I have a cold right now. A bad one. The last five days have consisted of a familiar pattern: 1) Wake up feeling like my head is going to explode. 2) Hack and cough violently and take a shower. 3) Feel much better and think that I’ll be able to go to work today. 4) Realize that I am actually weak and still coughing and sound like a chain-smoker when I speak. 5) Sadly call off work and spend the evening drinking herbal concoctions and watching Stargate: SG-1.
Contrary to what some might think, it’s not been that fun. But no matter how miserable I feel, I keep reminding myself, At least you’re not in the desert.
Because the last time I had a cold, I was.
It was a bad cold then, too. We had nothing in our first-aid kit to combat it except water, and that was in short supply, because, as previously mentioned, we were in a desert. Not just the pleasant rolling hills speckled with pine trees that comprised most of the California desert Zachary and I traversed. On the day when my multi-day head-cold came to an unpleasant climax, we were caught in a section of trail that resembled more of my desert stereotype than anything else: blinding heat, perfectly flat, no water sources, sand blowing in the wind among tangled leafless bushes, cacti, and strands of barbed wire.
My whole head felt congested, but my mouth dried out mercilessly in the desert wind. I stumbled along behind Zachary, half-dragging myself with a trekking pole, feeling exhaustion and pressure in my head like a sea of quicksand all around me.
This is what I wrote about my experience in my PCT journal (which is the memoir I’m working on right now, derived from my notes):
We trudged across a long plain, studded with cactus, barbed wire, and brush. At last we were hiking in the area that looked most like the desert I had imagined. Little pink ribbons fluttered on the bushes, marking the path. We slogged through the sand, and by the time we reached the overpass of the road, I felt dizzy and exhausted. We also found a nice water cache there, and sat down next to it. We debated hitching into the town of Julian, but a guy there said it was a hard hitch. We shielded our stove from the whipping wind and cooked some pasta with cheese for lunch.
We ate our food and sat glumly side by side, grateful that at least we had a shady spot to rest. My head pounded and my ears remained stubbornly plugged. Soon we were joined by a trickle of people returning from Julian. They all seemed ridiculously happy and well-fed: apparently the store in town gave out free food and pie to hikers. But I was already swollen with food (at that point we could barely eat our huge meals). We had missed the pie, and there was no going back for it. I felt even glummer.
Another troupe of people came under from the highway. They were three men and two women, all middle-aged, with the kind of Southern accents that I usually find familiar and nice-sounding (my extended family is from the South). But they were using their pleasant voices to brag.
“The PCT is so easy.”
“Yeah, it’s not even like hiking!”
“On the AT you’re just hiking on rocks all the time, straight up one hill and down another, all day long!”
“Not like this— nice and dry and so flat.”
“Most people on the AT can only do three miles on their first day.”
“We did 15 miles on our first day.”
“It’s great that this trail is SO EASY!”
I almost burst into tears.
After a while, we had had enough. We groaned, shouldered our packs, and stumbled on.
The trail continued across a desert plain, headed toward the San Felipe “Hills” (they looked like mountains to me!), rocky and barren. Once we were alone, I cried a little bit. I cried because we hadn’t gotten any pie, and I was feeling horrible, and my blister had grown to the size of a nickel. Then I stopped crying and gutted it out.
By the time we crested the murderous climb and began cutting a straight path that wound through the steep mountains, I had calmed down. Then we met a man hiking southbound toward us. He was older, tanned to leather, wearing sunglasses, blocking our way. “Do either of you have blisters?” he asked. “I’m a certified nurse and have a lot of experience with blisters. I’m hiking south on the PCT so I can meet hikers and help them out.”
I glanced at Zach, who shrugged. “Well, I do have a blister,” I said.
“I’m Bipolar, by the way,” he said.
It took me a second to figure out that was his trail name.
“Would you like to step into the nurse’s office?” he asked, gesturing to a flat rock. “I can pull a thread through your blister if it’s too big.”
I hesitated, wondering about the safety of allowing some dirty stranger to stick needles in my foot. But years of traveling had made me willing to take risks, even if something didn’t sound appealing at first. I sat down on the rock and took off my sock and shoe. We saw that the blister had popped, leaving behind a painful patch of deflated skin. I was a bit relieved, and Bipolar told me just to keep treated it with disinfectant.
After that, he began rambling about anything and everything. He finally settled on the topic of women hiking the PCT. “Women have a leg up on us men in long-distance sports,” he said. “The PCT speed record’s held by a woman, you know. She did it in 59 days. It’s like they say: ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, just backwards and in heels.’ I’ve been to plenty of Ironman competitions. After the men finish, they drag themselves over to the first aid tent for some Gatorade. When the women finish, they pull out their cell phones and ask if little Johnny has finished his homework yet.”
His speech, while not entirely unbiased, made me somehow feel like things were going to be all right. I had the advantage— Bipolar had told me so. And in the end, it turned out to be true.