Mile 15.4 to mile 20
4.6 miles hiked
I wake up at 5am to quiet bustling all around me. A lot of people camped at Hauser Creek last night – there were maybe 10 tents when I fell asleep, and it seems a few more popped up afterwards – and now it seems there are a lot of people getting ready to hit the trail very early. I’m impressed, but not terribly motivated to get myself up just yet. I’m still feeling the strain of yesterday’s 15 miles, and anyway, I assume it will be cool until around 10am, like it was yesterday. Still hot, but totally manageable. This assumption turns out to be wrong, because of course it does.
The French couple that camped beside me and their friends leave at around 6am, and the campsite continues to empty out. I peer out of my poorly pitched tent to see if Cate and Mike have gotten out of theirs yet, but they haven’t, so I keep hanging out in mine. My stomach feels weird – I haven’t pooped in two days and I’m starting to worry that my body might be rejecting the idea of utilizing a cathole, which isn’t really gonna fly for 2,650 miles. I force myself to eat a Lara bar anyway and drink some water. I’m excited that it’s day two. Now I can officially say I’ve gone backpacking! Have I told you guys how the PCT is my first solo backpacking trip EVER? Surprise!
I start packing things up and eventually shimmy out of my sleep clothes and into my outfit of the day, which is the same outfit I wear every day. I decide not to wear my skirt – I like it, but I prefer the pockets in my shorts (no velcro and much deeper). I suspect I’ll really love the skirt in town, especially when I’m doing laundry. A lot of people wear their rain gear as a laundry day outfit, but I don’t have rain pants yet (I’ll probably have them mailed to Kennedy Meadows, in time for the Sierra) so I’ve been wondering what I’ll put on my lower half. Probably my skirt!
Anyway, once I’m dressed I hop out of my tent and continue to pack up. I see some people making coffee or hot breakfasts and wonder how long it will take to admit to myself that I am never going to turn my stove on in the morning and I may as well dump all my tea bags and powdered coconut milk out of my food bag now. Cate and Mike are now also up, and we discuss our game plan for the day. We’re undecided how far we’ll aim to hike today, but we all feel pretty confident that we’ll go further than Lake Morena. It’s only five miles, after all.
I wash my socks from yesterday out and safety pin them to the back of my pack to dry in the sun. Then I hit the “I’m starting my hike & I’m safe!” alert button on my SPOT, notifying Alley and my parents that day two is underway, and follow Cate and Mike out of the campsite and toward the steep climb that awaits us. It’s 7:30am, not bad.
Maybe I’m worn out from yesterday or maybe it’s hotter than I anticipated or maybe I’m just really out of shape, but the trail seems hard almost immediately and what I initially assumed might take me two and half hours quickly proves that it is going to take me more. I catch up to Cate and Mike and they offer me ibuprofen and a Stingers waffle cookie. I accept both gifts. They eat their cookies while we hike but I realize that eating ranks as one of the things I cannot do while moving (also can’t talk or really do anything other than try to keep my breath steady and put one foot in front of the other, to be honest) so I take a break and wave my new friends on. “I’ll catch up,” I say. I figured I’d see them again before Lake Morena but I’m wrong about that, just like I was wrong about the heat.
It’s 8:30am and it’s hot! I’m walking up up up and going slow slow slow. Something I’ve learned on the trail so far is that many people will say they’re slow, but I’m really slow. I often let someone pass me saying, “I’m slow, go ahead,” and they’ll say, “oh, I’m slow too!” and then we’ll hike for 5 minutes or so and they’re gone. I don’t mind being slow – it’s just the way I am – but it’s interesting and funny to see other peoples conception of the word. Maybe they really are slow in their minds, or compared to their friends. Maybe they’re trying to make me feel better? I don’t know! Anyway, I’m going up the trail really fucking slowly. We gain 1000 feet of elevation in two miles and I realize just how useless my training walks, two hours a day on flat paved neighborhood sidewalks in Portland, really were. “The only way to prepare for the PCT is to hike the PCT,” Carrot has said to me. Well here I am.
The incline continues and I try to remind myself how lucky I am to be out here. It’s beautiful, I say to myself, and it is. Lush green everywhere – so unusual for this landscape on a “regular” year. Water everywhere, too, though not on this particular stretch between Hauser and Lake Morena. I keep climbing up, slowly slowly, and suddenly it’s done. The trail dips down for a minute and then flattens out, turning into a perfectly pleasant flat-ish trek. I’m so happy! I did the first “hard climb”! It’s still only morning! My feet don’t even hurt too badly! I am totally gonna make it to Canada! (Haha!)
Soon I see three hikers I ran into yesterday, folks who are section hiking from Campo to Mt. Laguna. We chat about my gaiters and they ask about the scissors. I share that it’s my trail name, and they ask why. I anticipate this being a continuing theme. I tell them it’s ’cause I’m gay and their reaction makes me laugh. “Oh wow, we are learning a lot on this trail! I have some gay friends and I’ve never heard that before!”
“Are they gay guys?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a gay lady thing. Anyway! See ya later!”
And I haul ass to scurry in front of them and stay there for just a little while.
They pass me soon enough and the guy has a phone in his hand. “This is our trail friend Scissors and she’s totally gonna make it to Canada!” he says, panning the phone over to me. I smile and wave, looking as charming as possible while shoving a chicken stick into my mouth. I think at first he is filming a video but then I realize he is probably FaceTiming a friend! Verizon doesn’t have any service in Lake Morena so I want to connect with Alley and my mom before I hit that point. I turn my phone off airplane mode and I have service! A few texts from both Al and my mom come through, and I text my mom back right away. Next I FaceTime Alley and she picks up! I just want to say hi and see her cute face, so that’s what we do.
I hang up with Al and keep hiking. I try to take “the perfect shot” of the beautiful tall flower growing out of a sharp cactus bush (a yucca plant maybe?) and I stupidly forget about how sharp a cactus spike is. In the pursuit of the picture I get too close and a spike pierces my knee. The pain hits quickly and I jump back immediately, yelping. I look down and sure enough there’s a shiny dot of blood on my knee. I laugh at myself – what a dumb injury. I debate putting a bandaid on or wiping it off, but I don’t have any bandaids, only Leuko tape, and it’s not really a big deal, just looks dramatic.
I keep hiking and there are a few more small climbs but nothing as intense as earlier. Soon enough I’m on a rock face staring down at a beautiful jewel of a blue lake – Lake Morena! This sounds so absurd, but in all the preparation for the PCT it never once occurred to me to dwell on the name Lake Morena. I knew it as the 20 mile marker, I knew it as the site of the now-defunct kick off event, I knew it as the first official place to get water on the trail in a regular dry year. But I never used my brain to think that the NAME OF THE SITE INDICATED WHAT IS PHYSICALLY THERE. I chide myself about this – come on, Vanessa. Get it together!
I leave the trail to stand on the rock and get some good photos of the view. It’s beautiful. Suede, the chatty Englishman who’s hiked the AT, trots by and I call out to him. I get back on the trail and just a second later I hear “SCISSORS!!” I turn around and there’s Sarah and Lynn, flying down the hill. I’m super impressed with all three of them – Suede camped at the 12 mile marker so must have been up early to make the time he did, and Sarah and Lynn both still had their tents up when I left Hauser. I let them all pass me and continue down slowly, excited to know I’m almost there.
Just as I approach Lake Morena two other hikers who also stayed at Scout and Frodo’s pass me. We all descend into the Lake Morena campground together and as I’m wondering how I’m going to find Cate and Mike, a group of dudes in neon green tshirts explode into applause. “Yeah, hikers!” “Hiker trash! Welcome!” It’s the PCT Wolverines, and they’ve set up some major trail magic.
Trail magic is anything unexpected or unplanned that occurs on the trail to help a hiker or brighten his or her day. It can be as simple as a ride when you really need one or a piece of fruit when you haven’t had fresh produce in a week, or as elaborate as…well, as what the Wolverines are doing. They’ve got a tent set up, coolers filled with sodas and beer, an array of food, and enough exuberance and kindness to charm the grouchiest hiker.
Hoosier Daddy checks in with me to see how I feel, and the answer is pretty great. My feet hurt a bit and I’m so jealous of everyone’s camp shoes – I wanted to bring a pair and all my ultralight friends said don’t bother, but fuck, I’m probably going to order a pair and get them sent to Warner Springs – I really, really wish I had camp shoes so I wouldn’t have to wear my trail runners and could be letting my blisters breath instead. More hikers keep coming down the hill and the Wolverines keep cheering. I drink a Coke and devour some asparagus and lime Tostitos.
The Wolverines are doing pack shakedowns, going over all the gear everyone has in their pack and suggesting things that are unnecessary and could be sent home, thus lightening the load. Cate loses a few pounds from her bag and later an Australian girl comes in with the biggest pack I’ve seen on the trail thus far and Hoosier Daddy helps her lose 22 pounds from it. I feel good about my pack but always like to hear from experienced hikers, so I ask for a shakedown, too. Love It or Leave It does mine, and he’s amazing.
Love It or Leave It is an older dude and a triple crowner – meaning he’s hiked all three major trails in the USA. He’s soft spoken and relaxed, with a casual confidence that I immediately trust. He looks me directly in the eye when he speaks. “I’m not going to tell you that you have to send anything home,” he says. “We’re just going to have a discussion.” So we do. We discuss my med kit and my toiletries, both of which can be minimized. We discuss the food in my food sack and what I should focus on eating out here (protein, he says – always protein). He tells me about the trail work he does around Lassen and advises me how to deal with my blisters. He suggests I figure out how much water I drink in a 10 mile stretch and then to only carry what I need, based on the next reliable water source. “You carried two liters of water you didn’t need yesterday, right? That’s 4 extra pounds,” he says. He’s right. He is really gentle and makes me feel good about my pack, solid about my choices. “Just always be reevaluating,” he says. “If you realize you’re not using something, get rid of it.” I take his photograph when we’re done, with my film camera.
After the shakedown I head to the bathroom building and I’m finally able to go; I immediately feel much better, but this only adds to my worry that my body is holding out exclusively for toilets that flush when it comes to pooping. “That is NOT gonna work, Body!” I tell myself. We’ll see.
More and more hikers continue to show up, and one of the Wolverines – Steve Climber – asks if I’m planning to spend the night here. He explains that this used to be kick off weekend, before it died, and The Wolverines are doing their best to make a mini kick off this year. It’s not a huge party but it’s turning into a really sweet gathering – honestly probably more my speed than the original kick off party was. Part of me wanted to do more miles today – 5 miles is a tiny day – but part of me thinks staying here would be ideal. “Canada’s not going anywhere,” Steve Climber points out. “You’ll still get there even if you spend the night here.” I know Cate and Mike were planning to hike on, and Sarah and Lynn too, and part of me definitely wants to keep up with my new friends. I know I’m supposed to hike my own hike but it’s hard when you’re stoked on connecting with new people!
The question resolves itself though as Cate launches into her epic pack shakedown, everyone starts drinking beer, and we learn that there is indeed a hamburger at the general store (I’d started that rumor based on a photo I’d seen on Instagram of @thebackcountrycook eating a burger here one week ago but wasn’t exactly sure where the burger could be acquired) AND the trail angels will be making a spaghetti feast later. Oh, and the angels purchased a huge group of campsites at the campground, so while PCT hikers usually pay $5 to camp, if we stay tonight it will be free. We all decide independently: we’re going to stay. When we realize we’ve each come to that conclusion on our own we’re excited. Our own little posse is forming – will we be a trail family?
It’s barely 2pm but I press the “evening check in” button on my SPOT. Alley and my parents now know I’m staying put for the evening.
Once we know we’re here for the night, we pitch our tents and get settled. Avo, an experienced thru-hiker who is here with his wife, Gabs, who I instantly adore, and who knows Chance from Bellingham, helps me set up my tent. I’d practiced in my backyard but the setup never looked the way it did on the zpacks website. With Avo’s help I learn how to set it up properly. It’s not so different from what I’ve been doing but it makes a huge difference. “My tent has never looked so good!” I gush. Avo doesn’t want any credit and keeps insisting I set up the tent, but it’s not true. I love him the way I love Love It or Leave It – I think I love anyone who has immense trail knowledge, could be a total jerk about it, but instead is kind and gentle and generous. Gabs is just as lovely as her husband, and we chat for a while about all sorts of things. She’s the woman I saw on trail yesterday section hiking southbound in a dress, and she looks effortlessly amazing, the way I wish I could look while hiking. I ask to take her picture and we set up a portrait under a tree. I’m excited about the portraits I’m taking of my new inspiring friends, the brilliant weird interesting people I’m meeting on this adventure. I can’t believe it’s only day two. I’m so glad I decided to spend the night here.
Finally we – me, Cate, Mike, Sarah, and Lynn – all go to the store and order burgers. It is exactly as good as I imagined it would be. Sarah and I have a really nice long talk, the kind you have when you’re getting to know a new friend. She’s coming off a two year stint working in Alaska and she just blows me away with her experiences. We end up talking about politics a little bit and I’m so relieved about how open I’ve been able to be thus far on trail. The saying goes “don’t talk about religion or politics on trail” but so far, so good. At the end of our conversation Sarah tells me I’ve convinced her that voting is important and I feel honored and thrilled.
We eventually finish our meals, pay and tip, and mosey back to the campground. I got quarters at the store incase I decide to shower and I ask the group at the picnic table if I should, even though it’s kind of early. A shower after less than 48 hours? “Hiker trash don’t need no showers,” Hoosier Daddy scoffs, but Scott Climber, Avo, and Gabs all look at me like I’m crazy. “OF COURSE YOU SHOULD SHOWER!” Scott Climber looks at me very seriously and says, “I want you to be like the water and go with the flow. Take the path of least resistance. Be like a vessel and accept the things that come your way.” That settles it – I go to collect my shower things.
My blisters are worse than I thought and I ask Hoosier Daddy for a very detailed crash course in how to best care for them. He tells me how to drain them and tape them properly, so I go to the shower with my quarters and my blister kit: a needle, thread, a lighter to sterilize the needle, gauze, and fresh socks. The shower lasts a luxurious ten minutes and I still have three quarters left over. I leave them in the stall to try to pay forward some of this kindness.
I’ve missed the spaghetti dinner while showering but I’m not super hungry after our late lunch and it’s getting late so I don’t worry about it. Our little crew sits at a picnic bench going over maps and water reports for tomorrow. Scott Climber had suggested camping at Fred Canyon, saying it was one of his favorite spots in this section of the trail. Cate, Mike, and I decide we’ll aim for that (a 12 mile day) but Sarah thinks she might go further. We’ll all see.
I filter more water while we sit, realizing I haven’t drunk any since arriving at Lake Morena. It’s easy to forget about hydrating when you’re not moving. We laugh and joke and tell each other stories. Cate and Mike dream of living in a renovated school bus, like the one at Barb and Susie’s. Sarah went to school for parks recreation administration and her first backpacking trip was a 20 day expedition! Avo and Gabs pass our table on their way to bed and they stay to chat for a while, too. They live in Montana and run a food truck together, Mountain Mama’s Burritos. We all joke that we’re going to move to their small town, where they don’t need social media to advertise their food and once a year all the women in town dress up as witches and go around cackling. (I’m not making this up.) Gabs notices my sparkly Smart Water bottles and I end up telling everyone about Alex, my magical sparkly unicorn friend who brings so much glitter into my life, and they are all totally charmed, as they should be. “You’re such a good story teller!” Gabs exclaims, and I’m touched.
The Wolverines have a fire going but its late and I still have to set up my bed and write this post. I say goodnight to everyone, filter another liter of water, and get ready for bed.
“I’ll just write a short post,” I think to myself. That was almost two hours ago. It’s okay. I know I can’t sustain this level of detail in my writing on the trail, at least not consistently, but I’m happy to do it when I get a chance.
I’m cozy in my quilt, lying in my perfectly pitched tent, listening to someone near me snore. The stars are out. I get to hike more tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. I’m so happy.
I’ll get a breakfast burrito from the store when it opens at 7am, I think to myself. And then I fall asleep.