KCHBR day 8: zero in Visalia

9/1/17
zero miles

I wake too early (again) in our nice stealth spot in the forest below the gas station and we pack up and sit outside in the cold as the morning warms looking at our phones until the doors open and we buy two hot cups of coffee and eat the bananas and look at our phones some more. By and by we figure maybe we should hitchhike to Visalia, where neither of us has ever been and which is two hours away on the winding mountain highway, because it’s a real town with a grocery store and we should be able to reasonably buy eight days of food there. Our first ride is an SUV being driven by a couple from Mexico and in the backseat with us is the nicest, most velvety pitbull with the most somber eyes full of bottomless longing (dogs have the yearning on lock), and our second ride is Alicia. Alicia drives an old Toyota tacoma with a campershell and she’s lived in the truck for six years (warm Anza Borrega in the winters) and she works in Sequoia Kings Canyon on a trail crew running chainsaws and she’s got her bike on the back of the truck and it’s her weekend and she’s wearing a cute skirt and she’s headed down to Pismo beach to skateboard. It turns out that Alicia and I know a lot of people in common, folks I haven’t seen in years but which place both of us in the early-2000s west coast anarchist punk scene. Alicia fills me in- people I remember as having small babies now have teenagers, etc. How time flies/how malleable is time. Looking backwards and forwards, walking in meditative circles, standing still. Alicia and I do summersaults through time as the truck rattles us downhill (no AC, windows open ruffling all our hair) out of the giant sequoias and into the hot San Joaquin valley where it’s 102 degrees today. Remember when people rode freight trains and bike toured everywhere? Remember when people lived in shacks that they built out of scrapped lumber? Remember when people taught themselves to sail?

Alicia!

Our new best friend Alicia drops us at the motel 6 in Visalia but as soon as the front desk clerk sees our busted asses he says he’s sorry, contrary to what he told me on the phone his current cheapest room is $120. We wander out into the blistering smoky heat, confused, but then spot a motel next door that looks just as nice as the motel 6 and is called either the Majestic Inn or Marco Polo Motel, depending on if you go by google maps or the sign. They are very kindly and have a tidy room for us for $60. Next door is a chinese restaurant that, luck would have it, has some of the best ratings of any restaurant in a five mile radius, and we feast on glorious meat and glorious vegetables. Shortly after we are wilted indoors with the air conditioning on blast and the curtains drawn shut against the light. We fall asleep in this manner against our best intentions and it’s dark when I schedule a Lyft to take us the two miles to Winco because, fuck walking in this heat.

I have neither resupplied nor shopped in a Winco, although I have heard tell of it. Turns out the massive store is everything I ever imagined, and more. Winco reminds me of Shop N Kart in Ashland, aka the best grocery store on earth, only with fewer niche brands and zero deep-discount expiration date edgeplay. The bulk section is out of this world, having, for example, bins of gummy bears sorted by color, as well as instant refried beans. Kodak and I have fun filling our carts with what may or may not be eight days of food. Kodak buys a great quantity of granola, peanut butter, gummy worms, bulk fruit snacks, cheese, tortillas, coffee, hot cocoa powder, ramen, mac n’ cheese, a giant bag of peanuts, two kinds of discount sandwich cookies, two boxes of pop tarts, fruit leathers, one box of cheez-its, instant refried beans and a giant summer sausage log. I buy a party-size bag of wavy lays, figs and goji berries, twenty-five bars, dinners consisting of rice noodles, instant refried beans, olive oil and curry powder, two pounds of salami, jerky, dark chocolate, and two boxes of the daiya gf df mac n’ cheese (one for the motel, one for my birthday). If you’re noticing a discrepancy in the amount of food I bought for eight days versus the amount that Kodak bought, you’re not mistaken, and that will play out later in this story, as well as the fact that the next section actually will actually take us nine days…

Since today is a zero day and we’re not doing any hiking, here are some things I’ve learned about Kodak so far. From age twelve to seventeen, he was a nationally ranked competitive archer, in the olympic recurve style. He’s also a bow hunter, by extension, and enjoys eating the deer. He’s super dedicated to his photography, and on our hike so far I’ve watched him stop, whip out his camera and change lenses during sketchy stream crossings, on steep snowfields, in bushwhacks, while crossing talus… In the regular world he works as an arborist, climbing up trees for pay, and he’s very good with knots, always rigging up his tarp in wild technical ways.

We fall asleep (again) in the dark motel room with the AC blasting surrounded by our plastic shopping bags of food and empty chinese takeout containers (we had chinese food again for dinner) after doing every phone errand that needed done and outside the cars roll past on the highway like whales sounding in the ocean, serene.

KCHBR day 7: all trails to Lodgepole

8/31/17
20 miles
90 miles hiked total

I dream about my father (he disappeared when I was four, I hitch-hiked to Alaska and found him when I was twenty, he was neither interesting nor kind/wanted nothing to do with me, it was awkward, are we supposed to be similar to/feel some connection to our blood relations? Or is that just a myth). I wake while it’s still dark, to the stars, and can’t fall back asleep. Dangit. I’m definitely PMSing. The full moon is on its way, I’ll bleed on the full moon. Sleeping outside makes me sync up with the moon. Isn’t it beautiful and freeing how many millions of things there are that we don’t understand/won’t ever be able to control…

Today feels like a zero day, even though we hike twenty miles. This is because the day is entirely on trail, with a bit of dirt road thrown in. There is climbing, I don’t pay attention to how much though. Walking without thought is a restful dream, riding my legs uphill like a vespa. Life in the regular world is full of illusions, mirrors, distractions, smoke screens, pavement- here on trail my world is stripped down to its shining steel frame, glinting in the sun. Efficient. One thing at a time. Just three things in total. Maybe four. Walking, eating, sleeping. The fourth thing is longing. Longing is such an underrated human need. Longing gets me out of my sleeping bag when it’s cold, longing gets me over the talus fields, longing drags me up the mountain. Longing sharpens my hours, brightens my afternoons. Longing keeps my blood moving.

We stop at a stream for lunch in Jenny Lakes wilderness. Warm sunshine and trickling water, no other people around. Where is everyone? Then a long descent on switchbacks to Lodgepole, whatever that is. Lodgepole ends up being a cluster of hot, smoky campgrounds at 6,500 feet, packed with people, their RV generators rumbling, and a one mile paved roadwalk to a general store/cafe. I have many desires. We’ve been on trail for seven days and I would like to shower, do my laundry, access wifi, resupply for the next 8 days and eat a great quantity of food. The anticipation of fulfilling these desires thumps inside my chest as we walk the hot, smoky road.

It tuns out that Lodgepole can fulfill some of my dreams, but not them all. A small crowded cafe provides me with a bowl of chili and a paper boat of french fries, which I eat with a good deal of mayonnaise. Flies circle as we eat, landing on the table and away, landing and then away. Our table is the only table with flies. People stare. One could do one’s laundry and shower here, in the building next door. However, there is no wifi or reception, and the grocery store is shit- if we resupplied for 8 days here it would cost an obscene amount of money, and it would all be food we didn’t actually want to eat. What to do? A young man named Addison, who gives tours of the caves nearby, appears, and says he recognizes me from instagram. He’s got a sweet tricked-out cargo van/camper and he can give us a ride to Stony Creek, a gas station/motel a few miles away where there is, at least, wifi. As we navigate the winding road in his van, huge sequoias towering above us, Addison tells us about his life in the woods here- he lives in a forest service cabin from the 1930s, and paints on his days off. He has no electricity, just gas lights. (Follow Addison on instagram here- https://www.instagram.com/raddisoneaton, he is v cool.) At Stony Creek we are at last connected, via the small supercomputers we carry in our pockets and the electromagnetic waves from a box inside the gas station, to the outside world, and we also buy showers and have just enough time before the laundry building closes to give our disgusting clothes a spin. After showering my gamey animal smell is gone, and we buy a gallon of water, a bag of tortilla chips, a jar of salsa and a couple bananas and wander around in the woods until we find the perfect stealth spot, a patch of flat sand beneath the warm stars, water flowing somewhere nearby. I eat the entire jar of salsa and almost all the chips and fall into a fitful sleep, with no idea what tomorrow will bring.

would ya lookit that sequoia

KCHBR day 6: Roads End

8/30/17
12 miles
70 miles hiked total

At four a.m. sheet lightning breaks the dark in half and rain rattles the tarp and I drift in and out until dawn, when the storm has mellowed to a light drizzle. Everything is packed away wet and we drop cross-country down more nice granite ramps to a switchbacking wonder of a real trail which will carry us five thousand feet to Roads End. I turn my music up and my brain off and cruise and with each switchback the forest grows warmer and then the “face flies” appear- tiny gnats that hover just in front of your eyes and if you try and smack them you will likely hit yourself in the nose. “What do you want from me?!” I yell at them, while I wave my trekking pole in front of my face like windshield wiper. I think they want to lay eggs in my eyelids and/or drink the juice of my eyeballs, but I’m not entirely sure. I keep the trekking pole waving and I don’t drink any water or eat so when we reach the concrete parkinglots of Roads End I’m in a terrible, anxious mood. We stick out our thumbs and after thirty minutes we’ve got a ride the six miles to Cedar Grove, where the snack bar is. Roads End is the official endpoint of the KCHBR, but we’re connecting it with trails to Lodgepole, its official start just south of here, and that is how we’re making it a loop. Lodgepole supposedly (according to the website) has a large grocery store, so we’re planning on buying eight days of food there, for the second half of the hike. We’ll reach Lodgepole tomorrow, and in the meantime, we can get some food and wifi at Roads End.

And that we do. We occupy a table in the snack bar for most of the day, flies circling us and landing, circling us and landing. In the bathroom there’s a sign that says “please do not bathe in the sink,” but I still wet some paper towels and scrub the many layers of zinc sunscreen mixed with dirt off my face. I am absolutely filthy- I don’t think my longsleeve desert shirt has ever looked this good/bad. Kodak gets a burger and I eat a chef salad with potato salad, a bag of bugles and then an icecream bar. We get the wifi password and bliss out on instagram. At one point the manager in the snack bar takes Kodak aside, and offers us free showers and laundry. Apparently we’re offending the other patrons with the way we smell.

“Man to man,” he says to Kodak, “it’s ok for me and you to be that dirty. But for her…”

This makes me want to refuse the offer on principle, but in the end we refuse it because we’re hiking out, and we have plans to do showers and laundry tomorrow, in Lodgepole. Why would we do showers and laundry two days in a row? That’s just unreasonable.

but does it go (photo by Kodak)

We wander by the ranger station to check that the trails we’ve chosen to reach Lodgepole actually exist, and then we finally hike out in the late afternoon. A three thousand foot climb on beautiful switchbacks gets us to a dirt forest service road and a beautiful view of the sunset, where we set up camp. Kodak has a vape pen he found on the ground in Washington so we smoke a little weed and I don’t get high but Kodak does, and he can’t stop tripping out about the sunset. We cowboy camp in the dust and I have lots of Feelings in my head, which is likely the beginning of PMS. In particular, I’m feeling sick of the sound of my own voice. “Why can’t I just not speak?” I think, as I drift off. What fun.

KCHBR day 5: where cliffs were outlawed long ago

8/29/17
15 miles
58 miles hiked total

It’s warm, pleasant and still down at six thousand feet, where we’re camped and I wake at five and lay there, waiting for Kodak to wake. It’s pretty hard not to just wake up your hiking partner when you’re up before dawn feeling shot full of electricity ready to go but then I also envy how hard he sleeps and I live vicariously through him, laying quiet in my sleeping bag watching him breathe. At last his eyes open up and he lights the flame in his alcohol burner and makes his pourover coffee with a generous amount of hot cocoa in it and shares some with me and then it’s time to walk.

We’ve got a five thousand foot climb this morning but it’s on trail so it feels like nothin. Oh beautiful switchbacks! I listen to pop music and practically fly with endorphins. Soon we reach the top and we’re in lovely cool pine forest and then we’re crushin off trail again, into the land of rounded grippy granite slopes and grass ramps where cliffs were outlawed long ago and everything goes, and gently too. Ramps on ramps on ramps, jewel-colored lakes and tarns, not a sharp edge anywhere. A steep sticky snowfield takes us up to Goat Crest Pass at eleven-somethin thousand feet, from which we can see more soft lands spread out before us, lumpy granite like play-doh balls that’ve been smushed on top of each other, folded and broken a bit but still rounded at the edges and stuck with tufts of flowers.

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We wend our way down these gorgeous ramps and I wonder, is this the place where you go when you die. In a few miles we’ll reach more real trail that will take us five miles downhill to Roads End, where there is a motherfucking snack bar, and we had talked about making it tonight, but the wonder of Grouse Lake snags us- what is life but a quest to sleep in every beautiful place- and presently the rain stops (it was raining) and a double rainbow arcs above the lake, and Kodak nearly loses his mind attempting to photograph it. Kodak pitches his tarp next to the lake in “storm mode” which is still like a palace inside but very secure and we eat our hot dinners and fall asleep to the patter of the rain, which has returned.

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KCHBR day 4: Skurka’s little game

8/28
8 miles
43 miles hiked total

All night the wind gusts and flutters the tarp but I sleep amazingly in this otherwordly peaceful land and in the morning we eat smushed bars and Kodak lets me drink some of his pourover coffee and we fold everything away, as one does, me with all my stuffsacks (Kodak makes fun of my stuffsacks) and Kodak just shoving everything loose into the bottomless cavern of his pack.

morning

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We contour above the waterfall on the cliffs that always somehow go and then drop down into the gorge, a little blackbear darting along the game trails below us (the game trails here are, it seems, mostly bear trails) and traverse more slow very steeply angled talus fields where the boulders are sleeping just-so- “Light as a feather, light as a feather,” I say as I ease my way down them, imagining how stable they are from bearing the weight of snow overwinter, in spite of how precariously balanced they look. And the occasional deep roar as one shifts beneath you but does not quite fall, like a dragon that sleeps in talus fields which you are trying not to wake. Or that arcade game with all the quarters spread on a metal shelf, and a bunch of them are piled on the edge, and you put your own quarter in, hoping to make the quarters on the edge fall. Only I do not want these quarters to fall. I am a tiny ant amongst the quarters, and I do not want these quarters to fall.

The brush begins- Skurka’s notes warn us about this- the brush is a mix of stiff, woody manzanita and another hearty shrub with one-inch thorns called ceanothus cordulatus. We are able to avoid this sadistic brush via more talus fields until the confluence of Goddard and Disappearing creeks, where we have lunch. After the confluence we know, from the notes, that the brush becomes unavoidable for about four miles, and so will begin one of the most trying sections of the route. To get to our lunch spot we must cross both Goddard and Disappearing creeks, and the spots we pick are less than ideal- Kodak can cross the strong water alright and he helps me by jamming his arm between my pack and my back while I steady myself with my poles. The adrenaline of this crossing gives me pause- in a few more miles we’ll cross Goddard creek again, further down the drainage. How will the creek be there?

We have lunch under the sequoias and then begin the worst bushwhack I have ever done. Although I realize, as I push as hard as I can at the tangles of plants in order that they might let me through, the thorns on the ceanothus digging into my shins and drawing blood, that up to this point I have done very little in my life that would qualify as “bushwhacking”- where one must literally push the bushes aside with a good amount of force, and where one wishes one had a machete with which to “whack” them. People often refer to cross-country, or not being on a trail, as bushwhacking, but really it hardly ever is. Referring to all cross-country as bushwhacking is a mistake, as it creates a sort of inflation, and the world bushwhacking loses its true meaning. And then one day you will find yourself forcing your way through the thornbushes and manzanita, exhausted an exasperated, blood running down your legs, and you will have no words left to use.

I aint mad at this plant

We have around four hours of this. Occasionally there are bits of bear trail, but they are comical in their unpredictability, they way they lead us safely through one clump of bushes for ten feet but then dead-end in a nice sleeping spot, say, or at the river. Then it’s back into the bushes that tear at us and our packs and pull off our hats and attempt to drive us insane. All of this is a lesson in non-attachment, of letting go of desires. “All suffering is temporary, all suffering is temporary,” I repeat to myself. And, actually, we’re having fun- we’re laughing and shouting at each other as we make our way through the bushes, delirious with endorphins. This is such exquisite primo type-2 fun, these sadistic fucking bushes and the unhelpful animal trails, if you could put this experience in a bottle I imagine there are people who would buy it. At one point we scramble down to the creek in order to cross it before it drops into a gorge (we’ve been descending all day, remember, on these talus fields and through the bushes- six thousand feet!) but the water is too strong for me to safely cross, even with Kodak’s help- he makes his way across but I am stuck in the middle, unable to go any further, so he puts his pack on the other side and comes back for me, but even then I feel my feet lift off the rocks and for a moment I am suspended in time, and the only thing keeping me upright in the raging creek is his hands on my shoulders- “Take a step! Take a step!” he shouts, and I do, and I am able to work my way backwards, towards the other, more mellow bank- and Kodak must cross the too-fast part of the creek AGAIN, to get his pack, and then once more, to return to the original bank- we scramble back up the slope into the bushes and spend an hour looking for a safer place to cross- only in this hour there are no animal trails, there is only solid, unbroken thornbushes, and I don’t even try to protect myself anymore, I don’t even care- “I’ve transcended pain!” I shout, laughing, as I walk directly into them, no longer trying to weave or evade- “Pain is pleasure!” we’re laughing so hard. The blood that’s been running down my legs is attempting to clot, but the bushes keep ripping off the scabs. In the notes for this section Skurka literally says “There is no good way to do this” and we begin to refer to the Goddard drainage as “Skurka’s little game.” Like, you know Skurka came through here, you know he could put a line on the map showing the game trails he found, or where he crossed the creek, or whatever, but he didn’t. Instead, according to the notes, “the animals will show you the way.” This, we decide, is all part of Skurka’s little game.

“Don’t put that on the animals,” I say, laughing, as we continue to fight our way through the brush. “It’s your route, you’re supposed to show us the way!” Then we see a large black bear ahead of us, standing on a boulder like an island in the sea of brush. She’s swaying back and forth, trying to catch our scent. A bear! It’s a sign! We’re going to make it through! She has a little cub with her, and the cub scrambles up and down the sides of the boulder. We stand for a long time, watching. Kodak takes a bunch of pictures with his fancy camera. Kodak carries six pounds of camera gear, in a case on his chest. He is always taking out his camera and changing lenses- on snowfields, during stream crossings, while bushwhacking, in the rain. I’m impressed with his dedication to his photos. It’s inspiring. And it’s awesome to see what kinds of shots he can get in situations like this, with his real camera and the bear.

We find a slightly better spot to cross Goddard creek and I finally make it across, by gosh, with lots of help from Kodak. It’s so wild that because of the difference in our body weights he is able to cross alone, while I am lifted off my feet by the water in the very same spot. If I was out here solo I suppose it would just take me longer to find a spot to cross safely, but still, I am glad he is here. With Kodak, this day is type two fun. We can’t stop laughing. If I were by myself, it would likely be edging into type 3.

We’re on the other side of the gorge now and by and by we’ve descended far enough through the brush that the vegetation begins to change- oak trees appear, and dry yellow grass full of seed pods that stick in our socks, and we know our bushwhack is coming to an end. Then a use trail appears through the grass and we’re racing down the last slope in the dust at full speed, down down to the middle fork of the Kings river. There is the euphoria that comes in the absence of pain. I splash out into the water- it feels cool and soothing on my beat up legs. The river comes up to my waist, but it is wide and slow and if I fell I’d only go for a swim and anyway, Kodak helps steady me across. Then real trail appears- we’d meant to camp right at the river but the Real Trail seduces us and we walk it into dusk, to a large campsite where some older men sit around a fire that flickers in the dark. We sit on stumps and cook our dinners and talk with the men- they’re from England and come to the sierras once a year, and are out, this time, for fourteen days.

“Where did you come from?” They ask us. “Up the Middle Fork?”
“No,” we say. “The Goddard drainage.”
“Oh!” says one of them, his eyes coming alive. He inspects us more closely. “That’s quite the route. How did you get across the Middle Fork, then?”
“We forded it,” we say. “Just now.”
“Oh!” says the man, again. “There’s a trail crew camped nearby. They’ve been fording it with a rope.”

And then it’s time for bed. As I drift off I think of our crossing of the Goddard just above the gorge, and that moment when I was lifted off my feet, and how if I would’ve fallen I would’ve gone over the gorge, and how I probably would’ve died. I shudder a little in my sleeping bag. What does it mean, that I am not dead? What does it mean that, each day, I continue to not be dead?

KCHBR day three: it never really doesn’t go

8/27
7 miles
35 miles hiked total

I wake off and on all night, my dreams mixing with the milky way spinning above me until it’s dawn, and I’m heating water for tea and smacking my frozen shoes against each other in an effort to loosen them.

morning

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Kodak’s cute trail pourover

Our first project this morning is to traverse around a lake whose edge, most years, would be talus, but this year there’s a very tall snowfield encircling the lake, and this snowfield angles steeply up from the ice-rimmed deep blue water to some cliffs way above. Yesterday, in the afternoon, the snow was soft and sticky and easy to traverse- now, in the morning, it is frozen and very slick. We have one set of microspikes between us, so one microspike each. A fall on this snowfield would mean a fast bumpy slide into an ice-cold, partially frozen lake. Oh boy. Here goes.

Type one fun is fun that is enjoyable in the moment. Type two fun is fun that is enjoyable in retrospect, when one is telling a story. Type three fun is never enjoyable, not even in retrospect. (“So why,” a friend once asked, “is type three fun even on the fun scale?” I don’t know the answer to that question.)

Crossing this sketchy steep snowfield towards some cliffs with only one microspike is definitely type two fun. I take a step forward with my microspike foot- so solid! Much secure! Magic ice-gripping feet! Feels amazing! Once this foot is planted, I stab my trekking poles a few centimeters into the icy crust. Then, I must take a step with my non-microspike foot. So slippy! Sticks to nothing! Glances right off the surface of the earth! Below me, the snowfield angles away, towards the cold ice-lake. I kick and kick and kick with my spikeless trail runner, until I have a small step, a few inches wide. I shift my weight onto this non-microspike foot. My whole body tenses, as I lift my spike-foot from the steep icy crust and take another step. Relief, as my spike-foot comes down and sticks back into the slope.

Above me, Kodak is having his own slow struggle with his one microspike. We chose our own lines across the snow, and he’s aiming for the cliff a bit above where I’m headed. He reaches his cliff sooner than I reach mine, but between the snow and his cliff is a gapping crevasse- the dark nothing where the edge of the snowbank has melted away from the rock. He must walk to the edge of the snow here, in order to pull himself up onto the cliff. I can see his crevasse, from my position below. If he breaks through, he’ll fall at least thirty feet, onto the rock.

“Holy shit, holy shit,” I hear him say- his foot goes through the snow, but he does not- and then he’s on the rock, and safe. What relief! My line across the snow does not have a crevasse, but it does have its own problem- the snowfield becomes steeper just below the cliff and then I’m stuck, the snow is too steep and I’m unable to move forward with my one microspike without falling. Kodak downclimbs the cliff until he’s just above me. He then removes the guylines from his tarp, ties them together to make one long cord, and tosses me the second microspike on the end of this line. I put the microspike on, and a minute later I’m scrambling onto the rock next to Kodak. Success!

photo by Kodak

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we crossed this snowfield!

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safe

Now we’re squatting on a narrow ledge on a cliff, and we must ease our way up its cracks (that’s what she said, ha ha) in order to find our way over, around, in order to see our next obstacle, to size it up, to move forward on this wild slow journey we’re on. We do this, despacito, like the pop song- handing up our packs, finding handholds and footholds, hoisting ourself upwards into space. This is fun. This reminds me of the Hayduke. With each new landing spot on the rock, a new cliff appears, and yet when we poke around it always goes, we are never actually cliffed out, although it seems, again and again, as though we will be. This will become the theme of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, for me. For the Hayduke, my motto was “There’s Never Really Not Water.” For the KCHBR, it’s fast becoming “It Never Really Doesn’t Go.”

It goes, and soon we reach some “slabs” which is when the ground is made of sticky wonderful granite sloping downwards and broken with tufts of flowers and the tread on one’s shoes attach magically to this granite, even at an impossible-seeming angle, and one becomes a gecko and the world is a jungle gym. This reminds me of the slickrock on the Hayduke, and I am so happy.

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Kodak is happy too. This hike is FUN. No matter how slow our morning has been, with the one microspike each and the cliff. Now we’re dropping from slab to slab like super mario brothers and presently there are waterfalls and knee-high wildflowers and we’re crushing them beneath our feet and their mint-lime smell is all over us, and then we’re side-hilling on a steep scree slope down, down to a lake ringed in pines and gentle grass where I jump in the water to rinse off the fear from the morning and we hang our bug nets to keep off the feasting mosquitos while we eat lunch and I almost fall asleep in the sheltered space under the clouded midday sun with my hat over my eyes after consuming a great quantity of salami.

the kingdom of the tigerlilies

Afternoon finds us weaving our way through the open forest at what feels like lightning speed but is probably just under 2mph. One hour of this gentle walking and then begins our descent down the Goddard Drainage, where we will drop six thousand feet in fourteen miles, one steeply-angled, quartz-infused, slippy talus field at a time. Cliffs, cliffs, everything looks like a cliff until you are right on top of it and then it goes, it always goes. Unlike the Hayduke, there is no line on the map telling us exactly where to drop down these steep rock ledges. We must make our own lines, find the grassy fissures ourselves, the places where the animals get through. Does it go? It always goes. We lose hours in this slow careful work, this making one’s way down the crumbled bits of cliff and rock.

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the Goddard drainage

At 7pm we have gone just seven miles but I feel as though I have traveled through galaxies of talus and there is a perfect campsite on a high shelf that overlooks a waterfall and Kodak pitches his flat tarp over our cowboy camp, again, and we make our dinner noodles and watch the light fade and the wind comes up just as the stars come out, and we sleep.

KCHBR day two: Ionian Basin

8/26/17
14 miles
28 miles hiked total

A mile after breaking camp in the morning we’re on the JMT headed north towards Muir Pass. The beautiful John Muir Trail, with its multitudes of hikers, struggling under the weight of their packs in this high thin air. There is water everywhere- this is the biggest snow year in the sierras in 20 years (don’t quote me on that) and there’s still snow chunks on the north sides of the high rocky passes, the water is still seeping, trickling, the small trickles running down the trail, joining together looking for a river in which to rage. The streams are raging! We’ve got a bunch of stream crossings on this route, and a few of them can, according to the notes, be sketchy in high water years. We’ll see how that goes…

Hiking steeply up towards Muir pass in the bright sunshine on the wondrous rocky trail in the mushy snow is exhausting. I’m still getting used to being above ten thousand feet! I’m not keeping track of our daily elevation gain and loss on this route, but just know that it is A Lot- per Andrew Skurka, this route has seven thousand feet of elevation change (gain and/or loss) for every ten miles. This is a very large amount. So, we will always be going either steeply up or steeply down. Hold that in your mind, if you will.

We reach Helen Lake just below Muir Pass in time for lunch and sit on a patch of damp alpine meadow next to the cold water eating every possible thing. I’m so hungry! This steep trail and the high air makes me hungry. Have I brought enough food for this stretch of trail, the 68 miles to Roads End, where there is supposedly a small cafe and store? How long will 68 miles even take us? How slow will this route become once we leave the JMT and are headed cross-country? We shall see.

Speaking of leaving the JMT and going cross-country, we do so just after Helen Lake, hanging a west onto a snowfield that leads up towards Black Giant Pass, and my heart flutters with excitement. No more trail! Not a line, even, just a smattering of dots! Making our way across the chunked-up earth using only our wits and our two good legs! First off, we’ll be traversing Ionian Basin and then the Goddard Drainage, which is, according to Skurks, the hardest part of the entire KCHBR, although we don’t know that yet. (This section is usually done at the end, but due to the direction and starting point of our loop hike, we’ll be doing it first.) Since we’re starting with the Ionian Basin/Goddard drainage section, I haven’t yet looked at Skurka’s notes for the section before it, since we’ll be doing that section last. If I had, I would’ve seen this warning-

Although I will be glad, in retrospect, that I didn’t see the warning. It’s always good to have as much information as possible on routes such as this one, but anxiously anticipating a hard thing is almost always worse than the actual hard thing, amirite?

Talus. Today’s talus is not the bright sticky granite that is so characteristic of the high sierra but some sort of smoother, more jagged-edged stone that is, according to Skurks, infused with quartz. I do not like this talus. It is slippy, and just brushing against its edges will draw blood. I am already slow on talus, slower than most- leaning on my trekking poles throwing my body weight forward instead of putting the poles away and leaping from boulder to boulder, gazelle like, as my friends do- because I am afraid of falling, because I do not trust my own body, because I cannot let go and trust the tread on my shoes- but on this more slippy talus I am even slower, and time creeps almost to a standstill. No matter, though. We huff and puff our way up to Black Giant pass and the land beyond of austere rock and quiet lakes is so beautiful as to be unreal, and morale is high and I am happy, so happy to be here.

Kodak + talus

We connect the dots on Skurka’s map past tooth lake, then chasm lake, through more talus and watermelon snowfields (watermelon snow is the lovely pink snow created by an algae up here)- the soft afternoon snow is easy to traverse without microspikes which is good, as we only have one set between the two of us. Then there’s a steep drainage we’re meant to climb, a creek roaring down a crack in the earth, and the entire drainage is invisible under a thick (seeming) snowbridge and so we hike up this snowbridge, stamping steps into the watermelon snow laughing in delight as the creek roars beneath us, this is much easier than talus! And there are only a few gnar bits where a hole appears in the snowbridge and we traverse the ford-ranger sized talus to the right, handing up our packs and I fall on a wobbly rock and cut my knee but then we reach a grassy ramp! Which is to say a patch of grass pointed skyward like one might walk to reach heaven, with little flowers unbent in the alpine winds and fat marmots on their rocks flashing their long yellow teeth as they split the quiet with their piercing whistles and then, by god, we are at the top.

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snow bridge

Not the top top, but one of many tops. There’s always gonna be another mountain, as M. Cyrus says. I’m always gonna want to make it move. Always gonna be an uphill battle, sometimes I’m gonna have to lose. Ain’t about how fast I get there, ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the cliiiiiiiiimb…
Etc.

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Skurka has a dot on his maps for the “highest point in the Ionian Basin.” It just so happens that this dot marks one of the most serene campsites I’ve ever seen. A perfectly flat spot amongst the chaos of talus, above a clear tarn ringed in snow. Not a breath of wind, quiet as the beginning of the world. We drop our packs with relief. How can we NOT sleep here, in this church of granite and light. Kodak pitches his massive zpacks flat tarp so it hangs over our cowboy camp and keeps the condensation off, but won’t obstruct the view.

We cook our dinners in awe, almost without speaking. The warm day fades towards gloaming, the gloaming heralds the coming of the cold stars. Presently the milky way is out, singing us to sleep. If this isn’t peak embodiment, I think, as I hang, suspended in the galaxies above, then I don’t know what is.

Kings Canyon High Basin Route day 1: into the unknown

8/25
14 miles

We’re at The Hostel California in Bishop, California, getting our things in order, when two young men wander inside and ask if anyone would be willing to portage some gear twelve miles for them, up and over Bishop pass. They’ll be hauling kayaks up for the Kings River, and won’t be able to carry the thirty pounds of other gear that they need. They’ll pay.

We- Kodak and I- are headed up and over Bishop pass today, en route to the Kings Canyon High Basin Route. The KCHBR is a (normally) 124-mile route through the High Sierra. It’s 80% cross-country and has 7k feet of elevation change per 10 miles. The route has been pieced together by Andrew Skurka (learn more about the route here), and usually begins at Lodgepole and finishes at Roads End. We’re hiking it as a 180-mile loop, going in and out at Bishop pass, connecting Roads End and Lodgepole via trails and using Lodgepole as a resupply midway (we hope- the website certainly makes it seem as though there is a large grocery store there).

It takes us an hour to figure out how to strap the kayakers’ gear onto the outsides of our packs, which are already full with eight days of food. Is this a bad idea? Maybe. But it’s also funny, and a fun way to start our hike. And we’re being paid!

A few weeks ago I was finishing up my southbound hike on the PCT’s Washington section. Now I’m here. I’ve wanted to hike the Kings Canyon High Basin Route since I first heard about it, when Andrew Skurka originally published the guide in 2015. I’ve never done anything cross-country in the high sierra, and this route sounded like the perfect introduction- sort of like the Sierra High Route- wildly challenging, slow, and beautiful- but more mysterious, because not as many people have hiked it. I’d resigned myself to doing the route solo, but then I thought to reach out to Kodak, who I’d met on the PCT in Washington and who I knew was in Cascade Locks, stuck behind the fire closures in Oregon. Kodak seemed like just the hella chill spontaneous weirdo that I would want to hike cross-country for days with, and I was stoked when he said yes! to my invitation. Also, my van, Mark, was in Portland, and he could drive it down, which would both bring my gear to me and provide him with transportation south. It’s nice when things all kind of work out, you know?

We finally get our stuff together and are at the trailhead by noon- the kayakers set out a few hours ago. There’s no parking left at the overnight section of the South Lake parking area, so we park my van 1.5 miles down to the hill, near Parcher’s resort. It’s weird to be leaving my van, with all my most important possessions, at this remote trailhead for, how long? We don’t even know. Will we be able to hike twelve miles of this route a day? Less? Is it going to be one mph terrain, mostly? Two mph? I honestly have no idea. There’s not even a line on our maps, just a bunch of dots. There are only a few sentences of notes telling us how to get from each dot to the next. This is the first time I’ve hiked a route that was just a bunch of dots, a path in the wilderness so conceptually free. What will that be like? I don’t know. We huff and puff as we walk up the road towards the trailhead. We’re nearly at ten thousand feet, and climbing. How long will it take us to acclimate?

The sky drops hail as we hike up the trail to Bishop pass, and everything is so beautiful- the rays of light on the granite peaks around us, the water shining off the rocky trail, the clear lakes, that it makes us laugh- what is this? What is this world that we live in? Seven miles later we reach the pass, a collection of granite slabs and residual snowfields, and catch up to our kayaker friends, who are wearing the boats on their backs, and thus look like brightly colored kayaks with legs bobbing down the trail. It’s great. Everything is great!

Kodak has never been to the high sierras before. He’s out of his mind, already, at the beauty of it, which is making it even more fun for me. He’s also never done a cross-country route. That part will start tomorrow- today is entirely on trail.

light show

Planet earth treats us to an incredible sunset light show as shades of pink drop from the last of the clouds onto the hazy granite peaks and we reach our campsite, a sweet flat spot in the trees alongside the tight switchbacks down to LeConte Ranger station, after dark. We happily shuck our too-heavy packs, and I remove the kayakers’ dry bag. Tomorrow we’ll be back to regular heavy, with just seven days of food. Relief! I pitch my little shelter against the cold condensation and drift off in my warm fluffy sleeping bag. I get up once to pee, and see some lights on the huge flat slab next to camp. It’s Kodak, taking a long-exposure shot of the milky way. Cool.

I need to get something off my chest/I was rescued off the Hayduke last year

Hello internet. I just finished thru-hiking a 180-mile loop of the Kings Canyon High Basin Route, and it was incredible. I’m working on those blog posts right now. But in the meantime, I’d like to get something off my chest.

I was rescued in a helicopter while hiking the Hayduke trail last year.

I did not skip a single mile of the Hayduke. In fact, the version of the Hayduke that most people hike these days is anywhere from 50 to 100 miles longer than the original route. (Our hike was 850 miles, so 50 miles longer.) Not that there’s anything wrong with skipping miles, or hiking however the frick you want to hike- but just for the record, I didn’t skip. I was, however, rescued in a helicopter.

You can read about my fever and need for rescue on the Hayduke here, here and here. I’d come down with a fever the night before, and in the morning I was super sick- delirious and weak. I could barely walk. At the time, my chronic illness (which has since been resolved with fecal transplants), was just beginning to make itself known, and I would occasionally get these random flu-like fevers after intense physical exertion. The day I woke up sick on the Hayduke, we were in the middle of a long waterless stretch, so we couldn’t just take a day off on trail. My hiking partner/wonderful human/boyf at the time, Dan, wanted to press the button on his PLB, but I said no.

“Helicopters are for when a boulder falls on your leg, and you have to saw it off with your swiss army knife,” I said.

A few miles back, we’d crossed a rough dirt road where Dan had had reception, so we walked there. We were near a random tentacle of lake Powell, and 28 miles down this rough dirt road was the highway. We would’ve hitched, but we’d walked on this dirt road for hours the day before, and there was no traffic. As far as we knew, it could be days, or longer, before a car drove down this road. Once we reached the road, I curled up in my sleeping bag in the shade of a rock outcropping and lay there, shivering, while Dan called search and rescue- they said they’d send someone out, and we assumed they meant they’d send someone on the road, in a truck. Forty-five minutes later, we heard the sound of the helicopter blades. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, as there is absolutely no shame in getting rescued, but I was humiliated. There are few things that people will tear you down for more, in the long-distance hiking community, than being rescued in a helicopter. Here I was, sick and unable to hike and with limited water, in very legitimate need of rescue, and all I could feel was embarrassment and frustration. Why hadn’t they come out in a truck?

“I didn’t know y’all were going to send a helicopter,” I said, as the extremely stoked flight nurse bro helped Dan and I into our seats.

“It’s only a four minute flight!” he said, beaming. “And the view of lake Powell is incredible! Get your cameras out!” We told him about the route we were doing. “Hayduke lives!” he shouted, as the blades of the helicopter began to spin.

The view WAS incredible. Lake Powell from the air was so otherwordly that I cried. Or maybe it was the fever? Ha. Four minutes later we touched down at the airport in Page, Arizona. A free airport shuttle took us to our motel, where I collapsed. It was 24 hours before I was able to eat, and a few days before I was ready to hike again. Once I felt well, we went to every outdoors-oriented business in Page until we found a local that, for one hundred dollars, was willing to drive us down that very long, very rough dirt road, back to the exact spot where I was rescued. We did not skip. (Not that there would’ve been anything wrong with skipping, but if we had I would’ve told you, in the blog.)

At the time, I only told a few of my hiker friends about my rescue. I told Drop n Roll, Bubs, and Joey, who were on the Hayduke a few days ahead of us, but who we got to hang out with/cross paths with in town a number of times. I told other friends, later, in person. Some stories are better in person anyway- especially because I love impersonating the super-stoked flight nurse bro and his boundless enthusiasm. On my blog, instead of writing about the rescue, I said that we’d hitch-hiked into town. I did this not because I was ashamed- I’d gotten over that once I was in Page, safe in my motel room, feverish in bed- but because I knew that once word got out about my helicopter rescue, I would be bullied and trashed for it within the long-distance hiking community, and I wanted to delay the inevitable. I also felt that, really, it was none of anyone’s business that I was rescued, and the internet was not entitled to judge my decisions, as the internet loves to do, especially when it comes to the people being rescued in the outdoors. And- I hate putting this into words because I would rather focus on the more positive aspects of long-distance hiking and all of the wonderful dear friends I’ve made over the years- but there are some really, really bad apples in the long distance hiking community. There, I said it. There are people who live to bully, troll, and destroy the reputations of others, because of their own guilt/insecurities/I don’t even fucking know/can’t think about it too much or it will surely drive me insane. These are people who would be driven out of many other communities for their shady ways, but simply because they’ve walked a lot of miles, they are held up as heros. Luckily, there are thousands of people in the long distance hiking community, and SO MANY of them are wonderful. But trolls are gonna troll, and I wanted to protect myself, for as long as I could.

The word that I’d been rescued did eventually get out into the larger community, and I was bullied online by two of these awful people, who started a public thread on facebook saying that I was a “fake hiker” because I’d been rescued off the Hayduke, and that I needed to be called out for it. Ever since then, gossip about how I’m a “fake hiker” has been making its way back to me. For the record- I skipped 50 miles of the PCT each year I hiked it. I skipped 100 miles of the CDT when I hiked that trail. I write about all these skips when they happen in my blog posts for those trails. We each make our own “rules” about what thru-hiking is, and I feel that as long as you’re true to yourself, who really gives a fuck. My rule for myself is that if I skip, I write about it in my blog post for that day. And I do my best to skip as little as possible. For the CDT, I allowed myself to skip 50 miles of paved roadwalking, because fuck that, and then I skipped 50 miles to catch up with my friends after I had giardia. Am I a “fake hiker”? No, I’m fucking not. I’m tough and awesome. And neither is anyone else who hikes. Long-distance hiking is really hard, in all sorts of different ways for different people, and calling people “fake hikers” is elitist bullshit at its worst. And it’s not that hard to ignore the gossip that comes back to me, because none of it is coming from people who I respect. And I can only imagine how pathetic these people look, ranting on and on about how I’m a fake hiker, when they could be… hiking? Doing absolutely anything else? My life is awesome and so full of incredible experiences and wonderful kind brilliant honest ethical people who are like shining stars in the dark endless night and I’m so grateful for them I could cry and I’m actually really really happy right now, but I wanted to write this post because-

There is no shame in being rescued.

I legitimately needed rescue, and I’m so so glad that I was. And I’m stoked that I got to see Lake Powell from the air. I hope you never need to be rescued from the wilderness, but if you do, there is absolutely no shame in it. And after you’re rescued, which I hope never happens, you can tell five people, you can tell the whole internet, or you can tell no-one. All of these choices are fine. No-one is entitled to judge the ways you keep yourself safe, and you are welcome to share (or not share) whatever you want. You are allowed to draw the lines where you want them.

Trolls are boring, hiking is awesome.

Be strong, but don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, either, as vulnerability takes the greatest strength of all.

And Lake Powell is really, really beautiful from the air.

PCT SOBO part 5: buttchafe and euphoria

White Pass to Cascade Locks
148 miles
8/5 to 8/11

Day 23

I sleep until 7:30 a.m. in the glorious bed in the old guesthouse and turn on my phone immediately after waking to finish my blog, staring at the tiny screen in the smoky light from the window. Mary Poppins heads out in search of good coffee. By the time I finish three hours later it’s warm already and I walk down into the hazy street and meet Mary Poppins at the pizza place, which serves the only real breakfast in town. After stuffing ourselves we return to the guesthouse and I sit on the porch talking to northbounders who are in various states of demoralization depending on how much of CA and OR they had to skip for snow and fires, respectively, while Mary Poppins does acupuncture on a hiker with a bum knee. After she sticks the needles in him (she carries the needles on trail) he lays sprawled on the grass and I can practically see him drifting away from his body- free, for the moment, from this earthly suffering.

We hitch out in the afternoon and at 3:30 we are on the trail. I’ve got fresh legs and the smoky forest is beautiful with this insane orange light and we’re climbing 2,500 feet. We wend our way through the trees, and at one point I see a young woman in a brightly colored shirt walking towards us, and we stop to chat. She’s a northbounder, hiking solo. Her face is covered in dirt and her pack is filthy. Her name is Alexa. And she’s nineteen. Talking to her buoys me considerably- nineteen and thru-hiking already, not afraid of anything! If she’s thru-hiking already, I think, there’s nothing that she won’t be able to do.

We reach our campsite after 11.5 miles and find it completely full of tents- we’re in this insane bubble of northbounders right now, as well as edging into Goat Rocks wilderness, which is popular with just about everyone. We find flattish corners for our wee shelters and drift off to the sound of other hikers snoring- or wait, was that me? I didn’t realize I was asleep…

Day 24

I wake too early at the very first hint of light. I forget how this happens on trail sometimes, I’m just so excited to get up and walk that I can’t sleep. We’ve got a long climb up into Goat Rocks this morning, with a total of 5,848 feet of elevation gain for the day. If you haven’t been to Goat Rocks, it’s basically a bunch of high narrow ridges with alpine meadows and cute snow patches and views in every direction. Normally you can see Mt. Rainier on the climb, but today it’s obscured in smoke. We heave our way up out of the forest and into the meadows all trickling with snowmelt, and we use our imaginations to place Ranier on the horizon where it should go. “Like a melted icecream cone,” as a woman in Packwood described it. We joke that the view from Goat Rocks is so dang incredible that it must always be at least partially obscured by smoke or rain, otherwise the beauty would kill you.

This is actually my fourth time hiking this section of the PCT in Washington, from White Pass to Cascade Locks. I southbounded it with my friend Jess in 2014, after finishing my northbound thru-hike. For this reason I worried that I might be bored this time around. But I’m not. Boy howdy, I sure am not.

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The Old Snowy summit is a short scramble off the Old Snowy alternate of the PCT in Goat Rocks. I’ve never done this alternate before, and Mary Poppins and I leave the trail and happily work our way up the bright warm rocks, hand over hand, the talus clinking under our feet like breaking glass. Soon we’re on a summit, a real mountain summit! A big stack of rocks with views in every direction, albeit smoky ones! I feel elated. This is such a break from the grind of the PCT, where the only way to quantify a day is in the number of miles you’ve hiked. I miss this, this intimacy with the earth that one gets while traveling cross-country. Touching boulders, grass, dirt, slopes, scree, blowdowns with your hands, your cool mammalian ankles going all-terrain as you adjust, with each step, to the infinite angles and textures of the surfaces in the natural world. Crawling like an ant over something that is not, and never will be, flat. Something too convoluted to be measured, too wild to be quantified.

We take a long break on the summit, eat our lunches and make tea. Down below we can see tiny hikers on a snowfield, hazy nested ridges, a wee jewel-colored tarn. It’s really fun to hike with Mary Poppins. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about her, so far:
-She northbounded the PCT last year

-She likes smoked salmon, chocolate croissants, and good espresso

-She has a second-degree black belt in taekwondo

-She drinks like a third of the water that I do while hiking

We’re sun-roasted by the time we get down to the snowfield where we saw the tiny people and rejoin the PCT superhighway. There are heaps and heaps of dayhikers and weekend backpackers out, as Goat Rocks is a very popular place. I understand why. Cute mountains, cute flowers, cute water to drink. A couple of cute waterfalls and then we’re over Cispus pass, and we drop back down into the cool shady forest. We roll up on our cute campsite for the night and it’s already full of cute tents. But they’re nice, and they let us squeeze in. 24 miles today.

Day 25

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The night is loud with stick-breakers and scurrying things and the moon is full and I can’t sleep. In the morning I’m hiking tired eating sweet-sour huckleberries in mosquito hell sweating like crazy in the humidity. We have lunch at Lava Spring, which I would vote as one of the top 5 coolest water sources on the PCT. A big stack of grey lava rocks, almost a whole hillside of them, and the coldest best most delicious water pouring out from between the rocks, all day and all night, forever and ever, irrespective of what might be going on elsewhere in the world.

“Isn’t it wild,” I say to Mary Poppins, “That not only will we one day die, but eventually enough time will pass that no-one will remember that we ever even existed at all?” This idea has been tripping me out lately. Basically, in the grand scheme of things, one day it will be like I never even happened, and this concept is incredibly freeing. I mean, why give any fucks? Seriously what are the reasons to give fucks, in the face of this. I cannot think of a single one.

We contour around Mount Adams, in and out of a million lava rock wildflower drainages with streams heavy with glacial flour, and then are released into the most beautiful burn in the world. The smoky yellow sun sets on the fireweed making it all aglow and the dead trees rustle with the sounds of insects. There is a spring that explodes from the ground and a bucket on yellow twine that must be dropped into the spring and the water is the coldest thing imaginable. In the last mile of the day I feel something wet in my sock- a blister that’s been building under the pad of my foot has exploded. So it goes. We set up our tents on a bare patch of ash and watch the full moon rise through the blackened snags. Infinite peace, infinite quiet. 28 miles today. We sleep.

Day 26
The full moon is like daylight and still I don’t sleep good. Fucccccc. It’s three miles to the highway to Trout Lake, and one bar gets me there. Gary the kind generous amazing trail angel picks us up in his truck and drives us into town, where it’s smoky and blazing hot. We spend seven hours in the two-block town of Trout Lake, and here are the things that I eat in that time:

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-A large breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns and gluten-free toast.

-A huckleberry shake.

-A burger on a gluten-free bun with sweet potato fries.

-A large green salad.

-An icecream bar.

I also pay $4 for a 10 minute shower at the campground and manage to wash my clothes with shampoo in that time as well. Not that they’re clean now, but at least they smell like shampoo, as well as sweat. I get my period. Hallefuckinleujah! Maybe now I’ll sleep.

Gary drives us back to the trail at 5:30 and we’ve immediately got a long uphill climb in the heat and I’ve definitely eaten too much and feel, unfortunately, as though I’m going to vomit. I guess I forgot this lesson… no matter HOW much your hiker hunger tells you to eat, if you have to hike afterwards, you must cut yourself off before you make yourself as stuffed as I am right now. Or else.

The ELSE is pretty rough. I visualize watermelon, which is something I discovered in 2013 when I was sick from the altitude in the Sierras. Imagining watermelon is the only thing I’ve found that helps with nausea while hiking. As long as I fix a slice of watermelon in my mind and repetitively focus on every aspect of it, my thoughts will not wander back to all the greasy salty food I ate (plus icecream!) and the party it’s having in my bloated stomach. I ponder the sensation of nausea, as I sweat my way uphill attempting not to hurl. What IS nausea. Is it a kind of pain? Is it an emotion? Is it a sort of longing? There’s nothing else like it, that’s for sure. The Moment When The Food I’ve Consumed Becomes My Enemy. The Intolerable Longing To Vomit: A Trout Lake Story.

Watermelon! Cold cold cold watermelon! Not too cold though. Too cold watermelon is somehow nauseating. Also not too sweet. Just a little sweet. Mostly water, and that delightful cellulose texture.

I catch up to Mary Poppins just as a lil black bear, quick like a panther, sprints across the hillside in front of us. So afeared! Poor lil guy. Humans really are the most dangerous animals in the woods.

We camp at Steamboat lake after eleven miles, which is a quarter mile off trail and not full of a thousand tents, thank god. Dang the trail is crowded this section. I put myself to bed without dinner- I’m still so full that I’m fairly certain I’ll never want to eat again. Why did I even bother to pack food? All foods, except for watermelon, are inherently revolting.

Day 27

Tonight, instead of stick-breaking, there is splashing in the lake. Lots, and lots, of splashing in the lake. I wonder what, exactly, is going on. Full-moon swim for all of the forest creatures? Eventually though I am sleeping deeply and I sleep in next to the lake and don’t start hiking until 8:06. 

Morning blister care

Unlucky number 8! No matter tho. This is the warmest softest most loving dappled forest in recent memory and I am walking through it all day as if floating, floating through a magical land far away from human civilization, nevermind the illusion of it all. The forest is real, the forest is out there. Always remember, never forget.

We stop for lunch and swimming at Bear Lake with its deep deep turquoise waters so clear I can see the logs tangles like shipwrecks at the bottom.

In the afternoon I am flying along a ridge above the smoke, high out of my mind on endorphins from the climb up, passing scads of nobos and then down down into a forest like a steambath and the smell of petrichor- did it rain? The trail hugs the edge of the forest beyond which stretch mounded lava fields with their labrynthine caves to a piped spring that I remember from 2014. My butt chafe is getting bad- I’m the only hiker who wears pads on their period, I know, and then this humidity and I’m soaked to the skin in my own sweat and pretty much guaranteed to be on the fast train to buttchafe town. As long as I keep walking, though, it gets kind of numb. It only becomes really painful bothersome when I stop.

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The end of the day finds Mary Poppins and I switchbacking up through the tall doug-firs that shatter the golden sunset light and the Hurray for the Riffraff song Forever is Just a Day comes on my phone and it’s all so beautiful that I could weep. We roll into camp amongst the large still trees to find eleventy billion northbounder tents but we acquire a corner for ourselves and I make too much dinner and sweat eating it in the dark sitting naked on top of my sleeping bag waiting for the night to cool. 28 miles today.

Day 28

I never even get in my sleeping bag, that’s how warm it is. This morning is the longest descent, all the way down to Panther Creek at 800 feet of elevation. So close to sea level! The forest grows lusher as we drop, the trees larger. The air smells of warm western redcedar. I love this part of the Washington PCT, especially the stretch between Panther Creek and Cascade Locks. Nowhere else on the PCT do you get to linger as long in low-elevation temperate rainforest, climbing in and out of it and wending through it for miles and miles, absorbing all the good juju of the hemlocks and doug-firs, the big-leaf maples with their jackets of moss. Salal appears, and I eat a few mealy dark berries. I like them, although I don’t think they are popular, generally. Then Oregon Grape. I bite one of those berries and then spit it out, for the bitter tang of berberine. I eat a citrusy leaf of oxalis, pretending I have to keep scurvy at bay. The heat intensifies as the trail drops, and my butt chafe with it. Devil’s club crowds the understory.

It’s 95 degrees when we stop to have lunch at Trout Creek which has, incredibly, a really nice swimming hole beneath the footbridge- deep and slow and cold, but not so cold that it makes you cry. 

Bless

I get in the water in all my clothes and then lay there for a long time, letting the cool water bring my body back to balance. It is a mistake, however, to get my clothes wet. Because next we’ve got a 4k foot climb in the humid heat, and so I stay soaked to the skin until camp. And in this manner I develop the most painful butt chafe I have ever had in my life, really just a set of weeping sores known colloquially as “clown mouth”. I pull the pad out of my underwear and freebleed while walking, simultaneously holding my buttcheeks apart, all in an effort to allow things to dry and ease the excruciating pain. I pretend, not for the first time on a trail, that I’m in that scene in Fight Club where Brad Putt pours the acid on his hand and he has to see how much pain he can endure. Realtalk, people. Thinking of hiking the PCT? Don’t do it. Long-distance hiking is almost nonstop suffering, and you’ll hate it. If you enjoy your regular indoor-cat life even just a bit, you’ll hate it. I promise. On the other hand, if you like your euphoria in 10 to 40 minute increments between 5-10 hr stretches of physical deprivation, you might just take to it.

We drop back down and camp in the warm humid low-elevation mossjungle next to a creek and I pitch my bug net just-so beneath the devils club. 26 miles today. I do the full buttchafe care routine- soap and water (away from the stream), dry everything, vaseline, sleep with no pants on. I take my 40-minute euphoria ration post-dinner and before I fall asleep, laying on my sleeping pad where I am exactly perfectly comfortable, staring up at the bigleaf maples hung with lichen thinking about how good life can be.

Day 29

21 miles to Cascade Locks today. One last long climb in the heat (my extended routine seems to have helped- much less chafe pain today!) and then we are dropping, more or less, with some up-down thrown in for variety, all the way to the Columbia River, aka the Oregon/Washington border, and sea level. The trail contours around ridges, third growth and old growth and cleacuts, one and then the other, and then down into dead yellow grass and then lush lush forest all running with water. I have exactly enough snacks to arrive kind of hungry, and I dream about the burger I’m going to eat. The trail intersects a dirt road, and suddenly there is an entire wall of himalayan blackberries growing ripe in the sun! I eat and eat, taking a 10 minute euphoria break getting lost in the sensual tactile experience of extracting the very ripest berries from the tangle of brambles, my hands spotted with purple juice and blood, feeling the weight of the fruit in my hands and the way they explode on my tongue, so sweet it’s almost unappealing. Did I tell you that invasive himalayan blackberries are my favorite fruit.

The Bridge of the Gods will never appear and then, it does. Mary Poppins and I walk across it in the wind trying not to get mowed down by RVs or blown into the river that writhes beneath the metal grate and then we are in cascade locks.

Washington. I did it.

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We go to the restaurant that looks out at the water and I order a GF burger and fries and the all you can eat salad bar.

I did it. It is done.

My health is good. My feet don’t hurt. I’m getting stronger. I thought for a moment of continuing on into Oregon on the PCT but… there are fire closures. And now that I know I can hike again I kind of want to do something I haven’t hiked yet, crazy as that sounds.

So… to be continued!