Life with Luna

I’m parked on a dirt road a few dozen miles north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, the namesake peak barely visible in the night sky, wreathed in stars.

From the backseat of my car, a little string of LED lights hanging over my head, my fingers are cold as I scribble in my notebook. I suppose I should mention that when I say “backseat” what I really mean is “bed-length platform with a sleeping pad.” That’s right, y’all, I’ve joined the #VanLife movement. Well, sort of.

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Taking it easy with Luna the Highlander at the base of Steens Mountain

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This is Job. Named after the guy in the Bible who totally got screwed over, he’s a prayer plant who lives in the passenger seat/on the back table/upended at the back of my car. I’ve put him through a lot, and he’s never wavered.

I got sick of paying Seattle’s exorbitant and ever rising rent, bought a Toyota Highlander, decided to call her Luna, and putzed around my friend’s shop for a few days, drinking Rainiers and providing moral support while he tricked it out for me. It’s a little cramped, but its dry and cozy and it can manage most of those gnarly BLM and Forest Service two tracks I’ve found myself following more recently.

I took off from Seattle last Thursday, and I don’t know when (or if, really) I’ll be back. Through a stroke of luck, more than a little self-advocation, and leaving a lot of voicemails, I landed a seasonal job as a wilderness park ranger in California’s Sierra Nevada. It still feels pretty surreal; I keep waiting for something to go awry with my paperwork or the position with lose funding. I am beyond excited to live amongst those stocky granite peaks which both so fueled me and conquered me as I clambered up their desolate passes two years ago.

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Spent a day camped out on the playa of the Alvord Desert in southeast Oregon

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Looking south to the Pueblo Mountains and into Nevada. Here, there are no trails past the muddy, clay-filled two tracks that curl along the base of these hills. A remote land of old-school ranchers, it’s hard to believe this places hardly sees any dedicated recreation.

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Since leaving Washington’s dreary skies last week, I’ve swerved south, east, west, east again, and further south, chasing the sunshine that’s so elusive in the Pacific Northwest, visiting friends, ordering up blackberry milkshakes at general store counters in remote towns, pulling off onto unnamed dirt roads to snag a hike or a snowshoe or just set up shop for the rest of the day.

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Steens Mountain

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Tumalo Falls; Bend, OR

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Lots of post-holing on this hike up to catch a glimpse of Three Fingered Jack in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness

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Wiley the crag dog; climbing and hiking at Smith Rock

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An intimidating view of the Strawberry Mountains near John Day, OR

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Reconnected with a fellow classmate from the Wilderness First Responder course I took for a day of hiking and climbing at Smith Rock.

There’s a place on the PCT I haven’t stopped thinking about since my thru-hike in 2015. There are a lot of sections I’ve thought of often, but there was some quality to these memories–some intermittent but vivid snapshots of the day it took to traverse–that drew me back to the place. It’s not particularly beautiful; the trail here is inhospitable and exposed, a nearly 30 mile dry stretch comprised almost exclusively of gritty volcanic rock and cow pies, it wanders a geologic rim not far south of the town of Burney, CA.

So I went back. It wasn’t especially meaningful or fulfilling, nor was it any more pleasant than in my memory. The unforgiving sun curdled my pale skin and water evaporated off my lips, leaving them chapped and bleeding, and I was surprised how specifically I recalled even the small twists and turns of the trail.

Maybe there’s something to reliving one of my more miserable days on trail. Maybe there was something I felt like I needed to conquer, or needed to remind myself I could still persevere. Whatever the reason, it felt good to be home, there on that small boot path, back when I knew where I was going.

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Hiking the Hat Creek Rim

Though this lifestyle has its perks–freedom, openness, new opportunity for community and connection, and minimalism, I’ve found it exacerbates some of my more muted stresses. Having a place to be. An inherent loneliness. A seated feeling of rootlessness that is at once both exhilarating and isolating. I’m not sure how this life will pan out for me–the van life or life in general–but I’ve spent the last year figuring out how to be ok with that. I might not be ready to embrace the unknown, but she’s in the passenger seat, and for now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Met up with a PCT friend for beers and foods and good views of Lake Tahoe

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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

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.