The valve that’s squeezing at my insides releases a little, and for now- that’s totally enough.
The valve that’s squeezing at my insides releases a little, and for now- that’s totally enough.
4:30 AM: Riiiiiiiip *snap* CRASH
For once I wake up before Carrot and pivot a little on my neoair. The mosquitos have swarmed to the vestibule of our little single wall shelter and they are all clamored up in the peak built by the trecking pole, which holds the whole fragile thing together. I watch them buzz and bump against one another as I rub the sleep from my eyes.
Carrot stirs and reaches for me, unbuttoning the top button of her quilt and pulling me close.
“This might sound crazy” I mumble. “But did you hear a tree fall this morning?”
Apparently it’s NOT crazy, instead entirely possible and yes- she did hear it too. A tree just snapped right off and collapsed to the ground!!!!! Well I never.
It got smokier as we slept, again. The air smells of thick campfire and the sun is rising in a formidable hot pink globe that says “This shit is fuuuuucked” without having to speak a word. Carrot and I do our morning shuffle and we’re both thinking something that we’re not ready to say yet. For now we just try to start hikin’.
I lace up my shoes and look at my feet really deeply, for just about the millionth time. The truth is, I just can’t believe them. They are filthy—- like really filthy, crusted with dirt and also tacky goo from the medical and KT tape holding together my hot spots, blisters, and bad ankle. My toenails are all jammed up and both the little ones seem like they might pop off. The skin on my heels and soles is peeling away from hours and hours of pounding in wet shoes and my whole foot feels like it’s now made of a different fabric. Before my feet were soft cotton and now they are stiff canvas. In a nut shell, they are toughening up.
We’ve decided to take a steep alternate to make up for our foreshortened day yesterday. It goes straight up and straight down, takes us off the little red line in our apps that tells us we’re on the exact right path, and shaves off two miles of uppy downy droll. A steep rocky down is not really my favorite but I am buoyed by the impending veggie burger and fries that I know are waiting for me in the town. I am more than happy to be suddenly two miles closer to that.
Within minutes of walking we’re off the PCT and into the alternate. The up is the kind of steep that would make me work regardless but the smoke adds a new layer. I can’t breathe through my nose because of the congestion it’s caused, and I am trying to suck in oxygen in great gasps through my mouth. It’s futile. There’s not enough air in my air.
By the time we crest to the saddle of the climb I am cooked. I’m having trouble focusing my eyes and I am resoundingly dizzy. I click my pole down just ahead and lean into it. This is how I’m going to have to descend I think, as I look to the steep rocks below. Dangit.
I crawl down those rocks. I’m stumbling over my own feet again and again and the floor feels like it’s moving below me. I suck- again and again- at the air. I just can’t catch my breath! How can anyone breathe at all?
Carrot is waiting for me at the bottom and the bugs are swarming her, darting for her mouth, her nose, and her eyes with a specific ferocity that just feels mean. She gets up to lead back to the actual, real live, gentle roll of the PCT and I feel ashamed. Why aren’t I better at this? I think. Stupid smoke.
We agree to meet at Mig Lake in 7 miles and I put on African pop music and try to cruise. I am tired of being held back by my narrative that I am slow on the descents, and so I test myself to see if I can get any faster. I can, I discover, it’s just that when it’s steep it’s really more of a controlled fall down a mountainside than a hike. Is this really what the more sure footed do? Just fling themselves into the abyss?!
I find Carrot at the lake and we eat. I have granola in protein powder milk and peanut butter by the spoonful with dried cherries and the last of my Juanita’s jalapeño chips. This is my fifth finished bag of chips in a four day section and I lust for more.
We have seven and a half more miles to Skykomish and though the bugs have chilled, the air is acrid. We plan to take a double night at a hotel – a Nero (though 15.5 miles hiked is hardly near zero imho) and a zero – and my body needs the rest so bad. From my lungs to my shoulders to my inner thigh chafe to my aching legs and my healing knees and fucked up ankles and feet, I am DONE. get me horizontal.
We have a steep climb, a steep descent, a less steep climb up and under rows of abandoned ski gondolas, a gentle descent into Stevens Pass and then a quick hitch to Skykomish. I do all of this with single minded drive. Must. Get. To. Town. The second town feels close I can think of nothing else.
We reach the peak of our last climb and my phone jumps to life. First and foremost I see texts from Jukebox and Homework. They’re bailing on account of the air, which makes perfect sense but also makes me sad. I open Instagram: The smoke in Washington and Oregon! the people say. It’s worse than Beijing! they say (which makes me sad. People, like, live in Beijing and I come from no fantasyland but must we talk about it like it’s poison?) They’re recommending no outdoor activity! the people say. Air quality in Chelan (our next destination) is worse than it’s been in years!
Carrot and I are crestfallen. We’re just now seeing tiny glimpses of our bodies will to strengthen. We’re getting over our injuries and into our stride and …..now what? Nothing?
We hike our last two miles introspective and sullen. The trail is easy, the hitch is easy, the veggie burger and fries are fine. But are we done?
Do we have to go?
Tick Tock leaves tomorrow and she wants to get to a road early enough to hitch to her car while it’s still light out. Jukebox and Homework are natural early risers, up and out to hike with the sun. They collectively decide that tomorrow will be a 26 mile day to make that hitch happen.
I have a sinking feeling in my gut. It really does seem like Carrot and I aren’t going to be hiking with our friends again. Neither of us are likely to be up and ready to hike at six and besides, I don’t feel ready for 26 miles after yesterday’s accidental 24. Lifting my spoon to my mouth feels hard in the moments they are all working out logistics and when they ask Carrot and I to join, I feel a little hopeful that I can make it happen and also a little disappointed that it doesn’t seem realistic.
“If I can get my ass in gear, I’ll be out of the tent and ready to go at six” I say. “If I can’t….maybe don’t wake me up.”
My eyes crack to first morning light at 6:20AM and before I even fully open them, I know my friends are gone. I wish I’d given them a more ceremonious goodbye (who knows when we’ll meet up with Homework and Jukebox again given our pace variations?!) but I was so exhausted I didn’t even hear them pack and leave. I suppose that says something.
Carrot and I have developed our own language on trail, where every word is just a little bit different then how you’d pronounce them regularly. This morning we become extremely enthusiastic about our breakfast cereal and protems (protein powder). We’re also excited about our tep (KT tape) and snecks (a great two for one word that can either mean a slithery wiggler or a tasty morsel). What I’m trying to say here is that it’s getting weird out here in the woods and I like it.
I blissfully spoon Reese’s puffs and Cheerios and protems into my mouth and wiggle my toes. I expected to wake up absolutely and completely wrecked from the previous day’s work, but so far from in my cozy sleeping bag, I am almost alarmingly able to function. I have zinging pains gently shooting up my calves and hamstrings but they are like, chill pains. Just gentle little pains to remind me that I am both alive and doing a thing.
I eat, I drink my coffee, I pack my bag and I stand up to go dig my cat hole and poop. This is the final reckoning, the standing up. It shall be the truth teller of my physical state. I rise and still I’m …fine. What do you know?
We began our morning with a ten mile climb. It is a gentle, lilting thing- the kind of climb with straightforward motion, little technical difficulty, and abundant opportunity to turn the brain off and just move. The PCT is not always merciful but today it is and I’m grateful for my body and my strength, grateful to autopilot up the mountain with it’s huckleberries and thimbleberries and salmonberries for me to eat. I could be hobbling and miserable, but today I am not.
I want to know all the details of this land I am walking on. I want to know what these plants are that I am starting to deeply love and how to tell the second growth forest from the third growth forest. I want to know who’s land this is, because I am very clear that as a white person, it’s certainly not mine. I did not grow up with nature. I didn’t have anyone showing me the wonder of the forest and I didn’t know enough to seek it out. I am so curious about this place as I walk and I commit to learning. It’s the least I can do.
Carrot and I meet at a creek for lunch and I splash water on my hands and my face. I finish yet another bag of chips and I think again about me and the land. I think about the necessary union of this naturally perfect place and my chip bags and my cat holes and my toilet paper and my toothpaste spit. It’s such a conflict: I deeply enjoy this opportunity to be alive in this particular way and also I know that humans are ruining it all and someday we’ll all die and honestly the planet will be better off. Something big will happen and the Earth will be fucked at first but then the trees and the vines will grow, the microflora will work double duty, the animals will proliferate and run the show, uninterrupted at last. These thoughts are soothing and disturbing at the same time.
We agree to hike four and a half hazy more miles to a cascading stream for an event I’ve lovingly come to refer to as second lunch. (I would also accept first dinner). I arrive and I learn that the “cascading” prefix for stream means it will be giant and expansive and rocky and just a little technical to cross. Carrot is waiting for me across the rushing water on an open patch. I cannot hear her over the stream so she pantomimes a few different options for crossing, and I make it over after a couple of tries, completely dry.
We dine again, and plan to go just under eight more miles, in an effort to clock in a 21.8 mile day. I’ve felt alarmingly good all day, the walking is so much easier than it was yesterday and I’m grateful. I’ve done a significantly better job fueling myself for this stretch (turns out I need more calories than even your average woman hiker to not lose weight, which I emphatically do not want to do) and it shows. I’ve been miserable sometimes- hot, achey, and frustrated- and the smoke has made me have some trouble breathing but I have not had the empty cavernous hunger feeling that fucks with me so hard. Thank the goddess for my good friend chips. Moar and moar chips.
As we walk, the smoke thickens and the hot pink sun beats down, threatening to punch right out of the sky and engulf us. Carrot and I have a comfortable groove of mostly hiking apart and meeting up at designated break spots, and when I find her sitting on the trail, I know something has gone awry.
“I rolled my bad ankle, and it hurt so so bad” she says. “I have a proposition for you.”
She suggests we go just a little further Instead of a medium amount further. There is a lake that is perfect for swimming, a pit toilet, and a nice camp spot just up ahead and YES of course we will soak and rest our aching bodies and get Carrot off the ankle that likely needs to chill. Stopping later felt okay today, but as soon as the idea of stopping sooner was introduced it sounded much, much better.
“Great. Let’s do it.”
We arrived at our site at 6PM, a glorious time to set up camp (and a time we haven’t managed for this entire section.) before pitching the tent we scramble down to the lake and dunk and scrub and splash a little, fill our bottles, and spend a lot of time describing our future dinners in glorious detail.
“It will be the Daiya Mac and cheese tonight” we agree. “And it’s going to fucking rule.”
The cheeze is be even oozier, even yellower, even more ensconced in its oily sheen than ever before and it is indeed glorious. We eat an entire box each, with added peas and kale, for nutrition or whatever and then we dip granola bar chunks in peanut butter to top it off.
I pitch our little tent on the flattest campsite in awhile, and we dive into our sleeping quilts with light still out.
This is the best I think as I drift off. The literal absolute best.
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!)
I wake up in a completely dark room with white noise whir. It’s somehow 8:30AM, a time I haven’t slept until for basically forever and I can’t believe it. Black out curtains and a white noise machine sure do go a long way for sleep, I tell you what.
Carrot has been awake since 6, reading her book and internetting and now she’s risen to make hotel room coffee, something that gives her inexplicable great joy. I’ve had horrible nightmares all night, the kind that feel very particular to my specific neurosis. The short story is that I dreamt that people didn’t like me, which is a thing that is invariably true (can’t please everyone, can ya?) but something I’m really trying to give less of a shit about as I age. I feel unsettled trying to reconcile my dreams from my reality and Carrot brings me a cup of coffee, smiling.
She says she is experiencing great satisfaction this morning, just because she remembered her life and what we get to do and how we get to feel. This bouyes me. Her life is honestly incredible, and it’s sort of the life I share, too- at least parts of it. Fuck those dreams!
We meet Jukebox and Tick Tock at the diner attached to our motel, and Homework joins us shortly thereafter. He hiked out the day before and seven miles in he found a hiker with a broken knee. Instead of slapping the dude on the back and wishing him well, Homework carried his pack down the mountain, only to get breakfast with us and head right back up. I aspire to be so generous and so kind.
We eat oatmeal and toast and sweet potato fries and nachos and eggs and pancakes and talk about the climb we are about to face. It’s steep, they say, with a gigantic dose of talus and scree, plus rumored mosquitos to boot. I am armed with refreshed legs, a healthy dash of positivity, and five bags of chips. The mountains canst not fuck with me.
We take a picture at the trailhead and we climb. Up and up and up into the most picturesque mountains I’ve seen yet, which is truly saying something, as every mountain thus far has been pretty dang great. With a belly full of oats and fries it feels something close to easy, which I say out loud, knowing that this will totally jinx me.
The five of us stop for lunch at Ridge Lake and I add fistfuls of chips plus a packed out block of baked tofu and tiny bell peppers to my oatmeal and sweet potato fry belly. We toggle back and forth between talking about alcoholism and abuse and the trouble with being a human being in a fucked up world and unique snack combinations and hiker farts inside of enclosed shelters and general gibberish spoken in strange voices which we attribute to our pets. The thing about hiking buddies is sometimes you run out of real, honest, true and deep shit to say and you say dumb stuff instead and sometimes you run out of dumb stuff to say and you just lapse into silence. It really provides one with the opportunity to see all the ways in which their friends communicate about their lives, both serious and not so much.
We climb! We climb a big ass mountain and I slow to a crawl because though the smoke has parted to give way to unbelievable and splendorous views, I have too full sick belly and my guts are rebelling. The line between too much food and not enough food is really something/How am I supposed to know when I am about to cross over said line when I am constantly trying to just get enough?!
I try not to think about my insides. Instead I watch the tiny cornflower blue butterflies weave in and out of the rock. I listen for Pika meeps and I meep back. This will pass! I tell myself. Just focus on the butterflies.
It is a talus party and every cool slab of talus is invited. We scramble over massive rock and slippery scree and my ankle, the one that is weak and that kept me from hiking at all for so long, is wrenching again and again and again. It never rolls, but always the wrench, until a new pain settles into my arch and shoots up my shin. At least it’s not the knees?
We started hiking at noon, which is extremely late by hiker standards. By the time we settle into camp it is real and actual nighttime and we’re either wearing headlamps or feeling our way through nighttime duties in the dark. This half day was much more technically challenging than any of us anticipated and we are beat up and weathered but happy with our various ziplock bags and pots of food.
Jukebox gratefully spoons instant refried beans into a flour tortilla. Tick Tock delights me with her vegan cheez-it’s. Homework has a baggy full of almost not stale peanut M&Ms, which he shares with Carrot. We palm our snacks into our mouths as we all shiver into our puffys and nighttime caps and laugh and laugh at who knows what.
We’re camped up high, which means it will be chilly and Tick Tock’s rain fly is confusing or broken or something because it just won’t attach. We collectively pray to the mountain gods for no rain and a dry Tick Tock come morning, and I skip brushing my teeth because I’m too cold to take off my little liner gloves. Finally, we settle in. We’re comfortable and cozy and best of all, together. We sleep.
(Picture by Carrot!)
IT’S FUCKING TOWN DAY!!!
I think this before I even open my eyes and I shoot up, uncharacteristically ready for my morning chores.
Deflate neoair, check
Make weird hot porridge with granola and nut butter, check
Brew coffee, check
Take a shit/try to dig a cat hole that doesn’t fill me with shame, check/check
Brush my teeth, check
Pack my items into highly specific ziplocks, then highly specific stuff sacs, then highly specific pockets of my pack- check, check, check.
And off we go!
We’re 4.7 miles to snoqualmie pass and I am committed to trying to get there fast. So much of my hiking is about deep reservation, the knowledge that I am not quite as strong as 1) I’d like to be and 2) my hiking partners are. If I don’t go slow and steady up and down the trail I will become deeply morose and discouraged by the day’s end, and I always hike just a little more carefully than I could in an effort to keep a little gas in the tank. With such little mileage to go, though, Jukebox puts Amine on full blast and I pound. By the time we have 2.5 miles to town I am doing the Muffy Davis equivalent of jogging, which isn’t fast at all, but sure is fast for me.
With just a little over half of our daily mileage done, I deflate and sag. I’m HUNGRY dear reader, very hungry and it frustrates me! I ate a full breakfast just about an hour before and I can hear the roar of my stomach as I go and that feels….stupid.
I’m gonna be real: The only time in my life I’ve ever felt this way before was when I was anorexic. Even at my sickest, I would eat large (though calorically sparse) meals until I felt full to bursting and an hour later I’d be starving. Though I am eating quadruple as much as I did back then, and though I am strong as fuck and doing my absolute best to fuel sufficiently, this feeling triggers the shit out of me. I am not excited to feel this unending need for more and more and I am unsure how to reconcile these facts. Long distance hiking and eating disorders, man. It can totally be a thing and that’s a game I just don’t want to be playing.
I say all of this out loud. Because it’s easy to get ashamed when I feel triggered and because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this short life of mine it’s that shame is a glorious waste of energy and time. I cannot feel ashamed when I continuously shine lights on the truth and so I do just that, and like magic I feel better. Still hungry, but better.
Snoqualmie pass is, in my opinion, a perfect rest town. You can walk right in, no hitch required. It has an Inn, where we have a giant room with a king bed. There is laundry at the Inn and a hiker box in the lobby. There’s a coffee cart with soy milk, and the teen behind the counter gives me my second coffee on the house for no good reason and I love her for it regardless. There’s a gas station with Juanita’s jalapeño tortilla chips and kombucha and stove fuel and Fritos scoops (like regular Fritos but better!), there is a cart that gives you a giant carry out container of vegan curry with a pile of fresh vegetables, and by golly I even got the veggie burger of my dreams at the pancake house- complete with a side salad AND a side of French fries. All of this is within a few feet of everything else, which I appreciate deeply because me and walking are done for the day. I want a break!
Tik tok is joining us today! This hike has had so many buddies come and go and I am STOKED that many friends want to come suffer along side us. Tik tok is a hiking expert, basically, and she comes bearing gifts! She has grapes and a watermelon, and KT tape, and ziplocks and vagisil (literally the best thing for chafing anywhere on the body, don’t @ me) and so much food. I am fucking EXCITED for this next section to Skykomish, EXCITED to take on this big climb out of Snoqualmie pass tomorrow with even more food then I packed out last time and significantly less all around new hiker pain.
Let’s fucking do this.
(Picture by Carrot!)
I toss and turn all night for no reason. My body doesn’t hurt, it’s quiet and warm, we have a flat campsite on a perfect ridge. I vacillate between being just a little asleep and being just a little awake but never really achieve either. I toss on my neoair, as gently as possible, trying not to wake Carrot, whomst blissfully slumbers next to me.
The sun starts to rise and my mood lifts with it. Isn’t it wild how my knees didn’t hurt at all, like not for one step yesterday?! Isn’t it incredible that my friends are here with me, that against all odds my love and I found one another and get to share a tent this very moment?
With the right people and working knees, anything feels possible.
Carrot wakes up with me and we assess our food. Both of us have not much but enough to get us to town and it pleases me to see that I can eat enough while hiking. A lot of folks have stomach upset or just generally feel adverse to eating 4,000 calories a day but I know I need it— my body legit screams for fuel when it gets low— and I’m proud of myself. Me, a person whomst has struggled so much with food, feeds herself a ton of hiking calories easily. Lookit me go.
Carrot sings “the final kiiiiind bar” (to the tune of the final countdown) and we smile. We’re so close to town. We love to hike and then paradoxically, five or six days go by and we can’t fucking WAIT to be in a town.
“What if we can be hiking by….seven AM?!” Carrot queries as if it is impossible but maybe if we just try hard enough we can make it happen. The honest truth is most people start hiking by 7AM but we are very good at stretching our morning chores out, so it takes a bit of effort.
“Oh yeah.” I say, confidently lifting up my pack, which has now become extremely light. We can do this.
We eat and caffeinate and brush our teeth and shit and pack up all of our things and are hiking by 7:02, which feels not too bad considering. Carrot quickly breaks ahead and I pass the time singing along to Fleetwood Mac just a little bit loud. The morning is cool, we’re starting to get out of the smoke and I pick up my pace, roll my ankle, sit, and pick up the pace again. It feels so good to be in my body on this day, especially since yesterday felt so inexplicably bad. Jukebox, Carrot and I all meet at a gently trickling stream, just 3.5 miles in and morale feels great all around. What luck.
I check my guthook app to sort out our lunch spot and next water sources and I read that a couple of trail angels were giving out cold soda and VEGGIE BURGERS of all things just a few days ago four miles up the road. I imagine a veggie burger. I imagine it all ketchup and mustardy, with grilled onions and thick romaine leaves and avocado, all wrapped up together and dripping. There is no way these veggie burgers could possibly live up to my fantasy of them and I know I’m playing a dangerous game but I just can’t help it. VEGGIE BURGERS!
I hike in a veggie burger flow state. Will there be a burger? Will they be vegan? Will the angels be nice? Will there be enough? Can I have TWO?!
Carrot messages me to say that she just passed the spot where the veggie burgers once were and there was nothing there but a man aggressively shouting questions at hikers. I am briefly disappointed, but then accepting. Silly Muffy I think. A veggie burger cannot be your life raft.
I hike on to our lunch spot and my hunger hath become extreme. I shovel gluten free pretzels and chocolate and a bobos bar and peanut butter and dried cherries and granola into my mouth. These foods are entirely insufficient dry little things, but what can you do? Tomorrow we go to town and the real eating shall commence.
Carrot and and I make a plan to hike to a lake seven miles away and swim. I hike mostly alone after lunch briefly checking in with Carrot every few miles, not on purpose but because conditions are wildly steep and we’re not quite in trail shape yet, so every few miles I find her sitting down mid trail and I gratefully take it as an invitation to join her and pound water and granola bars and electrolyte powder. It’s hot, like really fucking hot, and the climbing is relentless.
There seems to be a cruel trick that happens in the last mile or two before a destination point. One minute I feel close, and the next minute the point feels a million miles away and like every step I take is actually a step backward- like the uphill or the downhill is literally never going to fucking end. It’s maddening; some days my first 18 miles feel incredible and the last two make me feel like I am dying. I don’t understand how this can happen day after day.
We climb. We climb until we think we’ll drop in the heat and are rewarded with a beautiful, clear, freezing lake. I strip off my clothes, lowkey flashing ass to some day hikers and change into the one pair of underwear I have, a pair that honestly has only been used as a proxy bikini. I wade over slippery logs and craggy rocks out into the water and I go from sweating to shivering in an instant. I curl up into a ball under water, scrubbing at my dirty legs and arms. It’s too cold to move much but at least this will get me sort of clean.
When we’ve cleaned and frozen just enough, Carrot and I sit in the one sunbeam we can find through the trees and shiver a little. In 2014 I’d seen a picture of Carrot hiking the PCT and longed to be there too in a way that made no sense because we’d hardly talked in years and I was living a very structured and regimented life in California. Come hike with me! She’s said. I want to! I’d replied, thinking there was just no way I ever possibly could. Four years later, here we are. What a world.
In the last four miles to camp, something happens to my body. Suddenly I feel…good? We’re hiking over talus and scree and the sun is setting, bathing everything around me in an orange glow. Carrot is up ahead, hiking a little faster and leaving me gentle clusters of salmon berries and thimble berries on leaf platters every half mile or so. My legs feel incredible, and I am about to round the bend of my longest hiking day yet and feel like I could keep going. I arrive to camp smiling instead of sweating and nauseated. I set up our shelter and filter my water and sit down to write with energy instead of pure exhaustion.
More of this I think as I drift to sleep.
Here’s the thing about long distance hiking:
It really can kind of always be something.
It can be smoke or heat or blisters or rough terrain. It can also be a mixture of high emotional highs and low emotional lows. It can be the general discomfort of sitting too long with your brain.
This is where I’m at today.
Today, the smoke is oppressive and I feel sad, sick and confused for most of the hours that I am awake. I don’t know what exactly provides me with the general narrative that I don’t know what the fuck is going on or how to do anything correctly, but there it is- waiting for me around every bend. I climb through the deluge of my too intense feelings, I descend through the deluge of my too intense feelings. I lay on my gray foam pad at lunch, listening to Gold Dust Woman with my hat over my face and I am stuffed full of both chips and my too intense feelings. My stomach hurts.
The conundrum of being alive is that we just never know what emotions are going to show up for us. Half the time there’s no reason for good moods or bad moods or confident moods or insecure moods but there they are, waiting none the less. The human condition is this: we get to feel an extremely wide swath of bullshit, whether we want to or not. That is the cave I am in today: bullshit, bullshit, bullshit and forward motion, one foot in front of the other. I cannot conceptuaize who I am very well and it’s both confusing and annoying to me. Does everyone worry about these sorts of things this much?
I am so lost in this maelstrom that I barely notice my knees until I realize that despite my 20 mile day they did not hurt once.
I recognize this up on a ridge as I sip the peppermint tea that Carrot made me because the smoke and the heat made me barf in the last two miles of my climb and I laugh. If it’s not one thing, it’s another- truly. In long distance hiking and in life in general, too.
I wake up to Jukebox and Homework shuffling. They’re so quick every time, up and out the proverbial door with record speed and I’ve come to accept that mornings and nights might be the only times I get to see these friends. This is just the way it is, and instead of mentally berating myself for not adapting in the same way they have, I decide to let it go. With the way my knees felt last week, it’s a miracle I can hike at all.
This fact is so obviously and completely true, and still I have to remind myself. Isn’t it amazing how deeply it sinks in that we should always go harder, do more? I’m comforted by the fact that culturally, we’re all basically never enough- so fuck it. Why try to keep up with some idealized version of yourself when you can just be where you’re at.
Besides, Carrot is next to me and the morning is glowing. The smoke from wildfires both North and South is definitely in the air today and it turns everything a brilliant pink, bathing the dawn in an Easter egg glow. We do our two people in a tent shuffle, reaching for our Gatorade bottles and respective protein powders and granolas. I make my coffee, she sips her tea and we talk about mileage and her ankle and my knees. Yesterday we did nineteen-ish miles and I’m creaky but ok. Carrot’s ankle feels somewhere between good and good enough and so what else is there to do? We’ll walk.
About two miles in I stop to pee, check guthook for our next reliable water source, and cue up my library book. I notice that it’s the 13th today, which makes me smile. Six months ago, Carrot and I shared our first kiss for the second time (we also dated briefly ten years ago, but that’s a whole other story) and I tell her. We take a couple of kissing selfies to celebrate and then we put the phone down and just kiss. Getting to know someone intimately is so interesting. I’d already cared about and respected Carrot for many years by the time we kissed this time around, in that way that far away acquaintances do- but the more I get to know her the more I see the truth : Carrot is a national TREASURE.
We meander up an easy climb sometimes talking, sometimes not. Carrot breaks a bit ahead, I get incredible reception on a ridge and text with friends whomst I miss, asking about their girlfriends, and their dogs, and their feelings and their jobs. Six miles in I find Carrot resting at a gentle little stream, water formed into a perfect funnel by a lush curled leaf. I fill my water bottles and our first snack break commences.
I’m running low on food. Not low on calories exactly, but low on food I’m going to like eating. I’ve ravaged all my vegan m&ms and soy curls Jerkee and Juanitas jalapeño tortilla chips. My peanut butter Nature Valley granola bar stash is woefully low, I have half a bar of chocolate to my name and even my nut butter packet supply is limited. How did this happen? I budgeted in about a billion calories a day and still I ate all the good shit first and my last two days of hiking are looking like they’re going to be 100% lower sugar granola and gluten free pretzels. Dang.
We continue up a burn zone, that turns out to be ten sandy miles of exposure, ash, and eroded trail. It’s hot! It’s steep! We’re thirsty! But fuck if the little tiny post burn foliage isn’t slowly creeping up and the cicadas aren’t tchk-tchk-tchking away around the ridges. Nature finds a way, my dudes, and it’s incredible.
The “start today” tattooed on my ankles completely disappears under a blanket of soot. We climb and climb and climb through old wildfire refuse and new wildfire smoke and then the downhills begin. Every day that I’ve hiked the downhills have inspired pain. Could be a dull ache, could be a roaring lion clawing my joints from the inside out. Today the downhill starts and I’m going for quite some time before I notice my knees. A miracle.
Eventually the burn gives way to sun dappled temperate forest and we hike to the Mike Urich cabin, a dwelling maintained by a local snowmobile club and open to the public. In the last mile of my hike my stomach has begun to ROIL in hunger, and I have imagined every last bite of my dinner in extreme detail. I arrive both ecstatic to eat and endlessly excited to see Jukebox and Homework waiting on the porch, both of them having arrived hours earlier. While we make dinner Carrot and I tell the boys the story of how we fell in love and somehow this turns into all of us singing Papa Roach (again), this time changing the lyrics to reflect a story we made up about an imaginary highly specific thru hiker porn, which highlights the Sawyer squeeze as a key player. The sun sets and I laugh and laugh and laugh, so grateful for my friends and my healing knees and this whole thing, really. I am tremendously happy.
It has been a month of weird sleep for both Carrot and I. I’ve been excited or anxious to get hiking, or restless about the state of the world and a few details about my own life, or in pain. Carrot’s been traveling via red eyes from state to state, awakened by grizzlies huffing and puffing around her campsight, it’s been relentlessly sunny or hot in her tent. Neither of us has slept much for weeks, really and then in our first night of sleeping in the two person single walled tent, we sleep nine hours. Maybe nine and a half hours! Sleeping enough fucking rules.
I wake up to the sun not quite up and Carrot’s face very close to my own.
“Do you want to sleep more?” She whispers.
“Nope.” I respond.
I live for the moment when Carrot wants to be awake with me every single day that we’re together. This one is just like all the others, but even better because holy shit the transcendent gift of deep rest in the nature. What a joy.
Of course, the first thing I think of is my knees. Will they hold up ok? Are they going to hurt? When will they feel better? Why did they start hurting in the first place?! LOL. Brains, amiright?! They just don’t know when to quit.
Turns out, today is mostly 20 miles of climbing, which sounds hard (I mean, sure 20 miles of climbing is hard) but it’s the downhill that destroys me and so when I hear this I am overjoyed. My knees can do 20 miles of climbing.
And they do! My knees slowly take me up and up and up through pikas hidden in piles of scree, gentle, sandy uppy downy bits, and sweeping views of Mt. Ranier. As long as I am climbing, as I am most of the day, I feel incredible. As soon as any steep downhill starts, my morale is shot. Pain is such a demoralizing thing, a jab that can instantly turn my sunny mood cloudy. I wish it didn’t have the power to unravel me like that.
At lunch Homework poses a question: would we rather hike forever and ever, each day on a new mystery trail and have to figure out where we are on a daily basis or would we rather stay in the same five mile radius for the rest of our lives. We debate the pros and cons of each and I decide I’d hike. I can’t even get from my house to my job in five miles, and forever is a long time. I’d get bored.
We hit a downhill slope and my knees shoot pain causing my morale to sag. Carrot rolls the ankle she just sprained a few weeks back and we sit. We’re grumpy and we hurt and then we’re laughing because remember how we’re just walking up and down and up and down for no reason whatsoever, making choices based on instinct and a drive that cannot be explained. We’re kind of injured, but still we walk. Ha!
Seven miles from camp there is a clear blue inlet and we decide to swim. We’re all dirty and though the water won’t clean us (the second we get on land the dirt will stick to our wet bodies as if we’re covered in glue) it feels good to wipe the grime away from between our toes and streaked down our legs. It’s just cold enough to pretend I’m icing my knees and when i get out they’re nice and numb which feels great for hikin’.
Jukebox and Homework surge ahead and Carrot and I mince our last few miles to camp. We talk about how perception is a funny thing, how we can never really know how people see us and how maybe it’s not even any of our business. I tell her I have no idea how I appear to others (it’s true) and the mystery actually frustrates me. Am I nice? Mean? Introverted? Extroverted? Considerate? Brash? Anxious? Depressed? Happy?
We agree that I am funny and beyond that she says I am kind, excited, positive, contemplative and studious. I do not say so in the moment because it takes me some time to think, but for the record I think Carrot is brave, unique, particular, loving, measured, and driven. I am proud to have intimacy with a person I see as so purely worthy of love. (I mean we all are, but Carrot especially)
Eventually we find ourselves on a ridge with incredible cellphone reception. We pass time playing YouTube videos interspersed with Papa Roach and Enya songs. We make pots of oily, soupy slop and we all sit overlooking miles and miles of mountain, wildflower and tree. I pitch our tent with enthusiasm— I love to share and I love to help— and we hunker in. It’s 43 degrees and all the pikas have silenced at last.