No Sunrises/No Sunsets: A week in Gates of the Arctic National Park

I get a text from my friend Tara, who lives in Alaska but is in the lower 48 for the week.
“Are you on the side of the highway outside Anchorage right now, hitching?”

I look up from my phone, at the vehicles speeding past. The wind blows my hat off of my head, and I grab it. 

“Yeah,” I say.

“My girlfriend just passed you,” says Tara. 

Shortly after I am climbing into Crystal’s car, the girlfriend, who just happens to be heading to Fairbanks and recognized me from facebook, although we’ve never met. I’d been facing at least a day and a half of hitching, but it seems that serendipity is on my side. Thank you, Crystal! Alaska, so far, is a very serendipitous place.

I’m headed north from Anchorage to the Brooks Range, which is a place I’ve never been. The Brooks Range stretches from Canada’s Yukon Territory to the Chukchi sea, all the way across the Alaskan arctic. There are no trails there, and just one road- the Dalton Highway, which crosses the range en route to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.

I want to hike for a week in the Brooks Range. In Gates of the Arctic National Park, specifically, which butts up against the Dalton Highway- otherwise I’d have to be flown in, via tiny airplane. The Alaskan Arctic is wilderness, and has always been wilderness- there are grizzly bears, wolves, caribou herds (in their seasons), and the highest concentration of mosquitoes on earth. I can barely conceptualize the Brooks range, having only seen photos and done a modicum of research, and I only have a week to hike there. So I’m starting from the road- it’s the safest choice, should I have to turn around, and the most economical one.    

There’s a young Yupik woman in the car with us, Lena, and her one-and-a-half year old baby. And a dog. I sit in the backseat with my pack on my lap and feed the baby grapes as we trundle north in the bright evening sunshine and Crystal regales me with the long history of serial killers in Alaska. Soon I am even more grateful for the ride. The baby pops each grape into his mouth whole, and then mashes it with his gums. Grapes! What joy!

A few hours later we are in Trapper Creek, a small cluster of buildings on the roadside. Crystal grew up in Trapper Creek, and she introduces me to her cousin, nephew, sister-in-law, uncle and brother, all of whom are either working in the small café/store with its racks of dusty sundries or arrive on business while we are there. 

“I have fifteen siblings,” says Crystal. We watch stormclouds curdle above the Alaska range, which we’ve been following on our drive north. The dog makes a loping circle around the building and returns, sitting watchfully on the step. The baby has a bright plastic watergun, which makes him very pleased. I ask Lena what sorts of subsistence foods she likes best in her village. 

“The herring lay eggs on seaweed,” she says. “We gather the egg-covered seaweed and eat it with seal oil and salt.” 

My trip to Alaska did not start out with such serendipity. I missed my flight from Seattle- I remembered it on the wrong day, although I swear I checked the itinerary at least half a dozen times on the drive from Montana. My friend Elizabeth, who lives outside Seattle on the Kitsap peninsula, came to the rescue- she met me at the ferry, where I was crying in frustration, drenched in sweat after a day spent driving around in the heat, running errands and packing my bike, unaware, until it was an hour too late, that I was supposed to be at the airport that day. Elizabeth took me to the cool, comfortable house where she lives with her mother, girlfriend and aunt, and they fed me tri-tip and roasted broccoli, which was like manna from the gods after weeks of my van diet- vegetables and hummus and canned chili, mostly, no cooking. Elizabeth, in her incredible generosity, offered to let me park my van in the shady gravel drive alongside her house while I was in Alaska, next to the green explosion of the vegetable garden. I called the airline and paid $130 to bump my ticket forward, and a few days later I was finally on a plane.

The baby is hungry again, so I feed him ritz crackers. He sucks down a bottle of milk. We read a book that has no words. To our left is Denali, nestled amongst its neighbor peaks, snagging the clouds. Below the mountains the boreal forest, ever humble, clings to the earth. Boreal forest: black spruce, white spruce, alder, birch, and cottonwood. Wild roses and vaccinium. Swamp and mosquitoes. The clouds flame orange with the sunset, which will not turn to night but instead, in about four hours, pale slowly back into dawn. Lena’s small wrists are on the steering wheel, wisps of hair falling down over her face. Crystal passes her a redbull, and cracks one for herself. We’re going to make it to Fairbanks!

Midnight on the parks highway

It wasn’t easy to find information about how to plan a hiking route in Gates of the Arctic. Alaska is still the kind of place where the best way to learn about an area or how something is done is to find someone in physical reality and talk to them about it, one on one. I was in Montana, though, when I got a wild hair to do this trip, and without a whole lot of time to plan. In my search I discovered the website of a super-hiker by the name of Buck/Bruce Nelson (http://bucktrack.com), who traversed the entire Brooks Range in one summer. He also helped Andrew Skurka plan the Brooks Range portion of his epic Alaska loop. Buck has a cool new book, Alone in the Fortress of the Bears, which I immediately bought for my kindle. I emailed him my phone number, and an hour later my phone rang. Buck was calling me from the middle of a river.

“I’m paddling across the country,” said Buck, “Following the route that Lewis and Clark took, so I might lose reception.” Buck answered the long list of questions I’d written in my journal- how do I plan a route? (If you stay close to the Continental Divide [the northern most portion of which stretches across the top of Alaska, forming the spine of the Brooks Range] the rivers will be small and crossable on foot), how many miles can I walk each day? (Buck can comfortably cover roughly ten air miles per day), what do I do about grizzlies? (it’s so open you see them from a ways away, carry a bear can, they’ll likely run away when they smell you, but if one should charge then bearspray works), etc. He couldn’t tell me where, exactly, to walk, as sharing of routes in the Arctic is discouraged- a number of people walking the same route through the tundra can damage it for a long time. But he could coach me in how to create a route of my own, and talking to Buck put me at ease. The Alaskan artic wasn’t a scary, foreign planet, unwalkable and full of inconceivable terrors- it was just as knowable as anything. Thanks Buck! After talking to Buck I messaged my friend Laura, who I met on the PCT in 2013 (she was Scout/Rafiki then), and who lives in Fairbanks. Her husband, Scott, is a ranger in Gates of the Arctic, and she ran my plan by him. “Scott thinks that’s doable,” she messaged me back, and I felt even more relieved. Ok! 

It’s two a.m. when Lena drops me off at my friends Allison and AK’s house in Fairbanks, where I’ll be staying while I’m here. They’re asleep but they’ve left the key under the doormat for me, and I fumble with the lock and tiptoe into the guest room, where a gloriously comfortable bed is waiting for me. Still, I cannot sleep- the pale light of this strange hour filters through the birch forest outside the big windows and hangs in the air around me, illuminating and obscuring the furniture, the walls, my pile of inanimate objects on the floor. Oh, alien light! Why won’t you rest. What is a world without night. I remember my childhood summers in the low-income apartment complexes of Anchorage, where the throngs of children were turned out by their harried single mothers in the morning and not let back indoors until dark. After the long starlit winter we were drunk on the light- we had no money and our toys were precious and busted and we gave no fucks at all. We built forts, climbed trees, swam in frigid bodies of water, shoplifted candy and set things on fire. Now, as an adult, being in Anchorage is a total mind-fuck for me. The days I spent there this time around, running errands and gathering supplies for my trip, were a bit of a bummer. Anchorage is an ugly, if necessary little city, built in the seventies in the cheapest, most hurried way, and seems to grow uglier with time. Busted stripmalls and decaying neighborhoods, the constant roar of traffic, trash blowing in the gutters. To ride a bicycle there is to fear for one’s life. (It sounds like I’m exaggerating, and I know that lots of great people live in Anchorage, and it’s a utilitarian center that provides important resources to an otherwise very rural state, but it really is an ugly town!)

The real reason being in Anchorage is such a mind-fuck for me, tho, is that both my parents are there, and I have no relationship with either of them. My schizophrenic mother, who I haven’t seen in nineteen years, in some sort of halfway house for the homeless mentally ill, maybe. Or- where? Is my mother even still alive? As I made my way around the city I peered at the homeless people clustered in the grassy parks, or asleep on cardboard with their objects arranged around them. I wouldn’t know how to find her, and I don’t think I would want to. My mother was physically abusive, and provided neither food nor nurturing. My brother and I raised ourselves. We’re lucky we survived. The last time I talked to my mother on the phone, maybe eight years ago, she told me I should’ve died when I was a baby. She wasn’t a parent, a mother. I don’t actually have a mother, nor do I owe her anything. But still, as I rode my bike around Anchorage I looked for her, in the faces of the homeless people. And I felt sad for her, for them.

And my father, in his expensive condo, not two miles from where we lived in poverty. He never paid child support, and growing up I thought him dead, or in prison, or something, anything that would grant him absolution. Anything that would explain his absence when we went days without eating, when we were so malnourished we had leg cramps that kept us up at night. I was shocked when I looked him up, at age twenty, and found him there, just down the road, comfortable and smug. He was not stoked when I knocked on his door that summer- it was a terrible inconvenience that I was still alive. Couldn’t I just disappear again, into the ether? And so I did. As much as I have forgiven my mother, and let her go, I have not forgiven my father. My anger at him is totally useless- it eats away at me, solves nothing. Still, what a douchebag.

So I couldn’t wait to get out of Anchorage. Even though I had wonderful people to stay with while I was there- my friend Julia, and her darling 5 year-old son, Sebastian- we sat up late after Sebastian had gone to bed, in that second afternoon that is the long evening of the summertime night, amongst Julia’s houseplants, and talked about love, and loss, and the mysteries of intimacy- and then a new friend, Andy, who housed me in her big, peaceful house in the birch forest south of town, and I got to pet her sweet dog, Piper, who is from South Africa- even among friends I couldn’t keep the doldrums away, and I was glad to get out. And now I’m in Fairbanks, en route to the Brooks Range, where I have never been. Because it’s my Alaska now, my life. And I get to make it my own. 

Allison and AK have an impossibly cute three-year-old son named Juno. When I make my way upstairs after sleeping late I find Juno, naked except for a bandaid on his knee, clutching his stuffed eagle (named “Eagle”) and listening to a vinyl record of a Frog and Toad book, read by the author. 

“I found these records at my mom’s,” says Allison, as she scratches jam onto her toast. “I listened to them as a kid. Did you know the author is gay?”

“Oh my gosh,” I say. “Frog and Toad. It makes so much sense!”

“Eagle is fwying!” says Juno. He’s staring up at me with his giant blue eyes, flapping the cloth wings of his eagle. “He’s fwying!” I wonder if I could ever have kids. Probably not. They’re cute, though.

What even

Allison is an acupuncturist, and she and AK moved to Fairbanks a month ago when AK got a job sciencing at the university here. The backyard of their house is a forest, the ground feathery with horsetail. I’ve known them both a long time- I first met AK thirteen years ago, when she was dating my housemate, and I lived with Allison nine years ago. Lately I’ve been overcome with gratitude at the realization that it’s possible to know people over a long arc of time, that we get to watch each other grow- not just for a few years, but possibly for the rest of our lives. There’s something so reassuring about this, as though we’re not just all adrift, alone, in space. Like we’re here, together, in spite of everything, and it’s going to be ok.

Allison drops me off at REI and I find a SPOT device and a can of bear spray and hold them both in my hands, considering. I have never carried either of these things, personally, on a hike, although Dan and I shared his PLB when we were on the Hayduke. In Gates of the Arctic I’ll be more solo than I’ve ever been on a trail, with more unknowns, and with a healthy population of grizzlies to boot. These things are worth the peace of mind, and I buy them both.

So safety

I like Fairbanks. It’s smaller than Anchorage, and the wide streets and gentle sprawl lend un unpretentious, utlitilitarian air to what might otherwise be a hipster haven. Fairbanks reminds me of Moab, Utah in that way. A wonderful place, a base camp for those who spend a great deal of time in the outdoors, just ugly enough to keep it humble. The Moab of the north! If I lived in Alaska again, I think, I would live here.  

The night before my hike begins I can’t sleep. I lay in the bright midnight light from the window, imagining the most impossible conditions, all the way things could go awry. I finally drift off at 2 a.m., curled into a tense little ball. What have I gotten myself into?

In the morning I pack and repack my bag. Have I forgotten anything? My base weight is heavier on this hike than any hike I’ve done- I have rain pants, my new sturdier rain jacket, my two-person zpacks duplex, my kindle, a “real” camera, a thermal base layer, and of course the spot and the bear spray. I need to be prepared for freezing rain, as freezing rain, I’ve been told, can happen at any time in the Arctic, as well as heat, which is also a possibility, as well as bugs. I’m carrying seven days of food. I heave my pack onto my back. Ok!

In even more Alaskan serendipity, two other friends from PCT 2013, Franny (Dingo) and Mudd, live and work in Coldfoot, a wee village north of the arctic circle that serves as a truck stop of sorts for those headed north on the Dalton Highway, the rough road that services the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. My planned route begins just north of Coldfoot, at the eastern boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Franny, incredibly, is able to get me a standby seat on the next air taxi headed from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, saving me a long, arduous hitchhike on a remote, little-trafficked and very gravelly road. It’s a flight-seeing trip, and I listen to the pilot describe the land below us as we climb above Fairbanks in the little plane. There are the White Mountains, the broad taiga with its small shining lakes, the Yukon river and the Koyukuk. It’s hot on the wee plane and the other passengers fan themselves and take photographs. And then, below us, is the Brooks Range- Sloping green mountains capped in scree and rock, glittering rivers valleys, light and air and wonder. 

I’m fwying!

Franny, who looks exactly as I remember her from the PCT, meets me at the dirt airstrip and ferries me to Coldfoot camp, a cluster of buildings huddled close to the earth beneath the huge arctic sky. We’re almost, but not quite, far enough north that there are no trees at all- as it is, treeline here is very low, just a few thousand feet, and although there are spruce and birch and cottonwood trees alongside the road, the slopes of the mountains are broad, open tundra, lending a feeling of the alpine.

Coldfoot

At Coldfoot camp I am amazed to see Will (Teatime), another friend from PCT 2013, who is also living and working here.

“Sarah?” He says, when he sees me. He hasn’t seen me since I grew my hair out, and he doesn’t recognize me.

“Carrot,” I say.

“Carrot?!” says Will. “You look just like Sarah!”

“Who’s Sarah?” I say, but before he can answer Franny is offering me food, and then I’m eating a giant salad on the deck of the little restaurant, with the dusty, saddle-worn bicyclists en route to Patagonia and a woman reading a battered paperback copy of Wild. Franny also lends me her bearcan from the PCT, which I will need. I strap it to the top of my pack. Now my pack is really heavy!

Still cute tho

The ranger at the visitor center in Coldfoot, Bob, an older gentlemen who speaks slowly and wears a bright orange hat, is dubious at first when I tell him my plan. Then I out myself as someone who’s hiked ten thousand miles in the last four years, and he visibly relaxes. He points to a map of Gates of the Arctic that’s pinned to the wall, and traces his finger along the drainages and over the high, rocky passes. “You could hike your route the way you’ve planned,” he says, “but this way is better.”

“Thank you,” I say, as I quickly add these new waypoints to the map in my phone. “Oh my gosh, thank you thank you.” He gives me a patch and a bandanna that say “Guardian of the Gates”, and sends me on my way.

Will is driving north of Coldfoot that afternoon with his dreamily beautiful girlfriend, Fiona (they met in Antarctica, as one does) to go on a hike, and they offer to drop me at the drainage where I plan to start. As we drive, Will points out the eerily shaped peaks alongside the road, naming them- “I climbed that one,” he says. “And that one.” It’s six p.m., but time doesn’t matter- it’s never going to get dark. We pull onto the shoulder at my designated starting spot and I triple-check everything in my pack. And then I’m off, stumbling down the shoulder of the road, into a stand of spruce.

Right away I discover the thing that frightens me most about hiking in the Brooks range: dense brush, specifically the possibility of surprising a grizzly bear in said brush. Luckily, however, after a short period of flailing and one stream crossing (as per Buck’s advice, the streams are manageable here, close to the continental divide, even if sometimes I half to walk along the banks a bit to find a place to cross) I am out of the spruce forest and alder tangles and climbing, climbing, up through the open tundra above treeline! In the light and the air and the views that go on forever, green ridges falling away. The tundra is a sponge beneath me, springy and soft, sometimes soggy and sucking at my trail runners and sometimes crispy and able to support my weight. I stop for a moment to catch my breath and touch, with the tips of my fingers, this green mat of life on which I sit- it is an intricate, interwoven riot of lichen, moss and tiny flowers, and I know that beneath this mat is the permafrost, Alaska’s promise that winter is never very far away. Far below me is the Dalton Highway, with the alaska pipeline running alongside it, transporting crude oil from Prudhoe Bay south. And next to where I sit I find my first shed caribou antler, baked white from the sun. I turn it over in my hands. The caribou must migrate through this drainage, or at least they once did. In the coming days I’ll find dozens more of these sheds- single antlers and sets, sometimes with skulls attached, some old, some new, standing still in time or being absorbed into the tundra, a centimeter at a time. A strong breeze blows my hair into my face, and keeps the mosquito hordes at bay. The mosquito’s advances are delicate, at best. Such weak little motors. I drink some of my water, gathered from the stream below. What wonder!      

It takes me three hours to climb to the very top of the rolling green mountain, and at nine p.m. I pitch my tent in a gentle sheltered depression between two ridges, right next to the spot where a wee burbling stream springs from the rock. The sun is so bright at 9 p.m., but I climb inside my tent anyway, after placing my bear canister in the moss a little ways away, where I can see it, as though I am setting a trap. I am exhausted from the anticipation and the excitement. Inside the tent I blow up my neo-air and arrange my water, bearspray and other nighttime objects next to my pillow, which is my mosquito headnet full of my extra layers. 

Grown men on the internet told me I would die out here without a gun, ha ha

I feel pretty good about bears when I’m walking up here, out in the open, where we would be able to see one another from way far away, with a minimum of surprise. But what about at night, when I’m asleep and unawares, zipped up tight in my sleeping bag? How quickly would I be able to get to my bear spray, should a bear come thrashing at my tent? Is that situation even reasonable? Plausible? The bright arctic sun bears down and I lie there, only a thin layer of fabric between myself and the unknown, tense as a wire. I read on my kindle for a while in an attempt to relax but every time the wind rustles the fabric of my shelter, every time the shadows around me shift imperceptibly, I practically jump out of my skin. The bright sun continues its slow arc across the sky, heightening my sense of alertness. In more southern parts of the state, like in south central Alaska where I grew up, the summer nights are long- but there is always at least the pretense of a sunset, a nod to that moment of quiet rest between the days. Not up here in the Brooks Range, though. There will be neither sunrise nor sunset for the entirety of my time in the arctic. No golden horizon, no gentle dusk. Just the bright white sun, illuminating all. I roll onto my back, and put my long-sleeve shirt over my face. Fuck, I need to sleep. And around one a.m., I finally do.

I wake to the hot overhead sun of late morning and tear my sleeping bag off, and then my clothes. It’s fucking hot! I was expecting rain in the Brooks range, clouds at the very least. Not this week, though. Not for me. It’s late, 9:30 a.m., and at first I feel guilty about this- but then I realize that it does not matter, up here, which eight hours of the day that I sleep. 

I’ve caught nothing with my bearcan trap, thank goodness. I poop in a hole, make some tea and eat my breakfast. I look at my maps. Yesterday I averaged 1 mph, climbing this mountain. Today I’m hoping for 1.5 mph. My goal for this trip is the remote subsistence village of Anaktuvuk, seven days distant. This village is only reachable by plane, and once I’m there I can catch a flight back to Coldfoot. There are lots of unknowns in my route, though- will the rivers be fordable? Will I be able to get over all the passes? Will I be able to cover enough miles each day? I’m 100% mentally prepared to turn around, should I need to. I’m out here to learn, to see what the Brooks Range is really about. To discover what it means to walk here, and how one might go about doing that.   

I descend the other side of the mountain, butt-scooting on some scree and finally attain a gentle pass, where a little lake sits peaceful in the stillness, ringed in caribou sheds, and wolf tracks are everywhere in the mud.

At the pass is a small stream, and according to my maps I’ll follow this stream down, down, down, until it becomes a river. I walk in the rocks of the stream or on the steep, squishy tundra slopes alongside it. There are slabs of blue aufeis, the thick ice that forms on the rivers and stays forever, and the burbling conversation of the water as it bounces off the hills around me. I realize that between the streams and the wet tundra of these waterways that I’m following, my feet will be pretty much wet all day, every day. The cool water feels good, though. 

I round a bend in the afternoon and find myself looking down at the most gorgeous, green, sweeping land-before-time river valley- I can see forever, mountains on mountains on mountains, and a glittering river winds its way through all of it. Unnamed peaks are cut with drainages. I know that the drainages hold hidden lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and other secrets. Oh, that I could explore them all! The mosquitoes bump companionably against me in the still air, reminding me to get a move on. They’ve already made short work of my arms, as has the sun- I should’ve worn a long-sleeve shirt. I don’t carry any DEET, as the stuff makes me ill, and is poison besides, and my tolerance for mosquitoes is pretty high. Still, why didn’t I think to wear a long-sleeve shirt?!

The stream I’m following grows larger as it gathers tributaries, and I cross it again and again. Soon I won’t be able to cross it at all, and I check my maps to make sure I’ll be on the correct side of the water before that happens. I walk for a while on the tundra, my feet sinking into the moss. It’s slow going, but I don’t mind. It reminds me of walking in deep sand, on the Hayduke. Every few minutes I spin around, looking for grizzlies. I make my way through some brush, and turn on an audiobook in an attempt not to surprise anyone. I wonder if I’m going to be mauled by a grizzly while listening to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. We live in a poetic universe; anything is possible. I feel secure with my bearspray, though. I’m no longer a defenseless mammal; I am now a mammal that stings! I am capable of shooting burning liquid at any other animal that would make me its prey! This levels the playing field a bit, and I stride through the nature with confidence. I live here too, motherfuckers!

I become completely immersed in The Argonauts, and the next thing I know it’s the following afternoon, and the book is ending- in between I slept, fitfully, on another open slope of tundra, my bearcan perched nearby, in the absolute silence. The Argonauts is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and now that it’s over, I cry. I also cry because it’s so glorious here, so sunny and wild and soft around the edges, and I’m filled with infinite peace, but also a sort of sadness. I’m thinking about the meaning of love. Am I really, truly, worthy of love? Are any of us really, truly, worthy of love? I think about this as I wend my way down the river valley, into and out of the water, up and down the tundra slopes, picking the least swampy parts, feeling the mosquitoes consume my flesh. I stop at a stream to fill my water bottles and eat a snack. Unconditional love doesn’t ask about worthiness, I say aloud.

I miss Dan. I wish he were here, to joke about the mosquitoes. They grow so thick that I put on my rain jacket, even though it’s hot. Now I’m sweating in my rain jacket, huffing and puffing. Then I see, ahead of me, a jolly round object frolicking on the tundra, its fur glowing golden in the sunshine. Grizzly! Grizleeeeee! Griz griz griz! My brain has tourettes. What do I do? What do I do do do do do. The bear pauses its happy bouncing, looks my way. We eye each other for a moment, and then the bear continues to prance. I climb down from the steep bluff, kicking up dirt, fight my way across the river, which is a bit too high here for my comfort, ascend the bluff opposite, edge my way as far up the slope as I can, and continue my traverse of the valley. When I look back, the bear is nowhere to be seen.     

Later I see a porcupine, weird looking creature, five feet away alongside a stream, standing on its hind legs, acting oddly. A smaller porcupine is standing in front of it, doing something to its chest. I realize that the smaller porcupine is a baby, and that the baby is nursing. I’m seeing a freaking porcupine boob! The mama porcupine does not seem to care that I watch them, and take photos. Porcupine doesn’t give a fuck! Porcupine has spines!!! 

Porcupine boob!

In the morning I wake late to a hot tent again and walk naked and barefoot across the tundra to gather my bearcan. The long warm sun feels good on my skin, on the dried sweat and mosquito bites. The soft trampoline of lichen and moss feels good beneath my feet. I eat dark chocolate for breakfast and drink black tea. What even is life. 

The going is slower today- the tundra is extra spongy and deep, the brush more frequent and thick, there are acres of toaster-sized boulders. Arctic terns dive-bomb my head, angry that I’m making my way through what must be their nesting area. Something- the movements of glaciers? Have deposited tall rocks mounds all around me, and the mounds make deep, glacial-green pools out of the stream, and in the pools I can see fish. I pick my way from mound to mound, as the birds yell at me. What is this lonely, enchanted place? Not lonely, though. Full of animals! Someday I will come back and spend enough time in the Brooks Range to see a musk ox, which is my favorite animal that most people don’t actually know exists.

The mosquitoes grow thicker, as though some omniscient being is turning them up in increments, to see just when I’ll crack. One incredible valley opens into another. How beautiful this place. How sheer these mountains, with their impossible scree tops. The river carves a sort of gorge, rushing and heavy, and I walk above the chasm on a bluff. I am suffused with a feeling of ease, and peace. The sun continues to be bright, which is almost, but not quite, no longer fun. 

Before camp I take off all my clothes and rinse myself in the icy river, which now braids itself, shallow and wide, across the valley. I sit naked on a rock to dry. The neat thing about mosquitoes is that they’re attracted to heat, so if I jump in very cold water I buy myself a few moments wherein I can sit naked, invisible and unmolested, before the sun warms me and the mosquitoes can “see” me again. For the time being they swarm around my legs, but they do not land. I look at my feet, which have been rotting inside my shoes. If I do a longer trip in the Brooks Range one day I’ll have to take a break each day to dry them, lest they disintegrate. 

Camp is on another broad, open hillside- I could’ve camped down by the river but I saw too many animal tracks there, so I picked my way up the slope to this flattish spot with an open view all around. The mosquitoes are bad enough that the inside of my tent feels like a place of inexplicable peace, at least once I’ve killed the several dozen that found their way inside, leaving disgusting carnage on the floor. I eat handfuls of unappealing trailfood and watch the insects bump uselessly against the mesh. I’m starting to dread these long nights, the three hours it takes me to wind down enough to fall asleep. I wonder, if I was out here longer, how long it would take before I was too tired to be scared anymore.      

I’m going to have to turn around. I’m sitting on a large boulder in the afternoon, looking at a glacier, my shelter draped over my head to keep out the bloodthirsty hordes. I’ve been climbing all morning- up a green valley, alongside a stream, and then a thousand feet (or more? I don’t know) up loose, shifting talus and scree. The mosquitoes are the worst they’ve been and so I hiked fast, feeling harried, sweating in my rain jacket and my headnet, thinking that once I reached the talus and left the water behind, I’d leave them behind as well. Now I eat banana chips with my tent draped over me, and look at the glacier. It sits in a bowl, surrounded in a ring of impossibly steep ridges, which are sided in scree and topped in spires of rock.

The continental divide, which I’ve had to cross a couple of times- but nowhere as high as this, as steep as this. I look at my map again- the divide in this spot is a fence, a tall boundary between the drainage I’m in and the one that my route traverses next. I’d picked this spot to cross somewhat arbitrarily, as all the drainages on the map looked equally as steep, with no idea if I’d be able to make it across or not. And I can’t. Not here. I’m not even going to try. Maybe, if I was with a friend, I’d give it a go- but even if I could get up all that scree and sheer rock to the ridge on this side, the other side, according to my map, is even steeper. So, no.  

I pick my way back down the shifting talus, slowly, feeling bummed. I’m halfway to Anaktuvuk, and I have to turn around. It’s all part of this learning experience, I know (and later, after the hike, a ranger friend will show me on the map which pass actually goes through, for future reference), but I still feel sad about it. I also feel really, really tired. This neverending sun has me worn out, the wet tundra and water crossings, the constantly being on edge about bears. Newness is hard, the unfamiliar is hard. Growth is hard.     

Back down the way I came

At 9:30 p.m. I am too tired to walk anymore. For the last hour I’ve been seeing bear signs everywhere- overturned rocks, roots ripped from the ground, scattered bones with bits of ligament still attached. Expanses of brush punctuate the hillside, places for animals to lurk. But I am exhausted, and I need to camp. It’s brutally hot in my tent, the sun shining down on the fabric, and I eat bars for dinner, naked and sweating. At last, around eleven, the sun drops behind the ridge, draping my campsite in sweet, cool shadow. I’m reading Finding Everett Ruess on my kindle. The book makes me sad. He was so lonely! I’m lonely today! Oh, life! 

Life!

Two days later I stumble out of the spruce forest and am back on the Dalton Highway. I stick out my thumb when a semi-truck rumbles by and am surprised when the truck grinds to a halt, spitting up dust.

“Sarah!” says the driver, when I heave myself onto the running board and pull open the passenger side door.

“No,” I say. “Who’s Sarah?” I startle at the sound of my own voice. Is this what my voice sounds like?

“You look just like her,” says the man. He introduces himself as Peter. He’s been driving his truck up and down the haul road for twenty-five years. “Sarah’s a great lady,” he says, as we rumble down the rutted highway. He looks at me, wishes I was her. “You want some salmon?”

“Sure,” I say.

“Smoked or canned?” says Peter. “I made it myself. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you both.” 

Peter drops me at Coldfoot camp and I wave goodbye, my hands full of salmon.

“I’m going to start pretending I’m Sarah,” I say to Will/Teatime, when I see him in the restaurant. “And take over her life.”

“You really do look like her,” says Will.

I’m starving, and the restaurant is having a buffet for dinner- an elaborate salad bar, roast beef, potatoes, shrimp. OMG! I fill up two giant plates, find my own little table in the corner, and eavesdrop on the other people in the dining room while I happily munch away. There are two crews here, apparently, working on something or other to do with the highway. Rough men wearing orange vests and steel-toe boots, smelling of diesel fuel. I feel vulnerable and raw after speaking to no-one for a week, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I like hearing their conversations, though. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to talk to anyone, and that I could just listen to people talk to each other. Specifically, I love the way people in rural areas use american english when they’re speaking- the sentence fragments, the economy of words, the way that so much is implied or assumed. I also love it when straight macho heteronormative dudes open up to each other in unexpected moments, in awkward ways- suddenly admitting feeling or vulnerability or pain, and the way the other dudes pretend not to hear. 

Franny, incredibly, has hooked me up with another flight back to Fairbanks, at 10pm, and I spend the evening in the cool dim sanctuary of her and Mudd’s living room, sunk into the couch, watching their cat stalk around the room. Franny’s been working here long enough that she has quite a bit of responsibility- “I work eighty hours a week,” she says. “And I’m on call 24 hours a day.”

“Oh my gosh,” I say. It must be a good place to be, though, because people keep coming back.

“It’s super chill in the winter,” says Mudd. “It’s peaceful. There’s more down time, and people all hang out together.” 

I imagine Coldfoot in the winter- dark, snowy. Cold. The staff gathered around a card game, maybe, in one of the bunker-like dwellings, sharing a bottle of whiskey. I wish I had found this place when I was twenty-five. I would’ve loved it here.

There’s a fire to the south, and it’s a relief when the plane carries us up, up, out of the smoke, until we’re looking down at it, as though on clouds. In Fairbanks, at midnight, I am ecstatic to see the flame-orange colors of a sunset, and at Allison’s house it’s almost dark enough to need a light. I drop my things in the guest room, and curl into the bed there. I’m indoors now, no grizzlies can get me. And in the morning there’ll be a three-year-old to hang out with, which is pretty cool.

———-

THANK YOU to Elizabeth, Julia, Tone and Sebastian, Andy, Allison, AK and Juno, Franny, Mud, Will, Fiona, Peter the truck driver, Ranger Bob, Laura, Scott and JP, Crystal, Lena, Tara, Buck, Suzy and Luce, and anyone else who housed me/gave me a ride/helped me with the logistics of this trip! My god I am grateful to have friends, especially of the Alaskan variety! Thank you!!

Help end police violence

Cops continue to execute black people in the streets in the US, and I’m over here like 🌲🌲🏃🌲🌲 with my white privilege. On tuesday Alton Sterling, a 37 year-old father of five, was shot while being held by police on the ground after selling CDs in front of a convenience store (this was caught on video). And then yesterday, Philandro Castile was fatally shot three times in a St. Paul suburb- because he had a busted tail light. In all, 136 black people have been killed in the US by Police so far this year. It’s easy to say that I care about this, but at the end of the day, what am I doing? Nothing. What are you doing? Check out this awesome website with ideas on how we can all get involved- http://www.joincampaignzero.org

Denied entry into Canada/total change of plans

I forgot that when you cross through customs into Canada they ask you a million questions, and if you don’t have a simple easy-to-digest story that seems totally 100% normal and common and legit (i.e “we are going into your country for one week and we are both gainfully employed and not homeless at all and we have a ton of money”) and instead tell the truth “we live in this van and are going to hike through the wilderness for 40 days without permanent homes or jobs,” then they run a background check, and if you have any convictions (even misdemeanors) it’s likely you’ll be turned away at the border.

I have a bunch of misdemeanor convictions from my youth riding freight trains and taunting riot police at political protests. Like a whole stack of them. Convictions with ominous-sounding names like “interfering with a peace officer,” “trespassing,” and “failure to appear”. The customs dude didn’t know that the “failure to appear” was the time a friend and I got pulled off a freight train in Arizona in the warm springtime near Yuma by a kindly black railcop who just wanted to tell us stories. After he’d given us our trespassing tickets and released us we circled around the yard and got on another train, headed for Oaxaca with its $4 hostels that were just hammocks on the beach under mosquito netting and the ripe mangoes that littered the ground. We never returned for our court appearance and a few years later, standing on an onramp in Arizona with another friend, sunburnt and trying to hitch into town after climbing off another train, a cop ran our IDs and I had a warrant. Luckily my bail was low. We spent three days sleeping in the weeds alongside a canal and swimming in the turquoise water, and at my court appearance I was given a fine.

“Interfering with a peace officer”- in 2003 I was 21 years old and we had just started bombing Iraq. Critical Mass was a big deal in Portland at the time- a bunch of bicyclists riding together slow through downtown traffic once a month, blocking traffic and interfering with commerce to make a point about car culture, fossil fuels, whatever. An extra huge Critical Mass was scheduled as part of the protests against the Iraq War- we wanted to block the freeways, stop traffic to downtown, disrupt everything as much as we were able. On the Portland news it was announced that Critical Mass riders would be arrested. The women’s jail was the only one with empty beds (I learned later), and they arrested eleven women. I made eye contact with a riot cop and that was that- they dragged me from my bike and zip-tied my wrists. I spent four days in the jail downtown that overlooks the grassy park blocks, the elk fountain spouting water and the lazy traffic that circles around it. Each bed in my cell had a long narrow window overlooking everything. My cellmate was in for check fraud, and she was very kind. I read A Separate Peace and Slaughterhouse Five.

After they denied our entry into Canada I turned the van around and we drove back towards Glacier in silence. I hadn’t had any caffeine yet that morning and there was a sharp pain right between my eyes. Outside heavy stormclouds alternated with patches of clear sky and rain splattered the windshield. The van was stuffed with all our resupply boxes for the Great Divide Trail- hundreds of dollars worth of bars and dinners, carefully boxed and labeled, our portioned-out maps, extra shoes and socks, new raingear, hopes and dreams and fears.

I’d crossed into Canada before- but I’d always had a neat story, and when they’d asked me “Have you ever been arrested?” I’d lied and said “No,” and they had never checked. But now I was officially blocked from entry until such time as I returned with a large stack of court documents from several states and $200, and applied for a waiver allowing me in. There was no time for that right now, in this narrow window in which we had to hike the GDT. And I could no longer bluff my way across the border- My name was in the computer. They had a photocopy of my passport. Etc.

As we drove through the wild stormclouds towards East Glacier I thought of the time, in March of 2009, that I’d gotten a craigslist ride from Portland to Alaska with a wealthy Israeli man and two other young vagrants in tattered clothing returning home after a winter in California. Before crossing into Canada we made up a story of how we were all related, where we lived and what jobs we held, how long we had known each other and how we had met, how much money we had, etc. They waived us across at the border almost impatiently, and we were free. Our driver flipped the car into a snowbank in the Yukon and I ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way to Alaska in -20 weather, but that is another story.

Once I got over the initial disappointment and sting of rejection from Canada (why?!!), I realized that it’s probably for the best that I won’t be able to hike the GDT this year. We only had 40 days in which to hike it, and we were starting a few weeks earlier than what is considered reasonable. We were counting heavily on the low snowpack in the Canadian Rockies this year and just kind of crossing our fingers for the best. Now I can hike the trail another year, when I have more time, in a more relaxed and reasonable manner. It was probs meant to be.

I’m in Montana right now, figuring out what to do next. I really have no idea. I thought briefly about the Pacific Northwest Trail, but I’m not sure that I’d love that one, with its miles and miles of dirt roadwalking. I might fly to Alaska for a month with my bike. Or, I might just drive back to Oregon, find a quiet place to live near some forest, and take care of my gut stuff. I really have no idea. Dan is thinking about southbounding the CDT- he hasn’t hiked any of the 3 long trails! And here we are at the northern terminus, right in time for SOBO season, and he has all these resupply boxes already made.

I’ll let y’all know soon.

Onward to the Great Divide Trail!

 

source: greatdividetrail.com

source: greatdividetrail.com

The Great Divide Trail is a 750 mile/1200 km trail of high mountain ridges and brush-choked valleys in the Canadian Rockies along the Alberta/British Columbia border.. While the Hayduke is said to be the most beautiful desert trail, the Great Divide Trail is said to be the most beautiful mountain trail! (I imagine that this is true, in a sense that there are several “most beautiful” mountain trails.) Only a few dozen people have thru-hiked the GDT, and thanks to the noble recent efforts of the Great Divide Trail Association (Canada does not have the money for trails that the US does, plz donate), the trail is in much better shape than it once was, although there is still plenty of soggy bushwhacking for that extra-super Canadian Rockies experience. (A really cool interactive map of the GDT is on the GDTA website here.)

Great_divide_trail_map

Steep mountain ridges! Glaciers! Wet, alder-choked valleys! Peaceful transcendental wilderness! Blowdowns! Tempestuous river crossings! Freezing rain! The shy and secretive Grizzly Bear! Gentle rural Canadians! I look forward to all of these things and more on the GDT. I gave myself only two weeks to prepare for this trip, which feels bonkers. Currently I’m in Oregon, where a heavy heat wave is cooking my brain. (Update: heat wave has passed, raining now.) I’ve been visiting with dear friends, making resupply boxes, eating vegetables, shopping for rainpants, texting with Dan about maps, wishing in vain that the brooks Cascadia 7s and 8s were still in production, reading Gone With The Wind, going to the dentist and having lots of mechanical trouble with my van which is also, it turns out, kind of miserable to sleep in in the heat. And I haven’t been running at all, in an attempt to heal my knee from the damage I did to it on the R2R2R. As a result, I’ve pretty much lost all the strength I gained on the Hayduke. So there will be some extra pain at the beginning of the GDT. Yay! Also! We have to finish the GDT in 40 days, in order to make it back to Oregon in time for a friend’s wedding. That’s not unheard of at all, but I’d rather there wasn’t the pressure, as I want to take a lot of pretty photos.

Dan flies into Portland on June 12th. We drive to Montana on the 14th and start the GDT shortly after. We’re starting a bit earlier than most, again because of me needing to finish in time for the wedding- but it’s a low snow year up there so we’ll probably be alright. I think?

Thanks in advance to Wired, whose blog, as on the Hayduke, will be our most comprehensive source of beta for this trail (other than our maps). Seriously you guys, Wired’s Hayduke blog was more useful than the guidebook. The amount of detailed, accurate beta that Wired puts into her blogs for each trail is insane. I kind of worry that she’s shortening her lifespan by staying up late in her tent every night pecking away at her phone, while the rest of us sleep. If you find her beta useful donate to her blog, so she can buy a lasagna mountain house!

The GDT is extra, extra remote, so some extra time might pass between blog posts here. I still don’t really understand how I’m going to get a Canadian phone plan for all of that? Really looking forward to getting to Montana, and then into Canadia. O, the Great North!

Moar updates soon.

updates!

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cruising into Oregon at sunset like

Hey readers!

Update things!

Thing one: I created a public facebook page. So…. interact with me there if you want. You can ask me gear questions and I’ll tell you your pack is too heavy. LOL.

Thing two: I’m in Portland right now. I came here to see friends and take care of a bunch of stuff. I’m also trying to plan for another trail! In a very small amount of time, while doing a lot of other stuff. So! Hopefully things will come together. We shall see!

I made an index for all my Hayduke posts!

My friend Vanessa wrote this great and important piece for Shape magazine on how America hates fat women, and how that affects ALL women. Just… don’t read the comments. Unless you don’t actually BELIEVE that America hates fat women, and you need some proof.

My friend Jenny Bruso made an instagram page for #UnlikelyHikers, which is timely and wonderful.

People sometimes email me asking if I know of any good hiker blogs from the big three trails for this year. I’ve only recently had time to poke around in this regard, but here are two good ones-

Amanda writes in that poet-philosopher style that is so wonderful to read in a trail journal. She also started the PCT with a history of walking injuries/general doubts as to whether she would be able to do it, so you get to watch her grow strong and triumph, which is always nice.

My friend Melissa “The Bobcat” Wyld is hiking the AT southbound this year- and she’s a GREAT storyteller. She also made her own pack, and she talks about that process. I think her posts from the trail are gonna be SO GOOD.

The route I took on my roadtrip from Utah to Oregon was super boring, and I listening to a lot of podcasts. I have recently discovered podcasts! These ones were particularly amaze:

The Sagittarian Matters podcast Powerful Business Women, part one- in particular the talk with Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, which made me laugh so hard in a dark, cathartic way and I loved it so much I listened to it twice.

The Phoenix Helix podcasts Meditation Healing Stories and Healing Stories Part 3

My book was mentioned by Nicole Antoinette on this episode of Being Boss! I was alerted as such by a few friends and then I discovered the podcast, and it’s great! Cheery advice for creatives who work for themselves! Yay!! (Relatedly, Nicole also has a great podcast… more on that later)

On the drive I also listened to the audiobook of Rising Strong by Brene Brown, which is about the importance of vulnerability in the process of growth and human authenticity. A v excellent book.

Ok, I’ll post more hike-planning updates soon. I have so much to do it’s hurting my brain. Remember, you can subscribe by clicking “subscribe” in the menu above, and then you’ll get an email every time I post something here. No spam I promise.

Talking with Mike Coronella, the co-creator of the Hayduke Trail

“It’s a terrible route, and no-one should try it,” says Mike Coronella. We’re sitting in a burger joint in Moab, and I’ve just asked him what message he’d like to pass on to future Hayduke hikers. He laughs. “No, I’d tell them to do their homework. This route is not like the triple crown trails. Be ready to come off the route a completely different person.”

Mike Coronella is the co-creator, along with Joe Mitchell, of the 800-mile Hayduke Trail. The impetus to create such an intense, arduous, transcendental backcountry route through Utah and the Grand Canyon came in the nineties, when Mike was fresh from a divorce.

“I needed eighty days in the desert,” he says. Those eighty days turned into several long trips over a number of years, gathering route information (“Some of these canyons,” says Mike, “we had no idea if they were passable. We had to find out for ourselves”) water information (“The Dirty Devil river ruined us. We were so sick from that water. We flagged down a jeep, but all they had was beer”) and making mistakes (“Joe was braver than I was, when it came to exposure. We looked at the descent, and not even he was comfortable with it. We ended up spending the night at the top. Of course there was no water). The end result of these adventures is the Hayduke Trail- a route so remote, difficult, and logistically complicated (as far as permits, resupplying and water sources go) that it’s unlikely that it will ever be anything other than what it is- a trail that exists not on the ground, but in the minds and imaginations of maybe a dozen hikers per year.

“Not while I’m alive,” says Mike, when I ask him if the Hayduke will ever be the sort of route that has trail signs. “I’ll rip them out myself.”  I ask Mike if he has any plans to update the guidebook, parts of which are now outdated, or to gather the beta that’s scattered across all corners of the internet into one comprehensive source.

“No,” says Mike, as he rolls up his fish tacos. “I like it just the way it is. It’s not a trail. It’s an idea. I love all the variations. It’s not the JMT. It’s an individual experience, and a way to get your butt kicked. That’s what the desert is for.”

He wants to remind hikers, however, to pick up their caches. “I got a call from a ranger once. He found a cache that hadn’t been picked up, and he called me.

Mike’s lived in Moab for twelve years- his house is right on the official Hayduke route through town.

“Sometimes I see someone walk by with a big backpack,” he says, “When I’m in my yard. I ask em if they’re on the Hayduke. ‘Yeah,’ they say. ‘You’ve heard of it?'”

Mike runs a guide service called Deep Desert Expeditions, and also works with Search and Rescue. He’s also involved in local land use politics, and works for more protection of undeveloped wilderness-quality areas. “Cows in the desert are inappropriate,” he says. “That’s why I stopped eating beef.” We finish our lunch, and Dan, Mike and I step out into the blinding Moab sunshine. “Thousands of eighteen wheelers come right through town,” says Mike, as a semi-truck rattles past on the narrow highway that serves as a main street of sorts in Moab. “It’s the most direct route for them.” He’s going out on the Colorado river with Search and Rescue later tonight. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says.

“Thanks for creating the Hayduke,” I say. I’m not sure how else to show my gratitude, my appreciation for the trust and generosity inherent in sharing such a route with the world, or at least with the few dedicated long-distance hikers who actually want to wander across the (generally waterless) hardscrabble Colorado Plateau for two whole months. What is wilderness, and who gets to access it? And what does it mean to protect an area? Sometimes I think that hiking and learning about an area gives me more of a connection to the land, and that writing about these connections help inform our current, urban culture. Wouldn’t a more land-based culture and spirituality save us all from this thing that we’re hurtling towards at the speed of light? And sometimes I think it’s too late, and that there’s nothing anymore to be done. Humans are gonna be humans, and eventually the earth will crush us all, and heal itself. Maybe the only way to say ‘thanks’ to the creators of the Hayduke is to pack out my caches, and to respect the desert. And to generally not be an asshole. It may not be the answer to everything, but it’s the best I can come up with, for now. Thanks Mike!

The man, the myth, the legend- Mike Coronella

The man, the myth, the legend- Mike Coronella

Grand Canyon bonus: rim to rim to rim

5/24/16
Mileage: 45

Alternate title: rimming the Grand Canyon

Sometimes you finish a trail and you’re tired and your stomach hurts so  you lay on the grass for five days reading back issues of The New Yorker and at night you drag the foam mattress from your boyfriend’s subaru and drop it in the dirt in the desert, blankets and all, and sleep beneath the full moon. You eat raw broccoli and conventional blueberries and roast chicken and drink apple cider vinegar and talk about life with interesting friends who also haven’t figured it all out but at least you’re together outside in the desert, where the moon is, and the wind. You cuddle your boyfriend and eat hummus and romaine lettuce and chocolate and on the fourth night you have dreams about hiking; you’re on the PCT or some similar trail where one can stretch one’s legs, and in the morning you’re no longer tired.

“Do you want to hike the rim to rim to rim?” I say to Dan. We’ve just picked up my new debit card from my Sedona PO box where it has finally arrived and I feel drunk on the freedom of once again being an emancipated adult. “Sure,” says Dan.

The “rim to rim to rim” is a hike wherein one goes from the south rim of the grand canyon all the way to the north rim and then back to the south rim in a single day. The route is between 42 and 48 miles, depending on how you do it, with 12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss. The R2R2R is popular with ultrarunners, who run most of it, and with long-distance hikers, who walk most of it. I haven’t run in over two months and don’t want to injure myself, so I’ll be walking the entire thing. If we’re successful it’ll be the most miles I’ve ever hiked in a day (my previous biggest day was 44.5 miles on the last day of the PCT in 2014), and also the most elevation gain I’ve done in one day. Logically, nothing on the Hayduke has prepared me for this, as we had no big days and mostly hiked slow and used our arms a lot and my legs were rarely even tired, so I probably shouldn’t attempt it. But I’ve wanted to hike the r2r2r for over a year, and it’s on our way back to Moab, and I’ve been laying around for five days and it just sounds really, really fun. I think.

It is fun. We car-camp amongst the ponderosas on a forest service road just south of the park. My alarm set to 3:15 a.m. We’re up and at the grand canyon visitor center by the time the first shuttle bus pulls up at 4:30 a.m.. We’ve got light packs full of bars and a two-liter water capacity (there are springwater spigots every seven miles along the corridor trails!). I’ve also packed a puffy and a headlamp. By 4:45 a.m. we’re switchbacking down the south kaibab trail as the first light begins to wash out the stars above.
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It feels so good to hike. To just fucking hike. To walk as fast as I can on good tread with beautiful views and accurate mileage. We’re going down, down, down, pounding our quads and knees, 6,000 feet down to the Colorado river. A couple of hours after setting out we cross the emerald Colorado on a narrow footbridge and then we’re at Phantom Ranch, filling up our water bottles in the bright morning. A couple is there, sitting on one of the picnic tables. The woman has a blonde ponytail and a super cool magenta and purple hydration pack with a front pocket. The man has red-rimmed eyes and a tiny MLD pack.

“Are you Carrot?” says the woman. “I follow you on instagram!” Her name is Phoenix, and she hiked the PCT in 2015. She works as a nurse in Arizona. Her friend’s name is Bad Science, and they’re hiking the r2r2r as well, but they started yesterday- at 7 p.m. They’ve been hiking all night, in the dark, and all they have left is the seven miles up the south kaibab trail, back to the south rim. So cool!

“It’s easier in the dark, in a way,” says Phoenix. She laughs deliriously.

“We’re in the hallucinatory phase,” says the Bad Science. He rakes his hands through his long hair.

I can’t wait to be where they are- back at Phantom Ranch, exhausted, just one final 6,000 foot ascent left. We’ve got so much ahead of us, though, before then- about 28 miles. (Our hike is 45 miles total- 42 plus the 3 mile walk back to Dan’s car, as the shuttles won’t be running when we finish.)

I chug some matcha at Phantom Ranch, in my gatorade bottle. Matcha is this powdered green tea stuff that I bought at the whole foods in Sedona. This morning it makes me feel really good. Or maybe I just feel really good because I’m in the Grand Canyon on good corridor trails, hiking myself to death. Who can say.

We walk along bright angel creek in the cool canyonshade, almost imperceptibly uphill. There are lots of weekend backpackers of various demographics, some with giant packs and others with smaller packs, all of them communing with the rock and the water and the oncoming heat. Except the weather is perfect for us today. A little windy, a little cloudy. It’ll be maybe 70 degrees down here in the bottom of the canyon, max. We lucked out!

Everything is great. I drink more matcha. I love hiking! Walking forward without impediments makes me miss the PCT. I wonder what it would be like to do that trail again. Would everything seem smaller, and less shiny? Am I too old and cynical to make smalltalk with that many strangers? Who can say.
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Late morning we begin the long, long fucking climb up to the North Rim on the north kaibab trail. When we did this climb on the Hayduke, it was cold and rainy, and then it started to snow when we got close to the top. Our packs were heavy. Now my pack is light and I have five days worth of glycogen in my calf muscles. I am invincible!

The last chunk of the 6,000 foot climb ascends more than 2,000 feet in two miles, I think. (Don’t quote me on that.) It is essentially a series of steep switchbacks that go on for infinity, and you will not reach the top of the switchbacks until you let go of all your desires and accept the fact that you have always been climbing and you will always be climbing, amen. My knees are already a little sore from our initial descent, and now they start to complain loudly. Shut up, knees! I’m on the edge of glory here!

We reach the North Rim of the grand canyon, where it’s colder, in May, than any other known place in the appreciable desert (don’t quote me on that) and sit amongst the pines in our puffy jackets, assembling sandwiches and eating bbq potato chips. 21 miles! We’ve made it halfway! Two other groups, which are carrying small hydration packs and which we’d assumed were hiking the R2R2R, make noises of astonishment when we tell them that we’re about to turn around and hike all the way back. Apparently they were doing just one canyon crossing and are now done, free to change into leggings and heat soup on their jetboils. Where are all the other rimmers? I guess today it’s just us.

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Halfway! So stoked.

The descent back down the steep North Kaibab trail kind of hurts, as my left knee is now in a lot of pain. I do not care though. I can take a whole week off after this. I just want to crush!

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very crush. so hike.

Things get less inflamed once we reach the long flattish stretch before Phantom Ranch, so long as I sit down now and then to rest the knee. We reach Phantom Ranch in the early evening, and I assemble my last gf turkey sandwich at a picnic table while the folks who are actually staying at the ranch mill around us in their clean, good-smelling cotton relaxation wear, murming calmly in the canyongloaming. Deer stalk the perimeter unmolested, munching on delicate tufts of grass. Fat, mangy squirrels twitch in the shadows, yearning for the unparalleled, addictive rush of a single barbecue potato chip. I envy the people staying at this ranch- their good beds with the soft sheets, or whathaveyou. We’ve hiked 35 miles by now, and I’m feeling it. Mostly in my knee.

Dark falls as we leave the ranch. We’ll be getting back to the South Rim super late, but no matter. We’re going to make it!

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dark now

Everything up to this point has felt pretty easy, exhilarating even- but now I’m switchbacking 6,000 feet up the South Kaibab trail and I am so. fucking. tired. Plus it’s pitch black and a cold wind picks up and slams us with irregular gusts, blowing my hat off my head and making me recoil from the dark abyss beyond the edge of the trail. Presently the moon rises heavy and orange, and casts the massive canyon walls in a cold silvery light. It grows colder still, and I put on my puffy. I keep having to stop and rest the knee. Ahead I can see the little spot of Dan’s headlamp, bobbing. My headlamp bobs in response. Up and up and up we go, into the infinite blackness. Switching back and switching back. I remember the peanut MnMs I found on the trail in the afternoon. There were five of them, so brightly colored against the dirt, and I wiped the dust off of two and ate them. The MnMs were warm from the sun, and they tasted incredible. I focus on this thought. One more switchback disappears beneath my exhausted legs. I turn the corner to find more blackness. I’m dizzy with weariness. Woosh! Woosh! Goes the wind, in the dark. I clutch my hat. I turn on a podcast, and hold the phone up to my ear so that I can hear it. The podcast is about meditation as it relates to healing and physical health. Another switchback disappears. Ahead the small spot of Dan’s headlamp has stopped- he’s waiting for me. What a treasure. How did I find such a treasure of a human being to date. Except, people are wonderful. It’s letting oneself be loved that is the hardest part. I guess I’m finally maturing into the person I always wanted to be. They say that the ultimate lesson we can ever hope to learn, as humans, is how to love and be loved.

Another switchback disappears. More blackness. Time to rest the knee. I eat the last few handfuls of potato chips and the last square of dark chocolate. All that’s left is eleventy billion more switchbacks in the cold endless night.

I am euphoric when we reach the trailhead at the top. Limping, but euphoric. We fucking did it!

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Success!!

The hour is late, and the road to the visitor center is deserted. The temperature is close to freezing, and I pull the hood of my puffy up and retract my hands into my jacket sleeves. We walk on the pavement, without headlamps. The moon is enough.  It is the easiest three miles of the entire day.

Nothing is more wonderful, or has ever been more wonderful in the history of all things, than the heated seats in Dan’s car. And the fact that there is a bed in back. Twenty minutes later we’re back at last night’s campsite on the forest service road. An ibuprofen, a bit of a snack, and a few minutes later I’m asleep.

Helpful info on the R2R2R:

-You do not need a permit to hike the r2r2r, unless you are part of a group. You only need your Grand Canyon entrance pass.
-The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open 24/7, 365 days a year. After hours there is a kiosk at the entrance station to buy your entrance pass.
-The dispersed camping on forest service roads just south of the park is most excellent, and a good alternative to the park campgrounds, which are often full.
-Spring and fall are the best times to do this hike. The temperature at the bottom of the canyon is generally 20 to 30 degrees higher than on the rims, so one must be prepared for both hot and cool temperatures.
-The South Kaibab trail is shorter than the Bright Angel trail, but is steeper and has more lumps and rocks in it, so it’s harder on the body. Taking the South Kaibab trail both down and up makes a 42 mile day, taking the South Kaibab one way and the Bright Angel another makes a 45 mile day, taking the Bright Angel trail both ways makes a 48 mile day (I think).
-The earliest shuttle to the trailheads from the parking areas, in May, is 4:30 a.m. Alternately, one can park pretty close to the South Kaibab trailhead on the curbside parking spots near the rim viewpoints (we only realized this after). The last shuttle on the south rim is “one hour after sunset”. If one starts from the North Rim, one can park right at the North Kaibab trailhead. (The North Rim opens for the season May 15.)
-There are regular water spigots and restrooms along the r2r2r- every 7 miles, sometimes more frequently.

Things I’d do differently next time:

-Train beforehand. It’d be nice to be able to run as much of the trail as possible. Completing the r2r2r in 12 or 14 hours would mean finishing while the shuttles are still running, and being able to get food after. It would also make the challenge even more interesting and exciting, I think.
-I’d start at 3 a.m., instead of 4:45. An even better chance of finishing in time for food!
-I’d carry a hydration pack instead of a daypack.

Fun Level on this hike: Maximum Fun.

Hayduke trail day 62: Zion/Fin

May 18
Mileage: 15
834 miles hiked

Even though I sleep long and hard in the dark clear night I wake up feeling tired. A deep tired, way down in my bones. It’s the kind of exhaustion I recognize from the end of a trail. I don’t want to hike anymore. I don’t want to eat bars. I don’t want to take photographs. I don’t want the chore of making nice sentences about my day before I’m allowed to go to sleep. I just don’t. I want to be alone in a quiet room with a bed and a stack of books, without the obligation to do anything or talk to anyone. Some birdsong would be alright. And vegetables.

The annoying cross country of the morning makes me even broodier. Annoying cross country? Who even am I. Sandy washes and big mounded slickrock to climb over. The mileages are off, per usual. We hike for three hours and cover three map miles. But I feel that we were walking at least 1.5mph. Oh Hayduke, must we have this argument on the last day.

We reach the trailhead for the east rim trail and begin to cruise on actual tread, past the cool zion rock walls and up into some conifers. It feels good to cruise. Still, I just feel so, so tired inside. I just need 24 hours to, like, stare into space.

The best part of the day comes when I get 4G on the mountaintop and learn that my book is now available as an audiobook!! I knew that it was in production, but I had no idea when it would be finished. So cool! A freakin audiobook!

We cruise through Echo canyon, which is just ok- a bit of a narrows, sort of. Some mucky potholes. Everything here seems smaller than what we’ve seen, and more trampled. I’m glad we came here when Dan’s parents were visiting, and hiked up to Angel’s landing. That was really cool. And my photo of Zion Canyon from the summit has more likes than any photo I’ve ever posted on instagram. Ha!

The sky curdles and it rains. There are hikers everywhere. Then we’re switchbacking down on paved trail (it’s manmade slickrock! I say to Dan) and then we’re at the restrooms at the parking lot. A 1/3 mile trail leads up an incline to weeping rock, a big chunk of cliff that drips onto maidenhair ferns. The western terminus of the Hayduke trail. Boom. We’re done.

Last week, when we were in Kanab Creek Canyon in the Grand Canyon, cooking dinner on the sand as Showerbath Spring’s perfect water cascaded through what seemed like a giant planter full of flowers, I said that, in my heart, Showerbath Spring was the real western terminus of the Hayduke trail. And as I stand in front of weeping rock today with all the other tourists, I know that, for me, this still holds true. Showerbath Spring is the end of the 1mph terrain through the Grand Canyon- that beautiful, grueling, transcendental 1mph terrain, and the Grand Canyon is the fireworks-in-the-sky grand finale of the Hayduke. So although I’m at weeping rock, trying to take a good selfie with Dan, my heart is at Showerbath Spring. And I imagine a piece of it will remain there forever.

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Sheep!!

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O zion

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Awkward finish photo at weeping wall

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Take 2

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Hayduke trail day 61: Deep sand to Virgin River narrows

May 17
Mileage: 15
819 miles hiked

This section going into Zion reminds me so much of earlier sections of the Hayduke. Absurdly deep, fine sand that packs into our shoes, and orange slickrock. It’s like it’s all come full circle. The review after the final. I’ve missed this stuff! We slog in the deep sand under a stormy sky in the morning (we were cowboy camping and the rain woke us up at 5:45), listening to podcasts and sinking back a half-step for each step we take. We’re on a jeep road, but no matter. The Hayduke, except for rare occasions, does not allow a person to walk faster than 2 mph.

The jeep road leads to some slickrock, which we scramble down into the east fork of the Virgin River. The river is lined in lush grasses and scrub oaks cottonwoods and winds through the slickrock, clear and burbling and quick but not in a threatening way. We follow the river, walking sometimes in the water, which is cool and pleasant, and sometimes on the bits of sandy bank. The canyon walls grow taller and more sheer, become narrows. A thunderstorm claps overhead and big raindrops come pelting down. We’re in a narrows… I don’t understand flash floods, not really. I know they mostly happen in the summer monsoon season, during heavy, driving rains that swell the drainages to bursting. Gentler, more pedestrian rains are not as likely to cause flash floods. But I also understand that the entire concept is new to me, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, yet, and right now I’m in a narrows with no exit point, in a heavy rain. What to do?

Dan, who is most definitely uncomfortable, makes the decision for us. We walk a few more bends down the river, until we see some slanted slickrock that leads to a shelf above. We scramble up this until we’re out of the canyon, sit on our sleeping pads with the tent draped over us, and wait for the rain to stop. I catch up on the blog posts of some PCT hikers I’m following, which I’ve saved to my phone. (This is a really good one.) It’s warm under this cuben fiber, under the patter of rain. By and by the storm wears itself out, and we scramble back down to the river again.

We follow the blue-green river for a few more hours, through waist-deep pools and over one slippery boulder obstacle to the parunuweap exit, which is a straightforward scramble out on slickrock with an obvious use path. This exit, the more commonly-used exit from the narrows, is on the right a few bends after misery canyon, where the traditional Hayduke exits via a ridiculous climb through poison ivy. We learned about the alternate exit from Jamal Green’s amazing website, which has loads of excellent information. Thanks Jamal!

We reach the top of the slickrock saddle, where there is an excellent sandy campsite, and drop our packs. If we camp here we’ll be just outside the boundary of Zion park, in which we do not have a permit to stay overnight. I’m soaked to the waist from wading in the river and although it’s only afternoon and I could keep hiking, I’m also worn out enough to feel ok about stopping. Besides, it’s our last night on the Hayduke. Why not make it a relaxing one?

As I cook my dinner in the sand, I think about all of the things I have to do after the trail. Pick up my van, pick up my passport, make appointments, drive across the country… the logistics of the rest of the summer are murky, there are still too many unknowns. It makes me uncomfortable, this not-knowing. But there are a good deal of obstacles between here and there, a number of boulder chokes and log jams. Bends in the river. Not-knowing is something I’m just going to have to sit with. I focus on the knowables, on what I can count on in the next few weeks. Sleeping in my van. Reading a book. Mooching vegetables from a friend’s garden. Being around queers again. Writing projects. Conifers. Getting my hair cut. A variety of outfits. Cuddling my boyfriend.

I drift off before it’s even dark. Dan is already asleep, his legs twitching beneath his quilt. Below us is the sound of the river and somewhere above, behind the clouds, is the moon.

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Back on slickrock candy mountain

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The east fork of the Virgin River

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Hayduke trail day 60: Touring polygamyville

May 16
Mileage: 13
804 miles hiked

Of course my debit card is not at the post office, care of general delivery to me. That would be too simple, too easy. I call my bank- they tell me they never sent the thing, because they packaged it fedex and then realized that fedex doesn’t deliver to general delivery addresses.

“Can you send it USPS?” I ask.

“Of course,” they say. “No problem.” I give them another address and Dan and I walk to the grocery store to supplement what’s in our resupply box for the next stretch. I feel sad today. Hurricaine is sort of a sad town. Just car washes and chain fast-food restaurants. I would be sad if I lived here, I think. But really I think I’m tired. I stayed up till midnight last night working on the blog in our motel room, and then woke way too early. Again. It’s time to get back out into the nature where I can sleep on the ground, like a normal person.

We don’t even have to put out our thumbs to hitchhike. A man calls out to us as we pass-

“Where are you going?”

He’s German, visiting the states for two weeks. He’s headed to the Grand Canyon in a shiny red rented convertible. He pops the trunk for us. Will out packs fit in there?

Today is the roadwalk through Colorado City- this roadwalk connects the Arizona Strip, which we just crossed, to Zion, where we’ll finish the Hayduke. Technically, one doesn’t have to walk through Colorado City, as there’s another roadwalk route that goes around it, but the Colorado City alternate is popular for, uh, cultural reasons. I am SO excited. I have been waiting all trail for this day. You see, three winters ago, when I was living alone in a tiny cabin in southern oregon, I got SUPER into reading about Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, aka FLDS, aka Mormon Fundamentalists, who splintered from the Mormon church not too long ago and are notorious polygamists. It started when I read Jon Krakauer’s book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which is just ok- but what really fanned the flames of my obsession were memoirs written by people who had left the church, with titles like Escape! And SO MUCH juicy detail about the history, culture, domestic life, inner workings and internal drama of the church. And Colorado City, which used to be called Short Creek and is owned and run almost entirely by the mormon fundamentalists (the cops, teachers, ambulance drivers and postal workers are FLDS), figures prominently in these books.

Our new German friend drops us off on the edge of town at noon, and we begin to walk. The anticipation is killing me. I want to see the hair poofs!!

Actually though it’s kind of sad. Although I’d read about how financially successful the church was, the town seems kind of run down. Large, plain houses, many in a state of disrepair. Bare dirt yards littered with broken toys. Building projects that seem abandoned. Some of the houses have the letters UEP worked into the construction. This stands for United Effort Plan, and these properties are owned by the church itself.

From what I’ve read of the FLDS, the community is structured as such: the dudes are “given” multiple wives. The more powerful you are, the more wives you are given. (And so that there are enough wives to go around, it is necessary to ex-communicate the majority of the young men.) The women work, and hand over their paychecks to the husband. They also bear as many children as physically possible- though they are usually married against their will, the most fertile wives are farther up in the wife heirarchy, and have more access to resources to care for their children. So everyone tries to be pregnant as much as possible. Also, since each man can only legally marry one woman, the rest of the wives apply for welfare as single mothers. They call this “bleeding the beast”. Some men have ten wives and fifty children. They don’t see western doctors, and if a wife gets sick or has trouble during childbirth, it means she’s out of alignment with her husband, and god is punishing her. If a woman tries to escape, the church throws all its financial power behind winning custody of her children, and almost always succeeds. For this reason women rarely escape. As far as I know, the community was doing a lot better before its most recent, and most outright fascist leader (he’s a fan of Hitler), Warren Jeffs, was imprisoned for “marrying” a 13 year-old. Jeffs still rules from inside prison, but the church has been losing members ever since. Now there are all sorts of factions, splinter groups of a splinter group.

We’re walking past a large compound when five small, tousled blonde heads pop up over the high metal fence.

“What are y’all doin?” Says the oldest boy. He’s maybe ten.

“We’re walking across Utah,” says Dan. The boys’ eyes practically bug out of their sockets.

“Why don’t you just drive?” Says one of the younger ones. His face is dusty and he’s wearing a backwards baseball cap.

“Because this is an adventure,” I say. The boys stare at me.

A woman with a hair poof and a prairie dress appears outside the front door. She’s putting empty plastic water jugs on the curb.

“It’s so great,” I say quickly. “We walk through all these canyons.”

“And you just find a place to camp?” Says the oldest boy.

“We have a tent,” I say.

The woman is calling the boys. They startle, and the blonde heads dissapear. The fence must be ten feet high. I wonder what they were standing on on the other side? And will they be punished now?

I grow sadder as we leave town and walk alongside Short Creek, a shallow sandy bit of waterway that trickles below the cottonwoods. I’ve always been drawn to, and fascinated by, American subcultures. There is beauty there, in people trying to find a different way to live, a more fulfilling way to be human. There is magic and wonder in making it all up fresh, in shaping a whole world from nothing. Marginalized subcultures are the primordial soup from which new ideas arise, the new ideas that help popular culture change and grow. I witnessed this in my twenties, in portland’s queer community. Ideas dreamed up by gender-fucking weirdo artists who lived in moldy, rundown houses and subsisted on dumpstered toast and femimist theory. Ideas that seemed so radical at first, but were eventually absorbed into popular culture and are now on their way to being taken granted by most everyone. (The newly-accepted as being gramatically correct singular they is a small example of this.)

So as I walk along Short Creek I feel sad. The mormon fundamentalist church may be based on rigid power heirarchies in which women are basically property and hundreds of children are raised up in total isolation without any knowledge of the outside world, but they tried. They failed, but they tried. They really fucking tried. And there is beauty in that. Also, the hair poofs are cool.

We climb up out of shortcreek and suddenly we’re in the land of swirly orange slickrock and deep, silty sand again. Zion is close! We trudge for a while, stopping repeatedly to empty our shoes of sand. A thunderstorm threatens, but nothing happens. Camp is in the sand amongst the fragrant sage. The sun sets and the night grows properly cold, up here at 6,000 feet. Only two days left.

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