There are hazards in anything one does but there are greater hazards in doing nothing. –Shirley Williams
Argh! Just as I drift off, loud voices and bright headlamps arrive pointed at my tent. I ask for them to use red lights, finding out it’s Brass, apologetic and quiet after that. He and ‘Slow Burn’ cowboy camp (sleep without a tent) near me, but all is quiet soon enough – until Wheelz’s alarm goes off at 5 am. There’s a reason I normally look for soulful single camp sites when I backpack – so I can actually get the sleep I need.
I give in and pack up early, not needing my own headlamp with a bright moon. The stars are still shining, slowly going out one by one as the sky lightens. Huge ponderosas in silhouette, branches starting thirty feet up, surround me. The wind shushes through their long needles as I sling on my pack and head up the mountain. The ‘Meditation from Thais’ floats in my mind, city lights still gleam far below. As a cowboy camper, this sky is my ceiling.
Brass soon catches me. I like him. He’s smart, articulate and seems sensitive to others’ needs. We talk about journaling and podcasts and also the fact that we both feel a bit burned out but not quite ready to let go. The trail traces the curves, overgrown and scratching, especially the sharp oak leaves. I move well, but feel my toes stinging from ingrown nails. Arthritis has pushed them close together and the second toe presses in on the edge of the big toe. It’s bloody and oozing even when I treat and cover it, the bandages causing another problem with friction blistering. I’ll need to find a better solution when I head into town.
It’s deer season and I hear shots fired below the trail. Someone mentions on my map app that hunters were aggressive to hikers on opening day, firing warning shots. Brass and I separate, so I sing and whistle making my presence known. I also put on a goofy smile to match my Mad Hatter hat in hopes hunters won’t dare mistreat this blissful hiker.
It’s not just my toes, but my whole body is ready for this to end. I’m really strong, but I am very skinny. I eat loads of food and yet I still lose all my body fat. The bones on my back rub on the backpack even when I place my sitpad in between. I venture to say thru-hiking is not glamorous!
I come to a road, then up a rise that looks down to the Angeles Forest Highway. From my perch, I can hear engines revving and see sports cars passing on dangerous curves, though they appear so tiny moving in slow motion. Two women pass me, assuming I’ve been hiking for hours – what gave that away? – and telling me the fire station has water from a spigot for us. I work my way down as Brass catches me. It’s a picnic table in shade behind the building with our water. The firemen’s radio is on a speaker here, though I can hardly understand a word. Brass I marvel at the sheer amount of pop food we eat – salami, cheese, nuts, bars, cookies plus a liter of water with electrolytes. I feel sated and head up the long climb with a full belly.
This side of the canyon comes alive for me. The engine noise is quickly blocked by a fold in the mountain. My ramp is not steep particularly, yet I climb up steadily, each turned corner magically causing the mountain to grow before my eyes. Dead limbs seem to blossom out of the living in curving shapes that appear animated. Clouds gather in the sky like a paint roller dipped in white carelessly streaked on blue.
I think of all the attributes improved on this thru-hike – autonomy, self reliance, intentional and clear decision-making, inner directedness, confidence, goal setting and achievement, flexibility, patience. To have these skills in life makes me powerful and trustworthy. To have them here on the trail keeps me alive, safe, present and capable of completing the trail.
When things came apart in April, I cast my rune stones. For the overview of the situation, ‘Standstill’ came into my hand, less my fingers choosing the rune that tells of all being frozen right now in my life, then the rune choosing me. But the next rune, the one that speaks of action, was far more hopeful. ‘Journey’ tells of movement – going out to seek answers but not by looking for them. The answers can only come while in the act of moving. As I travel up the mountain, everything is below the clouds and below me. I can see it with new eyes, leave it and keep going on my journey. Here, in this moment, as I walk up the path, I feel precisely – and literally – the rune’s power, its message. Going out into the wilderness is not irresponsible. It’s exactly what needs to be done at this time. Odysseus did it, so did Jesus and Forrest Gump. Walking the PCT was hardly a whim. Journeying out is my journey in, and that is where all my strength and power is accessed.
I come to the top where huge pines grow on the steep incline, looking down to the desert fanning out flat and hazy below. Pine cones mix with sage, small tomato-red trumpet flowers bloom brightly as if it was spring all over again. I reach a campsite where two hunters sit chatting and ask if I might buy a coke. They say yes, and offer me the coke plus a Medelo mixed with Clamato and a chair so we can chat. Looks like I found the friendly hunters. When I explain what I’m doing, their eyes get big and they say one mile walking is too much.
I thank them and leave, walking on pine needles and meeting two more friendly hunters happy to have bagged a deer this morning. The trail heads down passing poodle dog bushes that cause a nasty welt if touched. I decide to skip the stream since I haven’t touched my liter and work my way down towards another road. I see a small parade ahead of hunters, this time carrying their prize upside down tied to a yucca trunk. I’m not enamored by their kill, but I know they’ll eat this black bear’s meat and display his beautiful pelt. The men are proud and kindly allow me to pass. I think of my bear visiting me a few days ago and I mentally send him a message to hide out for a few weeks.
For the final section I pick up my singing and whistling keeping hunters and lions aware I’m just around the corner. It’s another long haul up before I reach a flat top looking down towards the road where I’ll meet Dave. Beautiful rock formations abound, a lot like the set up at zoos for the mountain lion habitat. Singing continues until I reach the parking lot though Dave has yet to arrive. A recent JMT hiker is impressed by my mileage and offers me an IPA and bubbly water. Hiker friends appear as the sky turns pink determined to hike more miles in the dark.
As the sun dips below the horizon, a car zooms in and it’s Dave. Hooray! He had trouble getting here due to a road closure, but he’s still right on time and we zoom down the narrow curves in pitch darkness, not seeing the massive Los Angeles light grid until the final hill. He gets me to an In-and-Out Burger for a double and animal fries, the whole scene of concrete and casual mix of different ethnicities and socio-economic statuses, so LA. Ruth is babysitting their grandson, so we eat our burgers and talk until late about old friends in Houston, Dave sprinkling Yiddish throughout much of the conversation making me giggle.
Most important, Dave offers advice, saying, “I don’t know anyone who could set their mind to hike like you’re hiking. Have a little amnesia about the recent past and think about your future. You can do anything you want to do.”
I guess there’s a reason we’re friends. Thanks, Dave and good night, friends!