Wednesday, April 22, 2015

PCT, Day 53: My Worst Day

Zach took this picture from the ferry

DAY 53
June 16th, Monday
873 to 879

We woke up starving. Our oatmeal breakfast, despite our new addition of protein powder, didn’t even make a dent in our hunger. But our resupply, Vermillion Valley Resort, was within striking distance, so we packed up and got moving as our breath smoked in the cold mountain air.

Our route took us through the pine forest along the side of a mountain, then kicked us into a steep set of switchbacks down to a valley floor, where we’d reach Thomas Edison Lake, which bordered VVR. We held firm in our plan to save both time and money: Zach would take the $12 ferry one way, then hike back the five miles around the edge of the lake to meet up with me, and then we’d book it out of there and cover more miles. 

Well, that was the plan.

When Zach and I were about halfway down the switchbacks, I realized that I was feeling a bit dizzy. I was looking at the sunlight pine boughs and the glittering blue of the lake far below in a distant way, and it all reeled and sparkled. “I think I need a snack,” I said.

We took stock of our food: two Clif bars, the hash brown meal, protein powder, a couple tablespoons dry refried beans, and some dehydrated pasta sauce. “Why don’t we each have a Clif bar?” Zach said.

This idea sounded like the best idea ever. A whole Clif bar, all to myself! The novelty of it! It was almost like having a full meal! I took the Coconut Chocolate Chip bar and unwrapped it reverently, looking greedily at the nutrition facts. 210 calories! Six grams of fat! Ten grams of protein! MINE! ALL MINE! 

We sat cross-legged at the switchback and ate our Clif bars, murmuring appreciatively. The coconut flavor melted on my tongue, transporting me to a tropical island where I had nothing to do but eat coconuts and sip drinks and not walk ever again. “I love the subtle flavor,” I said. “Do you want a taste?”

We exchanged Clif bars, savoring the flavors, discussing the notes and overtones. “Do you taste the undertone of dates?” “The chocolate is such high quality.” “The texture on this one is just right.”

After our incredible snack, we continued down the switchbacks, at last reaching the valley floor and walking through a beautiful open forest of slender white-trunked trees. Wildflowers grew along the path and the sunlight filtered through the branches. I imagined the ferry landing to be in a place like this. It would be a great place to hang out all day, not walk, and relax.

At last we came to a sign that pointed us toward the ferry. There were some handwritten scrawls on the sign giving instructions to “follow the pink ribbons.” We followed the footpath deeper into the woods.

After about ten minutes, we emerged out of the woods into a desert. Barren sand stretched out before us— the dry bed of Thomas Edison Lake. We couldn’t even see the water from where we stood. Apparently the lake had been significantly drained, because the drought was lowering the water level of several more lucrative tourist-attraction lakes further down the mountain. Now we had to walk half a mile across sand just to get to the ferry crossing.

Still, there was nothing else to do. We’d made our choice.

We slogged across the soft sand. The air was cold, but the sun beat mercilessly on us. When we finally reached the shore, we found a couple other hikers waiting for the “ferry” (a motorboat). It was due in about an hour.

Zach and I went ahead and cooked the hash browns, using the last of our parmesan to give a calorie boost. I still felt desperately hungry. “Bring me back some good stuff,” I said. We decided to set up our tent so that I’d have some shelter from the sun. We set up the tent, and I ransacked both backpacks to make sure I had everything I needed for the day (the rest of the food, the water filter, the Kindle, and so on).

The tent was set up. Our stuff was scattered about. The ferry came. And suddenly, I changed my mind. I wanted to go on the ferry. I wanted to do it more than anything I’d wanted to do before. But it was too late. Our tent was set up, and they were not going to wait for ten minutes for me to pack up all my stuff.

Zach kissed me goodbye, hopped in the boat, and it chugged away. I stood alone on the shore, with the sun blazing down and hot stinging sand whipping around in a merciless wind. 

I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I don’t even know how long I spent crying and wailing and throwing things. Then I crawled into the tent, which was boiling hot from the sun, and full of sand that whipped in through the mesh. It was a horrible place to spend the next several hours, but the lake was rimmed in with cliffs, so unless I wanted to backtrack half a mile, then turn around and hike back to join up with Zach, there was nowhere to go. 

I told myself I was just upset because I was hungry, and tried to put myself to work. I gathered some lukewarm water from the lake and made some protein powder. I washed our socks in the water and hung them to dry. I crawled into the tent again and focused on reading. I read two books, trying to concentrate. The wind lashed at the tent, and I braced against it, the plastic constantly slapping against the back of my head. I sweated and the sand clung to my sweaty body, but when I went outside, there was nowhere to sit out of the wind and the air was too cold. I chewed on dry spaghetti sauce. I had never been so hungry in my life.

Meanwhile, Zach arrived at VVR, gathered our box and got out of there quickly because he knew I was waiting. His backpack was loaded with almost thirty pounds of food, from our box, and from other hikers giving him stuff. There were a bunch of JMT hikers there, and apparently word had gotten around that we were starving to death, so he had several people come up and give him food. Loaded down and struggling under the weight, he walked the five miles back toward me. Along the way, he was stopped by some rangers, who, he said, looked like they were supermodels out of an outdoorsy television show. They asked to see his thru-hiking permit— they were the only ones who ever did. 

True to his word, Zach returned to me around 3:00. I emerged from the tent, my nerves frazzled to the breaking point. He made me close my eyes, then revealed each of the treasures that he had bought or been given: Fritos, a Ziplock of sugared cereal, multiple bags of different kinds of trail mix. I grabbed one and began gobbling it, trying to cram calories into my body as fast as I possibly could. Zach also showed me that he’d bought me some cheap, light flip-flops for me to use for stream crossings or as camp shoes.

I was holding myself together pretty well until Zach told me about VVR. He said they were super nice. They let you camp there for free one night. The first soda or beer was free, too. And if you were broke, they would let you wash dishes in exchange for hamburgers.

I stared at him at this sunk in. If we had walked to VVR instead of taking the ferry, we both could have gotten hamburgers. For free. 

There was nothing on earth I wanted more than a hamburger right now. I’m prone to regret anyway, and this was the most massive mistake we’d made on trail yet. Our poor route on Forester Pass had nothing on this.

So, if you are planning to hike the PCT, and you’re one of the only people in the world who worries about money as much as I do, for the love of everything, go to VVR! You have just passed five snowy passes and you’re probably hungrier than you’ve ever been in your life. (Do you hear me yelling at you, past self? GO TO VVR!!)

“Excuse me,” I told Zach, turning away. I walked around the side of the hill and began to sob harder than I had ever sobbed before (and that’s really saying something). I was trying to get away from Zach to let out my emotions, but I’m pretty sure you could hear me halfway across the state.

Once I’d more or less pulled myself together, I returned to find him packing up. He didn’t say anything. There was nothing he could say. 

“Let’s get out of this stupid place,” I said, and almost began crying again.

Thus began the long slog back to the PCT. Half a mile across barren sand, half a mile through the woods. I began sobbing quietly as we walked, and couldn’t seem to stop. I tried, I really did. My body had just given up. I felt so weak that I could barely walk forward, and my newly-laden pack felt like lead on my back. Even though the ground was flat, I almost collapsed.

Finally Zach had had enough. “We can’t go further,” he said. “You can barely walk, and we’re not going to make any miles if you’re feeling this bad. Let’s take the next camping spot and do better tomorrow.”

This inspired a fresh wave of tears from me. That meant that we had lost a day anyway, despite our best efforts. Zach turned and walked ahead, and I followed him, weeping.

At last we reached the junction of the PCT, and found a flat camp spot near an overturned log. Zach declared that we’d be camping here. I managed to stop crying as a batch of people followed us, having returned from VVR. They were all excitedly talking about it. “Man, that was the best place we’ve been to yet!” “Those burgers were awesome!” “The people were so friendly!” “I feel so much better!” I hid my face and cried some more.

Once they had gone, Zach and I worked on setting up the camp, but I was too exhausted to do even that, so Zach put me to work cutting up summer sausage for dinner. I sat on the log and began doing so, concentrating very hard to avoid cutting myself with our little multitool. 

As I cut up pieces, I took bites. It didn’t taste good, but I felt the fat and protein strengthening my body. I grabbed some of the trail mix and began snacking on it too. For the first time in weeks, I felt like we didn’t have to ration our food.

Now, and only now, did I know what Hiker Hunger truly was.

We had pasta with summer sausage for dinner, then crawled into the tent. I was much calmer by now, but the day had been so exhausting that I could barely stay awake. Zach put his arm around me and gave me a squeeze, looking at me with concerned eyes. I tried to smile at him, but I felt burdened down with regret that would gnaw at me for the rest of the trail. With the sound of the nearby stream rushing in my ears, I fell into an exhausted sleep.



  1. I hope the Journalist is re-posting your blogs with the hope of educating people what NOT to do. Kind of like the "Wild" book.

    1. If my mistakes can help someone else have a better experience in the Sierra, I'd be happy with that! :) I did warn everyone in a blog post a little while back that the next several entries were going to be pretty rough. It's not easy to be honest about how hard it was for us, but I'm sure that most people appreciate my desire to tell how it was, with no punches pulled. If I'm getting on your nerves, there are plenty of other great (and more fun-to-read) blogs about the trail. Have a good day! :)

      ~The Mandolin

  2. I'm sure "Anonymous" is perfect, right?

    Amazing how someone sitting at a keyboard can take swings at people who actually went out and lived it.

    Thanks for sharing your stories Lisa. The miracle of the internet is that we can learn from the experiences of others that we would not have the chance to meet.

    Greg Knepp

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Greg! It really is a joy for me to share my story, even when the memories aren't so pleasant. ;) Your comment made my day!


  3. I have been reading these journals for years, and yours is fantastic! keep it up, I look forward to reading it every morning. great, honest style. Dr. McD

    1. Dr. McD, thanks so much! Notes like this keep me excited and motivated to continue posting. It's a labor of love and I'm happy I get to share it! :)


  4. Your journal is a fantastic read, Lisa.

    I have had just these kinds of experiences in the Sierras myself. Once, I just completely bonked and literally sat down next to the trail, took out my food bag, and ate half of what I had. On the spot. Another time I had to stop, cook dinner, and then walk 3 more miles to where I wanted to camp. The first time taught me to eat more. The second time, to eat when I needed to, and not when I thought it would be nice to.

    I guess some people spring into this world fully formed, with knowledge of everything already in their heads. Truly, they are as gods, I guess ;-)

    But the rest of us, we learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others, and in doing so remain humble enough to know we don't know everything - same as everybody else.

    Take care, all the best, you rock and so do your journal!

    - Griffster

    1. Griffster, I love your trail stories! :D It's kind of insane how hungry we get, isn't it? I honestly don't know how our pancreases deal with it...

      Thanks for your encouraging words, too! You all make me so happy. :)


  5. I love reading your entries, and I especially love your honesty, the "warts and all" approach - it makes me realise just how insane doing this trail is, and how much endurance it must take. I know I would collapse after a few days! Thank you for sharing your story. :)

    1. Thank you, Alice! You're very sweet. :) When people ask me what the hardest part of the trail was, I always say, "Keeping going." No particular part of the trail is that hard, but it's just putting one foot in front of the other that's trying. I'm sure I could make some sort of heavy-handed metaphor about life right now. ;) Cheers!


  6. Your journaling is awe-inspiring to me. The honesty of your true feelings and emotions is truly so refreshing and appreciated! And it is eye-opening to read about how thru-hiking really is and not some glossed over rendition of only the breathtaking vistas all around you. Being hungry and sleep-deprived and enduring the physical rigors as well can make the strongest person in the world give up. I've read from others as well as to the all-importance of keeping it together with tenacity, perseverance, and mental strength. God gives you his strength when we are weak and then made strong. I'm a regretter, too, so I know how hard that is to overcome.