Day Eight: Prickly Pear & Prickly Scissors

Mile 59.5 to mile 73 + .5 (walk from Sunrise Trail Junction parking lot to PCT)
14 miles

It doesn’t feel appropriate to complain about the wind last night, seeing as I was in a bed in a trailer and the other dudes were all in their tents, but…it was very windy. So windy that it was difficult to sleep, because it rattled the entire trailer. But I don’t mention this to the dudes, who are complaining that their tents almost blew away. That would be mean, I think.

I fell asleep last night convinced I would do 17 miles today, all the way to Scissors Crossing, but today I’m not so sure. Let’s just see what happens, I tell myself. My tummy feels weird and I worry it will always feel weird on trail. I have a tendency to do that – when I’m in pain or ill I panic that the feeling will never go away. It’s not productive. I try to be calm.

I am grateful for the pit toilet at this site and grateful for trail magic. Tom gives us each two breakfast burritos with eggs and chorizo and offers pastries, too. I thank him profusely but he just shrugs it off. I take his picture and soon I’m on my way. Most of the dudes have already left. I know I won’t catch them but that’s okay.

The first few miles are terrible. The wind is vigorous and the landscape is mediocre (it’s beautiful, really, but compared to yesterday it’s only “okay”) and there’s a lot of down hill stuff which really irritates my left knee. Oh, my left knee. Will I ever write a blog post on this trail where I don’t complain about some physical ailment? I text Alley to ask her this rhetorically but she answers honestly: “Probably not, at least not for a while. You really just started, boo.” Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting that I just started because it’s been a week (it’s been a week!) and also there are people on the trail who are so fast, they’re ahead of me and they started a few days after, so it makes me feel like I’ve actually been on the trail “for a long time.” Does that make sense? My brain feels foggy today and I’m irritated at myself. Yesterday was perfect! Why isn’t today perfect?

As I plod along in the intense wind, so strong is almost knocks me off my feet, I am passed by every one who stayed at Tom’s last night. No one is mean about it – not one single person on the trail has ever been mean to my face about my speed – but I am mean to myself about it today. You’re so slow, I berate myself. It’s fine to be slow but what if you’re the slowest person on the trail, what then? What if you’re too slow to make it to Canada? I thought you were gonna do 5 miles before 10am? I guess not, huh?

Why am I being so mean to myself?! I’m alarmed. There’s no reason to be cranky. Yesterday was magical beyond measure and today my blisters are still behaving. What’s my problem? Justin, one of the guy’s who stayed at Tom’s last night and the last one to pass me, appears. He got his buff covering almost his whole face and his headphones is. “This wind is terrible!” I nod. It’s nice that someone else thinks so too, I’m not crazy. “Put headphones in if you have them,” he advises. “It’s the only thing stopping me from going insane!” And then he’s gone.

That’s a good idea, I think. I take my headphones out and pull up the playlist Alex made me. I don’t always like listening to music while I hike, I’m discovering, but sometimes it really cheers me up and on. I need some of that today.

The trail continues to descend down down down. I know I should be grateful for the wind because the alternative is heat – it’s supposed to be 94 degrees today I heard on the Christian rock station Tom was playing this morning. And sure enough, as I continue to descend on the trail, the heat settles in, zapping me of my energy and any positivity I was trying to muster.

Is this just what the trail is like? I wonder. Like every day life. Sometimes things are incredible and sometimes you’re in a bad mood for no reason. That’s sobering. The trail is supposed to be transcendental, at least in my head, but maybe it’s just life. Well okay then.

I know I should stop and break more than I do today but I’m anxious to get to the water source – 10 miles away. I’m rationing water for the first time since the beginning of the hike because of the broken faucet at the last source, and I hate how that feels. I’m probably dehydrated but now I’m paranoid that something will be wrong with the upcoming water, too. Just get there and evaluate before you drink too much, I tell myself.

The desert does its best to cheer me up. Just as I’m complaining internally about the landscape a plethora of prickly pear cacti appear, all in full bloom. Fuchsia pink blooms on little baby cacti! Okay that’s pretty good, PCT. Well played.

I think I’m lonely today? I just feel very alone.

I finally get to the water source and it’s perfect. It’s around 1:30pm and I’ve done 9 miles. Not amazing but not bad. I’ve already decided I’m taking a siesta here. It’s hot today.
I’m not the only hiker to make that decision. When I arrive there is just one boy sitting in the shade, but over the course of the next two hours a dozen or more hikers come by. Water sources are becoming more spread out, much to my dismay, so we all congregate around the few that exist, like a herd. Most of the hikers resting here seem to know each other and seem to have started after I did, which adds to my sad mood. Many of them are talking about camping at the water source – there’s space to put up tents and the major upside is, of course, the water. I briefly mentally consider this but ultimately decide I want to hike on. I haven’t done enough miles yet today, and I don’t feel called to camp with any of the folk there.

So I walk on. My knee! Why oh why! I think to myself – if there just wasn’t so much downhill, this would be so easy. Then I am forced to laugh at myself – well, yeah. If the desert wasn’t so hot this would be so easy! If the Sierra weren’t so snowy this would be so easy! Spoiler alert, Self – this is not easy! But you’ve chosen to do it so buck up!

The pep talk actually snaps me out of my day-long funk and I walk with a bit more pep in my step. I meet a boy named Andrew from Austin, TX who reminds me so much of Nate that I half expect them to know one another. I meet a Swiss woman but she quickly overtakes me. I keep walking.

In my head I was sort of aiming for Scissors Crossing – I fell asleep last night thinking about a 17 mile day and I want to be set up to do an easy hitch into Julian in the morning – but I’m getting really tired and it’s getting late. I decide I don’t want to night hike solo so I have to start looking for camp spots. The thing is I don’t really want to camp solo either. And yet…here I am.

I keep walking with the vague intention of stopping “when I see the right spot” but I have no idea what that is. Finally I see Montana, a woman I met at the last water source, who is out here with her partner, Blueberry. I’m so excited to see someone I know who looks like they might be ready to set up camp!

“Hi!” I call out. Montana smiles. “Um…are you guys camping here?” She says they are. I feel bad asking if I can camp with them – I always feel bad asking if I can third wheel with couples on this trail – but she’s super sweet about it. “Of course,” she says. So this is my spot for the night! My body is so ready to be done walking. I’ve done 14 miles, not 17, but that is quite alright.

The camp spot is beautiful. We’re tucked away against some rock face, close enough to the edge of the ridge to see a beautiful sunset but not so close that it’s scary. I get to work setting up my tent; I’m having trouble getting the stakes in the ground. I hear Blueberry and Montana finish with their tent set up and try to comfort myself: my Zpacks tent just takes a while to set up right. That’s fine. I glance over and see that they have the exact same Zpacks tent. Oh.

Okay fine, I just have to admit that they are clearly more experienced backpackers than I am. Fiiiiiine. I suck up my pride and say, “Hey, did y’all have trouble getting your tent stakes in the ground?” I know from experience on the 4th night that if I don’t get the stakes in well enough the wind will pull them out of the ground and my tent will collapse on me.

Blueberry comes over to help and he’s a total sweetheart about it. I’m my own biggest problem today – why am I being so hard on myself? He shows me a trick to getting my thin stakes in the ground without bending them – it’s hard to explain but you basically put your hands on either side of your shoe and push down gently with your foot, using your hands to steady it and guide the stake in straight. I feel like that’s a bad explanation but if anyone wants a demo I will happily show you in person. I am grateful for this trick and grateful to all the hikers who have so kindly shared their knowledge with me. This is how you learn, I tell myself. This is how you’ll grow.

It’s the first night on the trail where my tent is set up and I can cook dinner before dark! It feels like a huge deal. I decide to cook oatmeal, because it feels easy, and because I hate the idea of everything in my food bag. Sigh. I make a double serving and then take it to a rock near where Blueberry and Montana are eating their dinner.

They’re chatty, and I use the opportunity to pick their brains about all my questions. They’re from Seattle and have done a lot of backpacking. I want to know what they eat, if they cook or cold soak, if it’s okay that my knee is hurting. “Down always sucks,” Blueberry assures me. “Always has. Going down is hard.” It makes me feel so much better to know the day was hard on everyone. Whenever my knees act up I panic that I’m asking them to hold up too much weight. Body positivity is weird to navigate sometimes – I love my body, and I believe all bodies are good bodies and fuck patriarchal beauty standards, but also when I am fatter my body sometimes hurts in specific ways it does not when I am thinner, and that’s just hard to sort out in my head. Anyway. I mention my knee strain to Blueberry and Montana and ask if they think it’s serious.

“My opinion,” says Blueberry, “is you’re either hurt or injured. If you can still walk, you’re not injured.” Fair enough. I can still walk. I even found a special weird way to ease myself down hills with minimal pain today, as there were so many of them. (The method is sort of a slink – right foot walks normally and left foot turns out, so I descend sideways instead of face on…very charming and not bizarre looking at all, I’m sure.) So I’m not injured. And hurting is okay – even normal, on a thru-hike. Cool.

It’s getting dark and chilly quickly so I thank Blueberry and Montana for their advice and head to my tent.

It’s windy and at 1am my tent, carefully staked to prevent collapse, collapses on me. Well, just the one side does. I get out of my quilt in just my undies and unzip the tent door to fix it. I step outside and look up – holy fucking shit. The sky. Oh my god the sky. I didn’t know it could look like that. I can’t even describe it – just imagine the most beautiful breathtaking astounding starry night sky you could ever think of – it was 10x that. Why am I sleeping in a tent! I wonder. When will I get brave enough to cowboy camp, to sleep in just my sleeping bag on the ground with nothing above or around me?

Not tonight. I stare at the sky for a few more minutes, ignoring the cold wind that brought my tent down in the first place. Today was kind of weird but I’m here and I’m grateful. Thank you, I whisper to the stars. I mean it. I crawl back into my tent, now upright and more firmly staked, and fall asleep.

9 thoughts on “Day Eight: Prickly Pear & Prickly Scissors

  1. Yermo says:

    Oh boy that night sky. When you Cowboy Camp you will wake up several times I am sure. Then you can see how the sky seems to spin on an axis and all the constellations move around and around the sky. A couple of my favorites to watch are Cassiopeia, and The Seven Sisters. Big and little dipper and north Star. Good stuff to know.
    People been navigating with the stars for eons !
    Trek on . ,. .

  2. Erika Lawson says:

    Love hearing about the starry sky. Nothing like the desert sky! So I’m sure you’ll be overwhelmed with advice on your knee, and take mine with a grain of salt since I’ve not through-hiked, but I also have one bum knee and when I hiked down into the Grand Canyon what worked for me was: ProTec knee brace (the one with two straps, above and below the kneecap) that I got at Road Runner Sports; and REALLY using my trekking poles. In fact my arm muscles were sore (in a good way) from how much weight I was putting on them as I stepped down. All kinds of things were sore but my knee was fine. Good luck and LOVE reading your posts!!

  3. Jill Hectpr says:

    Fourteen miles, WOW!!! You are amazing girl 😎! Was so happy you had such a good day yesterday and, seriously you did damn well today too. Ok, I’m getting old. I mean yesterday and the day before 😏. You are too hard on yourself. How many of your compatriots picked the PCT as their first thru hike? None, I’ll bet. You’re still getting your hiking legs. You are amazing πŸŽ†!!! Especially since you are an urban woman who hasn’t even been regular hiking long and downhill is a bitch. I get scared πŸ˜“ just going down the driveway to my bus! Sounds like you’re getting new and useful tips every day. Keep on trucking 🚢🚚😁! πŸ’š

  4. Dalton says:

    Looks like your hike is going well. If you or anyone else needs help around Tehachapi, let this trail angel know.

  5. meghaparsec says:

    oh lawd this mixed-bag body positivity reeeeeeally resonates with me. We do so. much. WORK. to figure out how to love and value our fat bodies in a world that does not love them. And we’re fucking fabulous! But yes, how to love your body and also ackowledge that fat bods are gonna hike differently than other bods…? Its real, and you’re doing great! And your body is doing great!! I decided recently to take my first backpacking trip (30 mi in 3 days) and you are a big part of that, so thank you.

    (And the peanut gallery said “more pics! more pics! more pics!”)

  6. Linda Greenberg says:

    Dearest Vanessa,
    When I first met you when you were an Elementary School child, I could tell it was the start of a roller-coaster ride. Prayers and positive energy are with you all the way as you are hiking-with-scissors!
    Love, “Stacy’s Mom has got it going on”, Newton, MA

  7. Nicole T says:

    That last photo is GORGEOUS. Keep your head up, you are hiking your own hike. Many who pass you will not make it to Canada. One step at a time and you will get there.

  8. Jenny Bruso says:

    Hey girl, i HATE downs. Hate them. And my hatred of them has only grown post meniscus tear. I really recommend a knee brace, though it’s so hard to buy the right size. The compression really helps keep all the clicky bits together. A fourteen mile day sounds pretty good to me! It’s obvious your mileage is increasing, too!

  9. Judy Newton says:

    Kudos to you my friend!! Be kind to yourself–you are doing great!! Be a cheerleader to tourself—YOU CAN DO THIS!!!! Sure look forward to your daily updates!!

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