Day Fourteen: Queers In The Wild

Mile 129 to mile 140
11 miles

Lion Heart is already dressed when I open my eyes. It’s still dark outside, an inky navy blue sky, and I spy a star or two lingering as the sun begins its slow rise. It’s 5:08am.

Everyone around me is bustling.

I get ready as quickly as I can; it’s a bit quicker without having to take down my tent, but not much – the Zpacks tent is so quick to take down that it’s just a few minutes saved. I’m one of the last people out of our camp – why am I always so slow?! – and I hit the trail at 6am sharp. 50 minutes to get ready; not bad. I get a text from my Dad: “Wow! Up earlier and earlier!” He’s right; I’m trying!

Doing the two mile climb out of Mike’s place last night paid off, because today I’m greeted with flat-ish trail right away. To be honest it already feels warm-ish at 6am – it never got very cold last night so there’s not a lot of cold lingering. The sun rises fully just as I’m starting my hike. Let’s see how long it takes for today’s heat to become unbearable.

I hike by myself but see more people than usual today, I guess because we were all camped together.

The trail smells like beeswax for a while, in a delicious way, and I try to figure out which flower is making it smell like that; I cannot figure it out. A little while later the trail seems to smell like potatoes – I’ve noticed this often, actually – I’ll round a bend and half expect to see another hiker making some Idahoan mashed potatoes at 9am because the smell of potatoes is so strong – but no, of course there’s no one there, because that would be weird. I like all the smells of the trail – earth smells so good, usually. Even the bad smells are okay – I like being so close to nature, like this.

My first goal of the day is to get to the next water source; it’s 8 miles ahead. I’ve got 2 liters of water so I should be in good shape (I aim to have 1 liter for every 4ish miles) but it’s going to be so hot again so I’m a little anxious. I want to get to the water ASAP.

As I hike I think about Alley. I’ve experimented with this, absurd as it sounds – but what I mean is, some days thinking about her is too hard, if I’m sad or lonely or feeling really down, then I can’t. But most days it brings me joy. Today it makes me grin. I think about her sweet smile, about her hand holding mine. I think about our lives stretching out together like a map, like this trail. I wish I could call her but I don’t have any service. I’m so lucky, I think. So lucky so lucky so lucky.

I’m almost at the water! It’s 10am and it’s fucking hot. If we’re being real it was hot by 7. The desert. It is hot. Surprise!

And then I’m there! It feels like I have some new blisters on my big toes which seems like total bullshit. More blisters?! My old ones are just beginning to fully heal. WHY MAKE MORE, BODY?! I’ll have to check them out once I’ve gotten water. There is a disappointing lack of shade at the rocks where everyone is congregated – will I be able to take my lengthy mid-day break here?

I approach the rocks and see Raw Hide. I ask what the deal is and she answers honestly: the water is a ways away, it’s pretty gross, the climb to get it is steep and scary, and while there’s a lot of shade by the water source it’s very buggy. WELL OKAY. “Wow, thanks for the honesty, Raw Hide,” I laugh. She shrugs and smiles.

Lion Heart appears from the mysterious far away gross water source and I’m so excited to see her. She asks how my day has been, how I enjoyed cowboy camping, what my plan is for Idyllwild. She’s so nice and so experienced and makes me feel so competent. I feel very grateful to have found her on trail. We chat for a while and exchange numbers – it sounds like she’s going much farther than I am today – maybe all the way to the cafe at mile 151! – but we’ll be zeroing in Idyllwild together. Yay.

After she leaves I decide to take my pack and myself down to the water source to see for myself what the deal is. It’s getting Really Hot, not just Hot like it has been for the past few hours, and I don’t really see myself hiking again until the hot part of the day passes. Sure, that may take until 5pm. What’s a girl to do?

The hike down to the water is not as bad as Raw Hide described, and the shade situation is actually totally sufficient. She was right about getting down to the “stream” though – it’s a treacherous sandy bank that is basically 180 degrees – near impossible for short girls like us! And she’s definitely right about the water source itself – it’s the most questionable I’ve had to drink so far. It’s a “stream” “flowing” through a red clay bank, and there are only two spots where the water is actually moving and not just sitting stagnant collecting branches and bugs. The taste is, as Lion Heart had said, “interesting!” – it is very rich in iron and Amelia quickly dubs it “Blood Water.” Yum.

But this is the desert and this is the last reliable water source for 15 miles. There’s a cache on private property 8 miles up from here that may be stocked, but it may not be. And after that the next source is the Paradise Valley Cafe. So we’re all gonna stock up on Blood Water here because that’s what we’ve got.

I drop my pack in the shade and grab two bottles to fill up. I’ll be here for a while, I figure, so I don’t need to fill all my bottles now. I’ll start with two. Getting down the sandy bank is not easy but it’s okay; getting back up is actually a bit more challenging. But I do it and then my reward is I get to rest – for what feels like forever! It’s 11am and I’m not moving until the heat subsides.

Tommy is here already, napping, and Karma, Colleen, Amelia, and Raw Hide are here too. There are also some other hikers I don’t know very well. We hang out. We eat food. Colleen cooks lunch and I wonder if maybe the key to my stove is to use it during the day instead of at night; I almost take it out but decide I’m too lazy. What am I doing? Nothing, really. Complaining about the heat. Futzing with my feet. Talking about food. Fantasizing about what food we’ll all eat when we reach the cafe. Complaining about how the water tastes. Saying hi to new people as they arrive.

PCT hiking is so weird sometimes, we all agree – we’re just a group of strangers, talking about how much our feet hurt, when we last pooped, and how much we would pay for an ice cold beverage delivered to us this very moment. Totally normal.

The day rolls on. I think about working on a blog post but can’t be bothered. The heat makes me feel so depleted, even just lying under this tree. The shade keeps disappearing, the sun finding me in different spots no matter how I shift and move.

And then Toby appears! I am so excited! “TOBY!” I yell! I didn’t know if I would see him again but now he’s here, and he’s going to take a break with us! Yay! The sight of a fellow queer makes me feel so happy; it’s hard to explain but it’s lonely sometimes being the only queer person in a group for days at a time. I feel like if you understand what I mean then you know what I mean and if you don’t then I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but suffice it to say seeing Toby makes me so so so happy.

He seems equally stoked to see me and he sits down with us to rest. We chat about our mileage goals for the day; he’s already done more than me today because he camped further back last night, so he says he’s thinking of doing 3-4 more miles once the heat dies down. Everyone else I’m with seems to be aiming for the 144 mark; I’m not sure why, it just seems to be the one everyone decided on. I suppose it’s got a big camp site and is close enough to the cafe that getting there tomorrow morning will be easy-ish.

I keep mentioning this cafe and I’m not sure if I’ve explained to y’all what it is! Paradise Valley Cafe is an extremely Hiker-friendly restaurant at mile 151.8 of the PCT. It’s just a one mile walk off trail and it is known for The Best Burger on the PCT. THE BEST ONE! It’s been on all of ours minds recently, as we’re so close. How will we all structure our hikes to get to this perfect burger?

So I guess for some people camping at the 144 mile marker tonight is the way to get to the cafe/the perfect burger easily in the morning. I think about it for a second and realize there’s no reason for me to rush to the cafe – I just want to get there at some point tomorrow and then will plan to sleep there or near there tomorrow night, and hitch into Idyllwild on Friday. And I really really want to camp with Toby. So I tell him so! “We should camp together,” I say. “I’d love that,” he agrees. “If it works with your plans.” I nod my head. My plan is to camp with Toby, so yes, that works with my plan!

With that settled, we spend the rest of the hot afternoon lounging and trying to psyche ourselves up to actually go hike. Toby and I decide we should have 4 liters of water each when we hike out and I’m so not looking forward to carrying that. The heat also stubbornly refuses to leave; even at 5pm it is still pressing down on us.

We can’t put it off any longer though. Toby and I load up our newly filtered iron-filled water and start hiking. Three to four miles – we can do this!

Toby suggests I hike in front, to set the pace, and I’m touched, like I was yesterday with Lion Heart. I insist he tell me if he needs to pass me. We start moving and after awhile he says, “So, I don’t really think you’re a slow hiker. You seem like a regular paced hiker to me.” I laugh. “I’m slower than all the people I’ve been hiking with,” I say, but I so appreciate his sweet validating comment and it does make me think, like Lion Heart made me think yesterday: what does it mean when we say we are slow, why do we do it, why am I undermining myself, who cares?

It’s really fun to hike with Toby. We chat about everything: hiking, religion, our partners, the desert. We talk about blogging while hiking and how much effort it takes at the end of a long day, but how rewarding we find it. “It’s like having a conversation with the people who are reading along,” he says, and I love that description so much. Thank you all for being in conversation with me.

We decide to stop at mile 140, at Nance Canyon. It’s the earliest I’ve ever gotten to camp, at around 6pm. I’m so excited – there’s so much daylight to do things! Toby says he loves getting to camp early, and I agree. It would be incredible to eventually be getting to camp this early regularly – it’s just hard to hike the amount of miles I want to, while avoiding the heat, and still make camp at a decent hour.

We pitch our tents and continue to chat. Toby is so cool – he’s a gender studies professor and an avid hiker and such a nice person. We both keep saying how much fun we’re having together. I’m super happy.

I have my leftover black beans for dinner on a pita and sort of roll it into a burrito; it’s surprisingly yummy and the thrill of not having to cook is amazing. I even clean out my bowl. Getting to camp early is life changing!

And then the stuff that happens every night is happening, the light is disappearing and the moon is beginning to shine and the first few stars are popping out. It’s still not cooling down; there’s barely any breeze and I’m perfectly comfortable lying fully naked on top of my quilt in my tent.

Toby and I say goodnight to each other through our cuben fiber tent walls and agree to wake up at 4am so we can be on trail by 5am.

It’s my two week anniversary on the PCT. I think maybe I can stop saying I’ve never been backpacking before, because arguably I totally have now, right? I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m figuring it out.

Tomorrow I get to eat the best burger on the PCT, and the next day I get to meet my friends in Idyllwild for a zero! I’m camping with a fellow queer in a beautiful canyon under the waxing Leo moon and the slightest hint of a breeze just blew through my tent. I’m healthy and happy and doing my best. Happy anniversary to me!


Day Thirteen: Cowboy Camping

Mile 114.5 to mile 129
14.5 miles

It’s so chilly when I wake up. I have a hard time coaxing myself out of my warm down quilt, but I try to reason with myself: soon it will be so hot and I’ll be begging for a slight chill, so I may as well make the most of it. I manage to get up and out fairly quickly and hit the trail at 6:15am. Unfortunately I immediately stop at the stream to filter water, which slows me down. I don’t have a lot “to do” out here but the chores I have all take up time and it always feels like I’m not being as efficient as I could be. My mom teased me, “Only you could be busy on the PCT!” But it feels like we all are. Taking care of basic needs in the backcountry is slow, tedious, and never ending.

I walk about half a mile and see everyone else who left Warner Springs yesterday. I’m not sad that I didn’t camp with them; I kind of like doing my own thing. It’s a weird back and forth feeling – sometimes I’m lonely, sometimes I’m grateful to be alone. My Gemini moon can’t ever make up its mind.

Soon there’s a second stream crossing and I stop again to make myself drink a liter now. “Camel up” is the term hikers use. “Better to have water in your body than on your back,” Love It Or Leave It had told me on my second day. So I drink. Tommy sits with me and we gossip for a little while. Then it’s back to the trail and up up up. I’m grateful not to have done this solo last night. The landscape feels sort of swampy and it’s not my favorite. Tommy points out that he’s just glad for trees and shade, and I have to admit he’s right. Okay, I revise my thinking. This landscape is fine!

At around the 120 mile marker is a water source called Lost Valley Spring, but the notes on the water report indicate that it’s not a great source (lots of debris and dead bugs) and I still have a lot of water left over from the stream so I decide not to fill up. A group of hikers has stopped to break in the shade on some rocks nearby, and I drop by pack. I’ve only done 6 miles by 10am, but I decide it’s time for a break anyway.

It’s fun to chat with new people. I barely recognize any of these hikers. It’s wild to me how many folks are moving through so quickly; it seems like every day someone tells me they’re still in their first week. I’m almost done with week two! Wow.

The flies are making me feel crazy today. They’re extra obsessed with us. A lizard struts by and does some push-ups by the rock, making me giggle. Lion Heart shows up and chats for a while which makes me happy, and a group of people I met briefly yesterday at Warner Springs walk up soon too. We talk about all the usual stuff: our feet, our food, the heat. 

After an hour I decide I have to keep hiking even though it’s hot and I’m sluggish. I think a lot about how humans are so fragile, how there are really so many design flaws in the human body. It reminds me of Battlestar Galactica, of the monologue that annoying cylon John gives near the end of the series – about how he wants to be more machine than human, how human bodies are too soft and easily harmed, how it would be better to be all chrome, shiny, hard, smooth, strong. Honestly, he had a point. How are we all even still alive?!

I don’t have a clear end goal in mind for the day but there’s a water source called Mike’s Place that is literally at a man named Mike’s house. I’ve heard hikers often stay there but I’ve also heard mixed things about how that experience is, so I’m not sure I want to. It sounds like a lot of people might be, though, so I start to wonder if I should.

I see two snakes on my way there and try to both drink my water to hydrate and conserve my water so I’ll have enough. Honestly I was hoping my anxiety would subside on the trail, but so far, no luck. I don’t know if it’s because I have so much cell service so I feel very plugged in, or if the experience is so new it’s hard to relax, but I still feel almost as anxious as I do in my regular life. Neat. 

When I get to Mike’s there’s a huge group of hikers there but it turns out most are not spending the night. I get in my head about a bunch of different stuff and end up feeling really sad. I am not motivated to hike on but I also don’t want to stay here. Bless Lion Heart – she’s there too and she can either read that I need a boost or she is just a sweetheart. Either way, she reaches out to me and encourages me to hike a couple of miles out with her. So I do. 

She suggests I hike in front of her, which makes me nervous because I’m so slow, but she’s supportive and insistent. I don’t feel self conscious with her like I usually do when I hike in front of someone, and she assures me the pace I’m setting is great. I had been near tears at Mike’s house I was feeling so sad and alone, so I am extra grateful now for her kindness. 

As we hike, a fairly substantial climb, we chat. She asks what made me want to do this trail and tells me how she started long distance hiking. We talk about hikers we both know and she tells me stories about previous thru-hikes. I tell her I’m not brave enough to cowboy camp yet but I wish I was. We talk about how silly it is to say “I’m so slow” all the time, how that doesn’t even mean anything and we’re all just walking at our own paces. It’s a good point; I vow to try to stop saying “I’m so slow.” I am so happy to be hiking with her and so appreciative of her understated support. I don’t know if she knows it, but she got me through those final two miles of the day. 

We get to the top of the climb where things completely level out and a huge group is there. I see Raw Hide and Amelia and Karma and also the folks who Lion Heart is sort of grouped with who I also really like, Dos Tacos and UB and Gramps and Drum Solo and some others. I resolve that I will do whatever Lion Heart does. There is room for cowboy camping but probably not to pitch two tents. Lion Heart asks if I want to try it. (!!!) I do want to, but I’m nervous. This seems like a really good time to try it though, with so many of us together and a woman I admire and respect guiding me through. I say yes, I do want to try. 

I lay out my gear and do not pitch my tent. Oh my gosh! I make dinner – a surprisingly delicious black bean soup Patagonia meal – as the sun starts to set and it’s gorgeous, really a breathtaking sunset. UB has lost a toenail and we all crowd around her to take pictures and offer advice. “You’re lightweight now,” Lion Heart jokes. I’m a bit anxious about cowboy camping. I ask UB if she’s done it before. She nods. “I love it,” she says, “you get to look at the whole sky.”

Soon the sun has fully set and we’re all in our bags. Lion Heart checks in to see that I’m okay and I am. I was so sad earlier but I’m so happy now. It really is hard to manage my emotions out here. 

My chafe is bothering me (shocker) so Dos Tacos let’s me borrow her Gold Bond. I’ve never used it before and am surprised by the tingle. 

Then I lie down, surrounded by 8 other humans, and stare up at the sky. I could stay here forever, I think. It takes a long time for me to close my eyes for bed – there’s just too much beautiful sky to stare up at.

Day Twelve: Nero and Night Hiking

Mile 109.5 to mile 114.5
5 miles

Today is lazy on purpose. I’m taking a nero, which is like a zero but you hike a little bit – Nearly a Zero! I sleep in and don’t plan to hike out until it’s cooler, so I have until 4pm or 5pm. A bunch of other hikers have this same plan. I’m getting used to all of this – the trail, the routines, the zero/nero chores, the other hikers. It’s day 12 and I’ve been on the trail almost two weeks.

I get up and try to find a ride to the post office. The sheriff in this town does early morning shuttle rides to the post office, which is adorable, but I’ve slept in too long to score one of those rides. Apparently there’s a trail angel parked in the lot giving out beer and potato chips. It’s a bit a early for me to have a beer but I am always down for chips. I saunter over in my silly laundry outfit from yesterday because I like it so much and want to keep airing out my body, specifically my butt. Will I ever not be thinking about my butt?

I’d texted Carrot about my butt chafe issues and she texts me back today:

It turns out that the trail angel giving out beer is a hiker’s dad/husband – two hikers, Jordan and Trudy, just got in today, and they’re from San Diego so their dad/husband drove to see them and bring them resupply stuff. It’s so sweet! And…there’s Diet Coke in the cooler!! Trudy tells me she loves Diet Coke so she requested it and I should help myself to as much as I want. Jordan says once they hike out his dad will give me a ride to the post office and then bring me back. It’s only a mile away but I’m expecting three boxes and really don’t want to walk more than I have to today. I’m very grateful for the offered ride and I wait for him to be ready. It’s so simple for life to be good.

The post office is easy. I heard it was busy earlier but now it’s 11am and empty. I walk in and retrieve my three packages and then ride back to the community center. Jordan’s dad leaves and wishes me luck and I head inside to open my boxes.

One package is from my mom, one is from my friend Jess (who is also hiking the PCT this year and started just a week or so after me!) and one is from myself/Susie. People do all sorts of hybrid resupply strategies on the PCT; I am sending myself some boxes, but not too many. For context, some people send zero, and Cate and Mike are sending 30. I am sending 6 in California and will decide what I want to do for Oregon and Washington later.

Anyway I filled my boxes with food and the maps I’d need for this section at Barb and Susie’s place before I left, and now Susie has a document that indicates when and where she should mail each box. I imagined the resupply job would be a huge pain for whoever did it, but Susie is literally the sweetest human in the world and assures me that she finds it fun. She’s decorated my box with art and poetry from We’moon, the feminist astrological datebook she and Barb help create with a team of other women and that I used to work for, and she’s stuffed sweet notes inside. My mom decorated my box with flower stickers and a giant pink bow and wrote me the sweetest card, and Jess wrote me an encouraging letter and sent me a bunch of hard candies, in response to me complaining about dry mouth a few weeks ago.

I’m so fucking touched by the energy and love and care everyone is sending my way. I almost cry sorting through my resupply loot. I have way too much food and even more good vibes. I carefully go through the food I’ve sent myself and my mom sent me and decide what needs to go in the hiker free box and what I will carry on this next stretch. I tuck the love and positive energy away in my heart to pull out when I’m having a hard time. I can’t get over how many people are cheering for me, how lucky I am. Thank you, I think to myself. Thank you, I text Mom and Susie and Jess. Thank you, thank you.

The rest of my time in “town” is a blur. I’ve heard that town is stressful and I didn’t think I would feel that way but I do. There’s so much that could be done but no time, it seems. I try to be efficient. Call Mom. FaceTime Alley. Buy more o-rings for my filter. Stop in at the cool gear shop in an airstream that lives at Warner Springs and chat with the folks that work there. Clean my stupid pot. Soak my feet and re-tape my blisters. I’m gonna be the last person hiking out of here, I think. Raw Hide left at 4 but I wasn’t ready. Everyone else left too. It’s almost 5. Sigh.

Before I go some exciting things happen. Claire and Hannah, the mother daughter duo I haven’t seen since Mt Laguna, show up! It’s Hannah’s last day and I’m so so glad I get to see them.

And then I recognize Lion Heart, a woman I’ve followed on Instagram and her blog for more than a year! She’s hiked the PCT before and has done a lot of other long distance hiking and I admire her a lot. And then! Toby! I forget exactly how Toby and I connected but I believe his girlfriend found my Autostraddle article and the Alley found his blog and then I found his blog and I dunno, he’s a queer person hiking this trail and I’ve been hoping he’ll catch up to me! And he has! I’m actually so disappointed to only see him and Lion Heart for a minute, but I’ve got to hike out tonight. They’re fast. They’ll catch up.

Finally, finally, finally, I leave. It’s 6pm now. I’m going to be night hiking tonight. Alone. I think I’m okay with that.

The hike out is easy. It’s still hot but the sun is setting and the fields are flat. I’m happy but a little anxious about night time hiking. I’m only aiming to do 6 miles or so. Everyone else who hiked out today was aiming to camp at mile 115. We’ll see.

I keep walking through the field and then! Cows! Oh! In…the middle of the trail. Wow, okay. There are like 15 big black cows just hanging out on the trail. Neat, they’re hiking the PCT too. I’m not thrilled. I’m totally alone and about to face off with some large heavy animals. Um…

I approach slowly, not sure how to proceed. Ugh, it would be so annoying if I died on the PCT in a cow stampede. Like, super anti-climactic, ya know? The cows are interested in me. I hold out my trekking poles and try to avoid eye contact. “No!” I say forcefully. “Stay! No! Goodbye!” They let me pass. Whew.

But not 100 feet later, there is another group of cows! Good grief. These ones are more interested in me and refuse to move. I detour off the trail into the tall grass to avoid them, doing my same move with my trekking pole and strong voice. “No! No! No!”

I must look absurd, I think. One more group of cows ahead. I’m tempted to stop and take a million photos but I remind myself about now wanting to die in a cow stampede on the PCT. I make it past the last group of cows with my signature trekking pole/firm voice move. Soon I get to a livestock fence and gratefully open and close the gate behind me. Bye, cows! Gotta go. Whew.

I feel really solo again, like I did when I hiked out of Mt. Laguna. I can’t tell if I feel more confident this time. My feet definitely feel better.

I get a little lost in a dry river bed where the trail makes a weird unmarked fork, but I realize quickly and am able to get myself back on track. It spooks me a little but is ultimately fine.

The sun starts setting as I climb up up up and I make peace with the idea of night hiking for real. It’s fine, I tell myself. I’ll just hike until I don’t want to anymore. The sunset is beautiful and I continue to enjoy being by myself. My own pace, in my own head. It’s good. Everything is good.

Soon it’s dark and then it’s dark dark and I’m slightly less happy about my choices. I’ve put my headlamp on in anticipation of the real dark night and am glad I have it. The stars are coming out, and a sliver of moon. I feel scared but try to calm myself and see the beauty. It is beautiful. I chant to myself as I walk: “I am safe, I am brave, I am magical.” I say it out loud, over and over.

I haven’t seen another human for a few miles, and I’m weirdly not scared of animals. I try not to be scared of the dark. I remember Susie’s note to me in my package today: “V, if the path beats you down in the daylight – remember to let the stars and grandmother moon heal you in the night!” I call in my mom’s magic, my late grandma’s magic, my own magic. I am safe, I am brave, I am magical.

I get to mile 114, one mile short of where I was aiming for, and stop. I hear the stream rushing and think about how much I don’t want to cross water at night and how nice it would be to wake up to water.

There’s one other tent here already – I hear women’s voices speaking in French from inside and assume it must be the French girls, Camille and Juliet. Their trail name is The Mermaids. How funny to have a shared trail name. How fitting for them to be camping by water.

I make peace with stopping here for the night and quickly get my tent up. I can’t remember if sleeping near water might cause condensation in my tent but I suppose I’ll find out in the morning. I eat a cold dinner – just a combination of snacks, really – and get ready for bed, trying to be quiet so as not to disrupt The Mermaids.

I want to plan for tomorrow but I’m so tired. I want to write but I’m exhausted for that, too. I take some brief notes and promise to catch up when I can. Blogging on trail is hard. I set an alarm for 5am. It’s nice to be back on the trail. I fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and frogs croaking at the creek.

Day Eleven: 100 Miles!

Mile 96.5 to mile 109.5
13 miles

Sure enough, at 4am I hear Heidi leave. I don’t mind – she warned me she gets up early. Some people got to our campsite late last night after both Heidi and I were already asleep (and woke both of us up being loud, for the record) and they are all still sleeping. I halfheartedly think about getting up with Heidi but that’s not happening. I stare at the stars for awhile, then snooze some more until 5:30am.

It’s only 6:10am when I do hit the trail, and I’m quite proud of myself. My butt chafe has calmed down overnight and I apply copious amounts of Body Glide to try to mitigate the issue until I get to town. Today is the day I’m going to hit the 100 mile marker, get to Warner Springs, and finally see Cate, Mike, and Lynn! I’m hyper with excitement.

“If you can make it to Warner Springs you can make it to Canada!”

That’s what Ed, the kind man who gave me a ride from the trail to Julian a few days ago, said to me and the other hikers in his car as we drove down the winding roads away from the PCT and toward free pie and fun at Carmen’s. I think about that non-stop today: if I can make it to Warner Springs, I can make it to Canada! The words ring in my head like a spell, or a premonition.

The trail feels unusually busy; everyone is excited to get to Warner Springs. Many of us are planning to take zeros or neros there, and even if we’re not, it’s an exciting milestone on the trail. Just 9 miles past the 100 mile marker and the first place many people receive a resupply box. And for me, it will be the place I finally see my close friends again.

The morning air is still cool in the 6am hour and I tromp easily down the trail, excitedly looking out for the “100” that I know will be marked in stones on the side of the trail. I’m so close! I feel really excited and proud of myself; I’ve never hiked 100 miles consecutively before.

I’m walking as quickly as I can and then suddenly there it is! To my left, made out of large stones, the number 100 is marked on the trail! I feel emotional. I’m doing this! I’ve walked 100 miles! I’m gonna get to Warner Springs and I’m gonna get to Canada! I stop and take photos of my feet near the stones. I check to see if I have service and I do; I promptly send the photos to my mom and to Alley. Then I realize it’s already getting hot and I’ve got 9 more miles to hike. Time to keep moving.

Soon after that thrilling moment on the trail I get to Barrel Springs, today’s first water source. Tommy and his gang are all still there – it seems they haven’t started hiking yet. Tommy is leading his daily morning stretch class. They ask if I wanna join in but I don’t; instead, I take a short Instagram video of the group and filter my water out of the faucet attached to the container of water. I’m delighted that there’s a faucet.

My mistake today is dawdling once I get to the water source. I pause to chat with Alan and Tron, I stay and talk to some more folks. Then I start hiking out, toward Warner Springs and before that, Eagle Rock, and I feel slow and exhausted. Darn it. It’s hot, like it always is, and my body is craving the rest it will receive in Warner Springs. And of course my butt chafe is acting up. But I’ve still got 9 miles to go.

Eagle Rock is a rock formation on the PCT that looks like…you guessed it! A unicorn. No just kidding, Eagle Rock looks like an eagle. It’s just a few hundred feet off the PCT so almost all hikers stop to look at it. I didn’t realize this at first but it’s also a very popular destination for day hikers. When I arrive it’s very busy. Two women are posing on the eagle formation holding an American flag around them. It’s bizarre.

There’s a group of thru-hikers hanging around in a group waiting for the day hikers to finish taking their photos. The attitude some thru-hikers have towards day hikers irritates me – it’s a mix of superiority and disdain and it’s just bullshit. Day hikers are amazing and until two weeks ago I was one. Also, everyone deserves to enjoy outdoor spaces, not just people who wanna do it for five months in an intense way. Day hiking is rad and should be encouraged, not sneered at. All that said – the long photo shoot with an American flag was pretty weird.

Eventually we all get our photos taken with the rock. I wonder how it came to be; I have no idea. When I get home I’d like to do a better job of learning the history of the PCT and all of its magic and secrets.

After our own photo shoot it’s time to book it to Warner Springs. There’s only about 3 miles left but oh god, it feels like it’s millions of miles away.

I do my best to hustle. I stop and take a lot of water breaks. Some horses pass me (horses are allowed on the PCT). Every other hiker, it feels like, passes me. And then…the road! I’m here! Ahhhhhh!!!!

Warner Springs is a town, but the only real part of it that hikers see is the community center (and maybe also the post office and the one restaurant). The community center is set up to be a hub for hikers during Hiker Season, and it’s run entirely by amazing volunteers. I continue to be awed and humbled by the human beings who donate their time and resources to a bunch of weirdos who decided to walk from Mexico to Canada.

When I arrive at the center, which is just a few hundred feet off the trail, there are tons of packs outside the building and tons of hikers milling around. I drop my pack and walk inside, where a sweet woman at the front desk has me sign in and gives me the run down of the place. There’s a sign next to her that reminds hikers that Mother’s Day is coming up and says we can buy a card and have it mailed to Mom for $3 – I’m moved. That’s so sweet. I look behind the woman at the desk when she is finished explaining and it seems like every hiker I’ve ever met is sitting here in this room. Wow!

And then – I SEE MIKE AND CATE AND LYNN! They are so clean! I hug Mike anyway; I didn’t know I could feel so happy to see such a new friend. He laughs at me. “Well, I was so clean,” he says. Oh man, I’m so happy. I’m so happy.

My friends have been here for a day already and are hiking out tonight, which makes me really sad to hear, but I try to focus on being happy to see them. They repeat much of what the woman at the front desk has explained and show me where everything is.

There’s a huge lawn where hikers can set up their tents for free. Mike and Lynn help me set mine up in the intense wind and it’s the most perfect pitch I’ve achieved on this trip. There’s a bucket shower area in the back of the community center which is exactly what it sounds like – you fill a bucket and go into a stall and use a jug to dump water on your body. It reminds me of the baths I would give the toddlers I used to nanny, and it makes me miss them. (Hi Grayson and Finn and Jonathan!) Hikers can also do laundry in a bucket at the bucket shower station, and hang it on the chain link fence to dry. The center even has wifi! It’s like a perfect hiker oasis. I’m bummed that my friends are leaving but other than that I feel very happy.

Lots of stuff happens in the next few hours before they leave. Mike and Cate introduce me to Raw Hide, a girl from Portland who is remarkably similar to me. She’s been at Warner Springs recovering from blisters for a few days. She also experienced some horrible thigh chafing early on and suggests Vaseline to me for my own chafe issues. I like her immediately and we talk about hiking out together tomorrow.

I have been craving Diet Coke for what feels like forever so I attempt to purchase one. The fridge is stocked with soda but I don’t see any Diet Coke – like I’ve said, people don’t really think hikers want diet soda. It’s garbage. But it is all I want. I peer into the huge refrigerator filled with red cans of Coke and blue and green cans of Sprite. The volunteer helping me looks apologetic. But wait! I spy some silver at the back. “There are two cans of Diet Coke!” I say excitedly. The volunteer looks amused. “Wow, good eyes,” she says. I am so happy. I manifested myself Diet Coke! I buy one now and leave the other in the fridge so it remains cold. I hide it behind some cans of Coke so hopefully no one buys it before I get back to it. Now I am truly the happiest girl in the world.

The center has a closet stocked with donated clothes that hikers can “shop” so we can wear a clean outfit while we wash all our disgusting clothes. Cate helps me pick through the options and I we settle on something truly magical.

I shower, I do laundry, I chat with all the other hikers. I tend to my butt chafe. It seems to calm down as soon as I’m not hiking and not wearing spandex. I have a feeling I’m going to need new shorts.

Cate and Mike and Lynn keep trying to leave but they get held up when a volunteer starts cooking burgers and steaks! I pay $8 for a steak and potato dinner and I feel like a diva. I go back to the refrigerator to hopefully buy the second (hidden) Diet Coke and it is still there! Two Diet Cokes in one day! My friend Colleen’s dad meets her at the community center and brings a cooler of fruit for everyone. I have an apple for dessert and take two baby oranges for later. Life is good.

My friends finally hike out but we make plans to meet up in Idyllwild. It’s the next town on the trail, about 70 miles up. There is also a fire closure near the town so there are a few different ways one can hike or hitch there, covering different mileages and different portions of the actual PCT. My feet feel good and I feel healthy so I’m confident that I’ll be in Idyllwild on Friday, just like they will be. I’m so proud of myself for catching up with them. They say they will book a room for us for Friday and Saturday and I say that sounds perfect, count me in.

Then they leave and I check on my clothes that are drying on the fence and they’re mostly dry. I collect them and bring them to my tent and get cozy. There’s a lot of noise – the adage is if one hiker is awake, all hikers are awake. Many many hikers are definitely awake and having a rowdy time tonight, but I don’t mind. I’m spending the day here tomorrow before hiking out in the late afternoon, and I get to rest and eat and talk to Alley and my mom and everything is perfect. What a roller coaster this hiker life is, I think.

But I’m doing it. I made it to Warner Springs, the end of Section A on the Halfmile PCT maps. I think about Ed’s words again as I close my eyes. Canada. So far away. But attainable. If you make it to Warner Springs

Day Ten: Butt Chafe Is Forever

Mile 80 to mile 96.5
16.5 miles

At 5am it’s still dark and I wake up to a noise. I see a red light and realize someone is walking down the trail with their headlamp on the red setting so as to be unobtrusive. Well. Nothing like someone else overachieving to get my ass out of bed. I sit up and start getting ready for the day.

I eat the rest of my burrito from the night before for breakfast and pack up camp fast and then I’m back on the ridge, walking the miles I’d meant to make last night. It’s been so hot during the day it’s hard to hike effectively, so I’m attempting to do ten miles before 10am – just for efficiency.

I panic texted Hot Legs and Taylor last night to ask about the o-ring coming out of my Sawyer filter – Hot Legs because he is my hero, and Tay because she’s my go-to person when I want to learn more about my gear without enduring any mansplaining. Hot Legs has texted me back, bless him. “Call me if you have a minute and I’ll explain,” he writes. I have service and I’m entirely alone on this ridge – I literally haven’t seen a single other human being yet besides the person who passed my tent before I woke up today – so I call him. It’s 7:45am. The phone rings and he answers.

He explains that the o-ring on the Sawyer often comes out and that’s fine, you just need to pop it back in. He says I can buy some replacements at the next gear shop I get to, if that will make me feel more secure. Well okay then! I’m relieved that my filter isn’t broken and I don’t need to spend $40 on a new one and I’m bemused at how little I know about everything and I’m grateful, as always, to Hot Legs. I tell him my feet feel amazing and he sounds so genuinely thrilled.

After my early morning phone date I keep hiking. Sometimes when I’m in a rush I challenge myself not to take any photos until I’ve made a certain amount of miles. I love taking pictures while I hike – it’s a huge incentive for me to be out here – but to be honest I could probably hike 1-2 miles more every single day if I just didn’t take so many photos. That’s not to say I’ll stop – I would never, it brings me way too much joy – but it’s good to keep in mind when I’m trying to hustle or beat the heat. And I’m always trying to beat the heat; we all are. It’s so hot.

The next reliable water source is the only cache the PCTA recognizes on the entire trail, the Third Gate Cache. Water caches exist because there’s not enough water in the desert and people are angels and want to help hikers – they are spots on the trail where people literally just bring gallons of water and leave it for hikers to use. You can’t rely on caches because they might be empty when you get there – sometimes a cache is fine in the morning but by noon 200 hikers have gone through and all taken 2-3 liters and it’s pretty much done. But Ed, the sweet man who gave me a ride into Julian yesterday, told me that the Third Gate Cache is maintained by the PCTA and is the only cache on the whole trail that is considered a reliable source. There’s also a cistern there, so if the cache were empty there would still be that option. So I’m counting this cache as a reliable water source and I want to get there before noon so I can take a lengthy break there.

The hike is a bit of a climb but I feel good. My knee has relaxed since that intense day of down down down and the ridge I’m walking remains beautiful. It’s such a beautiful year to be hiking the desert. I wonder where all the people I saw in Julian yesterday are – Colleen and Amelia and Alan and Justin and Tommy and Rachel. I’m a little self-conscious about being so alone, which is unusual for me. I like being alone! But this is an intense journey and it’s nice to have a little group of people, a clique, I guess. I’m used to my close friends at home. I was used to hiking with Cate and Mike and Lynn and Shakedown. I feel a little unmoored now, a little jealous of everyone and their close friend groups. I’m just a bit on the outside.

As I’m walking I keep an eye out for shady spots, which are not abundant at all. I need to make sure I take my shoes and socks off and air out my feet to help my current blisters and prevent future blisters. And I need to be eating more. Nothing tastes good in the desert, it turns out – not a single thing in my food bag is appealing – but I need the calories. I can make myself feel a little excited about the Justin’s chocolate hazelnut butter packets and the homemade jerky Susie sent me, but honestly, the heat just makes me crave cold water and Diet Coke.

I turn a ridge corner and see a familiar figure under a sun umbrella – Tim! I’m so stoked to see him, we haven’t seen one another since Mt. Laguna, which seems like ages ago! Last time he saw me I could barely walk because of my blisters! We share a sweaty hug and catch up for a bit. “It’s so nice to see you back on trail looking so happy,” he says. It makes me feel really nice. We leap frog each other all the way to the water source.

As I turn one of the last corners, I look down and yelp – a snake! It’s the first one I’ve seen in the daylight, and the first big one I’ve seen. The two tiny ones we saw while night hiking on the third day were somewhat anticlimactic. This snake is silver and beautiful and fast – she slithers off the trail before I can even take a good photo. Whew, okay. Bye, snake!

When I finally arrive I look at my phone: I didn’t make 10 miles by 10 but I did make 11 miles by 11:30! I’ll take it. Now to get water and rest.

A huge group of humans has congregated here, and I think once again how we are like a herd of animals moving through this landscape. What must the lizards think of us, the snakes, the bunnies? We are so weird.

I see Alan sitting with everyone else and feel very excited to see him. I don’t think he’s quite as excited to see me but he humors me. I am hungry for friendship right now; I don’t really like the feeling but I let it happen. It’s okay to be lonely, I tell myself.

I sit in the dirt and eat lunch: tortillas and a tuna packet and potato chips. It’s mediocre. Then I follow the water signs to the cache because Alan says it’s running low. He’s been at the water source since 9:30am and has no plans to hike during the day. He’s done with the sun, only wants to night hike now. I wish I felt brave enough to do that because the heat is brutal but I’m slow so I’d always be alone, and that makes me feel not great. I don’t know.

I walk down the hill where the cache is and pass a few more pockets of friends. I fill up my bottles and say a silent thanks to the people who keep this cache stocked. I’d be carrying 7+ liters of water (at 2.2 pounds a liter) if this source weren’t here. Thank you, thank you. With my water taken care of I climb back up the hill and go to find Alan and the little group he is resting with. Rachel, Tron, Alan, and Justin are lined up in a row under a shady tree. I ask if there’s space for one more and Alan and Justin kindly adjust to make space for me. I roll out my thin grey sleeping pad and join them. Siesta time.

We snooze, fuck around on our phones, eat snacks. The flies are obsessed with us; we smell disgusting, I guess. I realize I have to poop for the second time today and feel super annoyed. Every time I use the bathroom feels like an opportunity to irritate my dormant butt chafe. Sorry for being real y’all, but This Is Reality On A Thru-Hike. Anyway I’m gonna be here for hours and I really have to go, so I grab my bathroom bag (shovel, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, baggie to put used toilet paper in) and take a walk to find a private spot. Sure enough, when I’m all done my chafing feels irritated. Fuck. I’m also down to just a few squares of toilet paper. I thought I’d have more than enough to last me from Julian to Warner Springs, but I didn’t anticipate pooping more than once a day. I bet some of you are horrified to know so much about my bathroom habits. Regardless, now I’m worried about toilet paper. Will I ever get the hang of how this all works?! This all being my basic needs in the backcountry? I dunno.

I sadly head back to my spot under the tree with these people who are nice but aren’t really my friends. My butt chafe hurts and I just feel sort of blue. I have cell service so I can text with Alley, at least.

Eventually everyone gets tired of actually napping so we’re all just sort of sitting on our mats, chatting about nothing. Food, our feet. The usual. I think about if it’s appropriate to ask them if they have spare toilet paper. It’s kind of embarrassing but not having toilet paper would be horrible, right? I know I can theoretically use things around me – sticks, stones, leaves – but I don’t really want to. So.

“Hey, guys? I have kind of an embarrassing question to ask…” They all look at me. “Um, does anyone have any extra toilet paper…?” The boys all three dutifully go into their packs and pull out their bathroom bags. Soon I have three different shades of off-white TP sitting in my lap; they have each donated a small amount of their small stash. “My body only seems to go to the bathroom in town anyway, so I guess I don’t need any of this,” Tron jokes. I am intensely moved by their act of kindness. Sharing toilet paper on a thru-hike: maybe these people really are my true friends!

At around 3pm Rachel gets antsy and hikes out. I know she wants to catch up to her group. I’m alone, have no one I need to catch up to, but decide to hike out at 4:30pm anyway. I’ve been hanging out for a few hours and I’m ready to move. Aside from my butt chafe my body feels good and I want to see how many miles I can make today. I pack up and say bye to the boys and then I’m all alone again.

The hiking is hot. It seems like the earth just doesn’t want to cool down. The PCT is busy and many of the camp spots I think I might stay at already have 1-3 tents there. Damn.

I decide I’ll stop at mile 96.5 no matter what. I’m getting tired, it’s getting dark, and that will be a 16.5 mile day. Cool. At around the 95 mile marker I see Tim, setting up his sleeping pad and quilt in a little crevasse tucked away from the edge of the ridge. It’s not an official camping spot but it’s definitely big enough for one person. I’m jealous that he’s brave enough to cowboy camp! How cool. “Hey Scissors, there’s already a tent set up at that spot up ahead!” What? I’m crushed. I don’t want to walk anymore today! But how does he know? “I walked up that way because I thought I’d camp there, but then when I saw a tent I quickly scurried back to this spot!” Ugh. I can’t imagine turning around and walking 1.5 miles extra BACK to a sleeping spot. “I’ll figure it out,” I tell Tim. Maybe there will be room for my tent at the spot up ahead, too.

The next 1.5 miles are easy. I’m really booking it, so ready to be done, and also hyped on adrenaline. Will I be able to camp here? I arrive and see the tent Tim mentioned. It’s situated a bit above the trail, up a gentle slope. I climb up and survey the space – there’s a lot of room for another tent. The woman in the tent stirs – I’m not sure if she’s awake or asleep, if I should say anything or just let her be. Camp etiquette is confusing sometimes.

Then she sits up and looks at me so I say, “Hi!” I ask I can camp with her and she says of course. “I wake up really early though so I hope that doesn’t bother you,” she says. I tell her it’s no problem, I wake up early too. “Like how early,” I ask. “I like to be on trail by 4am,” she says. Oh! She explains she hates the heat and tries to get 10 miles done before 10am. That’s everyone’s motto, I guess! I say I’m not up that early but it’s fine, I’m a heavy sleeper. Worst case scenario she wakes me and I’ll roll over and look at the perfect sky before going back to sleep. I’m just so excited to be at camp.

We talk a tiny bit more. Her name is Heidi and she’s from Utah. Then she rolls over to go to sleep and I move away from our tents to cook my dinner. I make mashed potatoes with olive oil, kale flakes, teriyaki jerky, and seasoning salt. I let it sit in my homemade insulated pot holder to fully hydrate while I go about my other evening chores: take off shoes and wear flip flops, pitch my tent, blow up my mattress, change into sleep clothes.

Taking off my pants I realize my chafe is even worse than I thought. Fuck. I’ll sleep naked on the bottom to try to air things out but I really don’t know how to deal with this ongoing issue. My spandex shorts are amazing at stopping thigh chafe but they seem to encourage butt chafe. As an experienced nanny I can say with certainty: I’m basically getting diaper rash from the wet fabric up against my skin. CUTE! Hi Alley, don’t you love dating me? Ugh. What to do, what to do. I text Carrot: “Is butt chafe just something that never goes away and can attack at any moment?”

With all my chores done I get into my sleeping quilt and grab my dinner. It’s okay. I make myself eat all of it because what else is there to do, but by the time I’m done choking it down it’s dark out, and I just can’t bring myself to get out of my tent and clean my pot. The stars are out, my pants are off, and tomorrow I’m going to hit the 100 mile marker and then Warner Springs, a tiny town where I’ll apparently be able to take a bucket shower and hopefully finally catch up with Cate and Mike and Lynn.

I close my eyes and go to sleep.

Day Nine: Rejuvenation in Julian

Mile 73 to mile 80
7 miles

My alarm goes off at 5:30 and I think I do a pretty good job getting ready quickly. I hit snooze once (oops, old habits die hard) but then I’m up and eating breakfast and getting things together. When I pop my head out of my tent at 6:15 to say hi to Montana and Blueberry – they’re gone! Well. So much for feeling good about my early start. Oh well – they’re trying to make it to Warner Springs by tomorrow morning and I am definitely not.

I’ve got everything packed and ready to go when my body lets me know it’s time to dig a cat hole. At first I’m annoyed but then I chide myself – this is exactly the perfect time to take care of business! My pack’s not even on yet, I’m not on a ridge where I’d fall to my death if I so much as coughed, let alone tried to poop – this is exactly how things should be. Okay okay okay – I walk 70+ paces away from camp and the trail, dig my little hole, and get on with things. Good work, Body, I think. You’re getting used to this!

With everything taken care of I finally put my pack on and start moving. My only solid goal for the day is to get to Julian, and it’s just four miles before Scissors Crossing, the spot where everyone hitches the 13 miles to town. I may sleep in Julian tonight or I may just hang out there for the day. The only thing I know for certain is I’ll be getting a slice of free pie at Mom’s, a bakery that gives free pie to PCT hikers. I’m in a very good mood.

The miles to Scissors Crossing are easy. I’m well rested but they’re also just objectively easy. There’s a bit more ridge walking/climbing that I’m glad I didn’t attempt last night when my knee was hurting, and then suddenly I’m finished with the “down” portion of the day’s hike and it’s all flat flat flat. Suddenly I’m practically running! Pie! I’m coming for ya!

I’m alone for a long time, like always, and then I hear rustling behind me and a cheery, “Hi Scissors!” I love my trail name. I turn around and it’s Cory, one of the guys I met at the water source yesterday afternoon. He’s sweet. I ask if he’s stopping in Julian for pie but he says no. He wants to keep moving and maybe zero in Warner Springs. “Besides,” he says almost bashfully, “this has been the best week of my life, so I wanna keep going!” It’s such a sweet thing to say. And it makes me wonder – has this been the best week of my life? I’ve been on the trail 9 days – it’s been more than a week! But has it been the best? And if not, what was the best week of my life? I really don’t know. But I find his awe and joy very honest and uplifting, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it once he’s gone. And he is gone, so quickly, because he’s one of those Fast Hikers. “Bye Scissors!” he calls as he leaves. “See you at your crossing!”

I don’t see anyone after Cory and it’s just the smoothest trail. No elevation gains, no rocks, no excessive heat – I complete the 4 miles in less than 2 hours, getting to the side of the road at around 9:20am. Much to my surprise, there’s Cory! He’s waiting on his friend. I have him take my picture and then wave goodbye. I’ve gotta go attempt my first hitch hike!

I have no idea what this experience will be like – I’ve heard both that it’s an easy hitch and a difficult hitch – and I’ve never hitchhiked in this country before, so I’m a bit apprehensive. However the nerves are unnecessary because before I even hit the crossing where people usually hitch, a car slows down next to the trail (the PCT is often weirdly close to the road, like I can hear cars and it’s so odd to be in “the middle of nowhere” but also like, next to the highway, but for a tiny portion of today the trail actually paralleled the road exactly with just a wire fence separating the two) and a nice bearded dude asks if I need a ride. Yes please! He introduces himself as Brew-Hike and I say I’m Scissors. “Welcome to Scissors, Scissors!” he says. I grin. He says he’s just going to drive a bit further to see if any other hikers need a ride too and he’ll meet me at the road. Cool!

I get to the road and Brew-Hike isn’t there yet, but another kind man, Ed, is. He offers me a ride! Sheesh, if hitching were always this easy no one would own a car! I’m very grateful to both these men, even though Brew-Hike didn’t end up giving me a ride. Like I mentioned a couple of posts ago, being a girl alone in the world can sometimes be frustratingly scary, and it’s really cool when people go out of their way to make you feel safe.

Two other hikers ride with me and Ed to Julian. Once we’re there Ed drops us off at Carmen’s. I’ve heard Carmen, the owner of the restaurant of the same name, loves hikers, but nothing could have prepared me for the incredible woman I was about to meet. “Introduce yourself to Carmen,” Ed tells us. “She loves to meet all the hikers.”

Carmen is about my height, with long thick hair and a permanent grin on her face. She’s wearing white pants and a denim shirt and I can feel her personality radiating off her body. I timidly follow her into her restaurant and introduce myself. “Hi, I’m Scissors,” I say. She gives me a huge hug. “Hi honey! What can I get ya? Beer? Orange juice? Mimosa? If you have a mimosa I’ll have one with you!” Who can say no to an offer like that?!

Carmen makes us mimosas and tells me she’s about to make breakfast burritos. $3 for hikers. Yes she can make mine with no dairy. Her restaurant is currently closed to the public, but there’s a sign out front that says CLOSED – EXCEPT FOR HIKER TRASH. This lady is a saint. She loves hikers and let’s us hang at her restaurant all day long, do our laundry in her machine on the premises, and charge our devices in her numerous outlets. Oh – and she also lets hikers sleep on the floor of her restaurant for free! Trail magic is so real and so mind blowing.

I still don’t know if I’m going to spend the night in Julian or not but Carmen makes it sound tempting! I try to get some town chores going so I have the option of leaving or staying.

The two women from Australia who I briefly met yesterday and I group our laundry together and pop it in. Carmen makes us all breakfast burritos and I eat the whole thing easily, even though Ed said they’re big enough to be breakfast and lunch. And I hang out and make some friends.

I’ve been a little bit anti-social since splitting up from Mike and Cate and Shakedown and Lynn. Not intentionally, I don’t think – I just haven’t clicked with other people and I’ve felt a little intimidated by some of the larger groups that are obviously already very bonded. But sitting on the deck at Carmen’s I feel myself relax into me for the first time in a few days. I chat with Chelsey, a veterinarian from Alaska who is also hiking solo. I get excited to meet Tommy, a gay guy from Portland. (Another queer on the trail!) I meet Nirvana and Rachel, Brooke and her entire crew, and everyone is nice and relaxed and engaging and I’m relieved. The guys from the other night are also there – the ones who experienced Tom’s trail magic with me – and it’s nice to see them. Alan and I bond and talk shit for awhile and I have a feeling we could be good friends, if I can keep up with him.

Chelsey and her sprouts!

Once my laundry is hanging up to dry and I’ve scheduled some blog posts, I head to Mom’s for pie. Brooke comes with me and it’s fun chatting with a new person about our different experiences on the trail. She’s rolling deep with a crew of eight people and I’m a little envious. Anyway. I show the pie shop my hiking permit and I get apple cherry pie and apple cider and it’s delicious and I’m so happy. There’s definitely dairy in the pie and I may pay for it later but for now I don’t care.

We walk back to Carmen’s and I decide I should get back to the trail today. It doesn’t seem possible to hitch out of Julian early in the morning – everyone laughs about getting caught in the town/Carmen vortex – and there’s a steep climb out of Scissors Crossing that would be a nightmare to do in the major heat of the day. So the solution is to do it super early or in the afternoon – but unless I feel like waiting until tomorrow afternoon to get back on trail, it seems I should get moving. And I don’t want to wait that long. My body feels good, my feet are healing, and I’m in a good mental place. I want to be hiking!

Did another foot soak before getting back on the trail! My feet are healing well.

I try to be fast with the rest of my chores so I can hitch back to the trail with Alan and the other guys, but I’m slow. Oh well – I’ll have to go solo. I check on my feet – they’re healing so well! I treat them and tape them just like Hot Legs showed me. I continue to be so grateful to him. I go through all the trash in my bag and get rid of it, I pack away my laundry, I call Alley and my mom for quick chats. Carmen shows up while I’m on the phone with my mom and we quickly FaceTime so they can meet. My mom is overcome with gratitude for Carmen and thanks her profusely and Carmen is obsessed that my mom and I look identical. It’s very cute all around.

And then it’s time to go. I order a burrito for the road and fill up my water bottles. My Sawyer Squeeze water filter o-ring has broken which is not ideal. I’m not sure how to deal with it, actually. I have Aqua Mira drops if the Sawyer is ruined. I’ll get in touch with their customer service ASAP.

When all my chores are done I go stand in front of the post office with my thumb out. My first real hitch. Yikes!

Admittedly, I’m nervous. Who will pick me up?

I stand on the side of the road with my thumb out for a little while. Not too long. Maybe 10 minutes? Maybe 20? It’s kind of awkward. I smile to show I am a nice regular person – you totally want me in your car!

Finally, a pickup truck pulls up and a woman rolls down the passenger window. “Come on in, honey,” she tells me. “You can put your bag in the back!”

Honestly, I’m so relieved that this person is a woman. I do as she says and then we are zooming away! She knows I’m going to Scissors Crossing because of course I am. PCT culture is strong in these small towns off the trail. I try to be a good thru-hiker ambassador.

The woman who is driving me is named Irma, and we’re both delighted to discover I share a name (Vanessa, not Scissors) with her younger sister, who she named! They are both born on December 20 and I am born a day later, on December 21! She is so kind. She seems surprised and impressed that I’m walking all the way to Canada. She tells me about her daughters, and about her job, and about her belief that you can’t force religion on your kids. I really like her, feel so safe and comfortable in her car. Please let all my hitches feel this good, I send a prayer out into the world.

And then we’re at the trail, exactly where Ed picked me up this morning. I thank Irma profusely and take my pack out of her truck bed. I ask to take her picture and her response makes me sad – “Oh fine, but I’ll break the camera!” She is beautiful. I snap her photo and wave goodbye, and then she’s gone and I’m back at the PCT.

I was only in Julian for a few hours – from 10am to 5pm, maybe – but it feels like I have been In Town for So Long. I laugh to myself a bit – it reminds me of the way days off used to feel when I was a counselor at sleepover summer camp, or the way they depict “going into town for the afternoon” in Wet Hot American Summer. It really does take so little to feel so thoroughly rejuvenated.

The switchbacks out of Scissors Crossing are intimidating to say the least, and I’m so glad I’m not doing them at 12pm. It’s almost 6pm now and the air is cool, almost chilly. The climb is still tough, but it’s doable.

I am initially aiming to get to mile 85, where a bunch of other people who were in town were planning to camp, and I feel strong and capable. I talk to my body as I go up up up, praise it and coax it and let it know what’s going on. “This is what we do now, Body,” I actually say out loud. “We hike. This is just what we do.” My body seems to be listening, and I am grateful.

But it’s getting dark. The switchbacks are mostly ridges, and I’m not thrilled about the idea of night hiking along a ridge by myself in the dark. I let go of the idea of making it to mile 85. I decide I should camp by 7pm so I can eat my burrito and go to bed. I have a bit more time to walk so I do – up and up and up. I keep feeling as though I’m almost at the top but I’m not – but I’ve made good progress today and am still proud.

I finally reach a site where two other people have set up their tents. It looks like there is room for a third but I wonder if I should be brave and camp solo tonight. It would be my first time doing so on trail. I chat with one of the girls already camped for a minute – her name is Lauren and she tells me I can definitely set up my tent near hers. I tell her I’m going to see if there’s anything else a little ways up and if there isn’t I may be back.

I walk another half mile and sure enough, there’s a perfect little site! Just enough room for my tent. Okay, I think, I may not be ready to cowboy camp, but tonight I can camp solo!

And so I do. I feel powerful, like I can do anything. I eat half my burrito from Carmen’s then wiggle into my sleeping bag/quilt. There’s absolutely no wind tonight and soon I’m fast asleep.

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.