Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Two- Mystical Water Fortresses and an Unbound Freedom I Didn’t Know Existed

Sunset on the salt flats

Sunset on the salt flats

(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the second installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)


“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” I’m down on my hands and knees on the salt flats, blood running everywhere. I try to push myself up but it’s hard- the salt is really sharp, and my hands are bleeding. My face is cut up too, and my knee. “Fuck!” I say again. I’m crying. We’ve been walking for about three miles, in the dark, without headlamps- the moon is big and bright like a streetlamp so we haven’t needed them- everything is illuminated. When I imagined this trip, I always imagined that this first six miles, walking on the salt flats, would be the easy part. I imagined the salt flats as a smooth, sandy place where we’d plod along in a general sort of direction. I figured we’d make great time. But it turns out that the salty mud, just like everything here, is shaped by the flash floods that periodically move through, and the stuff dries in all sorts of crazy, fantastical ways- big geometrical chunks, sticking up like water-swollen puzzle pieces, thin tinkling crusts through which one post-holes with a sound like shattering glass, and pointy, irregular lumps that glitter in the moonlight and, it turns out, are really, really sharp. The going has been slower than I’d imagined and then, like a fool, I tripped and fell on my face.

Jess and Chance appear (we’d been walking spread out across the salt flat, lost in our own thoughts, following the tinkling sounds of each others’ progress) and Chance pulls the foam pad out of my backpack so that I have something to sit on. I wipe at my face- I fell pretty hard on my face but my nose is not, as I thought it might be, broken, and most of the stuff on my face is dirt, not blood. Jess shines a light on my knee, and there’s the source of most of the blood- there seems to be a hole punched there, in the soft part just below the kneecap, into what I can only describe as “bacon fat”. There’s a small, yellow piece hanging loose, and as I stare at it the blood slows to a trickle. There isn’t any pain- my face and torn-up hands are what hurt the worst. Must not be very many nerve endings there- a sort of natural knee pad. That’s cool. I poor some water on the hole to wash out the grit.

“That wound is badass,” says Jess. This cheers me up. Chance tells me about the time she rode an office chair down a really steep hill to impress someone, and the wounds she sustained from that.

“Do you think it needs stitches?” I say.

“Nah,” says Chance. I wonder what I should do. We’re only three miles in, and the hole in my knee is pretty deep. Of course none of us carry first-aid kits. If I limped back to the boardwalk right now, leaving Jess and Chance to do the hike without me, no-one would fault me. It would make perfect sense- I had to get stitches! Life is full of these moments, I think. These perfect little opportunities to quit. Sometimes quitting is the most reasonable thing. And yet, if I’ve learned anything, it’s to see these moments as red flags. These moments, more than anything, are the moments when you’ve got to keep going.

I fish out some hand sanitizer and squirt it into the wound. It doesn’t even burn.

“Seems fine,” I say.

We make it to the jeep road on the other side of the salt flats at 10 p.m., and poke around for a place to camp. We’re exhausted but we’re wired too, high on the uncertainty of this adventure, the feeling that anything can happen. We unfurl our bedrolls beneath the moon and I rinse out the hole in my knee again, pour some more hand sanitizer in there. I’ve got a clean bandanna and I tie it over my knee. That oughta do ‘er. Who needs first aid kits when you have hand sanitizer and a clean bandanna?

It’s warm, too warm for my sleeping bag, and there are these little gnats everywhere, swarming my face, crawling in my nose like they want to eat the moisture there. The moon is practically pulsating in the sky, suspended above the salt flats, casting everything in shadow. Our alarm is set for 5 a.m.- we want to get in as much hiking as we can before the heat hits. Tomorrow we climb up towards Telescope Peak, an ascent of ten thousand feet in fourteen miles. It’s the fourth steepest climb in the U.S. And there isn’t any trail. We’ll also locate our first desert water source.

I know I should be asleep, but I feel so awake. My whole body is humming with energy. What’s going to happen, and what will it even be like?

Life is really, really good.


Jess hands around her jetboil of hot water and there’s a little instant coffee for everyone- I pull the blood-crusted hanky off my knee, fold it carefully for re-use and then we’re up, working our way towards Hanaupah canyon as the horizon transitions to orange, aquamarine, and then the sun shoots crystal magic light-rays over the crest of the mountains, illuminating the whole clear pure universe.




Failed morning group selfie w/Jess' eye and Chance's hat

Failed morning group selfie w/Jess’ eye and Chance’s hat

Hanaupah spring is a miracle- one moment the world is a conflagration of salt and rocks and dust and light and then there’s the sound of running water, real bubbling water, and tall straight green water plants and a spring, flowing just casually, and just as casually going underground not soon after. I cup the water and pour it over my head, soak my shirt in it. We can see that the source is further up the canyon- there’s a whole swatch of green there, in the shaded crooks and gulleys, verdant and impossible. Also a little cave in the face of the hill- where a miner once lived? We sit in a hunk of shade next to a big rock and laugh, and eat food, and consume more caffeine. Caffeine. We are going to need lots of caffeine on this trip.

After resting we do as Charlie said and begin the long slog up towards the ridge. It’s slow going, just like everything we’ve done so far. All my hiking experience is on the PCT and I’m learning that, compared to this, the PCT is like running a marathon with aid stations- the path is gently graded and generally free of obstacles, and resupply points are a reasonable distance apart. All you have to do, then, on the PCT, is concentrate on walking as fast as you can. Hiking cross-country is a whole different animal- the ground is uneven, and there are almost always things in the way. And while I can space out on the PCT, hiking without a trail keeps my brain almost constantly engaged- I’m thinking about where I am in reference to the landscape around me, what the landscape is about to do and how, exactly, I am going to get to where I need to go. And there’s the thought that goes into my footwork- stepping up and around and over and veering here and there and looking for faint animal trails and pausing and recalculating and backtracking a few steps and looking to see where Chance and Jess are, and if they’ve found a better route, and wondering if the slope is gradual enough or if it’s about to get too steep and I’m going to have to climb hand over hand and maybe I should go over there, to that other slope, maybe that would be the more efficient way? It feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle while I hike and I love it- it’s a sort of intimacy with the landscape that I’ve never experienced before. Badwater Basin, Hanaupah Canyon, Telescope Ridge- these places are being burned into my memory, I’m feeling them meter by meter with my hands, their topography is being lovingly cataloged by some part of my brain that I’ve never even USED before. I’m an animal, I’m a deer, I’m a free wild creature, and I’m just casually moving over the land!


Jess and Chance on the climb out of Hanaupah Canyon



Breaktime on the climb

The climb is straight up, and it is STEEP. Endorphins are dumping into my body at an unprecedented rate and the air is cooling as we gain elevation, soon we’re in shady pinyon forest and I feel happier than I have in weeks, mashing uphill at one mile an hour, my achilles tendons so tight they feel like they might snap. Go legs, go! This is what I live for! Long steep climbs, I never thought I would learn to love them. When I first started hiking I dreaded the climbs. But the endorphins of steep climbs are a thing without parallel, and that feeling you get upon reaching the top is a feeling, I am learning, to build one’s entire life around.

Chance, almost to the top. Way below you can see the salt flats where we started.

Chance, almost to the top. Way below you can see the salt flats where we started.

The three of us reach Telescope Ridge at 3 p.m.- the last seven miles of the climb take us five hours. Chance and I are completely busted and we curl up in the sun with our hats over our faces and feign sleep. Jess elects to climb another thousand feet up a side trail to the peak. Jess is one hell of a brilliant hiker- she has a natural talent that’s almost eerie and we joke that it’s just a matter of time before she “goes to the races” and starts her life as a champion ultrarunner. Chance and I will pace her, we say, and help her train, and afterward she’ll use the prize money to take us all to Nepal.

From one side of the ridge we can see Hanaupah Canyon, and the salt flats, and the place where the road is, where we started. On the other side of the ridge we can see where the folds of the mountains peter out into another great, flat, baking valley- that’s what we’ll cross next. I eat some pretzels and sunflower butter, a couple of bars. I’m almost out of water- our next source is at the bottom of this mountain, in Tuber Canyon. Our destination for the night.


On Telescope Ridge


Looking back towards Telescope Peak

Looking back towards Telescope Peak


We cross that next

We cross that next

Jess returns (“I’m the first person to sign the summit register since March,” she says) and we make our way across the ridge on two miles of good trail- the only trail we’ll see until the 99 switchbacks up Mt. Whitney on our last day. This actual trail is easy, too easy, and it’s not for us- the trail continues on along the ridge but we leave it to descend overland down a soft, rocky slope towards the valley below, picking our way as quickly as we can the sun sinking in the bright open sky. Then it’s dim pinyon forest, trying to find the right way to go, cutting back and forth among the trees and bushy desert plants, our legs scratched up, just knowing we’ve got to head down, down to Tuber canyon, and water.

Goodnight, sun

Goodnight, sun

It’s dark by the time we reach the canyon, a narrow wash choked with trees and brush. The air is chilled here and there are crickets- you can almost smell the water nearby. I feel certain, though, that we’ve passed the spring- that it’s up the canyon a little ways and that we’ve got to bushwhack backwards a bit to find it. We’ve got a PCT hiker’s aversion to backtracking- on the PCT it is almost always more efficient to go forward as quickly as possible than to backtrack to the watersource, campsite, or whatever it is that you missed. We stand there for a bit, debating- we know that there are several potential springs in Tuber Canyon and we know that Charlie said that at least one of them was running. The one we missed had water, but we don’t want to backtrack. If we keep moving forward, will we find another? We’re thirsty and tired, having blown our entire loads on the climb up Telescope Peak. But we just do not. Want. To backtrack. So here are the possibilities of the known universe-

-There is another spring.
-There isn’t another spring and we hike until two a.m., at which point we reach a road that we can walk another couple of miles to a campground that will have water.
-There isn’t another spring and we hike all night to Panamint Springs Resort, reaching it around dawn.

The first option seems highly unlikely and so we set off, with stupid enthusiasm, into what may turn out to be a very miserable night. I’m thirsty, but not TOO thirsty- this is not my first time at the dehydration rodeo, and I feel that I could comfortably hike until the wee hours without becoming sick. We’re so tired, though, and the wash, although it’s sandy and has opened up a bit, is full of rocks and boulders and it’s slow going in the dark. The three of us stop talking and just sort of hike, scouting around now and then in spots where we think the other potential springs might be. There’s nothing, though, just a whole lot of nothing. It doesn’t seem as though there’s a single drop of water in this whole eerily beautiful, godforsaken place- just the moon, and the rocks, and the slopes of the ridges rising up, and over there a huge clump of big, lush trees-

Trees! The ground around the trees is smooth, trampled dirt, like in a yard where a dog is kept. There are bones and poop everywhere, flat places in the grass. And then Chance is shouting

“Water! I found water!”

And we come running to find a rectangular, shallow depression beneath the low tangled limbs of the trees, dug out by enterprising creatures, and yellow, clear-ish water pooled there. There are things floating in the puddle, muck on the bottom, but we don’t care. We’re elated. Water! We found fucking water! A spring! The place where every creature this side of Telescope Ridge comes to drink!

I fill up my bottle carefully to minimize floaties, and treat it with my steripen (twice). Jess and Chance don’t treat the water at all. I take a long drink and discover that the water tastes absolutely horrible- it’s sulfuric and warm, sort of salty. Hotspring. It’s like I’m drinking a hotspring. I almost can’t stomach it, but I make myself drink a half liter. I remind myself of how thirsty I am.

A moment later we realize that we can hear running water inside the trees, the source of the spring, but there’s absolutely no way to get to it. The limbs of the trees are like an iron prison- and we’re not the first creature that’s tried to reach the water. This desert is crazy! These trees are nuts! Who are they, to keep the spring for themselves like this? We comfort ourselves with more sulfur-water from the puddle and then bed down in front of the mystical, mysterious, water-bearing tree-fortress, in the trampled dirt where every other creature for a hundred miles comes to sleep, and drink, and fight, and fuck. I can almost feel them watching us, from the ridges above- the wild burrows, the bighorn sheep, the mountain lions. Thirsty, en route to their daily drink, and then- fuck! What are those? Humans? What are they doing here and how long until they perish and we can pick their bones clean?

We sit in our sleeping bags, eating what we can of our dinners. We hiked until 9 p.m. today, traversing a humble 23 miles. But they’re most gratifying 23 miles I’ve ever hiked, and slowly I can feel my old attitude about hiking sloughing away, something new growing in its place. This sense of accomplishment, this intimacy with the land, this camaraderie with Chance and Jess, my real human friends in this great empty desert wilderness. I don’t know what I’m doing right now, exactly, but it’s very, very different than what I did on the PCT. This isn’t a “trail”- it’s just an idea that someone made up. A concept. Who’s to say that I can’t come up with my own ideas? Who’s to say that I can’t find some maps someplace, call up the ranger station, link together the existing water sources? What is this great, wild, busted open world? What is even out there?

A single fat mosquito appears just before I drift off to sleep, and bumps against my face. Then another. Of course there are mosquitoes, in the one place where there’s water. Of course. I unstuff my shelter and pull the mesh over my face, but I can still hear them, like tiny, single engine planes. And it’s warm- strangely warm. It’s supposed to be cool in the desert at night. I’m no expert of desert climates, but I did notice a trend during my two rounds on the PCT- a warm desert night usually comes before a heatwave.

Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route from Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part One- Don’t Fear the Reaper


Chance in Darwin Flats

(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. Here, in installments, is my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)

NotaChance, who is also a writer (and a brilliant one at that) is also writing about our trip. Check out her version of events on her blog.

Through some miracle of fate, late September finds me living in a trailer in Southern Oregon with two of my favorite hikers, NotaChance and Orbit (aka Jess). This much hiking obsession in one small space (Chance has hiked the PCT four times, Jess has hiked the AT, the PCT twice, plus a bunch of really cool stuff in Nepal) means that we’re bound to start scheming, and when we have a chunk of time free we jump ship, catch a ride into Ashland, buy a bunch of shit from the Shop n’ Kart (Chance likes those bars that are made of meat, Jess purchases a great quantity of instant coffee) and fall asleep on our friend Mitra’s floor, after eating too much coconut bliss. Maps printed off the internet are scattered across the table, water bottles, fished from the trash, are stuffed into our packs. The plan is to walk from Badwater Basin, at 238 feet below sea level, to the top of Mt. Whitney, at 14,503 feet. The Lowest to Highest Route- The lowest point in the country to the highest point in the Lower 48. 135 miles. There is no trail.

I wake at 6:30 with the dawn, eyes weepy from the cat, and rise from the couch to boil water in the electric kettle for coffee. There are dishes everywhere, limp bunches of greens from the farmer’s market, a half-eaten spoon cake. I stare at the bits of paper taped to the fridge while I wait for the water to boil. The fridge is covered in fingerprints and the inside is stuffed full of microbrews and leftovers in plastic yogurt tubs. Mitra appears in a long robe, rubbing her eyes. She works early at the market.

“Don’t you want to come with us?” I say. “Walk from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney?”

“No,” says Mitra.

The water starts to whine and the others are up, stretching on the carpet, tired in this leftover morning. Jess braids her hair into a thick side-braid, stuffs her things into her pack. Jess is quiet, thinks about the stars a lot, and by “the stars” I mean astronomy. We’ll name her “Quiet Jess”, but not until we’re on the crest of the Inyo Mountains, weary and dehydrated, pretending we’re in a Steinbeck novel. Chance is “The Butch One”, even though she’s straight. Brassy and loud, her hair always tangled. She owns one outfit- wranglers with red suspenders and a torn t-shirt with a snake on it. Sometimes she drinks too much. I’m good with logistics, making sure people are fed and we have a place to stay, so I’m “Momma Carrot,” which makes me imagine myself in a long prairie dress, lots of petticoats. Watering the flowers in the box on my windowsill. Making everyone salads. It wouldn’t be a bad life, really.

There is no trail from Badwater Basin to the top of Mt. Whitney but there is a route. This route exists in the imaginations of a small handful of people, and there are maps online. The maps have a red line through them- this is the route. We’ll hitch to the salt flats in Badwater Basin, which boasts the highest recorded temperature in the U.S., and from there we’ll start walking west, towards Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48. We’ll navigate over three mountain ranges and three baking valleys. The journey will take about six days. We have only to stay on the red line.

I’ve never navigated with a map before.

One of Mitra’s housemates joins us in the living room, where we’re packing our things. He’s young, with tousled blond hair, carrying a messenger bag. He tells us he goes to Southern Oregon University for their Outdoor Education program.

“Outdoor education!” I say. “That’s perfect. Do you want to come on this hike with us? You can be our intern.” The man looks frightened.

“I have to get to school,” he says.

While we walk to the I-5 onramp I call Panamint Springs resort. Panamint Springs Resort, described as a “remote campground and restaurant in Death Valley”, is on our route, 50 miles into the hike, and our plan is to cache food there that we can pick up on our way through. This way we only have to leave Badwater Basin with two days of food. This is my third time calling Panamint Springs, and the results are always the same- a man answers the phone, I say who I am and what we’d like to do, he sighs, and then he hangs up on me. This brings to mind the opening scene to the movie for Stephen King’s The Stand, which is set to Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper- all the people in a research facility have died, fallen dead into their bowls of soup in the cafeteria or piled up against the back doors, clutching the handle that says exit. We decide that there’s only one person left living at Panamint Springs Resort and that he’s holed up in the office with the doors barricaded, shotgun on his lap, fending off zombies. We start singing on the onramp, waving our cardboard sign that says Death Valley-

All our times have come
Here but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
we can be like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand
Don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby I’m your man…

I also call the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, to get information on the three water sources on our 135 mile route. The ranger who answers the phone tells me that she, ah, can’t recommend that we do this hike.

“It’s still hot here,” she says. “You want to wait a few more months.”

“This is the perfect time of year to do this hike,” I say. “The desert is cooler (100 degrees instead of 115) but there isn’t any snow on top of Mt. Whitney, yet.”

“Yeah, no,” she says. “I can’t recommend it. You’d need, like, a map.”

“We have maps,” I say. “We have very detailed topographical maps. We all have lots of hiking experience.” (Do we? I think.)

“Ah, no.” she says again. “I can’t recommend it.”

“I don’t actually care if you recommend it,” I literally say into the phone. “I just need to find out if these water sources are running.”

The woman gives me the number of a man named Charlie.

“Yah, Hanaupah Canyon, the spring is running,” says Charlie in a gruff, not unfriendly voice. “After the spring you want to climb up the ridge, though. Don’t keep going up the wash. And if you see any marijuana grows, don’t touch ‘em.”

“Thank you,” I say. Climb up the ridge, I repeat to myself. Don’t go up the wash. These are the sorts of things, I am realizing, that you have to remember when there is no trail.

Chance and Jess, hitching out of Ashland

Chance and Jess, hitching out of Ashland

A woman named Chris stops for us and we pile into her tidy SUV. Chris lives alone atop the Marble Mountains, in a house she built herself. In the sixties she hitch-hiked across Africa, but now she makes a living teaching Opera. Chris has silver hair and her sweater is draped elegantly. She speaks quietly, as though slightly annoyed at having to speak at all, and I have to strain to hear her. Chris drops us in Yreka, where a huge tattooed man gathers us up into the spacious, comfortable cab of his truck. He’s headed to his grandmother’s funeral and he nurses a single Corona while he drives. Dude In a Pickup Truck, the patron saint of hitchhikers. Generous and polite, he’ll take you anywhere you need to go. Stranded somewhere? If you wait long enough, he’ll always come along. Always. The man takes us out for icecream and then drops us in Mt. Shasta, where we stand blinking on the main boulevard, across from all the crystal shops. It’s already afternoon, and we’ve only made it a hundred miles. I feel frazzled and my friends need coffee. In the little health food store I buy cold deli meat and mustard. Jess finds a smart white button-down in the thrift store- her desert shirt. A desert shirt is a light-colored, long-sleeved thing, usually with buttons, that creates a microclimate next to your skin and keeps you from roasting like a chicken in the sun. I hate my desert shirt- it fits me like a tent, although the permanent sweat stains on it from my PCT hike are sort of beautiful.

We stand outside Mt. Shasta for a long time, at a junction for a small highway that will eventually take us south, then east of the Sierras, then to Death Valley. No-one driving by has any idea who we are or what our sign means. We have to be back in southern Oregon in eight days, for work, and I’d budgeted one day for the hitch south. At this rate, though, we’ll be lucky if we make it at all.

“I just want to hike,” says Chance.

“Hiking is so much easier than hitch-hiking,” I say. I feel dehydrated already, and we’re not even at the trailhead.

“I want a hot dog,” says Jess. “More coffee.”


still hitching

A woman named Dre is headed to a hotsprings near Lake Tahoe and has room in her subaru for all of us. Dre is listening to the Clan of the Cave Bear audiobook and I fall asleep to the description of Ayla’s life among the people of her tribe, gathering berries and making fires against the winter cold. When I wake the shadows are long and Dre is dropping us at a lonely junction somewhere north of Reno, next to some cowfields.

"Somewhere north of Reno"

“Somewhere north of Reno”

To the west the earth rises up in sagebrush hills, the beginnings of the Sierra Nevada. We crawl under some barbed wire and unfurl our bedrolls in the clumpy grass and cow patties. The temperature plummets- it’s cold in the desert at night. I eat a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips for dinner. The stars come out and I lay in my bag with all my layers on, nose poking out, watching the milky way. It feels good to be in this nowhere place, surrounded by no-name hills. It feels good to be a witness.


cow patties

I have wild violent dreams and wake up thirsty and cold in the still-dark, unable to get warm. My bag is wet with condensation and frost and I curl into a little ball, awkwardly, on my child-size neo-air. The sun spills liquid fire over the mountains and we all sit up, although we’ve been awake for hours.



Jess braids her hair and boils water for coffee and then we walk down the deserted highway to a gas station, set back in the hills, where I buy instant cappuccino from the machine that spurts powder. I fill half the foam cup with hot chocolate and sit on the cold sidewalk out front, drinking it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Chance washes her face and Jess finally gets that hot dog.

A series of small, exhausting hitches leaves us standing in the sun at the edge of a town just big enough to have a general store. I have a small tub of pot brownies a friend gave us for our journey; he told us that they were very “mild” and so we eat them to pass the time, until they’re all gone.


hitching, hitching, hitching

An hour later none of us are high and so I feel confident in the fact that the brownies were, in fact, very weak, just regular brownies really. Another hour later I’m driving our ride’s huge pickup through the mountains near Mammoth while he naps and suddenly I am very, very high; the road is impossibly narrow and I’m either going too fast or two slow. Our ride wakes and asks me a question but I’m unable to discern what he means by it, exactly, so I don’t say anything in response. Chance laughs in the backseat and says something that is also unintelligible. Our ride drops us off just north of Bishop and I pace the tarmac, try to soothe myself with a pocketful of gingins, little chewy ginger candies. The gingins stick to my molars in a terrifying way and I start to panic. A car pulls off and I end up shotgun, again- I refuse to answer any of the driver’s questions and I just stare at my phone. I think he has an Australian accent, but I can’t be sure.

Our ride dumps us at the edge of Bishop, where we try to hitch for an hour and a half, to no effect. Finally we walk to the grocery store, where I buy some roast chicken and gluten-free pretzel sticks. We sit in the little seating area next to the indoor starbucks. I remember when I was here on the PCT in 2013, and I ate the entire inside of a stale cherry pie.

At 6:30 we mount the local bus for the long ride to Lone Pine. I lean against the window and watch the dark come on, the first stars above the desert. It’s so dry here, the land so quiet and open. I’m tired and hungry and everything seems unreasonable, like I should’ve just stayed at home. But what is Home? I don’t know. The three of us have a friend, a hiker named LoveNote, who bought an old house to fix up in Lone Pine. The house stands empty on the edge of the desert and we can stay there, she says, while we’re in town. We walk to the house from where the bus driver drops us off, through a small, shuttered neighborhood, houses sun-faded and shrunken against the broad desert sky. We find the hidden key and let ourselves in to an oasis of old wallpaper and wood paneling, quiet rooms and a couple of made-up mattresses on the floor like pure heaven, windows open letting in the air and the sounds of the crickets. Tomorrow we’ll hitch the last 150 miles to Badwater Basin- and then the real work begins.

I wake up late after the sun’s up air coming in the open windows making some windchimes move, somewhere, and I lay in the faded flowered sheets feeling hungover from something, I’m not sure what. When I get up I realize I’ve started to bleed and there’s the relief that comes with that, tension releasing like when it’s overcast and finally starts to rain. I can feel my insides deflating like a bike tire with the air coming out.

We walk into Lone Pine, which looks like the set of an old western, blinking in the clear strong bright sunshine. We crowd a dim booth at the Alabama Hills Cafe, where we’re presented with massive portions of ham steak, runny eggs and fried potatoes. I eat all this and most of a day old cinnamon roll, too. I drink a cup of coffee with a generous number of those little shelf-stable cups of hazelnut flavoring liquid. I’m so ready to hike.

There are only a couple of water sources on this hike, springs hidden in brush-choked canyons and tepid pools at abandoned mines. Between Panamint Springs Resort and Lone Pine there is sixty miles of baking joshua tree desert without any water at all- and it’s here, in this dry stretch, that we must cache our own water. Leaving six gallons of water in the sand at a lonely highway intersection will shorten the longest water carry to just 45 miles- which is still, to me, inconceivable. There are some long water carries on the Pacific Crest Trail, but nothing like this. How much water do I need for 45 miles, or two days on the trail? Six liters? Ten? How can I possibly carry enough water for two days of walking? And in the heat?

After breakfast we buy our six gallons of water at the small general store and carry them, awkwardly, to the McDonald’s on the edge of town to try and hitch. We take turns standing in the sun with our thumbs out, two at a time, cardboard sign with the word BADWATER and a drawing of a skull. When it’s my turn to rest I sit in the shade in front of the McDonald’s and watch map and compass tutorials on my phone. I usually don’t carry a compass but this morning I bought one at the local gear shop and put it in the chest pocket of my desert shirt. I feel it there. The compass is different than the compass in the tutorials. Will I even need a compass? The desert is so open, you can see the way the land is shaped. Can’t I just look at topo lines? What even is a compass?

Lone Pine

Lone Pine

A man from LA picks us up in his nice rental car and takes us to the junction where the highway splits towards Death Valley. It’s a desolate intersection, some shuttered concrete buildings and one large, dying walnut tree. We stand in the shade of this tree, gallons of water gathered around our feet, and look at the empty road. Who comes here? No-one. I start to sing again.

Come on baby
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand
Don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly
Don’t fear the reaper
Baby I’m your man…

I think about our route some more as we wait for a car to pass. No trail, no signage, no other hikers. Three mountain ranges. Little water. A combination of cross-country navigation, jeep roads, and toppled cairns. If online trip reports are any indicator, only a handful of people have ever walked this route at all. The rangers think that we’re insane.

I’m so excited.

The sun moves in the bright empty sky and at last a dirty sedan pulls over, piloted by a weathered local who has, at one time, ridden his bike across the continent. This local thinks nothing of the fact that we’re about to hike across an area where people are cautioned against walking very far from their cars, lest they be vaporized. This man understands the desert, and he’s not afraid of it. He goes a few miles out of his way to drop us at Saline Valley road, which is where our route crosses Hwy 190. We hide our water here, behind a little berm of sand. We cover it with rocks and pieces of fabric we find in the desert. Now we’ll have water when we come through here in a few days- as long as nobody steals it. Satisfied, we walk back to the road to attempt to hitch the last 80 miles to Badwater Basin. It’s afternoon, the hottest part of the day. Every now and then a car shimmers on the horizon, slows when it nears us, and then blows by. The urge to throw rocks is strong. I sit in the dirt with my hat over my face.


An hour later the sheriff drives past, brakes, and begins to reverse.

“Fuck,” says Chance. We all put down our thumbs.

“Where you girls trying to go,” says the cop.

“Badwater Basin,” we say. “For a backpacking trip.”

“I maybe could take you,” says the cop. “Any of you ever ridden in the back of a cop car?”

Chance and Jess shake their heads No. I keep my mouth shut. I think of getting caught riding trains in Texas, Arizona, Nebraska, Montana and Alaska. Of the protests I went to in my early twenties, facing down the riot police with my friends. For fun! My long laundry list of misdemeanors- trespassing, interfering with a peace officer, disorderly conduct, more trespassing. A night in jail in Sweetwater, Texas, a night in the holding cell in Nebraska, four nights in the jail in Portland that overlooks that fountain downtown.

It’s hot with the three of us crammed behind the gate in the back of the cop car- I don’t think the air conditioning reaches back here. The sheriff drives fast, pulling up behind other cars and then zooming around them.

“Do people slow down when you come up behind them?” says Chance.

“Yeah,” says the cop. “And they start driving really badly. I just try and get around them.”

We think this is really funny. We’re dropping down in elevation, so fast my ears pop. The sun is so hot- there’s sweat running down the backs of my knees. Out the window we see a vast flatness, and on either side of it snaking, nothing-colored mountains. It’s the most inhospitable desert I’ve ever seen. I realize, suddenly, that this is that ambiguous Nevada-California place that you see from the plane- the place you look down on and think: I never, ever want to go there.

We drop down in elevation again, and our stomachs jump. I feel as though we’re descending into hell. As if to confirm this, the sheriff points to some clumps of something coming out of the ground, next to the road-

“The Devil’s Cornfield,” he says. “A thousand years ago, all of this was underwater. It’s hotter here than anywhere else because the crust of the earth here is only fifteen miles thick. The heat rises up from the center of the earth.”

Is this true?

“This land is shaped by flash floods,” he continues. “The valleys change constantly. Up in the mountains there are forests of pinyon pines.” The sheriff guns it over a rise in the road, and I feel myself momentarily lifted off the seat. “Last year a man parked his car at Badwater Basin and walked out into the desert to die. They found his body a year later, picked clean. He made it 5.5 miles.”

Chance awkwardly unfolds a big overview map of Death Valley that she bought in Lone Pine. We look at it, try and make sense of our position on the surface of the earth. Look out the windows at the desert. We start talking about our childhoods. Chance grew up riding horses.

“If I lost a competition,” says Chance, “my mother would beat me. Sometimes after competitions I’d hide from her in the stables, sleep on the hay.”

Panamint Springs resort hasn’t, it turns out, been taken over by zombies after all. There’s a restaurant with a big wooden deck and a gaggle of Norwegians in motorcycle gear.

“We’re hikers,” we say. “Can we leave food for ourselves here, to pick up in a few days?” I look at the shelves in the little store- a few bags of marshmallows, some candy. It’d be rough to resupply here.

“No,” says the clerk at the store. “We don’t do that kind of thing.”

“What do we do?” says Chance, back at the cop car.

“Stash it in the desert,” says the sheriff. We run behind the store and fling our grocery sacks of chips and bars into a bush. The food might not be there in a few days but hey- we did our best.

We finally unfurl from the back of the cop car at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center- it’s unbelievably hot here. I instinctively search out water, and fill my bottles to capacity at a drinking fountain outside the bathrooms. Signs taped to the walls warn us of the danger of the extreme heat. 4 Heat Related Deaths Since April, 2014 is written on a sandwich board just outside the front doors. Just twenty miles left to Badwater Basin. The last of the light is almost gone on our third day of hitching, and we’ve got twenty miles still to go. We sit on the concrete near the front doors with our signs. I avoid eye contact with the rangers- I don’t want them to know what we’re doing, lest they try and convince us it is impossible. There are lots of people coming in and out, almost all European tourists. They look at us like we’re aliens.

After a half hour we move to the curb in front of the building and stand there, gazing longingly at a clump of bushes next to an abandoned building. We could sleep in the sand, there, behind those bushes. We’ve could just curl up and go to sleep.

We’re tired.

Inexplicably, a couple from China in a rental car stop for us just before sunset. They’re going past Badwater Basin en route to Las Vegas and yeah, they’ll take us there. The road drops even lower and the air grows even hotter and drier and I feel even more as though we’re descending deep into “the place you see from the plane and think, I never, ever want to go there.” Then we’re at the small pullout and there’s a bit of a boardwalk and beyond it a great white, flat nothingness into which we plan to disappear.

Me, Jess, Chance

Me, Jess, Chance

There’s another sign warning us of the heat, warning us not to walk too far from our car. Apparently it was once 134 degrees here, although now, as the sun sets, it’s a cool eighty-something. We’ve got two days worth of food. We’ve got enough water to make it 14 miles to the first spring, which it will be up to us to locate, in a canyon on the other side of all this nothing. The last of the light is bleeding from the horizon. There’s nothing to do but walk.

The tourists all think we’re going out into the desert to die.


I climbed Mt. Adams today!


Mt. Adams is 12,280 feet, the second-highest peak in Washington. There is no “trail” to the summit, and in this way it feels like the first “real mountain” that I’ve ever “climbed”. I went with Lia and Orbit, we camped at the “lunch counter”, a flat area of wind shelters made of lava rocks at nine-thousand-something feet partway towards the top, and then in the dark hours before dawn we set out for the summit in an attempt to catch the sunrise there. I didn’t bring crampons, even though they are recommended, and so while Lia and Orbit went up the slick, frozen, straightforward snowfields I was banished to a ridge far to the right- a ridge of big jumbled lava boulders, ravines, no trail, and water running everywhere. And it was dark and I didn’t have a map and so I just went “up”- the pace was excruciatingly slow- mountain climbing is a different sort of beast than hiking, it requires a sort of tireless patience, the patience to go at one mile an hour (or less), hand over hand sometimes, feet getting stuck in the rocks, picking your way in a meandering path around inconvenient obstacles, mileage not the goal but upward ascension, up towards the sky, up towards the highest thing you can find.

Eventually a little light bled into the landscape and the ridge of boulders turned to a scree field that paralleled the snow fields my friends had gone up- scree like loose marbles, I was treading it, my hands on the slope in front of me, dust everywhere, the dry cold wind beating my face and chapping my lips. I reached the false summit just as the small red sun appeared on the horizon and revealed the surface of the earth below. Everywhere was hazy with smoke, all the mountains we were supposed to be able to see. Lia was at the false summit and we set out together the last quarter mile or so to the top, alongside a cracked blue glacier and over lots of rosy sun-cups, to the little bit of actual trail that switchbacked up to the summit hut, where the freezing wind beat ferociously and we found Orbit, standing on the roof wrapped in her sleeping bag, watching the sky change colors. It was so cold there! After a few hypothermic moments we rushed back down, and when we reached the snowfields that Lia and Orbit had come up we tested the snow, found it tacky and steep, saw the tracks of people who had glissaded before us, and proceeded to slide down the ENTIRE MOUNTAIN on our butts. All the way back to our campsite at the lunch counter.

Epic Glissade 2014 was not without its perils- the snow was too painful to slide on alone, and we had nothing to sit on, but then Orbit had the brilliant idea to stuff our jackets into the backs of our tights. Thus cushioned we went flying down the mountain, over a drop-off wherein the slope became even steeper, and suddenly all three of us were hurtling downhill out of control, digging our feet in kicking up snow but unable to stop or slow down, faster and faster and faster, laughing outloud in the throes of sledding ecstasy yet simultaneously aware that we were, in fact, about the die. This particular glissade track ended right at a big pile of lava rocks jutting from the snowfield but someone, somehow, had piled up a bunch of snow there, so we went sledding harmlessly into it. Orbit and I did, anyway- Lia ate shit, flying off the track into the sun cups, catching air, pack flying open water bottle and sunglasses and chapstick skittering across the snow, elbows and hands skinned from trying to stop her forward trajectory. We stood up, assessed our injuries, saw another glissade track a little ways east on the snowslope, picked our way over to it, and down we went again. And this is how we got down the mountain.

Here’s a video I took of part of my glissade- I held the camera the wrong way. I am sorry.


The photos of our climb are on instagram.

the smoky warm ambiguous end of summer

I’m in Southern Oregon and I start work in a week- it’s warm and smoky and I’m surrounded by oak-covered hills so I run uphill for as long as I can and eat GF sunflower-butter sandwiches and drink bubbly water with apple cider vinegar in it and work on my manuscript and, if you can believe it, I’ve even been reading a book- but I feel restless, crazy restless, I’m not used to having this much empty yawning time, I want to hitch-hike to somewhere with unreasonable weather and go on some steep hike until my life feels like it’s overflowing again and at night my legs ache with fatigue. I’ve got a week and no money, what can I do? Everything is free, tho- the wind, the air, the light, the sunrise, the rain, when it comes, the seasons…

A couple of things- I have a small interview on the Trail&Era website, and my friend Lacy Davis has a brilliant blog where she writes about food/exercise/body issues and the relationship between those three things.

I promise to blog again if anything interesting happens.


It’s my birthday today


Broken Top and Lake Moraine

And I’m bumming around Three Sisters Wilderness with Orbit, her friend Leah who’s in acupuncture school and another friend, also named Lia, a diminutive welder with the words home sick tattooed on her knuckles. I’m sleepless and strange feeling as they texted me at midnight last night saying do you want to go to south sister… right now? And we drove through the night, arriving in Bend just as the sky started to lighten. I’ve got a backpack full of snacks and tonight we climb South Sister for the sunrise. And this evening we’ll make a little fire on the ridge, watch the sunset and toast marshmallows. They’re magic marshmallows, each one makes a wish come true.

It’s already the best birthday I’ve had in years.

The PCT isn’t real and September is cold: a trip report of sorts

The climb up to Goat Rocks headed south

The climb up to Goat Rocks headed south

We’re at the convenience store at White Pass, Washington, and my heart is racing from caffeine. Hiker’s packs are lined up on the bench outside the store, which sells pizza and honeydew melon and has a cluster of metal tables where hikers can hang out while they charge their phones. It’s noon. I peek inside the store, but I don’t see anybody that I know or recognize- just a few bearded strangers, wolfing down corndogs. I didn’t get to meet very many other thru-hikers this year, as I raced north to Canada to beat the rain, so I’ve decided to hike this section from White Pass to Cascade Locks south, two weeks after finishing my thru-hike. Actually it was Orbit and Redbeard’s idea, a couple of thru-hikers I met on the trail last year. Redbeard lives in Seattle and is a rafting guide although once, back when he could tolerate it, he had a desk job editing film. Orbit is an unemployed barista, just moved to Portland, with dreams of going to school for astrophysics. She’s also one hike away from her triple crown.

Goat Rocks, you know

Goat Rocks, you know

It’s strange to climb up the goat rocks “backwards”- the views are inside out, the ups are downs, the downs are up. The sun is out and the views are brilliant and then, at the top, cold fog rolls in, a harbinger of fall. It’s September!


We hike towards Mt. Adams in the dusk, watching the moon rise, and reach our campsite, a little overlook sheltered by trees 22 miles in, at 8 p.m. I was curious to see how my body would do after two weeks off the trail- I’ve been biking and running in the city, but not for twelve hours a day. Now I discover that what I’ve always suspected is true- nothing can approximate the intense nonstop physical activity of a thru-hike. While my muscles are still strong and I can still hike uphill at 3mph, the tendons in my hips, ankles and knees have grown soft, and now, at the end of the day, I ache all over in that special way that reminds me of the beginning of one’s thru-hike. Ah, the pain of the desert! How I’ve missed it! Two weeks, and my body is no longer the invincible machine that took four months and 2,660 miles (minus the fire detours in SoCal) to create. Two weeks is all it takes.

But I can still hike. And so can Orbit and Redbeard! And it feels so good to be out here. Orbit and Redbeard build a fire as a deep cold moves in and the clouds blow away, revealing ice-hard stars. It’s beautiful up here, so beautiful. I passed this spot this summer, but didn’t camp here. That, in itself, is good enough reason, for me, to hike the PCT more than once- there are so many epic places to camp! We’re tired and it’s probably colder than it should be, this early in September, but the fire is warm and bright and we sit around it, eating our dinners. Orbit makes ramen on her alcohol stove.

“I love ramen,” she says.


Redbeard and Orbit

We fall asleep under the stars in the infinite quiet, the trees sheltering us from the wind.

In the morning I wake after six and paw through my backpack- how do I do mornings again? We’ve packed five days of food, which seems like an incredible amount, more food than I think I’ve ever packed before. Orbit is already up, sitting on a rock next to the firepit wearing all her layers, making a little plastic cup of instant coffee. The sun is somewhere behind the mountains. Redbeard wakes and rolls over. He’s got to hike back to the car today, to get back to Seattle for work- he can’t come all the way to Cascade Locks with us. Why can’t we all be free, all the time? Work, you know.


Cispus pass

It’s so cold this morning that Orbit and I are hiking in all our layers- it’s clear going over Cispus Pass and then we drop down, into cold fog, and can’t see anything anymore, save the trees. We start to pass clusters of northbounders, singly or in groups of two. They all have the same look about them- lean, small packs, wild hair, torn clothing. In their eyes a sense of urgency, an intense focus that’s been whittled to a fine point over many months. These hikers are determined. Eyes on the prize! I remember hiking north, how section hikers would tell us that we had this look. Now, after two weeks in the city, I’ve grown soft, and I no longer wear my sense of urgency like a mask. And hiking southbound, today, I can finally see it for myself, in the faces of these hikers-

The hunger.

Hunger not just for real literal food but for rest, for accomplishment, for warmth, for shelter, for companionship. For clean clothes and soft chairs and significant others and pets and electricity and wifi and hot coffee and sleep and nutritious meals and music. For sitting down without 30 miles of hiking in front of you and clean running water and an amplitude of food and maybe your cat, there on your lap. For relief and accomplishment and an end, an end, an end. Thru-hiking is, at its most basic, an experience of deprivation- Do Not Sit. Do Not Be Warm. Do Not Be Well Fed. Do Not Be Hydrated. Do Not Be With The Ones You Love. And now, after nearly five months, this deprivation has etched itself into the faces of these hikers so deeply that it’s really remarkable to see. It’s not a look that we see often on the faces of young, white, college-educated americans, aka the dominant demographic of the PCT- a hunger and determination so strong that it makes its own light, that it glows like a lamp.

I know, from my own two thru-hikes, what this specific light feels like.

It feels like being alive.

It’s wonderful to pass, and meet, these northbounders. They are without fail kind, polite, happy, adorable, glowing, and hungry- hungry to talk to us, hungry to make it to the top of the next climb, hungry to hike the next four hundred miles. They stare off into the distance, stars in their eyes. They don’t realize how soon it’s ending, or how much they’ll miss it when it’s gone.

“Are you thru-hikers?” they ask us.

“No, just section hiking,” we say, and it feels good to say. We’re on vacation. I remember the anxiety of my last month on the trail, the way I would sometimes cry while I hiked. On a PCT thru-hike you’re locked into the weather window, you’re on a schedule. There’s not a lot of flexibility if you want to beat the rain or snow. Now I’m freed from that and I’m just here, almost blissful, on the PCT, this place that I love. It’s like magic.

Magic. Is that what the PCT is? My main motivation for thru-hiking the PCT a second time was to answer one question- what is the PCT? And I think, now, hiking southbound two weeks after ending my thru-hike, that I finally know the answer.

There is no PCT.

Or, the PCT does not exist. The PCT is something that we make up, collectively, with our imaginations- it only exists because we come together, here, for a summer, and agree that it exists. The PCT is only real as long as you believe that it’s real, and after your hike is finished it fades away, back into non-existence. The PCT is a place that we construct with our imaginations that has its own culture, value systems, traditions, vocabulary, cuisine (block of dry ramen covered in peanut butter, anyone?), beauty standards, and mythology. We come together, agree that this place exists, and then we all live there, for a little while. It’s a totally unique conception of reality that’s 18 inches by 2,660 miles long and you can live there, for a summer, as long as you keep moving. And as soon as you’re finished- that world is gone. As though it never existed at all.

Kind of cool, right?

These lean, wind-burned, starry-eyed northbounders don’t realize how soon their world is ending and I wonder, afterwards, how they’ll feel. Sad? Relieved? Empty? Many of them come from middle-class or upper-middle-class upbringings and have followed, until now, a very traditional track in life. And now they’ve been shown, via this long ribbon of dirt, an entirely new way to construct their experience of reality. Will things ever be the same? How could they possibly be? And will these bright-eyed young people ever fully recover?

Probably not.

Orbit and I had talked of doing some crazy big miles today but now we realize, because of the limitations of our own bodies, that this won’t be possible without a good deal of suffering, and besides it starts to rain. Cold rain. Really, really, cold rain.

“Motherfucker, motherfucker,” I mumble as I repack my bag inside its trash bag liner and pull on my clammy rain jacket. I didn’t sign up for this, except actually I did. Hiking in the north cascades in September is a gamble, which is why, I remind myself, I finished in August. But I’m a fool and an addict and the weather was beautiful and these good people invited me along and I just couldn’t stay away. Hiking, it’s what I like to do! And sleeping on the ground!

All afternoon in the cold rain my morale is in the gutter. Instead of the bliss of hiking fast in the good clear weather over the backs of mountains I am pushing myself through the cold, unloving forest, anxiety piling up and falling away, piling up and falling away, like the tide. This rain makes me unbelievably weary and I remember August, how ready I was to be home. I’m done with this trail! Why am I out here? I pull out my phone, but there’s no reception. I have no music. Orbit is somewhere behind, or ahead. I have no distractions, no way to check out. Only this unbearable feeling of discomfort, front and center in my brain, this tired unhappy feeling that is yelling at me.

Two weeks off the trail, and I’ve already forgotten how to endure the highs and lows of a typical hiking day. And now I’m here, trapped, and I can’t escape it.

An hour later the clouds blow away and a little thin sun comes out and I’m warm from climbing and I discover something else that I’ve forgotten-

The moments of almost god-like peace that appear, like magic, on the other side of all that suffering. When you can’t check out, when you can’t escape, when there’s nothing else to do or look at or think about, and so you just keep walking, almost writhing in pain inside your own body, and then, just as quickly as it appeared, that epic feeling of discomfort is gone- and what’s left in its place is this big, open emptiness, full of light and warmth and well being, and you suddenly know more than you’ve ever known before that, to quote Kerouac, everything is fine, forever and ever and ever.

All afternoon we’ve been following a set of southbound brooks cascadias footprints- I’m pretty sure they belong to Christine, my friend from southern Oregon, who this summer hiked the Oregon section of the PCT and is now southbounding this section- she left White Pass the day before we did and we figured that we’d catch her sometime today. I’m excited to see her and in the last hour, Orbit notes, the tracks have grown fresher, and they’re on top of all the other tracks, which means that we’re getting closer. We’d planned on going five more miles, somewhat arbitrarily, for a 34 mile day, but then we round a bend in an alpine meadow and see a tent pitched in a perfectly sheltered little cluster of trees, a waterfall nearby, and it’s Christine! and we are glad to have a reason to stop.

“I’m trying not to burn my tent down,” says Christine. She’s boiling water in her vestibule, her soaked sleeping bag spread over the top of the tent to “dry”.

“I didn’t get a chance to lay it in the sun today,” she says.

“It’s so cold,” I say.

“A ranger told me it’s going to get down to 37 tonight,” says Christine.

A strong wind is blowing but there’s plenty of room in the little copse of trees for us, and although it’s begun to rain again, the ground is dry in here. Orbit strings up her hammock and I sit on my sleeping pad, eating salt and vinegar chips. Christine is happy, chattering on as she cooks her dinner. This is her first long hike and I haven’t seen her since spring, before she started.

“I love this,” she says. “I love thru-hiking. It’s my favorite thing. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I love this life. I love it so much.”

Christine tells us that she was in a series of lightning storms in Oregon- the lightning was starting fires all over the place and many of the thru-hikers behind us hitched from Etna to Ashland, skipping the area entirely. Christine hiked through it, weathering one electrical storm so intense that her hair stood on end, the tips of her fingers were tingly, and she was “glued to the floor of the tent”.

“I couldn’t lift myself off the floor of the tent,” she says. “I don’t know why.”

“I think that was ground to ground lightning?” I say.

“That would explain a lot of things,” says Christine. “I felt so calm the next day. Really serene.”

I ask Christine if she’s going to farm next year- she’s been farming in Southern Oregon every summer for a while.

“I don’t think so,” she says, eyes almost ecstatically alight. “I have a new hobby now.”

I tell her that she should hike the whole trail, beginning to end, but she says she likes the solitude of section hiking.

“I don’t like the groups of dude-bros,” she says. “I don’t like how competitive they get. I don’t like how people leave trash everywhere. I saw one guy dump his leftover soup onto the ground, in a campsite. It’s like they don’t know about Leave No Trace.”

We go to bed well after dark, bundled in every layer we own, scrunched down deep in our sleeping bags. Long underwear, down jacket, rain jacket, fleece hat, neo-air, hoods pulled up and everything cinched up and zipped up tight. Finally I am warm and horizontal on the ground, and finally the tension in my muscles begins to unspool. Outside it’s cold but here, in my mummy nest, it’s warm. Within seconds I am unbearably sleepy. I call this “survival sleep”- the wonderful deep black sleep of a person safe and warm in a little cocoon against the harsh elements outside. It’s my favorite way to sleep- in the winter I sleep with the heat off and the windows open, a million blankets on top of me, in an attempt to induce it.

At four a.m. I wake to what sounds like a wolf howling. It’s unbelievably dark outside, the sky overcast and the trees close. I can’t see anything. A hostile world out there, if the temperature of the tip of my nose is any judge, and I’m not getting up for anything.

In the morning I wake naturally at 5:45- I’m back on my thru-hiker schedule!

“How are you up this early?” says Christine groggily, as I dig through my food bag and assemble some breakfast. Orbit is packing up her hammock.

“I had a nightmare last night,” says Orbit. “I dreamed I was suffocating.”

“So that’s what that sound was,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Orbit. “I should’ve warned you.”

“Are you sure you’re not a werewolf?” I say.

“That’s probably what it was,” says Orbit.

Christine is still in her sleeping bag when we leave camp- she wants to take it easy and enjoy the rest of this section. I admire the way she knows what she wants, her unwillingness to hike anyone else’s hike. And I’ll see her soon, in southern oregon!

It’s cold and overcast and the “sunrise”, when it comes, is a swirl of light and fog, clouds pouring over the top of Mt. Adams. It’s beautiful and everything is glittery but Orbit and I are hiking in all of our layers and we agree that if the sky doesn’t clear by the time we get to the road to Trout Lake, we’re bailing. No more freezing rain! Also, Orbit’s been hiking in a pair of chacos she bought at a barter market in Nepal for $8 and in the wet conditions they’re rubbing what look like holes into her feet. She’s not complaining, but I can only imagine what that feels like.



As we hike we tell stories. Here’s one-

Orbit loves stars. There’s a star, Vega, that’s 25 light-years away, and Orbit knew that if she could find this star on her 25th birthday, she’d get to see the light that was emitted the day she was born. So she went to Nepal last winter in order to trek the Annapurna Circuit and she arranged it so that on her birthday, in February, she’d be on the highest point on the circuit, Thorung La pass, at 17,769 feet. A storm was raging the day before her birthday but she assumed, along with the two friends she was traveling with, that the storm would blow itself out. It did not. The day of her birthday was meant to be a 9 hour trek from basecamp, over the pass and to a village on the other side but instead, because of the storm, it was a grueling, slow-motion slog in a whiteout. Her group left basecamp at 5 a.m., following the windblown tracks of a party ahead of them and tall markers stuck in the snow, and marched tirelessly into a wind so strong that if you leaned into it, it would hold you up. The group didn’t stop once all day except for a few minutes at the pass, where they found a young french woman, Emily, who’d lost her party the day before and had spent the night in the shelter there. Emily was disoriented from the altitude and her clothing was torn, and she had frostbite on her fingers and toes. Orbit’s group adopted Emily and made sure she was with them as they slowly and with great difficulty made their way down the other side of the pass. The group reached the warm little village that was their destination at 8 p.m., and there they consumed dal bhat and spicy pickles, the first thing Orbit had eaten since the rice pudding she’d had for breakfast. Emily was so affected by the altitude that the next day, when they visited her in the hospital, she didn’t remember meeting them. And that had been Orbit’s 25th birthday.

The clouds break at the exact moment we reach the road to Trout Lake. It’s one p.m. There’s a subaru across the road, unloading hikers.

“Do you two need a ride into town?” says the woman driving the subaru. We stand in the warm sun, torn.

‘What do you want to do?” I say to Orbit.

“Coffee sounds good,” says Orbit.

“We’re on vacation!” I say.

It’s hot and sunny in Trout Lake, as if the cold September weather in the mountains isn’t happening at all. We spread our sleeping bags to dry on the wooden fence in front of the diner, take off our shoes, change into our shorts, and order burgers and fries. Orbit becomes ecstatic over a cup of coffee.


“I love coffee!” she says. I order huckleberry pie with vanilla icecream- it’s not Stehekin blackberry pie, but it IS pie. Orbit walks to the general store and comes back with a pair of cascadias, in her size, from the hiker box.

“I love hiker boxes!” she says, as she puts them on. She straps the chacos to the outside of her pack. “My feet feel better already!”

We get a ride back to the trail from an older woman who’s following the herd in her van, giving trail magic, and set off into the sunlit, if still cold forest, powered by all the good food we’ve eaten. It’s 3:30 p.m. but we’re fast hikers, and we know we can get 29 miles in by dark. And our bodies are starting to feel better- we’re adjusting back to all this walking. Which makes sense for me, as I just finished a thru-hike two weeks ago, but I’m amazed at Orbit- she hasn’t thru-hiked since 2013 and yet here she is, charging up the hills at 3 mph, doing 30 mile days in Washington. She tells me that last year she hiked Washington in 16 days, averaging a little over 31 miles per day. No zeros, no bathing, and she almost didn’t stop in Stehekin. Almost.

Dusk finds us in a flat patch of forest, eerily quiet, and we spread our bedrolls among the sticks and vanilla leaf. My brain plays that game where it looks at the quiet, dimming forest and waffles back and forth- creepy? peaceful? creepy? peaceful? PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL! PEACEFUL! I shout at it, knowing I won’t be able to fall asleep otherwise. The last of the light leaves just as I’m brushing my teeth and then I’m tucked in, almost smothered in the absolute silence. So peaceful.

We sleep in but we pack up quick and we’re out by 6:45. We’re headed 34 miles today, all the way to Panther Creek, where there’s a road we can hitch into Cascade Locks. It’s the NotaChance alternate, the road the rest of my group walked leaving Cascade Locks, while Mac and I hiked 35 miles and 9 thousand feet up and over a bunch of arbitrary mountains to catch them. But now I’m a section hiker, and we’re going to go the lazy way, chopping off the last day of our hike. This means we’ll finish in 3.5 days and we have, in fact, brought way too much food. So the walking feast continues into the morning, through the bright cold forest, which is mysteriously devoid of thru-hikers- I figure they’re all holed up in Cascade Locks for PCT days, which happens this weekend. Not having northbounders around makes the trail sort of boring, and I’m extra fidgety until Blue Lake, where we collapse in the warm sun and eat chocolate and cheeze-its, respectively. Orbit jumps in the water and then sits on rocks on the edge of the lake, braiding her hair.

“I could stay here forever,” I say.

“There’s fish in this water,” she says. “We could live here.”

“We could build a little cabin,” I say, “and make a living selling fried fish to thru-hikers. Every now and then one of us could hike out for supplies- oats and salt and things we need.”

Orbit and I start brainstorming other ways we could “live” on the PCT. We decide that the best way would be to somehow get paid to hike up and down the trail as fast as possible, teaching other hikers about Leave No Trace. We’d wear leather jackets and sort of materialize out of the bushes when people least expected it.

“Hey,” we’d say. “Is that an orange peel?”

We leave Blue Lake after an hour, climb up onto the baking ridge from which one can see both Hood AND St. Helens, and then start the long, long descent to Panther Creek. I don’t see Orbit all afternoon but know that she’s just ahead- we’re both determined to make it to Panther Creek by 7:30.



The descent is too much on my now-soft joints and after a couple of hours my whole body starts to ache. Feet, knees, hips. My morale crashes- there’s that inescapable suffering again! And I fidget my way down the mountain, running my phone battery dead listening to podcasts that I don’t even really like. The forest grows lush, and dense, and the air becomes thick and warm, as I drop all the way down to 800 feet. I wonder if there really were panthers here at one time? I think. I feel like I’l probably have this thought every time I come to panther creek, for the rest of my life. I hear the rush of water and then I’m walking stiffly over the footbridge at 7:28, babying my sore feet. I see Orbit with an armload of sticks. The cold is coming on, and she’s headed to the campsite beneath the big cedars, to make a fire. Sweet.


The forest is heavy and close, ferns and western redcedars and bigleaf maples all draped with moss, and our campsite is flat and soft. I sit on my sleeping pad and stare into the fire, feeling my muscles twitch and relax, as Orbit makes her little pot of ramen. A mouse zig-zags around, promising to bother us at night, and as we feed sticks into the fire we talk about how we wish more women would thru-hike, and that women knew that they were capable of being just as fast as the dudes. Tomorrow we hitch back to Portland, via Cascade Locks, but we don’t really want to, and so this last night in camp is bittersweet- we both want to live here, on the trail. But there are other lives, a whole other world, the demands of western civilization, and we eventually run out of sticks to feed the fire.

Orbit in our hitch into Cascade Locks

Orbit on the hitch into Cascade Locks


I didn’t know that I would finish the trail so early; it’s still high summer; I’ve been gifted this incredible amount of time. I’ve managed to walk so far so quickly and now here I am, sleeping on the floor of my friend’s beautiful house in Portland, the white noise of a fan blowing and outside the blackberries ripening, pears falling all over the sidewalk. I’m poor but I’m rich in almost everything else- there are pears, apples, plums, and figs on the warm August sidewalks, tomatoes crowding the edges of yards. The light is long, and warm, and still; August here is the most reliable summer month, some might say the best month.

How the city tries to seduce me! I can walk anywhere, I can walk forever. McButter is here, for a moment, I haven’t seen him since the desert! We walk for hours, to a taco cart that I can’t remember the location of and then, in the dark, to the bluffs, via a serious of quiet dead ends that lead into each other. We pick fruit up off the ground, take bites of it, and throw it away. We make up a rule that whatever clothing we find on the ground we have to wear. We find a hat with a veil and one with a bow, a shrunken wool sweater, and a tiny cotton hoody. We put these things on. McButter tells me that since the desert he’s been hiking mostly solo. He’s been leapfrogging with this group of that, having a transformative personal journey of sorts. He’s also a little bit bored. He’s got just Washington left. At the bluffs we see the shapes of young people silhouetted against the lights of the city, the shining Willamette and across from it the long dark stretch of forest park. The clanging of industry, the UP yard with its units working back and forth. There’s the tree that I like to climb, that I’ve climbed over so many years. I know where the worn handholds are. I’ve sat in its branches with lovers, awkwardly sharing windfall apples. It’s dark now, though. I don’t climb it.

Part of me is jealous that McButter is still on the trail; part of me still feels glad to be done. I’m still not wrecked like I was last year but I miss the simple challenges and rewards of the trail, the straightforward structure of each hiking day. I seem to have forgotten how to organize my life; I require large amounts of caffeine in order to muster the creative momentum to turn the wheel of each sprawling day. I know that a life of routine is the most efficient life; right now, instead of routine, I have ten thousand self-starting moments that each require their own small spark of inspiration and occasionally, when biking back from some errand on the beautiful bicycle that Seamus lent me, I just want to give up. I feel darkness tugging at me, a great sea that I could swim in, that riptide of existential despair that waits for us all. But no! I won’t do that! I am too grown up for that. And so I don’t- I drive my wheel forward down its muddy, pathless route and stop every five minutes to hack the brambles away. 

I’ve been reading the CDT blogs. The CDT sounds awful. I am so excited. Spark and I have been messaging our wild, convoluted ideas to one other. Everything about the hiking world is inspiring to me, and I still don’t really know why- so much walking. I guess part of it is a newfound belief in the capabilities of my own body- I’ve never in my life been much of a jock. But we’ve all given a body, it turns out. And that body can take almost anything. 

“I want women to understand that they’re stronger than they know,” says Orbit. I met Orbit in passing on the trail last year, tried to catch her, realized how fast she was, failed, and in turn was infinitely inspired. One of the fastest people on the trail, and she is a woman! Of course this happens all the time, but I didn’t know that at the start of my first-ever thru-hike. Now, as of a few weeks ago, Orbit lives in Portland, and she meets me for breakfast at Sweedeedees, a crowded, hip little cafe where small amounts of breakfast food are served with massive slices of house-baked bread. There aren’t any tables free, and the method in which to get a table is confusing- the two beautiful, overwhelmed servers give me conflicting instructions on what order in which to do things and I end of feeling like I’m in an episode of Portlandia. We finally get a rickety little metal table outside, half in and half out of the shade, and our food. I don’t eat bread so my bowl of nothing is underwhelming but Orbit’s breakfast sandwich looks amazing. Afterwards we buy dark chocolate, kombucha and dried mango, respectively, from the little shop across the street and walk, again, to the bluffs- it is my favorite place right now and I want to go there over and over, until I am gone/until the summer is worn out. While walking we talk about hiking, and hiking, and hiking, and the inherently competitive nature of fast hikers/whether or not we are ourselves competitive/what it means to be a woman who wants to hike fast.

In the evening my friend Hannah appears, from the bay area, and Seamus and Liam and Hannah and I play spades on the long wooden table in the beautiful dining room. I don’t know how to play spades. We talk about gentrification and the ways that, without connection to others, our own identities would be lost. We’re just a bunch of mirrors, reflecting and reflecting and reflecting. Without each other, do we even exist? What even am you/I/me?

This week! I am having a great adventure. I’m going to hike south from White Pass to Cascade Locks with Orbit and another hiker, Redbeard, from last year. Backwards through goat rocks, among all the northbounders who may or may not make it before the snow (HURRY! distance = rate x time!), down to the Columbia. 150 miles in 5 days. I’m curious to see how my body feels after two weeks off the trail, I’m curious to see how my heart feels. I’m curious to encounter northbound hikers that I never got a chance to meet! (Don’t be rude to me, motherfuckers! Just because you hiked farther than Cheryl Strayed doesn’t mean you’re going to make it before the snow.) I’ll be posting photos to instagram as I go, and I’ll do a little trip report afterward.

Then I head down to Southern Oregon to work. Portland you’ve been so beautiful, but I know that that’s the way the summer goes. Summer is when everyone forgets about the winter. The damp grey skies, the salad mister rain. The mornings so dark you have to turn all the lights on when you wake up. The way everyone struggles. Being here now makes me almost want to live in Portland again, but I know too that this is not the frumpy, disheveled city that I came of age in. This new city is full of beautiful, monied yuppies, who work tech jobs and spend their evenings “trying new restaurants”. Maybe, one day, when I’ve made my fortune, I’ll come back, and buy expensive products for my hair. Until then I’ll live in exile in the hinterlands, with all the other people who look like they got dressed in the dark.

In other news! Last night I learned, via his instagram, that Handy Andy, who our group had the great fortune to hike with for a few days this year (he and his friend PigPen were hiking the trail in 90 days) just set the new self-supported speed record for the JMT! 3 days 11 hours, with a backpack that he made himself. So many badasses, so much inspiration! All of it feeds me, makes me think about what’s possible, makes this bushwhacking with my big wooden wheel seem a little easier. 

My photos, per usual, are on instagram.

PCT 2014 Gear Review

My review of all the gear I used on the PCT in 2014! Enjoy.


Shelter: Zpacks Hexamid Solo with “optional door”

This is an older version of the Hexamid solo that zpacks no longer makes- I found it on an online used gear swap two years ago and, since the mesh was torn, was able to snatch it up for $200. I did a fine job of patching the tear in the mesh and was super stoked for my new “ferrari of backpacking tents”. The only problem was that last year I was terrified of cowboy camping so I set it up almost every night, and the cuben fiber (as it does) slowly began to degrade where the pole meets the peak of the shelter. Ah, the price one pays to save ounces! So I emailed zpacks asking them what I should do and, to my amazement, they shipped me some cuben-fiber repair tape on the trail, lightning fast. The tape made the worn areas new again and I was good to go. This year I knew better than to set the shelter up every night (cuben fiber lasts longer the more gentle you are with it) and I had also grown to love cowboy camping, so I didn’t have any problems with wear. I did, however, have problems with the zipper- it wasn’t zipping anymore! Which made a lot of sense, as the shelter was kind of, ah, old. So I emailed zpacks again and they said that yeah, the zippers sometimes wear out, and they offered to replace the zipper free of charge. I shipped the shelter to them and within a week they’d repaired it and shipped it back. Kind of mind-blowing customer service considering that I’d bought the shelter used and then put such a large amount of wear on it! This is why I love zpacks so much, aside from the fact that they make such awesome shelters and bags- their customer service is crazy good. When you’re thru-hiking you often don’t have the time/battery power/reception to spend weeks emailing back and forth with a gear company, trying to find a solution to some problem, and companies like zpacks seem to understand this. I’ve only ever heard of fantastic customer service experiences with zpacks, and as such there is a huge amount of loyalty towards the company among thru-hikers on the trail. It’s for this reason, I believe, that even the most broke of thru-hikers is willing to scrounge up huge sums of money ($500 or so) for their products. Because it’s worth it. It’s just worth it.

The only downside to my shelter is that it sucked balls in the rain. But this is the reason, I believe, that zpacks no longer makes the “optional door” model- essentially one entire side of my shelter is mesh, and the “door” is a piece of cuben fiber I can string up over the inside of the mesh that sort of half-ass keeps out the rain. Last year in the four-day September storms I was often cold and wet in this shelter- this year I knew I would finish in August, before the extended rains, and so it wasn’t an issue. None of this matters to you, however, because the current version has an “extended beak”, which seems to actually keep the water out- I  polled several people on the trail who used this hexamid and they said it worked as well as any other single-wall shelter in the rain.

And lastly, if you don’t already know, this shelter is crazy light- I think mine was 12 ounces with the 8 titanium stakes?

Bottom line: The hexamid is unbelievably light and looks like a space-ship. Cuben fiber is fragile! This shelter will last many thru-hikes, provided you only set it up when necessary for bugs or rain. The current extended-beak version seems to work as well as any other single-wall shelter during storms, although my older, obsolete version did not. This shelter is wildly expensive but you may be able to find one used online (try ebay). Zpacks customer service is unbelievably friendly, prompt,  and professional. Which is awesome for those stressful moments on the trail when your shit breaks!

Would I carry this shelter again? I’d love to try the newer solplex version for the CDT (it has “storm doors”!), if I can get my hands on one. I want to be prepared for foul weather! Barring that I might go with a less expensive single-wall shelter.

hiking into Castella with my deflated Mariposa

hiking into Castella with my deflated Mariposa


The Gorilla chillin' in the fog in Three Sisters Wilderness

The Gorilla chillin’ in the fog in Three Sisters Wilderness

Pack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa/Gossamer Gear Gorilla

This year I started with the Gossamer Gear Mariposa that I’d carried on the trail last year- the size small had been too long for me but Gossamer Gear was kind enough to lower the straps two inches to fit my torso. I think that they’re coming out with a shorter size, as their size small is about two inches longer than the size small of other companies (ULA for example) but I’m not sure if that’s already happened or when it will. The Mariposa worked wonderfully but is, ultimately, much too voluminous for my needs, and sat on my back like a large, half-deflated marshmallow. It had also garnered quite a bit of wear after 1.5 thru-hikes- both hipbelt pocket zippers were busted, the already thin foam in the shoulder straps had gotten so flat as to pinch my shoulders in a painful way (and my baseweight is 10 lbs) and the webbing that tightened the shoulder straps was worn almost all the way through where it rubbed up against the zippers of the hipbelt pockets. So in Ashland I switched to the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, size small with the straps lowered two inches to fit my torso, and it turned out to be my Ultimate Pack of Dreams. The volume fit my food and gear perfectly- it was like the Mariposa that I loved  but shrunken down to exactly the size I needed. I had no problems with this pack at all, and carried it happily for the rest of the trail. It also is, I believe, the lightest framed pack available on the market (that is not made out of cuben fiber).

The one drawback of dealing with Gossamer Gear is their customer service- in my two years of carrying their packs I’ve found their customer service to be inconsistent, occasionally unprofessional, and sometimes lacking entirely. Many other hikers have had a similar experience and for this reason the company has a reputation, among thru-hikers, for unreliable customer service. Basically, if your pack breaks or is defective or if your order is wrong or if you need to return something- it might work out ok, or you might be SOL. It’s also impossible to navigate their website checkout on a mobile device- which is a real problem if you’re thru-hiking, as you’re most likely conducting all your business on a smartphone. All of this is a real bummer, as I think that their framed ultralight packs are currently the best on the market, and I wonder if they’re not actually interested in garnering loyalty among thru-hikers, as we can be needy and demanding and we actually use our gear until it breaks, and are directing their products more at the section-hiker crowd instead.

A note on framed packs vs. unframed packs: with an ultralight baseweight (ultralight means that your baseweight [everything you're carrying except food, water and fuel] is 10 lbs or less) you can choose a pack either with or without a frame, and you’ll probably be comfortable either way. The choice, then, is highly subjective, and I suggest that you try both and decide for yourself which works best for you. I hiked the first 500 miles of the PCT last year with a frameless pack and ultimately decided that the superior water-carrying ability of a framed pack was worth the extra 8 ounces- a frameless pack puts all the weight on your shoulders, while the simple aluminum stays of packs like the Mariposa or Gorilla help move the weight to your hips. I have yet to hike with someone carrying a frameless pack who doesn’t HATE carrying water. And yet, at the end of the day, many ultralight hikers DO carry frameless packs- so I suggest that you try both and see what works for you.

Would I carry this pack again? Yes, I’ll carry the GG Gorilla on the CDT next year. I’ll carry it until it falls off my body. And then I’ll probably switch to a pack from a company that is more thru-hiker friendly.

pictured: my whole sleep system

pictured: my whole sleep system

Sleeping bag: Zpacks 10 degree long regular width

It’s cold on the PCT at night people. REALLY COLD. Like 20 to 40 degrees. Every. Single. Night. Northern California is the ONLY place on the trail that has reliably warm nighttime temperatures. Unless you’re built like a bear and are a SUPER warm sleeper, you’re going to want a warm sleeping setup. Last year I carried a drafty quilt and was cold most nights. This year I carried the 10 degree bag from zpacks and it was AWESOME. Paired with my new neo-air, I was never cold. Ever. Although this also was in large part due to the neo-air- last year I used just a thin foam pad and on cold nights there probably wasn’t a bag warm enough to block the cold coming up out of the ground. This year, between the neo-air and the zpacks bag, I was warm 100% of the time, even on those 15 degree nights sleeping at 12k feet in the Sierras. If you’re a cold sleeper (as I am) I highly recommend the inflatable pad + warm sleeping bag setup.

The zpacks bags to do not have hoods, so I made sure that my down jacket had a hood, so that I could wear that when I was sleeping. Some people like down hats, or just a regular hat. I’m 5’7″ and ordered the long, so that I could pull it up around my ears. The regular would’ve just come up to my neck.

The bag started to get a little flat in Oregon from dirt and oil, so I washed it (in a regular washing machine with gentle soap) and dried it until it puffed up (in a regular drier on low heat) and then it was like new again. And no longer smelled like hamster pee.

The 10 degree long only weighs 21 ounces!

Would I carry this sleeping bag again? Yeah, I’ll definitely carry this on the CDT.

Sleeping pad: 1/8 inch foam pad from Gossamer Gear/Neo-Air x-lite size small

I like sleeping on hard, flat surfaces. I’m a back sleeper and, as a woman, I have an easier time retaining body fat on the trail. (Women = lower metabolic rate = a distinct advantage during thru-hiking and other endurance sports yessss.) I also just kind of like sleeping on the ground, and for these reasons I prefer to sleep on the thinnest pad available, aka the 1/8 inch foam pad from gossamer gear, which weighs in at a whopping two ounces. The only problem with this setup is that, except for on those rare warm nights, it’s pretty cold. So I carry the size small (aka child-size) neo-air x-lite as well for the cold nights, although I find it to be about as comfortable as sleeping on a half-inflated throw-pillow. It gets the job done, tho. With the neo-air I am NEVER cold. And I can bounce it forward during the warmer sections (like Northern California).

(Interesting note- I’ve met a handful of other hikers who are able to sleep on just the 1/8 inch foam pad, and all of them are women.)

Would I use this same setup again? Sure, why not.

Polycro ground sheet/Dirty piece of tyvek

I carried both of these for a while- the polycro is the ground sheet that goes inside my shelter when it rains, the tyvek was one line of defense between my fragile neo-air and the angry, poky ground when cowboy camping. The tyvek turned out to be kind of extraneous b/c I could use my 1/8 inch foam pad for the same purpose.

What about next year? I kind of want one of the Hexamids with the bathtub floor, in which case I wouldn’t need either of these things.

Phone/Camera/Blogging/Maps machine: Samsung Galaxy s3 in an otterbox case

My second year using this phone. I became more proficient at typing on the keyboard and Guthrie taught me how to take better landscape photos with the shitty camera. I blogged on the wordpress app, which saves the posts to your phone until you have reception to post them. The photo quality is shitty, however, when you upload via the wordpress app for android, so I started an instagram account and put all of my photos there. I used AT&T as a carrier, as AT&T and Verizon have the most coverage on the trail.

Would I use this phone again?

Yah, unless I can upgrade for free or whatevs, in which case I’ll get one of the newer androids that have a BANGIN camera. IPHONES CAN SUCK IT

Navigation: Guthooks’ app/Halfmile’s app/The water report (in the desert)

Guthook’s app is $25, I think, for the whole trail, Halfmile’s app is free. The water report is free online and you can cache it to your phone. Between the water report (in the desert) and the two apps I had a veritable flood of information, more than I could ever want or need or use. Both apps have tons of info on mileage/water sources/campsites/road crossings/elevation profiles/resupply locations (and the hours, policies, and mailing addresses of those resupply locations). I carried no paper maps or guidebook pages of any sort and in two PCT thru-hikes I have not used my compass once. I also saved battery power by following cascadia footprints, sharpie “vandalism” on trail signs, trail blazes, the marks from people dragging their trekking poles, rock cairns, the cellophane corners of Nature’s Valley granola bar wrappers, the foggy memories of southbounders, and arrows made of sticks in the dirt. The PCT is very well marked.

Chargers: Sunstactics s5 solar charger/Anker 10,000 mAH external battery

I used a Sunstactics s5 solar charger in California, and as far as solar chargers go, this one, I’m convinced, is currently the BEST. It weighs just 8 ounces, is a simple elegant machine with very few parts that can break, attaches easily to the top of my pack, and charges, in uninterrupted sunlight, at about half the rate of a wall outlet. This charger was perfect for me, as I have an android, although apparently Iphones don’t do as well with it- something about having to unplug the iphone and plug it back in every time you have to pass under a patch of shade. (This has to do with a bug in the iphone, not the charger.) The charger is expensive (about $150), but if you’re going with a solar charger this is def. the one to get. And suntactics customer service is AMAZING. I had a problem with mine around Northern California, called them up, and they had me mail it back in and shipped me a new one in, like, THREE DAYS.

The one drawback of this charger (or, I imagine, any solar charger) is that when you’re passing through intermittent shade your phone’s screen will light up and/or your phone will make a “bloop” noise every time the charge goes away (in the shade) and then comes back (in the sun). This will actually drain your battery faster than you’re charging it. The one solution I found to this was to turn my phone OFF, and then walk in and out of the shade to my heart’s content. This would allow my phone to “suck up” any little bits of juice that it could, without having to make all those battery-draining bloops. A full day of this would charge my phone from zero to about 50%, which was a real lifesaver at times.

In Oregon and Washington (and some parts of NorCall) the trail is too shaded to charge via solar charger at all, and so I decided to switch, in Oregon, to an Anker 10,000 mAH external battery. I got the 10,000 mAH one because it weighs just 8 ounces, the same as my solar charger, and I didn’t want to up my base weight. This is also enough mAH (whatever that is) to charge my phone to full power 4 times, as well as keep my steripen charged, and that’s as much as I’ll ever need, at my pace, between resupplies. The battery was only $25 on Amazon and I ended up loving it- it was much more hassle-free and reliable than my solar charger. The only downside was that it took, I think, around 15 hours to charge fully via a wall outlet, so it required an overnight stay at each resupply, unless I rationed it while I hiked.

What about next year? As much as I love the solar charger on the CDT I may just bring the external battery, as it’s simpler and more hassle-free.

don't h8

don’t h8

Sansa Clip Mp3 player

Don’t make fun of my dinky little plastic Mp3 player, y’all. I know there are lots of Ipod products out there that are sleek and elegant and expensive and hold masses of music and “get the radio” and all but this Mp3 player weighs just an ounce, has a slot for a memory card, and most importantly, it has a MOTHERFUCKING CLIP. It’s also been through 2 thru-hikes and lots of rain and inconsiderate handling and it still works like a champ. Sansa Clip 4 life!

Next year? I need to put some audiobooks on this thing. And more Taylor Swift.


Steripen Ultra Water Purifier

This thing is awesome. Unlike the most hardcore badasses of the trail, I still have to treat my water almost all of the time, and the steripen is what I prefer. I don’t like chemicals, and I don’t want to squeeze anything! The steripen ultra charges via USB, and a single charge has always been enough, for me, to make it through a section. My steripen ALMOST made it through two thru-hikes, until… it got too wet in the rain? Or something? And kind of fritzed out. Then I tried to return it to the REI in bend and they stared at me like I was a junkie. But 4600 miles of constant use is pretty good for a single piece of gear, I’d say!

And on the CDT? I’ll use the steripen.


Petzl e-lite headlamp

This headlamp sucks. It makes only a small amount of wavery, confusing light, and it requires those big flat watch batteries that are expensive. But it only weighs an ounce, and I carried it because, on occasion, one needs a headlamp. Mostly I don’t like night-hiking, though, or even being up after dark, and this year I was efficient enough to rarely have to do it. When I did night-hike I tried to make best use of the moon.

Next year? Same headlamp. Why not?


Going stoveless/Plastic screw-top container for soaking food

I guess I am a masochist, because I never allow myself to have hot food on the trail. Last year I carried an alcohol stove made from a pepsi can for much of the trail, but was inspired by Instigate’s peanut butter jar soaking system and so eventually ditched the stove. It worked for me and my FAVORITE thing to eat on the trial this year was chia seeds, oats and chocolate hemp protein powder soaked in my little container. I could seriously eat this 5x a day and not get tired of it. For dinner I soaked dried spinach and peas with instant refried beans or instant curried lentil soup and ate it with tortilla chips.

Next year? I might get another alcohol stove and dehydrate really great homemade dinners for myself. The CDT is brutal, and food is great for morale. Or I might just stick with my little screw-top container, b/c I hate hassle and carrying extra stuff.


Brooks Cascadias Running Shoes

These shoes work perfect for me, and I also like that you can find “deals” on previous years’ models online. I change them every 700 miles, only get blisters the first month, and rarely, if ever, have foot pain. Before my first thru-hike last year I wore a women’s size 10, and for the trail I sized up to a men’s size 10- both longer AND wider, so they were perfect, as your feet spread and also swell while thru-hiking. I never laced my shoes tight- I kept them loose enough that I could slip them on and off without untying them. The few times I did lace them tight I developed foot pain within 10 miles or so. On each pair of cascadias I sawed off the bump in back that hits your achilles tendon and then stitched it up with dental floss- that bump is useless and bothers my heel. Cascadias work for lots of people on the trail, although if you need a really wide toe-box Altras are a good alternative.

Next year? Cascadias. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Injinji toe socks

Addicted to these b/c they keep you from feeling the grit between your toes. I also wore other thin no-cushion wool or synthetic socks on occasion. No-cushion is key for me. Sock cushion gives me hotspots! Hot tip: the men’s injinjis in PINK are ALWAYS on sale online. CDT? Yah.

Dirty Girl Gaiters

Love them. When I wear these I rarely (if ever) have to stop and dump rocks out of my shoes. They also come in wild patterns, and the wilder and more colorful your hiking outfit is, the happier you will be. GUARANTEED. CDT? Yes.

Western Mountaineering Hooded Flash Jacket

Ah, my love/hate relationship with down as an insulating layer. So lightweight, so cozy and puffy when it’s dry! So useless in the rain!

And on the CDT? I don’t know! Isn’t there something better?!

Golite rain jacket

Pretty much useless after two years of occasional use, wicks water through almost immediately. I should probably replace this for the CDT.

Nike hyperwarm tights

I love these tights. They are very warm. And heavy. And fleecy on the inside. This is an item I bounce when it’s warm, and I will def. carry them on the cold sections of the CDT.


Boa one-inch inseam galaxy-print running shorts 

A thru-hiker’s running shorts are, for four to six months, the closest thing a thru-hiker has to home- aka VERY VERY IMPORTANT, and one develops much feelings and emotional attachment to one’s running shorts! My intentions with running shorts (and they should be your intentions, too) are A) EXCITING COLORS/PATTERNS AS THIS HELPS WITH MORALE B) NO CHAFE C) AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE D) FEEL AS THOUGH I’M NOT WEARING ANY PANTS.

I found these particular beauties on runningwarehouse.com, for $27. You can get all sorts of crazy patters, and neon ones! These shorts have a one-inch inseam, which is ridiculous, but they DO come with a liner, so you don’t have to worry about flashing anyone. I bought the men’s size large to make them a touch longer, although next year I’ll probably get the medium because they have a really high slit up the side and are always blowing up and showing the liner anyway, so I might as well get the size that fits me. THESE SHORTS ARE A DREAM aka THEY REALLY DO MAKE YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU’RE NOT WEARING ANY PANTS. I wore these shorts all day long every single day for my entire hike, and only one little seam began to unravel, towards the end. In contrast, last year I wore patagonia running shorts and by Washington they had disintegrated completely. I’ll wear these shorts on the CDT, maybe in some neon color?!

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Railriders adventure shirt for the desert

I got the men’s size small, because it was on sale. Fit me like a tent but was the best desert shirt ever. Not awful looking, as far as desert shirts go/in fact vaguely fashionable/light and breezy/does not turn to cardboard when saturated with sweat/makes me feel as though I should be leading a camel train across the sahara in the seventies

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Giant, cheap straw hat that completely disintegrated in the desert winds

Everyone should wear one of these hats, at some time in their life, while on some great, arduous mission across the desert. Coupled with my vaguely middle-eastern feeling adventure shirt, this hat really made me feel “in character” for my grueling journey across the sun-scorched, wind-blown no-man’s land that is the first 700 miles of the PCT. Make sure, however, that your hat has a string. Otherwise the desert winds will carry it away and you’ll surely die.

Nike dri-fit sports bra

Werks good, smashes boobs. Have worn for 5,320 miles now. Nike logo is flaking off in an aesthetically appealing way.

Mosquito headnet that I use exclusively as a stuff sac/no deet/no protection from the mosquitoes

I will continue to cultivate my psychological resilience in the face of intense mosquitoes; this helps me feel superior to other hikers

Gossamer Gear trekking poles

8 ounces for the pair, collapsing mechanism was annoying and sometimes dysfunctional, one pole snapped in the snow, one tip broke completely off. Last year I carried Black Diamond ultra distance poles, which weigh one ounce more but never broke and I never had to replace the tips, and I’ll most likely carry these next year on the CDT. You can read my thoughts on trekking poles here.


update/what happens now/THANK YOU

I’ve been in Portland for a week, staying with my good friend Seamus, riding a bike, taking naps, eating collard greens and too much dark chocolate. Reconnecting with the people who I love, face to face and on the phone, through email, however I can- sometimes I think that I am a very poor friend, that I am just gone, that I miss all the important moments, that I am never there when the exciting thing happens, or to help move a ping-pong table, or to bear witness in the hard times. I am so lucky to have connected, in this short time on earth, with so many wonderful people- being away and out of touch all summer makes me realize this, this goldmine of connection that I’ve been sitting on, forgetting about and neglecting as if I have all the time in the world, as if I’ll live forever. These connections are all that we have and I am lucky that my friends, who are much more settled and dependable than I am, are so patient with me. I only hope that someday I can pay it forward, because I know I’ll never be able to pay it back.

I finished my second thru-hike of the PCT! And it feels… sort of regular. The trail this year, for me, was not so much a physical challenge as an emotional one- on my second thru-hike my body just sort of knew what to do but I felt more emotionally distant from the trail, less attached. By mid-Oregon I was ready for the sorts of emotional and intellectual nourishment that non-trail life can offer, all the different kinds of people and experiences, a wider more open and varied world. The trail is a narrow demographic of people doing a narrow range of activities and discussing a narrow range of subjects. I felt as though I’d beaten most of that near to death, and although the hiking was much easier this year than last year (and by the end I felt stronger, as a hiker, than I’d ever felt, ever) I was starved for other things, other emotional and intellectual experiences. So when the trail ended I was ready, and I didn’t feel sad, only very peaceful, and contented, and probably sleepy, and that was nice.

Last year I was so heartbroken after finishing! Having lost the people and life that I had grown to love, that I had become so invested in. I rolled with a larger group this year and therefore didn’t connect with others as intimately, and also hiking the PCT a second time has destroyed, for me, the illusion that a thru-hike is a “once in a lifetime” adventure that can never happen again. I know that I’ll see my friends again and I know, money and time permitting, that I can thru-hike as many goddam times as I want. They also say that, much like your first love, there’s nothing like your first thru-hike. So maybe that’s true.

My body, after the trail, feels good- although it’s hilarious how “out of shape” I am for anything but walking. The first day I rode a bike left my hamstrings so sore I could barely move, and running on concrete feels completely impossible and also inherently wrong, as though I’m missing a sort of spring-like elasticity I should have and instead my legs are made of solid lead that is somehow magnetically attracted to the earth. Attempting to run on concrete makes me want to lay down on the warm pavement and go to sleep. Running on trails is alright, if awkward, so I’ve been doing that- although I have to fight the constant urge to walk.

My feet feel good. I am grateful, once again, that I do not have the foot pain that so many (all) of my thru-hiker friends experience at one time or another. Maybe it’s my giant feet, or my gait, or how often I change my shoes, or something, but so far my feet have held up really well and I am grateful for that. I have, however, been pooping my brains out- I stopped filtering my water the last week on the trial, as I want the immunity that the more veteran thru-hikers have, and so I’m riding this stomach bug out the same way I rode out what may or may not have been giardia when I was in Mt. Shasta. I want to be able to drink from a stagnant puddle without getting sick, like NotaChance can do. That’s my ultimate goal.

I’ve got a seasonal job in Southern Oregon that starts mid-September and until then I’m in Portland, broke and sort of sleepy, with only one set of clothes and my battered cascadias, seeing friends and soaking up the city life, reconnecting myself to a world that is large and varied and wild, the convoluted labyrinth of the human experience. It’s a beautiful world but an inherently fucked-up one as well- I left the simple quiet woods and returned to a human world in which, incredibly enough, black folks suspected of misdemeanors are executed in the street, and online comments say things like “he shouldn’t have run, he deserved it” and those comments are upvoted the most. For months I’ve been around thru-hikers, a mostly white, mostly sheltered bunch, and I’ve found that among them, much like among white hippy communities everywhere, there is a commonly held belief that “the world is a better place than it used to be”. I hear it other places too- there’s a podcast called Hardcore History that we all listened to while hiking, narrated by a white dude, and the premise of the podcast seems to be “shit used to be crazy and we used to do fucked-up things to each other, isn’t it great that the world isn’t like that anymore?” which drove me sort of batty because things are still just as fucked up, we just call them by different names and so they’re hidden in plain sight, and if you have enough privilege you can “decide” that the world is anyway you want it to be, and ignore the things happening right under your nose.

Instead of “the world is a better place than it used to be”, it would be more accurate to say “it’s a very good time in the world to be a white American”. Because as a white American I have, in a global sense, insane amounts of privilege, and access to a mind-boggling amount of resources. I can pretty much go anywhere and do whatever I want, and if any of the injustices in the world start to edge their way into my reality I can tell myself to “Stay Positive!” and just ignore them, and none of it will affect me at all.

To recap: I live in a motherfucking country where people suspected of crimes are shot dead in the street, and I can just ignore it because, since I’m white, I can be fairly positive that it won’t ever happen to me. All of this is happening, right now, and I’m…. writing about hiking? It makes me question everything I’m doing. It makes me long for the days when I was an angry young anarchist and we would dance around to this song- it didn’t do anything, but at least it made us feel better. It makes my own problems seem infinitesimally small- how broke I am until my job starts in September, my temperamental gut, trying to figure out how to be a good friend to the people that I love who are spread out over so much space and time.

Instigate calls me on the phone- I haven’t talked to her in months, since the long hot descent to Belden when I had good reception.

“I just got back from Ferguson,” she says.

I’ve been trying, since last fall, to convince Instigate to hike the CDT with me next year- but Instigate’s work as a political organizer is what’s most important to her, and thru-hiking, for her, is an indulgence, a sort of vacation. Now she’s just getting back into doing the work that she loves, and hiking the CDT would interrupt all of that. This is, to say the least, admirable, and inspiring to me- this young woman, almost ten years my junior, so wise and grounded in her own integrity and her sense of what’s good and important in the world. I learned in my early twenties that I don’t have the patience, resilience or organizational skills to be a political organizer, but my intention is that one day I’ll have enough influence as a writer to be able to write about things besides motherfucking hiking- I want to write the sort of narrative nonfiction that shapes our understanding of reality- I want to stuff sticks of dynamite into the glimmering golden blinders of white privilege. But right now I’m small so I’ll write about hiking in order to build my platform, and maybe some stuff about riding freight trains, and I’ll keep talking to all of my white, well-meaning hiker friends about the varied experiences of people who live outside of their narrow demographic, and I’ll get fuck the police tattooed on my forehead, and you should to.

So what happens next? This winter I finish the book about my 2013 hike- I’ve already written two drafts, haven’t looked at it for five months and now I’ll write a third, try and leverage my growing online platform to get a traditional publishing contract and, barring that, I’ll publish it myself. I’ll also work a shitty job, train for an ultra, eat lots of brassicas, and drive away my instagram followers by posting lots of selfies. And in 2015 I’ll hike the Continental Divide Trail- it’s an unfinished trail (aka lots of roadwalking and route-finding) of variable length that stretches from Mexico to Canada via New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. It’s a unique challenge- sort of like if I’d hiked the PCT back in the seventies, before it was finished. I’ve already begun reading the blogs (Myla Hikes is a good one from this year, written by a woman who hiked the PCT last year) and picking the brains of people who’ve hiked it, and I’m already really, really excited. Several friends from the PCT last year and from the PCT this year will be there, as well as several other thru-hiker friends. As much as I was ready, in the end, to be off the trail this year, I already long for it again, as I knew that I would. I might do something wild next year, money and time permitting, like tack another hike onto the end of the CDT- I felt so, so strong at the end of the PCT this year, and it seemed a shame to not just keep going, to see what I was capable of. And of course I’ll be blogging on the CDT- and this winter I’ll blog now and then, about my life, and what’s in my brain, and preparations for the trail, and I’ll post photos. And sometime this week I’ll do a review of all the gear I used this year.

And most important of all, I wanted to say THANK YOU- to all of my readers, for your wonderful, encouraging, heartfelt comments and emails during my hike this year. I don’t respond to comments while hiking because I have such a small amount of time in which to blog, and I have to ration it carefully, but I read and cherish every single comment and they definitely helped keep me afloat me during difficult times on the trail. It’s literally because of you that this is possible at all, that I get to thru-hike and write about it. And it makes my hikes about a thousand times more rewarding, knowing that I have readers, knowing how fun it is for all of you to follow along. Win/win/win/win! Here is a pika for you!!!

(Pika courtesy of Sheriff Woody)

(Pika courtesy of Sheriff Woody)