Walking on Sunshine, or, This is How A News Reporter in a Hurricane Feels Minus the Water

June 10, 2017
Mile 604 to Mile 634 (Sequoia National Forest)
Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike: Day 36

Hard, hard day. Wind. Sand. Mountains. All of the elements hammering on over a long, 26-mile day and a huge windy climb for the last four of it. Grateful for water caches.

Woke up in a beautiful grove of pine trees, with the sun just lighting the sky at atmospheric twilight. Packed up and started walking. The trail led up and the air felt like it would be a hot day. Crossed a dirt road leading to a campground of sorts, passed two middle-aged women, and ran into Tramper. Tramper doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t have any sort of alarm or GPS, doesn’t have maps (??), and hasn’t seen his wife in two years, but he’ll be meeting her in Kennedy Meadows. He’s just out here doin’ his thing, man.

I passed the middle-aged women, Tramper passed the middle-aged women, Tramper passed me, Sonya passed me and she was hauling to get some space from Ben. The trail led out of the mystical woods, into scrub brush and onto rolling, exposed desert hills with sparse but massive Joshua trees offering the only available shade. The heat was building, but the wind was stronger, and for that I was grateful. For a time. Hiking into or broadside to the wind takes extra energy, and the bigger the pack, the more air it catches. Kind of like…a sail! Let’s go for a walk up and down totally exposed dunes with a thirty-pound sail attached to our backs! Fun.

This stretch of trail leaves something to be desired in the way of water availability, and long water carries quickly turn a 30-pound sail into a 40-pound sail. Luckily, instead of a 26+ mile carry, the well-organized trail angel Devilfish has two massive water caches. He stocks a section where the trail crosses the road with about thirty 5-gallon water jugs. Here comes the tricky part: the caches are both in wind tunnels with what must have been 60+ mph constant wind. Water doesn’t pour where you want it to pour when it’s being hit by that kind of force. Thus, water water everywhere and not a drop to drink (until you’ve spent 20 minutes trying to pour from a 5 gallon jug into a 1 liter Smart Water bottle, soaking the ground and yourself and, if you’re lucky, managing to transfer just enough into your bottle to get you to the next wind tunnel water cache).

Devilfish’s water drop doubled as a pickup point for a massive group of hikers heading into Lake Isabela, and the trail was noticeably emptier after departing the cache. Just me, the sun, and the growing wind. The trail took a big turn ahead and I checked Guthook’s to find out what I had in store for the next ten miles. For starters a nice, long, healthy climb. I made a plan to have a snack and put in my headphones before starting the climb so I could power up a good chunk of it. I got to the point where my plan would be implemented and the corner must have opened up the trail to a new wind tunnel because I could not even set a snack down without it taking flight. Backpack sail was at peak performance, and I could not walk in a straight line without bracing myself into the wind with my trekking poles. My headphones were at max volume just to hear the music over the roar of the wind. Every step taking twice as much effort to execute. I pushed on with every ounce of my determination, powered by Carly Rae Jepsen and EDM-pop. All of the synth plus deafening bass to time out each pounding footstep. Up, up, up. Ya gotta go up to go down!

As tiring as it is hiking into winds that force shouting as the only viable form of human communication, I was bolstered by the game of chase. Once the headphones were in and I was in power mode, my grit furrowing my brows and flexing my arms, I locked in on a human target ahead of me and quickly powered past. Next human, passed. Next human, passed. Lock in, ramp up, power past. Making progress. I am high on the rush of deafening music, rising to a challenge and out-efforting my peers (an accomplishment I relish in whenever I can make it happen). The boost from outcompeting another hiker is tangible. Yes, I know it’s not actually a competition, but that’s only in the technical sense because there’s no prize for winning. For me, getting healthily competitive for bursts during the day, even if nobody else knows I’m being competitive, makes the trail so much more enjoyable. It gives me the feeling of thriving.

My gas runs out after about four miles and I find the shade of a massive Joshua tree to collapse under, out of view of the trail. An essential element in the game of chase is not letting yourself become a target, and not letting anyone get excited by thinking they’ve passed you. Keep in mind that this is all in my imagination because, well, nobody is actually playing this game with me. But they are playing in my mind, and that’s serious enough for me to seek an out-of-sight break spot. I don’t like the competition to know where I am, and if they do find me I’ll be obligated to engage in friendly sportsmanlike banter. Oh, the game of chase. My break turns into a nap when Alex finds me resting. He joins and we stay another 20 minutes.

Water cache two comes at mile 630, and I want to be done. I want to be done but I know I can’t, and I’m having a pity party because it’s not fair that I’m so tired and Alex isn’t. It’s not fair that the rest of our trail family (aside from Ben and Sonya) is ahead of us with no problems. I feel like I’m not good enough and I never will be and everyone should just leave me and go have fun without me. This is bad. I do not normally have these thoughts, and I have one more massive climb to fuel my downward spiral before I can stop for the day.

Propelled forward by the consideration that if I don’t climb this hill today I’ll have to do it tomorrow morning, I start in. Holy shit. I thought I had been hiking in wind before, this is a fucking hurricane. Moving up switchback after switchback, each time I round a corner I go from fighting for each step forward to fighting from being blown forward off the mountain. Emotions oscillate from exasperation and tears (into the wind) to screaming at the wind things like “oh, you think this makes up for it?!” when it’s pushing me up the hill (and nearly off the side of the mountain). I don’t mean I’m walking with the wind, I mean the wind is walking me up the mountain. When the wind is at my back, I’m weirdly both enjoying myself and terrified that I’ll become airborne. When I’m walking into it, I am a few fraying threads from completely unraveling. Back and forth, switch this way, then that. Between terrified hysterical laughing and exhausted collapse. I am a mad woman. With rivulets or saltwater running down my face (part welling frustration, part wind-whipped eyes), I make it to the top. It’s not the top, but for a blissful moment it is the top. There is a flat place to set up a tent, but I think the real crest of the mountain can’t be far, so I push on. The top is a marathon past where I pictured it in my mind. In reality, it’s just two miles. What I experience is four false finishes with a true finish in a hurricane atop a sub-zero ridge just after the sun dips below the horizon, with fifteen tents taking up every inch of flat ground and anchored down by large branches, rocks, boulders, and the bodies inside them. This is the kind of wind that lays waste to ultralight tents. My tent is ultra-heavy, so it will do just fine. Alex and I set it up on the least slanted piece of ridge we can find, and crawl inside to regain feeling in our fingertips. 

Today took me to within an inch of breaking. I know what that feels like now. I know what it feels like to feel that and keep walking. It hurts, but it’s something I’ve done now, so I don’t have to wonder about doing it anymore. The next time I feel that feeling, I’ll just acknowledge it, let it live for a minute, and then keep walking.

 So much for the forest.

So much for the forest.

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 When you think you're at the top of a climb and then realize you're not even close.

When you think you're at the top of a climb and then realize you're not even close.