Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dunsmuir, and then home

I got a relatively late start in the morning of July 27, not even rising until 6AM. But I was on the trail by 6:30, munching as I walked rather than making breakfast in my tent.

I could hear I-5 and the trains all night long, but my little camp on the first of many switchbacks had been a pleasant spot. I had tried to savor it, to burn into my memory how it feels to live like this, walking within and sleeping in a different, beautiful place every day.

I aimed for Dunsmuir rather than closer Castella. I figured Dunsmuir would have the most services and somehow I just knew there would be an Amtrak station there.

The trail switchbacked unmercifully, making slow progress down to the Sacramento River. I could barely see the crags of Castle Crags State Park through the smoke. I realized that from now on the smell of wildfires would probably always bring back memories of the PCT. My feet felt pretty good for the first few miles but soon the shooting, stinging pains came back.

When I finally reached civilization, I turned at the railroad tracks and began the 4 mile walk to Dunsmuir. I got lost trying to take a road, taking it in the wrong direction. I saw a man preparing to get started on his own PCT hike, starting from Dunsmuir. I talked to him briefly. It turned out Dunsmuir was as far as he got when he hiked the PCT the first time and now he was returning to continue. Just like me someday, I thought.

They pointed me in the right direction and I hiked onward down the road. I finally reached central Dunsmuir which was filled with mostly art and antique shops. I tried to find a hotel, but the only one I found was a residential hotel, not one for travelers. I was disappointed.

I stopped at a drive-through coffee place and ordered a coffee and scone. Across the street there was a sign pointing to the Amtrak station. I was starting to feel a little psychic. How did I know? Why was this so easy?

While I rested some local people came by and I asked them for a recommendation for a place to stay that had laundry. They recommended Cave Springs Resort just up the road. So I walked there.

Cave Springs was sort of a cross between a vacation spot and a trailer park. I got a little cabin without TV or a phone, kind of like Warner Springs on a budget. I showered, did my laundry, swam in the hotel pool and soaked in the jacuzzi. I called Amtrak and made my reservation. The trail was due to arrive in a few hours at 12:30 in the morning. The owner of the hotel and a lady in the jacuzzi both said the train never comes until at least 3:30 in the morning. I thought about how I would arrive home and surprise Tony.

While at the hotel I saw Heading Out arrive. I spoke to him briefly and told him I had decided to go home because I felt I'd completed my goal and worried that I was ruining my feet. He said he was disappointed to hear that, that it had been nice to meet me, even if I went too fast to keep up. I laughed at that comment because he had arrived only a few hours after me. The linear community of the trail does this to people, makes them feel like they're in some kind of race, and separates friends permanently sometimes with as little as only 20 minutes of distance between them.

I told him if anybody asked, let them know I went home. I said good-bye to Heading Out, and in the process to the trail, too.

All afternoon I considered my accomplishment. 1500 miles. I'm proud of what I've done. I cried thinking about it, this time not tears of sadness over failure, but of pride and sorrow at the completion of a life-long dream, and fear about how to answer the question I never could find an answer to in all these 1500 miles: What next?

I spent much of the rest of the evening trying to heal my feet in the jacuzzi. I still had the night hike to the train station to do. The nice lady at the jacuzzi, who said she comes to Cave Springs every year, said I should go to sleep in my cabin with the alarm set for an hour before the train was due to leave. I could call their 1-800 number to find out when the train is due. I should keep checking until the train was close enough to justify leaving my cabin. So that's what I did. The train was indeed 3 hours late.

At 2AM I got up and took one last shower, put on my backpack and grabbed my "carry on" purse that I had found in the street. Amtrak said passengers could take two carry ons and a purse and so I had gone back to central Dunsmuir earlier in the day to see if I could buy a small day pack so I wouldn't be separated from the things I might need once I checked in my backpack as luggage. Miraculously I found a bag of big, ugly purses on the sidewalk and took one to use. It saved me having to walk all the way back to central Dunsmuir.

I managed to find the train station in the dark of night and was surprised how many people were waiting for the train. None were hikers. Neither was I anymore. Time to become a regular person again.

As the train rolled through the forest and then into the Central Valley, I watched different types of life out the window. Poor people, homeless campsites, crack addicts smoking on a discarded couch, cyclists going to work, middle class houses springing up on farm land, orchards, business men on cell phones. I thought about what to do next. I just can't get fired up about modern life anymore, the competition, working all day sitting in a dark room under fluorescent lights. It does not appeal to me at all. Can I do anything outdoors or with plants? Can I live on less money? Can I start over yet again? It's all I ever do it seems.

I lived for 3 months in sunshine, outside in the environment. It was a quiet, simple, friendly world filled with the most amazing and wonderful people, both on and off the trail. People everywhere are generally so good and so helpful. Modern life skews perception and makes people think everyone is a threat. I can't believe the profoundly amazing wonderfulness of the world. What can I do to keep the trail alive inside me? How can I bring the trail home?

I had no answers as I waited for the train. All I knew is my feet really hurt.

July 28, Home
I was amazed how nice travel by train is. It's better than first class air travel. I didn't have to check in my backpack. It was always available to me downstairs where I left it. I didn't have to be searched or take off my shoes. I didn't have to sit in my seat the whole time. I could walk around, sit in the lounge car and watch the scenery go by the big observation windows. I could eat at a table with real silverware and real food or buy a snack whenever I wanted to.

I met nice people on the train, two of which were volunteers from the Railroad Museum in Goleta. They provided a running commentary on the things we could see out the window as we made progress toward the coast. The train trip was a great way to make a loop out of my adventure and not have to see my hike unravel backwards before my eyes. I even got to see the coast around Point Conception, a place I had never seen in all these years of living here.

Unfortunately I didn't get to surprise Tony because Amtrak had called my home number to tell me earlier they would be late getting in to Dunsmuir and Tony had gotten the call. I had planned to walk home from the train station in Santa Barbara so I could do my final hike of the PCT into my own home, connecting the trail to my house. But my feet hurt so much that didn't seem like a good idea and now it wouldn't be a surprise anyway. So when I arrived in Santa Barbara I called Tony to come pick me up.

I waited on State Street for him to show up and then suddenly there he was. I cried tears of joy to see him and to finally complete my adventure.

We talked about the last few days. He said strange things had happened. The other day he actually heard my voice, and my parrot Fergie had actually heard it too and responded to it. I thought back to the other day when I called Fergie's name out loud on the trail and saw all those bird feathers every day that seemed eerily like a communication from my birds at home. Tony said that he had this strange feeling that my soul had returned home a couple of days ago, even before he was tipped off by the call from Amtrak.

It's strange how life callings happen, I guess, and maybe stranger how they complete themselves. Hiking the PCT has always been a calling of mine, ever since 1975. And now I've done it. I didn't do the whole thing, I didn't hike a hike that you can write a book about, I didn't hike a hike that will impress people with perfect completion of the entire 2650 miles. I hiked my own hike, a stunning achievement that possibly only I can fully appreciate.

And now I'm left hanging. What next? What do I do now? What kind of job do I get? How long until I get one? How do I keep the trail alive inside me? How long until I can get back on the trail and do the rest? If you have an answer for me, let me know.

Until then, see you down the trail. I already miss it. I'm already feeling that urge to get back on. I belong on the trail. That's my home now, too.

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