A cloud must have attacked us that night on the ridge top because we all woke at dawn’s first light covered in dew. Rowan and I fought over a patch of sunlight to dry our gear in while Cuban attempted to continue sleeping in his tent. For breakfast I boiled some water and poured it into a couple of instant oatmeal packets. I was surprised with the food that I’d tired of immediately at the start of my hike, like peanut butter, tortillas, and trail mix – all thru-hiker staples – and what had turned into comfort food that I actually looked forward to. Instant oatmeal, chia seeds in everything. Chamomile tea, which I’d hated pre-trail.
Once everything had dried enough, I pushed through the aching protest of my body and hiked out into the cool morning. I was eager for the upcoming downhill stretch. I had been obsessive with checking Guthook’s app for the PCT elevation profile. I could see upcoming climbs and feel the dread build up in my system, or the cautious anticipation of an easy day – rolling hills and easy descents. Today was a mixed bag. The morning would be easy, but in a couple of hours I would be faced with a daunting seven mile climb.
I tried to make the best of it by easing into a jog for the downhill. The morning was cool enough and I was out of the exposed desert and back into the trees. I didn’t make it more than a mile, though before running into a familiar, alarming sight.
The snake in front of me was not a rattler – obvious from its slim body and small head – but my heart leapt a bit by instinct. I recognized it quickly as a gopher snake, like the one I’d seen near Lake Silverwood more than three hundred miles ago.
It lay across the path languidly, almost indistinguishable from the ashy, brown dirt and sticks around it. I nudged it gently with my foot, urging it along. It shifted lazily, but did not move out of the way.
“Come on snakey,” I muttered at it. “Someone’s gonna step on you.”
Like an oversized, awkward pair of chopsticks, I used my trekking poles to lift the snake up and move it off to the side of the trail, from where it slithered away slowly into the tall grass.
I followed the trail mindlessly for the next couple of hours, alternating between listening to music, podcasts, or just silence. Surrounded by trees and desert brush, I no longer had a view of the mountains, and the repetitive scenery kept me focused on the ground as I walked. At the bottom of the descent the trail crossed a dirt road – the junction to Chimney Creek Campground. Here we had agreed to meet for lunch and fill up our water. I was also more than a little eager to enjoy the luxury of an outhouse – I had held it in all morning for the occasion.
The campground was a quarter-mile up the road, and completely deserted. I set my pack down on a picnic table made a beeline for the toilet. I regretted my excitement the moment I opened the crooked wooden door.
By far, it was the most disgusting toilet situation I had encountered on the PCT. The walls and ceiling were crawling with ants and other winged insects. Tiny brown splotches of bug goo covered every surface, and the smell was unbearable. I wasn’t surprised in the least to see that there was no toilet paper.
I shuddered as my arm brushed through a spiderweb. I considered eschewing the outhouse in favour of pooping in the woods, but my bladder was insistent that it couldn’t wait any longer. I dropped my leggings and hovered precariously over the seat, holding my breath and staring down at my feet as a colony of ants started to make their way up my shoes.
After thoroughly sanitizing every surface of my body that might have come in contact with the outhouse, I grabbed my water filter from my pack and trekked out to find the only functioning water spigot in the campground. The water report listed it as a quarter mile from the campground entrance. I wondered who discovered it, and how desperate they must have felt after trying every other goddamned spigot in the area before finding one that worked.
Even without my pack, I was roasting. It was one of the hottest days on trail yet. I followed the dusty dirt road through the campground, zigzagging inefficiently to walk in shade as much as possible. I counted the campsites along the way, trying to find the one with the active spigot. Time seemed to pass slowly, and I felt anxious about my pack, left alone at the campground entrance. I wondered if I’d return to find it ravaged by raccoons.
When I finally reached the campsite, I filled my reservoir from the spigot. My detour was rewarded at least with ice-cold water. It didn’t help my mood much. I glared at a bird on a branch overhead that screeched relentlessly as it watched me.
I hung my dirty reservoir on the spigot to let it filter down into my clean reservoir. It had been filtering very slowly lately and all my attempts to unclog the filter had failed. After a few minutes Rowan arrived and immediately launched into a rant about the detour.
“That was more than a quarter-mile!” he complained.
I told him I’d meet him back at the picnic table. On the way back I surprised several bunnies that were playing in the road. They hopped off into the thick brush as soon as they saw me. Shortly after I crossed paths with Cuban.
“Rowan is up at the spigot,” I told him. “It’s not much farther.”
I arrived back at the picnic table where all of our packs rested. I was nearly out of food and dangerously low on snacks, so I cooked some Top Ramen in my Jetboil for lunch, even though it was way too hot out to enjoy cooked food.
Rowan came back first, followed by Cuban who had managed to get lost and came through from the other side of the campground. We were all exhausted and hot, and it took Rowan packing up and setting out first for Cuban and I to even budge from our shady resting spot.
The trail resumed where I had left it at the road crossing. I signed the trail register and entered a wooded area. Today the shade did not help with the heat, and every footstep on the slow incline felt like torture. After only ten minutes I stopped and changed into my shorts and tank top. A few minutes later I was overwhelmed again and I set down my pack and spread out prone on the flat surface of a large rock on the side of the trail.
I heard Cuban before I saw him.
“Nap time?” he asked. I lifted my head feebly to look at him.
“I’m having a hard time today,” I mumbled, choking back some unexpected emotions, “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”
“Ok.” And then he disappeared around a bend.
I felt helpless and spent. I was always in front, and now I was in the back of our little hiker pack. It wasn’t so much a pride thing, but I felt it acutely in a way that I didn’t expect. I felt afraid of being left behind – that my friends wouldn’t bother to wait for me, and unless I caught up, that I would never see them again. I felt vulnerable and alone, and in that instant I understood why I hiked so fast, and why I found it so hard to slow down.
I lay still for a long time before I gathered the mental strength to get back up. It was still the early afternoon and the day was only going to get hotter. I pressed on slowly, trying not to think about catching up. I alternated between thoughts of camping alone that night, or hiking through the dark until I caught up. But I was only half an hour or so behind, I reminded myself. Only a mile or two.
I passed the old-guys resting by a stream. They didn’t acknowledge me and I hurried past, hoping to avoid any interaction or confrontation. I checked the elevation profile on my phone obsessively, mentally counting down to landmarks – streams, fences, dirt roads – and how close I would be to the top of the climb once I reached them.
The trees eventually dissolved into a stark, exposed burn area. I cringed inwardly as I willingly pressed on ahead, unsure of if I could handle the heat without the shade. I kept going only because there was nothing else I could do. There was no shade for respite. There was nowhere else to go. There wasn’t even a view. I was in a rocky, dusty wasteland of charred debris and rattlesnakes, surrounded on all sides by sloping hills beyond which I could only hope were mountains and cold rushing rivers.
When I caught up to Rowan and Cuban resting in the sparse shade of a burned out tree, I nearly collapsed with relief.
“I’m on the strugglebus,” I almost cried. “I’m driving the strugglebus.”
They offered no sympathy, and I didn’t expect them to. We were all suffering together. Rowan offered me some of his tea, and after a cup I moved on ahead first, relieved to no longer be the one left behind.
The climb crested at the top of a ridge from which I caught a glimpse of my future: the Sierra – closer than ever before. Bluish and distant in the atmosphere, but no longer hazy and close enough now to make out the fine details of the jagged peaks and sloped ridges.
Whereas I’d spent the last several hours feeling numb and mechanical, the sight of the mountains sparked something deep in my core and I felt adrenaline – life – spread through my nerves until my fingers and toes tingled. A gust of wind hit the ridge top. blowing my hair loose across my face, and carrying away the heat of the day and the confounding anxiety I’d struggled with all afternoon. ‘It’s ok,’ the trail seemed to say to me, ‘you get it now.’
I didn’t break into a run. Instead I walked as fast as I could, following the PCT as it began a slow contouring descent. I passed some other hikers, careful to call out as I quickly approached, so that I wouldn’t startle them. After some time I found an inviting nook in a granite rock face along the trail side, where I sat and examined some etchings and drawings left there by previous hikers. When Rowan caught up we rolled a few fist-sized rocks down the nearly sheer drop off the trail and cheered when one eventually managed to clear a large burned log.
Farther down the trail I passed Twist and Ninja, and then finally descended into a large meadow with a creek. Some people were set up already with a tent. They weren’t thru-hikers, judging by their setup. A lady crouched next to the stream, washing a pair of underwear.
I went upstream and found a clear patch of ground where I quickly set up my tent. It was still early, but we had agreed to meet here at the last major campsite before Kennedy Meadows. It had been a long day, and I knew Rowan and Cuban wouldn’t insist on pressing on farther.
When they arrived the sun was still high and as they set up their tents, I curled up in my own, sans rainfly, with my hat over my face and desperately trying to pretend that I was in the shade. They complained that the spot I chose was riddled with ants. They were right, but I just grunted incomprehensibly in response. What was I supposed to do about it?
When the sun finally drifted behind the mountains, we gathered around for dinner and cards. The relaxation was short-lived as the mosquitoes came out from the rocky recesses around the tiny creek. The three of us crawled into my tent since it was the biggest – ‘PT’s castle’, as Cuban dubbed it – and I hunched over by the footbox while Cuban and Rowan each occupied a corner by the entrance. It was tight and uncomfortable, but we were in high spirits, playing Crazy Eights until late into the night when it just became a game of unending sabotage. When we finally called it off, the stars had come out and the yips and howls of coyotes echoed through the meadow.
I fell asleep quickly, but woke sometime in the night. I was delirious, unsure if I woke because someone had whispered my name or if I had just imagined it. I unzipped my tent and crawled out, turning over onto my back to gaze up at the stars. The sky was the clearest I had ever seen. The Milky Way stretched majestically in a luminescent arc near the horizon. Thousands of pinpoints littered the blackness of outer space and illuminated the meadow. I was exhausted, and it was hard to keep everything in focus, but the sight left me breathless and in complete awe. For all the struggle and pain it had taken to reach this point, this was my reward. This was why I did it. ‘It’ wasn’t something I could quantify, and because I relied so heavily on logic to justify my decisions, I resolved that my brain may resist the idea of emotional value, but I had to just accept that this was why I was here – for no reason beyond the beauty of the universe and the simplicity of experiencing it in the way that I was right now – it was all worth it. It just was.