off trail

Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or the last time. Then your time on earth will be filled with glory.

Betty Smith
Life goes on at home, oblivious to the fact that I’m off trail.

I walk up Ramsey Hill for the third time this morning. The air is heavy with smoke settling in a sulphur haze over the city. It’s from fires far away, but it’s choking us as well, the heat and drought only making things worse. None-the-less, I push up the hill in long strides, my arms bent and pumping to make it harder.

I’m home now and the hill is just a few blocks from my house. On Monday, I was fitted with a heart monitor to try and track exactly what is happening with the erratic beat, but right now I feel strong. Strong, determined, and focused on this thru-hike of my neighborhood.

Coming off trail sucked. Just when I pulled away on my own and was finding a rhythm, I got, well, out of rhythm. I hit an SOS for the first time in my life and was pulled into a helicopter by a wire. I felt awful, but still managed to be astounded by the epic mountain views.

It’s a better view from here than from the trail.

It actually took two helicopters to get me to the hospital in Kalispell, one with the high wire act, the other, a life flight with an EMT team poking holes in my arm and shoving oxygen up my nose. But I loved those guys who never once made me feel guilty or ashamed that I hit a wall and needed to come out. They even made me laugh a few times and pointed out the best views.

Funny though, when the EKG and other tests showed my vitals to be absolutely normal, they thought maybe I was running low on electrolytes. Maybe, but I have an arrhythmia, supraventricular tachycardia – they think anyway. Not much to do here, but head home and see a cardiologist. But stubborn me was having none of that. Maybe if I just rest a few days.

Lovely Dr. Leonard suggested a kind of half-way house for people like me without anywhere to go right away and still pretty sick. Called Assist, it looks like a dorm with a shared kitchen, shared TV and shared bathroom. It was just me and two guys down on their luck. I can’t say it was luxurious – no Club Med, well, maybe Club “Med” is accurate.

Sarah hiked the Continental Divide last season during Covid. She’s glad she did it, but probably won’t do another long trail.
Mark stayed at the medical “halfway house” called Assist along with me.

It was boring. It was isolated. But that was just about the level I was at, on the phone most of the day trying to figure out my next move as the sky filled up with smoke from a nearby forest fire and the temperatures kept me inside most of the time watching Law and Order reruns.

I did visit with a local woman named Sarah who had walked the CDT last year during Covid. We had a beer at a local brewery and she shared info on her favorite parts of the trail. When I asked if she planned to walk another long distance trail, she gave an emphatic, “No!” I can’t say that I didn’t relate to her objections – the constant need to make miles, the focus on moving as opposed to seeing, the camping just anywhere rather than choosing somewhere soulful. Am I starting to think long distance walking is just too much?

There was a moment in my few days at Assist when a friend invited me to join his group and hike in the Wind River Range. I thought maybe I could do that, get some rest, find a ride south and just pick up where I left off. But my body had different ideas and suddenly refused to keep any food inside me.

More Law and Order, more hanging around with the two homeless guys, more talking to Dawn who painted the sunset in all its eerie orange against gray. It was obvious I needed to go home. I set up a Zoom meeting with my ardent supporters, who came on the screen with cocktails and advice.

Getting help carrying my pack to the train.
The train is the great leveler, its passengers diverse and from all over.
The mountains are a distant memory now.

We agreed that flying would be a stressful nightmare since I’d need to take three flights and be crammed tightly into a tube of sardines. The Empire Builder passes right through Whitefish, about 20 minutes north, so I got a ticket and prepared myself for 24 hours of a different kind of ride.

Yeah, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but the seats are huge and lean back like a La-Z-Boy. They even come with a sort of footstool extension. It wasn’t that full, so I had two seats all to myself. And I can get up and walk around, get a sandwich, and sit in the observation car, just as the sign for Marias Pass rolls by and I remember how happy I felt crossing these same rails as the conductor tooted twice.

In East Glacier I see packs of thru-hikers at the post office and feel so sad. How am I going to avoid despair now that I’m off trail? I went out there to find something, to feel something, to get a grip on where I’m headed, and right now it’s back to where I came from.

As we move and the mountains recede, it’s the ocean of prairie surrounding us, all the way to Saint Paul. Montana is dry, the towns sparse and small. Hay in neat rectangular bundles dot a field as far as the eye can see. All I walked and saw, only a memory now.

Oddly, North Dakota catches my fancy. Perhaps it’s the light at an angle, the grass turning a deep orange. There’s ponds everywhere filled with life – ducks, herons, gulls and pelicans. A cluster of bee hives is stacked far out close to a house that seems to have simply sprung up from the earth. I fall asleep but awaken in Minot where the train stops for a long break. Everyone soaks up the evening air, cool and fresh smelling.

Taking a break in Minot, ND
Cigarette break.
Music and sunset through North Dakota on the Empire Builder.

There are a group of tattooed men, overweight in cargo shorts and T’s; a young black girl with a huge grin and a cigar; a Mennonite couple in home-spun clothes stand together but slightly apart, he with a bowl cut, her with a weary and perhaps sad face beneath a tight white cap; a couple kisses goodbye touching foreheads and a skinny boy dances in high top sneakers.

“All aboard!” They really do sing that and we all head back, most beginning to cuddle in for the overnight stretch. I get a burger and sit in the dining car along with eight young women in brightly colored dresses and bonnets playing cards and speaking their German dialect while a man behind me plays guitar and sings, trying mightily to draw me into joining in song.

But I am so tired and have to decline. I’m heading home, to the cardiologist who fits me with a heart monitor and schedules a stress test, to our smoky skies and intense heat, where I still push myself to walk, stretch, lift weights, hold planks and change this story’s ending from one of loss to one of opportunity. There are a few surprises waiting for me, unexpected jobs and opportunities that make me wonder if perhaps the trail itself ejected me at this moment, sent me home to make a full reset on all fronts.

I’m surprised how happy I am to see Richard too, my best friend who doesn’t really want to backpack that far with me, but understands who I am and what matters to me. I read a book Greg from East Glacier recommended called “Breath” by James Nestor and start exploring how my breathing can control my stress levels and maybe even bring whatever is out of balance in my body back into balance.

He’s pleased I’m home because I can take him to a clinic for a procedure that he needs to get done and he won’t have to ask a friend to do it. This time, it’s not me who’s so needy as I sit in this busy and airy space of specialty clinics, listening to a programmed piano, off-kilter and out of synch.

No one seems to notice but us this poor instrument’s distress and disability, the keys barely depressed, only shards of melody emitted out of time like a gasp from a demented musician. The art on the walls is good though, some abstract bits of metal in lines and circles, wood cut and colored in shapes, a massive glass piece hanging from the ceiling. But my attention is drawn to works from nature – blown up images of leaves and flowers up close, each vein and ripple at eye level. And then there’s a series of lakes and rivers, each one familiar to me, yet hidden slightly by a birch or falling leaves.

As I study them, I see a place I’ve been that is precisely like the painting in front of me. That’s the night on the Kekekabic when the full moon grew out of the water. That’s the spring in Southern California, where the oak leaves were bright orange and red. That’s a sky in Colorado when I came down from Mount of the Holy Cross guided by massive cairns.

I am home, and my walks are limited by the heat, the smoke, my health and the unknown. But all of these moments I’m reminded right now happened to me. Soon, the 200 miles I walked in Montana and the extraordinary places I lived and breathed will become part of that tapestry. I’ll return to the mountains. I just have something I need to take care of right now. It’s a bump in the road and maybe the trail knew something I didn’t by kicking me off.

I can tell you this, when I go back in – I’ll be ready.

I’ve been inside this painting before.

ten things I learned while thru-hiking…

…that are helping me get through this moment right now

two beautiful new titanium hip joints are going to keep me walking well into my 80’s.

1. Take Risks

There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own.

Meryl Streep

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.

Joyce Meyer

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.

Read Next: Blissful “Bionic” Hiker

The miracles of modern medical science that I am walking without sticks two weeks after surgery.

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.

Cate Blanchett

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 hip 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.

But I had no concept for the depth of people’s generosity until I arrived in New Zealand. From Day One when Irene offered to pick me up at the airport in Kerikeri and get me to the trailhead to meeting Rob and George in Whanganui who opened their home to me and made me feel part of their Whānau (family) to Ian offering a totally lost and frustrated blissful hiker a ride to the supermarket and back to the trailhead, driving way out of his way and on and on.

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 to triumph.

The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.

Hubert Dreyfus

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.

Read Next: Set Your Sights Low

Every journey begins with the first step.

7. Everything changes

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. 

Maya Angelou

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 too 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 thistooshall 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.

Ann Landers

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.

Hannah More

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 men 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.

Margaret Atwood

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.

Read Next: Titanium Fourteener

audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Casey, Sonora Pass Resupply

In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.

Elizabeth Gilbert
"Goldilocks" picking up her bear canister and resupply at Sonora Pass resupply.
“Goldilocks” picking up her bear canister and resupply at Sonora Pass resupply.

It was a cold, blustery day with dark clouds threatening as I dropped down to the highway at Sonora Pass late last September on the Pacific Crest Trail. The wind was so intense, it literally took my breath away even as I paused to take pictures and enjoy this sensational scenery right on the edge of Yosemite National Park.

Ahead was the Emigrant Wilderness, an exposed crossing of over ten miles at high altitude and I was fairly certain this was a no go day for me, but I needed a resupply and that would require a hitch deep down into the valley. With weather like this, the trail was empty.

At the tiny turn out, a few scattered picnic tables stood watch over the approaching weather, along with a single RV. On its door read Sonora Pass Resupply. The proprietor, Casey Cox, was cozy warm inside with his beautiful, blue-eyed dog named Lucky.

Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up north to Washington and headed south to meet the spot where they left off.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: ‘flippers’

Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.

Simone de Beauvoir
Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up north to Washington and headed south to meet the spot where they left off.
Melinda and Henry planned to hike the PCT from south to north, but came across deep snow and dangerous river crossings in the Sierra, so flipped up to Washington and changed directions.

Change is not easy.

Most of us would prefer to keep things right where they are. We’d rather not, thank you very much, risk change that might bring on unsettling feelings of having no clue what we’re doing, or worse, having to start all over again. Kind of like when you choose that card in Monopoly – go to jail, directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

When I started walking the Pacific Crest Trail last July, it was all about survival of my spirit. If I could just get out of town for a few weeks and start walking again, I might clear my head and maybe the drastic changes happening in my life that were making me sit bolt upright in bed every night in a state of panic, would just go away.

I bought a one-way ticket to Bellingham, Washington and planned to carpool with a trail angel who organized a caravan of rented vans. She ferried thirty hikers to the trailhead at Hart’s Pass. I was surprised by the number of us and soon learned that there was only a handful actually starting the trail. Most of the hikers were what we called “flippers,” hikers who needed to change their intended route because moving forward was impossible.

The metaphor in that bleak moment of my life was not lost on me. Circumstances beyond their control forced them to reckon with the situation, make a decision, and act. Not everyone was happy or comfortable with what needed to be done, but they figured things out and finally placed themselves over a thousand miles from where they left off.

Rounded edges of 1950's cars appear like faces crowding the lot on a summer's eve.
audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: used car salesman of the border

Home is the nicest word there is.

Laura Ingalls Wilder

We’re home tonight after the concert we planned to attend was cancelled due to Covid-19. This is all a bit unnerving and scary, but hopefully drastic measures will help the medical community get control of things.

Frankly, I don’t mind a little social distancing at home. Richard and I still have a few more tasks to take care of on the voice recording booth. But first, we walked hand-in-hand to the local market, the evening clear and brisk with no snow on the ground as winter gives way to spring. We then put every Billy Joel album we own on the stereo, one after the other, singing loudly to our favorites as we sawed and glued. Home is a good place, especially when you have love, memories and hobbies surrounding you.

It made me think of meeting Sam Risjord last summer, a man who moved back to his home in Southern Washington when he really could have lived anywhere. He likes it in Stevenson, a place his family has called home for generations. Somehow its sweetness was more acute after being gone for so long.

audio narrative

peeps of the PCT: Karl and Holly, trail angels

Wherever we travel to, the wonderful people we meet become our family.

Lailah Gifty Akita
Clowning around with Karl in the camping section of the local store. Staying with these trail angels was absolutely heavenly.
Clowning around with Karl in the camping section of the local store. Staying with these trail angels was absolutely heavenly.

Last night I had vivid dreams with a cast of colleagues from my recent past. In and out popped characters with whom I’d developed deep ties working on projects, solving problems in a hectic deadline-based environment and seeing each other every day, often for far more hours than I see my own family.

These people are gone from my life now, at least in the material world. I’m pretty sure they’re still alive, but we have nothing that binds anymore. We don’t talk. We never see each other. In the dream, I was desperately trying to grab hold of a microphone just so I could speak into it and say goodbye, but they wouldn’t allow me. I failed. I was bereft.

Oddly, though, when I woke up, I didn’t feel sorrow. Rather I felt cleansed, as if I had gotten my words out and made peace before letting go.

Richard and I pose at Lake Morena the final night of the PCT.
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PCT Day 138, Mount Laguna to Lake Morena County Park, 22 miles

To me, there’s no greater act of courage than being the one who kisses first. – Janean Garofalo

Richard and I pose at Lake Morena the final night of the PCT.

Richard and I pose at Lake Morena the final night of the PCT.

It’s quasi cowgirl camping in our enormous tent with no fly. The stars don’t disappoint before the moon rises over the ridge obliterating them. No campfires in this tinder box means everyone’s asleep when it gets dark. It’s quiet except for an owl and a few acorn bombs.

Dried tumbleweeds look like hair blowing in the wind.

Dried tumbleweeds look like hair blowing in the wind.

This dried tumbleweed is a bit more broom-like.

This dried tumbleweed is a bit more broom-like.

Richard and I pop right up before it’s light, packing up and getting me caffeinated. He comes to the trail with me, walking through closed Burnt Rancheria campground and hoping to spot the resident mountain lion. No such luck, though we receive a bird chorus and a stunning sunrise from the ridge. Richard takes most of my gear, leaving me just food and water for a fast day of mostly downhill ‘slackpacking.’

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PCT Day 137, past Sunrise Trail junction to Mount Laguna general store, 18 miles

I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. – Lillian Smith

A sign shows me I how far I've come and how far I have to go to finish the PCT.

A sign shows me I how far I’ve come and how far I have to go to finish the PCT.

The moon is still silvery bright as the sky over the desert turns a Crayola 64 selection of oranges and reds. Light wind riffles my little cowgirl notch as I eat my final breakfast in bed. Oh, how I’m going to miss this. Being alone after getting myself and all I need to this soulful spot is deeply satisfying. I love my little backpacking routines and simply being inside this extraordinary beauty. It’s precisely why I came.

I take a moment to list some of the favorite moments of my walk – Goat Rocks in Washington where I climbed the peak above and had it all to myself, so many berries to eat and lakes to swim in, a chain of volcanoes like jewels, balcony walk after balcony walk, extraordinary sunsets, Crater Lake’s rim and the Sierra in rain, hail, snow and cold, the desert where I learned to cowgirl camp, walking really, really far, camping all alone, seeing three bears, making friends with some extraordinary women, never using my headlamp or earbuds (not once!), butterflies everywhere in Oregon, the varied warbler’s ‘signal’ call in Washington.

It was usually long walk off-trail to get water in the desert.
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PCT Day 132, Mikes’s Place to Highway 74 (Warner Springs) 17 miles

Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith. – Margaret Shepherd

A sandy track winds through dry grass near Warner Springs in Southern California.
A sandy track winds through dry grass near Warner Springs in Southern California.

No beings – animal or otherwise – came round last night. I slept soundly in our little piece of sand next to a shack, the moon’s reflection in the windows looking like eyes. Mike doesn’t show, but I am so grateful he offers a place to camp, water from a huge tank affixed with an easy-to-collect spigot and a long-drop, clean and odor-free. I eat the last of my bars with vanillacoffee and have Ted bandage my back, my spine bones taking a beating from my pack before we set off.

The PCT is wide enough in the desert to avoid the "jumping" Cholla.
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PCT Day 131, ridge above Anza to Mike’s Place, 19 miles

There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own. – Meryl Streep

A cluster of barrel cactus in Anza-Borrego State Park.
A cluster of barrel cactus in Anza-Borrego State Park.

I wake before dawn in time to see a grapefruit slice of moon setting. The wind picks up and I tuck deeper into Big Greenie. It’s too gusty when we wake to make coffee from my bed, so we pack up first and I notice my sit pad is gone – the third time I’ve lost it on the PCT, the first near Shasta when Pilot found it, the second near Casa de Luna when Brass found it. This time, it’s the wind’s fault and it’s only after breakfast I see it caught in some spiky grass. Hooray for the desert!