Crooked Trails

I picked my brother up from the airport in Las Vegas where we spent a weird night at a strange AirBnB in a creepy cookie-cutter neighborhood before hitting the road, due east.

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Snagged a couple elusive permits to Coyote Buttes

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Due to a mysterious swelling and pain in my right foot and ankle that I refused to acknowledge in any real way, Brett drove to us Springdale, Utah while I propped the offending limb on the dashboard. The drive was long and unbearably hot through the rocky emptiness of eastern Nevada, the wheezing air conditioner undecided about it’s working order.

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Getting a taste for the dirtbag life–camping on a BLM dirt road somewhere in Utah

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Went to sleep to this view.

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After squaring away our logistics for the following days on the trail, we wove back through the tourist-dense streets, back down the two lane highway winding parallel to the crumbling red cliffs, and pulled off onto a poorly marked BLM road, kicking up dirt and gravel and driving until we couldn’t drive anymore.

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Creepin’

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Descending into Zion Canyon

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Quick afternoon trip up to Bryce Canyon

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Morning break in Zion

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Though our primary hike for Brett’s trip out was pulling off the Zion Traverse in two days, we filled the unplanned days that followed on whim and wind—chance permit lotteries, recommendations from fellow travelers met on remote and unkempt dirt roads, following paths with no markings at all, following the land when the trails ran out—we nearly forgot we’d been to Zion at all. We forgot what time it was, what day it was, we teetered between Utah and Arizona so often that we forgot which state we were in.

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Trekking the Paria Canyon

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Watch out for the not-super-quick-more-like-moderately-paced sand!

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Sinewy boulders

After dropping Brett off so he could head back to the Midwest, I continued back south and west. Sunburnt and sticky with sweat, I was hot and irritated as I crossed back into California. On impulse, I headed back to a place I’d been before.

The last time I’d been on Mt. San Jacinto, I was thru-hiking the PCT. It was startling how well I remembered the switchbacks—how similar they looked as it snowed on that early May morning, how the familiar weight of my pack begged me back down the mountain, back to the coffee shop, on to another city. I hadn’t bagged the peak in 2015 (mostly due to the AZDPCTKO hangover with which I’d hitch-hiked back with Idyllwild), but I was there to reclaim a memory. To make a place mine that I’d inadvertently given to someone else a while back. It didn’t work, and mostly I was cold and sore and hungry.

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purple buff life

After meeting a friend in Culver City, I dropped in at the infamous Anderson’s Casa de Luna to volunteer for a couple days. Heating up taco salad mix and tossing pancakes and hearing the top line trail gossip from this year’s hikers had me missing the lifestyle and the people something fierce, and as I dropped off the last group at the trail head, a visceral desire to abandon my car and my newfound job and head off to trod that same path behind them was almost overwhelming.

Fiddling with the finicky A.C., I drove north to Three Rivers. There was a flat hat and a summer in the wilderness waiting for me just beyond the sign: Welcome to Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks!

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notes from the road

(Post from April 28, 2017)

I woke up to frost on my windshield. On the inside of my windshield, that is. Outside, a short cargo train scraped slowly along a set of tracks I failed to notice when I parked on an empty dirt road last night, the passing locomotive’s chattering wheels pulling me out of sleep every forty-five minutes.

I sat up, wrenched my arms quickly through the sleeves of my puffy coat and fished around my sleeping bag for the beanie I’d worn to bed. Though I’ve been living out of Luna for a while now, I still don’t quite have my system dialed in. I can never find my pocket knife, phone charger, or toothbrush, and I somehow lost the first aid kit I meticulously assembled after my WFR course in January.

It’s cold, but there’s coffee to be made and elk wandering the field across the road.

I didn’t intend to get as far south as Flagstaff, but after a few long days hiking at the Grand Canyon, I needed a shower and a meal with vegetables in it.

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The Colorado River–the great sculptor of this incredible canyon

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Descending 4000′ to the canyon floor

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I pulled up to the Backcountry Office at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon fifteen minutes before they closed, and despite the acute dissuasion from the ranger on duty, snagged an elusive overnight permit for the North Rim the next night. I planned to hike the Rim to Rim (to Rim) trail–24 miles and about 5,000′ of elevation change each way.

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AMS, dehydration, and hyponatremia warning signs all over the Grand Canyon

As one of the busier parks in the nation, I’m sure its well intended, but there’s a fair amount of fear-mongering perpetuated by the Park Service. I had to sign a waiver acknowledging that I was completing this hike against expert advice, and that I understood what I was getting into.

I knew it was gonna kick my ass, but I also knew that I could do it.

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Life on the road can be mercurial, and I often wonder what it is, exactly, that I’m doing. Sometimes I have to spell it out for myself: seeing friends, hiking new trails, skidding down rocky forest service roads, meeting new people, experiencing new things. That adventure lifestyle, or so it’s billed.

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Hiking near Lee’s Ferry

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Here there be dragons

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Bugs need homes, too. Red Rocks, NV

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I met a group of backcountry skiers outside of Independence, CA on an 8-day trek into the Sierra

Sometimes I pull off down an unkempt BLM roads and follow it, sometimes dozens of miles, till it stops. I pull out the broken lawn chair I found in Tahoe and set it in the dirt and open a novel or my sketchbook or just watch the breeze tickling the long dry grass.

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Putting the Sierra in my rearview… for a couple weeks

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A hike up the White Mountains offered this view of the Sierra across Owen’s Valley

I think about that grass in the breeze, or where all the bighorn sheep are and why I haven’t seen one yet, or whether I brought enough water, or where the hell I put my pocketknife this time, and I try to be present. I try, sometimes, not to think of other things. But they tug, as they always do, in my weakest moments, and I wonder why I’m really here. In this hundreds-of-thousands of acres of open land, sitting alone in a rusty broken lawn chair with a stuffy nose and sunburnt shoulders and a hiking shirt crinkly with salt.

And I’m not sure. The beauty of these spaces, the simplicity of this lifestyle, the intrigue of novelty, the people surrounding me–all these things, certainly.

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Morning coffee

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Bristlecone pines–here lie not only the oldest trees, but the oldest organisms on Earth. The old tree, the Mesthuselah, is nearly 5,000 years old.

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And I wonder how much is motivated by a desire for atonement. A way to make amends for decisions I’ve made and roads I’ve turned away from in the name of “doing my own thing”; a way to try to escape my own shame for the things I’ve said or done–or didn’t say, or didn’t do; to make peace with the things I’ve messed up out of naïveté or anger or selfishness.

As eminent travel scholar Kerouac writes, “I have nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion.”

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Ironic litter in Death Valley

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Sunrise in the Great Basin

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Trail Jargon

Trail language is brimming with monikers & all around strange turns of phrase, and hikers love their acronyms. It took me a full month to catch on to all the shorthand, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve fallen into the habit of using trail-speak with Regular People. You know. Those folks who don’t take half their year to walk across the country. That’s you, probably, typical blog-reader.

I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a small dictionary. Some of them are less intuitive than others. Some are stupid.

Cairn: (n) A stack of rocks ranging from two or three small stones to massive altar-like structures which mark the trail where it may be difficult to follow (over rock or open forest floor).

NOBO/SOBO: (adj) Northbound/Southbound–the direction you’re headed on you PCT hike

Yo-yo: (adj) Hiking the entire trail, and then simply turning around and doing the whole thing over again. (I know).

HYOH: (v) Hike Your Own Hike. I love this one, and it’s often thrown around during all sorts of conversations. Do your hike on your own terms–go at your own pace, eat what and when you like, filter your water or not, take this gear or that, take this alternate route or don’t. Don’t hike on someone else’s agenda.

Zero Day: (n) Taking a day off and hiking zero miles.

AZDPCTKO: (N) Annual Zero Day Pacific Crest Trail Kick-Off, sponsored by Trail Angels, the PCTA (I think), and a bunch of fancy big name outdoor gear companies. Located at Lake Morena Campground in California at PCT mile 20. Gear companies sell cool stuff at sweet prices (but you probably don’t need anything by then, as you’ve already begun your hike), locals give water & snow reports for Southern California and the Sierra as well as trail closures, and you get to meet a bunch of fellow thru-hikers! This year, there are two kick-offs to accommodate the trail’s growing popularity, both at the end of April. I’ll have passed the area by then, but am considering hitching a ride back just to see what all the fuss is about.

Marathoner: (n) A day in which you hike 26 miles.

LNT: (N/v) Leave No Trace, the most important of backcountry ethics. Clean up after yourself, and don’t be a dick. Pack out all of your trash including food scraps, make sure to dig your cat hole at least six inches, respect wildlife, minimize camp and hiking impact, and consider others around you.

BPW: (n) Base Pack Weight–i.e., how much your pack weighs minus consumables (water, fuel, food). Ultralight packers boast a BPW under 10lb, lightweight is under 20lb, and anything over is considered traditional backpacking.

Cache: (n) An unnatural occurrence of water in the wilderness, where someone has left behind jugs of the sweetest of chemical compounds just when you thought you were going to die of thirst. Questionable alignment with LNT.

Bounce Box: (n) A form of resupply wherein a hiker will mail a box or a five-gallon bucket ahead to herself with items she doesn’t need every day, and doesn’t want to carry. Upon reaching town, she’ll pick it up at the post office, enjoy and refresh its contents, and mail it out again to herself further on up the trail.

Cowboy Camping: (v) Sleeping under the stars.

Hiker Trash: (n) Affectionate self-titled name for thru-hikers.

PCTA: (N) Pacific Crest Trail Association. They maintain the trail, and are a wealth of information on anything from water sources ad bear sightings to gathering the necessary backcountry permits and caring for your blisters. They’re pretty great, and they take donations.

Flip Flop: (v) Thru-hiking the PCT, just not all in order… usually a result of wildfire closures or snow pack. For example: hiking north to the Sierras, then flipping up to BC and hiking south to that same point.

Posthole: (n/v) The energy-sapping, annoying, but unavoidable result of walking through deep snow–when your leg collapses the snow and sinks in up to your thigh, requiring a strong lift, and often resulting in another post-hole.

Post-holing. Canada

Vitamin I: (n) Ibuprofen. ‘Nuff said.

Triple Crowner: (n) A Thru-hiker who has completed the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).

Yogi: (v) To convince, persuade, or inveigle locals/day-hikers into giving you food/water/a ride without actually asking for it. This can be a true art, and one at which I imagine I will not excel, as I don’t think I’m particularly charming or graceful. Here’s to hoping, though.

Trail Angel: (n) Basically anyone who gives you a hand on the trail, be it a ride to/from the trail, letting you camp out in their backyard/garage/house, giving you food/water, etc. Some trail angels are just passing day hikers, and some take on the duties full time. The Dinsmores near Stehekin, WA for example, put up PCT thru-hikers in a special-built dormitory, hold packages, have showers and laundry and all the modern conveniences you’ve forgotten about. They do it for free, but a little donation doesn’t go amiss.

Trail Magic: (n) Anything done by a Trail Angel, essentially. Sometimes its small (a beer or soda cache & some snacks near a trail head), and sometimes it’s a full-fledged mobile restaurant. I heard this excellent story on NPR in December about a pop-up cafe set up on a picnic table at Sonora Pass for thru-hikers, complete with a pancake breakfast and free wifi.

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.