California

PCT Reflections

Now that the leaves of the trees, already well colored, are falling, it seems high time to reflect on my hike this spring. It’s been more than six months since I left from Campo and more than four months since Pine Nut and I took a final string of zeros together by Rae Lakes. image

What a wonderful couple of months those were!

I have a great many memories of my time on the Pacific Crest Trail, lots of individual, special or fun or miserable moments. But, looking back, there are a few themes that stand out:

It was all about the people. Pine Nut, Ant, Teresa, Laurie, Sun Roof, Sherri, Robert, Mary, Dennis, Nell – my summer was full of so many beautiful people. Back in 2011, one of my very first on-trail interactions was with an AT thru-hiker named Grandpa, who imparted some wisdom to me: It’s about the smiles, more than the miles. Thanks to some amazing people, my PCT experience was full of smiles.

The desert enchanted me — so much so that the FoodCorps positions I’m planning to apply for next year are those in the high desert. I had no idea that my hike was timed to ensure I’d get to enjoy the desert bloom, and I would not have believed that this tree hugger would adapt well to a landscape bereft of trees. I never felt like I was home on the PCT (as I do in the eastern woodlands), but I certainly enjoyed my time on the trail.

The horror stories I’d been told didn’t hold up. The first seven hundred miles aren’t all desert; they weren’t always hot, and the water carries weren’t terrible. There’s not much unbearable solitude; I found myself wishing for quiet, contemplative time on more than one occasion. Death in the Sierras isn’t guaranteed; if you hike on a low-snow year, you might not even get to glissade.

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Someday, I’ll finish the PCT. Well, maybe finish isn’t the right word. I’d want to start at the beginning and do a full thru-hike. Pine Nut has already assured me that she’ll join me for the highlights.

When I was trying to come to terms with getting off trail this year, I tried to assuage myself by reasoning that I’d be back next year, but I don’t think that’s the case. Once I got back to Kentucky, I was terrified to learn that my bone marrow was failing. Several hematology appointments (and rheumatology and neurology appointments, just for good measure) later, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for that, but I haven’t gotten to see a Lyme specialist yet. At the moment, I feel well-ish, and my blood tests are looking normal again.

I really try not to self-diagnose. I swear I do. I think patients should be health-aware and self-advocate, but I think we shouldn’t — and shouldn’t have to — self-diagnose. But, I really, really think I’ve been dealing with a Lyme coinfection called bartonella. Coupled with Lyme, it explains literally everything: the bone marrow issues, the bizarre off-season shin splints, the dizziness, the lightheadedness, the twitchy and vibrating muscles, the headaches, etc. Now if only I could get treated for it…

That’s a whole other story, but it’s also besides the point. What isn’t is that my next couple adventures need to be at lower altitude. (Bone marrow issues + altitude = disaster.) So, while my sister is still at grad school in Wales, I’m dreaming of walking the Camino and at least some of the South West Coast Path.

The following year, Te Araroa, which has been pulling my heartstrings for a few years already, is calling my name. And, the next year — in what could become my most long-term plans ever created and followed through on — Pine Nut and I are planning to reunite for a summer spent hiking Colorado’s 14,000-footers.

Ah.

In the meantime, Kentucky. Farm life, family time, animal time, week-long hikes, doctors’ offices, factory work and babysitting, and the wonderful HeartFelt Fleece & Fiber.

Off the PCT

My final day on the PCT began inconsequentially, save for the Lyme trifecta of dizziness, tiredness, and nausea I was experiencing. I packed up and hiked down to Rae Lakes, enjoying again the spectacular lakeside trail. Near the Rae Lakes ranger station — where friendly Sam Webster was stationed — I marveled at the tranquility of three sleeping deer. I thought about my likely-imminent departure from the trail. How I would miss this wilderness!

Although the forecast had called for afternoon storms, I was only one mile into my hike when the skies opened up. For a few moments, there was just a light, cold rain, but soon the hail began falling.wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.55-1.jpg.jpeg

As I mentioned a few days ago, this hailstorm was unlike any storm I’d ever before experienced — and I’m from the unpredictable East Coast. The hail began falling and kept falling…and falling…and falling. I’m used to hailstorms accompanying warm rain in summer storms or the tumultuous air of spring frontal systems; I’m accustomed to hail falling briefly before giving way to rain. This hailstorm was a nonconformist: It hailed for 90 minutes or so and left inches of hail on the trail in its wake.

Throughout the storm, thunder resounded in the valley and lightning lit up the sky. The sparse tree cover overhead and nearby lakes didn’t exactly make the trail a safe place to be; however, I kept walking, remembering that denser tree cover awaited as I approached Woods Creek.

Crunching hailstones beneath my feet, I descended lower in the valley. By the time I was thoroughly chilled from the ice that fell from the sky, the ice was replaced by rain, a bitterly cold rain whose cold seeped through clothing even when its moisture did not. I traipsed through the increasingly green wilderness as I neared Woods Creek, wet and numb.

I fleetingly considered climbing Pinchot Pass after making it down to Woods Creek. I think my reasoning had been that the effort expended during an ascent would warm my core, but it seems more likely that the thought wasn’t reasoned at all. As I arrived at the Woods Creek Campsite, I recognized Ranger Webster through the rain.

“Has anyone come over the Pass today?” I asked, waving a numb hand toward Pinchot.

“Not since early this morning. I’m getting reports of a good bit of snow up there.”

Fortunately, the threat of snow travel made my brain surrender its idea of hiking over Pinchot. I accepted the fact that my day’s hike would be over after only seven downhill miles and began the challenging task of erecting my tent in the rain with immovable fingers.

After a good half-hour spent thawing my fingers and making campsite-creating progress in a stepwise fashion, my tent was up. As quickly as I could, I stripped off my rain gear and crawled into my tent and under my quilt.

The rain kept falling fast and furiously, and soon even my previously-dryish campsite became a shallow lake.   I hid under my quilt, willing myself to be warm.

Sometime in the afternoon, the weather broke.

wpid-2015-08-01-06.03.59-1.jpg.jpegEventually, I mustered the energy to take my belongings out of my tent and pack and set them in the sun to dry. Forty-five minutes later, the sun went away as more storm clouds moved in. Stumbling around the expansive campsite, I set up my tent on a drier patch of ground and crawled back inside.

It was 24 hours before I worked up the spoons (or, as thesweetadventurer said, “the titanium sporks”) to even consider leaving camp.

I spent most of that time sleeping and, if I’m being honest, feeling sorry for myself. I was below 8500 feet now; I still felt miserable, and my symptoms couldn’t be written off as signs of altitude sickness. I was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely dealing with a relapse of Lyme disease, a relapse that was definitely, positively, undoubtedly, absolutely forcing me off the PCT and back to bed. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was crying.

Then, sometime just before noon on the 10th, I realized how very ridiculous I was being, wallowing in self-pity. Yes, I was going to get off trail; yes, my plans were going to change again; yes, I’ve spent 13 of the last 23 months in bed. But, those 13 months haven’t been completely lost, and the other ten have been some of the most spectacular of my life. And, here I was, in a truly beautiful place. The sun was shining down all around me, the pendulous branches of the foxtail pines were swaying in the breeze, and the roar of Woods Creek filled the air. I began crying with gratitude — both for that moment and for the months I’d spent in the wilderness of California.

An hour later, I was ready for the slow, painful trek to Road’s End. I crossed the suspension bridge again, took a picture of the 800-mile mark again, and turned off the PCT and onto the Paradise Valley Trail again. With a pack-ful of memories of a wonderful hike, I was ready to head home.

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On the PCT: Kearsarge Pass, Take Three

My final foray on the Pacific Crest Trail this year was dramatic, to say the least.

After the Lyme relapse that sidelined me, I was feeling well enough that I wanted to get back on the trail by the second week in July. I spent a day bustling around Teresa and Laurie’s home, preparing to hike again: There was food to be packed and food to be eaten; Doxycycline-approved clothing to wash and Rainbow Dash-approved clothing to send home. Excited to be going back to the trail, I happily had my last night in an amazingly comfortable bed, watched my last Doctor Who episode, and had my last shower.

Feeling some tiredness and dizziness while loading the last of my belongings into my pack, the nerves set in. I worked to assuage them by thinking about all the antibiotics I’d taken and detoxing I’d done, but my efforts weren’t entirely effective. As Teresa drove me from Acton all the way to the Onion Valley Trailhead near Independence, I talked and laughed and worried.

Driving to Independence, CA

Driving to Independence, CA

At the trailhead, a previous year’s thru-hiker noticed my pack and struck up a conversation whilst I was giving my gear the final once over and taking mid-day medicine.

“You hiking the trail?”

“Yes.”

“Aren’t you a little late? Seems you should have been here a few weeks ago.”

That’s probably the last thing I needed someone to point out to me.

As we had done near Mojave with Pine Nut, Ant, and Laurie, Teresa and I set off down the trail together. With seven days of food in my pack rather than 11, the climb toward Kearsarge Pass wasn’t so arduous, but I could tell that the weeks of Lyme rest had taken their toll. We walked steadily onward, enjoying the trailside waterfalls, green rocks, and foxtail pines. The gathering storm clouds overhead were less enjoyed, especially when they began letting loose rumbles of thunder.

One hour into the climb, Teresa and I said our tearful goodbyes (“until we meet again”). Then, I turned and walked up into the storm.

Honestly, my tears remained for a good ten minutes. My goodbye wasn’t eased by my being so anxious, so worried that I was being too ambitious in returning to the trail. But, eventually, the endorphins of a good uphill hike started to kick in, and I neared treeline.

A deer bounded across the trail, the upper-atmosphere thunder rumbled a little louder, and tiny hail began falling. I walked on.

Kearsarge Pass was shrouded in clouds, giving it an otherworldly feel. Chilled from the hail, I snapped a quick picture before hurrying down the other side.

As a lot, thru-hikers despise “bonus miles,” any walking in addition to the 2,650 miles between Mexico and Canada. The Onion Valley Trail is more than 7.5 miles long, and I did it three times. However, there was something enjoyable about hiking a familiar stretch of trail, particularly now that it was so unusually misty.

As I’d neared the top of Kearsarge, my dizziness had intensified. Part of my rushing down the Pass was in the hopes that losing altitude would improve my symptoms; it didn’t. The PCT between the Onion Valley Trail and Glen Pass stays high, so I knew I needed to get up and over Glen before calling it a night.

I’d be lying if I tried to pretend those miles weren’t difficult. I resorted to counting my steps, rewarding myself with a break after every one or two hundred footfalls.

By the time I was atop Glen, the hail had stopped and the storm had blown over a bit; however, the evening was bringing chillier air with it. I marched onward, eager to get down to Rae Lakes and make camp, keen to quell my dizziness.

In the twilight of 8:30, I spied a small campsite next to a tree overlooking Upper Rae Lake and decided to call it a day. Too nauseated to eat, I crawled under my quilt without dinner. I thought sleep would come easily, but I was feverish and nauseated and dizzy and spent hours just trying to feel okay.

My fever broke in the middle of the night. In the morning, I considered my possible escape routes, in the event that I needed them: up and over Glen and Kearsarge Passes or, once again, a long, downhill trek to Road’s End. I decided that the best thing to do was to get to lower elevation — to tease the effects of altitude sickness from the effects of Lyme — and reevaluate my predicament there. I packed up and hiked northward.

A hailstorm unlike any I’d seen before soon accompanied me.

To be continued…

On the PCT: Forester Pass

The Pacific Crest Trail has been called “the trail of extremes.”  It winds through seven ecozones, from sandy deserts to the alpine zone of the Sierra to the temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.  It takes thru-hikers through deep sand and deep snow, and it’s not unusual for a hiker to worry about heat exhaustion and a freezing water filter in any given day.  The trail reaches its lowest point, 180 feet above sea level, at the Oregon-Washington border, and it climbs to its zenith, 13,153 feet, at Forester Pass in the Sierra.

Apparently, I was so excited about reaching the hike’s high point that I needed to climb Forester twice.

Pine Nut and I reached Forester Pass the day after we’d hiked Mount Whitney.  After feeling some altitude sickness on the top of the contiguous United States, I woke up feeling weak and a little dizzy but no worse than I’d been feeling for the previous week or so.  Next to lower Crabtree Meadow, we packed up and then headed northward.

The day was warm, and the woods were beautiful.  After spending the entirety of the previous day above treeline, I was so grateful to be back among foxtail pines, in a forest full of life.  But, as long trails do, the Pacific Crest Trail (particularly where it and the John Muir Trail are one and the same) is always going up or going down; it wasn’t long before we were once again climbing above treeline.

This time, the barren world we found above the trees struck me as unusual.  I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it was that was odd.  It may have been that the climb from Lower Crabtree to Forester Pass took us over a high plain, which was unlike the peaks and passes we’d seen before.  Walking there, I felt as though I was back in the desert:  The sun beat down on me, vegetation consisted of a few clumps of green things, and the air felt hot.  Granite peaks towered above me, and I felt so little, so insignificant in the vast emptiness.

But then, I climbed over a rise and was nearly as awe-struck and confused as Pi must have been when he spotted that flowing island.  In the middle of this desert-like expanse was a grassy meadow, and in the middle of the grassy meadow was an alpine lake.

If someone were to tell me that I imagined the whole scene, I would believe her.  The still waters of that lake, the soft and lumpy meadow surrounding it, the marmot running through the grass — it all felt surreal.

I hesitated for a moment, disbelieving, before I hurried over to the water’s edge.  I took off my pack, slipped out of my socks and shoes, pulled off my shirt, and waded into the crystal clear waters.

How is this my life?

It was with a heart so full of this Sierra beauty that I approached Forester Pass.  Pine Nut and I snacked near one of many alpine lakes at its base and then began our ascent.  Forester Pass is a behemoth, and it would, no doubt, be particularly formidable in a high snow year.  However, after climbing Whitney, Forester felt almost easy.  My altitude sickness remained manageable, the switchbacks were gradual, and the footing was good.  At least in my memory, it didn’t take long to make it to the top.

The north face of Forester had a bit more snow, but there wasn’t much post-holing as Pine Nut and I descended.  Seeing the trees and grasses below us, my heart felt happy, and we laughed and chatted until we were roughly a mile from the summit.  At that point, I realized that I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses, which I’d taken off while taking a photo.

I’d left them on the top of the pass.

Now, my sunglasses aren’t anything special.  I got them for tree planting crew from Wal-Mart a few years ago for $5.00.  The trail has taken its toll on them, and the temples of the glasses are held on with little safety pins.  But, I wasn’t about to “leave a trace” by letting them stay atop the ridge.

That’s why, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I set off up Forester Pass once more.  I left my pack with Pine Nut, who (in spectacular friend fashion) decided to wait for me before hiking to camp, and climbed with just my trekking poles.

Twenty-five minutes later, near the top of the pass, I met Whatever, a young hiker and friend of ours.  He called up to two JMTers at the top of the pass, inquiring about my sunglasses:  They were, indeed, still up there.  As the shadows darkened the north face of the pass, I hurried onward; as I did, a generous JMTer began hiking back down the pass.  He met me a few hundred feet below the ridgeline and handed off the dilapidated sunglasses.

After thanking the JMTer, I put the sunglasses on my head and took off down the trail.  Feeling strong and weightless without my pack, I ran.  I scurried over the snow, jumped over rocks, and zigzagged down the switchbacks, enjoying every moment.

Twelve minutes later, I reached Pine Nut, exhilarated and elated and high on life.  Then, I grabbed a pack of crackers to snack on while walking and shouldered my pack, and we headed down into the shadow of Forester to make camp.

On the PCT: Lone Pine

Before my first backpacking trip, I watched 127 Hours in the theater.  Most outdoor adventurers have informed me that doing so might not have been the best decision; there are plenty of other movies that depict adventure athletes in a more inspiring light.  However, by watching 127 Hours, I learned how not to adventure, which was a very important lesson.

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The South Fork of the Kern River

One week ago, as we walked to Kennedy Meadows, Pine Nut and I enjoyed a long conversation about the portrayal of outdoor adventurers in the media, and 127 Hours was brought up.  I mentioned how that story had impressed upon me the importance of carrying the “ten essentials,” of informing someone where I’m adventuring, and of sticking to the plan that the point person knows.

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The beautiful Southern Sierras

When Ant, Pine Nut, and I parted ways at Kennedy Meadows (the cause of which is another story in itself), we planned a loose itinerary.  Doing some rough calculations, I figured that it would take me 6.5 days to walk from Kennedy Meadows to Lone Pine.  I told my friends that I would summit Mount Whitney on the fifth day and be in Lone Pine on the seventh, at which point I’d have enough reception to call them and arrange a meet-up.  Until that time, I would be cell service-less.

There was just one problem:  The first day out, I realized I was going too fast.  For a few moments, I considered getting to Lone Pine a day early and surprising Pine Nut and Ant; however, in the end, I decided to slow down and stick with the itinerary.  I suppose there are certainly worse problems to have than needing to spend an extra day in the Sierras!

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Snow plant, a non-photosynthetic member of the blueberry family

In any case, two days later, I was glad I’d slowed down and followed the plan.  I was sitting on the side of the trail in the sunshine, drying out my gear from the night’s condensation and eating lunch, when I heard a voice shout, “Rainbow Dash!”

Now, being nearsighted, I’m not good at recognizing people at a distance, so I greatly appreciated the helpful hint I was given: “It’s Pine Nut!” the voice said.

I was astonished to be seeing Pine Nut again so soon — and even more so once I heard the full story.  She and Ant had been able to figure out logistics in such a short time that she’d decided to jump back on trail rather than skipping this section.  She’d taken a side trail to the PCT (after having, serendipitously, been given a ride by one of Trail Angel Teresa’s friends) and started heading north only a half-mile from where I was eating lunch.

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Sunset at my favorite campsite

Had I Rainbow Dash-ed along, Pine Nut would have spent days hurrying after me, and I wouldn’t have known she was behind until I got cell phone reception in Lone Pine.  Instead, we got to walk together from mile 745 to the PCT’s Independence “exit,” from which we headed to Lone Pine.

And, thus, I got to stand on top of the contiguous United States with someone who, somewhere in the last 500 miles, went from being a “trail friend” to “my PCT hiking partner” and “good friend.”