It’s a Hard Knock Life, or Meditations on (Temporary) Termination

I came off the PCT on April 4th, 2014. Tomorrow I will see a doctor in Sacramento, where I live, and will likely be referred to a podiatrist for peroneal tendonitis.
I developed this tendonitis in early February when I walked in some shoes with poor arch support. I was on crutches for two weeks while it healed up. I have experienced a similar pain in the past while running cross country, while hiking in Alaska, and while climbing Mount Shasta, so it’s possible that the tendonitis has been lurking since then.
This time I did not let the pain get as bad as the first time because I am fearful that if I don’t stop and get it treated, I could make the tendonitis chronic or permanent.
I’ve received a number of emails in the past couple days from people sympathizing with me and wishing me well, and I greatly appreciate the kind words and advice. More people are following this trip than I ever expected.
I will post again when I talk to a medical professional about how long I will have to wait before returning to the trail.

Things to know about my trip:
1. It is not over, and I’ll be back.
2. I will finish the trail at some point, and I will write about it as I hike. If that means I only get a section done this year (because of the ridiculously early beginning to my first semester of college in August) and I have to hike for numerous years in the future, then all I have to say is “Oh darn, I guess I have to go backpacking on the PCT AGAIN next summer.”
3. I was only hiking for a couple weeks, but I miss the trail.
4. Living on the trail is challenging, but it’s been joyful to hang out in the sun and rain with other people who haven’t washed their hands in days and who share an interest in eating trash and sleeping on the ground in order to walk all day.

Things I’m not sure about yet:
1. How long it will be until I’m healthy enough to return to the trail.
2. Whether any of the people who found my blog after Carrot Quinn so kindly recommended it will stay tuned until I resume my trip. (Carrot’s was my favorite PCT journal of 2013. I got the chance to interview her for the PCTA before I left for the trail this year, and she’s leading a fascinating life. You should check out her writing.)
3.Whether my body will handle the shock of returning temporarily to a semi-nocturnal lifestyle before returning to the sun-up, sun-down rhythm of the trail.

Things I will be doing at least for the next week:
1. Riding my bike for many, many miles because it doesn’t make my foot hurt and it keeps me in relatively decent shape. It’s also fun to go fast under your own power.
2. Eating hot food and fresh produce
3. Listening to music

Things I will not be doing at least for the next week:
1. Hiking with a pack on the PCT 😦
2. Posting about my days in Sacramento, because I’m feeling mopey and I know my home life is less-than-captivating.
3. Taking candy bar breaks at 9am

Thank you to everyone who has taken an interest in my trip so far. I hope to be able to post good news after I talk to the doctor!

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PCT Day 11: Opiates, God, and a Sickening Reentry

April 4, 2014

Mile 121 to Mile 127

I shifted under my quilt in the pre-dawn light, squirming away from the wet walls of my tent. Meander was up. When I stopped rustling my down, I could hear him moving.

Reluctantly, I pulled on my layers and headed up the mountainside in search of a place to dig a hole. The puffs of cloud over the ridge opposite my stance were tinged with pink.

“Anybody home?” Meander asked. I could see him pulling back the door of my frosty tent.

“I’m up here,” I called. “I’ll be right down.”

“We should talk about painkillers,” he said as I pushed through the brush and stepped heavily into camp.

I ate a disgustingly large cinnamon roll that Johnny found at a convenience store while staying at Monty’s. I was running low on water, but that was good. My foot didn’t hurt as much with a lighter pack. In my mesh first-aid sack I found a small orange bottle and dumped the vicodin into my filthy palm.

Twenty minutes later, as we hiked towards the boulder field where we thought we could camp the night before, the affectionate hiker name for vicodin, “hikeagain,” started making sense. My pace was good and the pain was tolerable. “But what kind of damage is this doing?” I wondered as I took step after step that only yesterday would have caused twinges of sharp pain.

My shoulders did not ache. My breathing was not labored. I didn’t notice the uphill grade. The only thing that hurt was my foot, and it was only vaguely sore. But even as I tried to convince myself that I could keep going, I knew that I was being stupid. Injuries suck. Recurring injuries are worse. Permanent injuries that get in the way of every single pastime you enjoy seem like death sentences.

I stopped to wait for Meander near the side trail that led to a road where I would be picked up that night. We followed colorful signs past towering metal tanks to a dilapidated house where Kushy, a hiker and trail angel, offered water and shelter to passing hikers.

I sold my solar charger to Meander because his had broken and I would have a chance to buy a new one while I was off the trail. We went inside to get out of the wind and Kushy told us about the two strange “hikers” we’d last seen after the first night at Monty’s.

Kushy had given them a pack shakedown (where an experienced hiker analyzes a new hiker’s gear choices and removes unneeded items to lighten the load) and had taken all their knives. The pair had apparently arrived with only a jar of peanut butter that they had taken from Monty’s. They had one sleeping bag between the two of them. Kushy had told them that a lot of people up the trail knew about them and that their experience would likely not be a pleasant one if they continued trying to hike in their current style. He suggested they might be better off accepting a ride to town and trying a new lifestyle. They took him up on the offer, and the two had been off the trail for a couple days by the time Kushy told Meander and me about it.

Meander hung out to talk to Kushy for a little while before collecting some water to continue hiking. It was only noon when he gave me a hug and walked up the dirt road to the trail.

For the next few hours, Kushy and I sat in the cluttered living room eating M&Ms and cashews from my food bag and discussing flaws in the education system, conspiracy theories, politics, and the existence of god (just about everything I was told not to discuss on the trail).

We bumped down the dirt road in a beat up pickup with no passenger seat so I could find cell service to text my dad and sister and confirm the address. On the way back to the house, Kushy stopped at a spot where he had discovered he could access free wifi. I planted myself in the dirt and picked at the sparkling rocks while he checked facebook and talked to people with an internet connection.    

At the house, we sank into the same chairs we’d occupied for the previous 4 hours and talked until darkness crept into the house and we were only silhouettes staring out the window at the quaking shadows of leaves and the black mountainside beyond.

My dad and sister arrived around 8:30 and after a somber greeting, I put my trekking poles in the back of the prius, thanked Kushy, and rolled into the darkness away from the PCT.

We had a reservation at a hotel in Indio. On the drive there, the lights from the dashboard made me sick. At stoplights, my head lolled forward and back and I stared at the artificially illuminated streets, stunned out of the circadian rhythm I’d slid into during the last two weeks.

By the time we reached the hotel, it was after 10 and I was utterly drained. I took a long shower, tried to write in my journal, and failed to get comfortable on a mattress that should’ve felt like heaven after sleeping on a cut-down ridgerest.

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PCT Day 10: Decision Day

April 3, 2014

Mile 109.5 to Mile 121

Meander had been waiting out the rain and snow at Monty’s while I was there tending to my tendonitis and getting new shoes, and we left together from the Warner Springs Community Center.

This time my foot wasn’t hurting as we walked out of town and under the highway where Monty had picked me up days ago.

We hopped from rock to rock over a clear, burbling stream and stopped to replenish our water supply.

Because of the reduction in mileage I’d planned as part of my healing, I knew I’d be dry camping before I reached the next major water source.

As I hauled my dromedary bag, now full and quivering with cool, life-sustaining water, up to my backpack, I found Meander engaged in conversation with a couple day hikers. They seemed friendly enough, but while grabbing some M&Ms that Meander had generously left among my snacks for the day, I noticed a large pistol sitting on the woman’s hip. “What do you plan to shoot out here? What are you afraid of?” I wanted to ask. Then I thought better of it and wished them a pleasant hike as they walked away.

Meander and I continued up and out of the canyon and away from the stripe of vegetation bordering the brook. We climbed until we were again among scrubby chaparral that tugged at our clothing and packs if we veered too close to the edge of the trail.

I stopped and unfurled my foam in a patch of speckled shade. The familiar pain at the back of my calf had subsided, but now the pain on the outside of my foot had worsened. I remembered the podiatrist telling me about my cuboid bone and the path of the tendon’s fibers as they wound around and into the underside of my foot to stabilize my stride. It turns out walking or running on uneven surfaces is a leading cause of peroneal tendonitis. I ran trails to prepare for this hike, and my foot hadn’t flared like this, but had become sore.

I cut some new foam for my insole and examined the tape, now sprinkled with large grains of sand, I’d wrapped around my ankle before setting out. Maybe if I caught it early, I could stop the pain in its tracks before it stopped me in mine.

Meander and I crunched upwards through yellow sand flecked with mica that glittered in the sun like the shards of a broken mirror. High above us, the racing wind scraped icy cirrus clouds across the sky into feathery wisps.

I stopped to adjust my insole again. Each step was punctuated by a stab of pain, as if I was pressing on a deep bruise. A lonely crow croaked as he floated through the updrafts on his way skyward. Meander was up ahead and I shouldered my pack to continue behind him, wondering whether this adjustment would be successful. Was this the cure I’d needed for five days?

We arrived at a trail to the Lost Valley Spring, which was listed in our water report as a “stagnant pool of nastiness.”

“We’ll check it out just in case,” we agreed as we followed a rutted logging road into a fold in the hillside.

Water skeeters skimmed across the still water in the concrete trough, but beneath the surface, the water was clear. With our freshly filtered bottles, we hiked with confidence into the afternoon sun. Massive boulders perched on the hillside, glowing in the light, waiting patiently for the next earthquake to jar them to the valley below.

We curled with the trail around entire mountains, while the sun sank silently away to the west.

The new foam configuration had helped briefly, but the pressing pain had returned and was becoming sickening.

Meander stopped at a side trail to investigate the camping possibilities. He called from a dry wash that there were a few spots, and I followed the spur trail past a site crawling with tiny black ants that I’d found were capable of delivering surprisingly painful bites.

Near a madrone, I pitched my tent and hung my quilt to allow it to breathe and loft in the evening breeze.

Meander and I sat in the dirt. I stirred the rehydrated beans I’d taken from a hiker box that morning. Meander said he’d made those at home but was sick of them.

I stared into the sun. The candy bars and cheez-its that I had looked forward to just days ago now tasted like cardboard. My foot hurt. I looked at my new shoes, still clean after just 10 miles of walking, and told Meander that this wasn’t working. I had to get off the trail to heal.

We talked for a bit, sorting out details of where I could get off and when to leave in the morning. Then he returned to his tent as the air temperature dropped. I retrieved my phone from my pack and headed back down the trail the way we’d came in search of a signal.

My eyes stung and my voice caught as I called my dad and told him I couldn’t go on. I sat on a rock with the entire valley before me and watched the sun fall behind a ridge. It was so peaceful to just sit. I felt simultaneously lucky and unfortunate.

When my fingers started to chill, I walked back to camp and pulled my gear into the vestibule of my tent to protect it from dew. My site was on a gentle slope causing my pad to slip to the downhill edge of my tent, and I fell asleep with my face pressed up against the mesh, too tired to worry or care.

 

 

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PCT Days 7-9: Tendonitis, Tears, and a Triple Zero in Warner Springs

March 31 – April 2, 2014
Stuck at Mile 109.5
On the morning of the 31st, the thru-hikers who had stayed with him the night before piled into Monty’s truck again and took off for the Warner Springs Post Office.
After picking up our resupply packages, which the Post Office had so kindly held for us as we walked from Campo, we went back to the community center and dumped pounds of carefully rationed powders and bars onto the ground to sort them into our packs.
My box was filled with dried pineapple and strawberries and other wonderful snacks that would take me to Idyllwild for my next resupply. I kneeled on my foam admiring the shiny, colorful wrappers before me.
The night before, two of the hikers who had stayed with Monty had given the rest of us an uneasy feeling. They continuously spouted convoluted messages about Jesus while organizing their massive packs. These were not typical thru-hikers. One was carrying a military issue hatchet, a bayonet he claimed was from the Vietnam War, a machete, a large buck knife, and a vicious curved blade that he kept in a holster strapped across his chest which he claimed was for mountain lions. The pair bragged about killing snakes for food and lighting fires in the desert on their way to Warner Springs, and they were hiking in long, cotton pants.
For reference, no thru-hiker uses cotton for major pieces of clothing on the trail, our knives are often comically tiny, and we adhere to campfire and stove restrictions which are extremely widespread and strict during this dry season.
These two men claimed to not believe in money and they said they had started the trail in February but had gotten off for a while to work for a church organization, asking only for canned food as payment. While sitting at Monty’s I watched them retrieve can after can of green beans and other foods from their packs (another sign that they are not thru-hikers, considering most people hiking long distances will repackage much of their food into small ziplock bags rather than carry cardboard or heavier plastic wrappers. Metal cans are not even an option.). They were also carrying deodorant and asked another hiker what kind of soap he was using on the trail. Ha ha. We all know that hikers are famous for their grubby garb and distinctive odor. Plus, soaps like Irish Spring (which they were carrying), and even biodegradable brands can seriously damage the delicate ecosystems through which the trail passes.
Now that I’ve exposed these “hikers” for the frauds they seem to be, I should finish the job by saying that they did not mail themselves any resupply at Warner Springs, they were upset that there was nothing in the hiker box at the post office, and they became even more agitated when they realized that those of us who had mailed ourselves food had all given our extra rations to Monty so that they could be offered to true thru-hikers. “Jesus loves you, one and all,” were the cryptic parting words of the strange pair as the rest of us hiked back towards the trail. In case there’s any doubt left in your mind, Monty might or might not be missing two pairs of hiking shoes.
As the rest of us stepped back onto the trail and walked out across a grassy field, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and agreed that it felt good to be hiking in a group knowing those two were behind us.
Unfortunately, as we traveled along transitioning from meadow to forest, my tendonitis continued to pull and burn at the outside of my calf and ankle. We stopped at a tire swing hanging in the woods near a picnic table, and I took a swing and a stretch, but when we left the spot, I realized that I needed to stop. I could not justify creating a chronic condition or doing serious damage to such an important part of my body so early in life. There is too much that I still want to do with my legs.
The trail dipped under a small bridge where cars thundered along highway 79. I stopped to sit on a log, and choked when I tried to explain to the others that I couldn’t continue. They gave me advice for resting and stretching and even offered me cash to use back in town. Surely I’d zoom past them, they said. I just needed to heal.
I called Monty again, and feeling utterly defeated, I asked for a ride. Before they walked on, David “Nobody’s Friend” and LaVonne “Waterbug” assured me that I would always have a place with them up the trail. I tried to smile and thanked them for the past 70 miles, and then I climbed up a sandy slope to sit on the guardrail and wait for Monty.
That afternoon, Alphabet Soup, Dynamo, and Johnny returned from REI and the grocery store with new gear and what turned out to be a ridiculous amount of food. Meander was now staying at Monty’s, too, and we all stood on the porch chatting while the three sorted their food. They tossed extra donuts and chocolate bars and unopened poptarts into a pile for the hiker box. I happily raided their leavings to supplement my own food supply for the next few days, which was running dangerously low on candy. They make Snickers bars with almonds. There’s nothing more to understand.
I called my insurance company to figure out how to get an appointment out of my coverage area and explained that I was hiking from Mexico to Canada. “That sounds pretty cool. I’ve had foot problems myself,” said the man on the phone. Soon I had an urgent care appointment for the next day to get a referral to see a podiatrist Monty recommended.
Dynamo’s knee had worsened since I last saw him. It was now swollen and purple, and he and I switched off using an ice-filled ziplock to soothe our injuries.
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The next day, I rode along as Monty dropped Alphabet Soup and Johnny at the trail so that they could begin hiking again. I watched longingly out the rain-spattered window as they walked into the post office to prepare to leave. Dynamo’s knee had become so swollen he couldn’t continue and instead he opted to stay with an aunt and see a doctor in San Diego.
Monty drove us to town and I got my referral easily, but a strange feeling had crept into my mind. I was in a sort of limbo where my desire to hike was powerful, but where I was becoming less focused on the trail and more focused on things I was missing at home like friends and family and warm weather.
I understood that the podiatrist could easily end my hike the next day by prescribing an extended period of rest. I wanted desperately to be on the trail or at home. Though Monty was always happy to oblige, I felt like a leech, asking him for rides and meals and a place to sleep.
I tried unsuccessfully to remain emotionally distant from my persistent desire to hike and from my growing desire to go home, knowing that no matter what the doctor decided, I would somehow be disappointed.
That night, Me Too, another hiker who had started far earlier in the season, arrived with a horrible back injury that had taken him off the trail many miles north of us. His injury seemed far worse than mine, and I was suddenly thankful that all I had to deal with was a little tendonitis.
Monty taught me to bake apples, and as I sat poking at the steaming, cinnamon flavored fruit, I thought of Nobody’s Friend and Waterbug, alive and camped many miles north under the unsettled sky. Would I ever see them again? I glanced at a picture taken when Alphabet Soup, Dynamo, Johnny, Friend, Waterbug, and I had first been together in Mount Laguna. That was at mile 42. Now, as I lay stuck indefinitely at mile 109.5, a pang of grief knotted my stomach as I contemplated the possibility of never seeing any of them again.
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The podiatrist shook my hand, pressed on my foot, and confirmed my diagnosis of peroneal tendonitis. He gave me a pink sheet of sticky felt and showed me how to cut it to pad my superfeet insoles. “Most of my patients have been more comfortable in a shoe with an elevated heel,” he said as he examined my decrepit zero-drop Altras. I got the OK to keep hiking, and stepped into the sun feeling slightly bewildered.
Just like that I had been snapped out of limbo. I was not stuck at mile 109.5, I was hiking the PCT. All I needed was some new shoes, a healthy dose of Aleve, and a ride to the trail in the morning.
Monty drove me to REI and I sat on the cold cement watching the other people waiting for the store to open and wondering, “Why are you at REI on a Wednesday morning? What expedition are you preparing for?”.
Inside, I asked for shoes in size 13, a full two sizes larger than I’d ever worn before. None of the oddly patterned shoes seemed to suit my wide feet. As I stepped through the endless racks of gear, testing shoes, I became conscious of my own odor. Other people smelled good as they walked by. I wondered what they thought when I walked by.
A pair of La Sportiva Wildcats supported my heel and accommodated my toes, and I remembered Waterbug’s declaration that they were the best shoes for everything, including thru-hiking. Her brother told her so, and he did the trail in 2010.
I was sold.
Back at Monty’s house, I felt awkward sharing my good news while Me Too groaned in pain on the couch. But I couldn’t deny my excitement. Finally I was ready to move on from the dreaded 109.5. Meander and I made plans to leave in the morning, and I stuffed my things into their familiar places in my pack, already wondering where I would be in the next 24 hours, who I would meet, and where my friends were on this damp, cold night.

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PCT Day 6: Cave Dwellers and the Hiker Bar

March 30, 2014
Mile 96 to Mile 109.5

Last night I fell asleep around 9 after setting up my tent in what I thought was a relatively sheltered site.
LaVonne was camped in Billy Goat’s cave, a tiny horizontal cylinder carved into the rocky hillside just off the trail. Due to a dearth of suitable sites, David had camped on the trail directly in front of the cave. My site was roughly a tenth of a mile down the trail from the cave.
Around 2:30 in the morning, I was awakened by the violent flapping of my tent wall in the wind that has become so familiar over the past few days. I rolled over, trying to blot out the incessant noise, but the gusts were gradually growing stronger. By 3:30, the wind was blasting sand through the mesh wall of my tent. I closed my mouth, feeling the grit crunch between my teeth. A gust crashed into the wall of my tent and my trekking poles shifted under the load.
I knew that sustaining more wind like that was a recipe for tent damage, so I sat up and tried to brace the flapping nylon while cramming my gear haphazardly into my pack.
I unzipped the tent and stood up into the roar. Pulling stakes, I was careful to shift a chunk of granite onto my tyvek groundsheet so it wouldn’t be blown down the mountain.
When I had finally rolled my tent and groundsheet and stuffed them sloppily into the mesh panel on my pack, I flicked on my headlamp and headed through the brush towards the trail. After about 30 seconds, I realized I was too far down the slope. I had missed the trail.
Swinging the dull halo of light cast by my headlamp, I eventually worked my way through the darkness back to the PCT and started towards David and LaVonne’s camping spot.
When I reached David’s tent, I spread my groundsheet out directly on the trail and unfurled my quilt. I crawled under it and lay there under the clear sky, expecting to cowboy camp for the next few hours until we could hike out in the morning.
But shortly after lying down, I felt a sprinkle on my face. I opened my eyes to a purple-gray sky. The hills were shrouded in mist, and the distant lights of Warner Springs glowed eerily through the gloom.
Realizing that a soaking fog could reduce my lofty quilt to a soggy sack of heat-robbing feathers, I sat up and stuffed the quilt into a dry bag. I stretched my pack cover over my things and then I sat on my foam in my rain gear and pulled my tyvek around my legs. My watch’s yellow display read 4am. I closed my eyes, wondering whether I could simply sit for another few hours until the sun arrived to deliver hope and light through the layer of clouds.
The lights below appeared and disappeared through the swirling haze. I wiggled my fingers in their gloves and realized with dread that they were growing numb. It was only 4:30, and I knew I couldn’t remain outside unsheltered for another two hours. I felt nauseous. I heard David shift inside his small tent, and I flashed my headlamp across his reflective tie outs, but he didn’t wake up.
I agonized over my decisions. Cowboy camping had just been knocked out of the running. The only campsites within half a mile involved backtracking and were very small and exposed to the same winds that had nearly torn down my tent just an hour before. David certainly couldn’t fit me comfortably in his tent.
I packed up my things again and stepped towards the cave. In it, I could see LaVonne wrapped in her mummy bag. I felt like a fool.
Quietly at first, I whispered her name. I was trying not to wake David, but I needed to make myself heard over the wind. “LaVonne,” I repeated more loudly, “my tent was blowing over.” LaVonne started and in one smooth motion rolled to the side and said, “come on in.”
A crippling wave of shame, relief, and gratitude swept through me. It was 4:30am and exhausted, defeated, and on the verge of tears, I squeezed into the cave next to LaVonne and slept in the warmth and shelter of the mountain itself.
When David called from the mouth of the cave to wake us up, I found myself face down in a warm puddle of drool. I dragged myself clumsily into the gray light and ate a convenience store pastry. Soon we were on our way down, down to Warner Springs. My peroneal tendonitis, which causes a burning sensation that shoots from my lower calf around the outside of my ankle and into the bottom of my foot, was flaring up again and I stopped briefly to stretch, knowing it wouldn’t do much good.
My eyes drooped as I walked. To keep myself awake, I ate another pastry. And then a Clif bar.
By the time we reached Barrel Spring, a cool spring-fed horse trough near mile 100, I was chewing absently on some dried apples and the last crumbs of the walnuts I’d carried for the last 60 miles. My brain felt like a brick.
We crossed a highway and began traversing low, rolling hills covered in soft grass and wildflowers. We slowed to pluck miner’s lettuce from the shady undergrowth. Within arm’s reach we found prickly pears soaked in sun. The trail curved across the valleys, a thin strip of whitish sand winding through verdant fields.
We stopped at San Ysidro creek in the shade of a massive sycamore to stretch and to munch on coconut shreds and cheez-its. After our break, we pushed into the wind past boulders white as bone and across vast meadows that rippled like the muscles of an enormous beast.
Some day hikers warned us of a snake ahead, but we never saw it as we descended into a canyon cut by a trickling stream. We stepped into the shade, and David put his hand on an enormous Oak tree and smiled, “Hello, Granddaddy!”
The last couple miles passed swiftly, and soon we stepped through a livestock gate and were officially in the tiny town of Warner Springs.
I sat on the hot asphalt at the community center, which was closed for another two days, aiming my solar charger skyward to gain a charge so I could call Warner Springs Monty about a ride.
Within minutes, a tan pickup with a camper on the back bumped into the parking lot. Monty jumped out and opened the back, and inside were Dynamo, Alphabet Soup, and Johnny!
After 100 miles, we were all on the same page. The awkward interactions and general unfamiliarity had vanished and we were immediately swapping stories and comparing campsites and mileages. Crunched between packs and legs black from desert dust, I smiled all the way to our stop: a biker bar where, according to Monty, we were listening to a blues band for the next hour.
We stepped past the band and into the bar filled with rough-looking bikers with beards and leather jackets. But looking past the faded denim and heavy boots, I saw two tables crowded with sunburned hikers in running shorts and funny hats. “Biker bar?” Monty grinned at the waitress, “I thought it said hiker bar.”
I’d never met half of these hikers, but we were an instant community. We’d all struggled through the first 100 miles and we were all excited to hike the next 100. And we were all starving.
My entire table ordered half-pound cheeseburgers. I could barely hold mine in my hands.
Our plates were devoid of food in minutes. Someone, still chewing, pointed to a half-eaten pickle spear mumbling, “You gonna eat that?”
Back at Monty’s, we washed the dirt of Section A from between our toes then stomped around in our rain gear while an overworked machine pulled the grime from our laundry. There’s no room for a change of clothes in an ultralight kit.
Later, 10 hikers sat in a loose circle in Monty’s living room, feet soaking in buckets of warm Epsom salt, while being schooled in blister management.
Exhausted from a day of absolute emotional extremes, I rolled out my sleeping pad on the floor and fell asleep to the breathing of other hikers, no flapping nylon to be heard.

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PCT Day 5: Primal Fears and an Ominous Soreness

March 29, 2014
Mile 77.2 to Mile 96

I’m feeling strange tonight. Not quite discouraged, but I’m not sure I’m having fun yet. My foot is sore and I’m worried about the possibility of my tendonitis relapsing or becoming chronic. Hopefully tomorrow I can rest it when David, LaVonne, and I get picked up by Warner Springs Monty on our way into town. He’s offered us showers, laundry, and “fish tacos grande,” which sounds just about like heaven right now.

Last night the coyotes were out in force. Though we camped within sight of two highways after filling up with water from a cache stocked by trail angels, we were visited in the night by multiple coyotes who were close enough to our tents that their yelping scared me a little.
I felt safe camping near David and LaVonne, but involuntarily my brain conjured images of wolf-like creatures leering at me through the gap between my tent and the ground. I kept rolling over half-expecting to find a wet, black nose and open mouth pushing against my mosquito mesh.
In the morning, when my stomach’s churning became too intense to ignore, I reluctantly abandoned the warmth of my quilt to find a suitable place for a cathole. As I walked up the hill from my tent, I found a large, fresh pile of coyote scat, proof that they had been as close as I’d thought.
None of my fear was rational. Coyotes do not charge into tents to take down backpackers. But something about the way their yips and howls played off the hills both near and far had truly affected me and had awakened a fear I didn’t think I had.
We left camp shortly before 8 and immediately began climbing. The early morning light bathed blooming ocotillos and barrel cactuses. The desert was positively majestic. As the sun rose in the sky, it banished the cool of morning and I tucked my bandana under my hat to protect myself from it’s harsh rays.
Just an hour after the sun peeked over the distant ridges to the east, I could feel my skin frying in the heat. I slapped palm-fulls of sunscreen on my legs and arms which quickly became caked with blackish grit. I smeared fresh, white zinc oxide on my face, but it was tainted by the dirt from my hands. My back became soaked with sweat as we made our way into a burned section. With no hope of shade, we tried to hold a pace through an alien landscape of blackened agaves and the skeletal remnants of cactus that had scorched in the fire. Soon, however, our energy flagged. We stopped and sat on a hot, sandy hillside to eat a little food. The cache was only three miles ahead, but the sun was sapping our strength. We muddled onward through the heat.
Finally, we reached a fire line dug by a bulldozer that had stopped the fire from further destroying the landscape. Energized by our return to healthy vegetation, we continued down the trail with raised spirits, and found the Third Gate Cache.
As I neared the sign proclaiming “H2O” and pointing to the side trail, I was greeted by another hiker. Meander (his trail name) had been leaving us hearts drawn in the sand and had even left a note at a previous cache, so it was fun to catch up to him and put a gray-bearded face to the name.
We said goodbye as Meander continued up the PCT, and then followed the signs to a stand of brush where hundreds of gallons of water were crammed into the shade.
More signs admonished hikers to tie up empty gallon jugs so they wouldn’t blow away and asked that we limit ourselves to 4 liters for the next stretch of trail so the cache could aid more people.
David, Lavonne, and I refilled our water bottles and settled into the shade for a late lunch before hiking on to our planned camp site. At the small cave we’d planned to camp near, LaVonne decided to squish into the hole in the rock for the night. David and I found sites nearby. Leave No Trace is important to me, but often at the end of the day, it’s actually impossible to camp far enough from the trail to stay true to its letter. But I hope that by scattering the rocks I use to stake out my tent and by brushing away my footprints from the sand I camp on, I’m minimizing my impact enough that I’m staying true to the spirit of LNT.
Alone for the night, I rubbed my aching feet, hoping with all my strength that the pain just means I’m adjusting. I know I need new shoes because the ones I started in are so broken down. With luck, some new soles will allow me to keep going, because even if I’m not having fun I can recognize yet, I know I don’t want to leave.

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PCT Day 4: The Cold Blooded Would-Be-Killer

March 28, 2014
Mile 59.5 to Mile 77.2

In the morning, I turned over on my sleeping pad and felt a frigid spray of condensation rain down from the walls of my tent. I unzipped the silnylon and peered out at LaVonne’s frost-covered tarp. Camping in the grass had doomed us to a dew-soaked start.
I polished off my leftover mashed potatoes and grabbed handfuls of nuts and dried apricots while I packed up for the day.
A short jaunt across the highway and down a side trail led the three of us back to the familiar strip of rock and dirt we hope to follow to Canada. The wind that had been a constant during the past few days had finally abated and we quickly shed layers of clothing. The sun lifted my mood remarkably and I felt happy cruising with ease through the rugged mountains. David, LaVonne and I chatted as we hiked and I continued to stretch my hip to relieve the tension in my knee. On our way up a hill covered with prickly desert shrubs, we heard a voice from behind us and stepped off the trail to let two trail runners pass.
“You guys thru-hiking?”
“Yup”
“Awesome”
Today was the first day I actually felt like a thru-hiker. It was the first time I was asked by anyone not selling me gear or handing me my resupply box whether I was trying for Canada. I’ve encountered the question many times in town, but to be able to answer “Yup” while actually hiking with a backpack full of gear and food is new. It made me feel proud. I haven’t finished the trail yet by any means, but to be on my way and to think of being labeled a thru-hiker is special. I let the feeling swell inside me for a while before returning to the reality of the crunching of my shoes and the thwack, thwack of my poles on weathered rock.
We stopped for lunch near a large water tank stocked for use by wild land fire fighters. After filtering the water we dragged from the tank with an old Gatorade bottle on a rope, we spread our sopping tents out to dry and tucked ourselves into the shade of some large bushes. My foot had begun to hurt in the same place where it had just a month earlier when I developed tendonitis. I made a mental note to have my mom send me the new shoes I’d ordered before leaving for my hike.
On the long descent to Scissors Crossing, we met some day hikers from Sacramento, of all places, and stopped to talk. Soon we were on our way again, heading down, down to the valley below. Jet fighters buzzed the canyons we hiked through, drawing our eyes skyward.
I was hiking behind LaVonne when I heard a loud buzz and a hiss to my left. Startled, I stopped short and saw the Mojave rattlesnake coiled a few feet from my leg. It was poised to strike, but I was pretty sure I was out of range. “A few steps back never hurt anyone,” I thought, as I recoiled in fear. David was able to make his way down the slope and around the snake while it was paying attention to me. Then he distracted it with his pole so I could continue forward safely. Back in a group of three, we watched the snake retreat to the shade and promised to keep a better eye out for deadly reptiles.
We continued our descent and stopped in the shade of a massive boulder for some more candy and water. I don’t always eat candy, but when I do, I eat Snickers and Almond Joy and PayDay and Reese’s and M&Ms and pretty much anything that’s 250 calories and fits in my palm and can be happily consumed in three bites or fewer.
Finally on the valley floor, we began to pass desert poppies and other wild flowers we hadn’t seen in our previous eco-zone.
While walking through a burned-out agave field, LaVonne remarked that our trio represented three different generations. Each of us started solo with plans to reach Canada by the end of the summer and we connected on the trail within days due to a similar hiking pace. There’s no guarantee we’ll finish together, but today we were together hiking through unfamiliar hills and gratefully filling water bottles from the Scissors Crossing Cache. And tonight we are together on the warm sand under the desert stars listening to the barks and howls of coyotes echoing from the mountains we’ll climb together in the morning.

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