Tuesday, March 3, 2015

PCT 2014, Day 25: Poodle Dog Bush and the Spell of the Desert

See the pretty poodle dog bush? The rash you get from that can send you to the hospital...

Public Service Announcement: If the topic of menstruation makes you squeamish, you need to stop reading right now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Day 25
May 19th, Monday 
411ish to 430 via detour

I woke up at 6:00 the next morning to find that what I dreaded had come true: my first period on trail. Some women’s bodies decide to just skip when they’re hiking strenuously every day, but no such luck with my body. I was armed with cloth pads and a Divacup (although the latter has never worked well for me), but I didn’t cherish the thought of hiking all day in the blazing sun while I was in this condition. But I didn’t really have a choice. I ducked into the brush (careful to avoid the clumps of deadly poodle dog bush) to get ready for the day, then I warned Zach I would be going extremely slowly, and that we would need a lot more drinking water than usual.

All morning we hiked at a snail’s pace, both because I was feeling sick and because the trail was crowded on both sides with poodle dog bush. We inched past it, contorting our bodies to avoid its stinging fronds. Zach, who was taking point as usual, kept on pointing out sneaky PDB, sticking out toward our faces or clutching at our ankles. If even our backpacks brushed against it, we could later get stung, and the idea of “swollen pustules” on any part of our body didn’t sound like fun.

We stopped for long breaks at little springs that seeped out of the mountain across the trail, often having to dip the water out of still but clear pools. This was the least-maintained burn area we’d come across yet: we were often scrambling over burnt logs or fighting our way through overgrown brush. Several times we had to scramble a few feet down the mountain and fight through undergrowth to avoid the PDB. I was hot, exhausted, and suffering from severe cramps. But there wasn’t anywhere to even sit down, so we just continued our endless trek through the blackened spears of burnt trees with their deadly ground cover.

After several hours, we broke free of the bushes and found found our way to a little picnic area slightly off-trail, which was equipped with a picnic table, a faucet, and mercifully some outhouses complete with toilet paper. 

Zach and I sat at a picnic table in the hot sun beneath some power lines, and he pulled out our summer sausage, since we had little else to snack on. I stared at the milled, overly processed meat, pinkish-brown, interspersed with globules of fat. And it looked like the most amazing thing I had ever seen. 

I devoured half a pound of the log, along with several straight spoonfuls of peanut butter and half a cup of refried beans. And I was still hungry.

“Okay, now the hiker hunger is kicking in,” I said. I was wrong.

Another hiker soon joined us: a pretty girl about my age named Relish (because she carried a huge jar of relish with her). She was from Norway. We swapped stories and asked how each other’s hikes were going. Her feet were killing her and she needed new shoes, and she was dealing with a loss in her family, but she was determined to keep hiking. She also told us about an upcoming road-walk detour because the trail had gotten so overgrown with PDB. 

Together we rejoined the trail and walked to the junction. A middle-aged man was sitting by the entrance. When we tried to walk onto the road, he stopped us somewhat brusquely. 

“I’m part of trail maintenance,” he said. “We just cleared all the poodle dog bush out of the next two miles.” He gave us a pointed look that said he would be very upset if we didn’t take advantage of his hard work.

Relish didn’t care— with her beat-up, ill-fitting shoes, she would take a road-walk over soft sand any day. Zach and I reluctantly decided to continue for another two miles before taking to the road.

The trail was murderously soft underfoot, making us slip and slide and expend more energy. I found myself daydreaming about walking on solid pavement. Still, as we climbed the hill, breathtaking scenery came into view: desert hills, chiseled from sand, spotted with brush like a pointillist painting. They were so pale and sharp and flat-looking that it was hard to tell which mountain was in front and which were behind. It felt like looking at an M.C. Escher drawing.

I was feeling more tired and crampy than ever. Zach tried to keep my mind off it by telling me the mythology of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. We talked about how the Valar might be canon with C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, as Lewis claimed. It helped.

Finally, we joined up with a road that appeared to be mostly abandoned, and took to it instead of crossing back onto the trail. (We heard later from Pinch and Goosebumps that they, not knowing about the detour, had taken that section of trail and were caught in a several-mile labyrinth of PDB. We were so glad we skipped it!)

The road steadily following a line of mountains, heading for the crown of Mount Gleason. Zach and I met back up with Relish for a while and hiked together, passing an abandoned burnt-out town standing ghostly and silent among the massive acres of demolished trees.

Zach and I stopped for a break, and I devoured more summer sausage. I was in more pain than ever, and bleeding a worrisome amount. This was just not fun. Still, we were able to press on, and even through my pain, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the blue mountains that rose up to our left, topped with fluffy clouds. The sky took on a slate-like color, a faded grayish blue, even though it wasn’t sunset yet. I felt like we had ascended to the top of the world.

The road took us over the peak of Mount Gleason and onto a flat section that delved into half-burned, half-live forests. Zach and I saw a sign for a campground in the direction we wanted and headed for it eagerly. We found Flats Campground, which consisted of two outhouses, charred picnic tables, a grove of unstable-looking burnt trees that shuddered in a relentless wind, and a sign saying, “10 each campsites.” We weren’t sure what that meant, but we thought it meant ten dollars. We had less than three bucks. Once again, we hoped any rangers coming upon us would show mercy.

Walking over, I jumped a short fence and caught my pants on a rusty corner. I tore a big L shape in the knee of my pants. It was just one of those days.

About a dozen people were camped here, staking their tents down against the intense wind. We set up camp, our tent flapping in the wind, and Zach tried to cook in the lee of an outhouse. By this time the temperature had dropped, so I stayed inside the outhouse, freezing, while he cooked. 

After eating supper, we went to sleep— but I didn’t stay asleep long. Several times had to get up to go to the outhouse, shivering in the sub-freezing temperatures. 

It was a bad night, but for all that, I was very grateful to be somewhere with an outhouse. Digging a cat-hole that night would not have been fun.

Oddly enough, even though pretty much every element of the day was miserable, I remember it with a strange sort of fondness. I don’t know why. It was bleak and barren and hot and freezing and oh so painful. So why do I smile, instead of shudder, when I think of it? 

The desert messes with you. Just when you think you hate it, and you can’t stand one more minute of its starkness, you find yourself dreaming about it, and longing for it, and glossing over everything bad about it. And instead remembering the pain and suffering and heat, all you’re left with is the haunting memory of a beautiful burned tree between the mountains and the slate-blue sky.



  1. Bless your heart...at least I won't have to worry about having a "visitor" on my journey. LOL

  2. That is why I'm really glad I'm waiting a few years before I can hike the PCT. One, I have to get gear and have money saved up and, two I am perimenopausal so I want THAT to be over before I hike. You did a great job coping Lisa!