CT #6: Rhythm

As much as I value embracing spontaneity and adventure, one of my very favorite things about long-distance backpacking is finding the rhythm of a hike.

Each trail has a different rhythm, which new hikers eventually settle into. Most pilgrims finished their days on the Camino early, allowing time to do their chores, get changed, visit the local cathedral, and then have a communal dinner. On the PCT, days stretched from dawn until dusk — with a siesta in the shade of a cottonwood thrown in. Part of the AT’s rhythm was break time at shelters, where it was important to read and write in shelter registers.

As on other footpaths, out here on the Colorado Trail, life is simple:

  • Wake up at the first light of dawn.
  • Eat and get dressed.
  • Break camp.
  • Hike uphill into the daylight.
  • Remove extra clothing layers.
  • Take lots of pictures of the most scenic part of the day.
  • At high point, put back on puffy, dry damp gear, eat, get dehydrated meal rehydrating, charge phone in sunlight.
  • Descend under treeline.
  • Filter water.
  • Eat, walk, eat, and walk some more.
  • Avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
  • Make camp below treeline on another slope.
  • Eat.
  • Journal.
  • Sleep.

Each day varies a little bit based on the weather or the terrain, but that’s the basic shape life takes.
Today, for example, there were two bursts of storms. I took shelter from one on the porch of a locked restroom facility; for the second, I nestled myself under a grove of pines. And, even though this was my shortest mileage day to date on the CT, when I approached the treeline of the day’s second ridge it was time to make camp.

Here, where the Colorado Trail is collocated with the Continental Divide Trail, it seems that the pop-up afternoon storms are the most challenging variable to master. New to this part of the country, I’d expected to be able to hike through the afternoon, that the sole determining factor of the day’s progress would be my endurance. But, thunderstorms have a way of encouraging humility, and it seems appropriate that the rhythm of such a dramatic trail would yield to them.

Rainbow Lightning

Earlier this week, while sitting in the waiting room at the neurology department, waiting for a lumbar puncture that still hasn’t happened, I was thinking about the woods. Specifically, I was thinking about one of my favorite memories from the AT, which, surprisingly, I’ve never written about here.

One afternoon in late June, I arrived at the much-anticipated Jim and Molly Denton Shelter in Northern Virginia. Not only did I find a gorgeous shelter, picnic table, and pavilion, but I found a whole slew of familiar faces. It felt like a trail reunion – and at a great location, even if the shelter’s solar shower wasn’t working. Who needs showers, anyway?

As some hikers I’d known for the last several hundred miles built a campfire and cooked hotdogs, I made my dinner and listened to trail updates. On the shelter’s large deck, I then began working on my GRE flashcards, which soon became a group activity. We were all guessing definitions and laughing and sharing stories and teasing one another and gawking at a Vogue magazine by headlamp-light, utterly puzzled about a world we clearly weren’t part of. It was a perfect evening.

At least until the storm hit.

As Quiver, his family, and I were laying out our sleeping gear in the shelter and others were setting up tents in the clearing, distant thunder began rumbling in the air. In the next few minutes, as I got out my journal and began recording the day, the distant rumbles became not-so-distant. Soon, flashes of lightning lit up the sky. And, this wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill lightning – it wasn’t even that sort of spectacular long white lightning that you see in nature documentaries. I’m not sure what in the atmosphere made the streaks of lightning appear this way, but they looked green and purple and just colorful, like rainbow lightning. Everyone stood on the deck, looking up at the sky in awe.

Until the rain came.

The warm, stiff summer breeze became an impressive, mighty wind, and the clouds opened up, letting loose a deluge of fat, hot raindrops. I scurried back into the shelter, and the tent campers took shelter in their sil-nylon.

Until the trees began falling.

As the winds continued to gust, the sound of crashing trees began filling the air. At first, the cracks and thumps were distant, but then a few sounded from nearer the clearing. In the next half hour, tent campers began fleeing their homes, either for safety or because their wind-collapsed tents left them no choice. The shelter and pavilion were soon crowded, as we huddled around waiting for the storm to end.

In time, it did, and then we slept.

To be continued…

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?”


“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…

Wordless Wednesday: A Rainy Day in New Jersey

A rainy ridgeline

A rainy ridgeline

A rainy forest

A rainy forest

Another rainy ridgeline

Another rainy ridgeline

Someone who enjoys rainy weather

Someone who enjoys rainy weather

A welcome respite from the rain

A welcome respite from the rain

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight.  I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society.  You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.

On the PCT: Acton, Part Two

In civilization, life is carefully constructed so that meeting our basic needs is generally easy and convenient.  When we’re cold, we turn on our heaters and bask in their warmth; air conditioning cools us when we’re hot.  We rarely find ourselves rained on, snowed on, or hailed on, and we generally only sunburn out of choice. Our world is made light with the flip of a switch.  We browse refrigerators and aisles of neatly-packaged food for our meals, or we order and get them delivered to our door.  We find ourselves at the top of a food chain we likely didn’t work directly to climb.  In these ways and others, most of us are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met with ease.

Meeting one’s basic needs when living outdoors, even by choice, can be much more challenging, as was readily apparent as I walked from Wrightwood to Acton.


The view from the summit of Baden-Powell

The snowstorm that brought Pine Nut and me running to Wrightwood ushered in a chilly and sometimes even cloudy weather pattern.  In the low desert, that might have been helpful, but the Pacific Crest Trail goes over the top of Mount Baden-Powell, a 9,406-foot behemoth.  The first day I attempted to summit the mountain, the remnants of the storm made the day so wet and bitterly cold that I decided it would be safer to wait for some warmth or sunshine.  When I did go up Baden-Powell the following day, I slipped and slid on snow and ice and slush much of the way to the peak.

In places, the backside of the mountain was even snowier.  I followed the occasionally knee-deep postholes of intrepid hikers as I worked to stay on trail.


Snowy Baden-Powell

That night, hoping the thin silnylon of my tent would protect me against the cold wind as I slept atop snow, I thought about human innovation and our fragility.  Squirrels and chipmunks scurried among the trees nearby, but hairless me needed to wait out the night wrapped in the feathers of other organisms.

The sunshine of the following morning felt miraculous, and relaxing as I descended thousands of feet into the warmth of the desert made me realize how stressed I’d been in the cold.

But, soon, the dry heat, too, proved challenging.  I drank more water to ensure I stayed hydrated and removed my socks and shoes to cool my feet at breaks.  I donned sun protection, both clothing and chemical.  At the margins of the trail, lizards and snakes basked in the sun.  I sought shade.


A stunning view on the detour

The path took me along steep, eroded hillsides.  The trail, held together with all sorts of metal and wood contraptions, was dangerously deteriorated, and I chose my steps carefully.  Unstable footsteps sent pebbles tumbling into the valley below, their clattering resounding in the air as they rolled.

The ridiculousness of what I was undertaking struck me as I slowly and methodically moved northward, perched atop a disappearing trail with my trekking poles poking into the rock and providing a fleeting sense of security.

How is it that we humans, little desert scavengers that we once were, have become so powerful?  How have we wiped out whole species and destroyed entire habitats?  How have we come to occupy every biome on Earth?

I thought of the mountain frog whose limited habitat we hikers were avoiding with an extensive detour.

I thought of the ancient mountains I treaded on, of how they must have been perceived by the Americans of centuries and millennia ago, who wouldn’t have known what lay beyond them.

I thought of the 1500-year-old tree atop Mount Baden-Powell, a tree that had stood for 1000 years before Europeans came to the New World and had witnessed more time than my brain could fathom.  I thought of its windswept appearance, of its steadfast endurance as the weather has tested it for a millennium and a half.  And, I thought of the initials carved into its bark next to “2015.”


Desert flora

Why is it that we find the need to leave our mark on the world in such destructive ways?  Is our own short existence part of the reason we seek relative permanence?

What if we were, instead, to walk gently?  What if we left no trace of our time here?  What if we just moved through time and space quietly, like leaves in the wind?