If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. – Erica Jong
My morning begins with Zach stirring, wanting to “get up early and bust out miles.” The mist is down and I’m concerned the ladies won’t get the great views. Judy drops by my tent as I sip chococoffee to show me how small her tent packs down. She’s persistent, but I imagine it will make me a customer.
I forgot to mention that the other day on some endless, muscle bashing descents through the woods, Zach comes up behind me to tell me long-winded groaner jokes. It does pass the time. He says he hates to carry water, but I fill up for the next ten mile stretch, even if it’s all down hill.
The light is strange this morning, reminding me of my solo walk through Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world. It was so quiet and eerie in there, and the light so dim, it felt as if I was in an ancient cathedral. Today has a similar feel of being indoors where a lighting designer has cast a spell.
I pass signs for ‘Big Huckleberry Mountain’ and ‘The Grassy Knoll’ in this absolute quiet. Big mushrooms look like Kaiser rolls and I know it’s time to get to town for some real food.
It’s not just food I crave, but rest. Washington has been a challenge. I imagine I’d be happier having taken on less miles. These are the biggest I’ve done in my life. The PCT encourages it because the trail is a giant ramp, you can’t help but want to go far, though day after day of over 25 miles is taking its toll. I feel strong – but that’s going uphill. Down is another story.
At first the trail ascends to a chill little camp spot with what would have been a great view yesterday. After that, it’s down with only brief steep climbs for ten miles. My footfall is hard and it tightens my muscles. I don’t hurt at my joints, but I fear getting tendonitis if I don’t take it easy. So I break a lot for water and pictures. I am vigilant to keep walking without pain or exhaustion.
Of course there’s a psychological element, the one that keeps me going day after day. It’s beautiful, it’s fresh, I love it out here, but after a long day, it’s hard to wake up and start another long day. I find the going is particularly difficult right in the morning when I walk the first few miles and wonder if I have in me what it takes to go all day.
It begins to drizzle as I pass a water cache completely empty. I mention this to a sour faced northbounder who asks if I am a trail angel. I am wearing a pack and using sticks, but I still point out the obvious – that I am hiking. Is it my age and that I’m alone? I get dismissed an awful lot out here.
Some of the young hikers get on my nerves, but I laugh heading down imagining if I could take my 54-year-old self back to 24, I definitely wouldn’t have a sour face.
Just then the wind picks up and blows my hair which I’ve left down in the mist to curl. It feels splendid. I lift my arms like a cormorant and let it blow over my body. At some point, I am going to need a new identity. I’m no more part of my former company, and the world, as they say, is my oyster. Perhaps I can try on some other hats out here on the trail.
The trees are big and old. I feel like I’m inside a diorama. I catch a day hiking couple with a dog who tell me this is a ‘Doug Fir’ forest. The man points out the ancient trees scorched by an equally ancient fire, and compares them to the younger versions. He tells me the firs need lots of sun and grow tall and straight to reach for it. If one topples, the Hemlocks sneak into the breach.
I enjoy our chat and it gets me out of my self-identifying head space for a bit. They move on to the campground, and I take a trail up into thick, overgrown woods. At first I’m overwhelmed by it, again questioning my mileage goal, but soon my snacks hit the blood stream and I get into the groove. I cross a road where a trail angel has placed goodies. Sadly, they’re all gone but I am able to leave my garbage.
I hear a siren and know I’m close to civilization. For about a half mile, a homeowner places dozens of No Trespassing signs reminding me of a section of the Superior Hiking Trail diverted when a landowner changed his mind about allowing hikers on his land. The story I heard was a hiker harassed him when the land owner was hunting. Who knows what happened, but I hate to think one hiker would ruin things for all of us.
I pass quickly and cross two gorgeous curved bridges in succession. At a road, a passing motorist gives me turkey, cheese and grapes. I am in heaven! I eat up, fill my water bottles and soak my feet before a hefty climb. At a tiny creek, Zach sits like a Buddha, cross-legged on his mat. I head up the mountain, strong, rhythmic – a made-up Baroque tune driving me up. After so much pounding down, I am in love with going up, even if tiring.
Some locals start shooting at something. They make a huge racket and I hope they’re actually hitting a target. A camper was struck one time around here when a stray bullet ricocheted into his site. I’m pretty sure I’m ok this high.
I climb through a mossy goblin forest, up and over false summit after false summit. The light ahead looks like a saddle, but the trail turns and takes me onto a ridge. On and on I climb, smiling now in my zone.
I suddenly remember an odd response I received from a colleague when I returned from climbing Devils Tower. It was a big deal for me and my three friends – hard, challenging, scary. I must have posted something on Facebook because even though I’d said nothing about it at all, when I saw my colleague at work, she came at me, all in one sentence without pause, “My ex-husband was a professional climber he did Devils Tower a lot I know all about climbing it I have climbing shoes in my truck.”
I was dumbstruck, yet I invited her to climb with me sometime. Which, of course, she said she wasn’t in shape to do. It was just so odd. Why not just say what a cool thing to do, or something like that? I didn’t climb it to make her feel less than and yet she acted as though she had to prove her value to me. It starts to make sense now why when I returned from walking the Te Araroa, few of my colleagues welcomed me back. I was sent chocolates by a friend as a congratulations, and when I sent an email out offering to share, no one came to my desk.
I should point out here that I didn’t climb Devils Tower or walk the Te Araroa for anyone but myself. But it is off-putting for the people you spend the most amount of time with to be so distant. Maybe I was already persona non grata and just didn’t know it.
Well, this middle aged gal is killing this mountain, strong and happy and if it makes someone insecure, please get yourself a life. I put everything on the line the way I live. It’s really lonely sometimes – and I often fail – but it’s living full and present. Maybe it’s the big, scary part of me that got me kicked out of the club. All I can say is I’m alive and here and breathing steady and hard and, lookie here! at the most beautiful succulents on this summit rock…
As I descend, I meet two trail workers who made a fantastic repair to a landslip. They tell me they love to hike, but only a few days at a time because they begin to miss flush toilets. The gal mentions trail work helped her lose eighty pounds!
I meet up with Zach and Bat Girl for the enormous – and painful – descent. Bat tells me she’s not sure she wants to keep hiking as it’s just too much. Talking most of the way down helps me keep going. We pass streams and evidence of their destructive power in downed trees. I finally arrive at the bridge over a beautiful section of river, ferns growing out of rock wall, little black birds hopping and snickering at machine gun speed, the light golden.
Camping is tight, but a father and son set of section hikers let me squeeze in and we cook dinner and talk trail until it’s dark. The babbling water putting me right to sleep.