CT #2: Companionship

As I’m writing this, I’m lying in my tent on the Colorado Trail, listening to the sound of sparse raindrops on my tent fly.

For the last four miles, I’ve been hiking in a quiet forest. The bicyclists, the day-hikers, and the trail runners have all gone home. The only people left in the woods are backpackers, and there aren’t very many of us.Before coming out here, I knew that many more people found their way to the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail (and, for that matter, the high peaks of New Hampshire and New York) than to other trails. But, I don’t think I really had any idea what that would look like.

While I’ve seen scores of bicyclists — it seems I’m always jumping out of their way — and a handful of day-hikers and trail runners, backpackers are few and far between. On my first day out here, I saw a Denver-bound pair finishing up, as well as a solo hiker making camp. Today, it was afternoon before I saw another backpacker, but, when I did, we were both thrilled to know we were going the same direction.

It’s definitely not that I mind solitude; I sincerely enjoy it. And, goodness knows that I love time alone in the mountains! It’s just that, I suppose, I don’t usually expect to find solitude until well into a journey, once fewer hikers remain on trail and the ones who do have spread out. Here, just two days and nearly 40 miles into my trek, I’ve been surprised to find an empty trail.

Perhaps part of what makes it feel strange is that the path and tent sites are so well established. It feels as though a herd of hikers goes through here annually, but they’re nowhere in sight. I wonder whether some of worn look of the trail is due to the arid climate’s slow recovery.

In any case, near Little Scraggy Trailhead, I met Sarah, a NC native who chose the Colorado Trail as her first long trail and as her celebration for finishing her masters degree. Together, we puzzled over the naming/symbolic identification scheme of the water sources and then hiked on together for four miles or so.

It was obvious from our conversations — and the fact that we’re out here solo — that both Sarah and I are independent people. It was also apparent how happy we both were to have found another Durango-bound human.

After sharing a selfie and some mango slices at Tramway Creek, she stayed to soak her feet and I hiked on.

Walking alone under a rumbling gray sky, I couldn’t help thinking about our being social animals. Some of us seem perfectly content not to flock, bighorn sheep-style, but rather to exist more as mule deer do, aware that others are around but only actively engaging with small family units. Even so, to see another friendly human means safety and companionship, allowing us to let our guards down a bit.

On the other hand, solitude allows us to be more aware, to fully immerse ourselves in our surroundings.

As if on cue, I just heard the flapping wings of some very large bird over my campsite. No kidding.

Wordless Wednesday: In Vermont, with Friends

Mountain Goat and I, taking the AT at the AT/LT split

Mountain Goat and I, taking the AT at the AT/LT split

Signs of civilization at the water's edge

Signs of civilization at the water’s edge

A gentle cascade

A gentle cascade

Disco, enjoying a break under some power lines

Disco, enjoying a break under some power lines

Friends from Hubbard Brook who hiked with me for a day

Friends from Hubbard Brook who hiked with me for a day

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.”

On the PCT: Big Bear Lake

Some people, like the fabulous Pine Nut I’m hiking with, are perfectly capable of blogging while hiking.  Not me.  When I get to camp at night, there is food to eat, water to drink, dirt to wash off, a sleeping bag to loft, and blisters to pop.  And, I’ve not yet adopted the use of a solar charger to make staying “wired” out here a little easier.

But, I have been journaling, and the past week alone has yielded enough adventures for a dozen posts, once I’m back in civilization.  But, there’s only so much I can type with my thumbs before “hiker midnight.”


The view from Tahquitz

This string of wonderful-and-too-full-to-blog days probably started in Idyllwild, where I was amazed at the kindness of locals, including a man named Robert, who shuttled me around the community, shared thought-provoking stories, and sent me on my way with a full belly and an array of snacks.

From Idyllwild, a trail detour led to a choose-your-own-adventure hike, and I enjoyed hiking up Mounts Tahquitz and San Jacinto.  I’d never stood higher than when I climbed atop them, at 8,800ish and 10,800ish feet, respectively.


Near the top of San Jacinto

The next challenge was my longest day yet on trail this year: a 23.5-mile descent from San Jacinto to the valley floor below.  The descent was hot and exposed and would have felt monotonous and endless, were it not for the other hikers that I kept leapfrogging and the variety of ecosystems I reentered as I descended. My knees ached as the descent wore on, and I was exceedingly grateful for the opportunity to meet my mother’s high school friend at the base of the mountain.  Sherri brought me to her family’s home, and I savored a hot shower, a home cooked meal, good conversation, and an incredibly comfortable bed.

My night off the trail turned into a full zero day when Sherri invited me to stay for a second night and I learned that Pine Nut, with whom I was planning to hike while her partner was healing his plantar fasciitis off the trail, couldn’t meet me until the following day.  Acting as a tour guide, Sherri took me to Joshua Tree National Park and showed me the highlights of Yucca Valley, 29 Palms, and Joshua Tree.  She and her husband, Craig, also ensured that I was continuously full and very happy.  I iced my aching knees and pampered them with two long soaks in a Whirlpool bathtub, each of which led to my very sound sleeping.


I returned to the PCT rejuvenated and excited to be hiking with a friend.  Our adventure next took us to the bustling Ziggy and the Bear’s, an on-trail hostel, where I picked up a mail drop.  From there, the trail climbed up a wind-whipped valley below the turbines of a wind farm.  Conversations were abbreviated by the constant barrage of wind, but the scenery was so stark and stunning in scale that I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Against all odds, we found a place to camp out of the wind and slept soundly.

The next day, the trail took us along Mission Creek, and I spent most of our snack breaks soaking my knees in the surprisingly cool water.  Pine Nut and I talked and laughed about everything from our childhoods to current events to the trail itself.  We discussed little things and big ideas, and I enjoyed every moment of the conversations.  When we climbed to the unexpectedly cold pine forests above Mission Creek and made camp, conversation was halted when we dove into our tents early for the night, as the temperatures continues to drop.


Snow on a cactus

That night, I learned what snow upon a tent fly sounds like.  We woke up to more than an inch surrounding our camp in the pine trees; it looked and felt like Christmas morning.  That day, my hike involved fast miles and short breaks, save for a longer one to dry my tent when the sun peeked through the snow clouds.  At 4:00, the storm finally stopped.  Exhausted, I made camp soon afterward and crawled into my amazingly warm sleeping bag, dreaming of pizza in Big Bear the next day.

While the night was well below freezing, I wasn’t miserably cold, and I enjoyed the desert beauty of the hike out to Highway 18 the next morning.  I got to the road earlier than I’d expected and hitched into town, where I met Pine Nut (who’d needed to head into town early because of the weather), picked up another mail drop, and ordered two medium cheeseless spinach pizzas from Domino’s.  I ate one immediately, but I packed the second one in my pack to eat in the mountains.


Ant, Pine Nut, and me being blown by serious wind in Palm Springs

Pine Nut and I were given a ride to the trail by a kindhearted woman.  At the trailhead, we thanked her, climbed out of her car, retrieved our packs and trekking poles from the trunk, put on sunscreen, and began hiking north again.


Looking back at San Jacinto

Fast Friends with Fanny Pack

When I set out on the Appalachian Trail in 2012, fully knowing what I was getting into, I pledged to thru-hike the trail.  However, less than two weeks into my hike, I seriously considered changing my plans.

One of the milestones on the southern AT is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, “The NOC,” in North Carolina.  The day I descended to the NOC, I was high on life.  I spent the afternoon cooling my achy feet in the Nantahala River, sharing photos from some of the beautiful places I’d seen with friends online, talking to a self-proclaimed “Bronie” who was wearing a Rainbow Dash shirt, collecting and organizing my mail drop, and satisfying my hiker hunger in the restaurant in the adventure village.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and, while I was a bit overwhelmed by the flurry of activity in the gap, I was thrilled to have made it so far, so fast.

That night, I slept in an otherwise-empty bunk room.

The next morning, I hit the trail at 8:00, embracing the 5000-foot climb that began immediately.  At 8:08, the skies opened up.

It wasn’t just any thunderstorm.  I’m from Florida, and it was one of the angriest thunderstorms I’ve experienced.  The rain fell hard and quick — until it became hail.  Thunder resounded through the forest.  I kept walking.

Through eyes squinted against the water, I saw the silhouette of another hiker ahead, standing still.  As I passed the old man, smiling ruefully and making some comment about the storm, he grumbled back at me (for no apparent reason other than — just like him — I didn’t have the sense to get out of the rain), “You’re an idiot.”

That wasn’t exactly motivating.  In the time that I’d been on the trail, I’d had so many people make discouraging comments about my hiking.  Other hikers suggested that I only section hike (rather than thru-hike) or told me that I needed to hike fewer miles each day.  Even park rangers and ridge runners told me that my aspirations were too great.  Apparently, “little girls” like me just couldn’t hike the whole trail, let alone hike it quickly.  I’d been rolling with the punches, but the combination of the man’s comment and the storm were too much for me that morning.

After I’d hiked past him, I started to cry.  Suddenly, everything was wrong.  I was going uphill in the rain in the wrong frame of mind, and I wanted desperately to quit the whole endeavor.  I considered turning around and heading back to the NOC, but my cell phone reception had been abysmal there, so I hiked onward in the hopes that some elevation would help.  On three different occasions during my ascent, I set down my pack, took out my phone, and tried to keep it dry enough to insert its battery and turn it on so that I could call my mother and ask her to pick me up.  Every time, I decided against it because I couldn’t seem to keep the phone satisfactorily dry.


A wolf tree in the fog

Eventually, I made it to the top of the climb.  I enjoyed an overlook from which I saw the clouds racing by below me, and then I kept walking north.

Soon, I could barely see 40 feet in front of me.  The forest was shrouded in a thick mist, and I hiked through the dense fog, mildly disoriented.  As cold and dispirited as this young biologist was, I couldn’t help appreciating the way the mist seemed to celebrate the dramatic statures of wolf trees.

Soaked through and shivering, I stopped at a shelter for a snack break and a chance to sit somewhere dry.  There, I found two hikers, one of whom had waited out the storm in the shelter.  As per usual, we started chatting about the trail and the woods ahead.  I conversationally mentioned that I needed to make it through the Smokies in four days so that I could attend my sister’s graduation; my plans were immediately scoffed at.  Since these male hikers wouldn’t be hiking that quickly through the Smokies, there was apparently no way that I could either.  I stuffed the remainder of my snack in my pack and headed back to the trail, thoroughly fed up with mansplaining.


Fanny Pack admiring a tree

The fog and light rain persisted for rest of the day, and, having not seen other hikers since leaving the shelter, I was cold, wet, and alone.  In [title of show], a fun and clever musical, there is a wonderful song about the “vampires” that attack us when we are at our most vulnerable and work to drain and discourage us.  I had a whole host of vampires walking with me that afternoon, and I knew it.

That’s why, when I rounded a bend and found a tall and friendly hiker I’d seen a couple days earlier in town, I stopped to join him in his standing break.  That’s also why, when he asked me how I was doing, I blurted out, “Not so good.  I’m actually having a really bad day.  I got poured on earlier and this old guy told me I was an idiot and no one thinks I have any business being out here and I can’t seem to find anyone who hikes at my pace or who I want to hike with and this other guy won’t leave me alone and I just think I might actually go home soon but I really don’t want to.”

He invited me to take the lead and walk with him for a while.  As the trail turned rocky, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since hiking in Pennsylvania the year before, I did everything I could to keep up the pace on the rain-soaked, slippery rocks.  If anything, I hiked faster on the wet rocks, even though I was tired and hungry; I wanted to demonstrate that I was a worthy hiking companion, one who wouldn’t slow down a fast hiker.  In retrospect, I don’t think that was necessary.


Quiver and me

In our first two hours together, Fanny Pack (as my companion was known at that time) and I discussed politics, religion, our families, relationships, sexuality, aspirations, and other assorted topics that one is not usually advised to broach with new acquaintances.  When we came to a road crossing before Jacob’s Ladder, Fanny Pack decided to make camp.  I asked whether I could join him for the night, and he welcomed me.  As the rain continued to fall, we continued to talk, him in his bivy and me in my rain gear, outside my little tent.  I planned to head out the next morning alone so that he wouldn’t feel obligated to hike with me, but it was readily apparent that we were fast friends.

I woke up the next morning to a beautiful sunrise, the vocalizations of turkeys, and a “good morning” from my new friend.  Quiver, as I renamed him (because his homemade pack looked more like a quiver than a fanny pack), and I would spend the next 1000 miles together.DSCF0491