life: I live frugally in order to put away a hundred here, a dime there for the five months away from civilization. I think about who I might meet or the days I won’t see anyone at all; about the nights under the stars or the deluge of rain or snow; about the days I accidentally stray off-trail and lose my way in the wilderness. I think about which items to include in my first aid kit as I push through another day of work, counting down the days till I can leave my job.

When I first contemplated thru-hiking the PCT, I was scared shitless. As writing helps me think things through, I made a list of my fears–the things I knew I must conquer before the trail, and the fears I’ll just have to face as they present themselves.

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In confronting these things that frighten me, I’ve had to step intentionally out of my comfort zone. While, admittedly, some were abated with simple research, others murmur more insidiously in the lower recesses of my thoughts, simmering slowly and compounding other anxieties…. most specifically, going alone.

I’ve never shirked from doing things by myself. I’m not shy by any stretch of the imagination, but I have a strong streak of introversion and independence, and perhaps selfishly, I like to do things at my own pace.

However, enjoying my own company on a day-to-day basis is a far cry from committing to a five month solo journey through the wilderness. Although I won’t always be alone on the PCT, I’m learning to rely on my own intuition and my own resourcefulness, and I’ve overcome, I think, a lot of those fears I had at the outset. Or at least I’m able to face them with reason instead of blindness.

It is for this reason I’ve decided not to read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. You’ve probably heard of it. Woman going through a divorce and overcoming a heroin addiction hikes 1,000 miles of the PCT. A film version of the memoir staring Reese Witherspoon just hit theaters last weekend, and there’s talk of an Oscar already. When I tell people about my plans to hike the PCT I’m almost inevitably asked if I’ve read Wild. “I haven’t,” I respond, “I hadn’t even heard of it till several months ago.” “Well, you should definitely read it,” they usually say.

wild_posterBut for the same reasons that most people want to read the book, I don’t. I don’t need to live vicariously through Strayed’s experience. I don’t want to read about her self-discoveries or her struggles… not yet at least. I want to have my own experience, undiluted by the musings of another. I want to make my own mistakes and have my own triumphs, and maybe I’ll come to some of the same conclusions she did. But whatever they are, they’ll be mine.

As a side note, Strayed has faced a lot of derision from hikers and backpackers for various reasons, and though some are unfounded and somewhat cruel, others bring up more serious concerns. Most notably, she failed to comply with some backcountry ethics, she began her journey without any idea what she was doing and made some foolish and life-threatening decisions as a result. With the book and ensuing film’s popularity, seasoned backpackers worry the trail will be busy with inexperienced and inept hikers unready for the challenges of the trail. Be careful out there.

Committed.

After a surprisingly fruitful telephone conversation with a Delta Airlines representative this morning, I purchased a plane ticket. Well, two plane tickets, really.

Since June, I’ve put a lot of trail planning at the end of a long list of other issues, daily responsibilities, and thoughts in need of attention. I bought most of the gear I’ll need (or think I’ll need, I should say), did some cursory research, and spent the rest of my weekends scaling peaks of the Central Cascades for more experience, leaving the specifics for later.

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Snow Lake in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, WA

Last week my plans were hurried along by Jess, a friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast. She plans to visit her folks in central Arizona next March, and invited me to join her for a backpacking trip along a 50 mile portion of the Arizona Trail (another National Scenic Trail that zigzags through the desert from Mexico to Utah).

I had a vague strategy to leave for the trail mid-April, but hadn’t put much thought into precise dates. Previous thru-hikers generally recommend starting at some point in April, depending on that year’s snow fall and your own hiking speed. With my lack of planning thrown into sharp relief, I had to actually make a choice. The first concrete I’m-actually-going-to-do-this decision.

Of course I’m going to go to Arizona. How could I pass that up? I spent a couple months in southeast Utah last year and was completely captivated by the natural rock sculptures, the crackly dry trails, and the wildlife that was so alien to me.

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Along Potash Road; Moab, UT

So this morning I walked up to Herkimer Roasters near my house and got a giant cup of coffee, and traipsed back home through the cold to start planning. Really planning.

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Drafting table.

After a good hour perusing various airline websites, staring at maps of Arizona & California, sipping at my coffee, and vacillating over different travel routes, I pulled out my credit card and entered the information.

No longer tentative, I’ll be quitting my job, leaving my apartment, and finding the garage or basement of a kindly friend to store a couple boxes at the end of March and flying to Phoenix on the 27th.

Timing on the Pacific Crest Trail is a little more finicky than the Appalachian. Hikers suggest starting out in April to beat the triple digit temperatures of Southern California’s desert summers… but also recommend not pushing past Kennedy Meadows, CA before June 15. Here, the PCT rises from the desert into the Sierra Nevada. If I leave too early, I’ll get caught in the deep snowpack of the High Sierra… but if I leave too late, I’ll face the autumn snow storms in Washington when I reach the Northern Cascades.

Leaving April 5th after my hike in Arizona is still a little early to start the trail, so I’ve decided to fly into Oakland, CA. I’ve only spent several days in the Bay Area and felt like it wasn’t nearly enough. I’ll do some couch surfing, stay in a hostel or two, rent a car and check out the famed Highway 1 along the coast before meandering down the San Diego via Amtrak or the Greyhound, and eventually Campo to start my hike, closer to the middle of the month.

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Exciting. Frightening. Foolish, maybe. Adventurous.

No backing out now.