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!

PCT SOBO WA part 4: heat and smoke

Snoqualmie Pass to White Pass
99 miles
7/31 to 8/4

Day 18

I have good dreams and good sleep and in the morning Mary Poppins gives me a homemade GF chocolate cookie from her resupply box and I drink hotelroom drip coffee that reminds me of Ajo mornings with No More Deaths and the thermos of drip coffee I’d make that was half hot water and driving the truck that felt like it was rattling to pieces down sandy jeep roads in the sonoran desert with the sun coming up.

I finally finish my blog ten minutes before checkout but I ain’t mad about the extra chill time, my feet are grateful for it. 

One more giant curry from the aardvark express foodtruck in front of the chevron and then Mary Poppins and I are rollin out. I have a new trail fren to hike with! I’m so excited.

It’s noon and hot, we’re in a heatwave and the thick flowers are making the air humid, I’m sweating buckets and rings of salt are forming on my shirt, adding to the rings of salt that already exist on my pack. We climb into third-growth forest, short and brushy, and the sun beats at us and sweat trickles into my eyes. Then the trail winds back into cool serene old-growth, dim like a cathedral and heavy with a sort of quiet sentience, and then out into clearcuts with their bright pink fireweed and huge, bleached-white stumps. Then back into third-growth. The hills in every direction are spiderwebbed with logging roads. I feel emotional about all of this. I mean I use as much paper products as anyone and I know if it’s not cut here it’ll just be cut somewhere else, where we don’t have to see it. I know that the most we can ask for, right now, as human civilization continues to crash through the natural world like an iron snowball rolling downhill, gaining momentum, is an illusion- and that if you have the right amount of privilege, an illusion is definitely for sale. And I know that hiking the PCT as a white person is me using my privilege to frolic, for a little while, in this illusion. I pause in the old-growth and put my hand on a tree and I know that the forest loves us, in spite of everything, that it can see longer and larger than we will ever be able to and yet it still loves us, and wants us to find peace. I don’t have any clear answers but at least there is that.

We camp on an overgrown logging road after 18 miles and 4,565 feet of elevation gain and I eat my little dinner and lay under my mosquito netting, watching the last of the light drain from the sky and then experiencing gratitude as my own consciousness drains away as well, towards sleep.

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Day 19

I sleep poorly and in the morning the distant mountains are hazy with smoke- there’s a forest fire! 

I have reception so I check on my phone- four fires, actually, and growing. None of them are close, but their collective smoke is obscuring the views. The PCT in washington is such a gamble, between the rains and the fire season- I feel grateful to have had the sparkling, sunny views that I did for the first 300 miles. Now the air is thick and the light has gone heavy and orange, and the meadows are faded like old photographs. 

We have 6,155 feet of elevation gain today, in the heat and the smoke which seems to be growing thicker, and by evening I feel a bit like I’m going to throw up. Camp is at a spring that seeps from a patch of spongy earth on the side of the mountain and although there are a bunch of other hikers there Mary Poppins finds us a secret extra campsite that probably only the elk know about. We cowboy camp, optomistic about the bugs. 23 miles today.

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Day 20

The mosquitoes wake me promptly at 4:30 and although that wasn’t enough sleep I imagine I’ll thank them later, on account of the heat. The smoke is definitely thicker today and so there are no views and there are great masses of swarming, biting blackflies. I actually think about quitting. I’m a section hiker, why not? But I don’t quit. Which is good. Because in a few days the smoke will seem almost… charming. Although I don’t know that yet.

All day I am too hot again. 4,362 feet of elevation gain today through the same third-growth mixed with old growth and then up on forested ridge where the light comes through the trees in six different ways. And then out into alpine meadow with the lupine and the slopes of talus and an explosion of marmots, whistlepigs running in every direction with their kitchen-smokealarm calls. My feet don’t hurt this section! My feet don’t hurt anymore! 

Mary Poppins

We crest sourdough gap and pound downhill to Sheep lake where we throw ourselves into the cool clear water with its soft mud bottom and we paddle around until the heat and the ache and the day are washed off of us and we’re new again, and we’re hungry and elated and tired. There is a perfect campsite in a ring of spruce trees and a soft neo-air bed under my bug net where the biting flies can’t get me. 26 miles. I sleep.

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Day 21

Ok, the smoke is kinda cute. Even if it does make me feel slightly ill when paired with the heat. We’ve been circling Mt. Rainier, even tho we can’t see it. Which is kind of mystical in a way.

What Ranier? I don’t see a Ranier

So there still aren’t any views, but the water is back today. There are lakes and ponds everywhere to keep us cool and in the afternoon we dunk in Bumping River, which is so cold it scalds me. I rinse my clothes and hiking afterwards, in clothes soaked with icy stream water, is much more tolerable. Mosquito hell is here at last- I thought maybe we’d miss it but the gentle swarms hath descended and combined with the biting blackflies, it really is something else. Peak Biting Insect gets the adrenals going, it helps a person hike fast! If we can do 28 miles today we’ll be three miles out from White Pass and we can spend all day tomorrow in Packwood, eating and resting. This sounds like a great plan, to me. And only 4,200 feet of elevation gain, over those 28 miles. For washington, that’s practically flat!

I pass so many beautiful lakes in the last hours of the afternoon and dream that I live on the banks of one of them, in a cabin with a huge screened in porch, where I sleep on a real bed in thick dark with the loamy summer air moving to and fro…
Camp is at a wee pond ringed in elk prints. I feel stoked. 28 miles and my feet don’t even hurt! I’m definitely getting stronger. All the little tendons in my feet/ankles/knees are once again getting used to this hiking business. I fill my bottles with pond water to make dinner. Pond water still tastes at least five times better than city tap water. The stick-breakers are out early, we hear them tromping around in the woods. Not yet, I think, as I drift off on top of my sleeping bag, the night too warm to climb inside. I’m not asleep yet.

Day 22

One tiny pot of tea, one bar and three miles gets me to the highway and White Pass, where I pick up my box from the convenience store and Mary Poppins and I hitch a ride into Packwood. In Packwood, which is just a few blocks long, the heat and the smoke are practically blistering- yesterday, apparently, it was 104° here. The pizza place has huge breakfasts so we do that. The clump of kindly bros we’re hiking around is there, staring into space after comsuming massive plates of food. I greatly relish my five bacon strips, three eggs, and hashbrowns. Mary Poppins gets an omelet full of all the standard veggie pizza toppings, I try a bite and it’s really good.

The Hotel Packwood is the kind of place that I like to think was originally, back in the 1800s when this was a booming logging town, a brothel. Sixteen small square rooms along a long narrow corridor, shared bathrooms at the end. The rooms are furnished with well-worn antiques and an oscillating fan. Windows with floral curtains look down onto the smoky street. No air conditioning. Creaking floors and a comfortable parlor downstairs.

Definitely a brothel.

I love our room. I buy blueberries and salad from the small grocery and then hole up to blog, but presently fall asleep in the heat with the small sounds of the village coming in the window. When I wake I pick up my phone again, and finally get some work done. By and by Mary Poppins returns and we go to the Blue Spruce Saloon, which looks rundown on the outside but is packed with about a hundred people on the inside. 

Almost every seat and barstool is taken and the noise is deafening. Where do all these people live and what are they doing in this wee town? It’s amazing. We find our bro friends and squeeze in at their table and presently I have a burger on a gf bun with tater tots and it is amazing. Afterwards we return to the Hotel Packwood and I finish off the 2lb carton of blueberries I bought earlier and then stare at instagram in the dark in bed until the air coming in the open window at last starts to cool and then I am asleep.

PCT SOBO WA Part 3: feelings

Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie Pass
71 miles
7/26 to 7/30

Day 13 
I’m awake at 7 in the Dinsmores bunkhouse and I pull the earplugs from my ears and step outside barefoot in the morning dew. I sort my resupply- the boxes I sent myself are heavy on the lara bars and lara bars, suddenly, have become inedible to me. What a waste, I think, dumping them into the hiker box, but oh well, somebody will eat them.

My feet are feeling better today. Yay little tendons, I think. Get stronger! I eat breakfast at the Cascadia Inn in Skykomish with a bunch of other hikers, massive portions of hashbrowns and eggs for the bottomless pit my stomach has become, and then hitch back to Stevens Pass, which is a ski resort that really encourages loitering in the most amazing ways. Tables and chairs, a charging station for phones, restrooms, a cafe with gluten free cake! And then an employee comes out with a huge tub and four spoons and says would we like the dregs of this chocolate icecream barrel? Would we ever!

calories and a place to charge a phone, literally what else does a hiker need

At 7pm after many hours of staring at my phone I am finally finished with my blog and ready to hike out. The cafe has closed, all the other hikers have trickled away down the trail. I feel great- my legs are rested and my batteries are charged, so to speak, and I climb up to the gondolas in the low evening light and then down, 4 miles to a lake that vibrates with mosquitoes. No mosquito hell, not yet, just the normal amount. It’s almost august, maybe there won’t be mosquito hell for me at all- we’ll see. I eat wavy lays for dinner in my bug net shelter and drift off in the absolute silence of the wilderness.
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Day 14

I wake up groggy and sit in my shelter, waiting for my tea water to get hot, and read my friend Vanessa’s article, which I’d saved to my phone- What It’s Like Being The Fat Girl On The Hiking Trail. In the article, Vanessa says so many things about the long-distance hiking community that I’ve wanted to say but haven’t been able to find the right words, and just reading it, I feel like a weight is lifted off my heart. I’m so grateful for all the people having hard discussions, right now, about who does and does not have access to the outdoors, and how those people are depicted in popular media and in outdoors culture. The long distance hiking community is mostly white, mostly thin, very heteronormative, and super apolitical- many hikers use their privilege to ignore current issues, as they are not personally affected by these issues, rather than working to make things better in these times of great injustice- and to be honest sometimes I’m ashamed to be a part of the long-distance hiking community. What makes it worse is that I don’t know how to change this current long-distance hiking culture- when a population is privileged enough that nothing is forcing them to fight against injustice, as their race/class/gender/sexual orientation means that their own small worlds are mostly unaffected, then it apparently means that many of them will simply choose not to. And as I once saw somewhere on Twitter, “I don’t know how to convince you that you should care about other people”. But Vanessa’s article helps. It buoys me. 

Otherwise tho my brain feels switched off today and I zone out for hours, listening to my audiobook and huffing my way uphill in the heat- I’m up in the mountains but there’s a heatwave I guess, and I’m sweating a lot, and already I smell bad. Today’s 22 miles has 6,640 feet of elevation gain, and I feel it. My muscles are getting stronger, though, and I feel that too. Although my tendons are still like what the hell are you doing.

Around midday I feel irritated, maybe it’s the heat? and I can’t seem to shake it. I meet a young man from Denmark who’s out backpacking for two weeks. He starts peppering me with questions. Where am I from? What have I hiked? What do I do for work? What gear am I carrying?
“I see you have a lot of tattoos,” he says, walking behind me. “Do they mean anything?”

Are you fucking kidding me? I think. I hike uphill as fast as I can, and then he’s gone.

In the evening I reach a stream that comes rattling down a drainage, referred to as “cascading stream” on the maps, that I remember as being a bit of a puzzle to cross going northbound. Now, earlier in the season, it’s rushing even more furiously downhill, roiling and churning over the rocks. Its thunder is deafening and soothing all at once. The first branch is not too hard to find a way across, but the second branch is too strong- I take a few steps in and then retreat. I climb up and over some truck-size boulders to get farther downstream. It’s fun. At last I find a spot where the stream spreads out, and is calmer, and I make my way across. I sit on a boulder in the sun on the other side, soaking up the roar of the water and feeling grateful to be safely on the other side. Sketchy stream crossings scare me. I would’ve been way too much of a wimp for the Sierras this year!

I camp on an unnamed ridge, it’s cold with enough of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes down.

Day 15 
I sleep hard again, god I love sleeping in the cold dark nature. I struggle out of my tarp/netting combo once at 2 a.m. to pee and the sky is strung all over with stars. In the morning I feel sort of twitchy again while hiking, grumpy and irritated. I can’t stop fidgeting and thinking about things that upset me. I know anger is often a mask for something else. I’m probably not drinking enough water. Or maybe I’m lonely, as I’m not near anyone in this section so there’s not anyone to make smalltalk with. Or maybe it’s PMS. No-one to talk to about it with, anyway, just rocks and trees. Nothing to do but drink more water and see if it passes, I guess.

4,042 feet of elevation gain today. Forest, forest, forest, mountaintop. The last three hours of the day pain flashes around my body like balls in a pinball machine. A long pounding downhill at the end and all I can think about is jumping in the stream and washing the heat and sweat away. I’m gonna take off my clothes and dunk in the creek! I’m gonna dunk in the creeeeek! I’m thirsty but I’m gonna dunk in the creek and that’s like drinking water but for my whole body!

Lemah creek is the one with the bridge out, but not in a sketchy way. It’s thundering a bit but still chill enough to cross without danger. I plop my pack down in the dust (I’m camping here tonite) and carry my water bottles and steripen down to the piled boulders at the water’s edge. I make my way downstream, hopping and scooting from boulder to boulder, towards a hidden little nook where I can strip and dunk in the water without worrying about being seen. I’m tired, my legs are weak. I take another step and slip- my hands fly out to catch myself on the rock as I fall. Plop! One of my gatorade bottles and my steripen fly into the roiling water and are carried away. Noooooooooooo! I shout at the stream. Not my freakin steripen! My magic UV light! That thing has been with me for thousands of miles! Frickin heck! How will I treat my water now?
I dunk anyway, and it feels good, although the water is so cold it makes me ache. I put my clothes back on and clamber up the bank. I’m sitting in my campsite when Bandit and Ghost, two hikers I’ve been leapfrogging with, show up. Ghost isn’t treating his water but Bandit has bleach in a visine dropper bottle (this is the most popular water treatment method among long distance hikers who hike multiple trails) and he lets me use some- one drop per liter, let it sit 30 minutes. The bleach freaks me out, as it’s bad for gut flora, but just this once shouldn’t hurt. And then I have magically potable water. Which is cool. And tomorrow I’ll get to town.

I fall asleep to the sound of the water. 24 miles today.

Day 16 

The longest most brutal climb in the morning flings me onto the hot rocky sunbaked spine of the mountains by midday, where the sun is so bright I think the flowers will combust. The trail becomes talus tumbled every which way. There on the horizon is Ranier, like a god. Alpine lakes wilderness, what a dazzling explosion of light.

Today’s 21.5 miles have 6,295 feet of elevation gain, and even though they are miles towards town, they are not fast. I lose myself in the heat, the flowers, the irregular surface of the trail. I take lots of breaks. I find a stream that showers down directly from the mountaintop over huge stone slabs and fill my bottles- no need to treat this source. I cook my extra dinner for lunch. I re-tape my blisters. I consider napping. I listen to the podcast episodes of Democracy Now that I downloaded in town, and it makes me feel a little more connected to the larger world- the episode for Wednesday, 7/27/17, is particularly good- it’s largely about Steve Bannon, and talks about the way he created the alt-right from the online gaming community. Bannon owned a company that was selling expensive game shortcuts to help the more monied gamers cheat (aka gold farming), and the online gaming community organized on 4chan and reddit and successfully shut his company down. That’s when Bannon realized how much power the online gaming community, which is made up almost entirely of young white men who spend most of their time online, had, and he hired far-right internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos to write articles on Brietbart that would entice him. And now Steve Bannon is the president’s closest advisor and strategist and the scourge of alt-right “peaceful ethnic cleansing” neo-nazis is spreading across the land… (watch the full show here or download it on your podcast player of choice.) Bannon is such a purely evil character, like a villian from a comic book. He is capitalism distilled down to its purest and most sociopathic essence, and learning about his ways and motivations feels important, and helps so much to explain how things got the way they are and where we’re headed next.

It’s 6pm by the time I reach the highway, and Snoqualmie pass. Snoqualmie pass is a crowded chevron, essentially, with a motel and pancake house combo next door. And then there’s Aardvark Express, the log-sided food truck that sits in front of the chevron. I’ve been thinking about this food truck for days. It’s some of the best food on the PCT! I order the curry, which is a massive container of rice and meat and veggies with shredded cabbage on top and sit under the shaded little eating area, and time slows down.

One of the best things about long distance hiking is that ordinary things transform themselves into narcotics. Food. Chairs. Shade. Sitting. Also beds. Sleep. Any form of rest. Water, if you’re thirsty. Bless!

The motel is full. There’s no place to camp here, how am I gonna shower and charge my battery pack now? Then Dan, the owner of the food truck and basically the most hiker-friendly person in all of Snoqualmie, tells me about a large cabin on the edge of town where a group of ultra runners are staying for a race tonight and maybe I can camp there too? En route we pick up Ghost and Bandit, who are wandering along the shoulder of the road looking also for a place to stay, and at the cabin the event coordinator says yeah, we can stay there, and I wash my roadkill-smelling clothes in the shower and then we all pitch our shelters in a little clearing outside and everything is wonderful.

Day 17

Condensation comes in the night and soaks my sleeping bag and I dream I’m at a party at my friend Seamus’ house and everyone has babies now? And it’s really fun. I wake up missing Portland. When am I gonna be around queer people again? Feels like never… In the morning I’m walking back to the Aardvark thinking about my other conundrum, “how am I going to get to Seattle to get a new steripen,” when a car pulls up next to me and a very kind woman named Ashley says 

“Hey, I’m a trail angel from Seattle. Do you need a ride?”

This is incredible, saving me a hitch which might take a while, and it’s fun to ride with Ashley and talk about everything after being pretty solitary on the trail for a few days. Ashley drops me right at the REI in Issaquah, which feels incredible and I still can’t believe my good luck. Thank you Ashley!! And THEN, my friend Butters from PCT 2014, who lives in Seattle, had just happened to message me, and he offers to give me a ride BACK to Snoqualmie, which would have been an almost impossible hitch- out of a strip mall in the suburbs and to the mountains. Thank you Butters!! 

Bless

I haven’t seen Butters in years and it’s fun to catch up on the drive. He’s been going on these climbing trips in the North Cascades that are so insane I can’t even conceptualize them. (He puts photos on instagram here, the photos are beautiful and totally bonkers, give him a follow!) In Snoqualmie all the bros in this little bubble I’m in are hangin at the Aardvark and Butters pulls up a chair and joins them seamlessly as though they’ve all been hiking together for weeks. I feel a bit awkward- I mean they’re all nice bros, very humble and kind and I haven’t heard them say anything misogynist, but they’re just not my people, and although it’s nice to have folks to camp near some nights and to make small talk with when we pass each other, in many ways it feels as though I’m out here alone. One thing I didn’t take into account with SOBOing is that there seem to be far fewer women on trail than when going NOBO. These 20-something straight dudes are out here rollin deep having the adventure of their lives and I am happy for them, I mean I sincerely am! but man, I miss hiking around women. (And I miss queer community too, but that’s so rare on trail that it’s not worth mentioning. What is anything, eh?)

I guess I should be hiking out today but I’ve only just started writing my blog, hunched over a metal picnic table in the sun and tbh my feet would like some more rest and I’m section hiking anyway, what’s the hurry? (Oh the glory of being a section hiker!) I’m definitely leaning towards staying, but where? Then a new hiker shows up- Mary Poppins! She’s wearing a visor and a highlighter-pink shirt that’s gone grey in spots from dirt. Her pack is small and tidy. She northbounded last year and this year she’s southbounding. She tells me over her vegetarian tacos at the Aardvark that she’s an acupuncturist who can’t seem to stop hiking long enough to settle down. She’s getting a room at the Inn tonite and is down to split it. Yes!!!

I talk Mary Poppins’ ear off over our dinners at the pancake house attached to the inn- blackened salmon cesar salads and huge plates of fries, which I realize is the ideal hiker town meal- a big plate of veggies and quality protien, and then another big plate of- calories. Mostly in the form of carbs. I must be PMSing, and my PMS on top of hiker hunger is making Super Hiker Hunger- Extreme! And I am literally getting high off these fries. Mary Poppins is a good sport about all the talking and I am so freakin grateful.

Oh just a perfect meal

I fall asleep well past hiker midnight after attempting, and failing, to finish my blog in bed in the dark and the window is open and the heat has made way for Mountain Nighttime Cool and the sheets are like heaven underneath me and this stupid lumpy pillow is like heaven too and I have cold leftover fries wrapped in a napkin for breakfast and I’ve made new friend and everything is gonna be alright.

PCT SOBO WA part 2: alpine meadow flowergarden world

7/19/17 to 7/25/17
Rainy Pass to Stevens Pass
127 miles

Day 6
I hardly sleep but the hostel bed is so freakin comfortable to just lie in, so who cares. A pillow even. What euphoria! Why can’t I appreciate beds this much when I’m not hiking? In regular world a bed just feels… regular. How amazing life would be if they always felt this good! This is why I hike, I guess.

In the morning I go slowly about this thing called embodiment, walking lazy and unfocused into the sun, peering in the windows of the closed shops of Winthrop. I have breakfast with another hiker, a young man who double majored in philosophy and english literature and already, tragically, has shin splints. (He’s rested a few days, though, and is feeling better.) Once the gear stores open I buy a few tiny things (always while thru-hiking I am going into gear stores and buying the smallest things in the store) and then I mail away my ice axe- general consensus is that in this next section we will need microspikes only. I hope this is true, because now my ice axe is gone.

I eat 18oz of blueberries in one go while standing outside the grocery store staring at nothing and it is ten minutes of pure unadultarated bliss, after which I ride the squeaking loaner mountain bike back to the hostel and pack up my bag. I’m finally ready to hike out.

Two hitches gets me back to the PCT by 5:30 and 6.5 miles through the warm low forest along bridge creek gets me to my campsite next to the water. A very kind German couple is there, who I started with at Harts Pass. So far they are Very Impressed with the nature here in this country. So am I, I tell them. So am I.

Day 7

Hiking fast through an abundance of ripe huckleberries towards Stehekin, listening to the audiobook of Evicted, which is about poverty and the affordable housing crisis in the U.S. It’s a great book and I learn a lot and once it’s finished I think about the complexity of a white man writing about the ghetto and winning a pulitzer prize. I mean it’s a great book, very accessible and will appeal to white people and sneakily get them to empathize with poor people of color and how fucked they are in the current housing market, and that’s important and maybe this is what it takes to bring the conversation to the mainstream, like no-one was listening to the actual poor people of color talk about their lived experiences but maybe they’ll listen to this white man with a PhD and a mcarthur genius grant who “studied” the poor people? Also his descriptions of extreme poverty bring back memories of my own childhood and I think about the complexities of that, being a white person who grew up basically on no money, eating from food banks (I still don’t understand canned government issue corned beef hash, like what it is and where does it come from), staying in shelters and not having any soap, then finding a $20 bill and blowing it on candy, because no-one knows how to #yolo like those living in extreme poverty. And now I’m an adult who makes her living partially by creating media of nature for other white people, most of them well off, who are trapped in cities, and all of the privilege inherent in that lifestyle. Anyway I want to talk to someone about all this stuff, but there are only trees, and huckleberries.

The bakery in Stehekin is less mindblowing than I remember because my hiker hunger has not yet kicked in but it’s still, to be honest, really really good. I eat chickpea soup and a huge green salad and some thai rice noodles and a massive GF carrot raisin muffin. Then I am in a food coma and I walk to lake Chelan and look at the dreamy turquoise water and remember how in 2014 we took kayaks out onto the lake, all the way to the cliffs on the other side. At 5:30 I’m on the last shuttle out of the village and I walk 4 miles uphill to camp. 15 miles today. Between here and Stevens Pass is the most difficult section, as far as elevation gain and loss goes, of the entire PCT. We’ll see how I do, with my wobbly new hiker legs.

Day 8
I sleep almost, but not quite, enough, after which I walk uphill through the enchanted forest for sixteen miles straight. I’m not sure how much elevation gain total today, but I think it’s a lot? Maybe 6k? Glacier peak makes itself known through the trees- I’ll be walking in a half-circle around it, up and down up and down. Over passes. 

The day ends with an epic descent that shatters my feet all to bits, beautiful as it is with the springs coming out of the mossy convoluted bottoms of the huge trees and the soft light just-so through the cedar boughs. 

I camp next to the roaring Suiattle river with another hiker. 23 miles today. There are enough sobos around that I’ve camped near other hikers almost every night, but could also camp solo if I wanted to, which is pretty cool. The river is deafening and churning with silt and the white noise lulls me to sleep. I’m pretty sure a mouse runs across the hood of my sleeping bag a couple of times as I’m drifting off, but maybe I’m just imagining it?

Day 9

That was definitely a mouse running across my bag last night. As a result my sleep is not awesome but oh well, what can you do. Eat caffienated cliff shot blocks, is what.

The other hiker, who does not yet have a trail name, and I spend an hour in the morning walking up and down the eroded riverbank looking for the log across the raging Suiattle that will take us to the overgrown “old PCT” alternate, which I took in 2013 and which was one of my favorite parts of the whole trail. Alas we do not find it, and finally we set out in a forwardly direction. (Some hikers behind us do find it, so it is still there, I’m just not sure exactly where.) 

Some flat stuff through massive old growth but it’s overcast so the light is not good for photographs and to be honest, I do not know how to photograph a forest. I tell myself I’ll try harder. Or maybe I’ll just keep these images for myself, in my own brain, because I love the forests here so much. 

Midday there is a 5k foot climb that absolutely breaks me. But then I’m high off endorphins and also on top of a pass that feels like being in the sky, and I remember why I like this shit. I put my mosquito net over me to keep off the swarming blackflies with their sawmouths and sit in the dirt eating jerky and dried whole bananas and everything is fucking great.

In 2013 and 2014, when I was northbounding, I was so strong by the time I got to Washington that I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel the ascents, I didn’t feel the descents. In 2014 I did 33 and 34 mile days through this section. I rode my legs like a frickin segway, like they were a detached, motorized part of me that only needed to be fed bars and they could go, and go, and go forever. But this time, fresh from the sedentary land of chairs, I feel everything. And I see everything, as the weather is perfect and clear (not like the fog-rain of September 2013) and I’m not yet numb to the views. I crawl up the mountains in absolute wonder, feeling every pebble beneath my very sore feet, marveling at every cluster of lupine. This feels like the ideal way to start the PCT, assuming you can hike the whole trail in 4 months (which is how fast you need to go to get through the sierras before the first winter storms if you start at the Canadian border July 15, when much of the snow in the North Cascades is gone). Of coure starting in the wild up-downs of Washington on such a tight timeline creates a higher chance of overuse injury, so there is that as well.
The eleventy billion switchbacks down to Milk Creek are super overgrown, like nothing I would expect on the PCT, and I’m sweating and thirsty and I really have to shit but these salmonberry bushes keep trying to force me off the trail and down the steep slope to my right, and I can’t see the ground for the plants and I never know if I’m stepping down onto earth or thin air and one time it’s air and I fall and twist my knee but really I don’t mind, because it’s interesting to see how quickly the growing green things reclaim this 18 inch wide strip of cleared earth. I pretend for a moment that I’m in a post-collapse dystopia and the PCT is abandoned and I’m trying to hike it anyway, which is fun. Then I’m on a footbridge over raging milk creek and partway up the other side is a campsite tucked into a cluster of hemlocks. I set up my bug net and sit for a while doing nothing, just staring at my feet and noticing the pains that ricochet around my body. Today’s 20 miles felt like a lot.

Day 10 

In a few days another hiker will tell me that today I climbed a total 8,500 feet, but this morning I don’t know that yet, thank god.

I sleep like a million dollars and then hike up through more wet overgrown salmonberry to Mica lake, which is glacier blue and still partially frozen- there’s no summer at Mica lake, as the old saying goes. 

A man in yax trax is teaching his son how to fall on a snowpatch next to the lake and he demands to tell me the “beta” about the snowfields coming up as I walk by. I humor him, even though I’m pretty sure I know more about the upcoming snow and how to cross it safely than he does. Being a woman in the world, amirite? Turns out the snow patches on the way to Fire Creek Pass are very small and very chill and I don’t even need traction.

I crunch my way across them and then sit on top of the pass, watching the fog rise up from the drainage way below and inhaling bars. Today is day 10 and I can feel my hiker hunger rising up inside, the engine burning hotter and hotter like a freight train comin through until soon my digestive system will vaporize snacks on impact and I’ll never be satisfied, I’ll fill the daylight hours dreaming of watermelon and roast chicken and all yall will think “why does she obsess about food so much”.
First long climb of the day finished, I pound way down into a dim warm forest where there are blowdowns, real legit ones where you have to think for a while how to get over and for a moment it seems impossible but then you figure it out! And then the trail is a river, slosh slosh slosh, snowmelt taking the path of least resistance. I’m tired but I make a deal with myself- just keep walking, as long as you don’t stop you’ll get there eventually.

The climb up to Red pass takes me through multiple, layered worlds. Out of the forest back into the alpine, more snow patches on the gentle green mountains and glacier peak lording over everything.

The sun is dropping and half the land is draped in shadow. Slow, slow, just don’t stop walking. At the top of Red pass I see, I shit you not, two marmots engaged in a death match for primo marmot territory- although they scamper away, seemingly unharmed, at the end. I actually got a video of this but don’t have the service right now to upload it- here’s the winning marmot afterward, surveying his territory:

The trail follows the ridge after the pass and the view is so beautiful I literally cry. A whole panorama of snowy peaks, and ranier so small in the distance!

Alpenglow is creeping up on the land and I race it, my feet yelling at me. They’re not ready for this yet!

I set up my shelter at reflection pond, which still has a big snowchunk in it, and use the last of the light to stuff dinner into my face. 24.5 miles today.

Day 11  
My feet hurt so bad at night that I have to take an ibuprofen to sleep. I try not to do this because ibuprofen is bad for gut flora, but not sleeping is bad for all my systems, so… first ibuprofen of the trail. May my body adapt quickly, so that I hardly need them.

Up and down through the alpine flower garden where I now, apparently, live. The sun roasts me and my feet hurt like whoa. They’re ready for town. Tomorrow, I tell them. Tomorrow! I get so hot I dunk my whole body in a stream, and then I am new again. I cruise on or around the ridge all day, just me and the paintbrush and the yarrow and the daisies and the tiger lillies and the biting flies and the bees. I find a flat spot just after grizzly peak and make too much dinner and eat it anyway, fall asleep before it’s even dark. 22.5 miles.

Day 12
It’s downhill almost all the 13.5 miles to the highway and stevens pass and I get tunnel vision thinking about hashbrowns with ketchup and before I know it I can see the highway below me, winding like a grey snake through the mountains. Then I get reception and the pings start coming in my phone and I feel anxiety for the first time in a while and I have to talk myself down off this ledge of anticipation because I’m going to trip over a root and break my leg if I don’t pay attention to the trail.

There are a bunch of hikers at stevens pass and five of us try to hitch to Skykomish, which seems impossible, but then a van pulls over! In skykomish I have an ok lettuce burger at the deli and we catch another ride to the Dinsmores, who are kind trail angels 6 miles outside of town. They have a bunkhouse and showers and loaner clothes and there is a dog there to pet!! Bless!! And time slows down and I feel alright again. I fall asleep in a bunk surrounded by other snoring hikers with the door open to the outside because we all require Lots of Air and BNSF intermodals blow by in the night, on the highline en route to Chicago. Tomorrow I am going to hike very little, if at all.

PCT SOBO WA part 1: Despacito

7/14/17 to 7/18/17
Harts Pass to Canada Border to Rainy Pass
91 miles

Day 1

I wake at dawn to birdsong in Premila’s backyard in Bellingham (dawn comes so early in the north!) and a few hours later, twenty or so of us are packed into two large vans, heading for Harts Pass. Premila is an incredibly kind and generous trail angel who has arranged all of this (thank you Premila!!) and I experience waves of gratitude as I watch the thick forest go by outside the van window, the leaves of the trees hazy with that soft pacific northwest sunlight. Gratitude is what I’ve been feeling in general, lately. So much gratitude! Premila’s daughter, Swept Away, is with us- Swept Away southbounded the PCT in 2014 (and I met her that year on the Mt. Whitney trail while doing the L2H!) and is doing this first section again. Her labradoodle is in the van too, and I give it lots of pats. It is good luck to pat a labradoodle before a long journey, as the old saying goes.

It’s hot at 3:30 when we finally reach Harts Pass and I am shaking with excitement and pent-up energy after a week of no exercise travelling ever-northward getting all the things done. Also jittery with sleep deprivation and just sort of high off all of it, the anticipation and the bright yellow sunshine on the green mountains and the wild unknown.

We start walking and my heart is pounding and then my body remembers, I know how to do this. The PCT is gentle and kind, the most glorious single-track on god’s green earth and the mountains in the north cascades are massive and exploding with flowers and dotted with cute snow patches and my god, what a time to be alive.

My heart won’t stop pounding until 8pm when I’ve gone 12.4 miles and I’m plum wore out and I pitch the mosquito net part of my tarp in a dim forest and wriggle into my sleeping bag against the cold. I’m not in shape so I know what’s coming and I laugh darkly to myself as I drift off to sleep…

Day 2

I dream I have to kill a bear. It’s not too hard, turns out, once I set my mind to it. What? I think when I wake up, then I remember where I am. My shoulders and feet are a bit sore today, but not too bad. Tomorrow, then…   

This is my fourth time hiking this stretch of the PCT from Harts Pass to the border, since in 2014 I turned around once reaching Canada and hiked back to Harts Pass (my passport had expired). Once I turn around today it’ll be my fifth… I recount memories as I pass them on the trail. Here’s the long uphill where I felt tired in 2014, here’s where the washouts were, here’s where we took a break to watch the sunrise, here’s where Ramen and I camped our last night in 2013, when it snowed. Here’s the stream I got water when my hands were numb.

Paintbrush, columbine, lupine, Alpine Meadow’s Greatest Hits. All the green things tryin to procreate before winter comes back in two months. A week ago there was snow across the trail in this section, now there’s not and we don’t need our microspikes and ice axes. Some of the people who started with me are already in good trail shape and have packs the size of peas and they fly by me, but I don’t mind. I know the price they pay for packs that light- cold-soaked couscous in a peanut butter jar and a dropper bottle of bleach to treat their water and only deet between themselves and the mosquitoes at night. “Go! Go!” I think when they pass me, and I imagine them turning the mountains beneath their legs. Others have packs like mine with like 6 luxury items and a sleeping bag that’s warm even on the coldest nights. And of course, as at the beginning of any triple crown trail, there are a few people with 60 lb packs who also don’t know how to navigate, even on a trail like the PCT, and on day 2 they’re already crippled by the weight of their packs, sitting on the side of the trail crying and complaining. I feel compassion for them but I also feel kind of irritated because they did literally no research and didn’t know what the trail or conditions would be like or what backcountry skills they would need and there is so much assumption and entitlement in that and it’s such a white person colonizer thing and it really rubs me the wrong way, like Chris McCandless going to that bus in Alaska with a sack of rice and no skills and not knowing the river would be impassible and then dying? Like do your homework maybe and check you arrogance? And then I realize I’m being judgmental and also ranting in my head and I try to stop but it’s hard.

I don’t really feel anything at the canadian border, and there are lots of biting flies. I try to take a good selfie and then turn around and begin the long plod uphill. I’m getting tired but frick this section is beautiful.

I camp at Hopkins lake which is like a pretty jewel set into a bowl in the mountains. 24 miles today.

Day 3

The cold wind whooped all night and I was awake, although I know I must’ve slept. At 7 a.m. I pull myself up to find that my body is so sore I can barely move.

Ah, there it is.

I stand up and pain zings from my shoulders to my hips to my feet to the backs of my knees. Beginning-of-the-trail-pain. Old friend. I’ve been waiting for you.

Maybe 24 miles yesterday was too much. I’ll stick with 20s now, that should be doable, I hope.

I feel like I’m stuck in a wierd reality where I’ll pinball back and forth between Harts Pass and the border, forever. At last I reach Harts Pass and am then beyond it! And the illusion is broken, and I’m free. It’s cold today with clouds and the trail drags me up and then down again (gently) and I camp in a meadow after 19 miles.

Day 4

I wake once shaking under the cold stars to pee and then sleep till 8(!!), and in the morning I’m a new person. Everything is grand today, and the mountains are bursting with light. I’m invincible! No, wait, I’m not. Zing! Goes the pain. I want to be strong already! But that takes time. How long? A month? I argue in my head about it. 

The world is a painting of craggy peaks and wildflowers and I’ve had the same song stuck in my head for three days. I leapfrog some other hikers and make some smalltalk and that feels good. I accidentally hike 8 miles without water because I forget to check the water sources but it’s chill. I’m hiking the PCT inside out, all the downs are up and the ups are down…

I drop down into the lush lower elevation rainforest where the big trees are and the tangles of plants and I thank the trail crews (bless them!) who miraculously keep these 2,660 miles free of debris so that us ner-do-wells never have to lift our feet more than six inches off the ground. Hiking other trails and routes since the last time I was here has given me a lot of perspective, I realize, as I climb over one very cute and non-offensive blowdown that I’m sure someone will photograph and post to the PCT facebook pages with lots of dire warnings.

Down down down into the rainforest that eats the bright sunshine and exhales the most oxygenated air. Impenetrable understory and towering conifers and fungus and a million interconnected things. It’s a living creature, I can almost hear its heatbeat. I stop for a moment, in awe. Hello forest, I say to my friend.

I could try for 25 miles today but my tendons are telling me that if I do that, I’ll break, so 21.5 will have to do. At any rate, I’m grateful to get to spend a night in this magic low forest. There is so much pleasure in eating hot soup sitting on the ground after soaking my aching feet in the icy stream water. So. Much. Pleasure.

Day 5

I climb out of the forest and am deposited once again on ribbon trail through alpine wonderland with its riot of flowers and 15 miles later I’m at Rainy Pass, where highway 20 wends its way through the mountains. My next resupply box is in Stehekin, 20 miles further down the trail, but right now I could hitch to Winthrop, where I’ve never been… I sit in the dirt eating warm salami and think about it. My whole body aches and I’m pretty dang ty-ty, and in Winthrop I could wash my buttchafe. Fuck it. A sprinter van at the trailhead is going to Winthrop, they’ll give me a ride. Winthrop is hot and bright and old-timey western. In the hostel bathroom I discover that sunscreen is caked on my face in a wierd patchy way, and probably has been for days. I procure a cute bunk and sit in the yard post-shower, listening sleepily to other hikers talk about their insoles and whether or not we’ll need our microspikes for the next section (no-one knows) while my body furiously sends new cells to my knees ankles feet for repair. It’s good to be here. 

 

Southbound on the PCT in Washington!

I’m hiking the Washington section of the PCT, southbound! I start in less than a week!!! I’m kind of terrified, mostly afraid that my health will break. I feel like I’m standing on thin ice over a deep, hypothermic lake of chronic illness- the ice is getting thicker, but slowly. However! If I start to feel less than awesome I can just do part of the state. Even if I only do one section, that’s ok. Really I’m just super super excited to see my fren the PCT in the North Cascades- I have hiked the PCT through WA in the cold rain in the time of the ripe blueberries, and in the sunshine and swimming holes of August. Now I’ll get to see it with some lovely snow, do some satisfying problem solving at stream crossings, and maybe glissade a bit. Ahhhh I’m so grateful to exist rn and it feels so good to feel good after such a long time of… not. I’ll post blogs here but the first one likely won’t be for a while, as I won’t have service. Yay!

How DIY Fecal Transplant (has so far) Cured My IBS and Chronic Fatigue (with monthly updates)

on the L2H, 2015

(Updates are at the very end of this post.)

In May, I wrote here about my chronic illness. Since then, everything has changed. In June, I cured (so far, at least) my IBS and chronic fatigue with DIY fecal transplant, aka Fecal Microbiome Transplant, aka FMT. Which is gross, and weird, but also kind of amazing. And it worked.

(Everything you need to know about FMT, including detailed DIY instructions, can be found here- thepowerofpoop.com)

If you’ve never read my blog before, here’s a recap- In 2013, I walked from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was the first time I’d done anything very physical in my life, and I loved it. So in 2014, I hiked the PCT again. In 2015, I set out to walk from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide Trail. I was two months into this hike when everything changed.

I got giardia from drinking untreated groundwater. The doctor prescribed the antibiotic flagyl (metronidazole), and soon after finishing the antibiotic a dark sense of foreboding and fatigue that felt akin to the lead blanket that’s placed on you at the dentist’s office settled onto my shoulders, and it never left. Along with the chronic fatigue, I also developed IBS. I’d had digestive issues for years, but I’d always been able to manage these issues with light dietary restrictions (no gluten, dairy or soy). Now, along with gluten, dairy and soy, I couldn’t eat any grain, eggs or nuts without cramping and diarrhea. I began to follow the autoimmune paleo diet, which excluded these things as well, and this helped some, but I still had strange unspecified abdominal pain that came and went. I was also often dizzy and nauseous, especially if I tried to exercise, and constipated on the reg.

This wasn’t the first time I’d taken antibiotics, nor the first time I’d taken flagyl, but something about this combination of giardia + flagyl was the tipping point for my digestive system, and it was all downhill from there.

I finished hiking the Continental Divide Trail in September of that year, but the second half of the trail was not fun. Hiking, and exercise in general, had gone from something that consistently made me feel amazing to something that, about half the time, made me feel exhausted and sick. Over the next year I reluctantly dropped my physical activity level way down, and yet my health still continued to decline. In addition to the fatigue and IBS, inflammation appeared- my whole body would ache when I was stressed. I was occasionally feverish for no reason I could discern, or I would break out in hives. It was difficult to sleep well, yet if I got one minute less than eight hours each night I had flu-like symptoms the next day, and was hardly able to function. Even if I did sleep well, my chronic fatigue was often such that I needed to rest for an hour or two between each of the day’s activities- run an errand, lay in bed for an hour. Make food, lay in bed for an hour. Answer emails, lay in bed for an hour…

For that first year, I still had periods where I felt mostly normal, and I was able to twist my life around these. I was doing seasonal farm work as well as working as a writer, and when I felt sick I would work less, stop exercising, and rest as much as I could. This was actually enjoyable, at first. Who doesn’t want an excuse to lay on the couch all day, watching netflix? Eventually, my health would return and I would ride that wave, living my life as though I was healthy, until I had another flare.

Then, in late 2016, I had a particularly stressful month, and in the flare that came afterward, the brain fog appeared. I could bend my life around digestive issues, exhaustion, dizziness and gloom, but the brain fog was, by far, the most alarming set of physical symptoms I’d ever experienced in my life. Suddenly, I had difficulty organizing my thoughts. I couldn’t remember anything. I was confused. I couldn’t write. I could barely read. I couldn’t focus. The simplest tasks, like putting together supplies for a trip, were so overwhelming that I would cry. I felt like I had dementia, or was losing my mind, or both.

Also, the brain fog was embarrassing. Here is an example:

A friend of mine in Tucson, M, was waiting for her friend, S, to move to town, and into the spare room in her house. Each week when I talked with M I got an update about S- now she was on her way, she was almost here, she’d be here tomorrow. Finally S was moved in, and when I went over to M’s house, S was there. S and I talked for a good half hour- she’d moved into her room, she’d brought two kittens with her that she’d adopted on the way. She hadn’t had any car trouble on the cross-country drive. She’d already found a job at a restaurant! She was stoked to be in Tucson. I told her I was doing a training the next day for the organization that M and I both volunteered with.

“I’ll be at that training!” said S.

“Great,” I said. “I’ll see you there!”

The next day, during the lunch break halfway through the training, I walked around, introducing myself to people. I introduced myself to one young woman I’d never seen before.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Carrot.”

She looked at me like I was insane.

It was S.

Now it was early 2017, and my flares were growing progressively worse, and my periods of health more fleeting. There were entire weeks where I was too exhausted and low functioning to leave the house. I slowly scaled back all my activities, and began to self-isolate. For two years I’d been making my living as I writer, and several months previously I’d begun to volunteer with a humanitarian aid organization that did work around the US/Mexico border. Now each week there was less, and less, and less that I could do. The hours and minutes of my days were ruled by my black depression, my sense of impending doom, my leaden fatigue, my anxiety, my inflammation, my digestive issues, and my brain fog. I was having the worst mood swings of my life- even if I felt good now, in an hour I might feel awful, and I was constantly having to cancel the few plans I did make. I was still following an auto-immune paleo diet, I’d brought the level of stress in my life way, way down. I was getting acupuncture and I was taking an antimicrobial blend of chinese herbs called Thunder Pearls, as well as probiotics. These things lessened the intensity and duration of my flares, but overall, I was still trending downward.

Then, I had to take antibiotics for a deep dog bite. I didn’t want to take antibiotics again! But DIY wound care for a puncture wound that was very close to an artery was more responsibility than I wanted to take on. While on the antibiotics, I actually started to feel better. And once they were finished, I dropped into a flare so intense I could barely leave the house for an entire month.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t volunteer. I couldn’t make plans. I could barely, just barely, walk my dog, but it left me so exhausted. I was making a small amount of money each month in royalties from my first book, and this is what I lived off of, unable to do any other freelance work or work towards finishing my next book. And yet, I was beyond lucky to have this little bit of money coming in. I have no idea how I would’ve survived otherwise. If I’d had a job outside of the house during this time, I definitely would’ve lost it.

I felt as though my life was over.

I was finally approved for medicaid in Arizona and had an appointment to see a general practitioner, and, after I described my symptoms, the doctor looked at me as though I was insane. I was only 34 and I wasn’t overweight, so how could I be sick? My blood tests and thyroid tests came back normal, which made the doctor even more dismissive. This, in turn, made me feel even more hopeless.

All around me was darkness, and I could no longer imagine a future. To quote a classic meme, nothing brought me pleasure any longer.

And while I was depressed, everyone else seemed depressed too. I mean, most of my friends do struggle with depression. The machinations of late-stage capitalism are attempting to destroy the last bits of what is right and good in the world, and this is a really hard time in human history to be alive. But, in spite of this, there is not only sadness. Humans (and other creatures) everywhere continue to experience joy, catharsis, contentment, inspiration… all manner of other things, in addition to/besides depression. At this point in my life, though, this was impossible for me to see. All I could see was sadness, sadness everywhere. Everyone and everything was sad, sad, sad. Sadness that had always been and always would be. If this is the embodiment, I thought, if this horrible nightmare of hopelessness is the sum total of embodiment, then what even is the fucking point.

One day in the midst of this terrible bleakness, I found myself describing my health struggles to a friend.

“I know someone who used to have a lot of the same symptoms as you,” she said. “And then she did a fecal transplant, and now she’s cured.”

The sound of a record stopping.

In the realm of chronic illness, “cured” is not a word that you hear. You hear “managed”, you hear “learned to live with”. You hear “in recession”. You do not hear “cured”. But the wild thing about this roller coaster ride called embodiment is that when you least expect it, things will turn on a dime. And this was that moment for me.

The next time I had a bit of energy I did some googling and found the website thepowerofpoop.com. I learned that the microbiome in one’s gut consists of around 1,000,000,000,000,000 (what even is that number) bacterial cells, which is about 10 times the amount of human cells in a body. I learned that while we have yet to fully understand the myriad species that exist within a human gut microbiome or what each species does, exactly, we do know that there are a heck of a lot of them and that they are necessary and helpful for things like digesting food, making nutrients available, protecting the gut lining, holding territory against invaders and producing serotonin. There are even fungus and viruses that play a helpful role in ways we have yet to understand! Antibiotics, especially broad spectrum antibiotics like flagyll, are like atom bombs in your colon- they wipe out large numbers of important species at once- maybe hundreds of different species! And once these helpful bacteria are gone, bad bacteria can take over, causing imbalances and making you super fucking sick. When this happens, it’s called gut dysbiosis. I imagined the colon as a mature forest- the indigenous plants and fungi work in concert with one other, holding the soil in place, moving nutrients around, breaking things down. If the forest is damaged or clearcut, invasive species can move in, choking out everything else. One would think that one’s microbiome could be healed with cultured foods and probiotics- but these contain, at best, half a dozen species, and these might not even make it all the way down to your colon. In our current dystopia of antibiotic overuse, one needs something more powerful than probiotics, something with all of the original species intact. One needs… poop.

Ten times more bacterial cells than human cells. What even are we. I imagined bacteria on swivel chairs behind my eyeballs, pulling giant levers, making my arms go up and down.

I imagined a village, bombed almost out of existence.

The original occupants, who carefully tended the land and lived in harmony with the earth, are gone. A roving band of derelict cannibals squats the half-burned buildings. They’ve strip-mined all the surrounding area, and burned the forests. The runoff from their mines leaks into the rivers, poisoning them. They’ve hunted all the animals to extinction. Everything in every direction around these villages is barren and dead. The cannibals are the only ones who can still survive in this toxic, blackened world. While these derelict cannibals have always existed, normally they would live in small, isolated groups far out in the hills, and most of the land would be occupied by the Original Creatures. But the Original Creatures are gone, killed by a bomb long ago, and only the cannibals live here now.

Worlds within worlds within worlds.

I learned from thepowerofpoop.com that if one has gut dysbiosis and one finds a donor whose microbiome is intact and makes a slurry of this person’s poop and gives oneself an enema with this slurry, one can re-introduce all of the original and necessary microorganisms that one is missing and possibly restore one’s health. There’s a “success stories” section of the site that’s organized by disease (here), and I read all of the IBS stories. Twice. Then I read them three times. Ok, full disclosure, I read them all five times. (I also really like this success story.) I felt a small candleflame of hope flicker on within my cold, dead heart.

It’s afternoon, siesta time, when the cannibals’ huts begin to burn. They’ve just drifted off in their hammocks when the smoke comes wafting in the open windows. The cannibals spring up and rush outside as the thatched roofs burst into flames, hot and red against the hazy 2pm sun. Alarmed and confused, they crowd in the center of the village. They’re not sure what’s happening, and then they see them- the Original Creatures. They’re astride their horses just beyond the last house, loading another round of flaming arrows into their bows. Their children sit on the backs of the horses, watching the huts burn. They’ve got their domesticated animals with them, and their carts piled high with burlap sacks of seeds. They’ve come to replant the forests and the fields. They’ve come to take back their land.

According to the website, I needed to find a fecal donor with good digestion, regular bowel movements, a limited history of antibiotic use, and no parasites, food intolerances, acne, anxiety, depression, or mood swings, as these things can all be indicative of gut dysbiosos. Well, I thought. That rules out pretty much everyone I know. Also, even if I did find someone who qualified, why would they want to give me their poop, so that I could squirt it into my butt? It was all just so… gross.

The universe works in amazing ways (although that can be really, really hard to remember when you feel like total ass nearly all of the time) and as it turns out, as soon as I started talking to friends about how I wanted to do a fecal transplant, people started to volunteer, and within a week I had two potential donors who each met the criteria for good poops. In a few days I was leaving Tucson to spend the summer on the west coast, and one of my potential friend donors was going to be in Petaluma, California, staying at her parents’ place. It would make total sense to pass through on my way to Oregon and we could do the transplant there, she said.

Everything seemed to be working out and yet, the small candle of possibility had died inside me, as I simply did not have the physiological and emotional health to maintain any sort of hope, about anything. I was still waking up exhausted each morning, attempting to get shit done (packing, moving out of my house, putting all in order for my trip) while navigating black, heavy fatigue, dizziness, digestive issues, brain fog and the most insane mood swings. Hanging with friends was excruciating- for an hour, maybe, I would be ok, and then suddenly all stimulus would become overwhelming, and the sound of other peoples’ voices would be like nails on a chalkboard. I would retreat to my dim, sweltering house and lay on the couch with a mason jar of icewater, cringing in my own personal hell. An unshakeable sense of impending doom hung over everything. There was no future, that much was certain. How could I possibly have hope?

The quiet solitude of long-distance driving through beautiful country was soothing, and even if I didn’t feel hope as I headed west, I did feel a sense of peace. I camped the first night amongst joshua trees on a dirt forest service road in Nevada, and walked my dog through the desert as the sun set over the mountains. The next morning I felt good enough to go for a very small run, and it felt exhilarating to be in my body again. I was able to pretend, for a moment, that everything was alright, but afterwards my body ached so badly, as one’s body does when one has chronic inflammation and one attempts to exercise, that I could barely keep driving, and every hour or so I had to pull off the highway to lay down on the bed in the back of my van and rest. This was nice though, too- lying in my shaded van in the desert afternoon, reading the copies of the New Yorker I’d stockpiled for the trip, small dog curled against my side. There, again, was that elusive sense of peace.

Driving through Death Valley brought back memories of the time, in 2014, that I’d hiked from Badwater Basin to the top of Mt. Whitney with some friends- The Lowest to Highest Route. One of the hardest hikes in the world, and I had loved every minute of it. (I wrote about it here and here.) There was Telescope Peak, still dusted in snow, now, in early june- a ten thousand foot climb over fourteen miles, cross-country, and by the time we’d reached the top I was so high on endorphins I felt as though I could fly. We hadn’t brought enough water for the climb, and were pretty dehydrated by the time we reached the hidden spring in Tuber Canyon, on the other side in the dark. Every night of the L2H we had either hiked late, woke before the sun, or there were some sort of insects that wanted to drink the moisture in our eyeballs- and so for six days, we barely slept. It was fun, though. We became one with the lonely beautiful desert and it was so, so, so fun.

I was relieved when I reached Lone Pine, not only because the temperature gauge in my van had stressed me out a bit on the steep, narrow highway through Death Valley. Remembering the time when my body worked the way it was supposed to made me feel so sad, and I wasn’t trying to feel sad right then. I don’t need to be able to climb Telescope Peak again, I said to myself. I just want to be able to walk my dog without feeling as though there are lead weights tied to my ankles. But they were one and the same, weren’t they? I was either sick, or I wasn’t. And I was sick. This was where I was at, and there was no changing it. No hope, no hope, no hope.

A few days later I arrived at my friend’s parents’ beautiful house in Petaluma. The weather was cool here, near the sea, it even rained a little. At walgreens I’d picked up everything on the shopping list from the Power of Poop website (here), with a few modifications- I wanted to be able to throw everything away after each enema, instead of having to wash things for reuse, because that, to be honest, is fucking gross, so I got disposable fleet enema bottles, the kind with the saline solution inside, with the intention of emptying the solution out and using the bottle, instead of a hanging enema bag. I knew that, in theory, a hanging enema bag would move the solution farther up my colon, but I’d also read online reports of people having success with the bottles, and I just really, really didn’t want to have to touch poop any more than absolutely necessary. I got latex gloves, as well. No touching poop for me!

I slept badly in the quiet indoors and the next morning, June 7th, 2017, I woke up feeling horrible, per usual; chalk full of dread and exhaustion. Well, I thought. Here goes nothing. We had breakfast and hung around waiting for my friend to have a bowel movement, which was funny. At last she pooped into a tupperware, which was also funny, and I set everything up in her bathroom- doubled gallon ziploc bags, paper towels, etc. (I won’t go into more detail here about my process to spare you the grossness, but I basically followed the DIY instructions on the Power of Poop website to the letter, except for using disposable enema bottles instead of a hanging enema bag, and I chose to use plain tap water instead of saline or distilled. Read those instructions here.)

Everything was done and in the trash by mid afternoon, and a few hours later we decided to go out for thai food. The inside of the thai restaurant was quiet and peaceful, and when my yellow curry arrived, it was incredible. That first spoonful of the warm, spiced coconut milk with vegetables and chicken was, somehow, one of the most pleasurable things I’d ever experienced.

“This is the best yellow curry I’ve ever had,” I said to my friend, surprised. I looked around at the low tables, the other diners murmuring quietly, the mirrors on the walls. “This thai restaurant is amazing. Is your food this good?”

“Mine’s alright,” said my friend.

“I feel happy for no reason,” I said. It was true. But probably, I figured, it was the curry. This incredible, incredible, curry!

Next, we drove to the ocean. And, I mean, have you ever driven to the ocean? Better yet, have you ever driven to the ocean on a winding country road with the windows down? While listening to pop music? In the fog? Because, I tell you, it is incredible. It is beyond incredible. It is euphoric! And then, I mean, the fucking ocean! There are so many things happening, sensory-wise, at the ocean. There are smells, and air, and the sea itself, all calm and knowing, and more fog, and sand, and one’s dog being free, and wet stacks of sea-soaked rocks to climb over. And if you are there with a friend! My god, have you even ever had a friend? Because I tell you, having a friend, especially at the sea with the waves doing things and also a dog along with you, is amazing. I mean, human connection at the fucking ocean! Have you ever even hung out with another human? Really talked to another person? Because it is just beyond.

We walked along the wonderfully-textured sand with its ribbons of pleasing detritus talking and laughing, and the waves made charming splashing noises as they moved in and out amongst the nice rocks, and the warm-cool sea air caressed my skin the way I imagine it caresses the skin of people in romance novels.

“I feel happy for no reason, I feel happy for no reason,” I kept repeating. And in my mind, I said to myself It’s probably just because it’s fun to hang out with a friend at the ocean, nevermind the fact that for the past 2.5 years off and on, and for the past six months consistently, I’d been unable to have “fun” at all, no matter what the circumstances, and every time I’d tried to have “fun” it had felt as though I had no skin, and sensory stimulus was physically painful, to the point that I’d decided that “fun” wasn’t even real, and was some sort of cruel joke that popular culture had invented to torture all of us.

That night I went to bed happy but still, more or less, without hope. I mean, what were a few good hours, really? In the face of everything?

I slept for eight complete hours minus getting up once to pee and when I woke in the morning not only was I not exhausted, but this world, this new world into which I’d woken, didn’t seem like such an overwhelming place after all.

Waking up not just rested, but happy?

The morning doomcloud of dread which had informed so much of my life was, inexplicably, gone.

This. Was fucking. Insane.

“I’m cured!” I said to my friend. “I’m cured I’m cured I’m cured I’m cured!!” This was, I knew, preemptive, but I didn’t care. My own good attitude, this morning, was irresistible, and I didn’t try to fight it. I just felt so fucking good. Not only could I not remember the last time I had felt this good, I had completely forgotten that feeling this good was even a THING. But, dear reader, it is. It fucking is.

My magic new feeling wasn’t edgy-good, anxious-good, manic-good, or any other sort of shaky good that would come and then be gone in a blink of an eye, dropping me lower than I had been before. My new feeling wasn’t mood-swingy good. It was a solid, down deep good, like a cold volcanic lake in the middle of a huge forest, like a steel pole ran through my body straight into the center of the earth, like this good had always been here and would never go away again. And the very best part? The very best and most unexpected part of all of it?

My mood swings were gone.

My mood swings, which yanked me with clocklike precision from anxious to sad to fearful to sleepy and back again, were gone. My mood swings, which randomly dumped shame, regret, and/or foreboding in my lap when I least expected it. My mood swings, which dredged up bad memories when I was trying to, like, hang out at a party, or shop for groceries, or walk my dog, and played them over and over again in my head, until I was exhausted. The mood swings which destabilized me until I didn’t know what was real anymore, and what was coming from my own broken body. My mood swings.

Were fucking gone.

(One month later, my mood swings still haven’t come back. My mood hath not swung one single time since that first fecal transplant.)

The day after my first fecal transplant, I did another. My goal was (is) to do ten transplants total, as that is a number that other IBS sufferers, whose accounts I’ve read online, have had success with. While it’s been shown via science that fecal transplants are helpful for a variety of conditions rooted in gut dysbiosis, c-diff is the only condition that’s shown to have a high success rate with just one transplant. And even with c-diff, doing two treatments will give you an even more stellar success rate than one. A fecal transplant is, in essence, a super-probiotic, and doing multiple treatments gives the bacteria more opportunities to take root. It’s also shown to be helpful to have multiple donors, as different people carry different combinations of species and you get even more gut diversity this way, and have a better chance of replacing key species you might be missing. It’s the pokemon of gut microbes and you’ve gotta #catchemall, as they say.

My second fecal transplant was uneventful, and I continued to feel, weirdly and amazingly, cured. My fatigue had lifted, gone like a storm in the night, the sky blown empty and clear. I looked around me, at this brand new world I had been born into. This world, this life that was so hard, so hard for all of us, but hard, now, in a rewarding, heartening, almost tearfully beautiful way, and why hadn’t I been able to see that before? The human struggle, our struggle, was beautiful beyond belief, and I had, suddenly, the beating heart and the good blood to live this life. To face the constant deluge of bullshit that each day brings, and to see, through all of it, the beauty. My “new” self felt familiar- it was the me of three years ago, the me of five years ago. I felt as though time was moving backwards, and all the stories I’d told myself while I was sick- that my life was over, that I’d lost everything, that there was no hope left in this world- all these stories started to fall away- and I felt turned around and upside down and as though I no longer understood anything anymore. What was sickness, and what was health? What was real, and what was not? And was putting poop in my butt really all that it took to give myself the will to live again? How strange and surreal was that. And did it really matter, if nothing made sense to me? I felt alive in my body again, did I really have to understand?

I left Petaluma and my incredibly generous donor friend and drove north through the redwoods, en route to Oregon to spend some time working on a friend’s farm. My plan was to space the fecal transplants out over the summer, and continue to find more donors as I visited friends. Although I felt good now, I had no idea if the feeling would last. Along with atom-bombing one’s microbiome with antibiotics, and killing species that way, stress and trauma can create environments in our guts in which helpful bacteria have a difficult time staying alive. This is why stress management is so important in maintaining longterm gut health. But we can only control so much of what comes into our lives- existence throws us curveballs of stress and trauma. They say it takes a full year for one’s new gut bacteria to take root, and there are anecdotal reports of people who’ve had success with FMT but then had a traumatic or stressful event within the first year and have lost their new microbes, after which their chronic illness returned.

If there’s anything I’d learned in the two and a half years I’d been bringing the activity level in my life down lower and lower, it’s that the amount of stress that the average american takes on is fucking insane. Of course, we all have to navigate capitalism. We all have to hustle. But we place so much social capital on being busy, on productivity, on not even having one single bit of chill, and it’s fucking bonkers. We can’t remove all stress or trauma from our lives- life is suffering, after all- but we can prioritize cultivating better coping mechanisms and stop placing value in productivity above all other things. Having a chronic illness wherein one single drop of stress or five minutes of sleep deprivation could send me into a flare of IBS and chronic fatigue had made me very, very aware of the sources of stress in my life, how that stress felt in my body, and the ways in which I could manage my response.

Basically, meditation. Meditation, I’d found, helped me manage my response to stress more than anything. I resolved to get more serious about integrating a meditation practice in my life, something I’d been trying to do off and on for a year. And if I did somehow, in spite of stress management, still have a gut environment in which good bacteria were unable to thrive, or if a traumatic event killed them all off within the first year? Hopefully it wouldn’t come to this, and I’d be able to cultivate my own healthy gut universe that could withstand many things. But if not, I was willing to do fecal transplants every month for the rest of my life. If that was what it took. For now, though, I would start with 10. And see what happened after that.

here’s a picture I drew of my dog meditating

That night I parked my van in a less-than-ideal spot and slept poorly, worried about being towed. In the morning, even though I’d slept less than eight hours, I felt good. This was unprecedented, as when I was sick, sleep deprivation would automatically trigger a flare. But not today, not in this heartening new world into which I now woke. I had no fatigue, no brain fog, no crushing depression, no digestive issues. I found a nature trail along a creek and went on a slow, loping, six-mile run in the heat, my chihuahua padding along beside me. The run felt great. Afterwards, I continued driving, and I had no pain or inflammation. At no point, that day, as I continued north into Oregon, did I think “I just need to lay down for an hour”. My constant need to rest was, amazingly, gone.

I kept running. I was no longer in the great running shape I had been at other times of my life, but running felt good again, thank god, and I knew I would get stronger. I worked on my friend’s farm in Oregon, and working felt good again, too. I found another friend willing to donate, and I did four more transplants. I didn’t feel 100% every day, some days I felt 80%, but that seemed normal. I definitely still got sleepy faster than my 25 year-old friends, but as I was 34, this seemed normal too. I no longer felt eighty, and that was the most important thing. I felt solid and strong, and each week I continued to improve. I even had one really stressful week- my dog was super sick, and I didn’t know why (he’s fine now, thx)- and still my health did not break, my chronic illness did not return. It’s 7/9/17 as I write this- a little over a month since my first transplant- and I’m still cured. I’ll continue to post monthly updates here, as time goes on.

The forest is back, now, with its dense tangles of plants, animals and fungi, and the Original Creatures move amongst it, harvesting food and scattering seeds, their babies in slings on their backs. The rivers and air are clean once again, and everything is as it should be. It’s been a good century (bacteria time), and so many new generations have come and gone that you’d be hard pressed, these days, to find someone who remembers the time when things were barren. The Original Creatures carry spears as they walk the forest- not just for hunting, but in case they happen upon a band of cannibals. The cannibals are rare, now, and some of the Original Creatures have never even seen one, and don’t believe that they exist. What could threaten this perfect life, this world of abundance? And yet they stay alert anyway, as they dig up tubers from the rich dark soil. They’ve heard too many stories from the elders to relax completely, and they’re ready to defend this land again, should they need to.

Here’s a graph I made of my mood changes with FMT:

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Update 8/16/17- It’s been 2 months and 9 days since my first FMT. I’m still cured of my IBS and chronic fatigue. I just finished hiking 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail through Washington, and I feel awesome! My inflammation and fatigue related to exercise has not returned. I’ve done 8 FMTs towards my goal of 10, with 3 different donors. As far as diet goes I’ve been able to move from autoimmune paleo to regular paleo with no ill effects, which is more liberating than it sounds. And I’ve been slowly reintroducing (gluten-free) grains, eating them every few days- and each week I seem to tolerate them a little better. I’ll update again in two months, or earlier if my CFS/IBS symptoms return.

No More Deaths Ajo May Monthlong Program

No More Deaths volunteers on a water drop

It’s heating up in the lowland Sonoran desert, and becoming even more dangerous for those who cross the border. Even though the temperatures are brutal, people still cross in the summer. Because they have to. The multi-week journey this time of year is insanely dangerous, and many people will disappear in the Ajo corridor without a trace. In the last six months, twelve sets of human remains have been found in this area by No More Deaths volunteers alone. People are dying and yet, it’s uniquely difficult to provide effective humanitarian aid in the Ajo corridor due to the vast tracks of designated wilderness, much of it closed to vehicle access or any public access at all. Recently, No More Deaths has been ramping up their efforts to try and solve this puzzle. How do we get water to the people crossing in the Ajo corridor, as the summer temperatures begin to rise. How. The May monthlong program, No More Deaths’ second monthlong volunteer program in Ajo, is part of this. We’re currently raising money to pay for the month’s expenses (we’ve already had two trucks break down, lol). Click the link below to put your money where your heart is and throw down some cash (if you have it). And thank you!!

Ajo Desert Aid Camp GoFundMe- https://www.gofundme.com/AjoDesertAidCamp

another one bites the dust

Let’s talk about chronic illness (with doge photos)

A few years ago, in 2015, I started to get sick. While I’ve struggled with digestive issues for about ten years (and been able to mostly manage them with diet), this was something new- one day on the CDT I woke up with a flu-like fatigue, akin to the lead blanket they put on you at the dentist’s office, dizziness, and blurred vision, as well as joint pain and overall inflammation. While I was in this unfamiliar place I couldn’t think, read, or remember things very well. I felt fuzzy and disoriented and was overcome with what I can only describe as a massive, shapeless, impending doom. If you go back and read my CDT journals from 2015 (here or click the link in the menu above), you can see the exact moment when I get sick (and after which the entries become a little… dark). It was a few weeks after I drank water from a cow pond in New Mexico that my steripen wasn’t actually capable of purifying (it was brown and opaque) and after which I stopped filtering my water altogether, in Montana. While I had no digestive upset, I finally found a clinic that agreed to test my stool and I tested positive for giardia. I treated the giardia with flagyl, felt better for about two weeks and then wham- the sickness came back, even though I no longer tested positive for the G. And the mystery sickness has been coming and going ever since, alongside my long-standing digestive issues. I ordered some chinese herbs from my acupuncturist that help me for some reason I don’t understand (but she does) and eventually transitioned to the autoimmune paleo diet (most of the time). These two things have allowed me to live my life… about two thirds of the time. Unfortunately, along with intense exercise (no more five month trails for me!) The Sickness is triggered by acute stress, which is, unfortunately, a sometimes unavoidable part of life. As of May 2017, I have days, weeks even! Where I feel almost normal- where I can run and hike, think clearly, remember things, where I dream and scheme and the future is suffused with possibility- and I have days where I can hardly do the dishes and walk my dog. Days where I don’t recognize people’s faces, can’t organize my thoughts, and the lead blanket of doom and dizziness keeps me in my bed and knocks down all my plans, all my schemes and dreams and any sense of a future at all, brings me back to the most basic level of embodiment- breathing. Existing. Just being alive.

big & smol

I recently got health insurance in Arizona (which will last just until trump takes it away) and started seeing a (condescending, borderline mean, and surprisingly young?) primary care provider who seems to know nothing about anything and doesn’t actually believe me when I tell her that I’m sick. I got a colonoscopy, the results of which came back normal. Last week I had the TSH test for my thyroid, and that came back normal. I’m trying to get the doctor to give me the (more) accurate test for lyme’s disease (western blot, I guess?) (I’ve had the apparently rarely accurate one already- the ELISA test, it came back negative)(I’ve never had a rash from a tick but I have been bitten so hey, you never know) and I’m trying to get a referral to a GI specialist so I can get tested for far-flung parasites that are not commonly tested for but which- who knows! Maybe I have.

down 2 ride

I’m not the first person to get giardia and afterwards develop some weird chronic autoimmune-y thing. There are a number of studies where this has been shown to be a thing- give it a google if you feel like falling down the rabbit hole of the medical interwebs. In some ways, my search for a diagnoses is arbitrary- I have a thing that is similar to a thing a lot of other people I know have, and here we are struggling, all together, mere mortals in the grinding maw of existence having our brief go of it before we blink out entirely. Through most of human history, the average life expectancy was 35. I’m 34. Life is a gift, I know. Who am I to think I am entitled to anything else but what every other living being has experienced for infinity. Life is suffering, life is striving, life is brief moments of transcendence. Nothing is promised and in the end, everything we love is taken away from us. Not one living being is exempt from this ultimate and final law- no matter if you are rich, or powerful, the top of the food chain or at the bottom of the sea, if you live a thousand years ago or a hundred years in the future.

much blankets

Seven years ago I was in a serious relationship with a wonderful human named Corinne. We planned to spend our lives together because even though “forever” might only mean “four years”, this is still a good and proper thing to do. We discussed the trajectories of our lives, growing old, aging. We talked about dementia. When we were old together, we decided, we’d wear little vials of poison around our necks. Each day we’d watch the other do crossword puzzles. As soon as cognitive abilities began to slip, the poison would go in the pudding. We’d do this favor for each other because dementia was, we agreed, a fate much worse than death. We’d do this favor out of love. We laughed while we talked about this. “In the pudding!” we said.

The worst part about The Sickness, when I’m having a flare-up, is not the fatigue, the joint pain, the digestive issues. It’s the loss of cognitive abilities. When I’m sick, and often in the time it takes me to recover afterwards, I cannot write. I just can’t. I can hardly organize my thoughts, let alone create interesting new ones. All my writing projects- and I have a lot of them! Sit untended. When I’m in this place, the one thing I have always had, no matter what, in spite of everything, the thing on which I base my self worth, however misguided that may be, is taken away from me. I have never ever not been able to write. Not being able to write is the thing that really knocks me down, that brings me back to the most basic level of embodiment. When I’m in this place, I breathe. I exist. And I cry. Sometimes I cry.

I’m trying really, really hard right now- we all are, and I know I’m not alone. I don’t exist in a vacuum, my god I have so many friends with chronic illness all on their own journeys, I am just one of many, and I have support too, and I’m also lucky, in many many many ways. We all struggle in this brief time we’re allowed as humans and then we’re reincarnated as a flower, a coyote, a tree, a saguaro, and then a human again because the struggle never ends, it goes on and on and on. I’m here to witness that, to be honest I have no idea what the fuck is going on- isn’t that what life is? Just enough time to say “what the fuck is going on” and then it’s all over. I’m here to witness the confusion for as long as I may, for as long as the universe, which is more powerful even than trump (thank god) allows me to. Maybe I’ll finish the three books I’m writing or maybe there’ll be a nuclear war and the only thing that will get finished is modern human civilization. Fuck, I don’t have any answers. If anything, I’m trying to approach all of this with a sense of curiosity and, if I’m really really lucky, with wonder. Also I have a dog, and when I’m in the just-existing place he lays in bed with me and I smell his good old pennies/salami-on-a-hot-dashboard smell and watch his little chest go up and down with contentment and I know that if he can be grateful for what he has (nothing), then I can be grateful too.

I’ll write a more positive thing soon. In the meantime, thanx for listening.

just a chihuahua enjoying embodiment

desert heat/small doge/blind faith

My gosh it’s been a long time since I’ve written on here.

I live in Tucson now and the heat is coming on; I live live here as in I have a very small house with furniture that I like from thriftstores and things on the walls that I picked out myself and houseplants that I dutifully care for and derive pleasure from, even when I don’t quite understand their individual wants and needs (like is aloe vera a plant that you water regularly or nah?) and sunbeams streaming in the windows for better or worse (now we’re in the fast slide towards the hot-dry part of summer and I’m envying friends’ darker more insulated cave-like houses, it’s going to be 98 degrees tomorrow oh my god). And, most recently, a small doge- I selected him at the second-hand pitbull store on the edge of town with the circus tents full of howling strays and he was drugged up for doggy anxiety and emaciated and seemed to be in pain but I could tell he had a good heart and in just a few weeks he plumped up and made a full recovery and now he chills and/or walks with me through town in the sunshine making friends with all the strangers and generally completing my life. It is impossible to have a dog responsibly while hiking five months of every year but for many different reasons I know that that part of my life is behind me; I would list those reasons here but the thought of doing so makes me feel tired. One month or two month hikes are still hard as fuck/super fulfilling depending on the route and I still want to do them and I have no qualms with paying a friend to dogsit for that amount of time, but thinking about a five month hike brings to mind that heavy scurvy-like feeling one gets in one’s bones after months on the trail that is a combination of loneliness/isolation/boredom and deep mineral deficiency. I do not want that at this point in my life. My health is just not up to it, and neither is my heart.

So, a soothing doge 4 me. Pinto Bean the chillhauhua.

my house & my doge

The world is fucking hard to be in right now. I oscillate between the bleak despair that comes from holding space for/deeply feeling this descent into hellscape dystopia endtimes that is happening all around us, wherein the only thing that allows me to sleep is the knowledge that we’ll all die someday and that modern human civilization, which selects for sociopaths but which is also inherently unsustainable will eventually collapse no matter how we feel about it and Trump and his cabinet will be in the ground and the butterflies will return and grass will grow through the concrete and wolves will move back into the cities and huge flocks of migrating birds will shadow out the sun and literally every living thing will rejoice ala the PBS documentary The Wolves of Chernobyl (which you can watch online here) (I don’t hate humans, for the record, and I don’t want humans to die out as a species, nor do I think they will)- and a dumb blind true happiness that bubbles up from a deep place located in the very center of my body/the earth whose name is WE EXIST AND THAT IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE AND THAT WILL NEVER CEASE TO BE INCREDIBLE NO MATTER WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THIS GREAT DRAMA CALLED HUMAN EMBODIMENT, FOREVER AND EVER, UNTIL WE DIE.

There you have it, the inside of my brain in the year of our lord 2017, planet earth. Come what may.

chillhuahua

The other thing that soothes me right now is my developing relationship with/understanding of the US/Mexico border and my continued efforts to find some small way to make some small change that even though it may be futile and near microscopic it still seems important and/or the only thing that really matters- laborious striving and blind trust in said striving without promise of actual result as spiritual practice/deeply grounding thing that tethers me to this churning mad human world and keeps me from floating away on a paper boat of helpless despair.

My writing practice has changed. I hadn’t realized it but I’d become dependent on long hikes to provide structure in which to be creative and also an environment in which it was impossible to overthink my the writing itself, due to time constraints/how uncomfortable it is to write on my phone while propped up on my elbows in my sleeping bag as the oncoming cold slowly numbs my fingers and the minutes are ticking away until I have to get up again with the dawn. Basically, I wrote about 100,000 words of the first draft to Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart on my phone in this manner and now that I have a House with wifi and Many Comfortable Places to Sit and lots of snacks to eat I’m finding it hard to work on… anything. Not impossible, just a lot harder. Which is interesting, and I think speaks a lot to having some sort of structure/constraints for daily writing practice as well as a sense of urgency, even if you have to psyche yourself up/create these things yourself.

Other thing: I went on a three-day bike trip through the Sonoran Desert from Tucson to Ajo with a friend this week, and that was fun. I carried Pinto Bean in a pannier and we slept in the dirt at night and when it got too hot we wilted in the shade at gas stations and drank fountain sodas.

down 2 ride

The stars were incredible and the sun was brutal and the highway was lonely and flat and I listened to old country and at one point I saw a white horse standing amongst the saguaros and thought, how do animals live out here, with all the cholla and with no water, but they do and they thrive and it’s beautiful. Bike touring seems chill, it’s lower impact than long distance hiking and has more access to gas station snacks. I think I want to do some more of it soon.

Pinto harasses friend Elsa on our wee bike trip

I’ve been trying to improve my spanglish. I do skype lessons with a teacher in Guatemala via Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco and I got a textbook to use and that feels good. One idea is to bike tour in Mexico for a bit as that would combine my desire to improve my Spanish so as to be more useful around the US/Mexico border with my deep need for periodic adventure lest I go insane. Summer is also a good time to GTFO of Tucson as it’s blazingly hot but it’s also hot in Mexico then so… we shall see.

There’s an update for you. Life is… amazing. What the fuck even is anything. I hope each and every one of my readers is finding some way to navigate the pounding surf of this world right now. Also, here is the best piece of journalism I’ve seen recently re: the history of fascism vs. antifa, for your perusal (the mythology/existence of antifa is so important right now as it flies in the face of everything and gives me hope in a way I can’t explain)- Inside the Underground Anti-Racist Movement That Brings the Fight to White Supremacists (Mother Jones)

Also! Some No More Deaths volunteers are trying to raise money to deliver a truck to the Chico Mendes Reforestation Project in Pachaj, Quetzaltenango Department, Guatemala. They need a mere $2k, here is the link for the fundraiser- https://www.youcaring.com/chicomendesreforestationproject-795948