Backpacking and long distance thru-hiking is not always blissful. It takes hard work, dedication and determination to stay the course when walking, tramping or trekking. But like life, the rewards are sweet for those willing to put one foot in front of the other.
It’s Thanksgiving 2020, and like so many Americans, we’re home, grateful for a “warmish” day of 45 degrees and sunshine so we can sit in our courtyard and lift a glass – at a safe distance – with a few neighbors.
Last November, I was walking in the Southern California desert, slowing my pace to enjoy stops along the way and mingle with locals. It’s inconceivable in this moment to consider the freedom and assumptions I made back then – eating in restaurants, shopping at the supermarket and staying at a historic inn without wearing a mask or maintaining distance.
Heck, I even hugged hiker friends who I hadn’t seen in weeks who suddenly showed up in my space. Besides Richard – and my doctors – I haven’t touched another soul in nine months.
It was just a year ago that I completed the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d dreamed of walking it for a long time, but thought maybe my first thru-hike ought to be something exotic and far away. The reasoning was I could hike on my home-turf anytime, but to travel half-way around the world was going to take much more planning.
And then I was suddenly “boss-free” and at the urging of my husband, who seems to understand me better than I understand myself, I flew out to Washington state on a one-way ticket, joined a gang of hikers and headed up to Hart’s Pass in the North Cascades just to see how far I could go.
By Day 127, I was nearly finished, and headed down the Devil’s Slide to visit the charming mountain town of Idyllwild. A hiker friend had joined me for this section, and while we still put in a good number of miles on those short, autumn days in the high desert, after climbing 10,000 feet up and over San Jacinto Peak, we felt we deserved a day off in this truly idyllic place.
It was a sunny, dry day with a slight nip in the air when Benita welcomed us to the Silver Pines Lodge, handing us a change of clothes while we washed our hiking outfits, and giving us the run of the beautiful grounds . She told us, she’s seen her share of us ‘hiker trash’ but says we enrich the lives of her village.
Days like that, where we don’t have to worry about getting sick or making others sick, will return, I promise you, and they’ll be more precious than ever. Listening to this conversation with Innkeeper Benita, makes me feel strong and brave to face the coming months, knowing I’ll be back on the trail soon enough. I hope some rubs off on you, too.
…that are helping me get through this moment right now
1. Take Risks
There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own.
The most important thing I learned even before I set foot on the Te Araroa or the Pacific Crest Trail is that security is a myth. Life itself is full of risk no matter how much we try to control its outcome.
I was terrified when granted a leave-of-absence from my job that I’d risk losing a career I loved. But I desperately needed this pause in my life. I needed to find out what would happen to my body, mind and spirit on a long distance walk, especially with a body already in serious decline from osteoarthritis.
I did all I could to mitigate the risk, ensuring things would be the same when I returned. But it made absolutely no difference. I still lost that career.
But what did I gain? An adventure, experience, self-knowledge, self-reliance, and the realization that I wouldn’t wonder someday in the future, when I’m not capable of walking like I could for those two thru-hikes, why I hadn’t taken the risk.
The truth is we never really know what’s around the corner, so sometimes you just have to take a calculated leap of faith. Funny thing? That day-in-the-future is now and I am in the process of replacing both hips.
On one particularly awful morning after surgery when I was nauseated and had a splitting headache, I told Richard all I needed was hope.
His response? “The most hopeful thing you are doing is taking these months to repair your body for the next hikes.”
2. Live in the present moment
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.
Alice Morse Earle
A thru-hike forces a kind of single-minded focus that is unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered in life. I find it difficult to plan, at least specifically, too many days in advance. And even if I could, I find that circumstances change and I need to go with the flow.
That being said, I was shocked by the number of hikers who wore headphones and walked at night seemingly just to get in miles. That approach is anathema to me and I became a kind of ascetic of the trail, never listening to music, always hiking within daylight and taking the time to really see things.
My friend Myra, a.k.a. “Wonder,” takes pride in having carefully planned each day on the PCT, very much in the vein of her real life work as an engineer. Since she’s not a fast walker, she knew going in she’d have to stick to some sort of schedule or she’d never make it to the finish line. That being said, she describes in a Guest Post how delicious each day was because she had the spare time to really see everything.
I’m not afraid to be face-to-face with my own thoughts, even if they’re sometimes unpleasant! Part of walking a long distance thru-hike is staying present with all of yourself – the good, the bad and the ugly – and not looking away or trying to distract yourself.
Right now, my thru-hike is slowly recovering from one hip operation and having the courage to go in for the second one. I have suffered setbacks, including catching Covid 19 and developing painful – but temporary – neuropathy in my calf and foot. I use the lesson of staying in the present to experience fully what each day brings, the tiny victories and surprises that my body can heal itself.
3. Practice patience
Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.
I’m not a huge fan of FKT’s (Fastest Known Time) I understand the motivation for such a challenge and certainly celebrate the athletic accomplishment of someone running, say, the Appalachian Trail in 40 days.
But for me, walking a long trail is about sauntering, a word which John Muir preferred to hiking because it connotes a kind of mission like a holy pilgrimage as opposed to a physical endurance test.
Over the course of ten months walking two major trails, I discovered this phenomenon that no matter how much I desired to get somewhere faster, I couldn’t really walk much faster. It was simply going to take the time it was going to take.
Much like living in the present, patience is all about letting go of the need to control and giving things time to percolate.
The nature writer Edward Abbey explains it beautifully. He writes, “Walking takes longer…than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed…Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”
So patience, my friend, gets us where we’re going and forces us to become observant, which in turn opens us to the possibility of experiencing the divine.
The worst part about my recovery at the moment is this pins-and-needles electric buzz in my lower leg. It was likely caused by my sciatica firing up while they had my femur pulled out. The surgeon told me nerves heal about one millimeter per day, which means this could take months to go way.
That does not sound pleasant at all. But, it should go away and I take into this moment patience with that long process. And just like planning for where to camp and how much food to carry, along with practicing patience, I take vitamins, massage my legs, and keep up good blood flow to encourage recovery.
4. Let the day unfold
I think that’s what I love about my life. There’s no maniacal master plan. It’s just unfolding before me.
Carpe diem – seize the day. I get it. I do. This idea that we need to put on our big girl pants and Type A personalities and make things happen!
There’s another side to this approach that really becomes apparent on my thru-hikes. For sure, you have to put yourself out there on that trail and be bold, brave and brilliant.
But sometimes, that attitude became too confining, not allowing the flexibility to maybe go a bit further, camp somewhere unexpected, accept a kindness from a trail angel or scrap a tightly held plan altogether.
This was a biggie for me, to wake up each day and just allow things to occur. I may practice mindfulness, but in the back of that mind is a control freak who wants to know what’s ahead, what will happen, where will I end up.
That attitude has often caused me to miss opportunities right in front of my face. We all could sharpen our skills at being nimble, willing to change our minds, our plans and our direction. It can invariably lead to unimaginable wonders, like when I hooked up with a local to climb Mount Taranaki for the sunrise, being the first to summit in 2019.
At this moment, it means developing curiosity rather than certainty, to delight in the twists and turns of my life – like today, when I was finally able, with the use of my cane and the handrail, to walk up and down stairs, one foot after the other on their own step.
A huge accomplishment in comparison to what happened on my “walk.” My right hop is rapidly deteriorating and I simply can’t walk as far until I get that one replaced in December.
And yet, it was warm enough to take a break on my porch and watch the world go by – dog walkers, children on various wheeled forms of transport and neighbors wishing me well.
Not a bad afternoon at all.
5. Trail Angels exist
That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.
Simone de Beauvoir
I had heard the term “trail angel” for years before walking my first major thru-hike. I certainly benefited from kindnesses on every backpack trip I’ve taken with people offering rides on seemingly abandoned roads, shared meals when when I might have skimped on nutrition and offers of a spot to set my tent on someone’s property.
And then there’s just the thousands of little things, the beers offered at the right moment, the words of encouragement, the invitations to camp on the lawn and share a meal, not to mention how the “trail provided” in mysterious ways at precisely the moment I needed something.
None of these acts made me feel entitled. Rather I felt deeply blessed and changed inside, wanting to pay forward what I can and be the person that helped me.
You can see in my video that a patient is up and walking soon after a full hip replacement, but for about a week, it’s necessary to use a walker. Richard and I found one at a thrift store in Waconia, Minnesota for $3. It was fine, but clunky, even when we affixed tennis balls to its feet.
I was dreaming of a rollator like my mom’s. with fat tires and a smooth ride. The very next day, someone posted in my “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, the exact rollator I had in mind. Greta gifted it to us with the expectation we’d pass it along at the end of this saga, just like my feelings of passing along trail angel kindnesses.
Trail Angels help with no desire to be repaid, and teach us how to be generous.
6. The point of a thru hike is not the triumph, but to feel alive.
The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.
When I finished walking the Pacific Crest Trail, Richard was waiting for me at the southern terminus in Campo as I walked up one last rise towards the blocky monument.
It was not an especially long day, just twenty miles through desert landscape and oddly shaped rock outcroppings. I met two thru-hikers along the way as well as a group of backpackers out for a weekend. The mood was festive, relaxed, and a little resigned. I didn’t feel exhausted or ready to stop, but neither did I feel sorrow that my life as a full-time pedestrian would be coming to an end.
The trail twisted through the mountains and skirted private land dotted with live oaks before I crossed train tracks and followed a road to mile marker number one and the final steps of my odyssey.
I could see Richard’s rental car parked near the razor-topped border wall and his tall body leaning against the door. I had a huge smile on my face as he applauded my arrival, all at the exact moment that another car joined. Richard handed me a margarita with fresh squeezed lime, reasonably tasty tequila and precious ice cubes served in a real glass.
He planned to take it with me as I sat on top of the monument for my finisher photograph, but it seems the man had other plans. He wanted his own picture taken – and taken before me. In a brusque manner – and without acknowledging that I actually walked to this spot from the Canadian border – he asked if I wouldn’t mind getting out of the frame while his wife snapped his picture.
I obliged, waiting for her as she snapped pictures from several angles of this man who walked ten steps of the PCT. At some point, he came down and headed back to his car and I climbed onto the monument.
It was such an odd moment, but it made absolutely no difference to me. I was done and this was just a marker in time and space. All my experiences and all my memories could not possibly be taken away from me whether I sat on the monument for my picture or not.
It occurred to me that there was a lesson in this. The goal to finish is a good one, and gives shape and direction to the walk. But accomplishment isn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, to triumph by making it to all the way 2,685 miles to the end does feel good. But what feels even better, is being alive for every step.
This journey to new hips has had ups and downs, including both Richard and I contracting Covid, fortunately, as far as we know right now, we have only mild symptoms. But I challenge myself not to get lost in wanting to get over and done with everything, but to search for that feeling of being alive within the tumult of this moment.
It helps that Richard and I both are feeling more “normal” today, still fatigued and coughing a lot, but ever so slightly familiar to ourselves. That in itself makes all of it worth it.
7. Everything changes
If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
Every day on a thru-hike, you get a chance to redeem yourself. Think about that. It’s like a do-over every single day beginning with letting the air out of your mattress, packing your gear and deciding what you’ll eat for breakfast before lacing up your shoes and walking on.
I found that to be one of the most freeing truths in walking long distances. It’s nearly impossible to get caught in a rut, because by its very nature, the terrain and environment are sometihng new each day.
And there’s nothing saying you have to walk with the same people, use the same trail name or even be the same person. Maybe that’s precisely why people thru-hike, to “find” themselves, lose themselves, then find themselves again.
There’s also that bit about weather changing. Non-stop rain in New Zealand nearly gave me PTSD, and yet just when I couldn’t handle another day of wet, it would clear and I was given a beautiful gift of sunshine, views and easy walking. I guess it shouldn’t surprise you that I longed for hard trail when it got to easy and through myself back into mud when the trail offered no challenge.
It was Abraham Lincoln who told the story about a king who charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this, too, shall pass away.”
Hardship, sorrow, confusion, fear, pain, the myriad feelings I have right now as I push through my bionic rebuild – all of these things shall pass, and eventually metamorphose into something else. I suppose that something else could be worse, but like the trail unwinding in front of me and taking me from rain forest to mountain pass to desert, our circumstances change with each passing moment.
8. You will never pass this way again
Sooner or later, we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip.
The most alluring part of a thru-hike for me is the fact that you rarely repeat any of it, rather you hike “thru” an environment. It offers a metaphor for life in being awake and aware as you go since it’s unlikely you will see any of this again.
Perhaps it’s because I’m middle aged and can see the other side of my life towards old age and death, I feel a bit more in touch with this concept. I know I wasn’t always popular with some of the younger hikers who got bored easily and found the trails a never-ending slog.
I would try to learn the names of the plants and creatures, to understand the geology and the cultures I passed through. In effect, I fed my curiosity so I wouldn’t see each day as on repeat and a series of physical challenges to be overcome.
That’s not to say it wasn’t hard as code word: tall grass attests to my complete and utter break down from a combination of hard trail and utter exhaustion. I earned true thru-hiker cred that day when I told it like it is and how hard it can be to keep going.
Perhaps like everything changing, it’s important to remind oneself that even unpleasant sections will soon go from the present to the past, and no amount of picture taking or journaling will help your recall what it felt like if you don’t feel if fully while you’re experiencing it.
When I first started walking on the sidewalk in front of my house, I thought of each place I camped along the PCT, recalling the sounds, the smell, the solitude or lack thereof. It was a fun exercise as I trained my new prosthetic to move smoothly.
I’m not wild about pain and nausea and being away from all I love to do as I heal, but I intend for this hip to last me most of my life and this time is one I hopefully won’t experience again, so perhaps it’s worth reminding myself to take each step deliberately and with intention since these are steps I will never walk again.
9. Let go and forgive
Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.
There’s nothing like a thru-hike to clean the cobwebs of your soul, especially if you’re like me and hike alone. You may have thought you were an ultralight hiker until the weight of excess baggage slowed you down and you knew you needed to deal with things.
I often argues with the air, spoke to old flames and old bosses and gave them a piece of my mind. But I found that interacting with other hikers – many pretty selfish and disagreeable – challenged me just as much.
Unlike our “real” lives, thru-hiking offers freedom from most expectations and demands. And yet, it stresses us to the point of breaking. Temperature extremes, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, injury, animal encounters, etc. can cause us to become selfish and demanding. giving little thought to each other.
In Northern California, I was left in a snowstorm by someone I had been hiking with for weeks and in Southland, New Zealand, I was threatened with physical harm by a Kiwi when I stole his chair. I felt betrayed, hurt and angry in those situations and worried over them for a long time before finally letting them go and deciding those guys needed to do what they did in the moment, and I’m not irreparably hurt.
When I’m vulnerable like I am now as I heal, I also “worry” hurt feelings from the past. Forgiveness is a tall order and not easy to practice even when we know it will set us free. What helps is to believe the people who hurt us did so for their own selfish reasons and not because we deserved it or had it coming.
While I won’t be hiking with either of those mean again and there are many people from my past I have cut loose, taking it less personally has helped me move forward – and created the space for trail angels (see #5) to come into my life.
10. You are stronger than you think you are
If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.
I’ve always had a talent for going uphill. Richard calls me a mountain goat. I can set a pace and just cruise. It’s just one of my gifts.
But strength is not just in going uphill or downhill, or long distances or in hellacious weather. Strength is something innate, something called upon when we find ourselves maybe a bit over our head or in unknown territory.
I guess I never doubted I’d walk a long way, even if I wasn’t entirely sure my body would hold up for all those miles. What I set out to do was to discover what would happen to my body, mind and spirit if I walked for months on end.
I wasn’t always strong. I cried. I complained. I doubted myself. And I often wondered why I was bothering and if what I was doing was worth it. But something inside me kept me moving forward, even if I had to take breaks or change my plans.
It’s almost precisely a year to the day that I sat on top of the monument in Campo, California after walking nearly 5,000 miles in New Zealand and the United States and I can tell you today it was all worth it. I’m amazed here in Saint Paul after walking just the block around our house, that I had what it took to put one foot in front of the other, make good decisions and see both hikes all the way through.
I got plenty of help from friends and trail angels, but in the end, I did it. We have more strength than we think we have, but we can only know that if we put it to the test.
So get out there, don’t put it off any longer that thing you want to do. Challenge yourself, get into the nitty gritty and see how it feels to be back at square one, like learning to walk again on new hips! You might surprise yourself how strong you really are.
Gotta take that adventure, in order to understand your journey.
My mother and I do not share the same name, but we share the same twisted humor, the same interest in watching tear-jerkers over and over (“Ross! You weren’t at the castle!”) and our voices are nearly indistinguishable on the phone, though we look nothing like each other. My free spirit and need to walk ridiculously long distances has always been a head scratcher for her, but I think this short essay on my first day of school many years ago, gives us all a clue.
The first day of school that year, it rained. Not hard, but enough that all three children – Eric, Andrew, Alison– wore their slickers. I, in my raincoat, stood safely waiting behind the screen door of our house on the hill, watching down the long, glistening damp drive for the school bus to arrive.
For two years, Alison and I had walked hand in hand to see the boys off. She called it the “cool bus,” and was just as excited as they were each day it arrived. She and I would wait until the boys boarded the bus and found their seats. Then, we would wave enthusiastically as the driver pulled away from the curb.
This day was different. It was Alison’s first day of kindergarten, and she was going to join her brothers – Eric, entering third grade and Andrew, entering second. There was a new intensity in our waiting.
The house was set on a hill above the road, and the driveway sloped down to the street. It was a large property, owned, as was the house, by the Presbyterian Church in South Salem, New York, which my husband served as minister. The house was three stories tall, a handsome Victorian with a bay window on both the first and second floors and decorative stained glass in the attic window. Not the first manse, which had been moved across the street, but the newest one, built in the 1870s. It had a full attic on the third floor and four bedrooms on the second, one of which we used as a playroom and study – a separate place to watch Captain Kangaroo and do projects together. We loved it!
The town was founded when New York was still a colony, so there were birthdates in the 1600s carved into the gravestones in front of the church. The church itself was founded in 1752, the first building built of logs. The current church, known as “The Old White Church,” was part of the older section of the town, so there were many homes that were built in the 1800s and a few that predated the Revolutionary War. It was a haunting, yet lovely place to live.
This morning, the air was misty, and the trees loomed dark against the vivid green of the grass. It was early September, so the leaves had not yet begun to change. The only bright color was the yellow of the children’s slickers and the bus itself.
“There it is!” one of the boys shouted, and all three dashed through the door, down the steps and onto the driveway.
I impulsively started down with them, but they were too fast for me.
At some point, I reached out my hand for Alison’s, but she was already chasing after her brothers. She never looked back.
When they reached the bus, they got on quickly. Without waving or even saying goodbye, Alison found her seat and was on her way. She had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
I remember standing there that misty morning with a smile on my face. I can still see all three of them running down the driveway in their yellow slickers, like three yellow birds in flight.
It was a bittersweet moment, of course. My little girl would never need to hold my hand to meet the school bus again, and I was happy for her. But my youngest yellow bird was leaving the nest, and I felt a momentary sadness. She and I had crossed a threshold and would not return the same.
Over the years, she and I have needed to “hold each other’s hand” during difficult times, “before the bus comes,” but this moment had been a triumph, a step in her growing up.
There we were, surrounded by a church, graveyard, and minister’s house, each filled with tales of triumph and loss, staying and moving on. And we were a part of the ongoing story – my three little birds and me, standing there in the rain knowing its inevitability, torn between wanting to stop time and to hasten it on.
Surgeons must be very careful when they take the knife! Underneath their fine incisions stirs the Culprit – Life!
Arthritis runs in my genes
By the time you read this, my surgeon Dr. S, will have made an incision in my left hip, pulled the muscles aside, sawed of all the damaged bits at the top of my femur before popping out the ball of my hip joint and its surrounding deteriorated cartilage, and finally installing brand new parts made of titanium and ceramic. This late in the day, he might even be well on his way to closing the incision and wheeling me out to recovery.
I knew this moment was coming. Arthritis runs in my genes and it’s been causing swelling and disfigurement in my fingers and toes over the past decade. Time was running out for me as a full-time pedestrian, and that was the very reason I secured permission for a leave of absence from my job to walk my first long distance trail. My thought was that if I waited until retirement, the window of opportunity would pass me by.
You can revisit the whole story surrounding my decision to walk a long distance thru-hike on Episode 1 of The Pee Rag podcast.
Four years ago, I developed disabling pain in my left hip. An MRI showed significant wear, but I was terrified of having the hip replaced so soon. I opted for a cortisone shot, signed up for three months of daily hot yoga and rehabilitated myself right back on the trail, walking in Peru, England, Utah, New Hampshire and all over the Upper Midwest, as well as the entire length of the Te Araroa, five New Zealand Great Walks and the Pacific Crest Trail.
But this summer, I developed some weird pain in the other hip. I didn’t even know what hit me, thinking it must be my overzealousness on kettle bell gitups injuring a muscle. But when heat/ice, stretching and Richard’s magic fingers didn’t help the pain and I watched my gait go from smooth to gimpy, I knew something was very wrong.
I should point out here that I come from the school of “unless you’re bleeding in the middle of the road, you don’t need a doctor,” and I didn’t bother checking things out until after I walked nine days on Isle Royale. My leg hurt all the way down to my toes and only massive quantities of Ibuprofen got me through, what to be completely honest about, was easy hiking.
You gotta have ’em both replaced.
I may not have been bleeding in the middle of the road, but I was definitely getting worse, not able to cross my legs or even pull them together to walk since massive swelling has left the leg lengths uneven. So I bit the bullet and visited an orthopedist.
Dr. S. is about ten years younger than me and has a direct manner I find refreshing. He walked in all masked up holding my Xray and said, “You’re not gonna wanna see this!” pointing to the spots where bone was grinding directly on bone. FUCK!“Yup, you gotta have ’em both replaced.”
Your bedside manner sucks. To which he laughed, amused that this small, smiley woman possesses such a potty mouth. Of course, I liked him right away,
At the risk of making this an “organ recital” I’ll cut to the chase. He gave me another shot which allowed me to walk one more mini thru-hike assuring me I couldn’t possibly hurt myself any more than I already was. Then we set up two surgeries for this fall, one right after the other, along with double the number of pre-ops, post-ops, blood work, PT – and my personal favorite – “Joint Camp” – where I’m pretty sure they don’t pass around actual joints.
Am I scared? Yup. Am I excited? Sure. Am I planning another thru-hike? Of course! When? As soon as I can walk like a thru-hiker.
It actually turns out in a weird way that this is the best time to get this thing done. Nothing is happening, my fledgling career is just getting starting, we can’t travel (much), winter is setting in and we both work from home, a home we’ve set up to be walker-ready including my extendo-toilet seat which Richard has dubbed “the long drop.”
FUN FACT: I’ll get my first bionic hip two years to the day I started walking the Te Araroa.
I know it’s going to be a long haul before I’m back, but I know all about long hauls, walking month after month on big trails. How the heck did I do that? One step at a time.
Today is surgery number one. Let’s hope it all goes smoothly and my body says, “yes, please!” to surgery number two right around my birthday in December.
All I ask of you guys? Make me laugh, send me movie/book/streaming-concert suggestions and hold me to my word to hike next season!
And here’s to what one of my surgeon friends Lynn told me…
People say that you’re going the wrong way when it’s simply a way of your own.
Along the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s an abundance of trail angel generosity surprises.
A few that come to mind include Broken Toe’s encampment where he parked for two weeks at Hart’s Pass just to greet SOBO’s with a warm fire, a fresh vegetables and good hiker beta. Also Big Lake Youth Camp that made it part of their mission to help us hikers with kindness so deep they set aside a building just for us to hang out replete with fresh baked cookies, showers, even a box of second hand clothing to change into while our dirty ones were being washed.
In California, it was a string of pearls of hospitality like Casa de Luna near Green Valley, and Hiker Heaven in Agua Dulce, owned by otherworldly souls willing to open their homes and back yards to hundreds of smelly hikers over literally decades.
By far, though, one of the strangest places I came across was Hiker Town. It’s smack dab in the middle of tumbleweeds, jumping cholla cactus and Joshua trees, mountain lions stalking and rattle snakes sunning in the middle of the trail of Southern California desert. I reached it after walking the California aqueduct, water closed in by concrete rushing below me and only available for my bottles at a single faucet before an 18 mile stretch in the blazing sun.
I had not heard good stories about Hiker Town, mostly that the owner is known to ask inappropriate questions and come on strong to young female hikers. He wasn’t around when I arrived – or if he was, after taking one look at me, he must have decided not to bother. I felt reasonably safe especially wince my friend Callum was right behind me on the trail.
Hiker Town’s sprawling acreage abuts a busy highway. There’s one modern house shaded by trees with a spiffy little patio, but all the others are tiny cabins, seemingly left overs from of a B movie of the Wild West variety. There’s a bank, a sheriff’s office, a school, the mining supplier, even a brothel.
I wandered about and finally found Bob building the outdoor shower. Wisps of hair on his grown and full, neatly trimmed gray beard, Bob appeared harmless enough in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, far more appropriate for the Venice boardwalk than this dusty place. A videographer who won three Emmies for his work on Columbo and The Rockford Files, Bob has lived here over a decade and greeted thousands of hikers. When I asked him how he liked living in the desert, he replied resignedly, “It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.”
Bob doesn’t move fast, but he got me quickly settled in my own private cottage, one without designation aside from a sign reading, “If you’re lucky enough to be at the beach, you’re lucky enough,” underscoring my Venice Beach association. The space was barely big enough for a brass bedstead holding a lumpy mattress and a creaky old chest of drawers missing most of its knobs. Good enough for this thru-hiker, I decided, and dumped my stuff heading to the newly constructed outdoor shower before the sun went down and the air chilled.
Callum arrived just as I dried off and was ushered to his own cottage and shower. Bob drove us (without incident) both fifteen minutes up the road to the convenience store for a mini resupply and dinner. It was dark by the time we returned. Three other hikers had arrived to stay, along with a couple I’d met on day two back in Washington. We sat out on the patio to share a soda before they head into town.
“Why not just stay here?” I asked before they left. “We’re right on the trail.”
They repeated the disturbing stories I’d heard, and, as if to put a finer point on the situation I faced, asked if I’d looked under the bed yet. What could possibly be under the bed!? They gave few clues before their ride arrived but I wan’t about to look all by myself in the dark.
So I headed to Callum’s cottage, who was already in bed at 7:30 since everyone knows that 7:30 is “hiker midnight.” Even so, sweet Callum obliged bringing his headlamp. He got down on his knees on the dusty wooden floor to get a better look. “Ah, there they are!”
“Black widow spiders. But don’ worry. They won’t hurt you unless you agitate them.”
I never got around to asking Callum how many spiders were calling my ned home, though I realized he was right. Those black widows had zero interest in me. So far on this hike I’d walked in a snowstorm, been visited by a bear, stirred up a rattlesnake and walked a helluva long way without incident. I was pretty sure the local residents were going to leave me alone.
People who love to eat are always the best people.
What do you eat when you thru-hike, Blissful?
The number one question I’m asked when making a presentation about my thru-hiking is, “What do you eat?” quickly followed by, “How do you get enough calories?“
It’s no secret in my household that I am not much of a cook. When I hit my twenties, my mom gave me The Joy of Cookingfor Christmas. Seemingly at the tail end of a vain attempt to convince me I’d come to like it too, she inscribed on the inside front cover, “It really is a joy!”
Is this a joke? I wondered.
Fast forward to today and the bible of cooking still sits on my kitchen counter but it’s more Richard’s than mine. Before we met, I subsisted on microwaveable dinners, ones I’d assumed were healthy since they came from the natural foods aisle.
What’s difficult for me, however, is that these items are hard to make in bulk and send forward as resupply. I’d come to rely on questionably nutritious packets of “food” picked up at random shops along the way.
What I ate left me constantly hungry and usually craving sugar. On the PCT in particular, I developed an addiction to gummy bears – well, to be perfectly frank, gummy anything. By the time I arrived in Southern California, I was consuming a full bag every single day!
My strategy to make up for the lost calories – and lost weight? Eat massive amounts in town. Surely there had to be a better way.
Introducing Backcountry Foodie
When Backcountry Foodiecontacted me last year to see if I might want to trail test their company’s wares, I was under the impression the food was pre-made. Of course I said yes, send ’em on over! I’ll check them out on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic
Not so fast, Blissful.
Unlike any company I know of in the outdoor industry, Backcountry Foodie is less a provider than a partner in thru-hike meal planning.
Aaron Owens Mayhew is a registered dietician and ultralight long-distance backpacker. It would take more than fifteen years of carrying heavy military rations and unappetizing freeze-dried meals that left her feeling hungry before she thought to combine her passions.
She has created a spectacular collection of recipes in a kind of thru-hiker meal strategy, one that checks all the boxes – food that’s healthy and high in calories, ultralight and concentrated as well as cheap to create at home and easy to prepare on the trail.
How does Backcountry Foodie work?
Aaron must have been a straight-A student because she’s organized, passionate and thorough, covering information I hadn’t even known I needed, categorizing her meals by day part, calories-per-ounce, as well as cross referencing the use of ingredients for other meals.
I should point out here that it’s not necessary to own a dehydrator unless you want to dry your own ingredients.
The “pantry” is the extensive list of ingredients with a link to purchase each item. Many ingredients can be found at your local store, but some, like dehydrated refried beans or peanut butter flour, are harder to find and best bought online.
Every recipe is “freezer-bag” style, cooking fast (if at all) and using very little fuel and each one is designed like pages of a cookbook (The Joy of Cooking, anyone?) including home and field prep time, allergy and diet restriction information and if the meal works best cold soakedor cooked. Plus, there are individual labels to print and slap on your baggie with all pertinent information. This will definitely come in handy when you open a resupply box three months down the road.
As a member-based organization, Backcountry Foodie offers three tiers – the most basic – and independent – level providing access to 75 different recipes, with the more comprehensive levels including meal plans, webinars, group web calls as well as custom meal planning.
In case you thought maybe the meals could get a little boring, here’s a sampling to whet your appetite: Coconut Mango Porridge, Taco Scramble, Bivy Bran Flakes, Antioxidant Trail Mix, Spicy Hummus, Yosemite Yams, Chips & Salsa with Guacamole, Pasta Primavera, Reboot Espresso Trail Mix, Pina Colada…and on and on.
I should mention here that each recipe is vegetarian, still managing to provide the essential vitamins and minerals and calories needed from a hiker walking 10-12 hours per day.
How did it go?
There are way more recipes than I could possibly have explored for my shortish hikes this fall. Working through the bounty one-by-one will take me most of the off-season. But from what I field-tested, I can say without reservation, Backcountry Foodie is a game changer.
I started this review mentioning that I’m not much of a cook, and that is made patently obvious on the trail where all I want to do is eat and get going. I want my meals to be simple.
And simple is the name of the game, one pot, just-add-water kinda meals, exactly the way I like it.
I made two items for breakfast – a Chocolate/Peanut Butter Shake and Banana Nut Crunch. These were beyond easy to put together even if I dried my own bananas. They tasted great in the field and I mixed and ate them directly from their baggie. They hit the two most important criteria – they tasted good (I wanted another serving the next day) and they filled me up.
I usually snack during the day on dried fruit and jerky, but I loved the Black Bean Dip made on my dehydrator and eaten with a bag of Fritos , a staple of every thru-hiker’s kitchen.
For dinner, I mostly stuck with the Ramen meals – yup, the same thing you had in college at 25¢ a pop. The secret is to remove the flavor packets, crunch up the noodles and add all sorts of tasty items like my new best friend, shelf-stable parmesan cheese, or freeze dried mushrooms, even cashews and red pepper flakes.
The only drawback for me is the recipes calling for the addition of oil. I just can’t make the leap to carry oil in my pack, no matter how carefully it’s wrapped. Maybe it’s because I’m generally a slob when backpacking and everything tends to get beaten up within an inch of its life.
I have no problem carrying nut butters, but I draw the line at things that might spill on my clothes and sleeping bag. Unfortunately without oil, the nutritional profile is not accurate. That being said, the meals I made tasted delicious and I found oil was not necessary.
Because everything was so delicious and I felt full and strong, I thought what the heck, why not give cold soaking a try on the Kekekabic. Cold soaking is exactly as it sounds – water is added to rehydrate the meal and it’s eaten cold. The advantage to the hiker is leaving the stove and fuel at home, thus saving weight and bulk. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at just how good everything tasted and I never felt the need for a warm meal even when the temperatures dipped at night.
I am now a convert to cold soaking and it wouldn’t have be able to accomplish this without the superb recipes from Backcountry Foodie.
Specs at a glance
three-tiered ultralight recipe and meal planner with lifetime access
recipes sorted by meal type, cooking style, and dietary needs.
freezer-bag style meals that are easy to make, nutrition-packed and inexpensive.
“pantry” ingredient resource and where to purchase
monthly webinars, recipe subscription and meal plans available
custom meal planning available
alison young was given a demo account for testing by Backcountry Foodie.
Some of the links found on blissfulhiker.com are affiliate referral links. This means that if a reader clicks on text or an image to enter an online shopping site, Blissful Hiker may receive a commission from purchases made on that visit. There is no additional cost to the consumer; referral fees are paid by merchants. Through affiliate links and paid advertisements, we promote only products and businesses that we consider helpful to our readers.
I know, I know, choosing the name The Pee Rag for my podcast got a few of you in a twist, but it was never intended to be vulgar, rather a play on words – “rag” being another name for a news source.
I also meant the choice to equate the unglamorous bits of thru-hiking with the grit and bad-assery required – especially from of a middle aged solo female backpacker carrying all she needs on her back to so many stunningly beautiful and transformative places.
To tell the truth, I had never even heard of a “pee rag” until a few days before my departure for New Zealand with an objective of walking the length of both islands on the Te Araroa. It was actually a Facebook post devoted to women hikers of the TA that piqued my curiosity, one where a fellow hiker queried, are you taking a pee rag?
Not to look uninformed, I researched this mystery and came upon Stacia Bennett’s informative and matter-of-fact article all about the subject. Like me, after reading you too will come to realize you just can’t leave home without a pee rag. Let’s face it gals, “drip drying” is no way to manage on a multi-day hike – or ever for that matter, and using wads of toilet paper does not align with Leave No Trace principles in any form or fashion.
So both the Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail saw me sporting bandanas on the side of Olive Oyl, one for the pot and one for me. But this presented a few issues – namely mixing them up, but also uric acid causing the bandanas to wear out fast, and I could never really find a way to keep them clean or dry. I also feared contracting an infection.
What is a Kula Cloth?
And that’s where our story brings us to the remarkable Kula Cloth! Anastasia Allison is a former park ranger, blissful hiker, violinist, and entrepreneur based in the Pacific Northwest.
Like me, she toed a pee rag on her pack in the mountains, one made of microfiber. It became a kind of joke when rather than snap selfies, she would pose her pee rag in astoundingly beautiful locations. It wasn’t long before the thought occurred to her that maybe she was onto something.
Taking its name from Kula Khangri, the tallest mountain in Bhutan, the word Kula also translates as community, one she considers “a radically inclusive community that happens to sell a pee cloth for anybody that squats when they pee.”
What surprised me at first was how small the cloth is – just about a hand’s width in size, kind of like a potholder. My Kula is part of the artist series designed by Lyn Sweet and features an orange sloth backpacking with walking stick into the sunset. You could say, I’m carrying my Kula spirit of the “saunterer.“
The pictured side is the “clean side” and waterproof, preventing moisture from reaching my hands. The working side is made of antimicrobial silver-infused absorbent material, which quickly and efficiently did its job on the many stops during my latest hikes on Isle Royale and the Kekekabic.
Other features include a cloth loop with a tough little hypoallergenic plastic snap that locks the cloth in place, as well as an extra privacy snap to fold the cloth over on itself into a triangle. Reflective thread is woven into each side so the cloth can be found when a night urge hits and a headlamp guides the way.
Leave no Trace Principles
1. Plan Ahead & Prepare 2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces 3. Dispose of Waste Properly 4. Leave What you Find 5. Minimize Campfire Impacts 6. Respect Wildlife 7. Be Considerate of Others
Just to be clear, Kula Cloth and all pee rags are meant for use only when going Number 1!
So, how did it go?
Kula Cloth did its job perfectly – it fit beautifully in my hands, absorbed the urine and kept me dry and clean. The conditions on Isle Royale were very wet this season – rain, sea-fog and general humidity – so my Kula only dried out thoroughly when the sun was shining. When wet, it acted more like a “wet wipe” but remained surprisingly absorbent and kept my hands clean.
I don’t ever take soap with me on hikes and I simply rinsed my Kula in water. I should point out that it was only when it dried out that it became completely odor-free, but no soap was ever necessary to clean it on my nine-day hike.
The Kula feels weightier than a simple piece of cloth or bandana and the only wear and tear I noticed was some of the side threads shredding ever so slightly. Since I’m a pretty rough on my gear, this might become more of a problem when having to crawl under fallen trees and potentially snagging my Kula.
Are either of those issues a deal breaker? No! A pee rag is an absolute necessity and Kula Cloth is made with materials specifically designed to be absorbent as well as non-toxic, non-sensitizing, and non-irritating when in contact with the body. Although I have not yet suffered a urinary tract infection on a thru-hike, that is not something to fool with and I put my full trust in the superb bit of gear to keep me healthy.
And besides, how cool is to have a work of art on the back of “Blueberry” (my new Granite Gear pack) something that gives a little character to my walking – as if I need any more!
Kula Cloth is coming with me on every hike and I give her my highest rating, five Anitas.
Specs at a glance
Weight: .53 oz
Length: 6.25″ x 6.25″
Antimicrobial, silver infused materials
alison young was given this pee rag for testing by Kula Cloth.
Some of the links found on blissfulhiker.com are affiliate referral links. This means that if a reader clicks on text or an image to enter an online shopping site, Blissful Hiker may receive a commission from purchases made on that visit. There is no additional cost to the consumer; referral fees are paid by merchants. Through affiliate links and paid advertisements, we promote only products and businesses that we consider helpful to our readers.
Day One, Gunflint Trail to Agamok Bridge 12.6 miles (plus 1.5)
What strikes me at first walking on the Kekekabic, or ‘the Kek,’ is how quiet it is. Wind sets the Aspen leaves quaking, a deep gold against the soft blue sky, gray clouds hanging near the summits, a mosaic of yellow and dark green.
Richard and I drove up in pounding rain and bumper-to-bumper traffic, but we woke in Grand Marais to clear skies above Gitcheegumee and hopped up the Gunflint Trail, an hour’s drive deep into forest and the land of millions of glacier-made lakes begin.
I woke up again in a panic about my future, feeling ungrounded and unsettled, learning just this past week my right hip joint is ground to nothing – and the left is not far behind. A cortisone shot is only going to buy me time until I’m going to have to get new ones.
But I’ll get to call myself the bionic hiker! Turns out it’s genetics and there’s not much I can do about it. Nonetheless, Rich and decide I’ll hike in an hour then send him a message via GPS if I need to turn around.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, One clover, and a bee, And revery. The revery alone will do, If bees are few.
The rain stopped and segued into wind, gusting heavy in the trees and churning my protected cove. In the distance I see “charging white horses” waves and I’m glad I get to walk out rather than kayak. I guess that explains my neighbor’s palatial set up since one never knows when you’ll be wind bound.
Except for a small portion near Windigo right at the start, this is the only part of the entire “thru-hike” that I unwind and repeat. But things always look different from another perspective and it feels faster walking out, up and down through forest of paper birch, a pileated woodpecker up early as well as a moose, crashing through the brush to make a hasty exit.
I return to the series of boardwalks, but the wind seems to have kept them in their hive, one well hidden below the boards. A black fox runs ahead of me on the steep switchbacks. It’s always easier to head up, even if my breathing quickens. I just hurl myself forward, the chances of slipping practically nil.
At the top I have a choice to backtrack to Mount Franklin or head down towards Rock Harbor. It’s only a third of a mile, and seems ridiculous to miss looking out one last time towards Canada and the cliffs of basalt towering above Gitchee Gumee.
And I’m not disappointed. Millions of trees stretch out below, the water a bright blue and the cliffs beyond massive. The wind is really pushing me on this boulder and I realize at that moment, my tiny, single engine plane is going to have a rough time landing.
The descent is easy through forest, though I catch glimpses of the myriad islands and long peninsulas, Isle Royale like a huge creature that decided to lay down in Superior, her backbone and arms exposed.
I come to the “lake” described by the couple I met yesterday who were chased by a moose. It’s more of a pond and no moose are milling about at the moment. When I meet Tobin Harbor, I remember what the ranger warned me about eight days ago, that the Rock Harbor trail was one of the hardest on the island and had 150 downed trees.
Nobody wants to deal with downed trees, so I turn right and walk parallel to that “worst trail in the park” on an incredibly easy trail of soft pone needles, mushrooms and fungus keeping me company.
At an intersection, I notice a sign for Susie’s Cave. I’ve had quite enough of this easy trail and just gotta take a look at that cave. It’s up a little, through a bit of forest and there it is. yep, a cave alright. A nice big, ordinary cave.
What’s extraordinary, is the view. I’m right on the water, looking out to small rocky islands covered in spruce and bright orange lichen. Loons bob in the water. Oyster mushrooms in stacks cling to a tree.
Did I mis-hear because this is not a hard trail by any measure. I guess I climb over a few downed trees, but the going is good as I pass a cute couple in identical brand new boots, sharing their first night out.
I soon come to more shelters and a young hiker tells me the plane’s are delayed. Just as I thought. But it gives me time to explore a little. The ranger station is situated in tiny Stag Harbor in a beautiful little crescent. No wind churns waves here, but of course the planes land in Tobin Harbor and it is apparently still a tube of turbulence.
It’s here, though, where the plan to create a national park out of the island was hatched. Along the semicircle used to be one quaint cottage after another luring repeat visitors for the summer, mostly to escape hay fever on the mainland. They were brought here by a steamer called “The American.” So many people created memories of boating, swimming, picking berried and presumably singing around the campfire, they were instrumental in saving this idyllic place as a wilderness.
It is a strange year. About twelve of us wait for our planes to return us to Michigan or Minnesota and one boat docks in the tiny marina, but the place is deserted. The hotel is closed and the restaurant promising beer, burgers and bliss also shuttered. I have one more scoop of bullion and find a shaded spot to cook up a little lunch.
Just then, the ranger tells a small group their plane is one the way. Coming from Hancock, they fly a Cessna which can take a few more chances on these waves. From Grand Marais, it’s a Beaver, and there’s no word of one heading my way.
The good news is one of the guys on his way out hands me two Clif bars he won’t be needing anymore. Score! Their plane unloads a group of backpackers, clean fresh with lots of new gear. I get the Leave No Trace lecture happening next to me and I offer a bit of beta on campsites since not only did I snag the best, but I also checked out the rest.
As they leave, the ranger comes towards me and says head on back to Tobin Harbor, your plane is on the way. It’s Thomas again carrying two passengers from Windigo who are grateful he picked me up as they got a full view of the island – and they get again as we fly back west towards the mainland.
The plane pitches and bucks in the air as we lift off and I just breath deeply trusting the pilot wants to get home as much as we do. It is beautiful, a long humpy mass of green rising from the vast blue.
What happened on this mini thru-hike? I took pretty easy days and was in camp by mid-day, each night finding the absolute best site and soaking in every detail. I had clear days warm enough to swim and thunderstorms that had me scurrying into a blessed shelter. I saw moose close up, wolf tracks, beaver’s work and two fat otters. Loons, a barred owl, pileated woodpeckers, sandhill cranes, and a hawk talked to me in their language, inviting me to share in this grand wilderness they call home. I broke bread with trail angels and learned how to listen to my body and my intuition.
But maybe most important, after nearly nine months off from backpacking, I was reminded why I love this activity more than any other. I feel most alive when dirty, carrying all I need in my pack and managing the elements. And that’s quite possibly because it’s only during an overnight hike that I come the closest to living fully in the moment, to letting things happen and discovering the beauty and wonder in all things.
In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.
Waking up in my private little shelter to the waves gently lapping and reminding me of yesterday’s leech nightmare. No plans to swim this morning. I catch a glimpse of pink in the sky, but since I’m facing south, can only see the extraordinary show when I pop out of the shelter.
Orange, magenta, lavender and pink in a swirl of color, so present and overwhelming, I feel bathed in its glow. I quickly head back to the otter dock and then out onto the big exposed bit of Canadian Shield. The smell of coffee wafts towards me as a screen door slams but no one joins me out here where the view is miraculous.
It’s just a sunrise, but I see them so rarely from our tree lined street. Are they always this good and I am simply not attuned to them? I suddenly remember that the wise old saying about red skies in the morning, sailors take warning. This glorious morning will be followed by rain.