PCT Day 15- Unexpected Ending

After waking up and packing up and eating a big breakfast at the hotel, I make my way out of town to the trail, ready for my last 3 or 4 days of walking. But not more than 100 feet up the trail, I feel something in my teeth and pick at it, and a huge filling from my back molar drops cleanly into my hand. It doesn’t hurt but I can immediately feel a huge hole in my tooth.

Luckily, I still have cell reception so I sit at a picnic table near the parking lot at the trail head, and try to decide what to do. I call my dentist, Burdock, and look at info on the internet, and ultimately decide that hiking on and risking tooth pain or damage for a few more days of trail just isn’t worth it.

So, I walk back to town and find a ride to Seattle and change my flight home and make all the arrangements I need to, and then I listen to sad songs and cry quietly on the train, but not with regret, exactly. Maybe a little, but mostly just the feeling of being done with the woods and the mountains and the air that tastes good and feels like it’s washing out your lungs, the same sadness that hits every year at the end of a trip.

So now I am home, missing the trail like I do every year post hike, but enjoying dog cuddles and garden veggies and hot tubbing with my wife hours every day.

A big big thank you for all the kind words of support this year! It’s a little strange to publish a daily journal, this is really just a once a year diary I keep and then put on the internet for friends and family to read and I really appreciate everyone who shares that they enjoy it!

Also important to acknowledge is that the lands I just walked through are the traditional homelands of several Indigenous tribes: Yakama, np̓əšqʷáw̓səxʷ (Wenatchi), Qwû’lh-hwai-pûm (Klickitat), Stl’pulmsh (Cowlitz), Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Wasco and Wishram.

Indigenous people all over the world are incredible land protectors. According to National Geographic, “comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, Indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity.” As a white person using public lands to recreate, I feel it’s vital to support Indigenous led efforts to combat climate change and protect both the wild beauty I find such joy and solace in outside the city, and all the people sharing the planet.

To that end, I have donated to the Indigenous Environmental Network in gratitude for my trip this year, and if you enjoyed reading this blog I would love and appreciate if you’re able to make a donation there as well, or to any other Indigenous led organization you are connected to or want to support.

Joanna Macy writes that until we can grieve for our planet we cannot love it—grieving is a sign of spiritual health. But it is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

PCT Days 9-14

Pct Day 9

Miles: 13.72/ From Start: 150.8

I wake up late in my hotel bed, and draw out the morning lounging and waiting till 11am when I have to checkout, determined to get every hour out of my room that I can. Finally I pack up my things, FaceTime Burdock and the pups one last time, and walk out to hitch my way back to the trailhead. It’s a busy road, and since it’s just 13 miles from the trail I figure this won’t be a tough hitch at all- usually my solo white femme hiker privilege gets me hitches quickly, especially in a trail town where locals are used to hikers. But today I stand on the side of the road as car after car after car goes by, 15 minutes, then 30, then 45, with no one stopping. Drivers’ eyes are wide and surprised as they pass me. I feel like a relic from a lost time, I wonder how many have ever even seen someone stand on the highway sticking their thumb out, which is legitimately starting to feel sore. I check my position- I’m in a good spot with a wide shoulder in front of and behind me, giving people plenty of space to see me and consider me and then pull over, and yet they still whizz by. There are no trail angels listed in this town in the trail app or Facebook group. I call one hotel people mentioned does shuttles and ask if they’re running one, the woman says it’s not operating yet. I start to look up the cost of a Lyft, it’s over 50$ and more than an hour wait. I tell myself to give it a little longer, then I’ll just bite the bullet and do it. Finally around 11:50 a truck pulls over and tells me he’s not going to the pass but can get me a bit further up the highway and I hop in. He’s a local, says he does “dirt work” which is his charming way of saying he does excavation for “people who have too much money”. He drops me just about 10 minutes up the highway, and I settle in for another long wait, realizing that now I don’t have cell service and no longer even have the option of calling a Lyft. I cross my fingers for some luck, and in just a minute or two, another truck pulls over. The driver looks familiar and sure enough, it’s Gary from the last trail town! He’s giving another section hiker a ride from there to this trailhead! I can’t believe the luck, and the perfect timing. At 12:30 I’m at the gas station at the pass again, and instead of hiking right away I go in for coffee and to charge my phone fully for the long 99 miles coming up. I eat a burrito and see the girl I got a ride out with last time with Gary, and another I passed on trail in Goat Rocks. I’m in a chattier mood, and we talk about how great that last section was and the fires ahead, and the apocalyptic reality of the climate crisis we’re in.

I finally get everything charged up and feel ready to go around 3, and I make my way the half mile back to the trail to start walking, timing my exit when it looks like no one else is leaving so I can hike alone, even though I think most of the crowd is SOBOs.

I hit the trail and my mind is busy and buzzing like it always is when I’ve been in town. Now I let it ramble, avoiding the temptation to quiet it with a podcast or music or book, partly to get back to trail presence and partly to be sure to conserve my battery the best I can.

I think it’s because of the hiker bubble I’m leaving, but I keep thinking of the CT in 2015, how it felt to be on my first long trail.

I think of how much in my life and myself has changed because of that hike, how it healed me and why, how I walked off the heartbreak of years of back to back relationships in which I couldn’t set a boundary to save my life.

I remember the heaviness of that year, how I learned how walking 20 miles a day, day after day could help me carry it, could help me carry anything that was heavy.

Then I remember how I felt so alone then, so frayed, one hundred percent convinced that being with someone always meant you felt more alone than being on your own. I think a lot about how I don’t believe in fate or a master plan or anything predestined, but how if I did I would call meeting my life partner a few months after that a perfect example of it. And I think about how different it is to walk now, with the primary discomfort being the blessing of having someone I love so much back home, how miraculous it is that I can feel the opposite of stifled in a relationship, in a marriage, that I can be celebrated and supported and lifted the way I am. I think about how the CT in 2015 made this possible, how I don’t think I could have learned what I needed to to be in this relationship without that hike, but I took that hike because I was so drained by relationships.

Eventually it’s evening and I’ve been walking fast, outrunning mosquitoes again, coffee buzz in my legs, so I pass a few campsites I considered and keep walking. My brain is quieter now, I hum my evening songs and enjoy that state that comes when I’ve let my mind run itself out a while. I land in a good camp by a creek at 7:30, and eat my dinner and nestle in my bag and pop my blister and stretch and sleep.

Pct Day 10

Miles: 25.5/ From Start: 176.3

I set an alarm last night, aiming to get started early and have some higher mileage days to get through this long stretch. I start walking around 7, beautiful climb out to views of Adams in the background and ahead to Tahoma (Rainer). I’m not walking as fast as yesterday, my legs feel a little slow and my feet are heavy. I stumble and fall on my hands and left knee on a rocky stretch, it’s sore and a little scraped but nothing too bad. Midday I come to the prettiest lake I’ve seen yet- it has sandy beaches that are begging to be waded in. I stop here for lunch and to dry out my shelter and bag, wet with condensation from last night. I end up staying for at least an hour and a half, napping on the shore after standing in the warm water.

Afterwards I feel much better, maybe just needed more rest. I walk the rest of the 13 miles straight through without really stopping, except to jump off trail approximately 500 times as I get near the paved road with day hikers spilling off. It seems like it takes hours but finally I’m through that bubble. My feet are starting to complain, somehow my blister is back, I lanced it and taped it again at lunch, but I feel it reforming. And now my right heel has them too, I’m a bit perplexed since I am in the same combination of shoes and socks as always, and I almost never get blisters. The last 6 miles go really slowly as my feet hurt more and more and my calves start tensing up too, but there’s nowhere at all to camp before the spot I was aiming for, so there’s nothing to do but push on. I run into Treeview and Achilles again, the two hikers I’ve now seen in both town stops. They had a great easy hitch out the night I saw them in the last town, so maybe my trouble was time of day? Oh well. We chat for a while, and then I push on, trying to appreciate the views but mostly just ready to stop walking. Finally make it just before 7, not a late night but I think I got too confident and over did the miles today. I was hoping for a 30 on this trip, but my feet are telling me it’s unlikely. Maybe by my last section I’ll be strong enough to make it, but that’s all vanity, there’s no real reason for me to try for a 30 except that I’ve never gone that far on trail, and it’s a milestone I want one day.

Pct Day 11

Miles: 20.1/ From Start: 196.4

Slept in late this morning, grumpy after a rough night. My small tent site was slanted, I fought rolling sideways all night long, and woke up several times, convinced I heard heavy footprints like elk running rally near me, and paranoid they were running from a bear, since a comment in the app said someone sighted a bear right here in early July. I put every smelly thing in my Ursack as far away as I could, there’s no reason a bear would mess with me, but it takes a long while to fall back asleep after waking up to strange noises in the night, feeling very small and soft and alone.

It clearly wasn’t a bear, in the morning my food bag is undisturbed, and as I pack up my camp I see Achilles and Treeview at the spring getting water. I fill up and we start hiking together, the first time this trip I’ve walked with anyone. We make our way through a sunny burn area, views off to the side at Tahoma, looking hazy today. I wonder if it could be smoke from the fires, but I don’t think the wind is blowing this direction. Conversation is pleasant and easy for a few hours, eventually they stop for a break and I pull ahead.

With nothing to distract me, my blisters are hurting more than ever. That first one that formed in the rocky section of Goat Rocks is resolutely reappearing no matter how many times I lance it and tape it, and now there’s one on my big toe, probably from me changing my gait and trying not to rub on the back blister. Now the other foot is just as painful, a solid line of hot spots along my back heel and one up on my middle toe. I’m frustrated and can’t think about much else, really confused about why they’re showing up like this when I haven’t really had to deal with blisters since 2015 when I switched to my preferred injinji toe socks + Altras combo.

I stop for lunch at a cabin maintained by the snowmobile club, next to a dirt road with lots of dirt bikers and jeepers. I tape all my blisters again and eat, and after an hour or so Achilles and Treeview come up as well, so I sit longer and chat more with them. Treeview lived in Montrose for two years, how random and wild- she’s from the east coast and landed in Montrose when she “ran out of money” on a road trip. I let them hike out a head of me a little, but soon I follow and catch up before too long, so we spend a few more hours chatting, about different trails we’ve done and how 2020 was for us all, and it helps the miles pass without me thinking too much about my feet. We pass through an older burn area, the trees are bare stumps but not blackened anymore, and at the end see a sign saying this fire took place in 1988, started by loggers. I’m shocked at how barren it still is, I’d have thought that area was from a fire just a few years ago- no trees are growing, only shrubs and flowers. It hits home that all that burns will be impacted for decades and decades, and I think about how many acres are burning every year here, and at home and I am suddenly terrified that soon nothing will remain. We talk about how the PCT has so many sections like this, and how different it could all look to someone hiking 10 or 20 years from now. I say it should probably be on a list of things to see before climate change takes them from us- the Great Barrier Reef, islands in the pacific, the forests of the PNW and California and Colorado. My chest aches.

When we stop at a spring around 4:30, they decide to camp for the night. Treeview gives me some different tape to try, kind and generous, and I hike on a few more miles. I get to the spot I was looking at pretty early, around 6, but I know I don’t have 5 more miles in me to the next campsite so I stop. Really hoping I can get these blisters to heal, maybe I’ll take a full zero in the next town. Today passed in a blur and I find myself really frustrated I can’t let my mind wander or clear itself when I’m focused on how every step hurts.

Pct Day 12

Miles 22.7/ From Start: 219.1

Wake up this morning to sunlight streaming in brightly, as I’m packing up and about to start walking at 7 Treeview and Achilles walk by. We chat for a few minutes- they say tons of SOBOs showed up at their campsite by the spring last night, including one after 7pm blaring music from a boom box- not just a phone speaker, a real set with bass pumping and sound that carries. I tell them he walked by here with the book box on too, stopped and stood for a while on the dirt road 50 feet up, and I almost yelled out to him “Don’t you have headphones?!?” before rethinking being camped miles from anyone else and yelling at strange men already acting like an asshole. I ask them if they said anything to him, they say no but were obviously pissed about it. I can’t fathom being this person- what is the world like if you move through it with that heavy an attitude of self centeredness???

Anyway, after our rant I let them hike on, stalling a bit so I can have the morning to myself a little. I sit on the dirt road for 20 minutes and eat my breakfast bar sitting down for once, looking out at the northern cascades, the first really clear view of them. Miraculously, I see no hint of smoke- it’s blowing east, away from the PCT, and I’m still far enough away to not see any indication of the devastation occurring.

I walk for a while, my blisters aren’t gone but feel a lot better today, Treeview’s thicker tape is helping maybe, and the nearly 12 hours I spent in my tent since last night.

I pass Achilles and Treeview again taking a break, and walk on till they catch me at a creek and we snack and chat about the endless flow of SOBOs we’ve passed this morning. They have been AMPED- I don’t know what is with this portion of the bubble we’re in now but it feels like every Sobo wants to stop and chat- one holds me hostage for at least 5 minutes and lectures me, unprompted, on not leaving my clothes out because deer will eat them and how to properly get over a blowdown, and then asks me the meaning of my thigh tattoo, talking in a relentless stream. The wildest thing is that I can tell from his comments he assumes I’m a NOBO thru, and yet he’s decided to mansplain hiking to someone he thinks has walked 2k miles this year. I’m dumbfounded and basically start walking away in the middle of a sentence. Another Sobo is carrying a mini guitar in his arms, playing it as he walks and also making direct eye contact in a way that clearly says he’s wanting me to say something to him or compliment or at least comment on this peacocking. I walk so fast past him it’s nearly a run. Achilles brings him up too at the creek, rolling his eyes and groaning, describing the exact same interaction when they passed him- the guitar player making aggressive eye contact, fishing for engagement.

I try hard not to do the very same thing that annoys me in long distance hikers- try to avoid the superiority complex that I’ve already whined about, but I can’t deny it’s a relief to laugh about this bubble with Achilles and Treeview.

I hike on before them after finishing a snack, and my feet start hurting again and the miles drag on. It’s hard to remember this stretch of trail or be present with the views, even though I’m aware it’s really pretty. Every step is becoming more painful, it’s not just the blisters, which are luckily a little less painful than yesterday, but they’re still present and the bones in my feet are aching and my legs are just tired. I stop for a long afternoon break at a spring and nap, and that helps a bit, but I still camp relatively early at 6:30, knowing that if I were feeling better right now I’d keep going for another hour and be 3 miles closer to town for tomorrow, but I definitely don’t have it in me.

Pct Day 13

Miles: 16.2/ From Start: 235.3

Today is just 16 miles to town, and if I walk at my average pace, I expect to get there by 1:30 or 2, and I’m really looking forward to checking into a room at the inn and getting a big meal and resting. And of course, because I want it so badly, today is my toughest day on trail so far. My first two hours feel good but after that it’s a rapid decline back to increasing foot pain, and soon my right calf feels tense and sore too, meaning I have to slow my pace further and protect my leg. It feels ok on flat or gentle inclines, but a lot of the trail today is rocky talus or tree roots protruding, and those steps hurt the worst. I move achingly slowly, I stop for breaks to stretch and try to recover but I end up tearing up every time I look at the map and see how many miles I still have to go. And of course, there’s nothing to be done but to walk them. It’s both the beauty and brutality of this, that all you have to do each day is wake up and walk, but also there is simply no alternative to it. The miles have to be walked. There’s no negotiation. It feels like I crawl to town, but eventually I do get there, around 3. I immediately walk into the hotel and book two nights, deciding on the spot to take my first zero tomorrow, not even giving myself the option to hike out tomorrow.

Achilles and Treeview walk by in the lobby with a heaping basket of French fries and the smell hits me like a wave. They must have passed my camp as I slept in this morning, and of course I didn’t catch them today. Treeview is in a pink sundress that I compliment- she says it weighs 3 oz and not having to be in her rain gear every time she does laundry in town is worth the weight. I feel ridiculously filthy, but also so hungry and I can’t decide if I should go to get food first or shower and do laundry.

Food wins out, so as soon as I stash my bag in my room I head to get fries, happily discovering they also have beyond meat brats at the food truck, and I shovel calories in my mouth and feel a thousand percent more optimistic than two hours ago.

When I get back to the hotel, I find a note on a paper plate resting against my door- Treeview offering me her town dress to wear while I do laundry since theirs is done, and here are the parts of hiker culture I love, making up for all my earlier annoyance at having to be around anyone else at all.

Pct Day 14

Miles: 0!

I sleep, I watch Netflix, I eat, I hot tub, that’s it.

PCT Days 5-8

Pct Day 5

Miles: 15.4/ From Start: 86.5

I wake this morning in the campground and spend some time sorting out my food box. As always, I have way too much food, and not just because I got to town 12 miles early. I have days more food than I need- I just haven’t eaten anywhere near what I packed for each day. I do this every hike, and I just can’t quite figure out how to stop. I hate wasting food or having to ship it home, but I am always afraid of running out and being hungry. Today the post office is closed anyway, so I label my meals and leave them in the hiker box in the general store and hope someone wants them.

I spend the morning charging my battery pack and phone on the porch of the store, drinking a coffee and doing internet things. Gary, a trail angel who gives endless rides to and from the trail, sits nearby on the porch and seems so content to just wait for me to need a ride whenever I want. Around noon my things are charged, and it so happens another hiker who got in this morning is ready too, so we get in his truck and he takes us towards the trail. I ask how many times in a day he’s made this trip (about 13 miles one way) and he says during peak season when all the NOBOs come through he’s done about 8, back to back, that there’s so many waiting for him when he gets to the trail he just loads the truck, brings them in and then turns around and goes back. He’s a retired forest service worker- he did fire management and he’s lived here for 37 years. Now that he’s retired he’s basically made it his personal mission to be the most supportive to hikers he can. The whole town was like this, so kind. I hope all the thrus treat them well this year.

When we get out of the car, my riding companion says she’s going to sit and organize and make a plan for the day, and I say goodbye and hike on, relieved not to feel any pressure to hike together or to awkwardly try to outpace her or leapfrog all day.

The trail quickly ascends through some forest and into a big burn area at the base of Mt Adams- called Pahto in the native language of the Yakama tribe. It’s a long walk through a hot, dry scarred area, but the perks are great views of the peaks around. The mosquitoes aren’t bad here, but there are plenty of biting flies in their place, and they keep me moving quickly. I stop for the quickest lunch I can under my net and my bandana spread out on my legs- the flies don’t care about my bug lotion at all, so I don’t have even that for protection. The views get better and better the higher we go, circling the base, and I get every angle of the mountain face possible as the moon rises. I start passing through lava fields with soft sand on the trail, and then several mountain streams with milky blue water. I’ve loved the forest so far but I could not be happier to be up high now, with the rocks and the streams and the wildflowers- nothing else is quite as fulfilling. The flowers only get better as the evening goes on, it’s golden hour and the mountain is glowing and the air is perfumed with the scent of thousands and thousands of flowers. Every time I round a bend there are more, and the thing is happening where I feel like I might actually burst from gratitude, just crack down the middle of my body and break open. How is this my life, out of all the lives? How could I posibly have been born in a time where this is realistic, where I can fly across the country in hours just to walk around outside somewhere else, how can I have this body that lets me, that feels built for this in a way it’s not built for anything else. That I was born into a life where I can afford this as a hobby is laden with such privilege. That I am allowed to be here in the presence of all this that needs nothing from me, wants nothing from me except to walk gently on the trail, that has nothing to do with me in the way that my flowers or garden at home do. I think about how essential it is to be viscerally reminded sometimes of things that are not FOR us, they are with us. They’re here, and we are too, and that means something important, though it’s hard to put into words.

I am crying from it all, with big crocodile tears salting my face. I stop in a small meadow and I look at every bloom near me and I say thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you to every single one I can see, and then I walk through another meadow across another picture perfect winding stream and I make my camp and eat my dinner and try not to get eaten by mosquitoes, and to keep basking in my gratitude every second.

Pct Day 6

Miles: 25.1/ From Start: 111.6

I wake early today, setting my alarm for the first time this trip and aiming to get up at 5:30 and be walking by 6:15, thinking that today I’ll be going over Goat Rocks and the Knifes Edge, since last night I looked at the app and saw that section was only 18 miles away. But I soon realize that that’s because I camped off trail last night, and when you’re far enough off the app tells you the straight distance from you, rather than how far ahead on trail it is. So really I’ll hit that part tomorrow, which is all good. I’d rather do that part early in the day with fresh legs.

The trail is beautiful in the early morning, It descends sharply into woods and I spend some time saying one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems again and again, a meditation.

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,

Which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

In a few hours I stop to apply some bug lotion at a dirt road and after a few minutes a guy joins me, also heading NOBO. His pack is tiny, I’m sure he’s a thru hiker and he confirms. He says he started in mid April and had come straight thru, not skipping any except a fire closure in Oregon. He’s hoping he can get to the border to finish- there are fires up there making it difficult. I feel for him, to have come all this way and then not get to the monument would be brutal. He’s super friendly and sits to eat for a minute, but I’m ready to hike on so I say bye, knowing that he’ll surely catch me again. Today is a lot of woods again, pretty as usual but I’m ready for more views and I just kind of cruise along, mind wandering and thinking without much direction. I stop in a few hours for a snack and to let my stuff dry in a patch of sunlight- I woke up to wet condensation this morning- and before long Randy, the thru NOBO joins me. “Wow you’re fast” he says, and of course the unsaid part of that sentence is “for a section hiker” but I still glow a little at that from someone who’s covered 2200 miles so far and is doing over 30 miles daily. We chat a while, he talks about his favorite section, the Sierra Nevada, and how he’s really missing his wife and dogs at home and I laugh and agree. If 3 weeks is this tough, I can’t imagine the feeling after 3 months. He’s ready to go before me, so we say goodbye and I know I probably won’t see him again.

The rest of the day goes slowly- it’s buggy as hell and hard to even take a break because they swarm you immediately. Bug lotion works on the mosquitoes but not the flies, and annoyingly the skeeters can bite me through my clothes where I can’t apply lotion. Finally after a while my feet really need another break so I lather up the best I can, wrap my rain skirt around my waist to protect some more of me, and lay down on some logs for about 30 minutes, putting in my headphones to drown out the buzz of the bugs trying to get through my head net. I make a note to treat all my clothes before my next trip- I’m already covered in bites.

After my rest, my feet are feeling strong again and I cruise the last 10 miles, finally getting some beautiful views of Rainer, and into a camp by a lake around 6:15. Thanks to my early start it’s my highest mileage day so far. I lay in my sleeping bag waiting for my dinner to rehydrate and look at pictures on my phone and miss my wife.

Pct Day 7

Miles: 20.2/ From Start: 131.8

Woke up late ish this morning, only planning to do 20 miles since the next town stop is in 25 miles, and I don’t want to hit that after 6 pm when the store is closed.

I start walking just after 8, and quickly ascend up to the pass, enjoying climbing at 6500 feet instead of 12,000- the trail is steep but nothing too taxing, and it certainly goes quicker than climbing a pass back home. Around the bend the trail winds through a gorgeous meadow, with new flowers I haven’t seen yet- they have soft furry blooms and when I reach out and out and feel one it’s just like Idgie’s fur and I miss my family with a sharpness I am learning to anticipate and let flow through on its own.

Soon I curve around to another high pass, this one looking out over the famous Goat Rocks and the Knife’s Edge Traverse. I sit at the top for a while eating a snack, basking in the bug free break and the stunning views, before I continue. There’s one small patch of snow left on a steep slope, but the footprints are well established and it’s so short I don’t even get out the microspikes I’ve carried all this way. Once past that, the knifes edge is snow free and gorgeous. I stay up high for several hours, and after descending stop for another break in a meadow on the other side, napping in the sun on some rocks and again enjoying the lack of bugs. When I stand up to continue, it’s almost 3pm and I’ve got another 10 miles to go before my camp, so I start walking quickly.

Soon I realize the rocky trail today has led to a small hot spot on the left side of one heel, but it’s not too painful luckily, just the result of more slipping around than normal on the rocks. I head down through more forest, listen to 3 Invisibilia episodes in a row, and find my camp perched high on the side of another mountain. The wind is chilly and I make camp as quickly as possible and nestle into my bag to eat my cold ramen noodles and go to sleep.

Around 8, as I’m getting ready to sleep, I hear some hikers arrived and scout their own spot among the trees, luckily not too close to me but I can hear their voices as they set up and it’s the first time all trip I’ve slept near anyone on trail. I love hiking alone but as I fall asleep I do feel a little jealous of them in their two person tent, chatting quietly as I swipe through photos of Burdock and me and the dogs and miss my family.

Pct Day 8

Miles: 5.3/ From Start: 137.1

Woke in the cold morning air and started walking in all my warm gear for the first time- gloves, hat, and puffy against the chill. The 5 miles to the gas station ski lodge by the trail go quickly, and as I walk up at 8:30 I see at least 15 hikers spread out on the picnic tables outside, and as I walk inside there are at least 15 more. I’ve clearly hit the SOBO bubble, they are all abuzz talking about Goat Rocks or the next town for them, the one I just left. I knew I’d hit the bubble eventually, and here they are. I share a load of laundry with two others and try to plan my day. A guy next to me won’t stop chatting as I’m trying to focus, he’s probably just being friendly but I’m annoyed, and then as I work the phrase “my wife” into conversation his eyes get really big and he repeats “Wife? Wait you have a wife?” in an incredulous tone that most people I come out to casually like this are better at hiding. “Yes, my wife” I repeat and he says “oh sorry” nonsensically, and I’m so over sitting here chatting with cis het men.

It’s early, I could easily use the shower here and then hike out today, but I’m really in the mood for a day off and a bed. I move to sit outside and pack my food box for the next stretch, and try to figure out where I could stay the night. I decide to hitch into the closest town, where most lodging is full because of a track meet or something, but I find a room. There’s a couple of trail angels hanging here at the pass, former hikers who are now setting up trail magic on their week off work, and I ride with them into town and post up at a coffee shop until I can check into my room.

After a few hours two hikers I saw in the last town walk up, it’s the one who made the joke that he shouldn’t even talk to me. They left the night before me from that town and now I’ve beat them to the next stop, and funnily enough he’s much friendlier this meeting. It’s interesting to notice in myself such a shift in relating to other hikers, I remember on the CT on 2015 I felt so excited by the hikertrash community, I loved chatting with others along the way and in town, I was so excited to be part of it, and now I find myself so separated from it- from the endless one upmanship of who’s done how many trails and how many miles and who’s gear is better and I just wanna walk around outside.

It’s finally 3 and I head to my room, get inside, scrub myself clean and lay in the bed the entire rest of the night and FaceTime Burdock and the missing is worse than ever. There’s 175 miles of trail left, two weeks from today till I get home, and it both sounds like not enough and too long. Burdock reminds me I am allowed to feel both things, filled up and grateful to be hiking and sad to be away. Obviously this is right, and so wise, and I try to let go of judging that part of me that wants to be home even while the other part of me is wildly, ecstatically happy to be here. Both, and.

PCT Days 1-4

Pct Day 1

Miles: 8.1 / From start: 8.1

Trying to find the words to describe being back on trail… it’s hard to even put into words…

Today was just what I needed. I woke up at 2:45 am after three hours of sleep to catch my 6:10 am flight. The last several weeks of trail prep and weeding and mulching our entire front yard have caught up with me, my body is exhausted and I sleep on the train to the airport and immediately on the plane once we take off. I wake to see a glimpse of the three mountains as we start descending, and it finally begins to hit me that I’m here, I’m doing this again. Haven’t been on a hike this long since the AT in 2017, and I both want it badly and am feeling really anxious. I was prepping and packing right up until the last minute, and while I know I went over my very established gear list at least 10 times, touching each object before I packed it, I am still holding a lot of fear that I forgot something, that I messed something up in my planning, that I will do something wrong and mess this up. But slowly, as I get the train to a vegan breakfast spot and then donuts, it begins to fade. When I catch the 12:30 bus to start, the nagging feeling is dimming and excitement is taking over. As I start walking, I expect maybe to see a few other hikers- either the early NOBO thrus or some other section hikers, but I’m alone. And luckily I stay that way as I find the trail from the road- it winds gently up through forest that immediately hits me with green green light- bouncing off giant ferns and mossy trees and I think OH MY GOD it’s real! I’m here- on this trail I have thought about and dreamed about for YEARS, I’m here! It opens into blackberry brambles for a mile or so, I pick a small handful of the ripe ones and I almost cry they taste so good. This is the truest sign I’ve crossed over to trail brain- I am instantly so overwhelmed with gratitude that I am teary.

I text Burdock as much as I can while I have service, and I feel that unique blend of pure joy for trail time and a sharp pang thinking about them home with the dogs, and how I won’t be there tonight, I’ll be on my little strip of air mattress on the rocky ground somewhere in the woods. I work on letting it move through me, not fighting it, just feeling the physical part of it, the tightness in my chest and I notice how that helps it ease. I’ve had trips where I fought that pang, and judged it, thinking it didn’t belong with me if I was going to be present in my hike, and I want to relate differently to it this year. It seems simple and obvious that I should miss my wife, but I know in years past I’ve struggled with the feeling, worried it meant I’m codependent or weak or not worthy of hiking alone. This year I am accepting all my feelings! This is my one goal of 2021.

I keep walking, and the trail is suddenly blossoming with pink and white sweet peas covered in bumblebees. Again, I’m so happy to be in this exact spot I feel like spilling over with happiness and gratitude. I continue like this all afternoon, I feel good walking- my body is tired so I don’t try to walk any faster than it wants, I just roll along awhile. Eventually I pass a tent site in the forest, and I see another backpacker rolling out his mat for a nap. It looks so tempting, I walk on a few hundred feet and after I get water, I lay down on the ground and close my eyes for a bit too.

I start walking again feeling stronger, aiming for a campsite ahead about 8 miles, but I keep telling myself if I don’t make that one it’s ok, I’ll let my body warm up a few days, I don’t have to go any further than I want.

The rest of the afternoon is mostly the green, fern-y, mossy woods and they are lightly glowing in the sunlight. I walk until I’m tired, not the campsite I was aiming for but one just a mile and a half before it, and I feel fine with 8 miles instead of 10 today. I pitch my tent and crawl in and the sun is shining orange through the trees and I am so happy to be here, I am so happy to be here, I am so happy to be here.

Pct Day 2

Miles: 21.4/ From Start: 29.5

I wake up to the first rays of sunlight coming in, after sleeping solidly through the night for the first time ever while hiking?!? I upgraded to a (used) down sleeping bag instead of my synthetic quilt and I immediately regret not doing this sooner. I didn’t have to wake up to turn over, I didn’t get cold once, I slept like a rock. I look at the time and it’s 5:30, I immediately pull my hat over my eyes and go back to sleep. I do this a few more times, and finally at 7:20 I’m ready to get up. 10 hours of sleep, hopefully that erases some of my sleep debt.

The morning is stunningly beautiful and I feel so strong and fast. I walk hard for hours, getting some good views back at the river before turning a corner and suddenly being engulfed in mist. It’s not chilly or wet, so it’s easy to appreciate as it’s own beauty, winding in and out of the trees and ferns. I have to hop over slugs all morning, they sit on the path munching leaves and they are so cute, like an illustration in a children’s book. I walk through tangles of flowers in clearings on the slopes of the forested mountain I’m on, and they are covered in chonky bumblebees. When the trail ducks back in the woods, I find myself inhaling deeply every breath- the air is maybe the best I’ve ever smelled? It’s rich and loamy but also lightly floral scented, I imagine it clearing out dust and car exhaust and city pollution in my lungs every breath. I walk through one little hollow that makes me feel like I’m in the jungle, I half expect to see monkeys swing down from the branches.

I walk up to a river around 1:00, it had the most inviting swimming hole and I decide to take a break and a dip. It’s cold but so good, and when I get out I think I’ll feel energized but I suddenly am tired, so I lay down and rest a few minutes. Finally I get up and leave, I’m aiming for a camp that’s still 12 miles away. As I start walking and the trail keeps ascending I feel so tired again, I’m not hurting luckily but my legs just feel heavy and slow. I put on my audio book and lose myself for awhile, just pushing through the woods, winding until finally I finish climbing and I stop for dinner at 5:30. Still 5 miles to go, with no good camping in between, so no choice but to go on. At least the rest of it is downhill, so I make good time despite my knees starting to complain, and set up camp by another river. I hope I didn’t over do it today, my knees are really hurting- I haven’t run or hiked over 20 miles since September 2019 (almost 2 years?!?!?) but a solid nights sleep in my new bag will help.

Pct Day 3

Miles: 21/ From Start: 50.74

I wake up around 7 this morning and realize I’ve started my period in the night. I don’t feel the usual awful cramps yet, but I do feel so fatigued and my knees are super sore from yesterday. It’s a chore to get out of bed and pack up and start walking, but I make it out by 8. As I start walking, I’m so sore and grumpy I immediately put on my audiobook and get lost in the story- although I usually try to keep the mornings without listening to anything, I need something to lose myself in today. The first 10 miles today are a steady ascent, through beautiful forest/ straight, tall trees with leaves only at the very top. Occasionally I get a peek out through the trees, once at Mt Hood and once at Mt Adams, but the majority of the day is straight through the woods, and I’m grateful to my book for helping the miles speed by. I pass one other backpacker, a man with a big white beard and we chat briefly- he’s also doing part of Washington. I walk with only a few breaks today- luckily the long climb gave my knees a break after yesterday’s downhill and they aren’t hurting too badly. By the time the trail levels out I walk quickly C and arrive at a trailhead campground at about 6:30. It’s busy, the 3 main spots are taken, but I find one that works fine, though it’s a little closer to the pit toilets than is ideal. I chat with the neighbors while I eat at my picnic table, they’re a group of 3 also doing a chunk of WA, they’re from here and do some every summer. Another group of 3 walks by and offers me beer, though I decline, we talk for a while and they’re super friendly.

It’s weird camping around other people- hearing voices around is disconcerting, but everyone is kind and I’m sure I can sleep despite the distant voices.

Pct Day 4:

Miles: 20.6 / From Start: 71.1

Last night before bed I was looking ahead and planning the days miles, and noticed that people had mentioned getting a hitch into town from a paved road about 20 miles ahead, instead of one closer to town about 32 miles ahead. I had been planning on hitching in on that road tomorrow, but now I’m thinking if I’m lucky I can make it in tonight, and then hitch back to trail tomorrow, and save myself 12 miles and be a day ahead. I’m a little stressed about the schedule I set for myself, I didn’t factor in any zeros, so I wouldn’t mind a little wiggle room.

So I wake up early (ish) and start walking around 7, hoping to hit that road by 5 and get lucky with a hitch in.

The morning is beautiful, beargrass blooming along side the trail, and some beautiful views of Mt Adams and Mt St. Helens occasionally through the trees. The trail is mostly woods, but winds through lots of lakes, beautiful but they mean clouds of mosquitoes that swarm the moment I slow down at all. Because of the skeeters, and since I figure the earlier I hit the paved road the better my chances are of getting a ride, I move quickly today, barely stopping, just to pump water in my bug head net when necessary. Finally around 2:00 I stop for lunch with a gorgeous view of Adams, and I lather every inch of skin with bug lotion and eat inside my head net. I walk quickly the rest of the day, luckily my legs feel good, and although my feet are a bit sore it doesn’t slow me down. I get to the road at 4:00 and to my surprise, the second car that passes picks me up, I’ve waited less than 5 minutes. The note in my app said someone waited an hour here for 4 cars to go by, so I’m lucky!

Town is cute and tiny, a little general store has my package and WiFi, I sit and FaceTime Burdock and miss them and the dogs so badly it hurts. I chat with some other hikers, the first long distance I’ve met yet. One is flip flopping and started in Northern California, he’s 700 miles in. The others are doing Oregon and Washington I think? They ask if I started from Campo, and when I say no, I’m just doing a section of Washington, one jokes “oh wow we shouldn’t even be talking to you!” I laugh but I’m also reminded of how hiker culture can be like every other niche culture, cliquey and superior. I know I’ve fallen prey to it to at times, but I hope so much I haven’t been as condescending, even in jokes.

It’s nice to chat with them a bit, but I’m also glad when they hitch out for the night and there’s no chance I’ll be trying to hike with them tomorrow.

Alone time is feeling nice so far.

TRT Days 7-10

Day Seven:

21 Miles

I get out of the hostel before I expect, waking around 7, and get a hitch with a family driving back to San Diego from their vacation. I’ve never been picked up by anyone with kids in the car. They are both totally unphased by me. I wonder if Dad has picked up hitchhikers before?

I’m walking at 8:30 am, through a beautiful forest full of chipmunks. They seem to be everywhere, darting up and down the trail, over logs, into their tiny hidey holes.

I pass an older guy with a giant pack, he’s just out for a few days and lives nearby, but wants to do the whole thing in September. His smile is huge. When I walk on I say “have a good hike” and he says, completely genuinely, “can you ever have a bad one?!?”

I’m tired this morning, maybe because of my late-ish night last night. I’m not moving my usual pace. When I stop for lunch at Star Lake, I lay down for a few minutes.

A ways after that, my stomach begins hurting and I feel a bit sick. I should not have freegan-ed those weird cheese cups from the hiker hostel box. I slow down even more and struggle for a bit, even though this section is undeniably stunning.

It’s 5 and I’ve only gone 16 or 17 miles, and I want to camp and crash hard but I tell myself to push through a little longer. I think I have plenty of time for this section, but with the snow and river crossings, I don’t want to be rushing.

I get a second wind coming through Freel meadow, and finally make camp around 6:30. 21 miles, not as much as I wanted to get in this snow free section, but ok.

Gonna pull my hat down and sleep early tonight.

Day Eight:

26 Miles

I wake up early enough to get hiking by 7, wanting to get some big miles in today before any snow slows me down. The morning is beautiful and I feel fresh and so much better than yesterday. I get to a trailhead with a parking lot around 9, sit and finish a bag of chips so I can throw it away, and read the kiosk info boards about the Washoe Indians who’s land we’re on.

It’s tragic reading, telling how white people drawn by silver flooded the area and did what we do best, namely pillage and plunder and use up every last precious resource available, until the Washoe people were left with depleted rivers and hunting grounds and the way of life they’d been living for millennia balanced well with their environment, was over within a century.

It’s a powerful reminder that there’s so much in our legacy we still need to work to undo.

Mid morning, I come to the junction with the PCT, and almost immediately see more thru hikers than I’ve seen all trip. At a river crossing they’re huddled in some shade, leaning on their tiny packs and eating lunch. Clearly a sweet tramily established hundreds of miles ago.

I eat lunch at beautiful Showers Lake, spreading a new Indian masala dish from a bag on tortillas, a grocery store find I’ll be looking for again.

Lots of day hikers in the meadows, some backpackers, then I catch up to Logi Bear, the hiker I saw behind me at Mt. Rose. We chatted a bit right before I went into SLT, and soon are joined by another thru hiker, I learn his name is Patience.

He says he’s racing to get to Echo Lake Chalet before the deli closes, and incentivized by the idea of popsicles I go hard for the next 6 miles.

We arrive after the sandwich part is closed but in time to get beer, chips, popsicles, charge my phone. Text Burdock. Chat with the hikers there- Patience is sitting next to another guy, and I learn Patience just jumped off the PCT to start the TRT and then go to Oregon with his mom. He’s also from Denver, and is the second person I’ve met this trip who works at Ophelia’s downtown. Small world.

I hike on at 6:15, trying to get past the no camping zone that extends 3 miles past the lake. Finally find a tiny spot as sunset approaches. I eat my dinner and stare at wedding photos on my phone and miss my wife more than I thought possible. I miss laughing- while you experience joy on trail it isn’t the same as the release of laughing till you cry with someone who knows how to make that happen. I miss how they can always build me up when I’m low or ground me when I’m spinning out. I love being out here but I’m glad it’s a short one this year.

9:17. Hiker midnight. Only 45 miles of this trail left!

Day Nine:

22.6 Miles

I wake early this morning, to birds singing and light just beginning to glow. I lay between sleep and waking for a while, and then finally let the air out of my pad and turn on my phone… it’s 5:45. I seem to be waking up earlier more naturally this trip.

As I go get my bear bag down, the alpenglow is starting on the mountain behind me and I am realizing why everyone talks about Desolation as the prettiest section of the trail.

I’m walking by 6:45, up the rocky trail glowing golden in the morning light, looking back at Echo lakes. By 7:45 I arrive at Aloha lake, and my jaw quite literally drops. I think I also said “holy shit” aloud. It may be the most picturesque lake I’ve ever seen- a perfect mirror reflecting the mountains above it, white rocks shining, crystal blue waters so clear you can almost see the bottom. I spread out on a rock to eat a breakfast bar and stare at the lake. It’s a busy area, lots of people camped around, but it’s still and quiet this early.

Not far behind me comes Patience, spreads out on his own rock and then goes to say hi to some friends camped nearby, maybe fellow PCT hikers? I leave before them, but expect he’ll catch me before too long.

The trail winds along Aloha and then a few other lakes for several miles, there are snow patches covering some trail but they are nice and flat with lots of footprints to follow, and they don’t really slow me down.

After a while the trail breaks from the lake shores and cuts down, I follow the PCT junction signs and get a little thrill each time- I’ve thought about the PCT so much for so long, it has almost mythological power in my mind. And now I get to set for on it for the first time and follow it, for just a while.

On a long talus slope I spy Patience behind me and I increase my speed, not quite in the mood to hike and chat. We hiked similar pace yesterday, but he was maybe a touch faster, so I assume he’ll catch me or I’ll take a break and see him later.

I’m walking quickly and singing Atlas: Enneagram 6, thinking about grief and love and fear again, thinking about the heaviness and brightness of the world.

I repeat the last verse over and over and cry some more, hearing the swells and crescendos much bigger even though I sing very softly

I want to believe

No, I choose to believe

That I was made to become

A sanctuary

Fear won’t go away

But I can keep it at bay

And these invisible walls

Just might keep us safe

With vigilant heart

I’ll push into the dark

But I’ll learn to breathe deep

And make peace with the stars

Is that courage or faith

To show up every day?

To trust that there will be light

Always waiting behind

Even the darkest of nights

Mid morning I stop for a snack and to spread out my shelter and sleeping bag on some rocks, they’re wet with condensation from last night, the first time all trip I’ve woken to wetness. I expect to see Patience pass me before too long, and maybe he does without me noticing, but I don’t see him again.

I’m staring up at Dick’s pass, the only major pass in this section and the one I’ve been hearing a lot about with the snow.

I do some calculations and realize that I’m less than 40 miles from Tahoe City again, so unless the snow is terrible and really slows me down, I’ll probably finish tomorrow night, much earlier than I thought.

I’m excited and thinking about looking into changing my flight from late Friday to sooner if it’s not wildly expensive, and also feeling a bit caught off guard by the shortness of this trip.

Dick’s pass is a long ascent, some snow but nothing major, I don’t even get out my microspikes. At the top is a large group of kids and some leaders, one’s on the phone. I check to see if I have service, and it’s just enough to text B my updated schedule and the hope that I can jet home before Friday.

I can see a lot of snow on the descent from the pass, so I put on my micros for the first time and DAMN I wish I put them on that first snowy section last week. I didn’t then because I didn’t want to take them on and off for the patches, but immediately I can feel it would’ve been worth it. I travel so much faster.

Before long I’m down, eating lunch facing another lake below the pass. I’m relieved I didn’t bail on Desolation, the snow has been nothing compared to Relay peak and the scenery is mind blowing.

I make camp near a lake, next to several other hikers and car campers since there’s a road nearby, my feet ready to stop after walking wet all day.

22 miles left tomorrow, and that’s it for my summer hike. Damn.

Day Ten

22 miles

I wake and find my bear bag looking undisturbed, a bit of a relief since camping in established areas is always a higher risk for bears habituated to food there.

I start walking fairly late, around 8, and pass a big chunky marmot scrambling over rocks in the forest. I don’t see fast this morning, I keep slowing and stopping to snack or filter water or apply bug lotion.

I walk in quiet, trying to absorb every forest sound and smell on my last day out here.

My first 7 ish miles go pretty easy, my feet have a few little hot spots which is unusual, but nothing terrible.

I see a PCT hiker I chatted briefly with at the Echo Lakes store eating a snack at a vista overlooking a part of the lake, the first view I’ve had of Tahoe in days. I sit and eat a bit as well, before going on.

I hit some patchy snow again, while descending through a forested section from a saddle. It’s enough to slow me a bit, but there are plenty of footprints and it’s not steep enough to get out spikes.

Within an hour, I stop again in a high open meadow to eat a full lunch and the same PCT hiker joins me shortly. She’s about to get off trail and head home to England- she only had a few months off and just planned to do the first third of the trail.

Shortly after I leave her, I split again from the PCT and keep descending through patches of snow in a forest. Here, I go much slower, using my app for navigation because all the footprints are gone. Not many TRT hikers this year, it seems.

My feet are increasingly sore and painful, I think I feel blisters between my first two toes? Incredulous, I stop at a creek and check. Sure enough, two bold white spots are swelling near the balls of my feet. I haven’t had any major blisters in about 3 years, since I discovered Injinjii toe socks, and I can’t imagine why these have decided to surface on my last day. I suppose it’s because of my wet feet yesterday, but that’s not unusual either and doesn’t usually lead to blisters, especially not the day after when I’m in my new and dry socks.

I soak my feet in the cold water and then resume walking.

Unfortunately, the pain just gets worse as the day goes on, and I’m walking much slower than normal, feeling pain with each step in the blisters, but also the balls of my feet and my left heel, strangely.

The rest of the day passes with me trying to distract myself with podcast after podcast and some music.

The last 5-8 miles are particularly painful, a long and rocky road walk that aggravates my feet, and I’m so ready to be done but also so frustrated that I’m not present for this, my last day of the thing I look forward to all year. But I also think about the power of my body, and sit in awe. How incredible we are, these bodies a marvel. My legs , quietly capable of this walking all along, in my daily life, carrying me around my classroom and apartment and on the occasional run, but holding the ability to take me so much further than that, to wake up and walk and walk and walk for hours on end till the sun goes down. I think about how it’s what, more than anything else, we were made for, built for, evolved for, and how rare it is that we get to do it.

Around 6 I walk out of the woods to the official trailhead, sit on a bench, and FaceTime Burdock in tears, unable to think about walking the next half mile to the hotel I’m planning to stay at tonight.

As usual, they ground me and when we hang up I’m much calmer, enough to buck up and walk 10 more minutes, passing the point I started walking 11 days ago and feeling so much satisfaction at being able to get another whole trail in. It feels wonderful, despite the anticlimactic ending.

I stare at the lake through the trees and think “Thank you, thank you, thank you” for the last half mile I’ll walk with this whole pack on me, in these smelly clothes, as part of this beautiful loop winding around a blue jewel nestled in the mountains.

TRT Days 4, 5,6

Day Four:

23.1 miles

I wake up early in the hostel and catch the 7 am bus back towards the trail. After I’m let off, I walk up the highway going towards Mt. Rose trailhead and start hitching, hoping someone else is going that way to hike also. The second car that passes me pulls over, and it is a guy who looks maybe retired going up to hike Mt Rose. He lets me off at Tahoe Meadows and I start hiking around 8:40. The forest is dark and cool, lots of little snow patches but nothing remotely like my last day’s.

This section of the trail says mountain bikers are allowed only on even days- I check my calendar and damn- it’s the 16th. I get ready to hop off trail continually- there have been way more mountain bikers than hikers, but to be fair they are the most polite bikers I’ve ever encountered. Every single one calls out from far behind me, and says how many are behind them or if they’re alone, and says thanks. In CO I’d put that rate at about 60-70%. Here’s its been 99%.

Right away when I start walking I feel great, mornings on trail are always my best, and especially mornings after a rest day. The trail is gradually climbing and getting into pine heavy forest and it’s beautiful and smells so fresh. I say my morning poems, my little ritual I do almost every day. I start with The Spell of the Yukon, of which I have one of the last lines in my dads handwriting tattooed on my arm. I say Mary Oliver’s The Sunflower. and When I Am Among the Trees. I say the Rilke again. This time I get to “Let this darkness be a bell tower, and you the bell” before I’m crying. There’s something about the forest today that hits me with such acute beauty that it turns to grief. I think about all the darkness I’ve been sitting in, particularly the past several years as I’ve really focused on zero waste living and opened the Pandora’s box of human destruction. Some moments that darkness comes at me hard, and this is one of those- I’m weeping, rather loudly, worried that the bikers or more coming will hear me, but unable to stop. I lean on my poles and let tears pool on my sunglasses. I let the darkness in. I let it batter me, I think about what we’ve done. The impossibility of living gently enough here, of giving more than we take. The species we’ve driven completely off the planet, missing the miracle of this specific frog or insect, how they’re gone forever and this time it’s on us. The human suffering we perpetuate endlessly. The terror that our appetite has wrought. The knowledge that’s it’s unlikely we can shift ourselves enough to avoid the catastrophic, irreversible damage that’s coming. And at the heart of it all, my place in this. My flights across the country and world. My car. My electricity. My non-seasonal food choices. The palm oil products wrapped up in their plastic packages in my food bag on my back. I’m walking and crying and letting that darkness fill me up, but thinking also about what the pain means now, too, which is new, and different than being lost in it. Therapy and reading and listening to certain teachers have helped me get here, to a different relationship to that pain.

For a long time, when I was younger, what I had was abundant love for the world, and then, more recently, abundant grief. It’s taken time to see that these are two sides of one coin, and marry them, if not comfortably, then with acceptance, in my heart.

As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.

The forest opens up to several beautiful views of the lake as it climbs. I get fresh water from a spring, I get a biker to take my picture, I snack and walk and feel unstoppable.

Eventually the trail breaks out into higher ground, a mountain meadow filled with sage brush and wildflowers and the next few miles are my favorite section so far. Tahoe from here is stunning, and soon Marlette lake comes into view just in front. The trail cruises up here for miles, small snow patches that don’t even phase me, partly because trail crews have well marked them and cut steps into the sides in preparation for the trail race here next weekend.

I am slowing down, trying to absorb the immense beauty I’m seeing. The snowcapped peaks across the lake. The neon flowers. The “blue dream of sky” to ee Cummings.

I walk and think about why I feel so connected to landscape like this.

I think about how thinking I belong to this is different than thinking I belong here, or this belongs to me. You don’t belong to me, I say to the shrubs and the dirt and the wildflowers and mountain bluebirds and crows. I don’t belong here. It’s yours. But I belong to you.

I haven’t seen anyone in hours, in miles and miles, but around 4 I come up to two backpackers taking a photo against the backdrop of the lake. I offer to take one of them together if they’ll take mine. They’re the first thru hikers I’ve seen- heading the opposite direction as me. We walk on our ways and I have the trail to myself again, for another few miles descending into the forest until I suddenly stumble upon at least 15 people setting up tents in the woods. They’re part of a TRT organization led group doing a “taste of the trail”. I turn on my phone for a minute and have good reception, and I see a Facebook comment about how Desolation isn’t as challenging snow-wise as Mt. Rose, which I just came through. Plus, that’s where the TRT joints the PCT and there are many more hikers, many more footprints, less challenging navigation. With relief at not having to patch together different sections or day hikes or jump around somehow, I decide to hike through and do the whole trail. I get a true thru again! Yasss.

At 4:30 I get to the spur trail that leads to the campground I was planning to camp at, but I’m here much earlier than I thought, so I decide to push on the next 4 miles to the next water source, a lake about a mile off trail that also has a picnic spot with bathrooms, a potable water pump, and trash cans.

When I arrive at the lake, I’m officially tired. That right calf is cramping and I can feel myself really slowing. I was hoping there’d be good camping around here, but it’s clearly not a campground and the trees are too thick to make my own site. It’s also a little busy, the parking lot has maybe ten cars in it, the lake loop being a popular walk. I don’t want to set up camp in a non-campground with so many eyes watching, but going back the mile and half to the trail and continuing to hike is not an option either. I sit and eat my dinner at a table while the parking lot empties a little and try to decide what to do. Eventually I walk a bit farther to a separate parking lot that’s empty, and see the top cement half of what will soon be bathrooms sitting on the asphalt. I duck inside and I’m almost invisible to the parking lot. I put my food bag in the trash can holder with a bear lock in the other parking lot, and set up a strange little camp inside this fort.

It’s late now, I heard the last few cars leave and I feel pretty cozy in my hobbit house.

Day Five:

17.4 Miles

I spend the day listening to Where Should We Begin, Esther Perel’s beautiful podcast, thinking about love and relationship and growth and trust and all the big things. The miles go by quickly, I get another fast hitch into town and am checked into the hostel by 2:45. We go into the garage to get my resupply that I’ve mailed, full of all my carefully dehydrated meals, vegan treats, custom snacks and specialty foods and… it’s not there. Except according to tracking it is. So. That’s annoying and means that wherever my box is, full of food I have heavy guilt and anxiety about buying anyway, wrapped in plastic packaging and a lot full of palm oil- it’s probably trash. And I’ve got to go out and buy MORE packaged food at the grocery. I decide to wait until tomorrow to shop, wait for the employee working to text the person working on Saturday at 11:37 when my package was apparently handed to someone there and see if they have any ideas.

I have a nice Mediterranean veggie pizza in the swanky part of town nearby, next to a gondola that runs up the mountain. I feel like I’m in Aspen or Telluride and the sensory overload is real.

I FaceTime Burdock and miss them so badly it hurts, but how nice it is to miss your wife so badly it hurts. I lay in bed and read my book and think about why hostel beds are the most comfortable in the world and town food always tastes way better than it should, even when you’ve only been out a few days.

Day Six:

Zero trail miles, but my phone says I walked 5 miles around town so I feel like it isn’t a true zero!

I spend the morning getting a huge vegan breakfast burrito, going to the forest service office to get my permit for the next section, and grocery shopping. I find a decent selection of vegan food to add to my leftovers from the first few days. As I’m packing my food bag in the kitchen, I meet a PCT hiker named Deadline and we chat for a while and head to the beach and swim, play giant Jenga back at the hostel, head to dinner and find a brewery with Beyond Burger. Then we get vegan ice cream at the grocery and sit out front at the hostel again. Soon were joined by 4 or 5 more PCT hikers and as I listen to them talk I’m filled with a strange combination of jealousy of their time out on trail, their months and months of this life, their “big kid” thru hike, and also the growing realization that I don’t think I actually want to thru hike the PCT, at least not in the foreseeable future. Taking a year off work, being gone for 5 months, it’s less and less appealing as time goes on, even though after my CT hike I was convinced I needed to thru hike the PCT someday. Again, marriage makes you so soft. And the best part is I get more and more at ease and comfortable in my softness. Next year I’ll start sectioning the PCT, I decide.

I’m falling asleep ready to head out early for the next section, the snowy section, the last section. Next town stop will be the end! At least that’s the plan!

Tahoe Rim Trail Days 0-3

TRT Day Zero:

0.7 miles

It’s finally hiking day! I’ve been feeling so many things this busy summer, and I am relieved the slow down quiet part is here. Just two weeks for this hike- my shortest planned hike yet, but with the snow on trail this year it could still be one of the most challenging. We’ll see.

Had a beautiful breakfast with Burdock this morn, both of us miraculously waking up early enough to get to City O before they went to work. Already felt sharp pangs of missing them before even leaving Denver. Marriage makes you so soft.

Arrived in Reno to see my backpack coming towards me on the carousel with the top WIDE open and my v v expensive Z packs shelter hanging out the top. A TSA notice of inspection was fluttering inside. My heart stopped and I frantically went through everything on my pack list and found that somehow all that was missing was my water filter and extra socks. I still felt like crying, but with frustration or relief I couldn’t tell. Luckily there was an REI 10 minutes from the airport and I had several hours before my shuttle to Tahoe City came.

Replaced the missing items, grumbled about TSA to everyone I encountered on the way, but calmed down eating some noodles on the way back to the airport. Could’ve been so, so much worse.

I make it to Tahoe City and drop my little canvas bag and the extra water filter bag I now have after having to get a whole Sawyer filter kit at the hotel where I’m dropped off. In the lobby is a thru hiker who’s coming the opposite way as me, counter clockwise, and I ask him how Desolation Wilderness, the part that’s still really snowy, was. He’s an odd bird, keeps repeating how wild and intense it was but then when I ask him specific questions about river crossings, post holing, steep slopes needing micro spikes, etc. he just repeats “well I’m a really experienced hiker, I hike a lot, all over” and doesn’t say much specific without me grilling him. I say, “How’s the snow, were you post holing at all?” And he replies “Well I’m really good in the snow, I have so much experience, know what I’m doing out there.” Post holing is where you sink into the snow up to to your thighs or hips because it’s too soft to support your weight. It has nothing to do with experience. Eventually I learn he doesn’t have spikes, the crossings were only knee high at most, and he’s shorter than me, but that sun cups really slowed him down. To get that much info I’ve had to look at approx 90 pictures he’s scrolling through, waxing lyrical about himself. It’s moments like these I’m just so grateful to be gay. Do straight women have to deal with this like… all the time? How do they do it?!?

I finally hit trail officially at 8:00, watching a beautiful sunset over the lake as the trail climbs steeply up for a while. Someone down there is having a wedding or raging party, and I can hear the songs they’re playing like they’re next door. By the time I camp almost a mile up, it still hasn’t faded. I might need to use the earplugs I bring for hostels on my first night on trail.

I find a little flat spot just off trail right as it’s getting dark, and with the clear night forecast I decide to cowboy camp, which is pretty rare for me. I love my little cozy shelter and it’s bug protection, but the ground is rocks and roots and I don’t want to fight to get my stakes in, so I rub a little bug lotion on my neck and ears and put on my headnet. I’m rolled out under the bright moon listening to Love Shack and some truly enthusiastic cheering from whatever party is happening. I’m thinking about the loneliness coming for me when I put my phone down and stop writing and start trying to fall asleep on my tiny half pad, under my quilt that I’ve strapped down around me, flicking ants off my mat.

I used to think I didn’t get lonely. It took my first long hike to really learn that feeling, how it’s a sharp point in my sternum, how now that I can identify it it’s also strangely beautiful. It’s acute, but not painful. It’s so different from what I feel in city life. It’s pleasant, in an uncomfortable way. It makes me feel very, very alive. And I’m always working on leaning into it. Not numbing it. Not fearing it.

Day One:

21.1 miles

Slept very lightly last night- waking up often to roll over and get comfortable in new position without messing up my quilt or pad, got chilly and put on my jacket, heard some sounds around me. I wish I were a better outdoor sleeper. I used to tell people I wasn’t afraid of sleeping outside, alone, and I’m not exactly afraid, but the more honest answer is I am always a little on edge. Alert. Aware. I always felt like I had to tell people “Its no big deal! Nothing to be nervous about at all! I sleep like a rock!” But that’s the answer I give when I’m a little defensive about my solo hiking choices. Sometimes I feel like I have to over compensate for everyone else’s fear by having none of my own. The older I get, though, the more comfortable I am with a little vulnerability.

I wake up almost at first light, with the first birds singing. It’s 5:30- earlier than I EVER wake up on trail. Cowboy camping does make it harder to sleep in, or easier to wake up early depending on how you look at it! I pack up and I’m hiking by 6:30, another first for me- unless I’m with a group of early risers, I have a hard time rolling out of camp before 8. I pour protein powder into my Talenti jar and shake it with some water.

It’s truly one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted. I snagged this powder from school after it was donated by Sprouts, and haven’t tried it before today. I choke down the whole jar but wonder how many mornings I’m gonna have that in me.

When I stop for a breakfast of PB on a tortilla at 8 am, I’ve already been cruising for an hour and a half and I’m realizing why people wake up that early. I feel strong and powerful, my energy feels infinite. This is how people knock out 30s, I think.

The trail is beautiful today, it climbs gently up through forests with beautiful blooming bushes filled with white flowers, and I get several peeks down at the lake and across at the mountains on the other side, where I’ll be hiking and looking back over to this side before long. The big pines are covered in vibrant green moss, some on the trunks and some coating the thin dead limbs that curve off like so many ballerina arms. I take several little breaks, one in a meadow filled with yellow flowers that look like arnica but might not be, based on their wider, lighter green leaves.

All morning long I hike without music or podcasts, saying my favorite poems softly aloud, and memorizing a new favorite by Rilke. I say just the first lines-

“Quiet friend, who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you” and I cry several times, glad I have the whole trail to myself. I hear the lines in Joanna Macy’s thin, gentle old voice on the podcast On Being. I’m amazed at what the simple act of calling myself “friend” and focusing on taking the space to breathe bring up in me. I’ve been drowning in a sea of self judgement and criticism and never enough-ness for a while, and this poem is like a balm. I say it at least 30 times while I walk:

Quiet friend, who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you.

Let this darkness be a bell tower, and you the bell, and as you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.

Move back and forth into the change. What’s it like, this intensity of pain?

If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night, be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses. The meaning discovered there.

And if the world shall cease to hear you, say to the silent earth, I flow.

To the rushing water speak, I am.

At noon I take out my refried beans that have been soaking since morning and eat them with Fritos and a new bean snack I found at Nooch Vegan Market. I lay down on a big rock for 10 minutes before packing up again.

The afternoon I’m moving more slowly than morning. I forgot how this pack rubs me on my back hip bones where it sits. Last year I think my body adjusted after the first day, but right now it’s red and raw and stinging. I’m feeling the early start and little sleep, so I’m not crushing as many miles as I thought I would this morning. I try to get out of my head about that. I put on an audiobook, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Naht Hanh and it’s beautiful and perfect and exactly what I needed. I have that specific trail moment I get sometime on every hike, where everything I need to do back in the real world feels so clear. I feel like the best possible version of me. I want to go home and wash the dishes lovingly, like he says, like each dish is the most important thing in the world. I want to carve out every Saturday for mindfulness, doing cleaning tasks 3 times slower than normal, making tea, writing letters, going on walks. I see myself waking up early enough to meditate each morning.

I never ever become quite the vision of myself I get while hiking, but I do grow.

Around 2pm I walk through a quarter mile long meadow overflowing with the yellow flowers. They carpet every spare inch. They are incredible. I startle a tiny garden snake sunning on the path. I sing out loud to Nanci Griffith’s Woman of the Phoenix and feel so, so alive.

Later I walk through a section of forest thick with shiny black caterpillars that cling to bushes and attach to me as I walk by. Up close they are iridescent and clearly ravenous. I feel one’s tiny mandibles working against my skin as I hold it in my palm.

I’m tired, right calf is aching, my pack is rubbing relentlessly since I filled 4 liters of water. I won’t get water for 17 miles unless someone has left a cache up at the next trailhead in 5 miles, but I’m not relying on that.

I walk even more slowly, realizing that I’ll probably only hit about 20 miles today despite my early start. Oh well, I say again. That’s what I aimed for in my schedule anyway. It’s over twice as long as I’ve gone, running or hiking, since this time last year.

I make camp in a soft pine forest and eat the rest of my refried beans from lunch. Then I binge jelly beans and Oreos and peanut butter, my favorite trail desserts.

It’s only 8 and still so light, but I’m ready to turn my hat into a sleep mask and crash. In my little spaceship bubble of a shelter tonight. Mosquitos are THICK here.

Day Two:

19.3 miles

I wake up much later this morning, more like my usual time after sleeping HARD last night. On trail by 8am, through a beautiful meadow full of those yellow flowers, and on up to an incredible view of the lake where I stop briefly to eat a breakfast bar. I’m not too sore, and my back does feel better where the pack rubs it. Not completely healed, but better. I’m feeling strong and quick again, and tell myself that today I’ll stop less.

All is going well until right around the Mt. Rose wilderness boundary. There I encounter the first patches of snow I’ve seen, and they slow me down just a bit. Nothing too bad, just a little challenging to keep track of the trail between the patches. I’ve seen some trail runners this morning and passed a couple of backpackers, but once I meet the snow I’m totally alone. I descend the knob without too much trouble and meet a gorgeous section of trail- carved right into the edge of the mountain, covered in wild flowers. This kind of trail always feels like flying, like you could soar right off the edge and just be lifted up by a thermal.

I pass what I think is the first thru hiker I’ve seen, small pack, Altras, dirty girl gaiters, and I can hear him behind me for a while. A group of three hikers approaches from the opposite way and we chat for a bit. They tell me they’ve come from Mt. Rose Summit trailhead yesterday, and describe tons of snow ahead. I knew Mt. Rose area was snowy, that’s part of the reason I brought microspikes, but I’m not quite sure where the snow starts, and in my head it’s in the area I’ll hit tomorrow.

It’s not. It’s here.

Within a few miles of leaving them, I get to bigger patches of snow, now on steep slopes, and obscuring the trail for long periods of time. Luckily nothing is very exposed, but I still don’t feel like sliding down 20 feet of hardened snow. Each step is kick in, place, push gently to make sure I’m secure, then step forward again. This continues for what feels like hours, and only gets worse as I get closer to Relay Peak, the highest point on the TRT.

I stop to filter water and eat lunch, both long breaks resting my tiring legs. I keep expecting to see the other hiker again, but he never shows up.

Relay peak is covered in giant sun cups, difficult to walk over and slow going. I’m hoping for a break as I descend, looking forward to the water falls promised ahead, but the snow continues through lots of pine forest with many blow downs making navigating and staying on trail even harder. Eventually l realize I’ve come down too far and met the dirt road bike alternate, and rather than backtrack a little to find the trail and keep fighting this snow, I decide to do the 3 mile road walk to the campground ahead. It’s hot and slow and rough like all road walks always are, and though it’s not late yet and I’ve only hiked 16 miles, I’m beat and ready to stop. I’m even ready to pay the 17$ to stay in the campground rather than hike a bit further and camp on my own.

When I finally make it to the campground, it’s clearly abandoned, though my guide and comments in the app say open during summer and usually busy. It’s a bit eerie, with peeling signs, but I set up in a spot anyway, enjoying the picnic table and handy bear box because if there’s ever a night I don’t want to stomp off and hang a bear bag, it’s tonight.

Relatedly, I’ve just decided there is NO WAY I’m doing Desolation Wilderness, the snowiest part of the trail near the end. I was on the fence, said I’d check in when I get to town and see how it’s looking, but today showed me that while I can physically handle this snow, I have no interest in doing that every day on a row for days on end. Gonna re-evaluate when I get to town and find a way around that section or just skip it.

Patchy snow ahead tomorrow, just fingers crossed it’s less than today. I’m well over it.

Day Three:

Nero Day

I wake up this morning to crows cawing loudly, turn on my phone to see that it’s pretty early, 5:45. I deflate my air mattress immediately, my trick for not going back to sleep, but as I start moving around I realize how sore my legs are from the sunburn I got yesterday. Usually my legs and arms don’t burn while I’m hiking, so I carry face sunscreen in little sticks. But yesterday’s snow reflected everything up around me, and every bit of my legs are burned so badly it hurts to crouch down.

(I can literally see my dad cringing. Sorry dad! I’ve learned my lesson.)

I realize I’m right next to the highway, could easily hitch into town and catch a bus to the nearby town with a hostel. I could get sunscreen and not get a burn on top of the burn, but I’d lose a whole day of hiking and I don’t really need a town day yet. I waver back and forth, packing slowly, eating breakfast at the table, wondering if I really need to get off trail or if I’m just annoyed at the snow ahead today and wanting to put it off. By 7 am I decide I’m just doing it, going to town. Now that I’ve decided to skip Desolation, I have a lot more time for the portion I am doing, so I’m not in a rush. I walk out to the highway and the third car pulls over to give me a hitch. It’s a young guy, maybe early 20s who’s a lifeguard on the beach and is heading to work. He drops me at a coffee shop and I wait for the bus to the town with the hostel. I try to call them but don’t have enough reception. I wish I did, because when I arrive they tell me they’re full, but the hostel in a town further from the lake might have openings. I go back and forth again, trying to decide if I should fork over a little more money for a hotel here, or head to the further town and not be able to hit trail tomorrow till 9 am at the earliest. When I look up hotel prices, though, I decide to just go for the hostel. By mid morning I’m checked in and lounging in their waiting area, and I’ve already bought a big ol bottle of sunscreen for tomorrow. Lesson learned.

Days 7-12!

Day 7: 11 miles

I wake up with 11 miles to get into Twin Lakes and the food truck with ribbon fries and the general store with cold drinks and where I’ll meet up with my friend Mikael and we’ll stay with my aunt for the night. After my super awesome charged day yesterday, I feel like 11 miles should be cake, but of course anytime I am heading for town or a particular mile, it drags on and never goes as quickly as I think it will. My right calf is hurting a lot today, and I’m not cruising at the pace I was yesterday, but it’s not unbearable and I keep stopping to stretch it out which helps. This trail is gorgeous- beautiful forest, a few climbs but not many, and the only people I see are day hikers out to summit Massive or Elbert. I finally roll into Twin Lakes around 12:30, drink a soda, call my aunt, and wait for Mik to arrive. Twin Lakes is still as charming as I remember, with a collection of thru hikers splashed on the tables in front of the general store charging all the things, eating piles of food from the one little food truck, and lounging in the shade.

Mik gets in maybe an hour after me and we head with my aunt to her gorgeous house just a little up the hill, and spend the evening prepping gear and eating an amazing dinner and we each take a lonnnng bath before falling asleep.

Day 8: 11 miles

We leave Twin Lakes around 8:30 and get hiking by 9. The first 6 miles are almost straight up, climbing towards Hope Pass. We hike slowly as Mik is testing out all his new gear, but soon we’re at the beautiful alpine meadow that precedes the high pass, watching butterflies and admiring the insane amount of flowers out. The ascent up to the pass is tough, but it feels SO GOOD to really be in the mountains, near the rocky peaks and high high high. We sit at the top of the pass for snacks and stare off at the other side- more mountains, more beauty. On the way down it hails and then rains briefly, but much more briefly than I anticipated which is lucky. A group of 3 thru hikers passes us after a while – one guy and I have matching packs. We chat a bit about what’s ahead and filter water and it’s fun being in a little hiker bubble for a moment.

Mik and I make camp earlyish after feeling a few more sprinkles. Luckily they clear up and although I can see a bigger thunderhead off in the distance and we can hear thunder far away, but camp stays dry as we eat dinner and hang the bear bag and set up our two little tiny tents. We’re in bed by 8 and I’m considering pulling my hood down and blocking out the last light rays to fall asleep. Tomorrow is another huge couple climbs.

Day 9: 6 miles

We wake up and leave camp around 8:30; it takes longer than I expected for us to break down both camps. Luckily we had no more than a few raindrops last night so everything is dry and we won’t need to do a long dry out break today. We start out on a nice flat and mildly descending bit of trail, but we’re still moving pretty slowly since Mikael’s right leg is really hurting after yesterday’s big climb up Hope Pass, and the harsh descent down. His spirits are good, but a few miles take us several hours, and we’re starting to have conversations about exiting the trail earlier than we thought. Luckily, we pass some day hikers around noon who tell us that we’re just a mile from the trailhead for Mt. Huron, and that connects to hwy 24 where we could get a ride to Buena Vista easily. We consider these options for a while- Mik is hoping that his leg adjusts and warms up enough to keep going- but the next 2 days involve 4 high passes all above tree line, which means we may need to try to outrun lightning storms at some point and speed is of the essence. With how much his leg is hurting and how slow we’re going, it doesn’t seem realistic. So, we decide to head up to Lake Ann, use the rest of the day to have a nice leisurely camp and then head out tomorrow and hitch into BV. The rest of the day is just a couple miles ascent, and it’s gorgeous. We make camp near the lake at about 2, and spend the afternoon and evening exploring and relaxing and doing all the things you never do while thru hiking. The weather is impossibly beautiful- once I see a storm off in the distance but it moves away instead of over us and we get no rain. Until, of course, it’s 9 pm and we’re just ready to fall asleep and a light rain starts. It wouldn’t be a big deal- but I see lightning off behind the next mountain and count 22 seconds between the flash and the thunder, so it’s just over 4 miles away- and it holds there for about 10 minutes. It’s not on top of us, but storms can move so quickly and our camp is above tree line and exposed. I do not want to sit above tree line with my carbon fiber pile sticking in the air during a lightning storm- and so although it’s the last thing we want to do, we shove everything in our tents quickly in our packs and run the 500 feet down to tree line. I cast my light around looking for the flattest spot I can see in the dark among the trees- and as it begins to rain harder we set up everything as best we can all over again in the dark. We spend the night sliding down to the feet of our tents- this patch is more sloped than I thought, and the storm doesn’t even come over us at all. The rain even ends after about 20 minutes and we don’t here any thunder. Still, I feel relieved that we weren’t caught up above tree line.

Day 10: 3 miles

We wake up without rushing, and head back ip to Lake Ann to collect our food bag and eat breakfast before heading down the few miles to the trail head. Mik’s leg is still sore and tight, conforming we’ve made the right call. We take our time, trying to time our arrival in the parking lot with the time most people will be leaving after summiting Huron. We’re lucky, and get a ride out with a couple hikers who arrive in the parking area right when we do. They take us out to the highway, where our second hitch comes way easier than I expected it to with 2 of us- one being a bearded guy. A Jeep pulls over and the woman inside is another CT hiker who it seems is part time shuttling people around and part time hiking. She drives us all the way to the hot springs, saving us another hitch on a lower traffic road, and she tells Mik that she had similar leg issues that she resolved partly with the help of an IT band stabilizer. We drink cold soda from her cooler and revel in the trail magic that sometimes happens so perfectly. We’re at Cottonwood Hot Springs by early afternoon and spend the rest of the evening soaking. Tomorrow Mik’s dad and brother are coming to join us and we’ll move to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. My legs don’t feel tired yet, but I’m grateful for any rest I can get- even if it’s front loaded!

Day 12: 0 day!

Soaking at Cottonwood in the morning, Princeton in the afternoon, and the best salad of my life in Buena Vista! Plus, finally I get WiFi at our hotel and I get to FaceTime B at home!

Colorado Trail- Round two!

Day 1: 16.9 miles

Feels good to be walking again, although after such a crazy month of cooking and dehydrating food and packing up and cleaning our old apartment and working on our new home, it hasn’t quite fully kicked in that I’m about to walk almost 500 miles again and be out here for the next 4 weeks. I’m starting the trail this time with two friends who are joining me until Bailey in 3 days- a relatively unusual experience for me, but I’m so excited to share this with them. We leave Waterton at 8:30 when B drops us off, and start the day with the 7 mile road walk up the canyon. We see some cute baby mountain goats, and it isn’t too hot until we get pretty close to the single track around noon. Then the sun is baking and the red dirt reflects the heat back into our faces and the shade can’t come soon enough. It’s so different than my rainy rainy start 3 years ago and it’s nice to see the forest in a different light, without staring at the ground hunched in my rain jacket. It’s nice walking again, but my hips are sore already and I’m reminded how I am the most untrained for a hike I’ve ever been. The rest of the day goes smoothly, we take a long lunch break, meet a few other hikers, and chat and giggle and it’s so nice having company, nicer than I remember. The right people are important. We see a lonnnnng bull snake on the trail, who doesn’t move at all even when we sneak up close to him and admire for a long time. Later, a deer with fuzzy young antlers is right by us as we take a break. The last few miles to the river and our camp are long and we’re all tired, but we make it by 5:30 and enjoy dinner. A helicopter starts circling around 7:30, and eventually lands about 50 yards away, followed by an ambulance, fire truck and later two sheriffs. We have no idea what the reason is, but it seems like some kind of rescue operation for sure. We fall asleep with river sounds and bugs chirping and the perfect still night air and it feels surreal and still surprising that I’m back on trail, but also like coming home. Day Two: 15.6 miles

We wake around 6:30 after an unexpectedly chilly night, and it’s hard to leave my sleeping quilt. We wanted to be on trail by 7:30, but somehow we don’t start hiking till 8:30 again, right after another hiker passes our camp and tells us that the helicopter last night was putting out a small fire last night. There are half a dozen or so huge wildfires around the state right now, so I guess we’re lucky that this one was actually manageable and put out quickly. We start the day with a huge climb and go straight into a burn area with no shade and the first half of the day we are all sore and quiet and it’s hot hot hot. We walk slowly and take frequent breaks and get a little burst of energy that quickly fades and we lapse back into silent painful walking. We’re on a long dry stretch and we’re counting on there being water at the volunteer fire station ten miles ahead. It’s a lonnng slow morning to the station, but we finally make it and get water from the spigot and take a long lunch break. We perk up more after that and have a decent afternoon for the next 6 miles and then we find a cute campsite at the top of a small hill with good seats and flat ground. It’s 7:00 ish, and we snacked recently, so instead of cooking right away we sit and relax a bit, and I recite the poem my dad said on all our camping trips growing up- The Spell of the Yukon- and Emily reads us a poem she wrote and we observe a moment of silence for the 1 year anniversary of a horrible bike accident Aaron had. Then we watch an incredible sunset and it’s so so lovely having my frens here I know the next night I camp alone is going to be so quiet and different and I’ll miss this.

Day 3: 8 miles

We wake up intending to get on trail by 7:00, but somehow it’s 8 again before we start hiking out to Aaron’s waiting car. The 8 miles today go so much more smoothly than yesterday- the forest is cool and smells like rain from the night before. We get to the car at noon, eat lunch in Bailey, and then I last minute decide to head back to Denver with them instead of heading to Breckenridge like I’d planned. My legs are more tired than I thought, and I can catch a bus to farther up the trail tomorrow or the next day. This will give me lower mileage days to get to Twin Lakes- I’m feeling the effects of not running or hiking much this past year as we’ve been so focused on building our tiny house. So, I get back to Denver, shower, and immediately pass out. It’s strange to take a zero at home, but I’ve hiked this trail already and I decide I’d rather warm up slowly and enjoy my hike than push higher mileage days.

Day 4: Zero in Denver!

I really take the day off- watch Parks and Rec, go to our friends for grilling and hot tub, and it’s so nice to cuddle my fiancé unexpectedly. Already, after two nights out, I feel that deep appreciation for small city things like a bed, a couch, the ease of driving across town. I’m also having a lot of self- criticism come up though- there’s a voice that keeps saying I should’ve just sucked it up and stuck with my plan, that coming back to Denver is weak and taking the easy way out, and it’s hard work to quiet this voice and just be.

Day 5: 1.3 miles.

I’m planning to catch the 12:15 greyhound to Vail, then a bus to Leadville, then get a few trail miles in tonight. Everything is almost ready to go- except that I start packing up my bag and can’t find my wallet anywhere. I know I had it last night at our friends, but they can’t find it over there and B and I are tearing everything apart looking for it and it’s nowhere to be found. At the last minute possible I throw my stuff in my pack, redo my food boxes, and we jump in the car to go look on the street outside their house. On the way, I’m having a full fledged mental breakdown- feeling like I can’t get anything right with this hike. I KNOW I put it in my bag last night- WHERE IS IT?? This is just one more wrench in a trip that logistically has been so frustrating- I’ve changed plans a million times already trying to finish on time, meet up with people on time, figure out how many miles a day my body can do after a years hiatus from hiking and running- and now I’m trying to decide with 30 minutes to go if I should get more cash, bring another card, and just hike out without my drivers license, or if I should delay another day and keep looking. With just a few minutes to spare, I decide to just go ahead and buy the greyhound ticket and leave tonight, but even once I decide that I’m full of doubt and still so frustrated with myself and stressed I’m feeling sick. Thank god B is with me to try and ground me, to tell me when I can’t feel it that I’m enough- I’m good enough, I’m not any less for coming home for a day or losing my wallet. Get you a person who just holds you through your freak outs. I’m marginally calmer when I say goodbye to B (again) at the bus station 15 minutes before we’re supposed to depart, and sit and wait wondering if I’ve made the right decision. And wait. And wait. The bus ends up being 2 hours late to leave, and I realize on the bus I’ve forgotten my headphone adapter so I can listen to music or watch Netflix- so I just curl up and freeze in the ac since I didn’t grab my jacket from my pack. It’s a lonnnng ride to Vail, where luckily I’m just in time to get the last bus to Leadville. I get off that around 6:30 and catch a hitch after just a few minutes with a guy who just completed the Leadville 100 bicycling race qualifier. We chat for a maybe ten minutes before I realize we’re on highway 91- and I need to be on highway 24. He picked me up right before the highway splits and I was so busy chatting I didn’t realize he was getting on the wrong one. So, as soon as I figure it out he stops, and I walk to the opposite side of the highway and start hitching back towards Leadville- yelling at myself for not realizing the highway split and walking further up. Luckily, I get a hitch in another 5 minutes, this time with an older Hispanic man who smiles a lot but doesn’t speak any English, but he nods when I say Leadville?? He’s so sweet- keeps asking one or two word questions in broken English but he talks very quietly and I definitely don’t know enough Spanish to keep a conversation going. So we’re quiet the ten minutes back to where I started , but when I get out and say “Muchas Gracias” over and over he waves and says “denada”. This time I walk up 24 a ways, and luck is on my side again because the first car to pass me stops. It’s a girl and her brother who are camping near Turquoise lake, and I’m at the trailhead in ten minutes. FINALLY. I start walking, and it’s like every bit of stress and self doubt and weight I’ve been carrying falls off with the first 5 steps. THIS. I know this. I just walk! It’s so damn easy! What on earth was all the fuss about?? It’s about 7:15 when I start- wayyy later than I expected but I’ve still got more than an hour of daylight and I feel so good walking. I think of the magic moment at this spot in 2015- when I walked out of the woods at the exact moment that my friend Kent from Denver was biking past- I don’t even know how to calculate the odds of that but it felt miraculous. And this section of trail is gorgeous- I pass several beautiful meadows before I finally pitch my tent and hang my bear bag in the dusk and settle in at 8:30 feeling a thousand times better than I thought I could at the beginning of this day. Walking is MAGIC. Day 6: 22.4 miles

I want to get out early, but story of my life- I sleep in and can’t tear myself out of my quilt. I’m on trail at 8 though- noon in hiker land but not terrible. Immediately, I feel amazing. My legs feel strong, the quiet morning sounds of the forest are perfect, the slanted sunlight is perfect, everything is perfect and I am wildly emotional to be in it. I get that overwhelming feeling of insane gratitude and joy, where I feel strong and also so tiny. I feel perfectly sized, not like I’m insignificant or useless but like I know my place in the world and I can see myself clearly, as if from a great height. My legs are so strong today, walking feels so good and right and I am walking quickly but relaxed- stopping for a million wildflower pictures. Soon I’m climbing towards bigger views, but the trail is so beautiful graded and rolling it barely feels like climbing. Around 11 I get up to a wide view of the ridges and peaks around us, and I take off my pack and munch snacks. I’ve been leapfrogging with two guys today, they pass me again but I am keeping quiet and not very chatty- trying to hold onto my hiker high for a while. The day is beautiful and the views and wildflowers continue, my reliving sense of peace continues, and I think over and over again how wildly lucky I am to be here. Not just this trail, but here, on a planet that looks like this. How breathtaking it is to exist with everything else, all trying desperately to stay alive. This little piece of lichen that can only grow here, can’t be brought inside or grown in a lab, this ant, this fly, that grass. The dedication each one has to living can’t help but move you if you look at it closely. The morning passes quickly, I’m at mile 13 and feeling so much stronger than I thought I would- I feel like I could walk forever. I decide to aim for a creek that will put me at 23 miles for the day, leaving a shorter day into Twin Lakes tomorrow. At 2pm it starts raining, then hailing, but I don’t even mind. I hole up under a tree and get out my new umbrella- 3 oz that I can’t wait to try hiking with. Last summer I took a larger umbrella and found it useless on the AT- too many trees and branches and it was unwieldy and I never used it. I soon discover that this one tucks nicely down the front of my shirt and I don’t have to hold it. It makes the next several hours much easier- instead of sweating in my rain gear I’m mostly dry under this little tissue paper covering. There’s some thunder, but I’m not close to treeline the rest of the day and I don’t see any lightning, so I keep hiking. My legs still feel so strong- one calf is a bit tight but nothing like my first two days. I feel like flying most of the time- even the next few climbs don’t bother me much and it even clears up for my last few hours. I keep passing campsites, thinking I could stop if I wanted, but I feel so good I keep going until I get almost down to the creek I was looking for and notice a small perfectly flat area cleared with some nice logs. I set up camp, gather water, and just as I’m finishing it starts to sprinkle again. My luck has held- if I’d gone the next .6 miles to the creek I’d be setting up in the rain. As it is I can duck inside my little spaceship tent and cozy up for the night- thankful for everything about this day.

Day Sixteen through Twenty-four

Day 16/17: Zero miles! Relaxing in Monson, waiting out rain. 

Day Eighteen: 20 miles 

After a super rainy night last night, I hike out of Monson with a few other NOBOs- Windchime, who’s finishing up his last section as he’s been working on the trail for 17 years, and Fresh, a thru hiker who started in March. I’m quickly glad to be hiking with others because there are several stream fords today we’ve been warned could be high because of last night. It’s beautiful bright sunny day, but the trail is basically just a huge muddy stream and my feet are soaked in about 10 minutes. The first stream crossing is not very wide but is deep and moving extremely fast and the rocks on the bottom are super slippery and impossible to see. I come close to getting my legs swept out from under me and being carried down river several times. I bang my shin hard against a huge rock and have to lean forward into the water to catch myself with my free hand- I’m missing my other trekking pole so hard right now. Luckily I just barely keep myself upright and make it across. Windchime and Fresh do the same, and then we wait awhile looking for the other woman who was on our shuttle hiking NOBO today- its her first day and she’s tiny- we’re worried she will have a hard time with the crossing and don’t want her to come to it alone. But even after half an hour she doesn’t show up, and when some SOBOs pass us we tell them to give her a warning and to wait for someone and we hike on. A few more river crossings are clearly swollen from the rain, but none like that first. Last few miles into camp are really hard- a steep climb and I’m tired and hungry. It’s a crowded camp tonight so I’m in my tent for the first time in a while. It’s near a pond and the frogs are singing a full chorus, crickets having a party, and lots of birds. Noisy camp, and now it’s 9:30 which is way past my bedtime. 

Day Nineteen: 19 miles 

Woke fairly early this morning when everyone in camp started bustling around. Fresh walked away super early, but Windchime and I leave around 6:45. We walk together most of the day, and at first I’m a bit frustrated by the way he waits for me when I put on bug lotion or stop to get a drink- yesterday I hiked so close to him and Fresh that I was hoping for some space today. It’s not that either of them were too talkative or anything, and they’re both super nice, it’s just that I always feel a bit fuzzy or something after a day of hiking close to or around anyone. My focus goes to them so much more than what’s around me, despite my best efforts to avoid this habit. I’m always wondering if I’m going too slow if they’re behind me or if they think I’m slow when I fall back a ways. Thinking about their experiences and whatever we’re chatting about and I never fully get into a train of thought on my own before being brought out of it. Over the course of today though I work more on letting this go; Windchime and I chat occasionally and spread out occasionally and it’s never too claustrophobic. I definitely miss the few days I had with no other NOBOs around though. Hope I get a few of those before the end, but it seems like Windchime and I are on pretty much the same schedule. Just means I need to work on being present even with someone else nearby. 

Early in the morning we pass a gardener snake sunning on a log, and I catch him before he zips off. He’s so cute and tiny. He pees all over my hands and I realize that the smell of snake pee takes me instantly back to my childhood, catching all kinds of critters in the ditch by my house, trying to keep them as pets. Strange smell to get sentimental about maybe, but I love it in a weird nostalgic way. Also, amazing forests all day long. Huge ferns, tall skinny pines, a carpet of moss that covers everything. The woods today somehow make me think of prehistoric times, like I wouldn’t be surprised to see a dinosaur come stomping through. I keep trying to capture it on camera but there’s something magic about the light in here I just can’t get to show up in a picture. The last few miles of the day are a big climb, rough but we still get to camp early ish and I’m glad because last night was so late I feel sleepy already at 7:30. 

Day Twenty: 25.1 miles

We wake early to get up and over Whitecap, and it’s Misty and cloudy all morning. There’s supposed to be a good view out to Katahdin from Whitecap, but there’s only blowing wind and grey clouds, so we push on through. By 9:30 we stop at a shelter and decide to push for 20 more miles today to get to a campsite only 6 miles from the boat dock to Whitehouse Landing- a hostel and restaurant you can access by calling for a boat ride. Then we can take a nice relaxing day at Whitehouse and do two more 20 ish mile days before Katahdin. 

Today passes quickly- it’s all flat and beautiful soft trail after Whitecap. But as we get lower, the bugs get thick and aggressive- buzzing in my eyes and ears and landing all over me the minute I slow down even a fraction. We both walk fast, holding just over a 3mph pace for over ten miles. On the last few miles my feet start hurting even though my legs feel good still, a sign of the biggest mile day I’ve done on this trip. We get to a campsite on a lake crowded with a boys group stringing up a giant American flag and I realize I’ve forgotten it’s the 4th until just now. Luckily Windchime and I are able to find a second little campsite separate from the big group of teens and we watch the sun get lower and shine on the water until it’s time for bed. 

Day Twenty-One: 6 miles 

What should be an easy walk to the boat dock to Whitehouse landing is for some reason painful. My right knee was a little sore yesterday and this morning it’s stiff and even worse. I think maybe it just needs to warm up a little, sometimes this happens for the first few minutes, but it doesn’t get better after several miles. I stop and tie my bandana just below my kneecap, pretty tightly, a trick Windchime told me about yesterday. It helps immediately and I get to the dock right about 10 am, just in time to see the boat approaching dropping off two hikers heading out. We get in and in less than 10 minutes arrive at a beautiful camp on the side of the lake. They have a veggie burger for lunch, and I shower and swim and nap and read and it’s an amazing, unexpected Nero day. After dinner we take out two kayaks and paddle for about an hour, far enough to get a gorgeous view of Katahdin rising above the trees behind the camp. Just a few more days until I climb to the top! 

Day Twenty-Two: 22.7 miles 

Left Whitehouse Landing this morning after a huge breakfast. Didn’t start walking until 8:30 ish, hoping to get 23 miles to a campsite in order to make tomorrow’s miles a little shorter. Today had a few little climbs, one nice view out to Katahdin, and so much amazing green forest. 

Around 2 we come to a viewpoint over a gorge with a few day hikers out for a few hours from a nearby camp (100 mile wilderness somehow has more day hikers than anywhere else) and they give us a bag of fresh cherries which taste SO GOOD. Has fruit ever tasted this good? I lose my mind gushing over the cherries and the day hikers laugh in that “you’re kind of freaking us out” way. I don’t care at all because hey, FRESH CHERRIES. 

Later, Windchime is leading when the trail drops down right to the edge of a big creek. I catch up when he’s contemplating how to ford. It’s not moving too quickly but it does looks deep in places and there aren’t enough rocks to hop over. I have been really enjoying my dry feet so I pull off my shoes, pack up my camera and phone in my pack liner, and make my way across the stream. It’s not too bad, but it takes a while. When we get to the other side, we look for the AT, and it’s nowhere to be found. Eventually we figure out we DID NOT NEED TO FORD this stream! I’m laughing about it, kicking myself for not checking before just following Windchime, but laughing. It wasn’t too bad, and going back is easier. After my shoes are back on, more miles fly by, I get that hiker high feeling where everything is unbearably beautiful several times. I think about the different ways it can come- usually I find it in the mountains but it comes now in this green wonderland as well. Different, but equally as potent. The green here is it’s own magic. Mountains that I know and love seem to tear you open, make you raw with joy. But here the forest seems to do the opposite, it’s like a warm hug, rich and fecund and deeply comforting, even in its wildness. Above timberline, in alpine tundra the world hits me like a punch in the gut. It’s a fierce, exhilarating feeling; somehow when you look into a void it seems to open up in you. Here I am moved, too, but differently. It’s soft beauty where I am used to sharp. Green covers evvvvverything. Moss all over. Ferns up to my waist. Frogs hopping and so many bird sounds and a million kinds of leaves all around, shiny wet from the rain. The smells are deep and layered and I feel like every time I breathe in little spores of green make their way into my lungs and clear out whatever exhaust and pollution is sitting in there. 

We get to a beautiful campsite on the edge of a big lake around 6. I take off my muddy shoes and soak my feet in the clear water for a few minutes. I feel a little scratching on my heel and look down to see a red crawdad gently pinching my foot, inquisitively trying to figure me out. 

Tomorrow is the last full day- coming into the camp at the base of Katahdin. Then, the next day is summiting! 

Day Twenty-three: 17.8 miles 

On trail about 7 this morning for the last full day of hiking! 

Sore knees, a bunch of snacks at Abol Bridge, another 10 miles winding along the river to the birches for camp. Long lazy afternoon waiting to sleep before Katahdin tomorrow! 

Day Twenty-Four: 10.3 miles

Katahdin! On trail for the last time at 6:30. We ascend through forest, gently for the first mile or so. Past some falls, steeper as we approach treeline. As soon as there’s a peek through the trees, we can see that we’re already above the clouds, looking out at blue skies above. Lucky, since rain and thunderstorms are hail are in the forecast for today. There’s a fun, technical section a little less than a mile long with steep climbs up a somewhat exposed Boulder field, and then the mountain flattens out to a beautiful ridge walk gently upwards upwards upwards over soft alpine tundra and rocks, looking out over more clouds. It feels like flying, like being in a spaceship and I realize how much I’ve missed MOUNTAINS. The rest of the trail has been big hills with maybe a peek out above treeline or a bald on top, but nothing like the feeling you get when you’re really actually high up, higher than anything around. We float up for a while, see one small family group on their way down but when Windchime and I get to the summit, we’re alone. It’s pretty special to be with someone who’s worked towards this moment for 17 years, section by section, taking time off but never forgetting about it and always coming back. He cries at the top and I almost cry too I am so moved by this place, though it’s only been 300 miles of trail for me, a tiny drop in the bucket of the 2189 that are between here and Georgia. It’s a pilgrimage for so many people, and you can feel it’s power even without having walked every step. “To poets and pilgrims and lovers and seekers” was inscribed on a board outside the Hiker Hut in Rangeley, and it’s undoubtedly what everyone who is interested in walking is. It’s almost a chant in my head as I’m standing on this famous, venerated, almost mythical peak. Soon it starts filling up with day hikers- we don’t see any other NOBOs. We make our way down, hitch into town with two nice guys we meet towards the bottom of the trail, Windchime’s adorable family meets him at the hostel, we eat at the diner, and then they leave and my summer hike is officially over and I’m working on processing what that means. Did I get what I was seeking? Am I filled up and ready for “real life” again? I got the joy, the hiker high, the trail community I’ve missed. I got some miles, got into a flow, a meditation brought by the wake-up-and-walk life. I don’t feel torn open like I did after my first long distance hike, and I’m beginning to think that’s ok. The CT was beautiful in a singular, first love, kind of way I don’t think any trail will ever replicate and that’s ok. I hear other people say this about their first trail, I know I’m not alone in pining for it. You can’t ever read your favorite novel for the first time again, and this is just like that. Other novels will be wonderful and valuable and fill you up too, just don’t expect them to match that first magic moment. I’m leaving grateful for Maine, for it’s challenging terrain and pretty lakes and most of all those incredible green woods I couldn’t get enough of. I thought “green tunnel” was pejorative before this trip; now I will be dreaming of it for weeks and months and years. What a surprise- and yet not. The trail always seems to give you beauty where you are least looking for it. I’m already nostalgic about this type of life, the people you’d never meet otherwise, the way we share this strange passion, the way grown adults call each other ridiculous nicknames earnestly and without hesitation. I miss being Snow White, someone outside myself. Anonymity is freeing in so many ways. Everyone gets to be a different person on the trail, and I’d bet a lot of money most people would tell you they’re better out here. Now comes the work of bringing my ambitious, persistent, dedicated trail self back to the city. Thank you, thank you, thank you, AT. Miss you already.