Pacific Crest Trail Diary 2: Day 21 (Palmdale, California)
I've been on trail for three weeks now and I’m starting to feel like I’m falling into a nice routine, like I’m acclimating to trail life.I knew that it would take awhile for me to get to this point, and now that I’m here it feels even more amazing than I ever could have hoped. I trained hard before the start of the trail, and that really paid off, but the hard truth of the situation is that it’s next to impossible to fully train the human body for being on its feet for the entire day and carrying a pack day after day after day. The training prevented me from getting blisters like all of the other hikers that I mentioned in my last posting, but it didn’t stop injury altogether.
On day one of the hike (about mile 22) I hit my first real injury. It was an injury of my left foot arch. The arch literally collapsed in a single step. It wasn’t a “bad step” or anything like that, and I didn’t trip;I just took a step and my foot made a popping sound and pain shot up my leg. I had my arch collapse on the AZT in 2011, but it took months; I’d never had such an injury take place in a single step. It really scared me for a moment that I’d be taken off the trail on day 1, but after about an hour it started to feel better and I was able to continue. The injury continued to bother me for the next two weeks though until I was able to get into a trail town to buy arch supports. After putting those in my shoes it still took some time for my feet to feel better, but as of the writing of this (three weeks into the trail) I can say that my feet are A LOT better. They still hurt at night and in the mornings, but no more than should be expected from walking 25-30 miles everyday. It’s kind of weird really; my feet have almost like an armor on them. The calluses are so thick all around my toes, heels, and the balls of my feet that they almost feel numb to the touch. I’ve had thick skin on my feet before, but never like this. It’s quite strange.
I feel good at this point though. I do have a persistent pain in the back of my neck late in the day most days, but that hasn’t stopped me from hiking at any point. And like I said in my last post, compared with some of the other hiker injuries that I’ve seen, I have nothing to complain about. That actually makes it easier for me too; seeing what others are going through makes my own struggles a lot easier. I think a lot about one of my students from last semester who survived a cancer diagnoses—he reminds me that if he can get through chemotherapy then I can get through the PCT. I also met another hiker (with whom I hiked for a couple days and split a cabin in Wrightwood) who’d had a similar type of cancer as my former student. He’d just recovered and was doing this hike as his way to get back into the world. It’s stories like that that make it easier for me to get over the next mountain peak or desert stretch.
I really just can’t say enough good about the other hikers who I have met on trail. I really worried coming into this hike that a lot of this year’s hikers would be here because of the book or movie of “Wild.” I worried that I would be a minority for not wanting to associate with that particular story line, but I was quite mistaken. I almost never hear about“Wild” being mentioned, and the people on trail are here for reasons that genuinely do not relate to “Wild” in any way, shape, or form. I’ve yet to meet a heroin addict on trail who’s primarily trying to get laid, so until that happens, this hike really isn’t like Cheryl’s.
The people who are on trail are here for countless different reasons. Sometimes I hear the same theme among their stories—wanting to find freedom, challenge, and excitement—but really we are all out here for different reasons. We are all united in this struggle to reach Canada though, so it’s really cool to be walking all alone for an entire day, then reach a water hole where there are 20 hikers posted up; even if I’ve never met any of them before that point, we are all automatically friends just because we’re all doing this together. I commonly roll up on a water hole and ask “Are y’all wanderers?” and when they all say yes, then I’ll respond, “Ah, good! I’ve found my friends!” That said, I still don’t connect with people as much as the others who are hiking the PCT. It’s very rare that I run into a solo hiker, and when I do it’s usually because he/she has just temporarily separated from his/her group. No one whom I’ve met up to this point has spent as much time hiking/camping solo as I have.
I will connect with a hiker here or there, usually at waterholes or in trail towns, but as far as hiking, I’d say that 90-95% of my miles have been alone. I really, really enjoy the company when I do connect with another hiker and we walk together for a few miles, but it rarely lasts. Either they will take more/fewer breaks than I do or our pace won’t match up. For the most part I hike much faster than the other people on trail, so that also prevents me from connecting with others. I have met those who are hiking faster than I do, but even those people don’t put in the miles that I put into each day. I think that this has to do with my being solo though. Because it’s just me out there, I’m not as tempted to take breaks or just hang out and watch something in nature. Instead, I’ll just keep walking and take very minimal rest stops when I need them. Even the amount of time that I spend resting is becoming short though. Usually I’ll just stop to have a bite to eat or smoke some and then be back on the trail in under five or ten minutes. Then at the end of the day, I may be camping alone, but I can look back on all the miles that I’ve covered and be proud. It’s a strange thing having the trail in front of me always; it makes life much more simple. You’ll walk today until you become tired, then you’ll do the same tomorrow. As far as you can see there is a trail in front and behind. It’s a nice metaphor for the path of life, and it’s much simpler than most life paths that I’ve had to walk. When it’s just as simple as walking forward, it’s hard to become beat down, frustrated, worried, or overwhelmed. If things get bad, you just keep walking forward.
I did get caught in one major storm so far, and it was apparently very atypical for Southern California this time of year. I was in a trail town about a week ago with another hiker named “FM” and we were told that we had one day before a storm hit. We decided that we needed to get on trail before then and make miles because right after that we had a climb up to 9,300 feet and there would be snow in the coming days. So we got that climb out of the way (and it was fucking awesome!), but later that day we met a dude who said that the storm was on its way and that it was going to be very big. So we got to a campground and set up that night expecting snow the next morning. There was no snow the next morning, so I got up early and pushed on, leaving “FM” at camp to catch up later. That was the last time that I saw “FM” because by 10am the storm rolled in and it started snowing. By noon it was snowing very hard and was EXTREMELY windy. It looked like the precipitation was coming in sideways.
Suddenly I felt very alone out there. I was up in the mountains, covered in tree and vegetation and I couldn’t find anyone else. It was very challenging and I became scared for a few moments, although I still felt confident. I hiked on for another mile or two and met two other hikers (“Honest Abe” and “Danger Muffin”). They too were very cold and tired. At about that time the snow turned to rain and we became absolutely soaked. “Abe” had hiked the AT before, so he had experience, and that gave me a bit more confidence, and just being with two other hikers made my spirit feel stronger.
By 2pm the storm was probably at its worst. We were all three absolutely soaked and cold and we didn’t have a lot of choice but to set up our tents and hope that we could wait out the storm (which was predicted to last for 2 full days). In the process of setting up camp all of our gear became very wet, but we were able to get set up. I laid there in my little tent, as did the others lay in their tents, for about five hours, then “Abe” came up to my tent and told me that he’d “found something.” Apparently he’d gone for a short walk to see if there were any roads around where we could hitch back into a near-by town. Although he didn’t find any roads, he did find something else; he found “a dude in a culvert with a fire.” When “Abe” first told me this, I was thinking that it was a “Shawshank Redemption” type of culvert, but it turned out to be a very big pipe (about 10’ tall). So we all three went over to the culvert where another hiker had taken refuge from the storm and built a fire. His name was “Breaks” and he was a really cool dude; considering that he’d been stuck in a pipe for the last 5 hours without any company, his spirit was really chipper.
The four of us hung out in that pipe for about 6 or 8 hours huddled around the little camp fire trying to dry off our gear, then when it became very late we went back to our tents to sleep. Abe’s tent had collapsed from the snow, but mine was still good. It was a very wet and cold night, but I made it through. When we woke the next morning there was a bit of snow accumulation, but it was not actively falling, so “Abe” and I started up the trail while “Danger Muffin” waited it out a bit longer. We had to climb about 3,000 feet that morning, and that put us up where the snow had fallen about 3 inches overnight. I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re working with ultra-light gear and expectation of sunny Southern California in the preparation phase, it makes things very difficult. “Abe” was hiking in sandals and shorts all through the snow stretch, so when I felt cold, I just looked to him and counted my blessings. Like I said, the other hikers out here really give me a lot of strength when I do spend time around them.
“Abe” and I separated about 10 miles later when he decided to wait for “Danger Muffin” and I continued forward to try and make up for the miles that I’d lost the day prior. Before we parted however, “Abe” made a couple of phone calls and learned that a tremendous majority of hikers on trail who were hit by the storm had hitched back into trail towns to find shelter; others were even smarter and stayed in trail towns when they saw the forecast.That said, even though those were the two hardest days that I’ve seen on trail,I’m glad that I was out there. It made me feel stronger, and it reminded me of what I’m capable of. It made me less afraid of facing a storm in the future because I know that I’ve made it through at least one so far. Also, if I hadn’t started out on the trail after we got that forecast, I’d still be stuck in Wrightwood right now (about 100 miles back) because the mountain right after there is so tall that it got A LOT of snow and several hikers are having to wait until it thaws a bit. I’d be in that place too if I’d not gotten a day’s start before the storm.
I have a lot of time every day to just think to myself, and that’s really what I came out here for. Sometimes I get lonely or scared when I’m out hiking alone, or even depressed or anxious, but working through that has made me strong and it makes me feel confident moving forward. I’ve thought a lot about life and what I want to do now that I’ve officially left the university. I was scared that this thinking wouldn’t really provide clarity, but in earnest, it already has. I don’t want to be too explicit with my plans for the future at this time, as they certainly could change, but as of the writing of this message, I do have a fairly clear plan for what I want to do after finishing the Pacific Crest Trail. It involves living simple and producing art, but that’s about all I want to say about that right now. Things could change, and I don’t want to seem like I’m just changing my mind all the time if things evolve moving forward.
I miss my friends and family a lot out here, but that also helps me to remember how important those people are in my life. I miss some of my students, a lot of the friends who I had in Flagstaff and Phoenix, and I miss my family. Especially on long cold nights when I’m camped alone, I really think about the people who have entered my life, and I am really learning to appreciate those people moving forward. It also affects the closeness that I feel towards the other hikers out here. Maybe it’s cliché to say, but I relate to the Christopher McCandless story a lot and think of how grateful I am to make the realization of the importance of human relationships before I’m in a place where those relationships are no longer a possibility.
So I think that I’ll wrap it up here. I’m currently sitting in a Ramada in Palmdale, California typing this. After the storm, I (along with the few others who were forced to brave the storm) really needed a rest. Up to yesterday I had not had a single day in 3 weeks in which I didn’t hike, so I really needed to take a “zero day.” I called a trail angel named Mary in Agua Dulce, and she happily gave me a ride 20 minutes down the way to the town of Palmdale where there are a lot of hotel accommodations. There is a big urge in me to get back on trail today after just 12 hours rest, but I really need to take a true “zero day,” and that’s exactly what I plan to do. I got in last night at about 4pm, ate pizza and ice cream and drank some beer, showered, and fell asleep on a cozy bed. Today I had breakfast and met a really cool kid who was into sacred geometry (long story, so I’ll spare you the details). This being the first opportunity that I’ve had to type on a keyboard since Warner Springs however, I really wanted to get in here and put some words on the page. I write every night in my trail journal, but it’s hard to write very much long-hand after a full day of hiking, huddled up in my tent, so having a keyboard really makes it a lot easier to put thoughts on the page.
Tomorrow I’ll get another breakfast and hit trail. I don’t think that there are any other hotel accommodations for the next 300-500 miles, so I really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity for rest and relaxation before I go back out there. The next stretch goes out into the Mojave, and I’ve heard that it’s very hot and very dry, so doubtlessly I’ll have stories to tell by the time that I get to Kennedy Meadows.
Until then however, I miss you all a lot and think of the “other world” that I left behind every day. I really wish I could see you all now and again, but this journey was designed to be a reset for me, and that’s what it is. Spending this time alone is really allowing me to remember what’s important to me, and to become who I’m really supposed to be.