I fall asleep in my leggings, two pairs of socks, my knit cap, my short sleeve, my long sleeve, my puffy and my gloves (almost every piece of clothing I have with me for five weeks) and then I am awake, roasting alive in the dawny gloam and sweating rivers down my temples.
Sometime in the night the smoke re-descended around us, creating an insulating blanket of acrid pre dawn heat. I rip off my gloves and my shirts and my hat and my socks and I sit topless, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. If it’s hot now, it’s not gonna get any less so, so I better fire up the old instant coffee before it gets too warm for even that.
I used to care about coffee. I used to like it cold only, and cold brewed to boot. I liked it with unsweetened vanilla almond milk and I liked it many times per day. I was very particular about my coffee.
In the few weeks since hiking, all of that has changed. I tried to pretend that powdered coconut milk could spruce up a brew but I’ve given up on that so totally and completely that it now feels like just a vague and distant memory. Now I enjoy my coffee instant, hot, and black. Folgers? Great! Starbucks Via? Sign me up!
I contemplate my shifting needs and the way flexibility has helped me adapt to trail lyfe, and I notice billowing puffs of white floof floating mid air. It appears I’ve burned a hole in my quilt with the piping hot bottom of my pot while congratulating myself on how well I have adapted. LOLOLOLOL. well.
I slap a duck tape patch on the hole, with plans to stitch it up with dental floss later. Carrot and I spoon a mixture of Reese’s puffs and Cheerios in protein powder into our mouths, delighted at the mixture and plan for our day. Twentyish miles is on the docket as usual, and I know that’s what’s right for my body as of now but I am eager to get strong enough to go faster, do more. I do my best to pay my ego no attention, though, and turn back to my meal. Breakfast cereal is fucking GOOD and I don’t want my bullshit rumonations fucking it up.
I feel off as I climb through an old burn that has given way to new growth in the form of scads and scads of bursting fireweed. The smoke, the heat, my lack of capacity to just go far and fast. My boobs fuckin’ hurt and I also feel bloated and alone™️, which is a true sign that I have PMS. It’s both annoying to realize and also oddly satisfying, because no matter what- this feeling will pass.
I zone out, soothed by the idea that my mood will soon be but a memory. I’ve snacked a bunch up the trail and I decide to hike a little longer than usual to get to my lunch spot, just eight miles up a great climb to a landmark simply labeled “pond”. I’m listening to Landwhale by Jes Baker and crying and crying and crying with my sore boobs on soft pine needle covered tread. The trail carries me along, never becoming too steep on the up or the down and I’ve spaced out deeply for one, maybe two hours before I decide to stop and check in with my distance from the pond.
It says I am just one mile away? I am confused. My elevation profile for the day said I’d go up a great climb, and sure there’d been some rolling hills but really nothing too intense. And had I really flown through seven miles without feeling thirsty, or sore, or hungry, or like I had to pee at all? It just seems….really, really unlikely.
A day hiker flags me down and hands me a bottled water. “You made it to Lemah Creek!” he says. “The other PCT hikers are all crossing this river and hanging a left.”
It seems odd to me that there’d been no real mention of a roaring knee length river crossing in my app, but I am fast and strong now, apparently, so I can do a little river crossing, sure! Why the fuck not?!
I stab my trekking pole into the least swirling part of the river and set my foot down, hard and secure. I do the same with my next pole, bracing tightly before each new step. Halfway through my legs become numb from the knee down, and I decide this is ice for my aching joints and it will be good for the inflammation.
Good! I think to my knees, my calves, my ankles, my toes. I’m glad you’re numb!
Once I’m across the trail sort of disappears, melting away and suggesting about a thousand maybe directions. I take out my app and refresh over and over again, not believing my eyes. For the first time, I realize that I am not on the PCT. On top of that, I am VERY not on the PCT. I’m about two miles away, in fact. I’m pretty close to the pond I’d designated as my lunch spot, but it is straight up a bramble of tree and brush covered mountain and there is no way in hell any human could possibly get to it.
I try not to panic as I cross back over the river. This is fine, fine, totally fine I think as a step through the icy river. I am going to retrace my steps and get back on the PCT and hike to this godforsaken pond and eat my granola bars and chips and it’s going to be FINE.
I walk. I walk what I thought was retracing my steps but I am really turned around and my navigation skills aren’t exactly stellar on a good day. I watch the dot that signifies me on the GPS getting closer and closer to the trail and then suddenly it is getting further away. I can see that if I go in a straight line from the exact point where I’m at, I will be right back on the trail in no time. I look up to assess what that straight line would entail and it becomes clear: if I am going to do this quickly, I am going to have to bushwhack.
I crawl and hurtle and scrape and claw my way about a half mile up, up, and up. It is a thick morass of foliage and then I am spit right out- scratched and bleeding- on the exact slab of trail I’d been on two hours previous.
I retrace my steps like I am Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and try not to get too discouraged. Despite my efforts, a tiny spark inside of me flickers and threatens to light- burning my entire body down with flames and flames and flames of rage. I am now back to 6.6 miles away from my beloved lunch pond and I need to sit down and reassess my situation. It is only 1PM but I feel like I am about to break in the mid-day heat and smoke.
The cold hard facts are this: I have hiked eight miles. I have sixteen more miles to hike before I hit our designated group camping spot. I am alone. I have no service. It feels like it’s 100 degrees out, though I have no concept of the actual temperature. The air is thick enough to chew on. I am really, really fucking tired and I have no choice. I am going to have to suck it up and hike.
I put music on and I go. I walk and I walk and I walk and I try to not think. People make mistakes. Literally everyone. I am a person. I made a mistake. I am massively uncomfortable and I refuse to make it worse by talking shit to myself in my head. I am on autopilot and I just go.
Two miles from the lake I round the bend and I am shocked to see Carrot, sitting cross legged with a slightly pained smile on her face.
“I was so worried!” she says. “I thought you were lost or injured or both.”
I tell her I got off trail and she knows exactly the spot. She’d waited an hour for me near another part of Lemah Creek, miles away from where I ended up and she’d finally convinced herself that I must have gotten ahead so she kept hiking. Eventually another hiker passed and Carrot asked if they’d seen me. The girl said I was just five minutes behind and Carrot plopped right down to wait. It had been an emotional and confusing morning.
I am filled with so many emotions. Gratitude that someone cares and also deep embarrassment. We agree that we’re going to try to hike fast up the rest of this climb to the pond. We hiked until complete exhaustion yesterday and we don’t want to repeat the negotiation of moonlit evening chores. If we’re going to get anywhere it’s time to get going.
I try to keep pace with Carrot and I can’t exactly, but I can do my own version of the hiker crush. Climbs still feel stronger than descents on account of my joints and though I am exhausted by the time I reach this glorious expanse that I feel should be called something much nicer than “pond”, I am also fucking excited because I know I am going to rip off all of my sun stiffened hiking clothes and jump the fuck in.
I used to be so shy about my body. I’ve thought it was bad or wrong or flawed for as long as I can remember and something has happened for me in the last few years where I…can’t summon the energy to give a shit anymore. I played the “I hate the way I look” track on my mental record so many times that eventually it just wore itself out. This is my body, ’til death do us part. It is the only actually reliable thing that I have.
Carrot and I plop in the pond. I feel the cool water gently waving around me and I let myself bob like a cork. We float wordlessly, little balls suspended in clear blue water and slimy pond floor sludge and eventually I lock eyes with Carrot and just say “Thank God.”
Thank God for this.
The pond cools me completely, and when I put my clothes back on I feel more human than rage and sorrow corpse. I am scared of the reality that my detour means I accidentally hike my first 24 mile day, but I also don’t have a choice so I’ve made peace with it. To some people 24 miles is absolutely nothing. To some people it is like walking to the moon. To me, walking 24 miles is somewhere in the middle. Not completely impossible, but an honest to goodness whole hell of a lot.
I am exhausted and depleted in every way, and I have eight miles to go. I decide to take it one mile at a time, listening to podcasts and Taylor Swift and mixes friends have made. I imagine what it’d feel like to only have three miles left, and eventually I get there. I imagine what it’d feel like to only have two miles left, and eventually I get there. I imagine what it’d feel like to have just one mile left, and eventually I get there. The entire way my mood vacillates wildly between genuine awe at my ability to do this at all and a deep sorrow that I cannot explain. I laugh. I weep. I hike.
As I pull into camp I see all my friends around a fire pit with no fire. They’re on their foam pads and they’re eating dinner and they exclaim when I show up in my blank stare zombie fatigue state. The moon has risen orange and round in the smoky sky and one by one my friends make me an offering.
Carrot offers to finish patching my quilt with dental floss and pitch the tent, though it is my night to do so. Homework offers to cook my dinner. Jukebox and Tick Tock offer snacks and consolatory words. I learn that Homework and Jukebox made the same mistake that I did. Anyone could make such a mistake! It was a totally valid and normal mistake to make.
I accept some of the help offered but not all. I burn my dinner so badly it is impossible to eat and I have no more tears to cry about it and so I just shrug. Instead of my normal soupy sludge I spoon peanut butter and dried cherries into my mouth, just until the edge comes off and finally, I burrow into my quilt.
Holy shit I think, as I drift off. How will I do this again tomorrow?
(Top picture by Carrot!)