My public service announcement to the PCT class of 2014

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?

Food on the PCT

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a piece on the things I ate on the PCT. Food is an important trail subject and a highly subjective one- our relationship with food changes continuously and our tastes and fancies come and go like the wind. Here, I am the subject, with my fussy gut and my high standards, and these are the things that I ate.

I am hypoglycemic and I don’t eat gluten, dairy, or soy (at least without consequences). On the trail I made a point of always having protein and (dried) vegetables, as that was important to me, and I avoided additives like MSG and artificial flavors and colors. Being hypoglycemic means I can’t metabolize sugar well and when I eat it I feel verrrrrrrrrrrry tired. Instead of sugar I ate fat and protein in small amounts and nearly constantly. Basically I am a delicate flower with pretty serious digestive issues and on the trail I had to be very careful about what I ate if I wanted to be able to hike.

I ate 4,000 calories/day after the first two weeks on the trail. This was plenty in good weather and just enough if it was cold or if I was doing more than 25 miles/day. I stocked my hip-belt pockets with food and ate while I was hiking.

I planned my food so that it averaged 120 calories/ounce to insure nutrient density and the least weight possible. For example, the dried fruit I was carrying might be 80 calories/ounce, but the almonds were 160 calories/ounce, so the average was 120 calories/ounce. This also made packing easier, as I knew that as long as I had 2 pounds of food per day, it would come out to about 4000 calories a day, and I wasn’t carrying extra weight. I also like doing math.

I spent about $2,000 on food for my five-month hike.

THINGS I ATE FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND SNACKS

1. Almonds aka TRAIL MIX
Almonds were my steadfast friend during my hike. Nutrient dense, full of fat and protein, available almost everywhere. I carried giant gallon ziploc bags of almonds. Almonds and I had a co-dependent relationship and we grew very, very tired of each other. Sometimes I would try and see other nuts (peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts) but they always made me feel sick to my stomach (aka “nut tum”). By Washington the sight of almonds made me want to throw up. But I could still digest them and you know what? They kept me alive.

Things I put in the almonds:
-Shredded unsweetened coconut (more fat for my body to convert to glucose in a slow and steady way! Anti-inflammatory medium chain fatty acids!)
-Dried fruit (prunes, raisins, figs, apricots)

Things I tried to put in the almonds but quickly abandoned:
-Reeses pieces, pnut mnms, other candy (why do I feel so tiiiiiiiiiiiired?)
-Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds (excuse me while I throw up)

2. Granola
When buying granola, I look at the amount of sugar per 100 grams of food on the nutrition label. If there are more than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams of food, it is considered to be “high in sugar” and I know that it’ll make me crash. Believe it or not, in a good bulk department there are usually one or two varieties of granola that aren’t high in sugar, and I would buy big bags of these. I was still careful to not eat too much granola at once, tho, and to eat it with almonds, because there isn’t enough fat and protein in granola, by itself, to stabilize my blood sugar. Granola is not gluten free as the oat-squashing machines are, I believe, dusted with wheat flour, but I’m not so sensitive that I notice gluten in really small amounts, so it was worth it. Because granola tastes good.

3. Chips
Chips were my salvation. Nutrient dense, fatty, available everywhere, and they never, ever stopped tasting good. My favorite were Juanita’s tortilla chips (made in Oregon and the best tasting and greasiest tortilla chips EVER) and Kettle Salt & Vinegar chips. I would buy HUGE bags of both of these in towns and stuff them into my pack. I also really like those Snap Pea Crisps that are shaped like pea pods but they’re harder to find.

4. Jerky
I really broke the bank on this one. Some people hike the trail with very little protein, but that doesn’t work for me. I need to eat protein at every meal or I feel reeeeal sleepy. And what’s more dense in protein than MEAT? Jerky is crazy expensive, tho. Before the hike I found an online company that I liked and ordered jerky in bulk, at considerable savings, and mailed it to myself on the trail. I also bought jerky in towns when I could find it without MSG. The company I ordered from was ultimately disappointing (the packages came unsealed during shipping and I also didn’t like the way the jerky tasted) but it is becoming more common for big companies to make jerky without MSG, and it’s not too expensive, so that’s cool.

5.  Flattened dried bananas from Trader Joe’s
I do not know why these exist. Did someone call up Trader Joe’s and say hey there, we flattened all our bananas, can you do something with this? But these are very, very good and very fun to peel them apart. And they are inexpensive. I sent myself a packaged (or two) in every resupply box.

6. Bars
Bars are high in sugar (more than 10g per 100g of food), but I still ate them sometimes. I knew it was a crap shoot as to how they would make me feel, but they tasted real good. I viewed them more as a morale-boosting treat than something that would give me energy.

THINGS I ATE FOR DINNER

I started the trail with an alcohol stove made from a pepsi can. Each night I would boil gluten-free noodles, add freeze-dried ground beef, dried vegetables, coconut oil, salt, and stir this into the most delicious thing on earth. Then my carefully pre-purchased ground beef went bad and I decided the hassle of cooking and carrying fuel was more trouble than it was worth. So I switched to a plastic peanut butter jar with a screw-on lid in which to soak my dinner, which was almost always

THE ALL-MIGHTY INSTANT DEHYDRATED REFRIED BEAN. And his cousins, Instant Split Pea Soup and Instant Curried Lentil Soup. Available for cheap in a bulk section near you, or online. I also pre-purchased large quantities of dried vegetables before the trail and sent them to myself in my resupply boxes. I ordered from North Bay Trading Company. I ordered spinach, carrots and cabbage, but only the spinach tasted good enough to keep eating after the first couple of weeks. If you buy the really big bag it’s super cheap. I also ordered $100 worth of freeze-dried peas from Just Tomatoes– these peas are SO GOOD, and so much cheaper than if you buy the little bags in the store. I also bought some bags of chia seeds from Trader Joe’s, and threw those in my resupply boxes. Each evening I would pour instant refried beans into my peanut butter jar, add dried vegetables, chia seeds, water, shake it up, and stuff the jar into my pack. An hour later, when I was ready to camp, voila! Magic delicious dinner! I would eat the beans with tortilla chips. So many tortilla chips. SO GOOD. I actually never got tired of this dinner. NEVER.

THINGS I TRIED AND FAILED TO EAT

Coconut oil
Coconut oil is so good for me. And I love it. But it changes from a liquid to a solid depending on the temperature, and that is a pain in the ass. I never found a container that both kept it from leaking when it was liquid and made the oil accessible when it was solid, and one day I discovered that the oil had also gone rancid, probably due to the constant change in temperature and the fact that I’d been sticking my dirty spoon in there. Rancid coconut oil is really gross, and it turned me off the stuff for the rest of the trail.

Anything messy, fussy, or time-consuming to prepare
Gluten-free pasta. Oatmeal. Breakfast in general. Things that require seasonings. Olive oil.

Peanut butter
Peanut butter is not food. It is strange paste. And it gives me really bad diarrhea.

Salami
I ate a lot of salami for a little while. Magical salty shelf-stable meat! Then I got really, really sick of it and how it made my mouth taste as though it’d been pickled. Then after a while I could eat it again. You gotta go easy with this one.

SUPPLEMENTS AND MORALE BOOSTERS
Emergen-C. Power Pak, which is like Emergen-C but with electrolytes. Caffeinated fruit snacks. Caffeinated drink powders. Calcium and magnesium supplements. For my next thru-hike I think I’ll bring a good quality multi-vitamin.

IN TOWN: EAT ALL THE THINGS
At the end of each three to five day section my food morale was really, really low. I’d been living mostly off almonds, with some other things thrown in here and there, and I wanted nothing more than to be set free in a brightly-lit buffet the size of a city block, with no dietary restrictions whatsoever. So that’s what I did. During zero days I pretended that I could digest anything. My reasoning was that it was ok if I felt like shit in town, because I didn’t have to hike those days. I could just lay face-down on the bed in the motel room all afternoon if I wanted to. Snickers icecream bars, pizza, gatorade, fried chicken, cheese and pints and pints of icecream were a few of my favorite things. I ate a lot of good stuff too, like burgers wrapped in lettuce, cartons of strawberries and giant plates of french fries. The first day back on the trail I was usually still paying the price for whatever gluten or dairy I’d eaten, but after that I was ok. (Full disclosure: four months later, my gut is still recovering from what I subjected it to on zero days.)

MY RESUPPLY STRATEGY
While planning I got Yogi’s guide to the PCT, which is indispensable re: resupply information, and used it to send myself WAY TOO MANY boxes. Seventeen, I think, for California alone? I was worried, understandably, that there wouldn’t be anything I could eat in those little trail towns. Now that I’ve been to all those towns I know which ones stock almonds, and next time around I’ll send myself fewer boxes.

After the trail: November in 1,357 words

(I’ve switched to past tense. It’s getting wild up in here!)

I went south; I sold my trailer to a woman on craigslist, put many of my possessions on the curb (before, everything I owned could fit in my trailer, now it fit in the back of a borrowed sedan) gathered my dogs and drove south on I-5, in the rain, until the city fell away and then the smaller towns, and the Siskiyous rose up around me in the dark, and the rain dried up and it got colder, and the stars were hard and bright. I turned off the highway onto a dark country road and parked, after a number of miles, in front of a dilapidated house on a handful of acres, mist rising up off the ground and outbuildings melting into the earth. I stood in the yard and shivered; there were no lights anywhere and above me, I could see the milky way. Inside the house all was cold and empty; cat puke on the livingroom rug, dishes on the countertops, backdoor standing open, woodstove out. I was reminded, immediately and all at once, of the dirty punk house I lived in in Portland when I was twenty years old. Some of the people in that house had been awful and I had hated that experience, in retrospect; now I was older and in the beautiful country and I was the only one home. I grappled in the dark for the walls, pressing the button on my phone again and again in an attempt to illuminate my way to the room where I would be staying. I was subletting for the month of November, while one of the housemates was away; I was several miles outside of Grants Pass, surrounded by friends of friends who would, potentially, be my friends, and I would talk to people, look around, see what it was like here. How I could fit in with the people and places of this area. What sort of life I might make.

I found the room where I would live by careful deduction; there was no note for me, no instructions, but different artifacts in the different bedrooms clued me into the names of the people living there, and at last I sank into the springy mattress in a bright, carpeted bedroom and stared at myself in the mirror, all bundled up in wool against the cold. I live here, I thought. The windowglass rippled with condensation and in the corner a giant cedar bough was strung strung with pieces of guaze.

After two days of living with ghosts my housemates returned. No, they said, we don’t own a fridge and Yes, that giant dogfood bag in the driveway does contain a rotting deerskin. They hung up roadkill in the garage, put on shiny outfits, and made a mess of new dishes. There was no couch in the livingroom, only a futon in front of the woodstove and I sat on this futon, chihuahua hot water bottles tucked under the blankets, and tried to read a book about the history of the area. In the kitchen my housemates and their constant stream of guests laughed loudly and ate squirrel soup and gossiped. Outside, the milky-way twinkled and the chickens slept soundly in their coop. I felt held by all of it, the chaos and the human noise and the nature, pressing down on all sides.

This is exactly what I need, I thought. This is exactly what I need right now.

In the last week in my trailer in Portland I’d developed bronchitis, on account of the mold; now I hacked and hacked and was prone to terrible coughing fits in which I felt as though I might vomit and, when they hit me on my long uphill runs, seemed a lot like asthma. My remedy for the bronchitis had been to get the fuck out of damp, moldy Portland and into the good dry air of the Siskiyous and now, after much encouragement on the part of my housemates, who were tired of hearing me cough, I bought a tincture at the local herb shop and took it faithfully until it was gone. My cough did get better, a little every day, although it was bad enough to alarm the people around me for a full month.

One wing of the house was closed off and we were not, according to the rental agency, allowed to live there; it was the original, ancient cabin that first sat on the land and may or may not have been a schoolhouse. I climbed up the narrow staircase to the two small, forbidden bedrooms, each painted bright white and with a window overlooking the meadow, and opened and closed the built-in drawers and cabinets in the walls. In one bedroom the windowpane was busted, and the cold fresh air moved in and out. Each of the bedrooms seemed peaceful, idyllic, and very, very haunted. When I was too creeped out to stay any longer I retreated down the staircase, through a series of doors in a strange passageway (large pantry? Project room? Cold storage?) and back into the newer house, with its dirty carpet, drafty rooms and overflowing dress-up closet. In the kitchen I made beef and greens from the garden, eggs and rice, the orange-colored soup that an ex-girlfriend taught me to make. People came and went, with their dogs, their pints of icecream, their roadkill. Some of them were friendly, some of them were not. Sometimes there were two four-wheel-drive vehicles parked in the yard, sometimes five; in the month that I lived there the house was never empty.

In the mornings I walked through the meadows behind the house down to the stream, throwing the ball in front of me for my dogs, and felt the sadness begin to lift from me like fog. Just the beginnings, a gentle rising away. And new sadness was still falling, like ash, but there was movement now, a moving through, the beginning process of grieving. The middle part? I didn’t know. I didn’t know where I was; I realized now, with new awareness, that I had never grieved before. How long before new grief stopped coming. How long before all grief was accounted for and I could begin the tedious process of sorting through the tangled barrels; handling the sharp twigs, picking off the useful bits, letting the wind carrying the rest away. One day at a time, one memory at a time. Until all that remained was a handful of rough wool that could be spun into thread and woven into something beautiful.

Almost every day I cried although some days, I didn’t. These days surprised me, like patches of blue sky in the springtime, and I would cling to them- it’s over! It’s over! And then the sadness would return, wracking me. In addition to sadness there was the stress of not having a permanent home or any stability, yet, although I told myself that these things take time. Patience, I said to myself. You have to be patient. Nothing is ever the way you think it will be and then, suddenly, it is. But not in any way you can predict. You have to be patient.

I made every connection I could think of, I sowed every seed that I had. The end of November drew near and filled me with mounting dread and then, suddenly, I was invited to live as caretaker on a piece of land a bit further south, near Ashland. This area was also rich with friends of friends who could, potentially, become my friends, and I would have a little cabin there. There were goats and chickens and ducks and rivers and the wild dark hills and the best part was, I could make this cabin my home. I told the owner, Erin, that I was worried about finding a job, as the nearest “town” was forty-five minutes away by car.

“You’ll find something,” she said, sounding completely certain one hundred percent, the way that people do when they are oracles speaking universal truths. “It’ll work out.”

And I knew that she was right.

After the trail: The return of the existential despair

When I wake in the morning I sit up in bed and stare out the big window at the backyard. Outside the rain is coming down, hard, the wind lashing the trees. It’s the same storm that, a few hundred miles north, is dumping feet and feet of snow in the Northern Cascades. The storm that’s stopping the progress of so many of the hikers behind me.

I cover my face with my hands, rub my eyes, and when I open them again, something appalling has happened; life has ceased to be linear. I’m sitting in bed looking out the window at the storm and reality is spreading out from me in all directions, like water. It ripples outward with each little movement, bumping against the walls and the backs of the chairs, and then the ripples cease and there is stillness, just the sound of the wind, and the storm. And there are no clues, anywhere, as to which direction I should go.

I have not felt a speck of existential despair for the last five months, and I have taken it for granted. Now I feel something hulking, teetering, casting a long shadow. Cautiously I get out of bed and take a few experimental steps on the soft carpet. My calf seizes and I lean against the desk to stretch it out. The pain is alarming but is comforting, too; a reminder of a life I’ve grown to love. The hulking things retreats, and then is gone. So I have a little while longer, I think.

The next few weeks form a single, continuous tapestry, set against the backdrop of the howling, monsoon-like storm. My friends Allison and AK agree, with incredible generosity, to let me park my trailer in their driveway for the month of October. I hire a man with a tow truck off of craigslist- the man is resentful and foul-tempered and he angrily jacks my trailer back and forth in the narrow street in front Allison’s house before finally sliding it into the narrow, grassy driveway. I spend several hours in the rain, shoving cement blocks here and there, hooking everything up, and arranging the thick tarps on the top and then I drive to Cooper’s house and am joyfully reunited with my dogs. I cart them back to our cold, muddy home, unpack some of our stuff, sweep the floor, and blast the space heater. I make the bed and draw the curtains and collapse, curled around my small charges. It’s musty in the trailer now, as it was left uncovered in the rains for the month of September, and I am pretty allergic to mold. But it’s warm in the trailer with the space heater, and it’s only for a month. So there is that.

Egg arrives the next day, on her way south to California. In my trailer she shows me the list she’s made of qualities she’s looking for in a place to live.

“Basically, Stehekin,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe we should all move to Stehekin.”

The next day Egg is gone- when will I see her next? I don’t know.

Egg and NikNik!

Egg and NikNik!

Before my hike I was working as a rare bookseller; I bought rare first printings from unwitting ebay sellers who didn’t know how valuable they were, relisted them, and jacked the price way, way up. It’s a job I made up for myself last year because I needed another gig; Portland is the kind of place where hipsters with masters degrees fight each other tooth and nail for the barista jobs, leaving nothing for the rest of us, and my bookselling gig was part of the constellation of money-making I call my “Portland Hustle”. The job is good money but it requires hours and hours every week of dreadfully tedious online research, and now that I am leaving Portland I want to be free of it. I want to make room in my life for jobs that do not involve being on the computer; I want to move physical objects through space. Heavy objects, cold objects, rough objects; objects that require me to wear gloves. Preferably in some sort of inclement weather. I have a box of valuable books leftover from before my hike and I list a handful of them; within a few days a particularly valuable set sells and I walk my dogs the half mile to my favorite tattoo shop. I do not have an appointment but one of the artists has a cancellation and he sits me in his chair, chatters amicably at me, and tattoos 2660, the mileage of the PCT, on my knuckles. On the wall is a tiny, taxidermied mouse, mounted on a bit of polished wood, and I stare at this mouse as the needle bites into the bones of my fingers. I am already imagining my Rural Hustle- Maybe that’s what I’ll do, I think, in addition to moving objects through space. I’ll taxidermy roadkill and sell it to hipsters on Etsy.

I hate the knuckle tattoo after I get it. As I get older I’m beginning to have post-tattoo remorse, which is something I never experienced in my teens and early twenties. Now I sit in my trailer in the afternoon and stare at the tattoo, feeling completely and irrevocably marked. I really like my hands, they’re my favorite part of me. The numbers on my knuckles seem dark and heavy, and they’re just so… there. Like misshapen rings I can’t take off. I have a feeling, though, that I’ll grow to love these numbers, they way I grew to love the killdeer tattoo on the back of my left hand, which is a reference to one of my favorite books- The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon.

And, of course, I do grow to love the tattoo. I love it just a little at first and then more and more each day, as my life on the trail grows more distant, more irrelevant, more disconnected from all the people and things around me. The numbers become a soothing talisman, a badge of honor, a reminder of the place I was. Of the place I’d rather be. It existed. It was real.

More real than anything.

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Out of nowhere I get a text from Track Meat, who I haven’t seen since Northern California- he, Veggie and Ole are in Portland right now, at this moment. I bike downtown, over the Broadway bridge in the damp cold, the lights of the city twinkling on the water, and meet them at a bar in Northwest. My tall friends are still wearing their hiking gear and I give them bear hugs, order a massive basket of fries, and watch them get drunk. Ole is headed home, to California; Track Meat’s plan, at the moment, is to buy a motorcycle and drive it to South America. For a moment I think I’ll hitch south with the three of them, and then I realize that that’s not what I want to do at all.

Track Meat, Ole, Veggie

Track Meat, Ole, Veggie

I go rollerskating with some friends at Oak’s Park, which is the last hardwood roller rink left in the country, or something like that. Proficiency at walking, of course, does not transfer to proficiency at the roller rink, and I hobble around on my skates, clumps of eight-year-olds whizzing by me at a frightening speed.

ROLLER RINK!

ROLLER RINK!

I meet up with Ben and Angela and Thyra at a bar down the road, walking there in the cold night, and we talk about the trail. I haven’t seen them since the Desert, but we laughed a lot together and they live in Portland and it is so good to see them now. They walk me back to my trailer and hang out, petting Kinnikinnick- Ben and Thyra want to live in a trailer, too.

Ben and Angela and NikNiik

Ben and Angela and NikNiik

I go running. At first, running is painful, each slap of the pavement reverberating up through my feet, ankles, and knees. I am used to walking on the soft trail, not jogging on concrete. But after a few days my joints adjust and I discover, to my amazement, that nothing makes me winded. I run six miles, the most I’ve ever run at once, then eight miles, then ten, then twelve. I run for two hours and I am not winded. I realize that I am in the best cardiovascular shape of my life. And I realize that it won’t last.

Running in Forest Park!

Running in Forest Park!

In addition to having the heart and lungs, however temporarily, of an athlete, exercise no longer gives me endorphins. Before the trail, if I ran for three miles, I felt incredible after. Like, SO PUMPED. Like, FUCK YEAH, LIFE! BRING IT ON! Now, if I run for an hour, I feel normal… for a little while. And the rest of the time, I feel like shit.

In some sort of interesting way I don’t understand, the chemicals in my brain and the physiology of my body have rearranged themselves around the constant exertion of the trail, in that hiking up mountains, at some point, started to make me feel “regular”, as opposed to exhausted or elated or sore. Now, when I’m not exercising, I feel stagnant and dull, my blood barely moving, my heart pumping at a sluggish rate.

Twelve hours of exercise a day, I realize with wonder, has become my body’s new baseline. And there is no way, in my life in the regular world, to replicate that.

The big, heavy, hulking thing hits me after seven days. It’s afternoon and the rain is still falling, torrentially, pounding against the sides of the trailer. My lamps are lit against the gloaming and the dogs are curled into donuts on the bed, asleep. I’ve just eaten lunch and I sit on the bed and then I fall over, curl into the fetal position, and start to cry. Something warm and bright inside of me has broken open, spilling everywhere. Something I was clutching tightly now slips through my fingers and away, like sand. It’s gone. It’s really gone, and there is nothing I can do. The sense of loss I feel is overwhelming, waves and waves of it breaking over me. An ocean of loss, a continent of loss. The Lost Continent of Loss. Everything that I have loved, now gone; like coming out the wardrobe from Narnia, back into the regular world, and then Narnia is just gone, that world and all its inhabitants who you’d grown to love. That world that seemed more real than anything, that world that seemed as though it would last forever. Now I am crying in my trailer and outside, the rain is falling, and none of it makes any difference because what I had is gone, and there are no reference points for it anywhere; no connections from there to here, no faint paths through the tall grass, no way to tie one place to the other.

It is as though it never existed at all.

The hole I fall into is deep, and wide, and airless, and luckily Instigate rolls into town, like a hiker Mary Poppins, before I lose the strength to pull myself out of it. Instigate is not sad, not even one little bit, and now she’s exploding her bag everywhere, and bustling around, and there are so many Activities! to be done, and how can a person find the space to be cry when sharing their 20 foot trailer with someone else? It feels good and right and natural to do everything with Instigate, as a team- Let’s Fill The Propane Tanks, Let’s Go Running In Forest Park, Let’s Try On Dresses With Giant Tigers’ Faces On Them At Forever 21, Let’s Make Raw Chocolates And Eat Them All. It’s not the things we’re doing that makes me feel better but the fact that we’re doing them as a Team; I realize that I wish I could always do things this way, with a handful of other people who I trust; that the PCT was my first experience of healthy interdependency, as opposed to the codependency that I tend towards in dating relationships or the solitude of my single life, and that this interdependency was beautiful, and healing, and that I want nothing more than to recreate it now, in this life.

But how to do this? There are no models, no models for it anywhere. The PCT was the most primitive sort of human society- people moving over the earth with the simplest of goals, wanting only the simplest of things, needing each other more than they could bear. Each day I hiked from point A to point B, each night I unfluffed my sleeping bag beneath the milky way and ate dinner with my team, laughing and joking about our special life, which we shared with a finite number of other people, also in clumps, behind us and beyond us in the dark forests. The unspoken understanding was that we would each do our best, take care of our own, and never complain. We would not needlessly drain the pot of our collective morale, which we filled each day with our jokes, our stoicism, our lightheartedness in the face of adversity. We wouldn’t take more than we needed but if we needed it, it was there. And this trust was like cement, fixing us together in a constellation that held the three of us, making us stronger together than we could ever be on our own. And, for the first time in my life, I felt as though I really, truly, had a place– I was living, somewhat miraculously, in a world free from existential despair, which seemed impossible- as though I’d stumbled into a world without gravity, or onto a planet that failed to spin. Suddenly I belonged, to my friends and to myself, to the forest and to the trail- I belonged in a way I had never, in this modern, western world, belonged before.

Instigate in the trailer

Instigate in the trailer

Instigate and I take the dogs to the park and talk about the future (Instigate wants to move to Cleveland, do climate justice work, grow her collection of houseplants, and of course in 2015 there is the CDT) and I try to fixate on the fact that I have glimpsed, for a moment, this rare and miraculous thing that I hope to somehow recreate, as opposed to the fact that it is has been irrevocably lost. For the most part, I manage, although thinking about the rest of the month, alone in my trailer in the rain, fills me with despair. And of course part of it is physiological too- I start to wonder if finishing the PCT is a little like coming off an antidepressant cold turkey, in which case I’ve just got to ride this out and eventually, one day, I’ll wake up and feel a little better.

And the country, too, there is that. The oak savannahs of Southern Oregon, which is where I’ve decided to move, on advice from my friend Heron, who lives there. The trees, the air, the hard cold stars. It wasn’t just Instigate, Spark and I fixed together in that constellation, on the trail. The forest was there too, holding us. The forest was our container, our planet, our entire world. The forest! That place outside of time, those wise trees with their patience and unconditional love. The city is noisy and crowded but there is no love in it; lots of people walking around, trying to love each other and failing. Standing all together and feeling alone, wanting to need each other but unable to figure out how.

So my heart is broken; to the country I will go.

After the trail: Hitching back into the US

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September 24

I wake at 6:30, tangled in the scratchy comforter, hotel room walls washed in pale morning light, and realize that I feel awesome. My crying the night before, my emotional hemorrhaging all over the place, everything coming out of me all at once- Maybe that’s it, I think. The trail’s over, I got real sad about it, I cried a bunch… maybe now I’ll be fine. Before my hike I’d read plenty of accounts of post-thru-hike depression- sadnesses that came on all at once, bottomless pits of meaninglessness with no known cure, bouts of melancholy that lingered for weeks, for months, for years.

I doubt that will happen to me, I think now, as I lie in the hotel bed waiting for the others to wake, watching MIA videos on my phone. I feel fantastic. And besides, I’m tough, right? Emotionally resilient, prone to crippling anxiety, on occasion, in cities, but never really depression. And the people who write about being bummed after the trail are probably exaggerating, at least a little bit. Romanticizing their post-trail experience for the sheer poetry of it, the same way we romanticize our suffering on the trail- I thru-hiked and afterward life was never the same! Everything was empty and suffused with meaninglessness! Much like- Look at these blisters! Whoa how I have suffered!

I mean, I’ll be fine. Right?

The others wake and we drink cups of cheap hotel coffee and scavenge breakfast from our food bags- we all brought more than enough food this last section, after our period of starvation hiking into Stehekin, and we are all three of us, at this point, very, very broke. It’s something I’m trying not to think about- Where will money come from once I’m back in Portland? I don’t have a job to return to, and I really want to move out of the city. It’s a promise I made to myself while hiking, while walking through the sun-dappled forest, while lying on the sandy desert floor. It can be hard to leave the place you live, even when you’re only there, after so many years, out of habit. When you have a relationship with a place, when you’ve watched it grow and change, when you know its history like you know yourself. I realized, several years ago, that Portland is no longer the city I came of age in, the city that taught me how to be myself, the city I fell in love with when I was nineteen, naïve, and so, so lost- and yet I continue to go back, winter after winter, looking for something that I will likely never find there. And the truth of it is, I want to live in the Nature. Not just in the summers, but all the time. Like, me and the Nature, we want to be together. So on the trail I sat in the dark on a hillside and stared up at the Milky Way and promised myself- you don’t have to live in Portland anymore. You can leave. For good.

Now I sit on the hotel bed, mussed sheets all around me, and eat handfuls of gingersnap granola and think about this promise. I will return to Portland, I decide, reunite with my dogs, tie up various loose ends, and leave before I get trapped again in some barely-satisfying routine. Before I talk myself out of it, before the rains return. I don’t know how, or to where I will go, or how I will pay for all of it, but I know, for a fact, that the ball has been set in motion, that I am going to leave the city and that I am never, ever, ever coming back.

Spark has a gallon bag of miniature raw chocolate energy bars, scored from Lotus and Hermes, and he tosses them across the bed to me. Lotus and Hermes were sponsored by this company, and they had some insane quantity of these bars in their resupply boxes- maybe a thousand? And by the time they got to the border they were very, very sick of them. I think the bars are delicious and before I know it I have eaten a dozen of them, made a mound of shiny wrappers on the bedside table. My stomach is still an empty pit inside of me that feels as though it can never be filled, my metabolism a white-hot furnace that vaporizes calories on impact. And yet, I’m no longer hiking- how much longer will I feel this way?

I decide to take another shower before checkout, taking advantage of the beautiful, warm, brightly-tiled bathroom that I just barely appreciated yesterday through the haze of my tears. I take off my clothes and startle at my image in the mirror- I am so, so thin. I haven’t been this thin, in fact, since I had an eating disorder as a teenager. I am this thin because I was starving in Washington, because I had tonsillitis and couldn’t eat, because I didn’t pack enough food. I am so thin, now, that the belt of my pack leaves bruises on my hips, that it’s painful to lay on my back AND my side. I am so thin that, instead of continuing to grow stronger, I actually became weaker in Washington, and slower, and my calves, which, by Oregon, had become wooden six-packs of glorious wonder, actually began to shrink. My body was, in effect, eating itself. Eating the very muscles it needed to hike. And so I had nothing left to pad me when I slept, to help keep me warm, to consume in moments of hardship.

I look at my body in the mirror and think, I am too thin. And the next thought follows as naturally as the first- I wish I could stay this way forever.

These two contradictory thoughts bump gently against each other and then disappear as I turn on the water in the shower. Female socialization means that I have been taught, since I was very young, that I should be, above all things, thin. I have received this message from television, from magazines, from advertisements, from the internet, and from all the humans around me for the last thirty-one years. As a teenager it was an obsession that consumed me, and after much personal growth and education about my own, internalized oppression and the nature of the patriarchy the message of thinness = desirability = love has subsided to a sort of white noise that I can almost, but not quite, tune out. And yet here it is, rising triumphant from some deep part of me, that person inside of me that wants, above all else, to be thin. No matter that I just walked from Mexico to Canada, no matter that I braved hunger, tonsillitis, hypothermia, and snow in Washington and emerged triumphant. I’m fucking thin! And not just a little thin, but thin enough that no-one, from any angle or at any time of the month, even my own hyper-critical self, would call me not-thin. So far on the side of thin that I am safe here, protected on all sides from sudden bouts of fatness. That place I loved so much as a teenager, that place I starved myself daily in order to go. That place of safety, of comfort, of security. I’m fucking emaciated.

Of course I know, on a logical level, how delusional these thoughts are. That I should’ve loved my body as much in Northern California, where I first found my stride and did my first thirty mile days, and felt strong and fast and full of life and energy, as I do now, after dragging my way through Washington with no energy left in my body.

But I don’t.

Instigate, Spark and I pack up our things and look sadly around us at our hotel room, the last hotel room we’ll have the opportunity to trash together. The trail is over but I have at least a few more days with these fools and right now I am so, so grateful for that. Outside the hotel the sky is overcast and the air is cold; we sit on the concrete stoop and look up at the passes, draped in clouds, where the snow is still falling. Our plan today is to hitch back across the border, but we’re not sure how. Manning Park lodge is an end-of-the-road kind of place, this is the shoulder season, and there isn’t any traffic. So we sit and look at the internet on my phone while Instigate makes a sign from a piece of cardboard from the trash.

“Have you seen Sarah?” says a young man in his pajamas, backwards ballcap on his head, eyes bloodshot a deep pink.

“Who’s Sarah?” I say. Behind the young man a dented sedan is idling.

“She’s a friend of a friend. I was supposed to give her a ride to Vancouver today. She was going to give me gas money. It’s my day off.”

Instigate looks up from her cardboard sign. Spark puts down his gatorade bottle of instant coffee/whey protein.

“I don’t know where Sarah is,” I say, “but we need a ride towards Vancouver. And we will give you gas money.”

After some haggling the young man agrees on a forty-dollar fee for a ride to the closest border crossing and we pile in the car, packs on our laps. The young man revs the sedan and pulls onto the highway, going the wrong direction- there is a gas station down the road, the only one in the area, and the car is almost out of gas. The young man is pale, looks to be about eighteen, and the floor of his car is littered in trash. The song Beasts of Burden is playing on the stereo and it’s nice to hear. I stare out the window as the young man lights up a joint, offers it to us and then smokes the whole thing himself. After Beasts of Burden ends another song comes on- Beasts of Burden. And then Beasts of Burden again.

“Is this the only song you have on this CD?” I say. The young man laughs and punches a button on the stereo. Yellow Submarine begins to play, and then Yellow Submarine, again. I realize that the stereo must be broken, stuck on repeat. I don’t say anything else about it.

At the gas station I discover that, in Canada, they have snack foods flavored like dill pickles. This pleases me immensely and I buy a bag of dill pickle rice cakes and eat them all in a couple of minutes. The young man is on the ground, looking at the underside of his car. Apparently he backed into something, and now the hose to the gas tank is in a funny place.

“It’s probably fine,” he says, as we pile back into the car and take off down the road.

We swing by the Manning Park Lodge employee housing on our way back to the highway. The young man wants to pick up his laundry and his toothbrush.

“I’m going to visit my girlfriend,” he says. “I should probably bring something besides pajamas.” The employee housing consists of a series of rundown, moldy-looking houses on a narrow dirt road. Then the young man has his basket of laundry and we are finally underway, Yellow Submarine playing over, and over, and over on the stereo.

The young man drops us in Abbotsford, at an intersection, crowded with bright box stores, from which it’s a two-mile walk to the border crossing. We are all hungry but anxious to get across the border, so we decide to wait for lunch until after we cross. It’s fun to walk, on foot, down the highway and then past the long lines of waiting cars, trekking poles poking like spears from the sides of our packs. I feel as though we’re Gypsy travelers, returned home after some long overland quest.

The customs agent peers at my passport. “Are you bringing anything into the US that you acquired in Canada?”

“Happiness,” I say. “A sense of purpose.” The customs agent frowns at me.

“I have a tangerine,” says Spark. The agent takes the tangerine and throws it in the trash.

On the other side of the border we find ourselves suddenly in a small, frontier-themed Washington town, economically depressed and weirdly devoid of residents. The false-fronted storefronts, complete with wagon wheels and statues of bulls, are mostly shuttered, and the parkinglots are empty. “Going Out of Business!” banners hang right next to the “Grand Opening!” signs. Even the gas stations and strip malls are closed, windows papered over, sandwich boards fading in the afternoon light.

“Whoa,” I say. “This place is weird.”

We find a Thai restaurant that is, somehow, open, and are ushered inside by a very friendly woman with beautiful, fresh-looking neck tattoos. She sits us a at a corner table and hands us menus the size of paperback novels. We are the only customers.

“We just opened four days ago!” She says.

Spark and instigate order coconut soup with noodles and chicken and I order a curry. A little while later, after we have eaten all the ice in our glasses, the woman brings out a small plate of curry for me and two huge, square bowls of broth for Instigate and Spark. A few slices of mushroom float on top of the broth. Instigate prods the broth with her spoon, but there is nothing else there.

Instigate and Spark have drunk almost all of their broth before we come to the collective agreement that what they actually ordered was something else entirely. Spark doesn’t want to say anything, maybe because he is from Georgia? But I think this is a travesty. I mean, the calories! Their lunch was supposed to have calories! We call the woman over, she summons the cook from the kitchen, and the cook looks out at us and frowns. No-one understands what happened or how and finally, as compensation, the woman brings us a little bowl of rice. We decide that the restaurant is, in fact, a front, and that we are not even supposed to be here. Probably the whole town is a front. For what, we don’t know.

We’ve only been standing on the highway for ten minutes when a concrete layer in a battered work van stops and offers us a ride to Bellingham. He’s in his mid thirties, rangy and handsome, and a picture of his three-year-old daughter swings from the rear-view mirror. Instigate and Spark crouch in back, among the buckets and tools, and I get the seat in front in exchange for the work of making smalltalk. In Bellingham the man drops us at the co-op where, to our happiness, we meet up with Lotus and Hermes. They’ve been to the thrift store and to the barber, and they’re wearing normal town clothes and have fresh new haircuts, which I find alarming. We also meet up with Slick, a trail angel who lives here, who’s offered to let us crash at his place. Slick is wearing hiking clothes, like he’s just on his way to the trail. Slick, Instigate, Spark and I walk to a nearby burrito place, where all the tables are painted black and hardcore metal rattles from the soundsystem. This makes Spark very happy, as he loves metal and even wrote his thesis in college on the anthropology of metal. Once, on the trail, when we were sitting next to a lake, Spark described each of the different kinds of metal to us, and played various songs from his phone as examples.

After much encouragement I order the biggest plate of nachos I have ever seen, and proceed to eat them until I feel like I’m going to vomit. Instigate and Spark each order burritos the size of their heads, which they are unable to finish. We wrap up our leftovers and stagger slowly down the damp, cool streets to Slick’s apartment building, where he leads us up a flight of stairs, lined in battered, vintage paintings, to a small apartment that consists of a bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a warm, cozy livingroom that looks out onto the street. There is an overstuffed couch in the livingroom and we collapse onto it, unable to move. Slick works early in the morning so he says goodnight, after which Spark discovers that Slick has an entire season of the animated X-Men series on DVD. I don’t want to watch this, like at all, but I am outnumbered and so I succumb. The plot of the show is terrible, nonsensical, and impossible to follow, which is how I remember it from my childhood. The one consolation is that all of the female superheroes in the show look like Instigate, which is cool.

“Will you dress up like an X-Men for Halloween?” I ask her. “Maybe Storm? You just need to make a shirt that is, like, a thong.”

“Yeah ok,” says Instigate.

A few hours later I am able to convince Spark that it is bedtime, although I have a feeling that, if he had his way, we would watch the show all night. We roll out our sleeping pads on the floor and I lay in my bag, sleepless, listening to all the little noises in the building. The trail may be over, but nothing really sucks. Not yet. Today felt just like a zero day- walking into town, hitching, eating all the things. Rolling out my bedroll on a hard floor next to my closest and dearest friends. I close my eyes. I want to pretend, at least for a little while longer, that this will last forever. I’m not ready for what comes next. Not yet.

Instigate in our last trashed hotel room. Le sigh.

Instigate in our last trashed hotel room. Le sigh.

PICKLE THINGS

PICKLE THINGS

The best.

The best.

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Just a couple of badasses, walking back into the country.