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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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!”

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!

Quartermaster

Meet LeeAnne:

A fellow Michigander, LeeAnne and I have been friends since middle school.

Here is some slightly embarrassing photographic evidence:

She is a hiker, cyclist, trail-builder, snowshoer, backpacker, and bestest friend extraordinaire. She is super smart and has much more wilderness experience than I do and probably secretly thinks I’m a little insane.

Which is why, with full Congressional approval, she has been appointed Quartermaster for the duration of “Helen’s PCT Adventure.” As such, her duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Mailing me resupply packages as I reach particular towns. These will generally include food (some trail towns don’t have very good food stores), the next batch of Halfmile’s PCT Maps & Yogi’s Handbook (both providing great information on nearby towns, upcoming water sources/caches, & good camping spots), and any new/replacement gear I may need (socks & underwear, a bear canister required in Northern California, etc).
    • Packages can take between 2-3 weeks to reach a post office via general delivery, as some towns are quite remote.
    • Other packages may be sent via UPS or FedEx to a local business or individuals’ home willing to hold boxes for thru-hikers.
  • Listening to me cry over the phone when my feet are covered in blisters and I want to come home.
    • Sending me a new pair of shoes to alleviate said blister pain.
    • Convincing me not to quit.
  • Accepting packages that I send back of unused and discarded gear that I may either no longer need or decide to go without, as it’s too heavy.
  • Coming to hang out/hike with me as I reach Washington and draw nearer the Canadian border. I’ll probably need some serious moral support. And some hot food. Blueberry muffins and a few tacos wouldn’t go amiss.

She’s a badass, and I couldn’t ask for a better Q.

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.

Experience Level: 0.5

I didn’t grow up hiking and I was ten the first time I went camping.

The entire fifth grade at my small parochial school clambered onto the school bus, our backpacks stuffed with fleece jackets and granola bars, and with the necessary parent-signed permission slips, cheap pocket knives clipped to our belt loops.

The nights we didn’t curl up in warm cabins, we lived on the brink–constructing lean-tos from dead tree limbs and massive fern fronds, wondering if we’d make it through the night to tomorrow morning’s strawberry pop-tarts.

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Olivia H. in the attractive bucket hat, my partner in crime in most elementary school shenanigans, surviving like a champ.

A year at an alternative public school for sixth graders pushed me out into the woods again–camping, tapping maple trees next to the freeway, and traipsing around marshes on private property, all culminating in the feared “survival night” on our spring camping trip. (Spoiler: We survived. Mostly on Ramen Noodles and wild leeks).

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Me & Olivia posing before our big 6th grade “survival” camping trip. Also undeniable proof that adolescence is awkward.

Over the next ten years, I didn’t venture much beyond that. The closest I ever came to wilderness backpacking was on a trip to Lake Michigan’s North Manitou Island with my father. Despite the 80ºF humid afternoons, we were decked out in jeans and sweatshirts to avoid the persistent mosquitos and black flies, trying to orienteer with a tourist map and a chipped compass we found in the glove box of my dad’s work truck before hopping on the ferry.

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Miner’s Rock at Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

My real interest in hiking and backpacking came in college in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula where I met people whose idea of a good time was to wander along Lake Superior or through the hundreds of square miles of uninhabited land for long afternoons that stretched into evenings and eventually weekends.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

I even tried ice fishing once or twice.

But if I’m being honest (and if you can’t be honest on a blog, where can you be?) I didn’t really get the bug until I moved to Washington state almost exactly a year ago. The mountains were so near and inviting and I couldn’t help myself. In June, after deciding to attempt the PCT next year with next to no experience or backpacking knowledge, I set about to learning. Now at the end of the summer, I can hike 20 miles a day without fatigue, and I’ve seen some of the more amazing things the Cascade Range has to offer.

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800'; July 2014

Along the Enchanted Lakes Trail at 7800′; July 2014

I’ve read a some books, a few articles, a trail anecdote here & there, and I’ve tried to get out into the wilderness as much as possible. Am I ready? Probably not to those ultralight backpacking purists. My pack still weighs over 20lb. My orienteering skills are for shit. My understanding of weather and pressure systems is non-existent. My experience hiking long distances in snow and desert is dismal. My tracking ability is laughable.

But I can light my stove and unstuff my sleeping bag and set up my tent and read a map.

And I can walk.

And in the end, that’s all it really is.

The Pacific Crest Trail: Six Months Out

In a little over six months, I’ll be venturing south from my new home in the Pacific Northwest to a tiny town on the Mexican border called Campo, California.

Here stands the southern terminus of one of the handful of national scenic trails in America called the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

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That’s right. Mexico (whose border is demarcated by the fence in the background) to a distant provincial park in British Columbia, Canada. 2,660 miles give or take, depending on chosen or enforced trail detours. The average hiker carves out a good four to five months to complete the journey in its entirety.

If what I’ve come up with so far can be called “a plan,” it involves traversing the length of this trail beginning in April, 2015.

The trail has gained popularity in the past couple years with release of Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild and the ensuing film. I haven’t read it yet–and didn’t actually know it existed until several months ago.

I made the decision to attempt the hike after spending a weekend with a friend in the Bay Area in June. He made the hike in 2012 and was full of stories of fellow hikers, evening encounters with mountain lions, the ease and relief of living a life with straightforward goals and the intrigue of focusing on the more primal necessities of life.

There are a handful of reasons I could cite for attempting the adventure, but the main is–why not?

Reactions from friends & family were widespread. My family, eager to support any venture that involves self-inflicted suffering, was on board immediately. “You’re not going with anyone, are you?” my dad asked when I told him over the phone. “I can’t think of anyone you could stand for five months straight.” He’s got my personality pegged pretty well.

I like people, don’t get me wrong. But I am fiercely independent and like to do my own thing. HYOH, as they say on the trail. Hike Your Own Hike. Go at your own pace. Eat dinner for breakfast. Carry the items you find indispensable. Wake up when you want to. Hike however many miles you want to. Then stop and sleep. Maybe it seems selfish, but I’m doing this hike for me, and I don’t want to be tied to others’ schedules.

Some friends and acquaintances were less receptive to the idea, their concerns revolving primarily around personal safety. “Isn’t it dangerous to be out on your own, like, in the middle of nowhere?” the implicit follow-up being “as a woman?” Though there certainly are dangers involved, they center more around access to clean water, staying warm & dry in the elements, keeping enough food with me, and avoiding illness & injury.

I am much more safe hiking alone at night in the wilderness than I am walking alone at night on the streets of Seattle.

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