Officially Off Trail For This Year

I have recently finally made a decision and am officially announcing that I am off trail for good for the rest of this year. By this I mean that I will not complete my thru-hike of the PCT this year. Nevertheless, I will complete it! The trail will always be there is what I am told and what my rational mind reminds my restless heart of on a daily basis.

As for my injury, the cause of my need to get off trail in the first place, I have recently tested my hiking abilities in Yosemite and realized that I can hike, but not with a heavy pack on, not with my back still healing. I have still not healed up and might not be 100% for another couple of months. I have a deep bone bruise in my tailbone, and possibly some temporary nerve damage, as well as some inflammation in the left lumbosacral joint, and that takes a while to heal. I am going to take care of that for these next months while I plan my next grand adventure! I will be resuming my PCT thru-hike in 2018, as I have something else amazing planned for 2017 (I will announce that later!). My restlessness will eat at me and drive me insane, and my heart longs to be back out there, but as reckless and impulsive as I sometimes am, I also know how to choose what is best for me, and at the moment, it is not carrying 35lbs of survival gear on my back.

So, as difficult as this is, I am saying goodbye to the Pacific Crest Trail for now. I have hiked from the California/Mexico border to Yosemite National Park this year, and last year, I hiked from Tahoe to Burney Falls. With these two totaled together, and about 160 miles subtracted for a few sections I skipped this year, I have hiked about 1,220 miles of the PCT. When I first got off trail, I felt like I had failed, but revisiting Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite last week caused me to feel like I’d come back to face my failure and come to terms with it. I am pretty happy with having hiked close to half of the PCT and have taken so much from the experience. I am grateful to nature and for how good it was to me and what’s it taught me, I am grateful to everyone I met along the way, and I am grateful to God. I have discovered that I absolutely love long-distance hiking, although I already knew that since last year and that is why I came back this year. I promise you, I will gain back my strength and health and try again soon.

Thanks for following along and caring and worrying for me from afar. I feel so loved. I am happy. No post-trail depression here. I wholeheartedly believe that everything will turn out okay. The PCT is waiting for me to come back to it so it can bestow more of its magic on me again, later, when I’m ready to experience it again, when I need it the most. I believe that there is a time for everything, and right now is just not the time. I’ll be back out there when it is. The PCT has taught me so much, and maybe right now it’s teaching me patience. I welcome the lesson.

(I will soon post journal entries of my last couple of days on trail. It was too difficult to do so earlier.)

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I miss this.

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I miss this so much.

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Don’t Rain on My Sad Little Parade

I’ve been off trail for almost two weeks…again. I haven’t yet typed up my journal entry about having to get off the trail, so this may seem confusing and out of the blue. I will explain later. For now, I’d like to ramble on for a bit, and mostly just vent.

Being off trail is disheartening. It is difficult to wake up in the morning, in a room and not the woods, on a bed and not the ground, with the option to take a shower whenever I want to and make real food and not all kinds of junk stuffed into tortillas. Speaking of options–there are so many of them! It is overwhelming picking out what to wear when I’m used to having one or two options for the past three months. It is strange deciding what to do today instead of knowing that I’ll just walk all day until it gets dark. I can also choose where I want to go, and be somewhere far away in an hour (what would take me a week on foot!) because I have access to transportation. And it’s all so loud and confusing everywhere. So many streets and cars and lights! Haha. I sound like a caveman. But I’ve been trying my best to get used to it and adapt to society once more. I’ve finally forced myself to go out and see old friends (I didn’t want to earlier because I thought it would make me feel like I’m permanently back, that it’s really true that I’m off trail, and I didn’t want that to sink in. I’d rather be confused every morning when I don’t wake up in a forest. Haha!). And to get my exercise (my body is used to hiking for 10-12 hours a day), I ride my bike almost every evening and make myself go up the gnarliest hills so that I sweat the way I did while hiking, and come back ready to collapse (a familiar feeling). I’ve considered getting a temporary job while I wait for my body to make necessary repairs (my lower back and achilles are both still inflamed) and I’ve wrestled with the distressing possibility that I might have to complete my thru-hike next year if I don’t heal in time. I’ve been getting so stir-crazy, and sometimes, I wake up frustrated and crestfallen because I’m not out there, hiking, probably somewhere in Oregon by now. And on those days, I try to do as many activities that I enjoy as I can possibly fit in a day’s worth. I read (mostly about other people hiking or having other types of adventures), I paint, I listen to music, I bike around (which, by the way, my doctor told me not to do until my back heals, but then what do I do? Sit around all day? I’ll absolutely go insane!), I write (I promise to post some old and new journal entries on my blog soon). And still, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m heartbroken because my favorite thing ever has been taken from me and I can’t be where I feel I need to be. My mind is a mess. My heart is restless. I’m torn apart between so many options, the main two being: get back on trail this year or postpone until the next. But it’s not up to me either way. It’s up to my body and how well it heals. And I have days when I’m on the verge of just packing up and attempting it once more, pain and all, or climbing under the covers and curling up into a ball and crying, “why?!” I’m trying my hardest to stay sane. And most importantly, I’m still pursuing what makes me happy. I just had to cross hiking off of that list for a little while. And I’m hopeful. So hopeful. And whatever happens, it’ll be okay. And either way, come what may, I’ll be happy. My joy can’t be taken from me. Life is amazing…even within four walls. A little less so, I admit, but I’m an optimist. Don’t rain on my parade. My sad, little, adventure-less parade, full of Aleve bottles and sitting on my butt and icing my tailbone, but that’s not the point!

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Marmots, Laughter, Crystal Lakes, and Tears

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The next day, my second day on the trail since I felt well enough to hike again, I overdid it. There were 20 miles until Tuolomne Meadows campground, and I should have split these in half, but I did all 20 in one day, and then the two extra miles of side trails to get to the campground. My body had gotten soft in town. My calves were not as strong as they used to be, my feet were no longer callused. I didn’t get any blisters, but hot spots, terribly annoying hot spots everywhere. In some places, the skin split from the rubbing of my shoes and socks against my foot (I’d been wearing sandals with bare feet beneath while in town). My feet felt awful. When I got to 15 miles, I knew I should stop. My feet felt raw, my not-yet-fully-healed tailbone was throbbing, and my previously injured Achilles had begun sending me warning signals (a slight tugging and electrical current-like buzzing that occurs in my foot occasionally whenever I overwork it after my injury). But there was only rock to camp on, no flat grass or soil, and no one was camping at this location. I had promised my worried mother that during the part of the PCT where bear cans are required, I’d camp with others, and I wanted to keep that promise. So I pushed on.

There were 4 miles of PCT ahead of me where camping was not allowed, and then two more miles of side trails leading to a public campground. That meant that, exhausted or not, in pain or not, I had 6 more miles to go. I limped during the last mile, stumbled into camp with burning muscles, and fell into my tent with aching bones. I felt 96 years old, like the lady I took care of of when I was a caregiver. I tried to lift up my hips to pull my sleeping bag up, and couldn’t, until maybe the 6th attempt. The lady in my care used to have difficulty doing that. I’d overdone it. My body needed babying right now, being recently injured and still healing. I also hadn’t hiked like this in a while. I should have stopped hiking and camped anywhere, even alone.

But, in the morning, all was well. It’s astonishing how well a body could recover in one night’s worth of sleep, especially a restless and mostly sleepless night. I had to hitchhike back to Mammoth that day to have the cracked screen on my phone fixed (again), and my body seized the opportunity to heal up some more since I wasn’t hiking. I had an amazing day, but I will share about that in my next blog post. This post is about day two, and besides overworking my out-of-practice body, many other things had happened.

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First off, day two consisted of scenery even more beautiful than day one. There were endless crystal lakes, and snow (but not too much; not as difficult to traverse over as Forester–not by a long shot!), and green meadows, and cute little marmots everywhere! I discovered that these little guys love human urine! I’d been told by a fellow hiker named Focus that they gathered below the rocks he was urinating on and caught the stream of urine as it trickled down, and I found this to be so bizarre that I didn’t know if I believed it. But then, when I needed to take an energizing snack break on an uphill ridge, where there was nowhere to get off trail to pee, while no one was around, I peed on the side of the trail over some rocks, and marmots ran over there as soon as I was done and began licking the rocks and digging underneath them in order to find more (video here). It was very strange (is it the salt they like?) but amusing to watch.

Necktie was behind me most of the day (I had packed up and left camp earlier), but caught up in the evening. In the meantime, I thought I’d have some fun and embarrass him a little. This part of the Pacific Crest Trail was merged with the John Muir Trail, and there were many southbound JMT-ers that day who passed me as I was going north (I counted about 200 in one day!). I decided to send messages with them back to Necktie, messages that were intentionally silly and sometimes absolutely ridiculous and would make both the messenger and Necktie laugh when he received them. I had them pass on funny things like, “Catch up, cutiepie!” and “Keep up, sweetcheeks!” and “Hurry up, honeybuns!” and it worked. When he caught up, he was as embarrassed as I’d hoped. Each JMT-er that headed toward him made him think, “Oh no, what this time?” (although I passed on only about 10 messages, not 200, haha) and when they recognized his appearance by the way I described him (“guy in a knee-length white tunic with a red tie and guitar sticking out of his backpack” was pretty easy to spot) and giggled, or shouted, “I have a message for you!” he braced himself and awaited another goofy personal note from a complete stranger. I had a lot of fun doing this, as did everyone else it seemed, at the expense of poor Necktie, though he was greatly amused. It made the grueling up-and-downs of day two more bearable, and we all had a good laugh about it at the end of the day.

I then crawled into my tent with hurting bones and a weakness so overpowering that I felt I was sinking, and cried.

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Another Good Day Awaited Me

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On day one of being back on the trail after two and a half weeks off, I was so excited to be back, and so was my former town-exploring partner, now turned hiking partner, Necktie. Here’s a photo for proof, as he ties his necktie (A-ha! That’s where he gets the name!) before hiking. Yes, he hikes like that, along with a long, white Bedouin tunic over the shirt. He’s a character.

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Necktie and I started hiking only in the evening, at about 4:30 or 5pm, but we still managed to get in about 8 miles before pitching our tents. We set up camp near a beautiful, peaceful lake around 8:30pm and watched the meadow and forest around us darken as we ate dinner and crawled into our separate tents, which we’d missed so much (short video clip of my location/the joy on my mosquito-bitten face here).

We had slept in a tent only two times during the two weeks we had off, and this was when we had a comfortable bed to sleep in inside a house. Instead of accepting the bed, while the host was out at a party, we sent him a message asking if we could keep our packs at his house and go camping. He said, “sure,” and we wandered out in the middle of the night, with just a tent and sleeping bags, looking for a place to camp.

Luckily for us, Tahoe (we had hitched up north to spend 4th of July there) has many short, easy dog-walking and bike-riding trails behind people’s homes, and we found a place that was somewhat flat enough to sleep on and slept there. We did this twice, and then ended staying at a generous friend’s Airbnb home in Truckee for several nights. We couldn’t say no to a two-story vacation home right near a river and hiking trails that lead to a quaint little town where Necktie played music for passersby and earned about $60 (I will post videos of this later)!

Anyway, here we were, back in the forest, and not in the middle of town behind someone’s house, happy as can be. Our 8-mile hike to this place was full of joy and nostalgia and memories. The first gurgling spring I came across, I threw my pack down, poured out my water bottle full of faucet water, and refilled it with fresh, cool water from under the ground. I sat there for a moment and contemplated how good it was to be back on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I had encountered many sources of joy that day. My tailbone injury was hardly bothering me at all. My feet felt fine. My muscles were remembering what it felt like to hike for hours. Still, we took lots of breaks and hiked rather slowly in order to let our bodies build their strength back up. During these breaks, I was captivated by the scenery around me.
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I had also befriended a butterfly who sat on my hand and didn’t want to leave. I hiked with this little creature sitting in the palm of my hand for over an hour (I posted a video of this on Facebook) until it decided to fly away. In the evening, I sat by the lake and meditated, then crawled into my tent, snacked, read “The Sea-Wolf” by Jack London, and fell asleep.
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I woke up to a hot breakfast that Necktie had made for us (I am not disciplined enough to cook often on the trail; if I cook dinner at the end of the day when I’m exhausted and just want to collapse in my tent, I am awe-struck by my willingness to do so and pretty proud of myself; you will almost never see me make a hot breakfast; my mornings consist of a lying around in my tent long after I’m awake, then a quick snack, packing up as fast as my sleepy body will allow me–and this isn’t fast–and hiking out) and knew that another good day awaited me.
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What’s Important To Me

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Nights in my tent with a headlamp and book are my favorite. And if my battery is charged enough, I may allow myself some quiet music as I reflect on the day’s events, what I’ve learned, who I’m becoming, and what’s important to me.

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To Find Your Inner Strength, You Must Pursue Solitude

There is something I need to explain about solitude. It is beautiful. It is absolutely beautiful to be alone and have no one to depend on but yourself. Granted, it isn’t healthy to always be alone and have no one to depend on, because we are social creatures, and we need interaction with other humans in order to experience life fully, and it is wise to accept help when you are struggling and help is offered freely and lovingly (something I am learning out here on the PCT with all of these generous trail angels who invite us in and feed us, etc.). But, occasional solitude is also necessary for happiness. From time to time, being completely alone, and even feeling utterly helpless, is good for us. Let me explain.

I mentioned earlier how I lost my hiking partner and looked for her for three days. I tried to slow down in case she was behind me, I sped up when I thought she was ahead, I left notes behind, I sent messages ahead with faster hikers and even park rangers. I planned to be with her in the part of the Sierras that was snowed-in and icy and where the snow melt caused the rivers to swell and the currents to be rather forceful and river crossings to be dangerous. When I ended up reaching the part of the trail where I began to see snow, and I still hadn’t found my hiking partner, I was upset and felt a bit uneasy. When I heard that she got off of the trail to meet up with her boyfriend who flew in to see her from a different country, I tried to be understanding, but I was also angry. My anger stemmed from fear, and it wasn’t at her that I was angry, but at myself for feeling inadequate without her. I’d only hiked with her for about three weeks. She and I usually didn’t even hike together, but rather, met up at different water sources and camped together at the end of the day. But, suddenly, I realized that there was snow ahead, snow for which many people prepared by hiking in the snow prior (which I didn’t do), purchasing the proper equipment (which I ended up without), and finding a partner to cross the steep, icy passes with (whom I didn’t have). Turns out, this is exactly what I needed.

Last year, when I hiked several sections of the PCT for a month, I was extremely nervous about cowboy camping (camping on the ground on a tarp and in a sleeping bag but without a tent). I worried about the dirt, the bugs, the cold, but mostly about my shattered illusion of safety. Sleeping in a tent provided me with a false sense of comfort. I felt surrounded by something (granted, a flimsy piece of plastic that offered me no protection from wildlife, lightning, falling rocks, etc), and this made me feel secure, hidden away from danger, and at peace. Remove this thin layer of nylon and polyester, and all of a sudden, I felt exposed and insecure. So when a fellow hiker tried to convince me to cowboy camp with him, I refused the first few times, and eventually did give in, but only once. At night, I rolled off of the tarp and into the dirt, and woke up with my face covered in dust and sand and told him that I’m never doing this again. This year on the PCT, I have cowboyed about 80% of the time, and it’s been a wonderful experience. The air is fresher, the temperature within my sleeping bag is regulated better, the stars are right above me for me to look at as I fall asleep, and I feel more connected with nature than ever. But, the reason I am sharing this with you is not to convince you to camp without a tent–by all means, camp how you like, hike your own hike. I’m sharing this with you so that we can discuss this false illusion of safety that we develop, with our own doing, in order to feel comfortable in the wilderness.

Most people feel safer in the woods with a hiking partner. Earlier, I made a video clip talking about how important it is to have a night hiking partner in the desert (that clip can be seen here), and I still stand by that. I hiked in the desert at night by myself after I made that video, and after nearly peeing on a tarantula and hearing what could have been a mountain lion and discovering that there was a group of illegal immigrants–all men–hiding in the shrubs, I confirmed once more that, for safety’s sake, having a hiking partner is a wise decision. When hiking in the desert at night, or in the snow, or while crossing a river, or in bear country, it is most definitely a good idea. Even in areas that provide no threat, if you have a hiking partner with whom you get along with great and who adds to your PCT hiking experience, then, of course, hike with that person. But what I’m saying is, from time to time, give yourself a chance to hike alone. It is not wise to always hike with someone. You’ll be missing out on what nature has to offer you when you pursue solitude in the wilderness. There are many benefits to hiking alone, these being physical, mental, and spiritual. These, I will not explain fully, because I want you to go and see for yourself. But I will explain one thing, and this is how you find your own strength when you shed this illusion of safety that you obtain when hiking with someone else.

So, back to the illusion of safety. When I night-hiked in the desert, I had a hiking partner. We later split up because I wanted to hike alone, and then I met the awesome Tumbleweed. We had a lot of fun together, and so we hiked together for a bit. We planned to go our separate ways after the snow in the Sierras (her boyfriend would be hiking with her afterwards), but we were to hike in the snow together. I felt comfortable with the idea. It made me feel like I’d be so much safer. It made me think that I could depend on someone in case of danger. And this, actually, would take away from my experience.

You see, you can really only depend on yourself out there. You are the one who is responsible for you. You are the one whose feet you cautiously lower onto the ice and decide whether to put your entire body weight down or to find a better place to stand. You are the one who will choose where to place your trekking poles (or ice axe, if you have one) when the slippery trail beneath you propels you forward. You are the one who will catch you when you slip and begin to slide. You are the one who, while falling, will choose in which way to fall in order to hurt yourself less. You are the one who has to make a choice when you see a dangerous, steep pass full of post-holes and rocks, or a much longer way around it but with less snow. The list can continue on and on. But, what I’m saying is that you must depend on you and you alone. And having a hiking partner sometimes prevents you from realizing that you are strong enough and wise enough to depend on yourself, and you instead place that power in their hands (which is unfair to them and detrimental to you).

So, when I ended up without a hiking partner, I realized that it was entirely my responsibility to take very good care of myself in order to get over this pass and to safety. The fact that I was alone, in the snow, without the right equipment, and in the dark, added to the challenge, and caused me to find within myself the strength I didn’t know I had. I was now making decisions without asking for advice and discussing the pros and cons. I was choosing what was best for me. I was getting myself out of danger’s way. I was finding my own way when I got lost. I was pushing myself forward without someone else’s encouragement, and I was proud of myself when I placed one foot in front of the other, and not because I was following someone, or because someone was behind me, hurrying me along. I had to keep going no matter how exhausted I was or how much I was hurting, and only I could comfort myself and tell myself to suck it up and push on and not to be afraid.

And the strangest thing happened. I became entirely unafraid. I don’t remember ever feeling fear while climbing Forester Pass. Nervousness, yes, when I slipped and slid downwards. Anxiety, yes, when I was anxious to be done. But fear, no, never, not even for a moment. I believe this is because I was responsible for getting myself out of there safely, and I knew that fear would not serve me well, but instead, deter me. Maybe it was adrenaline, or the desire to have Forester done and over with, or maybe it was that inner strength I found that I’d mentioned earlier, but I hiked on, cold, alone, sometimes lost, and in the dark, without fear, and this feeling was absolutely worth the “disadvantage” of not having a hiking partner. I knew that I wasn’t safe, that what I was doing was dangerous, but my fear was nonexistent. And this, I felt, not because there was someone else there to make me feel safe, but because I trusted myself to keep me safe.

Afterwards, I was overjoyed that I’d hiked Forester by myself. I was glad that my hiking partner wasn’t with me providing me with this false sense of safety. I’d have hiked with her and felt comfortable and happy and be done and not have encountered many of the challenges I have encountered on my own. Together, we might not have gotten lost, or we might have found our way back more easily. Together, we would have chit-chatted and taken more breaks, and I’d have eaten more and been warm at night. With her, I’d have someone to complain to as I dealt with the pain between my shoulder blades, and she’d have offered me some verbal comfort, and I might have felt slightly better. With her, I’d have felt that, if I made a foolish decision and stepped on an icy patch and fallen and hurt myself, she’d be there to help me. Without her, I had to be more cautious, more protective of myself, more gentle with myself and my fragile body and mental state, and I had to be strong. Stronger than I would have been if I depended on someone else.

So, this is what I’m saying. To find your inner strength, you must pursue solitude–especially solitude in places where you’d rather not be alone. I needed this experience to discover that. I hope that one day you do too. I sincerely hope that everyone who goes on a long-distance hike experiences hiking alone at least for a short period of time.

Yesterday, I got back on the trail at Red’s Meadow with my new hiking partner, Necktie. He and I will sometimes hike together, but sometimes we will not. For the most part, we will camp together, but hiking alone is something we both really enjoy. No matter how great we get along, I’ve warned him (although he didn’t need the warning and understands completely because he is exactly the same way) that I will need to sometimes be by myself, and that it will have nothing to do with him, but with me. The new, strong, capable me, who doesn’t feel inadequate without a hiking partner, but pretty badass.

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