To everyone who’s hiking the trail this year: I know you guys are really busy right now, and you’re really excited. You’ve got homemade bars to vacuum pack and gear spreadsheets to make. You haven’t yet found the perfect windshirt (what is a windshirt, anyway?) and your permits have yet to come in the mail. You can hardly sleep at night for all the exciting logistical planning. But hear me out: below are some important bits of info that weren’t in any of the guidebooks and that I wish someone would’ve shared with me (and the rest of the class of 2013) before our hike.
-You don’t have to make it all the way to Lake Morena on the first day. It’s ok to give up and camp at Hauser Creek. That first 20 mile waterless stretch is not some sort of test of will that determines whether or not you make it to Canada. In fact it’s the opposite- this is your first test of whether you’re able to put your ego aside and listen to your body, which DEFINITELY determines whether or not you’ll make it to Canada. So camp at Hauser Creek if you want. You’ll just have to pack more water, as Hauser Creek is most often a dry creekbed choked with poison oak.
-In the desert you’ll come upon these charming cement troughs of cool water, sometimes stocked with cans of cheap soda. A little water trickles from a pipe into these troughs, keeping them fresh. DO NOT WASH YOUR CLOTHES IN THESE TROUGHS. Or your underwear. Or your body. EVER. Although there may be water running from the pipe into the trough now, there most likely won’t be in a few days/weeks, and the hikers behind you will have to filter DIRECTLY FROM THE TROUGH. So DO NOT. DO IT. Not your socks, not your snot hanky, NOTHING. I will be starting after most of you, on May 1st, when the pipes may be dry. If you wash your underwear in these troughs, where I collect my water, I will PERSONALLY poop in your sleeping bag.
-Don’t put soap in the streams. Even biodegradable soap. Soap changes the pH of the water. All the creatures in the water are adapted to a very specific pH. Change the pH, harm the creatures. NO SOAP IN THE WATER.
-Carry hand sanitizer, and sanitize your hands after pooping. I know that you’re a double triple-crowner and invincible in the face of giardia, but guess what- your newbie friends probably aren’t. You love your friends, and that one time they let you put your hand in their bag of fritos. They regret this now. SANITIZE YOUR HANDS, POOP-HANDS.
-Don’t complain. EVER. Unless you really, really need to. Like maybe you can complain FOUR TIMES on the ENTIRE TRAIL. Complaining uses up the energy of your hiking companions. Your hiking companions care about you and will gladly give you their energy, but they only have so much of it and they need it for themselves, too. Remember: EVERYONE IS HIKING THE SAME TRAIL. Everyone knows that it’s hot right now, and not in a fun way. Everyone is trying to grit their teeth and bear it until the next water source. Remember, you chose to be out here, so complaining all the time about how much you’re suffering makes you look like a damn fool. The opposite of complaining: cracking jokes. Isn’t it sort of funny and absurd that we’re out here in the desert without water, huddled under this joshua tree, for, like, no reason? With only melted gummy bears to eat? Things that happen on the trail are really, really funny, and making jokes helps lighten everyone’s emotional load. If you can, hike with people who are funny, and the more absurdly funny the better. Laugh at their jokes- that will make them feel good, and they will tell more jokes. Everybody wins.
-Ladies- don’t let a creepy douchebag give you your trail name. This happened to a couple of my friends on the first part of our hike. In fact, don’t let anybody else name you. Pick the goddam name for yourself. You can have any goddam name you want.
-Hey guess what? It’s ok to have sex in one’s life, just in general. Even if, GASP! You’re a woman. It’s even ok to have sex at some point while on a thru-hike. And it’s ok to include sex in a book. Do you agree with me on these things? Yes? THEN STOP SAYING THAT CHERYL STRAYED IS A WHORE. You haven’t read the book. I know this because if you had, you’d actually ENJOY it and quit talking shit, as it is a memoir of exceptional quality with way more depth than you are apparently capable of having. You’ve heard that Cheryl “fucks her way up the PCT” (an actual quote) but guess what? SHE ONLY GETS LAID ONCE. IN ASHLAND. And anyway, since when is it wrong to put sex in a book? What do you read, mostly? Parade Magazine? Have you ever, like, read a book? In your life? Obviously not. So shut the fuck up, you misogynist fuck.
-On that note: Trail romance. Be wary of trail romance. Trail romance is fun. Really, really fun. Like Kate-Winslet-and-Leonardo-Dicaprio-in-Titanic fun. Like if Lord of the Rings had star-crossed lovers fun. TOO fun. The reason it feels so good and proper and right (how can it be wrong when it feels so right!) is because on the trail we all get to be special thru-hiker versions of ourselves, and our thru-hiker identities subsume the identities we have off trail, and our off-trail values and belief systems are replaced with a set of values and belief systems that we all share. This makes it REALLY easy to bond with other hikers. And anyway, what is more romantic than making out in a bed of moss and then sharing a tiny tarptent during a thunderstorm? NOTHING. THE ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION IS NOTHING. But be careful. As soon as the trail is over you’ll be thrust back into your regular identities, complete with your pre-trail beliefs and value systems, and you may no longer be compatible with the person that you felt wildly romantic about just a few weeks ago. One minute you’re falling in love amongst the old growth and the next minute the babel fish is gone and you have nothing to talk about at all; you might even actively disdain each other, based on your now-conflicting ideas about, I don’t know, EVERYTHING.
-Bear canisters. You are required to have a bear canister in the Sierras. Unless you subsist entirely on olive oil, your food will not all fit in the bear canister. Even the big one. So put your full canister outside somewhere away from your tent, and then sleep with your extra food. Use it as a pillow, put it under your legs, shove it into the end of your tent by your feet. This is what virtually all thru-hikers do. No bear in the Sierras that’s aggressive enough to break into a tent where a hiker is sleeping has lived long enough to reproduce in…. a really long time. This has driven natural selection in a way that no bear in the Sierras will break into your tent, while you’re in it, to get your food. They are, however, super stealth ninjas, capable of scaling the tiniest limb and extracting the food from your bear bag like honey from a hive. DO NOT HANG YOUR FOOD IN THE SIERRAS. EVER. I once camped a stone’s throw from a couple who hung their food, about eleven miles out of Tuolumne. All of their hung food got eaten in the night by a bear. I slept with my food, and wasn’t bothered at all. The best way to deal with bears is to KNOW THE BEHAVIOR OF THE BEARS WHERE YOU ARE. Bear behavior varies in different places, depending on the history of humans in the area and the amount of traffic the place gets. In some places, like in parts of Alaska, a bear will break into your tent and KILL YOU in order to get your food, but that same bear is not smart enough to get a really good bear-hang. In the Sierras the bears are like magic circus bears, but they know better than to attack you. So sleep with your extra food. I call this the “over my dead body” method of food storage.
-Carry treats for southbounders. Mini snickers, cliff bars, things like that. You’ll start to see southbounders in August. They are special and rare, and deserve congratulations. Give them high fives. Or better yet, make out with them. Southbounders are lonely.
-Leave yourself some money for after the trail. I know it’s really, really hard to rustle up the three to five thousand dollars you need to thru-hike but guess what, you’re going to need EVEN MORE money for when the trail is over. Contrary to how it may feel while you’re hiking, the trail does not end at a magical portal through which you transcend arbitrary existence and become one with the great wide everything. Instead it ends at about where you started, except now you can’t stop crying and you’re too broke to pay the rent. Lucky you.
-Depression after the trail. The way I felt AFTER the trail was harder than anything I experienced on the trail. Ok, maybe it wasn’t harder than the time I had to bushwhack with tonsillitis, or the week after that when I hiked 50 miles on 1500 calories. But hard in a different way. This blogger does a really good job of writing about post-trail depression, and even recommends a brilliant holistic treatment plan. Remember her page when the trail is over and your life is a colorless, joyless pit of emptiness and there’s lead running through your veins instead of blood. That shit is physiological. It has to do with endorphin receptors and shit. You can totally heal.
To recap: Listen to your body, don’t put your nasty clothes in the water troughs or soap in the streams, sanitize your hands, don’t complain, pick your own trail name, Cheryl Strayed is a nice person, trail romance is fun but it doesn’t last, sleep with your food, leave yourself money for after the trail, and you’re gonna feel sad.
That’s all I got. Is there anything I missed?