Adventures/Friends/Possibility

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.

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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

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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.

clip

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.

lite

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?

ziploc

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.

CLOTHING/SHOES

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.

shorts

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.

THE END!

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)

 

Day 116: something like absolution

August 18
Mileage 44.5 (14.5 miles to the Canadian border + 30 miles back to Hart’s pass)
Mile 2645.5 to mile 2660

At four a.m. in the still-dark the Hexamid beside us starts to rustle- there is no water, no white noise and so the sounds are like sharp cracks in the night and we all wake but it doesn’t matter, it’s like Christmas morning and we couldn’t fall back asleep if we tried. The monument today, the monument today. Canada, Canada, Canada, what will it feel like to be finished with this great thing we’ve all been rushing towards and what, if anything, will come after.

I leave camp first just before six, determined not to be in the back today. I want to hike with people on my last day, goddamit! These motherfuckers are so fast, with their long legs, just stomping all over the earth. Woody is a long bendy straw that travels at the speed of light, trekking poles flailing, and Tiny and Brainstorm are built like gladiators, at least seven feet tall. Guthrie has the most awesomely muscular legs we’ve ever seen and can go exactly as fast as he wants. Guthrie told me the other day that he never gets tired anymore, his feet just sometimes hurt. And Twinkle is a jack russell terrier. If you’ve ever hung out with a jack russell terrier you know what I mean.

Sometimes I can keep up with Krispies, which is a consolation, as she started on May 8th and so is actually faster than everyone anyways.

I’m going to miss these fools.

It’s 14.5 miles to the border and Krispies and I get to slack-pack there, which is cool. Slack-packing is where you don’t carry all of your gear. Krispies and I are turning around at the border instead of going into Canada so we’ve left our shelters and sleeping bags in camp- our plan is to hang out at the border for a while with everyone and then hike back to this point, for a 29 mile day. My sleeping bag and shelter together weigh about two pounds so I don’t feel that much of a difference without them but it makes my pack look really small, which I like.

I’m alone for the first couple of miles and I stop on a ridge to watch the flame-red sun work its way up over the horizon. My last sunrise on the trail! I almost start to cry but then I say not yet, not yet, it’s too early for that. I wonder how I’ll feel after finishing but then I stop wondering, and just focus on the hike. I’m tired this morning, and I feel slow. I’m hiking a narrow trail along green, verdant ridges, climbing or descending or climbing again, the jagged peaks of Canada in the distance. The sky is warming, the plants are wet where they brush against my legs. Soon Tiny, Woody and Krispies catch up to me, and we walk in a little group. I feel like no-one wants to walk alone this morning, we all want to savor the last of this camaraderie that we’ve built. I find myself wishing, again, that Chance was here. We left the Mexican border together, we should be finishing together. This whole summer we’ve been NotaChance and the Pink Blazers, following her down the trail like little ducklings, whether she liked it or not. We couldn’t help it. She’s just so good at hiking, and she gives no fucks. Now her and Mac are a day or so behind, as they took a few days off to wait out the rain and figure out the logistics of the Pacific Northwest Trail, which they want to follow west to Bellingham after completing the PCT. As I hike I remember the times Chance and I walked together, the way we’d gossip and talk shit and commiserate. The way she understood everything that was in my brain, the way we’d turn over the Irreconcilable Contradictions of the Universe (As Seen From the Viewpoint of a Woman Who Thru-Hikes), handling them and passing them back and forth until they were at least familiar and well-worn, if not any closer to being solved. The group has always been almost entirely dudes, and while they’re very nice dudes, Chance provided much-needed badass female solidarity in times of strife, and that helped me more than I can even say. Now, hiking towards the monument, I feel that there’s a Chance-shaped hole in my PCT universe and I wish, more than anything, that she was finishing with us. But of anyone in the group, she’s the one I’m most likely to actually get to hang out with after the trail, so that’s cool.

We all congregate for a snack break on top of the last climb before Canada- it’s a beautiful ridge from which I can see wild mountains going on for forever, valleys draped in light, weather gathering on distant peaks. I find a spot behind some trees to dig my last cathole (before Canada) and am treating to what is probably my best pooping view of the entire trail. Then down, down, down back into the forest and the wet, tangled brush. We cross the infamous Washington Washouts, which happened last year during the record-breaking September rains- whole sections of the scree slope turned into ravines. The washouts were much worse last year and have been partly repaired by trial crews but they still slow us down, and add a little excitement to the morning. No-one’s GPS is working today so we can’t obsessively check to see where we are, how many miles we have left. We’re just walking, and talking about this and that, and feeling tired, and picking a ripe huckleberry, here and there, and then we see it, the narrow clear-cut rising up the ridge opposite, delineating the boundary between this country and the next, and then we round a switchback and it’s there, that damp wooden monument, and I start to cry.

“Can you take my picture?” says Woody.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just need a moment.”

Woody gives me one of the best hugs I’ve ever had.

“We met five minutes after leaving the Mexican border and now we’re here, at the same time.” he says.

“I know,” I say. “I know.” Then it’s hugs all around and people pull out the celebratory sticky buns and pabst blue ribbons they packed from Stehekin. It’s a different feeling, being here with people, versus last year when I showed up before Raho and had a few quiet, shivering moments alone in the rain with the monument in which to contemplate everything I’d done that had brought me to this point. This year, sitting in this damp clearing with my friends while they eat their sticky buns, watching the sun work its way above the trees, everything feels lighter, less serious, less final. More than anything I feel very, very tired- I haven’t been sleeping well and we’ve been doing high-mileage days, crushing our way through Washington to get to this point. We did all of Washington in just 20 days, including a zero in Stehekin! And 116 days for the entire trail- I never thought I would hike it this fast. I eat various things from the dregs of my food bag and think about the long 14 miles back to camp. Now I kind of wish I was going into Canada with the others. But no, I wanted this. I need to walk backwards, I need the introspection.

We take turns passing around the register, a cheap paper notebook pulled from the base of the monument. (Note to people behind us- the register is in the metal monument, and you have to lift the whole monument off its base to find it. It’s heavy. And no, there isn’t any weed in there. At least that I saw.) There are something like 35 northbound thru-hikers in the register who finished before us- out of a thousand or so who started. In the register I look for friends, remember the people who are just behind us. I wish they were here. Oh that I could see them again! I write in the register-

8/18/14, Carrot Quinn. This must be what it feels like to be a river that’s reached the sea

Krispies and I say our goodbyes at 1 p.m., after hanging out at the monument for two hours. More epic hugs (why didn’t we hug more on the trail? Now I wish we’d hugged every day) and then we’re hiking south, away from our friends, away from everything, back the way we’ve come, and it all seems so sad, and glum, and empty, and I start to sob. Still I can’t tell if I’m crying from feeling or from exhaustion- I sob like a four year-old when I reach a certain point of weariness and right now I’m so tired I just want to sit down on the trail and give up. I walk alone, crying and crying, my insides a convoluted soup of emotions.

I’m climbing back up the tilted green slopes we just hiked down, feeling more weary and sad than I can bear, when it happens- a gentle lifting of the weight from my heart and, as though coming from all directions, a feeling of peace- peace coming from the sky, peace coming down the gentle slope of the mountain, peace coming from the lupine bunched up against the trail. Peaceful clouds, peaceful forest, peaceful warm august air. Peace everywhere, rushing in to fill that space that’s been vacated now that it’s all over- I’m not in a competition, or a fight for my own survival. I’m not rushing towards anything. I’m not a thru-hiker worrying about miles, or interpersonal dynamics, or the turmoils of my own heart. It’s over. It’s all over, and I’m just me. I’m Carrot.

I’m Carrot, and I’m a fucking badass. I’m a badass but I’m also vulnerable. And I’m working on my humility.

And then I realize that the peace isn’t coming from anywhere- it’s been here all along, waiting for me. And something like absolution. A kind of euphoria, a lightness, mixing in with my low blood sugar and sleep deprivation, and then suddenly I’m not weary anymore, and the climb feels easy, and hiking feels like the most natural thing I’ve ever done. Walking is what I do, it’s what I love. I’m a motherfucking thru-hiker and I love to walk. Turning the earth beneath my feet, turning the wheel of life. And this peace, everywhere, moving through me. I’m free, I’m free, I’m free.

I pass the spot where we took our last break, the ridge where I saw the sunrise. I feel like I’m walking backwards with a pushbroom, pushing ghosts off the trail. I’m free. Already I’m missing the others in the group, and it’s only been a couple of hours- the things they’d say, their hilarious idiosyncrasies, even the way we’d bicker and annoy each other. Maybe especially the way we’d bicker and annoy each other. Maybe that’s what love is- the loyalty that’s left over at the end of the day, after everything else is gone.

As I walk I realize that, rather than feeling like I’m hiking south, it feels like I’m hiking the trail inside out- all the downs are up and the ups are down and the views are all backwards. The trail, I realize, has no inherent cardinal direction, and is fully functional both ways. I file this fact away for my potential future yo-yo attempt. I cross the washouts again and this time there is a trail crew there, shoveling rocks- so the washouts will be much less annoying for the thru-hikers who come after. That’s cool. I catalogue the state of my body now that this thru-hike is over-

Foot pain- none
Blisters- none
Ibuprofen taken in the last few months- none
Digestion- off and on

I am getting good at this, I think. I realize that I’m proud of myself, for lots of different reasons- proud of myself for doing such high-mileage days, for completing Washington and Oregon so fast, for continuing to walk in all those days/hours/moments when I felt like I couldn’t walk any further. For keeping up with a bunch of tall dudes who make everything seem easy, as silly as it sounds. I’m proud of myself for not skipping a big chunk of Oregon to go to a wedding, even if it meant hiking by myself for a hundred miles. For rethinking my relationship to gear companies- I am no longer a Gossamer Gear trail ambassador and realized a few weeks ago that, although free gear certainly helps make a hike possible, being a “brand ambassador” for any company feels dishonest to me, and is not in line with my ethics and beliefs. I’m an anti-capitalist, goddamit! I use gear because I love it and it works, not because gear companies are my “friends”. I want to be able to talk honestly and openly about the gear that I use in order to help newer hikers make informed decisions, just like the thru-hikers that I learned from. My loyalty lies with other hikers, not with gear companies. (No judgement to thru-hikers who pursue sponsorships- I know that this lifestyle is expensive and not conducive to full-time employment and sponsorship is often the only way to get the gear/food/support that you need. Do what you need to do! Just stay true to yourself!)

I catch up to Krispies at camp where she’s sitting on the ground, going through her pack. I pull out a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips and happily stuff them into my face. The only other people here are a few members of a trail crew, sitting on damp logs around the fire pit, waving at mosquitoes. It’s so peaceful here, sitting on the ground next to Krispies, eating snacks. There were about twenty people at this site last night but now it’s quiet, empty.

“I’m running on something,” I say to Krispies. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m running on something. I feel good.”

“Yeah,” says Krispies. “Me too.”

It’s 6:30 p.m. and we’ve gone 29 miles. We’re 15.5 from the campground at Hart’s pass, where we’d planned to hitch out a ride out in the morning.

“I keep thinking,” says Krispies, “that if we went all the way to Hart’s pass, we could make it by midnight.”

That would make a 44.5 mile day- more than either of us have ever done, our biggest day on the trail. I look at my watch.

“Nah,” I say. “I bet we could do it by 11:30.”

And we do.

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Clockwise from bottom left: Guthrie, yours truly, Twinkle, Tiny, Brainstorm, Woody, Rice Krispies. Photo by Tiny

Clockwise from bottom left: Guthrie, yours truly, Twinkle, Tiny, Brainstorm, Woody, Rice Krispies. Photo by Tiny

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More photos on instagram

Day 115: these last few days are so sweet

August 17
Mileage 36.5
Mile 2609 to mile 2645.5

Sleep hard wake early, make my little oatmeal and eat it watching the fog move across the meadow. Hiking by 6:10, we’re climbing today but only 5 thousand feet. I walk with Tiny, he talks about being a chef, we discuss gender dynamics in kitchens, the history of what is and isn’t valued and by whom. The plants are wet, slapping against our legs, but the air is warming up. There’s a cold front moving in, day after tomorrow, bringing cold rain- looks like we’ll be finishing just in time. The weather is so wild on the PCT this year.

9 a.m. we take a break in a trampled campsite next to a stream and I eat the other half of my pie. Guthrie, Woody and Brainstorm join us and then we’re off again, up and up. Out of the trees onto the narrow ridges, weathered conifers and bright clearings, mountain ranges folded into each other way in the distance where we won’t ever walk. The trail is ending, is why. But what if it kept going into Canada? What if we could hike forever? Would we do it in a single season? Two? With a dog team?

I fall behind but can see the others in the distance, walking the ridge like ants, and I jog to catch them. I’m caffeinated today, via a mocha clif shot from a hiker box, and I slept well. I feel good. I join the ant train along the mountain- me, Twinkle, Guthrie, Krispies. Tiny and Woody ahead, crushing it. Even when we crush it, though, it’s a sort of slow-motion crushing. So slow that when we ride in cars now we get carsick, frightened at the speed. We’re only ants, how did we come this far. Turning the earth beneath our feet looking out at the light on the mountains, everything so beautiful, beautiful.

Last year there was trail magic at Hart’s pass, epic food and a campfire in the cold, cold rain. This year we reach the campground and there’s no-one, but I understand- it’s sunny and beautiful, we don’t need anyone to take care of us. Save it for the folks who will finish in the awful weather, when trail magic makes the difference between good humor and bottomed-out morale. We yard-sale our things out in the sunshine to dry the dew and make our own trail magic via the contents of our food bags- I eat tortilla chips and jelly belly sport beans, which are just regular jelly bellies with brilliant marketing and vitamin C added.

We’ve gone 21 miles by 1:30 p.m. and we spend an hour at Hart’s pass, laying around and eating. Also using the pit toilet, which we’ve taken to calling “toilet magic”.

These last few days are so sweet.

Just 16 miles to camp. I cruise with Guthrie and Krispies and we remark about this and that, how amazing everything is, all the things we’ve accomplished that we never thought we’d do. More ridgewalking, looking at Canada in the distance, everything so wild and sparkling with sun.

We reach camp at 7:40- 36.5 miles by 7:40 with an hour and a half of breaks, and my feet don’t even hurt. I feel astonished. Camp is a little grove of conifers in a green meadow overlooking a distant valley, tiny stream trickling through. Midnight Rider and Valentino are here, the woman and her horse, thru-hiking a second time! I watch them do horse things as I prepare my little tupperware of soaked spinach and peas, rip open a packet of tuna. She leads the horse by his rope to a patch of grass, the horse drops down and lolls about on his side. She ties the horse to a tree and puts a blanket on him. Horse things! How different her experience must be. There are a bunch of other hikers here too, day hikers, set up in the trees. And a hexamid in our midst, its occupant already asleep. The last of the light drains from the sky and we go, almost reluctantly, to bed. Only 14 miles to Canada!

Photos on instagram

Day 114: pie, climbing, cutthroat pass

August 16
Mileage 29
Mile 2580 to mile 2609

I sleep bad my second night at the lodge, for some reason, and in the morning I wake early and go to the restaurant, order eggs and sausage and potatoes to go. Everything in Stehekin is expensive, and I’m definitely spending the last of my money, but I don’t care. I’ll make it work somehow, everything will work out somehow. It always does. I eat my breakfast on the wooden deck, watching the fog burn off the lake. Only three days to the border. What does it even mean.

Three days, 110 miles- 80 miles for everyone else but an extra 30 for me and Krispies, because we’re not going into Canada. My passport expired last winter, and I never got a new one. And Krispies is turning around for logistical purposes. The border crossing is in the middle of nowhere so if you turn around it means you have to hike back thirty miles on the PCT to Hart’s pass, where there’s a road. Last year I went into Canada, but this year I’m looking forward to doing it this way- I need time for introspection, I’m not ready to step off the trail just yet. And doing 30 extra miles will make me feel better about the 30 miles I skipped around the second fire closure in Oregon.

Everyone trickles onto the deck, sleepy, sodas in hand, attempting to caffeinate/get pumped. Notachance never appeared yesterday, like I’d hoped she would, and my heart sinks. Word is that her and Mac took a few days off to wait out the rain- which means that we likely won’t finish together. Still I hold out a little hope. Maybe they’ll catch us before the border?

The bus bumps down the dirt road to the bakery- last bakery stop before Canada! Inside everyone buys sticky buns, slices of cold pizza wrapped in cellophane, things to take to the border. I find a treasure on the day-old shelf- another blackberry pie! For only $10! I heft it in my hands. A whole pie- should I pack it out? How will I fit the box in my pack? Of course there is only one answer to this question. I pull some food out of my food bag to make room, leave behind tuna packets and trail mix. Who needs nutritious food when you can pack out an entire blackberry pie?!

We climb for the first 25 miles today, up through sun-dappled forest. The climb is mellow and gently graded and I cruise. 9 miles in I stop at a stream for water and some of my pie. The pie tastes incredible- flaky golden crust, blackberry juice running all over everything. I am certain, in this moment, that no-one has ever enjoyed blackberry pie as much as I am enjoying it, right now. Sitting next to this stream in the wilderness, hungry from hiking uphill all morning, attacking the pie with my titanium spork. I go into a trance, and before I know it half of the pie is gone. And I am deeply satisfied.

Except, of course, I have a bit of a stomachache now, and 16 miles of climbing left. Hiking heavy, is what they call it. I listen to my music and cruise, hipbelt unfastened, and by the time I catch the others three miles later at rainy pass I feel better. Then up, up, to the ridge with the subalpine larch, where we camped last year. Cutthroat pass! More epic views I missed last year in the rain- jagged peaks and bowl-shaped valleys filled with light. This morning I’d been apprehensive about 29 miles, starting at 9 a.m., and with all this climbing, but now I feel amazing. I’ve only taken the one half-hour break all day, and I don’t need any more.

I get to camp just before eight and find the others sitting on damp logs around a fire pit, wearing their puffy jackets and boiling little dinners. Bright tents are pitched in the meadow and the air is cooling, dew falling over everything. There’s a volunteer trail crew camped here as well, and they chat with us about this and that. Tiny is talking about doing 37 miles tomorrow, which sounds impossible, and then I realize that it’s not.

“I think today was the easiest 30 miles I’ve ever done,” I say.

“Yeah,” says Tiny.

“We’re so strong now,” I say. “But the trail is almost over. It’s so weird.”

“Yeah.”

Only two days left, I think. Better make it count.

Photos on instagram.

Day 113: Freakin’ Stehekin: a zero in the promised land

August 15
Mileage: zero

Our last zero on the trail.

I sleep amazing on the hard floor with the cool damp air coming in the window, earplugs in my ears to keep out the snoring. Wake feeling tousled and relaxed, as if the set has changed somehow, maybe everything is going to be ok after all. If I get sad I can just think of my dog. Hugging my dog. That seems to help a lot.

The 8 o’clock shuttle takes us to the bakery.

“Just stand a moment and smell it,” says Tiny, as we pass through the big wooden door. I do. Rhubard pie, sausage biscuits. I buy an egg and sausage breakfast sandwich on gluten-free bread and a salad. Might as well start with something nutritious. Might as well delay the glutenfog for a few more hours.

Eating and blogging, eating and blogging. A gluten free carrot muffin, a cup of green tea, a pastry full of chicken and swiss. The others play card games around the big wooden table, day hikers and tourists come and go.

Monopoly back in the village, in the big room overlooking the water, Brainstorm ends up with all the properties and slays us all. Twinkle and I take kayaks out on Lake Chelan. I feel like a duck, paddling across the flat water. Where the water meets the mountain on the other side you can see down, down, into the aquamarine depths, the soft contours of the rock and the submerged trees. There are petroglyphs there, drawings of people and animals and parallel lines to mark the passage of… what?

In the evening there’s an art opening at the ranger station/visitor center- a bunch of paintings made by the locals. A live band is playing, made up of the beautiful hipsters who work at the bakery. We arrive en masse and descend on the food table and then the music ends and we drift back to the hotel, bored.

I think I’ll go to sleep but I can’t. In the big room overlooking the lake people are drinking and playing cards and I join them, filling an empty beer bottle with tap water because there aren’t any cups. We wear ourselves out and finally, around eleven, we drift off to our rooms. Our last zero on the trail, just three more days to the border. I feel suspended in space, between one thing and the next.

Photos on instagram.

Day 112: plodding through the rain to paradise

August 14
Mileage 15
Mile 2565 to mile 2580

The storm doesn’t come. I sleep hard for a while and when I wake up at first light my stuff is dry- sleeping bag, tent, everything dried in the night. Hallelujah. Everyone is packing up and we’re on the trail by 6:30, working our way through the fog. 15 downhill miles to Stehekin, the promised land. So close, so close.

We’re hiking fast fast and it starts to rain. Warm rain though. Everything is soaked, wet plants slapping against our legs, water running under our rain jackets and into our faces. We catch up to Guthrie- he didn’t take the alternate, camped 1.5 miles before us, got up early. We take a break next to a stream, eat the last of our food. Then rushing, rushing through the wet forest in the downpour. We’ve got to make the 12:15 shuttle from the trailhead. There are no roads into Stehekin, if you didn’t already know about this magical place. Little village that sits on lake Chelan and you can get in by boat, float plane, or by walking in on the PCT. Shuttle picks you up at the trailhead.

We reach the bridge at 11:30, the rain is still falling, we huddle on the porch of the ranger’s house under the awning, sitting on the woodpile. Waiting for the shuttle. Krispies shows up! She camped four miles back, did 19 miles by 11:45. She’s wearing a blue plastic rain poncho.

“I ran most of the way,” she says.

13 of us, huddled out of the rain, smelling like a pile of damp laundry that’s been in the bottom of a hamper. The shuttle rumbles up, a long red bus from the past/future and we pile on, stack our wet packs in the front. There was a landslide yesterday, the road was closed. We ease our way through the part that’s been bulldozed out- it looks like a lava flow of mud and rocks that came through the trees, buried everything three feet deep. Then Lake Chelan, flat and green, held in by the steep rain-grey mountains. Third deepest lake in the country, after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe. The PCT goes by all three.

I feel glum. I rest my head against the window and stare out at the wet green forest. I’m tired- I haven’t had a full night’s sleep on the trail in a while. And I need a day off. Tomorrow will be my first zero since Sisters, 600 miles ago. And other than that, I just feel sad. I hiked again, why did I do that? What was I looking for? What even is out there, to find? I close my eyes. This is what it feels like to be alive, I think. This is what it feels like to be alive.

Then we’re at the bakery. All summer I’ve been telling people that I’m on my second annual pilgrimage to the Stehekin bakery. Now I’m afraid that I’ve talked it up too much, that I’ll be dissapointed.

I am not dissapointed.

Big warm room, everything made of yellow wood. Beautiful people, rosy-cheeked and dusted with flour, pulling pizzas, cinnamon rolls, loaves of bread from the steaming ovens. In back several rows of pies cool on a wooden chopping block.

This year I promised myself an entire blackberry pie. Last year Raho and I split one, finishing it in five minutes, and this year I think I could eat a whole one. I ask for blackberry and the woman looks over the pies- peach, strawberry rhubard, walnut, and then she finds one- crust broken, running all over with purple juice. It’s $16 and still warm from the oven. She puts the pie in a box on a paper doily and I am elated holding it, feeling its warmth. This is my pie. Mine. Happy thru-hike to me. Others get chicken croissants, pizza, giant sticky buns. I dig into the pie as the bus jolts down the rutted dirt road to the village. It tastes like heaven, and I manage to eat half of it before I feel ill. No worries, though. I’ll finish the rest by the morning.

There are four rooms left in the lodge and we rent all of them for our group. I end up in a small room with Brainstorm and Tiny and I commandeer the space between the bed and the wall for my sleeping quarters, take one of the best showers of my life. Eat more pie. Sit on the big couch at the end of the hall that faces the windows that look out at the lake- stare and stare at the lake, the mist moving over the water, the vertical mountains.

Laundry and then dinner is at the restaurant- they’ve done away with the massive nachos of last year, unfortunately, but they let us order burgers off the lunch menu. The postmaster with long silver hair and an eye patch fetches our packages and then we make our way to the community center, a cluster of rooms for locals and lodge guests where there are more couches, board games, a pool table. There is no wifi in Stehekin, no computers, no cell phone reception. We have only each other, these fantastical baked goods, whatever beer we can buy. I decide to drink for once and it’s fun, the sense of comraderie, no sitting by myself feeling like an outsider, the bare bulb of sobriety making everything too bright. I introduce the group to Bag of Nouns, which is kind of like celebrity, and almost every word is PCT related- poop, horse, cascadia, back chafe. We talk about all the good times we’ve had. How did this happen, I think. I feel like I was never really here.

I head back to the hotel just before midnight, walking alone along the dark shores of the lake, hearing the water lapping, no light pollution anywhere. The air smells like mist, like pacific northwest winter. Back at the room I brush my teeth and crawl into my good hard bed on the floor, with a nice feather pillow for tonight. I arrange my things around me- crusty gatorade bottle of water, chapstick, hanky. The window’s wide open and the damp air comes in. I sleep.

Photos on instagram.

Day 111: what is the lesson here

August 13
Mileage 34
Mile 2531 to mile 2565

The storm hits around 10:30 p.m. Just light rain at first, then harder, then cold wind! from off of the lake and lightning! illuminating the walls of my tent and thunder! Rattling the ground. Woosh! Woosh! Woosh! Goes the rain as it smacks against the limp cuben fiber of my shelter. I scramble to unroll my polycro groundsheet, basically a sheet of saran wrap, and put it under my sleeping pad. I string up the piece of cuben fiber that functions as the “door” of my tent. I move things here and there as rain starts to run down the mesh of my shelter.

I wake an hour later to find that water has pooled on my groundsheet and my sleeping pad- my sleeping bag is wet. Wet, wet, everything is wet. The storm still rages- lightning, thunder, torrents of water. Everyone is awake, and we talk to each other through the walls of our tents. Are you dry? I’ve got a puddle. You? The same.

At least it’s not very cold. I brave the storm long enough to re-stake my tent, which has just about collapsed. Outside the frozen lake glows white and it’s strangely light- I can see everything. 2:30 a.m. The storm makes its own light? Or? Back inside I blow up my neo-air and scooch on top of it. This will keep me above the water. I pull my now-wet sleeping bag up around my ears and curl into a ball on my torso-length neo-air, which feels like an awkward throw pillow. Everything I’m wearing is damp, the cold wind blows through the mesh of my tent and I’m almost warm enough- almost.

I wake at 5:30 and uncurl. My legs are cramped and achey. How long did I sleep? Five hours? Six? The storm is over and the contours of the earth are draped in fog- I cross my fingers that the sun will come out long enough today for me to dry my stuff. Otherwise I’ll be camping in the rain again, with a wet sleeping bag- no bueno. I shove a few handfuls of reeses puffs into my face as I stuff away my things. One of the best trail foods I’ve packed out, hands down.

We’ve got ten thousand feet of elevation gain today, over 29 miles. Ten thousand. Another Forester/Mather/Pinchot day. And it’d be 34 miles, but we’ve been talking about taking the old PCT alternate, which I took last year. The old PCT alternate is 5 miles shorter, wild and unmaintained and cuts through an enchanted stand of old growth. Hiking it last year with Instigate and Spark was one of my best experiences on the trail. My morale was so low that morning, hiking in the hypothermia rain with not enough food, and then I caught them at the trail junction and we clambered over all the huge downed logs, finding the trail in the moss and the salmonberries, pretending all sorts of strange things. Laughing until we couldn’t breathe. And then scooting up that sketchy log over the Suittle river- I have a video of it somewhere.

There’s a long climb this morning, and I fall behind. The trail is choked with salmonberries, the trail is full of rocks, there’s water running all over the trail. Is this the sierras? Huge blowdowns on the trail- logs so big they lay there in an almost permanent way and I approach them, size them up, crawl over them like an ant or scootch under them, pulling my pack after.

I catch the others on the barren top of the mountain, taking a break in the mist/rain, huddled in their jackets. Brainstorm is boiling cous-cous in his pot. I stand for a moment eating greasy potato chips from my party-sized bag, staring at the fog and then it’s time to hike- being the slow one uphill means I catch the tail end of the break, and there’s not much time to chill if I want to keep up. It’s going to be one of those days.

I crash somehow on the way downhill- plodding through the forest I just get tired, tired, tired. These long climbs, the rain, not enough sleep. I’m not walking very fast but I can’t seem to make myself walk faster. In the last week I’ve developed awful back chafe, a big red welt across my back, and it stings like crazy where my pack touches it. And I’ve got raw spots on my feet from my wet shoes rubbing. Everything is hard today. I pass a bunch of day hikers, a group of young people on an eleven day outing. I’m only a few minutes behind Brainstorm and Tiny, Woody and Twinkle in front of them. Old PCT old PCT, I think. I stop to poop and then jog the last half mile to the junction. When I get there no-one is there.

What the fuck?

There’s a creek to the right you have to cross to get to the old PCT, and the creek is roiling and deep, crazy because of the rains. It’d be impossible to ford, and I don’t see an obvious way to cross. I sit on the mossy ground and eat a bar. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t know if the others took the old trail or if they showed up, saw the crazy ford, and decided it wasn’t a good idea. Because if the creek looks like this here, the Suittle river on the other side where the bridge washed out will be even worse. So these are my options: I can either take the old trail and risk doing the sketchy river crossing by myself, or take the new PCT and risk being 5 miles behind my friends, depending on what they decided to do. I feel frustrated and dissapointed. Why didn’t they leave a note? Why did I hike the whole trail with people who don’t leave notes?

I decide to do the new PCT. The work of 5 extra miles is easier than the stress of doing a sketchy log crossing by myself. And there’s still the chance that everyone else took the new PCT too.

The trail is wide and flat and easy, and a little sun filters through the trees. As I walk I think about my hike this year, my hike last year, the CDT next year. I find myself missing Spark and Instigate again. I wish I had a hiking partner, that I wasn’t rolling with such a large group. But this is the way I chose to do it, so here I am. Walking alone for most of the day. Feeling sort of sad and lonely about it. What am I supposed to learn from all of this. What is the lesson here.

The trail winds through a stand of massive old growth- big hemlocks and western redcedars- thousand year-old trees! Beautiful forest! Massive monoliths, older than time. The collective wisdom of the forest. My morale is bouyed, and I stop to get water at a stream. Light dances on the water where it runs over mossy stones. Everything is so beautiful.

I see no-one for an hour and then I pass an older man, a thru-hiker, walking slowly up the trail. He says his name is Opa.

“Have you been passed by a bunch of dudes?” I say. “Headed north?”

“I haven’t seen anyone all day,” he says.

So that’s it then. I’m the only one who didn’t take the alternate, I’m five miles behind my friends, and I’ll have to do a 34 mile day if I want to catch them. And I’ll have to do it fast. I look at the time and average my pace so far today- two miles an hour. That’s how arduous the trail has been. And I still have four thousand feet of climbing ahead of me. I start to cry.

I’m suddenly overwhelmed with loneliness. I don’t want to hike anymore. I can’t, I can’t. I didn’t mind walking alone for most of the trail but now, at the end, I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to be alone. Not today, not these last few days until Canada.

The loneliness is intolerable. I feel like a zombie, pushing myself up the trail. My morale is bottoming out but I can’t stop walking, I just need to keep walking. No time for breaks, no time to dry my stuff. I’ve sat down for maybe a half hour today and I know I won’t take another break. Not until I get to camp and crawl into my tent. My wet sleeping bag! I unstuff it and strap it to the outside of my pack. Maybe it’ll dry a little in the warm afternoon air. It swings around and brushes up against the damp undergrowth so I wrap the ends around me. The feeling is strangely comforting. I feel myself start to bonk, so I eat the snacks in my hipbelt pockets. I’m almost out of food. But I think I have just enough to get me to Stehekin.

The climb is smooth and evenly graded. No rocks or blowdowns in the trail, no water running everywhere. I am so grateful for this. I might be able to cruise after all! Morale, though, is still shit, and I can’t seem to perk myself up. So I start thinking about life after the trail, about what I’m looking forward to. The trail is almost over, I think. You just have to make it through these last few days. It breaks my heart to think about the trail this way. I love thru-hiking, I love this lifestyle. And it’s almost over, so soon it’ll all be gone. But right now it sucks. And to make myself stop crying I have to think about something else, anything else.

As I hike I make lists in my head of what I’m looking forward to after the trail. Doing yoga. Getting laid. Buying a flower print dress and a black leather jacket. Eating avocados. Hugging my dog. The warm faces of friends. Trail running. Talking to Tara and Instigate on the phone. Warm sauteed kale with apple cider vinegar. Training for an ultra. Reading a book while watching the rain out the window. Woodstoves. Acupuncture, and the way it loosens the stones that gather in my heart. Heart-stones.

I think about my birthday in September, and what I’d like to spend the day doing. Eating blackberry pie. Making out. Getting a neck tattoo.

My morale starts to rise as I climb. I stop crying. Life can be good, life goes on. There is life after the trail. The trail is cruiser and I cruise. I get lost in my thoughts, the patterns of light in the forest, I don’t think about the time. When I check my apps again I realize I’ve been hiking 3 mph. I may just make it by 9. I may not have to night-hike except the last ten minutes or so.

I reach the top of the mountain to find the earth wrapped in fog, the light fading. I stuff my sleeping bag back away- the bag is a little drier, I might be warm tonight after all. I’m above treeline and the whold world is alpine meadow, lupine and indian paintbrush, water running everywhere. I start to run the downhills, careful not to trip on all the stones. I’m going to make it!

I get to camp at 9 p.m. exactly, in the very last dregs of the light. A little side trail leads to a cluster of flat spots in the dark forest, tents everywhere. No sign of movement. Light’s out, everyone’s asleep. I see Woody, Brainstorm, Tiny and Twinkle’s tents, along with a bunch of other shelters I don’t recognize. I haven’t seen Guthrie and Krispies all day- I wonder where they ended up.

I pitch my shelter as quietly as I can, setting up everything in preparation for another storm. I put on all my layers and pull my damp sleeping bag over me, eat a little cold rehydrated lentil soup. I’m strangely awake after all that climbing but so, so tired as well. I lay down and pull my sleeping bag up around my ears, feel my spine start to relax against the earth. I’m warm.

Only 14 miles to Stehekin.

Photos on instagram.