It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Eliot
Who am I now? Not a DJ, not a host, my name means nothing. I am instantly without a voice, without an audience, without a purpose.
I sit up in the alicoop in a panic. It’s just a nightmare. But, slowly I realize, it’s actually kind of true, just over the top in the way the subconscious works out its issues.
As I lay here awake that crushing reality hits home that I don’t know who I am now and I definitely have no clue what I will become next.
My mind goes a little into overdrive as I relax from the day. A weight lifted while I walk takes up residence. It feels like a death sentence – all I developed, put my whole self into, believed and trusted is simply gone in a snap of the fingers. There is no fanfare, no sheet cake, no thank you. My desk is emptied as though I never existed. Will my physical death be like this too with no children to mourn me?
I look out my opened tarp as mist collects on the uneven summits. The wind is chilly. The veeries are overjoyed with their two toned voices, trying them out this way and that. I realize this time in my life is about erasing my ‘I,’ about learning to exist without a vocation I felt called to. I don’t get to decide if that calling will be fulfilled, but I’m walking here and now to accept it and heal. I stuff in ear plugs in hopes of drowning out the carousing. It also silences my veery and the wind picking up.
I fall back into a deep and dreamless asleep, a loud clap of thunder waking me as rain pours in the alicoop – also over the top like a dream – but this reality is drenching my sleeping bag.
I quickly close the tarp flap I’d left open for a view and spring into action, wiping up as much water as possible. I shake the feathers and try to keep them from clumping. Because I brought a liner for the North Cascades cold, I can hold the wet near my body without too much chill and hope my body heat will dry it out. Things are hanging by a thread, I’m sodden and cold with a wet sleeping bag. This has never happened in my life. I pick up my phone to check the time and notice my battery pack is also dying.
I am one day away from a road, one long day. There’s nothing I can do but hope the rain lets up and gives me decent walking weather. Suddenly I’m glad for the crowds of hikers as rain pings the alicoop, now dry inside.
I try and stay warm by rubbing the muscles of my legs, worked hard by all the walking. Eventually, I drift off, only powerful dreams greet me of a hiker making do. I think of my friend Brenda who stayed calm and focused during the infamous bear box fail on our Border Route walk. I was absolutely useless. Later she told me this is just how she is, knowing she can always figure things out.
The veery wakes me. It’s light by 4:30. Mist shrouds the lake, but above is blue sky. I let the air out of my mattress and pack up. Wet. The bag has miraculously dried though I still need to pull apart clumps of feathers. I love the morning chill and quiet, the huge climb out of the lake all to myself. The switchbacks rise like a ramp, mist dances and swirls. Mountains emerge, shark fins on a cloud sea. Snow obscures the trail with steps chopped in. A man with an orange hat peers down from the ridge.
I leave this mystical place and enter the fog myself, shivering a bit. The ridge walk brings me back to a pass where campers pack up. I see Divya ascending questioning the grade ahead. I have breakfast at my same spot from just yesterday.
Switchbacks take me down and up and down again. I’m repeating my steps returning to Hart’s Pass but all feels new from this angle. Grouse froom-frooomph in the bush out of sight. Massive peaks loom in and out of view.
At a stream, Bobby O catches up and tells me I’m making good time. I say I saunter but he says I am a good hiker. Yes, I guess I am. My feet hurt as my arthritis grabs my big toe. My legs hurt more going down – even on this mild grade. Up a steep ascent, I arrive at a burned area, charred logs blocking the way. I step over or crawl under and still my hands are blackened by soot.
Why am I pushing so hard? My battery is dead and I need to find a solution. I decide to go all the way back to Hart’s Pass to assess. It’s a long haul. At one point, I simply need to conk out at a campsite and make a proper cooked meal.
But soon I’m back pressing along, mountains and meadows surrounding me, balsam in my nostrils. Suddenly a bobcat crosses my path. I’m close enough to see the long tufts of hair on its face and the reticulated shoulder. I’m dumbstruck by this beautiful thing, while having the presence of mind to keep myself safe by singing a kind of variation on “The Queen of the Night.” I look back a few times to ensure I’m not being followed.
I pass some holiday hikers overloaded but with less of a determined look from thru-hikers and far more willing to strike up a conversation. I meet Randy later who needs to leave trail. As he passes me he asks what “Wahine toa” means. My friend Neil Macbeth had that patch waiting for me in Christchurch when I finished the Te Araroa. It means ‘strong woman.’ He tells me it suits me.
The final miles are a balcony walk looking straight into the Cascades. It was here three days ago I swooned with joy because I was at such a dark moment and able to experience something so richly beautiful. Returning I realize I am strong, but I need to act strong, to know I’m ok and to have faith that I will handle this unexpected turn and come out better in the end.
Randy races off wearing only toe slippers – I can’t remember what they’re called but might as well be in bare feet. I eventually meet the road and skirt down the final long mile to the pass.
Momentarily I wonder if I’ll miss the ranger hut where I left food and my axe and crampons. Just when things feel uncertain a sign appears inviting me for some trail magic with ‘Broken Toe.’
One of the gentlest souls I know, a young man living in a spiffed out van has set up camp for three weeks to welcome us to this part of the PCT. He’s hewn logs to hold a tarp. The fire is going and he immediately offers me tea and an apricot. I tell him of my battery predicament, and he simply shares his limited solar power to charge it, hoping it will stick. Other hikers including Bobby O gather at the picnic table and we cook and share ideas. It restores me.
Broken Toe – his trail name from hiking the entire Appalachian Trail with an injured toe – went through a dark night of the soul to arrive at a healthier place. His van is kitted out beautifully with all he needs to live, including all his outdoor gear. And it’s not just that he lives a less materially oriented life, he is generous to the core, kind, interested, thoughtful. He tells me to take my time walking, take a zero day on the trail and just look, and don’t over-plan. He will spend three weeks camping here just to get to know us hikers and that gives him pleasure.
Camping next to us is a couple from Texas traveling with their son and Columbian daughter-in-law. The younger are walking the PCT and the older supporting for the first month. I ask if they might transport my food and axe to the next town so I don’t have to carry it. Not only do they say yes, they offer me a beer by the fire.
We talk about how cool it is that I am just going ahead and walking another trail – and especially how cool it is for Richard to send me, knowing me better than I know myself. I tell them I’m ‘ill-planned’ and not sure how far I’ll go, and it’s pointed out I planned far enough ahead to make ice axe moccasins!
The older speaks of how this time is rich with possibility. Who will I meet, what ideas might float around. He tells me of a friend they visited on their way here who moved to a place he loved and found work there rather than structuring his life where work found him.
So I’m nestled into the alicoop as the wind rustles the pines. I knead the down feathers as I close my eyes on an extraordinary day. Yes, moments came of my arguing loudly to the air, sometimes startling a passing hiker. I cried some – less over my current problem and more from fatigue. But the trail kept putting views and challenge and people in my path inviting me to alter my focus ever so much.
I am incredibly grateful.