My life right now

Hello blog world! It’s been a minute. I’ve been editing my manuscript in a steadfast and masochistic way, forcing myself to sit down at my little wooden desk in the pale light of my single bedroom window for four hours each day and giving myself only about a dozen instagram breaks, and I am happy to report that I’m nearly finished with this stage. There is so much more to do after editing, but forcing myself to edit 150 thousand words, editing being something that I apparently loathe, has definitely been the hardest part. Whew! I sure am excited to share this book with you all, tho. It’s going to be a nice escapist adventure story wherein there are many descriptions of what the clouds are doing and nothing is ever, ever boring. I’ll keep you updated as things progress.

I’ve also been running uphill a lot this month, on the gated forest service road one mile from my front door that climbs up into the Syskiyou mountains. (I love living in Southern Oregon!) Running uphill is hard, but not as hard as editing!! I’m trying to work up to running seventy miles a week with a bunch of elevation gain- I’ve got a frozen gluten-free pepperoni pizza in my freezer to reward myself when I get to that point. I want that fucking pizza! I’m running to train for the Continental Divide Trail, which I start in May. My intention is to lessen the “pain curve” that happens at the beginning of a long trail- the constant pain in my joints, tendons and ligaments that I feel pretty much all day every day for the first month on the trail (and at night, too!). Right now I can feel my body getting stronger and my calves are coming back, which is cool. It sure is hard to be a jock in the off season, tho. Winter makes me want to hibernate in bed with a stack of Faulkner and all the dark chocolate that went on sale for valentine’s day.

There are other things I want to write about here before I start the CDT- but the writing part of my brain has been fried lately from all the editing. I’ll try to get it up to write some new posts in March. In the meantime, check out this trailer for a PCT documentary that a couple of talented hikers are making- I can’t stop watching it! It makes me cry. As far as long-trail documentaries go, I think this is going to be a really, really good one.

Do More With Less | Trailer from Do More With Less on Vimeo.

In other news, today I was going through a box of stuff and I found a stack of my zines from 2008. A zine is a self-published sort of xeroxed chapbook thing one makes of one’s writing to give to one’s friends and/or sell in places called “infoshops”. (Do infoshops still exist?) I wrote one issue of my zine each year- generally I would spend about two weeks regurgitating all my adventures onto paper- trains, hitchhiking, weird letters I wrote to friends from a yurt in the woods- and the thing would end up being about a hundred pages long. I started this blog in 2008 a little after publishing the third issue of my zine, and afterward abandoned the medium entirely, because blogging is free and xeroxing is expensive. (Yes, I’ve been keeping this blog since 2008 and yes there is a lot of embarrassing stuff in the archives.)

This is the last issue of my zine:

20150226_135008Most of you have no interest in one of these weird things from my past, but a few of you are freaky enough to want to read my nascent attempts at limerick writing:

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And you weirdos are in luck, because I’m selling them. I have twenty copies and I’m selling them for $20 each, in order to raise my transportation funds to get to the southern terminus of the CDT.

Here’s the back cover:

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This issue is about 80 pages long. I’ll sign them, for what it’s worth. If you’d like a copy follow this link or click the button below to be whisked away to paypal. The cost includes shipping (of course it does! $20 is astronomical for a zine) and I’ll ship them via first class mail within a day or so of your order.

ZINE BUTTONOk, it’s time to work on my book. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to procrastinate. As you were!

(Also find me on instagram, where I gleefully post over-saturated photos of my wintertime weekend warrior adventures.)

Long Distance Hiking Has No Brand: Some Thoughts on Sponsorship

Instigate and Spark on the PCT, 2013. Photo by Scrub.

Instigate and Spark on the PCT in Washington during an early winter storm, 2013. Photo by Scrub.

I first entertained the idea of long-distance hiking after discovering Mike Clelland’s book Ultralight Backpackin Tips. I’d gone backpacking before, and it had been beautiful, but I had been in a lot of pain; in Backpackin’ Tips, which is like Ray Jardine distilled for the modern age and hilariously illustrated with cartoons, Clelland gleefully advises you to cut most of the stuff off of your pack (a process he calls after-market alteration), make a stove from a cat food can, and wear an old pair of running shoes. This, he promises, will set you free. I followed Clelland’s advice: I hacked up my REI pack, altered everything else I already had to make it as light as possible, wore the pair of discount running shoes I’d had for years (I wasn’t much of a runner) and went on a four-day backpacking trip on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula with my friend Finn, who I’d also evangelized (We’re not even going to bring, like, a knife, I said to him via text message). Aside from getting back to the trailhead and finding a shell of scorched metal and puddles of melted glass where Finn’s car should be (Finn’s car, along with two other cars at the trailhead, had been broken into and torched to the ground, but that’s another story), the trip was sublime. And it was then, during those glorious four pain-free days along the Duckabush river in the Olympic Peninsula, that I first entertained the idea of long-distance hiking at all. The conversation in my brain went like this:

I love this.

I love this so much.

I wish I could do this forever.

If I hike the PCT I can do this for, like, FIVE MONTHS.

And I was sold.

Finn's burned car

Finn’s burned car

The brilliant thing about Clelland’s philosophy is that he walks you through the process of becoming ultralight without invoking a single company or brand. The sleeping bag, tent and pack you already have, he says, are good enough; just alter them, and replace smaller gear with lighter versions that you fashion yourself from bits of trash. And if you don’t already have a sleeping bag, shelter or pack, you can make your own- there are patterns on the internet for free. These patterns exist thanks to the legacy of Ray Jardine, the long-winded and prolific hiker/writer who got the ball rolling on the ultralight hiking conversation back in the seventies. Many of these DIY tarps, quilts and packs are still based on Jardine’s designs. This is because Jardine’s designs are, in their most basic element, rooted in simplicity- and it turns out that you can’t improve on simplicity. You can only continue to strip away, and strip away, and strip away. Jardine’s intention was not to brand his designs; it was, sometimes almost obnoxiously, to spread the Good Word of Ultralight Hiking. Copy my designs, he seems to be saying. Take them. They’re yours. They’re yours.

This website has patterns for every conceivable piece of gear

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A good-lookin DIY pack that somebody made, courtesy of google image. Search “MYOG Pack” for more. MYOG stands for Make Your Own Gear.

But of course I am a Good American Citizen and like my fellow Americans I derive pleasure and gratification from not making things myself but by spending hours online, often in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping, looking for the exact perfect object to BUY in order to solve my problems/make my life more meaningful/temporarily soothe my aching existential despair. And so, while preparing for my first long-distance hike, I did what so many other long-distance hikers have done before me; I combed the blogs of successful hikers, picked the ones who I felt I could relate to the most, and created a gear list that was an exact amalgam of these different hikers’ gearlists, down to the brand of underwear that they wore. (If you’re curious, the gear I ended up carrying for my PCT 2013 hike was an amalgam of Wired’s 2011 PCT gear list and NotaChance’s 2012 PCT gear list. I had a feeling that somewhere between the super-cautious and methodical hiking style of Wired and Chance’s endearingly arrogant disregard for her own body’s needs in favor of maintaining a seven pound base weight, even in hypothermia rain and even in the sierras, I would find my own hiking style. And I did.)

In the forests of Washington on the PCT, 2013. Photo by Raho.

In the forests of Washington on the PCT, 2013. Photo by Raho.

I bought nearly everything fresh for the PCT- even my popcan stove I was too lazy to make myself but bought on ebay, for three dollars, from a man who I imagine makes them in his garage, after long hours of work, just to decompress. I picture this man wearing his realtree carhart jacket against the winter cold (there’s a space heater in the garage, but it doesn’t do much to cut the chill) and sitting at a plywood table littered with bits of popcan shavings. The table is lit by one of those bright lights with, like, a cage over it, and on the left side of the table is a cluster of pepsi cans. This man has his family save the cans for him, and he carefully scours the red “pepsi” paint off of each one, in order to make the stoves less toxic when lit. The man is listening, I think, to Billie Holiday.

The problem with buying all my gear fresh is that some of the ultralight gear I wanted was very expensive, and I am poor. I am not poor, of course, in the global sense- whenever I use the word “poor” in relation to myself I imagine several billion people all over the world, laughing at me. Compared to nearly every other human on earth, the amount of resources I consume daily- electricity, water, paper products, consumer goods, gasoline, toilet paper, the depressing and earth-destroying infrastructure that makes it possible for me to have, for example, a smartphone- the amount of resources I consume and have access to is absolutely mind-bogglingly insane. I am, in fact, wealthy beyond my wildest imaginings. And if you are reading this then chances are that you are, too. But I am “poor” in the sense that I have always chosen to live below the poverty level- instead of getting a “real job” which would allow me to “accrue savings” or “go to the dentist” I choose to work seasonally (about half the year) in order to prioritize things like adventure, my writing, and laying in the sun with a cup of tea, staring off at nothing.

Instigate plays her violin on a ridge in Northern California on the PCT. 2013

Instigate plays her violin on a ridge in Northern California on the PCT. 2013

I did not have the money to buy the gear that I wanted and so my thoughts turned to sponsorship. I am not an athlete; I have never played any sports. I knew nothing of the world of sponsorship; what did that word even mean, anyway? What I did know is that I had been blogging for a while and my blog had a bit of traffic, and maybe these gear companies and I could engage in a mutually beneficial relationship wherein they gave me free or discounted gear and I helped them sell more gear by talking about the gear on my blog. I never imagined sponsorship as being anything more than this very basic arrangement and, to be totally clear, it’s not.

Things went well- I got discounts on a few pricey pieces of gear, putting them within reach of my budget, and everything else I was able to afford. Brooks sent me a couple of pairs of shoes, I think by mistake- their Cascadias were (and still are) the most popular shoe on the trail, a fact I imagine they came to regret when scores of hikers contacted them mid-hike, wanting replacements because their shoes had “worn out”. As far as I know they’ve since stopped “sponsoring” PCT hikers, and they’ve added a disclaimer to their website saying that Cascadias are not suitable for long-distance hiking, which I think is hilarious. I’ll keep wearing the Cascadias, because they work for me and because you can get previous years’ models discounted online, which means that I will continue to contribute, via the bit of traffic from my gear list, to the popularity of the shoe on the trail- and Brooks will continue to have to deal with hikers complaining that their trail runners have disintegrated after, if you can imagine it, a thousand miles. Dear Brooks: I’m sorry. Sort of.

Mehap in the hotsprings at Muir Trail Ranch, 2013.

Mehap in the hotsprings at Muir Trail Ranch, 2013.

The one troubling thing with my newfound quasi-sponsorship was my relationship with a single company- let’s call them Company X. On Company X’s website they asked that sponsorship applicants have two things: a near-evangelical love for ultralight backpacking (which I do) and a desire to use their gear (which I did). The application was geared towards people like me: non-athletes with little understanding of what sponsorship entails, only recently introduced to the hiking world. Basically, they were looking for noobs. And although the copy on their website made it seem as though this gear company fostered a sort of cliquish community/family- just a bunch of cool/loveable ultralight hikers come together to spread the good word! Just sort of casually! I am a pretty perceptive person and I saw it for what it was- another opportunity for a mutually beneficial relationship in which I helped Company X sell more gear and they allowed me access to gear which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

And for a while, my relationship with the company seemed exactly that. We had a purely professional relationship in which they wanted me for just one thing- my blog traffic, and I wanted them for just one thing- their gear. This felt good to me. It felt like healthy boundaries, and a clear understanding of intentions.

And then things got murky.

The first thing that happened was that I set out on my 2013 PCT thru-hike and so became part of the actual hiking community, which exists, contrary to how you may feel after spending hours on the PCT facebook page, on the trail (if you can imagine it) where people are actually hiking (try and picture it). On the real physical actual trail I began to hear stories about Company X from nearly every person that I met who carried one of their products. “They never sent the gear that I ordered,” said one hiker, “and they won’t respond to my emails.” Or, “The gear they sent me arrived defective, and when I contacted them they said they would replace it, but then they contacted me again and said that the company couldn’t afford to replace it.” Or, “They finally fixed my defective gear/order mistake after several months of rude, off-putting emails from their customer service person.”

These were not, I have to tell you, whiny thru-hikers as in the case of Brooks Cascadias, calling the company to say that their gear had worn out after thousands of miles of rigorous use. This was real, straight-up, awful customer service. This is the absolute worst nightmare, short of ordering something from a website that doesn’t actually exist, of anyone who buys things from small companies online. What if they fuck it all up? What if there’s a problem that requires contacting the company and it turns out that, instead of a customer service professional on the other end of the line, there’s just a hedgehog eating a strawberry?

Instigate and Spark on Sonora Pass. 2013.

Instigate and Spark on Sonora Pass. 2013.

At the same time, the nature of my relationship with Company X was becoming less and less clear. I would get group emails encouraging me to do specific things: write for their blog, go on group outings, wear a hat with their logo (which I would be required to buy, but with a discount!), make business cards that displayed my name AND their name, hand out stickers. I wrote for their blog but I wasn’t able to go on any group outings, as I was actually thru-hiking at the time, and I found the hat (it even comes in pink!) and business cards off-putting. And my experience of their customer service mirrored what I had heard from others- I would wait weeks for a response to my emails, and the response would invariably be very short, and very rude. Soon I was confused: what was the nature of our relationship? What was expected of me, and what was I getting in return? And why was the hedgehog with the strawberry so mean? Did the hedgehog hate me? WHY did the hedgehog hate me? And if the hedgehog hated me, why was the company sponsoring me? One time, when I had an issue with a piece of gear, I got the president of the company on the phone, and he was very friendly and things happened in a prompt and professional manner. But that was the one moment of ease and clarity in our long and murky time together.

Sunset on the Hat Creek Rim. 2013

Sunset on the Hat Creek Rim. 2013

By this time I was in the middle of my second thru-hike of the PCT. I’d continued my sponsorship with Company X simply because I couldn’t afford to buy my own fucking gear. And that seemed fine- I’d met several people on the trail that were carrying Company X’s products specifically because they’d seem them on the gear list on my blog, and I could see on my stats page how many click-throughs went to the company’s website (it was a good number) so I felt like I was doing a good job of holding up my end of the deal. Not that, at this point, I even knew what our deal was anymore. In two years I’d gotten about $500 worth of product from them- I’d say that this product was “free”, but it wasn’t- it was a trade. That’s what sponsorships are. Company X was growing, and sponsoring people in the hiking community who were able to influence the gear choices of other hikers (via blog traffic, instagram followers, leading hiking trips, whatever) was simply a tactic in their growth. Their customer service still sucked and they’d recently moved their production facilities from the U.S. to Vietnam, which made them no longer a cottage manufacturer but a mid-sized company depending on good ol’ fashioned slave labor to get ahead.

But before I could think about any of this too hard, they fired me.

I was staying at a trail angel’s house outside Snoqualmie when I got the email- they had heard, from their “friends on the PCT”, that I had been “trash talking” them. They were ending our relationship. P.S.- I had offended everyone in the company.

It took me a moment to get over the fact that Company X had used the term “trash talking” in a professional email with me, and then I realized that, in a sense, they were right. I’d been having many conversations on the PCT, that summer, that went like this:

Me: “Hey, I see you’re using Company X’s gear! What do you think of it?”

Hiker: “It’s pretty good, but I had a bad experience with their customer service.”

Me: “You know, I like carrying their gear, but their customer service sucks. I’m sorry that happened to you.”

In hindsight, this lackadaisical criticism of the company in casual conversation was an attempt for me to reconcile my own feelings about the company with my desire to maintain our relationship just so that I wouldn’t have to pay for gear. I hadn’t taken the time to really think about my relationship with them in a while, or to acknowledge the mixed feelings I had about this relationship. It had all seemed so simple in the beginning and then, at some point, it wasn’t anymore.

The email from Company X left me with a surprising amount of feelings that I couldn’t begin to sort out. But mostly, I just felt gross- I felt gross about the way they had acted, about how I had acted in response to the way they had acted, about all our bad boundaries and lack of communication and mutual assumptions. I felt grossed out by my own naivety in the face of everything and by how I had continued to represent them to the world for so long, in spite of how I really felt.

It felt like a weird breakup. Like I’d been dating someone and we’d stayed together far too long after it had gone sour, but I hadn’t realized until it was all over.

A path diverges in the dark wood. Washington, 2013.

A path diverges in the dark wood. Washington, 2013.

After my breakup with Company X, I swore off sponsorships for good. I didn’t want to feel that way again- and it definitely wasn’t worth the gear. I still get the hebe-jeebies thinking about their weird, confusing responses to my attempts at communication, especially juxtaposed against the image they promote on their website of a happy hiking community based entirely around consumption of their products. Recently, though, a friend said to me that probably not every company is like Company X, and I realized that this is likely true. Ethical ultralight gear companies with healthy, professional communication DO exist. One day I might have a relationship with one of these companies, and that might feel entirely different.

In the meantime, dear reader, here are some words of wisdom for you.

If you are sponsored by a company, you then represent that company. If the company sponsoring you makes their products in Vietnam, for example, then you are the face of a company that benefits off of what is essentially slave labor. So before you accept sponsorship from anyone, ask yourself these helpful questions:

-Do I actually like and respect the company? Not just the gear, but the company itself?

-Are the company’s ethics in line with my own? Where are their products made? How are the workers in these factories treated? Are their materials sourced in an ethical way (down, for example)?

-Does the company have good customer service? Will I be embarrassed to tell people on the trail, who’ve bought the products and interacted with the company, that I am sponsored by this company?

-What is expected of me, and what do I receive in return? Does the company communicate in a clear and professional manner? Do they show through their actions that they value our relationship and have respect for me, as a human being?

-Do I have any misgivings at all?

If you’re not happy with your answers to any of these questions, then you might want to reconsider your quest for a relationship with this company. Just buy the gear straight-up, find a used version on ebay, buy from a different company or make your own gear, ala Ray Jardine. You don’t need to be sponsored in order to hike.

Some people can afford to buy their own gear and yet really, really want to be sponsored, just for the sake of sponsorship. Hiking is not enough- they need sponsorship to feel good about themselves. They need corporate validation to feel as though what they’re doing is even real. I don’t understand this but it happens, and it seems as though it’s happening more all the time. Maybe this is a result of the growing popularity of long-distance hiking. Maybe it’s the influx of people leaving corporate jobs in order to live more “simply”, and their inability to leave the corporate way of thinking behind. I don’t know. What I do know is that this manic branding of the hiking experience creates a lot of noise on the internet, and this noise can feel, when you’re googling things late at night in the off-season, as though that’s what long-distance hiking is. Like that’s what the hiking community is. But it’s not.

The long-distance hiking community is the people you meet on the actual trail- regular people, just like yourself. People you walk with, people you huddle with in a pit toilet during a windstorm, people who make you laugh when you’re cold and soaked from the rain. People you look for, people whose lives you get caught up in. People you meet when you least expect it- they’re tired and maybe a little grumpy, sitting alone on the bank of some stream poking at their blisters or soaking what may be the beginnings of tendonitis, and you stop and share your bag of cheese crackers and begin a friendship that, unbeknownst to you, will last the rest of your lives.

Making camp in Northern California, 2013

Making camp in Northern California, 2013

You don’t need flashy gear or sponsors or instagram followers to meet these people. Likewise with the trail itself- the soft sandy path, the forest, the wind- all of these things are free. The sunsets, the stars at night, the moon over the joshua trees- all of these things are there for the taking, forever and ever and ever. They exist in abundance for everyone huddled in their sleeping bags on the ground, bearing witness, fighting sleep to get one last good look at the milky way. Long-distance hiking is not what’s on the internet or what’s in your backpack. Long-distance hiking is you, in your dirty, sweat-soaked clothes, trail runners all beat to shit, trying to make it over the mountain and then pausing, at the top of the pass, to sit with your back against the granite and watch the clouds move over the ridge opposite. And there’s some sort of bird, it might be a hawk, but you can’t tell. And you’re eating crushed potato chips and thinking about where you’ll sleep, and you wipe your hand across your face and realize that your face is covered in dust.

Cold/wet/out of food- my lowest moment on the trail, 2013

Cold/wet/out of food, 2013. Photo by Raho.

I first met Scott Williamson in 2013, on the PCT. Scott Williamson held the PCT self-supported speed record for five years, whittling his time a little lower every year, until he lost the record that summer to Heather “Anish” Anderson’s awesome, unprecedented hike. (I still choke up when I think of how exciting it was when she crushed the overall speed record.) Scott and I crossed paths in Oregon- I was headed north and he was headed south. As far as I know, Scott Williamson hikes the PCT every year, usually southbound. And if you’re out there, you might see him too. One thing I really admire about Scott is that even though he’s such a boss of a hiker, he’s not, as far as I know, sponsored by anyone. He’s out there on the trail simply because he loves to hike. He knows the PCT better, I imagine, than anyone. When I met him he stopped to chat with me even though he was in the middle of a 45-mile day, and I noticed that nothing he was wearing was branded at all save for his shoes, which seemed like inexpensive road runners.

And as for his pack- as far as I could tell, he’d made it himself.

Me and Scotty W, 2013.

Me and Scotty W, 2013.

I loved the desert the best

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Dear reader: I wrote this piece about the desert after my 2013 thru-hike, for the Pacific Crest Trail Communicator magazine. Now I’m making it available here for you online, for the first time. Enjoy.

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I am sitting on the Stehekin shuttle bus in the early morning, bumping down the pitted road along lake Chelan, when the question comes up behind me.

“What part of the trail was your favorite?” says a hiker in polar fleece who I have not met.

“The Sierras,” says his companion.

“And what was your least favorite?”

“The desert.”

I bite into the bacon and cheddar-stuffed croissant that I am clutching and flakes of pastry fall into my lap. I also have two pieces of pizza, a chocolate cookie and a giant cinnamon roll, all safe in a greasy paper bag stuffed into the top of my pack. We are eighty trail miles from the Canadian border and the northern terminus of the PCT, and we have just been to The Bakery. The Stehekin Bakery, to be exact. I usually do not eat gluten but I ran out of food in the last section in a major way- fifty miles on 1500 calories and I almost blacked out from hunger. One of the things that kept me going in those dark days was the knowledge of this bakery, where piping blackberry pies sit cooling on glass countertops and beautiful, rosy-cheeked young people pull golden trays of cinnamon rolls from the oven. Now I am eating this dense beast of a croissant as we bump our way back to the trail and thinking about what the hikers behind me have said.

“I loved the desert the best,” I say, turning to face them. They glance at me, frowning, and then continue their conversation.

It’s true. I think about this while I stare out the window at the lake, the bacon and cheddar monstrosity slowly coagulating my stomach, where it will become glue. I can feel the glutenfog descending already, like ghosts. I think of the desert and I imagine the soft desert sand, the extravagant spread of the Milky Way. The thorny little plants, the temperamental nature of the wind. And the hot sun at midday, hot enough and bright enough that if you stayed out in it long enough it might vaporize you. Like Mars. Or Venus, as a hiker once corrected me.

The Kelso Valley Road cache, where there is no shade, just a mound of plastic water jugs glittering in the sun. Where MeHap and I sat against the wire fence, our sleeping pads pulled over our heads to make a sort of awning, and fed ourselves melted peanut M&M’s. And then Spark and Instigate and NoDay arrived and we charged up the hill to the single, solitary Joshua tree, with its ever-shifting poles of shade. We sat half in and half out of this shade, sweating profusely in the bleary heat, until several hours had passed, at which time it was still hot. Thankfully there was another Joshua tree in a mile and we collapsed there again, until dusk.

Cowboy camping in the desert. The warm sand, releasing the heat of the day and the night sky, in which every single star, every single other planet and possible far-away reality can be seen. All of it, all of space and time and possibility, the future the past and the present, suspended above me and singing its song of eternal, never-ending magic. Just up there, twinkling. All for me, in my sleeping bag on the warm sand, a little breeze crinkling my ground sheet, my shoes lined up next to my head. I’ll check those for scorpions in the morning. Remembering the Far Side comics of my youth, which formed my most basic ideas about cowboy camping in the desert. Men in cowboy hats in neat square bedrolls, big rattlesnakes curled up on their laps.

Rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes everywhere. Rattlesnakes stretched across the trail, lounging. Almost tripping over big, fat, rattlesnakes, catching myself at the last moment. Rattlesnakes slithering away. Always there are rattlesnakes, slithering away. Under every bush. After a while I am no longer afraid of them; they became like a reassurance to me. Rattlesnakes exist. Rattlesnakes exist therefore I am.

Water. Water in hot gallon jugs, water in troughs that wriggle with little white worms. Water from campground spigots, from hotel bathrooms, from springs labeled “Danger! Uranium!” and contradictory reviews in the water report. Best water I ever had! DO NOT drink this water! Before I started the trail I was the sort of person who carried a big steel water bottle everywhere I went and sipped on it nervously, like a baby’s bottle. What if I’m dehydrated? I would think. What if I’m dehydrated, like, right now? Then I ran out of water right before the fourteen mile descent off the San Jacintos and when I reached the maddening drinking fountain at the bottom I was still alive. Well how about that, I thought. Soon stretching the distance between water sources became almost as fun as it was frightening- can I make it five more miles? Ten more miles? Fifteen? Even so, I was never as good at this game as my hiking partners, who were shocking in their disregard for hydration. After the desert, Spark never carried water at all. It’s heavy, he said.

The wind. The air, which is like a living thing, which moves all around you. The smell of the chaparral, the dystopic burns that ring with the sounds of chewing insects and smear your arms with charcoal. The windstorm before Mojave, where I was all alone on the mountain, breathless, my nostrils smashed against my face, struggling to stay upright. Just blow me off the mountain, I thought. Just blow me right off the mountain. In the valley below they had rerouted the highway and when I reached the Motel 6 in Mojave after dark I slammed the door against the wind and sat in the shower under the hot water for a very long time.

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The Mojave. The Joshua trees against the stormy sky, the slowly churning windmills, the bleak plots of land with rusted trailers that remind me of scenes from Breaking Bad. Hiker Town, with its strange shacks filled with cats, where I ate a giant salad and replenished my dwindling food stores with Trader Joe’s oatmeal cookies from the hiker box.

And the people. There was all of this, and then there were the people. A gaggle of us gathered around the water trough in a bit of dappled shade, our shoes and clothing bright, staring at each other thinking Can we do this? Are we really going to do this? Walk this whole way, over all this convoluted earth, rise to meet all of these obstacles? Passing around a Ziploc baggie of melted gummy bears, saying Touch it, touch it. Laughing until we cannot breathe, gasping for air, our voices filling up the empty desert with its rattlesnakes and resident cougars, rising up to the night sky and the milky way, everything that is possible and not possible swirling around above us, forever and ever and ever.

Mount Saint Helens Take Two: Perfect Weather + Crampons Adjusted Correctly = a good time is had by all

oh hai mount adams

oh hai mount adams

Mount Saint Helens Summit via the Worm Flows route
12 miles round-trip
5,699 feet elevation gain

I’d only been back in Southern Oregon for a few days when I looked at mountain-forecast.com and saw that there was going to be one perfect day of bluebird weather on the Saint Helens summit- on friday.

“I have Friday off,” said Lia, when I texted her. The next day, Thursday, I was headed to Portland via craigslist rideshare, which works almost magically along this stretch of the I-5 corridor. I met Lia in the afternoon and we went to Next Adventure- this time we found someone knowledgeable at the rental counter and had him show us how, exactly, to adjust the crampons that they rent. We also rented sturdy mountaineering boots that felt like ten-pound ankle weights but would hold the crampons well and would never, ever let any moisture in. There are also, apparently, crampons that fit regular hiking boots but we had not known this the weekend before. Thus outfitted, we bought snacks and drove north into the evening, first on the freeway and then onto the smaller, darker roads that wind towards Marble Mountain Snopark, wherein Lia’s car abruptly overheated. We lifted the hood to find foul-smelling steam billowing everywhere and when we poured water into the radiator it promptly trickled out again, onto the pavement. We were in the middle of the cold forest and neither of us had reception.

We waited for the car to cool completely and then drove it extremely slowly the seven miles back to Cougar, Washington, watching the temperature gauge the entire way. The town of Cougar consists of one restaurant (closed), two gas stations (closed), and a motel. We sat in the motel parking lot in the car, which still stank of burned coolant, eating salt and vinegar chips and brainstorming. Tomorrow we would climb the mountain. We didn’t know how, but it would happen. And what about the car? When we got back here it would be evening again, and the next day would be Saturday, and on Saturday everything would be closed.

“Fuck the car,” said Lia. “Let’s scratch the VIN numbers off and light it on fire. All that matters is climbing this mountain.”

I knew that she was only half joking.

The motel clerk rented us a cabin at their steeply discounted January rate and we told him that we were trying to get to Saint Helens in the morning, and could we leave the car there during the day?

“Of course,” he said. “And there’s a fellow in room 4 who’s climbing the mountain tomorrow as well.”

We stood on the stairs outside room 4. The curtains were drawn and all the lights were out.

“Are we really going to do this?” I said. “Isn’t this rude?”

“Don’t worry,” said Lia, knocking. “I’ll do the talking.”

Neil was a good-humored older man from Puyallup. He’d done quite a bit of mountaineering back in his day.

“I’ve got four other people joining me in the morning,” he said. “And we’ll give you a ride to the mountain. Meet us here at six o’clock.”

Somehow, things always work out when you’re willing to talk to strangers. You know?

Our cabin was huge and had a kitchen and three beds. All that room for activities made us ecstatic and Lia and I did Fake Yoga on every available surface.

fake yoga

fake yoga

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fake yoga

fake yoga

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fake yoga

fake yoga

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fake yoga

fake yoga

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we call this pose "putting the turkey in the oven".

we call this pose “putting the turkey in the oven”.

At five a.m. my alarm went off, startling me out of the most incredible sleep, and I blearily assembled sandwiches while Lia made drip coffee. We met our new friends in the dark parkinglot, transferred our crampons, boots and ice-axes from Lia’s car to theirs and soon we were on our way to the trailhead, headlights silhouetting the forest.

The sun was just rising as Lia and I started up the trail. Around a wooded bend we were greeted with the most epic alpenglow on the smooth face of Saint Helens, and we both pretty much came in our pants. By the time we got our cameras out the aplenglow was gone but the sun was there, dripping over the opposite horizon. The air was warming and the sky was clear and wide. It was going to be a very good day.

hello sun

hello sun

Since I knew there wasn’t going to be snow until the weather station, I wore my trailrunners and carried the heavy boots in my pack. Chocolate falls, which had been running the weekend before, was mysteriously dried up.

“It must’ve clogged with chocolate,” I said. Although the falls was clear water we had pretended so much that it was lumpy, slowly flowing mud that this was how I now remembered it. We crossed the falls and started up the long ridge of boulders and lava dust. Behind us somewhere in the woods we could hear our new friends.

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At the weather station we ate bars and put on our boots and crampons and watched the sun rise higher in the bluebird sky. It was unbelievably warm and we were wearing our t-shirts. The day couldn’t be any more different then our failed summit attempt the weekend before.

Lia puts on the magic crampons

Lia puts on the magic crampons

We started clomping up the snowfield in our Magic Crampons, which affixed us like insects to the surface of the mountain. A few other people climbed in the snow near us, carrying split-boards. Lia declared several times that she would do anything to have her snowboard right now. ANYTHING.

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anything for a snowboard

After a few hours of kicking and stepping our ways upward we reached the spot where I had fallen on our previous hike. I couldn’t believe how steep it was here- it was even terrifying today, with crampons on. I don’t think, in the whiteout, that I had realized how steep this part of the mountain was. I am no mountaineer, I thought, as I crunched my way up past that spot. But I do like to climb mountains. So.

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The slope grew steeper, and steeper, and steeper still, and soon in a ring around us we were able to see Mount Adams, and Mount Hood, and Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. Everything was too big to actually photograph, although that didn’t stop me from trying. I felt as though I was trying to capture the ocean. At one in the afternoon we reached the summit- which is actually a steep, slippery hunk of snow cornice that rests precariously on the crater rim.

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“Don’t go near the crater!” said Lia. “The edge of the cornice could break off and you could fall in!” I was already terrified, and I took one look over from a safe distance, saw the steam rising from the caldera, and then perched myself on the slope of the cornice to eat and drink, my crampons dug securly into the ice. A group of dudes had reached the summit at the same time as us and they were, unbelievably, going to split-board down.

“That’s terrifying,” I said.

“No way,” said Lia. “I feel so much safer on my snowboard. You’ve got two metal edges. You can stop on a snowboard.”

Mount Adams from the summit

Mount Adams from the summit

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As we stomped our way back down the mountain I began to feel more comfortable in my crampons, and soon I felt as though I was a ninja. I could just walk down the mountain! Casually! Just casually stomping down this super steep frozen slope, with the whole earth spread out in front of me! Not even terrified!

Lia on the descent

Lia on the descent. Much steep. No problem.

We took the wrong ridge at one point and ended up on top of a huge fluted frosted cake which was very beautiful but much too steep to descend, and so we were forced to climb back up again and then cut across another steep white slope to get to the correct ridge.

 

just some cake

just some cake

How does one describe a mountain? I don’t know. At the chunk of rock with a metal thing sticking out that is the weather station I changed back into my trail runners and we began the long slow slog to terrestrial earth via miles of post-eruption lava rock mayhem and, ultimately, dull trail through flat damp forest, the sun setting somewhere through the trees. In the parkinglot I put on all my layers and laid on the cold concrete, feeling my spine release. I was hungry, sunburnt and dehydrated. Some youths in beat-up hondas were doing donuts. Another day, I thought. Another day worn down to a nubbin. The way life is meant to be lived.

One of the women in our hiking party, Daria, was headed back to Portland, and she offered us a ride. Lia set her car on fire called a tow company to have it towed to the nearest mechanic and we curled up with snacks for the drive south, listening rapt as Daria told us stories of mountaineering in Japan and the brutal frostbite that almost took her toes. Back in Portland we ate some incredible soup that Lia’s housemate Katie had made and spent the evening watching the sorts of terrifying mountaineering documentaries where everything goes horribly awry. I thought about things like climbing up frozen ice sheets in whiteouts and wondered if I’d ever like to do something like that. No, I decided. Probably not. Or maybe one day, after I hike all of the long trails. And make up one of my own.

And then I was asleep.

Moar photos on instagram.

Helpful tips for the Lowest to Highest Route

Morning light hitting the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains

Morning light hitting the High Sierras, as seen from the crest of the Inyo Mountains

In the first week of October, 2014, I hiked the Lowest to Highest Route with my friends Chance and Jess. Most of our info for this hike came from this source, which is a website created by Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker, the person who developed the route. This site has almost everything one needs- almost. Recently I’ve gotten a couple of emails from hikers who are lookin to do the L2H. I remember how hard it was to find info online when I was planning for this trip, and so I’m writing this to share some helpful tips and cover some things that aren’t already covered elsewhere on the internet.

Reminder- most of your basic info on this route is here.

My day-by-day journal of the hike is here.

Chance’s journal is here.

The 135 mile hike took us six days. This mileage meant that we were only about two days between each resupply, and our packs were pretty light. This was helpful for times when we had to carry lots of water weight.

Look up online trip reports. Use The Google for this. There are only a handful, but there may be new ones now and then. Reading them all will help you get a better feel for the route.

Maps. The simblissity website recommends maps available via the National Geographic TOPO! software. This software is unfortunately no longer in production. The way we got around this was by hodge-podging together a couple of different sources, like so-

I downloaded the Gaia GPS app to my phone, which cost $20, and then I downloaded the GPS track from the simblissity website (it’s a link located near the bottom of the page, called badwater-whitney.kml)  to my computer. I then uploaded the track to the Gaia GPS cloud, which then synced it to the app on my phone. I then downloaded, while in the Gaia app, the maps surrounding the track so that I could use them offline. I now had, on the Gaia app, both topo maps of the area that would load without cell service and a red line going through these maps- the GPS track for the L2H. There are no waypoints on this track but the app and your phone’s GPS will show you, even when your phone is in airplane mode, where you are in relation to this line.

I also printed maps from this website. They’re not the best maps, but between these and the GPS, we had more than enough information with which to navigate. This website also has more information on water and elevation.

Call the Furnace Creek visitor’s center the week before you go, and ask them about each of the water sources. There are only a couple of water sources on the 135 mile route, and all of them may not be running at all times. If you count on one and it’s not there, you’re kind of fucked.

The rangers at the visitor’s center will likely try and discourage you. The ranger I talked to on the phone told me over and over, when I asked for info about the water sources, that she didn’t think I should do this hike. I tried to explain to her that the three of us had a combined 5,600 miles of desert hiking experience and that we had excellent maps, but it was to no avail. I finally said “I don’t actually care if you think I should do this hike. I’m just looking for info on whether the water sources are running.” at which point she gave me the contact info for another ranger who had info on the water sources. This ranger was super friendly, and did not act as though I was insane.

walking out into the desert to die

walking out into the desert to die

The first week of October is the best time to do this hike- Death Valley has begun to cool down but there’s likely not yet snow on Mt. Whitney. The L2H has been done in spring (a good trip report is here). As far as I know, the major difference between a spring and fall hike is the snow level on Mt. Whitney. Swami & gang took the mountaineer’s route to the summit on their spring hike. You can find info on the snow level on Mt. Whitney here, and weather reports for the summit here.

Jess and Chance- morning navigation near Shorty's well

Jess and Chance- morning navigation near Shorty’s well

If you haven’t done much overland navigation, as I hadn’t before this trip, you should know that overland navigation is much slower than hiking on a trail. We averaged between one and two miles an hour for much of this hike. In order to hike 20+ mile days we consumed lots of caffeine and didn’t sleep a whole lot.

The salt flats in Badwater Basin are SHARP AS FUCK. They’re also really awkward to walk on. Take your time crossing them, and try not to trip and fall. I tripped and ended up cutting up my face, hands, and getting a pretty good puncture wound in my knee. Brutal!

ouch

ouch

After finding the spring in Hanaupah canyon, climb up the slope to your right, towards the ridge. You’re going to get up on top of that ridge and follow it to Telescope ridge. Pay attention to navigation here.

The climb out of Hanaupah canyon

The climb out of Hanaupah canyon

The climb up to Telescope ridge is really steep- 10k feet in 14 miles. It’s the third steepest climb in the US, and it was the steepest climb that any of us had ever done. Factor in lots of time for this climb. The neat thing is that as you climb you enter cool, shady pinyon forest, and leave the heat of the valley behind. It’s really pleasant up there! Once on the ridge it’s another thousand feet to the summit, which is not part of the route. Chance and I opted to collapse in the sun for a while. Jess went to the summit, and said it was pretty cool.

Chance on the climb up to Telescope Ridge

Chance on the climb up to Telescope Ridge

The springs in Tuber Canyon on the descent from Telescope Ridge are kind of tricky to find. Use your super-sleuth ninja skills, and carry extra water. One of the springs is tucked away in dense brush at the very beginning of the canyon, Another one is a few miles down the wash, next to a big cluster of trees. Check with the rangers before your hike to see if either of these is running.

Looking down from Telescope ridge

Looking down from Telescope ridge towards the valley we’ll traverse next

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Jess finds a bighorn sheep skull in Tuber Canyon

Jess finds a bighorn sheep skull in Tuber Canyon

Don’t cook to death while crossing the playa before Panamint springs, and bring plenty of water. The walking is easy in this valley but unless you’re night-hiking, be careful and take it slow. It was 110 degrees the day we crossed, and although I had a sunbrella and enough water, I ended up with a touch of heat exhaustion, which left me feeling off for a few days afterward.

crossing the playa

crossing the playa

Panamint Springs Resort would not let us send a resupply box to their store, nor would they let us leave food there to pick up on our way through. So I’ll pass on the bit of advice the local sheriff gave to us- “Just hide it in the desert.” We ended up stashing our resupply in the desert behind the resort, and when we passed through two days later our food was miraculously untouched. One could resupply in the small store, but it would not be fun. When we were there the store pretty much just carried marshmallows, spray-on sunscreen and one giant, $20 bag of tortilla chips.

The Panamint Springs Resort has a beautiful deserty campground where sites are $7 and come with free hot showers. Each site has a picnic table! And there are vacant RV sites nearby that have those wooden posts with outlets in them where one can charge one’s electronics. There are canvas wall tents with cots for rent too, where you’ll be protected from the wind. And there’s a restaurant with burgers at the resort. Glory!

Darwin Falls is cool but there’s nowhere to camp- just a small flat spot next to the water, with tourists coming and going.

Darwin Falls

Darwin Falls

One gets out of Darwin Falls by climbing straight up the cliff. No, your maps are not lying to you. This is, according to someone who knows more about these things than I do, a class four rock scramble. Give yourself lots of time, be careful, and go slow. Look for cairns and bits of bighorn sheep trail. There is a way to the top of the canyon. There are also lots of dead ends. It took us a couple of hours to traverse the half mile out of the canyon.

Rock climbing, basically.

Rock climbing, basically.

If I did the hike again, I would spend a night at China Garden Springs. I think I’d have enchanted dreams, and some sort of magical ghost would visit me. You’ll just have to believe me when I say that this place is really, really cool.

Goldfish in the spring at China Garden Springs.

Goldfish in the spring at China Garden Springs.

You’re going to want to cache water. We cached six gallons of water (for three people) at Highway 190 where it meets Saline Valley Alternate Road. This left us with a 45-mile dry stretch between our cache and Lone Pine, with about 5k feet of elevation gain, over the Inyo mountains in the heat. We each carried six liters from our cache. In the end this was not enough water for me. I ended up finding water at the ghost town of Cerro Gordo, on the crest of the Inyo mountains. This is NOT, however, a reliable water source. Most days the buildings are empty, and the day we were there the caretaker just happened to be there, giving a tour, and he shared his water with us. If I were to do the L2H again I’d leave a second water cache further up Saline Valley Road, right before it begins the climb into the Inyo mountains.

Chance just casually traversing some desert wilderness

Chance just casually traversing some desert wilderness

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Jess makes coffee for everyone at our cache. Time to night-hike!

Jess makes coffee for everyone at our cache. Time to night-hike!

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Morning amongst the Joshua trees.

Morning.

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On the crest of the Inyo mountains, grabbing  the moon

On the crest of the Inyo mountains, grabbing the moon

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Chance surveys our desert kingdom.

Chance surveys our desert kingdom.

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The old salt tram caretaker's cabin in the Inyo Mountains

The old salt tram caretaker’s cabin in the Inyo Mountains

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Inyo Mountains, watchin yo sun set.

In yo Mountains, watchin yo sunset.

Lone Pine has a grocery store. The grocery store is small and not very well stocked. There’s a store on the first floor of the hostel that carries backpacking-specific food- tuna packets, bars, things like that. The hostel is nice. The Alabama Hills Cafe has massive portions of excellent, greasy-as-fuck hiker food. There are like seventeen gear stores in town.

Permits for Mt. Whitney can be found at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor’s Center just outside of Lone Pine. The permits are free in person, and during spring and fall it’s doubtful that you’ll have to wait for one. There’s also a cool relief map of the Sierras at this visitor’s center that every PCT hiker should see. And neat patches and bandannas!

The roadwalk out of Lone Pine up the Whitney Portal Road was really pleasant. The sun was setting in a nice way and walking on a road just felt so fast.

best roadwalk ever

best roadwalk ever

We had a bear come through our camp at the Whitney Portal campground. Make sure and put everything that smells like anything in the bear lockers.

The weather on the L2H worked out for us thusly: below 5,000 feet = warm at night, above 5,000 feet = cold at night. Be prepared for temperatures between freezing and 115 degrees.

The L2H is really special. Remember to bring a light pack and a good sense of humor, and have fun!

Jess on the climb up Mt. Whitney

Jess on the climb up Mt. Whitney

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Whitney summit! Yay!

Whitney summit! Yay!

Hard Lessons on Mount Saint Helens

 

Mount Saint Helens as seen from the Worm Flows route

Mount Saint Helens as seen from the Worm Flows route

Ascent of Mount Saint Helens in winter via the Worm Flows route
12 miles round-trip
5,699 feet elevation gain

I got into Portland around midday on Friday and dropped my bags on the floor of my friend Seamus’ empty house. He and his partner were both at work but the cats were there, mewing and batting at things, and I curled up on the couch for a nap. It was cold and drizzly outside but inside was warm and soothing and soon I was asleep. I woke with a start in the long afternoon light- I’d been dreaming about mountain climbing, cold deep snow, all of the unknowns. Lia and I had plans to climb Mount Saint Helens the next day, but I’d never climbed a mountain in the wintertime. How hard would the wind be blowing on the summit? What even was I supposed to wear? My phone bleeped- Lia was off work, and on her way to pick me up. Our plan was to camp at the trailhead at Marble Mountain SnoPark tonight and set out for the summit in the morning, via the Worm Flows route. The weather forecast was crummy- cold and rainy. But it was supposed to clear up on the mountain after ten a.m., so we weren’t too worried. What was a little rain?

I threw my bags in Lia’s car and we drove around the city, getting ready for our expedition- renting crampons and ice axes from Next Adventure, eating cheap tacos, buying a tail light for her subaru at walmart. An ice-axe and crampons are necessary for a winter summit of Mount Saint Helens, and I’d never used either. But as far as wintertime summits go, Mount Saint Helens, according to the internet, is fairly straightforward. The Worm Flows Route follows snaking ridges of snow and lava rock up to the crater rim at 8,364 feet. It’s a six mile climb, with 5,699 feet of elevation gain. I’d done similar climbs before, on South Sister, Mt. Adams, and Telescope Peak- just not in the snow. At Next Adventure I hefted the ice-axe in my palm- although I’d never used one, I’d had an ice-axe self-arrest explained to me so many times that I figured it was embedded pretty good in my brain. If you fall and start to slide you just roll over onto your stomach and dig that fucker in, right? How hard could it be?

By the time our errands were finished and we were headed north on I-5, the backseat full of gear and snacks, it was nine p.m. We reached Marble Mountain Snopark just before eleven and set up Lia’s massive, bomb-proof double-wall tent in the dark forest that edged the parking lot, running back and forth with our gear in the cold rain. Ours was the only vehicle in the lot. Once inside the tent, I felt as though I was in a palace- it was roomy and dry and the storm pattered harmlessly against the heavy rainfly. Anyone who’s spent half the year on the trail with only a nine-ounce single-wall tarp as protection against the elements knows the glory and wonder that is a good double-wall tent. As I arranged my things around me I didn’t have to worry about water dripping inside from the edges of the tarp, about condensation soaking my sleeping bag whenever it brushed against the sides, about water flowing under my sleeping pad in a river. I could lean my pack against the wall. I could set my phone on the sturdy tent floor. I was Dry, and I was going to Stay Dry. It was wonderful.

We both slept amazing until my alarm woke us at four a.m.- we’d agreed the night before that if it was clear at four we’d make a break for it but if the storm continued we’d sleep in. The rain was still falling steadily outside our cozy little house and so I turned off my phone and pulled the sleeping bag back up over my face, content.

It was eight a.m. when we started our hike, drizzly but warm, with the sun threatening to burn through the fog at any moment. We were sweating as we hiked up through the snow-free forest, and by the time we were navigating over lava boulders above treeline we were both in our t-shirts. The fog came and went, came and went- now you could see a bit of the smooth white mountain that loomed above, now you couldn’t. The boulders alternated with patches of slushy snow and then we were at the weather station- a hunk of metal sticking up from a flat place in the rock just below where the snowfields began.

Lia on the climb

Lia on the climb, just below the weather station. Storm rollin’ in.

In icier weather this would be a good place to put on crampons but the snow was soft and slushy and I felt pretty good about continuing up the snowfield in just my boots. The snow here felt like the snow on the passes I’d gone over on the PCT in May, in the Sierras- it was easy to kick steps into the stuff, and I didn’t feel like I was in any danger of falling. Just to be safe, though, I held my ice-axe like Lia had shown me- fingers around the top, the tether of nylon webbing safely around my wrist.

The fog closed in solid as I began to climb in the snow, and the wind picked up. Then the fog became a solid thing, a sort of blowing rain, and I stopped to put on my rain jacket, which was quickly soaked through. Still, I was feeling good- the climbing was making me warm and this was a rhythm I remembered from the PCT- kick, step, kick, step. I was following the footprints of someone ahead of me- there was one dude ahead of us on the mountain this morning, and a group of three dudes just behind us. I found it fun to try and match my gait with this dude’s gate, to follow his meandering progress up the snowfield. It was also very helpful to have his bootprints there, as I could no longer see anything ahead of me. How much farther was the crater rim? I wasn’t sure. But I was going up, and that was all that mattered.

And then, I fell. In just a few steps the snow had turned from soft deep slush to a thin layer of slush over hard blue ice, and before I could register this I slipped and began to slide on my stomach down the steep white slope, unable to stop myself and picking up speed at a terrifying rate. Below me yawned the endless white mountain, sloping down, down, down, and somewhere at the bottom were jumbles of volcanic rocks. I pawed uselesssly at the mountain. My jacket rode up on my stomach, filling with bits of ice and grit. Suddenly I remembered the ice-axe in my hand, gripped it as hard as I could, and dug that fucker in. I slid for a few more feet, and then stopped.

“Holy shit!” I shouted down to Lia, who was below me, but the wind carried my voice away. “Holy fuck! It’s icy up here!”

To my right was a patch of rocks, and I made my way carefully over to it, kicking steps with the ice-axe clutched in my hand, my whole body shaking. Lia, who had seen me fall, was shouting and waving her arms, and she made her way over to the rocks as well, and then up to where I was.

“I think it’s time to put on my crampons,” I said. Lia was already wearing hers.

“That was really, really awful to watch,” said Lia.

“Yeah,” I said, as I adjusted the metal spikes over my boots. “I guess my ice-axe works.”

Walking up the snow with crampons was one thousand percent better. I felt in no danger of slipping, and I cursed myself for not having put them on earlier. The weather, however, was getting worse- as long as we climbed we were warm, but what about when we had to turn around to head back? Lia and I were both soaked to the skin, and the wind blew stronger the further up we went. And the crater rim was still obscured in fog- where even were we? The three dudes had caught up with us and we all climbed together, sort of spread out in the snow. And then one of my crampons came off.

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“I don’t know what the problem is,” I said as I sat on my butt in the slush, trying to adjust it. “I thought I had it on there really tight.” a few steps later, the other crampon came off. Then one of Lia’s came off and we sat in the snow again, trying to adjust them. As we sat we grew colder, until we were both shaking. And then we began to climb again.

A few minutes later, the visibility grown even worse, all five of us decided to turn around. The dudes quickly disappeared into the fog, racing down the slope in their super-functional crampons. I stared down the steep white slope, which alternated between crampon-destroying slush and super slick ice, dreading the descent. We would learn later that we were just four hundred feet below the crater rim.

For a reason that we could not discern, our crampons would not stay on in the slush. Every time we had to stop to adjust them we grew colder, and finally we decided to pick our way down the slope without the spikes at all. Then, we both fell. Lia, who was a few feet below me, was able to self arrest and she grabbed me, slowing me down enough that I could self arrest as well. We both lay there on the ice, clinging to the mountainside with our bodies, shaking from cold and fright.

“Holy fuck,” I said. “We have to put our crampons on right now.”

“Yeah,” said Lia. This was easier said than done, as it mean maneuvering around onto our butts on the steep slope and fiddling with the stiff, frozen crampon straps in order to get them over our boots while still holding onto our ice axes so that we wouldn’t slide any farther. Our feet were soaked at this point, and mine were so cold they felt like numb, sodden bricks. Some of the water in my boots had frozen into chunks of ice around my heels. I looked down the steep white slope as I yanked the crampon straps as tight as I could with my stiff, cold fingers and the stinging rain pummeled us. I had to walk down all of that steep white, somehow without my crampons coming off, somehow without falling again.

I began to hyperventilate.

“I think I’m having a panic attack,” I said to Lia. No no no no no, I thought. Not now, not now. I was sobbing, and my stomach dropped. I felt like I was going to throw up. All of the muscles in my body began to seize. I was literally frozen with fear.

“We have to keep moving,” said Lia. “I’m getting really cold.”

“Ok,” I said. “Ok ok.” But it was the hardest thing in the world, to get my muscles to cooperate. To get myself to stand and begin to pick my way down the slope. Everything inside of me was screaming. My adrenals were emptying themselves. I couldn’t remember ever feeling this scared. Ever. In my entire life. Literally ever. I was stiff and clumsy, and I couldn’t get my breathing back to normal. Everything around me escalated my panic- the storm, the icy slope, how cold and soaked I was, the stupid crampons. We could die so fast out here. So fast. Way up on this mountain, with no way to safely descend. I became more and more panicked, like a snowball rolling downhill. Why, I thought. Why now. How useless was this panic attack. How utterly useless. How completely at the exact worse possible time. But once it was underway, there was no way to stop it. I knew that all I could do was make my body move as best I could, and wait for it to run its course.

Lia stopped regularly to wait for me.

“We’re almost there,” she said, when our crampons came off again, and again. “Just a little while longer. We’re going to make it. I can see the weather station.” She told me later that she’d been lying- we weren’t almost there, she couldn’t see the weather station, and she wasn’t sure if we were going to make it. Still, her words were incredibly helpful. I wanted to say something back, but I couldn’t speak. “We have to keep moving,” said Lia, every time I sat down in the snow for a moment, frozen with fear. But every couple of hundred feet the wind lessened a little bit, and the rain grew warmer, and the snow more slushy. I ended up climbing most of the way down to the weather station with just one crampon. At the weather station we barely spoke- Lia had lost her water bottle to the storm gods on the way up so I shared my water with her. As we picked our way down the boulders the sun finally burned the storm away and there it was above us, the pure white cornice of the crater rim. And below us the rolling forested hills, valleys strung with fog, Mount Hood far away on the horizon. A couple of groups passed us on their way up, smiling and happy.

“Beautiful day for a climb, eh?” they said. They’d missed the storm completely.

After the storm cleared

After the storm cleared

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Lia on the descent- Mt. Hood in the distance

We didn’t talk much on the walk through the forest to the SnoPark. We picked up our extra layers where we’d stashed them under a boulder and put them on, even though they’d gotten soaked in the rain. We were so, so cold, and our feet were still numb. I felt empty inside, and fatigued beyond belief. I didn’t even know how to process what had happened.

“I don’t think climbing mountains in winter is something that I like,” I said, as we sat in the car at the trailhead, eating snacks and waiting for the heater to warm us. We’d changed into dry clothes and I was wearing the old fleece poncho I’d found in the bargain basement at Next Adventure, which fit me like a blanket. The light was slowly fading from the sky. An hour later, on the drive back to Portland, we started to talk about what had gone wrong. We agreed that it had been stupid to hike in the storm, and that we needed to figure out what was up with our crampons.

“Maybe if the weather is good next weekend,” said Lia, “we should try again.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”

The next day we hiked up Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge. So warm. So peaceful.

Epilogue: the next day we hiked up Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge just to chill. So warm. So peaceful.

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magical forest on the way up Doge Mountain.

magical forest on the way up Doge Mountain.

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Lia "Stays Calm On The Mountain In A Storm" Smaka

Lia “Stays Calm On The Mountain When Everything Goes Horribly Awry” Smaka

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yours truly

Happy not 2 be dead

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The Columbia River Gorge at Sunset

The Columbia River Gorge at Sunset

As always, more photos on instagram. (Also on Lia’s instagram.)

notes from the field

A long overdue update.

I go to Florida and it is not what I expect: the alligators are there, in great numbers, as I have hoped, and the palm trees, and the short warm days and damp, cool nights, and the enchanted swamp. All of these things are there but mostly, what is there, is the Road- the Swamp, for the most part, has been drained to make way for this Road, and the creatures driven into canals along the Road or into the crowded underbrush next to the Road, and it is on this Road that I walk, cars blowing by, and the pavement was achingly hot and it stretched on into forever, day after boring day, and this sunk my battleship. There are beautiful parts of the Florida rail, yes, but these are distant islands connected by long expanses of this Road.

Florida is beautiful and enchanting; I will return, someday, with a boat. Water, I think, that is the way to see Florida. I want to paddle the everglades and explore the beaches and pick wild citrus. No roadwalking.

After I decide to quit the Florida trail Track Meat, who I hiked with on the PCT in 2013, picks me up in his parents’ sports car outside the library in Okeechobee.

“Your beard is kind of epic,” I say. “Have you cut it since the PCT?”

“No,” says Track Meat. He takes me to his parents’ house in Tallahassee, where I am enveloped in the warm embrace of split-level middle class suburban Christmastime; Christmas tree twinkling, holiday music playing, cakes baking, siblings and cousins visiting from far-away locations. Track Meat’s mother, a brilliant, lively woman with a beautiful sleeve of tattoos themed on the childhoods of her three sons, makes me feel right at home. The holiday is wonderful and also very awkward for me- I know no-one and feel like an extra in a play whose script I haven’t had time to read. Don’t swear, don’t swear, don’t swear, I repeat to myself over and over, as I make small talk with cousins between bites of roast beast and some sort of small, delicious onions. Track Meat’s mother is a professional baker and makes both desserts gluten-free for my sake, and it is the best red-velvet cake and flourless chocolate cake that I have ever eaten. For days I eat this leftover cake while an unseasonable tropical storm rages outside and water pounds the windows. When the weather clears Track Meat and I rent a canoe and paddle slowly down the Wakulla river, talking about every adventure that could ever happen, and how, and when, and what that might be like, and would it be any fun. I think of what a shame it is that there is only one North American summer per year. How many seasons does each person live?

Track Meat

Track Meat

Then it is time to go. I’ve decided to use this time allotted for the FT to visit Instigate in Cleveland, where I have never been, and then see my family in Colorado. Jess and Lia, who have been in Daytona Beach, Florida, also doing the family thing, are driving north to New York and they swoop me up in Jacksonville and I spend a cramped couple of days in the small jump seat of Jess’ tiny red pickup (I share this jump seat with KC, Jess’ black lab) as we make our way through Georgia, North Carolina and then north, the air growing more wintry as we go. I subsisted on nacho-cheese doritos and gas station cappuccino and say goodbye to my dear friends in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania, where MeHap and NoDay, who I hiked with in 2013, are visiting MeHap’s parents and just happen to be driving to Cleveland the next day. More suburban family Christmastime special- a big spaghetti dinner followed by a rousing cardgame, plates of coconut macaroons. I sleep on the cool leather sofa in front of the Christmas tree and the next day we are off, into the wintry Ohio morning, past the bare trees and the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room Amish schoolhouses with their cyclones of black-clad children running around in the bare yard.

In the evening we arrive in bitter-cold Cleveland, which, if you do not know it, is a very enchanted place. Instigate lives very close-in, in a dense neighborhood of beautiful old houses, none of them remodeled, sidewalks just dusted with snow, people shuffling about, lamps glowing merrily in the windows. She shares her warm house with three other housemates. The living room is edged in comfortable sofas, draped in blankets, the shelves are piled with books, and all of the art on the walls is homemade as the direct result of some inside joke or another. I feel immediately at home. As far as I can tell, Instigate and her housemates have been subsisting on leftover Christmas candy, oatmeal with cinnamon, and long grain jasmine white rice. Although we do make a big coconut curry one night, and a pot of lentil stew another.

Instigate’s room is just a touch larger than her full-size bed, with hardwood floors and a large window that looks out on the neighbors’ snowy eaves. In this room, besides the bed, she has several giant houseplants that she tends with great intensity, a small bookcase made from a single wooden fruit crate, and her clothes- a warm coat, a few layers, and two separate outfits- skirt/tights/sweater or jeans/sweater. This is all that Instigate owns. During the day she piles the remaining clothes she is not wearing on the bed and so is able to use the small bit of floor space for a pair of shoes or maybe a takeout carton. I am just able to wedge my backpack under the hanging leaves of the philodendron- this makes it so that we can both be in the room at the same time so long as we move around each other with a sort of careful choreography.

“It’s like when you stayed with me in my trailer in Portland,” I say.

“Yes,” says Instigate. “Only smaller.” She picks something up off the bed- it’s a tank top I recognize from the PCT. Black originally but faded, from the sun, to gray-brown with patches of umber. The straps have been sewn several times. “I still wear this every day,” she says.

The bed itself is an old futon, hard and uneven, spread on a busted frame and clothed in stained sheets smelling of earth, and sleep, and time. There are pillows piled everywhere, cool heavy blankets.

“Do you ever wash these sheets?” I say.

“Ah,” says Instigate, by way of explanation. “I was learning to build a house this summer. I would come home covered in dirt.”

I have a feeling that I will sleep better here on this good hard futon with my dear friend Instigate than I have, anywhere, in ages.

And I do.

In the afternoons I walk for miles around the bitter-cold city, exploring the interesting neighborhoods, the towering steel mills, the derelict mansions built so close together, the dark stone schools that look like prisons. Many of the streets remind me of Portland pre-gentrification and indeed I can see just the beginnings of gentrification here- there is a bar, packed with beardos, where one can buy hot dogs with a variety of strange toppings- fruit loops, chunky peanut butter, kim-chi. There is a coffee shop with impossibly high ceilings where everything is brewed in beakers and the neighborhood store sells fair-trade chocolate. But the city hasn’t changed much, not yet.

Cleveland

a church in Cleveland

“I feel like I’m living in the good ol’ days,” says Instigate, as we walk home from the produce market with our haul of avocados and cauliflower, past the once-glorious houses with their peeling paint. “And I’m grateful that I have the perspective to be able to see that.”

“Everything we touch turns to white,” I say.

I settle into Instigate’s house until I feel as though I live there and then, suddenly, it’s time to go. In the wee hours of the morning I walk in the falling snow to the train, my footsteps the only ones breaking the smooth white surface, and take the train to the airport, where I catch my flight to Denver, on which I promptly fall asleep, to wake in another world.

Denver International Airport is everything that Cleveland is not- sterile, modern, sprawling, flooded with blinding sunshine. I’ve forgotten about this sunshine and the way it beats painfully down on the high plateau. I am greeted at the baggage claim by my cousin Amy, who I haven’t seen in four years.

Amy and I are the same age, and have always gotten along awesomely- our family doesn’t make many girls, and until we were teenagers we were the only two girl cousins in a sea of boys. I grew up in Alaska, and Amy and I didn’t have a chance to see each other often until my grandparents adopted me at fourteen and I moved to Colorado for highschool. Even then, we mostly saw each other on church holidays and the times I drove to Denver as a teenager. Still, we worked hard to cause mischief whenever we were together. These days Amy works, in the summer, as head gardener for the town of Winter Park, and in winter she’s their snowplow driver/mechanic, getting up at four a.m. to clear the snow from the streets and maintaining the local police cruisers on the side. She owns a home in nearby Granby, a small mountain town that sits at 9,300 feet, and she shares this home with her two sweet cats. Amy has been a snowboarder for as long as I can remember- as a teenager she rode competitively, but at 19 she was in an accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury that still affects her, in subtle ways, to this day- her short term memory, she tells me on the drive from the airport, is fucked.

The air in the mountains is thin and cold and bright and we pass through a string of little towns, each one blanketed in snow and bustling with people and looking like the absolute best place to live anywhere, ever. I look out the windows, excited. What wonderful places these small mountain towns are. My family, apparently, has been in Colorado for five generations- I have a series of black and white photographs, scanned by my brother, that I know nothing about. Men on horseback in a canyon, men leaning against a log fence. My parents absconded to Alaska when they were married, I did not grow up here. I moved to Colorado as a traumatized teenager, lived for three years with my grandparents in a little town near the Utah border, and then got out as fast as I could. And yet I have aunts, uncles, cousins all over the state.

Later, in my grandparents’ bright house on the fire-scarred mesa, I’ll show my grandpa the photographs on my phone while he’s standing in the hallway in his socks and he’ll point at them and shout-

“That’s my brother Ralph, on the homestead in Arvada. With the muskrats that he got that year. Boy, that was a good year for muskrats. We made a thousand dollars!”

muskrats

muskrats

“That’s my brother Ralph and my brother Don, working as cowpokes. They were real cowboys!”

cowpokes

cowpokes

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more cowpokes

a real cowboy

He’ll tell me about his mother, who claimed to talk to the angels, who ran off and about the woman, who they all called Toots, who raised them. He’ll tell me about his two brothers, who died decades ago, and their children and grandchildren, scattered on horse ranches across the state.

My family was horse people. Now they’re mechanics. Even my cousin Amy.

Staying with Amy is wonderful. We soak in some hotsprings, visit her parents in their cozy home next to Lake Granby (You can see the continental divide trail from here! says my aunt Christy), go snowshoeing.

Amy's buck

Amy’s buck

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Hot Sulpher Springs with Amy

Hot Sulpher Springs with Amy

In the evenings we watch trashy reality TV, make venison steak and kale salad (Amy is a hunter and has a freezer full of deer) and then I fall asleep in Amy’s guest room while the cat sticks its little paw under the door, trying to get in.

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Amy’s woodstove

I even go running, one evening, in the cold- I’m slow at 9,300 feet but I haven’t been able to run much and this feels incredible, watching the sun set over the hills draping the mountains in alpenglow, my face and ears growing numb. Everything’s gonna be alright.

everything's gonna be alright

everything’s gonna be alright

After visiting Amy I take the Amtrak west, along the Colorado River as it flows through the canyons towards Grand Junction, which is where my brother John lives, and where I went to highschool. It’s so peaceful on the train, rocking gently through the mountains, far from the interstate. It reminds me of what I used to love so much about riding freight trains. I listen to my audiobook and stare at the roiling water, the pines, the hills. We drop in elevation and soon the snow is gone and there’s just the red dirt, stretching on forever and the red rock, rising up into mesas. We’re in the real desert now. Desert. Desierto. I used to hate this place.

la mesa

la mesa

My brother meets me at the Amtrak station. He just got off work and he’s still in his shop clothes. His eyes are red and he looks tired but impossibly masculine, which is how I always think of him. Handsome face. Excellent posture. Impossibly square jar. But tired.

There’s a carseat in his pickup.

“You had a kid,” I say.

“Sawyer is everything,” says John. His hands on the steering wheel are dry and cracked with eczema. “You want to go eat somewhere?”

We end up at Applebee’s, the same Applebee’s where I worked when I was eighteen. While we eat our salmon and spinach John tells me about his life- he’s been working in Afghanistan for part of each year, as a heavy equipment mechanic for the military. Fixing military vehicles in a war zone. Military vehicles that’ve been blown up, their insides splattered with blood and brain matter. Getting shot at, shooting back. He tells me about how the work destroys him, how traumatized and fatigued he is every year after coming back. It takes him months to recover. He tells me about how much he loves the work- more than anything he’s ever done. The sense of urgency, the camaraderie, the simplicity of each day. He tells me about how empty everything seems when he returns, how regular life pales in comparison. Just a bunch of stupid drama. I look at him, and I think of him getting shot at, and it breaks my heart. But I know. I understand.

And now the thing happens, the thing that always happens when I am with John- I look at him and I see his hopes and dreams and struggles, the way he lives his life. I see the experiences of our childhood, I see the way those experiences affect him, the way they still affect him. I see in his eyes how real all of it was- how real it still is. How it still ripples through him, how it influences the choices that he makes. I realize suddenly how it still affects me. And then all the time and space and growth I’ve put between me and those experiences vanishes in an instant and I’m there again, in our dim low-income apartment in Anchorage, hungry and terrified, searching for an errant foodstamp dollar or a piece of clothing that doesn’t smell like mildew while our mother chainsmokes and talks to herself about the devil. It’s real, it’s more real than anything- it’s the realest thing there is.

I feel rattled the entire time I’m in Grand Junction.

At night my heart pounds as I imagine every awful thing that could happen. I can barely sleep. During the day my gut is a knot of anxiety. In spite of the fact that absolutely nothing bad is happening, the world seems an impossibly dark place, full of danger and ill intent. Why did I come back? Why did I come back.

To see my brother, who I care about more than I can even express. To see his son, Sawyer, who is the calmest two-year-old I think I’ve ever known- playing quietly with his toys, saying “please” and “thank you” and “will you read me a book Auntie Carrot?”. Part of this is due to John’s wife, Roxy, being a magician with children, and also to the fact that Sawyer is some sort of magical being who apparently never cries or fusses and has slept eight hours a night since day one. Sawyer also looks, almost eerily, like John when he was a baby, and as Sawyer sits next to me on the couch, patiently showing me how the little pop-up animals in his pop-up book work, I look into his serene blue eyes and I can see that his soul is approximately eleventy-billion years old.

my favorites.

my favorites.

“I am going to steal your child,” I say to John, while we’re eating at Chipotle. Sawyer is eating his taco carefully, doing his best not to make a mess. He’s not a picky eater- he simply eats what you give him. He also enjoys hot sauce. “I’m going to take him away to Oregon and raise him in, like, a converted schoolbus, or something.” While waiting in line for our food, approximately 98% of the women in the restaurant were staring at John, who had Sawyer on his hip. I thought this was hilarious.

John and I visit our grandparents. I see some more of my cousins, aunts and uncles. I go on a hike with my aunt Pat- Pat is in her late fifties, has a fused spine and a ruptured disk in her neck from scoliosis and yet she’s always been one of the most active people in the family and now, she says, walking is the thing that helps the pain more than anything. We hike twelve miles along the Gunnison river on an uncharacteristically foggy day as we talk about family, about history, about the CDT. I talk about hiking and Pat tells me about her cousins on their distant ranches, about the children of my grandfather’s two brothers. About family drama and death and heartache. I wish I had a notepad to write it all down, but I don’t. I’ll just have to come back.

the Gunnison river

the Gunnison river

I talk with John more about his job overseas. He shows me videos from his trips- firefights in the desert, far away and impossible to see, just gentle distant popping noises. And then a bullet whizzing by the camera.

“That one almost got me,” he says.

The insides of the armored vehicles that he repairs.

“In this one the driver lost both his arms. See? Blood everywhere.” John skips over the next video. “I don’t think you want to see that one.”

Videos of him hanging with the other guys, everyone in uniform. Everyone is laughing, my brother’s laugh unmistakable- it’s the unhinged laugh that we both share.

“It’s just different than anything else,” says John, bent over his kitchen countertop, skipping through the videos. “It’s just what feels most real to me.”

I understand, though.

I understand because we spent our childhoods in a war zone.

Together.

I cannot say that I am sad when it comes time to leave Grand Junction. I’m flying out in the wee hours of the morning and my last night in town I spend at my friend April’s house- April was one of my best (and only!) friends in highschool, an eccentric redhead who gave no fucks for what it meant, in what was then a sad, economically depressed methlab of a town, to be “cool”. April went away for medical school and two years ago, after her residency, she returned. She now works as a doctor at the same clinic where we went to get free birth control in highschool. Grand Junction has changed since then- it’s larger, more sprawling, no longer as poor. April is happy here, and she lives with her husband in a beautiful house with the most luxurious bathroom I’ve ever seen- it has a huge tub, two showers, and a sauna. I spend the evening collapsed on the dark leather couch in their high-ceilinged living room, feeling sleepy and lethargic. I’m overwhelmed by everything that’s happened. I’m ready to get back to southern Oregon, to make some sort of home. I just need to be home. I need time to think.

My return to Southern Oregon is jarring- I’ve only been back for two days when I wake up with a brutal respiratory infection/flu-like illness, so sick I can barely get off the couch. This is what I get, I think, covering my face with my hands. Too many planes. Too many feelings. Not enough fresh air. On the plus side, however, I’ve found the most wonderful place to live- a beautiful old house, within walking distance of everything, that I share with two other women around my age. My room is small, with hardwood floors, nice moulding, and a single window. I spend two days dragging myself around town in a borrowed car amassing cute old furniture- a hard futon, a desk, a chair, and two lamps, and then collapse in my new nest to convalesce. My housemate, Aga, makes grain-free banana muffins and chicken soup, which she fills with garlic and cayenne, “for healing”. This solidifies in my brain that this is, in fact, the best living situation I possibly could’ve hoped for.

So I’ve finally landed, for now. And I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I can rest, I can run, I can cook my own meals! For the next several months I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the book about my PCT 2013 thru-hike, which some of you have been waiting on for over a year. I’ll also be preparing for the CDT- although the book comes first. I might actually hike the CDT southbound, in order to give myself more time. We’ll see how things turn out.

Also! I have a bit of an announcement. I’m trying something new this year, in regards to hiking and blogging. Usually, when I’m hiking and people want to support me somehow, I direct them to the paypal button on my care packages page, where they can “buy me a burger”. I’ve recently discovered patreon, which is really, really cool re: bloggers and the like. When you pledge an amount on patreon (say, $1) I’ll get that amount each time I post. So it’s a direct incentive for every post. If you’re interested in supporting my work this way and also subtly pressuring me to post more via $, check it out. My patreon page is here.

As always, more photos of my adventures are on instagram.

southern Oregon is beautiful

Southern Oregon is beautiful. It’s good to be back.

Florida trail, day seven: Dear FT- it’s not you, it’s me

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The real Florida Trail

December 19

When I wake in the morning I know that I’m done. Despite having slept really well, despite having camped in this nice place with a picnic table, I still cannot muster the energy to get stoked for thirty more miles on this paved bike path, followed by hundreds of miles on other paved surfaces.

I’m done.

The FT is 1100 miles long and has 600 miles of roads, or 800 miles of roads- I don’t know for sure. As I walk the six miles this morning to the little village where I can get on the highway to hitch, I think of the things I’ve done in my short hiking career that have made me most proud. Night-hiking over Mather Pass in the snow. Doing 25-mile days in Washington while feverish with tonsilitis. The time I ran out of food and hiked 50 miles on 1500 calories. The L2H. Even though I’ve only hiked a couple of long trails, I can sincerely say that I’ve never once wanted to give up and quit hiking. Not once!

And yet here I am, crumpling in the face of 600 (800?) miles of roadwalking.

This gives me newfound respect for people who HAVE thru-hiked the Florida Trail. This trail is such a unique psychological challenge- lots of tedium and foot pounding for relatively little reward. It’s different from an actual trail, and it requires a different sort of attitude. And apparently I don’t have that attitude.

This makes me sad, because I really, really wanted to love the Florida Trail. It turns out that I love Florida, that I love being in Florida! I flew all the way down here, it’s a magical tropical land, I love hiking. It was the perfect setup. But this is not like the hiking that I know- this is the kind of “hiking” that makes me want to curl up in a ball in the grass and go to sleep for a very, very long time.

It takes me over an hour to get a hitch the 20 miles into Okeechobee- I’m in some agressively conservative part of the state, populated my leary retirees, and passers-by stare at me with open-mouthed looks of horror. Who am I, standing there in my dirty white sun-shirt, turquoise skirt and backpack? Some sort of harlot? Where is my pickup truck? Why am I doing something other than driving to and fro work or shopping at walmart? I must be a drug-addicted feminist terrorist. I probably voted for Obama.

You think I’m exaggerating. In Okeechobee I walk to the library, because I just want to sit in a chair with my phone plugged in and think about what I’ve done and what I’m going to do next. I’m minding my own business, reading about Brangelina’s wedding cake in people magazine, when I overhear an elderly man at the computers behind me loudly declare to the man next to him that the woman who “runs this library” won’t let him spend more than two hours a day on the computers because she’s a “feminist nazi bitch”. I stare at him, and he glares back at me.

“How’s that for speaking your mind?” he shouts. No-one else in the library even looks up. “At least I don’t have any tattoos,” he says, pointing at the tattoo on my hand. “You know what that is? That’s the tramp stamp!”

“It’s not too late,” I say, trying to lighten the mood. “you’ve still got time.”

He shakes his head vehemently.

“Never ever, because the BODY is a TEMPLE made in the LIKENESS of JESUS CHRIST.” He is shouting all this, and as he says it his friend sitting next to him in pounding his fists against his thighs, mouthing along.

“She’s blushing!” He proclaims. “I made her blush! She’s blushing because she’s ASHAMED!”

My god, I think. These guys are like internet trolls, but in real life. Their need to pick a fight and get attention is more real to them than anything else, more real than the people around them.

I go back to reading my magazine, but soon the dudes are at it again-

“You see these street people in here,” says one of them. “And you get to feeling sorry for them. And then you leave the computer and they get on it after you, and they steal all your passwords!”

“You’re right about that,” says the other one. I look at my dirty backpack, leaning against my legs. The one dude gets up, circles the room and then sits across from me, fixing me with a hostile glare. Are you serious? Are you fucking serious? He wants so badly to pick a fight with me. And for what? I think of the recent Nicki Minaj interview, in which she says that “men are like children”. So I pack up my backpack and go.

The town is crowded and busy and I’d have to hitch out of town in order to find a place to camp, and I don’t want to hitch alone in this part of Florida, so I end up getting a motel room. It’s more than I can afford but I just want to deadbolt a door between me and these awful people for a little while why I figure out what to do next. I talk to my friend Track Meat, who lives north of here, and this time when he offers to pick me up and take me on a roadtrip I say Fuck yeah! I walk to the grocery store for my usual town staples of roast chicken, avocados and greens and then barricade myself in my motel room to watch television and look at instagram until I pass out.

Photos on instagram

Florida trail day six: roads for days

December 18
Mileage 30
Mile 103 to mile 128.5 (plus 4.5 miles walking in and out of Clewiston and Moore Haven

I wake up before dawn, excited to be back on the road. It’s not a trail, at least for the next hundred miles, it’s a road, but I’m still excited to be back on it. Walking is walking is walking, right?

That feeling lasts for most of the day. First I’m walking along pavement, a sort of bike path/service road, alongside a dike, and there’s waving grass or sugarcane fields or palm trees on either side, and somewhere supposedly there is a lake, although I can’t see it, and the sun is not too hot and I’m making good time and my feet feel alright. Then there’s a gate across the bike path- construction, no tresspassing! It says. Some dudes below at a fish camp are waving their arms and saying-

“Don’t do it! They’ll put you in jail!” And so I am introduced to another endearing thing about the Florida Trail- sometimes the road is closed indefinitely, and one is forced to do a roadwalk detour around the roadwalk.

Hot blacktop it is, then, through the recently-burnt sugarcane fields that parallel the dike. My feet are aching now, and so to distract myself I re-watch a documentary about some folks I know who fixed up a derelict yacht one winter and sailed it from Florida to The Dominican Republic. This helps the time pass and I think about all the other things I could be doing- eating fish I clubbed myself, swimming with sharks, learning to sail. But would that be so different than this? Isn’t all life suffering?

I follow some railroad tracks through the sugarcane fields to the town of Moore Haven, where I have a resupply box at the post office. If Clewiston was a busy little hub of sugar manufacture and cheap cuban food, then Moore Haven is a shit-tastic wasteland of dollar stores and shuttered restaurants, edged in RV parks full of retirees. The walk through town on the freeway seems to take ages, and when I arrive at the post office the clerk looks at me like I’m insane and says that no, they do not have my package. I look up the tracking number online and discover that although I sent the box a week ago via priority it seems to have stalled somewhere in Kentucky.

“I’ve never had this happen before with a priority box,” I say to the clerk. “Is this, like, a thing that happens?”

He shrugs.

“Priority is not garaunteed.”

The dollar store is actually like a grocery store, only without a produce section. It’s pretty good to resupply, as it consists entirely of snack food and everything is cheap. After buying lots of things like “cinnamon almonds” and “mixed rice crackers” I head to the burger king, which seems to be the only gig in town, and may be the most depressing fast food restaurant on earth.

The teenagers who work there are leaning on the counter, bored to tears, and they perk up when they see me. I actually really love this about fast food restaurants- no judgment. You’re literally paying for someone to be nice to you. Not like the retirees behind me in line at the post office, who seemed scandalized by my existance. I order what is perhaps the worst salad I’ve ever eaten and then hike back along the freeway to the dike, which I can access again now that I’m passed the “construction”.

I’m seven miles from camp, a “designated campsite” along the bike path, when my feet start to really ache- particularly the heel in my left foot. I try to find something softer to walk on but there is nothing- the grass is deep and difficult to walk through, or sloping down at an awkward angle. Dark falls, and my morale plummets. Fucky fuck. Fuck this eight hundred mile roadwalk. I run through all my pep talks- it’ll be trail again for a bit in a hundred miles, you might get to hike with friends later on, you spent all that money on resupply boxes and travel, you can’t quit because quitting is dumb, never quit on a bad day. By the time I reach camp, after having navigated around two more “closed” sections of the bike path, crossing a number of bridges in the dark with traffic going by really fast (and everyone with their brights on, blinding me), and being stopped by a concerned state trooper because “you don’t see anyone walking out here”, I am emotionally spent. There is a picnic table tho, so that is nice. I sit at this table and do my evening chores, listening to the night-time animals do their thing in the water. Earlier there were wild boars in the trees next to the road, rustling around and making snorting noises.

At this point I feel like I’m in the kind of relationship where you really love the person, so you don’t want to leave, but in the day-to-day you’re just unhappy. But you and this person made all these PLANS together, you built your lives around each other. And you really love them. You’re just… unhappy.

On a brighter note, here is the video about the friends who fixed up an old boat and sailed to the Dominican Republic. If you like adventure, and feeling as though anything is possible, it is fantastic for that-

Hold Fast

Photos on instagram

Florida trail day four and five: roadwalking fail

December 16
Mileage 18
Mile 61 to mile 79

I wake before my alarm, cold, to find my sleeping bag soaked through with condensation. The dark is just beginning to pale and I sit up blearily, lackadaisically poke at my gear, eat something or other. Suddenly I am treated to the most fantastic sunrise- and egrets lifting into flight, a flock of blackbirds, a gentle warming of the air. I am in a tropical paradise! How did I get here.

My joy lasts until midday, when I have a breakdown. My feet hurt so immensely- I’ve been walking on a crushed limestone road next to a canal all morning, the same canal I walked on yesterday evening, the same one I’ll be on for another 25 miles. Just one road going straight north, sugarcane fields on either side as far as the eye can see. Now and then a white worker pickup, spewing dust. The sun is out, and hot. Water can be gathered from the canal- agricultural runoff, pesticides and fertilizers and things. An oily sheen floats on top.

And my feet hurt so. fucking. bad. So I sit down next to the water and I just cry.

It is a particular pain specific to roadwalks. A hot, achey, burning pain that radiates up through my body, into my hips and my back and my shoulders until it is everywhere, until I’m on fire. I’ve felt this pain before during roadwalks on the PCT- but the roadwalks on that trail are maybe a dozen miles, while the roadwalks here are a hundred. This morning the pain is so bad it makes me nauseous. I take ibuprofen but this only blunts it- I know the only solution is to get off my feet, or get onto an actual trail. But instead I have nothing to look forward to but days and days of roadwalks just like this one. My sub-tropical dream seems to be turning into some strange version of hell. I sit there, looking at the alligators sunning themselves on the banks, the birds doing their thing. I do like alligators. But what have I gotten myself into? Couldn’t I have, like, decided to ride a bike across Florida? Why the long roadwalk? I understand, now, why so few people thru-hike this trail. The weather is a dream, the animals are epic… but the roadwalks. My god, the roadwalks.

I drag myself up, tell myself not to be a whiney baby. If other people can do these roadwalks (I even found a blog of a couple who did the trail in boots!) then so can I. But then the reality of how my feet feel hits me again as I walk along the hard, hot road- it is a pain that will not be ignored.

I decide to quit the trail. This feels awful in so many ways- I sent myself resupply boxes, I flew to Florida, I announced to the world I was hiking this trail- now all that will be lost. But, at least at the moment, the thought that I can quit whenever I want and the roadwalks will be over is just the morale boost I need. Four miles later I reach Evercane road, and stand in the sun with my thumb out. A woman in a huge, shiny pickup pulls up and beckons to me. She speaks little english and I speak no spanish but yeah, she’ll take me to Clewiston, a town about ten miles away. I feel bad about how I smell- I wonder what this woman must think of me, out walking through the fields for no apparent reason. In the car I stare out the window at the sugarcane fields, try and figure out what is important, what really matters.

Clewiston is a small, busy town built around a sugar refinery, bustling with workers coming and going from the fields. There is a string of cheap, rundown motels and I get a room in one, wash the dust off my face and then hobble down the main strip to the walmart, the only grocery store in town. I get lost in the labrynthine store and end up buying lettuce, avocado, roast chicken, carrots, an apple and three oranges. Back at the motel room I eat my dinner and the draw a bath, sinking into the hot water and closing my eyes. What am I even doing. What am I ever doing? What are any of us doing? We fuck up for a little while and then we die, right? Isn’t that life?

I text a few of my friends, tell them I’m quitting the trail. “My feet hurt OMG roadwalks!” One friend, who lives in Florida, offers to come pick me up.

“We can go on a roadtrip,” he says. I imagine myself seeing Florida from the comfort of a car. That sounds nice. And then, who knows what could happen? Maybe I’ll stay in Florida for the rest of the winter, camp in someone’s backyard. Get some sort of job.

Another friend doesn’t want me to quit.

“Get different shoes,” he says. “Stretch more.” I list all of my excuses but they sound hollow to me now, like I’m just being a whiney baby. Foot pain! Drinking agricultural runoff! If other people can do this I can do it. Right?

I fall asleep to the noises in the street, the damp cool florida night coming in the busted window screen.

——–

December 17
Mileage: zero

In the morning I pay for another night at the motel. Whatever happens, I am taking the day off. I eat gluten free pretzels from my foodbag and leftover chicken for breakfast and then wander through town, looking for a place to get my hair trimmed. My feet hurt less today, and that feels good. I find a little place on a sidestreet and $15 later I am free of the split ends that I’ve been too lazy to deal with for over a year. This cute little side street also hosts a thrift store, a furniture shop, an antique store and the single coffeeshop in town, where the only white people I’ve seen are huddled over bowls of broccoli soup. Outside is a wooden bench that proclaims “Clewiston, Florida- the sweetest town in America!”

I pick up my clothes from the lavanderia, where they’re done washing, and cross the main drag to a little cuban food place, which is crowded with locals on their lunch breaks from. I order the lunch special, which turns out to be massive portions of braised pork, chopped lettuce, black beans and rice and fried sweet plantains, along with a basket of toasted white bread spread with margarine. All of this sets me back about $7, and is delicious. I order another lunch special to go, so that I can pack it out- I’ve decided to go back to the trail. I’ve also decided not to hitch back to Evercane road but to start right where I am, effectively skipping 25 miles of roadwalking. My original plan was to give myself 40 days to try and do as much of the trail as possible- I realize now that I likely won’t be able to do the whole thing in 40 days if I have to take breaks for my feet. I’ve accepted this, and will start where I am. Setting out to do most of the trail feels better than giving up entirely.

Back at my motel room I start to blog but instead I fall asleep, lulled by the peaceful warm afternoon. I go in and out of dreams and when I wake there is a moment when I have no idea where I am, what time of day it is, or even who I am. This happens to me often when I wake- this moment where I floating loose from the interconnected web of reality, liberated from my place in all of it. This used to terrify me, but now I cherish it. It’s a sweet moment, and very freeing. I could be anywhere. I could be anyone.

Context comes rushing back in. It’s 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, I’m in a pink motel room that hasn’t been remodeled in a long while in a town that makes sugar. In a land called Florida. The FT is still more roadwalk than trail- There still aren’t any answers.

Some time later I fall back asleep.

Photos on instagram