(This entry was so incredibly long that I decided to break it into two. They get shorter after this, I promise.)
Southern Terminus to Lake Morena
Our plan, in its most rudimentary form, was simple:
1. Go to the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, at the border of Mexico and California.
3. Stop walking when we get to Canada.
But of course, things are never as easy as they seem.
This was going to be the trip of our lifetime, probably the biggest thing either of us had ever tackled, and certainly the biggest challenge we had ever faced together in our brief three years of knowing each other. We were husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Zachary Strader, newlywed, 23 and 24 years of age, respectively. We had no kids, no college debt, and no mortgage payment: a rare window of our lives where we could reasonably take six months off work to go walking on a 2,668-mile trail.
We had our reasons for tackling this adventure, of course. Very few people do a hike like this on a whim. We wanted a challenge. We wanted to see what we could do. We wanted to walk 20 miles a day for five months straight and see where it got us. There was no one big reason. But somehow, a curly-headed eighteen-year old boy from Oregon saw a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail— or PCT as I will be calling it ever after— and realized it was something he wanted to do. That thought simmered on the back-burners of his mind, and it wasn’t until he met a crazy cornfed girl from Missouri that the dream became a reality. That girl was me.
Now we were on a bus— breezy and hot— taking a ride from San Diego. My sister had lived there for the past couple years, and she had hosted us and was coming to hike the first day with us. She couldn’t wait to get out of St. Louis, with the sedentary people and the ethnic non-diversity and the cornfields and the lack of beach. She was working as an actress/promotional model/whatever-heck-else-she-could-find-to-do, trying to pay the sky-high California rent, and happy as could be.
I, on the other hand, was happy with my life in Missouri. Zach and I had a nice little two-bedroom townhouse that we rented for $500 a month. I had put up pictures on the wall, unpacked our book collection (three sets of The Lord of the Rings included), and I even had houseplants for a while. Now we were leaving all that. We had packed up our stuff and scattered it to friends’ houses throughout the St. Louis area. Zach got a leave of absence from his customer service job at Wal-Mart, and I took the summer and half a semester off from my online writing coaching job. All the material possessions we would use for the next five months were packed up into two backpacks. REI brand and Deuter, orange-gray and blue. Mine had an artificial yellow flower on the outside.
Mary was asleep at my side, slumped across her daypack. I cradled my bulky backpack, taller than my torso, between my knees on the jostling bus. Zach sat next to me, still and silent, staring with great focus at nothing. He’s good at that look.
The bus was crowded with civilians from the San Diego area, and the backpackers were banished to the caboose. I looked nervously around at them, feeling insecure. Most of them looked very confident. A middle-aged couple who had hiked the Appalachian Trail looked very relaxed. Next to them sat a young man of some Asian origin (I later learned he was Japanese). He looked a little nervous but also excited. Next to him, a man about my age stared stonily ahead: he had a red beard, a shirt buttoned all the way up, an Appalachian Trail patch, gauged ears, and a hat that made him look like either a Union soldier or a boy scout. Someone on the bus asked him if he had a trail name. Most everyone who hikes a long-distance trail gets a trail name. He responded politely, but stiffly: his name was Angry Bird because in Maine he’d been dive-bombed by a goshawk. He had a clear air of having everything together. He seemed like a bit of a snob. Later on, I learned that he was just shy. That’s the problem with shy people— they always come off as snobs.
Two years before, when I heard that the first 700 miles of the PCT were desert, I was horrified. I grew up in a place where you have to dog-paddle through the humidity all summer, and when I spent a week in Tucson visiting cousins, I felt desperately thirsty all the time, I had a constant nosebleed, and I was picking microfibers of cactus out of my skin for weeks afterward. But this desert, just judging by the view out the window, was going to be more interesting than I thought. The landscape rose up in tumbled piles of boulders, interspersed with greenery. It was still spring, and things still grew here. It quieted the fearful memories of the beautiful but terrifyingly desolate Sonora National Forest, which was a plain of rocks and saguaro. The air blustering through the bus windows was hot, but it didn’t seem rife with cactus needles. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
The bus didn’t actually go to the PCT’s southern terminus. It dropped us off at a convenience store in Campo, 1.5 miles from the border. The sun was beating down, but it still wasn’t too hot. We poked around the c-store for a few minutes. They let us top off our water bottles. Then it was time to strap on our packs.
My pack, fully loaded with food and water, was about 37 pounds. My scrawny arm strained to lift it, and I had to get some momentum to be able to sling it onto my back. For a second it felt horribly heavy. Then I leaned forward and began tightening the straps, carefully obeying the order that Foster at REI had taught me: hip belt first, as tight as you can go. Shoulder straps next. Chest strap next, to keep the shoulder straps from pulling apart sideways. Finally, the load lifters, a couple of straps attached to your shoulder straps. For a few seconds I fine-tuned the straps, tightening here, loosening there. Then my pack felt solid, like part of my own body. I still felt its weight, but it seemed more like we were coexisting in a space together, rather than feeling like it was heavy. I thought, Maybe I can do this hike after all.
I have a tendency to rush into things headlong, without knowing whether or not I can do them. This trip was no exception. Zach and I had never been backpacking before. One time I had walked for three days on the hiking/biking Katy Trail near my house, but it’s a perfectly flat trail and I only camped one night. Another time Zach and I had backpacked on Buford Mountain, a beautiful tree-clad hill that holds the prestigious title of Third Highest Mountain in Missouri. Talk about bragging rights! We had talked about trying to do something beforehand to prepare— a week on the Appalachian Trail, maybe, or even just a few days on the budding Ozark Trail in Missouri. But since Zach works a retail job where it’s very rare to get even two days off in a row, it didn’t happen through the summer and fall. The next thing we knew, we were caught up in the most freezing, snow-buried winter I had ever seen, and our chance was lost. At this point, the PCT was the next trail we could do.
There’s a very narrow window for hiking the PCT. You have to start in the desert before it gets too hot, but you can’t get to the High Sierra too early because it will be buried in snow. Once you’re past the Sierra, you have to book it through northern California and Oregon, because you want to finish the trail before the cold weather blows in. 2014 was a low snow year, so our time budget wasn’t as tight, which proved to be a good thing.
We started walking down the dusty gravel road, eager to get the unnecessary 1.5 miles out of the way. We got a little lost; a man in a pickup truck pointed us in the correct direction. We climbed a small, round hill and found ourselves at the southern terminus. An ugly corrugated metal fence, further fenced off by a tangle of barbed wire, marked the Mexican/American border. A clump of square posts, emblazoned with the PCT badge, stood unassuming there. Four or five other people were hanging around, signing the leather-bound trail register, taking their photos, adjusting straps, saying nervous goodbyes. Zach and I waited our turn. I felt shy. Usually when I traveled I put all my extroverted tendencies to work in a frenzy of friendly harassment of my fellow travelers, but now, I felt like a child again, barely saying a word, listening to the grown-ups talk about how lucky my parents were to have such a sweet, quiet little girl. Everyone else seemed so experienced. Everyone else knew what they were doing. Everyone else had trekking poles. We had never used trekking poles when we hiked before, so we hadn’t brought any. But I noticed that everyone— even the people with backpacks half as large as ours, indicating expensive gear and packing skill— had brought trekking poles. I hoped it wouldn’t be too much of a problem not to have them. After all, we had no extra money for such things.
It was our turn. Mary snapped our picture in front of the monument. I tried to look confident for the camera. Then Zach and I took a picture of us kissing. Someone yelled from the sidelines, “If you’re still doing that at the end of the trail, you’re good!”
At that point, the end of the trail seemed a thousand miles away. No, check that, it seemed 2,668 miles away. The trail feels exactly as long as it sounds.
Without much ado, we began hiking. This was disappointing. I had dreamed of this moment for weeks— years. I had dreamed of standing at the terminus, looking over a flat, rocky landscaped spotted with saguaro (no, not saguaro, they don’t grow in this region. But maybe just a bunch of prickly pear), standing next to Zach with determined looks on our faces. I imagined a grilling, searing, dry heat that robbed me of all the moisture in my mouth. I would stare at that barren landscape, and then I would start walking. And it would hit me. It would hit me that we were hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and that we would be hiking this trail for the next five months.
I kept waiting for it to hit me.
I’m still waiting.