Pacific Crest Trail

On the PCT: Sidelined with Lyme Disease

Throughout my fight with Lyme disease, I have tried to be patient and calm.  After finding that anxiety and depression got me nowhere, I have tried to embrace a Zen attitude about being ill for an indefinite period of time.  I have worked to relish the good days and accept the bad days, acknowledge the failures but savor the successes.  I don’t feel like doing any of that today.

Today, I feel the need to write a rare, less-than-optimistic post.  Forced off the Pacific Crest Trail because of Lyme, I’m not in the mood to look for the silver lining of my illness, not interested in thinking about the gratitude or perspective being chronically ill has given me.  Stuck in bed, tired, dizzy, achy, and twitchy, I’m finding it difficult to be positive or hopeful.  Today, I need to rant.

I’m angry.  I’m angry that some bacteria that entered my body when I was bitten by a barely-visible tick four years ago has the power to knock me off the trail, which I was hiking as a fundraiser for Lyme disease research.  I’m angry that the same bacteria makes it difficult to hold down a job or go back to school or be in a relationship.  I’m angry that it has changed the course of my life in dramatic ways.

I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that, according to the CDC, I never had Lyme and that, if I did, it would have been cured a few years ago, after a couple weeks of antibiotics.  I’m frustrated that there are so many unanswered questions about Lyme, that there is so much research that needs to be done.  I’m frustrated that there are so few doctors who are familiar with treating it and that there are so few success stories.  I’m frustrated that many people are far more ill than I am and that it seems as though little is being done to help them.

I’m sad.  I’m sad that being sick made me lose some friends.  I’m sad that a shortage of “spoons” made me flaky and unreliable.  I’m sad that a gap grew between some of my old friends and me, as I could no longer easily relate to twentysomethings who were able to live like typical twentysomethings.  I’m sad that people who’ve known me when I’ve been well aren’t sure how to respond when I’m sick.  I’m sad that our society doesn’t understand invisible illnesses and that a whole lot of health privilege goes appreciated.

I’m grieving.  I’m grieving for the years that I can’t remember and for the year I’ve basically lost to being bedbound.  I’m grieving for the brain I used to have, the intellectual competence and confidence I once knew.  I’m grieving for the way I used to be able to make plans for my future, for the feeling that I could achieve most anything if I worked at it long or hard enough.  I’m grieving for the marathon I haven’t yet run, the Masters degree I haven’t yet earned, the career I haven’t yet found.

I’m tired.  I’m tired of feeling like I’m fighting this alone.  I’m tired of not knowing what my next step should be.  I’m tired of wondering what the spirochetes inside of me are doing, of having no idea that the troops are rallying before they rise up and send me crashing.  I’m tired of being sick.

On the PCT: Rae Lakes

I’ve got a confession to make:  I didn’t fall in love with the Sierra.

I really thought I would.  I’d been dreaming of seeing the region’s granite peaks, alpine lakes, high elevation meadows, and giant sequoias for years.  I’d been astonished by the beauty of pictures of the Sierra and listened as dozens of thru-hikers described the way that the region captivated them.  I’d expected that it would be the highlight of my journey.  It wasn’t.

Or, at least, it wasn’t initially.

Hiking north into the Sierra from the desert, I’d expected to be overwhelmed by the green of the mountains, by the abundance of life that would surround me, but that wasn’t the case.  The first several days north of Kennedy Meadows were home to this unique high-elevation desert-treed hybrid.  I imagined that more hiking would take me into the heart of the forests of Central California.  However, the Pacific Crest Trail is aptly named; it doesn’t often traverse valleys, and, as a result, it avoids areas where life is most plentiful.  As the PCT headed deeper into Kings Canyon National Park, I found myself struck by the starkness of my surroundings.

It’s not that there weren’t green things around; there were.  But, there weren’t forests.  The trees were far apart, and there was no understory, even where sunlight reached the ground, which was surprisingly sandy and pebbly.  The scale of the scenery remained expansive.  Granite peaks towered over the trail imposingly, and valleys stretched on for miles.  Rocky paths took us up foreboding mountain passes, bereft of alpine flowers.  I’d thought that when I found myself in the wilderness that once mesmerized Ansel Adams and John Muir I would feel that I’d “come home to a place I’d never been before.”  (Bonus: This is the summer of my 27th year, so it would have been perfect!)

The fact is that the Sierra, beautiful though it may be, is not my home.

This is what I came to appreciate after I, tired and dizzy from Lyme, fell near Rae Lakes, breaking my big toe and spraining my ankle in the process.  Thanks to the help of Pine Nut and two members of a hiking group called “The Fellowship” (who played “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to determine who would carry my pack), I made it 1.6 miles over the next two days.  There, Pine Nut and I set up camp at Middle Rae Lake, where we had easy access to water for drinking and foot soaking, a bear box for storing the scented items that wouldn’t fit in our bear canisters, shaded “durable surfaces” to lay out our tents, and a ranger station 0.4 miles away.

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

Alpine Shooting Star and Middle Rae Lake

On the day after we arrived at Middle Rae Lake, Pine Nut went to ask the ranger about the nearest exit to civilization, in case I needed to take advantage of it.  After talking with Sam Webster, she returned with details about the trail to Road’s End — and a book to take my mind off my toe, ankle, and progressing relapse of Lyme disease, The Last Season.

Written by Eric Blehm, The Last Season is the story of Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger who went missing in the Sierra, just a few miles from our camp.  As I dove into the book, thankful for the distraction, I soon learned the book was so much more than that:  It was the tale of one man’s love affair with the wilderness I was living in.

Without any reason to rush the reading, I savored the excerpts of Morgenson’s journals that Blehm included in his book.  I read Morgenson’s descriptions of the gentian in alpine meadows, the silver bellies of fish jumping out of the water for bugs, the magical alpenglow on the cathedral peaks.  And then, as I sat on a rock next to the lake, alternately soaking and elevating my foot as I read, I witnessed each of Morgenson’s favorite parts of the wilderness firsthand.

I also read about how Morgenson, having dreamed of exploring Alaska and the Himalayas for years, excitedly packed his backpack and realized his dream.  I read of how he was astonished and impressed but how, upon returning to the Sierra, he wondered why he’d ever left, as the mountains he’d grown up near were the mountains that had captured his heart.  It struck me that someone felt about the Sierra the way I do about the White Mountains, and that made me feel fonder toward the wilderness surrounding me.

And, as time went on, I began to channel a bit of Morgenson’s love of the Sierra.

Middle Rae Lake

Middle Rae Lake

It didn’t hurt that I came to know Middle Rae Lake well as I rested beside it.  I knew the way the shadows moved across the campsite.  I knew the best places to go to avoid mosquitoes and the peaks that shown most beautifully after sunset.  I knew the marmot family that were our neighbors and the chipmunk that came calling every night just before dinner.

A summer spent thru-hiking is characterized by near-constant movement.  Hikers are always hiking onward or heading to town; there are too many miles to hike before the snows come to allow us to stay in any place long.  Because of its rarity, one of my favorite pleasures on the trail is sleeping in the same place twice.  As we took a 1.28-mile nero and two zeroes beside Middle Rae Lake, the Southern Sierra began to feel a bit homey to me.

When it became apparent that I needed medical assistance, I packed up and hiked on, but not without wishing my goodbyes to Rae Lakes.

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.”

On the PCT: Mount Whitney, Part Two

According to Pine Nut, there’s an accomplished mountaineer who often asserts during his presentations that a hike is only half done when the hiker reaches the summit.  I learned that lesson at the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike on Mount Katahdin, and it was reinforced a couple days ago, after Pine Nut and I successfully summited Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States.

On the day that we were to climb Whitney, I woke up at 1:19am and couldn’t get back to sleep.  No amount of meditation could stand up to the excitement and anxiety that were keeping me awake.  As planned, I woke Pine Nut up at 3:00; at 4:00, we hit the trail.

The vast majority of White Mountain hikes begin with a walk along a brookside approach trail; therefore, the first mile of our hike, alongside the stream that coursed between Upper and Lower Crabtree Meadows, felt familiar and special to me.  That’s where the familiarity ended.

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Mountain reflection

From Upper Crabtree Meadows, the trail to Whitney turns and takes hikers up above treeline and past a series of pristine high-elevation lakes.  As the sun rose and lit the landscape, I was astonished by the beauty surrounding me.  Timberline Lake was probably my favorite spot along the trail, with the squishy mounds of grass that bordered it and its gentle outlet that meandered through the meadow.

Leaving Timberline Lake and approaching Guitar Lake, the world around Pine Nut and me changed.  Tiny patches of alpine vegetation were the only signs of life that remained; even they disappeared after some more climbing.  After a week in the hospitable mountains and meadows of the Southern Sierras and “Section G,” we were back in an area where we were clearly just visitors.

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Guitar Lake, still in shadow

My stomach, which had been uncooperative all morning, kicked its complaining into high gear as we cleared treeline.  After using my “Wag Bag,” the Sierras’ solution to high-elevation cat-hole-ing too many times, I took a couple Immodium and ate a ginger chew from Pine Nut. I didn’t feel much better, but at least I didn’t need to find secluded spots on the switchbacks that comprised the climb proper.

When the climb began in earnest, it was apparent that a couple inches of snow had fallen on the mountain during the previous night’s rainstorm.  Fortunately, earlier-rising hikers had packed down the trail a bit, but I found it startling to be suddenly in a white world, where snow covered the trail and snow and ice patches comprised the trailside landscape.

As we climbed higher, I watched as the mountains nearby, which had appeared gigantic only an hour before, grew smaller and smaller.  Sunlight highlighted their peaks and began working its way into the valley.  As I continued my climb on the dark side of the mountain, I put on an extra layer and hiked on.

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Dazzling sunlight near the summit

Around 13,000 feet, I began to feel dizzy.  One thousand feet before that, I’d become short of breath.  Knowing that I was simply feeling the elevation, I was actually amused.  I’d felt strong and capable, and it was fascinating to me that climbing a few thousand feet could have such a huge impact on my body.  Noticing my struggle, Pine Nut explained that it was perfectly reasonable to slow down a bit:  I didn’t need to Rainbow-Dash to the summit.

We went a little slower and took a few more breaks.  My nausea made me less hungry than I’ve been in two months, but I nibbled at crackers and a Clif Bar.

When we reached the Trail Crest, where the trail we were on meets the trail from Whitney Portal, we cheered and kept walking.  The trail was snowier at that elevation, and my shortness of breath was more pronounced.

When I climbed up into the sunlight, I felt an instant sense of peace — and one of the greatest hiker’s highs I’ve experienced.  I may have found myself in a place with little oxygen and with nothing but rocks and snow surrounding me, but there was sunshine here.  I felt a little more welcome in the stark environment.  I also put on sunscreen to protect myself.

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Looking down on the valley

As the sun warmed the snow underfoot, it became slushy.  On flat, wider sections of trail, this wasn’t a problem at all; on steeply sloped areas, where the trail dropped off significantly to the valley below, this was unsettling.  Pine Nut, who’s much more familiar with snow travel, offered to take the lead, and I relaxed ever so slightly when I got to follow her footprints.

Rounding a contour, we looked ahead and saw the final ascent to the broad peak.  Along with other PCT hikers, JMT hikers, and dayhikers, we continued to the summit.  The snow sparkled in the sun, and we emerged from the hazy valley to find ourselves under a deep blue sky.

When the summit shelter, adorned with prayer flags, came into view, I started to tear up; finding that crying and breathing were incompatible, I composed myself and hiked on.  A few more snowy footsteps, a few more deep breaths.  And, then, we’d done it!  At 10:40, Pine Nut, Canada the Kidney, and I were on top of the Lower 48!

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At the top of the contiguous US

We smiled and snacked and took photos and had our photos taken.  We congratulated our friends and received their congratulations.  I used Pine Nut’s Delorme to send my family a message from the top of the contiguous United States.  I wanted to linger at the summit, basking in the warmth of the sun, but my dizziness was becoming a headache, and I was worried about the snow’s melting in the sketchy sections of trail we’d encountered on the climb.

The descent was long and difficult for me.  The snow wasn’t as treacherous as I’d worried it might be, but it didn’t make for easy walking, either.  My stomach and my head were conspiring against me, and I fought to keep the little food I’d been able to eat inside me.  I tried to stay singularly focused on the task at hand and press on, but it was so very difficult.

When we got to the little lakes in the valley, I stretched out on a rock and worked on stilling my head and stomach.  I was hungry and tired, and all I wanted to do was make camp.  Pine Nut must have felt that way as well, but she stayed with me.

The final 3.5 miles to camp were painful and slow but also beautiful.  I fought to stay awake and upright, and we slowly made our way to camp.  Pine Nut read aloud from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” which was a welcome distraction.

Around 6:00, the woods opened up, and we found ourselves back in Lower Crabtree Meadows.  In spite of my headache, nausea, and utter exhaustion, I was elated.  Climbing Mount Whitney was certainly not easy, but don’t they say that nothing worth doing is?