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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No one wishes for fewer perfect hiking days; banner days with bright blue skies, mild temperatures, well-groomed trail, and incomparable views are savored both in the moment and for years to come. However, it’s often the less-than-perfect days, the days filled with “Type II fun,” that we think about first when we recall our time on the trail.
Type II fun was definitely the only variety of fun had at a boulder field in Pennsylvania.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers often call Pennsylvania “Rocksylvania,” since its rocky treadway is generally unappreciated by northbounders, who’ve previously walked on the softer trails of the South. Hikers complain of the 52 miles of northern Pennsylvania “where your feet never touch soil.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does often appear that all of the rocks from the surrounding countryside in PA were dumped on the trail. And, those rocks aren’t just lying there; they’re all arranged in such a way that hikers walk on the rock’s points and spines. I’d worn a pair of boots for 1442 miles, but Pennsylvania destroyed them. Rocksylvania is where boots go to die.
Now, I must confess that I’m of the unpopular opinion that walking on rocks is kind of (Type I) fun. It doesn’t slow me down; I’ve routinely done “marathon days” (days of more than 26.2 miles) in PA. But, the friend of mine from college who hiked in Maryland and Pennsylvania with me in 2011 couldn’t have disagreed with me more.
Chapstick, as my friend was known on the trail, were hiking along one day with Trauma, a section-hiker from Germany that we met in the woods. Because we were walking on a rocky trail, I let Chapstick dictate the pace and just fell in comfortably behind Trauma and him. We were exchanging stories and laughing when, all of a sudden, we popped out of the trees and into a boulder field. I heard Chapstick’s groan before I saw the rocks.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Stretching out in front of us was a 0.2-mile by 400 foot clearing that was filled with what looked like God’s rock collection. There were rocks balanced on rocks wedged between rocks squished under rocks, and the rocks were each the size of pieces of furniture.
Chapstick mustered his strength and set off across the boulder field. Trauma and I followed, each choosing our own paths through the rocky scramble, since we couldn’t find blazes anywhere.
Out on the rocks, the Pennsylvania sun beat down on us as we moved slowly, Chapstick sore and Trauma ill. The sun reflected on the grey rocks, and I squinted my eyes against the brightness and the sweat.
Halfway across the boulder field, it struck me as odd that I still couldn’t find blazes. I’d already hiked Huntington Ravine and other crazy trails in the White Mountains; I felt like I knew how to follow even unusual trails. While neither Chapstick nor Trauma was finding blazes either, we determined this might simply be because we were not able to see them from our vantage points (e.g., perhaps the blazes marking the trail were just on the opposite side of nearby boulders); moreover, we thought we could see where the trail met the boulder field at the latter’s north end, so we kept moving forward.
Exhausted from balancing on, jumping onto, and scrambling over boulders under the summer sun, we were grateful when we were able to duck back into the trees. I got a drink and looked around furtively for a white blaze, so as not to upset either of my hiking companions who were having rough days. We had a problem: The trail was nowhere to be found.
Certain that we weren’t far off the trail and would be able to wander back onto it, we climbed down from the boulders and started looking around for the treadway. All we found were rattlesnakes, lots of rattlesnakes resting coiled under rocks and at the bases of trees. Hearing more rattling nearby, I lost my patience with the whole endeavor.
I assumed a motherly role: “Okay, we’ve gotten off trail. It’s no one’s fault. Just relax on the boulders, and get some water in you both. I’ll head back across the boulder field, find the trail, and see if there’s a way for you to get back on it without crossing the boulder field again.”
Sure enough, on the south side of the boulder field, I found the Appalachian Trail, where a sign pointed down the short side trail I’d just come from, marking a “Boulder Field,” as though it might be a point of interest. I called Trauma, and we figured out the best way for her and Chapstick to get back to the trail.
After hiking over the Boulder Field, Pennsylvania’s rocks couldn’t scare us. We’d seen the worst the state could possibly throw at us, and we’d lived to tell the tale. As we continued northward, I thought, “Bring it on.”