I had taken the third day off, and my body repaired itself well. I felt absolutely ready to go hiking once again, as long as I was attentive to my body’s needs and warning signals and did not overwork myself again. I woke up at 8am and was going to hike out at 9, but when I went to the campground store to post a letter, I saw my friend, K-Bar, the one who the fire station captain told me was back on trail. K-Bar and I had met a few months before we began hiking the PCT and traveled to Utah to hike around Zion together and made a little detour to Vegas beforehand. We had an amazing weeklong trip full of all sorts of adventures and knew we would be friends for life afterwards. Occasionally, I bump into him on the trail, but I hadn’t seen him since Lake Isabella, and it was very exciting to catch up a bit. We celebrated with hugs and double patty cheeseburgers (the generous soul bought me mine, along with a salad).
Full and happy, I hiked out on my own at 2pm. I wanted to do at least 8 miles that afternoon, if not 10 or 12, but I told myself that I couldn’t go beyond 12 no matter what because I knew my body didn’t want me to. After 6 or so miles, I ran into a hiker named Lost and Found, and hiked a good chunk of the day with him. We made it to 12 miles, and then split up as I sat down to take a break, with vague plans to camp at Lake McCabe where we were told by a passing hiker others would be camping. There was no flat ground to set up camp at mile 12, only rocky boulders, and so I had to go further. I hiked to mile 14 and found the trail that led to Lake McCabe, but it was an extra two miles until the lake itself. Most PCT hikers won’t hike an extra 4 (counting both there and back) for a campsite, and I worried that everyone who planned to camp there must have changed their minds and passed it when they realized how far it was off trail. But I checked my GPS to see what’s ahead on the PCT and saw no campsites for miles.
I was exhausted and unsure of what to do, but I remembered my promise to my mother and myself to camp with others in this section, and so I set out in the direction of the lake. A mile in, I noticed that the trail looked pretty unmaintained in some areas and probably wasn’t frequently used. Most importantly, I noticed that most of the recent footprints looked to be going in the opposite direction, away from the lake, and I began to suspect that it was more likely that fishermen used this lake early this morning, not PCT hikers, and had already left. But I had walked a mile, and I didn’t want to go back, and it would get dark soon. I hoped for company, maybe even a fire. I had almost done the two miles when the footprints began getting more faint, and I began getting more worried. If I got there and no one was there, and it got dark, I’d be two miles off the PCT by some isolated lake to which you could only get to via an unmaintained trail. That would not be good. I called out, “Are there people camping ahead of me?” several times, got no response, and turned around. I’d rather camp by myself along the PCT than two miles off trail and away from anyone. I now had to hike the two miles back. My feet hurt, my back hurt, it was getting to be very dark, and I was little nervous.
I got back on trail and still hoped there would be someone camping somewhere soon before me. It was now 9pm and pitch black. I tried to hurry and didn’t want to stop to get my headlamp out of my backpack. I hiked on in the dark, got to a sharp switchback that I didn’t notice and headed straight into the woods and off trail. Not more than 100 feet later, I realized there was no trail before me and found my way back to the curve I missed. I have no idea how–maybe exhaustion or nervousness?–but I somehow got confused. One part of the curve was a downhill descent and then a sharp curve, and then still downhill but slightly more level ground. I couldn’t remember whether I had just descended the trail that went up before me or if that was where I should be heading next. I figured I must have descended, as it looked to be coming from the direction I came from, and so I continued on downwards. About half a mile down, I, for some reason, thought I made a mistake. I didn’t remember going down a steep downhill, and figured I hadn’t been on that part of the trail yet and must go up it. I turned around and did another half a mile back to that curve.
As I was heading back, a loud noise of twigs snapping caught my attention to my right. I called out, “Is someone there?” thought I knew no hiker would be in a densely forested part of the woods at nighttime. I knew that deer made noise, and smaller creatures too, but this was loud, as if the animal was heavy, and this was bear country. This was the part of the PCT where the most bears are seen and encountered. I put my whistle in my mouth just in case, ran past the noise, got to the curve in the trail, threw my pack down, and got my headlamp out. I then checked my Halfmile GPS application on my phone, and walked a few steps back and a few forward. I saw that when I went down, my mileage increased, and when I went up, my mileage decreased. But the mileage towards the next river decreased as I went down, and increased as I went up. This made sense. If I was at mile 955.5, then if I continued north on the PCT, my mileage would go up to 955.6, 955.7, and so on. And the river in front of me, if it was .67 miles away, would go down to .50, and then .40 miles away as I approached it.
For some reason, maybe the fear of having possibly just walked past a bear, I processed this backwards. I thought I had to go up the trail so that the decimal numbers after 955 would decrease. I started going up again, did almost half a mile, and then got my senses back. I realized that my mileage numbers decreasing and the distance between me and the river before me was increasing meant that I was walking southbound, in the direction I had just come from! I felt like such an idiot! I turned around and ran back down, past the place where I heard the twigs snapping, and hoped I wouldn’t hear anything this time. I didn’t, but I kept my whistle untangled and hanging from my backpack strap at an easily reachable distance.
My Halfmile map told me that there was a river ford about a mile ahead of me. I so hoped that I’d find a campsite before that so that I wouldn’t have to cross a river at nighttime. That was not the case. Just a rocky ridge walk to the river, and then there was nothing to do but cross. I looked for a log or rocks to hop in order to stay dry as I crossed the rather wide river, but no such luck. Just then my headlamp reflected something shiny across the water. Two bright, glowing circles. Eyes! I instantly turned cold as I feared that across the river was a bear. Then I realized they were too spread out, and it would be a very deformed bear, and beside the circles there were also two lines that reflected just as brightly. A tent! They were the guy-lines of a tent, made of reflective material. I plunged into the water happily, shoes and all, nearly toppling over due to the unexpected cold and force. I then realized there were deep spots in the river where I’d sink in at least to my waist, and the current was very strong. So I used my headlamp to find the biggest rocks that were closer to the surface, and tested each one out with one foot first to make sure they weren’t too slippery. I managed to get across without going more than knee-deep, and nearly skipped towards the tent.
A lady’s voice called out from inside, asking if I was looking for a campsite. I said, “Yes!” She told me where there was another flat spot over a log a few feet away from her, and I could have hugged her if she were not tucked away inside her tent. I pitched my tent as quickly as possible, climbed in to finally get away from the mosquitoes (my first day on trail after my break, I counted 50 bites…in under 5 hours!), and ate both lunch and dinner (I’d skipped lunch when I hiked with Lost and Found, mostly to keep his pace so I could camp next to someone, although I “lost” and never “found” him again), but also because anytime I stopped, the mosquitoes would eat me alive. It was now about 10:30pm. I was beat. Instead of 8 or 10 or 12, I had done another 20 mile day (at least one mile at the campground as I walked to the wilderness center to ask questions and then back to the store, then 14 to my current campsite, the four or so to the lake and back when I made the detour, and about one extra mile when I got lost). I fell asleep easily, with the soothing noise of the rushing river less than 50 feet from me, but woke up frequently due to some kind of pain somewhere. I didn’t yet realize what it was.
I woke up at 8:30. The lady near me had packed up her tent and was getting ready to go. I didn’t have my glasses on and all was blurry, but she never turned around enough for me to see her face anyways. I have no idea whom I slept next to. I felt a sharp pain and knew I’d overdone it again. Oh well, today I will do only 8 miles or so, I thought. I can sleep in and hike later. I woke up again at 11. Some hikers were sunbathing in the distance by the river. I got up to pee. As I bent down to climb out of my tent, I felt a familiar traveling electrical current in my lower back, followed by a dull ache. Oh no! My old tailbone pain was back, and with a vengeance. I spent most of the day cooking, eating, washing my utensils and clothes, drying my shoes and socks from last night, and hiding in my tent from the incessantly hungry mosquitoes. I took vitamins, allowed myself one pain killer, and hoped that the pain would be gone tomorrow. If not, I couldn’t hike the 60 miles to Bridgeport. I’d have to hike the 14 back to Tuolomne, in pain, and take another break, God knows for how long. I tried not to think about having to do that.
I felt really alone. I felt I could really use someone at that moment. I wanted to share my pain and frustration with someone. I wanted company, laughter, someone to lift my spirits.
I hoped someone would eventually camp beside me, maybe the people I knew who stayed behind at the campground in Tuolomne for extra night. Necktie and I had decided we weren’t going to be hiking partners, but I now secretly hoped he’d catch up and we’d camp together one more time. I realized that, during moments like these, one could really use a hiking partner. It’s great to learn to depend on yourself, but sometimes, when you’re in pain and scared that the injury hasn’t healed enough to hike and won’t for a long time and worried about having to hike back even if it’s only 14 miles and sad that you have to camp alone on a day when you’d rather have someone else beside you, you really understand the reason why people stick together, even if solitude can be beautiful at times.
Instead, I ended up eating a lot, journaling, and reading my book as I lounged on top of my sleeping bag, with my z-rest and most of my clothes thrown over my tent to provide shade. Such is life. Not all days are magical. Some simply sort of suck.
Oh, that is such a rough and phisicallly challenging part of the trail, too. I felt so bad for you, reading this. I had injuries and was hiking alone through this section and was so happy later to have found a great friend who hiked with me for the next three weeks.
I’ll stay tuned for your next post!
I ran across this and it reminded me of my last few days on the trail. I couldn’t seem to do anything right.
Among the morale-killers were my unerring ability to miss out on the cool campsites where everyone was staying, making friends, sharing food and wisdom etc..
So many people were on the trail, but as evening set in, I couldn’t seem to find them. I’d solo camp, then get up in the morning and find a multi-tent encampment just up the way from where I was. This happened several times – at Rock Creek, Tyndall Creek, Red’s Meadow and a few other places. I felt like I was missing out on a prime component of the hike.
Anyway, this guy’s honesty is admirable (as is yours). I can empathize!