|Pictured: two hikers who haven't showered in too long (aside from getting rained on) and want to document how bedraggled they are.|
September 27th, Saturday
2615 to 2630.1
It was hard to get up that morning, and not just because our campsite was in a river valley untouched by the sun where the chill of the night pooled. I was still fighting my period, and almost felt too sick to eat breakfast (almost). We finally packed up and hit the trail around 9:30. It wasn’t a promising start to the day, but after a couple miles I was already feeling less sick and more alert.
Soon we left the woods behind and crossed through a meadow, with intermittent pines, under a perfectly-blue sky. We had been cold in the morning, but under the bright sun we heated up in no time and soon walked with our sleeves rolled up. We couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day.
The landscape today, lit by a fair sun, revealed a new vividness of color: red huckleberry leaves glimmering with dew, feathery yellow larches against the solid blue sky. The mountains were getting jaggy on an impressive scale: we stared at them and couldn’t believe the angles were real. Whenever we crossed a moraine, we heard pikas squeaking and saw the bunny-like creatures hopping among the rocks.
Hiking through a strip of woods, we ran into Zen Dawg and stopped to chat. We remarked about how gorgeous the weather was, and Zen Dawg, smiling confidently, said, “We earned this. We earned this weather through our good deeds.”
I felt the trail flash before my eyes: whining at Zach, throwing temper tantrums, complaining to other hikers, bursting into tears at unhelpful moments, swearing, snapping and fighting with Zach, slamming my trekking pole into the ground and screaming.
Zen Dawg seemed taken aback, but then he nodded. “Well, you don’t have to believe in it for it to be true.”
This seemed like a rather absolute statement for someone who subscribed to Eastern religion, but I nodded. “I guess not!”
With a friendly wave, Zen Dawg hiked on, and we didn’t see him again. But I was glad our paths had crossed.
Now we left the woods and started an ascent up a nearly-vertical slope covered in bushes. To traverse this impossible angle, the trail ascended in switchbacks nearly a quarter mile long each. We walked up at a gradual angle, turned around, and walked back exactly the way we’d come, just a bit higher. The landscape was unchanging as we zigzagged back and forth, back and forth. I couldn’t see where the trail was going, or discern which direction we were headed. The switchbacks continued, with the ridiculously gorgeous mountains on our left, then on our right, then on our left, then on our right. I sweated a little bit in the sun. Left, right, left right.
Without any kind of warning, my body just gave up. I stopped mid-step and my foot sank onto the ground, feeling like it had turned to lead. I gazed straight ahead, staring at the flaxen-colored grass growing on this slope. And then I began to sob.
Zach turned around, wondering what the heck I was crying about this time. I crumpled to the ground, the bottom of my backpack hitting the trail as I plopped down. I stared out at the mountains and cradled my head in my hands and wept.
Zach, perhaps sensing that this was no ordinary breakdown, took off his pack and sat beside me. “What is it?” he asked. It’s pretty amazing that he still had the emotional energy to ask this question.
I’m not a naturally introspective person, so it often takes me a while to get to the bottom of why I’m reacting in a certain way. Through the tears, I managed, “My body is hurting.” This was true— periods are never fun, especially in the backwoods. But it wasn’t really that bad. It had to be something else. “And I feel like the switchbacks are never going to end,” I added. No, that wasn’t it, not really. I tried to shuffle through my feelings, digging down to find the root. What was it? “I feel bad,” I said in another feeble attempt.
Zach just looked at me patiently, waiting for me to get the heart of it.
At last I blurted out, “This trail has been hard, and we’re almost done.” And then I began sobbing again.
Zach put his arm around me and the two of us sat there. He showed no emotion, but he was there for me. And I realized that I wasn’t sad, or even upset, really. The emotions of coming to the end of a five-month backpacking trip were just too big for me to handle— crying was the only release. It was a proper reaction. It was a good reaction.
When I finished crying, I felt clean. I felt strong. Zach looked at me, expressionless, and said, “Ready?”
Then we stood up and continued up the switchbacks. Left, right, left, right, left, right.
Finally, the trail veered off to the left.
We crossed over a mountain ridge, barren and rocky, where all the slopes looked like they could turn into an avalanche at any moment. Winding through the alpine turf and gnarled trees, we realized that this area actually looked a lot like the desert section of the trail.
In our sightseeing, we completely missed the only source of water for miles around… and realized this when our Camelbak came up dry right after we had crossed a massive scree field. We stared at each other in disbelief. How on earth did we keep making this mistake?! As usual, Zach took the water bottles and backtracked while I sat down to wait it out. This was the last assured water for 20 miles, so we wanted to load up.
I sat on the trail, looking out at the vast landscape all around. There was a verdant valley, marked with a burned area that looked like a hedgehog of land amid the green carpet. The mountains were a gorgeous barren shade of sienna, jutting at severe angles. Above in the sky, puffy clouds hung about.
At that moment, I felt like we were never going to reach the border. I wasn’t in despair, but I just felt like it was an impossible feat. Cognitively, I knew we were only two days away— but how can you believe that you’re going to reach your destination when you’ve been on your journey for so long?
Day hikers were out en force today, and I chatted with them, and they all congratulated us on being so close. At last Zach rejoined me with a full load of water, and we set off again, trekking across the barren mountainsides and scree fields.
We passed a few jeep roads and at last we reached Hart’s Pass, a dirt road with a little trail register, some camping spots, a fire pit and picnic tables, and (hallelujah!) an outhouse.
We took a break there, but just as we were planning to hike out, a crowd came rolling in— Angles, Ninja, Pippin, K2, Sloe Gin, Landfill, and String Cheese. String Cheese’s dad, named “Big Mac,” had brought his jeep up the mountain to meet her. He’d be hiking with her to the border, which I thought was cool. He had also brought a load of sandwiches for String Cheese and her friends, and they welcomed us to partake in the feast! We all sat on the grass by the road, munching on sandwiches and chatting.
Zach and I once again stood up to hike out (after all, we’d only done 15 miles today), but the group said they were all camping out and making a fire tonight. We looked at the mileage: we could still make it to Canada in two days, as planned. (Our motto had also become, “Always choose the morale boost.”)
The group worked on gathering wood, and soon a cheerful blaze was in the fire pit. A nearby camper, a photographer, came over to hobnob and tried to impress us with his camping stories (it didn’t work). We all cooked our dinners, some over our cookstoves, others directly in the fire.
Once the photographer left us alone, we laughed and chatted and swapped trail stories, which ranged from the mundane to the bawdy. I don’t even remember half of it, but I do remember laughing so hard that I almost cried.
One of us brought up the weird way that your mind works when you’re on trail, how you think about the most mundane things for hours on end. “Yeah!” I said. “I just keep obsessing over the different ways to eat a watermelon.”
“I think about cars,” Angles said. “I think to myself, ‘How many wheels does a car have? Does it really have just four?’”
The group fell silent, all of us seriously pondering.
“No, it has five,” someone said. “The steering wheel.”
We all nodded and made noises of epiphany. We conjectured about other wheels that might be present in a car. (Did gears count? Does a car have gears?) Then we all began to chuckle, not because he sounded crazy but because all of us thought about things in exactly the same way. Modern human brains are not accustomed to this much solitude. None of us ever thought deep thoughts— we just pondered watermelons and cars. And food. Always food.
That night, huddled around the fire as the night pressed in with freezing cold, was glorious. We were all in high spirits, slaphappy, at ease. We were going to make it. We were all going to make it.
At last, Zach and I raced to set up our tent in the cold and dove inside. Most of the other hikers huddled in their tents as well, or else cowboy camped and cuddled up like a pile of wolf puppies. Curled up in a fetal position with the freezing pad beneath me, I snuggled closer to Zach.
I felt so happy.
We were going to make it.