This story was originally published as part of a Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) spotlight on hikers' stories, inspired by the popularity of Cheryl Strayed's Wild. This story, also, may or may not be part of a larger story - some might call it a book, that may or may not be a work in progress at this very moment. To be determined.
A gift of the trail is that it allows you to truly experience the full spectrum of human emotion, sometimes all in one day. A moment of frustration and despair is seamlessly followed by peace and beauty. I experienced this phenomenon in its fullness on my walk into Idyllwild on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Arriving at Idyllwild was a pivotal moment in my thru-hike. This was a mountain town where I’d been years ago, spending two summers working as a counselor at an arts camp. It was a magical place in my memory. My days at Idyllwild had been full of creative freedom, mountain adventures, long summer days and fancy glasses of wine, all shared with friends I would remember forever. My first summer at Idyllwild was the first time as an adult that I got to experienced carefree happiness. I’d been looking forward to arriving at Idyllwild since my very first day on the trail. I’d wondered who I’d be by the time I got there – a changed person? A thru-hiker? Would we even get that far?
On an early morning in November, I steadily ascended the last big climb of our thru-hike – Mount San Jacinto. This climb was one of the primary reasons Mud hadn’t joined me on this section. It was a 20-mile waterless stretch and 8,000 feet of elevation gain, just a day's walk from the town of Idyllwild. I’d been hearing about this mountain since he’d struggled up it in the April heat during his flip-flop seven months earlier. He’d already completed these Southern California miles. Now it was my turn. I’d felt such anxiety and anticipation about tackling this climb, I was relived to finally be ready to take it on.
I approached it with a cheerful focus. I'd fallen into a disciplined routine for the past 98 miles on my own. Wake up at 4 am. Make coffee, eat granola. Start hiking at 5 am. See the sun rise at 6 am. Walk as many miles as I possibly can before the sun goes down again at 5 pm. Crawl into my tent at 6 pm. Fall asleep by 7. Every ounce of my energy and my existence was focused on one thing – get to Idyllwild. On my first full day alone I was so focused on miles that I accidentally skipped lunch - finding myself having walked 34 miles on nothing but snacks. I gotta slow down before I get hurt, I reminded myself. The next day I carefully planned a lunch break, but cut it short, as I had no one to talk to without Mud saying silly things as we ate.
Now I was closer than ever and nothing could stand in my way. I hiked through dawn as the sun rose, the birds began to chirp and small creatures rustled like invisible ninjas in the prickly bushes. Slow and steady, two miles became four and soon five; only 15 more miles of climbing; only 21 more today.
My cheerfulness soon turned to frustration as the air grew warmer. The trail became a maze of overgrown brush, relentlessly scratching my arms and legs, catching hold of loose ends on my pack, pushing against my forward progress.
Mud’s words rang in my head; “I just plowed through it like a moose. That mountain kicked my ass”.
The only way out was through. So, like a moose, I plowed through. As the prickly tunnels began to subside, the winds picked up and added to my upward struggle. The challenges were constant, but I was tackling them.
Then, suddenly, the unforgiving desert became a gentle forest. The path was clear and open; pine trees surrounded me. The landscape was deeply familiar and comforting. My frustration melted away as happy memories of summertime with friends flooded my mind. I’d been in this wilderness before! We’d walked past rocks just like these. We’d climbed Taqhuitz peak, Suicide rock, we’d found a waterfall! For the first time in days, I felt that I wasn’t alone. I walked in the company of my old friends. Despite not having spoken with them for years, I felt exceedingly grateful for their role in my life. I could feel their presence through the rocks, trees and pine needles. I forgot how many miles I had left and lived a different world for just a few moments.
I basked in the comfort of this landscape until the novelty wore off, and hunger set in. Hunger was a constant and familiar companion on this journey. Sometimes I could tolerate it, eat a bar and move on. Other times it overcame me and broke me down… my desperation for a meal was too much to handle. Today, the battle was with flavor fatigue. I’d been eating the same bars and snacks for 4 months and could handle no more. The thought of putting a ProBar in my mouth made me nauseous. While my conscious brain forced me to swallow as much food as possible, there’s an involuntary swallowing reflex that is necessary to truly get food down your throat. This was the part I struggled with. My body would not accept the food I gave it.
I sat down under a shady tree, defeated and starving. I had no choice but to eat the only thing left I could tolerate – chocolate. I devoured every piece in my food bag, smothered it in almond butter, and wished I had more. I hoped the fat would keep me full for at least an hour. It didn’t.
As I battled with my hunger, the winds picked up and the terrain became jagged. I climbed over and around boulders, my steps uneven as rocks moved under my feet. My patience was growing thin, my legs and mind weary. I’d been climbing for 8 hours and the thought of reaching the top still seemed as distant as ever. The constant force of the wind was one of my archenemies on the trail. I dreaded and hated wind more than anything, and here it was, teamed up with rocks and overwhelming hunger. I was sure that they were all out to get me, to strip away everything I thought I knew about myself and leave me cold, raw and alone atop this mountain.
I struggled to keep my balance as I made my way up the trail, sure I would never get there and simultaneously certain that I wouldn’t stop until I did. Then something changed. The constant resistance I’d been facing all day was suddenly gone. Walking became unexpectedly easier. Downhill! My first steps walking down after 20 miles of up were like floating on a magical cloud. My bones felt light and strong, my muscles capable once again. A warmth spread throughout my body as the wind subsided in the protection of the pine trees. The howling in my ears and dissonance in my mind was replaced by divine silence. The forest was magnificent in its stillness. I checked my maps with disbelief, but it was true – I’d reached the top. It was all downhill to Idyllwild. At last!
Mud met me on the trail into town at dusk, just a few miles from Idyllwild. He was standing in an outcropping of trees, making a time-lapse video of the sunset. I was comforted by the sight of his long, overgrown beard and lopsided shorts-and-winter-hat outfit. He carried my pack down the mountain and we chatted effortlessly for the last two and a half miles of the epic day. We made our way into town to find the largest of cheese-less pizzas loaded with vegetables, and a warm hotel bed. As the sun went down, the dramatic and complex landscapes, both inner and outer, faded into darkness. All that remained at the end of this day, and every day, were the essentials of human life – eating, sleeping, and my best friend beside me.
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